Look at you: You are no accident.

Your face: the eyes…the line of your nose; that lickerish mouth, one moment tight with fear, overtaken the next by fountainous laughter … Always faces, tens of thousands across a career, each one made up of countless micro-expressions that register everything; more liminal than a blood test, less decisive than a lumbar puncture, but meaningful all the same…

We are skull-jumpers; there is no limit to our identificatory capacity. Your face, voice, breath continue their unfolding, each now different from the last, changed beyond recognition in the two hours since we first met. Looking: more intimate than any physical examination. The voltage switches once more, symptoms pooling between us, tributaries of some larger untold story…The intensity of neuronal activation is processed through deep limbic structures, and when intensity exceeds a genetically defined threshold it leads to activation of the autonomic nervous system, triggering unconscious automatic changes in cardiovascular and respiratory systems—readying us to fight, to flee, to freeze, to love. We are sensitive; we have no choice. Look at you: You are no accident.

~ A. K. Benjamin, from his new book titled Let Me Not Be Mad: My Story of Unraveling Mind (Dutton, June 11, 2019)


Notes:

Sunday Morning

Why is it any more ennobling for someone to claim to be a person of faith rather than a person of doubt? I like people of doubt. I like people who question what the hell is going on. St. Thomas is my favorite apostle, even if he was wrong. Galileo smelled a rat, and he was right. It doesn’t matter what you believe; it only matters how you behave. Or as it so succinctly says in Christian scripture, “Faith without works is dead.” Believe what you like, but this is what I believe. God, if there is one, speaks and expresses Herself through a group of people who the great becardiganed philosopher Fred Rogers called “helpers.” […]

Helpers are people who try to make life more bearable for those who are suffering. They are people who try to clean up the mess, are tolerant of the weak-minded, and resist those who would exploit others for their pleasure or profit. […]

So if I have a religion it’s in appreciation of helpers, whoever they happen to be at the time. I’ve tried not believing in God, but that’s just as hard as swallowing all of the liturgical mumbo jumbo. I don’t know who or what composed our universe, but I’m not sure that matters anyway. I suspect that any real spiritual peace lies in simply being a decent human being. Or at least trying to be.

~ Craig Ferguson, from “The Helpers” in Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations (Blue Rider Press; May 7, 2019)


Portrait: AT&T Performance Arts Center

Plook

By 4:30 the following morning, when I got up…a massive zit—or “plook” as they are known in the common parlance of my people—was threatening beneath the skin on the tip of my nose. It was not yet visible to anyone else…

“Yuv goat a plook,” he told me, helpfully, in his urbane Falkirk accent. The mere fact that he had spoken at all was an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Bob was not given to personal remarks.

Ignoring the bustle of the kitchen where my brother and sisters were having breakfast, I headed to the bathroom to see what I was dealing with. I have never encountered anything like it to this day. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop or Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic would be hard pressed to re-create this pus-filled behemoth. Technically it was one plook, but it had three heads. Three creamy peaks that looked as though they could erupt at any moment. The slopes of this organic mountain were greasy and bloodred. It seemed to pulse or throb. It was as if it had a life force all its own. It was a sentient being. A demon plook visiting this realm to consume and destroy. The Cthulhu Spot. Voodoo Acne. Black magic was upon me.

I knew I must not touch the beast, but I couldn’t help myself. My index fingers approached it in the familiar pincer movement and almost before I made contact it burst into a cascade of foul custard, splattering the mirror with its first ejaculation, then oozing like a river of smooth vomit from the end of my nose. Now I was committed; the dam had been broken and I had to see this thing through to the grisly, bitter end. My fingers squeezed tighter and the pressure produced more of the foul lava, mixed now with fresh red blood—runny sunny-side-up egg yolk and ketchup. The pain was excruciating, but I didn’t care. It was that fucker or me. My eyes ran with tears as I milked and squeezed and pressured and wrestled until all its revolting innards lay across the bathroom sink, an abstract postcard of hell.

I felt the momentary satisfaction of besting a formidable and hated enemy, but very quickly the remorse set in. I squeezed the giant red stump on the end of my nose to see if somehow that would remove it, but I was just pouring gasoline on the fire. All that I was doing was creating more swelling. I looked in the mirror at the damage and knew that I could not possibly be seen in public like this. I could not go to school. I would become an outcast, ridiculed, rejected, and despised. There was no way Dawn Harrison could see me in this state. It was too early in our relationship. We hadn’t even started a relationship. Had we been married fifteen years it would have been too early in our relationship. I could not even be seen by my siblings or my parents. My nose, or what was left of it after the Battle of Poisoned Boil, was three times its normal size and the bright vermilion red otherwise seen only on a baboon’s anus. It was an extreme emergency, so I had to do what all resourceful schoolkids do in such situations. Feign diarrhea.

Normally my mother would not have bought such an obvious con to stay off school, but the desperation in my voice sold the swindle, or at least convinced her that I wasn’t just faking. She handed me a glass of water through the door, which I opened sufficiently to let her see my face. “What happened?” she whispered, looking at my nose in awe.

“I squeezed a plook and it kind of went bad.”

~ Craig Ferguson, Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations (Blue Rider Press; May 7, 2019)

how easy it can be to find your own quiet place

Q: Is the image based on something you saw? How did it come to you?

“More than being based on something I saw, I would say it comes from something I experience often. I was trying to capture the feeling of being immersed in a book to the exclusion of everything around you. I think my love for reading comes more from the need to connect with my inner reality than from the desire to escape the external one. Proust described it perfectly as “that fertile miracle of communication that takes effect in solitude.” …

My first time in New York was in 2010, when I spent three months there, during the winter. My most vivid memories are connected to that first stay. I remember big blue skies, ice-cold feet, hot black coffees, fresh bagels, and huge pizza slices.

The gif was animated by the talented Jose Lorenzo. I often collaborate with him—I love the way he brings my images to life. We didn’t want the image to be too frenetic. For me, it was important to maintain that feeling of peace and timelessness that happens when you’re reading. I also wanted to show how easy it can be to find your own quiet place in the city without having to go far out of your way.”

Anna Pariniin response a question from , on this week’s cover in The New Yorker, which shows a rare moment of calm amid the bustle of a new year.  Parini, who has contributed illustrations to the magazine since 2015, grew up in Milan but is now based in Barcelona. Mouly spoke to Parini about New York’s wintry charms and the process of creating an animated cover image.

(Source: Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf”, The New Yorker, January 7, 2019)

The Cost of Living

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman. It requires skill, time, dedication and empathy to create a home that everyone enjoys and that functions well. Above all else, it is an act of immense generosity to be the architect of everyone else’s well-being.

~ Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography (July 2018)


Book Review of Deborah Levy’s “The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Lauren Oyler can be found at The New Republic (July 26, 2018) titled: How to Live and Write Alone. An excerpt from the book review: “Aphorisms that would usually be heavy-handed (“If we cannot at least imagine we are free, we are living a life that is wrong for us”) also breeze past; only later do you realize you’ve been self-helped.”

Here’s another from Levy’s book: “It begins with knowing and not knowing, a glass of milk, rain, a reproach, a door slammed shut, a mother’s sharp tongue, a snail, a wish, bitten fingernails, an open window. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is unbearable. What was ‘it’? I don’t know.

Highly Recommended.

The Library Book

I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way…Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, I went there several times a week with my mother. On those visits, my mother and I walked in together but as soon as we passed through the door, we split up and each headed to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place I was ever given autonomy. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to head off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together we waited as the librarian at the counter pulled out the date card and stamped it with the checkout machine—that giant fist thumping the card with a loud chunk-chunk, printing a crooked due date underneath a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times. Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I wanted and what my mother was willing to buy me; in the library I could have anything I wanted. After we checked out, I loved being in the car and having all the books we’d gotten stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking a bit to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. On the ride home, my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books and how long until they had to be returned, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due…My mother then always mentioned that if she could have chosen any profession at all, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been…

Decades had passed and I was three thousand miles away. When we stepped in, the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp…I felt like I had been lifted up and whisked back to that time and place, back to the scenario of walking into the library with my mother. Nothing had changed—there was the same soft tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring from patrons at the tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groan of book carts, and the occasional papery clunk of a book dropped on a desk. The scarred wooden checkout counters, and the librarians’ desks, as big as boats, and the bulletin board with its fluttering, raggedy notices were all the same. The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like water on a rolling boil, was just the same.

~ Susan Orlean, edited from The Library Book (October 15, 2018)


Photo of Susan Orlean by Gaspar Triangle via Orlando Weekly

Miracle. All of it.

“You’re doing great, Nicole,” Jenny said suddenly, and these seemed like the first clear words I had heard in hours. “One, maybe two more pushes and she’ll be born!” It was the most powerful moment of my life, that moment shortly after one in the morning when I heard her cry and knew she was finally with us. Our daughter decided to come into the world with one fist raised. Seconds later she was placed on my chest, beautiful and flushed and still screaming at the shock of birth, and I touched her hair, her warm little cheek. Her skin felt impossibly soft, softer than I knew anything could be. At seven pounds, fifteen ounces, twenty inches long, she was not a small baby—her wails were also lusty, much louder than I’d expected—but she felt new and fragile in my arms. She stopped crying and gazed up at me, and my world shrank to the arresting dark blue pools of her eyes…

I had never been so tired, and I was sore to the very roots of my hair, but I couldn’t seem to close my eyes—how could anyone expect me to sleep when I had this fascinating little face to watch? It was almost impossible to believe this was the same unseen being who’d done jumping jacks on my bladder, greeting me with kicks and pokes and slow stretches for weeks on end. She was so small and so new, barely and yet wholly herself, already…

Suddenly I remembered the words of a friend…I love telling my kids their birth stories. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that. Yes, I thought, and also a miracle. The clichéd word didn’t embarrass me; this day and night was a wonder I’d never get over. As many times as this had happened before, to billions of parents since time immemorial, it was the only time it had ever happened to me. I had a child now, and she was mine. We were together. We would stay together. When Abby was old enough to ask me—to wonder, and to listen, and to care—I would tell her about her birth, her first days with us. You were born with one arm raised…I would say. When it was over, you and Daddy slept, but I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was look at you.

~ Nicole Chung, “All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir” (October 2, 2018)


Notes:

  • Photograph Credit
  • Related Posts: Miracle. All of it.
  • Inspiration: Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

They thought it was the best thing for you

The story my mother told me about them was always the same. Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved. It’s the first story I can recall, one that would shape a hundred others once I was old enough and brave enough to go looking. When I was still young—three or four, I’ve been told—I would crawl into my mother’s lap before asking to hear it. Her arms would have encircled me, solid and strong where I was slight, pale and freckled against my light brown skin. Sometimes, in these half-imagined memories, I picture her in the dress she wore in our only family portrait from this era, lilac with flutter sleeves—an oddly delicate choice for my solid and sensible mother. At that age, a shiny black bowl cut and bangs would have framed my face, a stark contrast to the reddish-brown perm my mother had when I was young; I was no doubt growing out of toddler cuteness by then. But my mom thought I was beautiful. When you think of someone as your gift from God, maybe you can never see them as anything else. How could they give me up?…

Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you. Even as a child, I knew my line, too. They were right, Mom. 

By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know…

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.

They thought adoption was the best thing for you...

~ Nicole Chung, opening lines to “All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir” (October 2, 2018)

unaware of my presence, moving just their lips, forming words that I will soon pronounce for them

I’ve learned to write on trains and in hotels and waiting rooms. On the tray tables on planes. I take notes at lunch, under the table, or in the bathroom. I write in museum stairwells, in cafés, in the car on the shoulder of the motorway. I jot things down on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on postcards, on my other hand, on napkins, in the margins of books. Usually they’re short sentences, little images, but sometimes I copy out quotes from the papers. Sometimes a figure carves itself out of the crowd, and then I deviate from my itinerary to follow it for a moment, start on its story. It’s a good method; I excel at it. With the years, time has become my ally, as it does for every woman—I’ve become invisible, see-through. I am able to move around like a ghost, look over people’s shoulders, listen in on their arguments and watch them sleep with their heads on their backpacks or talking to themselves, unaware of my presence, moving just their lips, forming words that I will soon pronounce for them.

~ Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (August 13, 2018)


Olga Tokarczuk, 56, is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. In 2018, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, becoming the first Polish writer to do so.  Tobias Grey wrote a profile of Tokarczuk in the NY Times on August 8, 2018 titled: Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ Is Taking Off.” Here’s an excerpt from the profile:

“Ms. Tokarczuk likened herself to a tailor making a dress. ‘The dress is beautiful and comfortable to wear,’ she said. ‘But like the reader, the person who wears it is not expected to know precisely how all the materials that make it are connected.’ When Ms. Tokarczuk finished writing ‘Flights’ she gathered all her pages and spent a week studying them spread out on the floor of her living room. ‘It was funny because I had to climb onto a table to see how they looked from a high vantage point,’ she said. ‘I trusted my intuition to find the book’s order, and I wouldn’t change anything now.'”


Portrait of Olga Tokarczuk from Los Angeles Review of Books

I’m always in quest of the holy grail of books

I’m always in quest of the holy grail of books, the perfect book that explains it all, the book whose beauty is as fierce as lightning and whose meaning points to true north, so I dip into thousands of books for a moment and note that this, too, is not it.

~ Rebecca Solnit, in “Rebecca Solnit: By the Book” (NY Times, August 16, 2018)

 


Portrait: sfweekly

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