Grace eludes you

I leave the restaurant after the sun has set. Rome is dark. I’m tired and need the shortest route to my hotel so I cut down a dim alley. The road turns rough. I trip along the way. I keep my head down, eyes squinting at my path, and so I don’t see the men first but hear them. They’re laughing. I move to one side of the alley and they move to the same side. I step the other way and so do they. There are four of them. I hear one speaking to me, but I don’t know what he is saying.

Their interest in me, their sound, turns me stony. I open my mouth and out comes not words, but strained guttural notes.

One man jogs past to stand behind me. Another puts his hand on my shoulder and backs me up, toward the wall, toward his friend. His friend is tall. They want to take my picture standing next to him. I’m short, a dwarf, which is funny, hysterical. I’m not real. Just a strange thing in the alley. The flash of their camera. I freeze. Then I’m back in the dark.

When I was a teenager, a man once watched me going up some stairs and he said, “Grace eludes you.” I seemed to be struggling, which struck him, I suppose, as ugly.

Does this man remember what he said to me? Does he return to the memory each time he sees stairs?

I still — two decades after this man watched me walk up the stairs — step aside to tie my shoe to allow people to go ahead of me. I fake phone calls so that others will walk up without me. I pretend to wait for someone who isn’t coming. I bide my time, clinging to my weak ruse of self protection, until no one is looking. I do not climb stairs until I can do so unobserved. I’ve never stopped preparing for the next person who will see me walk and deny me grace.

The way words stay, the way sentences stay, the way memories invade my present, the way a stranger looks at me and speaks: shards that become a mirror.

In Rome, men block my path. They are drunk. The tall one wants to leave, done with this picture project. Another man drops his phone. His friends laugh at his clumsiness. One taps the other’s chest and just like that they’re distracted by a new plan, a diverting interest, and they leave me without further incident and carry on with their night, never to think of this moment again.

Chloé Cooper Jones, Easy Beauty: A Memoir (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, April 5, 2022)

“I am in a bar in Brooklyn, listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether my life is worth living.”

So begins Chloé Cooper Jones’s bold, revealing account of moving through the world in a body that looks different than most. Jones learned early on to factor “pain calculations” into every plan, every situation. Born with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis which affects both her stature and gait, her pain is physical. But there is also the pain of being judged and pitied for her appearance, of being dismissed as “less than.” The way she has been seen—or not seen—has informed her lens on the world her entire life. She resisted this reality by excelling academically and retreating to “the neutral room in her mind” until it passed. But after unexpectedly becoming a mother (in violation of unspoken social taboos about the disabled body), something in her shifts, and Jones sets off on a journey across the globe, reclaiming the spaces she’d been denied, and denied herself.

Sea of Tranquility: A beat. A sip of water. Pacing is everything.

While (he) slips immediately into the same stasis that overcame him… It isn’t quite listlessness. He makes a careful inventory of his thoughts and decides that he isn’t unhappy. He just desires no further movement, for the time being. If there’s pleasure in action, there’s peace in stillness.

—  Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility: A Novel (Knopf, April 5, 2022)


Notes:

  • Highly recommended.  Let’s just describe this as a Wow. (And if you can listen to book on Audible, a real plus. Excellent narration.)
  • NY Times Book Review: A Dazzling New Foray into Speculative Fiction From Emily St. John Mandel – “In Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel takes up existential questions of time and being…In “Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel offers one of her finest novels and one of her most satisfying forays into the arena of speculative fiction yet, but it is her ability to convincingly inhabit the ordinary, and her ability to project a sustaining acknowledgment of beauty, that sets the novel apart. As in Ishiguro, this is not born of some cheap, made-for-television, faux-emotional gimmick or mechanism, but of empathy and hard-won understanding, beautifully built into language, for all of us who inhabit this “green-and-blue world” and who one day might live well beyond.
  • Image via CBC

it was my calling, the way a bird is drawn to the song of its own kind

I could get into med school.

Couldn’t I?

I could. I would. I did. But there was a complicating factor. Right after a thick acceptance letter arrived from Mac, another envelope came. This one had a postmark from the U.K. I was being offered a full scholarship to go to Oxford for a PhD in English.

The medical school acceptance letter was printed by a computer; the package from Oxford included a personal invitation on crinkly yellow paper to drink sherry with tutors. I could picture my new Oxford life: I’d have a bike with a basket, and spend hours at the Bodleian. The real white cliffs of Dover. Weekends in Paris. Wool sweaters from the highlands, and a hearth and a stone fireplace older than anyone I had ever met. Bookshelves full of Yeats and Tennyson, and a room of my own, like Virginia Woolf’s. A place where the words could pour out of my heart and onto the page, and maybe someday those pages would find their way onto other shelves, maybe even the Bodleian itself.

But lying awake on those tortured, miserable nights, working it all out as if it were a formula with an elusive right answer, the “Go” or “Stay” columns were really “tutors with sherry” versus my sister in her wheelchair, bent over at a forty-five-degree angle, holding her head in her hands and asking if I could please take her to the summer fair. Those tutors wanted to know my interests within postmodernism. My sister had a more basic question for me: When are you coming home? …

I didn’t need to study English at Oxford to learn the power of words. I’d already had my most important teacher. It was that doctor, yelling at my parents, There’s no brain left. He taught me that people with power have a duty to speak with care, because they have been entrusted with something fragile they have no right to break. He helped me understand that medicine itself was a very specific kind of power, one I would never, ever abuse, because I knew it was sacred. And anyway, I wasn’t drawn to power. I was drawn to medicine because it was my calling, the way a bird is drawn to the song of its own kind.

That was the only contest Wendy won in her whole life. She drew me home. Not out of pity, but out of love and its attendant duty, and a sense there might be things in life that would matter more to me in twenty years than whether I had a PhD from Oxford or had seen the Bodleian. So one day that summer, I was able to look Wendy in the eye and tell her something she would forget a few minutes later: because of her, I was going to be a doctor. And in a few years, I’d be coming home.

Jillian Horton, We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing (HarperCollins Publishers, February 23, 2021)


Notes:

  • Highly Recommended. And if you can listen to it on Audible, narration is absolutely the best.
  • Book Review: cecescott.com

Hard Truth

When Facebook (and all the others) decide what you see in your news feed, there are many thousands of things they could show you. So they have written a piece of code to automatically decide what you will see. There are all sorts of algorithms they could use—ways they could decide what you should see, and the order in which you should see them. They could have an algorithm designed to show you things that make you feel happy. They could have an algorithm designed to show you things that make you feel sad. They could have an algorithm to show you things that your friends are talking about most. The list of potential algorithms is long.

The algorithm they actually use varies all the time, but it has one key driving principle that is consistent. It shows you things that will keep you looking at your screen. That’s it. Remember: the more time you look, the more money they make. So the algorithm is always weighted toward figuring out what will keep you looking, and pumping more and more of that onto your screen to keep you from putting down your phone. It is designed to distract. But, Tristan was learning, that leads—quite unexpectedly, and without anyone intending it—to some other changes, which have turned out to be incredibly consequential.

Imagine two Facebook feeds. One is full of updates, news, and videos that make you feel calm and happy. The other is full of updates, news, and videos that make you feel angry and outraged. Which one does the algorithm select? The algorithm is neutral about the question of whether it wants you to be calm or angry. That’s not its concern. It only cares about one thing: Will you keep scrolling? Unfortunately, there’s a quirk of human behavior. On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm. You will stare at a car crash longer than you will stare at a person handing out flowers by the side of the road, even though the flowers will give you a lot more pleasure than the mangled bodies in a crash. Scientists have been proving this effect in different contexts for a long time—if they showed you a photo of a crowd, and some of the people in it were happy, and some angry, you would instinctively pick out the angry faces first. Even ten-week-old babies respond differently to angry faces. This has been known about in psychology for years and is based on a broad body of evidence. It’s called “negativity bias.”

There is growing evidence that this natural human quirk has a huge effect online. On YouTube, what are the words that you should put into the title of your video, if you want to get picked up by the algorithm? They are—according to the best site monitoring YouTube trends—words such as “hates,” “obliterates,” “slams,” “destroys.” A major study at New York University found that for every word of moral outrage you add to a tweet, your retweet rate will go up by 20 percent on average, and the words that will increase your retweet rate most are “attack,” “bad,” and “blame.” A study by the Pew Research Center found that if you fill your Facebook posts with “indignant disagreement,” you’ll double your likes and shares. So an algorithm that prioritizes keeping you glued to the screen will—unintentionally but inevitably—prioritize outraging and angering you. If it’s more enraging, it’s more engaging.

If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture. As Tristan told me, it “turns hate into a habit.” You can see this seeping into the bones of our society. When I was a teenager, there was a horrific crime in Britain, where two ten-year-old children murdered a toddler named Jamie Bulger. The Conservative prime minister at the time, John Major, responded by publicly saying that he believed we need “to condemn a little more, and understand a little less.” I remembered thinking then, at the age of fourteen, that this was surely wrong—that it’s always better to understand why people do things, even (perhaps especially) the most heinous acts. But today, this attitude—condemn more, understand less—has become the default response of almost everyone, from the right to the left, as we spend our lives dancing to the tune of algorithms that reward fury and penalize mercy.

In 2015 a researcher named Motahhare Eslami, as part of a team at the University of Illinois, took a group of ordinary Facebook users and explained to them how the Facebook algorithm works. She talked them through how it selects what they see. She discovered that 62 percent of them didn’t know their feeds were filtered at all, and they were astonished to learn about the algorithm’s existence. One person in the study compared it to the moment in the film The Matrix when the central character, Neo, discovers he is living in a computer simulation.

I called several of my relatives and asked them if they knew what an algorithm was. None of them—including the teenagers—did. I asked my neighbors. They looked at me blankly. It’s easy to assume most people know about this, but I don’t think it’s true.

Johann Hari, “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again” (Crown, January 25, 2022)


Notes:

And…Her.

7/ 3/ 54. I keep myself going with various kinds of dope: books, written and read, dreams, hopes, crossword puzzles, the sentimentality of friendships, and real friendships, and simply routine.

 Patricia Highsmith, “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995.″ Anna von Planta (Editor). (Liveright, November 16, 2021)— Patricia Highsmith, Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995

 


Notes:

  • Photos: DK @ Daybreak. 6:45 am, Feb 8, 2022. 36° F, feels like 29° F, Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT. More photos from this morning here.
  • Related Swan Posts: Swan1

Tuesday Morning Wake-Up Call

It’s no good telling yourself that one day you will wish you had never made that change. It is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.

Beryl Markham, West with the Night (first published in 1942)


I called B.S. when I read this testimonial by Ernest Hemingway. And then I read it. Wow. What a writer.  If you have an Audible membership, this book is free with the membership.  In the must read category.

…she has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…she can write rings around all of us…I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.” — Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins”

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

I always peek into baby buggies when I walk home, because I love to look at the little children who are lying asleep with upstretched hands on a ruffled pillowcase. I also like to look at people who in one way or another give expression to their feelings. I like to look at mothers caressing their children, and I willingly go a little out of my way in order to follow a young couple who are walking hand in hand and are openly in love. It gives me a wistful feeling of happiness and an indefinable hope for the future.

—  Tove Ditlevsen, Youth: The Copenhagen Trilogy (FSG Originals, January 26, 2021)


Highly Recommended. And the trilogy has been recommended as a Best Book of the Year in 2021.

as difficult to attain as a pair of wings and a halo

9/13/42. The most spiritual and “beautiful” literature has already been written—in the Bible, in the Greek dramas, in their philosophies. What we have to attain is at best the material representation, a poor substitute for the eternities we cannot logically hope to emulate. Spirituality in our day is as difficult to attain as a pair of wings and a halo.

 Patricia Highsmith, “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995.″ Anna von Planta (Editor). (Liveright, November 16, 2021)


Photo: DK @ Daybreak. December 20, 2021. 22° F, feels like 16° F. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

2/24/41. We must think of ourselves as a fertile land on which to draw. And if we do not, we grow rotten, like an unmilked cow. And if we leave something unexploited it dies within us wasted. But to tax one’s powers always at their maximum potentiality—this is the only way to live at all, in the proper sense of the word.

Patricia Highsmith, “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995.″ Anna von Planta (Editor). (Liveright, November 16, 2021)


Notes:

Lightly Child, Lightly.

What I want is the other world in this world. What I want is the way up and the way down, the way in and the way out. What I want is the poem that rears up like a mythic creature from the dark place of origins, only to transform into the holy, unrepeatable faces of the living. What I want is the mythic wings still thrumming inside them.

—  Joseph Fasano, from “Supernovae and Dark Stars: Some Notes on Universality in the Lyric Poem,” American Poet (no. 50, Spring/Summer 2016)


Notes:

  • Photo: DK – Moon @ Daybreak. 6:18 a.m. Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.
  • Quote via Memory’s Landscape
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Lightly Child, Lightly.

In Vienna there are shadows. The city is black and everything is done by rote. I want to be alone. I want to go to the Bohemian Forest. May, June, July, August, September, October. I must see new things and investigate them. I want to taste dark water and see crackling trees and wild winds. I want to gaze with astonishment at moldy garden fences, I want to experience them all, to hear young birch plantations and trembling leaves, to see light and sun, enjoy wet, green-blue valleys in the evening, sense goldfish glinting, see white clouds building up in the sky, to speak to flowers. I want to look intently at grasses and pink people, old venerable churches, to know what little cathedrals say, to run without stopping along curving meadowy slopes across vast plains, kiss the earth and smell soft warm marshland flowers. And then I shall shape things so beautifully: fields of colour…

Egon Schiele, as quoted by Reinhard Steiner in Egon Schiele, 1890-1918: The Midnight Soul of the Artist.


Notes:

  • Photo: Angelika Horschlager, “we made no sound…and deep in the forest we get lost.” Taken in Lichtenau im Muhlkries (Austria)
  • Quote via The Vale of Soul-Making
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Walking. With Franzen.

6:45 a.m. – ish this morning. I’m walking Cove Island Beach. I reach the breakwall, and pause. It’s hard not to look out into this and not feel Small. The gentle breeze off the ocean. The lapping of the waves on the shoreline. The cloud formations. The warmth in early October. The thin strip of sunlight on the horizon.

Mark Oliver EverettSometimes that beauty is too much for me to handle. Do you know that feeling? When something is just too beautiful? When someone says something or writes something or plays something that moves you to the point of tears, maybe even changes you. 

And this beauty, the landscape in front, and the words from Audible being pumped into my head from Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, made me feel exactly that: Just too beautiful. [Read more…]

Lightly Child, Lightly.

…And I should mention the light

which falls through the big windows this time of day

italicizing everything it touches…

Billy Collins, from “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant” in Ballistics: Poems (Picador; June 18, 2009)

 


Notes:

  • Photo: DK @ Daybreak. 6:30 am, October 7, 2021. 55° F. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Bewilderment

Forget the critics.  Read this book.

Richard Powers, Bewilderment: A Novel (W. W. Norton & Company, September 21, 2021)


NY Times Book Review: “In ‘Bewilderment,’ Richard Powers Smothers Nature With Piety.

Lightly Child, Lightly.

The mind’s eye had two bafflements: coming out of the light and going into it.

—  Richard Powers, Bewilderment: A Novel (W. W. Norton & Company, September 21, 2021)


Notes:

  • NY Times Book Review: “In ‘Bewilderment,’ Richard Powers Smothers Nature With Piety.
  • Photo: DK @ Daybreak. 6:10 to 6:46 am, September 22, 2021. 72° F. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation, and so it is sad and a little unsettling to see that we become, as we grow older, much less capable of touching, grazing, or even glimpsing it, that the closest we seem to get to the present are those brief moments we stop to consider the spaces our bodies are occupying, the intimate warmth of the sheets in which we wake, the scratched surface of the window on a train taking us somewhere else, as if the only way we can hold time still is by trying physically to prevent the objects around us from moving. The present, we realize, eludes us more and more as the years go by, showing itself for fleeting moments before losing us in the world’s incessant movement, fleeing the second we look away and leaving scarcely a trace of its passing, or this at least is how it usually seems in retrospect, when in the next brief moment of consciousness, the next occasion we are able to hold things still, we realize how much time has passed since we were last aware of ourselves, when we realize how many days, weeks, and months have slipped by without our consent. Events take place, moods ebb and flow, people and situations come and go, but looking back during these rare junctures in which we are, for whatever reason, lifted up from the circular daydream of everyday life, we are slightly surprised to find ourselves in the places we are, as though we were absent while everything was happening, as though we were somewhere else during the time that is usually referred to as our life. Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.

—  Anuk Arudpragasam, A Passage North: A Novel (Hogarth (July 13, 2021)

Lightly Child, Lightly.

And maybe that’s better. It makes me feel that rather than worrying and theorising about the state of the world, which helps no one, I should put my energy into living and being happy. When I try to picture for myself what a happy life might look like, the picture hasn’t changed very much since I was a child—a house with flowers and trees around it, and a river nearby, and a room full of books, and someone there to love me, that’s all. Just to make a home there… Never to move, never to board a plane again, just to live quietly and then be buried in the earth. What else is life for?

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 7, 2021)


Notes:

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Some days I wish I could go back in life.

Not to change anything, but to feel a few things twice.

— Shivangi Pandey, from “Yearning For the Past” in “How It All Began” (Book Squirrel Publication, 2020)


Notes:

  • Quote: Thank you Make Believe Boutique
  • Photo Credit – The Atlantic: The People Who Can Control Their Goose Bumps
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Sometimes I get tired of the everythingness of everything, so I retreat to my bed and read. I read and let time fly like a bird that’s hit by a truck, and I’m in a place where peace is timeless. I overthink about doing everything that I need to do all at once, that I drown in the anxiety of heaviness. Reading is coming up to the surface to breathe, and I am learning to perceive before I judge. I am learning to refine my mind before taking action, and I am learning to think with my heart. Because literature, fantasy, and getting my mind caught in the clouds … these are the things that inspire me to live better in reality. And so I close my book, draw the curtains and let the light in everything I’m supposed to do and let the chapter of today be enough.”

— Juansen Dizon, “A Diary Entry about Reading” from The Boy Who Cries Wolf


Notes:

  • Quote: Thank you Beth @ Alive on All Channels
  • Photo Credit
  • Post inspired by: “There is no better use of my time than to write, second only to reading. As I write, sequential time alters. The usual clock face of seconds marching into minutes, and those minutes adding up to hours, fails to operate in that way for me. Time takes on elasticity and springiness. It seems to stretch so much that I lose track of those passing seconds. It seems to jump from its linear march so high and so far that one moment it is such and such a time, and the next an entire hour has elapsed.” —  Fred D’Aguiar, Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 (Harper, August 3, 2021)
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

T.G.I.F.: Waking the pond for another day

On the far side of the pond, an egg-yolk sun rises out of the dense tree line like a hot air balloon, slow, graceful. It hovers, suspended for a moment, before breaking free of its tethers—the break of dawn. In that instant, the smallest breeze shirrs the water, waking the pond for another day.

Miranda Cowley Heller, The Paper Palace: A Novel (Riverhead Books, July 6, 2021)


Notes:

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