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)

No one tells you this

I’d never been outside of Canada. When I complained about this growing up in our suburban house outside of Toronto, my father would helpfully point out that he’d once driven us across the border at Niagara Falls and then done a U-turn and driven us right back, so technically speaking I had, in fact, left the country. I was unmoved. Literally as well as figuratively. Unlike every other person I knew in Ontario, my family had not gone to Florida for winter vacation. We had not done the drive down I-95 to visit grandparents or go to Disney World. We didn’t even make the trip to Buffalo to take advantage of the cheaper American prices at the mall outlets. The MacNicols stayed put. Travel was for other people…

Growing up, nearly everything existed for me only in books, which had the effect of making all travel seem automatically rife with adventure and exoticism, no matter the reality. When friends complained about the terrible monotony of being trapped during spring break in the back of their parents’ car en route to Myrtle Beach, it fell on uncomprehending ears. To me, the concrete American Interstate held the same unknowable mystique as Paris. Perhaps it was less than surprising then that I cleaved on to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder the way I did: not only was she also an adventurous young girl, she was a real person; I could find the places she’d gone to on a map and know she’d actually been there, and that because she’d done it, perhaps I could do it, too. Eventually I found my way to those dots in real life along with many others, always slightly astounded that I had managed to manifest my own childhood imagination.

~ Glynnis MacNicolNo One Tells You This: A Memoir (July 10, 2018)


Book Review: HuffPost – ‘No One Tells You This’: The Triumph Of Choosing A Single, Childfree Life At 40

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

Running. With Potpourri.

I’m off. Running. 6:05 am and it’s 76° F, already. Humidity is thick, legs are heavy, body is huge, mind is resisting, all of it groaning under the pressure of NO.

Scenes of the last 3 days flicker by.

pot·pour·ri (n) a mixture of things

In a small patch of grass, with Holly Pond on its right, a guard rail on the left, and Post Road to the North, is a flock. Not of a like-kind. But 2 adult geese, 3 toddlers, a mallard and a sparrow. All quietly feeding as I approach. Mother Goose, protecting her young-uns, approaches, neck fully extended…tall and fierce with her wings spread wide…hissing. This luncheon is human-free, and I was not welcome. All these creatures, peacefully feeding, and yet we, a higher level of intelligence can’t seem to sit in a room and have a civil conversation.

I’m in the dentist chair. Not flat, but with feet higher than head. Hygienist is wearing a face mask and magnified eye goggles. Poking, scraping, suction, flossing. I’m lolling in and out of nausea and claustrophobia. Overhead lamp beams down. I’m Dustin Hoffman in the scene from Marathon Man. Blood rushes to my head. I swallow, shift my legs and grip the arms of the chair. Hygienist notices the discomfort and withdraws. Breathe DK, breathe. I regain my composure.

Feet and legs have been hurting after my runs. Time for new shoes. I’m third in line, waiting to check out at Dick’s Sporting Goods. It’s late afternoon on July 4th. I’m watching one of three check out clerks. She’s large boned, broad shouldered, and tired. I walk up and hand her the shoes – with an intense desire to see what shoes she is wearing. She’s been standing since 10 am on a statutory holiday. She places the shoe box into a plastic bag, drops in the receipt and offers an obligatory “Thank you.” I’m walking out the door. Should have tipped her. Should have. Should have. Should have. [Read more…]

Sunday Morning

Refresh yourself, sister
With the water from the copper bowl with bits of ice in it –
Open your eyes under water, wash them –
Dry yourself with a rough towel and cast
A glance at a book you love.
In this way begin
A lovely and useful day.

Bertolt Brecht, “Sister” from Do-it-Yourself Brecht Poem Toolkit

 


Notes: Photo: heather milazzo with Face Washing .  Poem: Thank you Whiskey River.

5 days. Solo in Paris.

Months before I arrived at the little hotel with its red geraniums, I was in Paris on an assignment for the Travel section of the New York Times. I had five days and a headline: “Solo in Paris.” The story was up to me.

To find it, I went walking. Each morning I left my hotel in the 9th arrondissement, just east of the apartment where Proust wrote much of Remembrance of Things Past, and didn’t return until I had gone some twenty miles in whichever direction whim and croissants (and olive fougasse and pistachio financiers) took me. It was April, and like any tourist I saw monuments and statues, naked nymphs, and gods among the roses. But alone, with no one at my side, I was also able to see le merveilleux quotidien, “the marvelous in everyday life”: a golden retriever gazing at a café chalkboard in Montmartre, as if reading the daily specials; boxes of pâtes de fruits arranged in grids like Gerhard Richter’s color charts. The city had my full attention; I was attuned to the faint whir of bicycle wheels and the scent of peaches at the street market.

Although I was traveling without friends or family, each day brought passing companions: bakers, maître d’s, museum greeters, shopkeepers, fellow travelers. The hours were unhurried and entirely mine, like the “limitless solitude” the poet Rilke described in a letter to a friend; “this taking each day like a life-time, this being-with-everything.”

Only, it wasn’t a lifetime—it was five days. On the last morning, I slipped through a gate on rue de Rivoli into the Tuileries. Sprinklers flung water into the air. A man with a wheelbarrow bent over a bed of long-stemmed tulips. John Russell, the British art critic, once wrote that the rue de Rivoli seemed to say to mankind, “This is what life can be . . . and now it’s up to you to live it.” That’s what those days in Paris said to me. I wondered when, or if, I’d see the tulips again.

On assignment, I would play detective; partake of everything, get up early, record the details, do the things that felt strange and uncomfortable. But the assignment was over. Months passed and back in New York, the days grew shorter. Yet my head was still in Paris. It wasn’t a matter of missing cream confections flirting in the windows of boulangeries. I missed who I was in Paris—the other me, Stéphanie with the accent on the “e”: curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.

Finally, I took a long weekend to think about why I couldn’t let go of that particular assignment, why alone in Paris time seemed to be on my side; why my senses pricked up; why I was able to delight in the smallest of things and yet failed to see and feel with such intensity at home. Friends loaned me their empty house near a bay on Long Island where on an autumn afternoon I stepped off a bus with a week’s worth of reading and Chinese takeout. Without car or television, I spent days orbiting between a bench on the front porch and an oversize pink wing chair at the head of the dining room table, like the one at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in the 1951 Disney film, eating vegetable lo mein and reading about different experiences of solitude. I plumbed newspaper archives and Gutenberg.org. I ordered used and out-of-print books. I wanted to know what scientists, writers, artists, musicians, and scholars thought about alone time, how they used it, why it mattered. Sometimes I walked a dead-end street to the bay. Other times I would lie on the wood floor in a patch of sun, staring at the ceiling, trying to deconstruct those solitary hours in Paris. There was something there; some way of living that I’d failed to fully grasp, let alone carry with me to my own city.

~ Stephanie Rosenbloom, from her “Introduction” to Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude (Penguin Publishing Group. June 5, 2018)

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She would be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
“For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned.” And she will.

~ Ted Kooser, “Selecting a Reader”, the opening poem in his new book: Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, May 8, 2018)


Notes:

  • Ted Kooser’s new collection went on sale at Amazon (only in Hardcover) this month for $28.69
  • Portrait of Ted Kooser via KUOW
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