Hope and joy

It is not always easy to be a writer when the world is so dark and distracting.  It would be easier to be busy in the way I was two months ago, with so many distractions that the Washington freak show could intrude only at moments.  Easier, but not necessarily better.

Over the past few weeks, I have periodically fallen down the rabbit hole of news–the latter of which is real, by the way, for anyone who might have thought otherwise.  I open the Times on my computer first thing in the morning and find myself still there two hours later.  In despair.  And believe me, it is hard to write about grief from a place of despair.  Grief at least has a rich if sometimes hidden trove of creativity at its heart; despair doesn’t have a heart in which to hide anything.

This past week, though, I felt some perspective coming back.  Not because the news was any better.  But because a) I decided not to read the news until my own reading and writing was done;  b) I confirmed that, even if you’re going to wear the most comfortable fleece pants in the universe and your favorite sweater all day (every day), it’s still a good idea to shower first thing as if you were going to put on your fancy clothes to go to work; c) joy; and d) I reminded myself in a few powerful ways that we can all be saved by really good books and the people who write them.  A brief bit of commentary on the first three items on that list:  a) is harder than it should be, but worth the effort; b) is what it is–I’m not proud that this is what it has come to, but there you have it; c) because even if it might seem impossible right now to lay claim to the bigger project of happiness–which is a kind of long-term thing and a bit elusive at the moment if you really live in this world and care about it–joy persists.   And it still knocks me over.  Here are just a few of the things that have provided me with moments of joy in the past week alone: a puppy who discovers real snow for the first time; a daughter who came home from a week in New York with two tins of my favorite tea and a few other very thoughtful goodies; that same daughter finding out that she got into an awesome graduate school; Feldman’s chicken soup.

As much as I’d like to make you all a cup of that tea, here’s a little piece of that joy that I can share here:

hobbes-insnow

But on to d).  And this week, you might be happy to know that I’m not going to say anything about puppy books, despite the fact that there has indeed been some reading along those lines (because, you know, a puppy requires a lot more knowledge–and patience–than you might think, she says, having just cleaned up a pee puddle after thinking he’d gotten the whole house training thing figured out . . . )

My friend Jeanne gave me this book,

on-living-egan

and it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks while I stewed away in political angst.   I picked it up this past Monday, though, the title suddenly seeming like a imperative.  Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain, and this book weaves together some of the stories she’s heard from people who are dying with a story from her own life.    One of the things I admire the most about this book is that she doesn’t instrumentalize the stories of the hospice patients in order to tell her own story.  As a hospice chaplain, her job is to be a witness to the stories of people who are dying, and the integrity of that act of deep listening shows up fully intact in this book.  When she tells her own traumatic story, then–which she does throughout–it is in genuine conversation with the stories of her patients.  A writer of memoir myself, I appreciate the fact that this is a lot harder to do, and rarer in the genre, than one might think.  So often, a memoirist tells someone else’s story just to get to their own.  That’s what I mean by “instrumentalize.”  Egan doesn’t do that, which probably made it a much harder book to write.  Yet it’s not labored at all.  I love that at the level of form and voice, the book is utterly deceiving in its simplicity.  Like a poem by George Herbert (whom I’ve also been reading this week), this book sort of sneaks up on you.   Another reason I love this book has to do with the fact that even in a post-Tuesdays With Morrie world,  On Living is entirely devoid of cliches.  Every single chapter surprised me, even the one about angels. (And yeah, you’re thinking, angels, really?–which is exactly what I thought.  And then I read it.)   I recommend it highly.  And if you don’t have time to read it but really wish you did, take a listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Kerry Egan on Fresh Air. She talks just like she writes.  (And that’s yet another reason to love the book.)

Thanks, Jeanne, for knowing I needed this book.

Here’s another book I needed.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that everyone needs this book right now.  If you’re reading this blog as a teeny tiny respite from all that dismal (not fake) news out there, stop reading that stuff immediately and find this book instead.   I mean it.

hope-in-the-dark

Rebecca Solnit, who I’m going to call an activist historian, should be crowned the laureate of the Trump-sick millions.  Listen to this: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is the room to act.”  Or this: “[Hope is] the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”  And this, about memory: “Amnesia leads to despair in many ways.  The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view.  In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”  Reading Solnit will help you to see that even the little things we can do right now to resist the take-down of American democracy do matter.  Every single thing.  All those pink hats?  Matter.  The emails to my senators?  Matter.  Writing a check to the ACLU?  Matters.  Remembering to remember.  Matters.

Speaking of which: I happened upon this book about the same time I happened upon the opportunity to see “State of Marriage,” a 2015 documentary film that remembers the Vermont roots of the marriage equality movement.  That story gave me whole big goosebumps of hope, in exactly the way that Solnit’s injunction against amnesia gives me hope.  And if you can’t read Solnit, then for heaven’s sake, listen to her as well–51 minutes that will feel like they saved your life.  And watch “State of Marriage” if you ever get the chance.  Now there’s a story of hope and love triumphing against all political odds, a story that really truly did save a lot of peoples’ lives.

Hope and joy, how about that?  Nevertheless, they persist.

The puppy got in the way . . .

I’ve not been the best blogger lately. But, along with a bunch of things that are keeping me from my computer (see below), I have been reading a lot.

books

I also have a new desk and two new desk lamps.  And a dog.  (And, yeah, three of those books are about dogs.)

This is the dog; his name is Hobbes. He looks like a cross between a fox and a teddy bear at the moment–or you can just go with Ewok–but he will look more and more like a Cairn terrier (which he is!) as he grows up, which he is doing rapidly.  And yes, he is utterly adorable.

hobbes-face-1-31-17

Now, you might not expect there to be things of interest in the dog books for anyone who has not just adopted a puppy.  You would be wrong.  On January 21, just before I headed to Montpelier for the March (which was awesome), I read this passage on the acknowledgements page of Cesar Millan’s Be the Pack Leader.  Before I quote it, I’m going to repeat that I read it right before going to the March.

Okay, here’s Cesar (who I may or may not have a crush on):

I worry about the fact that my kids are growing up in a very unstable world; a world that is going to require some incredible pack leaders if it is going to be made right again.  I believe that women hold the key to helping put our world back into balance.  But they can’t do that until men truly acknowledge and honor the unique wisdom and the leadership women have to offer–and until women can embrace the pack leaders within themselves. . . . I also believe that women are more likely than men to act for the good of the pack.  And like dogs, we humans need to remember that without the pack we are nothing.

I should have put that on my sign.

Aside from all the dog training books (which are paying off, by the way: Hobbes knows the sit, come, stay, and “get busy” commands and he sleeps all night long–no whining, no accidents–in his crate), I also read The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, two books, as it turns out (quite by accident), about young women who have lost their mothers.

The Mothers, I’m sorry to say, just did not do it for me.  My daughter loved it, and so have many other people.  But I found the book to be extremely thin on plot.  Everything of note that happens, happens right away in the book, and honestly, it’s not that much.  I kept waiting for a reveal, or more to the story, or something.  But no, it really was all there in the first 50 pages or so.  The biggest disappointment for me, though, was in the lack of character development.  None of the characters or their relationships had any real impact on me; none of them seemed true, and they were certainly not richly dimensional. There are flashes of memorable writing that I kept hoping would become more sustained or at least more frequent.  They didn’t.  The book didn’t offend my admittedly snobbish literary sensibilities, but I never had that money moment when I can’t wait to get back to the book.  It was, at best, just kind of meh.

The Underground Railroad delivered the money moment, though.  I have a slightly complicated response to this book, but I did find it entirely worthy of all the hype it has gotten in the months since it came out.  The complicated part of my response comes not from the writing itself–which is spectacular–or the plot or the character development, both of which are the literary equivalent of a great big apple pie to the bitter oranges of The Mothers.  But I didn’t entirely buy the magical realism Whitehead is attempting in the first part of the book.  At first, my response was that it was interesting–and anyone who has ever been a student of mine knows that “interesting” is my least favorite word.  It was one thing to make the railroad an actual underground railroad. Like a lot of people who I’ve talked to about the book, I was one of those children who thought that the underground railroad was literally that, and I love that Whitehead’s literal rendering of it sort of plugs in to the huge number of people who fall into that category.  But the section of the book set in South Carolina (the book follows an escaped slave, Cora, from Georgia, to South Carolina, to North Carolina, to Tennessee, to Indiana) and the eugenics experiments, also fictionalized, unsettled me a bit.

I do very much understand that behind that chapter are real things like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  I get it.  I also think that at another time in our own history, I wouldn’t be troubled by this fictionalization at all.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would appreciate it. But here we are, at a truly shameful moment in the history of the United States , in which all manner of  “alternative facts”–no, let’s just call them lies–are being uttered in the service of racism.  And I suddenly find myself worried about the status of fiction in a book about race.

Let me see if I can express this clearly: although the book is fiction–Whitehead imagined this story–most of what Cora encounters in this book is not based on “alternative facts.”  The book’s harrowing descriptions of the practices of slavery owe a lot to memoirs by former slaves like Frederick Douglass (yeah, that Frederick Douglass, the one who’s doing such a great job and being recognized more and more), or Solomon Northup (Twelve Years a Slave).   Rendered so exquisitely in a work of fiction as fine as The Underground Railroad (or Beloved, or The Known World, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or any number of other important novels about antebellum America), these unspeakable crimes against humanity assume a kind of truth, and deliver a wallop, that purely historical writing rarely, maybe never, achieves (the Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote a really terrific piece on just exactly this for the New Yorker a few years ago).

But what happens when, in a book that otherwise translates actual facts into powerful fictional narrative, the writer breaks his own stride and truly makes something up?  I want/need to say that an artist of course has full license to do just that.  And I will say it, and insist on it.  But I also need to acknowledge that it might come at some cost, especially these days, and maybe especially in a book about race in America.   Do you risk inviting some readers to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the harrowing truth of the novel because a part of it is so fabricated as to be a bit confusing?  Can fiction sometimes go too far, in other words, and risk cancelling its deep truths at a time like the one we’re in now in which art is called into exigent service?

I can’t answer that question well.   I can’t in part because it’s almost too painful to think about.  And I can’t in part because, given my training and what I do for a living, I am by definition a sophisticated reader of fiction.  The Underground Railroad, though it wobbled a bit for me, finally delivered a serious punch.  I loved this book.  But I worry a bit about what it might sow in others who read their fiction a little more literally, who might not be quite as appreciative as I am of the experimental quality of Whitehead’s writing, and who might be looking for a way to find fault with a movement like, say, Black Lives Matter.

And I hate that I worry about that.

Conversing with grief

People often assume, when I tell them that I need to read pretty much constantly when I’m writing, that I’m reading things that are directly related to the work I’m doing.  Not so.  There’s the scholarship part of my writing, and yes, I do read a lot about the things I need to know when I’m in scholarship mode.  That’s a given.   I have a row of library books in my bookshelf, for instance, with the word “Descartes” on their spines, and I’ll be reading those when I’m writing about Descartes, a little later this winter.  But the reading that makes the most difference to me when I’m writing is actually not the stuff that ends up in my “Works Cited” list.  Really great writing of just about any kind is nourishment for me as a thinker and writer. In fact, the further the topic seems to be from what I’m working on, the better–it frees me up both to appreciate the quality of the writing, and to learn something new.  And often, that something new will generously offer up surprising connections to whatever I’m working on, helping me out of the ruts I work myself into.  In short, someone else’s great writing makes my own work better.  It’s like getting an underdog on the swing set: you could probably swing that high eventually, but it’s a lot better to have someone else–someone you trust–give you a boost.  Plus, it means that you’re not hanging out at that swing set all by yourself.

Most of the books I’ll write about in this blog will be those “companion” kinds of books.  Like Lab Girl (and yeah, by the way, give this a listen–thanks, Carrie), or Tribe.  Or The Mothers, which I’ve just started reading, by the literary wunderkind Brit Bennett.

the-mothers

It got a five-star review from my in-house librarian, and I promise to weigh in on it next week.

But over the last few days, in response to something a friend recently said about my own writing, I picked up and quickly inhaled a couple of books that satisfy my criteria for great writing and are more-or-less directly related to my own writing project.  Joan Didion–who is a marvelous writer–lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack in 2003, and her daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later, reportedly to acute pancreatitis, but probably to something more like alcoholism.  Quintana was, in fact, in an induced coma in the ICU of a New York hospital suffering from septicemia (that she would sort of recover from) when Dunne died.  He and Didion had been at the hospital all afternoon, they took a cab home, and he died right in the middle of a conversation the two were having just before dinner.

didion-magical

The Year of Magical Thinking is the grief memoir Didion wrote in the year following Dunne’s death.  I read it right after it came out–in 2005–and I read it again this week.  It’s gorgeous.  I thought that the first time, and I think it still.  One of the things I’ve been writing about (or, more accurately, working through) in my own book has to do with what I’ve come to think of as the lack of reciprocity that so characterizes grief.  When someone important to us dies, one of the  ongoing conversations that made up the imagined reciprocity of our lived existence is suddenly gone.  The work of grief is, it seems to me at least, the attempt to restore that lost reciprocity.  That doesn’t mean simply replacing the person who is gone with another; it means trying to find the distance that will enable conversation again–not with the dead person, but with life.  The Year of Magical Thinking both registers the loss of the conversation–painfully, beautifully–and looks for ways to restore it.  Didion does so by remembering, but also by reading and thinking her way through to the first anniversary of her husband’s death.  There are so many ways in which she reaches outside of herself in order to bear witness to her grief–and that, to me, is her brave attempt to try to find reciprocity again.    I’m quite sure that Didion would not think herself successful in restoring the conversation she now lacks, but the seeking after it is so moving and literarily courageous, that the book, for me, became and has remained part of my own ongoing  restoration project.

didion-blue

Blue Nights is an entirely different sort of book.  It is, ostensibly at least, a eulogy for her daughter.  And the verbatim repetition–echoes, I think Didion would call them–of parts of Magical Thinking would seem also to insist on its being a sequel of sorts to that book. So  I don’t think I should be faulted for expecting it also to be a book about grief.  It’s not.  It’s a book about sorrow, that’s for sure.  But if grief writing, according to my definition at least, has to claim some sort of attempt to locate the conversation again, and if, by conversation, I mean with something outside of the self-fettered “I” of pure lament, then this book is not about grief.  It’s like she’s saying, to herself, “We had everything: the exquisite homes in LA and New York; the Westlake school; the movie star friends; the black challis dress from Bendel’s back when Bendel’s was really something; the Christian Louboutin shoes; the peach-colored wedding cake from Payard.  How could all that now be gone, and how could I be old and alone?”  I know, it doesn’t really sound like Joan Didion, does it?  All that product placement, for one thing, seems at best a desperate grasping after something that only pretends to be meaningful.  There just aren’t very many ideas in this book.  Where Magical Thinking included many challenging voices other than her own, this book quotes only her husband, her daughter, and herself–and the same words over and over. You could call it “incantatory,” as the Washington Post blurb on the front cover does, but I would call it “confined,” as though she’s trapped in an endless loop of regret.  It is a very sad book, a frail book, and I suppose that makes it also an honest book.  But I don’t think it’s a book about grief.

She still composes some of the best sentences, though, and that alone is going to carry me into another writing day. And my own conversation with grief.

Packs and tribes

Here is something I learned today: it is not easy to settle into an entirely new routine, even if it’s one you’ve fantasized about for a few years.  Today, the high school student and professor are both back in their regular routines, and the one who just submitted the last of her grad school applications (my in-home librarian) left for the mid-morning shift at Feldman’s at 9:30 AM.

It’s quiet.  Where are the problems to solve?  The fires to put out?  The emails to answer (oh, right–I’m just ignoring them)? The documents to write?

Hold on a second, there are documents to write.

But at the moment, the quiet is a bit disconcerting.  There’s not even a dog–yet–to distract me.

There are several dog books in our living room, though, and they have been a bit distracting, if also necessary.  Here are the ones I’ve read in the past two weeks.

puppy-books

I will spare you the full review, except to say that if my family thought this year was the chance to see me in non-dean mode, they were entirely wrong in their thinking.  I am going to be the dean of this dog.  Because if I’ve learned one thing from these books (together with the unpictured one by Cesar Millan that I’m listening to on my Audible app), it is that a pack animal needs an alpha.  I can do that.

But here’s another thing I’m learning this week when I’m not consuming the dog books: we are pack animals, too.  I’m reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe with a group of folks, a kind of a tribe come to think of it.  We haven’t met yet to talk about it–we have a date tomorrow–but I am grateful that I will have the opportunity for conversation about this book.

Tribe is a full-blown indictment of modern American society written from the standpoint of a journalist who has been surprised to discover that he’s been happiest–or, most content–in his life when he’s been part of a collective effort to avoid being killed.  Embedded with American troops in Afghanistan in 2010, Junger found that he’d never felt more clear of purpose, more truly and meaningfully alive, than when he was at war.  Coming back felt “morally dispiriting” because he was no longer part of a group of people who  relied so urgently on  each other for their survival. This, he says, is precisely what’s wrong with the modern world–it “eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good” (59).

Junger’s focus is, at least ostensibly, on veterans, and the assault of modern self-interest and alienation on their mental health when they return home after having been part of a tribe.  The prevalence of chronic PTSD in returning veterans in the twenty-first century is not normal, but it is also not caused by what they have done and witnessed in the combat zone.  It is caused by what they are forced to bear witness to when they come home–a society, he says, “that is basically at war with itself” (cue the entire 2016 election cycle).  I found this line particularly stunning: “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it” (124).

Here’s the kicker–and this is the reason I absolutely need to talk with my own little tribe about this book–he seems to be suggesting that there is no way out of our self-interested, depressive mess of a society except through catastrophe.  He’s not saying that our self-interest is going to lead to catastrophe (though I suppose that is also true); he is arguing that only a genuine disaster can save us from ourselves.  Only a huge catastrophe could stimulate the kind of “social resilience” that will make us all healthy again.  He seems to want it.

I gotta say, he’s not wrong about the “community of sufferers” thing.  Writing about grief as I am these days, I am reminded again and again of how I never felt more strangely alive than when my daughter was dying.  It was unutterably sad, but I also remember those last weeks of Claire’s short life as a kind of bubble in which I felt the closest I have ever felt to other human beings.  It was a high price to pay for social cohesion, though, and I would like to believe that there are less expensive options than catastrophe for bringing us together and giving us a purpose.  But maybe there aren’t.

About three-quarters of the way into Tribe, I began a reading another book, one that I’ve wanted to read for some time: Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  The two of them together on the desk in front of me are bit like Jack Sprat and his wife: Tribe is a (deceivingly) slim volume, more of a long-form essay; The Noonday Demon is at least ten times its length, clocking in at an impressive 676 pages.

junger-solomon

Actually, this tells the story a little bit better (14 pt font, meet 10 pt font):

pages-jungersolomon

Yet they are oddly compatible partners.

I’m only about a hundred pages in to the Solomon, but it’s already clear that where Junger is all war journalist tough-exterior-disguising-a-beating-heart macho (check out the author photo if you want confirmation of that characterization:

junger-photo) Solomon is just the heart laid bare.  Check out the first two sentences of the book:

“Depression is the flaw in love.  To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”

Wow.

But what I really want to quote is the last paragraph of that same first chapter.  It’s what Junger is saying–in a way, it’s his entire argument–but rendered in the voice of a poet, a poet who knows both suffering and the tragic mutation of suffering that is depression:

“It is possible (though for the time being unlikely) that, through chemical manipulation, we might locate, control, and eliminate the brain’s circuitry of suffering.  I hope we will never do it.  To take it away would be to flatten out experience, to impinge on a complexity more valuable than any of its component parts are agonizing.  If I could see the world in nine dimensions, I’d pay a high price to do it.  I would live forever in the haze of sorrow rather than give up the capacity for pain.  But pain is not acute depression; one loves and is loved in great pain, and one is alive in the experience of it.  It is the walking-death quality of depression that I have tried to eliminate from my life; it is as artillery against that extinction that this book is written.”

I’m going to end there.  There will be more to say about the Solomon, but first there’s more to read.  Thank goodness.

A poem to end the year – with thanks to D.P. who sent it to me

This poem is so amazing it made me catch my breath, or stop breathing entirely.  I’m not sure which.  It seems a perfect poem for now, as we close out a year that threatens to be remembered as a catastrophe.  It wasn’t all catastrophic, and as I look forward to a sabbatical that also includes a puppy, it seems uncannily to remind me of the many things that remain truly good even while we remain leashed to the vagaries of this moment.

The Leash

Ada Limón (b. 1976)

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

Let the binge begin

lab-girl-by-hope-jahren-275

Every year, I have a reading binge between December 26, when my holiday actually begins (me being a mom and all, there’s no rest for the weary . . . until December 26) and about January 10, when typically the demands of the new semester start to intrude on my mental space and my time.  This year, I will be without the demands of the new semester, but the binge is a form of muscle memory for me, and at about 4:00 yesterday afternoon those muscles kicked in with Book #1: Hope Jahren’s  Lab Girl (Knopf, 2016).  I finished it today, though I didn’t technically read it.  Emma (my daughter, who will show up here frequently, as she’s sort of like my live-in librarian) had downloaded it to our Audible account, and so I listened to it. And knitted half a sweater. This is what counts as “relaxing” in my world.

As much as I found myself wishing I could turn the corners down on some amazing pages–not so easy to do with an audio book–I’m glad I listened to this one, as it was a rare opportunity to hear an author narrate her own work.  And what you hear in this case is not just the book she writes, but also the one she doesn’t.  There is a tremendous amount of pain and loss that quivers around the edges of the stories she tells; and while I imagine a reader would not necessarily miss that, to hear it in her voice is to become aware of the sadness and frustration of these stories in an almost uncomfortably intimate way.

The book is a potent combination of scientific curiosity, rage, and extreme vulnerability.  The scientific curiosity piece of it is utterly compelling.  You might not have thought you were interested in paleobotany, but it turns out you are.  You really really are.  In fact, about a quarter of the way into the book, you are truly wondering why you didn’t go into the sciences when you were an undergraduate. (Oh yeah–because physics.) She taught me so much about trees that I did not know, and that I’m now so very glad to know.  Over and over again in the book, I was moved to appreciate what an amazing teacher she must be.

The rage part, though, you–and by “you” I do mean “I”–can completely identify with.  There’s one memorable section of the book where she talks about being banned from her lab at Hopkins because she’s taken a medical leave for a very difficult pregnancy and is considered a “liability” by her Chair if she comes in to work at all.  “Liability??” she rages to her husband, pointing out that half of her male colleagues are doing things like hitting on their students in their offices.  Oh my god, I think, that was my first job out of grad school.  Two prominent members of that English department, both of whom had been Chairs, had an annual bet of a case of wine for the guy who could seduce the most students during the academic year.  One of those guys, meeting me for the first time in the Faculty Club about six weeks after I’d joined the department, greeted me with, “Oh, you’re Lisa Schnell. I’ve heard you’re a real prick.”  So many things about that were just so wrong–I alternated between finding it hilarious, and thinking it actionable.   (I was so happy when I joined UVM’s English Department and found none of the above–it was a relief to know that it can be otherwise).  So yeah, when she chokes up with anger as she tells stories of the bad behavior–particularly directed to her as a woman–she’s encountered during her career, I want to give her a big hug and thank her for telling the truth.

But it’s not finally an angry book, even though she pulls no punches when it comes to the treatment of women in science.  It is a book about love, and loyalty, and loss, and loneliness.  It is intensely personal, even while there are stories that she seems quite deliberately to be eliding.  In fact, one of the things I really admired about the book was the way that Jahren keeps the volume pretty low on the confessional dial.  She proves that it is possible to be vulnerable and entirely authentic as a memoirist without “over sharing.”

The other thing I had cause to admire over and over again was her unpretentious, utterly beautiful prose.  Wow.  Every sentence is just about as perfect as a sentence can be.

The only problem now is deciding what should come next.  The bar has been set very high.  On the other hand, I got eight books for Christmas, all from people–like Emma, who gave me four of them–whose taste in reading material is impeccable.  Which means, by the way, “without sin.”  Here’s to a sinless binge . . .

The messy domain of deanly interaction*

This is what my world looks like now.  It’s mid-December, and sabbatical is still two weeks away.  Yeah, it’s a mess. And I’m not even showing you my email inbox.

But do you see that book up there in the right-hand corner? Christian Wiman’s My  Bright Abyss?  On January 3, I’m going to wake up to that.  And only that. And this desk will be getting all messed up by someone else.  For an entire year, I will wake up to whatever book I want to read, and someone else–someone entirely capable who is not me–will be dealing with the graphs and reports and the thousands and thousands of emails.

But that year hasn’t started yet, so, for now, back I go to that mess.

I’ll see you in January, with Christian Wiman.

*Shout out to Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”