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:


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,


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.


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.


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.


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.