With a teenage daughter and another grown daughter, I’ve long ago sunk ruggedly into a mantra of and life goes on that has ferried me through plenty of turbulent waters into smoother waters, always determined to seek calmness to keep my head together and keep working. Life and work have so long been synonymous for me, with brief forays into the pleasantness of family, of friends, of just life itself.
But I woke this morning thinking how impossible that mantra really is. Life is “going on” for so many people in such harder ways, so far away from me.
This week, I’ve been with my own family, sorting out the challenges of aging. Meanwhile, ordinariness reigns around me, with people coming and going to work, maybe buying bread and sausages for dinner, a bouquet of sunflowers for the table. How dear family life is, mine, yours, the families in bombed apartments in Ukraine.
In the end, of course, how much do our small thoughts and complicated opinions matter, anyway? Here I am, a small woman in a small Vermont village. In the face of bleak nihilism and despair, I return to the things that have made the truest sense to me — the sky that exquisitely changes from sunup to sundown, the liturgy of human language, laughter. There’s no answers here, only a reminder to myself that the wind brushes over my cheeks, and the wisdom that turns the globe is wider than my own imagination.
This afternoon, I tore through my bookshelves searching for a paperback copy of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, a book I first read in high school. The book above — brand-new, Harley Rustad’s Lost in the Valley of Death — reminds me of Demian. Like so many other people, in some ways reading Hesse as a young woman shaped my life, every one of my years off the well-trod path. Demian has reappeared at certain keys points in my life, always rising with a strangely mysterious power. At the end of a very long winter, that book returns to me like a breath of spring air.
Fittingly, perhaps, I’m unable to find my copy. Maybe that hardly matters. For the first time in months, I take a long hatless walk, listening to the singing birds, remembering the unstoppable power of spring, and that the world wraps around us in ways we understand, and in ways we’ll never comprehend.
On this sunny Sunday in Vermont, here’s a few lines from the incomparable W. H. Auden on the nature of war. For more about this poem, the New York Times has an essay today.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along…
Rain fell yesterday morning. I stood in my dusty garden, thinking, Bring it on.
Halfway through the morning, the light held the thin green translucence, like we moved in a piece of sea glass that was alive.
All afternoon in my library, people wandered by, singly and in pairs — nothing more. Most had tidied up, wearing sundresses and ironed shirts — all with masks — as if swinging by the library was an outing. Which, perhaps, it likely was. We spoke with the same underlying uncertainy and loneliness, and a tender care with each other.
At the very end, I loaded up two bags for a 10-year-old hungry for books — my good deed for the day.
By lucky chance, I start reading Joshua Mohr’s Sirens — memoir of writing, drug use, broken spiritual and physical hearts — and I can’t stop. The slender book reminds me of when I was twenty, reading Death on the Installment Plan in bed in a second-floor Brattleboro apartment, savory from the downstairs Korean restaurant. Like Celine, Mohr’s writing is full of life as that Brattleboro Main Street, or as desolate as a snowy midnight.
Check out Two Dollar Radio’s Santa Fucked Up sale.
Our lives are always in flux, so many contradictions comprising our identities…. We are never one thing. I was never only the heart defect, only the author or junkie or husband or father or professor or drunk. I wear all these like layers of skin. Like stars creating a constellation.
— Joshua Mohr, Sirens
A few years ago, when my sister’s kids and my kids started spending more time together every summer – beyond a few days’ visit – we hit a point one summer when all three of younger kids were either mad or crying. We split them up into different cars, and then went hiking. By the end of the day, they were laughing again. And while no one favors kids crying, it was clear the cousins had hit a new level in their relationship. They had spent enough time together to honestly disagree; simultaneously, they had spent enough time together to cherish each others’ company, and wholeheartedly make-up.
Like all families, we share the same stories exclusive to us. Remember when Yasu dumped ketchup on his head and laughed hysterically? Remember the summer Gigi and Kaz spent hours sorting tic-tacs? Remember the Summer of Gum, when Trident was the New Cool Thing? Remember when Aunt Brett…. well, I won’t incriminate myself.
Stories are too often trivialized as lightness, mere anecdote or amusement. But aren’t the stories of ourselves and our beloveds an integral way of knowing ourselves and our place in the world? Not to mention…. often entirely fun.
Number 10 Pond, Calais, Vermont
My teenage daughter hands me her high school summer reading book the other day and asks me to read a paragraph. She’s seventeen, wearing sunglasses and a new swimming suit, lying on the beach, and exasperated with this assignment. Her younger sister and friends swim in the lake, searching, faces down, for the giant rock named Big Yellow.
The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.
Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like a Professor
With enormous gusto, I keep reading, and then I begin laughing at the chapter’s end; the writing is that great. Then I point out to her, Look, this is about you: a young adult, beginning the quest of her life.
She takes her sunglasses off and holds them in her hand. I am? she asks. And then she repeats, I am.
I hand her back the school’s book and tell her gently, Literature is about you.