What Are We Doing Here

I’m working on a longer piece about Marilynne Robinson and faith and my love of Housekeeping that I hope will be out soon! In the meantime, some thoughts on Robinson’s essay collection due out February 20:

Robinson’s essays are less concerned with religious community or any particular theology (though they are densely theological) and more with the ways in which ignoring the sacred, reducing what she calls Being to misapplied maxims of economics or evolution denies us of an, or she would say the, essential humanity. She refers to reductive interpretations of Freudian psychology, Eugenics, and moral capitalism as “horrible children of half-baked science.” One of the central ideas running throughout Robinson’s essays is that we’ve foolishly allowed a belief in markets to replace morality. Referring to the popular references to “cost-benefit analysis,” in the collection’s first essay, she writes that “[w]e accept the legitimacy of economic theory that overrides our declared values,” and that by this measure the Left and the Right are equally to blame in our collective move away from a moral society. “The left does not understand the thinking of the right because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it,” she writes in the preface.

Her Body and Other Parties

I started reading Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties while sleeping on an air mattress in my sick daughter’s room, which was not the best idea. I knew the stories in the collection were supernatural, but did not anticipate how tense and frightened they’d make me feel. That, combined with worry for my kids in this year of horrible flus, sleep deprivation, and then getting sick myself, intensified the feeling of vague unease and fear. All that is to say: these stories are so good.

They’re ghost stories, though some of them are not obviously supernatural at first. My favorite stories were “The Husband Stitch,” which I’d read a bit about before starting the novel; “Especially Heinous,” which is a sort of meta-fictive take on SVU-type shows that is both frightening in its own way and a provocative commentary on the industry of providing entertainment based on violence against women and children; and “Inventory,” which reminded me of The Road.

Between the World and Me

It’s hard to admit that I was afraid to read Between the World and Me. When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay was published in 2015 I’d heard Coates on Where We Live that spring and by the time a friend in my bookclub suggested we read Between the World and Me that fall, I stiffened at the possibility of feeling responsible for the racism, violence, and oppression I’d been so horrified to watch unfolding in the news all summer. One of the things that made me feel nervous and scared was Coates’s claim that trying to become “a little bit more enlightened” was not enough. If that wasn’t enough then what could I do?

On a personal level, the biggest change since 2015 is that I have a son. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother to a son, what it means to raise a young man in America in 2018, and part of that means confronting questions about race. (To be clear, this is part of being a citizen of the United States in 2018, not just a mother or a mother of a son.)

Anyway, I listened to Coates read the book. The writing is beautiful, the argument at times uncomfortable (at least for well-intentioned white women like me), That’s the a point of reading, though. I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable because that’s something it’s easy to stop doing once you’re reading in the wild and have the freedom to engage selectively.

Fire Sermon

I pre-ordered Fire Sermon after reading Nick Ripatrazone’s interview with Jamie Quatro at LitHub. I’d read Quatro’s short stories after meeting her at Sewanee several years ago and loved her intensely honest writing about running, love, and faith.

The writing in Fire Sermon is similarly intense, but because it’s a novel (even though it’s non-linear and narrated through journal entries, letters, sermons) I felt a little claustrophobic with the intimacy of the language and the story itself. I loved the structure, though, and felt English-teacher-affirmation when I saw the acknowledgement of Virginia Woolf’s influence. There are chapters that describe Maggie and Thomas’s house aging in a way that reminded me so much of To the Lighthouse.

The concept of passion (even adulterous passion) being spiritual was fascinating, strange, and uncomfortable to consider, but I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable (intellectually, emotionally, maybe even politically).

Sing, Unburied, Sing

I didn’t know anything about Jesmyn Ward’s novel except that it won the National Book Award. I’d heard her read parts of Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award) on NPR and really liked both the writing and the interview with her that preceded it.

If I were still teaching, I’d be asking for a class set of Sing, Unburied, Sing and trying to figure a way to pair it with As I Lay Dying and/or Beloved. The writing was so, so good. I find haunting and ghosts endlessly fascinating both metaphorically in literature and in a more literal way. I’m trying to read fiction with a mind toward revising my own novel (which, like Ward’s novel is told through multiple perspectives). I read ravenously and urgently because there was something at stake (I was really worried about a toddler girl’s health, but there are also other long-term disasters looming on the horizon). I read so fast that I know I missed some of what Ward was doing with allusion, song, history, and language.

Live to Run Another Day

For as much as writing and running share, it surprises me how difficult it is to write about running. I can write about the logistics of training. I can describe the landscape of a favorite route, but ever since I tried to write that Faulkner-style stream of consciousness (HA THIS WAS AN ACTUAL ASSIGNMENT I HAD) about the state cross country meet back in 12th grade, I’ve realized how impossible putting the spirit of running into words is.

I’ve been training for the New York Marathon since July. I signed up for the race after I ran 1/2 a mile postpartum. I’d been in physical therapy for pregnancy-related hip problems and had just been cleared to start running again.

This summer, I logged miles with my college teammates in Central Park, raced a cross country relay and logged miles at the local rail trail with my good friend and her high school aged daughter. I PRed in the half marathon (the first PR I’d run in any distance since 2007) in October. I know it doesn’t sound credible, but I don’t think I had a single bad run this training cycle.

Last Tuesday I was in the middle of what I thought was my “third-to-last” hard run, the warm up with the double jogger, tempo run on the treadmill at nap time, when something went wrong. I took time off, saw my PT three times in the last week, stretched, rolled, iced, took anti-inflammatories…and then, when I still couldn’t run more than ten minutes without pain last night, I decided to defer the race.

I haven’t cried yet (though I probably will). Instead I feel relieved. I’m proud of my half marathon PR. I feel sad to see the day I imagined (watching the sunrise on the ferry, smiling through all five boroughs, celebrating with friends and family after the race) slip away, but I’d feel even more sad if I couldn’t run for weeks or months.

Running while breastfeeding with two young kids is so different from any kind of running I’ve done before. Not necessarily because it’s harder (though sometimes it’s certainly harder logistically) but because it requires so much from other people. On long run days, I often dug into our freezer stash (of breastmilk) for Simon. I asked Nick to take on the first three hours of the day solo. Maybe because I tried to be aware of how much I was asking from the people I love most that I cherished those runs that began in the dark or on tired legs or were squeezed in before someone woke up from a nap. But, I’m realizing this morning that even though the big goal race isn’t going to happen, those runs themselves were always part of the goal.

It’s hard to untangle running goals from dreams of invincibility and youth. It’s thrilling to run faster at 35 than I did at 24 (especially since I was already a serious runner, just out of college training, at 24), and the chance to PR in the marathon is seductive. Even as I’m finishing my course of naproxen and scheduling PT visits for the rest of this week, I’m thinking about which marathon I might do–New York next year? Something else? I’m dreaming about another summer of early miles as much as I am about the race itself.

Last Day of School

This morning I was driving to Trader Joe’s answering questions about No Parking signs, wondering if I’d been giving Simon too many orange vegetables, worrying that he’d fall asleep in the car and think that was his morning nap and then not one minute of a double nap would happen.

We were behind a school bus and Thea told me “can’t see those childrens on that bus,” and I said maybe we’d see some kids waiting at the ends of their driveways for the bus to come.

It’s the last day of school here in town, and I thought about what it felt to wait for the bus on the last day of school. In elementary school, middle school, and in high school when kids are giddy on the manufactured adulthood of taking exams and actually no one is waiting for the bus.

We drove past mailboxes with graduation balloons. And time lurched forward and backwards at once. I was eight headed to field day, thirteen wondering who’d write a full page in my yearbook, seventeen showing up at graduation with wet hair and Birkenstocks. I was twenty-four, an exhausted first year teacher, giddy for summer. I was the mom of a toddler and an infant. And then quite clearly I was five, ten, fifteen years in the future. In the amount of time since I graduated from college, I’ll have a high school senior.

There are a few moments when I remember becoming abruptly aware of time. When I was four, a sixth grade neighbor taught me the word “Bravo.” She was so grown up and poised. In fifth grade, the eighth graders were banned from hugging at school because it was happening too much, too suggestively. When I was a junior in high school, swinging my car keys with forced casualness, I was as old as the captains of my cross country team had been when I was a freshman.

I’ll be thirty five at the end of the summer, but can still feel the dappled shade of the oak trees on my childhood street as the sixth grader clapped and said “Bravo!” Can still feel the uncomfortable but exiting confusion over hugging eighth graders, the novel thrill of being a person who carried a set of car keys. Now I’m a person with two babies in the back seat.

Sarah Menkedick on Louise Erdrich

In The Paris Review’s Revisited column, Sarah Menkedick writes about reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Blue Jay’s Dance” while pregnant.

This paragraph put into words something I’ve been trying to articulate for two years:

I had understood motherhood up until then as either the stultifying oppression of conventionality or an exercise of triumphing-in-spite-of, staying cutting edge and ambitious and successful by proudly suppressing or minimizing the maternal. Erdrich offered me another model: motherhood as profound creative subject, as way of seeing, even as empowerment. She gave me permission to be a woman

Meaningful work

Last night I had dinner with a good friend I’ve known for more than ten years. We’ve run twenty miles at at time together, cried over breakups, met each other’s families, explored the waterfront of Barcelona, worked together…but we’ve never talked about feminism together.

Since November, it is has been hard for me not to see the world–not just the political world, but my own days, life, work–as a feminist. We talked about the ACA repeal and about jobs we’ve left, and I was surprised to realize until last night, we’d never talked about any of this in all those years and miles. How could we not have?

I’m taking a writing class with Michele Filgate through Catapult (my first experience with an online class and I am really enjoying it, particularly for the accountability that classmates and deadlines provide). This week, we read Elisa Albert’s “The Snarling Girl,” an essay I’d seen referenced quite a bit but never read.

I read After Birth about a year ago, and although Albert’s essay-writing style is nothing at all like my own, I think she’s interested in a lot of the same questions about being a writer, a woman and a mother that I am.

Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way….
Yes, oppression is systemic, I get it, I feel it, I live it, I struggle, I do. Women are not equal, we’re not fairly represented, the pie charts are clear as day: nothing’s fair, nothing at all, it’s maddening, it’s saddening, it’s not at all gladdening. We all suffer private and public indignities (micro-aggressions, if you prefer) big and small. It’s one thing to pause and grapple with unfairness, but if we set up camp there, we can’t get anything done, can’t get to the root of the problem….
“Real” work is often invisible, and maybe sort of sacred as such. The hollering and clamoring and status anxiety and PR two inches from our collective eyeballs all day? Not so much. So tell the gatekeepers to shove it, don’t play by their rules, and get back to work on whatever it is you hold dear. Nothing’s ever been fair. Nothing will ever be fair. But there is ever so much work to be done. Pretty please can I go back to my silly sweet secret sacred novel now?

Not about Aristotle

I am trying really hard to still have complex thoughts. One idea I had for today’s 365 effort was to write about Aristotle’s definition of friendship (HAHAHAHAHA) and how I misunderstood it as an undergrad but get it now (HAHAHAHAHA).

Another idea I had was to write about how I can’t remember how to spell “everything” or what 5×7 is, but I can remember every way in which I perceive myself to have fallen short as a mother, a friend, a wife, a daughter. The number of times I say “just a minute” to Thea, or take longer than I wish to get to Simon when he cries, forget to respond to a text, an email, write an illegible and hasty thank you note just so I don’t have to think about it anymore. All these shortcomings lined up and marching past at the end of the day. There are so many ways to perceive oneself as failing, but I’m not sure there is even one way I’d allow myself to feel successful.

As soon as I realized that (and it did come as a realization, full-sentence and everything) that tendency itself felt like a failure. It is truly something I’d like to change, if only so that my children don’t internalize this kind of self-criticism. Is there a better way to affect change than adding it to the long list of daily requirements (eat vegetables, administer vegetables to others, exercise, write, execute tummy time, brush toddler teeth [and own, of course], be patient, be present, don’t leave dishes in the sink, oh, and don’t be so self-critical). Working on it, I guess.

I have an idea for an essay brewing. It’s based on a comment an editor wrote on another essay. There was a section about breastfeeding and she commented on how the section made clear the ways in which breastfeeding can be read as a metaphor for motherhood. Intimate, but public, personal, nourishing. As I was tucking Thea in tonight, worrying if I’d gotten enough sleep, eaten enough calories or had enough water to keep my supply up, I realized something else–you have to take care of yourself at least a little bit. I hate the phrase “self-care,” but that’s the idea.