Levertov Week: To Speak

To Speak

To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall —

out in the light it
shows clear, whether
shrunken or known as
a giant wrath —
discrete
at least, where before

its great shadow joined
the walls and roof and seemed
to uphold the hall like a beam.

 

I keep trying to decide if I agree with this premise or not.  “Sorrow shared is sorrow halved,” supposedly, but aren’t there times when even the most carefully-chosen words fail to convey the truth of the matter?

But there’s something to be said for making an assay at expressing and naming it, and also something to be said for having anyone to listen.

Levertov Week: Annuals

Annuals

All I planted came up,
balsam and nasturtium and
cosmos and the Marvel of Peru

first the cotyledon
then thickly the differentiated
true leaves of the seedlings,

and I transplanted them,
carefully shaking out each one’s
hairfine rootlets from the earth,

and they have thriven,
well-watered in the new-turned earth;
and grow apace now –

but not one shows signs of a flower,
not one.
                  If August passes
flowerless,
and the frosts come,

will I have learned to rejoice enough
in the sober wonder of
green healthy leaves?

 

As they say: #mood.  To piggyback on yesterday’s poem and my own reality…what do you make of your life if you don’t find yourself bearing any flower, much less fruit?  Do you redefine green healthy leaves as a sort of success?

This is the question threaded through my search for a single story, the question I am asking every tired workday, the thing I wonder every lonesome bednight.  All my uhtceare and self-analysis and storytelling wrap around this question: what is the point?  What am I here for, what am I doing?

Again, as Levertov’s “The Old Adam” puts it:

Where is my life? Where is my life?
What have I done with my life?

Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.  There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energize behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies.  It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

2048, and other dated thoughts

In a world of hot takes and instantaneous reactions, where we’ve generally moved on from thinking about United Airlines and April the giraffe already…I keep having idle thoughts better suited to 3 years ago, when Frozen and “Pompeii” and 2048 were more freshly on our minds.

So.  Idle question the first: did Elsa control all snow or just that which she caused?  If my car is buried under a foot of snow, can she magically shift it?  Honestly, what are the limits to her powers?  How much effort would it take her to freeze an entire lake or ocean?

Second: Are there any youth pastors who got really into Bastille and did more overthinking of “Pompeii” than I did?  The line Oh, where do we begin?  The rubble or our sin? BEGS to be made into some kind of ridiculous Bible study, all “In a broken world full of distress, is it most needful to address physical needs and realities, or first see to spiritual wounds?”  Or something.  This is preposterous and I want it.

heu

Latin memes = best memes.  Yes, even in 2017.  Even when this song was overplayed so much you stopped hearing it.

Third and lastly: 2048.  When this first became a nationwide (worldwide?) phenomenon, I got really into it for a while – to the point of adding squares in my sleep, you know how it goes – until I gave it up for Pentecost.  As you do.

Lately I’ve gotten back into playing it, and thus keep ruminating on the following: 2048 is like a microcosm of relationships and personality.

You’re young.  You’re a 2.  There are so many people and ideas for you to meet with, and any 2 will combine with you.  You’re a 4, an 8, a 16.  The combinations flicker by so fast, it’s hard to keep up.  And all around you the same: 4s, 8s, 16s.  The 32s fall into line beside each other.

At first, it’s harder not to run into a match, or a fit.  Even a 64 or 128 can match up.  There’s space to maneuver, 2s and 4s are doubling up 8s and 16s all the time.  It’s quite fun, and nearly mindless, because very nearly anything will work out.

2048gif3

Until the board’s worked up to a 512 or 1024.  Suddenly you’re a 64 or 128 or 256, perfectly reasonable – there’s even another 64 and 128 and 256 on the board.

You can see it.  But you can’t reach it.  You have no idea what would have to shift to bring the two together.  Trying to calculate it – trying to predict whether 2s or 4s will appear (is there a formula?), figuring if it’s easier to reach the Largish Number on the other side of the world, or if you have the space/time to wait for a new one to double up – it all leaves you feeling overcalculating, frustrated and impotent if not outright insane, and, unsurprisingly, makes it all feel like work rather than play.

Sometimes your careful machinations work out (o frabjous day!)  Sometimes they just give you a brief reprieve from Nothing Working Out At All, Ever.  Nothing will move.  Helpless, you know that if you could only shift this thing that way, all would fall into place beautifully.

Maybe you bungled it so many moves ago that you can never arrange things as they’d need to be arranged.  Maybe you were so focused on a strategy involving one piece that you missed the opportunity to find or fashion another double elsewhere.  Maybe you forgot that most elementary of facts about how pieces connect with the first match they run into, leaving that second match alone and forgotten.

Then the regret: if only you’d flicked things up instead of left.  If only there weren’t such a plethora of skinny, pretty little 2s gumming up the works.  All the cunning manipulation you’ve got, navigating all the blasted 2s in the world doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you’re a 256 or 512, and there just isn’t a 256 or 512 in sight for you.

It might all change, and quickly!  Or you might just lose.  Again.

You find you’ve run your battery down to 9%.

You feel that you’ve wasted your time and energy even playing.

…but even so, you wonder: what must it be like, to finally achieve that elusive, shining 2048?

2048 win

Watching this is basically like going through someone else’s album of wedding photos.

Death of a Battery at 5:30 AM

Death of a Battery at 5:30 AM

Had it happened in the driveway,
We might have been forewarned,
Delayed our start till after the rain
Began to coat the road and land,
Or before salt trucks fired headlights,
And bridges sent cars widely sliding
In wild spirals of tire and ice,
Fingernails, wheels, rails colliding.

Drifting, tenebrous, flakes settled down
Against still shadows in cadence.
Breath turned vapor before speech,
Blood slowed, the flares burned out
And cold pressed round our patience,
Which is when the battery died.

Follow-Up: A Single Story

A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year.  Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop.  Initial suggestions included:

Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain

It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos.  It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves.  Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.

I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it.  Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task.  She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping –
Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help
– Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening –
Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada –
Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones –
Jesmyn Ward

More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments.  Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles.  Here are a few comments that struck a chord:

Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.

Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories. 

I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category

It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.

I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.

…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.

The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…

I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.

Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.

I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for.  Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first.  But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:

The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness
– Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon – John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf

Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.

Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!

On the Purchase of Clothing

What do you find to be the most hateful-but-necessary task on your to-do list? Life is full of such errands and duties, but I’m convinced that shopping for clothes is the worst.  At least, it’s the most evil necessity that comes to mind. Shopping for food or household goods?  Not too bad, even if I’m a bit hungry and the shop’s a bit full.  Going to the credit union?  Pretty painless, honestly. Going through voicemails? Takes forever, but I can multitask.  Waiting at the DMV?  A rare occurrence, and you can always take a book.

Shopping for clothes?  I will be exhausted by the end.

It always feels too expensive, considering how cheaply made all the fabric is, and none of it ever looks good.  I increasingly need clothing that does the miraculous, and increasingly find tissue-thin polyester in weird colors and blindingly bizarre designs, assembled into shapeless garments: clothing incapable of achieving even the mundane goal of fitting, much less the miraculous of flattering.

Which means that I take a really careless approach.  If I took a careful approach – hunting for a particular color or style, hemming and hawing over each object as I pull it from the rack, pondering each outfit for several minutes in the mirror – I would never buy anything and, moreover, I would spend so much energy and so many emotions on the attempt.  I don’t have that time, or that energy, so I tell myself “Okay.  Grab stuff theoretically in your size that isn’t black or blue” – sane and generally flattering colors, meaning both fill my closet already – “and hie thee to the dressing room.”

At first I just thought it was a “screw it” approach.  But it’s also a “You won’t know until you try” approach.  Polka dots a size up?  Why not.  A dress that appears to have both splashes of Pepto-Bismol AND the vibrant green of Nyquil?  Sure.  Something virulently salmon?  Trying it.  A dress with the sort of line-based gradient meant to effect an optical illusion of some helpful variety?  Go for it.  Peach lace frock, stripy knit day dress, and a pair of linen pants? For all I know, they’ll work.  Desperation tugs me into a state of open-mindedness like nothing else.

https://twitter.com/SHORTGlRLS/status/486412754169761792

…of course, sometimes you do, in fact, know before trying.  I honestly did know the linen trousers and translucent silk shirts were not going to be winners.  There was a moment where they sort of approached success – grey and salmon were kind of fun and felt daring together! – except for all the spots that neither item fit.  And then there are the garments that are really REALLY long.  This comic? It is the truest thing I have ever seen.  Who exactly are the Amazon giantesses that clothing designers evidently focus on dressing? The fitting room attendant was concerned I’d trip.

All in all, I keep wondering if designers are insane.  Do they not believe in knee-length skirts this year?  Do they not have a full palette of colors to work with?  I hunted for “summer-y” shades, and found white, black, the aforementioned blindingly bizarre patterns, and a few silk shirts in taupe. Are we being punked? Did all the fashion people make a bet about who could get consumers to pay the most for the privilege of looking the stupidest? There are rompers on the racks, for Pete’s sake, and those stupid heavy shoes that look like hooves.

…and then I wandered past the men’s department on my way to the checkout.

There are button-ups in the solid, summery colors I was looking for. There are t-shirts which look to be opaque. The craziest designs in sight were straightforward plaid.

Catch y’all later. I’ll be in the men’s section.