Sunday, August 13, 2017

What did they do?

"Who's that you're talking to? Who is it you're calling to the table?"

"Why you, Granny. And you, Grandpa."

"Then that's what you should say. There was a woman who called everyone to dinner with the words: 'Come and sit yourselves down.' But she didn't say, 'Let the baptized souls come and sit themselves down.' So anyone who felt like it came to dinner: they crawled out from on top of the stove, from behind the stove, from the sleeping shelf, from the bench and from under the bench, all the unseen and unheard, all the unknown and undreamt of. Great big eyes peering, great big teeth clacking. 'You called us,' they said. 'Now feed us.' But what could she do? She could hardly feed such a crowd."

"What happened? What did they all do?" asked the girl, goggle-eyed.

"What do you think?"


"Well, they did what they do."

"What did they do?"

"They all did what they had to do."

"But what was it they had to do, Granny?"

"Ask too many questions — there's no knowing who'll answer."
— from "The Quiet Backwater," in Subtly Worded, by Teffi.

I'm reading this because I'm interested — I've been hearing about Teffi — but also for the Reading Across Borders Book Club, which will be discussing the book Wednesday, August 23, at 7, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

See also Ten Things You Didn't Know about Teffi.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Downstairs neighbour

When a door closes, a window opens.
Mmm, he's not bad looking, I think to myself. Maybe I should have an affair with him.

He smiles hello as I cross the courtyard to get to the stairs. I live on the second level.

He's married, two kids, but almost always outside on his own with a drink, smoking or vaping. Maybe even waiting for me, I begin to fantasize. Always acknowledges me, with a nod or sometimes even, Bon soir. An affair certainly would be convenient.

My key turns the lock, but the door sticks. It's been getting worse the last few days, must be the humidity. Oh, but it's really sticking this time. I bang on the door to get my daughter's attention, maybe if she pulls from the inside...

Mon voisin, meanwhile, is sitting downstairs, enjoying the evening air and his glass of wine. He can't not hear me; we'd see each other if we were looking.

The door is definitely not opening. I instruct my daughter to open the window, I punch the screen out from its frame. I pass my bag of groceries through first. Thank goodness for the bench outside, it'll give me a leg up.

My daughter is embarrassed for me. It's all so ridiculous.

Once inside, I still can't open the door.

I wonder if the neighbour looked up my skirt.

True story.

Monday, August 07, 2017


I'm still trying to wrap my head around Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan. I thought I didn't like it much — I want to say it's overwritten and self-indulgent. But I'm still thinking about this book, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it. So that's something.

I'll write more about it soon, but in the meantime, here's a TED Talk Yuknavitch delivered last year.
Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What do we mean by love anymore?

I've been thinking a lot about love lately.

Here's an explication of the idea of love:
What do we mean by love anymore? Love is not the story we were told. Though we wanted so badly for it to hold, the fairy tales and myths, the seamless trajectories, the sewn shapes of desire thwarted by obstacles we could heroically battle, the broken heart, the love lost the love lorn the love torn the love won, the world coming back alive in a hard-earned nearly impossible kiss. Love of God love of country love for another. Erotic love familial love the love of a mother for her children platonic love brotherly love. Lesbian love and homosexual love and all the arms and legs of other love. Transgressive love too — the dips and curves of our drives given secret sanctuary alongside happy bright young couplings and sanctioned marriages producing healthy offspring.

Oh love.

Why couldn't you be real?

It isn't that love dies. It's that we storied it poorly. We tried too hard to contain it and make it something to have and to hold.

Love was never meant to be less than electrical impulse and the energy of matter, but that was no small thing. The Earth's heartbeat or pulse or telluric current, no small thing. The stuff of life itself. Life in the universe, cosmic or as small as an atom. But we wanted it to be ours. Between us. For us. We made it small and private so that we'd be above all other living things. We made it a word, and then a story, and then a reason to care more about ourselves than anything else on the planet. Our reasons to love more important than any others.

The stars were never there for us — we are not the reason for the night sky.

The stars are us.

We made love stories up so we could believe the night sky was not so vast, so unbearably vast, that we barely matter.
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Electric Love • Time Lapse from Android Jones on Vimeo.

I've been thinking about love, because I'm wondering if I'm missing some. I might agree that it's a selfish impulse.

I have a few chapters to go to finish The Book of Joan — the days of this summer are long and full. On some level, the book seems to be saying that we have evolved past the narrative of love (or, we will have by the time of the novel's not-too-distant future setting). Love is not to have, it's to be. Yet it laments the private and personal.

How will this love story end?

Monday, July 24, 2017

To surrender to the crucible

To be human the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity: to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible — to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into. Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train. It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos.

When I came out of the theater, I said to my mother, "It's like we're stars in space. It's like space is the theater and we are the bits of stardust and everything everywhere is the story."
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The film is not named, but surely it is Doctor Zhivago that is described. I can't say I feel the same way about this film as Yuknavitch's narrator does, but I remember having a similar epiphany (for me the film was Wings of Desire).

This book is not even a little bit what I expected it to be.

Messianic time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Today I read the saddest poem

Today I read the saddest poem, flipping through journals at the magazine shop. It brought tears to my eyes. I stopped breathing, and my heart stopped for an instant too.

It was so sad, I had to buy this summer reading issue of Tin House. You can't read something that sad and just put it back on the rack. Plus, there's an octopus on the cover.

The poem is "Dusk" by Tracy K Smith, just recently named US Poet Laureate. Justly so.

"Dusk" starts like this:
What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I'd watch her
Sit at the table — well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn't lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she'd need to make her escape.
I came home and told my daughter I'd read the saddest poem, about having a teenage daughter, and she asked me if I needed a hug and I said yes.
I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

She can talk back to me, though not too much

My vacation reading went off the rails pretty early on. The book I was reading in Edinburgh was set in Edinburgh, but as soon as we settled into the train ride south, a restlessness overcame me. The books I'd brought with me were laid aside, and I picked up other reading material along the way. My London stay was defined by Tim Parks's Calm. On the last day in London I came across Tove Jansson's Letters from Klara, which seemed would make for perfect seaside reading.

(The cover image and the French flaps made this book irresistible to me.)

Letters from Klara is a volume of short stories originally published in 1991, appearing now in English translation for the first time.

Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin books (did you know there's a Moomin Shop at Covent Garden?), but NYRB has been steadily reissuing her adult fiction over the last several years.

The thirteen stories in this volume transcend time; one barely notices the absence of modern technology and the reliance on post or telegram. But they feel shrouded in nostalgia. I read these stories between naps, on the beach and on a plane, allowing each story to breathe, but one could easily devour this volume in one sitting.

These stories are mostly character portraits. They might be interpreted as reflections on a life lived; more than one story alludes to switching careers, how difficult it would be to start over. I feel scolded for both taking matters too seriously and not seriously enough.

On several occasions I found myself talking back at the book and exclaiming in disbelief ("What a bitch!"). People do some nasty things in these stories.

Other people are not we expect or remember them to be.

Above all these stories demonstrate how impossible it is to understand each other and how inscrutable our motivations are. Everyone operates by their own unique internal logic.

But they are sweet and bittersweet.
I think when I have a daughter, I'll teach her to whistle. It could be useful to whistle to each other in case we lost track of each other in the woods. If she doesn't answer, then I'll know she wants to be left alone. If she goes out in The Dinghy, I won't row after her and bring her home if it starts to blow. I won't make her pick blueberries, but she can pick mushrooms because that's fun. My daughter can wear any old trousers she wants to, and she can talk back to me, though not too much. She will look like me but prettier. Autumn is coming, so I won't write any more today.