Monday, May 25, 2020

Weather or Not

I have finally discovered Jenny Offill! For all of you who were reading her all along, isn’t she wonderful?! She writes a kind of fragmentary prose—vignettes, quotations, snippets of dialogue, prose poems, flash fictions, mini-scenes—all held together by a narrative flow/arc and a narrator’s consciousness. Gorgeous!

I started with Dept.of Speculation, about being a mom in a perfect-yet-shaky marriage instead of being a “monster artist,” as planned. The point of view is a crucial element of the story telling in this one, shifting from first to third to first again, so quietly. At one point the narrator is speculating about the phrase “wayward fog,” a state of mind to watch out for! “The person who has the affair becomes enveloped in it.” A little later, “It is during this period that people burn their houses down.”

On aging (though the narrator is still pretty darn young!): “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Then I read Weather, the perfect climate-change follow-up book to A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet, who thanks Jenny Offill in her acknowledgements! And Weather is “for Lydia”! (This Lydia?! I think probably yes.) Anyhoo, I easily connected with this one because the narrator, Lizzie, is a lot like me: she works in a library, has a “twinging knee,” and is terribly upset by the most recent presidential election, which seems to spell the end of the world.

So, yes, it’s a book about disaster psychology and preparedness—“…the superrich are buying doomsteads in New Zealand”—but it’s climate change, not pandemic, bringing on the end. With a context of 9/11. Her friend from Iran, who left right before the Shah fell, gives her insight on that: “Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.”

The superrich retreating into remote or gated safety is a Millet/Offill parallel. In Weather, the superrich who want to go to Mars get to answer a survey question: “What will you miss most on Earth?” “I will miss swimming the most.”

I will miss swimming on Earth! The local pools are closed this summer, a good choice. Sadly, as I write, this is the Memorial Day weekend of photos posted on the Internet of vacationers crammed together on beaches and in waterparks. Oh, there will be illness and death as a result, and not just among the vacationers. Alas!

In Weather,

…there’s an expert giving advice about how to survive disasters, natural and man-made. He says it’s a myth that people panic in emergencies. Eighty percent just freeze. The brain refuses to take in what is happening. This is called the incredulity response. “Those who live move,” he says.

Lizzie, the narrator, is helping to answer the emails of Sylvia, a climate activist also devastated, of course, by the election and by the relentless damage that now there is no hope of reversing. She says, in a speech, “What it means to be a good person, a moral person, is calculated differently in times of crisis than in ordinary circumstances.” Oh, my, we are challenged now, aren’t we, on how to be a good and moral person. I admire so much of what I see out there, and it helps to counter my despair over the masses in the waterparks. Yes, Mr. Rogers, I’ll keep looking for the helpers.

And reading. Jenny Offill’s prose style helps. Each fragment is like a moment lived fully, then let go. It is, therefore, like a meditation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Songs with Stars in Them

Oh, there are so many songs with stars in them, among them, “So Many Stars.” They are on my mind, and in my ears, playing on in the otherwise silence, partly because yesterday I was listening to The Weepies sing “Hideaway,” where “even the stars hide away.” So I thought I would offer a little list! Song title, singer/band, maybe the line with stars in it that plays in my head, and a YouTube link for it so you can listen for yourselves!

“Les Etoiles,” sung by Melody Gardot on My One and Only Thrill and, on the same album, in English, “If the Stars Were Mine” ending with a child’s voice calling, “Mom, Mom!”

“If the stars were mine, I’d give them all to you…I’d put the stars right in a jar and give them all to you.”

“So Many Stars,” sung by Jane Monheit on Surrender

“How can I tell? How will I know? Out of oh so many stars... so many stars... / The wind... is filled with songs so many songs / Which one is mine?”

“Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love,” sung by China Forbes with Pink Martini on the album Hang On Little Tomato, Live in Portland, Oregon. The video has a wonderful, eerie, sweet black and white opening before the live performance.

“I know a falling star can’t fall forever / But let’s never stop falling in love”

and from the same album, concert, and singer: “The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley”

“Under Orion’s starry sky / I lie in the moonlit garden…”

“ThankYou, Stars” sung by Katie Melua on Piece by Piece

“And when you’re out there on your own, / It’s the way back home….You are the reason we found ours, / So thank you, stars.”

“Hideaway,” sung by The Weepies on Hideaway

“Even the stars sometimes fade to gray / Even the stars hide away”

Happy listening!

Weepy Wednesday

My scattershot Covid-19 reading had just led me to an opinion piece in The New Republic about the rich having run off to escape the virus in complexes far away from cities, and how they’ll stay gated and protected afterwards, when my newly-spawned ebook reading led me to A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet, where some rich kids from a yacht tell some not-so-rich kids on a beach about their parents’ complexes off in Oregon and Washington state, where they’ll be safe during the chaos of the end of the world.

There’s no virus (yet) in this novel, but there’s extreme weather, pollution, and general toxicity. The rich kids feel insulated from it all, partly by their wealth, yes, but also by their seize-the-day, devil-may-care attitude: “…the yacht kids didn’t care about skin cancer. If they lived long enough to get a bunch of melanomas, they figured, they’d bust out the champagne.”

But the book is not about them. It’s a about a group of children and teens who are sharing a summer vacation house with all their parents. I was reading it when we had days and days of rain, while, in the book, parents and children are preparing for a major storm, of near Noah’s-Ark-like proportions. Indeed, that parallel is intentional. A sweet boy, Jack, has been given a children’s version of the bible and, having been raised in a climate of atheism, is reading those stories for the first time…but making viable connections to the world he is living in. His sister, the narrator, is Evie, like Eve of the Garden of Eden. Another sweet boy, Shel, who is deaf, handcuffs himself to a treehouse. I had just read a poem in a Zoom event about a woman who lives in a redwood tree for two years to save it from loggers. In this novel, the children try to save the animals, Noah-style, from flooding from the storm. 

In the aftermath, certain events align readily with my Covid-19 filter: “The parents are getting sick….Fever and chills. Headaches.” Then the parents text the children to say not to come back right now, it might be contagious. These teens are disgruntled with the parents, who are always drunk and who have abandoned the world, ruining it. But here, the narrator begins to awaken to the possibility of their love: “I marveled: the parents, caught in a selfless gesture. I almost wanted to thank them.”

Later she remembers not picking up after herself, leaving snack bags in the family car. “It hadn’t occurred to me to pick it up. I always waited for my parents to take care of it. Once we had let them do everything for us—assumed they would. Then came the day we wouldn’t let them.”

It reminds of a song by The Weepies, “Can’t Go Back Now.”

       Yesterday when you were young
       Everything you needed done was done for you
       Now you do it on your own
       But you find you’re all alone
       What can you do?

But while The Weepies move past their nostalgia for helplessness, and “Walk on, walk on, walk on / ‘Cause you can’t go back now,” the narrator of A Children’s Bible resists shared responsibility for slick blame and continues, “Still later we found out that they hadn’t done everything at all. They’d left out the important part. And it was known as: the future.” 

A Children’s Bible carries some of the righteous rage of Greta Thunberg. Yes, the children can be angry with their mostly self-absorbed parents. I understand young people’s anger and sorrow about the world they will inherit from previous generations that were wrapped up in materialism and themselves, allowing global warming to continue, ignoring climate change and activism on behalf of the planet. But not all parents or older people of today ignore climate issues. Many are recyclers who don’t put poisons on their lawns and do grow native plants, etc. And, in the current coronavirus crisis, it is sometimes young people who are selfishly ignoring precautions, thinking themselves invincible, as young people often do, and not wearing masks to protect others, congregating in houses, parks, beaches, parking lots, apartments for beer parties, just like they did before, until some of them get sick, and it sinks in.

Avoiding responsibility and playing the blame game are unlikely to fix anything or lead to lasting change. But suffering may well teach Evie what she needs to know to be able to “walk on, walk on, walk on….” And I can easily forgive her her petulance, thanks to her moments of insight: “Why are we always complaining? We get to be alive.”

Here’s the New York Times review of A Children’s Bible. And here’s another review of mine, in Escape Into Life, of Mothershell, byAndrea Potos, also read through a Covid-19 filter. And here's the charming, childlike, official music video for "Can't Go Back Now" on YouTube.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Words I'm Not Writing Down

My clothes still fit, and my ear holes haven’t closed up, small good things. I do sometimes wear earrings for Zoom meetings, and I wore some yesterday when I went back to work for the first time, processing library materials in a closed library. Lots of hand-washing, careful use of three disinfectant wipes (for door and cart handles, surfaces), and judicious mask wearing. It felt good to see people—the few who were there, only four in the building at all, I think, plus some construction workers renovating the bathrooms, but I didn’t actually see them; I did see the smaller music collection, reduced to make room for a new accessible bathroom. A pang, but 1) what’s done is done 2) many people get their music in other ways now 3) we’ll have an accessible restroom on the main floor!

It felt good to clear off my desk.

Mostly, I’ve been working at home. Learning a lot, shifting to some tasks that are already in my wheelhouse (as a reader, writer, and editor), and wondering if and how my library job might change accordingly. All the articles I’m reading about libraries and workplaces re-opening do suggest that, since there is no return to the “normal” of before, we might consider who can still work from home and how to re-structure workplaces for health safety, privacy, and fewer shared work stations. Sigh, more like the cubicles of an earlier era. Not to mention the possible health scanning devices we might need to walk through, like metal detectors but taking our temperatures…

Science fiction that isn’t fiction. Of course, the great science fiction writers have always been writing about real science, often predictive science. I was reminding my folks that zombie movies begin with a virus, a virus that wants to live, and so it is very contagious.

On Wednesday (I think?) I was describing the plot of the movie Children of Men to my mom. (I still need to read the book, by P.D. James, no doubt as an ebook, under the circumstances. Even though I went back to the library, I am not checking out any physical materials till our policy is in place for that!) Pollution or something has reduced human fertility, and yet there may be a baby, there may be a safe place to raise a baby!! Oddly, this has been a go-to movie for me at times. Like The Fifth Element, which I also watched again recently, it shows me decent people acting decently alongside those who don’t in a scary, chaotic world with aspects of regular life and its ironic excesses despite the general dystopia of it all.

“What happens?” my mom asked, wanting some hope at the end. I hadn’t wanted to spoil the ending, but she needed the hope, which I could and couldn’t give her, because of the delicate, watery nature of the ending, but I could stress the big boat of rescue coming near.

This is a Blue Monday in the blog, even though it's Friday. Some weeks, it feels like Monday all the way to Wednesday, when it starts feeling like the Friday that will never come. There are things I am saying to myself these days, in words in my head that I’m not writing down—not here, not in my private diary, not in poems. They are ongoing. They come while I am walking or working, they interrupt my reading. They are mixed—like life. They have hope and fear and despair, darkness and light. I don’t know if I will ever write them down.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day, Again

I’ve been a little sad all day, this first Mother’s Day of the pandemic. We had a nice multi-generational family Zoom chat, with mother stories and laughter, and a baby at hand (and sometimes cuddled in a box like a cat!). Some of us were inside, and some of us were out—too chilly and gloomy here in Illinois, but sunny and warm enough for those in Nebraska and Oregon, California and South Carolina… Why was I so sad? Perhaps the general sorrow and unease has caught up with me.

As perhaps it did with Olive Kitteridge, who has mellowed a bit in Olive, Again, the sort-of-a-sequel by Elizabeth Strout. If you didn’t like Olive in Olive Kitteridge, you might like her better now: her life is catching up with her, she’s worried she wasn’t a good mother, and she’s learned even more about love. If, like me, you did love the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this return to small-town Maine and linked short stories that work together to create a novel.

I read it at exactly the right time, though as an ebook and through pandemic eyes. It’s a cold May here, and character Jack Kennison is out on a cold June day, noticing the people. “There were people on the sidewalks, many were young people with kids or strollers, and they all seemed to be talking to one another. This fact impressed him. How easily they took this for granted, to be with one another, to be talking!” Indeed, how easily we took that for granted.

The character of Suzanne, whom her lawyer friend considers a true innocent, says to him, “I think our job—maybe even our duty—is to…bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.” I think she’s right. 

Blunt Olive Kitteridge, who has come to visit Cindy Coombs after seeing her in the grocery store and realizing she’s very sick, says, to help Cindy understand why none of her friends are visiting, “Everyone’s scared to die.” Everyone is, probably, or almost everyone. That fear is producing some very bad behavior in our country these days, and also some very good behavior. That fear, that suffering, may be developing people’s empathy. There’s some beautiful, generous stuff going on these days, too.

On Zoom today, I told about how wonderful it was to talk to my mom on the phone when I was young and alone and homesick on my own in the big city. Sometimes I’d call up and say, “I’m sad, sad, sad,” and she would help me remember the beauty of world. Today on Zoom, my daughter began to tell how I helped her learn to breathe…to handle pain…and then she cried, and I cried, and the Zoom went on, and we had our quiet tears and quiet recovery, and here we are again.

Ah, and just now, a birth! Mordecai Ivan Rio. Newly in the world!