Books of 2015

Cocaine Blues - Kerry Greenwood
Flying Too High - Kerry Greenwood
Murder on the Ballarat Train - Kerry Greenwood
Death at Victoria Dock - Kerry Greenwood
The Green Mill Murder - Kerry Greenwood
Blood and Circuses - Kerry Greenwood
Ruddy Gore - Kerry Greenwood
Urn Burial - Kerry Greenwood
Raisins and Almonds - Kerry Greenwood
Death Before Wicket - Kerry Greenwood
Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedman
Camera Lucida - Roland Barthes
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte - Karl Marx
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl
Just Freedom - Philip Pettit
Only Words - Catherine MacKinnon
Stiff - Mary Roach
born confused - Tanuja Desai Hidier
Howl’s Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones
The Blue Castle - L.M. Montgomery
The Third Man - Graham Greene
The World Beyond Your Head - Matthew Crawford
The Beloved Community - Charles Marsh
Wind, Sand, & Stars - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Emotional Intelligence - Daniel Goleman
Manalive - G. K. Chesterton
The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss
The Rings of Saturn - W. G. Sebald
Over Sea, Under Stone - Susan Cooper
The Dark Is Rising - Susan Cooper
Greenwitch - Susan Cooper
The Grey King - Susan Cooper
Silver on the Tree - Susan Cooper
Our Only World - Wendell Berry
The Book of Three - Lloyd Alexander
The Black Cauldron - Lloyd Alexander
A Wise Man’s Fear - Patrick Rothfuss
On the Natural History of Destruction - W. G. Sebald
The Last Days - Charles Marsh
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking - Susan Cain
My Antonia - Willa Cather

I would take the time to say a word about some of my favorites from the list (which is, I admit, a bit mixed on quality), but as I ought to be packing right now and not posting on my blog, I have simply picked out my top five (in no particular order) in bold.


Hour 17

At the way station
Where the trains stop
Where the buses go
Washington to Chicago
Albany to Chicago
Toledo to Detroit
Hell to Paradise
Tracing arcs and pinches
On a Midwest map--
Near the bird shit
On the vinyl bench
I sit
Knitting the minutes
In my fluorescent-lit
Stockinette stitch
[*knit 1 row; purl 1 row; 
Repeat from asterisk
Ad infinitum
Until Hell freezes over]
(Where Hell =
This flat, flat land
Running down, 
If you could see it,
To receding lakes)
Ah! There is hope then!
I see the frost.
[*knit 1 row; purl 1 row;
Repeat from asterisk]
Where the buses go
Where the trains stop
At the way station.


Good Medicine

I've felt a bit tired and run down lately, between a couple of long work weeks, a lack of exercise, and then some fun, but exhausting weekends. At some point, I was starting to feel the first dire warning signs of illness, so I got myself a bag of lemons with the intention of dosing myself heavily with hot lemon juice, fresh ginger, and raw honey (actually, if we're going to be precise, Katrina got the lemons, because she's an amazing sister and was stopping by the grocery store, but details, details). I never actually got around to it, and the lemons just sat in the fruit bowl for a while. Meanwhile, I did in fact come down with a cold, from which I've mostly recovered. If only lemon juice in theory worked as well as lemon juice in fact.

I was thinking about this for a while as I attempted to pithily caption a picture I took of the lemons and was posting it on Instagram (yes, I admit this). For the past many months since I've graduated, I've tried out a few different possible futures--in theory. There have been job applications, an interview or two, a few ideas tossed around because maybe the problem is just that I haven't thought of the right thing yet. But, all the same, here I am six months later, for some good reasons and some not so good reasons, still doing almost exactly what I was doing in May. 

There are times when it is right and good to be still. When we not only can, but should pause to be at peace with ourselves or to be receptive to what is around us. Inaction is not identical with passivity or apathy, and rest is as essential to the end as work. 

It is equally true, however, that when we confine our action to our heads, to the hypotheticals and to dreaming, without ever putting feet to our desires, we sicken. Challenges, life's lemons, may be bitter medicine when they come. But that which is unpalatable is not always therefore harmful. So too, that which is difficult is also an invitation to heal or to strengthen or to grow. If you're feeling stagnant, one of the first questions to ask yourself is: when is the last time you did something for the first time?

I have tried to take this idea to heart with some recent changes that I've been making in my own life. No, I don't have a flashy job to offer as proof that I've made it to adulthood. But I'm identifying what my interests are now that they're not dictated by the courses on offer for a given semester, and I'm trying new things. I love language, so I'm teaching myself Latin and trying to brush up on my German at the same time. I'm learning how to bind hardcover books. Thanks in large part to my siblings and the perfect birthday gift, I'm taking up calligraphy, both on my own time and through a workshop on medieval Irish uncial hand. I have a new job beginning in December that I intend to be the first half of a move into Philadelphia. And finally, I adopted a cat, who in two days has already given me a sobering sense of responsibility and the need for selflessness (she's also pretty cute when she chases lasers and sleeps on me). 

As fun as all of these things are, they require work. Even keeping up this blog, such as it is, requires me to put forth some effort. But the challenges we choose to accept (because, yes, we do often have to choose our challenges) are also rewarding and invigorating. I don't want to feel dead: I want to know that I'm alive, even when being alive means that I'm squirming over how incredibly awkward I feel in a social setting--one that I put myself in because I'm sick of sitting back and anxiously watching my opportunities disappear into the past. The point isn't even to accomplish something amazing, although that would be awesome. It's the challenge itself and embracing it, whatever the result, that we can focus on and build on for the future.

So, for all my friends who are at a point of uncertainty in their lives--because I think you face these moments of decision at all times of life and not just when you're graduating--don't get stuck in the trap of thinking about what could be and letting that be enough. We have an incredibly abstract culture, from the movies we entertain ourselves with to the technologies that we use, and that can make it easy to cheat our way out of the test of real life. At some point, you have to move past your "lemon juice in theory" and drink your "lemon juice in fact" or you won't move at all. And that wouldn't be much a story to tell now would it?


The Gift of Gravity by Wendell Berry

All that passes descends,
and ascends again unseen
into the light: the river
coming down from sky
to hills, from hills to sea,
and carving as it moves,
to rise invisible,
gathered to light, to return
again. "The river's injury
is its shape." I've learned no more.
We are what we are given
and what is taken away;
blessed be the name
of the giver and taker.
For everything that comes
is a gift, the meaning always
carried out of sight
to renew our whereabouts,
always a starting place.
And every gift is perfect
in its beginning, for it
is "from above, and cometh down
from the Father of lights."
Gravity is grace.
All that has come to us
has come as the river comes,
given in passing away.
And if our wickedness
destroys the watershed,
dissolves the beautiful field,
then I must grieve and learn
that I possess by loss
the earth I live upon
and stand in and am. The dark
and then the light will have it.
I am newborn of pain
to love the new-shaped shore
where young cottonwoods
take hold and thrive in the wound,
kingfishers already nesting
in a hole in the sheared bank.
"What is left is what is"--
have learned no more. The shore
turns green under the songs
of the fires of the world's end,
and what is there to do?
Imagine what exists
so that it may shine
in thought light and day light,
lifted up in the mind.
The dark returns to light 
in the kingfisher's blue and white
richly laid together.
He falls into flight
from the broken ground,
with strident outcry gathers
air under his wings.
In work of love, the body
forgets its weight. And once
again with love and singing
in mind, I come to what
must come to me, carried
as a dancer by a song.
This grace is gravity.



For the moments when you want to scream and tear your hair out in frustration:
From three years, five years, ten years
"Down the road," as they say,
Or downstream, even better.
Remember this moment
As it will be when
The hot flush has long cooled,
The tears have evaporated
Behind a veil of laughter and other griefs.
Perhaps the memory will give you
A little consolation and
A little perspective.
A little and yet enough to get by.


In a Subjunctive Mood

A morning spent enthralled by
The bobbing dance of a rose thrust
On its stem toward the sky blue;
An afternoon lulled to watchful stillness by
The birdsong of a hundred unseen friends hid
High in the crowns of the trees;
A night caught breathless and trembling by
The span of the starry sphere laid
Out like a map inked with fire.

And you come,
Foreign traveler, alien and stranger,
Invader in this, my other place,
With hands full of beauty
And fingers spread wide. It is
A generosity unspecific, and yet,
I take it to myself and cherish:
In the songless, flowerless winter,
Your light would keep me warm.


So Sorry; After the Fall

Ich und du; aber
Du bist "ich" und
Ich bin "du."
She who comes from nothing
And likewise dissolves
Into naught, distributed
Unequally (like a comet trail in space).
Not even such dignity as that,
If thou exist not for I,
Then thou never wert at all.

"we are for each other." The riddle at the heart of being is the autonomous man and the situated self: I am as I am, but I am for you also, in that I exist for you in a particular way, composed by you in your mind and bound up in a concept. It is, shall we say, your particular nominal essence of me. cummings wrote of love, or at least of feeling, and perhaps did not mean any such philosophical observation. Even so, the observation holds.

What happens when you are for me, but I am not for you? Then only one of us exists, and the other remains bound. There can be no mutually life-giving relationship between a person and an inanimate object. It is the slow starvation of a soul, through refusal to acknowledge its independently valuable existence. The two part ways, and that, itself, is a death in the ending.


Selected Passages from W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn

-- "At the end of the passage that led to the room where we were sitting ... hung an oval, half-fogged mirror that had a somewhat disquieting effect. We felt that this dumb witness was keeping a watch on us, and thus we discovered--discoveries of this kind are almost always made in the dead of night--that there is something sinister about mirrors. Bioy Cesares then recalled the observations of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, that the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings."

-- "As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth's slow turning into the dark. The huntsman are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn--an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness."

-- "They abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and, whenever their declining means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations; the slowly dying town thus followed--by reflex, one might say--one of the fundamental patterns of human behavior. A strikingly large number of our settlements are oriented to the west and, where circumstances permit, relocate in a westward direction. The east stands for lost causes."

-- "In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch. I would more than likely never have started building the Temple if I had had any notion of how my work would get out of hand, and of the demands it would make on me as it became ever more complex. After all, if the Temple is to create the impression of being true to life, I have to make every one of the tiny coffers on the ceilings, every one of the hundreds of columns, and every single one of the many thousands of diminutive stone blocks by hand, and paint them as well. Now, as the edges of my field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time."

-- "This then, I thought as I looked around me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing in a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?"


Who Can? Toucan.

I arrived home late last night exhausted and slightly giddy. It seems appropriate, given the latter point, that I thought (for the first time in a solid five years) about the toucan. I was in Brasil, and my group had an exploration day of sorts, which we spent hiking and exploring around a nature preserve outside of Brasilia. Mostly when I think about that day, I remember the waterfalls. They were quite beautiful, and the one was especially high--the daredevil in our midst quickly found an elevation from which to jump down into the pool below, and for those who had tired of the jump, we were able to swim under the torrent into the caverns behind (but dared not put our feet down, lest the razor sharp rocks below the surface should slice them to ribbons).

If I pause to tug at the memory a bit, other things come forward. One of the first pools we came to had leeches in it, much to the chagrin of the individuals who decided to wade into it. And there were these blood red carnivorous plants. I think I still have a picture of them somewhere (I could check, but I like the way uncertainty tastes). They were the most oddly sinister things you've ever seen, like an evolutionary mirror of a praying mantis, which looks like a plant but is an insect, while these behaved like insects, but were plants. Obviously their prey were nothing human-sized, but I still had the uncomfortable sensation that if they just grew a little bigger and spread out a bit to cover a greater ground area, they would probably not hesitate to digest larger things. And, appropriately, they would probably look rather like a pool of blood. Let us just say that if one were to poop in the woods, they would not be the best lining for your makeshift toilet. (I'm well aware that they're unlikely to do any injury whatsoever to a person, but the role of imagination is, among other things, to appreciate the absurdity of what is real.)

And then there was the toucan. Toucans really are strange looking. That kind of beak to body ratio could hardly fail to render them absurd. This particular toucan was probably part of the rehabilitation program that occurred at the preserve, since I never saw it fly, but then, I know very little about the habits of toucans as a species, having only met the one. He was a relatively social creature, waddling up to join us before we embarked on our hike, but if he liked us, he had an oddly aggressive way of showing it. A few of us had paused and were standing in a circle, and in his incredibly small brain the toucan generated the notion that he should go from person to person attempting to bite their feet.

I hope you can appreciate just how silly this looked. Just imagine a 6' tall person assiduously avoiding a spider, and you have the right idea. Of course, a toucan's beak is enormous (obviously--remember that beak to body ratio), so you probably don't want one to chomp down on your toes, assuming that it has any amount of jaw strength (It might not. I'm quite vague on the anatomy here.). And having once been nipped on the shoulder by an ostrich at Lake Tobias, I have a healthy disinclination to anger large, beaky birds. But it was still amusing to watch otherwise fearless individuals avoiding a stumpy, waddling bird.

Experiences are rarely memorable for the bare content of what occurred. I can tell you in a sincerely bored tone of voice that I have been to Peru, Guatemala, Switzerland, and so on. Where I have been is not terribly important to me, except perhaps in a game of Never Have I Ever. This is not to say that I found any of my travels boring. It is simply an observation about the nature of memory and of stories: that the things that create interest, that make those experiences valuable to us, are often in the things that we, as necessarily selective rememberers, are most prone to forget.

I remember walking along the River Cam through the Grantchester Meadows to the Orchard on a chilly afternoon in early spring, watching in utter disbelief as a group of doughty adventurers made the upriver swim. Or on another afternoon jaunt with Leah, we passed by the skating field and listened to the rusty gate squawk of pheasants, for whom Leah expressed a deep distaste. In the seemingly enormous scope of the six months that I spent in Cambridge, those moments become vanishingly small and difficult to see, and yet they are the justification lying in the dusty corner of my mind for the typically unsubstantiated statement that I had a life-changing, wonderful time there. Of course I did. Nobody ever asks why. Well, that's why.

Being fully present in the moment has left me open to remembering those devilish details. It is a becoming soft: like wax or clay, open to the impression of a million tiny perceptions pricking painfully at your senses to produce a joyful chorus: "You are alive! You are alive!"

As usual, I have no idea how to conclude this. So I offer only a parting thought:

Efficiency says that if you can make one journey instead of two, then you should only make the one to conserve time and energy. Adventure says that if you can make two journeys instead of one, you should make two, because the world and you in that world will have changed in the time between the first and the second.


Ezekiel, Who Was Blind

I hear the wind
I hear the wind
Pass over the valley.
The bones, they rattle.
The bones, they rest.
Dry bones.
Dry dust.
But wait--
The wind is moving.


what preserves my soul?

A cloud of steam dissipates over the stove, leaving behind the cloying scent of a Protestant Eucharist. Concord grapes. They came into the house dusty, out of fields dry and hot, where they hung from their vines in such overripe corpulence that a mere touch sent them to the shaded earth below like rain drops that taste of wine. Or perhaps the dust was not the work of the fields, perhaps it is rather the dust of memory that lays over the attics of our minds. Beyond the plastic communion beakers of childhood, there is that old arbor, beaten gray by the rain but shelter nonetheless to many a moment of play. The thick, woody stems of the vines wove their way to the highest places, that the clusters might hang almost to eye level--perfect height for "Grampy" to pick them on his way back from the barn.

Small things may sometimes be the portal to that which exceeds them.

A seed falls into the dark earth and dies.

I'm sure many pages have been written on the subject, but I think there's a reason why farmers and, to a lesser degree, gardeners (for, after all, when one's whole livelihood is at play, desperation teaches much dearer lessons) have a reputation for being potential mystics. Not that they all are, nor even that many of them are. That would be a ridiculous claim. I simply mean that their labor is, at heart, a work of faith: every seed that is sown into the earth is a small prayer made with the full awareness that it will not bear fruit without a period of waiting, and even then, though the wait may be endured well and the soil tended with great care, the seed may never come forth into the light of morning. To live in this manner requires a certain courage that manifests itself as trust, and that courage draws its strength from love. One could not live that way unless there were something else within that reaches for something without.


The Jumble on the Floor; and Other Souls

My desk is strewn with almost finished projects--a handsewn laptop sleeve for a friend that lacks only the fastener and a pocket, a three quarters-colored in postcard to mail to a friend in California, my summer's notebook full of preserve and mixer recipes open to the spread with the chai concentrate that I haven't tried yet. On the floor by my bed, on the bookshelf directly next to it, and on the Kindle that I'm charging at the moment: so many books, waiting to be read, digested, nutrition for the fertile growth of new thoughts, images, ideas. The mess in the corner of my bedroom is a collection of things to be thrown out, things to be donated, things to be posted on Craigslist, things to be given to friends. I could be outside wooing blue jays to eat peanuts from my hand or inside applying for jobs, hoping someone will look at my resume and let me be a semi-responsible adult. I could go for a walk or a run, do yoga, cook, bake, pick grapes, write that letter to that person who sent me an album that I can't stop listening to.

There are so many things to do, but none of these things motivate me to get out of bed in the morning.

In the grey, artificial twilight of blinds at half-mast, I could curl up under my duvet and die a daydreaming death before I would ever turn on the lights and go about the day for the sake of errands. They are not enough.

A quote that I once posted from Elisabeth Elliot and will do so again here:
August 17, 1948--Silence begins to drag on my soul. It is a kind of waiting which hears no voice, no footstep, see no sign. I feel that I could wait ten years, if it were not this waiting, this silence. I have spent the evening by a little pool which held the silent sky in its heart. There was no ripple, no stir. Lord, let me be that pool.

Too often the house is silent, or when it isn't, I don't know where to put myself when I am out of step with its synchrony.

But if you can wait it out, if you can survive the drag on your being, if you look directly at what ails you, you may learn something of yourself and of the motivation for existence.

I sometimes say that I'm not an ambitious person. Perhaps that is inaccurate (I don't think so), but another way of saying it might be: I am not driven by my own goals either for their sake or for my sake. There has to be something else.

There are times when I can't do it for myself. When it's too much to face the minutiae of everyday life without something toward which all of that effort is directed. A friend recently challenged me as to just why there is that lack, but that's a separate issue from what I'm getting at, in the end, which is that sometimes if you can't wake up for yourself, if you have too much life and not enough desire for it, then you might as well give it to other people, because they're worth waking up for.



There are always nights, but some of them are emptier than others. That's the pessimist's way of putting it, I suppose. I really mean to say that some are fuller than others. Filled with the light of absurd happiness that leaks in through the outlets in the walls. We forget the power of the first things. The seeming witchcraft of electricity delivered to a particular location--what is this strange magic that lights our houses, powers our laptops... And there we have the twist. That in moving beyond, we lose sight of the steps that it took to get to this world of wonder, steps wondrous in themselves. Who can see the outlets when there are iPhones and 3D printers? Franklin with his key and his kite poses on pages of history no less remote from our conceptual spaces than the galvanization that brought Frankenstein's monster to life in Shelley's fiction. 

But that's not the fullness.

"Shit happens. But sometimes shit doesn't happen, and that can matter just as much."

A room cleared of all the possible worlds that have been sent into dusty attics to rot for all time because they were not and are not, and now they're simply taking up space that isn't theirs to claim. The sensuality of the stretching out and settling in--the walls have been pushed back, the ceiling rises, and we find more room to grow when we're not boxed in by "might have been."

Which isn't to say that there's not still a shelf lined up with "could bes."

Every morning, I dress myself (or sometimes afternoon--we'll not speak of those days) and with the corporeal touch of cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, rayon, there's the abstract plan that settles over my limbs, preparing to direct them through the day. It is not yet, but it's waiting to be.

Without the could be, we are naked, vulnerable, and confused, unsure of ourselves and our agency. What is there to become when we have become all that we wish to be? At least in the not knowing, there is still a measure of breathless anticipation, but the cessation is lassitude in muscles accustomed to the heavy conditioning of the marathon run embarked on decades ago and only just now ground to a halt. Let us go and go and go, lest in the stopping, we lose our momentum forever. There are worlds to explore and our hearts and feet are the only means of transportation that can get us there.


Back to back, they faced each other.

The English words trip lightly from our tongues, here where we
Wrap ourselves in the shared mantle of our mother tongue,
Shaping phonemes that you've known since birth if you
Were listening closely enough.
Still we sit too far apart to feel the common warmth.
What beautiful thread have you picked at and unravelled 
To give pattern to your waking thoughts?
Is it so different from my own, here where the synesthetic experience of
Language overwhelms and annihilates, uplifts and enervates?
The hieroglyphs of the ancients are no more mute than your pictograms,
And I cannot help but wonder if this is what deafness sounds like.


All the Wrong Spaces

I just wanted to feel the words
The way my fingers shaped them
In a consummation of the kinesthetic
And the divine flame.
To have meaning at all--a gift of the gods;
To have significance--blessing without measure.
The crowded heavens with their lonely lights
Cannot convey the simple truth:
You are someone.
A fixture of language that could only flow
From the mouth of a perceiving other,
Giving shape to the sustainer
Who upholds creation 
And tells it, not only that it is good,
But more simply that it is.


Faerie Hunting

The woods in the deep places--not far back, where no one has ever tread, but far enough that few people bother--are full of the sense that Moses must have had once he backed out of the cleft in the rock. The beautiful mystery and awe at that which had been here but a moment before paired with the keen awareness of the no longer.


Here, near the top of Mt. Battie, I'm caught up in a different cloud, one of the ordinary everyday ones, except I'm not in an airplane and I can feel it passing over the mountain. It has embarked on a journey that no mere hill can disrupt, though it makes its way like a river, around, passing slowly but surely without demanding that the mountain move... Though perhaps a million years of rain and wind and strong tree roots will move the mountain all the same, and then even the low clouds will look down as they pass over unencumbered.


There were many naturally occurring beauties, but some of the most enchanting involved some human trace--a bridge, even a corduroy bridge made of sawn birch logs, can be a lovely punctuation to a little rill that sings quietly over rocks and between low, dark evergreens. (If Barthes's punctum can escape the photograph and hide in the world that lives and dies, I think perhaps a bridge in the woods would be one of its manifestations.)


A river weaving through a misty coastal plain appears out of air thick with chilly morning damp. It would be a quiet sight, except for the piercing whiteness of the birch trunks that proclaim the worthiness of Here.


The ravens suit the north country, a space where humans are most noteworthy for their absence and all of the animals--bald eagles, moose--are somehow larger. Where woods and fog defy Donne's immortal rejection of absolute solitude (no man is an island, but can we lose again what we have lost by forgetfulness?), the raven is the spirit of the space, flying always by itself with its black feathers sharp against the pale bleach of a cool world.


You start to believe in the reality of nowhere when you drive long enough through fog. Your surroundings, such as they are, barely change. Signs pass, suggesting that if you veer a bit to the left or the right, you may eventually happen upon somewhere, but for the time being, you're probably more likely to hit a moose than you are to see and speak words of greeting to a fellow human being.


I made the mistake of driving without a map. Strange, how lines and dots that can only be called representational in a cartographic wonderland nonetheless serve to make me feel at home in the world, if only by connecting my here with a somewhere else. We are all contained, not by the internet which still falls short of complete comprehension, but by the map, which leaves no stretch of land uncharted. Though abstract and "untrue" in that way, its lines wrap us in their arms and save our minds from slipping off terra firma into a wild, fantastical sea.


What is a trail through the deep woods without human eyes to map human intentions? A bare, hardened stretch of dirt indistinguishable from the forest floor? But no, this takes too high a view of human cognition vs. animal awareness. I have heard of deer paths, which perhaps are barely visible to any but the experienced tracker. Once, these ways were widened to make space for other travelers, and now no trace of the original light-footed pathfinders remains. Perhaps the essence of trailblazing lies in an ability to identify and widen the way that is already there, rather than some brash, foolhardy determination to plow headfirst through unbroken wilderness and thereby to eventually bash one's brains against the unbreakable.


Seeking Hart Crane on Amazon

There is something sick and twisted, she thought,
About finding new words from the tongues of old prophets
And immediately seeking to buy them.
Discretely part of every statue and painting,
We find that unifying principle which makes all art art:
The price tag.
As a justification of labor and a mark of social status, it declares:
We have agreed that the work is worthy.
Thus evaluated into currency, it may be valued in fact,
My moral sensibilities following my wallet
With all the capacity of a sheep for self-determination.
The power of the gratis is the equality;
And I wonder why we haven't learned to love it
When the shackles are unlocked and the door wide open.



I hurtle forward through each day, head down, hands moving from one task to one to-do list tic mark to the next task that must also be done, not because it must be done, but because it has been decided by my prior self that this is how I shall organize my future existence into a coherent whole. I am she who does. The cart, the embodiment of functionality, precedes the horse, which lives. I peer around the cracks of long, deadening hours, stick my fingers in and pry, though their use value as crowbars is limited to the world of virtual reality. And supposedly the answer is to answer the question, but I sometimes wonder if the moment of now and the dream of yesterday will both be lost in the deafening din of the creative word, once it is spoken. "Let there be..." And so there shall. Shall in the present tense has not the implications of should in the subjunctive. There shall, but it is no social or moral obligation laid upon me. No mere cooperation of hormones and electrochemical impulses: set down your megaphone, determinist doomsmen. If only to transcend the story you've written in my DNA, let the heavy weight of a meaningless day fall from shoulders that only grudgingly agreed to carry it. They do not care. They are sick below and elsewhere above like a suspension of brain in bile. They are only waiting to learn the real lesson of life, which begins with a different, life-saving or life-destroying question: how do you survive the small things?

Someday, I will die. And I wonder, will what I do between now and then make those years worth the effort? Or will I settle down in a space not my own, convincing myself in fear-pitched tones that I love it, or at least I can bear it, even as it exsanguinates my foolish husk of self?


Is there no balm in Gilead?

Honey butter. One of a handful of foods that I associated with my paternal grandfather, alongside his signature butterscotch rice krispies and the "pinkies" (pink wintergreen lozenges) he kept in a container in a kitchen cabinet. When I stumbled across a recipe for whipped honey butter while planning a trip to the grocery store, I was briefly caught off balance by the realization that I can't walk into Grandpa Linder's house (the screen door makes a particular sound in my memory, the living room warm, the red barrel-full-of-monkeys from the toy chest still dangle through the floor grate from the second floor to the first), that it has been years since I could do that and find him standing over the sink or playing dominoes at the table. I have lost the pale ring that slowly ate into the blue of his irises late in life; I can only remember the frail hunch of his back and his brown polyester pants--they are beyond vision, except the momentary glimpses in the set of my father's face or the bend to his shoulders that seems to be a familial trait (and one that I have vainly hoped to escape).

A coworker found out yesterday that her grandmother had died. She never met the woman who gave birth to her own mother--Hawaii was too far for family vacations, except one trip that the same mother made a few years back, but by herself. Grandmother was a voice on the telephone, but also a presence, hovering somewhere in the background. How do you comfort someone, when you and they are not even sure of the nature of their grief?

It was the honey butter that reminded me of Grandpa, but I thought perhaps there were some similarities between my startled discovery of his absence and my coworker's news. After all, though I met my grandparents, they lived out in Michigan, and we only saw them on holiday trips or a week every summer when we piled into the car or later into a motorhome and traveled west. When my seven year-old self cried over Grandma's death, she didn't really know what she was mourning, and maybe they were really just the confused tears of a child witnessing her stoic father weep for the first time. Grandpa was a bit different--he was in his late 80s, tired and ready, though by some stroke of familial care and fortune allowed to be home all the way to the end. I had known him a bit better, had even known him well enough to feel uncomfortable about some elements of his worldview, but didn't cry for him. I was relieved for his sake, that he should not be in pain any more. Perhaps if I had felt his absence more keenly, I would have closed the link by cauterization. Instead, it takes an effort to remember that he's not alive, somewhere at the other end of a telephone call or a long day's drive from Pennsylvania to Lapeer. 

We celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, but as Wolterstorff noted in Lament for a Son, so too our every grief has its own unique quality (he ties it to the inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which, in its turn, has its roots in the haecceity of medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus). Perhaps this is simply reflective of the complicated forms that different relationships can take, coupled with our emotional preparedness for the final moment. Sometimes we are even surprised by grief: Sufjan Stevens wrote his recent album Carrie & Lowell as a response to the death of a mother he barely knew, a mother whose schizophrenia and alcoholism left her a remote and difficult figure, but whose passing catalyzed a personal crisis. 

It seems like it's most often the distant ones that catch us off guard. We do not doubt that we have the right to grieve for, say, the grandparent who provided our parents with childcare when we were young. But so many times we find that we have a conceptual grasp of familial roles that have been filled by people who are only vague, shadowy characters in our expanding universe of relational ties. When they die, we grieve for the loss of a might-have-been, and less so for the person we barely knew, for their actual being-in-the-world. And this is a grief that need not solely accompany death: for the most part, I feel as if my mother, with her peculiar blend of aggression and paranoia, is not worthy to be called "mother," even if she is psychologically and physically continuous with the individual who gave birth to me and raised me. In that complicated rendering of a human relationship, I have found poignant and at times piercing traces of the same grief for the might-have-been--and I suspect that when she does die, she will be among my surprises, her death a more painful experience for the alienation and the lack of resolution that surround that connection and its severance.

But now I've ventured into the macabre and uncomfortable territory of positing the death of one who is living, rather than speaking of the death of one who has died, and I am not entirely sure what I'm trying to say. Perhaps no more than that in all the literature on loss and in all the poems in all the world, there will never be one that can capture either that breathless moment that I felt this morning or the mute sympathy of yesterday afternoon. And thus the paradoxical language of the poet Masters, who uses words to ask:

Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
We are voiceless in the presence of realities--
We cannot speak. 


The Sign, the Vector, and the Fairy Tale

No hapless adventurer I,
Daring to sally forth with no hope
Of a home at last to return to.
The dark forest bid me enter,
An invitation to the intimacy of seeing and knowing
The spruce hollows where all fear dwells;
My feet accepted the hospitality of the labyrinth,
But my hands mistrusted, strew my breadcrumbs:
The word of life and the broken bread
Scattered like my memories
Like footprints behind me
On the path I had never desired.
But this (mis)trust in uncertainty came new and uneasy--
I do not believe in signs
Who so readily lose their way
Absent the wise figure of a concrete referent.
What assurance had I
That a ball of twine made from fragile words
Would not blow away on a breeze or rot
As surely as the doves consumed
Hansel and Gretel's way home?
But the interwoven strands of story
Kept the thoughts together,
Anchored them in the soil of a land I came to know.
And when my frostbitten fingers sought
The rough comfort of their sound
There yet they were, a living vine:
A whispered welcome on the long walk home.


On Driving Manual and Deep Ecology

While driving home from work last night, I was thinking about the difference between driving an automatic car and driving a manual car. There is something in the names themselves that implies the poles of the experience. "Automatic," requiring no particular knowledge or input, only the requisite initial step of depressing the accelerator. The transmission will take care of the rest. "Manual," with its suggestion of "manos," meaning "hands" in Spanish (Spanish being a language I know, but an etymological search says what I expected--that both "manual" and "manos" come from the Latin for "hands"). But when we think of manual labor, we think of involvement in a real, physical way. Working with one's hands is often set at a contrast with intellectual labor, but this is not entirely fair. The better contrast might be to look at the products of the one and the products of the other. Manual labor applies itself to concrete materials, while the average stock broker and university professor are simply playing with abstractions.

I'm not really trying to glorify manual labor. We started with manual transmissions, after all, and there is no true correspondence between the two, and even less so between automatic and abstract.

I'm thinking, rather, of the way that resisting automation gives us a more intimate knowledge of the workings of the world around us. When I drive a manual car, I have to be more involved. Eventually, checking RPMs and shifting up or down may become as habitual as if it were automatic, but still, there is a level of attention and awareness that is absent from the automatic driver's operation.

Attention is a powerful thing. Advertisers vie for it. Friends and lovers get upset when we don't attend to them. It's something that we pay, an interesting twist of language that presupposes a debt owed--or, just as often, something purchased. I pay attention in class, because I want to obtain an education, but also because etiquette demands that I at least outwardly respect someone who has studied deeply in a particular field and presumably has earned authority to speak on the subject. How much you weight the one or the other in a given situation depends entirely upon your personality and values--I can think of friends who are so pragmatic that they would not be impressed into paying attention just by someone's credentials, although they might maintain a semblance of respect for that individual as an intrinsically valuable person.

As I am reading more about deep ecology for my honors thesis, I rather think that this intersection of manual, with its implication of contact and intentional manipulation (another word with the root of "man-" in it), and attention, as something with the dual presuppositions of debt and purchase, has an important place in how we perceive our place in and our duties toward our environment. Perhaps this is embodied by someone like Wendell Berry, whose intelligence and eloquence have been shaped powerfully by his lifelong work as a Kentucky farmer. The farmer may modify the earth to some extent, through irrigation, fertilization, pesticides, and so forth, but beyond a certain point, there can only be accommodation to the nature of that land. Importantly, that point may fall at different places for the one who thinks only of short-term profit and the one who thinks of long-term stewardship (a word that is loaded with an entire worldview, but which at least has the idea of entrusted care for another's potentially divergent interests).

Since the advent of tool-making, mankind has tended toward transcendence of nature's limits. As those tools have become more sophisticated and nature increasingly distant, we begin to believe ourselves superior to it. The aforementioned farmer or others who work to harvest the resources of earth and sea, they are no less prone to this fault than the rest of us. The one who overworks soil and the one who overfishes are both guilty of disrespect for limitation in the service of human ends and economic profits. This, then, is not a glorification of the old days or a trumpet call to return to the soil. Rather, it is a way of saying that if we resist the automation of our lives, if we allow limits to condition our plans and take up the creative task of living within them, we have started to pay attention. And, perhaps, in what begins as a debt owed to a universe of which we are not the center, we have obtained the deep satisfaction of community to the fullest extent of the word.


The Judge and the Other

The casualness of language permits us to be both prosecutor and pardoner of our own wrongs. I recognize in myself the established pattern of poor behavior, and (ever eager to assert my self-awareness) brazenly declare, "I am a horrible person!" A friend might generously protest such a damning pronouncement. It is not, after all, always the case, or they could hardly be called a friend. But perhaps their protest senses the dual deception I have thus perpetrated. First, that the self which is contemporaneously horrible is not MY self. I am a righteous, towering figure, chastising the indwelling Other with its propensity for bad behavior, and thereby separating myself from it by the infinite chasm of alterity. This serves the second deception, which is that in accusing myself, I am also excusing myself. I am not the one who does. But even if I were, I should still be pardoned, because it is not merely that I have done horrible things (probably unavoidably true), but that I am ontologically, that is essentially a person who cannot be otherwise than horrible. My excuse is my own nature, not to be contravened by the selflessness of respect for the wellbeing of others. If I am to be reproached, it is unjust, for I am not responsible for that which I cannot change--though I may, Sisyphus-like, attempt to climb against my natural incline, only to find that it is impossible: the hilltop cannot be taken. Thus absolved, I go about my life unaltered, save for a deepening illusion and the increasing self-divide.