A few days in March, 2023
There’s a black and white cat curled up on my lap; I arch my hands over her to reach the computer keyboard. We both like the creaturely contact. Outside, the wind is rattling tree branches; inside, the drafts are rattling my blinds. I’m wearing about six layers: two long-sleeved shirts, a fleece vest, a thick hoodie with a zip front, and a heavy ribbed cardigan. Yes, I have central heat but ever since the war in Ukraine the price of oil has been punishingly high.
Ukraine. It’s been more than a year and I’m struggling to remain optimistic about the outcome. What should one obsess about more: this conflict; or climate change; or the alarmingly high rate of deaths from drug overdoses in Maine? The wave of support for book banning? How does one proceed with daily life? When asked 10 years from now how we spent our time, will we be ashamed to answer? Can one steal pockets of time to read or write without feeling like a monster? Without some kind of plan, I’m mad or sad all the time. Donating to causes I believe in helps, but only a little. It also helps that my day job involves improving walkability in my town, and organizing the opening of a farmers’ market this summer. Think global, act local, right?
My other haphazard personal solution is to read 3 books concurrently, at different times of day. (I like to read while eating…)
Mornings: something to get my brain cells stimulated, but not outraged. Middle of the day, a mildly provocative, data-driven primer on how to be an effective activist for climate change; evenings, how-to nonfiction that slowly lulls me to sleep with dreams of writing that sensational memoir.
Critic/novelist James Wood makes it easy to start my day on a positive, if not almost ecstatic note. I can’t speak highly enough of his 2019 collection, Serious Noticing, which I have just discovered. And of course, from a few years back, How Fiction Works. If your faith in the value of fiction is wavering in these perilous times, Wood’s your man. He loves to quote writers quoting writers, and here I’ll quote him quoting one writer, about yet a third one:
Flaubert told Maupassant that ‘talent is a slow patience’ and that ‘there is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown. We must find it.’
Then, after a few hours of my day job, it’s lunch time with Andrew Boyd’s I Want A Better Catastrophe (Navigating the Climate Crisis with Grief, Hope and Gallows Humor). ( In this context, I can’t resist mentioning that the failure of the Silicon Valley Bank last week will be a real blow to start-ups concerned with climate crisis solutions—SVB was one of their primary sources of funding, according to the New York Times.)
Finally, (and not soon enough), it’s bedtime with Mary Karr and her magnificently readable The Art of Memoir. If any tome of hot tips and deep wisdom will help me shape my memoir of a girlhood in Greenwich Village, Mary Karr’s will finally be the one. But wait. There’s still some time for quality fiction. What to choose from the pile of unread aspirational books on my night table?
I’m still in fiction recovery mode after finally finishing Middlemarch (“ …to end his stricken life in that sad refuge, the indifference of new faces.”) so I am slowly dipping my eyeballs back in with There, There by Tommy Orange. One can hardly imagine a writer less like George Eliot than Tommy Orange; I wanted a shock to my system, and I’m getting it. A palate cleanser. I won’t deny that There, There is tough going, but for very different reasons. With Eliot, it was too often I do not care about this conflict at all, or these characters; with Orange, it’s How can white people (us, me) live with the knowledge of how this land was brutally wrenched from the original inhabitants, how can they/we have suppressed for so long the knowledge of the genocides, the cruelty? The ongoing exploitation and degradation? It’s simple: mostly, it’s a fairy tale that’s been taught in our schools, that until very recently has been ghoulishly celebrated over and over again in films as a triumph of Westward expansion, of “civilization.” And now, finally, the culture wars are desperately escalating even as the real history of our nation seeps gradually upward towards purifying daylight. And truth will win out. This I believe. I do believe some kind of forgiveness and reconciliation is possible. In my own private Middlemarch, my town of Millinocket, Maine, there is a vibrant Indigenous cultural renaissance taking place before my very eyes. Night of the Living Rez, written by Morgan Talty, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation ( a local homeboy) and now creative writing professor, has walked away with a slew of prestigious prizes for debut fiction and if we’re lucky Talty will accept our invitation to hold an author event at the town’s library. (A very interesting note to aspiring authors—I watched an interview with Talty where he described how he sent his collection of linked stories around and kept resisting publishers’ suggestions to turn it into a novel. Indie publisher Tin House eventually published it exactly as he wanted it.)
This morning I read Joy William’s long review in Harper’s of Cormac McCarthy’s two latest novels, Stella Maris and The Passenger. He may be a genius, but perhaps one of the few advantages of being an adult in 2023 is I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to, and I don’t want to read Cormac McCarthy. I want to know he’s out there, like sink holes and dead end streets, but I’m not taking what he’s offering, thank you very much. In this case, ignorance is definitely bliss. I want knowledge that leads to healing, not nihilism. Chacun á son goût.
After finishing the (to me) dispiriting piece on Cormac McCarthy, my mind wandered to the subject of fathers, and stepfathers, searching for some shred of positivity— and then this happened:
Stepfather (dedicated to Mary Karr)
We were proud members of The Columbia House Record Club (33 1/3, LP), circa 1956. And yes we had the low stereo in the “walnut” cabinet. Amazing symbols of our newfound— if fragile—prosperity. My stepfather (source of this new stability) and mother slept on a double bed in the living room opposite the stereo. I’d scatter the records on the bed and choose one at random to play at dinnertime, based on the cover illustration. Often it was something by Tchaikovsky; usually the album touted Greatest Hits and you rarely got an entire work.
The neighborhood was Chelsea, in NYC, near the elegant 1920’s London Terrace apartment complex, which had a supermarket on the street level. I always prayed my mother would choose the cube steak—pounded into tenderness with a butcher’s weird hammer that left little tic-tac-toe squares all over it—and sometimes she did, gliding right past the ugly shrink-wrapped squares of hamburger meat. Oh how my heart exulted on those days.
I had my very own bedroom, down a short hallway—so much privacy! Our modest, undistinguished building had a small lobby with a little vase of dried flowers, like a 3-D Matisse, but no doorman. Also, no cockroaches. In my room was a small corner wall shelf that held my collection of miniature glass and porcelain animals. The palomino pony and the Dalmatian puppies were my favorites. I had not yet read The Glass Menagerie, and anyway I did not have a limp, just tiny fragile animals. What I did have was a very flat chest. My closet door had a full length mirror, and I’d stand in front of it, blouse off, scrutinizing my rib cage for signs of promising swelling. Progress was excruciatingly slow. Masses of Kleenex were marshalled into service to fill out even the most elementary “training bras.” (Yes, they were really called that.) I liked my stepfather; he was tall, with deeply etched lines around his lips and eyes—kind of a Gary Cooper type. All I knew about him was that he was, according to my mother, a “mathematician,” by which maybe she meant an accountant. I doubt he was an academic. That he and my mother were married (I had been their flower girl at age 12) meant No More Embarrassing Boyfriends! Add to that the elevator and the Columbia House Record Club and my own room, and life felt almost normal for the first time I could remember.
When my mother died of lung cancer at age 70, she and mild-mannered Jack Steckley were still married, although he had disappeared somewhere in Mexico and she hadn’t seen him for more than 20 years. I can still see his shy smile, hiding slightly crooked teeth, as we ate our cube steak and listened to one of Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninoff’s Greatest Hits.
Morning. How did a ladybug get into my kitchen? Why do I feel happy when I see one? “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are gone…”
I have a strong need to release it into the outside. Grabbing a long-handled wooden spoon, I gently keep putting the spoon in front of her as she wildly traverses the cold pane above the kitchen sink. Finally, she crawls into the cusp of the spoon. I walk slowly into the living room and with a mighty tug, I raise the unlocked window wide, gasping as the cold air hits me. I stick the wooden spoon out into the Maine morning and shake it a few times. The ladybug flies free, papery black wings flapping. Alive. We both are.
Exhaling deeply, I close the window and begin my day.
Photo provided by the author.