Friday, December 16, 2011

Deem True

Every time my dad and I attempt to talk, in our feebly literary ways, about literature, we reach a standoff. My dad says, “I don’t like fiction,” at which point I start reminding him of the fiction I know he has loved—Alistair MacLeod’s Island, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Hemingway's stories.
“But that’s not fiction,” he says. My dad is a carpenter and farmer who lives on the land where he was born.
“Yes, it is fiction!” I say, exacerbated by this old run-around. “All of those ‘I’s’ in Island are not actually Alistair MacLeod! How many different mothers do you think he had?”
“But I still don’t consider it fiction,” he says, stubbornly. “Because he’s capturing a real time and place.”
Okay. Now we have reached a platform of rational discussion. For we agree, deeply, on this matter. We both like literature, “fiction” or “non,” that captures what we consider to be a “real” time and place. Is this a failure of imagination on our part? Or because we feel discomfort in realms outside of the “real?” We are both earth signs. Both inextricably attached to the ground where we were born and raised (which happens to be the same, knobby, rock-laden ground). We both tend towards the pragmatic side of things. So are we suppressing the capacity of fiction, to create worlds unknown and unreal, and limiting the craft the service of documentary-like exactitude?
If there is one thing my thirties has taught me, it is to cherish who you are. And with that comes cherishing your particular tastes and preferences. Later in the conversation my dad asks me what the latest trends in literature are, and I confess I have no idea. That even though my husband and I receive The New Yorker each week I don’t always read the stories.
“Why not?” he asks. “I would think that as a fiction writer…”
I try to explain my aversion to the over-consumption of literature. Something happened to me in graduate school that was related to reading too much. It had to do with reading as a consumer rather than as a lover. I want to be swept away by the books I read, rather than marking them off some grand checklist, as some birders travel to the Galapagos and Sanibel merely in order to check a few birds off their list. I also have a sudden aversion to filling the crevices of my brain with the mediocre. By this, I mean my take on mediocre. Which, admittedly, I find many of the stories in The New Yorker to be. Astoundingly crafted? Yes. Each sentence a gem? Undoubtedly so. But is it a story or situation that moves me deeply, within which I feel the reverberations of necessity? Often, no.
Necessity. I am a broken record in my correspondences with friends regarding this word and literature. It’s something I feel I can sniff out almost immediately in a piece, often in the first paragraph. Did the author need to write this story? Or were he/she just toying around? Another way to put it might be: was it divinely inspired, or come from the narrow caverns of a very clever and adept mind? I want the wind of inspiration and the dark ravines of necessity rifting through what I read, and if I don’t find them there, well, then, I guess I’d rather be out taking a walk than reading a book. A lot to ask? Yes. Hard to achieve? Near impossible. But I’d rather read a few astoundingly beautiful books in my life than a million okay ones. I want literature to rest in the highest branches of that nearly unachievable ideal, rather than in the pedestrian realm of the achievable everyday.
And what does this—necessity, or divine inspiration—have to do with the rendering of a “real time and place?” They almost sound like polar opposites: holy imagination versus pedantic realism. Call me crazy, but almost all of the most stunning works of fiction that I’ve read, the ones that do feel most necessary, happen to be linked with a very real time and place. I can’t help but think, always, of that abandoned villa in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I think of the smoke-filled houses and the gray oceans of Alistair MacLeod’s Island. I think of the snow-dusted fields of Anna Karennina. I think of the rooms and rivers and boats of French colonial Vietnam in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. I think of Flannery O’Connor’s dust and peacock filled farmyards. I think of Robert Olmstead’s renderings of rural Vermont and New Hampshire in River Dogs. These books contain mythic beauty, the kind that transcends the clutter of the everyday, the kind that changes the way I see the world around me and the way I face the trials I encounter. They change the very light outside my door. They change the way I walk, and the way I see. They turn the “real” into something that, rather than wanting to escape, I want to pay deep attention to. They make me see and cherish the moment and the things very present outside my door. They make me feel deeply and almost breathtakingly alive. And they do so by lovingly rendering the artifacts of the very real.
Time and place. I don’t conceive of humans without them. I can’t see or recognize a life without the context of them. Am I nearly alone in this? Maybe. Am I owning it with pride? Yes. Don’t just give me a snapshot of landscape in order to tell me where my character lives. Show me how a life entwines with a place over time. Show me the smallness of my human trials in the context of something larger and more lasting, be it history or land. Show me how we can and might and do weave our lives together with the light and the trees and streets and the highways of our particular places in order to find more meaning, more depth, more universality, more contentment, more stillness, more beauty. Show me how one lives a good life. Show me how to see. Show me how to step out of the narrow confines of myself through noticing, or touching, or digging my hands into, or smelling the world around me. Show me how we are shaped by history (wars, natural disasters, tragedies) and how we are shaped by land (streets, horizons, climates). Show me how to love in the face of loss. Show me how to grow old through time. Show me what the horizon can teach me. Show me how time changes everything, and nothing, too.
Because books are our teachers. They can entertain, yes. But mostly they are our teachers. And I want the arrow of that lesson aimed at true. Which is, admittedly, not really fiction. It is truth. Expressed through story, containing the body of real time and place, in order that we may transcend the limited boundaries of our interior minds.
And so my dad and I agree, entirely, after all. Our squabbles are mere linguistics. I will keep writing what I call fiction. And he will keep telling me he doesn’t like fiction. And I will keep aspiring to write something, for both his sake and mine, expanded by time and place, that we both deem true.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I spent the morning in my mother’s kitchen with canning gear, a large bag full of Bosc pears, fresh ginger, lemon, and Liana Krissoff’s book Canning for a New Generation. NPR was on (as it always is in that house), the wood cook stove was blazing, a tea-kettle simmered, and my parents’ dog Sadie lay sprawled on the floor. Outside it rained (the rain I predicted yesterday, yes, melting the thin membrane of white snow) and the last leaves fluttered off the trees. Chickadees scurried to and from the feeders.

I filled my mother’s large hot-water-bath pan, peeled pears, and grated ginger. I zested lemons and listened to the talk radio shows and sterilized my Ball canning jars and put the brew on the stove to simmer.

Before I continue, I need to say this: I love my house. I have the most beautiful kitchen that I could possibly imagine, salvaged and/or built by my husband’s hands from wood cut off this land.

But I loved, this morning, cooking in my mother’s kitchen. I loved the smell of the wood counters, seasoned with years of onion and garlic and lemon and spice. I loved its cluttered disarray, its dusty houseplants that always look on the verge of dying but somehow never do (is it because each time I go there I sneak them cups of water?). I loved the wooden crates of ripening tomatoes stored near the door and the ticking of the old-fashioned clock and the radiant heat from the antique, Stanley wood stove and the permeated smell of wood-smoke.

It is the first house I knew, the house where I was born (in the Southeast corner of the living room), the house where I first learned to cook, the house where I began to write, and the first house that I ever considered, very much, my own. I haven’t ever grieved the loss of that house, but I felt that grief this morning, and the gift of returning--to its old shapes and smells and sounds, to being alone there in my labor, to slipping, for a few hours, into the shell of the girl and young woman who once lived and grew and came to know herself there within those walls.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


5:30 AM and I rise, unable to sleep. What a lovely watch to keep. I’m thinking about the story I read last night: Paul Yoon’s “The Woodcutter’s Daughter,” about his glimmering fictional island off the southern coast of South Korea, and about how tender both good love and good fiction are. I’m thinking about my daughter, asleep in the room adjacent to mine, and with what passion she lives and breathes, and how helpless I am in the face of that passion—how it is hers alone to own. I’m thinking of T, asleep for a few moments longer, and the arcs of melody that must weave their way through his dreams. I’m thinking of this small one inside me, size, I am told, of a turnip, and how I cannot wait to know its name, its shape, the color of its eyes, its yearnings. Thinking, also, how I cannot imagine being mother to anything more than I am already, for having the capacity to give, or love, more. And so I think about how it will rain tomorrow, or the next day, melting the thin membrane of white snow that covers the earth and grass and trees and gardens outside our door. I think about the things I will make today: bread, preserves, soup. The thing I wish I could make today: a new story. I think about how the light settles so beautifully on these hills in December, how the sky weaves itself between leafless trees, how our bodies settle willingly into winter. I think about gratitude, which is everything and of which there is never enough. And then I hear a rustling, and footsteps. Terry Tempest Williams’ mother told her, before she died, that she had never had enough solitude in her life. It’s a line and a sentiment I’ll never forget. Gratitude and solitude and love—the great weaving. The footsteps approach. A sliver of light rises from between the pines in the east. Hello you. Hello light. Hello world. And me? Until tomorrow’s restless morning.

Today's Menu

Reading: "Canning for a New Generation" by Liana Krissoff

Making: Pear and Ginger Preserves/Pear, Clementine and Pecan Conserve/& Honeyed Fig Jam with Sesame Seeds

Thinking: This is the last thing I purchased before our "buy no new" year began on July 1st. It is a rockin' collection of delicious, eclectic recipes for year-round preserving that manages to both honor the tradition of canning and upend my notions of what it means to stand over that steaming hot water bath with thick rubber gloves on. Yes, industrious. Also: artful and fun.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Once the Shore by Paul Yoon

Drinking: Ginger tea (and wanting a strong cup of joe)

Thinking: In the last few months I'd almost become disillusioned by fiction. It had been so long since I'd read something I found astoundingly beautiful. Which is what I want when I read: to be astounded. And then I read the first page of the first story in this book (which I had picked up, second hand, on a whim in order to fulfill a free shipping quota), and felt my world expand in the way I am always, when reading, looking for it to expand. The sentences blew wind through my mind with their beauty. Like this one, from page 1:

At this, she laughed quietly and almost at once grew silent and looked out toward the distant hills and the coast where, long after sunset, the East China Sea lay undulant, its surface of silver reflections folding over one another like the linking of fingers.
I heard Hemingway in that sentence, but also Alistair MacLeod, whose book Island remains one of my all-time favorites. I felt myself fully immersed in a vividly rendered landscape which I have never known (nor imagined). I found its layers of history rendered three-dimensional through voice and flesh and imagery and emotion. And isn't this what I'm after? What I'm always after? Beauty linked with history linked with place linked with heart and emotion? Yes!
Before I go, one more sentence to offer you in the hopes that you will someday read this book, too:

And Bev bathed in the luminous dark of the coast, scrubbing his back and soaking his hair and beard. He stood upright to clean his chest. In his sadness he opened his mouth up toward the metallic stars and waited for one to fall.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


It’s the name we fall in love with first. It sounds like November leaves, scuttling across dry earth. It sounds like “love” and it sounds like “milk” and it sounds bold, too, like it could contain the multitudes of a soul that will surely need to break out of any and all seams. That's all we know: that we can’t settle on any other; that it’s the one that keeps ringing in our ears; that it seems to have (already) slipped a taproot down into our tawny earth. It’s a first name and a middle and a last. It sounds right both indoors and out, accommodates wood, seasons, light. It is not gaudy. Does not need a paint job. Reverberates on the lips and on the tongue. Name: the glass light filters through, the vessel a spirit fills. Through it we begin to imagine him, her, it—heart beating, lungs wailing. We begin to feel the beam of light coursing from that one millennial, astronomical, tender, suckling, needy, milky source that will utterly change our lives forever. And so we say it, but try not to say it too often. We slip it into our pockets. Take it for walks. Whisper it to each other at night. Name. Name. Name. Hear it? Name. Isn't it a beauty?