Shelter and place

Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing truly luminous readings from an incredible line-up of California poets: Dana Gioia, Garret Hongo, Robin Coste Lewis, Luis J. Rodriguez, David St. John, and Gail Wronsky. Cartography of Poets, a virtual poetry event presented by Visions and Voices at USC, centered around the ways history and place shape the poetic experience. The idea that writers and their work are shaped by their environments is certainly not groundbreaking — what would Henry David Thoreau be without Walden Pond? — but this event got me thinking about things in a more contemporary, more personal way.

Fires are still raging in the West. California is on fire, breaking records and breaking apart lives. Amidst this landscape, this small reflection by Dana Gioia reminded me of the beauty of our summers:

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
. . .
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain—
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

from “CALIFORNIA HILLS IN AUGUST”
by DANA GIOIA

We continue to shelter in place, and meanwhile, I am contemplating shelter and place, and the way we inhabit both those spaces. Our shelters — the homes we have been confined to and seek succor in. Our places — the solidarity of New York on 9/11, the orange glow of San Francisco’s skies, the hazy rain of ash in Los Angeles, and the ways we shape and are shaped by them. I think of how we are all nesting, all trying to make our homes work better for us — dining rooms becoming offices, offices becoming playrooms, kitchen tables becoming classrooms — and how beautiful the adaptability of the human spirit really is. The way we keep working, toiling, and finding joy in between.

I put up new lamps this week that I love. Something to bring a small joy in a small way. I think I am puttering, not doing much of import, and yet my friend exclaims over how productive I have been. And I think, well yes, I suppose I have. To shelter and find small joys is no small thing, today, yesterday, or tomorrow. I am here in this place, California sunshine streaming through my windows, and I think, I am lucky. I am of this place, I have shelter, and I am learning to find joy.

This American life is killing ̶y̶o̶u̶ us

Reflection, 2020, Charla M. DelaCuadra

Back in February, when I was mulling over my own stress levels and what I wanted my future to look like, Eric Rittenberry’s essay The American Life is Killing You landed in my lap like a call to action.

“The reason you don’t feel alive is because you aren’t alive. You’re merely going through the motions in a fast-paced, consumer-centered culture that has transformed our once beautiful land into an asphalt wasteland strewed with digital billboards, fast food joints, soulless malls, and complete carnage… Your constant craving for objects and status (the American way) has robbed your life of its freedom and creative zest. You live routine and stressed and you’re chained to a sluggish and predictable way of living.”

“Yes!” I thought. This is me. 100 times this. Somehow I had begun throwing money at problems trying to make life more bearable, rather than making any fundamental changes to fix what was making it unbearable. Why hadn’t I seen this before? It seemed so obvious! Was it too obvious?

“You have to unplug from the machine and take back your life and learn to live with less and sit under trees and read the great minds and create art and listen to music and sound your ‘barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.’ Quit doing things you hate to impress the faceless people among us. Decondition yourself from culture, quit suppressing your uniqueness, travel to places that frighten you a bit, learn to embrace silence and solitude a few times a week. And most importantly — you must awaken from your culturally-induced slumber and try to find simple joy among the sacred.”

I was curious this week, though, after 7 months of a pandemic and a racial inequality crisis, how this essay has held up to where we have landed. Looking back at Rittenberry’s advice now, I realize what was irking me under the surface was the inherent privilege of his message. A mandate to learn to live with less and sit under trees is very easy to throw out there, and very, very difficult for the majority of people in this country to even contemplate. I’m not sure the millions of unemployed out there right now are choosing to live with less so much as they are being forced to, and I also don’t think they have much mental bandwidth for the kind of barbaric yawp-ing he suggests. Are a lot of people blindly trying to keep up with the Joneses? Sure! But are a lot more people struggling to keep a roof overhead and meals on the table? Absolutely.

In my case, I left my job this week and have never felt freer. But I realize this is an incredibly privileged position to be in — and it was certainly not without a lot of planning, buckling down, and streamlining our finances down to just what matters. And for me, what matters is my capacity to live in a way that allows me compassion, clarity, and bandwidth to help others. Maybe we can find a way to turn inward and decondition ourselves from endless consumption, so as to free ourselves to be more kind? And maybe instead of admonishing people for their consumerism, we can look at the system that is driving that consumerism, and dismantle it. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and we are all in this together. Self-actualization, to me, is not the end point, but rather a jumping-off point towards giving others the same opportunity. And I really hope we can try.

Stumped on where to start? May I suggest an hour to yourself to decompress, and maybe a donation to the Loveland Foundation? As someone who believes strongly in therapy and mental health, their commitment to opportunity and healing to communities of color, and especially to Black women and girls, is a cause close to my heart.

Wow, No Thank You.

via samanthairby.com

Somewhere between two days and two months ago (time has basically ceased to have meaning or proper flow these days, amirite?), I had the privilege of enjoying a conversation between Samantha Irby and Jia Tolentino. My Jia fangirl status was cemented a while ago (as exhibited here and here), so it was extra fun to hear her interview an author live. And someone as hilarious as Samantha Irby? Thank you, Free Library of Philadelphia! Razor-sharp wit combined with the intimacy of a chat between friends made for a delightful listen. I hit “purchase” on Irby’s most recent book before the chat was even finished.

Wow, No Thank You is one of those books that manages to deal with racism, classism, sexism, sexual orientation, body issues, and and number of other -isms with such a deft and humorous touch that you don’t even realize it isn’t pure brain candy until after you’ve put it down for a bit. Irby is hilariously blunt, occasionally raunchy, and always painfully, amazingly observant. Why do we women feel pressured to buy cream specifically for our necks? If your family never had the privilege of owning a house, does gutter maintenance magically find it’s way into your conscience when you sign a mortgage? Are Hot Pockets and self-care really mutually exclusive? Why waste energy on that person who hates you, when they realistically would add nothing of value to your life even if they did like you? Can anyone utter the phrase, “are you familiar with my work?” without feeling painfully awkward about it? Questions and answers to laugh at and ponder and nod along with abound in this collection of laugh-out-loud essays. Irby also provides an excellent annotated playlist, for those of you hungry for late 1900s nostalgia mixed with a heretofore unmatched level of hilarity.

In a nutshell, Samantha Irby is one funny lady, and you should buy her book immediately. “Because we live in a fiery hellscape,” to quote her directly, and we need all the clever hilarity we can get. And this hilarity even comes with a dose or three of contemporary awareness, so you can feel virtuous while you indulge. You’re welcome, and enjoy.

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Everything I Never Told You

ng_everything_coverIn Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, the story of the Lee family unfolds like the petals of a flower.  Lydia is dead, that we know, and the story of her family, their grief, and their undoing unfurls slowly, with pathos and grit alike.  Chapters from Lydia’s own childhood, her parents as young people, her siblings and their own lives — all of these are twined inexorably together, as all families’ are.  Ng pulls together the experience of being an outsider deftly with a multi-layered coming-of-age story that resonated with me deeply.  There was not a single character I wasn’t rooting for by the end.

We all have inner lives, and we all carry wounds that make us fragile, even if they are invisible to the naked eye.  The saga of the Lee family brings that home with quiet power, drawing us through a gripping page-turner of a story that sears, comforts, and ultimately shows how even the darkest hours can led us to a semblance of redemption.  Highly recommend.

 

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Friday links

acs_0197

Happy Friday everyone!  We made it!  I just had to share some really excellent links from this week — happy reading and please enjoy.

Why you should rescue a dog.  This will make you teary at the very least.  Maybe make you sob.  But in a good way.

Women are still being punished for being unapologetically competent.  If we don’t apologize for being good at what we do, we get punished.  Elizabeth Warren is only the most recent.  Bonus: a poem on this topic by the ever-amazing Kate Baer.

Coronavirus advice for kids (and all of us!)

It’s going, my friend.  Yes! Exactly.

So so happy for Henry James Garrett for getting his book published!  I cannot wait to read this book on empathy and kindness.  Also, if you are not following him and his delightful comics on Instagram yet, here you go, and you’re welcome.

Hope you have a lovely weekend!

 

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The Grace Year

I preordered Kim Liggett’s new novel The Grace Year as soon as I could, and was riveted the moment I had it in hand to devour.  There is simply no other way to consume this book — heart in hand, fully devouring this tale of girlhood and womanhood.  Liggett’s speculative fiction expertly weaves a world where women have no power or agency, save the magic they must be rid of in their sixteenth year, the grace year.  the_grace_year_coverIt is a survival story, a modern fairy tale, a coming-of-age, a resistance manifesto, and a terrifying horror yarn all at the same time, deftly told and hauntingly realized.  I could not put it down.

There are so many ways that women and girls tear each other apart and lift each other up by turns, and this novel  explores those dynamics in interesting ways.  What does power come to mean when you are entirely deprived of it?  How do we define ourselves within the rhythms of family, society, friendships, and love?  What does that mean for our self-hood?  How can we push for meaningful change?  All of these are questions I turned over in my mind as this story unfolded.

Besides a fascinating macro look at a society described by some as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, I thoroughly appreciated Liggett’s attention to small details.  The language of flowers in particular made for a beautiful leitmotif, further strengthening her world-building.  Flowers make for a common language, but they also prove to be a perfect metaphor for the girls themselves.  Fragile, beautiful, unique, prized, just as easily crushed as admired — the Grace Year girls and their story will haunt you long after Liggett’s last page.

 

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Optimized?

At this point I think it is safe to say I have become a total Jia Tolentino fangirl.  (Jia, you’re amazing!)  Her articles are thought-provoking and so on-point, I can’t help but share another.

jia_tolentino_guardian_optimized

A couple weeks ago her essay Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman was published in The Guardian, and I have been thinking about it ever since.  I highly recommend taking a few minutes out of your day to read and ruminate.

“Figuring out how to “get better” at being a woman is a ridiculous and often amoral project – a subset of the larger, equally ridiculous, equally amoral project of learning to get better at life under accelerated capitalism. In these pursuits, most pleasures end up being traps, and every public-facing demand escalates in perpetuity. Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach.”

–Jia Tolentino

With the expectations of womanhood becoming more insane at every turn, in this era of Instagram and curated feeds and “lifestyle” branding, have we optimized ourselves out of the possibility for genuine contentment?  I myself find it very difficult to feel satisfied and contented, but perhaps it has less to do with any personal failings to “choose happiness” and much more to do with the insidious all-encompassing hamster wheel society has convinced us is necessary.  And at the particularly insidious intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, it becomes even harder.

If capitalism didn’t ingrain in us that we always need more, better, pricier things to signify success, or if the patriarchy didn’t force us to gauge our worth by our attractiveness, youthfulness, and willingness to accommodate, aka our “fuckability”… what then?  Tolentino is correct, I think, that the ultimate question is to ask what we ourselves really want, whether within or despite the systems we live in.  What will make us content?  What will let us feel whole and happy?  Perhaps that becomes the most difficult thing of all —  to find out what our own real desires are, rather than simply wanting to be desired, admired, and optimized.

 

 

Summertime, an’ the livin’ is easy

I’m not quite ready for summer to end yet!  Breezy neutrals are still on my mind — rattan, wood, linen, and all the rest.  If you’re still feeling as summery as I am, here are a few reading nook chair/table/lamp combos to curl up in and relax over the long weekend, drink in hand.

chair / table / lamp

chair / table / lamp

chair / table / lamp

chair / table / lamp

Eclectic, light, and easy, these pieces will give a relaxing vibe to your home all year long.  And if you need any reading suggestions for the weekend, might I suggest this or this?  Kick back and enjoy!

Three Women

three_women_coverWhile on vacation this summer I read Lisa Taddeo’s new book, Three Women.  To say it was arresting would be an understatement.  It is a striking non-fiction work about women and desire, women and sex, but most of all, women and loneliness.

Taddeo spent eight years researching this book, covering the lives of women across the U.S. in their most intimate spaces.  The result is a portrait of three women in very different places in life, but all desirous, lonely, empty and fulfilled by turns.  Lina pulls away from a loveless marriage and begins an affair with her high school sweetheart.  Maggie endures a statutory rape trial while mentally reliving the relationship she shared with her high school teacher.  Sloane is a happily married woman whose husband enjoys choosing other men for her to sleep with.  All of their swirls of emotion are painfully familiar despite their varied situations: an ache for acceptance, a reckoning with the past, isolated loneliness and attempts to escape it, lusty desire, self-doubt and self-examination in equal measure.  Taddeo does a masterful job of creating something far beyond journalism; she paints the lives of these women in a way that is both personal and universal, and she makes sure to give each agency over her own story in the process.

Three Women is a must-read.  Add it to your summer reading list if you haven’t already, and prepare for a book that will affect you profoundly.

 

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Xenogenesis

lilliths_brood_cover_artI recently finished reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and just had to share.  Published under the collection title Lilith’s Brood since 2000, it is made up of three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.  Butler is an excellent storyteller, with a “hard science fiction” bent in this trilogy that is satisfying as well as thought-provoking.

The series takes place in an interesting sort of dystopian future, where humans have destroyed Earth and each other almost completely.  An alien race steps in to save what is left, hoping to trade genetic material to ensure the survival of both humanity and themselves.  The aliens believe humankind, if left unaltered, contain a “Contradiction” between their high intelligence and their hierarchical nature that will lead to eventual demise in every scenario, as was already proven by our destruction.  A fascinating thought to consider, isn’t it?

While my own personal prose style preference strays closer to that of Amor Towles, thematically Butler does a masterful job of exploring sexuality, race, species, gender, and humanity — deftly and also in an entirely un-preachy way.  While decades old at this point, Lilith’s Brood is almost frighteningly relevant to us today.  Are we doomed to obliterate ourselves without some kind of outside intervention?  Can our intelligence outweigh our hierarchical strivings?  Is our stubbornness a boon or a hindrance?  It may be that history will have to play itself out before we can answer these questions, but Butler gives us a powerful nudge to think about these things sooner than later — all tied up in an engaging alien-encounter package.

Octavia Butler cover art by John Jude Palancar.
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