Saturday, November 28, 2020
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Back in April, I signed up for a pen pal program that matched volunteers with seniors at risk for isolation due to COVID lockdowns. For the first few weeks I wrote letters to introduce myself and my family before I began telling her stories, usually about completely banal things like how the garden was progressing or minor childhood misadventures. I took it as a given that these letters ought to offer some kind of normalcy, even if only as a brief respite from the general feeling of doom that hovered at the edges of the world.
Eventually I got a letter back. Edith, my pen pal, couldn't write as frequently as I did but she did make it a point to write when she could. I heard about her children and grandchildren as well as her own childhood. She shared her tips for fighting off pests, be they the bees eating our peaches or the whistle pig eating our tomatoes by the pound.
There were many weeks that writing my letter to Edith was also an exercise in gratitude as I scoured the week for the good that it brought, even during the summer as my father's health declined in the weeks before his death. Edith's letters, too, were suffused with a certain optimism, even as she wrote about missing her children and grandchildren.
Yesterday, one of my letters was returned. Someone at Edith's assisted living facility had, rather bluntly, written "DECEASED - RETURN TO SENDER" across the back of the envelope. I found Edith's obituary online and learned more about my pen pal, some of which I knew, much of which I didn't.
Although I'm not writing her a letter today, I still find myself looking for the good. I'm grateful I got to know Edith, however briefly. I'm grateful our paths got to cross. And I'm grateful that during this year, when so many people felt so far away, a stranger and I became friends.
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Sunday, November 8, 2020
I'm not the world's fastest reader, but at my pace I've noticed I find a new favorite novel at least once a year. I don't necessarily mean all-time favorite. I just mean a book I'd add to my suitcase before I got dumped off on the ol' desert island.
(Why wouldn't I pack food? Why not a spear gun? Let's amend this to say "my book suitcase," and just assume I have other, separate suitcases for other important things like hunting dogs or a helicopter.)
I won't get into all the nightmare bullshit that was 2020. Between the pandemic and my father's dementia and death, along with everything else, I couldn't even begin. But I will say it was a good year for reading. To me, that's no small thing.
This year I read and loved Leigh Stein's novel Self Care. I adored Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Either one might, some other time, have edged its way into my suitcase. But the outstanding winner by a long, long ways was Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man.
My first (intentional) Isherwood was Prater Violet. I bought it specifically because it was slim, and because I'm always on the lookout for slim fiction. I don't know exactly how the publishing industry works, but doesn't it seem like a lot of books are too long by a third? Too many to be a coincidence. Somewhere there has to pressure for longer books from either publishers or readers, but it seems to bloat a lot of literature.
(The one exception to this, weirdly, is genre fiction. Somehow all those fantasies clocking in at 700 pages never seem to overstay their welcome. A smarter critic than me could probably point to why. I suspect it boils down to the story. Regardless, when I'm in the mood for a doorstop, it's horror and fantasy and science fiction I go looking for.)
So: Prater Violet. I loved the set up, and I was deeply moved by the end. But the middle was kind of just ... meh. Still, it was enough to keep me interested in Isherwood.
Some writers are jellyfish that way. You're floating along in their prose and suddenly something stings you. You may not even know exactly what it is, just that it got your attention. Isherwood was like that for me. I didn't love Prater Violet, but whatever part of it connected, it got good and under my skin.
I read The Berlin Stories next. Again, mixed feelings: I enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains. I was lukewarm on Goodbye to Berlin.
What was it, then, about A Single Man that made it resonate so much more deeply? And why did I read it now instead of leaving it on my shelf to languish with all the other impulse buys? I don't know if I could answer the latter. All I know is that it turned out to be exactly the right book at exactly the right time. During the height of the pandemic, when my entire world seemed to shrink to the size of my living room, here was this lovely, introspective narrative of a single day in the life of George Falconer, a man still deeply in grief while the world expects him to perform all the mundanities of life unchanged.
I said above that Prater Violet was my first intentional Isherwood. That's because I didn't realize, until much later, that Isherwood also translated a very popular edition of the Bhagavad Gita, the same one that I read in college. This comes back around at the end of A Single Man, which closes on a beautiful description of the ebb and flow of tide pools as a metaphor for the mystery of consciousness itself; the drop of water that returns to the ocean.
It is a novel by a writer at the height of his powers, written with a lifetime of experience, deep thought, and close attention. And it was a reminder, during a year when the walls seemed to close in, that a lifetime isn't measured by how many days it is long. It's measured by how deeply we look.
Sunday, November 1, 2020
Our street never goes all out for Halloween. There's a few houses with candy, a few with some pumpkins, but it's not the kind of neighborhood where troops of children march up and down the sidewalk without end. We might have gotten a couple fewer kids last night than we would in a normal year, but then again maybe not. We sat on the porch and waved to the kids while they picked up Halloween bags from a socially-distanced table we set up down by the sidewalk. It might not have been normal, but it was at least in the ballpark.
We don't go all out for Halloween at our house, either. There was one year when I got seized by the notion that I was going to dedicate myself to skeletons. Every year, I thought, I'd just buy a couple more skeleton decorations. Within five, maybe ten years my reputation as "The Skeleton Guy" would be secured, and families would wonder each October 31st what new additions I'd acquired.
The hiccup here was that I never actually started buying the skeletons. For one thing, a human-sized skeleton decoration isn't cheap, and I figured I had to have at least three if I was going to call it a theme. So I put it off that year, and the next, until now here I am, at a time when I should be renowned as The Skeleton Guy, without a single bone to my name.
My almost-seasonally-appropriate "A Christmas Story" was picked up by Manzano Mountain Review for their noir-themed issue. Holiday shopping for your best friend is always tough, even if you stole what you're giving. But when your friend doesn't quite trust your motives, you gotta get a little creative.
"The best way to deal with people who are better than you is to ask them questions."
What I'm Reading This Week
Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure, by William Ferraiolo
What I'm Listening To
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