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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Secret spaces

I love the website apartment therapy. On days when my own house is not just cozily cluttered and lived in, but is covered in oily fingerprints, and there’s urine sprayed on the bathroom floor and there’s a smell that comes and goes but whose source cannot be determined, I sometimes sit down at my computer and scroll through images on this virtual confection of a design website. Every room they feature is well lit, perfectly accessorized, and utterly escapist. I know the rooms are real, in that they physically exist, but the world they conjure is delightfully fantastical.

A recent post’s theme was “Kids’ closets used as reading nooks” and it was predictably appealing. The closet nooks were full of squashy pillows, and gallery walls of artworks in a restrained color scheme, and a pristine pallet on the floor. As with many images on apartment therapy, many of the examples of closet reading nooks allowed me to revel in the beauty while feeling pleasantly smug and derisive. The images hint at, or outright blurt out, all the worst things about a precious, upper middle-class American childhood these days. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these images, trying to figure out what exactly was bothering me.

The first thing was a photo of a little girl reading on her pristine pallet under a framed picture reading “Mama Loves You.” Granted, this child is quite young, and at that age would not have an expansive life outside her small, home-playground-library story hour, sphere. But the placement of that picture, beaming sunshiny supervision down on the child’s head even whilst in her private nook seemed to emphasize surveillance. Mother as Big Brother, choosing the books, the paint, the pillows in fabrics that are just the perfect subtly zany mix match.

Photo: apartmenttherapy.com

 A reading nook via apartmenttherapy.com

In the written copy for this post, I came across this: “You can keep the door to make a secret reading hideaway.” You cannot. When you build and decorate your child a designated reading nook, you may be providing them with a cozy space, a beautiful setting, and the much needed message that reading matters in this house. But you cannot make it a secret. My kids are not babies anymore, and we’ve been through the earliest phases of childhood where the sequential separations between mother and child begin. The cords were cut. They moved from sleeping in my bed, where I contorted protectively around them, into cribs in a separate room. They weaned, they learned to walk, they learned defiance and strong opinions. They went to school. As they get older, the physical separations shift to internal ones. The school age child begins answering, “What did you do today?” with, “nothing.” You find out from some other mother that your kid had some playground altercation and didn’t tell you.

The fantasy that a designated closet nook could ever be “secret” may be part of the desire to keep kids safe, to control their environments. And kids do love secret spaces. They like claustrophobic, dark little cubby holes. These closet reading nooks are cute, but they’re not secret, and to a kid, they’re not even all that nook-like.

I had a secret reading nook when I was young, and it was a corner of the closet I shared with two of my sisters, so it was jammed with stuff. I had to shimmy under the lowest row of clothes, wedge myself behind the hangers and shove aside a pile of shoes. It was almost too dark to read there, and it smelled like winter boots stowed away for the season while still snow and sweat soaked. I only went in there if I knew no one could see me climb in, and if someone called for me while I was in there, I wouldn’t answer for fear of giving away the spot. It was dingy and dim and secret.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn't photograph well? Now that's a nook.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn’t photograph well? Now that’s a nook.

Being one of five children, I often sought my escape outside the house. We didn’t have a treehouse or playhouse, or any adult-built, adult-approved play place. My favorite place to go was a medium sized pine tree where I had laid a plank across two branches to make a sap-covered, grubby seat. I would sit there after school and read or look out over the lake down the hill. It was nothing much, and would make a very poor feature photo for apartment therapy. But apartment therapy is for grown-ups. The things kids like are gross.

For now, I know where my kids’ “secret” places are. At ages six and four, they play out in the woods by themselves a lot but they still excitedly volunteer instructions on how to cross the fallen hemlock tree to get to a tussock in the middle of the swamp. I know they climb around in the unfinished, unheated crawl space under the eaves in our house. It’s dark in there, and it’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. There’s certainly no pallet in there, but there is some exposed insulation and nails sticking out in unpredictable places. It’s unattractive and fairly uncomfortable, and it’s what kids like. These places are still not really a secret, but they’re outside the realm of adult decor and aesthetics. They’re a little bit risky, and if kids aren’t allowed to go there, to push out from their safe orbits, to do stupid things by themselves, then I fear they’ll grow up to be the sorts of people who are too nervous to crawl through a tight spot, or to quell their panic and push on through a dark place and see what’s on the other side. Because much as I love a well designed room, the world is not a lovely, purpose built nook.  It’s less brightly lit, but much more beautiful.

 

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Last month, I was listening to one of the fluffy, human interest stories my NPR station regularly puts on. This one was on “Past Loves Day,” a day (September 17th) apparently designated to immerse oneself in the poignant nostalgia of all those loves lost or given up. It’s all very cheeseball and hokey, but it got me thinking of my own lack of past loves. I don’t actually have any. I did have a middle school “boyfriend” but that consisted mainly of making out behind the tennis courts after school. We were twelve, and I don’t think that counts. By fourteen, I was with Christophe, and we cleaved to each other then, never yet to part, almost nineteen years later. I think that one counts.

Sometimes, when people find this out, they gape, open mouthed, and say something like, “You never broke up? Never saw anyone else? Even for a little bit?” We did not. So I thought about this foolish Past Loves Day, and also about the less foolish premise underlying it: that these relationships enrich a life, open new avenues of understanding, and broaden a person’s horizons. I don’t feel particularly limited, constrained, or hemmed in by their lack, and the reason is clear: I was an English major.

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

When I started college, I had no idea what I would want to do for a job after graduating. I didn’t know if I would go to grad school, and if so, what for? My interests skittered and bounced around from ecology to poetry to history to chemistry. I flirted with several possible courses of study, and settled upon one of the most maligned. English majors, in our ramshackle falling-down Bartlett Hall, with our poetry nights and English Society meetings in a dusty room on the second floor, were derided and mocked by fellow students and by, I suppose, well meaning persons who asked, “And what will you do with that?” No one in the Engineering program was asked such a thing, nor the cynical business majors, though I think the question might be equally appropriate for many of them. “Why study the humanities,” much of the world seemed to sneer, “So you can use proper grammar while you’re serving me my coffee?”

I don’t remember how I used to answer these questions then, but my answer now is clear. I studied the humanities to become human. I’ve just finished reading Mark Edmundson’s collection of essays Why Teach? and his piece on English majors is what, if I ‘d had it then, I would have xeroxed and handed out to anyone who asked me any iteration of that derisive question, “what are you going to do with that?” Edmundson has this to say about our ever dwindling tribe,

The English major is, first of all, a reader. […] But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves–they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay–to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.

Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, of plays, and of poetry, alters the mind like nothing else can. I’ve seen movies that have stayed with me and affected me profoundly. I’ve read history, ecology and other sciences that have made me understand the world and its human and non-human machinery as I had never done before. But reading as an English major reads, that alters, to use an unfashionable term, the soul. The images from movies sometimes play across my mind again, but it’s as if they’re still on a screen. Two dimensional, in the lighting and the mood created by the director. The images I carry from books are indistinguishable from my own memory. Just as dreams feel real, like a true, though bizarre memory, so do all the books in my mind. The woodshed where Sethe sawed into her daughter’s neck is dim and dusty and conjurable as my own shed. Dickens’ London, grimy, grim and cast all in grays is vividly real to me, as are the fetid, squalid St. Petersburg rooms where Raskolnikov crouches like a rat in Crime and Punishment.

And if the places are real as my own memories, no less so are the interior lives of the characters. Our society may be coming around to an understanding of how this works; a study out this month points specifically to the reading of literary fiction as fostering empathy (as compared to the reading of non-fiction or of less highbrow sorts of novels and stories.) How does it do this (and I assure you, it does) and what’s it going to mean if English majors go extinct (as appears to be the trend)?

When I read Beloved, I had no children. The idea of killing my own child was all at once abhorrent, fascinating but largely academic. Was Sethe mentally ill? Was she accountable? Was she right, that they’d be better off dead? We would discuss it, write about it, read what other smart people had to say about it, and then move on to another book. But books stay with you, and Beloved may have been submerged in my mind for many years, until I had children, and they had physical bodies, and I watched them sleep and imagined my hands grabbing their slender ankles and swinging them headfirst into a wall, or laying the points of a sawblade against their necks and beginning to pull. Less a question of “was it justifiable?” it had become, “could I do it, and what would it take to drive me there?” I am white, privileged, living in the 21st century, with considerable comforts and assurances, and luxuries, but can I surmount all that and fly to that woodshed with her and look for what tools I can find? I can.

I went on from my English degree to become a veterinarian, and thence to teach biology. I am now making my living off the sciences, smiled upon by the current mania for STEM education. I love biology; it is endlessly fascinating, endlessly amazing, and evolutionary theory is one of the most elegant and beautiful overarching ways of understanding the world that there could ever be. I think I’m pretty good at teaching it, and I hope to become excellent with time. I am glad of my advanced education in science. But I am far more grateful for my English degree. It made me human. I hope the beginnings of this appreciation for English majors starts to turn the tide. That we become viewed not as snobs with a rareified and irrelevant skill set, but as just the opposite: people with an unusual ability to inhabit the minds of other people; to understand, deeply, why they do the things they do, even if those things are terrible, horrific, and seemingly un-understandable. I hope this is the beginning of the rehabilitation of a humanities education. After all, without the humanities, where will we get our humans?

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For Heaney

Since I learned of Seamus Heaney’s death on Friday, I have been subtly off my kilter. It’s not enough to make me change my usual daily routines, or give much, if any, outward sign of mourning. It’s more like what Auden wrote of the day Yeats died: “A few thousand will think of this day/ As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” Most likely, by next year, I’ll have forgotten the date, or even the month of his death. Listening to the news, as Parliament or Congress both bat around what to do about a pile of gassed children in Syria, I am occasionally staring off into the middle distance and thinking of a poet. What could be more frivolous?

Except, that’s what poets are for.

In 2001, in September, I was at a desk in a circle of desks in my Major British Writers class when a young man, whose name I can’t remember but whose face I can, first announced a few bizarre facts about a plane and the World Trade Center. We continued class. After class was out, I walked to the campus center and clustered with all the other students around the TV there. I don’t know if we were, in fact, studying Keats on that day (my chronology of those weeks is jumbled), but it was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” that lilted in my brain every time I watched the repeating footage of a deep blue sky, a fire, and the worst of all, those tiny black dots arcing out from the building and to the ground.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It was not quite sensible, or even accurate to the occasion. Cortez and Keats both were full of wonderment, awe. But I couldn’t help it. Those lines, the image of Cortez and his men before the awesome blue expanse of the Pacific; there must have been terror in it too. The blue gulf I was staring into, the sky all around the towers, the sky as deadly as the ocean, if you have to jump into the center of it.
IMG_4804When I heard Heaney was dead, I was self-consciously sad. He wasn’t mine, not grandfather, father, or friend. Not an acquaintance, and not my national poet, American that I am.  How to account for the loss then? I read a lot of poetry during my time in college. Yesterday, I pulled down Opened Ground, Heaney’s volume of selected poems. I always dread looking at a book I marked up in college; my notations in the margins usually make me cringe. But I had evidently been more restrained with this book. The few underlinings or circles I had made were without explanation, and I can’t for the life of me know what they were supposed to signify. The lines they point to aren’t the ones I would underscore now. And that is the thing that brings me some solace. That ten years later, the poems are new to me again. They mean something different, and the meaning is in different places.
I read that Heaney’s last recorded words were in a text message to his wife. In Latin, they read Noli timere, “don’t be afraid.” What his true last words were maybe only his nurses know. Maybe there were no others. Maybe they were the nonsense garble of anesthetic induction. All I know of his last hours is that text message, his last written words. In a modern poetry class, I had to memorize his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and whether it was the familiarity bred by learning each line by heart, or something intrinsic about it, it remains one of my favorites. Now, instead of Kevin, the last lines will always make me think of Heaney himself, at the last:
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird,
And, on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name.
Now he undergoes a shift, from living man to dead poet. He goes from husband and father to figure, history. Born the year Yeats died, now he joins him in the beginning of his own mythology. There will not be any more of the private man, any words only between him and his wife, or his sons, his one daughter. He can no longer elaborate, or clarify, or write another thing. Of Yeats’ death, Auden wrote, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” Now, we put our own gloss on him. Remembering and misremembering fragments of poems, checking to see if another ten years alters our opinions of them. As long as he lived, he wasn’t ours. Now that he’s dead, he’s given over to us, and we bear him.

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You’ve all undoubtedly faced the flat sadness that comes from a lull in my blogging, as I have been on vacation on the Belgrade Lakes in Maine. While the vacation persists, the blogging must resume.

I’m raising two young outdoorsmen, and we’ve been fishing, kayaking, and hiking for more than a week now. My older son’s stamina for fishing is impressive at this point, and he can now paddle his own kayak for a moderate distance. Hiking, however, remains an area where we are years away from the day-long treks I once did. That will require many years of breeding and careful grooming, and to get there, I must strike the delicate balance of finding hikes that are ever more challenging, yet do not break down, defeat, or bore my young men.

This part of Maine is good for that. The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance has blazed several trails of varying duration, from quick roadside vistas to rather substantial multi-mile hikes. Today, we headed to the Sander’s Hill Loop trail. It’s manageable, a modest grade with some fair views from the low summit. It’s a four snacker, requiring 2.5 hours for our troop to complete, and that with only two brief stints of carrying the boys on our shoulders.

Most importantly, there are trailside oddities and diversions:
a log ladder to a boulder overlooking Watson Pond,

photo

rock ledges and a warren of small caves and tunnels,
photo-1
and some small scale wildlife, like two snakelings, a copper colored frog, and a caterpillar thick as a thumb undulating luxuriantly across the trail.

A spring peeper

A spring peeper

photo-2

All these break up the journey into manageable bits. With young kids, there is no sustained attention, nor can uninterrupted hours be devoted to anything.

Last week, at the carnival of unnecessary items that is the Marden’s discount store in Waterville, their book section was stacked with publishers remainders of poetry. I was an English major, and I spent three good years mooning around reading Yeats, drinking coffee and scouring The Montague Book Mill (“Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”). I got nostalgic, standing in the Marden’s aisle across from the suede-look recliners and bins of clothesline and vinyl sandals. For six dollars, I got three books of poetry and carted them back to our cabin on Long Pond.

Most of my days here are spent stealing a bit of time to read or knit between botherings by my kids, listening to Simon say, again and again, “Mum? Wanna see this?” [crashes a misshapen paper airplane into the floor] “Wanna see that again?”

Sometimes I dart off and read a depressing poem by Philip Larkin. Then one of the boys calls again. I can only read a poem or two at a time. At first, I was feeling sorry for myself about that. Then I realized, that’s exactly how I ought to take these poems: one at a time, to carry with me while I watch the airplane crash again. One poem to roll around in my mouth like a stone for the next few hours.

Besides, there’s only so much Larkin a person can take before she loses the will to live entirely.

 

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Road trip

I do travel by plane a bit for work, as miserably evidenced by my last post. For that work, Georgia is as far afield as I have ever gotten. Still, that’s pretty far for me, and in my personal travels, I just about never leave New England. This past weekend, however, we drove out to Rochester, New York to see long-lost friends (we lost them to Arizona. A terrible thing.) who were visiting family there. Rochester was about as far north and east as they are likely to be, so off we went, driving.

IMG_3989We are New Englanders, and so small staters. Maine seems outrageously large to us. But New York is bigger still. The boys were bewildered that we could drive for hours and still be in New York. Rochester is a cool little city, and I wish we could have seen a bit more of it than a day and half affords. But by Sunday afternoon, it was time to head back east again. We had arrived after dark on Friday night, and we were leaving in broad, glaring daylight, so the landscape was fully visible. On either side of the road, flat fields opened out. I remarked on the flatness, and Christophe responded, “Rochester is less a city of the northeast, and more the first city of the midwest.” Sage, that guy. It’s not just one thing, of course, that sets one place apart from another. When we passed between the cliff faces left where a hill had been blasted away to make room for the Thruway, there was neat, tile-stacked shale instead of solid granite. Gradually, hills began to appear, and at Albany, unable to face  the drive on the Turnpike through Massachusetts, we took the back way through Vermont instead. We toured the smaller roads where relic motels of the 50s motoring age sat mouldering and vacant. The road dipped and turned alongside cobbled rivers, and we were hemmed in closer and closer by green forest on all sides. We ate lunch in Brattleboro, Vermont, where vegan cafes are on every corner, and the smell of pot, patchouli and incense seems to hang in a cloud running the entire length of the Connecticut River, and I was brought to mind of my years at UMass, and felt the tug of home.

Malcolm had been quiet a while, and suddenly announced that he had finished his reading–a chapter book of a hundred pages or more. He’s been reading well for some time now, but this was reading an entire book on his own, asking for only two words’ meanings: novices and  initiation. This is a world I’ve been waiting for him to enter, remembering the trips I would take as a child to the library on my own, to get stacks of books to read on my own. Wholly self-sufficient, it seemed to me, and my memories of the summers when I was seven, eight, nine, seem to have no parents or other adults in them at all. That’s the part of it that had not hit me until now. His first big book, read start to finish without me. All the other stories and characters we’ve carried in our heads jointly, simultaneously. Mutually understood small references to what we’d been reading in our universe unto ourselves. He announced he’d finished his book, and I felt more sundered from him than at the moment he was born and his tether to me was cut. He began leaving me then, but it took six years and a book to make me notice it.

IMG_3988By now, Simon had taken a nap and was reanimated and philosophical. Malcolm drifted off to sleep, and Simon, four years old and lacking any self-sufficiency, began peppering me with his usual questions. “Mum, why is the road so tippy?” “Mum, am I so great and so beautiful?” “Mum, what’s this stuff in my ear? I call it ‘ear fug'” and finally, this one, that struck me hard, because he’s my younger son, and no one after him, and soon he will stop asking this kind of question, and enter the solid, sensible realm of all the grown-ups,

“Mum? Do you remember when you were a tiny baby and I was way back nowhere?”

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The sex talk

I teach biology, and I am a veterinarian. The latter means that I have been shoulder deep in many a cow’s rectum ineptly pawing around for her uterus (this can be felt through the wall of the rectum) and some evidence of a pregnancy. This never struck me as gross. It was quite fascinating, and when the temperature in the barn is about 10 degrees, the inside of a cow offers at least the palpating arm some welcome warmth. Work with animals, or teaching reproduction to college students, these things tend to leave one unfazed by the relatively tame questions a five year old might ask.

Last week, we were reading Poseidon, an excellent book in an excellent series of graphic novels called The Olympians. In it, a mortal woman sleeps with a mortal king and the god Poseidon both in the same night. In the coming months, it becomes clear she is pregnant, but unclear whose baby she carries. Malcolm picked up on this conundrum and I explained questionable paternity and a little on the nature of sperm competition.

Sometimes they're thinking deep thoughts, and sometimes they're, er...this.

Sometimes they’re thinking deep thoughts, and sometimes they’re, er…this.

This week, his buddy from kindergarten became a big brother once again when his mother had her third child. Malcolm received this news, thought for a moment, and said, “Why don’t you want to have three kids?” I told him I just don’t. Two’s good for me. And then he said, “So, if you don’t want another baby, do you just tell your body that and it’s controlled by your mind? Or not?” Contrary to the views of some cretinous conservative politicians, this is not, of course, the case, and I told Malcolm, “Oh no. If you don’t want to have a baby, you have to very definitely make sure it doesn’t happen.” Then I told him all about how my IUD works.

Sometimes, especially at the two and a half hour mark of a three hour biology lecture, I start to have out of body experiences. During these intervals, I feel myself exit my own body and I watch myself fluently and animatedly speaking about some biological topic. It’s a strange sensation, though brief, and thankfully ends right when I start to think, “Shouldn’t I get back in there? How long can she go on without me?” Parenting is like that sometimes too. As I explained IUDs and birth control pills to my riveted son, part of me was watching and thinking, “Is this it? Is this ‘the’ sex talk?” Nonsense, of course, since ‘the’ sex talk is really many talks and many of those are only partially about sex itself. But I thought how easy it was to do. To be guided by a child’s simple curiousity for now. Answering his questions completely, but simply, and stopping where his interest stops. In adolescence, of course, it will be different, since there will be no more un-self conscious questioning then. But I’d like to think that we will continue this way, respectfully, matter of factly and without hysteria (pardon the uterus pun) for a good long while yet. His 3 year old brother is currently fixated on death, so conversations in this house are profound these days. And for as long as they want to talk to me, I am grateful.

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The modest haul from Fairfield Antiques Mall.

The per capita density of thrift stores in the greater Waterville area must be tops in the universe. While my mom and I have been hitting the clothes stores in downtown Waterville for a few years now, we only just discovered the riches of antiques alley in Fairfield and Hinckley, Maine (site of the unnerving and wondrous LC Bates Museum of my last post). As we left that museum and were headed home, we could not resist the allure of the massive Fairfield Antiques Mall, a sprawling and dilapidated barn/house? filled to the rafters with stuff. We got pulled down this rabbit hole, becoming completely disoriented between its multiple floors, half floors and basements. And we never even made it to the “annex” or the outdoor merchandise. What makes this place so surreal is its location at the edge of a field in a place where even the owners admit there is no there there. It is: “on the way to many of Maine’s tourists destinations.  Visit us on your trip to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park or Downeast Maine.  We are on the way to Baxter State Park, and Exit 133 from I-95 is used by vacationers headed to the Northwoods on rafting and fishing expeditions.  We’re on the way to major Snowmobile and Skiing areas.  Route 201 is also a Major access route to the Province of Quebec Canada.” 

This place is on everyone’s route, but at no one’s destination. And it is massive. We had the boys with us, so we couldn’t linger as we might have. While Malcolm is a dedicated picker, yard saler and thrift store frequenter, Simon does a lot of rolling around in the aisles and licking things. He did find one captivating creature who caught his eye though:


I showed great restraint and bought only a couple toys to buy my sons’ cooperation, a few old timer glass linament bottles and a 1960 edition of Niko Tinbergen’s classic work “The Herring Gull’s World.” My mother had her eye on a plastic lady’s torso that is illuminated from within via a plug. She inexplicably passed on it, much to my surprise, and we left the strange shop on the road wondering if it had all been a dream. How unnerving then, to find that my printed receipt read “There are No Returns.”
It turns out, however, that there are. My mother couldn’t stop thinking of the lighted lady torso, and the next morning, before she embarked on the drive back down to Massachusetts, she drove 40 minutes back up to Fairfield to retrieve her prize. And she reports that the shop was indeed there, and was no shimmering mirage.

We visited several thrift stores during our two weeks in Maine, all of which had their particular wonders. But I would be deeply remiss if I did not single out Madlyn’sin Waterville. This is a consignment shop with an exceedingly well edited collection, plenty of inventory, and excellent prices. The shop moved to a new, larger location last year, and now houses men’s, children’s, and a hilarious vintage collection on the lower level, in addition to the entire upper floor of things for the ladies. I got a sack of great stuff for thirty bucks, but the find of the day was a handmade, three piece tweed collection consisting of sleeveless dress, flared skirt, and jacket. They fit as if they were made for me, and since I am practically child size, this was a welcome, but inexplicable surprise.

Sixteen dollars for the lot.

In the vintage corner, I found a bright yellow pair of pumps in a wide width for my frog paddle feet! (The portrait I am painting of myself here is growing progressively less flattering, I realize.) There’s even a $1 rack where I got a blazer for, well, a dollar. If you’re ever in the area, stop in. The owner is absolutely delightful, and her shop is a thrifter’s dream.

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