Friday, January 5, 2018


The Good and the Evil, Imre Ámos, 1938

I woke up this morning with the flu, so I’m even more muzzy-headed than usual. The thermostat is turned up to an environmentally irresponsible 72 degrees, and I’m clutching a heating pad against my belly, trying to quiet the chills. I probably shouldn’t be writing anything, not even a blog post. But I can’t seem to resist the urge. Chalk it up to fever-diminished impulse control. So here goes—

Back at Thanksgiving, I wrote up a longish Facebook post about spending the holiday with my mother and her partner, deep in rural Trumpland. Chapter 16 was kind enough to publish a slightly modified version of it this week, which you can read here.

Writers make a nervous bargain with their readers. We get the gratification of sharing our work, and in return we accept that people are 100% entitled to take from it what they will. Once something’s out of our hands, it has a life of its own, and we don’t get to run around trying to referee its relationship with the world.

This deal has its down side. There are people who seem to read with hostile intent, determined to find a reflection of their own bad faith in someone else’s words. But those people are, thankfully, very few. Most readers meet your work with generosity and intelligence, and sometimes they find things that you could never have hidden there yourself. They find the beauty of their own souls—their own sorrow or joy or love.

Judging by comments on Facebook and a few private messages, it seems like most people read my Thanksgiving essay as a commentary on the way love and shared ritual help us transcend the things that divide us. I think that’s a lovely way to receive it. I’m happy to know that people are so ready—eager, even—to find possibilities for redemption. Part of me wants to believe in redemption.

If you asked me, though, what I was trying to get at in that essay, I’d have to say that it has little to do with redemption or transcendence. (I know, I know — I just said I don’t get to referee how my words are read. Think of this as an addendum.) What fascinated me about that day was the way beauty and ugliness existed in such close proximity, distinct but thoroughly entwined.

In response to one of the private messages I received, I wrote, “One of the saddest things to me about our current predicament is the way no one seems willing to accept the contradictions of the human soul. Acceptance = cowardice to a lot of my friends. Cowardice, or appeasement, or...something. Anyway, I think you have to take people whole and as you find them—or try to, at least.”

I think that whether we try to deny the humanity of people who have evil ideas or minimize the powerful reality of those ideas, we’re making the same mistake. We're turning away from the capacity for evil that lurks within us. It's a dangerous arrogance. My grandmother used to say that you’re never more in danger of hell than when you’re congratulating yourself for being a good person, and all these years later—having abandoned the notion of hell altogether—I still think often about those words. The challenge of being human is seeing yourself in what you abhor. There are no monsters. We are all monsters.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saturday with Mom

I travel to my mother’s house on a curving country road, past well-tended farms with driveway signs that quote the Old Testament.

Create in me a clean heart, O God

Sin is a reproach to any people

A soft answer turneth away wrath

Early morning light graces the trees and pastures, and I think, as always, of stopping to use the camera I’ve brought along. But I don’t stop today. I hardly ever stop. Mom is waiting.

When I get to her house, she’s all dressed in her purple outfit, a strand of costume pearls around her neck today instead of the rose quartz necklace she’s been wearing lately.

I have a tiny plush dog with oversized, sparkly blue eyes to give her. Its fur is gray with white markings, and I hope it will remind her of her long-dead Malamute named Bear. She's delighted with the toy. “Oh, how cute!”

“I think it looks like Bear,” I say. “Do you remember Bear?”

“Of course,” she says, caressing her new baby. It’s impossible to know whether she really remembers Bear, and I have no idea why I still feel the need to invoke the past with her.

Mom’s current dog comes up to say hello. Katie, a fluffy black mutt with spotted feet, is so fat she breathes heavily and waddles when she walks. Mom will not be discouraged from constantly giving her “treats” — whole slices of cheese and ham, sweet rolls, leftovers of all kinds. Sometimes I can convince her to refrain while I'm present, but I know she'll forget as soon as I'm gone. In her mind, Katie seems to represent every dog and child she ever cared for. She often talks as if she has a whole houseful of creatures to look after. I hate to see what's happening to Katie, but the only remedy would be to take her away from Mom. None of us is prepared to be that cruel. So I just pet the dog and feel guilty.

Mom’s partner helps her get her jacket on, and she and I head out to Southernaire, a restaurant near Kentucky Lake. Our family’s been eating there for years, and my eldest brother and I take Mom there most Saturdays for breakfast. His absence today makes Mom anxious.

"Is somebody coming with us?"

"No, Jeff can't come today. He's tied up with work. He's gonna come next week."

"Oh." A long pause. "He seems like a really good guy."

"He is a really good guy."

We repeat this exchange at least four times in the 15 minutes it takes to drive to the restaurant. It's not entirely clear whether she knows we're talking about her son. She seems to understand who I am, but I know that when I'm not around she refers to me as "my friend."


Southernaire is homey and charming and odd. The lobby features a big screen TV, video games, and a taxidermied beaver sporting seasonal headgear. The dining room, by contrast, is like a genteel tea room, all lace curtains and aquamarine walls.

While Mom slowly works on her heaped-up plate of eggs and bacon, the usual cast of characters cycles through —local families, couples, a pair of 60+ pilots who've just flown in on the air strip across the road. Three huge young men lumber in and take up a table. They look like brothers, or maybe cousins. They strike me as farm boys, though I can't quite put my finger on why. Two of them are decked out in Vol orange.  I half expect the room to list in their direction, they're so big. "You got a pork chop back there?" one of them asks the waitress. "Fry me up a pork chop."

While I'm studying the farm boys, Mom is fixated on a little blond girl at the next table. She keeps trying, without success, to get the child to smile back at her.  Mom has always loved kids, and whenever we're out in public she invariably zeros in on young children, especially girls. It's sweet to see, but it's also a little intense. She looks at them the way a 4-year-old looks at a puppy — fascinated, delighted, covetous. She'll often speak to the parents if she gets a chance, usually saying something admiring and innocuous like “That's a beautiful child.” Out here in the country, people always respond in a friendly way, and I'm grateful for that. I've often wondered whether an elderly man with a similar fixation on kids would be treated so tolerantly.

We box up Mom's leftovers to take home, where she'll likely feed them to Katie. I've only had to stop her a couple of times today from putting salt in her coffee or sugar on her eggs, and she was easily persuaded to leave the little tubs of half & half on the table. She offers to pay, pulling bills out of her purse and trying to hand them to me. We never let her pay, but I don't think she'll ever stop trying. She grew up poor and has a deeply ingrained sense of the importance of money.

Out in the parking lot, there's a vintage El Camino, fire engine red, with an unopened sack of something — maybe horse feed — lying in the middle of the pristine bed. I like to think it belongs to the large young men, though the cab looks like a tight fit for even one of them.


On the way home, we stop at a dollar store to look at the Christmas stuff. Mom has no Christmas decorations of any kind at her house, and she doesn't really understand the holiday anymore. She wouldn't refuse a present, and she thinks the lights are pretty, but it's not at all clear that she registers what any of it means. Nevertheless, I'm suddenly determined that she'll have something in her house to mark the season. As with the little plush dog, this is more about my needs than hers, and as we paw through the snow globes and reindeer ornaments, I'm painfully aware of the source of all these cheap gewgaws.

I find a little aluminum tabletop tree covered in gold glitter. $3.00. “This is pretty, Mom, don't you think?”

“Oh, it is pretty. And just $3.00.”

I get the feeling she's humoring me, but it's hard to tell. She might actually like it. And she regards all gifts as expressions of love, always has.

When I pay, the young woman behind the counter hands me a slip of paper along with my receipt. It's a note, handwritten on a piece of register tape. It says, “God Bless + Merry Christmas,” with a little 😊

A blast of cold wind hits us as we head to the car. Mom clutches her jacket and grimaces. She seems so frail, as brittle as the brown leaves blowing across the asphalt. While I drive, she lifts the little tree out of the plastic bag and admires it. “This is something I can treasure forever,” she says, and repeats it a few more times before we turn down the dirt road to her house.

*Photo by BitterGrace

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Looking at the sea, Veloso Salgado (1864-1945)

My birthday is here. Again. I've reached the age when it seems to roll around with startling frequency. This doesn't particularly distress me, but I'm amazed every day by the way life just keeps hurtling on toward its conclusion without consulting my preferences or accommodating my uncertainties. I'm kinda glad it does. If I were actually allowed to be in charge of things, my existence would be one long, dull wait for perfect conditions and my own sense of readiness. Instead, shit just happens and I struggle to keep up. That's way more interesting than living life according to plan, though it's not always 100% fun. Most of the time, I feel like that lady up there at the top of the post—looking toward the horizon with a shifting mixture of curiosity, bewilderment, hope, and dread, wondering what's to come.

The world has had an eventful year, as usual. So much sadness, so much suffering. And don't even get me started on human villainy. My tiny corner of the planet, however, has been blessedly steady. Almost everything that was true on my last birthday is still true. I still have that awesome dog the stupid people threw away, and now I have a second, equally awesome dog. Her old humans didn't want her either. SMDH, as the kids say. 

Miraculously, everything that was good is still good. There have been losses and continuing sorrows, and I'll confess to wasting some time mourning wasted time. But for the most part I have enjoyed twelve solid months of luck, love, generosity, and beauty. Abundant beauty.

Photo by BitterGrace

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things—earth,
          stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars—
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts,
          frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality—
For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature
          dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant—to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the
          intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

~ Robinson Jeffers, "The Beauty of Things"

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Purely sentimental

Maybe it's age catching up with me, but I'm feeling tender and nostalgic as the holidays approach. I was lucky enough to enjoy some wonderful Christmases when I was a kid, and even though I haven't done much celebrating in recent years, there's still a soft spot in my heart for memory-stirring art and kitsch. Here's a little collection of seasonal images that make me smile. 

 Christmas card of unknown vintage

 Vogue cover, 1921

Russian postcard c. 1914-1917

Mela Koehler (1885-1960)

Christmas Eve, 1959Guy Wiggins (1883-1962)

Christmas card of unknown vintage

Resurrection of the Magi, David Derr (born 1954)

Street Scene, Christmas Morning, Childe Hassam, 1892

One of literary critic Fanny Butcher's Christmas cards

Bird on Snow Covered Berry Branch, Takahashi Biho (1873-?)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"...the lewd perfume that laughs along innocent limbs"

The Dawn of Love, William Etty, 1828

O maternal love,
heartbreaking for the gold
of bodies suffused
with the secret of wombs.

And beloved unconscious
attitudes of the lewd
perfume that laughs

along innocent limbs.

~ Pier Paolo Pasolini, from "Flesh and Sky"
translated by David Stivender and J.D. McClatchy

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"...teach him to study the trees"

Olive Trees against a Mountainous Background, Edgar Degas, c. 1890-92


Now that you are leaving, take the boy with you as well,
the boy who saw the light under the plane tree,
one day when trumpets resounded and weapons shone
and the sweating horses
bent to the trough to touch with wet nostrils
the green surface of the water.

The olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers
the rocks with the wisdom of our fathers
and our brother’s blood alive on the earth
were a vital joy, a rich pattern
for the souls who knew their prayer.

Now that you are leaving, now that the day of payment
dawns, now that no one knows
whom he will kill and how he will die,
take with you the boy who saw the light
under the leaves of that plane tree
and teach him to study the trees.

~ George Seferis, from "Mythistorema"
translated by Edmund Keeley

Listen to David Haskell read a wonderful passage from his book, The Songs of Trees, at Soundcloud

Haskell's website

Seferis interviewed by Keeley for the Paris Review

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A thought for Thanksgiving

Small boys watching the Woodrow Wilson high school cadets, 1943*
Photo by Esther Bubley

"Perhaps the community you have in view is dysfunctional, broken, embarrassing. Perhaps you have a proposal for it? A word of criticism? Come forth with your critique, but you should know, you can't fix what you won't join. There's no healing a community of which you in no way see yourself a part. Maybe criticism and hospitality can be joined at the hip. Maybe they have to be for a conversation to occur. There are so many ways to weave a common life, to hold together that which is in danger of being dismembered. To remember, in this sense, is to no longer stand alone and to aid others in no longer doing so. A critique can be a gift, but it need never be confused for a call to abandon the human circle. Are you bewildered? Others have been here before. And at the heart of bewilderment there can be a seed of compassion." 

Monday, November 20, 2017


Girl with a lizard, Gustave Jacquet (1846-1909)

A lizard does not make a sound,
it has no song,
it does not share my love affairs
with flannel sheets,
bearded men, interlocking
silver rings, the moon, 
the sea, or ink.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Brooding, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Prompted by a mention of it in a very fine memoir, I tried twice in the past few days to watch Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), but I just couldn't do it. I could not force myself to keep watching past the first few minutes of that awful scene with Rusk and Brenda Blaney. The moment when she reaches for the phone and he stops her made me feel physically ill, and I had to abandon the film both times. This squeamishness is new. I sat through Frenzy years ago, and while I remember thinking the movie was misogynistic trash, I don't recall being particularly disturbed by it. Now it's suddenly unbearable. Why?

I'm sure it's partly to do with the incessant post-Weinstein conversation about sexual harassment and assault. I've contributed to that chatter myself, and I think the discussion is important, but there's no question that it has stirred up a lot of buried rage and fear for many of us. I've relived experiences over the past few weeks that I would have gladly forgotten forever. Is this healing? I can't say. All I know is it's painful and maddening.

I really think it's part of a much larger sorrow, though. I feel like I'm grieving for the world these days, trying to reconcile myself to my "feast of losses" and not succeeding. Not sure anyone does. What surprises me is that age seems to heighten the capacity to grieve, not lessen it. I feel it all more deeply now than I once did—more deeply than I could have imagined when I was young. Probably because I understand now that none of it is fixable.

You can see the book trailer for Kelly Grey Carlisle's memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, here.

If you have the stomach for Frenzy, the full movie is currently up on Youtube.

Monday, October 9, 2017


Photo by BitterGrace, taken in October 2016

I looked out my kitchen window today and smiled as I watched a tiny bird hover uncertainly below a bottle of sugar water. There is reliable, instant joy in seeing a migrating hummingbird discover a feeder and commence feasting. It's a sacred moment.

An article is making the rounds right now about how the lack of childhood play and friendship helps create the angry, alienated men who commit mass killings. I have no doubt that the writer's theory is true. It feels true. Loneliness is everywhere.

But I also wonder whether kids get enough opportunity to nurture, and specifically to nurture the earth—to feed and protect living things that won't repay them in any way except through the miracle of their continued existence. How many children, especially boys, never get to know that pure pleasure of the spirit?

I keep thinking about what we know of the Las Vegas killer—his empty existence, drinking and popping Valium and spending countless hours in the heartless and utterly unnatural environment of casinos. It sounds like an excellent way to stifle a human soul. How many decades ago did that man last feel anything resembling joy? 

There's joy in nurturing wild things, and there's humility, too—true humility, which has nothing to do with shame or thinking poorly of oneself. You feel like a tiny, essential part of a great whole, which of course you are. And you know your fundamental powerlessness.

All these feelings work against the isolation and shame and twisted grandiosity that make violence look like release.

I don't mean to be facile. There's no simple answer, and it doesn't escape me that the impulse to kill is itself a part of the natural order. We are predators, and we've always killed our own kind. But we're also natural caregivers, hardwired to nurture and to take joy in beauty as well. We should foster those gifts in our children.