It seems I’m having a bit of a fixation. Almost everything I write this week, and it is a hodgepodge this time around, somehow comes back to the underdog power of kindness.
Years ago, when my oldest was too young for preschool even, a friend with a little baby boy of her own said something I still think about. She said nursery school is where you learn the only thing that really matters: how to share.
A gross oversimplification, sure, but not untrue. What’s worse, I think we forget the lesson before we even get out of elementary school. Read the paper. Read history books. Or ponder this fun fact: The average CEO makes 300 times what the average worker makes. Are we sure what’s crippling our middle class is the influx of Mexicans stealing our jobs? Are we sure that’s the problem in American industry today? Hmmm.
Anyway, I have a serious distractibility problem. I’m a digital magpie, and the world has conspired to ruin me. I struggle to remain focused despite meaningless social media feeds, mentally unstable world leaders, their microwave-hostile minions, my children, and my love of snack food. It’s impossible to get anything done.
Yes, I know self-discipline is key in this, as in all good things. Self-discipline is so hard though. Why can’t it all be fun and easy? I clearly lack the motivation to be a workaholic. I’m Type X, not Type A. I bet best-selling writers, titans of industry, hit songwriters, and world leaders (except one) do not waste as much time as I do browsing the Internet for the ideal leather tote. (It’s Cuyana, by the way. I think with the monogram.)
So here’s a weird mix of the stuff distracting me lately:
Lincoln in the Bardo
I read this while ensconced in a Poconos indoor water park called Aquatopia. It’s also called “the loudest fucking place in America holy hell, why must everything make so much noise” (at least by me). This great novel, however, transported me to a quiet cemetery in Georgetown, circa 1862. I know he’s an unusual writer, and many a friend can’t take the weirdness, but I adore George Saunders and this book made me cry, it was so lovely.
In a completely original and absurdly funny way, Lincoln in the Bardo encompasses every aspect of what it means to suffer in America—the history of course, but also racism, gay discrimination, sexual abuse, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness, lust, love, grief, even heavenly judgments. Every beautiful, delicate, tender, profane, dirty, mundane, scary, horrific, hateful, funny, wry, gentle, rough moment a human could have is somehow contained here. He can convey an entire lifetime of longing in a phrase. His writing has so much emotion, and what I think he does best is tell stories that show courageous acts of empathy. I know he’s weird, but I swear this book could make every person who reads it a little bit more kind.
This is the ideal novel for a magpie; it’s more like an oral history. Several different ghosts narrate and the flow is further chopped up by chapters of actual and maybe not actual excerpts of historical texts. We also get to go inside the mind of Abraham Lincoln.
Thanks to our Poconos family fun weekend, I was able to ignore everyone and consume the entire book in two days. This is probably the best way to experience Saunders, so you can totally sink into his unconventional writing style. I have wasted 20 minutes leafing through the book, trying to find a perfect passage that illustrates the beautiful and moving way he writes about empathy. I can’t find it, and I wonder if the rare uninterrupted time that cacophonous indoor water park afforded me was necessary to really get in harmony with him.
Hopelessly in the Light
Last night I started reading Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a bit of a cult classic, an often-recommended balm to the news of the day, and thus far she has provided me some valuable perspective on the reality of being in the resistance. We’re pushing boulders up hills; it’s a slow job, but these are really important boulders.
Totally unrelated but kind of funny: She quotes someone who refers to Uruguay as “an almost secret country” since it’s so unimportant on the world stage. That image stuck with me. It got me thinking how nice it might be to grow up in an “almost secret” two-bit country, one that is not in any sphere of any influence. It goes without saying that one feels grateful to be an American, and I am, but maybe I could be happier in a place where the sky isn’t the limit, where everyone sort of muddles along since what the hell? It’s just Uruguay. A place where there is no expectation to “be someone,” to get rich, to reach your God-given potential, to achieve your American dream. What’s the Uruguayan dream? (Uruguayans reading, you can tell me what it is in the same email where you'll invariably also tell me how offensive you found this paragraph.)
I’m sure millions of Americans don’t spend most of every day wondering what they’ve done wrong, or how they’ve failed to achieve as much as they were supposed to. I’m not one of them. A good part of every day is distracted by the nonstop litany of self-recriminations going on inside my head. (Anne LaMott calls it KFKD radio and I’m a sustaining member.) I am all about being kind to everyone... except myself.
How Do You Turn off That Station?
I’ve also started listening to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and in the first 15 minutes he spewed this great line in my earbuds:
“The desire for more positive experiences is itself a negative experience, and paradoxically the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
Greater happiness could be mine…if I could only stop trying to achieve greater happiness. If only I could accept that I won’t have a life like the one I thought I was supposed to have (whatever that was) simply because I’m a white college-educated sort of affluent American woman.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Meditation is so magnificent. I wont really write about it because yawn. But if nothing else, it’s a break from my brain and radio KFKD… and from the actual news of the day too.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
If you, like me, can’t really fully release entirely from the news, I strongly recommend the long New Yorker piece about Russia (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/trump-putin-and-the-new-cold-war), and the shorter but equally interesting op ed, “This is the Russia You’re So Afraid Of?” in last week’s New York Times. If Putin is so great, Trumpy, why aren’t the trains running anymore?
And I love the cultural dissonance of the Trump’s Muslim ban, version 2.0, launching the same month Nike debuts its new sport hijab. The image of a lovely athlete figure skating in her sleek black hijab (avec swoosh) certainly undermines the notion that Muslim = BAD! Apparently the marketing and product development whiz kids at Nike did the math on the “threat of Radical Islamic Terrorism” and came out with a different answer.
We all Have a Little Giant Squid in Us
Naomi and I read Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo. It’s a glorious adventure with heart, humor, and originality. Through an alarming accident with a household appliance, a squirrel gains superpowers, chief among them the power to appreciate words and write poetry. Plus, he is consumed with love for Flora. DiCamillo writes about loneliness so well, a great quality in a writer for children. At one point, Flora and Ulysses are looking at a neighbor’s creepy painting of a giant squid overtaking a passenger ferry. The owner of the painting relates to the squid (“my poor, lonely giant squid”), not the passengers. She says giant squids are the loneliest of God's creatures, and sometimes live their entire lives without seeing another of their kind. The squid is just lonely. Maybe he's not the only one.
Naomi just asked if I wrote about how Flora's motto is "Don't hope, observe." Naomi said she's now trying to do this as much as she can. "It's about acceptance, isn't it?" I asked my wise little 2nd grader. "Yep," she said.
Here’s the poem Ulysses writes to his beloved friend Flora. I think it’s a poem to love in general and it makes me so happy. Without DiCamillo’s permission, I’m going to print it here. Think about someone you love while you read it. (Then go buy the book!)
Words for Flora
all of it—
sprinkles, quarks, giant
donuts, eggs sunny-side up—
are the ever-expanding
That’s pretty great isn’t it? Think of all the people in your life who you feel that way about—spouses, parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends. Put your brain in that kind space. Isn’t that better than wondering how Kellyanne Conway can screw her mouth up to say that Trump’s microwave was spying on him?