Catch the bus downtown. It’s always early, for some reason, so leave now. As soon as you push the screen door shut behind you you’ll start to feel better. You’ll start to feel better as soon as your sneaker-feet hit the pavement, one and then the other taking you down the hill. You’ll pick up speed and feel better. Your errand is trumped-up but that’s okay. This is good for you. En route.
Look around at faces you don’t recognize. A universe in a city block, a new show every time you watch. The sunlight never hit the window of the fried chicken place quite like that before. The other people on this sidewalk, in motion beside you, they will never pass you in just the same way ever again. Brand new.
Wait for the bus near the corner, at the less-lonely stop. Think about the time you stood behind a tiny girl and her mother while the girl blew bubbles with a wand, and you watched one float closer and closer to her mother’s face and waited for her to notice it too, which she only did as she turned her head and it popped on her nose at the same time as she saw you looking, and you both laughed. Think about how you think about this every time you wait for the bus on this corner. Same old.
Remember yourself, on your way home from a club one middle-of-the-night, sticky red Robert Smith lipstick on your mouth, squatting down on the pavement to touch the fur of a stray kitten. The girl who stopped and asked you whose cat it was looked like a younger version of you, standing sturdy on long black-denim legs, and you could tell she saw it too and she smiled. Twin flames.
Feel the warm dry air blast your face as you step up into the bus. Hydraulic hiss, swipe your card, say thank you to the driver whether she looks at you or not. Stride down the aisle with the confidence of a person who doesn’t care if she stumbles on a moving bus. Sit down. It doesn’t matter at all where you sit. Choose a center-facing bench and spend the whole ride seeming not to stare at the guy across from you, cuz it’s awkward. He’s right there. He has really dark blue jeans and a puffy bright blue coat, and pristine white sneakers. You are on this bus together when either or both of you could have been someplace else, who knows where. This means something, you can feel it, but you don’t know what. He catches you looking. Aw man.
Someone on this bus smells like laundry, like a warm house. Red and white lights from the traffic on the street slide across the metal bars that curve around your cushioned seats. The street outside the window looks battered and lonely but you love it. Fling your heart out there, see if it comes back. Look down a million little streets you will never live on, think about a world full of people you will never be. Be yourself right here right now. Fuck yeah.
Refuse to fall down. If you cannot refuse to fall down, refuse to stay down. If you cannot refuse to stay down, lift your heart toward heaven, and like a hungry beggar, ask that it be filled, and it will be filled. You may be pushed down. You may be kept from rising. But no one can keep you from lifting your heart toward heaven— only you. It is in the midst of misery that so much becomes clear. The one who says nothing good came of this, is not yet listening.
Earlier this year I confided to a dear pen-pal that I was going through a tough time. I don’t often like to tell people about tender personal matters face to face, but I find I can “talk” about them in writing. I’ll put them down on paper and then send them off, like hopeful little paper airplanes, into the hands of a trusted friend, and see what comes back to me.
So yes, in some ways I have had a sad, hard year. But as I told my friend in my letter, reading helps. Some books have been a downright salvation. I tore through Mark Haddon’s novel, The Porpoise, which is based on the ancient story of Pericles, a prince who goes to sea and has adventures. I had never read the myth before, and its details had me totally engrossed. There was something about the story, with its violence and passion; its birth, death, and rebirth; that I found uniquely comforting as I was dealing with the more elemental stuff of my own life. Using the strange, dream-like symbols of fantasy, myths like these cut to the heart of everything that’s real.
The stories we call fairytales and folk tales are like this too. My mother, when she was going through her own tough time, once mailed me a photocopy of the poem “A Prayer” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. (I ask you, what would I do without my beloved pen-pals?) Estés is a Mestiza Latina psychoanalyst and a cantadora—a keeper of the old stories—who has recorded readings of several of her books. When my mom was feeling sad and lost, she listened to Estés read from Bedtime Stories, a collection of stories she learned from her family as a child, and they helped her get safely to sleep, where her unconscious, creative mind could start to sort out her troubles.
I’m thankful to my mother for introducing me to Estés, who has a dreamy voice and so much to teach us. In another one of her collections, Mother Night: Myths, Stories, and Teachings for Learning to See in the Dark, she talks about the need for these kinds of fantasies. Mother Night, she explains, is an ancient archetype, sometimes called Mother Sleep: “…not sleep like unconscious, but sleep as in opening the door to stories, ideas, innovations, inventions, and dreams.” She’s the “medial force” who “stands between the two worlds, handing things back and forth, informing the world that has grown too dry with things that are moist and alive. Things that rise from the unconscious, that rise from the dark.”
A few days after I sent my letter, my friend wrote back with another reading recommendation I’m thankful for: Feminist Folktales From Around the World. These are tales that were compiled and edited by a scholar named Ethel Johnston Phelps in the 70s and 80s, and that have recently been reissued in four volumes by the Feminist Press. “I love how sassy and possible the tales all are,” my friend wrote. This sounded like a very sound endorsement to me, so I got a copy of the first volume in the series, Tatterhood, and filled my head with its wild imagery while I reflected on the idea of possibility.
Phelps, in an illuminating preface, explains that before these stories and others like them were written down, they were told orally, mainly by rural women, for well over 1,000 years. When in the early 19th century they began to be compiled and put into print, it was by outsiders who were usually well-educated men of a different social class—and in the case of stories collected in Africa and Asia, a different nationality and race. She posits that the bias of these story collectors, along with the possible reluctance of the women to share their stories with a person who might ridicule them, could account for the relative lack of strong female heroines in the fairytales we’re all so familiar with today.
The stories in Tatterhood, by contrast, feature heroines who exist outside the made-up binary of young, beautiful, passive / old, ugly, horrible. Instead, they are adventuresome, sensible, brave, clever, and fun. Marriage is not the point of these stories, and it doesn’t usually matter what the women look like. The men, when they do appear, are more fully human, too—not boring stock heroes who do everything and save everyone, but real people who appreciate a woman with a bit of sense and sometimes need a hand themselves.
Take Tatterhood, the heroine from a Norwegian tale. She’s a charming and no-nonsense girl who saves the kingdom from a pack of destructive trolls, goes out adventuring on a ship by herself, and impresses the hell out of a young prince with her bravery and attitude, not her looks. I also loved “Janet and Tamlin,” a Scottish Borders tale, because when Janet falls in love with a knight, she goes out to rescue him from the fairy queen who’s holding him captive—at midnight on Halloween!
But my favorite heroine in this book is the plucky old woman in “The Hedley Kow,” a story from the north of England. Hard-working and undaunted by bad luck, she earns the friendship of a fun-loving goblin (the “kow”) who everyone else in the village thinks is scary and mean. This story in particular has a lot of humor in it, and as I read it I could hear the voice of my own hilarious grandmother, my mom’s mom, whose people come from that part of the world. When the old woman in the story finds a pot of gold by the side of the road, she says, “Ah! I feel so grand I don’t know myself rightly!” That’s just what my grandmother would say to me whenever anything special was about to happen. “You won’t know yourself!” she’d say approvingly, when my mother had gotten new furniture, or I’d won a prize in school. She’s the only person I’ve ever heard use that expression, and remembering her made me feel connected to the character in a way I could really feel. That’s the power of folk stories, I guess: the power of the folk themselves.
In her preface, Phelps says something about the tradition of women storytellers that I really liked. “The phrase old wives’ tales, now used derisively, takes on a new and more positive meaning—for the old wives’ tales were, indeed, the very rich and varied source of each nation’s heritage of folk literature.”
Yes! I promise to never again call a silly belief an old wive’s tale. The old wives sure know what they’re about, the grandmothers and the cantadoras. Let’s treat their stories with the love and respect they deserve—and let them teach us what’s possible.
In June I attended an unusual event at Parkway Central, Philadelphia’s wonderful main library. It’s such a wonderful library, in fact, that if you were feeling fanciful—or if you had recently looked through a book of type specimens—you might be inclined to call it eminently grand, bold and solid, magnificent.
Yes, our library is a special place, and the “Reading Type Specimens Aloud” event was unique. It was organized by The People’s Museums of Philadelphia, a project run by the artists Leah Mackin and Alina Josan, and its conceit was that anyone who looked through type specimens like the one above would want to read aloud from them—to “declaim their contents,” as the organizers put it. After looking at the books myself I see their point.
Type specimens were books produced by type foundries, the companies that manufactured the metal and wood type used in printing presses, to showcase the type for potential buyers. But rather than simply printing the alphabet in the different typefaces, they composed the type into sentences and turns of phrase, many of which were poetic or amusingly strange. Josan, who is a librarian in the Art Department, explained that the phrases were sometimes left over from print jobs, sometimes taken from popular advertisements, and sometimes composed especially for these books.
The organizers began the evening by going up to the podium and giving brief readings from a couple of the books. Afterward, the rest of us were invited to do the same. We milled around the room and looked at the books that had been pulled from the library’s collection, all of which were produced between the late 1800s and the 1920s—bona fine antiques, some with gold inlay or elaborately embossed covers.
The phrases I liked the best suggested a jumble of images that don’t usually go together, like strange, lyrical poems. In a book produced by the American Type Founders Company of Philadelphia in 1899, I found “Autumn Fashions, Damsels With Beautiful Dresses” and on the opposite page, “Trained FROG Catcher.”
Here’s another wonderful arrangement of phrases I found:
I didn’t go up to the microphone to declaim anything; it was nice, after I’d looked through the books, just to sit and listen to people read something when they felt so moved. One woman read some lovely words I didn’t understand from a book in French. Two different people read the thing about headache makers and pocket breakers; can you blame them? Someone else went up to the podium with a book and read, joyfully and very distinctly, “FIRST CREEP. THEN GO.” The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier.
Josan told us that Parkway Central is unusual in that books like these, which would be housed in a special collection in many other libraries, are in circulation and accessible to the general public—crumbling pages, broken spines, and all. As we browsed, the cover of one hardbound book that someone was holding came away from the spine and fell to the floor with a slap, but no one made a big deal out of it. It felt like a lesson: while we should be gentle when handling the books, the more important thing is that they get used, looked at, and loved.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”
I’ve been paging through a secondhand book I found some time ago called Common Weeds. It’s actually a coloring book that was put out by Dover in 1976, the year I was born. One of the things I find interesting about the book is that it helps to define what makes a weed a weed, which is something that really puzzled me as a kid. What makes one plant “good” and another one “bad”?
Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty because they flower, some are edible, and lots of them have medicinal uses. E. F. Bleiler, the editor of Common Weeds, writes that a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” He doesn’t say anything about their being ugly or not useful. A person could certainly decide to cultivate any of the plants we consider weeds (though I can’t easily think of a good reason to put, say, poison ivy in your garden). My mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial herb, in her garden, even though it’s considered a weed in many contexts—and is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over.
Honeysuckle, the first entry in the book, is another good example. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. In my small yard, honeysuckle takes over the back fence and grows up and around an old tree on the property behind us. We hack it back occasionally to keep it from overtaking everything else that grows back there, but actually, we like it. It’s a wild-looking, lush vine and it smells heavenly. When I was a kid I’d pluck the white flowers, put them in my mouth as I pulled the stamen through, and told myself the sweet taste was real honey. In traditional Chinese medicine, parts of the honeysuckle plant are used to treat headaches and colds.
Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a poem by Michelle Tea that I have long loved. It’s about her admiration for the scuzzy city birds, the kinship she feels for them. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?” The thing about weeds is, they grow where most other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow wherever they can, and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.
Today the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old, and he’s just put out a new book. Pretty incredible, right? Even more impressive is how intense the book is, and the power and vitality of his intellect even now. Little Boy is a novel—the author has been very clear about that—but it’s also in no small way about the life, or the kind of life, that Ferlinghetti has lived. I reviewed the book for the Utne Reader‘s spring issue. Here’s what I had to say about it:
Ladies and gentlemen: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The co-founder of City Lights, the bookstore and small press that opened shop in the 50s in order to publish the only poets that mattered—or the ones who mattered most in their corner of the world, anyway—Ferlinghetti, who has published some 40 books of his own work, will be best remembered for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of vivid and lyrical poems that remains popular 60 years after its first publication.
If it makes you feel blue to anticipate the way someone will be remembered while he’s still living, apologies. It’s just that Ferlinghetti turns 100 in March, and he has just put out a new book. He’s calling it a novel but it is clearly also a sort of memoir—a praise-song, a thrashing-about, a recounting of his colorful life—and at his age, it’s hard not to read it as a kind of elegy for someone who is decidedly not! Dead! Yet!
The book begins like a third-person biography of “Little Boy,” whose early life was characterized by instability and displacement. With the detachment of a biographer, Ferlinghetti describes a childhood spent bouncing around—from the mother who couldn’t afford to care for him after his father died, to his beloved aunt who brought him to France for a few years and then back to New York City, and eventually to the home of a rich couple in Bronxville—the Bislands, whose family founded Sarah Lawrence College. In the middle of this factual accounting, Ferlinghetti shocks the heart back to life with the phrase, “lonely was the word.”
From here the narrative goes swooping into one long sentence that accounts for his college years, his service in the navy, and the time he spent faffing around Paris in a cold-water flat after the war. By this point the language has broken loose from its moorings, and for the rest of the novel it rushes forth, much more like poetry than prose. The reader has the sense that Ferlinghetti had to make an effort to contain it.
At first glance the text on the page looks more unruly than it is: Ferlinghetti uses virtually no punctuation, no chapters, hardly even a paragraph break. But the start of each new thought is usually capitalized, and the rhythm of the language creates a cadence in the mind that serves as a kind of guide.
Still, it’s intense. The language has a way of sucking you into its whirl and then popping you back up to the surface, over and over again, whether you meant to or not. This isn’t a novel you’re likely to read straight through. Memories, lines from novels, internal rhymes, love and sex and anti-establishment rants, marvelous little throwaways (“Mao say tongue-in-cheek”), caustic observations from the coffee shop—it’s all one steady-churning white water rush.
Run your eyes down any page to hear a bling-blinging Pinball machine of references: Twin Towers, South of the Border, Onward Christian Soldiers, Mister Proust. Ginzy and Jack are in here too (you’ll permit Ferlinghetti a few trips down memory lane) but this is bigger than Beat Generation windbaggery—and actually, maybe it’s not really a memoir, either. The narrator’s voice is alive with humor and anger and a sense of the eternal now, not the what-happened-then. And each time he starts ranting about the people in the cafe where he’s sitting, all entranced by their “portable universes and handheld computers,” you will absolutely marvel: He’s still pissed!
In a sense, Little Boy reads like a continuation of the last poem in Coney Island. The whole novel, like that poem, has the word yes threaded throughout it—“the small boy knows nothing, he is just a part of it, unconscious in his little existence on the turning earth in some town or city or yes…”—and the earthy positivity is strongly reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses (“And yes I said yes I will yes”), which Ferlinghetti actually referenced by name in his 1955 masterpiece.
And it must be said: This yes is the voice of the 20th century, a century Mr. Ferlinghetti saw much of, with its exuberance and nihilism, its god-is-a-shout-in-the-street realist grit. Whether the poet ends this particular book on a hopeful note or one of despair, that’s for you to judge. Either way, Ferlinghetti’s old age is a rollicking one, and it burns and raves at close of day.
I was just thinking, we only get to read the published diaries of people who are already famous for their writing, and that’s too bad. It seems a shame that no one is interested enough in reading my half-baked yet poetical little trains of thought that they would publish them in a book. I know I personally would be interested in reading the personal diaries of damn near anybody.
The current issue of The Paris Review has excerpted the dairies of the Welsh writer Jan Morris, who they call a historian and essayist but who I have always thought of as a travel writer. She was an extremely intelligent writer, in any case, who packed tons of allusions into every thought and always made interesting connections. The Paris Review informed me that she began keeping a daily journal for the first time at the age of ninety—smiley face emoji—and those entries will be published as a book later this year. The excerpts are as charming as they are impressive. Morris writes about the first time she ever flew in an airplane, a de Havilland Rapide biplane she rode in from Cairo to Alexandria in the 30s, but also about her marmalade preferences and the books she keeps on the passenger side of her beat-up Honda, in case she gets bored at a stop light. (It’s two volumes of de Montaigne’s collected essays—actually, one big book that she tore in half to make them fit into the door pocket. When I read this I remembered that I ripped a book in half once, a paperback copy of A.M. Homes’ novel This Book Will Save Your Life that I was very close to finishing. I was about to leave my house for the airport but couldn’t wait until I returned from my trip to find out how the book ended, and since I didn’t want to have to lug one more thing on my trip with me I tore the big book at its spine and only brought the unread portion with me. After I finished reading that I threw it in a trashcan at the airport. Wonderful book.)
In her diary, Morris also talks fondly about spending time with her partner, “my Elizabeth,” and the small house and gardens they shared in the Welsh countryside, and I guess what I’m saying is that this sort of accounting makes for very interesting reading. All on its own. I know that Morris had an unusual and colorful life, but do I need to know this to enjoy hearing her talk about drinking coffee at a cafe in the village, or what her shadow looks like when she takes a walk at dusk? I don’t know if I do. Big lives are fascinating but so are small lives. And anyway, even those rare people who get to live big lives are also living out the small details in parallel. Everyone has relationships, habits, preferences, private sorrows and little pleasures. These things are always interesting, provided the person finds the right way to share them with you.
I am reminded of the essays of the English poet Stevie Smith, some of which were collected in a volume I treasure called Me Again. This book also has many of her poems and the quirky, heart-breaking doodle-drawings she made to go with them. I love the book so much that I tend to hug it to my chest before I put it back on the shelf. This is because I love Stevie Smith’s writing, of course, but also because I love thinking about Stevie Smith. A good book is good company, the writer’s voice like a friend having a conversation with you, but some writers keep me company beyond the words they’ve written. They live in my imagination as if they’re people I know, or once knew. This is how I relate to Stevie Smith, maybe because her writing voice is so singular, clear, and true. The details of her life seem to fascinate other people too; the playwright Hugh Whitemore wrote a stage play about her and the household she shared with her elderly aunt, and in 1978 this was adapted into a haunting little film called Stevie that, once I got a copy of it on VHS, I devoured and incorporated into my essence like The Blob.
One of the short pieces in that collection, “Simply Living,” reads a bit like a strange diary entry. In it, Smith talks about the small pleasures of her quiet life with her aunt, and she describes looking out the window while cutting vegetables in her kitchen, “a slim young parsnip under my knife.” She also talks about taking a break from her work mid-morning, every day, to share a glass of sherry with her aunt. Back when I found this book, I shared a similarly close relationship with my mother, who I lived with and then near, in an apartment around the corner from her house. I made a photocopy of this essay and gave it to her because I knew she would like that detail about the parsnip and the knife, and also because I expected her to recognize the similarity of our relationship to the one Smith had with her aunt. I never said as much—things like this are never explicitly said in my family—but I expected my meaning would come through in my gesture. (In my family we communicate like this, in code, via movie quotes, shared books and articles, and from the imagined perspectives of our pets. “Gracie says she misses you.”) After I gave her the essay I even went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of sherry for us to share in the mornings, but we both hated the way it tasted and couldn’t get used to feeling a little drunk so early in the day.
During her lifetime Stevie Smith published a few novels and lots of poetry, to much acclaim. She ran in London literary circles and may have dated George Orwell, and she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. But alongside all this, for all of her adult life, she lived not in the city but in an unstylish suburb, in the same house from the age of three until her death. She worked as a secretary, never married, and lived for only three more years after the elderly aunt who had raised her died. In other words her life was big and small at the same time. But isn’t that true of us all?
I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I’m interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I’ll dance in public pretty much anytime – I’m really not what you’d call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people – whatever those skills are, I don’t have ’em. The effort exhausts me, and if I’ve had to “go out” too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it’s possible some of them are actually enjoying the party.
Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night’s sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you’re so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you’d feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called “As Much As You Can.” I think it’s okay to post it here because it’s also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here’s the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
As Much As You Can
Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.
Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.
Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen.It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.
The truth has finally been spoken at last—that poetry is an essential industry. The story, as it comes to us—by hearsay evidence which we can not vouch for—runs thus: Mr. Conrad Aiken, being included in the recent military registration somewhere in Boston or near it, showed his undeniable fighting spirit by fighting for his art—he demanded fourth-class registration not on the usual easy terms (for he might have claimed exemption because of having a family to support) but on the ground that he was a poet and that poetry is an essential industry. The claim, being novel, was referred to Washington, and by some ultimate Solomon, there sitting in judgement, was sustained, being affirmed and decreed and locked and bolted under all the sacred seals of law.