Once I asked myself, when was I happy? I was looking at a February sky. When did the light hold me and I didn’t struggle? And it came to me, an image of myself in a doorway, a broom in my hand sweeping out beach sand, salt, soot, pollen and pine needles, the last December leaves, and mud wasps, moths, flies crushed to wafers, and spring’s first seed husks, and then the final tufts like down, and red bud petals like autumn leaves—so many petals—”
from “Broom” by Deborah Digges, as published in Sleeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework
There’s a lot I could say about housework—women’s work—so long looked down upon, but I’m tired and my mind is having a tough time lately keeping up with my usual passions, tirades, and complaints. For now I’ll just say this: Today I cleaned my house, and it made me feel better. I scrubbed the bathrooms, did the laundry, swept the floor. I even made this hand sanitizing spray, which scented the kitchen with cinnamon and rosemary—warm and cheerful Christmas smells that chased away too many thoughts about why I was making it. I bustled around the small, sweet rooms of my house, where I spend almost all my time now and which I’m so grateful for, and took back the tiniest feeling of control over my life. And the light held me, and I did not struggle.
I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.
“Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich
I haven’t been able to write for two weeks now. Sometimes I’m afraid to leave my house, even for the things I’m craving, like exercise and fresh air. During this strange time I have also gone through whole cycles of worry: I worried at first that the things I care about, like the new job I was so excited to start next month, would be disrupted. When I realized there was no way they wouldn’t be disrupted, I accepted it, then was hit in the face with a wave of sadness because some things were more than disrupted: They were gone. The job I was about to begin doesn’t exist anymore. I have savings and another job, so I’ll be fine without it. But I felt sad to have to let it go.
I have other worries, too. One of the weirder effects this pandemic has had on me is an anxiety, painful in my body, that’s affixed itself to all the people in my life. For a week straight I woke up every morning thinking about a different person I know, realizing I didn’t know whether they were okay or not, if they felt lonely or scared. So I started checking in—we’ve all been checking in with each other, and that has been beautiful in its way. Feeling dislocated from individual friends and from communities and networks of people generally has truly disturbed me, much more than I would have expected. It feels good to know that we’re all thinking of each other now and refusing to lose contact. It seems like something we could build on.
Another unpleasant feeling inside me has been the fear that people’s small businesses will be crushed by the economic tidal wave over our heads. Locally, those businesses are my neighbors; I care about their owners and don’t want them to lose their work or their dream of owning their own place. I’m afraid of what I stand to lose, too. I feel needy. The time you spend in a coffee shop or bookstore or bar makes it a kind of home, and I need these homes, those places where I feel safe and welcome. I don’t want them to go away.
There’s an independent bookstore near where I live in Philadelphia called the Spiral Bookcase that I really love. It’s such a special place—all small bookstores are, I think, but this one is especially dear to me for a few reasons. First, they sell both new and used books, which has always felt correct to me. Why should the two be separated when most readers need both the old and the new, the popular and the just-plain-weird? Second, a sweet cat lives in this store. If you sit in a chair she’ll jump on your lap, or climb on your knees when you crouch down to look at things. Third, the shop is magic. Its main room has fiction and nonfiction books on a variety of subjects, and off of that is a smaller room of occult books. They’re about witchcraft, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics, and the atmosphere in there is delicious. A small collection of healing gemstones, tarot decks, and candles are tucked in and around the magic books, being magical. I always leave the shop feeling softer, walking lighter, and sparking with ideas.
Last week the store’s owner announced on social media that she was working to get more books and other items listed on its website. I was excited when I made my order. They offered delivery by mail and curbside pickup, and I chose the second one thinking it would be a nice reason to leave the house. J drove me over there this afternoon, just a minute or two in the car on a major road with very little traffic. A bus pulled over in front of us and a few people wearing surgical masks got off at a quiet bus depot that is usually a literal mess of human liveliness, people smoking and laughing and pushing as they wait for their rides.
When we got to the bookstore J parked the car, and he stayed in it while I walked up to the pretty storefront. Following the protocol they’d emailed me, I knocked, then stood six feet back from the doorway on the sidewalk. The sweet-faced young employee who answered the door looked like she’d been having the same tense two weeks as I had, but when I said I was there to pick up “an Adrienne Rich book and a witchy kids’ book” she smiled. She went back inside to get them and I was alone for a moment on the street. Quiet, quiet, so quiet. When she returned she had my books in a bag that was marked with my name, which touched me in a funny way. My name had also been written on the bag of muffins I bought yesterday from the coffee shop around the corner, another business I dearly want to stick around. In pink, in a person’s hand, on brown paper: Katie.
I have these two books at home with me now and I catch myself mining them for meaning, the meaning I’ve been having a harder time holding onto recently. All around my house, at any given time, I have several stacks of books in various stages of being read—they sit on the floor, teetering a foot or two high, like prehistoric cairns. I’ve been trying to shake some meaning out of those books but their pockets are empty. Maybe these acquisitions from the magical bookstore will be the ones that do it for me.
The Adrienne Rich book is Diving Into the Wreck because of course it is. Of course that’s the book. Diving into the wreck is what I’ve been doing for months now in therapy, pulling up things that have been buried for a long time and letting them see the light of day, turning them in my hand so I can see them from all angles; some of them disintegrate when they finally hit the air. I need these poems now. I’ll need them tomorrow, too.
The witchy kids’ book is called Bony-Legs, and I bought it for a dollar because it’s about Baba Yaga and because it was published in 1982, when I was a little kid myself. The illustrations, scary but cute and crawling with detail, are by Dirk Zimmer, whose wonderful imagery still dances across my early memory. Watchful eyeballs, grinning skulls, vines twisting into shapes. I don’t think I ever had this book, but my school library might have. Looking at the pictures stirs something very old in me, something not uncomplicated but basically good. They make me feel alive.
Baba Yaga is a figure from Slavic folklore. She’s a witch, a mean one, who lives in a house that stands on chicken legs. There are lots of stories about her. In this one she is called by her nickname, Bony-Legs, and she tries to cook and eat a sweet young girl who comes to her door looking to borrow a needle and thread. But before she meets Bony-Legs, the girl shares her food with the witch’s neglected cat and dog and greases the squeaky, old gate with the butter from her sandwich. (“Poor gate!” she says.) Because she was kind to them, the cat and dog—as well as the now-silent gate—help her trick the witch and get away.
The story is a lesson about being kind, but it’s also about living in a place where magic is ordinary, expected. The cat gives the girl a mirror and tells her to throw it away when she’s in trouble. The dog gives her a comb and the same instructions. As the witch chases her, the girl throws the mirror behind her. It turns into a lake, but Bony-Legs finds a way to cross it. When the witch gets close again the girl throws the comb on the ground, which grows from the dirt until it’s as tall as three trees. It forms a barricade that Bony-Legs can’t get through and the little girl runs home, safe. Not only that, but we’re told at the end that she never saw old Bony-Legs again. Phew.
We don’t question the logic of fairy tales when we read them. We know that in these worlds, witches can live in enchanted forests and cats and dogs can talk. These are the worlds of childhood and deep sleep and old fears, and they’re real, as real as a book you can hold in your hand. The stories don’t all have happy endings, but in them, anything is possible.
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. The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier. 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.”
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.
If you don’t live in Philadelphia, or you can’t get to Parkway Central for whatever reason, you can find scans of similar type specimen books on the Internet Archive. I “paged” through a few just now and found some excellent phrases. My favorites are “Presenting Prime Novelties From Bright Brain and Deft Digits”—goodness knows what product that florid phrase was advertising— and “24 Glorious Summer Mornings.” I think I’ll take this last one as a reminder to give my bookishness a rest for a while, and go outside.
Photos from type specimen books in the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection
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, and it was published 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. Why is one plant “good” and another one “bad”?
Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty when 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).
For instance, my mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial, in her garden, even though it’s often considered a weed—and in fact is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over. It’s also considered an herb and has been used medicinally for generations, though I feel obliged to point out that it can be very harmful, even deadly, if ingested in large amounts. There are many different ways of looking at a plant.
Honeysuckle, the first entry in Common Weeds, 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, the vine 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 love it. It’s wild-looking and lush, and it smells like heady heaven. 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. My dad showed me how to do that, with the eye-twinkling attitude adults use to tell kids something magical; I knew he didn’t believe that flower-honey was the fairies’ favorite drink, but he was giving me permission to believe it, and I think I understood that if I did then maybe he could again too, just a little.
Thinking about the value and the meaning of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a prose 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 and her distrust of the people who declare that they hate them. To end the piece, she writes, “The pigeon was once a dove, and then we built our filthy empire up around it, came to hate it for simply thriving in the midst our decay, came to hate it for not dying.” This is the thing about weeds, too: They grow where most other plants can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground and parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They’re not wanted so they grow in places where they’re not supposed to be, thrive in hostile environments, and make themselves impossible to overlook, whether you think they’re pretty or not. Lots of people find those qualities hard to love, but not me.
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?