This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.
My copy of The Dream We Carry (named after a line from “This Is the Dream”) has the original Norwegian on the verso and the English translation on the recto. Rilla, curled up beside me, enjoyed comparing the two versions. She was struck by the lovely image of the mountain springs “jumping up” and reached for Google Translate’s snapshot feature to compare the literal (and much less poetic) translation. That led to a line-by-line unpacking of the language. The Hauge collection Luminous Spaces has an entirely different translation and we got really caught up in discussing the figurative and connotative differences between these variants:
…that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known
that I one early morning will glide
in on a wave I have never known
(Google Translate’s rendering of the original—interesting that it’s in first person singular, when both English translations use we)
Slip into a harbor, glide into a cove, glide in on a wave—such distinct and potent images, each in their own way.
There are buckets more I could say about our Hauge conversations, but the only one I’ll mention now is the Fillyjonk connection. We’re reading Tales From Moominvalley and today we finished the scene in which the anxious, constantly catastrophizing Fillyjonk tries to share her worries with her neighbor, Gaffsie, over tea in her gloomy seaside house:
“…This calm is unnatural. It means something terrible is going to happen. Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re so important, but always they’re threatened by mercilessness…By something one can’t ask anything of, or argue with, or understand, and that never tells one anything. Something that one can see drawing near, through a black windowpane, far away on the road, far away to sea, growing and growing but not really showing itself until too late. Mrs. Gaffsie, have you felt it? Tell me that you know what I’m talking about! Please!”
Gaffsie, a practical and restrained creature, doesn’t get it. She’s uncomfortable with the Fillyjonk’s demonstration of emotion, and she doesn’t have much use for a dramatic recitation of all the terrible things that could happen—because none of them have.
The poor Fillyjonk! Hauge’s dream is utterly closed to her—so far, at least.
Today this chapter sent me leaping (like a mountain spring) to read Hauge’s poem “We Don’t Sail the Same Sea”—
We don’t sail the same sea,
though it looks the same.
Rough timber and iron on deck,
sand and cement in the hold,
I ride low, plunge
headlong through breakers,
wail in fog.
You sail in a paper boat,
your dream fills its blue sail,
so soft is the wind, so gentle the wave.
Hauge struggled with depression and had to endure some very dark periods. Some of his poems acknowledge a sense of bleakness or of brooding menace—Fillyjonk feelings. I think the two of them do sail the same sea. But Hauge has the promise of that dream, the promise that some day the doors will open to a world where mountain springs jump up and and the wind fills a blue sail. I have hopes that the Fillyjonk, too, will encounter that dream—perhaps through an encounter with the Moomintroll family, or with Snufkin, later in the book. Right now she’s wailing in fog—with a kind of raw courage, the kind it takes to “plunge / headlong through the breakers.”
Well. At the end of lessons today I said we’d be moving on from Hauge next week, and such a clamor arose! Scott and the children think not. It seems I’ve been remiss in hoarding Hauge to myself all these years. I’m so happy they find him as compelling as I do.
Gotta be quick today: it’s a birthday in these parts. Y’all, my baby is 14. That’s bananas.
In lieu of a new post, here’s something delicious: my father’s family recipe for biscuits with chocolate gravy. When I was growing up, this was the star of the meal whenever we had breakfast for dinner (eggs, bacon, fruit, and biscuits with chocolate gravy—heaven on a plate). After Scott and I had kids, it gradually became our special birthday breakfast. Maybe that’s why we wound up with such a big family—more birthdays!
Okay, I thought this was going to be a quickie. Turns out that old post 2007 had an image hosted on my original Typepad blog. I didn’t know that was even still around! I had to update a bunch of old links and images and now it’s about time to go make dinner—Huck has requested paninis. We’re all about the food today!
A somewhat grainy photo of my four oldest children taken at the Point Loma Lighthouse in 2007, not long after we moved to San Diego. The Pacific was still quite new to them. When I coined the term “tidal homeschooling,” we lived in Virginia and the image was entirely figurative—but when I think back to those early tidal-learning days, this pic is the one I see.
I remember writing here long ago about how my favorite category of post was connections. The serendipitous links of thought we encounter when something we’re reading or experiencing echoes or relates to some earlier conversation, book, film, experience.
Today, for example: we read another Hauge poem (“Winter Morning”) and had a really rich discussion of how much is going on in those four simple lines—a discussion that incorporated some of the conversation we had in the comments here about yesterday’s poem. We talked about the way Hauge uses simple, crisp, concrete images (frosted windowpanes, the glow of a good dream, a woodstove “pour[ing] out its warmth/ from a wood block it had enjoyed the whole night”) to describe a moment, and something much bigger than the moment. And from that rather animated discussion we jumped to Linda Gregg’s “Art of Finding” essay:
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders,” or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck.
But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.
Okay, here’s the thing. I had planned to read this excerpt of Gregg’s essay, and to introduce a new practice for the four of us—Huck, Rilla, Scott, and me. We have a spiral-bound sketchbook that, at intervals, we use as a shared family journal. In 2020 it was the whole family chiming in with quips, sketches, and interesting tidbits. It went dormant last year, and when the Linda Gregg passage resurfaced in my Readwise review over the holidays, I decided to appropriate the journal for this practice. Maybe not daily, but several times a week, we’ll jot down things we’ve seen or heard.
But weeks have passed since I reread the passage, and I’d forgotten that last line—the “marrying of the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.” That’s exactly what we’d just been talking about with the Hauge poem, and what we talked about yesterday. The way he expresses a single image that speaks vividly both as a literal description (in a way that makes your breath catch) and as a reflection on some aspect of human experience. “Marrying the sacred to the world” is what Hauge does best.
So: part intention, part serendipity. The best kind of high-tide morning.
A postscript added after I made today’s recording—listening to the Linda Gregg passage read aloud, I got to “the art of finding” and went Oh of course! And made a note to let tomorrow’s poem be Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Another connection.
This photo is dated October 2016, which seems too recent? Huck would have been six and Rilla around ten. I think. My time-math is blurry. Huck will be fourteen this week. Can you even?
Well, here they are, my last two homeschoolers. We kicked off a new high-tide season this morning, lightly. It struck me recently that while poetry has been a staple of our lesson times since forever, I hadn’t introduced much contemporary poetry to these two. Which is odd, because I read so. much. of it myself. At least one poem a day, often many more than that.
This revelation made my 2023 Fresh Start plans easy: I have loads of lovely and arresting poems I want to share with Huck and Rilla. We’ll keep reading our old favorites, of course, but I plan to dip frequently into the two gorgeous collections edited by James Crews: How to Love the World and The Path to Kindness, as well as Poetry Unbound, Poetry 180, and all the slender, marked-up books on my shelves.
(I say slender, because ages ago I learned a big lesson about myself: I don’t like reading poems in big fat Collected Poems volumes. I want a slim, portable book. I seldom go for a Best Of.)
Today I knew exactly what I wanted to reach for: Olav H. Hauge’s beautiful The Dream We Carry. We read “One Poem a Day” and I was delighted by how much Rilla loved it and saw in it. Huck was reserved at first but warmed to the poem as we discussed it.
One Poem a Day
by Olav H. Hauge translated by Robert Hedin
I’ll write one poem a day,
That should be easy enough.
Browning did it for a while, though
and beat time
with his bushy eyebrows.
So, one poem a day.
Something strikes you,
something catches your eye
—I get up. It’s lighter.
Have good intentions.
And see the bullfinch rise from the cherry tree,
That last image always goes straight to my core. The way he, after mapping out a simple, spare plan for himself, does just what he has resolved to do, capturing some small, striking observed moment in a few lines—lines that represent exactly what the poet does. Like the bullfinch, he rises up, carrying something small, simple, full of promise, the bud of an image that will unfurl into a poem.
Oh, I love him.
Something especially fun about the way our lessons have worked these past few years is that Scott is present for them. He’s got his coffee and his computer, but he listens to the readalouds (of which, despite the kids’ ages, there are many, because we all like learning that way) and he chimes into the discussions, and when I want to show the kids a picture of a bullfinch, he’s already got one pulled up on his screen.
We also began our next Moomins book (Tales from Moominvalley) and watched a couple of scenes from Taming of the Shrew, just for the fun of seeing John Cleese as Petruchio.
Today’s pic is from Emily J’s keyword suggestion of leaf. This one was taken in 2019 and I remember being smitten by the green light shining through!
Well, today turned out to be a medical-mom day, by which I mean I spent 3 1/2 hours on the phone making appointments and updating records. But now my boy is set for the next few months, pending a few callbacks I should get next week.
All part of the job, eh?
Now the blue dark is settling outside the east window. Over the side fence, my neighbor’s magnolia tree looks a bit forlorn; our landlord sent some guys today to cut back the branches that were overhanging our patio. I can see clear through the tree to the trunk now and it feels a bit impolite to stare at its secrets.
Have you read Wishtree? I wrote a Dart for it, one of Katherine Applegate’s loveliest novels. If you don’t know it, you should treat yourself, even if you haven’t got a small child around to read to. I don’t either, anymore! How strange is that? But Huck read this one, perched beside me while I wrote the Dart (he often chimes in with adjective suggestions), and it was his favorite of last year’s Dart line-up. A gorgeous book about the long memories of trees, and the bustling world in and above and under and around them, and human stories, too: prejudice and pain and friendship and wonder.
We saw an owl in the magnolia last summer. Heard it calling and one by one we gathered in my studio to listen. He flew silently into the hidden center of the tree, behind the wide flat leaves, and resumed his thoughtful two-note meditation as we stood there, hushed and awed.
There. I put in “owl” and look what I found. Rilla painted this pair in 2014, just before she turned eight. Sometimes I forget what riches this blog holds for me.
I typed “January” into my media library and this African violet from several years back is what popped up. Today’s windowsill looks much the same.
Updated to add audio again! Like yesterday, I recorded this in one gulp on my phone. It’ll have hiccups, but if I start trying to polish it up, I’ll never be able to stick with this. Thanks for understanding!
Oh my goodness, what a delight to wake up to so many comments from old blog-world friends! I really really want to get in the habit of dashing off a quick post every day, probably around lunchtime, because otherwise I’ll start doing the thing where a half-written draft takes on too much weight and I never come back to it.
I am terribly fond of containers. I used to have such a good one for blogging—the necessarily short transition from mom hat to writer hat. If I spent too long on a post, I’d lose my window for writing, and I had pretty intense book deadlines when I started this blog (and a lot of bairns) so I didn’t have any windows to spare.
My day still falls pretty neatly into a mom focus and a work focus, but the rhythms are quite different now that I’m only homeschooling Huck and Rilla—who, if you’ve lost track—are now both in their teens, and now that I do a lot of freelance work in addition to writing my own books. I’m prone to catapulting straight from lesson time into work brain without taking a breather. (Or else I dip into social media and take too long a breather!)
Well, I’ll try this midday container for blogging and see how it goes. My friend Chris O’Donnell—who has been blogging longer than anyone I know—made me laugh on Facebook this morning with his New Year’s Eve post: Happy “I will write more on my blog and less on social media next year” night to all who celebrate. Ha! I can’t deny that that shoe fits!
Okay, SO. As I read your comments, a slew of replies and post ideas rolodexed through my brain. I made a list. I made several lists. This is so energizing! Thanks, seriously, for jumping right back into conversation here. You made my day.
Question: if I reply to a comment, do you see it? I used to have an option for readers to get comment replies by email, but I feel like that stopped working a long time ago. Just curious.
My gravatar isn’t working, either! But some of yours are. I mean, I logged into my gravatar account and it still appears to be linked to this one, but the pic doesn’t show up.
Well, that’s cosmetic and not all that important. I promise I’ll stop being 100% metabloggy soon. But, you know, first you have to tune up the jalopy before you can take it for a spin! 😄
I liked, yesterday, that I landed on the idea that our old blog conversations were like letters from friends. They didn’t always feel that way, but they often did—chatty glimpses of life in someone else’s world. I’ve always loved a good epistolary tome! I remember so happily the leap of the heart at seeing a friend’s particular handwriting in the mail, and that’s how it felt when your names popped up here yesterday.
All righty. Lunch is over and I’m ready to get back to the household-reset that is my much beloved New Year’s Day tradition. I did the files this morning and now I want to tackle some bookshelves. And it’s sunny today! In Portland, in January! I think Scott & I will take a walk after he finishes chopping an onion for the black-eyed peas.
I’ve already overhauled my studio for the season, and I’m half giddy over the enticing rows on the little built-in shelves next to my writing chair: a shelf for poetry, one for fiction and nonfiction (currently reading or at the front of the queue), and one for embroidery and art books. Heaven. The two books delighting me most at the moment are Padraig O’Tuama’s perfectly wonderful Poetry Unbound (which I forgot I’d preordered until it arrived—on my birthday!) and Gareth King’s Modern Welsh: A Comprehensive Grammar. It sounds funny to say I’m enthralled by a grammar book, but I am! Both for the clarity he brings to the concepts I’ve learned in three months of study on Duolingo and Say Something in Welsh, and for his descriptivist approach to language, which is so in keeping with my own approach and the vibe of the Brave Writer programs I write for.
I want to say more about the Say Something In courses soon—I’m wildly enthusiastic, and if you or your kids are studying Welsh, Spanish, or Dutch, you should check them out—and more, too, about Readwise and some of the things you mentioned in the comments. And Moominmamma, that post has been percolating for a while.
So much to talk about, once I start talking.
Well, I said I wanted to dash off a post and I have, in the sense that I wrote it rapidly and haven’t gone back to polish anything at all—but I didn’t promise it would be a short one. I’m not a novelist for nothing. 😉
…is where I’ve been. Literally, kind of: May & June allergy season kicked off a pretty brutal adventure with asthma—same as every year, but worse this time. Last week the doctor changed up my asthma & allergy meds and I’m much improved. Still coughing but the shortness of breath & crushing fatigue are diminishing. I can wipe down the kitchen or take a shower without getting winded, which is huge.
I’ve been keeping up with my client work, but my own writing bore the brunt of the fatigue. Creative battery totally drained. This week, as I begin to feel lots better, I’m working to reset my creative practice and good habits. Taking it slow, though!
I’ve been dialed waaaay back on social media, too—which is a good thing? But this blog fell silent too, and I’ve missed capturing thoughts and adventures here. And I’m aching to be back in a fertile groove with my book.
So much for what I haven’t done; how about what I have?
—Lots of Minecraft, with kids and without. We have a Realm where we can all play together and I had fun building a whole village of medieval-style houses for us to live in. In my own world, I’ve got a pretty little Hobbiton going. Mellow and satisfying, and certainly creative in its way.
—Read Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. I’ve followed his blog for ages and I really like his “CODE” process (Capture, Organize, Distill, Express) for navigating all the reading I do constantly, on many fronts, and finding connections and throughlines in the ideas I’ve captured, and writing about them to assimilate and synthesize that knowledge. Basically it’s a name for what I did on this blog in its first twelve years—gathered thoughts about my reading, noted connections, worked out my ideas about whatever topics were gripping me. Somewhere along the line I shifted to doing that work more on paper than on the blog—also a nourishing practice but it eradicated some vital steps in the Organize, Distill, and Express parts of the process. It’s so hard to find anything I jotted down in one of the dozens of paper notebooks I’ve filled over the years. Which makes distilling the ideas difficult, which makes expressing them a longer and less serendipitous process. So my big takeaway from Forte’s book was to:
—Revisit the ways I’m capturing information and ideas. I’ve used Evernote for at least a decade, for stashing away everything of interest I encounter on the internet. So this past month, I tidied up my notebooks and reorganized with Forte’s Second Brain (digital brain) “PARA” structure in mind: Projects, Areas of Interest, Resources, Archive. Now, personally I find a lot of overlap between Areas and Resources, so my system is different from Forte’s. Which tweaking he encourages, of course! But if your Capture tool has a robust search engine (and Evernote has one of the best), how you organize your notes is of less importance, because you can always surface what you need via search.
—Of course I’m still writing in notebooks. Pen and paper does spark a different kind of fertile, creative thought. So I’m making it a practice to read over my scribbles at least weekly and move anything of use or interest into Evernote. Sometimes I type things up (a helpful practice for zero drafts of poems) and other times I just take a picture. Evernote’s search can even deal with handwriting! This practice is another way of leaning into the “Second Brain” concept—recognizing that we live in an information-overload age and it isn’t possible to hold it all in one’s own (first) brain anymore. There’s a lot of peace in trusting you’ll find what you need in your archive. And, I mean, so many of us homeschooling blogger types experienced the magic of the Distill and Express parts of the process in the enthusiastic discourse that led to such good writing & experiences in those days.
—Even in my fatigued state, the thrill I get from trying out a new app or platform has been as intense as ever. Over the past year or two, I’ve tested lots of notetaking and project-planning apps (a slew of Capture tools, basically). Notion, Roam Research, Logseq, Mem, Sunsuma—these are all excellent projects with unique structures and uses. You’ll find diehard fans of each one. In the end, though (ha—there is never a true end to this experimentation), I determined that Evernote makes the most sense for me. I like its looks, its functionality, and its amazing integration. For task tracking and timeblocking, I use Todoist, and I’ve been really happy with my setup there for a long time. The other two apps I lean on constantly, with gratitude for the role they play, are Readwise and Momentum Dash. The former catches all my Kindle highlights, article quotes, and any passages I’ve marked in print books & sent (via photo) to the app; and it sends all these juicy bits of good stuff to Evernote where I can…search them whenever I want. And Momentum Dash is a nice focusing element in my browser. When you open a new tab, you get a nice clean screen with a beautiful photo—no Google distractions. You can add habit tracking across the top if you wish, plus other tidbits like the weather. And you can customize tab sets to make it easier to stay focused on a particular type of work. For example, I have one set that opens all the tabs I need to do my social media job for Low Bar Chorale. Another one opens only what I need for daily planning. It’s an elegant little browser extension that went a long way toward cutting down drifting and getting sucked into feeds, or having Twitter open all day.
(P.S. That Todoist link is an affiliate link—I rely on the app so much I signed up for their referral program. If you’re interested in how I use it to keep track of homeschooling, housework, medical admin, client work, and creative projects, I’m happy to rave about my system anytime.)
—Since May, I’ve written the first three (!) Brave Writer Darts of the current year’s lineup. Am at work on the fourth, for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lovely novel Solimar, now.
—I’ve worked a little bit on a long-term project to create a resource for Oregon families with a kid making the shift from child disability services to adult services. I documented the almost-a-year-long process we navigated for my son, and I was stunned to discover the road map/timeline/checklist I yearned for doesn’t exist. So I’m making one to share. Slow but steady progress.
—As for stitching, I’ve mostly been mending socks and jeans. My embroidery projects have been on idle.
—And (since this got long!) one last thing I’ve been reading and enjoying immensely: A. R. Moxon’s post series called “Unpacking LOST.“ I’m a major LOST fan, have watched the whole run at least six times, plus twice more chronologically. Moxon’s take on the show is brilliant and riveting, and each time a new installment drops, it makes my day.
Hope summer is treating you well, friends. Let’s catch up!
When I read the Moomins books aloud, I have to remember which voices I used for each character in our first reading many years ago. For some, that’s a piece of cake (I never have to wonder what Snufkin sounds like; Snufkin is immutably Snufkin), but sometimes a secondary character will pop up and I’ll have to ask, wait, what did the Muskrat sound like? And sometimes I’ll run through a few possibilities and the kids will say, There, that’s the one.
The Hemulen sounds like Eeyore, only British. I think of Moominmamma’s voice as low and soft, but I think it sounds lower inside my head than outside, because Scott says it sounds like Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. Votes for women!
Moomintroll is easy—he’s had the same enthusiastic timbre for a decade—but it was only this year that I suddenly realized what voice I’m doing for him. It’s my Hayley Mills voice—or more precisely, my version of the Hayley Mills impression Julia Sweeney does in one of her one-woman shows. “Girls,” she breathes, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!” That’s my Moomintroll. Excited, eager, delighted, always rallying his companions to adventure.
I was therefore mightily amused when, in a recent chapter, Moomintroll actually does say “I’ve got a brilliant idea!”
I’m a little vexed with myself over the Moomins, though. After a many-years stroll through the series, Huck and Rilla and I took up the final book, Moominvalley in November, last November (fittingly and deliberately). I hadn’t read that one before and it became one of my favorites, though it is markedly different from the rest of the series in tone and cast of characters. There were so many passages I wanted to share here. But a readaloud is the one time I can’t stop and make a note! I mean, I do occasionally, interrupting the narrative to ask Scott to Slack me a phrase—but I lose track of those messages and never seem to follow through on copying out the quote or noting a connection.
After November, it was decided by unanimous vote that I should start all over again at the beginning of the series. Comet in Moominland was a deep delight—containing as it does Moomintroll and Sniff’s first encounter with Snufkin. Not to mention the Snork Maiden, her brother the Snork, and the Hemulen. It also contains the scene Rilla and I agree is the funniest in all the series: the visit to the small shop run by a kindly old lady. Snufkin tries on a pair of new trousers but decides to stick with his old ones (this is extremely Snufkin of him). The others’ purchases are tallied up—”That will be 20 3/4 pence altogether”—and that’s when they remember none of them is carrying a single penny.
Nobody said anything. The Snork Maiden picked up the looking-glass and laid it on the counter with a sigh. Moomintroll started unpinning his medal, the Snork wondered if exercise books cost more or less after you had written in them, and Sniff just thought about his lemonade, which was mostly on the floor anyway.
The old lady gave a little cough.
“Well, now, my children,” she said. “There are the trousers that Snufkin didn’t want; they are worth exactly 20 pence, so you see one cancels out the other, and you don’t really owe me anything at all.”
“Is that really so?” asked Moomintroll doubtfully.
“It’s as clear as day, little Moomintroll,” said the old lady. “I’ll keep the trousers.”
The Snork tried to count it up in his head, but he couldn’t, so he wrote it in the exercise book like this:
Exercise book 1 3/4
Medal 5 Looking-glass (with rubies) 11
Total 20 3/4 Trousers 20
20=20 3/4 left over.
“It’s quite right,” he said in surprise.
“But there’s 3/4 pence left over,” said Sniff. “Don’t we get that?”
“Don’t be mean,” said Snufkin. “We’ll call it even.”
Rilla and I agree we like this kind of shopping math.
I did remember I’d made note of page 120 in Comet, but not what was on it. Today I finally refreshed my memory and found this, which made me laugh because it reminds me of blogging:
“My pappa has built a wonderful bridge,” said Moomintroll, for about the third time, “but mostly he writes in a book called ‘Memoirs.’ It’s all about what he has done in his life, and as soon as he does something else he writes that down, too.”
“Then surely he hasn’t got time to do very much?” said the Snork Maiden.
“Oh, well,” said Moomintroll. “He makes sure of doing things now and again, even if it’s only to give himself something to write about.”
Reading, writing, thinking.
Drawing, stitching, walking.
Singing (in groups when possible).
And an endeavor I’m thinking of as: Use it or lose it. Some would call it decluttering, but that’s a word that has lost meaning for me since it translates (in my past actions to): jumble all the clutter into a box and stash it in the garage to deal with later. The Swedish term döstädning aptly describes my intentions—getting rid of all your extra stuff sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t become someone else’s problem—but I can’t bring myself to put “death cleaning” on a list. Anyway, it freaks out the children, especially in Pandemic Year 3.
But seriously: I want to use up all the fabric, floss, paints, and pens I’ve acquired. And (gasp) I guess we really don’t need to hold on to Math-U-See Alpha anymore—not with my youngest poised to begin Geometry this week.
And books, these mountains of books.
Speaking of which
Here’s a touch of serendipity in my reading life (which is kind of redundant—any real reading life is going to be loaded with crossovers and connections):
And struggled! For hours. But before I get to the struggle, the serendipity. Late in the evening, straining to stay awake for the kids’ jubilant countdown, I opened a review copy of The Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine. First monotask (that is, the first endeavor to train or retrain yourself to do with full presence, not multitasking): reading. And there was Proust and the Squid being quoted—a passage similar to something I’d underlined in Reader, Come Home just hours earlier.
With the invention of reading, Wolf writes, “we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.”
Able to think
In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explores this concept in great depth, with detailed explanations of what’s actually happening in the circuitry of our brains as we read—and how those circuits are being altered by the kinds of reading we do now, the short bursts, rapid flitting, and homogenized hot takes of our sundry feeds. To read deeply, critically, in a way that allows for long-term memory and for synthesis of ideas, we must read deliberately, with single focus.
I really struggled to stay in sharp focus while reading Wolf’s book yesterday. I helped myself along by taking copious notes in a fresh notebook (a lovely blue gift from Jane). I kept at it for much longer than my brain wanted. It felt urgent, a diving into the deep end and flailing, half drowning, until my mind rediscovered old neural pathways and remembered how to swim.
A striking moment in Wolf’s book is her confession, midway through, that she too—while drafting this very book—discovered she had forgotten how to swim in deep water.
I set up an experiment…My null hypothesis, if you will, was that I had not changed my reading style; rather, only the time I had available for reading had changed. I could prove that simply enough by controlling for it by setting aside the same amount of time every day and faithfully observing my own reading of a linguistically difficult, conceptually demanding novel, one that had been one of my favorite books when I was younger. I would know the plot. There would be no suspense or mystery involved. I would have only to analyze what I was doing during my reading in the same way that I might analyze what a person with dyslexia does when he or she is reading in my research center.
With little hesitation I chose Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, also known as The Glass Bead Game, which was cited when Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. To say I began the experiment with the most cheerful of dispositions is no exaggeration. I was practically gleeful at the idea that I would be forcing myself to reread one of the most influential books of my earlier years.
Force became the operative word. When I began to read Magister Ludi, I experienced the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex. I could not read it. The style seemed obdurately opaque to me: too dense (!) with unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me. The pace of action was impossible. A bunch of monks slowly walking up and down stairs was the only image that came to mind. It was as if someone had poured thick molasses over my brain whenever I picked Magister Ludi up to read.
Molasses on the brain
I’ve known for a while that the feeds were changing my brain. I hadn’t stopped reading books—quite the opposite—I spent last May reading the ten middle-grade novels I’d been assigned to write Brave Writer literature guides for; in June I luxuriated in an Emily St. John Mandel binge, reading or rereading her five gorgeous novels—and later in the summer I fell headlong into a review copy of her sixth, Sea of Tranquility, which I adored; and between October and mid-December I read nearly two dozen high-school nonfiction books as a CYBIL Awards round-one judge, and as soon as that work was finished, I treated myself to a reread of the 600-page Riddle-master trilogy.
Plus the aforementioned unplug-from-the-feeds-already jag of late December.
(I should reread M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s been a while.)
So okay, I’ve been reading. But it’s more work than it used to be.
First: the work of choosing to read instead of scroll (or clean, or work, or whatever else is clamoring for my attention).
Then the impossible work of choosing what to read. Which of the thousand books wooing me shall I pick up? I walk around the house collecting stacks; I page through my Kindle library; I dip a toe in here, there; I wonder if there’s any new news about Omicron or the fires. I remember a video I saved to watch later. It’s later.
This post is too long already, but I’m just getting started
I was going to type up a bunch of the notes I copied out from Wolf’s book—this self-assigned copywork practice being a large part of my personal strategy for combating the molasses—but now that I’ve written this much about Reader, Come Home, I’m thinking it would be a good candidate for my February book club pick over on Patreon.
Okay, so I’ll save most of my Wolf quotes for next month. As for this morning’s molasses-free ramble through a Ted Kooser essay that sparked connections to Li-Young Lee and Olav Hauge? There’s another post bubbling there, proving yet again an axiom I’ve held for decades: the more I read books (not tweets!), the more I have to write.
And—Wolf’s thesis—what we read, and in what medium, affects how we think. I’ve certainly found the corollary to be true: what medium I read shapes what I’m compelled to write. Reading Twitter makes me want to write witty tweets. Reading Facebook makes me want to write rude things on walls. (I kid! I don’t actually spend much time on Facebook anymore, outside my social-media gig.)
Reading poetry absolutely turns me into a poet for a little while. I’ll jump ahead to my Ted Kooser notes for just a moment to share this passages which is beautiful and true:
“What is most difficult for a poet is to find the time to read and write when there are so many distractions, like making a living and caring for others. But the time set aside for being a poet, even if only for a few moments each day, can be wonderfully happy, full of joyous, solitary discovery.”
—The Poetry Home Repair Manual, p. 6
The “solitary” part doesn’t last long for me—what I learned over and over in my first decade of blogging was that reading leads to writing leads to sharing. Learning in public, thinking out loud, and inviting the lively exchange of ideas we exhilarated in, back in those heady days before social media changed, well, everything.
From time to time I take myself in hand and impose fierce limits on my access to the feeds. I use the Downtime and Screen Time apps on my phone, and sometimes the Freedom app on my laptop, to insert roadblocks between me and the myriad tempting distractions. I delete apps, or hide them if I need to keep them around because of work; I move them to different screens so I can’t open them on autopilot. I especially like this trick: I design wallpaper for my home screen to remind myself what I really want to be doing.
(I’m happy to share if you’d like a copy.)
Anyway, Happy New Year! I wish you good reading, deep thinking, and molasses in your gingerbread but not in your brain.