waiting room

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“’You got the good heart. Underneath all the other stuff. Good heart is eighty-five percent of everything in life.’” –Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

But… what about the other 15 percent? A mess? Evil? An eternal waiting room.

Cold never bothers me, but the snow. My god, the snow. Watching each morning dawn earlier, light filtering in before 6 in the morning, I want to squeal with delight. Even if it’s -20C. It’s bright! Is anything sweeter than the combination of early, ever-lengthening light and the slow promise of warmer days? Just a matter of waiting for it to change completely.

I keep thinking of something I want to write, but the thought slips away from me before I write it down. So I wait.

I keep finding myself having to say to people, who ask me supposedly simple questions about myself, “We are people. Not elevator pitches.” Yet, every day we are asked in one way or another to reduce ourselves to 30 seconds or less. Take up less space and speak fewer words. I patiently wait my turn, only to be told to hurry it up or be interrupted; no one has time for more than 20 seconds of your face and words.

Presence is, after all, just waiting. I am just waiting.

“…’isn’t it strange that we don’t know who we are? I mean, we know so little about ourselves it’s shocking. We tell ourselves a story and we go along believing in it, and then, it turns out, it’s the wrong story, which means we’ve lived the wrong life.’” The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt

I am waiting (waste of time) to see if I have lived the wrong life by choosing never to decide anything. Never to involve anyone else in the decisions I have made. I am waiting to declare that my prime has passed (“‘One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognise your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full’.” –The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark).

Perhaps there never was a ‘prime’ – and even if there were, I lived it within the wrong confines, the wrong story or context, afraid to embrace it and afraid even of myself. Until a cascade of waiting rooms and endless waiting became the definition of life. Was the prime of life eaten away slowly by waiting – for something to happen, for something to go away, for something or someone that could never fit into the context I was hiding myself in? Waiting, still waiting, be present. It’s only later, in some new reality, that this waiting feels as though it was tedious. The waiting, as it happens, feels full of questions, urgency, anxiety, imbuing each moment with the feeling that something is happening, – or will, any second now – good or bad. Only much later, if I make it, does the perception change.

“‘Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?’ To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.” –No Time to Spare – Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. LeGuin

woe, o faithless foe

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“You could damn yourself with silence but never so effectively as by running your mouth.” –Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

We are taught to stay quiet, so quiet, so as to remain nearly invisible. We hope that we will be noticed in some way despite the enforced, expected silence. Sharing, trusting, talking too much, revealing too much is trouble. To listen is to learn. To be quiet is to fulfill what is expected, to behave in a demure and controlled fashion.

But what if the story you have to tell is important? What if it will save your life, or at least redeem it? What if giving it voice – or life – restores your posture, finally lifting the invisible yoke of self-blame, doubt, responsibility, guilt (whatever it is) from your shoulders? What if finally speaking up frees you – finally – finally – finally?

But the consequences! How well we know and how bitterly we anticipate, and often, feel the consequences. The inevitable (?) backlash, the (un)expected wrath of hostile reactions, even if there is no hint of regret for having unclipped the tongue.

It makes no difference if the self-censorship hides your own feelings, wants, needs, experiences or shields the actions or feelings of others. It makes no difference if silence weaves its cocoon around systemic injustice. It all ends the same if it is never spoken or shared.

in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.