“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves
It was in the deserts of New Mexico that I learned to be alone, to be both inwardly and outwardly silent. The Desert Fathers (and Desert Mothers!) of the third century fled civilization for the desert, I fled the turmoil at home. I set out on foot, left the backyard, ended up in the foothills where I had a favorite trail. I walked that trail in all seasons, by the light of the sun and by the light of the moon.
When I traded desert for swamp, I longed for the silence of the desert. Traveling from the oppressive heat of New Orleans to the white hot light of the desert was a relief and an escape. In the desert I was more focused, seduced by the natural beauty surrounding me rather than the beauty of things. And then there was a marriage and kids which made traveling back to the desert harder and when I did, the experience was different, foreign.
Over the last few weeks I have seen the film Ida five times. It is magnificent and dark. Ida is, literally and figuratively, a quiet movie, reflective of Poland’s state of mind during the early 60s.
Having been left at the convent’s door when she was a baby, Ida has spent her entire life in the convent. Before she can take her vows, her superior urges her to go out into the world (leaving the desert for civilization). She is told, too, that she has one surviving member of her family, an Aunt, and that she is to visit her.
The ending of Ida is probably one of the most satisfying endings I’ve seen. I wanted certain things for her and Pawlikowski (Director) only answers a few, leaving some questions open for interpretation. In the end we know Ida has changed and that she is going to inhabit and live her life in a way she previously hadn’t.
Ida struck a chord for me on many levels: storytelling (how to tell a quiet yet powerful story), visually (stunning), and personally. On a personal level, I think of Ida’s quiet life in the convent, her foray into the world, and return to the convent where she will presumably spend the rest of her life. Now that I’m more rooted than I have ever been, I realize I still crave what I found in the desert all those years ago. What has changed is where I find my desert—in putting pen to paper. I have traded in sand and clear blue skies for paper and ink but the final products, silence and solace, are the same.
Where do you wander to?
I kept thinking I’d get my February reading list posted and then, ho! it was the second week of March and I was still plowing through the stack of books to-be-read and well, here we are kicking April off with a catch up post.
“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”
―Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions
In between reading these other books, I finished my Lenten reading of The Confessions. I first read this in my sophomore year of college in a philosophy class and reading it all these year laters, I see what a great thinker Augustine was. Doing a mental inventory, it’s safe to say this is the first memoir I read all those years ago—a confession to God, written in the fourth century yet it reads as modern; his writing is startling and clear.
I’ve had Longbourn on my shelf for a while now. This is the reimagined telling of Pride and Prejudice which takes the reader beyond the drawing room and into the kitchen and servant’s quarters. If you’re a P & P fan, this will certainly be an interesting read and create a fuller, more colorful picture of life in Regency England.
Off Course is set in the early 80s and focuses on Cressida, a PhD student in economics who moves into her parents cabin to write her dissertation. She is suffering from stagnation and ennui and a lack of motivation to finish her dissertation in economics. The writing is superb but this is a story about the choices Cressida makes, and her decisions left me shaking my head in frustration.
The Unspeakable. Where to begin? This is a collection of ten personal essays on topics that Daum (or society) considers taboo.
The opening essay, “Matricide” begins:
“People who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue.”
I was floored and a bit appalled yet had to keep reading. And while I initially felt I was reading something I shouldn’t, Daum invites you to look, to read. The rest of the collection ranges from food to children to dogs is stylistically perfect but like anything that showcases the author’s thoughts and feelings, isn’t always easy to read. That said, if you want to see how an author writes an impeccable personal essay, you can’t go wrong with Daum’s essays.
“Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he near the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.”
My absolute favorite read of February and March is The Light Between Oceans which I received as a birthday gift from my Red Bean (my, the girl knows me well!). Returning to Australia after four years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an isolated island off the coast. He marries young Isabel and they make their home on isolated Janus Rock. After miscarriages and a still birth, Isabel hears a baby crying from a boat washed up on shore. And this is where their love story becomes a tragic love story. This is a true-to-life story—it’s not always happy but it is reflective of the human condition, bad decisions, desperation, and isolation.
What are you reading? Or better yet, what should I be reading?
“Being Seen: A few thoughts on spring, loneliness, the Violent Femmes, and what my 14-year-old self might think of me now.”
Picture this: It’s a glorious spring day, cool rather than hot (which is rare here in south Louisiana where we go from winter to summer in a week flat), and I’m driving—windows down, sunroof open. “Blister in the Sun” is blaring and I’m scream-singing at the top of my lungs and chair dancing in the driver’s seat. The kids have joined my party and are dancing madly.
While I’m sing-screaming, Let me go on, like a blister in the sun, I’m remembering the spring of my freshman year, riding in J’s white convertible VW Cabriolet (lucky her), a cloudless desert sky overhead. Our school was new, built in the middle of a mesa, surrounded by nothing but desert and tumbleweed. Sitting on Wilshire Ave., top down, we inhaled the scent of freedom as we crept slowly away from the school. Making the right turn on Barstow, the volume turned up, J hit the play button, and the unmistakable opening of “Blister in the Sun” blared from the speakers with the three of us sing-screaming, When I’m a walking / I strut my stuff / and I don’t even know why…. This was how we shook off our day. There were other songs too: “Superman” (R.E.M.), “What You Need” and “This Time” (INXS) , “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (The Clash), “Call Me” and “Heart of Glass” (Blondie) but that spring, we always started with the Violent Femmes and we always took the long way home down Paseo Del Norte, up to Tramway and along the Sandia foothills. We went out of our way to waste gas, to be in motion as if being in motion would prolong the unbearable loneliness we all felt at home. We drove. We laughed. We sang. And for that time we forgot the stuff waiting for us at home.
Back to present day, adult me. Mama me. We went to dinner at the home of my kids’ godparents. These people have known my husband since he was in first grade, watched him grow, welcomed me with open arms when I popped up on the scene, and now, watch my kids grow. Herding my crew in the door, arms full with baby, flowers, and wine, there are arms around my neck and Mrs. N. says, I saw y’all having a party in your car today. I blush and laugh, embarrassed as though I was caught—caught at what? too much fun? driving recklessly while dancing?—and she put her hand on my cheek and said, It’s good to see a mama having fun with her kids. And I laughed, relieved. She sees me, she really sees me, and she accepts me. She celebrates my highs, she is steadfast through my lows, she calls in the morning to make sure fevers have broken and kids are on the mend. I’m learning (always learning) that I’m not all bad and that I’m actually likable despite years and years of being convinced and believing otherwise.
After dinner we drove home, everyone sleepily singing along to “Into the Mystic” (Van Morrison) and I thought about 14-year-old me and how, if she could see me now, she’d be impressed I made it. I think she’d be damned proud too.
PS: After the kids went to bed I watched Sixteen Candles and all these years later Jake Ryan is still dreamy.
“Whether you’re a mother, a painter, a writer, a runner you must be in training to be ready to receive wonder/opportunity/the muse when it arrives.”
I had a conversation last week about ennui. About how the doldrums are an easy pit to fall into yet difficult to climb out of. I know this all too well. This from a woman who wants a bit more than motherhood—room to explore interests, room to uncover passion(s).
I told her about my days. I told her about rhythm and how each time you settle into one it changes (ours seems to change with the seasons). I spoke about how each day seems to resemble the day before and the day before that. How some days we can succumb to the sameness, move through our day with eyes half-closed (half-open?). You may go through several days like this and finally something snaps and you know you need change—something small, anything.
That night you give yourself a pep talk over a glass of wine and you vow that tomorrow will be different, tomorrow will be a fresh start. You get up in the morning, shower and get yourself dressed in something besides yoga pants (and you’re feeling better already), you fix your kids breakfast, and hustle them out the door so you can grab something large, hot, and caffeinated before you take them to the park. Sipping your coffee you watch them play with an open notebook in your lap and you write and scheme and dream about how you can open your heart’s doors.
Maybe it seems silly but this slight variation in your day has lightened the load on your heart. Yes, the days run together and can often feel like a series of Groundhog Days but the truth is, you were operating with half-closed eyes, numbed to the wonder that surrounds you. Whether you’re a mother, a painter, a writer, a runner you must be in training to be ready to receive wonder/opportunity/the muse when it arrives. Wonder will come and it will leave but you won’t despair. You’ll continue to prepare dinners for your family, to make your art, to put pen to paper, to run every morning. This is ebb and flow. This is part of the process.
I’d love to hear how you find wonder amidst the ennui life throws your way!
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I lived with two roommates in college and one loved Joni. Worshipped would be the more accurate word. My other roommate and I were Leonard Cohen people and while M wailed along with Joni in her room, E and I listened to Leonard.
At a recent work-related dinner one of the wives was appalled to discover I didn’t like Joni. I made some offhand comment along the lines of Joni not being my style and the wife ceased to make conversation in my direction for the rest of the night. For reals. It was like being in 3rd grade again and being frozen out on the playground because you wore the wrong bow in your hair. On the way home, we were rehashing the dinner and Mister said, “Thank you for not liking Joni, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime spent listening to that caterwauling.”
I decided maybe I should give Joni another chance, maybe twenty years later Joni would hit a nerve (in the good way). I listened to songs off several albums and still, after all these years, my dislike of Joni’s music is strong. The Nacho wanted to know “why are you torturing my ears?” And so, another failed attempt at liking Joni and I’m okay with this. And if you like Joni, I’m glad and I promise not to hold it against you.
Unrelated to Joni, the Nacho has some serious dance moves with a lot of footwork. I decided it might be fun to show him some James Brown videos because well, footwork. We started with his appearance on Ed Sullivan and the Nacho loved it. He’s got the shuffle, shuffle (because really, what would you call it?), spin, shuffle, shuffle, I feel good down pat. Now he wants a suit.
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