Forest Bathing Can Save Your Soul

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.

Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.

The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.

The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.

And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.

Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.

I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.

My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.

All is Not Well

I have been writing much less frequently, for the simple reason that I find I have nothing much to say, perhaps because it’s been a busy summer filled with outdoor activities and a new puppy, or because I’ve been in reading rather than writing mode. I used to push myself to write here in order to present material, as a kind of gift, to my readers. That was before I realized that my readers are ephemeral, ghost-like entities who may or may not exist in the real world. Since that realization, I’ve not only given up on gift-giving of this sort, but also actively discouraged (if you can count de-linking this blog from Facebook as discouragement, which I do) readers from finding The Tabard Inn. I did this originally in a fit of pique, but now I believe that it was a healthy thing to do, and the sum total of this paragraph is this: if you have somehow found this blog and are reading it now, you are one of the few, the special–not to mention the exceedingly strange–people who actually read what I write. So thank you for that. I think.

Anyway, I have something to say this morning, which explains this post. Having seen an advertisement for Mona Awad’s new novel All’s Well (Simon and Schuster), I decided to read it, and even convinced a friend (thanks, Anne!) to read it as well. And now I’m moved to write about it, not because it’s good, but because I hate it.

Fair warning: the book may indeed be very good, so don’t look upon this as a bad review. After fifty-odd years of reading critically, after a career in teaching literature at the college level, after immersing myself in the world of books and reading for my entire life, I find I no longer have any confidence in my own judgments on literary works. I mean, I know that I personally think Tintern Abbey is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever written, just as I know that I personally love pretty much any book by Dickens or any Bronte (but not Anthony Trollope, who can sometimes be a huge arschloch)–but I don’t know if that constitutes great literature, or something that other people will enjoy or find value in. I seem to be entering a period of extreme intellectual solipsism, which is worrisome, yet not too worrisome considering all the crap that’s going down in the world at this point in time.

So, to continue, I hated All’s Well for several reasons. First, and most intensely, because Awad does what I have tried to do in the two novels I’ve written: identified a literary subtext and play a textual game of cat-and-mouse with it as I develop the characters, setting, and plot. For Effie Marten, it was of course Jane Eyre; for Betony Lodge, it was Far From the Madding Crowd, or perhaps The Woodlanders, or any of several Thomas Hardy novels (other than Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure–I know enough to leave those two novels alone). Seeing someone else do what I’ve tried to do with uneven success sets my teeth on edge, which may not be charitable of me. To be honest, I don’t think Awad was any more successful than I was, and maybe that’s the problem.

It bothers me, too, that Awad chose a Shakespeare play (or really two, perhaps even more) as a subtext, not because Shakespeare is inviolable or holy, but because she spins her novel out of the most pedestrian, superficial reading of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. I have long held the opinion that most Shakespeare plays are monumentally misunderstood by modern audiences, a fact that is exacerbated and perhaps even caused by the fact that the plays are by and large mis-titled. The Merchant of Venice, for example, is not about the Merchant Antonio–it’s more about Shylock, or even Portia, than it is about Antonio. Is Othello about Othello or about Iago? Julius Caesar seems to focus much more on Brutus than it does on Caesar, who is killed fairly early in the play. As for the comedies, the titles are simply throwaway phrases designed to get attention.

When I used to teach Shakespeare, I would tell my students that the plays we studied could be boiled down to one word. This may or may not be true, but it is a good way to get students into reading and understanding a Shakespeare play. I’ll give a few examples below, but it’s important to realize that there is no one “right” word to describe a play. You can use this method like a tool–something like a slide rule or a kaleidoscope to lay over each play, dial up a word suggested by the play, and get to work interpreting it.

Much Ado About Nothing: Interpretation

The Merchant of Venice: Gambling

Romeo and Juliet: Obedience

Whether this method works or not isn’t the issue here. What matters to me with respect to Awad’s novel is that she picks the limpest, flimsiest interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. Granted, it is a problematic play (though I disagree with the tendency to call it a “Problem Play,” as if, like an unruly child, this label can explain everything and short-circuit any attempt to make sense of it). The whole plot, in which the heroine Helena falls in love with the idiotic but presumably handsome Bertram, who rejects her until the last line of the play, is pretty distasteful and downright stupid. But that, I would argue, is not the point of the play. Rather, I believe the play is about how Helena empowers herself in a patriarchal system, ending up in a far more powerful position by using the very tools of patriarchy to do so, while also helping other women “beat” patriarchy at its own game on the way. Granted, this limited victory is nowhere near as satisfying as it would have been had Helena smashed patriarchy to smithereens and performed a wild dance upon its writhing body parts, but that kind of action was simply not possible in the world depicted by Shakespeare. Helena, I’d argue, did the best she could in the world she found herself in.

So, to get back to Awad’s novel, my biggest problem with the novel is that it rests on a sophomoric interpretation of the play. And so, what I thought would be a witty and erudite use of All’s Well that Ends Well became a kind of albatross that made me wince while reading the book. In other words, I thought I might be getting Shakespeare ReTold (a really fine set of retellings of five plays produced by the BBC), but instead I got a mashup of Slings and Arrows plus “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It felt cobbled together, and, frankly, kind of pointless. In the end, Awad uses a kind of trick to grab her readers’ attention, then spins off into a tale that is full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.

That, however, seems to be how I see a great deal of contemporary literature these days, full of sturm und drang but ultimately useless in my trek through life. As I said above, I don’t have the confidence or the desire to argue that my approach is the correct one–rather, I question my own judgment, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels this way. And so, rather than push my own view of this novel, I’m satsified to register my own objections to it here, acting like King Midas’s barber, who whispered that his employer had donkey ears into a hole in the ground just because he had to tell someone his grand secret.

Donkey ears? That would be A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wouldn’t it?

P is for Parakeet

George and Martha, my current parakeets

I do a lot of reading in my spare time, and I have tons of spare time right now, so it follows that I have been reading a great deal. As I indicated in my last post, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone (Victorian and early 19th century novels and poems) to learn a bit about environmentalism and the natural sciences. One book I recently started to listen to is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of her attempt to train a hawk as a therapeutic attempt to cope with her father’s death. I have to be honest: there’s a part of me–a part I’m not proud of–that is just a bit critical, perhaps more than a little impatient, with Macdonald’s musings. I began to talk back to the book in that way we do when we’re feeling a little bit snarky. (I assume we all do this–at least, I hope I’m not the only one in the world who talks back to books.) In short, I wondered what my foray into avian behavioral training would like if I deigned to tell my story.

This is my long-winded way of saying that for Helen Macdonald, H may be for Hawk, but in my world P is for Parakeet.

I must have been about six years old when I acquired my first parakeet, a blue-breasted beauty that sat in his cage all morning long, patiently awaiting my return home from school, only to burst into song when I charged through the door of our Brooklyn duplex. His name was Fluffy, short for Fluffernutter Ike, a compilation of the two things I loved most in the world at that age: fluffernutter sandwiches (a noxious peanut butter and marshamallow combination that was guaranteed to make anyone over ten years old gag) and Dwight D.Eisenhower. I liked Ike because he was a war hero and a fine president, but most of all, because his birthday was the day before mine.

At any rate, I had had Fluffy for perhaps a year when he succumbed to a draft in the house, dying on Christmas day. Aside from the all-too-real grief this inspired in a small child, Fluffy’s untimely death presented another problem: what to do with the body. I’m sure my parents suggested disposing of it in the trash can outside, but I was adamant that he deserved a proper burial. I’m not sure who came up with a plan so brilliant it was doomed to fail, but this is how we solved the problem of what to do with the dead parakeet. Amid the Christmas debris of opened presents, strewn wrapping paper, and red-and-green ribbons was a gaily striped gift box, perfectly sized for Fluffy’s small, inert corpse, and into that he went. Even I realized that it was too gross to keep the box in the house, so we agreed that it seemed best to put the box with Fluffy inside it into the metal milkbox that sat outside, just below the kitchen window. Into that milkbox went Fluffy’s casket to await a proper burial, hopefully within the next few days, when the Brooklyn ground thawed.

It’s pretty obvious by now where this story is going, so I’ll be brief. Our milkman must have been of English descent, because he took Fluffy off with him, undoubtedly thinking that since it was Boxing Day, we had provided him with a nice little gift. It was a gift redolent of the meal that Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford in the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? When I came inside that afternoon, after playing outside with my new Christmas toys, with the news that Fluffy’s casket had mysteriously disappeared, my parents were aghast. I’m not sure what they did in response: perhaps they actually went out and got the milkman a proper present. I’d like to think that they did. All I know is that by the following afternoon, the box–with Fluffy still nestled peacefully within it–had been discreetly returned to the milkbox.

Perhaps I was inconsolable at the loss of Fluffy, because I got another parakeet fairly quickly after his demise. This parakeet was named Dinky, and he was present at the break-up of my family, a spectacular and somewhat tragic event in which my parents had one last dramatic and prolonged argument that ended with my mother taking the three of us children and our beagle Honeybee to Texas with her. In the chaos preceding our departure, my mother forgot about Dinky, but I must have protested loudly, because she supplied me with a shoebox and a Schrafft’s bag and told me to put Dinky in there for the duration of the airplane flight. This was, of course, long before security checks and TSA, and it was relatively easy to sneak things onto a flight, and Dinky, secure in his well-ventilated cardboard box at the bottom of the paper shopping bag, got on board without a hitch. I sat, somewhat shellshocked by the knowledge that things would never go back to normal for my family, clutching the Schrafft’s bag on my lap as the plane taxied onto the runway and took off. Once we leveled off, however, the stewardess (it was a stewardess in those days, not a flight attendant), came by, glanced at the bag that I was clenching, and took it from me, saying, “You don’t have to carry this on your lap for the whole flight, dearie. I’ll put it up above you.” I watched, tongue-tied with horror, as she took my bag, turned it upside down, and jammed it into the overhead bin. Fearing that I would get in trouble for sneaking my beloved bird aboard, I said nothing even though I was convinced that the jolting had killed him. I simply sat there in my aisle seat, blinking back my tears, the picture of nine-year-old stoicism.

But something surprising happened about midway through the three-hour flight. Dinky, far from being dead, perked up and started chirping–quite loudly. In fact, his song got louder and and louder until everyone on that plane, it seemed, heard it. It was an insistent chirp–thankfully not a screech–and it crescendoed until it was the only sound I could hear. I’m not sure what my mother was thinking, as she was in the row behind me; goodness knows she had enough to deal with. “Do something,” said my sister, who was next to me; however, I had no idea what to do. It turned out that I didn’t need to do anything, because just then the stewardess walked up to my seat. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that I was about to get in big trouble. There was a pause, and then, leaning over me, she patted me on my shoulder and handed me the Schrafft’s bag, with Dinky still singing inside. “Here,” she said. “I think you need to keep this with you, after all.” I hope that stewardess understood what a difference she made to a young girl who had a lot on her plate that day.

Fluffy and Dinky have been followed by several other parakeets. Most recently, I’ve fallen into the trap of multiple bird ownership. Having found out that parakeets do well in pairs–at least mine do–I keep two together, thinking they provide companionship for each other, and always intending that this pair is the last pair I’ll own. But somehow I can never extricate myself from parakeet ownership. People have actually given me parakeets that they no longer want, and, like a sap, I accept them and take care of them. I suppose, in a way, taking care of parakeets is one of my functions in life.

And while I like parakeets a lot, I can’t say that I feel anything like the veneration and awe for them that Macdonald feels for hawks. But there’s a bright side to that–my peroration on parakeets is a hell of a lot shorter than hers on hawks is and, I hope, a bit less pretentious as well.

The Autodidact: Nature/Ecology/Conservation

Like many other people my age, I received a fairly narrow education in high school. I compounded the damage done by willingly narrowing down my fields of interest even further once I got to college, and by necessity, still more when I was in graduate school. It follows that now, as a retired professor of English entering my seventh decade on this planet, I can discourse endlessly about William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and the fact that the former gave the latter a gift of a Border Terrier dog named Pepper (honest!), but until recently, I couldn’t tell you a thing about how trees grow and what happens in a forest.

Had I become aware of this lacuna in my education earlier in my life, it probably would not have bothered me. Many people, perhaps most people, live with their own ignorance staring them in the face. I was no different; if I was ignorant in one topic, I had other areas of knowledge to compensate for it, right? Perhaps what is remarkable isn’t so much my ignorance, but rather my decision to remedy it, although this scenario must be repeated endlessly among human beings, in adults and children alike. One day, seemingly out of the blue, we decide we want to know more about something, and so we take it up, read about it, perhaps compulsively, until we educate ourselves out of our own ignorance.

The event which sparked my self-education is simple to identify: my husband and I bought a forest. Describing it in this way, however, makes me cringe with distaste. I hate using the term “bought,” which denotes a mere cash transaction. It’s better, I think, to say that I acquired a forest, becoming its guardian and its careful observer. By acquiring it and walking in it hundreds of times, I fell in love with it. And like any new lover, I wanted to know everything about it I could; so, when I wasn’t in the forest, or doing the endless quotidian tasks that make up the greater part of a person’s life, I set out on my journey to learn as much as I could absorb at this late date about trees, ecology, and conservation.

One of the first books I read was Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which is pretty much the Lyrical Ballads (for you Wordsworth lovers) of ecology writing. The idea of a Land Ethic was new to me, but I could see that it was as important, in its way, as the idea of negative capability was to Keats. I took two full pages of handwritten notes from Leopold’s book, which I won’t go into here, as it deserves its own blog post. For now, I’ll just say that several generations of conservationists and ecologists have been influenced by Leopold’s book; I was late to the party, as usual, and had never even heard of it–evidence of my flimsy natural science/ecology education.

Leopold’s book is important, but I have also been touched by a book I picked, at random, from the shelf of my local library: The Biography of a Tree, by James P. Jackson. It is just what it says it is: the life story of a white oak tree, from acorn to seedling, then on to forest giant and finally as a dead trunk rotting on the forest floor. This may not sound interesting, but Jackson pulls it off beautifully. The writing is careful and precise, while at the same time evocative. Jackson’s work, however, seems to be virtually unknown. (To prove this, I’ll just point out that his Amazon best-seller rating is even lower than that of my own two novels, and that’s saying something.) He seems never to have written anything else. In this age of instant contact, I found myself wanting to email him, or to follow him on Twitter to thank him for his painstaking work–but there’s no digital trace of him at all.

Alas, it is a sad and lonely business being a writer–as many of my readers know from first-hand experience. Pouring one’s heart and soul into a labor that will go unacknowledged is a risky business, and a thankless one, but at the same time it is a vitally important one. Can we take some slight solace in the fact that once published, a work may go unread for decades (The Biography of a Tree was published in 1979), only to spring to life, on cue, in a new reader’s hands, inspiring new thoughts, emotions, and passions decades after it was forgotten by an inhospitable public? Reading Jackson’s work, I realized that a writer’s life resembles that of the seventeen-year cicada, a recurring character in his book, a forest denizen that burrows itself below the soil for almost two decades, only to emerge into the sun for a mere month or two of life in the sunshine. The majority of its life is invisible, almost dormant–but it can accomplish so much during those short days it spends above the ground. Jackson’s book is the same: it may be inert and ineffective while it sits on the shelf of libraries, but once in the hands of an interested reader, what power it has! What influence! And though my appreciation of James P. Jackson comes too late to do him any good, at least it has done me worlds of good to have read, and appreciated, his work.

Something Different

I am very close to finishing up Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel which too few people today have ever read or even care about, and I will have something to say about that soon. But for now, I thought I’d post a short story I’ve written, whose title is…

The Decay of Memory

I

 The first and only time Terri Goodkind went to Vienna, she fell ill with a harrowing fever that kept her a prisoner in her boutique hotel room, shivering and sweating on a bed that was much too big for her aching body, and getting to know each crack in the salmon-colored walls far too well.

“If I’d known I was going to get this sick,” she would tell her children when she got home, wearied and depressed, “I’d have picked a nicer hotel.”

The trip had been a crazy idea, the kind of thing a middle-aged woman does when she realizes she’s getting older and may be running out of time to do the things she’s always dreamt of doing. The things that are commonly relegated to one’s “bucket list,” although Terri had always hated that term, saying, “Why put everything together into a bucket just to reach in and pull something out at random? If it’s important to you, you should do it intentionally, purposefully, as if it really means something.”

With Rob gone after years of illness and her 30-year marriage a piece of personal history, Terri found herself ready to travel but unwilling to visit either of her two children—both of whom would welcome her, certainly, but would do so out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even pity. Instead, she bought a ticket to Vienna one Saturday evening in January after watching a travel program about the city’s delights.

Vienna was one of the cities she’d missed when she had traveled through Europe after college with her cousin and Rob, back in the early 1980s. They had done the American equivalent of the Grand Tour but had somehow managed to leave out Vienna. When she asked her cousin why they’d skipped it, he couldn’t quite remember, but told her it was probably because they just didn’t want to leave Italy. They’d been having so much fun there, he said.

“We had a good time in Italy?” she had asked him over the phone, surprised. She remembered very little about their time there.

“Sure,” Alex replied. “Don’t you remember the beaches, the parties—the grappa?”

“Oh, right,” said Terri, and laughed. But after she’d hung up the phone, she wondered whether she had enjoyed her Italian experience as much as Alex had, or rather, as much as Alex thought he had. Had they really danced their way through Bacchanalian parties in Vomero with other college students? She wished she could ask Rob, but even if he were still alive, it had been a very long time since he’d had any grasp of any memories from their early years together.

During the flight across the Atlantic, Terri had congratulated herself on her resilience, her new-found independence, and her ability to get on with the business of living. She sustained her energetic optimism through two connecting flights—the last one delayed—a struggle with an awkward carry-on bag, and the silent and tense Uber ride to her tiny hotel, which was nestled in a non-descript part of Vienna. She could have believed she was anywhere, she thought, as she entered the lobby. While it didn’t look quite like New York City or even San Francisco, it bore no resemblance to the Vienna of her imagination.

She was tired by the time she reached her room, which was one of a half-dozen units that opened onto a central courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the hotel’s kitchen, as well as a few workers struggling to carry large pans from which steam floated in lazy, curling wisps. She would eat dinner there, Terri decided, rolling her suitcase into the alcove by the bathroom and sitting on the corner of the bed.

She looked at her surroundings. Four walls painted a shade of reddish-yellow, meant to be trendy but achieving only a sickly ambience. A rickety side table with a large, wine-red chair next to it. Wall sconce lighting above the bed. A spare but clean bathroom, with the shower, toilet, and sink tightly compressed into an efficient use of space never found in the United States. Threadbare but freshly vacuumed rugs, with foot traffic patterns clearly visible across the lavender and lime pile.

Terri resisted the urge to curl up on the bed. She was tired, but she knew the rule: to avoid jet lag, don’t succumb to the desire to sleep upon arrival. Push yourself to get out, walk, tour a museum or two, just keep moving as long as possible. Go to bed at 6 pm if necessary, but do all you can to reset your internal clock. And so, instead of lying down, she splashed cold water over her face and brushed her hair, even though she yearned for a long, hot shower.  She forced herself to put on her coat and walked back through the courtyard, where the tantalizing scent of fried onions, garlic, and something else—was it coriander?—floated through the wintry air. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the restaurant must have been preparing dishes ahead of time.

Terri made her way to the lobby, where she hesitated only a few seconds in warmth before pulling open the entry door and stepping outside onto the sidewalk. Her hotel looked like a normal apartment entrance; there was no real indication, except for the three stars on a plaque by the doorway, that it was indeed a hotel. It was colder than she thought it would be, and she fumbled with her zipper, pulling it all the way up to her neck.

Walking through streets she shared with businessmen and businesswomen, Terri admitted to herself that catching up on sleep was not the only reason she longed, despite her best judgment, to return to her room. Now that she was in Vienna, she realized what a crazy idea it had been for her to come here like this. Why hadn’t anyone stopped her?

It was more than crazy, she decided, the chill of the air seeping through her jacket and making her irritable. It was nothing short of cockamamie. She smiled, despite her growing sense of dismay. “Cockamamie”—that was a term her Brooklyn grandmother had used in the early 1960s, before Brooklyn had become a haven for millennials in search of success. During Terri’s childhood, Brooklyn had been an ethnic neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish and Italian families, by young men and women who would say, when asked where they were from, “New York,” ashamed of being a product of a lower-class neighborhood composed of people whose one unifying characteristic was the desire to escape to Manhattan as soon as possible. That Brooklyn, Terri knew and understood. It was the Brooklyn of six generations of Goodkinds like herself—although the name had originally been Gutkennt, Americanized, like so many other surnames, into a pair of syllables that denoted two unarguably benevolent adjectives—“good” and “kind.” Though she never told anyone this, fearful as she was of being ridiculed for sentimentality, Terri had tried throughout her life be both good and kind, but it had become increasingly difficult these last few years as she jostled her way through her fifties, burdened with Rob’s illness. The earlier decades, she thought, stepping around an older couple who were holding each other’s gloved hands as they shuffled down the sidewalk, had been easy enough, but now she was running out of her reserve of both goodness and kindness, and, most of all, out of patience. Perhaps she had been born with a certain supply of patience, just as all women were allotted, even before birth, a certain number of eggs, and when that stock was used up, she would be neither good nor kind any longer; she would enter a kind of ethical menopause, bereft not only of fertility, but of her rationed amount of shits to give as well.

Terri shook her head, trying to dispel these disconcerting thoughts. Snow flurries flitted through the air. She had not anticipated this kind of weather when she had planned the trip two months ago at her kitchen table in Virginia. Shoving her bare hands deep into her coat pockets, willing herself not to shiver, she walked through the streets, looking for a likely place to have lunch. It was only ten in the morning, however, and she knew it would be at least an hour before any restaurant would be open. A park opened on her left, across the street, and she made her way to it, entering through a set of magnificent gates that looked like they belonged in a palace.

“Cockamamie.” She thought about the strange word, wondered about its origins, and then remembered another word from her youth: “Nincompoop.” As her thoughts flitted from one ridiculous term to the other, Terri thought about how strangely satisfying words could be. In coming to Vienna, she had done something worthy of a nincompoop. Her Vienna trip, meant to heal the wounds left by lingering grief and emotional exhaustion, was nincompoopish. That wasn’t right, though. Nincompoopy? What was the adjectival form of “nincompoop”? Her teacher’s brain whirred but found no answer. Besides, all that  mattered was that she was a nincompoop for following through on this cockamamie idea of taking a vacation after Rob’s death.

But, she thought, as she sat down on a frigid park bench, was that really all that mattered? Like a nagging pain, her thoughts went on, stupidly, because she was too tired to corral them. She remembered that “nincompoop,” that outrageous-sounding word beloved by outspoken Yiddische bubbies and by small children alike, was actually a portmanteau—a word formed from a foreign expression. It derived from the Latin legal term non compos mentis, which translated as “not in control of one’s mind.” In other words, “insane.” Funny how a language takes its shape, Terri mused, then felt her stomach seize up a moment later, when she considered whether she herself was indeed non compos mentis.

After all, this half-planned trip to Vienna did appear to be the brain-child of someone who was slightly unhinged. That was another odd word, making it sound as if the lid of her brain was liable to fly off, unattached, loosing upon the world strange fancies and impressions that had escaped the stern censors of everyday life. Certainly there had been that incident at the doctor’s office last September, just after Rob’s death, when she wouldn’t allow the nurse to take her blood pressure, saying only, “I just don’t feel like it today” with a stiff smile as an explanation. On that day, Terri had learned that when a nurse spends more than five minutes typing notes into her tablet, it could result in the doctor’s earnest offer of a referral to a mental health professional.  She had declined back then, heartily sick of doctors and treatment plans, but now, sitting by herself on a bench in a park on the outskirts of Vienna, Terri wondered whether she should have taken him up on it.

Somewhere a church bell tolled twelve, and she realized it was noon. Where had the time gone? Restaurants should be open for lunch now, Terri realized, and she stood up, dusting a shallow layer of snow from her lap. She left the park, crossing the street again, and found a restaurant on the corner of the wide boulevard she had followed to the park. Once inside, she had to put her hand on the maître d’s podium to steady herself. The dark interior, combined with her growing sense of fatigue, was making her feel more than a little dizzy and disoriented.

She ordered a light meal and indulged in a glass of a local white wine. But after just a few mouthfuls, she set her fork and knife down on the table, no longer hungry. The wine, too, had lost its appeal, but Terri downed the last bit of it with a sense of determination. It was when she was handing her credit card to the obliging but somber-faced waiter that Terri first recognized the symptoms of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness.

II

Later that afternoon, when she woke up with her head pounding and her body damp from sweat, Terri admitted to herself that her malaise was not merely the result of exhaustion nor, indeed, even a normal cold. Her limbs ached terribly, as if she’d just played the most intense game of tug-of-war in her life, and she could not remember showering or putting on her nightgown and getting into bed. Yet her hair was damp, and she could see a bath towel draped over her open suitcase. She settled back beneath the comforter and fell back asleep, unable to make the effort to dig through her toiletry kit for aspirin or any other tablets to soothe her head.

For the next three days, Terri suffered.  

She lay, sometimes asleep, sometimes in a torpid state of semi-consciousness, shivering and sweating in turns, burying herself under the covers and huddling against inadequate pillows, only to fling them away from her, unable to bear even one more second of claustrophobic warmth. And all the while her head throbbed with an insistent and painful reminder that she was, indeed, still alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of her second day in Vienna, Terri got up and filled a large glass of water from the bathroom faucet and downed it quickly, before her stomach could rebel. She could feel the cool liquid make its way down her esophagus and into the very top of her stomach.

By now she was certain she had a fever, and probably a high one. But she never traveled with a thermometer, and indeed, hardly ever used one at home. Why bother? A person knew when she was sick, muttered Terri to herself. What kind of nincompoop doesn’t know when they’ve got a fever? She shuffled back to her bed, hoping that the sheets weren’t too damp with her sweat.

The pain in her head troubled her a great deal. It pounded, a furious and rhythmic sensation that felt like a hammer walloping at her from inside her skull. She had seen definite marks of illness when she’d looked at the bathroom mirror: unruly hair, flushed forehead, bright, watery eyes with no depth to them, like a still pond in winter that was just on the verge of freezing. But what did it matter? She was sick, she knew that well enough. What did anything matter in such a state?

Perhaps nihilism is an inevitable result of illness, especially when one falls ill far from home. Terri gave in completely to a lethargic, almost pleasant emptiness that second day of her trip. Death, a slow winding-down of life, a sweaty dissolution into nothingness, seemed the certain end to this experience, and, rather than fearing it, Terri accepted it. But what she could not feel for herself she did feel for others. She thought of other travelers who had died while abroad. She knew no one personally who had died in this way, but there was, of course, John Keats.

And once he came into her mind, he refused to leave it. She remembered, not bits of Endymion or Hyperion, nor loose-flowing lines of poetry about Grecian urns and unsated desire, words that might have soothed her and lulled her into a healing sleep, but instead her trip to Rome ten years earlier, when she had made Rob go with her to the Spanish Steps to see where the young poet had died. Rob had protested when she had leaned well over Keats’s narrow bed to catch a glimpse of the last thing he had ever seen: a patch of blue sky from the open window.

But now, teasing it over in her wearied mind, Terri doubted whether that had indeed been the last thing Keats had seen. Her own eyes open, staring first at the ceiling and then across the bed to the salmon-colored wall, she noted a network of small cracks in the plaster. “Why salmon?” she thought, listlessly at first, and then with some degree of hostility. It was such a silly color for a hotel room, which called, not for a bold or eccentric fashion statement but rather a bland neutrality that would welcome travelers with non-descript and comfortable banality.

Those cracks, too, bothered her, running as they did in hairline trails that, taken together, suggested objects such as a rabbit or a chair, only to slip off their identities, as a woman might shrug off her coat after changing her mind about going outdoors and deciding that she would, after all, stay inside a bit longer. Terri found the situation annoying and frustrating, not least because she suspected the entire thing was the result of a sick and fevered imagination.

By evening on that second day, Terri had gotten out of her bed only to go to the toilet and to fill her glass with water several times. She had at last found some tablets to take, and, too tired and sick to think about dinner, she had eaten a couple of stale crackers she’d saved from the airline meal the day before. Convinced that she would not sleep that night, Terri lay down again, resigned to tossing and turning throughout the long spring night, but she fell into a deep sleep composed of night sweats, nihilism, and poignant sorrow for Keats.

In the morning, Terri was feeling just well enough to shower. She dressed slowly, still unsteady on her feet, and avoided looking in the mirror. She waited for the hotel restaurant to open, intent on having a cup of sweet, hot tea to fortify her. She had not eaten since her Viennese lunch two days earlier, and though she felt weak enough to collapse into a spectacular and dramatic heap on her bed, she forced herself across the courtyard to the small hotel restaurant.

She was the first person to arrive for breakfast, and she had her choice of the best Kaiser rolls, sliced meats, boiled eggs, and creamy cheeses. Yet Terri could take no more than two bites of her buttered roll before she pushed it away, disgusted. The tea was good, though, and realizing she needed sustenance, she took another cup and loaded it with sugar. Today, she told herself as she left the table and made her way back to her room, she would feel better and get out to see some of Vienna. Walking might be impossible, but she could catch a tour bus that stopped nearby and see the city from the comfort of a double-decker.

She decided to rest a bit before exerting herself, however, and the next thing she knew, it was late afternoon. Terri realized that she would not be seeing Vienna that day, either. Three days into her seven-day trip to the center of the Hapsburg Empire, she had seen nothing but snow-dusted city streets, a dingy café, and her hotel room. At this rate, she thought, her most vivid memory of the trip would be of those cracks on the wall, which almost but not quite coalesced into the figure of a stout woman carrying a basket, only to rebel at the last instant and become an outsized cartoon elephant balanced on an improbably small ball.

And so she resigned herself to another day of rest and recuperation—except that there was no real recuperation. She wasn’t feeling any better. And although she wasn’t really feeling any worse, she didn’t like the fact that she was getting used to feeling badly. That thought scared her a bit. Was this how Rob felt when his memory started failing—thankful for what he had left, and asking for nothing more than a slow, ponderous slide into decay? Wasn’t it a good sign that she was frightened by this evidence that her nihilistic despair was receding far enough for her to begin to care about what happened to her?

That evening, she went back across the courtyard to get a bowl of soup for dinner, and, on her way back to her room, she picked up a trade paperback from the rack in the lobby. Still feeling exhausted but utterly tired of sleeping, Terri propped herself up with her pillows and read the book, a biography of an English actress she had admired. She read deep into the night. Sometimes she would drift off, waking when the book toppled from her hands onto her chin or her chest; at other times, she would stare, perplexed, as the words on the page separated into individual letters and scrambled across the page like a colony of angry and confused ants. Once, startled by this strange diacritical activity, Terri tossed the book aside, as if she had discovered real insects on the page, a linguistic hive skittering through the book.

III

At the Schonbrunn Palace the next afternoon, still feverish but heavily dosed with aspirin and just well enough to force herself into doing some sight-seeing, Terri surveyed the sad remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms were smaller and less opulent than those of Versailles, but they were built and fashioned from identical material: the bodies and souls of men and women who had lived, labored, and suffered under Imperial rule.

Terri shivered against the cool draft blowing through the Grand Ballroom, and wished that the brightly-colored enameled woodstoves had been stoked and lit. They were ingenious contraptions, designed to be loaded from the back side, so that servants could tend to the fires without ever being seen by the people whom they served.

How convenient for Franz Joseph, Empress Sissy, and the rest of the Hapsburgs, thought Terri, as her fever-dried lips broke into a sardonic smile. Never to set eyes on the miserable creatures who wasted their lives in abject service. It was a brilliant idea, a fine concept—an image that should have been included in Yeats’s portrayal of Byzantium, where gilded mechanical birds, so much easier to care for than real ones, sang for the pleasure of withered Emperors. And in many ways, Terri thought, as her steps echoed through the room (for the Schonbrunn Palace was not a popular tourist destination in the middle of March), there was a Byzantine feel to Vienna that she had not expected. She tried to dredge up an interest in the lives and histories of the people and dynasties that had lived here, but she could not draw anything from her fevered brain save an overpowering sensation of revulsion. She was disgusted by late-Empire decadence, by what she was coming to see as the Viennese insistence on excess and its monstrous, insatiable appetite for power, beauty, and ornate, crushing adornment.

It was hypocritical, of course, for an American to feel this way. She realized this as she was drinking her tea in the Palace tearoom. She had no right to call any other culture out on its decadence or corruption—she who hailed from a nation consumed by excess, whose rapacity was pushing it to a level never yet seen in history. She had no right to condemn the Hapsburgs, she told herself.

A man sat down at the end of her table, and Terri peeked at him over the rim of her teacup. He was well dressed, his dark-gray suit perfectly pressed, his shirt a starched and blinding white. The only concession he’d made to creative fashion was his tie, a loosely knotted slash of green silk, complemented by the shock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and bobbed slightly as he worked his fork over and through the slice of apfelstrudel he had ordered. Teri couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t dare to look at him that long, but she guessed they’d be bright blue, or perhaps green.  She continued her internal conversation as she placed her empty cup on the counter and left the store, wondering whether this man might have a Hapsburg ancestor or two in his family tree.

It felt good to leave the Palace and walk outside in the brisk March air. The sun had come out, and, still feverish, Terri welcomed the cool breeze on her aching head. She knew she was being unfair to the man at her table—he might not have been a descendant of Emperor Franz Josef, might not even have been Austrian, for that matter. But she was still very sick and far from the comforts of home, and she was in no mood to be charitable. The smell of decay, the odor from waning civilizations and empires, was strong in her nostrils, as if she had inhaled some unseen smoke from those enormous porcelain stoves that drifted through the Palace rooms for years after they had last been lit and had somehow gotten lodged in her sinuses, the way cigarette smoke remains in your hair long after you’ve left a bar or dance club. Nothing could remove that stale odor, Terri knew, except water and shampoo. What would it take to get rid of the pervasive scent of cultural decadence, that aroma of mingled delight and decay, that encompassed both the best and the worst of human culture?

What a stupid, overdramatic question, Terri decided, once she was back in her hotel room, laying, utterly exhausted, on her bed. She greeted the cracked plaster of the walls and ceiling as if it were an old friend, smiling at it as she allowed her head to sink into the pillow. This feeling of inertia, which comes after intense exertion, was delicious. Was it this sensation that marathon runners felt after the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line had subsided? This glorious sense of virtue rewarded, this muscular exhaustion that came from exerting one’s will over all obstacles–the biggest being the human inclination towards laziness–in order to achieve one’s goal? Terri considered the question for a moment, resolved to ask her triathlete son about it, then shut her weary, aching eyes and fell fast asleep.

Feverish dreams assailed her almost at once, flitting through her embattled consciousness like dragonflies hovering over a pond on a summer’s day. Mostly images of the day: the bus ride to the Palace, the long, wearying walk up the path to get into the museum, the empty halls, the sharp click of her shoes on the marble tiles of the Grand Ballroom, which, dreamlike, turned into the tapping of a conductor’s baton and was still audible even through an orchestra’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz.

How she longed to see the beautiful dresses and starched military uniforms of the dancers! Was this dream a cultural memory, a buried recollection of a time when such opulence could exist without guilt? Did beauty—for waltzes and music, yes, and even palaces and intricate woodstoves were indeed beautiful—did beauty always have to come with remorse and shame? In her dream, as the couples whirled by, blissfully unconscious of the difficult question they posed, Terri contemplated it and could not find her way to an answer.

Waking in the darkness of her room, Terri heard waiters talking and the clink of dishes being cleared from across the courtyard. She realized at once that she had missed dinner. No matter—she wasn’t hungry, anyway. She could not really believe that she would ever be hungry again. Some hot tea would have been nice, however, and might have settled the gnawing, uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.

She lay in the dark, trying to remember what it was she had planned to do this evening. Was there a concert? An opera, perhaps? A night-time ride on the Ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man? It didn’t matter, Terri told herself, shutting her eyes against the dark: she was going nowhere tonight.

But why couldn’t she remember what it was she had originally planned? Was it just the fever, or could it be that she was no longer able to rely on her own memory? Had she used it up, perhaps, serving as Rob’s memory, too, for these past five years? The thought terrified her at first, but after a few minutes, she shrugged. Everyone suffered some memory decline, she realized. In fact, memories themselves decayed, growing less sharp, less precise, over time. What was she wearing when she first met Rob, anyway? What was their first argument about? And, for that matter, what color were Rob’s eyes?

Terri stopped, panicked. She held her breath for one, two, three seconds. What color were Rob’s eyes? She tried to pull up a happy memory of him, a moment from ten years before, when they had been drinking coffee in their backyard. They had laughed at some joke and then looked at each other. But Terri couldn’t get Rob to look at her in her memory of that moment. He was like the man in the Schonbrunn Palace tea shop, looking down at his coffee mug—or was it a slice of cake?—completely absorbed by it, unable or unwilling to lift his head and meet her gaze. Terri felt another wave of panic grip her stomach. She sat up and turned on the light.

Time, and history itself, moved in cycles. She was surely at a low point in her own time cycle, Terri realized. It wasn’t so much that she was sad or depressed; it was just that she had nothing to look forward to, no landmarks to head towards. She was languishing, like a drifting sailboat, in an endless bay of despair.

She had left Virginia for a vacation from that bay, for a chance to re-set her life, to restock it with new memories, but it turned out that decay had not only followed her; it had lain in wait here in Vienna, hidden like a lion ready to pounce on an unwary gazelle. Her illness, which had stripped her of both stamina and will, had left her no blindfolds, no distractions. What started as a tourist outing had turned into a harsh look at European dissipation, at the decadence of a Viennese court that prefigured the opulence, at the self-indulgence of her own country. But even more damaging, it had also anticipated the decay of her memory, of herself, of her very person.

Panicking, Terri grabbed her phone and dialed the airline. She would leave the next day. Her trip to Vienna was over. She would be drinking no Viennese coffee, ordering no sacher torte that she could not stomach, scheduling no visits to ornate buildings that housed priceless books or dancing white horses. She had finished with Vienna, just as she had finished with Rob and the life they had made together. Going home, she decided, was the only honest thing left for her to do.

IV

Was it a delicious sense of irony, or simply the relief of ending this trip, fraught as it was with suffering, that made Terri laugh out loud when, buckled into her seat and awaiting take-off the next afternoon, she heard “The Blue Danube” piped through the jet’s sound system? Terri didn’t allow herself to think about it. She watched, satisfied, as Vienna—the Staatsoper, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Kirche am Steinhof—grew smaller beneath the plane’s wings, fading like old memories as she ascended through the thick white clouds, making her way back home.

A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

A Very Short Story

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Image from Wikipedia: By U3173699 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81674970

 

I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”

“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.

“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”

I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”

I nodded and said, “Go on.”

“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”

By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.

“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”

She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”

She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.

Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.

And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.

P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.

Writing and Authenticity, Part I

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Legacy’s Lady Camilla, fresh from her Crufts win in March, 2019.

You may notice, if you are a regular reader of this blog, that I have posted much less frequently in the last few months. The reason is this: I have taken some time to stop writing and really think about what writing does, what it can do, and what it should do. In other words, I have given myself a self-imposed sabbatical from writing while I contemplate the job of writing, and, more personally, how–and even if–I want to continue writing at all.

I have sorted some ideas out in my head, and I’m beginning to get to a point where things are making a bit more sense than they did a few months ago. One thing that galvanized me was an experience I had with a good friend, an experienced writer who kindly volunteered to help me with a short story I was working on. He gave me some excellent advice on how to make the story better: more polished, more focused, and ultimately more ready for publication. I could tell that his advice was spot on. I knew that he was right about the changes he suggested. And yet, almost as soon as I heard his suggestions, I also knew I would not take his advice. Despite knowing that he was right about these suggested improvements, I could not bring myself to make them.

Now, every writer knows that you are supposed to “kill your darlings”: writers should never get so attached to their work that they are not willing to chop it all up in order to mix it back together, or even trash it and begin anew if necessary. I knew that my story wasn’t perfect, so my reason for not making those changes wasn’t that I thought it was good enough as it was. At the time, I didn’t know why I resisted my friend’s excellent advice. In fact, as it turned out, I had to think a good, long time before I could discover why I had had such a profound and visceral reluctance to tinker with it. And now, some three months later, I think I have found the answer.

But in order to explain it, I have to refer to a world that is far removed from writing. My husband shows dogs (you can find his website here), and over the years we have noted something interesting about the way kennel clubs and dog shows operate. The winning dogs all correspond closely to a perceived (but not fully agreed upon) standard. No surprise here: this is, of course, to be expected. The dog who looks closest to the standard, in the judge’s opinion, is the dog that takes home the trophy. Of course, the key words are “in the judge’s opinion“: there can be a wide variety of opinions, which is why different dogs might win in different shows with different judges. Yet it is the corollary to this rule which is most interesting, and most troubling for the future of all pedigree show dogs. If dogs are penalized for deviating from the norm, then that inherently means all the show winners must look more alike–must be more alike–than different. And because it is largely the show dogs that are responsible for propagating the breed, then it naturally follows that the genetic diversity is always shrinking, because of this desire to create a puppy that follows the breed standard to a tee. In other words, the very act of judging the dog makes it so that all people participating in showing will want their dog to look just like the “ideal” dog–the breed standard–and they will take great pains to make sure that the puppies they produce, and sell, and buy, will be more similar to this perceived ideal than different from it. (This has dire consequences for the sustainability, and even the survivability, of pedigree dogs, but that is a matter for other blogs.)

It’s human nature to want to win, whether in dog shows (where surely the dogs don’t care if they are Best of Show) or in the world of writing, which we know as publishing. Publishers–and by extension, readers–are like the dog show judges: they are looking for the best combination of words and anecdotes to hit a home run in the marketplace. They have an ideal standard, which is why all the fiction published in literary journals and The New Yorker ends up feeling the same over time. In other words, what is published will always come to look a great deal more like everything else that is published than it will look like something individual and unique.

And so, being “good,” in the sense of getting published, means that a writer may have to close off options that will divert his or her work into an unfamiliar, perhaps even an uncomfortable, form. It could mean that a writer has to compromise on whatever artistic integrity he or she has developed, getting rid of archaic words, semicolons, and–yes–even adverbs in favor of a more widely accepted style of writing. In short, it means that a writer might have to second-guess his or her own writerly instincts in order to fit into a “breed standard” that is instantly recognizable and appreciated by publishers, readers, and critics alike.

I am not saying that writers should write what they want and not worry about revision. Nor am I saying that all writing is good writing. I am just saying that with the market set up as it is today, it could be very easy to miss unique and talented writing in favor of writing that resembles what we’ve already seen. The danger in this situation is that we may, tragically, fail to recognize authentic writing, and worse still, fail to cultivate writers who strive for authenticity.

It’s time for another clarification. I remember the first time I ever heard the expression, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I recall the momentary surprise I felt when I thought about it and then realized it actually made sense. One could be as good as possible, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, is often an integral component of success. I want to offer a variation of this saying for writers–or rather, for those writers who are serious about exploring the world of the imagination, about the craft of writing (whatever that may be), about creating something that is meaningful rather than successful. Here goes:

It is better to be authentic than to be good.

I’ve come to this maxim by thinking about the novels I love, those books that I have re-read throughout a half-century of reading: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Sun Also Rises, Never Let Me Go, Till We Have Faces, Mrs. Dalloway–and the list goes on. These books are not perfect. In some places, they are not even good. It is not difficult to find passages in any of them (with the possible exception of Never Let Me Go) that make readers cringe with frustration and/or embarrassment for the author. But each one of these novels is, to a certain degree, memorable and authentic, which is why I am compelled to read them again and again throughout the years. 

Certainly the term “authentic” is fraught, and I will need to define what I mean by it. I will try to do this in a timely manner; readers may look forward to a subsequent post in which I take a stab at my definition of authenticity in writing. But for now, I simply pave the way for that post by explaining why I am resisting the idea of writing good stories for the time being, even if that means rejecting the advice of a talented and well-meaning friend. And I invite my readers to weigh in on this topic, half-formed though it is at the present time, as I try to figure out just what it means for writing to be authentic.

 

Mere Democracy

In 1952, OxforC.s.lewis3d don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.

I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.

Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.

What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.

Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.