Pan with his pipes

I recently finished David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, a collection of essays that was a perfect follow-up to Theft By Finding, which I’d read last year. Theft By Finding was a collection of journal entries, and the essays in Calypso make perfect sense when you remember that Sedaris isn’t just a comedic writer; he’s a long-time diarist.

Moss steps

Reviews of Calypso invariably point out that the book is darker than Sedaris’s previous books. Many of the essays feature the beach house that Sedaris and his partner, Hugh, buy in North Carolina and the vacations they spend there with Sedaris’s father and siblings. Essays set at the house Sedaris names the “Sea Section” often mention the death of his alcoholic mother decades before, the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013, and the inevitable embarrassments of aging.

Turtle fountain

This isn’t to say, however, that Calypso isn’t wickedly funny. What makes the book striking, in fact, is the manner in which Sedaris writes essays that are simultaneously funny, poignant, and honest without a hint of pity. This emotional fluidity makes perfect sense when I remember Sedaris’s journals. As a diarist, Sedaris has trained himself in the nonjudgmental art of keeping an account of all the intellectual and emotional detritus of his life.

Castor and Pollux

When you keep a journal, you keep track of whatever is on your mind: the profound stuff, the silly stuff, and everything in between. Keeping a journal is very much akin to the litter-picking Sedaris does while he walks the roadways around his home in Sussex: you notice and pick up everything. If you’re not used to walking for miles and picking up trash, it will leave you sore, but it’s just another day’s work if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing.

Turtle fountain

One of the things that makes David Sedaris funny is the way he doesn’t censor himself: whether he is saying something tender, rude, or self-deprecating, he makes a statement then moves on without justification or apology. This is, I’m convinced, a skill honed through long and regular journal-keeping. The mind is like a child’s corn popper toy, where colored balls pop and tumble inside a clear plastic dome. Pop, pop, pop come your thoughts, which are disparate and nonsensical, and the diarist’s hand simply records them, one by one, without stopping to explain or make sense of them.

Faun of summer

When you’ve trained yourself to sit with your corn-popper mind, you learn not to judge or reject: you simply record without shame or blame. You also learn to appreciate the beauty and even wisdom of randomness. Things don’t have to fit to get along, and disparate things can happily coexist. It is this tolerance for randomness–an absolute fearlessness about saying anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t fit or flow with whatever preceded it–that is the main genius of Sedaris’s work.

Faun of wine

I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that Sedaris’ essays aren’t consciously constructed and revised: it takes a good deal of craft to assemble and arrange just the right assortment of anecdotes, and this means knowing what to leave out as much as what to include and accentuate. But if you’ve never arranged a bouquet, you might think the flowers all need to match, whereas an experienced florist knows the value of complementary colors or an occasional splash of the unexpected.

Classical

If you’ve never sat down and watched your corn-popper mind tumble thoughts, you might not realize how humor complements pain and how a seemingly irreverent story can be particularly poignant if includes just a dash of sadness. Readers who aren’t writers might think that sad stories, funny stories, silly stories, and serious stories can’t and shouldn’t mix, but journal-keepers are long accustomed to the way the colors of the mind blur and swirl.

The most tragic stories aren’t necessarily the ones that are solely and unremittingly sad. One of the most poignant moments in Calypso, for instance, is a brief, passing mention Sedaris makes to the last time he saw his sister Tiffany before her suicide, when he directed a security guard to close the door in her face after she’d shown up unannounced at one of his readings.

Forest folly

Many writers would have been tempted to linger on this story, voicing regret or offering some sort of explanation. Sedaris, however, mentions the memory in passing and lets his readers decide what to do with it, the details of his life slipped like a live grenade into his reader’s pocket. Sometimes a serious topic is best approached slantwise, like a wisp of cloud troubling an otherwise sunny sky.

It's post time

Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we assume it will be the last time we watch live racing there. Back in 2014, the track announced it would be closing, and every year since then it has hosted three weekends of live racing: just enough to qualify for funding from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Bearly broke a sweat

This year, however, is truly the end of the road for Suffolk Downs. The investment group that bought the property is planning to redevelop it for housing and retail, and if Amazon chooses to locate its second headquarters in Boston, Suffolk Downs is the site the city proposed for that project.

Ahead by a head

Horse racing is a dying pastime: as long as a handful of racetracks feature live racing, people far and wide can place bets via simulcasting. J and I have never placed a bet at Suffolk Downs: we go there to see and photograph actual horses and have no interest in the crowds of gambling folk staring at screens inside.

Backstretch

In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was a swanky establishment: the place to be. Those days, however, are long past. The grandstand, betting concourses, and dining rooms are large, and the crowds for live racing are modest. Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we remark on how clean but run-down it is: a carry-over from a time when people weren’t glued to their TV, computer, and smartphone screens.

Let's go

For me, Suffolk Downs will always represent a simpler time: not only the heyday of thoroughbred racing (the sport of kings!), but also the days when I was a horse-crazy girl living in a suburb with absolutely no horses. Going to Suffolk Downs is like taking my inner child to a candy store. Everywhere you look, there are shiny, pretty horses walking and trotting and galloping, the stuff of my childhood dreams.

Whoa there fella

They can (and will) bulldoze Suffolk Downs and build something new and more lucrative on this plot of prime real estate, but there’s at least one horse-crazy lady who will remember it for the four-footed animals who trod there.

Click here for my photo set of photos from this weekend’s trip to Suffolk Downs. The track will offer one more weekend of live racing in August, then it will close for good: happy trails!

Lounging with my fur-shadow

Our house doesn’t have central air, so during heat waves J and I hunker down in the rooms that have window AC units. Our bedroom, which doubles as my office, has an air conditioner, so Toivo and I have been spending a lot of time this week inside: me with my books, notebooks, and laptop, and Toivo with her chew bone and dreams of rabbits.

Hydrangea in shade

We’re having a heat wave here in the Boston suburbs, with 90-degree days forecast through the end of the week. I walk Toivo in the mornings, before the heat of the day, but we still had the neighborhood almost entirely to ourselves this morning, as even then it was too humid for all but the most intrepid dog-walkers.

Hydrangea

Toivo and I walk a bit more slowly on steamy mornings, and I try to steer us into the shade as much as possible. We’ve walked to the place of pines two days in a row, and we’ve had the trail to ourselves: just me, Toivo, and a cloud of mosquitoes hovering like a veil before my face.

Our backyard hydrangeas are blooming and looked a bit wilted in this afternoon’s full sunlight. A neighbor has a different variety of hydrangea planted in a shady corner of their yard, and I stopped Toivo long enough this morning to snap a few photos. In the middle of a New England heat wave, you have to take any excuse you can to linger in the shade.

Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

Halcyon Lake

Last night I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’d mentioned earlier this week. Many reviewers have compared Ward with both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and I agree that the novel is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved.

Great blue heron

The other novel I kept thinking about as I read Sing, Unburied, Sing is George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which was also published in 2017. Saunder’s novel is told through a series of historical and ghostly fragments as Willie Lincoln, the President’s newly deceased son, finds himself in the transitional place between the Here and the Hereafter. The narrative format of Ward’s novel is far less experimental, but both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo are ghost stories that speak movingly about loss, grief, family, and compassion.

Solomon's seal

As I read Sing, Unbured, Sing, I found myself wondering why stories about race in America so often feature ghosts. Is it because our history is particularly haunted, or because we so often fail to believe and heed the truth tellers from our past? Perhaps the perspective of magic realism is the only lens that can accurately portray the true nature of time, death, and eternity.

Hiding in plain sight

Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo call into question our conventional view of time. Since we typically view time as linear–moving, that is, from past to present and then to future–we fall for the illusion of progress. How many times (for example) do people respond to current events by exclaiming “But this is 2018” as if the ghosts of the past aren’t still alive and active?

Dogwood

If we take a circular view of time, all eras are now, and with them, all errors. We don’t outgrow or move beyond the mistakes of previous generations: instead, we are tempted time and again to repeat and relive them unless we make a conscious effort to revise and reject. If we take a circular view of time, both individuals and societies carry not only the promise of who they will become but the burden of everything they have ever been.

Star of Bethlehem flower

We want to believe history is a line because we want to believe that Back Then was radically and intrinsically different from Nowadays. But human nature hasn’t changed; we’ve just grown tired of fighting it. Humans were bigoted and cruel during the days of slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and humans are still as bigoted and cruel as they allow themselves to be.

Trillium

So, what should we do with the seeds of hatred and cruelty that lie buried in the soil of our psyche, either dormant or fully sprouted? Earlier today I heard an NPR story on Fred Rogers that featured a vintage audio clip of him explaining to parents how to talk with their children about the political anger leading to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Rogers didn’t suggest denying or eradicating anger; instead, he helped children (and their parents) interpret anger by acknowledging the various ways different families, countries, and cultures might express it.

Eastern kingbird in ginkgo tree

Have we come to a place in history where we need a dearly departed children’s television host to help us make sense of our feelings and where we need novels about ghosts to teach us the true nature of history? Perhaps. It was, after all, Faulkner himself who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Yellow iris

We want to leave the past behind, and in fleeing from it, we tempt it to chase us. What novels teach us, however, is that the spirits of the past are always with us. As the character of Mam in Sing, Unburied, Sing explains as she lay dying, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” When we realize the past has never left us, we can sit face-to-face with our ghosts and learn every song they have to sing.

Thou shalt not steal beer

This past weekend, J and I went to the annual open house at Spencer Brewery, the Trappist brewery located on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s before, so I’ve seen where the monks pray, and this weekend’s open house gave me the opportunity to see where the monks work.

Beer flow chart

Walking around Spencer Brewery got me thinking about the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “pray and work.” The schedule of monastic life at Saint Joseph’s makes sense if you remember that Trappists seclude themselves to focus on these two things. The liturgy of the hours offers a structured way for cloistered monks to spend their day alternating prayer and work, prayer and work, prayer and work.

A system of pipes

The public perception that cloistered monks and nuns are inactive and quietistic exists because we divide monastic orders into the categories of active and contemplative. Monks and nuns from so-called active orders work in the world as clergy, teachers, nurses, or missionaries. Contemplative monastics, on the other hand, live apart from the world in monasteries or convents.

Tanks and pipes

Contemplative orders point to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha to justify their vocational path. When Jesus visited the home of these sisters, Martha busied herself with the household logistics of hosting a guest while Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen while he teached. When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t doing her share of the domestic chores, Jesus famously took Mary’s side, saying “Mary has chosen the better part.”

The division of monastic orders into active and contemplative, however, is misleading, as all religious communities (and all religious people) are a combination of both. Yes, Trappist monks live apart from the world and lead a prayer-centered life that is largely silent. But Trappists also live in communities that strive to be self-sufficient, and that necessitates the “work” half of “Ora et labora.” In contemplative communities, work and prayer are like two hands that work in tandem. One’s work supports one’s prayer, and one’s prayer supports one’s work. In my Zen school, we say “A day without work is a day without eating,” and a Trappist would agree with the spirit of that saying.

Where beer comes from

Years ago at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, Father Kevin Hunt traveled from Saint Joseph’s Abbey to represent the “Christian” portion of the retreat. During the time for questions, a retreatant asked Father Kevin how he could justify isolating himself in a monastery when there was an entire world out here in need of help. Father Kevin responded by asking the woman what she intended to do when she got home from the retreat, and she said she’d probably make dinner for her family and get her kids ready for another busy school week. “Excellent,” Father Kevin replied. “When I get back to the monastery, I have toilets to clean. You take care of your family, and I take care of mine.”

Palletized

We all work in our own separate ways: some of us raise children, some of us tend pets, some of us teach, and some of us sit at desks, toiling and typing. The important thing isn’t what you do when you work but why you do it. Trappist monks make jam, jelly, and beer because they need an income to support their prayerful practice. That prayerful practice is shared with the world in turn through the monastery’s hospitality. People like me can visit the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s because there is someone there whose work keeps the lights on and the toilets clean.