Still Life with Mary Cassatt prints and Lego orchid and bonsai

I’m about halfway through Sarah Winman’s Still Life: A Novel, and I’m completely enthralled after taking a good long time to get into the story.

I have a theory about books and readers. All books have a setting, plot, and characters, but not with equal emphasis. Some books, like mysteries, are primarily fueled by plot: you keep reading to see What Happens Next. Other books focus primarily on characters: not much might happen, or the story might meander, but you keep reading because you become emotionally invested in the inner lives of imaginary folk. And some books are centered in place: you might not connect with the characters or you might not follow the narrative thread, but you keep reading because you’ve been transported to a place–actual or imagined–that intrigues and fascinates.

This is my theory of books, and here’s my corresponding theory of readers: some readers are drawn to plot-driving books, and others are primarily interested in character and/or place. If you’re a plot-focused reader, gaps in the story, tricky timelines, or narrative details that don’t make sense will bother you to no end. But if you’re like me, plot is almost irrelevant as long as a book’s portrait of character and place are strong.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe the meandering plot of Still Life, which spans decades to unfold the aftermath of a chance meeting between a soldier and art historian in wartime Italy. Such a synopsis tells you nothing: what enchants me about Still Life is its ragtag cast of characters, those characters’ loves and losses, and the novel’s evocation of both Italy and England.

Since I’m only halfway through Still Life, I don’t know how the story will end, but what keeps me reading are the characters I’ve come to care for.


Lego Starry Night

While everyone else on my Facebook feed has been playing Wordle, I’ve been playing with Legos.

Although I had a generic set of interlocking plastic bricks when I was a kid, I blame J for my adult onset Lego-mania. Several years ago, J surprised me with the Women of NASA Lego set for Christmas, and I enjoyed building that to display on my desk. The next Christmas I bought the dinosaur fossils set for myself, and next the Lego White House…then by the time Lego debuted a botanical collection featuring a flower bouquet, bonsai tree, and bird of paradise plant, it was clear that building Lego sets had become a thing I do.

In many ways I am the perfect market for Lego sets targeted to adults. I enjoy the process of building. It’s relaxing to follow step-by-step instructions while watching a structure arise brick by brick. In this sense, Lego building is akin to the rug hooking and cross-stitch kits I enjoyed when I was younger. You don’t have to be a great chef to follow a recipe, and you don’t have to be an architect to build a Lego set.

I also enjoy the display quality of completed Lego kits. I’m not building Lego kits to play with them; I’m building them to sit on my shelves. As silly as it sounds, I like looking at the Lego sets I’ve completed. When I was a child, I collected model horses, and instead of actively playing with them like dolls, I enjoyed simply looking at them and creating stories about them in my mind. Like those model horses, Lego sets are fun and interesting to look at, and seeing them reminds me of the process of building them. There is the simple but profound satisfaction of saying “I built that.”

This past Christmas, I bought myself the Lego typewriter as J’s gift to me. (Like many long-married couples, J and I surprise one another with a few small gifts but largely choose our own presents.) The Lego typewriter is the most complicated set I’ve built yet. Although I bought it as a pure display piece, the typewriter has moving parts so that when you press the keys, a typebar rises and the carriage moves to the left.

It takes a lot of fiddly bits to achieve this functionality, and after making a mistake early on that made the entire structure shift askew, I dismantled the entire thing halfway through to start the build from scratch. When I finished the entire thing and felt how solid it felt in my hand, I felt an embarrassing level of satisfaction. In my writing and teaching alike, I trade in intangible words and ideas. Rarely do I get to hold in my hand something I built, or even see the fruit of my labor.

Although it feels a bit silly to admit to playing with toys, I missed out on the jigsaw puzzle craze during the early days of pandemic lockdown. While others were stuck at home playing board games, baking bread, and learning how to play the ukulele, I was teaching remote classes, prepping hybrid classes, then returning to in-person teaching. Having missed out on the “downtime” of the pandemic, now I’m finding simple ways to debrief from another hectic school year. Between you and me, I’ll take “silly” over “stressed” any day.

So earlier this year, I built the Lego Statue of Liberty, followed by the Lego globe J bought me for Valentine’s Day…and earlier this summer, I built the botanical orchids and succulents sets to display in my bathroom. Today, I finished building a replica of Starry Night, which wonderfully captures the three-dimensional nature of Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes, and next I’ll build the Lego jazz quartet and Space Shuttle.

In other words, it looks like the building boom will continue.


Big sky country

This morning while doing my morning kitchen chores, I heard part of an NPR story about women long-haul truck drivers. Several of the women who were interviewed had become truck drivers in midlife, after escaping other jobs or abusive relationships. Although life on the road is lonely for women truckers, the story explained, these particular women found clarity and solace in a job that gives them lots of uninterrupted time to think.

“Windshield time” is the term the story used for the solitude drivers experience on the road. While driving for long distances, the women in the story had time to reflect upon their lives and decide their next steps. Steering a truck was a way for them to take control of their own lives: instead of asking Jesus to take the wheel, these women found agency and clarity in an occupation they never intended to pursue.

Early tomorrow morning I’m driving to visit my Mom in Ohio: my usual summer visit. In the years leading up to the pandemic, I’d fly to and from Ohio, but last year I decided to avoid angry people on planes and the threat of flight cancellations by driving my own car to Ohio and back: something I regularly did when I was younger.

I enjoy driving, especially after the hectic preparation leading up to any trip. For the past week or so, I’ve distracted myself with packing lists, to-do lists, and all the loose ends I need to tie up before being gone for almost a week. Tomorrow morning when I pull out of my driveway, however, all the planning will be done: anything I forgot to do before leaving will somehow wait until I return.

In the meantime, I’ll have approximately twelve hours of windshield time to scan for good radio stations, listen to audiobooks, and watch the land gradually flatten beneath a widening sky.


Gathering storm

Just over a week ago, on the same day my social media feed blew up with gut reactions, primal screams, and hot takes from the official announcement that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, I was on a hospital gurney, waiting for a diagnostic colonoscopy after a positive Cologuard test.

Although I’ve spent the past month telling myself the test results were either a false positive or “just” indicative of benign polyps, I’ve also been nursing a lingering sense of dread. What if I have cancer? What if the cancer has spread? What will I do in the aftermath of a dire diagnosis: what might treatment look like, and why me, why now?

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never had a pregnancy scare: like Terry Tempest Williams, the only thing I’ve done religiously my entire adult life is keep a journal and take birth control. But I’m guessing quietly worrying you might have cancer is similar to quietly worrying you might have an unwanted pregnancy. In both cases, you fear something growing inside you might end or upend your life.

One of the first things my gastroenterologist did before starting the procedure was ask me to sign a consent form. Nobody can force a patient to undergo cancer screening or even cancer surgery: had I wanted to ignore my Cologuard results, that would have been a bad decision, but it would have been my right.

Because we assume grown adults have the right to make their own medical decisions, nobody can force a person to eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, or give blood, even if doing so would save another’s life. Even after we die, nobody has the right to harvest our organs without our consent. But with the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court erased the right to bodily autonomy for women across the country. If you’re a woman of childbearing age living in a red state, what happens in your body is now the government’s business, not your own.

In the month leading up to my colonoscopy, I told only a handful of friends and relatives. I didn’t share my fears on social media, and I didn’t blog about them, either. I chose, in other words, privacy over publicity. Roe v. Wade argued that women have the right to make the most intimate of decisions about their health and families privately, without government interference. As soon as a woman begins to show, however, everyone has an opinion about her pregnancy: whether a pregnant woman likes it or not, her personal decisions suddenly become political.

During my colonoscopy, my gastroenterologist found and removed four polyps, each a clump of cells that could be benign, cancerous, or precancerous. While I waited for my pathology results, I realized the world of difference between cells that are precancerous and those that are cancer: the difference between an acorn and oak, zygote and child.

It doesn’t matter what your or my personal beliefs about abortion are: medical decisions are each individual’s personal business. Earlier this week, I got my pathology report: all four polyps were precancerous, not cancer. I dodged a bullet when it comes to my personal health, but I still have dire concerns about the American body politic. A court that ignores precedent to strip away rights is a threat to democracy from within.


Mirror wall

This weekend, I finished a two-week online professional development course on inclusive teaching. The course featured asynchronous course materials–readings, videos, discussion boards–and four real-time Webex sessions with faculty from a range of disciplines. It was a welcome opportunity to debrief and talk shop at the end of another grueling semester.

As strange as it might sound, one of the things I most enjoyed over the past two weeks was the luxury of being a student. For two weeks, I read articles and watched videos someone else found, participated in discussions someone else led, and reflected upon questions someone else posed. All I had to do, in other words, was show up to the course and do what the instructors told me to do.

One of the exercises we practiced was called windows and mirrors. The premise was simple: when you read a text or watch a video, there are aspects that ring true with your experience and other aspects that show you a new perspective. The ideas that reflect your own experience are Mirrors, and the moments that show you something new are Windows. We like to see our own perspective mirrored back to us, but it’s also important to get a glimpse into how other people experience the world.

When I teach literature, I practice a version of this windows and mirrors exercise. I often ask students what resonated for them in a literary text, and also what surprised them. Now I’m realizing that this familiar readerly practice can be applied to pretty much everything, not just literature. There are moments when we nod in agreement, and there are moments when we say “Hmm, I never realized that.” Both experiences are powerful, and both are worthy of reflection.


Outside Shake Shack

Exactly one year ago today, J and I walked into O’Hara’s Food & Spirits in Newton Highlands, MA and had lunch at our usual high top table: the first time we’d eaten inside since March 12, 2020. This time last year, J and I were freshly vaccinated, and we hadn’t yet been schooled in the Greek letters of viral nomenclature: first Delta, then Omicron, and now a litany of Omicron sub-variants.

This year, J and I are eating outside again, thanks to the current COVID surge here in the northeast. Over the past year, J and I have mastered a nimble dance, returning to restaurants when case counts are low and relying on takeout and outdoor dining when cases are high.

Right now, the weather is nice enough that eating outside doesn’t feel like a hardship. Plenty of restaurants have tables squeezed along sidewalks or in parking spaces, and it feels almost Parisian to eat outside while both cars and pedestrians stream past.

This weekend, J and I ordered takeout sandwiches from a local pizza place, then we had an impromptu picnic on the Newton Centre green. Families were reading books on blankets, friends were chatting on park benches, and a man was playing jazz standards on a colorfully painted outdoor piano.

I’ve often wondered if today’s children will someday remember the pandemic as “those summers when we ate outside.” Years ago, I saw a man with a dog sitting on a grassy embankment next to a disabled car. The man had his head in his hands, depressed; the dog, on the other hand, lolled on the grass with a doggy grin, clearly enjoying the sights and smells of a sunny day.

There are plenty of things we’ve lost over the past two years, but having a reason to spend more time outside is a welcome consolation.


Hydrangea-to-be

This year’s Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) summer institute is happening virtually, so this morning I led a Zoom session on building community in the college composition classroom, then I skipped the rest of the day’s sessions. As much as I enjoy talking shop with my Boston-area teaching colleagues, Zoom fatigue is real, and two hours of Zooming is about all that my Inner Introvert can handle.

I’m relieved to have finished the session. When I was asked to lead a workshop, my immediate reaction was “I have nothing worth sharing,” but of course these workshops aren’t about offering answers as much as asking questions, posing problems, and gently steering the conversation as colleagues describe what did or didn’t work in their classes this year.

So, what did or didn’t work in my classes? I naively (in retrospect) believed that having students simply return to the classroom after more than a year of remote, hybrid, and hyflex teaching would magically result in a close-knit community of learners: after all the complaining about Zoom school, surely students would be eager and energized to engage in the face-to-face classroom.

Instead, this past academic year was challenging and disjointed–a proverbial mixed bag–as students went in and out of quarantine. Too many students didn’t come to class, and too many students came to class but didn’t actively participate, treating the classroom as a virtual meeting they watched on mute with cameras off.

At times, this led me to wonder what exactly we were trying to accomplish in the face-to-face classroom: if it’s easier to post class materials online and let students complete tasks at their own pace, asynchronously, why even bother having class sessions?

Today my colleagues and I grappled with that tricky question, encouraging one another to re-envision the work and worth of the in-person classroom. We didn’t answer the question–we never do–but we had an engaging and thought-provoking conversation, made all the more interesting by the simple fact we were using Zoom to talk about improving our in-person classes.


Already peonies

The weather in New England has been crazy. Last week was beautiful, with a string of sunny days with temperatures in the 70s: perfect weather for walking, reading on the patio, and dining alfresco. Saturday was overcast and humid with afternoon thunderstorms, Sunday was warm and sunny, and Monday spiked into the upper 80s: suddenly summer. Yesterday started warm until temperatures dropped into the 60s–spring again–and today has been gray and drippy after overnight thunderstorms.

It’s hard to tell, in other words, if it’s spring or summer, so I’ve taken to calling this time of year spring-into-summer. It’s a transitional period marked by indecision and mood swings. May is clearly spring, and July will truly be summer, but early June can’t make up its mind. Some days are reminiscent of April showers, and others hearken ahead to summer sultriness.

This might explain why I’m always surprised when any of the neighbors’ peonies bloom. I associate peonies with summer, so I’m always surprised when they bloom out of the blue, before I’m ready. Peonies flower in their own good time, and I’m always out of step, muttering “Already?” under my breath.


Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


Rhododendrons

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday night, so now I’m returning to the leisurely routines of summer: reading on the patio, writing in my journal, and walking Roxy twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, rather than just once, after I’ve returned from teaching.

Teaching is tiring in part because you’re the one responsible for keeping everyone motivated and on-task: you’re the one setting the energy level in the classroom. By the end of the semester, my emotional cupboard is bare, and I need to refocus and refresh. This is what summer is for.

For years, I taught online classes all year round, starting one semester as soon as the previous one ended. That perpetual teaching schedule paid the bills, but it was emotionally exhausting. These days, I juggle two part-time teaching jobs during the academic year, and I recover from this juggling act during the summer: a chance to refill the well.