Art & culture


Hibiscus

I’m almost done reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. I rushed to read the book in large part because of the backlash against it: many angry reviews have been written by people who haven’t read (and indeed refuse to read) the book, so I was eager to make up my own mind. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, she’s in a unique spot to comment on an unprecedented election.

Cherub

Now that I’m almost done with What Happened, I have a few observations about it. First of all, I’ve been struck by how much of a bookworm Clinton is. I knew that Clinton was smart, but I wasn’t expecting a memoir that mentions so many books: books Clinton read before she entered politics, books that guided her as a candidate, and books she’s returned to in the aftermath of a crushing defeat. In the first chapter alone, Clinton mentions more books than Donald Trump has probably read in his entire life. I don’t think Clinton is trying to look bookish; she’s just a person who reads (and thus talks about) a lot of books.

Tamarack

Second, I’ve been struck by Clinton’s obvious religious faith. Whereas many politicians make a big show of piety to appeal to heartland voters, Clinton has always been private about her own Methodist faith. Now that Clinton is out of the political realm and thus more comfortable talking about her personal life, it’s clear that her faith inspires pretty much everything she did as a politician and (especially) everything she’s done since. Although many of Clinton’s critics will presumably accuse her of false piety, she literally has nothing to lose now that she’s no longer running for office. When Clinton explains how prayer and the advice of trusted spiritual advisors helped her weather everything from the trials of her marriage to the stresses of a contentious campaign, I choose to believe her.

Water lilies

Third, I think What Happened is far more than an autopsy of a failed campaign; it’s also a warning about what lies ahead. Press reports (and negative reviews) peg the book as a political postmortem, with Clinton offering excuses for why she lost the 2016 election. But as attention-grabbing as those parts of the book are, the most interesting, troubling, and useful parts are the ones that warn of what comes next: a book that could have alternatively called What’s Happening. Clinton’s days as a candidate are over, but the challenges she faced as a candidate are not going away. Instead, those challenges will be alive and active in future elections, threatening to undermine our democracy as long as we continue to ignore them.

Maidenhair fern

Clinton describes a perfect storm of factors that led to her defeat and Trump’s victory: a toxic stew of sexism, misogyny, racism, sensational press coverage, an ill-timed letter from then-FBI director James Comey, Russian interference, a widespread inability of voters to detect and ignore fake news, and a willful campaign of voter suppression. Despite all of these impediments, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but that still wasn’t enough to win her the presidency.

Mown path

Still a policy wonk, Clinton offers ample evidence to support her claim that a combination of forces tipped the election in Trump’s favor, devoting an entire chapter to a statistical analysis of how Comey’s letter about an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage proved to be the nail in her campaign coffin. But here’s the thing: even if you don’t believe Clinton’s admittedly subjective account of what went wrong in the 2016 election, you’d better listen to what she says about future elections.

You can argue that sexism and misogyny weren’t a factor in Clinton’s loss, or you can argue that James Comey had no impact on the race. You can argue that nobody is to blame but Clinton herself, and she would actually agree with you. But–and this is the essential point–with the exception of James Comey, none of the factors Clinton discusses is going away, so we ignore her insights at our (and our country’s) peril.

Stonewall

Maybe Clinton was a terrible candidate, as her critics argue. But sexism and misogyny aren’t going away, so the next woman to run for president will still have to face them. Maybe racism didn’t motivate Trump voters–but racism isn’t going away, so future populists and demagogues will still have reason to appeal to it.

Maybe the Russians didn’t work single-handedly to get Trump elected–but we know for a fact they interfered in the election, and they continue to spread fake news and propaganda designed to sow domestic discord. Russian propagandists and click-bait factories aren’t going away, so future candidates will have to face the lies they spread, just as Clinton did.

September faun

Most alarmingly, voter suppression might not have lost the election for Clinton, but it played a role, and it’s not going away. If we believe in fair and accurate elections, we should be alarmed by the number of voters who were prevented from voting in states where the election was decided by a slim margin. Voter suppression alone might not have thrown the election to Trump, but it’s an issue we should care about if we care about future elections.

Clinton’s tale of “what happened” is about much more than her individual experience of the 2016 election. Instead, it’s a tale of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn from recent history.

Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

Last spring, a colleague flummoxed me with a perfectly innocuous question: “Do you work on your own writing?” This is a seemingly straightforward question, one deserving of a simple “yes” or “no,” but it left me stammering. What does it mean, exactly, to work on “your own writing”? Of the various sorts of writing I do, which one is actually “mine,” what exactly counts as “writing”?

Asters

As a professor, I should be working on formal academic scholarship; if I ever were to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty, I’d need to hop on the merry-go-round known as Publish-or-Perish. But apart from a few book reviews, I stopped producing formal academic writing when I finished my dissertation more than a decade ago, and I remain deeply conflicted about the genre.

Secret garden

Part of the reason it took me so long to finish my dissertation was the identity crisis I experienced halfway through, when I realized I didn’t want write about Thoreau, I wanted to write like Thoreau. I’ve never reconciled the tension I feel between academic writing (the kind of writing I should be doing to advance my career) and personal essay-writing (the kind of writing I scribble in private notebooks and share on-blog). There’s the kind of writing I like to do, then there is the kind of writing I “should” be doing, and I haven’t figured out a way to build a bridge between one and the other.

Viewing through

Years ago, another teaching colleague mentioned that he reads my blog, and his voice was tinged with envy. “You can write about anything you want,” he observed, and again I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, I can write about anything I want, and that is exactly what keeps me writing…but my blog writing doesn’t bring any professional benefit. My blog serves as my own creative outlet, and being able to write about a variety of topics–whatever is on my mind on any given day–is a source of great personal satisfaction. But while that teaching colleague has moved onto a permanent full-time position, I continue to piece together a string of temporary “visiting” appointments. I can write whatever I want, but that writing isn’t something I’ve been able to leverage toward lasting full-time employment.

Silvered

So what counts, exactly, as “writing,” and which writing counts as “my own”? The words I write in my journal are both theoretically and practically my own, as no one other than me sees them. The words I revise and then post here are my own as well: I write them for no one else’s benefit, nobody compensates me for them, and I share them simply to satisfy my own creative itch. My blog-essays, then, should most definitely count as “my own writing,” so why was I so reluctant to admit that aloud in response to my colleague’s question?

Moss steps

I have never felt judgement from my colleagues because I write blog essays instead of academic articles: in all honesty, most of my colleagues are too busy to follow what I do in my off-hours, just as I am too busy to follow what they do in theirs. But even in the absence of external judgement, it’s entirely possible to feel self-generated guilt. Why am I wasting my time, my inner-critic questions, working on writing that does nothing more than make me happy? Given the perpetually temporary and thus tenuous state of my employment status, why aren’t I toiling away at academic projects: the kind of writing that could lead to more gainful employment?

Silvery

For better or worse, the only way I know how to write is by following my curiosity: my scribbling pen is like an unleashed dog that runs and wanders where it will. I share on my blog the kinds of things I enjoy reading: one way of understanding my blog, in fact, is to see it as a repository of my own intellectual interests, a personal cabinet of curiosities.

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “genius” as the belief “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” I don’t presume to know the hearts of all men, but I know what I like, and in writing about those things, I trust that there are others, somewhere, who are interested as well.

Bee on stonecrop

I recently started reading David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. The early pages of the book recount a Kerouac-like stint of hitchhiking, fruit picking, drug using, and general penury. In his introduction to the book, Sedaris advises against reading the book from cover-to-cover: as a diary, the book lacks anything remotely similar to a plot, instead reflecting the crazy daily existence of a person without a clear direction. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover like a conventional narrative, Sedaris suggests readers dip into the book at random, reading it like a joke book where some episodes or anecdotes are funnier than others.

Bee on stonecrop.

I have two good reasons for ignoring Sedaris’ advice. First, I’m reading a library copy that I have to return in two weeks, so I don’t have the luxury of a leisurely and random read. Instead, I have to start at the beginning and plow right through.

But my second reason is the more important one. I too am a journal-keeper, so whereas normal readers might grow tired of a the senseless ramblings of a young man trying to find himself in the most random of ways, I’m admiring the narrative fluency of that young man’s mind. I’m not reading for story as much as psychology: not what happened to young Sedaris so much as how he responded to what happened.

Bee on stonecrop

What I’m interested in watching is the suppleness of mind that allows Sedaris to write whatever comes to mind, even when what comes to mind isn’t remarkable or particularly noteworthy. Non-writers believe, I think, that you can spend your life not writing and then suddenly open your noticing eye when something important, exciting, or inspiring happens. But that isn’t how writing works.

Bees on stonecrop

How writing works, in my experience, is you practice by keeping track of minutiae. You scribble things down every day even when your everyday life is boring or uninspiring. You practice noticing the quality of light through the window, the sound of crickets chirping, or the insistent chip of a cardinal. A journal is to writers what scale-playing is to pianists. Playing scales isn’t interesting for listeners, but it’s how pianists keep their fingers flexible and their minds focused. After playing scales, scales, scales, a pianist hones her ability to play measure after measure of actual music. The music happens because of (not despite) the hours of disciplined drudgery that precedes it.

Bumblebee on stonecrop

When you’re in the thick of your life, you’re not very good at determining what will be life-changing or profound. That’s why journal-keepers record all of it. Theft By Finding is a massive book–more than 500 pages–but Sedaris explains it’s still not exhaustive: he edited out the most boring, repetitive, and inane material, and even then, there’s still a lot that might bore or befuddle many readers. But that’s exactly what I love about reading the journals of practiced writers. I don’t read because every page is wonderful; I read because it’s wonderful to encounter a gem-like line in the middle of otherwise unremarkable stuff.

Golden

There is something magical about the hour before sunset, when the sun sinks deep toward the horizon: a time photographers call the golden hour. Vertical surfaces glow as if gilded, and every grassy head is highlighted and haloed. The very ground seems hallowed, illumined with a metallic sheen. There is no magic, no shenanigans, behind such shows: it’s simply the sun casting everything into its best light.

Cattails

Last night Leslee and I walked at the Minute Man National Historic Park, saying farewell to August by walking into the sunset then back to our cars. Classes start next week, and already the days are growing shorter. A month ago, it was too humid for walking, and once winter descends, the evenings will be too dark. Yesterday, though, the weather was perfect: clear but cool, with the sun playing peekaboo behind intermittent clouds.

Hayfield

They say you should make hay when the sun shines; instead of making hay, Leslee and I walked alongside stonewalls, over a cattail swamp, and past an old hayfield, stopping by Hartwell Tavern to admire a small flock of pygmy goats and sheep. A woman in colonial garb tended the animals, pulling out an iPhone to see whether her shift was done: time to head back to the 21st century. During the golden hour, it’s easy to think time stands still as the sun lingers low, but everywhere, eventually, life becomes history, casting a long shadow on shortening days.

Stickwork

Today J and I drove to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum. Before we went inside, we took a detour around the block to see What the Birds Know, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty.

Exploring

Dougherty is the same artist who created The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation I’d seen at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (and subsequently blogged) last October. Although the two pieces are crafted from the same materials and share a similar whimsical vision, their markedly different surrounding make for two distinctly different impressions.

Huddled

The Wild Rumpus is located in the woodsy shade alongside a sunny field: the “middle of nowhere” if you’re a child walking with your parents. Inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Dougherty’s Tower Hill installation feels wild, or at least woodsy. Looking through its wicker-like windows, you half expect to see deer or other shy forest creatures staring back at you.

Together

What the Birds Know, on the other hand, is at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Salem. Tucked into a tiny yard next to a historic house, What the Birds Know is surrounded by neighboring buildings and receives lots of visitors. (J and I had driven past it last October, when Salem was thronged with Halloween tourists, and we didn’t even try to photograph it.)

Dougherty’s Salem installation doesn’t feel wild, but cozy: a cluster of neat little houses tucked right alongside human habitations. What the birds of downtown Salem presumably know is how to make a tame and tidy nest right alongside the comings and goings of preoccupied human beings.

Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

I’m currently reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book tells the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years before being arrested for burglary in 2013. The book reminds me of Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about Christopher McCandless, except that while McCandless died after 100 solitary days foraging in the Alaskan wilderness, Knight survived for more than a quarter century on food and supplies he stole from nearby cabins.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

With both books, the question of “why” spurs readers onward. In Krakauer’s book, you eventually learn that McCandless didn’t intend to live his entire life as a hermit: during part of his journey, he befriended others, and he intended to return to civilization after his Alaskan sojourn. McCandless was a social, likable fellow when he was around people, and after living on his own in Alaska for several months, he intended (and tried) to leave the wild. It was a cruel accident, in other words, that McCandless died a hermit’s death.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

Knight, on the other hand, is a true solitary, but it isn’t immediately clear why he shuns human contact. Knight returns to civilization unwillingly. After burglarizing area cabins for more than two decades, he is captured and thrown in jail: a hermit tossed in with criminals. McCandless had specific reasons for shunning his family, but Knight doesn’t seem to hold any animus toward his family in particular or society in general: he just chooses a solitary path.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

McCandless died at the age of 24, but had he lived, he would now be 49 years old: a middle-aged man approaching fifty. Knight survived his stint in the Maine woods, and he was apprehended and arrested at the age of 47. The hermetic lifestyle holds a certain appeal when you’re young, but how does it hold up as you approach middle age?

We can write-off Chris McCandless’ quest as the wayward ways of a young man who hadn’t yet found himself: Krakauer, who wrote McCandless’ story when he was 42, looks back upon his own youth and finds parallels between his life and that of his subject. But if youthful restlessness similarly drove Knight to the forest, what is it that kept him there?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

We’ve all probably had times when we’ve wanted to abandon our obligations and escape into the wild, but those of us who are middle-aged presumably outgrew those inklings, choosing instead to settle down and get serious about the business of homemaking, starting a family, or pursuing a career. But Knight sidesteps all those presumably normal pursuits, walking into the woods at the age of 20 and showing no signs of wanting to return. How do you live 27 years of your life in a solitary camp with nothing but a long list of burglaries to your name? Wouldn’t you at some point decide to pursue another path?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

This is what keeps me reading: I want to see what would keep a man in the woods for over two decades. I can understand the impulse that would drive a person to leave society, but not necessarily the fortitude that would keep him away.

Today’s photos come from a solo trip to Maine I took in September, 2004 and blogged here.

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