Saturday, June 28, 2008


A Layer of Ash

I looked outside this morning to see what looked like falling snow. When I went outside, I found a fine layer of ash on my car. The air smelled of smoke. The Big Sur wildfires, I realize, are not so far away. (In case you aren't keeping track, the fires were started by lightning, which is incredibly rare in this part of the country during this time of the year. We don't have rainstorms in June, and yet we somehow had thunder, rain and hail in addition to lightning. This is the kind of weather one would expect in, say, Nebrasaka during the month of June, and not northern California).

A few months ago, when I was last in California, I saw a bobcat near our property. Already I keep Angus the cat (not to be confused with the bobcat) in at night, since he is prone to try to "protect his property" and since this instinct resulted in a hospital visit a few weeks ago after he tangled with what we suspect was a fox. A friend today pointed out to me that already we are seeing more deer and different species of birds in our area, as they flee the fires down south. I imagine the mountain lions aren't too far behind.

I find this very odd when I think about the strange dream I had about a month ago.

Thursday, June 26, 2008



I'm generally skeptical of Shangri Las, and as a result, don't know that I believe the hoopla surrounding Tibet as a once perfect society which has been demolished by the evil Chinese. I don't doubt that many ethnic Tibetans want the Chinese out of their homeland--people generally despise occupation. However, did the average Tibetan farmer happily accept his lot under the theocracy of pre-1950? Did the average girl really want to marry several men and spend most of her life pregnant? How stiff was the competition to get your child considered as a candidate for monastic enlightenment? (And notice the fuss is always made over boys and not girls).
The search for a tulku, Erik Curren reminds us, has not always been conducted in that purely spiritual mode portrayed in certain Hollywood films. “Sometimes monastic officials wanted a child from a powerful local noble family to give the cloister more political clout. Other times they wanted a child from a lower-class family who would have little leverage to influence the child’s upbringing.” On other occasions “a local warlord, the Chinese emperor or even the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa might [have tried] to impose its choice of tulku on a monastery for political reasons.”

See, this I believe about people--that they would behave politically, regardless of the political system (theocracy, democracy, oligarchy, what have you).

I'm in the middle of a number of books now, including Thurman's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I picked up on the urging of a friend to whom I'd recounted some of my recent experiences. In general, I like sacred texts because they seem to me the purest form of getting at someone's spiritual truth. But whole societies devoted to a spiritual teaching? And absolutely everyone benefitted and was happy? I can't help but be skeptical--people being people.

What's more, people need to be materially taken care of--in addition to their spiritual needs being met. I realize it is popular among the elite to focus on the spirit and to lament our lack of attention to the spirit. I certainly feel this way. But this is also generally the attitude of those who already don't have to worry about money, health care, education, food, etc.

Show me a society where everyone has everything and everyone shares and everyone is happy and then I'll pay attention. Until then, I maintain that creating perfection is a slippery and difficult thing, and which we would like, in our lazy moments, to believe is easy if only we would just behave like people did in some mythical past in a far-away land.

Saturday, June 21, 2008



Literature on grief is limited. This is what I've learned.

There are cheerful books encouraging me how to grieve in a "healthy" way. We are so obsessed in this culture with proceeding through any obstacle in a way that is "healthy," which is to say, in a way that is defined by other people. There are workbooks and flowcharts (We can fix anything!). There is even a term for unhealthy grieving: complicated grief. God bless you if you have complicated grief. I feel for you. Many days I am hemorrhaging with emotion myself.

There are strange books published with hefty fonts and written in a style that I can only describe as bad poetry that might have been appropriate for a new age greeting card, but which the author refused to edit down. Supposedly these books express what it is like to grieve, and contain images of "darkness" and "waves" and fluffy, happy fragrant things in the distance. I don't have an MFA myself, but I imagine, but for the subject matter, MFA students would have a field day with the triteness. There are books which encourage me to "heal". These make me think of stern faced botoxed young female newscasters asking, after a national tragedy: "And how are they moving along on the path to healing?" It is important for people to march along the path of shock to healing. We must heal as quickly as possible in America. We do not like to take the time to feel what something is as truly and deeply as we can. We do not have time to waste on anything distracting.

Other books warn against repressed grief, assuring me that we all live with hidden hurts and that it is okay to let these hurts out because, in America, we always want to encourage people that they have the right to feel what they feel, because having rights is very important to us. It is more important to focus on our rights than it is to be present in what we are feeling. The grief might be over a lost job or a spouse who left us. We have repressed this grief and it is blocking us. Let it all out, even if it has been 20 years ago that you were meant to grieve.

I have no idea what these books are talking about. What is repressed grief? How on earth does anyone hold back a feeling, particularly when it is based on love? Do people really not know how to love so they must wait 20 years to discover that they loved a house or a divorced spouse? As someone incapable of long-term repression, I find no comfort in these books. These are for people who, in an aha like moment made for television, suddenly unearth the "reason" why life has not been filled with the happiness they think they were supposed to have. It is due to incomplete grieving.

Some encourage me to find someone to "talk to." As a person who doesn't pay for anyone to clean her house, do her laundry, work her out, pump her gas, or cook her food, I'm having difficulty with the idea that I have to pay for a conversation. Why can't we talk to each other? And if we can't, isn't art supposed to be there for all of us, reflecting back hundreds of years of experience and thoughts and feelings we can all recognize? I would rather have the company of a good book than pay for someone to tell me that what I feel is "normal." I know that what I feel is normal. I'm human.

In the past I've been afraid to read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking (bless you, Joan Didion), but of course now I'm hungry for it. I understand it now in a way I would not have two weeks ago.

In her grief, she too turned to books for answers.
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. . . The poems and the dances of shades (Giselle) seemed the most exact to me. Beyond or below such abstracted representations of the pains and furies of grieiving, there was a body of sub-literature, how-to-guides for dealing with the condition, some "practical," some "inspirational," most of either useless.

We will all be bereaved. We will all grieve. I'm very sorry, but you will not escape. And then what will you do? My only advice: ground yourself in love. Do it now. There are many ways to love. Remain open to them. If you end up grieving without love--for the person or thing for whom you are grieving--then your grief will be a greater torment. When you grieve, you want to always return to a feeling of love--it's an anchor.

There is so little that explores what happens at the deepest and most profound levels. There is plenty to tell us how to indulge our shallow fantasies. Two-thousand years of Christianity, of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I'm not sure we have developed a more sophisticated language for all that can happen when life changes in an instant, and some dormant programming in our brains wakes up to a new condition. Most of all, I'm not sure that anyone expresses the depth of grief better than a poem. Or, perhaps, better than a piece of music.


The Sun Sets on Mars

Well, of course it does. But it's still amazing to see .

I used to be afraid of going into space, though I was fascinated by the idea.

Now, if given the chance, I'd take it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Kaytie Sends Me an Email

Hey, Marie,

I imagine today is a difficult day. I didn't know your father well first-hand, but whenever you mentioned him I always remembered this quick email you sent me last summer when you were first waiting for editors to respond to your book.

So while I know this email finds you in grief I hope to remind you of your father's love and support for you.

Love, Kaytie

My Dad is so sweet. He told me that if this book fails, I should just write another one and that he'll support me and has all the faith in the world in me.

I have the best friends in the world. And I had the very best father.


Everything Is Objectified

A jazz musician friend once asked me if the Japanese had a stereotypical image of what an American jazz singer was supposed to look like. I punted on the answer, but the truth is, we are all capable of stereotypes--no matter our ethnicity.

On a somewhat related note, my friend Isao--in between cooking and feeding--has been scrambling to look for Youtube clips of hysterical Japanese comics. My favorite is the following: Japanese Beyonce.

Here she is again. I might even like this one more.

You PC devotees will have fun figuring out how to put this in context.

One more.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Penthus, Repentance, Penitent

Are these words related? One of you etymologists will perhaps tell me.

I'm having a clear moment this morning, or more accurately a calm one, and thought I'd post what I'm thinking.

Grief is so terribly powerful, as the quote in my post below makes clear, that I thought that there had to be a Greek god for the experience and the feeling. There is one, but he doesn't do all that much but make you cry. His hame is Penthus, or Penthos and he only got the job because he was absent on the day that Zeus was assigning tasks (warning; this link launches some god-awful new age spiritual "music.")

Then again, the Greeks thought that Aphrodite was the goddess of love, and while I'm sure she thought she was, love is a much more complex emotion than that shallow and vain woman ever understood--which is why it took her daughter-in-law, Psyche to raise the concept to a whole new level.

So, I'm sort of dissatisfied with the Greek concept of grief and what it will do to you in a transformative way if you will let it. Though, let me say right now, grief is torture and it really sucks and letting "grief in" should not be confused with something as feel-good as letting the "sunshine in." Still, it's been fascinating talking to people who both know what grief means, and people who don't. If you don't, you probably will at some point--actually, you can't help but find out--and then you will see for yourself how you respond.

If you aren't afraid, then you will be led down this fairly awesome path. I don't mean "awesome" in the California sense. I mean it in the way it was originally used.

When I think about it, it really is the Christians who developed a sophisticated sense of what love means and what it can do and what happens to us internally when we experience it. I suspect the same is true for grief. And I wonder if the concepts of repentance and penitence come from poor old simplistic Penthus and his lamentations.

I rather like this severe lecture by a member of the Greek orthodoxy, John Chryssavgis--I'm a sucker for orthodoxy because I like ornamentation. He writes:
Repentance is not to be confused with mere remorse, with a self-regarding feeling of being sorry for a wrong done. It is not a state but a stage, a beginning. Rather, it is an invitation to new life, an opening up of new horizons, the gaining of a new vision. Christianity testifies that the past can be undone. It knows the mystery of obliterating or rather renewing memory, of forgiveness and regeneration, eschewing the fixed division between the "good" and the "wicked," the pious and the rebellious, the believers and the unbelievers. Indeed, "the last" can be "the first," the sinner can reach out to holiness. Passions are conquered by stronger passions; love is overcome by more abundant love. One repents not because one is virtuous, but because human nature can change, because what is impossible for man is possible for God.

You see how hard it is to write about these things? I recognize this passage as emotionally true, though the language is fully in Christian terms. I can't ever read something like this without ingesting it somewhat metaphorically, and yet the intent behind it is so very real, and such a powerful expression of what grief and repentance feel like.

Apparently, the Greek term for repentance doesn't contain anything that looks remotely similar to "repent."
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God. In the words of a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, it implies "great understanding," discernment.

But, he says, Penthos plays a role in repentance.
It is clear that what is at stake here is not particular acts of contrition, but an attitude, a state of mind. "For this life," states John Chrysostom, "is in truth wholly devoted to repentance, penthos and wailing. This is why it is necessary to re pent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one's whole life."

Um, I can't maintain this state for my entire life. If I did, I'd be going into a convent, and I don't think that's the right place for me, and I also know in heart I couldn't pick just one religion through which to focus my head and my heart. It isn't written in my genes or my cultural upbringing.

But this nice essay does explain what is happening, and makes me feel grateful to people who ponder these mysteries, because they are mysteries.

Of course, when it comes to grief, there are always the now much parodied five stages, one of which is anger. Oh, anger is so tricky. In the anger stage, I feel no repentance at all, nothing holy, just incredible divine rage. And then I have massive difficulty seeing who is friend and who is foe. I understand poor King Lear. Fortunately, I don't have the energy to sustain anger over the long term.

If none of this makes any sense to you, don't worry about it. It might some day. Or, you might be the kind of fortunate person who doesn't need to go off looking at these kind of texts to understand yourself. Otherwise, this blog post is here for you.

(Edited to add: "The word penthos (mourning) has the same root as pathos (passion): both stem etymologically from the verb "to suffer." So, there's my answer. I can be such a lazy reader . . .)

Monday, June 09, 2008


Do Not Be Afraid of Grief

Cousin Carolyn says:
I am a firm believer that grief is one of our most beautiful emotions because of its deep roots in our capacity to love and its ability to focus our entire being on that love and what is truly important in life.

She is right.

Sunday, June 08, 2008



Always be careful what you wish for.

Friday, June 06, 2008



I visited Anrealage's Shinmarunouchi exhibit during April and fell in love with this suit made of pressed flowers trapped in plastic cloth. (Yes! Those are real flowers! Like, wildflowers that someone picked and pressed and saved! That is not a print!)

I'm sure it would not be comfortable to wear and would happily just have opted for a pair of sunglasses with the same flower-in-plastic material--I would have worn them on my head or clamped onto my shirt. But, well, they were expensive. So, I will have to admire the entire line of clothing from afar.

You, sensible reader, may find this Youtube fashion show a bit extreme, but I love the over-the-top imaginative creations. It's just--most are not appropriate for heat (which is very much on my mind, in case you haven't noticed).


It's Here

On the first warm day of April, my husband went through his closet and chest of drawers, swapping out winter gear with shorts and short-sleeve T-shirts. A few days later, he momentarily regretted his haste, but optimist that he is, blithely went on willing the warm weather to reappear. He also brought up all my summer gear from storage. Of course this was very kind of him, but I haven't swapped out a thing, and my two tubs of summer clothing have been sitting in front of my dresser for two months.

This happens every year.

I hate summer. Let me rephrase that. I hate summer in New York. I loathe it, I abhor it, I fear it. I drag my heels every year, wanting to hang onto my long skirts and boots and light sweaters. If I lived in California, I could wear these cuddly, expressive clothes all year round. Not so in New York. Here, I worry every time there is a heat wave lest the electricity go out and I am forced to climb the roof to sleep in a semi-tolerable temperature. (This is what happened to me during that last black out. As it was, I had heat stroke and it took a week for the migraine and fatique to go away. I get heat stroke practically every year).

This weekend will see the temperature shoot up to the 90s and I will be home, hiding out in my dark, cold cave, wondering if the temperature is safe enough for me to exercise (Hello weight gain! It's great to see you! No, really). I will also, finally, have to give up my winter clothes for the things I've amassed to wear in the heat. Goodbye to my jeans and comfortable long sleeve shirts. Hello to flimsy, unflattering t-shirts and the two pairs of shorts I'm willing to wear. White people are supposed to like warm weather gear; I fail this challenge. Goodbye to a glamorous matte face, and hello to a perpetually amphibious state in which my hair remains permanently scrunched on my head, and my skin is lacquered with sweat and grime.

Is there an upside to summer? Yes, the days are longer and I like the extra light (although, how exactly is one supposed to use it?) The markets are full of a variety of vegetables and fruit. Um. I'll keep thinking.

Now we will go to what New Yorkers consider a beach, which is generally an overcrowded expanse of white sand where lifeguards relentlessly blow on their whistles and airplanes fly overhead in search of JFK.

This whining, bad attitude and childishness will be my last word on the subject. But mark my words; I will be wishing I were home.

Below is what I consider to be a beach.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Goodnight Bush is Funny

Even book people find Goodnight Bush funny. I liked the epilogue in which the authors revealed that Goodnight Moon and The Hungry Caterpillar were listed at Bush's favorite childhood stories.

Bush himself, while campaigning, referred to Goodnight Moon as one of his childhood favorites (along with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was not actually published until one year after Bush graduated from college; the president’s infancy was clearly an extended one.)

Monday, June 02, 2008


Life in the Closet

A Japanese man was mystified as to why food kept disappearing from his apartment. It turns out, a woman had been secretly living in his closet for perhaps as long as several months.

The 57-year-old unemployed man of Fukuoka in southern Japan called police Wednesday when the camera sent pictures to his mobile phone of an intruder in his home while he was out on Wednesday, the Asahi newspaper said on its Website.

Officers rushed to the house and found a 58-year-old unemployed woman hiding in an unused closet, where she had secreted a mattress and plastic drink bottles, the Asahi said

I have to confess, reading this, I wonder how large the closet--not to mention the apartment--actually was.


A Cautionary Tale

It is perhaps silly to post about a book I have not yet read, but the imp of the perverse in me makes me want to do so. (Note, the bold lettering is all mine).

When Emily Gould wrote about Keith Gessen's then upcoming novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, she said (in November, 2007):
"And last night, Choire quoted a friend of his who's reading a galley of the book as saying that the book was a cautionary tale. [The friend had written: "I just started reading Keith Gessen's novel — irritating of course, it's the n+1 world, where women are mere accessories, but not bad! But SUCH a cautionary tale.... To me it's screaming *Get out of NY before it's too late*!!! Or, shrink your life in NY... stop going to all those lame competitive parties. Look, I always liked Sloane Crosley too, but when the fact that she is *nice* is the subject of an Observer article, that is a culture in deep, deep decline."]

Keith didn't understand how the book could be a cautionary tale."

Do we take her at her word that Gessen felt his novel was not a cautionary tale?
In his NY Mag article from April, 2008, which I quoted earlier in this blog, he declared:
"I think the guys behave badly, but I'm not sure they're bad guys. I think part of it is that women see that something might be done with them. It's an ancient mistake, or an ancient gift, that women give to men, where they give them the benefit of trying to straighten themselves out. I had a very interesting conversation with an older woman friend who's a well-known and much-admired, by me and everyone else, feminist writer, who was talking about Roth and Bellow and she was saying, "Well, you couldn't possibly write like that anymore. You couldn't possibly have men who treat women in this way in your books." And I thought, Geez, you know, I sort of do in my book."

By May of this year, when asked about his book, Gessen writes:
"I do think it may appeal to young men more than to young women — though young women should read it as a warning — and women tend to read more than men, unfortunately."

Well, I've heard it said that actors can't stand to look at their work once they've filmed a movie, and that musicians don't want to revisit their old recordings. Once one has released a book out into the world, it can't help but take on a life of its own that one never intended. Perhaps even authors change their minds. Or maybe they are misquoted.

I'm sure I'll find out.


Good Girls

"There is no seduction like that of being thought a good girl . . .

. . . I had a charming father. In many crucial ways, he was innocent of sexism, although he may have substituted narcissism in its place. He wanted me to be like him. He was a writer, an unsuccessful writer, and my mother worked as a secretary to support us. Nevertheless he was a writer; he could think of himself as nothing else. He wanted me to be a writer too. I may have been born to be one, which made things easier. He died when I was seven. But even in those years we had together I learned well that I was his child, not my mother's. His mind was exalted, my mother's common. That she could earn the money to support us was only proof of the ordinariness of her nature, an ordinariness to which I was in no way heir. So I was taught to read at three, taught French at six, and taught to despise the world of women, the domestic. I was a docile child. I brought my father great joy, and I learned the pleasures of being a good girl.

And I earned, as a good girl, no mean rewards. Our egos are born delicate. Bestowing pleasure upon a beloved father is much easier than discovering the joys of solitary achievements. It was easy for me to please my father; and this ease bred in me a desire to please men--a desire for the rewards of a good girl. They are by no means inconsiderable: safety and approval, the warm, incomparable atmosphere created when one pleases a man who has vowed, in his turn, to keep the wolf from the door.

But who is the wolf?

He is strangers. He is the risk of one's own judgments, one's own work. . .

But now I see that I am the kind of writer I am because I am my mother's daughter. My father's tastes ran to the metaphysical. My mother taught me to listen to conversations at the dinner table; she taught me to remember jokes."

Mary Gordon, from The Writer on Her Work.

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