mothering sunday


There are these occasional stab in Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, that are just beautiful. They are why I decided to buy the book, not entirely sober and tilting through the stacks in the last few minutes before the bookshop closed.

“…because there was anyway such an intensity and strange gravity to their experimentation, such a consciousness at least that they were doing something wrong (the whole world was in mourning all around them), it had needed some compensating element of levity: giggling.”

And I bought it.

It is absolutely unforgivable and unpitiable, this ownership I feel for sorrow, national sorrow even; this dogged refusal to account for others’ lack of understanding of how it feels. (In the midwest and even more so on the west coast, they do not know, it was a show for them, not and never a loss or a real fear.) This attraction to books, songs, people who do know. I who am no veteran’s widow; who do not wake in the night wracked with PTSD dreams. I am the last person who should counsel anyone on loss; when I found myself in the necessary position of doing so, I panicked at how utterly unequipped I was in the face of a woman who’d lost her daughter, who desperately hoped I could make social media stop rubbing her daughter’s death in her face.

But that’s why I bought this book. All the empty rooms. The strange neighborliness that results, the boundaries that are erased, by such vast and shared understanding of a vicious, echoing absence.

And I bought it because they giggled.

“Yes, it was tragic,” she said, with a voice like flint. And didn’t say, as she might have done–at eighty she could be oracular: We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”


“And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?”


You could hardly allow her to borrow books and then not allow her at least some time to read them. And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world.

This from the otherwise self-possessed and entirely unsentimental lord of a house. Seemingly on top of and in control of himself despite the loss of his sons years (and everyone else’s sons) years, years ago, in the First World War. And from the mind of one presented to us as so contained, so in control, just that little unfurling of grief, that baring of a stark distrust, disillusionment in what he was in all likelihood brought up putting his faith in without question: order, command, the way of doing things. Regimentation. And it took his sons from him, and revealed itself not to be the keeper or restorer of anything. And he allows it to slacken and fall away.


random music fridays : bonny light horseman (natalie merchant + lunasa)

I’m always curious about songs speaking supposedly from a woman’s point of view, addressing dead or dying menfolk. Typically because it wasn’t women writing these songs. So I always want to know if this is the way the men writing the songs want to be remembered? Or is it how they remembered their dead friends, and culturally they aren’t allowed to mourn properly, so they had to frame the song from a mourning widow or girlfriend’s point of view?

“Bonny Light Horseman” is one of these. Dating back, indeed, to the Napoleonic Wars it sings of, the song was distributed on broadsheets (which itself begs the question — was the whole damn ballad propaganda? was there, even in the 1790s, an office devoted to inflaming the nationalistic fervor of the people via song? was there a Napoleonic Wag the Dog situation going on?) published in London, Birmingham and Prestons. (Source.)

This version, done as a collaboration between Natalie Merchant — yes, the Natalie Merchant that filled the radio stations in high school — and Lunasa, is very much not the mournful drinking ballad. (It also makes me wonder if enough time has passed since Titanic for the general public to accept hornpipes again. I like hornpipes.) It’s too slow, for one. For another, it’s…oh, I don’t know. Do people even sing sad songs together anymore, drunk or otherwise? Do you keep needing to stand us up as vehicles for your sorrow? Surely not.

The idea that loss just flows in you like syrup and you can tap into it purely and fill a bucket with it, just loss, without having to filter out anger or flecks of yourself or something is terribly anachronistic. These songs that just have women wondering the moors in mourning are silly. We don’t just cry. We rage. At the ones who went off and died. At the people who sent them there. At everyone who didn’t care, or care enough, or cared too late.

As a resurrection of a historial piece, though, it’s pretty enough. These lyrics are the ones modified by Tony Rose in 1982. Interestingly, he changes the eagle of the earlier lyrics to simply “small bird.” I kind of want to ask him why. A small bird’s nest won’t hold the dead horseman’s heart, man, let alone his long cold body. Did you take our wide wings and pinions from us because you thought it too dangerous? Too unladlylike? Or too nationalistic? Mourning women have already been written into the national narrative; don’t try to make us clean again.

You could have at least let us keep our claws.



I am a terrible visitor.

I don’t mean in the hotel room trasher sense. I mean I am terrible at being a visitor. At passing through. I can’t spend two days in a place without trying to fantastize how it would feel to live there forever. Where could I work, what would the seasons feel like, would I need a car. What are the ties that would bind me there.

Maybe it sounds harmless on the surface, but it’s not a particularly bright move. Because it means I can’t go anywhere and be content with merely being a tourist. I want to belong. I want to be recognized and to stop having to introduce myself or explain what brought me to this point. I want people simply to know and to treat me accordingly. This is foolish. The world is too large, and our places in it too fluid, to want this kind of anchoring. But I want it, everywhere I go.

I read this article for example, and think: “Ah yes! my ancestors were from that part of the world! Perhaps it would feel good. Perhaps I’m related to some people in the area still.” Unlikely to discover, and impossible to ascertain, within the constraints of an outsider. But I want to. For as long as that article lingers in my memory, I want to buy a boat and head north and disappear into the wilderness — and likely drown doing it; I have no boat knowledge.

I know that this is terribly predictable. I know that this is conceivably why I prefer MMOs and vast open-world games as opposed to narrowly-scoped vignette games: they offer places you spend so long in you feel a part of them. I know how shallowly, predictably American it is to want to belong somewhere and to, in all likelihood, not belong anywhere particularly meaningful. Just as I can’t reinvent these sentiments into something unique and moving, I can’t reinvent myself into someone who belongs anywhere other than some suburb somewhere.

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I know that what we gain from uprootedness makes up, more often than not, for what we lose. No mob with pitchforks is going to come to my house for violating some social norm; there are few norms left and no one knows enough about each other to notice a violation. No community will shun me for some petty misunderstanding or personal political tiff, if I am part of no community. Uprootedness means, in a very personal, day-to-day sense, freedom. Less judgment.

But it also means less support. My parents lived the way I do, and no one gave a shit when my mom got sick and died. Their friends ebbed away. Friends were all they had — no family nearby, no domineering religious group rewarding a lifetime of penitence with assistance at the end — so they were alone at the end. I take the measures I can to try and make sure life will be easier for my husband when that time comes — a house paid off, in a location where he likes the people and the climate — but I’m not dumb enough to convince myself it will be much easier. It isn’t, ever. I know that.

And when I visit or read about far-off places; about putting down roots there, it isn’t just the quaint stone cottages or the rugged mountain vistas or wide-armed seascapes I fantasize about — it’s about people actually feeling a social responsibility to look in on those in need, and following through on that impulse. It’s community I fantasize about, even when I know perfectly well that so many communities are built upon the idea of “us” and “them,” where you only get to be part of “us” by birth. Communities define themselves as much now as they always have by exclusion. It sucks. I know that.

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So I have little patience with myself when encountering stories of place; with how much I want to be a part of whatever place is in question. I know what I gain from being a part of nowhere. But I greedily want to be part of somewhere.

It’s stupid. I don’t note it as such hoping to be told I’m wrong — I know it for what it is. But it’s stupid all the same. The sort of thing you hope you’ll discard with age, and which you realize too late you’re saddled with for eternity. It’s disappointing.


See, this though, this is bad. I hate when people do this. Don’t try to be cute. Be honest or hurt or defiantly sardonic but for god sake stop trying to be cute.

the last bookstore and the end of the world


Over the weekend I went to The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. On the train on the way there I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour — on my Kindle, for easy transport. It was grim. He write the way he talks, but of course, now, what came off before as a cynicism if not conjured from the ether than certainly heavily enhanced for entertainment purposes. The darkness hinted at therein (and then, in chapter three, the darkness described in detail) lurked, more, now, than anyone would have been willing to see before, I suppose. In chapter three he and his brother took off on the fool’s quest of resurrecting the joy of their youth in the place of their youth, in the winter cold and without their loved ones, many of whom had since died. Again and again, that “you can’t go back” thread that was the whole reason I went to graduate school shows up…but here it wasn’t even beautiful. Just sad.

Carrying that with me, though, carefully tucked away in my purse into a self-described last bastion of physical book commerce, I found myself a reading an oddly uplifting counterpoint, there amongst so many discarded volumes bearing inscriptions for people who’d long since gotten rid of them. (I would be a terrible estate sale thrifter; the gifts given in love and now long abandoned never fail to bring me down.)


I felt sick; the store ran no AC and I’d not had enough to eat or drink; if you weren’t standing in front of a fan you were sweating. I prowled the shelves and prowled them again and felt like I was in a loop; I’d loved doing this for decades but now everything I picked up felt like the wrong person telling the wrong story. A man talking about women in love. A man talking about women in pain. A woman, at last, but telling that same tired old story of a bunch of women of different generations stuck together in one place where they have to Deal With Things. I hate that story. It’s made for TV.

At last I found the stairs up out of the broiling cesspool of People I Used To Be (see: the philosophy and film and literary critique sections, populated by various versions of my college cohort, surly and judgy to a T) and breathed a sigh of relief so heavy I got a pair of raised eyebrows from the person reading at the top of the stairs. Fantasy — at last! But I still felt sick, and — barring staff recommendations, which I always like to read but which were strangely lacking in that section — I took the obligatory picture of the book tunnel and fled with a book whose title and cover I liked to a flaking leather chair and sweet, sweet fan proximity.



The book was The End of the Day, by Claire North. And this was the counterpoint I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for, to Bourdain. To Bourdain viewed through the lens of his loss. It began with a level of self-conscious quirkiness that would have made me put it down immediately if it had been written by, say, Neil Gaiman. I don’t know how to explain my sudden refusal to listen to yet another man tell me a story, except that again, typically that’s all I read, and here I’d been reading Bourdain, whom I admired and missed and who had seemed like he had overcome the darkness that lurks even at the corners of people who don’t ever engage with it directly, but he hadn’t and he’d died and I didn’t want to hear any other old man’s reassurances that he understood anything anymore, when a year or two later it would turn out he was wrong and he’d kill himself instead of figuring it out.

Whatever it was, I flipped to the flyleaf immediately to see the author. A thing I never do. Would it be another Vanna White look-alike, who might as well have her carefully-coiffed picture on every ball of yarn I’ve ever bought? No. Claire North is a pseudonym, but it still stands for a women, younger than me, unmade-up in a flannel shirt and hair short enough to encourage cautious flirting. Ahhhh. Not someone trying to tell me how it is, then. Or to tell themselves. Someone trying to be magical. And largely succeeding, if the flyleaf extolling her first book at 14 years old held true. I wasn’t even jealous of this — I would not want to be in the headspace, I now realized, for that to have been possible. I flipped back to the front and read on.


Bourdain on the train pulled me down because it was now, of course in hindsight, so obvious, the wild swings from elation to despair. No good thing could simply be observed as such, no bad thing could simply be bad: they were either devastatingly bad and devastatingly good, as exhausting to read about as it is to hear, in person. No equilibrium, no “okay.” And “okay” is everything the Harbinger of Death, Charlie, is, in The End of the Day. And that should — would have, I’m sure, to my teenage through my college self — have sounded self-explanatory, equilibrium, the median and anything in between extremes being pedestrian, and worthy of avoidance, dismissal. (I am hardly alone in this. For better or worse — mostly worse — the same people telling you art, literature and music matter are also telling you, in those years in particular, that only the extremes are worthy of artistic expression, and so what you understand is that you must reject all the in-betweens, and be either all this or all that, or else not be worth bothering with. It’s stupid and negligent and maybe unavoiable, given the artistic landscape of the world. But people should still think before they light these fires in others’ hearts.) Charlie, though, isn’t just some mediocre humdrum office zombie, a fixture of the 20th century pitying glance. He is no Walter Mitty.

From his job interview:

“Associations. I say a word, You say the first thing that comes to your mind.”
“Really? Isn’t that a little–”
“…People. Sorry, that’s just the first thing that…”

That’s when I decided to buy the book.

Charlie lapses into ellipses a lot. When he becomes the narrator the dots sprinkle across the page like rain. Maybe that bothers some people, I don’t know. It might. But he’s a fictional character travelling the world and seeing difficult things, and maybe the ellipses make that possible for him in a way that it wasn’t, for Bourdain, a real person with declarative sentences and exclamation marks. Single periods. Finished thoughts. Maybe the need to put a cap on each thought doomed it to that darkness, that cynicism that everyone learns is to some extent desired of us, but which can, like a scab you pick at too much, start to bleed you out if you’re not careful. The highest highs: tie them off, cement them in place on paper with an exclamation mark. The lowest lows: anchor them there, down at the bottom, moored by period after period after period. He never lapses into the possibility of the ellipse. That forgiving uncertainty.


A comfort with uncertainty is surely required, for any kind of equilibrium. The bitterest people I know are full of certainties. They don’t allow for the possibility of any but their darkest truths. (And here my boss chided me for refusing to take the test to see whether or not I had the gene that gives you Alzheimer’s.) Maybe it feels anchoring at first, these certainties, your conviction that you know what shape the world, your life, will take, and that it’s the worst one. But such convictions weigh you down after a time, I would think. At which point you can’t even undo the knots anymore; you’re anchored down in the darkness as surely as are your sentences.


I bought the book: large, hardback, expensive and uncomfortable to carry. I wanted to support the physicality of the bookstore, its self-described labyrinth, even though its maze bristled with people I didn’t want to be anymore. Even though the terse signage and unapologetic classifications advertised, very much, a mode of being that no longer synced with me. Even though I carried hidden in my purse a Kindle, one of so many devices set to make physical places like The Last Bookstore live up to their names. I didn’t and don’t want to be certain of such things. Books were supposed to be gone a decade ago anyway, right? And yet here I was among them.

Far be it from me to pronounce their end.

take my money, clarinets

Listen to these clarinets, from ESO: Summerset’s soundtrack. Just listen:

I love that the person who made the video advertises this segment as “not depressing!” Thank you my man. You know what I’m looking for. Just listen to that!

Those lone clarinets are absolutely the most magnificent part, but here is the preceding minute, with more strings and almost-but-not-quite locomotive buildup, which is beautiful:

I think that’s, what, an oboe in there? Goddamn. It’s so good. The high elves are so awful. But this music is so good. Every time my husband passes by me playing Summerset he pauses either to note, during a dialogue sequence, “god the high elves suck,” or, whilst wandering, “that music!” And he’s right. Shit. It’s great.

hearts unknown


At a quarter to five in the morning, our phones lit up. We were awake; my husband had just used my phone to turn the sound of rain on over the speakers in this place where it does not rain. But the bright glow of a text lit up the room like a beacon. I rolled over to turn it off and saw that it was my sister-in-law writing to say that Anthony Bourdain had died. Via, apparently, suicide.

“Maybe he wasn’t depressed. Maybe he was just diagnosed with a disease he didn’t want to fight.” And lose.

I spoke those words into the darkness, and wanted — still want — to believe them. We had read his books and watched his shows. All of them, as he moved from the Travel Channel to the Food Network to CNN. When we had no money to travel, in the slow-to-recover Midwest after the economic collapse, we circumvented the globe vicariously through his shows. We saved episodes about certain areas for when the weather, or our lives, or our pantries were particularly morose. We deliberately expanded the range of what we ate, and our knowledge of the places it came from, expressly through his work. Occasionally we’d cave to a Netflix related-show recommendation, or when visiting someone with cable, see what ran next on TV after his show ended — but neither of us stuck around for long. As I am sure everyone will make abundantly clear in the coming days, it wasn’t just the food or even the travel that attracted you to Bourdain’s shows, but the perspective he brought to each. That of the one-time salty chef of Kitchen Confidential, sure, but also of someone old enough to have outgrown that affected badass persona into someone more nuanced, compassionate and, in some ways, gentle.

Both of us have always, consciously or not, looked for role models in that kind of person. We are both the oldest children in our families, with no permanent older fixture — a cousin, a friend — from whom to seek advice or perspective. I more than my husband (probably due to a better track record of finding people worth believing in) actively seek out the writings and advice of people, usually men, at least ten years older than me. For good or ill, it’s easier, for me, to relate to the concerns they are willing to put into words than those being spoken by women. And then there is always the knowledge that I “could have used” an older brother. A brother old enough to be my father, frequently with a youthful history of drug abuse and/or depression, is not, I’m sure, the brother many parents would choose for their kids. Certainly mine wouldn’t have. But what I was saying the other day when reading the last of the Neapolitan novels remains true: seeing this darkness seep out of the veins of people and swallow them isn’t something it’s possible to escape. The seeing of it. But however much my melodramatic youthful self may have wished it at times, that’s not an avenue open to me. Nor, I hope obviously, am I advocating some sort of depression-tourism by soaking oneself in literature and music and other media produced by people capable of going to dark places, as some kind of vicarious sob-fest.

What I am saying, though, is that what they learn is worth knowing. Especially when life doesn’t make it easy to obtain that information any other way.

Most men of Bourdain’s vintage don’t care about marginalized populations. They aren’t able to look at some of the shit kids get up to and recognize themselves in that and leave it alone. If they travel the world they shit on what they find. Third-world this and backwards that. Or, conversely, they deify it. Hold it up as the shimmering paragon toward which everyone else should aspire (and which culture every male should mine for a wife, is typically where that conversation goes, more times than I have the remotest interest in tallying), and compare to which all other cultures pale. Nuance is not common coin among white men in their 50s or 60s. They tend to be assholes.

Bourdain wasn’t. He didn’t do those things. He was perfectly capable of being wry, sarcastic and even bitter about a place or its politics, but its people? He didn’t shit on them. Even when — as I thought darkly during some of his American city episodes, focusing on places who voted red and would continue to do so — they deserved it. He brought his experience and his, yes, fatigue of a certain way of living (be that young and underslept and drugged-up, or rich and languid and overfed — he’d seen all of it) to every place he went, every person he interviewed, and he spoke through that fatigue and found something and someone — so many someones — worth knowing on the other side of it. That is why we kept coming back to him, in whatever medium. That’s why I seek out the perspectives of people like him. It’s not that I can speak to having pondered suicide while on a bender on a cliff road in Jamaica. It’s that those who turned around, who didn’t drive that car over the edge, did it for reasons I want to make sure I find too. Because even if I’m not on that precipice now, or even have a history of teetering, not knowing what made them stay means you may be puttering along on convictions that have all the consistency of toilet paper, when you really need to call on them.

Also, his food knowledge was amazing. We cook from his cookbook all the time.

I hate that he’s dead. I want to believe it wasn’t depression. Obviously, yes, if it was, token attention will be paid to the need for greater education and open discussion about it. But then, as after school shootings, after a few weeks people will stop caring or talking about it, and things will go back to the way they were. The way they have been.

And the way they have been seemed to have been enough for him, is what bothers me. And now, suddenly, it wasn’t. If it was a disease he didn’t want to fight — Alzheimer’s, for example — that I understand. And I like to think, if I were in a closely-related position capable of forgiving or required to forgive, that I could do so. For that.

But if it wasn’t? If it was “just” depression? That sucks. Because Bourdain and his work and his travel and his work about travel, and food, was an argument for there being light at the end of the tunnel.

And it just winked out.