The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence

I read The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence because Rachel Cusk mentions it in The Last Supper, and I hadn’t read anything by D.H. Lawrence, or any  literature from the “old white male canon,” in a very long time.

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image from amazon.com

If you were to go on an extended trip through a long country or several small ones, and if you were to keep a daily journal filled with every detail that reminds you of every exquisite thing you encountered, details that also functioned to take you to a time, a place, a feeling, a current obsession, the food you ate, the drink, and then if you published that book because the whole trip had been funded by a publisher who had been promised a book, I presume you would have The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.

I’ve made long trips, and kept detailed journals, and I recorded every exquisite thing I encountered that reminded me of a time, a place, a feeling, an obsession, the food I ate, the drink, and I cherish those journals. Rereading them, I can feel the sun on my skin and the free way of moving through the world, urgent to find food or hotel, but not to meet a work deadline. I can remember my interests, my obsessions, the ways other people live, the look of other places, how I was different then than I am now, and for the inevitable better.

I don’t think those journal entries probably have much merit beyond my own memories, just as the Sea and Sardinia is undoubtedly more important to Lawrence and the “q-b” than anyone else. The book is an early modern travel guide. It perfectly captures the difficulties, and the luggage handles cutting into your hands, and the filth of the public, the beauty, and the enduring, the transcending that occurs with travel. Of course it’s also artfully written. Not only does Lawrence have the decency to avoid boring us with a plot, but the reader must look no further than the first line for something lovely: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move” (7). And on the “other,” he writes, “Their naturalness seems unnatural to us. Yet I am sure it is best” (21). There is more of this throughout, which is, of course, what sets him apart as one of the very best. I can say I read it.

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Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

Wild Woman’s Garden: 7 Radical Weeds for Women Over 40 by Jillian VanNostrand and Christie V. Sarles

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image from amazon.com

I’m not sure how I came across Wild Woman’s Garden: 7 Radical Weeds for Women Over 40, but I knew I was interested in reading more about these seven herbs that support women’s health. (I think I somehow missed the “Over 40” part in the title.) This text works best as a very short reference guide on how to start using herbs—as teas, tinctures, and oil infusions. (I also liked the drawings!)

I’m familiar with all of these herbs. Black cohosh is powerful and used in birthing communities. Chaste berry is used for fertility. This short book focuses specifically on the gynecological issues that many women face as they go through the “Change” [their word], such as fibroids and hot flashes.

After reading the book, I found myself searching for images of these different herbs. Were they cold hardy? (Yes to black cohosh, st. john’s wort, and yarrow.) Would they attract bees? (Yes.) Would they be attractive in a garden? (Yes, many of these herbs appear to be very floral.) Were they too weedy? I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did find myself emboldened to try some of these in the garden. I’ve been enjoying more familiar herbs like sage and yarrow in gardens for years. Maybe it’s time to try something different, like st. john’s wort and black cohosh.

The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People by Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell

Awhile back, a colleague in the field of feminist medical rhetorics recommended The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People by Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell (though it must not’ve been too long ago because this book was just published in 2016). I finally got around to read it in preparation for a presentation I am giving on rhetorics of consent and advocacy in childbirth at a conference in March.

First, notice that the title is “pregnant people,” not “pregnant *women*.” We know now that it isn’t just women who get pregnant and/or give birth. I emphasize pregnant and/or give birth because this books also acknowledges that pregnancy ends in many different ways–some more socially acceptable than others.

For the most part, this book is politically sensitive to  the wide range of experiences people have as it relates to pregnancy and caring for the pregnancy and/or childbirth experience (aka doula work). Doulas provide people with support, especially in situations that are less socially acceptable. Of course, there are also doulas who hold intense, open biases. Some won’t work with gay couples (the legalities of which I question), and some are vehemently pro-life. It’s been my experience, though, that, in general, the doula community tends to be quite open to, and advocates for, variations of the pregnancy experience. (Still, the doula interview is crucial because pregnancy and birth work is incredibly political and contentious.) Unfortunately, the current cultural climate is one that is still obsessed with policing women’s bodies. Anything from choosing abortion to opting out of an epidural can be, and is, met with resistance.

Another approach I liked from this book is one of narrative medicine. Ina May Gaskin is notorious for writing childbirth guides that are full of childbirth stories. These stories work to help teach the reader about the many different healthy and normal experiences people can have in childbirth. This is important because when there is a very narrow definition of “normal,” and variations are treated as “abnormal,” interventions become the norm, and interventions too often mean trauma, surgery, injury, delayed bonding–the list goes on.

Back to the book: for my own purposes, I didn’t need or want to read most of the content. I wanted this to be a more theoretical work, but it mostly wasn’t. I also had a hard time understanding the relevance of some of the content.

Here are a few lines I liked (from the intro and forward because that’s where the book was most theoretical):

-“These doulas call it “story-based care” because they hear many stories of people for whom some choices are straightforward, while others offer extreme complexity” (x).

Since becoming a doula, I have been shocked by the number of *high stakes* choices that people have during pregnancy and childbirth. Navigating those choices and feeling empowered in through the process has been one of the most important aspects of my job as a doula.

-“Racism can distort a birthing or adoption experience. Transphobia can lead to the denial of vital healthcare. Prejudice against immigrants can divide families through deportation. Misogyny can reduce pregnant women to walking wombs without rights” (xv).

-“[Doulas] don’t sky away from naming oppressions–white supremacy, colonialism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia–yet they are not there to preach, but to serve” (xv).

Sure, some doulas might preach, but one unique aspect of this type of work is that, for doulas, activism is in the work–making political statements through actions, through work within the institutions and with the people most affected.

-“While much feminist and social justice activism was taking place online, the doula movement allowed activists to connect face-to-face with people confronting the realities of what the “spectrum of choice” really means” (xxi).

-On people during pregnancy and childbirth: “Worse still, they suffer the loss of personal agency as decisions that should be private become politically and bureaucratically charged” (xxi).

-On doulas: “People frequently refer to us as “advocates.” While we would not argue that point, we hope this book will show you how advocacy as a doula looks different from advocacy in other realms. Often it simply means this: we are “holders.” We hold space by creating safe, comfortable environments where our clients can be heard” (xxii).

-“Our practice as doulas is a daily expression of the union between compassion and advocacy” (xxii).

-“Though understanding systemic oppression is crucial to the way we approach doula care, we believe that individual stories have the ability to pierce the veil covering systems that affect millions of people; they are unique but universal” (xxiv).

-“So much of doula work is that transference of story and the transference of emotional burden that goes with it” (xxvi).

Lessons from the Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Before reading Lessons from the Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs, I also checked out The Wild Garden by William Robinson and Rick Darke and My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner. The latter two weren’t really my speed. The Wild Garden had some beautiful photographs, but I didn’t find the text to be very reader-friendly. My Summer in a Garden has a great title. I wanted to get lost in that book, but the tone and approach didn’t speak to me. When it comes to gardening, I want something that is real, and true, and earnest, and beautiful–like a garden. While some of these titles do offer that, it’s always along with the same kind of self-deprecating humor that doesn’t really speak to me.

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image from amazon.com

I enjoyed reading Lessons from the Great Gardeners. This book also had some lovely pictures. I liked the way it was organized. Each section named a gardener, provided their biography, a description of the garden, some lessons, and pictures, which included both beautiful photographs of the original gardens and beautiful botanical illustrations. Of course, there are only so many ways to say, “Experiment with color!” And, “Don’t be afraid to take risks!” And, “Think outside the box!” Still, this was a book I could get lost in. And did.

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Before reading Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols, I quickly scanned Old Herbaceous and The Gardener’s Year, two old books on gardening that aren’t really about gardening, but more like old-timey, self-deprecating insights on the human condition.

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image from amazon.com

I, however, am in the mood to read gardening books, and so I settled on Nichols’ book because, while there was a lot of inappropriate humor (jokes at the expense of everyone besides wealthy white males), it was also about gardening. Nichols is clearly obsessed with every detail of the garden. I enjoyed reading about the painstaking work that went into his seeds and sprouts. I liked reading about the close relationship he had with his parents and their shared interest in gardening. The competitive relationship he has with the neighbor, Mrs. M, is enviable.

Here are some of the lines I liked:
-“I believe in doing things too soon. In striking before the iron is hot, in leaping before one has looked, in loving before one has been introduced” (9).

-“There are certain very definite rules to be observed when you are Making The Tour. The chief rule is that you must never take anything out of order” (39).

-“And yet, not quite silence. For if you hold your breath, and listen, you can hear the plants growing…” (211).

-“It took a few million years to make a snowdrop. Surely one is justified in spending a few hours in studying the results?” (265).

and the words I liked:
-effluvium (157).

-Elysian fields (173)

recommended flowers:
-aubretias (128).

-“[S]imple, hardy flowers…forget-me-nots, schizanthus, nemesia, and sweet peas” (212).

-“I would suggest the little purple vetch, the ragged robin, the scarlet pimpernel, and the speedwell” (222).

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Since I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, I’ve wanted to read her earlier book The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. I finally got the chance to finish it this winter. Cusk’s genius is in her observations. She has some of the most shockingly astute and artfully articulated insights on the human condition that I have ever read. She also has a vast vocabulary, which she integrates beautifully into her writing: inchoate, lachrymose, acolyte, obeisance, balustrades.

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image from goodreads.com

The book comments on foreign travel, staying, getting sick of a place, hating and loving a place, connecting, awkwardness, presence, living in the experience, and art, and an eye, and the moments between people that capture the feeling or meaning in art.

Two thirds of the way through, I’ll admit that I wanted a bit less description of some of the art (though I can see that it was necessary). I wanted more of the human interactions, the mistakes, the moving, the descriptions of the land, the houses, the people. This wasn’t a joyful read, but it was quiet and thoughtful, which is what I needed.

Just a few lines:
“In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own morality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own” (53).

“Now our violence is diffuse, generalized: it has been broken down until it covers everything in a fine film, like dust” (148).

We Made a Garden by Margery Fish

I think I first stumbled upon We Made a Garden by Margery Fish when it was mentioned in a podcast. When I did, it opened up an entire catalog of charming old gardening books. This book was first published in the 1950s, and as a reader, I had to take that into consideration when reading Fish’s self-deprecating humor and sexist attitudes between her and her husband. (I think she even refers to her husband as “Lord and Master” at one point.) Still, the love between them is obvious, and their mutual joy of gardening is contagious.

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image from powells.com

Fish begins as an amateur gardener, but quickly grows to love it. I was charmed by her endearing attitude toward her plants, calling them her “babies” and her “children” and referring to certain groupings and cuttings as “cousins,” “nieces,” and “nephews.” I strongly identified with this sentiment. I love my houseplants. I love many animals too, but I find myself reacting to my plants in the same silly, joyful way that people react to their pets in YouTube videos.

We Made a Garden is the perfect book to read in the dead of winter (huge white snowflakes are falling outside as I write this). Fish shares her favorite plants, in a thorough glossary that had me googling late into the night. My outdoor gardening space is limited, and I will probably always been constrained by living in cold zones, but I found myself daydreaming about the possibilities.

Fish works relentlessly at her garden and shares funny and fussy opinions about the proper way of doing things. Last night, on a freezing cold winter’s night, I found my neighbor outside tinkering in her garden, picking up scraps to go out in the yard waste bin the next day. You either get it or you don’t.

Fish’s garden is a kind of wild, informal cottage garden. Clearly years of thought, labor, and love went into it’s making. Today, decades later, visitors can still see the garden. While I don’t know that I’ll ever make the trip, reading the book has inspired me to visit more public gardens and pay even closer attention to the different plants. I’ll also be reading as many of these old gardening books as I can find.

Lines I loved:
“The plants will show their gratitude by giving even better blooms than they did before” (66).
“They come up year after year and I am quite glad to see them” (93).
“[I]t didn’t work out as he had hoped, so gladioli were banished from our garden” (98).
“I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years” (104).
On Asiatic primulas: “It seem a pity to waste a position so admirably suited to their taste, so I dug out the heavy clay and filled the channel with a good mixture of leaf mould, sand and compost and here the Bartleys, the Postfords, the Millars and their foreign relations enjoy life, with their feet in deep damp earth and their heads in the sun” (118).
“Everyone should have an herb garden–a little oasis of old world plants and delicate fragrance, with clipped hedges of box or lavender, rosemary of santolina” (136).
“Everyone has their own ideas of what they want to grow in a garden” (144).

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala translated by Ann Wright and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

I Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala

image from powells.com

At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.

As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.

To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be  to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.

The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As usual, I’ve had a hard time finding the right thing to read lately. I want something that’s light and easy–a break from difficult scholarship. But, I also want it to be substantive. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day was the perfect solution during the holiday break. First of all, I had to read it with a title like that. (When I saw her face on the cover, I also knew I had to read it.) Secondly, I am always fascinated with and inspired by women who are doing things a little differently than the status quo, and Dorothy Day certainly has. The book is about her experience with community and the sacrifices she’s made in pursuit of her beliefs about the best way to live.

image from amazon.com

The first two-thirds of the book was of the most interest to me personally. In the first third of the book, she writes extensively about her childhood, about her friendships, her family life, and the reader can see the subtle ways these experiences influenced the choices she made later. Her descriptions of various little girls she befriended seemed tedious at times, but I think it helped make her larger point–that these connections and interactions we have with people are the stuff of life and far from inconsequential.

Next, she wrote about being a young women, her unconventional “marriage,” the birth and joy of her daughter, and the decisions she made to convert to Catholicism. In this section, I was deeply interested in her relationship with her partner and her response to her baby. I identified much with those very human experiences, even though I haven’t had them myself exactly.

The last third dragged on and I had to force myself to finish. I didn’t identify quite as strongly with her decision to convert to Catholicism. Like much of her thinking and decision making, as a reader, I sometimes had a hard time understanding her motivations. She’s very matter of fact about everything, and I found myself responding, “Yes, but…” That said, I love her unapologetic descriptions of joy and love earlier on, and I don’t need her to explain “why.” Still, the social activism, the writing, and the experiences with various people are a part of her story, but I was less interested, in part, because it was less about her and more about them.

Here are some insights I gained from reading the book. Day is unfaltering convinced that we must live together. After living alone for the bulk of my adult life, I am feeling ready to not live alone. I have felt loneliness and fear–something that was quite rare for me throughout my twenties. That’s fine. I was pursuing other things. Now I’m in a new stage, and I want to live in meaningful relationships. I have a much stronger urge to connect to other people and invest in them. In this way, Day’s message really resonated with me at this time.

Here are a few lines and ideas worth further consideration:

  • One hundred years ago, there were free medical clinics. If you were not poor, there was also affordable medical clinics that were a little nicer.–I can’t imagine how freeing it would be to go through life knowing that, should a major medical event occur, you could go on living without being forever indebted to a financial institution. We are living in fear or modern slavery.
  • Much of Day’s life’s work is in writing and writing for The Catholic Worker, and she understood what I am only being forced to understand now, which is just how crucial freedom of the press is and how important it is to communicate with the masses in this way.
  • “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore” (285).
  • “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that that only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

By the end, I sort of just wanted to rise with the sun, and garden and bake bread, and pray and read and meditate, and wake the next morning to do it all over again.