Tag Archives: personal narrative

A blank page is my most-feared final boss form.

Cat-Stuck-In-A-Barbeque
Hi blog, you look nice today.

Wow, I’m stuck right now. Remember back a couple of years ago when I was all stern with myself about personal narrative and writing my way through things and trying to be bold and not over-edit and all that? I have a dim recollection of such a time. I was pretty proud of some of those posts, and working that way helped me wrestle through a hard time. It bothers me to look at this website recently, and see that it’s lost its shape, that my voice doesn’t really seem to be here right now.  I’ve lost the habit. I’ve let a couple of regular disciplines fall by the wayside. I’ve slowly and unintentionally built a silence, and that is a thing that I know to be bad for me. I’d like to find my way out of that shapeless, voiceless void and start using this space as a workshop again. For myself, and for the things I make.

So here I am, looking for small ways to find my way back into this conversation with myself. It’s nice to see you. Let’s do this again in a day or two.

railsea.

Yesterday I finished reading Railsea by China Mieville, and it’s left me with rustling, unquiet feelings. I love Mieville, and I’ve been rapidly working my way through his entire canon since I first read Kraken about three years ago. Reading him is a little like trying to keep level footing while standing on an accordion. He is adept at drawing richly detailed, slickly un-right worlds. The setting and the story expand and contract beneath your feet with a speed and grace that’s both wonderful and nauseating. There are a number of themes and conceits that he relies on consistently, but his main meat is hybridization. Combined words, enmeshed bodies, physical worlds that are built on a sort of bio-steampunk ethos. I’ve written before that every Mieville novel starts in a place that seems familiar and easy to follow, but quickly rotates the camera and lets you see that you are in fact standing on the ceiling. Railsea is true to that pattern.

The basic premise is a world in which railroads are so prevalent that they’re like a body of water. There’s a permanent tangled network of ties and tracks, so thick that all their terminology and lore are language we use for oceans and sailing. Insects and small burrowing creatures have evolved to staggering, predatory size and are hunted by trainsfolk for commerce and, sometimes, for glory and revenge. There’s a very heavy cord of Moby Dick running throughout. Mieville’s books are themselves hybridizations: tangled, looping, referential cultural markers that make use of material from dozens of other literary sources. I’ve never come up with a word to adequately describe this. It’s not delicate enough to be called literary allusion, not is it anything so sly as to be described as theft. He just straight up uses obvious pieces of what has gone before to make his own thing. Sort of like what would happen if you could build an entirely new house using pieces from existing houses, without actually removing anything from the existing houses. Look, the foundation: that’s Melville. The doorframe is the Strugatsky brothers, that paint is a color called Penelope Lively. The result is a proper Painted Lady, but it’s Mieville’s house, and you couldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s.

This particular house is full of monsters, civilizations and un-civilizations, and people who are looking for something. It’s a sailing story, all pitch and roll, and the hero is trying to find his feet. He doesn’t know what’s true, and so he doesn’t know what he wants. So he keeps pushing and pushing at the edges of what is assumed about the world, looking for what’s under the wallpaper. He starts in little ways, like saving a bird from a cockfight even though he knows it will enrage his crewmates, and keeps picking at those elusive things that spur him to action until eventually he finds himself with people and a story that fire his engine and make him move.

I enjoyed Railsea less than any of the other Mieville books I’ve read. There was no shortage of beautiful words or memorable passages, but I never fell all the way into it. In part, I was irritated by an of-the-moment tone in several places that didn’t serve the story and kind of slapped me out of it when I came across them. It had the usual rhythmic, wordy beat that all his writing does, but it seemed more carelessly executed than usual; less durable, somehow. And for the first time, the world he described was one I just couldn’t cognitively accept. Tell me about a world where houses contract technological viruses through flawed spoken language and become biologically ill, and I am right with you. A city that is actually two cities existing in the same physical space and within plain view of one another, but operating as separate entities with blinders on? Absolutely. But show me a world where railroads built hundreds of years in the past are so thick on the ground that they are like water, an infrastructure so old that it’s spawned the vague religions of prehistory, that is governed but not maintained by any municipality and is assumed to be repaired by angels – here you have lost me. It’s choppy. This world never felt real. That explains my general dissatisfaction with the book. My specific itchy feelings about it stem from the religious element in Railsea.

Every one of Mieville’s novels deals with religion, or with cultural assumptions so ingrained that they resemble religion. (He also has kind of a thing about angels, and the myriad ways he’s made them is strange and wonderful.) The religious elements in his books are viewed with a very wide lens, an anthropological pin in the map of the world he’s writing. There’s always a wide range of established beliefs, levels of faith, and degrees of action based on that faith (or lack of it). He’s very effective at using the language of religion to establish the boundaries that are about to challenge his characters (and thereby challenging the language of faith and the nature of belief in every story he tells, whether that faith is in something supernatural or in the accepted order of things). Even when religion results in very concrete actions (basically all of Kraken), the belief itself is a fluid thing. It grows and shrinks, it flows into other forms of thought, it remakes itself in insidious ways, it drains down between the cracks in the concrete and swells back up through the kitchen sink: it is alive.

The belief system of Railsea is finite and brittle. It has the language of the supernatural, it’s acted upon as supernatural, but in the end it’s purely mechanical. The taboos of this world are misunderstood words, the gods are machines set in motion so long ago that no one remembers what they are. The protagonist pushes further and further out against the vague chittering warnings of religious faith until it dissipates like so much fog.

I grew up in a very religious home, but have spent the better part of my adult life pushing against the lore and the language and the assumptions of that faith. This was not a go-to-church-on-Sunday-and-make-the-best-of-it thing; it was an all or nothing thing. As an adult, I see a lot of things in that life that were unwell, and I’ve fought to get away from them. But I can’t ever shake my belief in God entirely, and I’m not sure I want to. What I do want is to know if what belief I have is real or just a habit that’s so old it’s in my cells. I’m forever taking that rusty habit out and examining it in the light to see how sound it is, but I never have an answer to that question. I’m never going to have an answer to that question. Living with that kind of complex uncertainty about what makes us ourselves is just part of being human. What made me uncomfortable about Railsea was imagining a world where it was possible to push on the last door of belief and see it evaporate. Where you could know for certain that your deities were mechanical creations with concrete financial goals, and your holy texts were simply misunderstood place names. Hoping for that kind of certainty, fearing that kind of certainty.

I don’t think think it’s necessarily a bad thing to feel my uncomfortable places so acutely, but I wish the book that did it had been better.

 

national poetry month, day 11.

I’ve never wanted to have children. I love children – and there are several I count among my good friends – but I’ve never experienced that particular yearning or intent. Every once in a while, though, something gives me a twinge. It passes almost as soon as I notice it, because at my core it’s still true that I don’t want kids. But I’m grateful for the fleeting twinge, that thread that connects me to something that usually eludes me.

Egg
by C.G. Hanzlicek

I’m scrambling an egg for my daughter.
“Why are you always whistling?” she asks.
“Because I’m happy.”
And it’s true,
Though it stuns me to say it aloud;
There was a time when I wouldn’t
Have seen it as my future.
It’s partly a matter
Of who is there to eat the egg:
The self fallen out of love with itself
Through the tedium of familiarity,
Or this little self,
So curious, so hungry,
Who emerged from the woman I love,
A woman who loves me in a way
I’ve come to think I deserve,
Now that it arrives from outside me.
Everything changes, we’re told,
And now the changes are everywhere:
The house with its morning light
That fills me like a revelation,
The yard with its trees
That cast a bit more shade each summer,
The love of a woman
That both is and isn’t confounding,
And the love
Of this clamor of questions at my waist.
Clamor of questions,
You clamor of answers,
Here’s your egg.

soulmate job.

I got the best job I’ve ever had because I had a pack of cigarettes on the front seat of my car.

When I moved to Nantucket in the fall of 1998, I knew no one and had a part-time job working in the office of the Episcopal church. I worked with a wonderful woman named Joan who shared a house with a former teacher. They ran a heavy-duty book group that met once every couple of weeks, spending several weeks on a single book. This was long before I started making jewelry, and I was shy and had a hard time meeting people. I spent that first winter going to work, hiding in my room reading, and cursing the buffeting wind that howled off the harbor round the clock. A book group seemed like a really good idea – particularly in a cozy house in town, on a sheltered street, a mile inland. When I joined, they were just starting Robert Pinsky’s translation of Inferno. I hadn’t read Inferno since my first year of college, and really loved the new edition. Several weeks into the group, they invited the owner of the local bookstore to come to the group and read to us. Mimi was fluent in Italian, and she read several passages from the original in that beautiful language, sounding rich and liquid and as if flames were licking around the words.

After the group, I offered her a ride back to the store on Main Street. She plucked a pack of cigarettes off my passenger seat, sat down, and fished one of her own out of her massive linen pockets. She said, “Well, you read and you smoke. Would you like to come and work for me?”

Oh yes, I would. Very much. Mitchell’s Book Corner was a legend in Nantucket. For its size, it’s the best-curated bookstore I’ve ever seen, touching on every subject with an eye to both classics and new books. Mimi had a sterling reputation for selling exactly the right book to the right reader, whether she’d known them all her life or they’d just walked into the store five minutes earlier. A local business heavyweight nicknamed her the Maven of Main Street. She’d read everything, averaging more than a book a day for most of her life. She had excellent business sense, a steel trap memory, a fierce temper and her own way of doing things. Mitchell’s didn’t use a computerized inventory system (in fact, they didn’t own a computer when I started there, and did all their buying by phone from publishers and with the aid of monthly microfiche updates from distributors). Mimi knew the stock of the store inside out from memory, and she expected her booksellers to do the same. 

I’d worked in several bookstores before, but this was a whole new level of fun and challenge. Knowing the full inventory of a bookstore by memory means you absorb the life of books into your body. Stocking and straightening shelves, climbing through the dusty basement shelves doing inventory, I pulled the knowledge of books into myself through my fingertips. There is nothing more satisfying than taking a list of books from a customer and, without looking anything up, pulling Don’t Stop the Carnival, Nightbirds on Nantucket, Snow Crash, Motherless Brooklyn, How to Cook Everything, Vile Bodies, A Coney Island of the Mind, The Tipping Point and A People’s History of the United States off the shelves. (That’s an actual list someone gave me once.) I adored it, and I was good at it. For three and a half years, I lived in that bookstore like it was a second skin. One of the most contented moments of my life was leaning in the door on a late evening before locking up, watching the rain, smelling that paper-in-humidity smell and being aware that I was in my exact right place.

Nantucket, as it turned out, was not my exact right place and I went back to Chicago in the autumn of 2002. Mimi had retired half a year earlier, and although I still loved Mitchell’s, it didn’t feel the same without her. I’ve had good jobs and bad jobs and jobs that were just a job, but there was never another one like that. I was talking to my brother last weekend about my current job hunt, and said that I’d like to go back to bookselling. He said, “Really? You still want to do that?”

Oh yes, I would. Very much.

day 30.

I had a different post half-written and planned for today, but it doesn’t seem to fit at the moment so I’ll leave it for another time. I’ve had an uneven couple of days. Yesterday I worked myself into a mood and ended up spiky and unhappy (hence, no blog post, as nothing got past my filter). I slept badly and woke up achy and puffy-eyed in the same mood this morning. To kick my way out of it, I set myself a project. I spent most of today in front of a pile of my most irritating and problematic beads, the ones that are the wrong size or the wrong shape or have holes that are too big or the color doesn’t work with anything, ever. They fought with me and I fought with them and eventually I made something that I love, using nothing but things that were difficult. Making things is a faithful healer; it did the trick and I’ve had a good day. I didn’t want to let the last day of the month go by without posting, but the longer and more structured post I had planned felt dishonest as a report for the last 24 hours. This feels like a small note to end on, but an honest one. This is what I made: