Now my birds hang in the gallery, along with the other birds, some of which are big but none bad, and in this time without travel I’ve been casting around for what’s next.
I’m reading “The Nearest Thing to Life,” a book that collects a series of lectures by the literary critic James Wood, and in it he devotes an entire section to describing how writers go about “seriously noticing the world.”
A phrase in Wood’s piece concerns what he calls a kind of death that novelists save us from, ”…the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention. By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, we stop looking at things.”
Being a fan, Wood describes Karl Ove Knausgaard’s world as, “one in which the adventure of the ordinary – the inexhaustibility of the ordinary as a child once experienced it (‘the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation’) is steadily retreating, in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness.” And Wood says: “In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things – to soccer boots and grass, to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Old Spice and Ajax.”
Reading this helped me identify what Knausgaard’s books do for me. He reminds us to look for the meaning in the everyday, as novels often do. But his, with their piling up of the detail of ordinary life, operate like some magic elixir delivering the engaged liveliness I want to feel.
The concept of some inevitable “pacing toward meaningless” horrifies me. I want to retain the excitement that comes from paying attention, from engagement – the way I used to always feel about observing flowers, trying to capture their variety, their shapes and colors, an adventure that seemed endless. And in the interstices without an object or a flower to attend to, I always knew the way back was to begin with drawing – or writing – to try and bring “meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.”
Every once in a while I need serious reminding about serious noticing, a reminder that paying attention is the secret. I used to thank Virginia Woolf most of all for this thought. I still do. And I’m grateful to the bottom of my heart to a thinker like James Wood, to novelists like Knausgaard and Woolf, Austen and Ferrante – for the great writing that, as Wood says, not only asks us to look more closely, but “asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.”
As time goes on, and life is ever more cluttered with possible distractions, and the spectre rises of the “sleep of our attention,” I want to stay awake, engaged with the ordinary!
At Downtown Abbey, Mr. Carson suggested he make Jamie Oliver’s “Vegan Lentil Sloppy Joes, and I said, “Oh I love sloppy Joes.” I admit the ground beef version is not my usual fare, but deep-seated fond memories stir. Our younger son replied the same way when I proposed them at his house. They are deliciously sloppy and nurturing.
By my second visit (after a week away) Sweet Baby had gained 10 ounces and grown an inch! She begins to fill out – with a hint of the double chin and chub to come.
Most days, after my treasured early mornings with her, I’d walk in the California hot sun up the nearby hill in Eagle Rock – a well-worn knob above Occidental College. From the top it provides a 360° view of Los Angeles: downtown, the Hollywood hills and Griffith Observatory, the San Gabriel Mountains behind Pasadena, freeways – and Sweet Baby’s house a speck in the distance.
She is so tiny to live in such a huge city! But her small world comforts and protects her. She spends time on her parents in a Solly Baby wrap – pale pink with polka dots. She peeks up at their faces, and you can see the outline of her little form within the wrap. During “tummy time,” she turns her head from side to side, staring at the black and white and red books favored by the very young.
In a very happy event, the Sweet Bride’s mom and a cousin are coming for a month from Thailand to meet the Sweet Baby. Perhaps they will try this all-American fare:
Sauté a small, diced onion, diced red or yellow pepper, and two sticks of celery (also diced) in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until soft. Sprinkle with a teaspoon of ground cumin and one of chili powder.
Add a cup of French lentils, three cups of water, a 28-ounce can of tomatoes (sauce or crushed), three tablespoons of tomato paste, and one of Sriracha sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the lentils are soft (a while – at least half an hour). When tender, add a teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar.
Serve the lentils in sloppy Joe fashion, over or in a buttered and toasted whole-wheat bun. Add toppings – big scoops of avocado for sure. (Oliver suggests homemade zucchini relish, but that’s for another time.)
What used to be happy hour in Eagle Rock with chips and beer on the veranda now coincides with the ill-famed “witching hour,” when babies need most to move and be comforted by contact. I loved watching the Sweet Baby in the front wrap on her dad, as he paced his garden and shushed her gently.
Sloppy Joes can wait, ready when you are.
Mrs. Hughes and I read book after book in the “Game of Thrones” series with newborn Lady Baby. In the setting they seemed the most improbable books one could read. But I’m just as engrossed with the Sweet Baby – AND – in another unlikely series, the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume “My Struggle.”
A disjointed chronology upsets the bildingstroman nature of these autobiographical novels. The series begins with “A Death in the Family” when Knausgaard is 20. In the second volume, “A Man in Love,” Knausgaard is in his forties and a stay-at-home father. (All those details, nappies and naps, wrestling with strollers and recalcitrant children are familiar – though not a male story until this generation.) And he is a child in the third volume, “A Boyhood Island.” His father is cruel, a “house tyrant,” and the descriptions painful.
But outside the house, Knausgaard’s life in a Norway with such childhood freedom feels mythical – to ski and skate and ride bikes, to range the forests and village, to stupidly set fires and drop rocks on cars. Long summer evenings with packs of friends. And always the sheer terror elicited by his father. (Reading Ferrante and Knausgaard both, I marvel at the kind and good men I know.)
All six books have been published in Norway to much clamor – objecting and admiring – and now are being translated into English.
I had read references to Knausgaard, sometimes in terms of Ferrante, suggesting if one liked Elena, Karl Ove might not be one’s cup of tea. And vice versa. So I was skeptical, given my passion for Ferrante. But the first book had me on the airplane on the way to meet the Sweet Baby. Now I’m through the third and, like a lot of other people, awaiting the fourth (available this week).
I would not have predicted the mesmerizing effect of these books, written in language rooted in the here and now, the ordinary. While Ferrante rushes pell mell through her narrative, Knausgaard pauses to enumerate the contents of a pocket, the tasks in cleaning a filthy house, and interrupts with essay-like bits about art or philosophy. It’s addictive.
Holding a tiny baby and reading on the Kindle, makes for erratic note taking, but I keep remembering the “machine chuntered out a receipt,” exactly the sound of those odd credit card machines in a taxi. If you describe the banal and keep the attention of the reader as Knausgaard does, the magic is in the language (the translator, Don Bartlett, must get much credit).
Sometimes the detail piles up like a list of the everyday, and other times the seven-year old’s imagination takes off, returning home at night to familiar objects: “The shoes with grommets as eyes and the tongue as forehead, the chilly gaze from the white two-holed electric sockets above the baseboard, the hat stand in the corner with its back turned. And in my room: the pens and pencils assembled like a gang of school children in the pen stand….”
As a child Knausgaard is a seemingly “clueless know-it-all” who cries a lot – and observes. “Grandma took the coffee pot off the stove in the kitchen and the steadily increasing noise of the whistle died with a little sigh.” And his grandfather: “The eyes behind his glasses were sharp, but were totally transformed once [he] took them off. Then they were like two small children who had just woken up.”
Maybe because Knausgaard begins with death, everything, and I mean every little thing, the hard things and the small things, are more meaningful.
I have never read anything like this. Never ever.
Because I was in Alaska when news came of the Sweet Baby’s arrival, I got to watch Lady Baby see the first photos of her new cousin. With the sweetest expression of curiosity and awe, she said, “She’s so tiny. She’s the size of Pink Baby, right?” (Pink Baby is a soft doll clad in pink terry cloth, a long-standing, cherished member of the family.)
At Downtown Abbey now when I’m with Lady Baby, it’s like visiting with a really good friend. We enjoy each other, laugh at old jokes and memories, and share new experiences. Her dad came home one day and said, “You two are thick as thieves!”
He’d found us sitting at the top of the basement steps with the door closed. (It’s always closed and has a cat flap because the Ladies Cora and Winnie aren’t allowed in the basement where the Lords Cromwell and Wolsey spend a lot of time.) I’m not sure why we hunkered on the top step chatting. Well, actually, (as Lady Baby often begins a sentence), she had requested we sit for a “meeting,” because of some “concerns” about Baby Boy. (He likes to skate but fell on the ice. I said: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” She replied: “It’s OK, he’s a doll.”)
We spoke of other matters, the weirdly painted stairway walls (my doing long ago), more “concerns” (not serious ones because I can’t remember them), questioned how bulky Wolsey clambers up to his perch high on a shelf, and I told her the story of how Frances came to live with us. Lady Baby loves stories, and ones grounded in reality work just fine.
We only broke up the meeting because we’d discovered her bike in the basement where she showed me her steering and braking skills. We realized we could take it outside! (A miracle if you live in Alaska and only know bike riding in the basement.)
It’s a purple bike with training wheels, and must be really hard to pump, but she rode the whole way to the bakery, bike wheels spinning out a little on snow patches. Liberation – a bike to ride in springtime.
Muscles grow stronger with daily rides around the block, and one day we rode to the nearby school playground. We stayed a record two hours, sliding, swinging, and watching a family hide Easter eggs.
Whether Lady Baby rides her bike or we both walk, we’re fond of singing loudly “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor….” Lady Baby doesn’t know Mr. Rogers yet, but she surely knows the first part of his song, and sang with lusty enthusiasm while tromping the gritty sidewalks.
This time I suggested the ancient Johnny Horton hit “When It’s Springtime In Alaska…”, but couldn’t remember any words. So Lady Baby sang, “It’s springtime in Alaska, and the birds are nearly singing!”
And that works just fine.
Spring startles me this year. I’m agog at blooms and birds, and most of all the light – early and late – already the sun sinks into the sea far to the north.
Winter was long and dark – but full of books. For Christmas I hinted about the new Hermione Lee biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I loved her novels “Offshore” and “The Bookshop” years ago, but wanting to know more of her novels before the biography, I read “The Beginning of Spring” and “The Gate of Angels.”
Born into a distinguished family, but sidetracked from writerly ambitions by marriage and children, Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize at the age of 60 – a total surprise to the literary community. Lee calls Fitzgerald’s life partly “a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style,” and finds her to be “not quite like anyone else.” Lee writes how the novels use Fitzgerald’s experiences, but hide Fitzgerald herself.
Sometimes Lee has a hard go. Fitzgerald “didn’t like full explanations,” but Lee has great investigative and analytical skills (on view earlier in her masterful biography of Virginia Woolf) and her sources are deep. Fitzgerald’s family cooperated with Lee, and it’s intriguing to read about notes and scraps of paper, clippings, and bits of fabric preserved and discovered in Fitzgerald’s working papers. Lee sometimes traces Fitzgerald’s notes and thoughts right into a book, a complication of thought becomes a memorable Fitzgerald sentence: “So sure an instinct has the human heart for its happiest time.”
Photos illustrate the book, but it’s also illuminated by Penelope Fitzgerald’s own artwork, little drawings and watercolors. That’s one of my favorite parts about Fitzgerald, the way she “took pleasure in every detail of her life, in arts and crafts.” “There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. She enjoyed painting or making things more than she enjoyed writing.”
Fitzgerald is fascinating and a little obscure, and likely to be unknown to even avid readers. In her preface Lee tells that while some people speak of Fitzgerald as their “greatest literary hero,” others, specially young readers, are likely to say, “Who?”
Lee says she wrote her book to answer that question, out of “love and admiration” for her work, and “curiosity about her life and a belief in her genius.” It’s a great read.
When this posts I’ll be back on the bluff, where a stiff breeze keeps things chilly even on the sunniest days. I want to remember sitting outside, being warm and typing in the shade, waiting my turn with the Sweet Baby. She’s feeding with her mom.
I want to preserve the whole magical week with this new, tiny baby – not quite three days old when we arrived, and eleven when we left (temporarily). We fell into a rhythm that never seems a rhythm in the midst of it (when interrupted by new behaviors, adventures on the changing table, or landmarks like a first bath) but is a rhythm, directed by the Sweet Baby.
The early morning is my favorite. Delicately transporting the egg-shaped package, one of her sleepy parents would bring her to me. Sweet Baby and I would be together while her parents went back to bed or to work. I love being the extra pair of arms and warm lap. I read my book, shift position occasionally, watch the tiny face in awe, and keep her warm and close to my heartbeat.
She smells so good, makes muffled noises, and facial expressions – flashes of the animated person to come – a certain skeptical eye-rolling with raised eyebrows like her dad, a beautiful sweet smile like her mom, and an intense wrinkled brow “frowny face.” When in their arms she gazes with rapt attention at her parents – staring into their eyes. She knows these people matter.
The routines are all familiar from Lady Baby’s first weeks – but not the California weather. Constant sunshine, too hot and bright for a little baby outdoors, the opposite of January Alaska cold and dark for Lady Baby! The pleasure repeats though, and the privilege of watching people you love turn into devoted parents.
This family’s small house sits on a busy street with close neighbors, but a large covered veranda in the back expands the space. It’s edged on one side by the guest bedroom (now also office) and on the other by wooden lattice. Screen doors lead out from three rooms, and bamboo shades roll down against the afternoon sun. When we eat meals out there, the wood floor warms bare feet.
The Sweet Baby arrived two weeks ahead of schedule. The expectant parents had transformed their office into a room painted a perfect, pale pink and put together a crib and dresser, but jobs awaited. My good-natured husband constructed IKEA shelving with determination, if not enthusiasm. He assembled baby equipment, a gliding rocker, and an office chair (and went often to the grocery store). We helped move bookcases and rehang pictures. Our son’s big request and the last project – overreaching a little – was to put long-overdue polyurethane on the veranda floor, turning it a burnished, reddish color recalling the tropics.
I could sit in the corner of a big blue couch in the living room with the Sweet Baby tucked close and imagine a toddler life lived in that space. And in the garden beyond where butterflies and bees work the lavender, and the urban dawn chorus sounds as intense as in our woods. It’s good place for an early riser like the Sweet Baby.
Into the world two weeks ahead of time makes for a tiny baby, but complete. And very, very sweet. I’m so glad to meet her.