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.