On being bad at running

I started running when I was dating my husband. I’m terrible at it. But now, twenty years in, I like it even though I never seem to get any better. Still, I keep running and now I'm even in a running group, which does sound like the kind of thing a runner would do.

Three years ago, a really dear friend died suddenly. She was the nucleus of a group of moms and neighbors, and for a year we scattered in our grief. Two years ago, one of the other moms rallied some of us to join a local running group. We meet at a gym near my house at 5:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings (I know! I can hardly believe it myself!) and at 7:00 on Saturdays. It helped us with our grief and I got a bit more fit. Now, I’m the last one still in the group.

And I am the worst.

I mean, well and truly the worst runner in the group.

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And it’s hard to be the worst. Every time I meet the other runners, I have to remember not to compare myself to them. I am the only one with a tummy. And my pace--my goodness!--I won’t confess it here, but let’s say it’s somewhere between “oh, so basically a walk” and “well, at least you’re out there!”

Except that I really like the other runners. And they like me. And it’s fun to come back from a 45 minute run and stand on the sidewalk while the commuters race to the train and stretch and plank in a group like a middle-aged school child. And running makes me happy. And it’s humbling, in a good way, to remember that, like so many other things in life, it’s not that we are aiming to be the best, but that we are just doing them.

I don’t get caught up in competitiveness over mothering or cooking or decorating. I’m ok with where I stand in those areas--I’m only aiming for competence, pleasing myself, doing right by my children. But running is a sport and a competition. You set a distance and you set a pace and you meet it or you don’t. Other people beat and pass you. And it’s hard, when faced with something that’s so measurable, to let go of the hopes and expectations of being any good at all even at the same time as you work to improve.

Two Saturdays ago, I ran six miles. Afterwards, I felt wrecked for the whole day. Last Saturday, I ran the same distance and route and was only pretty tired. That felt like a victory. But this coming Saturday, there’s a 10K race and, judging by my time, I can see from the results that I’ll be the last on the course. (I came in second-to-last last year.) It’s been a hard spring and my ego just doesn’t have the elasticity to be cheered by a bunch of folks who lapped me ages ago. I’m going to run solo. I have mixed feelings about this. My coach, who is a rock star, says “why do you care? You’re a grown up.” And then, when I tell her more, she says, “I get it.”

All of this, I think, I tell myself, is going to help me be a better and more compassionate teacher. Understanding what it means to persist even when you’re wildly behind the pack isn’t my favorite lesson, but it seems like a good one.

(An ancient post--2005!--on this topic.)

Kindness Day

 

Have you heard the news? Blogging is back. (We'll see how I do.)

Today is a holiday at my university, so when I got the invitation from the middle school home-school association to come volunteer, I decided to accept it. I could give the school a few hours of my time, support my daughter, and maybe help myself out of this long-lasting winter funk. 

I got to the gym and soon learned that I was the "coach" of a team of kids running around the school on a massive scavenger hunt meant to build skills of kindness.  The first hour, I shadowed a wonderful P.E. teacher, but the second hour I was on my on. My "team" was naughty and full of baloney. One boy kept throwing himself onto the ground, crying out "I've fallen!" One girl ran ahead and herded everyone into the school elevator. Boys were wailing on each other, sitting on each other's heads, and generally being rambunctious kids. I couldn't seem to get their attention to participate nicely. I was just walking along, "Hey, Team! We're supposed to be going to the Fitness Room!" "C'mon, Team!" "All right, Team, let's stop hitting each other--it IS Kindness Day."

At one station, in a classroom, the kids were supposed to write an intention on a small sheet of paper. Sample intentions were "I will pick up trash around the school" or "I will be kind to someone who is bugging me." 

I was still having trouble getting their attention, getting them to focus, so, as we were finishing up, I wasn't surprised that one boy handed me his paper.

I was a little annoyed.

"You're supposed to keep that."

"It's for you," the boy said. I looked at the paper. It said "Thank you!" and then he had signed his name. He slipped off down the hall and proceeded to tackle his buddy. 

 

2016 in pictures

There has been a lot of talk about how awful 2016 was. Certainly, we lost some amazing musicians and celebrities. But are we—am I—letting my ongoing grief, anger, and shock at the election color my sense of an entire year of my life? I decided to check in with myself.

For years, we have made calendars. Every month contains a photo or two from the children’s lives that month in the year prior. As I went through 2016’s photos, I saw other pictures, not including my family (though all about them), that reminded me of some of the good in the past year.

In 2016 I got to go to Austin, Texas and Doha, Qatar for the first time. I got to go home to Seattle for a long visit. I got back to L.A. and fell in love with California again. I joined the flower committee and in church and learned a little bit about arranging flowers. My uncle-by-marriage built raised beds for us and we grew abundant and gorgeous vegetables at our place on the St. Lawrence River. I drew a lot and got a lot better at drawing. I cooked and shared food—fancy and plain—with people I love.

As I think about my resolutions for 2017 (more words, less weight, as ever, but how to write that so it sticks—so the words stick and the pounds melt?), I see that I have to add travel to the list. Even just going to a neighboring village has the power to bring me joy. Kayaking is a big summer pleasure, but one of our best summer days of kayaking came when we drove upriver forty minutes and kayaked in a less familiar spot. Why, even a rotten day of jury duty in Newark was brightened by the sight of one of the gorgeous Victorian brickfronts in that tumbledown city.

In any case, following the “no babies, no pets” rule, here are a dozen of my favorite images and memories from the year just past.

More Alice Munro than Rosamond Bernier

Delightful as the Bernier was, it’s an unrealistic lesson in being a person upon whom nothing is lost. If you’re on your way to see Picasso and Joan Miró invites you over, you would be churlish to doze or miss your sense that something was happening. And sometimes, my New York life does seem to approach the glamour of Bernier’s. But sometimes, reading Bernier, it’s hard not to feel a bit frumpy.

Up here on the St. Lawrence River where I spend my July, I’m not likely to run into a Picasso or a Miró. Instead, I try to pay Henry James levels of attention to the characters of this Northern New York landscape.  We are, after all, just across the River from Ontario and it feels like Munro country up here, with teens zooming around on Gators, overly tanned boaters sitting on barstools, overweight mothers sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs in front yards that don’t look onto the water.

Chaumont Barrents from http://nnytrails.freehostia.com/map1.htm

Last weekend, after my husband headed back down to the city for work, my daughters, my mother-in-law and I headed to the Chaumont Barrens, a Nature Conservancy spot. It was glorious and strange, just a 1.75 mile flat loop through a rare alvar grassland—thin soil, prairie plants (some rare, though I don’t know plants well enough to tell this; all rare in upstate New York). Many of the trees had exposed roots. Some of the forested areas were lush with brilliant, thin, chartreuse grass on the floor. We found some fossils.

Being Sunday, the Amish farmstand my mother-in-law sometimes goes to was closed, but near it was another. I could see zinnia and sunflowers as we whizzed past, so I determined to stop on the way home. Not only flowers, but Amish-made soap, jams, baskets, eggs, summer squash, and other treats. There was some pretty blowsy dill in a jar with a sign: “come to the house if you want us to cut you fresh dill.” And another sign saying everything at the stand was grown at the farm or by local Amish craftspeople. We were choosing flowers when the farmer came up, a plump man in jeans, a work shirt, and a worn baseball cap. “There’ll be a lot more coming. We had our first glads this morning, but they were gone right away. There’ll be more. And peppers. Hot peppers.”

“Corn?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, I should have corn, but the raccoons thought it was ready before I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if they’d eat a whole ear. But they take a bite of one, then eat one side of another. I don’t hunt and we don’t have a dog. What can I do?" He paused.  "I can’t kill anything.”

I murmured my assent, amazed and so touched, in this land of hunters and signs saying “Quickest way to Heaven: Trespassing on my Property,” to find such a kind soul.

When he said, “I can’t kill anything,” he meant it. Supremely. He said it was important to grow enough for everyone, but that this was the first year he’d ever had trouble with raccoons. He wondered aloud what to do next. I thought about the obese raccoon who used to waddle around my college campus, gorging on pizza he found in the dumpster, but I worried that if I talked about college, I’d make a wedge between us rather than a connection.

We took our sunflowers, our zinnias. He wished us well and we were on our way.

A London Address: the Artangel Essays

I have been trying to take notes on some of the books I read last month, including this thin little collection of essays, A London Address from Granta.

It's really not worth saying much about, except that it's a document worth knowing: a dozen writers of diverse backgrounds and literary styles were invited to stay in a London apartment built to look like the ship in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and write an essay about London today, with an eye cast back to Contrad, too. The occasional pieces, by Teju Cole, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Toíbin and others are mostly very occasaional indeed, but I enjoyed reading them.

Website with more information is here

Mushrooms, or there are no coincidences

The other day, my mother-in-law asked me if I had any friends at yoga.

I don’t. But there are people there whom I see every summer when I go to my thrice-weekly yoga class in the Victorian pavilion overlooking the St. Lawrence River. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I leave our cottage at 7:20 and drive upriver and over the bridge to Wellesley Island to practice with a bunch of other summer people. There are my teacher’s parents, in their 80’s and fit. There is the lady, at least fifteen years my senior, who has an amazing handstand sequence. There are the young moms. The triathletes. There is the hippie woman who is an educator. And there is the mushroom lady. Or that’s what I think of her as.

When I started going to these yoga classes during our Julys at the River four years ago, I felt very very shy. But one morning I couldn’t help myself. There had been a sudden rain and a whole bunch of large—Portobello-sized—mushrooms had popped out overnight. It was wonderful. I turned to the woman next to me and told her what I’d seen. She grew enthusiastic: If I was interested in mushrooms, there was a talk at the library next week….

Abashed, I confessed that mine was no more than a passing interested, but since then, I’ve thought of her as the mushroom lady. I like her.

So, when my mother-in-law asked on a Monday if I’d seen my friends, I admitted that I recognized many and was happy to see the mushroom lady again.

On Wednesday, my older daughter came with me. The teacher made some announcements, including the one that Jean, she pointed to the mushroom lady, would be leading a mushroom foraging event at the State Park on Saturday. It turns out she is the President of the Central New York Mycological Society.

What are the chances that the one time in my life I mention wild mushrooms to someone it would be her?

And what are the chances that later that day, I would spot these beauties on my walk with Flynn, the wonder hound?

MY Saga

I have been pretty scrupulously avoiding Karl Ove Knaussgard’s epic for a while now. I have really been focused on reading and writing about women and have been trying to tamp down the proportion of navel-gazers in my life. Still, I just finished the first installment of his piece for the Times magazine and found it so funny and so familiar that I think I can, in fact, come to enjoy his particular brand of stoic Norwegian narcissism.

In any case, his incuriosity, his fear of strangers, did remind me of myself and made me want to tell you this story about my trip to Pennsylvania this week.

I had an amazing time. A colleague invited me to Widener University to give a lecture on editing Mrs. Dalloway to her students and the community at large. I went down in the morning by train. A hunky, flirty Jordanian squash coach made me listen to house music on his Samsung on the way. I had a sublime few hours at the Barnes Collection, got picked up and taken out to Chester, met people, talked, had dinner, got dropped off at the Best Western just across the street from campus.

It was 9:15.

I was exhausted but exhilarated. I had had some wine. I just wanted one quiet beer so I could calm my nerves and go to bed. I asked Siri. She recommended a pretty gross sounding bar. I looked out my window: a 7-11. Perfect.

No beer at the 7-11.

I talked to Siri again. The bar was .25 miles away. I walked a bit. I walked over the I-95 overpass into a very, very run-down neighborhood of early-20th century homes. It looked like the backside of any industrial East Coast town. I tucked my ropes of fake pearls under my black shirt.

The Village Grille is on a corner. One street runs parallel and above the interstate, the other one is a side road that runs parallel to the service road of motels and pizza chains that grow up around the highway. It’s in a shabby fake-Victorian house, covered in asbestos siding, but with a turret. The entrance is on the corner. I could see in the windows that the lights were bright.

I walked in. The music was deafening but, to me, unrecognizable. Everyone was black. In fact, black-ish was on the TV. The bartenders, a man and woman in their 50’s, were good-looking, slim, and efficient. He gave me an appraising look and asked for my order. “A Bud.” He grabbed a bottle and asked if that would be ok. I said it would and reached for my money. Fumbling. Two singles. A bunch of receipts. A raised eyebrow from the bartender. Then, victory. A ten.

I paid (the beer was $3.50) and drank my beer, watching black-ish, which looks terrific, and watching the people in the two rooms further back. A woman, my age, in a parka and a nursing tunic, dancing by herself. Some men in playing pool. Across from me at the horseshoe bar, a man, about 70, watching me and wanting me to know he had his eye on me.

My beer about done, a plump woman came in. I was sitting right next to the take-out spot and she stood for a while, waiting to get the barkeep’s attention. Then, she turned to me: “Do you have…?” I couldn’t hear, but she was holding out coins. I reached for a single. “Is this what you want?” “Yeah! Can you do another?” “Sure,” I giggled, “but my wallet’s gonna be so heavy!” “Aww…you’re sweet,” she said, and gave me a hug and a kiss and walked to the back room with her singles.

I snapped my wallet shut and looked up.

Across the bar the old man mouthed “Want another beer?”

“No thanks,” I mouthed back and left.

(Not quite the summit of) Mt. Algonquin

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew a lot of hikers. At elementary school, you could get bragging rights by having a low membership number to R.E.I. (the lower the number, the earlier your parents had joined the co-op to buy their gear). Our number was pretty low. My dad moved to Seattle from Boston in 1962 and he was a hiker—and a sky-diver—though my mom made him quit jumping out of airplanes for fun when he became a father, so I only have that on hearsay. On hearsay, too, are the stories of baby-me, in the backpack, smearing gooey graham cracker crumbs on my father’s ears while my parents took walks through the woods. And I remember my mother making fun of a family friend who claimed to like hiking. “I don’t think she really hikes,” my mom sniffed. “She just walks a mile or two and opens a bottle of wine.”

Last summer, like everyone else, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and was reminded of my own (very different) roots in the outdoors. So, when my husband proposed an anniversary trip to the Adirondacks to camp out and climb Mt. Algonquin, I accepted.

Wild it was not. Strayed I am not.

The children were with family, but we had Flynn the rescue dog/coon hound with us. He went almost all the way--up to the tree line, where I stopped, quaking with fatigue and fear. Flynn loved it. He was on the leash the whole way, which made some of the more technical boulders challenging for my husband. The dog pulled him all the way up the mountain & then pulled him all the way down. Flynn would leap and then try to leap to the next boulder before my husband climbed the first. Or choose a different route. There was one big rock, about 10 feet high and 12 across. You had to clamber up its side and kind of tightrope walk across the top to rejoin the trail. We had to send me first, then let the dog walk across, tossing the leash to me midway so my husband could cross last. (Hound that he is, Flynn will bolt at the first scent and can’t walk free.)

It was scary because the whole hike, an eight-mile out & back of which I did about 7.5 miles, was very rocky, very technical: climbing up stone steps and boulders. At almost no point could you just walk. Most of the trail was big rocks ranging from the size of a large cobblestone to the size of a big ceramic pot. With every step, you had to look ahead to see if, in choosing to pivot to the right side of the path you were setting yourself up for a good or bad step two or three steps further along. It took a ton of concentration. At one point, after about 3 miles, I was climbing up a path that was basically a dry stream bead, or, maybe more accurately, a crazy obstacle course of boulders, to find my husband seated on a large plinth. "Have a seat and a drink, Hon," he said. 

I looked up.

The next couple hundred feet was basically a sheer rock wall with cracks you had to shimmy along every five feet or so. I burst into tears. I got a hold of myself, stopped shaking, watched two people climb it, waited for two more to climb down, and set off behind him. I did it. But I was defeated.

It had been so terrifying and somehow instead of being able to feel impressed at what I had done, I was just overwhelmed by how hard it had been to do it. About a half mile later, we got to the tree line and I climbed up about twenty feet along a narrow rock ledge with views of the High Peaks all around us and views DOWN to Wright Peak (elevation 4,587). Exposed, I looked up to see a climb up sheer rock to the summit above me. Being above the tree line makes me very nervous indeed. I just kept imagining my sturdy, fragile body bouncing down that giant rock. Then I thought how dumb it would be to leave my girls motherless.

I quit.

We ate lunch. I held Flynn. My husband summitted. It was only a little more, but I COULD NOT DO IT.

I thought about Strayed, Shackleton, Petrarch and Mt. Ventoux, Wordsworth’s “was it for this?” I thought about all the descriptions on the web describing this as a “fun” day hike, not too hard. I looked at all the rather unremarkable people (it is true, mostly men, mostly much younger and fitter than me) passing me on the trail. I knew that getting to the top was probably not as hard as what had come before, but I just didn’t have the emotional strength to do it. And then, I was so afraid. And I still had to get down that horrible rock wall that I’d barely scaled. Besides, this was a voluntary activity (our wedding anniversary celebration, no less), and I was having trouble seeing what this was doing for me. I had pushed myself as hard as I could, but I couldn’t quite get the bragging rights. I’m proud that I tried, I guess.

Afterwards, friends said the usual twenty-first century words of encouragement: At least you got out there! All that matters is that you tried! Good for you to go for it!

Those feel hollow. It’s not a victory. But it’s not a failure either. I’m still not quite sure how to think about it.

My husband is thinking about becoming a forty-sixer—someone who has climbed the highest forty-six peaks in the Park—and wants me to come along. He is actually genuinely proud of me, which does feel good, and he seems to want me to come along. I’m not sure.

(Algonquin is the 2nd highest mountain in New York State, at 5,115,’ not much by Western standards, but Eastern hikes start much lower, so the climb of our hike was 3014').

Mrs. Dalloway's Party

My with my book! My younger daughter was so bummed that she couldn't find her wolf stuffie, but the doggie made a good substitute.

On Saturday night, a few dozen friends gathered in a friend’s apartment in Upper Manhattan for a party to celebrate the publication of Mrs. Dalloway. After working on this edition for eleven years, I knew there needed to be a publication party and I knew it had to be just right. It was perfect.

But what’s uncanny and wonderful about throwing a party in honor of a book about a woman throwing a party is all the echoes of the book that inevitably occur. A few moments, then, each with an echo, distant or close, to something in the book.

Oh, the nerves of a hostess throwing a party. It happens every time before I have guests over: I wake up and, thinking about all that needs to happen before the party, it feels like the party is a folly and the most appealing way to spend the evening is not with friends but alone, knitting and listening to some soothing classical music. The anxiety is so ridiculous and so profound and has no real connection to what needs to be done. In this case, the cheese (from Murrays) was going to be delivered, the wine (from Astor) was going to be delivered, the sparkling water (Costco!) was in the basement, my friend was getting her apartment ready. All I had to do was buy the flowers. So why was I thinking of Clarissa’s fear, “Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire?”

Bounty! Prosecco mostly offscreen but abundant.

I bought the flowers myself, of course.

I don’t know any Ellie Hendersons (she’s the poor aunt whom Clarissa invites only reluctantly), but the only people who get in touch with a hostess on the day of a party are the ones who have fallen sick or are snowed in. Oh, these messages make me so sad. My Miss Manners advice is to write those regrets in a message just as the party is beginning—then your regrets are first encountered in the afterglow I was so very grateful for the friend who left a voice mail telling me how excited she was to see me later and offering to bring something special. That was cheering. 

on the fire escape

My friend’s apartment had a real New York fire escape and peek-a-boo views of the George Washington Bridge. At one point, my younger daughter asked me to make an announcement about the lovely pink sunset because she was so little that no one paid attention to her.

We never envisioned dancing, but we did want music. After a little effort, we figured out how to get my friend’s turntable running and we put on a few records. The sound of classical music on vinyl coming out of an old hi-fi was perfect for a Woolf party.

I had wanted to give a toast, but there was never a moment when it seemed right to do so. If it had, I would have thanked my wonderful, and generous hostess, my family and all my friends, absent and present, who put up with my whining, my updates, my stress, my footnotes of the day, for all these years. I would also have thanked Virginia Woolf (born January 25, 1882) and my mother (also born January 25th, but more recently). Without them, no me.

But not finding the moment to give a toast is the equivalent of beating the curtains back: it means the party was a success—it didn’t need that structure for it to work. People ate and drank and were merry.  

At one point someone looked over at my older daughter, did a double take, and then realized that that beautiful girl was not just another party guest, but my daughter. We called her over and made her blush at the compliment even as we laughed at how we’d Elizabeth Dalloway-ed her.

The Prime Minister did not come, but because of the snow in the morning, I wasn’t sure if many would make it at all. With each new face—colleagues, graduate students, friends, Woolf scholars from other schools in the city, novelists, and artists, I felt that delight: oh, it’s you! Wonderful!

For there they were. My friends. Such a treat. So grateful.

Penelope Fitzgerald

Earlier this week, I met up with a friend and we went to a Penelope Fitzgerald event at Columbia. Lots of old people in attendance, but some young ones and it was really lovely to hear Hermione Lee talk about her new biography which is getting rave reviews. I bought The Blue Flower but not the biography (I've purchased about 10 books this last week and need to draw the line...).

Still, a fascinating life and I'm sure very well told. 

At University, she was expected to be a huge success and was nicknamed "Penny from Heaven." During the war she fell in love with & married an Irish charmer, Desmond Fitzgerald. He was damaged by war & took to drink. They had four children. She lived on a barge and taught at a crammer's school for kids trying to get in to Oxbridge. One day, the barge sank and the children came home from school to find their toys floating on the Thames. Fitzgerald was unusually late and "scatty" in class that day, "Sorry I'm late. My house sank," she said.

Three novelists--Alexander Chee, Ellis Avery, and Margot Livesey--each read their favorite passage. That, too, was lovely & relaxing & nice. 

Ellis taught at Fordham briefly and when my colleague Mimi Lamb died, I inherited Mimi's copy of Ellis's first book, a mediation on 9/11. It was nice to tell her so at the event.

After the event, I said hello to Hermione Lee. I told her I was a Woolf scholar and that many years ago I'd given her a ride from a campus in rural New Hampshire to a tiny NH airport, in the fog, on winding roads--"Oh! That was AWFUL! And someone had just died in a small plane crash. And I never went to a Woolf Conference again. I was Woolf'ed out."

We laughed.

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

 

 

Arithmetic

As a college teacher in these depressing times for college teachers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost of education and its value. Why, for example, does an adjunct teaching a single course at my university earn only $3,800 when my salary, for teaching five courses per year (and doing research and sitting on committees and advising dissertations and planning new classes) is much more than five times $3,800. Indeed, an adjunct teaching six classes at this rate would earn $22,800/year. How is that close to a salary?

Still, this inequity is nothing compared to larger inequities. Recently my husband pointed out to me an article on David Tepper, the hedge fund billionaire. He’s just given $67 million to Carnegie Mellon. I am in favor of such donations, of course: higher education depends on donations from philanthropists and large donations like this one are a testament to the power of college.

Tepper lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, just down the road from me. Last year he earned $2.2 billion dollars. That’s a lot more than I earn: about 25,000 times my annual salary, in fact. That's right. Not 10 times; not 100 times. This man, who lives a few stops down the commuter rail from me earns twenty-five thousand times my annual salary. No wonder he can be so generous.

I’m not a good capitalist. I made a choice, many years ago to pursue a Ph.D. rather than go into consulting or law and it’s a choice that I’m happy with, mostly. I always was fine with the notion that many many people with my education and intelligence and privilege would make much more than I, but 25,000 more? That kind of inequity at the top end makes me terrified for the poor, and for those far less fortunate than I.

I was thinking about this the other weekend as I stood with other members of my church, putting slices of ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato into rolls, wrapping the sandwiches, adding fruit and cookies, and getting these hundreds of sandwiches ready for delivery to the homeless who congregate at Newark Penn Station, just down the road from my house—and his.

Unlike the hedge fund capitalists down the road in Short Hills and unlike the homeless, I have a little weekly money and, every week in November and December, I try to hold back some of the $60 my husband and I each budget for coffees and lunches. My goal is to get to $100 so that my daughters and I can “adopt” a family and give them the Christmas presents they otherwise couldn’t afford. These are the kind of calculations that keep me grounded and worried. These are the kind of calculations that the very wealthy may no longer be able to fathom.

Essex County, New Jersey has tremendous economic inequity, but it took a little arithmetic and a few sandwiches to make me see it intensely again.

So for all that we might want to give thanks to the philanthropist who gives a substantial amount—but a small portion of his annual salary—to a university, I am thinking about a revolution. Things are out of whack. This year, I’m giving thanks and preparing to get onto the barricades.

The End of the World as We Know It

This government shutdown has me trembling with a kind of muted rage. Some day, not long from now, we will look back on this moment and shake our heads in disbelief: the polar ice caps are melting and a few recalcitrant lawmakers, determined to prove their fealty to a smaller government, one that does not provide affordable health care, shut down the whole government altogether. For this, then, we are recalling our scientists from Antarctica for the season?

None of this do I understand.

I lie awake at night trying to find reasons to hope for the future for my students, my precious daughters, but, happy as I am in my life, the future looks bleak to me.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was choosing what kind of good to do in the world, I chose teaching and writing. I rejected the possibility of consulting work—jobs where recent college grads were earning more than I earn now—reasoning that the right thing to do was to try to do good in the world from the beginning, not to get rich and then atone through philanthropy. I chose to teach, to write, and to work on feminist issues.

Now, that feels like a mistake.

The government shutdown itself is nothing next to the destruction that is coming as we continue to ravage our environment. What, in the end, will all my years of work on Mrs. Dalloway matter if every year another flood, hurricane, drought, or worse disrupts our lives, destroys our livelihoods, and kills our neighbors?

But what can I do? In a class I observed today, a young teacher was leading her first-year students through Thomas Friedman’s diagnosis of the current college students as a quiet generation, lacking in courage. I’m older, but I lack courage, too. I feel so strongly that I must change my life, but my ties to my life are too strong. I will not just go and become a Greenpeace activist, risking my life and my freedom for the health of the planet.

I wrote “cannot” first, but, of course, I could, although I predict that I won’t. Nothing but my own love of comfort is stopping me from leaving my life behind.

So, what can I do? What can we do? I have been listening to Claire Balding’s Ramblings, thanks to a Slate rec. It’s a BBC Radio 4 podcast in which Balding joins an avid walker on a favorite walk. She and the walker talk about the landscape, the route, and the walker’s life. It’s a beautiful tribute to all the many, many Britons who, in very quiet ways, love the land. I think about these lives of quiet dignity, these stewards of the land who help preserve it, it seems to me, just by communicating their love. Is that a contribution?

When we set out in July to spend a month driving (a glorious, magical month), were we, in spite of being in an automobile, also helping teach our children to love nature? Does that help? Can it be enough?

Listening to a Canadian radio station, I heard that Godspeed You, Black Emperor had refused to accept an award because, well, how can you celebrate when the icecaps are melting?

Something’s wrong with that, too, I know. My students, mostly musicians this fall, and I talked it through the other day and, after class I realized how much more I admired DJ Spooky: he’s not being churlish, he’s making music about Antarctica and then going to Reykjavik to perform and sign books at Arctic Circle.

I can see that “doing what I can” is no longer enough. What is? What will be?

 

Feminist Theory Reading Group: Sianne Ngai

So, we at my university, started a Feminist Theory Reading Group. Our mission: for faculty and Ph.D. candidates to meet & talk about a recent monograph on feminist theory. We aim to read a book each semester. Tonight, twelve of us met over wine and snacks to talk about Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories.  

Here is a kind of summary of our conversation. It's sloppy, incomplete, misses all the joy of conviviality, all the texture of the personalities in the room jostling against each other, interrupting, and apologizing, but maybe, in spite of all that, it captures something about why it's fun, even in a stressful moment of the semester, to try to talk about something very challenging, brilliant, and innovative:

 

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard 2012)
Zany, cute, interesting: Ngai again looks at familiar but not valorized categories and at mass-culture. The blurb doesn't sell it as feminist (thanks, Harvard!), but I believe her work is: at least Ugly Feelings was. LARB long piece on this. (Just linking: haven't read yet.) [AEF]
This sounds like it would be an enjoyable read. [CH]. Agreed. [MAM]

This was the only question on our list when we started our discussion & it's how we began:
In "The Zany Science," Ngai writes, "Indeed, while virtually all our current aesthetic categories, from the beautiful down to the cute, turn in various ways on the objecthood of objects or the thingness of things, our experience of zaniness is often that of azany person//" (193, italics mine). I'm curious about how this final aesthetic category most often describes a person (or character) rather than an object. What is at stake in describing someone as "zany" that might be different from the "cute" or "interesting" object? Does identifying someone as zany confer a kind of "objectness" onto that subject? If so, what impact does that have on our experience of the zany? [KMN]'

We moved quickly from this question to a challenging passage about subjectivity in the introduction. That led to a segue from the zany back to the cute, and the relationship between the cute and the beautiful. Where we lingered for a while: 
How is the cute different from the beautiful? The beautiful is a category that “reveals how the faculty of judgment…presupposes the existence of other humans” (239); it’s one that messes Burke up; it’s feminized.

We debated the ethics of reading transhistorically. Ngai is interested in the now, but what is the present? How much do we care that the periodization is "late capitalism" instead of, say, "post-1989."?

We also discussed some problems with her examples--mistakes or looseness in the discussion of Stein and some special selectivity in the examples from kawaii. Some of these demonstrated Ngai's deftness: it's the case that the cutest character in anime is also the most dangerous (Anthony passed around a panel of cute characters yelling "Eat Their *X%$#!@ Ovaries!!!"), so that fits Ngai's argument. However, it's also true that Murakami's art is not representative and is, in fact, particularly, ostentatiously meaningless.

We talked about how discussions of the cute don't include what's funny in Stein, in manga. Why leave out the funny? Is laughter an aesthetic response? Doesn't the cute help Ngai describe the changed relationship between art and commodity in late capitalism?

Does it matter that zany isn't a live category, isn't something we say or talk about? Ngai offers one answer, maybe, here:

  • “The interesting is culturally ubiquitous as a judgment but by no means easily or intuitively recognizable as an aesthetic style…the zany as a style of desperate playfulness is virtually everywhere but is strangely recessive as a term of judgment” (235).

But, as an answer, "strangely recessive" may be a euphemism for "my idea alone."

We had a moment of admiration for the ways in which the book is cool: for its ability to contain a 3-page footnote on Flashdance. For some, that coolness grates; for some, it inspires. Then, why isn't "the cool" one of these new aesthetic category?

The discussion on race was missing in ways that some of us missed, that others saw as an opening for future criticism. What, for example, would a doll with "cute" "squishy" features be if it was also black? Why doesn't Ngai discuss Harriet Mullin's race in her discussion of Mullin's revisions of Stein?

We connect Ngai's work to weak theory: cf. panel at MSA & Wai-Chee Dimock's work on weak theory. Where some advocates of weak theory seemed to be simply advocating the ambiguity of the essay, Ngai actually demonstrates the political power of demanding that we pause in a moment of indeterminacy, that oscillation where something cute excites feelings of both tenderness and aggression. 

In what sense is this a contribution to feminist theory? what is Ngai's contribution to feminist theory? We talked about the ways in which Ngai revives aesthetic theory with new categories that are feminine and feminized. About how the book is anti-nostalgic for older aesthetic forms, categories, and the New Left in general. How, the very "our" of the title claims a space for feminist theorists in high theory.

Then, just when the conversation seemed over, we got into a big, lively talk about the uncanny valley, cuteness, disgust and disability studies, wondering at the way in which we are attracted to cute robots but feel the terror of bodily difference in the face of a prosthetic hand.

 

Always Be Counting

After the profoundly disappointing VIDA event on women and book reviews last month, I felt duty bound to attend this second VIDA event at the Center for Fiction last Wednesday, May 29th. This packed event in the charming but always too-hot second floor of the Center for Fiction was the public portion of the NBCC (National Book Critic’s Circle) meeting and part of BEA (Book Expo America), so not only was the room packed, but it was packed with important editors and writers and eager freelancers.

The panel was moderated by Laurie Muchnick, book editor at Bloomberg News and president of the NBCC. She took a much firmer hand than the moderator at the Housing Works event had taken, with welcome results. Muchnick was aided, too, by the panel’s composition: with one of the co-founders of VIDA (Erin Belieu), the editor of the New York Times Book Review (Pamela Paul), the editor of Tin House (Rob Spillman), the book critic for New York Magazine (Kathryn Schulz), and a novelist (Meg Wolitzer!), the panel included people with a wide range of perspectives on the problem. 

You can read Laurie Stone’s thoughts on the same event here.

Paul, new in her position, knows first hand the special vitriol reserved for women in positions of power in the book world, and it was reassuring to hear her speak about her ambitious goals for a wide range of diversity in the pages of the Times. Wolitzer, as a novelist whose books treat Big American themes without getting Big American Male (FRANZEN! ROTH! UPDIKE!) attention, spoke about reviews, blurbs, and marketing from the perspective of an artist wanting to make money through her art. By contrast, Schulz spoke about her position at New York, where she has complete freedom to choose books to review and was really smart about the real downsides of that freedom: for, while she reviews a fairly good balance of women to men (6 women for every 5 men), her predecessor, a man, reviewed 8 books by men for every 1 book by a woman. Spillman was a welcome presence on the panel: an editor whose journal had made big changes to assigning and soliciting pieces based on their originally very imbalanced VIDA numbers.

For me, it was Belieu and Schulz who best summed up the message of VIDA: for true change to happen, we need to always be counting: how many women are reviewing? how many books by women are getting reviewed? True, the count is crude and imperfect, but it also reveals a continuing inequity in our literary culture that is not trivial. And, though I, too, tire of counting, being tired of counting (and seeing, yet again, how little we count for), is no reason to stop.

Belieu spoke about the origins of VIDA, in Cate Marvin’s 2009 essay, emailed to like-minded friends, bemoaning the lack of reviews of and by women writers—a cri de Coeur that became VIDA. She said that, in spite of all the limitations, “we liked the simplicity and elegance of the count. We liked the fact that we were able to get a picture of the year.”

And Schulz returned to this at the end, positing that a structural answer is the only answer. That editors need to do what Spillman has done at Tin House: that part of curating a vibrant literary culture includes counting: how many books by women are we reviewing? how many by men? how many of our reviewers are women? how are people of color represented in the numbers of reviewers and of books reviewed? how are we doing in representing a range of class perspectives, in reviews and in books reviewed? If we don’t ask this question, and continue to think that all we want is “the best,” the best will continue to look like this hoary dinosaur.

Only after listening to this did I recognize how much counting is part of my life as an editor, a teacher, and a teacher of teachers.

When we edit The Norton Reader, we look for all kinds of diversity and we look to see that every section of the reader not just “Personal Narrative” includes contributions from women and people of color. 

When I teach young teachers how to put a syllabus together, I demand that they look for essays old and new, difficult and easy, and that they make sure that there their syllabus represents women, people of color, gay and lesbians writers, and writers from a range of class backgrounds.

When I design my own syllabi, I demand the same of myself.

And when I was working on the introduction to the forthcoming (Summer 2013) special issue of Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies on Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies and Feminist Theory, Urmila Seshagiri (who has an article in the issue) and I engaged in our own, informal count. How many special issues on feminist theory had Mfs done recently? One, kind of. How about modernism/modernity (the other top scholarly journal in the field)? Zero, ever. So this forthcoming issue, with eight articles by eight women scholars using feminist theory to analyze the work of ten often neglected women artists from the early 20th century will be a good corrective, to say the least.

Still, I dwell so deeply and completely in a world of women that sometimes I wonder if I’m doing too much.

The other day, I asked the students in my summer graduate class why they were enrolled in a class on modernist women writers (100%  women). One woman, a strong feminist, said that, as she came to the end of her M.A., she realized that for her coursework, she had only read three women writers.

People, our work here is far from done.

Always be counting.

It’s a start.

[corrected to fix Schulz's stats which I had backwards at first]


Dull

“Mean” and “serious” criticism were discussed at last night’s star-studded and utterly, appallingly disappointing panel on women in arts criticism, Sharp, at Housing Works last night (May 8, 2013). Are women critics more reluctant to be mean? Are women getting a chance to write serious criticism?

At one point, as the panelists, accomplished women all, were congratulating each other, someone noted in passing how it was once the way of young critics to make their mark with an initial excoriating salvo: a “mean” review to make your name, and then, a career.

Ladies, allow me.

And yet, mean is really beside the point. In fact, throughout the evening, I found myself thinking of Henry James, a sharp writer, who also said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I value kindness as highly as James. However, it is being neither mean nor unkind to call out an event for failing to deliver on its promise.

Kate Bolick got the evening off to a particularly inane start by asking, rhetorically if her gravitating to the midcentury women critics (Hardwick, McCarthy) was indicative of her unconscious feminism--or was it sexism? Because, her hypothesis went on, they didn’t have to deal with feminism.

At that, I should have thrown my beer can on the stage and left. Those midcentury New York women are sharp as tacks because they had to figure out how to navigate the peculiarities of a Patriarchal Landscape for Literary Journalism (let’s call it the PLLJ) in the 1950’s which differs in texture from the PLLJ that Virginia Woolf faced in London in the 1920’s and 1930’s or what we face from the PLLJ in the early 21st century.

That texture was what was consistently missing over the course of the evening. Kael, Hardwick, and McCarthy were invoked. Sontag was mentioned--and at the mention of her name, I longed to summon her ghost to march up on the stage and sweep everyone off it with her grand white forelock. Vague things were said in praise of their sentences, their beautiful sentences. But not one beautiful sentence was quoted--and, in fact, on several occasions specific essays were cited for their great language and then paraphrased. People: quote the words, cut to the clip, it’s not good enough to hum a few bars and call it Beethoven, to say, “Then, Hamlet has this amazing speech where he’s thinking about whether or not to commit suicide, and he really, well, you know, it makes you think.”

As for serious, again, the wasted promise of all that talent on stage and a genuine disagreement, was infuriating. Laura Miller spoke against serious criticism, by which she seemed to mean pretentious, snobby, only-highbrows-need-apply stuff; Miriam Markowitz, by contrast, spoke for the serious, really deftly explaining how The Nation wants its reviews to eschew the consumer model and be about ideas, and how she is heartened to find women pitching her idea-driven reviews more an more. But why was it only at the end that they began speaking about a lively intellectual culture? It would have been nice to hear that word a little earlier. A long digression on how frustrating the marketing of books has become is hardly interesting to a roomful of people who know too well that tale.

The event was described in ways that gave me such hope:

Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael… In spite of abysmal byline counts at many publications, the English speaking world has a rich tradition of women critics of books, music, film, and the culture at large. Join some of today’s celebrated women critics for a spirited discussion of the women they’ve been inspired by, the challenges of being a woman of sharp mind and pen, and the question of whether women have a distinct purpose as critics at all.

I had hoped to hear more about these women, about the particular struggles they faced. Gossip. Anecdotes. Bracing tales to help me gird my loins as I try to pitch more mainstream publications. It would have been great if the organizer had assigned each of the really talented, smart women on stage a precursor, and asked the living critic to read a favorite quote from the precursor and talk about what Sontag or Kael or Didion or Woolf meant to them, why they could or could not be a model for writers today. Then, we would have had a treat, have learned something.

I had hoped to hear about the living critics’ experiences. Ruth Franklin joked that she spent time asking “are you my mentor?” but that thread was dropped. Parul Sehgal said, more than rivalry, she enjoyed stories of collaboration, but had none to hand, and then we had a tired rehearsal of the Arendt-McCarthy friendship. Franklin and Sehgal seemed every bit as smart as I expected but, like others, both women was hamstrung by the loose format, the general, dispiriting inanity.

I had hoped to hear more about reviews written and the reactions they elicited, about judgments withheld, about editors meddling, about if and how being a woman might have affected any of these hesitations or volleys.

I had hoped to hear more direct accounts of the VIDA count and how it affects these writers’ lives--in their pitching, their editing, their conversations with other writers at the office. Franklin said she’s worked with editors who care and editors who don’t. I can believe that, but, again, it wasn’t worth spending my one night out a week to hear it.

As I was getting ready to go to the ironically titled “Sharp,” I remembered Virginia Woolf’s essay “Why?” It’s a cri de coeur, a lamentation on the difficulty of asking any serious question in public and on the waste of time, consequently, of most lectures: “Why, since life holds so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” “Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies?”

Why indeed. Oh, Woolf, how you are missed.

Heroines, All We Know

Heroines are pretty much all I think about these days, if they are not all I know. It’s all modernist women all the time here. And, when I’m not thinking about my introduction to the upcoming special issue of mfs Modern Fiction Studies (forthcoming: Summer, 2013; topic? Women’s Writing, the New Modernism, and Feminist Theory. In other words, fasten your seatbelts!), I’m teaching Woolf. So, it’s a lot a lot of thinking about, reading about, writing about, and reading modern women writers.

For all the work of a quarter century on Woolf (with more Woolf projects to come, no doubt), my passion right now is to shine that light on other women writers. I dream about a book that would profile multiple modern women writers who are not Woolf. Happily, for my reading life, there are two super exciting new books that do just that (and, happily for me, neither is a book I could have written). Community bookstore hosted Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines, in conversation with Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know, for an event last week. It really was one of the coolest book events I’ve been to in a long time. I left just aglow with the sense that, for all the other ills in the world, I could still find a pocket of brilliant women who worked hard in support of other women. That still fills me with hope.

I took to Twitter a few months ago to ask about favorite recent feminist theory and a couple people recommended Zambreno’s book, a meditation on modernist wives with a dollop of Woolf. I haven’t finished the book and I find it brilliant, exasperating, thrilling and crazy. I hope to write more about it separately, but the little fragments of what happened to Zelda Fitzgerald, bumping up against Valerie Eliot and Zambreno’s own frustrations as a “trailing spouse” in the rural Midwest (oh, we have lived that nightmare here, gentle reader) are provocative in the best way. Not since The Pink Guitar have I read a mixed genre feminist text with so much interest (and, it must be said, exasperation).

When I learned that she’d be appearing with Lisa Cohen at Community Bookstore, I jumped at the chance, secured childcare and flew (via the MTA)  to Brooklyn. Zambreno was charming and interesting, but Cohen blew my mind: she is clearly a brilliant woman and a beautiful writer for she presented some of the key feminist theoretical ideas of the moment in clear but uncompromising terms. Most notably, her remarks focused on Esther Murphy, one of the three lives of bourgeois lesbians at the heart of All We Know, and Murphy’s inability to complete a book in her lifetime. How do we understand this failure? Cohen’s work fits right in to much recent theoretical work on failure as a queer art, on failure as resistance to socially constructed (straight, white, bourgeois) ideas of happiness, but in a book that one yearns to read for pleasure, not for a theoretical workout. I was so thrilled by the intellectual energy of what Cohen was reading that I whispered to my friend that I wanted to rush up and just give her a big hug of gratitude.

So imagine my sheepish delight to learn that we had been in grad school together! The narcissism of my youth, which prevented me from knowing a brilliant peer because I was too deep in my own worries, aside, this only made that sense of the power of brilliant women all the better.

To see, in the audience of thirty, several friends. To be introduced to new people through them, to learn, from a new friend that she went to college with—and loves—my amazing yoga teacher. All of this is a big thing that is right with the world right now.

I am still reading the books. Both continue to amaze and impress. More soon, I’m sure. Both books have lots of well-deserved press. I've tried to sprinkle links throughout the post--click away!

Climate Change and the Sleeping Point

Remember that old saw about investing? An investor confesses to a millionaire that his investments are keeping him awake at night and he’s told to “sell down to the sleeping point.” Well, lately—for the past nine months or so—climate change has me awake at night. I am not sure why and it’s a frustrating problem. After all, I have no expertise at all that can help prevent the next superstorm or reduce carbon emissions.

Still, every time someone says, “Boy, it’s such a hot summer!” or “Wow, I have never seen the river so low,” I feel a tightness in my gut that doesn’t go away. I am worried and I am not sure what to do. I know that my lying awake for hours doesn’t actually reduce my consumption of fossil fuel nor does it move us closer to being prepared for the next disaster.

Sandy and its aftermath have only made that anxiety worse. For my own mental health, then, I signed up for updates at Bill McKibben’s 350.org and was momentarily cheered by the sense, there, that there is some hope for our poor, bruised and ailing planet.

But last night’s cri de coeur had me writing to my legislators. I’m worried that New Jersey in particular is not thinking about rebuilding in the best way. Doing this, I hope, might help me feel like I’ve done my bit this month and I can get back to the sleeping point.

It’s not the greatest document I’ve ever penned, but here it is. And, since this is the 21st century, I made it into a petition at change.org. Here it is:

As the state continues to move toward recovery from Superstorm Sandy, I am writing to urge you to include action on climate change in plans for rebuilding.

Like many New Jersey residents, I am grieving for all the state lost. But we cannot rebuild without rethinking.

I am alarmed to hear that the state government has waived permitting requirements, “allowing for the immediate reconstruction of the same public infrastructure that failed during Sandy” (WNYC.org) and “The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has waived permitting requirements for the next six months for public infrastructure damaged during the storm” (WNYC.org).

I understand the desire to get back to normal: I was impatient when my train line from South Orange to New York was inaccessible. However, when every passing storm brings down overhead wires and a major storm takes train lines out for weeks, it is clear that we need to take serious preventive action to secure our transportation and infrastructure against next year’s storm.

Waiving an already imperfect permitting process is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead, we should be rewarding districts and municipalities for planning against future storms by thinking about how to prevent such damage next time.

Moreover, we need to encourage individuals and corporations to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel so that we stand a chance of slowing, if not reversing, the alarming rate of global warming.

Former New Jersey Governors Florio and Kean have called for a kind of “Marshall Plan” for rebuilding New Jersey, a plan that would look to global leaders in engineering, design, and architecture, consulting with them on how best to restore our coastline, protect our power, and strengthen our transportation networks. Two great New Jersey universities, Rutgers and Princeton, already have climate change institutes that can serve as resources for all who need to rebuild and plan.

If we don’t take careful action, both to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to rebuild in ways that protect us from the next storm (burying power lines, trimming trees, strengthening incentives for those who reduce carbon emissions, securing and expanding our transportation and power infrastructure), we will not only be grieving again next year, but we will be billions more in the hole from foolish, hasty projects.

Please provide incentives for smart rebuilding and prevention. We cannot afford to be stupid about this.

Maybe you want to sign this and pass it on?

From Nowhere to Now Here, 2

Sheryl's pink tambourine was even nicer than this.

Sheryl's pink tambourine was even nicer than this.

I want to tell you a little more about the service at New Mount Zion and about my friend David’s sermon. The service opened with an invocation and some beautiful songs. At the start of one, Sheryl, our shepherd for the day, pulled a pink tambourine out of her purse and, like many others in the congregation, stood to give her praise. My younger daughter was entranced and asked to see it. For the rest of the service, the little one had the tambourine.

The music was awesome and the dancing was beautiful. I’m sure this is why some tour buses dump people off in Harlem to invade the churches, but, although this isn’t my church or my denomination, we were there to honor my friend and, man, I could see the appeal, could understand the desire to witness a Baptist service, even as the service extended on into hour two, three, and eventually four. What an amazing way to worship. You sing “Every time I turn around, Jesus lifts me up” ten times, eleven times, twelve in a room full of people of all ages, with organ, drums, and tambourines and even a few beaded gourds and there a smile comes to your face. You feel lifted. It is not hard to understand and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

People were baptized in a tank high up in the balcony, behind the organ and the simple song for baptism was so beautiful that tears streamed down my face.

We sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and the Amens afterward went on so long that the first little girl who was to lead the dance hesitated. Someone shouted, “Go ahead and dance, baby,” and she did.

Loved ones who had lost someone came forward with candles and their names were read. There was an offering for Sandy Relief (and later in the service two women who’d come from afar to help were recognized) and an offering for the church. The history of the church, in some detail, was read—“by the grace of God, and through the generosity of our parishioners, in such-and-such a year we were able to replace the front hall carpet with new carpet with our church logo on it…” Still, I was impressed to learn that, while New Mount Zion was founded in 1918 but its current pastor, Rev. Dr. Carl L. Washington Jr., is only the third to lead the church.

And we were recognized as visitors and treated like family, welcomed, welcomed, and welcomed again. Once people understood that we were there because the guest pastor was my friend from childhood, people made sure to come to the back to shake my hand and thank me for my presence. I felt so very honored and humbled.

But it’s strange that people leave before the sermon, because the sermon—which began at about 1:15, nearly three hours in to the service—was amazing. The best part. To hear someone smart and charismatic remind you how lucky you are to be alive, how much thanks you owe to God for your life, how much compassion you owe to those who don’t know that yet, how much compassion you must show to yourself for the self you once were and the self you are not yet, well, you feel pretty great and pretty proud. David took as his text I Corinthians 6:11: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Let me tell you, I am burning with pride for my friend. When I think about him in the third grade—he was so funny and sweet, saying “Oo-ee! Crescent rolls!” whenever something delighted him, which was often—and I think about him again in the halls of Garfield High School, showing me his high-five technique, and again, giving what he tells me was the second sermon he ever gave—to see him now, well, wow. Just wow.

And I’d been wondering how he managed to love Arizona so much, given its political climate, but he told us that he’d resigned from the Governor’s Council (of what? I don’t know). He said that maybe we’d seen that picture of her pointing her finger in our President’s face, that he thought that was disrespectful and he knew that the Governor wouldn’t have done that to President Bush. He told he her couldn’t work with someone who couldn’t respect our President.

You better believe this was one of the many times that I joined the standing in affirmation.

That second sermon all those years ago, in Seattle, took as its theme “Jesus Christ A to Z” and it was a kind of rap—it was wonderful and so cool and funny: “A, I am the Alpha. B, I was born in Bethlehem. C, I am the Christ…” For each letter, he had a whole paragraph and I think back from time to time with pleasure at what all the letters might have been.

But yesterday his theme was “From Being Transfixed to Becoming Transformed” and what I admired was its generosity and its straightforward wisdom. It was kind to all, generous to all, understanding of what folks had been through, how far folks had come, and how much more we all have to do.

When you look back in the rear view mirror of your life, think about how far you’ve come, he told us. And thank the Lord, because, let me tell you, he didn’t just bring you part of the way, he brought you ALL the way.

He joked about stains on our clothes and stains on our souls. Unlike your dry cleaner, God doesn’t have a little sign that says “After several attempts, we have determined this stain cannot be removed.”

He told a story of a little boy, in trouble for singing gospel songs in school, and forced to write 1,000 times “God is nowhere.” By around 777, a little space crept in between the “w” and the “h”: “God is now here.”

I have been thinking about gratitude a lot since Sandy. How hollow those “gratitude journals” by privileged people seem: when you’ve just been through something, when you are really grateful, gratitude doesn’t need to be a November blogging exercise. It was part of David’s theme, too, implicitly and, as he closed the service, explicitly.

I’m going to give you ten reasons to be thankful this Thursday:

The Lord got me up today.
The LORD got me up today.
The Lord got ME up today.
The Lord to me up TODAY…

At 2:30, the service ended, I gave David a big hug and he made sure we had an escort from the church to our car. Exhausted and very hungry, we stopped for some fast food and headed back to New Jersey, transformed and bursting with pride. What a great day.