Relevance

I’ve spent most of quarantine trapped in my house, feverishly editing a book about a woman who is also trapped in her house.

The heroine of my book – a person whose given name is Christina, but who has renamed herself, in a fit of vainglory, Patina – is an aspiring fantasy novelist. The reason she’s trapped is that she’s acquired a certain horror of faces. She doesn’t want to see herself reflected in others’ pitying gazes – she’s aware, deep down, that she’s become something of an art monster, that she’s pushed people close to her away, focused as she is entirely on becoming famous. She believes that if she can just write the right words, the world will sweep in and sweep her up, into an echelon of importance, a place she’s long deserved.

I’m old enough now to know that the world doesn’t work that way. I wasn’t, back when I started; when I began this book, back in 2011, I was closer to the age of her antagonist, the bus driver who’s come to Patina’s town to sleep with her husband, a handsome but feckless elementary school principal.

Back then, I was writing a book simply to see if I could write a book. I was also writing it as a form of escape, because when I was writing the man I was dating let me leave the house; that was an acceptable exit, for him (though leaving to see friends or call my family in private? That was iffy). I was writing it because I didn’t know what I was, at 21, and I was afraid I was becoming something like Patina, the woman who spends her days drinking coffee-liqueur and then wine and creating horrible messes that her husband has to clean up. The man I was dating told me I should be afraid of that, of becoming someone like her.

Fiction is funny, isn’t it? It’s just a temporary gateway. When we look up from our words, we are still where we were when we sat down.

Where I was, when I started this book, back when I didn’t know what I was doing, was the Staatsbibliothek in Munich. I’m glad it entered the world in such a grand place. The StaaBi was built in 1832, was mostly destroyed during World War II, and was then (like all buildings in Munich’s downtown) painstakingly recreated out of its own rubble.

staabi

(1832)

staabi today

(Heute)

This is, I’d know later, sort of like the process of writing a novel, a thing that’s also destroyed and then rebuilt. Again, I didn’t know it at the time.

To begin a novel at the Staabi – a grand afternoon’s undertaking that necessitated many excuses, all chores done before I went – I biked there with my netbook in my bag, a crappy little thing (my then-boyfriend had commandeered my laptop, because he needed it more), locked my bike outside, and proceeded into a central entrance hall. There, it was rather like visiting a courtroom; I remember I placed my backpack’s contents on a belt, gave up the backpack itself, and was given everything I needed in a clear plastic bag. This is, I think, to prevent book theft. (Some 500,000 volumes were lost in the war; probably the ones left are very precious.)

It was filled, of course, with students, since it was right across from the university where I’d been a student the year before. Now, I was just a person, a nanny on her day off. I had a netbook and some free hours. I sat down at a desk, and I remember my view looked something like this.

staabi inside

It was grand and European and I had no Internet and nowhere to be. All around me, people flipped pages and hissed hushed German whispers.

I should rightfully, deciding to start a book, have written something about where I was – about the war, about the recreated building, about the many strangenesses of living in Munich. Instead, I opened a page and began to type about home.

My character, in that early draft, took her son’s hand (he was much younger then) and walked down her long winding driveway, which was, I realized, my aunt and uncle’s old driveway at their house in Stillwater; she stood alongside a familiar straight Midwestern road with a name like 170th; she waited for a classic American school bus to arrive. When it did, its doors opened to reveal not the crusty bus driver she’d learned to expect, but a smiling young woman with glossy brown-black hair and nervous lips. Her son looked at her with trepidation.

“Hi,” sang the new bus driver. “I’m Ms. Claire. You must be James’s mommy.”

Huh, I thought, sitting back.

 

 

I wonder, now, as I have some of the characters wonder, what book I might have written had I not decided to go to that building on that day. I also wonder what book I might have written had I not, the year before, been sitting in a certain student bar at a certain time – had he not come up to me as I left and asked slyly if I had any recommendations for things to do in Munich, and had I not agreed to, the next day, meet him at a beer garden.

The wayward elementary school principal, in my book, is obsessed with determinism. For him, things can only go as they have gone. He is fated to have met his mad wife, fated to have later met the mistress who will drive his son into an accident. I’m not sure he’s right, but it’s how he thinks, and it will hurt him in the end.

I started the book, that day. The next day, I kept going. All that year, I added sentences to it, trying my best not to write a perfect book, but to write any book at all. It was saving me, in its way. When I was in my book I was not where I was.

It’s no wonder that it ended up being a novel about the pale consolations of fantasy novels themselves. Patina is an adult who was a child like I was; we dreamed of the same fairy-tale empress. I called her Jezilani (because Jessie) and she called her Tirosa (a combination of her name and her best friend’s name), but both of us sat in math class and thought about the empress who didn’t want to get married.

The difference between me and Patina is that she married the wrong man. Her principal husband has spent his life appeasing her. He’s a person like I was, for a while – someone who refuses and refuses to see that they’re in bed with a bully, someone determined to add them up to a better character than they actually are.

Like me, Mark sidles out. I did it through fiction – writing and writing, moving on to other stories, sending those stories in an application that would end in an astonishing whisk, an escape, grad school across the ocean, my boyfriend’s sneering voice reduced first to a face on a monitor and then to nothing at all – and Mark does it by dating the bus driver, Claire.

Claire is, unfortunately, afflicted with a condition that’s got a name in German: Fernweh. The direct translation, awaysickness, became the title of the book, though it was years before I heard the German word. (For quite a long time, the novel was called The Woman Who Drives Our Son to School. Not great.) It means, quite simply, that her whole life long she hasn’t wanted to be where she is. She’s always dreaming of an elsewhere, though hers isn’t the mossy brooks and ancient trees of Patina’s land, but somewhere less corporeal, less tangible. She just wants out and has always wanted out.

By the end of the book, of course, she gets there – and Patina, obsessed with this girl who looks so very much like her fairy-tale empress, does her part to help.

 

 

I sometimes joke that this book has become my Horcrux. I’ve written others since I started it all those nine years ago – the story collection that would become my thesis at Iowa, the fun-but-uneven imagined tales of the ultra-ultra-ultra rich – but Awaysickness holds a lot of my fears and hopes within it. Even when I put it aside, as I’ve done multiple times over the years, I can still feel its characters living inside my brain.

I’ve been pleased to find that quarantine hasn’t made me into a Patina, someone who keeps starting documents but turns away in favor of sipping coffee-liqueur, dancing to Bowie, and staring out the window, mourning her lost dreams. (If this is you, that is completely okay. These are terrifying times and all we’ve got to do is stay inside and stay alive, for the present.) After a week of dithering, I turned methodical about editing. I ripped out scenes, wrote the ones that remained down on notecards, making sure they had both a plot and an emotional point (thanks, Ethan Canin); I started to read it out loud at our weekly live-stream shows, a chapter or so per week.

In quarantine, in a pandemic, I’m so much more physically trapped than I ever was in Munich, back when I was in theory free to bike around the city and sit at coffee shops under wooly blankets and buy flowers at the giant farmer’s market.

But I’ve been able to find, in editing and rewriting, an escape. And what’s more: when I walk out of my office every day, the person waiting for me is someone who tells me, over and over again, that I am not a monster, that I am going to make it, that we are going to make it. He isn’t just saying this; he has facts to cite. “Look at how hard you work!” he tells me. “People are going to love this book.”

We’ve made it through, the book and me and all the people in it. Yesterday I sent it to agents. Two of them are reading it now, and more may be on their way. The book that saved me might yet become a real physical thing, a little gateway to Elsewhere, a fantasy about fantasies, about going til we’re in a better land, even if our bodies are as here as ever.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG

One of the fantastic things about working at a bookstore – and there were not so many, but there were enough of them, enough that I did it for a year – were the many free books that came my way. Advance reader copies came in every day; they spilled over the shelf next to my desk, and while taking breaks from answering ceaseless emails and writing newsletter copy, I’d wander over to see what the world was writing.

How could this massive, dizzying book not have caught my eye?

20200320_114332

It’s a great cover design, and fits its contents. The back flap begins, “In 2013, Megan Boyle was unhappy with the life she was living and wanted to document it on the Internet for an audience. Her hope was that if she documented each thought and action on the internet, then she would begin to behave in a manner more appropriate to the life she wanted to live.” It ends, “It is a book of daring length.”

No shit, I thought, flipping to the end. LIVE BLOG is 705 pages. Though some of those pages are blanks – “did not update,” over and over again, in August 2013 – lots of them are full of text, italicized and oddly capitalized, all-capsed. And all of them written by a woman my age, then published by Tyrant Books. How?

I brought it home and it sat on my shelf for a while, tripping me out. Then, in 2018, when I was at – to be honest – a pretty low point in my life, I started to read.

 

Megan Boyle, the protagonist, written by a writer who also happens to be named Megan Boyle, is, when the “novel” begins, living in her parents’ house, oscillating between activities meant to make her feel better – weird smoothies, yoga classes, and conversations with strangers – and activities meant to fill time. Throughout all 705 pages, she’s mainlining Xanax and Adderall and occasional cocaine; she’s living off the rapidly-diminishing settlement from a car accident and trying to figure out what the hell to do with her life.

There’s something interesting, artistically, about reading this as a chunk of pages ripped from the Internet rather than on the Internet itself. If I were Umberto Eco, I’d write an essay about it, but I’m just me, and so I can say: the act of publishing this as text rather than hypertext is saying something. At no point can the “novel”-reader offer feedback to Boyle, as many of her online friends did during the multi-month 2013 writing session. There aren’t comments in a book. We can only watch, strapped in, as she pulls all-nighters, sleeps with unavailable men, and wanders around Whole Foods, looking for one good thing.

The act of writing is, in theory, meant to help her figure it out, all of it. But only a third of the way through – on April 8, 2013, at 5:56pm, she writes, “I started this thinking there would be an end somehow. Like I’d figure something out and my life would improve. Maybe shitty people just stay shitty.”

As a reader frightened of my own lack of options, I envied her. It’s springtime for Boyle, though she seems to feel none of the warmth. She wanders around in an endless world, unbound by time and space, willing and able to take any drug and go to any party in search of a solution to the something that plagues her. It’s impossible, reading it, to not compare oneself to Boyle. I did, occasionally with recognition, and often with a recoil – no, I found myself thinking, I wouldn’t ever do that, I’d make at least an attempt to be home in bed rather than driving around at 5am, searching for a conversation to sustain me.

And sometimes, often, I read with envy. Though I’m admittedly a person with a considerable creative output, my problem is that I’m (mostly) private with it. There are shades of me that I’ve never seen fit to share with the Internet, or really with anyone – and here Boyle is, was, putting it all out there on a tumblr that anyone could find. How did she get away with it?

It helps, probably, that in her early twenties she was one of the rising alternative-lit darlings of New York. She was married to Tao Lin (who I’ve frankly never been able to read) and published a poetry collection called selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee; she wrote for Vice and Thought Catalog.

But in LIVE BLOG, she seems to have the creeping sense that her best days are behind her – and I, reading it, thought yes, yes.

I thought of my own days in Iowa, those dizzying nights in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 – I was hosting workshop and Marilynne Robinson was coming to my house and I was going to the Fox Head and sitting at Vonnegut’s books and I was meeting with agents who seemed interested in me. And now here I was, underemployed, unagented, sitting on a shit-ton of yellow notebooks with words in them and half-finished Word documents and a cold that crept in through our house’s ancient windows.

I don’t write about darkness, except in fiction. I’m not comfortable with sharing desperation. The therapist I’ve started seeing, a guy named Dr. Bryan, who has a bustling red beard and a leather armchair, agrees with me – I like to maintain a facade of sweetness and light. It’s not important why I do this, he says; the important thing is figuring how to reach out to people and be a little more honest.

 

 

At the end of the book, Boyle the character hasn’t quit drugs or found Jesus. She’s just given up; the last scene is her alone in her apartment, drinking a Miller High Life and sucking down used vape cartridges to see if they’re truly empty. She’s back from the store and is remembering the group she followed into her building:

made eye contact with MTA wheelchair man as he reversed into the elevator. we said ‘hi’ quietly, kind of sorrowfully, overlapping the word at intervals suggesting neither of us meant for the greeting to be heard…. remembered they both lived on the fourth floor. i didn’t get on the elevator.

And it’s over. The experiment, six months after it started, is finished. Having spent days with her, I felt entitled to know what happened.

LIVEBLOG was reviewed – quasi-favorably – in the New Yorker. Her friend Juliet Escoria interviewed her for The Fader. I think Boyle did a reading of the entire thing over a period of multiple days in New York, or at least I remember reading about that on Twitter last year, though I’m unable to figure out whether or not that’s the truth.

But had she, in the years since, sorted it out, the thing that made her hunt and hunt and feel alone even after taking everything on earth into her body? I couldn’t tell.

On Facebook, I discovered that we actually had friends in common – the alt-lit scene doesn’t have much overlap with Iowa, but there is some. I sent her a fan letter, saying: thank you for writing this, and it’s particularly great when I’m feeling down, and also sorry if a Facebook DM is creepy. She responded months later, having just checked the ghostly messages aspect of Facebook, saying that it wasn’t creepy, and thanking me for appreciating it.

I’ve been meaning to write about it here ever since. During the polar vortex of 2019, no longer employed, I spent some days staring at its hypnotic cover, thinking: yes, I really should, now is my time.

I didn’t, and thought the moment had passed – the book world moves very slowly and then, at once, very quickly, and if you don’t strike while the iron is hot, review-wise, no one will care.

Until, on Twitter a few days ago, I read:

Annotation 2020-03-20 123820

Hell yeah, I thought.

 

I no longer work at the bookstore. It made me sad in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate to myself at the time: I was close to so many people who were achieving what I wanted to achieve, I was sitting next to fat stacks of books that were published every day, and yet I myself was too exhausted by them to write. I’d sit at people’s readings and introduce them and clap for them when they were finished, and all the while I’d be quietly critical, thinking, I could do better. But I wasn’t.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, talks about the frustration of artists in artist-adjacent careers; often these careers, in nonprofits and management and cleanup, are underpaid, and often frustrated artists take their feelings out on the people around them. I certainly was. Miles said the other day while we were walking (at a safe distance from other passersby): “I have never seen you as depressed as you were that year. And now look at you.”

He laughed. “I remember during the polar vortex, you were lying in bed and you said, why can’t I just find a job that pays well and is relatively flexible and lets me work with people and gives me enough time in the mornings to write? And I said, sure, honey, you will, and I thought quietly, it’ll never happen.” He touched my hand. “But it has.”

I work now as a tutor for kids struggling with the English and Reading sections of the ACT and SAT. I’m frightfully pedantic but also, I think, funny; I get to sit across from a person and explain what it is they’re doing wrong, and then watch them as they don’t do it anymore, and it’s a pleasure. Certainly I’m bored, from time to time, but never so bored as I was when answering the same type of email for the thousandth time or sitting at a reading that I felt I myself could do better. And, in the mornings, I’ve finished two books.

The virus has thrown all of it for a bit of a loop – I’m not sure the economy will support parents’ paying for expensive test prep. However, not many of my clients have canceled, and I can do it digitally; I’ve spent the last week talking to kids from the comfort of my office, occasionally waving the cats at them as a reward. I’m in a place financially that I didn’t think I could be a year ago. I’m much luckier than most.

While kids work sections, I’ve been flicking to LIVEBLOG part 2, coronavirus edition, just to be one of the crew to catch it live, this time.

And I’ve found, thankfully, that Megan Boyle has figured it out, or at least more of it. She’s sober; she’s meeting with her sponsor and attending virtual 12-step programs; she’s sending zany text messages to her friends and working a boring but occasionally entertaining customer service job; she’s going for runs and up to her same old smoothie game. It’s a fun fucking page to hit “refresh” on, especially if you’re like me and sick of Reddit.

She’s wondering aloud, yes, if a lot of her writing was drug-fueled, and is thankful to find that it isn’t – that, as her sponsor said to her, the drugs didn’t write the book. She did.

But here I am, clicking away, if only just to say: sometimes it’s possible, these days, to feel like everyone’s streaming and no one’s listening. As artists, we can’t know for sure if anyone is paying attention to us, or if we’re saying anything worthwhile, or if all these words are good for something.

So it’s nice, sometimes, to find words that do work on your soul – it’s heartening to reach out across the electronic distance and discover that yes, you are very interested in the mundane details of someone else’s life, and that you’d read pages and pages of it if you were allowed to.

It lets a person imagine that somewhere out there, there’s a person that will do the same for you; that perhaps one day, those 700+ pages you wrote will find a vibrant cover and some fresh air.

 

 

(This is also just to say: if you want to see me read live, I’ll be doing so tonight from Miles’s woodshop at 6pm. It will be fiction and it will be comforting, but other than that I’m not sure what will happen. Please tune in, if you like! These are lonely times and I’d love to share them with you – as well as the multiple excellent artists who will precede and follow me tonight.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Case for Perambulation

If you are, like me, a claustrophobic extrovert, coronavirus is hitting you hard. Not the disease itself, but the trapped-indoors-ness of it – especially coming off the heels of a long winter.

Had this happened in January, I’d be toast. Thankfully, though, it’s mid-March (right? We’ve only been stuck inside for 3 days, and already I’m losing track of months – I just now squinted at an expiration date on a carton of milk, sure that March 24 had already passed), and so the world is open to me, to us.

This is a short essay in favor of walking. It’s easy to stay six feet from everyone when you’re outside, though all cute dogs must sadly remain un-petted.

 

1.

In Iowa City, there is a park that nobody knows about. I discovered it while out with two friends in search of cows, and have written extensively about it in another blog post: it’s a folly created by a rich man, a textbook magnate, who was obsessed with Walt Whitman. It lives behind a gate. Fortunately, on that first walk, we were persuasive enough that the man who showed it to us gave me the code that would open it.

I took my friend Cristobal out one day in late spring, disregarding the fact that Cristobal is Californian and unused to mushy muck. Still, he gamely followed, and that day, we went I think five miles through bramble and field. We marveled at the sculptures dotting the woods, sat for a while by Whitman’s Pond, and wound up in the runestones, which are older than Stonehenge and came from an island where pygmies live. They are all over twenty feet tall, though half of them are buried in the earth, and if you touch them – which you are allowed to – you can feel the marks of an ancient carving knife.

Copyright property of Todd Adamson

(Photo credit: Lori Erickson)

We sat for some time in the middle of them. The day was cool, cloudy but not overcast – bright sun was followed by shadow. We offered, I think, prayers to people we knew who had gone, the same people who might now be wringing their hands in the beyond, helping us stay safe. That place is closer to the veil than most.

Then we wandered back into town, went to a house party, and two days later wet-footed Cristobal was as sick as an Austen heroine who’d wandered too long on a moor. I still feel guilty for walking him into illness, but he’s assured me that it was worth it.

 

2.

On the first day of proper quarantine, Saturday, I set out from our new house, heading south toward the river. We live in Northeast Minneapolis now, a land of tattoo parlors and tattoo-removal shops and dive bars and railroads; it’s hard to reach nature, as the river is bounded by high factory walls and the streets are diagonal with tracks.

One of those railroad tracks, I discovered, was abandoned; it followed its healthy brother like a shambling corpse. I walked on its ties, one foot on each. I passed other people at a healthy distance of six feet, all of us in our own worlds.

Up ahead was a shadow, or no – a child. Or no, a man.

An adult man, poised on the railroad track, one foot in front of the other on the rusty beam, arms out, balancing. I froze. Suddenly there weren’t any people around, and he was quite large and doing something slightly crazy.

But I kept going, following the wood, because I could see the river up ahead. He was humming, his feet one after the next, his arms spinning. I hoped he wouldn’t look at me.

Then he did, his eyes wild with joy under a beanie.

“It’s quite difficult to balance, you see!” he said in a thick Eastern European accent.

I laughed. “You got this, dude!” I said.

He laughed as well and said, “I do!”

I stepped swiftly past, and then I was all at once in a park near the river, a place I’d never been, beautiful and good.

tm-boom-island-park-704x454

(Photo credit: Family Fun Twin Cities)

 

3.

Miles and I used to live on Franklin Avenue, in a carriage house behind a mansion, halfway houses on the other side. It was a fun neighborhood for parties – the parking lot next to our house was large, and there were a lot of interesting places nearby, like Ice House and the sculpture garden at the Walker and Spyhouse and the MIA – but was not without its dodgy characters, so we usually walked together.

One morning after a party we decided to head to brunch at the diner. (Closed now, like everything as of noon, but it’ll be there in the future when all of this is over.) The route took us over the highway and into the city. We wended through construction sites and around half-finished corners.

Ahead of us, walking out of the diner, were two people who were blind, or blind enough that they carried white sticks.

The funny thing about Franklin and Lyndale, one of the busiest intersections in the city, is that there’s a school for the blind right there. It has no windows, like the Masonic temple on Hennepin, and an inadequate crosswalk. Still, the blind people must not have many other options, because you regularly see them on those terrifically busy streets, doing a great job of navigating.

From behind us, there came a noise: jingling bells, very Christmas. Miles and I turned to look.

There’s an arts center across the street from the diner, and two jingle dancers were approaching in full regalia. They had bells literally everywhere, and they shook with every step. They were gorgeous in the sunlight – yellow and bright and all in motion. We stopped, transfixed.

0b15a5-20190615-jingle-dress-02

(Photo credit: Evan Frost, MPR News)

The jingle dancers walked around us, and the blind people walked toward them, and the jingle dancers swerved around the blind people.

And one of the blind women stopped, her mouth gaping, and went to her friend, “What the hell was that?”

 

 

I think about that day a lot, especially in times like these. What the hell was that, indeed. It’s a lesson to me: however capable you know yourself to be, sometimes there are moments that just aren’t anything like what you’ve ever experienced before, and all there is to do is to stand open-mouthed on the sidewalk, wondering at the many ways in which the world can enlarge, or contract, so suddenly.

I wish we’d stopped to explain it to them, but we didn’t. We were too amazed by what we’d seen.

Dudes, we’ve got this. Let’s go out and be good to each other, reaching out across our safe distances to expand the world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Re: The Thing You Wrote, Which Was, at First, So Promising

McSweeney’s just rejected this because they get a lot of rejection-themed pieces (unsurprisingly), but I still think it’s funny, so I’m posting it here. Is it possibly based on a real-life letter I got this week?? Who knows!

Anyway, at least I’m submitting stuff, right?


 

 

Dear Writer,

First off, let’s just say: wow! We, the editors of this good literary magazine, are writing directly to you to say just how much we liked the thing you sent us. It had emotions. It had a lot of very, very interesting parts. It was actually smart, in places. Obviously, not everything we get sent is, which is why we – though we have a lot of other stuff to do – have chosen to spend part of our day writing this message to you. You should be proud of the thing you made.

However!

It just had so, so many words in it.

Now, we like words. Obviously! Or else our magazine would be some other kind of magazine – a picture magazine, maybe, or a smell magazine. We are not well versed in other kinds of magazines. We are, as we said, word people, and certainly we want our magazine to continue to be made of words.

But that many words?

Yeah.

We started off really liking your piece, like we said in our first paragraph. However, somewhere along the way, we found a bad word. Not an actual swear word – just, you know, a word that made our mouths go, ugh.

Maybe it was too long. Maybe it just hurt our eyes, in addition to our mouths. Who can say why it was wrong? All we can say is that it was.

It made us start looking, and it made us keep looking.

And our suspicions were correct. You sent us a lot of really good words, but also a lot of not good words, and so that is why we are not going to put any of them – good words or bad – in our magazine.

We are sure this must be difficult to hear. If you have questions, we are sorry to say that we cannot answer them. We don’t want to presume to tell you which words did not work for us. We are not presumptuous people. Not like you, writer, who mailed us this half-rotted lettuce-leaf pile of language under the assumption that we would like every single bit of it.

We are wondering – although we, yet again, really don’t want you to write back to us – just where you get off. Where do you get all these words, and the self-esteem to believe that someone, somewhere, might actually like all of them?

This is the twenty-first century, writer. Nobody uses so many words anymore. If you continue to do so, you will use them all up and there will be none left for the rest of us. That’s just how it works.

In conclusion, may your children’s mouths be parched with lack of sentences.

 

All best,

The Editors

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Googled

This is just to say

that I have been to the stats page

where I can tell who has searched for me

 

and apparently

there are lots

of you lately

 

it is delicious

so strange

and so mysterious

 

 

*One of my favorite activities to do as a teacher is to make teens write William Carlos Willams homages until they fully understand why his poem This is Just to Say is, for lack of a better word, a little fucked up.

I recognize that a blogger trying to ask blog readers why on earth they have Googled her bears no resemblance to the experience of a speaker informing another person that they have eaten some plums that were in the icebox (and which the other person was probably saving for breakfast), but writing like William Carlos Williams is kind of a blast, so why let teens have all the fun, haha, right…

Anyway: who are you, random people search-engining to my blog, and what do you expect to find here?? It is POORLY UPDATED if at ALL

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Meg’s Place

In a fit of decadence, I bought myself a ticket to Iceland from November 1-11. This was perhaps too long (as a Minnesotan I feel deeply guilty about having any kind of vacation at all, much less a week-and-a-half-long one), but in my defense I suffer horribly from jet lag, and also I had a friend who was willing to not only host me, but to cook pretty much every meal. Really, I was saving money by going, and so I did.

Meg and I have been friends since we were both students in the Junior Year in Munich program, which she found after painstaking consideration of her many junior year language study options (she’s a polyglot), and which I found by googling “junior year germany study abroad.” Not much has changed in the subsequent nine years; Meg is still an exacting taskmaster who regularly publishes translations in respected journals, a self-taught scholar of multiple languages, and I am still, well, me – a pleasant person, but one a little too apt to be swept by the winds of fate.

A lot happened in Iceland, and I don’t want to exhaust my store of anecdotes here, since I’ll be dining out on them for months. (Partying with the parliamentarian! Shouting at the businessmen! The underground museum! Wheelchair John getting pushed up cobblestoned hills! These, and more, you will likely hear if you hang out with me.)

However, I do want to write briefly about what it’s like to live in a friend’s life. I hadn’t been in Meg’s living space since college, when we both lived in grim shoebox-sized German apartments, haphazardly decorated – she put plastic wrap on the walls and asked people to write on it, while I smeared stew everywhere and draped scarves over every available surface. How surprising to fly across an ocean and find her, all at once, such an adult.

 

  • A true poet, she lives across the street from a murder house, where a man beat his wife to death, did a short stint in cozy Icelandic prison for the crime, then came back and was, in a fugue of poetic justice, himself beaten to death in the same apartment. I’m unclear on specifics but agree that the building is certainly creepy.

 

  • Her street rolls with the sound of suitcases. Tourists clatter past in the rain, languages babbling – it’s a parade of delighted people every day, and appropriate for a translator’s apartment.

 

  • She lives with two hairless cats who like to lick armpits and hide under my blankets. They aren’t truly hairless – they grow down in the winter, and feel like what I think baby lambs feel like.

 

  • Every square foot of her two-room apartment has been meticulously considered, and yet she has never Instagrammed any of it. It seems just not to have occurred to her. I keep telling her that she’s living the dream of some 20-year-old misfit in Arkansas – she’s a translator! Who lives in Reyjkavik! With hairless cats! – and that if that misfit only knew it, they’d be wracked with jealousy and certainty that her life is unattainable.

 

  • On the wall above my couch, there’s a rack of perfumes that Meg has made herself, each named after a different poet. Sharon Olds is chamomile in oil. One has a peppery tang. I can’t remember which is which, because the jars are fragile in my big dumb non-crafty hands, and because Meg has, in a pique of fancy, turned the labels to face the wall.

 

  • Half of her bedroom is a wall of dresses in neutral tones, shading from opalescent gold into glittery black. To sleep on the bed is to be watched by a fleet of depressed socialites. Colored clothes, of which there are not many, hide in the closet.

 

  • Because the cats will steal and hide my engagement ring, Meg has concealed it in a glass candle-holder for safekeeping. My job is to remember to tuck it there at night.

 

  • Another one of my jobs is to turn the sofa back into a sofa each day, swaddling it in its blanket of fur to conceal the egg-carton bedding, folding the pastel sheets. I have so little to do in Iceland that even this feels like a grand undertaking.

 

  • Every day, the fiance and cats send videos of themselves cuddling – where are you, is the subtext, and why aren’t you here? It’s a good question. The apartment – I think that’s what I’m getting at – feels like an answer, like it knows something I do not. To be here is to capitalize on that certainty, because it’s been too long since I’ve put into the world any of my own art.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Extinction Rebellion

Last weekend, I attended my first meeting of the wholly wholesome protest sect Extinction Rebellion. If you’re a government agent reading this, I’d here like to state that they are not, in any way, a terrorist organization, despite the fearsome name. This is a post about what they are instead.

I think I suspected, while dressing (what to wear to a climate activist meeting, I fretted? Answer: literally anything) that it would be me and about six other people. Instead, they kept having to bring in more chairs.

I did not take photos, but if I had, a panorama of the room would have revealed:

  • Older women in vibrant attire.
  • Earnest couples in their early thirties, all definitely here for the first time, and probably, like me, wondering whether we can justify having kids.
  • Some timid young men, heads bent over phones.
  • Many people who used they/them pronouns. (“I respond to everything except “it,” said a person in a skirt, charmingly.)
  • In the corner: two children curled over a tablet, occasionally yelling in delight.
  • At the snack table (nuts, chopped vegetables, hummus, and fruit), what I’d later learn was the art contingent, the people who make all the fancy buttons: two smiling and highly-capable-looking women in their mid-forties, the sort of people who wear cat-eye glasses.

Everyone except the organizers seemed nervous that someone would stop them and question their activist credentials. And no one did, because it was the opposite of that kind of meeting.

In the windowless meeting room, all crunching nuts, we began with a land acknowledgment, as well as a reminder to big talkers to shut up and non-talkers to start talking. Then we went around the room and every person introduced themselves. It did not take forever, because a lot of people seemed surprised to be asked and said only their names, but the ones who talked said things that made me, and everyone, tear up.

“I don’t want to just be alone with the climate disaster,” said a young woman, summing up my feelings succinctly.

“I’m here because I’ve been without hope for so many years that I thought, well, I might start hoping again,” said a wry older woman who, as she’d later reveal, is writing a book about the Black Panthers.

“I’m here because I was watching YouTube and stumbled into the IPCC report and became scared, and then afterwards Extinction Rebellion was next in the queue, and it was the only thing that made me feel better,” said a quiet person named Sunny.

“I’m here because if we don’t figure this out, everything else will be a moot point,” shrugged a man.

As always, in this sort of situation, I took notes in order to quell my oncoming nervousness about next being asked to speak. Then I kept taking notes, compulsively, filling eight or so pages in the notebook my brother Joe gave me for my birthday, and when it was my turn I was surprised, and ended up echoing the man’s point.

I said, “I’m here because I work in the book industry, and I’ve realized what total bullshit that will be if nobody’s around to read because the world’s on fire.”

It’s true. My purposes are selfish. The few people who could hear me laughed, though.

The organizers went on to give us a brief history. Extinction Rebellion (XR) began in the UK only last year, in the spring of 2018. The theory behind it is that people work more easily in small, non-hierarchical groups – XR is designed to splinter, to break into smaller and smaller contingents to get things done. “When the government has failed in its fundamental duty,” said the professorial man quietly, everyone leaning in – he was a great speaker – “which is to keep us safe, that’s when it’s time to rebel.”

XR London, after its founding, worked quickly; enough people flocked to it that in November 2018, they were able to arrange protests that effectively shut down five massive bridges in London. After a winter of activism, this May, the UK’s government – despite Brexit and everything – declared a climate emergency, making it the first country to do so.

Extinction Rebellion’s theory is that if 3.5% of the population mobilizes, that’s enough to force governments to take action. They’re counting on people like the ones in the room (everyone had an air of schoolteacher or grandmother or public servant about them) to create protests that make everyone in a city take notice, and for those protests to snowball. These protests don’t, the organizers explained, necessarily have to take the form of civil disobedience; those who participate won’t all have to get arrested or superglue their hands to government buildings. Instead, what’s required is creative action, and a lot of it.

In a little more than a year, XR has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It’s been combined with other groups – the Ghanaian contingent is linked with the anti-colonialist movement Stop the Maangamizi, and the German group works with Ende Gelande, who are fundamentally anti-coal. I’ve been following them on the Internet for a while, and was wondering when they’d show up here. Now, here they are – in a library in St. Paul, trying to gather more followers.

XR Twin Cities was founded earlier this year, and was, the organizers said wryly, six people who had no history of activism and no clue what they were doing. They shared only anger and friendship. Their first action was a banner drop over a bridge in the frigid winter air. They got some honks, stayed for a few hours, then went home, shrugging. Now, they’re everywhere: at all Open Streets festivals, at the State Capitol with friendly lawmakers, and sending an open letter to MPR demanding climate-responsible reporting.

It is, in short, my kind of movement: it’s very fucking fun, and requires little commitment. In the Twin Cities, it’s possible to become involved at the highest levels – as a member of a working group planning actions – or by simply showing up to events. I have no idea what I’m doing yet, but it’s going to be something.

This Saturday, tomorrow, they’re doing Green Emergency on the Greenway, an after-dark open mic that shares love for endangered species. (Word people, they’re still looking for performers.) Every Tuesday, the fun art ladies hang out at a house in Powderhorn from 1-4pm and do crafts, mostly jewelry and buttons intended to spark curiosity from people who don’t know. “Ask me about my earrings,” said one, leaning in to dangle them more prominently. “Go on, ASK ME.” (If this is something you’re into, message me – I’ve got the address.)

And next month, in North, there will be another meeting much like the one I attended – on Saturday August 17th, from 2-3:30pm, you yourself can come to North Humboldt Ave and feel better.

 

It has been hard, hearing all this news, existing in the polar vortex, watching the rivers flood, to know what to do. I’m aware, every time I bike to work and cook tofu, that counterbalancing me there’s some dude buying a truck and eating only steak. I’m aware that even biking to work and eating more vegetables isn’t enough. I hang out in the Star Tribune comments section and despair about all the people from the suburbs who are calling our warming earth liberal bullshit.

I think the best thing going to the meeting did for me was to give me hope. It’s like writing: if you don’t have hope that the thing you’re working on is going to turn out, well, it won’t.

This is something that the organizers of XR, a year and a half ago, fundamentally understood – that in order for activism to change minds, it can’t be shrieky or preachy. It’s got to be fun and inviting.

It’s got to be a room with ample snacks and people named Santa Eric Riese (who rocked a dressy skirt, a THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirt, a pair of pigtails, and a magnificent white beard) saying, “Minnesota is so nice, so curious. We protested on roller skates, and for weeks afterward people were stopping me in Uptown, saying, what is this? What were you doing? How can I get involved?”

So I have written this somewhat slapdash blog post – my first in a year – to say that if you too occasionally feel too sad about the planet to keep going, well, there’s something you can do. It’s right here in the Twin Cities, and it’s friendly as shit. And it’s enough to show up, because if enough of us do it, who knows what can happen?

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized