Grief and Laughter

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 Tears are expected,
but sometimes laughter feels like the much more appropriate
— and the much more restorative, healing, even — response.
Laughter mixed with tears works, too.
And laughter takes the edge off those times
when tears are, in fact, unavoidable.
— MFS, personal blog

It occurred to me this morning that my thrifty sister would have heartily approved of the tax benefits related to the timing of her birth and death. We Harpers exult in saving money! Margo was born a few days before the end of the year, giving my folks a welcome tax exemption for that short week in 1948. She died at the beginning of January, giving her husband an exemption and joint filing for 2016. Way to win! Take that, IRS!! [Further, the airfare to travel back there was amazingly low. Who travels to Chicago in January?] Time sifts the pain and grief and gives us eyes to see the humor.

This may appear irreverent, but, my brother-in-law and I shared a good horsey laugh talking about it. I can hear Margo’s chuckle in my head and some pseudo-modest acknowledgment: Not bad for a bear with very little brain! [She had a brain tumor removed in 1980.]

How Can I Keep from Reading? Pt. 3

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Why I Read, Part 3

My third answer is: I read because I’m tired.

I went through a long spell (5+ years) of insomnia. It was impossible to turn my mind off and go to sleep; even more difficult to return to sleep after waking at 2:00 – 4:00 a.m.  All recommended remedies were futile. My jaw clenched in frustration. At least if I read, I didn’t feel like the time was a total waste. A favorite coping mechanism was to go into the living room and read. My object was to become chilled through. Then I slinked into the warm bed and back into that sweet unconscious state.

Sal knew that she would not sleep so she took Emma to bed with her, hoping that the well-known story would soothe her troubled spirit and dissipate her worried thoughts…
~ from The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson

Since I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and now use a CPAP, I’m sleeping 7-8.5 hours straight, which is wealth untold.

But I still use books to soothe myself to sleep. The hour between going to bed and the book falling on my face is my primary reading time. Each evening my husband asks me, “What are you reading?” and I give a short recap, sometimes reading a sample.

There are two kinds of bedtime books: books that put you to sleep, and books that make you lose sleep. I usually choose the book whose deadline (library, friend-loans, book club, self-imposed) is most pressing. Too many times I’ve listed an unread book for sale or swap (cold logic insisting I’ll never read it); when the email “Sold. Ship Now.” arrives, I panic and decide to read it before I mail it. Even when it’s 400 pages. #fearofmissingout

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Quotes I Copied in 2016

From this year’s journal, for the patient and curious reader:

GPS sets us in the center of the map and then makes the world circulate around us. In this miniature parody of the pre-Copernican universe…  —The Glass Cage

If your husband knows you love and want him, you empower him in every other area. —For the Love

We’re headed for Lost Wages —Southwest flight attendant

Grief is a strange thing. —A Man Called Ove

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What I always say is, God sends the weather and it’s not for us to grumble. —Shoulder the Sky

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. —Four Seasons in Rome

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Alex now saw that his relationship with his father was the taproot of his character and temperament. —The Father’s Tale

Life is like a bog. If you stand still too long your feet begin to sink into the mud. —Anna and Her Daughters

I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time. —End of Your Life Book Club

Cilantro, Satan’s own herb (I disagree, but I laughed!) —The Pat Conroy Cookbook

There are no billboards in Iceland. — Iceland: Land of the Sagas

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In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. — Shop Class as Soulcraft

…the small morsel of beard which he wore upon his chin … — The Golden Lion of Granpère

A French study released in 2013 even found a solid link between continued work and avoidance of dementia. — Get What’s Yours (Maxing out Social Security)

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…ecologies of attention… — The World Beyond Your Head

Today, a whole generation has grown up as a take-out culture. The food is convenient, and some of it is even good, but it has none of the ring of the familiar; it can never be personal enough to become part of our past. — Christopher Kimball

Talkers never write. They go on talking. — Parnassus on Wheels

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For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed. — A Poetry Handbook

MARTIAL is an anagram for MARITAL. — The Spectator Bird

I’ve seen far too many people awash in genuine desire to change only to lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is. — Hillbilly Elegy

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Wisdom is long, violence is short. —  Benjamin Franklin

Time used to tumble for me. Time was narrow, then, and very fast. Now time has widened. — Letters from the Land of Cancer

Manage time less and pay attention more. — The Rest of God

Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language. — Still Alice

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The Best of My Reading Life: 2016

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Here are this year’s favorite books in quirky categories, along with sample quotes.

Hello, Again (the second time together)

               

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. ATGiB

I love mankind, he said, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular. TBK

Think Tanks (books that made me pause and ponder)

                  

We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. tGC

Work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. SCaS

Franklin could never see chaos without thinking of order. BF

Waiting is the primary recreation of Russia. You could try getting used to it. tFT

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Where Have You Been All My Life? (a book I wish was available years ago)

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We spent that midsummer reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the backyard, and I will always remember my surprise when the children laughed in the right places. MM

Sweet Comfort (sure, they’re about food, but the prose is delicious)

             

And, please—enough with the supposed health concerns. I mean, it’s not as though the obesity epidemic was caused by overconsumption of duck legs. NK

It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal. tPCC

But cooking is a way of paying attention, of really being in this world. When you look closely at a mango and inhale its scent, everything else stops. Life feels rich and easy. G-FG&tC

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Cover Story (the cover drew me in)



In Scotland, one does not ‘mend’ anything or ‘fix’ it in any way. One ‘sorts’ it.
CtN

 

Core Strengthening (soul-building books)

     

Over and Over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy. MOC

The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper. TRoG

Upper Story (two memoirs and a history a cut above )

               

Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It is an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface. FSiR

At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran. In other words, I was an anomaly. HE

Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. DW

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For the Children (for me, too…my husband & I are reading HP series for the first time)

                    

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. HPG0F

Books can ignite fires in your mind, because they carry ideas for kindling, and art for matches. LB&BB

Whatever it means to be friends, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it. WW

(Amazon affiliate links included: thank you!)

Sailing Alone Around the Room

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In my ideal life, I would keep poetry on my nightstand. In my perfect life, I would read it regularly. Sailing Alone Around the Room  had been ensconced there nine weeks;* when I ran out of renewals I started reading.

Humor, the deep-from-within-the-DNA-funny, permeates this poetry.

The first poem places a neighbor’s dog in a Beethoven symphony,
while the other musicians listen in respectful 
silence to the famous barking dog solo, 
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

The poems centered around music (and their abundance) delighted me.

I swooned reading Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales that spoke of the power of gospel music on the radio to create a minor ascension. I’ve been in the car, I’ve been transported. I could hear the overtones; I became a church lady with a floppy hat and matching pumps calling out, “Yes!”

I was pleased to learn a new form of poetry (I won’t mention the name); I did a search to read more. Then I roared with laughter. The joke’s on me — this is a parody! It was a small consolation that book reviewers and other poets also missed the satire.

Another tickle, this in a title:
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

Collins always surprises me. He twists words, insisting I see life from a changed perspective.

* How it got there: reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility  made me curious to see Walker Evan’s photography. In my library’s poetry section was Something Permanent, Evan’s photography paired with Cynthia Rylant’s poems. While my fingers trailed the bindings, I saw Billy Collins. Like ice cream, there’s always room for Billy Collins.

The title reminds me that I still have Joshua Slocum’s 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, on my To Be Read shelf. And also William F. Buckley’s sailing books. Also unread.

10 Christopher Kimball Quotes

One time my brother gave me ten years of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines. Reading through them was like reliving Dan’s culinary phases. Oh, yeah, remember when he was making sausage?  There’s the artisan bread recipe! Here’s where he learned to make risotto! Adding nutmeg to stroganoff might not have been an original idea…

I used to think my brother was a genius. (Ha ha, bro!) Then I realized he was merely an amazing reader who followed fantastic recipes.

The first thing I did with the magazines was cut out the Flemish-ish art and frame it.

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Because I admire Christopher Kimball’s voice, I recently read through ten years of essays to assay his writing. I immersed myself in them in one week. A very few were ‘meh;’ most had a phrase or thought I copied into my journal.

His overarching theme is one of my own soap boxes, the importance of families eating together, a concept he encapsulates in the word familiar. Here are ten quotes I gleaned.

  1. We lost traditions that had connected us, and in which food played an important role: the social vitality of a meal, for example, as an occasion for families to talk, argue, persuade, or even shout.
  2. On many days, there is more sense to be found in a good recipe for roast chicken than in all the news on the front page of the New York Times.
  3. Today, a whole generation has grown up as a take-out culture. The food is convenient, and some of it is even good, but it has none of the ring of the familiar; it can never be personal enough to become part of our past.
  4. Dinner slows the clock, allowing us a moment to catch our breath, to savor the stillness of the moment; the first taste of a family recipe connecting us instantly to each other, to our past and future.
  5. So many of us today avoid cooking because it is difficult and time-consuming, requiring skill and planning. But it is the blessing of common labor — transforming simple beginnings into rich harvests — that is the great joy of cooking and of any life well lived.
  6. I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party. Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.
  7. Over a lifetime, hands become invested with knowledge, if we allow it. The surgeon, the farmer, the gardener, the artist, and the mother all accrue a lifetime of skill in their hands.
  8. Cooks are architects, building a present that is worth remembering, investing time and energy in simple tasks that grow in importance as time passes.
  9. It’s a shame that at the beginning of this new century, the world is watching America and America is watching television.
  10. Cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard.

After I read the last essay, I read a few articles about Christopher Kimball, the man. I was saddened by his divorce, and laughed out loud at this sentence by Alex Halberstadt: “His real difficulty as an evangelist, however, is the one afflicting most multimillionaires who expound publicly on the virtues of simple living.”

As it happens, Kimball has left Cook’s Illustrated to begin a new magazine called Milk Street. Clever name, I thought, wrongly guessing it was an idiom like in tall cotton. Turns out it’s the street where Kimball’s offices are located.

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Last night I started a biography of Benjamin Franklin that a friend wants me to read. When I read that Benjamin was born in a house on Milk Street in Boston, I just laughed. Once again, my reading life has synchronicity, serendipity and sweetness.