I like to read multiple books at once. I’ve been doing this since I was a child, checking out a tall pile of library books and carefully bringing them home on my bike, titles jolting out off the basket whenever the tires hit a bump. Those few blocks were a slow and careful journey home.
Out of the pool of current reads (doubled due to last spring and summer’s reading drought: I’m still catching up!), I picked the ones that most remind me of spring, this time of fitful sunshine, rain, and snow time; packed with flowers and (sometimes) floods; a burgeoning moment towards summer and deep green; sometimes tragic but more often abloom.
A Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings by Bashō, trans Sam Hamill: I came across Shambhala’s pocket library edition at my favorite local indie bookstore and couldn’t resist. And so began my journey with the Japanese poet Bashō (and Sam Hamill, one of my favorite translators). Page by page, we walked through mountain passes and villages, meandered along beaches, sailed coasts, met fellow poets, stopped at temples, hot springs, and historical sights, all the while scribbling down poetry to note different occasions of being. Spring marks the time for travels, leaving home and going somewhere new after the long dark winter, be it long distance away or a beloved spot nearby.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I started Walden last summer for bookclub and thought I’d finish it quickly as it’s a slim read. To my surprise, I’d read a few pages at a time and then spent days afterwards pondering Thoreau’s views, philosophies, and observations. This is one of those rare books that is intensely thoughtful and joyful. It pairs well with Bashō, two artists who looked closely at the natural world and wrote deeply about it.
How to Know the Ferns by Francis Theodora Parsons. I came across this exquisite book while browsing through the Sterling Library, a tiny library at the Morton Arboretum. Parsons’ guide book contains the usual identification points for keying out ferns but also includes beautiful illustrations drawn by her friend, Marion Satterlee. The best entries center on Parsons’ personal experience on hunting for certain ferns, entertaining moments with fellow fern aficionados (both fern hunting together and arguments included) and some beautiful quotes by Thoreau. Parsons was a naturalist in the 1890’s and one of my heroes—she tramped everywhere in upstate New York, identifying plants and trees and delighting in nature. She shared her love of nature through her massively popular books and made a living this way as well. Her books were coming out around the same time that Elizabeth von Arnim (Enchanted April) published her first book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a memoir on gardening, which skyrocketed her into popularity as well.
Orphic Paris by Henri Cole. I picked this up during one of NYRB book sales, started reading it last spring, put it down, and have returned to it once again. It is a travelogue of sorts, one that comes from walking the streets of Paris while also journeying through the mind. The two are joined through Cole’s act of writing, so that they cross, diverge, and meet up again. He visits Baudelaire’s gravesite, considers Oscar Wilde’s last days, recalls his own mother’s life and last words. His walking continues: he visits friends, contemplates monuments, films, parks, and memories. A deeply melancholy tone pervades the book but it doesn’t feel out of place for Paris or spring; life is everywhere but also mortality too.
Another book about walking through Paris but from a completely different point of voice, is Violette Leduc’s The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. This was one of my last orders from Book Depository (RIP, BD! You are missed) and so far one of my favorite reads for this year. We follow an unnamed woman, elderly and close to destitution, as she wanders the streets of Paris, starving and alone. This could be a story of absolute despair but under Leduc’s brilliant and empathetic hand, it’s not—the nameless woman possesses a brilliant and glowing imagination. Resting against a post, she becomes a peasant woman from a hundred years ago, taking a breather before she goes on to the market to sell her horse. From time to time, the pain of starvation forces her to huddle down, but she revives once more and carries on. Remnants of papers and oranges in the train station’s waiting room become little gifts left just for her and she chooses to take a train ride and skip her daily meal instead. I’m half way through but I’ve already decided to read all of Leduc’s translated works. She is not to be missed.
The Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I was completely captivated by Warner’s droll humor and witchy sensibilities, coupled alongside a deep empathy for nature and human beings. The Music at Long Verney is a carefully curated collection of her short stories and the perfect follow up to Lolly Willowes. It has that same humor and empathy but also showcases her other moods too. Her imagination, compassion, and sarcasm are a joy forever. I look forward to reading more of her work.
Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping was usually my slow time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.
Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.
They soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol for life before the pandemic: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space and breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.
Books have always been a refuge for me, but it was in this last year that my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but to examine the writing craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became an act of sanity for me.
I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years and in the list below are some of my favorites.
I read Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time, I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and center on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.
From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books was a way to find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I read it as a teenager, but now as an adult, I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.
Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.
The next library book that I read was Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting. The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day world.
One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplations on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away due to the pandemic.
Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She wrestles learning the local language and communicating with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly enveloping everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move in linear-fashion which affects the art of narration:
“To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.”
Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.
I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after returning it, COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to his poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’ poetry and life.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about halfway through when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on small joys that Gay encountered over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.
In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.
Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and then I nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel centers on a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.
After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters lives’ during the course of three summers. While their days are quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.
“The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.
Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.”
The sisters find their way but each one does in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman living in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith and after eight years of marriage, she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. Due to the era she lived in, she was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course, she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.
Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read Pushkin Press’ new edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. Isolde centers on the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.
Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned and alone due to their self-centeredness and desperation. Levels of foreboding ratcheted up throughout my reading of the book and when I finished the last page, I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.
A King Alone by Jean Giono is another novel that will stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking books I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alpine mountains and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:
“It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.”
A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances begins in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.
There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace by Tolstoy. A Public Space announced their read along of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’ translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge case of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.
The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was a terrifying time and it still is). It was very hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of the master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.
The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.
Brooks’ novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, centering on the life of Maud Martha, and they often read like prose poems. They follow Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.
One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and her on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark appeared into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to book map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it, I decided to map it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.
While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on a Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.
Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”
There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”
During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family and by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in a slow decay.
The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel. Much of the story revolves around family’s quest in finding her suitable husband.
The novel spans from 1936 to 1941 and throughout, there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.
The past lingers in the Makioka’s clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara, and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amidst family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.
Newspaper installations of the Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.
While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters all throughout the WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.
A few honorable mentions:
Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well. Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that if she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.
Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows a the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.
It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.
As we watch spring growth overtake last year’s dead bracken and grasses, there is both consolation and brutality. This year’s greenery melds with disease: the emergence of flowers entangles with the blossoming of a pandemic.
While the novel coronavirus rages through communities, our lives have shrunk down to fit the small rooms and little neighborhoods that we must now be still in. What do we do in this diminished space? What do we see?
6th Moon, 27th Sun: Sipping Wine at Lake-View Tower
Black clouds, soaring ink, nearly blot out these mountains.
White raindrops, skipping pearls, skitter wildly into the boat,
Then wind comes across furling earth, scatters them away,
And below Lake-View Tower, lakewater suddenly turns to sky.
Setting animals loose—fish and turtles—I’m an exile out here,
but no one owns waterlilies everywhere blooming, blooming.
This lake pillow mountains, starts them glancing up and down,
And my breezy boat wander free, drifts with an aimless moon.
Su Tung-P’o (trans. David Hinton)
As the great poet Su Tung-P’o knew so well, we see our own natures in everything. The outside world becomes a reflection of our own states; though if we can still ourselves enough as we gaze out, a depth opens and time becomes immaterial.
A master of reflection and stillness, Su Tung-P’o 苏童 lived nearly one thousand years ago and is considered one of great poets of the Song Dynasty. He led a brilliant and varied career as poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist. Due to his outspoken and opposing views on the government, he was jailed and sent into exile on three separate occasions.
After his experience in jail and subsequent exile, his poetry evolved and deepen and his surviving work reflect his delicate, painful relationship with loneliness and desolation.
Moon, Flowers, Man
I raise my cup and invite
The moon to come down from the
Sky. I hope she will accept
Me. I raise my cup and ask
The branches, heavy with flowers,
To drink with me. I wish them
Long life and promise never
To pick them. In company
With the moon and the flowers,
I get drunk, and none of us
Ever worries about good
Or bad. How many people
Can comprehend our joy? I
Have wine and moon and flowers.
Who else do I want for drinking companions?
(trans. Kenneth Rexroth)
To help alleviate the sufferings of a difficult life, he became the devotee of Zen Buddhism and his poetics reflects the practice of the “beginner’s mind,” the ability to meet each experience with equilibrium and a “spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness.”
At Seven-Mile Rapids
A light boat one loan leaf,
a startled swan two oars—
water and sky are pure clarity
reflecting deep. Waves smooth,
fish roil this duckweed mirror
and egrets dot misty shorelines.
We breeze past sandy streams,
frostfall streams cold,
moonlit streams aglow.
ridge above ridge like a painting,
bend beyond bend like a screen.
Here I think back to
Yen Tzu-ling’s empty old age,
lord and recluse one dream.
Renown’s empty then as now,
just mountains stretching away:
cloud mountains erratic,
dawn mountains green.
Out of his poetry emerges a beautiful balance, the ability to look at both joy and sorrow with gentle tranquility and wry amusement.
At Brahma-Heaven Monastery, Rhymed with a Short Poem of Crystalline Beauty by the Monk Acumen-Hoard
You can only hear a bell out beyond the mist:
the monastery deep in mist is lost to sight.
Straw sandals wet with the dew of grasses,
a recluse wanders. Never coming to rest,
he’s simply an echo of mountaintop moon—
light coming and going night after night.
(trans. David Hinton)
Su Tung-P’o’s poetry illuminates the beauty and loneliness running throughout ourselves and Nature. His work becomes a sort of map for this strange new world we find ourselves in: isolated yet surrounded, weary but still observing, cut off but yet deeply involved.
After T’ao Ch’ien’s “Drinking Wine”
This little boat of mine, truly a lone leaf,
and beneath it, the sound of dark swells:
I keep paddling in the depths of night, drunk,
pleasures of home, bed, and desk forgotten.
At dawn, when I ask about the road ahead,
I’ve already past a thousand ridges rising
beyond ridges. O where am I going here,
this Way forever leaving ever returning?
Never arriving, what can we understand,
and always leaving, what’s left to explain?
(trans. David Hinton)
This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.
I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward.
Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.
During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago.
The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.
As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.
There is a stream near my home and I walk along it nearly every day; I know its moods and seasons nearly as well as I know my own. We are family and our connections are pure: we’re both made of water.
Every day brings more distressing news about the environment. Big changes need to happen but whatever change that does happen is so slow. Global warming is now being felt by everyone, some more than others. I go out and walk along the stream when the news and all the unfortunate future unknowns press in too hard. Right now, it is running fast. This winter has been a series of freezes and thaws. November hit hard with a heavy, deep freeze and I expected this to lead to a white Christmas but instead, it’s been a muddy, wet winter, full of more temperate days than frosty ones. The thermometer rides up and down, every day propelled by a bouncing ball rather than a steady progression of tiny fluctuations.
The stream locks and then unlocks. It accepts each freeze and thaw with inestimable grace. After reading the news, it is hard to know what is near or far, here and up in the sky, in the mind or in the present moment. But the stream is always present, it knows no other moment. It lives in eternity; as David Hockney said, “It’s always now. It’s now that’s eternal.”
The creek is still here, I think to myself whenever I see it, it is still living. It runs forward through this strange January, sometimes under the ice and sometimes not. Patches of green moss dot the banks nearby, beyond that the nearby plants are broken, brown, and dried. They are asleep, listening to things I cannot hear, dreaming of things I barely know of.
“Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”
I read through The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu over the course of the summer and autumn, and I finally finished last week. I’d read it in the early morning with my first cup of tea and cat in my lap. The cat becomes upset and depressed if I don’t hold her for a little while in the morning so it was a good fit to settle in and read as much as I could from the 1200 page novel before moving into the rest of the day, accompanied by one happy cat. Now when I get up, blearily make myself a pot of tea and settle down, it’s a strange sensation not to reach out for the massive, multi-generational novel.
Set during the 11th century in Ancient Japan, The Tale of Genji spans three generations and is loaded with all sorts of characters, locations, and religious observances. It deals with the relationships between people, nature, the arts, and the gods. Emotions are celebrated in waka poetry, seasonal changes are closely noted and cherished, religious observations of Buddhism and Shintoism dominate daily life, and people’s lives change due to the current Emperor in power. At the center is the story of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji) and later on in the novel, his descendants. Despite having a father as Emperor, his mother was a low-ranking consort and as such, he has commoner status– but for all that, lives a wealthy, fabulous life. Added on top of this is his intense, near-otherworldly beauty and grace, acknowledged by both men and women. Loaded with money and charm, he seduces and sleeps with many. Hundreds of pages are devoted to his thoughts and feelings on his lovers (to whom he sends piles of poetry and presents) and in turn, the thoughts and feelings of his lovers are revealed privately to the reader. Nearly every woman who comes in contact with him (and a few men) has deeply conflicted feelings about Genji and his behavior.
Noble women’s lives in the Heian Era are so delicately arranged that any mere whim of Genji’s can affect their futures deeply. The women live entirely at home, tucked into the deep recesses of their houses. They rarely even stand—though if a noblewoman does get up and walk, life is about to get spicy. To express their sadness and depression over Genji’s cavalier behavior, they watch the seasons change through a veil of tears, lie face down on the floor, refuse to talk to him, or can’t stop sending him messages. Whatever their behavior, they ultimately have accept his treatment of them. It is not an easy path to walk. They find consolation in the surrounding world: by reading, writing, playing music, observing the seasons, flowers, and birds, caring for their children, and talking to other women.
Seasons, religious observances, and rulers flow by and the main characters change too, from Genji and all the people surrounding him, to his grandsons and the women they love. There is a possibility that different author wrote the story of the grandsons, Kaoru and Niou. The style is different, somewhat smoother, and the characters’ thoughts and motives are revealed in more depth. I like to think that it was Shikibu’s work, a return to her great story after many decades of refining her craft.
“The world know it not; but you, Autumn, I confess it: your wind at night-fall stabs deep into my heart.”
The final third of the book centers on a succession of autumns, and a melancholy light flickers through the last few hundred pages. Genji is remembered but in passing—little of him is left except for his great house and his descendants. Kaoru, Niou, and three sisters that they love are on center stage. Genji’s grandchildren live in much the same way he did and though their personalities are different, their lives are just as fleeting and as frail. People make many of the same choices as the previous generation; the circle of life wheels around and around as the seasons flash by. The story has no neat conclusion: the book ends abruptly with protagonists still navigating their lives and affairs. I imagine Kaoru, Niou, and Ukifume out there in another dimension or time, wrestling with their lives, emotions, and circumstances, trying to make do with the choices available to them.
The Tale of Genji is an immersion into another life and era; it is an ancient gift that has survived for nearly a millennium. It is a book of shadows and barriers, a world that exists in lamplight.
“In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
It is miracle that so massive a book, copied out by hand year after year, decade after decade, century after century, then at last into print, should survive into the modern era. Due to its venerable age and old language, many translations of The Tale of Genji have been written: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s in Japanese and Edward Seidensticker’s in English are among the most well-known. I read Royall Tyler’s translation, occasionally dipping into Arthur Waley’s and Seidensticker’s earlier ones. What comes through strongly, regardless of the translation, is how incredibly easy The Tale of Genji is to read despite being nearly 1000 years old. Part of this is Shikibu’s very modern skill of weaving plot points in and out of characters’ motivations and thoughts. Shifting narrative perspectives and stream of consciousness prose both play a part; but an even bigger contributor to the story’s strength is its centering of relationships. If readers love anything, it’s hot, messy love affairs, tangled family and friendships, and all the accompanying emotions that go with them. Genji, full of tumult, even ghosts and possessions, is ultimately about human nature and all the triumphs, frailties, and failures that come with it.
Summer is coming to a close, as usual marked by heavy rain and fitful sunshine. I woke up to a downpour a few mornings ago. It took me awhile to fully wake due to the gloom-heavy atmosphere in the bedroom. When I finally got up and opened the bedroom door, the cats were waiting in the hallway, small triangle faces tilted and full of questions; they were unsure if it was breakfast time or not due to the strange murky light. It was so dim that even the street lamps were still on.
I padded with the cats out to the living room. Water was pouring down the western windows, giving the room a half-submerged effect as if it was about to give up and dissolve with the rain. The kitchen was a little better: I opened the eastern-facing window and a heavy, damp breeze rushed into the room, lifting napkins and papers and then setting them down again.
I set the kettle going and brewed a cup of green tea, sitting down at the kitchen table with the cat. She had gathered herself into the windowsill and we drank in the oxygen heavy air together. As the wind struck my face, the sensation of being sealed up alive in the house relented and I was able to breathe easier and drink the tea slowly, savoring the light, toasted flavor. The cat looked at me a few times as I drank but she inevitably returned to staring out the window, sniffing at smells I couldn’t detected but were utterly engrossing.
The loss of morning light in autumn makes the shortening days more noticeable. I love the night but hate early evenings and as sunrises comes later and the sunsets earlier, my fingers curl a little in my pockets. The long endless nights are coming. I’m not ready for summer to end but I attempt to reconcile myself by pulling out a few books.
As the light eases towards the darkness, I pull out the books that were once the spoken word, told during the long dark evenings to family members, friends, and the community; they’re usually called fairy tales or folk tales but “wonder tales” work just as well. I make a small pile: Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.
Schönwerth collected fairy tales in the 1850’s when he traveled around his beloved Bavarian homeland, listening to fairy tales and writing them down. The Grimm Brothers were recording fairy tales at this time too, racing to preserve stories that were disappearing as print culture was erasing the need for verbal storytelling. In the centuries that followed, much of Schönwerth’s recordings was preserved but many stories were lost. In 2009, Erika Eichenseer found 500 previously lost fairytales of Schönwerth’s in the municipal building of Regensburg, Bavaria. She found a fairy tale treasure. The stories were recently translated from English to German and stand alongside The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s fairy tales.
Next to my copy of Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess is Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Zitkála-Šá was born during the Battle of Big Horn and was educated at a boarding school that enforced assimilation of First Nations’ peoples. Despite the school’s attempts to flatten her mind, body and spirit, Zitkala-Ša (Lakota for the cardinal bird) went on to be a political activist, writer, editor, translator, educator, and musician. She recorded Dakota Sioux legends, saving them for posterity. Many of them center on the trickster Iktomi, a spider fairy. I’ve included the beginning of a legend below.
Next to Zitkála-Šá’s folk tales is Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men. Around the same time Zitkála-Šá was writing, Hurston was recording African-American folk stories that were fast disappearing. She recorded the stories she heard in her home of Eatonville, Florida and other nearby communities and logging camps. These stories often center on John Henry cleverly outwitting everyone, sometimes even the devil. Alongside the folk tales, Hurston recorded her experience learning hoodoo in New Orleans. It is not for the faint of heart.
These three books and the deep histories they invoke make the evenings richer, more bearable and in closing, I leave you with this opening of Zitkála-Šá’s retelling of “Iktomi and the Muskrat”:
Beside a white lake, beneath a large grown willow tree, sat Iktomi on the bare ground. The heap of smoldering ashes told of a recent open fire. With ankles crossed together around a pot of soup, Iktomi bent over some delicious boiled fish.
Fast he dipped his black horn spoon into the soup,, for he was ravenous. Iktomi had no regular meal times. Often when he was hungry he went without food.
Well hid between the lake and the wild rice, he looked nowhere save into the pot of fish. Not knowing when the next meal would be, me meant to eat to enough now to last some time.
“How, how, my friend!” said a voice out of the wild rice. Iktomi started. He almost choked with his soup. He peered through the long reeds from where he sat with his long horn spoon in mid-air.
“How my friend!” said the voice again, this time close at his side. Iktomi turned and there stood a dripping muskrat who had just come out of the lake.
“Oh, it is my friend who startled me. I wondered if among the wild rice some spirit voice was talking. How, how, my friend!” said Iktomi. The muskrat stood smiling. On his lips hung a ready “Yes, my friend,” when Iktomi would ask, “My friend, will you sit down beside me and share my food?”
That was the custom of the plains people. Yet Iktomi sat silent. He hummed an old dance-song and beat gently on the edge of the pot with his buffalo-horn spoon. The muskrat began to feel awkward before such lack of hospitality and wished himself under the water.
The rest can be read in Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends and Other Writings.
Please feel free to share your favorite fairy tale or folk tales in the comments section.
Spring is turning towards summer now. It began so delicately with a soft green — the hue of a tender rumor murmured only in off moments — but then the green rumor became bold, became the truth, and over the course of seemingly a night the grass is long, the trees are full, and the peonies are about to bloom. Every night I smell smoke and charcoal, my neighbors busy with their grills. They mow their lawns, weed their flower beds, dump their mulch, and then go to their backyards to cook up dinner.
I do none of these things. The rhythms of suburbia are pleasing to watch with their precise, ticking movements but they are less pleasing to indulge in. There’s a deep pressure to conform, and so I recede to the sanctuary of my old deck, watching the birds and bumblebees pass through my yard.
I’ve been toying with the idea of sinking a spade into the ground, ridding one area of hideous orange daylilies and planting a few tiny bits of bleeding heart and bluebell, gifts from a friend. It’s been years since I’ve played in the dirt, dug around, sorted things out, grimaced at the grubs and bugs that emerge from the dirt. Intolerable joint pain cut off many activities, and gardening was the first to go. But this year, after so many years of pursuing healing and wellness, I am feeling better and I think it might be time to poke and prod at the earth again. To see what I can do about weeds and debris.
But then again, this might not happen. The doctor told me yesterday that my body was “currently struggling with inflammation due to increased activity,” that I need to take it slower, that I needed to continue working on a low-inflammation diet.
Dreams of gardening haze in and out. It might happen this weekend, but it might not until later. Depression surges forward and I struggle with it. Life is hard with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and there are always so many small, difficult choices to make. I chose to increase my exercises by a small amount last week; my body responded with intense shoulder pain and a flare up of inflammation throughout my system — primarily in my hands, shoulders, back, feet. It is just this way and I walk slowly through it, sometimes crying but mostly not, because life has been like this for years now and slowly, as time passes, the tears dry up.
Pain makes us discard some goals and pick others up.
There is a waning crescent moon in the sky, a thin sliver that sets in midafternoon and rises in early morning. It will soon be a new moon and then we will pass into summer.
I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.
There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.
Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.
This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.
But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.
The Day of Cold Food
Clear and radiant is the splendor
Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.
The dying smoke of aloeswood incense
Floats above the jade burner.
My dream is broken and hidden
like my flower hair ornaments
Buried in a pile of cushions.
The swallows have not come back
From the Eastern Sea, but already
People are gathering wild flowers and herbs
In the meadows. The plum blossoms by
The river are gone. Catkins
Appear on the willow branches.
And then—in the orange twilight—
Fall widely spaced drops of rain.
I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification
Tranquil and serene, the night
Seems to last forever.
Yet we are seldom happy.
We all dream of Ch’ang An
And long to take the road back to the capital,
And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with
Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.
Although the food is simple, as are the cups,
The wine is good, the plums sour.
That is enough to satisfy us.
We drink and deck our hair with flowers
But do not laugh,
For we and the Spring grow old.
Fading Plum Blossoms
Spring is hidden in my studio,
Daylight locked out of my window,
My painting room is profoundly secluded.
The seal character incense is burned out.
The shadows of the sunset
Descend across the curtain hooks.
Now that the wild plum I planted myself
Is blooming so well this year
I do not need to climb the waterfall
Seeking wild plum blossoms.
No one comes to visit me.
I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.
I know that although my plum blossoms
Are lovelier than all others
The rain will soon scatter them away.
The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house
With a melody of dense sorrow.
I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves
And their jade snow petals fall.
When they have all been swept away
The memory of my love for them will remain.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows
Cast by the pale moonlight.
Spring is whimsical and wary right now, first appearing in a patch of sunlight and then fleeting away in an ice-cold breeze, only to reappear a little later in the liquid song of a redwing blackbird. I wear my winter coat one day, a hoodie the next, and then it’s back to the winter coat the next morning as a heavy frost sparkles on rooftops. Only recently have I given up my thick scarf, though if there’s a wind tomorrow, I may have to pull it out of the closet and wind myself up in it once more.
None but the bravest flowers are blooming, the winter aconite and snowdrop. Winter aconite is a small yellow flower that’s easy to overlook; it remains shut until the sun has deeply soaked its petals, then pops open like a tiny jewelry box to reveal gold petals centered on delicate pistils and stamens. The snowdrops this spring huddle close to the ground, nearly lost in the mud and dead leaves. As of yet, there are no daffodils blooming—their leaves have come up only an inch or so out the brown ground. They are cautious and since it freezes each night, I cannot blame them.
Beyond the flowers there is the ground itself: a muddle of browns, thick with the rotted tree leaves and the dead foliage of last year. There is nothing lovely to see here, only the form of the land itself. It swells and slopes up from the river, lies low along the horizon, and finally drops into a ditch.
On an unexpected day in early March, once the snow disappeared, city workers came to clean up the young trees and invasive species that have been growing avid and unchecked along the creek near my home. It is the first time I can see the contours of the land clearly in all the years I’ve been living here, and I’m struck by the curves and lines that slope down towards the creek, a rollicking bed of dark brown that makes a strong contrast to the bright blue overhead. The undulating land here is small but it’s a dream, a reason, a mysterious being that wraps through the neighborhood’s mind. Soon enough, this dark and curving space will be clad in green, heavily wreathed by plants, bushes and eager saplings. But for now, it is bare and exposed, revealing the dark space between winter and summer. This is where the wind snaps cold like a knife, but the brilliant sunshine keeps calling everyone out despite the drear.