Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a mind of winter

Wallace Stevens was a lawyer who ran an insurance company in Hartford for most of his life. He was also one of America's greatest poets, who composed much of his work during his daily commute to and from his office. In 1921 he published "The Snow Man":

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
There are lots of reasons to read poems, but one of the most powerful is that, on occasion, while you are in the midst of unusual circumstances, a poem will come to you and suddenly your mind will yawn open into understanding like a stop-motion flower.

The last stanza of Stevens' poem came to me yesterday while I was hiking home across the city in the first blizzard of the year. I'd gone on an expedition to Target in order "to buy a snow shovel" (i.e. to indulge my masochistic Viking-blooded love of being outside in horrible winter weather), but it wasn't long before the pleasantly bracing walk I'd planned on taking became an hour-long frozen slog across sidewalks and empty parking lots that had been transformed into tundra by the snow and 50 mph winds. (Two miles to the east, 20-foot waves on Lake Michigan were exploding into icy spray against the hard edges of the city's beaches—as captured off to the left here by my hearty, and still partially-frozen, friend Tom.)

Two-thirds of my way home, I crossed the Webster Avenue Bridge and paused on tired legs in the gathering dark to look south down the Chicago River. Through the swirling snow I could see a group of ducks swimming upstream in the dirty water; behind them, half-obscured by the whiteout, the brick chimney of a former factory. There were no cars out and nearly no sound save that of the wind. And then there were Stevens' words:
For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


For Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday!), a poem that says all I'd ever like to say, in 4 stanzas.

I recommend reading it at the table before everyone begins eating, making sure to awkwardly start to choke up 3/4 of the way through, in order to make all of your family and friends as uncomfortable as possible. Could there be a better aperitif for a Thanksgiving meal? I think not.

W. S. Merwin (1988)

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Thursday, October 28, 2010

all aboard

This week my head is a very crowded train station: noisy, jostling elbows, the brush of passing overcoats, leather cases dipping through the smoke and steam, a kind of palpable hurrying joy; and above it all the tick of the great big clock that hangs in the center of the rotunda. (Books that begin with beautiful passages about train stations that I can think of off the top of my head: Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and Sebald's Austerlitz.) Ah and now there's the frenetic flip of the mechanical schedule board (one of my favorite sounds of all time)! Where are we going? How fast will we get there? And most importantly—will there be snacks?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

hitting stride

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
—Joan Didion, from "Why I Write"
This week I exchanged sleep for doing things. It was great (at least, until I collapsed this weekend). But I did do many things, among them having long talks with friends in New York and the Chi, making a brief WNUR return, starting a NEW BLOG, drinking spoiled milk, riding my bike all around town, dinner partying + photo perusing, and running.

This last item has got me particularly excited, as 10+ years ago I'd given up on ever being able to run seriously. Chronic stress fractures, vomiting, general psychic distress, etc—it'd become a very unpleasant thing that I avoided as much as possible, outside of conditioning drills (high school) and running down trains/buses/planes (post-hs). And my failure at "being a runner" was made worse by the fact that running is pretty much the same as breathing for my dad's side of the family: something you do naturally, without thinking (definitely without fretting), and which you only stop doing when your body shuts down completely.

[Unofficial family motto: Steve Prefontaine's "
A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts."] Christ on a cracker that's a lot to deal with.

Anyway, all of this exposition is meant to explain the shock/joy I felt on Wednesday, when I went outside to take my nightly pre-bedtime walk, and decided just to see what would happen if I ran instead.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

western winds

I can't remember a fall that has blown in as dramatically as this one, weather-wise (e.g. me almost being knocked off my bike multiple times by the wind) or event-wise: an amazing trip to Glacier National Park, major projects at work cropping up, and the deaths of a best friend's remarkable grandparents. So far I seem to be coping by taking ridiculously long walks and eating a lot of flax-laced granola.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

for keeps and a single day

Fell in love with Chicago this past week. I'm imagining it's in the way that you can fall in love with someone you've been married to for a bit, on an unremarkable afternoon, when you glance up from your newspaper and see them pressing a pen against their mouth, their eyes narrowed in concentration as they attempt to remember what to add to the grocery list. And there's something about the way the sunlight is slanting through the dirty window and across their face, and BAM, that's it, that's all it is and all you want for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

at home

I'm in the process of moving apartments right now, and as a result I've been fairly fixated on the topic of homes—especially because for the very first time I'm going to be living alone. ALL ALONE. I believe my feelings on this prospect can be best illustrated by a very eloquent interrogative blend which I've only just coined: eek/hooray?

But disregarding the tiny erratic stabs of terror (ohmygod I'm going to live alone forever and never get married or have children or grandchildren and no
one will ever love me except the 42 million cats I'll have except I'm allergic to cats and I'm too anal to have a dog and I hate all other pets so it's just going to be me and my 3 fake upside-down birds alone forever), I'm very excited about putting together a space that is as close to exactly right as I can get. I've been looking through a lot of home decorating-ish books (this one and this one are current faves), and my friend Sarah was also kind enough to lend me the Apartment Therapy "8 Step Home Cure", which I've been devouring. I'm maybe a little too obsessed, but it's full of very cogent thoughts on the connections between our physical living space and our emotional/psychological lives.

Totally fascinating stuff! At least to me, since I've learned (usually the hard way) post-leaving my parents' house that the qualities of the place I live in hold great sway over my mood, behavior, actions, etc.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

sinuses & psalms

Before saying anything else, I'd like to celebrate something very special in the life of this (neglected) blog: FIRST POST EVER WRITTEN OUTDOORS!! Namely, on my back porch. With my laptop plugged into an extension cord snaking out the back door, from which I had to unplug the oven and refrigerator in order to use. Luckily, the whole rotting food thing is good motivation for finishing quickly and taking a walk....

I drove home-home this past weekend (i.e. to my parents' house) for the first time since December. Despite having a horrible sinus infection that gave me swollen glands and partygirl voice, it was a really really good trip: I got to see so many home friends, and go to one of my best friends' sister's wedding (vineyard + sparklers + pig roast!!). It was also very good for reminding me that Iowa is so beautiful in late spring, and for making me think hard about home and homecoming and all of that for the first time in a long while.

I've been interested for a very long time in the connection between people and place; most specifically, in how landscape affects and shapes American consciousness.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

long time traveling

Did I think it would abide as it was forever
all that time ago the turned earth in the old garden
where I stood in spring remembering spring in another place
that had ceased to exist and the dug roots kept giving up
their black tokens their coins and bone buttons and shoe nails
made by hands and bits of plates as the thin clouds
of that season slipped past gray branches on which the early
white petals were catching their light and I thought I knew
something of age then my own age which had conveyed me
to there and the ages of the trees and the walls and houses
from before my coming and the age of the new seeds as I
set each one in the ground to begin to remember
what to become and the order in which to return
and even the other age into which I was passing
all the time while I was thinking of something different
"The Furrow," W. S. Merwin (1997)

I've been carrying around this poem in my brain-pocket (side note: a quick Googling reveals that actual brain pockets exist!!) since April 23rd, when it was featured as Knopf's "Poem-A-Day" during National Poetry Month. Spring has always been my most restless and poignant season, and my most uncomfortable-feeling season as a result. If summer is a humid half-sleep, fall a tender sooty smudge, and winter a breath so clear it burns, then spring is a gray foal on a gray day lurching to its feet, hooves ready to leap up past the pasture and into the sky.

This year spring feels especially this way, mostly I think because I've spent 13/16 days of May traveling: the first 11 days in Europe (visiting wonderful expat college friends in the UK, Berlin, and Poland), and the past 2 days in my home state of eye-oh-dubyuh-ay for my sister's college graduation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

metaphorically speaking...

*note: part of this post was written last night before I accidentally fell asleep, so plz ignore any weird time jumping

An excellent jam-packed weekend is currently coming to a close as I sit in bed awkwardly typing this, a mug of tea precariously balanced against my solar plexus and my elbow on a stack of books + catalogues. My only wish is that it were warm enough to have the window open. But still! I do believe that Spring (when it's not making me sneeze/puffing up my eyes very attractively--due to, as I found out this evening, city landscapers' overuse of highly-allergenic trees) is waking me up. AND this coming week is bringing all sorts of bestie friends to me from all over the world! Have been feeling really alive lately, overall.

Have also been on a Nabokov kick--was reading his short stories for awhile and am now halfway through Speak, Memory (his autobiography). I'd been meaning to read the latter for a really long time, having had it recommended to me by multiple teachers and friends and random acquaintances, and now I understand why: it's fucking brilliant (for a variety of reasons I won't go into now, bc really, does the internet need another amateur book review?).

So yes, I'm loving Speak, Memory because it's a universal classic. But there is also something about Nabokov's writing that has always personally clicked with me; mostly, I think it is his lyricism and use of image, through which he somehow manages to dilate the reader's mind in a very precise way--each of his best metaphors I think can be seen as very tiny, carefully-chosen apertures that, when peered through by the reader, open (paradoxically) onto a breathtakingly-wide field of view.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

spring fever

Have had traveling on the brain lately. It's hard to sit at my desk all week staring out the windows at the bright cloudless city. ESPECIALLY after I dragged my family to see the William Eggleston show at the Art Institute when they visited last weekend. Who wants to drive into the golden hazy 70s Clint Eastwood sunset wearing cowboy boots and a white tshirt? This kid.

In an effort at self-knowledge, I'm going to trace my fantasy road trip fixation to two root causes:
1) The incredibly annoying brouhaha surrounding the signing of the health care bill. (Sidenote: Robert Reich is not annoying.) WHYYYY are people so eager to complain about a complex piece of legislation whose actual nature they are willfully ignorant of?? I mean, I've been a terrible member of this democracy for the past few months and know next to nothing about what's going on, but at least I'm not an old codger at the age of 23 updating my Facebook status every hour with a new complaint about "higher taxes" that's obviously straight-up copy-and-pasted from the Heritage Foundation twitter feed.* Ah, America. How can it be that I love you in such an embarrassingly bone-deep way and yet am extremely irritated by you on a daily basis. Why can't you just be an epic Walt Whitman poem that involves me picking heritage tomatoes off the vine barefoot and backfloating lazily down the Shenandoah???
2) I've been way too materialistic lately and as a result have been very dumb about my spending. So it would be nice to get in a car with hardly any possessions and just drive away.

*does this actually exist? if so, kill me now, and then please send me the link

Monday, March 1, 2010


In order to not become crazy, I like to fill winter up with things to do. Last year I took a ballet class at an amazing Gothic-church-turned-dance-studio and a course on the history of neurology and psychiatry (how does a professor make even lobotomies boring?? it's possible). This year I just finished taking a letterpress class at the Center for Book & Paper Arts, during which I learned how to set metal & wood type, mix ink, operate one of these babies, and cut paper with a giant guillotine(!!). Luckily it was so fun that I didn't even mind waking up multiple Saturdays at 8 or ingesting mass quantities of lead. There is something so zen about working on art early in the morning: in this case, the creaky floorboards and the sharp smell of metal and mineral spirits and the clatter of turning presses mixing with the clattering el down the block. You can just zone out and drink your tea and MAKE STUFF for hours on end (that is, once you've learned enough through trial and error to stop constantly fucking up).

I'm not very good at painting or drawing or sculpture, so thank G-d that I live in the 21st century and can therefore HARNESS TECHNOLOGY to create art. And by technology, I mean pre-World War II technology, i.e. bulky darkroom equipment, toxic chemicals, and 1700-pound presses chockfull of ball-bearings and gears and bolts--the kind of stuff not featured on gizmodo or hawked by Steve Jobs. For me, at least, there's a lot to be said for the physicality of photography and printmaking, and for the ability of the average person to understand the technology behind them. And there's something very, very beautiful about using basic physics and mechanics--a box with a tiny hole cut in it, containing a silver-coated plate--to create something as completely non-utilitarian as art.

I could go on for days and days about my embarrassing mystical feelings about loud clunking things, or things that make your hands dirty, or microscopes, or petri dishes full of agar, but let us save a little something for future posts, shall we? Instead, here are some fun publicity photos I recently took of my roommate Alisa as her performance alter-ego, Plucky Rosenthal. Some of them are blurry, but you know what? Making them was FUN. And perfection is sooooo annoyingly 21st century.

Technology sidenote: my ipod earbuds are breaking for the zillionth time (gahhh Steve Jobs x2). Does anyone have suggestions for a relatively inexpensive pair of quality headphones (preferably over-the-ear)? I have to listen to this song on repeat until the end of time...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Alma y Sueños

Last year, for various reasons (mostly because I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Dominicans, and because I was completely useless helping even 1st graders with their bilingual homework at the tutoring center), I decided that I wanted to learn Spanish. So--obviously--I went to the public library, and instead of checking out something like Spanish for Dummies, I brought home a copy of Pablo Neruda's Cien Sonetos de amor.

Neruda is known for his plain/airy language, so I figured reading him would be a good way to pick up some basic vocabulary using the facing-page translations (Spanish on the left, English on the right). Plus, Spanish love poems are hot, right? (Especially when whispered into the ear of Twilight's Robert Pattinson playing young Salvador Dali!!)

Anyway, as with other library books, I began reading it on the train each day during my 30-minute commute. And almost immediately, it became my favorite commuting book ever: because jammed into a dingy car packed tight with half-asleep strangers, occupying my crumb-laden, repulsively-upholstered seat, all I had to do was begin to read and I'd be immersed in this crazy, luxuriant passion, completely unbeknownst to anyone else on the train. "Kiss by kiss I travel your little infinity,/your borders, your rivers, your tiny villages"--oh la la if only that lady with the bad perm knew what I was reading, hoooo boy! Or else I'd imagine leaning over slightly toward the bearded dude next to me, whispering
Perhaps you did not know
that before I loved you I forgot your kisses
my heart was left remembering your mouth
and I went through the streets like one who is wounded
until I understood that I had found,
love, my territory of kisses and volcanoes.

Yeah, he'd probably stop looking up the stats from last night's Red Sox game on his iPhone for that one.

So while I admit that I learned remarkably little Spanish from this venture (though there's no way I'll ever forget two of Neruda's favorite nouns, "alma" and "sueños"--both obviously useful when making small talk at the bodega), it was still way more than well worth it.

And if you'd like--because it is Valentine's Day, after all--I am now offering up a DIY version of the experience that you can recreate in the comfort of your own home (or train car, should you be lucky enough to have a smartphone)! First, look up (or print off) this poem--one of Neruda's best-known, and one of my favorites. Next, should you not currently be in the act of commuting, you can then play this video and pretend that you're on the Orange Line, somewhere between Green Street and State Street, and it's February, and gray, but inside the heart of Neruda it's a tropical hothouse that's bursting with the beauty of the body and el lenguaje español....