In the quest to read the books I missed last year, I prepared a list. On that list, The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander is listed third, and next to it in parentheses, “First Lady.” I unabashedly took note of her favorite book of 2015, and upon reading its first paragraph, I felt the familiar pleasure and anticipation of knowing there is so much left to read. “Poetry logic is my logic,” the author explains, and the book is as close to poetry as prose can be. Here is the first paragraph:
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
The Light of the World is a moving portrait of the author’s husband, an impressive man named Ficre Ghebreyesus, her coping with his sudden death, and of course, their love story. She discusses Africa, art, flowers and food (there are recipes); she annotates poems on death; she recalls dreams; she introduces an endless stream of family and friends; she shares the most intimate details of marriage. “We shared days I can only call divine,” she writes.
As I neared the book’s end, I prolonged the inevitable by flipping back through its pages, revisiting scenes here and there. “Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights, her own memoir of loss. But perhaps in their very ability to awaken the past, memories alone are redemptive. Within his wife’s prose, there is still Ficre, his presence strong. Reflections on death, especially ones written so beautifully, can be tricky to process. As a reader, it can be tempting to romanticize heartache, to become lost in a kind of reverie. But in The Light of the World, there is no such luxury. Love and loss sit side-by-side to emphasize each other, to draw out each other’s extremes. “Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere,” she explains, and the magnitude of that is felt on every page.
I woke up two Saturdays ago with the ocean in mind, so off we drove to the Sonoma Coast, where we passed beaches with names like Salmon Creek, Goat Rock, Portuguese and Schoolhouse. Of all the new neighbors this move has introduced, these beaches are by far my favorite, and I hope they will tolerate my frequent and unannounced visits. The ocean was loud, its waves wild, which I bet means catching it on a good day, in high spirits. Grays, blues and whites intertwined to create a palette familiar to those who have spent a winter in California.
The following weekend, last weekend, we headed west once more. The subject of octopuses has lingered on my mind since reading and then re-reading The Soul of an Octopus, so off we drove 170 miles to Monterey, to go see one. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has several species of octopus on exhibit, but as with siblings and seasons and most everything else, a clear favorite quickly emerged. The Day Octopus was mesmerizing, stretching itself to its full length, plastering itself onto the glass, and changing color and texture on the fly. It was clearly showing off for us spectators – alone in its tank, without the bleating commands of trainers – which I thought generous and kind. How special that it puts forth such effort. Does it care what we think? We responded approvingly, with exclamations of awe and clicks of the camera.
The trip to Monterey confirms books to be reservoirs of ideas waiting to inspire our lives, often in the simplest of ways; like when I tell a friend a bee won’t sting her if she sends it love because “every little thing wants to be loved” (The Secret Life of Bees), or recommending a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk to someone in distress (Franny). I save songs referenced in books so that that gems like Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23” (All My Puny Sorrows) and Yusef Lateef’s “The Plum Blossom” (The Light of the World) boldly slip into an otherwise humble music collection. If reading just a few books can inspire habits or playlists or weekend outings, surely reading hundreds of books can eventually inspire a life, and what is yet to be discovered excites me endlessly.
Tiny efforts here and there have made the difference in settling into the new home. Like a new calendar, fresh flowers, and endless cups of peppermint tea. In the spirit of cultivating new habits and routines for the new year, I’ve subscribed to the New York Times, and I must say that it is bizarre to have the day’s world news printed on paper and dropped off at my doorstep before I am even out of bed. It creates the illusion that the world is patient and its news finite; things happen, and when they do, we have a 24-hour window to pause, read and think, until we receive further word the next day. It also gives the paper an air of authority, seeming to assure readers that it is indeed the irrevocable news on record, which is perhaps an attitude to be suspicious of. News read online feels like a mere suggestion, one of infinity, which I suppose is worthy of suspicion as well.
In what feels like days we have reached mid-January, assuring me that the speedy passage of time was not unique to 2015, the erroneous conclusion I draw about each passing year. As there is every reason to expect another swift one, I feel inspired, or more so challenged, to approach each day wisely. Though the beginning of the year generously offers a chance to reflect on what that may mean and plan accordingly, mid-January seems to be the time to wrap up such prep work and simply begin doing. I fear that I tend to linger in the planning phase of any given goal, unknowingly settling for the pleasure of anticipation rather than that of accomplishment. But 2016 seems to be asking more of me, of all of us, and I am prepared to oblige. Cheers to this quickly passing, and oh so wonderfully rainy, start of the year.
As I continue to catch up on books missed in 2015, I recently finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, though the award ultimately went to, of course, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and while I do agree that his book is important and deeply moving, I am always taken aback as to how quickly we amplify a single voice. The Soul of an Octopus explores questions like what is the soul, what is consciousness, and are we alone in those tremendous feats or are animals like the octopus in our company? The author is sensitive and soulful, as seen in tidbits like this:
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, and uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480 BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life” (p. 90).
Much of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium, where the author forms bonds with people and octopuses alike. There are four octopuses – Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma – and each exhibits a wholly unique personality and “sparkling mind,” as do the octopuses encountered in the wild. Octopus facts are scattered throughout (it has a beak like a parrot, a remarkable curiosity, an ability to change color and texture instantly), as if the most useful parts of a National Geographic documentary are woven into a much more relatable, nuanced narrative. We are often skeptical of animal intelligence or consciousness, and this book serves as a fascinating and eloquent defense of octopuses being in possession of both. Every turn of the page forces you to think bigger, to push aside the idea that everything non-human is “the Other.” The Soul of an Octopus inspires you to breach the supposed boundary between humans and, well, everything else, and when you do, the beauty of life on Earth astounds all the more. We are left, as we inevitably are, with the staggering truth of how little we know, and that reminder should make us feel all the more human.