“After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” –Emily Dickinson
It has been one week since the United States made the irrevocable decision to bestow its most sacred title to the most profane and undeserving man. To envision the President-elect in the White House is nothing short of sacrilege, and I suspect that the betrayal will feel raw and fresh every day that he remains there.
If there is room for hope, I hope that democracy considers this an opportunity to prove its resilience; I hope that the country proves that it can bend and fold in unprecedented ways, only to straighten itself up, weathered but stronger and more refined; I hope that progress proves inevitable.
As events continue to painfully unfold, let us remain on the right side of history. Let us learn, collect and connect ideas, and act accordingly. With renewed enthusiasm, Bookswept will continue to share the wide range of perspectives that are born of literature. It may become harder than ever to extract truth from our leaders and institutions. The opposite can be said of our books. Let us put them to good use.
Summer leaps above the rest of the year, much like the holidays, a brief period of entirely unique rituals. Perhaps long summer days are to be appreciated, but I’ve never appreciated when things linger, be it days or guests or feelings.
I’ve traveled up and down California throughout the season, driving alongside sunflowers that bravely line the highways, the wild kind whose tiny heads branch out in all directions. In Lake Tahoe, tall pines swayed until they creaked, like a house near collapse, and in the southern Sierra Nevada, stars appeared and I counted four, nine, and then sixteen before they flooded the sky and the counting proved futile. The photo above was taken in Joshua Tree, where in that very same dress I ran at full speed among the giant boulders because at 6 a.m. there is not a soul in sight, and thus every reason to do just about anything that comes to mind.
Summer unveiled a few surprises so I’m in the midst of just as many changes, which I hope to (happily) reflect upon soon. I have a feeling that this fall will bear little resemblance to summer or spring or the previous fall, which is perfectly fine by me. When I was younger, adjusting to new situations proved difficult, but I now find change to be less daunting, more stimulating. I feel relieved that life refuses to be overly pleased with itself, that it is biased toward change.
I recently finished Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers (Random House, 2016), the dreamers being those who cling to the American Dream, the supposed direct and easy transaction between hard work and success. The author goes as far as to call America “a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers,” which seems to suggest that we don’t know when to stop. But these characters do, eventually. More on this Cameroonian writer’s million-dollar debut soon.
Deep into spring and through with April, I look back to discover moments that quietly slipped by to be some of the easiest to make out. Like rainfall on the second to last night in Amsterdam en route to purchase tickets for the Rijksmuseum, or the bartender briskly correcting my pronunciation of “La Chouffe” at the historic Café Pieper. I see too many cups of pitch black coffee, far too many miles on my car, and picture frames on my bookshelf that now house Van Gogh’s Roses and Beetle and Cypresses and Two Women. I see an 8-year-old on a swing set who asks, “Have you ever made up an animal?” to which I answer, “Have you?” because the little experience I have with children informs me that it is easier to have them talk than listen. “Yeah! A lot! All the time!”
I see my last copy of the New York Times followed by my first issue of The New Yorker. For weeks, each day’s delivery of the Times remained in its plastic blue sleeve, arriving only to join its predecessors in a pile by the door. The pile grew, each delivery adding its own variation on dirt and rain, and I saw the gradual decay of what was important a day ago, a week ago, two weeks ago, and it was not only depressing but also confusing. What is important to know, remember or revisit? After canceling my subscription, I felt a pang of guilt when on my bank statement I noticed a $2.13 reimbursement for what remained of it, as print media may soon be gone and I think I will miss it. A subscription to The New Yorker is my way to make amends. Theatre openings, museum exhibits and restaurant reviews all reflect New York City, which is of little practical use yet rewarding to read, a reminder that on any given night there are countless variations on person and place, swirls of activity sending up dust clouds across the city, all cities, yours and mine. Then the flip side to consider, everything that takes place within the quiet and unseen. Taking it all in “makes you seem very small, and if you have difficult things in your life it is nice to think that they are what is called negligible, which means that they are so small you don’t have to take them into account when you are calculating something.” The character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is referring to the stars, though it rings true for the city as well.
I also see roses, roses of colors I’ve never seen growing all around. Amber Flush, Evelyn and Iceberg are some of the varieties I’ve seen if I did my homework right, though pinpointing the name of any given rose has never satisfied me nearly as simply admiring one. Despite their abundance, roses appear rare and precious, more on par with gold and platinum than their floral counterparts. I often encounter them in such rigid contexts, alongside baby’s breath and tied together with a bow, obliged to admire or sympathize or congratulate, depending on the occasion. But this spring, my first in Sonoma, I encounter them most often growing in the front yard. I can see roses through no less than four windows, often blurred by the breeze, buds alongside blooms and colors ranging from pastel to neon. Upon closer inspection, I see stems lined with thorns and spiders tucked deep beneath petals. Everything is alive and in spring it is felt. Let May pick up where April left off, roses abound.
When I lived in Berkeley, I never prepared for the 8-hour drive to San Diego, where my mom lives, and back again. All I needed was a soundtrack, courtesy of my CDs, a collection that continues to grow as my car remains oblivious to developments in technology. My recent move to Sonoma tacked on a single extra hour to that drive, which led to the discovery that the tipping point is found somewhere within that hour; what is tiring turns exhausting, what is improvised turns planned. When faced with a 9-hour drive, I fill up on gas the night before, I look up the weather, I pack a lunch, and last time, for the first time, I downloaded two audiobooks. On the way down, I listened to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and on the way up, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I had not intended on reading either book, at least not anytime soon, because after reading the reviews, listening to the interviews, seeing the #bookstagram photos and observing the general chatter, I felt like I had spent a considerable amount of time with both. These are the titles that break rank to become spectacularly known, leaving behind an endless march of the likewise recently published. When a book becomes a major subject in the cultural conversation, and when so many opinions are readily and fervently expressed, I hesitate, as if navigating a dinner party: Perhaps I’ll observe this one from afar and join a quieter conversation in the far corner over there. But several months and books later, I remained curious about these two, and then I had to go on a very long drive.
In the foreword of When Breath Becomes Air, the narrator describes Paul Kalanithi’s writing as “cadence you can tap your feet to,” and I smile as I settle in. He emphasizes, “This book, the one that you are now holding in your hands,” and it feels as if I am getting away with something. Instead I listen, and as I do, there are so many passages I want to highlight, words to underline and references to look up, but I simply keep listening. Early in the book, Kalanithi describes his boyhood home in Arizona as “red-rock desert speckled with mesquite, tumbleweeds and paddle-shaped cacti.” I remember something about dust swirls and freedom, and that “spaces stretched on, then fell away.” I remember thinking, I need to see this on paper, I want to read this passage over and over again. Listening feels too easy, too passive, which is so unlike reading, an activity that is engaging and requires effort. I remind myself what an English teacher used to remind me, that a book only gives what it receives. Kalanithi, diagnosed with terminal cancer during the final year of his neurosurgical residency, was a lifelong voracious reader and bestows literature with the highest praise. He writes, “Literature is the best account of the life of the mind” and “Literature provides the richest material for moral reflection.” His final act is to masterfully contribute to this body of literature with a profoundly moving book of his own, one that earnestly explores what makes life meaningful, especially when death is so near.
Elizabeth Gilbert narrates her own book, Big Magic, which is to experience every word exactly as she intended. I then wonder how many levels of abstraction are at play when we read, and therefore how much of ourselves we actually pour into any book. I suspect a lot. A book is not merely a reservoir of ideas that we passively consume, but one that we filter and connect with our own. If creativity, however you define it, is your goal, Gilbert is your biggest cheerleader and her rallying cry is this book. She believes that we all have jewels tucked deep inside of us, that creativity is an external force with desire and intention, and that ideas can travel from one person to another. If you wish to roll your eyes, I do not blame you, but Gilbert writes so encouragingly that you begin to consider whether your cynicism is perhaps the biggest problem of all. Within her thick web of advice, Gilbert weaves in personal stories to support this or that claim, and these stories are by far my favorite parts of Big Magic. There is Evelyn of the Amazon, the book that never was, the garden that inspires The Signature of All Things, the young girl nicknamed Pitiful Pearl, and the poet who races inside for paper and pen whenever she hears a poem approach. Gilbert validates and applauds all creative pursuits, dropping tidbits like, “If it’s authentic, it will feel original,” and a classic by W.C. Fields that goes, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
I arrived at the very last sentence of Big Magic as I exited the freeway for home, 500 miles of California behind me, and I felt like I was in a haze, like the drive was a bizarre encounter that needed to be shaken off. To focus on a single topic for a long stretch of time is difficult, perhaps exceedingly so, due to both obligation and distraction. Neither of these happens to be an issue when you are on the road for nine hours. Of course, focus takes hold most beautifully when it stems from our own passion and will, and when it does, it can feel like you have freed yourself from time, like you have successfully lost yourself in a daydream. My only regret? Well, that I did not actually read When Breath Becomes Air or Big Magic.
On March 11, two days before my birthday, I flew to Amsterdam for what would be eleven days in Europe, my very first time. I selected two cities beyond Amsterdam to explore: Utrecht, a university town 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, and Paris. Europe invites the possibility of seeing its major sights on a single trip, à la “backpacking through Europe,” a rite of passage straight from America’s young adult folklore. But already under the assumption that I will inevitably return, I chose to tighten the focus on Holland with a jaunt to Paris. In retrospect, I could have easily spent the entire time in either country, or any single city, and I suppose the lesson is to never underestimate the enthusiastic heart’s capacity to explore. I took photos when I could, alternating between DSLR, disposable and iPhone, and wrote when I could, either in my trusty navy Moleskine or the Notes app on my phone, furiously tapping as I wound through Shakespeare and Company not once but three times. Before I revisit such notes, photos and souvenirs (simple items like a postcard from the Ann Frank House, bookmarks from the Van Gogh Museum, tattered train tickets), a couple of unpolished photos and likewise corresponding notes may capture a spirit of the trip that is likely to fade from overthinking.
I write this from a window seat on a train traveling from Paris to Amsterdam. Under a low gray ceiling, scenes alternate between swaths of bare winter trees with tip-tops made invisible by fog, fields of green and brown in equal measure, anonymous farms, and urban relics like graffiti, billboards and pedestrians before and after each station. Birds appear in all directions and begin to race the train, though they soon forfeit to dance up and away to a place gravity forbids. I sense magic when listening to songs from my own canon of favorites as the landscape flies by, especially when that landscape is new and that song has such fitting lines as, “I quit casting hooks off the California coast we held so dear.” California, now an ocean and continent away. I have driven the 500-mile stretch between California’s northern and southern ends countless times, a feat that has skewed my perspective of travel. I am accustomed to traveling far while very little changes. Now, I sit on a train that traverses three wholly unique countries – Holland, Belgium and France – in a little over 300 miles. Borders feel especially arbitrary when countries live in such close quarters. Soon I will arrive in Amsterdam Central only to race to another train headed for Utrecht. Simply because this trip began in Holland, returning after two days in Paris feels a bit like going home. Understand I’m prone to attachment.
I write this from a window seat in Café Pieper in the center of Amsterdam. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet plays familiar notes in this 17th century café, and as the two make an undeniably perfect pair, the conclusion is that certain things are indeed timeless and stunningly so. Floorboards creak loudly with each new customer, and the espresso machine whirrs just as often as beer is poured. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cling to each other in the far corner. To my left, a couple sits with a dog that they quickly report is 15-years-old and deaf; to my right, two shimmering blondes talk as quickly as their hands fly. Upon hearing any foreign language, my mind seems to fill every word, sound and syllable with deeply profound meaning, as if to emphasize, Listen to all that you don’t know! Outside the stained glass windows, there is a canal with cars and bikes wrapped tightly around its perimeter, which strangely does not diminish the canal’s beauty. Instead, beauty emerges from the bustle, timeless and stunningly so.