Welcome to Midweek Dinner. There’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.
—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —
Hi. How are things for you these days? For me at least, that stack of Executive Orders at the elbow of the President has been such an assurance. Like waking from a nightmare, still gasping and sweating, and finding your mother there by your side with a cool washcloth and her quiet confidence. Shhh, shhh, she says. It will pass. It’s all going to be alright.
Or maybe it’s the headlines (“U.S. Virus numbers drop”) or the table in my local paper that shows the case counts and deaths by county, and I can see that they are slowing.
Or maybe it’s just the sunshine. Over 60 degrees here yesterday, and robins abounding, and my son’s school transitioning early to spring sports despite the warning of a turn to “wintry mix” later today.
Many of us are feeling this, I bet. This light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel feeling. It is such a good thing.
It is also a dangerous thing.
Bear with me here. I am not suggesting we stay in a season of fear and despair if we don’t have to. I am, however, gently reminding myself (and you!) of all these months have urged us to consider.
Perhaps for you it was the full lockdown mode where cancel culture referred only to your 45-minute commute or the endless array of after-school activities and meetings that could have been emails. Or perhaps it was the murder of George Floyd when equal shots of powerlessness and complicity ran all over you. Or maybe it was the way our shared need has opened our eyes to our shared humanity.
Reading an old issue of The New Yorker (from May) reminded me of this last one, via Jia Tolentino’s article “Can I Help You?” on the rise of mutual aid opportunities during the pandemic. She cites several aid organizations that burst into action somewhat organically and quotes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
We can buy into the old frameworks of, when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves. Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just on our building floor, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.
Yes, I’m painfully slow (and obstinate) about reading old magazines, but in this case, going back in time in this way has helped me think - again - about what the pandemic has offered to teach us. I’ve seen that phrasing over and over again. The idea that the pandemic is offering us something. It’s hard to digest, in a way, because the pandemic has been and continues to be awful. Silver linings, my ass.
But reading old news, from a comfortable distance, can allow us to take what is offered without all the pain. It can remind us all the things we swore we would do if we got out of this thing.
Over the holidays, I shared with my children one of my favorite cheesy movies, “You’ve Got Mail.” Anyone who loves books and letter writing as much as I do is required to love this movie. Really, though, the reason we watched it again after all these years is that I just kept thinking about the scene where they are stuck in the elevator. Full disclosure: I love Parker Posey. I even love this obnoxious character. She steals just about every moment she is in. And this one is no exception.
It’s dated and problematic (I mean, c’mon Tom Hanks, that condescension to Juan is unacceptable) and faintly ridiculous. But it’s also true that we’ve been stuck in an elevator. And we’ve been given the chance to consider what kind of different world we want to build. Do we want to marry Rita? Or are we going to end up content with the Tic Tacs we find at the bottom of our purse?
So I ask: What has this long, dark moment taught you?
Maybe it’s the realization that “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either” as Erika Christakis wrote in the December Atlantic.
Maybe, like me, you became a poll worker to fill the gap and protect the elderly only to realize what a joy it is, a planting of yourself in your neighborhood.
Or maybe, it’s your garden or your daily walks or your bird feeder or your pandemic puppy. All those things urging you to divorce yourself from the clock and go outside. To put yourself in the path of the unexpected and the fine.
On the other hand, perhaps personal loss has colored every moment of these months, pressing heavy dark lines across the page, obscuring whatever calming, artful scene could have emerged. If you have lost or are losing someone you love, that light at the end of the tunnel might be glaring, too bright still for the fragility you inhabit. This piece from Beth Kephart is full of pain while still managing to create beauty and goodness and life, and there’s something in that, too. Something still to come. Something you might still create.
I don’t have easy answers here, of course. But I do think we’re supposed to keep asking the questions.
Unexpected Joy Department:
I know this sounds like self-promotion, but truly, Monday’s ALA Youth Media Awards were my moment of Unexpected Joy, especially upon finding that both the Newbery medal (When You Trap a Tiger, Tae Keller) and the Printz award (Everything Sad is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri) were given to books and authors I love and that I got the great honor to interview.
Published This Week:
This review for Chapter 16 was a tough one. I’m so glad, though, to have the opportunity to keep learning: how to frame a neutral review; how to recognize that just because I wasn’t the ideal reader for a book doesn’t mean that ideal reader isn’t out there; how to build trust.
Though impossible to name a “favorite” book, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead has stayed right at the top of my list for years now, so perhaps it’s not surprise that Home will sit there, too. Cozy, complicated neighbors at the top of my love list.
Sunday Poetry this week came from Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, which also included a healthy does of marginalia. I’ve been continuing to read a few each morning through the week, and I am in love.
I gushed last week about the incredibly smart and thoughtful Pure America from Elizabeth Catte, and this week, I was thrilled to publish an interview with Catte on history and place and story and change, and yeah. You should read it.
This week’s Lexicon post comes from the Robinson novel, and it is apparently a word I’ve been needing my whole life.
Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.