MWD50 - On Zuihitsu
Or the way my brain can sometimes feel like a very slow relay race, one idea passing the baton to the next
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. — —
— I’ve started reading a section a day of Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, and that has provided the new-to-me concept of zuihitsu, which seems an apt way to capture the increasingly fragmented but somehow still connected nature of my thinking lately. Like a slow-motion relay race where one idea carries the baton and then passes it to another, often without my permission or even conscious acknowledgment.
— Sei Shonagon, a “court lady in tenth-century Japan” wrote the Pillow Book, an example of zuihitsu with an entry titled “Hateful Things,” in which she provides perhaps the first ever description of mansplaining:
A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.
A hateful thing, indeed1.
— Also collected in The APE (if you don’t know what this means, you clearly don’t read footnotes) is Plutarch’s “Consolation to His Wife,” written after the death of their toddler daughter, which caused me to feel many things, most of which were angry, all of which confirm that Plutarch was a prink.
— Sometime ago, I gathered some thoughts on grief and told the story of our neighbor whose 18-month-old died. Plutarch reminded me of this. So did the sure and steady knowledge that we cannot protect our children, try though we might. Thank you to those who reached out about my son’s friend injured in a car accident. I am happy to report he is breathing on his own today, slowly climbing out of that terrifyingly deep hole into a still-uncertain future.
— There is a scene in the BBC period drama Lark Rise to Candleford in which my favorite character, Queenie Turrill, thinks her beloved husband Twister has died, and she goes out to her beehives, bends down before each of them in turn, saying,
Bees, Bees. Your master has died. You must work for your missus now.
It’s such a tender response, a perfect way for Queenie to begin her grieving, unique to her heart alone.
But it is not. Telling the Bees about a death in the family is a longstanding tradition, a vital step to ensure the bees don’t leave the hive or stop producing honey or die. You must put the bees properly into mourning or risk the consequences, and that seems utterly right to me.
The world is a wonder, isn’t it? I marvel at how much I do not know.
That there is a bird, that I photograph him all the time, that I have a lot of photographs, that they are all the same photograph.
Frank’s Corpus by Elisabeth Nicula is a brilliant project, and I’m thankful (as always) for Robin Sloan and his infectious enthusiasm.
— Remember when I wondered if I was the only person (besides Anne Helen) daydreaming about a commune? Turns out, I am most definitely not. This author describes herself and her friends as “millennials who graduated into a housing crisis, recession, and devastating job market” and admires a single woman in her 40s who bought a house next to her two best friends, and they “knocked down the fences between their homes and turned it into a shared courtyard with a communal garden.”
Maybe we don’t want a commune at all; maybe we’re just longing for more common spaces. Maybe all we want is to live in a place, a neighborhood or community, where we feel seen and known and can rely on those around us. The dangerous version of this is thinking only your existing friends can supply that feeling. Neighbors have been showing up for each other for decades, meeting one another as neighbors and building a life together from there. What’s wrong with just making your neighbors your commune? Yes, even the annoying one who leaves her lights on all night, or the one with the loud motorcycle, or the one whose kids play too early on your one morning to sleep in.
— Speaking of Anne Helen Petersen, her latest, “I Regret to Inform You I Have Once Again Written About The Baylor Influencer Twins,” is a spot-on analysis of the purity culture I grew up in. Mildly biting humor as a vehicle for discussion of serious issues is apparently quite my jam. I’ve been thinking about this for days now:
When you grow up devout and dedicated to whatever version of purity culture your religion espouses, women in particular spend a lot of time anticipating the hinge moment in their lives: when sex turns from something bad to something good, when their future transforms from unknown to known, when desperation and fear of an uncoupled, child-less future is replaced by certainty and future value.
— Last month marked 30 years since the beating of Rodney King captured the attention of the world. Last month I read two books with this event at their heart: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed, with whom I also got this great interview. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the way all of us who were 14 or 15 at this time share this memory, but most of us didn’t understand it and many of us didn’t keep living the truth of it in our bodies for the rest of our lives. Thirty years from now, what will my children remember of George Floyd’s murder and Derek Chauvin’s trial? What will they carry with them?
— The state of Tennessee is once again forcing me to consider relocation as legislators are working to pass SB 1229, a law that would require teachers to provide 30 days notice to parents regarding any curriculum on gender identity or sexual orientation, allowing parents to “opt out” their students without penalty. The law doesn’t cover referring to the sexuality of a historical person or public figure, but it is stated broadly enough to include any work of fiction that is included in the curriculum of an English class. Should it pass, I may just have to return to the classroom and fill my syllabus, day one to the final exam, with books about trans kids and gay kids and bi kids and asexual, pansexual, or demisexual kids. Of course, that plan would only work if HB 0800 doesn’t pass because it seeks to prohibit the use of any materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Oh, my heart. It breaks for the children this will harm.
— Do you think my other homeplace would take me back? This historic beauty in Abingdon is calling my name. Or this little farm in Stuart’s Draft? Or for a cool 14 million, we could all live on this 500 acre historic estate in Charlottesville. Dibs on the guest house. I love Virginia with my whole heart and am so pleased to see them leading the way on criminal justice issues like abolishing the death penalty.
— I’m vaccinated. My parents and my husband and his parents are all vaccinated. My brother has a dose. My sister gets her first tomorrow. My best friends are all vaccinated. Some of their kids are even vaccinated. Everything feels so much more possible, but these words from the President are important:
“Let me be deadly earnest with you: We aren’t at the finish line. We still have a lot of work to do. We’re still in a life and death race against this virus.”
This particular tug of war is so hard. How do we proceed when we feel like we’re about to cross the line while we know others still have miles to go?
The Department of Unexpected Joy
Maybe it’s a product of spending my formative years unable to see, but to this day, I have an uncanny ability to bump into inanimate objects. And to apologize to them.
My love for Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet beings makes me curious about the news that Pyle has a picture book releasing in June. Will it work in that format? Or do these particular moments of joy demand the four-panel story arc? We shall see.
Bonus Joy - I Don’t Understand People But They Make Me Laugh Edition
Seriously, y’all. What makes people comment on recipes? Why do they do this?
Department of Classified Information2
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion:
Several recent posts have been linked above, but here’s a Sunday Poetry and my latest crazy plan: to read and write about all the Newbery winners before the 100th anniversary in 2022.
Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.
This essay is translated by Ivan Morris and collected in Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, which will henceforth be noted as The APE.
This department is only for those with the highest level of security clearance, aka only my sister. If you aren’t my sister, do not attempt to understand what is here. It has been encoded for your protection and the protection of the innocent.