Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Self-Education

Excavating some old journals, I found these entries from Past Kirsten:

Wednesday, 6-22-94 (11 years old)

Today at Kidzart Camp we acted out the passageway of death in Greek Mythology.  I got really interested so I went to the library and checked out a book about all the Greek Gods, Goddesses and mortal heroes.  So far my favorites have all been goddesses or women.  Here are some of them: Artemis, Athena, Cassandra, Demeter, Hera (and two more I can't remember).  A lot of the goddesses + women were helpless, but these women were smart and often beat men.

Thursday, 5-11-95 (12 years old)

I have been writing every day for a week today.  Today was pretty regular.  I have also decided not to be so studious.  I am not saying that I'll never do my homework or anything like that.  I'll still try to get A's and good grades on tests but just to be more loose and not feel pressured to do schoolwork all the time.  I desperately want a pair of brown or forest green or white or dark blue corduroys.  I also need a bra that doesn't always show the straps.  Socks too!

Friday, 5-12-95

I can't wait until Monday because we get to go on our band trip.  The day we've been promised for so long is finally coming near.  I am going to bring my discman and have a seat by myself since I'm not much of a talker on road trips.  I have had a pretty good day.  Nicole is spending the night tonight.  In fact my day has been pretty exciting today.  More in other journals.  (Because I actually had six at the time.)

Friday, 12-22-95

Dear Signifa (I had now named the diary),

Only 3 more days till Christmas!  I know I'm being a bit materialist but I think everyone is in a small way.  Today I read a lot of Emily of New Moon.  It's a very sweet and good book.  We went to a friend's house which was sort of fun (being completely honest.)  I stayed up till 12:00 watching a movie about a dysfunctional family and I got a new book from Caroline, The Scarlet Letter.  I can already tell that I'm going to love it!  Each phrase drips with beautiful, rich words and it seems to be an inhuman struggle with pain and suffering which always appeals to me!  Ciao!
***
While visiting beautiful Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island a month ago, I took a George Eliot biography from the leave-a-book, take-a-book shelf.  Now two days into an immersion and reconnection with one of my favorite novelists--especially from my formative years--I have enjoyed the portions I've devoured thus far regarding Eliot's youth.  Painfully gifted, exceedingly self-critical, and yet immensely motivated to win approval (and love), I think her story might ring a few bells of recognition for most of us adults that grew up as bookish, shy, and awkward children.  I know it certainly does for me!

I include most of of these old diary entries of mine simply because they make me laugh, but I was also surprised, on looking through some of my old journals and papers (being a prodigious diarist at the time) at how--alongside the predictably hilarious laments about acne and sixth grade crushes--I was clearly preoccupied with my school success and fledgling intellectual endeavors , holding myself to a rigid standard of excellence.  Of course this makes sense, as at the time I was a plain and oft-teased girl without the charms of bubblyness and prettiness that usually endear little girls to adults and peers.  I was too tall and had little to no interest in sports or other rowdy games.  Any extant picture from that time has been shoved into the deepest, darkest drawer of my old desk, so you'll just have to take my word for it: picture a stork with a pot belly, bowl cut, braces, and huge round glasses.  Banded together with the few friends I had (all of whom were also bookish, and remain close friends to this day), I found that the one thing I could do was schoolwork.  I loved to read (of course), and alongside this, I had an ambitious streak, and found that mastering schoolwork was the sole route available to me for distinguishing myself and winning praise.  Because, oh yes, like anyone, I loved praise.  I was not in it merely for the joy of learning.  It surprises me to find diary entries dating back to the 4th grade in which I recorded staying up until nearly midnight in order to study and complete assignments.  Fourth grade!  Apparently, I have been working on those procrastination and cramming skills for a very long time.

Reading itself, however, was an enduring joy.  I remember clearly the summer I spent obsessed with the Greek myths.  At my insistence, Dad took me to the local library, where I checked out a ponderous cloth-bound volume entitled A Dictionary to All Greek and Roman Mythologies.  I turned page after page of myths, laboriously cross-referencing the goddesses and heroes mentioned with the appendix in the back.  I encountered a lot of "Rapes" in this endeavor.  The Rape of Proserpine.  The Rape of Leta.  Huh, I thought at the time, but in all these pictures it just looks like someone's picking a woman up and carrying her around.  (I hadn't really figured out the illustrations or statuary depictions yet.)  I penned a little skit about being a messenger from the Underworld and wrote many small poems from the point of view of gods and goddesses.  In other words, I was in total adolescent nerd heaven.

I also remember how the early classics I read completely walloped me, especially the Brontes.  I loved Jane Eyre so much, I felt she might be a literary stand-in for myself.  I related especially to her feelings of mousiness, smallness, and inhibition.  At the same time, her radical bravery and demand for egalitarian love inspired me, and gave me hope that despite what I felt to be my unlovable exterior, my inner worth might someday be discovered.  I would surmise that any young person reading such a book at such an age might have similarly powerful feelings of identification with the young narrator.  Indeed, the novel is most enjoyable to read as a young person, in my opinion.  This set off a programme that continued through my early college years of "serious" fiction and poetry reading.  Interested only in what the Canon deemed the Classics, I scanned lists with titles such as "100 Best Books of the 20th Century" and "100 Greatest Novels," starred the books that looked interesting, and then read them one by one as my pleasure reading, or on summer holidays.  For a long time, I turned up my nose at contemporary, and most American literature, preferring instead to plod through a random selection of world literature greats.  Thank goodness, too!

Kathryn Hughes' biography of Eliot does bring to mind colors of my own girlhood and self-education in literature.  Eliot's self-education is a whole other marvel in erudition and intellectual rigor, so mine pales considerably in comparison, as does my intellect, of course.  A George Eliot is only born once or twice a century.  However, reacquainting myself with her august, looming presence over English literature, and over my own influences as a writer, I realize that in my childhood efforts, Eliot was just the sort of person I sought to copy.  More so than any writer, even writers whose works have moved me equally, and on a more adult footing, Eliot, the Brontes, and Austen were my original authorial heroines.  They were the first authors who affirmed for me that even someone obscure, plain (because I remained obsessed with this self-fashioning for many years), and even unpleasant could become "great" and be remembered for years to come.  And, I should mention, reading of the young Eliot, I am reminded of how arrogant and often priggish I could be as a girl--inflating my sense of self-importance in accordance with my belief that only great people could understand a soul such as my own.  That self is certainly the most painful to remember now that I have entered a well-adjusted adulthood and have long been reconciled to my own limits of intellect and influence.  As I said, there can only be one or two Eliots, and luckily, after about the age of 14, I cooled down a bit with my pumped up self-opinion and became a more pleasant, social, and (interestingly) less obsessive person.

Still, I have been interested in revisiting this long-buried childhood self because it was this same stubborn girl that chose writing as her metier at the age of six and insisted through the twenty-three intervening years that this was the thing--the thing I was destined to do.  I suppose, after all this time, that I am still invested in believing that girl.  I have to be.  This year I'm supposed to be doing the thing for real, for keeps.  I am starting to say it, more and more.  "I am a writer."  I have doubted myself many times, especially through my unfocused and pleasure-loving twenties, but here I am, alone, away from most of my friends and the urban center I've called home for six years.  I'm sitting here in my parents' house, sequestered with a book and journal and computer, and I am writing.  Painfully, and sometimes joyfully, I am doing the thing.  Ironic, isn't it, how our younger selves are so foolhardy and yet so full of fierce belief?  If I had given young me the (totally true) spiel about how hard it is to be published these days and how the state of publishing is perilous and how it's so hard to find time to write, she would have looked back at me, blinking behind those gigantic wireframes, and said So?  You just have to do it.  Her blind, arrogant, and foolish belief is, in many ways, exactly what I need.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Just Shelved


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As anyone familiar with Strayed's advice column at The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, can tell you, Strayed has an immensely appealing voice--the kind that is emotional, but not cloying; generous, but not over-the-top.  I always love her columns, and several of them have brought tears to my eyes with their ability to truly address those in pain with understanding, wisdom, and what can only be described as love: the kind of love miraculous in its non-specificity.  The kind of love that only rare people feel for every other human who walks the earth. A kind of Gandhi Redux, if you will.

I am happy to report that this same appealing voice is present in Wild, Strayed's memoir about a transformative period of her life spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  Appealing, yes, and a book I finished in just a few sittings.  However, Wild pales considerably in comparison to memoirs and travelogues I've read recently that marshaled a more superlative power of description, a more expansive ability to draw conclusions, and an even rawer revelation of the self.  I don't think Strayed intends to enter the company of writers such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, W.G. Sebald, or Maggie Nelson (whose book, Bluets, is far more fractured in its method of excavating a festering emotional wound).  Nevertheless, I think a truly great tale of the road should illuminate all that is visible and something else--something less tangible, but important nevertheless.  They should illuminate something eternal, even within a landscape that is always in flux, or within memory, which is fluid by its very nature.

I'm not even sure what I am asking for...  Wild is a friend you would enjoy hiking with for the day.  The greatest writing on nature and voyages of self and world discovery are like Strayed's cherished copy of The Dream of a Common Language: those are the books that you cannot burn and leave behind, even when the hiking is done.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Close Encounters of the Moose Kind

video
I took the above video in order to illustrate the peacefulness of the swaying aspens outside of our living room window, but what ended up coming through more ominously was the seemingly amplified ticking of the living room clock.  This winsomeness doth tend towards time-wasting, the clock seemed to declare, and I have to admit, it had a point.  I am under the gun, so to speak.  The Year of Being Brave has a timeline that can run out: it is a finite goal, and when I am tempted to treat my time here as just one long lollygagging vacation, the truth is that time looms large.  And so, I have responded with internal deadlines of my own: setting dates that characters' arcs will be completed and a date when I want to be done drafting and headed into revising (around December).

Two nights ago, I made the ill-advised decision to climb the small butte behind our house in the waning twilight.  I was treated to some spectacular sunset views at the top:

However, on the way down, I quickly realized my error in attempting to dismount in the encroaching darkness on a switchbacking trail wearing flimsy Tom's (total non-local move).  Using my phone as a flashlight, I stumbled down, taking twice as long as it would normally take, and set off on the bike path that curves through most of the valley and provides a beloved trail for bikers, dog walkers, and foolish pedestrians walking home in neighborhoods with no streetlights.  Relying on my familiarity with the path, I entered a section with a church parking lot and bushes to one side and homes on the other.  My phone died and all went dark.  At that exact moment, I heard the crashing of brush and twigs and one gigantic shape loomed ahead of me in the darkness, followed by another, slightly less tall dark shape.  I did the smart thing, and completely froze.  I knew a huge moose was standing just yards from me, and that the smaller shape was most definitely a moose calf.

Now, one thing about moose--they do not crash out spastically from the brush like deer and run every which way, alerting you to their presence while also revealing their fear of you.  Moose just stand there and stare at you, either aggressively or nonchalantly, and it's up to you to give them a wide berth, especially if they have young whom they'll want to protect...with their hooves.  So, locked into a staredown, I backed up, and up, and crashed through some underbrush of my own in order to cut across lawns and parking lots and come back to the trail far from where I'd encountered them.  And, just for good measure, I started to run.

The next morning, our dog Bodhi bayed and alerted us to the presence of not two, but three moose grazing on our neighbors' yard shrubbery.  Mama in actuality has two calves!  In another classic non-local move, I retrieved my camera and crept closer.  I stared at the two calves (probably up to my shoulders in height) and they stared back, unblinking, arranged identically side by side.  And then, once more, the cow--that huge, looming shape from the night before--lurched out and raised herself to full height.  Daylight staredown: engaged.  I knew my cue and hightailed it away, scampering on the driveway in bare feet.  As I fell asleep last night, I'm almost certain I heard the same moose crossing over our back deck during the witching hour.  Neither patron saints or goblins, the moose family are placidly going about their existence, and their neighborhood just happens to be mine.  I feel pretty lucky.
Second calf is hidden in the brush to the right.

I leave you with a few images from my last week about and around: