Sunday, July 26, 2020

Into the second sky

The dirt floor was warm and damp. The space inside the pigsty glowed brightly, then crumbled into little pieces, like a mosaic. Swallows greeted me with a piercing "tweet-tweet" from their nest up in the rafters. I felt a tingling around my shoulder blades. Suddenly, I became as light as a scrap of foil. I rose up and sat on the pane of the little window which had been left slightly ajar. I flew out into the yard and circled over the orchard for a while. The sky, like the lid of my jar, was pierced with stars. Through them, a different kind of lining was showing. From up high, I could the whole village, with the brownish-green forest to the north and the white circles of the dolomite quarry to the east. I had almost broken through the lid, into the second sky, when suddenly — smack, smack — someone smacked me on my feverish cheeks.
Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg, is the story of someone who wants to leave even though she doesn't know it, yet ultimately she finds it impossible to leave.

Her small-town Poland does not belong to this world. The village of Hektary in particular seems to exist outside of time. (In this way it reminds of Tokarczuk's Primeval.)

Only when Wiola mentions that her father is humming Elvis tunes do I place the story in the twentieth century. Finally she relates an anecdote from 1981. Soon the village is awaiting the Popemobile. It's a time when Communism and Catholicism are equally strong but opposing forces. Outside the village, the Solidarity movement takes hold, and martial law is imposed. Wiola's adolescence is of little concern to anyone. Yet she comes of age all the same.

The whole place is wanting, for everything from jobs to pretty dresses, but through a naive girl's eyes, there is still magic. Even the paint set Wiola wins in a church raffle is missing a tube, but the names of the colours are like distant planets (it turns out they are past their expiry date).

Wiola's paintings are taken by the authorities to be deeply metaphorical. This is the thing about Eastern European Communism, everything is deeply metaphorical.

There seems to be no great joy in this place. But it's not that it's filled with melancholy either. It feels to me, and maybe to Wiola, like a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth of ritual and tradition, politics and religion, expectations and desires, to navigate and escape.

The sequel, Accommodations, is already in my stack.



Sunday, July 19, 2020

She's not a girl who misses much

"In June of this year patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. A thorough medical evaluation elicited no positive findings..." 
The patient to whom the report refers is me. The tests mentioned [...] were administered privately [...] in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the "attack of vertigo and nausea" mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year." By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.
— from The White Album, by Joan Didion.

Mushroom and Child, by Seana Gavin.
I had my own not inappropriate response to various personal events at the close of 2015. We all have our seasons. But on a societal level, surely 2020 is the year when no event can surprise us, to which no response is unexpected or inappropriate.

My houseplant sprouts more beautiful mushrooms. I wonder if there's a way to preserve them before they shrivel back into the soil. And what of the spores?

I learn: Als ich wieder zu mir komme, bin ich in einem großen Raum. I wonder if I will wake up from this.

Last night I dreamt I was in a big room, and while I was working, a man was taking impressions, like mini casts or moulds, of small parts of my back, smaller than the palm of my hand, such that most impressions were near blank, with only a barely discernible curve. 

I am watching I Love Dick, based on Chris Kraus's novel, which I am considering rereading because I feel I have yet to glean all I can from it. I want to make art of sex and desire, in the things I write and sculpt and maybe in the way I live too. 

Didion writes of the illusion that "all human endeavor tends mystically west." I think about looking for god and whether the search has any value when I know I will find nothing, I will be confronted with more nothingness, the nothingness is endless. I know the destination, but I know this journey too, I've taken it before. I think of Don Draper while I hum the Beatles and think about the taglines I need to explore for a project at work this week.

There are lights on the exterior walkway in front of my west-facing apartment. As I draw the curtains one night, I feel sorry for my tomato plant there, it must not be able to sleep. The plant is five feet tall now and has fruited several dozen green globes. It must be so tired.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The life it's tolerable to live

Nobody dies of consumption anymore.

The wasting disease of frail women. The body consumes itself. Was it cured by the mass consumption of commercial goods? Feed the body; let the mind consume itself and waste away instead.

This week I feel compelled to buy things. With the exception of books, I tend to resist this kind of consumption. I am fully aware of what I need, and the position of those needs in the hierarchy, versus what I want.

One item is out of stock and I have a meltdown. I realize it is not an immediate need after all. 

I buy clay. I have 10 kg of clay delivered to my door because it is available. For months it has been out of stock, so now I jump at the opportunity, even though it is too hot to be sculpting now, I know it will be months before I unwrap the clay. I buy sculpting tools, a set of my very own. I will worry about paint and epoxy later. I mourn the pieces I left sitting in the arts centre since winter unfinished, unworked, untouched.

I buy frivolous things. A summer dress that will arrive long after the heatwave has passed. New curtains for the apartment I want to move away from. Ingredients for a recipe that I cannot make, because other required ingredients are unavailable in my neighbourhood and yet other of its ingredients I have already eaten.

The meditation guide leads us into our breath. We make space for our breath. She assures us we have space to accommodate whatever we need room for. Later, at yoga, the goal is to also make space. What is all the space for? I am already a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, the mind folds in on itself infinitely. How much space does breath take? Don't I have enough breath already?

Why do we need more space? Why must we make ourselves bigger? Is this what we're trying to do when we consume material goods? Are we afraid of wasting away? As if we need an external footprint as proof of the vastness of our interior lives. Or we fear that we lack interior lives and struggle to disguise the fact.

(On the 131st day of German lessons I learn: Größe ist alles.)

What if I compress all my interiority into the smallest space possible, all the angels of my consciousness shimmying to a pinprick point? Am I generating a black hole, feeding antimatter inside of me, inadvertently wasting away?

One friend admits to the struggle of lockdown, having to confront herself, to admit that she is a social creature, to reconstruct herself into a viable being.

Who are you when you have no society to reflect yourself back to yourself? Is this what we're doing when we consume and expand, clamouring to be seen? What kind of person will I be when I emerge? What kind of person do I want to be?

Everything is returning to normal but it's not normal at all. Another friend says we need to start somewhere. Do we?
Like all of us, our lives unfold with the tedium of the everyday and of the obvious things of the everyday: waking, sleeping, working, eating. loving, hearing, forgiving, shopping, always safe, everything always so gentle and slow and sad, the life we construct with such fragility, ordinary life, the life it's tolerable to live, but along with that there's always this shadow, this imbalance, this possibility. Chaos is always lying in wait for us, at any moment, because we are the one who bear it, always waiting, the secret hope that something is finally going to happen , that something is going to happen and propel us toward what we longed for, what we feared, what we never had the courage to name. The first look is merely the confirmation, a reflection in the bathroom in the morning, the first look is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the first time, unrecognizable, and in wonder we notice something that's incredibly beautiful in ourselves. Do you understand? I'm finding it hard, too, but I'm trying to explain it to you. But what for, you'll say? So that you will love me? Perhaps.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What do you want from us?

When companies posted open recruitment notices for the second half of the year, Jiyoung felt as though she was standing in a narrow alley clogged with a thick fog, which turned into rain and fell on her bare skin.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-joo, is an unexceptional telling of an unexceptional story. However, it is an important book, and the fact that Kim Jiyoung's life is wholly ordinary, typical of her countrywomen, is a problem.

This novel charts one woman's life from her birth to the birth of her child and documents the iniquities she faces along the way.
Perfect pieces of tofu, dumplings and patties were the brother's while the girls ate the ones that fell apart. The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available. If there were two umbrellas, the girls shared. If there were two blankets, the girls shared. It didn't occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn't even jealous. That's how it had always been.
A female student dared to question the criteria university departments used for selecting candidates to recommend for job interviews at companies with recruitment activities at the school. 
The most demoralising answer came from the department head himself: "Companies find smart women taxing. Like now — you're being very taxing, you know?"

What do you want from us? The dumb girls are too dumb, the smart girls are too smart, and the average girls are too unexceptional?
Unusually for a novel, the story such as it is is framed by statistics and abounds with references. Gender inequality in South Korea and worldwide is well documented, and the citations leave no room for reader doubt. 

As a novel, I think this book falls short on character and heart. But it serves a higher purpose and deserves the widest possible audience of women and men, girls and boys, many of whom are unlikely to read Labor Market Reports or scholarly articles on gendered expectations and the disparities in income and opportunities.

Although since 2008, it is legal to designate the mother's surname for a newborn, at the time of Jiyoung's wedding (~2012), there had been only 200 such cases.
The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn't actually changed at all.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Part of you wants to flee, screaming

The Woman is well dressed and clean, but there is a high, manic gleam in her gaze, and her bright, cheerful voice sounds false. No one is ever that happy. She's clearly Not From Around Here. Maybe she's an immigrant, too — legal, of course. Maybe she's a Canadian who has been driven mad by the cold and socialized medicine.
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, is a timely, topical love letter to New York City. It's a fun book — Lovecraft meets Sense8. A kind of superhero adventure, where a city comes together to battle an invisible evil. 

The monster is insidiously infecting New York; it might be better known as intolerance. The White Woman is a not so subtle metaphor for straight white privilege — her name might be Karen.
She's not looming anymore — not as much, anyhow — but the air of patronizing concern that she radiates isn't much better. Aislyn stares at her, still trying to figure out whether she should be insulted. The Woman leans closer. "That's why you're afraid of the ferry. Half the people on the island absolutely dread crossing that water every day. They know that what awaits them on the other end isn't the power and glamour we can see from here, but bad jobs and worse pay, and prancing manbunned baristas who turn up their noses at making just a simple goddamned coffee, and prissy chink bitches who barely speak English but make seven figures gambling with your 401(k) and feminists and Jews and trannies and nnnnnNegroes and liberals, libtards everywhere, making the world safe for every kind of pervert. And the other half of the island is the baristas and chinks and feminists, ashamed they can't afford to live there and leave Staten Island for good. You are them, Aislyn! You carry the fear and resentment of half a million people, so is it any wonder that part of you wants to flee, screaming?"
A city can awaken, can be awakened. I love that this city is so diverse, and that its parts channel music, art, math. There's a bit of magic hand-waving at the end (or maybe I dozed off), but it's all very optimistic. I'm interested to know the personified stories of other cities.

Listen to N.K. Jemisin in conversation with her cousin W. Kamau Bell at the New York Public Library.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Love can't even save us from love

Everything feels off today. Yesterday was brilliant, but today is off, like I got up on the wrong side of bed today, only it's the same side I always get up on, well, most of the time. Some days I get out on the other side of the bed, just because it's more practical, depending on how I've moved in the night, other days I deliberately get out of bed on the other side, just to, you know, mix things up. Today I got out on the right side of the bed, and it was the wrong thing to do.

Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. I walked into the bakery last weekend and discovered an insect on my arm, something winged and long, vaguely beetle-like, and I thought of the time beetle on Donna's back, and I had a déjà-vu-like flash of another insect on me not so long ago (Was it in the Sahara? No, not the scorpion, or the nonscorpion. It was something beetle-like.) that also reminded me of the time beetle, that I was also supposed to write about. I flicked it off my arm, there inside the bakery, and part of me actually expects my neighbourhood to slowly collapse around that point zero.

(Although. That insect that wasn't a scorpion, that pinprick in my finger, in the night in the Sahara, the night we smoked shisha in the bright night of the Sahara, and I thought you trickled a handful of sand down my top, only your hand was on my back and the sand was crawling up, it looked like twigs, like frayed straw, and I shrieked and scooped it off my chest, brushed it away, and something pricked my finger. That night when I thought my finger might fall off, my hand, my arm, when I thought I might die, and you said it was nothing, not a scorpion, maybe an insect, I rejected you and returned to my tent, and as I lay on my bed in my tent in the Sahara I remembered how Pierre had told me to go into the pain, but I hadn't known pain like this, and I thought if I went into the pain, I would die. But I had to go into the pain to be the pain so I could control the pain, push the pain back into the tip of my finger. And still I think it was a scorpion. It was 17 hours before I could feel my finger again, and still I thought, it left something inside me, still I thought I might die, or maybe it gave me a superpower. Maybe I can point my finger and wither false bluster or exact truths. Maybe it was a time scorpion, maybe my path diverged that bright night in the Sahara. ) 

I wanted to sit down this afternoon to write about the books I've read lately, but even that's not going to plan. Maybe I don't care enough about them to say anything. (Truly, I don't have much to say about The City We Became or Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.) Other books, like Blue Flowers, I care too much about. Maybe. Maybe I don't know how to write about books anymore. I don't know how to write. 

I've been watching Fleabag, because I now have a trial of Amazon Prime. I thought it was supposed to be a comedy, and I suppose it is, but it's grim and painful and real. There's this bit at the end of season one where the bank manager mentions how cafés are a difficult business, and it unstoppers her outpouring.
I also fucked it into liquidation. ... And I fucked up my family. ... And I fucked my friend by fucking her boyfriend. ... And sometimes I wish I didn't even know that fucking existed. And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it. And somehow there isn't anything worse than someone who doesn't want to fuck me. I fuck everything. Except for when I was in your office, I really wasn't trying to have sex. You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they're just not talking about it, or I'm completely fucking alone. Which isn't fucking funny.
I feel like this a little bit, and sometimes I try to talk about it, and sometimes it wears me down — the feeling and the talking. I think about how I passed up a chance to fuck in the dunes of the Sahara.

I have Amazon Prime because I ordered a desk. I feel like I've made a pact with devil, both in ordering from Amazon, as the easy, logistically expedient, cheap thing to do, and in succumbing to the need for a desk. It's been made clear that the office will not be returning to normal anytime this calendar year. I think I've always known this, but refused to accept it. I don't like it, I hate it, I don't want to work from home, I don't want the work in my home. But the only way to cope with it now is to relegate it to one ugly little corner where after hours I may render it invisible, somehow filter it out of my perception. The ergonomic chair, however, not Amazon, as yet has no confirmed delivery date.

It's been a 121-day streak of German lessons on Duolingo, and I'm starting to tire of it. Some days I almost forget. It's been two years that I have an imaginary German lover whom I've never met, and every day I consider what lengths I would go to, what risks would I subject myself to, to touch him, kiss him, fuck him.

This week I'm dwelling on the things I meant to do while under stay-at-home orders but haven't: the violin that sits in the middle of the living room but which I haven't played; the sculpture for which I've yet to acquire clay (I want to sculpt time beetles, or time scorpions); the piece on male muses I started writing last winter for which all the tabs have stayed open; the shoebox of papers to sort.

This week I feel like an exceedingly selfish person. I wonder if I'll ever be less selfish. I wonder if I'll ever love someone to the point that I'll put them first. (To be clear, the responsibility and love I have for my daughter is quite outside of this equation.) 

There are bits of Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra that echo Clarice Lispector's Passion According to G.H. (that's the cockroach I want to sculpt, to claim), the reference to something ancient, something primal and primeval. There are bits of blueness, and love, that touch me.
I was thinking about this yesterday, about love, about this insistence on love, as though love could save us from everything, as though love could save us from hate, from madness and even desire. Whoever came up with that idea? Love can't even save us from love.