These are my favorite parts of an essay I loved by Jhumpa Lahiri called “Trading Stories,” in The New Yorker:
I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?
It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”
This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.
I set out to do as he had done, and to pursue a career that would provide me with a similar stability and security. But at the last minute I stepped away, because I wanted to be a writer instead. Stepping away was what was essential, and what was also fraught. Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way. I listen to him, and at the same time I have learned not to listen, to wander to the edge of the precipice and to leap. And so, though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer I had to be deaf and blind.
I, too, falter. I, too, dream of stepping away. I’d also like to be seen, if I could figure out what it was I wanted to show.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts flying around since the world I had prepared myself for disappeared in the early morning of November 9th. But I didn’t have it in me to continue with NaBloPoMo, a blog post for every day of November, so I didn’t.
Instead, I’ve read and learned a lot, written and collected many thoughts—on top of the stash I’d already accumulated in the busy weeks before the presidential election. I have a mountain of sentences about my personal story of the past decade, about how I want to live my life, about making a positive difference in this world.
A mountain, a sea, a vast terrain to dig through.
I’ll find my way to sharing soon, but until then, I wanted to say hello. It’s still hard to say, “Listen to me,” but I’m still here.
I grew up in the suburbs, where you had to drive to get anywhere interesting. (Although today my dad bikes all the way from Grosse Pointe to Johnny Noodle King in Detroit, there’s no way my mom would have let me do that…and yeah right that teenage me would have even wanted to bike so far.) I used mass transit on rare vacations in what I would have called real cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, even navigating the Paris metro with my classmates on that first, heady trip to Europe. I used the bus sometimes in college to go to the mall. And then I moved to Germany for a year.
It was a completely different world, where a student could pay I think like 65€ for six months of unlimited public transit in the city. I lived two minutes from a Straßenbahn stop, and so I could take the tram straight downtown, or to my friends’ dorm on the other side of the city, or to the train station, where high-speed trains took me to Munich and Slovenia, Prague and Paris and Berlin. I could take a bus from the train station to the regional airport—something you couldn’t do in Ann Arbor back then, unless it was a major university break and you were a card-carrying student. It was completely different to live alone for the first time in Freiburg, instead of somewhere in Michigan, especially carless.
I learned to love transit in an extremely privileged way, when I was living off financial aid in Europe. When I came home, there was a car I could take from my parents. I mourned the loss of rail travel because it was so fun, because it worked so well, and because I saw no logical reason not to have it. When I killed the car, there was no money, and I didn’t consider buying a new one. Cooper ended up needing his own car, and so we didn’t have to depend exclusively on the erratic Amtrak schedule to keep our romance alive while he lived in Detroit. Luckily, I’m able to walk and bike. I’m happy with the decision to pay more to live centrally, or to live in a small space to live centrally, and eventually I learned to love that I don’t own a car.
Let’s be real, though. I have a car. I share it with Cooper. We don’t use it every day, or even every other day, but we have it whenever we need it. We take the bus and bike because it’s less stressful for us, much cheaper, better for the planet. We take the bus because for us, in central Ann Arbor, it’s easy.
I wanted to write a love story to train travel. I want to make you love trains as much as I, a surprisingly dorky twenty-eight-year-old woman who never went through a public transit obsession as a small child, but who as an adult reads train travelogues and histories sometimes in her spare time. I really do get excited when I see streetcars in New Orleans, when I get to ride a subway. But I don’t have time to write that, because it’s not all sorted out in my head. Transcontinental trains have long stories, long reaches. And though the U.S. definitely also needs more long-distance trains and tracks, better trains, faster trains, southeast Michigan in particular needs a regional transit system.
I believe in that, too. Not just the sexy ICEs and TGVs of Germany and France, the intriguing yet unlikely train route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City that’s being researched. Not just the light rail I wish was already planned for the full length of Woodward Avenue, instead of just a little blip, or the light rail they might one day build to cross Ann Arbor. Not even just the commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, that people were talking about when I started college ten years ago—although that is a fucking big deal and a huge start, and the commuter rail is part of the historic and necessary transit package we are voting to fund in southeast Michigan tomorrow.
Because this isn’t about me, even though the commuter rail line is what might impact my life the most at first, and is what I most hoped for, these many years. This transit millage, to fund the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, is about connecting people, uniting our region, making it so people who can’t drive or can’t afford to drive or don’t want to drive or just don’t have a car that day because it’s broken or whatever, can get on with their lives, like they live in a real place that respects them as human beings and wants them to be able to work and pay their bills and feed their families.
Connecting Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties—the only major metropolitan area in the country without regional transit—and expanding and improving their transit options: this is a social justice issue, this is an environmental issue, this is an economic issue.
And so I didn’t write that lovely story about big trains going to far-off places, because that’s not the battle we’re fighting today and tomorrow.
Also because I’ve been busy calling voters and dropping brochures these past few days, and I haven’t had time to write seriously. If I hadn’t decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing again (a commitment to post something every day in November), I’d be asleep right now. But I wish I’d written this post, which maybe ten people will read, a few days ago at least. I wish I’d volunteered sooner and more. I desperately hope it works out tomorrow, for transit and for Michigan, and for America and the world.
I have a really hard time waking up and getting up these days, these months. I inherited a hearty proclivity for sleep, and I will reliably fall back asleep again and again if I’m still horizontal, still under the covers.
I love to sleep, but I know my mornings are better if I can get out of bed promptly and start the day with something that matters to my life, instead of just a frantic breakfast/brush teeth/what will I wear/oh god I missed the bus routine. Computer screens, after not that long, clench my jaw and put my brain to sleep, and so I repeatedly feel throughout the day that I need a reset, a quick nap, so that I could feel smart again.
I was up until after one on Friday night, trying to get Friday’s post on Elena Ferrantefinished. So naturally, I slept late on Saturday morning. When I got up, I found there was more work to do, and so I camped out on the couch with my laptop and tweaked some things, scrolled through Facebook off and on and clicked away until eleven-thirty or so, when I opened the door that goes from the bedroom to the porch.
I stepped over the threshold, into warmth and sunshine I hadn’t anticipated. The entire day was suddenly different. The pile of leaves littering the mat had become thrilling, not the mess it had seemed on wetter days, when I postponed cleaning out the porch garden. The metal buckets, waiting there for rain to wash them out, were a welcome reminder that I had finally composted the sunflower stalks and cleared out the soil and roots the day before. But mainly, it was wonderful to remember that there’s a much better world outside the computer screen. That all it takes is stepping away, and better yet, outside. I spent the next hour and a half on the porch: I swept away the dirt, I brought out my bowl of cereal and sat on the stool for a while, before walking down to the river on a fun phone call.
I need to get back in the habit of stepping out for a breath of fresh air when I wake up, instead of curling up and hiding. I don’t want the computer-haze-exhaustion I feel right now, wishing I had already written the more ambitious, photo-heavy blog posts I want to share with you, but knowing I’m too tired. So that’s why I wrote this short post about a random photo of my feet in blue wool socks, standing on a dirty porch. Because I love this random photo, and now I can shut the computer and rest, and in the morning, try to capture that again. More of that, less of this.
“I came out here just for the color of the sky,” Cooper’s dad said to me one evening in July. I think it’s a beautiful sentence, a worthy motivation. Although truthfully, he’s outside every night, since he tries to watch every Lake Michigan sunset, now that he’s settled there on the coast.
The sunset in my photos was in southwest Turkey, an unanticipated splendor during our visit to Pamukkale. There were endless ridges of mountains in the distance, and so many colors in the sky.
“That life would involve many, many, many more sunset vistas and clouds soaring over hills and many fewer hours spent sitting in rush-hour traffic and many fewer days spent living in apartment buildings with views of dumpsters.”
Some of the other alleged lies—that gawky girls would grow up to be women who would be described as ‘lissome’ and ‘shining’ and own multitudes of dresses of delicious fabrics like organza and chiffon, that cooking would be all doughnuts and cakes and homemade wine—aren’t mostly things you could fight for. Does anyone use the word ‘lissome’ these days?
But I think this one, filling your life with sunset vistas, is not so hard, if that’s what you really want. You don’t have to move to Lake Michigan like Cooper’s dad. If you have the proper hours free, you just need to find a piece of western sky as often as you please. Sunsets aren’t spectacular every night (at least not in southeast Michigan), but if you’re paying attention there are a lot of good ones.
I always feel sad when an engaging book shuts its world to me. No matter whether the ending is happy, sad, or bittersweet, when a book whose characters I deeply love ends, it feels at first like a gaping loss from my life.
I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in January, and I still feel the loss. But I haven’t known how to reply to the series. When I reached the end of the fourth book, The Story of the Lost Child, I felt so sad and empty. The inhabitants of its pages had transformed into ghosts.
I almost wanted to pick up My Brilliant Friend, the first book, and start over again—maybe then I could figure out what I was searching for. I could take notes, snap a photo of every passage that made me smile or caused a pang in my heart. Reread and really savor the words of the narrator, Elena Greco, known as Lenù to her friends and family. I think the language of the novels must be good, but I could barely remember it when I surfaced from the passionate story, besides the constant labeling of whether someone is speaking in pure Italian or in the dialect of the main characters’ scary and gray Naples neighborhood.
The image I constructed of the neighborhood is hard to shake: the roads and the buildings are dark and crumbling, and so are many of the people who live there. The sun must shine and the clouds must part sometimes to reveal a smiling blue sky (it’s southern Italy, after all!), but I don’t imagine it like that. Lenù meets Lila—Raffaela or Lina Cerullo to everyone else—when they are little girls, growing up in the same apartment building in post-World War II Naples. Post-war, post-apocalypse, it could be either. These two intelligent friends unite over their love of learning; Lenù hopes that attaching herself to the amazing Lila will propel her along with Lila out of this world they were born into, which is peopled by villains, punctuated with murders, hostile to female independence. It starts out something like a fairy tale, but by the end of the first book the villains are no longer so clear, and the path out seems closed to Lila.
The series’ ending is revealed at its beginning, in the first pages of the first book, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that the person who matters most to Lenù, her brilliant friend Lila, disappears. Lenù sits down to write out their story, every last detail, in hopes of bringing her back.
The plot of the story is compelling, of course. You want to know how these little girls end up as older women, in different cities, one faced with the other’s disappearance. I found myself strongly committed to Lenú’s ascendence from the neighborhood to institutions of higher learning, from southern to northern Italy, and to an apartment overlooking the sea where she can pursue her high-profile writing career, and I was deeply dismayed by what lay in store for her friend on the other side of the looking glass. Lila is at least equally as talented—Lenú is always worried and always hoping that her friend will leap back onto the writing path and show her up—but, dealt a different hand, Lila willfully refuses to fight for anything she’d originally wanted. Instead, she changes her goals, perspective, and her public persona whenever she needs to.
Beyond the two protagonists, I found it fascinating to see how the web of characters in the neighborhood persists, how it continues to tangle ever tighter. The story takes place over many decades, through corrupt and violent times, social and political unrest. You see Italy through many lenses: those of the downtrodden workers, the professors, the students in revolt, the fascists who still hold power on the streets, the ancient families of letters and their activist, even terrorist, children.
More than the twists and turns of the plot, which some readers complain resembles a soap opera, I am in awe of how Ferrante portrays her characters, and the unflinching insight she provides into how they process the world and react to others. Lenù can be a brutal narrator. She makes harsh judgments about her friends and family, but also shares her own weakest moments. I don’t trust that she’s always being honest with the reader or herself, even when she thinks she’s telling the truth, and I don’t always like Lenù. But I do understand the strategies she employs to try to stay on track, stay afloat. She really does want to help her friends, although many of life’s problems are beyond any individual’s control. The books are a testament to the power of women, and to the depth of friendship, and I love that.
I also love these books because they scare me. Ferrante writes about the things that matter: friendship and creativity and fulfillment, poverty and misogyny and the deep injustices so many people face. Reading the books, especially the last two, riled me up. These are two strong, intelligent women working extremely hard to achieve their personal goals, but so many factors stand in opposition. They have no idea how to build healthy, open relationships; they don’t have a model of a loving, nurturing family or marriage. Lila and Lenù love each other more than they love anyone else, but they’re not very good at that, even.
Ferrante is willing to expose the protagonists’ most harmful faults, the dark side of motherhood, places of despair. We understand how useless a father can be, and yet see how the men are repeatedly viewed more positively than their female counterparts. The series is a great depiction of how hard it is to be a human. We are always changing, always navigating new challenges, and don’t really reach a miracle moment where we’ve achieved all we wish for. The way we make decisions can be impassioned, illogical, spiteful; sometimes we don’t make any decisions at all and then wish we had. We do things in fits and starts, desperate for a clean break and yet stuttering along.
No one taught these women how to have balanced relationships that satisfy them. The fact that they dare to want more than a husband who can provide a comfortable home and healthy children is outrageous at the time they are growing up, and so bravo to them, every time that they fight for something more, for a romantic spark or intellectual outlet. Their generation of women is trying to figure it out, to forge new ways of womanhood and personhood. But I look at these lives, fictional in name if not in content, and I get angry.
I know it’s impossible, but I want someone to have told them that marriage isn’t something to be resigned to. That your partner needs to respect your work and you need to respect his so you can buoy each other up, instead of shut each other out and try to do what you need to on your own in stolen moments.
Reading Ferrante’s engrossing, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking novels reminds me to be grateful for the life I lead. I’m privileged to live a life mostly of my own design, surrounded by supportive friends, family, and partner. But still, I know that many people in this country don’t feel safe and are not leading the lives that they would choose. I know that depression and isolation and injustice are visited upon people out of the blue, or all the time, with no regard for their promise, their innocence, the simple fact that they are also human. Reading these books makes me want to yell and cry and change the world.
P.S. There are lots of great reviews out there, which talk about relationships and motherhood and everything else about the books better than I do, but Judith Thurman’s snippet from The New Yorker‘s “The Books We Loved in 2015” is my favorite. Nothing shows book love better than addiction:
It’s midnight, and at last, I’m stretched out like a star across the bed, which is all mine for four unusual nights.
A glow filters through the bedroom curtains, but tonight I don’t mind—the glow only adds to the steady beat of raindrops on the fire escape on the other side of my bedroom wall.
There’s a syncopated beat, also a steady tap tap tap, and then the pitter-patter that sounds smaller in the background. I guess the sounds are different because some drops are hitting trees and others stairs, and then some is rain falling not straight from the sky, but dripping down from tree branches and power lines.
I like that I can hear it. The night is open, the bed is wide, and for the ten thousandth time I wonder why I didn’t let go of today and go to bed sooner, because it’s so nice to lie here without feeling the need to sleep immediately and make tomorrow imminent. Tomorrow, with its requisite unbeddening, when slumber ebbs, and consciousness and the weight of the world return. I prefer this zero-gravity in-between.
I expect to wake up with the weight of two cats trapping me in the bedclothes, but it isn’t so. At my first stirrings, they begin making trouble, tearing through the rooms of the apartment, scratching the couch and the new rug and maybe the scratching post, wildly demanding with their antics and the loud one’s sudden cries that I get out of bed and prove to them I am alive, and I love them.
As soon as I’ve steeled myself to get dressed and ready to go, the cats finally deign to join me, purring. And so the morning gets a little later still.
Here, we have the citizens of the porch garden, hiding from a potential frost in the dingy hallway outside my apartment.
(We also have, top left, the Icelandic poppy plant I purchased to bring to work, which was super pretty until it got sickly, and then I forgot to ask my officemate to water it while I was in Iceland, of all places. That was its final death sentence. There’s also a resilient plant atop a plant stand—both from Cooper’s dad—that he’s had since college. It survived abandonment while Cooper was in Chile, but can barely survive Haroun, hence its hallway banishment. My dad rescued the Norfolk pine, next to Cooper’s plant, from a garbage bin in his alley. It’s the only plant that I fertilize regularly, which may be why Cooper’s mom always tells us it’s gotten bigger.)
Next to the poppies is an impulse-buy: a dahlia to live on our front porch, which gets the western sun and is unshaded by any trees. I thought its flowers would keep me satisfied while I waited all summer for the front porch sunflowers to grow.
Then, three long, plastic window boxes with nine! basil plants, for basil gimlet cocktails and pesto and pizza. Two sculptural terra cotta pots that I lusted after at Terrainfor months, if not more than a year, before they went on super-clearance and I let myself buy them. ($15! Only $15! Sure, they’re just beautiful terra cotta pots that could probably break very easily, but the size I bought started at FIFTY-EIGHT dollars apiece. Highway robbery.) They house the parsley, left, and the thyme, right. Behind them are some bright red geraniums, a perfect fiery red with a hint of orange, to add color to the green farm on my little fire escape. Not pictured is the under-appreciated tomato plant.
So like I said in this post, the plants were mostly the same as last year, the first year of the porch garden, but with more basil and a few flowers.
The start of the garden, on May 9th. I also wanted to add plants along the outer edge by the railing, possibly hanging a few window boxes from the slats, but Ikea sold out of the planters I wanted, and I never chose what to plant, anyway. Maybe next year!
On the left is the porch viewed from the stairs, also on May 9th. On the right, just over a month later, the tomato plant had grown several feet and we may have already harvested the basil for a batch of pesto once. The basil got much bigger after this.
One day at the end of June, I set some of the plants up on the railing (including my little cacti from the bedroom window) to catch the morning sun. Because we’re so close to the next house, with a big tree above, we get narrow patches of sun at different angles throughout the morning. Since I was home and able to move the plants around as the light changed, I did. Plus, the plants looked pretty against the yellow house, and I could see them from inside for a change.
The morning outing didn’t go well for those three basil plants. They took a spill, narrowly missing the car parked in the driveway below. We made pesto with the mangled leaves, repotted the scraggly plants, and happily, they survived. (Never again, at least not for the planters that don’t quite fit on the slanty, narrow railing.)
So all summer, the garden saved us from buying unnecessary bundles of parsley, just to season occasional meals then throw the rest away. Our fresh pesto habit was made cheaper by the homegrown basil (plus Cooper started to substitute walnuts for pine nuts). There was always thyme when we needed it.
Besides the endless supply of pesto pasta and pesto sandwiches and best of all, pesto pizza, my favorite part about the porch is that it’s a simple, refreshing place to sit—the best place for hour-long phone calls. I’d bring out a big pillow and lean against the railing, legs stretched out in front of me. Sometimes I tried to write this blog. Sometimes I did stretches on the colorful, woven mat. When I was tired, I’d lie back on the pillow and just stare up at beautiful patterns made by the tree above me. Happy to be outside, and alone.
This photo is from early October. The planters are full of dead leaves from the tree. Today, November, the basil still hangs on, though it’s not as impressive as it still was a month ago in the photo. The parsley, thyme, and geraniums have moved indoors, to try to live on winter’s western light, à la The Unexpected Houseplant.
Then, there were the sunflowers.
Back to early May and the impulse-dahlias, their deep red petals looking elegant with the dark shingles and sleek galvanized steel bucket behind them (à la 66 Square Feet). I planted the sunflower seeds in the buckets in mid-May. (No, please pretend my shingles look like a chic, black- or charcoal-painted Scandinavian home; it’s what I do, powerless as I am against the actions of the landlord.)
Some of the websites I came across cautioned against growing anything larger than dwarf sunflowers in a container, but others thought I could get away with it, so I bought a pack of autumn mix something-or-other seeds. The plants should grow six feet tall or more, some with red accents on the petals, if their petals weren’t red outright (I wish I’d had some crimson sunflowers). I planted three groups in each bucket, with two or three seeds each group, and a bucket on each side of the door. I thinned them out eventually, reluctantly. Neighborhood animals thinned them out some more, so my reluctance seems merited.
I tried to follow the watering directions linked in the previous paragraph, (so much water! don’t do this if you don’t have an outdoor faucet and a hose!), and then I stopped taking pictures until the end of June, when the tallest plants were already door-height (above right). Most of the summer, we were lugging a water bucket down the stairs twice a day to keep the soil moist (woodchips or something on top might have helped.) The first bloom opened at the very end of July, days before we left home for a week in Iceland:
One of the sunflower plants did its best to one-up Jack and his beanstalk. It only made it partway up the second story, but I think that’s pretty impressive for a nonmagical sunflower seed from Lowe’s:
The last bloom from the last plant still standing, this week. Perfect for the kitchen table. Farewell, summer.