“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.
When I got off the bus at work that Monday, the first thing I felt was the invigorating chill of the October air mixed with the cheery morning sunshine. The prairie patches grown by the university as a less labor-intensive, more biologically diverse and sustainable form of landscaping, still buzzed with life and waved in the breeze. I felt light and free and happy as I strolled past, the earlier dread of missed buses and unknown inbox contents set aside.
How do I hold onto that feeling? How can I possibly hold onto that feeling when I have to wave my ID card at the door, climb the three flights of stairs (my choice, but I don’t always enjoy it), and turn on the computer, that mesmerizing and dulling device that rules so many work lives?
I could have walked the entire way to work, but only if I was ahead of schedule.
I could have sat down on that sidewalk like a weirdo and breathed in, breathed out the peaceful morning smell, willfully ignoring the heavy car traffic behind and the hulking office buildings ahead. But knowing that I was only briefly postponing the inevitable, that I needed to move along and get to work, would have distracted me.
What I thought, as I walked toward the wide expanse of parking lots that I snake through to cut the most direct path to my building, was that this was why I wanted to go up north that weekend. I wanted to leave everything behind except for my boyfriend Cooper (I’d take Haroun and Table Cat too, if they were dogs) and put all my focus in the moment, in the beautiful forests and waters of the Upper Peninsula. No worries except about what’s for the next meal. Feel tall standing on big rocks. Bouncing feet along the trails. Bundled up in sweaters and scarf and jacket against the wind. Experiencing things that really matter.
The thing is, travel is also stressful. There’s always an opportunity cost. In the final four to twenty-four hours before departure, I start to panic. Why do I want to leave this apartment and these cats that on a usual day, I wish I had more time for? Why do I need to skip town, when town is full of good food and better people and really, lots of pretty trails and a cozy bed I know? How will I know what I want to wear two days from now? When will I ever write about the trips we already took, when will I curl up with all the books in my stack and catch up? I rarely get much reading done on trips, because no matter how long we spend away, it’s not quite enough. Often, I get lost and exhausted in the decision-making.
Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I don’t know how to be present, maybe I don’t really know what I want, because I want too many things.
We hadn’t planned our getaway yet, didn’t have a place to sleep, but it was only days away. Cooper had a long to-do list, better tended to with undivided attention at home…and yet, despite not working out the logistics, we had planned on an escape to Lake Superior all year. There was nothing I wanted to do more than this.
So We Went, and It Was Glorious
We spent two nights at a motel in the unincorporated community of Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. We visited Tahquamenon Falls surrounded by the resplendent colors of autumn, all golden light the first afternoon. We visited the Lower Falls again for a longer hike the next day, when we had the world mostly to ourselves, cocooned under cloudy skies with all the trees and the largest lake in the world* in front of us. The final morning, the beach at Whitefish Point was all ours, too, as the blue-green waves crashed and crashed, and the blue sky started to peek through.
Why do I travel? I travel to feel free, to fly loose from daily cares, from what others want from me and from what I demand of myself. I travel because I like to see new things, because I like to bring stories I’ve read to life and build my interest for other place’s pasts and presents. To disconnect, and to connect.
Things were really simple on this trip. Heavy storms the first night and the next morning put our power out, and so we cleaned up and wrote by candlelight, internet-less, until lunchtime. Other than that, our goal was to be outside together—mission accomplished.
Whale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.
Day one, we wandered from our apartment by the old harbor, heading down any street that struck our fancy. We met a friendly, giant calico cat near houses with inviting gardens. It was bright and sunny, and I could instantly imagine spending long afternoons and late nights here, grilling dinner and chatting outside until the sun got to setting.
On the way back to our apartment later, we saw two probable tourists greeting an even bigger animal. The next day, he was out again, and so we got acquainted with the giant feline we thought could have been a dog, christening him Huge Haroun. Same colors, same fur—but his head was at least twice as big as our spunky Haroun’s. We pet Huge Haroun until he caught sight of another cat and bounded off in pursuit. We felt sorry for his target, whether he or she was enemy or reluctant paramour (we suspected the latter).
We passed some churches and wandered through a pretty, green park, also populated by friendly cats, along with some relaxing Icelanders and their little dogs.
From my repertoire of weird Icelandic facts: Dogs were made illegal in Reykjavík in the 1920s, due to a tapeworm that they passed on to humans, often fatally. I think it was in the 1980s that the city started allowing exemptions to the law: if you paid an annual fee, and your neighbors consented, you could have a dog. Dog ownership is on the rise in the city, but Reykjavík remains a city of cats, and friendly ones at that. Most of them have homes: cats are required to be microchipped in Iceland, and a study I read about somewhere found that almost all of the cats they met on the street belonged to someone. What lucky cats they are, free to roam this pretty city and make friends all around. One of the apartments we tried to rent required guests to keep a window open, so their cat could come and go, and Cats of Reykjavík posted a funny story from someone who woke up with a strange cat in their bed. There’s approximately one cat for every ten peoplein Reykjavík—it’s my kind of place.
Before we wound our way down to the city center, we found ourselves in a neighborhood of impressive houses, still mostly made of corrugated metal painted pretty colors, and also surrounded by lovely gardens. We were on a little hill, and looked across to see famous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrím’s church) in the distance. We headed vaguely in that direction and explored the charming city center, talking for a while by Tjörnin, the small lake behind the parliament building, and mysteriously passing up a waffle cart opportunity in favor of (quite good) vegetarian dinner, like responsible adults. (We got rave reviews of the waffle cart from my friend Carolyn when we met up with her on our final day, but failed to track it down. Do better than us!)
Alþingishúsið: the parliament building on Austurvöllur square
Hallgrímskirkja and Leifur Eiríksson
Harpa music hall interior
Harpa music hall exterior
The waterfront beckoned, so we walked along it, before eating dessert al fresco at Café Paris on Austurvöllur square. On our way home, we watched the sun set over the harbor, Snæfellsjökull (snow mountain glacier) far off in the distance. Continue reading “Reykjavík Does It Right”→