It’s November, friends, and so far here in MN it’s been totally gorgeous: faded browns and oranges, foggy mornings, balmy afternoons. Thanksgiving is only a few short weeks away. I think I’m going to start the thanking now. Here are five things I’m thankful for this week
A job with great co-workers and a great working environment (have you ever had a toxic workplace? Then you can imagine how great it feels to NOT be in that situation)
A home filled with beautiful things
How gorgeous the weather has been lately. Long may it last!
These beautiful fall flowers (and a non-pictured jack-o-lantern) sitting in my entryway:
Anna has been absolutely delightful lately. No, really – more and more delightful every day. She’s learning to play on her own, and developing her own personality. She loves paging through books, snuggling with mom when around strangers, and dancing whenever she hears music. Also, she has the most wonderful giggle.
What about you? What are five things you’re thankful for this week? I would love to hear them!
P.S. Rinne Allen photo found here (her site is beautiful – you should follow her!)
Any other dishwashers out there? Any cooks? Any bathroom cleaners? Launderers? Care givers? Homemakers? Full-time parents? Maternity-leavers? Corporate employees at the end of a long Monday, drying dishes in the kitchen? This quote is for you, on those days when you feel a little antsy:
“There was so much to be thankful for: there was pleasure in her work, in the rituals and routines of service, the care and conservation of beautiful things, the baking of good bread and the turning of rough, raw foods into savoury and sustaining meals. There was pleasure, too, in the little clutch of people that she now had clustered around her.” -Jo Baker
The quote is from Longbourn, a novel by Jo Baker set in Jane Austen’s England. It follows the Pride and Prejudice story as told from the Bennet family’s servant’s perspective. It’s beautifully written, and so immersive and atmospheric. I highly recommend it.
Also, I just loved this quote. It so perfectly describes the quiet days when homemaking feels like a joy. For me at least, I appreciate those days more when I have a week full of cerebral work, and busy office days to counter the at-home responsibilities.
You? Any quotes that inspire your cleaning, your cooking, your at-home rhythms?
How was your week? It’s been cold and gloomy here in MN – drizzly, gray, it even SNOWED briefly on Wednesday. I have been scheming with a friend about how we are going to survive the winter. On Thursday we went to tour a gym to gear up for spending the next 6 months indoors. Any tips on prepping for the upcoming season? What do you do to make it through winter?
There was a fantastic article in the New Yorker not long ago called “My Writing Education: A Timeline” by George Saunders. For my fellow writers, I highly recommend you go give it a read, but for those in a hurry, here are three of my favorite quotes:
“What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. ” – G. Saunders
“…literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.” – G. Saunders
“A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer. A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained. It can, by being worked and reworked, come to have more power than its length should allow. A story can be a compressed bundle of energy, and, in fact, the more it is thoughtfully compressed, the more power it will have.” -G. Saunders
The article is mostly about Saunders’ writing teacher, who sounds like an incredible person. Any recent writing/art tips you have to share with the rest of us?
A lightbulb clicked on this last weekend. I am pretty constantly uncomfortable with my life here in MN. I’m a little bit embarrassed of it, honestly. I’m not doing work I’m proud of. It’s probably part of the whole ENFP angst – I’m not living up to my ideals.
I felt uncomfortable in Moscow a lot too. You know what helped?
My friends, how has it taken me so long to notice this? Art! It’s what’s missing! Art’s very purpose is to speak to our angst. To illustrate, to voice the words inside, to name the roiling unease we all have within.
If only I could frame the suburbs with a little art, don’t you think that would help?
To this end, I present stills from the Film “To the Wonder”. Have you seen it? It’s directed by Terrence Malicks, and watching it is like visiting an art gallery. Each shot is incredibly gorgeous. Much of “To the Wonder” is set in a lonely, newly-built suburban subdivision somewhere in the American West. He so well captures the beauty, the light, the wide open spaces, the builder’s grade walls, the raw forlornness, and ache of contemporary suburbia. Have a look:
Noted: I don’t know that I can really recommend the film. Visually, it was gorgeous and inspiring, but other than that I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked the atmosphere, the moodiness, but not the story.
On the subject of everyday art, Keri Smith might have some ideas. She has a few fantasticbooks and blog posts about using art to capture, to find meaning in the everyday.
Thoughts? Favorite artists? Photographers? Lines of poetry? I’d love to hear them. What’s spoken to you lately?
First of all, thank you for all your kind, thoughtful comments about this blog and where you’d like to see it go. They’ve meant a lot to me. The writing around here will continue for the near future, and hopefully even become more frequent!
Secondly, let’s talk about the suburbs.
On the one hand: conventional, spread out, dated, boring, mildly soul-sucking.
On the other hand: clean, safe, spacious, cheap, backyards, endless convenience.
We have been living here in suburban MN for over a year now. Are the suburbs for us? Is this where we belong? Does this place truly fit us as people?
This is an exhausting line of questioning. I’ve been obsessing about our identity, about our life choices for so long, I can’t take it anymore. This is where we live now. I don’t know if it’s the best place for us. I don’t know if we’re going to be here for long. I don’t know if I WANT to be here for long. But this is where we are.
In Russia, I struggled with the anger, the Russian national character trait known as constant public crankiness. I felt my soul was being drained by the noise, the cold, the smoggy air, the constant battering of relentless traffic, hassle, pollution, crowds, pushing ugliness. I felt continually under assault, like I was being crushed by how hard daily life was.
So we moved to the US. Immediately things got brighter, easier, friendlier. We are swaddled by comfort here; good roads, snug houses, disarmingly friendly people, endless consumer choices, convenience.
But still I struggle. People are friendly, but distant and a bit foreign to me. I often can’t relate to the things they find interesting. And, if I’m completely honest (if simultaneously a prick), I find it all sort of boring. I miss ambition, international travel, breaking news, foreign languages, diplomats, artists. I miss having a job I love, a job that feels important, that challenges me.
What I’m trying to say is that transition is uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable. I lost an identity I was proud of, and what’s left, now that that mask is taken away, is a person whose character needs a lot of work. A person who’s constantly itchy, restless, unable to commit.
This is where I’m at. It’s a little bit ugly. But so was Moscow. Moscow was pretty consistently hideous. My point? Sometimes I need a reminder that it’s normal to be uncomfortable with where I’m at. Life is full of transition, full of bewilderment, unease, uncertainty. Likely, I will never feel like I’ve fully arrived, like I’ve reached full harmony in every area of my life. At least, I don’t think that I will achieve said arrival through changing my geographic location.
You know what’s helped lately? Working. I have two part-time jobs and an ongoing writing contract. I’m planning a wedding shower and a baby shower. I’m scoping out ideas for winter vacation. I’m meeting regularly with friends for babysitting swaps to give us a chance to work on our own projects. I’m going to join a gym for goodness’ sake! (and what could be more suburban American than that?)
That’s all for now. Onwards and upwards. I’m going to try posting here weekly now. Let’s see where that gets us.
Is it seriously already September? It’s Labor Day weekend here in the U.S. and we are enjoying an unbelievably pleasant and slow Monday morning: waffle and coffee breakfast, late summer sunshine, 12 hours of laziness (library books, neighborhood strolls, backyard BBQ and grocery shopping) ahead of us.
I’ve started two new jobs recently, and have been caught up in late night work, training, informational interviews, and laundry loads the past two months. I’ve hardly noticed the summer is almost gone.
I’m also still unsure of what’s going to happen to this blog. I’m much less connected to what’s going on in Moscow than I was. Do I change the blog name? The blog content? I’m unsure of what that change would look like, and haven’t been able to devote much time to thinking about it. I’m also still feeling a tiny bit of a culture shock identity crisis, which makes it hard to settle on a writing focus. AND, now that we’re back in the U.S. it feels like everyone has a blog – why would I add to the noise? And what would I talk about? Do we really need more book reviews? Another mommy blog?
Meanwhile, I’m still posting pretty regularly on Twitter, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. Until I can figure it all out, if you’re still looking for some Russia, etc. links, you can follow my account on Twitter.
And how are all of you? If I continue writing, what sorts of posts would you like to see here?
For now, a few links for those looking to browse online this weekend…
June in Minnesota (or in Moscow for that matter) is heart-breakingly gorgeous.
Right now morning sun is dappling my curtains, a fan is blowing, and the back yard is leafy and green. We are doing well here in the American suburbs. Summer is an incredible balm that always makes me feel like a wealthy high roller.
This June, economist husband is settling into his job, and breaking in a new pair of running shoes. I’m hitting up summer garage sales, writing, and continuing the hunt for work. Miss Anna is growing her collection of bug bites, sunscreen smears, and grass stains. There are so many fun things to do here, we’re having a hard time scheduling them all – strawberry picking, barbecues, outdoor concerts, movies in the park, outdoor walks, picnics, summer films.
I still miss Russia. I still feel unsettled here, out of place. I’m deeply uncomfortable, and sometimes very anxious about the fact that I still haven’t found a good job. You know, just in case I was giving off the incorrect impression that I feel we’ve arrived in life. I’m trying to figure out how to enjoy this stage of things, while still pushing for changes in our situation. Joy and frustration.
That’s pretty much all for now. Things are good and things are uncomfortable. Thanks for stopping by. And here are a few links and reads you might enjoy:
I love asking people that question because 1) it gives me good ideas on what to add onto my reading list, 2) it tells me a lot about the person I’m asking, and 3) it usually leads to an interesting conversation.
Here are a few of the books I’ve read this spring, if you’re looking for something new to read (listed in order of how much I liked them):
SCARY CLOSE by Donald Miller: This was such a good read! I forced myself to ration it out because each chapter was so challenging and thought-provoking. Donald Miller, (who is one of my favorite authors) talks about relationships, and the core reasons why they’re so difficult for us – why we’re afraid to be vulnerable, why we cling to identities we think are socially acceptable instead of just relating to others, and why we confuse impressiveness with love.
“The stuff it takes to be intimate is authenticity, vulnerability, and a belief that other people are about as good and bad as we are.”
“When the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it. And all the rest, the distracting noises of insecurity and the flattery and the flashbulbs will flicker out like a turned-off television.”
THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson: This was such an interesting and unexpected novel. It follows the story of a North Korean orphan who travels through every imaginable layer of North Korean society. It’s dream-like, and epic, and gives you such a taste for the tragedy and absurdity of what life in North Korea must really be like. It’s like a literary North Korean Gone With the Wind. Also, the writing is beautiful. I read an interview with the author of the book, and he said that most of the events in the novel were based on things that had actually happened, which makes it even more fascinating. High recommendations. (P.S., it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction!)
“Over the Tsushima Basin, they could hear the powerful clicks, like punches to the chest, of sperm whales hunting below, and nearing the island of Dogo, granite spires rose sudden from the sea, white up top from bird guano and orange below from great gatherings of starfish. Jun Do stared up toward the island’s north promontory, volcanic black, limned in dwarf spruce. This was a world wrought for its own sake, without message or point, a landscape that would make no testimony for one great leader over another.”
“In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on. Before you relinquished yourself—Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs—you let go of all the others, each person you’d once known. “
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M. L. Stedman : I’d heard a lot of people recommend this book, and it was a good read. It’s the story of a husband and wife who adopt a little girl who washes up in a boat to an island they’re living on, and then decide to pass her off as their own. It was full of scenes from places far from my everyday (lighthouse-manned islands off the coast of Australia), as well as moments that seemed timeless and familiar (descriptions of the relationship between a husband and wife, and of a mother watching her child). The story, with its fascinating moral dilemmas and tension really drew me in. Great read.
“Just like the mercury that made the light go around, Isabel was – mysterious. Able to cure and to poison; able to bear the whole weight of the light but capable of fracturing into a thousand uncatchable particles, running off in all directions, escaping from itself.”
“…he had become accustomed to her gurgles, to her silent, sleeping presence in her cot, which seemed to waft through the cottage like the smell of baking or flowers.”
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr: I’ve seen this book in so many people’s reserve queue at the library. It’s been very popular. It won the Pulitzer for fiction. But, while it was of course good, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the others. I just didn’t get as into it. I loved the blind narrator (who used smell and sound and touch to describe things – so interesting!), and the fact that the two main characters, who were into such unusual things, managed to lend me an appreciation for things like mollusks, and engineering. Have you read it? Did you like it?
“Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insulation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world. He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.”
“To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.”
REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Kay: I loved the sense of immediacy this book gave me. It’s a collection of short stories by a former marine that takes readers to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As with most good short story writers, I found myself amazed that he could so accurately describe the feelings, and experiences of such varied people. I enjoyed some stories better than others, which is why I didn’t rate this book as high as the others, but it was still really good, and definitely worth the read.
“The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” At the same time, though, you feel somehow less. What happened, what I was a part of, maybe it was the right thing. We were fighting very bad people. But it was an ugly thing.”
“The problem is, your thoughts don’t come out in any kind of straight order. You don’t think, Oh, I did A, then B, then C, then D. You try to think about home, then you’re in the torture house. You see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage. He squawked like a chicken. His head was shrunk down to a coconut. It takes you a while to remember Doc saying they’d shot mercury into his skull, and then it still doesn’t make any sense. You see the things you saw the times you nearly died. The broken television and the hajji corpse. Eicholtz covered in blood. The lieutenant on the radio. You see the little girl, the photographs Curtis found in a desk. First had a beautiful Iraqi kid, maybe seven or eight years old, in bare feet and a pretty white dress like it’s First Communion. Next she’s in a red dress, high heels, heavy makeup. Next photo, same dress, but her face is smudged and she’s holding a gun to her head.”
What about you? Any good book recommendations?
P.S. I keep track of my reading lists on Pinterest and on my ebook wishlist at my library’s website.
Have you ever noticed the potted plants in Russian homes, offices, and public buildings? There’s something particularly Eastern European about the way they’re placed in window sills and corners like a band-aid against the winter.
A friend and former colleague of mine, Will Webster, has put together a fantastic photo series of potted plant portraits. It’s great, and hilarious. All these plants seem to have their own personalities, like silent watchers, bearing witnesses to the rush and clamor around them.
So friendly, funny, and weird! Great stuff. You can check out more of the photos here.
It has been much too long. My posts are becoming more and more sporadic. In a big life transition I’m finding it hard to narrow my focus. We no longer live in Moscow, so the main themes of this blog are no longer as relevant to me, and blog post ideas are no longer coming as quickly and naturally as they did. I’m not sure if this space is going to transition into something else, or fade out entirely. Right now most of the topics I’m focused on have to do with Minnesota, transition, literature, journalism, reverse culture shock, job hunting, immigration, suburbia, etc. I’m hoping I’ll have some more answers and more focus soon, but at this point I’m just not able to make a decision.
And until things get figured out, boy do I have a lot of fantastic links to share with you!
Also, I just want to remind you that it’s the last day of April. Spring (and soon summer!) are here, people! I hope your weekend is full of green…!
Is anyone else out there glad it’s Friday? Economist husband had his first week of work this week, and I’m excited to get him back for the weekend. Also, it’s almost Easter! Muscovites, look out for pussy willow branches showing up outside your metro stop. Here in MN, we are headed outside this morning to find some in the woods near our house (it’s like подмосковье here)
David Greene was NPR’s bureau chief in Moscow for a few years (he now hosts Morning Edition). I actually met him and his wife Rose a few times when we were there. This book follows Greene and his colleague, Sergei, on a journey along the Trans Siberian Railroad. It’s full of anecdotes, meetings with Russians of every age and background, and endless cups of tea.
Greene says just about everything I would like to say about modern day Russia. He obsesses over the question of why Russians don’t seem to want democracy in their country. Here are a few quotes I really liked:
“The trip has been grueling, frustrating, exciting, with unexpected twists at every step…often I’m in the dark because I don’t know the language. …what a metaphor for how Russians approach their lives. In a way I feel that’s how the Russian government keeps citizens in the dark – laws are never clear, courts are unreliable, punishments are arbitrary – it’s like living in a place where the people in charge are speaking a language you never understand. And consider what that does to any impulse to speak up.” -David Greene
“For seventy years this was a country where the government could come to your rescue. But rescue from what? Maybe that was Stalin’s magic. He created the feeling of chaos, fear, and confusion so people – from Central Asia to the streets of Moscow – needed him, needed government. They had no other choice.” -David Greene
“I just stood there, gazing out into this vast, white Siberian landscape that was lit by the moon at midnight. I felt melancholy, this feeling that Russians are living in some sad darkness, unable to see the future that could await them if they only fought harder. And yet something about the poetry of the place, the pain people have been through, the laughter and strength and kindness from so many I’ve met, all made me want to smile.” -David Greene
“This is a country where, for years, people were taught that if they had a mundane problem – the electricity or water service went out – they could call the local Soviet authorities and the problem might be promptly fixed. But if they saw something unjust or awful, the wisest choice could be to simply ignore it or move past it. People were not taught to raise questions – because doing so could be dangerous, and really there was nowhere to turn for answers anyway. A foundation of Communist ideology and Soviet power was keeping people convinced that they had to accept their fate as it was – and that, in the end, this would be better for everyone. But this philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one generation to the next…” – David Greene
Will you read it? I can definitely recommend it.
What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for the rest of us?