Monday, May 28, 2018

Some thoughts on Home by Toni Morrison

In this Toni Morrison novel, two siblings leave their backwoods Georgia home, get even more scarred out in the world, and come back to find that home is a more complicated place than they’d ever thought. Not as stifling as in their childhood, and offering possibilities for rebuilding their lives.

The novel is set in the 1950s, and one of the siblings, Frank, has returned to the U.S. from the Korean War. He brings with him post-traumatic stress and memories that make it difficult for him to live with himself. He’s also black, and needs to transition from a recently desegregated army back to a society where segregation is still the norm, through official enforcement in some places and unofficial enforcement in others.

Meanwhile, his younger sister, Cee (nickname for Ycidra), flees her hateful grandmother by running off to Atlanta with a man who dumps her. Her search for better paying work brings her to the home of an unscrupulous doctor who hires her as his assistant and conducts unethical medical experiments on her and others.

It’s relatively rare to see novels featuring Korean War vets (and black vets, more generally). During the war, Frank has seen and done things that he can’t come back from. (“Back was the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault.”) He has discovered things about himself that he would never have guessed at and that he doesn’t know how to confront.

The novel explores the question of what a home truly is. The characters lead precarious lives, and they could be driven out of their homes all too easily. So how does someone create a home when violence, destruction, illness, and complete destitution are nipping at the borders and can spill in at any moment?

Home is not simply a place, it’s a set of relationships and connections, and deep impressions on the mind and heart. The characters have perpetrated or witnessed profound violations in the world. Home is a place where you’re not degraded and where you ought to be free of those violations. At home, you can confront the demons and have people stand beside you.

Cee gains new strength with the help of women who stand in for the lack of a mother figure in her life. Chief among them is Ethel Fordham, who tells her, “Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.”

So home is where you can heal, among people who find worth in you, and it’s where you can do worthy things, even in the face of harsh odds. Of Ethel’s garden:
Her garden was not Eden; it was so much more than that. For her the whole predatory world threatened her garden, competing with its nourishment, its beauty, its benefits, and its demands. And she loved it.
Morrison doesn’t sentimentalize home or make the folks of this backwoods town charming and endearingly simple. Other authors might have gone down that path and trivialized the story and the struggle of these scarred characters.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Week in Seven Words #406

She dresses up as a flower and fits her small, black dog into a bumblebee costume. Then she holds him in her arms for most of the evening.

On my way to a meeting, I walk by a display window and see a T.V. with a news chyron displaying a report of shots fired downtown. I keep walking, wondering but not wanting to know, not yet.

His own little rebellion against having to do grammar exercises is to try to include the word 'frappé' in each sentence he writes.

These are cold streets full of rectangles of steel and glossy items on display in rows of windows. It's like walking through a catalogue.

He has lost the thread of his lecture. Forty-five minutes in, he's still giving us the introduction. Meanwhile, the audience has started taking over. They don't just ask questions; they begin to share personal anecdotes that aren't always relevant. The lecturer limits himself to echoing their thoughts.

Basketball players in a congratulatory bundle fill the train car with laughter.

The park is awash in a deep pink sunset, the color of cheap candy or cough medicine. A rat climbs a soldiers' monument where usually only people and pigeons roost.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #405

It's a gentle room. Blonde wood floors, small folding chairs, purple, pink, and light blue yoga mats rolled up in the corner. A diaphanous, dark curtain has been drawn across the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

For his son's birthday, he asks other family members to send in warm greetings and anecdotes that collectively create a picture of the young man's character and all the good he's done for the people close to him.

At the subway station, there's a heavy, happy woman belting out James Brown's "I Feel Good," and her performance is full of real joy. A few hours later, on my return trip, I see that she's gone, and in her place are a small group of men that seem to be combining a bagpipe with jazz, an effort more creative than successful.

I'm settled awkwardly at a table, sipping spiked cider and not sure I'll find anyone to talk to. Two people find me though. They're lovely, and the afternoon swims by on laughter and food.

A few hours spent looking up health insurance rates and coverage.

Our afternoon is hurrying to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for greasy food, eating it too quickly at a small park, and running to catch a movie. Bloated but satisfied, we arrive late enough to miss the previews.

Is this guy flirting with me? He's in my personal space, but he's from a culture where personal space is minimal, so I don't know. He's also touching my arm a lot and talking at length about James Bond. It's one of those times I wish I could read social cues more easily. In any case, I learn a lot about James Bond.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Blog's Name in Books

I found this fun little activity here: match a book from your to-read list to each of the letters in your blog's name.

Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu)
History (Elsa Morante)
Excellent Women (Barbara Pym)

Shirley (Charlotte Bronte)
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
Love and the Platypus (Nicholas Drayson)
Leaving Atlanta (Tayari Jones)

Only Yesterday (S.Y. Agnon)
Faust (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Timeline (Michael Crichton)
Home (Toni Morrison)
Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Winter's Bone (Daniel Woodrell)
Ormond (Maria Edgeworth)
Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco)
Little Dorrit (Charles Dickens)
Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens)

Week in Seven Words #404

We walk along the reservoir in the dark. The water is glossy, and the backdrop is a hard, glittering skyline. One building has a red spire, like a syringe. From a dark pocket of trees, someone sings "Piano Man," his voice bright and disembodied.

The protesters outside the hotel take up a chant that has the pitch and rhythm of a child's taunt. It makes them sound immature and powerless, as if they need to wrap up their playtime soon and be home before dark.

A dad treats his young son like a computer program that needs constant debugging. Everything the boy does warrants a sharp remark, as it doesn't fall within the precise specifications of the programming.

We explore the edges of a milky gray pond. The leaves underfoot are clumpy and pulpy. Overhead, a black squirrel shudders along a tree branch and leaps, the branch shivering at its departure.

An aunt and her nieces and nephews sit on the steps of the museum and eat vanilla soft serve ice cream with sprinkles. A grandmother watches over a grandson and granddaughter as they pretend a giant, sloping rock is a hill of snow for sledding. A mother and her teenaged son relax on a bench and discuss face recognition software.

One train rushes by, then another. They sound like roaring water and hollow, rattling stones. The train we need still hasn't arrived. I spot something small and dark under the opposite platform: a rabbit the color of soot. It seems portentous, the Dark Bunny of Delays.

The glass sculptures look like alien growths transplanted among the flowers and mushrooming out of the pools of water.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Three Short Stories About Daughters and Their Not-So-Maternal Mothers

Title: The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor
Author: Deborah Eisenberg
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

“Fading smells of bodies clung to the air like plaintive ghosts, their last friendly overtures vanquished by the stronger smells of disinfectants. An indecipherable muttering came from other ghosts, sequestered in a TV suspended from the ceiling.”
Francie is at school on a scholarship when her mother dies. The girl is burdened by a sense that she has been unloved and disapproved of; her mother gave her care that didn't feel caring, as it came with a heap of anger and bitterness. Francie may also have been kept from important truths about her life.
The hospital floated in the middle of a vast ocean of construction, or maybe it was demolition; a nation in itself, of which all humans were, at every moment, potential citizens. The inevitable false move, and it was wham, onto the gurney, with workers grabbing smocks and gloves to plunge into the cavity of you, and the lights that burned all night. Outside this building you lived as though nothing were happening to you that you didn't know about. But here, there was simply no pretending.
Francie confronts the inescapable. There's her mother's sudden death. There's the aloneness, and being left in the dark to fumble towards a new life and deal with questions that can't be ignored. Adults look at Francie like they don't know where to put her or how to get her out of the way, and Francie herself doesn't really know where she belongs, only that she can't escape her life. The legacy of mother to daughter is one of a dark, cutting, and uncomfortable weight, the burden of a fury that never abated. The question is if Francie will ever find a place in her life where she can live at greater ease with herself.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Week in Seven Words #403

The small cakes and cookies displayed in the shop window look like they were created with paint markers. They can't be real baked goods. And if they are, they can't taste as good as they look.

They're slightly loud and fuzzy with wine when we bring gifts. Their dog trots around, absorbing pats and belly rubs and cuddles.

A tall, beefy man in a turquoise tank top and cream-colored Bermuda shorts is walking three small, identical white dogs.

When he's stressed out, his home crackles with tension. His family skirt around him, finding things to do in other rooms and saying little that isn't necessary.

The room is overrun by kids who pelt each other with candy, kind of like dodgeball but without any clear sides, more like a free-for-all of sugary projectiles.

On a brief visit to a library before a meeting, I find what promises to be an excellent book. I didn't expect to come across it and wasn't looking for anything like it, or anything in particular. Is this something that can be experienced online, where algorithms suggest only books that are similar to what's been recently read or searched for?

The girl glides on a scooter, her golden hair floating in the light of the streetlamps.

Week in Seven Words #402

During dinner on a second-story terrace, the wind sighs at us through the crown of a tree.

At first it looks like a piece of stained glass, catching at the corner of my eye. It's a monarch butterfly poised on a leaf and opening its wings.

She left work a few months ago to become a stay-at-home mom. Within a few days, she began reorganizing a communal playroom in her apartment building and looking for other projects to sign up for. I'm guessing she will soon return to the corporate workforce.

It seems like overnight she's become a major Hamilton fan. She's memorized all the lyrics, even the complicated rap battles stuffed with historical references. Today, she greets me at the door with "Washington on Your Side."

Pity is uncomfortable and distasteful, regardless of whether it's felt about one's self or other people. This thought comes to me in the middle of a conversation with someone I'd rather not be talking to. I don't want to pity this other person or have that be the motive for the conversation.

The library has multiple floors, cozy and compact. A spacious staircase links them together. Footsteps echo in it, and whispers and laughter.

We spend an afternoon at the fringes of a park, with traffic at our backs and terraced greenery before us. There isn't much hospitality indoors. One place is cliquish and for another we lack the required ID. So we're outdoors, waiting for the afternoon to fall away into evening.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Some Jewish Culture and a Walk up Manhattan's East Side

This past Sunday, I took a tour of the Museum at Eldridge Street, or the Eldridge Street Synagogue. There's still a small active Orthodox Jewish congregation there, but its purpose is mainly to preserve a critical part of the Jewish culture that flourished in Manhattan's Lower East Side from the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century.

This grand synagogue opened in 1887, and the congregants were Jews from Eastern Europe. It's a beautiful example of Moorish Revival architecture.


The congregation began to see a decline in the 1920s when the US enacted immigration quotas that hit hard at people trying to come in from Eastern and Southern Europe. As Jewish families moved out of the Lower East Side, newer immigrants weren't coming in to replace them and maintain a steady level of congregants at the synagogue.

In the 1950s, the main sanctuary was closed off, and the few congregants used only the Beit Midrash (a smaller room for religious worship and study). A restoration project began in the 1980s and was completed in 2007.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Week in Seven Words #401

She drops yet another reminder that she wants to see me married, and I can't help it, I just start laughing, to her astonishment.

The difficulty of dealing with someone who's regularly unreasonable. Trying to anticipate what I'll be able to say and how I'll need to say it.

When tipped forward, the watering can spurts and sprinkles, and the leaves shiver. The handful of fat tomatoes still clinging to the vines begin to glisten.

She's a moon-faced woman with a pink, voluminous lap where her daughter sits as on a throne.

There's a woman faking anger on TV, because she wants your anger to be real. The woman would like to let her viewers know that they're smart, like her. They know what's really going on out there. They need to stick it to the haters, the craven, dishonest fools who are currently watching some other show.

There's a strangely human vulnerability to the injured bird that tucks itself among the leafy plants. Its feathers are disordered. It hops away at approaching feet but doesn't fly.

I'm surrounded by people, but the afternoon feels surprisingly empty. A quick nap helps. And then song, and a prayer service at the day's end.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Week in Seven Words #400

A homeless man with a CD player hooked to his belt searches for bottles while accompanied by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli singing "Time to Say Goodbye."

The talk focuses on the complications of forgiveness. How does one (or can one) forgive repeat offenses? What if the offender shows no sign of remorse or is unwilling or unable to change? What if the offense is too serious? It's a heavy discussion, and many of the people present either remain silent or speak in short, clipped phrases, as if there's so much more they'd like to say but too little time.

At the birthday party in the park, small pink balloons are tied together in a cluster that brings to mind a diagram of the stages between zygote and embryo, a ball of cells rapidly multiplying.

His words trigger my temper, and I regret letting my anger show. It feels like defeat, to lose control even briefly. It's also pointless. The provocation in and of itself is superficial. The anger has deeper roots and is bound up in problems I wouldn't be able to discuss with him. We're on the level of surface irritations.

An old woman is in the middle of a calisthenics routine by the river. A toddler approaches and begins to imitate her: jumping, stretching, squatting, hopping on and off a stair. (In this last one, the toddler crawls on and off rather than trust her legs too much.)

The water is tinted gold in the late afternoon. I look up from my book as a dog trots by wearing aviator shades.

There's a man who sits in the lobby of the synagogue or sometimes on the front steps, like he doesn't want to get too close to the praying but doesn't want to abandon it either.