I’ve been reading Lolly Willowes, a 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner set at the turn of the 20th century. The story reminds me a lot of the pastoral 19th century novels I’ve been reading: country life radically contrasted with the city, the smallness of family dramas, the quiet resistance of women in their domestic spheres.
When she moves to London with her brother and sister-in-law, main character Laura (called Lolly by her nieces) is seized by a restlessness every autumn. She finds herself roving and anxious until winter fully arrives and she bleakly resigns to it, and:
She fortified herself against the dismalness of this reaction by various small self-indulgences. Out of these she had contrived for herself a sort of mental fur coat. Roasted chestnuts could be bought and taken home for bedroom eating. Second-hand book-shops were never so enticing; and the combination of east winds and London water made it allowable to experiment in the most expensive soaps. Coming back from her expeditions, westward from the city with the sunset in her eyes, or eastward from a waning Kew, she would pause for a sumptuous and furtive tea, eating marrons glacés with a silver fork in the reflecting warm glitter of a smart pastry-cook’s. These things were exciting enough to be pleasurable, for she kept them secret.
There are so many things I love about this passage. The idea of a “mental fur coat” constructed of small soothing sensory pleasures. The gorgeous description of the pastry-cook’s. The whole familiar motion of going to and fro in a busy city, running errands and picking up provisions, then stopping for a brief respite with one of the purveyors of treats that pop up in cities for exactly that reason. I haven’t yet finished the book, but it seems that these little indulgences are specific to her life in the city; when in the countryside and surrounded by the wild beautiful natural landscape, she doesn’t seem to need them. I know we’re meant to see Laura’s city life as unsatisfactory and stifling. Yet this pretty little passage absolutely glows with pleasure; if Laura eats chestnuts in her bedroom to distract and comfort herself from an unhappy season, I’m not convinced that we’re meant to see that as a bad thing.
The passage reminded me of a section of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, a book which is peppered with little scenes of snacks and oysters and fine simple lunches that he remembers from his time in France. For example, “Miss Stein Instructs” starts out with Hemingway pleased by working in Paris in the winter:
The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in their paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of a day’s work. When I was threw working for the day I put the notebook, or the paper, away in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.
This passage picks up several threads that run through the book’s first few chapters: that writing is work; that the little privations of being a young couple without much money were more stimulating than frustrating in retrospect; that both the writing and the privations were soothed by small sensory indulgences such as roast chestnuts and nips of kirsch. Or endless café lattes and shots of rum, with half-carafes of white wine and oysters and pickles for a reward. Food is an essential element of Hemingway’s writing process throughout this book.
Pleasure in eating is not mere window-dressing: in scenes like this, it can be a step on the journey toward a plot’s progress or a catalyst to bring characters toward a greater sense of self-possession or self-knowledge; it can also forge or break social bonds, or signify a character’s relationship to the world around them. Laura’s sumptuous and furtive teas are one of the first little rebellions she makes against her controlling family; they not only give her a little buffer against her seasonal disaffection, they also give her the experience of making choices alone and for her own enjoyment. Hemingway’s eating sustains him physically and psychologically for the mental labor of his writing, which he does for both love and money: his detailed recollections of eating during his writing sessions in cafés and the top-floor room may cause your mouth to water but they also convey the exchange of capital. Coal for the fire and oranges for the pocket are the expenses he has to tally against his writer’s income. These pleasures, like Laura’s secret pleasures, are all the more poignant for being small.
And above all there is something very relateable and human about these scenes of eating. The roasted chestnuts tell us some specific things about what Laura and Hemingway want, but they necessarily appeal to what every reader must want: to be warm, to be fed, to enjoy. Our shared appetites for small comforts bring us into a kind of quiet intimacy with the writer and this writing.
We hit the white out just beyond the Virgil ditch.
A south wind blasting eight-foot drifts
Like a fireship exploding the armadas
Of January. A page of erased zeroes.
Today, it might get to 20, no melt but plenty
Of blowing to disguise what’s road
And what’s the verge, how to be stuck
Last week in such weather a semi
Jackknifed, then another, another, another
Swallowing cars, a multitude following
Faithfully as pilgrims to the disaster
Of the stampede. Finally, there were forty
Or more vehicles crushed and miles of traffic
Detained while the Jaws of Life were deployed.
Three dead including a man whose dog
Was thought to be a fatality but survived
To lick the hands of the first responders.
People we used to call firemen or cops
Rearticulated like weather once called storms
Now polar vortices. Naming something doesn’t change
Effect. We still stall where we thought
The road curved and it didn’t.
We’re still as lost.
The white out still blinds us.
IMAGE: “Whiteout conditions in Arlington Heights, Illinois (2011)” by Bill Zars, Staff Photographer, The Daily Herald (Illinois)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, the new renaissance, Grand Street, Epoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, Rhino Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007), Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). One of her poems is a winner of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She is the editor of Illinois Racing News, and lives on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She has published 14 books, including Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press), which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize, Properties of Matter (Aldrich Press, Kelsay Books), Bittersweet (Main Street Rag Press), and The Wingback Chair (FutureCycle Press). Colby is also an associate editor of Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press. Visit her at joancolby.com.
By Jim Warner You read a poor Tagalog translation of handwritten prayers on your mother’s dresser. Your cousin has mistaken aswang for multo. Even you–whose native tongue died in his mouth years ago–knows the difference. Aswang is an evil spirit. A Filipino vampire. A dog. Something wicked. Your cousin has been looking to redefine herself […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
People often toss around the idea that the internet is “not real life,” as though this thing — made by people to allow those people to share and interact with other people — is just the playtime before more serious business. The real business.
Here are some things that happen on the internet:
Here are some other things that happen on the internet:
All of these things really happen between real people. (Really.) They are therefore, by definition, happening “in real life.” When you claim that the internet is “not real life,” you diminish all of these very real experiences. For the positive ones, that just sad; for the negative ones, it’s dangerous.
Humans are connecting. Interacting. Learning. Supporting themselves. Ordering pad thai.* Sometimes, these things happen over a series of tubes, sometimes over a cup of coffee. Claiming one is more real than the other is disrespectful to the people having those experiences. To us. When you say the internet is “not real,” you diminish the deep bond of the couple that live on opposite sides of the world and met on a message board — their relationship is less-than. You diminish the man furthering his education and professional development with online courses — his efforts are less-than. You diminish the woman receiving rape threats on Twitter — those threats are less-than — and you diminish the culpability of the very real person who made those threats. It’s not a real threat. It’s just the internet.
If you want to support that conception of the internet, go right ahead. But first ask: do that couple, that man, or that woman feel a lesser degree of love? Of accomplishment? Of fear?
We could pontificate about the attributes of “realness” until the conversation comes to an abrupt end when we all get sucked into our own navels, or we could just decide that any place where human relationships, education, and livelihoods blossom is a real place. We can do that because not only did we make the internet, we made the language we use to talk about it. We define. We decide. That power-slash-responsibility is not one I’m about to abdicate. “It’s just the internet…” Okay, except we are the internet. It’s “just” us.
It is possible that all of life is just an illusion; a false front erected by an evil demon, as Descartes once mused before concluding otherwise. Maybe the internet itself is an evil demon; that would certainly explain the popularity of child porn rings and Farmville. But until I have proof of that, I’m going to behave as thought it is, y’know, real. That’s the only experience I have, and I refuse to call it less than that. Last I checked, the opposite of “real” is “fake.”
Without people, there’s no internet, not the way we know it. There’s just a bunch of servers, sitting in a room somewhere, wondering when the people are going to come along to upload cat GIFs.
TL;DR: Are you alive? Is something happening? Then it’s happening IRL. Full stop.**
*Yes, I order a lot of take out on the internet. You tell me you wouldn’t do the same, if your city had a bakery that would bring you hot, fresh cookies and a glass of milk when you asked them to via the internet.
**Holy crap, pontificating about the internet really sends my punctuation usage to a whole ‘nother level of excess.
Ten episodes from the dawning days of Google Maps.
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colors
which at every succeeding moment are the exquisitely adjusted
pictures of your ever-moving thoughts.
- James Allen
Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing?
Can one really explain this? No.
- Pablo Picasso
The purest and most thoughtful minds
are those which love color the most.
- John Ruskin
Our days are a kaleidoscope.
Every instant a change takes place in the contents.
New harmonies, new contrasts, new combinations of every sort…
The most familiar people stand each moment in some
new relation to each other, to their work, to surrounding objects.
– Harry Ward Beecher
All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.
- Marc Chagall
There’s a time for everyone, If they only learn,
that the twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn.
- Sir Elton John
A Toy Kaleidoscope
Tumbling bits of glass
- K. Earle
Steve McCurry Retrospective
Villa Riale di Monza
October 30 – April 6, 2015
Finding the Sublime
112 rue Saint-François 74120
December 16, 2014 – April 4, 2015
Bait Al Zubair Museum
December 16, 2014 – February 28, 2015
On Wednesday I asked the students in my class to describe what they’d been doing earlier in the day, before our afternoon session began. While they scribbled I wrote alongside them, producing a dull summary of actions and toil—until I came to waiting … There is always waiting. It begins in the still-dark morning when […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
One of the things I’ve always tried to do at the Dish is to be up-front with readers. This sometimes means grotesque over-sharing; sometimes it means I write imprudent arguments I have to withdraw; sometimes it just means a monthly update on our revenues and subscriptions; and sometimes I stumble onto something actually interesting. But when you write every day for readers for years and years, as I’ve done, there’s not much left to hide. And that’s why, before our annual auto-renewals, I want to let you know I’ve decided to stop blogging in the near future.
Why? Two reasons. The first is one I hope anyone can understand: although it has been the most rewarding experience in my writing career, I’ve now been blogging daily for fifteen years straight (well kinda straight). That’s long enough to do any single job. In some ways, it’s as simple as that. There comes a time when you have to move on to new things, shake your world up, or recognize before you crash that burn-out does happen.
The second is that I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.
I want to spend some real time with my parents, while I still have them, with my husband, who is too often a ‘blog-widow’, my sister and brother, my niece and nephews, and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither because I’m always tied to the blog. And I want to stay healthy. I’ve had increasing health challenges these past few years. They’re not HIV-related; my doctor tells me they’re simply a result of fifteen years of daily, hourly, always-on-deadline stress. These past few weeks were particularly rough – and finally forced me to get real.
We’ll have more to say – and we’re sure you will as well – in due course. I particularly want to take some time to thank my indispensable, amazing colleagues in a subsequent post. For the time being, auto-renewals have been suspended and the pay-meter has been disabled. While we’re in this strange, animated suspension, I just wanted to take one post to thank you personally, the readers, founding members and subscribers to the Dish.
It’s been a strange relationship, hasn’t it? Some of you – the original white-on-navy ones – went through the 2000 election and recount with me, when I had to explain the word “blog” to anyone I met; we experienced 9/11 together in real time – and all the fraught months and years after; and then the Iraq War; and the gay marriage struggles of the last fifteen historic years. We endured the Bush re-election together and then championed – before almost anyone else – the Obama candidacy together. Remember that first night of those Iowa caucuses? Remember the titanic fight with the Clintons? And then the entire arc of the Obama presidency.
You were there when it was just me and a tip jar for six years, and at Time, and at The Atlantic, and the Daily Beast, and then as an independent company. When we asked you two years ago to catch us as we jumped into independence, you came through and then some. In just two years, you built a million dollar revenue company, with 30,000 subscribers, a million monthly readers, and revenue growth of 17 percent over the first year. You made us unique in this media world – and we were able to avoid the sirens of clickbait and sponsored content. We will never forget it.
You were there when I couldn’t believe Palin’s fantasies; and when we live-blogged the entire Green Revolution around the clock for nearly a month in 2009. You were there when I freaked out over Obama’s first debate against Romney; and you were with me as I came to realize just how deeply wrong I had been on Iraq. But we also fought for marriage equality together (and won!), and for a new post-Iraq foreign policy (getting there), and for legalizing weed (fuck you, Hickenlooper!). We faced the brutal reality of a Catholic church engaged in the rape of children, and the bleak truth about the United States and torture. And I think we made our contribution to all those struggles. The Dish made the case for Obama in a way that actually mattered when it mattered. I think we made the case for gay equality in a way no other publication did. And we lived through history with the raw intensity of this new medium, and through a media landscape of bewildering change.
I want to thank you, personally, for the honesty and wisdom of so many of your threads and conversations and intimacies, from late-term abortions and the cannabis closet to eggcorns and new poems, from the death of pets, and the meaning of bathroom walls to the views from your windows from all over the world. You became not just readers of the Dish, but active participants, writers, contributors. You trusted us with your own stories; you took no credit for them; and we slowly gathered and built a readership I wouldn’t trade for anyone’s.
You were there before I met my husband; you were there when I actually got married; and when I finally got my green card; and when Dusty – who still adorns the masthead – died. I can’t describe this relationship outside the rather crude term of “mass intimacy” but as I write this, believe me, my eyes are swimming with tears.
How do I say goodbye? How do I walk away from the best daily, hourly, readership a writer could ever have? It’s tough. In fact, it’s brutal. But I know you will understand. Because after all these years, I feel I have come to know you, even as you have come to see me, flaws and all. Some things are worth cherishing precisely because they are finite. Things cannot go on for ever. I learned this in my younger days: it isn’t how long you live that matters. What matters is what you do when you’re alive. And, man, is this place alive.
When I write again, it will be for you, I hope – just in a different form. I need to decompress and get healthy for a while; but I won’t disappear as a writer.
But this much I know: nothing will ever be like this again, which is why it has been so precious; and why it will always be a part of me, wherever I go; and why it is so hard to finish this sentence and publish this post.
Yesterday in class, my students and I discussed the function of memory in multiple modes of storytelling: fiction, nonfiction, and metafiction. One of my students, experiencing the lovely disequilibrium of learning, said, “Miss, my brain hurts from this. I don’t know what’s real anymore.” I love those moments of learning. Sometimes, though, discussions in the […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
Liu Tao, a 32-year-old water meter reader in the Chinese city of Hefei, has gained almost overnight fame as an amateur photographer. After a set of his photos went viral on Chinese social media earlier this year, Liu has been the subject of various profiles in Chinese (link in Chinese) and Western press and gained millions of followers (link in Chinese) online.
Liu says his initial inspiration was the Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama, though some of Liu’s fans say his work is more reminiscent of photographer and documentary maker Elliott Erwitt. He taught himself the craft by reading photography books and magazines and using a VPN to watch talks by photographers on Youtube, which is banned in China. Liu roams the streets of Hefei during his lunch breaks and in the evening to take photos.
His photos feature ordinary moments—an elderly man fanning himself, a couple arguing on the street, food stall operators—but from different perspectives. Liu told the Chinese publication Global Times, “I want to remind people of the touching moments in life.”
Liu’s not all that comfortable with his newfound fame. “I really hope the wave of media exposure can pass by soon so I don’t have to worry about who will like my photos. What I need is to grab a camera and take photos freely on the streets,” he said.