Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Another title from my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2, which is experiencing a Monty Python moment (“Not dead yet!”).

This novel is a gorgeous, depressing, incredible portrait of a generation coming of age between two world wars. The characters are so flawed, so lost as they confront a world that isn’t what they’ve been promised by society, family, or religion (but at least they have their money). I cringe at their missteps in part because I am not at all certain I would make any better choices (different maybe, but better?). Waugh’s description of the ridiculousness and tragedy of life feels very timely. It’s not that life is more or less ridiculous or tragic at any given time, but I think some periods of history just make it easier to see.

A favorite quote:

“What is it?”
“His heart; some long word at the heart. He’s dying of a long word.”

p. 288 of movie tie-in edition

Dragonfruit Flower

Bookends: September 2020

As I see posts about pumpkin spice and cozy sweaters, the highs for the next few days are at or near 100. Autumn is my favorite season everywhere but San Diego. Here it’s wildfire season, and that’s not as fun as leaves changing color and a nip in the air and apple picking and hay rides. But there are a lot of upsides to living in Southern California, too, like seeing dragonfruit flowers on neighborhood walks (see image above).

And no matter what the season, I look forward to books.

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Bookends: August 2020

Parsley hoping some swallowtail butterflies will visit.

As September begins, our county has just been downgraded from the “widespread” to the “substantial” tier of COVID-19 presence, which means some indoor things are opening back up again, some schools are starting in-person instruction, and I’m having flashbacks to June and the weeks preceding a huge jump in cases that put us on the state’s watch list this summer. September, it seems, is the new June, which means October will likely be the new July, and all of that means my family is trying to get our few errands done and then hunker down again before things get worse. But that’s actually okay by me because I’ve realized this month that I don’t miss people. There’s a handful of people I’d not mind seeing and even fewer with whom I actually go out of my way to interact via phone or video chat, but I have no desire to go back to any of the casual, in-the-course-of-business interactions that I spent so much time and energy on pre-pandemic. It turns out I really like spending all of my time with my favorite people, which is quite lucky.

As you might have guessed, during the time I spend not going places and not practicing small-talk, I’ve been reading. As a change of pace, and inspired by Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub (which I have not yet finished), I’m going to try saying a little more about the books I’ve finished this month rather than just listing the titles. We’ll see how that goes.

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Bookends: July 2020

Although July wasn’t really any better than June, and in some ways it was even worse, I find myself in a better frame of mind at the end of July than I was at the end of June.

For one thing, my cat died. This in itself is a very sad and super-sucky thing that kind of set the tone for the month and made everything much more difficult to handle for a while, but it also helped me put things in perspective a little. There’s this huge, chaotic, awfulness on a macro scale, but at the same time there are micro-moments with my little family that are both closer to my heart and closer to my sphere of influence. This month I’ve started to focus more on those little moments, which helps me avoid a lot of overwhelm.

It also helps that I remembered meditation existed this month and managed to silence the little voice that said meditation apps are stupid and I don’t need them because I already know how to meditate and just need to sit down and do it. I tried out Headspace and found that I quite like it. Their courses addressing specific concerns, issues, or techniques are well done and progress logically, and the ability to select the length of each meditation and listen from the desktop site as well as the app helps me work it into my schedule even when I’m busy. I’ve been meditating daily for most of the month, and it’s really helped me with that “appreciating micro-moments” thing I mentioned.

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Bookends: June 2020

With rising rates of COVID-19 combined with the annual question mark of the flu season (and did you know you can get both at the same time? Fun!), the second half of 2020 and beyond looks a little hairy.

At this point it appears inadvisable to rely on the implementation of common-sense measures, particularly widespread testing, comprehensive contact tracing, financial support for employees to take off work while ill and after proven exposure, guaranteed medical coverage for those who are out of work or who don’t have access to health insurance through their employers, and back-to-school plans that include routine testing and basic safeguards that offices are putting in place, so our family is preparing to batten down the hatches for fall and winter. This includes attempting to get my daughter’s braces removed, making a plan to maintain an inventory of non-perishable foods to avoid exposure in stores and to prepare for shortages, arranging for meaningful remote social interaction (virtual scout troops ftw!), making a book-procurement plan, keeping an eye out for outdoor flu vaccine clinics, and trying to find a working relationship with my near-debilitating existentialism.

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Bookends: May 2020

Late May involved a convergence of paradigm-challenging elements.

There’s COVID-19 and the ongoing stay-at-home order coupled with the gradual easing of restrictions, which brings both a sense of hope that we’re safe to move about more freely and anxiety that we’re no more ready than we were three months ago and the worst is yet to come.

There are the demonstrations in our city and throughout the country in support of addressing and moving towards ending endemic racism and the violence it perpetuates, which brings both hope that there’s the energy and will to bring lasting change and anxiety that the path there will reveal things about ourselves as individuals and as a society that are difficult to reconcile with the stories we’re used to telling ourselves.

And in the midst of all of this, our family has begun a new homeschool history and literature curriculum that brings a more balanced view of the founding and evolution of the United States than I received in school. So for us these real-world events are happening against the backdrop of increased awareness of our country’s history of settler colonialism, enslavement, and genocide alongside our stated ideals of democratic rule, civil liberties, and equal application of justice. On the one hand, it’s comforting to see our current situation in the context of an ongoing development of democratic ideals. On the other, I am more acutely aware of the precariousness of our institutions and the vulnerabilities of our species and I’m adjusting to a new foundation of understanding, which is welcome in the long-term but unsettling in the short-term. Hope and anxiety once again.

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Bookends: April 2020

Over the course of this first full month of California’s stay-at-home order, I’ve grown accustomed to rolling with whatever emotions come up for me each day. Not that I’m adept at it, but at least I expect it. Some days it’s just the constant low-level anxiety about food supply chains and asymptomatic transmission and armed protesters, but most days there’s some Big Emotion that pops up, like “persistent-panic-attack” or “crying-because-the-coffee’s-so-good” or “dear-god-have-you-always-chewed-so-loudly?” Knowing this is coming helps, even if I’m not sure what it’s going to be.

Having a routine also helps, which is nearly a cliche, but it’s totally true at our house. Every weekday at 7am, my kids and I take turns cajoling each other into our makeshift exercise room to do a Fitness Blender video together. It’s rare that we’re all excited about working out, but so far there’s always been at least one of us enthusiastic enough to pull the other two in.

Then there’s the morning block: feed the sourdough starter, wipe the front of the fridge, coffee on the patio, breakfast, fight about homeschool. Lunch is at noon, then more homeschool and/or music lessons, maybe a jog around the neighborhood, and dinner prep. Dinner’s around 5:30 or 6, followed by Mad Libs, kitten videos, or an episode of “The Office.” Bedtime routine starts around 7:30 with read-aloud during toothbrushing, then we gather for “grateful, sorry, and intend.” Lights out at 8:30 for the kids and around 9:30 or 10:00 for the grownups, although I’m contrary and fudge my bedtime a bit to get more alone time.

Weekends are for housecleaning and watching movies and social visits via videoconference and scrapping the routine for two days so we’re grateful for it come Monday morning.

My spouse and I asked the children at dinner last night how they felt about not doing all of the things outside the house that we used to. Both said they don’t really miss their outside activities. They still have their music lessons (virtual now) and online classes and virtual get-togethers with friends and family, only now they have more time to play or write or put together scavenger hunts or make LEGO stop-motion videos. They miss going to play basketball at the park and seeing their friends at P.E. class, but overall they seem happy. They’re creatures of habit, though, and I’m a little concerned about how we’ll all adjust in June when online classes and orchestra wrap up and we still (probably) can’t or don’t feel comfortable traveling.

But like we do with the emotions that shift day to day, we’ll take that as it comes.

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Bookends: March 2020

My spouse likes to tell the story of the day he, our toddler, and I were driving home from an errand and we saw a van hit a pedestrian. My emergency training clicked immediately. I grabbed my phone, checked for traffic, and hopped out of the car, dialing 911 as I called over my shoulder to my spouse to pull our car over. At the scene of the accident, I calmed the woman who was hit, checked on the driver, and gave what information I could to the dispatcher on the phone.

I am good in a crisis. Or rather, I am good in an acute crisis. Something happens; I deal with it.

I am not so good at this prolonged, amorphous kind of crisis. I was good at planning for it, and I am glad to have something to do to protect both my family and my community (i.e., stay home), but the daily, incessant anxiety around simple activities that now carry an unknowably greater amount of risk, like procuring food, walking around the neighborhood, and getting the mail, wears on me. It leaves me very tired.

The piece that works for me, though, is the government-mandated separation from humans outside of my household. I know a lot of people, including my spouse, are feeling stir-crazy, and I do miss the ocean and hanging out at the library, but overall, I kind of welcome the excuse to avoid everyone. I can do things slowly these days. I can keep a regular schedule. I can think before being expected to speak. I can avoid small talk. We’re only two and a half weeks in so far, and I might feel differently by May, but for now, I’m enjoying the freedom to be quiet.

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Bookends: December 2019 – February 2020

Mid-December through mid-January were weeks spent coming down with, fighting, or recovering from various colds and flus (or maybe just one month-long ebbing-and-flowing virus). I did a lot more reading in bed than I usually do, and because I’ve built up some impressive whining skills in my 43 years, my family gave me more space than they usually do. Not all bad, but I’d prefer to be well.

These past few months saw a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about violence (war, murder, sexual assault), suicide, mental illness, and adoption. I tend to gravitate towards darker books, so part of this is my doing, but several came to me from the list of National Book Award finalists, which was a pretty bleak collection, subject-wise, this year. Made for some interesting reviews for my Christmas reading challenges.

But now spring is almost upon us and there’s nothing but puppies and picnics in the park and sunshine and rainbows on the horizon (provided I don’t look at the news).

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Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

wp-1579981352326.jpgHelen Moran is in her shared studio apartment in Manhattan accepting delivery of her roommate’s new IKEA sofa when she gets the call telling her that her brother is dead. She packs a few things and flies home to Milwaukee to try to make sense of his suicide. “It’s just the three of us now,” her parents say, as they each try to interpret the shifting constellation of their relationship.

Helen is difficult to be around, trapped inside her own mind, alternately highly empathetic and completely clueless about other people’s perspectives, but I like her. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with her, but I admire that she’s found a way to (mostly) get by in her world.

Being inside Helen’s head is similar to being inside Eleanor Oliphant’s head. Each has her own logic and mechanisms to cope with reality, and each is challenged to realign and reevaluate when reality no longer lines up with her understanding of it. But I like Helen more than I like Eleanor. There’s no miraculous recovery for Helen, no key to unlock her difficulties with life and free her from herself. She doesn’t find sanity and equanimity after three visits to a therapist. Helen’s adjustment to her world is more nuanced, more flawed, and more realistic than Eleanor’s. Her demons are still there, she just finds a new perspective from which to confront them.

This novel feels like a truthful portrayal of the experience of living with mental illness, including psychosis, which continues to be something of a third rail in discussions around mental illness even as it’s becoming more acceptable (bordering on trendy) to be open about depression and anxiety. Even aside from issues of mental illness, this novel illustrates well the ways in which we each live within our own heads and according to our own logical framework and how difficult it is to reach across the divide between our reality and someone else’s.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel, albeit one that doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, is this one about Helen’s experience living in New York City:

“Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.”

Side note: Somehow, I’m reading three books at the same time that deal with adoption and mental illness: a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson), a middle-grade novel (Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford), and this novel. It’s an odd coincidence, but one that I’m enjoying.