The Pleasure Of...Incrementalism

Snow, trash, and abstractions, better late than never.

It’s been a quiet week. I met a couple of deadlines, hunkered in against the cold, read a couple of novels, organized the space in our bedroom where the crib’s going to go. It snowed, and I thought a lot about trash. We’re about to have a baby, which means thinking actively about labor (in all senses) and waste (likewise). About cost versus effort, and where our values land along those axes. 

Figuring out how to tread a little more lightly on the earth is not easy. It requires chasing information through forests of conflicting opinions about what actually helps reduce our impact, and facing failures on a municipal, national, global scale that can make you throw up your hands. Trying to acquire less stuff, or produce less waste, or just make do feels at odds with a lot of the norms of having a baby, which may be why, in my bloody-mindedness, I’m feeling especially driven to this effort right now. So we’re going to try to trade off some convenience for the joy of doing a little better than before: taking food waste to the bins in the park, using cloth diapers, getting maternity and baby stuff mostly second-hand. Making do. Figuring out how, and when, to stop listening to the world of advice. For someone who’s used to being easily persuaded, and dissuaded, and distracted, and prone to second-guessing, there is something quite powerful and exhilarating about learning, gradually, to stand my ground.

In some ways pregnancy is like starting to exercise or diet—a bodily arena where laboratory science meets individual experience meets politics and opinions and deep-rooted fears, where you are constantly balancing authorities, trying to figure out who to trust. If there’s anything universal about the experience at all, I think it’s this state of spending nine months as your own constantly whirring spam filter, trying to monitor everything coming in and decide what to consign to junk. To landfill. When I started running seriously, I learned (slowly) the value of incremental change, how strength builds slowly, how long it takes to wear down your lizard brain’s resistance to pain, to control its panic responses, to take control, to be patient. I don’t know yet how well I’ve learned all that, but it seems like an appropriate lesson, or discipline, for January, for the depth of winter. To make small changes in the right direction, and trust that we’re getting stronger as the days are getting lighter.

Reading & Writing

Two stories of mine this week, about two remarkable women: first Crystal Eastman, the underappreciated leftist activist, suffrage leader, and pacifist, whose biography I reviewed for the New Republic, and second the brilliant children’s author Jacqueline Woodson, who I met at her stunning Brooklyn brownstone to profile for the Guardian in the UK (online here), in celebration of her gorgeous new novel for adults, Red at the Bone. (I promise I used fewer gushing adjectives in the actual piece, but she deserves them all.) I also just finished Jenny Offill’s new novel Weather, which is funny and anxious and incisive, the kind of book that pokes you repeatedly to see if you’re paying attention, to it and the world. More on that soon.

The Pleasure Of... Sunday Lunch

Roast potatoes and tragic French romances

Celebrating T’s early January birthday calls for a certain culinary and festive creativity. One year we made aligot, the incredible Alsatian mashed/whipped potatoes with cheese, and today I figured I’d do a reasonably traditional Sunday roast. After years of vegetarianism followed by years of New York brunch indoctrination, I’ve only recently realized how far out of the Sunday-lunch habit I’ve fallen. So I’m here to declare that brunch has its place, and that place is at the back of the Sarabeth’s queue sometime in 2006. Sunday lunch is where it’s at. Done right, it’s simple, solid, sociable, and sustaining (and much better, honestly, at supporting an afternoon of drinking than the pile of quickly evaporating carbs and sugar you get at brunch.) 

The ingredients are straightforward enough: something roasted, ideally beef, or lamb in the spring; an abundance of fluffy, crispy roast potatoes, some other veg, Yorkshire puddings if you have beef, gravy. It’s food your grandpa likes, and that his grandpa liked before him. Most classic Sunday lunch foods are dishes that call for a timeworn method, rather than a recipe, but generally the mood and technique are best found in one of Nigel Slater’s many books. 

It doesn’t have to be home-cooked: in Britain, it’s an important measure of a pub’s quality, and perhaps the ideal scenario is to eat it after a long wintry walk over some kind of *waves hand* countryside—and then pitch up at a pub with a fireplace so you’re pleasantly sated by the time the sun sets at four pm. One of the best Sunday lunches I’ve had recently was at a pub in Bristol a couple of years ago, when I was there to speak at the Women’s Literary Festival in March and the town was hit with a freak snowstorm, which deterred absolutely nobody. Ideally you need a lot of people to share it with, and plenty to drink. And, if it’s a freakishly warm weekend in mid-January, like it was today, you throw open the windows and hope for the best. 

This evening we went to see Portrait of Lady on Fire, the gorgeous Céline Sciamma film that seems to have been around forever, since it was a huge Cannes favorite, and yet absurdly difficult to see. Moving Image included it in their Curator’s Choice series, however, and we managed to get in, to an actual sold-out house, which I’ve never seen there before. It’s a very simple story, set in 18th-century France, about a female artist hired to paint the portrait of a noblewoman who is being married off to a man she’s never met. Most of the film simply follows the two young women as they fall in love, during this tiny window of emotional and artistic freedom, and it’s full of compositions that are meant to be lingered on and remembered like paintings. Save for a glimpse or two, there are no men on screen throughout the film at all, and yet you never forget that everything that dictates the lives of these women, and of the young servant girl in the house with them, is ordered by men. Anyway. If and when you get to see it, see it!

The Pleasure Of... Time Mismanagement

Fresh starts, fresh notebooks, and big boys’ blouses.

Happy new year, happy new decade. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about plans and goals, about change and renewal, about resolutions, though it feels obligatory now to disclaim these, to note how they always fail. There’s a lot of effort to rebrand them as “intentions” or something that sounds gentler and less binding (magazines aren’t letting go of their January content as easily as that), but that strikes me as semantic hair-splitting, the same way “clean eating” is still dieting.

Of course, any calendar we live by is arbitrary, and our bodies don’t wake up striving for change on New Year’s Day (far from it.) So why treat the start of January any differently from the start of June? I don’t have a good answer, but whether it’s habit or instinct or cultural pressure, it still feels different. It’s new. Something changes with the turn of the year, and something calls out to us to mark it, even if it doesn’t last.

I don’t think it makes sense to dive straight into resolutions, however; sometimes you need a minute to take stock of where you are and what you need, especially when the new year falls midweek. It’s taken me most of the weekend to get a new notebook and figure out this year’s version of the DIY planner/bullet journal/diary I like to use—even as I’m kicking around a pitch for an essay about how planners have evolved from tools into life coaches. So many inspirational quotes, so little time. The idea was partly inspired by this great Oliver Burkeman piece from the Guardian that Ali sent me, which rails against time management, connecting the depredations of industrial capitalism/Taylorism (how can we get these people to make widgets faster?) to our own self-imposed “productivity” obsessions (I should start a podcast!) 

At the same time, life is messy and we have to make lists and remember stuff somehow, so sue me if I want to do it in a specially monogrammed notebook. You can get yer Leuchtturm monogrammed for $3 at Lockwood, my local fancy stationery store, and I was apparently the second person to get “jcs” this weekend, which is mathematically quite unlikely, enough that the guy working there showed me picture evidence on his phone. I can’t work out what it signifies, though—I guess I have a doppelgänger to befriend and/or kill now?

Anyway. I like allowing that January rejuvenation energy to work on me, while at the same time recognizing that time isn’t something to manage or control, but has as much to do with feelings and bodies as it does with clocks and numbers. My clearing-out-getting-organized drive is intensified right now because our baby* is due in late March, which feels at once far off and tomorrow, no longer safely tucked beyond the turn of the year and thus not truly imminent or real. I still have a book to write eventually, and about seven articles to finish in the next twenty minutes. Christmas was months ago, yet still going on. What even is time? 

Cultural Pleasures

On Boxing Day I saw Little Women, which was everything I wanted and plenty I didn’t know I needed. So many nuances of women’s love and rage! Florence Pugh making Amy’s ambition and frustration just as real as Jo’s! A Beth who actually seemed like a flesh-and-blood person! Saoirse Ronan’s tweeds blending into the autumnal Massachusetts sunset! Timmy Chalamet’s blouses flapping in the breeze! The cinematography was glorious, so good at contrasting the firelight warmth of the early years, the joy and promise and warmth of the sisters together, with the cold attenuated blues of adulthood, the hard work of growing up and apart. I’ve been struggling to find a way to write about the film and I think I might have found an idea while procrastinating via this Twitter thread connecting the film to Gerwig’s interest, in her other films but especially Lady Bird, in what girls lose as they leave their teens. TBD.

My Writing, Elsewhere

Back in October I read and wrote about Lara Maiklem’s Mudlark, and then apparently Politics Books happened, so the review came out just before Christmas in the Washington Post. I loved the premise of this book about scavenging for historical treasure among the junk of the Thames riverbank, but felt it needed more of a sustaining thread—it takes a lot of poetic skill to write in vignettes and fragments. 

*Needless to say I am still figuring out what/how/how much to write about this.

The Pleasure Of...Push & Pull

Endings, beginnings, four-poster beds.

Or on and off, up and down—balance, I suppose, but the balance of a seesaw, a swing in motion, not a precarious stillness. This week in London has been a steady alternation between busy days and slow ones. I didn’t plan it this way, but it happened that the mornings I went swimming or to yoga were also the afternoons I went up to central London to go shopping, to meet friends, to a gallery performance, or to a family party. And the days that I didn’t, I stayed inside listening to the morning rain, reading magazines and noodling on Pinterest (the siren song of the IKEA hack), doing the crossword, going for a short walk when the sky cleared. I don’t know if it would work for an actual daily routine, outside of the weird obligation-hiatus (or at least, obligation-reorientation) that is the festive season, but I’d like to take this rhythm into next year, clustering appointments and errands and exercise, buffering them with rest.

Next year. Next decade. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling inundated, since at least Thanksgiving, with lists and memes and essays struggling to take stock of what’s passing away, distill what’s valuable, as though we’re all about to board a flight with only a carry-on for our best-ofs. It all makes me feel a bit like the strung-out drug dealer/philosopher Danny in Withnail & I, lamenting the end of the sixties, “the greatest decade in the history of mankind,” and the failure of its promises: “they’re sellin’ hippie wigs in Woolworths, man.” Obviously, neither the grandiose claim nor the symbolic collapse can hold the weight of all the time that’s passed, everything that’s changed. And so I haven’t felt inspired to make my own list. This year it feels as though I’ve read as many manifestos against the best-of list as I have actual lists, yet the obligation to make them, on the part of critics and editors, only seems to increase. I’m interested in the way such rituals get grooved into the culture, at this receptive time of year—like the ugly Christmas sweater party or showings/viewings/discussions of the execrable Love Actually. When you watch traditions get invented and instantiated in real time, it’s easier to see the stitching and the gaps, and to feel frustrated that other people pretend the damn thing is watertight. Which is a long way of declaring: I will have none of this enforced nostalgia and packaged reminiscence! Culture isn’t a checklist, a race, or an argument. (This is probably laziness masquerading as principle, but it’s also a larger point worth remembering at this time of year: NO is a valid option.)

I’m taking next week off and I’ll be back in the new year. T and I are going to have a stab at a new tradition by going back to Batty Langley’s, the hotel in Spitalfields where we spent New Year’s Eve a few years ago. It’s a gorgeous, quirky, historic townhouse, with four-poster beds and roll-top baths and big metal keys and all kinds of 18th-century trappings, and appropriately Christmassy, according to Instagram:

Image may contain: plant and outdoor

So see you on the other side. In the meantime, have a wonderful festive hiatus, celebrate whatever and however you do, and if you need your spirits lifted, read this *impeccable* Guardian blind date story, and the unexpectedly touching commentary.

The Pleasure Of... Comfort Food

Political catastrophes, Christmas jumpers, and sticky toffee pudding.

I was in Edinburgh for most of the week, a little beaten for six by travel woes and the anxiety that comes before any public appearance. I’ve learned that there’s no way to properly relax while the event is looming, even though I don’t get nervous speaking in public—I actually love getting up in front of a crowd. It’s the preparation that twists me up. The National Library of Scotland, where I gave the talk, is a grand and friendly place, eager to slap literary quotes on anything standing still. And why not? I love this picture Ali took of me on the stairs inside. Afterwards, I was able to catch up with old friends in an older pub, marvel at the Harry Potter-themed festive tourist trap Edinburgh has become, and still enjoy how bracing and striking and spookily gorgeous it is, in these short days with their bursts of sunshine through the gloom.

My talk was a bit of a Frankensteined affair, pieces of other things I’ve been writing and thinking about over the past few months, all swirling around this central point of the absence of women from the literary canon, and how we need to see that absence as political, not natural. This line of argument was galvanized by reading my imaginary best friend Ronan Farrow’s extremely gripping (and often very funny) Catch & Kill on the flight over, about his battle to report out the open secret of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women. The story becomes about trying to navigate between individual experiences—and weaknesses, and crimes—and systemic injustices and inequities. In some ways this seems to me to be the biggest problem of our moment: our intense attachment to individualism, to fame and personality, versus our unwillingness to see ourselves as part of a system—still less victims of a system, cogs in a machine. We want to believe we have so much more power, more freedom of choice, than we do.

Friday wasn’t a joyful day in Britain, and certainly not in Scotland.** The jarring mismatch between small personal victories and large political horrors is a little too much sometimes. On those days, you need friends and you need food. Ali took me to the venerable Edinburgh deli Valvona & Crolla that’s now an outpost in the still-more-venerable Jenner’s department store, and we bought shortbread and tablet and honey and nougat in decorative tins, then took refuge among the well-upholstered lunching ladies at one of the tendrils of The Ivy that have recently unfurled from Covent Garden. A chain it may be now, but it’s a chain with a wide marble bar and comfortable bar stools, good drinks and good light, with lots of cut glass and polish to reflect it back.* By mid-afternoon our hotel had laid on mulled wine and mince pies, and the staff were resplendent in Christmas jumpers, and I was informed that this was now a Thing in mid-December. SantaCon with less commitment, though arguably just as many casualties. In search of a restaurant that wasn’t booked out for office parties, Ali and I went to the delightful Howie’s that evening, where I ate an excellent steak followed by a sticky toffee pudding, and pulled my first cracker of the season.

* Plenty of people have opinions about restaurant volume, but restaurant lighting is of underrated importance. I am willing to be a highly-paid wattage-and-candle-placement consultant, as an offshoot of my already-thriving fantasy business, For The Love Of God Proofread Your Menu.

** Incidentally I have decided that Sunday is a better day for this letter than Friday moving forward. It’s a slower, more reflective day, both for writing and reading. I hope you’ll stick with me, and please do pass it on if you’re so inclined.

Loading more posts…