Near and Far
Thoughts on family
From my Instagram
Hello to new subscribers and old.
To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
- Wendell Berry
Don’t Let it Get Near Me
If you are just a little selfish1, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”
That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teenager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”
What an intriguing little moment in this article about Lydia Davis, who is a favourite writer2 of mine, in The New Yorker. Also, imagine the step-mother of your children is also a writer and does this to you? Oof.
I keep thinking about an observation shared with me by a colleague from a lecture they saw delivered by some neuroscience leadership expert on the dangers with empathy in leadership. That it makes people more confident, not more accurate in their assessment of others. Empathy leads people to fill in their own narrative, apparently.
Is this true? Talk about one step forward, two steps back.
Dismantling the Family as Institution
You seem very interested in the family as an institution, and you also write about the university, the artist residency, and so on. Your approach to dismantling institutions seems to be not through politics but through humor. Does that seem right to you?
I would add that friendship is so powerful. Friendship dismantles the family, dilutes and complicates it, forces it to zag or stagger backward, remixes it, causes it to bend, relent, or in some cases disappear. Friendship might expose the family—ever ask a friend to come with you to a family event so that people will be on better behavior? It can help you figure out what is or isn’t tolerable, or show you different speeds of and options for love. It can of course enhance the family in all kinds of ways, too. And I actually like institutionality. But I think a radical thing to do within institutions is to form friendships.
From an interview with Caren Beilin by Sheila Heti in The Paris Review.
More on Dismantling the Family as Institution
This goes against the tenets of most popular contemporary parenting styles, like RIE and gentle parenting. In her recent critical appraisal of these philosophies, Jessica Winter writes, “The gently parented child, the theory goes, learns to recognize and control her emotions because a caregiver is consistently affirming those emotions as real and important.”
But also: A child cared for by people other than their parents might learn to control their emotions because a caregiver is consistently affirming that they belong to a real and important community with certain norms and expectations.
Does it make you sad to think of a child self-censoring their worries? Maybe it shouldn’t. The gentle-parenting movement would seem to argue that children are so intelligent, so intuitive, that to diminish them in any way would be unfair. But what if their intelligence can be encouraged in other ways, such as observing their communities buzzing around them and having to figure out, by trial and error, how to find their place within them? Climate disasters and workplace exploitation honor no one’s individuality. Our kids will need the support of their communities to agitate for system change. Raising them as the emotional navels of their households is not likely to prepare them for that work.
From Kathryn Jezer-Morton in “Oxygenate the Family Unit” in the Brooding Newsletter for The Cut.
Revisiting/Reframing Old Memories of Your Family
The past and the present are in constant dialogue, acting upon one another in a kind of reciprocal pressure dance.
- Sarah Polley
The fossil is not the animal.
The fossil is not the bones of the animal.
The fossil is the stone’s memory of the bones of the animal.
And that’s a poetry older than words.
- Jarod K. Anderson
My Friend as My Sister, My Friend as Their Aunt
“I am watching, I am watching with my Godmother eyes”. I think about fairy godmothers, like in Sleeping Beauty, and how they keep watch for malicious, magical forces.
I saw this moment in him. My son had switched places. My daughter was regressing, as transition through something. The revisiting to resolve. And he became the eldest, like regenerative healing.
Sense of Self
“I don’t think life is real unless some things are just for you. Things that should not or cannot be shared. I think the younger generation is going to have a hard time distinguishing whether something is for them or for others, and I think it could play out as a diminished sense of self. You really have to know what you would do if no one else was watching. Like the story about Robert Redford when the elevator door is closing and someone asks him, ‘Are you the real Robert Redford?’ And he said, ‘Only when I’m alone.’”
- Donald Glover
While Packing the Car for a Night Away
Me: I think it is time for you to get a bit more capable, I think.. umm… I think..
My thirteen year old son: Mum, you’re rambling.
Me: I was getting to a point.
My son: I don’t think we are going to have an epiphany about my laziness while we’re packing.
Me: When else?
This is a lovely piece from Kimberley Harrington in her newsletter, where she explores the dual freedom of her kids becoming teenage adults, and finally experiencing the rites of passage denied them during the thick of the pandemic, in combination with her own freedom, emerging from out of a dead marriage3.
Over the past couple of months I’ve been the happiest I’ve been in a very, very long time. Not happier than when my kids were little (or teenagers or at any of those sweet spots in between) or when my marriage was good or when I loved any of my jobs or got my first book deal or a number of other moments I could pluck from my personal timeline, it’s just that this is different and it’s new. It’s a way I’ve never felt before, or at least not in exactly the same way I’m feeling and experiencing it now.
We Need More Words
Another essay explores your difficulty in describing an encounter you had in the 1970s, which you talk about having previously spoken of as rape, although you felt “the truth is not at all clear, then or even now”. Your honesty about this seems intended to complicate our ideas about sexual responsibility.
That was written even before we really got where we are now [since #MeToo] but I think the one thing I said that still applies is that probably a new word, or many new words, should be invented for different kinds of sexual cruelty or violence. People sometimes say rape when they mean something else. A lot of bad things can happen that aren’t rape, but rape is rape.
Did you write This Is Pleasure to make that point?
I wrote it in less than a year – for me that’s really fast – and I wrote it partly out of my own confusion [in the wake of #MeToo] and because I really felt strongly that I needed to: there’s something way too clearcut in public about a situation that is not clearcut.
From an interview with Mary Gaitskill in The Guardian.
Over the Hills and Far Away
A mother friend invited me to reconnect. I had fallen out of the loop with her some time ago. She and her husband had gotten a little intense about parenting their teenagers4 right at the time when I was struggling with mine. I had trouble relating to the control issues, and then later, was too fragile for the possibility of disapproval.
In the coffee shop she told me that all her teenage children were now angry and leaving home, even the youngest, still finishing school. I ached for her with the unfairness of it. She had only tried to keep them safe. It was like that nursery rhyme, Five Little Ducks.
Are chickens such an effective tonic to climate change anxiety because they’re dinosaurs?
Friends come up from Melbourne to visit and I take them outside. Look. Here are the chickens. Then I sit with my friends and watch the birds forage in the dirt. I do this on several separate occasions before it occurs to me that perhaps this activity might bore my visitors; that perhaps I’ve lost touch with what people consider fun.
Whenever I’m around farmers, I become embarrassed about my relationship to my chooks. One afternoon, Seedy, my white silkie, got watermelon juice in the feathers of her head pouf (not sure if technical term), so I gave her a bath in the laundry trough. I took a photo of her after she’d been shampooed and put it on Instagram. A friend of mine, who is a farmer with hundreds of chooks, sent me a message: “Haha what are you doing??”
From “On Chickens” by Caitlin McGregor in Going Down Swinging.
My Favourite Kind of Date
When you return I am going to give you one literary fuck fest - that means fucking and talking and talking and fucking - and a bottle of Anjou in between - or a Vermouth Cassis.
- Henry Miller in a letter to Anaïs Nin.
My Second Favourite Kind of Date
Give me a few days of peace in your arms - I need it terribly. I’m ragged, worn, exhausted. After that I can face the world.
- Henry Miller in a letter to Anaïs Nin.
Over the years, I’ve realized that my failures are not wholly a product of my own individual weaknesses—which are many, to be sure—or of Alex’s individual struggles—which are also many—but rather symptomatic of how freaking hard it is to be a stepparent and a stepchild. It doesn’t matter, I think, how caring or successful or wise or present the stepparent is; the stepchild can love the stepfather with all their heart and still never feel at home with him in the same way they feel at home with their genetic father. Stepparents must meet much higher standards, as perhaps they should, if they want children to feel safe with them.
I have plenty of opportunities to screw up. We have primary custody, which means that I’ve spent a lot of time cooking for Alex and cleaning up after them and monitoring their chores and making sure they brush their teeth before bed. But, come Father’s Day, I don’t get a card from anyone acknowledging my place in Alex’s life; there is never any appreciation or gratitude. How can there be? To honor me, the stepfather, would be to dishonor Alex’s father. This feels normal, even to me.
From Jeremy Adam Smith in the Greater Good Magazine.
Recently I saw a clip from The Osbournes TV show. When I last saw the show I was in my twenties and had firmly identified with the teenage children, who I saw as skittering about, continually knocked off course by the befuddlement and lunacy of their father. Now, to my surprise, I empathised with Ozzy Osbourne, the middle-aged rock star. In the scene, he was tidying the kitchen and then found the bin filled to capacity with an inflated balloon.
“Who would put a fucking balloon in the trash can?” he asked in exasperation. But you immediately knew who – one of the teenage children. “Burst the fucking thing,” he huffed. He looked as worn out as I feel.
This is what it is to live with teenagers. All these moments of disregard and random chaos that teenagers generate, and they accumulate in you.. and before long you are stumbling about in a state of confusion and exhaustion, looking not unlike Ozzy.
I Am Always Collecting Pieces Written About This Stage of Parenting - So, Here is One on the End of High School Exams
Another small mercy: it means the phoney war of “study leave” has staggered to an overdue end. No longer can the optimum length of break be tersely debated; calming procrasti-playlists crafted and revision timetables reverse-engineered. Parents are no longer gathering in kitchens to whisper-debate whether there’s any way the noise of digital armed combat they can hear could possibly be chemistry related.
Indeed, as parents, this feels like what all our years of being increasingly pointless and powerless have been working towards. It is, if you will, our non-moment: we’re supremely useless.
From Emma Beddington in The Guardian.
My husband is heavily tattooed. He has a little swagger in his walk, too. I suspect it comes from his working class roots. By that I mean both that he grew up knowing to hold his ground, but also that over the years his body has been injured by workplaces that treat young men’s physical strength like cheap machines. Men with old injuries walk purposefully - probably to guard against a catching pain, but it can look like arrogance, like a strut.
It is interesting to observe how certain progressive middle class people treat my husband when they meet. Middle class, myself, I slip into the group unnoticed and so see the instant they register him. Sometimes they talk to him loudly and firmly, like he is going to be an unruly child. Other times they seem to want to win him over in conversation - ‘dumbing it down’ or ‘butching it up’ for what they expect he needs. Other times they flirt with him, even the seemingly straight men.
I am insulted by how patronising it all is, but I am also struck by this capacity for facade in middle class people. We are chameleons. Ready to please or put down. And, always trying to look relaxed.
That very middle class thing - needing to be seen as relaxed. No wonder John Howard told Australians he wanted them “comfortable and relaxed” under his leadership. So, I am both annoyed and relieved when people have spoken to my husband long enough to learn that he has been to university, works for a hospital, plays musical instruments, adores Renaissance art and identifies with feminism.. and then they can just relax again.
But, the experience has exposed a bias of my own, too. You cannot pick who among the middle class will be hypocrites with their snobbery. I have seen medical specialists and lawyers greet him warmly in social settings, while university academics and artists flinch. You just never can tell.
The Ability to See
I am thinking of something I saw on the subway in the early Eighties, perhaps 1982. I was sitting at the end of the last car on an express train and saw three or four boys — in my memory they are 11-13 years old, maybe younger — grouped around the back window, staring out of it with pure absorption. Curious, I stood to look over their shoulders and saw what they were so raptly taking in: the piercing combination of speed and density as the train gathered momentum and hammered through the massive concrete and metal tunnels, our view herking and jerking with the cars, snatching bits of burning light in metal casement, underground signage, the track flashing and going dark as we clangored through stations, past dozens of waiting humans, personalities firing off bodily messages that our eyes saw before our minds could read them. It was beautiful and the boys were radiant with it, this wordless amazement of things.
I think I remember this so vividly so many years later because even though it wasn’t “nature” the boys were looking at, the way they were looking showed natural reverence, something no one had to instruct them about. (Probably I also remember because I was young too, in my 20s, and was unconsciously forming what mattered to me, in life and in the art I was working on.) I’m sure they were not even aware of me but still, witnessing their shared seeing was like a spiritual recognition similar to what I might experience alone in my room, reading the world through the eyes of a great writer.
That may seem an odd comparison, but it makes sense to me because it is a real-life example of what I was talking about at the start of this piece, how the deep nature of stories can be revealed through descriptive imagery of small things irrelevant to the obvious narrative — unexpectedly poignant things we notice intensely or just out the corner of our eye, glimpsed patterns outside the spectrum of our daily lives.
It makes me sad to think that those same boys, if they existed today, wouldn’t be looking out the subway window because they would be staring at a phone. But even so, they would still have that ability to see in them, waiting to come alive.
- Mary Gaitskill in “The deracination of literature” in Unherd.
I highly recommend this podcast episode on the history of internet feminism on the blogosphere. It features the amazing Lauren Bruce, who founded Feministe and who is the real deal - she was a teenage single mother in a working class area and blogging was an intellectual and emotional outlet for her at the time.
Anytime you get the chance to hear Lauren reflecting on big questions, tune in. Her analysis has so much depth! This episode made me think about my blogging days on blue milk very fondly. When Lauren refers to all the guest writers on Feministe, one of them was me.
We Stopped At Perfect Days
We stopped at perfect days
and got out of the car.
The wind glanced at her hair.
It was as simple as that
I turned to say something -
- Richard Brautigan
Recommend Something to Me
We are going on a family trip to England and Scotland next year. Some of our itinerary is established, because the trip is also one of my English husband’s semi-regular trips home, and I am doing some ancestry research for myself (yes, how very middle-aged), but some of the trip is wide open. If you are from there or had a wonderful holiday there, have you anything to recommend?
We would like to see the northern lights in Scotland - is that possible? My son is very interested in medieval history. I would like to see pagan history. We like castles. We like graveyards. We like weird things. We like forests. We like deer. We like big views. We like open fields. We like art. We like museums. We like old houses. We like secret gardens.
This is a short story by Lydia Davis.
I also really enjoyed the novel by Husvedt, and had no idea at the time of reading it how autobiographical it was.
Back when I was newly a single mother I had a single mother friend who used to joke that everyone should get divorced once in their life, just to feel this freedom.
No judgement - it’s a tough time to be parenting teenagers.