farewell to spring

My niece and her excellent husband safely married, we flew home (via shenanigans) to find our little home and our pride of housecats lovingly tended by yarnivore.

Driving to the barn last Friday I had to brake from 65 to a dead stop in the fast lane. The physical shock of deceleration meant I didn’t panic when the BMW that had been tailgating me had to drive up onto the soft shoulder to avoid hitting me. The traffic crawled for twenty minutes around the golf course near Crystal Springs. No one got impatient because as fire trucks and ambulances pushed through us it became evident that whatever had happened was very bad.

The highway patrol was letting one lane through. As I drove past I saw a tarp covering something instantly recognizable in the middle of the empty lanes. I saw a red hatchback crumpled up against the middle divider, and I think I saw the driver’s face, a woman, bereft.

i found a news story afterward that said her passenger had tried to cross the four lanes of 280 to get help, and that he had not survived.

He has haunted me all week. I rode Lenny that afternoon. His coat is like satin over hard muscle. He looks like a war horse. I’d be scared of his vigor if I didn’t already know how to dance with him. My garden is putting on a last glorious show before the heat. My Matilija poppy and hummingbird sage are flowering for the first time. Last night I cut two Frog Hollow peaches into rough cubes and put them in Hendricks and tonics to drink out on the deck while my friends the crows serenaded us.

The world is changing and I have never loved my life more. I feel them all around me, all the dead, and I try to make sure their deaths mattered. I feel him too, trying to get across the freeway to Crystal Springs. What they whisper is that this coffee, this little garden, this breath of wind, life, is a gift.

panic! at the bookshop

Back in Sydney after more than three years, the longest I have ever been gone. There’s trams now. We’re staying in a beautiful Victorian terrace house in Surry Hills. Magpies and lorikeets sing in the trees. The rain is bucketing down and despite few hopes for the election, on Saturday the godawful Federal government washed away.

I still can’t seem to travel without getting untidy emotions everywhere. I timed my meltdown for Gleebooks, which feels more like home than anywhere else I have visited on this trip, filling my arms with history books as if they’d stop up my leaky heart.

saturday

Riding our bikes to the beach or GG Park used to be An Event, and now it’s just what we do on a sunny Saturday when we have no other plans. All the colorful houses looked brilliant and happy. We stopped at wushu to catch up with Philip and wholeheartedly recommend “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” The dunes were reclaiming Great Highway, and there was a huge party along car-free JFK, a place so joyful that it can make a middle-aged murderbot question her misanthropy.

The Presidio has a new park, Battery Bluffs. We found and explored it, then turned towards home via Crissy Field and Marina Green. There was a Ukraine protest at the Ferry Building, and games at both the ballpark and the stadium. At Crane Cove we lay on the grass by the water, my with my head on Jeremy’s lap. I read a fantastic fic about the gay pirates, got a little sunburned. This city, you guys, my God, it’s so fucking good.

american savannah

Driving home from a fantastic riding lesson with Carrie (Lenny swinging his back and reaching forward into the bridle), I stopped the car by the side of the road to watch a great blue heron standing on the green hill of the horsepasture.

The heron considered me gravely before returning its attention to a gopher hole at its feet. Faster than thought, it struck and lifted out a soft, blind gopher baby.

To my surprise the heron dropped the baby at once. It fluffed out the creamy feathers on its S of a neck, opened its beak, reared back its head and raised its crest, all dinosaur threat. Before I had a second to marvel, a bright shadow flew in the heron’s face. The heron spread its wings and climbed into the air like a pterodactyl.

A golden eagle landed on the gopher, mantled over it to glare at me, then flew away with the prey in its talons.

vignette

A twenty-minute meeting cancelled at the last moment. I snuck outside into the garden; a guilty pleasure of working from home. We’re having a heat wave and the air is flower-fragrant and full of bees, like it is in the south of France.

I took the cats with me. There are rules. Thimble has to wear a collar with a locator tag, because she loves to vault the fence into the neighbors’ gardens. Since last Memorial Day, when she terrified us by staying away a night and a day, her jaunts seldom last more than an hour. But I fret – there are coyotes on our street. The tag lets us play a cheery mechanical tune. Fugitive cat sonar.

Hazel has to wear a harness with a tag on it. She occasionally tries to jump the fence but isn’t as fast or determined as Thimble. It’s easier to pluck her down. The harness is to acclimate her, so that she can be a good college companion animal for kid the elder.

Alice is not required to wear any equipment. She has jumped the fence twice but is mostly an amiable plush bowling ball.

I did some more weeding. There is always weeding. Thimble rolled luxuriantly on the concrete. Hazel sphinxed narrow-eyed on the lawn. I overshot my mini-break by three minutes and had to race back inside. I scooped Hazel and herded Thimble, but Alice was hidden in the Melica imperfecta and I couldn’t locate her in a hurry. I sent Jeremy out for retrieval. He couldn’t find her easily either. When he brought her back in, her fur was brown and hot from the sun, and dusted with pollen.

putting the mans in mansfield park

The title is Jeremy’s excellent joke about Bridgerton, occasioned by my return to reading Austen (“Do you read novels?” “Yes! All six, every year.”) I began this time with Mansfield Park, long my least favorite for all the reasons it’s usually people’s least favorite; Fanny and Edmund are a bit dull. Reading it this time around, though, I was struck by how very much this book is not a romance novel or any kind of love story.

The title Mansfield Park could be arguably related to the judge whose famous verdict stated, “The state of slavery… is so odious… whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore, the black must be discharged” (White). The irony of such a title would no doubt have appealed to Austen.  Bertram’s country estate was supported by a slave driven economy.  By naming his estate Mansfield Park, Austen was delivering a quiet jab at slavery, an institution against which its namesake struck a blow thirty years earlier.

Austen and Antigua – Slavery in Her Time

The third act of Mansfield Park consists of Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny, and of the efforts of Sir Thomas, Mary and even Edmund to persuade Fanny to accept him. Henry is rich. His feelings for Fanny, once frivolous, have become sincere. She is a good influence on him. Fanny herself is poor. Henry is offering far more than she can reasonably expect to command on the open marriage market; there will never be another offer like it. Sir Thomas – her uncle, the slaveowner – is at pains to point this out to her; along with the fact that Fanny owes Sir Thomas for her care and education since she was nine years old. This would be an acceptable return on his investment.

Fanny says no. Being Fanny, she doesn’t say it with the panache of Lizzie Bennet rejecting Mr Collins or Darcy Proposal #1, but she does say no. Despite the awful powers arrayed against her, of family feeling, obligation, economics, reputation, and even (in Edmund’s case) real affection for her and concern for her interests, she holds to her inner truth, which is that she dislikes Henry and always will.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane said of Mansfield Park: “Now I shall try to write of something else, & it shall be a complete change of subject–ordination.” Edmund’s taking orders is part of the plot and the main driver of his conflict with Mary. His ambitions are modest, but through the church he hopes to have a small part in making the world a better place. Mary’s ambitions are vast and selfish; at her peak, she hopes for Edmund’s brother to die, so that she can marry an Edmund who stands to inherit his father’s baronetcy and estate.

But I wonder sometimes if Jane was hinting at the other meanings of ordination. Putting things in their proper order: Tom is the first son, and Edmund is the second. Plotting co-ordinates on a Cartesian plane: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Social order: no one getting ideas above their proper station. Austen never directly compares Fanny’s position to those of Sir Thomas’s slaves in Antigua, thank God, because that would be unconscionable. But Fanny’s constraints are real. She can’t have a fire in her room. She can’t choose to visit her family, and once there, she can’t choose to return to Mansfield Park.

Fanny has precisely two degrees of freedom. She can think, and she can feel. She thinks a lot. She’s a reader and a nature lover. Her eye for gardens and landscapes, which I skimmed over when I was younger, is a lot more resonant now that I have arrived at my own connection with my ecosystem and watershed.

And she feels, most notably, antipathy towards Henry. Her steadfastness in refusing him overturns the social order, which dictates that she has no choice but to accept such a superficially advantageous match. In refusing him, Fanny sets his material wealth at a lower value than her own integrity. It’s an affront in a society like hers (and ours) that prioritizes extractive capitalism – cruelty and greed – over every other consideration, including personhood and the sustainability of the planet itself.

Settler colonialism works by violently severing the connection between a person and their personhood, and between communities and their land. The potential energy released by that severance is captured and hoarded as wealth and inequity. In this year of our Lord 20 and 22 we still struggle to know the truths of our own secret heart, because the state would prefer that we didn’t transgress its preordained categories for us. Those of us who are settlers still live in alien countries on stolen land, the names of whose wild things are lost. We haven’t moved past Mansfield Park. We haven’t even started.

orwell’s roses, by rebecca solnit

Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.

the dawn of everything, by david graeber and david wengrow

The Roman Law conception of natural freedom is essentially based on the power of the individual (by implication, a male head of household) to dispose of his property as he sees fit.

the riddle of the labyrinth, by margalit fox

Gender inflection is a hallmark of the Indo-European language family

the disordered cosmos, by chanda prescod-weinstein

It is unclear whether I am making it through because I have been assimilated or through the brute force of my own will and imagination.

the overstory, by richard powers

Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered

thirteen books that wowed me in 2021

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Vita Nostra

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945

California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World

The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Some obvious common themes from 2020: Californian and indigenous history and strong landscape writing, digging deeper into both the land itself (Entangled Life, Finding the Mother Tree, Believers) and the past (Fifth Sun, The White Possessive, California Through Native Eyes.) Entangled Life and Finding the Mother Tree are both wonderful books that richly deserved to be referenced by Coach Beard in Ted Lasso (I squealed) but Believers introduced me to the indelible Finisia Medrano and thereby snuck in the win. I wish I’d met her.

Meanwhile my jonesing for history got loose and I dug into being on the wrong side of World War Two, being a woman in ancient Rome, and domesticating horses. A Chill in the Air and Hiroshima Diary were perversely comforting, in this year of democracy slipping away. They are proof that a person can live on the wrong side of history and still be a thinking, feeling, ethical being. I needed that reassurance. I described A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as I, Claudius if it had been written by Tamsyn Muir, and now I would like for all of history to be rewritten by profane queer feminists, please and thank.

This was the year I finally, viscerally understood what Becky Chambers is trying to do; something about stepping outside the imperialism of the monomyth and finding a more networked, interconnected, forest-like approach to narrative. I loved A Psalm for the Wild-Built so much that I went back and reread everything of hers, only actually, you know, getting it this time. Slow learner. Oh well.

I also reread The Dark Is Rising, The Doomsday Book (huge pandemic kick in the pants. Huge) and my beloved The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which last was an INCREDIBLE gateway drug to Vita Nostra, speaking of stepping outside the imperialist narrative, a masterpiece and a surprise standout of the year. So good I made Jeremy read it. You should too.

vita nostra, by marina and sergey dyachenko

…paragraphs and exercises, the familiar strain and tiny achievements, the ordinary labor of anyone who desires to learn—all this turned out to be the point of Sasha’s existence.

the valis trilogy, by philip k dick

“Time is a child at play, playing draughts; a child’s is the kingdom.” As Heraclitus wrote twenty-five hundred years ago. In many ways this is a terrible thought. The most terrible of all. A child playing a game . . . with all life, everywhere.

snapshot

The rains started again in earnest yesterday. We had some good rain in November and my garden is brilliant with sprouts, both the sown and desired native wildflowers and my doughty adversaries, Bermuda buttercups, catchgrass bedstraw, white-ramping fumitory and pellitory-of-the-wall. A second soaking will set us up for a beautiful, if weedy, meadow in the spring.

After living for almost twenty years in uninsulated San Francisco Victorians, it feels like a miracle to sit in our warm house watching the raindrops run down the windows. The cats complain about missing their supervised outdoor time but I am curled up with my laptop under a wool blanket my kid crocheted, next to our fragrant Douglas fir Christmas tree. It’s a good week at work, two programs happily completed, a new one in its most exciting nascent phase, my team fresh off meeting in person, energized and seamless.

lanark, by alasdair gray

…life in a city near the sea or near the mountains where the sun shines for an average of half the day. My house would have a living room, big kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom for each of the family, and my work would be so engrossing that while I did it I would neither notice nor care if I was happy or sad.

beautiful world, where are you? by sally rooney

When I try to picture for myself what a happy life might look like, the picture hasn’t changed very much since I was a child—a house with flowers and trees around it, and a river nearby, and a room full of books, and someone there to love me, that’s all.

believers, by lisa wells

The truth, according to Finisia, was simple: our purpose on earth is to tend and keep the garden of God’s original planting.

no one is talking about this, by patricia lockwood

What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract?

more

After a pretty good run of books, including two history/biographies each of Imperial Rome, the First Fleet, the Donner Party and Hollywood in the seventies (spoiler: it’s settler colonialism all the way down), I have come to an annoying halt. You know when you pick up this book and that and you KNOW they’re good and if you were in another mood you would devour them, but today, eh? That.

Mostly, I think, it’s that I want to read more books exactly like Emma Southon’s Agrippina and A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Imagine I, Claudius rewritten by Tamsyn Muir: hilarious, serious, queer and profane.

I want this kind of telling of my own history, but the closest I found were the biographies of Esther Johnston, my umpty-great grandmother the Jewish convict and First Lady of New South Wales (Esther), and of her contemporary – NOT friend – Elizabeth Macarthur (A Room Made of Leaves). Weirdly, both books end halfway through the story, with Esther’s triumphant closure being social acknowledgment by Elizabeth, while Elizabeth’s is feeling a sense of connection to her Paramatta farm despite knowing perfectly well that she had wrested the land from it’s traditional custodians.

I mean, those narrative choices make sense when you consider that Esther died an alcoholic widow and Elizabeth’s entire life was mythologized to justify the attempted genocide of the indigenous people. The true stories are kind of a bummer and don’t fit traditional (imperialist) Chosen One story structures. But this is where Emma Southon is so fucking good. Agrippina’s story is also embedded in histories of violent dispossession and oppression, but Southon embraces the ambiguity and complicity and tragedy. Plus there are jokes and swears.

The Donner Party books – The Indifferent Stars Above and The Best Land Under Heaven – came closer to scratching that itch if only because there is no way to frame that story as anything like a triumph. The worst you can do (and this has been done plenty) is to cast it as a weird aberration, a sort of Californian Dyatlov Pass incident, whereas in fact it’s the logical consequence of white Western expansionism, manifest destiny literally eating its young.

And that’s how you get the US state of California, superimposed (by force) on the Bear Flag Republic and the Mexican Californios and Spanish Alta California and before and throughout all of that a landscape of indigenous cultures and languages maybe as ancient and diverse as those in Papua New Guinea. I went on to read The Mighty Franks and Hollywood’s Eve, both of which have to reckon with the titanic legacy of Joan Didion, the ur-pioneer. And look, back in the 90s I venerated Didion like any other young white woman would-be new journalist, but when you read Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting and are reminded of her callous line on El Salvador, “Terror is the given of the place,” that veneration turns a little sour. Given by whom, exactly?

Hollywood’s Eve makes a decent case for Eve Babitz – sensualist, humanist – as a counterpoint to Didion’s ironic analyst, but it’s weird and deeply Californian that each in the wake of profound personal tragedy has taken a hard right turn. I can’t think of a neat way to end this post. History, and especially history with white women in it, is just like this: frustrating, messy and inconclusive.