Strong enough to hold a ship, able to slip through fingers; Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

There’s this Langston Hughes poem, “Brand New Clothes,” that we recited at Holy Savior Academy. I was in preschool, it was my first school and it was filled with girls and boys who looked like me. We were in an auditorium for a recital or performance of some sort. In unison, we recited the name of the poem and author, dragging out the vowels in each word of “by Langston Hughes” in that sing-songy voice particular to young children on stage. Our teacher, or the older children – I can’t really remember, my memory’s never been that good – recited the lines and we repeated them.

My mama told me – 

You better get off your knees with those

brand new clothes on

Last year at this time, I was having the best day and drove to downtown Lawrence to listen to some prose and poetry and eat cake. On that day, it only just crossed my mind how serendipitous it was that Langston Hughes’s birthday ushers us into February. The Singer of America, The Speaker of Rivers. Who else could do it so well?

In the children’s section of a used bookstore at the border of Berkeley and Oakland I saw a book of Langston Hughes’s poetry and I picked it up and scanned each page. I tried to find the words I know from back then, but I didn’t find them. I never do. It always makes me doubt my memory, what’s real and what really happened. Have I known rivers? Rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins? Has my soul grown deep like the rivers?

We said the next part of the poem in unison:

But mama, I’m already down

May I stay down?

She said no. And she had her way.

That’s why I’m so clean today.

The answer is yes, I have. The answer is of course. The answer is to emphasize the “too” in “I, Too, Sing America.” The answer is that this month and this history belong to all of us in the same way that America does. The answer is that I hope the girls and boys who read that book of Langston Hughes poetry will get something lodged into that space of memory between interpretation and understanding and sing of rivers, or America, too.

Aren’t birthdays the best?

Langston Hughes

her failure was a useful preliminary to success

Last week I finished Edith Wharton’s 1920s investigation of changing cultural norms in The Custom of the Country. The protagonist, Undine Spragg, is a conspicuous consumer and a social climber with a prime spot for advancement in the changing landscape of 1920s New York, where the divide between old money and everyone else began to vanish as industrialization and extreme capitalism found their way into society.

The rows of girls and boys in my class dressed in such conspicuous brand names that they might as well be wearing dollar signs, quickly claimed their resentment of Undine. Her obsession with appearance is disgusting, they said. Her behavior is selfish and crass—why would Edith Wharton write such an awful character? They take her as a caricature and ignore their reflections in her words and actions.

I finish the five hundred page book quickly and I’m embarrassed to see myself at sixteen, eighteen and sometimes even now, as a reflection of parts of Undine. I think of ambition and how quickly it can ruin lives when unchecked. I think about my goals…

Last semester, during a random book sale on campus, I bought a copy of The Age of Innocence, Edith’s Pulitzer winning novel. I meant to read it that Spring, which turned into last summer and now I’ve set it in a longer, more realistic timeline.

That timeline simplifies everything and adds it as a task in my growing list of 43 Things.

The goal is this: I want to read Edith Wharton’s first twelve novels.

She wrote 22 novels but published multiple essays and collections of short stories. For now, this is a perfect starting point. I have Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of innocence. I think I can knock out at least two of them by April.

1. The Touchstone, 1900

2. The Valley of Decision, 1902

3. Sanctuary, 1903

4. The House of Mirth, 1905

5. Madame de Treymes, 1907

6. The Fruit of the Tree, 1907

7. Ethan Frome, 1911

8. The Reef, 1912

9. The Custom of the Country, 1913

10. Summer, 1917

11. The Marne, 1918

12. The Age of Innocence, 1920

If you click the link above, you can find a list of 19 goals I’d like to accomplish. My number one goal? To find a REAL goal!

Two weeks ago, when I was feeling especially overwhelmed with my life and obligations, I met with a time management advisor who asked me to list at least three goals I had.

And man, why didn’t anyone tell me about that dunce cap I had been wearing for the past year? I had been goalless! I failed to reflect on anything that I was doing and I wasn’t moving towards anything. I have a few things listed on actual paper that I shared with the advisor and I’m getting there.

Here’s to another week of living. Celebrate it!

judging a book by its cover

Before we moved in 2009, my father’s college textbooks used to travel with us from house to house.  I remember the orange “used” stickers dotting the sides of seemingly random psychology books and novels in the basement and all around my parent’s bedrooms.

My introduction to classic literature came from talking vegetables and time-traveling dogs, but I was surrounded by it from birth.

I read a book about Mr. Blue’s Farm, then read Animal Farm.

I watched Veggie Tales’ Grapes of Wrath, then attempted Steinbeck’s novel.

Unlike Animal Farm, I couldn’t get by with a notebook full of unknown words and a dictionary.  I put it down after ten or twelve pages and haven’t gone back since.  I’ll probably need to add that to my “Need to Read” list.

I read Catcher in the Rye sometime in my pre-teen years and was later confused by the barrage of teenagers claiming it as their favorite book.  When I read it I was emotionally too far away from the hopelessly introspective and downtrodden spirit of Holden Caulfield and now I’m too far away from that period of angst to take it seriously.

But I learned a valuable lesson from that book: teenagers who count Catcher in the Rye among their favorite books are almost always the most boring people in the room.  This book marked my last adolescent stint with “college” level reading materials and my introduction to the adult (as in grown-up, NOT skeeze)  fiction section at the public library.

In my hometown, the public library let you check out adult fiction books when you turned eleven but only let you check out DVDs after you turned thirteen.  So at first I read books based on movies I couldn’t see–the top two being White Oleander and Riding in Cars With Boys.  Then when those ran out, I simply judged the books by their covers.

The most memorable covers came from Julianna Baggott,

And, as previously mentioned, Jacqueline Susann:

Methinks it was just an attraction to the color pink…but, it served me well.  By (ruthlessly) judging books by their covers I was introduced to fantastic female authors and the books taught me about the little bits of crazy hiding in everyone.

Win/Win.

StolenSpace, a gallery in East London, is currently hosting a gallery featuring book covers reinterpreted by different artists.

And if ever there was an argument for judging books by their covers, this would be it.  Here are a few of my favorites:

How could you not pick this book up?

Bridget Jones' Diary.

I think that last one is my favorite.  I am not above getting “no emotional fuckwittage” tattooed on me.

to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision of eternity

Everyone I meet is the most interesting person in the world.

Like–

Nine year old Micky, short for Mickolas.

Micky’s dad is a professor of music and he has lived in Germany for “a while”, at least.  I couldn’t even hear an accent.

He knows how to get to the games on his dad’s iPhone and, because he’s small for his age, humors the men who pass by and pat him on his head.

He had stickers of lizards on his shoes.

And Thaddeus.

The first day I saw him was on a Thursday downtown.  I know it was Thursday because those were my treat nights.  I’d park my car in the garage, get a waffle cone full of freshly made cookie dough ice cream and watch Cary Grant movies outside when the sun went down.

He’s three and a half and doesn’t mind when his shoes are on the wrong feet.  When he speaks you have to lean in to hear and even then you have to really listen to discern the words.

And Linda, whose name is engraved in a plaque in our chapel and who gets down on her hands and knees to tend to the flower gardens that are surely someone else’s problem and who finds solutions and introduces herself when you know who she is and always carries with her an aura of class and grace, even with dirt on her blouse.

If you let it be, the graffiti that inspired Justin Taylor to write a book is true: Everything here is the best thing ever.

day 151. henry rollins.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a great Henry Rollins quote while searching for David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College.

Among the many great quotes I found, this one was my favorite:

“I believe that today, more than ever, a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it. We must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and the soul.”

With all the carefully packaged bullshit made to look like well thought out novels, this quote is encouragement. It is encouraging us as readers to get out there and read and find the truly great stories hidden somewhere in all that mass produced bullshit.

I even want to take this quote so far as to just say that it encourages us to find the beauty in everything, no matter how awful some things may seem. Because there’s life in everything, and in life we find lessons, beauty, and, best of all, truth.

day 139. my real summer treat.

I can hardly tear myself away from Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Yes, the national bestseller that the James McAvoy/Keira Knightley film is based off of.

Ian McEwan is an extraordinary writer. No, not just extraordinary, he’s phenomenal. Inspiring. INCENDIARY.

Yes, INCENDIARY.

I absorb every paragraph I read and am overcome with a desire to mimic his style, form, creativity and overall genius. Jesus, reading Atonement makes me want to be Ian McEwan.

The writing is so smooth, the thoughts flow easily, even as the point of view shifts from character to character. Even though I’ve seen the film, there is so much depth and intricacy behind each and every word that there are still new discoveries to be found in the story.

It’s a life-affirming thing to be reading this wonderful work of fiction. It affirms to me, once again, that I want to be a part of this art. I want to create.

And I will.

So, yes, incendiary.