There once was an unnamed demon who sat perched atop a sycamore tree beside a river somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
The unnamed demon liked the texture of the sycamore bark and began rubbing his left shoulder against it. He liked the feeling very much and continued to rub against it for several days, until all the fur on his shoulder had been worn away and the skin was red and painful.
The unnamed demon didn’t want to stop, so he did the same with his right shoulder until all the fur on that shoulder been worn away and the skin was red and painful.
With no more shoulders left to rub, the unnamed demon became bored and decided to turn into a knife. The unnamed knife demon carved the names of his seven named brothers into the trunk of the sycamore tree as well as three circles to represent himself and his two unnamed brothers.
The unnamed knife demon then rested in the grass against the base of the sycamore tree, and watched a group of eagles circle overhead. One of the eagles was far smaller than the others, and every time it tried to catch a salmon one of the bigger eagles got there first.
The unnamed knife demon soon became very fond of the small eagle, for he too had been born far smaller and and less powerful than all of his brothers.
The unnamed knife demon decided he wanted to help the small eagle, so he turned himself into a breeze and rubbed his back against the brown feathers on the eagle’s chest. He liked the feeling very much.
The unnamed breeze demon waited until he saw a salmon reflected in the eagle’s eye, and then he wrapped his arms around the small eagle’s neck and pulled it down towards the water. It swooped down far faster than any of the other eagles, and sunk its talons into the salmon. The small eagle let out a triumphant cry.
The unnamed breeze demon hopped onto the water, wrapped its arms around the small eagle, and jumped back up into the sky. He was proud to have for once accomplished something. He liked the feeling very much.
The salmon’s tail slapped repeatedly against the unnamed breeze demon’s sore shoulders. The wet scaly smacks eased the pain and he liked the feeling very much. The unnamed breeze demon used his demon magic to keep the salmon alive so that the feeling would last longer.
The small eagle tried to land, but the presence of the unnamed breeze demon kept them it the air. The small eagle let out a distressed cry, but the demon was too distracted by the salmon’s therapeutic slaps to notice. The small eagle was not wise enough to let go of the salmon.
They remained in the air for several days until the unnamed breeze demon heard the laughter of his brother Zeep. Zeep was the oldest and strongest of his brothers and was named after the joyous sounds of a child he once had saved from a mudslide.
The unnamed breeze demon looked up at the small eagle, whom he had felt so much sympathy for, and saw that its wings were limp and that its head hung lifelessly above him. It had died of exhaustion. Its talons still held the salmon which the unnamed breeze demon had kept alive with it’s demon magic. The small eagle had never stopped hoping he would get to have it for dinner.
The unnamed breeze demon’s brother Zeep laughed some more and said “Brother, from now on you shall be called Zalp, after the sound of that salmon’s tail slapping against your back.”
Zeep turned into a knife and carved Zalp’s new name in the sycamore tree where Zalp had written the names of all his named brothers. He then drew an X through the circle that had represented Zalp before he was named.
“And this crossed circle shall represent the eye of the small eagle who was once your friend.”
Zalp carried the dead eagle down to the ground. He turned into a shovel and dug a hole and then placed the dead eagle inside it. The salmon still writhed in its grip. Zalp then turned into a pile of soil and spread himself over the the dead eagle’s body.
I believe that the desire to understand and describe coffee mirrors the desire to understand ourselves and the world around us.
As humans, we construct linguistic realities to categorize and make sense of our experiences. There are feelings that are good and feelings that are bad and some people never develop a vocabulary to further sort things out. Yet, when more specific terminology is introduced we see these feelings differently. If we bring in concepts like anger, jealousy, anxiousness, and stress we view our feelings differently as they are happening. If you drill down further into the different kinds of anxiety, some might even begin to cross over from good to bad due to a different system of categorization. These complex feelings don’t exist as inherent parts of reality, they come into existence as a result of our language and systems of sorting.
Coffee can similarly be seen as just good or bad. However, when given a more specific set of terminology these categorizations become more complex and the coffee begins to taste differently too. If you learn what a hoppy beer is or a tanic wine or a peaty scotch, you file these attributes away differently and form a different conception of what is good and bad and what about it makes you feel that way. Coffee can be under-extracted, over-extracted, ashy, fruity, spicy, chocolaty, metalic, nutty, and a thousand other things but you likely wont be able to appreciate until you have the language to do so
My favourite example of this has to do with black currents.
Black currents were illegal to grow in The United States from 1911 until 2003 because they helped spread blister rust to pine trees and were seen as a threat to the logging industry. As a result, most North Americans are no longer terribly familiar with the taste of black currents, whereas they remain relatively popular in much of Europe.
As a result of this, European coffee roasters list black currents as a tasting note far more often than North American coffee roasters. Here, you are far more likely to see these flavours described as being blackberries. Anyone who has had both of these fruits can tell you that they taste quite different. Yet, certain flavours can be interpretted as being either depending on personal experience and the language used to describe these experiences.
So, despite many of these categorizations being arbitrary and based more in convention than objective reality (if that’s a thing that even exists (which it doesn’t)), they do provide a schematic for understanding human experience and are really the best thing we’ve got going. It’s rewarding to learn knew ways of describing the world and you enrich your experiences in the process. In a weird way, describing flavours between coffee sips isn’t all that different from a visit to see your therapist…although one of the two is fortunately a lot cheaper.
Every once in awhile I leave the city and stay at my parent’s house in Mission. I truly love spending time with them and these trips feel like little vacations away from the rest of my life.
One of the best things about going on a vacation is that it creates a forced separation between you and your responsibilities. If grading your student’s papers or cleaning underneath the kitchen sink are no longer even possible, you no longer feel as guilty about not doing them. For me, this is why reading a book on a camping trip is so much more relaxing than reading a book at home. There is nothing else to do, so you can truly relax and take in the book without any guilt.
When I’m not on vacation, I have a very cluttered and unfocused mind. I’ll think about how I need to do laundry, get distracted by other things, think about how I need to do laundry again, get distracted by more things, and experience a building anxiety about how I should be doing laundry but am not.
I’m sorta a mess.
However, by creating a structured schedule, I effectively take many of these daily concerns off the table and allow my mind to be more free the rest of the time. Let me give you some examples:
On Tuesdays I do my laundry and plan the following three day’s worth of meals. On Wednesdays I hang up any remaining laundry and buy groceries. On Thursdays I tidy up my room and make sure to take the time to do something creative. So on and so forth.
This may sound like an overly strict schedule, but it actually makes my days feel way more open and allows me to enjoy my leisure activities way more. If you always do your adulting at the same time each week, then you don’t need to worry about it the rest of the time.
Now if only I updated my blog with a similar level of consistency…
Don’t say “I want to read 10 books this summer.” There is no need to track your progress in books or pages.
Some books are best enjoyed when read slowly. They may be difficult or thought-provoking or emotionally overwhelming. There is no need to rush through them because your sense of progress is wavering. The time you invest may be more rewarding than spending the same amount of time reading twice as much. Other books are lighthearted and exciting and can be enjoyed at a breakneck pace and these are worth your time too. There is no need to approach them all the same way. Enjoy the page you are on, no matter how much time you spend on it. If you want to take a break and go for a walk to consider what you just read, you absolutely should. That time is valuable too.
Don’t choose shorter books because they represent more check-marks on a list or choose longer ones because they seem more impressive. Reading a single page can be just as worthwhile as reading ten, and reading a seven part series is no different than reading one book that is seven times longer than the others.
There is no need to track your progress in books or pages. There is no need to to put your life’s achievements on a graph to show that efficiency is up 25% and this could very well be the best year on record. Get up, go to work, read a good book, and don’t worry about the next one until this one is done.
My original plan was to write a fancy post about how the metafictional strategies used in John Barth’s Lost in The Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borge’s Ficciones reveal beautiful things about love, narrative, and existential dread. I then realized that almost no one would want to read that, so I decided to write about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man instead.
For those unfamilair with the term, “metafiction” refers to works of fiction that exists within other works of fiction. Perhaps the modern shorthand for this multi-layered approach to storytelling is just to whisper the word “Inception” and go “OoooOOoh!” However, I assure you that the concept already existed is a pre-Christopher Nolan world…if you can even imagine such a thing.
One of the oldest examples of this device is in Arabian Nights, a work dear to both Barth and Borges. A giant web of stories is held together by an outer layer in which Scheherazade and her sister continually delay their execution at the hands of the king by telling a long story in which characters tell stories containing more characters who tell even more stories. Every night ends in a cliffhanger that convinces the king to keep them alive one more night in order to hear the story’s conclusion the following day. This outermost story Scheherazade and her sister is called the “frame tale” while the stories they tell would be considered “metafiction.”
The first time I encountered this device was in second grade when I was introduced to the greatest children’s book ever written: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. The main character in this underrated literary classic is Jack (of Beanstalk fame) who plays the role of a stage director attempting to assemble a collection of fairly stupid tales. Here, Jack’s story is the frame tale and the stories he tells are the metafiction. Things go awry from the very beginning, when The Little Red Hen shows up on the patterned endpaper before we even get to the title page. She is unhappy with both the lack of help she has received in making her bread and the lack of help she has received in telling her story. As a kid, this was the first time I had ever even considered the existence of title pages and ISBN numbers and seeing them mocked was a revelation for the 8 year old me. The physical book that surrounds the frame tale that surrounds the fairly stupid tales is something that The Stinky Cheese Man delights in commenting upon and it irreparably changed the way I thought about books.
Jack completely fails to assemble a coherent book and the whole thing is an undeniable disaster. His inability to keep the characters in check prepares the reader for the subversive nature of the fairly stupid tales themselves. They’re almost all anti-climaxes where kissing frogs results in nothing other than slime on your lips and stinky cheese men remain unchased due to their sheer stinkiness. The format lets you know that the stories are deliberate failures and are meant to funny for that reason. Since laughing at the stories themselves is perhaps a tad conceptual, Jack’s character provides a more concrete subject at which to direct our laughter.
Scieszka makes his debt to Arabian Nights clear in Jack’s story about himself. In order to stop the giant from eating him, he retells the story they’re in which itself contains the same story again and so on and so on. The story trails off the bottom of the page and theoretically goes on forever until you turn the page. There are an infinite number of layers containing an infinite number of Jacks. Programmers can think of this as being a recursive function, art fans can think of this as being an an M.C. Escher drawing, and literature fans can think of it as being…well, metafiction.
While these ideas might at first seem to be little more than fun tricks used get a laugh, in the right hands they can bring forth concepts that go beyond mere aesthetic pleasure.
A wonderful example of this is in The Princess Bride. While the part of the movie that first comes to mind for most people is the fairy tale narrative, this part of the plot only exists within a frame tale where Columbo reads the metafictional story to his grandson, Kevin from The Wonder Years.
Most popular sci-fi and fantasy stories have an outsider character who is encountering the world for the first time: your Luke Skywalkers and Frodo Bagginses and so forth. These characters provide a convenient excuse for the world to be explained to the viewer and give you someone to relate to.
In the Princess Bride, the outsiders in the fantasy world literally exist outside of the story. Other characters come and go at various points in the plot, but Kevin and Columbo never leave our side. The audience is meant to identify with them more than anyone else and our own questions and reactions are mirrored through their dialogue. This was an important and very deliberate choice on the part of the writers, as the movie is more concerned with how stories fit into our lives than it is with sword fights or rodents of unusual size.
Just like a young Ross McLean, Kevin initially isn’t too keen on romance and gets Columbo to skip some of the mushy bits. No one wants to read one of those dreaded “kissing books.” However, over the course of the movie, the power of storytelling and his deepening relationship with his grandfather make him grow as a character and by the end he actually wants to hear about the romantic finale. In doing so, the movie ask cynical viewers to consider doing the same.
Chances are The Princess Bride wasn’t the first story that you ever heard (if it was, then you started in a weird place) and isn’t the first one Kevin has heard, either. He knows some things about how stories are meant to work, including that they’re supposed to have happy endings. When it seems like this might not be the case, he becomes upset and the movie starts asking the viewer some questions. Do stories always have a happy ending? Does life always have a happy ending? How are stories the same as life and how are they different?
The experienced viewer probably still expects things to work out fine, and when it turns out to just be a dream sequence their suspicions are confirmed. We see the shallowness inherent to this kind of device but also still identify with Kevin when he brags about how he knew things would be okay the whole time. Columbo immediately chides him for this, by saying “Yes, yes, you’re very smart. Now, shut up.” There is a great vicarious pleasure to be had when hearing Columbo putting Kevin in his place.
This identification with the older generation is important, as well. Kevin is arrogant and assumes he understands how things work, even though it is Ol’ Grandpa Columbo who is holding the book. It’s a story that has been passed down for generations and is more than just a fairy tale: it is the love and knowledge given to us by our elders. While this is a beautiful act, it is inevitably met with resistance by the younger generation. However, by learning to appreciate the love story within the metafictional plot, he comes to appreciate the love given to him by his grandfather too: This is the power of storytelling. Kevin asks him to read the story to him again and Columbo repeats the words of the fictional Wesley by saying “As you wish,” to mean “I love you.” Columbo reading to Kevin is an act of love and Kevin begins to understand at this at the end of the film.
The characters within the fairy tale struggle with ideas of narrative, as well. Inigo Montoya structures his whole life around fulfilling a revenge fantasy but when he completes his quest he realizes that he was just following a plot that he had laid out for himself. His growth as a character doesn’t come from the satisfaction of killing his father’s murderer, it comes from the realization that by focusing on this mission he was missing out on the rest of life. He frees himself from the constraints of plot and is finally able to take the time to live and love. He may exist within a fairy tale, but his character doesn’t suit the framework.
In some ways life is like a story, and in some ways it is not. The Princess Bride wants us to consider how our lives compare to the stories we tell and ask why we tell these stories in the first place. They have things to teach us but at the same time our lives aren’t the same as a fairy tale. In all cases, what’s most important seems to be love.
It’s a pretty great movie, you guys. Also, now is probably a good time to admit that I haven’t watched it in at least four or five years, so this is all just from memory. But I think I watched it enough times as a kid to remember most of the details.
And guess what else? I tricked you into reading a whole post about fancy post-modern stuff by making it about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man! I switched the topic when you weren’t looking! Ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!
Later this week I’m going to write about how these techniques are used by Barth and Borges to ask more existential and epistemological questions. They’re also pretty funny writers, so it should be a lot of fun. Plus, you read all this, so you might as well keep going and read the second part too.
Alison Bechdel’s (of Test fame) Fun Home is an beautifully structured mess. Many memoirists arrange the events of their lives to make everything fit into a tight narrative with nary a loose end to be found. Bechdel on the other hand revels in the complications that most writers shy away from.
Between her closeted gay father’s ambiguous suicide, her personal coming of age, and her reliance on other fictional works to provide commentary on her life, there is a lot of stuff going on in Fun Home. Despite its multi-faceted story and its non-linear structure, it is an incredibly easy read.
Bechdel shows an impressive grasp of the English language. Her vocabularly is large and academic but is never verbose or circumlocutory. She plucks out the perfect word for every situation without a syllable of waste.
The accompanying illustrations are unexceptional and are at times merely supplemental. However, they are an important addition in that they capture the dissonance between the outer and inner parts of family life. Reading Fun Home is at times like looking at vacation of smiling vacations photos that remind you of how much you wanted to stay alone in the hotel room and cry the whole time. Well, okay, I might just be projecting there. Either way, while her art wouldn’t hold up as an independent storytelling device, it serves an important purpose in Bechdel’s narrative.
The literary allusions and criticism make sense most of the time and I do fully believe that Bechdel included them because they informed the ways that she sees herself. There are a few moments of excess, but she never crosses the line into pretension and the tangential nature of the text feeds into her themes regarding the complexity of life.
Fun Home is a wonderful and complex read that touches on many serious subjects in an approachable, good-humoured way. It could be safely recommended to almost anyone.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
In Marbles, Forney chronicles the day-to-day struggles of living with manic depressive disorder. It centers around the interaction between mental health and the life of a burgeoning creative, mediated by countless doctor visits.
There are lots of medications and approaches to most issues of mental health. On the one hand, this is encouraging in that if one potential solution doesn’t work, there is almost always another thing you can try. It is also incredibly frustrating as you deal with failure after failure and struggle with all kinds of shitty side effects. It’s so easy to want to give up, and Forney’s story of years of ups and downs is an encouraging reminder to stick through it. At times you may wish she had condensed or simplified her story, but the repetition is actually what makes her work powerful.
One of the coolest things about it is how she uses her art to convey her state of mind. When she is going through a manic episode, her art explodes all over the page in loose sharpie scrawls and when she’s in a depressive episode, everything appears drab and squared away. There is no one consistent narrative device or style in Marbles, making the combination of narrative repetition and stylistic unpredictability a wonderful depiction of what it feels like to not be well.
It’s an inspiring piece of art, both in terms of its sheer creativity and its validation of personal struggle.
Stitches by David Small
David Small apparently wasn’t very familiar with graphic novels when he wrote Stitches, and it really shows. The language of his storytelling is separate from that of most comics and shows a separate set of influences.
Rather than using the flat, horizontal perspective that most graphic novels employ, Small instead borrows the language of film. He starts out with establishing shots of Detroit before zooming in on the 1950’s dinner table of his childhood. The way he moves his camera around the scene brings to mind Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in the way it twists and exaggerates reality to better convey the perspective of a child.
Like the prototypical 1950’s family of my imagination, no real communication existed between anyone in Small’s childhood. Instead, personalities are shown through tiny gestures: the placing of a fork, the banging of a cabinet, the pounding of a drum, and so forth. The defining turning point in his childhood occurs when he has a cancerous tumor removed from his throat, rendering him a mute. This was not discussed with him beforehand or after. He didn’t know that he had cancer, that he’d likely die, or that he would lose his ability to speak.
The true events of his life are so surreal that Small’s decision to include his childhood dreams and fantasies helps make them more comprehensible. He never stops to step aside and provide a more objective perspective on his parents, and the book is the better for it. There is a tremendous continuity to the work, and each scene blends seamlessly into the next.
Stitch makes great use of match shots, again showing his filmic background. A large theater will be followed by the interior of a mouth on the next page or a light will turn into a gas mask which will turn into the swirl of dreams. Whether you notice them or not, these techniques help move all layers of reality onto the same plane. Even when literary allusion comes into the picture and elements of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland begin to creep in, they don’t seem in any way separate from the more literal events of Small’s life. Everything appears as an intrinsic part of his experience, with seemingly nothing added just for the sake of the book.
Stitches is an essentially flawless depiction of childhood. It’s similarity to film, and emotional story make it the perfect entry point for those new to graphic novels. If you’re more familiar with the art form, its unique approach and pure heart will still seem fresh and exciting. Read it!
My stack of unread books is a source of great anxiety, each one serving as a constant reminder of just how little I know. I have my doubts as to whether I ever honestly thought I would read a 600 page book about Pol Pot, but there it is. Sitting on my shelf. Taunting me.
I often buy books when in an aspiration mindset. It’s nice to imagine an idealized future version of myself who really does have the time to study the political history of Cambodia, even if I know that will never happen. Yet when I look at them later, I am left paralyzed by the sheer breadth of human knowledge and the futility of any attempt to put even the smallest dent in it.
So, I narrow my focus. Sure, I can’t know everything about everything but maybe I can know everything about something. It is this attempt to break a tiny chunk off the gigantic tome of knowledge that leads to me doing things like filling my mp3 player with nothing but music from Mali, or spending 6 months watching nothing but silent films. The hope being that if I reduce myself to a set knowledge small enough to appear completable, my efforts will somehow be less futile.
After awhile, though, I cant help but take a step back and ask myself “What the fuck are you even doing?” Is it really worth my time to read a third book on humour theory when I haven’t even read Don Quixote yet? Why am I picking up another Thomas Pynchon novel when I’m only halfway through that book on the history of feminism? Are you really reading a second book of essays on Tristram Shandy when you haven’t even touched Gulliver’s Travels? This periodic realization of the specificity of my focus once again highlights how many things I’m ignoring and brings me back to where I started.
This problem is made all the worse by the modern obsession with top 10 lists and definable metrics. It is easier than ever to give yourself the illusion that your limited focus equates to some kind of progress as you can track your progress on a given list
The best solution is probably to not engage with books out of obligation and to focus on the experiences themselves rather than the fleeting pride you may feel at having completed them. This is easier said than done, as it is usually difficult to discern how worthwhile something is at the time. Some of my favourite things took a lot of effort to enjoy, and I often genuinely enjoy consulting secondary texts that further analyze other books that I’ve read. How am I to know at what point these things become excessive?
My interests are always swinging back and forth between breadth and specificity, and I always feel woefully inadequate about how little I know. Any attempt to examine this problem seems to end me throwing my hands up in the air and feeling as though I should never bother to read anything ever again. While I have gotten better at engaging in a little bit of self-delusion when confronted with the futility of human existence, that can only take me so far. Balancing the time I have to learn remains an impossible and incredibly vexing task.
A common criticism of memoirs is their tendency towards self-indulgence. The claim being that the reader should be offended by the author’s lack of restraint regarding the importance of the details of their life. I reject this criticism.
All art requires a certain degree of arrogance. Even the most humble creator needs to regard their ideas as being somewhat important before they put them out into the world: By writing this blog post, I am making an inherent claim that my thoughts are valuable and that you should take time out of your day to read them.
I don’t think artists need to be humble or ashamed by the value they place on the things they produce. While Kanye West has said some things that I find pretty objectionable, I don’t think he should be criticized for his arrogance. He’s one of the greatest musicians and collaborators in the history of pop music: Why should he be humble about it?
When people say something is self-indulgent, the claim is that the artist’s sense of importance is greater than the actual value of the work. I would argue that the problem isn’t artist’s high opinion of themselves, but rather is the flaws you see in the work. I believe it wrong to then transfer these criticisms onto the character of the artists themselves.
I recently made a knee-jerk cry of self-indulgence at the end of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir about her time in the band Sleater-Kinney. After they disbanded, she became obsessed with helping animals and spends a whole chapter describing the individual personalities of her cats and dogs. Does she really think that anyone will care about her pets as much as she does? The nerve of that woman!
However, the real problem wasn’t her self-indulgence. I mean, I was interested enough in her life to sit down and read a whole book about it: She was fulfilling her end of the bargain. The absence of music in her life meant that she needed to find something new to pour herself into, and this turned out to be animals. The same section would have made perfect sense in a work of fiction; it was part of her character arc as a human being. To act like this was an affront on me as a reader was completely unfounded.
The real issue was far simpler: it was boring. The writing failed to convey the emotional stakes of the situation and I became uninterested in the story. Earlier this year I read a whole book about a woman training a hawk to get over the death of her father and it was absolutely amazing and she wasn’t even in an incredible band! The issue wasn’t arrogance on the part of the author, it was just that the chapter itself was uninspiring.
An even bigger problem with claims of self-indulgence is the uneven way that they are applied. When reading book reviews, I see the complaint levied against memoirs by women far more often than memoirs by men. Individual female experience seems to be thought of as less universal by many critics and criticism seems to more quickly move towards the artist’s character rather than the work itself. Men who go on endlessly about long treks in the snow and write about disdain harboured against their children are praised for their understanding of human struggle, whereas women who write in the same sphere are more likely to be subjected to think-pieces on their flawed parenting and claims that their lives aren’t important enough to be worthy of textual capture. This is quite obviously bullshit.
Artists should think what they have to say is important and they shuoldn’t be criticized for it. If their work fails to capture your attention, then criticize it on those grounds. However, if you find yourself resenting an author for their desire to share a personal experience, you should take pause and consider just where this offence is coming from.
Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen,
the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty.
Who will win the golden crown of glory?
Among them all, only the peony stands out.
The peonies shrugged in the face of the domineering wind. The buds were still bundled up in the green wrapping of early spring which would soon be peeled away by the sun’s rays. Vibrant pink veins bled through the surface and gave an advanced preview of the flower within. They were already attracting a great deal of attention, but the peonies swayed neither to nor from their admirers.
A sea of ants flocked to the peonies every year. After a few wandering explorers discovered the dripping nectar, a siren’s call of pheromones led the rest of the colony to collect the season’s sweet promises. They moved with order and purpose, but to an outsider it was chaos: A scattering of insects crawling over unripened buds.
Jane walked through the field with a careful step; she did not want to disturb the life that surrounded her. Her unnamed child hung from a swaddling of cloth wrapped around her neck which bounced as she walked. It smiled up at its mother, happy to be out in nature.
She found an open patch of dirt and sat down. The sky winds had blown the sun towards the horizon in the Home Direction and everything glowed with the same soft pink that belonged to the peonies. The line between the sky and the land began to blur.
Jane pulled on a peony. Their roots were a thick and winding sort, whose anchors kept them firmly in the ground. She twisted the stems until they ripped away from the plant and gave each one a good shake. The ants knew something was amiss as they fell to the ground. They didn’t know what to do or where to go. If they were lucky, then they would find the a path left by one of their comrades to lead them back home. At least this way they stood a chance.
The babe bunched up its face and made a discontented coo. Jane pulled back her robes and let it suckled on her breast to quiet it. She knew that her mother had done the same for her and that if her child survived, it would one day do the same as well.
The child continued to stir but she didn’t have time to figure out what it wanted. The sun was getting low and she needed to hurry home before the sky blew into darkness.
The family shack stood alone among the clover and leopard leaf. It was a hodgepodge of corrugated aluminum, abandoned beams, red bricks, mud spackle, and clay sealant. The leaning pile of brick-a-brack had stood strong for three generations and required only minor repairs each winter. Every rainfall made the structure rumble with thunderous shakes, and strong winds made the aluminum tilt up like a cellar door, but never collapsed or leaked more than a few drops and it never, ever felt cold. Not even when frost crept in through the cracks and you could see your breath.
The plywood entrance scraped open. Tiny suns shined from the oil lamps inside and the objects inside were defined more by their shadow than by their shapes. Even in such low lighting, it was clear that the place was a mess. The dirt floor was covered in mud and the wall behind the pot was speckled with the splashes of soup.
“Cassandra! You think because Mom can’t see that she has no pride?”
Cassandra was sitting cross-legged in the corner, braiding her hair. She glance up from behind her half-lidded eyes and went back to her hair.
A shaking wheeze came from their mother’s bed and reverberated off the walls. Her body was moving in unnatural ways and she had to use all of her energy to fight it. Her fingers curled inwardly in the air and her legs swung around in halting half kicks. She used the strength that had borne three children to keep from rolling out of bed and writhing on the floor. Even on her deathbed she was a strong woman.
“I brought you peonies for you, mother. They will hold back the devil’s hand.”
Jane placed the babe in Cassandra’s lap. Her knees lifted up and formed crib to keep the child in place. She had just finished her braid and was brushing it out so that she could start over again.
Jane took the peonies and wove them around one another to form a laurel wreath. The evenly spaced buds wouldn’t have had time to blossom even if they had been left out for the ants. Their role was merely palliate.
She placed the wreath on her mother’s head but her body kicked back and knocked it off. She put it back on, but her mother’s chin jolted sideways and threw it right off the bed and onto the muddied floor.
An ant, probably drunk on nectar and definitely lost, crawled out of one of the buds and onto the floor. It spiraled towards Cassandra with a hesitancy that Jane hadn’t seen in the other ants. Every step was full of second guesses.
Jane pushed it onto her palm and then held it between her cupped hands.
“Cassandra, I need you to take this ant back to the fields for me.”
“You need me to do what?”
“Please. For Mom.”
Cassandra stood up, and left the baby alone in the middle of the floor. She took the ant with a glare and went outside. The ant could be felt moving around her hand in circles, trying to get out.
She tightened her fist and dropped the dead ant on the ground. When she returned, the babe was crying and their mother had stopped kicking
The poem that inspired this piece was provided by an episode of Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast if you need some help getting started writing.
The best metaphors are often the ones that change and grow over the course of a book. The different parts of H is for Hawk are constantly shifting in relation to one another and come to mean many different things. It’s a tremendous achievement.
The book contains elements of many different genres. It’s a grief memoir, a lesson in falconry, a biography of TH White (author of Sword in The Stone and The Goshawk) with a dash of literary criticism, a collection of prose poetry about nature, and a look at the relationship between man, animal, landscape, and history. Despite all of these intertwining subjects, it never feels that broad in scope. If in anything, it’s small and insular. We take trip after trip into the wilderness with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and watch their connection change and grow. How each expedition relates to her present state of mind and all the other aspects of the book appear so obvious that it’s as if she plucked them out of the air, rather than carefully constructed them for a book.
But of course that’s not true. With a little bit of distance, it becomes clear that it is all very calculated. The art of memoir is all about choosing what to include, and Macdonald had the privilege of being able to mix and match and reorder her story to best fit the narrative she wanted to construct. But it all still comes across as true to her experience, making the constructions rarely come across as such. Even when information is being withheld it seems to be because she has not yet come to terms with it in her journey.
The absolutely language is gorgeous, but some of the description went a little over my head. I don’t know very much about nature or plants and don’t even particularly like birds. Yet, its all so poetic that I still enjoyed most of it despite was the odd repetitive or unrelatable passage.
The connections between her story, the history of the land, environmentalism, and colonialism aren’t as well developed as the rest of the book. Macdonald makes some big statements near the end of the book that aren’t entirely earned. I agree with what she has to say and can see how it relates to everything else, but it stands out as being underdeveloped in comparison to the other elements. However, this one piece not fitting as neatly into place just speaks to how well the other myriad of topics come together.
It really is a remarkable book and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I was so invested in its little world that at times I thought “Huh, maybe I should get into falconry!” even though I know I’d lose interest in any bird after about 2 minutes. It completely consumed me, and I think anyone with an interest in memoir or lyrical writing would love it. My complaints only stood out to me because everything else was so good.