Onward and Upward Edition
Taking stock of the year in my little kingdom, RIP Didion, and why does Christmas have twelve days, anyway?
Happy New Year!
This is my semi-regular roundup of what I’m reading and working on. If you’re new, catch up on what this substack is about here. I also post occasional poetry and prose. It’s free. Subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Seas between us broad have roared. ‘Tis the season for year end wrap ups, best-of lists, and resolutions. I’m not sure about all that, but I will indulge a bit. Who can resist a bit of solipsism? Certainly not the writer of newsletters.
My 2021 was tumultuous, though still a step down from 2020, and, in my brighter hours, I manage to feel that the more recent tumult is the kind that turns the soil and prepares it for future health.
In the first quarter, I moved states for the second time in six months. I landed in a place that I enjoy—one that is quiet, beautiful, spacious enough for an art studio, and in many other ways meets or exceeds the minimum requirements for human habitation. I am very grateful for this. I am proud of myself for continuing to be creative while bouncing between spare rooms and Airbnbs, but a modicum of settledness has begun to bear fruit. I was able to visit friends and family on several occasions, including a nice ramble in the motherlands. Where life goes from here, nobody knows; but in the coming year, I would be most happy simply to stay put.
Back to business: In my work, I implemented several disciplines that paid dividends. Firstly I committed to sending this newsletter once a month, beginning in June, and, while the quality and promptness has varied, I have not missed any. This is my eighth. I plan to continue the practice, at the very least until the end of my newsletter liturgical year in June 2022, but probably beyond that.
I enjoy them and they are a forcing mechanism for other good habits. (The fact that some of you appear to read them all through is a bit unnerving, but most welcome. Thank you!) However in current form they take up a lot of time, which I dimly suspect of being, at least in some instances, an ever more sophisticated method of procrastinating on some other things I would also like to be doing. So I may play around with shorter forms or writing more separate posts. I can see looking back how I made the structure very formal right out of the gate, probably as a way of assuring myself this was a Serious Endeavor and not a Frivolous Waste of Time. Perhaps things can be loosened up around here, and we can achieve a Seriously Frivolous Endeavor, or vice versa.
I also published some verse and criticism that I was halfway happy with. These were subject to no discipline but whim. The best were this piece on Paolo Sorrentino and Flannery O’Connor and this poem to Andy Warhol. I also really like this piece on surfing, though I wrote it years ago.
A more recent discipline was in the month of December—committing to one painting a day, no matter what. Most of these were watercolor, as the goal was to create something finished each time, not just a vague promise to “paint every day.” However, a few were small oils. In either case, it became apparent immediately how helpful it is to be able to cycle through iterations very quickly. Getting the painting OODA loop down to a day rather than weeks has exponential implications. A few days all I could manage was to dash off some five minute blob, but most of the time once sat down, I gave it a good hour or two of focus. This is not a pace that I can sustain indefinitely, but I think I will try other “sprints” like this in the new year. More paintings will also be for sale, whether originals or prints; always feel free to reach out to ask. Commissions may be possible, but are more complicated given current time constraints.
Apropos those constraints, I have spoken with some of you about my struggle to define whether I am attempting to be a “writer who paints” or a “painter who writes,” an ambivalence that this substack lands smack in the middle of. Of course one can “do both,” but—can one, really? (Ok, maybe Henry Miller can.) Serious painting and serious writing both require utter commitment, and the quotidian reality is that life with a day job forces prioritization. In 2021, I chose painting, with this substack as a sort of relief valve for writerly impulses but something far short of full commitment. I expect this tension to continue to play out and I don’t know which way it will go.
Then there are other disciplines, including the “morning pages” exercises (from Julia Cameron’s workbook, The Artist’s Way, with which some of you might be familiar) which have been totally abandoned during one tactical retreat or another. That one in particular is extremely helpful and I hope (dare I say resolve?) to return to it in the new year. I recommend it to all struggling creators.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the breaking news.
RIP Didion. Most of my books are in storage, so I can’t offer up any perfect passage. But if you haven’t read her I would just advise to do the done thing and start with the classic essay collections, either Slouching Toward Bethlehem (which includes easy entry points such as On Self-Respect and On Keeping a Notebook) or The White Album, which perfects her particularly mordant evaluations of the decaying dreams of the Sixties counterculture. In fiction, Play It As It Lays is also excellent and accessible, if bleak.
Where’s Rembrandt? Thirty years after the largest art heist in history, in which $500 million worth of Old Masters were lifted from the Gardner Museum in Boston, the trail had run dry. Now, new clues may be emerging.
Have you considered…not? For decades, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote an anonymous advice column, with bracing results: “The column was entitled Literary Mailbox and the idea was that aspiring writers would send in their work and receive helpful advice. Mainly, Szymborska advised them to stop writing, at once, and destroy all their work.” Would have loved to read her ‘Stack.
RTO. Kylie Warner on how novelist Shirley Hazzard’s bureaucratic hellscapes prefigured the modern workplace:
Yet, curiously, many of Hazzard’s admirers seem to pass over Glass Houses in favor of her other work. This relative lack of attention is all the odder because the book is a thematic precursor to a recent wave of millennial novels featuring a specific sort of workplace—elite in character, and imbued with a lofty cultural, educational or humanitarian mission—in which even relatively privileged employees are subjected to deadening routines, curtailed opportunities for advancement and endemic demoralization.
Against Lawns. In the war against domestic chemical-dependent recreational monoculture (lawns) and in favor of biodiversity, health, God, and bees, another front is opened.
Looking back I see the handful of “new” books that made the biggest impression on me this year. In roughly chronological order:
The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander. A book superficially about architecture that is really about the connection between human flourishing and the spaces—physical but also mental and emotional—that we occupy. It had long been “on my list” and I wish I had not waited. Alexander, in his epigrammatic style, traces the source and nature of the patterns that govern our interactions, the diverse languages those patterns create, and the dysfunctions engendered by the breakdown of those languages, especially among regular people who used to be fluent in them. It is a rare book that is equal parts profoundly philosophical and pleasingly practical, and will help whether you are interested in the nature of reality or in how to design a living room.
Selected Poems, Anna Akhmatova. I found this collection, published in 1988, in the back of some bookshop I can’t remember where. Akhmatova is best known in the West as the chronicler of Soviet terror, and with good reason: the Cheka framed her first husband, the poet Nicolai Gumilev, and then executed him, while her second husband died in the gulags and her son spent decades there. In between she slept her way through most of the Russian cultural elite but also faced constant deprivation and fear as her friends and family were progressively taken from her and her work suppressed; unlike many, she never went into exile. This mix of indulgence and self-denial led the censors to mock her as “half-harlot, half-nun,” but it is precisely that amalgam of desperate enjoyment and perpetual mourning that elevates her work into something ironic, glittering, and damning.
Asymmetry: Poems, Adam Zagajewski. I received in the mail this thin volume, Zagajewski’s last, mere days before his death in March. Thin, yet it contains multitudes: memory, history, family, music, his father’s Chopin afternoons and his boyhood brick church (“give me back my childhood,/ republic of loquacious sparrows”), metro stations, furniture, lemons, the cold hand of the sea, Euclidean geometry; and everywhere death, the death of his mother (“when she looked at me curiously,/ and I wasn’t sure if/ she was looking at me or at some/ ideal notion of a son”), of his friends, fellow poets, massacres of innocents, the destruction of cities, languages, futures. Exhortation, gratitude, prayer: “a whole life is contained in every day.” My personal favorite, “Nowhere” (“I knew one thing: night too needed no/ explanation”). And describing one friend, who “never stopped being a philosopher, that is,/ an invisible man, someone who listens closely.”
Letters on Cézanne, Rainer Maria Rilke. I spent my September in a delirious riot of Rilke, rereading Letters to a Young Poet, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and other poems. Is there a greater poet of autumn? But this slim collection of letters was new to me and stood out above all. They were written in the fall of 1907, for the audience of his wife, Clara1, detailing his almost-daily visits to a Paris exhibition of paintings by Paul Cézanne. The most beautiful passages are too long to quote2, but they amount to an intense synthesis of the visual-symbolic and the verbal-poetical modes of apprehending reality.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J. M. Nouwen. Nouwen, a Dutch-born priest and theologian, wrote dozens of books on spirituality and what would in clinical language now be termed mental health, or, in spiritual language, the reconciliation of our wounded and alienated natures to the radical mercy and acceptance of God. This is perhaps his most famous, and justly so. Late in his life, Nouwen became obsessed with fellow Dutchman Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, a parable told by Jesus about a younger brother who rejects his family, leaves home, and wastes his inheritance. In the story, the son soon meets disaster and returns, begging for his father’s mercy. Instead of punishment, his father greets him with raucous celebration, even as his older brother, who has dutifully followed all the rules, seethes with resentment. Nouwen plumbs the psychological depth of both the parable and the painting, unspooling Rembrandt’s prodigal life and his own, demonstrating how we all in different ways inhabit the roles of the brash younger son, the bitter elder son, and the unconditionally loving father.
“The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. She would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white, since she saw them like that, fashionable though it was, since Mr. Paunceforte’s visit, to see everything pale, elegant, semitransparent. Then beneath the color there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
This, not graveyard roses, is my gift;
And I won’t burn sticks of incense:
You died as unflinchingly as you lived,
With magnificent defiance.
Drank wine, and joked—were still the wittiest,
Choked on the stifling air,
You yourself let in the terrible guest
And stayed alone with her.
Now you’re no more. And at your funeral feast
We can expect no comment from the mutes
On your high, stricken life. One voice at least
Must break that silence, like a flute.
O, who would have believed that I who have been tossed
On a slow fire to smoulder, I, the buried days’
Orphan and weeping mother, I who have lost
Everything, and forgotten everyone, half-crazed—
Would be recalling one so full of energy
And will, and touched by that creative flame,
Who only yesterday, it seems, chatted with me,
Hiding the illness crucifying him.
—Anna Akhmatova, “In Memory of Mikhail Bulgakov,” 1940
The liturgical life.
Christmas is, like all great feasts, a season and not a day, and we are still smack in the middle of it. (Though it contains other major feasts within its bosom: today is the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, which celebrates the ancient affirmation that Mary is not just a bystander to the greatest story but the Theotokos, God-bearer.)
Still, maybe like me you’ve always struggled to keep straight all the various measurements of the season. What are the twelve days? Christmastide? Candlemas? I found this piece helpful in that regard.
To sum up: the core of the Christmas feast is the Octave of Christmas, the eight days from December 25 to January 1. The most major feasts have octaves, in which each day is, accordion-like, an unrolling of the Day Itself across time. Eight days is symbolically rich: if the seven day week represents original creation, the “eighth day” is the time beyond it, the time outside of time: eternity, resurrection, fulfillment, the life of the world to come.
The “twelve days” mark the time from December 25 to January 6, the traditional date of western Epiphany—the “epiphany” being the revelation of Jesus as God (in the western rites, via the visit of the Magi to the manger).
However, we do not return to Ordinary Time this year until January 10, after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (and this is a moveable feast), so anytime before then it is still liturgically Christmas, or Christmastide.
And as The Pillar notes, some extend their celebration of Christmastide (controversially) until Candlemas, on February 2. This is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It comes forty days after Christ’s birth, when in conformity with Mosaic law he was presented to the temple in Jerusalem. Historically the feast was marked with candlelit processions representing the unveiling of Christ’s light in the world, thus Candlemas.
In any case, however long or hard you do or don’t celebrate the season, we can surely agree on one thing: we should all be getting a lot more days off. Health to you and yours in the year to come.
From the 1961 foreword: “[Clara’s] presence and silent participation are sensible in every part of the Letters. Indeed, the Letters attest, more beautifully than any love letters could, that their recipient possessed a quality which the poet only very rarely encountered in his lifelong search for human companionship: she was his equal.”
But here’s one: “…After all, works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity… Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it—that it is his epitome; the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless, as mere necessity, as reality, as existence—”