Imitating Hawthorne – The Restaurant

A word about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He writes in a way that I thought only people like Marilynne Robinson could. Just when I thought there weren’t enough words in the language to describe how much we feel, Nathaniel Hawthorne has found them all and rung the dripping water out of them and hung them together out on the line.

“A hundred mysterious years were whispering among the leaves.”

“Here and there, a few drops of this freshness were scattered on a human heart, and gave it youth again, and sympathy with the eternal youth of nature.”

Zora Neale Hurston and Marilynne Robinson.

“…in times when chimney-corners had benches in them, where old people sat poking into the ashes of the past, and raking out traditions, like live coals.”

Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marilynne Robinson.

And then sometimes passage could only have been written by Nathaniel Hawthorne himself:

“However the flowers might have come there, it was both sad and sweet to observe how Nature adopted to herself this desolate, decaying, gusty, rusty, old house of the Pyncheon family; and how the ever-returning Summer did her best to gladden it with tender beauty, and grew melancholy in the effort.”

Just like how George Eliot had those rural English towns. And Edith Wharton had New York. And George Sand will always have Paris. Nathaniel Hawthorne had the forest, the sea breezes, the shadows, the fears, the weightlessness, the darkness, the pleadings to God, the desperations, the courage, the joys, the acts of hopelessness, the house of the seven gables, and the falling of rain.

I’ve written about imitation before. I’m nearing the end of The House of the Seven Gables, and I think it’s telling that when I tried to write about a dream I had a few weeks ago, even though I was writing in French, it came out like this. In my dream, my grandparents had just told me the news, as we walked up the steps to a seafood restaurant in a town on the Oregon coast, that a friend of theirs, a lumberjack with blue eyes, had died. (There is a Don West poem I read in an airport five years ago that has this storyline.) Not knowing how to respond, I asked the hostess for a table. A somewhat mediocre translation follows. This is what I dreamt.

Hier soir j’ai rêvé que je suis allé diner pendant un état de deuil. En entrant dans le restaurant, j’ai présenté à l’hôtesse une feuille de papier marqué de trois mots: “Je suis triste,” aussi  a-t-elle sélectionné pour moi une table près d’une fenêtre immense qui donnait sur la mer. Il y avait une brume et des nuages noirâtres qui pour certains devaient prévenir un orage, mais il me semblait en revanche que rien ne pourrait troublerait la pâleur lourde de la grande surface hautaine. C’était comme si le ciel avait un regard si captivé par les petites lumières nocturnes qui sortaient dans le village, et par les cris de mouettes et par les sons de vagues, qu’il se mit à garder aussi longuement que possible la silence de son calme externe, qu’il tâchait de ne permettre que la fraicheur mouillée de son soupir doux, qu’il ne voulait que soulager, autant qu’il pouvait, les douleurs de tout un monde de violences et de blessures qui surgissaient dans son âme, qui montaient dans sa chair, et qui se dévoilaient en tremblements en dessous dans les reflets d’eau.


Last night I dreamed that I went to dinner during a time of mourning. Upon entering the restaurant, I presented the hostesswith a piece of paper marked with three words: “I am sad,” and she selected for me a table near a large window overlooking the sea. There was a mist and black clouds, some of which might have signaled a storm, but it seemed to me  that nothing could now upset the heavy pallor of the expansive surface above. It was as if the Sky had a look so captivated by the small nocturnal lights that came out in the village and by the cries of seagulls and the sounds of waves, that he set out to preserve as long as possible the silence of his external calm, that he tried to release no other sound but the wet coolness of his sigh, that he wanted nothing but to soothe, as much as he could, the hurting of a whole world of violence and wounds which stirred in his soul, which rose in his flesh, and which revealed themselves in tremors down below in the reflections of the water.



Excerpt of an interview

With Rachmaninoff, Spring of 1909.
I’m going to put together a piece and it will feel at once like the raising of the final curtain and lowering of hands, like the last tenderly sung word but felt as freshly as the first act of throbbing, like both the thundering of applause–of the kind where purses are dropped about our ankles–and the emptying of a theatre, where programs are scattered about in their paper weight. It will ache with nostalgia and tell of that journey home: the hearers will see the mist rising from morning farms and smell the smoke of wood stoves pouring out of chimneys in the starlight. And it will tell of the moment of return, from the first measure it will sing of it, when everything is laid bare and…and made to smolder. Not in the violence of fire and ash, but like the settling in of afternoon sunlight on the rich red brick in the place where, as Bob Dylan says, “The last radio is playing.” We have at last our first glimpse of home. In a word, it will feel, I hope, like the culmination of our centuries of listening. At least it does so to me. Not of the bowing of our heads into the silence of prayer but of the opening wide of our eyes and our hands together to receive the benediction. The gigue that comes after the minuet. The several kisses of a tear-stained goodbye. The first movement of a piano concerto in d minor!



Prayer, Dogs, and Acting Training

“You get a feeling when you look back on life that that’s all God really wants from us, to live inside a body he made and enjoy the story and bond with us through the experience.” Donald Miller

A reflection Someone told me that I was being vulnerable in my writing the other day, and I thanked them, but I was pretty silent and listened to them talk because I was sure that my writing had not been vulnerable, even if the work of writing had been. There is writing that is the body, that is the blood singing in our veins. It’s easier just to do provocation and words. It’s easier to give only a record of the body, of the heart: how many times this week I have washed my hair, what I have eaten for pleasure, how many miles I have walked. Not how many breaths I have taken along the way or what the breaths felt like in my chest. It’s easy to talk about clothes and dressing and undressing. It’s harder to put the next thing on. How hard it is for me to show the transformation.

I have had the idea that we of any community can be helped if we can sometimes see the journeys of transition that others are undertaking. I was thinking, specifically, that I would like to know more of the content of people’s prayers. So, in an effort to be more vulnerable in my writing, and to lead in giving an example, I’m going to do my best to share a prayer I prayed to God a few weeks ago, one that I was formed in writing. This is exposing part of my core–not the core of muscles and skin that I like to flex in front of the mirror–but the fluffy dog core that those silly dogs are always outdoing themselves to present to us, even if we are just walking by. I’m not even going to pretend that I’m comfortable sharing this here without a paragraph’s work of weird dog analogies and other disclaiming that, evidently, is still going. And, as I pause to affirm my valuing of liturgical, communal forms of prayer, those prayers that reach across, that reach outward, that in reaching lead into higher and deeper tension and wrestling and searching (like Psalm 74), I acknowledge that this one is more (unabashedly?) personal. I might also insert myself into the prayer again, using parentheses, to highlight the moments that weren’t as real, for those who care to interest themselves. I might do that a lot.

Well, here goes.

A prayer “Jesus, (ok good start) please help me to get through that experience of feeling guilt and hardness, your hardness coming down on me all the time–at junctures–The anxiety. It makes me sad to think that this is my reality when there could be joy and pleasure –like brother puppies together I don’t know     I give these thoughts to you these dreams Awaken me to starlight To memory of sleeping bags (I spelt bags wrong) To imagined first kisses. (The following is when I thought I was being to individualistic and tried to correct myself:) And to justice and life and freedom for your church and your community your people Forgive me…Welcome me Lord, I welcome you. (Ok, back on course:) To share in life with you. The green forest spots of summer. Steam rising. Jesus I used to know these. Awaken me, Lord. Call to me in moonlight. Call to me like the voice of birds. I love you. I don’t ever want to forget you love me.      And jazz. Let there be jazz here.”

An actor’s warmup As you stand, feel your feet rooted deep into the earth. Deep breath in, and release. Feel the crown around your head lifted upward into the sky. Breathe in, release. Breathe in, release. And, as you expand your chest, hold your heart open to the world, open to receive and open to give. Breathe in, release. Breathe in, release.

This is what it’s like.


This year’s top 5.

Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf

Not a book of a year but of a lifetime. Every segment of British society in examined. She champions girls’ education, exposes corporate greed, challenges the rituals of the patriarchy down to the very clothes men wear in the military, the university, and the workplace, quotes Jesus, sings with Antigone, and made me laugh out loud in an airport. Writing in 1938 she combats fascism. She critiques Hitler, Mussolini, and the thinkers in her own country who share their views on the sphere of women, by name. She proves in 145 pages (and many footnotes) that the cause(s) of women in our society–maybe in any society–are at the very heart of the pursuit of justice, peace, and freedom from tyranny.

Sermons for Farmers – Charles Spurgeon

I don’t know if I’ve heard a male preacher whose sermons this consistently provide illustrations first for women and then for men, or for poorer folks and then for wealthier. He makes inclusion–and everything else…cracking jokes, saying fourteen breathtaking things about a three-word image, quoting Shakespeare–look doable.

Gilead – Marylinne Robinson

I tuned in late to the game, but they’re still playing baseball in the furniture of their minds, trying to forgive each other and believe in joy, laughing in the rain and weeping in pantries, rereading sermons, watching the sun go down and the moon come up at the same time, and handling, rearing back, and hurling the world’s biggest questions down to the last inning of the last page.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

I also have come to bell hooks late. Among so many things this book has taught me about race, class, feminism, and American schools, this book has shown me that teaching is an embodied practice, that theory is a social practice, and that learning is a liberatory practice.

Boule de Suif – Guy de Maupassant

I do not have words to describe how hungry, literally hungry this short story made me feel, or how I had to look away and, figuratively, catch my breath because the language was so beautiful, or how it made me angry, how it explored every class-based interaction, and jolted me to amazement in every paragraph, how it foresaw today’s microbrewery culture (the phrase “le Pale-Ale et la Revolution” actually occurs), and how as I constantly tried to orient myself and gain some footing, it kept me guessing till the last word. Most of French literature is about war and class. This is as good as it gets.

Twenty or so things you can write on a plastic cup other than your name this holiday season

Plastic cups photograph

One time someone called me Henry for a week (that’s not my name), and it was because I had written “Henry” on a red plastic cup to differentiate it from everyone else’s. When she finally confronted me about it, I stated as honestly as I could, “I just can’t write my own name.”

Another time–I was already beginning to work out a theory of non-identification at gatherings where drinks our served in plastic glasses–I was expanding on this theme. Lauren nodded in agreement, and turning her plastic cup around to show me the name, said, “Yes. And I don’t even know who Katie is. I found this at the sink.” Theory, as bell hooks points out, is a social practice. And in the interest of bearing no ill-will towards the ones who named us, it’s not just non-identification.

Hakuin wrote, ‘If you forget yourself, you become the universe.’ That mysterious factor of surrender, the creative surprise that releases us and opens us up, spontaneously allows something to arise.
Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

The season of sharpies and plastics is upon us, and I think it’s high time we shook things up a little bit, let things rise to the surface, experienced surrender, opened ourselves to the “plentiful imagery of the world.”  It’s high time we identified with the universe. And when we shake the trees, who knows what will fall out of our consciousness. I’ve been “Baby” before. I’ve also been “Arturo” and “Felicia.” But I recommend starting with your own culture. Write down the name of your first dog. Write down the name of your great grandmother. I can’t, but write it in the cyrillic alphabet. And move beyond the personal. Write down “San Leandro.” Write down “Jamaica Plain.” Write down “Tolstoy’s Russia.” Go deeper. What political theory are you invested in? Write down “Consent of the governed.” Write down “All human life is but one life.” Write down “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Too universal? Because isn’t Thanksgiving at least in part an American holiday? Show your patriotism: “We cannot hallow this ground.” A haunting phrase. Walk up to that person whose cup reads “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Make sure you’ve read the Lincoln book. (I haven’t.) Talk about America. And if there must be poetry, let there be poetry. “The lips of time leech to the fountainhead,” you can say. Or “como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.” Write down, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding.” If the music fills you, “No Woman No Cry,” “Palestrina,” and “The _______ album.” Choose your own heart. And, for the times you just need to get really practical: “License plate number DR4183M your lights are on!” “Wash, rinse, repeat,” (another haunting phrase) or, more directly, “Tanya, remember to feed the fish!”

But lest we forget the hidden, the transformative power of naming…

Are names more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?
John Stuart Mill A Sytem of Logic: Of Names

Last night, alone in my house, chairs arranged for playable action, tables set for festivities, plates and serving bowls filled with the best that Trader Joe’s can offer, water hissing in the kettle, I etched into the ridges of the inaugural cup a simple statement of truth: the word “Sunset,” a name for myself. And when I held the marker to the crystal-cut plastic (I’m cheap but I’m not that cheap) and prepared to fill its curvature with my own linear sign…in that moment I knew, in the depths my heart lives in, that part of me was this vision of my boyhood curiosity, this landscape of adolescent loneliness, this image of adulthood longing: I was the organ of the sky being played on by a wind of yellow light.

Poème d’octobre: A translation

Sometimes I think I feel the most like myself while riding on a train. I wrote this Sunday afternoon coming home from New York, not on a train but on a Greyhound bus. It rained the whole time. The English translation follows.

“Poème d’octobre”

J’en ai marre des feuilles mortes. Elles sont biens des feuilles, elles connaissaient une fois la tendresse du soleil, elles savaient bien sûr respirer, absorber, plier, répondre. Une fois. Mais nous promenons dans cette saison un jardin de morts, d’odeurs de la tristesse, de regrets. Nous nous trouvons seules au fond imprévisible du musée, entourée de peintures desséchées, de paysages dénaturés, de fictions désespérées. Les odeurs me fait dégueuler. Les images me piquent. Je m’en fou de la décomposition d’automne.

Vous allez encore vous promener dans cette forêt, ressentir la fraicheur de ces bois. Dans les ombres sous les arbres vous reprendrez du repos. Des ouvertures ensoleillées vous surprendront.

Vous aurez du courage en trouvant les beaux anciens chemins même de sentir les parfums des morts. Parmi les feuilles vous allez trouver le pardon. Dans l’acte de pardonner vous n’allez pas vous faire peur.

Les silences vous offriront le calme pour lequel vous avez tant agacé. La musique de vent, le noir du soir vous accorderont la paix.

Vous allez monter dans les hauteurs. Votre regard va percer des branches. Vous aurez le droit de contempler les paysages lointains.

Vous verrez les étoiles. Vous tremblerez dans la lumière. Votre cœur aura des rêves d’automne dans l’abri d’une nuit profonde …

Nous nous touchons les mains.

Je lui fais un regard et tiens la main qui reste ouverte,
celle qui a saigné autant que les yeux.

Il m’invite à déshabiller,
lui qui a déjà mis ses robes,
en me montrant leur tissue léger.

Entouré d’un multitude frères et sœurs
aussi nombreux que les chambres de la forêt,
doucement, pleinement, et sachant que je révèlerais mes blessures
j’enlève mes vêtements, mes peurs si proches
qu’ils ont imprimés leur marques sur la peau,
mes feuilles mortes et meurtrières.

Une fois nus, nous montons ensemble
dans la robe de tissu rayonnant,
celle où est brodé le longueur de nos histoires,
structurée dans le profondeur de nos pardons,
façonnée à l’ampleur de nos amours.

Liés, nous dansons jusqu’à l’aube.

“October Poem”

I’m sick of dead leaves. They are leaves. They once knew the tenderness of the sun. They knew how to breathe, absorb, bend, respond. Once. But in this season we walk a garden of deaths, scents of sadness, regrets. We find ourselves alone in the back corner of a museum, surrounded by dried up paintings, denatured landscapes, desperate fictions. The smells sicken me. The pictures sting. I’ve had enough of the decomposition of the fall.

You will still walk in this forest, feel the freshness of these woods. In the shadows under the trees you will rest. Openings filled with sunlight will surprise you.

You will have courage in finding the beautiful old paths, enough even to smell the scents of deaths. Among the leaves you will find forgiveness. In the act of forgiving you will not give yourself fear.

The silences will offer you the calm for which you have so long agitated. The wind’s music, the evening darkness will grant you peace.

You will go up in the heights. Your eyes will pierce branches. The distant landscapes you will have the right to contemplate.

You will see the stars. You will tremble in the light. Your heart will have dreams of autumn in the shelter of a deep night …

Our hands touch each other.

I give him a look and hold his hand which remains open,
the one that bled as much as his eyes.

He invites me to undress,
he who has already put on his robes,
showing me their light fabric.

Surrounded by a multitude of brothers and sisters
as numerous as the rooms of the forest,
gently, fully, knowing that I am revealing my wounds,
I take off my clothes, my fears so close
that they have printed their marks on the skin,
my dead and murderous leaves.

Once naked, we rise together in the robe of radiant fabric,
the one that is embroidered with the length of our stories,
structured in the depths of our forgiveness,
shaped to the fullness of our loves.

Linked, we dance until dawn.

Virginia Woolf Taught Me How To Small Talk

I’m still recovering from that dinner scene, and I read To the Lighthouse months ago, this spring.

The hosts are not talking. The teenaged lovers are late. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are fumbling at conversation. And Charles Tansley is sitting in judgment on them all, brooding. Don’t we all have a part of him in us? The student, the bitter young man who had never been to a circus as a child, who had worked his way up, he keeps telling himself, on his own, whose grandfather had been a fisherman. He is delighting, too, that he can later tell his friends that, at a dinner among people of a class who possess the freedom to speak their minds, they are talking such nonsense.

And they are. Mrs. Ramsay, the hostess, is orchestrating the chitchat, but her mind is elsewhere. In fact, she is desperate: her husband across the table isn’t talking. And is it forgiveness she needs from him or does she need to forgive him? Like the husband in Mrs. Dalloway, she cannot bring herself to tell her spouse in words of the love she feels for him. And Mr. Bankes, forcing himself to be charming, feels nothing for the woman sitting next to him. He fears the dinner party will discover that he would rather spend this evening, any evening, in his chair with a book, in silence. And so, they talk nonsense: Mrs. Ramsay suggests that Mr. Bankes must not like sitting in the garden.

But what the brooding Charles Tansley misses is that Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are resorting to a language of which he knows no word. Imagine a roomful of people in incomprehension, Virginia Woolf says. They speak French, because that, at least, is a language everyone will know.

Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity. Replying to her in the same language, Mr. Bankes said, “No, not at all,” and Mr. Tansley, who had no knowledge of this language, even spoke thus in words of one syllable, at once suspected its insincerity.

This passage opened a door for me. Not until the reading of this book had I engaged with this dinner guest reality, had felt so urgently this need for a group of people to talk. And never before had I viewed small talk as a remedy to this blight of social dis-ease.

As Mrs. Ramsay says to Lilly Briscoe, but with only a glance, “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire. Unless you apply some balm to the anguish of this hour and say something nice to that young man there, life will run upon the rocks–indeed I hear the grating and the growling at this minute.”

am a theatre person. I’m comfortable in silence. I can look at you and say nothing. If it sounds fun I can “become aware of the architecture in the space,” letting my soft gaze rest on the beams of the ceiling, or I can let my thoughts return gently to my own breath. I can even communicate for half hours in groanings and song-moans, and I can look you in the eye and say, “I love you” or “I need __________ (anything–sex, love, wealth, weapons, fire, blood, diamonds, a baby to hold, my papers back–you fill in the blank)” with a straight face, in complete honesty. I’m also a spiritual person. Like I get it: the apostle Paul wants the church in Ephesus to speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making music in their hearts to the Lord. I think I can do that.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to relate to each other like normal people. We have to have a relationship with conventionality. Everyone knows we can create space; sometimes we have to fill it.

So that is why I will be talking with you about the orange line and the transit system in Milwaukee. You say they have a church on every corner? I’ll crack a joke, the obvious one, the one that probably stopped being said seven years ago, about how nowadays it’s more like a Starbucks on every corner. And I’ll laugh at my own joke, louder than you. I’ll even prepare to mention that I rode the trains once in St. Louis. I’ll shake your hand when I get off the bus. You can’t offer me your right hand because it’s full, but you’ll say, “Sorry for the left hand” and you’ll mean it, and I’ll be thankful that you helped me endure an unexpected journey on the shuttle on the last leg of my ride home.*

*This happened. All of it, I’m sad to say.

That’s why I’ll ask you about your sister–you have a sister, right? And talk about the bug that’s going around. I’ll say things like, “Yeah, that post-Labor-Day bug” that “everyone got,” and I’ll say it like any part of that made sense. Yeah I’ll talk about flu shots with you. I’ll even tell you where the CVS I got it at is. You’ll nod and murmur agreement. You’ll be complicit in the conversation.

You’ll ask me what my plans are for the weekend. I wouldn’t have thought to ask that. I think that’s almost invasive, especially on a Wednesday, but I’ll try to come up with something, even if I end up risking a conversation about Trader Joe’s or the Giants. We’ll probably talk about how good rest is always and how good friends are or how good we thought the weather was going to be.

Actually, so many things will be considered good. Your new job. My reasons for leaving California. People’s reasons for moving away or to California. The amount of homework you–in general–didn’t do. The amount of overachieving I–in general–did do. How you and I are feeling about the reading we did or didn’t do, right now or in any part of our histories in school. The number of people in my church. The different number of people in your church.*

*Both were considered ideal. Say what you wish about small talk, it is not narrow.

Your name again. My name again. Me not wanting to say I’m bad with names, but since you said it, we should probably have a moment of solidarity about this. In fact, us at names is the only thing we can agree on as being unequivocally bad. Nevertheless so many things are hard. Your job. Actually, your job must be hard. So is being far from your aging parents. (In some cultures that’s necessary to state in a first conversation. We don’t want anyone to think we are heartless.) Having a car is hard. Not having a car must be hard. Both are still “worth it.” In truth, so many things can be both hard and worth it. Like cooking for oneself or doing meal prep in advance or buying crockpot recipe books at yard sales or trying to make time to go to Disneyland (who am I talking to?). And depending on the day, the same can be said for walking in the rain or learning how to live in drought or being a San Francisco baseball fan.

Is small talk worth it? Virginia Woolf narrates that Lily Briscoe, the young artist that Mrs. Ramsay had compelled with that powerful glance to say something to Charles Tansley, had indeed succumbed. She engages the man who had before been rude to her, asking him (“quickly, kindly”) if he will take her to the lighthouse, and he tells her about sailing with his grandfather, about how he learned to swim. He regains his pride. He enters life.

“But,” Lily asks, “what haven’t I paid?” At what what cost? “She had not been sincere.”

Small talk, if we are to allow it, if we are to value it, if we are to embrace it because we cannot yet embrace each other, must be sincere. If we are to entreat each other with words because we sense that there are connections more meaningful in this moment than breaths, then let our words be heartfelt. And if we need our rambling agreements, our surface street witticisms, to orient us in all our fragility and triumph together in space, then let us, by all means, talk on.

But let us be sincere. Let us always be sincere. The rest, as Hamlet tells us, is silence.