Renting Emily Dickinson’s bedroom for an hour

This is an extraordinary time to read [Emily] Dickinson, one of the richest moments since her death. The publication of “Envelope Poems” and the growing collection of Dickinson’s manuscripts, available online and in inexpensive print editions, coincides with an ambitious restoration of the Dickinson properties in Amherst, including a reconstruction of the poet’s conservatory—a space that was second only to her bedroom in its importance to her art. Those looking for an even closer connection to Dickinson can rent her bedroom for an hour at a time and see precisely what she saw. The other elements of the picture, sun and moon and wind and birdcall, are just as she left them. She is the only thing missing.  

Dan Chiasson Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, The New Yorker, December 5th  2016 (from here) 

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The imperfections of love in a family

Kerry Egan is a chaplain working in a hospice.

“As a chaplain. I don’t decide what a patient and I will talk about. I listen to what’s on the patient’s mind, what’s burdening him or giving him great joy that particular day . . . ‘

And this is what she, as a chaplain,  has to offer us in her memoir, On Living.

‘The meaning of our lives cannot be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues . . . If God is love, and I believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

     The remarkable thing about this crucible of love is that the love we experience in our families doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect, because none of us is perfect. 

  Sometimes, that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely. Monstrous things happen in families. Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person they love beats them or rapes them. They tell me what it feels like to  know that they’re utterly unwanted by their parents. They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone’s rage. They tell me what it feels like to know that they abandoned their children, or that their drinking destroyed the family, or that they failed to care for those who needed them. 

     Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul. Even the people who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved. They know love by its absence. They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

      When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned: forgiveness. The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive. 

  That work is the gift we give each other, for there is little in this world people long for more than to be loved and to be forgiven by their mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. 

Kerry Egan: On Living (Penguin 2016) 

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I found myself saying . . .

… on this particular day I was feeling rebellious. My father was an exceedingly patient teacher, and I usually was a student very willing to listen. But on this day I found myself saying to my father, “No”. I wasn’t willing to try things his way; I didn’t want to listen to him. I wanted to do things my way. I wanted him to listen to me. We were arguing and we had never argued. I mean never.

“Listen”, Dad said. “I just want you to try something here”.

“No, I’m not going to do that. That’s stupid.”   Michael Bamberger, Davis Love III III … Every Shot I Take


In the month of December, 1993, . . . my wife Carol died very suddenly, essentially without warning, of a brain tumor. She was not yet 43, and our children, Danny and Monica, were but five and two. . . . .

One day, as I gazed at a photograph of Carol taken a couple of months before her death, I looked at her face and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes, and all at once, I found myself saying, as tears flowed, “That’s me! That’s me!” And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us together into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized then that although Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it lived on very determinedly in my brain.             Douglas R Hofstadter I Am a Strange Loop


My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are – really and truly – still in existence somewhere. I wouldn’t ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There’s a part of me – no matter how childish it sounds – that wonders how they are. “Is everything all right?” I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were “Take care.”                                                                                Carl Sagan


Alongside the cemetery there are woods. Alone at my mother’s grave, I looked up at the sound of rustling. Just beyond the fence there was a fox. It looked mangy and hungry. Running in what seemed to be aimless circles, it soon found its way into the cemetery and ran among the graves. It leaped up and sat on a headstone. I could feel panic rising within me, even as I told myself to stay calm. I would not be able to get to the car without passing the fox, nor could I safely go over the jagged chain-link fence. I found myself saying to my mother words that would not usually come from my mouth, Yiddish words that I once heard my father say in the name of his mother as we stood at his father’s grave, zeit a guter beter/be a good intercessor. After a while the fox moved further away, still among the graves but far enough now for me to say good-bye to mom and make my way quickly to the car.

In memory of my mother Sarah Chavah bas Yosef v’Rivkah, Rabbi Victor  (from here) 


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Fiction should not be didactic

When I say that fiction shouldn’t be didactic, I don’t mean that it shouldn’t or can’t have political or moral-ethical heft. I’m saying that stories shouldn’t exist as too-easy proofs for one’s pre-existing beliefs. And this isn’t really a moral statement by me, or an aesthetic credo – it’s more owner’s-manual stuff: a story like that simply won’t work. It’s proceeding by methods which are counter to the physics of the form.

When we think of how ‘solutions’ might be presented or represented in a fictive setting, we might want to remember Chekhov’s admonition that art doesn’t have to solve problems, it just has to formulate them correctly. Fiction writing is pattern-making. We aim to make beautiful patterns, but how to do that is not rigorously known, since each pattern’s beauty has to do with the extent to which the pattern is aware of, and referring to, itself. In a fictive space, the mere suggestion of an impulse is often enough. . . . .  So if we see fiction as a scale-model, you only need one railroad car to suggest a national transportation system, and one of the pleasures of the fictive scale model is that sense that everything is present and accounted for and in some sort of pleasing proportion. Whatever might move a human being towards perfection or enlightenment can be shown in a story – maybe fleetingly, maybe through its absence – but I don’t think we need to worry about solutions.

 (From here) 

George Saunders

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Reflections on Fame

[On Cynthia Ozick]

Today I remain utterly seduced by the dazzling architecture of her stories, the distilled clarity of her sentences, and the urgency of her arguments. But my love for her is haunted by one point of strange discomfort: her obsession with fame, which in one form or another suffuses nearly everything she writes. (In this collection she loudly clarifies that she really means “recognition,” since “Fame is fickle”—but we knew that. Fine, then: high-end, enduring fame.) Her early masterpiece, “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” is a novella-à-clef about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s cheap glamour overshadowing better-yet-untranslated writers; her novella “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” involves, among much else, a fable about a magic crown that grants its wearer eternal literary fame (spoiler: this isn’t a good thing); The Messiah of Stockholm is about the forgotten genius Bruno Schulz and failed writers and charlatans vying to steal his legacy; Heir to the Glimmering World includes a scholar and a scientist both robbed of their greatest discoveries, forced to become wards of a famous-yet-thoughtless millionaire . . . I could go on, but instead I will simply point out what Ozick’s entire oeuvre brilliantly enacts: Despite the underlying assumption of Western civilization that we owe our world to the genius of Great Men (yes, men) whose names still resonate today, the truth is that merit and credit are only rarely linked. This sad truth is genuinely fascinating, because it unearths our most buried questions about the purpose of living as mortals in a world that outlasts us. But it also can become a perverse obsession for creative artists of every stature, because, as conventional wisdom and the degrading experience of reading Amazon reviews suggests, nothing good comes of it. Or does it?

Cynthia Ozick: Or, Immortality Dara Horn | Fall 2016 Jewish Review of Books  from here 


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The formation of a writer

Rachel Cusk began writing when she was a child. Here she  talks about her  time at boarding school,  the “foundational ordeal” of her life, and her art.

“It formed my character more than almost anything else. It was very exposing, not being able to hide in your home, not being protected by your parents, and it was something I couldn’t cope with at all. I think if my writing comes from somewhere, it’s there: those years I spent at school, where my inner life became so clearly defined and separated from what was around me. I talked to myself an awful lot, in my head. So when I started actually writing things, proper things, it was very fully formed – my voice, or my style – because it had been keeping me company for eight years.” (from here) 



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The power of memories that never leave

[On  the Russian composer Dimitr Shostakovitch }

 He doubted he could stop drinking, whatever the doctors advised; he could not stop hearing; and worst of all, he could not stop remembering. He so wished that the memory could be disengaged at will, like putting a car into neutral. That was what chauffeurs used to do, either at the top of a hill, or when they had reached maximum speed: they would coast to save petrol. But he could never do that with his memory. His brain was stubborn at giving house-room to his failings, his humiliations, his self-disgust, his bad decisions. He would like to remember only the things he chose: music, Tanya, Nina, his parents, true and reliable friends, Galya playing with the pig, Maxim imitating a Bulgarian policeman, a beautiful goal, laughter, joy, the love of his young wife. He did remember all those things, but they were often overlaid and intertwined with everything he wanted not to remember. And this impurity, this corruption of memory, tormented him.’

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time, p168

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The particular and the universal

. . . . the great paradox of national letters: writers who seem rooted in the particular but whose works are deemed universal. Arguably the greatest German writer of the 20th century was Franz Kafka who was, of course, Czech. His tales of alienation, of guilt, of not being what you seem, could perhaps only have been written by a German-speaking Jew who grew up in a Catholic Slavic city such as Prague. But what that makes Kafka – German, Jewish, Czech, Slavic – is perhaps not the point. He is a writer being true to the multitudes within himself that are one and many.

Richard Flanagan, Does Writing Matter? The Monthly 2016

(from here) 

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Hidden paintings on books


Spider monkeys from a fore-edge painting on The Natural History of Monkeys (1838) PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE SWEM LIBRARY

(from here) 

Lovely Hidden Paintings Adorned the Edges of Historic Books Fore-edge paintings. Just look at them! By Eric Grundhauser

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Leonard Cohen’s farewell to his father

When Leonard [Cohen] was nine, his father died; this moment, a primal wound, was when he first used language as a kind of sacrament. “I have some memories of him,” Cohen said, and recounted the story of his father’s funeral, which was held at their house. “We came down the stairs, and the coffin was in the living room.” Contrary to Jewish custom, the funeral workers had left the coffin open. It was winter, and Cohen thought of the gravediggers: it would be difficult to break the frozen ground. He watched his father lowered into the earth. “Then I came back to the house and I went to his closet and I found a premade bow tie. I don’t know why I did this, I can’t even own it now, but I cut one of the wings of the bow tie off and I wrote something on a piece of paper—I think it was some kind of farewell to my father—and I buried it in a little hole in the back yard. And I put that curious note in there. . . . It was just some attraction to a ritual response to an impossible event.”

David Remnick, Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker, The New Yorker October  17 2016

(from here) 


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