Little Green Pockets

When I was a child, I sometimes had trouble falling asleep at night. So I would lie in bed for a while with my eyes closed, just imagining things, stories of sorts, or scenarios. One of them went like this. I would imagine all of the streets around our house turning into rivers, the parking lots into lakes. The houses would turn into hills, and the people in them into animals of various sorts. I would imagine what sorts of animals they would turn into, based on their personalities. All around me would be a natural landscape. I would be the only human being left in the wide world, able to wander around this reconstituted garden of Eden. I don’t think I ever thought about the practicalities — what I would eat, for instance. By that time I was already asleep.

We lived in a standard American subdivision that might have come out of a teen movie from the 1980s or 90s. It was arranged around a long, circular road, with smaller streets running off it. On those smaller streets were detached houses in the middle of green lawns, except for one small area of attached houses and even apartments. We lived in one of the attached houses, without a lawn but with a small garden in the back. It was one of the newest subdivision spreading out from Washington, D.C., and there was still a lot of green space that has since disappeared. Back then, the subdivision was surrounded by forest, and the kids could still go play in the forest, as kids did at the end of the last century. We were perpetually on our bikes, riding around the streets, or walking to one another’s houses. There were two schools in the subdivision, an elementary school and a middle school — we were bussed to the high school, which was in the middle of farmland. Beyond the subdivision spread more farmland — we were at the edge of suburban America, back then. Still, I longed for more green space.

Since then, I have lived in many places, many of them quite urban. But I’ve always tried to live somewhere I could see trees out the window, or hear birdsong. I’ve always tried to have a little pocket of nature nearby, for my mental health. It means a lot to me that my Boston apartment is on a quiet street with ancient linden trees that drop their yellow leaves all over the road in autumn, and that I have a little garden, just a strip along the side of the house but I’ve put so many plants into it and over the seasons I can watch them grow, bloom, die back and sleep under the snow. And in my Budapest apartment, I see the trees in the park of the Nemzeti Múzeum. I love that view, and I think I need it as well.

I think most of us need much more nature than we get.

I love teaching, but when I go to teach in the morning, I pass one of my least favorite views in the world. First I walk through the tree-lined streets of Brookline, where the sidewalks are built the old-fashioned way: between strips of green, usually on one side a little garden by the house or apartment building, and on the other side the strip of green between the sidewalk and the road, with grass and tall trees. It’s like a sidewalk sandwich: green, concrete, green. The trees tower above me, and I can hear birds, see a glimpse of the blue sky. Then I emerge onto Commonwealth Avenue, and the view changes. Either way I look, it’s concrete concrete concrete. The long river of concrete that is the avenue, with a tram line going down the middle, broad sidewalks on either side, and very little green. Commonwealth Avenue has gotten better in the last few years — it had to, since it had a reputation as one of the most dangerous streets in Boston, the site of numerous accidents. In places, trees were planted. Right now they look like sticks sticking (stickily) up from small square patches of brown dirt. And there is a protected bike path. But either way I look, I see so much concrete, and in the distance a mountain range of office buildings, glass glass glass, glittering in the sun.

Why are trees put in those little square spaces? Why are the squares either left as dirt or covered with metal grates, as though the trees might escape — or, I’ve seen more recently, a sort of spongy asphalt that I assume is a new technology, the latest in street tree design, because it must let the rain through or the tree would die. But it looks so strange to see trees growing out of what looks like playground plastic asphalt. I feel sorry for the trees — they look lonely, all by themselves, with no birds to sit on their branches (birds stay where there are more trees, more cover), no squirrels to climb up them, not even grass to talk to. I wonder where their roots go, under the streets? Is there room for them to stretch and grow? There are places on Commonwealth Avenue where the trees have better accommodations. They are in long raised planters, fancily edged in stone, with other plants. Those appear in front of important buildings like the business school and the gym, but ordinary classroom buildings get sticks in grates.

We know this isn’t good for either trees or people. We need nature — our souls need it, our lungs need it. Concrete and asphalt lead to flooding when it rains, overheating when the sun shines on the streets in summer. But everywhere I go, on those city streets, I see places where we could put little pockets of green — places where no one walks, empty useless concrete corners that could be something else. There could be plants, there could be green to rest and refresh our eyes, to cool the air and do all the other good things plants do. We could, if we wanted to, have little parks everywhere. What I’m saying here is that we should have those little parks, that our cities could be very different than they are now, that they could be gardens as well as cities — and they should. This would of course be more expensive, because people would need to create and take care of those little gardens. We could think of a word for that — I don’t know, something like “jobs.” It would create more jobs.

I dream of a world where cities have little green pockets everywhere we can put them, like a great dress with little pockets sewn all over it, holding plants. I dream of a city with birds and insects, a city that is slower, more human. I can imagine a hundred arguments against this, all having to do with economics, with practicality, and I will say: human ingenuity has done a lot more than this. Putting little parks in cities is one of the easier things we have done. Look at those glittering skyscrapers — you’re going to tell me my plan is harder than that?

I want little green pockets everywhere, to carry our hopes and dreams.

(The image is Avenue of Schloss Kammer Park by Gustav Klimt.)

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Organizing My Closet

I got back from Budapest and immediately started to prepare for teaching at Boston University this semester. I’m teaching a class I really enjoy — a class on rhetoric to freshmen, not classical rhetoric as defined by Aristotle and the ancient Greek rhetoricians, but a broader, more modern rhetoric, focused on oral, written, and visual communication. We get to talk about traditional oral storytelling, the development of the reflective essay, modern modes of communication such as photography and film . . . It’s going to be a lot of fun, certainly for me and I hope for the students.

But the last few weeks have been too much transition, in too short a time. Last week I found myself feeling as though I did not know where I was, or even who I was exactly. I’ve traveled in the past without this sense of instability, but that was travel — I was going somewhere, with my life temporarily packed into a suitcase, and then I would come back. There was a here, a there, a me at home and a me traveling. This time there was a me at home in Budapest, then a me at home here in Boston. I was teaching in a new program, my daughter was moving back into the dormitory for her second semester of college. Nothing was fundamentally changing (I was still teaching at the university, still in the same apartment in Boston), and yet everything felt different. It felt as though the ground was shifting under me.

So I did the logical thing. I organized my closet.

I had all my Boston clothes in two closets and a chest of drawers in two different rooms, which meant I was always walking back and forth, trying to remember what fit with what else, what matched with what. The shirts and skirts were in one room, the sweaters were in another, so I would find myself standing in front of one closet thinking, What sweater goes with this skirt? and then maybe taking the skirt over to the other room, to check. I could not trust my memory, partly because I was jetlagged, partly because I might be remembering a sweater that was in another closet altogether, in Budapest. Anyway, I don’t carry my sweaters around in my head — that’s what the closet is for.

The first step was putting away all the summer and spring clothes. There’s snow on the ground, but when I pulled out one drawer, I would see short-sleeved shirts, and part of one closet was half filled with floral summer dresses. In my jetlagged state, I would spend a minute staring at them before thinking, No, winter dresses. What is the temperature again? Cold, rainy or snowy — that’s January in Boston. So I bought some storage boxes at the local hardware store and put away the clothes for warmer weather. My closets are not deep, but my ceiling is high, and there is a quite lot of space to go up — space that is usually wasted, but perfect for stacked storage boxes.

Then I organized the clothes that were left, the fall and winter clothes I will actually be wearing until spring comes again, which around here could be April, who knows. I put everything I actually use in two places, the larger closet and the chest of drawers. The other closet will be for my daughter, when she is here rather than in the dormitory. I used hanging shelves for the sweaters, so now they are right next to the skirts, and I can see immediately what goes with what else. Shoes are below, except the heeled shoes, which are on a rack above, and winter boots, which are in the coat closet below the coats.

I know, I know, that’s a lot of detail you didn’t necessarily need to hear about. But the process of putting my closet together was also a process of creating the place I live in, which was also a process of recreating myself. We don’t simply exist. We exist in relation to places and people — we interexist, so that my existence in Budapest is defined in part by the table where I do my Hungarian homework, the convenience store around the corner where I buy rétes. I am a person who eats rétes, a person who does studies Hungarian. Here in Boston, I was jetlagged and feeling a sense of vertiginous displacement, so I tried to define where I was in relation to something — the season, at a minimum. It’s winter, I will put away the summer clothes.

To be honest, I got a bit obsessive about it. I spent a day going through all my clothes, checking to see what I had, making sure it still fit and sparked joy (yes, that is a Mari Kondo reference), unfolding and refolding, going to the hardware store for more storage boxes, scrolling through the Ikea website for drawer dividers. At certain points, I felt pretty silly. But at the end, as I grew reflective, I thought the following:

Home is something we make, not just someplace we are. For most of the year, my home had been in Budapest. I had made that home, with a lot of help from a lot of wonderful people (especially during the renovations the year before). Over time, it had become a warm, welcoming, comfortable place. And it was mine, my very own apartment with a view of the Nemzeti Múzeum. Now I was back in Boston, in a rented apartment. I had to make it home again, at least for a while.

I started with a closet — probably, I’m not sure but it seems likely — because clothes define who we are. They demarcate different aspects of our lives, different roles we fill in relation to others. There are outdoor clothes and indoor clothes. In my case, there are teacher clothes — after a semester of not teaching, I had to think of skirts and sweaters that matched, of dresses that looked professional but did not prevent me from writing on a chalkboard. I had to become Dr. Goss again, and that meant dressing the part.

I’m so busy this semester — I have so much to do, mostly for other people (my colleagues, my students, my daughter) — that I wanted to make my own life as easy and intuitive as possible. I wanted to be able to move through my own apartment with a sense of fluidity and grace. I wanted, at a minimum, to be able to find the clothes I could wear (for a Boston winter) in one closet, one chest of drawers. So I could devote the time I had to other things — creating lesson plans, writing stories, watching Netflix with my favorite college student when she has a free night.

And finally, that I, at least, need a sense of order and routine in my life. Not just to function well, but in an existential sense. Because part of me knows, always and every moment, that we are on a small planet hurtling through space, so the solidity of the ground under our feet is always an illusion, and we are here for such a short time, like flames that spark up and then flicker out. Every moment of this precious life, every breath we take, is an improbable gift. We are always, every moment, in transition. But if I thought like that on average, ordinary days, I would probably go mad, like the heroine of an Edgar Allen Poe short story. So the existential anxiety has to stay below the surface. On the surface, I have to live my life, with intention and meaning — I have to create intention and meaning, a sense of solidity and continuity.

I think we all do this, every day. We create the solidity and continuity of our lives through our thoughts and beliefs, our actions. Anyway, that’s why I organized my closet.

(The image is Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor by Vilhelm Hammershoi. This is a woman who has organized her closet.)

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Budapest at 3 a.m.

Every time I travel from Boston to Budapest, I have terrible jetlag. It’s only Boston to Budapest — traveling the other way around, with the sun, I may be a bit tired and dehydrated from the long journey, but I don’t have the same symptoms.

The first symptom is a sense of absolute exhaustion. I can sleep twelve hours a day and still be tired. It’s not just that my sense of time has been disrupted and I need to catch up. My tiredness is unpredictable, and I am off schedule not only in Budapest but also in Boston. It’s as though my time sense has shifted to someplace other than where I was, where I am — I don’t know, some alien planet? I often wake up at 3 a.m., no matter what time I went to sleep, even though 3 a.m. is not a time to wake up, either in Budapest or Boston. It’s not that I’m lagging — it’s that I’m spinning wildly out of control, like a carousel in space.

The second is a sense that gravity has increased by 100%, so that I have become incredibly heavy. It takes so much more energy simply to move. Walking up stairs is a chore. Even getting out of bed is a chore. It feels as though I have turned into a metal statue of myself.

The third is disorientation. What day is it? Monday? Oh, you say it’s Wednesday? Wait, you said Saturday? All right, if you insist. As I was saying, since this is Saturday . . . But no, I don’t remember. I had a thought, but it’s gone, whirling away behind me as I turn on this interplanetary carousel. When I’m jetlagged, I can’t think properly. There is also, sometimes, a sense of nausea and general unease, as though my body knows something is wrong, that it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which, in a sense, it is.

The flight from Boston to Budapest takes about ten hours in two airplanes. That’s the quickest flight through Zurich, with only an hour between flights — it’s the easiest and most comfortable, and the Swissair flight attendants give you chocolate (one per flight, so I end up with two chocolate bars, which is not a minor consideration). In those ten hours, I cross six time zones: 3 a.m. in Budapest is 10 p.m. in Boston. For most of those ten hours, I am in a particularly dry environment, doing something profoundly unnatural: sitting, or sleeping almost upright in an airplane, or watching a movie on the tiny screen in front of me (only at the start of the flight — then I always try to sleep), eating something or other out of an aluminum box. Last time it was couscous and vegetables. These are things I would never do under any other circumstance. I don’t mind them — they are part of the ritual of flying. But all those things, and the pressure in the cabin, take their toll. Predictably, not the day I arrive but usually the day after, the jetlag starts.

I’m not writing this asking for remedies. I do what I can, drinking water throughout the flight, getting sunlight and fresh air once I arrive, trying to adjust. I haven’t tried melatonin or other medications because despite the misery of jetlag, my body adjusts naturally, exactly as the medical websites describe: one day per time zone traveled. My body does what it’s supposed to, and I’m grateful to it for being as healthy and accommodating as it is. Considering what I put it through, it’s remarkably kind to me.

Because, and this is my point, flying against the sun like that is profoundly unnatural. It’s time travel, really — it’s something science fictional, as though I traveled somewhere by spaceship. Jetlag is a reminder that we are profoundly affected by our place on this earth, that we are earthly, earthy, creatures of the ground from which we came. The experience of jetlag is the experience of being ungrounded. I have, for ten hours, lost my connection to the planet, and I need to reconnect. Jetlag is a tiny warning that this planet is, after all, our parent — a great green and blue mother floating in space, turning like a carousel, the most wonderful you can imagine, with the best animals — and that we are bound to her cycles, her rhythms. Her movements from light to dark, her temperatures and tides. When we get too far away from her, we lose something. Perhaps that is the true lesson of Icarus. As a species, we are not particularly meant to fly — we are the wrong shape, the wrong size. When we do, it’s glorious: we slip the surly bonds of earth, as the television used to say when the daily broadcast ended, back in the days when there were only four channels, fading to black and white static around two in the morning. Right around the jetlag hour.

It is the same, it seems to me, with many of our unnatural endeavors as a species. They take us away from our natural selves, in the direction of cities, papyrus scrolls and then libraries filled with books and then the Internet, cultivated grain and then restaurants and finally little aluminum boxes of pre-cooked couscous and vegetables. From leather wrappings to linen tunics to ripped jeans and a t-shirt. They give us magnificent art, soaring architecture, and of course pollution. We create wonderful things but we also lose connection. We are all Icarus, soaring and falling, not just once but all the time. Trying to be birds, brought down to earth.

Perhaps another effect of jetlag is middle of the night speculation on the meaning of existence and the fate of humanity? Or maybe we all think about these things in the late anthropocene. In the 3 a.m. of our human timeline.

I have no solutions. Melatonin is not going to get us out of this mess. My one thought is that even relatively unimportant things, like the discomfort of jetlag, which after all passes (soon, I hope — it’s been five days), can be significant, can mean something, teach us something. In this case, that we are children of a wonderful mother, this beautiful planet of ours. We are more closely attuned to her than we often realize. We are not simply on her, walking around on her surface, restrained by her gravity so we don’t float up into the sky — she is inside us, regulating our sense of time, our sleeping and waking. We need to pay more attention, both to her and to our relationship with her. It is only by understanding that relationship, by working with her, that we will remain healthy, individually and as a species.

Such are the insights of jetlag at 3 a.m. in Budapest.

(The image is The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper. This is a pretty accurate representation of what jetlag feels like . . . I hope the nymphs are bringing him water and saltines.)

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What is a Book?

Recently I bought three books. I have a bad habit of buying books — you might even call it an addiction to books because I can’t seem to stop. Each book is a possibility, a world I can enter, a person I can become. Each book will leave me somehow different. Usually I buy novels, but I also like to buy books on gardening or just nature in general, on decorating and things to do in the home, on fashion and the history of clothes, things like that. The sorts of books I can read at night without getting too involved, because honestly, reading anything with a plot after about 9:00 p.m. is deadly. I will stay up and stay up, reading to find out what happens, and then it’s midnight or maybe even 2:00 a.m., and I am completely ruined the next day.

So recently I bought three books: Marie Kondo’s Kurashi at Home, Akiko Busch’s Everything Else is Bric-a-Brac, and Paola Merrill’s The Cottage Fairy Companion. And they led me to this question, what is a book, because when I talk about “writing a book,” I’m usually thinking about a novel, or maybe a collection of short stories, but something relatively long and substantive. I feel as though “a book” is something I need to put a great deal of work into. And while I’m sure all three of these books had a lot of work put into them, they are substantially lighter than what I think of when I set out to write a book.

The Marie Kondo book is a collection of thoughts with beautiful photographs, much shorter than her other books on tidying up, although still helpful. I particularly like the section on how to organize your day. The Akiko Busch book is a series of short essays on home — the things we have in it and what we do in it. For example, there is an essay called “Sofa,” an essay on family dinners. The Paola Merrill book also has beautiful photographs, as well as watercolor illustrations, instructions for crafts, recipes, short poems . . . And woven into them is a sort of memoir about living in the country, which is what caught my interest. I like them all very much, but I would have hesitated to write anything like them.

Maybe I’m thinking about books the wrong way? Maybe a book is simply whatever exists between two covers? Maybe “book” refers to a technology rather than contents? That may be blindingly obvious to you, but it’s not intuitive to me as a writer. And part of it comes from a sense of diffidence, as though I have to deliver a lot of value for anyone to buy something I wrote. I have to put a lot of words in there to make them worth your dollars.

But here are some other things that could be books: a children’s picture book, a book of poems, a book of essays (I would love to write one of these), a collection of quotations or affirmations (I’ve certainly seen these in the bookstore), advice for how to live (there are loads of these), a book of spells, a book of tales collected from various cultures, experimental narratives that bring into question the whole idea of story, etc. etc. There are lots of ways for things to be books. Lots of ways to book, if I can turn the object into an action. Many many ways of booking.

So the question for me is, how would I like to book? What sorts of books would I like to create? Novels, of course. But also collections of short stories. Poetry collections. I would like to edit short story and poetry collections. I would like to write a children’s book. And I would like to write nonfiction as well — for example, turning my Fairytale Heroine’s Journey essays into a book. There are so many projects I want to do in book form, and one of the things that holds me back is my idea of what will be accepted from me, what sort of book people like agents and publishers and even readers are looking for. Because I’m afraid that some of those projects would simply not sell.

I have an imaginary dialog in my head that goes something like this:

“I would like to do a poetry collection.”

“Who are you, to think you could do a poetry collection? You’re not some famous poet, you know. Who would be interested in it? Who would buy it?”

To which I could only answer, “Yes, I know, I know.”

The dialog comes partly out of my childhood and the sense I got that books were created by special people called Authors, who were different from the rest of us ordinary mortals. I, being quite an ordinary mortal, could never aspire to such heights. Granted, at this point I’ve seen plenty of authors up close, and I’ve learned that they are ordinary mortals after all. They are extraordinary only in one thing: they are obstinate as mules.

In the face of vast indifference, they write and write and write, and they generally write what they damn well please, and if you don’t like it, they will write some more.

That is the main thing I have learned about authors, and I think that is generally the way books are made: an author comes up with an idea, she writes it down, she says will anyone turn this into a book? And if someone does, then it’s a book. And if someone doesn’t, then she turns it into a book anyway, either by self-publishing, or waiting and writing another book and selling that, and then going back and selling the first book, or maybe she just puts it into a trunk in the attic and then dies, and eventually someone finds the manuscript and it’s published and becomes a classic and everyone else makes money off it while the author lies mouldering in her grave. But her skeleton smiles in satisfaction, I bet.

So what is a book? I bet a thousand and one things can be books, and I bet there are a thousand and one ways for books to get made, and I think I should get over my worries and fears and doubts because every single author I’ve ever met has had those worries and fears and doubts, substantially the same and therefore rather boring after all. And I should just work on turning my ideas and stories and poems and dreams and even random thoughts into books. Right?

(The image is an illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith.)

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Chop Wood, Carry Water

There is a famous Zen Buddhist saying:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

I’m not sure where I first read it, but it was years ago, and it stuck with me. I think it stuck with a lot of people, because there seem to be several books with this title, although some, at least, are American motivational books — you probably know the genre. To the best of my knowledge, Zen Buddhist monks are not exactly into American-style motivation. Especially not the kind where your Zen is supposed to increase corporate profits.

My understanding of the saying is as follows: enlightenment does not change your life. Before you are enlightened, you should focus on the ordinary things in life. After enlightenment, the same. You still need to chop wood for the fire. You still need to carry water to make your soup.

I’ve always liked this focus on the ordinary, and it has always resonated with me. When I’m stressed or anxious, which is often, I try to think about what I can do that is simple, physical, and useful. Like laundry. Or shopping for groceries. Or cleaning the bathroom. That is my equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water.

My favorite way of chopping wood or carrying water isn’t useful in the same way as cleaning the bathroom — it’s not an absolute necessity. But I think a Zen monk would approve. It’s working in the garden. My garden does not feed me: it’s too shaded for anything to grow that would be at all useful for soup, although it does attract rabbits, which . . . No, I won’t go there. My hypothetical Zen monk is shaking his head at me. He does not approve of joking about rabbit soup! My garden is purely ornamental, except when it’s scraggly, as it is now, at the beginning of fall when the hostas are starting to disintegrate. Soon they will die back to the ground, to come up again in spring. The bleeding hearts are dying back as well, and so are the heucheras, although there are still clusters of purple leaves coming up — the heucheras hang on as long as they can. The astilbes bloomed earlier this summer, and by this point they look like dried sticks. Green leaves are starting to turn yellow or go skeletal. Slowly everything is dying back, and soon the garden will look almost bare. The shrubs will still raise their stems, bare and brown except for the rhododendrons, which keep their leaves through the winter. Only the hellebores will remain green — like green umbrellas rising over the brown garden.

It won’t happen right away. It’s only September, and we usually have at least one more warm spell before the cold comes. But autumn is here, as certainly as there are pumpkins in the grocery store. I have already filled several flower pots with chrysanthemums, which will last only one season.

There is a great deal to do in the garden before the snow comes, even though I leave most of the garden to die back naturally. I do some pruning, a bit of tidying, and that’s all. I let the fallen leaves form a protective mulch, which benefits insects, and ultimately the birds that feed on them. Anyway, I think the untidiness of a garden in autumn is beautiful — sort of like a room filled with old furniture, some of it rather shabby, but all of it showing evidence of past richness. However, I lost some plants over the summer, so new ones are coming to replace them. I need to work on the soil, adding compost and nutrients. And not quite yet, but soon, there will be bulbs to plant for next spring.

But of course there are other ways to chop wood, carry water. Cooking, knitting, mending clothes. Any of the ordinary things we need to accomplish in life that do not (this is the important part) involve screens. I have nothing against screens, I am writing this on a screen, but there is something not quite real about this flat surface through which we so often access the world. It is infinitely useful, but interacting with it is sometimes like trying to pick an apple from a painting of an orchard. Even a painting, with its subtle bumps and ridges, offering evidence that once, there was an artist (an observing eye, a hand holding a brush) feels more real and tangible than the screen I work on as I write. I can conjure up images of apples, but they will have no scent, no taste. Every once in a while, we need to eat the apple.

(The images is Apples by Pierre-Auguste Renoire.)

I wrote the first part of this post back in September, and meant to finish, but my life has been so busy that I did not come back to it until now. Some of what I’ve been doing constitutes chopping wood and carrying water. There is always laundry to do, always grocery shopping. The small, mundane things in life are always there, and to be honest, sometimes they get me through the larger, more difficult things, the things that make me anxious — like working on significant writing projects or designing the new curriculum I will teach this spring.

I am no more enlightened now than I was in September, but my garden is just as beautiful. Less green, more yellow with leaves that have fallen from the linden trees. The hostas have died down to the ground, the periwinkles and hellebores are still green. I had two roses, and first the rabbits ate one, and now they have eaten the other, so I will replace it with something more sturdy, less tasty for rabbits — a hydrangea or camellia. My garden is based on two fundamental principles: plants must be able to live in shade, and they must taste bad to rabbits and squirrels. The squirrels don’t eat my plants, but they dig and dig and dig everywhere, so if I plant bulbs, they will be eaten — except daffodil bulbs. I’m glad that daffodil bulbs are, apparently, unacceptable to the squirrel palate.

The routine, ordinary things are always with us. And I think ultimately they save us — from boredom, sadness, the sense that life is just too big and overwhelming, which I suppose we all feel sometimes. So wash your face, make your bed, mend that rip in your coat. Chop wood, carry water.

(The image is Apfelbaum I by Gustav Klimt.)

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Addicted to Books

I think I have two addictions: chocolate and books. The book addiction is definitely stronger. I can live without chocolate. I’m not sure I could live without books.

When do I buy books? When I’ve accomplished something, to reward myself. When I’m sad, to make myself free better. When I’m anxious, again to make myself feel better. When I actually need a particular book. When I think I might need a particular book. When a particularly book sounds interesting. When I need to go on a walk, and it’s raining, so it makes more sense to go to the bookstore than to the park.

Recently, I was waiting for my flight from Budapest to Zurich to Boston. I had two books in my carry-on bag. One would not be enough, because what if I did not want to read that book? So I packed two. Then, in the airport, I went into the bookstore and bought another book, because what if I did not want to read either of those books? The thought made me anxious, so of course I bought a third book, just in case — at the ridiculously inflated airport bookstore price. During the flight, I ended up doing what I always do, which is watch movies — the sillier the better. This is how I have watched The Lost City and John Carter of Mars, on small Swiss Air seatback monitors. But those books did come in handy during the Budapest to Zurich flight, which had no seatback monitors, and while we were taxiing in Zurich and there was no movie to watch, and during the metro ride home from the Boston airport. So I made the right decision. Right?

I recently realized that, as some people have emotional support animals, I have emotional support books.

Even the act of walking through a good bookstore is soothing. So many books! So many stories! So many possibilities — not just to read, but to be for a while, because when I am reading a book, I am being in that book. I am getting to live a different life. Recently, I traveled to the Himalayas with Jamaica Kinkaid and met Miss Jean Brodie in her prime with Muriel Spark. In between, I solved a case with Hercules Poirot, but I’ve done that many times before. (Agatha Christie may be my ultimate emotional support author. Or is that Jane Austen? Or C.S. Lewis?) I have been to islands off the coast of Finland with Tove Janssen. I have gone both back and forward in time. (Maybe it’s Ursula Le Guin?) I have learned about writing, gardening, Zen, art in nineteenth-century Vienna, renovating a villa in Tuscany.

It may seem as though I’m making light of serious addictions by calling this my addiction, but it accomplishes the same thing: buying a book is a sort of “hit.” It makes me feel better, it soothes anxiety, it creates the same sense of pleasure and possibility. Within the covers of each book are dreams in which I can participate, alternate realities, even alternate personas that I can inhabit. Books are safe hallucinations. (Well, sometimes safe. Sometimes not safe at all when those hallucinations cross over into our real world, when we begin to believe in fantasies — I’m thinking here of politics.) Words are powerful, as powerful as drugs.

I don’t have any sort of deep message here, except perhaps one of solidarity with those of you who are also inveterate readers. Who also wander around bookstores in a sort of daze, wishing you could buy so many of the books on the shelves — the way you might wander around an animal shelter, wanting to take home all the puppies. Or around the garden center, planning to buy plants as though you had a hundred acres and a landscaping crew. For whom libraries are sanctuaries and sacred precincts, but who also want your own books, on your own shelves (there are never enough shelves), even if you don’t have enough time to read them, because each book is a different life you can live, a different possibility you can experience. That’s the closest we can get to immortality.

Excuse me, this evening I’m due to depart for Italy with Elena Ferrante, and I must start packing . . .

(The image is The Reading Girl by A.C.W. Duncan.)

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Morning in the Garden

When I’m in Boston, the first thing I do every morning is go out into the garden. Well, almost every morning — unless it’s raining the way it does it Boston, in sheets of water coming down from the sky, or the garden is deep in snow.

This morning it was not yet raining, although the forecast says rain today and tomorrow, all day, 100%. That’s good — my garden needs it, although I’ve been watering it since I got back from Budapest last week. I was gone for most of the summer, first in Budapest, then teaching in London, and then in Budapest again, so the garden had to fend for itself. It mostly did — I’ve gotten smarter about what I plant, and the hostas and heucheras are doing fine. The azaleas survived, as did most of the rhododendrons, except one in a dark, rather dry part of the garden. I’ve dug it up and I’m going to see if there’s any way of saving it, any life left in it. Because you never know. One of the roses survived, one didn’t. Everything was fine until the heatwave — that was what did it for some of the plants. The heat was too much for them.

I remember wilting myself, during the heat wave in London. Those hot, humid days traveling around the city, trying to get to the classes I was teaching in Kensington on the tube, while London broke down around me. Tube lines closing down, roads melting in the heat. At the time, I was living in a first floor apartment, an AirBnb rental not much different from my apartment here in Boston. It had a beautiful garden maintained by the upstairs neighbor — the sort of small garden you find around London row houses, really a narrow strip of soil around the front and back. A good gardener can create magic in that narrow strip, and my upstairs neighbor was a very good gardener. At the back of the apartment was a patio surrounded by that garden. I did not spend much time there, because I had so much work to do — I was teaching a full semester, twelve weeks of material in six weeks, so I was always either planning or grading. But I liked having the garden there. In the morning, I could look out the glass door at the end of the kitchen and see trees, flowers. It made the whole day better. It gave me a sense that the entire world did not exist on a computer screen or in a classroom — or on the tube, or even in one of the public parks, which are so manicured in London, and so filled with people. It gave me a small sense of wildness.

When I am here in Boston, with my own little garden, a narrow strip by the side of my apartment house (once a house, now divided into three flats) that widens a bit in back, next to the back porch, I go out every morning and breathe. I am surrounded by tall trees, mostly linden but also oak and maple. Then I go through the garden, bit by bit. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a strip of woodland garden by the asphalt path at the side of the house. There I planted hostas and heucheras, azaleas and astilbe. That part of the garden is doing well. The heart-shaped leaves of the violets sway, a foot tall. I brush the leaves with my hand and look underneath. Today I plucked out three oak seedlings — the oaks feel that the garden is in their territory, and want to take it back. They like the moist, woody soil. The second part of the garden is a very narrow strip by a second path, a continuation of the asphalt path, but this time concrete stepping stones with grass growing between them. This path goes around the basement bulkhead. Here there are also some hostas, but mostly wild plants like helleborine. At first I tried to take the helleborine out, because I read that it was a weed, but then I decided that I liked its strange green and maroon flowers. It’s actually an orchid, and would be more valued were it not considered invasive. In my garden, I let it invade — at least it survives the poor soil and uncertain weather! This part of the garden is always fine — it looks wild, it is wild, but it’s attractive. And then there is the back, where I have my raised boxes. This is the difficult part of the garden because both sunlight and moisture vary wildly between the two halves of it, although it must be no more than ten feet across. Let’s just say that this part is a work in progress. Some things are thriving (a rhododendron, a hydrangea), some things are not doing so well. And it’s harder now, when I’m away so much — the garden must more or less fend for itself.

I go out into the garden every morning because it makes me feel grounded, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. It makes me feel as though I have a connection to the earth itself, as though I am not floating up in the air somewhere. As though I will not float away. This is particularly important now, because over this summer I have in fact been floating quite a lot. I’ve been in a lot of airplanes, been to a lot of places where I was not connected — stayed in homes that are not mine, countries where I do not live. In Budapest I feel connected in another way — to my family, my history. But there my apartment is on the European second floor, meaning two flights up from the ground. There, I feel as though I’m living in a nest in one of the trees that surround the Nemzeti Múzeum. I love it — it is the apartment I would live in if I could — but I don’t feel grounded.

I think we need to maintain a connection with the ground. When we came down from the trees, in some evolutionary past, we created a relationship with the ground — we walk on it, gather our food from it. It is our nurturing mother. When we lose that relationship, I propose, we lose some part of ourselves. We do that by living too far from it (up in the air, in skyscrapers), by covering too much of it (with roads, sidewalks). If we live far away from it, we need at least to get back to it sometimes — we need parks, places where plants can grow. We need a connection to soil.

My dream, and I’m sure I’ve written this before, is to have a house with a large garden. How I will afford that — well, I don’t know yet. I certainly won’t be able to do it on a teacher’s salary. Maybe if I write books and people buy them . . . maybe then.

(The image is My Garden (The Bench) by Édouard Manet.)

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