Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
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Blooming Lilacs and a Runny Nose

I have fifteen-foot-tall lilac bushes running down one side of my property line, and they're gloriously in bloom this morning. It's not eight yet, and the temperature is a balmy, sitting-on-the-porch-in-shirtsleeves sixty degrees. The sun is shining. The grackles are searching for bugs in the grass by the street. The puppy is lounging on the wicker sofa next to me.

I love my life.

Yesterday, I put the garden in. Such an old-fashioned phrase. I planted five varieties of tomatoes, and put their protective green wall-o-water hats on them. Since I started them indoors way back in March, they're pretty tall, so I buried them deep where those early leaves can become nice sturdy roots. I also planted a couple of Italian melon plants, and an Italian eggplant, also in the wall-o-water hats. I can't say enough good things about Seeds from Italy where I bought the melon and eggplant seeds, as well as arugula and basil seeds -- the basil and arugula are coming up great guns, and this morning I had a little toast with goat cheese and fresh arugula out of my garden for breakfast. (Just writing that gives me a squidgy feeling, how precious, but on the other hand, something cool is happening in America when the goat cheese is local here in Montana).

I also built pea trellises out of copper plumbing pipe -- they look really nice, and I'm looking forward to them turning nice and green. The soldering iron the hardware store guy sold me didn't work, so I just threw in the towel and put them together with some nice thin strips of duct tape -- it looks just like a weld from afar, and it's not like I'm running water through them. So, I've got two kinds of peas planted, some haricots verts and some French flageolet beans. Its starting to look like a real garden out there, not just a bunch of big wooden boxes filled with dirt.

And my nose is running. I don't know if it's the lilacs, or the trees leafing out, or perhaps the drifts of hair my two dogs and one cat are shedding all over the house, but since I really hate the drugs they give you for this stuff -- they either make me sleepy and stupid or so wired I can't see straight -- so I'm just wandering around my lovely yard with a box of kleenex. It's not that big a deal, really. Who cares about a runny nose when you've got forty feet of blooming lilacs?

posted by Charlotte at 5/23/2003 06:50:00 AM


Reading Lolita in Tehran
This is one of those books that people tell you is really great, and you think "yeah, yeah, a book group in Tehran ... sounds interesting." I don't know where we all got the idea that this book is about a book group of the sort we know here ... a sort of hen night where a bunch of women get together and after a desultory discussion of the book at hand, retreat into drinks and gossip and general social activity.

This book is not about that kind of book group. This book is about women who are reading for their lives.

Azar Nafisi returned to Iran on the cusp of the revolution to teach at the University of Tehran. Like any junior professor, she was filled with excitement and anxiety, but bit by bit, she found herself hemmed in by a revolution that forced her to wear the veil, that arrested, imprisoned and murdered her students and colleagues, that closed the universities, that "made me irrelevant."

I'd been reading along thinking of John Ashcroft and Bush, of the "Patriot" Act, and Homeland Security, of the sheer impotent rage I felt as I heard Bush say this evening on TV that the new bill to clearcut the forests so they won't burn is "just common sense" when Nafisi recounted this anecdote: "Khomeni had asked a leading political cleric, Modaress, what he should do when an official in his town decided to call his two dogs Sheikh and Seyyed, a clear insult to clerics. Modaress's advice, according to Khomeni, had been brief and to the point: "Kill him." Khomeni concluded by quoting Modaress: "You hit first and let others complain. Don't be the victim, and don't complain."

How does one fight these sorts of bullies? Clearly this is the motto of the current administration, and like Nafisi, I too have retreated into the sanctuary of reading, of gardening, of keeping my head down and hoping I can outlast this bunch.

Which is where reading and writing fiction comes in. Nafisi gives one of the most cogent arguments I've ever read for why fiction matters. Fiction matters, she says because "A novel is not an allegory ... It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel." And empathy is exactly what ideologues seek to repress. In discussing Lolita with her students, Nafisi "mentioned that Humbert was a villan because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita. Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people. He created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image."

I could not help but think as I read this book of the ways the right wing has bullied their way into the seat of power, by declaring that their dogmatic beliefs are simply "common sense," and that anyone who doesn't agree with them is not an "American." I don't know what tools we have to fight ideologues -- I failed miserably at exactly this task in graduate school, and I fear that I don't have what it takes to fight this fight on a political level either. I'm just an artist, and I have my family/social novel I'm working on ... but what if I'm working on this while the call is going out to put us all in veils, while the arguments are being made that we shouldn't mind, because after all, it's just taking your shoes off to get on an airplane. Why are we all being so unreasonable? Isn't this, after all, for the greater good?

posted by Charlotte at 5/21/2003 08:04:00 PM


Blog in Progress

I loved my old template, but alas, with my new laptop, I can hardly read the text ... it's a very faint grey and my poor eyes were having a terrible time with it. So, for the next couple of days I'll be fussing with the template. I know, change is hard ... but after my Powerbook died on me last week, I'm in that state where one must get used to a lot of computer change all at once. That said, I must admit I love my new iBook -- it's so tiny, so compact, so light. It reminds me of my beloved Mac 180 laptop, a warhorse of a machine upon which I wrote my first novel. This one has the same "I can sit on the floor and type away" appeal -- but unfortunately I have to change my template. Be patient. Like everything else, it will evolve.

posted by Charlotte at 5/20/2003 07:56:00 PM


Snow on the Lilacs

Good thing I didn't plant the tomatoes on Friday, when the sun was shining, when it was 70 degrees and my apple trees were blooming and the lilacs were this close to opening. Good thing because today it's snowing. Snowing like winter, big fat wet flakes falling outside my window, two inches on the lawn, and the poor lilacs are all bent over from the load. Everything will be fine, this is expected, it's Montana after all, and although the official last frost date was yesterday, the 17th, everyone knows that if you put your tomatoes out before Memorial Day you're just asking for it.

And I have to say, I'm enjoying a snowy indoor day. This week was a little much. We had a raucous night Tuesday watching the debut of my friend Bill Campbell's documentary, Season of the Grizzly, on the Animal Planet, and wound up on the porch in the glorious late evening light eating outdoors and drinking far more wine than we should have. Wednesday was the opera in Bozeman, Aida, which was fabulous -- really. They bring in singers, and the orchestra was terrific, and the music was so good that the local kids' goofiness as dancing girls and extras was charming and not annoying. But it's a long opera, and it was 12:30 before I got home. Then Friday was the Fur Ball -- the Humane Society benefit, which was fun and all, but I am not an extrovert by nature, and by Friday night I was getting tired and grumpy ... So a snowy spring day where I can curl up inside with last week's NY Times, with George Eliot, with Reading Lolita in Tehran, and try to refill that creative part of my brain so that tomorrow, when the new iBook comes to replace my dead PowerBook (totally crapped out on Thursday -- but the local guy got it to come back to life long enough that we think we can get my data off it), so tomorrow, despite the day job, and the garden chores that need to get done (I'm planning pea trellis made from 1/2 inch copper plumbing pipe), I can get back to the novel. Get back to the novel with a clear head, get back to the novel like a person who has had a day off.

I went outside a while ago and cut an armful of snow-covered lilacs. They're in a tall vase below the portrait of my grandmother in my now-perfect living room. It's funny, the Proustian-memories some things bear. My dad's birrthday was yesterday. For a while when I was a child, my parents had a farm northwest of Chicago, and there was a sort of lawn-courtyard formed by an enormous ring of lilac trees. And every year they'd bloom in time for my Dad's birthday -- I don't know whether he actually did really love the smell of lilacs, or whether it was one of those things I got in my head as a kid, that Dad liked lilacs. I remember cutting armfulls of them, and taking them down to his office in the old guest house by the road. Later, after my parents divorce, things got a little weird at the farm, we'd go out on the weekends and stay in our old house that now had almost no furniture in it, but the woods and the creek and the pond and the lilacs were always the same, and we loved them the way only little kids can love a piece of ground. So here it is, the middle of May, and I'm back in a part of the world where there are lilacs. Happy Birthday Dad, I'm thinking of you as the lilacs warm up inside and spread their scent all over the inside of my little Montana house.

posted by Charlotte at 5/18/2003 10:37:00 AM


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