Who would lose: a twelfth-century sexist or a twenty-first-century presentist?
The book I’m currently writing is set nearly 900 years ago. This poses certain difficulties. Last night, I missed my bedtime falling down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out whether a specific woman rode her horse side-saddle, or astride.
If you choose to go back this far into history, you’ll find that it’s clouded by all the time that’s passed since. You’re trying to imagine a woman riding a horse in 1140, but you’re actually picturing virginal twentieth-century dorm-room posters reprinted from Victorian paintings imagining late-medieval scenes.
This is not evidence of what the middle ages were like.
If you begin to research a question like “did women in 1140 ride side-saddle?,” you’ll find a lot of websites with vague, unattributed statements like: “Women weren’t allowed to be independent or wear pants until the twentieth century because they were supposed to be demure and chaste.”
Citation needed! It’s not categorically wrong, but it’s wrong categorically!
This kind of assumption obscures the past. It flattens the past into a single “bad old times.”
And—it makes us lazy. There is a common temptation to think about time as a steady march of progress, like so:
But things can, and often do, get worse. New systems of oppression are created. Life-sustaining creations are destroyed.
Women are allowed to ride horses in the most efficient way, until they are told that instead have to ride in a way that only goes slowly and probably feels not great for the horse. From my digging, it looks like that happened sometime after 1140.
So I’m letting my gal swing up on her palfrey, get her skirt bunched up under her. Letting her feel the breeze on her shins.
Six months ago, I set the following goals for the second half of 2020:
Take an online course on intuitive eating: ✔️, and I developed a Lot of Feelings about food and eating.
Play the piano at least three days per week, and be able to play one specific song fluently by the end of the year: I never decided on One Big Song to perfect, but I’ve been playing most nights and getting out the old song books I had as a kid and it’s a huge joy for me and maybe the neighbor I share a wall with.
Write a SFD (shitty first draft) of Book Three: I’m on my way, but the first draft is not close to done. Then again, I did a lot of research and I’m having a bit of a love affair with the writing it right now (to borrow an image from Elizabeth Gilbert). That feeling is the pinnacle of delight for a creative hobby. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s recognition. No, the best it gets is the itchy pull all day to get back to creating, and then the rush and the flow when it’s time to do it.
Perfect my query letter and send 60 queries for Book One: I did not make the query letter perfect, nor did I send anywhere near 60 queries. I sent a few, and then put it aside, and then woke up one morning with my soul telling me it was time to send more, so I did, and now I’ve put it aside again.
Six months later I’m noticing how these goals mostly seem a bit pushy, achievement-oriented, perfection- and recognition-bait. Finish the class! Do the song good! Finish the draft! Make the letter perfect and then snow New York under with it! (“That seems normal, as they’re goals,” you might say, raising your eyebrow.)
I’ll think about that the next few days. How to set goals that are specific and measurable but also more oriented around a state of being than around constant doing? Looking for balance in the immense sweet spot between “bored and aimless” and “overstretched.”
Let me know some things you’re proud of yourself for in 2020!
Looking backward is as familiar to me as breathing is, which is to say, I often fail to notice I’m doing it. (After all, my type’s orientation to time is sometimes summarized as “preserve the past,” which is the kind of impulse one needs to keep a wary eye on.)
From childhood I’ve had a near-obsession with the past. This obsession led me by the hand through a lifelong historical-novel habit, a history degree, and a tendency to ruminate. To a panicked feeling of things always going too quickly. A pang that I’m not quite done with chapters of my life which have ended without my permission.
It also means I love old buildings. Before that history degree, in my foolish youth, I loved any old-looking building indiscriminately. But education has led me out of this darkness. I now realize there are, broadly speaking, three categories of old-looking buildings: follies, ruins, and palimpsests. Let’s explore them, shall we?
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been wiped clean to have other writing put on it—or, more broadly, any object that has been reused for some new purpose. I’m abusing this word slightly to refer to old buildings that have been long in use. You often hear, for example, that old houses in this area of the East Coast are log cabins surrounded by newer and newer rooms, built up and out. My dad’s friend had a house like that: a modern enough house, but with one room with a dirt floor that once was the entire house. It was a palimpsest: something new built right up inside and on top of something old, until the two became one.
Palimpsest buildings like this are disappointing to a past-looker like myself. They seem to cover the best bits up, hiding them in modern taste or functionality. After all, very-old buildings have to be maintained. This means new workmanship, new materials, replacement walls and doors.
Look at the amazing Taos Pueblo, which is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country, over a millennium old.
Does it look precisely as it did a thousand years ago, asks my past-loving heart? Of course not. It is a home, a city. It has had to withstand the weather, the climate, wars and famines and droughts and population changes, and dozens of generations of children clambering around it. People live in it. They maintain it as their house. They build it and go on building it.
Bummer, sighed the past-lover in me. I wanted to see literal millennium-old adobe, untouched.
Palimpsests are the realest kind of old building, but they disappoint. They are buildings—houses or churches or offices or shops whatever they want to be—rather than reverent monuments to the past.
Give me a reverent monument to the past, I cry!
Here, have a folly.
Follies are fake old buildings built as decoration. (Now we’re cooking with gas). You might be fooled by them if you aren’t on guard. You might be wandering around some estate which belonged to someone with vastly too much wealth, and, oh my God, is that a castle? Is that a ruined Roman amphitheater?
No, dear, it’s a folly, from the French folie. Crazy.
Follies are like expensive jeans: often either neat as a pin or stylishly, intentionally weathered. They’re like catnip for people like me who watch a lot of costume dramas. And then, once you figure out their fakery, they’re pretty embarrassing.
Now that we’ve learned to spot a fake, let’s move on to the really real old building. The one that isn’t bastardized by modern hands. Let’s look at some ruins.
Ruins have beauty and tragedy. They look great in the rain. They’re really romantic. You can imagine having some very strong emotions there, growing your hair long and getting a little windswept. And the fact that they’re dead makes them extremely fun for a past-looker: they’re pure in some way that a palimpsest or a folly could never be. They’re like an above-ground time capsule.
Until you realize that ruining doesn’t just happen. Not usually. It’s more natural for buildings to become palimpsests over time, if they’re any good, because people naturally want to keep using what they’ve got. Ruins, I’m finding more and more, are often on purpose.
In preparation for Book Three, I’m researching a lot of 12th-century castles and abbeys in France and England. The ones in France are often still there, or parts of them that haven’t been repurposed. But many of those in England were ruined intentionally. Henry VIII sacked the monasteries to get Anglicanism off to a proud start, and Oliver Cromwell “slighted” (cannon-balled and pulled down) many castles to deprive his enemies of a foothold.
This makes me shake my fist at them, both for being such intolerant dipshits (pardon), but also for making it hard for me to know the precise dimensions of some of these buildings. Yes, this is about me!
So I’ve come full circle: I turn my nose up at follies, now, and ruins make me a bit sad. I see them more as lost information, lost usefulness. They are buildings that didn’t get a chance to live on as palimpsests, to be useful to people.
But the irony even there is: when these armies knocked down an abbey or a castle, people (being resourceful) used the rubble. They picked up the bits of the fallen walls and used them to patch their houses, their bridges, their crumbling garden retaining walls. These old ruins are living on as palimpsests, but spread out all over the countryside.
Take it one step further: after all that slighting, the rich started to love the aesthetic of the ruined buildings everywhere, looking rather elegant and skeletal, picked clean of rubble. They built some of their own in the backyard so they could stare at it over breakfast. Isn’t that a palimpsest of a kind, the repurposing of the very idea and function of a ruined building into a piece of artwork?
And take it another step: during some famines in Ireland, the wealthy landlords didn’t necessarily want everyone to starve to death, but couldn’t abide the idea of simply giving away cash or food. Instead, they gave the suffering masses construction jobs building “Famine Follies,” which sometimes were actual follies and sometimes were simply roads to nowhere. Unnecessary manual labor, I guess, rendered people deserving of food.
Picture that: starving people put to work hauling stone around the countryside to build a pretend ruin, which is to say, a building of no practical use masquerading as a building that once had (but no longer has) a practical use.
By now the whole idea of looking backward at pretty old buildings is collapsing in on itself. The idea of gazing longingly backward at all is foolish: uninformed at best; reactionary at worst.
Much better to love the idea of the palimpsest. To love the building that many generations have adapted and molded and fitted to their needs. To love the stones that fell out of the wall and ended up filling the gap in someone’s chimney.
For All Saints’ Day, better to stop looking back with regret and desperation, trying to freeze it in place, trying to see it in clear focus. Better to know that just like seeds in winter, what is dead still has a future of its own strange kind.
In the long meantime, everything is recycled. Nothing will be stagnant. Nothing will be resurrected whole. Old buildings are resurrected in others or returned to the earth. Old chapters of our lives will not come again, but they take on new resonances with every year, like the turn of a kaleidoscope.
Such a long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.
Saturdays are plenty. I’m much more familiar with scarcity, which is evident on Friday nights and Sundays. But Saturdays are big and long, and that is somehow upsetting.
There is something languid, in a kind of nauseous way, about a Saturday. A Saturday at home is sunlight coming in hot through the window, still wearing pajamas at 11 and unable to change them because what is the next activity after all?, strange lunch (the strangest of meals no matter what, but stranger still at home on a Saturday), sitting in different positions across uncertain hours, then suddenly it’s 4:30 and a tiny whiny cloud of despair rains down. Where did all the lovely wide-open time go?
Activity-laden Saturdays are different: a kind of frenetic energy, hours that bend in strange directions, and a million possibilities of how to be a human. Couples carrying coffees around corners, women with totes full of farmer’s market goods, parking lots at the base of hills laden with hikers, restaurant patios full of people sharing appetizers, roads bearing shoppers destined to return that piece of hardware that didn’t quite work to the mega-mall, and lots of unseen people writing books or learning the clarinet or enjoying lots of Premium Content or cooking complicated meals for very interesting friends in their homes, and no matter which of these or infinite other activities one chooses, it often feels like it wasn’t quite the right one, or it was too short, or on the other hand it took far too long and now the whole lovely time is gone.
A few years ago I went through a solitary period. The phrase a great and terrible freedom bounced around my head a lot. Too many possibilities can become a cage if you let them.
Saturdays, for those (like me) with few real responsibilities, are a little microcosm of that great and terrible freedom.
I’ve heard that how you feel on a Monday is a clear view into how you feel about your life. But how you feel about a Saturday is, too. Monday shows how you feel about the yang in your life—what are you striving for? What is the weight of all your doings? How does that feel? But Saturdays show you how you feel about the yin—what does resting feel like? What does open time feel like? Who are you? What does being you feel like?
So if Saturdays often feel mildly depressing to me, one thing must be true: my relationship to yin needs help.
I’ve been thinking a lot about, for lack of a better way to put this, chilling out. This blog went quiet over the last few weeks of vacation as I tried to do less, be more. Say a gentle “no thanks” to the unspoken demand to justify my existence with proof that I do a lot, am busy, am important, am productive, am probably going to miraculously cheat death by having a lot to show for 2020. Resisting this means learning how to trust that, to paraphrase Jesus, tomorrow is tomorrow’s concern. Today’s trouble is enough for today. I don’t need to stay awake at night worrying how I’ll get all those things done that I crave doing.
After all, if I get them done but feel irritated by lovely wide-open luxurious free time that begins at the finish line, that’s…not ideal.
Here’s the irony: when I’m busy, I long for unstructured time. O, for a wide-open Saturday! My kingdom for a week without evening obligations! But then it happens and I go all lopsided. It turns out that I don’t naturally leap out of bed, exercise post-haste, then spend six uninterrupted hours writing a flawless segment of Book Three.
So here I am, on Saturday, sitting in the cool by my plants, in that wide-open time between Friday and Sunday. I didn’t Do much yet except a bit of yoga, dumping out the compost, building some flat-pack furniture, and quite possibly breaking a door.
I might Do Something after this. Perhaps better not.
There are less than six months left in 2020. (Aside: I want to be able to write “There is less than six months left in 2020,” because I’m less interested in the countable number of months than in the uncountable amount of time, but it just looks so completely wrong that I can’t bring myself to do it. (Other aside: remember this pedantry later.)) I have yet again set goals for these next six months, which I plan to share for accountability!
But also! As I said last time, it seems crazy to be setting goals right now, what with all the trust in the future that that requires. If the first half of 2020 has taught us anything, it might be that we really can’t count on life looking any particular way at any particular time. Sometimes things just change. Sometimes there are murder hornets and maybe also flying snakes and they’re not even that big of a deal because there is so much else going on.
I’m not one for sports analogies. I needed help understanding the problem when Pete Buttigieg, way back many years ago in January, referred to Kobe Bryant’s achievements on the “field.” But even I understand the inherent drama about entering the second half of a sport thing. Are we up? Are we down? Do we have everything to lose or everything to gain? Etc.
And I think if I understood sports, I’d know that you can’t plan the second half until you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Here’s the thing: I always expect future-me to be an absolute superhero, a champion of efficiency who may also be able to time-travel, who squeezes 24 hours of productivity into an 8-hour day. She bears no relation to present-me, but I applaud present-me for this optimism.
So my work recently has been to accept that present-me, who needs a lie-down between tasks and who sometimes comes to covered in chip dust at the bottom of a Wikipedia k-hole, is the one I’m asking to do all of this. I’ve tried to give her a reasonable ask.
After that scale-back, I’m feeling pretty okay about my ability to do what I set out to do in the second half of 2020. Here’s what I’m aiming for:
Take an online course on intuitive eating (half done)
Play the piano at least three days per week, and be able to play one specific song fluently by the end of the year.
Write a SFD (shitty first draft) of Book Three. (Note: this one I’m not at all sure will happen. “Not with that attitude!” you may object. But…seriously.)
Perfect my query letter and send 60 queries for Book One.
Check back in 6 months to see how it went, assuming the internet still exists and I have not been murdered by hornets.
(Now, a final note on pedantry and the efficiency of present-me: I got waylaid for literally 24 hours by whether to say there “are” or “is” less than six months left in 2020. This is not the behavior that future-me expects from present-me! As a team, we will have to work on this.)
Back in the before-times, I made some goals for the first six months of 2020.
It had been my intention all along to come back here and check in on those goals at the end of June. But as you may have noticed, the world has been doing something that looks a lot like falling apart, or (more hopefully) metamorphosing, between then and now.
I had no idea in early January that in the next six months I’d be up against a long bout with pneumonia, a global pandemic, a big transition in my family, major social upheaval, and getting ready to move apartments.
But here we are!
These are over-the-top, bang-you-over-the-head type reminders that we are not in control of circumstances. We are not in control of the future. But making goals is an act of putting trust in the future.
That’s a tension I struggle with. I often look into the future with a jaundiced eye, unable to believe that anything good will come of it unless I wring it out with sheer effort. I’m consistently wrong about this. Time demands that I understand it will always surprise me.
Despite all this, I’m going to do a little reflection over the next few days to figure out what I want to put my attention and energy to in the second half of 2020. I’m going to set goals exactly as I did in January. I do not know what the world or my own circumstances will look like in late December. I’m going to try to live in that place between trust in the future and humility in my own ability to control it.
All that said, how did I do on 2020 goals part 1?
Querying Book One: ✔️
Semi-detailed outline for Book Three and reading at least one research book: ✔️
Therapy at least once a month: ✔️
Comfortably running ~5 miles regularly: Absolutely not in this climate. Migraine city. Could reassess once the swamp cools down this fall. Could not.
Honestly, I’ve never felt more grateful that I happen to be an introvert.
Two months ago, I said I’d write a post a day until this was all over.
Fool that I was, I think I expected that it would be clear when it was over. At this point, “it” remains confusing and variable and unlikely to be entirely over any time soon.
I’m not even sure what I think “it” is: the pandemic? The moral imperative to isolate if possible? Stay-at-home orders? Nonessential businesses closed? These all will have different end dates, possibly multiple end dates, and—
Friends, I just can’t post every day for that long.
Fortunately, I checked the tapes, and despite remembering that I said I’d post daily until this ended, here’s what I actually said: “I will be posting something here every day until…someday.”
So, today is someday. Two months in, I’m tapping out. I’m going to keep posting here a few times a week, but focus more on Book One and Book Three with my writing time.
This has been an interesting experiment. It’s taught me, maybe, that I can trust myself to have ideas and to write stuff, but also to understand that I won’t necessarily do so precisely on cue, and that’s okay. Some days posting was very hard, either because I had nothing to say, or a lot to say and no energy with which to say it, or because I felt so strongly that I was yelling into a void that prefer I stop. And some days, posting was easy. Not to worry either way, I guess.
It was also interesting to watch which posts people seemed to like more than others. What I learned: I have no idea what y’all want. And the bigger lesson there, of course, is that I should just let go of trying to please others and do what I want! Whee!
But yesterday I simply did not post, because I was busy and/or did not feel well, and it was kind of great. It was what I wanted.
In that spirit, what I want right now is to finish this tea, go for a walk/run thing (fingers crossed that this won’t take me to migraine city), and then get on with most this amazing day.
i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any—lifted from the no of all nothing—human merely being doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing.
Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.
More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.
In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.
On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?
There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.
Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.
This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.
I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.