all the books i read on my way out of town

today the news is very bad and the bad news i woke up to is the same and also different from the bad news i fell asleep with. in twelve hours i am getting on a plane and leaving this city and this country for an indefinite period of time, an adventure of a sort i have not gone on in a long time, which is an astounding privilege and a blessing and i am nervous and sad and grateful all at once. what a fucking time to be alive. last night i had a very unsubtle panic dream in which i was running through the labyrinthine corridors of a vast apartment building trying to find someone who would sell me a klonopin. but actually i am mostly packed (30% clothes, 10% black eyeliner, 60% books) and more or less ready, so here we go.

a couple of weeks ago i went to see kate zambreno in conversation with haley mlotek for the launch of kate’s new book Screen Tests and they were both so smart and so funny and so inspiring and i went home remembering that at one time i was a person who had and wrote down interesting thoughts about things, in fact quite regularly, and maybe i will become that person again in the near future. Screen Tests is savagely smart and very, very, very funny and also very sad, but in a good way, a way that made me think about things differently, and go look up a lot of other books to read, and write a lot of notes in my little journal about archives and memory and so on. like all of kate’s books it is a book robustly in conversation with a lot of other books and a nice reminder that there are a lot of ways to write a book (ugh) and think about books and live with and in and among books. i felt smart again after i finished it which, these days, is a real feat.

a couple of weeks ago i finished bathsheba demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, a fascinating and far-ranging and terrifically well-informed history of the intersections of capital and “nature” and exploitation of nature and indigenous peoples of the arctic that draws all kinds of extraordinary connections across histories and landscapes and human and animal activity and the ways in which energy is translated into different substances: nourishment, money, human and animal bodies, geological time. my copy is covered on almost every page with notes about capitalism and ecology and whales and time (i love writing in books but cannot bring myself to dogear a page ever, is that strange) or sometimes just “!!!” it is such a smart and thoughtful book and it is full of tools for thinking about the things i am particularly interested in thinking about right now and it is always very exciting to read someone writing about history in a way that feels completely new.

i am partway through What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, which i found i think through mary annaïse heglar’s work (are you reading mary annaïse heglar on climate crisis? you should be!!!!!), and which is an series of profiles and reported pieces about climate justice activists, the kinds of people who get sent to jail for shutting down clearcuts and u-locking themselves to fences and basically making the mainstream environmental movement look like a bunch of sad feeble liberals. wen stephenson has some definite dad energy happening and i haven’t finished it yet so maybe it goes wildly awry but if you’re going to read a white dude reporter who recently discovered climate crisis (ok, to be fair, 2010, but still a little late to the game) he is, methinks, your fellow. it is nice to read for once about people who are coming to terms with climate crisis through radical action instead of just writing a lot of sad essays on their personal blog that i think only like four people are still reading at this point, ahem, sarah. (for real, bless all four of you.) but really! stephenson is much smarter and bigger-thinking on who exactly is responsible for and who will be most affected by climate crisis and who has been doing the work for a long time than the white-dude-reporters cranking out bestsellers nowadays CAN I JUST COME OUT AND SAY THAT I FUCKING HATED THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH SO FUCKING MUCH I THREW IT ACROSS THE ROOM EVEN THOUGH IT WAS A LIBRARY BOOK and again it is i think extremely important and useful to read about people who are often very literally putting their lives on the line to enact change. also it’s nice to read about people who remind me of the people i used to hang out with (hi earth!) who were all very robust and muscular and inspiring and could do a lot of feats in service of the earth.

on friday i went upstate for basically ten minutes to read with my beloved friend lyric hunter at bushel collective in delhi. everyone was so nice and friendly and asked great questions and i met four (4!!!!) extremely good dogs and lyric and i stayed at our friend’s amazing rambling old farmhouse surrounded by fields and ponds and woods and hills and for breakfast we ate omelettes made with eggs from the neighbor’s chickens and hot sauce our friend made from last year’s peppers and kale we went out and picked from the garden and it was too cloudy to see any stars but there were wildflowers and motherwort and healsall and raspberries newly ripened in a little patch in the woods. i think i might be breaking up with the city but i’m not sure yet. every time i come back i try to remember why i live here and then i try to remember i’m not supposed to make those decisions in august.

oh! i have to go find my passport. take care of yourselves and turn off the internet for a minute and go for a walk around the block, okay, and i’ll write about some of the 8,655 books i am taking abroad with me soon. another world is still possible, so help me god.

xoxo sarah

cassandra at the glacier

at present i am very interested in the condition of despair, in no small part because it is a condition i have inhabited intermittently throughout most of my life and more or less continuously for the last three years. it is a strange feeling to recognize that despair increasingly overtaking larger public discourse; that a handful of newly-informed white male journalists are being handsomely rewarded for saying, rather less capably, the same things environmental justice activists—most of whom are neither white nor men—and scientists have been saying for decades should surprise no one, least of all me, but i must admit i did not see the uninhabitable earth coming.

i read a great deal about climate catastrophe, and have done for a long time, and in the last year or two have acquired something of a reputation of an infallible prophetess of doom: i’ve lost track of the number of friends and acquaintances who’ve leaned forward, usually over drinks, and asked me in a low voice, anxious not to be overheard, how long do you think we have? we meaning here human beings living above the poverty line in wealthy countries with access to potable water and the ability to move away from coastlines—as though i am some bargain-basement cassandra, formerly a downer at parties, whose predictions have suddenly turned out to be gospel. i do not historically do well in talk therapy, and have always joked that what i really need is not a therapist but some entity possessed of the ability to see into the future, who can reassure me with absolute authority that, although things are difficult now, they are definitely going to be okay. i am also not a very good liar, or a very good optimist.

it is not comforting to be suddenly and unexpectedly sharing the knowledge that the world as we know it—we, here, meaning the entirety of our species, and of all the other species who have the misfortune to share a planet with exxon mobil and the koch brothers—is coming to an end. it is a feeling like the feeling of looking up on the train to see a stranger with a familiar geography of pale scars laddered over wrists or forearms or thighs: i know where you have been, and i wish neither of us had had to go there. i quit most of my jobs at the end of last year to work on a novel, which has been a fourteen-thousand-word unopened document for months now. i don’t think i want to be a writer anymore, i said to a friend the other day, surprised i was actually saying it out loud.

i didn’t know anything about having cancer, anne boyer writes, but i knew something about how to avoid telling a story.

speaking openly about inhabiting an ongoing and annihilating climate of despair is not encouraged in online social forums. we are meant to protest, to call our representatives, to recycle our recyclables, call out our abusers, support survivors, lobby for the reduction of carbon emissions, offset our flights should we be privileged enough to afford them, volunteer on crisis hotlines, make posters, divest ourselves of toxic relationships, purchase only organic and sustainably grown cottons, post aspirational content to our platforms, engage with our conservative relatives and friends should we have them, send money should we have it to refugees and uninsured people dying of treatable diseases in the richest country in the world and disaster relief funds and abortion funds and doctors without borders and people doing the work of battling the interminable and tireless forces arrayed against justice and liberty and the survival of our planet in the event we ourselves are not interminably and tirelessly doing that work ourselves. we are not meant to say the reason i am sad is that i am selfish and there is no hope for a bearable future in my lifetime. we are not meant to eschew therapy because there is no therapist on this earth who can look into the future and tell us anything will be okay. we are not meant to believe that talking about our grief with an experienced professional is pointless. we are not meant to be tired. we are not meant to wonder if the world really needs our art.

we are not meant to say, if someone asks us how we are doing, i am really not doing okay, i feel absolutely powerless, i am sick with a sickness that is not real but is nevertheless larger than life. every year i think it cannot possibly get worse in the world than this and every year it does. we are entreated to stay positive; a failure of positivity is a failure of our moral compass. by we here i mean, obviously, me. i am learning german from duolingo, which taught me that the german for how’s it going is wie geht’s; a german friend explained to me, however, that in germany one only asks this question of people to whom one is close enough that they might reply with honesty. i have heard that in america, he said solemnly, when you ask this question you do not really want to know the answer.

the undying is a book about and around breast cancer: the experience of having breast cancer (have, what a strange verb to associate with disease, when you think about it), undergoing treatment for breast cancer, a kind of map of cancer’s affective and embodied effects on one person: a poet, single mother, caregiver, friend, lover, paycheck-to-paycheck living teacher and writer. it is formally rigorous, frequently harrowing, and, like all of anne boyer’s books, filled with aphoristic sentences that land like koans, beautiful little puzzles that make some part of the world visible to the reader that was previously obscured. it is also in part about the insufficiency of extant language to adequately qualify pain; at one point, boyer describes formulating with her friends pamphlets with alternate vocabularies of pain into the waiting rooms. These guides to the new language of pain would consist mostly of the poems of Emily Dickinson. i visited a friend of mine in the hospital recently, on the wall a whiteboard with DAILY GOAL (“to feel better”) and the familiar smiley-face pain scale, one to ten. i asked if my friend or the nurse came up with the DAILY GOAL and my friend explained that only the nurses had whiteboard markers, which they kept with them and did not distribute to the patients. “to feel better” was, in fact, every day’s DAILY GOAL. better as a process of becoming.

i am a year younger than anne boyer was when she was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. one of my dearest friends in the world has a single tattoo, the word CANCER across the inside of her bottom lip, which makes me laugh every time i think about it. cancer itself may not be funny, but sometimes despair can be, and very often the body. another friend, the writer manjula martin, sends out an occasional newsletter (it is very good and you should sign up for it, and i say this as someone with a generalized horror of writers’ newsletters), which happened to arrive yesterday, while i was thinking, unsurprisingly, about surviving cancer specifically and the end of the world in general, and how emotionally invested i am at this point in either. (i am not currently suicidal, but i am a pragmatist.) At the moment every writer with whom I am friends, she writes, or at least close enough friends with that we can mutually confess this type of ego panic, is afraid that:
 
a) the publishing business will self-destruct/there will be an economic crisis that makes the publishing industry stop spending money on books before i finish my book and/or sell it to a publisher

b) the civilization will end or precipitously decline (choose your poison, but at this stage climate change is either the cause or end result of all the poisons, whether directly or indirectly) before i finish my book and/or sell it to a publisher

these are selfish concerns, as she notes, but selfish concerns are not unreal or necessarily unreasonable ones. you must have a desire to live, anne boyer writes, but it is also necessary to believe that you are a person worth keeping alive. the treatment of cancer involves the application of medicines that are tremendously damaging to both the individual body and the larger world: a number of chemotherapy drugs, for example, last in water supplies and accumulate in aquatic environments. the effects of these toxic accumulations on people and animals who do not have cancer are not yet known, although their effects on the bodies to which they are applied therapeutically are as or more ravaging than the effects of the cancer they are designed to eradicate. how many books, boyer asks, to pay back the world for existing, would i have to write? what we should do if we do not have that kind of faith in the value of our own work is not something she covers. the undying is not a self-help book. as far as i know i do not (yet) have cancer, but i often do not have a desire to live.

then again, i often do.

tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? it is ninety-something degrees in new york and the answer for me right now is, as it has been for some time, drink too much and cry in front of the air conditioner watching law & order reruns i have already watched in a similar condition in a similar emotional state an embarrassing number of times. i am trying to be patient with myself and with my sadness. i have felt better before—quite recently, in fact—and i will feel better again, which is a hard thing to remember even though i know from long experience that this will prove to be true.

in a little less than a month i am leaving the city for a while. maybe i will go live in a little house in the woods, and maybe i will buy a sailboat and learn to take it around the world, and maybe i will call my representatives and go to yoga, and maybe i will see the arctic again, and maybe i will travel next december to patagonia and watch the moon swallow whole the sun for a handspan of minutes, and maybe i’ll write another book, and maybe the end of the world will hold off for a little longer, long enough for us all to make space for one another, to cook dinner for our sick friends, to burn ICE and all its hellish spawn to the ground, to open our houses to people in need of refuge, to bake bread with broken hearts and strong hands, to learn a little better how to live together through this, our own unlivable time.

i went on a field trip

i went on a field trip to NASA last week to ask some very patient scientists about ice. they let me follow them around like a goth puppy and ask a lot of tiresome questions and they showed me the clean room where satellites get worked upon and the giant vacuum chambers where satellites get heated up and cooled down to simulate the conditions they will encounter in their working lives and the giant room where scientists play loud noises at the satellites to make sure they won't fall apart during takeoff and i made a joke about guns n roses and the scientists were nice enough to laugh.

i got to see also a model of the james webb telescope which is in i think texas right now but will eventually go a million miles out into space to look at the beginning of time. and then i got to look at the most recent ice-loss data from antarctica as it came in, which was a strange feeling, sitting on a desk in a scientist's office in maryland looking over his shoulder at the end of the world as we have known it, as we know it now, on a computer screen. i mean, they don't put it like that at NASA. but you know what i mean. it's crazy that they even have that data, because it comes from shooting photons at ice from two hundred miles up in space. we watched a video some design students had made about the photons, which i found very charming; the photons have little sunglasses and get tired and help each other travel back and forth from the satellite to the ice with encouraging noises. i made a joke about how they get sunglasses small enough to fit the photons. You should see the youtube comments, the scientist said.

what does it feel like to do this every day, i asked another scientist working on this project. what does it feel like to watch the end happeningi can't really think like that and function at my job, he said, and i thought, yeah, tell me about it, i should probably read about something else. it's my job to get data, he said, i can do that every day and worry on the weekends what people are going to do with the data i get. he took me to the cold room where they keep ice cores and i got to pet a three-hundred-year-old ice core from greenland that has been decommissioned from scientific use. you can see the layers of each year in an ice core, like the rings of a tree, all the way back to before exxon mobil rewrote the future of the arctic, all the way back to when the arctic still had a future. i got a little teary petting the ice core but i don't think the scientist noticed.

after that we went to the gift shop and i found a very splendid gold-plated mug with the james webb telescope logo on it, and i said Oh of course, it's gold because of the beryllium coating on the telescope mirrors, and he was extremely impressed, and i did not tell him that i had learned about the beryllium from a poster forty-five minutes earlier. i gave the scientists each a copy of my zinethis is great, one of them said, very kindly. i never take pictures anymore either, he wrote to me later. they do the landscape a disservice

a couple of weeks ago i went to dead horse bay with a new-ish friend. she had to keep texting her other friend, who was like You are going where with who?, that she was not being murdered. i told her about how i quit half my jobs to have more time to write but instead of writing i sleep too much and watch a lot of bad television. i don't know what's wrong with me, i said. a minute earlier we had been talking about my upcoming trip to NASA and the arctic and climate collapse which is literally all i talk about now; i am not that much fun to be around these days. have you considered the possibility that you might be really fucking sad? she said. 

no, i said. i think i'm just lazy.

a different scientist from NASA was coincidentally giving a talk about climate change in washington, DC on the same day as my field trip, and so after i went to NASA i took the train into the city and walked across the national mall to the scientist's talk at the national academy of science. the artist dornith doherty, who photographs seed archives, had a show in the lobby; there was a great big picture, right there, of the seed vault in longyearbyen, and i wanted to tell the other man looking at the art that i had been there–not inside it, you're not allowed to go in there if you are a normal person and anyway when i was in longyearbyen it was being renovated because the permafrost is thawing so much faster than anybody predicted was possible when it was first built–but i saw it up on the hill. it took a lot of effort but i restrained myself.

i was glad i had been spending the last year reading obsessively about ice loss because i am a very smart person and still if i had not spent the last year reading about ice loss i would have been largely unable to follow the scientist's talk, but since i have i did fine. in science you learn a lot from a system that's changing, the scientist said. the good news is that we are learning a lot. the bad news... he paused. i don't think you need to run for the hills, he said. but i would walk. it seemed like a joke he has told more than once. although, actually, it's not very funny. 

after the talk a lot of gentlemen got up to ask a question that was actually in two parts and one gentleman had a question that was more of a comment, which was him berating the scientist, a nobel laureate (peace prize, but still) for not mentioning geoengineering, and i writhed in my chair and shot a look at the person sitting next to me, who also happened to be extremely good-looking, to see if his soul was also trying to leave his body during the question that was more of a comment, but he seemed unperturbed. maybe for men it's different when their colleagues go off the rails. when the question that was more of a comment was finally, mercifully, over, and the audience was set free into the balmy spring evening, i ended up behind the geoengineering fellow, who was telling his friend with some irritation that he had had rather a lot of trouble following the talk. i considered telling him that i had had no trouble whatsoever and i could recommend some useful entry-level books for him if he would like, but i restrained myself then, too.

there was another question that i can't stop thinking about, from a man who said he worked in city planning and disaster management. what is the number in feet of sea-level rise, he said, that we are looking at here, exactly, and the scientist said we can't tell you the number exactly. we cannot expect fiscal partners to invest capital in risk mitigation if there is not a clear benefit analysis, the man said. which is of course the problem; we will not be able to calculate the precise economic benefit of an action until long after the window of time for that action is over. we are not talking about risk mitigation. we are talking about the end of the world.

but still. i think of this interview with climate activists and i think of this essay and i think of this line from it, over and over: You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called “the sickness unto death.”  i think of something an activist said to me a long long time ago, about how when your house is burning down with everything and everyone you love inside it you can sit and watch it burn or you can go inside and do your best to save what you can. i still sleep too much and i still drink too much and i still watch a lot of bad television. i still wear despair around like an old coat. i don't know how to put out the fire. but i'm not giving up quite yet.

during the siege of leningrad the russian botanists working at the vavilov institute seed library barricaded themselves inside their vault. one by one, they began to die. the seeds were their future; the seeds were in trust for a world on the other side of tomorrow, a world on the other side of war. they starved to death rather than eat the seeds in their care. today, the institute has a collection of three hundred and forty-five thousand seed varieties; eighty percent of them are the only remaining seeds from those varieties in the world. someday the time for planting will come again, whether or not we’re here to see it. right now, that’s close enough to hope for me.

some books i have been reading lately

The Night Ocean, Paul la Farge

A History of The Arctic: Nature, Exploration, and ExploitationJohn McCannon

I went to Salt Lake City for the weekend to see my pregnant friend before she gives birth and I lose her again for another couple of years. I bought The Night Ocean, which is a novel about stories about HP Lovecraft, as a treat to read on the plane, even though it’s by a man and I have four hundred million unread books at home, but you know how it is. One needs a book for the plane; one’s books already at home won’t do. If you stay in the parts of Salt Lake City I stayed in it is easy to come away with the impression that Salt Lake City is populated exclusively by twenty-five-year-old white people with magnificent teeth. What happens when you turn thirty, do they euthanize you, I said, and my friend said No, you have to move to a different part of town. Everyone is very sweet in Salt Lake City, in a pastel earnest way that made me anxious, and the hip young men all have those beard-and-tattoo sets that make it impossible to tell if they’re just hip or actually Nazis. I bought long underwear at the REI and also a water bottle, because I hadn’t been thinking the morning I left and forgot to empty the water bottle I’d brought, and the TSA lady threw it out in front of me, and the cashier at the REI knocked over the water bottle I was buying and said Oh my god oh my god I’m so sorry, and I said What the fuck we’re leaving, and a look of abject terror flashed across his face before he realized I was joking and I felt terrible. Against the world, against life, that’s me and HP, fucking monsters.

My friend and I went up a mountain—they’re right there, the mountains! it's marvelous!—and the air was clean and thin and everything got a little blue around the edges, and we passed through groves of aspen, and there was snow on the ground, and you could see forever across the wild hills, and I thought about the time long ago now when I was a person who routinely went up and down mountains, and how nice it is on the side of a mountain, how most everything else just falls away. What the fuck were you thinking, I said, because we’ve known each other for a long time and that’s the question I want to ask everyone having children right now. I know, she said ruefully. Biology. I told her about seeing a different friend, one I hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years, who also has young children, and how he asked me How long do you think we have?—this is a question I get a lot lately, probably because I’ve been a Cassandra of the apocalypse since, like, 1998—I think we have a hundred years, right? and I said without thinking, Ten if we’re lucky, and then I remembered the pictures of his baby that I have seen online, and said, No, you’re right, probably a hundred. 

I brought my computer to Utah to do some work but I didn’t do any of the work or look at any of the news; instead I read in the mornings, until the last morning, when I looked at the news again and thought How are we supposed to keep going through this, but then again I think that most mornings, and here we are. Are you writing? my friend asked, and I said Not really, and then I said the truth, which is that I drink a lot so that most of the time I am muzzy and vague and I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m pretty sure I have nothing important left to say. We went out to breakfast one morning and parked up next to the van of a lady I follow on Instagram; this lady lives in her van with her husband and two dogs, and goes about in the mountains and has adventures and so on. Hi Bucket, hi Dagwood! I said to the dogs, which were in the van, barking excitedly, and then I explained to my friend, who does not have Instagram, about the van lady, and my friend said, confused, So she’s homeless? and I said No, it’s like a whole thing, for young white people, there’s usually a lot of soft focus lighting and prayer flags, I like this particular van lady because her van is often dirty and she posts a lot of pictures of canyons, and then the van lady came out of the restaurant and said I’m sorry they’re barking, they’re actually friendly, and I said I know! I follow them on Instagram. Something like six hundred thousand people follow her on Instagram, I’m sure she gets that a lot.

The Night Ocean is sad and sweet and funny and lovely and I read it in the mornings, drinking my coffee in the cool still Airbnb, which had trees outside every window so that the light coming in filtered green-gold and I felt as though I were sitting in a radiant bower, an elf-princess with her novel, not looking at the news or the email or the van lady on Instagram or the inside of her own head. Do you like HP Lovecraft? It’s fine if you don’t, he wasn’t a particularly nice person, but it helps to have some kind of relationship with him if you want to read The Night Ocean, although I think you would like it even if you don't. The Airbnb had all sorts of channels and my friend came over and we watched The Real Housewives of somewhere—California, I think?—and one of the housewives was ill and didn’t put on any of her makeup to go to a dinner party, and one of the other housewives’ husbands told her she looked pretty, and after the makeup-less housewife left everyone talked about how hideously ugly she was, and the husband said Well she looked so bad I figured no one would tell her she was attractive, so I did to be nice, and I’m still laughing about it. What a gallant housewife’s husband! On the airplane a flight attendant called me Sir and then was horrifically apologetic and I said It’s okay, I wouldn’t look like this if I cared, and he hid from me the rest of the flight. Poor guy.

I brought my Arctic book because I’m going to the Arctic next month—I know!—and then I didn’t read it, because I just got to the chapter about colonization and needed a break, but I’ve been reading it on the train in New York and it is very good at evoking sweeping vistas. Also I have been watching Fortitude, which is not, I don’t think, a very realistic depiction of daily life in Longyearben. If it is in fact realistic I shall be lucky to escape the Arctic with my life and intestines. I am very close to buying a van and several dogs and running away from the entire future and my entire life but despite temptation I got on the plane home. I had dinner the night before I left with my friend and her husband—it’s still hard for me to say that, she’s not really a husband-having sort of person, but at least he’s nice—and her son Leo, who is almost two. Leo and I talked about the landscaping. On my way to the airport the next morning I got a text from my friend: Leo woke up this morning and said Where’s Sarah and then he said It’s time to go to New York. And then this morning on the train I thought, Maybe I do have something to say after all, something small. Baby steps. Maybe even now, even in this time, it doesn’t always have to be important; maybe just a story is a good enough place to start.

what i did the summer after i graduated


i wrote this in 2012 and put it on my old blog and am always trying to find it again; maybe you needed this right now too. hang in there. i love you. xos


I dropped out of college when I turned nineteen, which was a good idea at the time and a good idea in retrospect, a pretty fantastic idea. For ten years when I applied for jobs where a college degree mattered I wrote that I had one and no one ever questioned it. I think once I said I had graduated from Harvard. There are lies that are terrible and lies that are fine and I feel fine about the lies that are fine and so should you. Ten years later I thought I wanted to get a doctorate at Columbia, for reasons that are currently a mystery to me, and so I finished my bachelor's in a desultory manner, with honors but without giving a lot of fucks. As the kids say.

The summer after I finally graduated was the summer I burned all my bridges. It was the summer before I moved to New York and what I did was kick all my roommates out of my house and cry a lot and drink too much and sell everything I owned except for the cat and my typewriter and ten boxes of books. Already that summer I understood that I was leaving behind a life that I would never return to. The people I lived with I had known for years, some of them since I was a teenager. After that summer they stopped speaking to me, not just the people I had lived with but nearly everyone I had known and grown up with and become a person with on that coast, and whose fault it was—well, I don't know. Mine probably. I think they are all happy, they have houses of their own now and babies and dogs and life partners and gardens. I saw a few of them at a potluck a couple of years ago, when I went back to the west coast for a visit, and it was awkward and I thought more than once about leaving the potluck with one of the potluck hostess's twenty-year-old friends I had just met, but I didn't. "I would love to show you my record collection," the twenty-year-old actually said, which still makes me laugh. I ate my potato salad and when my old housemates asked me how I liked New York I said "I like it a lot," and then they changed the subject, and I thought about how shitty a person I must be to hate all of them for being happy when what we had wanted was to be extraordinary. I drank a pint of someone else's whiskey in the hostess's bathroom and played the piano, badly, with the twenty-year-old, and everyone was relieved when I left.

Some of us are very selfish people and sometimes this is a lesson we learn a little too late, after we have already trainwrecked other people's lives and hopes and hearts, or in this case their houses. We had some good times in that house, the four of us, before everything went to shit. We had some epic dinner parties and we stayed up on the front porch as bicyclists rode past us all through the summer night until one by one the stars slid into dawn. We made bread and watched all the good seasons of the Simpsons and fell in love and told each other about it. They threw me a party for my twenty-seventh birthday that was the best birthday party I've ever been to, so great a party that I had to lock myself in my room in the middle of it to cry because I didn't understand how I had come to deserve that many people who loved me that much. We put on shadow-puppet shows—the best one was one I wrote, I won't be modest, about the French revolution; the cat in the puppet show cried out "Le meow! Le meow!" before it was beheaded, and for weeks afterward all our friends repeated it to one another, le meow, le meow. I don't miss that house but sometimes I miss that life, which was infinitely less complicated and often a lot more fun than the life I have now. A kid's life, an enviable life. Bike rides and popsicles and beers by the river and in the winter someone was always making soup and we'd put on our rain gear after dinner and pedal through the downpour to basement shows and dance parties, everybody's sodden wool layers steaming in the corner while we sweated out our ghosts in the circle of each other.

But ambition is like a poison and a gift tangled together and it makes you leave and leave and leave again, leave places, leave people, leave your whole life. Ambition and something else that I don't know how to name but it's what I share my house with, the house of my body, ambition and something that is ruthless and cruel and says only, ever, Is that a good story, and if the answer is no it says Move on. The best we can hope for is to be good enough to justify how brutal we are. The summer after I graduated I had no idea what I was in for or what I had started, no idea where that move would take me, no idea that I would come out the other end transformed. Not a butterfly but a vulture or maybe on my better days a bird of prey. When you are a woman or a girl or female no one says to you Look, artists who are great take without asking and take and take and do not apologize because when you are a woman or a girl or female the only thing you are supposed to take is a lot of other people's shit. No one says to you Be sure you are strong enough to take and not apologize and keep going when the taking leaves you nothing to go back to. Be sure you are strong enough to steal and live alone with what you've chosen to make yours.

That summer I left everything. I left the people I had been friends with since I was nineteen and I left the big white house with the sunporch and my piano and a backyard that grew thick with lilac and wild raspberries, a garage with my own printing press in it and the cabinets of type I'd spent the last five years collecting. I left the light-up globe the first person I fell in love with gave me and my accordion and the oak dining room table that had been my parents'. I left bonfires on the beach and biking out the Willamette valley and sleeping under the stars. Left the time my friend's friend's band and all their roadies and their friends and lovers camped out in our backyard and spent the next morning writing us songs and making us breakfast as a thank-you. I left picking strawberries off the vine and driving every other weekend to the ocean, left lazy late nights drinking beer in the park that overlooks the train yard, wondering if anyone I knew was down there trying to hop a ride east. Left the time me and Jimbo rode to St. John's long after the sun had set and walked out on the railroad bridge, climbed down to the pilings with a fifth of bourbon and looked out over the night-dark river, and overhead the trains rumbled past one after the other, marking the hours until the bottle was gone.

I left all the things I thought I could be to be the one thing I wanted. And when I got here I kept leaving, keep leaving, and what would I write about, anyway, if I ever knew what it was like to be one person, to love one person, to stand in a single place and say At last here I am, I am home.

how to survive a plague

on friday the 13th my downstairs neighbor showed me his new tattoo of a cleaver, a little bigger than a quarter in size. my neighbors like to talk to me about tattoos. "i've actually never seen that movie," i said, and he said "what?" and i said "friday the 13th? i've never seen it" and then he said "oh no it's not about the movie, it's friday the thirteenth," and i said "what?" and he told me that there are a handful of tattoo shops in new york that will give you a tattoo on friday the thirteenth for thirteen dollars and i realized that up until that point we had been talking about completely different things. "i have four," he said, pulling up his shirt to show me the rest of his forearm. the cleaver, a pot i think? a couple of other things i couldn't quite make out. maybe a small monster. "i want to get a whole sleeve," he said, "but all i got the money for is thirteen dollars at a time."

right now i think about small goals, like when you are running farther than you would prefer and you pick a tree not too far off and run to that and then pick another tree and run to that one and repeat this process until you get to where you meant to go. a sleeve of tattoos one thirteen-dollar friday the thirteenth at a time. the book of dust comes out tomorrow and then halloween, a dear night, and then it's time to go look at the bergdorf-goodman christmas windows, then first snow, then star wars. if i need a break i can take a bottle of whiskey and the dumbest book i can find to the beach and sit by myself for a while. i am partial to an appallingly terrible series of procedural novels about a lady medical examiner who solves crimes. everyone around her is incompetent all the time and hidden conspirators are constantly moving against her. she is the best at everything and rich and attractive. she never makes jokes and spends a lot of time telling the reader that death is not funny. despite her many enemies she invariably triumphs. she cannot be undermined and drinks black coffee; i find her convictions soothing. 

i haven't really felt like talking. my throat hurts, i sleep too much. the cat likes it when i'm sad because we spend a lot of time in bed.

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right now i am reading madelein thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothingwhich is beautiful and not, like, uplifting exactly, but the kind of thing i didn't know i was looking for until i found it: it's the story of an extended and diasporic family, a generation of classical musicians who lives through mao's cultural revolution, and their children, who come together in the tiananmen square protests. the novel moves back and forth through time and place but its characters are so rich, so compelling, its mysteries so haunting, its storytelling so beautiful, that all its diverse tributaries flow seamlessly into a single narrative about surviving the unsurvivable and what it means to live for art--a story that, you do not need me to tell you, is more relevant than we might prefer these days. the writing about music is next-level sublime.

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also i read justina ireland's Dread Nation  which is definitely all the things that people are saying about it: frightening, subversive, smart as fuck, incisive, provocative, and not fucking around, but it's also funny as all hell, which i cannot stress enough, and which makes its toothy, savage satire even better. jane is one of my favorite YA heroines in recent memory: tough, funny, vulnerable, compassionate (sometimes), prone to bad decisions (sometimes) and good jokes (all the time), loyal, and smart. watching her slash her way through the grody undead and the creepy living was one of my more cathartic reading experiences this year, which is saying a lot, considering the year. keep your eye out for this one, y'all; it's out in april.

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if you are looking for something delicious, might i suggest Slow Days, Fast Company, eve babitz's champagne-popping take on high-glam los angeles life in the 70s. structured as a loosely linked series of meditation-vignettes, ostensibly dedicated to a mysterious suitor whose favor the narrator is trying to keep, babitz's takes on everything from heterosexuality to avocados are so magnificently funny, so sublimely observed and perfectly rendered, that the book is more a master class in how to set and demolish a scene in five hundred words or less. much has been made of babitz's sexuality (do yourself a favor and skip the introduction), but seriously, who cares: this is a writer who could turn a housebound month devoid of human contact into a pithy gem on any topic of her choosing. a formidably gifted writer who makes flawlessly crafted breezy one-liners look as easy as falling into a swimming pool.


some others: dorothy b. hughes' terrifying and peerless take on the L.A. noir, In A Lonely Placeis one of the more brilliant subversions of the genre i've ever come across and makes raymond chandler look like hello kitty (there is some sexual violence but it's mostly fade-to-black; the ending is masterful; even if this stuff is feeling like perilous territory for you right now i recommend it); myriam gurba's fierce, formally inventive Mean, out next month from emily books/coffee house press, probably the funniest book about sexual assault you'll read in a while and a refreshing upheaval of victim/survivor stories; laia jufresa's beautiful, moving Umamiabout a small community of neighbors making peace with their pasts and remembering the better parts of their lives--if you're looking for something that will take you out of yourself and leave you on a brighter shore, a little teary but well-rested, you couldn't be in better hands.

what are you reading? what should i read next? i want one of those old-school fantasy sorts of books hardly anybody writes anymore about a girl in a bookshop who leaves 1996 for faerie and has a good wander, do you know the kind of book i mean? pass em on if you've got em. and hang in there.

keep loving, keep fighting

xoxo sarah

 

in totality

We left the hotel at three in the morning on Monday because we’d absorbed a great many calamitous predictions about hordes of barbarians descending shrieking upon the placid wilds of Idaho, hapless eclipse-chasers and their snot-encrusted offspring weeping in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic whilst totality passed unheeded over the melee. That sort of thing. Instead the freeway was empty and we got to the eclipse seven hours early. My astronomer friend parked the rental car in the field-turned-temporary-campground he and his wife had scouted the day before, where a bemused farmer collected thirty dollars per automobile from the kinds of people who care enough about solar eclipses to end up in a field in the middle of Idaho in the first place.

Which, as it turns out, is a lot of different kinds of people, although at four in the morning a great many of them had yet to arrive. We walked around in the dark for a while and looked at the white pour of the Milky Way. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many stars—that time Melissa and I drove out to Iowa together and slept in a ditch by the side of the highway in Utah and the stars were so bright I swear they woke me up, maybe, but that was twenty years ago. Afterward we tried to sleep in the car until the sun came up and everybody gave up and I bought a cup of very good and very strong coffee from the farmer’s wife, who was also a farmer, for fifty cents. A little later you could get biscuits and gravy for three dollars, to benefit I think the track team, or the pancake complete breakfast for seven dollars if you wanted sausage and bacon and eggs or five dollars if you didn’t want sausage and bacon.

The field over by the high school was nicer than our field, which was dirt. The high-school field was covered with the kind of dense lush grass only people who don’t live in New York take for granted, grass you can go around barefoot in without terror of glass or cigarette ends or syringes or urine or bubonic plague, grass you can flop backward into without looking behind you and lie there staring up at the big blue eye of the sky. By nine in the morning it was coming up on ninety-five degrees and the air was clear as daylight. We ate some of our snacks from the car. Justin had the biscuit and gravy breakfast and my astronomer friend’s writer wife got the pancake incomplete breakfast and the pancakes were the size of her paper plate. The high-school field was full of people who’d mostly camped there overnight, or for longer even, people who had undertaken to set up lounge chairs and complicated telescope arrangements and trampolines for their children and inflatable furnitures of all kind and even a full-on velour sectional and area rug, upon which they were very pleased to allow you to take selfies. A small child mounted his eclipse glasses in a paper plate and taped this whole contraption to his head several hours before the eclipse began and kept walking into things. A teenager played pop songs on his banjo, with an eye I believe to impress either out-of-towners or ladies or both. I did not tell him I have not been impressed by a white boy with a banjo since 1998. I doubt I was one of the people he was trying to impress anyway. My astronomer friend went around looking through everyone’s telescopes. I got my photograph taken on the velour couch and had a nap in the grass with my eclipse glasses on.

At ten-twenty the first paring of moon blacked out the very edge of the sun. A lady let me look through her fancy eclipse binoculars so I could see the sunspots. She had seen a lot of total solar eclipses, she told me, including one from the deck of an ocean freighter she and her friends had convinced to slightly alter its course through French Polynesia, which seems like a pretty all right sort of life to me. When do we see the fireballs, a little kid yelled, and everybody laughed, but he was serious.

It was like that for an hour or so. Cool but not stop-in-your-tracks cool. Like, a rational thing. We’re looking at the moon cover the sun and it’s neat! kind of cool. We wandered around and looked up a lot. People shared their telescopes and people who had seen eclipses before talked about how much they loved eclipses and I thought about how all these people had come together in a random field in a rural Idaho town of six hundred people to watch the moon black out the sun in a time of war and rising water. It was a fairly white crowd, to be sure, but a lot less white than I thought it would be. There were people who seemed to have a lot of money and people who had walked over from the nearest farm and people who probably could’ve written out the proofs for general relativity from memory and people who probably would’ve been hard-pressed to tell you whether the earth went around the sun or the other way around. We were promised fireballs, after all.

Twenty minutes or so from totality we found a good spot in the middle of the field and settled in. Somebody's dog was freaking out but it seemed like not an especially smart dog so I don't know if its behavior was related to the eclipse. Are you colder everyone asked each other I swear I just got colder I’m not making it up it really did get colder and then it really did get colder. I took off my eclipse glasses and looked around and the light was bluer than it should’ve been, like light you could imagine coming from inside a glacier: sharp and alien and cold, all the reds and yellows seeping slowly out of the high hills around us, and the moon moved further and further across the sun and it was like looking at a picture with all the color filters skewed blue except we weren’t looking at a picture we were in the picture and the sun was almost swallowed whole but still so bright you couldn’t look at it and then 

And then the thing happened that I don’t think I could ever describe. I can’t even remember it because when it happened I stopped thinking. Look it’s Venus! someone shouted and there was Venus springing to life in a field of blue and the darkness came up from the edges of the world like water filling a glass and the black disk of the moon loomed suddenly enormous, a great pitch-dark hole in the sky with the pale wisps of the corona streaming away from it and everyone around us was screaming and cheering and crying. I was standing up but I didn’t remember standing up and I was holding Justin’s hand I think or maybe he was holding mine and I could hear my astronomer friend yelling Oh my gosh oh it’s so oh wow I had no idea oh my gosh oh holy crap and I remember thinking how charming it was that even stunned senseless with awe he wouldn’t say a bad word and other than that I don’t really know what happened or where I went because when I say I stopped thinking I really mean it. I stopped thinking. I felt my whole self annihilated with wonder.

I don’t remember the eclipse because the way I remember the eclipse is not attached to language. It is not a way I have ever experienced any other thing in my life. It was very cold and I cried, I know that much. I wasn’t the only one. Two minutes is no time and all time at the same time. And then a single blaze of light erupted from one side of the moon’s black ring and the little kid yelled Is that the fireball and the sunlight bled back into the world as the white blaze of the sun engulfed the moon’s shadow in a second. The temperature climbed and the children went about shrieking and the small child with the eclipse glasses mounted in a paper plate ran into a car and everybody in the field was human again. There was barbecue or you could get a hot-dog for three dollars. Water was free. I drank another cup of coffee in the field where we’d parked and talked to the farmers. His face was radiant. I thought it was just going to be a lot of people like from California, he said. But that’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. His wife cleared her throat. Except for the birth of my daughter, he added. Later that day and further north a mean old lady who'd almost hit us with her car actually did tell us to go back to California, the strange miracle of human harmony that had just happened immediately forgot. We’re from fucking Brooklyn! I yelled and did not exactly do our species much credit either.

The next one’s in Chile in 2019. I’m already looking at tickets.

weekend reading

good afternoon!!! how are you!!!!! don't read that climate change article it's not very helpful!!!!!!!!!!!! here, let's do a project together: get a pen and a piece of paper (ho hum, i'll wait), okay, are you back? ready? i want you to make a list of things you can do this week to be useful to other people. concrete tasks! none of this Be A Better Person or Definitely Exercise More You Lazy Fuck. like: make dinner for friends you haven't seen in a long time. or finally get around to volunteering at the place you've been meaning to volunteer. or if you have a little extra money this week donating it to an organization that works with refugees. or showing up to a protest. or calling your senators and reminding them you would strongly prefer to have healthcare. okay, got your list? now assign each task to a day. one per day is fine!!! or two or three if you have the capacity. but the point of this activity is not to make yet another list of things you beat yourself up for failing to do, okay, so make your tasks manageable and realistic. i mean, yes, we are all totally fucked, but what are you gonna do, jump out a window? please don't! i am always heartened by the moment that happens on a crowded subway car in new york sometimes, when some Disaster looms--electricity fails, someone pukes/passes out/is visibly Extremely High and/or Not Okay, medical emergency, lost and weeping tourist, et cetera, and everyone gets out of their ipods and their papers and so on and bands together and is like All Right, We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now, and everybody Deals With It. okay? We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now. do your tasks this week and let me know how it goes.

this weekend i did a lot of reading! i finished victor lavalle's The Changeling, which i read in TWO DAYS because i COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, and then i read valeria luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends, and then i read hala alyan's Salt Housesand then i felt rather embarrassed by how patchy my knowledge of the palestinian-israeli conflict is so next i am going to read phyllis bennis' primer as recommended by sarah j. (one of my Useful Tasks for this week is Be Less of A Dipshit About History which i know is not a tangible project as i instructed you and is in fact rather an unhelpful descriptor of myself but you know what we're all a work in progress and i can't help having been raised catholic.) ANYWAY.

The Changeling is, in my humble opinion, victor lavalle's best book (which, if you have read any victor lavalle, is really saying something). it is like if The Neverending Story got mashed up with Here Is New York and a strong dose of angela carter for good measure. apollo kagwa is a rare bookseller in new york city who falls in love with a REALLY badass librarian, successfully woos and weds her, has a beautiful baby boy, and scores a signed first edition of TKAM worth like eighty grand. he's set!!!!!! except not really because that would be a short novel with no conflict, bo-ring! apollo's wife, emma, starts acting real weird, and then he and emma get in a terrible fight that is his fault, and then she (spoiler i guess? if you can't figure this out from the jacket copy/title idk how to help you) murders their child, says "IT WASN'T A BABY", and disappears. that's a fucking conflict for you! apollo, with the assistance of his bestie patrice, goes on a truly epic quest to find emma, one which involves two sorts of trolls, some really good jokes about the internet, an enchanted island full of witches, a magical forest, a lot of wonderful new york stuff, about a million amazing female characters, parts that made my cry, and parts that made me laugh out loud on the train. there are a million things to love about this book but one thing i liked in particular was apollo's struggle to Not Be A Douchebag with no role models (his father disappeared when he was a child for possibly Magickal reasons). sometimes apollo is a douchebag anyway! it's a thing that happens for people who are socialized as men! but he flails around and gets through it. his friendship with bestie patrice is also really beautiful and nourishing in ways that men-friendships in fiction rarely get to be. and emma is a motherfucking force without feeling like a jacked-up caricature of a Strong Female Character. if you like fairytales and new york novels and things that are good hie thee hence to nab yourself a copy.

an important thing to know about Tell Me How It Ends before you read it is that it will fuck you up, so be prepared, but also this book should literally be required reading for every single person in america, right up there with claudia rankine's Citizen. it is a deceptively tiny book--if it were any longer i think it would have killed me, tbh--spun out of luiselli's work as a NYC court translator for undocumented refugee children from, primarily, honduras, el salvador, and guatemala. luiselli's prose is lean and flawless--no surprise, if you've read any of her previous books (if you have not GO FIX THAT!!! at once!) and in many places throughout the book she lets the children speak for themselves. her job is a harrowing one, somewhere between literal interpreter and translator; it is ultimately her task to coax out of the children she interviews some kind of narrative that reads as coherent to the demonic and inhumane court system, which demands that these children--some of them barely old enough to speak--produce stories of highly specific traumas that will qualify them for visas. if the children are unable to report their experiences in a way that is legible to the immigration court--the children who are lucky enough to secure pro bono legal representation--they are deported, back to the horrific gang-related violence they risked their lives to flee in the first place. (gangs aided and armed, as luiselli coolly notes, by the united states.) Tell Me How It Ends is devastating and beautiful, and all the more devastating for how beautiful it is; it is also not unhopeful, which is something.  

and then i read Salt Houses! which is lovely and lush and so self-assured it is hard to believe it's a debut novel. beginning with the eve of a wedding and moving forward through four generations of a palestinian family uprooted first by the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently by saddam hussein's invasion of kuwait, it's a novel about home and displacement, tradition and rebellion, being super pissed at your mom, figuring out who you are as a person when you have a lot of historical and familial Baggage piled atop you, and what home means when home is a place you have never seen and cannot return to (in this case, palestine). it's one of those gorgeous intergenerational family epics that are so compulsively readable (think mira jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing or betty smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); it's a joy to stick with this family through love and death and marriage and parties and faith and Terrible Adolescences.   

i did not read these three books in succession on purpose, they all came in to the library at once, but they made an oddly perfect triad: they are all about family and immigration and refugees and making a home, or trying to, and they are also in their own ways each about trying to be useful to other people in a world that is terrifying. in all three books the monsters are both literal and figurative: The Changeling has an actual child-devouring troll in it as well as another sort of troll; in Tell Me How It Ends the child-eating troll is La Bestia (also known as The Death Train), a network of US-bound mexican freight trains that refugee children ride--and frequently die on--in their horrifying journeys north; in Salt Houses the monster is war and displacement, chasing families from one country to another in search of safety. there are no easy happy endings in any of these books but they are also, i think, perfectly suited for this perilous time: people survive because they love each other, take care of each other, do the best they can. they Deal With This Shit Together. all three of these books will put you through the wringer, but in a way that makes you tougher and braver and more compassionate. if we're going to survive whatever's coming, we need those lessons. over and over until they stick. 

like suicide

the first time i saw soundgarden live was memorial day weekend of my freshman year of high school. "i found religion," i wrote that night in my journal. i'd spent the entirety of that school year unsuccessfully lobbying my parents to allow me to go to all-ages shows; my best friend lola (who was surreally, uncannily gorgeous) and i (who was prosaically, emphatically not) had been adopted by erica and lara, the super-cool girl besties of our tiny private school's senior class, who spent most of their time smoking camel lights and/or weed, singing like angels, hanging out with musicians, and going to shows in seattle. they gave us mix tapes and cigarettes, taught me to play the piano intro to "chloe dancer" on the piano, loaned us a battered VHS copy of perry farrell's bizarre 1993 movie "the gift"; they drove us to the head shop to buy patchouli and hippie skirts and we listened to badmotorfinger all the way there. by the time my months-long campaign of attrition paid off and my parents finally allowed me, with great reluctance, to see soundgarden play at the fairgrounds a mile from my house, i was already obsessed with the mythology of a seattle i was just barely too young to have experienced--a world that seemed to me impossibly adult and perfectly cool, shrouded in the ceaseless rain of seattle winters, peopled by beautiful men and glamorous, tragedy-ridden ghosts.

the seattle i loved as a fourteen-year-old growing up just a ferry ride away was no more real than the seattle of singles--a movie lola and i watched obsessively--or the seattle of the Great Grunge Hoax of 1992, the seattle of mad love and ten things i hate about you, the seattle of kristen mcmenamy and naomi campbell brooding in a field wearing nirvana shirts and thousand-dollar marc jacobs flannels. i was no less susceptible to the myth for living next door to it, for growing up in its shadow; i took the ferry over at least once a month to spend hours with lola in café paradiso (RIP) or bauhaus (RIP), lurking around the pike place market (where the members of 7 year bitch had met, a fact we considered of great importance) eyeballing cute dirty boys with guitars and waiting hopefully for one of them to offer lola a cigarette, realize my inner beauty, and kick-start my actual life. the seattle of grunge was a dreamscape concocted out of million-dollar record deals and press passes and long hair and bad drugs, the same fiction that gets spun up any time a small, insular community of enormously talented artists is torn apart by the tag-teaming demons of ambition and capital and hype, gilt on cheap plate; but looking in through the window of the jewelry store, all lola and i saw was the shine. the lives we promised one another we would someday have, our lives, the shapes of which were blurry but the details of which we repeated like catechism: jobs at pike place, crushed velvet and christmas lights, candles and nag champa, record collections and espresso makers, our docs lined up next to our rock-star boyfriends' by the door, watching the storms come in over the bay through our windows. we would learn to play the guitar. we would have songs written about us. probably, we shrugged, we'd be on drugs. 

but there was still a there there. underneath the bumbling reporters and record executives and busloads of long-haired bros piling into the city by the hundreds in search of fortunes like the ones they'd seen on mtv, the devastation of an entire city fracturing, underneath the moss and flannel and long underwear and all of jeff ament's silly hats, there was still the music, and the thing about that music is that there was a lot of it and it was alive and magical and angry and raw and polished and heavy and bright and fast and sweet and young; the music of your windows rolled down on the first warm day of spring with the freeway underneath your wheels and the world pouring in, the music of friday morning before first period headphones cranked all the way up drum solo kick-starting your heart, the music of fourteen and a window out of your shitty small town full of shitty small people and their shitty small lives. once my parents finally let me go see soundgarden the floodgates loosed; lola and i pored obsessively through the stranger every week sussing out all-ages shows in community centers and concert halls, dirty clubs, parking lots, coffee shops; we pooled our allowances for the rare, costly treat of arena shows until finally we were old enough to get jobs. i went to shows with the fervor of the newly converted. i went to shows like i wanted to get saved.

and i went to shows because i found, for the first time, a medium that articulated the inchoate rage and pain i carried around with me. i was angry about a lot of things as a young person that i had no language yet to name. i worshiped chris cornell, layne staley, eddie vedder, andrew wood; at the time, i thought i wanted to be a rock star's girlfriend; looking back, i think i wanted a rock star's freedom. i wanted to say my fury out loud. i wanted autonomy, to be larger than the constraints of my gender, the teachers i despised, the adults who understood nothing and tried to stop me from everything; i wanted that noise to be my whole big fearless life. in a couple of years, i'd see 7 year bitch play "dead men don't rape" and start to realize that maybe some of the things i was so angry about could be identified in specific ways. lola and i would find sky cries mary and goodness, hammerbox and hovercraft, the gits, the fastbacks, lucky me, bell; pedestal heroines next to our heroes; i'd begin to wonder if maybe freedom could also look like being a girl. but our bonds and our wants were forged in the crucible of boys: long-haired howling banshees who said the things about sadness we didn't know how to say ourselves. in the early years of our passion we were disinterested in nirvana, a band whose complaints seemed reserved for the ilk of jerky james c. in art class, who told me the day i'd dyed my hair purple that he had dyed his hair first. it's okay to eat fish 'cause they don't have any feeeeee-lings, lola and i would sneer at each other, mocking poor old kurt's nasal whine. we had no use for riot grrrl, regarded its proponents as shrill and ill-kempt. but holy hell, did we ever love chris cornell. that operatic voice, that hair, the sludgy wall of guitar, the songs that seemed to scream everything we were hurting into the howling void until our hurts lost their power to hold us in thrall, even if it was just for the space of verse chorus verse. 

it's strange, now, to read so many pieces in the wake of chris cornell's suicide by men; by men who seem universally to be operating from the assumption that chris cornell's music--seattle music, "grunge" as we teens said with a roll of our knowing eyes back then--was written for, and of interest only to, other men. in those days there were girls everywhere. i inherited my love of that music through a lineage of girls; there were girls in the bands, girls at all the shows, girls who knew all the lyrics by heart and screamed them back in ecstasy from the pit, girls who memorized the words of new songs as they were being sung and dissected them later in the car on the way home--first in their parents' cars, their parents being instructed to drop them off and pick them up again after the show at a minimum distance of two blocks, and later in the cars of their best friends. lola's new friend jenny started going to shows with us; she had the enviable commodities of a car of her own and parents who were largely indifferent to her activities, and she drove us to show after show after show--two-hour-long drives each way sometimes, if we were going to oly or issaquah or some other obscure suburb--and on the way home we'd drink a million coffees and roll down all the windows to stay awake and listen to the music we'd just heard live with the volume turned all the way up screaming our heads off. girls went to shows with other girls, even girls who had boyfriends; you saw the same girls at shows year after year, clock the movement of time by their changing hair colors, fashions, the widening splits in the seams of their boots. if you went to shows in olympia you'd see the bitchy riot grrrl girls in their black-dyed bobs and fake-fur coats and granny dresses who only ever talked to each other, if at all. the girls in tacoma were punk and dirty and the girls in seattle had baggy clothes and sometimes white-girl dreads dyed blond and red and black. girls in fairy wings and glitter at sky cries shows, girls in studded leather bracelets at botch shows, girls in all black at shakabrah java jazz shows, like little bohemians. once we went to an all-ages show at a club in seattle where you could get alcohol if you were over 21 and a boy--a man, i guess--tried to buy jenny a drink and she said i'm only sixteen! in horrified disgust and we ran into the bathroom and laughed about it for an hour, all the way through the opening band. 

every show was a universe of girls, every girl would have gone to every show if she could; we went to see each other; we went because we wanted to be seen. if we weren't going to shows we were lying in our beds at home, telephones pressed to our ears, listening to each other breathe, listening to each other's radios piping tinnily through the receiver until we fell asleep. in those days girls shucked the burdens of their bodies through sex and drugs; we were too shy and stumbling-awkward, even beautiful lola, for the former; lola's and my parents too investigative for us to do much of the latter; and so that left us rock and roll, our long-haired messiahs howling into the sweat-steamed dark, our girl-bodies slamming into one another until we could no longer tell where one of us stopped and the other began. when our friendships began to unravel and re-ravel, as the girl-bonds of adolescence so often do, when lola got a boyfriend--on the golf team! the golf team!!--and left jenny and i to our own devices, when jenny--who'd navigated the terrifying freedom bestowed upon her by her parents by transforming herself into the most responsible person on the planet--fretted through my drug-taking class-skipping suicidal-ideating semester of catholic school, when i switched schools yet again and spent the long dreary days sundered from the proximity of my twinned beloveds and running around trying to prove myself to a pack of mean-mouthed boys, it was music that kept us together in the face of all the forces vying to tear us apart. jenny's car in the dark, hurtling all those miles home, our ears still ringing from the noise.

the summer before i went to college i gave away all my concert shirts, my beloved soundgarden shirt included; i was determined to distance myself from such girlish nonsense, to separate the erudite and stoic person i was determined to become from the angry and tear-soaked child i had been, lying around in my room in the dark crooning along to "seasons" and sobbing into my pillow, feeling ancient in the way you can only ever feel when you are very very young. i didn't want to be a girl anymore. i hadn’t asked for it; i wanted to send it back. jenny and lola and i drifted apart; i dropped out of college after a while and spent the next set of years banging around the country and getting in trouble; flinging myself gleefully into all the bad decisions that had been forbidden to me for so long, making up a rock and roll of my own. headstrong and headlong, a life that finally, finally felt to me like freedom. a life stripped bare of girls. a life that, in retrospect, looks a lot more like loneliness than liberty.

this isn’t an essay about chris cornell. it’s an essay about how i grew up. i'm sure you already figured that out. the music and the city, the rain at night, the wind in the trees, salt-fogged grey mornings, ferry over the puget sound in the quiet dark, the moment before the drums kick and your whole body hangs weightless in the balance blood roaring in your ears breath caught chest-deep hand in your best friend's hand. the apartment i lived in on summit avenue the year i was twenty. the way tenzing momo has smelled for the last thirty years; the way that’s the only thing left of the city i knew. condos closing in on the once-dirty streets, condos where bauhaus used to be, where paradiso used to be, where bailey/coy used to be, condos blooming like black rot over the street where mia zapata died, condos spreading through belltown and swallowing up the vegan restaurant where jenny and i liked to celebrate our birthdays, the bookstore i worked for the year i lived in seattle, the import store where anisa romero worked when we were in high school and we'd creep in like acolytes, pretending to look at the fancy carpets when really we were only ever looking at her.

sometimes late at night i spend hours searching online for all the girls i used to know, most of whom have vanished into my history. i am not sure what i am hoping they might tell me. jenny moved back to seattle a few years ago; we have coffee whenever i visit. she has children now and a husband and a mortgage and she is exactly the same. she would probably say the same thing about me. we picked up our friendship as though we had just set it down for a while. the morning chris cornell died we emailed one another like the teenagers we'd been, palming notes to one another when the teacher's back was turned. i listened to "seasons" and cried so hard i couldn't see the keys. “come home,” she wrote me, “so we can cry about it together.” can a single person be a symbol of an entire girlhood? of every outsize yearning, every dream, every impossible future? can a single person's death foreground the truth that hurts the most, that growing up is not enough to outrun the darkest parts of your heart?

i don’t think so. but i think about how jenny still has all her ticket stubs from high school. i think about how lucky i was to have her and lola both in those long brutal years of my girlhood. i think about how the people who understand what music did for me then, what it meant to me, are almost entirely other women. i think about how hard it can be to sometimes to not die and how glad i am most of the time that i didn't. i think about how for some of us it doesn't get better and how much i still want everyone i love to live and keep fighting. i think about that ocean, that galaxy, that miracle of girls.

i think about soundgarden, 1994. pressed breathless against the stage, screaming the words out of my girl's throat. all the girls, leaning towards our futures, our hearts crawling from our chests, thousands of girls a chorus of hell-sprung angels singing let me out, let me go, let me fly, for just this moment, just this sound. let me be salvation and solace. let me be loved. let me be perfected. let me be holy. let me be seen. let me be bigger than my body.

let me, for just this measure, be free.

 

status report

[here is the cat helping to edit my book]

HI IM STILL HERE just sleepy and fairly sad a lot of the time. for the last month or two i have been reading a lot and trying not to look at the internet and working hard on leaving my house as little as possible and writing notes to myself that go like this

YOU ARE DOING GREAT
YOU ARE LOVED & CARED FOR
YOUR WORK IS IMPORTANT
SO MANY BEAUTIFUL THINGS STILL SURVIVE
FIGHT, BITCH, FIGHT

i do have a lot of excellent books to tell you about!!!!!!!! but i am really fucking tired right now so that will have to wait a little longer, sorry. i want to remind you that lyric’s chapbook MOTHERWORT is on sale now and it is so, so, so, so, so beautiful and good. if you are in brooklyn this weekend please come celebrate the launch of this marvelous tiny book & two new books from ugly duckling and gramma poetry with our brilliant friends catherine taylor and christine hou. then i'm going to take a nap and then i will tell you about what you should be reading, cross my heart. if you want to do your reading ahead of class: hannah lillith assadi, Sonora; rabih alameddine, The Angel of History, elana k. arnold, What Girls Are Made Of; romina paula, August; michelle tea, Black Wave. there will be more homework but that should be a good head start.

did you read this essay about david foster wallace by deirdre coyle? i guess part of the internet [men] got quite upset about this essay about david foster wallace, which upset feels very…. 2007? 2008?

(here is beloved genius/guillotine alum jenny zhang on this topic:

Dead white guys and not-dead not-white not guys hate it when you dismiss revered canonical works of art and literature by saying, Uggggggggggh. I hate this. And give no reasons why at all. If I live to a hundred, do I really have to spend eighty-five or more of those years explaining why I don’t like this?

fucking A MEN JENNY).

i honestly did not realize people [men] still felt so strongly about david foster wallace! but i guess those people [men] are still going strong. anyway i quite liked deirdre coyle's essay about david foster wallace, this part especially:

It is enraging to have a straight man tell me a story about straight men telling stories to a woman about straight men acting like shitheads. I understand that this is the point of the text. I know. I understand that maybe other men wouldn’t absorb the message unless it was being told to them by another, probably smarter and better educated man. But then why do men keep recommending his work to me? BECAUSE I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW.

fucking A MEN DEIRDRE. this passage suggests to me that the point of this essay about david foster wallace is maybe not quite so much david foster wallace as people [men] who recommend david foster wallace to other people [women] against their wishes, interests, and tastes, and who accuse of critical incompetence any persons [women] who do not particularly care about [INSERT (MALE) WRITER HERE] but perhaps i am mistaken and the people [men] who dislike this essay are quite correct in it being about someone [a woman] who is too stupid to understand david foster wallace. it took me a long time to be able to say “if this art was good i wouldn't find it boring” to people [men] but now it’s a thing i say all the time. i don't even mean it always! but it's a fine way to end labor-intensive conversations that do not interest you. another good one is "i don't think there is such a thing as male genius, actually." getting older is great.

all of which is to say that last summer or maybe the summer before i was invited to be a guest lecturer at a university, and before my lecture the graduate students and some of the faculty took me out to dinner, and there was a graduate student at the dinner—quite nice, to be sure; bearded; in ugly shoes—who flirted with me genteelly and expressed astonishment that i have not only never read Infinite Jest, i have never even tried. for my lecture i read an earlier draft of my story Blue Is a Darkness Weakened by Light. the graduate student sat in the front row. when i read this part of the story i tried not to look at him:

The writers congregate at the watering hole, wary of predators. The writers would not hesitate to leave the weakest among them behind. I eat a bacon-wrapped shrimp off a tray and a tiny piece of toast covered in salmon and a single fried dumpling filled with pork. After a while the caterers avoid me. —Of course you’ve read Infinite Jest, a writer says to someone behind me. —But the essays? I turn around. The writer has an unflattering beard and shoes the vampire would not be caught dead in.

after the reading he got up right away and left. he didn’t stay for cookies. but i did.

keep loving, keep fighting

xoxox sarah

all the books i didn't read in ireland

hi, how are you doing? yeah, me too. the grocery store across the street from my apartment is falling apart in an exponentially allegorical way: the yam bin splitting and disgorging its contents onto the shabby linoleum, the ceiling blooming open in petals of paint and plaster, pipes drooling water into expanding pools below, the cashiers sad-eyed and listless in their crumbling demesne. it’s just brooklyn but it feels like my heart. i went away for two weeks, first to DC for AWP—oh AWP! but this year was more fun than i expected, i didn’t have to manage any poets, or wake them up in the morning after they drank too much vodka the night before, or remind them not to lose the cash-box; i saw a lot of people i love, and showed off lyric’s chapbook (did you order one yet? why not?), and the only person i had to wake up in the morning after she drank too much whiskey was myself—and then to england for a little while, for a conference about eve k.s., and then to dublin with j., just for fun.

everyone was so nice in dublin! which i was not expecting, not right now; i was prepared to be apologetic and embarrassed, hi sorry we’re a nation of horrors murdering our citizens bulldozing the indigenous people desperately trying to preserve clean drinking water on their own fucking land and tearing apart the fucking world! but people just wanted to tell us about the times they had been to new york, and smile indulgently while we took silly tourist pictures, and advise us on what sorts of whiskies to drink, and show us how to pay for the bus, and laugh gently at me when i couldn’t finish my coddle, which is a sort of soup with a lot of bacon and sausages and potatoes in it, and which was the first meal to defeat me in many a moon, probably because before the coddle i had also eaten half a loaf of soda bread and about a pound of very sharp and delicious cheddar cheese and several pieces of corned beef and a quantity of potato salad with mustard in it, and an egg.

i dragged poor j. all over dublin, to the oscar wilde statue (he looks drunk! oscar i mean, not j.) and to evensong at st. pat’s, which is a trick i learned from hal if you want to see a famous cathedral for free and hear some nice choral music as well, and to the natural history museum (i was having fun until i got to the taxidermied elephants and polar bears and orangutans and wolves, and then i got horribly sad and had to leave; the victorians were fucking monsters, they shot everything, not that we’re not fucking monsters now, but you know what i mean), and to the national gallery and the communist bookstore and the chester beatty library and about sixteen different pubs people recommended and also the national print museum. i got overexcited at the print museum and towed j. around to all the presses explaining how they work and what people used them for and the difference between monotype and linotype and handset type and wood type and alloys and casting and photoemulsion processes for platemaking and how to ink the presses and what sorts of ink to use and did you know they used to use kerosene to clean presses, very unhealthy! some places still do but i don’t recommend it, and then the fellow working at the museum came over and told me in a patronizing manner not to put my fingers near the mechanized platen press as i was in imminent danger of losing them, and i was like “well you’d probably have to plug the press in first, don’t you think?”

and then the fellow took j. about and told him all the exact same things i had just said, and which i am quite certain he overheard, and ignored me completely, and said a number of things that were completely incorrect besides, and i was so incoherent with rage i had to go upstairs to the special exhibition and talk to myself quietly for some time. i will put up with a lot of condescension from men who know a lot more than i do about something i am interested in (with the possible exception of automotive and bicycle repair, as a number of male ex-partners, ex-friends, and former co-workers would be quick to point out) but the experience of being condescended to by a man who knows a great deal less than me about something i am fairly good at is so intolerable that even now, after literal decades of having this happen, it will occasionally render me absolutely incandescent with fury. if there are any experiences shared by all female-bodied and more or less female-identified people, i imagine that is perhaps foremost among them, i don’t need to go solnit on you, but having the experience articulated is no palliative for being forced to endure it. anyway i got a small revenge by disparaging the fellow’s brayer placement on his inking plate, in my own most contemptuous and patronizing affect (which is, if i do say so myself, pretty formidable); this barb proved effective, as he ran after me several moments later to explain that he couldn’t possibly clean it after every use as he showed children how to ink type with it whenever they came into the museum, and i replied in an even deadlier manner that i hadn’t told him to clean it i had told him not to leave it sitting roller-side down in the ink, which is one of the first things you learn if the person teaching you is any good (thank you, rebecca gilbert, strictest and most best of printing instructors; i still live in terror of leaving the rollers down on the press even for a moment).

none of which has anything to do with books! because i didn’t read any. i bought about fifteen books at AWP and haven’t read any of them yet, i brought five books to ireland with me, none of which i read, and i bought about ten more there, which i didn’t read either. i felt the whole time as though i was carrying about a dull clanging instrument instead of a brain. i didn’t think about things and i didn’t want to. i walked around and cried in the natural history museum and went to howth and climbed about on the headland and ate a cioppino and six oysters and every time i started to have a thought i went to a pub instead. i don’t know if i am ready to start being a person again—the risks seem rather higher than the rewards, these days!—but quitting isn’t really an option, so.

i did read some excellent books before i left and i have been working on—by “working on” i mean “periodically thinking ‘oh, i should work on’”—an essay about survival stories, because survival stories seem more concrete than ever these days; i have been trying to schedule the times i am allowed to look at the news, because otherwise i just throw up, which doesn’t do anybody a bit of good. i am giving up whiskey for a while; in my experience, it is inadvisable to transition coping mechanisms into daily practice. i definitely keep meaning to do yoga. i hope you are okay, or mostly okay; you don’t need me to tell you about what’s going on in the world, or that it’s hard. the way forward is with a broken heart; i'm tattooing that on my fucking face. keep loving, keep fighting, i'll go back to talking about books soon i promise.

xoxo sarah

AU REVOIR LE R.

hi! it's still me! this weekend i made a fancy new website for guillotine & retired the rejectionist. it's a little sad to say goodbye to le r.; i had no idea when i started the blog nine (!!!) years ago that it would change my entire life, bring me many of the people i love most dearly, or become (modestly) legendary (in a fairly limited circle) (well, maybe not "legendary," but indulge me). i will miss that irascible, intemperate person i pieced together on the fly during what was one of the most difficult years of my life; she will remain archived, however, at therejectionistsaysno.blogspot.com (BLOGGER!!!! o, were we ever so young!!!!). 

also, i'm not going anywhere! i will continue to write about books that i love with utter irregularity at this new home! shit's real fucked out there but boy have i read some fantastic things lately (cara hoffman's RUNNING! out this month! hanna lillith assadi's SONORA, out next month! cristina moracho's A GOOD IDEA, also out next month! SHIRLEY JACKSON: A RATHER HAUNTED LIFE, very sharp; aracelis girmay's THE BLACK MARIA, holy shit) and i will tell you more about them at length shortly. i swear, i really do. 

if you have been reading the rejectionist since forever: thank you, from the bottom of my heart. i have been lucky enough over the last near-decade (!!!!) to have some of the smartest, funniest, and most talented people on the planet find their way to me through that blog. & whether you're a longtime reader or a new one, hang in there; these are hard times, but we're some tough-ass motherfuckers. i have faith in us. RESIST. 

xoxo sarah