Sweet Unrest — august 2020


Welcome to Sweet Unrest Newsletter: vol. 2

As I have now embarked upon previously mentioned degree, this newsletter, scheduled to go out on Monday, is—of course—late. Navigating the minefield of a new school year conducted almost entirely via Zoom is both very strange—how does one create a sense of community or shared learning with strangers via a screen?—and also a surprisingly enjoyable slow-rollout of the school year. I have truly enjoyed a bit more humane, slower pace of the program’s commencement. Rather than the rush of orientations, meeting crowds of faces, and running from event to lecture to seminar, the beginning of this program has merged seamlessly with my previous rhythm of life and slowly taken it over. That rhythm, to be clear, was the quirky offbeat of unemployed pandemic summer—quite the music to be marching to.

But one thing I have realized is that it’s actually hard to get oriented when there’s no physical space or community to orient yourself by and with. One aspect of learning that virtual school has made clear is that part of what makes learning in a community so effective is that you learn from the movement of your peer’s bodies. Something I have learned from my years in school post-homeschooling is that there’s something strangely effective about the physical environment of school. Because you are moving in concert with a group of students seeking the same goals, following the movements of the crowd is actually an excellent start to learning. You know where to take your mind, because you know where to take your body. Follow the people to find the conversation.

As I sit at my kitchen table in front of my computer, I feel a bit marooned, mentally speaking. I feel sometimes as though my mind is not sure “where to go,” given that there is no classroom to go to, no library to study at, no student lounge open to exchange ideas, thoughts, stories, and laughter. No wonder they call it a school of fish. So much of learning is a project done by following the lead of others. If you have a brilliant conversation with yourself in the middle of the ocean with no one else to partake in it, is it still a conversation?

Although at first I was annoyed at and overwhelmed by the constant WhatsApp and GroupMe messages flooding my phone, I have come to appreciate them as small digital recreations of this chaotic back-and-forth of a herd of fish charting their path through the immensity of ocean. We are all moving in the same direction. And with that assurance, I can strike out on my own.

May all your school years and reopenings be filled with the comfort of community, six small feet away.

Affectionately yours,

Keats in the Sheets

“There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet”— to Benjamin Robert Haydon, May 1817

— From the Blog—

My favorite Sweet Unrest post of the summer:

One of my favorite projects of this year has been completing the New Years Resolution I jointly made with my mother for 2019. My mother, laudably, completed War and Peace in 2019. After starting off strong in January and February 2019, I lost steam after having to return my library book while moving apartments. And then, I tried to dive back in into Part II (of Volume I of IV, so, yeah, I basically had read none of it) during the details of Rostov’s first campaign in the Battle of Schöngrabern. After the delightfully newsy Moscow opening, it was a snooze.

Also, I had a lot going on in my life, and back-and-forth whose wit was entirely lost in translation about Russian hussars stealing someone’s purse (?) (someone was tipsy? On a horse? Honor was besmirched????) was really not dialoguing with the context of my life at that moment.

But, one does not often have three months in which the world stops and shuts college-educated single twenty-somethings without children in your home. So, I figured this was the moment to reignite my dialogue with the Russian petty officers.

To my surprise, I discovered that every incident in Tolstoy’s golden novel of history spoke to the nothing and everything happening in my life. Once I made it past the (quite honestly, obtuse) bickering on the eve of the first campaign of Schöngrabern, I was rewarded with scenes of men encountering the absurdity of battle, confronting the absolutely ludicrous idea that some stranger opposite of him wishes to murder him, the existential crisis of meeting death, and the work of making life out of the mess of mortality that has been handed to us.

Sometimes you read books and there are sections that leap off the page as classics in their own right, hidden within a larger great work. The final chapter of Volume II and the first chapter of Volume I are like Steinbeck’s Chapters 12 and 13 of East of Eden—perfectly captured slices of history—in which an epoch is captured in portraiture. You may never be able to travel back to 1812, but you can read Volume II, Part V, Chapter 22 of War and Peace, and you will, I think, have truly tasted it.

To think of history in terms of events is to deprive ourselves, like Pierre, of the joy of living. To think of greatness or purpose as one numerologically devised mad action is to miss out on the real source of purpose and meaning. History is not happening outside of us, out there, in the world of politics, or money, or armies moving, but here, in the house, in the chitter-chatter of family, in the heart that decides to love even when she might hate

Read the full post here.


Keats in the Streets

“I am however young, writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819

Sweet Unrest stylings out in the world—

This summer, I have had the absolutely delightful opportunity to work as a freelance reporter for our local news outlet, the West Side Rag, described by New York Magazine as “the hyperlocal site we all wish we had.”

Although my allegiance to the West Side has been an unassailable and consistent character trait of my New York 2.0 experience, I was not an Upper West Side resident proper until February—and we all know what happened after February. Getting to know my neighborhood was both the only activity open to me and an activity that was definitively hampered by the pandemic. While I spent March through May comfortably ensconced in my ten-block radius of Manhattan, the shelter-in-place orders put a serious hold on striking up conversations with neighbors or attending community events.

Throughout the months of clinging to group text message threads like lifelines, one friend in my quaran-pod recommended several articles from West Side Rag, and I soon subscribed to it. The blend of helpful local news and quirky, offbeat pieces (what my mom, grandmother, and I would dub “idiot column” news in honor of our favorite Wall Street Journal column) quickly charmed me.

As I bided my time before school, I figured I could get some reporting work under my belt. As the city began to wake itself up via protest in May, I took to the streets with West Side Rag and began to get to know my community in a more intimate and in-depth way. Writing for “The Rag” has been one of the highlights of my summer.

Although it’s lent a slightly chaotic bent to a season that may have been better spent hunkering down into books or working on larger writing projects, I have had a whale of a time grabbing my grubby backpack, notepad, helmet, and biking out at an email’s notice to write about some story in the corner of the neighborhood. Throughout the summer, the undertaking has filled my days with lots of heartwarming conversations with neighbors and serendipity.

Some highlights include:

And there was the one time I crouched underneath an air conditioner in a sudden hailstorm to finish up an interview via phone. Even if you are far away, feel free to subscribe. Or search for something similar near you and donate the equivalent of your New York Times subscription to your local news rag. Only you can save hyperlocal news, friends.

Keats’ Inner Ring

- From the subscriber’s bucket -

If you’d like to see stray collections of poetry, flash fiction, excerpts from short stories, and plays, feel free to subscribe to Sweet Unrest: The Inner Ring.

This means that you receive more emails from me with more writing.

We live in excess and extravagance.

Keats Reads

“The Literary world I know nothing about” to George & Georgiana Keats, Feb 1819

—Highlights from the Good Reads shelf—

The Power by Naomi Alderman

When browsing through Book Culture eighteen months and one pandemic ago, one of my friends half-heartedly recommended Alderman’s 2017 satire political horror novel. I “put it on my list,” and I think have renewed an audiobook no less than 10 times in the ensuing months. Before the pandemic shut down public libraries and relegated due dates to the dustbins of ages past, my library habits are to take out the maximum books possible, renew them until the limit, desperately return them at 5 AM to the library dropbox on my way to a ClassPass barre class I have lightly conned my way into after letting them go overdue by one day, rinse and repeat.

All this to say, it has taken me far too long to get around to reading this book, but wow was it worth the wait.

The premise is wildly simple: women develop a node (from defense chemicals leaked into the water during World War II) that gives them the power to electrocute others. With our hypothetical intact, Alderman takes a reader on an exploration of a dystopian world that is highly realistic—it’s today, but the gender roles are inverted. The characters are wicked and wonderful, and the political intrigue is fun, but the really delightful meat here is the consistent project of creating a world in which the tired gender power struggles are reversed in female’s favor.

Alderman is tapping into something primal: imagining the contingency of sexual power dynamics has been a fun thought experiment since the Amazons. What she finds along the way is poignant and heartwrenching in its familiarity: “I wanted him to like me because I’m strong and in control. … I don’t want him to like me for different reasons … Why would you have to live me for different reasons than any other girl? Are you calling me weak?” It is also terrifying. The book is full of disgusting violence that is sometimes difficult to read. I was reminded while reading it of Casey Newton’s 2019 series about the workday of the content moderators for Facebook. There are those who bear witness to the shocking pieces of the human experience each day. It’s a sobering reality to face.

At the end of the day, of course, the real villain here is power, the libido dominandi within each human that will, if unchecked, slaughter. Since the Ring of Gyges, moral parables have turned up nothing new, yet what they find is always prescient. I found this book part Canticle for Leibowitz, part Celeste Ng or Chloe Benjamin. And I definitely recommend.

Mr. Brown’s Bylines

“Brown, who is always one’s friend in a disaster, applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning though the ball hit me on the sight.” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819

—Pieces from good friends, and from writers whose words have been a friend to me—

  • Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Meet me there: the King William District, Fiesta.

I’ll wear strawberry ribbons
in my unkempt hair.

You’ll mock a trio of mariachis,
a cer-vay-sa in your spidery hand.

That’s how you’ll say it: Sir Vésa
for love of my tender, Latina outrage.

Read a sample from Analicia’s brilliant collection here.

  • David Gibson, “Jazz Vespers,” Commonweal

But ritual has its place. I became Catholic in part because I realized that rites are hardly empty, even if they are often unfulfilling, or I don’t fulfill them. That’s why they’re rituals: you come back the next day and try again.

Read David’s tender observation of neighborly rites here.

  • Thomas Graff, “Healing Hell,” The Tablet

In light of the Purgatorio, one significant civic virtue which the incarcerated and non-incarcerated alike can exercise is to encounter each other in kinship. ‘But we, like you, are foreigners’: in light of our shared life, we encounter each other as fellow travelers, not as incarcerated or free; ‘But we, like you, are foreigners’: we carry past injustice and pain with us and share a need for healing; ‘But we, like you, are foreigners’: we also share moments of admiration, full-bellied laughter, and everyday kindness, if little more than swapping small talk over tea and biscuits.

Read Thomas’ moving essay here.

  • Sarah Cahalan, “Just a South Shore Ride Away,” Notre Dame Magazine

Quietly and steadily, America’s interurbans had shuttered since their heyday, driven out of business by automobiles and air travel. But thanks in part to the steady stream of Domers filling its seats, the South Shore chugged along. By the time of its centennial in 2008, it was the last interurban railway still in business.

Read Sarah’s full paean to this hidden Midwest gem here.

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