Sweet Unrest — July 2020
In memoriam: Dame Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020) passed away this past Saturday evening in Paris at 104. I have spent much of 2020 writing about Dame de Havilland and her remarkable longevity, so seeing the obituaries proliferate over the web, in such swift succession to the celebratory articles of her 104th birthday earlier this month, has been a real whiplash. Thursday’s newsletter will be dedicated to her and sharing some of the writing I have been doing about her.
“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days - three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
― J. Keats, to Fanny Brawne
Welcome to Sweet Unrest: the newsletter edition!
As I prepare to embark on my first actual writing degree this fall (in journalism), I have decided to create this Monthly Newsletter as an opportunity to share with you the writing from the Sweet Unrest vaults, writing that appears in other outlets, and the writings of others whom I admire.
I’ve sent this inaugural note to You, because you are either a friend, a family member, a colleague, you have published my writing, you once gave me a compliment (which I have never forgotten!), or you once asked me: what kind of writing do you do? This newsletter is my effort at a response
If you’re not interested, please do hit unsubscribe, without compunction or concern! Letters become so irksome to me, said Keats himself, that the next time I leave London I shall petition them all to be spar’d me. Keats was all talk, no game, and so kept writing and receiving letters unto his bitter Roman end. But you don’t have to be like him. Let not these scribblings stand in the way of your mental, emotional, and epistolatory clarity. You can achieve Inbox Zero, a thing Keats never did.
If you are interested — let’s begin! Make yourself at home, let your hair down, take off your shoes, enjoy the newsletter with coffee or a cuppa on your favorite couch, front porch, or park bench, with a cat purring in your lap like the whir of cotton spindles rapidly revolutionizing Keat’s England into an industrial phantasmagoria—
but I am nigh getting into a rant, to borrow J.K.’s well-worn phrase. So let us lay aside all discussion of revolutions—industrial or no—for a moment and turn to sweeter unrests than civil.
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—
Sweet Unrest has slowed down its publishing pace from the manic daily publishing schedule it’s kept fairly regularly throughout its ten years of existence to something more, well, restful.
This summer, I have found myself absolutely unable to process what time it is. What is time? What day is it even? What even is today? are fairly standard refrains these days, and I am no exception. I tend to feel like I’m living through some long wormhole more than that I am living a calendar year.
But, even as I look back on pre-quarantine life, I am not sure I would go back. I certainly would rather have quarantine without a pandemic, I am absolutely not promoting a pandemic that causes so much suffering and death. But, if the chaos and paralysis of COVID-19 is supposed to be a teaching moment for great and small—an examination of conscience for systems and persons—then I’m certainly taking it as a chance to re-think the pace of life I was previously living.
And, even as the world has drastically changed, stilled, and separated, I have found that there has been so much life lived in these “paused” days. This post is about that:
Last night, New York was filled with a July energy so wildly different from the coma of April I persist in believing we are in still. Isn’t it still March? I keep telling myself.
The Jameson and shamrock displays in the liquor stores echo my question, reinforce the belief that time has stopped. That in two months, I will be in Oberammergau, that a conference will still happen in two weeks, that we are on the verge of a summer we are still anticipating, which has not yet come.
I still feel this way, suspended, even as I look back at a dizzying tide of memories that have happened in a vacuum. Wearing masks, trading baked goods outside, through windows and on front stoops, being cold in the park but going outside anyway. Walking up Columbus Avenue to an empty church alone, each bodega, shop, and restaurant shuttered.
I look back on the dizzying social schedule of a world with nothing else but Zoom. Friday night hangouts, Saturday night trivias, drinking games played across screens. I think of months of flirting with the same man, each picture taken to be shared across an exchange of blue and white bubbles, and then that ending with the burst of June: the world coming out of its intubated innervation into a focused surge of action.
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 past December, I got the Christmas gift every woman wants—free review copies of a Rebecca Solnit book. I had the delightful assignment of writing reviews of Rebecca Solnit’s urban atlas trilogy for America’s spring literary review.
Rebecca Solnit rates with Hans Urs Von Balthasar as a thinker whose thought has not only shaped mine but continues to provide fresh inspiration for thinking about the things I care about. My first year in New York City, my good friend Mara gave me Solnit’s series of essays Men Explain Things to Me, and I devoured it while proctoring study halls back in the Cristo Rey days. Solnit’s insights changed my outlook on the world the way only reading about the systemic subjugation of women and the IMF’s ravaging of countries’ debts can. If you’re looking for a good place to start with Solnit, these atlases are a beautiful introduction to her particular form of democratic radicalism via beloved, emblematic American cities—San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York.
When I received this assignment I was thrilled with the question the project posed from its first moment: what does it mean to “review” an atlas? The puzzle of sussing out the guiding principles of Solnit’s project, and marking my own way through her magnificently rendered cities was a delightful beginning to a year in which my own physical traveling has been seriously curtailed.
As the opening vignette about the afternoons my brother Sam and I spent inventing journeys for our toy dinosaurs indicates, to think about a place is to think about, and with, memory. As aggregations of communal memories, places are always invitations to remember: to dig into the locations in our mind where who and what we are dwells—the small islands that collectively form the archipelago of our selves.
All maps, not just those illustrated mazes, contain an inherent tension between going and staying. We consult maps in order to leave: which highways to merge onto, which exit to make, which turn to take. But we also make maps to know where we are: to get our bearings, to grow roots. Maps orient us, help us see where we are. A map is often a route to remaining.
Like language, cartography is a miracle that insists the unique slice of universe we view from the perspective of our own minds and hearts is—against all odds—expressible. Our memories and feelings are communicable, circumnavigable. I can tell you “I am sad,” and you can navigate with me the choppy waters of sorrow. I can promise “I love you,” and, suddenly, we have mapped a route to remaining.
Read the full article here.
“The Literary world I know nothing about” to George & Georgiana Keats, Feb 1819
—Highlights from the Good Reads shelf—
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard is one of my absolutely unassailable muses, from the moment I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one bleak Thanksgiving at my personal Tinker Creek, The Rancho, I have been absolutely sold on Dillard’s lucid eyewitness to the world.
The story of her awakening into the world, into all of our awakening into the world, impossible, shared, objective, alive, is a stirring story of alertness in the drowsy veil of acceptance we pull over the technicolor world.
This is the book Plato meant to write with the allegory of the cave.
“I had hopes for my rough edges,” Dillard writes, “I wanted to use them as a can opener to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface and exit through it.”
And through the holes she cuts through the surface, right into the heart of phenomena, Dillard makes space for us to follow through the holes she bores into the globe and join her in her wild ride of naming the earth, with the thrilling novelty of Adam. To read Dillard is to discover the earth anew.
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—
Thomas Graff, “Why protesting injustice is a fundamentally Christian act”, America Magazine
In a sense, it is ultimately as an expression of trust that Job can so forcefully interrogate and make demands upon God. In this light, questioning, difficulty, disagreement and protest are the highest form, not of distrust or betrayal, but rather of fidelity and love. We might recognize this in our own relationships: We argue—for better or worse—with those whom we love because we trust them. We trust that our voice ought to be heard and will be heard by the other, and that our relationships can and will grow as a result.
Read the full essay here.
Rebecca Traister, “The Poison of Male Incivility”, The Cut
Instead we are trained to recognize the reactions of those who are not white men to white men as some sort of useful path to power. We are told, in lots of ways, that people who are not white men get to play certain kinds of cards — race and gender cards — to get ahead, whereas white men just … get ahead. White male power is so assumed as to be wholly indistinguishable from what we simply recognize as “power,” and with it, the whispered implication that those with authority have somehow earned that authority fairly and squarely, while those who challenge authority and its abuses are wily manipulators.
Read the words of one of third wave feminism’s wisest voices here.
André Aciman, “On Getting Lost, Literary History, and Dostoyevsky”, LitHub
Instead, many turned inward. The mud, the buried bones, Peter’s monomaniacal reign—none ever went away. They are seared into the city, for St. Petersburg internalized both the frightful tyranny of the tsars and the smoldering dissent it stoked. In literature, wraiths and nightmares and distorted, demonic thoughts seep into a landscape where repression and flight are forever wrangling at cross purposes.
Read Aciman’s lovely travelogue here.
Elizabeth Alexander, “The Trayvon Generation,” The New Yorker
What does it mean to be a lucky mother, when so many of my sisters have had their children taken from them by this hatred?
Read the rest of this haunting essay here.