I finished reading only one essay collection this year. As an essayist, this is troubling to admit. I’ve been reading several collections, slowly picking my way through one or another over the past few months—taking in a page or two, putting it down, picking it back up. It’s frustrating to me, to not finish a thing. To be in a constant state of progress, rather than completion. But lately I’ve been learning to move a little more slowly: through a book, through the world; to take in small pieces at a time, to hold only what I can.
A few I’ve been working on, and enjoying: Limber by Angela Pelster. The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. Winter Hours by Mary Oliver. The one I’m drawn to most, though, is All the Fierce Tethers by Lia Purpura. It was published by Sarabande Books in 2019 and has been on my bookshelf for over a year, but I only cracked it recently. It found me, as so many of my favorite books do, when I needed it.
In the fall, I found myself alone in the woods. I’d gotten a yearlong visiting writer job at the University of North Carolina, and was staying in a studio above a garage in the woods outside Chapel Hill, having spent the money that was supposed to buy me health insurance on an overpriced Airbnb. It was beautiful, and idyllic, and under normal circumstances it would have been a dream. But I couldn’t find a rhythm. I couldn’t build a routine. I’m a creature of habit; I wake up early every day to read, and then write. I make a daily to-do list in a notebook, drawing a little box for each task and checking it off in red pencil. I started adding “Read” to the top of the list, so I would have something to cross off. But when I opened a book, I read the same lines over and over. The words were blurred. When I sat down at my computer, the words rarely came. The “Write” box often went unchecked.
Global pandemic, presidential election, persistent terror, uncertainty, isolation, and grief aside, there was another problem, too. My partner was back in Brooklyn, and the distance between us spanned more than miles. There was a fracture in our foundation, one I hadn’t yet fully seen—one I might have noticed had I been paying attention. But I looked only at the bigger picture, and paid no attention to the details, to the smaller pieces of life—the things that make it, or dismantle it.
I brought All the Fierce Tethers with me to the woods, a cosmic, last-minute toss in a suitcase full of books. I read it in slow tandem with Oliver’s Winter Hours, which I found on the coffee table of my forest home like a gift from the universe, or the trees, or whatever god I believe in. Both books deal in noticing, in the woods, in isolation and grief. In All the Fierce Tethers, Purpura writes about the small things. About noticing them, about the act of looking. About how this act can become a form of order, or routine. And how order, or routine, can be a form of beauty.
In my introduction to creative nonfiction class at UNC—which I held onto in those weeks like a life raft—I spent a lot of time talking with my students about the importance of observing, not least in these uncertain and sad and terrible times. We talked about the importance of looking—as an intentional act, as a process and routine, one critical to writing essays. I told them, as I always tell my students, to read with a pencil. To underline sentences and passages that struck them, that stuck with them; to savor the small, satisfying scratch of graphite on paper. I asked them to keep a field notebook, in which they could record what they saw each day, alone in their apartments, or in the bedrooms where they grew up, or outside on walks. I asked them to listen. To write down overheard conversations. Song lyrics and scenes from whatever TV shows they were bingeing, lines and passages from the essays we read. If they couldn’t make a sentence, I said, make a list. A catalogue of fragments. The most important thing, I said, was to look—even when it feels too dark to see.
I did the same. I walked in the woods, keeping a list of notes about downed trees and dead leaves. I picked up seed pods and pinecones and added them to the shrine I keep on my writing desk. Each morning I read a small section of All the Fierce Tethers, and I read with a pencil. I underlined passages, then copied them down in a notebook, creating a new kind of list.
She writes: “By being still, I could collect what the day was trying to say.”
She writes: “No need to see with a strategy, with habits employed to keep back the grief which, anyway, overruns the banks I make.”
She writes: “…routine was everywhere pulsing along, ongoing, unending, then ending.”
She writes: “It’s work to hold, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work.”
And of those smallest things—the washed and folded sheets that make up a home, the twigs that make up a forest, the minutiae that make up a day—she writes: “Stay with them…. Those delicacies. Those radiant systems. Hold them.”
I write: “I’m trying. I walk in the woods and look. But the light seems always on the edge of dusk, and my eyes play tricks on me. I’m never quite sure what I see.”
The first essay collection I read this year, and the only one I finished, was Ander Monson’s I Will Take the Answer, published by Graywolf Press in February, just before the world came crashing to a halt. Monson’s writing is close to my heart, not least because it often traverses the Midwestern landscapes close to my heart too. Monson grew up in Upper Michigan, not far from where I spent a great deal of time as a kid, and still do as an adult, in the northernmost woods of Wisconsin, just across the border from the UP. He writes about the Paulding Light, a mysterious phenomenon—a ghost train, folks contend—that my family and I used to visit now and again, out in the sticks near Watersmeet. He writes about the bad 80s metal band Dokken and an unincorporated town nearby called Donken. He writes of the landscapes—cold and wintry and wooded—that, despite having been away for so long, make up so much of his consciousness, and so much of my own. In the essay “I in River,” which takes a wonderfully inventive approach to form, he writes:
It’s fair to say that my life is suspended between two poles—the wet or snowbound landscapes of Michigan that still shape the way I think and dream and write, and the hazy desert loneliness of Arizona, where I now live and work.
Another passage I underlined in pencil (and starred, so you know I mean it) is this:
We like containment.We like order. Without order / (form)
there is no shape, no meaning, nothing to resist or push against / or pull across an emptiness.
I thought about this passage a lot in the woods of North Carolina, and I think about it now that I’m home. I think about how, without routine, without a list to check off, the edges of life become blurred, the contours shaky, the picture gone dim. I think of a great expanse of distance, both physical and not, and clawing around in the dark, trying to find our way through.
In my favorite essay in the book, “My Monument,” Monson writes about a fifteen-foot inflatable Rudolph, which he bought from a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue for a whopping $399 plus tax, and which he erects in his snowless Tucson yard each winter.
[A] monument to or against something…he stands as long as I will have him.
It’s an essay about spectacle, about consumption, about displays of prosperity, and that uniquely American drive to out-spectacle one another—say, by way of Christmas decorations—often even without the prosperity. It’s about our fascination with the massive, the superlative, the colossal. It’s about artifice, of course, and the ways we lie with our possessions, our decorations, our Instagram posts, our lives.
“From the exterior it looks solid,” Monson writes of his Rudolph, “but inside it is nothing but forced air.”
Of a holiday display in a Tucson strip mall he writes: “Those who go to see the spectacle are advised not to let the artificial snow settle on their tongues, since the flakes are in fact soap.”
Before he finds his Rudolph, he finds a generic lawn reindeer—the kind that light up, the kind my parents used to display in their yard in Wisconsin until they got fed up with the neighbor kids sneaking out at night to put them in compromising positions. The one Monson finds, at Goodwill, has only three legs.
“In the dark you can’t tell it’s broken,” he writes.
“This is one of the problems with the dark.”
This is an essay, and a whole book, that deals in the dark. But as is characteristic of most Monson joints, it’s also very funny. Riffing on the wonder of holiday catalogues, he writes of Lands’ End, the working-class Midwestern version of L.L. Bean that’s based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, a small town twenty miles from my hometown, where many people I know take shifts during the holiday season for extra scratch. He writes of the company’s audacious apostrophe—“what a name! the end of lands! What might be delivered to us by UPS or USPS from these frontiers!”—which was just a typographical error that stuck. I think of the irony of a company whose logo is a lighthouse, based in landlocked southcentral Wisconsin.
This is an essay about irony, yes. But it’s also about hope, and the ways we hold onto it. Of the joy—however misplaced—one might find in those seasonal catalogues, in desire fanned out on coffee tables; in idiotic things like a giant inflatable Rudolph, that begin as a joke, or some act of defiance, and end up looking like love; in soft and cozy and frivolous things, like the overpriced sweater from L.L. Bean that I coveted for years, then finally bought, and never wear, always choosing my twenty-year-old Lands’ End sweater instead.
“Because so many of us are transplants from our colder elsewhere,” Monson writes, “by erecting our decorations we are also making our little shrines to home.”
He’s one of my favorite essayists for this reason: the ability to find truth in the idiosyncratic and absurd, meaning in the mundane. He mines (quite literally; one of the essays is about the mining country of Upper Michigan) his past and present, digging around in the dark for gems. Like this one, from “Uncharitable Thoughts on Dokken”:
It’s hard to even believe the stories I’m telling myself about my past now. The past is so scratched up that it skips when played, and it’s hard to tell what’s signal and what’s scratch, what’s original and what’s artifact of my own obsessive working.
This glittering, tangible piece of truth—about seeing, about memory, about the stories we tell—unearthed from some strange corner of the brain, where a bad 80s metal band and an unincorporated Upper Michigan town both dwell. A little piece of light pulled from the dark. And this, I tell my students, I tell myself, is what we’re trying to do in the process of essaying. And what I mean is that this is what we’re trying to do in the process of living.
It snowed in New York last week, but like most snows here it didn’t stick. We’re supposed to get a storm today, though, and I hope we get snowed in. Back home in Wisconsin, there’s nearly a foot on the ground. My dad sends me pictures of his shovel job, of the fake Christmas tree my parents have erected every year since I’ve been gone.
Here in Brooklyn, my partner and I buy a real one. In our ten years together, this is the first Christmas we’ll spend in New York just the two of us. The tree is a Frasier fir, thick and full, its six feet towering in our tiny railroad apartment. We bought it from a rip-off popup in our neighborhood, for a staggering $139 dollars. It’s not from upstate New York, or even New Jersey or Connecticut—not cut fresh from some local farm we could have felt good about supporting—but shipped here, instead, from North Carolina.
We bought it anyway. We carried it home, erected it in our living room, and spent the afternoon decorating. We strung white lights and bulbs and bells, a somewhat creepy-looking angel that once belonged to my late grandmother, a collection of other gaudy ornaments that together create something so strange and lovely, so uniquely ours. We drank eggnog with brandy and played our three Christmas records—the Miracles, Johnny Mathis, an instrumental collection called “The Glory of Christmas,” which somewhat suspiciously boasts “101 Strings”—that we found for cheap at the used record store years ago.
We watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and I cried at the end, when Clarence gets his wings, like I do every year.
I haven’t believed in angels, or God—at least in the way I was taught—for a very long time, so it feels a little absurd to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But I do it anyway. I do these old familiar things, these small acts of ritual, of seasonal routine, and—perhaps especially in a time of such uncertainty—it feels like comfort. I suppose, the older and further away I get, the more it feels like home.
Recently, a friend said to me: “Maybe all we can do, right now, is accept that it’s the darkest part of the year, and try to find as much light in it as we can.” So that’s what I’m trying to do. Each day, when the sun sets at its miserable 4:30, I will look at our Christmas tree and marvel at the audacity of its size. I will notice the white lights that bend around red and gold bulbs (not glass or metal but plastic, whose seams you can see if you look close enough). I will watch the cat on the tree skirt (an old shredded afghan), batting at the ornaments, trying to climb the branches, out of her mind with joy. I will love the creepy angel. I will stick my face in the boughs and breathe, fill my lungs with the scent of fir—something that smells so alive, even as the tree is dying. And this great and bright and glittering thing, grown and cut from a North Carolina forest, severed and shipped five hundred miles north then sold for a small fortune on a Brooklyn sidewalk, will be my monument. Maybe, in some way, it will help me see. Maybe it won’t. But when the days are at their darkest, it will be my light.
Melissa Faliveno is the author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland, named by NPR and New York Public Library as a Best Book of 2020. Her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, Bitch, Ms., Lit Hub, Brooklyn Rail, the Millions, Prairie Schooner, and DIAGRAM, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays. She is the 2020-21 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC–Chapel Hill and lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.melissafaliveno.com