It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.
Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.
Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.
Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.
Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?
When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.
Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.
Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care.
Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. Yes, the snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.
But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds birds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.
In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).
Although Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter.
But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with a husband and 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.
Alone, Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and that Old Grandfather would pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail decided to bring her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.
Now, Cottontail’s story is not only about the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also, if I may, a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny, but not because of a steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her experiences fostered the requisite Easter-Bunny qualities of wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart.
The Country Bunny extends hope toward a future that valorizes not just heart but a “loving heart for children.” Cottontail’s bravery comes from her experience attending-to, making her a hero and thus temporary keeper of the little gold shoes.
The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.
This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another—a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,
determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them—
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?
While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.
I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.
Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.
We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.
In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.
But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.
The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.
Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.
An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.
The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.
Oh, look at those young women up there! It’s hard to believe how much has changed since Jessica Knight and I began Modern Writing Services: Houses bought and sold; babies born and grown; and, of course, business growth and change.
This year marks the first full year without Jess. In 2019, she transitioned from her role at Modern Writing Services to that of a full-time research writer and analyst at United Health Group. While she still consults at MWS, she does so in a bespoke capacity. Here, she talks about her move:
Q: What precipitated your decision?
A: There’s not really one why, though going in-house is something I’ve thought about for a while. I was interested to see what it would feel like to have a longer-term stake in my work than I was able to have as a consultant. It can be tough to pour your heart and soul into a project and then have very little control over what happens to it after you turn it over to a client! I was also ready to step back from the business-ownership side of…well, owning a business. And I knew Molly would continue to do great things with MWS. Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of new clothes!
Q: What’s your new position like?
A: It’s really challenging, and really interesting. It’s been a huge learning curve, and I imagine that’s going to continue pretty much as long as I stay in this job, since developments happen so quickly in the healthcare and R&D worlds. My role involves very diverse work, from conducting literature reviews and writing white papers for our business and scientific leadership; to working with our data scientists, statisticians, and clinicians to help them develop research questions, analyze results, and create narratives of their research; to collaborating with our subject matter experts to refine conference presentations and papers for publication.
Q: How is it different from, or similar to, your MWS work?
A: It’s a ginormous company, which has benefits and drawbacks. To some degree, the R&D group feels like its own little island with an independent culture, but even within R&D I have a couple hundred coworkers. And the work I do is very collaborative across research teams and roles, so the day-to-day feels a lot different from what my day-to-day was like at MWS, when my projects were almost completely solo ventures.
However, the job draws on a surprisingly similar skill set to a lot of the work I did at MWS. While it’s obviously all healthcare focused, the research, writing, and editing that I do isn’t so different from the kinds of work that I did for nonprofits, universities, and presses with MWS.
Q: The best part?
A: The energy and intelligence of my coworkers—it’s really exciting to work with such smart people and to be tasked with trying to solve such challenging problems. I’m constantly learning—and I love that constant learning is a foundational part of my job. And the food. We have weirdly good food at our office!
Q: The worst part?
A: Hands down it’s the commute. I’ve gone from rolling out of bed and into my home office, to slogging through a 30–60 minute drive each way. I can work from home, but it’s often just easier to be in the office. I listen to a lot of books on tape, which, thank god for books on tape, or I’d be a totally rageful driver. I do my best to be zen about it, but it’s for sure a drag to spend so much time in the car.
Q: When will you work with Molly again?
A: In my head, I still work with Molly. We collaborated on everything we did for six years at MWS, so I think there will always be a little piece of my brain that operates on a WWMD (what would Molly do?) basis. And I jump on any chance to actually work together again–I’m always available to come on board for special MWS projects
It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.
The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.
Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.
So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.
As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future.
But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.
My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.
The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory.
The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance.
It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.
Although transcription is frequently viewed as a tool for reporters and journalists, thinkers, writers, and professionals of all kinds can benefit from integrating transcription methods into their production practices. For thinkers, writers, and professionals, a transcription habit creates an accurate record of conversations, interviews, presentations, and (perhaps) podcast-inspired soliloquies. The resulting archive stabilizes moments otherwise […]
You may not be in the market for a book cover, but we’re all—surely—in the market for inspiration. You’ll find it at the Book Cover Archive, “for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design.” There, you might marvel at how delightfully disparate design can be: Or, browse its links to consider the […]
This post it not a how-to. No primer, no matter how comprehensive, can teach the know-it-when-you-see-it quality that catapults an everyday shelf-piece into the realm of book art. The Peter Mendelsund-designed Ulysses (as well as Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), provides a startlingly effective illustration. Here is style and savvy […]