There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods, George Gordon Byron

I’m on vacation this week, and this is the piece I’ve been meditating on as we hike and swim and rest our busy minds at the end of this, the darkest month of the year.


There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.


For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, Stephen Collins

I have to admit, I bought this book entirely because of its title. I was looking for Christmas gifts for my brother, and he’s a beard guy. To be clear, he’s not sporting one of those handsome, carefully maintained beards, but rather, a look that shouts “I just wandered out of the deep backwoods.” (I’m positive I’ve seen small twigs and feathers stuck in it before.) We’re part Norwegian too, so although his hair is dark blonde, his beard is as red and thick and gnarly as a viking, and when I saw the illustration on the cover of Collins’ graphic novel, I knew I had to buy it.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of graphic novels. I have nothing against them except that I find the style challenging to read. The combination of art and text often gives me eye strain and a headache, so while I would like to pick up a series (like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example), the impending migraine just isn’t worth it. Collins’ book, however, gave me no trouble at all. I don’t know whether it’s related to how he’s laid out the material or if it’s simply a side benefit of using black and white art instead of color, but I tore through it on the day after Christmas. (I wanted to steal it immediately after my brother opened it, but he selfishly wouldn’t let me, claiming he had rights to the first read. Brothers – so unreasonable!)

The title (and the first few pages I’d read when I purchased it) had led me to believe it would be a comedy, but in fact, I found the story painful and beautiful and sad. Collins is not only a gifted artist but an insightful storyteller, and I was completely captivated from start to finish. I also found myself constantly wondering about the direction he was taking the story. For me, it is a rare treasure to find a book with a relatively simple concept so deftly told that I couldn’t deduce the ending from the halfway point.

By the time I arrived at the end, I only wished to read more, to have a sequel to pick up that might unravel the story that clearly exists after the final page. It’s not that he needs one, but Collins has clearly imagined a whole world for his put-upon protagonist that the reader will never see, but I, for one, am desperate to know more about.


For more about Stephen Collins, head over to his beautiful website.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a review about the second book in Grossman’s Magician trilogy. It was one of those stories that ripped out my heart, mutilated it, then tried to shove it back into my chest in only a rough approximation of where it had originally been. It was that good (or bad, depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it was one of those books I can’t bring myself to reread because it was too painful the first time, even though I often find myself thinking about it and recalling specific lines with a sort of perverse heartbreaking pleasure.

I was fortunate enough to discover the first two books in the trilogy through John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and of course read them back to back. I was surprised to find that the second was my favorite, since in general I find the middle book of a trilogy to be, at best, a placeholder, and at worst, a dull repetition of the first book.

I had two years to dwell on that second volume though, since Grossman didn’t publish his conclusion, The Magician’s Land, until early fall of this year. I thought I would tear right into my pre-ordered copy when it arrived in September, but I found myself putting it off again and again, strangely hesitant to reenter the world he had so lovingly created. I don’t know why I hesitated, but some part of me wasn’t ready. The end of the second book was just…well, I can’t quite explain it, but it stuck with me so deeply that it was nearly impossible to move into the end of the story. Let’s just say that I still get choked up when I think about that book, and reading the third one almost felt like a betrayal of what had come before.

I finally did it though. Christmas break turned out to be a good opportunity, especially given that the third book turned out to be a lot less devastating than the first two (not exactly holiday heart-warmers, I promise you that). I ended up reading it during breaks from family time and in the various airports we had to travel through, and I wonder if that stuttered timeline influenced my perception of the book. Grossman still writes a hell of a compelling story, it didn’t win me over nearly the way the first two did.

The biggest challenge seemed to be that the author himself was having a hard time saying goodbye to his world. It’s something I completely understand, and it actually makes me like Grossman even more than I did before, but it didn’t all come together for quite as powerful a conclusion as aI was expecting. Things were a little too easy for characters he had made suffer in the other books, and while I’m all for them catching a few breaks after everything they’d experienced, I wanted a little more of that pain he writes so beautifully.

I wonder what the experience would have been like if I’d been able to read all three of these volumes back to back. Hopefully, some of you will do it and let me know if I’m completely off-base with my interpretation of the final installment. Grossman is certainly a major talent, and his books are well-worth the emotional investment. Part of my problem is that I can’t tell if I set myself up with unrealistic expectations, or if he really did go a little too easy on his “children” this time around. The plot certainly filled in a lot of fascinating holes left in the first two books, and I enjoyed the story very much – I just did’t have that shot to to the heart reaction I was hoping for.

*As a side note, I do want to mention that these books contain material that may not be suitable for everyone. The second book, in particular, has a triggering scene so violent I still find it disturbing years later. The series is not, in general, overly violent or sexual in nature but I wouldn’t want to recommend these across the board without issuing this as a consideration.


For more about Lev Grossman, head over here.

The Moment, Marie Howe

Happy New Year! Tomorrow I have to drive eight hours, then fly six to get home, so I’m going to enjoy this last day of vacation to its fullest. I hope you’re able to do the same.


The Moment

Oh, the coming out-of-nowhere moment
when,   nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe   half a moment
the rush of traffic stops.
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.