I retreated for Memorial Day, packing enough food, clothing, and books to last an extended six-day weekend – just me and my thoughts surrounded by lots of allergy-triggering nature. At least that’s how my retreats used to be, until the 21st Century reached my little bit of Nirvana. The three hermitages have all the mod cons, like kitchens and bathrooms, it’s just they had no wifi until this last visit, when the siren call of my notifications going off DING! DING! sucked me in like the techno-whore I am.
I suck at retreats. My attention span is shorter than a sugared-up toddler’s. No, I didn’t turn off ALL my notifications, just some of them. And, yes, I may have doom scrolled Twitter a couple dozen times, but I also posted pics of the books I brought with me. So that’s kind of legit?
Along with pepperoni bagel bites and a couple dozen oatmeal-raisin cookies, of course I brought books, how dare you suggest otherwise. I also brought my journal, and while during all past retreats I droned on about romantic disappointments until my hand cramped and my tears made the ink run (FALSE! I’m not a crier, fuck those guys), I wasn’t mourning either the misery or end of a relationship this time.
Christ, that’s progress!
I’ve been mostly off writing for a couple years. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I decided to formally give myself permission to stop writing. Isn’t that revolutionary and clever? I had never suffered writer’s block before, not ever, and how I loved to gloat about it. Somehow, the effects of the pandemic, coupled with a few hundred pages of scribbled bitching to and about myself, culminated in a complete inability to write a damn thing.
Before you say “hey, scribbled bitching is writing!” I’ll cut you off with “no, it doesn’t qualify.” I’ve told many a struggling writer if they’re stuck they should just write about that experience, because at least it’s something. I was lying; that stuff is absolute shit and you should burn it. Read something! Take a walk!
Nobody likes a complainer.
I never follow through with anything I resolve to do, as a result of examining my shortcomings. Do you know how hot I’d be if I did, and how admired as an intellectual gift to mankind? Those journals could have been cathartic, were I not lazy as hell. I am a squanderer of god-given gifts. It’s what I do. It’s what most people do. So why keep harping on myself about it? I gave myself permission to toss expectations aside – and over the weekend I wrote 115 pages of not-whining.
Why? Because I didn’t have to!
A lot of those words resembled the heavy lifting of book reviewing for publication. It’s a stupid amount of work, and when I’m doing it for a byline I bitch about it. Strangely, when it’s not something I have to do, it’s pure pleasure. You’re right, that doesn’t make sense. But talk to anyone who’s reviewed professionally, who’s written anything professionally, and they’ll say the same. I know because we talk on Twitter, we publicly complain about how people send us free books and then – brace yourselves – they publish what comes out of us because they respect our opinions!
I know! It’s insane we deal with that shit.
Orwell’s Roses wasn’t a review copy, but a Christmas present I gave myself – which is why I spent so much thoughtful time with it. Not quite a bio or work of literary criticism, it’s a little bit of lots of things. George Orwell does loom large, as do roses (go figure) – not just his roses, but roses in general: their symbolism, rose metaphors that have become part of our culture, and the big, brutal business of growing them. I’ll never look at these flowers again without thinking of workers driven slavishly to get them harvested, trimmed, boxed, and flown in dedicated jets with the capacity to refrigerate tons of cargo. Most roses come from Colombia. What you know about Colombia’s track record with expensive crops extends to roses – a bit less murder-y, but roses are a commodity valued over the quality of replaceable human lives.
What ties roses to Orwell? For decades, Rebecca Solnit carried around one dormant seed of knowledge: in 1939, George Orwell planted roses at the cottage he lived in for much of his life, in the village of Wallington in England. Along with a drive to right the wrongs of social injustice, from the Spanish Civil War’s battle against facism to the nighmarish lives of coal miners in England, Orwell loved horticulture. Growing mostly vegetables to sell in the little shop attached to the cottage, in his garden were also flowers and fruit trees. The trees are rotting stumps now, and the roses growing abundantly probably aren’t the ones he planted, but knowing how he prized what he grew stuck in Solnit’s head. Wading through the hundreds of pages of his daily journals, she was intrigued enough to travel halfway around the world to research and write a tremendously informative and fascinating book.
I have to tell you about a word she used that I think is pretty cool: saeculum. She used it to describe the feeling of looking at the roses in Orwell’s garden, and it means time from the moment something happened until the point all the people who’d lived in that moment have died. If you’re into the whole research thing, saeculum evokes a giddy feeling of connectivity with the past. While most people alive when Orwell planted his roses are probably gone, the direct links from herself to the iconic writer felt not so long ago when she was standing in his garden.
Maybe it’s not common, but I’d like to think this level of appreciation for history runs through others. I’ve felt it so many times, both in conjunction with being in the spaces writers used to inhabit and also staring up at the giant sequoias, imagining all the historical events that happened during their existence.
One of the most memorable times I’ve felt this pleasant sensation of discombobulation was in Virginia Woolf’s “Monk’s House,” the last place she lived before walking into the River Ouse (pronounced “Ooze,” which is glorious), committing suicide. I’d made a gift of a note from Virginia’s husband, Leonard Woolf, to a used-to-be friend years ago. Though a Woolf-lover myself, I gave it away as some sort of love token, much as it now annoys me to say. Tucked in a volume of her essays, it was written on stationery printed with the Monk’s House address. The content wasn’t exceptional. It was a response to a reader inquiring as to where she could find a specific piece of his late-wife’s writing. What was incredibly exciting was the purple ink he used – Virginia Woolf’s trademark color.
But it goes further: visiting Monk’s House together, we stopped dead in front of Leonard Woolf’s writing desk – an original piece of furniture in the house. On the desktop was the same stationery as the note, alongside his pens and ink. Leonard Woolf had composed that note at this desk. While you’d think this would have been a perfect moment of romantic connection, five minutes later the man was telling me to get the hell out of his way, because he was taking video of the tour after being expressly told this was forbidden. The bastard literally poked me in the back to make me move.
Like the relationship, the good feeling was short-lived.
Orwell’s Roses alternates between the story of the man’s love of his garden, his short but impressive career, and the interconnectivity between his work and the research it required. And speaking of research, a hell of a lot went into the writing of Solnit’s book. Whenever I wish I’d have become a journalist, it occurs to me the work involved would be utterly exhausting. Younger me wouldn’t have been so daunted. Middle-aged me thinks dear lord, I would never go to Colombia for any amount of money. Wallington, England, sure! Rose farms surrounded by men carrying automatic weapons, not so much. Not that there aren’t automatic weapons a-plenty here, as well, but we try to keep those confined to places I never go – like churches and schools and shopping malls.
Rebecca Solnit wondered at the content of the daily journals Orwell kept, diaries obviously not meant to leave a literary mark. Unlike HD Thoreau, who, Solnit noted, never wrote about just beans without a larger purpose, Orwell did exactly that. Good to know, so I can avoid them. If there’s anything more dull than reading journals about my imperfections, it’s reading about George Orwell’s disappointing turnip harvest.
I’d heartily recommend Orwell’s Roses for an impressive depth of scholarship that’s anything but dry, one skilled journalist’s take on an array of topics she managed to bring together so smoothly I hate her guts for it. I am sick with envy; I may never recover. That’s how I know a book’s pretty damn great.
Thank the gods this is over. Now I can go back to not writing another hundred pages of thoughts on books I’ve read and all the writers I hate. And I’m not proofing this, because I’m a lazy ne’er-do-well. Maybe I’ll look at it tomorrow, so I can agonize over the mistakes.