December 30, 2018

Woodcut from Passionate Journey (1919) by Frans Masereel (Dover Publications)

Hello dear readers, thinkers, seekers and imaginers,

I write this on December 21, the winter solstice, a time that marks the return of the sun after the longest night of the year. The ancients honored the day with revelry, rituals, and plenty of fermented brew. Solstice signaled a new beginning, the onset of winter, but also the eventual return of the light. As I write, I am trying to embrace a feeling of rejoicing and renewal. Here in Madison, twilight has reigned since seven this morning. The December day is overcast, gray defining my mood, the mood of the country, the mood of the world.

Next year. The words sound ominous as 2019 approaches. A sense of dread hangs in the air. Which is why, contrarily, I feel ever more called to name and celebrate the good, and to send out warm tidings to the widest circle of friends. I have never met some of you, or met you briefly at book signings or readings, and some of you are old friends, but if you’re on this mailing list, our lives have touched. Given the odds of that happening between any two people, it’s enough for me to remember you are there and to wish you deep good health, peace, and contentment.

Books, too, have been the best of friends. Lately, I’ve been drawn to a group of central European writers whose work brims with an ironic absurdist sensibility that describes individual lives caught in the great upheavals of history. They were born at least a generation after the Second World War but write about the surreal, chaotic and shifting world of that time. I need this kind of fiction.

I need these books to understand that what’s occurring in this country has precedent, that regimes, shared cultural values, and revered institutions disappear, sometimes overnight, leaving people dazed, helpless, terrified, displaced. How many times over the last year have I sat up in bed and wondered: How can this be happening? Is this really happening? What next?

In Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, House of Day, House of Night, the narrator’s town was once part of Poland, once belonged to Prussia, and at another time, Czechoslovakia. The village named Eisnsiedler becomes Pietno, the stone houses of the fleeing Germans are inhabited by Poles who find machines in the barns, their very cutlery in drawers, peculiar and strange. Tokarczuk, who just won the Man Booker Prize for her latest novel Flights, presents a slippery, dreamlike world that has broken loose from the laws of the rational, and yet somehow still exists within the ordinary—people going about their daily business, frying up mushrooms, gossiping, drinking vodka and watching the stars. It’s exactly the juxtaposition of the real and the surreal, the mundane and the shocking, that is uncomfortably familiar. I can relate! Some days I feel I’m living in a world I no longer recognize.Small wonder my most recent blog posts for Psychology Today were about anxiety and depression.

Tokarczuk’s fiction, Jenny Erphenbeck’s novels, the work of Imre Kertész, specifically his book, Fatelessness, these underscore my own sense of unease and jeopardy. In an interview, Kertész quotes Primo Levi’s own account of Auschwitz. In a shed awaiting his fate, Levi tries to quench his thirst by breaking off an icicle. A guard brutally stops him. Levi asks, Warum? Why? The guard answers with what must be one of the most terrifying lines in literature: “There is no why here.”

Please forgive the gloomy tone of this letter. Luckily, I’ve been rescued by one of my own characters, Mr. Tabachnik, the moral compass in my novel The Conditions of Love. After listening to a sorrowful opera with twelve-year-old Eunice, he tells her: “Terrible things happen to people, but from the terrible, beautiful can come.” I believe that. Out of the terrible, the beautiful can be born.

On that happy note, and speaking of international voices, Loralee Scott, founder and director of Seeing Red, a Jungian-oriented organization, recently wrote to ask me to become a contributor. Seeing Red is dedicated to helping women nationally and internationally. In March, Loralee will conduct a Q&A with me, and later in 2019, I hope to teach a webinar for the program. Information on dates and topics to come.

Also in March, the anthology Strange Attractors: Lives Changed by Chance will be out from The University of Massachusetts Press. This is a wonderful new collection of pieces that explore the theme “inevitable occurrences that arise out of chaos.” I was honored to be asked to be one of its 35 contributors. I chose to explore my lifelong fascination—or perhaps it’s more an obsession—with Mary Magdalene, a curious fixation for an impressionable young Jewish girl, no? Some of the other pieces are pretty wild. And for a limited time, friends of the contributors can use the code S714 to pre-order the book and get 30% off the price and free shipping! You can read more about what’s in the book and pre-order it .

In closing, gratitude for our continued connection. May you be visited by the spirits of wisdom and deep joy.