Needless to say, her signature dishes were delicious. Yet it became strange and almost uncomfortable to see her bent over the stove, night after night, in a way that it never was in the past when I’d seen her, bent over the stove, night after night. One dinner, she stood in the kitchen for what seemed like hours, searing small batches of sweet and salty bulgogi beef. I wanted to tell her to sit down, to relax, but instead, I just ate everything she put in front of me.
It has been a full decade since I’ve read a book of my own, singular choosing. What I mean is that every book I’ve cracked open and read in the past ten years has been read because of some friend, colleague, teacher; some review, prize, or list; some class, job, or writing goal dictated that the book was a must-read. The last book I read was a Man Booker finalist, the one before that was written by an old professor of mine, and the one before that had been both on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks and adapted into a movie. The books on my to-read list are just as semi-known, semi-vetted. Don’t misunderstand — I still read widely (in fiction, at least), and I don’t feel constricted by the focus recommended reading gives me. But I also can’t stop thinking of how I used to read. Wildly, haphazardly, with no safety net.
The Holy Ghost was browsing in his or her library
one day in the future, unaccountably bored,
oddly querulous, vaguely wanting something that would be
quietly unfamiliar. “It doesn’t have to be great,”
said the Holy Ghost with the faintest note of exasperation
in his or her voice, “just so long as it has its own special character.”
How do we honor the books we no longer identify with that once felt like the perfect articulation of our being? My strategy for the longest time has been to simply not reread them. But that sort of willful ignorance just doesn’t feel sustainable. There has to be a way to honor what the book once did while still problematizing its contents.
It can be hard, coming out of a three-year MFA program, to look around and realize it was all temporary. Even as I’ve decided to commit to Ann Arbor for one more year, to the apartment I’ve been in for two years, to teaching at the university that bequeathed me my degree, all around me my people are deciding to leave. I don’t feel left behind so much as I feel that my landscape is evaporating, the Ann Arbor I’d signed up for no longer the Ann Arbor that remains.