Review of Behold America

Behold America by Sarah Churchwell, Published by Perseus Books on 9 October 2018

I received a free egalley of this title for review via NetGalley.

This book is so my jam. I have a Master’s in History. At my first committee meeting, one of the members asked for a list of every history class I had taken. Upon furnishing the list, he told me I needed to venture out of the 20th century. I sadly did so in my remaining semesters. BUT I love 20th century American history. I keep returning to it. I think the century is rich in topics to study. I think that this is a great topic because of how timely it is.

The subtitle of this book is “The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream.'” Two phrases that are thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras nowadays. Churchwell examines the origins of these phrases and how they have changed meaning over time as different groups have adopted them and used them. Spoiler–today their usage bears little resemblance to their initial meaning. The concept of “America first” has historically been tied to white nationalist groups. The “American dream” initially had little to do with personal, individual prosperity, but focused on the ability to live a more generous life. Churchwell traces these changes in meaning from their earliest usages in the Gilded Age up through today.

Churchwell takes the perfect approach in her study. She uses the words of ordinary people as opposed to the words of politicians or writers, which better highlights the widespread understanding and meaning of these phrases over time. Their meaning for ordinary people shows why they are used by politicians. Politicians use phrases that either prey on the fears of their followers or inspire them to action. For me, this approach helps make the connection of why politicians keep turning to these phrases. This use of primary source material creates a much stronger basis for her arguments.

Her writing is extremely accessible. I hate wading through incredibly dense histories. Fortunately, though a heavy topic, Churchwell wrote about it in an engaging way. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history or likes reading about current events. I appreciate how she kept tying together the parallels between the past and current events. In order to create a better future for the country, we have to know where we came from.

Bottom line–I really enjoyed this book. It’s the kind of history book I enjoy reading. It’s the kind of history book I went to grad school to write. It’s very informative and it’s very timely. Read it.

Capsule Wardrobe

I have been striving for more simplicity in my life. Cut out all of the excess. Focus in on the basics. Though I work from home, I make it a point to put on “real” clothes each day, instead of just wearing yoga pants all the time. I do this because I feel like it tells my brain to take my work seriously and because I’ve discovered that I get depressed if I spend too much time in lounge clothes.

A while back, I found an article in the Washington Post how much easier life is with a capsule wardrobe. I recognize this to be true. I find myself wearing the same items time and again. Only occasionally will I pull out that one shirt or that one skirt, so why not just get rid of it? Even more interesting to me were the statistics about clothing waste in the United States. I would highly recommend reading this article if you are at all interested.

I spent the past few days researching capsule wardrobes. I finally created a master list and edited my closet almost entirely down to it. My closet could still use a bit of work. I have a few more tops and dresses than are on the list. But I got rid of the ones that I just don’t wear except once in a blue moon. I was able to donate two trash bags full of clothes, shoes, and hangers this afternoon and this was after I donated a couple of trash bags full of clothes over the summer. One of my under bed storage containers is maybe half full of summer stuff. (The other one has clothes that don’t fit, that I’m just not ready to give up on)

There are some items on this list that I need to buy. But I’m not going to just rush out and buy the first one I see. I want to buy a quality piece that will last for a while. Since these are all basics, there is no reason that an item would be out of fashion by the next year. There are even some things on this list that I don’t have that I’m really questioning getting, like a black skirt. I already have a black pencil skirt. Do I need another black skirt?

Tops

  • Black V-Neck Sweater
  • Basic T-Shirts—White, Black, Gray, Navy, Striped
  • Long Sleeved Blouse
  • White Button-Up
  • Blue Button-Up
  • White Sleeveless Blouse
  • Black Blazer
  • Blue Blazer
  • Striped Top
  • Denim Chambray Top
  • Tunic Sweater
  • Cardigans
  • Poncho
  • 2 Dressy Tops
  • 2 Dressy Tank
  • Long Sleeved Tops

Bottoms

  • Gray Trousers
  • Black Trousers
  • Navy Skirt
  • Black Skirt
  • Pencil Skirt
  • A-Line Skirt
  • Dark Wash Jeans
  • Skinny Black Pants
  • Cigarette Pants
  • Jumpsuits–Black, Blue, and Dressy
  • White Shorts
  • Denim Shorts
  • Black Shorts
  • Maxi Skirt

Dresses

  • Black Dress
  • Maxi Dress
  • Lazy Weekend Dress
  • Shirt Dress
  • Wrap Dress

Outerwear

  • Trench Coat
  • Overcoat
  • Rain Jacket
  • Safari Jacket
  • Denim Jacket

The idea is that you keep your accessories on trend. I tend to keep my accessories (scarves, purses, etc.) pretty basic and high quality as well.

Closet Pic

I feel like I can really see what’s in my closet (Steve’s stuff is in the bottom right; I didn’t touch his stuff). I know that all of my pieces go with each other. There is a unified style exhibited, instead of things being all over the map. I know that I can confidently dress for any occasion that life throws at me.

I found a blog and some articles about minimalism, so I’m beginning to process that information and will make some changes around the rest of the house. And maybe even refine my closet a bit more.

Book Stacks

One of my favorite things to do is pull out a stack of books I’d like to read in an upcoming month. There is so much intention, so many possibilities. However, because once I am locked into reading a particular book, it’s the last book I want to read, these stacks are more symbolic than anything. Indicative of a particular mood. Yet another good intention on the road to hell.

Here is my October stack:

October Book Stack

I began this stack yesterday. I initially included The Master and Margarita and A Tale of Two Cities. I made the decision to put them back. This morning I completed the stack with a couple of other additions.

During my daily writing yesterday, I engaged in the exercise of analyzing my choices. Was there a common theme? I think there were a few themes.

The Air You Breathe (Peebles) deals with an intense female friendship. Secrets of the Flesh (Thurman) is a biography of Colette. The Complete Claudine (Colette) details the growing up of a French girl. My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Moshfegh) is about a woman literally escaping from her life. You Think It, I’ll Say It (Sittenfeld) is a collection of stories about characters in awkward situations. Changing My Mind (Smith) is a collection of essays that detail the evolution of Zadie Smith. Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories (Beattie) are mostly about the Baby Boomers and how they are a generation at war with itself. Not pictured is The Age of Innocence (Wharton), which I have already read, but am going to re-read, and I think highlights the different rules for men and women in society.

As I look through these very brief, very basic synopses, I feel like there are a couple of books that–to me–respond to the current news cycle. The news right now is saturated with examples of different rules for men and women and generational politics. I think that’s why I selected Wharton and Beattie. Also, the Peebles would fall under this because female relationships are so important right now. The remaining books dovetail with my inner workings. I feel like I am in a period of change and growth right now, so reading about development through a biography, novellas, and essays is why the Thurman, Colette, and Smith books would be appealing. (I bought the Thurman and Colette books 10 years ago either just before or just after my 21st birthday. As I turn 31 in November, it seemed like a good time to finally finish them) Another part of growth is the awkwardness, hence the Sittenfeld. Lastly, my current impulse is to avoid all social situations as much as possible. I just want to hibernate. I want to be alone with my lover, my books, and my writing as much as possible, so I want to read about how Moshfegh’s character avoids the real world for a year. I’m not going to do it through medications, but I can certainly understand the desire to shut out the outside world.

Another throwback to 10 years ago . . . around this time, I bought The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, WHICH I NEVER FINISHED. I feel as though I can trace thousands of collars in book purchases languishing on my shelves (or being already donated without ever being opened) to this one book. I want to read it this month and exorcize my demons. It is the only male author on my list (and is not included in the picture). I want to read it solely because I feel like it will end something that needs to be ended. Weird, I know.

Fall

autumn autumn leaves branch color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

For many years, when asked, I’ve said my favorite season is summer. “Bring on the heat!” I say. I think my favorite part about the summer is those sultry nights. I always envision the heat, the humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife, a tall gin and tonic, sweat beading on the sides of the glass. I love that scene!

This year was different.

Summer was not my favorite. Summer was a long, slow boil that eventually bubbled over. I just couldn’t take it–it being so many things–any longer. I’ve already detailed the changes I’ve made and indicated a desire for more changes.

Perhaps because this is my first year not being a student, but I have been eyeing fall as a new start.

I feel as though all summer I got burnt up, like leaves on a tree, and now I am ready to shed all of these old, dead appendages. I am ready to stand with nothing, to turn inward and hibernate during the cold months, then bloom beautifully in the spring.

This concept of turning inward has been more and more on my mind. I’ve found myself ignoring my voice, of wanting to not be too much in my own head. Some of it (much of it?) I think stems from being home all day, not getting much human interaction.

As a reader, I have been gravitating towards books of inner journeys, both fiction and non-fiction. Seeing how others–albeit fictional characters–deal with different seasons of life, how people have shed that which no longer serves and found what does, or merely how people have survived less than desirable circumstances.

My hope for myself this fall is to spend more time cultivating that voice and less time listening to the outside world. This could take many forms–I am excited to see which one(s) it takes.

The Cycle Repeats

My life has taken on an absurd whirlwind of insanity. I have prospered in some areas, declined in others, and backslid out of prosperity. Periods of intense satisfaction and the belief that things are back on track (or on track to be back on track) are punctuated by moments of paralysis and second-guessing. This has led to inactivity–a very disappointing state considering the promise and optimism I had so recently felt.

The cycle repeats.

Nothing has truly brought me out of it.

However, I have found some things I can do to help me feel less bad. (That’s really the point, isn’t it? To feel less bad. Once I feel less bad for a while, I’ll focus on feeling good)

Back in middle school, I discovered a local radio station that had Big Band Saturday Night, weekly from 9:00 until midnight. I loved the music. I’d turn on the radio as I fell asleep. The music was relaxing. It spurred a deep love for mid-20th century history and culture.

In the summer before high school, my mom and I (and her friend and her friend’s kids) went on a trip to Orlando. We stayed at a hotel evoking the island-hopping culture in the South Pacific. The lobby played big band music. The decor was so quaintly mid-20th century. Ten-ish years later, I went back to this hotel for another trip with my mom. Both of those visits, just being in the lobby and having that music filling the air took me somewhere deep inside myself. Perhaps tapping into a past life.

All of that to say–the Big Band music channel on our satellite offerings has become a constant companion during the days while Steve is gone. Something about it takes me outside of myself in a most wonderful way.

It doesn’t get words on the page, but it helps lift me out of a setting I do not want to be in. It’s a start.

Secondly, I have been taking pride in my house. One afternoon, I went on a tear and deep-cleaned the house. For the next few weeks, I diligently stuck to my self-imposed cleaning schedule. It’s unfortunately gone to shit since my grandma’s shoulder surgery–more on that later–but I’m fighting back.

I feel much better having my surroundings organized and tidy. I can actually relax when it is time to relax instead of having the mess constantly hum beneath the surface. The prospect of someone just dropping by is less stressful because the house won’t be in a shambles. (Though any intrusion on my seclusion is still unwelcome)

I still have much work to do to truly curate the items in our house. But I am feeling better by taking control of the mess I had allowed to accumulate throughout law school, bar prep, and my dark days of spring and summer.

I hate how backwardly housewife-y it sounds, but I loved the days I would turn on music, clean, and make myself feel presentable so that I could greet Steve at the end of the workday with a smile. (Note–I did these things for ME and according to MY standards; there was zero expectation on his part. He’s actually expressed a preference for my yoga pants.) I learned that part of taking pride–for me–is actually getting dressed and putting on a touch of makeup. I don’t feel good wearing yoga pants for  long periods of time. It’s a psychological thing for me. I need to put on real clothes.

What meager success I have made has been made complicated by my grandmother’s shoulder surgery. My mom has been in town most of the past 3 weeks, just sitting with my grandma as she recuperates in rehab. I keep getting guilted into going to the hospital or to run and do this errand. In short–many demands on my time with little notice, no ability to plan. This makes mornings, my peak productive time, unproductive. Even if I am not bothered, I can’t concentrate because I feel like I am about to be bothered.

So many ideas course through my head, but getting them down before being lost to another distraction–either real or self-created–is an impossible feat.

But still I truck on, in the hopes of one day attaining that lifestyle I so desperately wish for.

Step One

After some research, I’ve discovered the first step to living a better life is making life a more formal occasion through selectivity and ritual.

The idea is pretty simple, but also pretty radical. It takes reminding yourself that you are worth it, that you do deserve it.

What does it mean?

Using your best–plates, cloth napkins, putting food in serving dishes, wearing your nice clothes, looking presentable, etc. A couple of weeks ago, I made a roasted chicken, potatoes, and spinach. I set the table, I put the food on/in serving dishes. I kept a centerpiece leftover from a reception that I had for work. I was in a shit mood during the meal for other reasons, but it was nice. I was glad I went to the effort, even if it meant more dishes to clean. My family and I are worth it. Similarly, while yoga pants are quite comfortable, I don’t feel good about myself when I wear them for extended periods of time. I don’t take what I do as seriously either. So I’ve been trying to truly get dressed each day. I’m more productive then.

Dressing the part— This calls for self-reflection: what is your personal style? what do you feel best in? what do you feel most you in? Then you weed out your closet. Get rid of things that are no longer you, things that don’t fit, and even pull out things that aren’t in season because they cloud the landscape. I’ve seen articles about capsule wardrobes where you whittle your clothes down to 10 or 15 pieces. This doesn’t include layering pieces (cardigans, tanks, plain tees), accessories (scarves or jewelry), or occasion-wear (that fancy LBD). Then you rotate for the seasons. I don’t think I could do 10 or 15 items. But this past weekend I filled two trashbags of stuff to donate. I bought two underbed storage containers–one for out of season clothes and one for clothes that don’t fit, but that I sincerely hope might fit again. I pulled out t-shirts with images on them because I feel like I’m in my late teens or early 20s when I wear them and I am definitely not in my teens or early 20s any longer. I’m going to make a blanket with them so that it’s not a total loss. I would like to continue to hack away at my wardrobe and get rid of more things and maybe actually get down to 10 or 15 items. Or 20.

My closet seems happier now. It’s less crowded and more focused. The remaining pieces serve me instead of confusing and frustrating me because they don’t work with my life. The purge was much easier than expected, so I know I did the right thing. And I was able to shift around some of Steve’s clothes, so his closet space is less crowded as well. Everybody won.

Seeking out the best (within your means)–Everything from food to clothing. My cooking tastes better when I use better ingredients. After learning how to make stovetop popcorn for one, I won’t be going back to bag popcorn. This past weekend was Tax Free Weekend in Oklahoma, where there’s no sales tax on clothing priced under $100 and many stores have amazing deals. I am wanting a black skirt, but there aren’t any high-quality stores in town, so I didn’t even bother looking. I’d rather spend more for a skirt that will last a few years than buy one cheaply made that will last a season.

Creating rituals–Rituals help you slow down and enjoy things that are important to you. I love big band music. It’s great in the background and reminds me of some happy memories. Recently, Steve had to be at work on a Saturday and I just wasn’t ready to get up, but I wasn’t tired enough to fall back asleep. I remembered that there were music channels on our satellite dish. I found a big band music channel AND a classic jazz vocalist channel. Now I’ll drink my coffee and read or write in bed with the music on. Such a nice way to ease into the day! I can also turn on the music in the living room to listen while I cook and eat breakfast and write at our bar. I’m searching for ways to create other rituals for myself.

A big part of this kind of living is slowing down and deciding that you are worth the best. This doesn’t mean becoming a snob who looks down on others and their ways. It has little to nothing to do with other people at all, in my opinion. It’s about service to yourself and (if you live with other people for whom you cook) to those around you. It a kindness.

I’m still in the beginning stages of implementing these new ways, but I like what I’ve seen and experienced so far. It’s made me feel a bit better about things I’m not so happy about.

Bel far niente

The beauty of doing nothing.

The Europeans are much better at this than (I’ll venture to be general) Americans. We must always go, we must always do. And when we don’t, we feel guilty, we fidget.

I attempt this many a weekend morning. I wake up early, Steve sleeps in or otherwise chills in the back bedroom. I make coffee and sit at our bar. I’ll read, I’ll write, I’ll make breakfast, then I’ll read, then I’ll write. Reading and writing are doing something, to be sure, but for me they are more akin to blissfully doing nothing than laboring away at work. Occasionally, I’ll just be sitting there, staring slightly off into space, enjoying the quiet hum of the refrigerator, and I’ll feel compelled to pick up my silly phone and do…something–check email, get on Instagram. In fact, often as I click on email or Instagram, I know I don’t care what is going on. It’s not even a real fear of missing out because I know I won’t miss anything important. It’s an interruption to la bel far niente, plain and simple.

As I struggled with this dilemma yet again this Sunday morning, a shadow of these words came to me, except I couldn’t quite remember them, but I knew there was some phrase about the joy of doing nothing. I was casually reading Bonjour Tristesse when I couldn’t shake it. What were those words exactly?

I made my way to my non-fiction bookshelf, feeling it was Frances Mayes who uttered them. I flipped through the first couple of chapters of Under the Tuscan Sun. No. Not her. I saw Peter Mayle next to her. I knew it wasn’t him (I knew the words were Italian, not French), but remembered fondly his books about France. Ultimately it was Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love who introduced me to the concept.

The idea still remained–Europeans do a better job of living. I want to do a better job of living. I want to strip away the layers of excess and get to the most elemental and basic of living. I want to get rid of the extras, the duplicates, the slight alterations, and have one perfect thing that will more than make do.

I’m on a very tight budget right now. I’m attempting to get my business going, but I must draw a salary to pay for my necessary things, plus a little cushion so that I don’t use my dreaded credit card. I am trying to get my credit card paid completely off so I can cut it up and never use the damn thing again. I rue the day I let my mom convince me that it was a good idea to get one.

I digress.

I remember years ago, I was a nanny during the summer to three spoiled children. Their parents felt guilty about working full-time jobs, so they bought the children countless toys. They’d never clean up. Toys strewn carelessly, thoughtlessly about the play room and the rest of the house. The housekeeper made the comment that if the children had fewer toys, they’d appreciate the toys they did have more.

I let the notion slide into the back recesses of my mind until just now really.

If I had fewer toys, I’d appreciate them more.

If I had fewer clothes, fewer shoes, fewer bags…

If I had fewer kitchen gadgets, less food in the cabinets…

Maybe then I could relax, feel less restless, experience la bel far niente…