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I keep meaning to mention that Best American Travel Writing 2015 is out and, as promised, it includes my short NYT Mag essay, “A Doubter in the Holy Land.” I’ve been reading my way through the collection and finding so many great things I missed when they were published last year, including Rachael Maddux’s “Hail Daton.”
After I hand in a rough-rough draft of my current book chapter, I’m planning to start on the one that’s most related to the Lives essay. I’ve been reading widely for months in preparation, and I’ll also go back and reread everything linked from my 2014 Begats post on whether faith “has a genetic basis.”
It’s strange to talk to friends, especially old friends, about meditation, even when they ask about it. It’s been so helpful to me, and I’m glad to share my experience when it might help someone else, but I’m also by nature averse to proselytizing. I really don’t ever want to hearken back to the fundamentalist kid me on church outings in public parks, interrupting happy picnics to hand people Jack Chick tracts about how their life is all wrong.
And also, there’s a part of me that still feels answerable to the person I have seen myself as being most of my life, the person attached to pessimism and cynicism and depression and to, on occasion, throwing my entire self, directing all of my energy and passion, into raging against injustice. I have conversations with that person in my head all the time. Which is complicated, because that person was a product of a lot of influences and experiences. That person was inconsistent and always changing, too.
Buddhism (that’s the path I’ve been heading down, after a lifetime of secretly feeling scornful of Westerners who called themselves Buddhist) holds that there is no such thing as a cohesive self, that second to second we are in flux, always transforming, and that if we allow ourselves to observe our thoughts and feelings in meditation without being caught up in them we can see how illusory our sense of a fixed identity really is. We can see how our narratives about ourselves and life and other people are actually much more complicated (and in my case, much more embarrassing and immature) than we think they are.
For me, in the moment, meditation is usually the opposite of bliss. The kind I do doesn’t focus on clearing the mind but on letting the thoughts and feelings be there without following them, letting them exist while returning over and over again to my breath. Sitting with myself like this can be and often is excruciatingly uncomfortable, but cumulatively it makes me feel better: less anxious, less depressed, less manic, less detached, and less angry, though at any given time I might be experiencing all of these things. My practice is especially valuable to me right now, after the loss of my friend Nelson and with many people I Iove going through very hard stuff.
Pema Chödrön writes of difficult feelings — and joyous feelings — as clouds overhead. They’re there, and they affect us, and there’s no point in chasing them as they move through our lives, and there’s no point in fighting them or trying to push them away, either. They’re ever-present and inevitable as the weather. It feels better when we accept that, is the idea. It feels better when we see our feelings for what they are, when we know them intimately and embrace the whole confusing swirl.
One of my favorite parts of my favorite book of hers, Start Where You Are, talks about how the beginner to meditation wants to master everything at once, wants to change immediately and irrevocably into a better self. But, she says, “the truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soft up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get to it or capture it. It happens by letting go.”
Something that made me sad, then happy, then sad after my friend Nelson died was finding our email exchange about how he wanted to start writing again.
And thank you for thinking me a writer, or at least having the seed — I know that having the chops requires craft. And craft requires time, sweat and not a little bit of Jameson’s. I thought about what you said, though. Maybe essays would be a start; the idea of writing the great American novel is outside both my ability and my reality. I am starting to think that reading email for a living has reduced my attention span a bit too much for that level of dedication. Sad, that. But words will always fascinate and entertain me, so if they find a way to come out in a way that someone else would enjoy — that would be something. Thankfully, some of them entertained you enough that summer to call me in the first place.
He sent this soon after the last time we saw each other in New York, in November 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy. I remember being so glad he was thinking this way. The letters he wrote to me while he was in the army — I’ve written about that era a fewtimes — were a joy. I hoped he’d find his way back to the page.
Nelson and I first got to know each other in a high school writing class — the one I took my senior year that also led me to my friend Lili, who died ten years ago of pancreatic cancer, and to our teacher, Mrs. Kjos, who died of ovarian cancer in 2008. I guess this is what being in your forties is like.
Last night I dreamed that I was reading a collection of short stories Nelson had written, a book he self-published knowing he would die soon. In the dream he was still alive. Waking up this morning was the most bittersweet thing.
“The Brooklyn artist Maximus Clarke addresses a surveillance society in ‘Render,’ three panels with human figures that have to be viewed through 3-D glasses — and, in keeping with the theme, park rangers will be milling around.”
Nelson Almeyda, one of my best friends, died today after living with cancer for more than a year. He was one of the most big-hearted people I’ve known, one of the funniest, sharpest, most expressive and most beloved, and also one of the most private. He was in fact so private about his troubles, so invested in being the one who helped other people and not needing help himself, that even now it almost feels like a violation to be posting this here.
My thoughts are with his wife and young daughter, and the rest of his family, and also with all his many friends, particularly those who were with him at the end. If you’re Googling around, bereft, because you knew him and cared about him, please rest assured he cared about you too, no matter how long it’s been since you were in touch.
In surface ways Nelson and I didn’t have much in common. We had extremely different temperaments and few shared interests or friends, and only one of us was an irredeemable nerd, and it wasn’t him. But there was always an intuitive understanding between us, a sort of emotional affinity that I’ve had with very few people.
As Max says, there aren’t enough people like Nelson in the world. I will love and miss him always.
There’s something beautiful about grieving on the internet, all of us offering up our losses to each other, hoping to be touched and understood by each other when we’re at our lowest and most vulnerable, and there’s also something strange about expressing grief here. No matter how true and deep our sadness, when we offer it up online, it can get confusing. It can feel less real, but also more final.
My heart is heavy with sadness and love, for an old friend and his family, and for all of us.
Writing so much about my early life recently has brought back a slew of memories, and with them some of the first poems I memorized at school. I taught this one, by Jessica Nelson North, to Autumn when she was a girl, and she loved it.
I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three.
‘Twas very small—
Three guests in all—
Just I, myself and me.
Myself ate all the sandwiches,
While I drank up the tea;
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.
I haven’t thought much about the other that’s been knocking around in my head — Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing” — since I learned it way back when. Now I can’t wait to teach them to my niece (three) and nephews (both four) the next time I visit.
Also, to try to describe a swing with a view of “Rivers and trees and cattle and all / Over the countryside” — an exotic thing to imagine even when I was young.
My mom was something like a mommy-blogger, in 1973. From the time I was two to two-and-a-half, she wrote these astoundingly detailed letters about our lives and me and Miami, typed them up in quintuplicate, and mailed them to the whole family. I have multiple copies of some of them.
They’re an amazing resource for my book, and they prove, as she’s always claimed and I’ve doubted, that I was talking in complete sentences when I turned two. Apparently I was also always concerned with remembering everything that happened.
On the one hand the letters make me happy, because I can verrrry hazily remember some of what she describes, and because they’re so full of pride and love, but they also make me sad, because I can see how lonely she was.
BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging.
It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, and also one of the strangest. It’s very much keeping with the forward-looking aspects of the book I’m working on. And it has the endorsements of a whole lotta Orphan Blackers, including, Tatiana Maslany, Graeme Manson, and Herter herself, which makes me happy.
On June 6, I’ll be speaking at the Global Family Reunion about my family, my interest in genealogy, ancestry, genetics, and the things we know and stories we tell ourselves about inheritance, and how my fascination with all of this became the book I’m writing. My talk will be at 3:30 p.m.
The reunion, brainchild of AJ Jacobs, also features Jacobs, Henry Louis Gates, CeCe Moore, George Church, Daniel Radcliffe, Lisa Loeb, and many others, and is a full day of events held on the old World’s Fair grounds in Queens. Everyone’s invited.
I just learned that my Lives essay, “A Doubter in the Holy Land,” will be included in Best American Travel Writing 2015. The guest editor is Andrew McCarthy. Thank you for choosing my essay, Andrew McCarthy!
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
Although technology is changing the way we discover our personal histories, the reasons why people may begin to investigate in the first place have stayed the same. Curiosity, of course, but also a sense of history. Maud Newton told the audience how her interest in her family tree was sparked by the improbable stories her mother told about their predecessors. But the importance of ancestry cut very close for Newton. “I myself was basically a eugenics project,” she said. “My parents married because they thought they would have smart children together, not because they loved each other.” Her father was particularly obsessed with the idea of purity of blood, she added. “Someone suggested to me that there might be something [my father] was hiding, and then I got really interested.”
We had lots of fun; I don’t think any of us were ready for the panel to end when it did, and how often can you say that? The audio is below Bogle’s summary, if you’d like to listen.
A longtime reader wrote to ask if everything’s okay. He was concerned because I post here so rarely.
Everything is okay! My stepdaughter, Autumn, turned twenty-one! Often I still think of her as the little waving girl in the photo above. But she is an astounding young woman, a clear and compassionate thinker, a poet, a gift, my only child. Also, my goddaughter and her mom moved away. I miss them tons. And my cats died, a few months apart. Oof, as my friend Carrie says. That was sad.
Right now there’s a blizzard outside. I’m drinking water and tea and working on my book, which is usually what I’m doing, unless I haven’t refilled the water and tea recently.
The manuscript is due in 2016, and I asked for regular installment deadlines with my editor to keep myself on task, and I’m so busy writing that I actually got excited when an app I use to keep myself from wasting time online malfunctioned for a few weeks. It cut off my access to half the Internet, including this very site. I’m also working on a related profile-essay thing that’s taking me a long time to finish to my satisfaction, and I’m very excited about it. And I’ve been doing a lot of weird, wide-rangingreading, which I’m sure will all be reflected in my book, if you’ve missed my meandering fixations.
I’ve always been interested in the ways writers think about family history—and especially about echoes, or the lack thereof, through the generations—if they do, as they work. I’m grateful to Tin House for allowing me to indulge this curiosity in a new series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry. First up, Christopher Beha:
Maud Newton: When we first met to talk about the essay I eventually ended up writing for Harper’s, you mentioned an ancestral house upstate where your family spends time every summer. Do you think visiting that old homestead has influenced your thinking about ancestry?
Christopher Beha: Without a doubt. The house was built by the first Behas of my line to come to America from Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They farmed for a couple of generations on land my family still owns, and members of the family continued to spend a lot of time there after my great-great grandmother moved the family down to New York City. So there’s a lot of family history there. There are still some Behas living in the area (though they pronounce the name differently than my family does), and there is a Beha Road not far from the house. I can walk a mile down the road to the churchyard and see the graves of Matthias and Theresa Beha, my great-great-great grandparents, who brought their family over 150 years ago. All of this has influenced my sense of ancestry as something that is still present in my world, even if it is often invisible.
The rest is here. Future interview subjects will include Laila Lalami, Emily Mandel, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Katherine Faw Morris.
Just about every week for more than two and a half years, I’ve contributed a tiny column about the meeting of history and the present day to the New York Times Magazine’s “One Page Magazine.” The constraints have been considerable — I usually operate in sixty to eighty words, or thereabouts, subject to the vagaries of column breaks and dictates of the stylebook — but within them my freedom has been enormous. When Jon Kelly invited me aboard in the fall of 2012, he said I could write about anything I chose, and he was true to his word. I was sometimes asked to give my draft a second pass, but my subject, no matter how idiosyncratic or obscure, was never vetoed.
Since then I’ve mentioned essays from many of my favorite literary magazines (including Tin House, A Public Space, the Paris Review, and Granta), cultural websites (such as the Awl, the Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books), regional magazines (including two longtime favorites, Oxford American and Texas Monthly), and many, many books and writers, from the well-known to the, in today’s parlance, emerging. I’ve written about language and religion and sex and depression — all favorite subjects — and about Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Muriel Spark, Ford Madox Ford, Helen Oyeyemi, Catherine Chung, Jeet Thayil, Muriel Spark, Zora Neale Hurston, Daphne Du Maurier, Sherlock,The Sandbaggers, and Doctor Who. Never once has the first person intruded, except in quotes from someone else or the occasional 6th Floor post.
It’s been an honor and a lot of fun to appear in the magazine so regularly, but I’m regretfully taking my leave of the page after yesterday’s issue to work on my book about the science and superstition of ancestry. Huge thanks to the magazine for having me aboard, and to everyone who’s followed my wide-ranging interests there all this time. My last column is about Elizabeth Bachner’s “How to Shake Hands With a Murderer,” from Spuyten Duyvil’s Wreckage of Reason II.
With this shift, I’m officially, formally, indefinitely and probably permanently retired from anything like regular writing about books. (I need all my brainpower for my own work, and I respectfully ask that everyone please, please, please discontinue sending unsolicited packages to me.)
I have to say, it feels wonderful to be reading novels, when I can find the time for novels, as a civilian again. The three new works of fiction I’ve loved most recently are Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments. All are suspenseful, philosophical but not ponderous, and gorgeously written, and all are books that might make you miss your stop on the train. I’m also reading Montaigne, and tons of books on heredity, and I’m re-reading Rebecca Skloot’s outstanding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
A friend and I were beginning that strange dance of making plans to make plans, when I mentioned that I’d be traveling to Jerusalem soon. “We should get together right away,” he joked, “before you come down with Messiah syndrome.” It was the kind of precision-targeted crack only an old friend can manage. I can’t remember whether I laughed or winced first.
When I was young, my mother had a feverish conversion and started a church in our living room. I’d always been a tiny bit anxious that I might one day follow suit, hear the calling myself, start roaming the streets, preaching salvation. A committed but fearful agnostic, I’d never intended to tempt fate by visiting the Holy Land. But I was going to the Jerusalem Book Fair, and my husband, Max, who grew up in the comparatively staid Eastern Orthodox tradition, was joining me.
My new site, The Begats, obsesses over ancestry miscellany of all kinds: genealogical, historical, cultural, scientific, religious, superstitious, personal. If you’re into this kind of nerdery, submit stuff!
And if you’re curious about my own family history, I wrote a lot of posts about my research back in the day, starting here.
Friends and readers who connected with me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have been posting photos of the cover, and every time I see one it gives me a thrill. You can subscribe to read the article online, download the app to buy the issue, or pick it up on newsstands on May 21, which is my birthday.
I’ll be talking about the piece and my interest in ancestry more generally at Lauren Cerand’s Cafe Society on June 6. Details are in her Tiny Letter, if you’re interested.
You can also follow my continuing obsession with the subject — a sort of miscellany clipboard for the book I’m writing — at The Begats.
I’m ecstatic to announce that Andrea Walker of Random House has acquired my forthcoming book on the science and superstition of ancestry, a subject that has obsessed me for years because of my own family and also because of the way it obsesses the culture at large. While writing my new story for Harper’s, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” I realized that it was mounting — and over the years had been mounting — into a much bigger project.
Here’s the announcement: “Random House will publish writer and critic Maud Newton’s first book, an examination of her obsession with genealogy and her own colorful family history, along with the science and superstition of ancestry in the culture at large. Newton’s essay, ‘America’s Ancestry Craze,’ is the cover story for the current issue of Harper’s magazine. This interdisciplinary study will draw on memoir, reporting, cultural criticism, scientific and anthropological research to understand the fear and fascination behind genealogy, and why it has become the second most popular hobby in the United States. Newton began blogging about books and culture in 2002; within a few years her site was one of the most widely praised and quoted in the industry, and she began writing for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others. Random House senior editor Andrea Walker pre-empted North American rights from Julie Barer at Barer Literary.”
Andrea and I first met while she was at the New Yorker, after she wrote nice things about a novel excerpt of mine that Narrative published, and since then I’ve followed her career with admiration and excitement. I’m thrilled to be working with her and the rest of the Random House team! And now you know what I’ll be doing for the next couple years.
In a letter I wrote last year for The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail I mentioned that for a long time my approach to writing fiction was a little bit like strangling myself while trying to sing.
I finished writing the letter just as I was beginning the essay that’s just out in Harper’s, and a lot of what I said in it about spontaneity, truth, and excitement in writing stayed on my mind during the many, many months I was holed up in my apartment working on the piece.
As I really begin to delve into my book, I thought I’d post it here, both for myself and for anyone else who might like to see it.
Ancestry is a fundamental perplexity of life. We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, but we are separate beings. We begin with the sperm of one man and the egg of one woman, and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.
Beyond all that’s encoded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—our hair, eyes, and skin of a certain shade, our frame and stature, our sensitivity to bitter tastes—we are bundles of opinions and ambitions, of shortcomings and talents. The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve.
The June issue of Harper’s – with my essay on America’s (and my) ancestry obsession — will be available on newsstands for about the next two to three weeks, if you were planning to pick up a copy. The paragraphs quoted above are a teeny excerpt.