Kinship & Remembrance in December
I’m sending wishes for winter insight and tenderness with this newsletter, which discusses: poetry, earth kinship, insect alphabets, and trees; some things I’ve recently found interesting or enjoyed or that I’m anticipating; a giveaway of Tanaïs’ forthcoming In Sensorium, along with candles, earrings, and lip oil from their new collection; a starred Kirkus review for Ancestor Trouble; an herbal tea recommendation for remembrance and tough love; and cats eating a thyme plant.
It’s always electrifying to realize that a writer I already love wrote ages ago about concerns that have only now fully taken shape for me. The poet W.S. Merwin, whose work I’ve loved for years, was mulling interconnectedness between humans and our broader kin decades ago, in ways that resonate deeply for me now. Lately I’ve been reading his work as a kind of devotional. A favorite is “After the Alphabets”: “I am trying to decipher the language of insects,” it begins. “They are the tongues of the future.” Another, “To the Insects,” begins like this: “Elders / we have been here so short a time / and we pretend that we have invented memory / we have forgotten what it is like to be you.” I was so excited on discovering these, I fired up ye olde blog.
I’m increasingly interested in earth connection, by which I mean a view of the land and plants and animals as our beyond-human kin, interdependent with us. I’m wondering how to live this conviction in 2021, in a city, in the midst of concrete, amid all the damage we humans continue to do. I’m excited about the Bronx stream, paved over more than a century ago, that’s going to be set free, essentially because the stream insisted on freedom. The Lenape people called the stream Mosholu, in honor of its small, smooth stones.
At Medium recently, I wrote about how my interpretation of the Biblical Garden of Eden story has morphed over the years in keeping with my interest in our beyond-human kin: What Did the Forbidden Tree Want?
Of Note, Enjoyed, or Anticipated
Ancient footprints attributed to a bear in the 1970s may have belonged to an unknown early human ancestor that also walked on two legs.
Ancient DNA shows nations were never static; people always moved around.
And a woman took a DNA test and learned she had at least 50 half-siblings.
Have you seen the trailer (above) for the Station Eleven series adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant novel of the same name? How about the other trailer? The show premiers on HBO December 16 and I’m clearing the decks.
On Instagram, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is imparting some of her knowledge, and sharing the knowledge of smart friends, in a free informal book group, The Nerdy Circle. The first pick is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction. Follow Professor Jeffers at Instagram to catch up.
Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America is out in paperback.
Alexis Coe’s Why Do We Think Mary Lincoln is Crazy?, Coe’s post on the insanity trial instigated by Mary Lincoln’s son because of his political ambitions, and (for her newsletter’s subscribers) a narrative timeline of Mary Lincoln’s life.
Taylor Harris’ This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown is out in January.
Giveaway: In Sensorium, Candles, Earrings, Golden Lip Oil
Scents from the writer and perfumer Tanaïs sustained and inspired me as I worked on Ancestor Trouble. My favorite of their candles is Ancients, aptly described on the Studio Tanaïs site as evoking: “Hikes inside an ancient redwood forest, with evergreen notes of cypress, balsam pine, rosewood and California bay laurel punctuating the cool wetness of dew-soaked ferns and soil. Notes of lavender, geranium absolute and violet leaf evoke the bright green notes of these surreal coasts.”
Tanaïs is a spectacular writer, and I’m looking forward to their second book, In Sensorium: Notes for My People, which is out in February and explores “scent, sensuality, South Asian and Muslim perfume cultures, colonization and its aftermath: the environmental and border crises around the world.” In thanks for the inspiration their candles helped conjure for me, and in hope of sharing some of that inspiration with you, this month’s giveaway includes a pre-ordered copy of Tanaïs’s In Sensorium (ordered from the winner’s independent bookstore of choice), along with several items I’ve purchased from their studio: an Ancients candle tin, a Heart Chakra candle tin, Little Baby Jhumka earrings (from their sold-out jewelry collection), and Mahina Moon lip oil.
To enter, preorder Ancestor Trouble. All preorders, before or after this newsletter, count. Official requests to your library to purchase the book for borrowers count, too. If you’d like a signed or personalized copy, order at Greenlight Bookstore and include the details of your request in your order comments at checkout. Send the receipt in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter or Instagram. Entries must be received by Friday December 12, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). U.S. residents only (sorry!). The winner will be notified by email or (as the case may be) DM.
Early Reviews for Ancestor Trouble
In a starred review, Kirkus says “the current wave of interest in genealogy, heredity, family history, and responsibility for past injustices crescendos in a comprehensive work combining personal narrative and reporting,” and calls Ancestor Trouble “Exhaustively researched, engagingly presented, and glowing with intelligence and honesty.”
Publishers Weekly’s says, “Newton debuts with a masterful mix of memoir and cultural criticism that wrestles with America’s ancestry through her own family’s complex past. . . . The result is a transfixing meditation on the inextricable ways the past informs the present.”
Rosemary and Lavender Tea
For a year and a half, I drank a cup of rosemary and lavender tea every day. Sometimes I brewed it by combining rosemary and lavender teabags in one mug, sometimes from loose dry herbs in a tea ball, sometimes with fresh herbs from my container garden. I found the combination of the two stimulating and soothing at the same time, and also mind-sharpening and mildly anti-inflammatory. When I think of the time I spent working on Ancestor Trouble at Yaddo, what I remember most are the lessons of the trees (that beauty and truth can flow from the most twisted forms), the visits of a groundhog, the friends I made at our communal dinner (I was in writing hibernation most of the rest of the time), the luxury of solitude, and sipping rosemary lavender tea every day in the midst of my work.
Rosemary tea is said to boost memory, reduce anxiety, and help with inflammation. And I didn’t know this until I ordered a copy of Maia Toll’s The Illustrated Herbiary early this year, but rosemary has been associated with remembrance of those who’ve passed on. “Rosemary can ease remembrance, softening soft edges,” Toll writes, “or she can dredge the distant past [and] bring forward the longings of lineage.” Toll suggests various exercises in connection with herbs in the book, and for rosemary she offers a ritual connected to honoring ancestral memory and remembering lineage. It almost feels like my book was an intuitive version of this ritual, and I’m glad I found my way to rosemary while writing it.
Toll also has insights into lavender, which she characterizes as the plant of tough love. “People think Lavender is soft, useful for shaping quiet space,” she writes, but “beneath her powdery scent is a hint of menthol,” a “bite at the back of your palate,” a steeliness and military precision in emergencies. Like many people, I’ve often thought of lavender as a grandmotherly herb, and my beloved granny was both soothing and steely, so this fits perfectly as a kind of medicine I’d seek out and resonates with my experience. Lavender is believed to help with sleep and to soothe depression and anxiety.
When I don’t have herbs to harvest from my container garden and can’t get out to a local spot, I usually order my loose herbs from Mountain Rose Herbals, which is all organic. Or Buddha Teas has separate (compostable) organic rosemary and lavender tea bags that you can brew in the same cup. I cover my herbal teas while they’re brewing, as most herbalists advise. I find tea brewed from rosemary and lavender particularly restorative and invigorating in the dark winter months.
Cats Enjoying Thyme
Here’s a photo of Florian and Ida Mary, a couple months ago, enjoying some thyme I brought in from the garden.