Thank You, Best American Series

Best American Travel Writing 2015 edited by Andrew McCarthy and Jason Wilson

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.”

Today my friend Sarah Smarsh told me that my Harper’s essay, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” is listed as a notable essay at the back of the new Best American Essays. (Her great essay on the shame of poor teeth in a rich world is, too.) This is gratifying, because the Harper’s essay led to the book I’m writing, which in turn has led to my inability to write much of anything else until it’s done. Not complaining! It’s just nice to know people are still reading my older stuff.

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.”



On the Discomfort of Talking About Meditation

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 soften 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.”



Ancestry Looking Forward: Orphan Black and Real Cosima

Cosima Herter and Graeme Manson

My Longreads profile of Orphan Black‘s brilliant science consultant Cosima Herter — known to the show’s actors and creators as “Real Cosima” — ranges from science, chance, and emotion to Darwin, humanized mice, DIY synthetic biology, and much more. Here’s how it starts:

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.



Exorcising the Past: A Reading & Talk

Marie Mockett's childhood notebook

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!

This image is from one of Marie’s childhood notebooks; she shared it with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop when they visited her writing studio.



Family Tree: Slate, Tin House, Begats

Grave map

At Slate, Ariel Bogle recaps a discussion I had last week with AJ Jacobs, Wilhelmina Rhodes-Kelly, and Chris Whitten on how technology is affecting the family tree. I talked a little bit about what drew me to research my ancestry in the first place.

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.

In related reading: at Tin House, my series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry is ongoing. Guests so far are Laila Lalami, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Christopher Beha. And at The Begats, I’ve written in the last few months about Alexander Chee’s jokbo (gorgeous books recording his family history back to the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392), ancestor worship in the Old Testament, and some disappointing (but not too surprising) discoveries about my self-given namesake, Maude Newton Simmons, among other things.

The stark and stunning image above is a grave map — taken from Alex’s jokbo — for one of his ancestors.



A Wintry Update

Autumn and Ducks in Tallahassee

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. 

After Emily’s death in July, we got Florian to keep Percy company, and then after Percy’s death in November we didn’t want Florian to be alone, so we got Wanda. They’re great — we’re so comforted by their companionship and antics — but losing pets is as awful as Laurie Anderson says. I actually got Emily after I lost my dog, Ripley, back in 1997. After Emily’s death, I finally felt ready to have a dog again, but our co-op doesn’t allow them, and neither did Percy.

Right now there’s a snowstorm 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-ranging reading, which I’m sure will all be reflected in my book, if you’ve missed my meandering fixations.

I hope to fixate here, too, from time to time. Until that happens, or in case it doesn’t, you can as usual more frequently find me on Twitter, Tumblr, The Begats (my other Tumblr), Instagram, and Facebook. It’s also possible to sign up for my verrrry sporadic “ideas and intimacies” dispatches at Tiny Letter. And I’ll be speaking at A.J. Jacobs’ Global Family Reunion on June 6, if you’d like to catch up in person.

For now, we’ve just gotta get through January. And I keep reminding myself, so I’ll remind you, too: the days are already getting longer.



Random House Will Publish My Ancestry Book

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.



Doubter in the Holy Land

Holy Land

My Lives piece about visiting Jerusalem is in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.

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.

 



On the rise of the “Christian bar mitzvah”

christiansoldiers
For the weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the increasing popularity of traditional Jewish rituals among American evangelical Christians — including, in a small but growing sector, “bar mitzvahs” for their kids. The article, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” appeared in the March 22 issue, and you can see some photos and videos of these practices in a related post.



Things I’m Doing

I’ve updated events page to include upcoming appearances at the Pratt Writers’ Forum, Jerusalem International Book Fair, and 2013 AWP Conference, and a reading from the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, at Greenlight Books.

Later updated to say: I just saw Kirkus’ nice bit of praise for my essay, “Mess Up Your Mind,” from the anthology (now a New York Times bestseller!): “Maud Newton writes about how she and her mother circle each other warily, their orbits held by a love of literature.” We’ve had some bumpy times, mama and me, but I