There’s a dinky beige bookcase in my room. It sits directly next to the window, it’s flat top level with the sill. It makes a perfect end table for the wooden end table next to my bed. At this point, it’s basically just a mismatched table with shelves, completely filled and overflowing. I’ve always had too many books to shelve let alone count, so when I moved in I made up an order for the books; the top shelf is nonfiction, bottom shelf is fiction, and the weird extra space where the bookcase doesn’t quite meet the ground is oversized. Then, I put all the books in a big pile and sat in the middle of them for a while, because sometimes I get halfway through doing things and then I don’t feel like doing them anymore, especially cleaning. I started looking through all the books.
I collect books like most people collect pocket lint: I never know how much I have until I pull it all out to look at it. Books are way cooler than pocket lint though, especially mine. Most books have a story, that’s kinda the point of a book, but my books are special; they have two stories– the one inside, and the one I create while reading. My copy of my book is instantly more awesome than your copy of that same book because it’s mine. The notes inside it, the memories and sensations, are invaluable to me.
In an act of supreme procrastination, I decided to split the books into favorites based on my new system of of shelve-genres. “The best ones go in the front,” I said to my cat, who was supervising the entire adventure from my bed.
It was tough. Every book I own is a great book, even if I don’t particularly like it. It’s literally the brainchild of some weary author-parent, and I try not judge people’s babies: it’s bad form. That said, some books are more special to me than others because they resonate beyond their stories. I have been fortunate enough to find books that give me goosebumps just to remember. Books whose messages, stories, character, and tone all aligned so perfectly that I, miles apart and years later, thought to myself, “This is important to me.” It’s incredibly gratifying to identify a piece of yourself within someone else’s work.
So, I was sitting there holding a giant scan of Kurt Cobain’s diary when I decided this. Reading his personal journal had left absolutely no impact on my life, so I put it on the bottom of the oversized shelf, face up, directly on the floor. Feeling productive, I put all the books I’d be least likely to reread anytime soon in size order, and then pushed them all the way back to fit the others. The dinky bookcase doesn’t have a back and doesn’t sit quite right under the wall, so when all the books are pushed back, others can be slid in on top of them horizontally. All of the leftover books went in that slot, according to shelf-genre, of course.
Since then, the careful order has descended into chaos. Books are constantly pulled, marked, dog-earred and discarded in passion or in boredom. I knew things were bad when I started reaching for the books in the back, Getting them out was always a huge issue because I had to peek behind the ones in the front to see what was there. Every time, I ended up cross-legged on the carpet in the center of a pile of books. It started happening so often that my cat stopped coming to watch. One particularly bad night, I pulled out the oversized books. I don’t usually read these because they’re super niche: the giant red book copy of Kurt Cobain’s Diary, a large book of concept art for a Japanese manga that reads from right to left, and the hardback edition of a favorite comic arc. In frustration, I thrust my hand back into the shelf and stretched. There, against the wall, a small book that had fallen through the back of the shelf. I pulled it out. It was pocket-sized and red, with a yellow skull on the front. Slaughterhouse Five.
Sweet relief! From the very first time I read the very first page of Slaughterhouse Five in high school, I knew that I was in love. It was and always will be my most favorite book. My boyfriend, a grade above me, had to read it first and I’ll confess, I stole his copy. He kept it in his room, right on his wooden dresser, a red spot in the chlorine-pool blue room. It sat there, bright and bold against his black binder and his gray textbooks. At school, our English classes were in the same room, so every day I’d walk in and see rows of Slaughterhouse Five sitting in the metal cages that extended from the bottom of the blue chairs. I asked the teacher to borrow a copy but there weren’t enough to go around. Even the school library was out of copies. It was like the world was tempting me with an unreadable book, and that only made me more curious.
“Well, how is it?” I asked my boyfriend on the train home one day.
“I haven’t started reading it yet,” he said.
It went on like this for weeks! I’d see it still just sitting there, and I’d ask about it, and he’d answer nonchalantly and change the subject. Finally one day I said, “Are you guys still reading that book in class?”
He laughed but kind of strangled, like this wasn’t the first time today somebody had brought that up, and said, “We were actually supposed to give it back but I keep forgetting .”
“Just give it to me.”
He did! What a present! My goodness, the book did not disappoint. WWII, time travel, and aliens are just the start. What really gets me about Slaughterhouse every time I read it is the narrator. The first and last chapters of the book are told with the Vonnegut as the main character, because this book is semi-autobiographical, meaning it’s mostly true– minus the time travel and aliens, and fictional events. He really was a soldier in WWII, he really was captured by the Germans, he really was held as a POW in a slaughterhouse and he actually was rescued after the bombing of Dresden.
Stylistically speaking, Vonnegut makes a lot of interesting choices that stood out to me immediately; his tone is conversational, his story is discombobulated and out of order, and he uses apostrophes as quotations. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He describes every scene like an omnipresent ghost. Most of the book is harrowing and strange, which I think is one of the larger points of it, but, some of it is downright hilarious.
I mostly read while sitting on the train, with the little red book bent backwards in my hand, a highlighter or a pencil in the other. I’d sit and scribble notes and reactions as stops and times passed unnoticed. One of my favorite, and most marked passages, is when the narrator is describing the main character’s drunken adventure home:
The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.
He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.
“He’s an absolute madman!” I said to my teacher, my boyfriend, my cat, anyone who would listen. “I love it!” Every page offered some new delightful turn of phrase, apropos description, or thought provoking comment. I read it, and reread it, and even did a presentation on it. I vowed to hold onto my copy, filled with my reactions and notes. It was an oath I took seriously. I could be like Billy Pilgrim, depositing myself into random moments of time.
I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen in love with a book, but it can be disastrous. Like a lot of relationships, it’s great until it’s over. When it is, all that’s left is the memory of the anticipation, and of the understanding. You can reread it but you can never get to know the characters quite the same way as the first time. You want more but often, that’s not an option. Slaughterhouse never hurt me like that and it’s probably why I kept it around. Each page was like a long night talking, each chapter was a date. By the time I finished the book, I felt satisfied like good sex and a cigarette. But nothing lasts forever. I guess what happened between us was my fault, because I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to share.
He had a long, boring day of work ahead of him; the kind where there’s no more work to do but no one is allowed to leave, so you sit there and shake your leg like that’ll make the time pass faster.
“I will let you borrow my copy of Slaughterhouse if you want,” I offered so generously.
But my altruistic nature proved to be our downfall: that’s when things fell apart with Slaughterhouse and I. It makes sense, I’ve heard that introducing a third party to a relationship can often cause problems, but I didn’t expect that from them. They stayed together for months.
I’d call my boyfriend, who never stayed in one state for too long, and say, “you’re gonna bring him home to me right?”
“Of course, Sara,” he’d say patiently.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, Sara,” he’d say less patiently.
“You’re not finished with him yet, are you?” I’d ask, jealous and hopeful.
When I went out visit him in whichever city it was that time, we got a hotel room situated far from the downtown area. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I hadn’t brought any books. We hoisted our suitcases onto the big bed with the wallpaper-design sheets and started emptying them out. My boyfriend slid Slaughterhouse from his suitcase and situated it perfectly on the corner of his squat end table, directly under the light.
“You brought it!” I yelled, nearly jumping onto the suitcases to reach for it.
“I did,” he said, “but I was thinking that I’d just hang on to it over here on my side for a while.”
I put my hand to my heart. “Why would you do that?”
“Well… I didn’t finish it.”
“You didn’t…finish…it?” Images of me laying curled up late at night, clutching the red book and my blanket, disappeared as the neurotransmitters in my brain popped and died in disbelief.
He burst out laughing and handed me the book. “I’m just messing with you. That reaction was priceless. Slaughterhouse was great.”
We talked about it for a while, and the whole situation got me so excited that I ended up reading the entire book again that night after he went to bed. I read it later on the plane home, too. It seemed a happy to resolution to my short breakup with Vonnegut. We continued on as if things were the same; my pencil marks still etched the pages, and my highlighted sections still shone, but I noticed the differences too; the extra tear on his back, the fading of his spine, the extra creases in his pages. He was worn and used.
When I got home from that trip, I decided to broaden my options. I collected every book I could find in my house into a giant pile and sorted through all of them. To this day, Slaughterhouse cannot be found. I’ve checked all his hiding places, travel bags and end tables, shelves and crannies. I’ve looked for him often, I’ve looked for him recently, but he does not seem to want to be found. I’ve read other copies of Slaughterhouse, I own an ebook now so this once can’t escape, but it’s not the same. I’m hopeful that one day my copy will turn up, so I can travel through time with Billy Pilgrim again.
Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and EIC of Spoonie Press, a literary magazine for chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is also a big fan of deviating from the norm for her own comfortability and entertainment. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability, MASKS Literary Magazine, Vast Chasm, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Unlikely Stories. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.
My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born. Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing. Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.
But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered? Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy. In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children.
So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy. I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke. “Honey! Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”
In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life. Here’s how that works.
Person behind a counter: “Name?” Me: “Graeme Hunter.” Person: “How do you spell that?” Me: “Graeme? It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.” Person: “G-R-A…” Me: “…E-M-E.” Person: “And what’s your last name again?”
Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up. And that seems to be true. I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant. Take that, “Grey Ham”!
In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon. In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it. When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore. They called me Greg.
Then Starbucks became a thing. Me: “A grande latte, please.” Barista: “Can I have your name for the cup?” Me: “Graeme.” Barista: “How do you spell that?” Me: “I don’t care how you spell it! It’s a disposable cup!”
No, I didn’t say that. I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine. When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg. But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G. It seemed that I couldn’t win. Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave. I had an epiphany. Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name! You can’t mishear Dave. You can’t misspell Dave. And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.
People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it. It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”. Other people elect to give me a pet name. One day my girlfriend called me at work. The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!” When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman? And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”
My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp. At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons. Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John. Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. I didn’t take this personally. I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.
It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name). Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth). Ian is the Gaelic version of John. Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon. Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland. The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history. According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.
King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier. After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland. He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny. Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England. The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair. Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.
When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’. I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters. One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”
I said: “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”
“Hmm … Kevin?”
But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’. Is that nominative determinism, or what?
Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name. My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name. But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name? Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents? On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”? Was that short for Wyness?
I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?” Whatever. Pick a number.
It took a long time for me to learn the whole story. My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May. When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname. During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory. There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother. May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.
I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name. Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness. I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth. But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names. So at some point I just stopped using it. As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter.
The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport. Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years. That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time. Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.
And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.
Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight). But there is a tartan. Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions.
If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan. The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases. The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland. But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter. There’s even a castle.
In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter. David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle. Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour. After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’. We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance. Clan Hunter business only.”
OK, bit of a mixed message there. On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear. On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”? Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee? We decided to go on. What’s the worst that could happen?
The road ended at a large manor house. No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door. David pulled birth order and made me do that. As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate.
I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat. In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”
“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent. He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English? “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”
“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.
This seemed to do the trick. “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said. “Just let yourselves in.”
He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle. We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century. David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home. Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere. There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest. For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle. (Well, he was, being older than me).
I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation. In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”
Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter. He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.
St. Peter: “Name?” Me: “Graeme Hunter.” St. Peter: “How do you spell that?”
Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press). His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup. He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass. For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.
After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher. They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven. I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.
The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching. The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz. The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt. The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.
Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down. “It’s only a baseball game, son.”
I looked up. “Oh dad, it’s much more than that. It’s my best dream come true.”
Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.
A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot. He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too. Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.
We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.
Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery. Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team. We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class. We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball. During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle. Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves. The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.” Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.
The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet. He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game. At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”
I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.”
Another player snorted. “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday. Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”
Crapper smiled a wicked smile. “They all look the same underneath.” He turned to continue driving.
Did he mean that looks don’t matter? Wholesomeness counts more than looks? Or did he mean girls with no clothes on? Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with. Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation. He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood. If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject. We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.
Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade. They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.
The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000. They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252. Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy. Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24. The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29. The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20.
Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.
On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes. “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”
Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.” He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road. He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn. That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one. Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section. Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.
Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time. A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team. We yelled, “What! How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.
Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:
We are the Crusade girls
You’ll like our hair in curls.
We wear our dungarees
Away above our knees
The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers. At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor. He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard. At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game. He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn. The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan. The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back! The floor’s clean.” The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan. The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian. They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation.
All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”
The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game. “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet. The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.” The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere. The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.”
The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points.
They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents. Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.” People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.” At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack.
Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position. Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in. We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.
Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior. Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look. “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges. Why would you do something like that? Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball. I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area. We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies. We hated their guts. Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle. In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat. He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher. “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.” He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game. Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.
Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom. Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof. Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home. A few girls showed up but left early.
Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs. Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery. We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field. He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it.
The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word. Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk. “This is a Catholic school you ingrates. No senior prom for you. I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.” She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us. “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.” She slammed the door as she left.
So what, I thought. She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared. Just don’t take away baseball.
In our senior year I started at third base. During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit. Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen. At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?” I gave him a quizzical look but nodded. “You’re up. Take the first pitch. It’ll be a nice one.” Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field. Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement. I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.
In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails. During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me. As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.” Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.
A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast. Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going. Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
He said, “It isn’t?”
Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana. After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya. Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting. The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese. Two fiction stories appeared: “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft. Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose. Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero. Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.
Mailable Motorcycle Art: Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World
Story & Photos by Paul Garson
Redlands, California 1900
Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.
Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.
Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.
In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.
As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.
1908 – Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.
This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.
1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside
1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.
1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”
The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning
German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”
France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines. One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war. Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,
World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp. The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.
1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper
While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.
1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.
1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”
The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.
When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models. Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland. Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.
Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17
Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard
Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.
While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.
1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike
A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear. The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.
Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.
The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.
1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun
As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”
By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.
1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.
The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S. The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.
1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.
The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”
The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.
1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”
An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”
Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.
July 2017. The flight from JFK was marked by the initial thrill of taking the A train subway from 145th Street in Harlem to the Rockaways for $2.75, and then for an additional five dollars cash mounting the Air Train to Terminal 5. I cut straight to the bottom of the island of Manhattan, the subway crossed underwater into Brooklyn, through Queens, destined for the beautiful Rockaways.
A week before I had gone to the Rockaways by ferry from Wall Street for $5.50, sailing South into the Bay past the Statue of Liberty, turning East along the Brooklyn coast of Coney Island and docking at the Rockaway peninsula to discover a beautiful and strange beach I’d never known.
—“…[N]o more than a detour on the long, featureless road of my loneliness.”
This sentence would help inform what the novel I was reading was about, or what the heroine of the novel was about. I had started to read the novel on the A train to JFK, and I read that sentence just as the plane was preparing to take off to San Diego. What did the author Rachel Cusk mean?
This dilemma was just one of many dilemmas I was coming up against as I put down the book to begin writing this play, this monologue for which, honestly, I did not have a map nor course plotted; could not captain the ship—not that I sail. My father had sailed a catamaran from France across the Atlantic with a crew of five and a dog, entering the same Bay past the Statue of Liberty. I, however, had no operating principle for how to proceed with this text and no sense of belief that there were any guiding principles at all. Had the world exploded?
Writing for me had been, up to now, tied to how I existed as human. I wrote plays and by excavating subjects, I built creations that lived and breathed. And these creations became similar to children–though I have none, so how can I say for sure?
Yes, I do feel they are my children.
And yet plays are not children. Your average person, I think, would say plays are not children. And those who have given birth to children, to other human beings, might find my feeling naïve, even insulting.
Another dilemma thrown nearly into my lap on the airplane from JFK was the young woman sitting next to me. She was perfectly made-up, and groomed to appear as if a beautiful, sleek doll. Her eyebrows appeared finely threaded, she wore a diamond in each ear and on her wedding finger. She wiped down her seat and the area around her seat with a sanitary wipe. It seemed her next step would be to start to wipe me down as well. She then called the person on her phone screen which said “Daddy,” and then her mother. I could not see if the screen said, “Mommy.” She began to take photos of herself with her phone, altering her face with certain effects, large, round black-framed eyeglasses, and then devil horns. She merged herself and her husband sitting next to her in more photos, with dual devil horns. Then I could hear her make a video of them saying together, “Going to San Diego.” She started to play what appeared to be a vegetable version of Candy Crush, while simultaneously watching “The Zookeeper’s Wife” on the TV screen in front of her. I barely know Candy Crush and do not know if I was right about the vegetables. She had a third screen on her lap, a tablet, where she watched make-up tutorials that played in kind of stop-and-go slow motion.
All this distracted me, momentarily, from the sentence about loneliness I had just read in the novel. When I looked back at it, I thought I certainly wouldn’t describe “the road of my loneliness” as featureless.
One of the over-arching dilemmas in the sea of them was that all these screens scared me, but I was beholden and bonded to the one I was now trying to write on, and the other one I received my messages on. These screens were the equipment of a career, a life. But it was inevitable that the man—whose blonde, previously orange hair was ever-present—always showed up in a kind of grand guignol effect on these screens, come what may. A kind of supernatural shock of: when would the next shoe drop in the dreaded Trump show?
I lived in a 300 square foot room in Harlem with no access to light from any windows, which looked out on brick, and on what seemed to me to be an abandoned scaffolding. Perhaps, yes, this was in fact after all “featureless loneliness.”
Directly across the hall, our doors practically touching, lived an extended family, also in a similar-sized room, however with a large supply of furniture and electronic equipment. They cooked meals in large proportions whose odors wafted plentifully into the hall, and people of all ages came and went at all hours, in a disciplined round-the-clock schedule of work, school and life. It made me happy to see this bang-for-its-buck living situation and it appeared at least from the other side of the door that these were people with a place on this island.
The memoir, the autobiographical, exposes one’s own personal cast of characters. And so, as one gives birth this time—so to speak—to this, I ask the question, if this is even a decent thing to do?
When I arrived in San Diego, my sister kindly left the cell phone lot to pick me up in her red Fit with the Thule roof-rack still atop of her car as she approached, having arrived weeks earlier from Montana. She wore a turquoise and black dress, which accented her beautiful tan, and flat black sandals which accentuated her turquoise toe polish. Her short dark hair fell in ringlets. She said that my mother had talked of coming with her to pick me up, but instead, in the front seat of the car was my father, 92, wearing shorts, which I had not seen him wear in maybe four decades. He wore new and attractive sports shoes, if worn with socks that my sister had suggested he fold over.
His hair, which has always been beautiful and thick, was white, wild, extending in wisps in all directions. He spoke so quietly from the front seat I could not hear him, after I hugged him. He was hard of hearing, and, in the past years had started to speak more and more softly. My sister said that it was not a great use of my mother’s physical energy to come to the airport, with her walker.
My parents’ house looked quite the same. It had been nearly my first home, where they’d moved soon after I was born—a 1960s tract home my parents had paid more than they could afford, to have a view of cows on a hill in the distance. Cows on a hill were as unlikely now as reaching any sanity on the repealing of Obamacare, which was our topic of discussion in the car from the airport.
Unfortunately, my father could not hear what my sister was saying, and she implied to me that a fight with him had ensued recently about some aspect of this topic. This was hard to believe because we were in my family all absolutely and unanimously on the same side, Anti-the-grand-guignol with orange hair. But my sister implied through muted whispers and facial expressions in the rearview mirror—not that my father could hear or would notice—that the fight had to do with a fierce stubbornness on his part to be understood precisely on a sub-topic surrounding the repealing of Obamacare that was obscure and relevant to him, but not clear to us. My father is a scientist.
It was very late by then and my mother was asleep. This was the first time in my life she was not there to greet me. I took the narrow single bed in what we called the Obama Room. This room had long ago been my younger brother’s room. It shared a wall with my parents’ room.
It had become an office with a computer, and also a kind of sub-room for my mother, who hung some of her clothes there. It also was crowded with a huge, striking dark wooden armoire from my father’s rural France. As everywhere in the house there was an overwhelming number of books on shelves that had been created to accommodate more and more.
On the bed was a colorful bedspread with an enormous image of Obama’s face and lettering saying: “From Slavery to the White House.” The comfort of sleeping under the Obama blanket, while flanking the wall with my elderly parents, who slept as well as they could despite their illnesses and age, was on some level exquisite.
It was almost as if from this vantage point, in the Obama Room, under the Obama blanket that enveloped me, with my parents flanking me, I could expunge the grand guignol clown, Trump, at least momentarily.
I started reading from my book again when my father knocked on the door. I said, “Come in,” and he entered with a large yellow flashlight, which looked brand new, and said, what I already knew, that he liked everyone in the family to have their own, separate, flashlight, in case there was a problem in the night. I nodded and took the flashlight, which I tried to find a place for on the tiny night-table already full to the brim.
He asked that I make sure it worked. I turned it on. He then looked at me and said that it would also be necessary to turn it off. We share the same sense of–all be it–elliptical humor. I turned it off and thanked him. I kissed him goodnight and said, “Bon Siar,” which was a pet phrase we used to say goodnight. He started to leave and then turned back and came to hug me and kiss me. He said, “I am so happy you are here,” as he left, “and it is I who thanks you.”
This would be I thought to myself the opposite of featureless loneliness, and, also, something that I had not seen or heard my father do before. It was innocent, sweet. Then he closed the door.
As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to my mother’s side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”
The next morning the ant infestation in the kitchen that had been acknowledged the night before had become worse. My sister identified the crack in the grout from where the ants were emerging—an “all systems go!” signal having been sent out to their armies, it seemed. She skillfully unleashed blue tape from a bulky roll and stuck it along the grout to halt their passage.
After breakfast, my sister suggested that we go to town to see an exhibit of murals at the Historical Society. Her daughter, my niece, was taking a photography class in the adjoining building. The challenge of my mother’s 2:40pm appointment with a doctor called King was thoroughly discussed. The clinic where we would take my mother had once been identified by a piece of famous artwork, a gigantic bronze sculpture, that had been erected at the clinic’s front door. The sculpture had the appearance of, how else to say it, a large piece of shit–and had been razed. And so, my mother, without judgment, identified the clinic for us as the one with “la crotte” in front of it. This immediately made sense to us and my sister and I decided we had plenty of time to see the murals at the Historical Society and still make it to the doctor’s in time.
My sister was sure that my father could not be readied for the trip at hand and suggested that I go out and talk to him about getting dressed. I searched for him in a variety of places in the house, and garden.
He had the tendency to move around quite stealthily, so that people would say they had just seen him in a spot, but when you went there, he was gone. I found him on the side of the driveway inspecting some plants. I explained that we were going into town to see some murals. He was not wearing his hearing aid and asked me to explain who was going on the journey, where we were going, when we would leave, and then asked me to repeat the details again. I explained that the goal would be to get dressed and be ready to go by 10:30. He nodded vaguely as he continued to inspect the plants. I insisted on the details once more and left him. I told my sister of my success and she said there was zero chance he would be ready.
She went back out to the driveway where he still was and explained the rigor of our plan. As I went to shower, I heard her calling to him as she re-entered the house, “You need to focus.” It struck me as extraordinary that my little sister, who had always been advised and ordered around by the patriarchy—though perhaps that is a reductive way to put it–was now blatantly telling my father to focus, in perhaps the exact tone he might once have told her to.
When take-off time had passed, we helped my father to get dressed, to locate certain items such as his wallet; place glasses in his clean shirt pocket, and make sure that he had witnessed the secure locking of the windows and front door of the house. He had fallen recently and bloodied his face, leaving a scar, and we urged him to take his cane, which he flatly refused, putting it back where we found it. After some psychological ministrations he took the cane, which he used with remarkable ease.
After parking and helping my mother out of the car, unfolding the walker, and setting her on her path, with my father, we went to a small chapel my mother wanted to revisit. There we lit a candle and I read a sort of prayer that was written above the candle area. We all meditated, and I believe my mother said Amen. We were in an Episcopalian church and my mother is Catholic. It seemed to me at this point that we and the candle were encompassed in a universal religion, that of a miracle. We were all, as it were, standing—to a certain degree—on our two feet, that is: not on all fours, with no apparent falls, no fights, relatively on schedule, and at peace under the tutelage of the candle flame and the candle directives. “Protect us and remember us.”
At the Historical Society were the drafts of a mural created for the federal government by WPA Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu, in 1940. By chance, “The Seven Arts” mural was above the stage of my high school where at 16 I played the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth. My hair streaked with gray, I was asked by my director, Mr. Stewart, to sit on the lip of the stage for my monologue. “I tell the future…” The next word of my monologue was “Keck.” This was not a stage direction. French being my first language, I always wondered if I was missing something I should already know. Keck was a laugh? A cackle? I’m not exactly sure what I did for that. “Everybody’s future is in their face…Your youth, —where did it go?…Next year the watchsprings inside you will crumple up. Death by regret,—Type Y. You’ll decide that you should have lived for pleasure, but that you missed it…” In the school paper, my name and performance were singled out–information I happened upon by complete surprise.
I don’t remember what they said.
“You know as well as I do what’s coming…But first you’ll see shameful things. Some of you will be saying: ‘Let him drown. He’s not worth saving…’ Again, there’ll be the narrow escape. The survival of a handful. From destruction,–total destruction.”
As a girl, I loved dirt; the taste in my mouth. The smell of grass, mud. To find a fort in the canyon above our house, where I could hide—and live. Scanning the countryside on a camping trip–Baja, Mexico, the desert—for places to go. Taught by Maman and Papa to live in a car, a tent, in the dirt, with one bag of possessions.
I was 16, the Fortune Teller was old, and she didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought.
As I grew up my body was always up for scrutiny.
“Salad will make your thighs rosier.”
“You have the hips to make great children.”
“Sorry that your kids will have no breast milk.” (i.e., considering the [small] size of your breasts.)
“Don’t wear shorts that show those [same] thighs, and if you do, that’s your fault for getting pinched on the behind or on the nipple as you walk down the street.” That’s what my mother said to me. And that’s what the men had told my mother when she was a girl.
Honestly, that was just “normal” to me.
After the Historical Society, we hurried forth to the building with the former piece of shit- sculpture. Despite my mother’s handicapped placard to park, we could not locate a legitimate spot—though I saw from the corner of my eye that a “valet” option was open to all. I paused slightly to comprehend “valet” parking from anthropological and sociological perspectives but had no time before unfolding the walker, accessing the nearly denied cane, unfolding limbs from car seats, setting bodies upright, organizing a march into the luxurious, sprawling clinic, as my sister solemnly promised to park where she could, and find us.
The hospital affiliate was an industry of appointment counters, sub-stations, hand sanitizing machines, coffee gazebos/shops, wings with prominent lettering to show donors—so that a certain name was attributed to a certain body part, or illness. My parents and I began our ascent to the Mr. and Mrs. So and So Parkinson’s Center on the third floor, my mother walking very fast, listing forward on her walker and my father walking very slowly because of the cane. When he had fallen and badly bloodied his face, my sister had fainted, and he had also injured his finger. As she was fainting, my sister promised my mother that she would soon be back on the scene to help. Nonetheless my father had remarkable stamina to heal, and his facial scar was nearly gone.
My parents were soon whisked in to see the doctor and my sister joined me in the waiting room. She fell into a well-deserved light nap, and I seized the moment to make a phone call to see if I could find a larger space for a reading of a musical, we were doing in a bit more than a month. The answer was a definite no, which was fortunate because just at that moment our names rang out in an unexpected announcement on the PA system. I couldn’t tell at first if it was heralding an honor or a problem. My sister and I were directed through a coded security door and found my parents with the doctor, who told us that he was in love with our mother. We nodded in hearty agreement and laughed when he continued looking at my father saying, “that she was already taken.” The doctor made a quaint and somewhat pantomime of a hand turning pages indicating that my mother was doing too much reading, and not enough moving.
A frustrating or vindicating—not sure—realignment of medication was prescribed, along with the suggestion that our mother join a special boxing gym tailored for Parkinson’s. The doctor left us in a kind of elliptical abandonment, and we remained unsure if the visit had ended, though my mother assured us that he would return. The four of us sat huddled in the small cubicle, and my mother began tallying the new dosages of medication and new times during the day that they needed to be taken, a process aided at home by a specific talking alarm to remind her.
Ultimately, the doctor visit was pretty much over though he did return to call his own mother-inlaw to ask her where she herself boxed at her special gym. By the time we got back into the car a lethargy—and a deep desire I’m sure for my mother to settle down to turn more pages when she got mercifully home–had been established. The traffic was very bad, and we inched home in what could be named for myself only as a dark and numb defeat. I donned my bathing suit and running shorts and my sister, my niece and I re-entered the car and were at the beach very soon.
The weather had grown foggy, sunny, gray, and then bright, a kind of ever-shifting humid swirl. I ran as far as I could to the North, along the shore until the rocks stopped me because I was barefoot. Then I ran as far as I could south into the flocks of beachgoers at the hotels with their designated seating; past the kayak clubs, and finally the lone father-and-son snorkelers. I ran fast and hard, as if I had suddenly become a long-distance runner, with a new career. I could feel myself becoming a dedicated runner who would run forever, I thought, away from everything, gaining a great perspective from the running, that of more than anything having escaped. My body felt like a well-oiled machine, fit for a very grand exit. I then plunged myself into the Pacific which was so frothy with salt that I felt I was in a saline bubble bath of the California me, and the water warm, warm, warm, warmer than it had ever been in the half century I’d known it.
“The ants come marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…” was a tune I had not attributed much weight to, nor even thought I really remembered. And yet they maintained their presence despite the blue tape my sister continued to lay atop the holes in the grout that she continued to find. In the night, a relatively small trail emerged from the bathroom ceiling to the tiled floor, almost a hallucination since they were gone in the morning. But they had been pushed from the kitchen, so they were re-routed. Another morning there appeared another small trail, returned to the kitchen—seemingly delighted to have found an empty wooden cutting board with the remnants of cheese.
What is the wild child? This discovery perhaps in the morning upon waking, of failure? That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship—not that I sail—will manage to change her trajectory towards peace and progress.
And the coming up short.
My mother shuffles, I can hear her coming from far away. When she is near, she keeps hold on the walker, but teeters.
I remember I’d just had two wisdom teeth pulled on the spur of the moment. I called to tell my meditation teacher I could not come to class. There was a pause. “It’s best you come,” he said.
Those around you, those who love you, who know you, know your “sins.” They saw them happen. They already know what happened. Do you have to write them down?
The patriarchy rips apart the feminine? Bad behavior, yelling, abuse, intolerable situations children are subjected to. I was that child turning on the fan in the bathroom and even the water sometimes so as not to hear.
And on this trip to San Diego, I did it again, though was different. I was no longer destroyed by these two people my parents, despite my father’s new kind of 92-year-old rage.
I had only love for them, and yet the fan was a nice way to be alone, and not distracted by voices for a spell.
I now enjoyed the familial company, the constant hairpin turns based on what was needed at any given second for those who were merely trying to stand on their own two legs; to manage the days, punctuated by the medication alarm voicing its feminine confirmation, “Alarm acknowledged, the next alarm will be…”
When I returned to New York from San Diego, I learned from two writers that a homeless woman was in the community writing room where I wrote.
And then as I got up from writing this, to go the restroom there was a man in the hallway who asked if I could provide him with a key to the men’s room. The writing room was suddenly on the map. On the phone, my mother tells me that at 9:15 am, the doorbell rang, and her friend offered her and Papa a boudin blanc, then dashed off. White blood sausage. Then Maman asks if I have ever eaten a horse. I’m not sure how the subject so swiftly switched, but answer: “No.” Her father believed horse was good for anemia. During the war, they ate what they could, she says. My father, on the speakerphone, if barely audible, says that, yes, he has also eaten horse.
“Avec leurs fers—horseshoe and all.” As I hang up, I think I hear my father call out my name, so I call back. My mother says no. My mother also tells me she would have preferred black blood sausage.
In their fireplace, which they no longer use to make fires, my parents have an effigy of Donald Trump. On Sunday, the day I was leaving San Diego my mother sat in her usual armchair. My father had just sat on the hassock next to her. She had beckoned him to come sit there so that they could read the goodbye card I wrote for them. After my father read it, he called our attention to the words: “fille aînée.” Oldest daughter, which is how I signed. If you change the “n” to “m,” it is “fille aîmée, beloved, he said.
My father grew up in landlocked France, a place called La Creuse. He read an ad, joined a crew to sail a catamaran, with red Chinese sails, across the Atlantic. He wrote a book about his crossing La croisière du Copula published by Julliard and translated into English. I postponed reading the book for a long time. He wrote of his joy–a word, I did not recognize. This is after he entered New York Harbor.
Then he met a Frenchman who made the perfume Arpège, who also had a plastics business. My father dreamed of designing a fiber glass sailboat, made a handshake deal and built the 50-foot sailboat himself. The perfume man then seized this boat from him and broke his heart. He stopped sailing and became an oceanographer in San Diego. His wild heart converted to measuring. He made instruments to measure tides.
She would not come to the airport. With her Parkinson’s, the walker and her imbalance it was too difficult.
California. New York. But even before I moved East over thirty years ago there had been this seismic, cosmic question. How to go away?
My father did come to the airport. She remained in the chair.
I love you. How I would hope that my voice or my eyes or my lips against your cheeks would let you know for good. I think of you all the time and this is not loneliness.
The day after I left my parents, my father threw a box of Fiber All at my mother because we said he was no longer allowed to drive.
When my mother’s family repatriated from Algeria, they were given a wooden crate. Her parents’ simple wooden bed set was put in that crate and sailed to Toulon, France. In Toulon, France, in my last year of high school I passed my Baccalaureate in Philosophy, to try to become the French me. The bed sent from Algeria later made its way to San Diego. My mother said the morning I left, “What does it even mean now, that I am ill, and I need a new bed? It will all go away. It has no value.” But she also meant that it had no monetary value but something else.
Once I was no longer a child, crying was alarming to my parents.
Back in New York I can feel tears under my eyelids, the drops like birds when you hear a big group of them in a thick tree but can’t see them. And in my heart, in my chest, is a welling up, an explosion waiting to happen.
There are two parent doves outside my parents’ window. When Papa is alone, he goes out to the patio and walks towards their nest and whistles to them. I wish I could show you how he whistles but only he knows how to do that.
The following spring, in Harlem on my birthday, I walked in a big blizzard to the subway. The flakes were large and puffy. Along the way I saw an expansive film crew setting up a shoot. I heard a crew member saying they’d be shooting all night. This, in a building with an abandoned jazz club, which was a historical landmark and had the vestiges of a red sign outside. In the weeks before I had seen people doing some fixing up of the sign and the dilapidated interior. I assumed from this repair work that the club was going to re-open. The next night, while Ed Norris in the director’s chair shot his film starring Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, the building burst into flames and a firefighter lost his life. The next morning the whole area was a closed-off investigation.
Four days later I went in a Lyft, with my husband, to get our taxes done at our accountant near Grand Central. The traffic crawled as all the roads were blocked. A procession and a funeral for the firefighter were being held at St. Patrick’s. Firefighters poured down the streets.
Then that afternoon I took the MegaBus to Washington D.C. My friend’s mother had gone to Cornell University with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The next morning, we walked to the Supreme Court, went through many forms of security, relinquished all our belongings, and sat in Justice Ginsburg’s box. When the first lawyer began his argument about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Ginsburg immediately interrupted him and asked him a question. Later we met Ruth in her quarters, and she showed my friend a book of photos from Malta, where she had traveled and where my friend was going. She showed us the boxes where she stored her research materials for each case. And a photo of her great grandchild. She wore a beautiful textured jacket, with distinctive buttons, brown pants, and brown heels. Her eyes looked out penetratingly from her eyeglasses. She was so kind.
On the MegaBus back to New York, an Asian woman got very sick, vomiting in the bathroom. Her male partner administered acupuncture to her. A girl child who was the only one in her party who spoke English said we should call 911. The bus driver decided to take the woman and her family to Baltimore. At the bus shelter we called her a cab and arranged for her to go to a motel. By the time we got back to New York City it was very late. The remains of the now burnt-out building with the abandoned jazz club were being placed in dumpsters to be carried away. The fire trucks and fire men were there as if in a vigil for what they could no longer do.
The next year in late summer I was invited to Hawaii for a writers’ fellowship by Barry Lopez and one of my publishers Manoa to honor my work in social justice. Barry had recently written a new book called HORIZON: “What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air.”
In Maui, as you descend from the Kihului airport on the Hana Highway past Hana Town you reach Mile Marker 41, in Kipahulu, on the mountain side. From the porch of the guest house where I was staying at Marker 41, you could see a thin steel tower rising above the coconut trees, the plumeria, the avocado trees and the orange trees, as the birds sing. The tower is from the remnants of the sugar cane industry.
If you continue past Mile Marker 41, you reach an unpaved road that climbs and descends before becoming paved again and going inland past Haleakala, one of the world’s largest volcanic craters. And then back towards the Pacific Ocean to return to Kihului airport.
Descending on the Hana Highway there are tall silvery eucalyptus trees that have blueish veins of translucence when I look back at them. The Rainbow Eucalyptus trunk peels away to a green layer which eventually fades to blue and to other colors, before returning to brown and starting the process again.
In San Diego, California, I grew up with green-leaved eucalyptus trees with ash colored bark in the median along La Jolla Scenic Drive, on our way to the right turn to our house on Sugarman Drive. Sometimes the trees were shrouded in fog and sometimes the trees were ashen. You could smell the trees, and my mother made paintings with eucalyptus bark. We carried home swaths of eucalyptus bark that had fallen on the ground, which was an orange brown, with small orange-rust colored pebbles. My mother made pebble mosaics framed in wood. We also glued beach glass and shells, into the image of the Pacific Ocean and a sailboat, which was placed into a wooden frame outside on the patio. My father made the frames. At the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, you can see a hanging of eucalyptus bark which looks like the white fur of a sheep.
Off the Hana Highway near Hana Town, the Pacific has white sand at Hamoa Beach; black sand at Waianapanapa State Park; and red sand at Kōkī Beach. From Kōkī Beach you can see the small island of ‘Ālau.
In Honolulu the kind host at the hotel who directs us to the coffee apologizes for the humidity not usual for the island, he says, due to climate change. We thank him and say: please, you don’t need to apologize for the weather.
In HORIZON Barry Lopez writes: “I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.”
In France, in Guéret, in the department La Creuse, my father’s father Emile shared the garden behind his house with us, the garden where he grew lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and more. There was a cherry tree, and he had beehives to make honey. Granite is present in La Creuse and also in California. I think of my ancestors when I see granite.
At the farm stand shortly past Mile Marker 41 in Kipahulu there is tender lettuce for sale and taro. Right before this farm stand is the grave of Charles Lindbergh. A German man we meet at the grave, which is minutes from the guesthouse where we were staying, volunteers that Charles must be “lonely.” We walk to the edge of the cemetery/field on the ocean side and see the lookout to the Pacific. Our airport in San Diego on the Pacific is named Lindbergh Field, and there is a large mural of Charles Lindbergh in a pilot’s uniform.
Hunter who lives across the road from the guesthouse is building a type of art gallery directly on the side of the road in a circular tin hut, with a sculpted door of faded turquoise. The hut is surrounded by sculptures, hangings of found objects, boasts a deck, some chairs and a wooden whale with a rock for its eye. Because Hunter is often working along the side of the road many tourists ask him for directions to places including the Lindbergh grave. He hears a lot of different remarks about Lindbergh, which he says he lets pass.
When I traveled to Oran, Algeria, I went to see my mother’s homeland. I went to the top of Santa Cruz and looked down at the Mediterranean. There were pine trees. There is bougainvillea in Hawaii, La Jolla and Oran. My father made a wooden trellis above our patio in La Jolla, where the bougainvillea took hold and covered the area between the house and the sky, sometimes the sun could barely break through. And with time the vines that had taken hold of the trellis would winnow away, but then later spring back.
Come to think of it there was also bougainvillea in Toulon, France, where my mother’s parents and her sister lived after they were repatriated from Algeria.
Hawaii, La Jolla, Oran and Toulon are sun-filled lands. The bougainvillea has pink, purple, orange, white and fuchsia flowers, depending where you are.
In Hana Town we go to the Catholic Mass in the white church, St. Mary, at 9am and go across the street to the Wananalua Congregational church at 10am to hear the service mostly in Hawaiian. We had visited the Catholic church a few days before and met a woman arranging flowers, as well as the priest. The priest says that he will be giving a mass at the tiny church across from the guesthouse where we are staying in Kipahulu at 11am, where generally only two people attend. He will then go on to another even more remote church down the road. We visit that church when we go around the other side of the island to get back to Kihului. There are old, sacred graves marked with black lava rock. The church door is locked, and all is silent but for the waves.
At the Catholic Mass in Hana there is a little girl in a pretty dress standing with her grandmother who plays the ukulele and sings. The little girl is only happy when she is in possession of a gourd so she can drum along with the songs. When other children have the gourd, she acts as if she is in violation of her holy rights and makes tragic faces and cries. She taps her grandmother to get her attention and the grandmother continues to sing, sometimes giving her a comforting touch.
As a girl I went to the white Catholic church in La Jolla called Mary Star of the Sea. Once a eucalyptus tree fell onto the church. There was a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with a blue cape, above the altar: broken pieces of ceramic, which fit together with interstices. The blue cape blended with the blue of the sea in the mosaic. I looked up to her from my pew, holding my mother’s hand.
As children growing up, my best friend across the street and I embarked on many projects. We learned Batik from a family friend and in my backyard, we were able to boil the wax, which we would trace onto the lined designs we made on white sheet scraps. We would crinkle the sheets into a ball, to make cracks in the wax. Then we would dye the fabrics different colors. We would hang up the fabric to dry in the sun and after it dried, we would boil out the wax, then iron our designed fabrics. My friend and I were industrious and enthusiastic, and I remember at the end, we would throw the water into the gutter my father had designed behind our house.
There was a large steep hill behind our house, and the earth went from very dry to sometimes receiving serious rainfall. Drainage of water was a complicated issue for my father. When he first arrived in California, he planted the whole hill with a variety of ice plant, which flowered in purple, yellow and pink, as well as aloe vera plants and other cacti.
I have always loved cacti. In the California desert such as Borrego, where we would hike and camp, there were ocotillo, which flowered in red in the Spring. My mother always pointed them out. My parents loved plants. And she loved purple thistles, which were found in the mountains. She would ask my father to stop the car so she could pick some. I also love thistles. They are delicate, wispy and prickly and stand out for me as my mother’s gift.
At the place where I write in New York City, The Writers Room, there is a woman I have come to know, who has written about women in solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system and is now writing about climate change. Her husband is an active protestor and is put in jail on a regular basis. He asked me to read a one-person play he wrote about his experiences, which have sometimes been dangerous. He went to trial and won his case. He writes to me, when I am in Hawaii, ending his email with: “off to get arrested again tomorrow morning…” Soon after he sends me another email: “Just back from jail,” with a picture captioned: “Shutting down 59th Street outside the Plaza Hotel at the beginning of today’s Bloomberg Global Business Forum.”
The protestors are holding a banner that reads: “Unite Behind the Science.”
The public school in Hana has Hawaiian murals on many of its schoolroom walls. The indoor classroom and the outdoor world meld in Hana. The world in Hawaii is often not divided between outside and inside. The rain in the night can be so fierce and yet when I say the Hana Highway will be very slippery, I am not necessarily right. Some signs along the way that say “Yield” or “Slow Down” are covered with mud, or dust, or stains from vegetation.
Barry writes: “He was never able to determine what he meant by his life.”
In the Bishop Museum I see a model of Hawai’iloa, the wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian double hulled canoe.
La Creuse where my father grew up is inland in the center of France. When he sailed that catamaran across the Atlantic to the Bay of New York, he entered past the Statue of Liberty. Then in Havre de Grace, Maryland, he built one of the first fiber glass sailboats. For me there is great beauty in his sailing across the ocean to the place where I was born. In that beauty is this phrase: “I have never been able to determine what I meant by my life.” You would have to know Guéret, in France, its rural, peasant, natural beauty to know how strangely beautiful it would be to take a boat across an ocean, born from a landlocked village. You would have to know that his father Emile fought in both World War 1 and World War 11. That his brother was in the Resistance.
And when my mother looked down from Mount Soledad, Solitude, to our town La Jolla, The Jewel, and the Pacific she saw her own country Algeria, as she did from Santa Cruz, in Oran. It is impossible to determine the meaning, but only to say it all exists and is real.
“To create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives,” Barry says.
Growing up, I had a fierce personal wish to prove my bilingual Franco-American nature. I decided to graduate a year early from high school in San Diego to get my French Baccalaureate in Toulon, France the following year. I chose the focus of Philosophy, doubled up on the French Literature obligation, and succeeded. Before, in those two years of high school I took an elective typing class in the early morning, which I remember as one of the sweetest classes of all. I made my way through all the Philosophy studies in French, trying to understand as well an 18-year-old could. Hard work has always had a core meaning in my family. As well as dissecting the meaning of words. Both held crucial importance. “Va chercher le dictionnaire,” was a common directive. We were a family that laughed at our mantras and still do. I came back to California after the Baccalaureate. Then I went to New York City, to that harbor where my father passed the Lady Liberty. I likewise traveled all over the globe and across the United States to try to understand what might be my responsibility in this world, which my parents couldn’t help but open for me. What is my obligation as an artist? I talk about the word “complicity” because I am myself complicit.
I have often dwelt in darkness and for this piece I thought I would write in the direction of what I have titled as beauty. Barry writes, “Beauty refers to a high level of coherence existing everlastingly in the world. Pay attention to small things I tell myself. Look closely at what are clearly not the answers to some of your questions. Do not presume that later you’ll be able to read about something you’ve witnessed today.”
The love of my family is not a question. The deserts, the beaches, the mountains of California, and those in Mexico where we drove on what for me was “the perpetual camping trip.” We four siblings would eke out our small territories in the car, in our one bag of clothes, in our tent, in our food supplies. And the way our parents delighted in the avocado, the mango; and the shrimp in San Felipe, Baja California. When I traveled to work on a motobike in Cambodia, I consolidated my supplies in the same way. The love of my artistic collaborations points to discoveries that feel like landing in new territories and exploring them, then finally coming to the edge of a beautiful new sighting. When on the way back to Kihului, the silence; the end of the land as when the cavern came upon us on the back road and my sister said, “Come a little further down the path,” and she smiled at me, and I went.
“Mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty,” Barry wrote.
When I was working on a passage in a new play, I tried to unlock a mystery. It is interesting how long it takes sitting at your desk to try:
Is the real problem that we humans are unable to change?
That might be one of the favorite questions of white privilege. I have seen plenty of humans have to change. And those humans are asked to do so again and again.
So, this current feeling of moral exhaustion is also white privilege.
And at my writing space, when I go to get a glass of water in the kitchen, I watch the other writers who come in to also get water or make a cup of tea. We often exchange a simple joke, or comment, or just stare at one another. Sometimes it feels we are staring at each other through that mystery, trying to place words on a page, in our uncertainty.
The airplane is flying toward JFK, New York City. Before, the other airplane flew from Honolulu to San Francisco. Hours were skipped and light changed.
“How to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself,” writes Barry Lopez.
For a long time, I have written plays about genocide. The central characters: Raphael Lemkin, Thida San, Sarah Holtzman, Pol Pot, Luz, Alexandra, Jasmina, Joseph, Eve, Doug and the Prime Minister were some of my guides. There was bloodshed and horror and the complicity of the United States and of my own self–always seeing how I had not seen. Selfishness roars up in front of you, when you have convinced yourself it wasn’t there, or was even the opposite. Those central characters: Lemkin etc. are awareness and they have felt real because I have loved them. At the San Francisco airport hotel on C-Span last night, I watched news about the impeachment proceedings, and the defense by the grand guignol of what he called a “perfect” phone call to the Ukraine. I watched and I knew that the unreal was being taken as real. And then I turned off the light to go to sleep. The hotel bed shook a bit throughout the night. When I mentioned it to the man at the hotel desk as I was leaving, he said, “An earthquake?” I said, “No, it went on all through the night.” He said he’d make a note of my room number. And yet a note might not provide an answer. It appeared to be an older building on the side of a large freeway, on the second floor, which was the top floor. Did the room sway the way San Francisco buildings are said to be engineered to withstand tremors?
There is a banyan tree, past the mango tree U-turn in Kipahulu, that is enormous with a cosmos of branches and tiers. You pass it on the way to the ocean and the remnants of a landing where boats unloaded their sugar cane haul during the 1800s. I own a glass inkwell that says: “Cartier 1897,” purchased for five dollars from the neighbor Hunter across the street from Mile Marker 41. The land behind his house was a dump for the people who worked in the sugar cane industry, and he collects them, by which one can inscribe things in ink.
There is no “drama” in living life.
Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020.
My mother died 4 days later. As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to her side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.” And she would tell me something, a directive That would send me back to sleep. To translate, J’ai fait un mauvais rêve, is to experience the difficulty of our language. “I had a bad dream.” And so is our life together, Our in-between life which exists between language. She who taught me to love it, to write it I can remember writing the words with her Her enthusiasm, passion, practicality with language Langue Tongue Was beyond contagious, it was infectious palpable, breathable. She is in my every breath And has given me this mixed language, which I will continue to disentangle, fathom… Oh, Maman! The in-between Cat Stevens song, she would sing the refrain with us with such delight “Oh, baby, baby, it’s a Wild World”. It was, is. To contain this is to contain Infinity. To start is, not to end.
What is the wild child? That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship, will manage to change the trajectory towards peace and progress.
August 2021. I am walking through the door. And there is Papa.
CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty-five years. Her plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally. Catherine has been honored with the 2019 Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship; the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre; and the 2015 Planet Activist Award. Filloux is the librettist for four operas, produced nationally and internationally; her most recent Orlando is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer award. Recent plays include: White Savior at Pygmalion Productions in Salt Lake City, Utah; her web drama about deportation and children, “turning your body into a compass” livestreamed by CultureHub, and “whatdoesfreemean?” produced in New York City by Nora’s Playhouse. Filloux’s plays have been widely published and anthologized. Her new musical Welcome to the Big Dipper is a 2018 National Alliance for Musical Theatre finalist. She received her M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Dramatic Writing Program and her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy, with Honors, in Toulon, France. She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders, as well as an alumna of New Dramatists.
I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.
I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.
In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.
What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.
Nobody cares about chickens.
Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? Howhave I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—
I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.
Someone once asked me a strange question.
How do you know that you have a heart?
Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.
Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.
There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.
It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.
Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.
Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.
Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.
Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.
One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.
Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.
The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.
While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.
There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.
Mothers always want their children.
During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.
On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.
Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”
If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.
I wonder where this heart is now.
I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.
During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.
Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”
On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.
While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.
The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.
In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”
Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”
When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.
Balance is important in a knife.
Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.
Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.
In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.
For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.
Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.
I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.
The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.
I tell myself it was only ever a memory.
Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.
With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.
Sometimes not even that is enough.
“10 Interesting Facts About the Human Heart.” Flushing Hospital Medical Center. 22 June 2018. https://www.flushinghospital.org/newsletter/10-interesting-facts-about-the-heart. Accessed 15 November 2021.
Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021
Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.
“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.
Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the BasqueCountry During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.
Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Emily Dickenson: The Collected Poems. 1924. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.
Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.
Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.
Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print.
Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.
Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.
Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changedthe World. Dutton, 2002. Print.
McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.
Medina, Juan. “Women’s Mass Grave Sheds Light on Female Victims of the Spanish Civil War.” Reuters. 17 December 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-graves-women/womens-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-female-victims-of-spanish-civil-war-idUSKBN28R14W. Accessed 14 November 2021.
Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” EncyclopaediaBritannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.
The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.
O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.
Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” SmithsonianMagazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.
Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Walther, Ingo F. Picasso. Taschen. Köln, Germany, 2000. Print.
Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot. I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly. As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of.
As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”
What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work. Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument. Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become. The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.
In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed. One of these points is political. She writes:
That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence. This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.
Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”
A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art. Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.”
Her third point: It heals. Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma. The results:
Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported. Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.
Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery. In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine. This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in. Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.
In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence. This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.”
As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state. Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life. As she wrote, in
a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.
In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art. Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected.
My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical. If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression.
Depression is difficult to capture on the page. So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless. While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.
I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression. A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous. It was. I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking. I had no right to feel the way I did.
But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night.
How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?” When depressed, that is exactly the problem. Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this. But I didn’t.
In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life. “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.” This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt. In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay. She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.”
I recognized both states of mind. When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression. My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.” How to explain myself? What was wrong with me, after all?
I also had ambivalence about writing my own story. I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity. A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains. If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive. This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him. I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me. He smiled gently. “Soap opera,” he said.
I wrote about myself anyway. I had to. Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge. In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me.
Story has its own demands. There must be verisimilitude. There must be a shape. In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place. Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain. The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen. I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal.
In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.” Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves. When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there. “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.
I had a similar experience writing my own life. At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not. It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.
I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy. I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries.
Few groups are more in need of writing their stories. Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty. Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal. When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise. Me? A story? And then, permission granted, they begin.
“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.” This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively. The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children. When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish. At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church.
Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.” Febos is more generous.
“Listen to me,” she writes. “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”
Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself. In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.
Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City.
It is said that the average American moves every five to ten years. In my lifetime, some fifty-plus years, I have dwelled in four homes. I’ve lived in my present house for the longest period, nearly three decades.
The longer a person remains in a home, the more things they are likely to have accumulated. When they move, they may face having to relinquish much of their possessions, especially if downsizing into a smaller home. This purging can be challenging, but surrendering things can also be liberating, a cleansing of sorts. I went through this process twice. And not by choice. I was forced to purge after being displaced by catastrophic events. Not only was I faced with rebuilding my home, but I also had to surrender things that I held dear.
In 2009, my house was devastated in a fire. My partner, Drew, and I were on our way home from a weekend down the shore. The pet-sitters had stopped by in the morning, and shortly after they left, lightning struck the house. Neighbors heard the thunderous bolt but at first, they didn’t realize our house was hit.
The fire started on the lower level. It simmered, burning slowly in the laundry room for hours. A dresser in which I kept acrylic paints for art and craft projects caught afire. The paints ignited and accelerated the fire to the point where it quickly spread upward to the ceiling and along the rafters. It became what the Fire Marshall called a rolling fire.
The whole structure did not burn down as one might imagine, but the smoke extensively damaged the house. Since it was late summer, the house was air-conditioned, and the windows were shut. The house became filled with smoke, and the smoke finally seeped outside through the windows. Neighbors at first marveled at the unusual mist forming along the creek before they realized it was smoke and that it was coming from our house. They panicked and many called 911. The fire trucks came swiftly, and when we arrived shortly thereafter, the firemen had already broken down the front door with a hatchet and were inside the house. I could see them through the doorway, dragging furniture around, searching the fire’s angry ascent throughout the insides of the walls. Fallen things were scattered everywhere, but the firemen’s work was not about our items of importance and value. Whatever was in the way was thrown aside. Saving the house was their priority.
In the ensuing months after the fire, we saw the house gutted to the studs. Everything was removed, even the toilets and bathtubs. All that was left was a shell of the house, and we rebuilt it from within. It was a long ongoing, project that lasted nearly two years.
Just over a decade later, in September 2021, during Hurricane Ida, our house was flooded by the tiny creek that runs along the back of the property. The creek became overwhelmed in a deluge of rainfall, and it came up to the back of the houses of our neighborhood. It was quick and sudden. Many neighbors, including us, were flooded out.
Earlier in the evening, before the flood, we had retreated downstairs due to tornado warnings. We watched the news on television, and when the warnings passed, we went back upstairs. The phone rang. It was a neighbor, asking if we had a wet-vac that they could borrow. This should have been the first sign for us, but it didn’t register until my partner went outside on the deck, and he heard the roar of the creek. We shone a flashlight to see how high the creek was. We couldn’t see much, only that the ground seemed to be moving. That’s the creek, I said to my partner, stunned with disbelief. We are being flooded.
We raced downstairs to the garage to move the cars. When we opened the garage door, the creek roared inside, and the entire downstairs became flooded. The cars started to float, and one of them got dinged up as we backed it out. We were able to get both cars up to the top of our driveway.
Shortly afterwards, the police showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We left with our two dogs and found out later that we were lucky, as a neighbor had to be rescued by boat and others had to jump out of their windows to escape the rising creek. Our cats were left behind, unable to be found, but hiding on the second floor, which wasn’t being flooded. Fortunately, they survived by remaining upstairs beneath perhaps the beds or a dresser.
Both events, the fire and the flood, were of biblical proportions. What’s next, but locusts as a friend pointed out. (Instead of locusts, in the subsequent months we were consumed with an invasion of stink bugs and centipedes.) Creatures ranging from raccoons, rats, and opossums roamed through and around our house. Deer stalked the perimeter as if to claim the house as their own. Nature claimed our lives.
However, as the fire was devastatingly slow; the flood was swift. After the fire, we stayed in a local hotel for nearly a week and then rented a condo for the duration of the rebuild that took nearly two years. After the flood, we spent most of the night at a firehouse where an emergency shelter was set up and we returned early the following morning despite the evacuation order still being in place.
In both instances, we were forced to go through and clean out what was left of our house and determine what could be saved and what was deemed to be destroyed. I had to evaluate everything that I possessed. I cherished the many items that I had collected over the years and those that had been passed down to me through generations. Every object represented something to me, whether it was a link to my childhood, a connection to a relative who was no longer with us, or a significant moment of my life. I grieved over the loss of the upright piano that was passed through my family, made by my great-great-grandfather’s piano manufactory company during the early decades of the last century. I mourned for the elaborate pair of three-foot-tall porcelain statues of French courtiers: a man and a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and posing as if watching people dancing around a ballroom floor at Versailles. During my childhood, my grandmother had them poised on a round end table in her living room. We’d always said it was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and from my grandmother, I learned all about the tragic history of the French Revolution.
I have an accumulation of dishes. My grandmother collected Lenox china. As a child, I was very inquisitive, and I shared my grandmother’s interest in fine china. To her chagrin, when we would go to dinner at someone’s house, I would lift a plate and look at the bottom while asking if the dishes were Lenox or Noritake. My relatives were delighted by my interest, so unusual for a little boy. My grandmother always told me afterwards not to do that. It was rude, she said. I have and hold on dear pieces of her fine china that survived both the fire and the flood.
An aunt gave me a favorite piece before she passed, a deviled eggs platter. I treasured it even though I rarely made deviled eggs. This dish survived the fire, but it did not survive the flood. It disappeared, perhaps washed off a shelf in the garage by the raging water and shattering against the cinder-block wall. This is most likely what happened as later I found a large fragment of the dish’s scalloped edge in the driveway, probably having been carried out there as the water receded. I was heartbroken, not because I liked the dish so much, but because it was a lasting connection to my Aunt Violet.
Fires have always frightened me. I’ve read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where workers, in an attempt to escape, leaped to their deaths. My grandmother told me a story that has haunted me to this day. When she was in her early teens, a house, allegedly of ill repute, exploded down the street from her home. This was during Prohibition. There was a distillery in the basement, and it had blown up.
Neighbors rushed outside and watched people running out of the house that had exploded, many in flames and screaming as they shed their fiery clothing. My grandmother said the smell of burning flesh was ungodly. People died right there on the spot.
Before my house fire, I once worked delivering newspapers. A house on my route had caught fire and was reduced to mere shell of charred remains. The neighboring houses on both sides were impacted as well, and they had melted siding. This was during the holidays, and I speculated that the fire was caused by Christmas tree lights. Ever since, I have always been wary about using them in my own home. And I always wondered what it would be like to lose your home in such a manner. What it would be like to watch your house in flames, knowing everything that meant something to you was inside.
Everyone from the Fire Marshall to the restoration crew said that our house fire was a strange one. It was deemed as suspicious at first because the inferno was centered in one specific place from where it accelerated centrally due to the poorly placed jars of paints by the furnace. Also, many objects survived, while others were destroyed. In some closets, metal melted, yet candles on another shelf remained intact. Everything in the house was covered with soot. It seeped into drawers and even inside the refrigerator and stove. Most things made of fabric, such as clothing, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals, absorbed the smell of the smoke and were ruined. The things that could be saved had to be cleaned professionally. We had to decide what was worth saving and faced having to pay to restore these items.
All four of our pets died in the fire. Two dogs and two cats. The carbon monoxide got to them, and they had no idea what hit them. At least that’s what the firemen said. They just went to sleep. I always wondered: Isn’t this what is always said? He never knew what hit him or It was so fast they didn’t realize what was happening. The dogs were found huddled together in the bathroom. A cat was found wedged beneath the sofa as if to secure the last few gasps of oxygen. There was the imprint on a smoke-covered duvet in the guest bedroom where the other cat eventually collapsed and died. I do not believe they didn’t suffer. To me, they did not appear to have simply fallen asleep, but and seemed have experienced some level of terror during the last moments of their lives. A neighbor told me a dog was still alive when the firemen arrived, but I did not press her for further details. I know I am unable to handle knowing if this is true.
When we were evacuated the second time, after the flood, I reexperienced the trauma I went through after the fire. I feared for the cats we left behind. I felt I couldn’t go through the loss again, but I came to realize that I had no control over the situation. I had to let go of my fears and remain strong.
In both events, I lost nearly all my books. My office survived the fire for the most part because I, by chance, left the door closed, and that prevented much of the smoke from entering the room. But the pages absorbed the smell of smoke. Due to the generosity of the faculty and my peers in graduate school, many donated titles to replenish my library. Over the years I collected even more books, but the office was then destroyed in the flood. My books on the lower shelves were soaked. The one on the higher shelves absorbed the dampness, and the pages became bloated, crinkled, and curled. It broke my heart to see my books once again being thrown by the restoration crew’s workmen into oversized garbage bags and then tossed inside an oversized dumpster at the base of our driveway.
It’s time to use a Kindle, Drew tells me. I prefer having the actual book in my hands, and not a gadget. But this way, Drew explained, I can have all my books in one place, no piles of books everywhere, and in the event of a tragedy such as a fire or a flood, I won’t lose them. Does this mean we are expecting another catastrophic event? I asked him. He simply shrugged. Having experienced two such events in a decade surpassed all the odds. You should be playing the lottery, friends have told me.
Now it is the same house that we bought thirty years earlier, yet it is different as we have made changes. We redesigned the layout after the fire. Then, after the flood, we kept the lower level as is, but redesigned how we would utilize the rooms. For example, in the drawings, I created reading space for myself in Drew’s man cave so I can sit there with him and read while he watches a sporting event or a movie. It is a simpler arrangement that involves a pair of recliners. No more oversized sectional sofas with a humongous ottoman in the center. This means that our aging German shepherd we got after the fire will no longer has a spot on a sofa to sleep, and she will have to adjust to sleeping on the floor. I promised Drew we can get her a dog-bed.
Because the fire destroyed the entire house, we lost a lot of things. The flood, however, only impacted the lower level. Fortunately, our main quarters are upstairs and weren’t flooded. Downstairs, anything porous had to be thrown away. I was filled with sorrow to find that nearly all my Christmas decorations were destroyed. I was able to salvage several small porcelain figurines of elves, pixies, cherubs, and Christmas carolers that belonged to various grandparents, along with the many mementos that were stored on shelves above the waterline.
Yes, I have a lot of stuff. Some friends tease that I am a hoarder, yet they marvel at my collections, from the DeGrazia artwork to religious icons, old books, antique family photographs, Native American jewelry, and the many bee-themed dishes and pieces of silverware that I have accumulated over the years.
I do not believe that I am a hoarder; I am a collector. I have heard horror stories about people who hoard and cannot move from room to room with ease, or who drop dead and are not found for days, buried beneath piles of newspapers or bags of old clothing. This is not me. My clutter is organized and provides me with a connection to the world. My past, present, and future are all represented within every significant object. Each beautiful piece means something and has a story behind it.
We treasure these items that we still have after the destruction of the fire and the flood. I treasure them even more than I did before. Beautiful things. I may have lost a lot in both events, and on some level, it was liberating, a purge of sorts, but I have come to realize it is no longer about what I have lost. Not anymore. It is about what I have now, what I still possess. These are the things that matter most to me. I hold on to these precious items as I never know if they will one day become lost possessions too. These pieces are lasting survivors as I am.
William Vandegrift is a freelance writer. He’s written author interviews and restaurant reviews. He’s also have published short stories. William graduated from Bennington College with an MFA in writing and literature. His work has appeared in various journals including Agni, Quarterly West, The Writer’s Chronicle, and US 1 newspaper.
Aesthetic Transmissions: A Conversation with Robert Hass
By George Guida
Robert Hass, U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at Cal-Berkeley, and long-time environmental activist, published his first collection of poems, Field Guide, in 1973, and his latest, Summer Snow, in 2020. In all he has published seven collections of original work, eight volumes of translation (seven of Czeslaw Milosz’s writing and one of Japanese Haiku), and four volumes of criticism. Hass has won a myriad of awards and prizes, from the Yale Younger Poets Award to the Pulitzer Prize, and for five decades has been a presence on the California literary scene.
George Guida: Did you understand from an early age that you wanted to be a writer?
Robert Hass: I didn’t know how you got there from here, whether it was a pipe dream or not, but that’s what I thought I wanted to do. When I graduated from college, I was writing poems, stories, essays. It was in graduate school, when I was 21, 22, 23 years old and had access to a library that had lots of literary magazines, where I really started reading contemporary poetry. I also took a couple of graduate classes with teachers who were very charismatic.
GG: Who were they?
RH: One of them was Ivor Winters, who was an incredible reactionary. I didn’t agree with anything he said. Actually, I didn’t know enough to agree or disagree, but I had never heard anyone talk so passionately about anything in my life as he talked about poetry. He was extremely contemptuous of his students. He’d say, “I’m an old man, but you’ve come to hear me, because I said, ‘Crane got sold the Brooklyn Bridge by Emerson and Yeats is an overrated poet and a fascist.’ Let me tell you this: Poetry is a serious art. People go into it with almost no apparatus to defend themselves against their feelings. My friend Heart Crane killed himself. My friend Ezra Pound ended up in an insane asylum. Coleridge was an addict and a depressive. I don’t have much use for you. I think you’re going to become sentimental old college professors, dabbling, to the destruction of your betters,” and he walked out the room. First day of class.
GG: This was at Stanford?
RH: Yes, in 1963. I thought, “Wow!” But he interested me, and, again, I was reading the literary magazines, which featured novelists of the period: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Cheever. And I read the poets and thought they were way more interesting.
GG: Who were those poets?
RH: Gary Snyder, for sure, for California writing. I was also reading Ed Dorn at that time, and William Stafford, because they were also Western writers. Then too I read the New York School and the Black Mountain School. The Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, had just come out. It seemed like there was this incredible range of ways you could go about writing poetry and also of materials you could get to from writing it.
GG: At that point did you feel not only that you wanted to write poetry, but also that you wanted to be a part of that world?
RH: No, I didn’t imagine such a thing. The world that I imagined joining existed in the literary reviews—The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New Republic—but it wasn’t particularly about poetry. The world I was signing up for included James Agee writing about movies, Clement Greenburg writing about art, Delmore Schwartz writing about Kafka and existentialism. It was a world of ideas and art. It was thrilling to me.
I could see that among the poets at Stanford there was this little clique of people who were trying to write in a way that Winters would approve of. And I knew that there was a Beat scene, where something really interesting was going on, and that was also a community, I didn’t particularly think of it as a literary community. I thought of it as a countercultural—though we didn’t have that word then—community.
GG: What was your relationship with the countercultural community, other than seeing it from afar?
RH: In high school our older brothers and sisters, not mine but my friends’, were in North Beach. They were the people who were sort of the outsiders in high school and who listened to Jazz.
GG: Were you a city kid?
RH: No, I was a Marin County suburban kid. In the city we got snuck in with fake IDs to the Anxious Asp, to hear Jack Spicer read his poetry on Blabbermouth Night. At the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was only years later that I read about the event.
GG: So you probably ran across a lot of the figures of the era without knowing who they were?
RH: I knew where City Lights was, and I recognized who Ferlinghetti was. Another thing that would give me a sense of community were the journals in the basement of City Lights.
GG: The mimeographed magazines?
RH: Yes. I remember that Ferlinghetti published a magazine called The Journal for the Protection of All Being. It came out once a year for a few years. There was an essay in it by someone who, at the time, I’d never heard of, Gary Snyder, called “Buddhist Anarchism.” And I thought, “I’m not sure what Buddhism is and I’m not sure I know what anarchism is,” so I started reading. And then there was the symphony and the kids in my high school who were interested in classical music, which I knew nothing about. Wednesday night was a student night in the balcony and I would see these older students, now college kids, wearing black jeans and black turtlenecks, alongside all the fancy folk who had symphony tickets and were dressed up.
GG: Did you come from a family of intellectuals?
RH: No. My parents were socially a bit unusual. They were from the Depression Era. Their parents had been to college, but they didn’t go. They were plenty smart, but they were just raising kids. My dad was a tax attorney for an insurance company. They read the Saturday Evening Post and subscribed to the book of the Month Club.
GG: But you had this younger generation around you and your grandparents.
RH: My grandmother would recite poetry
GG: What would she recite?
RH: “Godfrey Gustavus Gore / would you please shut the door? / I’ve told you again / I’ve told you before.” But she could also recite some Joris-Karl Huysman and the poets a literate college girl of her generation would have known.
GG: So your entrée was mostly the older kids and what you read when you got to college.
RH: Also the Donald Allen anthology gave me a sense that there were poetry communities and a poetry world. At that point I was trying to write stories and poems both. I was involved in activism on civil rights and against the war. I started a weekly newspaper with friends, called Resistance. The first issue we called Commitment: A Journal of the Asylum. It reflected the existentialist ideal and our political commitment. The more radical people in our group wanted a more militant sounding name, so we changed it to Resistance. A lot of what we did was research into military contracts. The Stanford Research Institute was helping to prosecute the Vietnam War.
GG: I know when your first book appeared, and I have a timeline of when you start publishing your work, but when did you start perceiving yourself primarily as a poet.
RH: Sometime after 1967. At Stanford there were a group of people–partly around Ivor Winters–and each of them was going around writing poetry, saying, “I’m a poet.” Robert Pinsky was one of them. James McMichael was another. John Mathias and Kent Fields, who was Winter’s replacement. I I thought they were conservative in their practice. Then I met Mitch Goodman, who was the husband of Denise Levertov and an anti-war activist. He was a lecturer for a couple of years. He saw that I moved around Wallace Stegner, and he thought, “Here’s someone who isn’t a Winters person.” He would say to me, “What poets would you like to hear? We’re trying to invite some that Ivor”—”Arthur,” they called him—”would disapprove of.” I said I’d love to hear Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara.
The last couple of years at Stanford I started to write more poems. When I thought of a line, I couldn’t wait to get home and write it down. I had little kids, so I would go home and take care of the kids and take out my notebook. And I saw once that a copy of TheHudson Review had the last fragments of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and they said there would be more in another issue. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be published in the same magazine as Ezra Pound, so I sent poems to The Hudson Review, and they took two of them. To me that was an incredibly big deal, and I had absolutely no one to tell it to except my then-wife, and she said, “That’s nice.”
Then I got my first job at SUNY-Buffalo. I went there because it was teeming with poets, though I didn’t quite understand how much. The summer I arrived, I saw this whole rich—I wouldn’t say community. “Network” is certainly a useful word for this purpose. That is, many different groups interacting, and playing out their rivalries. I thought I was going to Partisan Review heaven. Leslie Fiedler had taught there. Joe Barber. Michelle Foucault was on the faculty. Susan Sontag was there for the summer. My second year there, Merce Cunningham and John Cage had a joint appointment. Robert Creeley was on the faculty. Charles Olson was on the faculty, and he’d hired a lot of Black Mountaineers to teach in the night school. There was a very intense group around Creely and Olson. There was an intense group around John Logan, and around Irving Feldman. The younger generation of poets from the New York School, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Tom Clark, were very active. That was when I came to see that it was a scene. By then I was trying to focus on writing poetry. I had done my academic work in a completely other area, and I didn’t even tell them I wrote poetry when I was hired at Buffalo.
GG: Your degree is in?
RH: A Ph.D. in comp lit and the novel. I’d done a dissertation on Dickens and Doestoevsky and Freud and capitalism and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was still thinking that stuff through, because I had finished the dissertation when I was there, but I had lost interest in it. I was really interested in writing poems.
GG: And you entered into this world of poetry silos at Buffalo. These were not overlapping circles of poets. Were they camps?
RH: It’s difficult to describe.Here’s an idea: I had mixed feelings about the social position of Elizabeth Bishop. That was a period when Howard Moss was Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. Bishop’s poems appeared there regularly, and they seemed, at that wild and wooly moment, very well-behaved—but subtle and musically kind of amazing. Creeley would ask me, “What poets are you reading?” and I happened to say Bishop, and he said, “Oh, dear.” I thought, you may not like her, you may think she’s conservative, but how could anybody who writes poetry not think she has an amazing ear. Hearing Creeley read, you understood his poetics. Logan read in this rich, orotund way these off-rhymed Lowell-ish poems. Irving Feldman was outside of poetry scenes and contemptuous of them. He was writing out of the Jewish Eastern European experience.
GG: When and where would you hear these people read?
RH: Almost every night. In coffee houses, on campus, all over the place. I had gone from Stanford, where you just didn’t hear much poetry at all, and then suddenly there were readings everywhere. The summer I arrived, there was a reading from summer visitors: the Irish poet Austin Clarke and William Empson. Empson was there for 2 summers, and I was put in charge of taking care of him. He was a serious drunk. Paul Carroll, who was the editor of Big Table Books. Michael Rumaker, who was a fiction writer and poet from Black Mountain. There were tons of poets reading, and there were overlapping communities of interests. The Olson people were either, “You’re cool or you’re not one of us.” Logan’s circle of friends included A. R. Ammons and James Wright, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Isabelle Gardner, Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwyn. They were a group of poets who were expressive, while the avant garde poets were more interested in analytic technique issues. The bars were full of poets.
When Creeley was going on leave, he said, “Why don’t you try teaching my contemporary poetry class while I’m gone?” I was teaching these courses on the novel. I said, “What I’d really like to do is take the difference between your salary and my salary and bring in a bunch of poets. I can teach the poet’s work on Tuesday, have them read on Wednesday, and they could teach the class on Thursday.”
GG: That sounds like a perfect world.
RH: Sure. So I invited Alan Ginsberg, who said he would only come if I invited Gregory Corso. Years later I stood on Corso’s grave in Paris and said, “Gregory, you owe me 400 dollars.” Anyway, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, William Merwyn, Ed Dorn, Ginsberg and Corso taught the course. Corso gave a talk on the origins of cave drawings of people getting stoned on morning glory seeds. I was suddenly submerged in this world. And there were many other things going on that were interesting. Ray Federman was part of a group of people, along with John Hawks and Jon Barth, the new fictioneers.
GG: It may warm your heart to know that Buffalo still has a vibrant literary community on many levels, including the local community level, but the scene you’re describing is remarkable.
RH: There were readings at bars with local poets. I remember one guy with a Greek surname, from Buffalo, who read a long poem that went on and on about the Marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. He didn’t quite get booed off stage, but after a while people said they’d really heard enough. He came to the bar, and I said, “That was a long poem,” and he said, “Onassis is going to be so pissed off.” Delusions of grandeur.
GG: The distinctions between academic poets and community poets have, axiomatically, eroded over the last twenty or so years. What was your experience negotiating those two milieux?
RH: I was aware of the distinction early on, and my impulse was not to buy into it. The way the allegiance thing worked was that if you were in the Creeley camp you had to think Joel Oppenheimer was a great poet and Galway Kinnell was a terrible poet. I would think, “Joel is a charming guy and he’s kind of writing like Creeley. He’s very funny, but his poetry isn’t very deep.” At the time Galway Kinnell was writing The Book of Nightmares, trying to write Rilkean poetry in America. The place asked you to choose camps, and I didn’t want to choose. I also saw that, in ways that seemed to me not completely healthy, they formed affiliation gangs. Each one drew on the energy of the star poet in the center of that group. It’s perfectly natural it would happen. It’s the way aesthetic and spiritual transmissions get made.
GG: How do you mean?
RH: Around that time, I was in New York visiting a friend. She was taking acting class. We went by to pick her up and we were standing outside the classroom where Uta Hagen–who had been in Lee Strasburg’s class and had done the first blind reading of Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando–was teaching this group of students And it raised the hair on the back of my neck, thinking about the way artistic transmissions happened. It’s very much like the way transmission happens in Buddhist communities: You find a master, you learn from the master, you eventually become a master yourself. It’s through that semi-erotic attachment, complicated by power relations. I loved the work of several of those poets, but I didn’t want to sign up particularly.
GG: So at some point you left this community in Buffalo?
RH: I would come back here in the summertime, and I would see the silos in San Francisco.
GG: Do you agree with that assessment, that it’s a siloed city?
RH: Yes and no. There’s leakage all over the place. I came back in 1971. I published my first book in 1973. At that point what I was interested in was poetry. I also saw here versions of what I’d seen in Buffalo: this group, that group. There were the San Francisco State poets. Berkeley was pretty dead, actually, in terms of a poetry scene, but here were terrific poets. Thom Gunn was here, but he was interested in the Castro and that world and not interested in a poetry scene. Ishmael Reed was here. Pinsky was teaching in the English Department. Josephine Miles was at the edge of retirement. So Berkeley had a rich tradition of growing poets–Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer—so there was a lot here, but the graduate program was not a creative writing program. After I got a book published, I got invited to read in Berkeley, and someone said—maybe it was Jack Foley—”Good luck. It’s like beating a very ancient carpet.” It didn’t feel welcoming and alive.
GG: San Francisco did?
RH: San Francisco did.
GG: When you say San Francisco, are you talking about City Lights or other venues?
RH: I’m trying to remember. I was raising small children, so I didn’t have much of a social life. But I would get out every once and a while to poetry readings at the San Francisco Poetry Center. But from here that’s a long schlep over to San Francisco State. Intersection was the place that tried to make an art community in the city at that time, and that’s where a lot of the cool readings were. It’s gone now, but I think for 20 years it was a venue. I forget what year New College began. The language poets as a group in the 1980s gave a series of talks at 80 Langston St, which is a little alley between Market and Mission. And that became a kind of downtown place for all non-academic-centered ideas, particularly linguistics and critical theory and language poetry. That was the cool scene, and they were interested in their different kinds of community. Folks like Ron Silliman. They would read for a couple of hours outside BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] stations. At the time Silliman was helping to edit The Tenderloin Times, which was a newspaper for street people to sell, in order to have something to do.
GG: Now the reading that happens at BART station is an impromptu spoken word event where they draw a chalk circle at the 16th and Mission Station, and there’s no order. It’s just jump into the circle, jump out of their circle.
RH: The language poets’ writing was extremely heady, but Silliman would tap his feet to the rhythm as he read. So it was poetry that denied having a body, even though it was totally bodily in the way that it was performed. There were a lot of people working in different ways. There was still a kind of Beat scene, though Gary Snyder was gone and Ginsberg was long gone. Jack Hirschman and Neeli Cherkovski were there, among others. There was a group of poets around Robert Duncan at San Francisco State. Stan Rice, the husband of Anne Rice, was a hot young poet in San Francisco, before they moved to New Orleans. Jack Gilbert and his partner Linda Gregg formed a kind of group.
GG: I want to go back to your idea of community in a more platonic sense, regarding poetry and being laureate. What’s your perception of the situation now in San Francisco? Of the community’s poets? Of poetry here generally? The power of it, relative, cultural?
RH: I don’t feel at all on top of what’s happening here, but one of the things that’s definitely happened is this: When I started reading poetry in 1963, ’64, ’65, I could read every book of poems published in America in a given year, including the mimeographed stuff. There were maybe 17 books of poems published a year. Last year there were 1400 books of poems published.
GG: Those are just books by the presses acknowledged as national presses.
RH: There was no thought that you could make a career writing poetry. When I was graduating college there were two creative writing graduate programs: Iowa and Stanford. I was in Stanford, and I wasn’t in the creative writing program.
GG: But you were aware that the MFA existed.
RH: I wasn’t actually, I don’t remember being aware of it as a choice. I thought at that point, “I want to be a writer.” I’d already gotten married, I’d worked 2 summers doing research at a bank, and it made it perfectly clear to me that I didn’t want to put on a suit and go to an office from 8 to 5. And it seems that’s what you do when you graduate from law school. I went to graduate school for a PhD in the same spirit in which I might have decided on law school. There weren’t models of poets teaching in the university, particularly, yet. What changed things was by the time I was back here in 1971, there were creative writing teachers at every college, so there came to be MFA programs, which exponentially increased the number of people writing poetry, and the number of people publishing poetry, and the number of communities usually organized around the aesthetic of the charismatic teachers in each program. That was also true of New York at the time.
GG: Those developments have had enormous implications in a couple of ways. The first of which is for the state of poetry. Do you have strong opinions about those implications?
RH: The writers of the older generations were extremely suspicious of the academy. There’s a poem of Theodore Roethke’s era about Roethke raging in the cage of the university. Kenneth Koch wrote in “Fresh Air,” that poets were “trembling in the universities and publishing houses,” “bathing the library steps with their spit.” They feared the university as a trap.
The greatest period in the history of lyric poetry was the Tang Dynasty in China, which produced, over 100 years, five or six of the greatest poets who have ever written in any language, and they all had to take exams in poetry in order to get the jobs as secretaries, in the waterworks, and in the other administrative jobs for Confucians. The evidence is that the more a culture encourages poetry, the better the poetry it produces.
GG: You would say generally that there’s more good poetry being written now than at any point in American history?
RH: We don’t know. Great poetry is mysterious. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are. On one hand the history of American poetry is the original work came from people who were on some level profoundly loners. I mention the Tang example as a counter argument to the idea that there’s a kind of static uniformity.
GG: Not a static uniformity, but let’s say we have a large number of programs producing poets who then become solitary poets, and they’re all over the place, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet in the United States.
Robert: I think that’s a really important thing. Look at early 20th-century American literature. In 1915, roughly when Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Pound were getting started, only 16 percent of Americans graduated from high school.
GG: It makes me think of poetry scrapbooking in the early 20th Century. It was a time when many people had scrapbooks of poems, but not everyone was writing poems. Now not too many are keeping scrapbooks, but everybody’s writing poetry.
RH: It was middle-class people who were keeping scrapbooks. In Sherwood Anderson’s stories of small-town life, people were going crazy and running through the streets naked in the middle of the night, in these oppressive environments. Now every disturbed and upset person in the country can find their way to some community college where somebody who loves poetry or painting or musical composition is teaching them. What’s not good about that?
GG: There is no downside to that.
RH: But this was the point I was coming around to, what’s been interesting about the Bay Area in the last 20 years. The creative writing program at Dominican University at San Rafael, the old hallowed one in San Francisco State, the College of Arts and Crafts, St. Mary’s, Mills College, they’ve each spilled into their surrounding communities. The graduates from my wife’s program from Saint Mary’s now have two or three different weekend poetry reading programs. There’s an audience of 75 to 100 people every couple of Friday nights. There are salons. And the groups intermingle and overlap–some, and some they don’t. The young poets want to take their art out into the community.
GG: That’s the experience that I’ve had, that just as you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poetry reading, Everywhere, every night of the week almost.
RH: You’ve got people saying that Americans don’t like poetry.
GG: That’s hard to believe.
RH: There were maybe 5 poets working in every University in America in 1948. Now every single college, university and community college in the country has two poets and two fiction writers teaching creative writing.
GG: It’s an amazing industry.
RH: And somebody’s paying for it, tax money mostly. We have on this campus our monthly poetry reading series and a biweekly one. Meanwhile there’s the Starry Plough and Studio One, off-campus venues
GG: So this is progress? Socially?
GG: The effect on society is positive, because…?
RH: It’s hard to say exactly. Everyone loves to quote William Carlos Williams: “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found [in poems].” Jeremy Nobel, a doctor at Harvard, started a non-profit called The Unlonely Project. He started working with veterans, writing and reading poetry. There are things like that going on. Lyn Hejinian has said that poetry coteries, her word, are necessary, because young poets need support and nurturing to find their little groups.
GG: I’ve discovered that poets leave coteries.
RH: People have talked about that in different ways. Somebody asked Robert Pinsky about being a Jewish poet and he said, “It’s the neighborhood I come from.” Some people stay there forever, or at least they become professionally associated as a spokesperson for that neighborhood of poetry.
Jane Jacobs, who is great on the subject of community, said, “New ideas come from old buildings.” Most new social initiatives of all kinds have to do with creating community. Another background of all of this is the distinction between community and network, and the networks that capitalism, a market economy, creates; and the kind of community good that has become the rhetoric of poetry and of the people who try to raise money to promote the arts as a way of promoting community.
GG: There’s a network of practicing poets in the academy. I have poet friends who know your wife professionally. I didn’t know that until two days ago when one of my friends mentioned it. There’s a reason they meet at the AWP conference every year. Then there are many communities that I’ve encountered in which people have absolutely no interest in networking, less than zero. They don’t care to get out beyond their specific communities. And I would say that’s the majority of people who write poetry. Were you aware of this when you were Poet Laureate? Did it feel like part of the task to encourage any particular sort of community?
RH: I had been traveling around the country, giving readings, for maybe twenty years by that time. I knew that in Yakima, Washington, you might think you’re going to get four people at a reading and the place is full, because somebody happened to have taught your poetry in their class, and you go to another place and nobody shows up. From that perspective, a poetry community feels like a pond where the temperature keeps changing.
As Poet Laureate I was interested in creating readers for poetry, figuring out how to do that, and using the position to confront fundamental issues of literacy. Because I was also the first person from the West of the Mississippi to have this job, I thought I should do something related to the environment. And they said, “We have $30,000 for you, to have some kind of conference.” Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress had just been elected. For the first time in fifty years, a Republican was in charge of financing for the Library of Congress. So I said, “I’d like to get the environmental writers together, because I hear that the lobbyists are sitting in the offices of these new freshmen Congressmen, rewriting the environmental legislation.” I went back the next week and they said, “We thought we had money available for a conference, but turns out we’re not going to this year. Sorry”.
GG: The Contract with America.
RH: So I said to them, “If raise the money, could I go ahead and do it ?” And they said, “Sure, if you raise the money.” I had never tried to raise money for anything. I called around to some people. Very quickly somebody called me, a guy named Charlie Hopper, who was the director of a foundation that used the Sara Lee Cheesecake family money. He said, “I hear you’re thinking of doing an environmental program at the Library of Congress, and I think that’s wonderful, and maybe we can give you some help”. I said, “I could use about $30,000.” He said, “How about 100,000?” I went to the Center for the Book, at the Library of Congress. It’s a place that produces those maps of writers that you see in schoolrooms. I thought “Bingo! If you just add environmental responsibility and the natural history writing tradition to these maps, you’ve got exactly the community poetry is interested in.”.
GG: But this could apply to other issues as well? It’s just a sort of paying attention that poetry demands.
RH: When Rita Dove had the job, she organized the first literary conference on the great diaspora, on what took black people out of the Jim Crow South and into the cities of the North, and created the art scenes that happened in places like New York and Chicago. It was about literature creating communities for people.
GG: As a white male Poet Laureate, were you very conscious of the imperative to diversify perspectives in and on poetry? We’re to the point now where many of the most celebrated books are by poets of color, gay poets of color, immigrant poets.
RH: I was certainly aware, because I grew up with the civil rights movement, so I understood very well the need for it, especially sitting in the Library of Congress where almost all of the employees were black and all the appointed staff were white. One day I went to work, there were an older guy and a younger guy, like they were in an August Wilson one-act, sitting on a bench outside the entry. The young kid said to the old guy, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t have to take this shit anymore.” And the old guy said, “Son, you do.”
I’d also started this environmental poetry program for children, and the first place we did it was in the Anacostia district in D. C.. I met a guy, who was a descendant of Daniel Boone, who created the Friends of the Anacostia River Society. Washington has a dual-store sewage system, like most American cities. Every time there’s a heavy rainfall in D. C. the sewers from the Federal Triangle overflow into the Anacostia River, and all the Congressional shit flows through the poorest neighborhood in the city. How’s that for a definition of community? So I was discovering a lot of stuff from doing that and feeling like bringing poetry into these communities that were concerned with the environment and with social justice was part of the work to be done.
GG: Is this something inherent in poetry which lends it to alliance with social justice movements? Or is that something that’s just happened?
RH: Well, that’s an interesting question. What do you think?
GG: The thing that occurs to me when I think of this possibility is that I have a friend who’s a a good poet, a professor, and a very conservative Christian. He rages about having to be a poet in an academic environment defined by the constant imperative for social justice. He thinks it’s all a bunch of…
GG: Right. To my mind poetry usually attracts people who are concerned with social justice, because it’s the people who reflect the most who are most concerned with social justice. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what it feels like.
RH: You can date the imperative for social justice of the kind that we have now, poetry arts in general, from Romanticism and the French Revolution. Was Shakespeare concerned with social justice when he was writing the Sonnets? I don’t think so. Were the great 17th-century religious poets concerned with social justice?
GG: I would think about Blake, but I would say poets of those times were concerned more with the awareness of social injustice, not so much with campaigning for social justice.
RH: So Blake is the turning point.
GG: The Industrial Revolution.
RH: Somebody said that The Vicar of Wakefield is the first novel in which someone mistreats a child. And it’s the same period when poets started writing poems about wounded animals, like Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse.” The moment of the birth of modern liberalism comes from romanticism and poetry of that period. Resistance to power has been an element of the arts since the end of the eighteenth century.
GG: At the risk of sounding ill-informed, when I think about the Modernists, I don’t think particularly that that’s a group of poets concerned with social justice. Eliot, Pound, even Stevens.
RH: In the Depression they turned themselves to that question, each of their own way.
GG: So you look at the poet of The Four Quartets as a different poet from the poet of The Wasteland.
RH: At the same time, Langston Hughes was writing, Carl Sandburg was writing. In his way Stevens, in “The Man on the Dump,” tried, from his lofty heights, to address the Depression.
I have a friend who was reading applications in the graduate program he’s in, with a couple of younger poets on the faculty. One of the applicants said that she particularly wanted to come to this program, because she really wanted to work on issues of gender injustice and inequality, and this older poet said, “This is not a program in gender and social inequality. It’s a program in poetry.” A younger poet on faculty went to the chair of the department and made a formal complaint against this poet for making a racist remark. Somebody else, somebody teaching at Harvard, told me that he was teaching Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” After class a woman came to him and said that, as a survivor of sexual abuse, she was very disturbed by how casually he had used the term “ravished.”
GG: I’ve heard people put this more vulgarly: that having the correct pronoun is not the same as having someone grab you.
RH: So right now that’s the moment. On the other question, of the spread of graduate programs, which has caused people who want work and who love this art to want it in more communities, I remember when Dana Gioia published the book Can Poetry Matter? Czeslaw Milosz was enraged by that title. He said, “This assumes John Carson matters.” He meant Johnny Carson and late night t. v. It was evident to him, who had seen whole generations carted off to the gas chamber, that the conversation that went on in poetry was a matter of life and death. That way of thinking also belonged to a time when it was only an educated aristocracy who read and wrote poetry.
GG: I did take issue with Gioia’s argument. It seemed to me that he was talking particularly about a subject of his next book, about San Francisco and the way the publishing industry here had disappeared.
RH: There’s another aspect to that discussion. First of all it’s only from the middle of the 19th Century that most people could read. And right around the time of Whitman’s debut there began to be cheap enough printing to make books.
GG: Compulsory education began in 1840.
RH: 1840. Unless you were black, and then you could still get killed for trying to read. During that period from about 1840 to 1920, the main source of information was newspapers and magazines, so people who work in the print media created celebrity. And what happened, beginning with radio and then with t. v., is that celebrities became people admired by the producers of news and entertainment. So the Modernists, who disliked popular poetry, which people had been working very hard to use in the spirit we’re talking about, for creating a community, were basically biting the hand that fed them just as it was being withdrawn. And they remained stars, so they–you know, Eliot and Pound, would show up in Bob Dylan’s songs. That was the end of that particular kind of celebrity for writers.
GG: I often look back on the 1980s, when I was in undergraduate, as the last gasp of the New York literary old line. I interned at The Hudson Review and The Paris Review then, and that was the last gasp of seeing literary types go to Elaine’s or seeing John Updike get into an elevator at a swank party. That sort of literary celebrity doesn’t appear to exist much anymore. And that’s not all bad. I can come here and interview you. You were Poet Laureate. And I was able to ask another Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, to visit with my class. And I’m just some guy at the City University of New York. It’s not the same sort of exclusivity.
RH: I have no clear picture of the way things are now. It’s clear that the Internet is changing the whole discussion about community and how you make it. Virtual poetry communities are everywhere and nowhere. I think the rise of identity politics is a subject for poetry, is connected to everywhere and nowhere. You have to talk about this carefully, because it has a blood and soil element. It was complicated for me, figuring out how to do environmental poetry without talking about how important attachment to community is, at the same time that cosmopolitanism is the solution to small-town prejudice. You encourage Nebraskans to be Nebraskans by taking care of their environment and stop polluting their rivers.
GG: I talked to two people this week who have said outright or implied that when push comes to shove people retreat to their tribes. Last night someone very close to my age who was running a poetry slam said basically as much. Berkeley is for Caucasians. Oakland is for brown people, as she put it. And last night at the Oakland Slam, there was as diverse a mix of people as I’ve seen, and I come from a place that was diverse and have taught for 30 years at a university that is.
RH: Fifty-five percent of undergraduates from Berkeley are not European-American in one way or another, and twenty percent of them don’t speak English as their first language at all.
GG: The definitions of diversity are interesting too, because back at my college in Brooklyn, the students speak one hundred and fifteen different languages. If there’s a dominant group, maybe it’s Latino students, but even they are from various places. I’m staying by Lake Merced in San Francisco, in an area that is predominantly Chinese American, almost entirely. Is that diversity?
RH: In my growing up, San Francisco was very much the patchwork model.
GG: Yes, and that’s New York as well, in terms of ethnic neighborhoods. I perceive that this generation of students is different. They really are blending together in a way that previous generations have only lip paid service to. But there still seem to be lingering doubts, especially among people who are part of communities of color, that there is a kind of final blending of communities, which includes poets. Do you believe that poetry is an effective vehicle for social change? Not necessarily for social justice, but for change.
RH: Here’s my formula for understanding poetry this way. For reasons that nobody quite understands, in the middle of the 18th Century, theologians were really puzzled by the existence of mountains, because they were such a waste of space. By the 1790s Friedrich Holderlin was writing these amazing poems about climbing up mountains. Coleridge and Wordsworth read Holderlin, and Thoreau read Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Muir read Thoreau. And Teddy Roosevelt read Muir. And we got national parks. Poetry isn’t responsible for what happens, but it’s the archive of everything human beings have thought and felt, more powerfully expressed than any place else. The idea is that the seeds of new things find their first shape in music, images, lines of poetry.
GG: What distinguishes poetry from other sorts of writing that could effect social change is that it’s got those elements that are part of the subconscious, that consciously work on a subconscious level.
RH: In the way that metaphor does. The oldest associations of poetry in every language from which written language emerges are with memory. It’s the power of poetry to invoke memory, making the way you say things memorable by making it rhythmic. If there is a world community, it’s that community. You were talking about poets belonging to networks on one hand and communities on the other and kind of moving between them. But I want to talk about this other thing, about spiritual traditions of transmission that happen inside and across communities. That is to say that people who love and practice an art are companions to everyone who loves and practices the art. When a painter dies it means something to the community of painters. That’s why the elegy of a poet for a poet is such an important form. I respect the work of almost anybody who gets work done.
GG: Did you continue to teach when you were Poet Laureate?
RH: I taught on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I caught planes on Wednesday mornings. What I did first, before I got involved with the environmental stuff or with writing the column, was to talk about literacy. I got invited to a downtown Oakland business club, and I called somebody in the school of education, and I asked, “What’s the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” and they told me. Then I went to the Oakland Rotary’s breakfast and said, “How many of you can name all of the linebacker corps of the Oakland Raiders?” And everybody could. Then I said, “How many of you know the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” And nobody could. And I said, “I couldn’t either, until I asked.” Then I said, “They’re you kids. If they can’t read, it’s your fault.” That was my attack on community at the outset. I ran around saying that imagination makes communities. Self-interest makes networks. Imagination makes communities. I just said it as a mantra. Poetry, by feeding the imagination and describing for us our shared world, makes a community of value. That’s partly true and partly a wish.
George Guida is author of nine books, most recently the novel Posts from Suburbia (Encircle Publications, 2022) and the collection of poems Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020). He is at work on Virtue at the Coffee House: Poetry and Community in America.
Professor English Department New York City College of Technology
Author Posts from Suburbia (2022) Zen of Pop: Poems (2020) New York and Other Lovers: Poems (2020) Pugilistic: Poems (2015) The Sleeping Gulf: Poems (2015) Spectacles of Themselves: Essays in Italian American Popular Culture and Literature (2015) The Pope Stories (2012) The Pope Play (2009) Low Italian (2007) The Peasant and the Pen: Men, Enterprise and the Recovery of Culture in Italian American Narrative (2003)
“The real function of art is to change mental patterns, making new thought possible.” Jean Dubuffet
To Carson Grace Becker
After a tortuous renovation, I hang the artwork back on freshly painted walls. Three framed Soviet posters on this side, three male nudes here, and three Ionesco lithographs over there. My friend Kim approves: “Everything looks better in groups of three.”
A fissure opens on the wall I’m facing and inside, a cavernous tunnel. I’m not saying that nature, life, and art do not have any other underlying code, don’t get me wrong. But all I can see, as of right now, is the master, organizing principle, the permanence of three.
“Methodic writing distracts me from humankind’s current condition,”, says Borges in The Library of Babel. In that infinite library that will outlive humans. a curious reader will find an encyclopedia of everything, everything, on the number three.
Khepri, one of the three forms of the Egyptian sun god, surfaces from the horizon and is represented in the shape of an ovoid scarab. Re, or Ra, the sun of the midday, supervises creation and fertility. Atum, dusk, sets on the horizon to complete this world.
I learned in school: “Living beings are born, grow, reproduce, and die.” That version of the maxim is not entirely accurate, loaded with implications, because not all living beings, me for one, end up reproducing. Birth, growth, and death: the three absolute constants in life.
Birth is the beginning, growth is the middle, and death is the end. Life rendered as the daily sun or an Aristotelian climactic narrative in three acts. The moment a storyteller messes with that primordial, organic expectation, the audience moves uncomfortably in their seats.
I’m sitting at a table across from my guy, and he tells me he can fold anything into a trifold brochure. He grabs a piece of paper and folds it into itself, in three. Then, he folds a plate, then the table, and when he is about to three-fold the room with us inside, I wake up.
I kept having these night-long dreams that I’m in a department store as large as a city. The layout, the clerks, and the shoppers change every time. In the final reiteration, the dream becomes a nightmare when I notice all products in the store are in the shape of a triskelion.
When I’m pregnant with new writing, without fail, the anxious dreams start. Tonight, I dreamt of my arrival at a palace, where I met a king, whose name I didn’t remember and whom I needed to impress. A menacing third person I couldn’t see was surveilling us.
My graduate advisor, Amy England, emails every day an original translation of a traditional Haiku. “A cold moon:/amid the withered trees/a stand of three bamboos.” Each haiku, three Japanese vertical lines, dances in my head softly, bamboo shoots in the wind.
“I’ve been down so long/That down don’t worry me/Repeat/ I just sit and wonder/Where can my good man be?” sings Billie Holiday. The blues repeats the first two stanzas and then surprises with a rhyming third. The loopy pain of the blues, a musical swinging razor.
What if I could declutter sentences, chopping the output of my brain with a machete? What if I could streamline all thoughts and ideas into something that could be three mere whistles? What if every new thought could fit in a small index card, three horizontal bamboos?
Anu was not only the god of the sky in Mesopotamia; he also was the father of other gods and, most surprisingly, demons too. Enlil was the Lord of the air, and he separated Heaven and Earth to make room for agriculture. Ea completed another godly triad as the Lord of Water.
The ancient spiritual and medical practice of Ayurveda defines the three doshas as vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). Vata relates to the nervous system, pitta to the enzymes, and kapha to the mucus. Health means the doshas are balanced and in equilibrium.
In The Timaeus, Plato discusses the order and beauty of the universe. He declares the existence of four primordial elements: fire, air, water, and earth. All of them are formed, everything is formed, he believed, by the most basic of shapes: the triangle.
Pythagoras thought that there were three types of men. Those who came to the games to buy and sell, those who came to compete, and those who came to watch. Those who love wealth and material possessions, those who search for honors, and those who look for wisdom.
The three states of matter are liquid, solid, and gas, as it happens with water, ice and steam. The states correspond with our three basic animal needs for life: drink, food and air. At the atomic level of matter, another triad: protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Three is the first non-symmetrical plurality that is not perfectly divisible in half. You can have one or two, but it is at three that a pattern kicks off. Three is the first number that gets things slightly off-kilter, and therefore, I would argue, when they finally get interesting.
Creation, preservation, and destruction are the forms of the Trimūrti of Hinduism: Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Brahmā, the self-born, is often the mind, Viṣṇu, the protector, the heart and Śiva, the destroyer of evil, is the body. Of course, mind, heart, and body, the braid within us all.
The three Hindu Gods have a trinity of companions, the Tridevi. Saraswati, Brahma’s wife, represents learning and cultural fulfillment, and Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife, material and spiritual fulfillment. The third, Śiva’s wife, is Parvati, is the goddess of both war and love.
Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur was a wiseman from the 17th century of our era and wrote poetry and rhetoric. He established three types of merits in excellent poetry: sweetness, energy, and perspicuity. Perspicuity is, in my case, the elusive goddess of clear thinking.
Three sons of three merchants were given refuge in the middle of the night by a beautiful widow who offered to marry the one who could tell the scariest tale. Each young man told a horrific, bloody story. To this day, she has not decided which of the three was the scariest.
While three princes went to war, a maid ordered their fiancés to be gouged. The three blind queens delivered three baby boys while hiding away in a cave. One of the boys cured the queens by blowing three candles, so they all returned home and roasted the maid alive.
Once upon a time, a girl was granted three wishes, or maybe it was three guesses or three opportunities to crack a riddle, I am not sure. Once upon a time, there were three bears, three little pigs, and a three-legged cat. Once upon a time, humans built all tales around trinities.
The Golden Triangle was the preferred compositional form of the European Renaissance. Raphael used it in all of his portraits of Madonna and the child. In art textbooks, they superimpose the triangles over the paintings as if to show its secret code, its x-ray.
The rule of three divides any visual composition into three vertical columns and three horizontal rows. In the intersections lay the focal points. They are like the beginning, middle, and end of a story, or the sun’s daily journey, so ingrained, we don’t even notice them.
Three kinds of light illuminate opaque bodies, observed Da Vinci. The “direct light,” that of the sun, the “diffused light,” of cloudy or misty weather, and the “subdued light,” when the sun is entirely under the horizon. Was he talking about painting or my moods?
In the Book of Revelations, God is that “who was, and is, and is to come.” When he became human, according to that tradition, he had to face three temptations. And the ending of the story, a re-start: he was dead for three days before resurrecting.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The three Archangels are the Catholic tradition’s mega-angels, and the Wise Men who visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also three. In the Last Supper by Da Vinci, the Apostles sit in groups of three.
Providence, both omnipresent and omnisapient. At the Uffizi in Florence, in The Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo (1525), the Eye of Providence supervises us, mortals, from inside a triangle. The same eye that watches us from a pyramid in the US dollar bill.
“I’m writing about triangles,” I mention to my friend Margaret Mary. “You mean the musical instrument?”, she asks. This makes me laugh, and then I remember that when I was a Catholic kid, the triangle was the only instrument they let me play at mass.
My first communion at age nine was the culmination of a year-long process of Catholic indoctrination. Among other things I learned: the Confiteor. Hand in fist, one knocks three times on the chest while confessing: “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi grandísimas culpa.”
In Persia, third century of the common era, a new doctrine that boils everything down to two principles, Good and Evil, takes shape: Manichaeism. Two create an illusory comfort. The third idea, object, or person crashes in and makes room for something that is not as simple.
The French say: “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité“. Franco, in Spain, cried: “¡Una, Grande, Libre!” Jefferson applied “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness” like lipstick on John Locke’s lips, because, let’s face it, Property, not the Pursuit of Happiness, is the ultimate American god.
A new generation has shattered the binary perception of gender. Still, so many false binaries are assumed in the American conversation left/right, red/blue, right/wrong. Manichaeism’s righteousness (us vs. them) is alive and well in this irritable capitalism of late.
Populism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism offer those tired of complexity a respite from the messiness of a nuanced third: you’re with us or a heretic. At one point, oversimplifying catches up. Binary dogmas will continue to implode because their falseness is not sustainable.
The North-Atlantic democracies seemed a given, but are now just brittle. In life and online, I’m surrounded by loud Roman emperors, displaying a thumb up, or most often, a giant Pollice Verso. So here I am, doing my best to resist by longing for moments of messy maybes.
Two is company, three is a crowd, they say, but I beg to differ. Somedays, one is a crowd, and I guess that the experience of finding two to be a crowd may not be that uncommon, mainly when the novelty, like dead fish, expires. But who says three could not be good company?
Finally, a portion of the hetero-world has become more accepting of certain forms of queerness. How many friends, straight and gay, have casually denied to me the existence of bisexuality? Bi is not here or there and therefore is a threat to the false safety of the simplified.
When I watched Cabaret on TV, as a young teen, I loved the songs. The bisexual love triangle at the heart of the personal drama either totally escaped me, I found unremarkable, or maybe both. In the song Two Ladies, the MC sings: “Twosie beats onsie. But nothing beats threes.”
Growing up in Spain, in the last years of General Franco we only had two TV channels. American Hollywood classics played in rotation. On my bedroom wall, I collected posters of old movies with a trio of characters at their core: Casablanca, The Apartment, Some like it hot…
Lubitsch, Wilder, Hawks, all the great directors seemed to recognize the primordial balance and tension of the triangle. Most of the time one of the two men won over the woman. Only, in Lean’s Blithe Spirit, the love triangle of one man and two women sublimate in the afterlife.
Barthes: “The three trials of the writer are Doubt, Patience, and Separation”. The first one is an abstract trial, what to write; the second a practical one, the step-by-step process; the third one, a moral one, how society will judge. He was so blocked, he died before writing his novel.
I have no doubts: I’m compulsively researching the implications of three. The process is limited and helped by the three-line constriction. The third one: if I were to worry how anybody will judge my musings on three, I wouldn’t be able to put down one word.
Author Emilio Williams passed away last night in his sleep. He was known for his essay “Thrice,” a piece credited with ending all two-person entanglements. It was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film starring Antonio, Brad, and Denzel, as the perfect threesome.
Growing up, my family. My father and two brothers, my mother and two sisters, my two brothers and me, my two sisters and me, my parents and me. Me, the baby who came a bit late, could take two at a time, but the minute three of them got together, there was no entry point.
Our sense of time passing is measured in days, months, and years. If I drill down, it also is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. The first set of times is easier to remember, more historical, but the second just gets lost, it dissolves in the blur of a non-existent present.
I finally move the debris of my father’s life from a storage locker into our new garage. Not absolute chaos, things are contained in boxes, but not proper order either. Here it is now, the cruel randomness of the private archive in all its brown-boxed glory.
My dad takes me to the Prado, and I hold his hand, afraid to get lost. We come into a room where people are waiting in front of a box on the wall. A man in a grey uniform and white gloves unfolds the covers, and there it is, Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The left panel includes Jesus, Adam, and Eve in a bucolic paradise. The right panel is a scary, grotesque black scene of Hell. But the mystery of the triptych is in its central panel, a paradise where hundreds of human figures give themselves with complete abandon to hedonistic joy.
Purgatory is that space where souls are triaged before ending up in heaven or hell. My father passed just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and his boxes arrived shortly after. I started opening them in the early summer, but by box number three, I had to stop, it had become too much.
According to the Cleveland Clinic website, there are three types of tears. The basal covers and protects the eye; the reflex appears when a foreign object enters the eye; and the emotional, well, that one you know. “Humans are the only creatures known to produce emotional tears.”
In the Catholic tradition, tears can be a gift, not a curse. Holy tears can be penitential (regret), tears of love (grace), or tears of compassion for those suffering. In my all-boys Catholic school, like the song, we were only taught one thing about tears: “Boys don’t cry”.
Cranach, the Elder, painted several versions of the Allegory of Melancholia. The most famous is at the National Gallery of Denmark, and it is as abstruse as melancholia proper. This 1532 oil has three naked toddlers trying to pass, with two sticks, a ball through a hoop.
Few thinkers have had a more decisive influence on our messed-up sexuality than St. Augustine. The ordeal started when, as a teenager, he had an involuntary erection in front of his father who reacted with pride and joy. The mother, Monica, who was very devout, shamed them both.
After a long life of “sin” and belief in Manichaeism, Augustine developed the doctrine of peccatum originale. Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Augustine codified that every human being is a born-sinner stained by voluntary and involuntary desires.
For Augustine there were three types of lust: that of the senses, that of power and that of curiosity. The first two are better known and more straightforward. The third one is a lust of the eyes, a craving that includes an interest in theater, the sciences, and knowing more.
Quintilian was a Latin master of oratory who was born only an hour away from my mother’s birthplace. He established a binary between “clear” and “obscure” speech. But the French enlightenment came later to save my day with a new concept, that of “Je ne sais quois”.
Woolf said, “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Attempt to discuss the semitransparent nature of life, and they will make you pay a high price. Although the pathology is in dichotomous thinking.
Who is afraid of the “Je ne sais quois”? Why is every piece of writing, every play, every artwork only as valuable as some desire to have it explained? Let’s celebrate that certain experiences transcend our ability to pin them on a cork board as if we were collecting butterflies.
Early movies were called the theater of silence, just a camera sitting there while the actors moved around the stage. Then, montage helped movies find their mojo. If you place this image here, next to this other image you get a third thing pregnant with symbolic meaning.
At the Studio Museum, in Harlem, artist Fred Wilson reorganized objects in the collection, as part of his project “Mining the Museum”. By placing a 19th-century chair, next to a slave whipping post, Wilson created a third thing. Parataxis is the dot, dot, dot between two ideas.
In 1982, three major events took place in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s life. She married, published her avant-garde “novel” Dictee, just a week before being murdered. In her cult book, she combines two elements (text and image) to create a third thing teeming with new connotations.
Bierce famously defined good writing as “clear thinking made visible”. Who gets to decide what is good writing and how do they get that job? Oh, how I hope that by now I have made translucent to you my current lack of clear-thinking!
Refranes are popular sayings, proverbs, that usually have a rhyme or work as a couplet. In Spanish, they are considered the wisdom of the people. “No hay dos sin tres” literally asserts that there are no two, without a third.
In English, the “where” adverbs are binary: here and there, this or that. In Spanish, there are three forms aquí, ahí, allá, and esta, esa, aquella, with gendered options to the latter. So ahí, and esa, eso, ese allow a vagueness to be in a middle-range, a place in the in-between.
Duermevela in Spanish is a type of light sleep between being awake and falling asleep that I thought had no exact translation into English. But apparently there is a word, a term that sounds more pathologic than poetic, no wonder it is not commonly used. The word: hypnagogia.
The Japanese concept of Ma is usually translated to English in a binary sense: negative space. A better translation could be the in-between, for example the Ma between two karate fighters. The kanji symbol for Ma is a door with a sun peaking, the life between the edges.
A door has three frames, two vertical, one horizontal on top, but it is the empty space that creates a threshold. To cross a door, for an instant, I walk in the liminal space that is not here or there. Like breathing, travels in the in-between are so constant most times they pass unnoticed.
Laudonia, one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is divided into three: the city of the dead, the city of the living, and the city of the unborn. The city of the unborn feeds the city of the dead like sand passing through an hourglass. The amount of sand is, of course, finite.
As the first anniversary of my father’s passing approached, I couldn’t procrastinate any longer the opening of old boxes filled with the debris of a lifetime. In one folder among my old letters to him, somebody else’s letter had been misfiled. Its secrets were not for me to read.
Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation discusses Bacon’s triptychs by quoting the theory of rhythm by the composer Messiaen. There is an active rhythm and a passive rhythm. But there is also a third one, a rhythm he names attendant, a witness to a conflict, who remains inactive.
The Borromean knot receives its name from the Italian House of Borromeo which used its shape in their coat of arms. The knot is made out of three, inseparably linked shapes, usually circles that connote the eternal. When one of the links is removed, the structure falls apart.
Lacan borrowed the metaphor of the Borromean knot to explain the human mind. The symbolic ring is linguistic and the imaginary ring involves images and mirrors. The third one is the real: everything that is impossible to represent with images or words, the unknowable.
Lacan defined three functions of the father related to the three rings. The symbolic father represents the law and the imaginary father is a construct of our ideas of the father. Even people who understand Lacan (I don’t) consider his third definition, the real father, difficult to grasp.
The Classic era of Athens and Rome eclipses two and a half thousand years of history in Northern Europe. The three matrons (the mothers) were the triple goddesses of Ancient Europe. Their function was the protection of the family and fertility and, at certain times, war.
Myth, life, and that space in between called the stage. Lear had three daughters and Macbeth, three witches. Later, Chekhov created The Three Sisters, Genet three women role-playing The Maids, Beckett three old friends in Come and Go, and Albee, Three Tall Women.
Pessoa wrote three women mourning a dead body in the play The Mariner. In a night-long wake, they sit still, uttering non-sequiturs, each line more beautiful than the last. The third watcher says: “It horrifies me that soon I will already have told you what I am about to say.”
I’m thinking of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera interlocking their fingers playfully. I’m thinking of the three fates, the Parcas: Nona, Decima, and Morta, spinning, measuring, and cutting the fine thread of life. I’m thinking, mostly, of my mother and two sisters.
I’m Theseus in a labyrinth of cathexis and amnesia. In 2011, when I moved back to Chicago, my father’s hometown, I saw an arresting exhibition of amateur snapshots, women posing three at a time. I reorder the old catalog online: I don’t remember a single one of them.
The photo reads on the back “Lindau, c. 1920’s,” probably snapped from a boat. The black silhouettes of three women on a pier walk away from the camera, back towards land. Maybe they came to see the boat off, to wave goodbye to the photographer, this time probably for good.
PHOTO CREDIT: Untitled (Lindau [?]) c. 1920/29. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Emilio Williams is a bilingual (Spanish/English) award-winning writer and educator. His fragmented essays have appeared in Hinterland Magazine, and Imagined Theatres, among other publications. His critically acclaimed plays have been produced in Argentina, Estonia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Emilio has lectured around the world, and taught in several U.S. universities, including DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Georgia State University. He holds a BA in Film and Video and an MFA in Writing. He is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists where he is also a faculty member. www.emiliowilliams.com
I called my mom from the yearbook office phone—being on the staff had its advantages, including dialing home without the need to find a quarter or wait in line at the payphone—and told her I’d be driving around with Laura to sell ads as part of my official duties of cataloging the 1995-1996 academic year. Laura was a junior, one of my best friends, not even on yearbook staff, and not old enough to have a license; but her dad allowed us to use his old powder blue Chevy Celebrity station wagon as long as I drove and neither of us got in trouble.
“Not today,” Mom said, letting out a drag. I could tell she was smoking, and probably holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while doing dishes, all with a lit cigarette. It was like she had three hands, always.
“Why?” I asked. I was never told no. Like ever. Especially now that she was busy with the kids.
Christopher and Brittney were still in diapers, and they shared the middle room in a small cabin-like house we moved into right after the owner died (we’d kept all his things, even the spaghetti in the cabinet), shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from four years in Oklahoma—where they’d been born and I’d lost my virginity.
“Just not today,” she repeated. “Take the bus home.”
My school district was big. It’s vast and rural and woodsy here in the Poconos, and it takes me almost an hour on windy backgrounds to get to school on Bus 31—only about 35 minutes, though, if I catch a ride with Wayne, who has a black pick-up truck and good radio. Laura lives in another direction, and I have an unofficial-permanent pass to ride her bus. (I lived with her for a few months when we first moved back to PA because there wasn’t room for me at my step-dad’s parents’ house. And the bus driver liked me.) The plan was to take the bus to Laura’s, get the Celebrity, and then drive up and down Route 940 to visit restaurants and video stores and ski rental shops to talk the owners into buying a full page ad—or, please just at least half, sir—to support the Cardinals.
I twirled the tan cord around and around while taking stock of the closet I was in; we call it the yearbook office, but this is actually a storage room that happened to have a phone jack, so Mr. Jeffries (or maybe the yearbook advisor before him) equipped it with an extra school desk, chair, and telephone. We worked on the yearbook in an actual classroom, in the basement, next to the graphics arts room, woodshop, and ceramics studio. I would sometimes get a pass out of class to come to this office-closet to do official yearbook business; I’d bop into Jeffries’ English class and I didn’t even need to say anything; he’d just take the yearbook key off the main ring and hand it to me and continue talking about Chaucer or whatever he was teaching that day. Laura joked that I was in love with Jeffries and that we’d do it, right here against this desk. [Maybe I had a mild, mild crush, and maybe I fantasized about it once or twice, but only after she put the idea in my head.]
What could be SO important that I couldn’t go to Laura’s after school? I thought. And then I finished that thought by thinking aloud, “What? Did you get me a computer or something?”
“Just. Come. HOME.”
My uncle Matt—my mom’s little brother and one of the twins [Melissa is the other]—was at the house when I got home. Came all the way from outside Philly. He was in business school and was getting rid of an old computer, so my mom bought it (promised to pay him one day?) as a surprise for me.
I was happy, but also I felt terrible. I’d ruined the surprise. I didn’t know if I was smart or psychic, but somehow I knew.
I knew that my mom knew my deepest desire was to write and that I longed for a computer more than anything in this world. I knew that deep down my mom wanted to make me happy if she could. So I knew that if she was telling me to come home after school that it must be something big. And the only thing big enough, special enough, to me, would have been the miracle of a home computer.
Things had settled down and I was in my room playing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I was in heaven.
“Donna got a ’puter,” Chrissy kept saying, and it was adorable as the time he shoved a pea up his nose and started to cry.
I still called them “the kids” long after they were out of diapers and big enough to microwave themselves hot dogs for dinner.
“How are the kids?” I’d ask my mom every time I called, which I know wasn’t often enough. I was out of the house at 18, never to look back. It wasn’t her, exactly. It was her choice in men. I was old enough to know better before I should have been old enough to know better. That’s why I had multiple after-school jobs, and seasonal ones, too, because the Poconos was a tourist area and there was always work at the ski resorts in the winter. [That’s how I met Wayne, with the truck.] If I was awake, I did not want to be in that house. Not ever.
So I remember them in diapers, maybe training pants. And they remember me as the older kid with the ’puter.
If I’m being honest, when I asked my mom, “How are the kids?” I already always knew the answer, especially as they became tweens. And if I’m being really, really honest, I was asking my mom because I wanted her to say it out loud. And hear herself saying it. I wanted to be right.
That procreating with a monster meant these poor kids’ lives were doomed.
When I was working on my MFA thesis in 2009, even though it’s almost two decades since that first IBM interrupted my afternoon of official sales calls, I still thought of it as the ’puter. Still do. And when I think of the ’puter, and the tiny voice that said it, I want to cry.
My thesis has been in today’s digital equivalent of a drawer for more than 10 years. It’s not that I’m NOT writing, but I write so much in my day job and read and edit so much in my passion project literary journal that sometimes my creativity is drained. My emotional energy, spent. When people ask about my memoir-in-progress, I remind myself that I can’t even call it a work-in-progress because, progress it doesn’t. But I was once told it still counts as writing when you’re constantly thinking about your story, working it out in your head.
I could also be fooling myself. It might not be lack of time or lack of energy — or not JUST lack of time or lack of energy. It could also be that when you’re writing about your own life, it’s a never-ending story. But it — that “it” being a specific piece of that story, a story within a still-evolving story — has to stop and start somewhere. And, sometimes, I feel that I don’t yet know my destination.
I haven’t seen my sister since my cousin Adam’s funeral. He’s OUR cousin, I know. But “my” always comes out. Just like my mom never referred to “Grandma” as “grandma” when talking about her; instead, she’d say things like, “My mom grew up in Jersey….” or “My mom is coming over today.”
Adam, only 39, died not long after his dad; our Uncle Paul. Which was not long after our mom, my (adoptive) father, my cat, my same-age aunt Theresa—and just before “our mom’s mom.”
It was a rough couple of years.
Then my (our) brother Christopher Then their (not our) dad.
“I have nightmares that Britt kills me,” I tell my other childhood best friend, Jasmine. “Like, they’re crazy vivid.”
“That’s some shit,” Jasmine says. We’re talking about my gradual approach to getting back in touch with my sister. Jasmine lost her dad many years before I’d experienced the loss of the parent, before that few years of terrible family losses; at the time, I know, in my heart of hearts, I was not there for her like I should have been. It’s true what they say: you’d don’t know the gravity of losing a parent until you do. I want to be a better friend to her, forever and ever.
This is why you need distance when you’re writing a memoir. I’d added an epilogue because it seemed important at the time, but it didn’t belong in my story, at least not in this way.
But, at the time, when I called my mom and asked, “How are the kids?” I found out that one of the kids would be having one of their own.
I told you so, was what I wanted to say. But instead, I asked the due date.
Later that night, I lamented how it was so unfair that these two kids shared their DNA with a monster, while also realizing that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and, now, neither would this baby, and this tortured my conscience. Then, a thought came to me. I’d lost my virginity to a much older man at about the same age my sister and brother are now; it’s just that no one had to ever know about it because I did not become pregnant.
A few months later, as I left work early to rush 45 minutes in one direction to pick up my brother from Red Rock Job Corps., where he was living/working/learning at the time, to race to Lehigh Valley Medical Center an hour in the other direction to meet my mom and sister (and new niece or nephew), the adrenaline told me, this THIS is the end of your book.
We come from a family of halves. My mom has a half-sister and a much older half-brother, but they are still my real aunts and uncles. So I promised my mom that I’d consider Chrissy and Britt my “real” siblings, even though we had different dads. Even though HE was their dad.
In my late 30s, as I became distant—and grew ashamed of their actions—I started referring to them as half-siblings in conversations with newer acquaintances, people I’d just met. I wanted to ensure 1) that people knew that half of them came from something I have zero part of and 2) that nothing was their fault, really.
All I knew about my sister was via her public Facebook posts. I was usually scared to look; but sometimes I would, especially on days on which I had dreamt or night-mared about her the evening before. In 2021, the content of her posts began to change significantly. I accepted her lingering Friend request.
I run a literary magazine and one of the essays we published in the March/April 2021 issue hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Empathy poured out for my sister, instead of my anger toward her father and resentment for my mother’s choices. These thoughts were overwhelming and definitely something I’d need to talk with someone professionally about, to sort through all of these memories and grudges and emotions—and grief for the years with her I’d lost, and for those with our mother and brother neither of us would get again.
But, in that moment, I knew those feelings were the start of something big, something healing. I suddenly saw my sister as a whole person, her own person. I reflected back to the time I thought I had an epilogue to my story (I’d still need 10 years to figure out what I was actually writing and why). I also thought about superheroes and supervillains and origin stories and the rising popularity of prequels in Hollywood/Streamingwood—when the beginnings help us better understand the end.
It’s not that I no longer have a story to tell. It’s just that—that little diapered girl I left behind when I packed up my ’puter and headed off to college and then to forever—I want to know what happened to her.
This is more than a realization that Britt has a book in her, one that might pick up where mine left off. Rather, this metaphor of the prequel is helping me understand that she’s not a bit character in my story, but a main character in her own. A survivor.
She is my sister. She has a story. And I can’t wait to learn it—and learn from it.
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant in higher education, and she also is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Make It Go Away: Love, Loss, and What I was Reading
By Joan Frank
Quick: what’s the first goal for a writer—for artists, for anyone—living in a time of worldwide plague?
Easy, on the face of it: Survive. Keep strong. Stay well, and alert.
Shut up and do everything it takes. Care for beloveds. Minimize risk. Obey the Surgeon General. Stay put. Get the vaccine when it shows up.
Soon—maybe by the time you read this—we’ll be looking back on the scourge in relief. Trading memories of how it was.
At this writing, we’re barely able to keep up with the now.
That’s become—putting it gently—the trickier task.
For this moment, breaking revelations still blizzard down nonstop, burying us past our eyebrows. By revelations I don’t just mean the progress of vaccines, political wars, riots and insurrections, gossip, ecological cataclysm, mortality numbers, or dwindling hospital beds.
I mean revelations about meaning. Hide-and-seek with meaning.
With the advents of all the above, meaning itself seems to mutate almost hourly, twisting, collapsing, shredding. Life’s under siege. Nothing can feel the same from the moment one steps outside the door—though if you squint, things on their surfaces appear familiar. It’s what’s directly beneath those surfaces that decimates. The news screams death, destruction, chaos. Our minds struggle to look straight at it.
Unsurprisingly, our responses have popped forth in waves, a surging of flung-open jacks-in-the-box. We’ve had awful trouble sleeping. We’ve experienced bad dreams, anxiety, stress; muzziness; depression, manic panic. We’ve felt spaced out or angry or glum, tired or twitchy, scared or numb or listless; wanting to eat or drink ourselves insensible or just to stop eating and never get out of bed. We’ve burst into tears at odd moments. Former goals (productivity; social gestures; acquiring things) have flattened and bled out, unrecognizable as road kill.
The known world shrank to the size of domestic floor space. Fastidiousness seguéd into neurosis, childlike irritability, and straight-up freakouts. You’re standing right where I want to be. I like that cup best. Get dressed? Why?
Analogies for lockdown realities have varied. One is Ann Frank’s attic. Another is living under house arrest. Another—repeated ad nauseam like the particulars of our days themselves—is the movie Groundhog Day, which I’d only reprise here to highlight one refinement. Our predicament’s best captured, I think, by one crucial cut in that film—to the scene in which Bill Murray calmly reads a book at the lunch counter of the local diner. With that inspired shot (which no one, to my knowledge, has yet singled out for major praise) we’re slammed by the totality of Murray’s character’s surrender. Forced to accept his entrapment, sentenced to live out the same day into eternity, he’s done a poignantly existential thing.
He’s made himself at home inside it.
To a large degree, many of us have done the same. We’ve resigned ourselves to reading quietly at the eternal lunch counter.
It’s consoling—sort of—to find oneself inducted into a huge club by default. But that does not change the unspeakable conditions of membership. A dear friend commented wisely: “I know we’re lucky and that so many people we know are lucky [to have] good health, homes, enough food, etc. It sometimes strikes me that complaining is a luxury. Even so, I complain—and malls are closing and small businesses can’t pay rent, so the outside world is a twisted art installation of shuttered doors.”
It may be that when this thing is past—if it will ever be past—we’ll promise each other never to forget it, to be and act and do better. Then we’ll quickly forget every last speck of it and go back to being heedless, grabbing idiots. It is possible.
Meantime? The prime internal bulletin for me, during the deep-vault exile of lockdown, has been one I don’t see a slew of writers admitting.
A saggy joke throughout this pandemic, from well-meaning friends and family referring to us writers—well known to be introverts, cranks, hermits—went like this:
“Jeez, you must be in heaven. You don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone. You can live in your pajamas and eat popcorn and write your heart out.”
Cue everyone’s sour laughter. Utterers of the quip sounded proud of its fresh wit, waiting for the writer to find it hilarious, too.
Technically, it’s true. We’ve gone straight to the work every day. We’ve maybe felt some guilty thankfulness for being able to do it, without preamble or apology.
But that’s where the joke breaks down. Have writers viewed this new, enforced working time as perfect heaven? Did we feel clear and purposeful about whatever we’d been tapping out in our plague-buffered hidey-hole?
Yeah—no, I don’t think so. No. Would you easily celebrate hunkering down at the notebook or keyboard while an asteroid sped toward earth, or a tidal wave raced toward your home? Feel compelled to restyle interior decor in the Titanic’s cabins?
I couldn’t. Can’t.
No question, in the old days certain jolly distractions—travel and recreations imposed by my dear spouse and innocent others—seemed a zombie-conspiracy to drink my blood, to block my blazing love affair with reading and writing.
Yet if you asked any number of writers during a plague year, I’m suspecting they might well confess the unspeakable, as I do here:
We’ve missed everything and everyone. Teeth-chatteringly.
That could, I know, be another way of saying we’ve missed the enemy.
We’ve missed Zorba’s “full catastrophe:” the pulse and chaos of life, the fussing and yammering, juggling and chafing. The endless, draining noise and dance.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve missed ground-level hubbub—even if it was always something I routinely fought. Like Kingsley Amis’s battleships laboring to turn around at sea, I’ve begun to grasp the stunning lesson of plaguetime: the utter primacy to us as animals, of gathering.
Take away gathering; little remains. Commerce, services, systems implode or go wonky—and with them, culture, and close behind that, mental health. Without familiar shapes, motions, and networks, we lose our bearings. Who’d guess that even within the saddest, most people-hating hearts lurked an actual, physical longing to hug and be hugged (even those lucky enough to live with a beloved partner)? Some of us have also painfully missed the very small beings (not, alas, in our pods) whom we once could unthinkingly hold in our arms. By the time we can safely hold them again, we fear they may be grown.
I never could have accepted this, had I not felt it.
But the revelation goes deeper. It’s been about more than animal hunger to hang out and be held.
What’s also gone mushy and mealy is identity. One defines oneself, as a rule, against a witnessing backdrop. If you say to a wino crumpled on the curb hey, I’m a writer, he or she might or might not deign to grunt back at you. But you’ll have named a calling in recognizable language before a fellow-member of your species. Something happens. You’ve defined yourself—if only for yourself—before another’s gaze, another’s sensibility, however weird.
If witnesses vanish, do we exist? Crisp boundaries loosened during lockdown, disassembled, floated off in motes. This weightlessness seems related to the riddle of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear. It also feels connected to the futility of dressing in street clothes—street suddenly such a telling designation—or wearing makeup or jewelry. By extension: why fuss with meals? Why arrange the green beans in their own little pile beside the veggie burger? Why anything? Why not just stare out the window watching the light change for, oh, twelve or fourteen months?
(Bathing, I do hope, won’t fall by the wayside.)
Parents raising kids? You’re hereby given a complete pass on everything. Not for you such lazy whithering. More: You deserve medals and prizes. The same for healthcare workers; also service workers, first responders, and everyone on the front lines: everyone who’ll have acted, in Mr. Roger’s words, as a Helper.
At the beginning of all this, an astronaut wrote an article advising us that if she could live in space alone for a year, we could manage living in isolation under lockdown. She itemized her principles: make a routine, exercise, care for your brain and emotional health; stay connected. Turns out these sane basics did not prove so easily adaptable by earthbound types. Are we inferior creatures? Certainly, later historians will feast on the naughty-nice list of our small triumphs and cavernous failures. And without doubt a ton of zingy post-facto studies will appear, like thousand-piece human nature puzzles (shadows of Lord of the Flies flickering through the window).
Except, guys? To hell with it.
Like everyone, I never wanted to be part of this experiment. I want back the simple luxury of fighting people for private time. I crave the clarity of knowing, without an avalanche of second (third, hundredth) thoughts, what I’m doing and why. I want to embrace friends while eating and drinking with them—if later grumbling about them.
More than anything I want people to stop getting sick and dying, to get jobs, food, health care, schools, and decent life restored to them.
In the words of my then-very-young stepson when my husband, telling him stories, channeled a scary invented ogre named Mr. Meany:
“Make it go away!”
It’s worth noting here that in many an artist’s heart a tremendous deadlock has raged, around which all the above-named commotion twirls—like that symbol for medical doctors with its famed righteous sword entwined (menaced) by snakes.
How can writing—any art—matter during mortal terror?
“Leave me alone to make—”
To make what, exactly? More to the point, why?
Who wants to make up stories or discuss vagaries of style when people are dying in swaths? What can any of us produce that will be of real use—or even make sense in this context?
Cue the slow, deep breath. Cue the lowered head.
Multiple times the above question has reared its big angry head. And my reflex each time is to surrender, conceding the worst: that mere art, during a plague, can make no more difference than morning dew—that it can scarcely matter. If bombs are falling, how puny art must seem.
Yet in the next instant I’m forced to remember the heroism of European museum curators who, during war years, evacuated precious inventories and hid or buried them in secret locales until it was safe to exhume them. How this fact repeatedly fills us with wonder as we gaze on incalculable treasures, generations later.
Then I begin to think about our own personal choices, daily, hourly, for the use of time during isolation—with no observer taking notes or holding a gun to our heads.
I notice what I’ve seen myself reach for constantly as comfort, nourishment, reinforcement. And from their reports, a lot of friends have appeared to be doing pretty much the same.
I’ve reached for music, films, and books. Simple as that.
I’ve never stopped playing the music I love, Bach to Barbosa-Lima. Evenings we’ve watched movies that distracted, beautified, stirred, soothed, or made us laugh like maniacs. Documentaries. Dance. If anything made me happy-cry, so much the better.
But above all I’ve been constantly immersed in the reading I sensed would fortify me, the language that would feel irreducible—even if bombs fell.
This reading has included some horrific material, stories others might consider nihilistic or weird. Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (my paperback edition introduced with fierce relish by Tennessee Williams), proved as powerful a nightmare as they come. Yet something about its calm recital of human peculiarity and darkness felt like release, pure and invigorating as lungfuls of alpine air. The terrible truths embedded in every word of its eerie murder story—of jealousy, erotic confusion, inchoate mortal longing—reassured. I couldn’t question this odd chemistry. Most of what I’ve been reading could not have been written to address someone stranded in frightened isolation during a plague year. Yet there was no escaping the awareness that the material had been written because it had to be written. Thus, the writing that most mattered felt as if it had been murmured in the dark to a secret friend—me—with that gorgeous one-on-one urgency that reverberates in a reader’s skull like a struck gong.
Meredith Hall’s novel Beneficence, an epic, glittering novel chronicling an American farm family’s ordeals during the early 20th century, was one such discovery. So was Nicole Krauss’s dreamlike yet ruthlessly cerebral story collection To Be a Man, and Robert Hass’ latest book of glittering, gritty poetry, Summer Snow. Wright Morris’s Plains Song (I’m late to it) struck me as wondrous. I was swept away by Peter Cameron’s dark, austere, nearly perfect What Happens at Night, and wished it would never end.
Other reading that “gave good weight” during plague-time included Henri Troyat’s brilliant, bristling biography, Tolstoy. (Troyat’s oeuvre proves eye-poppingly vast.) Another was Rachel Cohen’s deep dive into her own experience interleaved with that of Jane Austen, in Austen Years. Another still was Margot Livesey’s luminously compassionate The Boy in the Field.
I’ve got a queue of waiting titles at the library (via curbside pickup) as tall as me. In that queue are some surprises, if what I’ve cited sounds too draconian. I’ve ordered plenty of what’s making the rounds (Ayad Akhtar, Charles Yu, Yang Huang, Robert Jones Jr.) but also essays: Homo Irrealis, Andre Aciman; My Lives, Edmund White; The Way of Bach, Dan Moller. Black Futures, Kimberly Drew. Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl. Wintering, Katherine May.
Underpinning the above also runs a series of impulses to reabsorb some timeless icons. The Russians. Shirley Hazzard. Marguerite Yourcenar. Tove Jansson. Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary was written while real bombs fell, and describes them).
Not every title works. I’ve had to abandon some. It’s a waste of time to pretend otherwise. And time’s still precious, even as it collapses and bubbles like lava. The oldest criterion applies: given horrific straits, what insists we stick around? What reaches into us; what puts something back? Engagement’s slipperier than ever, given our pulverized attention spans. I’m after whatever works—aware too, very sadly, that for plenty of others this might mean video games.
As my canny young granddaughter notes, shrugging: “What’re you gonna do?”
Maybe good art (in any form) fixes a hard ground-floor of honesty that can be stood upon calmly while the planet shudders; a sturdy roof when the heavens open: Here is the church, here is the steeple. The works that feel talismanic, as if they emit lifesaving signals, demand we hold them tightly: Here’s who we are. Here’s who we’ve been. Here’s what we have meant and can still, may still, mean. Certain books act like emergency-relief parcels dropped straight into the yearning heart. Their voices—all some variant, per Louise Glück, of “the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing”—still talk to me, telling me things it helps to remember while the shitstorm rages outside. In truth, the exact same chemistry applies post-shitstorm. It’s the only answer to inarticulable anguish I can locate for now—one I’ll keep taking as I find it.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of eleven books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her newest novel is THE OUTLOOK FOR EARTHLINGS (Regal House Publishing). Concurrent works include WHERE YOU’RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS (Sarabande Books), and TRY TO GET LOST: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL AND PLACE (Univ. of New Mexico Press). She lives in Northern California.
terrified run across a freshly plowed field, the earth exploding around me, is
a frequent memory. Then I wonder why my father would shoot at my nine-year-old self.
plowed is one term for drunkenness. Besides describing tilled soil, the word is
also used to describe a ponderous, plodding way of walking.
is a condition that can foster a tendency to walk carefully and slowly. I have
been drunk a few times in my life. Brandy and I are no longer speaking.
first foster family was my favorite. When I faked an illness, giving social services
grounds to take me from my mother, I demanded a new family. And got the Brady
Bunch, replete with three girls and three boys.
favorite animal of mine is Doona. Under five pounds with no tail, Doona is a
black cat who tends to remain elusive when I want to pick her up. But when she
relents to be hugged, it feels like a reward.
Doona means dark maiden in the language of Manx, the native language on the Isle of Man, and is where the tailless Manx cat originated. A friend found Doona in her Virginia driveway, a tiny kitten a long way from her ancestral island.
The language of animals, and
especially cats, has the same tonal value of human language. They speak of
anxiety, want, anger and contentedness. My cats understand that books make me
deaf, so one of them always jumps onto whatever I am reading.
Cats have always been a family
member. I once had twenty-seven rescue cats residing on my farm. One day, I
heard screeching above my head and saw a kitten clutched in the talons of a
bald eagle. Poor baby. Mama couldn’t save you from that.
The member of my blue eyed, white stallion is often on display as he dances around his mares in the pasture. Even when the mares are not in estrus, Mykael feels obligated to remind them of his manhood. But, when he comes too close, they reward him with a kick to the chest. Like a player waiting for his turn off the bench, he waits.
White is supposed to be the color of sheep, but my Katahdin ewes are brown, black and tan. All four were to be lawn mowers to save me from the tyranny of grass. But, instead of munching grass, the girls decided the asparagus, Japanese plum and forsythia bushes were better eating. So they were fired from their day job and are doing the real work of mothering.
Color is a motivating factor in my life. Right down to my farm gates (hunter green), driveway gates (a subtle light gray) and my animals. Charcoal gray, Burmese white and black with green eyes are the cats. Blue merle and black tricolor are the dogs. And dun, dark bay, golden bay, chestnut, paint, palomino, and perlino white are the horses. But the ducks: all buff.
My central theme for farming is subsistence. But planting, watering, hoeing and weeding is arduously repetitive. No wonder farmers always kept a crop of children on hand to do the chores. I farm because I am a closet prepper and have memories of food insecurity. I should be thinner.
Subsistence living is akin to a prisoner lifestyle as the need to grow food imprisons me on my farm. A diverse crop is key to ensure enough vegetables for the year survive if weather or insects destroy some varieties. It’s a lot of work to live without grocery stores. No wonder fast food is popular. Less work.
A prisoner by choice, my vegetables and animals are my inmates. All look to me for care. Every morning I am a minor celebrity when I appear on the front porch, all animal eyes on me, waiting. Will I pick up the buckets first or load the hay cart or fill water tanks? I change it up just to keep them guessing.
The animals are my family, more honest than most humans and accepting of multiple hugs. Some let me sit next to them to meditate. Bugs, bees and wasps buzz around us as we zone out, listening to our breathing.
Honest reflection at times makes me desire less responsibility, to answer the urge to thru hike to see. Just see. This need for movement motivated my long-distance bike rides, marathon running and competing in endurance races of 50 miles or so on horseback.
Desire for a life of meaning awakens me every morning, along with my latest “why” question that needs an answer. My father, now eighty-nine, says he is waiting to die, when he can remember. Long after the incident, I asked him why he shot at me, my sisters and Mom when we ran from his rage all those years ago.
“I was trying to get you to stop.”
“Dad, people run away from gunfire.” He remained
silent until I asked, “What does a deer do when you shoot at it?”
“I think it is going to rain today.”
Heilgeist is an
MFA student at Lindenwood University and a volunteer tutor for an adult
literacy program. Ruth writes about her life past and present. An avid
opportunity-maker, Ruth’s experience ranges from paper girl, modeling, belly
dancing, waitressing, actor, portrait artist, horse breeder/trainer, fraud
investigator, endurance rider, marathon runner, voice over artist, mortgage
underwriter, farmer, illustrator, bartender, equine sports massage therapist,
cartoonist, writer and a receptionist for The School for Private Detectives.
Ruth lives on her farm with seven horses who think she’s the bomb (but only
when she feeds them), three cats who complain when she’s late and two Aussies
training her to get up early. In the near future, Ruth hopes to survive tandem
What you will start with: You’ll be supplied with one mother, 36 years old when you are born. She will have many fine qualities and, of course, some baggage.
Your mother grew up on a farm, during the Great Depression, in a religious family, one of seven children with a stern father and a mother who was chronically ill. Your mother was kept out of school the year she was 13, but not told why. She resented her mother that year. Partway through the year, though, her baby sister Fran was born. Fran’s arrival was a surprise to all the children, because Brethren in Christ parents in 1933 did not speak of such things as pregnancy. Your mother adored baby Fran and took care of her. When their mother died less than a decade later, your mother, now married, took Fran into her home. Your mother felt guilty for the rest of her life for having resented her mother and the lost year of school. “There will never be tension between me and my daughter,” she vowed.
your birth: Be
your mother’s long-expected daughter, her girl-gift from God after four boys.
Be her great joy. Be an easy baby, in tune to her rhythms as she is to yours.
Be a peaceful toddler, such a contrast to her rambunctious sons. Be the child she
can take anywhere, to any meeting, and put in a corner with crayons and paper. Don’t
let her leave you in the church nursery, though; sit right next to her on the
hard pew, perfectly quiet, through the whole Sunday service, including your
father’s sermon. Draw neat little pictures and letters on scrap paper, using
the tiny pencils provided in the pew racks for filling out offering envelopes and
“Pray for me” cards. You will never deface a hymnbook or a Bible. After church,
while your mother meets and greets church people as the pastor’s wife, hold
tight to the hem of her gray wool skirt so you can’t possibly lose her. Keep
your eyes down to avoid fawning parishioners who think you are cute. Be quiet
as a mouse. To get your mother’s attention, just give the hem a little tug and
she’ll bend down to see what you need.
you grow: Be
your mother’s creative outlet. Be the child she can finally sew for, a girl who
wears dresses. Even let her dress you in pink, though it will not be your
favorite color later. Learn to cook with her; browse Woman’s Day magazine at
her side; learn early how to make the family’s special oatmeal cookies. Be her
little helper, a child who likes to dust furniture. Be the daughter she can
count on; feel bad when she has migraines and give her get-well cards you make
yourself. Be the one who reads your
mother’s moods better than anyone, better than your brothers or your father,
and hugs her when she’s sad. Be her companion. Be that girl for many years.
you are nine:
When you go away to Bible camp for the first time, hide your feelings, because
the camp handbook says, “No homesickness allowed! Playpens available for crybabies.”
Be afraid of the consequences of breaking any rules — there are so many — at
this strict place where children get fined real money for talking during rest
hour, being late to chapel, or wearing play clothes when dress-up is required,
which is almost all the time. Be grateful for the seven dresses your mother
sewed and packed for you, a different one for each day at camp, and try not to resent
it when your counselor, a young missionary wife without much sense, tells another
girl (without asking) to borrow one of your dresses because you have so many,
and the girl takes one you haven’t worn yet. Try not to be upset when someone
steals your spending money, and be forgiving when the money is suddenly
replaced, appearing on your freshly made bunk while you are down the hall cleaning
the bathroom with PineSol as your cabin chore. Turn your homesickness into a
stomachache by the last day of camp, and cry just a tiny bit when you visit the
camp nurse, who gives you aspirin you can’t swallow unless it’s crushed up into
tiny bits, because all you’ve ever had is chewable baby aspirin. Be so glad to
see your mother when she and your father come to pick you up. She is an angel,
beautiful and comforting and smelling of Lily of the Valley cologne. Give her
the present you bought her at the camp store: a ring, fake silver, with a Bible
verse engraved, because you know she never, ever had a ring before, not even
for her wedding, and you want to grant her deepest wishes.
you are twelve:
Start going to a new camp run by strong, confident, athletic women in their
twenties and thirties. No one brings dresses to this place. Your mother, now
49, is unsure of herself, fears deep water, and wears frumpy clothes. Fall in
love with the bold young female energy of the camp counselors. Paddle a canoe
on Lake Bunganut; get stung by yellowjackets; sing your heart out at campfires;
cry when you leave. Tell your mother flatly, “I didn’t want to come home.” Fail
to realize how that stings. Disappear into your room for hours, writing your
new friends; watch for their letters and dream of being back in the Maine woods
with them next year. Be furious when your mother snoops, when she reads your
letter to a counselor you have a crush on; know from your mother’s face that
you cannot say so. Let it smolder while you hide your letters more carefully.
Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Pretend you aren’t embarrassed and afraid about
having these crushes. You’ll have no context for envisioning a future life with
a girl. You won’t even know the word lesbian yet.
you are fourteen:
When the Jesus Revolution comes to your youth group, have a spiritual crisis.
Get fired up for God; also vow to be kinder to your mother. You can still
rebel, but in a complicated way your parents won’t forbid: wandering the
streets with hippies and staying out late—but witnessing, not drinking;
praying, not doing drugs. Let out the hems of your jeans so they fray; innocently
sew pink buttons down the fly, horrifying your mother. Buy men’s work boots at
the Army Surplus store; avoid wearing dresses. Praise God with your hands in
the air, in big hugging circles of singing, swaying Jesus Freaks, accompanied
by candlelight and guitar.
Some of your freakiness will fade in time,
but not your vow to be a better daughter. Hit upon a way to survive: be
pleasant and agreeable, but never tell your mother about your deepest feelings,
your doubts and worries, and least of all your yearning for attention and
affection from women who are not her. Keep this vow for the next two decades.
Also move away, farther and farther, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Seattle. Live your
life; go to therapy. Write sweet letters and remember Mother’s Day. Send delightful
homemade Christmas presents but live too far away to visit on holidays.
you are thirty-five:
Mail your parents an audiotape you record on two rainy Sunday afternoons in
your tiny Seattle apartment, drinking tea. You know they’ll be able to listen
to it because you recently gave them a cassette player as a gift, hoping they
would record memories for their grandchildren (something they’ll never get
around to). On the tape, tell them first that you are no longer an evangelical
Christian, and then that you are a lesbian. Ask them not to argue the Bible
with you. Be more honest than since you were twelve. Also tell them you are
moving to Wisconsin to be with the woman you love. Be terrified when the tape
is in the mail. Wait a month for their response, which, when it comes, is in
two separate letters on identical stationery that say almost the same thing and,
ironically, arrive via overnight mail.
“We love you so much and we always
will. You know our beliefs; we cannot approve. Our hearts are so heavy. But we
love you so much.” They will not quote the Bible or argue; you asked them not
to. But you will know what they now fear: that you are lost and bound for hell;
that they will lose you forever. Still, you will be relieved to have been
honest. You will be glad not to keep this secret from them anymore.
You will have careful, tentative phone conversations with your mother now; she will not speak directly about your revelation, but she will tell you she loves you, every time, her voice breaking. You will talk about less frightening things, like your new pet guinea pig, for whom your mother sends presents, and small details about your upcoming move. After you move, she’ll call less often, sounding afraid if your partner answers the phone. “Hello, may I please speak with JoAnne?”
Find out from your oldest brother that your mother confided in him, and he defended you: “Don’t say you’ll keep praying for JoAnne; say you’ll keep loving her.” He’ll tell you what your mother said: “Oh, of course we will! I think I love her more than ever — if that’s possible.” Don’t find out for many years that she also confided in your cousin Doug: “This woman JoAnne is with; I think she has influenced her.” Don’t find out for many more years — until your parents have dementia and have forgotten so much — that in those early months they acquired some conservative literature about the misguided path you chose. (When you do find this literature years later, in the bottom of an unused drawer in your mother’s dresser, spirit it out to the dumpster and never mention it.)
After you buy a house with your beloved, invite your parents to visit. See them relax, especially your mother. Your partner is a midwife, she delivers babies on Amish farms, she is making a quilt — cozy, familiar things your mother can relate to. Your partner can also drive a nail, wield a power drill, and cook hearty food — things that impress your father. “Well, Martha, you pass!” he’ll blurt out at dinner, and you’ll know he doesn’t realize all he is saying. They can’t help but love her, no matter what they believe. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” your mother will say when they leave. They’ll send Martha presents every Christmas, although at first those gifts will be separate from the ones they send you.
Then give them a harder test when you invite them to your Quaker wedding, which is planned for Valentine’s Day. Again they will take weeks to reply. Finally your mother will call in tears. “We can’t come,” she’ll choke out. “You know our beliefs. But you know we love you, and we love Martha too.” You’ll be angry: “That’s hard to believe right now,” you’ll say. But you will write again: “If you come,” you’ll assure your mother, “no one will assume you approve. They’ll just assume you love us.” Also say, “I wish you could be there with me when I get married. I wish you could see my wedding dress.”
Then, just one week before the
ceremony, your mother will call again. “We’re coming,” she’ll say. “We got
flights. We won’t come early, and we’ll stay at a different hotel. And we don’t
want to be in group photos the grandchildren might see someday, that might make
them think we were okay with this.”
You won’t be able to eat on the
morning of your wedding. You’ll be terrified to see your parents, and you’ll wonder
what they’ll do. But to your surprise, they will ask to wear the same lapel
flowers as other close family and friends. Your mother will sit in the Quaker
silence before you speak your vows, trembling and quiet. You will catch her eye
and say silently, “I love you,” and she will mouth it back. She and your father
will behave perfectly at your reception, shy but friendly, eating cake,
watching and listening. For years afterward, notice that your mother doesn’t
refer to your wedding as such, but as “that time we were there, that February.”
And when you write to your Aunt Fran — her baby sister — you’ll find out your
mother hasn’t told the relatives you are married. You’ll also learn that Aunt
Fran doesn’t approve of your lifestyle either.
you are fifty:
Watch your mother losing memories but never her yearning to be close to you.
See her trust and confide in you. Travel many miles, many times, over many
years, to care for her with tenderness. See her confusion about the passage of
time. “Did you go to my one-room school too?” she’ll ask, and also, “Are you
old enough to remember when the Twin Towers fell?” Take her to doctor’s
appointments and be her advocate; do not discount her complaints of pain.
Measure out Tylenol, and Vicodin, and keep careful track. Help her in the
bathroom. Hear her mention “your wedding.”
Be amazed when your mother, in her mental
fog, wonders whether another of her sisters — a spinster missionary — had a
female partner. “Who was Anita with?” she’ll ask you. “Was she with
Martha?” Hide your surprise. Say nonchalantly, “No, Martha is with me.”
“Oh, that’s right,” your mother will say. She’ll ask again and again why you
can’t move in with her. “Martha, too!” she’ll insist. “We can make room.”
See your mother mistake you for her baby sister. Feel her turn to you as if you are her mother. Assure her you won’t leave while she’s at daycare. Put stuffed animals and dolls in her arms. Recognize she is human and vulnerable; understand how many decades it has been since she had any power over you. Wish you could give her more power over herself; wish you could grant her deepest wishes. Have no resentment, no regret. Know that your own heart is on the mend.
JoAnne E. Lehman edits a gender studies review journal at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her creative nonfiction has also been published in The Cresset, and she is a book reviewer for Good River Review.
It’s snowing and there is no power, which means there is no water. We have an electric pump in our well. But, thank God, it is snowing, so we will never, ever run out of water as long as the snow comes. The worst is when there is no power in the summer and I think for a moment we will have to collect water from the small stream on either side of the ditch on our road, and boil it to drink out of like dogs.
of my useless neighbors are over. I could write a book. I could title it “Tania
and the Three Useless Neighbors” and read it to my children. The only neighbor
that I like, a retired artist that my daughter calls “Uncle Jack”, is upstairs
playing polly pockets with her. This is more for him than it is for my
daughter. Him and I are having a competition to see who can hate Scott and
Beth, the other two neighbors, more.
Scott has offered to make us hashbrowns. I can make my own hashbrowns, but I am pregnant and Scott
wants to feel like he helped. They invited themselves over. His wife, Beth, came over first, with canned
gravy. Canned. I asked her if the
gravy was vegetarian and she faltered for a
moment. “I suppose it’s not,” she said, doing the embarrassed laugh that
drives me up the fucking wall. I didn’t hide my annoyance. She
knows I’m a vegetarian. She doesn’t register my expression, either oblivious or
choosing to ignore it.
“Scott’s going to make a hash!” she says, clapping. Scott
leaves our ranch sliding door open when he is out on the deck fussing with the
grill. Fussing is the correct term; I don’t think this man has ever
successfully used a grill in his life. I keep shutting the sliding door shut; I
keep telling him he’s letting out all the warm air and there’s no way to reheat
my house when the power is out, and his wife said “Oh, you need a generator
like we have!” and I tell her that’s fine but right now I have no generator so
her husband needs to keep the door shut and she laughs. I get up and shut the
Scott comes back inside. “Just a few minutes longer!” he says, beaming. His wife looks up at him, beams harder. I think to myself that hash should only take a few minutes to begin with. He didn’t even use fresh potatoes–they came pre-shredded and frozen in a bag. I can’t stop thinking about how these adults are like children, overgrown. I wish I could drink wine. I think maybe one glass won’t hurt the fetus–how much of it will really even go to the fetus anyway–but then what if it is a really selfish fetus? What if the fetus drinks all of the wine and I get none of it and I’ve compromised the baby’s health for nothing? I have no idea if the fetus is selfish or gracious, so I don’t drink the wine.
Last Thanksgiving, Beth made raisin salmon patties. Raisin. It was disgusting. She stared at me with her giant, too-wide face while I dragged out cutting the salmon patty for as long as possible. It was my turn to be the child. The raisins were the size of grapes, no, bigger, the size of baseballs. They were so large I felt like I had to unhinge my jaw the way a snake does with a rodent, just to get some of the disgusting, half-deflated raisin into my mouth, soaked with salmon juice. I wanted to kill myself. The dog wouldn’t even eat it. I can only imagine what these hash browns will taste like. I wish my husband was at home instead of his business trip. The burden of entertaining these idiots would fall on him, the more courteous one between us. Why did she even bring gravy? Scott should have cooked veggie sausages or something to go with it. Or a grilled sandwich. We will look entirely ridiculous sitting around our table in the dark, candles lit, eating hash browns. I could have made myself veggie sausage and vegetable kebabs.
I do not bother to make conversation with these people. I am too pregnant. Not really, but when you are pregnant you can use it for any excuse you want. Beth tries to make small talk. I look at my belly, patting the fetus, asking it telepathically if it is a selfish or gracious fetus. It doesn’t answer. Is this because the fetus is aloof? Shy? There’s really no way of telling with fetuses. They like to be mysterious.
Scott returns from outside, holding a serving plate given to me as a wedding present. It will be a fucking nightmare to wash. They smell the same way a hot car does. He leaves the ranch sliding door open, and I bark at him. Not really. I wish I had. Instead I get up and shut the door loud enough for their attention to be drawn to it. Scott looks embarrassed, but otherwise the two of them say nothing. Why does his face look like that? Then I see it. He’s melted the black plastic spatula over the hashbrowns, like tar poured over gravel. Why aren’t they acknowledging it? He cuts into the hashbrowns, serving himself first. The serving knife struggles with the melted plastic, wobbling a bit. Scott is determined. Beth is served next. I haven’t seated myself at the table. I cannot. I’m waiting for them to acknowledge that Scott melted a plastic spatula all over the hashbrowns. They say nothing.
“Scott,” I say, slowly, speaking to him like he is a child. “I can’t eat this.”
Scott and Beth exchange wide-eyed glances.
“Just eat around the crunchy parts!” Beth says, smiling too
much. She is confused as to why I still haven’t sat down. She’s set the table
for us like we’re entertaining royalty. I could actually kill her. I think, for
a moment, I might, but I’d have to kill Scott too, and I am too pregnant to
kill two people. Who is going to clean all of these dishes? We have no power. I
go upstairs to get Jack, who my daughter has made wear a tiara and monarch butterfly wings. In return, I see Jack
has painted both of their fingernails a bright fuschia.
“Don’t I look stunning, darling?” he asks me when I walk
in. He always calls me darling.
“Jack, I’m going to kill these people.”
“Hmm.” Jack sips his gin and tonic, eyebrows raised. His
miniature dachshund, Fritzel, sniffs my pant legs.
“I’m busy,” Jack answers,
intently studying two pairs of plastic high-heeled slippers Jamie is holding
“The green ones suit your eyes better, sweetheart.” He
doesn’t look back up at me. I leave, Jack and my daughter laughing hysterically
at something Jack’s whispered.
Downstairs, I find the ranch sliding door open. Scott’s
muddy snow-slush shoe prints cover the surrounding carpets. They’ve finished
eating, managing to get as many dishes dirty as possible. I know Jack will
offer to help with the dishes, but really he’ll sit across the kitchen counter
and drink wine and smoke and gossip and whatever else he can do to avoid
dishes. If he wasn’t elderly and ill, I
might be more annoyed, but Jack is charismatic enough to get away with
The house is fucking freezing. I send Scott out into the
backyard to get the firewood covered by tarp. He returns in less than a minute,
without the firewood. More mud is tracked into my carpet. The ranch door is
“There’s termites,” he says before I can say anything.
I explain to him that the fireplace has doors that shut,
much like my sliding ranch door. None of the termites can get out and damage
“I don’t want them to burn,” he says.
“The termites?” I ask in disbelief.
house is freezing. I’m pregnant and I have a small child,” I speak to him
“I don’t care about the termites.”
Scott looks at me, horrified. I look at him, wondering if I could scream loud enough for my husband to come home, loud enough to induce labor so I can drink sooner, loud enough for these people to get out of my home, loud enough to kill him without it being my fault.
Jamie Good is a queer English undergrad at Western Washington University, where she works as the nonfiction editor for Jeopardy Magazine. Her work has been previously featured in small literary magazines such as “Sincerely Magazine.” https://www.sincerelymagazine.com/volumenineserendipity
When I say that I’m a Rangers fan, I don’t mean the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League. Nor do I mean the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball or Queen’s Park Rangers of the English Football League. No, I am a fan of Rangers Football Club of the Scottish Premier League.
My father was a Rangers man, and his father before him. Like me, they had no choice in the
matter. Rangers were the Protestant team
in Glasgow, just as Celtic were the Catholic team, and my grandfather, father
and I were all brought up in that most Protestant of Protestant denominations,
the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. We got
to choose whether we would practice that religion: I became an atheist in my
teens; Dad lost his faith much later in life.
We also got to choose whether or not we participated in such ancillary
activities as joining the Orange Lodge, becoming Freemasons and commemorating
King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. But whatever our choices, at the end of the
day we were still Proddies. And in
Glasgow, “Proddy” meant “Rangers supporter”.
Celtic Football Club was somewhat more ecumenical than Rangers. In my days as an active Rangers supporter – I’m
talking about the 1970s – Celtic had several Protestant players. But in 1972 Rangers F.C. celebrated its
centenary having never fielded a Catholic. How did the club manage to maintain its
religious purity? For native-born
players, a simple enquiry about the candidate’s schooling would suffice. Scotland has both non-denominational and
Catholic schools, with the latter easily identifiable by having names such as ‘Lourdes’,
‘Holyrood’, ‘Notre Dame’ and ‘St. Joseph’s’.
In the case of foreign-born players, weeding out the Catholics was a bit
trickier. So Rangers erred on the safe
side by restricting its scouting efforts to reliably Protestant
I started going to Ibrox Park, where Rangers played, when I was
about twelve years old. At that time my
family lived in Greenfield, in the East End of Glasgow; Ibrox is across the
city, on the South Side. So my friend Kenny
Cairns and I took the Blue Train into the City Centre and travelled by subway
to Copland Road station, in the shadow of the stadium. A bit later, we also started attending away
games. From The Drum, a Rangers pub in
nearby Shettleston (every pub in Glasgow was either a Rangers pub or a Celtic
pub), a chartered bus took us to Falkirk or Dundee or Edinburgh, with a couple
of stops along the way so that supporters of drinking age could relieve
themselves of the beer they’d drunk before we left.
As I said, my father was a Rangers man, and after retiring he worked
as a steward at Ibrox. But the only game
I remember going to with him was the most infamous match in the history of the
club. On January 2, 1971, Rangers played
Celtic at Ibrox Park. When the visiting
team scored the first goal of the game in the ninetieth minute, my dad, brother
John and I left the stadium. We thereby
missing Rangers’ tying goal in injury time.
We also missed getting trampled to death, the fate that befell 66
supporters – men, boys and one young woman – on the very same stairway we had
descended a few minutes earlier. Until
1989, when 96 people died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the Ibrox
Disaster represented the largest loss of life at a British football ground.
This near-death experience didn’t stop me from going to Rangers
games. When I was working on a Ph.D. at
the University of Glasgow and living in the West End of the city, I went to Ibrox
with my friend Ken Brown and his dad. We’d
take the Govan Ferry across the River Clyde and walk to the stadium from
there. After the game, we’d have a
couple of pints at The Overflow. A Rangers
pub, of course.
Those Saturday afternoon trips to Ibrox Park ended when I
completed my Ph.D. and moved to California for a postdoctoral fellowship at
Stanford University. My supervisor was
Merton Bernfield, but I worked most closely with his research associate, Shib
Banerjee. Before I found my own
apartment, I occupied the spare bedroom of Shib’s house in Menlo Park. He’d recently split up with his wife, and was
too gregarious to live on his own. On
January 20th, 1980, Shib and I went to a student pub on El Camino
Real, just outside the university gates.
There I watched my first National Football League game: Super Bowl XIV,
in which Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Los Angeles Rams.
San Francisco’s N.F.L. team, the 49ers, played at Candlestick
Park, about a half hour drive from Palo Alto.
But I didn’t go to any of their games, or those of the Oakland Raiders,
whose stadium was just across the Bay.
The only live football I saw during my fellowship involved Stanford
Cardinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Football wasn’t a big deal at Stanford; the Board
of Trustees valued Nobel Prizes more highly than Heisman Trophies. But the Big Game against the University of
California at Berkeley (another brainy school) was always fiercely
The first Cardinals’ game I saw was against San Jose State
University. On the first play from
scrimmage, the San Jose quarterback dropped back to pass and was promptly
flattened by about four Stanford defensive linesmen, who then high-fived and back-slapped
each other with hands the size of dinner plates. “Hey, we just beat up a guy half our
size! Good on us!”
The only other home game I remember from the Cardinals’ 1980
season was against the University of Southern California. And all I recall about that game was the
half-time show. First, the U.S.C.
Trojans Marching Band came onto the field in their plumed helmets, scarlet
cloaks and plastic Bronze Age armor, playing their fight song while executing
precision manoeuvers. When the Trojans
left the field, out swarmed the groovy Stanford Band, its members casually
dressed and wandering at random across the playing surface. It was Bach versus jazz.
The Cardinals ended the season with a mediocre 6-5 record. And, more importantly, they lost the Big Game. But that 1980 team did have three players who
went on to have distinguished careers in the National Football League: wide
receiver Ken Margerum, running back Darrin Nelson and, most notably, quarterback
I planned on spending three years at Stanford, and then, having
completed a B.T.A. (Been To America), find a real job at a university in the
U.K. But my research project was a bust,
Mert went on sabbatical to the East Coast and my fellowship renewal was turned
down. By December of 1980, I’d Been To
America for a mere eleven months and my time at Stanford was already over. I found another postdoctoral fellowship, at
the University of Toronto, but that wouldn’t start until February. In the meantime, I went back to Glasgow.
I had to fly via New York, so I stopped off there for a couple of
days and visited an old university classmate, John Logan, who was doing a
postdoc at Stony Brook. He took me to my
first in-person N.F.L. game, the New York Jets against the New Orleans
Saints. Unfortunately those were two of
the worst teams in the league, and my California winter coat wasn’t a match for
a snowy day at Shea Stadium.
Back in Scotland, my dad picked me up at the airport (Prestwick,
in those days).
“Good to see you, son!” he said.
“How long can you stay this time?”
“Two months,” I replied.
In the meantime I signed on the dole and paid rent to my
parents. My mum, at least, was glad to
have me around. (I think.)
The U. of T. fellowship was for two years, so I was back on track
to spend three years in North America. But,
as my national bard observed, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft
agley. I’d hardly set foot in Canada
when I fell in love with a young woman who, for reasons that will hopefully
become clear, I’ll refer to by a nom de plume.
“Ruth” had been/still was/never had been (take your pick) married to
“John”, who played linebacker with the N.F.L.’s Houston Oilers/played
linebacker but not with the Oilers/didn’t play linebacker/didn’t exist (again,
your choice). If I’d been more interested
in the N.F.L. in those days, I’d probably have suspected a lot earlier that there
was no “John”, at least in the form that “Ruth” presented “him”. But in fact I was only interested enough to
have a favorite player: number 72 of the Dallas Cowboys, Ed “Too Tall” Jones. (The quotation marks in this case referring to
the fact that “Too Tall” was Ed Jones’ nickname, not to cast doubt about him
being called that, or to dispute the fact that the 6’ 9” Mr. Jones was, in
By the time my on-again, off-again relationship with “Ruth” finally
ended, I’d missed my target date for repatriation. Still planning on returning to the U.K., I
applied (unsuccessfully) for positions at University College London and the
Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. But
then I fell in love again, with Francine (real name), and decided to make my
career in Canada instead.
An English couple I knew in Toronto made the opposite decision,
returning to Britain on the grounds that the beer in Canada was too cold and
you couldn’t get a decent pork pie. But
before leaving, they took me to the University of Toronto’s Varsity Field for a
soccer game between Toronto Blizzard and Chicago Sting. This was the second leg of a home-and-away
final to decide the 1984 champion of the North American Soccer League. The Sting had won 2-1 in Chicago; now they
won 3-2 in Toronto. The N.A.S.L. went
bust before another season could start, and thus the Varsity Field game was the
last one ever played in that league.
Francine and I attended a couple of Toronto Argonauts’ games, but
the Canadian Football League was not for me: too big a field, too many players,
too much pre-snap activity. It wasn’t Francine’s
cup of tea, either, but then she wasn’t a sports fan. Nonetheless, we did go to quite a lot of
baseball games. In those days the Blue
Jays still played at open-air Exhibition Stadium, so Francine could at least work
on her tan. I got quite heavily into
baseball, to the point of reading box scores in The Globe and Mail every
morning. I think I liked the fact that
baseball, like chess, has almost endless permutations. If there’s one man out and a runner on first base
in the fifth inning of a 2-2 game, with a 3-1 count on a right-handed power
hitter and a left-handed line-drive hitter on deck, should a left-handed
pitcher: (a) intentionally walk the batter, putting the go-ahead run on base;
(b) try to pop the batter up with an inside fastball; or (c) throw a change-up
in the hope of getting a ground-ball double-play? How does the calculation change if the runner
is a good base-stealer, or if the wind is blowing out, or if the centre-fielder
is nursing a leg injury? When, after
many years of watching baseball, I finally knew the answers to questions like
those, I lost all interest in the game.
In 1988 I was offered, and accepted, a faculty position at the
University of Alberta. Francine and I
got married and moved to Edmonton. We’d been
dating for four years, and now wanted to start a family as soon as
possible. But first we had a decision to
make: what, if any, religious indoctrination would our (hypothetical) children
receive? Francine was a practicing
Catholic; I am, as noted above, a born-again atheist. So I offered her a deal. She could have our (hypothetical) children baptized
and confirmed, first-communioned and first-confessioned; she could take them to
Catholic churches on Saturday or Sunday, and send them to Catholic schools on all
the other days of the week. In return,
all I asked was that I be allowed to bring them up as Rangers supporters. It was a good deal, and she accepted it.
But she had a question: “What are we going to say if the children
ask why you don’t come to church with us?”
“I’ll tell them I have a different religion,” I replied. “N.F.L. football.”
Despite shivering through a game between the woeful New York Jets
and the even more woeful New Orleans Saints, I had become a fan of the National
Football League. I could claim it was
because of my unrequited man-crush on Too-Tall Jones. I could claim it was because the former
Stanford Cardinal John Elway, subsequently of the Denver Broncos, won two Super
Bowls (XXXII and XXXIII, if anyone’s counting in Roman numerals). But really it was because football is the
only sport in which men with beer guts get to be “athletes”.
What I don’t like about N.F.L. football – hate, actually – is all
the commercials. The game has umpteen
unavoidable stoppages: half-time, the end of the first and third quarters, six
timeouts and four challenges, injury timeouts and video reviews. So there’s no excuse for inserting additional
commercial breaks between (say) a kick returner fielding the ball and the offence
running out onto the field. But the
television companies do “step away” on such occasions. As a result, an N.F.L. telecast consists of
60 minutes (or less) of actual football and two hours of commercials for
“best-in-class” pickup trucks, fast-food restaurants, investment advisors and
upcoming TV shows. (In Canada, at least
we’re spared the political attack ads.)
Fortunately I came up with a cunning way of watching football
while preserving my sanity. I program
the game to record, then start watching the recording about an hour after
kickoff. This means I can fast-forward
through all the commercial breaks and the inane, testosterone-fueled half-time
panel, and still arrive at the end of the game at the same time as the chumps
who watched it live.
But every February there’s an N.F.L. game that I do watch
live. It’s the one that decides which
team will be world champion of a sport played only in the United States. The Super Bowl has truck commercials that I
haven’t seen before; a pregame show with heart-warming stories of good deeds
performed by N.F.L. players when they’re not beating up their domestic partners
in a fit of roid-rage; a flypast by U.S. Air Force killing machines; grown men
learning how to toss a coin; the solemn moment when the stadium announcer says:
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, please rise, remove your MAGA hats and honor
America by singing the national anthem”; a country “artist” warbling: “O’er the
land of the free-EEEEE! And the home of
the bra-a-a-a-a-ave”; and a half-time show featuring superannuated pop stars
and frenzied choreography. (Why not
invite the U.S.C. Trojans Marching Band instead? The N.F.L. wouldn’t have to worry about
“wardrobe malfunctions” with those clean-cut young people.)
Long story short, the University of Alberta didn’t work out for me. Edmonton didn’t work out for Francine, who
described herself as a “hot-blooded Italian” and wasn’t a fan of cold
weather. So after three Prairie winters,
we and our Catholic-baptized daughter moved to London, where I had found a new
job at the University of Western Ontario.
By then, soccer hadn’t been part of my life for a long time, but I
started to watch the occasional game from Italy’s Serie A on the Telelatino
channel. As a result, I soon learned
Italian terms like “fuorigioco” (offside), “tiro in porta” (shot on goal) and “cartellino
rosso” (red card). Sometime in the mid-1990s,
English Premier League games became available on The Sports Network, which,
like TLN, was part of our cable package.
I got into the habit of doing my ironing on Saturday mornings, with one
eye on the shirt, one eye on the game.
In Scotland, soccer had gone into a long decline from the glory
days of the 1960s and 1970s, when Rangers won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, another
Glasgow club won the European Cup, and the national team held its own against
England. In 2012, Rangers Football Club suffered
the ignominy of going bankrupt, and the even greater ignominy of being cast into
the outer darkness of Scottish football.
Now the former Cup-Winners’ Cup winners weren’t playing Celtic – they
were lining up against the part-timers of Elgin City and Annan Athletic in the
Scottish Third (actually fourth) Division.
But three successive promotions got Rangers back up to the Premier
League. And today, midway through the
2020-21 season, my team is cantering to its first top-division championship in
a decade. Rangers even qualified for the
knock-out stage of the Europa League. (Which,
back in my Ibrox-going days, was called the Fair Cities’ Cup. Rangers played in this competition not
because Glasgow was a fair city, but because it was a city with a fair.)
When my children were young, I didn’t get back to Scotland
much. But on one visit I showed my Uncle
Gibby photographs of Francine and the kids.
Gibby was the husband of my (paternal) Aunt Agnes, and very much an
Orangeman (possibly also a Mason). One
of the photographs I showed him was of my middle child standing in a
schoolyard. Behind her was a sign saying
‘St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic School’.
“What’s this, then?” Gibby said.
“You’re sending your kids to Catholic school?”
Fortunately I was able to extricate myself from an awkward situation. “Yes, Uncle Gibby. But they’re all Rangers supporters.”
Graeme Hunter is a gentleman writer living in London, Canada. His essays have been published in Queen’s Quarterly, Riddle Fence and Talking Soup. See www.graemehunter.ca.
Pauline Butcher Bird is a unique and remarkable historian. Not only does she write about life in Los Angeles during the wild and wonderful 1960s and 1970s, she actually lived it. Her fantastic book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, is a personal account of her life when she lived with Frank Zappa and his family in their legendary Laurel Canyon home. The “Log Cabin” as it was known had become Rock ‘n’ Roll central in the spring/summer of 1968. Pauline, a British citizen, found herself mixed up in this wild life of big personalities—and was clever enough to write it all down as it happened. Her memoir of this time is one of the best books on life in the famous Canyon.
Pauline graciously agreed to an interview and let us know a little bit more about her life and work. Thank you Pauline!
How long did it take you to write Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa? When did you first begin the book?
Out! Started as a radio play. A producer was working with me but Germaine Greer
got wind of it and made her own documentary on Frank Zappa (full of errors) and
the BBC said they would not do two programs on Frank Zappa in one year, and
mine was dropped. I was so mad, I decided to turn it into a memoir. I wrote to
every suitable publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ book saying I was writing
this memoir about Frank Zappa and 12 wrote back and said send the chapters, so
I knew I had a marketable product. Of course, I hadn’t written any at that
The period your wrote about is from 1967-1971. The book was published in 2011. What was it like to relive all those memories some forty years later?
not have been possible without my diaries and more importantly, the letters I
wrote to England which both my mother and my close friend kept. It took me nine
months to type these out into chronological order and it was from these that
the memories came back.
Why did you decide to write a book at that time in your life?
always wanted to be a writer, but my life was taken up with raising our son. I
was a very hands-on mother. I don’t know how female writers who have children
manage it. But when our only child, Damian, left for university, and my husband
was constantly abroad with his work, I knew I had no excuses left. This would
be 2001. I spent six years sending off play after play to the BBC until a
producer told me, ‘Write something that no one else can write,’ and I thought
my Zappa experience is the only story that no one else could write. So, I wrote
it as a radio play as I state in my answer to your first question.
years after struggling to get a play on the radio, and Germaine Greer intervened,
I began the memoir, and it took four years to finish it. Therefore, from the
moment I decided to write, after Damian went to university, and publication in
2011, it was ten years.
Your book is very well written, extremely engaging and highly detailed. I often felt like I was there with you. Did you keep a diary of this period in your life?
I have kept a diary all my life. But the letters were more informative and
thank goodness my mother kept them in a shoebox for 40 years because I wrote
them in great detail, some of them ten page long, as if I was writing a novel.
What do you remember most about living in the log cabin? Looking back, was it like being in another world?
As you know, I wrote the memoir very much ‘in the moment’ and did not look back
and make judgements from today’s perspective. Now I am able to do so.
back, many questions are raised in my mind. For example, Frank and Gail were
newly married with a young baby, just like millions of other young couples. So
why did he choose to live in a huge rambling house in the middle of Laurel
Canyon and have living with them eight others? And in the process, he ignored
us all. Only once in the five months we lived at the log cabin did Frank join
us in the kitchen to socialize. We had to tip-toe round him.
remember feeling buffeted between Pamela Zarubica and Gail. I was out of my
depth with those two and was never sure if they were friends or foe which gave
me a constant feeling of unease and anxiety.
course, the man with the gun, a terrifying experience which I’m not sure if I adequately
conveyed in the book.
other hand, I loved the experience, despite the house being such a wreck
although as I describe, I did make my own room the jewel in the crown as it
I loved the times when Frank was away, although I missed him and wrote letters
to him when he was away telling him so. Which is why I think when he returned
after two weeks away the first time, he knocked on my door and wished me good
night. I remember that moment.
he was away, we had lots of fun in the house, especially later on, when no one
bothered to visit any more, and it was just the ‘family’. We showed films and
played silly games.
Talk about the writing process. How did you begin the book? Was it written chronologically? How long did it take to write a chapter?
the first chapters in Australia because we were travelling at that time. I
still have them, and they are awful.
the chapters chronologically, following my letters and diary entries and as
they appear in the book. Of course, the first part, in England, was done
completely from memory, but the whole experience of meeting Frank Zappa in
London was imprinted on my mind because it was so life-changing.
the two meetings in New York though they were more hazy because my sisters were
very against any connection with Frank Zappa, his image of a drug-crazed hippy
the first three chapters to my agent, Laura Susijn, and she wrote back and
said, ‘Can you make it more literary?’ She was also concerned when she read
more chapters that I was not conveying the charisma and dynamism of Frank Zappa
that got to me personally. So I had to make those changes.
How do you write — at a computer, in a certain place, at a certain time? Describe your work space?
in Australia six weeks, and then on to Singapore. The book was written in
Singapore. We had a huge mansion set in two acres of land with a pool outside
under jungle trees. There I sat, under the arbor, each day.
We had a
live-in maid who lived in a two-roomed cottage in the grounds. She brought our
breakfast in the breakfast room, our coffee, lunch and afternoon tea outside
under the arbour by the pool, and dinner inside. I helped her one hour a day to
dust away cobwebs and such in the eves and skirtings as an attempt to keep
lizards at bay – I was terrified of them.
So, I had
the whole day to write, and even so, it took over two years. My husband and son
kept urging me to send it off, which I did, and I regret because it got
published straight away, and I wish I had put it in the drawer for three months
as you are advised to do and then read it and edit again.
publisher is putting out my revised re-structured version in August this year.
It takes out many of the peripheral characters, brings most of the stuff about
the Mothers together instead of all over the place, and ditto Gail and the
present writing a novel and try to start in the morning but I usually find
there are e-mails and phone calls and domestic issues to deal with, and I
always stop for coffee and while listening to an audio book, or BBC radio 4, I
solve a killer sudoku to keep the maths side of my brain awake.
usually it is after lunch when I start writing with a break for a short walk
with my husband. I continue into the evening, usually till 10pm.
sometimes write sections by hand, but mostly it’s at the computer. I am a fan
of Anne Tyler, and she writes her novels by hand, then types, and then writes
it all out again by hand! I don’t have the patience, but I have tried writing
out certain sections by hand after I’ve typed them. But overall, I would say
mostly I write at the typewriter.
Who edits or sees your work first?
except me. I had no editor. It was published as I wrote it.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What books did you read? Who were your favorite authors?
avid reader. I don’t remember what I read as a child, but as a teenager, I read
everything I could get hold of but again, I don’t remember what. I presume it
was romantic female novels.
When I was
in California and after I stopped working for Frank full time, I visited every
few days a local book shop on Melrose Avenue. I decided to work my way through
the fiction section starting in alphabetical order of author’s names, and
started with ‘A’. If I liked the author, then I read others by that author, but
if not, I moved on. I don’t remember where exactly I got to, but I think it was
about ‘G’ which, paradoxically, included the newly published and sensational
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.
The writers I turn to while I’m writing are: • Anne Tyler – everyone of her books except those with a male protagonist. • Gone With the Wind – no explanation needed • J M Coetzee – Boyhood, Youth, both of which I think are wonderful And of course, I believe I’ve read every ‘how to . . . . ‘ write novels/be a better writer genre that is going.
Have you been back to Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain since you lived there? Would you like to return again?
returned in 2008. My husband and I had dinner with Gail in the Valley. She did
not mention Frank once but wanted to talk about Bill Clinton whom she’d met at
the White House after she’d donated to his campaign.
showed me round the house which I did not recognize as they had made so many
visited the site of the log cabin which of course was a wild site, no sign of
the house, and all the others mentioned in the book.
What are some of your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memoirs?
I don’t have any.
What are you working on now? How is the process different? Has your writing changed?
writing a novel set in the 2nd World War and finding it very
difficult. I am 80% way through. I just want to get it finished!
Was there a wine cellar in the basement of the log cabin?
a vault and that may have been used as a wine cellar, but not in Frank’s time.
The GTOs used it to write their songs. It had pine walls.
Did they call Frank Zappa’s home on the lot a “Tree House” back then?
was called the log cabin. The tree house was simply the end part of the house
above the kitchen and my office. It was Calvin’s apartment and was called the
tree house because the enormous tree at the end of the house had a stair-case
wrapped round it that led up to a balcony sticking out from the bedroom up
there and you could step across from the metal staircase on to that balcony.
But the real entrance to the ‘tree house’ was up wooden stairs outside the back
door and they left up to the main door into that apartment that was called the
Did anyone ever mention architect Robert Byrd in connection with the log cabin? He allegedly built one of the structures on the property?
How do you want people to remember Frank Zappa and Gail Zappa?
question for me to answer.
Who are you favorite authors today? What are you reading currently?
listed those above. I also like ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘Alone in Berlin’
but I can’t remember the author’s names. I’m currently reading everything about
life during the second world war.
Talk about the letters you wrote to your mother back then. How long were they, how often did you write her, etc.?
them were ten pages long or even longer, single spaced on American A4 size sheets.
I wrote every week in the beginning, sometimes more often. As I became immersed
in my life there and no longer an outsider but part of the team as it were, I
wrote less and less. This is shown in the memoir which has 200 pages on the log
cabin and 100 pages after we left.
Did you take any mementos with you when you left working for Frank Zappa?
I have a
lock of Frank’s hair that Frank gave me when he was having his hair cut in the
If Frank wasn’t married at the time, would you have been interested in having a serious relationship with him?
I think I would have been swallowed up. I could not have coped with his
womanizing. I have every admiration for Gail’s stamina to have withstood it
What is your life like now? What do you do for fun?
had a year of lockdown. My husband was an academic when I met him, but became a
banker and adviser on gas/electricity/oil/nuclear power stations. We live a
comfortable life. Our son lives in London and we have not seen him since Christmas
because of Covid-19. We are soon to get our second jabs, so life should start
to open up again. We socialise by inviting our friends here. I love the theatre
and cinema but all that has been on hold.
Do you spend more time writing, or editing your work?
are interchangeable. They run together – write, edit, write, edit.
Any advice for anyone wishing to write a memoir?
Don’t try to write your whole life. Choose a section. Know the ending.
make each chapter change in emotion – happy to sad, unknowing to knowing, anger
to peace, and so on and vice versa.
event cause the next event – the biggest difference apparently between those
who get published and those who don’t. They just write random events. It
What music do you listen to today?
Do you have a timeline for the book you’re currently writing?
I’ve already over-run it.
How much research is involved with your current project? Is it all online, do you spend time at the library as well?
My dining table is covered with books by people who lived through the war.
What is your favorite Zappa album?
have one. I have been promising myself since time began to make my own because
I like some tracks from each album, but not all the tracks.
Was anyone living in the Houdini mansion across the street during your stay at the log cabin? Did you ever visit inside the home?
I love the ending of your book. Talk about what happened next, and what you did for the next five years.
I went to Cambridge university, studied economics and
psychology. Met my husband. Moved to Scotland. Lived there for seven years
where our son, Damian, was born. Lived in Norway, Australia and Singapore. We
are now back in England.
It is dark outside the plane. You see
your face in the window, harsh, more committed than ever to its path of decay.
The plane hurtles across the night sky, carrying you from suburban Maryland all
the way to Rome. You remember reading about Romulus
and Remus, twin founders of the city,
suckling at the teat of the she-wolf thousands of years ago. You are hoping to
save your marriage, heavy with its own history. Rome will transform us, you
think. You lean back in your seat, inviting a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Something
holy, sanctified, but also useful.
You arrive to find Rome closed. It is
August and the Romans are at the beaches, flirting with waves, swimming in crystalline
lakes, hiking through olive groves on Monte
Subasio. They are laughing and drinking elsewhere—the city an empty vessel.
Corks, bottle caps, bits of confetti, and flyers promising the perfect mattress
lie crushed among the cobblestones, the only signs of life. You forage for your
supper, try out your new skeleton key, ride up and down in the little red
elevator. It will lead you up to and away from your husband all year, rattling
along with the weight of daughters, grocery carts, time.
A bag is misplaced. Argument ensues. You
storm out into the blazing heat, find a loaf of bread, a ball of cheese, some
anchovies. You remember the words for bread and fish. Pane.Pesce. You go home,
feed your family. Does this count as a miracle?
Your apartment is eight flights up. A
narrow balcony allows you to look down over Via
Celimontana. You think this means “heaven’s mountain,” but foreign languages
have never been your strong suit. Still, it can only bode well.
You visit your husband in his office, the
United Nations’ modern-day palace. He is preoccupied. He fills his tray with
rabbit and duck and sauvignon blanc,
everything cheap and good, but you suspect he feels no joy. The view from the
cafeteria balcony should give anyone pause.
And yet they all chew, swallow, talk about crops droughts euros banks as if the rocky skeleton of Circo Massimo were not spread out
beneath them like a second banquet.
Clemente lies a few blocks away, an architectural
palimpsest. Three levels down, the ruins of a Mithraic temple. Above that, the
remains of a primitive church with bits of fresco visible in dim light. At
ground level, a basilica with a golden tree of life that takes away your breath,
rewriting—but not erasing—everything that came before. Here it is: The
possibility of making something new without wholly replacing the old.
You’ve always wanted to visit Rome. As a
long-time fan of ruin porn, dilapidated grandeur, the remains of what was once
magnificent, you’ve sought out ghost towns, abandoned churches, the crumbling
cores of industrial capitals. You love entropy in action, feel vindicated when
weeds spring up between the paving stones, when vines take over walls. Given a
choice between old and new, you always choose decay.
Lying side by side in the darkness, you ask your
Do you ever think of laying waste to what you love? Reducing it all to rubble? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
The children are speaking Italian. You
marvel at how quickly this happens. Yet now you are locked out of their world
as they prattle of bambole, orsi, palle.
And so, Italian lessons twice a week. Not
enough to speak of the sky, the lush feel of vowels rolling around on your
tongue, your slow promenade towards death, but enough to buy garlic, bunches of
parsley, greet the man in the wine shop downstairs. Your teacher commands you
to open your textbook and read.
Do you speak Italian? Parli italiano? I do not speak Italian. Non parlo italiano. And yet you speak of ruins. Ma tu parli di rovine. You speak of nothing else. Non parli d’ltro.
You make friends at the children’s
school. Giulia and Maurizio
and Lilli and Alberto and Ludovica and Giovanni. You
drink coffee and giggle like a girl. You’re not a girl, and you get a bit loud.
The café owner asks you to be quiet. She has other customers, and they don’t
like American noise.
What are you reading? Cosa stai leggendo? I am reading about noise. Sto leggendo del rumore. What does European noise sound like? Come suona il rumore europeo? I do not hear anything. Non sento niente.
Your younger daughter is turning five. The
mothers at the school, a chorus of Roman fishwives, tell you where to buy a
cake, special order. It is spectacular—Spiderman hazelnuts zabaglione, fit for a tomboy king. It costs a fortune. All her
little friends in the scuola materna
eat the cake with their hands. Constantine’s barbarians, they leave you none.
The Italians know how to throw parties. This
makes you a bit jealous. You only know how to throw potlucks. The host presents
a magnificent loaf of porchetta.
People roll up their sleeves, sigh with pleasure. A knock at the door
interrupts all of you mid-sentence, mouths full of meat. A guest sweeps into
the room. Helmet in hand, he grabs you by the waist, plants a kiss on your
lips. You’ve never seen him in your life. His girlfriend laughs, Welcome to Rome!
Some days you can’t bear the splendor. Basiliche and glittering chapels and a
million pizzerias and big looping graffiti on stone walls that insists on now
at the expense of then. There are no trees, but the flowers in the market at Campo de’ Fiori are flushed pink and red
like women dying of rheumatic fever.
Some days bore you to tears. You drink a
cup of hot tea, use the bidet, check your email. You might even mop the floors,
but you’ve never been a very good housekeeper. You watch a YouTube video about objectum sexuals, people who fall in
love with—and want to rub up against—the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty, bells
of Notre Dame. You understand this urge. How many times have
you stood on the rooftop, hung laundry out to dry, fantasized about lying down
among the ruins, becoming one with Roman stones?
You watch your husband fix the bathroom
sink. He remains an enigma after all these years. Solid and fine as Roman rock.
You have spent your marriage trying to crack him open, lay him bare. Seeing him
on his knees, head bent in concentration, you think: He is master of band saws,
nuts, bolts, all things mechanical. Yet
of you, he has no inkling.
What do you want from Rome? Cosa vuoi da Roma? I want abundant life. Voglio una vita abbondante. And what of you? E tu? Will you never choose abundance? Sceglierai mai l’abbondanza.
Lying awake at 3am, you can’t remember
why you came here. Your husband sleeps beside you. You haven’t touched in
months. You are suddenly hungry beyond belief. Standing in front of the open
refrigerator—cold air, white light pouring out into darkness—you think of all
you want to eat. Chicken legs, black cabbage, stuffed pigeons, marzipan. But
more than that, you want to fill your mouth with marble columns, Bernini’s
ecstatic saints, Caravaggio’s red lipped boys.
Your husband comes home from work, stretches himself
out on the couch like a dying god. You pour him a drink. You know you should leave him alone—he is tired.
But you can’t help yourself.
Do you ever think about desire? No, not really. Do you ever get the urge to grab everyone you speak with, kiss them hard on the mouth? God, no. Do you remember the scene in Microcosmos, where the snails mate to the sounds of Wagnerian opera? Rise up on their glistening feet and merge from head to toe? That’s what I want. Good luck with that.
in Roman history, you’re tempted to forget your own. You came to Italy with a pocketful of pills
that keep you from flying too close to the sun, getting lost in serpentine
darkness. Work has always protected you. But here in Rome there is little to
hang your day upon. You and your husband tried all this before, many years ago
before there were children—pulling yourselves up by the roots, planting
yourselves in Mexican soil. You remember how you sank into depression like a
stone into well water. Even though you wanted to bring your family to Rome, you
are not without misgivings. History is so often a story of return.
You discover Facebook and the middle-aged
men come out in droves. This feeds your vanity. It’s too much, yet never quite
enough. You refresh your screen. You find the waters irresistible. You type
faster, fingers on fire. Your children have to pry you away from your desk.
Half a dozen confessions of ardor appear
in your inbox. You think about the wooden gates of Santi Quattro Coronati, opened silently by slippered Augustinian
nuns. They usher you into a frescoed room, life’s possibilities unfurled across
the walls: Constantine is cured of leprosy, crowned Emperor, holds the wide
green world in his fist. Now Byzantium is yours. You think, at last I will be
loved as I deserve.
The language teacher, eyes thick with
mascara, mouth a red smear, little black hooves where feet should be, tells you
that what you are going through is pronounced crisi di mezza età—mid-life crisis. You like this. You like it so
much that you go out and buy a pair of knee-high boots—gli stivali. You take a photograph of yourself in the boots, post
it to Facebook, wait for the silver-tongued flatterers to sing.
It’s Thanksgiving and Rome doesn’t care,
but your American friends are joining you for dinner. You special order a
turkey from the butcher shop across the street. Tacchino. It’s got a nice ring. You go to pick it up, and the
butcher gives you two chickens instead. You try to explain that this is not the
same thing, but your Italian fails you. You mutter something about a festa americana. The butcher shrugs. You
give up, head home, eat pollo and
apple whiskey cake, go to bed with your back to your husband.
The stranger climbs steep hills. La straniera sale colline ripide. She sighs as she climbs. Sospira mentre sale. She finds herself among the clouds Si ritrova tra le nuvole looking down on granite tombs. guardando dall’alto tombe di granito.
Your Italian friends think you are
sleeping with another woman’s husband. You are surprised to hear this, a little
bit sad and a little bit proud. You really are a Henry James heroine now, wandering
the Colosseo at night with your
gentleman friend, hopelessly lost in translation.
The crack in the bathroom mirror splits
your face down the middle. You lean into the glass, peer closely at what is
left of you after forty-five years. You see a web of lines and think of lace,
broken china, the inlaid gold tilework of the Cappella di San Zenone, backroads connecting Umbria with Tuscany,
the Fiume Tevere snaking through Rome. Yes. Even in ruins you are
Who am I? Chi sono? Green eyed. Occhi verdi. House divided. Casa divisa. I paint my face each morning. Dipingo la mia faccia ogni mattina Comic, tragic, forgettable. Comica, tragica, dimenticabile.
The man in the cigarette shop sees you
walking past the Colosseo in your
rabbit fur hat, a child’s hand clutched in each of yours. He approaches the
three of you, says you look just like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. For a few golden minutes you forget your children,
your failing marriage, are lost in talk of long-ago movies and far-away places.
You walk down Via Merulana in your black dress and boots, your skin alive,
electric, your legs longer than ever. You stride past liquor stores, butcher
shops, displays of shiny knives—the street is yours for the taking. A man on a
motorbike stops dead in his tracks, blows you a kiss.
Strung out on espresso granita, you find the technicolor glow bright
and gaudy in the winter sun.There
are halos around everyone’s heads, and
not just the saints on the walls of San Giovanni in Laterano.You turn to your personal
intercessors—Cymbalta, Olanzapine, Ativan.
On a whim, you enter Santa Maria Maggiore, settle into a pew, pray for healing of this
bone-deep restlessness you feel, this hunger. After you light a candle, you
descend into the crypt beneath the church, where you find a hair of the Virgin,
the arms of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Proof, you think, of the Italians’
abiding affection for bodies—even the bodies of the dead.
the Capuchin crypt beneath Santa Maria
della Concezione, you find yourself drawn to the artful arrangements of
skeletons, macabre valentines to death. There’s poetry to the names of each
room—Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and
Thigh Bones. Later, you spot your reflection in the plate glass windows of Via Veneto, hunched, formless in your
black coat, and think of what lies just beneath your own pale skin—scapula,
clavicle, iliac crest. You turn and head east. Towards home. Relieved to find
your children adamantly alive, demanding suppers and baths.
The family is eating another dinner from
one of your Italian cookbooks. Not on the roof tonight—it’s still too cold. No
one is talking, and your husband is more remote than ever. You think, maybe you
overcooked the pasta. Maybe you over-salted the meat. Maybe the silt that
filters in through the windows and settles on the book shelves, counters, beds
and tiled floor—maybe this dust of ages is burying you all alive.
Your husband once told you that after his
first time unzipping your dress, watching you step out of it, trembling—after
the first year of playing house, growing lettuces, hanging bed sheets out to
dry in baking sun, painting all the walls bright shades of blue and green—after
the first baby bursting from your womb, wet with blood, loud as thunder—there
wasn’t anything left. He’s been around the world half a dozen times. Perhaps
for him, Rome is just more of the same.
The children ride ponies in Villa Celimontana,
your husband lies on the trampled grass,
basking in silver light. He is noble, you think. His wants and needs so few. Not
unlike the turtles sunning themselves on the lip of the fountain.
How can you stand it? Living in a world where nothing’s ever new? Boredom’s the price you pay for peace.
You lean back on your elbow and take
stock of this man beside you. You are struck by his beauty. How like a turret,
you think: silent, steadfast, insular. But you want to lose yourself in talk, to
speak of the Milky Way, the vast universe outside and within you, to love with
abandon. And he wants none of this.
It’s a lovely spring morning. The ruins
are calling. You and your American friend make your way down Via Appia Antica. You are surprised by
how quickly the city turns to countryside. It’s 10am. You step into a small
shop and your friend buys a bottle of wine. She’s a poet. She promises you that
drinking this early will be a revelation. There is laughter and the twisting of
an ankle on cobblestones. You can’t believe how much you are enjoying yourself.
It is your turn to offer her something. You give her the Catacombe di San Callisto which extend beneath the fields for
miles, are home to half a million bodies. In the dimness, you come upon
Maderno’s statue of Santa Cecelia—hands
bound, head neatly severed, face covered with a marble rag. You are both
All the families are out walking. You
arrive at the gates of Villa Doria
Pamphilij, littered with grottos, hedges, putti, artificial ruins. Why build crumbling towers? you ask. Why
begin with endings? No one hears you. Your husband is far ahead. Your daughters
busy chasing after swans.
You think, if only you could make him see Rome as you
do. Layered like a vast cake. You propose dinner with Italian friends, music by
Monteverdi in the chapel at Santa
Prassede. He declines your offer. You go without him. You find you don’t really
miss him. You come home and he’s in front of the TV, doesn’t even look up when
After your night of stained glass and madrigals, the long
walk home cloaked in darkness, you are surprised by how readily ecstasy morphs
I want to scream. You make me want to scream. Don’t start up. I’m not in the mood for your hysteria. Hysteria is the only thing that keeps us honest.
Today you choose self-denial, crawl all
the way up the Scala Santa on your
knees. You and a friend do it for kicks, but the feel of stone scraping skin,
each step worn down by centuries of penitents creeping toward salvation, brings
you close to tears. You bend over, let your forehead rest on the stairs for
just a moment, try and strike a bargain with god.
Today you choose Bacchus. Your husband
stays home, watches Netflix reruns. It’s already midnight and you are just
beginning. Your Italian friends take you to the Forte Prenestino, abandoned military complex, labyrinthine
squatters’ lair. The whole place is illegally occupied, you sneak in under
cover of darkness. You feel like a rat. See a few scuttling down shadowed
halls. You are already thinking about how you can spin this to your American
friends. You are drinking too much grappa,
smoking hashish with people you’ve never seen. You are ridiculously free you
are dizzy giddy rushing spinning burning liquid on your tongue you trip over
your teeth speak in broken sentences hold up a few Italian phrases like bright
jewels in the darkness.
You’ve reached an unspoken agreement.
Your husband stays in Rome, while you and your daughters travel deep into the
countryside to visit a Swedish friend. The children watch Jaws dubbed into
Italian. You are all horrified by the blood, fascinated by the shark’s gleaming
teeth. Clothes come off and everyone is naked in the river. Your friend’s
father gathers mushrooms for dinner, lays them out on a big wooden table. They
are larger than a man’s hand, bold shades of red and green. You think of fairy
tale endings. They are surely meant to kill you—bad mother, failed wife. Who
will live to tell the story? You close your eyes and eat.
How many mushrooms would you like? Quanti funghi vuoi? No thank you. No grazie. I do not eat the red ones. Non mangio quelli rossi. I do not court death. Non cerco la morte.
You pass the whores on the way to the
beach. They stand by the side of the road, hard-eyed, unsmiling, spread out at
equal intervals among the scrawny pines. It goes on like this for miles. You
wonder, what would sex feel like on a bed of dry needles, a stranger in your
The beach is mobbed with Romans reaching
for the sun. A big fleshy woman, all ass, hip, belly, rosy areolas, dances
frantic in the surf. Bare breasted maenad,
transistor radio in one hand, sandwich in the other. She is everything you wish
to be. Untethered, glorious, entirely without shame.
The children run wild. You drink cold
coffee from a can, sit listless on a park bench, watch your daughters climb
gates pick up trash hide in dormant fountains walk on walls spray-painted all
the colors of the sunset. Slim-hipped boys swagger amidst the rubble of
Trajan’s baths, conquistadores with
cigarettes, tight blue jeans, attitude to spare. Your elder daughter appears
victorious before you, holding up a broken plastic figurine. For her—a
princess, mermaid, treasure. For you—a tiny naked martyr, neither hands nor feet
to call her own.
You seek signs and portents everywhere,
wander the streets, stumble upon Largo di
Torre Argentina. Mussolini excavated these derelict temples. Julius Caesar
was betrayed and killed here. Now the place belongs to packs of feral cats who
strut, sleep, breed among the ruins. Perhaps you should join them.
You return home after your wanderings.
Your husband speaks to you through clenched teeth.
You make a terrible housewife. I never asked to be a housewife. I ask so little of you. Exactly. If only you’d ask for more.
You’ve been here before. Always an ocean
roiling inside you. Always a forest of thick black trees shooting up between
You’re like a dead man. And you’re just looking for drama. I bring you Italy hand it to you on a platter and you won’t fucking eat.
Your family climbs down from the bus,
tramps through the fields and farms on the outskirts of town. You take pictures
of the girls. You take pictures of your husband, moving through the grass in
silence. You put the camera away. Why commemorate pain?
You pass the nymphaeum you love so much, take in the vivid green, the
bubbling spring, imagine your daughter water nymphs bathing naked, pure.
Do you like the water? Ti piace l’acqua? Yes. May I join you in the nymphaeum? Sí, posso unirmi a te nel ninfeo? I am sorry, age and pain have no place here. Mi dispiace, la vecchiaia e il dolore non hanno posto qui. What did you say? Cosa hai detto? Your age and pain have no place. La tua età e il tuo dolore non hanno posto.
Time is running out, the year is almost
over, your life in Rome a reckless scattering of stones. You sit on a park
bench in Piazza Celimontana, watch
your children playing for the hundredth time. They plunge their hands into the
ancient fountain, pull out turtles, hands dripping with water. They shriek with
joy, turn to show you, faces radiant, turtle shells glistening in the sun.
You lure your husband into yet another argument:
What do you think? Was it worth it? What are you talking about? Coming to Italy in search of miracles? In case you haven’t noticed, your Rome and mine are two different cities. I work all day in an office. I’ve no idea what you do.
Your husband comes home early. You are
playing memory games with your daughters. They are winning. He tells you the
house is a mess. Filthy, he calls it, fed up with your Facebook housewifery.
You exchange insults. Tears begin. You tell him to stop. He does not. A line is
crossed. Neither of you sure how you got here. He standing above. You below.
The children in the wings. Forks stones plates pins rain down from his mouth.
You a heap on the floor. You don’t ever want to stand up share a mattress
again. You lie face down for hours, kiss the cold stones.
You awaken bone chilled and stiff, peel
yourself off the hallway floor, survey your kingdom from the balcony. So much
for heaven’s mountain.
You command yourself to go on. Continua. Breathe. Respira. Hold your daughters tight. Tieni strette le tue figlie.
You give your husband an ultimatum:
If you really want me, talk to me. Tell me our happiness matters. Promise me we’ll rise up together like snails.
He turns away without a word.
His silence spills into days and then weeks.
You can’t stand it. You tell him it’s
over. You will move out when you return to America in a few weeks’ time. You
will take your daughters with you and live in a friend’s attic. He is
mystified. But you are unyielding.
It’s almost midnight. Your husband has
gone to sleep, left you with nothing. You walk out alone into the darkness. Men
stand in doorways. Call out to you. Make lewd gestures with their tongues and
fingers. You don’t understand a word they are saying, but are pretty sure it
goes something like this:
Le gambe tue sono colonne di alabastro. Your thighs are alabaster columns. I tuoi seni come cervi che saltano. Your breasts like leaping deer. Allungo le braccia attraverso la tua finestra, e le mie mani sono piene di miele gocciolante I reach through your window and my hands are filled with dripping honey. Vieni a casa con me. Come home with me. Sdraiati con me. Lie down with me. Non te ne andare mai. Don’t ever leave.
This is the Song of Songs they’re whispering to you. It feels like your
swansong. Your finale. You are sure of it. You walk for miles, past throbbing
discotheques, bells tolling in the distance. Rome’s songs of desire and
mourning poured out for your ears alone.
Wandering the narrow streets of Trastevere, noonday sun beating down, your elder daughter finds a
speckled bird dying on hot stones and gathers it against her breast. She turns
to you, eyes soft, and asks why the bird has to die. Some things cannot be
saved, you say, and you both burst into tears.
Your younger daughter joins in. The three of you form
a forlorn chorus at the edge of the piazza. Behind you, water tumbles out of a
stone mouth and into a fountain. You wonder to yourself, is this the sound of
The bar is filled with jazz piano and the
weary voice of an older woman, tired of singing for tourists who care for no
one but Beyoncé. You have asked your Roman friend to drink with you tonight.
There is no one else to talk to. You are wretched, but you cannot stop. You
cannot believe how lonely you are. She listens, passes silent judgment on your
Have I been unfaithful? Sono stata infedele? Yes, you have loved a city. Sì, hai amato una città.
It is dark outside the plane. Your younger daughter squirms in her seat. The elder leans into the warmth of your body. Both girls are bathed in the glow of their personal TV screens, rapt, angelic. You have no idea what you are doing with your dolce vita—sweet, sweet life. The plane shudders, turbulence right on schedule. You are overcome with nausea, retch until there’s nothing left, your body an empty vessel. You lean back, close your eyes. The plane’s engines lull you into fitful sleep. You dream of stumbling over mounds of broken stones, chasing after your daughters as they climb and gambol in their summer dresses, voices shrill as birds.
NOTE: With thanks to Alberto Zezza, who generously corrected my Italian.
Eve Müller makes zines and paper cutouts. She is a relative newcomer to the world of literary non-fiction/memoir, but has published extensively on autism and language. She is a single mom who lives in College Park, MD, with two breathtakingly reckless teen daughters, two cats and a rabbit.