Protagonists

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This essay is excerpted from the author’s memoir-in-progress, The Vulgar American.

In May of 2019, I’d been living in the U.K. for four months, and suddenly I was hearing a lot less frequently from my mom. She wasn’t feeling well. She was often at the doctors. She was losing weight. Having trouble keeping food down. They kept prescribing her things for stomach ulcers and sending her home.

But nothing about your diet has changed, I said.

I took a lot of Advil the other day, she said.

You always take Advil.

I know, but this was a lot. And with wine.

I don’t think so, Mom. I knew that when she said wine, she meant one glass, two at most. Are you stressed about something?

No, she said.

Then it doesn’t make sense.

*

I was taught that an easy way to write fiction was to create a character who wants something. And then to place obstacles in front of that character. And watch them overcome those obstacles

Every time I tried to write fiction this way, I failed.

Sometimes I didn’t understand a person wanting something that wasn’t achievable. Sometimes I didn’t understand an obstacle that could be overcome.

The obstacles life threw at me were disasters that couldn’t be faced or overcome or fixed. They stopped me. They stopped me and on the other side of obstacles like that, I no longer wanted the things I wanted before.

And what was it that I wanted? I wanted to go to grad school, so I applied to many and went to the one program that offered me a full ride (both times). I wanted to go to Canada, so I applied to grad school again, and I didn’t get in, so my family didn’t get to go. I had to want something else, something new, because the things I wanted had clear paths and clear dead ends.

Was I supposed to dream bigger? Was I supposed to dream more abstractly? Was I supposed to be pining after someone or something unlikely? Was I supposed to, in the end, surprise myself?

*

When I wrote Naamah, she didn’t want anything. She was set on a path by her husband and had to make the best of it.

As her author, I offered her things, escapes, gifts, friendships, lovers—the opposite of obstacles. I could never have sat down to the page and offered that woman obstacles, forced them on her.

I felt like No-Face in Spirited Away, holding out handfuls of gold to Chihiro, making a gentle noise, uh, uh.

And as I was not offering gold or greed, as I was not judging her, ever, Naamah took her time and considered her gifts, and often gently refused them, just as Chihiro had.

*

A woman often cannot want.

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A woman makes do.

A woman makes do well, but that is not to be confused with a woman who is happy.

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I often considered the happiness of a woman who wants and pursues. But I did not write about that woman because I had never met a woman like that.

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When my mother was getting sick, I was running out of my medicine. The doctors in the U.K. gave me the exact prescriptions as I’d had before, but when I went to the pharmacy, the Trazadone wasn’t there.

What do you mean?

We don’t have it.

Yes. I understand that. When will you have it?

We don’t know.

I stopped myself from asking What do you mean? again. Instead I said, What do I do?

We’ll call you when we have it.

But you don’t know when that will be?

No.

No. I said it to myself.

*

The day I found out my mother’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I walked into my doctor’s practice and said I needed grief counseling. They made me the appointment to discuss that with my doctor for 10 minutes.

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I’m changing so many words to Americanize my language. I went to my surgery. They made an appointment for me to see my GP. I lived in a flat. My son went to primary school. Next he would go to secondary school. I said ground floor to get around not saying first floor. And so on. And so on.

I was living a life I almost recognized in a language I almost recognized. The new words and appropriate contexts weren’t hard to learn, and yet they made everything seem slightly off, like Britain was the other side of a shimmering field that separated two parallel universes, and the big differences were in the healthcare system and the thing I missed most was Target.

*

I learned how to sleep without the Trazadone. I didn’t fall asleep immediately anymore, but it happened. Perhaps because my first response to my mother’s sickness was that I was much more prone to sleep. At night. During the day. Anytime no one needed anything of me.

I no longer needed anything of myself. Not to eat or write or amuse myself or feel purpose. Nothing.

I’d tell myself that I’d enjoy going to see a movie, and then I’d sleep in the theater. I was like the old man in the back row. I should have sat next to him. My snoring woke me up.

At another point in my life, I would have been embarrassed. Not then.

*

I was most awake from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm—the hours between when my son came home from school and my husband came home from work. For three hours every day I was alive and brimming and engaged. That was what I could handle.

And those hours brought me joy.

I was living for those hours and those hours made me understand what I was living for and what life was and what I wanted more of, the most of. Though this is more about what happened after she died, and not about early that summer when she got sick.

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My mother read more than anyone I knew. More than any English teacher, more than any writer, more than any student of writing. She read the Booker Prize winner every year and then she’d read the finalists and then she’d go back and read the winners from the ‘70s when she got bored.

She’d fall in love with an author and read every book they’d ever written. I remember when she did this with Atwood, and I fell in love with the dust jacket of The Blind Assassin with its thick paper and gold lettering. I was 16.

She’d read all the classics—everything by Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. And she’d read the less literary, too. She knew when to give me The Clan of the Cave Bear. When to give me The Thorn Birds. When to give me The Fountainhead.

And when I wanted literary: The Source, Mila 18, Marjorie Morningstar. My whole reading life was guided by her. Often I’d already read the books assigned in English class a few years before at her recommendation. The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men.

She didn’t mind when I didn’t like something—like For Whom the Bell Tolls. She gave me the next book. Sometimes we read a breakout hit one right after the other. She’d finish and then the copy would become mine. This is how we read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, too.

She was honest and frank about the books and their shortcomings, but she always read them to the end. She could always find something to admire.

When she got sick she couldn’t read, and she didn’t want to talk about books either. We were both thinking it. I was bringing up books she would never get to read.

*

I didn’t think about whether my mother was a woman who wanted things unless she asked me to.

Do you think I should have been a teacher? she asked.

I don’t know. You loved teaching.

This was after she retired. She had taken more and more classes about different art forms since then. Sculpture, upholstery, basket-weaving.

I think I should have been an artist. or I think I could have been an artist. or Do you think I should have been an artist?

Artists don’t make much money. It’s not a good life.

She knew when I spoke like this, I was speaking about my own life, but she didn’t comment on that part of what I was saying, that underlying simmer.

I think I could have, she said.

*

When I was very young, I realized my mother hadn’t done things because she had had me. She often talked about the travel she had thought she would do. I cried.

Why are you crying? she asked me.

I tried to explain that I’d kept her from what she wanted. I’d changed her. I’d held her up. I’d stopped her.

No, she said. Well, yes, she said. Of course you did, she said. But because I wanted you to. Because I wanted you.

It wasn’t easy to explain for either of us.

*

My mother didn’t say—Don’t worry. We can still do those things. Or I can still do those things.

I swore to myself that when I had a child, I would still do everything I wanted to do. I would strap him to me and take him with me and off we would go.

It was a naïve way to think about life and children and wants. But it helped me to have the child I wanted, and then keep living.

*

I also thought about my mother differently after that, as if she had submitted to her life. Given in and given up.

That, too, was naïve.

She had shaped her life. She had filled it with the things she wanted—her children—and then provided for us. And she’d done it better than I ever could.

And when we got older she traveled and made art and had her musings about her what-ifs.

Life is long and different parts of it capture us, and that can look like resignation, but it’s the impositions of the things we want, and the needs of those things change, and life changes again. And if you never felt resigned to it, then you weren’t. You were waiting.

Naamah, and all the women in my books, are apologies to my mother, for misunderstanding.

*

How did you teach a life like that to fiction writers? How did you teach a woman’s life?

Was the craft of fiction around desire and obstacle taught by men and for men, for men protagonists and men readers? Was fiction part of the patriarchy? Was the craft of fiction part of the patriarchy?

The answers were all yes, and the answers were always surprising only because I had never thought of the questions before.

*

The pharmacy called two months later and said they had my Trazadone.

I don’t want it, I said. Even though I did want it. I wanted it badly. But I didn’t want to come to rely on it again, and then be told I could not have it.

My whole life was a reminder of everything I had come to rely on that was no longer mine to have.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Intimate Strangers: Reading Airport Essays During a Pandemic

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1.On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

2.A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

This porousness makes tenderness possible. It’s why my fraternity seatmate handed me his blanket, why the elderly woman shared her grief, and why I listened. The poet Ross Gay calls this kind of public tenderness “caretaking.” In The Book of Delights—a collection of “essayettes” that chronicles daily delights, sometimes set in airports—he admires the particular kindness that exists between strangers. “In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.”

3.

I like the idea that increased attention plus proximity equals tenderness between strangers, and often it does. But public caretaking is not uncomplicated. In “Layover Story,” from her collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison considers the complexities of sharing spaces with those we don’t know.

During a layover in Houston, Jamison is thrust into proximity with a “difficult woman.” This woman has many needs: she needs help with her bags, help lobbying for an earlier shuttle ride to the airport, help navigating the boarding process with an injured leg. With few other distractions, Jamison watches her. What else is there to pay attention to in a salmon-pink hotel in Houston, in a shuttle bus, in the dull monotony of the airport shuffle from security to gate to boarding to seat? Jamison tries out a few different stories about the woman: that she is implacable, a difficult tourist; then later, that she is a victim, worthy of pity and generosity. The narratives are a way to pass the time and to feel generous. Over the course of the essay, Jamison imposes and then revises these stories: “First she was a tyrant, then a saint, and finally just a tourist, dancing.” The story she is left with is the least interesting of the bunch—woman hurts her leg dancing in Cancun—but it is constructed from acts of attention.

On the flight, Jamison is stuck next to a man who wants to talk. Initially, he bores her. She has already given her attention to the difficult woman and has little left over for a seatmate. But then he surprises her with complexity: a military history in Iraq and a duffel bag full of shells for his daughter, who will offer them as homes to her pet hermit crabs. As they talk, Jamison tries to craft a narrative out of his anecdotes. As with the difficult woman, she fails to get tidy storylines to stick. “I’m trying to run the meaning-making logic over this one too: we have the big and the small; we have more than we can use. But it doesn’t yield; Houston all over again.” Instead she settles for attention: for listening to and seeing the man. She asks questions about the hermit crabs. She is afforded brief glimpses of another person’s world: “His endlessness is something I receive in finite anecdotes: big desert skies, a little girl poking crabs…I forgot, for a moment, that his life—like everyone else’s—holds more than I could ever possibly see.”

This gets at something I love about traveling through public spaces: that it is monotonous and dull and sometimes thrilling, because it occasionally opens a window into other lives and the universes those lives contain. In “Layover Story,” both Jamison’s interactions end in a form of public caretaking. Two seatmates listen to each other. Two passengers travel together from hotel to airport to train station. No one is a martyr and no one is a hero, but—through proximity and an attentive gaze—Jamison catches flashes of other people’s infinitude.

Maybe this is, in the end, why I’ve been reading about airports. In reading, as in traveling, I want to be transported—not physically, but into a deeper engagement with the world and the people around me. Absent of the kind of traveling I’d like to do, reading has been its own kind of portal. Iyer and Jamison shuttle me back into the world of public travel, which can be both boring or luminous depending on my capacity to give attention to strangers. In airports and airplanes we can and do mostly ignore one another, seeing other bodies as inconveniences to be pressed up against or squeezed past in line. But tenderness becomes possible too. “This is how we light the stars, again and again,” writes Jamison, “by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us.”

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Taking Refuge in How: On Toni Morrison’s First Three Novels

I love reading writers’ works in chronological order. Especially with great novelists, it’s so satisfying to see the seeds of later masterpieces in early works. What I often notice is that writers experiment widely with different genres, styles, and narrative perspectives as they work to find a unique voice at the start of their career. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first three novels, for example, include an epistolary social critique, a surrealist nightmare, and a Dickensian bildungsroman.

Reading Toni Morrison’s books, I’m finding a stark contrast. She does not leap from one kind of story to something radically different, like a pendulum trying to find equilibrium. Morrison’s voice shines through from the beginning. Her books contain vastly different plots and characters, but they all bear the marks of her imagination, style, and insight.

In Timothy Greenfields-Sanders’s powerful 2019 documentary about Morrison, The Pieces I Am, the interviewees frequently described Morrison as expanding her canvas with each work. I decided to read through all her novels and, after finishing the first three, I already understand what they meant. These early works do not merely anticipate masterpieces to come; they are masterpieces in their own right. Examining just how each novel expands on what came before is an inspiring and, frankly, humbling experience. And it all begins with The Bluest Eye.

1.
In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison traces the novel back to a haunting conversation from her childhood. One of her friends confided that she wanted blue eyes, a wish that disturbed Morrison because, “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.” “Twenty years later.” Morrison reflects, “ I was still wondering about how one learns that.” The Bluest Eye directly responds to the systemic oppression that informed her friend’s desire by “peck[ing] away at the gaze that condemned her.”

Morrison demonstrates a keen understanding of what a novel can accomplish in just the first few pages of The Bluest Eye. In essence, the opening functions as an outline of every major plot point to come. By beginning this way Morrison spoils the ending to her own story, revealing the ultimate fate of the novel’s central character, Pecola Breedlove. But this isn’t a story whose power relies on maintaining suspense. It cannot be spoiled because it is not about what happened. It is not even about why things happened the way they did because, as the unknown narrator of the prologue tells us, “why is difficult to handle.” Instead, we “must take refuge in how.”

This elevation of how over why is a defining feature not only of The Bluest Eye, but of Morrison’s subsequent two novels. She does not make it easy for us by giving us straightforward answers or even straightforward questions. Instead we simply inhabit and perceive Morrison’s richly developed world through the eyes of characters as real as any person you could meet. This is something that can only be accomplished through fiction.

Her ability to effortlessly transport us from one consciousness to another (and often from one time period to another) allows us to simultaneously perceive everything that happens from a variety of viewpoints. This does not mean we always agree or even sympathize with the characters. But Morrison does not give us the comfort of seeing any of them as villains. She is too good a writer for readers to be left not understanding anyone. The true enemies, in any case, resist easy forms or definitions. Like the insidious gaze that filled Morrison’s friend with shame, they pollute the characters’ world through systems of oppression no single person is responsible for creating.

This identification of the true villain as something systemic and pervasive is made explicit at the end of a scene where three Black girls, Celia, Frieda, and Pecola, and a white girl named Maureen Peal get into an argument. Maureen eventually storms off and declares, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly…!” Celia is enraged, but admits that, “all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”

This scene exemplifies another one of Morrison’s strengths: her ability to write scenes that could function as powerful short stories entirely separate from the novel. In part this is due to Morrison’s tendency to switch perspectives with each chapter. She switches between time periods as well. The beginning of one chapter might take place decades before or after the last one ended. But The Bluest Eye never feels like a short story collection passing itself off as a novel. The further into the story you get, the more you see how Morrison weaves each episode together into a potent, deeply affecting whole. Morrison achieves this in many subtle ways, but one obvious method is by having each incident shape the life of one particular character, Pecola.

Earlier I called Pecola the central character of The Bluest Eye as opposed to the main one. That is because it’s hard to think of her as a main anything. Pecola is always on the receiving end of other characters’ neglect, abuse, or attempts at love. She is only allowed a chance to speak for herself at the very end, and by this point her psyche is so fractured that we end up with more of a hallucinatory dialogue than a clear perspective. Even the title emphasizes not Pecola herself but something she does not and will never have. The Bluest Eye is not so much about Pecola than about how others’ choices drive her inexorably towards tragedy.

Pecola is frequently a recurring background character while someone else narrates, but she is invariably the one who suffers most. One devastating instance comes when Celia and Frieda visit Pecola at the house where Mrs. Breedlove, her mother, works as a maid. The scene ends with Pecola being beaten by her mother after the girls accidentally knock over a pie Mrs. Breedlove made, dirtying the floor she had just cleaned in the process. What compounds the emotional toll of this moment is the presence of Mrs. Breedlove’s employer’s white daughter. The toddler is horrified when these three girls she has never met before ruin the delicious pie meant for her. Mrs. Breedlove responds by gently comforting the white child right after beating her own. She does not even acknowledge Pecola as her own daughter. The racial dynamics at play here are as complex as they are heartbreaking, illustrating Morrison’s wisdom in thoroughly telling us how and leaving the trickier why for us to contemplate on our own.

The Bluest Eye demonstrates Morrison’s already impressive command over her craft, especially through her use of different styles. She would eventually demonstrate these same strengths with her third novel, Song of Solomon. In between the two lays Sula.

2.
When considering Sula, Dostoevsky once again provides a useful contrast. In one of his letters, he told a friend that after writing about a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, he wanted to portray a purely innocent man in his next novel, The Idiot. Whether Morrison consciously saw Sula as the “opposite” of The Bluest Eye, the central figures at least are indeed polar opposites. The Bluest Eye, as mentioned earlier, refers to Pecola by way of by emphasizing what she does not have. The title Sula foregrounds the character Sula Peace, who looms over everything and everyone in the novel, even when she isn’t present. If The Bluest Eye is about how others’ choices impact Pecola, Sula is about how Sula’s choices impact others.

This is more than just the story of a different kind of character, however. First, it arguably has two central figures, Sula and her friend, the far less independent Nel Wright. But second, and more importantly, this is a story about a community as much as the people living in it. The first three lines make this clear beyond any doubt:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the alley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

 Both of Morrison’s first two novels open by looking back at something lost. In The Bluest Eye, it is an innocent time that disappeared after Pecola’s trauma. In Sula, Morrison prioritizes the loss of a place. And while places cannot literally die, there is something funereal about a place with a name being erased for the sake of a golf course and bland suburbs that undoubtedly looks like a thousand others. In both cases, an identity has been destroyed.

The interrelatedness of the Bottom’s inhabitants is made clear again and again. No major event affects just one person. Large crowds are often involved or at least present when such events occur. Generations also influence the lives of old and young alike. By the end of the novel, we have witnessed three generations whose triumphs and tragedies ineluctably shape those around them, even if the full ramifications of one action do not come until decades after. As strange as it may sound, I found myself thinking of Icelandic sagas. The plots of both Sula and these ancient narratives are deeply influenced by communities and the legacies of generations past. The actions of distant ancestors are so great that the titular hero sometimes doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the saga. Notably, Sula is not mentioned until around page 30 and it takes another 30 pages for Sula to take any action of her own in a novel named Sula.

Sula faces isolation more than once, but remains forever tied to her friend Nel. Both actually begin in an isolated state, which is why, “Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers…they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”

The characters complement each other in a way only opposites could. Nel is far more insecure, lacks the courage to ever leave the Bottom, and eventually surrenders to the kind of life expected of her. This comes as no surprise, since “Her parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had.” She is infected by a trace of racial self-loathing, too, though in this case it appears in the form of language. Nel has family who speak Creole, but when Nel asks about the language, her mother curtly replies, “I don’t talk Creole,” adding, “And neither do you.”\

Sula, on the other hand, is a force of nature her entire life. Unlike Nel, or anyone else in the Bottom, she has the audacity to leave. She passes through over half a dozen cities before returning home to find herself a dreaded larger-than-life figure. She is believed to possess supernatural powers. There are also rumors that she slept with white men, something the people of the Bottom consider unforgivable. But no one is more affected by Sula’s return than Nel, whose ordered world is soon plunged into chaos.

Sula certainly expands on The Bluest Eye. But that expansion is nothing compared to what came next.

3.
Song of Solomon is a neutron star of a novel. It contains so many riveting characters, so many rich family histories, so any folktales and songs, and so many pieces of U.S. history yet manages to be less than four hundred pages.

The novel begins with an insurance salesman deciding to fly from the top of a North Carolina hospital to Lake Superior. Spoiler: he fails. The birth of the main character of Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead, coincides with the salesman’s suicide. “Milkman” is actually a nickname that derives from an early scene that highlights how his mother clings to her son in the face of a loveless marriage and the absence of her beloved father. His actual name is Macon Dead III. “Macon” and “Dead,” derive from an indifferent white man who misunderstands Macon’s grandfather shortly after slavery ends.

The next two thirds of the novel exhibit all of Morrison’s by now trademark strengths. We move from one time and consciousness to another, which lets us learn about each of Milkman’s family members. Their incongruous perceptions of each other put the reader in the role of a detective. Milkman, however, is undoubtedly the protagonist, and is the first one I worried I would not like. He initially seems to function purely as a way for us to get to know others because there is not much to know about him. He is aimless, lacks any ambition, and has a limited conception of the world, unlike his politically-informed friend, Guitar. The contrast between the two men calls to mind the differences between Nel and Sula.

Then we reach Part II and everything changes. The story becomes a literal search for buried treasure that in turn expands into a quest for his family’s history. Previously Milkman only experienced his family’s past through memories that may or may not be trusted. Now he goes to the actual places where these stories happened. It is a deeply satisfying twist in three ways. First, it builds on what we learned in Part I in unexpected ways. Second, Milkman does not simply gather up facts about his ancestors. He must piece together stories and folktales and the songs, including the “song of Solomon” to discover a deeply personal truth. And third, Milkman’s quest for a sense of belonging becomes symbolic of an entire people searching for their roots.

History has never been so present in Morrison’s early works. The murder of Emmett Till is directly referenced, as is Malcolm X, and the horrors faced by Black Americans are brought up time and again, including in a particularly fascinating dialogue about the secretive Seven Days organization between Milkman and Guitar. Morrison has never ignored the brutal realities of racism and the terror white people inflict on Black lives. There are multiple scenes in her first two novels that involve white people that are unbearably tense, even in situations that seem relatively safe for the characters. For example, in The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s father is, as a young man, forced to have sex with a girl in front of white men. It’s clear his life is in danger if he does not perform for them. In Sula, Nel and her mother accidentally get onto a white’s only section of a train. They hurry out, but not before they are noticed. This second example seems to have less dramatic stakes, but the depressing fact is that any time a white character appears, we as readers know they can do anything, no matter how vile, with total impunity.

Song of Solomon is different. The first two novels included occasional intrusions into Black worlds (worlds that are, of course, shaped by the United States’ virulent racism). The toxic reality of racism feels more pervasive in this third novel, something that the characters must contend with constantly. It is also addressed more directly and philosophically by characters than before, who consequently take drastically different paths in life. This unfortunately results in divisions among family and friends, the most painful of which occurs between Milkman and Guitar. But the divide between these two men does not come about by betrayal, as with Nel and Sula. Rather, it is a gradual process, accelerated by a misunderstanding with fatal consequences.

Song of Solomon begins with one man falling and ends with another learning to fly. But this spoils nothing. Like The Bluest Eye and Sula, this is a story about how. And that how is beautiful.

4.
These three novels are a testament to Morrison’s selflessness as a writer. The Bluest Eye alone is proof of this. Not only was it a reckoning with the cruel gaze that made her friend doubt her own inherent beauty. Morrison also explains in The Pieces I Am that she wanted to write specifically for a Black audience. She felt even writers like Frederick Douglass ultimately had a white audience in mind. Her novels would be different so that her readers would know someone was speaking to them. Furthermore, they would take place in worlds that were not defined by the white gaze or any white person’s preconceptions. Her novels’ worlds would be outside the white gaze entirely. The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon show an author with a commanding, distinctive voice, even as Morrison also gives voice to generations of Black Americans who struggle even today to be heard at all.

As a white man, I know I am not the audience Morrison imagined. But I am grateful for all I’ve learned from reading these three novels. They have exposed me to perspectives and ideas I never would have discovered otherwise. Researching them has also led me to other great writers I undoubtedly have just as much to learn from.

And best of all, I still have eight more Morrison novels to read.

Revisiting an Unchanged Venice

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I’ve always suspected that us devoted book lovers need books for deeper reasons than just entertainment or information. Speaking from experience, readers who’ve devoured books from childhood onward have found a coping mechanism between those covers. Books give us a way to escape, but even more, they can set us down in a private space of retreat and maybe even safety. In the same way that Lucy enters the wardrobe and finds snowy, magical Narnia, we enter a book and find a landscape that gives us rest from the intensity of our individual surroundings. And if readers use books in this way, then devoted book lovers who become writers have a similar, second escape route because our settings—and even the act of writing itself can provide a haven.

Last year, all of our settings were intense. Here in the Seattle area, we had a jump start on the fear and confusion the pandemic brought. My beautiful hometown of Kirkland, Wash., and my whole beloved Seattle area, was the hot zone for the coronavirus. To find our vibrant, lake-filled, mountainous, science-and-tech-smart city at the center of something so frightening was shocking, and it was surreal to witness the rest of the U.S. going about life as usual as schools shut down and grocery store shelves emptied and as our major corporations firmly sent workers home.

At the time, I was midway through the writing of One Great Lie, my novel about a young writer who travels to Venice for a summer writing program taught by a charismatic male author, and a woman who’s forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance. Every time I write a novel, I make decisions about settings, of course—what’s best for the story itself, which backdrop will best add another layer of mood or meaning. But I also think about where I might want to go, where I want to spend the year or so it takes to write a book. I’ve spent that year on islands in the San Juans, in cliffside houses on the Pacific Ocean, at a divorce ranch in the Nevada Desert, on the hidden South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. I’ve spent a year making my way across the country on foot, mile by mile, word by word, page by page. This time, though, I wanted to travel to one of my favorite cities: Venice. That enchanting, shabby, and surreal island of sinking villas and winding streets. I wanted its atmosphere and history to seep deeply into my story, and to give it the rich patina of 500 years of art and power, tragedy and resilience.

Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all if you’re writing about Venice, ancient plagues had already made their way into the book. The summer writing program my character visits takes place at a villa on La Calamita, a fictional private island in the Venetian Lagoon based on the very real “plague island” called La Poveglia, which served as a plague quarantine area during the many pandemics in the 14th through 18th centuries. Also, my characters experience two very real festivals that still take place to celebrate the end of those plagues. At the same time that we in the Seattle area were locking down, we were also seeing scenes of Italians in quarantine singing from their balconies, eerily empty piazzas, and quiet, yet unusually clear Venetian canals. So, when I delved back into my book, it was with both a bittersweet connection and a sense of retreat into the past, in more ways than one.

The book was already a love letter to the city, with its romance and mystery and its watery, drowning magic, but now my love for the city and for Italy itself felt more alive and insistent, as I witnessed that resilience I was writing about. And that retreat into the past was more alive, too, as, on the eve of its 1,600th birthday, Venice was once again experiencing a pandemic. Venice, the city that also gave us the word quarantena, quarantine, for the 40 days sailors were required to spend in isolation to avoid spreading the plague.

But disappearing into that book with its enticing, foreign location was also a straight-up, glorious retreat into my own visits there. When you write, when you get into your setting as completely as you should in order to convey it to readers, you’ll feel that sun, and taste that food, and notice the gold light of the late afternoon as you set the words on the page. In those intense and stressful days, stuck at home, confined and afraid, I was transported to that the spectacular, flickering stage-set that is Venice. I walked those narrow cobblestone streets, crossed over canal bridges, and peered into shop windows. I ate cicchetti in the Cantina do Mori, and drank teeny cups of strong espresso at an outdoor cafe. I sped across the lagoon in a speedboat, had a picnic on a plateau with a view of the Euganean Hills, and walked into the cold foyer of San Zaccaria, and then down the stone steps into the water-filled crypt. I indulged in all the things us book lovers adore and that this city offers in abundance, too: ancient manuscripts, a palatial and centuries-old library, and an utterly magical bookstore: the charming Libreria Acqua Alta, with its volumes upon volumes stored in boats and bathtubs to protect them during the seasonal floods.

This is the power of books, both reading them and writing them. The power of creativity and imagination and the written word to help you both understand your world and escape it. To provide entertainment and information, yes, but even better, connection and context, retreat and rest, and even a sense of safety when the world doesn’t feel very safe. Immersed in all of those lush details, you can catch your breath and even be consoled. Deep in the smells and sights and sounds of a curiously yet reassuringly unchanged Venice, I could hear its stories. Old stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. New stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. Just as it is when you are there in person, Italy, and Venice itself, was a feast for the senses and a tonic for the spirit. Those timeless buildings, the water flowing for centuries, all of the words—written on ancient manuscripts, typed on pages, sung from a balcony—were reminders of an ageless truth: human beings have suffered, but human beings have endured.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond 20 Drafts

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I am in good company to have written more than 20 drafts of a novel. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Compared to nonfiction, a novel may require more drafts and take longer to get right. Writing a novel is a unique challenge, rather like birthing a brainchild: each book is different and needs as long as it takes.

Before publishing my debut novel, Living Treasures, I had gone through so many revisions that I asked myself “What’s there left to revise?” Then, a published friend encouraged me: “You have to get through this, or you won’t get published.” She had written 27 drafts before publishing her debut. It was like a rite of passage to push through the last revision and be greeted at the finishing line of a marathon. My second book, My Old Faithful, a linked story collection, won the Juniper Prize. The stories were previously published in the literary journals. So the manuscript was pretty clean, and I just had some line edits. The toil of revision—like labor pains—is conveniently forgotten so I can go on writing another book.

My third novel, My Good Son, won the UNO Publishing Lab Prize. I was beyond honored. The book was read and commented on by students from The Publishing Laboratory. My dear editor, Chelsey Shannon, with her thorough diligence and incredible acuity, compiled the extensive editorial feedback: 5,500-plus comments via track changes and 13 pages of global comments. To be fair, two pages were praise. But there were also 11 pages of single-spaced constructive criticism. Some of the notes were line edits, but others were mini essays. It was overwhelming—and not just the sheer volume, but how the feedback took the story apart, tuned the timing of plot points, brought out the themes, and rounded up the symbolism, which made it seem like a battle plan.

I found the rewrite a tremendous challenge. Every time I changed a gesture or line of dialogue, it shifted a host of meanings and the relationship dynamics: who is hiding what from whom and for what reason? I found it hard to gauge my progress. Was I making it better or worse? I seemed to be making minute changes. Why did it feel so much more difficult than earlier drafts, when I built a world from the ground up?

It took me a while to understand that there are different stages of writing and revision. Early drafts are like building a house. The first draft is like scaffolding: prepare the construction site and pour foundation. Then, complete the rough framing: install the floors, walls, and roof. This is exciting physical work that makes me feel strong. Pretty soon I have the skeleton of a house that looks like a promising story.

The subsequent drafts complete that house: install plumbing, insulation, complete drywall, interior and exterior fixtures, and paint. This is less dramatic than the scaffolding but still feels very productive. After a great deal of hard work, I have built a new house for readers to visit.

Until this point, I have worked in relative isolation. The story and characters have emerged from my subconscious. I am more of a medium than a judge of my material. That is why the writing is so energizing and revelatory. I fall in love with my characters and their world, laugh and cry with them because they open me up to a broader spectrum of human emotions. The story is more than my own experience; it is everything in life that prepares me to understand, feel, and imagine.

After however-many drafts, my manuscript is accepted for publication. From there, it goes on a different journey. A book is a commodity and exists in an economic system that relies on readers to exchange money for goods. A book keeps readers invested for the five, six, 10 hours it takes to be read. The stakes are raised; now there is a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.

When an editor accepts my manuscript, they have a vision for the book and a target audience. The development edit turns my manuscript into something ready for public consumption. As the editor breathes life into my creation, the manuscript is transformed on its journey into the world.

Now I look at the development edit like performing surgery. I cut open the body, repair the soft tissue, make it work. It is minute work. I work in an operating room, under a microscope, for long hours. Finally I sew up the wound and wait.

Another kind of labor requires greater precision and different perspectives. I examine the story, somewhat like a judge, from the readers’ and critics’ point of view, and ask difficult moral questions, which didn’t trouble me during the early stages of writing. Now that time has come. I must undertake the role of both a medium and judge. When I see an editorial comment that confounds me, I need to slow down and listen to my characters. Let the material saturate me like before, and remember why I wrote this story. If the world and characters are true and strong, they will tell me what to do.

I cannot make the readers happy by pandering to them. Readers are compelled by characters that are distinct and surprising. If the characters are tamed—in other words, if I flinch or back down—I risk losing my story. Instead, I should keep my characters strong and push them harder: allow them to act true and with autonomy. Only when they are strong enough to rebel against me, will they convince and move the readers like real human beings.

Bonus Links:
Unconventional Revision: MFA vs. Therapy
Fifteen Poets on Revision

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

The Case for ‘War and Peace’ and Rereading

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I was 26 and planning for a wedding when Colin Powell made his speech at the United Nations about the supposedly incontrovertible need to invade Iraq. The most famous pitch for war in our time. I can’t be certain, but I believe this historical moment was what led me soon after to visit Shakespeare & Co and purchase a paperback of War and Peace, that infamously long, infamously antiwar Russian novel. Now seems as good a time as any, I said to anyone who’d listen.

Two months later, Baghdad fell; and a month after that President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier that had returned from the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, I was still planning for my wedding, and now I was also carrying War and Peace to and from the office daily.

“It’s amazing,” I said to a co-worker who asked how the book was. “But it’s taking longer than an actual war to read.”

Even then, the joke was more callous than funny; and it became less and less funny as the occupation of Iraq wore on, and weeks led to months, then years of violence, bloodshed and turmoil. According to the reading log that I keep, the actual number of books I read over the course of the eight year conflict in Iraq is 319, including War and Peace. This feels somehow both better and worse.

As the years pass, my recollection of the books I’ve read becomes, shall we say, more and more imperfect. I cannot tell you anything about John Fante’s Ask the Dust except that I read it in March 2009 and thought it was great. I remember the warm feeling I had for Alice Munro’s Runaway while reading it in 2006, but can I tell you the plot of any story in it? A character’s name? A single scene? No, no, and no. I’m stunned to learn that I have ever read Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake. I made a note in my reading log that I thought it was excellent, the highest rating in the system that I use. Excellent? I’m sure it was. Just not excellent enough to remember.

But I remember War and Peace. Maybe because I spent so long, well, reading War and Peace. I carried the still-like-new 1,386-page book daily to the subway station at 23rd Street, where I caught the downtown 6. One snowy morning, I was hustling to catch a train and slipped on ice near the subway entrance. I stayed vertical but the book tumbled down the steps; picking it up, I found an appalling tear in the cover. After the spill, I was angry with myself for weeks.

Sometime that spring, I recall sleepily reading a chapter about a grand oak tree while snug in bed at my future in-laws’ home. Later, also while at their house in Pennsylvania, I read a chapter about a romantic sled ride by a pair of young lovers. But the names of those lovers escapes me. Unless, maybe, was it, Kitty? And Levin? After scouring the steamer trunk of my memory, I searched online for answers. Turns out, I’m half right. Tolstoy created a Kitty and a Levin – but he put them in Anna Karenina. There is only one character from War and Peace whose name I recall with certainty: Prince Andrey, a majestic presence whom I liked from the start, even though I also felt like I should not like him. That’s the secret witchery of Tolstoy: he conjures sympathies for any and every kind of person.

Of the plot, I can tell you there is a war. Napoleon appears. Lives are made and ruined. And that’s all I remember. Yet, I know that I loved the book. I still think of it as a book that moved me, that taught me so much about what is possible in building a novel. The details have been worn away, but the impression remains. Reading War and Peace was a personal event, one of those watershed experiences that I enjoyed both for what it was and for how it was the fulfillment of something I had long wanted to do: a notch on the bedpost of my personal reading adventures.

For all my adult life I have tried to read far and wide, or at least far and wide for me. Certainly the complete arc of my reading list would underwhelm true doyennes of world literature. But I have done my best to wander the planet in search of understanding, perspective, and experiences that extend beyond the Midwestern town where I began. This pursuit has led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fanciful Macondo and Nabokov’s spectral Zembla; from the South Seas of Robert Louis Stevenson to the Harlem of James Baldwin; from Australia (The Transit of Venus),to Argentina (Labyrinths) and beyond (The Left Hand of Darkness).

This reading journey made me the person I am. Gave me perspective. Helped me to understand the narrative of my own life. And now at midlife I am beginning to see how the record of this intellectual travel fades. Does the inevitable forgetfulness make the work done less valuable in the long run? Do I need a certain level of constant recall to validate that it was all time well spent? I know the answer is no. But it’s still disturbing to see that even with books that I think I remember very well, what I can recall unaided is being steadily reduced to mere impressions or a few sharp vignettes, like the cherished memory of a beloved summer in childhood, a time when you know you were happy but it’s increasingly hard to explain precisely why.

In June of the first year of the Iraq War, I finished reading War and Peace while lying on the sofa in the den of the apartment where my future wife and I were living. Our first home together. She was asleep down the hall. She was still my fiancée, still a promise of a life to be, and not yet the mother of our two children. So much was unwritten, unknown, a future that I know now but couldn’t know, couldn’t fathom then. I remember the last chapter was a long slog through dull philosophizing, but I was determined to finish, and after 1 a.m, I did. The living room windows were open because the night was warm and taxi cabs and late night revelers were still making noise outside on Lexington Avenue. I wanted to tell someone I was done, but there was no one to tell. I rubbed my eyes and thought, My God, where do you go after that? Not just as a writer, but as a reader?

I could reread War and Peace, but I couldn’t get back to that moment at the end, no matter how much I tried. As an adult I haven’t reread many books. On the rare occasion when I do, it is with the craftsman’s curiosity to see how a particular book worked. I paged through Never Let Me Go a couple years ago to clock how Ishiguro handles his gradual reveals. Last year, I reread much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being because I was convinced it had hidden parallels to a Sheila Heiti novel. Will I ever read all of War and Peace again? Unlikely. But I was also once pretty convinced the Iraq War was necessary, and also that the war was more or less over shortly after it began. Certainties change with time; maybe I will begin to reread more.

Recently, I went looking for the copy of War and Peace I carried around for months. I’ve moved four times since I read it, and it has had a place on a bookshelf in each apartment. Taking it off the shelf, I looked for the rip on the cover, the mark after I dropped it on the stairs long ago. But there was no rip on the cover of this book. How could this be? Turning over the book in my hands, I was confused until I found a jagged hangnail on the spine. Then I remembered: yes, this is the damage from that fall. My memory was correct in spirit, but the details I had stored up in my heart were troublingly wrong. A minor failure of recall. But still, a stumble. Another one. Flipping through the pages, I stopped at page 613 and read:

“The prince had greatly aged during the war. He had begun to show unmistakable signs of failing powers, sudden attacks of drowsiness, and forgetfulness of events nearest in time, and exact memory of remote incidents, and a childlike vanity in playing the part of leader of the Moscow opposition.”

Everything I love about Tolstoy is right there: the crumbling grandeur of a proud man, the insistent life force in the long strands of clauses that keep reaching, and the prose’s uncanny ability to capture the particular and the universal all at once. Indeed, this is how it is, as you age; you hold fast to what you know, sometimes so much so that the relentless newness of the world strikes and slides off you.

Wars go on and on, without fail. As the invidious Judge Holden says in Blood Meridian: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures.” Meanwhile, the individual mind and the reading journey last only so long, mere decades at best, sometimes far less.

Bonus Links:
The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading
Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo
Collision Courses and Castration Anxiety: Rereading John Irving
Kafka on the Go: Rereading ‘The Metamorphosis’
Mistaking Solipsism for Intimacy: On Rereading Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’

This Story Sucks: What I Learned Teaching LGBTQ Studies

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On my classroom’s back wall, cartoon unicorns distinguish gender from sex and sexuality. Lil Nas X muses on the success of “Old Town Road:” “wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”

Above a pink triangle, the words I see you. Below it: & I love you.

When I tell men on Grindr that I teach LGBTQ Studies, they either express surprise that my high school offers it, play up a fetish (“I wish you’d been my teacher”), or assume I work at a fancy private school.

In fact, I teach (English, mostly) in one of the poorest public school districts in Massachusetts. I can trace the elective’s origin back to our teachers union. In 2017, the bargaining team strategized about how best to pull the conservative district left. Clear-eyed about our leverage, we chose not to lay a bunch of thorny demands out on the table. Instead, we pruned them. We proposed committees. Years later, the labor-management committee focused on diversity and equity successfully added LGBTQ Studies to the high school’s curriculum.

The inaugural class was small, only a dozen or so students, nearly all of them self-identifying with some letter in the acronym. We started with a bar riot (Stonewall, 1969) and ended with a nightclub massacre (Pulse, 2016). As the semester went on, I loved to see which figures and flash points in queer history resonated with my students.

Curly-haired and lewd, Jason wasn’t easily impressed. But when we listened to Sylvia Rivera recount her story of Stonewall in the documentary Out Rage ’69, he said, surprised by her coarse vernacular, “She sounds like us.” I smiled. “You mean you sound like her.”

One of the lesbians in class fell in love with Audre Lorde. Struck by the excerpt we read of “The Uses of Anger,” Michaela asked her mom to buy her a collection of Lorde’s poetry. She then sped through Zami and Sister Outsider.

After cheering on Damon and Angel in the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, students went home and binged the series.

And they got chills reading James Merrill’s concrete poem “Christmas Tree,” written at the end of his life before he died of AIDS complications. “Yo, I’m so dumb,” Jaliyah said to us, stunned that anyone could write a poem about a tree that was also a poem about a man, about how they both die, both become “needles and bone” in the end.

That’s a generous montage, though. If I’m honest, I often worried I was getting more out of the class than my students were.

Maybe I should blame the generational gap. There was only one half-out kid in my millennial high school. I spent close to a decade in the closet—from eighth grade (2004), when the word gay began to torment me, until my senior year of college (2013), when I finally came out. In between, I kept my distance from queer people, let alone queer history and culture. I slept with a gay man before I made friends with one. Now out as an adult, I still had a lot to learn, and I was hungry to learn it.

As I connected historical events to one another across time and teased out the movement’s tensions between assimilation and liberation, I reaffirmed my own present-tense identity, politics, and community. Excavating stories of a radical past—from the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to ACT UP—clarified an inheritance of queer resistance, an orientation toward solidarity, direct action, and supporting those with the least to lose in our fight to win the world we all deserve.

I wanted this for my students, too. I wanted the class to whistle and pop, for every student to walk away from it on fire for the movement. It was a big ask. Unlike the guys I try to impress online, my Gen Z students mostly took the class for granted.

Some students failed the class. One slept through it. In their defense, the course was far from perfect. It was only my first attempt, after all.

It didn’t help that we started before 8 a.m. Students would show up late with Dunkin’ and pay closer attention to their iced coffees than to the YA novels they’d each chosen for independent reading. (Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl stands out as one exception, a page-turner about a trans girl starting at a new school.)

Our classroom also invited gossip about their queer relationships in ways that most did not, a distraction I could hardly begrudge them. Trista mooned over her girlfriend. Lana, a potty-mouthed trans girl, serialized her entanglement with a pair of brothers. They whispered, they shrieked, they slapped each other’s twiggy arms in disbelief.

One particularly memorable Monday, Jason told us his boyfriend had cheated on him over the weekend. He was steamed. As we tried to read from Adrienne Rich’s admittedly dense “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that morning, he wrote in the margin, “This story sucks.” (To Jason’s credit, that more or less perfectly distills Rich’s argument about heterosexuality.)

In the end, I got over myself. I came to feel grateful for my students’ chill—even a little jealous. Is it too naïve to suggest we’ve come at least that far?

Still, I’m glossing. A majority of my students shared stories of childhood trauma, of brutal secrets and countless slights. It’s gotten better—but only to a point, and considerably more so for some than for others. No amount of glitter can cover up the unabated violence against queer and trans people, particularly of color. My students, for example, voted to raise money for the Trevor Project in order to address the persistently disproportionate rates of LGBTQ suicide and homelessness. I know they’d be horrified by the wave of anti-trans bills currently crashing down on state legislatures.

I just wish you could’ve seen them: unapologetic, unbowed, and—like all teenagers in class—easily off-task and gloriously bored.

I didn’t scold them, then. I chose not to play the role of elder (I’m 29, but age is elastic with teenagers, especially with gay boys like Jason, who thought I was ancient) intent on making the next generation feel painfully indebted for the basic dignity and rights they enjoy. They shouldn’t have to live stuck in a past when we existed only in the shadows, locked away in our closets.

What I did was write them a letter. As we said our goodbyes at the end of the semester, I encouraged them to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of queer and trans ancestors who hid, who loved, who threw bricks, who were murdered, who tore up dance floors, who lost families and chose new ones.

That to choose a family is to want to make them proud.

The message landed, I think—at least somewhat, at least for some of them. I know because I asked them to write me back.

In her letter, Michaela called our class her “home.” Many of them did. “This is like family,” she wrote. She also quoted Audre Lorde, whose work she now reads most mornings to motivate herself out of bed: “Your silence will not protect you.” Michaela promised to always speak up.

Lana, however, was brief. She ripped a page out of her notebook and scribbled across it, “Your the gayest teacher ive ever had and thats great for you.” A bubble hovered above the i, fit to burst.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Elegy of the Walker

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By the conclusion of Mildred Lissette Norman’s 2,200 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in 1952—the steep snow-covered peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains; the autumnal cacophony of Massachusetts’ brown, orange, and red Berkshires; the verdant greens of New York’s Adirondacks and Pennsylvania’s Alleghanies; the misty roll of Virginia’s Blue Ridge; the lushness of North Carolina and Georgia’s Great Smoky Mountains—she would wear down the soles of her blue Sperry Topsiders into a hatchwork of rubber threads, the rough canvas of the shoes ripping apart at the seams. “There were hills and valleys, lots of hills and valleys, in that growing up period,” Norman would recall, becoming the first woman to hike the trail in its entirety. The Topsiders were lost to friction, but along with 28 additional pairs of shoes over the next three decades, she would also gain a new name—Peace Pilgrim. The former secretary would (legally) rechristen herself after a mystical experience somewhere in New England, convinced that she would “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace.”


Peace Pilgrim’s mission began at the Rose Bowl Parade in 1953, gathering signatures on a petition to end the Korean War. From Pasadena she trekked over the Sierra Nevada, the hardscrabble southwest, the expansive Midwestern prairies, the roll of the Appalachians and into the concrete forest of New York City. She gained spectators, acolytes, and detractors; there was fascination with this 46-year-old woman, wearing a simple blue tunic emblazoned in white capital letters with “Walking Coast to Coast for Peace,” her greying hair kept up in a bun and her pockets containing only a collapsible toothbrush, a comb, and a ballpoint pen. By the time she died in 1981, she had traversed the United States seven times. “After I had walked almost all night,” she recalled in one of the interviews posthumously collected into Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, “I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down… That night I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life to something beyond myself.” It was the same inclination that compelled Abraham to walk into Canaan, penitents to trace Spain’s Camino de Santiago, or of the whirling Mevlevi dervishes traipsing through the Afghan bush. It was an inclination toward God.

Something about the plodding of one foot after another, the syncopation mimicking the regularity of our heartbeat, the single-minded determination to get from point A to point B (wherever those mythic locations are going to be) gives walking the particular enchantments that only the most universal of human activities can have. Whether a stroll, jog, hike, run, saunter, plod, trek, march, parade, patrol, ramble, constitutional, wander, perambulation, or just plain walk, the universal action of moving left foot-right foot-left foot-right foot marks humanity indelibly, so common that it seemingly warrants little comment if you’re not a podiatrist. But when it comes to the subject, there are as many narratives as there are individual routes, for as Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, “a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” Loathe we should be to let such an ostensibly basic act pass without some consideration.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking that “Like eating or breathing, [walking] can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.” Walking is leisure and punishment, introspection and exploration, supplication and meditation, even composition. As a tool for getting lost, both literally and figuratively, of fully inhabiting our being, walking can empty out our selfhood. A mechanism for transmuting a noun into a verb, or transforming the walker into the walking. When a person has pushed themselves so that their heart pumps like a piston, that they feel the sour burn of blisters, the chaffing of denim, so that breathing’s rapidity is the only focus, then there is something akin to pure consciousness (or possibly I’m just fat). And of course, all that you can simply observe with that consciousness, unhampered by screen, so that walking is “powerful and fundamental,” as Cheryl Strayed writes in her bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail: an account of how Strayed hiked thousands of miles following the death of her mother, and learning “what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets… It seemed to me it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild.”     

Maybe that sense of being has always attended locomotion, ever since a family of Australopithecus pressed their calloused heals into the cooling volcanic ash of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania some 3.7 million years ago. Discovered in 1976 by Mary Leaky, the preserved footprints were the earliest example of hominoid bipedalism. Two adults and a child, the traces suggested parents strolling with a toddler, as if they were Adam and Eve with either Cain or Abel. Olduvai’s footprints are smaller than those of a modern human, but they lack the divergent toe of other primates, and they indicate that whoever left them moved from the heel of their feet to the ball, like most of us do. Crucially, there were no knuckle impressions left, so they didn’t move in the manner that chimpanzees and gorillas do. “Mary’s footprint trail was graphically clear,” explains Virginia Morell in Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, “the early hominoids stood tall and walked as easily on two legs as any Homo sapiens today… it was apparently this upright stance, rather than enlarged crania, that first separated these creatures from other primates.”

The adults were a little under five-feet tall and under 100 pounds, covered in downy brown fur with slopping brow and overbit jaw, with the face of an ape but the uncanny eyes of a human, the upright walking itself transforming them into the latter. Walking preceded words, the ambulation perhaps necessitating the speaking. Australopithecus remained among the pleasant green plains of east Africa, but by the evolution of anatomically modern humans in the area that is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, and walking became the engine by which people disseminated through the world. Meandering was humanity’s insurance, as Nicholas Wade writes in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, that as little as 50,000 years ago and the “ancestral human population, the first to possess the power of fully articulate modern speech, may have numbered only 5,000 people, confined to a homeland in northeast Africa.” In such small numbers, and in such a circumscribed area, humanity was prisoner to circumstance, where an errant volcano, draught, or epidemic could have easily consigned us to oblivion. Walking as far as we could was our salvation.

Humans would walk out of Africa into Asia and perhaps by combination of simple boat and swimming down the Indonesian coast into Australia, across the Bering Strait and into North America, and over the Panamanian isthmus and into South America, with distant islands like Madagascar, New Zealand, and Iceland waiting for sailing technology to ferry people to their shores millennia after we left the shade of the Serengeti’s bulbous baobab trees. We think of our ancestors as living in a small world, but there’s was an expansive realm, all the more so since it wasn’t espied through a screen. Partner to burrowing meerkats peaking over the dry scrub of the Kalahari, nesting barn owls overlooking the crusting, moss-covered bark of the ancient Ciminian Forest, the curious giant softshell tortoises of the Yangtze River. To walk is to be partner to the natural world, it is to fully inhabit being an embodied self. Choosing to be a pedestrian today is to reject the diabolic speed of both automobile and computer. Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places that nature is “invaluable to us precisely because… [it is] uncompromisingly different… you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share.” Sojourn into a world so foreign was the birthright of the first humans, and it still is today, if you choose it. 

All continents, albeit mostly separated by unsettlingly vast oceans, are in some form or another connected by thin strips of land here or there, something to the advantage of Scottish Victorian explorer Sir George Thompson who walked from Canada to Western Europe, via Siberia. More recently there was the English explorer George Meegan who from 1977 to 1983 endeavored to walk from Patagonia to the northern tip of North America, which involved inching up South America’s Pacific coast, crossing the Darien Gap into Central America, circling the Gulf Coast and walking up the Atlantic shore, following the Canadian border, and then walking from the Yukon into Alaska. Meegan’s expedition covered 19,019 miles, the longest recorded uninterrupted walk. Effected by the nervous propulsion that possibly compelled that first generation to leave home, Meegan explains in The Longest Walk: The Record of our World’s First Crossing of the Entire Americas that “once the idea seemed to be a real possibility, once I thought I could do it, I had to do it.” Along the way Meegan wore out 12 pairs of hiking boots, got stabbed once, and met peanut-farmin’ Jimmy Carter at his Georgian homestead.

Meegan’s route was that of the first Americans, albeit accomplished in reverse. The most recent large landmass to be settled, those earliest walkers observed a verdant expanse, for as Craig Childs describes the Paleolithic continent in Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America, the land east of the Bering Strait was a “mosaic of rivers and grasslands… horizons continuing on as if constantly giving birth to themselves—mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and giant bears strung out as far as the eye could see. It must have seemed as if there was no end, the generosity of this planet unimaginable.” A venerable (and dangerous) tradition to see America as an unspoiled Paradise, but it’s not without its justifications, and one that I’ve been tempted to embrace during my own errands into the wilderness. Raised not far from Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, a 644-acre preserve set within the eastern edge of the city, a bramble of moss-covered rocky creeks and surprisingly steep ravines, a constructed forest primeval meant to look as it did when the Iroquois lived there, and I too could convince myself that I was a settler upon the frontier. Like all sojourns into the woods, I found that my strolls in Frick Park couldn’t help but have a bit of the mythic about them, especially at dusk.

One day when I was a freshman, a friend and I took a stack of cheap, pocket-sized, rough orange-covered New Testaments which the Gideons, who were standing the requisite constitutionally mandated distance from our high school, had been assiduously handing out as part of an ill-considered attempt to convert our fellow students. In a pique of adolescent blasphemy, we went to a Frick Park path, and walked through the cooling October forest as twilight fell, ripping the cheap pages from the bibles and letting them fall like crisp leaves to the woods’ floor, or maybe inadvertently as a trail of Eden’s apple seeds. No such thing as blasphemy unless you already ascent to the numinous, and as our heretical stroll turned God on his head, a different pilgrim had once roamed woods like these. During the Second Great Awakening when revivals of strange fervency and singular belief burnt down the Appalachian edge, a pious adherent of the mystical Swedenborgian faith named John Chapman was celebrated for traipsing through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Briefly a resident of the settlement of Grant’s Hill in what is today downtown Pittsburgh, about several miles west of Frick Park, and Chapman’s mission was to spread the gospel of the New Church, along with the planting of orchards. Posterity remembers him as Johnny Appleseed.

Folk memory has Johnny
Appleseed fixed in a particular (and peculiar way): the bearded frontiersmen,
wearing a rough brown burlap coffee sack, a copper pot on his head, and a
trundled bag over his shoulder as the barefoot yeoman plants apples across the
wide expanse of the West. I’d wager there is a strong possibility you thought
he was as apocryphal as John Henry or Paul Bunyan, but Chapman was definitely
real; a Protestant St. Francis of whom it was said that he walked with a tamed wolf
and that due to his creaturely benevolence even the mosquitoes would spare him
their sting. Extreme walkers become aspects of nature, their souls as if the
migratory birds that trace lines over the earth’s curvature. Johnny Appleseed’s
walking was a declaration of common ownership over the enormity of this land. Sometime
in the 1840s, Chapman found himself listening to the outdoor sermonizing of a fire-and-brimstone
Methodist preacher in Mansfield, Ohio. “Where is the primitive Christian, clad
in coarse raiment, walking barefoot to Jerusalem?” the minister implored
the crowd, judging them for their materialism, frivolity, and immorality.
Finally, a heretofore silent Johnny Appleseed, grown tired of the uncharitable
harangue, ascended the speaker’s platform and hiked one grime-covered,
bunion-encrusted, and blistered black foot underneath the preacher’s nose.
“Here’s your primitive Christian,” he supposedly declared. Even
Johnny Appleseed’s gospel was of walking.

“John Chapman’s appearance at the minister’s stump,” writes William Kerrigan in Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, made the horticulturalist a “walking manifestation of a rejection of materialism.” Not just figuratively a walking embodiment of such spirituality, but literally a walking incarnation of it. The regularity of putting one foot after the other has the rhythm of the fingering of rosary beads or the turning of prayer wheels; both intimately physical and yet paradoxically a means of transcending our bodies. “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” writes Solnit, “as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” Hence walking as religious devotion, from the Australian aborigine on a walkabout amidst the burnt ochre Outback, to the murmuring pilgrim tracing the labyrinth underneath the stone flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral, and the Hadji walking over hot sands towards Mecca, or the Orthodox Jew graced with the gift of deliberateness as she walks to shul on Shabbat. Contemplative, meditative, and restorative, religiously speaking walking can also be penitential. In 2009 the Irish Augustinian Fr. Michael Mernagh walked from Cork to Dublin on a pilgrimage of atonement that he single-handedly took in penitence for the Church’s shameful silence regarding child sexual abuse. Not just a pilgrimage, but a protest, with Fr. Mernagh saying of the rot infecting the Church that the “more I have walked the more I feel it is widespread beyond our comprehension.” Atonement is uncomfortable, painful even. As pleasant as a leisurely stroll can be, a penitential hike should strain the lungs, burn the muscles. If penitence isn’t freely taken, however, then it’s no longer penitence. Especially if there’s no reason for contrition, then it’s something else—punishment. Or torture.

“The drop outs began,” recalled Lt. Col. William E. Dyess. “It seemed that a great many of the prisoners reached the end of their endurance at about the same time. They went down by twos and threes. Usually, they made an effort to rise. I never can forget their groans and strangled breathing as they tried to get up. Some succeeded.” Many didn’t. A Texas Air Force officer with movie-star good looks, Dyess had been fighting with the 21st Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded in 1942. Along with some 80,000 fellow American and Filipino troops, he would be marched the 70 miles from Marviales to Camp O’Donnell. Denied food and water, forced to walk in the scorching heat of the jungle sun, with temperatures that went well over 100 degrees, it’s estimated that possibly 26,000 prisoners—a third of those captured—perished in that scorching April of 1942.

Bayonet and heat, bullet and sun, all goaded the men to put one foot in front of the other until many of them couldn’t any more. Transferred from the maggot and filth infested Camp O’Donnell, where malaria and dengue fever took even more Filipinos and Americans, Dyess was able to escape and make it back to American lines. While convalescing in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Dyess narrated his account—the first eyewitness American testimony to the Bataan Death March—to Chicago Tribune writer Charles Leavelle. Prohibited from release by the military, Leavelle would finally see the publication of Bataan Death March: A Survivor’s Account in 1944. Dyess never read it; he died a year before. His P-38G-10-LO Lightning lost an engine during takeoff at a Glendale, Calif., airport, and rather than risk civilian casualties by abandoning the plane, Dyess crashed it into a vacant lot, so that his life would be taken by flying rather than by walking.

Walking can remind us that we’re alive, so that it’s all the more obscene when such a human act is turned against us, when the pleasure of exertion turns into the horror of exhaustion, the gentle burn in muscles transformed into spasms, breathing mutated into sputtering. Bataan’s nightmare, among several, was that it was walking that couldn’t stop, wasn’t’ allowed to stop. “It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world,” writes philosopher Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, “a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe.” Torture reminds us that we’re reducible to bodies; it particularizes and universalizes our pain. With some irony, walking does something similar, with the exertion of moving legs and swinging arms, our wide-ranging mobility announcing us as citizens of the universe. Hence the hellish irony of Bataan, or the 2,200 miles from Georgia to Oklahoma that more than 100,000 Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were forced to walk by the U.S. federal government between 1830 and 1850, the January 1945 40-mile march of 56,000 Auschwitz prisoners to the Loslau train station in sub-zero temperatures, or the 2.5 million residents of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, forced to evacuate into the surrounding countryside by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. These walks are as hell, prisoners followed by guards with guns and German shepherds, over the hard, dark ground.

Harriet Tubman’s walks were also in the winter, feet trying to gain uncertain purchase upon frozen bramble, stumbling over cold ground and slick, snow covered brown leaves, and she too was pursued by men with rifles and dogs. She covered similar distances as those who were forced to march, but Tubman was headed to another destination, and that has made all the difference. Crossing the Mason-Dixon line in 1849, Tubman recalled that “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But she wasn’t in Heaven, she was in Pennsylvania. For Tubman, and for the seventy enslaved people whom she liberated on thirteen daring missions back into Maryland, walking was arduous, walking was frightening, walking was dangerous, but more than anything walking was the price of freedom.

Tubman would rightly
come to be known as the Moses of her people (another prodigious walker),
descending into the antebellum South like Christ harrowing Hell. The network of
safe-houses and sympathetic abolitionists who shepherded the enslaved out of
Maryland, and Virginia, and North Carolina into Pennsylvania, and New England
and Canada, who quartered the enslaved in cold, dusty, cracked root cellars and
hidden passageways, used multiple means of transportation. People hid in the
backs of wagons underneath moldering produce, they availed themselves of
steamships and sometimes the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad. One
enterprising man named Henry Box Brown even mailed himself from Richmond to
Philadelphia, the same year Tubman arrived in the Quaker City. But if the
Underground Railroad was anything, it was mostly a process of putting one foot
before the other on the long walk to the north.

              Familiar with the ebbs and flows of the
brackish Chesapeake as it lapped upon the western shores of Dorchester County,
Tubman was able to interpret mossy rocks and trees to orient herself, navigating
by the Big Dipper and Polaris. Her preferred time of travel was naturally at
night, and winter was the best season to abscond back, deploying the silence
and cold of the season as camouflage. Dorchester is only a scant 150 miles from
Philadelphia, but those even further south – South Carolina, Georgia, even
Mississippi – would also walk to freedom. Eric Foner explains in Gateway to
Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, that “Even
those who initially escaped by other means ended up having to walk significant
distances.” Those nights on the Underground Railroad must have been
terrifying. Hearing the resounding barks of Cuban hounds straining at slave
catchers’ leashes, the metallic taste of fear sitting in mouths, bile rising up
in throats. Yet what portals of momentary grace and beauty were there, those
intimations of the sought-after freedom? To see the graceful free passage of a
red-tailed hawk over the Green Ridge, the bramble thickets along the
cacophonous Great Falls of the cloudy Potomac, the luminescence of a blue moon
reflected on a patch of thick ice in the Ohio River?

            During that same decade, and the French dictator Napoleon III was, through ambitious city planning, inventing an entirely new category of walker – the peripatetic urban wanderer. Only a few months after Tubman arrived in Philadelphia, and four thousand miles across the ocean, something new in the annals of human experience would open at Paris’ Au Con de la Rue – a department store. For centuries, walking was simply a means of getting from one place to another; from home to the market, from market to the church. With something, like the department store, or the glass covered merchant streets known as arcades, people were enticed not just to walk somewhere, but rather to walk everywhere. Such were the beginnings of the category of perambulator known as the flâneur, a word that is untranslatable, but carries connotations of wandering, idling, loafing, sauntering.

Being a flâneur means simply walking without purpose other than to observe; of strolling down Le Havre Boulevard and eyeing the window displays of fashions weaved in cashmere and mohair at Printemps, of espying the bakeries of Montmartre laying out macarons and Pain au chocalait; of passing the diners in outdoor brasseries of the Left Bank eating coq au vin. Before the public planner Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s radical Second Empire reforms, Paris was a crowded, fetid, confusing and disorganized assemblage of crooked and narrow cobblestoned streets and dilapidated half-timbered houses. Afterwards it became a metropolis of wide, magnificent boulevards, parks, squares, and museums. Most distinctively, there were the astounding 56,573 gas lamps that had been assembled by 1870, lit by a legion of allumeurs at dusk, so that people could walk at night. If Hausmann – and Napoleon III – were responsible for the arrival of the flâneur, then it was because the city finally had things worth seeing. For the privileged flâneur, to walk wasn’t the means to acquire freedom – to walk was freedom. 

“For the perfect flâneur,” writes poet Charles Baudelaire in 1863, “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite… we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” Every great city’s pedestrian-minded public thoroughfares—the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and Cromwell Road; Fifth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard—is the rightful territory for the universal flâneur. Writers like Baudelaire compared the idyl of city walking to that other 19th-century innovation of photography; the flâneur existed inside a living daguerreotype, as if they had entered the hazy atmosphere of an impressionist painting, the gas lamps illuminating the drizzly fog of a Parisian evening. For the 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who analyzed that activity in his uncompleted magnum opus The Arcades Project, the flâneur was the living symbol of modernity, writing that the “crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flaneur.”

I often played the role of flaneur for the two years my wife and I lived in Manhattan in a bit of much-coveted rent-controlled bliss. When your estate is 200 square feet, there’s not much choice but to be a flâneur, and so we occupied ourselves with night strolls through the electric city, becoming familiar with the breathing and perspiring of the metropolis. Each avenue has its espirit de place: stately residential York, commercial First and Second with their banks and storefronts, imperial Madison with its regal countenance, Park with its aura of old money, barely reformed Lexington with its intimations of past seediness. In the city at night, we availed ourselves of looking at the intricate pyrotechnic window displays of Barneys and Bloomingdales, of the bohemian leisure of the Strand’s displays in front of Central Park, of the linoleum cavern underneath the 59th Street Bridge, and of course Grand Central Station, the United States’ least disappointing public space.

Despite gentrification, rising inequity, and now the pandemic, New York still amazingly functions according to what the geographer Edward Soja describes in Thirdspace as being a place where “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable.” Yet Manhattan is perhaps more a nature preserve for the flâneur, as various economic and social forces over the past few decades have conspired to make our species extinct. The automobile would seem to be a natural predator for the type, and yet even in the deepest environs of the pedestrian unfriendly suburbs the (now largely closed) American shopping mall fulfilled much the same function as Baudelaire’s arcades. To stroll, to see, to be seen. A new threat has emerged in the form of Amazon, which portends to end the brick-and-mortar establishment, the coronavirus perhaps the final death of the flâneur. If that type of walker was birthed by the industrial revolution, then it now appears late capitalism is his demise, undone by our new tyrant Jeff Bezos.

The rights of the flâneur were never equally distributed, with scant mention of the flâneur needing to be hyperaware of his surroundings, of needing to carry keys in his fist, or having to arm himself with mace. While it’s not an entirely unknown word, flâneuse is a much rarer term, and it’s clear that the independence and assumed safety that pedestrian exploration implies is more often than not configured as masculine. Women have, of course, been just as prodigious in mapping the urban space with their feet as have men, with Lauren Elkin joking in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London that many accounts assume that a “penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.” She provides necessary corrective to the male-heavy history of the flaneur, while also acknowledging that the risks are different for women. Describing the anonymity that such walking requires, Elkin writes that “We would love to be invisible the way a man is. We’re not the ones to make ourselves visible… it’s the gaze of the flaneur that makes the woman who would join his ranks too visible to slip by unnoticed.”

As a means of addressing this inequity that denies more than half the world’s population safe passage through public spaces, the activist movement Take Back the Night held its first march in Philadelphia, after the 1975 murder of microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth as she was walking home. Take Back the Night used one of the most venerable of protest strategies—the march—as a means of expressing solidarity, security, defiance, and rage. Andrea Dworkin stated the issue succinctly in her treatise “The Night and Danger,” explaining that “Women are often told to be extra careful and take precautions when going out at night… So when women struggle for freedom, we must start at the beginning by fighting for freedom of movement… We must recognize that freedom of movement is a precondition for everything else.” Often beginning with a candlelight vigil, participants do exactly that which they’re so often prevented from doing—walking freely at night. So often paeons to walking that are penned by men wax rhapsodic about the freedom of the flaneur, but forget how gendered the simple act of walking is. Dworkin’s point is that women never forget it.

Few visuals are quite as powerful as seeing thousands of women and men moving with intentionality through a public space, hoisting placards and signs, chanting slogans, and reminding the powers that be what mass mobilization looks like. There is a debate to be had about the efficacy of protest. But at their absolute most charged, a protest seems like it can change the world; thousands of feet walking as one, every marcher a small cell in a mighty Leviathan. In that uncharacteristically warm February of 2003, I joined the 5,000 activists who marched through the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland against the impending war in Iraq. There were the old hippies wearing t-shirts against the Vietnam War, the slightly drugged out looking college-aged Nader voters, Muslim women in vermillion hijabs and men in olive keffiyeh, the Catholic Workers, and the Jews for Palestine, the slightly menacing balaclava wearing anarchists, and of course your well-meaning liberals such as myself.

We marched past Carnegie-Mellon’s frat row, young Republicans jeering us with cans of Milwaukee’s Best, through the brutalist concrete caverns of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, and under the watchful golem that was the towering gothic Cathedral of Learning, up to the Fifth Avenue headquarters of CMU’s Software Engineering Institute, a soulless mirrored cube reflecting the granite gargoyles blackened by decades of steel mill exhaust who were watchfully positioned on St. Paul’s Cathedral across the street. Supposedly both the SEI and the adjacent RAND Institute had DoD contracts, developing software that would be used for drone strikes and smart bombs. With righteous (and accurately placed) indignation, the incensed crowd chanted, and we felt as a singular being. On that same day, in 650 cities around the world, 11 million others marched, history’s largest global protest. It felt as if by walking we’d stop the invasion. Reader, we did not stop the invasion.      

Despite those failures, the experience is indicative of how walking alters consciousness. Not just in a political sense, but in a personal one as well (though those things are not easily extricated). There is a methodology for examining how walking alters our subjectivity, a discipline with the lofty and vaguely threatening name of “psychogeography.” Theorist Guy Debord saw the practice as a means of reenchanting space and place, developing a concept called dérive, which translates from the French as “drifting,” whereby participants “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there,” as he is quoted in the Situationist International Anthology. Sort of a hyper-attenuated version of being the flaneur, psychogeographers perceived familiar streets, squares, and cities from an entirely different perspective. Other psychogeographical activities included tracing out words by the route a walker takes through the city, or mapping smells and sounds. The whole thing has an anarchic sensibility about it, but with the whimsy of the Dadaists, while just as enthused with praxis as with theory.

For example, in his travelogue Psychogeography the Anglo-American novelist Will Self journeys from JFK to Manhattan while on foot. Sneakers crunching over refuse alongside the Van Wyck, the metropolitan detritus that exists in those scrubby brown patches that populate the null-voids that exist between somewhere and somewhere else. Nothing can really compare to entering New York on foot, as Self did. It’s fundamentally different from arriving in a cab driving underneath the iconic steel girders of the Manhattan Bridge, or being ferried into the Parthenon that is Grand Central, or even disembarking from a Peter Pan Bus in the grody cavern of Port Authority. Walking is a “means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum” Self writes, with the walker acting as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveler.” For the psychogeographers, how we move is how we think, so that if we wish to change the later, we must first alter the former.

So it would seem. Writing in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in The Confessions that “I can only meditate when I’m walking… my mind only works with my legs.” In his autobiography Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche injuncted, “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement…. All prejudices emanate from the bowels.” Meanwhile, his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Most celebrated of the walking philosophers, Immanuel Kant, had daily constitutionals across Konigsberg’s bridges that merchants set their watches by him. Wallace Stevens famously used to write his poems as he stomped off across the antiseptic landscape of Hartford, Conn. He walked as scansion, his wingtips pounding out iambs and trochees with the wisdom that understands verse is as much of the body as it is of the mind, so that “Perhaps/The truth depends on a walk.” Walking is a type of consciousness, a type of thinking. Walking is a variety of reading, the landscape unspooling as the most shining of verse, so that every green leaf framed against a church’s gothic tower in a dying steel town, both glowing with an inner light out of the luminescence of the golden hour, is the most perfect of poems, only to be seen by she who gives it the time to be considered.

Image Credit: SnappyGoat

Writing, Still Writing

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A good friend of mine begins writing fiction again, after 25 years of not. And if anyone should be writing, she should be. She’s a friend I’ve kept close since college, and her work has always been so good, deeply emotional, grounded in settings of poverty and despair, but always with some hope glimmering around the corner.

I’m excited for her and ask about it the next time I see her: didn’t she say she was revising? And submitting to literary journals? She says yes, but these are stories she wrote more than 20 years ago. She feels like an imposter, she says, even though it’s her work, work she never had the courage to submit in the past. She recently received a very encouraging letter from a top literary magazine, but it ended up depressing her. Why bother now, after all these years? And will success now mean anything about new work she might create? She’s not sure that work from grad school, from her 20s, should count, because it’s not her current work.

Knowing how good her stories are, I’m inclined to say that they’ll get published and that she should be satisfied when that happens, even if they aren’t her most recent work. They should be read, because they’re worthy. It seems like hoarding to hold onto beautiful work that was meant to be shared.

And so what if they’re not new? So what if she never writes another good thing? I think she will, now that she’s back at it. And yet, it feels like another question is lurking here. Something about quality and how to measure it.

I find myself irritated and over the course of few days the ruminating begins to feel like an existential crisis. I’ve been writing fiction, and occasionally submitting, for those same 20-plus years. Sometimes I get something published, but mostly I’m just writing because it’s all I know to do with what free time I have, limited by the kids and the job. I could use an encouraging letter from a lit mag right about now. I wish I’d gotten more than a dozen or so in the last 20 years, but that’s my success rate. That’s about it.

If my friend thinks she’s a fool to bother, I muse, a fool to come close but not immediately hit the mark with this new effort, what about those of us who have been doing this same thing year after year for 30 years? Sure, I’ve had some hits or two, even a published short story collection, but that was a long time ago, and the novel drafts are still being revised. By my friend’s proposed math, I must be an exponential failure.

You hear it all the time in fiction classes: publishing is rare, publishing something that gains critical attention is even more rare, and don’t expect it to pay your bills, even it does get published. So with all these warnings, why is there also this idea that if you’re not publishing right at this moment, then you must not be any good? Do we judge people who keep at a sport they love? We know they won’t make the majors. But we don’t assume they’ll quit playing once they’re past their prime, nor do we assume they’re terrible players. So why with writing would we think there’s something wrong with trying for minor successes?

Of course writing is different than sports. Aging players can’t keep going to scouting events, into their 50s, to see if they’ll be tapped for potential greatness. They can’t take an impressive play from their 20s and show it to a talent scout for evaluation today. For writers, those lit magazines are like talent scouts. And if my friend is successful, she may want to maintain fresh momentum, and that may prove as difficult as she fears. In the face of all her measurement I can see how it might get depressing.

In the same friends’ circle, those of us who continue to write sometimes bring our work to each other for feedback. Another lapsed writer is in the group, also talented, but unremorsefully uninterested in writing. Her quitting writing doesn’t change the fact that she’s a great reader (or a great writer, either, despite her choice). We’re always eager to hear her critiques.

But a few years back, she started asking during these discussions, “What is your objective for this piece?”

I flinched the first time I heard it. I’ve worked corporate jobs for a long time, and this sounded like something in a war-room discussion about a product we were about to launch, one that had millions of dollars and years of R&D and market research behind it. My little short story had no such advantages. It just had this writer, and whatever I could do with the feedback my readers would provide.

My friend had a follow-up question to fill the bemused silence. “I mean, do you want to get it published, or is it something you just want to share with your kids someday, or …”

My ego was tweaked. Was she saying that the work would never be good enough for publication? Or that she would only provide rigorous commentary if I was willing to be more aggressive with my edits? And if I wanted it to be good, really good—if I wanted it to be published in The New Yorker and chosen for a Best American volume (which every writer wants, whether it makes sense or not) —then would she opt to bow out gracefully from this critique, like a lawyer who knows an unwinnable case when she sees one? Maybe she thought I’d need a professional editor, or a different story. Or I’d need to be a different author.

Or, on the other hand, if I set my sights lower—like if I just want my family to one day know that I sometimes tried my hand at writing—does that leave me free to revise one time and be satisfied with any old shlock? That doesn’t seem very kind to my family.

Dear friend: I want it to be beautiful. I want to work at it until it’s as good as it can be.

Or, more truthfully, I want it to set me free. By which I mean, I want it to sing for some reader, for many readers, so much so that the stories and novel drafts buried in the many corners of this house can be resurrected, that the undiscovered work of my 20s, 30s, and 40s will be found, and that I can feel satisfied that the world has finally caught up with my brilliance. Yes, that’s it. I want the world to show me that it gets me, and yes, I admit I want the world, I want more than my family. I want the world finally to let me be free in my expression.

I wish that I had said that to her.

But that would have exposed the dreamer. And the dreamer is vulnerable.

It’s true that I have more chance of my writing setting me free than if, with the same high hopes, I took up a pastime like knitting. There’s some reality to the dream. But even if my writing has better odds than knitting, the odds are still very, very low that I’ll achieve the kind success we hear and dream about with writing. And so, I have to also be okay with the dream not being realized.

The writing life, at least for me, is not like other avocations that can be measured in terms of sustainability or certified “new” material (my first friend), nor by the writer’s plan for the writing, a plan we can compare against later when evaluating the success of the piece (my second friend).

I tell myself it’s a hobby, sure, the one that works for me. I tell myself I’d rather have one story out there, one published story (and I already have a few of those) that moves a few minds, than a sweater I knitted, tucked away in my niece’s drawer, attracting moths. That’s it: my preference is that one story in a forgotten journal is better than one sweater in a drawer. (Nothing against knitting.)

Maybe the point is that we writers should appreciate writing for the very way it keeps us trying, keeps us dreaming. There’s no moment in writing, I hope, when it should become clear to the fool that she’s wasting her time.

I keep missing, I keep trying. It hasn’t set me free yet, but I still believe in it.

There’s a beauty to that. After all these years.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

A Form of Mourning

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My friend Elizabeth Leo died unexpectedly two years ago. She was only 34 when she fell from a bridge that connected the campus Lutheran church to its parsonage, a crumbling four-story building where she was living for free. The church held a memorial the following August. There, over small plates of raw vegetables, with photographs of Elizabeth arranged on a table behind us, I talked to Natalie Homer, a mutual friend, about Elizabeth’s poetry. Elizabeth had published very little of it during her life. But her poems needed readers—we both felt that. They deserved to circulate.

Natalie and I spent the next several months editing her poems for publication and the next year arranging for publication. That process will culminate this spring in a chapbook, Bloodroot and Goldenrod.

We met in person and over the phone. Natalie had Elizabeth’s master’s thesis, 53 poems all told, and a folder with another 20 miscellaneous poems in it, all of them undated. We read the poems aloud and talked about each one, what we liked and didn’t. Often we marveled. Sometimes we complained: why this epigraph? why that final, hanging line? I loved these conversations. They were slow with lots of silence. We savored the lines. We grieved.

How do you make a selection from the relatively few extant poems of someone who can provide no explanation, offer no defense, and express no preference? What criteria do you use? By what standard do you decide which poems deserve to be published and so survive beyond the poet’s short life? Bloodroot and Goldenrod is the posthumous collection of a poet still in the early phase of her career. Do you simply choose the “best” ones? What if a “bad” poem has a “good” moment in it or even just a characteristic one? What if it tells an important part of the story? But what story?

Elizabeth’s book contains frightening hints of her own death, suggestions, even, of suicide. In one poem, she writes, “The breeze has cut out, or the sun has quit.” At the end of another: “And most of this, it’s all temporary./The slip of a fingernail beneath thin plastic—I could make it look like I was never here at all.” Immediately after news of her death broke, people began to speculate. On Facebook, there was talk of violence: assault, murder. For several days the police would not rule out homicide. The rumors of violence were finally dispelled when the police department released a statement saying that they believed her death to have been due to an accidental fall. They sketched a scene in which Elizabeth had gone out onto the bridge to smoke and fallen the 12 to 15 feet to the sidewalk, where she died from a traumatic head injury. So there it was: an accident. It made more sense than a random assault. Those of us who knew her, though, wondered about suicide.

In what condition had she ventured out of her apartment? With what purpose? Where exactly had she been standing when she fell? It was early May. The semester had ended. It would have been quiet, some traffic, the Mon River lumbering through town just down the hill. A big, mute moon. Did she say goodbye to it? Or was she frantic and inward and alone? Had she looked one last time through her favorite books, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems, Watership Down, The Outsiders, their pages marked up with pencil and stiff from cigarette smoke? And her cat, Jonas, had it watched? What even happened?

There are no answers to these questions. At least not ones for us to know. What happened and how and why: all that has been written down in the book of days in an illegible script. I don’t want to guess how or why Elizabeth died. Better to grieve for a friend and fellow poet who died way too young. She felt that she was at the end of something, and she was, in a way: recently divorced, apparently fired from her job at the university. She could not see a way forward. But her life’s work—her poetry—was just beginning.

Elizabeth’s poems are all heavy blooms and hidden centers, insistent but unmannered repetitions. They circle obsessively around an unnamed absence. Loss gives them their urgency, their dark humor, and their beauty. They risk beauty. I love that about them. They do not suppress their desire to sing, full- throated and purple-stained, to quote Keats (who hovers in the background of so many of these poems).
Adiantum

There was a magic cupboard and inside Adiantum danced.
Little girls could fall in sideways leaning too far
to sniff a heavy aster in the dark.
A heavy bloom in the dark.

A heavy bloom in the dark.
Flower as a cardinal destroyer, wrecker of hearts.
In life Elizabeth was shy and kind, critical, generous, full of secret reserves and keen judgments. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic. She knew their names but also how they looked and felt and what they needed to grow. She had a talent for helping things grow and flourish in the garden and in the classroom. The first two speakers at her memorial service were former students. Elizabeth worked as an adjunct instructor, a precarious job with low pay and little stability. She supplemented her meager wages from the university with part-time work at a garden store. When I knew her she lived in the country, in a dumpy, poorly lit apartment that she could not afford with her cat, her books, her many plants, and not much else, a few large, hard plastic cups that we drank wine out of, a bowl to hold candy when visitors came over.

She was wracked with doubt. She loved poetry. I hope that love comes across in the collection. And the rage, too, which simmers just beneath the surface—“Jack, we say. Jack, Jack, we sing. Jack: shrapnel edge of our last can”—and the wonder—“the tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile”—and the loss, everywhere that intimacy with loss. “Blue rose,” she writes in one poem, “layered petals on petals./Blue Lizzy. Someone once had a name for me like that.”

As Natalie and I read and discussed the poems, I kept wanting to ask Elizabeth why she had made the decisions she had, good and bad. To encourage her, to convince her, finally, that she was immensely talented and that her poetry deserved to evolve, become more and less itself over the years. The poems in this collection have within them such a big future, so many possible roads. We wanted that future to be present in the collection. To account not only for the poet she was but the poet she might have become. In moments I see her move beyond the influence of her mentors, move in the direction not of what a poem should be but what, in her hands, it is. I see her authority emerge. These are small moments, small and painful, because to see all that—in a turn of phrase or a stanza break—is to feel the loss very acutely.
“…We seek belief
in shoveling soil, in blisters.
And we find it there. There. There is no trouble
and the garden is lucky in the sun,
brothers. Running waters unfurl the ferns.
Let’s follow, together, the moonflower
tonight, when it blooms a silver trumpet…”
There. There. There, one right after the other. It’s like your foot got caught in a rut, or your shirt snagged on a branch. It’s stubborn, awkward, unmusical, and new. It disrupts the subtle iambic rhythm that had been established in the previous lines and that returns in the subsequent lines, when the music picks back up, and the poem shifts in an instant from the insistent, nearly inarticulate “there. There. There”—the language of someone just learning to speak—to the expertly rendered “Running waters unfurl the ferns.” The meter returns in the form of trochees, an anapest, and an iamb. The vowels sing: brothers, waters, unfurl, ferns, ferns becoming follow, follow becoming (moon)flower.

Or here, two lines from another poem:
November is good for quick dark and closing.
I’d like done with it. This or that or anything.
The plainness of that second line, made up as it is of pronouns—I, it, this, that, anything—the latter three of which lack any meaningful antecedent, contains such expressive force when set against all the beautiful names that run through the collection: adiantum, artemesia, trillium, “wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum.” This or that or anything. It has the effect of distortion in a pop song. I hear a fury buried in there and also a future, in which she is willing to push language all the way to collapse.

Her poems find an uneasy balance between blank verse and ordinary speech, what Robert Frost called the “strained relation” between these two contrasting musics. The sonnet—its size and compression—is the deeply etched blueprint under every poem in the collection.
Cricket Season

Mums and leg-fiddles on the air.
It is the season of astringents, of turning into
or turning away. The crickets sound quick
in the low weeds by the woods, but up here
on the porch boards they are huge, gun-gray
in the lamplight, are dead-slow, silent and heavy
as threat. Those away in the grass, they call
next, next, next: a tearing paper song.
Then, the startling luck-black of them beneath a begonia’s leaf
sings a deaf song, soon, soon.
The locust leaves are already yellow
and I am already sick of their falling.
I push my glasses on top of my head.
I let the world go blurry and still.
And so it was the sonnet, those sessions of sweet silent thought, that we felt should shape the collection, its characteristic movement inward and outward. Bloodroot and Goldenrod tells the story not of a life exactly but a consciousness, if the distinction makes sense. The story of a self walking and kneeling, breaking and mending. Of someone living close to the earth and its objects, in the garden “knuckle-drag[ging] through [her] mistakes,” digging dirt out of her nails with a paring knife “in the kitchen, under the kitchen lights.” Someone “low as a beast and holding.” In these poems we find Elizabeth on the porch or in the yard or at her desk, naming, remembering, musing, and then returning again to the world. That movement, the drift of consciousness, is hard to achieve on the page and harder to make compelling to a reader. Elizabeth does.
If You Are Worried, It’s Only Tomorrow; If You Are Scared, It’s Only the Dark

My Scilla, dear, as blue and low as the best sky—
              as Trillium blooms a green drake
              —nothing hatches broken, no bark breaks.
Wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum
              fall down your throat lightly: a collar.
              A collar, lightly falling down your throat.
The tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile.
There’s no word for our Liriope bed. Stay comes close.
The wall paint peels lovely and pink.
The sun sets upon negotiation only,
and I can forgive anything.
I knew Elizabeth mostly as a poet. I would have liked to have known her better. She left behind images and metaphors, the music of her lines and stanzas. And more than that. She left for us her desire to turn experience into something else, something more, something lasting, into wisdom, beauty, and form. To sing.