· hats and frogs and art and rocks and bones and books and bits of broken things, findings
· words and thoughts
I bring the outside in:
· a honeycomb
· a robin’s nest
· a turtle shell
· a snakeskin
· a mammoth’s tusk and humerus
· assorted bones and teeth of various deer
· a paper wasp’s nest
They are in a bowl on my dining room table. What’s left of a feast. They are the inside out.
Lists: they are the inside out. Groceries to Buy. Errands to Run. Holiday Gifts to Give. Guests to Invite. Reasons to Stay with That Son Of A Bitch. I have lined pads glued to magnets on the fridge. When I use the last of the milk, I scribble. When the first grade needs napkins for their next holiday party, I jot. When there is yet another celebration or family to-do that demands my presence, I note. I glue the list of important numbers—pediatrician, poison control, veterinarian—to my telephone. My computer desktop has virtual stickies, where I list passwords and account numbers. I have files full of lists: ideas, first lines that didn’t make the final cut of a poem, art projects, novel scenes. Last month, I was so busy with unrelated projects that I had to make a list each morning. Typing it allowed me to delete, rather than cross out, each completed task. Still seeing them, crossed out or, worse, erased, like a palimpsest, would have kept me stressed. Instead, my sense of accomplishment grew as my list shrank.
To do today: write.
Lists allow me to get a grip, to weigh my options, to put my grief into perspective. Couples in counseling are often instructed to list the things they still love about each other, their lists of loathsome qualities having already introduced the discourse of divorce. We are told to list the pros and cons of moving, of changing careers, of getting a new dog. Lists are instant therapy. When my grandparents died, I scavenged for memories, looking for shining bits of them to place in the crow’s nest of my mind. I found a sparkle in the hall closet, in their coat pockets: tissues, gently rumpled; packets of Sweet ‘n’ Low; origami birds and matchbooks; a baggie for what’s left on the restaurant table; a grocery list in both their hands—her cook’s cursive, his draftsman’s block; and the smell of Aramis and old lipstick, which burned through the must.
The magic of the list is well practiced by poets. Elizabeth Barrett Browning loves thee eight different ways, among them freely, purely, and passionately. Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet lists the nine ugly qualities of his mistress, describing her hair as “black wires grow[ing] on her head.” Wallace Stevens enumerates, Roman-ly, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; we view them in motion, still, whistling, reflected, refracted. We now know there are far more ways to look at a blackbird. Before Stevens, we didn’t know there were as many.
Frank O’Hara has 29 “Lines for the Fortune Cookies.” Number 14 says, “You will eat cake.” Number 25 asks, “Now that the election is over, what are you going to do with yourself?” O’Hara wrote his poem before I was born, yet after the recent election, I ask myself the same question. I eat too much cake.
Pablo Neruda’s list poems surprise us like we are still surprised to find a live rabbit in a hat. “The Song of Despair” goes: “You swallowed everything, like distance, / Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!” “Como el mar, como el tiempo, Todo en ti fue naufragio!” And then, “Pilot’s dread, fury of a blind diver, / turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!” “Ansiedad de piloto, furia de buzo ciego, / turbia embriaguez de amor, todo en ti fue naufragio!” In his mother tongue, Pablo Neruda’s “La Canción Desesperada” is a melancholy music.
“The Tragedy of Hats,” Clarinda Harriss begins, “is that you can never see the one you're wearing, / that no one believes the lies they tell, / that they grow to be more famous than you, / that you could die in one but you won't be buried in it.” She uses “that” nine times—nine-plus hat tragedies in this list, this poem that casts a spell.
I keep the beautiful ones in hat boxes stacked on one another in the hallway, the wool ones on the top shelf of the coat closet, the ones I wear regularly on wall hooks above the hatboxes. In the attic is a basket of old hats with exotic feathers and veils, finery from Hutzler’s that my grandmother wore. I own:
· a suede patchwork hat from Utah
· a leather Harley hat that makes me look like Stevie Nicks;
· a crocheted flower hat
· a stocking hat I knitted
· three flamboyant artist-made hats that make people gawk and point and feel they need to know me
· two crushed velvet department-store hats
· two wool ski caps
· a beaded beret
· a hot pink cowboy hat with multi-colored felt polka dots glued to the top, which I tell people was made during arts & crafts hour at the Betty Ford Clinic
I have so many hats because only my head stays the same size. My favorite hat, brown felt and unadorned, cost me $4 at the Gap about a dozen years ago. My mother says it looks like it used to belong to an old Indian. The other day, I wore it to Home Depot with a Mexican Poncho and dark sunglasses, and a man asked if I was Clint Eastwood. No one’s husband, that guy. Last spring, while we were pumping gas, a toothless redneck with a raggedy pickup truck admired my brown hat. He said, “’At’s a nice hat.” I said, “Thanks.” He said, “Yup, ‘at sure is a nice hat. Yes, indeed.” “Thanks,” I said. “I really like ‘at hat,” he said. I smiled. He smiled back and said, “I got a nicer truck at home; ‘is is just my work truck.”
But take away the list, or merely imply it, and the poem might lose its charm. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams, is vexed—and vexing. “So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow,” he says. But he doesn’t say the farm, the white chickens, the rain. He doesn’t say the corn depends on it, the dirt road, the old dog who often pulls up lame, the snapshot, the future of poetry. Had he offered it up as a list—using several sheets of prescription pad paper—it might have worked for me. Perhaps no one else would have paid it any mind, as there’d have been no need to invent the things upon which the red wheel barrow depends, no high-school poetry lesson in it.
If there are lists in poetry, there is poetry in the list. The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean writes, in The Orchid Thief, as complete a book as could have been written on the orchid underworld and its unlikely hero:
One species looks just like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey. One looks dead.
My college composition class reads this book in preparation for a research paper. In addition to using secondary sources, they are to interview a collector about his collection—of salt and pepper shakers, of war paraphernalia, of fountain pens, of shoes, of codpieces, of antique dolls. I want to know everything there is to know about collecting Beanie Babies, model planes, baseball cards, autographs, license plates. I want to know how much they fetch on Ebay, where collectors find one another, who has the biggest collection, how and where they are stored. I read them passages from The Orchid Thief each week, underlining, italicizing, capitalizing, and boldfacing all the lists.
“They had fabulous, fantastic names,” Orlean says. “Golden Grail and Mama Cass and Markie Pooh and Golden Buddha Raspberry Delight and Dee Dee’s Fat Lip.”
Lists have power. They can rescue the most mundane works, if only for a paragraph.
Favorite Beer Names:
· (How’sabouta Wouldyalikea Cold Beer,) Chief
· Prickly Stout
· Raspberry Jessica
· Uncle Monday’s Real Alligator Beer
· Old Puckstopper
· Alexander’s Ragtime Tan
· Segue Porter
· Leisureman Amber
· Bock in the Saddle Again
· Toad Spit Stout
· Bad Frog
· Sister Brau
· Miss English’s Alphabet Ale
Students in my creative nonfiction course take advantage of my weakness for lists, including in their essays the ten most awful ways to die, seven different types of scars, and descriptions of how eight different types of dirt look under a microscope. In an irresistible tale of chores men can’t do once they leave their childhood homes, Brian Uapinyoying describes a sink piled high with “pans encrusted with bits of egg, dishes caked with rice (or maybe last week’s carrot cake), a pot of half-eaten macaroni, cups of coffee three-fourths empty, a can of Mountain Dew, and some solidified spaghetti sauce with dried noodles—all lying in a cesspool of red grease.” I am addicted to those bits of egg, these crumbs, the whole cesspool.
So is Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire:
There were the names that set out to describe, often with the help of a well-picked metaphor: the green-as-a-bottle Bottle Greening, the Sheepnose, the Oxeheart, the Yellow Bellflower, the Black Gilliflower, the Twenty-Ounce Pippin. There were the names that puffed with hometown pride, like the Westfield Seek-No-Further, the Hubbardston Nonesuch, the Rhode Island Greening, the Albemarle Pippin (though the very same pippin was known as the Newtown nearer to Newtown, New York)....
This list, as they say, goes on. And delightfully on.
Does the writer know? Does she say to herself, “Yes! It’s time to write ‘the list’”? Orlean calls the names fabulous, fantastic. And before Pollan rattles off two pages of print-worthy apple monikers, he says, “And the names these apples had! Names that reek of the American nineteenth century, its suspender-popping local boosterism, its shameless Barnum-and-Bailey hype, its quirky, un-focus-grouped individuality.” And it is not so much apple names as it is his enthusiasm for them, the sheer joy at having these names at his disposal. It’s the description of the list. It’s the exclamation after “And the names these apples had!”
Top ten favored words:
Most disdained words:
6. anything that ends in a long o sound, except avocado
I imagine most writers compose, as I do, with composure—until it is time for a list. And then we morph into Beethoven, sitting at our keyboards, plunking and then pounding out the notes, orchestrating them, arranging them, reading them back, finishing with a coda, and then, like Beethoven, another coda, and another, topping off all the multi-syllabic, voluminous false endings with a final one, leveling a three-note boom: “One looks dead.”
If John D’Agata’s collection, The Next American Essay, indicates the direction of creative nonfiction (emphasis here on creative), then modern essay will continue the tradition of list. The best of these are lilting, rife with litanies. Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is a one-and-a-half-page, one-paragraph list of instructions to a daughter. The crescendo builds, picking up speed with each chore for the girl, coming to a screeching halt with each mention of “the slut you are bent on becoming.” This monologue is a rich drama made tense and anxious by the list.
Alexander Theroux, who knows more words than are in the dictionary, lists adjectives for black: “jet, inky, ebony, coal, swart, pitch, smudge, livid, sloe, raven, sombre, charcoal, sooty, sable, and crow,” among others. Things get “smutched, darkened, scorched, besmirched in a thousand ways.” And here is the list of words I have to look up while reading his essay, “Black”: saccade, indexicality, atrabiliously, totipalmate, praealtic, holophrastic, surreption, atraluminous, portcullis, and prelapsarian. Of these, seven are underlined as misspellings by my word processing program, and one, praealtic, doesn’t yield any hits on a Google search. I check the spelling several times to make sure I’ve got it right.
D’Agata’s own introductions are lists of what happened in the year during which each essay was written. Because he is younger than I, each event is a vivid visitation from the past.
· I was one when Kennedy was assassinated.
· I was six during the Baltimore race riots, and my babysitter took me and my younger sister to them.
· When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I was 6 and at a block party in Indianapolis; we had a small, black and white TV outside to watch the landing. All I cared about was that it was well past my bedtime.
· When I learned Elvis died, I was riding to Security Square Mall with Wendy Baer; her mom was driving, and she cried.
· When I learned Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham had died by suffocating in his own puke, I was smoking one of my first cigarettes on one of my first days of college at Towson State.
· When John Lennon was shot, I was studying for finals that same semester.
· When the Shuttle Challenger exploded, I was watching it on television.
· When the World Trade Centers came down, I had just come from dropping my daughter at preschool. My neighbor, who had old plumbing fixtures on her lawn, yelled to ask if I’d seen “the mess.” I thought she was talking about her house until I turned on the television. After a few minutes, I went back to school to pick up my daughter.
I picture Brian Doyle, writer and editor of Portland Magazine, as a crazed composer of words. In his essay, “Being Brians,” first published in Creative Nonfiction, he says:
There are 215 Brian Doyles in the United States.... One of us is paralyzed from the chest down; One of us is eighteen and “likes to party”; one of us played second base very well indeed for the New York Yankees in the 1978 World Series; several of us have had problems with alcohol and drugs; one of us is nearly finished with his doctorate in theology; one of us is a nine-year-old girl; one of us works for Promise Keepers; one was married while we were working on this article; one welcomed a new baby; one died.
Doyle lists everything, from the streets on which the Brians live to the jobs they held to the ways in which their names have been misspelled. It is laugh-out-loud funny. It is sob-silently sad. Such a gem, this is, that you would want to fold it up and put it in your breast pocket; if it were a song, you would play it again and again, wear a groove in it, know it like you know your own pillow. Doyle tells me, “O, I love lists, which are so much more than lists when you play with them, and arrange them in funky ways—they can rise to be litanies and chants, poems and songs, parades and narratives.” They do rise, like incense and smoke and spirits.
But contemporary writers take their cues from the literary nonfiction and fiction of the past. Look at Lillian Ross’s controversial portrait of Hemingway, “How Do You Like It Now, Gentleman?” in which she paints the author as list maker, beginning with such things to do as “buy coat” and “get glasses fixed.” Some argue this odd sort of Indian speak, this spoken shorthand, is what makes Hemingway seem so loopy. Perhaps the written list of things he must accomplish—which includes, “Eat good and digest good,” call Marlene Dietrich, and order caviar and champagne—has leapt off the page, from list to lips. And then the writer emerges: “I’d like to see all the new fighters, horses, ballets, bike riders, dames, bullfighters, painters, airplanes, sons of bitches, café characters, big international whores, restaurants, years of wine, newsreels, and never have to write a line about any of it,” he tells Ross.
No modern concoction, the list is one of the oldest literary devices. Yet from the lists of literary devices in writing books—simile, metaphor, idiom, allegory, alliteration, consonance, personification, foreshadowing, flashback, symbolism, irony, satire, onomatopoeia—list is missing. Oh, the irony!
Michael Pollan says his love of the literary list “goes back to Homer, I’m sure, with those lists of ships and fallen heroes.” Homer, in “The Iliad,” says, “...I will tell / the captains of the ships and all the fleet together.” And he does—for some 260 verses—in what has come to be known as the “famous catalogue of ships.”
BH (Before Homer), cave men carved into walls and bones with sticks and stones and crushed pigment. They carved into wet clay with reeds. Before words and numbers, cuneiform and hieroglyphics were used to list things like historical events and accounting. Picture a pictorial shopping list dug in the dirt floor. To hunt: buffalo, buffalo, bear; to gather: berry, berry, root.
Had the Book of Genesis been written in first person (first deity?), it might have said, “First I created light, and then I divided it from darkness, and then I called them day and night, and then I separated water from sky, and then.... Boy, am I tired. Tomorrow, I’ll rest.”
Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook, written in 994 A.D. may be the first book of lists: “Hateful Things,” “Adorable Things,” “Elegant Things,” “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster.” We needn’t be Japanese or women or aides to the Empress or born a thousand-plus years ago to identify with Shonagon’s complaints. Women still hate it when “[a] man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.” We still hate it when a man hops into his pants in the middle of the night and leaves. We still hate it when he stays.
What I like about you: You are still reading.
What the Romantics like about you is that you keep them warm at night, hold them tight, know how to dance. The Police list the times they’ll be watching you in “Every Breath You Take.” Sting called it a paranoid and obsessive song, written because his marriage and band and life were all breaking up. And Paul Simon lists the “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Each of these list songs was wildly successful.
Nick Hornby, music fanatic, fiction writer, and essayist, can’t escape their power. Characters in his novel, High Fidelity, are keen on making lists of favorite songs, of best artists, of “Top five American films, and therefore the best films ever made.” The book opens with the following words: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order....” Though they are not always poetic or rhythmic, lists are telling, revealing, with each character’s pretensions and biases and eccentricities, our own. Those traits are the highlight of the film version. They lend instant humanity to each character, help us understand why one drives a bewildered schmuck out of the record store because he had the nerve to ask for Stevie Wonder’s single, “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”
A fan asks the author whether High Fidelity is autobiographical. Hornby says it isn’t, that all the narratives were made up. Yet his page at Penguin’s website lists his “Top Fives...And An All-Time Eleven.” Like his music store characters, he loves the list. Like Rob, the store’s owner, his top five includes “Thunder Road.”
Hornby has good taste. I imagine he and I would probably get on well. And don’t we choose our friends and lovers this way, by examining their eyes and then their lists? Don’t we develop these litmus-test lists: if she doesn’t like Spinal Tap or Groundhog Day, she’s history; if he loves “Thunder Road,” he and I were meant to be?
On my husband’s nightstand, you will find:
· at least four books against George W. Bush, one for him, a biography he has yet to read (for a year now, Theodore Rex), and two selected works of Neitzsche, sandwiched between silver elephant bookends that he didn’t want and, if it were up to him, wouldn’t have
· a pair of dollar-store reading glasses
· a lamp
· the telephone
· two alarm clocks set to beep and to chime at five and five ten a.m.
Twice a week, for about ten or fifteen minutes, there is also a foil condom wrapper.
Beginning writers are told that the best way to break into print writing nonfiction is with a list. Look at the cover of any magazine on the newsstand. Every summer, we see the same titles: Best and Worst Bikini Bodies, Ten Ways to Stop Snacking, Fifteen Low-Calorie Snacks, Five Best Ab (or Arm or Thigh) Exercises, and Eight Miracle Fat Burners. My own first nationally published feature, “Twelve Terrific Things to Do When You’re Bored, Broke, and Trying Not to Nibble,” appeared in Weight Watchers magazine because I followed that advice.
Lists provide meaty tips and fast facts: Harper’s Index, David Letterman’s Top Ten, Newsweek’s Conventional Wisdom, Amazon’s Listmania, Google, the phone book, the dictionary. Booksellers display list books because they are successful. Under constant spotlight are self-help books—The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 101 Secrets of Highly Effective Speakers; controversial books—The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America and The Disinformation Book of Lists; reference books; and, perhaps the most fun you can have reading, The Book of Lists, which Book News describes as “irresistible (even to those who are list-aversive).” List aversive? Are they kidding?
Surely you remember this tear-jerking urban legend about a list: A high-school math teacher asked her students to write their classmates’ names on a sheet of paper. Then she asked them to record the nicest thing they could about each student next to his or her name. The teacher took the lists home and put all the nice comments about each student on his own page. When she passed them out the next day, the students smiled and whispered delighted comments as they read their lists, but no one discussed them again. Years later, when one of the students was killed in Vietnam, the teacher and several classmates attended the funeral. While they were standing together, the fallen soldier’s father approached the teacher. He took something out of his billfold. “They found this in Mark’s pocket,” he said. The teacher knew, upon seeing the ragged notebook paper, folded and refolded and taped, that is was the list. The teacher cried. The former students saw and gathered around. “I kept my list,” said one. “Me, too,” said another. The lists, they said, were in diaries and wedding albums and wallets and pockets and purses; two pulled out their lists.
My daughter’s first piece of writing was a list. On white, unlined paper, she wrote, in pencil, on both sides, in every direction, with pictures, the things she wanted her grandfather to buy for her. When it was full, when no other need or want or wish or desire could fit on the page, she folded it up and put it in an envelope, which she addressed and mailed herself. My father treated it like a challenge, a scavenger hunt. For no reason other than his six-year-old granddaughter had sent that list, he roamed the ends of the earth for a Spiderman costume, pajamas, and beach towel, and a pair of Matrix sunglasses.
My daughter is becoming a competent reader. The first book she completed on her own was Green Eggs and Ham, the longest children’s book in the world, every clause of it a different way to eat this unusual dish. Another favorite is Grossology, sort of a dictionary of gross bodily functions and fluids, like farting and snot.
In a box of polished agate with a hinged lid, a gift from someone who visited Zion National Park, Utah, I keep body parts:
· my daughter’s umbilical cord, which now resembles a pinched, blue rock
· my grandmother’s upper bridge
· four wisdom teeth, extracted from tissue, rather than bone, in 1982
· a cracked crown, replaced last month
· the piece of thumbnail left on the basement floor when I sliced off the top third of my thumb with an x-acto knife in August of ‘96
· one each of a whisker, toe pad, and claw, fallen from one or more of my dogs. I add to this collection when I can, taking no delight in the events themselves, but hoarding the beauty of the disembodied parts
Even the less lyrical lists uncover gems, assist the detectives. A character in a novel I would like to finish writing buys tofu, yogurt, apples, and Entennmann’s chocolate-covered donuts. My own grocery list is heavy on meat and vegetables, light on snack foods and carbohydrates. Once, a checker at the Safeway scanned my list-come-to-life and remarked, as an Atkins snack bar stopped on the belt, that low-carb diets were unhealthy. The person behind me had four bagels, a box of Frosted Flakes, and a frozen pizza. The guy ahead of me was buying the makings for hot fudge sundaes. Sei Shonagon would have found hateful the supermarket checker who comments on your groceries. “Ah, tampons and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. Wonder what that’s about. Wink, wink.”
Things I won’t buy at Safeway, one block from my house, because my husband is the social studies teacher at the Catholic school two blocks from my house, and everyone knows us:
· pregnancy test kits (especially if I’m also buying condoms)
· hemorrhoid and yeast infection creams
· nudie magazines
· K-Y jelly
This year, I, like millions of others, billions of others around the world, will resolve to eat less, want less, consume less, waste less. I will resolve to see more, feel more, give more, love more, and write more—more words, more lists.
To some extent, we enumerate, numerate, tick off, itemize, inventory, particularize, specialize, specify, catalog, index, note, post, schedule, tabulate, record, and register with everything we write. Every essay, speech, story, report, book, song, poem, and thought is, at its bare bones, a list—of paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words. Letters.
Boom! Blast, burst, clap, crack, crash.
Boom! Boom! Boom.
· won a $1,000 artist’s grant from Baltimore City
· is my favorite essay
I'm here in Listowel, Ireland thinking about thanks and possessed of a sublime gratitude. Last night, my daughter and nephew sang in my sister’s living room, and Beth shared it on my Facebook wall. It was the next best thing to being there. After nine days away, and especially on the holiday named for the gratitude we all possess but lose sight of sometimes, I ached for home.
But my Thanksgiving was extraordinary, even by tourist standards. I awoke at 8:00 and cooked scrambled eggs and salmon for me and Carol, my perfect housemate for these two weeks in Listowel, and finished gluing my mosaic. At 3:30, I walked over to Mike the Pies, a well-respected music venue and pub, where I got to watch a Mannequin Challenge reboot—and see it filmed for live TV, meet the journalist and crew, talk to the bar patrons, and introduce myself to the band I am supposed to be shooting the next day.
An older Irishman sitting with friends tells me to smile, which I don’t tolerate well. I have been smiling and standing all afternoon and am just trying to comfort my back, which has ached from sunup to sunup since the start of my journey. I oblige with an exaggerated grin but joke about not smiling because I’m an American unhappy with the direction of my country. This leads to a good political discussion about the Electoral College and gives me a chance to accentuate the positive attributes of Hillary Clinton with the man, who doesn't like either candidate but says that our election of Donald Trump has made us the laughingstock of the world. Before we part, I snap a photo of him.
Carol and I have a quiet pizza dinner in the apartment, take-away from the always-crowded pizzeria next door (it needs sauce but is otherwise pizza) before heading back to Mike the Pies, where the band Wyvern Lingo is set to perform.
|Random Mannequin Challenge participants|
A few of the same patrons are still at the bar. One of them, an Englishman, is a Trump and Brexit supporter (they seem to go hand-in-hand); the other is an older Irishman drinking Coors Light with ice. Carol and I speak with the group, which includes the Englishman’s wife, for a long time, laughing uproariously at times, sharing stories about ourselves, and generally enjoying each other's company (I thought). We talk about geography and distance, favorite books and authors, English television shows, weather, politics—typical pub fare.
The Englishman says that he's found all Americans to be either Irish or Italian, wants to know if that’s true.
Because of who I am, I do what my mother might have advised against: I tell the man that I’m neither Irish nor Italian. “I’m Jewish,” I say.
"I don't like Jews,” says the Irishman.
His English friend rebukes him sharply in an instant, then implores him: “Tell her why. Tell her.” He turns to me and says, “He doesn’t like Jews because he was in the IRA, and they used to buy arms from Palestinians.” Whatever. I'm not having it. Whether you’re seven or seventy, you’re getting schooled.
“Were we not just having a lovely talk?,” I ask him. “Did we not enjoy each other's company and conversation this afternoon?” More than anger or sadness, I feel wounded, and I’m nervous, but not on the verge of tears. “I don't know how you can say that,” I tell him. Carol [admits, confesses, comes clean about] her Judaism, too.
He says, "I'll tell you why I don't like the Jews." He sits quietly for minutes. "I'll tell you why." He can't think of a reason. At least he can't say it. And he doesn't. More rebukes from his friend follow. (The Englishman's wife just shakes her head from time to time.)
“What a conversation killer that was!” I exclaim. “I guess it’s a good time to announce that I have cancer.” No one seems to hear me (for those who don’t know me, I do have cancer, but just a little), and the subject is no longer the horrible Jews.
A little while later, the Irishman asks if I believe in god. I have to laugh because I’m about to disappoint him yet again. He takes my hand and smooths it with his finger. "Are you blessing me?" I ask, laughing. He says, “Something like it.” He tells me that when something bad happens to me, like when I’m old and get sick, I’ll remember that thing he just did, and I’ll know that God will take care of me and keep me from harm.
I consider this his apology, his way of making amends. That’s at least how I’m going to think of it.
Hatred is a complicated concept. It’s a dislike beyond revulsion. Holding people in contempt because they have a god or a skin color or a language or a body that’s different from our own is almost always a question of preconceived ideas rather than experiences. How is it that we are taught to hate through words but taught to love through experience? I guess that’s the pussy of an answer, isn’t it? That we meet hate with love? I can’t do that, either.
Wendell Berry wrote the following poem with a dedication to his granddaughters, who'd visited the Holocaust Museum on the day Yitzhak Rabin was buried:
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
|Karen Cowley—vocals, bass, keys|
While I don’t stand fully in that light, I know that Carol and I have made a small difference tonight when both the Englishman and the Irishman tell us they hope to run into us again before we leave Listowel for good.
But we are here at Mike the Pies for the music from a talented trio called Wyvern Lingo. I’d first heard of them a few months ago while I was looking up the solo work of people who have been associated with Hozier, whose first album is probably the best thing recorded in the last 20 years. When I learned that I would be coming to Ireland, I looked into the bands that would be playing and was shocked to learn that Wyvern Lingo would be in the very town where I was staying, and on Thanksgiving night. I literally jumped up and down in the kitchen when I discovered it, then wrote to Aidan, the bar’s owner, begging for tickets, then wrote to Carol to tell her she had Thanksgiving plans whether she liked it or not.
|Saoirse Duane—vocals and guitar|
And she loved it. We loved it.
We are still high from the singing angels who are otherwise known as Karen, Saoirse (say SIR-sha), and Caoimhe (say QUEE-va). For a little over an hour, they perform most of their own songs plus three covers, which include an Alt-J mashup, Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and Joni Mitchell’s “The River,” which finally does me in. Something is bound to make me cry this trip besides getting clunked on the head with my comb in the shower.
|Caoimhe Barry—vocals and drums|
Since I’m here to be an “artist” of some sort, my goal with this trip was to make art—to write, to mosaic, and to shoot. I especially wanted to hone my portrait skills, so I had messaged the band before coming to Listowel to see if they could accommodate me.
(Aside: I know what you’re thinking: I thought you don’t work for free. Correct. Something of value must be traded for something of value, usually product for money. This is, for me, an equal trade.)
After the show, I make plans to meet the women by the church in the square, and I buy two CDs and a t-shirt, which I wear to bed. I sleep and dream that I am singing.
Check out their acapella version of their song "Used" from last night.
My daughter is a great person. I admire her for many reasons, her breathtaking beauty the least of them. She is kind. She is concerned. She is conscientious. She recycles.
As a little girl, she used to plug worms back into the ground so they wouldn't burn to death on the sidewalk. I used to call her Serena Bambina, Worm Saver, and drew pictures of her with a W on her chest.
When she was a young teen, she would see homeless people as we drove her to school or School of Rock, and she would make us roll down the window so that she could give someone her own money, out of her own wallet.
Last night, she was shocked and upset. She has felt a little panicked all day today, and she asked me what she could do now. So I gave her a few ideas—start a club at school, make pamphlets, spread information so that people know the email addresses and phone numbers of their senators and representatives. But the thing I think she should do is the thing she does best: write. (And when the song comes, you can bet I'll post it here. And then I will ask you to buy it for a dollar, which will go to Planned Parenthood. They will need it.)
As for me: I make a relatively good living. I have health insurance. I am beyond childbearing years. I am white. I am straight. I live in the city. I came from parents who had nothing at first but became well off. My husband and I are both college educated and have no college loan debt (I have two master's degrees, and my husband has one in legal and ethical studies, plus bachelor's degrees in history, philosophy, and education.) My daughter is at college on a scholarship and will have no debt, either.
I do not need special healthcare from my government. I don't need an abortion (but I did twice and was lucky enough to be able to get them). I am not worried about being sent back to another country. I am already married to a man, so I don't have to worry about the freedom to marry a woman.
I voted so that you could have these things. I voted because what I enjoy as a citizen should be yours to enjoy. I voted for you. Because you should get to decide to marry the person you love, and you should get to decide how to handle your own healthcare. And you should get to escape poverty and terrorism and pursue the American dream, you being our tired, our poor, our huddled masses.
The three of us proudly voted for Hillary Clinton, and we did it early because we couldn't wait to do it, and we celebrated with sushi afterward. In four years, I would vote for her again. In eight.
As a family and on our own, we looked into Secretary Clinton's record (her real, actual, true, factual record, in case you're wondering) because we are grownups, and when someone tells us something, we check it out for ourselves. It's our responsibility to do that, to inform ourselves, rather than to take the competition's word for it. (Seriously, do you take Coke's word for why Pepsi isn't good, or do you taste them for yourself and decide?) We know how Hillary Clinton investigated private schools as a law student to see whether they discriminated against black people. We know that she was the first employee of the Children's Defense Fund, which was started to help disadvantaged children. We know that she has spent her entire life and career trying to help other people, especially women, children, and minorities. She has supported the LGBT community, women's rights, and human rights around the world. She expanded the Family Medical Leave Act. She graduated from Yale Law School at a time when few women did that. And she won a fucking Grammy!
You know that parable about the squirrel who eats all his nuts while another squirrel stores them away, and then it's winter, and the squirrel who ate his nuts is starving, but the other squirrel has all of his nuts saved up, and he ain't sharing? That's not a true scenario. All squirrels store their nuts. But some squirrels don't get as many because they don't have the same opportunities. (People still do not get to see apartments because their voices "sound black" when they call.) Some squirrels just don't have the same opportunities. It's in my best interest to share. And it makes me feel good to help someone.
In this election, as in every election, I voted for other people. I voted for black people—for a black man to not get shot while doing his job protecting an autistic white man who is having a meltdown. I voted for my daughter to be able to marry a woman if she is in love. I voted for your neighbor to have affordable health insurance. I voted so that the veterans panhandling at the JFX and Cold Spring Lane could have some nuts.
I'm going to cry for a long time. I'm sad. I'm frustrated. I'm worried. I'm afraid for our future, about the messages we send to our daughters. I'm worried about the messages we're sending our sons!
But I'm not shrinking. And I will ALWAYS live by the motto that I espouse here and there and everywhere: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (That's Rabbi Hillel, who also implored us to follow the Golden Rule: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." That is the whole bible, too—the whole Koran (Qur'an). The Golden Rule is the foundation of almost every religion on earth.
Friends, let's do something good. Let's do something useful. Many of us remember eight miserable years under George W. Bush. We know how that felt, and it's going to be harder this time. We can't let that stop us. So as soon as we're finished grieving, let those poems and colors and notes flow, flow like the liquid analgesics many of us will need for a few more weeks.
|"Suck Voice" illustration by Jennifer Sarah Blakeslee|
The worst part about mental illness is not simply having it. It’s not the waking up some mornings in such a state that you wonder if you can get out of bed or, if you can, make it to the end of the day. It’s not unplanned crying or the deprivation of lasting joy, nor your aiming for, yet always missing, cloud 9. It’s not the heaviness or feelings of uselessness and inadequacy or the fear that someone will discover you to be the fraud you just know you are. It’s embarrassing that you continue to do what you do. You’re embarrassing. At least today.
The worst part about mental illness is not others’ misunderstandings about it. It’s not their quizzical stares or musings or third degree about your great job, your talented children, your loving friends, your comfortable home, your talents and skills, all of which form one tour de force of a life, so how dare you? It’s not even their presumption that you’re somehow ungrateful for all these magnificent gifts, that if you just woke up and recognized every morning how goddamned lucky you are, the despair would melt away. It’s not that as you write this, you know they just want to shake you or slap you or, best, snap you out of it. (Snap. Snap.) Nope, sorry.
The worst part about mental illness is not all the memes about positivity that blame you every day for not being able to make lemonade out of all the lemons, primarily because there are no lemons (see above), and life is beautiful. Sorry, all of you attitude-is-everything believers. Attitude is only everything when there’s nothing else in the way of it. It’s why some people who get cancer are cheerful and positive and others aren’t. That’s who they are. It’s a pretty lucky way to be born (cheerful and positive; nothing lucky about cancer).
The worst part about mental illness is not that you know what to do about it but can’t summon the energy to do it. That sleep eludes you. That elusive sleep leads to poor choices and bad habits and eating for serotonin and energy, which leads to weight gain, which leads to sluggishness, which leads to lethargy. That waking up at 4:45 after 4 hours and 45 minutes of sleep can, if you struggle with depression, kick the whole day’s ass.
The worst part about mental illness is not anything that happens to you, frankly, because you can take care of yourself. You know that tomorrow or the next day, you can stop swimming and take a breath that doesn’t choke. After all these years, you have some coping skills. You know there’s a bird called hope who might yet perch at your sill. Could be tomorrow. Could even be this afternoon, when the sun suddenly comes out, giving you enough energy to pick yourself off the floor.
No, the worst part about mental illness is passing it on to your children.
First, there’s the guilt: that driving a mile back to the house when she was three to make sure you turned the stove off (you did; you always did) or locked the door (you did; you always did) set a bad example for your child. That those times she saw you crying or heard you weeping in your room at night or pacing the floors in the morning’s loneliest hours when she was four or six or twelve were indelible. That your worry about money or crime or time or work was so palpable that she soaked it in and caught the disease. Guilt, even, that you had a child at all.
And then there’s the worst part about the worst part about mental illness, which is knowing that your child is suffering. Knowing that someone you love is in despair is hard enough, but when it’s your own kid, it is like a balloon trying to rescue an anchor or an anchor trying to rescue a balloon. It can’t go anywhere, but it can still pop.
A person who doesn’t understand that despair is no luckier. That person can look at her child with that quizzical expression (you have everything, dear! What is your life lacking?), missing the gravity of it, a blessing and a curse. But a young person’s hopelessness is a crisis. Because young people have not learned, like you have learned, that hope will perch at your sill, even come in and crap on your head, bringing such good fortune that it will be enough to make you keep that window open.
Not only do so many young people not know about this thing with feathers, but they don’t even open their blinds, which is, I have learned, the simplest thing you can do physically to alter the direction of a day. (It doesn’t work alone, but sun can sneak in, literally and metaphorically.)
So when my daughter and I argue, it’s in the back of my mind. When she apologizes to me, it’s in the back of my mind. When we leave her home, it’s in the back of my mind. When she takes the car, it’s in the back of my mind. When I don’t see her come home at night, it’s in the back of my mind. And when I wake up at 5:45 a.m. to discover that she has not yet been to sleep, it’s on my mind.1 Once you know what it feels like to be in a very bad place, you know what it’s like for someone else to be in a very bad place. And sometimes—this is the worst of the worst of the worst part—they don’t tell you.
One day, your daughter is the captain of the volleyball team and a straight-A student, and the next day, you are calling 911. I know too many (one is too many, and I know more) parents who have come home to find their children unwell in a way they never knew was possible and that cannot ever be forgotten. Those children can be the hardest to save.
Though I've had it all my life, I was formally diagnosed with “high-functioning depression” shortly after I had my daughter. It’s characterized by over-achievement in the face of serious anxiety, OCD, depression, or other mental illness. My daughter, a talented songwriter and musician, has it, too. (Read more about it, please, here: "The Danger of High-Functioning Depression as Told by a College Student.")
It’s why I go into my daughter’s room in the morning and open her blinds. She complains every time, but if she wants them closed, she has to get up to close them. It’s why some days I make her (as much as one can make an 18-year-old woman) go outside or start the day with something other than sugar. She is a new person and doesn’t know yet that these habits will help her when she is 40 and 50 and 70. Living should be, soon, an unbreakable habit.
Why am I telling you this? It's not because I want your sympathy. I never want that. I don’t want pity or sorrow or a shoulder or even empathy (though empathy’s not a bad thing to have for others’ circumstances). I tell you about it because I want you to know, and I want that knowledge to lead to understanding. Eventually, I want you to stop believing that the only problem depressed people have is ingratitude or a bad attitude or that they can overcome their own misery by smiling more (because even if all the science in the world says that it helps, depression is an impediment).
But I’m not sure I want you to let us off the hook entirely, either. Sometimes we do need to let some of that shit go, and if you tell us that with some accompanying bad jokes and good puns and laughter and friendship, we might.2 And a pep talk every now and again can't hurt.
No matter what you’re going through in your life, the best thing I can wish for you is that you have someone to open the blinds, even when you think you don’t want to let any light in. I will be that for you. You be that for me.
1Why wasn’t my daughter in bed asleep after coming home from her friend’s house after I was already asleep, after having texted me a sincere apology for our misunderstanding earlier in the evening before she left? She was recording this, “On the Shoulders of Giants (Maybe Someday You).” I sat listening to it at 5:15 a.m., tears streaming down my face and landing on my lap with a splash.
The last time she stayed up all night, she recorded this, called "Leather Jacket Art."
2Just not, please, with a meme. Enough with the memes already.
I haven’t seen myself naked in 13 years.
I exaggerate. It’s only been about three years since I took a gander at my own naked reflection. When I emerge from the shower, I’m already tightly wrapped in a towel that I swear keeps shrinking in the wash. In the morning, I avert my eyes when I pass a mirror until most of my clothes are on. And when I finally do look, it’s to make sure that the only skin showing is below my elbow or (barely) above my cleavage.
I don’t know what made me stand naked in the hallway before the full-length mirror today. Maybe I needed extra motivation for the diet that starts tomorrow. Maybe I felt it would discourage me from eating that extra biscuit at brunch. Or maybe Aliza Worthington’s complicated feelings about her weight
inspired me to take new stock of my stockiness and really deal with it.
|ca. 2003, after a 30-mile bike ride.
I thought I was fat.
Aliza’s struggle with her weight and body shape mimics my own. My husband says I’ve had a poor body image since we met more than 30 years ago. And that’s because—excepting a year at 34 and two years at 40—I’ve had a poor body for three decades.
At 52, it’s not only fat, but my body doesn’t even get me from here to there very well. At least two of my spinal discs are blown; my toes tingle, and my balance is compromised. Now I’m winded walking up the stairs, too. Being fat is uncomfortable and unhealthy. But that's not to say this is all about health. It's vanity, too. My current wardrobe consists of a closet full of elastic-waist skirts (a friend wisely calls them “crotchless yoga pants”), t-shirts from Target, and cardigan sweaters, seven of them black. My other wardrobe—the expensive boutique pants in size 6 and pretty sweaters and tank tops and trim suits—is packed away under the attic eaves for when I can wear those things again.
And I am convinced that I will wear them again. Because believing that I won’t means I’m stuck with this body forever. And even if it’s not the worst thing in the world, it’s not acceptable. I don't even want to accept it. I might as well start wearing sweatshirts with cats on them.
|2006: I called this one "jelly belly."|
A minute ago, I stopped writing to answer the front door. It was my neighbor, Anne, with a box of four homemade cupcakes. I am eating mine now—because of tomorrow’s diet. I would like to think of that cupcake as the exception, but it’s not. And nearly every person I know who has gained weight believes in the cupcake exception, believes she eats a relatively good diet, free of fast foods and extra calories, despite the half bottles of wine on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays; the extra servings of smoked almonds; the dressing she dips her salad in, rather than pours on it, even though she uses it all anyway.
And that’s why I believe in diets, still, after all these years. Diets themselves do work. Whether you reach the calorie deficit by Atkins or Weight Watchers or Paleo or Beachbody doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can stick with for the six weeks it’ll take you to stop hating the skinny bitches who always sit at your table when you go out for dinner. For the six weeks it'll take you to get used to what eating right feels like, you just need to suck it up by not swallowing every morsel in your path. Which means when Anne knocks on the door with a box of homemade cupcakes, you say thanks and give them to the skinny bitches who always live in your house.
It’s not that diets don’t work. It’s that you don’t.
|2014: The cupcake exception.|
If it were that easy, however, my closet would be full of size-six boutique clothing, and I’d be able to find the Christmas ornaments under the eaves. But to blame diets for my own inability to adhere to them is to abandon all responsibility for the extra 20 pounds—and, worse, all hope for removing them. In my case, this is my fault. Even if it's not about blame, it is about cause and effect. And though a few events might have had a hand in the expansion of my rear cargo space, the stress of my job or my father's death or whatever else may be bothering me was not relieved by eating—or drinking—my anger or sadness. (And menopause sees to it that the damage isn't undone easily.)
Some people advocate for making peace with our fat. I'm not that evolved. Besides, you haven’t seen me naked. This morning, after I recovered from the shock of it, I picked myself up off the floor, put some ice on my head, and put on my fancy crotchless yoga pants, Target t-shirt, and black cardigan in the dark. Then I went to brunch with some women I hadn’t seen since high school and ate the extra biscuit.
Because—you know. Tomorrow. I wish I could say it will be the last time I diet, that I'll never again succumb to the power of cake, that I'll never sneak a peppermint patty in the car, that I won't cave in to the desire to enjoy an IPA every day after work. And I'm fine with that. But what I'm not fine with is spending the rest of my life uncomfortable in elastic-waist clothing when there's a chance, however slim, that I can be uncomfortable in a pair of size 8 skinny jeans.
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