Friday, December 25, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 25, Dave Griffith: On Eula Biss's On Having and Being Had

It’s four days before Christmas and I am on hold with Visa prepaid gift card services--I have been had.

My dad sent me a $100 gift card for Christmas, and when I go to use it at Ho Ping, the Chinese restaurant near my house, the card is declined. When I return home, I call the number on the back of the card to see what’s going on and discover that the balance is ZERO. Someone on St. Catherine St. in Phoenix has registered the card and used it to purchase exactly $100 worth of stuff from Amazon.

The first person I talk to, after being on hold for over an hour, and enduring Muzak versions of Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” and a suite of jazz-fusion monstrosities I can’t quite place but remind me of Sting circa Dream of the Blue Turtles, complete with Branford Marsalis-esque sax licks (think “Love is the Seventh Wave” and “We’ll Be Together”), is a guy who doesn’t even let me explain what has happened: Sir, your name doesn’t match the name registered to the card, so you’ll have to take this up with your dad. Before I can say anything else he hangs up.

I call back hoping to talk with someone more helpful. This time I’m connected almost right away to a woman who, when I explain what has just happened, falls all over herself apologizing. She promises to connect me to someone in the fraud department. I wait and wait. Don Henley returns, followed by Sting, and then some MIDI-composed smooth jazz that sounds like the music that plays on a non-stop loop on the in-house TV channel of hotels: music for liminal spaces.

This all wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the fact that I could really use that $100 about now, having blown my Christmas budget, despite telling myself that I wouldn’t; that I would be responsible this year, but, dear, sweet, infant baby Jesus, this year...Don’t we all deserve just a little bit extra?

I tell myself that if my heart were in the right place, I would be consoled by the fact that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that no amount of money or gifts can assuage the restlessness I feel; that Jesus is Alpha and the Omega, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor.

But I feel very far from Jesus right now, even throwing-the-money-changers-out-the-Temple- Jesus, as I quibble with an “Ambassador” from US Bank’s Prepaid Gift Card division about whether or not I have sufficient proof of ownership to qualify for them to issue a reimbursement, something that I am certain they can do with one keystroke--one second there’s zero money and the next second, magically, there’s one-hundred of these things we call dollars available for me to spend.

This also wouldn’t be so terrible if I weren’t, while on hold, finishing the last twenty pages of Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, a collection of vignettes on a wide array of subjects revolving around money, consumption, the economics of making a living as a writer (and mother), Capitalism, and, ultimately, the value of making and doing things that no one has asked for; things that have no clear or agreed upon worth.

The book is a hardback, which I mention because it feels like a luxury. It is the only hardback book I bought for myself this year, as my book budget had to be slashed due to the fact that when I changed jobs two years ago I took a significant cut in take-home pay. But I am a genuine fan of Biss’ work, which is how I justified the purchase, meaning the $26.00 dollars was worth it to me. It was a price I was willing to pay for the pleasure and edification I felt awaited me. I also saw it as an investment in a writer I admire--a concept that Biss interrogates throughout Having and Being Had. She spends an entire section of the book meditating on the complicated feelings she has about the Guggenheim Foundation money she received, a relatively small sum, a tiny fraction, really, of the interest the Guggenheim fortune kicks off every year, but a sum large enough, Biss writes, to allow her to buy a house in Chicago and buy out her classes at Northwestern for a year.

Biss’ complicated feelings about the provenance of the Guggenheim fortune endears her to me even more. I’ve been a fan ever since 2009 when I read her Notes from No Man’s Land, a book that I was drawn to because of a single essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” a meditation on the strange and awful intertwined history of the telephone pole and lynchings in the U.S. I return to this essay again and again because of the way that it causes me to grapple with both the wonderful ingenuity of humans and our sinister capacity for evil, a theme that dominates my own work.

Gift card fraud is, of course, laughably benign in comparison to the evil of lynching, but I am allowing it into this appreciation of Biss’ book because it is a Capitalist nightmare. Imagine that a thing you have purchased with your hard-earned money suddenly, magically, disappears, or is discovered to be counterfeit, leaving you not only with nothing to show for it, but also feeling duped, ashamed, had.

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, a book on the economics of art and creativity, spends an entire chapter on these kinds of nightmares. Hyde, who Biss cribs from numerous times in Having and Being Had, analyzes folks tales in which a gift, often food, transmogrifies before our very eyes because the protagonist, often overcome by ingratitude, greed, or fear of want, fails to share the gift they have been given.

In one tale, a man sitting down to eat a roast chicken sees his father coming and hides it in order to avoid sharing it. After his father leaves, the delicious chicken transforms into a large toad that leaps and attaches itself to the son’s face. For the rest of his days, the son must feed the toad or else it begins to eat his face. In another tale, a trio of daughters depart their mother one by one to seek their fortune. The mother bakes each of them a loaf of bread, offering them either a small portion and her blessing or a large portion and her curse. The two older daughters who both choose the large portion are bent on hoarding their share and so when they encounter a mother quail and her hungry brood they angrily send them away. These daughters meet very strange and cruel ends, but the youngest chooses the smaller portion and, as you might guess, shares what little she has with the quail family, and, in the end, saves her sisters.

Hoarding a gift is the cardinal sin, according to Hyde: the gift, whatever it is--food, a work of art, a natural talent to make things--must “circulate,” as it is only in the sharing of a gift that it can truly grow and nourish the receiver, as well as an ever-widening circle of people who are also touched in some way by the gift.

My dad once accused me of not being grateful for the sacrifices he and my mother made in order to put me through college, so perhaps the several hours of hold time that I have endured over the last two days trying to reach someone--anyone--in fraud services who can restore the value to the card, is a kind of purgatory.

Maybe purgatory is the better metaphor here for talking about Having and Being Had. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of self-reflective class consciousness bordering on purgative self-loathing. In vignette after vignette Biss and her husband (also a writer), and a revolving cast of friends and colleagues who are artists, economists, and historians, attempt to define what exactly what we mean when we say “The Economy” or “Capitalism.” Over drinks with work friends, while watching masons fix the chimney, while watching her children play on the playground, while riding a bike, while touring an art museum with her friend--bored and irritable children in tow--Biss frets and agonizes. She knows that she is complicit in a system that runs counter to her values, a system that exploits and penalizes the poor, all but ensuring that the wealthy remain wealthy and the indigent indigent, and yet she sees no way out.

As she sits with a TIAA Cref financial planner, she admits that she wants to find a way out of this system, but also that one day she wants to be able to retire, and the only way that will be possible is if she stays in this game, contracting herself out to an exclusive and wealthy institution that sees her value not so much in terms of her abilities as a writer and teacher, but in terms of what the market determines she is worth. She reveals early on that she makes $20,000 more a year than her husband because she received a competitive offer of employment from another university. In this way, the market behaves like a suitor who only becomes attentive when a competitor enters the picture. It is a system of evaluation where appreciation, respect, commitment, and investment in a relationship are not motivated by admiration but by a fear of loss.

It is nearly midnight--I have been on the phone since 7 pm--when I am finally told that someone from Fraud Services will call me back in the morning. I hang up and try to finish the last few pages of the book before falling asleep, but it is a struggle to keep my eyes open. The hours-long vigil waiting for an Ambassador to answer has worn me out. The words investment, interest, dividends, precarity and scarcity dance in my head, and then another word intrudes: Advent.

In the secular sense it means arrival, emergence, appearance etc, but in a Christian context the word is full of expectation, pregnant with meaning, literally a word to describe the season of waiting leading up to the moment when the Word is made flesh. Biss’ book is not invested in this upper-case “n” Nativity--this is the baggage, the freight, the meaning (the value?) that I bring to the reading of her book as a cradle Catholic, and which I am encountering at a particular crossroads in my own journey as a writer, parent, and spouse.

Biss is more interested in the lower-case “n” nativity of Capitalism, and so offers glosses of many scholarly works on the subject, but they do not broker as much emotional power or clarity as the sections she devotes to idols like Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion, whom she clearly both admires but also cooly regards because of their wealth.

Likewise, with each vignette, as I learn more and more about Biss’ struggle to remain faithful to her values and the experiences that have shaped her relationship to work, money, and art, I find myself becoming consumed by judgement. I become impatient with the scenes of conversations about Capitalism over cocktails. I become consumed by pecuniary details, like the $2,000 bicycle she owns, or that she begins one section with the sentence, “We’re driving through the mountains of France talking about affluence.”

I know that she, of all people, is aware of how this comes off. She writes in the notes at the end of the book that this book came, in part, as the result of keeping a daily diary of things that discomforted her. Despite this admission, I still judge, though I know it is not my place to question how others live their lives, spend their money, conduct their business--and yet it is nearly impossible not to. In the same way it is impossible for Biss’ step-mother, in the last pages of the book, not to question why she is allowing her child to purchase a supposedly rare Pokemon card for $7. Whole packs of the cards are only $3, so why would you allow your child to make such an obviously foolish decision with his allowance? Biss replies: “It isn’t really his money unless he can use it in the way he wants…And making mistakes with money is one of the best ways to learn how not to make mistakes with money.”

Making mistakes with money is a game I know too well. I feel like I have been playing it for most of my adult life, but the mistakes are not so much squandering money on collectible trading cards (although, looking around at the shelves of unread books I have purchased because I felt a certain professional and clubby duty to own them, I feel attacked). The mistake I fret and agonize over, especially in these moments as I nervously check my account balance and wait for an Ambassador from the Fraud Department of the Prepaid Card Division to answer, is whether or not I should continue to write, or, better put, whether I can continue to afford to write.

This is not a question raised in Biss’ book, though she does worry over the worth of her writing. Her sister says to her, in a conversation that I imagine playing out in thousands of households and over Zoom calls this Holiday season: “I don’t believe that you think what you do is worthless...I just mean financially worthless.”

This comment, as with so many of the vignettes in the book, touches off an associative string of memories and quotes from other writers about about the wages and rewards of art, leading her to say, in return, to her sister:

Women shouldn’t have to work for nothing...and neither should artists, but I feel the way some women once felt about the Wages for Housework movement--if I were paid wages for the work of making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic of this economy. And if art became my job, I’m afraid that would disturb my universe. I would have nothing unaccountable left in my life, nothing worthless, except for my child.

Reading Biss’ response gives me courage and hope. There is in this, and countless other moments in her book, a subtle but crucial difference being made between work and labor. “Work,” Hyde writes, “is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus--these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify.”

The things on Hyde’s list of things at which we labor are: getting sober, mourning, “writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms.”

This is what I needed to be reminded of after hours of waiting, hours of time wasted, hours which I could have been reading or writing, or preparing for the upcoming holiday by baking or wrapping presents.

In the morning, I awake feeling cynical, but I resist the urge to call back. I try to go about my day, checking last-minute items off my list, wrapping gifts for my children, cleaning the fridge of weeks-old leftovers that have begun to smell, but I am consumed and invested. I want justice. I want satisfaction. I want to make certain that the time I have spent will pay off. As a distraction, I take my dog-eared copy of Hyde’s The Gift from the shelf and return to the passage on the distinction between work and labor. For years, I have read and re-read this book, consulting it in the same way that some consult the Gospels or the I-Ching.

In the ancient world, the sabbath, a day devoted to rest, was considered a time for labor, for attending to those things that are “dictated by the course of life”; things left undone in the rush of the work week. I read for a long time, but nothing happens, nothing changes. The phone does not ring; the gift card before me on the kitchen table is still worthless, though I can sense a small change working within me. Hyde’s words strike me different this time, filtered as they are through the experiences of someone else. I feel a creeping sense of peace: attending to rituals secular or religious is labor.

Later that afternoon, just when I have given up hope, the phone rings. It is someone from the corporate headquarters. The person on the other end wants to help expedite the claim process. She says there are so many notes in the system that it’s hard to decipher what is happened. She asks me to tell her how all of this started.

What I want to say is that it’s ok--let’s just forget about it. I want to say that I have allowed myself to be distracted, allowed myself to be cut off from the vital flow of the spirit that moves among us. I want to say that we are all slaves to mammon. I want to say that the nativity--whatever it is that we are seeking the origins of--offers us a glimpse of the moment when history diverges, a moment where we can see--split-screen--the before and after. I want to say that we are all being offered in this season a glint of choice, an opportunity to navigate back to the headwaters where we can start over again. But instead, I say, “Well, how much time do you have?” and she says “All the time in the world.”

Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 24, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: The End of the World Is Also Its (Queer) Future: Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children”

 As 2020 finally draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how impossible it is to think about the future, really think about it, hold a space and shape for it in my mind. 

Maybe that’s why Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children” remains the essay that fucked me up the most this year, the one nearest to both my heart and to my fear. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it, or how many people I’ve sent it to, yet it still retains a slippery clutch over me. I can’t quite keep its progression in my mind, only the sensation of reading it. For example, I always think of the essay as beginning with the image of Osmundson as a child, a little cisgender boy dreaming himself pregnant—an impossible image, one that holds both a sweet amount of hope and the knowledge of that hope’s failure. 

But it doesn’t. It begins with a violent end, a grandfather’s suicide—a suicide that is Osmundson’s legacy to hold as much as any hope is.

When the pandemic hit and 2020 became its impossible-to-imagine self, I was at a writing residency on a beach in Florida, where every day I would look out at the surf and try to comprehend the changing headlines on the copy of The New York Times the residency director left on a white wicker table with a glass top. The setting utopian, my own little studio, a kitchen that remained sparklingly clean even though we residents never cleaned it, a mug I could fill with hot coffee and carry—sand between my toes—to watch the crashing surf. The Illness Now Has a Name, the headlines said. The W.H.O. Declares Global Health Emergency. Ventilator Shortages Ahead. When the fear was at its apex, a lover drove down from Maine to retrieve me—remember when we didn’t wear masks, when we were suspicious of every surface, when we couldn’t name what exactly the threat was and so the threat was everywhere—and drove us back from Florida to Maine in one stretch, the two of us peeing in the bushes and curling up together in the back of the car by the side of a Georgia road, in the morning chugging back cold black coffee we’d poured into an empty bottle of Absolut found in the residency trash. 

And there was still, I confess, a bit of thrill to our ride, the headlines still unreal. Doesn’t every great apocalypse movie feature a road trip? Doesn’t (and Osmundson’s essay promises this) the end of the world amplify even the sex?

Or at least I think the headlines felt unreal to me. In a way I’ve never prepared for them. I’ve never named an apocalypse team, never joked about the end of the world. I don’t watch zombie movies, or any horror films at all. The idea of an apocalypse has never felt recreational. Unreal, maybe, but not recreational. If you had asked me why then, I would have told you that I didn’t trust its fictionality. That, like any queer person who had to jettison one imagined life and make another, I already knew my world could break open.

That’s the genius of Osmundson’s essay. Reading it, you can’t avoid the breaking open of the world. Its spine is a scale of numbers that count upward as you move forward: parts per volume CO2. He’s illustrating the incremental accretion of human damage to the atmosphere, our slow destruction of the conditions of our own survival—and then acceleration, how we will combust and implode. In the body of the essay, he thinks about whether to have children, he thinks about sex, he talks about the love he has for his friends and students, he invokes all the forms of connection that give life meaning and hope.

And the numbers climb, the numbers that will kill.

He doesn’t explain this at first, of course. He just lets you stay distracted by the prose narrative, while the numbers add endlessly up.

So the form enacts the content. Brilliant. My favorite thing essays can do. We live by constantly forgetting we’ll die.

As Jane Alison observes in Meander, Spiral, Explode—a book I have been immersed in these last few days of this meandering, spiraling, exploding year—super-short begin-again paragraphs like this, lines like this, disrupt the gaze again and again, and so disrupt the thought, requiring a swing to the left and start anew at the next section. Reading Alison made me recall T Fleishman’s book-length Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, my favorite essay of last year, though I’d argue it presaged this year most effectively. (Just look at that title. I don’t know about you, but just about the only thing I’ve moved through this year is time.) Fleischman’s essay is also about queerness, also about becoming, also about sex and destruction and beauty. And in it, too, there are super-short snippets that stop and start, no explanation. Again they begin again. 

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality, writes José Esteban Muñoz. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.

Whatever we are reaching for, we won’t reach. We’ll never make it. 

Re-inventions, textually enacted on the page in the face of certain failure. Could there be anything queerer?

Now the future promised by headlines all year has arrived, a mix of doom and hope. The hospitals are once again filling. Again, warnings of impending ventilator rationing. A friend from South Africa calls to tell me they’re in the middle of a second wave, and then she pauses, because we both know what I don’t say: the American wave never ended. Most of my neighbors, tired, have abandoned wearing masks, and I duck to avoid them in the stairwell as the daily case count in my state sets a new and newly unthinkable record daily, up fourfold from the spring highs, and still it climbs. On a walk with a new friend—so distant, always masked—who works on a Covid unit in the middle of the state, they tell me they are tired of watching people die through glass. And then they stop short, words failing.

In the essay, Osmundson declares that he can’t and won’t have kids. He can’t imagine bringing them into all these promised dooms. And he can’t imagine being required by love not to claim for himself the suicide he opens with. I don’t know if I can make that promise—the promise to keep on living—to anyone.

And the vaccinations have slowly begun, the turning back of one end of the world. I talk with a friend about his desire to become a father, a desire that’s become more urgent during this awful year. Will he foster or adopt? Lately he’s been thinking he’ll get pregnant, he says. His transness allows him to make for himself that impossible image Osmundson offers. Another friend of mine’s kid corrects them when they misgender themselves just trying to move through the world, just trying to fill out all the medical paperwork this year demands. She insists my friend exist. The desire to be named correctly may fail them; the kid demands they do it anyway.

And about five months before the world changed forever or maybe not at all, I started taking testosterone. I had spent nearly a lifetime thinking about it. I wasn’t ready, and then I was. I had spent years poring over the lists of effects that were permanent (voice drop, hair growth) and the ones that weren’t (fat redistribution, libido), but in the end I don’t think the lists made any difference. When I was finally ready, it wasn’t a rational decision. The scales just tipped. The future became the present, the new world the now.

I am, of course, terrified of the future Osmundson heralds, of the future any scientist who understands what’s coming does. I think back a decade ago to grad school, to a climate scientist who told me how trashed she and her colleagues would get at the hotel bars at conferences, after a day of panels promising the end of the world. I didn’t tell her then that we writers knew plenty about hotel bars—that once, legend had it, we’d drunken one of the conference hotels right out of hard liquor. The despair we had felt soft, indulgent, even melodramatic. Hers had felt real, informed by the science.

Hell: Hers felt rational.

I find Osmundson’s despair impossible to argue with. His conclusion, too. 

So I can’t quite tell you why I find this essay so hopeful in the end. He’s made a case for not having hope. He’s laid it out as rationally as the climbing numbers. He’s already told us he’s the only male Osmundson—the implication being that with his choice, the name will die with him.

And maybe the point is that whatever’s coming, we will have to remake it. The way queer people always have. Whatever’s coming will and will not look like the world of now, and we don’t know the ways yet, we can’t. We are still living in the before time, still loving and breathing all over one another, and we just don’t know what’s next.  

What else, then, but to live. To stay and find out and remake. What else but this stop-short start-again rhythm and the awareness that we always were and always are doomed, we mortals, and god we fucked this up, and we’d better try to fix it but also it sure seems like we can’t, and that living under that condition—making art under that condition—is one of the only hopeful acts available. Maybe what I find so moving is that he felt all these things, all this despair, and he thought about it, and he made us this essay.

And in the reading, here we are, all of us, connecting. From six feet apart, as whatever is now ends.

And whatever comes next begins.


Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir and the forthcoming Both and Neither. “Body Language,” an essay adapted from that book, appears in The Best American Essays 2020. You can find them on Twitter (way too often) and on their website.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 23, Jenny Spinner: The Writer in a Pandemic: On Zadie’s Smith’s Intimations

“The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”
—"Something to Do,” Intimations, Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s latest collection of personal essays, written in the spring and published this summer, is pandemic art in media res. It is a diary’s middle pages and the note of a shipwrecked survivor still awaiting rescue. It is Wednesday’s home-cooked dinner and the washing machine paused between cycles. It is the second, purple candle in the Advent wreath—not yet the pink relief of Gaudete Sunday’s third flame.

Comprised of six essays written in the “scraps of time the year itself has allowed” (xi), the book is thin, only ninety-seven pages long. It could fit in the back pocket of yoga pants if yoga pants had back pockets. Because it is a slim book, it can be read in its entirety in that space between the children climbing into bed and your own body collapsing into sleep. Smith says the book is “small” by definition of the personal essays it contains, but personal essays are not small and these are certainly not. They are about time and art and work and the U.S.-president-she-will-not-name and suffering and fear and racism and privilege and healthcare disparities.

If you sleep on the heavy topics of Intimations, you may even dream them—but hopefully not the kind of frantic dreams that came in mid-September when you were too sick to move and opening your eyes consumed so much energy that you just kept them shut for three whole days other than to make sure, when you tipped the bottle of hot sauce to your tongue to see if you had lost your taste (you hadn’t), it didn’t spill all over your face. In “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith writes that “misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person” (29). The despair that comes from waking each morning drenched in the night’s fever sweats does not compare to the misery of declining alone in a hospital room. 

The pandemic’s miseries create contradictory silos of suffering, Smith writes: the relentless togetherness for some; the painful isolation for others. She zeroes in on the challenges of pandemic parenting, from the “single mother with the single child” to the “night-shift worker with three children under the age of six” (31) to the “artists with children—who treasured isolation as the most precious thing they owned—find[ing] out what it is to live without privacy and time” (29). Oh, the guilt, the ropes we throw ourselves to climb out of the pit of self-pity, knowing that someone, somewhere, is suffering more than we are in our lonely, chaotic house, no longer able to escape to work to avoid conflict. “Her face, her face, her face. Your face, your face, your face” (30). Smith distinguishes, though, between the “bubble” of privilege, which must be acknowledged, and that of suffering (32). The former, she argues, can be popped. Suffering, on the other hand, is “impermeable” (32). Suffering, uniquely ours, can kill us. She gives us permission to concede our miseries: “when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you . . . it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering” (36). Notably, she does not say for every misery, we must follow Newton’s third law and name a joy.

Intimations is 2020’s calling card of complexities and contradictions, left on the front hall table at the house of writers, some who are hiding from their children in the bathroom for thirty minutes while they try to write something, anything, this essay. Intimations is an ache. It is the thoughts that we might think if we had time to think them, or if we risked the pain of letting them into our heads. In “Something to Do,” Smith explores the way that time broke down in the early months of the pandemic. She is especially interested in doing time as a writer: “It seems it would follow that writers—so familiar with empty time and with being alone—should manage this situation better than most” (24). But Smith, “[c]onfronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure” struggles to re-order her present days and face how she managed the past ones (24). With soccer and theatre and cross country and every blooming thing canceled, we schedule game nights and family movie nights and Saturday hikes. We make everything from scratch, down to the vegan andouille sausages with one and a quarter cups of vital wheat gluten that have been in the freezer for six years awaiting the calendar to clear. Intimations is proof that Smith found a way to be productive in the “playpen” (24)—in part because that is what she knows to do: to write. Why does Smith write? Why does any of us write? We trip over ourselves in explanation, Smith says, but for her, it’s simply “something to do.” Even then, she concludes, “it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread” (26).

And yet, there is a difference in what the process demands. When there are no words in the house, there are always bananas turning brown on the kitchen counter, awaiting a transformation, a next life. Banana bread still manages to rise amid distractions, the tomatoes that need tending in the garden, the face masks sewn from old T-shirts, spelling lists chalked out on the driveway, piano tunes readied for virtual recitals, back skin soothed with rhythmic scratches. In “Peonies,” Smith writes about her early resistance to what she thought of as the “the cage” of her “circumstance,” her gender (4). As a growing child, she hated the idea of being “tied to my ‘nature,’ to my animal body—to the whole simian realm of instinct” (4). She has not entirely grown out of these burdens, not now on the edge of peri-menopause, not in “this strange and overwhelming season of death that collides outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions” (10). After all, when the light is right on both sides of a window, it becomes a mirror. 

In the title essay, “Intimations,” Smith complies a series of “Debts and Lessons” by the twenty-six family and friends, teachers and artists, who have shaped her. These are the people who walk through our last dreams when the end times slow enough for contemplation. There is both a strength and a fragility to Smith’s lessons, the fragility coming in the peeling back that reveals layers of truth. “18. Zulfi: To have one layer of skin less than the others, and therefore to feel it all: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the abject” (92). “19. Virginia Woolf. To replace that missing layer with language. For as long as it works” (92).

2020 is a year of layers, of putting on and taking off in a season that is in between, and Intimations captures both the discomfort and the moments of relief when everything is just right: the light jacket is warm enough, the shorts ward off heat. Relief. When you return to your office from teaching, tear off your mask and sink into your chair with a long gulp of untainted air. When the fever finally breaks. When your children in virtual learning finish their homework and leave you, for the first time in eight hours, in a silent womb where you must decide whether to be born or simply wait things out. When you manage to write it all down.


Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. She received her MA and PhD in English from the University of Connecticut and her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Penn State University. She is the author of Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1600 to 2000 (U of Georgia P, 2018). She last appeared in Essay Daily on  Jan. 16, 2020 as part of the “What Happened on 12/21/19” series. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 22, Melissa Faliveno, Of Minutiae and Monuments

I finished reading only one essay collection this year. As an essayist, this is troubling to admit. I’ve been reading several collections, slowly picking my way through one or another over the past few months—taking in a page or two, putting it down, picking it back up. It’s frustrating to me, to not finish a thing. To be in a constant state of progress, rather than completion. But lately I’ve been learning to move a little more slowly: through a book, through the world; to take in small pieces at a time, to hold only what I can. 
     A few I’ve been working on, and enjoying: Limber by Angela Pelster. The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. Winter Hours by Mary Oliver. The one I’m drawn to most, though, is All the Fierce Tethers by Lia Purpura. It was published by Sarabande Books in 2019 and has been on my bookshelf for over a year, but I only cracked it recently. It found me, as so many of my favorite books do, when I needed it.
      In the fall, I found myself alone in the woods. I’d gotten a yearlong visiting writer job at the University of North Carolina, and was staying in a studio above a garage in the woods outside Chapel Hill, having spent the money that was supposed to buy me health insurance on an overpriced Airbnb. It was beautiful, and idyllic, and under normal circumstances it would have been a dream. But I couldn’t find a rhythm. I couldn’t build a routine. I’m a creature of habit; I wake up early every day to read, and then write. I make a daily to-do list in a notebook, drawing a little box for each task and checking it off in red pencil. I started adding “Read” to the top of the list, so I would have something to cross off. But when I opened a book, I read the same lines over and over. The words were blurred. When I sat down at my computer, the words rarely came. The “Write” box often went unchecked. 
     Global pandemic, presidential election, persistent terror, uncertainty, isolation, and grief aside, there was another problem, too. My partner was back in Brooklyn, and the distance between us spanned more than miles. There was a fracture in our foundation, one I hadn’t yet fully seen—one I might have noticed had I been paying attention. But I looked only at the bigger picture, and paid no attention to the details, to the smaller pieces of life—the things that make it, or dismantle it. 
     I brought All the Fierce Tethers with me to the woods, a cosmic, last-minute toss in a suitcase full of books. I read it in slow tandem with Oliver’s Winter Hours, which I found on the coffee table of my forest home like a gift from the universe, or the trees, or whatever god I believe in. Both books deal in noticing, in the woods, in isolation and grief. In All the Fierce Tethers, Purpura writes about the small things. About noticing them, about the act of looking. About how this act can become a form of order, or routine. And how order, or routine, can be a form of beauty. 
     In my introduction to creative nonfiction class at UNC—which I held onto in those weeks like a life raft—I spent a lot of time talking with my students about the importance of observing, not least in these uncertain and sad and terrible times. We talked about the importance of looking—as an intentional act, as a process and routine, one critical to writing essays. I told them, as I always tell my students, to read with a pencil. To underline sentences and passages that struck them, that stuck with them; to savor the small, satisfying scratch of graphite on paper. I asked them to keep a field notebook, in which they could record what they saw each day, alone in their apartments, or in the bedrooms where they grew up, or outside on walks. I asked them to listen. To write down overheard conversations. Song lyrics and scenes from whatever TV shows they were bingeing, lines and passages from the essays we read. If they couldn’t make a sentence, I said, make a list. A catalogue of fragments. The most important thing, I said, was to look—even when it feels too dark to see.
     I did the same. I walked in the woods, keeping a list of notes about downed trees and dead leaves. I picked up seed pods and pinecones and added them to the shrine I keep on my writing desk. Each morning I read a small section of All the Fierce Tethers, and I read with a pencil. I underlined passages, then copied them down in a notebook, creating a new kind of list.
     She writes: “By being still, I could collect what the day was trying to say.” 
     She writes: “No need to see with a strategy, with habits employed to keep back the grief which, anyway, overruns the banks I make.”
     She writes: “…routine was everywhere pulsing along, ongoing, unending, then ending.”
     She writes: “It’s work to hold, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work.” 
     And of those smallest things—the washed and folded sheets that make up a home, the twigs that make up a forest, the minutiae that make up a day—she writes: “Stay with them…. Those delicacies. Those radiant systems. Hold them.”
     I write: “I’m trying. I walk in the woods and look. But the light seems always on the edge of dusk, and my eyes play tricks on me. I’m never quite sure what I see.”


The first essay collection I read this year, and the only one I finished, was Ander Monson’s I Will Take the Answer, published by Graywolf Press in February, just before the world came crashing to a halt. Monson’s writing is close to my heart, not least because it often traverses the Midwestern landscapes close to my heart too. Monson grew up in Upper Michigan, not far from where I spent a great deal of time as a kid, and still do as an adult, in the northernmost woods of Wisconsin, just across the border from the UP. He writes about the Paulding Light, a mysterious phenomenon—a ghost train, folks contend—that my family and I used to visit now and again, out in the sticks near Watersmeet. He writes about the bad 80s metal band Dokken and an unincorporated town nearby called Donken. He writes of the landscapes—cold and wintry and wooded—that, despite having been away for so long, make up so much of his consciousness, and so much of my own. In the essay “I in River,” which takes a wonderfully inventive approach to form, he writes: 
It’s fair to say that my life is suspended between two poles—the wet or snowbound landscapes of Michigan that still shape the way I think and dream and write, and the hazy desert loneliness of Arizona, where I now live and work.
Another passage I underlined in pencil (and starred, so you know I mean it) is this:

We like containment. 
We like order. Without order / (form)
there is no shape, no meaning, nothing to resist or push against / or pull across an emptiness.

I thought about this passage a lot in the woods of North Carolina, and I think about it now that I’m home. I think about how, without routine, without a list to check off, the edges of life become blurred, the contours shaky, the picture gone dim. I think of a great expanse of distance, both physical and not, and clawing around in the dark, trying to find our way through.
     In my favorite essay in the book, “My Monument,” Monson writes about a fifteen-foot inflatable Rudolph, which he bought from a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue for a whopping $399 plus tax, and which he erects in his snowless Tucson yard each winter. 

[A] monument to or against something…he stands as long as I will have him.

It’s an essay about spectacle, about consumption, about displays of prosperity, and that uniquely American drive to out-spectacle one another—say, by way of Christmas decorations—often even without the prosperity. It’s about our fascination with the massive, the superlative, the colossal. It’s about artifice, of course, and the ways we lie with our possessions, our decorations, our Instagram posts, our lives.
     “From the exterior it looks solid,” Monson writes of his Rudolph, “but inside it is nothing but forced air.”
     Of a holiday display in a Tucson strip mall he writes: “Those who go to see the spectacle are advised not to let the artificial snow settle on their tongues, since the flakes are in fact soap.” 
     Before he finds his Rudolph, he finds a generic lawn reindeer—the kind that light up, the kind my parents used to display in their yard in Wisconsin until they got fed up with the neighbor kids sneaking out at night to put them in compromising positions. The one Monson finds, at Goodwill, has only three legs.
     “In the dark you can’t tell it’s broken,” he writes. 
     “This is one of the problems with the dark.”
     This is an essay, and a whole book, that deals in the dark. But as is characteristic of most Monson joints, it’s also very funny. Riffing on the wonder of holiday catalogues, he writes of Lands’ End, the working-class Midwestern version of L.L. Bean that’s based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, a small town twenty miles from my hometown, where many people I know take shifts during the holiday season for extra scratch. He writes of the company’s audacious apostrophe—“what a name! the end of lands! What might be delivered to us by UPS or USPS from these frontiers!”—which was just a typographical error that stuck. I think of the irony of a company whose logo is a lighthouse, based in landlocked southcentral Wisconsin.
     This is an essay about irony, yes. But it’s also about hope, and the ways we hold onto it. Of the joy—however misplaced—one might find in those seasonal catalogues, in desire fanned out on coffee tables; in idiotic things like a giant inflatable Rudolph, that begin as a joke, or some act of defiance, and end up looking like love; in soft and cozy and frivolous things, like the overpriced sweater from L.L. Bean that I coveted for years, then finally bought, and never wear, always choosing my twenty-year-old Lands’ End sweater instead.
     “Because so many of us are transplants from our colder elsewhere,” Monson writes, “by erecting our decorations we are also making our little shrines to home.”
     He’s one of my favorite essayists for this reason: the ability to find truth in the idiosyncratic and absurd, meaning in the mundane. He mines (quite literally; one of the essays is about the mining country of Upper Michigan) his past and present, digging around in the dark for gems. Like this one, from “Uncharitable Thoughts on Dokken”:

It’s hard to even believe the stories I’m telling myself about my past now. The past is so scratched up that it skips when played, and it’s hard to tell what’s signal and what’s scratch, what’s original and what’s artifact of my own obsessive working.

This glittering, tangible piece of truth—about seeing, about memory, about the stories we tell—unearthed from some strange corner of the brain, where a bad 80s metal band and an unincorporated Upper Michigan town both dwell. A little piece of light pulled from the dark. And this, I tell my students, I tell myself, is what we’re trying to do in the process of essaying. And what I mean is that this is what we’re trying to do in the process of living. 

It snowed in New York last week, but like most snows here it didn’t stick. We’re supposed to get a storm today, though, and I hope we get snowed in. Back home in Wisconsin, there’s nearly a foot on the ground. My dad sends me pictures of his shovel job, of the fake Christmas tree my parents have erected every year since I’ve been gone.
     Here in Brooklyn, my partner and I buy a real one. In our ten years together, this is the first Christmas we’ll spend in New York just the two of us. The tree is a Frasier fir, thick and full, its six feet towering in our tiny railroad apartment. We bought it from a rip-off popup in our neighborhood, for a staggering $139 dollars. It’s not from upstate New York, or even New Jersey or Connecticut—not cut fresh from some local farm we could have felt good about supporting—but shipped here, instead, from North Carolina. 
We bought it anyway. We carried it home, erected it in our living room, and spent the afternoon decorating. We strung white lights and bulbs and bells, a somewhat creepy-looking angel that once belonged to my late grandmother, a collection of other gaudy ornaments that together create something so strange and lovely, so uniquely ours. We drank eggnog with brandy and played our three Christmas records—the Miracles, Johnny Mathis, an instrumental collection called “The Glory of Christmas,” which somewhat suspiciously boasts “101 Strings”—that we found for cheap at the used record store years ago.
     We watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and I cried at the end, when Clarence gets his wings, like I do every year. 
     I haven’t believed in angels, or God—at least in the way I was taught—for a very long time, so it feels a little absurd to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But I do it anyway. I do these old familiar things, these small acts of ritual, of seasonal routine, and—perhaps especially in a time of such uncertainty—it feels like comfort. I suppose, the older and further away I get, the more it feels like home. 
     Recently, a friend said to me: “Maybe all we can do, right now, is accept that it’s the darkest part of the year, and try to find as much light in it as we can.” So that’s what I’m trying to do. Each day, when the sun sets at its miserable 4:30, I will look at our Christmas tree and marvel at the audacity of its size. I will notice the white lights that bend around red and gold bulbs (not glass or metal but plastic, whose seams you can see if you look close enough). I will watch the cat on the tree skirt (an old shredded afghan), batting at the ornaments, trying to climb the branches, out of her mind with joy. I will love the creepy angel. I will stick my face in the boughs and breathe, fill my lungs with the scent of fir—something that smells so alive, even as the tree is dying. And this great and bright and glittering thing, grown and cut from a North Carolina forest, severed and shipped five hundred miles north then sold for a small fortune on a Brooklyn sidewalk, will be my monument. Maybe, in some way, it will help me see. Maybe it won’t. But when the days are at their darkest, it will be my light.


Melissa Faliveno is the author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland, named by NPR and New York Public Library as a Best Book of 2020. Her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, Bitch, Ms., Lit Hub, Brooklyn Rail, the Millions, Prairie Schooner, and DIAGRAM, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays. She is the 2020-21 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC–Chapel Hill and lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 21, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Recognitions: in Memory of Bill Kittredge

I had planned to write about Zadie Smith’s pocket-sized collection of essays titled Intimations. It seemed a good plan, this set of six quick, roving ruminations about living and thinking in pandemic time. But when I sat down to reread the book, my phone pinged with the news of Bill Kittredge’s death. It was a gut punch. Kittredge was one of the great spirits of American literature, a man I knew through writerly friendship, a man whose books I read with envious admiration, a man who paid equal attention to the glory of a beautiful sentence and the power of story, who loved telling those mythmaking stories about writers (those poker games in Montana!) on which writers thrive, a man who cared deeply about the fate of the American West and who drew from experience a vision of what the west asked of us. He led me to see the region as a crucible for transforming our pathological way of life into something more just, more generous, more in keeping with the land’s beauty and the dream of a moral life. 
     So I have moved from “Intimations” to “Recognitions,” the latter a word Kittredge quotes from Aristotle in his essay “Who Owns the West.”

Aristotle talks of “recognitions,” which can be thought of as moments of insight or flashes of understanding in which we see through to coherencies in the world. We are all continually seeking after such experiences. It’s the most commonplace thing human beings do after breathing. We are like detectives, each of us trying to make sense and define what we take to be the right life. It is the primary, most incessant business of our lives.

A large man. Warm face. Given easily to smile. A laugh suggesting soulful joy. Leaning forward in his chair to pay more careful attention to the conversation. Maybe elbows on knees. Feeling his way forward with words. Making you feel that friendship is the greatest gift on Earth. Modest about his greatness. Present to the land and its peoples, the indigenous and the settlers who wrested their livelihood out of the wounds they created. His grandfather built a ranch the size of Delaware in southwestern Oregon where Bill grew up. Where he learned what it is to be complicit in one’s own destruction. Agribusiness, alcohol, marital collapse. Then he became a writer--a writer of Westerns and short stories and essays and memoir—and an esteemed teacher at the University of Montana. He became honest and wrote his way to becoming wise. He wrote the book on what happens when you find yourself living in the wrong story. Again, from “Who Owns the West?”

We figure and find stories, which can be thought of as maps or paradigms in which we see our purposes defined; then the world drifts and our maps don’t work anymore, our paradigms and stories fail, and we have to reinvent our understandings, and our reasons for doing things. Useful stories, I think, are radical in that they help us see freshly. They are like mirrors, in which we see ourselves reflected. That’s what stories are for, to help us see for ourselves as we go about the continual business of reimagining ourselves.

     Bill was accomplished at reimagining himself, a journey he tracked in his memoir Hole in the Sky, a book worth apprenticing one’s self to for the craft of memoir—how necessary it is interrogate one’s own failures and to place them in a cultural context. Tom McGuane wrote that Hole in the Sky 

is the Rape of Eden recalled first as an idyll and then as a family curse. Kittredge is the child of people who conquered the land but he hears the voices of its original inhabitants, and he knows what went under the plow because he helped put it there. Out of the pain and glory of growing up in a dying dream, Bill Kittredge has produced a great book.

James Welch called the book a masterpiece. I’ve read the book three times and will likely read it again. I’ve taught it in a Literature of the Southwest seminar. I wish I could reread it for the occasion of this advent essay, but Kittredge’s death calls me to speak of him right now in the afterglow of his presence among the living. What was it about that book that grabbed me by the heart and held on? What can I tell you, dear reader, that will make you want to read it too? My notes say:

The personal purpose of historical research.

“. . . history driven by an understanding of violence as a commonplace method of solving problems.”

Two qualities: story and meditation. How we make ourselves at home in the world. What do we do when we know we have failed?

“In a family as unchurched as ours there was only one sacred story, and that was the one we told ourselves every day, the one about work and property and ownership, which is sad. We had lost track of stories like the one which tells us the world is to be cherished as if it exists inside our own skin.” 

A coming to account for how one’s thought processes change over time.

“. . . all day long we try to tell ourselves stories in which we have the luck to bring about some positive effect in the world.”

“I was a long time coming to see that stories were the little motors that ran our actual lives, making babies and, off in the war zones, killing them.”

They drained the wetlands and named them “and thought that made them ours.” Fifteen thousand acres of hay, and the move “into the monied technology which is agribusiness.” D-7 Caterpillar tractors and John Deere combines. The teams of work horses were sold off “for chicken feed. A splendor and attachment to seven or eight thousand years of human experimentation and tradition went from our lives with those horses.” 
     Hole in the Sky is a book about beauty and work and failure and love of the land, a book of moral intelligence and, dare I say, a grandeur of spirit. Bill went on to write the book on generosity, a continuation of the themes of the memoir. The Nature of Generosity moves the meditation from Montana to New York, Venice, Andalusia, and beyond to interrogate the biological and cultural connective tissue that is generosity. Another luminous book that would be a healthy tonic to take during this time of outrage and isolation.
     Bill was 88 when the died this December. A good long life. He and his luminous partner Annick Smith often came to Tucson during the winter for a reprieve from the Montana cold. The last time I saw him, we met for lunch at the resort where they were staying—the customary feast of conversation. As we walked back to our cars, Bill leaned awkwardly into a walker, ill at ease with limitation but nonetheless seeing the comedy in his being a big man of the West hobbling along. There he was in all his strength and weakness. I dreaded the day he would leave this world. So I’ve tried to hold his spirit close here, to dwell awhile with his words, which thankfully will remain here among the living while he rides off into eternity.
     Back here on earth, I’m sorry to have shortchanged Zadie Smith’s collection. I will give her the last word, because in the title essay of Intimations, she lists imperatives that speak to the empathy with which Bill wrote:

To forgive anyone who has wounded you, no matter how badly, especially if there is any sign whatsoever that a person has, in wounding you, also wounded themselves. To make no hierarchical distinction between people. To tell any story just as it happened, only exaggerating for humor, but never lying, and never trying to give yourself the flattering role.


Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. She is Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. Her new nonfiction book A Woven World will be out from Counterpoint Press in August 2021.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 20, Travis Scholl, The Frictionless Synchronicity: On Leavetakings

“I am simply trying to see something I am too small to see,” writes Corinna Cook early on in her essay collection, Leavetakings. She is writing of a continent she is trying to traverse by the slanted, straightened, curved grids of asphalt roads laid on top of it like a map. She is writing of, among other things, the simultaneously massive and microscopic geology of its rocks.

I read that line on the first day I began reading the book Leavetakings, a rain-soaked day that happened to be the second Saturday in November. It rained all day, the kind of cold-filtered autumn rain that slicks the pavement’s brown leaves into a darker, pulpish slurry. The kind of day when you get up out of bed and say, “This is a good day to stay inside and curl up with a good book.” As if you’re the main character in a Folgers™ commercial watching a Hallmark™ movie in which the main character looks out the window at the cold-filtered rain and curls up with a good book, to read of things we are too small to see.

But I digress. The noun leavetaking first occurs in English (often spliced with a hyphen to signify its compound) sometime in the middle of the 15th century. A century-and-a-half later, Shakespeare will put the word in the mouth of Malcolm, the heir to the throne in Macbeth. Act two, scene three: “And let us not be dainty of leave-taking…”

The noun is coined after its verbal form, to take leave. The verb goes much further back into Old English, inherited from the Germanic in documents dated as old as the 7th century. Even so, the later noun leavetaking has an obsolete Old English precursor, transliterated as yleave-nimming. This primordial noun appears in the Ayenbite of Inwit, clumsily translated from the French by the Benedictine monk Dan Michel of Northgate in 1340. Ayenbite of Inwit is essentially a compendium of moral and religious instruction, a work of “inner wit.” The text will be briefly revived in the 20th century when James Joyce will use the title as a synonym for the conscience in his novel Ulysses.

All that said, the monk uses the word yleave-nimming to refer to the receiving of the Eucharist, that the Christ leaves the body of bread for us to take in remembrance of him.

And here we come full circle. “To break bread with thine enemies. Give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater. Give us this day our daily bread,” writes Corinna Cook in another essay in Leavetakings. She is writing of another kind of communion, another undainty leave-taking, made possible by bread.


Full disclosure: one of the things I wrote above is not entirely true. I first began reading essays that became essays in Leavetakings long before the second Saturday in November, in workshops in which both Corinna and I were PhD students at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

When the cohort of us who entered the nonfiction program together—Corinna Cook, Eric Scott, and me—were done with our comprehensive exams, we started something we called Dissertation Club, Diss Club for short.

The first rule about Diss Club is you don’t talk about Diss Club.

Be that as it may, reading the book she made of some of these things on a rain-soaked second Saturday in November is as good a way as any to begin reading Leavetakings. Because the way Corinna Cook writes is the way you filter the light in rain from clouds, its inner wit. The way a page of a book is like the face of the moon, luminous with borrowed light around the craters that, when you zoom out, are really words, the marks of ink that each in their own way, when you zoom back in, deepen into a little abyss. Or the way that same cloud gathering light at midnight from that same moon deepens the darkness of the sky.


Which is to say: essays are dreams. This is what I learned from Corinna Cook, who may be too small to see what her writing is trying to see, but this state of mind we call Missouri always seemed too small for her. Its boundaries were drawn from too much compromise, and the glaciers are too long gone from its dainty layers of limestone. In the few years we sat together in a classroom, she never said out loud the four syllables “essays are dreams,” at least not that I recall, but that was what it was like to read her work.

Likewise, the state of mind that produces an essay—that writes one, that reads one—is a dream state.

“I dreamed recently of a man made of ice,” she writes now, in an essay I had not read before this second Saturday in November, in something she made into a dream made of dreams.

An essay is a dream made of dreams. Now that I begin to think about it, I think I feel the same way about most of John Ashbery’s poems. Or Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm. We know so little about the science of dreams, and what we do know seems so meager. Sure, the way the neurons fire inside the tissues of the brain or the rapid eye movements are interesting, but I’m more interested in the strange alchemy that stirs memory, knowledge, the residues of what we perceive with our senses, and whatever it is we mean by what we call the imagination into this living, breathing surrealism of sleep. Sigmund Freud wrote a whole book about interpreting them, but when you read it now, you can tell most of it is trash.

The science is meager. But we have been making art of dreams ever since we started finger-painting animals on cave walls or sharpening reeds to dip in ink to script an alphabet.

Maybe another way of saying it is that what we make takes leave of our dreams, like bread.

When I was young, I talked in my sleep in correspondence to my dreams Often in gibberish. Sometimes so loud it would wake my parents. Now, our firstborn son talks in his sleep, and because I sleep light, I almost always wake to it. And if he goes to bed too late, he will sometimes walk in his sleep, down the stairs to the kitchen or the living room. His eyes open, but sleeping. We’ve learned not to say anything, to quietly guide him back to his bed. When he wakes, he never remembers himself walking. It is a mystery.

Which is also to say, dreams are mysteries. And what we make of dreams is a mystery. And if a dream is a mystery, and if what we make of dreams is a mystery, then an essay is a mystery. Simple logic.

Corinna Cook is from Alaska and writes of Alaska. But the way she writes of it makes it both a state and a dream state, both the glacier and the pebble its scrapes against. This is how words take leave of mysteries.

Of the dream of a man made of ice, Corinna Cook writes: “His presence was somehow free of context, our backstory gone in one clean rinse. I felt only the frictionless synchronicity with which we orbited a shared center of gravity, tracing and retracing one another’s arcs in perfect revolutions. Physics, math, balance. Call it love.”

See what I mean?


Travis Scholl’s current work-in-progress, “Of the Burning,” was recently named a finalist for the Gournay Prize in the 21st Century Essays series. The author of a spiritual memoir, Walking the Labyrinth, he works at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he teaches (among other things) writing and edits the Concordia Journal.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 19, Brooke Champagne: Reading Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling as Yoga for the Writer’s Mind


Setting Intentions (Ujjayi)

This year’s global pandemic gifted me early on with two aspects of myself long recessed: running and poetry.  I began pounding the Tuscaloosa pavement again because my gym closed in the spring, and when it reopened this summer, breathing around other sweaty humans remained ill-advised. I began reading poetry again because I couldn’t focus on any group of words longer than a couple of pages.  Reading the standard-length essay, like the one you’re reading now, became impossible. I needed some truth mainlined quickly and beautifully, the way only poetry obliges.

I’d curtailed running years ago because of a knee injury, and stopped reading poetry because of a more imperceptible injury to my writer’s soul. I couldn’t hack it as a poet. As an essayist, the work was still brutal, but doable, with its ample space to fuck things up—fucking up in essays, in fact, is laudable—and I read less and less poetry because I didn’t want a reminder of my writerly shortcomings. The idea that I could do both well never occurred to me.

Which, given the history of overlap between essays and poetry, is insane. And as a reminder, lately the poet/essayists are popping up everywhere, like so many…like so many Gizmos fed after midnight.  Rather than resenting them for writing two genres beautifully, I’m reading them. In a summer comprised of extra-long runs and extra-short readings, I waded into Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling:  52 Micro-Memoirs, which immediately revealed what years of self-pity obfuscated.  An essayist is a poet is an essayist. Of course essays can be as brief and mainlineable as poems.  And anyway, Fennelly isn’t constrained by genre. Heating and Cooling is a collection of poetic essays forming compressed portraits of her life, dark desires and warm wisdoms and petty jealousies.  All feelings and forms welcome.

And hey, she writes about running! In the midst of reading the book, feeling all woo-woo, we’re-all-leaves-of-grass about my writerly self, my body broke down. First I strained a calf muscle, then re-injured my knee.  (Fennelly gets to be a poet and an essayist and a runner, which I highlight here with zero bitterness). As an imperfect running substitute, I began yoga through Zoom, two modern practices that seem mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, week after week, as I listened to instructors marry poetic Sanskrit with prosaic American pose translations to teach the body how to move mindfully, I persisted.

In the midst of a yoga pose, it doesn’t like I’m doing anything, until I’m nearly finished doing it. For instance, the idea that not setting a clear intention can be intention itself—we shall simply see what this next fifty minutes holds. Once I’m in position for enough time to recognize all the work that’s behind me, the pose is over.  It’s time to move onto the next one.  

Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Arms rest at the sides, palms facing out. Really this pose requires just standing there, a simple enough position that can also, depending on context, make a body feel buck naked. Writing in the first person does the same; it’s at once natural and terrifying. It’s a reckoning with the self:  this is who I am and what I have to give. Ommmm.  I am an asshole who does yoga for exercise, not for the benefits of clarity or oneness.  Let’s dive into the sweaty parts.  I am a person who would rather be running.

From the outset of Heating and Cooling, Fennelly comfortably lays herself bare.  In “I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers,” she writes, “I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.” This early essay, presented fully here, is one of the micro-est of her memoirs, and as in so many others, we settle into the playful conversation between the title and the text. This one-sentence legacy of semi-greatness is a precursor to bigger stories, but the wry wit persists. She stands easily in the essayist’s Mountain.  

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Here I forward-fold and walk my hands outward to make myself an upside-down V, or if I’m feeling poetic, make myself the Charles, the Ponte Vecchio. This pose serves as a refrain for the yoga class, returned to intermittently between other poses, since it’s supposedly among the most effortless. A few weeks ago my son toddled into my Zoom yoga class during Downward Dog, and in his imitative fashion, Downward-Dogged underneath me, creating a double-human-bridge. Having lived so much inside Heating and Cooling lately, I thought of how this image would look through time. For now, I was the bigger bridge protecting him, showing him how it’s done, and soon, before I know it, the metaphorical human bridge he builds underneath will support the psychic and literal weight of tired old me.  

Fennelly’s series of five “Married Love” missives act as the book’s Downward Dogs, interspersed at nearly equal intervals, and show the endearments of a marriage across time. That includes the tenderness of turning on each other’s seat warmers in a cold car, and tenderness of another kind: how best to cool testicles after a vasectomy. As a novice yogi, one of my skepticisms with the practice is its dedication toward centeredness. For me this translates to earnestness, a quality I despise most especially when I find it in myself. Like Fennelly, I want to be able to laugh at all our bodies can do with and for one another, and all we can’t. Even with our heads upside down, ass in air, which is obviously the best time for laughter.  

Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)

This hip-opening pose begs the question, was the human body meant to bend this way? Will I ever be able to de-pretzel my lower leg, currently tucked between my chest and chin, forward-folding over my knee into agony? When my creative writing students struggle with the essay, it’s often because they haven’t yet found the appropriate container, or form, for their content. If the stretch is supposed to center in their hips, their knees are aflame instead. Something is off, and though an instructor can guide them, only the practitioner can figure out how to right themselves.  

Heating and Cooling itself is a lovely container of fifty-two micro-moments from a life well-lived.  That precise number conjures the neat equivalent of weeks in a year, though Fennelly’s container is larger than that. The collection spans a lifetime and suggests an ongoingness of experience, as in “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” It’s the most overtly poem-y piece in the book, written in fragments about the divergence between early “drunk years” of the narrator mother and her daughter, and the now time: the daughter, now a teenager, prefers not to reminisce about her mother feeding her with hands and breasts. Yet the mother insists, despite maybe even her own wishes, upon memorializing their drunk-love first years together, back when, as the mother says, “you’d scrunch smell / toward my milk / blind and earnest / as a worm.” In Pigeon Pose, when opening up the space through which women deliver life, it hurts both when you get the position wrong and when you get it right.  

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

If ever I’m feeling like an overcooked noodle, physically or emotionally, this pose shifts the paradigm to man, fuck nah. Front leg’s bent knee lunges forward, arms poker-straight, reaching in opposite directions, back leg’s straight and strong with toes pointing at a 45-degree angle. Stretching the upper body toward opposite walls with legs rooted to the floor, well, I don’t want to stay here forever, but I’m so goddamn strong I could, if I wanted to.   

While it’s true that as an American woman it is both my legacy and duty to hate my body, this is less the case since I had children. I’ve seen my body in so many permutations, my awe for it has stuck.  During the birth of my daughter, for which I drew up no plan other than “survive,” the nurse asked me as we reached labor’s pushing stage whether or not I wanted a full-length mirror at the foot of my hospital bed to track my progress. Yesgivemeamirror, I breathed, and for the next two hours watched my vagina grow first into the size of a basketball, then morph into the Taj Mahal. Epidural-high, I narrated these metaphors excitedly to my husband and nurse. Maybe the confusion of pain crouching beneath drugs was so disconcerting I had to fill it with addled poetry.

Which brings me to Fennelly’s actual poetry in “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for ‘Weak.’” The context for the title is her narration of the birth of one of her children:  “I’d climbed as far inside me as I could.  Everything else had fallen away.  Midwife, husband, bedroom, world: quaint concepts. My eyes were clamshells.  My ears were clapped shut by the palms of the dead…I was the fox caught in the trap, and I was the trap.” The essay is one of the briefest and most stunning accounts of what a woman and her vagina make and become during childbirth.  As she quips at the end, “I did this without the aid of my hands.” The essay’s title reminds me why I rarely use the word “pussy” in any context.  I prefer “cunt.” It conjures many attributes, but never weakness.  “Cunt” is tree-trunk strong, a word that cuts.

Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana)  

Anyone who can hold this posture for more than ten seconds without shaking has a tree-trunk core.  Here I begin in a seated position and make my upper and lower body into a V, balancing straight legs at a 45-degree angle. The Boat hurts every time, but like repeat childbirth, or childhood trauma, I forget the precise exquisiteness of the pain until I’m inside the moment again.  

If the memoir were a Boat Pose, one half of the body, let’s say waist-up, is scene, and the half below the waist is reflection. This doesn’t require an even split, as some of us have longer torsos, others longer legs, but it’s all about your unique body’s (memoir’s) way of balancing the two.  Throughout Heating and Cooling, Fennelly is a magician of this balance, but perhaps most of all in “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79.” It’s the story of her father endangering both her and her sister’s lives as they trekked for miles, scarfless, to attend an inevitably-closed church during a not-necessarily-survivable Illinois blizzard. The descriptions of the three trudging through the snow is a powerful enough story to necessitate its telling, but it’s the reflection at the end—that for years, Fennelly believed this was a happy memory—and the metaphor of how she’s unwound that scarf of trauma over the years, in how she’s cared for the lives of her children and for herself, that leaves the reader breathless.  

Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

This pose lights glutes afire as I pretend to lower myself down into an invisible chair and…hold.  Right there. But it’s not the burning quads that are discomfiting; there’s no difficulty in getting into the pose. The terrible part of Chair is feeling, what do I look like right now, in this awkward-as-hell position? There’s a Southern lady’s maxim, or maybe it was just my Italian grandmother who believed herself (and this is the power of America) to be White and Southern, that dictates a woman must always leave her house in clean underwear in case she gets into a car accident, lest she be embarrassed in front of the paramedics. Since the height of tragedy would be to have skidmarked or spotted underwear, even while bleeding profusely from the head.  

I’ve never shared her fear, though one of the only reasons I’m scared of dying is all of the unfinished, terrible writing on my computer. Might so many shitty drafts, in the end, become the totality of me?  It’s a fear just as irrational as the Southern lady’s, toward whom I feel superior.  I too worry about how I’ll be perceived, particularly when I’m in an uncomfortable position. Which is where Fennelly finds herself in “Sweet Nothing.” In this essay she wonders whether or not her father deserves a death bed “I love you.” She says the words, but rather than saying them for him, she says it aloud for the sake of her future self, who warrants no regrets. She hovers over an uncomfortable truth about herself, and holds it, holds it…right there.

Dancer’s Pose (Natarajasana)

Balance on one leg, slowly lift the other leg behind you while leaning forward at the hip with the balance-side arm extended forward. It’s usually one of the later balance poses, since it’s a tough one.  In Dancer’s Pose, I always imagine handing something over to an invisible someone, because if I give my arm a purpose, I might stop thinking to myself, don’tfalldon’tfalldon’tfall. In “Orange-Shaped Hole,” Fennelly hands readers the memory of a woman she met decades ago at a party of London intellectuals who, for no discernable reason, threw an orange through a closed window, creating a mess that someone later, unromantically, must have had to clean up. Fennelly asks of herself now, “Why, at nineteen, did that strike me as the height of glamour? And why—this is even harder to parse—why, remembering it now, does it still?” The genius of this essay is that when she’s considering the tenor of the memory, how and why we remember what we do, she proffers the orange as a gift, questioning how or if we’ll even remember it.

While prepping for Dancer a few weeks ago, my instructor said the pose’s name in Sanskrit: Natarajansana. Repeating it in my head, it sounded vaguely like a combination of the words for orange and apple in Spanish: naranja y manzana. These words conjured memories of how as a mixed-race child, I was sometimes embarrassed to learn Spanish alongside English. My White grandmother constantly warned that learning two languages would make me stupid (so much for the Silent Generation); my Ecuadorian grandmother told me my White one could come miedra. I don’t remember when I learned about cognitive dissonance, or if I’m constantly relearning it, even as I write this essay. Like the idea that being two things at once is actually okay.  A steadfast non-dancer can do Dancer’s Pose. It’s acceptable to be a runner who can’t run, a writer who can’t write poetry. With her essay, Fennelly gifted me a memory within a memory of an orange, which bled into a naranja, and now, holding this pose, I’m gifting both of them to you. Aqui esta tu naranja.

Corpse Pose (Savasana) 

When yoga instructors claim this is the most difficult part of the class, they are lying. Corpse is just a low-key mini-coda allowing a mother like me for once in her damn day to lie on her back and do nothing. We’re encouraged to think about all the work we’ve done through class…or not. Empty the mind, open the chakras, instructors prompt, or maybe it’s an inversion of those verbs. I don’t know. For those last ten minutes, I sleep.

The last piece from Heating and Cooling, “Addendum to ‘Salvage,’” references an earlier essay in which Fennelly’s father-in-law, an octogenarian and salt-of-the-earth mechanic for sixty years (and to whom, along with her husband, her book is dedicated), laments missing several of his teeth, but balks at replacing them. Teeth are a great expense, and he isn’t sure how much more use he’ll get out of them. Still, he says, “All’s I need’s enough to chew a steak.” In “Addendum,” Fennelly acknowledges that with the earnings from a considerable literary contest prize, she bought her father-in-law one tooth. Though there’s much generosity in this moment, there’s little art to it. And that is the point. This final piece illustrates the stunningly simple truth that all the tough and lovely work of getting here can earn tooth money. It’s not a moment to sleep through, but it doesn’t require overthinking, either. Good words win teeth. That’s both a warm thought, and a cool one.  


The translation of the phrase ending every yoga class is nearly universal: the light within me recognizes the light within you.  We conclude in a bow, from me to you. This is also what the best essayists do. They show us who they are in such crystalline pieces that we paradoxically feel seen just by doing the seeing. The call to look at another’s life asks that we look more deeply into our own. This is the gift that, in short order, Fennelly and other poet/essayists grant us.  

Heating and Cooling contemplates why and how we remember what we remember, and how the art of remembrance, in all its flaws and joys, shows us how to live in the now. Reading this collection does for the mind what the best yoga classes can do for the body. The light it shines in me is the idea that I started this essay saying, and really believing, that I quit poetry because I couldn’t hack it. This is only partly true. It’s also true that once I discovered the miracle of the essay, I fell in love with all it could be, and what it could make of me.

I certainly bow to Fennelly. But doing yoga during this pandemic has forced me to say Namaste to myself. I can run again when I’m ready, maybe even someday return to the poem, but for now, in front of the mirror before which I perform my flawed poses, I end each yogic attempt, or essay, by bowing to me, too.


Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for “Exercises,” published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019, and was a finalist for the 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction for her “Bugginess,” published in The Chattahoochee Review. Recent essays are forthcoming in Barrelhouse and The Fourth River. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face, and her memoir about her Ecuadorian grandmother, Lala.