Monday, February 24, 2020

Maddie Norris on Bodies Built for Game

Last year, I stopped asking for invites to watch sports with men. There used to be a group that watched basketball every week, and I’d mention how much I loved the game, how I followed my favorite players from college to the NBA, how A’ja Wilson went to my high school and my friends won state. “You should watch with us,” they’d say, and then every week they would watch without me.
     I kept watching alone, on my small computer screen, texting my mother about no-look passes and deep threes. Sometimes women or non-binary friends who knew nothing about the game would watch with me, but most of them weren’t bred with sports, so they did it for me and not the game. I watched women’s college soccer, the NWSL, men’s college basketball, and women’s college basketball alone in my four-hundred-square-foot casita. I yelled at the screen, clapped so hard my hands turned pink, and sometimes, when we lost, I cried.  I loved sports too much to do without them, but I missed sitting with friends who understood what the body felt when it arced a stepover, when it pump-faked then shot, when it dug into, against, through another body.
     Over Christmas, I went to a USC women’s basketball game with my mother and my high school friend Caitlin. Mom goes to every home game by herself (find her behind the visitor’s bench on TV), and Caitlin once envisioned playing in college before she tore her ACL. When we watched that game, we fell into one another when a three-pointer swished, we pushed each other’s shoulders when a block shot into the stands, we hollered so loud for a “Woman Up!” T-shirt; we felt love. As we walked to our cars we talked about the bronze statue of A’ja that would be built soon. We went to a mostly white high school, where white girls won prom queen and homecoming queen, but on the court, it was Caitlin, Chelsea, and A’ja. On the court, Black girls won. As we walked to our cars, past the spot where A’ja would soon be cast in metal, Caitlin said, “I love all these folks bowing down to a woman, and not just a woman, but… a tall woman.” We laughed, but it was true: a Black woman was the pride of South Carolina. The complicating factor is that it was the body of the Black woman that was the pride of SC, not necessarily the woman herself.
     The next day, as I considered the beauty and violence of sports, I started reading Bodies Built for Game. Before I finished Natalie Diaz’s introduction, I knew the book was something special. Diaz weaves between the reality of the sport that made her and the sport that breaks so many. As I write this, trying to summarize her introduction to a 300+ page anthology, I realize I’m doing it a disservice. There is no way to piece apart the way Diaz writes about race, gender, community, and violence. There is no way to watch sports without touching the strings that weave together the whole net.
     Still, I want to watch the highlight reel.
     A yellow transistor radio tucked into a windbreaker, “the carved canyon of the Bighorn River like a vein on the land,” a mid-air switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed one. In “Takes Enemy,” Shann Ray immerses us in the tradition of exceptional Native high school basketball players from Montana. We see the details, the particulars of the game. We feel systemic racism pour over everything. We understand this is an elegy for the greats, for Tim Falls Down, Marty Round Face, and Max and Luke Spotted Bear, for Joe Pretty Paint, Juneau Plenty Hawk, and Willie Gardner, for Fred and Paul Deputee, and for Jonathan Takes Enemy, among others. “All I loved,” writes Ray, “all I watched with wonder—and few got free.”
     In “After Simone Manuel’s Olympic Victory in the Women’s 100m Freestyle,” the speaker’s swim coach calls Manuel’s win a “beast.” The medal ceremony isn’t aired on NBC. The commentators don’t mention how historic a moment it is. And Lauren Espinoza asks Don’t you see what it means when you call that accomplishment beast-like? Don’t you know how many Black and Brown people have been drowned by white people? Don’t you know white people threw acid on Black men and women to get them out of swimming pools? We see the violence that undergirds the win, that is inherent in that single word: beast.
     Saretta Morgan talks with Christina Olivares, a queer Cuban American poet, about boxing. Olivares explains the many ways she inhabits in-between spaces as a mixed, bilingual woman who grew up poor and attended Amherst. This in-betweenness can allow for communities in different places, but it can also lead to a wariness from those rooted in a single-specific identity. Boxing, on the other hand, is all about connection, about community. The in-betweenness can contribute to a feeling of disorientation relating to the body, but the sport ties the self to the body, forging a reconnection between the mental and the physical. In the ring, there is a stable reality between two fighters; there’s antagonism, sure, two people wanting to dominate the other, but it is “rich, complicated, and useful.” It’s two people pushing each other, exposing the other’s faults, leading to the growth of both fighters.
     Anson Dorrance, head coach of UNC women’s soccer, calls his reserves game-changers; it’s a rare team that merits the term, but the squad earned it. Here, in this anthology, every piece is a game-changer. They can stand alone, each poem, essay, and short story strong, breath-taking, illuminating, but they are clearly a part of the larger team. I mentioned the length of the anthology earlier because it strikes me that every single page is one worth reading. Every piece is vital. It feels silly, futile to try to summarize the magic of the anthology. The score says little of the game; ask the players, the coach, the fans instead.
     So maybe this is the true review: after I finished Diaz’s introduction, I sent the pdf to Caitlin. “Maddie,” she said, “this broke me…I literally needed this. Right now. In this moment.” I think we all do.


Maddie Norris, the recipient of Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, was the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction. Her work can be found in Territory, Essay Daily, and Opossum, among others. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about the death of her father, niche medical history, and the pitfalls of romantic love.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Bridges, Unlike Rules, are Better Unbroken: Karen Lloyd in Conversation with Nicole Walker

Karen Lloyd: When I started out on this journey of writing essays, I now understand that I had a majorly inadequate idea of what an essay was, and how it can behave differently to other forms of prose. A few years down the line, I have a much greater sense of what the essay is and what it can do; how it can perform. The learning has been steep but surprising and at times really energizing. Sometimes I’m deep in the process of writing and out of the blue there’s a lightbulb moment; about how exactly I can structure this essay, because of something that rises up from the depths. Or there might be a moment of fission that leads me towards the form of another essay. And sometimes even a single word can ignite ideas about form. I’m thinking of a word like ‘filamentous’, and how the writing itself can be filamentous, stretching here and meandering over there and coming back home again to the body of the essay.

Something that I really like about your writing is your use of metaphor. They are frequently extended and, well, filamentous. Themes and ideas recur numerous times throughout your work; I’m not aware of having seen this approach before, or not quite so coherently done anyway. And this came to be really important to me in the Creative Writing PhD that I’m undertaking at the moment. The way you structured Sustainability: A Love Story, became the single most influential book of essays in my supporting research, helping me to understand how it is possible to create internal and external rhymes within a single essay or within a sequence; how one can link or resonate with another and then another, rather than existing in isolation.

From this side of the Atlantic, it feels as there’s a particular aesthetic to much North American writing, but I feel that your work stands apart from this; it feels like its very own thing. Reading your work, nothing feels laboured; it feels spontaneous, but then there’s also this element of control and intention, and I wondered how aware you are of working like this. Are you working like this? Or am I miles wide of the mark here?

There’s an ongoing theme of consumption in your work. As parents we provide for our families, but now, with the reality of the climate crisis having entered the mainstream, (at last..) every choice that we make has a consequence. Your essays engage with the to and fro between the world and your writing, which I really like. You never allow humans off the hook; or yourself for that matter. You’re sometimes very hard on yourself, and this is very comforting to me. Even on holiday (for goodness sake,) as in your essay "Abundance or Scarcity: A Tribute to Not Knowing Which is Which," you are constantly watching your own actions—from the food choices made in the shop to the sunscreen you’re not supposed to use because of the effects of its chemicals on the acidity of the ocean and the dying of the coral reefs; everything is laden with meaning and the impact of human activity.

Meanwhile, the fish in the sea and the whales and the sharks carry on doing their thing, and the earth as a character, and as itself, is morally neutral. Was it your original intention to present yourself as a central character; one that is utterly fallible? Should we allow ourselves off the hook? Or by taking yourself to task, is what you are really saying that it’s the human race that is under scrutiny?

Nicole Walker: First of all, I am so grateful to you for reading Sustainability and these newer essays and for your description of my work. Perhaps my reaction to your generous comments can lead to how to answer your questions. My first response is to put the words away. I immediately close the laptop. On the one hand, I can’t read that much kindness. I don’t deserve it. On the other hand, I want to preserve the moment—you know, as a writer, that instances of deep appreciation are far and few between. This connects to your question about utter fallibility. In writing, one is supposed to have “authority.” The word “author” derives from such a concept. But authority has always been a troubling concept to me. Authority seems monolithic and impenetrable. In the braided essay, weaving back and forth between multiple ideas is to penetrate—to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge. I am envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting. Sure, one moment I know something but the next, I surely don’t. This relates to climate change. “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think.

I think we should both let ourselves off and hang ourselves hard upon the hook. Climate change is both our fault and also the organic extension of humans’ flaws and gifts. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. And, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. Perhaps what I see you getting at is thinking about where “here” is. Perhaps by scrutinizing where we are, the details of place, the specifics of where we stand, we can make more grist, more stuff of the relationship between us and here, maybe even eventually seeing that the Human Race and the Place are one in the same thing. We and the planet hang together and, you’re right, the planet can get along fine without us but not so much the other way around. So it’d be nice to be nice to the nice, as Frank Burns said on MASH. 

One thing I love about your poem, "Genesis" (at the end of this post) is the way you incorporate IKEA, God, and the Mariana Trench. To me, this is how we show that humans and nature or humans and planet are not separate. The thingy-ness of this world is “of this world” and connecting those things in one poem or one essay makes them planar. In your essay “Human Resilience Training,” you weave together the importance of swimming to you personally, the incredible, natural description of the damselfly, and then the toxic effects of algae blooms. You write that “The Environment Agency and the Lake District National Park tell us that the algal bloom is a naturally occurring phenomenon. This is true, in the same way that cholera is a naturally occurring phenomenon. They tell us this because they do not want us to worry.” So here shows the planet/nature not caring about the humans or the dogs that may be in the way of a natural algae bloom. However, we know that it’s often human activity, like industrial agricultural processes, that create these algae blooms. Humans disrupt nature but are themselves extensions of nature.

Sometimes, I think we deserve what we get. But I most assuredly don’t think the damselfly or other creatures deserve what “we” dish out. Humans work paradoxically. “A few miles up the road, the village of Staveley is one of my cycling destinations. I can stop at the café and drink coffee and eat cakes. I can read a book whilst also affecting to lose weight by cycling and work by eating cakes and reading.” Can these paradoxes be useful in changing human nature? Or our consumerist conditioning, at least? Even if the earth is neutral about humans, and if humans are an extension of earth, is it in our “nature” to just go about our human-y ways? Do we have to change our nature to “save” nature?
In Human Resilience Training you describe Storm Desmond’s destructive powers. Roads washed away, emergency services taxed to the nth degree, the water rising right outside your front door. I love this scene you describe.
In our sitting room a slow, bulging accumulation of water had inveigled its way inside the structure of the house and gathered in a big pregnant swag above the bay window. At any moment, the ceiling paper might have burst. I fetched a knife and a bucket and stood on a chair and stabbed a hole in the paper to relieve the pressure. It was a relief to relieve the pressure. Later, I joined the paper back together with glue and painted it over, but I know the flaw remains.
I’m sure “love” isn’t the right word but, since I imagine that the water has receded and the ceiling has been re-drywalled and re-painted, I do love how this scene is so narrative, so alive, so visible. I wonder if what differs between climate change writing and “nature” writing, is that there is scene, drama, events. There’s also, as you show here, humor. I wonder if these are tools we can and should use to draw people to pay attention to the emergency of climate change? I also wonder if, without the emergency, readers would be farther and fewer between?

KL: A couple of things. First, I think all this interest in nature/environmental writing is actually a product of people having finally realised how alienated they had become from that world, rather than having been provoked by climate issues. Secondly, yes -humour! Where would we be without it. Without humour maybe what we are (well, me anyway, definitely,) are a couple of moaning Minnie’s, banging on... In "Abundance and Scarcity," we get this; ‘I get back to the house and the wine is all gone. So is the ice. I’ve lost my water bottle. My step-grandmother-in-law is sitting by me at the table while I consider whether to go into town for some wine or whether to learn to love tequila. Does my laziness trump my predilections? I love wine so much. I get another beer.’ and ‘twenty-five cases of beer, four liters of tequila, one liter of vodka, one of rum, two fifths of Glen Fiddich and five bottles of wine. There are seventeen of us. That’s more than one case of beer per person, but it is I who sees the lack here. Five bottles of wine for a group of seventeen whose last trip was to wine country?’ It’s so marvellously saying look! I’m just a regular person! I might be picky about plastic straws, but I’m damn well going to enjoy myself!

NW: I do have some priorities right! This question leads me to my last question. You speak of the crushing loss of a world you’ll never see again and living in a country that has abandoned its progressive promise, “They voted for a Prime Minister who has been shown to tell lie after lie: who doesn’t care sufficiently about our childrens’ futures to take the climate emergency seriously nor take part in the televised climate debate. A Prime Minister who is uber-privileged, self-righteous, disgustingly dishonest; leading those who are unable to see into a future that is uncertain at best, potentially disastrous.” It’s impossible to live in so much disappointment. You begin the essay with such incredible images of the “etiolated flock of fieldfares and thrushes” and other vivid details which predicts the turn in mood of the essay:
Recently, I asked my elder son what on earth he makes of the state of the world, and what he says is not the gloom of my own forecasting. He tells me that he thinks it’s a fascinating time to be alive. I am in awe, and humbled. I wish I had his sense of calm and his optimistic outlook.
My last question is how can we balance a sense of hope and excitement for the world while still acknowledging the disasters burning around us? And, to take us back to the earlier questions about paradox, perhaps it is in the delight that we’ll find the way through the disaster?

KL: In 2019, the Guardian newspaper decided to re-designate the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate crisis;’ I decided to follow suit. I wonder if it’s possible then, to talk about a crisis in writing? I’m interested in why you have ‘begun to be careful about using the term climate crisis—as opposed to change. It’s unequivocal that it’s a crisis. but not essay—it can change—but can it be in crisis? I think it’s fascinating to think of the essay—or at the very least—writing, as being in crisis. It feels to me as if much British nature writing is indeed in crisis; ‘nature’ has become this separated place where writers go to recover from any number of internal problems; mental health: to ‘find’ their sexuality: to recover from alcoholism etc etc. For me this kind of approach perpetuates the idea of nature being something entirely separate from us; it’s where we go when the processes of the industrialised world catch up with us—and to coin a British term—‘do our heads in.’ What essayists like you are doing in Sustainability, or Jonathan Franzen in The End of the End of the Earth, is what David Foster-Wallace described as being “an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.” You are that eyeball, consuming the world by close looking.

You say that “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think. And yes, you and me and Mr Franzen are saying, we’re all implicated, and that we all need to act and change the thinking we’ve grown up with; that it’s no longer fine and dandy to carry on. (Oh how we carry on…) But unless governments engage pretty soon, there’s not a great deal of impact that individuals can have.

I hear you saying that you’re ‘envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting.’ But isn’t the ground continuously shifting underneath us? Isn’t there a continuum of shift—both in the climate and in the essay? I think I’d feel more concerned if I thought the ground wasn’t shifting. I want to stand on the tectonic plates of the climate and of language and observe where and how they carry me, like some freakishly slow surf dude. Here I’ll mention the way you question the idea of authority, as something other than being authorial—or marshalling—as something that serves ‘to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge.’ But as essayists, don’t we also become authorial through our unadulterated greed—consuming everything that presents itself during our research, then chucking half of it overboard. My wanton excesses are the plastic gunge-islands that gyre away from redrafted essays. (We should meet up there sometime..)

Another way of giving and—through the lens of the reader—receiving, authority, is through the structure of the braided essay. In High Pressure Systems you twine the story of a series of devastating fires, with the individual disaster that your aunt’s life became. Both elements include brutal realism; landscapes take years to recover from fires: the threat to communities. Then your aunt’s bruises, her lost teeth, the falls; a relationship that’s so far gone it’s passed the tipping point. The lag in the system; recovery as the only thing it sometimes is; a disappearing. Fires happen. Clouds change their behaviour and chemical reactions change sand into glass. Then there’s this strange sequence where people just keep going as normal:
The neighborhood is moved to “Set” mode. Neighbors pack their photo albums and birth certificates in the car. It’s strangely calm—people still go to work. My son Max’s summer camp is still on although the Museum of Northern Arizona canceled my friend Gretchen’s youngest son’s camp. It looks like a war zone when you get close to the fire. It sounds like one from here.
There’s a matter of factness to your writing here, and then the chaos of what we’ve done to the climate:
It’s hard to make a case to the monsoon: come now. We need you today. We needed you yesterday. But now that the monsoon has arrived, blanketing the mountain in moisture, the fire managers become flood managers. They could have trained the fire. It’s impossible to train rain. Still, they try. They’re pulling cement barriers to organize the water to flow west. We’re packing sandbags for the neighbors to layer against their thresholds.’ 
What I see here is the writer maintaining control of her writing, which in many ways, is about all we can do.

NW: I guess that is what way to ride out the shifting ground--write like we're surfing. I wonder if that counts as proper prioritizing.

KL: I need to qualify something I said earlier. It’s about Callum, my eldest. We talked again the other day in the car, and I told him how humbled I’d been by his response to the climate and political inaction (narcolepsy?) that even now, engulfs the world. Cal is a pragmatist. He sees it all rolling on, and he doesn’t like what he sees. But he’s staying with this idea of fascination. I think we all need to stay with it too.

NW: Cheers to that.



Karen Lloyd

And on the seventh day, God sat back in his IKEA Poang
chair, lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings that travelled
miraculously in sequence across the skies.
And when the ash tip fell it fell as gritty smuts that set
the ancient Californian forests on fire and all the crews
fought the fires but after weeks of this were too exhausted
to continue. And even when the flames were extinguished,
they flickered like electricity underneath the surface
of the earth, bursting out momentarily in the Mariana trench
before the ocean ate them, then burst out again in Tasmania
where they became the very devil.
And families fled the flames that ate their timber houses
like a Komodo dragon eats a lizard and one particular
family ran to the water and became six bobbing blonde
heads and a dog underneath the jetty,
while around them, everything burned.

And I do not blame God, even though in Genesis
he tells us that everything is for our use and our use only;
all the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky
and all the creeping things that creepeth along
the ground and the fracking companies and Shell Oil
and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,
the thousands of sea birds ruined, all the
laughing gulls and the diving gannets and the pelicans
waiting to be cleaned – again – and for all the world
are like a Pieta; oh, how they are fallen!

Back in the clouds, God begins to hear voices;
they rise into the atmosphere from every corner of the Earth
and some of them speak in tongues and tell us
this is not climate change or the consequences
of our habits upon the planet.
God removes a shred of tobacco from his lip,
considers it for a moment, then stubs out the cigarette
and, vowing to give up – again - rises from his chair
and remembers some of the things his mother
taught him, because mothers are the fount
of all knowledge. He goes into the kitchen,
fetches a bucket, some cloths and a Brillo pad
and wearily, begins to clean.

Karen Lloyd lives in South Cumbria. Her first book, The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay (Saraband 2014) was included in The Observer’s top books of 2016 and won the Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards. Her latest book, The Blackbird Diaries—A Year with Wildlife (Saraband 2017), explores the wildlife in her garden in addition to issues of land use and species loss, and is also a prizewinning publication. She is a contributor to Guardian Travel, BBC Wildlife, and Countryfile magazines amongst others. Her poetry has been published by Corbel Stone Press, Zoomorphic and in the This Place I Know anthology (Handstand Press 2018). Karen is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University where her thesis is a book of essays exploring abundance and loss in the natural world. She is the initiator of the ‘Reimagining the Lake District Uplands’ project—a partnership between Lancaster University and the University of Cumbria to explore and implement ways of improving biodiversity in the uplands in a time of climate crisis.
Nicole Walker is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books/OSU Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and directs the MFA Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Kathryn Winograd on the Intimacies of Revision

Leonard Winograd’s essay,” The Physics of Sorrow,” appears in River Teeth Journal: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Issue 21. For readers with access to Project Muse, you can read it here. Or, even better, subscribe to River Teeth here.
“Why don’t you write an essay?” I ask the husband I found at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop over 35 years ago. We had just floated on the updraft for a few months of a congratulatory email from the literary office of the O’Neill Theater: his play, Birdsong, a semifinalist for its 2019 National Playwrights Conference. But given that there were 200 semifinalists out of 1400 submissions, we were back in the existential drift of thirty some years of teaching writing to the inner city community college students the husband wanted to teach and our shared raising of “Frick and Frack,” twins beloved since their first smudges on that ghostly sonogram so many years ago. “You’re a shoe-in.”
     I had only made this point for decades and received, as always, a grumbling from the reluctant husband, “But I like to write plays.”
     Then he did it, emailing me a four-page single-spaced soliloquy on the baneful retirement he had experienced these last couple of years, a retirement seemingly entrenched in the Theatre of the Absurd for its sycophantic adherence to the worse clichés:
     “Retirement?” his unknowing friends would laugh. “Why? You just get sick and die.”
     But now the reluctant husband had written an essay on retirement he titled, “Retirement,” which would propel us into an intimacy of revision I had never experienced before in my decades of teaching undergraduates and graduates how to write and, more importantly, to rewrite.
     “Find the hot spots,” I would always say, without ever really knowing what the exact hot spots might be in these writings of hopeful students who lent me their printed souls for a semester or two. But now I intimately knew this ringer of a “student,” whom I had once watched from the back of a film truck ride his beloved bike through Houston, Texas in the early dawn hours because a city magazine wanted to feature his essay (the first and only essay for a magazine he had ever written) on his life-long love of bikes, a magazine that would unbelievably go out of business just before printing his essay. And I was a character in this writing drama. And I had grown as a mentor, too, from the terminology of “hot spots” to the language of the lyric essay, its “frames” and “threads” I first learned of from Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction.


The reluctant husband had taught composition and rhetoric longer than I did, distilling at times from the half-drawn images of his students’ essay drafts the duende that the poet Lorca describes as “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore." Despite the proverb to the contrary, the good teacher IS the good “doer.” He had drafted his essay perfectly: creative nonfiction is about the journey, not the thesis, so, yes, throw the editor out the window and just write. But then the task of discovering and crafting the essay begins, and it begins with finding the essay’s organic frame and threads.
     “This is a list of everything that sucks about retirement,” I said. The reluctant husband shrugged. “Now we find the frame,” I said.
     The poet/essayist Carmon Gimenez Smith gave me the idea of highlighting in different colors every possible “thread” in the reluctant husband’s essay. She once described to me that in the writing of her memoir, Bringing Down the Birds, which won an American Book Award, how she filled her walls with different colored stickie notes to help her keep visual track of the threads in her book. I did the same with “Retirement” (the reluctant husband a reluctant techie as well), using the highlighting tool in Word and making my way through almost all its color selections. The reluctant husband had almost ten different subjects that could possibly be expanded into threads throughout his retirement essay, ranging from the universe to black holes to fear of fire to dead girl friends to health issues to fixing up our suburban house to whirling dog disease to buying new lamps for the fish tank. (Really?)

     But out of all those highlight colors—the blues, greens, reds, pinks, purples and the browns—one color stood out: the light blue of the beginning paragraphs on the Event Horizon Telescope and its mission to view a black hole and either buttress or weaken Einstein’s theory of gravity. Of all the possible threads that could be made into the main frame of “Retirement,” the black hole was the one thread the husband repeated in the draft and it had the most interesting potential for—and I’ll go back to Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo’s excellent book, Tell It Slant, for its language—“ [diffusing] some of the inward focus of creative nonfiction. . . not leaving the self behind, but perhaps sublimating it in order to discover anew the subjects the world has to offer.” In addition, I knew that bringing in that dimension of the outside world would create the possibility of metaphor, metaphor, as the poet Edward Hirsch calls it, “a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things” that ultimately leads the reader into “meaning making” and “the sacred mysteries of poetry.” Or, for our purposes, “essay.”
     The reluctant husband’s first draft began this way:
Supposedly, someday soon, The Event Horizon Telescope is going to release the first picture ever of a black hole. I’m very curious about this, even anxious. 
That opening sentence, with its little add-on of “even anxious,” already hooked the outside world to the fragile inner world of the reluctant husband. It’s the first weld of a frame that would reconstruct this soliloquy, this laundry list of “retirement gone awry,” phrase by phrase into a beautiful meditation on personal and universal black holes. The half-spark of that eventual transformation was within yet another unexplored opening statement: In my own tiny way, I know what they’re trying to do. In that first draft’s compilation of “this happened and then this happened” is the germ of metaphor, the black hole reintroduced in a tiny concluding paragraph where the reluctant husband just mentions what had been a thunderous event for us—still only seen by him as through that biblical glass “darkly”—our beloved daughter experiencing two grand mal seizures on New Year’s Eve day:
. . . maybe it’s inside her, inside all of us, some dark monster we try to hold back, repress, some black hole waiting until the right time to come out and show itself? 
     The black hole, returned – internalized, monstrous.


Here’s the intimacy of revision I knew that I could never have experienced with my past students: the piles of astronomy magazines gathering dust on our coffee tables and the reluctant husband, a passionate armchair astronomer and physicist, spending the last few years pouring over the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration and the mysteries of the black hole, a phenomenon predicted mathematically by his hero, Albert Einstein, in his theory of relativity. And I knew that our world had been rocked by our daughter’s completely out of the blue seizures and our being trapped, as we had been, in a snow storm, in a cabin, hours away. Clearly in this first draft, the reluctant husband had intuited the metaphorical implications of the black hole; what he had to do now was to construct this frame of the black hole throughout the essay in order to discover what threads lay within and without the scope of it. And in doing so, that dark monster would earn its place.
     “Write more about the black hole and spread it throughout your essay,” I said. This time the reluctant husband grunted rather than shrugged and disappeared quickly into the basement, draft in hand. To weld the whole frame, he had to develop and extend the black hole, literally and figuratively, throughout his essay by widening the scope of his research and splitting that research and his reflections on what he discovered throughout the essay. Why do that? Because language has plasticity; it’s malleable: words carry their little cargos of denotative and connotative meanings and collect more and more allusions, more symbolism, more urgency as they are repeatedly pushed against other words. And, at the same time, the reader’s mind that wants order will shape that order out of what seems impossibly linked. The reluctant husband had already begun the transformation of black holes into an extended metaphor that could sustain the piece. Black holes, Event Horizon, Einstein: personal angst moved to the universal and then back again. He just had to find the right “blocking”—to borrow a theatre term.
     After a brief intermission, the reluctant husband returned with his revised essay, no longer titled “Retirement,” but now “The Physics of Sorrow,” and my stint as “advisor” quickly devolved into spectator as I watched him take his essay through astounding leaps because of not only the framing he found at the macro level, but, later, what he found at the micro level. The two blue highlights for black hole in the original draft had increased to over ten. The black hole deepened as image and symbol because of the transformative science the reluctant husband added to the essay: a more in-depth description of the Event Horizon Telescope process; an allusion to an astronomy program’s “How the Universe Works” description of black holes as “eaters” that prevent everything from escaping; a description of the clash over black holes between Einstein’s “elegant” theory of gravity (general relativity) and the chaotic jumble of quantum mechanics; reflections on the lure of the black hole and the information paradox that states information can never be lost except past the event horizon where everything is gone forever; and, finally, the startling scientific supposition that we already live in a black hole.
     “I knew I’d figured it out then,” the no longer reluctant husband said, every bit of scientific information ripe for a grieving father’s metaphors.

     Science transformed by a father’s anguish into metaphor now takes what might have been a small thing on the laundry list and spins it out into the universal, into the philosophical. In finding the organic frame of the black hole and then braiding the research throughout the essay, the husband discovered what was essential and what was, metaphorically speaking, just “laundry.” Now, when we did the highlighting, we discovered that the whirling dog, the fear of traveling, and even those new lamps for the fish tank had vanished. And as those threads raveled, new threads and images appeared that the husband wove into this tapestry of physics and sorrow: my father lost in the black hole of Alzheimer’s; our daughter’s boss killed in an avalanche and his four-year-old daughter saying that “he lives in her heart” to comfort her weeping mother, as if there is no event horizon within a child; and, the last surprise, vacuuming.
     The frame revealed to the husband on the macro level which travesty of his retirement really was the central force to be reckoned with: our daughter who, alone, confronted the horror of an inner black hole and who, alone, will always carry that looming specter within her. Kitty’s seizure had just been part of the husband’s long laundry list, part of the “Some examples” in that first draft. Now the duende of its presence flared:
And in this comical catalogue of grief, here’s the real capper, the crushing singularity to my first retired year. 
     “The Physics of Sorrow” had frame and centrifugal force on the macro level. But there was more crafting to be done because metaphors, extended metaphors, shape themselves through repetition, through that weaving together of seemingly disparate language by phrase, by image, half-image, even single word. So often my students have told me, “I don’t want to repeat myself;” “I don’t want to keep ‘reflecting’ and ‘explaining’ things.” In witnessing the husband’s revision, I realized that the very act of repetition is what forges the deep context of a piece, its crushing backdrop. The husband’s language of fire-proofing a house, so benign in its first usage, deepens when later juxtaposed with a helpless father trying to understand how the unknown can so afflict a daughter:
All their lives we tried to shelter and protect them, insulate them from the encroaching fires. Where was that insulation now, those wall anchors, that siding wrapping the house, that defensible perimeter, keeping the darkness, the flames out, keeping the cracks, the rot from infiltrating?
     All through “The Physics of Sorrow” now, unlike the original “Retirement,” the language of metaphor looks back and complicates, finds in this mire the language of Lorca’s duende—monster, perimeter, ordered, chaos, prayers in the crack, prayerless cracks, eyepiece of the telescope, vortex, whirling, draining, lost, taken apart, gone forever, threshold of house, of cabin, of event horizon. When we highlighted the threads once more, including the tiny snippets woven together through even individual paragraphs, the visual tapestry was a kaleidoscope of colliding colors.


Revision is an act of intimacy. It is a process of craft, a process of heart. The writer bears down into what he had originally, intrinsically, only touched on, and did not yet fully know. And that knowing, when it happens, makes its presence felt in even the smallest changes: an added phrase for context at the start of an essay, “Since I retired,” or a change of phrasing from “smelling gas” to “smelling something burning” that links inner fires to outer fires, or the heightening of a transition from “Maybe it’s all the solitude, introspection that darkens things” to an allusion—here, to King Lear, Shakespeare another passion of the husband’s—“The mortal smell hasn’t only come off me”. Or, more heartbreakingly, through the switch from a throw-away cliché like “a kick in the teeth” to a father’s cry against the blackest of holes: “And yet, and yet, it is Kitty, Kitty, who has incomparably suffered the most.”
     The essayist husband “gets it” now; no longer reluctant, he is in the machine of the gods, Deus ex Machina. And that old ending of fish tank lights and us holding hands beneath a pitiless dark has vanished, rightfully, beyond the event horizon. And in its place, an image, an image I will leave you to discover the meaning of when you read the husband’s essay, which is neither the sermon nor the moral my students often rally toward, but just a rug and a man vacuuming.


Kathy Winograd is a Colorado essayist and poet. She is the author of two essay collections, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, forthcoming from Saddle Road Press (March 2020), Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, finalist for the Foreword Review Indies Book of the Year contest, and a book of poetry, Air Into Breath, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. She currently teaches creative nonfiction and poetry for the Regis Mile High MFA program. Find more at

Monday, January 20, 2020

Kathryn Waring: the Case for Lyric Journalism

In March 2018, on my first day of spring break from graduate school, I was alone, driving my Hyundai Elantra on I-84 outside Scranton. A freak nor’easter had just rolled in. Snow drifted over the interstate. My GPS was dead, cell networks were out, and I had no idea where I was going. A fog of snow darkened the road to the point I could only see the taillights of the truck in front of me. When the truck exited onto I-380 South, I followed—into the Poconos. The road closed; traffic crept to a halt. We were stuck: unable to move forward, unable to go back.
     Being stuck in the snow felt like an apt, if cliché, metaphor. At the time, I was on my way from my home in Pittsburgh to the New York State Archives in Albany to see some documents on the Craig Colony for Epileptics. For the past four years I had been researching the history of this colony—the first such place for epileptics in the United States—and it was all I could think about. But the further along I got in my research, the more difficult it became to push the stories I found into a cohesive narrative. I couldn’t forget what I’d learned and move forward with my life, but neither could I answer the questions I had about this place to the degree I wanted.
     Three-and-a-half hours of sitting on the interstate later, a plow appeared. A police officer waved me down the nearest exit, pointing through the white curtain to a bridge. A truck stop was on the other side, he said, though when I skidded into the parking lot a few minutes later I found it was really just a Burger King attached to a gas station.
     Hundreds of cars swelled into the parking lot throughout the night. In the middle of a remote stretch of mountains, we found solace at the only gas station for miles. Inside, I grabbed the last available chair and settled in for a long stay.


A few years ago, back when I was researching MFA programs, I stumbled across Peter Trachtenberg’s faculty profile at the University of Pittsburgh. In it, he describes a style of writing he calls lyric journalism, which he defines as writing that “combines hard research and reporting with a fluid, associative narrative.” I’d never heard this term before. While I was intrigued, I resisted the label for my own work. At the time, I thought of journalism as a necessary but unartful medium. I hadn’t yet been introduced to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or any of the other journalists writing eloquently and incisively about important issues. I didn’t yet correlate the legacy of essayists like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe working a beat to make a living but still bringing all the artistry and lyricism of their personal work into their reportage. No, “journalism”—even “lyric journalism,” whatever that was—didn’t describe the kind of formally weird, experimental essays I was writing. It didn’t describe essay.


In Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss combines personal narrative with hard reporting in a series of essays which interrogate whiteness, racism, and violence in America. Although the essays in this collection vary in content, many, notably, are driven primarily by research.
     “Of what use is such an invention?” Biss quotes the New York World as asking in the first line of “Time and Distance Overcome.” “The world was not waiting for the telephone.” Although the piece begins with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, it quickly shifts. Biss uses associative leaps between paragraphs to trace the racial violence connected to the telephone pole. Relying heavily on the New York Times database for information, she lays out its archives in a segmented structure, allowing readers to interpret connections between juxtaposed paragraphs for themselves. By choosing to utilize such a broken structure, Biss essentially mimics her own process of discovery: though she set out to write an essay about the telephone, Biss discovered searching the term “telephone pole” in newspaper archives returned thousands of articles relating to lynchings. The accumulation of short sections in this piece, each detailing a specific person who died by lynching, read like we’re scrolling through the paper’s archives alongside Biss. Reading Biss’s work is an entirely different experience: the associative structure reads like the lyric, but the reporting reads like journalism.
     Unlike some other essays in the book, Biss rarely uses the first person in “Time and Distance Overcome.” When she does, it’s to provide a window to the material at hand. Although essayists like Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Jenny Boully often use research in their work to expand upon personal experience, Biss, here, attempts the opposite. She uses the personal as a tool to inform and extend her material—essentially using the narrative “I” as its own form of research. “When I was young,” Biss writes, “I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious.” Here, Biss steps back and refocuses the external towards a personal reflection, intuitively gauging readers’ reactions to the material and allowing them time to process by mimicking their response in her own reflection. Like any essayist, Biss is propelled by hard-to-answer questions and topics. But unlike many, she attempts to answer those questions through research and amplifying the voices of others. Personal experience is just the entryway.


My entryway to Craig Colony can be distilled into a single experience: I was in high school the first time I heard about the colony. My parents and I were driving to the Western New York college I would soon attend, and the colony’s old buildings were just a few miles south of the school. I was shocked to find out the United States used to send people with epilepsy to colonies. Epilepsy runs in my family: I was diagnosed in second grade, and my dad’s had epilepsy his whole life. I remember driving past the place where Craig used to exist and thinking that could have been me.
     Craig was a place where a group of people shunned by society forged their own little community. When the colony opened in 1896, inside institute grounds, there was a mattress shop, a fire station, a nursery—all run by patients. In his 1904 manifesto Epilepsy and Its Treatment, the colony’s medical superintendent at the time, William P. Spratling, marveled at the “camaraderie” forged between patients. But it was also a place filled with tragedy and neglect: where five teenage boys suffocated in tunnels below ground, an 18-year-old girl was sexually assaulted inside a chicken coop, and anyone who helped a patient escape was arrested and prosecuted.
     Despite the tragedies, neglect, and abuse, New York State didn’t close the Craig Colony until 1986, nearly a century after it first opened. Questions about what happened to the patients who lived there haunted me as I began college, as I graduated, and eventually as I moved to Pittsburgh to start graduate school. As I dug deeper into my research, I collected the pieces Craig Colony left behind in archives, on the land, in the towns surrounding the colony. I flew to Germany to study the institute Craig was modeled upon. I listened between the inevitable gaps and silences left by colony patients who have passed away. None of it was enough.


“I used to think I could understand everything,” Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich writes in the epilogue to Voices from Chernobyl. But, as one of her subjects states in the final monologue of the book, “No one knows what Chernobyl is.” Although mainly a work of history, Alexievich’s book combines the reporting of journalism with the lyricism of essay to embody what she calls a “chorus of voices.” Throughout the book, Alexievich acts more like an archivist than a writer, rotating through a series of monologues spoken by fellow Belarusians in order to grapple with the lingering, often overwhelming, effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
     Alexievich divides her book into three sections—Part One: The Land of the Dead, Part Two: The Land of the Living, and Part Three: Amazed by Sadness—but there is no set chronology to the way she organizes the monologues within each section. Rather, each section acts like a segmented essay, with Alexievich moving between life before and after Chernobyl within the same section. In this regard, Alexievich uses associative leaps to embrace the chaotic reality of the people who must deal with the everyday consequences of Chernobyl.
     While many writers, like Biss, might rely on a first-person personal narrative to connect the disparate threads of so many speakers in a book like Voices from Chernobyl, Alexievich’s voice is largely absent in this book. Rather, she banishes her occasional remarks and rhetorical questions to bracketed interludes, choosing to instead devote the entirety of the main body of her work to the voices of her speakers. By doing so, Alexievich avoids both completely deleting the first person from the text (and thus ignoring her own intrinsic bias in shaping her book), and embracing a first person narrator (which would detract from the focus on her subjects). Readers instead watch as Alexievich repeatedly attempts to relinquish the control of the first person in order to amplify the voices of ordinary Belarusian citizens telling their own stories. Here, self-erasure is not an act of essay but, rather, a call to action.


Sometime during my first year of grad school, after re-reading Notes from No Man’s Land for the first time in a few years, I texted an essayist friend of mine. “Am I a journalist?” I asked him. “Have I been thinking of myself as an essayist when all along what I’ve really been doing is journalism?” He reminded me what I was doing was just…what I was doing. That I didn’t need a label. But in class, and when I sat down to work on my manuscript, I struggled to voice what I was trying to do or find models for the kinds of essays I was trying to compose. I still had a kind of bias against journalism, but I was starting to realize the depth of craft required to produce it. I remembered what John D’Agata wrote about being at Iowa, and feeling the pull from both poetry and nonfiction, but not fitting squarely in either. I felt I had to choose between the non-linear, associative leaps of the essays I loved and the narrative often required of a research-driven, historical topic. I wanted my manuscript to be both researched and essayistic; to use the first person but not let it overshadow the main focus. It felt (and still sometimes feels) like an impossible balance.


What makes an essay lyric? Is it the nonlinear structure, the particular attention to image and emotion? Is it the sense of the unknowable? The underlying question propelling the narrative? In his introduction to Understanding the Essay, Jeff Porter writes that the “trademark” of the essay is “its intimacy.” But this quality, like any other, could be applied to other subgenres of nonfiction too. Which is perhaps why John D’Agata, in his forward to We Might As Well Call It The Lyric Essay, ironically, makes the case for abandoning the “lyric” in lyric essay. “[A]s I got older and started to explore the history of the good old-fashioned essay,” he writes, “I began to find that everything I loved about ‘lyric essays’ was already represented in much of the essay’s past.” In other words, inventing a term to describe a style doesn’t change what already exists or create a new genre. D’Agata argues that “if we could remind ourselves as essayists of the variety of essays that have been written in our genre, we’d have no need for terms that try to stake their claim on narrowly conceived interpretations of the genre.”
     The term “lyric journalism” may not be necessary for those same reasons but—for me at least—it is unavoidable. If more writers considered that the line between the lyric essay and journalism is multifaceted, complex, and much blurrier than we’ve previously thought, perhaps a label wouldn’t be necessary. But as it stands right now, a term like “lyric journalism” might bring attention to the fact that overlap already exists between the subgenres. And like D’Agata’s experience with lyric essay and my own with lyric journalism, it might just affirm a young writer’s validity in mixing elements of both.


In Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello takes on an opposite challenge to Alexievich: telling the stories of those who physically do not have a voice. "Of all the images that make our work, animal images are particularly buried inside us," Passarello writes in the first essay of her collection. "Give us a stick and we'll draw them...Spread out across the night sky and we'll point upward. See how they twinkle in the sky?" Throughout the book, Passarello combines the reflective, inquisitive voice common in essay with the reporting of journalism to tell the stories of well-known animals and the humans who interacted with them.
     Passarello’s play with genre is obvious before you even open the book: from the Prince song she uses as a title, to the medieval bestiaries which inspired the book’s structure, to her near-fictional recreation of historic scenes, Passarello draws on a combination of music, art, and fiction—in addition to lyric essay and journalism—to write this book. Throughout it all, Passarello is whimsical yet piercing in her observations of animal-human interactions. In “Jeoffrey,” Passarello attempts to recreate the lost half of Christopher Smart’s ode to his beloved cat. In “Harriet,” Passarello tells the story of Darwin’s tortoise from the tortoise’s perspective. And in “Koko,” Passarello tells a joke relying only on the signs the gorilla knew. If Alexievich’s book is a “chorus of voices,” Passarello’s is a menagerie—all coalescing into a single portrait of the way animals have both had an effect on and been affected by human beings.
     Despite Passarello’s clear attachment to the animals she features, she rarely ever enters the text as a character—surprising, considering most writers would probably rely on the first person more if their subject were unable to voice their own story. If anything, though, the essays in this book read most like a series of profiles. The amount of detail characterizing each animal reads like Passarello sat down for multi-hour interviews with each, and is a clear testament to the amount of research she undertook to write the collection. At the back of the book, Passarello includes a 27-page bibliography of sources consulted during her writing process. It’s clear that without a serious amount of research—in addition to the reflective, lyrical style she adopts—a book like this simply couldn’t exist.


In my undergraduate nonfiction class, I teach a unit on personal essay and a unit on journalism, and we talk about the crossover between the two. We look at Valeria Luiselli’s necessary use of first person in Tell Me How It Ends, and the types of research Rebecca Solnit underwent to write “Grandmother Spider.
     On promoting lyric journalism as a subgenre in its own right, I expect pushback from those who approach journalism with the same “necessary but unartful” mindset I once had—those who equate journalism with boilerplate news writing. But the fact of the matter is that journalists already employ many of the same craft techniques as essayists in their work.
     Last week, my students and I discussed Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s award-winning GQ piece “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof.” The use of first person is what makes this piece. Her stout refusal to show empathy for Roof. Her sectioned structure which leaps between Roof’s ancestry, his hometown’s roots in white supremacy and nationalism, slavery, and the Charleston church shooting’s victims. She juxtaposes Roof’s actions within the larger story of White America’s refusal to acknowledge Black suffering, and of Black survival despite centuries of enslavement, discrimination, and violence. “How we resist. How we rise.” In an interview at Longform, Ghansah says she never intended to write an objective piece about the shooting. In a story like this, objectivity isn’t necessary or even possible. Subjectivity is the point. And by using the first person—by making use of her personal experience reporting in the South—Ghansah both adds a narrative to make her associative leaps easier to follow, and admits to her own subjectivity in writing about Roof. In this particular case, like with much of longform journalism, using the first person is a closer attempt at the truth than any article which deletes the writer’s perspective.
     In a year peppered by claims of “fake news,” some might protest the promotion of creativity within a form that uses “journalism” in its name. Again, I’d say: it’s already there. Why pretend otherwise?


In my bedroom, above my desk, hangs a 30’’ x 40’’ framed copy of the Craig Colony’ sewage filtration plans from 1904:

Next to that, I’ve hung a half-dozen postcards filled out by colony patients and sent to family members. When I finally made it to the New York State Archives, I read through a patient’s diary and learned the story of his life at the colony. I have photos of maps, photos of photos, notes of legal records. In a local historian’s office, I poured through box after box of materials on the colony, some of which had never been sorted through. In one box, I found a plastic bag containing an old pill box taped closed. The historian didn’t know what was in it, so I opened it, and a dozen keys spilled out onto the table. If the essay is a form fueled by questions, the archive is a manifesto waiting to be written. To me, research is prime ground for essay. At every turn, you’re confronted with the unanswerable. Using skills from both reportage and essay just makes sense.
     When I started this project, I had a naïve fascination with the way the history of this place—like so much of our history in the United States—has been erased. No one seemed to know the whole truth of what happened at the colony. Not the internet, not the people I interviewed or the historians I talked to, not the archives I visited or the books I read. It was a footnote, a myth, a story with no ending. More than anything, I wanted answers. For myself, but mainly for the patients who were forced to live at Craig. How did a place like this come to exist in the first place? And how can I share the stories of Craig’s patients when they were systematically silenced during their lifetimes, and when archives both past and present have deliberately chosen to exclude them? As I sat at a table in that Burger King, a nor’easter of snow swirling into darkness outside, I realized I had no answers. And perhaps that erasure, like Ghansah’s subjectivity, is exactly the point.


Kathryn Waring is an essayist and multimedia writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her essays and interviews can be found in The Normal School, The Rumpus, and American Literary Review, among others. She's currently at work on her first book, which examines the history of America's first epileptic colony, her own family's experience with epilepsy, and the ways in which we remember (or don't) the history that surrounds us. Find her online at or on Twitter @k_waring105

Thursday, January 16, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Jenny Spinner, Will Slattery

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


I wake early, 6: 15 a.m., thinking of my father’s mother. For more than fifty years, she boiled down each of her days into a few staccato words that she recorded in yearly planners bound in brown leather.

When I was a young teenager, I came upon the planners in the bottom two drawers of a large dresser, located in what she called the “back room” of her ranch house. I quickly closed the door and knelt in front of the dresser, my hands sliding anxiously over what I thought was sure to be a treasure trove of words from a woman I loved immensely but knew only as a grandmother. Which is to say, I hardly knew her and wanted even more to feed my fantastical love. As the day turned dark, I poured over my grandmother’s books, looking for portals into her interior life. Already dreaming of being a writer, I was convinced this is where the good material must lie.

I pulled out the year 1970 to see what she might have mentioned about my sister and me in the year we were born and adopted into our family. August 1970. Maybe: “Twins home.”  Maybe: “Met the babies for the first time.” Maybe: “I love them so much it hurts.”


Well, something. “Post office.” “Grass cut.”

Day after day. Year after year. “Dishwasher hose repaired.” “Potluck supper.” “Church.”

For a moment, in my youthful disappointment, I actually wondered if my grandmother’s life had robbed her of her soul, if she had simply become a body of “gas in car” and “trailer cleaned” and “Larry to school.”

Maybe she mistakenly assumed that nobody cared. (I cared.)

Or maybe, at the end of the day, she simply had nothing left to say other than what was meant to be said.

By 12 noon on December 21, 2019, I’m living my own best external life: “drove to Shoprite for diced tomatoes,” “scrubbed bathroom sink,” “pulled party trays from storage,” “set out clothes for boys,” “ran four miles.” I like a good To-Do list, and I like ticking off the tasks. My To-Do lists are mostly in active tense. My grandmother recorded hers primarily in passive. Perhaps that’s the difference between getting on with it and looking back on it. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she used to say, though she never wrote it down.

The thing is, I’m happy in my lists, and with being a mother of four sons. When it’s not December 21, I’m also a professor, and I’m happy in those lists, too. That’s not what this is about.

And yet by mid-afternoon—I’ve lost track of the time—I’ve showered and slipped on a short, shimmery blue dress that I last wore to a Roaring Twenties birthday party, five years ago. I pull a curling iron from the back shelf of the bedroom closet and hide in the bathroom, putting a few ringlets in my hair. I’ve had this same curling iron since high school, and I’m embarrassed to be using it at my age. I rarely do, maybe once every year or two. It feels vain. I don’t want my boys to know I’m doing this. I just want to walk out of that bathroom as if pretty settled itself on me pure.

And just like that, I’m off the radar, thinking, Well, now, isn’t that a goddamned privilege, 
to live a life that you can tell people about, to pull your details from the shadows, or even from the light, and make art of them? Must be nice to walk the dog and have it simply mean “walk the dog.” Or, to actually walk the dog. Or the cat. Or whatever else needs to stretch its legs and gulp the air in order to feel alive.

I am alive, though one eye is on the clock.

By 6:30 p.m., thirty minutes before the guests are set to arrive, I’ve hauled myself back onto the grid with “party food prep,” filling mushroom caps with cheese for my husband’s annual Christmas party and cutting tomato pie into small squares.

Around 8 p.m. I’m sitting with a friend on our green leather sofa, its own kind of book, in the living room of my house, the party whirling around us. The familiar panic had risen in my chest as I “set out cheese and crackers,” “served drinks,” “made small talk.” My friend catches me up on her extended family, and I use her words as a focal point, trying to walk a straight line toward them without tumbling over, even though I’ve had nothing to drink. At one point, I am tempted to crack myself open between the lines and spill a little of my deep despair onto her pale hands resting in her lap. But I don’t. Some things just can’t, or shouldn’t, or won’t be said.

We “continue party” until 10 p.m. when I leave to drive home a kid who belongs to my thirteen-year-old son. My son goes, too, of course, and they joke and sing and make me laugh.

By 11 p.m., the little boys are so past their bedtime that they are tipping into the irrational, and I “Merry Christmas” the stragglers, still putting on their coats in the foyer, as they have been doing for the last hour. I change back into my running clothes, which I sleep in regularly because I am also running in my sleep, and I lie down next to the baby. He snuggles his head under my arm and his static blonde wisps tickle my nose. He tells me in an angry whisper that he loves me more than I love him, and I don’t argue this one time because it will just make him madder and he needs to sleep. But I do love him more. I love them all more. I love them all so much it hurts. “Boys to bed.”

Just after midnight, or before, or maybe nowhere near midnight at all, I pull myself from the baby’s covers and turn out the hall light. I hear my husband clanking clean-up in the kitchen. I don’t say goodnight. I am out of words for the day, maybe the month and years, too. Instead, I disappear off the page until the next morning.

Jenny Spinner is an associate professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches writing and journalism.


I teach high school for a living these days, and so December 21st almost always occupies a liminal holiday space--done with school, haven't yet headed out to visit the family in my rural Texas hometown (but Texas is certainly on the mind, especially given that each year my ability and/or willingness to play "straight" diminishes), too early to start prepping for New Year's Eve, all in all a kind of space & a kind of time devoid of major structural identifiers. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? Why am I?  Doesn't matter, it's break--enjoy it!

My experience of this day is dominated by two games: White Elephant Gift Exchange (organized by a friend/co-worker at her house, conveniently an 8 minute walk from where I live; a daytime party full of friends, co-workers, acquaintances, people I have never seen before, vaguely familiar friend-of-friend-of-friends, people I have met like 6 times but who do not remember my name (or vice versa)) and Disco Elysium (a reading-heavy video game, sort of a cross between an old-school cRPG and a point-and-click adventure, in which I have been playing a washed up alcoholic noir detective, except through the role-play decisions made available to me by the game I have also chosen to make my noir detective both a screaming, hardcore communist & the harbinger of a Lynchian apocalypse; incidentally, I am deciding now, as I type this, that Disco Elysium is the Very Official Essay Daily Game of the Year for 2019, an award we have never issued before and will likely never issue again).

In lieu of attempting to narrate how each of these games went, I will instead provide a sort of inventory:

Items Temporarily Gained in White Elephant Gift Exchange:
--one small bag, somewhere between a satchel and a fanny pack, stylized to look like a vibrant, gaudy, cartoony cat. The tag includes information on the gregarious artist who designed it (she does many cartoony cats--many, many cats!)
--one small bag, somewhere between a satchel and a fanny pack, black and teal with luxurious shag on the bag.

Items Permanently Gained in White Elephant Gift Exchange;
--one 32-variety-pack of Korean sheet masks, designed to hydrate the face and to provide it with collagen. I have used this brand before, and am glad to be able to claim it (the ones labelled "horse oil" and "snail" are my favorite, though I do not much appreciate "olive" and "wine").

Items Gained in Disco Elysium:
--one bullet (my commie-apocalypse-noir detective will never actually fire it).
--a trackwear jacket which looks terrible but somehow increases my detective's pain tolerance stat.
--this screenshot, which I took late that night for reasons I did not totally recall the next day:

alt text all day every day alt text is love alt text is life

Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He also tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.


We're happy to publish any other What Happened Contributions you may have banging around in your drafts--find Will's email over on the right if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Patri Hadad, Ashley DeWitt, Jill Christman, Mark Neely, Genia Blum

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


Forty years alive to the day. Fourteen thousand six hundred times around the sun and the northern hemisphere holds the reins as we swing past away from her burning glory, giving us fewer hours of light, and all the days unfurl beneath my feet as I’m still wobbling.

Awaken in an adorable little Tucson casita that I’m housesitting and remember that this is not a normal day, it’s Saturday, a witchy solstice my friends said. It’s my palindromic birth date and this is the day that essaying has made and let us rejoice and be glad.

Clean my friend’s house and launder the sheets which means hurrying to the outside garage in night-fade and I can see my breath. Pour-over-coffee and watch the steam swirl. Consider that I might have woken up to the very minute I was sliced out of my mother’s womb. Not of a woman born. Cat stares at me as I diffuse my hair. Post my annual birthday selfie. Amid the birthday messages, get a work text comma with birthday message. Sing to "Hungry Eyes" in the car and swish my curls around like Baby.

Lower my arms from the hands-up-or-I’ll-shoot pose coming out of the full-body scanner when the woman asks me if I have anything in my pockets and I thought all I had in my pockets were fingerprints but she points to a hot-pink—like 1980s hot-pink—hair-tie sticking out and says Uh-Oh and am back in my arrested stance. Wonder if it’s my high-waist jeans that make it look like there’s something in my pockets that secured this woman’s hands between my thighs or if it’s because I changed my name recently back to the Syrian name Hadad which causes my TSA PTSD or if it’s because the agent earlier asked for the ID with my re-adopted maiden name and not my married name which I still carry as I transition and to seem legit I said that some states take your ID away when you change your name and why the fuck do I say something so stupid. So, she said we’ll use this one since it hasn’t expired instead of a happy birthday which might have been code because my Arizona license doesn’t expire until I’m 65 and just how old did she think I was?

Dream a little that I’m going to New York for my 40th birthday passing other gates. Picture a selfie in front of the Christmas tree in ‘Rockefella’ Plaza wearing an adorable hat and scarf and writing about twisting my ankle while ice skating in front of Prometheus. Return to the stranger’s eyes that held my gaze as I turned away from the water fountain by my gate. Bless these painted-on jeans.

Earplugs for flight anxiety. Airplane mode. Count smiles in the inflight magazine. Seventy-two smiles in 154 pages. Miles of smiles. Open laptop. Consider writing: “Every time it is my birthday, I would like to have sex” but my Rueflean wish is everyone’s birthday wish. The plane descends into cloud cover – the last of the sun. The woman next to me asks if I’m writing a novel. I thought I was sitting next to a future famous writer.

Look on from the back seat between the silhouette of my parents. Land on the Gulf Freeway from the 610-Loop off-ramp and we are greeted by twinkling reds that brake between strip malls, high-mast lamps, steel-lattice powerlines, and billboards. We are close to NASA and the Putt-Putt where I celebrated my ninth birthday in an Epcot Figment hat and a white turtleneck and I unload my luggage in remnants of my childhood bedroom in a newer house: white-painted bamboo bedroom set, butterfly sherbet-rainbow sheets, a unicorn collection, a lifelong disdain for suburbia.

My brother joins us as we go to Landry’s for dinner on the Kemah Boardwalk where I worked while taking community-college comp classes and sat in a kiosk house where I read Sonny’s Blues in a white polo and khakis selling candy to circus tunes. We walk past a giant Christmas tree, bored attendants, empty carousels, and a Ferris wheel shining over the blackness of Galveston Bay where I learned that fish were ugly but delicious. They swim in the dark. Here it is the longest night of the year in a short memory.

At home, we eat chocolate cake, we reverse the four and the zero candles for laughs, forget to make a wish, fawn over my new InstaPot, laugh at Elf. We toast to my day, to my parents’ anniversary that same day, and maybe it’s the Moscato bubbles and the lingering smell of the sea and maybe it’s just that celebrating my forty years with the ones who brought me here feels good.

Patri Hadad is a writer, editor, illustrator, and painter and the former managing editor of the New Ohio Review. She works for the University of Arizona Poetry Center.


What happened on 12/21/19?

"I wonder if someone could simply decide: today is going to be an important day in my life. And then concentrate so much that the sun rises from within one’s soul and the galaxies swirl slow and mute." —A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector (p.53-54)

In one’s living room:

a. yellow and grey rug, haggled for
b. lift-top coffee table, silver candle lid
c. slammed-shut balcony door
d. snowprint moonlit below
e. an empty dog kennel
f. dusty pawprints warming in the sun

I’m in a green-lit dream in which sand loosens from itself, dried-up dead like tape. When it’s done, I feel strongly that no grain of sand knows another anymore. I’m just happy I’ve had a dream.

When a Disney+ ad on the Roku TV cycles in again, I reorient pillows stamped with gold pineapples. I also wake up sorry. From a mint Living Spaces couch cushion, I order pancakes using someone else’s Grubhub app. Siri shuffles metal from an Apple HomePod on the kitchen isle, cars leaves on the curb. I stretch my oversized t-shirt over my knees, time allotted for my mind to narrow. So what.

Once the unopened maple syrup packets are cleared from the counter, I read. I read the book on the coffee table (A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector) in ten-page increments because it is so good I dream, arms crisscrossed over my chest: how I’ve slept since pneumonia in July.

I bite my cheek at the coat rack, remembering again that hat-trading has become somewhat of an intimate act in my life—hats so close to the mind and all. I’d traded away my favorite hat earlier this year, a brown fisherman beanie they still sell from Urban Outfitters. I think of this today as I slip on the Packers one because I know someone from Wisconsin. He doesn’t even like the Packers, but—and this does bother me, to be clear—it doesn’t matter. I recently learned he’s been engaged since October.

At a nearby shopping center, the thirteen-week-old Samoyed under my care, ears mail-flagged back, lollops in the reflection of a Kate Spade store window. When he glances at me I pull mulch from his mouth, skip it down the sidewalk like a cigarette. My Docs grind salt outside Macys: I wait for a bottle of Marc Jacobs perfume. As I wait, one hot pink puffer jacket—an under-one-year-old—shows me her teeth (two of them) while I worry she’ll note “lack of eye contact” for the first time. Babies make me want to hide the developmental faults of everyone. (I’m not sure examples suffice as warnings.)

Nearby, a woman massages a diamond-shaped earring—a black gem—hair in bun, phone plugged into a USB port. She says, “Mmmhm, hmm. Hey, I’mma get off this phone, ‘cuz we on a different time difference.” When I notice my cord had fallen behind her, (“sorry sorry sorry”), she turns around, smiles, and assures me, “I promise I wasn’t trying to keep it.” Typing it out I feel suspicious for no reason—and a little sad my charger was rejected. I get sad, too, when the puppy drops a leaf he had been carrying for half the walk.

I purchase chè from a place most would think is a boba shop, stopping next door for a box of jiaozi dumplings. And my plan works: the Lush employees make the puppy smell better, a single green glitter stuck upon his nose.

At home in the living room, the puppy smushes himself against the glass door as if he had flown into it, gem fireplace roaring beneath Cops. The mouse clicks to my left remind me of my dad working on our Dell PC in my third-floor bedroom, and also of the conversation I had recently with my psychiatrist—a woman who oddly enough used to breed Samoyeds—about productivity and the watching of trains. In other words, I’m comforted by others working.

To mix my chè I use a fat boba straw and plastic spoon like chopsticks, mung beans cookie-cut into star ornaments. A light switch flicks in a neighbor’s apartment, and I imagine fireplace heat cool, a record player beep like a preheated oven. I look at the dusty pawprints unveiled by the sun and wonder about winter leaves, if we can ever catch that singular moment an orange road work ahead sign slips upside down.

I squint in the sun, I watch a man below cross the street in blue speedos, I pour Nature’s Miracle on artificial grass. I press the sinus in my cheek to check for pain. On my way to the bathroom I can’t help but check. I weigh double digits again.

Attached to the wall is a landline I expect to work when it eclipses my ear, and yet there is no dial tone, no going back to an earlier time, no sand sifting to or from or within one’s dream. When I look in the mirror I see acne, another mess I’ve made on the counter.

I bathe the dog at the complex’s pet washing station, scratching my wrist often as splashes dry then re-wet from my rolled-up sleeve. He is sprayed once by a perfume tester: Flowerbomb by Viktor & Rolf, which I like okay but wouldn’t wear. (It’s kind of like soap in the mouth). When he’s dry he’s so soft I almost can’t feel him there.

I ponder pen names, my knees warming at the fireplace. I wonder if I should ever dye my hair, get a tiny tattoo, write something. Here, I’m given an early Christmas gift: a men’s shirt in medium, Navy blue with small, arched text (“Ravenclaw”) on the back my hair will hide. I wish to no one in particular that “not so strongly opinionated” become respected in social media bios, if nowhere else.

The sun sets beyond the blinds, its soft, red sting. It stains the white brick house across the street, one light shining from the second floor. It is not yet 5 pm, not yet Christmas day: we are on the cusp of very popular favorite times. I like it because change in this position is bittersweet: the two chapters left in a good book, or a face held bulb-lit in a courtyard past midnight.

I hold my last birth control pill, a tiny, green thing, from outside its packaging. I had neglected its need for a refill, day after day. I remember, finally, I want to show someone a movie trailer. (I don’t).

People whose houses I’ll never know the smell of pass by in cars on the street, and I faintly understand my aversion to tradition comes from a loneliness I’d chosen long ago.

And I understand I choose to be somewhat vegetative, thinking of nothing as I hand a clerk a credit card my dad pays off. I cast Breaking Bad Season 2 to the TV and slip the Samoyed on my lap, his dad next to me—picturing a family.

Ashley DeWitt is an MFA student at Northern Arizona University.


Pura Vida

If it’s possible that there are days when the conscious act of paying close attention becomes a liability for success, December 21, 2019 was such a day. In outline, our plan was to wake up in our house in Muncie, Indiana, pack ourselves for Christmas in New Orleans with three of my four siblings (our first Christman Christmas since our father died in 2018) and then onward—toting bags that could weigh in at no more than thirty pounds each—for a post-Christmas journey to Costa Rica (to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday). We needed to clean the house within reason so that we could ask our neighbor Kathy to water our soon-to-be-abandoned Christmas tree and keep an eye out for any errant packages, pack for the dogs, drive the dogs out to the country kennel in Gaston where they were to enjoy the holidays, get ourselves to the Hyatt Place near the airport in Indianapolis by 3:20, park the car, catch the airport shuttle, board a flight to Hartfield-Jackson—because, as they say in the south, whether you’re going to heaven or hell, you’re going to have to change planes in Atlanta—connect to the Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, land at Louis, pick up a rental car, drive the twenty-five minutes to the “airport” Hilton Garden Inn, pray to the Cajun gods that en route we’d find something to feed to our 11-year-old chicken-nugget-eating son (easy) and nearly vegan 16-year-old daughter (plum near impossible), pour ourselves tipples of Maker’s from the travel flask, and fall into bed by midnight-ish. The following morning, we would visit the French Quarter, get Henry his first beignet, grocery shop for sixteen, and meet my family in the giant house on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain by 4 p.m. on December 22nd to find out what it would feel like to have Christmas without our own built-in Santa Claus.

That was the plan anyway. On the morning of December 21st, this seemed like a lot to make happen in a day and I didn’t make any promises—to myself or anyone else—regarding the minutes I’d devote to taking down the details in my little green notebook.

The packing was brutal, and a marital skirmish was inevitable. While I believe I possess excellent organization skills, these talents, for reasons I’ve never been able to fully grasp do not extend to the art of packing light. Thirty is not very many pounds for a two-destination, two-week journey. I would have liked to have had that much weight in our preferred spray-on sunscreen (which I did not pack because, you know, aerosol, despite TSA saying it’s okay: do we really want lots of tiny sunscreen bombs in the belly of the 747 in which we’re all crossing the Gulf of Mexico? Or, say, over Lake Nicaragua?). I was stressed out. My teeth were on actual edge.

Our winter solstice 2019 pre-departure fight was about headphones. Mark handed them to me to put in Henry’s backpack. I put the proffered headphones down on the table because I was making sure the backpack had a sketchpad and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first, apparently giving Mark a judgmental look in the process (in general, I cannot control my face). Imagine a sudden change of pressure. I am the propellant in the aerosol and Mark is the oxygen—actually, probably the other way around—and like a flash fire we rose up in a brilliant fury. It was over quickly and we were in the car, laughing at ourselves, and wondering if all couples crack under the pressure of getting a family circus stuffed into a car with shoes and medicine packs and the many different chargers of modern life? Alas, we departed twenty minutes later than we’d hoped and it seemed we’d only make our scheduled shuttle if we found ourselves utterly alone on the road to Indianapolis.

We didn’t make it.

Pulling into the Hyatt Place parking lot at 3:31, we passed the 3:30 shuttle pulling out. I waved miserably. Calculating that it wasn’t a logistical necessity to summon a Lyft, we waited for the shuttle to return. I made the most of the delay by crunching a big, juicy, designer-green Granny Smith apple, the signature fruit of Hyatt Place. Mark and Henry hit the gas station across the street and stocked up on Lifesavers, Chex Mix, and Ruffles Cheddar Chips for the flight.

The shuttle driver reappeared on the dot of four, as promised. A Cowboys fan, dating a nursing professor at IUPUI, he’d recently cut short a trip to New Orleans to see the Cowboys play the Saints at the Superdome because his girlfriend learned at the eleventh hour that she’d won a prestigious educator-of-the-year award and the ceremony was scheduled for that night. How such absurd notification-to-ceremony timing is possible, I do not know, but I can tell you that our shuttle driver hopped the next plane home, missed the game, and escorted his girlfriend to the ceremony, likely racking up a goodly number of boyfriend-of-the-year points in the process. “It’s okay,” he said, catching Mark’s eye in the rearview. “The Cowboys lost anyway.”

We arrived at the airport precisely one hour prior to our scheduled departure. Know this, Hoosier travelers: the Indianapolis International Airport (which has no other name, alas: may I suggest Madam C.J. Walker or Judge Silthia Jimison?) will soon be host to a MAC and a Sun King Brewery in the Southwest terminal. Already my favorite airport, IND will be yet better. Maybe don’t spread that around.

Also, for months I’d fretted that I’d remember every little unnecessary thing and forget the passports, or somebody’s passport, so I kept counting them in their special pocket in my travel purse. Here is what I forgot: face wash and hair conditioner, both of which were readily purchased at the CVS in Slidell. No problema. Pura vida, as they say here in Manuel Antonio, although I fear I’m getting ahead of myself, typing up these notes-of-a-day from my perch overlooking the Costa Rican jungle and the Pacific, this morning a kind of hazy blue. A howler monkey I cannot see just let loose a roar, which our naturalist guide told us yesterday is the third loudest noise produced by a mammal—after the African lion and the blue whale. Pound for pound, the howler has quite a howl. In any case, I’ve strayed from my green notebook and I’ll try to focus on the solstice (although, might I mention before I leave this tropical veranda that here, so near the equator, the sun rises and sets at 5:30, morning and night, day after day, 365 days a year, which compels one to think more carefully about our Earth’s rotation on her axis).

Back at Gate B21 in Indy, we moved ourselves into boarding formation, and I saw a twenty-something kid wearing a backwards Vans hat, Vans socks, and actual Vans of course, push back from the counter where he’d been sitting, look around to see if anybody was watching, and then toss his dirty napkin into the box with the remnants of his hotdog, leaving the whole mess for someone else to pick up. I was watching. The world is not your garbage can, you punk. Before I could spiral, I was distracted by a man who, with his Santa-like physique and facial hair, reminded me more than a little of my dad, aka “Pappy.”  I had been in this same IND terminal, Terminal B, en route to Savannah, when I got the news that I was too late for a final visit with my dad. Minutes before seeing the man with the ukulele, I had passed the potted tree where I had crouched to sob when my sister told me over the phone that our dad had died in the night and pointed it out to Ella, who had patted my back sympathetically. The man with the big white beard sat on a chair in B21 with his lone carry-on bridging his knees: a powder-blue ukulele case. Pappy had a ukulele, probably several, but he’d have loved one in blue. The girl sitting across from this stand-in Pappy asked a question I could not hear and he smiled, rotated the case on his knees, and unclasped it, proudly displaying a ukulele of the same lovely blue inside. I hoped, in this moment, for a mini gate concert—that’s surely what Pappy would have done with such an invitation—but instead, he just ran his thumb across the fretboard once, a strum, and then latched the case. Together, we boarded, passing under the giant candy canes tied to the Southwest number posts with fluffy red bows.

In Atlanta, we could find nothing for Ella to eat but soggy waffle fries from Chik-fil-A, and along came the ukulele Pappy to our same gate with his own Chik-fil-A bag, tucking his ukulele under his feet and ripping open a packet of salt with his teeth to pour in its entirety over whatever was down in his own white paper bag. No! I wanted to chide. Your blood pressure! Watching him chew with salty satisfaction, crumbs falling into his beard, I fell through the portal back to Savannah where my dad, the real Pappy, taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design and in the 80s summers when I would visit, he’d send me down to the back of Mrs. Wilkes’s boarding house to pick up orders of fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea. One afternoon when I arrived at the screen door, I surprised the woman mixing a batch of biscuits in a giant silver bowl, sleeves rolled, up to her elbows in flour and water. She paused and lifted her palm to her face, sniffing, and then scraped a mouthful of dough from her palm with her top teeth. She caught my eye, grinning, smear of flour across her cheek, called me Honey, and yelled for our chicken. Back in my dad’s office, squeezed in with the camera equipment and piles of prints, we leaned over our napkins, salty, crusty chicken, flaky biscuits, grease and crumbs falling where they shouldn’t and I told my dad about the woman eating the dough. Mmmhmmm, he said, That’s why it’s so good. 

On the plane, I pulled out a sheet of drink coupons, set to expire on 12/31/2019, and winked across the aisle at my husband, May I buy you a drink? I could, but I had to wait until we reached cruising altitude and the air smoothed out and there I was holding Ander Monson’s fresh-off-the-press True Story, “My Monument,” in one hand and my coupons in the other, sucking Lifesavers and breathing through my nose to fend of air sickness until the glorious moment when I could squeeze a lime into my Tanqueray and tonic, crunch a pretzel, and commence reading. It was worth the wait. From the first page, Ella couldn’t help herself and started reading over my shoulder, so I held the tiny red book on the tray table between us, in the circle of white light shining down from the overhead panel, and we read; in this way, I learned that she’s a much faster reader than I am. She was always ready for the page turn, nodding. At the part with the cat, we both started to cry a little. Sometimes we pointed and giggled. For example:
Among the many glories in the catalog, I spied a huge Rudolph. . . . That’s a big Rudolph, I said to myself. What kind of idiot would buy something like that?
If you’re reading this, in Essay Daily, I’m thinking you’re in the population most likely to have read “My Monument,” and if you haven’t, what the heck are you waiting for? Give yourself that, at least, this holiday season.

When we landed in New Orleans, we claimed our luggage, Christmas stowed inside, and boarded the steamy shuttle for the world’s longest trip to a rental car center. At long last, we were deposited outside the automatic doors of a cavernous room with a long, long counter. The huge room was crowded with travelers negotiating extra drivers and tired children slumped over rolling bags. There were many choices of rental car companies, but we were booked with Enterprise and my eyes scanned for the green sign. There was no line and only one person there in front of us talking to the agent, his blue ukulele case resting at his feet.

We had arrived.

Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure & Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity (yes, she did see another sloth in Costa Rica), Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, River Teeth, & True Story. A senior editor for River Teeth, she teaches at Ball State University. Visit her at and @jill_christman.


What Happened on December 21

December 21, 2019, the winter solstice, was a travel day, much of it spent encased in steel and hurtling towards our destination at various rates of speed. If all went well, we’d arrive at our hotel in New Orleans between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., and be off to a house on Lake Pontchartrain the next day to rendezvous with Jill’s siblings and their families for Christmas.
     I remember feeling a sense of relief as we hustled around that morning—packing, getting the dogs to the kennel, and prepping the house for our absence (this included scattering a few peanut butter-baited surprises for the family of mice who had recently moved in for the winter). The day before had been the last day of the semester for the kids, now halfway through 7th and 10th grade, and it occurred to me that, for two weeks at least, I wouldn’t have to worry about them getting shot at school. A ridiculous fear, I know. They were almost certainly in more danger on our drive to the airport. But I had recently read an article that estimated a child’s chances of being involved in a school shooting at 1/66. And since there were 417 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019, the most ever for a single year, my fear seemed less and less ridiculous every day.
     That morning, looking toward the beginning of a new decade, my son Henry, said “This will probably be the last year of my life that will end in –teen.” I paused, doing the math, surprised he was aware enough of his own mortality to be making these kinds of calculations. His sister sat at the kitchen table, eating an English muffin, absorbed in a magazine. Mistaking my pondering for doubt, Henry added, “Well, probably.” So maybe I had mortality on the brain. Maybe, as I inched (or screeched, tires flaming) toward age fifty, mortality on the brain was becoming a permanent condition.
     Around noon, I drove to drop the dogs off at the kennel north of Muncie, where the land is flat as a skating rink, the roads long straight shots that disappear over the horizon, the fields now covered with just enough snow to obscure the rows of withered corn stalks. The dogs looked out the windows, expectant, slightly agitated. It must be strange, never knowing where you’re going until you get there. I remembered a few lines of a poem I’d read a few days before, something about the number of dogs a person gets to have in a lifetime: “Around 6 I reckon, if you take / good care of them.” For me, these two made four total. I wondered, if you didn’t take good care of them, did the number go up or down?
     Later, heading out of Muncie toward the interstate, we passed the local purveyor of monuments and headstones, conveniently located beside a large cemetery. As a kid, I used to hold my breath when I passed a cemetery, some superstition picked up on the schoolyard, but this one is too large to make that possible. Just after the cemetery, the entrance to a community of trailer homes called Holiday Park.
     “Some Holiday,” I said, looking at the bleak collection of single and double-wides placed just a few yards away from each other. My daughter, Ella, pointed out that they aren’t exactly going to call it Downturn Village or Poverty Place. I remember a guy I used to work for in college, doing landscaping and other odd jobs. He had a side gig breeding cockatiels in his double-wide trailer outside Champaign. I always wondered how he survived the morning racket.
     Then the feeling of being at the airport, on time, with all the preparations behind us. The four of us sat in a row of black, institutional chairs, and I pulled out The Great Gatsby, which I hadn’t read since college. To be honest, I can’t say for sure if I’d made it through the book back then—I always loved to read, but at times found it almost impossible to read a book which I had been assigned. It seemed counter to the idea that certain books find us at particular times in our lives. I was enjoying Gatsby this time around, particularly struck by Fitzgerald’s ability to define a character with one signature feature: Daisy’s musical murmur, Tom’s cruel physique, Gatsby’s “old sport,” the forced phrasing of a poor kid playing at being one of the aristocracy.
     I’ve always been aware of a book being a mode of transport—“there is no Frigate like a Book,” etc.—but I had rarely felt this so intensely as I did at that moment, with the “A” group passengers already lined up a few feet in front of me, waiting for boarding to begin. If I looked up, here were my fellow 21st century travelers, in that communal state of exhaustion and excitement that airline travel brings. Looking down, I found myself in the parlor of an opulent, soulless mansion at the beginning of the roaring twenties, as Nick Carraway watched over [spoiler alert] the body of his enigmatic friend.
     Of course the spell of a book is easily broken by the world outside, and at some point my attention was drawn to a man sitting across from me, a vibrant teal ukulele case on his lap. A couple of teenage girls across from him asked a question I couldn’t hear.
     “It’s a ukulele,” he said. “Let me show you something.” He unzippered the case with a little flourish. Inside lay a matching ukulele, painted in the same shiny teal. The man was an older guy, wearing a black t-shirt and saggy Levis—Dad jeans, I guess you would say. His gray hair gathered in a long pony tail. When he stood up, I notice the ukulele was his only carry-on item.
     On the plane, I finished Gatsby, lingering on its famous final sentence, and started a new book. I always turn off my phone on planes, and never connect to the wireless, even when it is available. For a while, it seemed airplanes were the only space I found myself where I was disconnected from the digital world, and I always found it a welcome respite. Henry sat beside me, simultaneously playing Super Smash Bros on his Nintendo Switch and reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Kids his age, I’ve noticed, are almost always doing at least two things at once. Their brains, wired on distraction from an early age, don’t seem to be able to function without it. We chatted a bit, sipped our complimentary beverages, snacked on a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, and arced toward Atlanta.
     Before our second flight, Jill handed me the latest issue of True Story, which publishes one long essay per issue. This one happened to be by Ander Monson, coordinator of this very endeavor, so it seemed appropriate reading material on this day I knew I would be recording later. The essay, “My Monument,” is about a giant (like two stories tall giant) inflatable Rudolf, which the author installs in front of his Tucson, Arizona home each holiday season. There is a strange pleasure reading something written by a friend, since things you know about the person add a sort of extra-textual halo around the work. But you also realize how much of a writer’s inner life remains hidden to us in “real life,” and can only be revealed in the writing.
     In the middle of the essay, we hit turbulence—“a few bumps,” as the pilots say, as if the sky were a road pockmarked with potholes. Sometimes during these bumpy moments, I think about the plane crashing—back to my mortality theme. This is often a theoretical kind of thinking, as opposed to a real fear. This time I have the thought that plane crash victims don’t have the kind of evidence of last moments as people who die in more peaceful environments. At home, for example, you might find The Great Gatsby and “My Monument” on my nightstand, but here they would just be more ashes from the fiery remains. Even as this thought passed through my mind, I chided myself for having it. It seemed equal parts morbid and narcissistic. I picked up the essay where I left off. At one point, Ander ponders getting zipped up inside the giant, fully inflated Rudolf, which seems foolhardy and likely dangerous. I was rooting for him to try.
     After collecting bags in New Orleans, we headed to the rental car desk, where, leaning on the counter in front of us, was the ukulele man. He had no suitcase, no backpack or other luggage. Just the clothes on his back and the teal ukulele. What kind of person travels almost a thousand miles with no change of clothes, no toiletries, no book or iPad or laptop, not so much as a magazine? If this were a movie, the man would surely be the alter ego of some angel or superhero, tasked with saving us all. As it is, we moved up to the counter and by the time I signed and initialed the various forms, he was gone, just a memory now, or some foolish figment of my imagination.

Mark Neely is the author of Beasts of the Hill and Dirty Bomb, both from Oberlin College Press. He teaches at Ball State University and is a Senior Editor at River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.  


The Flying Flu

Winter solstice falls on December 21 this year—the shortest period of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere and the last day of my two-week stay in London. This evening, my daughter and I will board an Airbus A220 at Heathrow Airport and fly home to Switzerland, to celebrate Christmas with her father and brother.

Daria studies at the Royal Academy of Arts, and my visits to her are always heavy on art-related activities. During the first week, we went to museums, gallery shows, openings, viewings; I took part in a reading together with our friend Russell; we met girlfriends for afternoon tea; socialized in pubs and restaurants. In the second week, Daria and I came down with the flu.

For the past few days we’ve been holed up in her spartan Hackney flat, fighting fever and congestion, moaning on her King size bed, drinking hot liquids and filling wastebaskets with soggy paper tissues. A persistent pain below my right shoulder has kept me awake most of the night, and I’ve self-diagnosed it as a symptom of pneumonia. Daria, young and resilient, is feeling marginally better, even though for the past two nights my restlessness and incessant coughing have driven her to sleep on the sofa.

In the morning, my iPhone starts lighting up with notifications. I disable its vibrate function, place it screen down on the nightstand, and press a pillow over my eyes. Around 10:50 am, unable to fall back asleep, I pick it up again, and notice a WhatsApp message from my friend Renée:

Safely home! Can you wear a mouth mask on the plane?

Only if it’s Dior

Not Dior, but I’m planning to cocoon my face in a large, silk and cashmere shawl during the flight.

Silk fibers possess antibacterial properties, don’t they? (But maybe not antiviral …)

I swathe myself in a blanket, shuffle into the living room, and accept the mug of tea Daria has brewed for me. Her flat is large by London standards, but it’s dark and, despite central heating, extremely cold. Wrapped in red wool, I sit on an unpainted Ikea stool, at a white Ikea table, and lean my back against a scorching radiator. There’s one on every wall, each almost too hot to touch—how is the place still freezing?

Last week, I bought Daria a pair of discounted UGG slippers at Selfridges—pink and ugly, but very warm, and she insists I wear them together with a pair of her thickest socks. She’s made oatmeal porridge, but its sliminess puts me off, so I chew on a piece of buttered toast instead. It tastes like cardboard. The pain in my shoulder is fading—perhaps it was only a tight muscle. We both get dressed, and Daria goes for a walk. She returns with a box of Tesco mince pies. We start packing.

I don’t feel sufficiently healthy to apply makeup—but well enough to open my MacBook for bragging on social media about a recently published essay. I post on Facebook and Instagram, but run out of steam before I can drop the link on Twitter.

Daria has pre-ordered a taxi to take us to the airport. It arrives at 16:30, when it’s already dark outside. It’s raining. We buckle up in the back seat, and I type a few notes into my iPhone (in case
I’m ever well enough to write about this day):

not uber / addison lee / in the rain / in the dark / very cold / pull my scarf over my head / D’s scarf over my knees / coughing / two strong peppermints

My daughter’s mints ease my throat tickle, but I hate all things peppermint flavored; after dissolving two in my mouth, I turn down her offer of a third one. Daria is very pale, but suffers in silence. She covers my knees with her scarf, and pats me on the back. She’s an angel.

According to my notes, the drive to Heathrow lasts as long as our flight to Zurich:

arrive Heathrow 1 1/2 hrs later 

The airport is crowded and saturated with holiday cheer: artificial trees, glitter, colored lights, seasonal music. We check our bags, pass through security control, find a restaurant, and slump at a table for two—its surface is sticky, but we’re beyond caring.


Tofu Ramen is the closest thing to a cup of bouillon on the menu. A large bowl of pasty rice noodles, soft tofu, hard pak choi, and what appears to be a thousand-year egg is placed in front of me. Ignoring the solids, I sip the steaming broth. Daria picks at a salad. We’re not hungry, just sensible. In the end, I decide to consume the purple-tinged egg for the protein—it tastes less offensive than it looks.

Pop holiday classics continue to waft through the terminal: canned choirs harmonizing in “Let it Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland;” Mariah Carey tearing into “All I Want for Christmas is You.” In Switzerland, we’ll get a bit of “Stille Nacht.” Or an actual silent night.

The Harrods shop lures us in with half-priced Christmas novelties, stacked on a table near its entrance. I pick up a box of crackers, notice its rubbed corners, and decide there’s nothing here for us. We find a shop offering aisles of sweets, grab a roll of fruit gums and a small box of Ricola lemon lozenges, and head for the gate.

Before we get on the plane, I receive an iMessage from Russell:

We’re in Shoreditch Town Hall / You two still ill? / Meet us for a drink in a bit?

We’re at Heathrow! Boarding in 15! Coughing!

The flight attendants from Swiss mouth “willkommen” but none of them cracks a smile, transporting us to Switzerland before our plane has even left the ground. In my seat, I arrange my black puffer jacket, duvet-like, over chest and thighs and wrap my shawl around my face. The pilot announces a delay, and I remain like this for an hour before liftoff, sweating and coughing into layers of jacquard weave.

The air turbulence during the flight doesn’t bother me, because my fear of flying follows no logic. I cope with my extreme anxiety during takeoff and landing by clutching Daria’s arm while watching a movie on my iPhone. (Consulting Netflix, I see it was the forgettable Ingrid Goes West.)

A relief, when we land safely in Zurich!

My tall, handsome husband is waiting. (I should have downloaded Love, Actually.)

“Your face is all caved in.” (I should have worn makeup.)

We drive home in our heated car, enthroned on heated, leather seats; Daria nods off, while I continue coughing. It’s past midnight when we arrive in Lucerne.

Since we’ve forfeited one hour traveling east, I’ll take the liberty of extending this dispatch by a few minutes:

Daria’s brother is outside, standing just around the corner from our house in the old part of town, talking to friends. We roll down the windows, and he plunges through to hug us. My husband drives the car right up to our front door.

Upstairs, in the darkened living room, a ceiling-high Christmas tree glows and twinkles, hung densely with baubles, painted glass figurines, silver tinsel, and garlands of tiny lights.

I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.

In the kitchen, our refrigerator and cupboards are filled with food; the counters and table piled high with fruit, cookies, Lebkuchen, Stollen, panettone; an entire crate of champagne stands in a corner, waiting to be chilled.

Soon, our appetites will return.

And next year, I swear, I’m getting a flu shot.

Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance” was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

As of now, this is the last installment of the What Happened on December 21, 2019. Thanks for spending your time with us. —Ander and Will