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

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Susan Briante, Weyshawn Douglas Koons, Anonymous, Caleb Klitzke, Rick Joines

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.


Who visited me in my dreams? No registry. No calling card. No cookies to trace.

My daughter’s dreams extend. When I wake, she tells me: You wanted to go see the graves of children. And I didn’t want to go. In a plaza by the statues, where I have been before. Once I saw a boy with a kite. In this dream, three girls were dancing. It was beautiful, but I didn’t want to see the graves. I think she might be trying to tell me a story about parenting or mortality and all the suffering from which I cannot protect her. But if I could, I would follow her even into her dreams.

Instead, I wake blank and listen. When I try to get up, tight bands pull from the back of my neck to my forehead. Within the hour they shift from the base of my skull to a ring around my right eye. The queasiness comes next. I try naproxen sodium and two anti-nausea pills. Water and coffee.

The cat calls under the hallway door. Sun seeps in around the blinds.
Today, Midwinter Day,
and what little light
is left to us
becomes too much. 

 “Migraine is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination,” writes Joan Didion. “It is an essentially hereditary complex of symptoms, the most frequently noted but by no means the most unpleasant of which is a vascular headache of blinding severity, suffered by a surprising number of women, a fair number of men (Thomas Jefferson had migraine, and so did Ulysses S. Grant, the day he accepted Lee's surrender), and by some unfortunate children as young as two years old.”

“Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket. A flashing light. A fire drill.”

Today, believe the migraine came as a result of the news that my book would not be published until August, an impending (but temporary) move, dehydration, the twisting of one cervical disc in my neck toward the left, and last night’s martini.

Gianna rubs my shoulders. Farid brings me black coffee. I send them off to breakfast with friends. And in the empty house, I cry in bed with the cat purring beside me.


Last year at this time, I wrote an essay about my father and Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This year I remember my mother getting teary eyed over Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here.” She’d say: “I don’t know why it makes me sad” as if no one else could hear its melancholy chords. My father would try to convince her it was happy, the song that plays when the kids are skating in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Of course, she’s right. The song is incredibly sad. Meant to capture all of Charlie Brown’s unease at the holiday season. But my parents, who survived a lot, had so few skills to withstand their own emotions. Just weeks before she died, while she writhed in an emergency room, my father pulled out a line from his high school football days: no pain, no gain.

Last year when I wrote about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I wanted to find a version of the song with just Frank Sinatra’s voice and wondered what I thought I would hear. This year with this feeling of straps tightening down from the base of my skull to my eyebrows, I know I wanted to hear Frank Sinatra’s voice with no uplifting strings, no reprieve from its sadness.


I leave the house to get food for our Christmas Eve meal. I purchase one and a half pounds of salted cod that I will soak, changing its water twice a day for the next three days in order to prepare a baccalá salad as part of a Christmas Eve meal that replicates the ones of my childhood.

On the drive back from Roma Imports, I curl over my legs in the passenger seat, rest my head on the dash, take off my glasses and let the world blur.

In the back seat, my child is angry: we were supposed to bake cookies, she was supposed to have a playdate. By the time she gets home, she throws things. Then she picks up a book and reads on and off for the next three hours, while I try to sleep and listen to an astrology podcast and a guided meditation: the voices of women telling stories comfort me.

By six pm
I am up again
but the sun is down

 “A migraine is the most glamorous of headaches,” Sadie Stein writes in the Paris Review. But there’s nothing glamorous about me in a hoodie standing over the stove stirring mashed potatoes, while my daughter continues to be mad, and my husband pours wine I cannot drink.

“Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism only intense, essentially benign pain can,” Stein theorizes. And she’s mostly right. Pain blots out everything but the self in pain. Despite the podcasts or pills, I twist and turn. I pull at my ears and cheeks and hair. Sometimes I vomit. Mostly I hope for more sleep. Any number of catastrophes could occupy my mind on a normal day (concentration camps at the border, the climate changing at a devastating rate, the presidency), but for hours today I could not feel or be anything but the pain.

The astrologist talks about slowing down as powerful Jupiter enters wise old Capricorn. She wants me to “sway, rooted in power and presence” like a tree. She talks about the Ursids peaking, and the star named for the wounded healer, and she helps me fall back to sleep.


In my dream, the principal at my daughter’s school walks along a chain link fence. A German shepherd jaunts along with us playfully. I can’t tell you what they are, but I know I am wearing the wrong shoes. I can’t tell you, where we are going.

But I don’t care because I can feel you next to me.

Susan Briante's newest book is the forthcoming Defacing the Monument.


Date Bar

Wood smoke wanders through the trees as I walk up the path to the house. It’s a typical winter day in the Pacific Northwest, wet and gray with the clouds and mist hanging low. The sun was supposed to come up just after eight o’clock this morning, but I’m still waiting. White lights on the Christmas tree sparkle through the window, shining bright. The bag I carry is full of treasure, four pounds of pitted dates, oats, brown sugar, and butter.

Mom called a week ago. “I can’t do it,” she said. “I’m done making date bar.”
     It was the last of the holiday baking she still did. She always loved to bake, especially around Christmas. She filled multiple tins with sweet treats that would be opened to fill platters the minute company walked through the door. There were thumb print cookies with their holiday red and green icing, rum balls rolled in powdered sugar, chocolate chip cookies, and fondant that was so sweet it felt like I was eating thick icing. She made hard candy flavored with cinnamon oil in trays that looked like red sheets of glass. The candy looked so enticing my little brother couldn’t resist touching it, even though he was warned, melting the skin on the tip of his finger and ruining the whole tray one year. Fudge was tucked away in the fridge and vied with date bar as my two favorites. The air in our house wafted Christmas for weeks.
     “I’ll give you the recipe so you can continue the tradition,” Mom said.
     I already had the recipe, but she wanted to give it to me again, so I wrote it down and later compared the recipes, making sure they were the same. The original was written in Mom’s smooth, italic handwriting on a recipe card in red ink. Although it’s smeared, it’ll be the one I keep.
     Later that day I called my son, who lives nearby. I told him Gigi wouldn’t be sending us date bar this year, but she hoped we would continue the tradition. We kicked around days that worked. There was only one, December 21st, winter solstice.

My son Jess and his new bride Kristen come inside, cheeks rosy, full of good Christmas cheer. We drink hot ginger tea while we chop the dates and set them on a low burner to cook down while we make the pressed crumble mixture that lines the bottom of the pan and then covers the top. The thick smell of dates on a slow boil takes me back to being a kid, sitting on the counter, measuring ingredients, pouring, mixing, and tasting, always tasting. I would lick the bowl, the spoons, and the beaters, running my index finger along the inside of each beater to savor every drop.
     We talk about Gigi, my Mom, their grandmother, the Grand Dam, and wish she was here with us. She’s poured her love into these same ingredients for the last sixty years. Jess is going to overnight date bar to Gigi in the morning so she’ll have it for Christmas. We vow we will carry on the tradition. I hope winter solstice will always be the day that works.

I wake early on Christmas morning, before my husband, Eric. Our kids are grown with kids of their own. We will see them later in the day, but for now it’s just the two of us. I light the votive candles, over two dozen of them, while the espresso machine warms up. I wake Eric with a steaming breve latte and a warm slice date bar. We move to the couch and sit in the soft flicker of light, amazed the days are already growing longer. We toast my mom, Gigi, with our lattes. Even though she’s settled two thousand miles away in the Ohio River Valley, there’s a little piece of her here with us.

Weyshawn Koons lives on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest and graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.


December 21st, 2019

What happened:
Morning darkness
out of bed fast
tea and coffee
rain. A short fuse put aside. Eyes closed, exercised.
Shopping for groceries and gifts because its the holidays
love happened.

I saw: 
pink lights in the bathroom
order in a new home
love bloomed
your face 

I heard: 
the heat go on
“I was going to call…”
your voice at the end of the day  next to me


What Happened on December 21

A student emailed asking what her final grade was, and I felt guilty I hadn’t already finished my work for the semester, writing back that I’d been sick but was working on it. On YouTube, I watched NBA Desktop and learned that Kevin Garnett believes the NBA made the Celtics lose to the Heat in 2012 because the Celtics didn’t fit their “agenda.” I ate eggs in a tortilla with cheese and salsa.
     I returned to the bedroom to put on socks and get ready to walk Gibbs, my black lab mix (which means pit bull), and talked about last night’s dreams with my girlfriend Claire—hers about an island where there was a festival she wasn’t excited to attend but happily got to avoid with a friend, mine about crawling through tight passages of an old house before coming upon my dad and Johnny Cash recording a cover of “Earth Angel.”
     It was pretty warm for Minnesota, upper 30s. I drove to campus to pick up a couple books and some papers I needed to finish grading. After, I drove to Stillwater to do Christmas shopping. The many cutesy boutiques lining St. Croix Trail, that my mom would call “shopp-e shops,” offered enough options to cover up my last-minute nature. I had to drive up the hill to park and ended up in front of a paper and Sharpie sign reading “Book Sale,” so before buying for others, I found gifts for myself.
     Inside was a studio with folding tables and a few bookshelves. Spine-up books lined the tables with more rows on the hardwood beneath next to a wooden crate of leather baseball mitts with thick fingers like in A League of Their Own or The Sandlot. There was a tower of empty cardboard boxes and a man wearing thick-rimmed glasses with his legs crossed by the door telling me this was a “pop-up sale” because he needed to make room in his house. One corner held books put back into boxes with paper signs saying, “On Hold.” The man said that meant he found some titles he wanted to keep.
     As I browsed, a couple spoke to the bookseller about their upcoming wedding and mutual past as curlers. The bookseller said someone named Spider Fred could’ve been a pro but didn’t follow through. I took notes on my phone. The couple said he should come by the St. Paul Curling Club, a windowless building on Selby I often wonder about and am a couple blocks away from as I write this. I paid the bookseller twenty-three dollars for nineteen books and left with them in a box.
     Walking through the bricked downtown Stillwater, I left my coat in the car and carried paper bags with twine-y twisted paper handles gradually unfurling from my sweaty fingers. I felt a retail high that reminded me of buying new Pumas in eighth grade. I liked the feeling but thought I shouldn’t. Two stores gave me free apple cider even though I didn’t buy anything. One gave me a cookie, and the lady said “Ope, saw you drop crumbs there.” And I said, “Ope, did I?” And she said she was kidding. But we both knew I had dropped crumbs.
     At home, I showed Claire my haul, except for the things for her, and she thought I got good stuff. We walked across the street from our apartment and got dinner at Brasa, celebrating that the twenty-first was our six-month anniversary but not quite because she said “anniversary” is only for yearly things, so six-month-iversary or something. I got the rotisserie chicken with mac and cheese and cornbread. Claire got the yellow curry and cornbread. Next to us, a gray-haired man with double hoop-and-ball earrings was maybe arguing with a woman with a crop cut who had done a lot of tanning. Claire was better at following what they were talking about and nodded toward them so I would listen, but I couldn’t quite hear. We wondered if they were father and daughter as we left.
     We went to see Knives Out and sat in the very front row because the rest of the seats had been picked and were gray on the little screen when we bought tickets. Luckily, the seats reclined, and we watched the movie laying on our backs. We both really liked the movie and laughed a bunch and were surprised and had fun talking about it on the way home.
     I walked Gibbs one more time listening to an Australian podcast about Christopher Lee. We fell asleep with The Office in the background.

Caleb Klitzke sometimes writes, sometimes repairs wooden canoes, sometimes teaches, and once got an MFA from the University of Arizona.


Of December 21, 2019

We wake around 6 AM, a little grumpy. I scramble eggs. Butter toast. Make coffee. Fill a water bottle. Put snacks in my backpack. My wife drives us from Arkansas to Missouri. Two of our nephews are competing in the “Neosho Battle for the Belt.” My father-in-law sits in back next to the oldest nephew who started playing Dungeons and Dragons a month ago. His earbuds dangle. We arrive to find a parking lot full of pickup trucks.
     My sister-in-law has saved a swath of seats for us on the bleachers. After a quarter of a century with my wife’s family, I know someone will be unhappy with their seat selection. My sister-in-law is shy of average height. Her chosen perch will not do. She cannot video over the scorers’ tables and the coaches standing mat-side.
     There are fewer people and some gaps on the bleachers on the other side of the gym. She packs up her bags and moves. This shuffling takes a few minutes. Meanwhile the attendees sing the National Anthem. Someone gives a lecture about good sportsmanship in the form of a prayer.
     My wife does not like the new spot. It is too high. The angle is wrong. The light above has burnt out. We test several areas until she finds one with a good view and good light. Her sister stays where she is. The rest wander back and forth.
     This is my first “real” wrestling match. When I was younger than my nephews, my aunt took me to a professional wrestling match somewhere in East Tennessee. I remember how the crowd snarled and glared into the gladiatorial ring. Like here, in the Neosho High School gym:
     “Get up! Get up! Get up!”
     “Mash that boy’s face in the ground!”
     “Head up! Head up!”
     The beginning of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon plays in my head: “At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses.”
     The Neosho High School gym has an arched wooden cathedral ceiling. Padded mats lay across the entire basketball court. Six matches occur at once. Three sets of little kid matches clump together on one quarter of the court. The bigger kids’ matches spread out across the rest. Pairs of wrestlers tumble into one another. The boundaries depend on the imaginations of the referees.
     I am not an aficionado. It is difficult to know where to look. Families fill the stands. Coaches and scorers and referees mill around. A continual parade of nachos, doughnuts, pretzels, and sodas zigzags through the bleachers. Camo ball caps. Headbands and too much makeup. Farm equipment and second amendment T-shirts. Parents adjust singlets and tie shoes. Between matches, kids play games on handheld devices. Recently pinned kids walk by, crying.
     I am not sure how to make sense of the rituals and tragedies. I played football, baseball, basketball. I have visceral reactions to the artful violence in those. The one time I went to wrestling tryouts in high school, I got down on all fours and a guy I’d known most of my life draped himself over my back. I decided pretty quick wrestling was not for me.
     Kids walk out to wrestle. They pick up a red or green strap and Velcro it around an ankle. I did not notice this until an hour or two into being there. I figured out later that the colors matched the colors on the scoreboard. I never figured out the scoring.
     Some matches are over as soon as they start. The loser flops down. The winner flops down on top of him. The ref counts and raises the victor’s arm. Handshakes mark the end.
     But every once in a while, amidst the chaos and the noise and the clumsiness, two kids walk out to their spots on the mat. The ref blows the whistle. The wrestlers crouch and swat at each other’s heads. The ref circles and holds up two fingers, or one, or three, or make other gestures I do not understand. Coaches on all fours yell toward the tangled bodies of boys.
     Then one kid grabs a leg. He flips the other kid over. It is obviously a “move.” A set of moves follows, in combination.
     Most people stare into their phones, dip nachos in molten cheese, cheer about other matches. Everywhere I look, clocks are counting down.
     The kid who was about to get pinned spins out and is atop the other kid, quick. Their faces express agony. Their struggle is simple, real, and beautiful.

Rick Joines is Assistant Director of First Year Writing at the University of North Texas. He has a creative nonfiction essay forthcoming in 3Elements.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

Monday, January 13, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Yelizaveta P. Renfro, Joi Massat, K. Chritton, Dorian Rolston, Liz Bedell

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 am calling out words into the predawn: “Music stand!” “Mouthpiece!” “Music!” “Ten dollars!” “Epi-pen!” My daughter K moves around the house collecting items. It’s dark every day when we get up, and today’s no different, but the words are. I normally call out other words: “Towel!” “Bathing suit!” “Chromebook!” “Goggles!” Most mornings, K and I head out before dawn to go to high school swim practice, but today we have a different destination. Elsewhere in the house, my husband and son are stirring, preparing for the two-hour drive to Chicago.

We have lived here, in northern Indiana, for not even six months; we are still on our first cycle through the seasons. The darkness of morning lasts for hours, an interminable gloom that stretches its fingers far into each day. This late sunrise is one of the first things I ever learned about this place, from Pete Buttigieg’s book Shortest Way Home, which was given to me as we prepared for our move. His book opens: “Dawn comes late here along the western limit of the Eastern Time Zone, so far from the coast that our first sunrise of the year arrives after eight in the morning.” Indeed, it still seems incredible to me that we are in the same time zone here as we were in our past life, in Connecticut, 800 miles due east. In Buttigieg territory we’re perched on the cusp of a time zone, on the edge of a state. From our front door we could walk to Michigan in fifteen minutes, drive into the Central Time Zone in twice that. For months we have been slanting into darkness, making this downward skid, until today: we have finally careened into the darkest day of the year, a morning to hit rock bottom, a morning that we carry with us like a shroud down I-90 until we drive into a time zone that makes sense, timestamping the dawn with a more appropriate hour.

We get to the Palmer House Hilton early—or so we think—but we aren’t really early. Already people are lugging tubas in cases or in gig bags or just brassy and naked through the streets. Already the floors of the hotel are swarming with disoriented tuba players and lost audience members. K goes in search of her fellow tuba players while the rest of us try to make sense of the audience line. It snakes all the way around the entire floor; in fact, the end of the line and the beginning of the line have merged into a confusing mass. We eventually find ourselves far back in the line, in a room that contains a bar where one may purchase mixed drinks, doughnuts, coffee, and tuba-shaped cookies. TubaChristmas is free, but a wristband is required for admission. A rumor spreads through the line that some people have been camped out here since 6 a.m., waiting for the wristbands that won’t be distributed until after 9 a.m. This is all new to us. Though this is our fourth TubaChristmas, the previous three times we attended a smaller event in Connecticut. The tuba devotees there did not have to spend close to six hours waiting for an hour-long concert. Only about 60 tubas converged on New Britain, Connecticut, while the Chicago event draws over 400.

As the three of us wait in line, my brother arrives. He flew into Midway this morning, then took an Uber from O’Hare. He’s been wandering around the hotel looking for us. At one point, he ended up on the tuba floor lost amidst the instruments. As we wait, he comments on how inefficient everything about TubaChristmas is: the line that still isn’t budging, the system for purchasing coffee and tuba cookies, which involves first exchanging money for raffle tickets and then the tickets for the food items, and even the TubaChristmas website, which appears to be a relic of the nineties. “There is nothing efficient about a tuba,” I point out to him. A tuba is all about excess. It is too large, too low, too loud. It has only three or four valves and does only one thing. And yet there is a cult following for this event, in its 46th year. The first TubaChristmas was in Rockefeller Center in 1974. There are now hundreds of these concerts all over the world. TubaChristmas is a garish, over-the-top display of ugly Christmas sweaters, TubaChristmas hats and scarves in red or green or blue festooned with the badges of past TubaChristmases like war medals. Some of the more seasoned musicians literally clank as they walk past; they have had to purchase additional scarves to display their pins. A few players wear dressy suits printed in festive Christmas lights or trees, as though a tailor had mixed up a roll of wrapping paper with his gabardine. The tubas are bedecked, too, with wreaths, flashing lights, reindeer antlers, tinsel, and all manner of holiday decoration. The tuba cousins are here, too: the sousaphones and euphoniums and odd double-belled horns and even one ophicleide. A select group of sousaphones wear bell covers that spell out MERRY CHRISTMAS.

We don’t manage to get green wristbands—which allow audience members to enter the grand ballroom as early as 11 a.m.—but we do score orange ones labeled 11:45 a.m. Soon thereafter, the orange wristbands run out and the color switches to red, which means the grand ballroom is at capacity. Audience members with red wristbands will be taken to an overflow ballroom where they will watch the televised concert live on a screen.

“Didn’t you get any merch?” my brother quips after we are finally seated—about three quarters of the way back. He points to audience members sporting TubaChristmas hats and scarves. I tell him that the merchandise website—where I originally ordered K’s hat and sheet music—is as quaint and antiquated as the rest of the site. “You have to print out an order form and mail it with a check or money order,” I tell him. “It isn’t easy getting TubaChristmas merch. You have to be dedicated.”
As we wait for the concert to begin, I think more about tubas. To play the tuba is to eschew the functionality and sleek design and multitasking abilities of our devices. I can make my computer make tuba sounds, but it is not the same as playing a tuba. I can make my computer do many things. I can carry around a phone and not need a notebook, a pen, a map, a compass, a guidebook, pocket change for nonexistent payphones, and dozens of other single-use items. A tuba does only one thing. We might think technology is taking over the world, but there is an enduring love for the single-purpose, beautiful, mechanical object. Playing the tuba is a physical act. There is the wrangling of the instrument, the embouchure, the force of pressing the valves. If you sit close enough to a tuba player, you can hear the muffled clattering of the valves. The instrument fills with spit that periodically needs to be splatted out of the spit valve. A tuba needs to be lubricated like the pistons of a car. K has oil and chapstick for her tuba. The mouthpiece is a lead weight in your hand. Everything about the instrument is weighty. Everything about it takes effort. Playing the tuba is an intensely physical act. This is no effortless touch on a screen with a single finger. The tuba is the opposite of all that. Of course, so are other musical instruments, but the tuba, in its sheer size and bulk and inconvenience, epitomizes this fact the way a flute or trumpet do not.

The ballroom keeps filling with audience members, but the tubas are not here yet. I get a text from K: Rehearsal has ended, so she’s sitting in a corner, reading about Mayor Pete on her phone. She sends me a picture of her warped face reflected in the bell of her tuba. “This is my status update,” she writes.

When the tubas finally start filing in, we crane our necks to see K, but she is impossible to spot among 400 other tubas. What normally makes her distinctive—her enormous instrument, her red TubaChristmas hat festooned with badges—means she looks just like everyone else here. The arrangement of the room is poor—the tubas are far from the audience, in another chamber, and they are not elevated, so it’s difficult to gauge their true magnitude. Will we even be able to hear them well? I wonder.

But when the first notes of “Adeste Fideles” erupt, the roar of the instruments fills all the space. The chairs, the floor, the chandeliers above vibrate with the sound. It fills my entire chest cavity, my head. It is overpowering—the instruments surging forth their sound, bellowing with all their might. They are not dampened, they are not backup, they are not the few low notes here and there. For once, they have the melody—they have everything. I imagine that in the front row, the intrepid tuba enthusiasts who got in line at 6 a.m. are being blasted by the instruments, scoured clean by sound; they are experiencing an exultant cleansing. The voices of the instruments are unified but unique. There is the more delicate blossoms of the euphoniums, the enormous sousaphones that are like magnolia flowers, their heady reverberations an overpowering perfume, the rare double-belled euphoniums, the nearly extinct, long-throated ophicleide. Each instrument is unique in its size, shape, the twisting of its pipe, its patina, its provenance. K’s tuba is named Gleb and hails from New Jersey. It previously belonged to a girl who at some point stopped playing the tuba, and it then sat in a musty garage in its case for a decade. Gleb’s brass finish is crazed over with miniature cracks; it has several dents, as do most tubas.

There is a lineage here. Today’s conductor worked with the legendary Harvey Phillips, who worked with the legendary William Bell. The son of Harvey Phillips, Tom Phillips, makes a guest appearance to sing “Santa Wants a Tuba for Christmas.” It’s like a game of Six Degree of Kevin Bacon—but the tuba version. When I mention this later to K, she will dismiss the significance of these connections. “I was already the great grand-student of William Bell,” she’ll tell me. Such relationships are not unusual, considering that TubaChristmas brings together players of all ages; the youngest today is six, the oldest eighty-three.

At the end of “Carol of the Bells,” the sousaphones go so low I am dumbstruck, left in disbelief. The biggest beasts have woken from their slumber, come out of hibernation on this darkest day, to herald the holiday season. Suddenly, I understand why people come out before dawn to experience 400 tubas in one place. In American fashion, we love excess: big stores, big skies, big landscapes, too much of everything. An unbelievable number of tubas in one place is just another manifestation of this love. Four hundred tubas is a parade of our riches. It is a celebration of the big and brassy and loud. It is a trumpeting (tuba-ing?), a crowing of our wondrous achievements, of the ostentatious and extravagant. Today, the tubas take precedence. They bellow and shout for this one day, and then the sun goes down, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, they become the subdued, slow-moving, lumbering, dinosaur-like creatures of the back row. They become the comic oom-pah-pah. They become the mostly unnoticed, slightly ridiculous bassline. They fade into the background. They become solitary creatures again, sometimes congregating in pairs or small groups, but nothing like the magnitude of today’s council. They go somnolent, dozy. They hibernate until their next spectacular winter blossoming.

But there is also this: to experience TubaChristmas, we must be present. We must all come together. This cannot be a digital experience. Yes, audience members will later post videos online, but these small windows into the totality of the event are pale approximations. Even a video shot from the front row is unremarkable. You must be there. You cannot attend TubaChristmas virtually. You must be inconvenienced: you must rise before dawn and drive and wait in line for hours. You must do all these things to be there. You must show up.

When it’s over, we tuck ourselves away into an alcove near the elevators as we wait for K to emerge from the tuba room, and we watch the musicians spill out with their instruments, running off to the next thing in their lives. The tubas overflow onto Wabash, they jaywalk to the parking garage, they go left and right in search of food. Many of the instruments are not in cases at all but are being carried lovingly in the arms of Christmas sweater-wearing tubists. Sousaphones are perched atop the shoulders of their owners who saunter down the street. Instruments are being wrangled all over downtown. A casual visitor who knows nothing of TubaChristmas might wonder why Chicagoans have such a love of tubas that they take them with them on downtown shopping expeditions and restaurant trips. A visitor might wonder what drew all the tubas out of hiding to congregate here, in this time and place, on the darkest day of the year. Who knew there were so many tubas in the world—let alone in the Chicago metro area? Who knew that tubas—those understated, lethargic beasts of the back row, so powerfully low that in normal situations, just a couple will suffice—could be so bold and garish and come out into the spotlight?

The tubas are loose in the streets of Chicago. And also in the streets of New York and Kalamazoo and New Britain. Not all of them on this day, of course—some TubaChristmases have already occurred, some are still to occur—but within a few weeks of today. While shoppers rush about, while people grow irate due to full parking lots and overcrowded stores, while people talk of the impeachment, of the most recent Democratic debate, while people crave the light that’s been steadily vanishing for months, the tubas come out. They make their appearance. They bloom on this shortest, darkest day of the year. Stop a moment to hear them. Stop to hear the voices of the tubas.

Back home, K shows her uncle videos of her idol Øystein Baadsvik playing the tuba. She demonstrates multiphonics on her tuba. The conversation shifts; something is said about Buttigieg and wine caves. I am too tired to pay attention. The tubas have bowled me over.

Later, when I am putting the kids to bed, I want to tell K about how the tuba seems antithetical to rest of our lives. I want to tell her something of what I’ve thought about today. I want to tell her about inefficiency and inconvenience. I say: tubas are big and cumbersome and inconvenient and they require effort to play and they only do one thing, and despite all of that, all of those people keep playing the tuba.

“Not despite,” she tells me. “Because.”

She already knows all of this. Of course she does. She is a tuba player.

As I am falling asleep, I think about something that K told me. During rehearsal, the conductor found the oldest player in the group by asking, “Is there anyone here who’s 93? 92? 91?” and so forth. When he got to 89 and then 88, and no one responded, he looked crestfallen. He then explained that last year, the oldest player had been 88, but apparently he hadn’t made it back. And it was him—the 88-year-old tuba player—I thought about, on the verge of sleep. I thought of that old man, playing with teenagers who carry smartphones in their hip pockets and tubas in their arms. I thought of how he sat with the youngsters, how he played with them last year. I thought of the reasons he didn’t make it back. I thought about him so much he nearly came to life in my mind. I imagined an entire life story for him. And then I went to sleep.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.


The day started in the darkness of early morning and the white light of the New Orleans bus-and-train station, and I can't say precisely when it started because I started out thinking New Orleans was in Eastern Standard Time but was wrong.

I resigned myself to sitting in a plastic chair in front of silent CNN for seven hours, and this wouldn't have been so bad if I wasn't a) hungry b) tired fron fitful sleeps on the train and c) feeling the start of a migraine, the result of both. My first plan was to read philosophical e-books and maybe watch some stupid videos in between (to liven up the reading experience) until the train came and I could transfer — it just had to be stuff I wouldn't mind completely forgetting in this tired state. But not long after finishing Aristotle's Poetics (shorter than I expected), I got a blind spot in my left eye. Quickly I ate a few almonds from my backpack, just to get anything on my stomach that wasn't sugary, and then felt the slow decline of my brain into...milder pain than one expects from the word "migraine," but still quite something.

I couldn't enjoy the murals on the walls anymore, either. According to the Amtrak website, they were painted in the 1940's, and I think it shows: past-modern, jagged lines. As a condensed history of Louisiana, it's gorgeous and a little awesome. But I could almost feel the painter moralizing behind the thing, and it's 1940's morals that speak of each "race of man" having his own proper grandeur.
I tried meditating in and out of sleep, whatever thing means. I'm a complete novice; I just do the "close your eyes and try not to think for five minutes" whenever it occurs to me to do so. I sat in uncomfortable positions, all with my arms circling my bag, and I ended up in a position where my legs, too, circled my bag, and I was on the floor.

It was comfortable at first, until I woke up at 4 with my legs stiff and wrongly bent as anything. I got up, my legs felt like they were in a physical haze, but, phew, at least some time was lost. But I was hungrier than ever, so I hobbled to the impressively clean bathroom to hunch over the toilet and say "hurk" a couple of times. Nothing came up and I left. Vomiting or pseudo-vomiting meant the hard part of the migraine was over, but I was still too nauseous to eat.

I wandered around briefly, then went grimly back to "sleep," in the chair this time, with my bag between my lap and my head, feeling like a schoolkid hunched over the desk. When I awakened, I looked up at CNN and saw — 7 AM! Time for the train! Oh, we weren't in EST...oops.

I stayed up and the pains started to fade. A happy congregation started filling up the waiting area, and soon enough it was time to board. We lined up with tickets on phone screens and print-outs.
Outside, it was drizzling and not cold at all — after being in Arizona for a few months, I somehow expected the southeast to be cold in winter, like I forgot twenty years of life already. It was nippy at most. We were shepherded onto the train.

I got into a window seat, realized I hadn't seen any distinctive New Orleans sights whatsoever, and had a remarkably blissful four hours of sleep.


Some common threads with Amtrak passengers are current derision and disappointment, comparisons to European trains, yearning for the good ol' days when they served wine in actual Amtrak glasses (though, yes, they are still using real silverware), and discussion of political moves. Last summer, my train from Atlanta to New York City was delayed six hours not because it was far from the station, but because another train, a freight train on tracks that Amtrak had leased to another company (as I understand it), just refused to pull out and make way. I'm not saying it's sabotage, but it kinda did look like sabotage.

This is the reason I took Amtrak to come home for the holidays: Mom hemmed and hawed at Amtrak about it, and they eventually gave us both $300 vouchers. That didn't cover my whole round trip, but it was something.

All this just to say, the conductor bantered with the older woman next to me and the older woman across the aisle about all the inconveniences of this particular train, and told us, "Don't complain to Amtrak, complain to your congressman." And Sharon across the aisle said, "I do!" (— And in multiple states of residence!)

I ate some granola, then read some of Hobbes' Leviathan with the attitude of a marathon runner. I'd downloaded some Enlightenmenty philosophy hoping it would be good inspiration for a story I'm working on, and I think it is, but it's all slow going, and it's not very exciting.

Soon I realized that I'm still bad at feeding myself, so granola wasn't enough. There was no dining car; I went to the café car, where they only had snacks. I could have had ramen or a hot dog, but I live on the edge and, like I said, I'm bad at self-feeding, so I took some pretzels and tea.

When I got back, the older woman who'd been sitting next to me, and who'd chatted up Sharon Across The Aisle now and then, was absent. That meant Sharon could go in for the kill and chat with me. I'm shy, small, and not a great conversationalist (unless I'm leading it or talking about something stupid I like like the Butt-Ugly Martians), so it was an awkward start and Sharon did most of the talking. She talked about how there was a lizard on the train and the people threw it in the trash instead of off the train, which confused her, why didn't they throw it off the train unless they killed it, and I learned that both my mom and Sharon are afraid of rats. We also talked about mothers and daughters staying connected (I wonder if that's how she knew that I'm somebody's daughter — the way I talk about my mother), and right after that she said she loved my hair, and that when she first got her hair cut real short, she wanted it to look like Anita Baker's. I knew Anita Baker was a singer, and that was the extent of my knowledge there.

When I told her I was a Creative Writing student, she said that creative writers can write an ordinary "hello how are you" letter and it will still tell a story. I'm not adroit in the ways of conversation, so I nodded at this as if I was saying, "Yes, I do that, I'm great."

Soon the other woman came back and the two discussed Hurricane Katrina and a government that didn't know what it was doing, and the heroes in government just trying to be good people. I took the opportunity to drift off — not that I don't like conversation, but I did want an excuse to cram greater amounts of pretzels into my mouth at a time.

Day drifted to night. People around me started getting anxious about when the train would arrive, where it was, the fact that it was running a bit late with no announcements, trying to wring a precise location out of Google Maps. Mom started texting me to ask if I was close, so I started giving updates. I was alright with this up to a point, but I'm of a nature that will take my mind off of schedules by any means necessary. In times like this, I absolutely will not be hurried by a schedule. I don't care if I just missed the bus; I'll wait contentedly for forty-five minutes until the next one's here. (This works better in theory than in practice because I get irritated all the time.)

Worse, though, is someone else being worried on my behalf. This tends to translate into their worry becoming my worry, landing on my back. Mom, it's a train! I can't possibly hurry it on!

Mom did have better reason than usual to worry: she was was getting a friend to drive her over (she has no car, you see) and didn't want to keep him waiting or anything. I told her in a half-jocular voice, "Mom! Try to relax as best you can!" She said, "I can't relax!"

But this was all useless, in the end, because baggage claim took like thirty minutes — and that was when, mercifully, Mom totally put the time worries aside, and instead chatted with me about how life's been lately. (Though she also said, "Didn't I always tell you? Never Use Baggage Claim!" She never told me that, and I'm absolutely using baggage claim on my return trip! You think I wanna pull a backpack AND suitcase with me back to the station, during a seven-hour layover?)

When we met in the station, we hugged and Mom cried, "BABY!" I mean a cutesy cry like, "BAY-bee!" That was when I realized, wow, she really does baby me, my brother and I really are infantilized.

I told her about the rave reviews and great sorrow that the film version of Cats is bringing to/inflicting on so many. I was surprised to learn she's interested in seeing it, since it's a bit of a running gag that she really hates the musical. Well, she's a dance person, and dance is finally in film again.

Sharon told Mom that when "this young lady" becomes a bestseller, she'll say, "I'm the lady on the train that talked too much," with great pride. I winked.

The station dude who gave me my bag gave me a "have a good night, sir." I smiled and walked off, but then Mom came up to him, literally waving her hand like a director cutting the shot, and said, with the kind of intonation and bombast you might expect from a Peanuts kid, "Wait a minute! Why does everyone SAY that? She does NOT look like a lil' boy." He apologized. I said, "I don't mind, or care!" And we began to walk off, with Mom moping, "Why does everyone think you're a lil' boy?" I told her I didn't look like a boy to her just because she'd known me all my life.

What I'm about to say might date this essay a little too severely. (I don't even know what terminology is right today, in my own era, so please be lenient with me.) But a friend once told me that every AFAB gender-non-conforming person they knew had at least two physical traits in common with Pat from Saturday Night Live's awful, no-longer-culturally-relevant It's Pat sketches. For the few people in the audience who don't know, the joke of It's Pat is that nobody knows what gender Pat is and they're desperate to find out (the second joke is, Pat is an unloved nerd). Now, I've since disproven this theory (though not with many examples), but, sad to say, I am afflicted with It's Pat Disease.


The true difference between Atlanta and Tucson is not trees and lack thereof, but trees and big clumps of impressive trees. And not trees and shade trees, either. Hills and swoops are also important, especially in the cityscapes themselves; between the mountains, Tucson is a flat grid.

"Sorry it's so messy; I didn't have a chance to clean up," said Mom. But our apartment looked exactly the same as it was four months ago, maybe neater. The clutter was in all the same places, and it was artful clutter, so everything was on a table or, if it was music, on that particular part of the floor that was close to the record player. It was my brother and mothers' bedrooms that held the mess.

Mine was less messy, touched up a little by Mom. The chair in the corner Mom bought, the one I'd used five times in ten years, was gone. The artful pillows Mom bought, which I never liked but tolerated, were standing in an artful line on the floor, one in front of the other, next to the plastic crate holding assorted stuffed animals. On the white dresser, even more stuffed animals in their rows, from as many as twenty years ago. And a new addition: the farmer doll Mom got from the thrift store with the shifty glare, whose face looks like a bunch of melons. On a set of white plastic drawers was the same old photo of Dad, wearing those orangey glasses that remind me of Gendo Ikari, the classic anime father.

I decided to wash the dishes that, as Mom complains, my brother left in the sink to sit all night. (He was at work when I arrived, and wouldn't get back until nearly midnight.) It was nice to do some repetitive, easy labor after three days of little more than lounging around like a lump. Mom complained that I should be in the bed, as if that lounging around sure was exhausting.

When my brother came, I trailed him into his bedroom, where we'd routinely hang out in former years — and even before then, before this apartment, in his bunk bed. Now we're both in our twenties. I'm in grad school and he's applying. He's two years older, but has spent a lot more time in this apartment (and carless) than me. But as Mom put it, he'd recently gotten "a glimmer in his eye," which is good, and what he needed. We chatted, and he annoyed me quickly — which, when you know how friendly we've been for siblings and how rarely he used to annoy me, is sad, I think. But in the days to come, I'll get over it, get over myself, and watching stupid internet videos with him will get a lot simpler.

Soon I was in bed, and I slipped pretty easily into sleep. My bed was predictably more comfortable than the dorm's, but my typical sleeping position, with one arm under my pillow and head, continued to hurt wherever I slept, as if I really did lose the magic of how to hold my arm just so. And I guess that was the end of the day.

Joi Massat is an artist currently studying at the University of Arizona. You can track them down at


It is far too early to be awake. The sun agrees with me. I’m sure science, something about a circadian rhythm, does too, but it is the sun; the great, prehistoric, ball of fire that trumpets the new day to the world, and it is the sun who I wish to wait for. I want to sleep and sleep for hours, until the sun rises and announces that it is time. But I know that if I do, the day will seem too short, stripped of hours that might have been its. I will rush about, trying to do everything and more, trying to rescue the day that has already been condemned to failure in my mind. Then dark will descend and despondency will return, and I will wonder where the sun went.
     So I get out of bed in the dark. There are things happening today, things not in my normal routine. I will deviate today, and the thrill of that thought makes it a little easier to get out of bed. I do not have to put on a swim suit, do not have to jump in a frigid pool and swim. I imagine the rest of my team, some of whom are doubtless already in their bathing suits, preparing to undergo what has become a normal Saturday. I will not be with them. One part of me laughs at what joy a single day off from swimming can bring. Most people don’t even swim once a month, that part of me says, but I silence it. Today is my day not to be in that room, which pompously proclaims itself a natatorium, that room which I know better than my own bedroom.
     I can close my eyes and see exactly what my swimming lane looks like. I can see the yellow and black tiling on the wall. I can taste the chlorine. I can feel the chilling air from the fan, which the coaches insist increases ventilation. They too, I suddenly realize, spend most of their lives in this natatorium. I can almost read the names of the record-holding swimmers on the walls. I can see all of the people who dwell with me in lane eight, can imagine all of their expressions at the various sets they might be forced to swim. Disgust, fear, revulsion, occasionally joy or relief, but mostly resignation. We, who spend nearly twenty hours a week in the pool, know resignation well. It is the only way to survive. With every gasping breath, we remind ourselves that worse could be in store. And if worse is coming, there is nothing we can do about it. Inhalers and water bottles and foot cramps and trips to the bathroom do little to fight the all-consuming pool.
     But I will not be there today. Nor tomorrow. Sundays are the only days we get off. A day of prayer, I suppose, for some. For me, it is the day to willfully forget what comes and what has been. I choose a day of ignorance, knowing the price will be paid in full the following day.
     I can imagine a vacant pool almost as easily as one full of resignation. As we stretch before practice, the water is placid and calm. It holds none of the frantic noise of kicking and pulling and thinking. It looks as though you could step out onto the surface of the gray-green water, and it would hold you, delicately, and embrace you. I sometimes think an empty pool, devoid of ripples and waves, is the most beautiful thing in the world.
     I shove my tuba into his case and stuff my music into the pouch. He and I are going to play, something we do less and less often now a days. There just isn’t the time. The sun deigns to rise and fall every day, before I have finished all that I might have done. He and I still get along, though, despite the infrequent contact. The tuba and the player, as we always have been.
     Perhaps all we are as humans is a long list of ideas. Tuba player, swimmer, reader, student. Each of our lists is so long that it fades and blurs and becomes the same in its intricate individuality. How do we decide what goes first on this list? What goes second? How do others, who barely know us, decide what to write on our lists?
     The car ride to Chicago is long, as we flee the rising sun. The skin of my arm smells of chlorine, though this is no surprise. I have come to think that nothingness smells of chlorine. It is the kind of smell that climbs up inside you and makes you forget it is there, so that you startle when fresh air wafts by. We don’t talk of much on the car ride, my mother and father and brother and I. We are going to TubaChristmas, though the reality of that has not quite caught up to me. I know what it means, I suppose, having been to three of the concerts before, but I have never been to this one. I try to imagine it, to plan out in my head what interactions will happen and what I will have to say. My plans are based on a TubaChristmas nearly 800 miles away, one that has no bearings on this unknown fate I bear down upon.
     I hate not being able to know what will happen. I need to know who I must talk to, where I must stand, and for how long. That is one good thing about swimming. I have the routine down. Before every practice, I gather my things: my swim cap, my goggles, my water bottle, my inhaler. I collect the equipment we might be forced to use at any moment: the fins, the socks, the paddles, the kick board, the pull buoy, and the stick. I know how to swim, I know how I am expected to swim, and I know what will happen. I like that. What I like even more is that after we stretch and chat, after we are prescribed our torture and grumble halfheartedly about it, we stop talking. We start swimming. And as much as it hurts sometimes, there is so much more room in my head for thinking. My mind becomes a great cavern that I can fill with thoughts, because there is nothing else to do.
     I sometimes wonder what the other swimmers think about. They must think, because there is nothing else to do. Asking, though, would break the spell. We do talk, sometimes. At any moment, we can stop thinking, stop swimming, and start to talk. We begin speaking to each other, complaining to each other, so fluidly I marvel at it. There is no pause as we leave behind our caverns of thought, no momentary hesitation before conversing. We do it immediately, regularly, switching between solitary brooding and communal brooding without a thought.
     We get to the enormous hotel that houses the Chicago TubaChristmas. I stumble my way through the process of getting where I need to be. This process, no matter where I am, is almost always easier than I expect it to be. The dread I feel at the unknown, unplanned is some sort of powerful intoxicant, brewed to be more bitter than necessary.
     I stand in the line of tubas, waiting to register. There are sousaphones and euphoniums and baritone horns and things I can’t even name. Even among the tubas, though, even among tubas that are the same size and have the same number of valves and have the same patina as my instrument, there is such variance. There are like people, these tubas, and you could line all 400 of them up, and I could still find mine. And, I imagine, he could still find me.
     The people who accompany these tubas are as varied as their instruments. They come wearing outlandish Christmas sweaters, or fine concert clothes. They are barely old enough to lift their instruments, or nearly too old. Many come in jubilant packs, laughing and talking loudly as they wait. The rest of us come alone, tuba players who live in isolation from each other.
     The line is long, and moves at the speed of all things tuba. There is a lot of time to think. I study the hotel decorations, the carpeting, the ceiling’s molding. I wonder, again, about what these other people are thinking. I can see into no one’s mind. These tuba players, these strangers, are as mysterious and opaque as the people I spend twenty hours a week with.
     The line eventually snakes through. We practice, just for an hour, before the concert. It is a strange thing, to watch so many bells rise in unison, to hear so many gasps of breath. I know that around me there are tuba players tightening their embouchure just as I am.
     We play the first notes of Silent Night, and my lips tighten and loosen to make the right sounds. It is so automatic, easier to me than smiling. It would resemble smiling, though, if the tuba were not there.
     Later, in the grand ballroom the hotel gave TubaChristmas, as we play in the concert, I imagine all the tubas flying away through the air. The players would be left naked, exposed to the audience. We would be pseudo-smiling, our lips stretched almost comically, almost grotesquely, as we blew into our vanishing instruments.
     That tuba, for each of us, is a choice. I will never be inside their minds, never gain higher knowledge of the glorious entity that would be the combined consciousnesses of all these tubas, but I can speak for myself. I play the tuba because I love to sing, though I can’t do it well. Trust me on this, if you listen to the tuba often enough, you begin to hear more than low bumbling. You hear the soaring melodies, the deliberate rise and fall, and the lyrical voice of the tuba. It speaks a language as easy to understand as a smile.
     With our tubas gone, what would we be? 400 people sitting in a ballroom, staring out at an audience of equal size. We would be nothing, or rather, not one thing. Tuba, an item that is on each of our lists of personhood, would vanish, and then where would we be? We would lose our homogenous identity, our melding sound.
     But the tubas remain, and the sound prevails. It courses through my body. I vaguely remember that some creatures use vibrations in the ground to get their bearings. What creatures, I cannot say, except the tuba, that great monolithic beast, is one of them. The noise hums its way up through the soles of my shows and vibrates in my mouthpiece, fighting my lips to make noise.
     I am sitting next to two complete strangers, both of whom clutch instruments with the same uncomprehending adoration that I do. We love being in this sound. I know this. I do not know if they marvel at it the way that I do, do not know if they wonder at their luck in being here, but I know they love the sound.
     I have played the tuba for over five years now, and it feels easy. I put my mouthpiece to my face, and sound flows through me and my tuba. We are one thing, one thing that sings. It is unlike normal singing. The vibration moves from my vocal cords to the horn, but more than that is different. To me, the noise I make with my tuba is golden and glowing and full, all that my singing voice is not. Even more, the tuba and I can-and must-sing while smiling.
     The aftermath of the concert is a whirlwind of brass and sheet music. As soon as we stop playing, as soon as our instruments return to our their cases, we become individuals once again. We set out for wherever it is we are going. Alone, or in groups, before putting tubas away, or after. We are no longer all smiling together.
     Swimmers don’t smile. I think about this on the car ride home. Our faces are obscured and scrubbed clean of joy by chlorine. We must move our mouths only to thrust air down our throats. Other than that, our faces relax in the caustic embrace of the water. I am used to seeing my fellow swimmers staring off into the distance, not unhappily, but not happily either. We arrive at the pool before any of us are awake, and we leave long after everyone dreams of sleep. We think more than we talk, and jokes die quickly, drowned in chlorinated depths.
     According to Red Cross, 54% of Americans do not have ‘water competency skills’. They could not prevent themselves from drowning in a pool. This confuses me. I can remember, of course, a time before I knew how to swim, but I cannot truly imagine it. It is so hard to imagine being what you are not.
     I like the power I hold over the water. Though I swim in the slowest lane, and though I often stop to gasp into my inhaler, I know that I can swim. We are forced to put on socks, to increase our friction. We are made unable to kick, forced to pull through the water, sometimes only with one arm. Still, I make it across the pool. This knowledge feels like that golden note. Throw whatever flimsy obstacles you want in my way, and I will still struggle across the water. That makes me feel powerful.
     I fall asleep in the car. When I wake up, the sun has set. There were no windows in that grand tuba ballroom. There are no windows in the pool room, save for one that looks out into a lobby outside of the pool. From the water, all you can see through the window is the color of the sky. I should be used to the lack of sun in my life, but I am not.
     The great golden ball of fire evades me always. I dream of being Icarus, flying after the sun, and reaching it. I would rather swim to the sun, though, the water becoming warmer and warmer as I neared it. But the sun is down and my bed is the only thing I swim through, as I fall asleep on the shortest day of the year.


The question of what happened today is actually deadly serious. Even if all that happened is you went to the dog park, ate some breakfast, did some yoga, and took a nap (more or less my day on the day in question), that "all," that diminutive of the mundane, reducing ordinary things to their absolute ordinariness--that's a lot. And the reason that's a lot is that you get to make a choice. Of all the infinite happenings in a single twenty-four-hour span, you're tasked with plucking out a select few, curating them into the familiar arc of sunrise-to-set, and making meaning of them. As Frankl says of the true Holocaust survivors, the ones who somehow managed to persevere with their humanity intact, "The one thing nobody can take away from you is your ability to choose your attitude in a given situation." (Or some such, I'm paraphrasing.) If this choice can be made on the order of life and death, why are we so constantly at the mercy of grocery store lines and traffic jams? Why isn't every day--every day that isn't a threat to our very existence--absolutely fucking amazing?

That's the real question I want to answer here. Because the truth is, looking back on my December 21st, 2019, from this vantage of New Year's Eve (when the essay is due), the day is but a dim reminiscence, some scraps of notes jotted down mostly ad hoc (after seeing a Nicholson Baker tweet, the man who inspired the prompt), and thus proving the point about how little I find truly remarkable. If I'm being honest with myself, the very fact that I'm alive and free to go to a five-buck drop-in vinyasa flow in the middle of the day is cause for celebration, an utter miracle. To say nothing of the incomprehensible beauty of the frost on the ground at the dog park, folding the lawn like the stiff fur of a just-wet dog (and shimmering similarly). These are facts that pass by without mention, without notation, simply because they are expected. We come to expect to be able to find moments of beauty in our day (except when we don't, and pretend to be at the mercy of events); we come to expect to be able to savor, in recollection, those rare indulgences like a yoga class (except again, when we don't, and whine about not being able to find the time today, etc.). We forget that we have the choice. That when someone asks us, "What happened today?" they're not asking for a play-by-play, a mere retelling in chronological order--but for us to wake up and literally make meaning of our lives. To own our days! Seize them!

I have a really shitty "CARPE DIEM" tattoo on my right shoulder, where I suffered nerve damage after a fall on a bicycle. The whole story is rather pathetic actually (see: there I go making meaning, or meaningless), and doesn't bear going into now, but suffice it to say I was going through a difficult time and needed a reminder of something. Only now I realize what I was trying to remind myself of. This wasn't, as thought then, simply appropriating the old adage from Lance Armstrong's own appropriation in his book, which I was reading at the time; this isn't some hackneyed imperative to try your best, get over it, etc. This wasn't the usual sentiment on the Hallmark card that tells you to get well soon--starting this very day! No, this was rather the recognition that if you don't seize the day, in the sense of grabbing it by the lapels and telling it what's what, the day will seize you. Then what happened, as usually constructed, is what happened to you--not with you, for you, by you. There's missing from this whole discussion a sense of authorship.

For instance. When my partner calls to ask me how my day was, I tend to bristle. I've never really given this much thought, simply attributing it to my inherent caginess, reticent to divulge too many details of my life for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, some primal fear of vulnerability, as if knowing something about my day somehow exposed me. (Perhaps I should just live worthier days, rather than whiling them away in cafes on New Year's Eve writing about them, then I wouldn't feel so self-conscious.) In any case, now I know it's not just clamming up before the seeming act of self-disclosure, but rather the obligation I feel, from within, to take ownership of what I have lived. To spin it, in accordance with the particular aims of this publication, Myself: what matters to me. For when I tell you, or her, what happened, I not only give you a kind of Go-Pro footage of my day-in-the-life, but also of my editing thusly, the parts, and thereby the things broadly construed, that matter. What happened is really what matters.

Because it's actually hard to imagine a version of events, at least for my shortest day of the year but likely for most, if not all others, in which I'm not OK. Sure, there was the old man at the dog park who got a bit spooked by my puppy, perhaps a fall risk; and when we began playing a full-field soccer match, he promptly whistled his old Golden over and left in a huff. There might be something bad about that, some aspect of not-OKness, but then it's on me to chastise myself after the fact for having a little fun at someone else's expense (and my lack of fun now, in doing so, does little I imagine in retrospect). Sure, there was the fact of my clearing out my desk during my phone call with my mom, leaving me a little distracted; but that guilt, arguably, does little to ensure my undivided attention toward her in the future, and certainly does nothing to negate her comment, "What's all that noise--it's hard to hear," as I shuffled papers and moved boxes. There is no going back! There is only the present attitude on these preceding events, making the question of what happened all the more insidious: it's not really a past tense at all.

As I look forward (in the present) to this new year, I'm faced with a similar dilemma. I know I'll have to get my partner a new shoulder bag, since the one I got her on that fateful day, vegan leather in keeping with her code of ethics and aesthetics, was too big; had the clerk been able to procure the promised measuring tape at the point of sale, this might even have been avoided, but alas. I know that's the future I'm headed into, informed by the past, and yet I still get to choose the significance of this event, still unfolding: not only significant enough to mark here, but indeed absorb as part of my character, the kind of boyfriend who'd go to the trouble to get it right, even if he gets it wrong. The failure to obtain adequate shoulder-carrying accoutrements for the woman I love notwithstanding, I think I’m a pretty good guy. There, I seized it.

The last thing I remember of that day--or perhaps only memory-jogged by my noting it, which fulfills surely a similar function to telling our loved ones about our days at the end of them, the decision to include a value judgment and a vault of the most precious--was taking a nap. Now, I'm not one to normally take naps, and I dare say this undermines my whole argument, as the act of sleeping during the day, literally acting as if the sun had not risen, is an affront to the "carpe diem" motto if ever there was one. (Or perhaps, one could argue sleeping through sunlight is a show of ultimate dominance, as if the day so conquered you needn't even raise a finger.) But I think even here we have a choice. I was reading my partner's grandmother's memoirs, in which her late husband's maxim is oft-quoted: "If you have something important to say, put it in retrievable form." This I am doing now, even if I happened to fall asleep around the time the context for this was being given (she's an archivist by trade, so go figure). And I want to take that a step further in saying the very act of putting it down, of telling, is the importance: not what happened, but what we chose to say about it. When I awoke, as if to a new day, the sun was cresting over the mountains, though in reverse; the skies were going from peach to pink, rather than pink to peach.

Dorian Rolston lives in Tucson, Arizona.


December 21st 2019

When my eyes open, it’s to striated, pulsing color tones, not the calm yellows or pinks that normally great me, but lavender, scarlet, fuchsia. The sun is announcing its arrival in no uncertain terms on this shortest day. The colors radiate around the dark silhouette of my cat, doing her best Egyptian statue imitation on the window sill.  

This east-facing window is the saving grace of my small bedroom, not because of the tangle of ice-rimmed evergreens that it overlooks, but simply because it reliably reminds me of beauty at dawn. When I take a moment to gawk -- for so it is, even after eight years of waking here -- at the sky’s expanse, whether color-luminous or cascading greys, my days unfold more richly. When I fling off the quilt in the still darkness, hurtling into my work day, and turn away from the window to the mental catechism of the tasks that await me, I pay the price.  

But today I do gawk and linger. So much so that the cat-statue squawks her disapproval and gets me moving, down the stairs, into the chilly kitchen, towards the stack of cans that only my magical opposable thumb can open.  Duty done, I fill the kettle, flick the switch, measure out the beans. I pause before I press the grinder button, hesitant to loose its throaty dissonance into the quiet. But my need is too great; those first swirling breaths of the freshly-ground coffee do more to fortify me than the mugs that will follow, or so I fancy.  Until I have the real thing in my hand.

As I sip this first mug, I stand looking out at the snow drifts that hide my perennials, save for a few scraggly stalks. Unbidden, a line from the Susan Cooper poem “The Shortest Day” ran through my mind: “As promise wakens in the sleeping land …”   I began to recite it from the beginning, as I’d heard it declaimed countless times at Christmas Revels performances:  
And so the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away …
Yes. Surely. So many cultures celebrate the light’s return, slow seconds each day at first until that increment stretches to over two minutes near the vernal equinox. Whatever religious or symbolic meaning is attached, at bottom it’s surely this simple: the returning light kindles community, communion, communication.  

I ponder this as I sit alone, which is how I spend much of my time, sometimes gladly, sometimes with rue.  I am learning to make peace with solitude, to slow down enough to be alone (without the enticing distractions of Netflix, social media, a book), but if I’m honest, it’s détente at best.  Still, a quiet Saturday morning is a relief after a tumult-filled school week, the last before a break. Even my eleventh-graders, unexpectedly caught up in Hamlet, delighted by the ways his moodiness, inaction and flaring passions mirror theirs, have been restive, unless acting scenes out, discovering how well the iambic pentameter sits in their mouths. I make my living in and with words, as English teacher, writer and editor, and of late there have been a lot of them, loud, urgent, questing and questioning. I settle into the quiet, and wrap my hands around my cooling mug. 

The day unfolds from there, in errands and intentional conversations.  A stop at the winter farmer’s market yields sweet potatoes and a discussion of trigonometry with their grower; the bakery is out of the pie I was seeking, but I find a student’s parent and learn things I need to know; the line at the dry cleaners daunts me, and when I finally reach the front I learn that my blue sweater is the first colorful item that will leave the store. The man bemoans how much black people wear these days, unfolding the creased ten-dollar bill I give him. His button-down shirt is a bright, starched white, almost blinding in the sunlight.  An hour later, as I navigate through a sea of identical black down coats to put away my grocery cart, I think of his lament.  I am grateful for the green hats on the little kids who wave at me, the red scarf on the tottering elderly woman crossing the street in front of my car, and the flash of the car salesman’s silver watch as he points out the features of one particular car model. 

For yes, it is that time again, my 12 year old car finally needing repairs that tip past the point of financial wisdom.  I’m struck by the situational intimacy that emerges as I discuss financing and favorite car colors, the importance of a good radio, to hybrid or not to hybrid, with this salesman. We find commonalities swiftly -- a favorite hiking area, a band, what it means to be a child of an aging parent, relief that the solstice has arrived,  but I wonder --are they real? I suspect they are true -- that’s not what I mean. We’re drawn together in conversation for an explicit purpose, and a transactional one at that; why, then, do we raise the latticework of connection, of matters beyond Bluetooth capacity and all-wheel drive?  To ease the deal-making? To pass the time? Because we are human, and this, this simple act of give-and-take, of speak-and-listen, is how we affirm that humanity?

Late in the afternoon, as a friend and I stand in silence near a frozen lake, a short, too-slippery walk for my recovering sprained ankle, but important for all that. We’ve known each other for years, hiked together in all seasons, and we tend to chatter as we move, but hush when we pause. It’s an odd pattern, perhaps; today has been an exception though, as after the first flurry of “how are you?” and “damn, it’s cold!” we didn’t speak as we walked.  I wait, taking my cue from her tense jaw. When she’s ready, she will … and then the words come -- the biopsy, the phone call, the disbelief. The plans to go to Boston for a second opinion after the holidays, or should she go now, and why shouldn’t she have them both cut off anyhow, even if it’s OK, because who wants to live through days of fear like this again, and finally the tears. The tears that are as much about tension, anxiety and dread as they are about malignity. 

In their wake, she calms, turning her face into the wind. I watch the shadows lengthen as the minutes stretch out, one creeping closer and closer to our feet. Words return, too, easier words, stories of plumbers and faculty meetings, of exasperation and laughter. By unspoken agreement, we give politics a wide berth, not because we disagree (she it was, after all, who knit me a scarlet-pink hat) but because there’s not time for it today. The light is changing. As we head back along the trail,  she’s the one who starts the round, her husky alto beckoning my soprano, voices echoing as we entreat peace in the rose-colored light. Dona Nobis Pacem, indeed. 

Liz Bedell writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will