Thursday, January 9, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Harmony Hazard, Danielle Cadena Deulen, John Melillo, Craig Reinbold, Frank Strong

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.


The Middle

It is the middle of the longest night of the year and you can't sleep. It's the shortest day; the longest night. The end of a decade; the beginning of one.

Once, you heard the queer writer Leslie Feinberg speak about rejecting the literary archetype of night and darkness as images of danger and instead offered the idea that for some people, night is a site for freedom, for safety. You loved that idea: night as sanctuary, night as solace.

But now, in bed in the middle of the long night, your limbs flung into a storm of sheets, you aren't so sure.

When the bus was late today, you began to walk. Years ago, during a time of realizing that life was a series of choices you were making whether they felt like that or not, you decided to laugh whenever the bus was late. Today, you walked the two and a half miles home, past the small skeleton on Speedway, past the couch riding on a car, your face sun-slapped, and you felt the kind of easy joy that only comes when you decide that you want it enough.

You chose this life, you remind this other version of yourself, but she is not convinced. Go back to sleep, you say. Stop looking at your boyfriend as if his sleeping face will reveal whether or not there's a future with him. Stop walking through the hallways of memory, opening and slamming doors.
     Night as mirror. Night as ghost.

You remember the night fights with the other men. How once, at a late hour, a man said something about killing you, and though you understood that words don't always represent the meanings behind them, you stumbled out of his house, into the safety of the night, the stars like the bright specks of luck you find on the ground while walking in the desert. 
     There were so many nights that tried but failed to break you.

Tonight you went to a solstice gathering with soup, chocolate, poetry; wanting the night with friends to fill something in you that you forgot you needed filled. But it didn't. You got a ride home with a woman you don't really know and slammed her car door too hard by mistake. Everything felt like that, either excess or not enough. There are still days that feel not quite like mistakes, but almost.
     Fuck the past, your friend said at one point tonight. Write about the future.

Next to you in bed, the kind man sleeps. It's been almost seven years but sometimes late at night, when you get up to pee, you forget his name. You know that the name doesn't matter, but you want to know, from your tired-brain-body, if you can still recognize whoever he is underneath the name. Days feel like the same thing: what is the real thing that is happening inside of them?

Sometimes you want to coppice your own life: cut it down, see if it grows back, and how.

The worst train, your nephew will say in the morning about the rectangular blob you make out of play-dough for him. The best aunt, you'll make him repeat, but you don't actually believe in either of those things, not the best or the worst, the shortest or the longest, the end or the beginning. You believe in the middle of things.

After you were diagnosed, you had dinner with a woman who had gone through the same thing. I became the person I talk to in the middle of the night, she told you. You nodded at her, your face made smooth in the candlelight, but those would be the months when you stayed awake from the chemo, night tugging at you as if you were its marionette, your mind and body yanked in all directions. Night as wreck. Night as reckoning.

This is you writing the future: in the wither of morning, the yellow grass outside your window will waver in the wind, the regal cat will recline in the windowsill and the kind man, in his soft and hideous bathrobe, will wrap his arms around you.
     Loving this life will feel easy, which is not the same as not complicated, and even though you know you chose it, it feels more like the walk you took when the bus was late: spontaneous, unexpected. You never want to stop feeling a little surprised in the morning.

Have you become the person you talk to in the middle of the night? You picture that middle as another desert and you imagine waiting for that other self as the hours knit themselves across the long plain of your bed. She's late but when she finally arrives, she's glamorous in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, her scarf slapping in the desert wind.
     You've come a long way, you'll say to her.
     I'm here now, she'll say. I'm finally here.

Harmony Hazard hails from Tucson and New York. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, The Rumpus, Catapult, CALYX, Border Crossing, and in the anthology Rebellious Mourning. She is an assistant nonfiction editor with the Vida Review. She isn't much of a tweeter but you can follow her at @harmonyhazard



Rain and rain and more rain. When my sons wake up they ask for the sun, and although I know I can’t control it, it feels like a failure to tell them, again, no. We’re stuck in the lethargy of the season. Even the sky is sleeping. I have difficulty maintaining my attention because sleep is so seductive, and because each day looks like a replica of the last. Our mundane routine remains the same: we wake up in the dark and go to sleep in the dark and in-between we eat, talk, draw, read books, paint—my sons are tiny and still want to sit next to me, touch my face, lean their heads on my legs and belly, talk to me about the universe which they know so little about. Lately, we’ve been discussing black holes. We have several library books on the phenomenon that are now overdue, sitting on the arms of our red velvet reading chair. Thanks to these books, I now know the name of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy: Sagittarius A. Over and over, my boys paint their Sagittarius A’s in bright swirls, hold their dripping pages up in front of their smiling faces, so proud at the destruction they’ve drawn. It makes me think of my drama teacher from high school: Carolyn, whom I loved, and who I remember saying, “The older I get, the more I think life moves in a spiral—that you never really learn anything new, just the same thing from a new angle.”

I don’t know why I remember that so clearly, or why, since turning 40, my mind is drawn back into a constant reexamination of my past. As a young woman I was so ready to leave my home—I left and kept going. Now all I seem to want to do is go back to those rooms, be with those people. I live through my day in a half-dream, remembering the scenes that are gone, and meanwhile our solar system moves in a spiral through space. Celestial bodies reflect light between them as they drill into a vast blackness that can only approximate what people imagine when they think of the word “nothing.” I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m just stating facts here. The thought isn’t even entirely mine, but from a video I found online—one of those animated bits of edutainment meant to teach you something profound or complex in five minutes. Lately, when I’m too anxious to sleep, I slip out of bed and go down to the living room to open my laptop to watch hours of badly-produced, voiced-over videos in the dark—about exoplanets, quasars, what would happen if you tried to stand on Venus, the black hole like a drain at the center of our galaxy, and one of my favorites, the last one I watch to help me back to sleep, demonstrates the scale of the observable universe: how small we are, how much none of this matters. It comforts me. After the paint dries, but before dinner my sons and I play Black Hole, a game in which I turn slowly at the center of our living room and my sons pretend my gravity is too great to resist. Gripping onto furniture, smiling on their inevitable trajectory toward me, they say, “Oh no! I’m passing the event horizon! Oh no! I’m being sucked down to the singularity.” When I catch them, I spin them down to the singularity: a huddle-hug on our living room floor. Outside, the sky maintains its distance, pulling another blanket of clouds over itself. I kiss my sons’ shining faces.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is an associate professor at Willamette University and hosts “Lit from the Basement” a podcast and radio show at and KMUZ 100.7 FM. She is the author of a memoir, The Riots; two poetry collections, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us and Lovely Asunder; and a poetry chapbook, American Libretto.


What Happened on December 21, 2019

I woke up at 11:22, 11 minutes after a mythological time in our family life: 11:11—MAKE A WISH. So the day began not making a wish. Or wishing I had made a wish, acknowledging my belatedness.

I had been dreaming about a school, or some institutional space, in which there were three bars—bars where you drink—separated by glass.

I had been sleeping in my mother-in-law’s house, my wife’s childhood home, in my wife’s childhood room. Sleep, sweet sleep. This sleep had been my second 12 hours in three days. This was the fruits of childcare—an older cousin was watching our one year old. The dim glimmer of sleep recovery beckoned. Hibernation. They say that you can get back those hours you should have slept. Is there an expiry date on that recovery? Can I get all the sleep back? This is an anti-time regained since sleep is the time we all accept losing so that we can go on having time. I was always impressed by that slogan: Sleep When You’re Dead! Punk rockers and DIYers and artists love it. In it, I hear the real, utopian effort at the all-encompassing dream: do everything. Say Yes to Everything. But, then, you crash and that crash can be so, so sweet. If you can. It’s rare to be able to and so I slept for half of the day of the solstice, sacred scientific Solstice. 

Still, the sun’s return can’t go without celebration—

The day demanded contemplation of the sun’s inevitable disappearance and return. Seemingly inevitable. Human intervention has been necessary for some 10,000 odd years. Imagine the intense skepticism of those first beings that decided: we have to sacrifice something—bodies, labor, a goat—to get through this day and this year. I mean—imagine—the world will end, the sun will not come back, its arc will keep shrinking in the sky unless we do something about it.
     Time to build a henge. Time to have a party. Let’s see if this happens again next year.

It is a profound, even Humean skepticism, that ritual grows out of. Nothing can be trusted. Just because the sun did this before and from time immemorial does not mean it will again. No mere inductive expectation is ever definite, rational, and infallible.

But what if we shape the earth, the world, the cosmos so that the whole thing is ordered not by profound indifference but by our own temporal enclosure? We should be backdating the Anthropocene to the first henges or cave-holes constructed so that the sun streaked through some human-built frame. We built the frame—and, then, what’s inside of it.

So, the real question of the day for me was: how do I properly accept my fate as a pitiful and yet paradoxically necessary human and produce an event so as to make my being directly manifest as the return of the sun in its only seemingly inevitable arc in the sky? That is, what does it take to bring on summer, the thing we seem to be wishing for most in our skepticism, that time of plenty, warmth, growth, expansion?

The only answer, coming as it did in Nova Scotia, was immersion in the ocean: in the Northumberland Straight to be exact, on the north side of Nova Scotia, facing Prince Edward Island.

Despite this answer, the day went on as it had to. We ate meals. We made plans. We got children dressed in their warm clothes. We went into town to run errands: food, alcohol, presents. We talked about our dreams from the night before. We had forgotten most of them. We watched food being made for further seasonal celebrations. We decided to stay in that night. At each moment, this thought was more or less consciously going through my head “I’m jumping in the ocean today.”

The Northumberland Strait is a narrow body of water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the summer, this water is the warmest water north of North Carolina. The water is calm and shallow, and the sun’s effects are that much more pronounced. Conversely, the water cools that much faster and typically by deep winter (after the Solstice) ice builds up over it. The Northumberland Strait, like so much, depends on that yearly warming and freezing that the Solstice marks conceptually (if not in its actual timing, since it gets a helluva lot colder later in the winter as the days are already climbing back from their nadir). By December 21st, according to the tide-forecasting website, the water temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit or around 5 Celsius. So, I would jump into the Northumberland Strait for solar-solstice-warming-cooling appropriateness. “I’m jumping in the ocean today.”

It is also 10 minutes from the family hamlet.

It is also appropriately cold, hence painful. What is a ritual, I guess, without some kind of sacrifice—of time, thought, food, self, comfort—if we are to accomplish anything, and particularly anything as big as bringing back the sun from the brink of total disappearance? What is it to make anything happen anyways?

After our voyage to the town, we—my spouse, my one-year-old, my niece, and I—drive up along the coast til we reach the water at Toney River. There are small waves breaking against the beach and the breakwater. The frozen sand has piles of seaweed and little drifts of snow on it. The sky is cloudy, there is a slight breeze from the north northwest, right across from Prince Edward Island. I change into my swimsuit outside of the car, which is parked about 50 yards from the beach. I go barefoot through the dune grass and thin snow with my towel around my shoulders. I stand for a bit and look at it. I take a picture. I run in.

My feet touch the water first. The spikes of pain rise up through my body. It’s actually pretty easy to get in up to my torso. I wasn’t expecting that: the intensity of the hype alone takes me far. The event is really happening! Or is it not really happening because it already happened beforehand? Am I too late? Now my body is pulsing with singular aliveness—the rebellion of the muscles, skin, blood against the stupidity of projects. I jump into the water headfirst to burst through a small wave. I am immersed ever-so-briefly, and my head wants to explode in a rush of ecstatic self-annihilation. The pain wants the me that did this to me to go away. The body is not just rejecting thought: it even rejects itself to get away from itself. It’s ready to melt away completely into water, air, and ice. Fine, it says, freeze.
     But then it keeps going. The heartbeat is a very strong habit. I jump back into the water after rising, neither air nor water nor earth home to human endeavor. I catch a small 1-foot wave into the beach. I turn around again. I do it again, repetition being itself a habit indifferent to circumstance. I run onto the shore. The day is done.

John Melillo is a writer and musician based in Tucson, Arizona. He is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona, and he performs music under the name Algae & Tentacles.


I’ve never kept a diary or a journal. I take notes sometimes, for future essays, or stories, but really what is the point of inscribing one’s day’s details? Too Facebookish for me. Too look-at-me. Yet there is something about this project, isn’t there? And honestly, I appreciate having a memento of my day back on June 21st, 2018—it captured something, of my sons’ ephemeral toddlerhood, and of my friend, Jerome, who I had lunch with that day, and that was the last day I saw him outside a hospital room, and now he is dead, not of the cancer that even that day was irritating his joints and leaving holes in his organs, but of pneumonia: old man’s friend, my mom calls it. What I wrote that day is a snapshot, a photograph, and why do we take photographs? To make a moment as permanent as possible. To hold on.

To hold on. To. Sand.

I barely remember December 21, 2019, though it was only a couple days ago. The boys woke me around 0830 and I made pancakes for everyone, dipping and licking the spoon again and again as I stood by the stove pouring and turning and waiting. I love making pancakes, because the boys love them, and also because I use the extras to make giant peanut butter and raisin filled sandwiches, which I take to work. Angie and the boys took off around 1000 for a family gathering in Chicago. On the shitty holiday schedule this year, I’ve managed to work through all the family gatherings.

1100: I was at the hospital. I’m a nurse in a mid-sized Milwaukee emergency department. Saturdays are hit-or-miss, but based on the fact that I remember almost nothing from that shift, fair to say we were swamped. There are no windows in our basement department, no contact with the outside, aside from the ambulance crews who come in wet, or covered with snow, or with their sleeves rolled up, and that’s where I was from 1100 to 0345 on the 22nd. It was a really long day. A long day, and I worked with probably 15 patients, of whom I only remember one: I’ll call him Hector, which isn’t his name. 34-year-old man who swallowed a handful of Ibuprofen. His wife had just left him, taking their three girls.

In situations like this—there are a lot of situations like this—once they are medically cleared patients either go voluntarily for in-patient treatment at a psych hospital, or we call the police and the patient is evaluated to see if they’re still a threat to themselves, and if they are, they’re chapter 51’d and are forced to get in-patient treatment at a psych hospital. What I want to say about this is that we convinced Hector to go voluntarily, which seemed like the thing to do, and so he went to get help, but also had to sign paperwork stipulating that because he didn’t have insurance he would be billed roughly $1,200/day, in addition to the bill he would also receive from our emergency department. He owns a small-scale construction business, and conceivably, he’ll be hit by a bill in the neighborhood of 10K, which he won’t be able to pay, and which will presumably go to collections, eventually bankrupting his livelihood. So now of course I wonder if as we tried to help we actually destroyed his life.

Could he have gone home, safely? Would he have been chapter 51’d if he hadn’t gone for help voluntarily? Or would he have just gone home and gotten on OK? I honestly don’t know. He was a nice man, calm, cooperative, thoughtful, but when I asked him point-blank if he would still be a harm to himself if he went home he broke eye contact and did not respond. So, what the fuck, our job is to keep him safe. Isn’t it? But there is so much ambivalence here, too much. This keeps me awake at night sometimes. I’m not just saying that. I sleep well, really well, generally, but sometimes I can’t sleep because this shit is on my mind. Hector, on my mind.

So, then, yeah, the 21st came and when it went where was I exactly in that windowless bunker? I have no idea. By Hector’s side, maybe?

I landed home around 0400 on 12/22, showered, and was pillowed out by 0430. The boys had me up again at 0730, unintentionally, but they are so LOUD in the morning. Earplugs in, I struggled to get back to sleep, but couldn’t, and at some point you give up trying. Embrace the fatigue, and the dark, cold coffees that cost $3.50 but make you feel so good for a few hours. Then I was back in the bunker for another shift, 12 hours, of which I remember nothing, and then suddenly it was 12/23, and the weekend was over. I know the weekend is two days, obviously, but these consecutive workdays clump together; thinking back, it all feels like 12/21 to me.

Craig Reinbold was once the managing editor of Essay Daily. Say hi anytime: @craigreinbold


The Longest Night of the Year

I. An Unexpected Start

The party is supposed to start at 6:00. Miriam rings the doorbell at 5:00.

Fortunately, I’m dressed and the house is mostly in order, though my wife, Hannah, is in the bedroom in her bra, still getting ready.

I glance toward the bedroom door to make sure it’s closed, then—flustered—usher Miriam in, telling her I thought people wouldn’t be arriving until 6:00.

I immediately regret saying that—Miriam looks mortified. Shit.

I go back to stirring the crepe batter, asking Miriam questions about her first semester, trying to make her feel welcome. I’m hosting the annual holiday party for the staff of the literary journal at the high school where I teach; Miriam is one of our star graduates, last year’s editor-in-chief, back for break from her college in Pennsylvania.

My colleague Ken is supposed to arrive at 5:30 to help greet students. He’s bringing his fiancée Julia, whom I don’t really know but who seems lovely and whom I want to impress. I’d been counting on having a few moments of adult conversation to set the table, lay out the plans before the students start arriving. Instead, Brenda, Michelle, and Gerard knock at the door at 5:15. Angela follows a few minutes later.

II. The Idea

Why am I hosting eight high school juniors and seniors (plus Miriam) in my house on the first Saturday of my break?

Sometimes when I was in college, professors would invite us over to their homes—an end-of-semester celebration, a holiday party. Those parties were an education in themselves: they taught me how to hold an adult conversation, how much to pry and how much of myself to put on display, how to be interesting without coming off as weird. I would marvel at my professors’ bookshelves. I would resolve to imitate their cool reserve, their social graces. And then, afterward, I would have to develop the skill of relating to someone professionally after I had used her bathroom, watched her scold her kids, learned the quirks of her housecats.

All of the students coming over tonight are college-bound. I want them to have an at-bat at that kind of socializing, to go into college with some experience of an event like that.

Of course, those college parties were wine-soaked, while this party obviously can’t be. And there are other differences, other tensions between my goal and the reality: whereas those parties had a sometimes stilted formal air, my guests tonight show up in jeans and tees. We’re grilling burgers and hotdogs on the back patio.

Still, I did set a wooden board in the kitchen with sorpressata, manchego, and fontina.

“Is this charcuterie?” asks Angela.

“That’s the whitest plate of food I’ve ever seen,” says someone else.

III. Nerves

If I’m honest, though, my goal in throwing the party is not just to give my students experience interacting with adults outside of school. I’m also excited to introduce my wife and daughter to them. I want my wife and daughter to like Miriam and Alex and Gerard and Brenda, and I want Miriam and Alex and Gerard and Brenda to like my wife and daughter.

My daughter, at nine years old, is a budding artist, full of weird and wonderful ideas and a sudden urge to create. I hope she’ll talk to Angela, who’s going to study art next year in college, and Michelle, who last year wrote a beautiful prose-poem in English and Spanish that used the image of a seashell on a shelf as an allegory for female objectification. And Miriam, who’s majoring in Comparative Literature and just won an award for her writing.

I offer cokes and Dr. Peppers and Sprites, but the students are mostly too polite to take them. Conversation is halting, but courteous.

IV. Crepes are Magic

But crepes are magic. When I was in grad school in Houston, before my daughter was born, I worked nights in the kitchen of a tea house off of Montrose. Our specialty (besides tea) was crepes—chocolate crepes, fruit crepes with a berry compote, lemon crepes with butter and powdered sugar. One night I was working alone during a downpour when a young guy came in with his date. There was supposed to be tango dancing that evening, but the rain had scared everybody else away and the event had been canceled. I could tell it was that kind of night for this guy: drenched, tense, disappointed. He wanted to go home; his date seemed to want that, too. But the rain was coming down too hard outside for them to drive anywhere, so they decided to order food. I put so much effort into their crepes, spread the batter just so, trimmed the strawberries with such precision. I watched them eat and laugh together, watched their heads lean closer, watched the whole tenor of their night change.

Since that night, since that job, crepes have meant to me hospitality, generosity, and grace. As we eat dinner, I look over at the bowl of batter I’ve set next to the stovetop, the pile of chopped strawberries and sliced lemons.

V. Marriage

But I don’t make the crepes. As the kids are finishing their burgers, and Ken and Julia are asking them questions, I’m preoccupied and my wife Hannah—sensing my nerves—gets out the crepe pan and starts spreading the batter herself. She’s never made them before, and the first one comes out misshapen, but then she figures it out. Crepes aren’t actually magic. Truth be told, they’re not even that hard to make.

But they are grace. I become Hannah’s assistant, spreading the crepes she makes with Nutella and dusting them with powdered sugar. The kids are all too shy to ask for a lemon crepe—in my opinion the superior recipe—so Hannah makes one and cuts it up for all of them.

If we were drinking, this would be the moment in the night when the blush of the wine rises to your forehead and everything feels right, the moment when you look around at the swelling lights and bright eyes and smile inwardly and take a mental picture, the moment when nobody cares if their laugh is too loud or their shirt is too tight or their hair is too flat. I’m already thinking about this essay, and what I’m going to write about, and I decide that this is the moment—out of all the moments on this longest night of 2019—that I’m going to record.

VI. The End of the Night

After eating, my students talk about their retail jobs, their boyfriends, their girlfriends. We laugh. My wife and I, and Ken and Julia, take on exactly the roles I didn’t want us too: we become parental, we become grownup foils for their teenaged performances. We crack dumb jokes; we ask about their slang. I pretend to be scandalized when Brenda tells us about her new tattoo.

“I can’t even commit to putting a sticker on my laptop,” I say.

In the end, the party doesn’t achieve my objective of giving students an opportunity for grownup socialization. Teenage-ness wins. It’s fine, though. I’m still glad to have shared our home and our time. Rides are arranged, we say our goodbyes. Miriam says she’ll see me in May; I’ll see everyone else when school starts back up in January. Hannah puts our daughter to sleep. I do the dishes and clean up.   

Frank Strong's writing has appeared at The Millions,, Essay Daily, Pterodáctilo, and the Latin American Literary Review. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2015 and now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter at @frankstrong.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment