Friday, December 31, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: LOGAN NAYLOR, My Stolen Property


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “My Private Property” by Mary Ruefle


The lucky rabbit’s foot was the first thing I stole. It’s severed you know, like actually cut from the body of a dead rabbit. I know you know this, and that I should too, but it only really occurred to me now, occurred to me in the way one might start to think harder about process. Something you might realize when confronted with the image of a shrunken head being filled with hot sand, and simmered down to the size of an orange. A real, human head, made empty rubber glove, with only the hair kept exactly the same. You cannot shrink hair, cannot empty its shaft, its natural shape, but you can preserve it. And what I mean about my epiphany concerning dismemberment is that it's obvious. What I mean is there’s a real morbidity to the object that did not scare me when I was nine. What I mean, I guess, what I must mean, is that it is sad, is it not, that no one’s thinking about rabbits' feet. I was once, every day for years. It started on one of my nine-year-old-days, in a gift shop. I dug my fist into a wooden bucket full of severed rabbit limbs, and how morbid really, I know, you know, but I was intoxicated with the thought of slipping the one that felt the most alive into my pocket. That felt important. That toe gnarls were to be expected, something crooked that wasn’t there in life, but there remained a desire to find one with even toes, cured rigor mortis that felt non arthritic. I was on a fifth-grade field trip, a war reenactment. I didn’t feel too bad or afraid of death. War and death felt far in our imitation. I was hung up on a boy, who would later be a girl, once I was a boy, but right then we were all mixed up, and in line, waiting to be handed a long stick to be slung over our shoulders like a gun. Let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. Let me never know the jagged bone that lay beneath a keychain cap. My boyfriend and I were stuck five people apart right then, so we pulled up the grass and sank into our heads. The five people between us passed me a moonstone: From boy, with love. A however -many-weeks-of-nine-year-old-dating sort of gift, a stone tumbled smooth and oval, a divot for my thumb. I clutched it in my hand while we charged the other kids with stick-guns and hid behind rocks. I held my thumb to that shallow, worry stone place. The part that made room for me, was cold and ungiving once but warmed under my skin, seemed to have pressed away and held hands with me. Afterwards, we got rations. Cornbread and apples and beef jerky. The food tasted something like the sweat against the stone in my hand. And I was still holding it in the gift shop, of course. Palm sweating on the moon rock was vital to stealing the rabbit foot. It gave me purpose and confidence. I carried both the stone and the foot with me for a long time after. And still, after all of its time in the shoe box, it hadn’t sunk in until now that a lucky rabbit’s foot was in fact severed. I was lured to the small thing that could shapeshift and that was all. I stole Littlest Pet Shop characters from my cousin's house. There was an elaborate scheme involving a small Yoda figurine. I harbored glass elephants from my grandmother. Stole small, clay bumblebees once, but it began to shift beyond plastic. Maybe it started with the seed pods of our mulberry tree. They were soft and green. They had guts. I’d cup them in my hands, tell anyone that would listen that I’d caught a caterpillar. I’d lie. I guess you could put it that way if you want. Lying. You could also say these things required me to lie. That I was fixated on things that asked me to fight for the way they might live on. They were so real already that immediately they became a portal to a world of fabricated, shallow breathing, even if I felt like I could force that feeling into anything at all. The rabbit’s foot was an especially private instance. Something I allowed myself to take out of my shoe box, and fawn over in secret. It was too alive to fool with. It was a token I needed to clutch close to me as I moved through the world, searching for new trinkets to breathe life into, all while parting the long tufts of fur to find the real nails still beneath. I would sometimes press it to my cheek and lie there, dreaming of the rabbit. Thinking about its origin in a guarded way that hid parts of itself from me. Like, how do you make a rabbit’s foot anyway? There are procedural necessities to make it the lucky kind. The left, hind foot. Killed in a cemetery, during an intentional day. A friday. A rainstorm. A holiday. At midnight. This is what makes it lucky. It seems self explanatory that the foot just comes off. Garden shears should do the trick. Nothing more intensive. Just the way fingers can be snapped with teeth, the force it takes to bite a baby carrot and nothing more. If anything, it’s the curing process that’s complicated. Soaking it in a jar of isopropyl alcohol. Rinse and repeat. Add borax. Shampooing it. Drying it in the sun. Clipping the jagged end into a keychain, hiding fragments of bones and blood stain. Making death smooth and tidy. And still: mostly simple. I was close to this transition once, from life to death. I was eleven, and my infatuation with rabbits growing. I caught a baby rabbit, mid air in the backyard. It was young and slow and away from the nest too soon. Something that needed its mother and had a different kind of trust, timid but still growing into fear. I held it in my lap on our couch, feeling its heart beat beneath my palms, until it spasmed a few times, and I said, calm down, calm down, I got you. All at once it was too still, as if I had commanded it. I wanted to take it back as soon as I’d spoken. It felt wrong that I could touch the fur without resistance. It wouldn’t quiver, couldn’t jump like horse skin. I couldn’t feel its heart but knew it was inside. I was left with shame, staring into glassy eyes that watched me feel for its beating heart. It took only seconds for small bugs to leave its skin. They all came up at once, fleas or mites, searching for new warmth, understanding the end, finding the next planet to inhabit. Sweaty fear ate at my own skin. I knew what the bugs knew. We knew it together and started a desperate search to exit and continue. I took it to the yard still trying to confuse lifelessness with sleep. Coyotes carried it away within the hour, tossing it back into their jaws, feeding it to their own pups, holding bugs close inside their coats, bugs that still fed on their lasting warmth. I’m thinking about whether fur is really the same the whole time. If the fur, when it cools, loses something more than just bugs. I’m looking for something to remain. Fur as memory. Make believe. I’m waiting for anything to breathe. Lying about what can and can’t. Cupping small, fur pelts in my hands and trying to make wonder appear. Holding a stolen rabbit’s foot tight in my fist and getting too attached to an afterlife that looks like that. A segment kept perfect. Even toes, even toes. Something miniaturized and kept going. A shrunken head given to a widow, and still, someday, eaten by a mouse like jerky. Passive and still, chewable, yet a kind of life carrying on. I want to preserve the rabbit I scared to death, but I am also glad that the coyotes left me with nothing. I want to preserve the first pet rabbit I lost, whose body I watched drop from the jaws of the neighbor's dog, but I am squeamish and unable. I’m thinking about what can’t be kept if it isn’t easy. How I didn’t keep his foot when he died, but the ritual was there. The dog made a graveyard of our home. It was on a cold Friday, late into the night. The dog ran up to me, licked ketchup from my laces and left my rabbit dying in the grass, and I could have done it. But I never would have been able to soak the life away in a jar, or use the garden shears, or patch it up with a keychain bandaid. A month later, a raccoon dug up his body. He did a half-assed job moving the headstone, making the flies swarm from their holes under the plywood. He left without finishing the grave robbing. Just disturbed everything enough to force me to confront it. I had to move him. He was still in my T-shirt where I had left him. He smelled. I don’t know if I expected clean bones or what. I thought even then that I wanted a memento. His teeth. His skull. But his body was heavier than I expected it to be. I knew under the cotton I had wrapped him in there would be maggots and leftovers. That no matter how much I wanted a piece to hold, I couldn’t stomach the truth of death. That I had once held his body until it went cold, and then stiff, and only then did I forget to feel kind through my crying. I was disquieted by the stiffness that took over. I wanted to let go. Somehow a dismembered fragment felt like a way to surpass this fear, as if I could distill softness by keeping a paw to hold, as if that would work to soothe the loss better than the awkward stiffness of the thing I could not keep. The morning after he was killed, I traced the yard for clues of his path. How many laps had he run before the dog caught him? All I found to calculate it were a few wisps of fur, looped around blades of grass. I picked them up and stuffed them into a mason jar where they have stayed since. But I could never reach into the shirt and look for something more. Something I would have to dissect and make clean. When the raccoon forced me to resurface the body, I patched it up with a deeper grave. I put the headstone back. I left that part of my brain there in the yard. Forgetting still, choosing to forget, that memento involves killing and skinning. I like to be left with neatness. I want to preserve without process. I want to never let them mold or rot. I would not let the mice near them, their fate would be to remain exactly as they were in life, exactly as they are, albeit dismembered and portable, and from time to time I would take them out and look at them and be startled, and I think of the widow who fainted at the sight of her husband’s head, and I think if I could hold the soft paws of my beloved in my hand I would indeed feel faint, but I think also I would get used to it, I would grow calm and be moved in the tenderest of ways, at just the sight of them there in my hand. I’d take that feeling as far as I go. Give me rabbit’s feet to hold. Promise me there is nothing beneath the keychain cap. Tell me there are some things that always live like this. Just like this. 


Logan Naylor writes and teaches at the University of Iowa. They live in Iowa City with their partner, two cats, one gecko, three rats, and twenty-nine houseplants. They are, unfortunately, running out of space for new pets.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: AARON PANG, Code


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander




If (plastic === ‘motion’) { code = ‘thought’; }

Code is meaningless. At least the name is. Ask any non-practitioner of code to describe it and odds are you will get a description closer to that of magic than that of science. Ask a practitioner of code and odds are their answer will start with the phrase…”well actually…”.
     Yet even with no clear definition, the modulated, hyphenated, coloned, parenthesized, functional, bracketed, camelCased, variable, compiled, classed, factored, and refactored strings of text that makeup code means something. We coders, the writers of code, like us writers, the writers of word, all know that to be true. That the meaning made through its writing is significant, even if the meaning is not explicitly defined.
     That undefined possibility is what lends this material, code, its power. We didn’t need our computer science professors to tell us that the script we wrote to build the child’s game of tic-tac-toe was important. Its power was realized when upon the code’s execution, where on our screen there were none, tics, tacs, and toes appeared. 
     If plastic is the physical embodiment of motion, then code is the digital embodiment of thought. Code is the dissection of reasoning, of logic, of cause and effect. It breaks down a thought into ideas, and those ideas into conditions, processes, and cases. This digestion of thought continues until the comprehensible becomes incomprehensible. And it is on these motes of incomprehensibility, code, that we have built our entire digital world.
     Software engineers sit at supercomputers the size of spiral bound notebooks, writing line after line of code in integrated development environments. Line after line are compiled into applications running on operating systems, executing commands that have been converted into machine language readable only by the hardware. Line after line after line exist only as 1’s and 0’s.
     There is an endless conversion happening, an unceasing program to codify. It is done by us, all of us companies, coders, non-coders, your distant aunt on Facebook. We don’t know why, perhaps it is for progress, or efficiency, or just curiosity. Some of the conversions are easy. Quantifiable representations: a nation’s population, a bank account balance, barrels of oil imported, reams of paper produced, COVID cases, Tinder right swipes, the weight of a newborn baby. Other conversions are harder, like capturing who we are as people. Yet, we still try. Databases fill with approximations of who we are. The articles we half-read, the songs we played, the people we’ve stalked, the porn we’ve watched. It is an incomplete facsimile.
     But this digital facsimile is becoming less and less a facsimile. Instead it has become a truth in and of itself. Take the historical transmutation of code. There are little remnants of its original form. The evolutionary path between the IBM punch cards and the Java IDE is not obvious. Vacuum tubes no longer fit inside our smartphones. The physical space taken by the original computers have now given way to an infinite digital one. 
     The physical is no longer the determinant of the digital. There is now a bidirectional relationship between the physical and the digital. The two realms now dictate each other. If your account balance reads zero on the screen, there is no physical way to correct it. You can stuff wrinkled bills into an envelope and throw it at a teller, but until those pixels change, until the code is executed, you still have zero.
     How the zero becomes anything else no one really knows. Some can make an educated guess. This is the incomprehensibility that exists with code. The lay person has no real ability to interact with it. At least with plastic you can break it with a hammer. No physical force can stop code in its modern day manifestation. It executes with no regard. It is an untouchable material. There will always be a gap between the finger and the button it presses. 
     The gap between the finger and the button is the gap between the intent of the click and the code executed. Anything can be written within a button’s function. When clicked, the code in the function runs. The function is an infinite space within another infinite space. A footnote in a book that is a book within itself. The button is not limited to one action regardless of intent. With the right code you can launch nuclear weapons while ordering a pizza. All that functionality with just one-click. 
     Yet we continue to push every button we have access to. Thousands of times a day. We press, click and push these little gateways into the digital world. Each press with an expressed intention. We click play to watch the TV Show (The Americans on FX on Amazon Prime Video). We click search to find the name of the lead actress: Keri Russell. We click buy because Keri Russell was holding a can of Coke in Season 3 Episode 6 (I don’t know if that’s true, I’m not there yet). Each button is a trigger. Each press executing code. 
     But every button's function always starts empty. An empty button does nothing. There is no code to run, no materials to use. Only the promise of possibility. When I was a practitioner of code, we would build these buttons. I would sit and watch test subjects click and click again. The experiment would always go on longer than expected. They would continue to click. Their actions, illogical and instinctual. Each subject never knew why they clicked when we asked. Perhaps they hoped that on the next click some code would run. 

let code;
let nonPractitioner = "magic";
let practitioner = "well actually...";
let describeCode = code ? nonPractitioner : practitioner;

if(typeof code === 'undefined') {
  code = 'something';  
} else {
  code = 'something';

if(typeof code ==='undefined' && !isFinite(code)) {
  let ticTacToe = null;
  ticTacToe = true;

if(plastic === 'motion') {
  code = 'thought';

let reasoning, logic, causeAndEffect;

code = reasoning + logic + causeAndEffect;

let idea = {
  conditions:'if this then that',

let thought = [idea, idea, idea];

let converting = true;
let physical = [
  'a nation’s population', 
  'a bank account balance', 
  'barrels of oil imported', 
  'reams of paper produced', 
  'COVID cases', 
  'Tinder right swipes', 
  'the weight of a newborn baby',
  'articles half-read',
  'songs played',
  'people stalked',
  'porn watched',
let digital = {};
    switch(thing) {
      case 'a nation’s population':
        digital[thing] = 329500000;
      case 'a bank account balance':
        digital[thing] = 5533;
      case 'barrels of oil imported':
        digital[thing] = 7860000;
      case 'reams of paper produced':
        digital[thing] = 68000000;
      case 'COVID cases':
        digital[thing] = 49500000;
      case 'Tinder right swipes':
        digital[thing] = 454;
      case 'the weight of a newborn baby':
        digital[thing] = 8;
      case 'articles half-read':
        digital[thing] = [
          'The White Album',
          'Why I write',
          'Death of a Moth',
          'The Fourth State of Matter',
      case 'songs played':
        digital[thing] = [
          "Best Part",
          "Ain't no sunshine",
          "Eleanor Rigby"
      case 'people stalked':
        digital[thing] = [
      case 'porn watched': 
        digital[thing] = [
          "Asa Akira anal bukkake",
          "Babysitter caught by stealing by father",
          "Sissy boy punished",
          "Asian girls fingered",

physical = digital;
digital = physical;

if(digital['a bank account balance'] === 0) {
  physical['a bank account balance'] = 0;

code.canTouch = false;

const button = <Button/>;

button.canTouch = false;

let willPressButton = true;

let buttons = [

while (willPressButton) {

button.onClick = () => {}


Aaron Pang is a writer based out of Oakland, CA telling stories to anyone who will listen. He’s currently getting his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. Aaron’s work can be found on The Moth Radio Hour and America’s Test Kitchen. Twitter: @AaronZengPang

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: SARAH KHATRY, The Shadow World


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “Domanju,” by Brandon Shimoda


I was six years old when the twin towers fell. On the west coast, New York was more concept than living city, rendered in grainy footage on our living room TV during the morning news hour while I was supposed to be preparing for school. My mother tells me she entered the room to find me before the TV’s screen, rapt and frozen. My expression was her first indication something unusual was going on.
     When we filed in for class, our tender, grandmotherly teacher addressed the events with a baldness I think I now would find startling. On the whiteboard, in a few simple lines, she drew the towers: two long and open-ended rectangles, blue marker in my memory. She drew a single plane: a narrow oval, tapered into points at each longitudinal end for nose and tail, with a pair of triangular wings shooting out of the middle. And then she drew an arrow. Plane to towers. 
     A flourish persists that I’m not sure was real. Past the arrow’s tip, I remember her eraser sweeping down over the towers, wiping them into blankness. White oblivion. 
     She narrated over the images, but it’s only the whiteboard I remember, and the story it told. In the weeks that followed, as my small hand set forward to practice shaping the letters of the alphabet, it would not stop shaking.
     Twenty years later, our reactions in real time unspool below in nested comment threads, ongoing livestreams, and feeds of tragedy. But what happens after? How do the functions of cultural memory and memorialization operate now? 
     In Brandon Shimoda’s “Domanju,” the most effective tribute to Hiroshima is the simplest: a great mound housing the ashes of 70,000, of whom all but 815 reside unnamed. But where Hiroshima and its horrors marked the end of a war, September 11 spurred multiple conflicts, and the decades since have seen the rise of other forms of publicized violence—mass shootings, the documented brutality of police on Black and brown people, and now literal plague—all aswirl in our cultural consciousness. The last twenty years are so much bigger than me. I want to write only as myself, with the grounding specificity that makes Shimoda’s essay so effective—so follow me home, follow me into my body. 

My body as record, while all others erode and corrupt. The body remembers:
     In a small town where I used to live, a pair of high school seniors died in a car crash, their collision with a tree rending the car into separate pieces, front and back. Overnight, a memorial sprouted near the site. Something like flowers and a teddy bear and handwritten testimonials of love, fragile and delicate in permanent marker. All given over immediately to the decay of October rain. As a child, the realization that even the memorial was melting, and would be dirtied and muddied and eventually blown away by wind, struck me. Like all that love didn’t even matter. 
     Nine years later, coincidence brought me to Paris the night orchestrated attacks created and sustained an atmosphere of terror. The morning after, I stood before a reminiscent memorial, candles and signs and objects of love overflowing the metal barriers erected near the Bataclan theater. Every now and again a body (still living or dead, impossible to tell) wheeled out of the theater and through the double doors of a white van. There was a soft drizzle. The candle flames wobbled. Grief flowed through the crowd tangibly, flowed through the confusion of my body: a joint fugue in which the self could disappear, be swallowed in a wave, dissolved into the rain. What was the point in this shared witnessing? I don’t know, except we all felt the need to come and stand.
     The same year, as a sophomore in college, I assisted my professor in reporting a story about a man shot and killed by the LAPD. I did remote research. I made phone calls. I requested documentation. I made myself look second-by-second, frame-by-frame, through the short video of the killing (an execution, a murder, we would learn, muzzle pressed to his chest) caught by a bystander. I thought I should look if I was going to do this work. I let each pixelated, obscured shot, tangles of bodies and movement, become etched in my mind. I took notes with timestamps. I was somehow violating him. But this video was the only thing at the time that had any power to make things ‘right.’ Its existence had nudged open the door of public consciousness.
     The horror of the act (the horror that here we are again) is compounded by the horror that we’re all watching it—for the whole of a life to be defined by its terminating and unjust brutalization, a name and memory overridden in full not by what you’ve done but what’s been done to you. 

As he circumambulates the mound in “Domanju,” Shimoda surprises himself by perceiving, after multiple prior visits, a door. Shimoda writes: “The door, opaque yet severe, startled me. It bestowed an aspect of fantasy. It suggested a clandestine, unending world. An underground network, a labyrinth. Shadow Hiroshima. That behind the door stood either a single, self-contained object, like an inexplicable idol or letter, or a replication of the universe.” 
     The real purpose of the door he doesn’t surmise. It may well be utility, maintenance: a portal, not to alternate histories or lost worlds of the dead, but to anonymous HVAC units or an array of old clanking pipes. Still, I find Shimoda’s description irresistible, and wonder if it may suggest a wider truth: that within grief, and within the memory of tragedy, there may always be an unexpected door.
     Today, we all have entrance to the digital simulacra of memorial grounds after a major tragedy. Charnel houses of Instagram posts, excruciating explanations of horror beyond words, evocations of prayer that seem vacuous in sans serif font. These digital grounds are not stately and peaceful, but riotous, roiling, tossing like the ocean. Unlike physical grounds, they are always peppered with doors. Brilliantly advertised doors and windows (hyperlinked text, video thumbnails cropping up in the corner, responses recursed into responses on responses), but also trap doors and hidden doors (as in behind the right book tugged off the shelf, as in the twist of a particular tile in a wall causes you to hear a deep, mechanical click).
     Some of these doors lead to the illusion of proximity: gory photographs the media would never publish, or heart-wrenching accounts of bystanders, survivors, intimate relations, strangers suddenly known to you, Digital Wanderer, right there in a username or social media handle. Many of the doors offer a false sense of agency. They request either a token gesture or that you become a new prophet. Sometimes they even result in convictions. Sometimes they threaten to overthrow governments. Often, they are a placebo to still the pounding drum in your chest.
     You may also discover doors within doors within doors, which will require a lockpick, a clue, a secret password whispered to the dark eye of a keyhole. For those who follow the trail, the accumulation of doors has a persuasive effect. Radicalized standard-bearers can perceive further secrets, and secondary, or even tertiary meanings, to every act of speech papering the Internet. This is the blooming of conspiracy at work, the weaponization of its capability to deform any object it encounters to fit into its mosaic. (Reality is inverted. Grief alchemically transformed. Tragedy into farce. Pain or shame warp into hate. Even apathy can become something sharp and directed.)
     Perhaps I’m the one who’s tripped and fallen through a trap door into a shadow world. I’m exhausted. I feel like I’ve been in a cell these past two years, sucked into the glow of a screen, navigating the rhizomes of digital mourning.

I lost my grandmother in February, not to COVID but still locked far away from her family in her final weeks by quarantine. 
     In the days after her death, I listened over and over to her voicemails, still encoded within my phone’s physical memory. There was a certain intimacy in holding the phone close to my ear, hearing the familiar crackle of her voice. (Wishing me a belated birthday. Coaching me to leave the dough in a warm corner of my kitchen for it to rise properly. Asking what toppings I’d like on a pizza.) I cried and I listened to them, thinking: At least, I will never forget the sound of her voice. But someday those files will be lost in the cloud, or I’ll fry the device’s storage. And someday, I will forget. Of course, the body is the most temporary thing. What is archived and logged in its twists of gray matter will regularly betray me, until the day there is no me. 
     This is why lovers carve their initials under bridges. This is why teenagers tag overpasses and alleyways. This is, maybe, part of why any of us write and publish. But access to the person, to the vivid universe of their subjectivity, closes forever, as solidly as the far majority of those housed in Domanju’s mound are nameless, their lovers, their friends, their children potentially nameless alongside them, together all unreachable across time or history even as their ashes (or their images, their words, their voicemails) remain right there. Looming out of the earth.


Sarah Khatry is a writer, editor, and journalist living in Iowa City, where she is an Iowa Arts Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Himal Southasian, and 40 Towns, among others. Twitter: @khatrysarah

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: REBECCA FLOWERS, The Death of the Beetle


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “The Death of the Moth” from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard


I am looking at Annie Dillard looking at Virginia Woolf looking at a dying moth: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.”
     I am looking at the pictures of dead bugs on my phone that I took after deciding to become a writer. On my way to the gym there is a desiccated thing about the size of two thick blades of grass. It’s upside down, brown legs curled in and exposed, a stripe of inky black down its middle. The eyes are turned up, meaning they’re looking at the sidewalk instead of the sky. The wings look like the glass in old houses. 
     I am looking at beetles pinned to a board in a museum that looks like a painter’s palette. Instead of a hole for my thumb there is a beetle shining green with apples of red on its thorax, one painted like a chestnut with a horned projection emerging from its face, a periwinkle blue that reminds me of a chip of sea glass, a long, black string of a beetle that ends in a crossbow, a zebra-striped beetle with long antennae that curve like a sad face, one that is more pin than beetle, and a little brown one that looks like a caterpillar-eaten leaf suspended from a pin with a few strings. These beetles have no labels, scientific or otherwise. They are all positioned away from me, facing the top of the display case, looking at a strip of wood. 

Five years earlier, in my freshman year of college, I joined a lab to study mercury bioaccumulation in the ephemeral pools that formed all around our local forests in Vermont. As part of my job, I spent hours in a “clean room”—clean of metals, clean of rodents, often clean of people—identifying little brown bodies beneath a microscope. The beetles I studied were already dead—I was not witness to that process—but it was my job to look at their backs, and their wings, and the protrusion of their eyes, and the number of tarsi—the little segments that make up a beetle “foot.” The beetles underneath my microscope were for the most part Dytiscus beetles (Greek for “little diver”) that were about an inch long with fat torsos. They fit easily on the two fingers of my blue-gloved hand. In life, they dove in ponds and ate smaller creatures. In death, I pulled them out of frozen plastic bags and warmed them beneath the lights of the microscope. 
     I spent hours with them as I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat—turning them over, making notes on the species, distinguishing males from females by the males’ sucker-filled pads for gripping mates. Over many hours alone with them, I learned to adore their feathery legs, the little triangle that separated wings from head, the dull shiny brown of their hard shells, where in life they stored air to allow them to breathe underwater. Each beetle became an individual for me, as real as the click my gloved nails made on the back of their shells. 

I am looking and I wonder if one of these is a scarab beetle. The hieroglyphic for scarabs roughly translates to “transform.” They were sacred in ancient Egypt because they represented Kheri, the god of the rising sun, as he wheeled the ball of flame across the sky. The Egyptians believed only male scarab beetles existed, creating dung balls out of semen, and in doing so they represented Kheri’s daily creation of the sun. Self-creation, renewal, regeneration. The serpent eating its tail. The beetle creating itself in a new ball each day. One story cannibalizes another, until the sun passes over the horizon and never returns.

In my sophomore year, I took a trip to Cerro de la Muerte, also known as the hill of death. This was Cuericí Biological Field Station, in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Still studying biology, I arrived with a group of fellow students to conduct field studies for a week. On the night of our arrival, I slept in my traveling clothes under three blankets, in the bottom bunk on the top floor of the wooden house. I woke up three times from the cold, my exposed nose plastic and chalky. The room was dark and the beds creaked with the bodies of my sleeping classmates. I curled my fingers into the blankets and brought them up to my face. 
     The morning brought heat back into our toes, and we hiked up through vast hanging vines, listening to the birds calling each other in the trees. When we returned to the house, cold and sweaty, our professors called on us to propose research ideas. I picked my group not for their topic so much as the students who I liked. They wanted to stay close to the station. They’d noticed beetles on the flowers in the garden. We took our orange field notebooks and sat around the flowers. We watched little beetles unfold wings from under shells and make little jumps between yellow flower spring boards. We developed our hypothesis—that the beetles landed more on some flowers than on others, and that the reason was heat.

I am looking at the palette in the basement of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, and I see that someone has labeled it “Variation in Beetles.” On the side is a sign: “Physical Variation. Through the evolutionary process, insects have developed extraordinary variations in size, shape, and color. This is demonstrated by an array of beetles, in which each shows the physical characteristics which have enabled it to succeed within its own ecological niche.” In a big glass display, this is all it says, and these are the only beetles I can find in a building filled with articulated skeletons and glass eyes.

When I had finished identifying each diving beetle, when I had filled all my little boxes, my job in the clean room was done. The beetle was warm now, as warm as it had been when alive. And I knew what I had to do next. I took my thawed beetles out of the clean room and deposited them in a machine. A machine I knew I would have to turn away from when I brought it to life, because the purpose of this machine was to grind the beetles into a powder, so that they were no longer identifiable as anything that had ever been alive. I was the last one to see the beetles as they had been, as nature had made them, as they had grown from birth, before they were captured and frozen. I was the last one to stroke their heads, and feel the grooves down their backs, and press the pads that would never press another beetle. When I slotted them into the machine for grinding, to be broken down into their principal parts so that they could be weighed and so that we could put them through another machine that would sort through their component parts and pop out a reading on milligrams of mercury they had absorbed, it was a private little funeral between us. Between the beetles and the person who had known them only in death—when they were past anything that made them real, anything resembling cares or worries, mating and eating and survival. A mossy, earthy dust filled my nostrils as the machine rumbled and buzzed—bits of the bugs that once were. I collected the remains and returned to the clean room. 

I am looking at these beetles in this room in this basement, far the places I have studied them. I have seen many beetles on many boards. And I realize now that, in placing them on a board, they no longer exist in the world—not to live or die, not even to decompose. They are mounted and coated and placed. They are divided up into satisfying categories, but nothing about the marks we assign them makes us understand what they are. They are designated for the consumption of human eyes alone.

After a week on the hill of death identifying native and nonnative flowers, setting out temperature sensors around the house and in the centers of flowers, I brought our professor one of the beetles in a petri dish along with the dog-eared identification manual. 
     “In order to identify it,” he said, looking down at me, “I’m going to have to kill it.” He said this with a look that showed me he knew me—the girl who had stayed vegan for the last month in Costa Rica, even when I had very little to eat. 
     I handed him the beetle reluctantly. He took the dish between two big fingers and placed it under the microscope. He lifted a small bottle of alcohol solution and, as I looked on, poured it over the beetle. It squirmed on its back, I think, or it tried to swim away, or it made to climb up the walls. Again, I was not really witness to its moments of death. Again, I turned away. Soon the liquid covered its body, and the wings stopped fluttering. My professor shifted in his seat and looked into the eye piece. I looked at the beetle now. I had picked it up myself, unassuming, from the center of a yellow flower. I had given it to my professor. It was dead because of me. 
     My professor looked up from the microscope and told us the beetle was in the family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Hispinae—leaf-mining beetles. In identifying the beetle, we had to kill it—as if to know it was to strike it through the heart. Categorized, collected. No longer a beacon of life now that it had a name, now that it could fit into an identification manual, its details diagnosed and digested. In his essay “Butterflies,” Nabokov wrote about how the smell of ether opened his memories, how he liked the sound of the pin crunching through the thorax, sticking into the cork board behind.
     The next day, I returned to the lab alone and found the petri dish beneath the microscope empty, the alcohol evaporated. A little brown beetle was crawling beside it. Had it suffered all night, half-drowned? I scooped it up and returned it to a flower in the garden, not sure whether to feel better or worse.

As I walk home from the museum, I am looking at Annie Dillard looking at her students and telling them “You must go at your life with a broadax.” And I think perhaps my broadax is a beetle, and perhaps my life is an essay—or maybe my broadax is an essay, and my life is a beetle—or maybe my life is my broadax, and a beetle is an essay. Maybe we are all pinned to boards in a way, or at least our work is. And I wonder what will happen when someone tries to know our names. Goliath, Hercules, Harlequin, Rhinoceros, Bombardier, Great Diving Beetle. They were not named on the palette I left behind me. But I want to know them anyway. 

And now I am thinking. I am thinking about how my thesis advisor once told me I would never write anything original, so I shouldn’t even try. I had by that point abandoned biology for writing, but the beetles stayed with me, like mosquitos on a hot night, or moths around a candle. From the beetles I knew that we are all inheritances on the backs of inheritances, like hard shells over delicate wings, all of which began in a single cell. Repetition, repetition, but with variation. The same, but slightly different. 
     I am thinking about the only piece of classical music I ever loved—Mozart’s “The Sparrow Mass,” which he wrote in 1775 or 1776, and which I sang as a choir girl in 2015. A song which only became magical to me once I was involved in bringing it to life, and, in bringing it to life, I took part in breaking it down. I knew it wholly within me—I could name it and label it and pick it out of a book and tell you all the words, and I knew only the soprano notes. 
     I am thinking about Measure for Measure, which I only started to appreciate as a true work of art when, in the same year I ground up beetles, I wrote an essay about Shakespeare. And now I only remember it for my own analysis, instead of the for the problematic beauty that it is. 

The beetle sits in the middle of a flower, absorbing heat, having escaped death in a plastic petri dish. The energy that flows through the universe, from the sun to this insect is much like stories passed down from one to another. Repetition, variation. I am wondering: if we pin down a story, an essay, a piece of art—do we kill it? If we try to know a work and identify its parts, does it die? If I run these writings through a machine, and disintegrate them into such little pieces that are dust on the wind—if I put them in a box and observe their actions for a week, will I know what they mean? 
     I will never truly know what a beetle means. I will never truly know what it is to be a beetle, to die as a beetle. All I can do is try for the next one, the next beetle, the next work—to get closer to some understanding—as a writer, as a biologist, as a human. Whether I die or live, whether I am successful or not, I am just another part of the cycle, transforming energies. And that makes writing, and beetles, and death, both more and less knowable, both more and less terrifying. All I can do is keep striving for something more. To go at my life with a broadax, and carve myself into a beetle. To fold my wings on my back like origami beneath a hard shell, or sun myself in the center of a dahlia on a cold day in the cloud forest, or wheel my proud heap of dung across the horizon. To be down in the muck, jostling between detritus and leaves. To dive and mate and eat until I die. And then maybe, finally, I will know. But it will be too late to tell you.


Rebecca Flowers is an MFA student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she also teaches Rhetoric. Her previous work has been published in VICE and Guernica. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: HANNAH BONNER, Being Alive Twice: a New Moon Report


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After Ariana Reines’ “New Moon Report


Light me on fire / gently —Benny Blanco from Dave 

The second winter of the virus brought consternation, but then again so did the heartache. I didn’t turn back too soon. Neither did I linger. If Orpheus and Eurydice were a game, I was 0 for 1.  

I scrolled Instagram as an exercise in existentialism and ate so intermittently that some might call this health. I screenshot the meme, Self-alienation has reached such a degree that we can experience our own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure, then texted a nude of my tits to my ex. 

A full moon eclipse crept our way, and the advice in the ether was to stay inside for three days, if you could. Everyone was extra sensitive. Everyone was reinventing themselves. Everyone’s pronoun was the collective “we.” Except we weren’t connected or interchangeable or even equal, just closer apart. 
In hot yoga, the instructor invited us to place one hand on our belly, one hand on our heart. This is called nurture, she intoned. I cried in shavasana during the pop country song and stole all the free shampoo. Fuck the breath, I thought, then exhaled. 
To paraphrase the astrologer Diana Rose, at least there’s liberation in the Saturnian importance of saying no. 

The ground gave way under me, but the Midwest sky still hardened, cold and black as onyx. I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t happy, but I existed, all the same. I stopped drinking for a short while and forewent cheese. When my grandfather called, I didn’t answer. When the musician with the girlfriend called I did. 
I became conceptual. I became absorbative. An objective subject readymade. A Thousand Plateaus told me a body was not defined by form nor by substance, but by affects and local movements, differential speeds. Which is to say, we can only ever perceive our own becoming as it occurs in the present moment. The past tense fans out like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” a whirring diverish of being always already at work.  
In the Year of the Rat, we lit firecrackers in an abandoned van just to see what would happen. We took tabs of acid just to walk in rain. We talked about trading partners based on rising signs and stayed up all night, almost every night, but, I’ll admit, we didn’t watch any sunrises. When the police blockaded the station, we knelt before them. When our chants rattled the windows, their weapons of war blotted out stars. We walked the perimeter of the city, down onto the interstate, but somehow we knew the coracle to Cerberus would only get us so far. 

I walked through another mourning field, my skirt haloed around my thighs. I wore lipstick and cried on many couches. Staying up, sucking wine - all the hands felt so good no matter where they went. 

The numbers declined in hospitals and the protests muted on TV. We concealed vaccination cards like fake IDs in our bra cups and tongued jello shots in bars. 

The masks fell. The masks fell like supplication in a basilica. For once the red states and millennials were one in the same.  

In the beginning, we dropped a stone in a well for a bushel of grain. When the well filled with sediment we emptied it again until we could lean into the dark hollow and sing. 

This practice was called commerce. We had no need for ledgers. To barter was a visual endeavor, like pornography or shadow play. 

We placed hands on shoulders in greeting and spit over our shoulders to ward off plagues. We cut flowers for our salads, but never for our hair. The river lathed us in its honey of forgetting, and the petals puckered in the brine. 

Love was something we craved like fire or like food, but if we stared at it, square on, we would immolate to ash. My Venus was in Aries hence the aggressive tenderness. Hence the ardent impatience. Hence the abstract knowledge of the word care. Basically the unspoken understanding was that I never was ok. 

In astrology, your life purpose is encoded in your lunar nodes. My north node is in Pisces and my south node is in Virgo. This configuration speaks to health and to healing, to addiction and to doubt. The crux of conflict is already within me. What matters most is the torment is transient, even when it recurs. 

A predecessor with a north node in Pisces is Joan of Arc. If the next vessel for God is a woman who will scorch the earth, He’ll be waiting a long time. 

It was like being alive twice. / I’ll try to tell you better when I am stronger, wrote Linda Gregg in “The Defeated.” 

In the beginning, there was the flesh, which manifested within us. The affects, that came later, the heart’s differential speeds. Language initially spoke of myths, not of men. The eclipse reached its zenith. The violence of desire crossed at the rings of longitude and latitude in certain lands. 

Listen. Everything follows. With forgiveness, and with time. 

So I sayeth, I am the word in the Red Sea. I am the word in the Red Sea. I am the one parting water which lives in the mouth of the lion. 


Hannah Bonner’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Asheville Poetry Review, Pigeon Pages, Rattle, Schlag, So to Speak, The LaHave Review, The North Carolina Literary Review, The Pinch Journal, The Vassar Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Two Peach. Her essays have been featured in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Bustle, The Little Patuxent Review, and VIDA. She’s the poetry editor for Brink and a creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Iowa. You can follow her on Twitter @HannahB40843697 or on Instagram @hannah__bonner 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: SPENCER WILKINS, On Disposal


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “On Puddling” by Jericho Parms (in Waveform; a brief note on the piece here).


  1. My legs were barely beneath me. I was running, but in Big Blue. For those unfamiliar, Big Blue was my car. Insistent on going, I left half a jalapenõ burger and some puddling vinegar on the duvet. I kissed each person in my family and speed-walked out their two-bed hotel, looping elastic bands around my ears and re-pinching the nose on my mask.

    Big Blue slept in the converted barn, a preserved structure from the original owners. Pig farmers who sold to horse breeders who sold to my parents. A house so soured by their astringent divorce, I became its only visitor.

    Three days I flung myself at walls. I think, round-offs over tennis nets. Maybe sketching grass spiders eerily still and spotlit by my headlamp. On the fourth day, I went limp.

    In the long recharge I was forced to use my Sunday morning senses. In the bathroom, I smelled an emergency. A putrid, rotten, carcass smell. I pulled the ripcord and set the fan blades going, quickly aerating and filling the entire room with the stench. I leaned closer to the smell. My calves trembled maintaining a proper crouch, I hovered over a hill of dirty shirts and ladybugs with shells faded to a meek gray-orange. Digging until I uncovered a puck-bin lined in a CVS bag wet with brown spots. On top was a shriveled lobster sandwich, gifted as a graduation lunch from my school in Maine. The sandwich was wrapped in parchment paper and through that translucent brown covering I saw something crawl. 

  2. Musca domestica. I had no clue maggots were one pitstop in a life cycle. Turns out a maggot is the larval stage of a housefly.

    From formation a maggot feeds on whatever it was laid in. Its body looks greasy and when a maggot moves it’s like a shockwave ripples from anus to mouth hooks. Despite their unpleasant appearance living with maggots causes no adverse effects to humans.

    However, eating maggots excrete ammonia. Humans find this smell unpleasant and similar to urine, and I simply would not allow my bathroom to smell like pee. 

  3. I held the rancid bin with an oven mitt and kept it as far as possible from my nostrils. Back in my blue surgical mask, I slowmolassased down the gravel road, picking pebbles from my slippers. Toward the turtle pond to kill my bag of life.

    On the rickety dock, I pulled the leaking CVS bag out of the bin. A few creamy maggots flopped out of the bottom. The hungriest ones must have chewed through the plastic, even though there was still bread and shellfish. Smallmouth bass swam close, obscured mostly by the sun’s glint on pond skin, they were betrayed by their turning tails.

  4. Can I be so bold as to say we humans don’t like to be eaten?

    The fresh cadaver is a feast for every stage of a housefly. They lay eggs in the nostrils, mouth, and eyes. Maggots move as a mass tearing through soft tissue and secreting enzymes to break down proteins. Striped of moisture, the cadaver feels creamy. Maggots keep eating until they remove all flesh. In the summer, maggots can strip a body to bone in twenty-one days.

    The modern American burial is toxic. Funeral preservation causes embalming fluid to leak into groundwater. Cremation facilities pump carbon dioxide and mercury into the air. Not to mention the tremendous amount of fertilizers and water used to maintain cemeteries.

  5. I shook the bag upside-down. Their wingless bodies flailed and blooped in the water; soon swallowed by bass. Seeing something as rare as a wild animal eating made my apathy shrivel. Empty-bagged, I chased electricity.

    I found a fallen twig to scrape maggots clung by their mouthooks to the dock. Poking, they moved not. Madder, harder, I pushed the twig until it splintered. I thought, how well adapted maggots were to cruelty.

    In the twilight of passion I left. Telling myself green frogs would gobble the final fittest maggots. 

  6. Maggots offer tremendous ecological benefits. In one week, a modest colony of house flies can turn a ton of organic waste into one-hundred pounds of protein and four-hundred pounds of compost. One acre of fly larvae produces more protein than three-thousand acres of cattle.

    Maggots eat people, but more honestly, they eat flesh. The human is like the deer, the rat, and the dog. We are raw material and once a mind says the long goodnight, the body is meant to be consumed. 

  7. I’ve found it easiest to ignore mortality by living recklessly. I groped my jacket for a pill or a cone-shaped tobacco leaf; stepping on orange hawkweeds and wondering if the beef had spoiled. 


Spencer Wilkins is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. His writing is published or awaits publication in The Southeast Review, Rainy Day Magazine, and The Foundationalist. 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 25, Jenny Spinner: The Death of the Moth-er

After Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth

Carpet moths are properly called carpet moths. They eat carpets, and they are moths. They also eat sweaters and blankets and that old black wool dress coat you wore to the funeral of every person you ever loved who died during the cold, particularly your father and your best friend. Your mother turns eighty next year, and if she were to die during the winter—though she really is more of a summer person—you would wear it to her funeral, too. Or maybe to graveside services for your younger brother who refuses to get a covid vaccine. Your mother, vaccinated and boosted, will not likely die this winter, though one cannot be sure. After all, the mid-December day is still pleasant enough. Although the grass stopped growing for the season, somebody is mowing his lawn, perhaps for Christmas guests, and yesterday morning the car window looked like a pair of small, dark-eyed juncos had left behind their dance moves in the fine frost. But this coat is another story. The carpet moths have eaten an entire patch along the top three buttons and the edges of the sleeves, and while the bare spots are now disguised in black Sharpie ink, the coat still looks eaten. How embarrassing to show up to a funeral alive yet so thoroughly devoured. One must aim for less surrender and more wayside triumph in the face of antagonism.

The same energy that drove you to identify yourself with a tattoo during a South African teaching trip in 2019 may have inspired a Swedish entomologist named Arvid David Hummel. In 1823, Hummel published a book titled, Essais Entomologiques, in which he classified the carpet moth for the first time as Tineola bisselliella, or webbing clothes moth. Just above your bottom left ankle bone is also the word essai, shaped in your own script. Little is known about Hummel, such as whether or not his spouse, if he even married, also expressed extreme displeasure that Arvid David Hummel took it upon himself to mark his world as he saw it without saying something first. Not just that but your dead father’s name was David. Your oldest son’s middle name is David. Your oldest nephew’s middle name is David. And one of your middle sons took David as his confirmation name just last month. In the sixth century, Bishop David of Wales, now St. David, prayed that God would send a sign to his people to let them know when a parishioner was about to die. The mysterious lights that God offered in answer—canwyll corph or corpse candles—appeared at homes where death was imminent. St. David hoped these ghosts of light would bring people peace in knowing what lay ahead. Nevertheless the lights did not indicate whether extraordinary efforts were made against the oncoming doom or if people just turned over and faced the wall.

The carpet moth is small, so simple a form, not much more than a centimeter long. The larvae are the color of pale wood and tipped with the eye-less, reddish-brown head of a match before it bursts into flame. They wrap themselves in animal fibers as they eat, rolling themselves up in a tube made of silk, feces, and your possessions. No matter that everyone in your immediate family is a vegetarian, you are still an animal; the hair and skin that turn to dust in your house are part of the feast. If you range from marginally successful to dismal at balancing your full-time job, four children, spouse, and happy homemaker house, you may be hosting a smorgasbord of dust. The tiny, camouflaged caterpillars are easily mistaken for pilling or cracker crumbs or other beige life detritus that is not vacuumed in a timely fashion. The meal can last for years. As the adults emerge from their cocoons, it must be advised not to assist them with a pencil unless you fully plan to stab them dead. Golden brown, their bodies fringed with long hairs like Davy Crocket pioneers in leather jackets, the men take flight. The women walk or run. That moth vigorously dive bombing your head at night: man. The specimen creeping along the bathroom counter: woman. The older they get, the slower they get. And they do not last long, maybe a month. Several days into adulthood, they mate, the female laying its eggs back into your carpets where, in a couple of weeks, a new generation of moths will enter the successful, long-running family business.

After a time, you realize that you have been living with these carpet moths for years. When the first bald patches began appearing on the rugs in the boys’ room more than a decade ago, you thought you had just bought cheap rugs. Because you could not bear the thought of their tiny knees knocking around on the cold, hard floors, you outfitted several rooms with something soft to absorb their play. It should be noted that the boys’ father is not bothered by hard floors and would not have bought rugs. The boys paid no mind to the disappearing threads, so you eventually turned back to the countless tasks at hand. The peculiar white sand that began to appear under the rugs—frass you know now, moth excrement—was simply the remnants of the happy childhood you had willingly sacrificed yourself to give them: the sand box under the jungle gym in the backyard, the giant holes in the garden where they played war, or Jesus. But then the rug in the sunroom began to disintegrate as well. On the edge near the radiator, tufts of wool disappeared from the latticed scalp underneath, as if the rug had been stricken with alopecia. You placed some of the boys’ toys over the spot when company came over, and, when it got really bad, you flipped the rug around, hiding the emptiness under the couch. You even accused the broken dog. By the time you noticed the moths flying over your sons’ heads at night or startled them into flight when you turned on the light in the kitchen, you were dealing with a full-blown infestation. Ideas can be an infestation. And feelings. And insects that, in large numbers, cause damage or disease. The carpet moth is all about the damage. There is no lovely metaphor in the destruction.

Legs agitated once more, you kick the sheets into a roll at the end of the bed. You try to read, but one of the men keeps flying toward you. Your swat and bat and even try to close him between the covers of your book, but he is too quick. Either he is not one of the old ones, or you yourself are. The internet reveals stark choices: One, bring a poison into the house and risk harming the bodies you do not wish to harm. Two, throw out all of the rugs, the cheap ones you bought, the ones you accepted from the bankrupt neighbors when they fled their house, the ones you took from your dead friend’s house, and then just live as your spouse prefers. Three, seal six peoples’ worth of clothes in plastic bags and live for months in other casings. The thought of it all makes you so tired. Everything about this world, this life, makes you tired right now. Would it be so bad just to leave things as they are? To let the moths have what they want? To flick them away when they get too close? To pretend they are not there? Sometimes, in the middle of the night, you lie so still and quiet beneath the water of sleep that even the moths cannot touch you. Is that why she did it? O yes, she seemed to say, death is stronger than I am. No. To be little or nothing but life, that takes strength. That is the act of superb protest. You know that you must get up one day and deal with these moths, if not for your sake, then for the sake of the children. You know, in your heart, after a long pause of exhaustion, that is exactly what you will do.

Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. She received her MA and PhD in English from the University of Connecticut and her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Penn State University. She is the author of Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1600 to 2000 (U of Georgia P, 2018).

Friday, December 24, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 24, David Griffith: On Slaughterhouse-Five

After Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The cattle are lowing
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
All this happened, more or less. The MFA parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew in the program who had been in the Army, used to get drunk and then blubber, like actually despondently cry, because his girlfriend wouldn’t have anal sex with him. Another guy I knew, a fiction writer from Milwaukee, used to practice his bondage knots on couch cushions. And so on. I've changed all the names.

I really did go back to Decatur after I lost my job at the lakeside arts resort because an old college friend on the school board got me a gig teaching a one-off creative writing workshop at my rival high school–my own high school has been converted into a middle school. Decatur looked a lot like it used to when I was growing up there in the 90s except now there are a lot more Chinese restaurants and dollar stores. There must be tons of Atrazine in the ground water.

I went back there by myself and stayed with my old high school buddy Kostaki’s mother who is a widow who sells Norwex and lives in a beautiful apartment overlooking a park on the edge of which is a Frank Lloyd Wright home. She was generous to let me stay in her guest room, which was filled with Kostaki’s childhood furniture. She introduced me to her neighbor, a young concert pianist from the old Eastern Bloc who teaches music at Millikin University. His name was Gerhard, or something. He offered us a drink and we sat on his leather couch and he told us about what life was like for him as a single man/music professor from Eastern Europe in Decatur, the SoyBean Capital of the world. He didn’t mention anything about living under Communism. He had a pleasant little apartment with a very large TV and a baby grand Steinway in the living room. So it goes.


I would hate to tell you what this lousy little essay cost me in money and anxiety and time.

After I left Decatur for good in 1998, I thought it would be easy for me to write about it since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that eventually I would write a masterpiece–I never thought I would make a lot of money, since it’s, well, a book of essays about growing up in Decatur, but in the end not many words about Decatur came from my mind, not enough of them to make a book, anyway, though I did write an essay about playing in the high school band during Gulf War I and playing a symphony inspired by the firebombing of Dresden. So it goes. More words are coming now, but I have become a middle-aged, ex-smoker, Assistant Professor with one book and two children 16 and 11.

I think of how useless the Decatur-part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Decatur has been to write about, and I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s famous limerick:
There was a sweet girl of Decatur
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master
-An utter disaster-
But the crew all made up for it later.
And I'm reminded, too, of the song that goes:
If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al
And so on to infinity.

Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about the role of the artist in American culture. I said that to Kostaki one time, and he raised his eyebrows and asked, ‘Do you want to write a screenplay?’


When I was somewhat younger, and had first started working on my infamous role of the artist in American culture book, I called up an old college buddy named Bryce. He was an attorney in Texas. I was a writer in Michigan. We had been would-be writers together in college. We had never expected to make any money–at least I hadn’t, but we were both doing ok, him better than me, since he was not only an attorney but an attorney for an oil company.

It was early summer before I had to start teaching at the unicorn farm, which is what others called my job teaching exceptional young artists–I never called it that out of self-respect. He is short and I am tall. We were Kerouac and Ginsberg in college but weren’t attracted to one another. He was up. He was reading or listening to music or drinking wine or something. 'Listen,' I said, 'I'm miserable.’ You should come down, and we could drink and talk and remember.' He was unenthusiastic, but still I believed he was serious. I told him that I think the climax of my book was when my mom died. The irony is so great. She dies, and she is the only one in my family who was an artist. 'Don't you think? Yes, he said, but he was more worried about me; I had been drinking; it was a Wednesday night.


I had outlined the book many times. The best outline I ever made was just this table of contents that I typed-up on 8.5 x 11 paper and thumbtacked to the bookcase in my office so that when people walked in they would see it. For some reason, people found this impressive. The climax of the book is when my mother, laying in a hospital bed in the Cleveland Clinic pre-op, says to me, “When you were little I always thought that someday you would be the President of the United States.” So it goes.

That was ten years ago. She lived just long enough to see my second child born. He thinks he’s grown up now, because he has his own room and an Xbox and a big gaming desk with lots of soda cans and empty chip bags everywhere, and I’m middle aged sitting with these memories, writing a book proposal, and craving a cigarette.
If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al
I used to look up old girlfriends on Facebook late at night, the cat sitting across my legs, shedding white fur all over my navy corduroys. Sooner or later I would go to bed and think about my education.

I went to the University of Notre Dame in the mid to late 90s. I was a student in the Department of English. At that time, they were requiring that you take American Literature, Brit Lit I and Brit Lit II, but that was it. After that you could do whatever you wanted, so I took European Film Masters, which was a course on Fellini and Bergman, taught by a guy who knew Fellini and hung out with him. He’s still alive and lives in a retirement village across the street from campus but he’s since gone blind. So it goes.

I also took a class team-taught by a bearded Birkenstock-wearing Stanley Cavell expert and a Maltese Marxist who also happened to be the head of the International Gramsci Society and the father of a precocious eleven year old named Pete, who would later become mayor of South Bend. The course was simply titled “The Avant-Garde.”

I learned that you could make music out of silence, and that you could tell stories by cutting up the pages of your manuscript, throwing them up in the air and reassembling them in random order.

Shortly before my mother died, she said to me, 'You know, you went to school and majored in writing and you never wrote me letters. You’re a writer and you never wrote your mother letters.’’ My mother also said to me, you know, there’s a difference between Theology and Faith.

I told her that I knew that; that that was one of the things I learned at Notre Dame.


While I was studying to be a teacher of writing, which is what it turns out I was studying to be majoring in English, I was also writing a humor column for the student newspaper, but the editor who hired me graduated and the new editor didn’t think I was funny, so they switched me to writing news. The first story I was assigned was to cover the Late Night Olympics, a charity event that raised money for the Special Olympics. On the night of the event, I showed up with handheld tape recorder in hand to interview participants but couldn’t get many useable quotes because everyone was drunk. I said as much in my story and filed it. The next week I was fired–don’t call us, we’ll call you.

During the breaks, I waited tables at a place named after a mediocre cheese, like Colby’s or Pepper Jack’s. The very toughest waiters were single mothers who complained to me about their jobless baby daddys while we married ketchup bottles and polished silverware. Even then I was supposedly writing a book about Decatur. It wasn't infamous yet–the movie version of the book about the ADM price-fixing scandal starring Matt Damon hadn’t been made yet. Not many Americans knew how important Decatur was to global trade, or how much worse Dresden had been than Hiroshima, but I did because between the ages of eleven and thirteen I delivered the newspaper to the VP of Archer Daniels Midland and used to encounter secret service agents in his driveway, and in high school I had played a symphony about the firebombing of Dresden.

I happened to tell a Cambridge-educated Art History professor at a cocktail party about the book I would write. He supplemented his income during the summer by giving lectures aboard cruise ships bound for the Mediterranean.

He told me, “You know, maybe you should consider writing about all the myths about being an artist that are necessary for people to keep believing that being an artist is a noble profession?” All l could do was drink my drink and say, 'I know, I know. I know.'


The Recession had made it very tough for everybody. This was at a very small college in Virginia that was in such bad financial straits that I didn’t get so much as a cost of living raise for five years. I supplemented my income by teaching in a summer arts program for gifted high schoolers. When the recession hit and the Governor of Pennsylvania closed that down, I created another one. My department chair was one of the most gregarious, glad-handing guys I ever hope to meet. He had gone to Johns Hopkins and been a reporter in Baltimore before he became a novelist. We used to play racquetball together. Both he and his wife came from money, so confiding in him about my concerns felt like confessing to an old priest. There had never been a Black tenure track faculty member in the one-hundred year history of the college, which had once been a plantation. I once observed students performing in black face in the dining hall. A year after I left, the college temporarily closed due to financial exigency. So it goes. That must have been in 2014 or so–whatever the last year was for the Polar Vortex. Dissolve frīgus, ligna super focō/ largē repōnēns atque benignius/ dēprōme quadrīmum Sabīnā. You can call Al. There was a sweet girl of Decatur.

Before leaving Virginia, my best friend John took me and my kids up into the Blue Ridge. The kids were small and had never really been out of the foothills where we lived. It was July and it was hot, so John took us to wade in a cold mountain stream. A footbridge passed overhead and thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail looked down at us as we soaked. The kids had never seen water this clear. There were trout in there and we saw them. “Like a turd in a bowl of milk,” John said the fisherman say. Farther up, we saw a waterfall, too. There were signs posted all over warning you to stay off the rocks. Apparently, people climbed out onto the rocks all the time for pictures and slipped and fell and died. So it goes. At the top, there was a general store where thru-hikers could buy supplies and a pay pond stocked with fish. At the end of the day, back down in the valley, we had burgers and hotdogs and root beer at a roadside stand. That was one of the best days of my life.


John didn’t drink, but I had friends who did. I was a family man, but the stress of working for a college that had one foot in the proverbial grave and hadn’t given me a raise in five years drove me to drink. We often drank at my house on the sun porch, but sometimes we went to Adam’s–he was the Chaplain of the college. His wife, Angela, didn’t like it when we drank over there. She was lovely, but would disappear when we were there drinking PBR and moonshine in the kitchen. My kids were still young, so nights when we wanted to get into it late-night, he would say, “Let me check with Ange.” That was kind of him, but I always felt guilty. We told a lot of academic war stories, me and Adam and K-Honey, the philosopher from Georgia who worked on Machiavelli, and sometimes Jeff, an Education professor who had played D-lineman at Middlebury. They told me I could write a novel about all this mess, but it wasn't much to write a book about. We remembered stories about our students: Two of mine had figured out which room the guest writer we had brought to campus from Bulgaria was staying in. So it goes.

Many nights we gave up on remembering and talked about other things; things we were teaching; things we were researching; things we were writing about. Adam became curious about Machiavelli’s attitude toward Christianity and K-Honey would quote long passages from memory:
Just as the observance of divine worship is the cause of the greatness of republics, so the disregard of divine worship is the cause of their ruin, because where fear of God is lacking, that kingdom must either come to ruin or be sustained through fear of a prince who makes up for the shortcomings in its religion.
One summer afternoon while playing with my daughter at the playground in Lynchburg, I met a woman named Ashley and her son who was the same age as my daughter. She was a photographer and video artist. I told her about my book and how in high school I had played a symphony about the firebombing of Dresden. She was fascinated and said she wanted to make a video about it.

Months later, she did, and it debuted in an art show in an old firehall just down the street from the playground where our children had played together. It’s made up of found video of freestyle wrestlers and military footage of smart bombs blowing up buildings in Iraq, and clips of the symphony about Dresden. You can find it online someplace. When I watch it, I think about all the terrible things that had to happen in order for it to exist in the world. So it goes.


I taught creative writing at the famous Interlochen Center for the Arts for four years after that. I taught in the afternoons. In the mornings I tried to write. I was working on my infamous book about the role of the artist in American culture. My mother had been dead three years by that point. I knew it was the climax of the book and that the book was now done, except for the writing. Somewhere along the way, some morning in deepest darkest February, during the Polar Vortex, when it was -25 degrees for six straight days, walking across a snowy field to my beautiful office in the beautiful Writing House with a gas fireplace that I personally had the pleasure of turning on before anyone else arrived, my skin stinging from exposure, I understood that there is nothing intelligent to say about your mother dying. Everybody dies. Everything is supposed to be quiet after your mother passes, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a mother dying, things like 'Poo-teeweet?'

I have since told my son that he is not under any circumstances to disrespect his mother or take part in massacres, and that the news of the massacre of enemies is not to fill him with satisfaction or glee. I tell him this while he is sitting at his gaming desk playing Call of Duty on his Xbox. He has been sniped and is screaming at his teammates to revive him. So it goes.


Recently, Ashley called me from Lynchburg because her son wants to be a filmmaker and is interested in going to the unicorn farm–I have not spoken to her in thirteen years.

‘Our children are now in high school–isn’t that wild?’ she says to me. It was very good for me, because I got to say to her something I had been wanting to say for some time, and that is that while you can get a good education at the unicorn farm the tuition is unconscionable.

It was also good for me because talking to her reminded me of the many ideas for essays that the unicorn farm has provided. One of them will be “Edibles in the Dune Lands,” and another will be “Go with the Frog,” another will be “Double IPAs like Hand Soap,” and another will be “If Only You Were Actually an Orphan,” and so on. And so on.


I got off that phone call with Ashley, and it was as though somebody was playing with the clocks. As an Earthling and a professor, I have to believe whatever clocks and calendars say: It is several days before Christmas 2021–grades are due in two days. I am sitting outside Chipotle waiting for my mobile order. I have two books with me, which I have been carrying around in my bag all semester. One was Seeds of Destruction by Thomas Merton, and this is what I found in there:
Doubtless the mercy and truth of God, the victory of Christ, are being manifested in our current history, but I am not able to see how they are being manifested by us.
My other book is Henry A. Giroux’s The Violence of Organized Forgetting, which begins with an epigraph from James Baldwin:
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.
Giroux argues that “America…has become amnesiac…” and that the only way to reverse this condition is to learn to remember again, which means “merging a critique of the way things are with a sense of realistic hope…and transforming individual memories and struggles into collective narratives and larger social movements.” Resistance is futile if we do not insist on telling stories about the people and lives that the culture of forgetting seeks to erase.

Mr. Giroux’s is a bleak book but he reminded me of Baldwin’s sardonic and profound essay “Equal in Paris,” in which he recounts being arrested for stealing a bed sheet from a Paris hotel and spending Christmas in a French jail. Specifically I remembered the scene in which a Frenchman who he befriended while in lock-up returns, as promised, to help him. The Frenchman gives him a carton of Lucky Strikes, and tells him that unfortunately there is nothing to be done to hasten his trial, but he has contacted a lawyer who will defend him on the 27th. He tells Baldwin, as consolation, that he will personally see to it that he would get a “fine Christmas dinner” when he was freed. At this, Baldwin begins to laugh:
And this, somehow, seemed very funny. I remember being astonished at the discovery that I was actually laughing. I was, too, I imagine, also rather disappointed that my hair had not turned white, that my face was clearly not going to bear any marks of tragedy, disappointed at bottom, no doubt, to realize, facing him in that room, that far worse things had happened to most people and that, indeed, to paraphrase my mother, if this was the worst thing that ever happened to me I could consider myself among the luckiest people ever to be born.

I like this because it reminds me of something my mother would say. She wasn’t Catholic, so she actually grew up reading the Bible. Because of her I always look to make sure there’s a Gideon Bible in my motel room. My mother was not a petty or vindictive person–she truly loved her neighbor as herself, but she had a fixation with Lot’s wife.

She would sometimes out of nowhere say, “You know what happened to Lot’s wife?”

So it goes.

I could never understand what the people of Sodom and Gommorrah did that was offensive to God. I mean, to me they might as well be Ann Arbor and Columbus. Can you imagine a stunningly beautiful angel of the Lord lasting thirty minutes in one of those places on a Friday night during the fall?


Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was what an essayist would do. She was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes. Maybe my mom was trying to tell me not to look back; that that is the key to happiness. I'm certainly going to keep doing it. What choice do I have?

I've basically finished my artist in American culture book now–it only took me fifteen years. The next one I write is going to be fun. It begins like this:
Twas the night before Christmas…
It ends like this:
And to all a good night.


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