When my wife, Ally, began to feel contractions last month, she tried to convince herself they weren’t real. With baby #1, her water broke on the due date, but these arrived nine days early, and it can be difficult to recognize a reality outside of your lived experience. Ally researched Braxton Hicks on her phone while I slept in the nursery (I’d been kicked out of bed in favor of a full-body pillow). The contractions drew closer together, more painful, until she could no longer pretend they weren’t real. She woke me up to take her to the hospital. I was struck by her calm.
The first time Ally was in labor, she pushed for four and a half hours, had an epidural that didn’t spread to half of her body, experienced the frustration of some unfortunately-timed shift changes, and ended with an episiotomy. In the aftermath, she experienced sustained waves of crippling anxiety. We took our son home but had to return to the NICU the next day. About a week later, my mom called while I was out walking the dog. When she asked how I was doing, I started crying on the crowded sidewalk. I didn’t have the language to explain what I was feeling, so I hung up the phone.
But this time the epidural distributed its magic with generosity, and we took a nap while we waited. When the doctor came in to check on the progress, Ally’s water broke and our second son was delivered fifteen minutes later. Ally looked at ease holding Sheppard. She’d done this before. Her body and mind had evolved to not only endure but to embrace building and delivering life. I cut the cord. The doctor stitched her up and then left. The nurses remained to do what they do: professionally care about other people’s children. We stared at our son, Sheppard, all day. I’d now witnessed two births up close and personal. I knew what it looked and sounded like. Yet I also knew I could witness a thousand more and never really understand the experience. I studied my son's tiny face and long toes and jet-black hair, and for the first time in weeks, I forgot to call my senators to advocate on behalf of the thousands of children who had been killed in Gaza. And the thousands more to come.
I recently revisited Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” and find myself in the precarious position of agreeing with Lorde’s sentiment that “Your silence will not protect you,” while also being weary (verging on cynical) of the way speaking truth has manifested in the contemporary landscape of social media. When everyone speaks every one of their truths to everyone in their curated circle, the effect rendered is the same as the white noise machine in my toddler’s room: the voices converge into a single static that muffles the outside world.
I arrived at Lorde’s essay in a state of frustration. I was irritated how the rhetoric surrounding the atrocities in Gaza had started to diminish the atrocities themselves. I was aware of the irony—centering my frustration over the way people center their outrage—and thought Lorde’s words might discourage my pettiness, maybe even combat my hypocrisy. Or at the very least force me to think outside of my experience. Usually the role of the essay in my life is simple: I take pleasure in reading them. But sometimes, particularly in moments of chaos, there’s more intention.
We moved from San Francisco to Richmond, Virginia, this past summer to be closer to Ally’s family. Moving is a pain in the ass, but it’s also transformative if you allow it to be. You have to make choices about what you value, where to invest your resources, which stuff is worth the haul, who you must say goodbye to. As independent school teachers, Ally and I have to consider whether we want to take advantage of discounted tuition with our employer schools or start thinking about public school districts. Do we prioritize a yard or a walkable neighborhood? We have to clarify what we actually mean when we say we value diversity. Basically, we have to decide what air we want our children to breathe. Choice can feel daunting, but it’s always a privilege. Moving across the country, like writing an essay, asks you to hold both who and where you’ve been and who and where you want to be in tandem.
Moving has also made me conscious of the provincial influences on how we tell stories about our own homes and the homes of others. When I tell people in Richmond I moved from San Francisco, I’ve been met with looks that say, I know why you left. They don’t. Yes, they know it’s expensive, and they’ve typically seen the videos of the car break-ins and tents on the sidewalk and people doing drugs on the street. Multiple people have specifically referenced how Walgreens now has to lock up the majority of their products and might have to shut down their city locations. And I find myself wondering if purchasing free-range deodorant from a Walgreens in San Francisco was really once the nostalgia-inducing experience they make it out to be, or if there’s something else going on. And if you’ve seen the headlines about San Francisco on major news outlets, it’s hard to blame anyone for believing the city is broken. But it’s also important to acknowledge that if you, like Ron Desantis, use maps that track human shit, you shouldn’t be surprised when that's what you step in. And I say this as someone who loves San Francisco and also hates the way San Franciscans so often talked about the South as if exempt from the bigotry. I say this as someone who is essentially still a tourist in Richmond but has realized that, depending on your slant and where you fall on the map, Richmond is either the former capital of the Confederacy that fetishizes its past, or the predominantly minority city that has demanded new monuments. And if the stories of San Francisco and Richmond can be told in ways that are unrecognizable to the people who live there, what might I be missing in the discourse about Gaza? And anyway, most people in Richmond with whom I discuss San Francisco simply respond, “Oh, I love San Francisco.” But those responses don’t help me say what I’m trying to say. Do you see what I’m saying?
And this all rests under the umbrella of the question: What can the essay do in a time of genocide? I don’t think I have (nor am I particularly interested in) a prescriptive answer. It’s easier to answer what the essay can’t do in a time of genocide. Essays will not feed or clothe or shelter or shield the people whose roots have been tattered and ripped from Gaza. Essays will not pull the shrapnel from the flesh of children. Essays will not breathe life into the cold bodies of dead babies.
But essays do encourage digression in a time that feels more privy to debate and definition. Essays tend to avoid the delicate jostling of semantics that send the internet into a tizzy over the parameters and application of the word genocide. Essays reject the Jenga-styled, veneered arguments that pretend to be offended by the manufactured hypocrisy of both valuing land acknowledgements and believing Palestinians have the right to exist.
Within Lorde’s essay, there are entire worlds to explore, but I keep coming back to this passage: “In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.” It’s here in the essay where I suspect Lorde would urge me to call my reps and donate to aid funds and encourage my community to follow suit, but she would caution me against taking up space in an increasingly crowded discussion where it can already be a challenge to interpret the words let alone make meaning from them. I don’t believe it’s this white American guy’s function in the transformation to be heard, but rather to listen to those whose function and experience make them, as speakers, vital to the transformation.
And history and policy are important, and they are lanes that require drivers with credentials of knowledge and experience. And there are essays to be written that I can’t and will not write but will devour if you write them and encourage others to do the same. So I’m trying to stay in my lane here, to keep it simple. Because there is simplicity within this complexity. People are dying in droves. Civilians are dying in droves. Children are dying in droves. And Lorde says:
For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.
And here is what I know beyond understanding. On our first night in the hospital, Sheppard, as is common for babies who undergo a quick labor, had a belly full of amniotic fluid that he kept spitting up while asleep on his back. The nurses assured us that babies can tilt their heads to the side and will not choke on their own bile. But we still couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was because we’d recently binged Breaking Bad and had too recently watched what happened to Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane. So every couple minutes when Sheppard would gag, we’d flock to his bassinet and wipe away the mess and hover, a hand on his chest and an ear by his mouth waiting to feel his breath. And we did that all night—out of instinct, not choice. A choice is whether you look at the sensitive content. Maybe you insist on spending three days sifting through investigative reports that warn you it’s going to hurt. And maybe you find a detail so brutal that you can barely bear to consider it. There's much to be gleaned from reading other people’s essays, but I’ve also been thinking about the role of writing the essay and teasing out the banality of my own experience in the time when the World Health Organization has reported that a child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza, which means that dozens of children have died in the time I’ve spent recounting the birth of my own. And when you measure anything in the lives of children, it’s fair to ask what’s the point? And it’s tempting to borrow a sentence from Lorde, perhaps, “The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us.” But that would feel contrived, like total bullshit coming from me. Because Lorde’s essay was written to be spoken and shared with an audience, and I’m writing this for myself. I’m writing this because I want to think exhaustively about something I feel in my body but don’t fully understand. To remember that after Ally gave birth to our first child it was the stories of women that made her realize she wasn’t alone. I want to question why it’s impossible to sleep when my child is gagging, but I can sleep while children die in Gaza. I once cried in the middle of the street because my body and mind were still acclimating to the weight of being explicitly responsible for another life. And while our bodies and minds might be built to evolve and protect ourselves, we must reject hardening to the deaths of other people’s children. And when Lorde says “teach by living,” I think of the nurses who showed me how to fold a diaper beneath the stump of an umbilical cord and how you have to swaddle a baby tighter than you might feel comfortable with to make them feel secure. And at the time I thought they were modeling how to keep your child alive, but maybe they were modeling what it looks like to care for someone else’s children as if they were your own. Maybe when they told me not to worry about Sheppard spitting up what to me looked like poison, it’s because they understood that amniotic fluid was what nourished him for months, and sometimes we have to reject the very thing that used to keep us safe, that once sustained us, in order to live and grow and transform in a new world.
Andrew Maynard is a teacher and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. His prose has appeared in HAD, Rejection Letters, True Story, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two sons, Clyde and Sheppard.
This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"