Monday, January 18, 2021

Anna I. McClain: John le Carré vs Ian Fleming: Overcoming Heartlessness in Spy Fiction

Flip to any page of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and you will find enough layers of nuance to seed a doctoral dissertation on the Cold War. The quintessential 1963 spy novel by the late John le Carré set in Cold War Berlin and London weaves a complex yet concise espionage story that captures the essence of exploitation of the individual inherent in spycraft.

Alec Leamas, aging and weary after losing several agents at the hands of Hans-Dieter Mundt, Deputy Director of Operations for the Soviets in the East German Secret Service, is sent out on one last mission to feign defection and defeat Mundt once and for all. 

During his long and fruitful literary career, le Carré, a former spy for the British M-15, then M-16, exposed the duplicity and moral ambiguity intrinsic to the world of espionage. In his books, he paints a dark portrait of those who become entangled in and destroyed by dirty plots aimed at preserving an elusive greater good. He deconstructs the spy’s futile, anxiety-driven attempt to disrupt and contain the iron machine of Communism and exposes the dissociation from the heart that all spy work ultimately sows and feeds upon.

My own father, a CIA case officer during the Cold War, served, like le Carré, in post-war Germany on behalf of American intelligence at the beginning of his career. From that point of initial, state-sponsored engagement in spy work, a part of my father was necessarily walled off due to secret operations he became involved in. The necessity and irony of any oath to secrecy—and this can be true whether one is protecting entire governments or one’s own indiscretions—is the unfortunate requirement to mask who you really are at your core. One operates not only against the object of deception, the perceived enemy, but against oneself; against the human impulse to achieve spiritual integration and wholeness. From the pressure of such dissonance, the self splits in two. The real self knows the entire score but performs only the party line out loud. In the case of my father and the CIA, he held secrets without wavering because lives depended on it. As a result, my father lived until 2014 in the grey shadow of duality that duty to the United States had required of him from 1950-1969. My father placed loyalty to country first and foremost and this contract effectively exiled him from full expression of his own heart. In his later years, he reflected upon his experience externally, abstractly, perhaps even unwittingly, through a fascination with intellectual concepts of duality in his own writing and painting. The heart was the old country, the place I believe he longed to return to, but never could. While it may be difficult to imagine my father’s brand of loyalty in government today, it was a palpable part of him, and of the colleagues of his I met when I was a child. In the harsh and unforgiving realm of psychological warfare between nations during the Cold War, lives depended on duplicity.

“Did your dad ever kill anyone?” Such questions asked by innocent cocktail party goers are one reason I don’t talk casually about my father and have only recently begun to write about his intelligence career. Though the history of the CIA is in many respects dark and fraught, perhaps we can learn something from it now, in the wake of Trump’s confounding authoritarian allure for so many in this nation, and to remember the enormous personal sacrifices so many of our World War II veterans and Cold Warriors made on behalf of the fight against authoritarian regimes. Le Carré’s fiction gives us a place to reflect on the true spiritual costs of misinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare.

As we remember John le Carré and his complex characters, we can remember, too, the real life Cold War spies and appreciate how much more their lives mirrored the harsh realities of Smiley and Leamas rather than “Bond. James Bond”. For many, the “game” was far more psychological than physical—and losses in the field were grieved quietly, but relentlessly. There was a lot more sitting at tables smoking and analyzing situations and a lot less martini swirling, tuxedo wearing and womanizing than Bond movies would have us believe. 

The people my father worked with were just people with real families. They juggled raising children while living in dangerous territories doing risky work. The ones I knew, most of whom are gone now, had diplomatic skills, strategic minds, and terrific table manners. Some spoke three or four languages. Some had performed heroic duties for which they’d received secret medals in the inner conference room at Langley—medals presented then confiscated and locked away. Medals they could not keep, look at again, show to anyone nor talk about. All of these people shared a love of country that drove them into a world where they could no longer be whole. And none of them looked or acted like James Bond. 

Not that there weren’t some colorful moments. In his retirement, my father did come to a point at which he needed to figure out how to dispose of an old cyanide pill he’d once carried in case of the need to commit suicide in an emergency. But generally speaking, these guys were not exploding gadgets or poisoning people on trains. Rather, they were exhausted, anxious and flawed thinkers who believed they were doing the right thing. Human beings charged with carrying out nationalistic dirty work, operating on behalf of the greater good in a seedy vortex of mistrust. 

The aging, short, plump George Smiley, le Carré’s disenchanted British agent engaged in a dark search for truth, makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but in terms of le Carré’s canon, Smiley is his key player, a sweetheart of a spy if there ever was one. He stands in stark opposition to glitzy Bond, the iconic fictional spy of the Cold War era. 

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming ignited the reading public’s imagination with a hard, sophisticated and unshakeable modern spy in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker.  In 1956, the Soviets outed the existence of the secret Berlin tunnel that the Americans and Brits had dug into Berlin Soviet Headquarters to intercept communications. The Soviets were aware of this clandestine activity long before they sounded the whistle on it, thanks to the cunning efforts of British double agent George Blake (who also blew my father’s cover in the early 1950s in an event unrelated to the tunnel). The revelation was not good PR for Britain or the United States to say the least. In 1956, the Soviets also squelched the Hungarian uprising in a bloody show of domination. That same year, Fleming released Diamonds Are Forever, and offered Britain a sense of relief from its own fumbling—a fantasy super-hero to hang onto in the face of her deteriorating efficacy. My eldest sister recalls sinking down in her movie theatre seat with horror when my father roared with laughter during the most tense parts of the movie. The journalist William Cook observes that, with the British Empire in decline, "Bond pandered to Britain's inflated and increasingly insecure self-image, flattering us with the fantasy that Britannia could still punch above her weight.” Although Stalin’s reign of terror had stalled out upon his death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev would soon demand that Western powers pull forces out of West Berlin, or else. This three-year crisis over Berlin’s future led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And the shooting of a compromised agent at Checkpoint Charlie is the eerie starting point for The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, as if le Carré set out to answer Fleming’s cavalier portrayal of bullet-proof spies in this mood-driven thriller, though he claimed he wrote simply to entertain his readers. In a live performance entitled Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré, Anthony Horowitz, bestselling author of the Alex Rider spy novels and David Farr, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of the BBC’s adaptation of le Carré’s The Night Manager face off to determine which author is the better writer, with final votes to be collected from the audience. Horowitz claims that James Bond is bigger than fiction and like Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, he’s lodged in our collective DNA. Horowitz makes salient points about Bond’s popularity. He muses that only 007 could have escorted Queen Elizabeth II from a helicopter to open the 2012 Olympics; this was hardly a job for George Smiley. Horowitz praises Fleming’s sense of timing, use of language and iconic action scenes. 

For me, it is difficult to get on board the Fleming train. Perhaps this has less to do with craft and more with the flagrant celebration of misogyny that infuses his novels. Phrases such as, “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” (The Spy Who Loved Me) Or this, from Goldfinger:

Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits—barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

Clearly, both le Carré and Bond write from a linear mid-century male perspective and papers could be written weighing the evolution of binary gender roles in spy literature. However, for the sake of this argument, I’d venture to say that Fleming pens stories devoid of deep introspection to titillate rather than challenge our perceptions about the complexities of truth vs lying for the greater good with such lines as, “Goldfinger could not have known that high tension was Bond's natural way of life and that pressure and danger relaxed him.” Goldfinger deserves a modicum of credit in the kitsch department as he sits on his throne drunk with the desire to dominate, red marks on his throat, instruments next to him. And, okay, I’ll cast a weary nod to the unimaginative trope of the beautiful, yet terrified girl strapped to a chair just out of Bond’s reach. But I tire quickly of Goldfinger’s lengthy soliloquy as the circular saw approaches 007’s private parts. SPECTRE, SMERSH and the man with the third nipple don’t bring me closer to a new level of understanding about good and evil, much less, myself within the context of good and evil. 

There are no men with third nipples in le Carré’s work. In fact, nipples are not the focal point, so to speak, nor are the women “honeypots”. Liz Gold, Alec Leamas’s love interest is no Pussy Galore, though okay, yes, she is of course, far younger than Leamas. To me, she symbolizes a brand of spiritual innocence that Leamas has lost and cannot regain. The ordinary, uncompromised life. A simple kind of love that Alec will never be able to have because of his entanglement with espionage and his inability to be whole within his own heart. Le Carré writes Liz Gold subtly. She’s nice looking but not a material conquest. It is she who kindles the relationship with Leamas—and she’s fairly complex. Le Carré answers Fleming’s pornography with something of the heart. 

Farr reminds the Fleming vs. le Carré audience that the Bond books are not to be confused with the movies and agrees with Horowitz that Fleming creates “wonderful cartoons”. He says, “Fleming is a stylist, a skillful writer of action.” But, he adds, “The movies have blessed him.” Farr sees Bond as a superhero who fulfills our fantasies, but warns le Carré knows:

 … no such solutions are possible. He has tasted the reality of post war Europe and knows that no number of Aston Martins and martinis can solve them. Le Carré’s world is seedy, it’s ugly, it’s evil and it’s banal, yes, but most problems in our world do not come in black and white, they do come in gray. Far from being glamorized, the spy in le Carré is dragged down in some level of compromise, he is desensitized. Many of the practitioners in the novel are incompetent.

Farr goes on to say,

I would argue that le Carré is a truly great novelist. He delves into the human soul… he takes big existential risks. The spy novel is basically all of our lives writ large. We’re all seeking to find out who we are…what masks do we present in our lives…what double agents do we meet in our own souls? 

Farr asserts le Carré’s greatness is in the search within his own heart. In the end of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the trap Leamas and Liz Gold find themselves in, and the reckoning we see in Leamas as he decides to join her in death, is far more sophisticated and emotionally devastating than any two-bit lecturing/slicing/dicing tyrant with a circular saw could dish out. Though Leamas believed all along he was working to get revenge on Mundt, in the end, he discovers that he himself has been had by the British Secret Service. He has been used, one last time, as a pawn by George Smiley and “The Circus” who had sent him to compromise Mundt’s second in command, Fiedler, who had started to suspect that Mundt was a double agent. As it turns out, Mundt is indeed the Brits' man and Leamas unwittingly saves Mundt from being outed by Fiedler and inadvertently condemns Fiedler to his death.

“Then why didn’t they shoot you?” Liz asks the compromised Leamas. “You conspired with Fiedler against Mundt, that’s what they said. You killed a guard. Why has Mundt let you go?”

“All right!” Leamas shouted suddenly. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you were never, never to know, neither you nor I. Listen: Mundt is London’s man, their agent; they bought him when he was in England. We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin. To save him from a clever little Jew in his own department who had begun to suspect the truth. They made us kill him, d’you see, kill the Jew. Now you know, and God help us both.”

In the end it is Fiedler, whom Leamas had befriended, who meets his maker. Mundt is safely intact as London’s primary asset. And what about the moral responsibility for the death of Leamas’s agents? Eh, that’s the price tag of doing business. 

In an article entitled Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, William Boyd writes that when Leamas and Liz Gold try to escape over the wall,

George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of bluff and counterbluff, is waiting for him. Leamas hears Smiley shout: "The girl, where's the girl?" But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead. That is the key implication...that she's never coming over and was never meant to. Leamas suddenly understands this—it is the final betrayal he suffers—and he climbs back down to the east and meets his death. 

Boyd admits having read the book several times before understanding that the rubbing out of Liz Gold was required: 

Leamas was meant to make it over the wall—the service was going to bring him in from the cold, but Liz Gold, by association, knows too much to be released back into society. She was always destined to die on the wall. 

Farr asserts that le Carré explores deep existential questions relentlessly. He notes how le Carré pays homage to Joseph Conrad: 

Le Carré is on a search for the secret sharer, “the person who knows us better than we know ourselves. He explores complex ideas around doubles and selves. Someone is always seeking someone else. Leamas seeks Mundt. Smiley is seeking Karla. Magnus seeks Axel. Or does Axel seek Magnus? The heart of darkness is the soul of the other.” 

And underlying it all, adds Farr, is the dark, existential notion that “the person you love most is the person you know least well.”

Le Carré’s characters are on a journey into the heart of darkness of Cold War Berlin and London. Their inward struggles stand in stark opposition to Fleming’s cursory take on interiority as this moment from Goldfinger suggests: 

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death."

At the end of the evening, the audience in the Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré event sides with Farr, and with me, with 60 percent agreeing that le Carré writes circles around Fleming. Sure, our culture will always enjoy entertainment that infuses us with a false sense of addictive power. We imagine ourselves running the show, overcoming the foe with our unique brand of cunning and cool. We imagine ourselves standing at the bar commanding specific cocktails despite our precarious location in a pit of snakes.

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet...Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?” (Casino Royale) 

While Bond inflates our sense of control, le Carré makes us feel as if we ourselves inhabit the dark, porous, gritty world of Alec Leamas. His genius as a writer lies in his ability to illustrate a sense of nihilism. He writes the stark minimalism of Berlin and London and squares off with the tensions between East and West and the degradation inherent in the spy profession. In his final conversation with Liz Gold, Leamas utters the famous lines:

“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” 

Le Carré requires us to look at ourselves as we watch the action. We cannot remain bystanders. This note by Matthew McVeigh, that I found buried in the comment section of the YouTube video of Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré gives us the essence of the important difference between the two writers:

He turned a genre that was previously about action fantasy into a realistic psychological exploration of bureaucrats, detective work and ethics. He did indeed bring an element of the European existential novel to his stories, and it would be more interesting to compare him to Kafka or Heinrich Boell than Fleming or other spy writers. I don't like Bond, I don't find him exciting or attractive and don't like the implications Fleming is making about his world. Le Carré's protagonists have just as bent a set of ethics as Bond but it's addressed differently: rather than expecting us to bluntly accept behavior that would ordinarily be seen as appalling on account of the espionage context, le Carré wants to reconnect the spy world to the rest of the world, and to re-connect the lost, confused characters in search of their identity to the humanity they are fleeing by taking refuge in espionage. 

In the end, le Carré includes us in this terrible world of mistrust. We are all in it together. We are forced to reckon with those parts of ourselves that move between shadow and light, to confront the double agent in our own hearts.


Anna I. McClain is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, at work on a memoir about uncovering her Russian-American emigre father’s Cold War experience. @annaimcclain

Monday, January 11, 2021

Text Your Dead: An Invitation from Eric LeMay


How will we mourn everyone who's dead and dying? 

This question, like so many others, spiraling inside me. Inside us. I replay the numbers. Yesterday's death count, in my county, our country, our world. As though I’m not numb to them. Morgue fatigue, magnitude fatigue. Instead, I replay the metaphors: yesterday another 9/11, another Antietam. One jumbo jet going down, two going down, the Titanic going down. I try to hold the whole of it in my head and can't. Bodies in mass graves. Bodies in refrigerator trucks. 

And all this happening while so many Americans refuse to recognize it's happening. Since it started, two of my uncles have died. Both with severe comorbidities, both in care facilities, though one returned home to die in hospice. I can't get a clear answer about whether their deaths were COVID-related. My family veers right, sees the virus as a political exaggeration. Even mentioning it is charged. 

"What happened?" I ask my father on the phone. "Well, it's not entirely clear. He was in bad shape." I know not to press him, not because he isn't reasonable, but because he knows better than to press our family about the virus at such a moment. This, in the family etiquette, isn’t a moment for politics.

So how will we mourn our dead when we can't speak about how they died or how, had we acted otherwise as a country, so many of them wouldn't have?

Sometimes I try to still these questions looping in my head by listening to podcasts, usually in the dark, sleepless hours. Experts on collective trauma, storytellers on healing, gurus on grief. Sometimes it helps. One night I came across an episode on This American Life called "Really Long Distance." It's a bad title for a beautiful subject. 

In 2010, a garden-designer named Itaru Sasaki built one of those old-timey telephone booths in his garden. It overlooks the sea in the Otsuchi region on the east coast of Japan. It has a black rotary phone. The phone isn’t connected. No line, no signal. Sasaki built it after his cousin and long-time drinking buddy died of cancer. He uses the phone to speak to his dead cousin. Sasaki calls it "kaze no denwa," the wind phone or the phone of the wind. It’s the wind that carries your words to the dead. 

And then, about a year later, on March, 11, 2011, one of the worst tsunamis in history hit the eastern coast of Japan, the very region where Sasaki lives. At least 16,000 people died, another 2,500 went missing, almost half a million were displaced. Soon after, the wind phone became a place of pilgrimage. Thousands of people have come to Sasaki’s garden, picked up the black telephone, and called their dead. 

In the episode, you hear the mourners speaking on the phone. You hear the grief rake through their voices. As I was listening and crying and trying not to wake up my wife and son sleeping next to me from crying, I found myself wondering what a wind phone might look like for me? For us? What might carry our words to our dead?

Then it occurred to me: we don't call, we text. What if we could text our dead? So I did what you do with a grief-soaked idea that comes to you on a sleepless night in the middle of a global pandemic. I registered a domain, built a website, bought a phone, got a new line, started a Twitter account, and created the badly titled Text Our Dead, where you can send a text to your dead. Here's how I introduce it:

Q: What is this?
This is a chance to text someone who has died.

Q: What should I text?
Text what you want to say. Or what you didn't. Ask what you want to ask. Or didn't. Text about your dreams or your day or your dog. Send a blessing. Send a curse. Share with your dead your grief, your memories, your love.  

Q: Will I get a text back?
Not from this number, which isn't the same as saying you won't hear back.

In the daylight, I doubt the idea holds up. Then again, right now I doubt anything holds up, including me. 

As an essayist, I think of Text Our Dead as something like an intervention into the culture of American mourning at a moment when we're dying faster than any time in our history, but usually I think of it in light of something Sasaki has said: “Life is only, at most, 100 years. But death is something that goes on much longer, both for the person who has died and also for the survivors, who must find a way to feel connected to the dead. Death does not end the life. All the people who are left afterward are still figuring out what to do about it. They need a way to feel connected.” 

We all know American rituals of mourning are shit. Be brave at the funeral. Be back at work on Monday. Get over it. Get on with it. Don't cry. Don't bury the bones of your loved ones in your heart. For us, it’s not a connection but a chasm between the living and the dead. We’re bad at death, bad with our dead, and bad deaths are happening all around us.

To say it another way, just as the pandemic has exposed so much that’s wrong about our culture—our economic inequality, our racial injustice, our environmental negligence, our cruelty towards immigrants, the elderly, and the poor—it’s also exposing how terrible we are at mourning. 

And then there’s Sasaki, with a very different view: death goes on, life goes on, the living need to feel connected to the dead. 

How might that happen for us? Maybe through our smartphones rather than Sasaki’s old rotary phone. When asked why he chose a phone, Sasaki explained that picking up the phone primes you to speak. You just start talking. That’s right as far as it goes, but nowadays we just start texting. It's our go-to, our mostly likely way of connecting with others in our lives. Maybe texting can also connect us with our dead.

Our phones, after all, are already conduits of death. The final calls from the ICU, the last Facetimes. And we're all figuratively dying on our phones we're always on. For work, for school, for the closest thing many of us have to human touch. Touch screens. It's soul-killing. What left to lose? If we text to connect, why not try to connect with those we’ve lost?

Try. That’s the key word. Try, test, essay. That's why I’m sharing Text Our Dead with you on Essay Daily. We’re believers in the essay. We want to see—want to essay—what words can do. Words thumbed on the phones and mangled by autocorrect. Words generated from voice-to-text and pocked with emojis. Words crafted from memory, from missing, from the possibility that your words might mean something not only for you, but for  them, your dead.

“Death does not end the life,” says Sasaki.

Sure, it’s absurd, but if we’re willing to risk dying in traffic to send a text, why not risk the absurdity and text our dead?

Eric LeMay is the author of Remember Me and other work. The quote and paraphrases of Itaru Sasaki's words come from Tessa Fontaine’s “The Phone of the Wind” in The Believer (July 25, 2018).

Monday, January 4, 2021

David Grandouiller: Unreality, Ohio

 “It’s a book about disaster,” I told my friends all summer—on a march to the statehouse or at an outdoor wedding. “But not just disaster. It’s sort of about human psychology and disaster. Or sociology and disaster. How do people interact with past and future disaster? How do they cope?” And then maybe under the marquee, sometime before the bouquet toss, I’d relay an insight from the book about the first atomic bomb or placebo effects in pain therapy or the microparasites that drive ants, by means of mind control, to the tops of leaves of grass, because they “want” to be in a cow’s stomach. 

In exchange, friends told me how much they loved the new Haim album. Or how corn is taking over the country, and we’re all doing its bidding. So I learned things by reading, and I learned things by talking about what I was reading. 

The book was Elisa Gabbert's The Unreality of Memory, a travel guide to my summer. I’d walk down to the corner store, wearing a mask, feeling a bit apprehensive, and see thirty, thirty-five college kids all shouting across a beer pong table in the same front yard. And then I’d get home and Gabbert would quote Chernobyl survivors saying, “You can’t be afraid the whole time; a person can’t do that. Some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” Or saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The contexts weren’t the same, of course, but it felt like we were having conversations. One morning I joined chants in an intersection on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. The next afternoon, I drank with an old friend on my porch, laughing while the neighbor’s kids played on the lawn and police sprayed mace into the crowds downtown, and it was dissonant. “I feel this way all the time now,” Gabbert wrote. “Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.” 

These are the kinds of lines that end Gabbert’s essays. She’s an aphoristic writer who loves to leave the reader with a one-two punch. “My own past suffering is often a great source of comfort to me,” she says. “This must mean I’ve never really suffered.” Or, “It’s comforting to think that when we’re too fatigued to fight, someone else will take the lead. It is, perhaps, too comforting.” They work like little models of the essays at large, illustrating, in miniature, how we’re always caught between two truths, two needs. 

This tension seems like an inevitable consequence of trying to live with care at a time when we have unprecedented access to information about our communities’ ills whether or not we have the sense to seek that information ourselves, at a time when even the youngest among us are bracing for global apocalypse from war or natural disaster or disease—or all of these: as Gabbert’s book shows me, different kinds of disasters compound one another. It’s important to fight for the prevention of disaster and to fight for the recovery of those already experiencing disaster. 

At the same time, it’s not possible to hold all the problems you’re exposed to in your head at once. And it’s not possible to give your total attention to any one of them for very long. There are things you have to do, like eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. And there’s your limited energy—your “spoons,” as I’ve heard more people saying recently. The tension between our responsibility to fight and our responsibility to go on living seems to be always increasing as our awareness widens— “the ballooning millennial conscience,” my roommate once called this. And when we can’t worry about all these things at once, and we have little power to change many of the things we worry about, we can end up asking foolish questions: as Gabbert puts it, “Where do I focus my anxiety so that I can feel like a good citizen in an anxious society?” It’s precisely this anxiety that can rob us of our empathy when others need it, she points out. 

I’ve begun to wonder if my “good citizen” anxieties stem from a belief that it’s possible for me to act rightly and sufficiently as an individual in the face of the world’s problems, if I just tried a bit harder, taught myself to care a bit more. Gabbert spends many pages wrestling with her limited energies, her limited empathy. Meanwhile, her book complicates any belief in the power of the individual by overwhelming the reader with a full sense of their own helplessness—there are viral pandemics coming that will make this one look like child’s play, she suggests from the research. When Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupts, many of us will be buried in ash before the news arrives. And if these things don’t kill us all, one day we’ll die, anyway. 

When I allow myself to think about all that, it often makes me feel nihilistic. Why should anything I do matter? But this summer, during a conversation about The Unreality, a friend told me, “No—don’t you see how freeing that is? We have nothing to lose.” We can take action, he meant, for the people and causes that are important to us, without worrying it isn’t enough. Enough for what? You don’t measure care in quantities. 

What I love most about Gabbert is that even while she spends so much of her energy engaging big, important things (she votes, she marches, she calls her senator; a sticky note by her desk says Be an activist), she allows herself to think about small things, even petty things. She’ll tell you she wants a bigger bed. That she wishes she had time to play more tennis. She’s good at this on her Twitter, too, which is worth following if you don’t already—there are pointed commentaries on current events, like, “WE NEED THE POST OFFICE FOR OTHER THINGS. NOT JUST VOTING.” And then, non sequitur gems: “In the 80s you could smoke inside a hospital.” 

More than that, she’s willing to put the largeness of disaster away, sometimes, for the intimacy of a single voice saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The individual voice is a world in its own right. It, too, needs saving—from the tyranny of scale. I can’t prevent the globe from being covered in water, or in fire. It’s possible that together we can, but even that is beside the point, I think. What’s important is that as I move to fight the disaster, I will encounter my neighbor, who is also moving. I can listen to her, and she can listen to me, and we can talk about what she’s reading, and we can cry, and we can tell new jokes.


David Grandouiller is a French-American writer and editor living, most recently, in Philadelphia. He's working on a first book of essays about the bitterness and confusion he taught himself at a conservative Christian university, looking for uncertainty in faith and for intimacy in autonomy. His essay, "On Communion," was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant from the Ohioana Library Association. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 25, Dave Griffith: On Eula Biss's On Having and Being Had

It’s four days before Christmas and I am on hold with Visa prepaid gift card services--I have been had.

My dad sent me a $100 gift card for Christmas, and when I go to use it at Ho Ping, the Chinese restaurant near my house, the card is declined. When I return home, I call the number on the back of the card to see what’s going on and discover that the balance is ZERO. Someone on St. Catherine St. in Phoenix has registered the card and used it to purchase exactly $100 worth of stuff from Amazon.

The first person I talk to, after being on hold for over an hour, and enduring Muzak versions of Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” and a suite of jazz-fusion monstrosities I can’t quite place but remind me of Sting circa Dream of the Blue Turtles, complete with Branford Marsalis-esque sax licks (think “Love is the Seventh Wave” and “We’ll Be Together”), is a guy who doesn’t even let me explain what has happened: Sir, your name doesn’t match the name registered to the card, so you’ll have to take this up with your dad. Before I can say anything else he hangs up.

I call back hoping to talk with someone more helpful. This time I’m connected almost right away to a woman who, when I explain what has just happened, falls all over herself apologizing. She promises to connect me to someone in the fraud department. I wait and wait. Don Henley returns, followed by Sting, and then some MIDI-composed smooth jazz that sounds like the music that plays on a non-stop loop on the in-house TV channel of hotels: music for liminal spaces.

This all wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the fact that I could really use that $100 about now, having blown my Christmas budget, despite telling myself that I wouldn’t; that I would be responsible this year, but, dear, sweet, infant baby Jesus, this year...Don’t we all deserve just a little bit extra?

I tell myself that if my heart were in the right place, I would be consoled by the fact that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that no amount of money or gifts can assuage the restlessness I feel; that Jesus is Alpha and the Omega, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor.

But I feel very far from Jesus right now, even throwing-the-money-changers-out-the-Temple- Jesus, as I quibble with an “Ambassador” from US Bank’s Prepaid Gift Card division about whether or not I have sufficient proof of ownership to qualify for them to issue a reimbursement, something that I am certain they can do with one keystroke--one second there’s zero money and the next second, magically, there’s one-hundred of these things we call dollars available for me to spend.

This also wouldn’t be so terrible if I weren’t, while on hold, finishing the last twenty pages of Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, a collection of vignettes on a wide array of subjects revolving around money, consumption, the economics of making a living as a writer (and mother), Capitalism, and, ultimately, the value of making and doing things that no one has asked for; things that have no clear or agreed upon worth.

The book is a hardback, which I mention because it feels like a luxury. It is the only hardback book I bought for myself this year, as my book budget had to be slashed due to the fact that when I changed jobs two years ago I took a significant cut in take-home pay. But I am a genuine fan of Biss’ work, which is how I justified the purchase, meaning the $26.00 dollars was worth it to me. It was a price I was willing to pay for the pleasure and edification I felt awaited me. I also saw it as an investment in a writer I admire--a concept that Biss interrogates throughout Having and Being Had. She spends an entire section of the book meditating on the complicated feelings she has about the Guggenheim Foundation money she received, a relatively small sum, a tiny fraction, really, of the interest the Guggenheim fortune kicks off every year, but a sum large enough, Biss writes, to allow her to buy a house in Chicago and buy out her classes at Northwestern for a year.

Biss’ complicated feelings about the provenance of the Guggenheim fortune endears her to me even more. I’ve been a fan ever since 2009 when I read her Notes from No Man’s Land, a book that I was drawn to because of a single essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” a meditation on the strange and awful intertwined history of the telephone pole and lynchings in the U.S. I return to this essay again and again because of the way that it causes me to grapple with both the wonderful ingenuity of humans and our sinister capacity for evil, a theme that dominates my own work.

Gift card fraud is, of course, laughably benign in comparison to the evil of lynching, but I am allowing it into this appreciation of Biss’ book because it is a Capitalist nightmare. Imagine that a thing you have purchased with your hard-earned money suddenly, magically, disappears, or is discovered to be counterfeit, leaving you not only with nothing to show for it, but also feeling duped, ashamed, had.

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, a book on the economics of art and creativity, spends an entire chapter on these kinds of nightmares. Hyde, who Biss cribs from numerous times in Having and Being Had, analyzes folks tales in which a gift, often food, transmogrifies before our very eyes because the protagonist, often overcome by ingratitude, greed, or fear of want, fails to share the gift they have been given.

In one tale, a man sitting down to eat a roast chicken sees his father coming and hides it in order to avoid sharing it. After his father leaves, the delicious chicken transforms into a large toad that leaps and attaches itself to the son’s face. For the rest of his days, the son must feed the toad or else it begins to eat his face. In another tale, a trio of daughters depart their mother one by one to seek their fortune. The mother bakes each of them a loaf of bread, offering them either a small portion and her blessing or a large portion and her curse. The two older daughters who both choose the large portion are bent on hoarding their share and so when they encounter a mother quail and her hungry brood they angrily send them away. These daughters meet very strange and cruel ends, but the youngest chooses the smaller portion and, as you might guess, shares what little she has with the quail family, and, in the end, saves her sisters.

Hoarding a gift is the cardinal sin, according to Hyde: the gift, whatever it is--food, a work of art, a natural talent to make things--must “circulate,” as it is only in the sharing of a gift that it can truly grow and nourish the receiver, as well as an ever-widening circle of people who are also touched in some way by the gift.

My dad once accused me of not being grateful for the sacrifices he and my mother made in order to put me through college, so perhaps the several hours of hold time that I have endured over the last two days trying to reach someone--anyone--in fraud services who can restore the value to the card, is a kind of purgatory.

Maybe purgatory is the better metaphor here for talking about Having and Being Had. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of self-reflective class consciousness bordering on purgative self-loathing. In vignette after vignette Biss and her husband (also a writer), and a revolving cast of friends and colleagues who are artists, economists, and historians, attempt to define what exactly what we mean when we say “The Economy” or “Capitalism.” Over drinks with work friends, while watching masons fix the chimney, while watching her children play on the playground, while riding a bike, while touring an art museum with her friend--bored and irritable children in tow--Biss frets and agonizes. She knows that she is complicit in a system that runs counter to her values, a system that exploits and penalizes the poor, all but ensuring that the wealthy remain wealthy and the indigent indigent, and yet she sees no way out.

As she sits with a TIAA Cref financial planner, she admits that she wants to find a way out of this system, but also that one day she wants to be able to retire, and the only way that will be possible is if she stays in this game, contracting herself out to an exclusive and wealthy institution that sees her value not so much in terms of her abilities as a writer and teacher, but in terms of what the market determines she is worth. She reveals early on that she makes $20,000 more a year than her husband because she received a competitive offer of employment from another university. In this way, the market behaves like a suitor who only becomes attentive when a competitor enters the picture. It is a system of evaluation where appreciation, respect, commitment, and investment in a relationship are not motivated by admiration but by a fear of loss.

It is nearly midnight--I have been on the phone since 7 pm--when I am finally told that someone from Fraud Services will call me back in the morning. I hang up and try to finish the last few pages of the book before falling asleep, but it is a struggle to keep my eyes open. The hours-long vigil waiting for an Ambassador to answer has worn me out. The words investment, interest, dividends, precarity and scarcity dance in my head, and then another word intrudes: Advent.

In the secular sense it means arrival, emergence, appearance etc, but in a Christian context the word is full of expectation, pregnant with meaning, literally a word to describe the season of waiting leading up to the moment when the Word is made flesh. Biss’ book is not invested in this upper-case “n” Nativity--this is the baggage, the freight, the meaning (the value?) that I bring to the reading of her book as a cradle Catholic, and which I am encountering at a particular crossroads in my own journey as a writer, parent, and spouse.

Biss is more interested in the lower-case “n” nativity of Capitalism, and so offers glosses of many scholarly works on the subject, but they do not broker as much emotional power or clarity as the sections she devotes to idols like Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion, whom she clearly both admires but also cooly regards because of their wealth.

Likewise, with each vignette, as I learn more and more about Biss’ struggle to remain faithful to her values and the experiences that have shaped her relationship to work, money, and art, I find myself becoming consumed by judgement. I become impatient with the scenes of conversations about Capitalism over cocktails. I become consumed by pecuniary details, like the $2,000 bicycle she owns, or that she begins one section with the sentence, “We’re driving through the mountains of France talking about affluence.”

I know that she, of all people, is aware of how this comes off. She writes in the notes at the end of the book that this book came, in part, as the result of keeping a daily diary of things that discomforted her. Despite this admission, I still judge, though I know it is not my place to question how others live their lives, spend their money, conduct their business--and yet it is nearly impossible not to. In the same way it is impossible for Biss’ step-mother, in the last pages of the book, not to question why she is allowing her child to purchase a supposedly rare Pokemon card for $7. Whole packs of the cards are only $3, so why would you allow your child to make such an obviously foolish decision with his allowance? Biss replies: “It isn’t really his money unless he can use it in the way he wants…And making mistakes with money is one of the best ways to learn how not to make mistakes with money.”

Making mistakes with money is a game I know too well. I feel like I have been playing it for most of my adult life, but the mistakes are not so much squandering money on collectible trading cards (although, looking around at the shelves of unread books I have purchased because I felt a certain professional and clubby duty to own them, I feel attacked). The mistake I fret and agonize over, especially in these moments as I nervously check my account balance and wait for an Ambassador from the Fraud Department of the Prepaid Card Division to answer, is whether or not I should continue to write, or, better put, whether I can continue to afford to write.

This is not a question raised in Biss’ book, though she does worry over the worth of her writing. Her sister says to her, in a conversation that I imagine playing out in thousands of households and over Zoom calls this Holiday season: “I don’t believe that you think what you do is worthless...I just mean financially worthless.”

This comment, as with so many of the vignettes in the book, touches off an associative string of memories and quotes from other writers about about the wages and rewards of art, leading her to say, in return, to her sister:

Women shouldn’t have to work for nothing...and neither should artists, but I feel the way some women once felt about the Wages for Housework movement--if I were paid wages for the work of making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic of this economy. And if art became my job, I’m afraid that would disturb my universe. I would have nothing unaccountable left in my life, nothing worthless, except for my child.

Reading Biss’ response gives me courage and hope. There is in this, and countless other moments in her book, a subtle but crucial difference being made between work and labor. “Work,” Hyde writes, “is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus--these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify.”

The things on Hyde’s list of things at which we labor are: getting sober, mourning, “writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms.”

This is what I needed to be reminded of after hours of waiting, hours of time wasted, hours which I could have been reading or writing, or preparing for the upcoming holiday by baking or wrapping presents.

In the morning, I awake feeling cynical, but I resist the urge to call back. I try to go about my day, checking last-minute items off my list, wrapping gifts for my children, cleaning the fridge of weeks-old leftovers that have begun to smell, but I am consumed and invested. I want justice. I want satisfaction. I want to make certain that the time I have spent will pay off. As a distraction, I take my dog-eared copy of Hyde’s The Gift from the shelf and return to the passage on the distinction between work and labor. For years, I have read and re-read this book, consulting it in the same way that some consult the Gospels or the I-Ching.

In the ancient world, the sabbath, a day devoted to rest, was considered a time for labor, for attending to those things that are “dictated by the course of life”; things left undone in the rush of the work week. I read for a long time, but nothing happens, nothing changes. The phone does not ring; the gift card before me on the kitchen table is still worthless, though I can sense a small change working within me. Hyde’s words strike me different this time, filtered as they are through the experiences of someone else. I feel a creeping sense of peace: attending to rituals secular or religious is labor.

Later that afternoon, just when I have given up hope, the phone rings. It is someone from the corporate headquarters. The person on the other end wants to help expedite the claim process. She says there are so many notes in the system that it’s hard to decipher what is happened. She asks me to tell her how all of this started.

What I want to say is that it’s ok--let’s just forget about it. I want to say that I have allowed myself to be distracted, allowed myself to be cut off from the vital flow of the spirit that moves among us. I want to say that we are all slaves to mammon. I want to say that the nativity--whatever it is that we are seeking the origins of--offers us a glimpse of the moment when history diverges, a moment where we can see--split-screen--the before and after. I want to say that we are all being offered in this season a glint of choice, an opportunity to navigate back to the headwaters where we can start over again. But instead, I say, “Well, how much time do you have?” and she says “All the time in the world.”

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 24, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: The End of the World Is Also Its (Queer) Future: Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children”

 As 2020 finally draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how impossible it is to think about the future, really think about it, hold a space and shape for it in my mind. 

Maybe that’s why Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children” remains the essay that fucked me up the most this year, the one nearest to both my heart and to my fear. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it, or how many people I’ve sent it to, yet it still retains a slippery clutch over me. I can’t quite keep its progression in my mind, only the sensation of reading it. For example, I always think of the essay as beginning with the image of Osmundson as a child, a little cisgender boy dreaming himself pregnant—an impossible image, one that holds both a sweet amount of hope and the knowledge of that hope’s failure. 

But it doesn’t. It begins with a violent end, a grandfather’s suicide—a suicide that is Osmundson’s legacy to hold as much as any hope is.

When the pandemic hit and 2020 became its impossible-to-imagine self, I was at a writing residency on a beach in Florida, where every day I would look out at the surf and try to comprehend the changing headlines on the copy of The New York Times the residency director left on a white wicker table with a glass top. The setting utopian, my own little studio, a kitchen that remained sparklingly clean even though we residents never cleaned it, a mug I could fill with hot coffee and carry—sand between my toes—to watch the crashing surf. The Illness Now Has a Name, the headlines said. The W.H.O. Declares Global Health Emergency. Ventilator Shortages Ahead. When the fear was at its apex, a lover drove down from Maine to retrieve me—remember when we didn’t wear masks, when we were suspicious of every surface, when we couldn’t name what exactly the threat was and so the threat was everywhere—and drove us back from Florida to Maine in one stretch, the two of us peeing in the bushes and curling up together in the back of the car by the side of a Georgia road, in the morning chugging back cold black coffee we’d poured into an empty bottle of Absolut found in the residency trash. 

And there was still, I confess, a bit of thrill to our ride, the headlines still unreal. Doesn’t every great apocalypse movie feature a road trip? Doesn’t (and Osmundson’s essay promises this) the end of the world amplify even the sex?

Or at least I think the headlines felt unreal to me. In a way I’ve never prepared for them. I’ve never named an apocalypse team, never joked about the end of the world. I don’t watch zombie movies, or any horror films at all. The idea of an apocalypse has never felt recreational. Unreal, maybe, but not recreational. If you had asked me why then, I would have told you that I didn’t trust its fictionality. That, like any queer person who had to jettison one imagined life and make another, I already knew my world could break open.

That’s the genius of Osmundson’s essay. Reading it, you can’t avoid the breaking open of the world. Its spine is a scale of numbers that count upward as you move forward: parts per volume CO2. He’s illustrating the incremental accretion of human damage to the atmosphere, our slow destruction of the conditions of our own survival—and then acceleration, how we will combust and implode. In the body of the essay, he thinks about whether to have children, he thinks about sex, he talks about the love he has for his friends and students, he invokes all the forms of connection that give life meaning and hope.

And the numbers climb, the numbers that will kill.

He doesn’t explain this at first, of course. He just lets you stay distracted by the prose narrative, while the numbers add endlessly up.

So the form enacts the content. Brilliant. My favorite thing essays can do. We live by constantly forgetting we’ll die.

As Jane Alison observes in Meander, Spiral, Explode—a book I have been immersed in these last few days of this meandering, spiraling, exploding year—super-short begin-again paragraphs like this, lines like this, disrupt the gaze again and again, and so disrupt the thought, requiring a swing to the left and start anew at the next section. Reading Alison made me recall T Fleishman’s book-length Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, my favorite essay of last year, though I’d argue it presaged this year most effectively. (Just look at that title. I don’t know about you, but just about the only thing I’ve moved through this year is time.) Fleischman’s essay is also about queerness, also about becoming, also about sex and destruction and beauty. And in it, too, there are super-short snippets that stop and start, no explanation. Again they begin again. 

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality, writes José Esteban Muñoz. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.

Whatever we are reaching for, we won’t reach. We’ll never make it. 

Re-inventions, textually enacted on the page in the face of certain failure. Could there be anything queerer?

Now the future promised by headlines all year has arrived, a mix of doom and hope. The hospitals are once again filling. Again, warnings of impending ventilator rationing. A friend from South Africa calls to tell me they’re in the middle of a second wave, and then she pauses, because we both know what I don’t say: the American wave never ended. Most of my neighbors, tired, have abandoned wearing masks, and I duck to avoid them in the stairwell as the daily case count in my state sets a new and newly unthinkable record daily, up fourfold from the spring highs, and still it climbs. On a walk with a new friend—so distant, always masked—who works on a Covid unit in the middle of the state, they tell me they are tired of watching people die through glass. And then they stop short, words failing.

In the essay, Osmundson declares that he can’t and won’t have kids. He can’t imagine bringing them into all these promised dooms. And he can’t imagine being required by love not to claim for himself the suicide he opens with. I don’t know if I can make that promise—the promise to keep on living—to anyone.

And the vaccinations have slowly begun, the turning back of one end of the world. I talk with a friend about his desire to become a father, a desire that’s become more urgent during this awful year. Will he foster or adopt? Lately he’s been thinking he’ll get pregnant, he says. His transness allows him to make for himself that impossible image Osmundson offers. Another friend of mine’s kid corrects them when they misgender themselves just trying to move through the world, just trying to fill out all the medical paperwork this year demands. She insists my friend exist. The desire to be named correctly may fail them; the kid demands they do it anyway.

And about five months before the world changed forever or maybe not at all, I started taking testosterone. I had spent nearly a lifetime thinking about it. I wasn’t ready, and then I was. I had spent years poring over the lists of effects that were permanent (voice drop, hair growth) and the ones that weren’t (fat redistribution, libido), but in the end I don’t think the lists made any difference. When I was finally ready, it wasn’t a rational decision. The scales just tipped. The future became the present, the new world the now.

I am, of course, terrified of the future Osmundson heralds, of the future any scientist who understands what’s coming does. I think back a decade ago to grad school, to a climate scientist who told me how trashed she and her colleagues would get at the hotel bars at conferences, after a day of panels promising the end of the world. I didn’t tell her then that we writers knew plenty about hotel bars—that once, legend had it, we’d drunken one of the conference hotels right out of hard liquor. The despair we had felt soft, indulgent, even melodramatic. Hers had felt real, informed by the science.

Hell: Hers felt rational.

I find Osmundson’s despair impossible to argue with. His conclusion, too. 

So I can’t quite tell you why I find this essay so hopeful in the end. He’s made a case for not having hope. He’s laid it out as rationally as the climbing numbers. He’s already told us he’s the only male Osmundson—the implication being that with his choice, the name will die with him.

And maybe the point is that whatever’s coming, we will have to remake it. The way queer people always have. Whatever’s coming will and will not look like the world of now, and we don’t know the ways yet, we can’t. We are still living in the before time, still loving and breathing all over one another, and we just don’t know what’s next.  

What else, then, but to live. To stay and find out and remake. What else but this stop-short start-again rhythm and the awareness that we always were and always are doomed, we mortals, and god we fucked this up, and we’d better try to fix it but also it sure seems like we can’t, and that living under that condition—making art under that condition—is one of the only hopeful acts available. Maybe what I find so moving is that he felt all these things, all this despair, and he thought about it, and he made us this essay.

And in the reading, here we are, all of us, connecting. From six feet apart, as whatever is now ends.

And whatever comes next begins.


Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir and the forthcoming Both and Neither. “Body Language,” an essay adapted from that book, appears in The Best American Essays 2020. You can find them on Twitter (way too often) and on their website.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 23, Jenny Spinner: The Writer in a Pandemic: On Zadie’s Smith’s Intimations

“The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”
—"Something to Do,” Intimations, Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s latest collection of personal essays, written in the spring and published this summer, is pandemic art in media res. It is a diary’s middle pages and the note of a shipwrecked survivor still awaiting rescue. It is Wednesday’s home-cooked dinner and the washing machine paused between cycles. It is the second, purple candle in the Advent wreath—not yet the pink relief of Gaudete Sunday’s third flame.

Comprised of six essays written in the “scraps of time the year itself has allowed” (xi), the book is thin, only ninety-seven pages long. It could fit in the back pocket of yoga pants if yoga pants had back pockets. Because it is a slim book, it can be read in its entirety in that space between the children climbing into bed and your own body collapsing into sleep. Smith says the book is “small” by definition of the personal essays it contains, but personal essays are not small and these are certainly not. They are about time and art and work and the U.S.-president-she-will-not-name and suffering and fear and racism and privilege and healthcare disparities.

If you sleep on the heavy topics of Intimations, you may even dream them—but hopefully not the kind of frantic dreams that came in mid-September when you were too sick to move and opening your eyes consumed so much energy that you just kept them shut for three whole days other than to make sure, when you tipped the bottle of hot sauce to your tongue to see if you had lost your taste (you hadn’t), it didn’t spill all over your face. In “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith writes that “misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person” (29). The despair that comes from waking each morning drenched in the night’s fever sweats does not compare to the misery of declining alone in a hospital room. 

The pandemic’s miseries create contradictory silos of suffering, Smith writes: the relentless togetherness for some; the painful isolation for others. She zeroes in on the challenges of pandemic parenting, from the “single mother with the single child” to the “night-shift worker with three children under the age of six” (31) to the “artists with children—who treasured isolation as the most precious thing they owned—find[ing] out what it is to live without privacy and time” (29). Oh, the guilt, the ropes we throw ourselves to climb out of the pit of self-pity, knowing that someone, somewhere, is suffering more than we are in our lonely, chaotic house, no longer able to escape to work to avoid conflict. “Her face, her face, her face. Your face, your face, your face” (30). Smith distinguishes, though, between the “bubble” of privilege, which must be acknowledged, and that of suffering (32). The former, she argues, can be popped. Suffering, on the other hand, is “impermeable” (32). Suffering, uniquely ours, can kill us. She gives us permission to concede our miseries: “when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you . . . it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering” (36). Notably, she does not say for every misery, we must follow Newton’s third law and name a joy.

Intimations is 2020’s calling card of complexities and contradictions, left on the front hall table at the house of writers, some who are hiding from their children in the bathroom for thirty minutes while they try to write something, anything, this essay. Intimations is an ache. It is the thoughts that we might think if we had time to think them, or if we risked the pain of letting them into our heads. In “Something to Do,” Smith explores the way that time broke down in the early months of the pandemic. She is especially interested in doing time as a writer: “It seems it would follow that writers—so familiar with empty time and with being alone—should manage this situation better than most” (24). But Smith, “[c]onfronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure” struggles to re-order her present days and face how she managed the past ones (24). With soccer and theatre and cross country and every blooming thing canceled, we schedule game nights and family movie nights and Saturday hikes. We make everything from scratch, down to the vegan andouille sausages with one and a quarter cups of vital wheat gluten that have been in the freezer for six years awaiting the calendar to clear. Intimations is proof that Smith found a way to be productive in the “playpen” (24)—in part because that is what she knows to do: to write. Why does Smith write? Why does any of us write? We trip over ourselves in explanation, Smith says, but for her, it’s simply “something to do.” Even then, she concludes, “it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread” (26).

And yet, there is a difference in what the process demands. When there are no words in the house, there are always bananas turning brown on the kitchen counter, awaiting a transformation, a next life. Banana bread still manages to rise amid distractions, the tomatoes that need tending in the garden, the face masks sewn from old T-shirts, spelling lists chalked out on the driveway, piano tunes readied for virtual recitals, back skin soothed with rhythmic scratches. In “Peonies,” Smith writes about her early resistance to what she thought of as the “the cage” of her “circumstance,” her gender (4). As a growing child, she hated the idea of being “tied to my ‘nature,’ to my animal body—to the whole simian realm of instinct” (4). She has not entirely grown out of these burdens, not now on the edge of peri-menopause, not in “this strange and overwhelming season of death that collides outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions” (10). After all, when the light is right on both sides of a window, it becomes a mirror. 

In the title essay, “Intimations,” Smith complies a series of “Debts and Lessons” by the twenty-six family and friends, teachers and artists, who have shaped her. These are the people who walk through our last dreams when the end times slow enough for contemplation. There is both a strength and a fragility to Smith’s lessons, the fragility coming in the peeling back that reveals layers of truth. “18. Zulfi: To have one layer of skin less than the others, and therefore to feel it all: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the abject” (92). “19. Virginia Woolf. To replace that missing layer with language. For as long as it works” (92).

2020 is a year of layers, of putting on and taking off in a season that is in between, and Intimations captures both the discomfort and the moments of relief when everything is just right: the light jacket is warm enough, the shorts ward off heat. Relief. When you return to your office from teaching, tear off your mask and sink into your chair with a long gulp of untainted air. When the fever finally breaks. When your children in virtual learning finish their homework and leave you, for the first time in eight hours, in a silent womb where you must decide whether to be born or simply wait things out. When you manage to write it all down.


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). She last appeared in Essay Daily on  Jan. 16, 2020 as part of the “What Happened on 12/21/19” series. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 22, Melissa Faliveno, Of Minutiae and Monuments

I finished reading only one essay collection this year. As an essayist, this is troubling to admit. I’ve been reading several collections, slowly picking my way through one or another over the past few months—taking in a page or two, putting it down, picking it back up. It’s frustrating to me, to not finish a thing. To be in a constant state of progress, rather than completion. But lately I’ve been learning to move a little more slowly: through a book, through the world; to take in small pieces at a time, to hold only what I can. 
     A few I’ve been working on, and enjoying: Limber by Angela Pelster. The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. Winter Hours by Mary Oliver. The one I’m drawn to most, though, is All the Fierce Tethers by Lia Purpura. It was published by Sarabande Books in 2019 and has been on my bookshelf for over a year, but I only cracked it recently. It found me, as so many of my favorite books do, when I needed it.
      In the fall, I found myself alone in the woods. I’d gotten a yearlong visiting writer job at the University of North Carolina, and was staying in a studio above a garage in the woods outside Chapel Hill, having spent the money that was supposed to buy me health insurance on an overpriced Airbnb. It was beautiful, and idyllic, and under normal circumstances it would have been a dream. But I couldn’t find a rhythm. I couldn’t build a routine. I’m a creature of habit; I wake up early every day to read, and then write. I make a daily to-do list in a notebook, drawing a little box for each task and checking it off in red pencil. I started adding “Read” to the top of the list, so I would have something to cross off. But when I opened a book, I read the same lines over and over. The words were blurred. When I sat down at my computer, the words rarely came. The “Write” box often went unchecked. 
     Global pandemic, presidential election, persistent terror, uncertainty, isolation, and grief aside, there was another problem, too. My partner was back in Brooklyn, and the distance between us spanned more than miles. There was a fracture in our foundation, one I hadn’t yet fully seen—one I might have noticed had I been paying attention. But I looked only at the bigger picture, and paid no attention to the details, to the smaller pieces of life—the things that make it, or dismantle it. 
     I brought All the Fierce Tethers with me to the woods, a cosmic, last-minute toss in a suitcase full of books. I read it in slow tandem with Oliver’s Winter Hours, which I found on the coffee table of my forest home like a gift from the universe, or the trees, or whatever god I believe in. Both books deal in noticing, in the woods, in isolation and grief. In All the Fierce Tethers, Purpura writes about the small things. About noticing them, about the act of looking. About how this act can become a form of order, or routine. And how order, or routine, can be a form of beauty. 
     In my introduction to creative nonfiction class at UNC—which I held onto in those weeks like a life raft—I spent a lot of time talking with my students about the importance of observing, not least in these uncertain and sad and terrible times. We talked about the importance of looking—as an intentional act, as a process and routine, one critical to writing essays. I told them, as I always tell my students, to read with a pencil. To underline sentences and passages that struck them, that stuck with them; to savor the small, satisfying scratch of graphite on paper. I asked them to keep a field notebook, in which they could record what they saw each day, alone in their apartments, or in the bedrooms where they grew up, or outside on walks. I asked them to listen. To write down overheard conversations. Song lyrics and scenes from whatever TV shows they were bingeing, lines and passages from the essays we read. If they couldn’t make a sentence, I said, make a list. A catalogue of fragments. The most important thing, I said, was to look—even when it feels too dark to see.
     I did the same. I walked in the woods, keeping a list of notes about downed trees and dead leaves. I picked up seed pods and pinecones and added them to the shrine I keep on my writing desk. Each morning I read a small section of All the Fierce Tethers, and I read with a pencil. I underlined passages, then copied them down in a notebook, creating a new kind of list.
     She writes: “By being still, I could collect what the day was trying to say.” 
     She writes: “No need to see with a strategy, with habits employed to keep back the grief which, anyway, overruns the banks I make.”
     She writes: “…routine was everywhere pulsing along, ongoing, unending, then ending.”
     She writes: “It’s work to hold, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work.” 
     And of those smallest things—the washed and folded sheets that make up a home, the twigs that make up a forest, the minutiae that make up a day—she writes: “Stay with them…. Those delicacies. Those radiant systems. Hold them.”
     I write: “I’m trying. I walk in the woods and look. But the light seems always on the edge of dusk, and my eyes play tricks on me. I’m never quite sure what I see.”


The first essay collection I read this year, and the only one I finished, was Ander Monson’s I Will Take the Answer, published by Graywolf Press in February, just before the world came crashing to a halt. Monson’s writing is close to my heart, not least because it often traverses the Midwestern landscapes close to my heart too. Monson grew up in Upper Michigan, not far from where I spent a great deal of time as a kid, and still do as an adult, in the northernmost woods of Wisconsin, just across the border from the UP. He writes about the Paulding Light, a mysterious phenomenon—a ghost train, folks contend—that my family and I used to visit now and again, out in the sticks near Watersmeet. He writes about the bad 80s metal band Dokken and an unincorporated town nearby called Donken. He writes of the landscapes—cold and wintry and wooded—that, despite having been away for so long, make up so much of his consciousness, and so much of my own. In the essay “I in River,” which takes a wonderfully inventive approach to form, he writes: 
It’s fair to say that my life is suspended between two poles—the wet or snowbound landscapes of Michigan that still shape the way I think and dream and write, and the hazy desert loneliness of Arizona, where I now live and work.
Another passage I underlined in pencil (and starred, so you know I mean it) is this:

We like containment. 
We like order. Without order / (form)
there is no shape, no meaning, nothing to resist or push against / or pull across an emptiness.

I thought about this passage a lot in the woods of North Carolina, and I think about it now that I’m home. I think about how, without routine, without a list to check off, the edges of life become blurred, the contours shaky, the picture gone dim. I think of a great expanse of distance, both physical and not, and clawing around in the dark, trying to find our way through.
     In my favorite essay in the book, “My Monument,” Monson writes about a fifteen-foot inflatable Rudolph, which he bought from a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue for a whopping $399 plus tax, and which he erects in his snowless Tucson yard each winter. 

[A] monument to or against something…he stands as long as I will have him.

It’s an essay about spectacle, about consumption, about displays of prosperity, and that uniquely American drive to out-spectacle one another—say, by way of Christmas decorations—often even without the prosperity. It’s about our fascination with the massive, the superlative, the colossal. It’s about artifice, of course, and the ways we lie with our possessions, our decorations, our Instagram posts, our lives.
     “From the exterior it looks solid,” Monson writes of his Rudolph, “but inside it is nothing but forced air.”
     Of a holiday display in a Tucson strip mall he writes: “Those who go to see the spectacle are advised not to let the artificial snow settle on their tongues, since the flakes are in fact soap.” 
     Before he finds his Rudolph, he finds a generic lawn reindeer—the kind that light up, the kind my parents used to display in their yard in Wisconsin until they got fed up with the neighbor kids sneaking out at night to put them in compromising positions. The one Monson finds, at Goodwill, has only three legs.
     “In the dark you can’t tell it’s broken,” he writes. 
     “This is one of the problems with the dark.”
     This is an essay, and a whole book, that deals in the dark. But as is characteristic of most Monson joints, it’s also very funny. Riffing on the wonder of holiday catalogues, he writes of Lands’ End, the working-class Midwestern version of L.L. Bean that’s based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, a small town twenty miles from my hometown, where many people I know take shifts during the holiday season for extra scratch. He writes of the company’s audacious apostrophe—“what a name! the end of lands! What might be delivered to us by UPS or USPS from these frontiers!”—which was just a typographical error that stuck. I think of the irony of a company whose logo is a lighthouse, based in landlocked southcentral Wisconsin.
     This is an essay about irony, yes. But it’s also about hope, and the ways we hold onto it. Of the joy—however misplaced—one might find in those seasonal catalogues, in desire fanned out on coffee tables; in idiotic things like a giant inflatable Rudolph, that begin as a joke, or some act of defiance, and end up looking like love; in soft and cozy and frivolous things, like the overpriced sweater from L.L. Bean that I coveted for years, then finally bought, and never wear, always choosing my twenty-year-old Lands’ End sweater instead.
     “Because so many of us are transplants from our colder elsewhere,” Monson writes, “by erecting our decorations we are also making our little shrines to home.”
     He’s one of my favorite essayists for this reason: the ability to find truth in the idiosyncratic and absurd, meaning in the mundane. He mines (quite literally; one of the essays is about the mining country of Upper Michigan) his past and present, digging around in the dark for gems. Like this one, from “Uncharitable Thoughts on Dokken”:

It’s hard to even believe the stories I’m telling myself about my past now. The past is so scratched up that it skips when played, and it’s hard to tell what’s signal and what’s scratch, what’s original and what’s artifact of my own obsessive working.

This glittering, tangible piece of truth—about seeing, about memory, about the stories we tell—unearthed from some strange corner of the brain, where a bad 80s metal band and an unincorporated Upper Michigan town both dwell. A little piece of light pulled from the dark. And this, I tell my students, I tell myself, is what we’re trying to do in the process of essaying. And what I mean is that this is what we’re trying to do in the process of living. 

It snowed in New York last week, but like most snows here it didn’t stick. We’re supposed to get a storm today, though, and I hope we get snowed in. Back home in Wisconsin, there’s nearly a foot on the ground. My dad sends me pictures of his shovel job, of the fake Christmas tree my parents have erected every year since I’ve been gone.
     Here in Brooklyn, my partner and I buy a real one. In our ten years together, this is the first Christmas we’ll spend in New York just the two of us. The tree is a Frasier fir, thick and full, its six feet towering in our tiny railroad apartment. We bought it from a rip-off popup in our neighborhood, for a staggering $139 dollars. It’s not from upstate New York, or even New Jersey or Connecticut—not cut fresh from some local farm we could have felt good about supporting—but shipped here, instead, from North Carolina. 
We bought it anyway. We carried it home, erected it in our living room, and spent the afternoon decorating. We strung white lights and bulbs and bells, a somewhat creepy-looking angel that once belonged to my late grandmother, a collection of other gaudy ornaments that together create something so strange and lovely, so uniquely ours. We drank eggnog with brandy and played our three Christmas records—the Miracles, Johnny Mathis, an instrumental collection called “The Glory of Christmas,” which somewhat suspiciously boasts “101 Strings”—that we found for cheap at the used record store years ago.
     We watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and I cried at the end, when Clarence gets his wings, like I do every year. 
     I haven’t believed in angels, or God—at least in the way I was taught—for a very long time, so it feels a little absurd to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But I do it anyway. I do these old familiar things, these small acts of ritual, of seasonal routine, and—perhaps especially in a time of such uncertainty—it feels like comfort. I suppose, the older and further away I get, the more it feels like home. 
     Recently, a friend said to me: “Maybe all we can do, right now, is accept that it’s the darkest part of the year, and try to find as much light in it as we can.” So that’s what I’m trying to do. Each day, when the sun sets at its miserable 4:30, I will look at our Christmas tree and marvel at the audacity of its size. I will notice the white lights that bend around red and gold bulbs (not glass or metal but plastic, whose seams you can see if you look close enough). I will watch the cat on the tree skirt (an old shredded afghan), batting at the ornaments, trying to climb the branches, out of her mind with joy. I will love the creepy angel. I will stick my face in the boughs and breathe, fill my lungs with the scent of fir—something that smells so alive, even as the tree is dying. And this great and bright and glittering thing, grown and cut from a North Carolina forest, severed and shipped five hundred miles north then sold for a small fortune on a Brooklyn sidewalk, will be my monument. Maybe, in some way, it will help me see. Maybe it won’t. But when the days are at their darkest, it will be my light.


Melissa Faliveno is the author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland, named by NPR and New York Public Library as a Best Book of 2020. Her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, Bitch, Ms., Lit Hub, Brooklyn Rail, the Millions, Prairie Schooner, and DIAGRAM, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays. She is the 2020-21 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC–Chapel Hill and lives in Brooklyn, New York.