I was going to write about the Richmond statues this week, and the writing and rewriting of history, which is what history is—an ongoing draft of a story from different points of view. But I decided instead to write about flowers. Not because, like my line-toeing ancestors, I don’t want to ruffle feathers. I do, in fact. Healthy feather-ruffling leads to conversation and greater understanding, and what we need more than ever right now is some patient listening and a good exchange of ideas. But I haven’t been in a position to patiently listen to why it makes sense to venerate the heroes of a coalition against which we were at war, many of whom believed in a system of ownership of and forced labor by other human beings. I would like to listen to someone in whose mind that makes sense. I am curious to know how that makes sense. I would like to listen openly rather than shut my own mind to this difference between minds.
Notable: By the time of the Civil War, slavery wasn’t confined to the Confederacy. The Union had slave owners, too. The border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia were slave owning, and they continued to be after Abraham Lincoln’s famed Emancipation Proclamation. The president declared the slaves within the Confederate states free, but left slave ownership intact in the useful, resource-rich border states that supplied the Northern army. He did what he thought the war effort demanded, and played his political cards. He went on record as saying, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Food for thought.
Notable: In half of what I’ve read about Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and perhaps the best-known general, North or South, of the American Civil War, he seems like a pretty good guy. By that I mean fair, morally put-together, and capable of great feeling for the young men he ordered into battle. Also, by marriage, a slave owner, and not necessarily a kind one. He married the daughter of George Washington’s adopted son who inherited the Washington family’s slaves (yes, that George Washington), and a year-and-a-half into the Civil War Lee freed them. Notable: They were free and the slaves in the Union’s border states were not. Food for thought.
How we respond to the complexity of our fellow human beings, how we accommodate or damn them, is of great interest to me. But I was going to write about flowers. Why flowers? Because they’re beautiful, and when I tear them from the ground and place them in my house, they give me pleasure. Simple. I don’t have to accommodate or damn them. I don’t have to struggle with their complexity. I can just enjoy them, and more and more, as the turning of the world becomes less and less certain, or I should say, as the innate uncertainty of all life becomes more visible to our clouded eyes, or as someone recently said, as people become more and more themselves, we could use a little beauty, a little rest from confusion, conflict, loneliness and doubt. We could use a break from what we know we have to accept. Not right now, please. Five minutes more. Oh, take a look at those flowers!
But the last word must go to Robert E. Lee who, it’s said, objected to the idea of raising Confederate monuments. He thought it wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” He would, it seems, advocate the toppling of the statues, including and especially his own.
Last night my sister did the math. If she lives to be eighty years old, she’ll have five more biennial visits to the family summer place in Maine. Five. Five more family get-togethers on an island we’ve known since we were kids.
We were Zooming, all five of us, from Australia, California, Arizona, Minnesota and Connecticut, and we took in the news with appropriate sobriety. My youngest brother said, “Maybe you’ll live to ninety.” My sister, the Minnesotan, said, “Sure, but who’s going to drive me?” She’s afraid of flying and has big dogs besides. My youngest brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My older younger brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My youngest sister offered both her sons as drivers, even though that’s dicey and we all know it because Australians drive on the other side. I said, “I’ll drive you, but by the time you’re ninety I’ll be eighty-eight.” Not a good idea, we decided. “I’ll take the plane,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be safe to fly by then.”
It feels good to talk about mortality before it starts to weigh you down. Especially in a close family of people who will miss you when you’re gone. I can’t yet imagine life without my siblings, though my older younger brother tried to slip out in his thirties when he was mugged and suffered traumatic brain injury. I feel some relief to be the second oldest in our lineup. The grief of loss has long felt heavier to me than the fear of death. If we die in order, and there’s as good a chance as any that we won’t, I’ll only have to grieve my older sister. Sometimes I try and imagine stepping into her shoes, but it’s fruitless. Her shoes are hers and mine are mine.
I once had the pleasure of driving Heid Erdrich, the poet (though as things go, perhaps better known as the sister of Louise), to Tuba City to teach a poetry class to 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders. Crossing the Little Colorado River she said, “There’s a lot of similarity between Ojibwe families and the old Puritan families of New England.” I was interested and asked her to say more. “Well,” she said, “for example, my people gather in the summer in our summer hunting grounds. It’s the time for family reunions, for celebrating those who survived the winter and mourning those who did not. It’s a sacred time, a time for remembering where we come from and memorializing our kin. The old New England families have their summer places where they go to do the same.”
I’m a New Yorker, so not exactly of an “old New England family,” but close enough. We had a few Puritans who drifted up to Massachusetts a long time ago, but the rest were relative newcomers—Scots, Germans and a large handful of hungry Irish who got off the boat and stared at those Irish need not apply signs for several decades before they got a foot in the door. But as soon as the door opened, they followed the same instinct to come together, always just about the time the mosquitoes showed up.
So for all of you with a lake house memory, or a shore house memory, or if you’re experiencing, as I am, the thwarted seasonal urge to get together with family, know that you’re in good company. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the loss is being felt. My solution is to revise my definition of family to soften the feeling of longing. A friend came over the other day and brought me an apron she’d made. Family. Another friend loaned me her grommet set. Family. Another said, “Here’s a loaf of bread. You look like you could use it.” Family. We’re trying to help each other. We’re happy to do it. I talked to my sister on the phone and said, “Look. Five get-togethers is five get-togethers. That’s not so puny. And if you have five, I only have six. If that’s what’s on offer, we’ll take it, right?” “Right,” she said. “We’ll take it.”
On the river there was never any doubt that we might die in the next rapid. But the fact is, river deaths are rare. Death by hiking is much more popular. People fall from cliffs or die of thirst with some regularity in Grand Canyon. Or they suffer a heart attack when flipped into 50-degree Colorado River water. It looks like death by drowning but isn’t. Those who die in the river seldom drown.
I’ve spent unwanted time in the river at least three times. The first was a run through House Rock rapid, my maiden voyage in my own boat. I was on a private trip in November. We were all wet-suited up and the light was closing down and the cold was coming. My boat was a 12-foot rubber Apache, and my passenger was an irrepressible young woman named Delia who insisted on riding with me for the month we were on the river together. She had plenty of choices and I was the only novice, and I thank her every time I think of her, which is often. I dumped her in the first major rapid of our journey, and dumped her again at Lava Falls, the last. Both times we just held onto the upside-down boat, got to shore, dusted ourselves off, and with the help of our friends righted the boat and climbed in again. There’s little comfort in stopping to think about what’s just happened, because rapids keep coming and coming when you’re headed downstream, and you’ve got no choice but to negotiate the next stretch as best you can. And it focuses you to pay attention to water. It’s like writing in that way, totally absorbing and time-defying. A cold swim in a swift river can put you in a trance.
Twenty-five years later, I got to meet the innards of the river again. But unlike the first two baptisms, where I was rolled from side to side and up and around and didn’t spend memorable time under the water’s surface, my swim through Bedrock rapid pinned me to the underside. My boat rolled up onto a large chunk of pink granite in the middle of the river, and did not flip but ejected me. I still have a scar on my foot to prove it. I didn’t know anything for what seemed like a very long time, then my mind woke up just enough to understand the weight and color of something on top of my head. It was, I realized, the river.
I was underwater for no more than a minute, but a minute, as you can imagine, is a certain kind of forever. The current that held me down felt like a pair of liquid arms. I began to feel my lungs aching and I noticed the darkness of the water above me and realized I would have to work, to “bestir myself,” to get to air. Such a simple thing, breathing. Such an essential part of each living moment. I kicked and rose, kicked again and rose. The water paled. I saw light coming through the liquid canopy above me, and oddly, that was the moment I became not afraid but resigned to death. I thought, what an end to a life. What a waste, to die in this river. Instead of increasing my will to live, I was touched with realism as I approached the surface. The surface was still far enough away to be out of reach. I could clearly see the possibility of not being able to reach it. I wanted to reach it, but knew I might not. Sober, was my feeling. Sober, and a little sad. A this-is-it moment without the fuss of great emotion. Great emotion was not part of the ending of my life, apparently. Even as I broke the surface and opened my throat to the air, I felt still and quiet. Joy wasn’t there, nor grief, nor relief. Just the edge of sky, a pale blue line above the canyon wall, like a second river I would someday swim up through.
My brother wrote to ask if decolonizing our bookshelves was the first step toward burning some books. Apparently, I had a lot to say in response:
David, I just made my way through a book I thought to be mediocre, a book that's winning high praise from the reviewers. There's nothing wrong with the book, but it didn't seem particularly high-praise-worthy to me, and I suspect this book would not have become a big hit had the protagonist and her family not been immigrants from Morocco. However, then it wouldn't be the book it is.
The book deals with prejudice against this Moroccan family, and the events following the death of the father in the family. There are other themes as well, but that's the main one, and the book is built around it. So thematically, yes, it's an important window to a world most of us know very little about. For one thing, the book is set in the Mojave desert, near Joshua Tree. How many Americans even know where the Mojave is? And few of us know the life of Moroccan small-business owners in the US. My trouble with the book has nothing to do with the content. If I learn something from a book, if it opens up a cultural door to me, or gives me a new geography, I’m happy. My trouble with the novel is the unremarkable way in which it's written. There’s very little plot to it and the writing style is pedestrian, and yet the critics are raving. So let’s take a look at the raving critics.
The critics’ job, it seems, is to find a “darling” and push their darling forward because that darling embodies a political group or statement they feel they need to (and perhaps actually do) favor. Right now, what’s in favor is whatever’s not part of the cultural majority—the anti-colonizers, if you will. What a change from the literary canon we had to read in every English class we ever took. Yes, we had a spoonful of Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, oh and some women poets (all of them dead), but goodness me, did you ever notice 99% of the time we just read books by white men?
As a girl kid with writing aspirations, this seemed about as unsupportive as it could get. But I guess I couldn't help myself; I just kept writing. And then do you know what? I became the critics’ darling myself because I embodied the newest political group they were going to favor: gays. They had gay male writers and now they needed a lesbian. It was a moment in my life when I was chosen because I was in a certain place at the right time. Unusual Company was a first attempt at something I'd get progressively better at, but it was not praise-worthy. And it was especially not worthy of 1100 words in The New York Times Book Review. But, David, that's the way it goes. As my writing has gotten better and better, my recognition and audience have shrunk. I’m not a niche writer, and that’s a problem. I didn’t stay long in what I call the Gay Lit ghetto, and that was a disappointment to critics who were hoping to find my second book praise-worthy. (It was not. Praise-worthy didn’t start up until book #3, if you ask the author, or maybe book #4.) And then I either wrote from inside the skin of poor Georgia blacks, which is a no no, or I wrote historical fiction based in a well-known national park. The Grand Canyon, it turns out, isn’t any more of a hot topic than an ordinarily dysfunctional family in New Jersey.
I want the author of the book I just read to know that being the critics’ darling is not a permanent position. It is, in Zen parlance, a finger pointing to the moon. These fingers are important, but don’t mistake them for the moon itself. A writer’s work is the critic’s pawn, but the moon goes well beyond these particulars. It runs the tides. It lights the night. It marks a welcome shift in our seeing and being. Decolonizing our bookshelves is not about being on the right side of history; it's about genuinely wanting to hear the stories of others who do us the great favor of reinforcing the notion of the common human experience.
Meanwhile, I’ve been killing grasshoppers. It’s a messy business, best handled by chickens, but I’m not quite ready for chickens. Grasshopper eyes are big and hard to ignore, like a baby’s, or a chihuahua’s. Their bodies are a beautiful vibrant green, or pinstriped, or rusty red. They wiggle their antennae when I approach, indicating I’m not sure what, but I certainly understand from their attention to the situation that they are sentient beings. They are full-bodied, even the little ones. They don’t squash easily so that’s a method I can’t bring myself to use. I catch them in a bug net and drown them, and even then I frown and turn away as they wiggle and seem to fight for life. I squashed one in the drowning bucket today simply because it kept surviving. It found a blade of grass and rode that like a life raft. It swam back and forth in the bucket like a dog chasing a ball. I killed it in fury and in doing so crossed a line I hadn’t known was there.
It’s easy to kill in a rage. I wanted that animal dead so it would stop devouring my young red twig dogwoods. I wanted it dead so it wouldn’t move on to my cucumbers and scarlet runner beans. I justified its death and the death of all the rest of them. This creature is taking life, so I’ll take its life. An eye for an eye. Tip for tap. But add fury, rage, anger to it and the game changes.
To kill that obdurate grasshopper, or any grasshopper, force is required. As I said, their bodies are firm and the older ones are downright armored. Which is why I chose drowning. It seemed both effective and once-removed from the killing process itself. But when the stubborn one didn’t drown and didn’t drown and didn’t drown, I gritted my teeth, literally, and moved into a different gear. You’re making me have to kill you with my own hands, I thought, and this resentment led to a brief swat of irritation, then moved quickly into anger. It took no time at all to dump that anger on the creature whose instinct for life was at least as robust as mine. I pinned it to the side of the bucket with a stick. My jaw ached and I could feel the ugliness rising in my chest, and suddenly I didn’t know myself. I was in an altered state for just a moment, but a moment out of proportion to the very small size of the creature whose life I was taking.
And what is the size of a life? We think we can kill an acre of grasshoppers more easily than a herd of horses. We think we can kill a herd of horses more easily than squeezing the life out of one man. But for me, in that moment of anger, the hierarchy of life held no meaning whatsoever. I was utterly without protocol, pushing my hands through a curtain made of feeble human gestures, in order to complete a job I had begun. I was blind to what I was actually doing, and the anger made possible—and just—the taking not only of this life, but any.
I can’t settle today. I walk around the house, make tea, forget to drink it, walk some more. This is the behavior of someone in grief, love, or anger—and it isn’t love.
I just learned the entire state of Arizona is under curfew for a week. This surprises me as I stand at the window and look out at my quiet street. It’s so easy not to feel involved, to feel helpless, and to feel that my world is the world under scrutiny for its racism and cruelty, and that I have to find my world to change my world, to be part of the change of my world, and today I don’t know where it is. Is it out there on the quiet street? Is it in Minneapolis with my sister? Is it in New York City with my childhood? Where is my world?
Last Saturday when we had our weekly family Zoom meeting, I told my brothers and sisters that I had no visuals. I have the radio and that brings me the news, but obviously nothing I can see. I said I needed visuals in order to feel immersed in this moment. My strongest memories of the non-violent marches and peaceful protests, the riots and assassinations of the 1960s, are visual memories. The crowds on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The snarling police dogs in Birmingham. The blood of Medgar Evers on his driveway, and the mule-drawn wagon carrying the coffin of Martin Luther King. My eyes soaked in the violence and committed it to memory, and now those images are reemerging, like bloated bodies rising in a river.
And today I have new images—from the Guardian, YouTube, the Star Tribune—but I find myself feeling more lost and isolated, more helpless. We are all sitting alone with our screens, watching the news that suits us, that we are led to by our habits, so there is no one picture, no one iconic photograph that represents this moment to us. We watch a clip of something from somebody’s phone. It’s good we now have the power to publicly witness. In fact, it’s crucial. But it denies us a communal experience, a napalm girl photo, a flower in the barrel of a gun photo, a visual moment we will never forget. The 9-minute footage of the arrest and asphyxiation of George Floyd may be such a moment, or it may be too many moments. Its power is not in delivering a snapshot. Instead, it delivered a galvanizing slogan: I can’t breathe.
But the truth is, this disunification of visual experience makes what’s happening in this time more accurate and real. This desire for one iconic image is the desire to distance, emotionally. If all that’s going on in our country and psyche is able to be contained within the frame of a photograph, then it’s manageable, no matter the brutality of the image itself. But in all the home videos, all the wobbly camera shots taken from ground zero in so many of our cities, I feel dizzy and in the fray, unable to see the larger picture, a picture that might include a future. And this is the very experience of the majority of those who demonstrate. We are bereft of communal understanding in America today, and we can’t see a future. We are isolated from one another by class, race, religion, and gender. My desire for an iconic photograph is a desire for something lost and gone, an American experience we have been moving away from for decades.
I am content not to hear in any of what I watch or listen to, the name of the police officer who is responsible for the death of George Floyd, but if I were to know it I would have to set aside my fixed ideas, and say to him that he is me, and every time I think of him as someone I could never be, I cease to live in a deeper unity and a deeper reality, but instead in a world that creates a wall of separation between what is right and what is wrong, and places me on the right side of it. Is that my world? Where is my world? I am eager to find my place and let change move from me and around me.
Let’s face it, attraction can be very attractive. And disastrous. Right now I’m going to focus on the attractive. My friend, Callie, came over the other day to cut down a tree in my yard. She would correct me here and use the word “fell,” fell a tree. Well, we felled it alright. She did. My job, because I don’t use a chainsaw, was to pull on the rope people pull on in order to get the tree to fall in the perfect spot. So I was the linesman and she was the sawyer, and together we felled that tree that wasn’t really a tree but a sucker from the old apple twenty feet away that looked deathly this spring. I guessed the sucker belonged to it and, like an incorrigible child, was stealing its energy. I’m happy to report that the old apple is leafing out more enthusiastically than before.
When we were done, it was time to sit on the grass and enjoy our accomplishment. It was also time to speak frankly about our lives and listen to what came out of our mouths when we weren’t thinking. I heard myself say: “I’ve lost my ability to be attracted to people.”
“Really?” said Callie. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“I try, but it feels impossible. I miss that energy.”
Maybe it will come back, we decided. Maybe that source of energy isn’t needed right now. After all, there are countless sources. But each has its own set of colors and shapes, and the attraction energy is a color and shape now missing from the spectrum.
When thinking about it later, after we jumped Callie’s truck, or tried to, and she went off to buy a new battery, then went on her way, I realized I’d spent most of my life occupied with attraction, and for some years now I was actually quite happy to be free of it. I didn’t really think about its absence until I articulated it as a loss. We don’t notice until we do, and often that turning point comes at the moment we feel an emotion about something. We attach an emotion to an event, in this case sadness to lack of attraction, then we’re programmed to think we’ve just located an emotion that was always there. Sometimes that leads to a heightening of the emotion, which is like throwing a welcome home party for a shy person who’d really rather hide in the closet. It was strange, this sudden sadness, this acknowledgement of loss. If a certain energy had gone missing, where was it now?
Swimming has always carried the energy of attraction for me. It’s sensual, slippery and visually beautiful, especially that chlorine-blue view from underwater in the pool. Its movements are alternately predictable and wild. People engage in swimming with practically nothing on, but surprisingly, that makes for less attraction rather than more. People under wraps leave us guessing, leave us to dream. Very rarely does a modern bathing suit leave me to dream. I stroke across the pool, feeling at home in my body, wrapped in a kind of aura of attraction. It’s not personal, but pleasant. It doesn’t demand a doing, but reflects a being. As beauty itself is calming, so is the ability to feel attraction. We think the opposite, but remove the urgency (of youth) and underneath, there’s a quiet lake waiting.
Writing is a source of that energy of attraction, too. Is it the ability to feel at home in my mind? Is it the groundless feeling of being lifted into language, into the telling of someone else’s story? Is it the respite from self, the floating, the flying outside of time? It’s a sound medium, full of aural pleasure and play. On its best days, the work and act of writing soothes my longing to be heard. It’s a profound way to offer myself, intimacy without the stickiness of reality.
But attraction to people? Maybe that’s not what I need anymore. And yet, a few days after Callie came and felled the sucker, I saw a photograph of someone I’d once known, name withheld, and recognized that little buzz of breathlessness, that little sting of longing. I looked up and said to myself, “I’ll be darned. That’s attraction.” Is it back? Is it here to visit? I must admit I kept my enthusiasm in check, for fear of frightening it away.
In this week’s blog I’m passing along a story and photograph from Michael Collier. To go with Michael’s photograph, which goes with his story, I’ve posted a story of my own.
"Annie" by Michael Collier
I’m curled around my sleeping cat, Annie. Her sleep is troubled.
Three or four Decembers ago, Rosey and I camped at Montaña del Oro on the coast near San Luis Obispo. It was birthing time for the elephant seals that brood near Año Nuevo lighthouse. The bulls can weigh 5500 pounds--one ton more than a typical car. The females, weighing only 2000 pounds, are more dainty. But the greatest threat to their small bodies is hypothermia from the cold Pacific water. Their mothers corral them up the waves to dry warm sand.
I walked a few hundred yards down the beach and away from the shutterbug crowds the day we were there. A storm had recently roiled the water. I watched as the pounding surf rolled a pup back down from the beach. Its mother barked and flapped to no avail as the pup tried to gain dry ground only to roll waveward again and again. The mother was frantic, unable to help. From fifty feet away, it was hard to be a cold scientist observing evolution and survival of the fittest.
The bulls see other males, even younger ones, as a threat to their harem. If disturbed, the bulls have been known to crush hapless pups as they scramble back to the sea. But on the contrary, what I saw was a bull swim up and haul himself comma-like around that flailing pup, preventing it from washing out to sea. The waves were held at bay. I wanted to cry with relief.
Annie doesn't eat more than a bite of cat food at a time now. She drinks a lot of water. She sways without much strength when I pet her. Her eyes drift in and out of a submissive alertness. Once in a while I hear a faint purr--which of course brings a smile and breaks my heart. The vet was probably right when he said that she's in kidney failure. But I don't think about that much when I'm curled around her, trying to keep her from washing out to sea.
"Shirley" by Margaret Erhart
She was a Nubian, with long ears and a long pensive face. I used to say she looked like Lauren Bacall. She was black and tan and gave good creamy milk. Once, when my family came to visit the Iowa farm where I lived, she ran from the other side of the pasture, lowered her head and butted my mother hard in the belly. I never saw her do that before or after. She wanted to let everyone know she was my champion.
She grew up in Tucson, in a Maytag washing machine box. She was a wobbly-legged little thing when we first met her on a ranchette outside of Prescott. My girlfriend, Mary, had woken up that morning saying, “Let’s get a camel.” That seemed an unlikely prospect so instead we answered an ad for a goat.
At home in Tucson, Shirley lived for a time in the box, then when she outgrew it I cobbled together some pallets to make a little yard for her. Everything went well until weaning time came around. When goats are hungry they do just what human babies do: they bawl at the top of their lungs and don’t stop until food arrives. We reduced her thrice-a-day bottle to one small feeding. We offered plenty of delicious timothy grass and alfalfa and even demonstrated how to eat it, but she would have none of it.
Weaning does happen eventually, and at the end of that painful ten days, Mary and I decided our neighbors had earned a Golden Nipple Award. We dipped Shirley’s obsolete bottle nipples in gold paint and attached them to a small square of wood also painted gold, and these we handed out to our three closest neighbors in thanks for their patience during the prolonged ordeal.
Shirley grew and grew, and at the end of the summer Mary loaded her into the back seat of her sedan and the two of them drove up to Iowa City. Mary, at least, was bound for the Writers’ Workshop. Her passenger was bound for a real pasture in bona fide farm country. But before they left, there was an incident worth relating here. On the night before their departure, Shirley went missing. We looked everywhere, in every alley, in every back yard around the block. Finally, in desperation, I knocked on the door of our nearest neighbor, an Hispanic man with a withered arm whose name I no longer remember. He called out for me to enter his home, and I did. He was watching television and next to him on the couch was my goat. Later, he told me she had been bleating and he felt sorry for her, especially after her memorable ten days of bawling, so he let her out of her enclosure and opened his door and in she came. He wasn’t expecting her to hop on the couch, but it was companionable and he didn’t mind.
A few months later I moved back to Iowa City and joined Shirley and Mary. We bought a little farm and got a few more goats and one sheep who’d been abandoned at birth. He was the only boy around and we called him John. Shirley was definitely the herd mistress, and she did figure out how to open the door of the farmhouse so she could come in any time and pee on the bed. I won’t spend long on this part because it makes me too sad, but she died on a clear, warm Labor Day after opening the door to the feed room and lifting off the lid of the bin where we kept the grain, and eating until her stomach started to burst. She cried in pain for two days, then finally died in my arms. Her big heavy head lay on my lap. We buried her up on the hill above the farmhouse. A few good friends came out and helped us dig her grave.
I moved from the farm, and Iowa, shortly after that.
As a country, as a people, as Americans, what we lack is balconies. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the visuals. Some of the most poignant images I have from this pandemic are from Italy, a country I love, and more so as it goes through its devastation. There is nothing stopping the Italians. Even a virus. They have always and will forever sing arias from their balconies as the sun goes down. And the Parisians, from three stories up, applauding their medical workers at shift-change. And in Spain, a man on the street improvising a dance with a bag of garbage as he walks it to the bin, while above him, La Scala-style, his audience goes wild.
These balconies are the portal through which apartment-dwellers pass in order to share community. These balconies provide a call-and-response, which is the basic function of community. You say or do, and I reflect you. You sing your aria, and I join you. (Or I throw rotten tomatoes.) Without balconies we can only be observers. Life gets very internal and imbalanced.
My friend Gretchen who lives in Paris learned, from her balcony, that her neighbor cries at eight o’clock every evening. Her neighbor comes out on her adjacent balcony to weep, and at first my friend withdrew, wanting to give the woman privacy. One day the woman called across to her: No, please stay. We are more than two meters apart. May we talk? She told Gretchen her husband had died of cancer in early March, a few days before isolation was imposed, and she has had to grieve alone.
Every evening now they bring their suppers out on their balconies. They eat together, drink a glass of wine, and talk. Suppertime is the time this neighbor misses her husband the most, and Gretchen asks about him as she eats her arugula salad with brie cheese and a chewy baguette. What was his job? Did they always live in Paris? How did they meet? Were they married long? Are there children? Questions lead to answers, and answers to memories, and memories assuage our longing for those whose hearts stop suddenly and irreversibly, as his did. Balconies create the possibility of response to our call.
I grew up in a New York City apartment. New York is a city without balconies. It has front stoops where people sit, and windowsills where people lean, but no one I knew had a balcony. John F. Kennedy was president at the time and he preferred the Carlyle Hotel whenever he visited the city. The Carlyle was right around the corner from where we lived, and the excitement of my young life was to hang out the window of our third-floor apartment to watch the presidential motorcade go by. Kennedy sat in his bubbletop car, the top of his head clearly visible to me and my brothers and sisters. My older sister had once thrown a roller skate out that window and blamed it on my younger brother. In other words, it was a window with history. Kennedy came by once or twice a year, and though our parents had voted for Nixon, we kids thought of him as “our president.” To our way of thinking, we owned him. The top of his head wasn’t seen by many, precisely because America lacked balconies.
My friend Laura lives and teaches in Sofia, Bulgaria, and her balcony connects her to the world. Below her on the street, the older men of the neighborhood gather every morning. They stand in a circle, leaning in to hear one another while drinking their coffee. The circle gets smaller and tighter as the morning goes on, until finally they are all in a kind of embrace. She can look down from her balcony at the human scrum, or up and out at the beautiful old buildings of that Eastern European city. These days, the view from where she stands is of her neighbors doing exactly what she’s doing at that isolated moment: drinking coffee, looking out, finding others who share her world: a woman watering her plants; a man feeding a piece of bread to his dog; a mother stepping out to smoke a cigarette. Different lives, connected and divided. The streets are empty but the air is full of balconies.
How do you define "creative nonfiction"?
Creative nonfiction is often considered a stepdaughter of The Truth. But all nonfiction, and certainly the best nonfiction, uses the potential to be creative. Creative is often translated as “make believe” or “not true.” This is unfortunate. And nonfiction is often considered to be real or true. Also unfortunate. The term “creative” can refer to the content of a narrative, as is usual in fiction, or it can refer to the shape of a narrative, which applies to both fiction and nonfiction. As for the meaning of The Truth, that’s another term with many unfortunate translations and even more value judgments. Most fiction writers I know will swear to you their stories are true, and by this they mean they are creating situations, characters, settings, and scenes to reveal recognizable truths. Nonfiction writers engage in similar strategies, the difference being the situations, characters, settings, and scenes they create are pulled, in a more literal way, from memory.
How are you finding motivation to be creative during this time of global pandemic?
It takes no motivation. This time is a gift. I am healthy and have shelter and food, so all the time in the day is mine. This is rare for me now, though when I was writing novels it was exactly what my days looked like. Now, with an open schedule that allows me to dive deeply into another world, the fictional world I’m creating, I can do what I love to do, which is to tell stories.
What childhood book had the greatest influence on your perspective?
When I was a fourth-grader I checked out Jane Eyre from our elementary school library. What Jane Eyre was doing in our library is puzzling, though the school I went to was woefully oblivious to age-appropriate teaching and learning so it should not have been a surprise. I read thirty pages of Jane and moved on to other things, including a long period of young adult historical fiction in which the protagonist, usually a boy my age, sometimes a girl, saved the island of Manhattan from British attack, or grew up among the Iroquois, or worked with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. I wanted to learn about history through story, and I guess I still do.
As a writer who works in numerous forms (novels, articles, short fiction, short nonfiction) could you discuss which you prefer and why?
Though I’ve tried to stretch my skills and enjoy stretching them by writing in other forms, especially personal essays, novels are my passion. There’s nothing like being caught up in a great big baggy monster (John Gardner’s words) to consume your days and nights and give you an alternate world to occupy. Is it because I prefer to control the course of things? I don’t believe so, because one of the things I love best about writing fiction is that it actually writes you. You think, oh I’ll make this happen and then this and then that, and then you understand the story’s headed in a different direction altogether and it’s willing to reveal itself to you if you just listen and trust it. This is a kind of magic to me. For the magic to work, things have to get very quiet inside and around you. I deeply appreciate the call to quiet that every kind of writing demands of me, but especially the call of long fiction.
If there is an afterlife, what items/objects/animals would you want buried with you that you could use in that afterlife?
Wow. An afterlife. There’s a concept. I guess if I’m going to spend some time in an afterlife I’ll need my teapot and enough Irish breakfast tea, or English, to get me to the other side of the other side. I wouldn’t mind a watch with a second hand, either.
What type of body of water do you most prefer to take a swim in?
I recently wrote a character who swims. He swims in large bodies of water, like Lake Michigan. I’m always afraid of a fish touching me, or a crawdad, or a snapping turtle, which puts me off wild water, whether it’s a pond, a lake, a river, or an ocean. To swim, really swim, I like doing laps in a pool, especially if it’s a salt water pool. I love clear water, tinted an unnatural blue. I like to swim underwater and look up at all the bodies racing past me, like they’re flying.
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