Hazlitt Magazine

'The Great Question Machine': An Interview with Max Porter

The author of Lanny on ghost stories as love stories, how countries think, and leaving doors open. 

I Know You Are You, and Real

Now, what wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt?

The Inventor of Mother's Day

Anna Marie Jarvis spent years fighting the holiday’s commercialization. But her attempts to keep control of her creation may have hastened its descent into Hallmark territory. 

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‘The Great Question Machine’: An Interview with Max Porter

The author of Lanny on ghost stories as love stories, how countries think, and leaving doors open. 

This week, Hazlitt's new publishing imprint, Strange Light, is launching its first two books. (Obviously, we have impeccable taste and these books are really good.) One of these new books is Lanny, a novel from English author Max Porter. Porter is the author of the genre-bending novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and adapted into a sold-out stage production starring Cillian Murphy), and takes a similarly visceral approach to his new book. Lanny takes place in a small unnamed village outside London, and the first half splits the narration between four wildly different characters: Jolie and Robert, recent transplants from the city and parents of the precocious Lanny; Pete, a revered but reclusive artist hired to give young Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a mysterious folkloric creature who listens to the nonstop chorus of voices from the village and takes particular interest in the titular character. Then, Lanny disappears, and the residents of the village are forced to confront what they know about themselves and each other.   Porter had just started his book tour last week when I interviewed him and spoke to me from his hotel room in New York City. He is an energetic and gregarious speaker, different than the impression his prose had left me with. I had called him on his British cell phone number given to me by his publicist. Anna Fitzpatrick: I accidentally wrote down your number wrong and dialed Germany, twice.  Max Porter: Really? Were they nice Germans? It was an answering machine, and I wasn't sure if it was yours. It was me just doing my funny German answering call prank. Just in character for this book tour. But not a character that anyone is familiar with. I go off script. So, congratulations on having one of the inaugural books out with Strange Light. I didn't know what it was about when I started reading and I didn't know it was going to be really scary, so thank you for that. I was house-sitting for a taxidermist and I was alone with all these dead animals. Oh, shit. It's interesting you found it scary. What did you find scary about it? Papa Toothwort?  Yeah, the giant dead plant monster who maybe kidnapped a kid, and then [redacted for spoilers] and [redacted] and also [redacted]. Like, what part of it do you not find scary?  Okay, cool, yeah. I get that. I guess I've forgotten that because so much of the conversation I have around that book can't really include what happens at the end, and can't really include Toothwort, you know. I tend to talk about, when I'm doing events, I talk about family and myth and childhood and England and all this kind of stuff, and then I sometimes forget about part three [of the book]. Even just lying in bed because I couldn't sleep last night because I'm so jet-lagged, I was like, "Oh yeah. He does [redacted] in the [redacted]." [Laughs] Anyway, thanks for reading it. I'm going to have to figure out how to transcribe this interview without giving away the ending.  Oh yeah, it's hard. The main one, the really hard one, when I talk about the book, because I want to talk about the kind of moral framework for the book, as well as some of the formal concerns of mine, it's really hard not to mention the ending, where you find out that Toothwort himself is [redacted]. That's really hard, because I desperately want people to discover that on their own. You simply can't talk about that in advance of reading it. But that explains so much about the book, about why he behaves the way he behaves. It feels like a very subtle reveal. You have to be paying attention to get that. I hope it's less of a reveal than a kind of clicking into place. It's almost like, in musical terms, a repetition of a refrain that you had heard somewhere before but you hadn't quite realized is an important refrain. Just like a coda or something. Well, there are elements of horror and mystery to your novel, but it's not a whodunnit.   Well, we done it. We wielded it. Ah, society done it. Once again. And I hope that's sort of the point. The reveal is not a literary device or anything like that, and it doesn't really have anything to do with me as the author or any of the characters in the book. The reveal is an invitation for you to have done a certain amount of thinking throughout the book. It's to do with the relationship between book and reader, and it should kind of cast its light differently on everyone. That was my thinking about it, that your ending or understanding of him as a character, or even Lanny as a kind of an absence of a character, is very bespoke. It's yours. Hence some of the white space in the book, and some of the absence of things that you would expect to be in a novel. Even you talking about the scariness of it, or the horror, or the unease of it, that's, I hope, very unique to your encounter of it.  [[{"fid":"6705281","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Photo Credit: Lucy Dickens Talking about separating your art from the artist, that's kind of a theme in your book. Lanny's mother is a former actress turned crime novelist, and that kind of comes back to her when Lanny goes missing. People start dissecting the content of her book. That happens to some extent with Pete's artwork, where he's being interrogated about some of the adult subject matter of some his paintings in conjunction with the missing kid. Was that something you were trying to work with in this book?  To be honest, I didn't really think about it. I made them artistic people because I'm interested in those people and I felt that was relevant to the themes of the book. But I suppose—yeah, it's nice to have some clarity on that, from your question. I suppose one of the big issues of our time is how to separate the art from the artist and what to do about bad people who make great art. These are pressing questions. But, to me they are questions that come from the artificiality of the role of the artist. I think we put the artist on too much of a pedestal anyway, so the question of whether we should care whether they were bad is sort of like, "Didn't you know they were bad anyway? Why did you think they were special?" Why in the culture industry did we need to elevate them onto pedestals, pretending they were perfect? None of us are perfect, and artists tend to be more flawed. So, it seems laughable to me to discover that these men are all creeps, because of course they were. Didn't you read the work?   So, I'm interested in that, but one of the things I'm worried about now is that art becomes a more rarefied thing and becomes only defined by its cultural worth or its place within the cultural system, but art is deeper than that. Literature is the common language, and in the same way art has a deep and important role in our society more than just pretty things in galleries to be sold. What I wanted to do with Pete particularly was to create someone truer to that, and I wanted to show how society has been unkind to those people, has othered them. I wanted the artist as threat to be explored around Pete. I didn't need to specify too much about the kind of work he made, but it kind of made sense that the kind of work he made was accepted in an avant garde context, but then becomes utterly terrifying to people in a localized, social context, where the apparatus of understanding is less developed. The classic thing of, what sense does someone like Louise Bourgeois make in a psychoanalytic context, or a context of art theory or surrealism or the New York art scene of the 1970s, and what context would that work make in a French farmhouse when someone who isn't in that world is confronted by those themes? That's always been a fascinating theme to me. But more than thinking about if artists are just good people or not, I was thinking about the ways art is viewed as autobiographical, even when it's not. I know that's a response your own work has gotten a lot.   That's why I made Jolie a writer. I was kind of yelping against a particular current in UK literary culture, which has upset me in recent years. Anti-intellectualism and misogyny go hand in hand to block the work of fiction writers, particularly when they're women, to write about lives other than their own, or to write well about their own life in the context of fiction. You have it in your own literary culture I'm sure, but it is dismaying to watch the way we don't allow women to be novelists and clobber them around the head with the kind of biographical fallacy. It happens everywhere, but it upsets me in the UK when there have been books that I’ve greatly admired either as a publisher or a reader, and then see them reviewed as if they're autobiography. I wanted to set her up as a little case study of that, but I realized I didn't need to get bogged down in the type of work she makes, or even the type of person she is. You can do that kind of deftly with that one kind of tabloid thing where it's like, let's look at the woman who writes this work, behind the mask as it were. I see that as the manifestation of the whole critical impasse anyway, that kind of moralistic judgement.   I saw Sally Rooney interviewed at the Toronto Public Library a few weeks ago, and she was saying that she purposely tries to abstain from revealing too much about her personal life, and that she feels like she's disappointing people when she reveals that her books aren't based on true stories, and that she just makes them all up.   Even still, there will be this desperate desire for personal information, an, "Oh yes, someone found out Sally Rooney lives with her partner who is a teacher, he must be Connell." Or Sally Rooney must be writing for him or around him. The desperation to do that is an astonishing thing in 2019, X many years after postmodernism, a hundred years since Virginia Woolf. It's quite extraordinary that fixation, almost fetishization, of the biography, is still so powerful in literary culture. And how boring, of all the things you could talk about with Sally's works, that that is a thing that people want to talk about. It's sort of crushing. It's a way to kill the possibilities of the form as well. The novel should be one of our most radical forms but you'd never guess from a lot of literary engagement. So, my next question is, are you Lanny? Who stole me? [Laughs] Besides society, of course. God, I've never thought about that. I did get stolen! From who! It's not funny. I've never thought about this. These questions are really unlocking me. I got stolen at the Oxford Covered Market when I was about eight or nine years old, yeah. I was just chewing my jumper, not really paying attention, and this guy just led me away. Did you get... put back? Are you okay? I suddenly looked up and started to go, "Oh, uh, er, help..." and my mom came barrelling around the corner, swinging her handbag like an ax and knocked this guy around the head. I don't think he was actually a predator or anything like that, I think he was a kind of confused drunk or something.   Was he made of plants?  Yeah, and he was shapeshifting. Lanny is the title character, but like you said, there's this space in the book. For the first part of it, you have four narrators, including Toothwort himself, but you never hear from Lanny directly. It's one of my preoccupations—I tried it in my first book and I'm going to try it again—but I'm only interested in how accomplished readers are at building characters beyond the writer's determination of them. I remember being really sorely disappointed as a child when a character was overly illustrated, or when exposition was just heaped onto a character in a way that removed the imaginative possibilities for me. Lanny does say a few things, and there is some dialogue, but not very much. I want the book to be a series of mirrors, and Lanny exists as a reflection of other people's idea of him. To Robert he's a kind of reprimand and in some respects a threat or emblem of disapproval, and to Jolie he's a kind of muse, and there's a lot of maternal and almost erotic obsession with the surface of him, and him as a kind of projection and site of trauma for her. Same with Pete and their friendship, which becomes a kind of natural thing but becomes loaded up with societal suspicion. I didn't need to write him, I just needed to create him as accurately as I could in absentia through other people's consideration of him. There were a few times when he did appear a bit more, and I realized the damage I was doing to the book as a warp and weft of ambiguity. There's a textural thing made up of other people. I did great damage to him when I put him in any great detail. There was a bit where he had a long conversation with Pete about sexuality, and I realized I was removing all possible hint and suggestion and interest for the reader to gauge their own sense of Pete as a sexual person. More happens when I took stuff out. I find that really, really, really, really pleasing to do, realizing how much the reader can do if you just give them a bit. Same in the second part. You know you can get to a person, both a character and a role within a community, and their kind of whatever, psychosexual or socioeconomic type. You can do that in just half a line. You just set them up deftly in relation to other things. It's not what they are on their own, it's how they're responding organically to other things in their ecosystem. Same with Lanny. I limit him. I make him smaller for the reader, the more I tell you about him, where I want him big. I want him up in there floating. Also, for me as a writer, he was the one character I didn't do any work on. I didn't imagine him at all. I don't have a vision of him in my head, whereas everyone else I have a hyperrealistic sense of. I know what Robert looks like naked, I know how he eats, I know how he chews, I know how he blows his nose, I know his sexual predilections, everything about those characters. Whereas Lanny just needed to remain for me an absence as well. I don't remember reading if you even gave Lanny an age.  No, I didn't. You don't need to know. I have a sense of how old he is. He can't really be teenage, and some of the things he does and some of the intellectual currents he's surfing on with the adult world means he can't really be much younger than the certain age, but yeah, I never name it. Same as I never really need to name where the place is. There's so much I don't need to tell you, which is the point for me. It's something the characters do to each other, especially in the latter half of the book. They fill in the blanks when they have their suspicions with each other, particularly when it comes to Pete but also between Jolie and her neighbour, Peggy. The point of having the kind of floating village voice which is sound rather than literature, one of the reasons is to train the reader in a way of kind of half listening, half reading, where they're not reading it as if it's normal literature. They're kind of floating over it, picking up traces and scents of things, so later on things prickle or echo or reverberate according to that texture, and so that's what I want you to be doing. I want you suddenly like, "God, had I completely abdicated my responsibilities? Why was I as a reader not alarmed that Pete was spending time with this kid? What kind of person did I think Robert was?" A bit more like a musical experience, I want you to be like, “He taught me how to play this music in part one,” and that “my notes are sounding in some of the stuff that the village is saying.” Even if some of them are kind of unsubtle. Obviously, Mrs. Larton is unsubtle and obviously I'm talking about a particular type of person, the moral judgement of a particularly religious person or the vicious gossip of a more unpleasant person in the village, but I hope they're not caricatures. I hope they reflect realistically and truthfully the way all of our minds work, even the things we don't say that become personally taboo. As if we're all moving around in microclimates of our own taboos, our own questioning of what is an inappropriate thing to think or say. The village is not just a model of individual consciousness, but also off of how our relationships work. Things you'd say to your partner that you wouldn't say to a stranger, and things that a community says to itself that it wouldn't say to its newspaper, and vice versa. It becomes a map of an individual relationship, and so a small place, and then a big place, and then I hope also of like a nation state. This is how countries think. This is how we write history. This is how we contextualize our past and so on and so forth. For that to work as I want it to work in a reader's head, so much of it has to be white space. You compare it to music, but it's a story so suited to the form of a novel. Just from the way you literally place the words on the page, to what you choose to reveal or not. You said you had a similar approach to the last book, but you adapted that to the stage. I'm wondering how your storytelling technique changes in a visual medium like the theatre. The thing about Enda Walsh who made the play is, he's a very, very visual theatre maker, and he's very collaborative. He chose to make Grief an assault on the senses. He wanted to make the book come to life in the most vivid way possible. He realized to do that, he had to focus on the wordiness of it. It's not like that guy's obsession is, you know, Chuck Berry. That guy's obsession is poetry. His trauma manifests itself through literary jokes, literary devices. The play is really, there's words dripping off the back of the stage, there's huge words scraped in the thing, typewriters come alive, bits of paper are all over the thing, the dad is always drawing stuff and always saying, "ah, look at this drawing I've done," or, "I'm writing this note." For me, the visual I had in my head writing it became very literalized on stage as words. I guess that wouldn't happen again. That was completely unique to Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. There is always a death, because with both books I talk about the ambiguity and wanting interpretive doors left open. With Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I wanted no door to be closed. So like, the idea of the crow being a metaphor, or the crow being a manifestation of the dad's obsession with Ted Hughes, or it being a joke, or it being a real crow, or it being the children's fantasy of a crow, I want them to all be possible. I once read a review, and I mean I've gotten horrible reviews and stupid reviews and all sorts of things, but the saddest review I ever got just said, "Okay, I get it, the bird's a metaphor for death." I was like, "Oh no, please don't do that!" [laughs] "You just shut all the doors. What a shame. What a shame for you, and what a shame for the boys, and what a shame for the dad, and what a shame for the bird." Where was this review? It was a famous person I shan't name on Twitter. And, fine, to each their own. Totally fine. I just felt that will be a pity for them, because there's so much colour and noise outside of that interpretation. But anyway, the theatre obviously has to make choices, and he chose to make crow and dad the same person. It's an astonishing thing, it allows for a really truly virtuoso performance. Cillian Murphy is like, I've never seen anything like it. It's a performance I'll never forget as long as I live. But it nevertheless closes down other interpretive avenues on the stage. You have to do that. The stage has power literature can't have, and literature has power that the stage can't have, and one of those powers for me is the openness.   I want to close with a softball. What is the role literature in today's society? [laughs] What is the role of our literature in our society? Or just, art in general. What's the point of art. I was just in Sydney with lots of amazing writers, but one of them was George Saunders, who was reading my books. It's amazing to meet someone you admire as much as I admire him, and him be reading my work, ‘cause it kind of charges the conversation in an unusual way, especially when there's a kind of, you know, mentorship or admiration thing going on. Like, I'm on my knees, admiring George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book I thought in some ways parallels yours. There's the missing or dead boy, and the chorus of voices. They're loose parallels, but it was a comparison I held in my mind when reading. I love Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm obviously massively flattered by the comparison. I do remember when I was first reading Lincoln in the Bardo I was thinking, finally, here's the book I want to read. Finally, here's a ghost story that is a love story. That is sort of the meaning of literature to me, how to connect us to each other and to our past. For me, the best books are the ones that teach us to mourn better, to refine and revitalize and interrogate the ways in which we relate to each other, now when we're alive and after we've died and before we've been born. Squash the space time continuum. I'm relatively unapologetically old-fashioned about the idea of the novel as an empathy machine. I do think that is the case, even if that's too cozy a formulation. I read an incredibly intelligent article recently by Namwali Serpell about how that now clichéd idea of the novel is too easy. It lets us off the hook. Because we can say, "Oh, I've read books about that, so I care." And that's not real care. In fact, that might be part of a terrible Western failure to act, because we're busy looking at art that makes us care. I’m probably paraphrasing her terribly.   It's a charged question, right? I see a controversy bubbling this morning on the internet about this boat that's being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a boat in which a bunch of migrants died. Whether you think that's good work or bad work, the work is asking the question. I guess personally, literature is about a way to worry and a way to think more carefully, and a way to express fear and love, but for all of us generally I think it should be the great question machine. If we stop asking questions as a society we become lazy and we become formulaic and we become obedient. Literature is just the way to dismantle, to ask back all the important things. Anyway, to bring it back to George Saunders. He called it, the idea that it's small entertainment for a bunch of verified people, we cannot allow that to be the case. It must be the lifeblood of our society, for everyone and relevant to everyone and being written by and for everyone. I uncomplicatedly agree with that.
I Know You Are You, and Real

Now, what wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt?

One year after my sister is dragged to the Farmhouse I place an ad in the newspaper that says Let’s Go Swimming The woman I later meet at the edge of the lake is perhaps three times my age and so thinI laugh as I imagine her scanty dinnersA bowl of brown riceA single steamed green vegetableThe simmered stem of some ascetic flower She is disgusted by my smoking My matted hair She snatches the cigarette out of my mouth and slaps meacross the face and my tearsWhich have been so long absent Are suddenly there and my vision is bright and clean Beside us The lake steams Apple cores and beer cans float around its rim She strips to boxers and then she takes off my clothes too The trees are so thickly green I don’t worry about my nudity—the Town is a mile away And I know I’ll seem to be part of the greater landscape As in a bad painting When she kneels and starts working on my shoes I close my eyes and place my hand upon her head I want to test the water with a finger or foot but watching her diveMakes me ashamed of my hesitancySo I climb an overhanging tree And sit for a moment in the fragrant creaking alien arms And then I drop into the lake from that height Not knowing if there will be rocks below In the moments before I hit the water I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone The lake is so silty and fetid It feels like when I was a child And forced to use my sister’s old bathwater After she had been lifted out and towelled dry Now What wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt? There is nothing There’s nothing I would not give How could our parents have thought that water fit for another personAfter they had washed her thin oily hair in it After they’d cleaned the dirt from her toes This water is as warm as saliva and the bottom is covered in strange lumpsMy companion is miles ahead already A muddy blurI want to ingratiate myself to her I want to receive the full measure of her attention Without doing anything to provoke it And certainly without revealing That her attention matters to me in any way In other words I am ordinary I want to tell her I know how to suffer With my swallowing and my injecting With my snowbanks and my hangovers With the terror that turns My organs black and sour She insists we follow the river that feeds the lake We swim against a ruthless current until we can go no further Until we are swept back cursing Still she says nothing Still I learn nothing I await what I know will never arrive I await what I wouldn’t recognize if it did (My suffering acquires a mock-spiritual cast) [[{"fid":"6705231","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]   We reach the bank I want to thank her then break her Gently apart at the joints like a chicken But there on the bank in front of my eyes She dissolves like sugar whisked into water I emerge from the lake less clean than when I enteredOur Town’s nightwatchman circles the water Even though it is nowhere near eveningHe wears huge black goggles and reinforced rubber boots In a very short time, I lost everything. The way forward is hidden from me, as is the way back. And I cannot remain here, of course.He taps his way forward with the aid of a walking stick I lie back in my round iridescent-pink sunglasses I think pink is the most influential colour in the world People motor by in a boat They’re laughing and passing around a baby I feel my usual revulsion at laughter and babies and groups I look into the opal on my finger and if I unfocus my eyes I can see my sister swimming inside the fiery lake at its core Lately I cannot decide What I believe Do I believe in releaseDo I deserve release Will I be released   Listen to this piece from the audiobook edition: [[{"fid":"6705241","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]]   From I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters, a Strange Light book.
The Inventor of Mother’s Day

Anna Marie Jarvis spent years fighting the holiday’s commercialization. But her attempts to keep control of her creation may have hastened its descent into Hallmark territory. 

Bereavement means staring into a personal void. I want my mum, but she doesn't exist. She is absent, but I vividly recall her presence. This leaves me longing for a character who lives in my mind's eye, wishing she would climb back into the real world. I want to receive wisdom that is not available, hear a voice that is inaudible, see a face frozen at an ever-receding point in time. One of my best friends lost her dad when she was young and we agree that grief evolves like an ever-widening spiral. Immediately after death, the spiral is tight and the loss keeps hitting. As time passes, the spiral widens and the hits spread out. You acclimatise to life without them and when they arrive, it’s a shock. This year on my mother’s birthday, I am surprised to learn, nine years since her death from cancer, that I am still susceptible to this terrible ragged yawning feeling that nothing—no tears, no poetry, no love, no sex—can placate. I tried it all and grief still pitched me into an inner world of magical thinking. I don’t want to be ambushed again, so I prepare for the next hit by looking up the date of Mother’s Day in the UK. It falls on the anniversary of her death. I have never bought into Hallmark occasions. I disregard Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, every other “Day,” but Mother’s Day jabs at a nerve. The blasé marketing images of mothers and daughters feel like a personal slight. I don’t get to ignore this holiday. This holiday ignores me.  The malicious twist of timing has me researching the origins of Mother’s Day, and its commercialization. This is how I discover Anna Marie Jarvis, who went further than anyone to try to manifest her dead mother’s spirit in the world.  Anna Marie Jarvis, born 1 May 1864 in Virginia, is popularly credited as the founder of the American Mother's Day.  Jarvis's vision of Mother's Day had been in the works since her mother died, in her presence, in 1905. The two shared an intense bond. Anne Reeves Jarvis, who regretted her lack of formal education, drove her eldest to study at Augusta Female Seminary. They corresponded frequently and intimately by letter after education led to opportunities for AMJ to leave home, first to become a bank teller in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then to be the first female literary and advertising editor at Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance in Philadelphia. When ARJ got sick, AMJ spent the last year of her mother’s life caring for her. She described the moment of her mother's death like this: "light like a heavenly benediction on a blessed soul, that the angels did come and bear away their 'snow wings' this precious mother to her 'immortal home.'” The inaugural Mother’s Day in Jarvis's adopted home of Philadelphia was held at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium, where 15,000 people came to listen to her speak for over an hour about the domestic sanctity of mothers. This high attendance was the culmination of her flair, perhaps solidified during her brief advertising career, for writing persuasive letters to influential people. For years she had been writing to the owner of the store, John Wanamaker, who ended up using his local advertising space to publicise Mother’s Day. Simultaneously, a more intimate ceremony was taking place in what had been ARJ’s local church in Grafton. White carnations were ARJ’s favourite flower, so Jarvis donated 500 white carnations to the congregation. She left instruction by telegram that the purpose of the day was to "revive the dormant love and filial gratitude we owe those who gave us birth." Her focus—then as always—was on a daughter-centric view of motherhood and celebrating the love that flows from the mother to the child in private domestic spaces. Obsessive focus began in earnest in 1912 when Jarvis quit her day job at Fidelity Mutual in order to work full-time on the business of popularising Mother's Day. Death had taken both her parents (dad Granville died in 1902) but had given her inheritances which she used to create the Mother's Day International Association (MDIA). She sent circulars articulating the sentimental function of MD as “a day of family reunions, of home-comings; a day of gladness and of beautiful memories, a day of uplift and inspiration;” went on promotional tours around Western Europe and continued her letter-writing campaigns to, amongst others, President Woodrow Wilson. Jarvis had a lifelong habit of writing to American presidents. Although she didn't have much luck down the line with Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Wilson she had a sympathetic ear and in 1914, he heeded her persistence and issued the first Mother's Day proclamation. Mother's Day was on the national calendar. But the more popular MD became, the longer her list of adversaries—those who wanted to use the day for ends contrary to AMJ’s wishes. She pitted herself against, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt; Frank Hering, an American football player who tried to style himself as the Mother’s Day founder, and John Wanamaker, the friend who helped her get the day off the ground. She reportedly bought a salad in a Wanamaker’s store only to throw it on the floor after realising it was being sold as a “Mother’s Day Salad.” Many of her battles represented an idealistic war against the use of her day as a marketing ploy. The floral industries had been quick to capitalise on the growing appetite for white carnations, steadily jacking up the price of what had been cheap at half a cent in 1908, to 15 cents in 1912, to $1 in the 1920s. Once demand exceeded supply they introduced red carnations, marketing them as symbolic of a living mother, and repurposing the white carnation as symbolic of a dead mother. In Memorializing Motherhood, Katharine Lane Antaloni wrote, "From 1912 until her death in 1948, Jarvis was unwilling to relinquish control and accept the status of her day as a public holiday and, therefore cultural property. Repeatedly she threatened to sue those who designed their own Mother's Day Celebrations (whether merchant, minister, or mayor) without her express permission, especially if she recognised the celebration as a blatant act of commercial gain. At the peak of her battle against the commercialization of Mother's Day, she allegedly had thirty-three pending lawsuits." It was not just profiteering that AMJ objected to, although she maintained a fierce integrity around this subject and refused all conciliatory attempts by the likes of Hallmark to cut her in on their gains. It was also any deviation from her vision of how the day should be observed. When patriotic associations like the American War Mothers, or female welfare charities like the Golden Rule Foundation, tried to use the day to spotlight their causes, she came after them with righteous vehemence. In 1925, she made headlines after she was arrested for disorderly conduct. She had crashed an American War Mothers convention in protest of fund-raising based around sales of white carnations. The judge dismissed the charge, impressed and enamoured by her mother-centric passion. During her lifetime, AMJ put up a valiant and vocal opposition to the forces of commercialization. Yet market forces have a greater life expectancy than any single human. This year, as Mother's Day in the UK draws closer, an email from UK Teeth Whitening poses the rhetorical question: “What better Mother's Day gift than pearly whites?” Someone at TOPSHOP bashes out a list-feature for their newsletter on “The most inspiring mother-daughter duos in movie history.” I go into a cafe in the leafy suburb where my mum used to live and count four laminated A4 sheets and one chalkboard advertising that afternoon teas can be booked for that “special weekend.” Every email subject line and sandwich board to weaponise the word “mother” stabs at me, reminding me of what I do not have. I feel a throbbing kinship with my dear departed and an antipathy to the living bodies who mindlessly slap that word onto anything they’re trying to sell. I understand why Anna Jarvis, in her grief, clung to the sense of sacredness around her bond with her dead mother and turned it into a fight against the world. For the intimately bereaved, connections to the dead can feel more urgent than connections to the living. And yet...  Anna Marie Jarvis, zealous defender of her Mother's Day vision, tireless warrior against warped versions of her ideal, misinterpreted her own mother's legacy by some considerable margin. Her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was an outward-looking progressive whose concept of Mother's Day had a far wider social remit than the domestic love-bubble blown into the ether by her daughter.  ARJ had organised Mother’s Days Work Clubs as early as the 1850s. These involved bringing physicians to give advice at church gatherings in an attempt to combat public health crises around poor sanitation. She was a gifted public speaker and gave lectures with evocative titles like: Value Of Literature As A Source of Culture And Refinement and Great Value Of Hygiene For Women And Children. She believed in a mother's service to "humanity in every field of life" and was driven to do public good through community activism, attaining the status of local hero during the Civil War for the impartial care she offered to soldiers on both sides. In 1868 she organised a Mother’s Friendship Day designed to reconcile those who had fought as Confederates and those who had fought as Unionists. The day went ahead despite threats of violence. “It was a truly wonderful sight to see the boys in blue and the boys in gray meet, shake hands and say, ‘God bless you, neighbor, let us be friends again,’” recalled eyewitness Hop Woods. Her humanitarian efforts were eventually dialled back by the toll of a difficult marriage and the tragedy of losing between 7 and 9 children (accounts vary) to measles, typhoid and diphtheria. Yet a sense of unfinished business still burned, hence her dying wish that AMJ continue her work. “When Jarvis memorialized her mother, she minimized the complexity of ARJ’s legacy,” wrote Antaloni, "she rarely portrayed the power of motherhood beyond its traditional boundaries and thus never directly acknowledged the aspects of her mother's life that celebrated a public facet of motherhood." How Anna Marie Jarvis, who was so close to her mother and fought for her legacy till death, so fundamentally misinterpreted the nature of her wishes is a question lost to the grave. That she did gives me pangs. I wonder how Mother’s Day would have evolved had AMJ battled for a community-centric celebration instead of the day that she promoted, which, eventually, was uprooted from its origins and now belongs to the culture and makes it impossible for the motherless to be involved. It slices us cleanly out of the purview of the occasion, despite the fact that the founder made her efforts in testament to a kinship that transcends physical absence. Like AMJ, I was present when my mother died. There is no feeling like watching a human lose their soul. When breaths start to get further apart, each exhale is a cliffhanger until the relief of another inhale. The cycle begins again and all is well, for she is alive still. The slowing tempo is not adequate preparation for a full stop; and the death rattle. Suddenly there is no one occupying the familiar body I am looking at. I am not religious but the feeling is mystical. Where did she go? The form is her but not her and never will be her again. Immediately there is a desperate urge that will recur at various intervals for the rest of my life, a desire to reverse this incomprehensible transition. To make like Orpheus and descend into the underworld to try to bring her back. Her death makes no sense so believing that she will live again does not need to either.  Grieving is the process of coming to terms with something that scans logically—everyone dies—but does not scan emotionally. This person is alive! They live inside you. They are not gone! So as not to seem mad, you want to memorialise them, create a tangible monument to their identity. My act was to make a short film, not about my mum per se, but about our ongoing relationship in her after-life. This is not quite the same as starting a Mother’s Day movement, still, it stems from a similar place. The woman who created Mother’s Day didn’t do so for commercial reasons, but out of an all-consuming drive to keep her mother alive in the world.
How Canada Fell in Love with the Stanley Cup

From fans to telegraph operators to a troupe of determined players from the Klondike, here’s how Stanley Cup Fever spread across the country.

Just 20 years old, Weldon Champness Young was already a veteran with the Ottawa Hockey Club when he went to the Russell House hotel for a formal banquet in March of 1892. The evening was hosted by the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club to celebrate the end of his team’s season. When Weldy and the other guests sat down, they found menu cards that told two tales. One side, as usual, set out the fine fare the hotel would serve that Friday night. The other side showed the names of the Ottawa players and an account of another impressive winter. In ten matches, the squad had won nine times, scoring fifty-three goals and allowing just nineteen. “This was the record,” according to the Daily Journal, “of a genuine amateur team playing for pure love of sport and treating all comers as they wished to be treated themselves.” More than seventy-five people had gathered in the hotel dining room to honour that success, and by the end of the night they’d have even more to cheer about.           Located a short walk from Parliament Hill, the five-story Russell House was the finest hotel in the Canadian capital. Oscar Wilde stayed there in 1882, and many politicians lived there; Wilfrid Laurier called it home for a decade, including during his first year as prime minister. It was also popular with Ottawa’s high society, who enjoyed the luxurious public rooms and excellent food. The 1880s and ‘90s were the hotel’s heyday so it was the obvious choice for a banquet that attracted many prominent gentlemen—including guests from Montreal and Toronto—and featured music from the Governor-General’s Foot Guards band. Around 9:30 or so, women joined the festivities, taking seats in a wing of the dining room, and the hotel staff served coffee and ices for dessert. At 10 o’clock, J. W. McRae, president of the OAAC, began the formal proceedings. A lengthy round of toasts was a regular part of such gatherings and, by tradition, the host always led off with one to the Queen. After McRae had done so, Philip Dansken Ross, the publisher of the Journal and past president of the OAAC, drew cheers for his toast to the Governor-General that included complimentary remarks about the Englishman’s staunch support of sports, especially hockey. In 1888, an aging Queen Victoria had tapped Frederick Arthur Stanley, the 47-year-old son of a former British prime minister, to be her Canadian representative. After serving two decades in Parliament as a Tory MP, Baron Stanley of Preston entered the House of Lords in 1886. Going to Ottawa, not exactly the most glamorous—or warmest—city in the British Empire, sounded like a retirement posting. Initially, he declined the Queen’s vice-regal offer, but Lord Salisbury, his prime minister, talked him into becoming the Dominion of Canada’s sixth Governor-General. When he arrived in Ottawa in June 1888, he was a middle-aged aristocrat with a stout build. He kept a grizzled beard and above his broad forehead, his hair was thinning and starting to grey. The New York Times described him as having “a commanding and soldier-like appearance” and being “decidedly good looking.” He’d never seen a hockey match before coming to Canada, but Stanley came from a sporting family. In 1780, his great-grandfather, the 12th Earl of Derby, created The Derby, the most prestigious of the three races that make up the British Triple Crown. Stanley shared his family’s passion for horse racing as well as its love of hunting, fishing and cricket. He and his wife, Lady Constance, had ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. The family quickly embraced winter in the great white north, enjoying snowshoeing, tobogganing and, most of all, hockey. Unable to attend the banquet for the Ottawa Hockey Club, Stanley sent something better. His aide de camp, Lord Kilcoursie, delivered the surprise by reading a letter from His Excellency: “I have for some time past been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the championship hockey team in the Dominion.” Even better, he’d already asked a former aide, who was now back in England, to order such a trophy. The thrilled guests at the Russell House applauded enthusiastically. When McRae proposed a toast to “the hockey team,” friends and supporters stood on their chairs to drink. Then each player stood to respond. Team captain Herbert Russell went first and made everyone laugh. Young earned a special round of applause for raising a glass to the good fellowship that existed among the clubs of the O.A.A.C. and their members. The last player to speak, Chauncey Kirby, added emphasis to his words by climbing onto the table. Eventually, Kilcoursie was on his feet again with a song he’d composed. Called “The Hockey Men,” it began:                                       There is a game called hockey—                                     There is no finer game,                                     For though some call it “knockey”                                     Yet we love it all the same.                                       ’Tis played in this Dominion,                                     Well played both near and far;                                     There’s only one opinion,                                     How ’tis played in Ottawa.   The verses that followed were about the members of the team and were, if possible, even cornier and more ridiculous than the first two. The stanza about Young, who played cover point, one of two defence positions, went:                                       At cover point—important place—                                     There’s Young, a bulwark strong,                                     No dodging tricks or flying pace                                     Will baffle him for long.   Everyone loved the performance. More songs, toasts and speeches followed until the guests sang “God Save the Queen” and then belted out “Auld Lang Syne” before heading home or moving on to the next party at midnight. The evening had been a great success. The delight at the Governor-General’s promised gift on that evening had come from hockey people: players, league officials and other hangers-on. Still, their excitement over a trophy to recognize the country’s championship team was indicative of the growing ardor for the sport. But not even these insiders could have imagined what the Cup would come to mean to Canada.        *  Stanley had picked just the right moment in hockey’s development to donate a trophy. The modern version of the sport began in 1875 with an indoor match at Montreal’s Victoria Rink. Eight years later, at that city’s first Winter Carnival, three teams—the Victorias, McGill and Quebec City—played a round-robin tournament in what was billed as the “novel game of hockey.” Soon it spread to Ottawa, Kingston and Halifax, where an early version of the sport had long been played. By the end of the 1880s, there were matches in Toronto and the Ontario Hockey Association formed in 1890. More and more Canadians were playing—and watching—the game. But Stanley’s gift wasn’t just good timing. Although the nation had emerged out of a collection of colonies in 1867, Canada was technically just a self-governing dominion and definitely still part of the Empire. In fact, people born in Canada or naturalized immigrants were British subjects (this didn’t change until 1947 with the Canadian Citizenship Act). So colonial thinking lived on. Most English Canadians were ardent Anglophiles and if a member of the British nobility—indeed, the Queen’s own representative in the country—approved of this new game enough to bestow a trophy, people took it seriously: hockey must be something Canadians should enjoy. And so they did. The sport had already made it to the prairies. Local businessmen, including Jack Armytage, launched the Victoria Hockey Club of Winnipeg in 1890 and three years later, the game had “attained an immense hold in the public estimation” in that city. A multi-sport athlete, Armytage was renowned as a trainer and kept himself and his teammates in excellent shape with rigorous drills. In 1895, his Vics toured Ontario, Quebec and Minnesota and won four of five matches. After Winnipeg beat the Montreal Hockey Club 5-1, the teams went to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association clubhouse for the post-game festivities. While there, Armytage spied the Stanley Cup in a trophy case. He was determined to win it. In February 1896, the Vics hopped on an eastbound train, accompanied by a handful of their hardcore fans. They were going to play Montreal’s own Victorias, the new Cup holders, in a Valentine’s Day match at Victoria Rink. (Sure, two teams named after the Queen meeting each other in a building named after the Queen sounds like a royal parody, but it was just an indication of Canada’s devotion to the monarch.) Adding to the fun, the two teams wore similar colours. Garnet with gold trim and a gold buffalo on the left chest for the westerners and maroon with distinctive yellow Vs on the front of the sweater for the easterners. Few Montrealers gave the challengers much of a chance. Fans liberally placed bets on the assumption that the westerners would get schooled by the hometown squad. The 2,000 or so in attendance included twenty-five Manitobans who “gave an excellent exhibition of Western lung power” in a vain attempt to match the volume of the locals.               The fans back in Winnipeg were no less excited. The phones never seemed to stop ringing at the offices of the Manitoba Free Press as people called the newsroom to get the score. Hundreds of others had congregated in three of the city’s hotels—the Manitoba, the Queen’s and the Clarendon—to await game updates, sent via telegram. Only a few years old, the Manitoba Hotel was the city’s poshest. Built in the French Chateau style by the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway, it set the tone for many future railroad hotels in the country. Numerous towers, turrets and gables adorned the roofline of the large red sandstone and brick building. The highlight of the interior was a large, high-ceilinged rotunda. That’s where John Tait, city manager of the CPR Telegraphs, disappointed the fans by announcing, in his distinct Scottish burr, an early Montreal lead. But he soon read another bulletin from the branch office in the hotel. The goal had been disallowed because the play was offside. Eleven minutes into the match, the fans cheered: Armytage had scored. A second goal followed nine minutes later. The telegrams tracked only major developments, such as goals and injuries, so there were stretches of anxious wondering about what was going on more than 1,800 kilometres to the east. In the second half, there was a long, worry-filled wait when nothing at all appeared to be happening until word came in that Higgy—Winnipeg cover point Fred Higginbotham—had broken his suspenders, leading to a delay until someone could find a new pair for him. Finally, at 9:50, Tait announced, “in stentorian tones, which reverberated through the great rotunda,” the final score: 2-0 for Winnipeg. The response was triumphant cheers and gleeful handshakes all ‘round, followed by the sending of many congratulatory telegrams to Montreal. Over at the Bijou opera house, the announcement of the final score during the performance of Princess Toto elicited “a perfect shriek of delight” from the audience. Meanwhile, back in Montreal, supporters of the western Vics made their way to the Windsor Hotel to collect at least $2,000 in winnings for their well-placed wagers. After the traditional dinner with the host team, the Vics headed home in a private car on the CPR train. They took with them their share of the gate—just $160—and the Stanley Cup. A crush of fans packed the platform and cheered as the train chugged into the CPR depot. It was flying the Union Jack and had hockey sticks and brooms, denoting a clean sweep, stuck in its cow-catcher. As a brass band played “See the Conquering Heroes Come,” the players climbed into the open sleighs waiting for them. The Cup sat in full view in the lead sleigh as the procession—including the band and the fans—made its way along Main Street to the Manitoba Hotel, creating the first Stanley Cup parade. [[{"fid":"6705001","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] A crowd of several thousand greeted them at the hotel. After the mayor and the president of the hockey club had made speeches from the bunting-draped balcony, Armytage stood up in his sleigh. The team captain said he was too hoarse to give a speech, which made the crowd laugh, and thanked everyone for the warm welcome. Then the players and dignitaries made for the hotel’s smoking room where they filled the trophy to the brim with champagne. Drinking from the Cup would become a ritual that subsequent winners would gleefully follow. Losing had been a bitter blow for the Montrealers. A Free Press story claimed the Victoria Rink’s caretaker “was so worked up over the defeat that he shed enough tears to almost fill the big trophy.” The eastern Vics issued a challenge in mid-November and on Christmas Day, the former champions travelled west for a return match scheduled for December 30. This time, there was far more coverage in newspapers across the country. A large crowd went down to the train station and greeted the challengers with “a ringing cheer.” The next morning, 700 people showed up to watch them practice at the McIntyre Rink. In the hotels and shops, and on the streets, all anyone talked about was the big game. Montreal’s Star marveled at the unprecedented excitement and predicted the police would need to focus on keeping order “to prevent the anxious crowds who cannot obtain tickets from storming the rink.” Along with removing the gas lighting and adding four additional electric arc lights as well as opening large vents in the roof in hopes of solving the problem of mist obscuring the fans’ view, the building’s management increased the capacity from 1,200 to about 2,000 in preparation for the game. Even that wasn’t going to be enough. The price for one of the 250 reserved seats was a steep two dollars. But that didn’t stop scalpers from doing brisk business, getting as much as $25 for a pair. A man who’d come in from Calgary to see the game paid $15 for one and another fan traded two-and-a-half tons of coal for a ticket. Lord Stanley had appointed two respected Ottawa men as trustees of the Cup: P.D. Ross, the newspaper publisher who’d been at the 1892 banquet, and John Sweetland, a doctor and the Sheriff of Carleton County. One of their responsibilities was to appoint referees. Weldy Young often reffed hockey and lacrosse matches and was someone both teams could agree on. So the trustees asked him to travel to Winnipeg to handle the game. He started the match a little after 8:20 and before long it was hard to hear his “dainty little whistle” above the crowd noise. The play was fast and close and exciting. The home team thrilled its fans by storming out to an early lead, firing the first three goals. But Montreal roared back to go ahead in the second half. When Winnipeg scored late to tie it up at five goals apiece, the eruption impressed even the Montreal seven. “I have played many exciting championship games, but I never heard such a wild burst of cheering as went up when the score was made even,” one member of the team said later. “It was like a great and prolonged road of thunder rolling again and again from end to end of the rink.” When Montreal scored again, it put “a damper on the crowd but they could not restrain a cheer for the fine work of the visiting team.” The final was 6-5 and as the Daily Tribune observed, “Winnipeg is in mourning for her lost Valentine, her Stanley Cup.”      Young praised the crowd: “During all my experience in hockey matches both as a player and as an official,” he said, “I never saw such an intelligent, impartial and well conducted audience.” Whether he knew it or not, the audience was far larger than just the crowd in the rink. The CPR and Great North Western telegraph companies had arranged to provide detailed coverage of the game with direct wires to the arena. This had been done for other sports, especially boxing, but not for hockey. The Manitoba Hotel had promised that “every move of the puck will be announced.” Several hundred people made the rotunda reverberate with cheers, and groans, as they followed the play in only slightly delayed real-time through frequent CPR bulletins that were written with the help of a hockey expert stationed beside the telegraph operator:         “Merritt has just stopped a hot one.       Grant has just had a run down the rink and made a shot on Winnipeg’s goal, which was well stopped by Merritt.       The play is very fast—and just 8 minutes more to play.       Merritt has stopped several hot ones.       Montrealers are keeping the puck at Winnipeg goal and raining shot after shot.       Winnipeg on the defensive. Montreal is playing the best game.       The Winnipegs are wakening up.       Another shot on Winnipeg goal was beautifully stopped by Merritt.”       In Montreal, the Victoria Rink was hosting the skating club’s first fancy dress carnival of the season and the Daily Star had set up the twelve-foot square Star Bulletin Booth in the centre of the ice. News of the game went up on eight large bulletin boards that rotated on pivots to allow one side to be visible to skaters while the other side was being updated. A brass gong sounded with each new telegram, which came so quickly that five Star employees struggled to keep up. Although Winnipeg’s reign as Cup champions lasted for less than a year, a team from outside Montreal had finally won the trophy and fulfilled Stanley’s desire to create a national honour. The matches in February and December served notice that westerners were just as good at, and just as passionate about, the game as anyone else. Enthusiasm for the sport was exploding, the rinks were packed and the press had made the Cup a big story. Stanley’s gift mattered now. Best of all, fans in two different cities, in two different provinces—and, indeed, anywhere else in the country where people were interested—were able to experience the same game at the same time because of the telegraph. More than an influential precursor to broadcasting, these play-by-play transmissions brought Canadians together through their shared love of hockey. * Having been one of the first people to hear about the Stanley Cup, Young would find it impossible to shake his desire to win it. He and the Ottawas came close a couple of times but failed. Seven years after attending the banquet that launched an obsession, Young moved to the Klondike, leaving his team and his hometown—but not his hunger for the Cup—behind. During his first couple of years in the sub-arctic, he offered occasional updates on life in Dawson for people Outside, as Yukoners called anywhere beyond the territory’s borders. In a summer 1900 letter, he covered local politics, a mild smallpox outbreak and the doings of several former Ottawa residents. He also made an announcement that must have seemed particularly outlandish given the Northern town hadn’t even existed five years earlier. “And now, by way of warning, let me break the news gently, a challenge from the Dawson Hockey club, for the possession of the Stanley Cup, is now being prepared,” Young wrote in the Citizen. “And let me further inform you ‘outsiders’ that if a team is sent you do not want to hold us too cheaply.” The son of Ottawa’s fire brigade chief, Young grew up in a fire hall. Older brother George had been an original member of the Ottawa Hockey Club and Weldy joined the team in 1889. Nicknamed Chalk, he had plenty of skill and speed. As early as 1893, he began scoring, or setting up goals, after making end-to-end rushes, among the first cover points to do so. [[{"fid":"6705006","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Although Young was respected as a referee because he had “a thorough knowledge of the game and a reputation for squareness,” he could be a terror as a player. He wasn’t particularly large—he was a wiry 165 pounds, about average for players of the day—but he was tough, loved to indulge in a physical game and could be hot-headed. Many opponents felt his stick across their ankles and he often found himself at the centre of brawls. During a late February 1898 game, in the days before nets, with the score tied 4-4, the umpire signaled a Quebec goal. Everyone else in Ottawa’s Rideau Rink was sure the shot had been well wide. An incensed Young skated up to the umpire and pointed to a path the puck had made along the slushy ice. That, he said, proved the puck hadn’t gone between the uprights. The umpire, who later claimed that Young had jabbed him with his stick, jumped at the player. Young responded by punching him, which brought a crowd of people, including two or three cops, onto the ice and led to a skirmish between players and fans. Since the police weren’t much help in calming everyone down, it fell to Ottawa’s captain Harvey Pulford, known as the Bytown Slugger, to break it up. Off the ice, Young was an affable and gregarious guy with many friends. One day in 1897, while on his way to a Montreal football match, he asked a boy on the street, “Hey, kid, want to see the game?”             “Sure do.”             “Come on, I’ll take you in,” Young told him. When he asked the lad if he liked hockey, the 13-year-old said yes, though he’d really only recently started playing. “Right. I’ll be here with the Ottawa team next winter,” said Young. “How’d you like to be the stick boy?” Serving as stick boy for Young and his teammates when they played in Montreal ignited Lester Patrick’s love of hockey. He went on to be a star rushing cover point on the Brandon team that lost a 1904 Cup challenge to an Ottawa team that included several players he’d fetched sticks for. By the end of his Hall-of-Fame career as a player, coach and general manager, Patrick had won the trophy six times. “It just goes to show what a thoughtful act will do for a boy,” he later said. “Maybe I’d have got into hockey some other way but that gesture by Young set me on my way.” * After moving to Dawson, Weldy Young played for the Civil Service team, which issued a Cup challenge in 1901. Winnipeg’s Vics were once again champs. The Ottawa Journal reported that while the trustees had asked about suitable dates, they never heard back, suggesting the Yukoners had decided against going that winter. But it’s also possible the trustees had discouraged the team; they often used scheduling problems to squelch unwanted challenges. Perhaps Ross, Sweetland and Winnipeg captain Dan Bain appeared accommodating in public out of courtesy but were privately reluctant to entertain a challenge from a team they considered inferior. The Vancouver Daily News printed what the trustees may have been thinking. Dismissing Young as too old, the paper added, “It will no doubt be an enjoyable trip, and the Dawson boys can loosen themselves of their nuggets, but no Dawson team can lift that cup unless all the Vics drop dead.” Three years later, the plan to send the Civil Service team had given way to the idea of assembling an all-star squad made up of the best players in town. By this point, Young’s former club, led by the sport’s original superstar, “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, had a stranglehold on the trophy. A letter to Ross and Sweetland went out on August 24, 1904: “The Klondyke Hockey Club of Dawson, Y. T., hereby challenge the Ottawa Hockey Club, of Ottawa, to a series of games for the Stanley Cup, emblematic of the hockey championship of Canada, said series of games to be played under and in accordance with the regulations governing the trophy in question.” To help the cause, Young wrote a long, less formal, letter to Ross. He laid it on thick about all the success Ottawa’s sports teams had experienced since he’d left. Cleverly dealing with any concerns Ross might have that Young was past his prime, he wrote that it was “particularly gratifying to see that five of the last winter’s unbeaten champions were teammates of my own as far back as ’98 and to me it exemplifies beyond doubt the truth of the old adage ‘The old dog for the hard roads, etc.,’ and holds out for me, I must admit, no little consolation.” Young was referring to an Irish proverb—“The old dog for the hard road and leave the pup on the path”—about the advantage of experience in the face of a difficult task. Young also sought to put Ross at ease about the other players. “Speaking of the team itself, I can assure you that they are as likely a bunch as ever happened,” he wrote. “True we are badly handicapped by so little competition but unless I miss my guess by a large majority I will produce at the right time as good a forward line as ever went a-hunting for a Stanley Cup.” The postscript dropped the name of Joe Boyle, who would represent the team in the east and had full authority to arrange dates. The swaggering Yukon mining promoter was a regular at the Russell House, where Ottawa’s powerful and connected, including Ross, hung out. By mid-October, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that Ottawa had agreed to a best-of three series with Dawson—giving Young another chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. * Late in the year, just a few days before the Winter Solstice, the Klondike enjoyed precious few hours of daylight and the Dawson townsite, at the bottom of the Yukon River valley, received no direct sun at all. So it was dark and cold—a frigid -23 Celsius—when three players left town on foot at 7 a.m. on December 18. They had planned to let a dog team pull their gear, but so little snow had fallen that wasn’t possible. They walked down the Overland Trail wearing moccasins and parkas and carrying their gear on their backs. Many residents cheered the trio off that Sunday morning and the Yukon World noted that the team was going east to “show some of the old time cracks how the noble game should be played.” Accepting the role of long shots simply wasn’t in the Yukoners’ nature. The next morning, four more players hopped on their bikes and rode out of town under clear skies with a north wind behind them. The cyclists hoped to make it to Whitehorse in a week. Setting out to, as they put it, “win fame and the Stanley Cup,” the hockeyists, as players were often called in those days, figured it would be a straightforward eighteen-day trip to Ottawa. Straightforward by Yukon standards, anyway. Eventually, each of the cyclists had to abandon his broken-down wheels and join the walkers. After travelling more than 500 kilometres in nine days, the team arrived in Whitehorse, tired but on schedule. The next morning a blizzard shut down the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route railway. When they finally reached Skagway, Alaska, they’d missed their steamer to Vancouver by two hours and had to wait three days to board a Seattle-bound ship that made many of the players severely seasick. Worse, Young wasn’t with them. Although he’d been named captain and had helped select the team, if he left with the others, he’d lose his civil service job. He’d have to finish handling the election returns first and then try to catch up.   [[{"fid":"6705011","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] Even if their star player could make it in time, most hockey people in the east refused to consider Dawson City a serious contender. The team was from a small sub-arctic town and no squad from west of Brandon had yet challenged for—let alone won—the Cup (though none of the Dawson players was originally from anywhere west of Manitoba). The prevailing wisdom was that the game was at its best in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg, while the play in the Ontario Hockey Association, which Ottawa had long ago quit, and the Maritimes was inferior. But there was more to this than hockey snobbery. Even during the Vics versus Vics matches of 1896, the newspapers played up the conflict between the “effete east” and “the Wild and Woolly West.” Hockey wasn’t the root of the country’s endless regional squabbles, but it didn’t escape the wrangling either.     The Ottawa team had insisted the Klondikers not play any exhibition matches en route. This wasn’t to ensure the challengers would arrive unprepared—it was to avoid any lopsided losses that might dampen ticket sales in Ottawa. Despite the cynicism, and the need for the Dawson hockeyists to assure reporters their challenge was no joke, the team’s journey generated a lot of enthusiasm. And there was more to it than an affection for hockey and underdogs. The Klondike Gold Rush was over, but Canadians continued to romanticize the Yukon and the long journey from “the mining centre of the golden North to the Capital of Canada” only added to the story’s charm. All along the route, people cheered the team. And it was no different in the home of the champions, where the Citizen reported, “The matches are creating the greatest interest of any Stanley Cup contests yet played in Ottawa.” At a quarter to five on January 11, 1905, three-and-a-half weeks after leaving Dawson City, the hockeyists stepped off the train and onto the platform of Central Station where a large and appreciative crowd gave them “a right hearty reception.” An executive from the Ottawa Hockey Club led the players away to the Russell House. Despite the cordial welcome, the hosts weren’t about to grant the visitors’ request for a one-week postponement before starting the series. Meanwhile, the challengers denied rumours they’d threatened to default the opening game and focus on the second and third ones rather than play unprepared. The first match would go ahead as scheduled, with Earl Grey, the new Governor-General, “facing the puck” at 8:30 p.m. on Friday the 13th. After nearly a month on the road, and with no time to practice, the exhausted and far-from-game-shape Klondikers, still waiting for Weldy Young, would take on the Stanley Cup champions before a sell-out crowd of 2,200 fans at Dey’s Arena in just over forty-eight hours.  * The Klondikers lost the first game 9-2. Joe Boyle followed an already well-established custom for losing teams and blamed the referee. Then, in the Bijou Hotel bar, Ottawa right winger Alf Smith overheard a Klondiker—Boyle, according to some accounts—trash “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, who’d scored only once: “Who the hell’s McGee? He doesn’t look like much.” Although this may not have been the first example of “bulletin-board material” in hockey, it remains one of the most regrettable. Dawson lost 23-2. “Ottawa simply skated away from them at the whistle,” reported Toronto’s Globe, “and continued to pile up the goals with a merciless monotonous regularity which was farcical in the extreme.” McGee scored fourteen times. The humiliating blowout didn’t mean the two teams were about to dispense with the tradition of celebrating together after the game, though. Eventually, the party became a little too boisterous and, according to legend, Harvey Pulford attempted to dropkick the Cup over the Rideau Canal. It landed on the frozen water and no one thought to recover it until the next day. Young’s teammates were in the Maritimes on a post-series barnstorming tour when he finally caught up with them. These games on the east coast as well as in the United States and Ontario were to fund the players’ return to Dawson City. While the Klondikers had proven no match for Ottawa, they did much better against other teams. They won thirteen games, lost nine and tied one before large and appreciative crowds. The eagerness of the Yukoners to make such an audacious journey, and the public’s response to the whole adventure, revealed just how deeply Canadians had fallen in love with the game. And how quickly. Stanley’s trophy had been a powerful endorsement and technology such as trains and the telegraph had helped spread the sport from Cape Breton to Dawson City, but it was the unlikely mix of grace and ferocity at high speed that really struck people. In the dozen years since the trustees first awarded the Stanley Cup, a niche, largely regional sport with a small fan base had captivated the country. Hockey was now the national pastime.
Dayspring

And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.

    In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him and through him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. And the Word was life, and the life was the light of all. And the light is a light that shines in darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. And the Word spiraled outward into a cosmos of orbits and counter-orbits, into a billion subjectivities and a trillion perspectives. From the Word came a multiverse of matter and energy interfluxing, a dazzling, bewildering, volatile orrery, a wondrous, widening gyre: a going forth, to multiply. And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.   [[{"fid":"6705121","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] When I remember what came before, I see a black sky, a flash, and then hear a sound like the roar of rushing waters. I lay sprawled in the tangle of rope thick and bristled in the stern of my father’s boat. The wood by now is dry, wherever its carcass is beached and whatever now scuttles there, but then it stank of its hundred hauls of ancient fish and its cedar hull that was busily sweating gum that matted the hair on my legs. All day and into night we had caught nothing. And so half-dozing, I stared at a costive sky while my brother, stripped to the waist in the heat (but still wearing his silly hat, all the lanker for the atmosphere’s dense press) minded the net. He whistled a song of my mother’s. I remember her singing it, but not now its words. I remember her singing it, but not quite her voice. I wasn’t there when my brother died. I am thankful for that. They sowed his bones in fields remote, to be seed against a harvest none of us will live to glean. Instead I remember that sticky day before everything, seeing from prone the desperate throb of light stagger in zig-zag, and hearing my brother laugh as the humid summer air at last cracked open and drenched us cold and clean. “Come and see!” and I saw: the whole sea’s skin rippling with the rain’s contusions, and beneath it a net swarming with silver life.   *   tell me a story after that? aren’t you tired? didn’t you, I mean I thought— no, I did. obviously. i touch his hand to the stickiness on his stomach, now growing cool and tacky in his hair oh right. ok. um, In the beginning there was the not that. a real one …ok. ok. so. the night I was born there…there were a lot of animals. it doesn’t matter why ok ok. so there were doves in rafters high, and sheep with curly horn, and um, a cow all white and red and a donkey shaggy and brown around a baby? where were you born in a very funny. so it was cold, because it was winter— wait i open my eyes and pull my head away from the fuzz of his chest when is your birthday? mid spring, when the shepherds are in the field. that’ll be important later. listen; nevermind. it was cold, because it was christmas he pushes my head back to his chest not altogether gently and starts to trace slow curlicues into the back of my hair so i was shivering my baby ass off. so my mom asked the animals to help what the fuck dude i whisper, softly, into the pleasant stink of his armpit listen—so the cow blew his breath all soft and warm her breath what? cows are girls oh. right. ok whatever. moooooooo. cattle lowing, all that good stuff. so I blessed the cow sure but the fucking donkey is all “eyy-onh, eyy-onh.” super cold whinnying. you know, like donkeys do. do donkeys do that? of course they do that. haven’t you met a donkey i mean, i guess. i mostly fished so I go up to the donkey— as a baby? so i go up to the donkey. and I say, “what’s your name?” but he just keeps going eyyy-onh, eyy-onh all cold. so I pull his ears wayyyyy up and say, “your name is DONKEY.” And that’s why donkeys have long ears. It might also be why mules are infertile; I might be confusing the details, and it might be funnier in Portuguese. i roll away from his side and out along the length of his arm, to bring my face to rest inside his open hand, and stare out into the darkness beyond our little light. let me get this straight. donkeys didn’t have long ears until you, as a baby, punished them for breathing on you too coldly? i mean… I am the Way the Truth and the Light. the infinite utterance which speaks all being into being and so am unbound by the laws of cause and effect, chronology and chemistry, space and time, so… why did all the donkeys have to be punished for that one donkey who was only doing what you made him to do? dude, that is kind of my whole deal is that a true story? of course it is. I am the Way, the Truth, and the— did that really happen oh. no. this bedtime story sucks. tell me a better one.   *   I remember the day he came to my brother and me, on the shore as we knelt untying my father’s skiff. Rosy-fingered Dawn was unstitching Night’s design, and then: there he was. In the flesh. Come with me, he said, reaching out a hand that in the years, short years, to come I would kiss until I knew its every callous and curve. Until the Romans broke it, as they break everything, and left it a mangled pulp for us to scrape from their torture post. Until the angels made it incorruptible and a beneficent sign for all to see. Until both left it perfect and golden and alien and unrecognizable to me. How can you follow anything, he said, if you are down upon your knees? Get up and walk. We have work down the road. What could I do but follow straight? We never saw the boat again.   *   One time he got really fucking furious at a fig tree. Just absolutely screamed at it for like forty-five minutes.   *   From silence speaks the light. In the beginning was the Word. The symptom of language then is reality; we speak these stories and these stories speak us over and over until I am not sure if we are anything but history indulging a bad habit. We are the atoms of history: dust that has gathered on sandals. And dust upon sandals, and dust upon the road—who knows the revolutions of dust? My mind is not what it was. Let me try again.   *   Incarnation means nothing more than in the meat, and it was the meat of him I loved—red and raw, the stinking sweating heft of him   *   A father commanded his two sons to work in the vineyard. “Yes father,” said one, but did not go. “No father,” said the other, but he went. Which of these, then, has done his father’s will? I thought, when he asked, that I knew. But I was young then. And now I am old, old as he never was nor ever will be, and I know now that love sometimes makes a promise it cannot keep, and sometimes no toil can fix the clockwork of a heart dropped from the mantle smearing glass across the floor. Sometimes you must say “yes” when you mean “no.” There is a kindness that he never learned in the lie.   *   ok a story once upon a time a nun on an important mission was crossing a river with her donkey laden with supplies. and the beast stumbled, and it sent all her goods, her clothes, her books, tumbling into the stream. and as she tried to recover her ruined things I appeared on a rock, and I said, “that, teresa”—because her name was teresa—“is how I treat all my friends.” “and that, lord,” she said, “is why you have so few of them.”   that story also is not very nice. and it’s kind of the same story as the donkey one yes they all are. the same story   *   He sits in a house cool and dark as the mob presses in. From my post amid the knit of the crowd outside I hear the scratch of his barked laugh tumbling over their bodies like a brook breaking over thirsty stone. A twinge of jealousy dances over my ribs for a second, and is gone. A street away there is a bustle. Men, square and strong, with a beauty that is familiar and a cruelty that is not, are moving through the press, entitled and rough. With them is a woman, older but not old, who watches the crowd part like she is afraid, but not for herself, and not quite of them. From her scarf falls a serpent-coil of hair and I suddenly understand why I know and do not know the features of the young men jostling on her behalf; and I know, not just from the lock of unmistakable tawny brown but from the precise nervous choreography of her sudden gesture to tuck it back behind her ear. I know, with an electric, genetic certainty: this is his mother. She stares at me as she waits outside, while what looks to be the oldest of these men barks into the house, barks with a bark so much like his, with a bravado I will get to know in later years is slightly shrill to mask this man’s nerves. James was my brother’s name, too. In reply from inside the house, I hear the burble of his voice, its words indistinct, and a laugh cascade lazily again through the crowd. He will not see her. In front of me their mother’s eyes are still staring, glassing now, and I feel the heat in my cheeks, the embarrassment he never seems to have the decency to feel, that has left me a raw nerve and forever seeping apologies in his wake. But today, for her, I have none. How could I. How could he. And I know: this is how he will leave me too. A swift, cruel blow that will shatter all my bulk. A surgical strike from above, hurling masonry through the streets like leaves of concrete. I will scream, desperate in the temple precincts, looking for a lost boy I had mistook for kind, who will laugh at my panic: didn’t I know he should be with his father? And the learned and the holy will praise his wit, and his insight, and the bravery with which he left us behind. He will skewer steel through the raw pulsing meat of my heart, to wild acclaim. I watch his brothers swear and push their way back out of the crowd, the sweat darkening their shirts. She glances once, hopefully, over their broad desultory backs shaped so much like his, and I realize I recognize their cruelty after all.     [[{"fid":"6705126","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] From my house at Patmos I see a serpent blot out a third of the stars, belched hot from ruined Hell to gnaw at the root of a world suspended from a golden chain, and dragging behind him the debris of a universe of death. And as the light from our world hits his scaly skin I wonder how it feels against his scars. He and I both know what it is to outlive our allotted grace. He and I both know what it is to slither over cracking stone in a wilderness grown parched and seasonless. Our God has made monsters of us both. Our God has made us witness to his glory, and dared us to cry out while he ripped the thing we love apart before our eyes. And I watch the Great Serpent who is called Satan make planetfall and drop to crawl through the underbrush and hot dirt, with a brand of hot fire in his tail, side-winding through a world of kindling. And I go back inside. The death of God might have been endurable if he had not then plunged his corpse into the well and poisoned all the earth with wormwood. So let this dead sphere bury its own dead. Tear out the eye that makes you sin. Shake off the dust from off your sandals. Tear down the Temple; build a new one. He always hated nostalgia. It’s what I remember most fondly.   *   wake up please wake up The grass is cool and damp from the night air and the broad flat carpenter pads of his hand are smoothing my hair too roughly. I fell asleep. When did I fall asleep? His nose against my face is slick. A dog, pawing, whimpering. Even in the dark i can see his eyes are wild and wet and his brow soaked and chilled. Through the slit of my white sindon my baffled, dozy erection nudges, which he is cupping desperately and absently. I sleepily try to pull him down to me before I process something is wrong. listen nearby peter’s snores rumble the stone while my brother sleeps face-up, open-mouthed, gulping lazily like a dying trawl. His hand tightens gently and then I hear it: a troop of men, clanking and cursing, are coming up the garden path. what if we ran yes we could run. we would lose peter i would lose my brother but i have lost everything for him before lost mother and father and town the children and wife and dignity i will never have and i cannot care—just dust on the road behind us what would it profit a man to lose his soul just to save some petty world but suddenly there is light everywhere as torches catch the vicious crags of faces. There is a boot in my gut and i am hauled from the turf. “which of these faggots is it?” they throw the sniveling little crabapple traitor into the ash around our cold fire and he scrambles and sobs and clutches at his master’s cheek mewling his apologies and frantic slobbered kisses with a rage i did not know i had i throw him again to the ground and their arms are everywhere on me but the linen is loose their armor is heavy and on him they have not yet even laid a finger and suddenly peter is awake and roaring, brandishing a sword i did not know he had the sense to carry “we run,” i whisper to him while peter holds their attention, sliding from my sleeves, his forehead to mine. “if they kill us they kill us but we run now” in his eyes i see the light that lit the stars the dark that sat brooding upon the waters and i have loved you more than i have loved anything. you can’t forget. Never. Never. the whole of my life before and since I have broken every promise I ever made so that I might more perfectly serve that one. and so i bolt, wriggling from the white robe in the soldier’s hands, slipping from the net like a flash of living mercury. naked and shining under a scudding, lambent moon and laughing, to be so free (at least st ambrose believed it was me)   *   But when I turn breathless on the hilltop, he is not with me. Instead there he stands rooted, right where i left him, stalwart and righteous as a Goya by their torchlight. Still not a hand upon him. Not a man had followed. No one had cared. And i crumble, naked in the grass, and weep til morning light     [[{"fid":"6705131","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]]   when i wake again it is morning and the sun is hot. nearby from a tree hangs the traitor, the cord of his belt around his neck, his expression an ugly scarlet bloat. Upon his brow is a wound i might well have given him. Soon his blotching face will split like sweet rotting fruit and the birds of the tree are inquisitive but not yet brave enough to feast. i take his piss-stained clothes and stumble into town to watch the world end.   *   still i keep my testament and so i am supposed to write. supposed to claw into the rock of history some phrase that will last when I am dead and gone and though all the world cannot conjure the contours of my face it will remember the flinty brilliance that I sparked here in the dark alone and the rock of his majesty against which i struck that light but my heart is so broken. broken is not even right. it is a pulverized thing. a bruised uncabled tissue, its fibers relaxed and purpling with pooling, cooling curdling blood. fruit rotting to succulence when i sleep i remember days that never were. i dream a life i never saw and which i now see he never wanted did you not know i would be in my father’s house? he left, and i do not know what now becomes of me   we are supposed to endure. but the truth of history—the real fact of the record—is that some lives do not matter once they’ve passed out of them we live, but we live in the footnote how is it that they could kill him but i am what died   writing does not heal. the document does not make whole. poesis is not a therapy it is thrusting a filthy digit into the spot where the lance has pierced you and it says: look, here. ascend and transcend all you like; this is the wound that will not close. this is the precise spot you have been marred forever   *   i watch them drive a rivet through a foot that i kissed i know not how oft feet i cooled and washed with my own hair: the delicate, beautiful ball of his ankle, swooping to curve down into ridges dusted with errant tufts of hair, a faint sourness from leather and grit and the thoughtless joy with which he walked and ran and even once danced, scooping me up in his arms in a nighttime waltz in an upper room when all the world was asleep and there was no music but my jackhammering chest and i asked him in a child’s whisper to draw shut a window-curtain lest the neighbours see and which to my secret thrill he did not smashed and ruined and unmade   *   so why do you hate donkeys so much i don’t hate donkeys. he is playing with my fingers, dandling them in the space above our heads, as dust-motes plays in the light i love donkeys. they try, and they fail. donkeys are cute, and they do their best, and they end up hobbled, maimed, broken in a stream every day a stress test, til breakdown. to be a donkey is to know the truth: God always gives us more than we can handle. he presses my finger into the centre of his hand. ok. well, I like the nun. i thought you would.   good night.   and he kisses me on the forehead, and in his arms I dream of the smell of hay and the breath of beasts
‘I’m Not So Interested in Feelings People Go Through on Their Own’: An Interview with Sally Rooney

Talking to the author of Normal People about writing about mental health, whether books can critique the capitalist systems for which they’re turning a profit, and the perils of readings.

Sally Rooney's second novel, Normal People, is already one of the most talked-about of the year. The book centres on the relationship between Connell and Marianne. Two young people from separate social spheres, they start spending time together because Connell's mum cleans Marianne's family's house. Despite their differences—Connell is popular, athletic, working class; Marianne is ostracized, isolated, and from a wealthy family—they develop a secret relationship rooted in shared intellect and a staggering physical connection. As we follow them to university, the change of environment alters them both, but their connection remains, unconventional and constant.  Many adjectives have been draped on Rooney’s shoulders since she has become a phenomenally successful young novelist, so instead of adding to the list, I will say that the experience of sitting across from Rooney and talking about politics, literature, and music instills the same blend of familiarity and insight that I get from reading her books. There's a warmth to her and a sense that she is someone who is uniquely positioned to capture and reflect on the world she’s living in. Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about intimacy, because the way that you write about it is one of the things that I’ve most taken away from your work. Do you have some literary touchstones that have shaped the way you think about intimacy? Sally Rooney: Whenever people ask me about this, it’s the one question I’m terrible at answering on my feet. I feel like I really should carry around a little list of books, because I always regret when I walk away from the interview, "Oh, I didn’t say this one book that was really seminal for me." But the one that springs to mind I must say is James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. Do you know that book? It’s a really, really interesting book. And I’m not actually familiar with the rest of Salter’s work, I’ve read some of his short stories, and I’ve read this one book, and I’m sort of working my way through the rest of his work and his novels and stories, but A Sport and a Pastime is, I guess it’s an erotic novel. It’s set in France, it was published in the late 1960s, ’67 or ’68, and it’s a really, really intense exploration of intimacy between these two characters. Nothing really happens in the book other than the development of this really intense sexual relationship. And that book blew me away when I read it. And I think a couple of critics have spotted [it], purely because of the depth of the influence that book had on me I’m sure. But that book was something that made me feel like, "Oh, it’s possible to construct an entire novel about and propelled by sexual desire." Like to have that be the kind of momentum of the narrative. And there have definitely been other contemporary books as well. Intimacy is the one I keep returning to, and desire and intimacy. I think it fascinates me because it’s a feeling that by its nature involves another person. You can be sad on your own, or happy on your own, or angry or whatever, all on your own, but you can’t desire on your own. Your desire needs to have an object. So, the introduction of the object then creates a kind of tricky relationship between the desirer and the desired, whatever that relationship might be. Is it a relationship of dependence, is it a relationship of antipathy? So, it’s just the introduction of that other aspect that makes the feeling interesting for me as a novelist. I’m not so interested in feelings that people go through on their own. So, I think that maybe that’s why desire and love interest me so much.  I watched this video that you did for Louisiana Channel, and you spoke a lot about the idea of how we can’t be independent in a capitalist society. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that connects to intimacy for you, or if that makes it interesting to explore intimacy?   Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, I’m aware that I might be to some extent just rationalizing my own impulses, because I’m not interested in writing about solitude, and I’m not interested in writing about characters who sort of navigate the world in an independent way. And then the way that I rationalize that is obviously by saying that I don’t really believe in those things conceptually. So, I don’t know which comes first necessarily, the philosophy or the instinct [laughs].  But I definitely do have a strong reaction against the predominant discourse of independence. For me, I came at that through a feminist angle, so my development of my political consciousness was really organized around gender, and I’m still trying, obviously, to organize my thoughts around gender now, and also to incorporate other frames of thinking. But the way that I started thinking about gender politics was organized around female independence, so the idea that women should be independent from men, but also from one another and from social structures, and that empowerment was about personal agency and decision-making. And I guess I just increasingly became critical of that attitude. I now feel like there is absolutely nothing independent about the way that we live our lives. What we have managed to accomplish is a sense of independence because we no longer have to see the people who are doing all the work that sustains our existences, because they’re very far away from us in many cases. Or because their work is concealed through other social structures. And so, I just feel like an almost repulsive reaction against the idea that we can be independent when actually we’re living off the labour of others and just pretending to ourselves that those people don’t exist because we don’t have to look them in the eyes. So, I want to be conscious of that, and then within that, I guess, to take that critique into our personal lives and to negotiate the idea of independence from others in that situation as well. So, the idea of moving independently through our personal lives kind of horrifies me and again, I know that that’s a personal instinct. That’s like me saying, "the idea doesn’t appeal to me," and then I can retroactively apply whatever ideological justification for it, but it’s just something that I don’t like the idea of. Of course, I’m not saying everyone should do monogamous pair-bonding for their lives and raise nuclear families, I don’t believe that. I do believe that in our personal lives, we end up, whether we like it or not, deeply entwined with other people. And so, I’m interested in how we negotiate those relationships, because they are a fact of how we organize our society, and because they’re fascinating for me. I’m not interested in pursuing the idea that we should have, or could have, independence from other people, either in our intimate lives or in a situation within a network of economic exchange.  You’ve described intimacy as a “loss of self,” and I found that phrasing interesting, because I think there’s an appealing element of that, but also a very devastating and terrifying element of that.   Yeeeeeah. [laughs]  Do you think that loss, good or bad, is something that is unique to being young?   No, I don’t think it is. I think the loss of self, it’s something that, really, the more I explore—I have no academic background in philosophy at all, or philosophy of religions—but the more that I put tendrils out into those areas and do a bit of superficial reading, the more I think the theme of loss of self or ego-death is an extremely common feature of most serious developed philosophies and theologies. It seems like most societies have evolved a concept of the loss of self, or the giving away of self, or selflessness. Certainly, very central in Christian thought, in Buddhist thought as well. So, I think there’s something to it. There’s a reason why we keep returning to this idea philosophically across societies and in different cultural circumstances. And I think one of the ways that we experience it most readily, now, in our current cultural setup, is through intimacy with others. That opens up the possibility that we are giving away our sense of self or putting our own best interests behind the best interests of another person. It’s not something that in an ambitious, capitalist society we do very often. We’re generally encouraged to follow our own best interests all the time. But I think when people have children, that’s one big example of when they tend to put somebody else’s interest before their own. And often I think mutually preoccupied lovers, also, would be more interested in what’s happening for the other person than for themselves. And so, I guess that fascinates me, because it runs counter to the logic of the market or whatever you want to say. But also because it’s something that’s, it seems to me, philosophically substantial. The idea of giving up your self. And obviously as a novelist being attentive to how painful and disorientating that is, as well as the potential for joy and for some kind of profound experience, but also how scary it is. And scary not only because it’s just intrinsically scary, but because it runs so counter to all our assumptions about how life should be lived now, that we should always be looking after ourselves and looking after our own needs and policing our own boundaries. That to do the radical opposite of that feels wrong. And I’m interested in that wrongness. So, yeah, being attentive to both possibilities. And I guess also trying to be fairly value-neutral in the way that I write as a novelist. Trying not to say whether the relationships that I depict are healthy or toxic or whatever. I’m not really interested in those value judgements. I think if I wanted to make those I wouldn’t be writing a novel. The novel, for me, is just about observing how they play out, and saying, "Well, I don’t know. This is how it happened." That fear of surrender felt, to me, like the great tragedy of the Connell-Marianne dynamic. As I was reading, I just wanted to be like, "It’s okay! Just be together, you’ll be fine!" Yeah! But they didn’t think they would be fine. And for Connell particularly. Marianne seems, I think, at various points in the novel, ready to give a lot. Connell was not ready to give very much. In the beginning of the book he was ready to give, like, almost nothing. [laughs] Or what felt to him like a lot within very confined boundaries. And by the end maybe he’s learning to give a little bit more of himself. And I think there are reasons why it’s more difficult for him than for her. And one of them may be gender. Like I think maybe men are socialized to fear loss of self more than women are, because women from such a young age are groomed for motherhood, and they’re sort of ready to think, "There will be a time in my life when I’m taking second, or third, or fourth place to the other people in my life." I don’t know that men are socialized to get ready for that in the same way. So maybe there’s a sense in which, because of their different gender roles…but I’m sure there are individual reasons as well. But definitely I think in that circumstance, Marianne was ready, was almost preternaturally ready, to give a whole lot of herself, and Connell was scared by that, and scared by accepting what she was ready to give him and scared by doing the same thing in return. I wanted to talk a little bit about your activism and the writing you’ve done—what role does that play in your life right now?  I mean, I don’t really think of myself as an activist. I’m certainly someone who has strong convictions. [laughs] And I talk about those very readily because I don’t see any reason not to do that, like, to be straightforward and honest about what I believe. I’m certainly not writing a novel then pretending, "Oh, I have no opinions." I have opinions, and I’m fairly ready to stand by them and defend them. And obviously to be challenged and to accept counterarguments and whatever, I think that’s all part of normal life. But I don’t really think of myself as an activist as such.  In my normal life, completely away from my work, I do normal stuff like going to rallies, that I always did, going to marches and stuff like that. And that hasn’t really changed except that I’m a lot busier now, and not so often at home. But other than that, it’s basically the same. But in terms of using my position as a quasi-public figure, bringing that into my activism or using that as a platform for activism, I haven’t really done that almost at all. I wrote a little bit about the abortion referendum, and I guess I did that because it was a situation where I felt, "Okay, I have a little bit to add on this. There’s something that I can maybe offer here, that I haven’t seen necessarily offered in the rest of the discourse." It’s a little grain of something, but it might be helpful to the general public conversation that we’re having. There are very few issues where I feel like I can help the public conversation. Like really few. A lot of times my opinions I’ve just taken from something I’ve read, and thought, "Wow, that’s so smart." [laughs] And then I’m like, instead of just rewriting that, why don’t I just tell people to read the original piece that gave me the good idea? So I guess I feel like there are people who have lived experiences that are more relevant, who are speaking from a position of more relevance, there are people who are just smarter and more sophisticated political thinkers than I am, who are more engaged in those forms of discourse, and so I don’t think I have a whole lot that I can do, beyond what I do as just an ordinary person, which is show up and do things like that. But that’s not to say that I’ll never…like with the case of the abortion referendum, there may arise specific circumstances in which I feel like, "I’m maybe someone who could be a little bit helpful on this one." But I think the circumstances in which I can be helpful are very limited. So, I try, when I can, to direct people to work that’s being done by other people and say, "This is amazing, you should read it or you should engage with it" or whatever it is. But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a useful participant in a lot of those conversations.  In the Louisiana Channel video, you talk about the role of literature, and how its role in the economy might compromise its ability to speak truth to power. What role do you see literature playing in shaping political ideas and challenging ways of thinking, whether positively or negatively, and what is its potential? I’m very skeptical of its potential in that way. This has been a debate throughout the twentieth century—socialist writers and critics obviously argued about the extent to which aesthetic forms, like the novel or like plays, forms of writing other than polemic, can intervene helpfully in political discourse and how they should do that, and what is a socialist novel? And what is a socialist play? And you have writers like Brecht or whatever who manage to answer that case for themselves, but not necessarily provide an answer that works in general. I’m just deeply skeptical because of the ease with which the novel is accommodated by the system of profit-driven publishing. If the book is turning a profit for shareholders, then the book cannot meaningfully be critiquing the system by which that profit is turned. It can offer the critique, but clearly the critique is capable of being accommodated, because the very presence of the book in the market tells us that. So, is it important to keep offering the critique anyway? Maybe? I don’t intend to stop doing it, because it would just be dishonest to stop, because it’s what I believe. But I also want to be appropriately skeptical of the value of that. And not pat myself on the back for including a paragraph in the book where I suggest that that’s the system, that that’s going on, and that the book contains the critique. [laughs] Okay, it contains the critique, but it is also contained by the system, you know, so. I’m skeptical of it. But I also think that there have to be parts of life that are not…I don’t think anything is completely separate from politics, I think everything we do is captured by one system or another, we’re never totally free of it. But I also think there have to be parts of our lives that make it worth going on with the struggle. And obviously one big part of that is our intimate lives, and that’s what I write about. I think that our personal relationships with other people give us a reason to keep living. And I think for a lot of people, or let’s say for a small number of people, the novel is another reason to keep going, to keep feeling like the struggle is actually worth engaging in, like there’s something worth protecting about human civilization. And for some people that’s the novel. And for other people that’s like, sports or other forms of the arts. There are loads of other things that are of course part of these broad political systems but that bring us a joy or a pleasure that we can salvage that isn’t totally just transactional in its nature. And I think that the novel is one of those things, maybe. That’s obviously not to say it’s fenced off from political concerns, but that there’s maybe something in it that transcends the transaction of simply paying for a book and owning it as a commodity. I would hope so.  I also wanted to talk to you about literary communities, because there’s that wonderful scene in the book, where Connell attends a literary reading… And he’s like, "What is this?" [laughs] "What is happening?" [laughs] and the artifice and the privilege of it really comes through. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about the harm that those communities might do, but also if you see any value in them? Well, I think, the thing about that scene is, Connell is really suffering from clinical depression at this point, he’s deeply depressed. And he goes to this reading, and as you say, he’s really alienated by what he sees there, it feels so artificial, it feels like the whole art form has been completely captured by the elitist institution, and that people are engaging in it merely as a way of performing their participation in an elite cultural activity. And that appalls Connell—he’s from a working class background, for one thing, so he feels shut out from it, but he also is just someone who’s critical of those kinds of activities, and so it just doesn’t appeal to him. But the writer he meets is actually kind of nice to him! And, again, I wasn’t trying to give a parable there, but I just thought, that rang true to me. That he went along, he thought the reading was kinda bad, the way the reading was structured was borderline tasteless, and he felt very alienated, but the person who wrote the book did so in a sincere way and actually seemed to be a thinking, feeling person, and like, cared. And wasn’t cynical. And Connell left feeling like, "Okay, yeah, I don’t know." Because the way that he felt about the reading was still true, it was an elitist cultural activity, but on the other hand, people who write books, a lot of the time if not all of the time, are sincerely trying to do something good. They’re sincerely trying to find something true or insightful about the human condition or the conditions of our cultural world. And that’s a meaningful thing to do. And they’re sincerely striving to do something meaningful, and obviously they don’t always accomplish it, sometimes they write a book that’s not that great, and the reading’s bad. But the person behind it is sincere, and the cultural activity is meaningful, and we’re all striving in the same direction. So, I think Connell came away from that confused, that there’s a great extent to which artistic endeavor has been captured by commodification and elitist academia, but there’s also some extent to which it’s still worth engaging with because it brings us joy and because artistic effort is still sincere, and it’s worth going on with. It was obviously coloured by the frame of mind that he was in at the time.  But my experience of literary communities, and this is speaking from a position of enormous privilege because I’ve been really lucky, lucky, lucky all the way through, with my first book and my second book, everything has gone kind of right for me, so speaking from that position, which is a very rarefied one, my experience has been that like, other writers have been enormously welcoming and supportive, and I think there’s a strong sense, the way that I’ve experienced it, and again, not to speak for other people, but that we’re all kind of in it together and that the industry feels very random, and you never know what’s going to happen, which book will be successful and which won’t, but that as writers, we’re all doing the same job, and trying to grapple with the same questions, sometimes feeling like we did okay, sometimes feeling like, no, that didn’t really work, but it was an experiment, whatever. And so I think there’s a value to literary and artistic communities, but we should strive not to be captured by the kinds of commodification that Connell is seeing in that scene. Are there any efforts happening right now to dismantle that literary gatekeeping or overcome it, or counter it, that you see that you’re finding inspiring? I’m a very solitary person by nature, and I don’t go out much [laughs] or attend things, unless I have to, and so I feel like, you know, I keep forgetting that I’m now in a position of privilege, and that I have this platform, and that there are actually things I could actively be doing to try and improve literary communities, and to try to open them up. And instead I’m just sitting at home writing my next book, because that’s just what I’m like by disposition. But maybe I need to challenge myself and actually try to do stuff.  I have spent the last year editing a literary magazine in Dublin called The Stinging Fly. And so, we have an open submissions policy, and a big priority for us is publishing work by writers who’ve never been published before, so in that sense I feel very dedicated to openness, and to drawing people into the community, rather than to look after the community as it already exists, kind of thing. One of the previous editors of that magazine, Thomas Morris, the Welsh writer who was living in Ireland, he befriended me when I was in my teens, and encouraged me to keep writing, and introduced me to other aspiring writer friends, and in that totally ramshackle way, we developed a writers' circle and we still all share work with one another. And so, he’s someone that I look to as a really good example of how to build a literary community. To go about it in a completely open, slightly arbitrary kind of way based on wanting to support people who feel left out, and don’t know other writers, and who feel completely at a loss as to how to involve themselves in this community. I had no idea what the publishing industry even was. How it worked, or where it was, it’s in London, I didn’t know that. [laughs] So all of those things, I had no idea. I grew up in the west of Ireland, my dad fixed phone lines for a living. And my mum, in fairness, worked in the arts, she worked in the local art centre, not in publishing at all. So, I wasn’t someone who could just, like, stride into that world. Of course, I had privileges, I had a college education, I did, but it wasn’t easy for me to navigate that world. And so I really did rely on the kindness of other people, who had read maybe like a couple pages of my work and thought, "Oh, come along to this, I’ll introduce you to some of my friends." And I think maybe there’s an aspect in which Dublin is small enough, and Irish social culture is kind of informal enough that it’s easier to do that there. My experience was, when I was writing Conversations with Friends, if you show up to a book launch in Dublin, the writer who wrote the book is right there, you can just talk to them. It’s small, and everyone, in my instance, again, I won’t speak for other people, was very friendly, and open, so it’s easier to feel in touch with the literary community. I think in cities where there is a publishing industry in which there are lots of people employed and working professionally it may be harder to wander into a book launch and meet the person who wrote the book. So I think, in a way, in Dublin, not that I’m saying we don’t have a long way to go in terms of breaking down barriers, because we do—there are lots of issues left to address in terms of accessibility of the arts in Ireland, loads—but just speaking from my personal path to that, I think there are some ways in which it’s fairly open and welcoming, and we need to work on making it more like that. I’ve seen you talk about a funding model for the arts in Ireland that you think is working well. What's the situation, and what's the benefit to literary magazines?  Well, I should stress, the arts need more funding in Ireland. I was not praising the current government’s funding structure. What I was saying, I think, is that I do think there’s a focus in Ireland on magazines and journals that publish previously unpublished writers alongside writers who have been published before, and get that work out there, and I think those journals and magazines are read in London. I know nothing about American and Canadian publishing, so I can’t comment, but I think in London and in the UK it’s difficult for first-time writers, unless they’ve been through specific MFA programs or whatever, to just submit work to say Granta and get it published off the bat. I think that’s really hard. Whereas in Ireland, of course it’s competitive, and it’s difficult to get published in these magazines, but we will read your work and give it a fair shout. And, speaking from having been an editor there for a year, I really don’t care whose name is attached to it. If it’s good, it’s getting published. Or if it’s good enough, we can’t obviously publish everything that’s good.  There’s a sense in which, I feel like the way the arts community has organized itself, specifically in the literary world, that’s seen as a priority: finding new writers who’ve never been published before, supporting their work, giving them editorial attention, drawing them in and publishing that work and getting it read. So that’s a big priority, and I think that’s something that has really helped a generation of writers, like me, definitely, and also other writers who’ve emerged as a sort of new wave of Irish writing. A lot of them were published in The Stinging Fly, or other similar magazines like The Moth, Tangerine in Belfast is another great magazine. So, I think the fact that that is a priority is good. Also, that there are specific grants available to writers who have had maybe like one or two pieces published but have not published books. You can apply to the arts council and just get a little chunk of money, and it’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to maybe look after rent for a little bit while you just focus on your writing. I got one of those, and that was huge for me. I was still working on Conversations with Friends, I’d published maybe an essay and a story, like, not a whole lot. But they gave me some money and I could do a bit more writing and it meant a lot at that time. So, I do think we need more of that. I’m not saying we have an adequate amount, of course we’re never going to feel we have an adequate amount, we definitely need more [laughs], but it’s important I think that that’s what the model looks like. That it’s not necessarily about funding the artists who are already successful, who represent Ireland abroad. I think it’s much more important to focus on people who have never been published before, who have no idea how to get published, and to make sure that they know that these things exist, that they can apply for these grants, that these magazines are here, and that we’re open, we take submissions. It’s about focusing on that side of things, and I think that’s what Ireland has been relatively good at so far. Normal People takes place during the Downturn Period. Do you feel that there was an impact of that period on Irish art and culture?   Huge. Yeah, I do. I think it was huge. People talk about this new wave in Irish writing, and it’s funny because it’s difficult, for me anyway, to point to a fallow period in Irish writing, because it seems to me like there’ve always been really interesting books coming out of Ireland. And you have writers like Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry, they’re obviously still publishing now, they were publishing before, are they part of the new wave? Maybe not necessarily, but they’re among our obviously greatest writers and they’re still publishing great work all the time. So, for me I think what the new wave refers to is writing that emerged during the period you’re talking about. And that’s what differentiates it from what came before, that it’s writing almost specifically in response to the particular economic conditions that emerged after 2008. And I would date it back to, there’s a collection of short stories by the writer Kevin Barry, called There Are Little Kingdoms, that came out I think it was 2010 maybe? It was published by The Stinging Fly Press actually, and that book felt very different from what had preceeded it in Irish writing, and it was, I think it’s not controversial to say, hugely influential on the writers that then emerged afterwards, writers like Lisa McInerney, like Colin Barrett, and then in turn obviously those writers were influencing me, and the other writers who were emerging then, so I do think that that 2008, 2010, 2011, those years were seeing a big shift in how Irish society was organized, that’s an objective fact, and then, also in the cultural responses that were emerging.  Are there any books forthcoming from Stinging Fly Press or any stories coming out in the magazine that you’re especially excited about?  The current issue is being guest edited by Danny Denton, the writer from Cork, so I’m excited to read everything, because I’m here and he’s there doing the hard work. So, I’m really excited to read everything that is in there, but I haven’t read any of it yet. And then, there’s a writer called Nicole Flattery, who’s just published a collection of stories with Stinging Fly Press, and also with I think Bloomsbury in the UK, called Show Them A Good Time. It’s an unbelievably good collection of stories. Nicole is a really astonishingly gifted writer. I love reading everything that she writes. She just writes the best sentences out there, I just think her sentences are unbelievably good. So, I’m really excited about her book. It came out, maybe I think, February? End of February? So that’s the Stinging Fly book I’m most excited about. I wanted to talk about mental health a little bit. I love the way you write about mental health, from the smaller moments, like in Conversations with Friends, where alcoholism is kind of on the edges of it, and then in Normal People obviously, in my reading, I felt mental health was very, very present. Is that a starting point for a character, or is it something that emerges as you write? I think it emerges in the character. I suppose when I first met these characters, I felt like, they were already fully formed and it was my job to find out what was going on with them. Of course, that’s not actually true, and sometimes I have to remind myself, "You made it up! They did not arrive fully formed. You made it all up!" But I can’t accept that. So, for me, it was like, I met, in Connell’s case, this young man, or teenage boy, and I really think now, looking back, when we meet him, he’s already deeply wracked by social anxiety. He doesn’t have that name for it, necessarily, but he feels so uncomfortable in his own self with regards to what’s perceived as normal. And when he manages to come close to that, he’s feeling okay, and feeling comfortable, like he knows how to navigate his life, and when he feels himself pulling away from what’s normal, he gets very unhappy and sick and upset and not feeling good. And he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to think about that, because who does when they’re 18? And then, as he goes through university and feels further and further away from the social world, just feeling deeply alienated from what he sees around him, he sinks in to this terrible depressive episode, I can’t remember what year of college he’s in, third year I think. And that just felt to me like it was the inevitable result of the factors that I’d introduced, I had this character, I knew how he felt in his school life, I knew how he managed to navigate a very fixed and stable social world, and then I wrenched him out of that, and put him in a very unfixed, very mobile social world, where all the pieces seemed to be moving very quickly. And it just felt like the only way that he could respond to that, particularly when Marianne is gone, ‘cause she’s like his one, even though their relationship is in some ways very unstable, she for him is like a stable presence, and then he goes through this bereavement because of the suicide of his friend from school, who he’s completely fallen away from, drifted away from. It felt like the only way that I could work through that remaining true to who I thought Connell was, was to have him respond in that way. And I mean it was never like I sat down and thought, “I should address the topic of depression,” but I felt like I had to stay true to the character that I had, and I was interested ultimately in following him into that exchange that he has with the counsellor. And again, doing what I described, which is remaining fairly value neutral. Like I wasn’t trying to say counselling is good or bad, that’s not something that interests me in the context of a novel. It’s not a judgement that I feel interested in making. It’s like, here’s what he would have done. Here’s what he did. Here’s how it played out. Was it a good or bad experience? I don’t feel like that’s for me to say. But I wanted to be attentive to the detail, and the strangeness of it for him. It’s something that he probably would not have pursued at an earlier point in his life, no matter how bad he felt. It’s something that became open to him because of the specific situation that he was in, and the fact that it’s free for college students in that specific circumstance. I was interested in how I thought that would play out for him. One of my friends, actually, asked me to ask you this: she was curious about what you were reading and listening to as you were writing, because she listened to the Connell and Marianne playlists that you made. Was that purely a character exercise or was that actually what you were listening to? [Laughs] Oh man, I was listening to those! Yeah, yeah. I spent more time making those than I did writing the novel, they were so intricate, and honestly if you listen to them in chronological order, a lot of the plot is in there. [laughs] Go back! ‘Cause they’re good playlists. I flatter myself but they are good. So, I was listening to that, yeah. What else was I listening to? I’m trying to think now. I wrote Conversations and this book kind of close together, so there’s probably some overlap in terms of what I was listening to. I think I was listening to St. Vincent, I’m not sure when that album came out though. And, oh, you remember that Sufjan Stevens album, Carrie & Lowell? Again, I can’t remember when that came out but I think I was listening to that writing this. And then what was I reading? Not a lot. When I was in the process of actually writing, particularly writing early drafts, working really intensely, writing thousands of words a day, I wasn’t reading a lot. And I find that I really have to use my breaks from writing to read as much as I can, try and read like a book or two a week or whatever, because when I get back into it then, I can’t read. I feel like such a fraud for not being able to read when I’m writing, I feel really bad, because it’s like, am I saying I like my own work more than other books? [laughs] That’s so terrible! But I don’t think that’s what it is, I think it’s just I have to shut off that part of my brain. Maybe it’s just that I love reading so much that it just takes up too much of my mental space and I feel too engaged by it. I would like to think that. And so, I need to kind of distance myself from it in order to get the intense work that I need to do done. So yeah, I was certainly reading a lot in the breaks, while I was writing I wasn’t reading much. What are you reading on this trip? I just finished Emmanuel Carrère's book The Kingdom. Oh my god, it’s amazing. Okay, this book blew me away. He’s this French writer, and he has written this book which is partly a memoir of his own fairly short-lived conversion to Christianity, he’s writing it from the perspective of having then lost his faith but still being very engaged in the philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic faith in specific but Christianity generally, and part of the book is like a retelling of the gospel of Luke from the historical perspective of the Luke character, so it’s like, so fascinating. There’s so much history in it, there’s so much theology in it, and then it’s also this very personal look back on a period in his life that he now struggles to understand, like he really believed in the supernatural elements of the faith and now just doesn’t at all. So, it’s a really, really, really fascinating book, and it has reawakened my, in fairness, kind of lifelong interest in the gospels. I’m really fascinated by the character of Jesus, and whenever I go back and read those gospels I’m just compelled by him all over again. I just find him so interesting! So, I’m going back now and reading over the gospels again as well, so that has been my big reading interest while I’ve been on this trip.
Toward My Own Definition of Disability

Growing up, I resisted identifying as disabled. Now, I’m seeking to better understand the label and the community behind it.

I. “I write essays about life with a chronic medical problem,” I tell the editor when we meet at a literary event. I don’t go into the details—that I was born with a neurological condition, hydrocephalus, which is treated with a device called a shunt. Periodically the shunt malfunctions and I get headaches and other strange symptoms that only brain surgery can alleviate. During those times, having hydrocephalus is frightening and painful, but when the shunt is working, as it is this evening at the bookstore, I barely think about it—that is, outside the context of my writing. “We publish pieces on disability,” the editor says, handing me his card. I thank him and walk away. I don’t want to leave a bad first impression by saying something contradictory. But I don’t have a disability, I think to myself. Or do I? A few months later, an editor puts out a call for submissions and specifies that essays by writers from marginalized groups, including people with disabilities, will receive priority attention. I send in an essay describing the parallels between my life with hydrocephalus and a memoir by a writer with a hunchback. In The Little Locksmith (1943), Katharine Butler Hathaway describes how she came to learn that despite her physical frailty and short stature, she could live a happy and independent life. I identified with Hathaway’s experiences—of feeling that others see you differently than you see yourself, of noticing that the sexual experiences others are having in the normal course of things aren’t happening to you. Hathaway seemed to be a kindred spirit of a kind I hadn’t encountered before. In the afterword to the Feminist Press edition of The Little Locksmith, the late author Nancy Mairs, who wrote about disability herself, called the book “a nuanced inquiry into the social, psychosexual, and spiritual realities of disability, half a century before disability studies emerged as an academic pursuit.” I knew that Hathaway and I both had “lifelong medical issues,” but I didn’t consider mine to be disabling. Mairs’ afterword suggested that disability was what Hathaway and I had in common, that with all the parallels between my life and Hathaway’s, my “lifelong medical issue” looked, swam, and quacked like disability. At least, that’s how I see it now. In September, 2017, when I submitted the Hathaway essay, I included the word “disability” in the title and the editor replied that she would read my piece promptly because I was a writer from a marginalized group. But am I? Do I deserve this special treatment? I knew that Hathaway’s story, in which I saw parallels to my own, was regarded as one of disability. I could also see how my work would seem disability-ish: I write about how inherent physical and neurological differences complicate my life and make it more difficult for me to do certain things. (Different from whom? More difficult for me than for whom? These are important questions.) But I’d never thought of these differences as disabilities. While they make it more difficult for me to do certain things, they don’t render me unable to do them. By the time the piece was published, in late February of last year, by a different editor somewhere else, I’d taken that word out. But at a writing conference the following month, I attended panel discussions about illness and disability, again felt a sense of identification, and began to wonder if there was an entire group of people like me and like Hathaway and if these people were, in fact, “the disability community,” a term to which the panelists introduced me. A community of potential kindred spirits—and living ones, at that. How could I not explore this? * I know what kept me from exploring it earlier: a sort of internalized ableism. From my earliest days at school, I avoided kids who took special classes and received extra help and turned away relationships that could have sowed the earliest seeds of community. This ableism came not just from the stigma and isolation that seemed to follow those kids, but also from my notion that, when it came to school, I had to be not just smart but perfect. I couldn’t have special needs or acknowledge commonalities with students who did because I wanted to be gifted and talented and thought the two labels were mutually exclusive. I didn’t allow then for the possibility that a person could be talented at one thing and need extra help with another. Prejudice, fear, and a lack of understanding tend to go together. I was ableist. I was afraid of disability. I also didn’t quite know what disability meant. For most of my life, I’ve operated not with an official definition of disability but with an unspoken personal one. Something like: A disability is something that makes the activities of daily life, developed by and for people who are mobile, have all five senses, and are of average intellectual abilities, difficult or impossible without help. Given my prejudices, by that definition, I didn’t consider myself to have a disability. But the minute I’d reject disability, I’d be flooded with memories suggesting that whatever disability was, it did apply to me. The real estate agent who called me, a few hours after an apartment viewing, to ask if I need a first-floor room; he’d noticed that I was “very careful when I walked.” The neighbor who called me the “poster child” for Special Children’s Friends, an organization with which my mother was heavily involved during its early years. The woman who, at the Jazz Age Lawn Party, interrupted my Charleston to tell me to keep my feet closer together; I knew she was wrong to embarrass me that way, yet it still shames me to imagine that what I’d thought of as my fine-for-an-amateur dancing was so noticeably aberrant. These are all memories of times that others shook up my view of myself as fitting in, as being normal and living a normal life. But I also have my own caveats: a long list of “buts” and “thoughs.” I’m physically able, but I have hydrocephalus; but I take medicine to prevent seizures; but I have a benign tumor on my brainstem, which, in addition to having presumably caused the hydrocephalus with which I was born, gives me an asymmetrical face, weak left side, poor balance, and monocular vision, meaning I have no depth perception. I’m intelligent, but I process information slowly, take extra time on tests, get lost even with Google Maps. I work and live on my own, but my parents supplement my income. And back when I was a kid, I didn’t go to the “resource room,” where special classes took place, but I certainly had things in common with the students who did—that is, in addition to a school, a home state, humanity. With one student who went to the resource room, and who also tried to befriend me, I shared something quite specific: a neurologist. Do all of these little signs, all of these exceptions to my claim of being just like my peers—or like the classmates I considered peers—constitute a disability? II. The first place I think to look for a definition of disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the ADA). Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA is civil-rights legislation for people with disabilities, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against disabled people and requiring public accommodations, government services (including public transportation), and telecommunications to be accessible. Right at the top, the ADA also defines disability, but does so in what seems to me a very confusing way. The ADA’s definition of disability can be seen as having three prongs (my word, not theirs). A person with a disability, according to the ADA, has an impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” (prong one); “a record of such an impairment,” that is, of a past impairment (prong two); or is “regarded as having such an impairment” (prong three). When I first read that definition, I don’t know what to think. My medical issues don’t cause me problems on a daily basis and my senses are intact—under prong one, I don’t have a disability. But I do have a history of impairments—multiple shunt revisions, seizures, early years when I had a trach, couldn’t talk, was learning sign language—and there have been many instances when others have regarded me as having special needs. So, by the second and third prongs of the definition, I do have a disability—or so it seems. My identity seems to shift as I read along, and with each shift comes the uncomfortable feeling of having been wrong. Is one’s disability really defined by the perceptions of others (prong three), which may be inaccurate? Or by one’s history (prong two), though a past disability may be irrelevant to one’s present capabilities? And though I am fine most of the time, when the shunt fails, I can do little more than lie in bed and wait for surgery. Major life activities—walking, breathing, sleeping, working—are most certainly impaired. In which state does the ADA judge my abilities? The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 says that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” Further, it specifies that the severity of an impairment should be judged “without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures,” including medications and prosthetic devices (with the single exception of eyeglasses and contact lenses). Is the shunt a mitigating measure to be disregarded? Because without the shunt, I’d most certainly be disabled; I might even be dead. To help me answer these questions about the ADA’s definition of disability, I speak to Cindy Tarshish, the manager of ADA Minnesota. Prior to the Amendments Act, if you relied on a mitigating measure, you may not have been considered disabled under the Act; that changed in 2008, Tarshish tells me. So whether the shunt is a mitigating measure seems not to matter, because mitigating measures themselves no longer matter under the Act: it’s the consequences of one’s medical conditions, considered in an active, untreated state, that determine disability according to the ADA. This would suggest that I am a person with a disability as described by the first prong of the ADA’s definition. Yes, I am fine—when I take medication to forestall seizures and anxiety, when I have a working shunt regulating the pressure in my brain. When I’m good, I’m very good, to paraphrase the poem, but when I’m bad, I’m horrid. And the latter is the state in which, under the ADA, one would assess my impairments to decide whether I am disabled. After speaking with Tarshish, prongs two and three make a little more sense. Through the “regarded as” prong, the ADA protects people from discrimination on the basis of a perceived disability, even if that perception is incorrect. Tarshish mentions the story of an able-bodied woman with a facial scar who was denied the job of hostess at Red Lobster on the grounds that her appearance would be “unappetizing”—that woman would have certainly been eligible to sue for disability-based discrimination. The ADA also protects those with a history of disability—cancer survivors, for example—from discrimination on the basis of that history (and the fear that it might repeat itself). It also protects those who are associated with disabled people, such as the parents of a disabled child. These protections against disability-based discrimination don’t, however, mean that all these people are disabled or are entitled to accommodations at work. The ADA does not, in other words, claim that the regard of others can be disabling. Yet the idea compels me, because so much of my thinking that I might have a disability stems from the perceptions of others, and my perceptions of their perceptions. The idea that notions of disability, valid or not, could be the basis of discrimination suggests that disability is a social construct. Offering accommodations out of the blue, as the real estate agent did while I was looking at that apartment, is also a kind of discrimination, which is not to say it’s wrong—but it puts people with apparent differences in a group apart (socially, that is—the ADA doesn’t weigh in here). To the extent that disability is a social construct, I have one. But disability is more than a social construct; it’s, to refer to the ADA, an impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities. What distinguishes the experience of a person with a disability from that of an able-bodied person is not just discrimination, but also the disability itself. For example, I have a lazy left eye, one of the ways in which my face is asymmetrical, and people notice it. People don’t know which eye to look at when talking to me, my mom says. But the lazy eye is more than a superficial difference that can inspire discrimination: it has neurological roots and functional consequences—monocular vision and a lack of depth perception. So for that and other reasons, I am indeed “careful” when I walk down stairs. Originally, I don’t think I have a disability as the first prong of the ADA defines it, yet even that is subject to my doubt. The ADA Amendments Act changed the definition of disability to specify that major bodily functions, including those of the brain, are major life activities. That I have hydrocephalus means that one of my bodily functions, the regulated flow of cerebrospinal fluid through the brain, is impaired. The shunt works around the problem, rerouting the brain’s fluid—but, as every shunt failure makes clear, the problem remains. If I have a disability under the ADA, then, at least in theory, would I also qualify for disability benefits through Social Security? Though the requirements one must meet to receive benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) are quite complicated, it doesn’t take long for me to see that the answer is no: the ADA and SSA view disability quite differently. By the ADA’s definition, a disabled person could potentially have both a job and a condition that medications or a device, such as a hearing aid, can completely treat. In contrast, by the SSA’s definition, a disabled person has an impairment that, despite adherence to medical treatments, prevents them from working at all or from earning anything more than a tiny income (in 2018, a person earning more than $1,180 a month from “engaging in substantial gainful activity” would not generally be considered disabled). As Avram L. Sacks, an Illinois-based attorney who focuses on Social Security law and is a member of the Special Needs Alliance Advisory Council, explains to me on the phone, “If an individual is able to function once the condition is being treated, then there’s no disability, because the test is not the name of the condition. The test is not having the condition; the test is whether or not the condition functionally impairs the individual so much that the individual is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity.” If an individual is able to function at that level once the condition is being treated, then there’s no disability. While the ADA disregards mitigating measures, and considers the severity of chronic impairments when they are active, the SSA does the very opposite. For example, I take twice-daily medication for seizures, though the number of seizures I’ve had in my life is probably 10 or fewer. Under the ADA, my seizures would be considered a disability because, when they happen, they impair the functioning of my brain. The SSA, however, generally only considers seizures to be a disability if they occur at least once a month—the details vary depending on seizure type—and “despite adherence” to meds. So although due to my chronic, treatable medical problems, I meet the ADA’s definition of a person with a disability and would be protected from disability-based discrimination at work, among other places, I do not meet the SSA’s definition: I work and earn an income past the defined point of substantial gainful activity, and my medical conditions are chronic and treatable. * But the question of whether I have a disability according to government and legal definitions is mostly theoretical. In reality, whether the ADA and SSA definitions of disability apply to me, personally, is a moot point—I have no employer from whom to request accommodations and thanks to my income and other financial resources I don’t currently need help from the SSA. To get beyond theory, I contact the Hydrocephalus Association and ask if they could connect me with people who have hydrocephalus and also receive Social Security benefits or accommodations under the ADA. The organization connects me with several adults with hydrocephalus who cannot work and who receive or have received Social Security disability benefits. I find few sources with hydrocephalus who have experience with the ADA, and Cindy Tarshish does not have particular knowledge of how the ADA might apply to people with hydrocephalus—though she believes that, as an impairment of a major bodily function, hydrocephalus would probably be considered a disability in itself. I can’t know how a court might view my medical issues if I sued an employer for disability-based discrimination; only experience could tell. It’s thanks to financial and medical luck that I can ponder these legal issues with nothing personal at stake. Were I poorer and without parents to help me, I might well meet financial requirements for Social Security disability benefits. Were I less privileged financially I would also probably have an employer, since freelance journalism is not a great way to earn a living. I might, therefore, have reason to assert my rights under the ADA. I likely wouldn’t be writing this for fear that “outing myself” as disabled would, despite the ADA’s theoretical protections, put me at a disadvantage in the job market. I’m also lucky that my medical issues don’t disable me more. When I was a baby, the doctors were sure I would be severely disabled and told my parents that they should put me in “an institution,” which I put in scare quotes because the phrase to me implies something vague and frightening. I definitely had special needs as a baby. In addition to the shunt, I got a trach because one of my neurological problems was that I didn’t swallow. The trach, which allowed for clearing aspirations from my airway, also meant that I couldn’t talk (air went in and out of the trach instead of in and out my mouth and nose, meaning that it didn’t pass by the voice box). My mom likes to say that she had three kids: me, my trach, and all of the equipment that accompanied the trach. That’s why, when other kids were starting to talk, I was starting to sign (“more crackers, please”). But I didn’t require this level of care forever, or even for very long. At two I got a fenestrated trach, which had holes in the top so that air would reach the larynx when I forced it in that direction by covering the trach opening. Finger over my trach, I became quickly voluble; at three, the trach came out altogether and I was left with my unusual, yet completely functional, voice. I learned to swallow. As for the shunt: I’ve had five shunt failure episodes during my thirty-four years, some requiring multiple surgeries, called shunt revisions. Each shunt failure is an ordeal. But, of course, “it could be worse,” to use a stupid cliché—a different life is not better or worse, it’s just different, with endless dimensions beyond neurology; all I mean is that neurological problems could complicate my life more than they have so far. Some people with hydrocephalus have needed more frequent surgeries than I have. Some people with hydrocephalus—because of the frequent surgeries, because of brain damage, because of whatever neurological problems, such as my tumor, may have caused the hydrocephalus in the first place—cannot work at all. In other words, some people with hydrocephalus cannot perform “substantial gainful activity” and, therefore, need Social Security disability benefits. I speak with one woman who acquired hydrocephalus early in her life and is just a few years older than I am. She has had roughly thirty revisions and receives Social Security disability benefits because she can’t work. She also volunteers at a swim class for disabled kids and describes herself as “happily single.” I speak with a mother whose twenty-year-old son suffered significant brain damage because of his hydrocephalus and has had over 100 shunt revisions; the son has a 50-word vocabulary, an untestably low IQ, uses a wheelchair, and has received Social Security disability benefits since he turned eighteen. He also works out four days a week, rides horses as part of an equestrian program for people with disabilities, and plays with his dog. During my last shunt failure, this past April, I have three shunt-replacement surgeries because the first two shunts quickly fail. I’m in the hospital nearly a month, much of that time spent in the ICU. It’s a pretty bad situation, relative to those I’ve been in before. But the current shunt, the result of surgery number three, seems to be working well. III. Since I’m not currently asking for disability benefits or accommodations, the question, “Do I have a disability?” truly is a matter of identity. Do I identify as disabled? The answer in my mind is still maybe, or sort of, or depends on how you look at it—that is, it’s a matter of how you define disability. But what I do recognize as true is that I am like Hathaway, that I am like some of those students who took special classes and whose similarities with myself I rejected decades ago. Does it matter if I call what links us disability? When it comes to people taking comfort in shared experiences, I don’t think the name for that unifying element matters. But when it comes to taking advantages of opportunities reserved for marginalized groups, whether or not to call oneself disabled is a more serious question. It matters because when a publication offers demographic boxes as part of its submissions system and states that it wants to publish more writers from marginalized demographics, to check the box when you don’t belong to the group is to gain advantage by fraud. I fear that choosing to identify as disabled, with the implication that I could also choose not to, is a privilege like that of a white person choosing to use an Asian pseudonym when submitting a poem. But what separates me and my notion of identifying as disabled from the white person pretending to be a person of color is that I have indisputable medical problems that I can’t change. Though I can choose whether to call those medical problems disabilities, that’s the extent of the choice. Unlike, say, Rachel Dolezal, I’m not trying to join a marginalized group to which I don’t belong. You can’t choose to join a marginalized group, anyway, any more than you can choose to be born with hydrocephalus. Other people marginalize you or they don’t—if they don’t, you’re lucky. Throughout most of my life, I’ve been more akin to the person who is already in the group but doesn’t realize it. And though I can’t choose whether or not to be disabled, I am now, in a very public fashion, choosing to identify myself that way. * The stigma of disability comes from being seen as different from mainstream social norms and ideals; it can isolate one from people who see that difference as a negative. But to self-identify as disabled isn’t to isolate oneself, it’s to join a group: the disability community. When I read personal essays and memoir by people with disabilities, I tend to think not, these people are different, but, oh my gosh, these people are like me! Experiences that isolate a disabled person from able-bodied peers can be the very same ones that bring disabled people together—to some extent, it is the marginalization that creates the marginalized group. It’s what connects me and my experiences to Hathaway and hers. But not just to Hathaway. Also to Keah Brown: “I grew up shielded from the eyes of strangers and blissfully unaware of the reality of the world. In fact, I genuinely did not know that I was disabled until I reached middle school, when a boy mocked the way I walked across the cafeteria. Up until that moment, I had lived like I was able-bodied, and never considered that my walk was different than anyone else’s.” Also to Nicola Griffith: “I have . . . regarded my MS and its consequences as a tedious, time-consuming thing Over There, separate from my real life. My illness, I reasoned, was a personal difficulty that took a lot of bandwidth to mitigate; why give it any more attention than necessary?” Also to Esmé Weijun Wang: “I am her, but I don’t want to be her . . . . It didn’t matter how pulled-together I seemed when, for example, I was crossing campus, ducking and dodging specters that no one else could see. I knew that I looked crazy, and that no amount of snappy dressing could conceal the dodging. Because such movements were a necessary concession to my craziness, I responded by trying even harder to seem normal when I wasn’t being assailed by hallucinations. I went dancing. I ate potato skins in Irish bars and pizza joints. I did all the ordinary things I could think of.”11In the first sentence, Wang writes of her reaction to a woman with schizoaffective disorder who identifies with Wang, though Wang, who has the same condition and is visiting the mental health clinic not for treatment but as an invited speaker, does not want to identify with her. In the sentences that follow, Wang describes the anxiety, caused by the fear of standing out, that pervaded even everyday activities when Wang was a college student who had hallucinations. Both sentences highlight the discomfort with disability that even disabled people sometimes feel and the hypersensitivity—even when doing “normal” things—that comes with having a health condition that can feel like a chronic abnormality. When I read these kinds of stories by people who identify as disabled, in which people talk about things that so often go unspoken like guilty secrets, I feel less alone, connected not just with other disabled people but also with people who share another identity of mine: writer. There’s a hashtag that one can use to find other disabled writers and people who write about disability: #CripLit. The hashtag grew out of a Twitter chat of the same name hosted by writers Nicola Griffith and Alice Wong. When I think of “the disability community,” that term I picked up at the writing conference, I imagine the group of people who use the hashtag #CripLit. In reality, self-identified disabled writers on Twitter are a subset of all people with disabilities, and common characteristics, in themselves, do not a community make. That said, the sheer number of people out there on Twitter who use the hashtag does inspire a sense of solidarity or kinship in me. The more Tweets I read that clamor for writing about disabled people by disabled people (#OwnVoices), the more I find myself wanting to participate in the discussion, to add the hashtag to my Tweets, to say, “Hey, I’m creating work of the sort you’re saying we need more of.” But are my essays #CripLit? That goes back to the question of whether I identify as a #Crip. Now, I think I do. As a kid, I felt that being labeled a person with special needs would have negated my strengths, toppled me from my pedestal, rendered me imperfect. It’s just not true. Needing extra help in one area has no bearing on one’s skill in another. Going to speech therapy in high school, for example—I was offered it, but said “no thanks”—wouldn’t have made me a poorer student, wouldn’t have somehow canceled out my talent for, say, learning French. I have always been imperfect—not because of my medical condition, but because perfection is impossible, subjective. Recognizing my weaknesses has made me less of a snob and slightly less sensitive. Now when I face criticism, rejection, or realize a mistake, it’s not a flaw on a once-immaculate canvas—it’s just another brushstroke. * Despite trying to see myself from above, I’ll never really know how I seem to other people, and that’s humbling. While reporting this piece, I ask a few people if there is anything they notice about me that makes them think I might have a disability. The answers are unanimous, and all mention something that hasn’t occurred to me at all: not my body, or the somewhat raspy sound of my voice, but my speech patterns. “It's not that you speak incorrectly,” says my friend Mo, who, during this same interview, tells me about her life with Tourette syndrome. “But you just have a different cadence . . . more like a pause and rhythm to your speech that's a bit different than what we're used to hearing usually,” Esmé Weijun Wang, who speaks with me on the phone about being a disabled person of color, tells me that it’s hard for her to forget what she knows about my medical issues but that, “If I had not known any of that, maybe your speech pattern would have given me a clue.” Now that it’s been pointed out, I realize I do stop and start and backtrack and qualify. When I go over recordings of interviews I’ve done, I prefer to fast-forward through the parts where I’m the one talking. Yet I didn’t realize my speech was so different from that of someone who seasons sentences with “like,” “I mean,” and “fuck.” I guess it is. There’s this whole other weakness I didn’t know I had. How many more might there be? * I can’t yet say how identifying as disabled has affected my life. I won’t really have done it until this essay is published and, even then, it’s not as if publication is going to flip a switch and make me a new person. “Joining” the disability community is not an instantaneous thing, either. As Wang tells me, “I did not particularly feel trepidation regarding joining the disability community, but I also find the phrase ‘joining the disability community’ or ‘joining’ any community to be sort of strange. When I hear that phrase, it makes me think of, like, signing up in a big book—putting one's name down in a registry, or something much more concrete than what it is in actuality. So if ‘joining’ the disability community means interacting with other disabled people and advocating for oneself and other disabled people, then I suppose that no, I haven’t felt trepidation or hesitation about that.” I do, however, still feel trepidation about what I think of as “coming out” as disabled. I fear that disabled people might see me as trying to exploit a marginalized identity; I fear that drawing attention to my weaknesses might make me the target of ableist discrimination. At the same time, the more I’ve explored my medical issues, in part by writing about them, the more grounded I feel in reality; no longer do the difficult parts of my life feel disconnected from the narrative I tell. No longer do I have a secret that distances me from others. * Last April, I posted Facebook updates throughout my shunt failure. During previous hospitalizations, I’d just disappeared without a word. This was also my first shunt failure with a smart phone. It was comforting to see people’s likes and comments and to know that they knew and cared what was happening to me. That the source of my sickness was a rare medical condition with complications on the side did not seem to affect their reactions, and that was a relief. It simplified everything: either I felt better, and that was good, or I felt worse, and everyone hoped I’d feel better soon. It was also a relief to be open with so many people about my hydrocephalus, to drop the euphemisms, to stop fussing over who knew and who didn’t, to accept that, in the future, anyone who became my Facebook friend would be able to see a photo of what I looked like in the hospital when I had a wire coming out of my head. I looked better. I looked happy. I was, indeed, feeling better. Fact-checker: Rhiannon Russell
Four Bloody Fingers

The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in Catalan—in the gardens, on the roof, in the heart of the mountain.

A Arbúcies,Dotze dones, tretze bruixes In Arbúcies,Twelve women, thirteen witches—Catalonian saying When you have walked past the olive orchards and through the forests of scabby barked pines, past where the gentle undulations of the countryside still veiled in early morning mist stop and the unapologetic ascent beneath the risen sun begins, past the point at which the neat gravel path starts to give over increasingly to clambers across skullsmooth stone with footholds worn into it like trepanation scars—then you are well on your way along the pilgrimage to the Black Madonna. And if you should stop at one of the level rises along the route, whether for water or breath or merely to look out across the landscape, then you should not be surprised if the cliff-face there is graffitied with the flag of Catalonia, either the four-stripped senyera or its lone-star variant, the dribbling red and yellow bands making it look as though its painters had vanished just as you rounded the corner. But if, on the other hand, you were to turn very wrong indeed, were to lose yourself in the woods or the knotted crossroads of the foothills, then your journey might lead not to the top of the mountain but towards its cold, stilled heart: deep into the caverns where centuries ago the men of the surrounding villages mined saltpetre for gunpowder by day and by night, it is said, the women made love to the Devil. * * * In the town of El Bruc there lived two witches, old women both under five feet, squat and hunched like tree stumps. It was never made clear to me whether they were sisters or lovers or merely companions but they seemed made for each other, as one’s left hand is made to clasp one’s right. The first witch was called Rosa, the other Montserrat, after those peculiar rock formations that stretched tendril-like to the sky just beyond their village. The witches walked around the gardens of the farmhouse where we stayed, pulling up weeds or making passing attempts at trimming the scraggly doggrass. To survey the grounds, with their patchy, clover-pocked lawns, with wildflowers that sprouted from the roof tiles, you would not know that they were tended not once but twice over; but then, I often thought that the place possessed an untamed beauty I would not trade for any neatness. The witches rarely spoke to us; they kept to themselves, observing, observing. Every so often, Montserrat would pause, raise her clasped hands to her mouth, and hold whispered council with the clutch of stones she carried with her always, as the faces of the dead are carried in the innermost chambers of our hearts. I had come to El Bruc to work on a novel: a farmhouse there called Can Serrat had been converted into a residency space decades before by a group of artists, two of whom were present during our stay. One was a mild-mannered sculptor on vacation with her granddaughter; the other recited the Edda in Old Norse to anyone who said they wrote poetry, and slept on the roof terrace like a maiden from Peer Gynt. She was also in the habit of disappearing, cat-like, for long stretches of time; returning from one of these periods away, she would explain that she had spent her days on top of a mountain with the witches. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that every family in the village supported Catalonian nationhood. All along the cobblestone streets of El Bruc, flags were draped out of windows; yellow bits of plastic were tied around grilles or else hung down from fuse boxes, fluttering in the idle breeze. If an old woman were to walk from one of the houses in our quarter to the grocer or the little vermouth shop on the main street, she might fasten a pro-independence pin to her dress or to her bag before she stepped out the door; and as she walked, she would cross a bridge whose railings were tied with ribbons, each memorializing a Catalan political prisoner currently sitting in a Spanish jail, and the streets she went through would be crisscrossed with yellow streamers, and the walls she passed would be streaked with anti-Spanish sloganeering on posters and in paint. And the buildings themselves, ocher beneath red terracotta roofs, might seem to her like nothing so much as one great band of the senyera—whose design was said to derive from the pattern made by four fingers soaked in blood and drawn across a golden shield—and if she raised her head to look beyond them she would see the great otherworldly peaks of Montserrat, a sight as intimately bound to the village as its sigil, and lying somewhere among those peaks, unseen but surely felt, the holy church of the Black Madonna. * * * The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in the Catalan popular imagination. Across Catalonia, place names bear witness to the covens once said to gather there: Pla de les bruixes, Coll de les bruixes, Cercle de les bruixes. In Centelles, so the saying went, all the women were witches; in some areas, townspeople fixed palm fronds to their balconies or above their chimneys to prevent sorcery from afflicting their homes. As the hysteria for witch hunts swept through the rest of Europe like a field ablaze, Spain’s inquisitors, otherwise so eager to pull heresy up by the roots and raze Iberia’s centuries-long history of religious coexistence to the ground, tended to regard charges of devil-worship and magic with intense skepticism: trials were rare, with many regarding them as an outgrowth of Protestant lunacy from the north. Yet for royal subjects of strange tongue and suspect race, these normally forbearing inquisitors proved frequently willing to make an exception. After the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand had crushed the last aboriginal resistors in the Canary Islands, reports proliferated of demonic women who would clamber down from the mountains of Tenerife to drink the blood of children and swim naked and cackling in the sea. In Cartagena, slaves were forced to confess to the heinous acts of the witches’ sabbath, their syncretic blending of West African and Catholic religious elements twisted by their accusers into satanic ritual. On mainland Iberia, too, many of the fiercest witch trials occurred in areas on the margins of Castilian control, regions populated by ethnic and linguistic minorities where pre-Christian histories ran deep. In the Basque Country, some 7,000 people were accused of sorcery, the largest witch hunt in history; the episode’s legacy lives on in the modern Spanish word for a witches’ sabbath, aquelarre, which derives ultimately from the Basque word meaning “he-goat,” the form the Devil took to preside over the ceremonies. [[{"fid":"6704866","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In Catalonia, too, witch trials were far more common than in the Spanish heartland. For those accused who were found guilty, events proceeded in an exactingly choreographed public performance of religious righteousness that became, ultimately, its own black-hearted parody: wearing conical hats and smocks bearing the blood-red slashes of St. George’s cross, the heretics were led to a stage in the plaza like actors in a play and forced to sit on designated “benches of infamy.” After the conclusion of the first section of the Mass, the unrepentant were cleared away in preparation for the holy rites. The penitents remaining would be tapped with sticks by clerics to signal their embrace by the merciful love of the Church’s forgiveness; the green cross of the inquisition, hitherto veiled as though in mourning, would be uncovered in celebration before the thronging crowd. Meanwhile, as though in another world entirely, a world in exile from the very concept of mercy, the damned would wind their way through the narrow alleyways and streets of the town, pausing every now and again to kneel on the cobblestones and pray if they encountered a holy image, and out to the execution grounds, where they were bound to a stake and burned until “relaxed,” the official euphemism for the point at which, whether from smoke inhalation, heat stroke, or catastrophic tissue damage, the victims were finally granted the release of death. * * * It was during my time at Can Serrat that I met Marval; a performance artist, Marval began many of his days at the residency by trekking up the hill to the abandoned tile factory at the edge of town. The path was littered with jags of sea-blue tiles that winked up at you like the thousand eyes of a monster whose slumber you had interrupted with your steps. In the privacy of the factory, Marval would spend hours crafting a piece that melded queer theory with Catalan bruixeria, or witchcraft. Family lore held that the woman of Marval’s family had long practiced something not quite aligned with Catholicism’s narrow path to righteousness: stories of an intergenerational curse, of a great-great-grandmother who had run an herb shop outside of Sabadell and ministered to the sick with sprigs and balms and an uncanny power to heal. His grandmother’s house, shadowy and somber even at the height of the afternoon, was filled with hand-hewn cuckoo clocks that chimed—none quite in sync with the others clocks—by day and by night; the small back garden was dominated by carnivorous plants waiting gape-jawed for their prey. Once, Marval told me, he had come upon a curious ivory box while on a visit as a child: opening it, he found a small doll run through with pins, bound with twine, and inscribed all over with words he could not understand. Affixed to the face was a photograph of his uncle. The witch of Catalonia was therefore a braided thing, the unremarkable reality of folk practices and semi-pagan rights intermingled and augmented by the paranoiac fantasies of the witch hunt days. The Catalan witch was therefore both of and not of this world, a halfling who dwelt both in the imagination and in the realm of the living. * * * When Spain’s Charles II—called “el Hechizado,” or “the bewitched”—died at thirty-eight, the doctors who conducted his postmortem opened up his body to find that it “did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.” Shortly thereafter, Spain’s Grand Inquisitor charged the royal confessor, Froilán Díaz, with secretly hexing the king. The thirteen-year war that roiled across Europe to decide who would succeed Charles left between four hundred thousand to one and a quarter million casualties in its wake; the French dauphin who was eventually installed upon the Spanish throne, Philip V, embarked upon a campaign of centralization aimed at eroding the regional identities of his new kingdom. Catalonia, which had supported the losing side of the war, now incurred Philip’s wrath: the planks of Catalan autonomy were ripped up and replaced with Castilian authority. [[{"fid":"6704876","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] The Spanish painter Francisco Goya, working a century later, would turn to images of the unholy in his own studies of war: creatures with monstrous leathery wings, a resurrection from the dead, a man kneeling in the darkness with the outstretched arms of a seer awaiting a vision from a holy or unholy spirit. And at a time of moral disaster and political crisis when the prevailing institutions of faith are at a point of collapse, were there those for whom the legends of the otherworldly seemed now to hold a certain promise? In the long wasting days of war and the years of the difficult peace that followed, what omens did these women see? Yolks twinned in the egg, cow’s milk yellowed and foul at the teat? Did half-mad horses devour each other in the fields? Did the feverish wind called the xaloc blow in from the desert, carrying dust that dyed the rains red? Did the water fall from the sky like blood, did blood flow down the roofs, down the walls, did blood run through the streets as though from the arcane sacrificial rites of a demon wedding? But how to lift this curse, they thought, how to heal the ailments of a land? And in the night, the dark endless nights of a world lit only by fire, what shadows did these women embrace? When they set out for the caves, what cold hand did they feel at their shoulder? And as the guttering flames threw shadows on the wall, what dread visions revealed themselves of events which have since unfolded, and others which have yet to come to pass? * * * When the armies of the Nationalists had succeeded in defeating the last guerrillas of the leftist Republican forces, Franco and his Falange imposed upon the nation a spirit of ultra-Catholicism and pro-Castilianism that soon manifest itself in a series of laws intended to stamp out minority identities in Spain. Catalan street signs were crowbarred off the walls; in clerk’s offices and courthouses, government functionaries refused forms submitted under non-Castilian names. At birth registries across Catalonia, Joseps hastily became Josés, Lluïsas dropped the double-l and the diaeresis, Mònicas turned the accent the other way round. But what to do with the Montserrats, the little Serrats and Ratetas and Monses whose very name gestured toward the heart of Catalonia itself? In schoolyards, children caught speaking local tongues could expect to be taken by the ear and beaten with a length of witch hazel. Minority languages might be spoken at home in hushed whispers, but in public, in the streets, anywhere the Falange could hear you, it was Castilian and Castilian alone. Even today, the period of Franco’s rule is remembered in Catalonia as a time of unique pain and unprecedented cultural loss. At certain moments, Marval told me, the scrim of his grandmother’s dementia would descend over her eyes and she would forget that Franco was no longer in power—and then she would hear people around her speaking Catalan, and then she would cry for them to stop, to stop for their own sake, to stop before the police heard them; and then her relatives would explain that everything was all right and, with difficulty, she would awake to the present. (An aside: It seems to me that Franco’s language policies share something in common with the notion of the witches spell, that words can act as well as exist, that they shape the world they inhabit, that there is a fundamental danger to them, and that for this reason they should be controlled and contained.) * * * As the Fascists’ repression came down increasingly against Spain’s minority ethnic communities, cultic religious practice served as both haven and battleground. With free expression coming increasingly under state surveillance in the cities, artists and activists began decamping to the peaks of Montserrat that jut out from the plain like the devil’s spine. Monistrol de Montserrat, the mountaintop town that houses the Black Madonna, became a haven for political dissidents. Sunday services echoed through the vaulted church not in Castilian but in Catalan, in direct defiance of the government’s language policies. Later, talking about all of this, Marval told me about a legend that the witches who tended the gardens of Can Serrat had confirmed knowledge of but seemed fearful to discuss with him: that the Black Madonna, revered as the holiest image in Catalonia, was in fact no holy image at all but instead imbued with strange satanic powers, and that the child in her lap was not Christ but his female twin. Like a spiderweb linking branch to branch, the witches’ story seemed to bind together the disparate themes of gender, power, and subversive religiosity that so occupied us both. The potency of alternative spirituality as a medium for political protest has not faded in the post-Francoist era. On a daytrip into Barcelona—the streets of which, like El Bruc in macrocosm, were festooned with yellow ribbons everywhere—with Marval and the other residents, we went to see a show of feminist and queer ephemera held at the library of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In zines, pamphlets, and banners, artists drew on the visual vocabularies of astrological symbols and Malleus Maleficarum-esque woodcuts as a succinct way of simultaneously expressing irreverence, transformation, otherness, and female power. Not far off, the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Center was playing host to a massive exhibition of art inspired by occultism. What would the women who tended the gardens of Can Serrat make of it all, I wondered. Did the pentagrams and the tarot symbols bear even a shadow’s similarity to what they did in their own homes, to how they thought of their own practices? If one were to say to them that for many their way of life was a wellspring of political subversion, would they nod or would they shrug and continue on with their weeding? On the bus ride back to the village, I laid my head against the windowpane and watched the countryside streak past until the peaks of Montserrat came once more into view. * * * And when you have reached the crest of the mountain and entered at last the town of Monistrol de Montserrat, what then? Across the stately plaza and past the shops selling tins of jiggling crema catalunya and damp moons of monastery sheep’s milk cheese—there is the place you are seeking, the church of the Black Madonna towards which streams of pilgrims now converge like the rivers of Paradise to light gumdrop-colored candles and genuflect before the holiest figure in this struggling nation. The façade of the basilica is ornate as the work of a silversmith; you enter through a special door and wait and wait some more in a narrow staircase from whose walls mosaics of female saints glint in the halflight. Yet the Madonna, when at last you see her, tiny and dough-faced as she stared out impassively from the cloister of her dusty vitrine, is perhaps inevitably disappointing; the paint adorning the walls of the church itself, when all is said and done, is not so fine. After emerging from the confines of the staircase, the vaulted nave with its gilded ribs and saturated hues is almost overawing, dwarfing the Madonna whose right hand, poking out of the glass, contains the world. There are people waiting in line behind you, clearing their throats and shifting from foot to foot; you touch the Virgin’s hand because you feel you are supposed to and hasten towards the door. How much more alluring, in the end, are those strange towers of rock which loom above the town, closer now and yet, for all the distance you have climbed, somehow still remote, the otherworldly stones of Montserrat that draw your gaze as they reach upwards like fingers ready to gouge out the eye of the sun. Behind you, the great belly-pitching drop to the valley floor, its green quilt of vineyards and tomato fields dotted with clusters of senyera-colored houses; before you, the difficult prospect of the long journey home.
Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

There comes this moment when you’re standing in the piss-pouring rain, huddled under the four inches of overhang you can fit beneath without your feet edging onto school property, when you feel yourself failing. The morning light is gray and asthmatic through the thick rain clouds. The spokes on your drug-store umbrella have bent. Your jeans are wet and clinging to the long johns underneath. Your sneakers are soaked through for the fourth day in a row, because you live in Los Angeles and have never owned a pair of rain boots. You’ve been up since 5:30 a.m., marching and chanting and trying to rally everyone. But this morning, your heart’s not in it. That’s when one of your co-workers turns to you, face peeking out from her parka, and says, “We need a pep talk.” All the other heads nod. And you see that it’s not just you who’s struggling this morning—everyone is tired, aching, beaten-down. As union chapter chair of your school, it’s your job to pep them up, remind them why they’re out here, say something that will reinvigorate and inspire them. But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out. It’s then, on the fourth day of the LA teacher strike that’s being billed as historic, monumental, game-changing, that you feel wholly inadequate for the task at hand. * It started eight months ago. Really, it started 41 years ago, before you were born—when California passed Proposition 13 and slowly started to bleed its public schools of funding, stripping support staff like nurses, counselors, librarians; slashing arts and enrichment programs; and raising class sizes to some of the largest in the country. But for you, it started in May. Your union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had been in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District for a year. Your school didn’t have a union representative, so you heard about the UTLA rally through an email blast. You grew up in a union family, your mom a teacher, your dad a firefighter. Stopping downtown for an hour after school seemed the least you could do. When you arrived at Grand Park, a sea of red-clad teachers swarmed in the shadow of City Hall. They were holding hand-made signs, chanting, playing drums, dancing. A palpable energy radiated off the crowd of 12,000. It was strength and unity, yes, but also a collective power bigger than the sum of its parts. I wanted in. * After the presidential election, I was despondent. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what or how. I kept hearing that people had to find their place, their cause, their group—and act. So I tried. I went to local political and community organization meetings that ran the gamut, but nothing quiet jibed. When I became my school’s chapter chair and attended the UTLA leadership conference that July, I felt like I’d finally found my tribe. People of all stripes filled the conference rooms, a rarity in a city as diverse but deeply segregated as Los Angeles (and a quality distinct to LAUSD, where teaching staff more closely resemble their students than most cities). You had old Brown Berets sitting next to wide-eyed 20-somethings fresh out of their credentialing program. You had white ladies translating the Spanish-language presentations to dudes with dreads in “Danger: Educated Black Man” shirts. The diversity wasn’t labored or self-congratulatory; it was fluid, unpretentious and united by the stone-hard conviction that our public schools were worth fighting for. This unity of vision didn’t mean we always agreed, or that subsequent meetings were always enjoyable. When the school year began, I attended area meetings in the cold cafeteria of Roosevelt High School and the reality of union work sank in. People argued, hogged the mic, asked endless rounds of repetitive questions. After a full day of teaching, the meetings could feel downright tedious. Sometimes I’d zone out while I nibbled on Costco pizza and counted the minutes until I could go home. Through the course of these meetings, I learned the context for the current negotiations. The fight was about more than a raise, more than even class sizes and support staff and over-testing and charter co-location. It was about saving the soul of public education. Perhaps that sounds grandiose, but the stakes were that high. Our pro-charter school board had appointed as our new superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no prior education experience (think DeVos 2.0) who ran with a pro-privatization LA billionaire crew, fronted by Eli Broad. Beutner had brought on as his chief of staff Rebecca Kockler, the woman responsible for dismantling public schools in New Orleans—a city where, as of this school year, there are no remaining public schools. (Kockler has since resigned.) Beutner was toying with restructuring LAUSD using the portfolio model that has decimated other public schools districts. In short, Beutner wanted to break LAUSD and break the union. The plan was ambitious, UTLA leadership told us, but not impossible. School districts in smaller cities—Newark, Detroit, New Orleans—had been driven to near extinction by the same contingent of pro-charter reformers. Now they wanted to try their hand in the nation’s second-largest school district. We couldn’t just be on the defensive, UTLA officers told us. We had to have a plan that was as equally ambitious and visionary. You want to get a room full of teachers fired up? Ask them to imagine schools with full-time nurses and librarians; where counselors and psychologist social workers have time to actually meet with students; where teachers don’t have to waste days of instruction showing movies while they administer one-on-one standardized tests in the back of the classroom; where instead of random stop-and-frisk searches, restorative justice practices guide school discipline. Ask them to imagine fully funded schools where teachers can actually meet their students’ needs. A strange feeling rises when asked to imagine something so far from reality. As teachers, we spend so much time in the trenches that we sometimes forget just how bad things are. Class sizes of forty start to seem normal. Taking home six hours of grading over the weekend does too. There aren’t funds to build a classroom library, so we spend hours creating a DonorsChoose project. We stock our own supplies of granola bars for the kids we know are always hungry. A student starts coming to class high and stops engaging with the work. We try home calls and one-on-ones and restorative conversations, but the student needs more than that. We can hear the cry for help, but there’s no help to be given. When one stops and really thinks about it all, the feeling that comes isn’t one of sadness or hopelessness or even rage. It’s the feeling that comes after that, the feeling of we’ve had enough. Some folks might just throw up their hands and go home, or else change careers. And a lot of teachers do that. The ones who stay, though, are a special breed, possessed of a mix of dedication and grit. You can say a lot of thing about schoolteachers—we’re unpolished, unsophisticated, exhausted—but one thing you can’t do is mess with us. If the system doesn’t break us—if the years of crushing workloads and the heart-breaking inability to meet our students’ needs don’t turn us cynical and hard—nothing will. Certainly not the threat of weeks of no pay. Certainly not hand-wringing over inflated budget deficits. Certainly not an investment banker and his billionaire cronies. Certainly not, it would turn out, the biggest rainstorm of the season. In every area meeting, there’d be at least one moment when that feeling of fight was palpable. Some salty old teacher would go on a tirade about students sitting on stools in classrooms crammed past capacity, and people would nod and mmm-hmm. “Strike,” someone would start chanting. “Strike, strike.” People would stand, pound tables, clap their hands, stomp their feet. “Strike, strike, strike.” The room would be electric. Our voices would vibrate off the walls. We’d sound bigger than a room of educators, bigger than all the bullshit and billionaires. We’d sound like a force, like thunder. This superintendent doesn’t know who he’s messing with, I’d think. * The lead-up to the strike lasted months. There were lunch meetings, after-school meetings, student meetings, before-school leafleting, strike authorization voting, phone banking, email writing, question fielding, planning and organizing and logisticizing. All of this was unpaid, in addition to a regular workday. It was good work, important work, but it was definitely work. Just as I had come to learn that most of teaching isn’t revelatory moments of enlightenment but rather the mundanity of unjamming copy machines and confiscating cell phones, I came to realize that a lot of striking isn’t rallying hearts and souls, but staple-gunning signs to picket sticks, and trying to secure a reliable restroom. In a lot of ways, I’m a strange choice for a chapter chair, but no one else at my school wanted to step up. Located in East LA, we’re a small pilot school, an LAUSD model in which schools receive additional funding and autonomy in exchange for added work hours and responsibilities for teachers. The additional work meant folks were already stretched past capacity; no one was jumping at the chance to go to more afterschool meetings. So we were stuck with me. I’m good at the parts of union work that involve organization. I can write one hell of a bulleted and sub-head-ed email, but I’m not a rile-you-up kind of person. I feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. I don’t possess natural leadership abilities, like anticipating people’s needs and giving inspirational speeches. I’m the same way in the classroom: I can write a good curriculum and blaze through a stack of essays, but I’m not the teacher you go talk about your problems with. As in teaching as in union work as in life, it’s the people part I struggle with. As far as being a chapter chair, I was lucky—my school’s administration was supportive, and all the teachers and counselors were committed to striking. Because we receive extra funding, our school already has the resources other LAUSD schools lack, resources that were key demands of the contract—a full-time nurse and librarian, English Language Arts class sizes as low as 24, and two full-time counselors and a psychologist social worker for a student body of 400. (In contrast, 80 percent of LAUSD schools lack a full-time nurse; class sizes are as large as 48 on some secondary campuses; and the counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 945.) Because our school has those extra resources, our teachers understand first-hand their importance. “We’re fighting so that all LAUSD students can have what you guys have here,” I told students in our pre-strike lunch meetings. The school year crept on, the strike looming like a rainstorm on the horizon. The backseat of my car overflowed with flyers and signs as the district pulled one tricky maneuver after another, stalling the Fact Finding process and filing last-minute court injunctions. “They’re trying to break our momentum,” UTLA leadership told us. At times, it seemed like it was working. “Can we just get this over with?” my co-workers would ask. We had to follow every step of the bargaining process in order for the strike to be legal, but we were all frustrated. Originally scheduled for early October, the strike was pushed back to January 10, then at the last minute, January 14. That rainstorm on the horizon—it was finally here. Figuratively and literally. * The night before the first strike day, I slept four hours. I kept waking up from nightmares in which no one showed up, or I lost all our supplies, or my phone died. My stomach crunched and my mind raced as I drove to school in the pre-dawn dark, rain coming down in sheets. Amidst all the preparation, I’d forgotten that I was actually in charge of the picket line. I wasn’t just taking notes and sending emails anymore. Puddles pooled on sidewalks and gutters overflowed as my co-workers started arriving. I ran through my checklist: take attendance, distribute signs, make sure all the gates and entrances were covered. I kept trying to text the chapter chairs from the other schools on our shared campus, but no one was replying. We must have been a sorry sight, marching in a slow circle in the pouring rain. We should start chanting, I knew, but I was too awkward and stressed to get a word out. The first few cars honked as the passed, almost pityingly. Finally F raised his voice: “When our schools are under attack, what do we do?” And we answered, “Stand up, fight back!” He kept us chanting, even as our signs soaked through and turned to mush in our hands. Students and teaching assistants (who aren’t part of our union) joined us. The more rain came down, the more cars honked, a little blast of validation each time. We cheered, jumped, raised our fists. After morning picketing, we headed downtown for the first-day march, where teachers from across the 700-square-mile district gathered in front of City Hall. A sea of red umbrellas and ponchos filled the four-block length of the park—red for UTLA, but also #RedForEd, the official color of educator resistance since the wave of wildcat strikes in 2018. The color was a symbol—we were now part of that bigger fight. I’d never seen so many Angelenos in the rain. “We don’t do this here,” I kept saying, wondering if people in other parts of the country would grasp the significance. Teachers beat drums, banged tambourines, blew whistles and horns. Helicopters pulsed in the air above us; news vans surrounded us. We were on the national stage, and we knew it. In every pocket of people, a chant bellowed. A voice would start: Everywhere we go, people want to know. And other voices would answer, Who we are, so we tell them. Every face you saw looked familiar, even if you didn’t know the person. We are the teachers, the mighty, mighty teachers. It was a face that was lit up with conviction and ready to fight. Fighting for justice, and for education. It was a face you knew, it was your face, and you were part of that fight. I had no sense of how large the crowd was. I just knew I felt like an ant in a huge swarming line. Umbrellas bumped and snagged as we moved painstakingly slow, so crowded we had to stop every couple of steps. “Wow, seeing the pictures on the news, impressive!” a friend texted. But all I could see were the shoulders in front of me. When we came to the Second Street tunnel, we put our umbrellas down for the first time that day. I craned my neck around, finally able to see the crowd. We were massive. We filled the tunnel side-to-side, and as far forward and back as I could see. Our voices boomed and echoed against the concrete walls. One person shouted into a megaphone, “UT,” and we all answered, “LA!” We chanted it again and again, the name of our union, but also something else, something bigger and more powerful. Our voices grew stronger with every chant. Suddenly I didn’t feel like an ant anymore. I didn’t even really feel like me. I felt like a part of a movement. When the rally ended, we had a couple hours to rest before afternoon picketing. I stopped at my apartment, changed my wet socks, put on a dry sweater. I laid on my bed and felt the pangs in my legs from walking, rested just enough to be able to return to school for another round picketing. By the end of the day, I’d walked ten miles. My shoes were soaked and my feet ached. My voice was hoarse from chanting. I was more tired than I could remember being. But I’d done it. We’d done it. We had held a picket line for a day. * No one warns you how a strike will take over your life. Seven a.m. picketing, mid-morning rallies, a short rest, then more picketing until 4 p.m. By the time you’re done, your body’s toast. Your brain is fried. Your voice is shot. It’s all you can do to crawl home, peel off your wet layers, and scroll through the union emails and texts that need replies. The scenes that remain from those first days are a blur of drudgery and exaltation: a fellow teacher blasting salsa from a massive speaker and barking into a microphone like a street hawker, “Viva la huelga! We are East LA! We are fighting for our schools, we are fighting for our community!”; doing the have-to-pee dance while waiting to use the Jack-In-The-Box bathroom; eating pan dulce that had gone soggy from the rain; line-dancing in the cross-walks during red lights, while the marching band played under a tarp, instruments wrapped in trash bags; the blast of horns from garbage trucks and public buses and delivery vans and sheriff patrols and damn near every sedan that passed; the thick deep sleep I’d fall into during my afternoon power naps; the throb in my lower back the day my period came; the tide of red flowing from the Little Tokyo metro stop and into the street like a blood trail, all the cars honking around us; the East Area rally turning into a block party where people danced under their umbrellas to “Jump Around” and “Killing In The Name Of” and every other song on the soundtrack of 1990s middle school dances. As chapter chair, I kept my head down and focused on what needed to get done. I organized donations and bought supplies. I sent texts and emails to keep people updated. I picked up supplies at 6 a.m. and delivered them to nearby campuses. The only thing keeping me together was the afternoon break, in which I could go home and dry off for an hour. Luckily, other folks stepped up. F stood in the rain with no umbrella and led chants until his voice went hoarse. Then M would take over. P danced in the crosswalks until all the cars honked. R showed up even though he’d had surgery the week before. On the picket line, you got to see a different side of your co-workers, who for most of the work day stay hidden behind their classroom doors. You got to see who rolled hard, who the ride-or-dies were, and you got to do it together. As the rain hammered on, the community rose up around us. A restaurant brought hot soup one morning. Local unions brought coffee and donuts. Parents brought tamales and papusas, and the teaching assistants who weren’t striking brought breakfast burritos. The neighbors carried over an outdoor heater. The raspados shop across the street gave us free coffee and let us use their bathroom. A neighborhood dude unloaded a truck-bed full of bottled water. Even our students brought us food, of the endearingly teenage variety: boxes of Jack-In-The-Box french fries. You always hear about how people love teachers, but when you actually see them show up and demonstrate that love, especially when you’re soaking wet and bone tired, it’s enough to make you cry. * At the end of every day, I’d lay my wet clothes on my furnace to dry, crawl into my bed, and scroll through the news coverage. Before the strike, even progressive outlets like the LA Times and KCRW focused their coverage on pay. Now their reporters were on the line, talking to teachers. Stories led with interviews and personal anecdotes from classrooms, followed by descriptions of lively picket lines and powerful rallies. Finally, news coverage focused on the reality of our teaching conditions, which were our students’ learning conditions, which is what we were fighting to improve. They said we were making history, but I was too close and too tired to have much perspective on the impact of what we were doing. I’d scroll through images of teachers in red ponchos and aerial shots of huge crowds, and hardly believe that I was a part of it all. It felt like being a dot in an impressionist painting.   “Do you think this is what it was like in the Civil Rights Movement?” someone asked while we were Lyfting back to campus. I wondered the same thing—whether the people making history ever know they’re making history, or if they’re just a bunch of tired, fist-raising bodies in a crowd, with a vague sense of society’s gears changing around them? Other people reflected back to me the enormity of what we were doing. Friends from all over the country messaged and texted. Teachers across the US posted solidarity photos. A public school from New York City “adopted” my school and donated funds for food and transportation. “We’re fighting similar forces out here,” they wrote. Restaurants all over LA were providing free or discounted meals to striking teachers, but I was too tired to take advantage of any of them. After a day on the picket line, I was too shot to do much of anything. All I could do was ladle out some soup, answer emails, and then turn off the light by 9 p.m. * When the alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was black outside, and I could hear rain thundering down. But I couldn’t bail—I was in charge. I sighed, tugged on my still-damp layers and laced up my still-soggy sneakers. I didn’t bother to put on make-up or fix my bedhead—there was no point. It was the fourth day of the strike and the worst rain yet. All of our signs were beaten and wrinkled. No one chanted. No one marched. Hardly anyone spoke. We wanted to be back in our classrooms, warm and dry and with our kids—fist bumps at the door, learning objectives on the projector, Pair-Shares and Turn-and-Talks and stacks of Do Nows and Exit Slips piled in trays near the classroom entrance. “We’re tired,” G said. “We need a pep talk.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I was beaten too. “Some of us live too far to go home in the middle of the day,” S added. “We’ve been out here all week, without any place to rest up and get dry.” I looked at their wet, exhausted faces, and realized I’d been so wrapped up in organizing the logistics of the picket line that I’d forgotten about the most important part: the people. I’d been going home every day to nap, and it was the only thing keeping me together. How could I have overlooked the fact that not everyone had that? I hadn’t felt so inadequate since my first year teaching, another high-stakes, high-emotion situation when you struggle to keep your head above water. You do your best, but you feel yourself screwing up all the time, and feel the weight of all the people you’re letting down in the process. What could I do in that moment? Stutter a shit, sorry, and kick myself for my lack of care and thought. But the right words still wouldn’t come. They needed inspiration, and I couldn’t give it to them. Just then, a station wagon plastered in the logo for local radio station 97.9 La Raza pulled up, music blasting from inside. A mustachioed DJ in a windbreaker jumped out. “You guys hungry?” he asked, his arms outstretched. Before we could answer, he opened the hatchback. The entire back of the car was filled with taco fixings. “We support you! 97.9 La Raza supports you!” he exclaimed as we gathered around. The tacos were still warm and the bowls of guacamole plentiful. The DJ took pictures with us. It was the edible pep talk we needed. When the rain let up later that afternoon, I gathered all of us together. What did you say, you want to know. I wish I could tell you, but I was too tired and nervous to have any idea, let alone remember. I might have acknowledged how rough the day had been and how whipped we all were. I might have said that the district was waiting for this moment, to see if we’d break—if we’d roll hard for three days, then get tired and give up. Whether we’d give up on our kids. I like to think I said that this moment was when it counted, when we had to show the district, the community, the country and our kids that we really meant it. “We’ve come this far,” I like to think I said. “We’ve showed up every single day, like fucking soldiers, and we can’t stop now. Everyone is looking to us. We’ve become something bigger than a single school or strike, bigger than an ‘I’ and ‘you.’ We’ve truly become a ‘we,’ and I’ve never felt more a part of something important than right now, right here, with you guys.” Maybe I said that. But probably I stood there red-faced and mumbled something about sticking together and staying strong, then left us all to go home. * The next week, on the sixth day of the strike, we sat in a nearby park eating chile relleno burritos. We’d had so many donations from our adopted school and from individuals that our lunch was paid for. The rain had finally broken, and it was back to a typical 65-degree LA winter day. We were relieved but anxious. UTLA had just announced victory—a tentative agreement with the district. It seemed the fight was almost over. “Let’s wait until we see the agreement,” R said. So we did. We hunched over our phones while we ate, reading aloud the summary and trying to make sense of the 47-page document we were to vote on in a couple of hours. The summary sounded good. LAUSD had finally agreed to drop a contentious article in our contract that allowed for unequivocal raising of class sizes. Within two year’s time, every school would have a full-time nurse and librarian. The counselor to student ratio would be reduced to 1 to 500. “1 to 500?!” M asked. “That’s still too high.” “It’s the state average,” I answered. “The district probably wouldn’t offer better than that.” “We’re the biggest school district in the state,” M replied. “We should leading the way. I mean, what have we been striking for?” The more we dug through the contract, the more thorns appeared. Class size reductions in most content areas would occur at a rate of one student per year for three years, leaving most teachers with only slightly less painful class sizes. Meanwhile, Special Education and TK-third grade didn’t see any reductions. While we’d gained counselors, there was no additional funding for mental health services, such as psychologist social workers. “They’re the single most important thing in keeping students from dropping out,” F said. I looked around at people’s faces. They were disappointed. “We can do better than this,” some said. “This is crumbs,” others said. I tried to remind them who were dealing with—a pro-charter board and a billionaire superintendent who had been hired to decimate our school district. Previous contract offers included raises contingent on additional work hours and health care cuts to new employees, and no offers of our other demands. The fact that we’d gotten this much was huge. “This isn’t what we stood out in the rain for,” F said. The more we talked, the more I understood their perspective. We’d come out more unified and forceful than even the union predicted. We were a movement. UTLA had been stoking the flames of a smoldering fire, the burn for something better that existed in all of us. Now that it had been unleashed, people didn’t want to concede. They didn’t want to settle for the status quo. They wanted that vision of fully funded schools. Or at least class sizes below 30. “I’m voting no,” M said, her face set in stone. “It’s gonna look so bad if we vote it down,” I said. The agreement had already been announced to the media as a victory. Would parents stand behind us if we voted it down? Would teachers start crossing the line? If that happened, the district would likely come back with a worse offer. We felt like our hands were tied. We had to vote in four hours. I wrote down people’s questions as I headed to a last-minute meeting, but when I returned to campus to administer the vote, I only had an answer to one. People were pissed, and as the chapter chair, I was the one receiving the piss. “We’re being forced to vote on a document we’ve barely read,” F said. It felt like the tax reform bill. “This isn’t good enough,” M said as she filled in the bubble for “no.” I wished I could disagree. * The agreement did pass. UTLA announced it that night on Facebook Live. I watched the storm of angry-face reactions float up the screen and felt my heart sink. We’d been so united, and now we were breaking apart. I was relieved the agreement passed, but only because I thought the scenario of it not passing was worse. I wasn’t excited about the agreement, and in all my messaging that evening, I hadn’t talked to a single person who was. But I couldn’t dwell for too long. After all, I had to lesson plan. I had to be back in my classroom in less than twelve hours. * I wish I could say our staff rode back into school the next day in red shirts, on a wave of victory chants, high-fiving students in the hallways and basking in pride over what we’d achieved. As it was, we mostly kept our doors closed. We nodded at each other in the halls, greeted our students, said hello to the office staff. But the disappointment was thick. “What happens when the revolution fails you?” someone asked in a Facebook post. But had we been a revolution? We were a union in contract negotiations. We were going to have to compromise. We weren’t going to change public education in six days. But, watching the footage and reading the coverage, I began to zoom out of my individual perspective. In a single week, we’d shifted the narrative around education. We’d opened the public’s eyes to the real conditions of our schools. We’d taken the focus off teacher pay and onto school resources; we’d connected the issue to funding and taxes at the state level; we’d demonstrated the power of organized labor; we’d inspired teachers in other cities who were experiencing the same conditions. We’d stood in the rain, danced on the picket lines, and filled the streets. UTLA hadn’t done that. We had. The teachers had. Maybe we were something close to a revolution. I think the real victory of the LA teacher strike will be the shift it has inspired. Already, coverage of the Denver, Oakland and Virginia strikes is different. There’s less talk about “greedy teachers,” and more explicitly connecting school conditions to corporate tax breaks and charter growth. Even in Denver, where the main dispute is over pay, coverage is contextualized and includes teacher interviews. LA teachers created momentum for a broader movement to reinvestment in public education. I wish that were enough for my co-workers, and I wish it were enough for our kids. The fact is, most of our students returned on January 23 to the same conditions they’d left on January 11. So what do you do when you’ve envisioned something transformative, then been asked to settle? When you’ve felt a movement growing, only to have it yanked from your fingers? When you’ve marched 49 miles in a week and messed up and let people down and kept showing up anyway? You do what you always do. You get up and keep teaching.
‘It’s the Anti-Meet-Cute’: An Interview with Ian Williams

The author of Reproduction on “grammatical cathedrals,” moods that linger, and how fiction talks.

Ian Williams’s first novel, Reproduction (Random House Canada), is an unconventional love story that begins in Brampton and Toronto in the Seventies when two people meet in a hospital, where “both of their mothers were dying in the background.” Felicia is a recent immigrant from an island nation that she refuses to name. Edgar is also an immigrant to Canada, though he moved from Germany when he was a child. They have a child named Armistice, or “Army,” a humourous and versatile boy whose mind is set on making money from a young age. Williams has written an award-winning book of stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, and You Know Who You Are, his debut book of poetry, but he is likely known for Personals, his second book of poems, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013. In Personals, he mines the language of personal ads to reveal lonely, tender, and perverse voices, many of which fall into patterns that become traps, caught in their own echoes. Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Reproduction feels like a natural follow-up to your last book, Personals, a book of poems which gives voice to those who are looking for love and seeking connection. How did Reproduction begin?  Ian Williams: You’re right to make that connection (har). After Personals, I wasn’t sitting around wondering, "What next? What next?," but its themes are subterraneous nutrients for Reproduction. Just as there is a natural physical maturation from childhood through puberty into adulthood, I think there is a natural thematic progression over our lives. The things that concerned me at eighteen (school, the future) didn’t concern me at twenty-five (job, money) and the concerns of thirty (can I be with this person for the rest of my life? Can I be with anyone?) had evolved by the time I was thirty-six (what are children?), and already I’m thinking of middle age (disappointment, the next novel). Really, I was asking myself, "What are children? What material are they made from? Will I always be someone’s child even if I’m not a child?" Reproduction is a very grown-up answer to the question, "Where do babies come from?" Is the scientific word "reproduction" a grown-up understanding of the accidental or deliberate baby-outcomes of love, sex, hook-ups?   Nicely put. There is something clinical about the structure of the book and I needed that to offset the chaos, unpredictability, and emotional mush of relationships in it. The word “reproduction” is a sturdy undergarment for a voluptuous body. The back-up title was The Sex Talk¸which is the title of the interludes in the book, but I never grew dissatisfied with Reproduction. Second point: The word “reproduction” lends a purposeful and puritanical directive to sex—you know, it becomes a kind of duty rather than a pleasure. And, for sure, the whole enterprise isn’t all pleasure. On one end of the business, there’s the booty-shaking and on the other end there’s the transmission of one’s DNA in an attempt at immortality. But Reproduction is a love story at heart. The opening chapters alternate between the perspectives of "XX" and "XY,” which are also the names for the chromosomes that determine the sex of a foetus. (If XX, then female; if XY, then male.) What was it like to write the perspectives of XX and XY? People assume that because I’m a dude, I write most naturally in the voice of a man. I mean, I can. I do. I have. I will. But I really do like writing women—not writing with any appropriative intent, only artistic curiosity. It makes me listen more carefully to the women in my life, to attend more thoughtfully to the women in the news and media. It also attunes me to a part of myself that gets beat up by another part of myself. I think of part one as a boy-meets-girl story. It’s the anti-meet-cute; it happens in a hospital. There’s phlegm. It’s a highly specific story with specific characters but tagging them as XX and XY universalizes them to the level of biology. Part one is structured as a series of 23 paired chapters, just as we are all made of 23 paired chromosomes. It’s a kind of gestation toward a new character in second part. The second part is my favourite, because it’s set in the mid-Nineties and we enter the world of Armistice, Felicia and Edgar’s child. He learns to make money from a young age by opening a barbershop in a garage his mom doesn’t own! It strikes me that the roles of caregiving are switched right from the start of the book, when Felicia and Edgar are caring for their parents. Even though Army's money-making schemes are funny, I felt such a tenderness towards him as he took on the responsibility of trying to make money from such a young age.  Agreed. The best gift that Felicia and Edgar gave him was their failure. He grew in an environment where he could be himself, hustle, try something else. He starts talking before he’s even born. I really feel a lot of affection for Army. Same with the landlord’s children, Heather and Hendrix. I was in a grocery store recently and I thought, Hendrix would love these fish heads. Why does Reproduction begin in the Seventies?  I don’t really like the word "multigenerational"—usually that word sounds dull to me—but, alas, Reproduction is a multigenerational story and I needed forty years to tell it. I couldn’t go farther back into the past. I guess I was alive, technically, in the Seventies. Barely. But it’s funny how the mood of the decade lingered, so that by the time I was conscious in the Eighties I could still catch a whiff of it. When I look at my parents in albums from the Seventies, I see them at their freest and most beautiful without any thought or desire for me or my brother. Your books so far have alternated between poetry and prose with each publication. Do you write both regularly?  I spent most of 2018 writing poetry and it was probably the happiest year of my life to this point. Probably for other reasons too. I mean, I also played a lot of tennis. The years I spent writing fiction were like a complex, tortuous, involved conversation with someone who kept demanding details. My interactions with poetry are largely pleasant, efficient, sparkling, and fun. Poetry is not really surly or frightening. Fiction talks so much! It’s exhausting.  There is a lot of dialogue in Reproduction. The dialogue doesn't use the conventions we’re familiar with, such as quotation marks or em-dashes. It feels closer to the way lines of poetry are set, where speech flows with the rest of the narrative and breaks in speech are conveyed.   It’s funny—my short story collection uses quotation marks, so, in that way, it extends a conventional courtesy and convenience to the reader. With Reproduction, I didn’t go through the novel and delete all the quotation marks. They were never there at any point, in any draft, and yet the book is readable. Their absence indicates to me the fluidity between our language and our thoughts or between our language and our being. We tend to think of language as something that’s intended for the outside but really language is constantly running inside of us. It’s hard to know exactly where a sentence starts. Even the most rash utterance needs breath to be conveyed. I don’t know. I was collapsing a boundary between the inside and the outside, between the self and the presentation of the self, and rejoining dialogue to the soup of prose. Felicia speaks in English whose grammar and syntax is different from the English taught at school in Canada. Felicia’s not from Canada and she won’t tell you where she’s from. Stop asking her. She’s capable of moving back and forth between public English and intimate English. Edgar at one point says that she writes grammatical cathedrals but speaks in shacks (he didn’t say the last part but he was thinking it, trust me). For sure, there are other Englishes that are as flexible as the North American version, more colourful, inventive, pliable, expanding, open-minded. Felicia has to deal with common questions among immigrants: Why does this accent mark me so significantly to the people of this country? Is my grammar incorrect even if it follows predictable patterns that happen not to be the Queen’s? And beneath the confusion is a sense of inferiority or shame, of the immigrant’s patterns struggling against the majority’s. The battle over language, grammar, and pronunciation is just a microcosm of the aggressions faced by immigrants. One of the tricks of Reproduction, and novels generally, is to have all of this understood without pausing the narrative to say it explicitly. When asked where she's from, Felicia admits that she comes from "the islands," but she doesn't specify where. Yeah, it’s a bit of a running joke throughout the book. A joke that turns into an irritation. She refuses to be pinned to a place to satisfy anybody’s curiosity. My theory is that when people ask about your place of birth they only seek to confirm an assumption they have about you and by consequence to reinforce an assumption they have about who gets to be from Canada. She insists on speaking the way she does, even when Edgar points out her "grammatical cathedrals." She insists on speaking the way she does because it’s natural for her. What do you think novels can do?  I can only try to answer this question. One of the things a novel does because of its length is give us slow, sustained time with ourselves. As unpleasant as that may be, slow time with ourselves is the antidote to cheap stimulation, the entertainment mindset, the anxiety of being alone, the need to check our phones for comfort. Sure, reading a novel can be (ought to be?) entertaining (ideally) but it also offers ancillary benefits. When I look up from a novel, I feel a kind of achievement in saying, "Hey, I was quiet for two hours." It’s like the visible part of me disappears for a while and I get to be with the infrared part of myself, the part I see only under certain conditions, such as silence and solitude. In a slogan, books taste great and they’re good for you. Like granola. Jonathan Franzen seems acutely aware of the need for "slow time." Last fall, he shared "10 Rules for Novelists" at Lit Hub. Rule #8 says: "It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."  Personally, I think the novel died with the fax machine. No, really, is it even possible to downgrade to dial-up anymore? You're working on another novel called Disappointment. Did Reproduction lead to Disappointment?  Haha, yes. They were originally the same project then Reproduction forked one way and all the other stuff went into a Disappointment folder. But since then Disappointment has really grown into itself. Can you tell us about Disappointment? Are there more babies? At the moment, Disappointment involves no babies, no dying, no marriages—just adults, living, alone.
All Saints’ Mountain

I asked about the children we were to study: who were they, why were they to undergo the test, what was the purpose of our program? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business.

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. The plane arrived over Zurich when it was supposed to, but for a long time it was obliged to circle the city, since snow had covered the airport, and we had to wait until the slow yet effective machines had managed to clear that snow. Just as it landed, the snow clouds parted, and against the orange blazing sky there were contrails in tangles that transformed the firmament into a gigantic grid—almost as though God were extending an invitation to play a round of tic-tac-toe. The driver who was supposed to pick me up and who was waiting with my last name written out on the lid of a cardboard shoebox was quick to state facts: “I’m supposed to take you to the pension—the road up to the Institute is completely snowed under. We won’t make it to there.” But his dialect was so strange I could barely understand him. I also felt like I had missed something. It was May, after all, the eighth of May. “The world’s turned on its head. Just take a look at that.” He placed my luggage in the car and then pointed to the darkening sky. “I’ve heard they’re poisoning us with it, airplane fumes altering our subconscious.” I nodded. The grated horizon really did trigger unease. We reached our destination late at night, traffic jams everywhere, cars’ wheels spinning in place, all of us moving at a snail’s pace—at best—in the wet snow. Gray slush arose along the roadsides. In town the snowplows were in full force, but farther along, in the mountains, which we began to climb, very carefully, it turned out there was no one clearing the roads. My driver clung to the steering wheel, leaning in; his ample aquiline nose pointed out our direction like the bow of a ship pulling us through a murky sea towards some port. The reason I was here was that I’d signed a contract to come. I was supposed to administer a test to a group of teenagers. It was a test I had come up with myself, and for more than thirty years, it had remained the only one of its kind, enjoying considerable renown among my fellow developmental psychologists. The honorarium they had offered me was very large. When I saw it in the agreement, I was sure they had made a mistake. I was also bound, however, by the strictest secrecy. The company that was conducting the analysis had its headquarters in Zurich, but I hadn’t recognized its name. I can’t say it was only the money that convinced me. There were other reasons, too. I got a shock when I found out that the “pension” my driver had mentioned was in fact a few guest rooms in a dark ancient convent at the mountain’s base. An outpouring of dense light from the soda lanterns just outside it displayed chestnuts suffering on account of the snow, already flowering; now, white and muffled under little frozen pillows, they looked like subjects of some incomprehensible, absurd oppression. The driver led me to a side entrance and carried my suitcase upstairs. There was a key sticking out of the door to my room. “All the official procedures have been dealt with. You just rest. I’ll come back for you tomorrow,” said the driver with the big nose. “You’ll find your breakfast in the fridge. And the sisters will have you down for coffee at ten.” Not until I took my medication did I fall asleep—after I had found myself back inside my treasured time hole, into which I and my body were both happy to fall as though into a fully feather-lined nest. Since my illness had come, I had been training for this mode of non-existence every night. * At nine, I watched the strangest coffee ritual I had ever encountered. I was in an enormous space, in the center of which stood a massive wooden table that bore the traces of many centuries’ use, and around it sat six old women in religious habits. They glanced up at me when I entered the room. There were three of them on either side; their identical habits made their facial features also look alike. A seventh sister, bustling about, bursting with energy, wearing a striped apron over her nun’s clothes, had just set out on the table a sizeable coffee pot and, wiping her hands on her apron, she now came up to me, holding those bony hands out before her. Welcoming me, she was a little on the loud side, though this, too—as I’d soon understand—had its explanation: most of these old ladies were fairly hard of hearing. She introduced me to the rest by my first name and rattled off the nuns’ names, which were odd. The eldest was called Beatrix. There was also Ingeborg, Tamar and Charlotte, as well as Izydora and Cezarina. Tamar’s stillness made you want to watch her. She looked like a statuette of a primeval goddess. She sat atop a wheelchair, her body round, her face pale and beautiful emerging from her body’s habit. I felt as though she were looking through me, as though she glimpsed—beyond me—some expanse. By now, I thought, she would have joined that valiant tribe that inwardly ranges over the alpine meadows of memory; to that tribe’s members, we are but pesky specks on the surface of the eye. Taken aback by the whole, I made a closer inspection of the vast bright space, which was divided into dining room and kitchen, the latter containing powerful multi-burner gas stoves with ovens as well as a bread oven, while its walls were crowded with huge hanging pans and shelves stacked with pots. Sinks unfurled under the window, one after the other, like in the back of an industrial canteen. The counters were covered in sheet metal, and metal, too, were all the fixtures, not one of artificial materials, all linked by bulbous tubes as though straight off Captain Nemo’s ship. The sterile purity that predominated here also immediately brought to mind old-fashioned laboratories, Dr. Frankenstein and his frightening experiments. The only modern additions to the room took the form of the colored recycling bins in the corner. Sister Charlotte explained the colossal kitchen had not in fact been used in years, and that now the sisters cooked for themselves on a small gas stove or ordered the catering services offered by one of the local restaurants. Sister Anna, the woman wearing the apron—the prioress, as it turned out—added that back in the sixties, when she had first arrived, the convent had held some sixty sisters from all over Europe. “Once, bread was baked here. We would make cheeses, thirty-five pounds each. But there’s no sense now in making cheese or baking bread for seven of us…” Sister Charlotte said, sounding like she was just getting started on a much longer story. But Sister Anna interjected: “Eight of us! For eight,” she cried brightly. “And please come and see us once you’re up there.” With her chin, she indicated a direction I could not yet know. “The Institute belongs to us, as well. There’s a shortcut through the pastures, which makes it a half-hour walk.” The coffee pot was being passed from hand to hand now, coffee streaming darkly into cups, releasing steam. Next the nuns’ hands seized upon the cream containers, elderly fingers meticulously peeling back the tinfoil of their covers, pouring the cream into their coffees. Then they were tearing the tinfoil clean off, and then it traveled to their tongues, like an aluminum host. In a single lick, their tongues had restored that host’s unadulterated glisten, its cleanliness. After a while, those scrupulous tongues went into the containers, too, to rid them of whatever remained there, and they did eliminate even the tiniest droplets of cream. The sisters seemed pleased to lick the cream up, and they did so with the practiced expertise of people who had gone through those same motions hundreds of times. Now it fell to them to shell the plastic container, removing the paper band it had been swathed in. The sisters’ fingernails found out the glue with sensitivity, tearing off the bands in triumph. As a result of all these operations, every sister ended up behind a little pile of plastic, paper and aluminum, those three raw materials. “We care very much about the environment. We humans are an exceptional species, but we risk extinction if things keep going as they are,” said Sister Anna, giving me a knowing wink. One of the sisters giggled. “You’re right, sister, it’s one a year, like clockwork.” Consumed by the repetition of their activities, I hadn’t noticed an eighth woman coming into the kitchen, seemingly silently, and sitting down next to me. It wasn’t until she made a very small movement that I turned to her and saw a very young girl wearing exactly the same habit as the older nuns. She had dark skin, its vivid tint standing out against the pale backdrop of the others, as though for this portrait inside this painting she had just been touched up with fresh paints. “That’s our Swati,” announced the prioress with evident pride. The girl smiled impersonally, stood and began to collect the recycling, already separated into the appropriate categories, and to deposit it inside the colored bins. I was grateful to the prioress for receiving me as though I were an old friend. When her cell phone started ringing, she hurried to remove from her pockets all sorts of items: keys, pastilles, a little notebook, a sheet of pills… The phone turned out to be an old Nokia—an antediluvian artefact. “Yes,” she said into the phone in that strange dialect. “Thank you.” And then, to me: “Your driver is here, my child.” I let myself be led through the labyrinths of the old building to the exit, lamenting my undrunk coffee. Outside I was blinded by the May sun; just before I got into the car, I overheard for one moment that concert of everything melting, fat drops splashing down from all sides, drumming against the roof, the stairs, the windowpanes, the leaves of trees. A lively river already rushed beneath our feet, transforming the eccentricity of snow into the banality of water and carrying it down and away, into the lake. I don’t know why it struck me in that moment that all those old ladies in habits were prepared for death, awaiting it with dignity. And here I was flailing in its face. * “You’ll have excellent working conditions here, please have a look,” said Dani, the program’s director, when I arrived at the Institute that day. She spoke English with an Italian accent, although her face suggested Native American, maybe even East Asian, ancestry. “This is your office, so you won’t even need to go outside to get to work.” She smiled. Next to her stood a man in a plaid button-down shirt that strained over his paunch. “This is Victor, our program manager.” She said that not far from here there was a trail for tourists, and that without too much effort—some three hours’ or so—you could reach the top of the monumental mountain, visible from everywhere, which tended to give one the impression one was still in the lowlands, even where we were. The Institute was a modern concrete building in which straight lines reigned supreme. Aluminum bands supported enormous panes, the glass reflecting the irregular shapes of the natural world, which lessened somewhat the severity of the block. Behind this there was another large edifice, that looked to have been built in the early part of the twentieth century. It was almost indistinguishable from a school, especially since I caught a glimpse of a field out in front of it where a group of teenagers was playing soccer. I was overcome by fatigue, no doubt because of the altitude, although also perhaps just because lately I had felt fatigued more or less all the time. I asked to be taken to the room where I was to stay over the next few weeks. In my condition, taking an afternoon rest is always a good idea. My exhaustion tended to arrive around two, when I’d get sleepy and sluggish. I’d have the sense then that the day was breaking down, that it was getting depressed and that it might not be able to pull itself together by the evening. But it would drag itself towards seven, often not dropping until midnight. I didn’t start a family, didn’t make a home, did not ever plant a tree. I dedicated all my time to work, to ceaseless research, submitting my results to the complex statistical procedures I always trusted more than my own instincts. My achievement in life was a psychological test that enables the researcher to detect psychological characteristics in statu nascendi, meaning those characteristics that have not yet fully crystalized, not yet taken hold in the system that is the mature personality of an adult. My Developmental Tendencies Test earned rapid recognition around the world and was almost universally implemented. Thanks to it I became well known, got tenure at my university and lived a peaceful life, always working to perfect the details of the procedure. Time showed that my DTT had very high predictive powers, and that by administering it, you could in most cases foresee what a given person would become, what direction his or her development would take. I never thought I’d dedicate my life to just one thing, doing the same thing over and over again. I used to think I was a restless soul, often taken by fervent passing fancies. If I’d been able to take my own test as a child, I wonder whether it would have shown I would become industrious, the tireless rhapsode of a single idea, refiner of a single chased design. * That evening, the three of us went into town for dinner at a restaurant where great slates of glass overlooked the lake directly, ensuring guests a soothing view of that black water, sparkling with the lights of the town. This quivering abyss drew my gaze relentlessly, away from my companions as they spoke. We had pears with honey and gorgonzola, then truffle risotto—the most expensive dishes on offer. The white wine was also among the best on the menu. Victor spoke the most, and his low-pitched voice drowned out—thankfully—the music, mechanical and cold, coming insistently from somewhere. He complained that these days we lacked people with charisma, that in our age people were so ordinary that they didn’t have the strength to change the world for good. His plaid-clad belly polished the table’s edge. Dani spoke to me with polite respect, in a confiding tone I liked. She leaned over the table to me, the fringe of her scarf dipping dangerously close to her plate, threatening submersion in melted gorgonzola. Of course I asked them questions about the children we were to study. Who were they, and why were they to undergo the test? What was the purpose of “our program”? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business, really. We did converse, but I was focused above all on the taste of the tiny slivers of truffle, no bigger than a match head. The children were brought here for a three-month period, which they would spend in a so-called alpine school. There, as they learned and played, their abilities would be monitored and studied. All were adopted, they said, and the purpose of the program was to analyze the flow of social capital into the development of the individual (he said) and/or the impact of the whole range of environmental variables on future professional success (she said). My task was simple: I was to conduct my test in its widest-ranging version. They wanted precise profiles and future projections. The research was for private enterprise. The sponsors had all the permits and permissions they could possibly acquire; the program had been going on for years but was still being kept under wraps, for now. I nodded, pretending I was listening and taking all this in, though the entire time all I was doing was relishing the truffles. I had the feeling that since I had been ill, my sense of taste had layered, or splintered, meaning that every element of food would be interpolated on its own: mushrooms, bites of wheat pasta, olive oil, parmesan, tender bits of garlic… I had the feeling, in other words, that there were no longer dishes, just loose confederations of ingredients. “We’re so grateful that a megastar like you was willing to come here in person,” said Dani, and our glasses met in a toast. We talked politely and at leisure, enjoying dinner, until the wine had loosened our tongues a little bit more. I told them how any hint of predicting the future inspires fascination in people, but also strong, irrational resistance. It also leads to a claustrophobic unease, which is likely the same fear of fate with which humanity has been struggling since the time of Oedipus. In our hearts of hearts, we never want to know the future. I told them, too, that good psychometrics are like brilliantly constructed traps. Once the psyche has fallen into them, the more it flails, the more it struggles, the more it betrays about itself, the more evidence it leaves behind. Today we know that a person is born as a kind of ticking time bomb of different potentials, and that the process of growing up is not at all one of enrichment and learning—it is instead the elimination of one possibility after the next. In the end, out of a wild, lush plant, we become something more along the lines of a bonsai—stunted, cut down to size, just a stiff miniature of all our possible selves. My test differs from the others in that it shows not what we gain in maturation, but rather what we lose. Our gamut of possibilities gets slimmer and slimmer—but it is also this that makes it relatively easy to predict what we’ll become. My whole academic career was inextricably connected with ridicule, deprecation, accusations of parapsychology and even of falsifying results. Without a doubt it’s because of this that I became such a suspicious person, quick to get defensive. First I would attack and provoke, and then, troubled by what I’d done, I would retreat. What angered me the most was the accusation of irrationality. Scientific discoveries often seem irrational in the beginning, because it’s rationality that delimits knowing; in order to cross the border into the unknown, we must frequently set aside rationality, throw ourselves into the darkest depths of the untested, precisely so that bit by bit we can make it into something rational—so that we can comprehend it. When I was still traveling the world giving talks about my test, I would start each one by saying, “Yes—although I know this will upset you—a person’s life can be predicted. The tools to do it exist.” Invariably these words would meet with a tense silence. * When we entered the common room, the children were playing some game that consisted of acting out scenes. Already from the hallway we had heard bursts of laughter. Then it was hard for them to acquire the seriousness they needed to greet me. I would have been around the same age as their grandmothers, which instantly generated between us something like a warm reserve. They weren’t attempting any liberties. One brave little girl, petite and very resolute, asked me several questions. Where was I from? What language did my mother speak? Was this my first time in Switzerland? How bad is the pollution in the place where I live? Do I have a cat or a dog? And what kind of test would it be? Would it be boring? I’m Polish, I began, answering each question in order. My mom spoke Polish. I’ve been to Switzerland several times and have many friends at the university here in Berne. The pollution is significant, though still significantly less than in the place I moved from. Especially in the winter, when our northern hemisphere increases the production of smog many times over. In the country, where I live, you don’t have to wear masks over your face. The test will be quite pleasant. You’ll have to fill out a couple of quizzes on a computer about very ordinary matters—for example, what you like and what you don’t, and so on. You’ll also look over some strange three-dimensional blocks and tell me what they mean. Parts of the test will be conducted with the aid of an innovative new machine, which won’t hurt—at most it may tickle a little. You will certainly not be bored. For several nights you’ll sleep in a special cap that will monitor your sleep. Some of the questions may seem very personal, but we promise complete confidentiality. So I will always be asking for your utmost frankness. Some of the test will be tasks you’ll get to do, which will seem to you like games. I can assure you that our time together will be enjoyable. Yes, I did have a dog, but a few years ago he passed away, and since then I have not wished to have pets. “Didn’t you want to clone him?” asked a clever little girl who, as it would turn out, was called Miri. I didn’t know what to say. I had not considered it. “They say they do it all the time in China,” said a tall boy with an elongated olive face. The dog question engendered a brief, chaotic discussion, but then the introductory niceties were evidently seen to have been performed, and the children returned to their play. They let us join in—it was, I understood, a version of our game of Ambassador, in which the players must communicate some piece of information through body language alone, without a word. We played without splitting up into teams, all playing on behalf of ourselves alone. I wasn’t able to guess anything correctly. The children did snippets of games of some sort, films I didn’t know. They were from another planet, and they thought fast, in shortcuts that led to worlds that were, to me, altogether unknown. I observed them with the pleasure with which one looks at something that is smooth, young, springy, nice, connected directly to life’s sources. The wonderful timidity of that which did not yet have established boundaries. Nothing in them had been destroyed yet, nor anything ossified, nor anything encysted—they were just organisms, gleefully striving, clambering up and up and up in the thrill of the awareness of a summit. Now, when I reach back into the memory of that scene, I can see clearly that the ones who stayed in my mind were Thierry and Miri. Thierry, tall, darker-complexioned, with heavy eyelids, as though always bored, not even fully conscious. And Miri—petite, concentrated inwards like a spring. I did also examine the twins. When one enters a room where there is more than a single set of identical twins, one immediately has a strange sense of unreality. Here, too, I had it. The first set: boys sitting far away from one another—their names were Julian and Max, both stocky, with dark eyes and dark curly hair and big hands. Then, two tall blond girls, Amelia and Julia: identically attired, focused and polite, sitting close together—so close their shoulders touched. I watched them in fascination, involuntarily searching for details that might differentiate them from one another. Others, like Vito and Otto, did everything they could in order to lessen the resemblance: one with a buzz cut, the other with long hair, one dressed in a dark shirt and dark pants, the other in shorts and a rainbow-colored t-shirt. It took me a moment to realize they were twins, and then I caught myself staring at them in amazement. They smiled at me, probably accustomed by now to looks like the one I had given them. Next to Miri sat Hanna, a tall seventeen-year-old with the figure of a model and an androgynous charm. She barely took part in the game, smiling only slightly, as though her mind were somewhere else. Tall, slim Adrian—nervous, hyperactive, tending to take charge—would leap to guessing first, spoiling the others’ fun. And Eva, who in a somewhat maternal tone would quiet him, trying to restore some order to the room. They were the types of children that made up any summer camp. * The next day I started the first part of my inquiry, which was dedicated to psychoneurological parameters—a largely mechanical segment. Simple memory and perception tests. Blocks arranged in the appropriate order, reading strange drawings, one eye, the other eye. As I had promised, they had a good time. In the evening, as I put the data through my computer, Victor came to see me. “I just wanted to remind you of the secrecy clause you signed,” he said. “Save files only to our internal storage systems. Don’t use any of your own.” This irritated me. It struck me as disrespectful. Later, when I was smoking my daily joint on the terrace, an uneasy Victor popped into my room once again. “It’s legal, I have a prescription for it,” I clarified. I handed him the joint, and he inhaled deeply, expertly. He kept the smoke in his mouth, narrowing his eyes as though preparing himself for a completely different sense of sharpness, a vision in which everything would be defined by wonderfully soft contours. “Did you hire me just because I don’t have much longer to live? Was that the point? That’s the best guarantee of secrecy, right? The silence of the grave.” He emitted a little bit of smoke, swallowed the rest. For a moment he stared at the floor like I had caught him in a lie he’d only just come up with. He changed the subject. He told me that predicting a person’s future on the basis of some test was an affront, in his opinion, to sound reason. But he was a loyal employee at the Institute, and he represented the test’s commissioner, and so he would not publicly express such reservations. “What’s the test for?” I asked. “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you. That’s not going to change. I suggest you make your peace with it. You just do your thing, and get some fresh Swiss air. It might do you good.” I sensed this was his way of acknowledging he had known about my illness. Afterwards he said nothing, just focused on smoking. “How do I get to the convent from here?” I asked him after a while. Without a word, he took out a notepad and drew me a sketch of the shortcut. * It was true: the way down to the convent was an excellent shortcut, some twenty minutes walking quickly, zigzagging between pastures. You had to pass through a couple of cattle gates and, several times, squeeze in alongside the fences’ electrical cables. It took me a moment to say hello to the horses, who, stunned by the spring sun, stood motionless in the melting snow, as though contemplating that climatic contradiction and trying to find in their big slow brains some sort of synthesis. [[{"fid":"6704756","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Sister Anna let me in wearing a white apron—she and Swati had been cleaning. There were boxes of documents lying on the pews in the hallway. The sisters were dusting them off and then transferring them to a cart so that they could be taken downstairs. The prioress seemed eager to abandon this task and to take me on a ride in the brand new elevator. We went up and down several times, covering a distance of one floor between the residential part of the convent and the chapel. I found the two illuminated buttons—up and down—soothing: there are never as many options as we think there are, and an awareness of that fact should bring relief. Next Sister Anna showed me the cloister, and, spreading out her hands, the old course of the latticework that once stood as the border between the two worlds. “We would sit here, and visitors would sit over there. The priest would even take our confessions through that grating, and we’d talk with guests through it—can you believe that? As late as the sixties. We felt as though we were animals in God’s zoo. Each year a photographer would come to take our picture—through the screen.” She showed me the photographs, displayed in thin little frames that hung tightly packed together, one after the next, all featuring a group of women wearing habits, posing. Some sat, while others stood behind them. In the center was the mother superior, who always, by some miracle, looked a little bigger, a little more solid, than the rest. The latticework cut across some of their bodies, though it seemed the photographer always tried to prevent it from passing over their faces. The farther back in time I went, going down the hall, the more nuns there were in the pictures, the more distinct their habits and veils became. They took over the space in such a way that by the end the women’s faces were like grains of rice scattered over a graphite-colored tablecloth. I examined up close those faces that no longer existed and envied them the fact that every single one of these women had had one particular day in her life when God had spoken to her, had told her that he wanted her all to himself. I had never been religious and had never felt—even remotely—the metaphysical presence of God. The convent was founded in 1611, when two Capuchin nuns from the north had arrived in this mountain valley that was near a small village. They had secured safe conduct from the pope, and they had adherents among the wealthy. Over the course of two years, they managed to raise the money, and in the spring of 1613, construction began. First there was a small building with cells for the sisters and an administrative section, though this latter expanded at a dizzying pace. A hundred years later, the whole area—the valley and the forests around it—belonged to the nuns. A small town grew up around the convent, partially dependent upon the convent’s economy. A fine location on the lake, along the road, meant that trade flourished and local residents got rich. The rules allowed some of the nuns, called external sisters, to maintain even intensive contact with the world; the rest, the internal sisters, did not leave the cloister and only very rarely appeared behind the latticework like the unpredictable, mystical force behind that eternal game of tic-tac-toe. Huddled under their cornettes, those cloistered sisters stayed in a state of never-ending prayer, their lips continually moving, their bodies clinging slavishly to the wooden floor of the chapel, sprawled out in the shape of the cross. They were defenseless against the stream of grace that ensured that alpine place uninterrupted good fortune in commerce and the nuns perpetual growth of the convent’s holdings. Perhaps it was upon these devout interns that God’s eye rested, inside that triangular crack in the heavens that would later wind up on the one-dollar bill. The externs conducted the convent’s business, their fingers stained from the ink in which they dipped their pens as they entered into their books the latest deliveries of eggs, meat or linen, or as they broke down payments made to the construction workers building the new shelter for the elderly and indigent or to the cobblers who made the orphans shoes. Sister Anna told me about all this as one narrates a family—attached and affectionate, forgiving her ancestresses their sins of small-mindedness, their exaggerated interest in making deals. The convent expanded like a fantastically prosperous commercial enterprise and came into the possession of the entire terrain below it, all the way to the lake. The fall of that religious family didn’t occur until the twentieth century, after the war. The town was bulging at the seams, increasingly in need of more land for villas and public buildings, and people were losing their faith. Since 1968, the convent had seen no new nuns, with the obvious exception of Swati. When Sister Anna had become prioress in 1990, there had been thirty-seven of them. As a result of sales intended to shore up the diminishing finances of the convent, its huge holdings dwindled, and as of today, they consisted exclusively of the one building where the sisters lived. The rest of their land had been leased to several farmers, with cows grazing it now. Their garden was tended by the owner of a health food store; in return for vegetables and milk, the sisters permitted the use of the convent’s name on the products he sold. It turned out, too, that they recognized only too late the possibilities arising from the mercantile blessing that was convent recipes. That pie had long since been divided between the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Fatebenefratelli and others, who, sensing potential competition from the nuns, banded together in masculine solidarity and made sure the sisters had no share there. They also failed to transform the convent into a profitable co-op. The separate building next to the church was surrendered to an elementary school, while the littler building by the garden now contained a hostel overseen by the town. It was thanks to the monies paid to them in rent that the sisters were able, the previous year, to install the glass elevator to the second floor, since it was harder and harder for them to get up and down the narrow stone stairs. Now, several times a day, they could be seen crowding into that glass box, covering the yards that separated first from second floor. As she recounted all this, the prioress also showed me around the convent, omitting no nook. I followed her, inhaling the fragrance of her habit—it smelled of the inside of a wardrobe that for many years had hosted lavender sachets. In the pleasant sense of security she gave, I was ready to be convinced to just stay here for the time I had left, instead of sticking electrodes to children’s skulls. It felt as though the air around Sister Anna was vibrating, like she might be ringed by some warm halo. If only she could catch it and distribute it into jars—they’d no doubt make a fortune that way. She led me briskly down squeaky-clean hallways redolent of floor polish, crowded with doors and mezzanines and alcoves holding shiny saintly statuettes. I got lost fast in that labyrinth. I made sure to remember the galleries of ancestral portraits, the prioresses who looked so much alike they might as well have been clones, and the inscription over the entrance to the inner chapel, hewn in thick Schwabacher: “Wie geschrieben stehet: Der erste Mensch Adam ist gemacht mit einer Seele die dem Leib ein thierlich leben gibt: und der letzte Adam mit deinem Geist der da lebendig macht.”111 Corinthians 15:45, in the Bible’s New International Version: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” The floor creaked beneath our feet as our fingers slid over the smoothed spins of handrails and handles become, over time, the inverses of palms. Suddenly we were on the second floor, in something like a large loft space. The wooden floor was worn to the bone, though then I wondered if it had ever been painted. This was where their laundry dried; amidst the racks draped in sheets and covers, I caught sight of Sister Beatrix and Sister Ingeborg. They were sitting with needles in their hands, reattaching buttons lost in the wash. Their arthritically gnarled fingers struggled nobly with the buttons’ holes. “Salve, girls,” she said to them. “What do you say, is she ready to meet Oxi?” At this the old nuns livened up considerably. Frail Sister Anna even squealed like a little girl. Sister Anna went up to a little white curtain that looked innocuous enough, and in one practiced swoop had shoved it over and revealed the thing inside. “Ta-da!” she cried. A moderately sized recess was revealed, and in it, a figure, its shape unmistakably human, though shrunken and somehow inhuman at the same time. Scared, I took a step backwards. Sister Anna laughed, pleased with the effect she had achieved. She was clearly used to reactions like mine, and clearly amused by them, as well. “Meet Oxi,” she said, gazing at me watchfully but wearing an expression of triumph on her face. “My God,” I said heavily, in Polish. The expression on my face must have been a strange one: all the other sisters now burst into laughter, too. I saw the body of a human being—more precisely, a human being’s dead body, a skeleton, or maybe a mummy, sat straight up and elegantly decorated. Following my momentary terror, I began to perceive it more precisely, while behind me the sisters kept on chuckling. The entirety of the skeleton was covered in hand-knit, braided adornments. Sticking out of the eye sockets were great semi-precious stones; resting atop the bare skull, a decorative cap, beaded yarn crocheted. Around his neck there was an embroidered stock tie of thin batiste, which must have been snow white once, now sullied, like a tuft of filthy autumn fog. Here and there his desiccated skin showed through from underneath the fabric of the clothes he wore, though these were mostly covered by a mercifully long and exceptionally ornate eighteenth-century jacket, with ashen-silver patterns that looked like the scribblings of frost on a window pane. Lace cuffs stuck out from sleeves, almost concealing the curved and clawing hands in their arm warmers of disintegrating yarn. Arm warmers! Twisted legs encased in white stockings jammed into wrinkled slippers with metal buckles, also adorned with semi-precious stones. * We always strove to follow the recommendation that researchers not become emotionally involved in their relationships with the subjects of their research. That principle suited me just fine. I would only see the children during testing. The young people followed their instructions scrupulously. They were well-behaved kids. It was only during the projective part of the test, where they had to use their imaginations, that several of them had trouble understanding what to do. Then the brainwave tracking session began, and because we were also keeping track of them while the children were sleeping, each of their rooms had to be equipped with the appropriate device, which would in each instance also need to be set up. For over a week I went nowhere, only glimpsing summer’s efflorescence from my terrace as I breathed in the herb that brought me such relief. On a fairly regular basis, Victor started joining me, which meant that my medicinal supplies were running out at an ever-higher rate. Victor told me during one of our many talks that the convent was facing closure “for biological reasons,” and he told me the story of Swati. In her wonderful, childlike naiveté, Sister Anna had read somewhere that the presence of the sacred had not diminished in India, whence the winds of history and the smoke over Auschwitz had not yet carried it away. We were sitting on the balcony of my room, resting after moving around all our devices. Victor gazed at the glowing tip of the joint and suddenly felt guilty: “I can’t keep smoking up your stash, I really can’t. This is part of your treatment. It’s pure pleasure for me.” I shrugged. “Why India? Where did she get that idea?” “Well, if you must know, I’m the one who put it in her head,” he said after a moment. “I told her that if there was any real spirituality left anywhere in the world, then it must be in India. That God had relocated there.” “Do you really believe that?” I said without thinking. The smoke that came out of my mouth formed a beautiful sphere. “Of course not. I just wanted to give her something nice to think about, to calm her down. What I didn’t take into account is that she would always rather act than think. And just like that, all by herself, at the age of seventy-whatever, Sister Anna set out for India, on a recruitment trip for the convent.” I could well imagine it—Sister Anna in her gray summer habit standing before a Delhi mosque, amidst the rickshaws’ uproar, amongst the stray dogs, the holy cows, in the dust, in the mud. It wasn’t a vision that cracked me up, exactly—marijuana had long since ceased to make me laugh—but Victor was guffawing. “She went from convent to convent, hundreds of miles, trying to find novitiates to bring back with her to Europe. And all she could poach was Swati. Can you imagine? She went hunting for nuns, in India!” * The next day I got their files on my desk. They were neat, economical and professional. They contained all the data about the children we were testing, which I had requested from Victor. Right away they struck me as strange. Instead of names, the files were labeled with symbols written on Post-Its: “Tr 1.2.2” or “JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1,” and on in the same vein. I looked over them, astonished—I was sure they had not been intended for my eyes, that Victor had brought me these files by mistake. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the code. Apart from the tables of biological parameters, there were genome tables and charts that I also couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I tried to glean from those analyses the identities of the kids under my care, but the graphs and tables made no sense to me at all—they must have been descriptive of some other, more abstract plane of truth. That must be it, I thought, Victor must have just gotten mixed up, giving me not the documents I was expecting, but rather something else. As I carried the files to his office, however, a sudden impulse brought me back, and I recorded those strange designations in the margins of an old newspaper. Then I thought I might as well take note of dates of birth. Victor’s office was empty when I set the files down on his desk. The wind in the open window rustled the slats of the blind, and it sounded like a chorus of cicadas. The following morning, I received on the internal server the information I had been requesting for so long—the interviews on environmental variables and the biographical data. Each file was now under last and first name only. Thierry B. Birthdate: 12/2/2000. Legal guardians: Swiss. Location: small town. He was a school teacher, she was a librarian. Allergies. A detailed layout of his brain studies, with mild epilepsy detected. Blood type. Basic psychological tests. A journal kept by his adoptive parents: methodical but fairly uninteresting. Dyslexia. A detailed layout of his braces. Writing samples. Photos. Schoolwork. A normal kid, being subjected to constant, thorough medical exams. Nothing about his biological parents. Miri C., 3/21/2001: same. Precise charts of her weight and height. Some sort of skin ailment—pictures, diagnoses, et cetera. Adoptive parents: middle-class, he a small business owner, she a painter. Childhood drawings. Numerous references to some other documents, meticulously numbered, classified. The twins Jules and Max, birthdate 9/9/2001. Birthplace: Bavaria. Adoptive parents: businesspeople, owners of some textile factories, upper middle class. Mention made of certain perinatal complications, hence the low Apgar score in both. Jules had a superb musical ear, was attending music school. Max had been in a traffic accident when he was seven—hit by a car, complicated leg fractures, average musical abilities. Before I could think about what I was doing, my hand had reached out for the previous day’s notes around the edges of the newspaper. I found the twins’ birthdate under the codes Fr 1.1.2 and Fr 1.1.1., and from there it was easy enough. Adrian T., born 5/29/2000, code—based on that date—Jn 1.2.1. From Lausanne. Adoptive parents: officials. The boy had had problems with the law. Background and environment interview. Police report. The incident had involved breaking into a swimming pool, some property destruction. Several siblings. Eva H., code Tr 1.1.1. Adoptive parents divorced when she was nine years old. She was brought up by her mother, a teacher. Great student, on the basketball team. Interested in film. Writes poetry. Musical abilities. Treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. I scanned, amazed by the level of detail in the reports, X-rays of ordinary adolescent lives from so many angles it almost seemed as though these people were being groomed to become spies, or geniuses—or the ones who would start the revolution. * Sister Anna gave me lease to photograph Oxi—every little element of him immortalized in his ongoing process of decay. I had the pictures developed at the drugstore in the little town, and I put some of them up over my desk. Now all I had to do was glance up in order to admire the artistry of many generations of nuns who had, with the buoyancy of children, colonized every square centimeter of the corpse, striving to conceal the threat of death. A button. Some lace. Drawn thread work. Decorative stitching, appliqué, tiny pom-pom, cuff, little collar, some ruffles at the neck, a sequin, a bead. Desperate proofs of life. [[{"fid":"6704761","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] I was told at the pharmacy I would need to wait a few days to get more of my medicine, so I quietly figured out a way to find a local dealer, from whom I purchased several portions. They were strong, powerful—I had to mix them with tobacco. Since the chemo, the pains had all but disappeared, but there remained my fear of them, twisted up somewhere inside me like metal springs that might at any moment burst forth and rip apart my body, leaving it in shreds. When I was smoking, they metamorphosed into paper snakes, and the world got full of signs, and things distantly removed from one another seemed to be sending one another information, particular signals, linking meanings together, tying up relationships. Everything gave everything a knowing wink. It was a very satiating state for the world to be in—you could take your fill of that world. I went through two rounds of chemotherapy, and I couldn’t sleep. I could not regain control over my own body—the only strength I had left was the strength of my fear. The doctor said: from three months to three years. I knew it would do me good to concentrate on something, and that’s why I came here; not only because of the money, although in my situation, that kind of money might turn out to be the thing that could extend my life. Conducting my tests didn’t require I be in especially great shape. I could do it almost automatically. Now, every morning, while the children took their classes, I would get up early and head down to the convent. On one such day, towards the end of May, I saw, sitting alone at the edge of the soccer field, Miri. She told me she had gotten her period, and that she’d been dismissed from PE. I noticed she was wearing blue—light blue jeans, a light blue shirt and light blue sneakers. She was the color of the sky. I didn’t know what to say. I simply took a step towards her. “You seem sad,” she said, a touch of combat in her tone. “All the time, even when you’re smiling.” She had caught me in the act, as in solitude I had been dismantling my face’s usual expression of self-confidence. I looked at her small, light, almost avian body, which slipped nimbly off the fence, almost giving the impression of weightlessness. She said she wished she could go home now. That she missed her parents and her dog. There she had her own room, and here she had to share a room with Eva. She had always yearned for siblings, but now she saw she found other people to be a nuisance. “You’re looking for something when you test us. We’re also trying to figure out why it is we’re here. I’m smart enough, I can put two and two together. I suspect it has something to do with the fact we are adopted. Maybe we’re carrying some type of gene. What is it you see when you look at us? You really see something so strange about us? What could I have in common with the others? Nothing.” She walked with me a while, and we started talking about school. She was going to music school, she played the violin. She also told me something interesting: she liked days of mourning—and these were coming more and more often now, with environmental disasters and attacks—because then the media would play only mournful music. Often everything irritated her, and she felt the world was too big, so those gloomy days were a kind of respite. People ought to dedicate a little bit of thought to themselves. She loved Handel, particularly his “Largo,” which Lisa Gerard had once sung. And Mahler, most of all what he wrote when his children died. I smiled without thinking. Such a melancholy girl. “Isn’t that why you’re drawn to me?” She walked with me until we reached the place where the horses grazed. Along the way she ripped off dandelion heads and scattered the still-soft seeds, premature, into the air. “You wear a wig, right?” she said suddenly, not looking at me. “You’re sick. You’re dying.” Her words hit me square in the chest. I could feel my eyes filling with tears, so I turned and started walking faster, by myself now, down to the convent. * My late mornings in the convent, when the children had their classes, tended to soothe me. I would feel good in the company of these women, who were both conciliatory and reconciled to life. Over coffee, the sisters’ inefficient fingers separating out their miniature waste restored order. So it would be, too, with me: soon fingers would strip me down to my primary components, and all that had comprised me would now be put back in its own place—a kind of final recycling. Of the cream for the coffee, following this ritual of absolution, there would be parts that no longer had anything to do with one another, becoming separate, falling under different categories now. Gone were taste and consistence. Gone where? Where was that thing that just a moment ago they had still made up together, harmonious? We would sit in the kitchen, where Sister Anna—often vanishing into digressions, only to emerge again elsewhere—would respond to my somewhat prying inquiries. I never knew where the braided locks of her memory would lead us. In those moments, she would remind me of my mother, who talked in the same way—meandering, weaving together many strands; this was a wonderful malady of old women, covering the world in one vast quilt of stories within stories. The silent presence of some of the other sisters, always occupied with some small task, caused me to take these nuns as guarantors of truth, time’s accountants. All of Oxi’s information was recorded in the convent’s chronicles. At my request, Sister Anna finally agreed to seek out the corresponding volume. Now she splayed it atop the table in the kitchen where we drank coffee. She found the exact date: February 28, 1629. That day, the sisters and all their denizens crowded down the southern road into town, awaiting the return of the envoys from Rome. Just before dark, a modest retinue of men on horses appeared from beyond the mountain, behind the retinue a wooden wagon fitted out with colorful, if somewhat soiled and soaked material, beneath which, attached with leather straps, lay a coffin. What was left of wreaths trailed behind the wagon in the snow; the men were frozen and exhausted. The crowd, led by the Bürgermeister and a bishop invited expressly for this purpose, symbolically presented the saint with a key to the city. Boys in white surplices sang an endlessly practiced welcome song and—since this all took place in a disgusting winter month, and there were no flowers to properly honor and receive such an extraordinary gift—spruce branches were thrown under the wagon’s wheels. That same evening a solemn mass took place. Then came the announcement: Saint Auxentius would be put on display after mass on the following Sunday—in other words, in three days’ time. Until then, the sisters’ task would be to tidy and ready the relics, to put them in order after their long, hard trip. The sisters were eager to peer inside the coffin. But the sight that greeted them was one of horror. Instinctively, they recoiled. What had they expected? In what sorts of wonderments had their imagination attired this martyr whom they had never even heard of before? What could they have expected to see, these poor Capuchins, freezing in their cells without heating, in arm warmers tugged down to cover parts of their chapped hands, in thick wool stockings underneath their habits? A muffled sigh of disappointment escaped up to the chapel’s ceiling. Saint Auxentius was just an ordinary corpse, albeit quite dried out by now, sort of neat, and slick somehow, although his bared teeth and empty eye sockets were certainly sources of terror, or, at the very least, revulsion. Sister Anna said three days turned out not to be enough. Since that time the subsequent sisters had tended to the body of the deceased for over three hundred years. They’d tamed its terror with affectionate nicknames, little jokes and decorations. She herself had crocheted him cuffs when she was young still, since the ones he’d had had all but disintegrated with age. That was the last time the saint’s outfit had been altered. Swati, in spite of her vow of obedience, refused to refresh the mummy’s wardrobe, and Sister Anna had been unable to fault her for this. Once I was back in my room, I got online and stayed on for a while. I learned that when in the sixteenth century Rome had begun to be intensively expanded, digging the foundations of new homes had often revealed Roman catacombs, and in them, human remains. It turned out, of course, that like any old city, Rome had been built upon graves; now the workers’ pickaxes broke through the tops of tombs, letting daylight seep into them for the first time in many hundreds of years. People also began breaking into the catacombs, their inflamed imaginations shrouding them in mysterious tales. Though who but Christian martyrs could it be, buried there? Evenly distributed along the shelves, the dead were reminiscent of some valuable good, bottles of the finest wine, maturing over years in order to attain its particular qualities. The dead were no longer bothered by time’s acts of entropy, the destructive part of it that turned human faces into skulls and human bodies into skeletons. Quite the opposite: once bodies had shriveled and rotted, they moved on to a higher order, getting more delicate, no longer causing the disgust of a corpse in the midst of its disintegration, but rather, as mummies, inspiring admiration and respect. The newly discovered necropolises posed a problem. There were efforts to rebury the remains that had been removed from them, but their numbers were too great—all lovely, well-preserved mummified bodies and elegant skeletons, complete, arranged in graceful poses. The eyes soon grew accustomed to their sight, and then—as was usual in humans—started to differentiate and distinguish the most special among them, the most beautiful, the most harmonious, the best preserved, and from the revelation of their particular beauty it wasn’t much of a leap to their acquiring, on account of the same, exceptional value. In one letter, the stern and gloomy Pope Gregory XIII deliberated over this unexpected abundance of the dead: “We feel as though this whole army has arisen from the ground in these challenging times, and we, instead of repaying it this service, shove it back down into the darkness of the grave. In today’s times, terrible for the true faith, as apostasy closes on us from every side, and of no use are fire and sword against the hideous heresy of Lutheranism, the dead, too, could go to battle…” These words in mind, one of the papal officials (which of them exactly is not known; there is talk of a Father Verdiani, much-trusted by the pope, and with a pretty good nose for profit) found employment for thousands of the dead. Soon a special office was established; gathered in it were highly promising, highly capable and highly imaginative clerics. Also brought in were special task forces of nuns, silent, hunched over, who patiently cleaned off the corpses of all that had settled upon them over the centuries. All this work was kept under the strictest confidence. And then the saints were ready to make their public debuts, carefully arranged in modest coffins, cleansed of dust and spider webs, of weeds and clumps of earth, neatly covered in swathes of clean fabric. Each came with a registry book that contained its name and origins, a thoroughly transcribed biography and the circumstances of the martyrdom, as well as attributes and the range of the martyr’s posthumous acts to indicate what type of intercession one might request of it, what types of prayers to send its way. Every saint had his own attributes, his own domain, just like the protagonists of video games today. This one provided courage, that one luck. This one interceded on behalf of drunkards, that one combatted rodents… Orders from all across Europe poured in. Every supplication sent to the pope and every appeal to his supreme sacred power quickly tied into a request for a holy relic to be sent, in exchange for some reasonable offering. To the plundered churches, which were trying to get back off the ground after their rape by the Protestants, such a relic lent immediate prestige, brought the crowds in under the sanctuary’s roof and enabled them to immerse themselves in the glow of long-lost holy martyrdom, reminding them that this early world is nothing in comparison with the Kingdom of the Lord. And that memento mori. The process of rehoming holy Roman martyrs was one that lasted many years. The office-workers, those capable, imaginative clerics, went out into the world and became nuncios and cardinals, while the hunched-over nuns died off with quiet sighs. Popes changed, all falling into the past like the pages of a calendar: Sixtus, Urban, Gregory, Innocent, Clement, Leo, Paul and Gregory again, all the way up until Pope Urban VIII. In 1629 the office for rehoming saints still existed, and in an effort to improve their work, the scribes had made up cheat sheets in the form of tables and inventories. Their purpose was not to repeat too often the same torture methods, causes of death, circumstances, last names or attributes. [[{"fid":"6704766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] The next day, Sister Anna told me that she had once been amazed to hear the story of a saint from a church at some several hundred miles’ remove from the convent here. All of a sudden she felt awful: that other saint, whose name was Rius, had a life story and a martyrdom strikingly similar to their own Auxentius’. Evidently the authors of the registry books had run out of ideas. She said, too, that she had once come across a certain work, written later, in the twentieth century, that had discussed the phenomenon of Holy Roman martyrs in a scholarly way, and from reading it she had learned that over the course of all those decades certain trends—if the term could be permitted—had come and gone, some coming back into fashion again and again. For example, towards the end of the sixteenth century, there were a lot of saints impaled in just a few years, and each time the description of the torment was so vivid and juicy, the literary talent of the anonymous office-worker so great, that any reader would experience pangs of horror as they read. At the same time, the female saints tended to mostly suffer the same fate of having their breasts cut off, these then turning into their attributes. In general, they held them out before their bodies on a tray. In the second decade of the seventeenth century, decapitations were popular. Severed heads would miraculously seek out headless bodies, and miraculously they’d unite. “You’re a psychologist, after all,” she said to me, “so you must understand them perfectly, these inventors of martyrdoms. Even in coming up with the worst kinds of horrors, there must be a little bit of pleasure to be found for the writer, right?” I said I thought the mere awareness of the existence of this whole realm of the world that was worse than the lot that had fallen to us could be healing. “That itself ought to inspire out greatest, inexpressible gratitude towards our Creator,” she replied. With time, the names became increasingly eccentric—of course the reserves of the more popular, more common names had long since been exhausted. Now there were women saints like Ossiana, Magdentia, Hamartia, Angustia or Violanta, and among the men there were Abhorentius, Milruppo and Quintilian, as well as Saint Auxentius, who, early on in the spring of 1629, made his way to the convent. * “Do you know what they’re doing up there?” I asked Sister Anna the next time I went down to the convent, pointing to the Institute, visible through the window as a high-up speck. They had heard they were doing some important research. But that was it. We were folding bedding, using a technique well known around the world, wherever there were duvet covers, pillowcases and sheets—we stood opposite one another and stretched out at a diagonal those great rectangles of linen and cotton so that they’d regain their shapes after washing. Rapidly, in tandem, we established a whole ritual: diagonal at first, then creases at the sides and smoothing them out with short, fast tugs, followed by folding them in half and then diagonally again, in order to finally take a couple of steps towards each other and thus put the bedding into an elegant package. And then again. “We have a hunch about what’s going on, but that’s not the same as knowing,” she said. She always spoke of herself in the plural. After all these years, her identity was monastic, collective. “Be easy, child,” she added, and it sounded almost tender. “The church always wants what’s best.” Oxi gazed at us with his eyes that were semi-precious stones sticking out of his sockets, padded with completely faded silk meant to resemble eyelids. His crimson eyebrows, made of gems, were raised in a cool surprise that was verging on suspicion. * By night, the internet led me down other, even more garish paths, whether I wanted it to or not. The posthumous histories of the saints, or rather, that of their earthly remains—the adoration of fingers, bones, locks of hair, hearts ripped out of bodies, severed heads. The quartered Adalbert of Prague, distributed in relic form amongst churches and monasteries and convents. The blood of Saint Januarius, which regularly underwent enigmatic chemical transformations, altering its state and properties. And also thefts of holy bodies, parceling out corpses as relics, miraculously multiplying hearts, hands, even the foreskins of a tiny Jesus—sacrum preputium. Archived pages of an auction site were offering pieces of the bodies of saints. The first one that really jumped out at me was a reliquary with the remains of John of Capistrano, which were available on Allegro for the price of 680 zlotys. Finally, I found our hero from the attic drying room. Saint Auxentius the martyr had been a lion coach whose lions had been fed Christians under Nero. One night one of the lions spoke to him in a human voice. And the voice was that of Jesus Christ himself. It wasn’t written what the lion said in the voice of Christ, but by morning Auxentius had converted to the Christian faith, released the lions into a forest outside of town, though he himself was captured. The former executioner was now the one condemned to death. The lions were all caught again, and Auxentius, along with other Christians, was thrown to them to be devoured. But the lions wouldn’t lay their paws upon their former master, so in the end he died by dagger, at the hands of an assassin of Nero’s, while the lions were slain with swords. After his death, Auxentius’ body was spirited away by Christians and buried in secret in the catacombs. * “I just stood in front of the hotel, afraid to take another step,” said Sister Anna. We were sitting in the big empty kitchen. The other nuns had already gone out of the room, and gone, too, were the meticulously separated remains of their morning coffee. She’d perched on the windowsill and looked remarkably young. “It was steamy and hot—about what you’d expect for India. My light traveling habit stuck to my body. I felt like I was paralyzed, because what I saw was terrifying me.” For a moment she was silent, searching for the words. “The enormity of that poverty, that desperate struggle to survive, that cruelty. Dogs, cows, people, the rickshaw drivers with their fierce dark faces, the crippled beggars. It all seemed to be endowed with life by force, against the will of those creatures who were condemned to life, as though that variety of life were a downfall, a punishment.” She turned to the window, and then she said, without looking at me: “I think I committed the greatest sin there, and I’m not sure whether or not it’s been forgiven, although I’ve done penance for it, of course. The priest who heard my confession evidently didn’t understand what it was I’d told him.” She looked out the window. “The sacred that had been promised me was not present there. I found nothing that might justify all of that pain. What I beheld was a mechanical world, a biological world, like an anthill organized into established orders that were dumb and inert. I discovered something terrible there. May God forgive me.” Only now did she look at me, and it was as though she were seeking affirmation. “I went back to the hotel and just sat there the whole day. I couldn’t even pray. The next day, in keeping with the plan, some sisters from a convent outside of town came in to get me, and then they took me to their place. We drove through a dried-out orange space filled with trash and shriveled, dried-up trees. We kept silent, and I think the sisters understood what I was going through. Perhaps they had been through it, as well. Somewhere along the road I noticed some little hills going along the horizon, each fifteen yards or so from the next. The sisters told me it was a cemetery for holy cows, but I didn’t get what they meant. I asked them to repeat it. They said that there the untouchables brought the corpses of holy cows so that they wouldn’t pollute the city. They would simply leave them in the scorching sun and let nature do its thing. I asked if we could stop, and I went up in amazement to these mounds that I expected to be remains, skin and bones dried by the sun. From up close, however, you saw something else entirely: twisted, half-digested plastic bags, brand names still legible, shoelaces, rubber bands, screw-tops, containers. No organic digestive fluid could take on advanced human chemistry. The cows ate trash, and unable to digest it, they carried it around in their stomachs. That’s all that’s left of the cows, I was told. The body disappears, eaten by insects and scavengers. What’s left is what’s eternal. Trash.” * I went to say goodbye to the sisters a few days before my departure. I still needed to sort through some papers, pack up the equipment and make my final calculations. The last image I made sure to retain from the convent was the sight of the old women pressed into the glass box of the elevator heading up for mass—Bosch’s lady denizens of paradise making the journey into the beyond, the ends of time. Returning to the Institute, walking in the balks as I made my way uphill, I got an idea, clear and simple, a matter-of-fact response to the questions that had been plaguing me since my arrival, the questions no one had been willing to answer, which all boiled down to: what was this testing I was participating in like an obedient, well-paid soldier? And my thought was at once simple and insane, which made me believe it might actually be correct. I remembered the innocent question Miri had asked that first day, when I had gone to meet them: “Didn’t you want to clone him? They say they do it all the time in China.” I spread out the children’s folders in front of me and lit my joint. I looked at their birthdates, provided with hour and place, as though part of the test involved giving them their horoscope. Who knows, maybe that was part of the plan as well. I added, in pencil, those mysterious codes to each date, each last name. All the testing itself had already been done, and I’d already sketched out their profiles. I was just waiting on the final data, which I usually received in graphic form as a dozen or so prognostic lines, more or less similar to one another. The computer would calculate all the characteristics and then crystalize them around the axes it created for them. The basic graph was thus a kind of tree with branches of differing widths. The fattest, most fully realized branches were the most probable ones. In my time I had seen trees that looked like sprawling baobabs with hundreds of twig-possibilities. I had also seen those that were dominated by a single thick branch. But it was always children—fine, bright, human children—transformed into vegetable forms. I flipped through the files, sorting out the data groups, when suddenly I was seized by pain—the pain I knew well by now, that reminded of itself from time to time, like a kind of guard overseeing things, keeping them in order. Then, on the verge of pain, just before the arrival of the relief I anticipated, the files and symbols, dates and labels used to designate the tested teenagers, and the inscription in the convent over the door, and Dani’s smile, the black bit of truffle, and Miri’s eyes filled with concern when she asked me about my dead dog—all of it started to roll in my mind like a ball of sticky snow, and everything it picked up on its way made it get even bigger, even more tightly packed. The matter was becoming clear. I just wasn’t sure what the numbers after the letters meant, maybe the number of the trial or some versions of the experiment. Miri was Cl 1.2.1, Jules Fr 1.1.1 and Max Fr 1.1.2. Hannah was Chl 1.1.1, Amelia and Julia Hd 1.2.2 and Hd 1.2.1, Eva Tr 1.1.1, Vito and Otto JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1, Adrian Jn 1.2.1. Thierry JC 1.1.1. So it was simple. Saint Clare of Assisi, a body with no traces of decay, exhibited since the late nineteenth century in a glass cabinet in the Basilica of Saint Clare. A wide range of relics, well-preserved light hair. Saint Francis, a skeleton in good shape, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Saint Hedwig of Silesia, another skeleton in fine shape, relics distributed by the Krakow diocese, a bone from the ring finger in a church in western Poland. A piece of a bone of Saint Hildegarde. Bits of the body of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, who never quit making pilgrimages all over the world. And three more I didn’t recognize, but all three could be deduced quite quickly, with just a few clicks. I felt as though, in the game of tic-tac-toe, I was completing my drawing of a small, beautiful circle inside the crucial box. * I was packed and ready in the morning, and I had called the same cab that had brought me here over a month before. Awaiting it in front of the school, I saw Miri sitting on the fence. She smiled, and I went up to her. I didn’t say anything because I was too moved to. I just looked at her concerned, innocent child’s face, at her blush. “Clare?” I finally said, almost inaudibly. She didn’t seem surprised at all when after a moment’s hesitation I took her hand and laid it on my forehead. It took her a few seconds to fully understand, and then she also touched my eyes and ears, and then she put both of her hands upon my heart, exactly where I needed them the most. Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Cullman, Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and NEA grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation, the 2018 Found in Translation Award, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish, forthcoming in English from Unnamed Press in September and in Spanish from Entropía in 2020. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa.
The Year in Gritty: Birth of a New God

We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Gritty is the dumb and ugly hockey mascot revealed by the Philadelphia Flyers on September 24 of this cursed year. Nothing was expected of it (of him?), beyond some local news coverage, some local outrage on Sports Twitter. But the world took notice, because Gritty is the visual and physical embodiment of the epic troll: weird on purpose, both frightening and idiotic, at turns lovable and violent, so “on brand” as to be stubbornly memorable even when you’d rather forget. At seven feet tall and with a head made of wild orange hair dotted with googly eyes, Gritty is an epic troll. The Era picks its heroes and icons, and the people tasked with typing these “The Year In …” think pieces are left to come up with excuses for our society’s failings, the rapid de-evolution of Western Civilization, the lowness of our culture. And it doesn’t matter. Gritty will win because Gritty already won. That feeling you had when you first saw Gritty? That’s what it felt like when people first saw Elvis Presley on TV, or Darth Vader in a movie theater, or Joan of Arc leading the charge on Orléans in 1429, or when a sin-jowled Nixon punched his stubby V-sign fingers into the air before a helicopter hauled him away from the White House. Dread, love, fear, wonder, disgust. Whatever the emotion, it comes with the mark of things forever changed. Does Gritty look and act like the meth-lab offspring of Doug Ford and Donald Trump? Yes, this is undeniably true. Is Gritty vulgar and foul-tempered? Watch the monster in ecstasy as he fondles his huge belly, or driven into a rage by a Mites On Ice child player during intermission. (Gritty picked up that kid and threw him in the penalty box, the same penalty box that Gritty destroyed in a separate fury on October 23.) With each wantonly fireable offense—viciously bodychecking the goalies, shooting Flyers’ promotions staff in the back with the T-shirt gun, beating up Rangers fans after dumping popcorn in their hair, threatening to murder the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot—Gritty’s fame and influence grows. It is here where the Ford Nation/Deplorables parallels are impossible to deny. Yet Gritty’s vile behavior is evidence not of privilege or fake populism, but of True Grit. It doesn’t matter that he’s the mascot for a $750-million NHL franchise. Gritty immediately transcended his late-capitalism brand origins. As the socialist quarterly Jacobin announced just days after the mascot’s debut: “Gritty is a worker.” The inevitable Philadelphia protests timed for Trump’s visit on October 2 witnessed the birth of Gritty as an anti-billionaire working-class street brawler. If Trump finally allowed the racists and nationalists to start saying the quiet parts loud, Gritty gave the New Left permission to wear guillotine T-shirts they’d previously only “liked” on @dasharez0ne's Twitter feed, and the gall to demand and fight for a Green New Deal, to free the American left from asking permission anymore. Not for health care, not for good-paying jobs, not for free college, not for justice. Of course Gritty can take down the soft boys of the Alt-Right, but his ultimate goal (beyond eating Zamboni snow) is a joyfully chaotic destruction of Late Capitalism and its long-protected vulture class. Of course the mascot belongs to Philadelphia, the monster’s personality being the beloved stereotype of the chip-on-the-shoulder loud-mouth drunken Flyers’ fan (or player) living off Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and cheese steaks and pills stolen from grandma. Brian Allen, a commercial artist and Penn State alumnus with a retro comic-book style, was contracted to come up with the mascot and presented 20 sketches. Flyers’ management “picked a big dumpy monster I had drawn as the starting point,” Allen said. Of course it was the starting point. Gritty was born of a Jungian vision. The artist is the weapon of the muse. And, as designed and intended, the instant revulsion shown for this “ghastly empty-eyed muppet” on global social media made him instantly and forever embraced by his hometown, a city where the trash is never picked up, a city that bombed itself, a city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty. Within weeks of his birth, or unearthing, there was an official proclamation from the Philadelphia City Council: “WHEREAS, Gritty may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster.” The tattoo parlors were already doing a brisk business in garish Gritty designs. The jack o’lanterns hurled by Philadelphia’s street urchins this past Halloween were mostly carved with variations of Gritty’s death grin. But the city now shares their deranged hockey monster with the world, with the rise of the new global left. The faux-populist horrors of recent years have seen occasional calls for the leftist and socialist opposition to adopt Trumpian behavior, to elevate cretins and scumbags to positions of leadership. Human disasters such as Michael Avenatti—who insanely believed his legal representation of one of Trump’s adult-actress mistresses made him eligible for the Democratic presidential nomination—are evidence of why out-Trumping Trump or out-Fording the Fords never works when your cause is the Good Cause, the moral one, the one that will prevail if we as a species will continue our civilization here on this landfill-covered melting planet. Gritty gives us an out: We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun. This is why Gritty stirs something deep within the souls of people long divorced from the old religions, which have weakened and splintered into identity camps of mealy-mouthed do-gooders or dumb extremists, a realm where nobody actually believes any of it. Gritty asks for nothing but Total Faith, faith that this spirit of chaos and working-class strength and wild ceremony can be channeled into action, everywhere. You can’t say you want to see Trump on the block without having bad-faith fascists getting you banned on Twitter, but you can get a tattoo with Gritty throwing Trump in the penalty box (which contains a guillotine). You can put a laughing, manic, fist-waving Gritty on your protest signs and then use those signs (in self-defense!) to smash the neo-Nazis on the street and the Koch brothers at the ballot box. Like the Viking berserkers of old giving themselves over to the Mystic Bear Warrior before fearlessly going to battle, for all of those today fighting the Oppressor, the spirit of Gritty is there. [[{"fid":"6704711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] *** Thank you, as always, for reading. Hazlitt will return in January.