Hazlitt Magazine

The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

'There's Still Time to Save It': An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 


The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.
‘I Want to Argue with Everything I’ve Ever Thought’: An interview with Catherine Lacey

The author of Pew on confession and original brokenness. 

If there’s one thing that rivals the discomfort of small talk, it’s an awkward pause. It’s a lull that either leads to conversational filler or oversharing. People really risk it all instead of being quiet, which is why that uncomfortable silence is exploited by HR people, priests, and journalists alike. In Catherine Lacey’s third novel, Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the titular character and novel’s namesake already complicates conversations because they have no identity: their ethnicity and gender are described as indeterminate and confusing. They have no memory or backstory. But it’s Pew’s silence that seems to rattle others most; instead of fixating on Pew’s origins, they project onto Pew, and confess their secrets and their sins.  Pew could be post-body, beyond human even, but in a conservative and religious town in the American South, they are interpreted as an uncooperative patient, stranger danger, an archangel, and more ominously, a sacrifice. These communities are founded on conformity, where the right answers to a line of inquiry lead to acceptance and assimilation. It takes only a week for Pew’s muteness to rattle their foundation and saviour complex. Over email, I talked to Lacey about the origins of Pew and, more importantly, if a novel and its characters can originate in a body or somewhere else.  Sara Black McCulloch: You had a very religious upbringing in Mississippi, and I wanted to know how that influenced writing Pew, especially when it comes to shedding identities? Did this start with a voice or something else? Catherine Lacey: The person at the center of Pew is an impossibility—a person without qualities, a person whose appearance is changeable, impossible to define. I think to some degree the desire to inhabit the sort of simultaneous visibility and invisibility that such a body would give a person would appeal to most people, regardless of their background. As a child, I took to religion with a kind of seriousness that made childhood strange, or rather it revealed that American hypocrisy of being a country founded on Christian systems of morality while also claiming to be secular. As a kid who took the Bible very seriously, I was understandably frustrated that moral goodness had no currency at school, in fact it was a hazard. But eventually the Bible came to feel inadequate, full of its own paradoxes and cruelties, so perhaps the book was an attempt to create a kind of annihilated space in my hometown, my home-area-of-the-country.  Pew is also not someone who is shifting between identities because they don’t have one, which frustrates people to the point that there is a breakdown in communication. I read in your interview with the Paris Review that you think a lot about the body and posture—how they influence the rhythm and voice in sentences when you’re writing. To Pew, the body is where so much dysfunction and other bad things start. Did that approach to writing change when you were writing the character? On a purely creative, personal level, the book was an attempt to argue with myself over that point. Does the book have to be in the body? Does the voice necessarily come from a body? I truly am not interested in setting parameters or concerns for myself that remain fixed. I want to argue with everything I’ve ever thought.  The only time Pew really does speak to someone, it’s with Nelson, who warns Pew not to say anything because the community will only hear what they want to hear and twist their words. There’s a pressure for Pew to assimilate as Nelson did, but there needs to be a trauma narrative first. I wanted to know what you thought about trauma narratives and the ideal victim. Does Pew’s silence threaten this community because it challenges their saviour complex?  This phrase, “ideal victim,” is scarily apt. In the last several years, partially from the way the internet provides such an easy confession chamber, the act of sharing a traumatic story has become so common that doing so—personal, public exposure—has, at times, felt requisite. Of course, some people don’t have the option to expose or not expose a personal story, so I’m not talking about that. But I feel strongly that one shouldn’t be required to expose personal trauma to be seen as worthy of equal treatment, or justified in their anger over an injustice. In some ways, this is the way American society has instinctively responded to the increased opportunity for telling trauma narratives. Essentially, trauma is treated like capital, and you must spend it in order to increase the value of your position. I felt this particularly around the time #MeToo first became a thing. I did not want to describe personal experiences in order to participate, but at certain times it felt like that was the price of admission—even when some tried to say it wasn’t required. It seems to me that many BIPOC Americans may often feel this way, that there’s a heightened value being placed on sharing the details of times that your life has been denigrated and if you’re not willing to share that then you have less of a right to complain, to have a voice. Of course, there’s no centralized authority in society that is setting that pattern—it’s emerging from us collectively, which makes it the kind of problem that fiction is best suited to deal with.  I was not directly thinking of any of this as I wrote Pew, but looking back I can see how this concern slips in. They’re not willing or not able or simply not sharing what has happened to them, so the system is breaking down. Nelson didn’t have the option to suffer privately and he resents it. He resents the community around him relishing in their personal experiences of “doing the right thing,” because he recognizes it as the same kind of noxious righteousness that leads people to commit violence in the name of their government or religion or hate group or whatever. Righteousness is so dangerous. It erases nuance. Many people fill in for Pew’s silence and start revealing more about themselves. What they confess to Pew is, at times, much darker and honest than what comes up at the Forgiveness Festival [in the novel]. This made me think about performative public apologies. In a way, when someone asks for forgiveness like that, they seem to be asking people to forget about their harmful actions rather than asking for help or learning from them. Even at the Forgiveness Festival, everyone’s eyes are closed, so the apology never reaches the person it’s intended for. What does forgiveness mean or look like to you? Is it about being good or bad, a fear of God, or just someone understanding how to be in the world? There’s this Protestant concept of being wiped clean, of being redeemed through private confession to God. As a child I was so interested in Catholic confession, in the booth with the priest—we did all of our confession silently, alone. Maybe Protestants repress their shame and guilt more than Catholics do? I would absolutely read that psychological study. I do think there is an increased societal preoccupation with forgiveness right now in the culture and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote this book now rather than years ago. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Christianity—but perhaps even more from my mom than from church—was that there is no point in holding a grudge, that you’re usually better off forgiving someone rather than carrying around anger for them. But it’s also odd to me that I find it easier to forgive individuals than collectives. I remain pissed off about Mississippi’s general hypocritical disregard for the poor and the suffering while they all claim to be Christian but I’m fully ready to forgive individuals for individual things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to be, but that’s what I’m working with these days. The epigraph is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and while I know the reviews of Pew have focused on the unnamed narrator and the summer festival at the end, it also centers on the idea of the scapegoat. I wanted to talk about Pew’s role in the Forgiveness Festival because while they won’t identify themselves, the community abandons them at the end, rendering Pew an outcast full of the town’s confessions and sins. Pew is the scapegoat. I hadn’t thought about the story that way but I think it's a valid and interesting take. There’s this idea in Christianity that all people are born broken and sinful, that faith in Jesus makes a person whole. So, in a sense, by sending Pew to this festival, the question is being raised of, what would Pew have to confess to if they were human, but without history? What is the nature of that original brokenness? The question of innate sinfulness is fascinating to me. What does it really mean to be born incomplete and what is this state of completion people supposedly are striving to reach? While Pew is a narrator with no identity, they do ask us, in a way, to make a choice: do we go along with conventions, or do we abandon them so we can change and grow? This question is especially prescient right now, at a time when we’re being forced to reconsider our relationships to power, money, and each other. Have you been reevaluating your own relationship to and participation in any of these now? Oh, absolutely. I think it’s difficult to accurately or honestly describe how “the now” is changing me, but I think the process of writing Pew helped me defamiliarize myself with my own body and by doing that I see other people’s bodies differently and I suppose that’s all I want reading the book to do. I hope it made me a slightly less shitty, slightly more kind person in the world. I think there are many ways to read the book, to be frustrated by it, enjoy it, to not enjoy it, but the only stance in the reader that I am willing to say is a failure on their part is wanting to know “what” the person at the centre of Pew is. It wasn’t a secret I wanted to keep; it’s the problem I’m asking the reader to approach. And there’s no answer to the problem, or at least I don’t claim to have it.
‘There’s Still Time to Save It’: An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 

Birds are having a real moment right now—bird-identification apps, newly converted birders, repurposed Instagram accounts. And even if it’s brought on by all that birdsong we can finally hear, this moment is well overdue. But it’s also terribly fragile. In the last three decades, over a third of North America’s birds have vanished—that’s three billion birds. In India, where I live, the first nationwide study found that 80 percent of observed species were declining. In the UK, where I used to live, nearly a quarter of bird populations face extinction or steep decline.  In Migrations (Flatiron Books), the moment of the birds has passed. Along with that of the bears, deer, wolves, fish, bees, and trees. Set against a landscape of immense loss, Charlotte McConaghy’s evocative new novel charts the story of Franny, who attempts to follow the last flock of Arctic terns as they fly from one end of the earth to the other. Together with the wary crew of a fishing boat, Franny finds herself immersed in terrain that’s as unstable and precarious as her interior world. As McConaghy writes: “There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.” And if we have any hope of salvaging the natural world, Migrations suggests that we may have to uncover our own wildness first. Richa Kaul Padte: There’s a moment when your narrator Franny is explaining the immense journey of the Arctic terns—from the North to the South Pole and back again, all in a single year. She says, “I think of the courage of this and I could cry.” What, in turn, is the sort of courage required by humans to face the world of Migrations—one in which practically all the animals, birds, and insects that once populated the earth have died? Charlotte McConaghy: Great question! I like to think of the courage of the terns’ journey as a metaphor for the courage that Franny—and all humans—need in facing the looming animal extinctions. It’s so hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, and to feel hopeless or apathetic in the face of it. It seems too big for any one of us to be able to stop, but I wanted the book to be a battle cry of sorts. To say no, we can make a difference, we can take up this fight, and in fact we have an individual responsibility to do so. Franny’s journey (without giving too much away) is one of hopelessness to a reclaiming of hope, and it requires a lot of courage from her to reach that point; this is what we will need in order to reclaim our own hope—and not only hope, but the energy required to take on a journey as vast as the flight of the terns.  Do you think this hope and energy partly comes from noticing—and in the case of Migrations, remembering—the remaining wildness in the world? There’s this moment when Franny sees the terns and thinks: “Easy to forget how many there once were, how common they seemed. Easy to forget how lovely they are.” Is paying attention a way to energize ourselves in the face of despair? Absolutely! The more we notice these beautiful creatures the more we will value them. And we don’t have to look far. Go for a walk and really look at the trees you see, study their leaves and try to spot the birds that hide among them. Find some water and sit beside it, it won’t take long for water birds to come and sit on its surface or dive below for fish. Sit quietly and listen to the sound of the wind. Spot the little bugs that find their way into your home and instead of squishing them, help them on their way. Everything has an important role to play. Take pleasure from all of these living creatures; every one of them is a wonder. We have the capacity to take such joy from the natural world, and I think you’re absolutely right that this helps to stave off the despair we feel when we think it’s all gone. It hasn’t gone yet. There’s still time to save it. Woven through your book is a “nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds...of the animals.” Franny remarks: “How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.” This reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s concept of “species loneliness”—a “deep, unnamed sadness” arising from human estrangement with other species. Both Franny and Kimmerer describe this loss as unnamed; what, if anything, shifts when we try to name it? Perhaps the attempt to name it is what separates us from other species—the need for language to define and understand how we feel and what we yearn for. For animals there is only instinct. One of the things I wanted Franny to be, while thoughtful and contemplative, was more instinctive than most people, wilder, maybe, or more in touch with her wildness. This allows her to connect more deeply with the natural world, but also means she feels the loss of it keenly. I think we all must strive to connect more deeply with the world if we have any wish to salvage it and perhaps lessen some of that unnamed sadness. Whether we have the ability to identify it or not, it’s something that lives in us as deeply as instinct does, and maybe it’s a sign of our creatureliness, and hints that reconnection has the potential to nourish us all. Oh, now that makes me wonder if it’s actually reductive to try and name this sadness! In the sense that maybe our constant need to name, classify and categorize everything—including our feelings—prevents us from forming the sorts of connections we need the most? Yeah, I sometimes think that might be the case too. Overanalyzing and overthinking can feel like the occupation of a writer, which is why it was such a bone-deep relief to write about a character who doesn’t try to analyze what things mean, but instead tries to experience each moment, to really feel them. Franny is guided by emotion and I tried to let the writing process be that way. It’s a difficult thing when your job is to put language to emotion, because you must also know when language has its limitations and try to allow something deeper to shine through on the page.   Something you resist a lot in your text is the idea of human centrality—for example conservation efforts being focused on what benefits us the most. In Migrations, the work to save bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators is well underway, while “no-hopers” are allowed to “fade into extinction.” But, as Franny asks, “wasn’t this attitude the problem to begin with?” Yes, it really upsets me to think about the extinction crisis only in terms of how it will affect us humans. Sometimes it seems like the only argument that ever gets through to people is how damaged our food supply will be when there are no more pollinators to help us grow that food, or the thought of our homes being destroyed by flood or drought or fires or rising sea levels. It distresses me because we are not the only living creatures on this planet, nor the only ones with a right to safety. We are sharing this world; if anything, we are its caretakers. So I didn’t want this book to become a dystopian look at how our lives will be affected, I wanted it to be an existential exploration of how it will feel to be the only living things left here. I think it will be devastating. The thought of a world with only humans is a horrifying thought. The animals deserve to be here as much as we do, and not to serve any purpose, but to exist in their own right. There is a growing tension in your book between climate activists and fishing communities, with the latter often positioned as enemies of the sea. Franny, for example, is shocked when the captain of the The Saghani—the only fishing vessel that agrees to take her aboard—releases a large catch to free a sea turtle caught in its net. I think the only thing that shocked me, though, was her shock. I’ve lived near fishing communities for a long time, and in fact just last month, fishermen in my home state of Goa, India, freed several Olive Ridley turtles.   Is there a truth in the terrible way some conservationists view fishing communities—a truth other than activists’ own privilege?  I think there is huge division between people on this subject, and unfortunately a lot of that stems from a lack of understanding of the other party. I’m a vegetarian, while my father is a beef and lamb farmer. There could be division between us but instead we have enough knowledge to understand each other. For Franny, in the world of Migrations, the seas have been even further ravaged than they are now (although we are headed that way swiftly), so she is aware only of a certain greed on the part of those who continue to fish despite the terrible state of the oceans. She just doesn’t understand why they carry on. For Ennis and his crew, there is even more desperation than there is for fishermen today—fish are so scarce they aren’t really able to make a living from it anymore, and this journey is a kind of last chance for them all, which is perhaps why Franny assumes that their need will outweigh their compassion. What she must learn is that there are complexities to us all; it is the systems that have been put in place that need to change. I’m really interested in how knowledge operates in your book. Franny says of her scientist husband: “Niall has always wanted me to study the things I love, to learn them...in facts. But I’ve always been content to know them in other ways….the touch and feel of them.” This makes me think of the biologist who refuses to believe that a flock of crows befriended Franny in her childhood. At the same time, we see that Franny’s instinctive love of birds and the sea is deepened by Niall’s research, too. Are these two ways of knowing contradictory, or can they compliment each other—even when what we are trying to know is wildness itself? I think part of Franny’s journey is to understand that they can complement each other. There is certainly a sense of contradiction to her—she is hungry for knowledge of birds, sitting in on classes she’s not enrolled in just to learn more about them, while at the same time resisting the thought of making this learning official by committing to any kind of study. She’s frightened, I think, that the science of things might tarnish the magic she sees and feels in the wild. It’s her creatureliness that makes her disinterested in normal societal values—career ambition, wealth, etc.—but she comes to slowly understand that committing to learning about her passion doesn’t have to take the magic from it, and I think this is one of the gifts she gets from her husband. Just as he learns a kind of optimism from her about our potential impact on the natural world—and as we are all inevitably enriched in some way by our partners’ views.   “Creatureliness” is a word you’ve mentioned a couple times now, and it makes me think of Franny “reach[ing]…for poetry, for Mary Oliver and her wild geese and her animal bodies loving what they love.” What is creatureliness, and is it linked to how “we don’t always have to be a poison, a plague on the world…[how] we can nurture it too?” Yes, I think so. I’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from Mary Oliver’s poetry and her extraordinary ability to recognize how our connection to the natural world can feed and sustain us. I read recently that it’s our separation from nature that makes us harmful to it. That as we advanced technologically, we lost our ability to be harmonious with the rest of the world. I think there are those with a more natural ability to connect with animals and wild spaces, and maybe it’s because they are able to remember their own animal natures. The quiet we are capable of. Perhaps it’s only by reconnecting with our animal sides, or our “creatureliness,” that we will remember what it means not just to exist for our own sakes, but as part of a greater, vibrant, interconnected whole. Our place here can be nurturing and gentle, instead of destructive. This is a very important theme in the book and in Franny’s life. The realization that she, and all of us, can help instead of hinder, gives meaning and purpose to her life, and I hope readers can take a little of this from the novel.
Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

I. Maria—Pregnancy Monday was a bad day. Four patients in the ICU ward where Maria worked died of COVID. The patients had all been in the ICU for two to three weeks. Maria, a licensed clinical social worker, hadn’t seen or spoken with them directly; they had been on respirators, tubes in their mouths, unable to communicate, but she wasn’t allowed in the rooms with COVID patients anyway. She provided support to their families, facilitating end-of-life discussions in Spanish and preparing them for difficult news. When she’d met with the families, they had been more concerned for Maria than themselves: “They saw my belly and were shocked.” No one expects to see a six-month-pregnant woman working full-time in the ICU ward of a busy urban hospital during a global pandemic. “They say, ‘We were worried to come into the hospital, and here you are working here.’ It’s a weird position to be in, ‘cause here I am, trying to provide support and help them process the information being told to them by the medical staff, and trying to help them through the grief process. And they’re worried about me.” This happens more and more with Maria’s patients. Worry over her developing baby serves as a temporary distraction from the loss of their loved ones—a chance to worry about new life in the face of a painful death. “A lot of the families tell me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be here to help you.’” Maria has become accustomed to being the object of such anxiety. Her patients regularly fret over her. Other hospital staff express concern. Her friends and family send well-meaning texts with unsolicited advice and links to articles. “‘You’re putting yourself and your baby in danger,’ they tell me.” Such interference is normal during pregnancy; just ask any woman who’s tried to order coffee when she’s showing. America’s culture of pregnancy-related fear-mongering and body policing can cause prenatal anxiety under normal circumstances. COVID has served to magnify this. Many pregnant women are experiencing an increase in depression and anxiety under the pandemic as a result. Maria hasn’t been particularly worried about working in the ICU, though. Her years of work in hospitals have left her feeling prepared for a situation like COVID. “I’ve been trained to look at the research, and all of it says there’s just not enough evidence. So really, I just have to protect myself like I would with the regular flu or any other contagious condition, like TB.” She washes her hands, wears her mask, keeps her distance. She also feels supported by her supervisor, who doesn’t require her to enter patients’ rooms or do anything that makes her feel unsafe. She found out she was pregnant in January. It wasn’t planned and the father wasn’t in the picture, but she decided to go through with it anyway. Her doctor began talking to her about COVID at her first prenatal appointment, even though there had been no documented cases in the US yet. He urged her to stop going in to work at the hospital. Working from home wasn’t an option for her position, though. Because she’s preparing to become a single mother, quitting wasn’t financially feasible either. Maria also had that particularly American quandary of wanting to save her sick days until the baby came. “If I use all my time off now, what will I do when the baby’s here?” Maria likes her job—she likes working face-to-face with families not different from her own, likes being a source of calm and support during a crisis, likes the distraction for the disappointment and loneliness of a COVID pregnancy. “What would I be doing otherwise? Just sitting at home.” A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses. For Maria, there’s no prenatal yoga classes to go to. No big baby shower. No birthing classes and making friends with other moms-to-be. No friends touching her belly and remarking on how big it’s gotten. There are instead quiet mornings with her dog. There’s a bag packed with snacks to fuel her through the long shifts at work. There are texts with other pregnant friends sharing resources. There are plans for a drive-thru baby shower. There are evenings watching movies with her parents with the subtitles on. There’s a stillness and a waiting. Her biggest fear is being separated from her baby at birth. Her hospital’s policy is to quarantine any mother who tests positive for COVID for 14 days—and that includes being quarantined from her own baby. “I worked in the Labor & Delivery ward for a year and a half, and I saw the strain on moms whose babies would go to the NICU. So, it’s a real fear. I get really emotional thinking about it.” There are other labor fears. She is planning for her mother to be her one allowed support person. “But my mom is in her sixties. I worry about exposing her while she’s in the hospital.” She also worries she won’t be prepared for labor. In-person birthing classes have been canceled and the online ones don’t have the interactive element. “I wonder, am I gonna be ready for the delivery? I haven’t been able to prepare the way a mom normally would.” She’s largely alone with these feelings. She lives by herself, so she makes a point to see her parents almost every day. “My pregnancy was a surprise, you know, and it’s just me. As much as I wanna say I don’t need those things—having people around, having a big baby shower—I do. I’ve felt very isolated. Friends who would normally come around haven’t. It’s out of concern for my safety, but I still wish I had that support. I wish I had all the pictures to show my daughter, ‘This is what we were doing to prepare. This is how excited we were for you.’” Instead there is Maria, in her mask. Work serves as a welcome distraction, a place where she can be useful to people in a time of need. “There’s a lot of grief at the hospital right now. A lot of suffering goes on with COVID, and it’s a very stressful situation.” Her hospital serves largely immigrant populations, who’ve been deeply affected by both the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. “They come to this country with big hopes and dreams. And then COVID happens to them, and it all ends.” Maria’s been crying more about her patients during this time, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the stress, grief, or pregnancy hormones. “Probably all three.” She tends not to be an emotional person. Her role requires her to stay level-headed, and usually she’s able to hold it all back. But after that Monday with four deaths, she couldn’t take it—she went back to her co-worker’s desk and broke down in tears. “There’s just so much pain right now.” She talks to a therapist once a week. And she talks to her baby, telling her how strong she’s going to be, how excited she is to meet her, how strange the world is right now. “I keep telling myself, ‘At the end of all this, I’m gonna have a beautiful baby girl.’” It’s a strange triangulation: work distracts from her pregnancy disappointments; pregnancy distracts from her work stress; and her pregnancy distracts her patients from the loss of their family members. It’s a COVID-carved shape, with a sleeping fetus at its center. That Friday, there’s finally some good news. Two people with COVID leave the ICU. “Not many people get to leave. And even though I’ll never see them again, it made me so happy. There’s not much good news these days, so I try to focus on that.”  [[{"fid":"6707271","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"}}]]   II. Kate—Labor Kate first thought of going to Canada when they were in line at Costco. It was early March and the line snaked the length of the airplane-hangar-sized store. Kate stood next to her husband Steven, her eight-month bump bulging. She looked at the line, the mountains of toilet paper in everyone’s carts, and felt an anxiety rise up her spine. She turned to Steven and asked, “Would it be crazy to go to Canada to give birth?” “Yes,” he answered. After all, they had a birth plan: a hospital they liked, an OBGYN they trusted, a doula they’d paid for. They had a baby-proofed apartment and friends who’d promised to deliver lasagnas. Could they uproot everything to return to Kate’s native country, where she hadn’t lived in since high school, because of a fearful hunch? A crazy premonition about a pandemic sweeping New York City? “I had to admit, it sounded crazy.” But she couldn’t ignore the mounting sense of dread. Kate had started to worry about COVID in December. Her job required her to follow the news closely. At first, it was a low-level, analytical worry. She read articles, amassed information, figured out what they needed to buy online. “It was like, ‘Do diapers get made in China? Let’s order 300 diapers, just in case.’” She felt like she was playing the stock market. “My mentality was, ‘Let’s just play it safe.’” She started buying living supplies as well, canned foods and toilet paper. Steven went along with it, indulging the pregnant lady. By mid-February, the worry became a constant buzz. She began reading reports of people in the US who were displaying symptoms but were unable to get tested. “I realized it was here and no one knew.” Soon, she was only reading COVID stories.  The buzz got louder. “In early March, I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the apartment anymore.’” She sent an email asking her boss to work from home. His initial response was dismissive; four hours later, he wrote back saying that the higher-ups wanted her to remain working from home. By the next week, the entire office was working from home. Next was the run on toilet paper. “I felt like I kept being proven right.” All the hunches she had, everything she kept doing “just in case”—it all was turning true. “That’s when I said, ‘We need to go to Costco today.’” In line, the idea of driving home to Canada occurred to her. Later that night, their apartment crammed with stockpiled baby supplies and canned food, Kate went online and ordered facemasks. Steven watched her from the doorway. “Kate, I’m worried about you,” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going crazy? Is this all in my head?’” She wasn’t an anxious person; her pregnancy prior to that point had been worry-free, relaxed, “like sitting in a warm bath.” But this new anxiety kept getting louder. It was worse at night. She’d wake up to use the bathroom, check the news, then lie in bed in terror. Outside her window, she watched her block change, the restaurants shutter, the soup kitchen close down, the sidewalks empty. She heard sirens all hours of the night; countless ambulances kept returning to the halfway house across the street to take away sick residents. Soon she couldn’t even get groceries delivered. Then at 37 weeks pregnant, she got her first symptoms. First it was a sore throat. Then the chest pains began. When she called her doctor, she asked her to come in. Kate walked the 45 minutes across the deserted city, no one but the homeless on the streets. “It was eerie.” The doctor ran a slew of tests that all came back negative. The office didn’t have any COVID tests so, based on the color of her phlegm, Kate was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was relieved, but couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that stalked her. “I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get care, even if we needed it. And we had insurance.” Later that week, she found out her husband wouldn’t be able to accompany her in the hospital. She was devastated, livid. “I was doing everything I could to stay safe, and I just felt so powerless. New York is an amazing city, but New Yorkers don’t listen to their government. America is a country founded on ‘fuck this tyranny,’ and that’s not where you want to be during a pandemic.” Then, Cuomo held a press conference in which he shared the projected date of infection peak in New York City: April 8. The day after Kate’s due date. The fear was screaming now. She couldn’t shake it, couldn’t convince herself she was being crazy or paranoid. She kept thinking about the story of the frog that got boiled alive, the temperature of the water increasing so slowly, he never thought to jump out. And all of a sudden, she knew. Steven was taking a shower. She walked into the steaming bathroom. “We need to go to Canada now.” It didn’t feel like her speaking the words, but some other force. Steven looked at her from the shower stall. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve been right about everything else so far, so I trust you.” Everything fell into place. A co-worker lent them a car for several months. Her uncle found them a place to rent. Her cousin in New York took their cats. They left at noon the next day, their car packed with all the baby supplies and canned goods Kate had amassed over the previous weeks. They made sandwiches and stopped only to use the bathroom. “We wore facemasks and everyone looked at us like we were crazy. But we were just a week ahead of everyone else.” It was a ten-hour drive to the border, and the whole time, well-meaning family members kept sending texts. The border was going to close at midnight. No, the border would be open, but the provincial border would close. Steven, who wasn’t a Canadian citizen, wouldn’t be able to get in. “We were driving through the countryside and didn’t have internet, so I couldn’t look any of it up.” All they could do was drive and hope, while fear drummed in her veins. They arrived at the border at 11 p.m. The officer didn’t know what to do with them. “I have to call my supervisor and see if we can let you in.” Kate sat on a hard wooden bench inside the border control office, 38 weeks pregnant, and surrendered to the fear. What if they didn’t get let in? When the officer told them they could enter the country, she started bawling. All the terror and anxiety of the previous weeks sloughed off her. “I realized how scared I’d been. In New York, death felt closer than it ever had.” Labor and delivery is already a time when one walks with death. Despite relatively recent modern advancements in maternal and newborn care, when labor approaches, one still feels the dark edges of mortality closing around themselves, and their baby. COVID and the American response only magnifies that primitive fear. Driving through the Canadian night, Kate felt a weight lifting, death’s shadow receding. Out of the window, she saw grass and trees, instead of abandoned city streets. It was a sharp contrast. Everything felt safer, the intersections and stoplights wrapped in the knowledge that she would be able to get the care she needed. “I was just so grateful we weren’t going to die.” It turned out to be a good thing they’d brought so much canned food—they were required to quarantine for 14 days. They shut themselves inside the apartment her uncle had found and subsisted on tins of tuna fish and beans. Given their exposure and her unconfirmed bronchitis, Kate’s new OBGYN wanted to get her tested for COVID. “I was just so glad to be able to get tested.” It was another stark contrast. In New York, the hospital where Kate had been scheduled to deliver had released photos showing nurses wearing garbage bags and bandanas. “I couldn’t believe how much better the health care in Canada was. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m in New York, I have great insurance,' but it turned out it didn’t matter.” The results came back the next day. Both Kate and her husband tested positive for COVID. “I didn’t have time to freak out.” Kate was due in two weeks.The town she was in hadn’t had a single case of COVID, let alone an infected pregnant woman about to give birth. As her husband’s symptoms worsened, she began talking with the doctors every day, trying to figure out a plan. She felt like an imposition, an entitled New Yorker bringing the world’s problems back to her hometown. One day while Facetiming, the doctor started crying. “We’re just so happy you’re here. We know the journey you’ve been through, and we just want to help you and your baby.” “I feel like such an asshole for bringing COVID here and putting everyone through this,” Kate said. “You’re doing what’s best for your child,” the doctor said, “and that’s what every mother does.” Steven’s case worsened as her due date drew near. Throughout all her fear, he had been her rock; now it was her turn. “We’re so much safer here,” she told him as his breathing became labored. “We can get care here, and the doctors know us.” Their marriage had never felt stronger. She was hoping that her baby would stay inside until after the 14-day quarantine elapsed and they were no longer contagious. The contractions began several days early, however. Kate would have to deliver without Steven. “I was devastated. It was so hard saying goodbye and going into the hospital without him.” They tell you not to get too attached to any birthing plan, because labor is unpredictable. Kate had lots of ideas of how she wanted her birth to go: she had a doula booked, had taken hypnobirthing classes, wanted to go natural. Just a month prior, Steven’s presence at the birth had been assumed, so much of a given she hadn’t included it in her birth plan. Kate didn’t have any of those supports when she went into active labor. All she had was her notebook from the hypnobirthing class and the peanut ball she’d managed to bring. She directed the masked nurses, who’d never heard of hypnobirthing, on how to adjust the peanut ball, unsure if she was doing the positions correctly. “I just kept thinking, ‘I have a husband at home with COVID who can’t walk; I can’t have a C-section.’” She didn’t have to. Her daughter was born at a healthy eight pounds, eight ounces, COVID-free. Being reunited with her husband upon discharge, several days later, was one of the happiest moments of her life. The first time he held their daughter, she felt a mix of deep joy and profound terror—was he still contagious? He wasn’t. They had to struggle through the first weeks alone, as her husband painstakingly recovered. They couldn’t have relatives come help, lactation consultants visit, grandmothers and grandfathers hold the baby. But they were safe and had each other. And a month’s supply of canned tuna fish.  [[{"fid":"6707276","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"}}]] III. Lauren—Postpartum Five weeks after our daughter was born, the world shut down. Very little in my life changed. Lockdown was exactly the same as having a newborn, I told friends, only better. I was already terrified of the outside world, already living in my sweatpants, already worried about money and washing my hands like a hypochondriac. The only difference was that now my partner was home with me. So actually, lockdown improved my life. Our daughter was born in early February, three weeks early and barely five pounds, her skin covered in a rash of pustular blisters. Nothing to worry about, the team of pediatricians told us. A bad case of a fairly common response to the hormones in the womb. Everything was normal then. My doula coached me through the pushing, my partner stayed with me the entire four-day hospital stay. Our parents visited. An incessant cast of nurses, social workers, lactation consultants and doctors rotated through our hospital room, until we finally hung a Do Not Disturb sign. There were signs, in the elevators and hallways, warning to get care if you had a fever and had been overseas, but they got lost in the clutter of all the other notices for breastfeeding groups and domestic violence call lines. We fell into the newborn haze: all-night feeding marathons, diaper changing, rocking and hushing, wondering who this stunned, howling stranger who barely opened her eyes was, and how she could fit into such a small body. With an early-term, underweight infant, the outside world suddenly became terrifying. I refused guests, and made the few family members who visited wash their hands. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment to go sit in the garden. She was so small, I wanted to shove her back inside. She should still be inside me, I’d think whenever I looked at her. Her rash made her seem even more fragile. The waiting room at her two-week check-up was filled with sniffling children and crying babies. Each one seemed like a contagion threat. We stood in a far corner, pushed the elevator buttons with our elbows, and squeezed sanitizer on to our hands at every interaction. She was gaining weight, looked healthy, but the pediatrician was concerned about her skin. “The rash should be resolving by now,” she said. “She shouldn’t be getting new blisters.” We were referred to a dermatologist, who told us the rash was likely the symptom of a rare genetic disorder. I cried. My partner took charge, refusing the skin graft and the herd of young residents who wanted to take a look. The dermatologist gave us a printed-out PDF and told us to watch for seizures. There was a blur of next steps—geneticists and neurologists and ophthalmologists—and a series of appointments, each one brutal and wrenching in its own particular way. The ophthalmologist needed to dilate her eyes for an exam; they swaddled and held her down while the doctor inserted Clockwork Orange goggles to keep her lids open. Our daughter screamed louder and harder than anything that tiny ever should. The geneticist ordered a blood sample to confirm the diagnosis. I used my arms and hair to create a wall around her and shhh’ed while the lab technician pricked her foot and squeezed out blood. She writhed and howled, her mouth a tiny cave of pain. I tried not to cry. In the background of each of these appointments, there was a succession of increasing safety precautions, a time lapse of COVID preventatives. Hand sanitizer appeared at the reception counters. Screenings questions were asked. Masks were worn. Temperature checks administered, plexiglass barriers installed, waiting rooms emptied. The world around us spun out, but we were able to maintain a singular focus on our little girl. It was almost a blessing. The week before the world shut down, my partner’s office sent him to work from home. It was a welcome change after his too-short paternity leave. We’d been joyous, gleeful. He whistled while he set up the computer monitor on the dining table. When shelter-in-place began, my single friends grappled with loneliness and isolation, and I felt like I'd won some secret prize. I was relieved to not have to leave the house, relieved to not have guests, relieved to not be alone all day. My boyfriend cooked breakfast every morning. I wore milk-stained nursing tanks and rarely took showers. We binged new TV series and rubbed $60 medicated ointment on our daughter’s skin. We told no one about her pending diagnosis. The outside world sank away and it was just the three of us. It might have been one of the happiest times of my life. Most times I could ignore the lingering disasters waiting in the background, but they found ways of creeping in. I checked the news on my phone while I fed her late at night, watched the death toll in Italy rise and the images of overcrowded New York hospitals. I Googled images of other children with her same condition, examined the discoloration of their skin and conical abnormalities of their teeth, and cried. I watched my boyfriend suit up in quasi-hazmat gear to go stand in long supermarket lines at 7 a.m. I studied charts of developmental milestones and anxiously watched for her to smile and track objects. COVID was in full swing by the time she was scheduled for a laser eye surgery at seven weeks old. Only one parent was allowed to accompany her, and she was required to take a COVID test. I caught the technicians in white hazmat gear exchanging nervous glances when they saw how small my daughter was. “We have to keep the swab in for 15 seconds,” they told me. “You’ll need to hold her arms down.” The swabbing woke her up. She thrashed her head, let out a cry deeper and more pained than I had heard yet. Her small body wracked with sobs. I couldn’t comfort her—I didn’t want to take her out of the stroller in the middle of the COVID testing lab, and I didn’t want to pat her with my gloved hands. She cried all the way back to the car, until I could squeeze out hand sanitizer, take her out of the stroller, hold her to my chest, and cry with her. When had the world become so painful and terrifying? The surgery ended up being easy. The surgeon showed me images of her eyes, where they lasered the problem areas: “We were able to save her vision.” I chatted with the nurses about furloughed shifts and weak unions. They told me how pretty she was. The effects of the anesthesia were worse than the surgery. She fussed and cried for two days. On the second day, I overheard my partner in a Zoom meeting. “Can I ask what the criteria was?” “I understand.” “If there’s ever an opportunity to return.” He came and stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he said. His company had lost a series of large accounts. It was nothing personal; they hoped to hire him back when this was all over. He sat down on the bed next to me. I felt our world tremble, start to crack. I put my arms around him, cradling our daughter between us, and we made a little cave like that—an island in an unraveling world. Ten minutes later, the geneticist called with the results of our daughter’s blood work. She was officially diagnosed with incontinentia pigmenti. Up until that point, COVID and the effects of the shelter-in-place existed outside of us. People died, lost livelihoods, couldn’t see loved ones, and I too exhausted and consumed to feel any of it. I’d been waiting for life to go back to normal, living a kind of denial. I realized then that life wouldn’t be going back to normal, not for us or the world. COVID, motherhood, and our daughter’s condition were altering us irrevocably, in ways I knew I didn’t even understand yet. I cut my maternity leave short and returned to my job as a high school teacher—cue the Google classrooms and Zoom live classes while breast pumping below the screen line. It wasn’t the vision of early motherhood I’d had. There were no Mommy and Me yoga classes, no smiling strangers congratulating us, no pushing a stroller to cafes on weekday mornings. All the ideas and sense of security I'd had had evaporated, and I was left with what was. Sometime in May, the newborn fog began to break. We started getting more sleep. My partner picked up freelance jobs. Our daughter began laughing when we kissed her, smiling at us first thing in the morning, putting everything in her mouth. Her rash faded into swirls of marbled discoloration. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—same stained nursing tank, eyebrows grown out and hair undyed for a year, bags under my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead—and wondered what the hell happened. Where was the person I knew, and would she ever be coming back? No, I realized. Life wouldn't always be like this, but it would never be the same as it was. The lockdown that at first felt like a blessing has become stifling. Our daughter has gotten older, sturdier, smilier, and I want to share her with the world. My parents haven't seen her in months, and most of my friends haven't met her. She rarely leaves the apartment or sees faces other than ours. How will that impact her social development? There’s so much uncertainty. How will the rest of her symptoms present—tooth abnormalities, alopecia, learning delays? What will happen when the extra $600 per week of unemployment runs out? Will I even be returning to teach in a classroom this fall? Will our daughter be teased for her discolored skin? When COVID finally ends, what kind of world will we awaken to? Sometimes it feels like standing on the top of a very high mountain; if I start running down, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop. So I have to stay in today, in the present moment. She laughs and babbles and fusses. Right now, we have health insurance and enough money for food and rent. We have each other. “Daddy invented COVID so we could all stay home and cuddle,” my partner tells her. And sometimes, it feels true.
Outside, People Were Crying, Or They Weren’t

Is that bizarre? he asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much?

It was autumn in Michael’s apartment, but August everywhere else. Noise from the neighboring units jutted through the walls like slow-motion fists. I was seated on a chair in an otherwise bare corner, facing Michael; behind him was a tiny world, none of the items in which caught my eye. Light pooled between us on the carpet. It looked like a stain. Outside, people were crying, or they weren’t.   * I wanted to begin with an explanation, as if the body before Michael, in the shape of a bent exclamation point, were a kind of riddle. I told him I would be conducting interviews with a handful of folks from the area for a novel I intended to write: relatives, acquaintances, people of interest like him, and I hoped it would amount to an autobiography of a town, of rural Alberta. At this point Michael angled his head away from his shoulders, such that they weren’t flush anymore, then squinted. He asked how I would manage to write both an autobiography and a novel. Confidently, I said I was interested in how the emotional rhythm of a singular voice, when heard from a sociological distance, implicates a larger population, however wondrous or devastating or simultaneously wondrous and devastating. I did my best to clarify that I was suspicious of the notion that the autobiographical is an individualistic mode, that I believed every person is made up of a community’s memories. I wanted to make use of the form of the novel because it would allow me to sculpt a reality instead of photographing or duplicating one. It also guaranteed a degree of privacy and anonymity, modes through which the rawest kinds of language can surface. I wouldn’t be using voice recorders nor would I take notes, I told him, as either could introduce an aura of formality that might inhibit relatability. Veracity wasn’t the project’s primary artistic concern anyway, I had decided days ago. I was far more interested in the inestimable ways place governs the moods, atmospheres, and climates of confession and self-fabrication. Under certain conditions, I hypothesized, everyone participates in a genre of anthropological speech that breaches the fog of unknowing that, as it turns out, is also what it feels like to sputter out in the ruts of everyday life. The affective slip between stuckness and becoming alert to the force of history against one’s back was what I wanted to attune to. I winked upon describing this framework, in fewer words, to Michael, to suggest I assumed he was following along, that he thought my logic was sound, though it occurred to me immediately thereafter that such body language could be misconstrued to my detriment. So as to disavow a tiny jolt of shame, I rushed to add that writers generally agree one must suspend belief in the factual in order to get at whatever comprises the textures and tones of selfhood, which some remain ignorant to their entire lives. I spoke by way of generalizations without fear he would cross-examine them and therefore me. Sometimes a gesture toward truth, I said, could be more powerful than a simple description of it. Inside a moment of something like but not definitively suspense I analyzed Michael’s lips, which looked like a red smudge in the middle of a dark grey beard. It was as if someone had rubbed a wet thumb under his nose in one swift motion. His mouth seemed to be the work of a careless artist. All faces are still-drying paintings, I thought, when glimpsed from both ends of a long decade. I tried to picture Michael thirty, forty years ago. I wanted him to be beautiful, which meant I was okay making the present into something of a tragedy. Michael had heard some of the project’s premises before, when I rang him up at work last week (he is a newspaper publisher), so I was puzzled by a vacant expression that indicated not boredom but unease. I noticed then that the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up asymmetrically, one to his elbow, the other just above his wrist. I scanned the rest of him; his hair, slicked back with water, extended from his head unevenly. His clothes hung loosely from his thin frame, as if they had just come out of the washing machine. The total effect of his appearance was that he seemed struck by a gust of wind, like someone had plucked him from the air, mid-fall, and sat him down in front of me.  Michael said there wasn’t much he could tell me that wasn’t already in print in the archives back at the office. This town isn’t a literary spectacle, he explained, though I hadn’t believed otherwise. Michael has reported on what matters to the region for most of his adult life, and what matters has often had to do with mundanities and clichés. The stories he runs repeat every year. He suspected it was buried scandals and gossip I was after, he admitted, and that if this was the case the meeting should end sooner rather than later. He said this less accusingly than decisively, crossing one leg over the other. I was, however, of the opinion that a cliché could be an anchor, that it could bind us to the world, to one another. A group of clichés is a reason to live, I said to Michael with an enthusiasm I hoped wouldn’t embarrass him. Michael stared at me searchingly, likely turning over the sentiment in his head, investigating it for its plausibility. Was it intellectual nonsense masquerading as sympathy? Was there something more sinister beneath my performance of eagerness? Or was it something that could knot us together, if only briefly? As if deciding against the latter, Michael said irately that if I wanted him to rehash the last half century of store openings and closings, of council elections and athletic achievements, of industrial developments and petty crime, that he could have sent a digital file of his newspapers and saved me the drive up from the city. Caught off guard by the absence of generosity in Michael’s voice I resorted to a different register, one more exacting and emotional. I told him that I was the interviewer, which made him the interviewee, a position I knew he was unfamiliar with. I didn’t see him as the place where local history was stored and nothing else. I wasn’t driven to distinguish the sayable from the unsayable so as to be controversial. I wanted to illuminate how deeply entangled the two can become. I reminded him I too called the little town home, that it tailgates me like a shadow, despite my having left a number of years ago. I could feel my language flickering, aching. For a long time it made a racket inside me as if someone were striking a rock against my ribcage, I said. I worried it would consume me, but I left when I had the chance. My voice shook as the words leapt from my mouth. I imagined I’d have to sweep up the words later. If this were the case, I continued to imagine, what if anything would a twentysomething find important enough to say to warrant making a mess? I left so I could be as brief as any town, I added. I left so I could be as interminable too.  Silence befell us, but it was interrupted, or intensified, by the faint sound of a pop song from a car stopped at an adjacent intersection. I watched Michael watch me. It was like I had suddenly become un-blurry to him, as if the weather between us had taken a turn. For the worst? I couldn’t yet tell. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded with unblinking, serious eyes, which I took to signify fellow-feeling, empathy, and permission to proceed, however much ambiguity had filled up the room. I want to talk to you about regret, I said. *  Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?  * I admitted to Michael that as a teenager the sight of him had felt like a second chance. Nothing about him was conventionally gay, but he pivoted away from the codes of normative masculinity in quiet ways I embellished in my mind to represent a grace and liberty I might inherit. Where most men were a kind of noise pollution, something akin to TV static, Michael was reserved, thoughtful, calculated. Additionally, surrounded by those for whom joy was a vocation, a task yielding material consequences they felt they were owed, I was fascinated by the elegiac, non-arrogant register in which Michael inhabited the world. This is what constituted sociality for our species, I reasoned. Even his grief was a lighthouse to a boy whose future had no shape to it. Maybe early on I determined I didn’t have to live, Michael said, in a plangent tone, I just had to be alive. It was a difference so precise I had to close my eyes to hear it. What drives a person to make that sort of compromise? he asked. A question I inferred was rhetorical, a question he had to hear himself pose, had to know was inside him all along. Michael explained that for him there are days where all that matters is that he made it from the middle of one century to the start of another. This is because sometimes it feels like yesterday is still ahead of him. It was like someone had taken a photograph of him before he was an autonomous, thinking-feeling subject with an instant camera, the kind that immediately spits out a photograph, but it was taking years and years to develop. Not enough light had hit the surface, so he lived like negative space. By the time he caught a peak of himself, he had already faded. What this meant is that I was a gay man listening to a gay man who hadn’t been listened to. Why have you never formally come out? I asked. During the summer of 1980, Michael said, I fell in love with a boy, a classmate. It happened unthinkingly, against common sense. They had put themselves in danger. Perhaps having a “we,” however fragile, to endanger empowered them to rationalize the irrational in the first place, I thought. They would lay in his bed and hold hands until dawn, nothing else. Michael would squeeze his hand so hard it went numb, but he never protested. They seldom spoke in his bedroom, he clarified. It was as if there were things the dark made it impossible to utter. All sensory faculties fell away except touch, the language-ness of it. In the absence of speech, he told the boy everything. I knew what he meant. What is inside a letter if not light?  They were boys who knew only how to fail at boyhood. It sounded to me like an ethnographic spectacle. They were as afraid of being found out by one another’s parents as they were of the encroaching season. There was a summerness to their little love. The sweat of June and July and August glistened in the small of their backs, is what I heard Michael saying. Did he want to put his tongue to the boy? Was he afraid it was forbidden, that it was a sheet of icy metal? Did the passage of time feel like a personal affront? Did they crane their heads toward the sky so as to believe they had transported to another world? Without warning, Michael said, the boy disappeared. Rumour had it his parents sent him to a conversion therapy camp a few hours away. People didn’t say “gay,” Michael added, afraid it was contagious, that it would sit in the air. Michael waited for him. Michael waited as if he was put on earth to wait. When the boy finally came back, weeks later, he was no longer a person but an outline of one, no longer flush with humanity. Michael would knock at his door and no one would answer. One evening he pounded on the door until he heard sirens in the distance, until all of him turned red and blue. Days later the boy enrolled in a high school on the other end of town, so Michael moved on. It was all he knew how to do, he said. He was still someone’s child and children didn’t get to plunge into their solitude. Unless they did. The boy killed himself that winter; he used his father’s belt. That’s what Michael heard. At the funeral Michael wept and wept in the church bathroom because the truth of the death was lost in a place outside admission. He wept until he was no longer human. Like an animal, he wanted his mourning to be an enormous display. Michael began to cry, softly—to mention a history of tears often had the effect of bringing someone to tears. I held my gaze. The thesis behind my project was that people turned into musical instruments when encouraged to testify about the conditions of their lives. My success hinged on my ability to endure whatever song was sung, so I listened with both eyes, with my hands clasped tightly in front of me. People didn’t kill themselves, not around here, Michael continued. No one forgot. They remembered and remembered. It triggered something powerful in him, a survival instinct. Back then, he wanted to live. He wanted to live because it was the only thing expected of him, of everyone. My god, I didn’t want to die, Michael said with a grimace, as if the thought was a new one, as if its newness disturbed him, challenged the bedrock of his worldview. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to live differently in the wake of that sort of revelation. You know, he went on, that dead boy is more proof of my continued existence than anything else. Do we make ourselves into tragedians trying to accrue proof of our aliveness in retrospect? I thought. Somewhere between love and loss we pitch a tent from which we only look backward.   Was it then that you decided to sublimate whatever longings you had, to live a kind of repressed life? I asked. Yes and no, Michael answered. It was accretive, he explained, a slow build-up of small decisions made in haste. I didn’t shun the gay parts of myself for good, if that is even possible, he said. He always deferred the day he would get the fuck out. With age, immobility turned out to be something he didn’t have to resist anymore, it gave him context, which he thought he had irreversibly forfeited. The future stopped feeling like something solid thrashing against him. The generations that preceded his were socialized to believe homosexuality was a crime. It was only removed from Albertan criminal law two years after he was born, in fact. The sentiment didn’t magically vanquish when reform happened. Heterosexuality was where identity began and ended. So much so that when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities all over the world, the town only caught bits and pieces of the circumstances. What made its way out here, north of the last major city, north of anyone at risk, was enough to piece together an intoxicating myth of gay impurity. To be gay was to be dead, dying. Worse, to harbor the ability to kill. It became easier to clock in and out of Michael’s body than confront the heaviness of his desires. He was unsure what devastation they might wrought. At some point, I thought, he convinced himself he was a stray bullet that silence had clenched between its teeth. Perhaps he was thankful for his captor. Michael’s oral history reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counterintuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of its consequences. I was also reminded, perhaps un-usefully, of the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic. Let me explain. There are currently 237,000 tonnes of arsenic in the mines near the city. For decades, men hunted gold and, by extension, happiness, another world. Left unchecked, the arsenic production skyrocketed and seeped into the snow, into the surrounding environment, so it had to be locked away. Were the chemicals to escape the chambers in which they have been frozen, biological life would cease to exist. Don’t we all tell ourselves that what’s inside us, our wanting, is annihilative to this degree? Don’t we all suspect our most volatile yearnings, when freed from the pits of our stomachs, could upend a world? What if desire is one of the few forces that troubles the idea of continuums, meaning we are either entirely absorbed or wrecked by it? Don’t we all have it in us to destroy ourselves? In response to the Butler note, Michael produced his own analogy. He mentioned the method of disembodied writing, which is when the writer is made invisible. It’s an approach he trusts, because it doesn’t paint a target on himself or his staff. It occurred to him the other day that we sometimes practice a kind of disembodied living. Like a ghost trying to accentuate its ghostliness, he said, chuckling. It appears I have mastered the art! To remain, I thought, to settle down, to stay put meant that the act of being inhibited, of being forestalled, became the larger ebb and flow of life writ large. Isn’t geographical fate, then, nothing but an obstacle one has to surpass? If a home was a monument to what you lost or were losing out on, wouldn’t you run away?  I felt compelled to reel Michael back into the room. To keep us both from wandering too long in the abstract. Did you ever fall in love again? I asked. At the abruptness of the question Michael turned his head away from me and toward a wall adorned with a degree and nothing else.  I reminded Michael he could pass on any question that discomfited. He smiled. Not exactly, no, he said. Throughout the nineties he had the habit of driving down to Edmonton for weekends at a time to try to breach the prison of indecision and regret he made of himself. He would linger at the gay bar, terrified he would run into someone he knew—which never happened, he clarified— until one or two in the morning. All he wanted was to be seen in a place where exposure was a kind of currency rather than a death wish. Men made advances, most of which he rebuffed. He accepted a blowjob here and there in bathroom stalls but no one had names, including him. He thought about staying in Edmonton, but in the end he had lost the power to be anything but complacent, self-sacrificial. Most importantly, though, even in his thirties and forties, he felt haunted by his first, and only, love, and the thing about memory is you can’t extinguish it. It is as automatic as the spinning earth. He decided it would be wrong to not be as close to that history as possible, as if it were a dying language only he could speak. His love for the boy was so contested and fraught and tragic he is still awash in it. The emotional intensity was enough to last a lifetime. Is that bizarre? Michael asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much? For a second or two I thought Michael expected an answer from me. His eyes were pleading, but whose wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t bruise themselves in the drama of self-documentation? How could anyone hold such a jagged memory up to the light and not wince? I decided against letting the interview naturally dissipate and asked Michael if he had ever felt empty, like something vital was missing, to which he said emptiness wasn’t something to run from. We all begin with emptiness, he argued: an empty name, an empty house, an empty life. Mine is a life of beginnings, he said. Every morning I start over. I explained to Michael that I experienced emptiness in two ways: either it was an echo from the past boomeranging around a room or it was the sound of air plummeting to the ground upon being sliced through. In both cases, around me it rained emptiness. I would be drenched in it. Perhaps that is a good way to understand our generational differences, Michael said, with an air of self-satisfaction. Michael, without prompt, said he doesn’t nauseate on what his life could have been. It’s his small act of refusal, his silent rebellion. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he see who he is, which is someone who’s running out of time. All those years of evading death were preparatory. Without knowing it, he was practicing death, a ritual unto itself. Just then he closed his eyes, not in an effort to abate tears but as if succumbing to exhaustion. So I did too. For a short while we were alone in a shared world where nothing needed to be said to grasp one another’s emotional possibility. * Michael walked me to the elevator and then to the front entrance. I thanked him for his time, for his candor and vulnerability, to which he said it was nice to get things off his chest, that I could follow-up if need be, that I knew where to find him. At the edge of the parking lot, I turned back to get one last look at him. Because it was five o’clock and the sun gave him a new face, or because I was twenty-four and lonely in a town that made me feel like a shipwreck, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I said goodbye for a second time. Now, alone in a hotel room, it’s as if I can still hear desire clamouring inside Michael. It’s like a bird’s wings rattling against a cage. It’s a beautiful and terrible melody I suspect he will die to.
‘America is Always in Therapy and Not Getting Much Out of It’: An Interview with Jason Diamond

Talking to the author of The Sprawl about teen rage, community disconnection, and building better suburbs.

When pressed via Instagram poll to describe what an America with defunded police would look like, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “It looks like a suburb.” Initially, the manicured montage of a bland, probably white family living in a spacious house behind a white picket fence with 2.5 kids and a station wagon in the driveway seems like an odd characterization for a non-carceral state. But on further examination, the comparison makes sense. In this imaginary suburb, crime is relatively nonexistent because the community’s affluence is funneled towards resources and social services such as education, libraries, and public pools, instead of the overpolicing of its citizens. Between Ocasio-Cortez’s reclamatory metaphor and Jason Diamond’s defense of the urban fringe, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press), the suburbs are undergoing a bit of an image overhaul as of late. From their inception post-WWII, the suburbs have formed the bedrock for a rich American mythology based on secrets and lies, normalcy and conformity. The first modern suburb, Levittown in Long Island, New York, was initially conceived of as a place where every young soldier returning home from the war could afford to own a home. The result was a tract of 17,000 near-identical homes built on top of fields that once yielded potatoes and onions that fed the very soldiers they now housed. Yet part of the planner’s desire to create an idyllic residential paradise involved consciously excluding Black and brown people; even today, Levittown remains 88 percent white. Diamond acknowledges the suburb’s exclusionary history and argues they can be redeemed. To him, the suburbs are not “a great big boring monolith of conformity”; rather they’re like Anakin Skywalker, a “flawed, imperfect but ultimately good person.” The Sprawl is part melancholic meditation on the meaning of the suburbs, part encyclopedic survey of the suburbs in pop culture references, and part futurist reimagining of the possibilities of suburbia. At its core, it’s both a paean to the place that formed Diamond and a wistful epitaph to where that childhood was discarded. But an underlying spirit of optimism prevails. If Diamond can overcome the trauma of his past, then perhaps there’s hope—a future that looks like a suburb might not be such a bad thing after all. Isabel Slone: The book is heavily rooted in place, yet it’s arriving at a time when most people have been suffocating inside for months. Has shelter-in-place affected the way you perceive the suburbs at all? Jason Diamond: It’s been really strange to see this sudden wave of people start thinking about moving back to the suburbs. There’s this acceptance, on the part of a lot of people my age, that they’re going to move back to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city or they just feel it’s safer outside, virus-wise. I have mixed emotions about it because I’ve been researching the suburbs for so long, but I didn’t hope for something so tragic as a pandemic to come up and make the book seem timely… You could almost argue that the entire theme of the book was mixed emotions. It’s clear you have a deep appreciation for the suburbs even though your experience growing up there wasn’t wholly positive. Did you feel like you were grappling with the idea of loving something you don’t really like? One of my favourite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing it so I guess it isn’t actually one of my favourite quotes, but Aaron Cometbus said that the two most nostalgic types of people are old punks and Jews. I’m both an old punk and a Jew. I’m a nostalgic person who tries to take a critical approach to things. It’s like with anything you write, you have to be as honest and careful as possible. My childhood in the suburbs wasn’t the greatest, but I do appreciate the idea of the suburbs, so I’m not going to come at them with my knives out either. I’m interested in your use of the term “reconsidering.” Why were you drawn to reconsidering the suburbs in the first place? For me, early on, I was like, “The suburbs suck. I don’t want to be here.” Then I started getting a little older and found myself in the suburbs more often and became really interested in the things I had previously overlooked. When I wrote my first book, Searching for John Hughes, I found myself going back to the Chicagoland area I grew up in, and was really stunned by how beautiful it is and how much interesting stuff there is going on. I didn’t realize the Steppenwolf theatre, this famous American theatre company of the last 50 years, was founded in the suburb right next to mine. Then I started unwinding every little thing that I like and realized that 90 percent of it comes from the suburbs. Lou Reed might be associated with New York City, but he’s from Long Island, you know? Steve Albini moved from Montana to Evanston, Illinois. It’s the same thing with Danzig. I visited his hometown, Lodi, New Jersey, and was like, “This is where Danzig is from?” It wasn’t some weird, creepy bat cave; it was suburban New Jersey. I really just started reconsidering the suburbs for myself. I got to this point where I decided that nothing is 100 percent bad. It's really easy to think otherwise, but I just wanted to expand on what makes the suburbs good and what could make them better. Do you think part of the desire to reconsider is getting older, slowing down? When you’re a teen, suburbs provide this context of something to rebel against. If teens have to move away to find their identity, are the suburbs where parents go to be themselves? I think it's less that they’re trying to find themselves, and more that it's just easier to live there. I can’t speak to suburbs outside the US, but here, there’s definitely this idea that the suburbs are safer and easier to manage. You just get in your car, you don’t have to walk, or deal with any of the spontaneous happenings on the street you experience—for better or for worse—in a city. But it’s important to consider who this ease is built for. Suburbs have not been a friendly place since the get-go. Levittown in Long Island, the first modern American suburb, was built on a foundation of racial exclusion. Suburbs have a long history of excluding Black and brown people. Even my own family: My nana kept these letters she received from the country club saying, “Thank you for applying, but we don’t let your race into our club.” Anything built on a foundation of keeping people out isn’t going to be able to hide that forever. The suburban story is a very American story because we keep sweeping stuff under the rug and haven’t been able to reconcile with it yet. When I visited Celebration, Florida, a suburb originally owned by the Walt Disney Company, it felt like everyone who lived there was doing PR for the place. It’s a very weird, tight situation. For a place that promises space and happiness. It's usually the opposite. Despite all the pop culture references devoted to them, I got the sense that suburbs actually aren’t that much more interesting than any other place. Are we wrong to imbue so much imagination and symbolism on them? I don’t think that impulse is wrong, necessarily. You can take anything and mold it into a book, or an album. Geographically, the suburbs dominate so much of America that it's only natural they dominate much of the conversation. Not to get too off track, but I’ve always found Moby-Dick to be this fascinating book because it’s a about a whale, it’s about a guy chasing a whale, it’s about obsession, but at the heart of it, it's about America coming to grips with being this new, young country. So much of our art is concentrated on trying to make sense of this really bizarre country. I could point to so many different works of art and demonstrate how it explains America at a specific point and time. Basically, America is always in therapy and it's not getting much out of it. It needs to change its therapist, I think. Damn. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs—I’m from a rural area—but sometimes I feel like I did because so much of my favourite music from my teen years was centred around the desire to escape them. That always makes me wonder, why does teen rage feel almost endemic to the suburbs? I would never go out to the suburbs and be like, “Hey, 15-year-old jaded punk kid, you should really like your hometown a little bit more.” When you’re that age, you’re never going to like your hometown. Maybe if you grew up in New York City—I read the Beastie Boys Book and hearing them talking about growing up in NY, it sounds like it was a wonderland. When you’re a teen there’s so much pressure, and if you keep squeezing, that pressure is going to make them explode, either through creativity or through violence. I got lucky that I was more drawn to the creative side. I remember the summer I turned 15, I had a friend whose dad passed away. He and his mom were away for a month to take care of family business and I remember, with his mom’s permission, my friends and I built a skate ramp in the back of his house. How did we learn to build a skate ramp? None of us were carpenters. My one friend just had this skateboard zine that had directions on how to build a ramp. We just kind of used what we had as cobbled it together. It took us maybe a month to build it. It made my friend’s entire life. We spent the whole summer hanging out skating on it. I wish I would have thought of that before I wrote this book because I would have gone back and reconstructed that entire summer. That’s incredible. I was surprised to learn that Gen Z is apparently obsessed with suburban shopping malls. It got me thinking, now that kids grow up with the internet and are able to ease the sense of isolation by finding friends there, does that suburban ennui that feels like a feature not a bug of the suburbs now cease to exist? I don’t think that will ever cease to exist. What has changed, I think, is the concept of regionalism. Growing up in the mid-’90s, I caught the last dying days of any sense of regionalism. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, there were certain garage rock or hardcore scenes that sounded a little different—Chicago had the ska-punk scene, stuff like that. Now that we have the internet gluing everything together across the world, I don’t think that sense of regionalism will remain. I don’t think there will ever be another Dischord Records that only puts out DC bands. But I do think the ennui you speak of is always going to be there. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching TikTok, or just paying attention to stuff I’ve seen on the internet, teens are more in touch with their emotions these days. But teens are always going to be sad. They’re going to have that kind of energy I am thankful I will never have to experience again unless I have my own kids. Speaking of Dischord, some of the best punk rock records hail from suburbia. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the criticism that punk’s suburban roots somehow invalidate it, as if privilege and punk rock don’t go together? If we strip away the semantics, we can now safely say that Black Flag was a great American rock band. With every singer they had, they took the rage and anger they were feeling and distilled into something super brilliant. And they were 16- or 17-year-old kids at the time. It's fine to say punk rock comes from a place of privilege, but would people really prefer these kids to sit around on their butts and be boring? To conform and become like the people they didn’t like? I’m glad they didn’t become middle management. In a way, they were using their privilege in a positive way by saying, “Hey, I’m a middle-class white kid and I want to speak out against the things I see.” That’s what a lot of hardcore is. Politically, everything we’re seeing now, I feel pretty prepared for it because I grew up listening to ’80s hardcore. Everyone is just discovering ACAB and I’m like, “You’ve never listened to MDC?” They’re literally called Millions of Dead Cops. I had an MDC pin on my jacket when I was a kid. That’s why I’m not shocked by the current moment. Sure, everything sucks right now, but this has always been the way it is. Black Lives Matter is really galvanizing support and demonstrating how Black people are treated unfairly and white Americans are like, “This is a thing?” That to me is weird. But I’m glad early on I had people say to me, “Listen to Public Enemy. Read Howard Zinn.” There were maybe five people in my suburb that would have told me that and I’m really lucky that either I found them or they found me. I don’t know if I would have had that same luck if I’d grown up anywhere else. There's a quote in the book that goes, “The sprawl has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain stores upon chain stores, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in that fact I see a chance, an opportunity.” Opportunity for what? Sustainability and community. I think these things are severely lacking in many suburban places. I don't like the idea of a place just being built and that's it. There's no nurturing or building that actually helps people that live in these places. We don't need more car dealerships or big box stores; we need libraries and gathering places, for when that sort of thing is acceptable again. We need natural grasses, not turf lawns. We need places to walk and cut our dependence on cars. If suburban places can embrace change like that, I think it would have a huge impact in countless ways, from environmental to quality of life. Community seems like a crucial part of the equation that is currently lacking in suburbs. So how do we go about creating one? There's a chapter in my book where I go to Avon, Connecticut, and talk to locals who organized against a developer. What fascinated me was the two of them had lived two houses down from each other for well over a decade and had never met their neighbors. The more people I talked to in suburban places, the more I found that was the case. So, the simple answer would be, "Talk to people more!" But obviously it needs to be more than that. It's important to note that as the suburbs rose throughout the second half of the 20th century we saw a decline in our social structures, whether that be churches or PTA, we were disconnecting from other people long before we all had smartphones to blame for our lack of attention span. Now, I'm not saying church or the PTA is what's needed to cure what ails suburbia, but getting people together is. It would take a grassroots effort, finding ways to engage people in the suburbs, getting them out of their homes, going out and getting to know other people. How, exactly, we do that with all the things currently taking up our focus is hard to say, especially in the age of social distancing, but I think one of the big things we can do is start by looking backwards, to the ideas of planners like Victor Gruen, who designed the American mall to be something more like the kind of spaces he knew in Austria at the start of the 20th century. It would be nice if our government would start to realize how important the suburbs are to America and work to make them more sustainable, healthier places, but I don't have much faith that will happen anytime soon. We need to rethink the suburbs we already have and figure out how to make them more than just places.
‘There Are Pernicious Trends and Ideologies That I See Enduring’: An Interview with Rachel Vorona Cote

The author of Too Much on who gets to be excessive, whether Victorian protagonists would get along, and the privilege of seeing yourself in literature. 

Has there ever been a better time to read Victorian novels? Their volume, their sheer scope, and their often-serialized origins all make for stories meant to be engrossing and enjoyed over a long period. Take your time; you have nowhere else to be. Rachel Vorona Cote knows her Victorians. With multiple degrees in literature, she applies her scholarly expertise to her modern obsessions in Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today (Grand Central Publishing). She traces a path from the Catherine Earnshaws and Dorothea Brookes of centuries past to contemporary characters, authors, and public figures, with a healthy dose of memoir tied in. The lessons that these books can teach us, Cote argues, are evergreen. The women who were maligned in the works of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot for being too emotional, too unstable, too sexual, can serve as a conduit for how we understand how women are maligned still today. Cote and I spoke on the phone in early March, the day her book had been launched, as she was embarking on a multi-city tour that would, one week later, be postponed indefinitely.   Anna Fitzpatrick: Too Much is obviously rooted in the Victorian era, but you bring your subjects into the present, and cover a lot of literature over the twentieth century. Why did you decide to start with the Victorians? Rachel Vorona Cote: There's a logistical reason, and then there's a conceptual one. The logistical side of it is that my academic training is in Victorian studies. The nineteenth century was a period in which there was that sort of really intense institutional scrutiny and stigmatizing of women and women's emotional expression that veered towards the extremes. Sigmund Freud, he was a later Victorian. He came in at the tail end. You had a lot of white male doctors who were "treating" women who had maybe been sexually abused, or maybe had anxiety, really all sorts of afflictions, signs of distress. Rather than listening to them, rather than actually putting any importance on their testimony, their sense of what it meant to live in their own bodies, rather than listening to that, the catchall was hysteria. These women were hysterical because their wombs were running all over their bodies, whatever sort of nonsense medicine they were leaning into at the time. That was something that was quite prevalent. It kind of makes sense, because the Victorian period was really a bananas time in terms of the way people were navigating issues of gender, issues of sexuality. The Victorians were really quite obsessed with sex even when they tried to pretend they were really moralistic about it. Women were then, as now, they were kind of seen as illegible in a lot of ways. And frightening. Especially as you got to the turn of the century and women started saying, "We want to work outside the home, we want to earn money, maybe we don't want to get married.” It dredged up a lot of anxiety. What drew you specifically to the literature? It's an interesting question because I've been reading it for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom started reading a lot of nineteenth century literature. She hadn't been a big reader when she was growing up, and then she started, I think she just wanted to fill in a bunch of gaps. She started reading Jane Austen, and she read the Brontes. I started reading these works alongside her. We'd watch film adaptations, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, that was constant viewing in our household. In some ways it grew out of my relationship with my mom. I've always really appreciated the intensity. That sounds cliché, to say that considering the book I've written, but I think there was something very resonant for me in books that— [cuts out] Are you there? [a minute passes] Are you there? You cut out for a second. I think I accidentally started making a call. I do that all the time. When your cheek dials? Ha. So, the Victorians. They're extremely dramatic. Right. And I can see how that would be really, really aggravating for people. When people tell me they really don't like Victorian literature, or they're put off by it, I completely understand that. It's very specific, even though different writers are doing their own thing. There is a sort of emotional urgency that runs throughout. I appreciate that. I especially appreciate that in the women who emerge in the text, especially in the books written by women, women like George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. Women who were, to be clear, very problematic in a lot of ways but who were very frustrated with their milieu and who were responding to it in certain ways, ways that we would understand. In the book, it seems that the things you love about this era and the things that really frustrate you are often very close together. I'm thinking of the chapter you have on Lucy Maud Montgomery, where you talk about how you didn't like Anne of Green Gables at first but you were very into Emily of New Moon. You wonder if Emily would have even liked Anne. I wonder how you felt about how so many of these women who are too much in their own ways, how they would interact with each other? There are a couple of shows right now where I think a bunch of characters from different nineteenth century novels are sort of thrown together. There's Penny Dreadful, which I haven't watched because I can be kind of a weenie about violence and I heard it's gory, and then there's one I heard about that's based in Dickens, but I love the idea of putting all these different women together. A lot of them would probably hate each other. If you put Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights in a room with Jane Eyre, she'd probably punch Jane in the face. If she even gave her that much time. They would probably spar for a while, and then Catherine would get a little violent. I think that it's really important to think about what sorts of characteristics or dispositions we regard as excessive, it's important to think about the sort of language that we use, and what causes us to regard certain people, certain practices, certain behaviours in this way, and to think about excessiveness as negative. The fact is, being excessive isn't necessarily positive. It can be true that a character like Catherine Earnshaw might be struggling under very patriarchal strictures. It can also be true that she's an asshole. She's not an especially kind or compassionate person, and she doesn't really think about other people. That's the most mild critique of her. She's a very compelling character, but I don't think anyone would make the mistake of calling her nice. I think when you've got all of these strong personalities, it's not the case that they would mesh. It might be, because of who these people are and what they're willing to give of themselves, or it could be because it is very, very easy to internalize misogyny. If you're feeling anxious or you feel some solicitousness about aspects of yourself that you think maybe are off-putting, I know that this is something that I've fallen into where I might be inclined to critique that in somebody else and probably I'm doing that because it's something that I'm anxious about. You talk about these Victorian constraints with fictional characters and real women in tandem with each other. How do these constraints apply themselves differently in reality? Whenever we're talking about real people, stakes are inevitably going to be different. I can appreciate characters in Victorian novels who might be kind of jerks. Maybe take the good with the bad. But I'm not going to give myself that sort of pass, just because I always want to do better. I think when we're actually having a talk about real women and real women thinking about the way that we navigate our excesses or what we are told are excesses and how we navigate that conversation, we can absolutely talk about this with literature too, but I think it's just more urgent that we have to think about the ethics of it, too. I want for us to be able to extend more empathy towards each other, and I think that's definitely a guiding motivation for me in writing the book. I also think it's facile to say that being excessive is good, or “do whatever you want, you can't say anything to me because you're just stigmatizing me.” It's much more nuanced than that. I think we have to think about, okay, what do we need to unlearn, what has made it difficult for us to live in the world, what sort of stigmas and ideologies have really shored up our subjugation, and the subjugation of people much more marginalized. Then there's also the question of, where's the boundary between that, and also thinking about how we have to navigate the world with other people. How do we honour ourselves and try to untangle ourselves from a whole lot of really nasty patriarchal and capitalist bullshit, for lack of a better term. How do we do that while holding ourselves accountable? Remembering that everybody is going to be living in the world in their own way. It's important to bear that in mind and remember that too, always. We can't think about ourselves as if we're inside of a vacuum. We're part of a web. I can't quote it directly, although maybe that makes me less of a nerd, but I really love the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. There's a really wonderful line or two, it comes in the section that's narrated by Briony, but the basic premise is everyone in the world is as real as you are. The thrust of that being that everybody's inner life, we're all walking around with all of these loud voices and all these competing emotions, and it can be very easy to forget that everybody is doing that too. Of course, there's the fact that it can be comforting and humbling, in its way, to remember that and to remember that other people are definitely not thinking about you, but also that most people are just grappling with themselves and trying to get through the day as best they can. I've always loved the way that that novel demands a sort of recognition of the fact that everyone has a really, really vivid interiority. If I were to try to suss out a moral code, that would be part of mine. You identify as a woman who is Too Much, and you relate to a lot of Victorian heroines that way. Do you think it's possible for a woman to not be considered too much based on how you lay it out in the book? First of all, it's very easy for me to find heroines to identify with, especially Victorian heroines. They're all white and cisgender, and so am I. I had a lot of access growing up. There is privilege in the amount of resonance I found in literature. I think that the notion of one being excessive, I think it is lobbed at a lot of people who aren't performing normativity in a way that social norms insist that we do. That said, I think that some people are capable of performing normativity according to hegemonic ideals. Some are more capable of doing that than others. Sometimes maybe it comes down to disposition. I think oftentimes it does come down to privilege. That's where I have to check myself, because yes, I absolutely felt very often in my life as if I'm spilling all over the place. I'm very emotional, and I have to navigate some mental illness and that can feel unwieldy, and there's this and that, but I nonetheless have a lot of privilege. There's a lot about me that in fact would not be considered too much. That would not be considered fundamentally excessive. I'm able bodied, I'm white, again I'm cisgender, I'm queer but I'm married to a man, so I have privilege there. I think this is such a good question because it really emphasizes the extent to which, and I don't know if this is maybe the way you intended it, but it does emphasize the extent to which— [silence]  Are you there? Are you still there? I don't know why my chin keeps doing that. I keep accidentally hitting mute. My chin is going all over the place. You cut out about a minute ago. Let me try to back track. What I was saying is, I think what is making me contend with and remember that however difficult it may be for me—or how difficult it may feel for me—to live in the world, to contend with the different sorts of expectations that still seem to prevail in terms of femininity, it is very much the case that it is going to be so much more difficult for so many other people. In America, people are just wholesale treated almost as excessive or extraneous if say, they need government support. If they're women of colour who need food stamps. That, according to the monsters running our government, well, that's too much. It's a continuum. That continuum is absolutely inextricable from white privilege and privileges of gender and orientation. That's been a really critical thing for me to keep in mind. I don't ever want to get drunk on the sense of my own subjugation. There are really pernicious trends and ideologies that I see as enduring, and it's distressing that there are so many continuities from the nineteenth century, but my book would be written a very different way by someone who was living a very different life from me.
Leaving the House

Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. 

We were supposed to leave the house at 3 p.m. to walk to the mall but Catherine was slouched on a desk chair, totally absorbed with her phone. Not even a trip to the mall could get her attention. Her father, my friend, Moon, put on his tough-father voice, but she could tell that he was just putting on his tough-father voice so he was soundly ignored. I was watching the whole scene play out. I felt like I was behind a two-way mirror, observing a live demo of parenting. Daughter vs. Father: An Epic Battle to Leave the House. Moon got behind her and rolled the chair toward the door. She resisted by making herself heavy. Then he went away for a while. Moon and Catherine were vacationing with me for a week. Catherine’s mother couldn’t synch up her vacation time so she was back in Korea, working. When Moon returned to the room he was pinching Catherine’s shoes between his fingers. I thought he was going to issue another order. Instead he crouched down in front of Catherine. He held her foot between his knees, opened the flap of the shoe, put her feet in, adjusted the tongue, tightened the laces. Then he did the same with the other foot. I’ve seen my brother kneel and pull on his daughter’s sneakers as she held on to his shoulder for balance. She was a toddler at the time. Catherine is almost a teenager, the age of the ideal TaylorSwiftDuaLipaBTS fan. Yet here was my friend—a forty-five-year-old man, a man with whom I’ve been friends since our twenties, pre-marriage, pre-children—genuflecting before a girl on her phone. Whither went the person I knew who played videogames and drank until his neck went red? From whence did this other self emerge? Wherefore was this new man so tender? * When Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, #girldad trended on Twitter. An effusion of tweets, images, and video poured out of fathers and daughters. It was an atypically bright moment on Twitter. Fathers cradled newborns, fistpumped during birth-announcement parties (which is a thing, apparently). Some posted images of ultrasounds. I didn’t mention that Catherine is my goddaughter. In fact, Moon let me name her Catherine. I have a niece and a nephew and other godchildren but no children of my own so hashtags like girldad make me weirdly moody. I feel like I’m living in the unit below a happy family. Sometimes when I hear the happy-family footsteps above me, I turn up the volume of my TV to drown them out. And other times I stop whatever I’m doing and let the little echo of their life reach me.  A daughter wobbles her bike down the street while her father holds the camera. #girldad A father takes a selfie while teaching his nervous daughter to drive. #girldad A father and a daughter tan side by side in the backyard. #girldad A daughter paints her father’s nails. #girldad A father with a goatee and eyeshadow poses fiercely next to his daughter. #girldad A daughter and a father hold the arms of her trophy. #girldad * Catherine might have giggled at the initial sensation of her father putting on her shoes but almost immediately she was oblivious again, lost in her phone. I’m not sure how much thought Catherine has given to her father’s life, whether she asks about the semiconductors at work or the quality of his hotel in Tel Aviv. Does she want to know what he was listening to in summer 2007? That was the summer his company sent him to Boston. I’d crash at his hotel during the week and he’d spend the weekends at my condo. During the long evenings, we drove around New England with our windows down, listening to the radio and looking for promising lakes to go fishing. Two songs were in heavy rotation: Gnarls Barkley’s pulsing hit “Crazy” and John Mayer’s pouty hit “Daughters.” Catherine was under six months old at the time. Yet her father and I were in my Honda, already singing about the moment when he would kneel before her and put on her glass sneaker: Fathers be good to your daughters. * When strangers ask about my book, I sometimes joke: It’s called Reproduction; I literally wrote the book on reproduction. No one has quipped back, Bit premature, no? Given your childlessness. Truth is, whether we have them or not, men of child-siring age think a lot about children. The desire for children is not solely the domain of women. A daughter benchpresses while her father spots her. #girldad A daughter on a boat holds up her catch by the mouth. #girldad A father embraces his daughter in her retro prom dress. #girldad A daughter feeds her father from her bottle. #girldad * Another time we were trying to leave the house while Catherine was deep into a graphic novel on the couch. Let’s go, Moon said. She made a sound without opening her mouth. She stretched out in the body-forgetful way of almost teenagers, totally passed out into the plot. Catherine! She sat up, turned a page, and flopped over in the other direction. She was in reading bliss, so near the end of her book. This time I intervened. Just let her finish, I said. I sat next to her and started reading my own book. She always does this, Moon said. But he was secretly pleased to see such a strong resemblance between his daughter and her godfather. I’m not sure how long we were like this, Catherine and me, reading on the couch together. Moon must have taken out the trash. I lost track of him until I heard the front door open and his coat rustling in the foyer. Still? he said. Two more minutes, I said. Catherine finished reading her book just as I finished reading an essay. We happened to sigh at the same time. Her father looked up from his phone when he heard us. How was it? I asked her. She nodded big loopy nods. So good, she said. Then Moon held open her coat and she sprung up and pushed her arms into the sleeves as if stepping into herself and we went wherever we were going. * A father and his two daughters bounce into the living room to perform a cheer routine. #girldad A husky father practises an upbeat dance routine alongside his limber daughter. #girldad The same father attempts to plié at a portable barre beside his daughter. #girldad I have a photo—but I did not post it—of a father putting on his daughter’s shoes. #girldad. * A few weeks later, when they were back in Korea, spending a lot of enforced social-distancing family time together, Moon sent me a photo of Catherine, unsmiling, with her hair braided into a dozen long plaits, holding up a gang sign, and looking very goth and gangsta. She had now officially stepped into her teen years and overnight had reinvented herself from a saccharine K-pop star to Billie Eilish. Who braided her hair? Probably Catherine herself or Catherine’s mom. Maybe a friend. But I’d like to imagine Moon doing it. It’s possible. I’ve seen my brother braid his daughter’s hair. She sat between his knees with a toy while he worked through her hair with a comb and some detangler. Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. There’s usually a little dimple of evidence that marks them whatever the context. Such men listen carefully to younger female colleagues; they wiggle during a pop song; they touch the leaves of a plant; they wear their birthday gift even if it doesn’t match their style; they back away from chit chat with obnoxious men; they might not be able to tie elaborate knots but they can recognize a French braid. These men were not Neanderthals before fatherhood, but I reckon they weren’t always so mindful. So while I can’t credit fatherhood for socializing or civilizing them, it does seem to have refined them. Now that Catherine is officially thirteen, Moon’s worry seems to be, Is she going to leave the house like that? And, in a few years, inevitably, it will be: Is she going to leave the house? At some point, daughters drive down the street, car loaded up, while their fathers stand in the driveway waving, becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror when they look back, if they look back at all. * At the security checkpoint in an airport, as her parents were returning to India, my friend tucked her sari between her legs, bent, and touched the feet of her parents. She didn’t explain to me what she was doing. Wikipedia says the gesture is called charanasparsha. I myself, as a grown man, have knelt before my mother to buckle the tiny ankle strap of her suede heels. I remember the prong had to go into the fourth punch hole for both tightness and comfort. Wikipedia calls the gesture I’m-zipped-into-this-dress-and-I-don’t-want-to-put-my-glasses-on. In a few decades, when Moon is absorbed in reading Semiconductors Digest and Catherine calls him from the front door to go to his doctor’s appointment, will she walk to his recliner with his shoes in her hand?
‘A Conversation That Happens Across Space and Time’: An Interview with Kawai Strong Washburn

The author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors on mythmaking, magical realism, and the hero complex. 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors (McClelland & Stewart), the debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn, was the first book I’ve read. At least, that’s what it felt like. After two months in lockdown, unable to focus on little beyond refreshing the news, I began his book—first out of obligation (I had to read it for work, after all), which quickly turned into deep engrossment. Sharks is a surreal family drama that functions as its own best argument for the necessity of art. At the centre are the Floreses, a family of five that weave their own narratives within the larger mythologies of their native Hawai'i. The novel opens in 1995 Honaka’a when Nainoa, the youngest Flores son, falls off the side of a cruise ship, only to be rescued and returned to his mother by a passing school of sharks. This moment throws the family into a media spotlight, rescuing them temporarily from their financial troubles, and marking Nainoa as special, touched by the gods. He carries this burden of specialness with him as he enters adulthood. Washburn alternates narrators between chapters, letting Nainoa’s story unfold alongside his siblings: the brilliant Kaui, who despite her exceptional test scores still feels like she’s lacking as she follows in her brother’s shadow, and Dean, a talented basketball player who hopes his own burgeoning college athletic career will be the thing that ultimately pulls his family up through class stratification. The siblings leave Hawai’i to make their way on the mainland, trying to become the people they feel they’re supposed to be while never truly able to leave their homeland behind. Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i. We had plans to speak in person, before his tour, like almost all events, had to be cancelled. Instead, I reached him by phone earlier this spring in Minneapolis where he lives with his family. Anna Fitzpatrick: It's a weird time to be launching a book, especially one that deals with illness and community and social inequality so head-on. What has that been like? Kawai Strong Washburn: I think for me more than anything it keeps what really matters in perspective. On one hand I appreciate people who have still been engaging with art and have seen that as a way to have some relief and release and to enjoy the sort of things that remind us of what makes life great. Art can be this lovely experience. Even though we're in the middle of an incredibly challenging time, that doesn't mean that art is completely irrelevant. It's nice to have people reading the book and enjoying art for art's sake.   On the other hand, it's nice to be reminded that there are things, which I try to keep in perspective anyway, that the world has a lot of incredibly important challenges in front of it, and those things can render what feels like a normal daily life obsolete in a moment. It's tough to have a book come out at a time when people are scared and anxious and threatened in terms of their health and everyone's locked down, so talking about a book feels kind of strange and beside the point, but for me it's like, that's okay. The world has bigger problems right now. So, to the extent that this book coming out is overshadowed or bypassed because of this pandemic or what it's doing to this world, not only is it beyond my control but I totally understand why that would be the case. I keep both those things in mind at the same time.  The people I've been talking to have either been doubling down and reading as an escape, or they just cannot focus at all on anything. What has your relationship to art been like? I think the thing that has been really stretched for my wife and I is that we have two children that are really young. Our older daughter is six and our younger daughter is two. We're both fortunate enough that we still have our jobs and we can work remotely, so as a result we're both still working mostly full-time, but we're also having to take care of our two children at home and trying to keep our schooling going for our six-year-old and trying to find ways to engage and nourish our two-year-old. Trying to balance all those roles leaves very little personal time to do things like read. I still find time and space to do that, even if it's as simple as a poem a day or things like that. I'm trying to get some nice time to enjoy poetry, or when I do have a spare little bit of time in the evening, I really enjoy it for that brief period of time. I don't think it's affected my ability to focus on reading, I just have less time to do it than I'd like. You would have been travelling right now if this wasn't going on, right? I think I would actually be in Sydney right now. I was going to be part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It's hard to remember. I've sort of jettisoned that whole alternative future. It's been ejected from my mind. I would have been in either Australia or Hawai'i right now for about the next week or so.   As someone who writes about books, I always have that instinct to put them in a category, even with the knowledge that genre and labels can only go so far. Your book has been dubbed magical realism. How do you feel about that? I love books that are labelled as magical realism, and I think in general I'm cautious about labels that are applied to books. I take those as a general, as someone that tends to categorize a book that may or may not be easily categorized. I don't really mind the book being put into any category of this or that, unless it would be in some way insulting, and I don't think that's the case with magical realism. The novel does what magical realist books often do, which is it takes events that could be otherwise considered fantastical or "magical" and tries to have those things be rendered in a world that feels like an otherwise "real" world. The world itself seems like it applies the normal rules of physics, and it's a place that we all recognize as being the current times, and, yes, there are these magical or supernatural or unexplainable events that are occurring in that space. I think that at some level the book is trying to do that. I'm trying to write the portions that have to do with supernatural or magical elements [in a way that] that leaves a little bit of interpretation there for the reader, I'm hoping. You can see these things happening, and the question becomes, is this a supernatural event, is it somebody having a hallucination, are they interpreting things in a very specific way? Since this is through a rotating first-person perspective, and each person has their own interpretation of events that are happening to them, it gives the reader some room to interpret those things however they wish. Including that, as well as using language that renders those moments not as fantastically as they might otherwise have been, hopefully preserves that fun play between something that is maybe real and not real. During the passages that have such ambiguities, do you have your own master narrative in mind? I certainly have my own interpretation of what I think of the story, but I think leaving that room... once a piece of art leaves your hands as an artist, then there's no way you can control the interpretation that other people will have. Art in general, it's a conversation that happens across space and time. Like any conversation, all the parties involved are participants and the extent to which they do or don't engage with each other, it colours the way in which they have that conversation. Knowing that once the book goes out into the world, people are going to have their own interpretations of it that I may or may not agree with, that's just how art works. I wanted to write this book knowing that that would be the case, and I have my own interpretation of it, but I could write it in a way that doesn't force the reader to come to some specific conclusion because I want them to have that conclusion, then it makes the reading experience hopefully that much richer for readers that are engaged with it. So yeah, I have my interpretations of what's there, and I certainly have my belief of what the story describes, but other people might have different things. It's up to the reader. I don't know what they see at the end of the book, and what they think has happened or hasn't happened, but that's no more or less correct necessarily than my interpretation.  You're writing a book that fits into a larger tradition of storytelling and mythology. I was reading about Hawai'ian mythology and how it pertains to sharks—something I knew nothing about going into your book—and I was wondering how large these stories loomed in your mind, both growing up and while you were writing the novel. Large in both cases. One of the things that I loved growing up in the islands, and one of the things that I think makes the culture of Hawai'i so rich and powerful, is the number of legends and myths that deify the natural world in a way that both upholds the interconnectedness of all things, of humans and the natural world, as well as rendering those things with the sort of awe and power they deserve. Growing up in the islands, yeah, there were legends all around and just interpretations of ongoing natural events through the lens of mythology and legend. When there's volcanic activity, people talking about that activity as a manifestation of Pele, who's the goddess of fire and volcano, that's the islands. Growing up there, that was the way I experienced the islands. Having that mythology as part of the daily life. And part of a larger confluence of different traditions, because the islands are full of immigrants from different countries and different ethnic backgrounds. The traditions and mythologies of those ethnic groups and those immigrants are mixed in with the myths and traditions of the islands, and that makes for an incredibly rich and powerful and just wonderful experience as a child. Just exchanging ghost stories with your friends, and getting exposure to all these different cultural traditions. When I was writing, that was one of the centre-pieces of the work, trying to bring that feeling to life. To express that, but also to use it as a vehicle to talk about what I had experienced in the United States in terms of the larger cultural... you could call it a disconnect, or friction. It's also one that has to do with the value of the greater United States in terms of how the natural world is often perceived, and how you can have a capitalist American perspective on the natural world as an expendable resource. Growing up in a place like the islands, I never felt my relationship with the natural world was defined on those terms. It was defined very definitely. That's one of the themes of the novel. As an expression, of the facet of the disconnect between people from other traditions and the central American myths and traditions that exist. That was how I wanted to take the things I experienced as a child and express them in this book as part of those larger thematic elements.   That theme comes through with the three children characters in the novel, and their struggle to feel connected to their roles within the natural world and the mythologies they inherit, while also trying to forge these individual identities on the mainland. Speaking to that, what does it mean to be a saviour? In my view, and I think it comes through in the book as well, that is an incomplete idea. It speaks to individualism often, and for most people the concept of a saviour is something that speaks to a certain amount of individualism and exceptional individualism, in that there is one person whose abilities and fortune and characteristics of that specific individual are so much greater than anyone else, or even the collective. That is going to be the person to make an important or significant change in the world. When you look at some of the most significant changes that have happened, even just within the United States let alone the world, it's really more often the result of communities and people reaching out to each other and forging strong bonds. Having built those communities and making the expression of those communities lead to change, that's really where you see a lot of the most significant change happening in the world. And yet after the fact, people will often prescribe the change as having occurred as the result of a single individual. There's always this narrative that emerges when there's a change happening in the world, to try and simplify it. When you can simplify it by attaching the larger narrative to one specific individual, that obscures the larger collective work happening in the background. The idea of a saviour in my mind is that sort of incomplete story, where you try and take what's typically something that's of a larger collective experience, and try to ascribe it to a specific individual. This is such a different context, but I was thinking about it while reading your book. So many of these frontline workers, healthcare workers, service workers, there's this rhetoric that they're heroes. We're calling them saviours to absolve the collective responsibility of, no, we have to take care of our people. Not just call them heroes, but give them support and protection to do their jobs safely instead of being like, "Alright, bye, go save us." Exactly. I think that's one of the biggest challenges, in my opinion, with an economic or socioeconomic system like capitalism: the way in which it obfuscates things. You eat food that you get from a grocery store or restaurant, and there's so much that's hidden in terms of all the different people that have contributed to that food arriving on your plate. It's the same thing with clothing, with all the goods and things that are part of the material comfort of a late modern capitalist society, so much of that is hidden. You don't see the socioeconomic or environmental cost. You just have this final product that all of the stuff along the way, people and animals and natural resources, have been exploited for that thing to arrive at your doorstep. All those things are hidden. I think something like the COVID-19 Pandemic, it does what you're describing. It exposes the underlying interconnected nature of everybody's lives. The vast majority of people are living their lives in connection with other people whether they want to recognize that or not. Something like this exposes this very quickly, where there are things being provided to me at other people's risk and expense, and I cannot ignore that now. That comes back to the same idea of saviours, just the individualist narrative more generally, which is one of the things this book is looking at. The narrative of the family carries for a portion of the novel has a lot to do with trying to figure out whether this individual narrative, the story of our family, is it really all about just this one miraculous individual, or is it something larger than that? It really interrogates how isolating it can feel to be seen as a saviour. It's most clear with Nainoa, but also with Dean in the last act, trying to provide for his family in his own isolated way.   Nainoa as a character was a struggle because I wanted the characters to all be complex, to have their faults and failures, and not to have any character be entirely good or entirely bad but to make characters that were complex. Have the same sort of internal contradictions that we all have. In the case of Nainoa, the thing that was a struggle was trying to find a way to have him have some level of privilege and arrogance. He receives this level of attention and prestige as a very young child. More often than not, at that age when you receive that level of attention and prestige, it's really hard not to come away with some level of arrogance, or feel like you're deserving of the things you're receiving in cases where you're not quite as great as everybody is saying you are. Trying to render him with some level of arrogance but also trying to recognize the burden that comes along with that, the same as it would be for any young person that's placed in a position of elevated attention and prestige, to balance those two things. In earlier drafts, a few people had read it and were like, "I kind of don't like him." I think that was because I biased a little bit too much towards arrogance and privilege. I tried to find a way to balance that, bring out a little bit of a balance as well. Anybody who's in a situation where they're part of a family in which economic hardship is central, when you have a family that's struggling, and you have something that can potentially provide economically, that's an incredible burden to have. To be somebody that other people are depending on and have an expectation to deliver something better than what you have currently. That's a burden. I think anybody who comes from families where that's the case, where they're somebody that's achieved above and beyond the family's current station in life, and the expectation that will help carry the family farther, that's hard.   That burden of potential is something all the kids experience to an extent; being told you're destined for greatness, either academic or athletic or being a saviour with healing powers.   There's a narrative the children have of themselves. I think the novel also examines the idea of a self-narrative versus an external narrative, and how those two things can be conflicting as well, and how you can have an idea of who you are and the story you tell yourself about who you are, and it can be very different than the story that other people are telling. Other people can be trying to define you a certain way. There can be resentment, and conflict, and delusion in all of those things. The novel tries to look at the ways in which each of the children in particular, the siblings, are struggling to define themselves on their own terms, but those terms are also in reaction to that initial miraculous event that set things in motion. I think anybody who's been in a family, who's just part of a family dynamic, right, everybody has an idea of who they are and the story they tell themselves within the context of the family, and it's usually a different story than what all the families have about you or have about each other. That was one of the things that was part of the story as well. I'm really interested in the way you used dialect, especially the Pidgin that Dean speaks. I think there are so many misconceptions about slang that doesn't follow dominant grammar rules, that there is no grammar to them, but you really captured the consistency of that language. Is that something you researched? Certainly, growing up, that was the default language where I was from. I grew up in a rural part of Hawai'i, that's what everybody was speaking. Everyone was swinging some different level of Pidgin. You can have it dialed up or dialed down, you can have people operating at different levels. It can get thicker depending on who's talking to who and in what situation and things like that, which is lovely and wonderful. I love that about language, the way Pidgin is an adapted form of English that also incorporates slang and language from a variety of different countries, cultures, ethnicities, in the sense that you can have like, Japanese words or Filipino words or Portuguese words, that are part of Pidgin along with words from Olelo Hawai'i, the native language of Hawai'i. You can have all those things mixed together, along with all these interesting grammatical constructions. I wanted to represent that in the novel, but also one of the things that might be controversial, that some people might think is a failure on my part or a blind spot is the fact that, the way that it's rendered on the page breaks with how you might traditionally render it. If you look at a lot of literature from the islands that is written with Pidgin, it will have very different spelling and punctuation than what I have with my rendering of it in this novel. That was intentional on my part, because as a reader, I read visually in a way that if there's too much punctuation and the words are spelled too phonically, it can really trip me up. If you take a bunch of words that I'm used to reading one way and the spelling is completely different, and there's punctuation, and the grammar has been constructed in a different way, it can be hard to settle into it and read through it. I think it's something about the way my eyes process the marks on the page. So, when I wrote this, I was writing this with myself as a reader primarily, because I didn't have a bunch of people I was working with on the book or that were reading along with me. When I wrote it, I was taking that into account. I wanted to take the language and render it as truthfully as possible in terms of the rhythm and the sound, while also not over punctuating or chopping up the spellings in a way that made it really hard for me, visually, to read it. I think there are probably some people who think that that is not an accurate depiction of language, which I can understand, but my work on that was very thoughtful and came from a place to incorporate my preferences as a reader along with the idea of the fluidity of the language. I also think you can have a variety of ways of rendering Pidgin on the page, and none of those is correct or incorrect. They're just different renderings. It's one of the things that makes it such a wonderful language. I can understand a protectiveness people may have, especially in what gets depicted and what gets left out in dominant narratives about Hawai'i. To me it speaks to the need for having more stories, more narratives, more voices coming out. I think it also behooves the readers who are interacting with the art to recognize that it's impossible to pin the universal on any specific story. You can't take the representation of a place or a people as something that can be universally depicted. It's impossible. I think the thing that happens, with underrepresented stories or places, people are like, "Oh, this must be speaking to the entire truth of this place, or this community, or this people." It's no more the case for something from Hawai'i than it is the case for something from Australia or Nigeria or like, Montana. There are just a plethora of stories and experiences that people from those places have had, with a diversity of experiences and opinions as a result. The life that somebody has growing up in Honokaʻa is going to be different than the life somebody has growing up in Kalihi or Nānākuli or Honolulu or Wailuku. These are all different cities and towns in Hawai'i, by the way. The idea that this story which is set in Honokaʻa and other parts of the islands is somehow going to be universally representative of Hawai'i, it's impossible. As people recognize more and more stories need to be told from different places and perspectives that are underrepresented, we also need to realize those stories themselves can never be the perfect representation. They are just a singular, subjective representation.
‘Misremembering is Productive’: An Interview with Harry Dodge

The author of My Meteorite on interconnectedness, chaos, and a sense of magic.

There’s a theory in quantum physics that two particles can affect one another no matter what distance you put between them. This is referred to as entanglement, or what Albert Einstein once dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Though we can’t see the mysterious links, parallel dimensions and communication channels, that interconnectedness extends beyond the quantum realm. The proof is in the little particles that have recently forced us into a collective stillness, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves. In his new memoir, My Meteorite, Or Without the Random There Can be No New Thing (Penguin Books), multidisciplinary artist Harry Dodge explores the tiny links that influence the rhythm of our lives. Here, the connections are built around the ways we cull meaning from repetitions and coincidences. But the book’s catalyst is randomness—the way we’re initially shielded from the attachments, completely awestruck by the universe before we start to reason it. I talked to Dodge just before California instituted a lockdown in March. We discussed his book, but also how this pandemic has drawn attention to our interconnectedness. Sara Black McCulloch: I wanted to start by talking about memory and forgetting, especially how they play out in the book. Memory isn’t stable, and when people remember something, it’s reactivated in many ways. How does that tie in with virtual reality? Harry Dodge: Historically, whenever anyone has announced to me, “Hey, the work is about memory,” it would put me off—ugh—like everything is going to be sepia-toned photos on cross-dissolve, you know. But I read some science writing on memory and consciousness a couple years ago and that was when I started to think about it differently, as biological, as constitutive of intelligence, all that. Everything we know and do—even, or especially, our intelligence—is built on memory and recall. Mental and physical habits both qualify as memory—walking, putting on a pair of pants, all that. Identity, who we understand ourselves to be, is obviously built from things we remember consciously or unconsciously. When my dad got sick, his memory was in decline, I was surprised and fascinated by the deterioration. I don’t know what I expected, something purely physical I guess, some faltering with speech, or inability to walk, but the manifestation of the illness—the part I could see—was this ghostiness behind the eyes, his selfhood, was, in my estimation, more diaphanous, if you know what I mean. I started thinking about the nature of the relationship between one’s memory and one’s ability to feel and/or project a sense of self.  Simultaneously, I was reading on matter, materiality and interconnectedness, quantum particles, and trying to think through this concept of the plural subject, the idea that we’re more permeable than we know and are formed by pressures we can’t even imagine, a plurality of forming forces. I wondered if this biding theoretical interest—the “melty self,” as it were—could map onto observations I was making about my dad. There’s that. But maybe you’re talking about something else, this weird way that misremembering is productive? The text certainly revolves around the idea of misremembering and the idea that that is generative. And there is the hovering related question of what exactly constitutes reality—is it something material, mental (virtual), or several things at once. I’m really interested in mental worlds and the imaginary—and the question of how, qualitatively, that can rhyme with, more or less, this idea of a virtual world. Your sculpture focuses on how we pair words with the use of an object, and if someone no longer has the ability to recall that function breaks down. So if I have a broom that is normally used for sweeping, and I can no longer remember that, then now this object has lost that intended use for me. That opens up a new realm of possibilities. Yes! There's a kind of surreality provoked in some of the sculptures, perhaps caused by a kind of refusal of the original purpose. You know, many years ago, someone said to me, “your work looks figurative, but it's actually really abstract.” Right? I try to defamiliarize objects—which suggests they were familiar in the first place. I am not what you call me. And my sculpture definitely does that—if it's functioning the way I want it to. Though the familiar, or nameable, is less and less a part of the set of terms that comprise my sculpture, it still occurs; I take bits of lumber or buckets especially or other planes, scrap wood, and kind of smash them into the space of strangeness. And, you know, a mode of defamiliarization in order to puncture holes into the banal is definitely important to me, though I think I handle it really differently in the book. The book, as I'm sure you noticed, once in a while, ascends into a poetic space, becomes poetic. (And by poetic I mean something so specific that it is still moving and therefore uncaught, or untamed.) The book is a long sculpture and, as such, builds on itself. There's a bunch of objects and fragments and pieces laid end to end. The book isn’t excerptable, it’s not a memoir, there are no slices that function as representative of the whole, one must read it all if one wants to experience the project. Things—by which I mean themes or say structural forms or word play—are repeated, slightly off-register, and they land in piles, eventually generate shapes like temporal diagrams of chaos almost repeat. Aperiodicity. (I have also, alternately, referred to the structure of the book as a fugue, a musical term describing a composition that adds novel maneuvers section-by-section, and—bit by bit—abandons phrases.) So the end song is a different song than the one we began, but there are connecting rods, linkages, segues and those obviously vary. The idea that there's something unspoken and unwritten starts to resonate: the figure emerges, but as anti-matter, this content I'm trying to evoke. Prose is a tool defined almost exclusively by an expectation of legibility. And I’m into that, but I’m also interested in one-to-oneness in an experience of language, prosody, poetics, specificity, unmastery and defamiliarization, like some 3-D sculpture, or a poem. It happens a lot faster in a sculpture, obviously, a viewer is like, “I know what that is—a bucket, and then the longer they stand there, maybe a minute and a half, it stops being a bucket. Now it has dimension, color, it’s no longer a bucket, it’s this weird thing. The comfort of mastery—this experience we crave—is only unmade at length...or reconfigured. Touching on that: no defined chronology in the book either, but a repetition of scenes. Is that right to say? Does that help us build into it? Because I think there's a lot more of an emotional register to these scenes the more we come back to them. Was that intentional?  I have some favourite colours, in sculpture, for example—I use red, orange, yellow, and black a lot, gray too. If I bring in a colour, like blue or green, it's for a reason, an accent, some percussive conceptual messaging, a divider. And I also have emotional modalities, things I deploy again and again, in my videos, the time-based work. I am aware that those modes have been employed in the book too! I often open with something disorienting, a kind of survey—in media res, jumping into this weird spot. Hopefully you're drawn in by something, a kind of allure, you know, whether it's sentence structure or some image, and then you sort of read on into things that are sad or funny. Or gripping somehow. I think as a reader spends time with the work, trust builds, the idea is that a reader will allow the text to bring them into a very deep emotional place. The refrains help with that. I think they convey a sense of artistic intent. [Laughs] I don't ever want to get operatic or melodramatic or anything. I’m trying to let the reader, you know, find the emotional pockets—understated, unexpected and powerful. A kind of surprise, “Oh, for some reason that just killed me.” I'm into giving people space, whether I’m teaching, or parenting, or making art, you know. I’m trying to bring people to very deep places but with a light hand. From my understanding, you were working on User while you were writing the book, and there’s a short film in the exhibit called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” I watched it after reading the book and I don't know if I'm reading into this, but a lot of the things that you touched on in My Meteorite — transhumanism, AI and cyborgs — come up in both the book and the film.  Were they influencing each other?   When I'm making artwork, I am trying to—whether it's a book or a movie—I'm trying to find something hot inside myself, these pockets of interest, places where it's hot, you know, like a fever of sadness, or a fever of confusion. I believe in hanging around with confusion. Any sort of cognitive dissonance, apparent paradoxes in my thinking, are always great places to burrow into, for example. I just try to find those pockets and write from them, make from them no matter what I’m making. I think I was still finishing My Meteorite when I went to write this little short video last spring. It’s a great short animation with all these 3-D virtual characters in this lecture room trying to figure stuff out, share tips on bullying or whatever. So of course, while writing the script for this, all of these things are still hot for me and they're still on my mind, and they're still things that I'm wrestling with. Absolutely. And I'm glad that that's legible and it's because I'm telling the truth about my interests, my bewilderment; I’m scraping up or manifesting real-life thought processes, problems I’m working on. Trying to make meaning. As I see it, I’m lifting figures from the primal ooze. I always think that good artwork comes from that kind of hot confusion. [Laughs]  Hence the volcano at the end of the short film. Yeah, exactly! Now we're in that volcano, we’re clinging to the side of the cone! [Laughs] The volcano at the end of that was symbolic of, like, the stress-testing of democracy, one, and climate change, two. I mean, right now, this pandemic, we’re at the beginning of it, it’s awful. Sad—should have been dealt with better. But also here we are again needing to balance our desire for safety with a preservation of our civil rights, and by that I’m talking about deep extreme surveillance, apps on phones that take our biological stats on the hour, track our whereabouts. Stuff like this is always a trade-off; we want measures to be temporary and they might turn out to be, but note that authoritarian regimes have plans ready for just such times and are all too happy to pull the trigger on some mind-shattering executive powers. Not to be a downer. Also Trump’s obviously planning on revving up hate and scapegoating—repurposing fear to amplify dischord. That's a big problem.  Yeah. And it's still weird to me, that Bernie Sanders’s idea of universal health care, especially in a pandemic, is still being referred to as something radical, as opposed to something necessary. Yeah, I mean, you know, it's kind of crazy, but these ideas are flexible, and subject to transformation just by force of labeling or contextualization. Lamar Alexander blocked a bill suggesting taxpayers should pay furloughed workers, not the private sector, which may or may not be a good point, but what is that? Socialism. Not a stereotypically GOP modality. I’m into one-for-all. There needs to be more socialization, obviously, which is partially what the book is about: interconnectedness. We’ve got this sudden clear feeling of it, as we apprehend that a particle has travelled around the globe in a few months, the magnitude of the spread is overwhelming. And there’s aspects: some are affirmative like emergence and creativity, but also the awesome, sort of sublime part, which is our shared vulnerability. Navigating our vulnerability, our porousness, or “impressionability” is what gives life meaning—it’s some essential component from which a sense of meaning issues. Were you ever tempted to write My Meteorite from a different point of view? When I was writing My Meteorite, no, I mean, it was not something that I was tempted to do. The first person was enough! But moving forward yes. I am writing a book now where there are a few different characters, like a poetic short fiction.  I just read Olivia Laing’s Crudo this summer, and it blew me away. I just loved the way she lightly pretended the whole time—the character of the author—that she was Kathy Acker. Have you read that book? Someone actually recommended it to me earlier this week. It blew my mind off! She also kind of flips from the first person to the third person really quickly—in one sentence sometimes!—it's super awkward on page one, but by the time it’s page two or three, turns out it’s a super beautiful magic trick. I’m very inspired by the way she flouts convention in the most unassuming way in the course of that short novel.  Were you trying to challenge your reader in a similar way? Your book doesn't have a set chronology and we're used to that in a book, right? Were you ever also thinking about how readers interact with books and their expectations? I was saying to people, “I'm pretending to write a book,” which meant that I was taking notes on experiences through 2016 around the time my dad decided to move to California. I started writing in earnest at the moment he died. I understand the chronology of the book to be that 2016 and 2017 are intercut and generally in a forward progression, so my dad dies at the beginning and also at the end. I think that if the book is at all legible and easy to read, it's because there are a few stories, if you could say such a thing, that progress in linear fashion, which maybe is how most of us experience time. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I was trying to write something I would like to read and I don’t enjoy things that are straightforward really at all. I suppose I expect my readers to want the same thing: space to think in, a lot to think about, you know, fodder. Have you ever watched True Detective? Matthew McConaughey’s character says that “time is a flat circle.” [Laughs] Exactly—a flat circle. Not a linear progression, some kind of pooling of time, or sedimentary situation, and the book is about that, how we’re always deploying things we’ve learned, the past arrives into the present, constitutes it; deforms it, pluralizes it. Also there's these other things in the book, slipped in, that are out of time, that punctuate, for sure—things I always think of as “ugly legs.” They kind of hang off. And to tell you the truth, I didn't worry too much about that, it's just the way my brain works. Writing, finding form, there was something sculptural, about dimension, and motifs. That did seem like it was going to make the book better and more interesting, not necessarily super complex, more just a book I would like to read. We adapt. I think we underestimate how much we can adapt. We're not as hardwired or stubborn as we think. We're not that stubborn! A book teaches us how to read it and, you know, I believe in that. I trust the reader. I try to give people a reason to stay with any work of art that I offer. I'm a social being, my strategies oscillate between disorientation and familiarity or comfort, and I think of it as social—all the work I do. I’m interested in how you title your work because, with a book especially, it’s your first encounter, that’s not the right word—it can be a guiding principle sometimes? How does that come about? Is that something that you have in your mind? Or are you avoiding it until you’re finished writing? When I make a body of work, say sculpture and video, I'm usually reading a lot of theory and thinking about a lot of philosophy and even if the sculptures aren't diagrams or even rhyming structural messaging systems, and usually they’re not, I was still thinking about something when I made each one. So when I finish a body of work, I will sit for two or three or four days and do all the titles at once. And those range from weird theoretical allusions to low brow — I can't think of the word —cuss words just kind of staccato things. All the titles in the show taken together will also make a kind of text or texture. While writing My Meteorite, a lot of titles were coming to mind and they showed up at the beginning of the document. Sometimes there were up to 10 or 11 of them honestly. And so, as the first draft was winding down, I started to pare them down, canvassed a few people. Initially, I thought that My Meteorite was maybe too simple a title for me but it stuck. Working title during the intial draft was Without the Random There Can be No New Thing, a Gregory Bateson quotation by the way, and of course that was eventually relegated to subtitle. The short title, it can be thrown around, you know, like, “Have you read My Meteorite?” [Laughs] rather than this complicated mouthful. So again, something more legible and palpable, paired with something that's a bit more abstract.  Throughout the book, there is magic in randomness, more specifically coincidences. Science works to dispel that magic; to explain it with logic. We're humans, so we seek out patterns, and not randomness. And that kind of takes the magic, I would say, from coincidences. What is your relationship to coincidences now? [Laughs] Science can be a bummer sometimes? Yeah. You know, in the book I was trying to evoke in readers a sense of the magic, of these natural constants even, the habits of matter—matter has stuff it likes to do! Amazing. I mean, if you've ever seen a documentary about gravity or the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, who cares if it’s measurable or knowable. It's still crazy. It's mind boggling. “Marvel” and “what is scientifically knowable” are not mutually exclusive. I wanted to crack that open, you know, re-enchant the material world, not necessarily peel away the magical from the palpable, but to just sort of like, smash open a sense of astonishment in the everyday.  But there are these words that circulate in the book: this idea of the random, which could create a new thing versus this idea of pattern. The patterns, I write, are postulated to be the results of the habits of matter, which if they are absolute, would suggest a kind of predetermined—if unimaginably complex—world, and this scenario also sort of precludes free will. Right? It would mean that humans are just bags of vital particles and the particles have their own agenda. Philosophically this also does away with ethics and on and on, it’s pretty extreme. There’s a lot there let’s say. Too much for an interview like this. Some people think the book is a pro-randomness manifesto [laughs] but I don't feel that I've come down on one side or the other. Although I am pretty convinced by Bateson’s idea of the stochastic processes. He wrote that he thinks there are nonrandom elements that preserve this or that random event or flow. And according to him the dynamic is relevant not only to like genetic variation, but also macro-things like learning. Secretly just between you and I—I do feel that these natural habits of matter are more in charge than anybody is comfortable believing.  I mean we’re freaked out by our own replacements and we made them—uncanny valley? It’s bizarre because it’s not quite right but it’s also too on the nose. And I think that in some ways, children do notice a lot of things in the world that we grow out of as adults. I'm really interested in amazement, this idea of marvelling. I reject the notion of a direct correlation between knowledge and mundanity. Édouard Glissant wrote, you know, that though we can't know everything it would be foolish not to try to know and that there's a kind of poetics—like a feverish poetics—we practice that is actually that, striking out into the unknown trying feverishly to know.  When you were writing the book, because you do talk about events in your life, were you at all worried about the truth, or skewing it a little bit to test those theories out? Yeah, that was part of what I was doing. I'm aware that by all of these framing devices and word choices, juxtapositions, that I'm constructing something. And so there is an adjacency or a proximity or a rhyming with my life, rather than some presentation of facts, facticity—that was something I intoned—some broth I sipped while writing—but I wasn’t fretting about it, no. I was interested in being just a little surreal, which was why I didn't look consult the internet continually, and part of why I sometimes paraphrase or misquote this or that. The fact checkers—God bless them!—they would find things and query me, “You know, that wasn't really how many rings the tree had—the oldest tree in the world.” Because I well, yeah, I know, I’m doing this from memory. That was important to me, the fecundity of imagination. I didn't go back to look at the article I read about the guy cutting down the oldest tree in the world. I thought I was writing fiction, and just using the details of my life as ready spirited fodder. [Laughs] There were definitely a few things I corrected. And there were a couple things I didn't correct because the book is obviously about the misremembered sculpture, the rippling maw of possibility related to the figure of the birth mother. I just was trying to make a little space for this idea of the virtual, to try to tease some thoughts out about the virtual. You also unpack quite a bit of Blade Runner 2049 at the end of the book. I don’t want to give the ending of the book away, but with the movie, everyone went into it expecting some questions would be answered, but that doesn’t happen. It left us asking more questions. I wanted to know what you thought about legacy and how that connects to lineage. I was really moved by Agent K’s sudden strong desire to be Deckard’s son. He was like, “Oh my God. I'm actually born and you're actually…” you know, he went there! You’re kind of rooting for him, Yeah, it is true! You were born and you’re real! [Laughs] And so we felt awful when the facts started to bear out other realities, the fantasy started to fade...I write this all out in the book, but I did find it very moving. Watching this intense psychic world rev up, you know, once it was launched in his head, Agent K, he was like, “You’re my dad,” and he felt it, and after that, well, facts on the ground didn’t matter much. Love had happened and you know, the changes it wrought in him were unretractable. He was like, “Well I felt it man, and it filled me up for good.” In what way?  Experiencing the joy of belonging, even if it’s illusory—or was it love. Even misapprehensions change things, have effects. I find that so fascinating. The idea is that this love—it budded in him, right? and regardless of facts on the ground, this love—the effects of it, the joy?—were already in motion, were not particularly flimsy or quenchable. My Meteorite is, in large part, a meditation on love, this thing that draws us into relation, and it’s about interconnectedness. In the book I’m puzzling through all manner of connection: touch; the fabric made by discourse; genetic linkages that evolve over decades without regard to time and space; in-person meetings which are constituted by the amplitude of risk; family bonds constituted by repetition, time and attention; the incredible remote connectedness of quantum fields which also do not heed the logics of the local; and even reverberating gravitational waves—centuries old—made by black holes colliding. It’s wild to be talking to you at the front end of this big, awful pandemic: a world in which everyone is suddenly flung into hyperawareness of how interconnected we are. A virus spread by touch, creature to creature, over the globe in a few months is breath-taking, because we can comprehend some part of it, the durational aspect of it, and the figure—a sometimes lethal virus—is frightening. I’m trying to put together thoughts right now, but it’s just so odd the way we want (and need) to disconnect physically but it’s also a kind of grand experiment in socializing remotely, by screen.  For the technoparanoid, I think we’re going to be surprised at what’s possible. And, aside from the obvious, and though most of the results of this—economically-speaking—are a hazard for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, you know, something about the manifest failures might work as negative space around modalities that are promising for the future. Certain images cannot be unseen. Which is to say that we might batter open some new doors of relation, we might learn something amazing about what matters in our relationships, in the conveyance of our relationships, by this awful dress rehearsal and that is a hopeful tendril I’m trying to hang onto. There are choices about how to respond to the fact of interconnectedness, there are lots of ways to go, shame is one place to land, or fear, but balancing that with courage and service and the ecstasy of permeability is another—as is finding the affirmative possibilities of our bodies and our world as interdependent and co-constituting.
‘A Little More Like a Career and Less Like a Stunt’: An Interview with Robert Kolker

The author of Hidden Valley Road on true crime reporting, family secrets, and finding stories. 

Robert Kolker's first book, Lost Girls, is a heartbreaking and methodical account of women whose bodies were found on an isolated Long Island beach. It's a true-crime book, but one where the violence is not the point. There is a tremendous amount of heart in Kolker’s writing and reporting: he makes you care about the people whose lives are destroyed by violence. In his new book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Random House Canada), Kolker takes on a difficult subject and once again infuses it with heart and analyzes it with his characteristic perspicuity. The book revolves around the Galvin family of Colorado. Don Galvin, a rising star in the Air Force, and his wife, Mimi, a dedicated homemaker, had twelve children starting in 1945. Then, tragedy began to dismember the Galvin family, and six of the Galvins's sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The compassion Kolker brought to Lost Girls is also evident here, now an Oprah's Book Club pick, which is a penetrating story about how mental illness affects families.  Lisa Levy: The book is fantastic. What's happening with the book is fantastic. You must be over the moon. Robert Kolker: I am, it's really mind-blowing, and especially great for the family, who put themselves on the line by going public this way. To get this kind of response is a wonderful thing for them as well, so I'm really happy for them.  How many of the kids are still around?  There are nine living siblings, three of whom are mentally ill. The other six are all involved in the book. This wasn’t my first question but it seems natural to ask now. How did you convince them to do the book?  Well, the sisters were ready. They had been talking for decades about the best way to let the world know about their family, and they were also curious about any sort of scientific contributions the family could make. Finally, they decided to ask an outsider to come in and report on it independently. By the time they called me, they were energized and excited to be talking to me, and so there was this funny disconnect in that first conversation where they were talking about these horrible, horrible things that had happened to them and to their entire family over many, many decades and yet, they were so pleased to be talking about it at all. It just seemed curious to me. I was like, wow this is such a sad story and they are so happy to be talking about it. You must have had that feeling a little bit with Lost Girls. Some of those families also seemed like they were on a crusade to get the story out.  That’s true. In Lost Girls, the families had a lot of fatigue from media attention by the time I was working on the book, and they did not necessarily see the value in a book. It was me saying it's worth it for the world to get to know your lost loved ones in a way that's more detailed and more realistic than what's out there already. It took a lot of pushing on my part and a great leap of faith by all of them. But in this case, the family was really ready from the very beginning and it was I who had to try to get my arms around the story and understand exactly what it was and how to tell it. Well, let's talk about that a little bit. How did you meet them? How did you come to the story? Lindsey, the youngest of the 12 siblings, went to high school with an old friend of mine who edited me at New York Magazine for 10 years. His name is Jon Gluck. And among many other stories we worked on together, we worked on the story that was expanded into Lost Girls, so he understood that I had a lot of experience writing about people in crisis, people facing adversity, people who had been through difficult situations. So, when Lindsey contacted him in 2015, she said that she and her sister had been talking for years about this, that now they thought it best to ask a journalist to work independently and take the story wherever it went. He thought of me and thought I would be a good match, and so he connected us by email. I took it from there. Were you looking for another book or did this come along and you said, I have to do this? I was very much looking for another book, but I also was very happily fully employed at the time at Bloomberg Businessweek as an investigative reporter. When I first got to know the Galvins my thought was, well, obviously, I wanted to write more books one day. Nothing happens overnight with books, so why not take this very, very slowly, get on the phone with everybody in the family over a number of weeks just to make sure that people were as enthusiastic about this as the two sisters were, because there are medical privacy laws in America and all it would take is one family member to stand up and push back and suddenly it would be less feasible. It only takes one person to yell HIPPA [the primary medical privacy act in the US]. Exactly, right. I was very skeptical, but at the same time, I knew that it's a slow-burner, these book projects. So why not give it a shot? I was amazed and pleased to see how enthusiastic they were about talking to me. Others were ready to do it because they respected the sisters’ wishes and believe the sisters had really been through some of the worst of it and deserved to have their story told. And Mimi was on board, which was a bigger deal than I realized at the time. She was very pleased to be speaking with me, but I learned later that she was not always interested in a book or public attention, and so it was a relatively new thing for her to be into it, so it was good timing, that way too. Well, she's a fascinating character. Over the course of the book, she's more and more willing to talk to people and accept help. At first, she definitely feels like a very closed ranks, family business kind of person, but as things sort of disintegrate, she realizes that she needs help. Exactly. The best way I think I can put it is that the children's view of both their parents changed over time and so does the book’s. Readers may feel one way about Mimi in part one and start to feel a different way about her in part two.  She reminded me of my grandmother and that generation. Something like mental illness is not something you were going to talk to even your friends about.  She reminded me of my grandmother too, in that she always had a sunny disposition and was not necessarily interested in talking about unpleasant subjects and had become very good at deflecting unpleasant subjects. That much they shared for sure. How long did you work on the book? About two and a half years, but you could add an additional year of really going full-time on conversations and meetings with the Galvins before I came up with the book proposal. By the time I started I was really up and running because I had a whole year of prep work beforehand. Was this easier because you had done Lost Girls and you were used to this sort of blanket reporting, where you had to keep a lot of narratives in your head at the same time?  It was a little easier. I definitely still had huge dead ends and weird conundrums I had to deal with where I would sit there and go, now what? Or, how do I handle this? But the big way that it was different is my attitude. Lost Girls was my first book, so I had all kinds of stress and impostor syndrome and doubt and self-doubt. And because of that I kept a lot of the work to myself and didn't really share bits and pieces of it with friends. I just tried to keep a happy face on while, privately, I was really sweating it. I decided this time that I was going to take really active steps to have a life while I worked on it. I said to myself that if I'm going to write more books in my career, they can't all be these soul-crushing seismic difficult events. It should be a little bit more like a career and less like a stunt.  Jumping from one trauma into another. Right. I created some balance. I shared large parts of the book with lots of friends, and I took a cooking class and because I was at home all the time, it was the right time for our family to get a dog. So we got a dog, and that was life changing.  Every writer should have a dog, I think. Exactly. I had never been a dog owner before, so it was all new to me. But just to be able to have a well-rounded life while working on it was important to me. I also should say that there is more hope in this story than there was in Lost Girls, even though it's a terribly dreadful story for the family. There are little bits of hope. I kind of held on to that too as I was working on it.  What were the main things you had to learn so that you could report the book? The book was a really good mix for me of work, the sort of work I had done before, which is talking to vulnerable people about difficult situations they faced, and something entirely new, which was the science of schizophrenia. One reason why I got into this line of work was to learn new things. It was intimidating, but I was really, really excited to have the chance to learn something from scratch, and I really was starting at zero. And I had lots of incorrect notions about it. The biggest misconception I had was that I thought that the drugs that people were using to treat schizophrenia every day were as miraculous as the drugs that treat depression or bipolar disorder. I learned that they really weren't, that they were certainly helping in some ways, but they weren't really working toward a cure and that was a big eye opener for me. Then just being able to look at the science of schizophrenia as a narrative, to see how it changed and evolved in the different debates over the years was really, really a terrific process for me. I really learned a lot. Brain research in particular is fascinating because it's so primitive. They are constantly finding out new things by accident. That’s the way a lot of drugs were developed: it turned out that the drug didn't work for one thing but it worked pretty well for something else. It's like throwing darts blindly and then if you're lucky, something happens that you aren't expecting.  It certainly is like that for a lot of mental illness drugs as well. It was something that was developed for something else. Lost Girls was about abuse and trauma and the things that we take away from our families that are negative. So even though the family is, I think, generally trying to help the brothers who are ill, there's still a stigma attached to what's happening to them. The subject of abuse and childhood trauma is an interesting one for me because I really don't wake up in the morning thinking, “What next story about trauma and abuse should I tell?” It isn't the thing that is driving it for me. And yet, these two books both have it, have a lot of it. Perhaps it's simply because I'm drawn to stories about people facing adversity. It's certainly not out of anything in my life personally that I'm resolving. More families are like that than not. Certainly, that's true. The things I really like to write about best are intimate personal stories. I'm not a pundit and while I've done investigative reporting, it's usually because I'm motivated by the people in it. I'm not an essayist or ideas writer, and I don't do first-person stuff. I really want to do narratives about people so the people are going to be going through something tough and this is as tough as it gets. Yeah, when I was comparing your two books, that's where I landed. I landed on trauma, I landed on marginalized people. The mentally ill are marginalized, much in the way that the women of Lost Girls were, some of whom were probably also mentally ill. I am purely operating out of an established playbook by idols of mine. Alex Kotlowitz or Katherine Boo or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is amazing. Or David Simon, using these amazing nonfiction narratives that are about marginalized people or people who we might overlook even if they aren't officially marginalized. I'm trying to do what they're doing. Well, you're doing what they're doing. What's interesting is that the writers you just mentioned all have written really incredible books that somehow tell a universal story, even though they’re about marginalized people. And I hope to do that too, for sure. To me, that's one of the things that journalism can do. It can make the world smaller, and help you relate to people who you've never thought you'd have anything in common with. These are some of the amazing things that good non-fiction can do. One of the other similarities I felt in these stories is a lot of them break down to be stories about mothering. I think we both blame and venerate mothers. When people have troubled lives we still look at mothers and think, well, what's going on there?  I was alarmed by that with this book. I was worried because, god knows there are enough family stories out there, fiction and non-fiction, where the mother really takes it on the chin. And I was not interested in that trope. In conversations with all the children, I learned that they were re-evaluating both parents as life went on, and so fixated on that and decided to make that a big part of the story. Well, it's hard because Don sort of drops out of the story because he becomes ill. That's exactly right. By the time it came to make some really serious decisions about his sons, he was no longer the decision maker. [Mimi] has sole power. Once one son died in 1973, there was no way she was going to be overruled on any decision. It would have been an interesting and different story if there were two parents there continuing to work on this issue, but it just wasn't that way. Why do you think they had so many children? It was unusual for them and their families. There were other large families in Colorado Springs at the time but the Galvins were the first to do it. Not all the Galvins have large families. So even their own families were wondering why this was happening. I think I arrived at two ways of looking at it. One is that the Gavins like having a life of distinction. Don liked being the guy who flew the falcons and they liked being known as this large family, this model family. Mimi, who had given up the life she had wanted, could build a life that was more interesting to her and made her feel special. I think she also was filling a hole in her life. I think she had some losses that she was trying to gloss over, like the loss of her father who left the family in scandal and the loss of her husband who became more of an absentee parent and the loss of the future she thought she could have. And so here was a way to create a lot of new company for herself to stave off abandonment. I think it worked for her in a lot of ways, and not just because she wanted people to look up to [them] as a model family. The Oprah’s Book Club people are starting to read the book and some of the commenters there are interested in the idea that she was competing with Don, which isn't something I really explored, but it's an interesting idea. She's this very intelligent woman who is going through what a lot of women in that generation are going through. She's relegated to a homemaker role when she could have gone to college. Her husband is this big shot who's really accomplishing everything professionally and she's at his mercy in terms of what kind of money they make, where they live, everything that happens. And so maybe she is doing what she can do to accomplish something too. It’s hard not to think about how, in the beginning, he is the star and as the book goes on, she takes the reins. But where he gets to be this fun, larger than life public figure, she's just trying to keep it together privately. Yes, and she's adjacent to his public life. She's on his arm at these events and stuff, but it's not really her life, it's his life.  Do you think in a different era she would have made different choices? Did her daughters talk about that at all? Yes, I think as kids, they grew up saying, Why on earth is my mother neglecting me and choosing the six sons over me? Why did she put me in harm's way? The two sisters now look at her and think, What were her choices? Now that they are both married and have children of their own, and have been able to make lots of decisions about their lives, they realize that Mimi’s choices were limited, her tools were limited, the understanding of the illness is limited. She may have made some colossal errors of judgment but she also was operating with real limitations. At this point, the sisters are filling the role that she had to and making decisions about their brothers’ care, I would imagine. Yes, and we see two different ways of dealing with that in the two sisters because they are not alike. Lindsay is aggressively trying to do what her mother did in terms of caring for the brothers and there's a price for that, which is that she has a certain amount of mania about it and ends up having some difficulties with the people around her because of it. Margaret goes the other direction where she feels that it's a bottomless pit dealing with the family issues, and so she creates some boundaries. But there's a price for that as well because then others begin to resent her.  I would think the resentment started when [Margaret] went away. This is actually something else I think will be interesting with the book club readers: what do you make of a mother who sends a daughter to a family that they're not super close to? It's very unusual but actually a very shrewd thing for her to do. I think there's so many ways of looking at that. In the beginning, I looked at it as something out of Charles Dickens, like this mysterious wealthy benefactor pulling one of the children out and it just seemed so larger than life. But as you said, there's the resentment of the people left behind. Then there's Margaret’s own feelings of alienation and abandonment, being sent away when it was really the brothers who she thought maybe ought to be sent away. She feels penalized and deprived of her family for reasons that she doesn't understand. There's the culture clash of her being in this wealthy family, and then looking back at her family. The sisters’ lives are different from then on because they aren't together, but they are both cursed with a certain hypervigilance, like they're walking on egg shells, because they're ready for the worst to happen at any time, and that plays into every decision they each make. Still? Still, absolutely. If you were to meet Lindsey or Margaret today on a ski slope or at the Whole Foods they would seem like anyone else. Perfectly congenial, nice, intelligent, friendly people. But in their emotional lives and the legacy of their childhood, there's a certain walking on egg shells feeling that they both have and will continue to deal with. And I'm sure the brothers feel that way too. I mean, as kids, they all woke up every day wondering if they were going to go insane like their brothers. I don't think you ever really get away from that.  What do you want from your next book? You reported these two very intense, very moving stories, which are also very bleak in some ways. But I don't imagine you’re going to turn it all around and do Mary Poppins. But you're obviously drawn to a certain kind of story. How would you define that? What kind of stories do you like to tell?   I love non-fiction narratives, and I prefer to tell stories about ordinary people who are going through something extraordinary so that readers can sort of follow along and put themselves in their shoes. And as an added bonus, it would be nice also to be able to learn about a completely unfamiliar world while experiencing this narrative in the way that one does when reading Katherine Boo.  I'm happy to write another true crime book, but it doesn't have to be true crime. I'd be happy to write another book about mental illness. Really, the priority would be human stories that lift a veil on something that you may not understand immediately. Do you think you'll continue to write about families or is that sort of incidental?  I think it's incidental. If there were an amazing story about someone where the family didn't come into it, I wouldn't shy away from it, but I will say that for years and years and years, I wanted to find some way to report on a family that had a estrangement because I am interested in the subject of family estrangement. If you talk to my [former] co-workers at New York Magazine, my close friends there from years ago, they would all say, oh yes, Bob said that he wanted to do that a long time ago. How amazing [is it that] this presented that chance?  Do you have another book in mind or you just sort of like sitting back and taking all of this in? I have nothing right now. I have a couple of ideas that might end up being shorter things, but I really don't know. No big promising book project at the moment. And that's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I think it would be nice to have the promise of something new to work on, while promoting something that exists. But on the other hand, in the middle of a global pandemic, it's probably nice that I'm not feeling overworked. I have one job right now and that's to support this book and also keep the family feeling okay during the quarantine.
The Keeper of the Bees

I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things.

I’ve been obsessed with animals since childhood. Though I grew up in a rural-ish area and was a bona fide horse girl, it wasn’t enough. I tormented my parents by keeping outside fauna in my room for companionable observation. A common housefly? My friendly pet. A caterpillar? Temporary roommate. I kept it in a jar and provided milkweed until it formed into a chrysalis and later a monarch butterfly, at which point it was released into the backyard to expend its little life. During a farm visit, I was gifted a fertilized chicken egg which I then kept inside a mitten and warmed under a desk lamp until my father turned the light off, probably due to mounting hydro costs. A chick was on its way, the weight of the egg a telltale sign. One more pet opportunity lost. Though to be fair, I doubt I had much of a plan beyond the egg hatching. The thing is, these creatures would’ve gone through natural, preprogrammed, yet seemingly impossible processes with or without my interference. I recall aptitude test results as I wrapped up secondary school that put me in the ninety-ninth percentile for a future in both the arts and agriculture. I chose books, but a deep curiosity about that other path remained.  Last year, after a few seasons of reading about homesteads and honeybees, I signed up for the Beekeeping 101 course at the University of Guelph, which has become so popular that people set alarms and join waitlists to vie for a space in two spring sessions. It taught components of biology, apiculture, and hands-on skills. The curriculum was geared toward hobbyists. The stress of farming for income did not factor in. Our instructor, a beekeeper with some thirty years’ experience, told the class that if we wish to keep bees in order to “save the bees,” not to bother. However, if we want to keep bees because we’re interested and wish to learn about and care for them, great. A line was drawn between the endeavours of animal husbandry and conservation.   *** Honeybees are not native to North America, but were imported by European settlers in the seventeenth century. The most popular breeds for honey production are Italian (the archetype honeybee: yellow and black) and Carniolan (a hardier, Eastern European honeybee). Where I’m writing this, in Canada, any wild honeybees are feral descendants of those that have escaped from domesticated hives. Wild, native bee species that do not produce honey are less recognizable but vital pollinators. Emerald-green sweat bees (often mistaken for flies), carpenter and leaf cutter bees, and bumblebees get overlooked. By keeping a honeybee hive, I learned, backyard beekeepers are not necessarily contributing to the strength of local bee populations, but potentially creating more competition for wild pollinators where sources are scarce.  It is honeybees rather than native bees that have become symbols of conservation. Perhaps because they’re undeniably fascinating, the intricate combs and social structure, the miraculous honey. Perhaps because we’re terrified: there is no single accepted cause for colony collapse disorder, and we’re agriculturally dependent on honeybees for current farming practices. Bees, trucked across the continent to pollinate monocrops, like almonds in California or blueberries in Atlantic Canada, face unfamiliar environmental conditions, travel stress, and a lack of variety in their food sources which wreaks havoc on their digestive and immune systems. As a University of Guelph honeybee biologist explained by comparison, it might be like eating only applesauce for your entire life. Will you live? Yes, but you will not thrive. *** In the university bee yard, the honeybees seemed unperturbed as students fumbled through implementing our lessons with hive inspections (this is the term that’s used: inspection). Intentional movement and smoke work best. Bees probably don’t “smell fear,” which relieved the anxious in the group, but they do take aim at dark, shiny things, like sunglasses. No posturing while beekeeping. After taking the course, and reading all the materials I could access, I volunteered to help load spring nucs at a beekeeping supply store. A nuc, or nucleus colony, is a small colony of a few thousand bees and a queen. Around two-hundred nucs came to the shop on pallets, in ventilated cardboard boxes. The storage area hummed and grew humid with their unique, warm, waxy scent. Because the boxes weren’t sealed tightly, thousands of bees began to escape inside the warehouse, barreling toward the light of the loading dock. Beekeepers arrived to pick up their orders, unphased by the swarms. One farmer teased me for wearing a hat and veil as I Tetris’d twenty-five nucs into his Toyota Yaris and bees pinged against the windows inside. When I asked if he’d be alright on an hourlong drive, he responded: What are they gonna do, sting me? Beekeeping needs patience. It’s not a practice of instant gratification. The best time to inspect a hive does not often align with one’s own schedule. Weather conditions should be ideal so that many of the workers are out foraging and the bees remaining inside are disturbed as little as possible; it’s easier to see brood, find the queen, and statistically avoid stings. So, sunny. Not windy. Not about to rain. Warm. I installed my own hive on an agreeable family member’s property, nearby enough that I could check on it weekly. I didn’t sleep the first night after I left my hive. Something to do with the idea that I suddenly had sixty-thousand lives on my hands. After two weeks of letting the colony situate in its new surroundings, I lit my smoker and opened the hive. I held the brood frame up into the sunlight and saw the queen’s eggs, like tiny grains of rice in the comb. I’m fairly certain I said, She’s laying! out loud, proudly, to no one. As I replaced the frames, bees crawled over my hands and were gentle. I felt completely vulnerable, my inadequacies on display as I was forced to learn by doing. I learned procedures, but caring for bees meant observing. I would have no words: nothing fully explained. With beekeeping, one is mostly deducing. Inevitably, I would make mistakes. I would have to trust myself and my instincts, and this alone was frightening. And isn’t it so terribly human, to immediately think of how animals make us feel?  Protective: when a large wasp aimed for the hive entrance and guard bees sacrificed themselves to kill it. Guilty: when half the hive swarmed. Astonished: when the bees raised a new queen and she, too, began laying healthy brood.  ***  If I think about it too hard, I balk at the idea that we engineer how animals may respond to us, and what they give or provide us. In the narrative of optional, hobbyist animal guardianship, there are motivations that are elided, mysterious even to those who act upon them. Did I take on beekeeping because my apartment won’t allow dogs? Did I cave to some latent need to nurture? I hope that I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things. One flawless August day I performed an inspection. Some frames were heavy with capped honey, in others the comb held nectar, shimmering wet in the light. Nurse bees attended to larvae. There was no evidence of mites, but I applied preventative treatment. The harshness of the medicated strip results in some bee mortality, which I had to come to terms with. Opening a hive, even briefly on a good day, creates a lot of disorder for the bees. It is rather exposing to realize how out of tune one can be with nature. To notice how dull certain senses are to complement my quotidian life. Weeks later, I had to remove the mite treatment, but the conditions were terrible. It was humid, overcast, one of those swollen Ontario afternoons that bursts into thunder. Because of my procrastination, moving slowly and carefully wasn’t possible. I rushed through the removal of the mite strip, and as I replaced the box lid, I felt a sting on my ankle—my first of the season. I started to trust that I had learned something. What does it mean to care for an animal that isn’t a pet? As a hobby, maybe it means to ascribe value without expectation. To focus on what is visible, objective, rather than sketching out interiority. Is the queen laying? Are the foragers active and providing? Staring at bees who act for their collective benefit, their wellbeing has evidence. This, a counterpoint to the emotional logic I’d imposed about my own shortcomings and self-absorption. Maybe domestication should remain strange. According to my 101 instructors, novice beekeepers, or even well-meaning conservationists, occasionally install hives in their yards as though they’re birdfeeders: to enjoy and observe. And it is wonderful to watch a healthy hive on a summer day, bees returning with pollen packed onto their legs like pants in the colour of whatever flower they’ve attended. I think of sheep, across generations barn-raised, shorn, and attended to by veterinarians. An Australian merino ram escaped from his paddock and was rediscovered five years later. Such domestic sheep are bred not to lose their coat and need to be shorn regularly, so his mobility was impaired as a result of the five-year weight of his fleece. Domesticated bees shouldn’t simply be left to their own devices without human intervention and care. Honeybees are vulnerable to predators, pests, and diseases, and if left unattended, infections have the potential to be spread to feral colonies. Good intentions can leave us with nothing to look forward to. *** As autumn leaves dropped and mornings frosted over, my bees become cranky and retreated. In these winter months, bees cluster—shiver around the queen to keep warm. As the temperature rises and falls, the cluster expands and contracts. Undertaker bees carry out the dead. I wonder if my bees will survive the winter, if I provided the best conditions. When the temperature creeps to spring-like in January, bees fly, dopey and confused as we all are from the climate change flux. I remember, back in the full blooming summer, I added a super to the hive to make space for more honey storage. After, I took off my veil and long sleeve and lay down in the grass a few steps away to feel the sun heat my skin. A bee bumped into my head and rebounded on her way. Another landed on my arm for a minute, maybe regarded me but probably not, cleaned her antennae, and took off again. I watched their flight patterns zip across the sky and tried to trace them; it was impossible.