The Orphanage

In her corner office, Sister Modesta Cuma opens a notebook and considers a list of boys and girls under her care. She knows the story behind each name.

Lucera, 10. Mentally disabled.
Lives in her own world. Here five years.

director of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, a Catholic orphanage for HIV-positive
children, Sister Modesta is responsible for forty-five youngsters ranging in
age from a few days to fifteen years old. The orphanage stands beside a dirt
and stone road that wends through a dense jungle of leafy trees in the village
of Sumpango, about fifty miles outside Guatemala City, Guatemala, and near the
town of Antigua, once Guatemala’s capital and now a popular tourist
destination. Nuns with the order of Small Apostles of Redemption care for the children
behind high walls that shut off the trees and the road and the noise of traffic
converging on Antigua. Within the compound an orderly world of classrooms,
dormitories, a chapel, and a playground, replete with basketball court, swing
sets and slides provide an alternative universe of calm and safety in which
nuns occupy the roles of parent, teacher and protector.

Fernando, 8. Both of his parents are addicts. He has absorbed all of their problems. When he started walking, he would throw himself against walls. He couldn’t be left alone. His parents are now dead. They lived in Zone 18, one of the worst neighborhoods in Guatemala. Fernando’s uncle was shot. He’s hiding somewhere. Drugs, violence, gangs. It’s in his blood.

when a mother visits the orphanage, her son or daughter does not recognize her.
The child cries and the mother gets angry. She doesn’t understand that the nuns
have replaced her.

Gustavo Ramirez, 11. He has no
family other than an aunt but she rarely visits. Just recently, however, she
took him for a few days.

the children were born out of tragedy. More often than not, their mothers
became pregnant after having sex with an HIV-infected man. Some of them worked
as prostitutes. Others were raped. Still others injected drugs with dirty
needles and continued using after they were pregnant. Then doctors and police
get involved. Then the courts refer the children to Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.  

having the HIV virus, the children impress visitors with their joy and laughter
so much so that a few visitors leave refusing to believe the children have any
health issues at all. However, Sister Modesta knows better. A three-year-old
died in 2014. He was so sick when he arrived that no amount of medication could
save him. The children of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello live with the threat of
death every day.

Ignacio Bachub, 14. Came to the
orphanage when he was eight years old. He has an uncle in the U.S. but no close
relatives in Guatemala.

Modesta could never have anticipated that her life would lead here when, as a twelve-year-old,
she told the nuns in her hometown of Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, that she
wanted to join the church. She had been impressed by their stories of traveling
to Africa and other faraway countries. Many of her teachers had degrees in
medicine, economics and other professions. Their knowledge impressed her.
Unlike her mother, they could read.

nuns told her she would not understand the call to Christ until she turned eighteen.
Sister Modesta, however, was undeterred. How much does a habit cost? she
demanded. It’s expensive, they told her. Too much for a twelve-year-old. Still
she persisted. Because of her commitment, or stubborn persistence – she
can’t be sure which, although she leans toward the latter – the
nuns relented and she began her studies to live a religious life in 1982 when
she was seventeen. As a novice, Sister Modesta worked in Colombia and later in
El Salvador. She also earned a nursing degree. In 2015, she was assigned to
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.                  

Abimael Chilisna, 11. He is
allowed overnight visits with his family. However, they forget to give him his
medicine or feed him a proper diet. They work all the time and leave him alone.
When they return him to the orphanage, Abimael won’t take his medicine. His
family didn’t make him take it, so why should he take it now? he asks. The courts have
been informed of the problem. The next time his family asks for him, the courts
will decide whether he goes or not.

year, Sister Modesta knows, a child will leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello. Their
families take them back. The courts transfer them to another facility. They
turn eighteen and are no longer considered children. The sisters hope God will
help them. They pray that the children get through the difficulties of entering
into a world far different from the one they’ve known here.

Heidy Herrera. There are some
things about her life she does not know. She does not remember her mother and
that is probably a blessing. When her mother learned Heidy was HIV- positive,
she locked her in a cage inside the house. Her older siblings took her to her
grandmother’s house and then called the police on their own mother. The courts
placed her here. Her grandmother and uncle visit but not often.

Modesta closes her notebook, digs into the pockets of her vest to warm her
hands, and sighs. Discharges can end badly. Recently a girl left and began
dating a bad boy and they eloped. Her grades went down. She stopped attending
school and taking her medicine. Eighteen years old. Gone, never heard from
again. Sister Modesta still prays for her.


The playground at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.

Herrera sits alone on steps that lead into the playground and watches a handful
of children shooting hoops. Their shadows climb walls, shrinking and expanding
as they run. Heidy pulls a sweater around her shoulders against the evening
damp air and the far-off reverberations of thunder. She does not know her age.
The nuns have told her she is fifteen and she accepts that but because she did
not know herself she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She knows she’s getting
older and that she can’t live at the orphanage forever. She does not remember
when she came here, or who brought her. She got really sick while she lived
with her grandmother, or so she’s been told. Her grandmother didn’t understand
the problem. Then the police took her to a hospital where she received tests
and then she ended up here. Her earliest memories belong here.

understands HIV can’t be cured but with the right treatment she can live a
normal life. Without medicine, she understands HIV would develop into AIDS. She
feels at ease, tranquil about her diagnosis. She can live with it. She has for
a long time. She is the oldest child in the orphanage. She knows the time for
leaving nears. Thoughts about her future preoccupy her. Her older sisters have
agreed to take her in but they live far from Sumpango. The nuns are her family.
Will she see them again? She does not think so and the thought saddens her and
her eyes well with tears.

remembers an older boy who moved out. He was eighteen. He was friends with
everybody. All the children were sad to see him go. When he visits he plays
with everybody. He lives far away and doesn’t come often. When he goes, it
feels like the first time he left.

 Nuns also leave. At the end of each year one or two get new assignments. Sister Sandra Flores left in 2014. She took care of all the kids and was really affectionate and playful. Every now and then she drops by and Heidy embraces and holds onto her until she gently pulls her arms away. It seems to Heidy it’s always her favorite people who go. She gets nervous at the end of each year wondering who will tell her goodbye.


Sister Flor Ramirez, a teacher at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.

Sister Maria Chub stops by the clinic to look in on two infants: Kendel, eighteen months old, has a heart condition and doesn’t gain weight. Selvin, eight months old, came to the orphanage because his HIV-positive mother refused to seek medical treatment for herself and him. She fed Selvin water and nothing else. He was horribly malnourished when he arrived.

Maria sees love in the faces of the mothers who visit their babies but in most
cases they continue living the life that got them sick. Sister Maria doesn’t
judge. These mothers must eat. They are poor and care for themselves in any way
they can. If you don’t feed the body, you can’t feed the spirit, she reminds

she gets angry. One year, the mother of an infant boy Sister Maria had grown
very fond of appealed the court order that had removed him to the orphanage.
The mother got the boy back but did not give him his HIV medicine. The boy got
sick and the court returned him to the orphanage. His mother appealed again and
won. This time she gave him his medicine but it was no longer effective because
he had gone without it for so long. Doctors said he needed stronger drugs
unavailable in Guatemala. The boy died. Just five months old.

The boy’s death broke Sister Maria’s heart. Her anger at the mother knew no limits even with prayer. The mother had an opportunity to help her son but chose not to. The boy looked normal but he was sick inside. Had he been allowed to stay at the orphanage he would have received his medication. He was family. He was so cheerful despite being sick. He really liked it here but his mother wanted him. He was so small. He cried when he left. All Sister Maria can do is pray for his soul now. She weeps with fury and frustration and asks God’s forgiveness of the boy’s mother and herself.

Sister Modesta Cuma, principal at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello .


Floridalma Perez sits in a park about a mile from Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello,
where she once lived and now volunteers. She watches her three-year-old son,
Alex, play on a slide. Men and women walk in and out of a convenience store
nearby. Discarded bags of chips blow in the wind and Alex picks up one and
Floridalma tells him to drop it. The wind carries it away beneath a gray sky
warning of rain.

careful on the slide, she cautions him.

Floridalma was five years old, her mother died. Her father sexually abused her
for many years and infected her with HIV. She told her older siblings about the
abuse but no one believed her.

she started getting sick, her father left her at a hospital. The hospital staff
contacted the police and she was referred to the orphanage in 2006. She was thirteen.
She never saw her father again until she turned twenty-one when he asked for
her forgiveness.

you have destroyed my life, she told him.

Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello no one told her she was HIV-positive until she turned
seventeen. Until then, she took medicine but never understood its purpose.
Perhaps the nuns thought she wouldn’t understand.

eighteen, she left to live with an uncle in San Marcos, Guatemala, where she
was born. However, he didn’t want her to stay with him so she rented a room and
worked as a maid in a wealthy man’s house. He raped her and she became pregnant
with Alex. When she told him, he said, Go away. She doesn’t know if she
infected him with HIV. She didn’t know then that HIV was transmittable through
sex. The sisters had never discussed sex with her.

she was seven months pregnant, Floridalma called the orphanage and told the
nuns what had happened. They invited her to return and put her on medication.
She stayed at the orphanage until Alex was born free of HIV. Thank God he is
healthy, she often tells herself, thank God. She rents a room near the park
now. The nuns continue to give her food and medication.

wonders, Why is there so much suffering? She worries for the children when they
leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello and face a world so different from the one
they’ve known. She says, Hi, how are you? and the children smile a greeting in
return. She doesn’t have a relationship with any of them or with anyone else
for that matter other than her son. She wants him to stay healthy. She wants
him to have the childhood she didn’t.


Daily Schedule:

a.m. wake up, administer medication

a.m. breakfast

a.m.–2:45 p.m. school

p.m. lunch

p.m.–4:00 p.m. homework, chores

p.m.–5:00 p.m. recess

p.m.–6 p.m. church

:00 p.m. dinner

p.m. bedtime


Aleja Ocox paces the playground as she presides over recess. She took her vows
in 2001 at the age of nineteen. She can’t say why exactly other than she
attended parochial school and, besides her parents, knew only nuns as a child.
As a young woman, her options were limited: join the church or get married. She
knew no boy she wanted to marry so she decided to enter the religious life.

this evening, she watches two boys chasing one another in a game of tag. They
both have kidney problems as a result of HIV. One of them, eight-year-old
Fernando, has lived here since he was a baby. He does not remember his
drug-addicted mother. He puzzles Sister Aleja. He steals from the other
children. Why is he like this? Perhaps because his mother was a drug addict and
Fernando was born with crack cocaine in his blood. He sees a psychologist once
a week. He can turn violent. He gets very aggressive and then calms down.
Sister Aleja doesn’t know what to think of him.

Aleja worked at the orphanage in 2006, was transferred to another orphanage and
then returned in 2014. When she was here the first time, the orphanage didn’t
have a clinic. If a child got sick, they had to be driven to Roosevelt
Hospital, the public hospital in Guatemala City, more than an hour a way. The
clinic has been a big help. Now, if a child falls or gets hurt in some minor
way, they have a place to go within the orphanage. Poor things. They panic so
if they bruise themselves. Sometimes even Sister Aleja panics. The slightest
thing, even a sneeze, makes her worry they might get sick and die.

Aleja especially keeps an eye on the little ones. She reminds them to take their
medicine before they go to bed. Don’t catch cold, she warns them, don’t get
wet. When the colder weather comes, wear a sweater. She worries all the time.
Please God, let them stay healthy.

once a week, Sister Aleja drives a van full of boys and girls from the
orphanage to Roosevelt Hospital for routine checkups. She awakens the children
at four in the morning so they can make their seven o’clock appointment. She
maneuvers through the congested traffic of the capital with the impatience of a
seasoned commuter. The gray-stone hospital rises above a parking lot filled
with beggars and fruit vendors. Sister Aleja parks and hurries the children to
the front doors, passes a security guard, and follows a hall that takes her to
a row of examination rooms. She registers the children with a receptionist and
then herds them together as she finds chairs for them all. They wait until
Sister Aleja hears her name called. Standing, she takes the children to a bare
room with charts of the human body tacked on the wall. A nurse seated behind a
desk beckons each child forward.

12: Pointing to a spot on her left arm, she tells the nurse she knows where her
good vein is to draw blood. Steady, the nurse tells her, so I hit the vein the
first time. The last time I didn’t need lab work, but today it’s my turn,
Angelica reminds her. The nurse nods as she inserts the needle. When she
finishes, she asks Angelica to stand on a scale. She is still underweight, the
nurse tells Sister Aleja, but she has always been a little underweight. Her cholesterol was high the last time
we ran blood. Is she eating oatmeal to lower it? Yes, but she doesn’t
like it, Sister Aleja says.

9: The nurse measures his waist, biceps and arm length and checks his weight.
He watches her as she adjusts the scale. Look, up, look straight ahead, the
nurse tells him. He gained two pounds since his last visit and grew 1.2
centimeters, she comments. How have you been behaving? she asks him. You have a
look like you’ve been misbehaving. He giggles. She considers his chart. Viral
load untraceable, good. White blood cells normal. Kidney, liver very well. Have
you been sick? No. You’re so quiet, guapo.
Why don’t
you say anything? He smiles.

9: He gained two pounds since his last checkup and now weighs fifty-five
pounds. He grew one centimeter. Has he been ill? the nurse asks. No, Sister
Aleja says. He’s gained weight, the nurse continues, that’s good. White blood
cells normal, but his fatty acids are up. Give him Omega 3.

After the children have been examined, the older ones who know what it means to be HIV-positive meet with a counselor. The counselor tells them they’ll be OK if they take their medicine. You have limitations but do the best you can with the life you have. Give an example of how you can respect yourself. Do you brush your teeth, shower, eat every day? Yes, a boy answers. Those are things we can do to show our bodies respect and love, the counselor says. Every day you should do something that shows you love yourself. Every day, the boys says, I drink water. Good. What else? I take my medicine. Yes, the counselor agrees, that’s also good. If you take your medicine every day, you’ll be OK. From your blood work, I can see your medicine is working. How does the medicine help you? It doesn’t let the virus hurt me, the boy replies. What’s the difference between contracting and transmitting? If I use a needle, he says, I’ll contract it. If someone sneezes will you contract? the counselor asks. No, the boy replies. If you share a cup of water? No. What about sexual relations? Yes, the boys says, unless I use a condom. Very good, the counselor says.

Sister Modesta Cuma in the orphanage clinic.



Ramirez: I dream about my family. I dream about going home and spending
Christmas with them. In my dream I see my family. Everyone is happy.

Chilisna: I dream of being with my family. They come and pick me up and take me
to swimming pools. I feel sad about leaving. I’ll leave my friends. All my
friends are here but I’m a little happy because I’ll be with my family.

Perez: I have dreams for my son. I want him to have what I didn’t. I know this
will be difficult because I still don’t have what I want him to have, a home
and safety. I don’t have dreams for myself. I have nightmares. One positive
dream out every ten nightmares. The good dreams are of a life that is not
difficult but once I wake up everything falls away. My nightmares are all
related to accidents, car crashes or in a bus. I’m afraid of something
happening to my son and me.

Herrera: I dream of living a normal life without medicine.


studies class. Third- and fourth-graders.

lesson: de la violencia a la paz. Violence versus peace.

out your notebooks, Sister Modesta tells the class of eight- and
nine-year-olds. The boys and girls shift in their chairs, rummaging through
shoulder packs, rocking the small desks on the concrete floor and the damp air
made damper from a lingering morning fog clings to the room and the children
rub goosebumps from their arms.

me some examples of violence, Sister Modesta tells the class.

one boy punches another boy.

one boy says I’m better than you that is violence.

siblings fight for the love of the mother.

at a time, Sister Modesta says.

they drink, people become violent.

and sisters fight for the love of their mother.

Sister Modesta writes their comments on the board. She has chosen this topic because she knows some of the mothers of these children were raped. The children themselves have experienced physical abuse and social exclusion. She wants them to see this behavior as wrong and not repeat it themselves when they become adults.

Sister Modesta Cuma.


class, Ignacio Bachub approaches Sister Modesta.

like to be a chef, he tells her.

makes you happy, she encourages.

Maybe a chef working in one of Antigua’s many restaurants would come and talk to him, she thinks. Perhaps even apprentice him. Why not? These children should be loved as much as anyone and have the same opportunities. They complain that they’re not like other boys and girls. Don’t feel dejected, she tells them. You will outgrow these disappointments, but she doesn’t know if she believes that. With each child she feels the vulnerability of her ignorance of God’s will. She prays for their health and welfare and then waits as uncertain as the children under her care for what the future holds.

The medicine cabinet at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.

Circumventing the Crowds in the City of Dreaming Spires

Picture Credits: kooikkari

A New NIMBYism

Autumn has descended, and with it, a fresh wave of overenthusiastic university
students upon the city of Oxford. They do not fill a vacuum, but readily occupy
the place of the some 16,000 tourists, day-trippers and student “edu-tourists”
who visit the city every day during the summer travel season. The passage of
time has mercifully dulled my recollection of my own student years at Oxford
University, but I still remember the unceremonious jostling and daily
turf-battles that took place between tourists, townies and students in the
beleaguered city centre. As a final-year student, I reluctantly gate-crashed
many a pristine photo of the Christ Church, or “Harry Potter”, dining hall in
my bid to reach the Examination Schools on time (although, as I was donning a
curious combination of hijab and “subfusc” at the time, I hope the tourists
didn’t feel too short-changed for their photographic efforts).

Oxford is just one of many destination cities that is beginning to suffer
the effects of “overtourism” – a term that hit the headlines in 2017, and has
only gained in traction since then. The term implies not only overcapacity in numbers,
but also the unsustainability, even undesirability, of the associated tourist
culture. Local inhabitants and environmental organisations have led the
backlash against global tourism, particularly in European cities, from the
banning of food trucks and selfie-sticks in Milan, to the recent announcement of
a new tourist tax on day-trippers to Venice. Nevertheless, travellers remain
unabated, continuing to make use of low-cost flights and cheap accommodation
options in their quest to witness, photograph and publically demonstrate their
presence across the globe. Many of us have, by all counts, brazenly severed
ourselves into a dichotomy: both vigorous defenders of our private spaces, or “locals”,
and bold venturers into unfamiliar places.

We might refer to this contradictory reality as the new NIMBYism: one
that exemplifies the many double standards of the human condition. The
backyards that we occupy, with their distinctiveness dulled to our senses, are
now an endless source of fascination to others, and prime opportunities for Insta-“grammable”
moments. En route to Venice in 2016, alongside the twenty-seven million other
visitors who made the same trek that year, one guidebook that I read sagely
cautioned its discerning readers to “walk in the opposite direction to the
crowds” if they wanted to experience the richness of the city. This reassuring
veneer of self-respectability shields us from being identified as part of the “crowd”,
even when we patently are.

Oxford has long witnessed its fair share of “set-jetters” and visitors eager
to absorb the city’s air of historic enlightenment, but a rise in tourism has
left the city centre unnavigable in the summer months, except to those
well-versed in the skill of crowd avoidance. As I transitioned from a student
of the University to a resident of the city, my own NIMBYistic tendencies have
been unleashed. I now watch in dismay as coaches carrying day-trippers block the
cycle lines in Oxford’s cramped quarters, and the tourists shuttled therein
tend to leave after only a few hours – increasing the flow of traffic without
making any contribution to the city’s independent stores. I bristle as I walk
past the £440m Westgate shopping centre, which opened two years ago, and has generated
ghost-town effects on other parts of the city, including the closure of my
favourite coffee shop haunt, Combibo’s. The owners of this shop made no effort
to conceal their chagrin at the establishment of the Westgate centre, affixing
a statement to the shop door in which they proclaimed that “Oxford is a shadow
of the place we all fell in love with” (even I haven’t quite reached that state
of disillusionment). Cornmarket Street, a major pedestrian precinct in the
city, is increasingly inhabited by souvenir shops that sell marginal stylistic
variations on Oxford-emblazoned hoodies and mugs.

To residents and visitors alike, there are bleakly comic undertones to the
growth of tourism in Oxford. University students commend the most creatively
fictitious tour guide anecdotes (one favourite being the “Bridge of Sighs” as
named after the disheartened students who shuffled underneath it in a spirit of
post-exam malaise). One elderly friend, struggling to navigate the crowded city
centre using her walking aid, has confessed to simply using it to mow down
large groups of stationary language tourists. There is even something wryly
amusing by the recent opening of “Britain Heritage” [sic], a souvenir shop that
has confidently taken its place next to Boswells department store, which has been
trading modestly for its part since 1738. In the meantime, retail bulletins and
city councillors alike commend the rise in “footfall” in the city: an indication of the need to scrutinise the
statistics peddled out in support of the travel industry, as well as the
desirability of “footfall” as an end in itself.

In the past, it has been customary to praise or condemn travel chiefly
for its effects on the mind. For Mark Twain, it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry
and narrow-mindedness”; for D.H. Lawrence, it is “an exercise in disillusionment”.
In contrast, the bullish character Mr Thwaites, in Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, had “further
narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad”. And yet, the
unregulated growth of the travel industry over the preceding decades no longer
permits us the luxury of viewing tourism solely through the lens of discovery
and self-fulfilment. We now need to find a more sustainable way of seeing the
world – one that channels both the accountability of the travel industry and
the conscientiousness of individuals.

The conversation has yet to shift significantly in these shores. This
past summer, the UK government cheerily announced the creation of five new “tourism
zones”. Oxford, of course, was granted the privilege of being one of them. With
a prickling of my conscience, I bemoaned this news while descending upon the
city of Bath, seeking welcome respite in its familiar unfamiliarity. In my
defence, I departed the city rejuvenated by its mineral springs, but mug-less
and hoodie-less. This I consider to be no small victory.

Waylaid in Bucharest

Picture Credits: Gerhard Gellinger

The airport
in Bucharest was open-aired in the nineties, the walls were glass from the
floor up about fifteen feet, with the last five feet or so open to the outside.
Guards patrolled the hallways in pairs, wearing furry Russian hats, swinging
long rifles as they walked, sometimes holding the leash of a German Shepherd.
To me, they were like the soldiers who guarded the Wicked Witch’s castle in the
Wizard of Oz, and I was afraid of them.

My boyfriend
and I landed in Bucharest on a November afternoon during a snowstorm, for a
short stop to change plans on our way to Bangkok. We had saved $600 on airfare
by using the Romanian airline, Air Tarom, rather than something more
mainstream, and were happy enough with the older-yet-solid jet that flew us
from Istanbul, where we’d been staying, to Bucharest. At some point while we
were in the air, sipping an orange beverage that tasted like Tang and sharing a
giant bar of chocolate, the pilots of Air Tarom went on strike, and when we
arrived there were no pilots willing to fly any plane anywhere.

They told us
the news as we exited the plane. Rather than getting on another, we were to
wait at the airport “until arrangements could be made.” I didn’t understand
when a dark-haired official confiscated my passport, while everyone else on the
plane seemed to get theirs back. When I asked, he looked through me like I was
a momentary shimmer in his peripheral vision, and turned to the next person in

Adaptable as I am, I was not used to being ignored, and not ready to be dismissed. I looked for Erol, who’d gone through the line in front of me, and saw him on the other side. I watched him tuck his French passport into his shirt.

“I need my
passport back,” I told the man. A small woman in a neat blue suit appeared next
to me and informed me that they must hold the American passports, and that if I
wanted to enter the airport, I had to surrender my passport. Those were the
rules, there were no exceptions.

American passports? Why?” I wanted to know. But my questions were not their
concern, and they took my passport and hustled me along.

My passport
and I had journeyed together across many experiences in the past five months.
My most guarded possession, it provided me with the means to move freely in the
world, yet tied me back to home. It was an extension of my body, strapped
against the skin of my waist in a small canvas belt that had moved with me for
five months. I left it behind, my sense of security amputated from my psyche. I
had no choice.

I entered
the airport and noticed the guards right away. They moved in twos, always
chatting in loud Russian-sounding voices, gesturing at times with their rifles.
Shops and food vendors lined the hall, none of whom could take a credit card
for foreign currency, except for American dollars, which were welcome
everywhere. I had a few American dollars, just a few, and was relieved that I
had the means to buy a hot sandwich, which I did as the first order of
business, and Erol and I sat on the floor to eat it.

As soon as I pulled out my American money to pay for the food, I attracted a crowd of Romanian peasants that I hadn’t seen before. They gathered around me with their bare feet and sad eyes, begging for some American dollars, demanding that I pay them something for their misery. I was a rich American, and they had nothing. One young woman was especially persistent, saying over and over “please to give me some American dollars, my brother is so sick, we are so poor. Please to give me some American dollars.” I wished I could help, but didn’t carry extra money. I was guilty of being American and not living in poverty, but I shut off the awareness, it was too intense, and I had nothing to give.

Snow swirled
through the open windows, mingling with the air in the terminal to fall down on
us. In our T-shirts and sandals, the snow soon became an onslaught of ice
bullets. We were freezing. The only source of heat I could find was a small
space heater in the women’s restroom, and I huddled next to it, leaving Erol to
fend for himself. But one can only spend so much time hunkered down in a busy,
dingy bathroom, and I wasn’t there long before I needed to leave.

Cherie!” Erol called to me from down the
hall, striding up to me with a big grin on his face. “I got this from one of
the guards. Let’s drink now to be warm!”

He held out
a bottle of Russian vodka for me to see.

It was a
cheerful bottle, and a drink sounded pretty good, so I squashed the faint
intuitive nudge that vodka might not improve our bodies’ heat retention before
it could turn into a full-fledged thought.

We found a
dark corner where the snow didn’t reach and sat with our bodies mashed as close
as we could get with our clothes on, and swigged vodka from the battle,
chatting with a couple camped near us, sharing our vodka with them. Before long
we were warmer, and for a couple of hours we had fun, and laughed drunkenly at
the expense of Air Tarom and Bucharest.

And then we
were cold again. Very cold. I no longer noticed my teeth chattering – my entire
body chattered uncontrollably. Delirious with cold and vodka, I thought of my
passport, and whether it was a drunken stumble or a brilliant leap in
intuition, I suddenly knew that our entire future depended on getting my
passport back at once. “I want my passport!” I announced.

“Yeah,” Erol
slurred, “go get fucking passport! Why they take your passport?”

I marched
over to the dark-haired woman.

“Excuse me,
I want my passport right now,” I said. My voice shook.

She turned
toward me, faced me squarely, and stared.

passport?” I said again.

continued to stare. Her entire body seemed to have turned to stone, except for
her eyes, which followed me with a scientific detachment, as if I were a wild
beast exhibiting an interesting behavioral trait.

And perhaps
I was.

“Give me my
fucking passport!” I screamed. What was up with this cold Slavic bitch, who
expressed as much emotion as a blank piece of paper? Who the hell did she think
she was? But wait, this woman had a temper, I knew. Because I’d seen her throw
a hissy fit several hours ago, when she went off on a male airline employee,
shrieking and stamping her feet in fury, her heels crashing onto the concrete
like exclamation points. She was not without sharp edges. How could she stand
there and ignore me?

“Hello?!” I
shouted. “Are you going to answer me? I’m a human being standing in front of
you! I’m a customer of your airline! I want my fucking passport!”

She didn’t
move a muscle; her face registered no response to my anger. I didn’t know what
to do, what to think. How was it even possible? This would never happen in
America, I thought, and planted a seed within me for a new appreciation of the

But I wasn’t
in America on that cold night in November, I was in Romania, freezing and
starving, trying to squeeze my passport out of a statue. What could I do?
Nothing, I realized, and shrank, my hysteria dying with my hope. I stumbled
back to Erol, who seemed to have reached the edge of panic himself.

“We’re in
trouble, cherie,” he said, his eyes
wide. “Come on, we need to keep moving or we’ll freeze to death!”

We linked
arms and jogged sloppily around the airport, exhausted and shaking, our minds
foggy. It was now four in the morning, and we’d been trapped for twelve hours
in this cold, dark place, stripped of the means to keep warm or rest or eat.

But our
nightmare was to end, we were soon told, by the same statue woman who had
repelled my questions so effectively, because “arrangements had been made,” and
we were to be transported to a local hotel until a pilot could be found to fly
our plane to Bangkok. Our baggage, previously impossible to provide to us,
appeared miraculously, and we lined up to wait for our ride.

Erol and I
were third in line, waiting for our bus, ecstatic at the prospect of escape
even though I was still not allowed to have my passport. Erol suddenly laughed.
I looked at him, and he pointed to the people’s bags next to us. White tape
with the Air Tarom logo was splayed across the sides, with the words “First
Class” written in bold red writing. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever
seen, and I couldn’t help laughing. The owners of the luggage looked abased
when they realized why we were laughing, but then they too started in, and the
four of us laughed a long time. It was painful laughter, strung out and
desperate, but it felt good.

The bus, as
it turned out, was a tiny shoe car with three gears, and it carried us two by
two to the hotel, whirring and shuddering as its driver pushed it to its
maximum capacity. I fully expected the little car would revolt and seize up,
but we were dropped off at a decent hotel with no problems, anticipating a hot
shower and warm bed. But we soon learned this was not to be, as all water and
electricity were shut off at night until nine a.m., due to the National Energy
Crisis. We were shown to our room, which had a comfortable bed with a warm
comforter. We burrowed in at once, relishing the comfort as a thing of wonder –
a gift from God.

afternoon, the airline found a plane for us and we were called back to the
airport. I was warm, well-fed and clean when we walked into the terminal, and
excited to be headed out once again for our trip to Thailand. As we entered our
departure gate, an attendant handed me my passport. Erol looked at me to see
what I would do, but I had burned off all of the feelings allotted to me for
passport drama, and I took it without comment. We headed toward the plane in
good cheer, until Erol paused and started muttering in French. He didn’t like
the looks of the plane, which turned out to be military, an army transport
unit. Apparently a large part of the Bucharest International Airport was used
by the Romanian military, and somehow they had arranged for us to go by army
transport to the U.A.E., where we would change to a 757 and fly to Bangkok.

The details
of this plan alarmed me. How likely was it that a Romanian military plane would
be shot down when it flew into Iraqi air space? What about all those other Arab
countries that seemed to be always at war? I cursed my inattention to news and

In the end,
the concerns we had over this new flight arrangement didn’t outweigh our desire
to get the hell out of Bucharest, and we decided to take our chances with the
army plane. We boarded and figured out how to get strapped into our jump seats,
the propeller engines whirred to life, and the old plane huffed down the
runway. As she picked up speed and approached the end of the concrete, I
squeezed Erol’s hand, and prayed to any deity that might be listening to please
hoist this plane off the ground and take us onto our next journey.

On Going Fast

It’s easier going fast. Even now, as I write
this, I’m on 36 mg of Ritalin, drinking my second coffee of the day. Black with
one shot of espresso. Usually I order a cold brew, but Starbucks was all out.
When I pointed at the cashier and called him a sinner as a joke, he did not

I love the chemical aid. The charge of energy
that keeps me alert – eyes open, mind going. Heart pumping. Dreams running. The
quickening of the keys beneath my fingertips, an ethereal rainstorm pouring
down a world of thought fueled by Speed – bolts of energy. But the question
that always haunts me is if I truly need the stimulants. If I ever did.

In America’s fast-paced, career-driven, competitive
and creative society, one must always be sharp. On point. Ready to go-go-go! Maybe it’s more up in New
England, something in the college-saturated water. But we all feel it to some degree, as humans. The pull towards ease.
Towards what’s convenient. Towards going fast. And as I grow older, nearing thirty,
I find myself loving efficiency more and more. I find myself wanting to take
the shortcut.

Drugs are good for this. My old man has ADD,
always had it along with dyslexia, which led him to drop out of high school and
join the Marines. My brother was given Ritalin probably too early on, and – due
to its less glamorous side effects – quit the drug. He became a C student, a gifted
hockey player, a lone-wolf skateboarder, and now plays video games
competitively. His eyes wide-open staring at the screen into the wee hours of
the morning. So the learning disability is in my genes, I guess, but I never
remember taking an official test at the doctor.

About a year ago, my husband took me to the Boston
Museum of Science as a celebration for completing my MFA program. We sat down
at a station with a bulky screen that lit up with a test telling you not to get
distracted by random objects that would pop up. Cats! Purple cats! Trees!
Storms! Street signs! Ghosts! Ghosts? Gorillas! I oohed and awed, my score
plummeted, the screen buzzed, and my husband walked away laughing his face off.

Online there are quizzes you can take to measure
if you have ADD. According to one site, if you score a 34 & Up, it’s likely
you have adult ADHD. I score above 40 every time. But the part that doesn’t
make sense is that if I’m on the medication, shouldn’t I be scoring better on
these tests? If I have ADD, shouldn’t I go slower on the meds? The validity of
my diagnosis has always been questionable. What came first – I wonder – the
problem or the panacea?

I began taking Adderall illegally in high school
and quickly became addicted to amphetamines. I got A’s before taking the drugs
and I got A’s after. In college, I’d take my smart pills alongside my
successful peers. Pop shortcuts on huge projects off the palm of my hand.

Then one day, during my sophomore year of college,
I quit all drugs cold turkey. Butts. Pot. Pills. Even my anxiety meds. I
started seeing tiny blue demons on the vacuum cleaner at work. I also wasn’t
able to read books very well, my English grades starting to slip. My doctor
decided to put me on Ritalin as a safe, happy-medium between my addiction and deficiencies.
And to keep the demons at bay.

Nearly ten years later, I still take the drug. And
even though I’m thankful for the help it provides – for the time it saves – I
wonder now what life would have been like if I never got on the stimulants. How
different things would be. I wonder why I was always so afraid of going slow – why
I’m still afraid.

I think it’s the hardship. The humdrum of life. The
stuff silence says. The limitations one feels when losing help. The challenges life
brings when one slows down enough to face them.

And when that naked day comes, I’ll write about it. But for now, I don’t mind going slow.

Canvassing for School Board in a State with Struggling Schools

I parked my car and worried about leaving it and worried about the privilege of being able to leave it. I worried about my own worrying about it, and what it says about me – my doors never used to lock. Conscious of the tenderness of knuckle and how I knocked – did it sound like the cops? – I wondered if I should even think this or if its impact transcended trope? (I should not have to rehash for you the catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement.) When I knocked, I made its noise into a sort of music, so its rhythm wouldn’t sound alarming: tat-tat tata-tat-tat tat-tat. Even when coming from loved ones, a knock is never welcoming; its thuds excite or concern us more than they calm us. The sounds are alerting. Alarming. An issue to be dealt with.

this Baton Rouge district, some of the houses had no doorbells. Sometimes, the
doorbells were taped over with blue masking or black electrical tape.
Sometimes, the outer coverings were broken so that the light shined behind, but
I wouldn’t press them for fear of being shocked. Sometimes, a second doorbell
with a small camera had been added. These doorbells were black and lit up blue as
they rang and they sang a small, sharp tune and surely watched me. Sometimes,
the doorbells didn’t make a sound, so I pressed my ear to the door to listen
and knocked after and felt the tenderness in my knuckle again. So many of the
doorbells didn’t work or weren’t there that a knot formed in my knuckle.
Sometimes there was a camera above the door and sometimes in place of the
camera there was a piece of paper that said, “Smile, You Are On Camera” or “We
Are Videotaping You Steal and Will be Sharing with the Police.”

of the doors had second, outer metal doors over them. These were a pattern of
strips and rods through which I could see the real door and through which my
hand sometimes fit to knock on the real door. Sometimes I had to knock on the
steel frames, which made a low sound that people barely ever answered to, and
sometimes I had to knock on the mesh patterns between the frames, which made a
loud rattling sound which startled even me. Sometimes near the door there were
signs that said, “KNOCK LOUD” or “Leave packages around back.” Sometimes the
house had a gate that I could walk through to get to the door and sometimes the
gate was locked so that I had to slip the flyer on the gate and say hello and
hope that someone was home.


sidewalk broke away and gave to grass, the yards to rock and mud. A Styrofoam
sonic cup pooled its remaining blue wastes of sugar juice. I told you that I
parked my car and left it, and as I walked, I watched a man enter shirtless
into his house – he was taller than me with broad shoulders and a bald head.
His skin shone pale and white and flexed black tattoos on his back and arms. I
walked past his home, since it was not listed on the canvassing app on my phone,
and I knocked without answer at his neighbor’s door. As I moved along, a small
pickup truck idled at the street-edge of a driveway a few houses down. The
truck was white, with a rust-red fender, and the woman inside watched me. She
had been watching every house I knocked on. Her hands rested on the
steering-wheel as I approached.

I’m just here canvassing for the upcoming school board election.” She wore a
white shirt with no logo, not bright but not torn. Despite leaning all the way
back in the seat, her stomach pressed into the steering wheel. Her eyes, wide.
Her hair, stringy. Even though she was not on my list, in order to defuse her I
talked about the candidate I was canvassing for and about how the incumbent had
been on the job for awhile despite the fact that the schools keep
underperforming. It was my standard spiel.

and my mother have been here twenty years and watched it go to shit,” she said.
“It’s disgusting. See that man over there?” She pointed to the white man with
the tattoos. “He’s the biggest drug dealer around. And down the street, Mrs.
X’s daughter has special needs. The blacks use her as a sex toy.” I nodded.
There was nothing more to say to this woman, really. She drove off with her
truck clunking and my knuckle tender from knocking.


down the street, I knocked on another house. The couple that lived there were
in their eighties, and so I waited awhile longer, laid a flier on the door, and
left. As I walked across the street, I heard a door opening and a man, voice
measured and low, muttering hello behind me. “I saw you leave something on my

man stood shorter than me, and I am a short man. His body drew thin at the
shoulders and wrists, the way older people can. He held a rake and covered his
head in a sun hat with a wide brim. Suspenders supported his tan khakis. I gave
him another flier since he did not bring the other from the door. I asked him
who he planned on voting for. I talked with him about the schools’ poor performance
in the entire city, not just in this district. He looked over the photograph of
the candidate.

my age,” he said, “I’m not against anyone.”

Wait for it. Try to smile.

continued, “You can’t be against anyone at my age.” He held an expression of
half hope, half fear, anxious about whether I would judge him.

really, what can you do?” he said. “They’ve only made it this far and been
around this long. How much farther can we expect them to get, really?” His hand
was shaking, slightly. I suspected from age and not nervousness. I tried to
smile. I tried to tell him about the candidate’s platforms. I asked him if his
wife was available to speak and I asked him if he would like some help raking
his yard. He told me no thanks and that he would look over the flier and
consider voting for my candidate.


know that my being white allows me the privilege of being patient with a man
whose culture has engrained in him a racist worldview and an inherent bias against
minorities, women, and other ethnicities. But I also know of Daryl Davis, who dialogued
with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, for so long that the
two men became friends and Kelly eventually quit the Klan and gave Davis his
robe. This greatly diminished the presence of the KKK in Maryland. To be clear,
I am not advocating for anyone to speak with Klansman. No one should speak with
Klansman. Davis is lucky he isn’t dead. But it worked. On the other hand, I
also remember an image from Facebook. In the picture, a young and thin black
man holds a sign at the Woman’s March. The sign read, “We’ll See All You Nice
White Ladies At The Black Lives Matter Rally, Right?” I know that the issue
requires both patience and pressure.

is an essay on canvassing and the state of schools in Louisiana. But the essay
is also about race because every essay ever written in the United States is
about race. If you don’t realize that, you’re part of the problem.


clouds covered the sun, and a slight drizzle, so thin it almost formed in fog,
pearled the screen of my phone, I tucked an umbrella into my armpit and grew
thankful that the heat had abated. Some days the temperature made me sweat in
places that people living in the north never realize you could feel sweat in.
And this was fall, mind you. This wasn’t even summer.

knocked on the outer security grate of a red brick house and no one answered.
The doorbell either didn’t work or made a sound inaudible behind the door. As I
turned, I looked across the street to the end of a lawn with no sidewalk where
someone had piled tires, broken or shattered windows, an old printer, and a
couch. The couch was leather, black with the front faded and ripped to grey.
The house behind it was tan with a black roof shaded umber by leaves and dirt.
On the roof, a grey satellite dish pointed towards the constellations above
this very down-to-earth property where someone may have resided or someone may
have abandoned.

snapped a picture on my phone, and as I turned around the block, since the
house sat on the corner lot, I heard men behind the fenced-in yard, not visible
from where I stood earlier. “You’re on camera, too.”

me?” I didn’t think anyone was home, since no one answered.

got picture of you, too. You and the Feds.”

the yard, three men huddled. The one calling me out sat in the driver’s side of
a newly restored Lincoln with bright rims. Beside the car, two men stood, one
with a small glass bottle of gin in his hand. It was before noon.

The neighborhoods in this district wavered from run-down to classic suburbia. Tall, weedy grass to manicured lawns with carefully carved hedges. On one street, I saw a house with plasterboard for windows. Someone had written in chalk on the plasterboard, “For rent, call 225…” On another street, I saw a bonsai tree larger than any I’ve witnessed outside of museums. White stone lions pillared each side of one driveway. Several broken-down cars were the statues in another driveway. One house held a large banner written in black and red paint. The font varied in styles from cursive to gothic. It read, “Happy Birthday,” “We Gain Johnson,” “Asia Kim,” “Love Won!” and “Engagement Party.” I couldn’t quite make sense of it. At another house, a sign beside the door listed in orange marker the prices of meals. Patrons could get several “Breakfast 4 Champions” platters, such as a grits, eggs, and sausage plate with coffee for $5. A fish, shrimp, or crab poboy, also $5. Hamburgers or cheeseburgers were $2. That was not a typo. Desserts ranged from pecan candies to bundt cakes. At the top of the menu, the owner had written out proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thine ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.” Their slogan read, “Where every bite is like a slice of heaven.”


Louisiana, students in grade school take the LEAP test every year, which assesses
their skills in English, Math, and Social Studies. The test is scored through
five levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic, and unsatisfactory.
In order for a student to be prepared for the next grade level, he or she must
meet the level of mastery. However, for the last three years, little progress
has been made. In 2018, only 34 percent of third-through-eighth graders met
this requirement. When high-school students were added, only 43 percent of the
students scored mastery in English, and only 33 percent of the students met
this benchmark in Math, according to The Advocate.
In U.S. News and World Reports’ “Best
States for PreK-12” rankings, Louisiana comes in at 45. Wallethub, whose study factors in funding, class size, instructor
credentials and safety along with performance, rates Louisiana at 50 (out of
51, since D.C. is included).

of the poor state of their schools, the citizens I met voiced concern. One
woman who worked at the post office wanted to know what the candidate would do
about the LEAP Test. She worried that the state’s requirement that students
pass the test by a certain try held kids back and shaped the way teachers
interact with kids in the classroom. Another woman wanted to know what the
candidate would do to better the lives and working conditions of support
workers like bus drivers and janitors. Everyone talks about the teachers, she
said, but they aren’t the only ones working with these kids.

I answered a nineteen-year-old’s questions about her polling place, one of her
relatives, who didn’t live in the district, swayed and proclaimed that
politicians promise anything but never deliver. She said she’d called her
senator about burying her husband, but no one would help her.

people didn’t answer the door even though I could hear them watching television
or talking or moving around. Sometimes the door would be open and I could see
them through the inner screen door, watching TV and ignoring me. Most yelled,
“Who is it?” through the door. Some shouted “Get off my property,” or “Not
interested” without ever knowing why I was there. Some said, “We don’t vote,”
or “I’m going to vote” in a tone as if I’d expected them not to participate. A
few teenagers told me with pride how they were going to vote for the first
time. This district resembled most districts in the U.S. Some people were
involved in their community and some weren’t, for reasons both personal and a
product of our national culture. Some held hope, while others had given up or
never cared.


knocked on the house of a middle-aged white man who burst through the door. He
said, “Is yours the candidate who said he wanted to create more opportunity for
black males?”

do you mean?” I asked. The way he spoke showed his disproval of this idea.

night at the debate, one of the candidates said he wanted to create more
opportunity for black males. It did not go over well with the female

told him about the candidate’s desire to create equality for all schools and
students, but I also told him about how the highest drop-out rates are among
black boys. He may have been addressing this. The man held the flyer at eye-level
against his brick wall, squinted at it, and told me he would consider my
candidate. He remained undecided.

I stopped to admire a woman’s garden. A raised bed burst with foliage and food.
On the side of her house, tomato plants dangled from hanging pots. In her yard,
a sign supporting my candidate stood. The woman appeared in her fifties, tall,
with grey hair, brown skin and freckles. She joked about the sign, as if I hadn’t
seen it. She offered me water before I left.


saw lizards, wasps, roaches. The glass covering of a porchlight contained a
graveyard of moths. Four dogs basked in the sun of a house with an eviction
notice. A woman told me the people had left them when they moved. In someone’s
driveway, a cat meandered around a turtle with a spiked tail. No body of water,
not even a culvert, was close.


met my supervisor, a young woman who worked the rest of the year for a
consulting firm in D.C., at an upscale, fairly-new Market in Mid City. The White
Star Market has coffee shops that sell cold-brew, nitrogen drips. Gov’t Taco
serves a single taco with coffee/chile rubbed beef, avocado crema, hot sauce,
and pickled red onions and jalapenos for $3.50. Chow Yum Phat serves a ramen
bowl with broth, seared pork belly, ajitama, woodear and shitake mushrooms,
enoki, mayu and scallions for $12. When my supervisor said that these neighborhoods
barely ever get canvassed, I told her that the main obstacle I was running into
was the citizens’ wariness of a young white man in their neighborhoods asking
them about voting.

African-Americans make up the majority of the district, its citizens
reluctantly trusted me – a white person walking into their southern
neighborhoods to ask them who they planned on voting for. Often, I got, “I’m
not going to tell you that.” “That’s my business.” “We don’t talk about that.”
Even though the picture on the flier showed that the candidate I was canvassing
for was black, these citizens were still aware of Republicans’ ongoing voter
suppression efforts. Shortly after inauguration, Kris Kobach, appointed by the
Trump Administration, headed a committee secretly aimed at creating data to
justify oppressive voter ID laws. In North Carolina, Republican senators in the
state legislature attempted to eliminate the final Saturday of early voting in
state elections. Black voters routinely show up to the polls on this day. In
Georgia, secretary of state Brian Kemp, running for Georgia Governor against
Stacey Abrams (who would have been the first black governor in US history),
used an exact-match signature system for absentee ballots. This system put the
registration of 53,000 voters on hold. When Abraham recently conceded that her
candidacy held no viable path to the governorship, she noted, correctly, that
“democracy failed Georgia” and “eight years of systematic disenfranchisement,
disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process
in Georgia.” Similarly, in Randolph County, election officials attempted to
close seven of the nine polling places. To justify these closures, the election
officials stated that the polling places do not properly accommodate Americans
with disabilities. Sixty percent of this county is black. In North Dakota, the
states supreme court upheld a controversial bill which required a street
address to be listed on state IDs. Many native peoples living on the
reservations in North Dakota use only P.O. Boxes. The examples go on and on.

is the foundation of our democracy, or our democratic republic, if you want to
get technical. This is something your high-school civics teacher will tell you,
and it’s true. Any attempt to disenfranchise Americans right to vote borders on
treason. If you don’t understand this, you’re part of the problem. So, when
people were skeptical to admit their voting intentions, I understood, and
simply told them abut my candidate, answered any questions they had, and gave
them a flier. I marked “No Response” in the app.

the end of a long day, a woman peeked through the blinds and asked me who I was
and what I was doing at her home.

name is Jesse. I am canvassing for the upcoming schoolboard election, ma’am.”

are you?”

repeated myself. I asked if X was home.

slightly cracked the door. “How did you get my name?”

I told her that both parties have voter-registration data that helps them
target supporters, she told me that she doesn’t like that her private information
is open-access. I understood her concerns. I really did. The app that I used to
find the addresses of potential voters also included the person’s name, age,
telephone number, and political affiliation. Eventually she stepped outside and
we talked not only about the candidates but also about the ability of political
parties as well as corporations to mine and database American’s personal data.
Somewhere, someone is getting paid to monitor and store records of your life – what
websites you visit, what words you type into search engines, what you purchase
and who you vote for. It’s terrifying.

the next address, I spoke with a woman who leaned into the half-opened door. As
I started to talk about my candidate and the state of our schools, the woman told
me that everyone in her family attended private schools. Apparently, it was not
her concern. I responded by telling her, in a way that felt almost cliché but
is still true, that the public schools are the life of the community. They are
a reflection of but also shape the values, economics, and crime-rates of an
area. These students graduate or they don’t. They go to college or they don’t.
They start businesses or they don’t. They get good jobs or they don’t. They buy
houses right beside yours or they don’t. But first, they attend our schools.

left the woman’s house. As it started to set, the sun abated the heat and allowed
some of the sweat on the middle of my back to dry. When I rounded a corner, I saw
a boy and two girls, probably in their early twenties, standing in the driveway,
talking. The house was not on my list, but I talked with the boy about what
happened next door. On the lot, the carcass of a house stood. Its brickwork,
painted white, stacked upwards to a burnt-away roof. Half-scorched boards leaned
into a grey carport. Parts of it were cindered and toppling over. I asked the
boy if he saw the flames. I asked the boy if anyone lived there. I asked the
boy if anyone died.

The owner was asleep inside its walls as it burned.

The Left-Handed Phenomenon

Picture Credits: Daniel Dudek

“Lower than
pigs and dogs,” shouted Robert Mugabe.

“More deadly than
all natural disasters put together,” hollered Yahya Jammeh.

“Death! Death!”
yells the law of northern Nigeria.

imprisonment!” screams the laws of Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.

them, lynch them, set them ablaze and destroy their properties.”

With this kind
of denouncement from our leaders one would think they are targeting child
molesters or terrorists. One could even be forgiven for thinking that this bile
is being flung at green-coloured aliens, with big heads and short legs, from
Mars; aliens who have come in giant saucer-shaped space ships to colonize earth
and harvest our organs.

But this kind
of hostility has been hurled at a nurse who spends her days delivering babies,
and a teacher who dedicates his time to pouring knowledge into young minds. Despite
the positive things they do for their communities, they are being hunted down
like rabid dogs. Simply because of the people they love and desire.

is a hot button in Africa today. Much of the fervour, however, is fuelled by
demagogic politicians who want to distract their subjects from the real issues
that matter, like runaway corruption and nepotism. Many politicians today are
in office because they are riding high on the rampant homophobia they’ve

Not long ago it
used to be tribal politics: us against
. If they take office they
will steal our cattle, land and wives and make us wear shorts. If they take office,
we will be carrying them on our backs to and from work – so as a tribe we
needed to pull together to curtail them.

Today, tribalism
is highly frowned upon, on the surface that is. Publicly denouncing another
tribe can be considered hate speech. Therefore, our leaders have found a new
target, another group that we can all hate. A people we need to see as less
human, a common evil that will galvanize and mobilize the masses. It was Anton
Chekhov, the short story writer I most revere, who said that love, friendship
and respect do not unite a people as much as a common hatred for something.

history, humans have sought to other groups
we need to blame for all the problems in our society. If drought is upon us,
it’s because of the homosexuals. If there is an outbreak of disease such as
cholera, it’s because of them too, and if your child is failing at school, why
not? For Hitler’s Germany it was the Jews. For the Hutu it was the Tutsi. In
Myanmar it’s the Rohingya Muslims. In America it started with the Native
Americans. Today in Trump’s reign it’s everyone who isn’t a White Protestant.
In Europe it’s the refugees; that’s why the British voted for Brexit.

During the two
world wars the British found it difficult enlisting fighters and carriers from
their African colonies. Africans were not too jazzed about fighting another
man’s war. The British found a quick solution by painting the Germans as
cannibals with big jagged teeth, long forked tongues and horns. The British
claimed that if Germany won the war, they would come over to Africa and butcher
whole villages for meat. Thus, many African men enlisted to save their
families. But once the men reached Europe, they realised they had been tricked.
The German was so similar to the English man they could have been brothers.

This is the
same kind of propaganda being peddled today by our political and religious
leaders. But this time, it isn’t about wars or tribes, but about whom people
are allowed to love. These so-called leaders stir a hornet’s nest with their
speeches. One of these vilifying speeches snakes its way one afternoon into a
dingy bar where it finds a bunch of loafers and shakes their hands.

“I tried
chatting up Awinja the other day,” one says, “but she thinks she’s too good for

“Who is
Awinja?” another asks.

“She’s that
long-legged close-shaven girl who lives near the pork butchery.”

“Oh, but I hear
she likes girls,” yet another says.

“That’s because
she’s never been with a real man like me,” boasts another.

“Girls like Awinja need to be cured of their disgusting lesbianism and hatred for men, just as our MP says,” says another. “What do you say, boys?”

The gang seeks
out Awinja to cure her by brutally raping her; they are doctors and that is the
remedy. As she cries out, one informs her that bitter medicine works best. When
she reports to the police, nothing is done. She is a “misfit” who got what she

“Un-African” – this
is how much of the hate speech against homosexuality is justified. “White man’s
disease,” it is called, brought in by ship when the white men colonized our
lands. Dismissing homosexuality like this, though, is hypocrisy of the highest
degree. Almost on a level with the hypocrisy of the African Union, which claims
to advocate for democracy and human rights and in the same breath elects
chairmen like Idi Amin, Mugabe and Teodore Obiang.

Today not much
of us or our lives can be described as “African.” An urban African wakes up in
a house with indoor plumbing, toasts their bread, fingers their smart phone,
clad in suits/pantsuits and boards a matatu or an okada to work. Let’s not
forget that many of us favour Western names over our own, opt to speak in
Western languages, as that way one is deemed progressive and educated, and
prefer wigs over our African hair, and even bleach our skins.

is not new in Africa. It didn’t come with the white man during colonisation as
some people would want us to believe. Many African cultures have a name for
homosexuality as old as the cultures themselves. Unlike the new words that have
recently cropped up in African languages like feminism, ambulance and catch-22.

Individuals of
many communities across Africa have practiced homosexuality in one form or
another. The earliest recorded homosexual couple lived about 2400 B.C. in Egypt
during the reign of the sixth pharaoh. These were royal court manicurists named
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Their love for each other was so strong that when
they died they were buried in the same tomb. Other classic examples are the
cave paintings of the San of Zimbabwe, thousands of years old, depicting
homosexual acts between men. In fact, homophobia was bred by the missionaries
who curtailed most of our sexual practices, calling them savagely and demonic.
For instance: No sexual relations during the day, and lie with your wife only
once in a night and only in the missionary position.

Another line of
argument against homosexuality is referring to it as taboo. Any worthy
sociology student will tell you that what is taboo today will not necessarily
be taboo tomorrow. In many cultures it was taboo in the past for women to
divorce their husbands. A woman with a violent husband had to endure his fists,
kicks and vile tongue till the end of her days. Today marriages are dissolving
without raising eyebrows, and battered women are taking their husbands to

couples were once taboo, and for the young generation it’s almost unfathomable
to visualize that tattoos and women wearing pants were as well. The last
example is one I know many shy men are grateful for. Today it’s common for a
woman to ask a man out. In the past women wouldn’t have dreamt of such
forwardness, because they were socialized to believe they would appear
desperate and sluttish. The cogs of time are moving fast.

Many Africans
are of the inclination that homosexuality is against their religion. But in
truth, mainstream religions in Africa such as Christianity and Islam cannot in
all honesty be called “our” religions. These are religions that are heavily
laden with Western and Middle Eastern practices and are highly critical of
black people. White Christians have quoted verses from the Bible to justify the
chaining, enslaving and oppression of black people. Colossians 3:22–25 states
that slaves should obey their earthly masters in everything, and do it with all
their hearts as if working for the Lord. In so doing they will receive an
inheritance from the Lord as a reward.

Many religious
Africans have the tendency of taking everything religion says at face value;
and this has proved to be highly problematic. That’s why it’s common for
demented persons to misinterpret the doctrines of these religions: An African
will slaughter another, or blow himself up in a crowded market over these
imported religions. When I was a teenager we lived next to a staunch Christian
woman who had three small children. Her husband worked in the city and didn’t
come home for months at a time. Because her church believed that people who die
young, before they reach the age of accountability, are given a free pass to
Heaven – she drowned her poor kids in the local dam.

In Africa one
is Catholic or Protestant or Muslim mostly because that religious group reached
their village first before any other during the scramble for and partitioning
of Africa. In my village, Njogu-ini, in Central Kenya, it was the Presbyterians
to reach it first at the turn of the twentieth century. My paternal great
grandmother was a little girl then. She was baptized and christened Tabitha.

Since then my
family and the entire village at large has been Protestant, passed down from
generation to generation. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been
like if it was the Muslims or the Buddhists who reached our village first. I’m
greedy by nature so I would have relished the opportunity to marry up to four
wives, or to put aside the heaven or hell teachings for the power of

I once had a
homosexual friend who was in the closet for most of his young life. Kamara (not
his real name) and I were as close as brothers. Many found him a bit strange.
As nursery-school kids I noticed he loved to play mother when we played house.
As the years progressed, I noticed he was acutely conscious of his image. I
remember constantly rebuking him for spending too much time in front of the mirror.

We went to the
same boarding boys’ high school. He made the rest of us look like a bunch of
greasy mechanics. His clothes were always cleanest and he took a shower daily.
He had long polished nails that always got him in trouble with the teachers,
and he loved to plait his hair on weekends. Sometimes when he walked you would
think he was cat-walking. Some boys hated him at first but gradually came to
like him for his uniqueness.

When we talked
about girls he seemed quite bored. When one of the boys managed to smuggle a
dirty magazine to school, Kamara was never among the hordes fighting to get at
it. In form three Kamara and I were appointed dorm captains. He was the Batian
and I was the Lenana captain. Every Saturday we did general cleaning of the
dorms and there was a competition overseen by teachers on duty to see which
dorm was the neatest and tidiest. Batian almost always won among the eight

Being a dorm
captain came with benefits. Our school had a policy of random locker searches
by our teachers. Dorm captains were exempted from this degrading ordeal.
(Nothing is more uncomfortable than your chemistry teacher feeling your
underpants checking for contraband.) Therefore, many students would hide their
illicit goods like marijuana, snuff and the dirty magazines in the lockers of
dorm captains, for a small fee of course.

Dorm captains
were entrusted with making duty rosters and some rich students did bribe us
handsomely to be exempted from duties. Kamara was the only upright dorm captain
who didn’t condone such criminality. Even on Wednesdays when one piece of meat
was thrown in our boiled and badly cut cabbages, he shared the meat equally
among his subjects. The other captains, I included, piled our plates high with
meat till some students missed their one piece.

As I chewed my
bowl of meat I would contemplate: Kamara will make a brilliant politician in
future – incorruptible, altruistic, neat and organized.

Kamara and I
attended the same college and shared a room. That’s when I knew my best friend
suffered from the “white man’s disease”. Seeing how he had no game in wooing
the female species. I went out one evening to a party and came back with two
tipsy voluptuous ladies, one for me and one for him. Kamara broke down in tears
and I had to kick the girls out. He made a clean breast of everything.

“Why on earth
would you choose to be gay?” I asked.

Kamara looked
daggers at me. “You tell me, why would anyone choose to be gay?” I didn’t have an answer. So I kept mum and paced
about the room, arms akimbo.

“Being gay in
Africa is like living with leprosy,” he said. “Why would I wish that on myself?”

“I just don’t
get it,” I said. “We were brought up in the same village, attended the same
schools. Where did you lose a step?”

“I didn’t lose
a step anywhere. I have always been this way,” Kamara said. “Think about it.
Who would choose to be a homosexual and go through all the hatred, danger and
ridicule that comes with the tag?”

Seeing that
Kamara was somewhat making sense, and remembering all the odd mannerisms he had
since childhood, I did my research in the coming weeks and came to realise what
a fool I had been. I apologized profusely. Condemning one for being gay is as
illogical as condemning one for being left-handed, I learnt. Science says
homosexuality is natural. Religion calls it an abomination. Remember it is science
that saves lives in hospitals, not the hundred hands clasped in prayer.

I sadly read of
how doctors in the past had subjected homosexuals to cruel practices, trying to
“cure” them. Men were castrated and women had their wombs removed. Other
doctors, thinking it was a mental illness, cut into patients’ brains and
submitted many others to session upon session of electrocution. Nothing worked
of course.

After college
Kamara and I were scattered by the winds in pursuit of bread but we talked
regularly over the phone. In his mid-twenties Kamara’s parents began pressuring
him to settle down. This Christmas do not come home without a lady in your
arms, his mother would often say; and if her belly is protruding, all the

When I visited
the village from time to time and happened to bump into Kamara’s mother, she
would whisper into my ear. “You have been friends with my son since childhood.
You know how shy he is in the presence of ladies. Why don’t you introduce him
to some of your lady friends, my child?”

“I will, mother,”
I’d lie. I knew she would cry out that demons had possessed her son and roll in
the dirt and pull at her hair if I revealed to her he didn’t swing that way. I
would try dropping clever quotes to defend him; like how heterosexuality is not
normal, it’s just common. That homosexuality is neither a sickness nor a
choice. It’s innate and unchangeable. But I held my tongue in her presence. It
wasn’t my place anyway to shove Kamara out of the closet.

A week before
Christmas 2016, Kamara’s boss got wind of his sexual orientation and fired him.
Kamara went home without a woman in his arms. Everyone was disappointed, but
not as much as when he told them it was because he was gay and was tired of
living a lie, and hoped they would accept him as he was.

His father
shouted it was better his mother had given birth to a frog than to a son like
him who brought such shame to the family. “Get out and never come back!” his
father screamed. “The day you hear me call you my son again, take my name and
give it to a dog.”

Kamara hung
himself on New Year’s Eve 2017 in a cheap motel. On that day, Africa lost a
gifted young man. He would have made a noble leader – something that is greatly
needed in our dear continent.
But alas, the prevalence of homophobia has robbed us of his talent.

Homosexuals are
like poetry. They are hated simply because they are not understood. Anyone
should be able to love and be loved by a member of whichever sex, as long as
they are two consenting adults. It should be a fundamental right, a civil

In this modern
era, homophobia is reminiscent of racism in Jim Crow America and Apartheid
South Africa; when restaurants had posters outside shouting – DOGS AND BLACKS
NOT ALLOWED. A racist dentist then would not pull out a rotting tooth from a
black person. Today a homophobic dentist will act similarly when presented with
a known homosexual patient. I once overheard a dentist swear he’d rather stick
his hands in a street dog’s mouth.

In those
unfortunate days, two black men sauntering joyously along the streets bothering
nobody would invite a beating from white men; the same treatment would be visited
today on a gay couple walking the streets holding hands, but by black men.
White men raped black women to humiliate them, show their contempt of the black
race and enforce racial domination. As shown above, black men are today raping
lesbians to show their contempt of the woman’s orientation and to try to shame
her into heterosexuality.

In 1954, the
United States Supreme Court decreed a law desegregating public schools. Three
years later nine African American children became the first students to be
enrolled in an all-white high school. The school was Little Rock Central High
in Arkansas. What followed is the Little Rock Crisis: The local white community
rose in revolt taking it as an insult that their children would be sharing the
same classrooms with black students.

There was a
mighty showdown between the Arkansas Governor, Faubus, and the American
President, Eisenhower. The Governor deployed troops at the gate to bar the
children from entering the school. The President assigned the federal army to
escort the nine children through the gates of the school; as parents and
students pelted them with rocks, spat at them and called them all manner of

In class, these
nine students still got hit, abused and had their hairs pulled. At meal times
hot coffee and ketchup was poured on their heads and the washrooms had graffiti
that bore lines like “Monkeys go back to Africa.” The teachers turned a blind
eye to all this. Actually if one of the nine fought back, he or she would be
punished by the teachers. After classes, rope-carrying lynch mobs would patrol
the streets trying to get at them.

took photos: Of members of the rope-carrying mobs, and of the white parents and
students yelling and throwing acid in the faces of the black students. Being a
racial bigot was cool then for white people, but the times have changed.
History has not been kind to those white students featured in these historic
photographs. One of the snaps features a girl named Hazel Massery. The rain
started beating her in the 1980s. She and the other white students are now seen
as the outcasts, members of the Ku Klux Klan. They are now elderly but the
photos are still fresh. A few of them, like Hazel, out of shame apologized to
their victims in the Oprah Winfrey show in 2011. The nine African American
children grew up to be educators, journalists and human rights activists.

Below is an
iconic photo of one of the Little Rock Nine, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth
Eckford, as she tries to enter the school. The girl shouting behind Eckford is
Hazel Massery. The photo was taken by Will Counts, a photographer of the
segregationist newspaper Arkansas Democrat.

Today the trend
is of bashing homosexuals and denying them their civil rights. But the wheel of
time is turning, and soon, those who condemn homosexuals will be
viewed as poorly as the
parents, students and teachers of Little Rock High.

I have a dream
that one day homosexuals in Africa will no longer be treated as second-class
citizens. That they will be permitted to go about their lives as freely as
heterosexuals: not hide their sexuality from their employers and landlords, to
walk hand in hand in the streets, run for elective posts, get married and start
families. Let the cogs of time find you on the right side of the track. Don’t
be a Hazel Massery.

The little story that haunted for a very long time

Can a story haunt you? I don’t
mean one that spooks you a little, even one that makes you keep the lights on
after reading. I’m talking about a story that leaves a scar, an invisible scab
that you return to weeks, months, and years after you’d read it. “The Girl in
the Mirror” did that to me.

Not that I could even remember
the exact title. I knew it was in a collection of ghost stories and there was
skeleton on the cover. I would have been ten, in primary school, wooden desks
and inkwells still there from earlier generations. In that final year we were
given plastic ink pens. We invariably smudged both our books and hands as we
wrestled to insert the thin cartridges. Crappy ink pens that would never be
used again, that you had to pointlessly master, and would be punished for misusing:
that sums up my 1970s education.

Other things though were quite
miraculous. Obviously the free milk was gone, and in the next decade they would
take our jobs, but that other source of sustenance, the public library, was
still in its pomp. The mobile version would park outside our tiny rural village
school (thirty pupils); we would line up and take it in turn to step into its
cave of treasures. The chosen books would be placed on a shelf in our classroom.
I can remember the L-shape of shelves, the large map of the world above. The
books from the library were placed in a special area so as not to mix them with
the school’s own books: many of which had been in the schools for decades. This
was the school that my grandparents, parents, uncles, and cousins had all
passed through.

The library service was the only
way to get modern books – not that I ever knew when books had been published.
I’d worked my way through my mother’s Enid Blyton, published thirty years
before, but I knew some books were easier than others to understand.

Who could be haunted by a story?
Not a novel, just a story a few pages in length. I don’t think I was
particularly sensitive as a child. Sensitivity isn’t a big advantage on a farm.
We always had plenty of books though. Not only did the library send its mobile
to the schools, it would also stop at the end of my parents’ farm lane so we
could walk down and get books. It would make this stop just for the two or
three families on that lane.

The library books borrowed by my
family were placed in a special place so they wouldn’t get confused with the other
books in the house. They were placed on a chair in the spare room, and had to
be returned there. My mother didn’t want to search our rooms for them when the
library next made its call. Lord of the
found its way there one week, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up
the book because of the gruesome cover. Perhaps I was sensitive, but not to real life and death. That pig skull on
the cover was somehow more unsettling than the bone fragments scatted over our
farm, jaw bones a thin boot-crunch beneath the surface. Death was ever present.
Piglets crushed by their mothers, chewed or sickly. Cats drowned in sacks.
Chickens torn apart by foxes. Stillbirths. All part of the mix.

Right now, there is much talk about how reading novels generates empathy in the reader. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The perfect synthesis of silver bullet public-health promotion, and evangelism. No need to learn from life, from loving, from hating, from being hurt or hurting. No need for anger in this sparkling new century. Just read from this list of books. Perhaps that’s why certain books are frowned upon – if it’s so easy to bestow empathy via books, then surely other, darker emotions can be conjured by the act of reading. And perhaps they should be.

When my son was around eight I
read him The Tiger Rising (by Kate
Dicamillo). A wonderful book, but (spoiler) the tiger dies. The ending takes me
by surprise too, but he’s old enough to deal with this, isn’t he? The real world
doesn’t always run smoothly.

Not all stories have happy endings,
I tell my son, nestled on the bed beside me. Surely, that was right. Wasn’t it
fair to warn him?

His bottom lip quivers. His eyes
are huge. My heart drops through the floor. What
have I done?

“How many don’t?” was his very
reasonable question.

How could I possibly answer that?
My brain raced through all the stories with less than upbeat endings. Too many.

“Three,” I squeak.

“Then we won’t read those,” he

And that was the end of the

Had I told my son a story that
would haunt him?

I’m happy to report he seems
undisturbed as a teenager, and quite relishes a less-than-happy ending. The Tiger Rising, a book that deals with
rage and injustice, which let me introduce Blake to my son, is also a book
about a beautiful tiger that is killed.

What was it about “The Girl in
the Mirror” that had it slipping round and round in my head for years? I didn’t
have the book. I never went back and reread it, but it never left me. I have
more memories of thinking about that story, dreading it, then I do of reading
it. Books weren’t a thing for conversation. We could talk about comics. What superhero
could beat another, etc. – and then, later, all our talk was of music, never
stories. Who would have spoken about such a thing? If you read, you kept it to

As the years passed all I had was
my memory of that story, and the ghostly horseman on the book’s cover. I also remembered
the first story in the anthology was called “Pride Comes before a Fall”
(actually it wasn’t, but I had the memory that it was). That cover, that title,
and the story of “The Girl in the Mirror”niggled at the edge of my brain for years.

Decades go by, and the Internet
is here. In the intervening years, I have looked for the book in second-hand
bookshops, but mostly it has faded to a memory of something not-quite-right.
When I do mention the story (by now I know people I can talk about books with) it
sounds almost Freudian. A time-travel story. Two girls switch places through a
magic mirror. One girl, rich and lazy, is from the present; the other is a
hardworking girl on a Victorian farm.

The rich girl wants to swap
places, live on a real farm to ride the horses. To avoid detection they will
leave their clothes behind for the other. The rich one goes through the mirror
first, meets the brutal parents, and of course is trapped there. It’s that image
of nakedness, vulnerability, and being trapped in an alien world that unsettled
me. The girl from the Victorian farm slips into the future and is never seen
again. Smart girl. When I told my partner about this story that had so freaked
me she thought it probably didn’t exist. That it was something I’d created. After
thirty years of films, comics, books by the thousand, how many could remain
with you? My psychedelically enhanced synapses had embellished and transformed
something I’d heard, read, or seen into a memory.

It is a time-travel story, not a
ghost story. One person is trapped on a farm forever. Perhaps this story,
lodged in my brain, influenced my decision to refuse the farm when offered a
few years later. But that’s hindsight. We create a coherent narrative after the
events, refusing to believe that life is random.

But that story was real. I was sure of that, despite having had the experience, several times over my life, where things I “remembered” have been disproved by family, or myself. I’ve learnt that memory can’t always be trusted. I might not remember something, might think I’d locked a door, or sent an email, when really I hadn’t, but my brain was unlikely to create something as elaborate as“The Girl in the Mirror” to haunt myself with.

The story that haunted me for so
long is short and not collected in other anthologies. It is no classic. Its
author, Margot Arnold (born 1925) is still alive and has spent her life writing
books such as The Officer’s Woman, Marie, Voodoo Queen, and Lament for
a Lady Laird

It wasn’t through the Internet
that I tracked the book down. I searched and found the Armada book of Ghost Stories, the one with that cover, and ordered
it. When it arrived, there was no “The Girl in the Mirror”. It did have “The
Skeleton Rider”,in which a character
is warned “Pride comes before a fall”.

I didn’t doubt the existence of
the mirror story, but clearly my memories were jumbled. For decades I’d assumed
if I just found that book with that cover, I would have the story. There were
other books in that series, and other similar anthologies. I bought a couple at
random but none had my story. I got on with my life. Moved house again. Back
into the countryside, though Shropshire rather than Yorkshire.

Here I could make paper boats and
float them in the stream with my son. You needed to make your own entertainment
here. It was perfect for wandering. I expected my son to have that anchorless
roaming existence I had had, but there was no dog, and he wasn’t constantly
being told to get out of the house, so never developed the habit. People in the
village muttered about child snatchers, men in white vans. I thought of my
childhood when Hindley and Brady had prowled and preyed. That had never stopped
any of my parents’ generation telling their kids to get out and get fresh air –
get out of their house. The Bogey Man only gets you if you stray from the path.
In the twenty-first century there is no safe path.

One afternoon, we are sitting by
the river, and there is the inevitable church stall of bric-a-brac, junk,
books, and food. I checked out the stalls. You can see the ending, can’t you? And
it’s true, there it was: The 8th Armada
Ghost Book.
There were several of the series. I picked them up, knew
immediately which one held “The Girl in the Mirror”, recognised the black and
white illustrations, the seventies hairstyles.

To be honest I felt quite sick
finding it again. Motion sickness, as if the world had lurched the wrong way. I
tried to force myself to read the story but something wouldn’t let me. The
words remained black letters. It was enough that I had the story, the book.

And it sat on the shelf for a
couple more years, until I finally picked it up and read the story through. It
is short and exactly as I remember it. There is no reason that story should have
lodged so tightly in my brain. I have read so many ghost stories, horror
stories in my life – have a whole collection, but that fairly crappy one stuck
in my brain, and in some small unseen ways changed my life.

We are not empty vessels. We cannot accurately predict what reading one book or story will achieve. Or that we will get the same results each time. These are not laboratory conditions. We are not rats. We are readers, and have our own stories.

The Familiar Absence of Words

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived
alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never
mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My
mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.


The day before my grandma died
she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It
always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty
years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few
hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash
nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was
cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still
hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before
had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun
and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the
carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and
sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine
beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This
was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while
now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t
have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried
to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there
was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her
voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some
weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t
know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and
about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I
hoped it was enough.


I stayed with grandma for most
of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss
are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise
of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between.
I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.


My grandma died on the 16th of
March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the
room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was
quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an
injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too
oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum
seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into
the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room:
the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside
the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the
blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a
few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped
in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood
against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go
in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his
lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second
and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said
nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In
moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for
home. He was tired and needed to rest.


“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer
like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I
was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then
looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I
didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too.
I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s
arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged
and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the
silence that my family is so good at again.


Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t
keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I
asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at
the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to
grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and
soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched
the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took
a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s
house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said
hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind,
unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and
grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan
nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and
John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I
pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was
hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then
the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked
grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum
has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum
in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,”
she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and
the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs
of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she
said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds
for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face:
to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except
that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her
for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I
leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool
and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched
another human like this.

I realised then that the
carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d
never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their
mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a
few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for
months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were
just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up
again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a
sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed
now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened
to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was
dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was
strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded
and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and
unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start
of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without
difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked
out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee
at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t
want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless,
too still.

A few minutes later I stepped
outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to
drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I
ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the
stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half
an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and
certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss
of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for
her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward,
stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The
doctors shook our hands and quietly left.


In the immediate aftermath of
grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other:
how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a
clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or
awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just
there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the
aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for
the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.


Later two undertakers came to
collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain
from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her
tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I
waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they
carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own
home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was


A week or so passed and it was
time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director.
It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what
clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions
to answer.

We decided what Grandma should
wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,”
the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It
signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult,
Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered
and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then
we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the
funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan
nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum
smiled at me and so it was agreed.


For the few weeks following my
grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never
experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a
relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a
while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living
my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we
met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made
sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We
gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we

The crematorium had big
windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family
members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked
behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The
other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our
seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the
congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It
was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these
were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t
we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her

Soon the celebrant started his
speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that
make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who
wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and
waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to
direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past
the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely
face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused
after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched
as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my
mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that
this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains
close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium
in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and
the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as
I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a
few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay?
They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and
then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I
finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s
just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the
growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve
mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between
us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to
lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since

We stood there for a second longer,
the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved
separately into the group of mourners.

Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music


Riots for Stravinsky and cheers for Hanatarashi. How do you get from the tritone as “the devil in music” to an audience facing a wall of white noise with smiles on their faces?

“It’s amazing, really, how little sound comes out of something you’re smashing with all your might” – Yamatsuka Eye

The adventurous Noizu fans who came to see crackpot noise-makers Hanatarashi (meaning snot-nosed) at Tokyo’s Toritsu Kasei Super Loft on August 4th 1985 expected a raucous show. What they didn’t expect was a ferocious performance of industrial-grade destruction, with a back-hoe bulldozer as the lead instrument. Handed waivers upon arrival that relieved the band of any responsibility for injury, or worse, the audience watched as frontman and HDV operator Yamatsuka Eye burst through the doors of the hall atop the bulldozer. With percussionist Ikuo Taketani somewhat safely tucked away in the corner, Eye tore through the stage and inflicted brutal punishment on everything nearby, including the literal kitchen sink, while screaming the band’s trademark scatological and sexual non-sequitur lyrics. The beleaguered bulldozer held out until Eye put the hoe into the wall. The dozer tipped backwards and gave out, but after pulling off the dozer’s cage to hurl across the stage and grabbing a circular saw, the destruction continued with the audience now nervously dodging Eye’s fitful saw swings. Surrounded by bent metal, crumbled masonry and the squawking remains of Marshall stacks, with gasoline pouring from the ruined bulldozer, Eye produced, as his grand finale, a molotov cocktail that he’d prepared earlier. This was a touch too dangerous for even this daredevil audience and Eye, confessing later in an interview for Banana Fish Magazine that he got “too excited”, had to be violently subdued by several members of the crowd.

In the settled atmosphere, once certain that explosive group immolation wasn’t to be the crescendo, the crowd that had remained, many with smiles on their faces, slowly filed out enclosed in their own bubbles of tinnitus. The bill for the annihilation of the Super Loft tallied ¥600,000 (approximately £6000) and Hanatarashi subsequently laboured under a ban from most venues that ran until 1990, when the band, slightly calmer and more safety conscious, dropped the ‘i’ and returned to what passed as civil society in the Noizu circuit.

Hanatarashi, along with fellow Noizu bands such as Hijokaidan, indulged in the kind of audial assault that would bring most people to the point of self-induced deafness, but the Super Loft audience signed off on possible death-by-bulldozer just for the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. Extreme volume, distortion and cacophony, with a ferocity of performance that completely transgressed the normal bounds of the relationship between the performer and audience, were unrestrained musical expressions that attracted large audiences to the Noizu scene in Japan from the 1980’s onwards. It’s been argued that Noise as a genre was born in Japan at this time; whereby the noise was not a wash or flavour, but the whole. The act of seeking out sounds which most people take care to avoid seems a strange masochistic ritual, but evidenced by the brutalised crowd at the Hanatarashi gig, there is – for some – much to enjoy in noise.

“I did Noise Music because I genuinely liked noise… But a lot of people didn’t. At my concerts, people smashed beer glasses in my face.” – noise musician Boyd Rice a.k.a NON

In music, the definition of noise has changed drastically over time and is still debated today. The simplest common usage of the word noise is that of unwanted sound and, although clearly subjective, in some sense this definition also works in the context of music. Noise in music is of a volume/tonality/structure which breaks from previously held traditions of what is ‘pleasant’ to the ear of the average person, or consonant. What may be considered at the time to be noise can be the sound desired by a particular composer and, one would hope for the composer’s sake, later embraced by the intended audience. In essence, history has shown that noise in music is unwanted until a musician proves otherwise, with help from a willing audience. Noise can be a disturbance, but disturbance can be key to progression. By prodding at the edges of the normative discrimination, musicians have expanded the appreciation for sounds which previous generations would have found genuinely violative.

‘Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring”? What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?
And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,” The season when on joyous wing The birds melodious carols sing And harmony’s in every thing!
He who could write the “Rite of Spring,” If I be right by right should swing!’

Anonymous letter to the Boston Herold of February 9, 1924

An amusing example of how dissonant prodding has been received as violative is to be found at the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées on the 29th of May 1913, the year that the Ford Motor Company would develop the first moving, mass-production assembly line. Stravinsky was a young and innovative Russian composer, of little renown in 1913, hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s to write for the Ballets Russes company, with The Rite of Spring being the third such composition. Prior to the première, Diaghilev had promised “a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion” and Stravinsky had written the work as a solemn pagan rite and hoped to present a “great insult to habit”. When first playing the piano version for Diaghilev, Stravinsky was asked how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound, to which Stravinsky replied “to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.” The newly opened theatre, designed by Auguste Perret, was as avant-garde in construction as the contemporary music, opera and dance that was to be presented inside. The geometrically strict and decoratively plain exterior of reinforced concrete mixed modern and classical architecture and made it the perfect venue for what Debussy described as “primitive music with all the modern conveniences.”

The atmosphere before the performance was lively; the 29th of May was unseasonably hot, reaching a height of 30c, and the halls and corridors of the theatre were packed with those who had bought into Diaghilev’s hype. The house was sold-out, largely encompassing subscribers for the whole season of Ballet Russe and there was a fifty-fifty split in the guest-list between the Parisian elite of diplomats, dignitaries and dilletantes, and the Modernist art scene. Patrons such as Daisy Fellowes, (née Countess Severine Phillipine Decazes de Glückberg), an elderly Countess de Pourtales, and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian empire represented the upper crust, and batting for the avant-garde were the likes of Jean Cousteau, Maurice Ravel and Edgard Varèse. Cousteau was quoted later as saying that a scandal was primed by the mix, with “a fashionable audience [in] low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feathers…side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, headbands, showy rags of that race of esthetes who acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.”

Alfred Capus in Le Figaro reported that during the first bars of bassoon with discondant accompaniment in the closed-curtain introduction, there was prompt hissing and jeering. Incensed at a perceived misuse of the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon”, before storming out. The Countess de Pourales is recorded to have shouted “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me”, to no one in particular. A back and forth between supporters and discontents followed, with the American music critic Carl van Vechten recalling “a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause.” At the start of the Augurs of Spring section, the curtains opened and the ensuing polyrhythms, unresolved harmonies, rapid dynamic shifts, and familiar themes played in unfamiliar registers did not sit well with the patrons disinclined to experimental music. Furthermore, in an attempt to convey the agony of human sacrifice in a primitive society, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had his dancers land their leaps with flat feet which added echoing thuds to the music. At its worst, the din from the audience was so loud that it drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out counts to the dancers while standing on a chair in the wings.

According to Stravinsky, his friend Florent Schmitt shouted an insult to a group of elegant socialites, “taisez-vous, garces du seizieme!” and the various reactions and counter-reactions shared between the conservative and avant-garde sections pushed the battle onward. Diaghilev ordered the house lights to be flicked on and off in either an attempt to quell the uproar or, perhaps, sheer excitement at the press-baiting pandemonium he’d created. Stravinsky was horrified by the furore, leaving the auditorium to watch at the wings (it has been alleged in tears, but to claim so seems to kick a man when he’s down) saying later that he had “never been that angry”. At the intermission, the theatre proceeded to eject forty of the most troublesome, but it was not particularly successful in restoring full order.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky were devastated by the negative response and embarrassed by the spectacle, but Diaghilev took delight in the publicity of scandal, expressing complete satisfaction at a celebratory dinner after the show. Mainstream reactions in the press to “Le Massacre du Printemps” were not great, with Giacomo Puccini damning The Rite of Spring as “sheer cacophony” and Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris claiming (pejoratively, it should be noted) that the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. The performance immediately made waves internationally with The New York Times reporting under the headline: “Parisians hiss new ballet: Russian dancer’s latest offering, ‘The Consecration of Spring’, a failure”. However, there was strong praise from some publications and subsequent performances were far more successful.

“No doubt it will be understood one day that I sprang a surprise on Paris.” – Igor Stravinsky

Dissonant music wasn’t the sole cause of the chaos, with the angular and provocative dancing, anti-Russian sentiment, reactionary morality, and hype all part of a melting pot. However, the premiere was a key flashpoint in the debate over modernism, in which noise in music was a rapidly expanding form of expression. Arnold Schoenberg’s drive to “emancipate the dissonance” and expand the possibilities of musical expression lent dissonance a cultural cachet in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s music was noteworthy for the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers and, although he faced a similar reaction to The Rite of Spring on occasion, his music and theories had lasting influence throughout the 20th century.

While composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky were experimenting with rhythm and harmony, the Futurist Italian Luigi Russolo, in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises, was arguing that the public, accustomed to the sounds of industry and traffic, were hungry for “the infinite variety of noise-sounds” regardless of whether they knew it or not. For the Futurists, the explosion of mechanical noise in the 20th century evoked the activity, speed and progression that they celebrated in modern society. Russolo’s revolution was for music to no longer be a canonised system of notes, but rather understood as a structure of non-periodic complex sound. Russolo categorised these noise-sounds into six groups:

1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
5. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs
6. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling,

In order to produce these sounds, Russolo constructed 27 varieties of noise machine called intonarumori, each named after a different sound. The device was a crank-operated wooden parallelepiped box with a speaker at the front, the pitch being controlled by a lever on the top. The lever would modify the tension of a metal or gut string, wrapped round a wheel, that was attached to a drumhead inside the box.

Russolo introduced the public to these devices with a concert entitled Awakening of a City and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes in Milan in April of 1914, and, continuing the trend of violence in response to noisy spectacle, a riot ensued. Futurists in the audience responded to booing with fists, and eleven audience members ended up in hospital. In 1926, influenced by Russolo’s machine music, and anticipating Hanatarashi’s use of machines of industry, George Antheil produced Ballet Mécanique, which called for 3 airplane propellers to accompany the pianos, bells and siren in the orchestra. The reception to the piece was as mixed as that of the The Rite of Spring or Russolo’s Awakening, and the Paris première ended with – you guessed it – a riot in the streets. Despite the early negative reactions to these modernist experiments in noise, by 1940 The Rite of Spring was accompanying the extinction of cartoon dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia and the following decades would see avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen produce music that would have presumably killed the Countess de Pourales on the spot. These experimental composers would eventually find their ideas pushed into pop music by the likes of Sonic Youth, who managed to straddle the seemingly incongruous worlds of MTV and the art music underground, with the benefit of an audience of noise-primed Gen X youth.

“We believed that music is nothing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, whatever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.” — Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Keyboard Magazine, 1990

From the purposefully consonant compositions, within strict rules of tonality, of medieval religious music to the chaotic noise of Tokyo’s Merzbow or Detroit’s Wolf Eyes, dissonance has moved from something to be avoided to become an all-encompassing driving force. What was an imperceptibly gradual change before the 20th century has now become rapid. The relationship between an experimental composer and his noisy environment and the advances in music technology have led us to the point whereby people will pay for a MP3 of almost pure white noise and call it music. Cued by Willie Kizart using a damaged amplifier on the recording of the Kings of Rhythm track Rocket 88 and furthered by Dick Dale’s work with Fender, the electric guitar turned distortion and feedback into an art-form, driving music more towards timbre than harmony. Experiments with synthesisers, from Elisha Gray’s basic single note oscillator in 1876 to Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, engendered real-time, precision control of volume, pitch and timbre. Rather than Russolo’s acoustic noise generators, noise could now be artificially created in exact and varied ways. With the development of recorded music from tape to digital memory, sampling became a new form of replicating and altering environmental noise. Just as Russolo and Antheil would take from the sounds of the modern mechanical world, musique concrete would mimic the electronic age with the use of tape loops and purely electronic-produced sound. The digital revolution would lead to the hip-hop sampling of Public Enemy, which took the sounds of New York streets and media soundbites and reconfigured the noise into dense music, punctuated by sirens and drills, that articulated urban conflict.

There are many ways of conceptualising dissonance. The term consonance comes from the Latin consonare, meaning ‘sounding together’, and has become synonymous with particularly harmonious intervals in Western music. However, there is a psychological aspect to consonance and dissonance which is subjective and has changed throughout history. Psychologists would describe dissonance as a negative valence emotional response, meaning that it conjures feelings such as anger and fear; emotions that relate to suffering. In harmony, consonance and dissonance refer to specific qualities an interval can possess but, although consonance relates to mathematical constants, musical experiments outside the acceptable ranges of the time attuned the human ear gradually to more dissonant sounds. In the Middle Ages, the tritone musical interval (the interval between, for instance, F to the B above) was once prohibited by the Roman Catholic church due to its dissonant qualities and perceived ties to the Devil. Nowadays, however, this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, especially in the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; music considered completely palatable to today’s ear.

Differentiation in ability to determine pitch, timbre, volume and time between tones could account for more or less appreciation of complex music. When two pitches are played together the mind appreciates the combination while also picking apart the unique pitches. More distortion or dissonant intervals will lead to added overtones and sum tones, creating very complex waveforms, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it. These complex waveforms are what people would be hearing in music they consider to be difficult. The reason why some people react so poorly to modern classical music that delves into dissonance is that there are no easily discernible patterns. Philip Ball, in The Music Instinct, writes that “the brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear.” The lack of predictability of tone sequences in the music of Stockhausen, for example, can confuse the brain, but the mind can learn to appreciate the complexity. We learn to appreciate this through listening to more complex music but, as the noise in our environment has increased, it is our adaptation that further enables us to enjoy what previously was rejected. The music mimics the noise in the environment and, in turn, the environment programs us to accept more noise as music.

Who are these loud and noisy people? They are like fishermen hawking fish.” – Buddha

How much has noise increased in the past few hundred years? Statistical comparison is a struggle, but noise appears to have been a concern for every society throughout history. The Buddhist Digha Nikaya, committed to writing in 29 BCE, records some contemporary noises of concern:

“Ananda, was neither by day nor night without the ten noises,—to wit, the noise of elephants, the noise of horses, the noise of chariots, the noise of drums, the noise of tabors, the noise of lutes, the noise of song, the noise of cymbals, the noise of gongs, and the tenth noise of people crying, ‘Eat ye, and drink!’”

Allowing for the unknown volume of an ancient Buddhist toast, the loudest sound on the list is that of the Asian elephant, trumpeting at a maximum of 90dB. The decibel level of the loudest sound in a city environment would increase as time went on, pacing more rapidly in the decades leading up to the 20th century. In an 1896 article entitled The Plague of City Noises, a clearly irate Dr. John H. Girdner called attention to the “injurious and exhaustive effects of city noises” from such sources as horse-drawn vehicles, bells and whistles, animals, persons learning to play musical instruments, peddlers, and that most infuriating member of late 19th century street-theatre, the organ grinder. What Dr. Girdner and the Buddha share is a concern for largely natural sounds of animal and human activity. However, the industrial and urban development of the 20th century altered the make-up of street noise and a poll of New Yorkers in 1929 issued an updated list of ten sounds to break a Buddhist samantha, with every one a product of a mechanisation.

The everyday noises of Girdner and the Buddhists pale in comparison to what the modern ear has to contend with, especially baring in mind the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. Rule of thumb: the sound must increase in intensity by a factor of ten for the sound to be perceived as twice as loud. A car horn (120dB at 1 metre), a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB), a power mower (96 dB), a food blender (88 dB), and a car driving at 65 mph (77 dB at 25ft) could conceivably occur simultaneously and for extended periods of time, albeit in a particularly poorly-situated home. Even the average lowest limit of urban ambient sound today is 40 dB; a constant hum that crosses the frequency spectrum.

“Natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.” – Gordon Hempton

The increasingly urbanised and industrialised modern world has become a place of almost constant unnatural sound. The American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton contends that in the whole of the United States there are just 12 places that could be considered naturally ‘silent’. By measuring average noise intervals at various locations over time, Hempton demonstrated that in the state of Washington there are just 3 places that are free from anthropogenic noise for longer than 15 minutes, compared to 21 places in 1994. In the UK, research by Sheffield Hallam University found that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991. With this increase in the spread and intensity of noise there has followed a general adaptation and acceptance of noise, but accompanied by some very negative consequences.

The word noise is derived from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, and noise can have many physiological and psychological effects that are deeply unpleasant, even causing permanent harm. In addition to the obvious hearing damage that can occur from repeated exposure to loud sound, diverse research over several decades has uncovered a variety of problems related to noise exposure. Fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches, anxiety disorders, depression and an increased prevalence of stress diseases have all been shown to be possible negative consequences. A WHO report from 2011 estimated that Western Europeans lose over one million healthy life years annually from noise-related disability and disease. Noise could also be making us less kind to one another, as research into noise as an urban stressor has found that a noisy environment can increase anti-social behaviour.

A series of studies at Wright State University in the mid-seventies found that noise interferes with social cues from a person in need of help and reduces helping behaviour. Further study in 1979, at the University of Washington, into noise and social discrimination found that noise may cause people to distort and over-simplify complex social relationships. Key to these outcomes, both physiological and psychological, appears to be our primal response system. Studies of blood chemistry have shown that exposure to noise causes an increased production of epinephrine, a central component in the fight-or-flight response. The more ‘unpleasant’ a sound, the more the amygdala, which plays a role in processing fear, is activated and therefore the stronger the emotional response.

The only rational reactions to an environment that threatens are either to escape or to adapt. However, even if one can ignore it, there is no physiological habituation to noise; an auditory assault affects us even when not consciously registered. Furthermore, it appears that the adaptation to noise that modern life requires is leading to an increased fear of silence. In 1999, the BBC accountancy office was refurbished with noiseless air-conditioning, double- glazed windows, and silent computers.

The makeover was effective in abating noise, but the employees were uncomfortable. They complained that the silence was stressful, leaving them feeling lonely and paranoid that others were listening in on their phone calls. In response, upon consulting noise expert Yong Yan from the University of Greenwich, the BBC decided to buy a noise machine to combat what Yan calls Pin Drop Syndrome. This covered the silence by producing a continuous 20 dB murmur of unintelligible voices, with the occasional snippet of bottled laughter, and the accountants relaxed into their faux-hubbub soundtrack. In a world of noise, silence equals exposure. The noise can fill in spaces that separate, cover up the sounds that bring attention and can blend individuals into an amorphous group. Perhaps it was this comforting, masking relationship with noise that the BBC accountants were found to be craving when absent.

Our ears have an inbuilt hypersensitivity to sound that was invaluable in the days when humans were hunter and hunted. We can hear a pin drop in a quiet room because our auditory system enhances the volume of a sound to several hundred times louder than the source volume before the brain itself registers the sound. While humans have transformed their relationship to environment and the conscious perception of noise, the brain and auditory system are still somewhat stuck in the fight-or-flight world of pre-civilisation. We tune out the noise in our daily lives but the physical and psychological forces are still present, pushing up blood pressure and promoting the release of stress hormones behind-the-scenes, even when we aren’t consciously aware of the sound.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating” – John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1961

Today there is no firm basis for a distinction between music and noise. With the abandonment of traditional, harmonic definitions of consonance and dissonance, the distinction is entirely subjective and particular to context. There is no such thing any more as the ‘non-musical sound’ that John Cage wanted to highlight in his compositions; everything is fair game. We are born into noisy environments and the necessary adaptation means that the normative level of acceptable noise has been rising exponentially with each generation. But with musicians of today using white noise, the entire range of audible sound-wave frequencies heard simultaneously, where is there left to go?

The Austrian anthropologist Michael Haberlandt claimed that the more noise a culture could bear, the more ‘‘barbarian’’ it was. Hanatarashi’s bulldozer performance was nothing if not proudly barbarian, but the violent expression was peacefully received – unlike the riots that followed the performances of earlier noise music. Noise has found its audience and the Noizu crowd at Tokyo’s Super Loft were purposefully escaping any sense of tranquility, seeking out that dangerous thrill that the body provides when the fight-or-flight response goes haywire. Like skydivers and train- surfers they were after the exhilaration that comes from hacking the body’s primordial response mechanisms. They were all freaking out together, each body screaming to run but with safety in numbers and the perversely comforting wash of noise connecting and concealing everyone. The enjoyment of the performance came from the transgressive destruction on not just the venue but the audience themselves. They were pushing at the biological limits of their minds and bodies, going against the grain like the boundary pushing experimental music, in order to feel a rush. In earlier decades, or centuries, that rush could have been achieved with less. The charge of a herd of elephants or the clattering and cheering of a horse race might have once been at the upper limit of common noise, but with the constant, and constantly increasing, cacophony of noise in our environment today, the level of acceptable noise has been dragged further up the decibel scale and further out from consonance. The result of this trend is that the noise music listener will always be like a heavy drug user who requires an ever increasing fix. The Hanatarashi fans amongst us are bathing in extreme noise to induce the fight-or-flight response; musical adrenaline junkies looking for a high that the body and mind will continue to adapt to over time. Only, unlike drug use, everyone is taking noise everyday, whether we like it or not, and we have to choose to either embrace it or escape it.

But where to escape to, when silence is disappearing? Perhaps noise music highlights how people are too accepting of the damage and social alienation that the daily exposure to noise is producing. Are we all barbarians for living with noise that would have driven our forbears crazy? Noise is now presented by health authorities and scientific studies as a pollutant but, unlike with oil spills and insecticides, some people inure themselves to this pollutant through choice. By choosing to embrace the constant noise of modern life, with all of its negative effects, they are like the BBC accountants, a symbol of the slow death of silence. If a solution isn’t found, there might come a point where the silence on Earth is found through noise-cancelling headphones rather than a trip out of the city, and natural silence will have truly vanished. And what will the music of that time sound like? The Rite of Spring sounded like noise, even Beethoven sounded like noise to the ear of the day, so in a few hundred years time will we be looking back on Hanatarashi with a feeling of quaint nostalgia as we wonder how anyone could have considered such classics as Boat People Hate Fuck or White Anal Generator to be noise?

Curbing Creativity: Migrants, Publishing & Brexit

As we are continually swept towards Britain’s catastrophic exit from the EU, the public remain as perplexed as on the day of the referendum result in 2016. The nation’s current sorry state of affairs would leave our past selves recoiling in disbelief: Boris Johnson is (barely) standing as Prime Minister, the unnerving prorogation of Parliament transpired, and it seems likely that we are about to come crashing out of the EU with no deal. It sounds like the perfect set-up for a dystopian novel – and on the subject of which, Brexit’s threat to the publishing industry and our creative industries across the spectrum is one we must not let slide. 

One troubling implication of the Brexit saga thus far is its breeding of a malicious anti-immigration rhetoric which continues to incite intolerance towards some of the most ambitious, talented individuals this nation has to offer. Remaining firmly at the forefront of the narrative, the perpetuation of immigration myths seems an indisputable reflection of the global rise in Far-Right movements. Such damaging fabrications arguably have one purpose: to create an environment of hostility that ought to deter migrants from both working and living in Britain.  

Those who spout anti-multiculturalism sentiments often fail to consider the abundant contributions migrants make to society – benefits that far exceed economic input. In their ‘State of Hate 2018’ report, Hope Not Hate argued: ‘The divisive and xenophobic rhetoric of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum set a tone for anti-immigration hate, which legitimised and galvanised prejudice beliefs’. In allowing misinformed prejudices to reign over the Brexit debate, often disregarded is the fact that migrants, both EU and non-EU, allow many of our industries to thrive – including the creative sector. 

The publishing industry relies upon migrants to remain relevant, innovative and prosperous. The influence that writers of an immigrant background have had on literary fiction in the UK is unparalleled. From Caryl Phillips to Oyinkan Braithwaite (whose second novel My Sister, The Serial Killer made the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 shortlist and was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019), both first and second generation migrants defied and stirred the traditional literary canon, blurring its confined lens. 

Arguing the necessity of migration for creativity, Jo Wallace, creative director at Publicis London, writes, ‘When we get excited by an idea it’s mostly because it’s different. It’s new. Something foreign which translates into logical magic. It’s the juxtaposition of unexpected things that creates a tension which hooks us.’ If Britain fails to attract migrants post-Brexit – which its current rise in xenophobic hate crime and increasingly rigorous immigration policy would certainly ensure – we can wave goodbye to our longstanding reputation as a cultural hub of talent. 

Absent of the varied perspective and unique experience that shape an author’s work, Britain’s book industry may regress to a mere echo chamber for an exclusionary, homogenous narrative; inevitably promoting voices of the same narrow background. And not only does this issue of representation affect writers in the UK, it is in fact one which permeates the entire book industry. 

The lack of diversity within publishing roles is alarming; Spread The Word published a research paper titled ‘Writing the Future’ in 2016, expressing their concern towards the industry’s poor inclusion of minority ethnic employees. Warning that the UK’s publishing sector appears ‘increasingly mono-cultural and parochial’, Spread the Word suggested that ‘the book industry risks becoming a 20th century throwback increasingly out of touch with a 21st century world.’ 

This absence in diversity is only set to spiral post-Brexit as Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary, has pushed for an immediate end to free movement – contradicting prior promises that EU nationals may continue to live and work in the UK until January 2021. This imminent end to free movement would demand that EU nationals, too, are subject to a rigid, bureaucratic nightmare. The path to a Tier 2 work visa, let alone British citizenship, is destined to become one migrants no longer wish to tread. 

UK immigration policy is already a complex web of character scrutiny, high costs and extensive requirements for non-EU/EEA citizens. Once this brutal policy is similarly thrust upon EU migrants, a particularly infuriating requirement is the salary demand for a Tier 2 ‘skilled worker’ visa. Under this visa, £30,000 is the minimum salary threshold for migrants who wish to live and work in the UK (with the exception of those whose prospective role features on the government’s extremely limited ‘Shortage Occupation List’ and public service workers). 

As of yet, there have been no proposals of exemptions for creative workers. To give some perspective on the absurdity of this threshold, authors in the UK earn an average annual salary of £10,500. Such unreasonable criteria is enough to leave deflated any aspiring international creatives who wish to settle in the UK.

As the Creative Industries Federation investigated, of 250 businesses working within the creative sector, 75% reported that they employed EU migrants – two thirds stated they could not fill those jobs with British workers. The correlation here is clear; migrants are essential for the creative industry to flourish. To determine ‘skill’ by a salary figure is to entirely overlook and undermine the expertise and impact of creative workers including freelancers, authors and front of house staff who are essential to its functioning, to name just a few. 

We ought to celebrate and embrace migrants – both EU and non-EU – not impede them with a convoluted, impossible-to-navigate visa system. Not only should Brexit implore us to re-evaluate our future immigration policy approach to EU migrants, it should similarly apply to all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers across the board. We need to renounce this grossly bigoted preconception of migrants as ‘others’, as people taking rather than giving. 

Brexit often feels like both a symbol of and catalyst for Western prejudices and paints a horrifying picture of the chaos which will ensue as a result of the championing of far-right voices, the drowning out of truth and the elevation of thinly veiled racism. This has no place in a cosmopolitan world. What Brexit really ought to affirm is our dire need to dispel cruel myths and to quash unreliable narratives sparking harmful misinformation on migrants. Evidently, such untruths have detrimental consequences. 

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that provides Legal Aid support for asylum-seekers and refugees. 

Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me – About Ageing

Picture Cfedits: Carlos Eduardo Du

Mother never said that
there would come a time when Spanx and control-top pantyhose would be my best
friends. Trusted close-knit companions you can rely on. My mother failed to
tell me I would embrace the push-up bra I cursed in my twenties, since it left
red welts on my skin, with enthusiasm in my fifties when everything goes south.
I never saw Mother naked. Never saw her blemishes and wounds of experience. I
have scars. The back of my hand reminds me sixteen-year-old girls are more
comfortable with a potato peeler than a paring knife. The faint discolouration
on my ankle showcases my first attempt at shaving my legs. Mother never
enlightened me on waxing. Her idea of waxing was a can of lemon scented furniture
polish – ideal for keeping the dining table shiny. No, Mother never promised
personal grooming would get easier with age.

I curse the age spots. As a child, I embraced my freckles. A connect-the-dots story, Mother said. Her fingertips brushing against my cheek made me giggle. I’d bury my head in her shoulder. A whiff of her Evening in Paris perfume was comforting. Today, I scold myself for baking in the sun during my twenties. Once upon a time, society envied golden girls for their beachy exuberance, their tan lines were badges of honor. Mom never suggested a sunscreen with a high SPF rating. I lathered baby oil with carefree abandon. My daughter wouldn’t dare skinny dip in a vat of oil, baiting the Sun God to burn baby burn!

I wear progressive
lenses, a tell-tale sign of maturity. Women my age resist squinting lest our
peering be mistaken for a cougar-like glare. Channeling my mom-voice, I direct
the adolescent grocery boy to my car. He sees an older woman with yogurt tubs,
bags of granola and ripe bananas. I see army supplies, intending to battle with
my fluctuating weight. The specialty toothpaste is designed to lighten the
agony of sensitive teeth. He’s too young to deduce the box of pantyliners in my
cart is incriminating evidence of my easing into menopause. I’m too old to be
embarrassed by personal grooming products.

As a woman, I want
respect, with my years of experience valued as wisdom. Yet I constantly
camouflage. Monthly hair salon visits hide my roots. I’m seduced by promises to
conceal my wrinkles and astonished the drug mart legally sells snake oil. More
lotions and potions sit displayed on my nightstand than are found in the school
chemistry lab. Give me time and I’ll create a spike in Proctor & Gamble
shares. We respect, even nurture, the aging of wine and cheese. Yet you won’t
find me tattooing my date of birth on this old crate. I’ve lived. Survived the
terrible twos, endured teenage angst, and trudged through mountains of
adulthood. Financial woes, career challenges, and family drama are all etched
in my creases and folds. The support of loved ones boosted my immune system.

Mother failed to
mention mishaps and mayhem bring your personality to life. A surgery scar is an
emblem of family togetherness, when everyone, little kids included, helped
around the house while I recuperated in bed. There were family vacations where
we laughed so hard that we should have taken some Depends. Smile lines are
easily read by a skilled fortune teller. Remembering the stumbles of my youth,
I look back and laugh. Applying for positions I wasn’t qualified for led to
long-term employment. Going outside my comfort zone broadened my skill sets.
Learning on the job I didn’t age, I matured. Capabilities were stretched.
Responsibilities gained. A career wasn’t defined by the number of years worked.
I balked at the word “senior” in my job title. When a role shriveled up, I
dusted off the interview clothing and put my best foot forward. Defeat was not
an option. Male colleagues are often graded as distinguished as they aged. A
woman is seen as being well preserved. Why are we stacked differently on the

Time is a precious
commodity. I’ve passed the route marker where the road ahead offers more
funerals than weddings. Traditions and customs suggest we maintain a rosy
complexion, the casket on display. No amount of rouge can return us to our
youth. I held my mother’s hand during my father’s funeral. Our chests of
memories are deemed more valuable than the contents of our jewelry boxes. I’ve
offered her aged bones a boost when climbing into my family van. Despite her
advanced age, she is sturdy. Fragility isn’t to be confused with helplessness.

Mom’s a first-generation
immigrant who navigated the cultural differences of a new frontier. Her first
year in Canada came with no how-to-manual. It never occurred to me that cooking
a Thanksgiving turkey was such an ordeal. Mom told me a neighbor came to her
home and gave her step-by-step instructions. Without her help, Mother admitted,
that she’d have cooked that bird with a bag of giblets inside. Dressing fowl
was as foreign as purchasing a winter coat, but she adapted. Weathering the
frost of Alberta, she embraced new traditions. Mom never hid her heritage, age,
or her eagerness to try something new. I shared my first dish of frog legs with
my mother. When my own teenage daughter had the opportunity to taste the item,
I encouraged her.

“Go ahead, take a
bite,” I said. “You might discover you like the flavor. Maybe it’s not for
everyone, but my girl channeled her adventurous side. Truth be told, the froggy
appetizer tastes just like chicken.

My mother failed
to tell me that the weight of childhood teasing is tough to shed. Taunts and
ridicule nestled beside love handles. As an adult, I’ve learned to balance when
someone kicks me in the shins. I propel myself forward, springing back up like
the kiddie inflatable punching bag. Mom never spoke of my exclusion from the
cheerleading squad because the white uniform looked different on a brown girl.
She skipped the explanation why the neighbors hesitated to let me hang out in
their daughter’s playhouse, merely suggesting that I’d understand when I got
older. I’m older now, yet I fail to understand.

I’ve inherited arthritis,
alongside the aches and pains of teenage adolescence. When picked last for the
dodgeball team, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. Every
joint hurt, even my heart ached. No cure found in the Farmer’s Almanac. My mother
had travelled across the world, with four young children, not knowing the
landscape, the currency, or the customs. If she could survive without friends,
so could I. She told me that growing pains came with adolescence. It might hurt
at the time but I’d forget all about dodgeball when I was older. Resilience is congealed
in our bone marrow.

Exposure to the
world expands my mind. Yet mother forgot to point out that we shrink as we age.
Perhaps not enough to be cast in our own TLC television program, or in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, but
sufficiently smaller that we see the world from a different perspective. Energy
depleted, I concede I don’t have the fight in me to bark at the salesclerk who
asks where I’m from. I’ve heard the question so often that it feels routine,
much like someone asking whether I’m paying withdebit or credit card. Do salesclerks quiz the second-generation
fraulein from Germany or the mademoiselle from France? Their creamy complexion is
several shades lighter than my own. My aged ears suggest judgment by something
other than my shopping habits. Mother’s parenting words encourage politeness. I
resist the urge to have a cougar fight at the checkout stand, among the Made In India accessories.

Mother encouraged
good posture. Stand tall she advised. Looking back, I realize she was resisting
more than my juvenile slouches. She was giving me a push. I suspect my teenage
swagger thought my flared jeans were cool. Yet Mom’s notes about good
presentation remained in style much longer than those threadbare flares.

I’ve embraced my
mum jeans, my hips reminding me that I earned my curves. My children are the
best accessories investment I made. I avoid telling my daughter what she should
or shouldn’t wear. She’s far more sophisticated than I ever was at her age.
Confident in her body image, she’s without need for her mother’s advice. Three
generations of women displayed, our choices repositioned and recycled, adapted
and repurposed. Mother never told me it would take fifty years to be
comfortable in my own skin. She forgot to mention style is about personal
choice. The threads we wear are an extension of our creativity, our character.
Regardless of what we choose to mask or hide, the wrinkles of experience, the
creases of laughter, and the comfort of our past can be worn with panache.
Mother should have told me – there’s nothing more attractive than a confident

Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

the early hours of a Tuesday morning, an old man drives a Jeep out of Tucson
and onto Highway 286
toward the Arizona desert and the first of three sites he’ll visit where the
remains of migrants were found. He has made this trip once a week for the past
six years. Three crosses four feet tall and two feet wide, each one a different
color, blue, blue-green and rust, rattle in back. Heat from the sun warms the
windshield and a woman in the passenger seat, Alicia Baucom, cracks her window
to shrieks of air still cool from the night. A second Jeep carries a man and
two women who, like Alicia, have volunteered to help plant the crosses. Flat
land covered with cactus and scrub juniper slanted by wind unfurls into
distant, bare mountains peaked against domes of blue sky slowly revealing
itself two hours after dawn, and as the Jeeps rush down the highway, also known
as Sasabe Road, the old man, 73-year-old artist Alvaro Enciso, asks Alicia the
names of the dead migrants.

one found in 2006 is unidentified, she says. The man discovered in 2015 has a
name, Valentine Guzman Flores. Thirty. Found December 29 near Three Points.
Skeletal remains. Death unknown. The third was found in 2017. His name is
Felipe Vargas. Also thirty. Found near Sasabe on June 8. Hyperthermia. Dead
less than a day. Coroner said he was fully fleshed.

first two could have died long before they were found, Alvaro says.

hunches over the steering wheel and makes no further comment and Alicia doesn’t
speak either. She has been helping Alvaro just five months, replacing another
volunteer who broke down after he and Alvaro found a migrant’s body nearly a
year ago. The volunteer sought counseling. It was one thing to hear about
people dying in the desert but it was quite another to see a body.

collects information on dead migrants from the Pima County coroner’s office.
Last year, the medical examiner recorded the remains of 127 dead migrants.
Before 2000, the bodies of fewer than five migrants were found
each year. However, in 2001, the number soared to 79 and then to 151
the year after that. The number of annual migrant deaths since then has
remained well above 100.

he follows the highway, Alvaro notices workers laying asphalt, shoveling it off
the back of a truck, the air stung by its sharp odor as a roller inches toward
them, and two border-patrol agents lean against pickups and watch the men work.
They are either chasing someone, Alvaro says of the agents, or they’ve given
up. They don’t move as he passes them, heads down staring through dark
sunglasses at the steaming asphalt.

often encounters border-patrol agents. A few times he’s tripped a sensor and
they converged from nowhere to check him out. He explained his purpose and
showed them his crosses and they were cool. He had no problem with them and
doesn’t now. They have a job to do; some are good and some are bad. If they see
someone in the middle of nowhere, they get suspicious. Alvaro understands that.
He shoots the shit with them, complains about the heat. Many of them aren’t
familiar with deserts because they were raised outside of Arizona. They’ve seen
earthworms but nothing bigger and worms don’t bite. Rattlesnakes do. They worry
about snakes.

recalls the spring of 2017 when the border patrol could have been a problem. He
and some volunteers found a man in the desert walking south toward Mexico. He
was delirious and thought he was headed north to Phoenix. He had no food or
water. Alvaro considered his options: he could call the border patrol, give the
man something to eat and drink, or leave him to his fate. He could not,
however, transport him. If the border patrol stopped him, he could be charged
with harboring. But the man needed medical attention. How was he to say I can’t
help you, to a desperate man? Sometimes, he reasoned, laws have to be violated.
The volunteers had their own car and drove the man to a safe house. Alvaro
doesn’t remember his name but he was told later that he ate eleven pancakes,
three sausages, three cups of fresh fruit, two glasses of orange juice and five
pieces of toast his first night. He had come from Honduras and it took him two
weeks to recuperate. When he left, the staff gave him directions to Phoenix but
he didn’t make it. The border patrol picked him up.


had been unaware of migrants dying in the desert when he moved from northern
New Mexico to Tucson in 2011. He started walking migrant trails and imagined
himself crossing borders on foot. The idea appealed to him as something
romantic, people entering the United States seeking the opportunities he had.
He noticed all sorts of debris, rusted cans of sardines, sausages, beans and
other food migrants had brought with them. He collected the cans and
accumulated a huge mound to use for his art. Every can told a story of the
person who ate from it. He didn’t know if the story had a happy ending but the
can was there for him to imagine a life.

years later, he took a four-hour orientation with Tucson Samaritans, a group of
more than one hundred volunteers who go into the desert seven days a week to
assist migrants. The presenter showed a map of southern Arizona covered with
red dots. Each dot represented a spot where a migrant’s body had been
found. From 2001 through 2018, the remains of 3,011 migrants
have been recovered in southern Arizona. No estimates have been offered for the
numbers not found.

wondered what happened to those people. He searched those locations for
anything that gave substance to those who had died. He lay on his back and
stared into an unrevealing desert sky and felt only the emptiness of his
surroundings, its nothingness that had absorbed suffering and death.

felt a bond with the dead through his own sense of not belonging. He was not a
gringo but he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, either. He rarely hung out with
people, and
when he did, he assumed a different character than when he spoke English. Who
was he? He had been born in Colombia. He had left everything he knew, his
family, his country, to live in a place that was and was not his home. He began
contemplating how, as an artist, he could convey the quandary of his existence
with the experiences of dead migrants caught between the countries they were
leaving and their visions of America.

a first step, Alvaro snapped photographs of what he called dead sites, but a photo could not
capture the absent bodies of migrants. He hired a woman and had her wear a
black dress and drove her to the desert to be photographed. He shot beautiful
pictures of her against the sparse landscape but a woman in a black dress, a
strikingly mournful figure, said nothing about the people who had perished. He
made sculptures of red dots but they weighed too much to transport to the dead
sites. Next, he sprayed red dots on the ground like graffiti but the dots alone
conveyed nothing.

idea of building crosses came to him as he combed through books about Roman
history. The Romans, he read, crucified many people, not only Jesus. They left
them exposed to the sun and elements until they died. The same, he believed,
was happening to migrants. Through its immigration policies, the U.S.
government was forcing them to follow the most difficult routes north to kill
them. Where the two pieces of a cross intersected formed the nucleus of an
encounter between poor peasants of the south and the American giant of the
north and the encounter was fatal. Goliath won.

Alvaro understood that not everyone would agree with his overtly political analogy. However, he was not seeking approval but laying a philosophical foundation to buttress his ideas to mark the dead sites with crosses. Absent politics, a cross would also have meaning, not as Christian symbol (—Forget religion, Alvaro tells the volunteers. Death is very democratic. Death has no interest in faith.), but as a secular, geometric one. A cross consists of vertical and horizontal lines. Alive, people stand erect. Dead, they lie flat. Life and death existed in the same image.


a child, Alvaro had learned to accept absence. He grew up in a shanty in
Villavicencio, Colombia, a frontier town where men earned a living raising
cattle and selling marijuana. He did not wear shoes his first five years at
school. In the evenings, he gathered dead birds from cockfights for his mother
to cook, or he would walk to the slaughterhouse and collect blood to eat with
his rice because they could not afford meat. His mother had few soft edges. She
warned him against daydreaming. Dreams, she said, won’t deliver him from

never saw his father. He was married to another woman and considered Alvaro’s
mother his mistress. In 1996, when he turned fifty, Alvaro returned to Colombia
and tracked him down in Honda, a village not far from where he grew up. His
father owned a big house near a cemetery and had a little store and everybody
who went to the cemetery stopped there for food and flowers. He assumed Alvaro wanted

don’t need your money, Alvaro told him. I’m not angry with you. I have no
feelings toward you. I just want to know who you are.

spoke for a short time. His father appeared indifferent that Alvaro, his only
son, the result of a one-night fling, had appeared out of nowhere. It was
like looking in a mirror, Alvaro reflected afterward. His father’s disinterest,
his lack of empathy, were characteristics Alvaro shared. A woman he had dated
in New York told him, “You
don’t ask about my life or daughters. Your interest lasts only one night.” He
received her words as a revelation and on his flight back to the states he
thought of them again and decided that it although he felt bad his father was
the way he was he did not have to be like him.

never saw each other again. Blind, sick and unable to walk, Alvaro’s father
died two years later.


When he was a boy, Alvaro’s watched Hollywood movies at a theater where
his mother worked. On screen, actors smoked long cigarettes and ate in
restaurants. He saw dashing detectives and strutting cowboys. That was the life
he wanted. In 1967, when he was almost twenty-one, an aunt in Queens offered to
fly him to New York. She didn’t have to ask twice.

York made an impression. The tall buildings, the busy streets, the stores with
all the elegantly dressed people. He loved the seasons, especially winter. That
something could fall from the sky and turn him white left him amazed and a
believer in miracles. He thought pizza and canned foods with decorative labels
the most wonderful of meals. He sorted through trash, an odd assortment of
junk: high-school sports trophies, beat-up bowling balls, picture frames and
other garbage. Get
this out of my house,
his aunt scolded, but he continued adding to his collection. He had never had
these things. Ownership represented the promise of America. With his aunt’s
help he applied for citizenship and received his green card. He also registered
with the selective service without fully understanding what that meant but he
felt he was on his way.

Alvaro soon faced difficulties. His aunt’s American husband disliked him and
kicked him out of the house two months after he arrived. Homeless and fearful
of returning to Colombia a failure, he went to a church and prayed. God, he
begged, you need to cut me a break. I’m screwed here. Any bone you can send my
way, I’d appreciate. You’re the guy who’s supposed to help.

months later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Having no skills,
he joked, they put me in the infantry. It was not the divine intervention he
had sought but it got him off the street. His commanding officers trained him
to hate the Vietnamese and kill them and he did. Today, he doesn’t see a
connection between the person he was then and the man he is now. He was young,
naive and stupid. He lacked compassion. He believes that with each cross he
puts up today he atones for his actions in Vietnam.


his service, Alvaro returned to New York. He visited an Army buddy in New
Mexico and fell in love with the desert, awed by its immense limitlessness, and
promised to return and live there some day. Back in New York, he drove cabs,
mopped the floors of a peep show and working as a photographer’s assistant. He
attended college and graduate school and earned three master’s degrees in
anthropology, Latin American Studies and Contemporary Hispanic Studies. In
1980, he took a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and stayed
for almost twenty years before he got tired of the nine-to-five grind and
decided to pursue an artistic career. He had always liked to draw. His savings,
pension and veterans’ benefits would support him. With art, he rationalized, he
didn’t need credentials.

1999, he moved to Placitas, New Mexico, an old hippy town north of Albuquerque,
and bought a house. For two years he read books on philosophy and art
criticism. He built boxes with cutout figures representative of the American
West. He took large canvases and painted layers and layers of the same color
paint in varying shades and made frames for them. It’s not bad, he thought, but it may not be
good art.
Over the years, however, people bought his work and he felt their approval in
the money they paid him and that in turn gave him the impetus to do more
serious work that would encompass his ideas of being an outsider. After more
than ten years in Placitas, Alvaro felt the need for a more urban environment.
Albuquerque was close by but he wanted a city with a better reputation for the
arts. That led him to Tucson.


hawk flies above the Jeep as Alvaro drives deeper into the desert, the sun
higher but the air still cool although he feels it warming. Gusts rise off mountains
sweeping the air ahead of it, fanning dust. Alvaro pulls off the road and parks
near the spot where the remains of the nameless 2006 migrant were found. He had
put up a cross for him last year. A migrant sleeping nearby awoke, startled to
see him. Don’t worry, Alvaro said, I’m here for a cross, nothing more.

doesn’t know what happened, but a short time later someone destroyed the cross.
Hunters have used his crosses for target practice. Other people break and
remove them. He went to a swap meet one afternoon and saw one for sale. The
cross he had placed here looked like it had been hit by a sledgehammer.

out of the Jeep, Alvaro stands stoop-shouldered and adjusts his cap. He wears
jeans that pool around his ankles and a long-sleeve shirt with triangular
patterns that restrains his paunch. Gray hair falls to his neck and he removes
his glasses and rubs his eyes.

talk to a minimum, Alvaro says. We’re going to a location where someone died.

takes a blue cross from the back of the Jeep. Slivers of tin cans decorate the
wood. A red dot on another piece of tin fills the center. Friends give him
paint, off-white, beige, bland colors he brightens with whatever he has on hand
in his shop.

volunteers unload a shovel, bucket, bottled water and a bag of cement and
follow Alvaro. The noise of their steps breaks against small stones and the
scraping sound tears at the air like a ripped sheet.

moves cautiously between jumping cholla cactus, whose stinging thorns collect
like burs and can easily penetrate clothing. Blankets, shoulder packs, worn
sandals, plastic water jugs and other supplies discarded by migrants litter the
ground. They may have camped here. They may have been picked up by family or
border patrol. Their abandoned possessions offer Alvaro no hint of their fate.

searches the ground for bones. In 2017, a man driving home from a casino
stopped to piss and saw a human skull. The skull belonged to forty-four-year-old
Nancy Ganoza, from Peru, who had disappeared in the desert in 2009, cause of
death unknown. A DNA sample found a match in New Jersey where her two daughters
and husband lived. Her family flew to Tucson and Alvaro built a cross and they
joined him to raise it where her skull was found. Her husband propped a photograph
against the cross below a red dot. She had black hair down to her shoulders and
a winsome smile and she squinted as if she was facing the sun. Five candles
surrounded the base of the cross and a white rosary with a crucifix hung
loosely from it, and a circle of prickly pear cactus threw shadows beneath the
twisted branches of velvet mesquite. Alvaro had planted dozens of crosses for
people by then. Sometimes he knew their names but he did not know them. Until now. The
intimate presence of Nancy’s family brought him to tears.

Nancy Ganoza’s cross

so sad, Alvaro thinks now. All of it. Each death haunting. All of
them tragic, some beyond tragic. Not too long ago Alvaro built a cross for a young man
who had died from hanging, a suicide, the medical examiner concluded. Alvaro
could not conceive the agony and utter hopelessness that he must have
experienced. Knowing it was too much to go on. Deciding with what strength he
had left to take his own life rather than die of thirst,
starvation, heatstroke, hyperthermia, or madness.

The most disturbing moment for Alvaro, however, occurred last August when he found
a body in the Roskruge mountain range, a remote area close to Tucson. Five
miles from a paved highway, four miles from some houses but still in the middle
of nowhere. He had just put up a cross and was following a stone path back to
his Jeep when he disturbed two rattlesnakes and his heart was racing from
surprise and fear, the sound of their rattles still in his ears, when he saw a
dead woman. For a moment, his reaction was similar to entering a room and
someone he
had not expected.

sharp odor rose from the corpse. The bones remained intact and her clothes lay
around her, possible torn off by animals. A T-shirt and blue jeans and a cell
phone. She had a pair of yellow-and-pink sneakers that looked new. Very
feminine and small. At first, Alvaro thought she was a child. He called 911. An
autopsy revealed she had suffered hyperthermia and had been dead about two
weeks. She had documents from Guatemala but no identification.

later, Alvaro marked the location with a cross. Was she a mother? he wondered.
Did she leave children behind? What was she running from and to? In the
following weeks he returned and looked for ID but found nothing. He lay on the
ground and traced an outline of his body with flour. He stood and looked at the
image like something from a crime scene. It was his way of sharing himself with
her. Had his life been different, had his aunt not flown him to New York, he
might have died as she had, or like the migrant he is about to acknowledge this
morning, dead without a name.


sets down the cross, takes the shovel and digs a hole. He tosses dirt to one
side and when he stops to catch his breath, silence settles around him and he
raises his head to listen to it. He asks Alicia to mix the cement. He watches
her shake it into the bucket, add water and stir it with a stick.

enough, Alvaro says.

inserts the cross into the hole and holds the top of it as Alicia distributes
the cement. Alvaro asks her if it’s straight and she nods. He continues holding
it as she and the other volunteers collect rocks and stack them in a small
mound around the cross. Once it’s secure, Alvaro steps back and ponders it
within the vast solitude of the desert. Stalwart, like a sentry, unaware that
soon it will be alone and appear quite small, dwarfed by the limitlessness of
its surroundings.

removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

like to play “Amazing Grace.”

“Down in the Valley.”

don’t know that one. I hope I can get through this without crying.

OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

begins playing and Alvaro bows his head. He has put up nine hundred crosses in
six years but has no idea how many still stand. They last five, maybe ten years,
eaten by termites, beaten by weather, turned to dust. Some nuns in a church in
Cochise County heard about what he was doing and designed their own crosses.
They did not place them where migrants died but, as far as Alvaro was
concerned, where it was convenient. Their crosses have no relation to anything.
The word got out that an old man was making crosses and the nuns wanted a piece
of it.

does not consider himself an activist. At home, he likes to read, go to
restaurants and play with his dog. He paints pictures with red dots in
fragmented circles and lines to represent a splintered border and the ruptured
lives of those who cross. He only wants the integrity of his project respected.

happening, he tells himself, is that instead of mellowing he’s becoming
cantankerous in his old age. How does he tell nuns they’re screwing up? They
have a divine license to do what they do. They have God. How does he argue with

an infidel,
he reminds himself.

Alicia plays, the plaintive notes drifting with the wind, Alvaro considers his
own life. With each cross, he commemorates his journey as an immigrant and its
inevitable end. His weekly desert sojourns have become a form of meditation in
which he grieves his own losses, two failed marriages, the death of his mother,
his time in Vietnam, his absent father. He is his father’s son but not his son.
He does not conceal his emotions. He empathizes to the point of tears. He can’t
control what other people do with his art but only what he seeks to achieve
with it: recognition of the dead, solace for himself.

struggle of migrants, he knows, will outlive him. More will die today, tomorrow
and long after he has died. He’d like to paint three thousand red dots in a
Tucson gallery but he doubts that will happen. Galleries don’t appreciate art
that won’t sell. He will never build enough crosses.

all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes


anyone want to say anything?

hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

lets her comment linger. The wind whistles and carries the sound of a semi and
the volunteers shift and twigs break beneath their feet. When the noise of the
truck fades, Alvaro speaks.

2006, thirteen years ago more or less, a man came here looking for the American
dream. He didn’t find it and all of his plans ended here. And those plans and his
dream left a lot of suffering behind with a family that perhaps was hoping for
him to be the person who would send checks back home for them to survive. But
this all ended here. We don’t know his name, but he had a name, a family, and
he had dreams and hopes, he had everything. That’s why we do this, to give this
person presence. To honor this person. But there will always be an empty space
at the dinner table for this person and that takes a long, long time to go away;
in fact, it never will. He’ll always be missing in some way.

a loss to say anything more, Alvaro stares at the ground. He wonders how much
longer he’ll mark dead sites. His knees are shot. In the old days, he’d start
at seven, walk three hours to a site and three hours back, up and down
mountains, sometimes not getting home before nightfall. These days, he seeks
clusters, areas where several bodies have been found, so he can put up crosses
without walking too far and adding mileage to the Jeep. It’s old, too.

He picks up the bucket and shovel. The two other sites are close by. He expects to finish before noon, an early day. Next Tuesday, he will return and carry more crosses into the desert and give presence to the anonymous dead with a marker no one will see. Art without a viewer. He considers their shortened lives part of the American myth. Dying for a dream.

Writing, and Chaplin

Picture Credits: Engin akyurt

story, Chaplin said, can be told without human voice, with only a fork and a
spoon, at a dinner table. And, invited to many dinner parties, Chaplin, they
say, could prove it.

makes writing not good? The same things which make people not good. An
unawareness of their dishonesties, their entrenched imitativeness; a writer who
has spent too many years in front of a television will spend many years, if he
or she is trying to be a writer of some goodness, discharging those memories of
dramas on televisions. Half of his/her writing is vomiting them up, sick of
turning them around in one’s stomach all those years, feeling the sound of
their words as if in a tin can, never able to fully absorb them, aware of some
pervasiveness of death of honesty in them, death of innovation. Yet only half
of the writer/artist is re-wounded by this repeating what was seen and heard
there, by this disgorgement; a good half of the writer/artist is healed through

is bad. Too much too even calm. Unless it is calm with an eeriness, while
terrible things go on, to show that everywhere there is a pond, there is a lily
pad, there is a frog ready to leap. Sometimes the narrator must be all calm;
sometimes descriptions of places must be all calm, to lull the reader into a
somniance. Before things begin.

not too much constant agitation. That will create only the need and wish for a
dark blue sleep.

layers and meanings of words. The writer who does not understand the double and
triple-speak of words can still fool anyone into almost anything, as can
societal attitudes. But a writer who approaches words with an already-ready
sense of suspiciousness can rule them. So intelligence, x-ray vision, are
paramount: mind you, these are unusual traits, the traits of superheroes.

most of all, more than dishonesties, or too much from television to disgorge,
or too much flatness or agitation, or too little wise suspicion of common words
– most of all, a writer is bad if he or she cannot self-generate heat, power.
We are, as writers, the solar collector, the hybrid engine: we take energy from
what surrounds us or our remembering of surroundings; but we must also, through
the rhythm and placement of our speech, with the jabbing moving dance or battle
motions of our ideas woven through whatever is written, make energy: that is
the writer’s job. Each writer infuses what he finds with his own needs and
medicine of response: he shows the inert reader that he or she can be offended
or delighted by what she sees, but the dedicated human brain deeply wants to overcome
danger, and, with enough resolve, can often overcome obstacles, peril. In
dwindling summary: the writer always is the fairy tale riddle-solver, the one
fate has brought, somehow entering the story already knowing what is needed
–  or by end of story or novel does.

the writer needs may be only an understanding of inevitabilities, and a way to
accept and even find beautiful the inevitabilities. He or she can try to make
change, and he or she does not necessarily need to succeed.

an oval table, writers can read stories about finding a large Canadian goose
nesting on their roof, staying there till summer, her five goose-eggs laid and
lined up in a row, ready to hatch; they can read a poem while jazz is played;
they can read a story filled with cursing words. A woman can go to a French
enclave in Canada and meekly submit to the rudenesses which people inflict upon
the unFrench outsider and endure it for twenty-five years which then become at
least twenty-five chapters. A giant, in a story, can work his way into a house,
laugh, destroy things; people can live in a society where their minds are
boundaried and controlled, and never have the wish, let alone the need, to have
courage enough to escape; someone can decide the most loving embrace they have
ever felt is the clasp of a seatbelt on an airplane, loving the stewardesses
nagging him about being buckled in. A writer can write in one whole book about his
proud love for his religion, about the comfort like home it gives him.

what is underneath? The American writer about the woman in French Canada may be
realizing now the court is hers. The writer who thinks he is in love with his
religion may be realizing as he writes that it is the setting sun he looks to
each day and adores, not the people or rituals or stories in churches; and that
sun travels – everywhere. The writer who loves the buckling ritual on the plane
may be secretly wishing for the courage to unbuckle on another country, or
continent, and somehow stay. The person writing about people over-controlled in
a society may be really in love with that control, though everyone thinks the
purpose of the written piece is to lash out against the control. The giant? The
giant may represent the author’s jealous and inflamed heart, his memory of his
own displacement, of being made small; he wants all to experience his displaced
heart. And the woman with the goose on her roof may be stating that she is
feeling the authenticity of “impostor syndrome” – the truth that all of us are
frauds, compared to our child selves, when we were new and we knew the greatest
love we will ever know, our early love for our mothers, and school, and sleep.

the writer who reads his writing while jazz is played by a certain player? He
by the time he is finished realizes his writing is jazz, too, that the musician
whose recording he used was only his five delicious minutes of using him the
magician as a crutch. Taking courage from the original players of jazz who found
their genius footing in a country which mocked them, the writer is borrowing
footing from the ones who defeated the undefeatable odds: on a European
civilization’s instruments, they outdid them, without their instructions or
rule books, tuition, without their composers. In one generation.

else does a good writer be a good writer? She or he admits they know just what,
even though it is unnamed still to them as they write, they are seeking. Yes,
they are greedy. Yes, they have an overarching and ridiculous need to have
something they might not win or even deserve: and they insist on an almost
ridiculous excess of dignity. But they admit their humbleness, that they are
lacking. And from that comes humor, or sardonicness; you’ve admitted, as a
writer, need.

mortal, vulnerable: already wounded, soft white belly even more vulnerable,
because you have pulled aside your shirt to show the wound. But admired; you must
be strong to be so reckless. Only strong can dare the fates this way: such brave

have a music a music class or tutor cannot give. As great singers must have
deeply felt the feel of notes in their silent throats through earliest childhood,
writers resonate with the music of the books they have read. Neither music nor
novels come from class. As a tree turns in the wind, as water rounds edges of
boulders; music logic has a fall of gravity. Writing logic has an even sharper
gravity – the rise and fall of necessity. You the writer prove you see, or saw,
an unendurability before you.

Chaplin. Chaplin takes his sad little too-large hat, his eyebrows like piles of
dark-burned ash, shoes which yes are shoes but obviously like his dreams
oversized. His cane which is to reassure, remind him, that the wisdom of the
old man is with him, though he is young. To town. His eyes like coals, he
wanders, overflowing with dreaming. Dreaming he can rise above the poor and the
poorly-placed and win the lovely girl, who will see the fervor and the delight
of his heart, and is the symbol of his prize.

improvises with each turn of the story; he is willing to do anything, to win.
Arrogance of any type he can both mock and envy, absorbing as he simultaneously
pushes away. The airplane Chaplin realizes is full of people who have forgotten
what the adventurous meaning of life is. To them the seatbelt is an empty,
unloving ritual: to them it is an annoyance. Chaplin would see a goose on a
roof is a sign he is lucky to be human; the goose must be there to make him
think of fairy tales, a sign he should understand the goose and gander, brave
and nesting and valiant, there to lead the way for the next generation of
nesters; the goose should make him long for family around him, too, to guard him
and give him an increased feeling of strength (Chaplin in his last, fourth
marriage, in Switzerland, fathered his last set of children: eight.)

groups of people are really the audience Chaplin dreams of, who are waiting to
see how he sets himself free from dull repetition and attitudes; an audience
waiting almost eagerly to be awakened. They’ve forgotten, or maybe never
learned well enough, the special art of making themselves the fool. Or how to
watch for the jealous giant who is everywhere, because the jealous giant is in
each of us. When we are on the plane, Chaplin knows, we need instead of pulling
down the airplane’s tiny plastic beige window shades when the glare of the sun
is on us, to let it shine on us and diffract us. For the sun, the shining sun, is
the base of, outdoes, all religions.

Chaplin, where is the impostor? How do we find him? Chaplin would have us
recognize the great impostor also is always in us. Acting and actors are
half-complete impostors. They might wear the Chaplin hat: an admission that to
up-end any impostors, you must admit first you are one, too.

Tolstoy said, all of writing is about the stranger who comes to town, or the
trip a man makes to the strange town. So: writing then is startlement, introductions,
rejections. The fairy tale riddle-solver seeing the problems before him.

what do you find? That a person has both badness and goodness; that a town
does, too. But you as a writer are a force of control, self-comfort, movement;
you are a painter at an easel, looking for something or someone beautiful,
wanting to record something startlingly, bravely true, something no one has
recorded before. You gain something by meeting a stranger, also, by meeting a
strange town.

people in the strange town? They never travelled your trip, never heard anyone
call out to you watch out for that step
which is their way of saying it is their house and they know that step is
theirs, not yours, you are but the awkward visitor, so clumsy you would likely
fall. (What is dressed up as a welcome is really their comment on how awkward
they expect you to be.) The writer says thank
but beneath the polite thank you
he knows the real intent of the admonishment: almost a wish that he would fall,
or full credit for having saved clumsy him, the invading guest.

Oh, do you think I’m
, he calls out, all

better, like Chaplin, tips into a neat double set of cartwheels, landing almost
exactly at his chair at the table, smoothing his hair, raising and lowering his
eyebrows, settling his cap, leaning his cane against the table to neatly,
precisely, hang his hat from top of its crook, that deep crook very much like a
goose’s or a gander’s neck deeply bent, attentive. Chaplin sits now alert at a
supper table where all the bored guests are set, as neatly as silverware, as
rows of seats on a plane; waiting, they are, for the one who will save them
from their boredom, show them something they have never seen on television: Waiting
for Chaplin. Chaplin, ready, maybe, to tell a story: with one spoon and one fork.

What Happens When Your Psychiatrist Pretends He’s Mick Jagger

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

Everything in this story
is the God’s honest truth; especially the parts that seem exaggerated. When my
twins, my only children, were applying to colleges, I told them that they couldn’t
go west of Connecticut. I raised them in Rhode Island. While they currently
live on campus, the bus that takes them to and from the university they attend
passes by our new house, the one my husband and I downsized into so that we
could pay for their college education and not have to work until we are Orrin
Hatch’s age. The move was a sacrifice: from one of the most secluded
neighborhoods on Aquidneck Island where everyone has a golf cart for trick or
treating, to a house off the highway, so close to the busy road that when I’m using
the bathroom, I have to brace myself if a truck drives by. Actually, if I open
my front door and then sit on the toilet with the bathroom door open and I time
it right, I can wave to my sister Jeanne who passes by every morning.

Six months before our
daughters left, I thought I would buy them the dog they’ve always wanted, so in
the spring of the girls’ senior year of high school, we googled “Dogs that
don’t bark and don’t like to walk.” We ended up with Harry, an English bulldog.
I flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Columbus, Ohio in an afternoon to pick
him up. When I met a representative from the breeder and was handed a small
brown animal with long ears, I thought I had been conned and wondered instantly
if I had just flown to Ohio to pick up a rabbit.

I had never had a dog
myself so for the first nine months I treated him like a toddler. He had
scheduled nap times, a pink stroller, an air-conditioner in his room and a
sound machine. Eventually he went off to doggy day care, which is more like a
preschool, where he still goes every day, where they throw birthday parties and
give out cake, and encourage the dogs to play on plastic cars and slides. When
he was three months old and had completely exhausted us with his puppy antics,
my husband, a medical doctor, was convinced Harry had rabies. I just thought he
was mentally ill and that he also had a fondness for women’s underwear.

I had read on the
Internet that English bulldogs are susceptible to all sorts of health
conditions. Before he was ten months, Harry had suffered from a seizure,
chronic skin infections, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and tear ducts
that underproduced. I grew concerned that the veterinarian might start to blame

“Do you think the vet is
going to think I have munchkins disease?” I asked my husband.

“If you mean Munchhausen
syndrome by proxy, then no. Although he may think that there are other things
wrong with you.”

Unquestionably, my
husband was right; there were and still are many things wrong with me. On top
of my empty-nest crisis and puppy training, I live with chronic pain. Not
root-canal-without-Novocain pain, but hourly, daily, pain. In early November
2016, on a Saturday night, I took a lot of pills, not a Heath Ledger dose, not
even close, but enough to end up in the ER and by Monday morning we, meaning my
Dr. Husband and I, were off to see a psychiatrist. I took a combination of
drugs to help relieve the pain I had been experiencing, but secretly I’d been
hoping for a spiritual revelation. For the last twenty years. And one afternoon,
a few weeks before the ER visit, I was sure that I was on the verge of one while
I was meditating.

I had taken up meditation,
which for me involved sitting up in my bed wearing a sleeping mask and a
bicycle helmet. Just before I reached a pretty impressive level of relaxation,
I had a tendency to fall asleep and hit my head on the headboard. The helmet
became a natural part of my meditation practice. On one particular afternoon, I
thought for sure I saw a sign directly in front of me: a beautiful ruby red
light, an indication of some sort of spiritual awakening. For about three or
four seconds, I actually got nervous and questioned whether I was prepared for
this type of experience: the light, the Truth, the whole thing. I even wondered
if, braless, I were dressed for the occasion. I felt I might be seeing living
sparks like Hildegard of Bingen or a red flowering tree sheltering all children
like Black Elk. But it soon became clear that my desire for an awakening was
just that my sleeping mask was on crooked and the red light was coming from the
cable television box.

The experience that led
me to the ER that cold November night was nothing short of terrifying but the
only way I know how to describe it is to say that I had inhabited a universe
made of Swiss cheese and every minute or two I slipped into one of the holes
where time and space were incomprehensible. Trying to hold a thought together that night was like trying
to hold smoke between my fingertips. A friend of mine who grew up in the Sixties called it
a “bad trip.”

In the end, my
psychiatrist said that my experience might have been the best thing that ever
happened to me. When I asked him to explain, he said, “Sometimes you don’t
always get what you want, but you get what you need.” We drove ninety minutes
to hear him quote Mick Jagger.

I had been on a strict
Paleo diet for thirty days, but on that morning, on our way back from seeing the
doctor we headed to Dunkin’ Donuts where I got two large raisin bran muffins.
On the way home, we took a different route. The thought occurred to me that
maybe my husband was taking me someplace to commit me and my second thought was
I hope he had enough sense to send me to a place that had Netflix since I had
to finish Stranger Things and Luke Cage and for the love of God, I
thought, I hope he packed my mascara and foundation. It turned out my husband
just took a wrong turn and we were lost.

The following day when I
returned home from picking Harry up at school I went into a full-fledged panic
attack. Once I had unlocked my front door and was standing in my kitchen, I was
convinced that someone was in our house. I called my sister who lives four
minutes away. When she came into the house she could tell that I was on the
edge, and she demanded I take a lorazepam before I even told her what was

Ever since I moved out
of my parents’ house in 1985, I’ve had an irrational fear of men hiding in my
closets, under the bed, in the basement or in the attic. For the past thirty
years, wherever I’ve lived – in a studio apartment in
Santa Cruz or in a large house on the coast of Maine – if
I came home alone, I compulsively checked between every pair of Gap jeans and
as I got older and fatter and went through menopause, I checked between every extra-long
tunic, and behind every door. By the time I was middle-aged, my husband and I
were living in a house with twelve closets and checking each one and then
checking the basement and the attic turned out to be a work out.

That night, standing in
the kitchen with my sister I said, “I need you to check the closets.”

“What am I looking for?”
my sister asked.

“Men.” I told her.

“Any particular type?”
she asked.

My sister, who is
usually bold and unstoppable, slowly opened the pantry door and peered into it.
And then she closed it as quickly as she could, holding her breath she said, “I
think you’ve called the wrong person for the job.”

But still she carried

Eventually we headed to
the attic. Harry took the lead, hauling his little bulldog ass up the stairs. When
my sister opened the attic door, Harry made a beeline for the eaves. I managed
to catch him but not before he put something in his mouth and swallowed it. I
had suspected it was mouse poison and my mind raced back to the night I
accidentally fed my twin ten-year-old daughters hot dogs laced with bright blue
mouse droppings. Well, technically my husband fed them the hotdogs.

“Daddy, these hot dogs
have blue spots on them,” Zoe said.

“Eat the hot dogs. They’re
fine; I just bought them,” Dr. Husband replied.

“No, Daddy, they have turquoise-colored
dots on them,” explained the future art major.

Having overheard this, I
dashed into the kitchen and discovered flecks of tainted mouse poop in the
cupboards and in the frying pan. I immediately called poison control and began
quizzing the person on the other end of the line. He explained to me that my
daughters would have had to ingest grams and grams to be, how shall I say,
poisoned. My husband had to put me in a hot bath that night and give me a sedative.
When I was sure he was back downstairs with the girls, I climbed out of the tub
and called poison control back, this time disguising my voice and using my best
manly British accent.

“My daughters, who weigh
about 80 pounds, just ate hot dogs that had blue spots on them, the color of
turquoise,” I said.

There was silence on the
other end.

“Hello, did you hear me?
My daughters ate hot dogs that were cooked in a pan that a dying mouse shit in.”

“Ma’am, I’ve already
told you…”

Regardless of how he
tried to assuage my fears again, I really couldn’t wrap my mind around what a “gram”
was so I spent the night looking up grams of cocaine, grams of sand, grams of
loose tea.

The morning after my
sister searched in vain for a human intruder, Harry had what appeared to be a
seizure. He was lying on his back, paws up in the air, like he was dead. I
carried him to the car in a state of panic noticing dog chewed wrappings of a
Dunkin’ Donuts raisin bran muffin. I didn’t know what caused the seizure: the raisins,
which are known to be poisonous to dogs or mouse poison he might’ve gotten into
the night before.

By the time we got to
the vet, Harry appeared perfectly normal. Well, that’s if you consider licking the
wall normal. Sitting on the floor with him in an examining room, waiting for
the vet to come in, I contemplated weighing myself on the giant stainless steel
hydraulic examination table that also served as scale. Naturally, I would have
to strip to get an accurate reading of my weight but I wondered how I would
explain myself if the vet came in and saw me standing there in my underpants.

The week of Harry’s seizure
and my own visit to the ER, I was so worked up that all I could manage to make
for dinner was cereal. By the end of the week I called the fish market.

“Hi. Do you recognize my
voice? I’m a middle-aged, overweight woman who comes in and orders three pieces
of wild salmon with the skin on.”

“There’s a lot of women
that fit that description,” said the fish man. “How can I help you?”

“Well, my dog Harry had
a seizure the other day and I don’t want to leave him alone. Do you think I can
order my salmon from the car and then just toss you my credit card from the doorway
because I’ve seen that your sign reads ‘No dogs allowed’ and for the last four
days I’ve been eating cereal for all my meals and we live in this new house
where the bathroom is close to the road. Well, I really don’t want to go into
the specifics but do you think you could help me?”

The fish-market man
tossed me my salmon like he was pitching to a ten-year-old nearsighted kid.
After my attempt at tossing my credit card to him from the front door, which
was six feet away and over a five-foot counter, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind
coming out from behind the counter. I thought if I could just get him to stand
at the same distance as the starting point for a good old-fashioned egg toss,
we would have been successful.


Around the same time, Harry
and I each had our own respective visits to our dermatologists. As long as we
wipe his paws and the multiple folds of his face with medicated pads every
night and keep his anal pocket clean and his anal glands expressed and he stays
on his restricted hypoallergenic diet, he’ll be fine. My own visit was a little
more anxiety-provoking as I had been experiencing intense itchy nipples which
my high school friend who is now an oncology nurse had convinced me was a sign
of advanced breast cancer. Once in the examining room the medical assistant asked
what my chief complaint was and I told her.

As she typed, she spoke
to herself like she was taking a deli order. “Well that’s two itchy nipples.”

When she was done typing
she looked up and told me to undress but leave my underwear on under the medical
gown. I was little embarrassed.

“I’m not wearing any
underwear on account of my vagina.”

“What’s wrong with your
vagina?” she asked.

“It itches, too. I think
it’s old.”

Turning back to her
keyboard she typed, “That’s two itchy nipples and one itchy vagina,” as if she
were confirming my sandwich order.

Given her tone, it
wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if she had followed up with, “Will that
be all?” And had she, I might have been tempted to tell her about my trip to
the ER, Harry’s seizure, and the imaginary men hiding in my closets.

It turns out that Harry
and I both just have sensitive skin and are prone to dermatitis.

As November passed by, I still had not
accepted my friend’s interpretation that it was all just a bad trip. I wore
sunglasses on foggy and rainy days and wept in public, convinced that I was
slowly losing my mind and that feeling of not being in control and not being
able to speak would reoccur, unannounced, and unwanted like my new neighbor who
knocked at my door at 10:30 at night and asking me to help locate her runaway

But then I remembered something that my
psychiatrist said. He suggested that I look for signs of change that might
occur as the result of the “bad trip”, particularly positive changes in the way
I felt towards others. This resonated with me. That fall, I had just finished
reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and I had become completely obsessed with Father Zosima’s display ofunbridled compassion and his deep understanding of the
interconnectedness of all life. I wanted that desperately. I had begun to
pray every day – a simple prayer: God
make me less of an asshole.

Years ago when I learned researchers at
Johns Hopkins were the first to use psilocybin to treat existential
anxieties of terminally ill patients, I was kind of jealous that I didn’t
qualify for the study. They reported that participants had come to terms with
dying and felt one with the universe. I wanted that too, minus the terminal
illness. So I conceded and thought maybe my psychiatrist was onto something. Perhaps
that terrifying night wasn’t the type of spiritual experience that I wanted,
but one that I needed. Following my doctor’s advice, I looked for subtle changes
to see if I felt more connected to others. I ended up bonding with a lot of
dogs on the beach that winter.

Maybe if I live long enough I’ll be diagnosed
with cancer and then I’ll have a legitimate reason to investigate the effects
of drugs like psilocybin. Now researchers have opened up the studies to
garden-variety depressives and people prone to anxiety like myself. As ironic
as it sounds, I think a cancer diagnosis would make me brave enough to
experiment with drugs that promise life-changing experiences – experiences that
might mitigate my pain and allow me to ignore the strangers in my closets. Until
then, I’ll just hold on. Sometimes I’ll simply hold onto Harry, steadying myself
like those moments when I’m on the can and my underwear is down around my
ankles and a Mack truck drives by the house. I just hope that one day a truck
doesn’t drive through the wall of our house and my colleagues and high school
friends end up reading that I died on the toilet.

On Love

is a picture of me and my father and a dead deer hanging above the fireplace.
My skin is red and tear-stricken. The deer is lying limp, its head held up by
its ears by my father. The gun is strung across his back, the barrel pointed
proudly at the sky. I am eight years old in the picture. I had never been close
to a dead thing before.

he’d make me gut it. He’d hang it by its legs from the rafters on the ceiling
and I would learn what the insides of a body looked like. The pool of glowing
crimson collecting under it, traces of the life my father had taken, stained
the floor for months. It was an art, he said, as he stripped the fur back to
reveal the raw fuchsia flesh that looked more alive than skin did. I placed my
fingertips against it, half expecting but mostly wanting to feel a pulse of
life. Of course there was nothing. Just a cold dull mound of something that
used to exist but no longer did. Ten years later, I would learn to call
something like this a vessel. I would think that it was poetic.

I think of the deer as a tragedy. I think of it as childhood. I think of my
father’s hands and the way they take and the way they give and how, sometimes,
I can’t tell the difference.

mother hates the picture. I am not entirely sure why she doesn’t take it down.
But then again, I am not entirely sure why she hates it. I am not sure if it’s
because there is a bloody carcass, or because my dad is smiling, or because it
was from a time where we lived in separate houses. Whatever the reason, she
holds her breath for a second when she sees it.

brought the picture when he came back home, along with a few cardboard boxes
and a promise to be better. I don’t know why he brought the picture. It wasn’t
even an impressive deer. After we found its body we realized it was only a baby
– a button buck, my father said. I could see the little beginnings of antlers
peeking out from the fur. That was when I cried.

don’t know why he was proud that he killed the creature. Was it about power?
It’s always about power, it seems. At least that’s what my therapist said when
the childlike version of me asked her why my dad hit my mom.

know it’s said when you love someone you must love the bad parts of them too,
but people have said a lot of things. And I am not really sure how that applies
here. I guess it begs the question if there are limits to love. And if there
are, then if once we pass them can we ever go back?

it is possible for love and hate to coincide. For them to inhabit the same
space. I am convinced of this because there are days where I can’t even tell
them apart. Where they are so intertwined or so far away, from a distance, they
look the same. If I were to make a metaphor here I would say that sometimes I
walk into the living room and see Love and Hate sitting on the couch together.
They are having a conversation of sorts. Love is flailing her arms and Hate is
doing the same. They are never indifferent. They are always yelling. But I am
too tired to make a metaphor. By this I mean I am too tired to try to

instead I say that there is a picture in my house that is hard to look at. That
in a way I was never, and that I am always eight years old. And that there are
things that my father’s hands are capable of that we don’t like to think about.

You Shook Me

Picture Credits: Michael Kauer

One of my earliest memories involves music. I was four years old at
the time – 1973, the halcyon days before seatbelt laws and helicopter parenting.
I was standing up in the front seat of our white Rambler, hanging over the
headrest, jabbering with my older brother Steve while our mother chauffeured us
around our small Southern town, the FM station playing Pop and Rock songs.

“Christy, turn around and settle down,” Mom insisted. Having only
learned to drive a couple of years prior, she was creeping along at an old-lady
speed, concentrating, still unsure of herself behind the wheel of a two-ton
machine with shiny chrome headlights my dad had meticulously waxed and buffed.

Just then, “Whole Lotta Love” exploded on the radio. I clutched the
headrest and bounced up and down on the seat. “Wanna whole lotta love,” I screeched,
probably in the same octave as Robert Plant. “Wanna whole lotta love.”

“Christy!” Mom was desperate. “Sit down!”

I rocked back and forth, still holding onto the headrest, singing
those lyrics, whether it was the chorus or verse or that freaky middle part
with the wailing and ah ah ah ahs,
completely entranced by Jimmy Page’s iconic guitar riff – far more so than
Robert Plant’s libidinous vocals. Steve, ten years my senior, sat in the backseat
and cackled. Mom begged me to hush and sit down. But I kept right on singing,
brazen, fearless, mesmerized by a guitar virtuoso whose name and face I did not
yet know: “Wanna whole lotta love.”

“That never happened,” my brother said recently.

I sucked my teeth, as only a petulant younger sister can, even a
middle-aged one. “Of course it did,” I snapped.

“Nope, I’d remember something like that.”

We were at loggerheads – my memory pitted against his – locked in a
puerile battle of he said she said
without our mom to mediate, as she’d died of cancer over fifteen years ago. I
flashed back to that integral moment of my childhood, the sound of Jimmy Page’s
Les Paul pealing from the crude radio speakers like an oracle from the Rock and
Roll gods. How could I misremember that kind of magic, that surge of energy?
How could I possibly misremember the transformational power of Jimmy Page?

“You must have imagined it,” Steve maintained, “because I’m certain
it never happened.”

I heaved a resolute sigh. “Well, then,” I said, “it should have.”

In my mind it did, exactly as I retold it, how I will always retell
it. There is no other version that makes sense. All of the pieces, including
the cast of characters, fit together like prophesy. They all lead to a sultry
summer day in 1985, when I was fifteen years old – a moment that my brother
does not dispute, a moment that changed my life.

Mom and I had just returned from Sunday school to find Steve
sprawled on our living-room couch, engrossed in an MTV broadcast of Led
Zeppelin’s 1976 concert movie, The Song
Remains the Same
. Steve loved the band. He played drums in various groups
around town and idolized Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, arguably the best
percussionist in the history of Rock. Steve even bore a slight resemblance to
Bonzo, Bonham’s nom de
, with his long dark hair, mustache, and probing eyes. Because
Steve was part of the local Rock scene and exuded an aloof coolness that
inspired my admiration, I respected his musical taste and tried to adopt it,
even when I secretly preferred the more poetic verse of Bob Dylan to the inane posturing
of Ted Nugent. So on that pivotal early July morning, I followed the eerie bass
line of “Dazed and Confused” from the back door to the living room and plopped
on the floor in front of the TV to watch the film with him.

“Which one’s Led?” I asked, grabbing a handful of popcorn from the
bowl on his lap.

He rolled his eyes. “Which one’s Jethro Tull?”

I didn’t know that either. But I did know that the guy dressed in an
esoteric black satin getup was exquisite. I’d seen a picture of him in The Song Remains the Same movie poster
hanging in my brother’s room, but the image was minuscule and grainy. I’d never
paid it any mind. Now he was in living, pulsing color, gliding across the stage
like a dark angel wielding an electric guitar.

“He’s beautiful,” I blurted.

Steve snorted and pelted me with a sofa pillow. “He’s old enough to
be your great-granddaddy.”

He didn’t look old enough to be anyone’s great-granddaddy in the
movie, though, most of which had been filmed at Madison Square Garden in 1973.
He was beautiful, ethereal, with wavy
dark hair that grazed his shoulders and a pre-Raphaelite face, like the ones
I’d seen in a school textbook. He was a wizard, manipulating invisible
energy around the Theremin in “No Quarter,” beguiling a doubleneck guitar in “Stairway
to Heaven,” black shirt open in the front, stars and half moons on black pants,
cryptic silver pendant dangling from his neck. I gazed at him, unsettled, my
insides churning, and watched him tear through one song
after another with a febrile zeal that belied his delicate features. The contradiction
fascinated me. As did his “Dazed and Confused” fantasy sequence. A roadie hands Jimmy a violin bow from the shadowy wings of the stage. He
stands alone under a spotlight and strokes the bow across the strings of his
Les Paul. Slow, sensual, like a seduction. The scene shifts from Madison Square
Garden to a blustery moonlit night in the Scottish Highlands. An ascot-clad
Jimmy climbs a mountain. An old man, the mythical Hermit from the Tarot, stands
alone at the crest, ominous music droning in the background. Jimmy reaches for
the old man, who morphs into Jimmy himself, clad in a hooded gray robe, lantern
in one hand, violin bow in the other. He sweeps it overheard like a saber while
the scene fades back to Madison Square Garden – Jimmy in a halo of white light,
back arched, bow commanding guitar strings. Intense, fast. Robert Plant’s
voice, a plaintive wail, in sync with the music. At the climax, Jimmy tosses
the shredded bow into the audience like a discarded lover then launches into a
blistering solo.

I glanced at my mom and blushed.

She’d changed from her church clothes into slacks and a sweater and
sat on the piano bench watching the movie with us, snickering every time Robert
Plant thrust his crotch at the mic stand. She was a stoic lady by nature, who,
at fifty-two, was much older than the mothers of most of my friends. Like many
women of her generation – the generation Betty Friedan spoke of in The Feminine Mystique – her concept of propriety
tended toward the conservative. Every night she pin-curled her short hair and
sprayed it into a salt-and-pepper helmet a stage-four hurricane couldn’t move.
She considered pierced ears vulgar. Pressed powder and lipstick were the sole
ingredients in her makeup repertoire. She insisted I attend Sunday school every
week, although she volunteered in the church nursery while I endured banal
lectures on the evils of premarital sex and Rock bands like Led Zeppelin.
Unlike my father, from whom she’d been divorced since I was seven, she indulged
my protean obsessions – from Judy Garland musicals to S. E. Hinton’s YA novel The Outsiders to my teenage acting and
singing aspirations, and now this raucous band with an enigmatic guitarist who
bewitched the crowd with the single stroke of a violin bow on unsuspecting
guitar strings.

I leaned back against the recliner and hugged my knees to my chest.
I felt hazy, like I had on the painkillers my dental surgeon gave me following
my wisdom teeth extraction when I was thirteen, right before I got braces. It
was as if a door had yawned open inside me, mystical and dreamy. One that had
been locked my whole life.

I was beginning the transition from junior high to high school, and
I’d grown bored with my friends’ pedestrian interests: Friday night jaunts to
the mall to scope out cute boys, school pep rallies, church youth-group
hayrides. I felt like a gum-smacking teenage cliché. I was searching for
something that tapped into my dormant dark corners and, as such, legitimized my
feelings of alienation and my desire to escape eastern North Carolina
conventionality. Not that I had any interest in selling my soul to the devil,
as I’d heard Led Zeppelin had done, or dabbling in black magic, which was a
rumored avocation of Jimmy Page’s, a rumor nurtured by the man himself at the
beginning of The Song Remains the Same
when a bicycle messenger approaches him to deliver the group’s tour dates and
Jimmy stares at him with bubbling red eyes. I’d become enraptured by the
forbidden, the apple my Sunday school teachers and youth pastor warned me not
to bite. I didn’t know it then, but I had been waiting for the likes of Led
Zeppelin and Mr. Page for a long, lonely time.

I pointed to the remote control in my brother’s hand. “Turn it up,”
I said. He punched the volume button until the TV speaker rattled and the thump
of John Bonham’s drums vibrated in my chest.

Mom pressed her hands over her ears dramatically. “Turn it down!”
she bellowed.

Steve reluctantly lowered the volume and handed me what was left of
the popcorn. He pulled the cream-colored afghan our grandmother had crocheted
over his faded Levis and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Are they still together?” I asked, my eyes flitting from the TV to
my brother. “I mean, do they still play concerts?”

He reached over and mussed my hair. “Good god, I’ve created a

I whipped off my headband and combed my fingers through my hair,
which looked remarkably like Jimmy’s, except his was thicker with a bit more wave.
“Well, do they?”

He shook his head. “The drummer died about five years ago.”

I studied Bonzo’s face as he played. He looked as if he were
shouting in time with the beats. He was so alive, so corporeal. How is it that
we’re here one minute – neurotransmitters firing through synapses, one impulse
triggering another – and gone the next, I thought. The act of dying, in spite
of the benign way my biology teacher had explained the process, terrified me.

When I was five, a little friend and I decided it would be great fun
to smash an empty Coke bottle with a hammer on my patio. At my first swing, a
sliver of glass flew up and cut my left cornea. After a couple of surgeries, my
parents sent me back to nursery school with a big bulging patch on my eye, and,
according to my mom, my personality took a one hundred-eighty-degree turn from
precocious extrovert to brooding introvert. That experience, along with a
soon-to-follow ill-fated joy ride on my new Banana bike that resulted in
further punishment to the left side of my face and, a couple of years after
that, a broken left wrist sustained during an unfortunate game of Red Rover, left me with a preternatural fear
of death.

“What happened to the drummer?” I asked Steve.

“Got drunk and choked on his own vomit – at Jimmy Page’s house,” he
said in his campy Vincent Price imitation. “They say you could see smoke
shooting from an open window where Jimmy was probably sacrificing a live

I clucked my tongue. “That’s bullshit.”

Mom gave me one of her how did
I raise such a foul-mouth daughter
sighs then ordered me into the kitchen
to help her fix lunch.

“The movie’s not over yet,” I protested.

“MTV’s playing it again tonight,” Steve said. “You can watch it then
if you want.”

I did. Mom set up her ironing board in the living room and endured
another two hours of Robert Plant’s mic-humping with me. She listened patiently
while I blathered on about a particular riff Jimmy played or nagged her to pay
attention to the way he switched effortlessly from the six- to the
twelve-string of his doubleneck during “The Rain Song” or gushed at his Rock
God leap during “Rock And Roll.” I’m sure she was girding her loins for a long
winter’s crush. She got much more than she bargained for.

“Admit it, Mom,” I said at the end of the movie, the band ensconced
on their airplane, about to take flight. “They’re good.”

“They’re loud, I’ll say that for them.”

She hung her freshly pressed blouses in the closet then clicked off
the TV and floor lamp by the piano. The amber glow of the bathroom nightlight
spilled into the darkened living room. I rubbed my eyes and padded down the
hall in my sock feet to Steve’s empty bedroom, which, at twenty-five, he still occupied.
I stood in the doorway and stared at The
Song Remains the Same
movie poster stapled to his wall. Before long, my
yellow bedroom walls would be covered with Led Zeppelin posters. I would
scribble Zoso, the symbol Jimmy gave himself for Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth
album, on my ratty old jeans in black magic marker and insist Steve copy his
Zeppelin albums on cassette so I could listen to them on my Walkman. He had
them all, from the first record to Coda.
I would spend hours holed up in my room listening to those albums, struggling
to figure out where “that confounded bridge” Robert mentioned in “The Crunge”
went and why Gollum and the Evil Lord had the temerity to “[creep] up and slip
away with her” in “Ramble On.” I’d torture my mom with relentless trivia: “Did
you know that Jimmy used to play in the same group as Eric Clapton and Jeff
Beck?” (I had to track down a Yardbirds album after that discovery.) “That was
Bonzo’s little kid Jason playing drums in the ‘Moby Dick’ fantasy sequence in The Song Remains the Same.” “John
Baldwin is John Paul Jones’ real name.” “Robert once studied to be an
accountant.” I would learn as much about them as a teenage girl could in the
pre-Internet 1980s.

The band – Jimmy – would become my religion.

I closed Steve’s door and shimmied to my room, “Whole Lotta Love”
thrumming in my head. I ferreted a clean nightshirt from the mound of freshly
washed laundry I’d dumped on the floor of my closet then opened Steve’s copy of
Hammer of the Gods, music journalistStephen Davis’ much-maligned biography
of the band. He’d loaned it to me before leaving to join some friends for a
night of barhopping downtown, and I’d spent the interim between the first and
second showings of the movie thumbing through the pages, devouring the
salacious parts about the band’s antics on tour, some of which involved TV sets
flying from hotel balconies and stoned groupies who were barely older than me.
I’d once pushed over our Christmas tree in an act of childhood defiance, but
I’d never progressed to the level of juvenile delinquent. The closest I’d ever
come to drugs was when I hid Steve’s baggie of pot underneath the sofa cushions
after he’d passed out one night, in an effort to spare him another diatribe on
the dangers of Mary Jane from Mom, who’d taken Reefer Madness a little too literally. But the parts of the book
that were the most beguiling were those about Jimmy’s fascination with the late
nineteenth-early twentieth century occultist Aleister Crowley. A lot of it was
too recondite for me to grasp at that time, but I understood enough to be
spooked and utterly hooked on the band and especially

I switched off the light and crawled into bed. The streetlight
across the road illuminated the bare walls where my posters would soon be. I
tried to imagine what a twenty-by-thirty-inch close-up of Jimmy Page’s face
would look like peering down at me from above my stereo, watching me undress
every night in the gauzy glow of my white whicker lamp. The thought of it sent
a tantalizing shudder through parts of my body that were just as foreign to me
at that time as Led Zeppelin had been a mere twenty-four hours ago.

I gazed out the window at the knotty pine trees in our front yard.
They reminded me of an arthritic old man, grizzled and grim, lonely in the muggy
summer night. I pictured Aleister Crowley and a cadre of sycophants dressed in
ceremonial robes dancing around the trees to “Dazed and Confused” or “No Quarter,”
invoking tenebrous spirits, Jimmy Page ever vigilant from afar. I wasn’t sure I
wanted to include him in the dancing part of my reverie. He was far too cool
for that. Plus, I didn’t want him to be too

Mom tapped on my door then breezed inside, the canvas soles of her
slippers clip-clipping on the hardwood floor. “Just wanted to say goodnight,”
she said. That was our ritual: I’d
fall into bed, turn off the light, and wait for her to kiss me goodnight. I was
still a child, teetering on the edge of adulthood, eager, yet afraid, to fly. I
was looking for epiphany and truth, and the freedom I thought that would bring.
I was also looking for mystery and passion. The religion of my youth had ceased
to fill either need, but I wasn’t ready to totally jettison my beliefs.
Instead, I clung to them, my grip becoming more and more tenuous.

“Mom,” I said, a whisper of hesitation in my voice. “Will you sing
that Jesus song to me?” She sat next to me on the bed and grinned, her crooked
front teeth gleaming in the stray light. I laced my fingers through hers and squeezed.
“Come on, Mom. I wanna hear it.”

She began to sing sotto voce,
as though to raise her voice would be to violate the stillness of the night:

When Jesus was a little boy
he had his work to do.
He helped his mother in the house
and worked for father, too.
And when his work was finished
he ran out in the sun.
He played with all the boys and girls
’til evening time had come.
Then Jesus and his family
would climb the stairs to see
the moon and stars up in the sky
as pretty as can be.

For years after my eye injury, I was haunted by nightmares that
would jolt me awake in the wee hours of the morning, panic rippling in my
voice. Mom would sing the Jesus song to me to lull me back to sleep, rocking me
in the yellow chair with black ink stains on the arms, remnants of the
newspapers Steve rolled at the crack of dawn for his paper route. She’d croon
the lyrics until I’d drift off on her gentle timbre, visions of a little boy
and his family staring at the moon and stars from the roof of their house.

Mom kissed my forehead and tucked the covers around me. “Sleep
tight,” she said, then clip-clipped into the bathroom to pin curl her hair, the
scent of her favorite Jergins lotion lingering in my room.

I closed my eyes and thought of Jimmy standing on a stage at Madison
Square Garden in 1973. Twenty-nine-year-old Jimmy Page, unleashing a sacred
power I knew had already changed me. His music would bring solace during my
tumultuous teenage years, my divorce from my first husband in my thirties, and
the death of my second in my forties. It would see my brother and me through my
mother’s illness and the grief that crippled me for years after she died,
soothing me when scenes of her final moments crept into my sleep, offering epiphany
and truth, mystery and passion – then and now, but especially on that summer night
in 1985, while I lay in bed in the shadows of my darkened room, the vision of
the man who would become a constant in my life peering down at me from my yellow
bedroom walls.

On the Value of Feeling the Fear … and Not Doing It Anyway

Picture Credits: Jed Sundwall

It was a warm evening, my arms staying bare until well past eight
p.m. We were going to have a makeshift barbecue in the cove; salmon fillets,
halloumi, warmed pitta bread. But first, the bioluminescence. That was what
we’d all come here for, my boyfriend and his friend and his friend’s friends. It
was meant to be an incredible sight. Fireflies under the black sea. Rarely seen
and only on certain nights. Everybody else began pulling off their tops. One
woman made polite conversation as if trying to horse-whisper me, the discomfort
of my refusal to go in the water evident as faces turned away. They asked again,
You sure? I’m happy here, I said. You
my boyfriend tried once more as his childhood friend shouted to him
from the sea. His shoulder was half-turning. I nodded. Listened as yelps and
shouts started up. Splashes and half-snatched sentences of exclamation. An amazing sight can’t believe it never seen
anything like it.
I felt my belly sink into the sand beneath me, pulled
down by the shame at my failure to join them. I wondered what they must think
of me – the new girlfriend, coward enough to miss a once in a lifetime moment. I
did eventually roll up my jeans to my knees and walk into the shallows. I did
see the fireflies under the sea for myself.
They sparked and dashed, joining in fleeting wild anglesas I kicked through the water. But I
didn’t swim and when we were all settled back around the fire, it seemed as if the
shame clung wetly to me as we all dried off.

I’ve thought a lot about that evening since. At first, I
thought about it as a stick with which to beat myself. That cruel self-talk at
which many of us excel. Pathetic. Coward. Shit girlfriend. You know the drill.
But over time, I came to see it as something else entirely: that what was wrong
was not that fear had prevented me from night-swimming that August evening, but
that I thought the fear was a problem, instead of an invitation.


Feel the Fear and Do It
, the title of
the 1987 bestselling self-help book, has become a well-known phrase and part of
our common language. For its twenty-fifth anniversary, articles continued to
cheerlead it as life-changing. It had encouraged people to quit jobs they
hated, leave partners, ask for a pay rise. Susan Jeffers, the author, says that
when we are frightened, we are “living in the lower self”. Instead we need to
train ourselves to move to the “higher self” that can go beyond fear. It is an
ethos rooted in Enlightenment ideals of progress: that we can move from
something lowly to a more rational, less pained species. Some causes of fear
can, of course, be outrun by science: some cancers now have cures, HIV is not a
death sentence, and so on. But fear itself, not its causes, is not something we
can outrun. In a way, Jeffers recognised this – she doesn’t say don’t feel the fear; she says feel it
and do the thing causing it anyway.
Push through it. Fight it. Be a fear warrior. This is the cultural message
which causes shame when we fail to carpe diem our way through life. It is why I
was so certain I was pathetic on that Falmouth beach, floored by fear and stuck
to rock and sand. There was only the opportunity to see stars under the sea –
what the hell was wrong with me? Well, there was something wrong with me – or
with my context, more accurately.


It was eleven months since my mum’s cancer diagnosis.
Lymphoma. Particularly aggressive. Like the flighty plankton under the sea, I
had seen her body light up on a scan, illuminated spots all over her abdomen
and neck. Those eleven months had been brutal. The visceral reality of spending
so much time withher on hospital
wards full of pained and dying people; it had pervaded everything in me. I appeared
identical to twelve months before but everything inside me felt unstuck and
quaking. The weirdest things began triggering a fear response in me. A trip to
an overcrowded market on a weekend gave me an extreme panic attack, floor
swimming up to meet me, breathing turning to a pant. I couldn’t bring myself to
attempt a handstand in yoga class because I had become inexplicably terrified
of turning upside down. In Falmouth, all I could imagine happening in the water
was some sort of injury. I wasn’t like the other people there that night. I
couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get in and be like them because I was unlike them. My name was written
on a form next to three of the best-worst words in the world: next of kin. No one
would be vitally let down if the others slipped on a rock a few feet out and
were incapacitated by a sprain or crack. No one would be alone in doctors’
rooms if they stood on a shard of shell and stitches were needed. No one would
miss their stroking palms which distracted from the pain if they caught a cold
from the chill water and weren’t allowed to visit for fear of passing on germs.
I wasn’t like them. I was experiencing anticipatory fear, something humans are
unique amongst animals for being able to do. We can imagine terror. A dubious
human superpower. These phantoms can indeed trap us unnecessarily – this is
what Jeffers teaches – but what if they are also, at times, teaching us
something necessary? Before my mother’s illness, I would have got straight into
that night sea, probably with a momentary mental squirm at the unseen organisms
which might nibble at my limbs in the water, but I would have got in all the
same. But things had changed: options for putting myself at risk, however slim,
did not exist. Instead of recognising the cause of my fear – the invitation to
acknowledge my changed circumstances and the difficulty of them – I felt robbed
of myself and ashamed in front of apparently more courageous people.


In one of the anniversary articles celebrating Jeffers’ book,
journalist writes

“Now every time I have to call someone I don’t know, go to a party alone
or argue my point in a meeting, I simply repeat the phrase in my head. I remind
myself that it’s good to be scared because it means I’m living life rather than
just hiding in my comfort zone.”

She fails to see two things. First, that a comfort zone is a
luxury. It is a characteristic of a privileged life situation. There is no
comfort zone when you are facing grief or if you are living in a context of
instability, as many people around the world are today. How privileged to
disdain a state of comfort? And second, that fear may sometimes be a trap, but
it may instead be an invitation to remain in your comfort zone for good reason. In times of distress,
the option – if it is there – to stay in a position of relative comfort versus
venture out into yet more uncertain territory is immensely logical and,
perhaps, even wise.

The perfect example of this second point comes from an
unlikely place. Alex Honnold is a world-class free solo climber. In 2017, he made the first ever
ascent of the 3000-foot-high El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National
Park, California. The documentary, Free
, follows him in the months leading up to this feat, exploring the kind
of character which would pursue such a dangerous challenge.He is, surely, either someone who feels the fear and does it
anyway or someone who doesn’t even feel it at all. In fact, he has an MRI scan during
the documentary which concludes that his amygdala – the part of the brain responsible
for fear response – doesn’t react to fear-inducing stimulus in the way most of
ours would. Many commentators have taken this to be a crucial piece of the
Honnold puzzle: he can do it because he doesn’t feel the fear the rest of us
would. Perhaps this is true, but I think they’re missing something far more
interesting. To me, the most important moment in the film is actually what
happens fifty-eight minutes in.

He is off to climb “El Cap”, ropeless, certain death waiting
if the slightest thing goes wrong. It is before dawn when he parks up. Deer scatter
in front of his headtorch as he walks towards the foot of the enormous rock. “It’s
always about excellence and perfection,” he says on the voiceover. We watch him
begin the ascent. The white light from his headtorch is all we can see of him,
moving up the rock in the pitch black – another firefly. Then, heavy breathing
and next, his voice, frustrated, “This sucks. I don’t want to be here. I’m over

He stops the climb.

Is he weak?

He seems to think so in the immediate aftermath. His head
hangs with weighty shame. This reaction, and the audience’s sense of being let
down by someone they need to view as a hero, is precisely because of the
Jeffers indoctrination. He is, instead, not weak but wise. Honnold has many years
of free soloing under his belt. He is finely attuned to instinct and safety.
His comfort zone may not be the same as the rest of us, but he respects its
importance nonetheless. For him, choosing to ignore instinct is a matter of dying.
If he ignores the fear rising, it may mean ignoring that something isn’t right
in the conditions for the climb and he will literally
. For most of us, most of the time, choosing whether to accept fear and
to turn away from things which scare us is not a choice of life and death. It
is a choice of life and life, but possibly one in which we’ve pushed too far
too soon, or we’ve burnt the candle at both ends and burnt out, or we’ve simply
failed to listen to our minds that, for whatever reason, need to stay in the warm
confines of comfort for now.


I have certainly been a strong subscriber to the Jeffers
approach. One of my favourite poems, “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”, by Mary
Oliver, written by her while suffering from cancer herself, is a favourite
largely because of these lines:

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not… Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

It is an admonishment not to waste time. And there is merit
in this meaning. Watching somebody dwindle while cancer wreaks havoc on their
body leaves me with no false illusions about that. Life is, indeed, too short.
But life is also long, in its own way and there is also a role for nourishing
ourselves quietly within it. There are times when listening to our fears can
help us. They are information. They are trying to signal something to us about
what is happening. It may be a real threat outside us or an anticipatory
phantom inside us but, regardless, it demands attention be paid. The brain is
not a static thing like a rock; it is a living organism and it changes over
time. If it needs a brief, kind respite in your comfort zone while it adjusts
to new circumstances or learns to understand a new context, let it have it.

The end of that relationship which took me to the night beach
in Falmouth acted as a clarion call for change. I had been living in a state of
vigilant terror for months. It finally became clear to me that I had to listen to
fear’s invitation. It asked me to acknowledge my need for comfort and quiet amid
grief and instability. Acting upon it was not easy: it meant saying no to
things and, crucially, respecting myself when I said no as much as I would if
I’d said yes. At first, it meant feeling like I was failing some social
standard but, slowly, I came to see that I was simply living courageously in a
different way: I was feeling the fear and holding it. A few months later, I
haven’t had a single panic attack. I find I feel only excitement at the notion
of trying to turn upside down and feel my arms brace and hold me. I live in
London so night-swimming hasn’t offered itself yet, but I feel confident that
if a black sea full of unlikely stars was in front of me right now, I would
jump in and splash like a child. There is still a very real danger outside me –
my mother is still very ill. But I have made friends with the fear inside me,
inviting her in to hear what she needs to teach me. Working with her in this
way turns out to be exactly what was needed, creating the inner stores to cope
with the unknown things which will come.

Wreckless Abandon

It was the second car accident and third hospitalization that spelled the end. We’d known each other six months, had sex many times, but never spoken on the phone. Now we never would.

Last summer, I connected on a hook-up site with a guy I’ll call Daniel. On the evening we agreed to meet, I was late. I arrived to find him sitting at the end of the bar. He was in his late thirties, a few years younger than me, cuter than his photos – a rarity. I remember thinking he looked profoundly lonely. The kind that shows up in slumped shoulders, staring into an empty glass, circling with a straw, as if to stir up a connection with the world. I walked over and we greeted each other awkwardly, then I sat down and ordered a drink.

Before meeting Daniel I’d decided to give dating a break. I was two years out of my last relationship. I’d thought I wanted to find another. But a few dating stints had followed, and several firsts, none going anywhere. I reasoned that, for now, just sex was less frustrating or complicated.

It was clear Daniel and I were into each other. We made small talk a while, then left. The bar was closer to my place than his, the understanding from the start that’s where we’d go. He lived with a cousin who doesn’t know he’s gay. When we got there, we each drank half a beer before we locked lips and clothes started coming off. Afterward, we talked a few minutes. Then he jumped up, seized by a furious need to leave.

Just like that, he
was out the door.

Daniel came over again the next day. We went at it again, and he left just as suddenly. He was going to the Dominican Republic later that week, where he’s from, staying with his large family for a month. We agreed to meet when he got back. I wasn’t sure that would happen and wasn’t particularly concerned.

A week after he left, I got a text from an unknown number. It was Daniel, using a phone with better reception wherever he was. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. This surprised me. That he’d made the effort, the forthrightness that contrasted with quick, silent exits, that he felt that way at all. I’d thought about him too, though not as often as he claimed. The next time we messaged, he said sometime he’d like to take me to a place as beautiful as where he was. This also seemed strangely intimate.

Right after he got back, Daniel and I were in bed again. Afterward we lay in the dark. I had my hand on his leg. His body was as stiff as it had been relaxed minutes before. He seemed consumed with shame. We talked a while, stilted, incongruous to his expressiveness in tiny words. Then he abruptly wanted to leave, just as before.

“That’s cool,” I
said, casual, instead of betraying the disappointment I felt. After he left I
began to realize I recognized his behavior. That was me before coming out.


The sweet and flirty texts continued. Despite thinking I didn’t want it, I found myself starting to develop feelings for this person. The next time Daniel came over, I asked him to stay the night. “I wish I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”

“It’s complicated,”
he added. I didn’t push it. We stuck with quick visits, and quicker exits.

Daniel was surrounded by family who lived local all the time, just as he said he’d been in the D.R. He mentioned his mom frequently. Aunts, uncles, other cousins. More than once he cancelled our plans last minute because he ended up with family and didn’t know how to duck out. He always apologized. Still, the back and forth grew wearisome.

We sometimes bickered
as if we were an actual couple – over text, of course. Passive aggressive,
snarky even. We always found a way back, neither able to maintain a petty
argument on our respective ends. The intimate affection would return. It was
becoming the most relationship-like non-relationship I’d ever experienced.

A couple of times, Daniel disappeared for a week. He didn’t initiate contact or respond. This upset me more than expected when it happened the first time. I wasn’t yet willing to admit how much I’d started to like him. I excused the inconsistent behavior as “complications.” Knowing that for him our relationship – if you could call it that – was illicit only contributed to my denial that he meant something to me.

It turned out, that first time, Daniel had been in the hospital for a back injury he didn’t explain. This wouldn’t be the last. He seemed to exist in constant chaos. Doctors and hospital stays – his or family; he might have to move suddenly; a car accident; a new job quit after three weeks; a torn knee ligament; a real estate scam in the D.R. And on it went.

I recognized this too, chaos that had engulfed my own life while hiding in a shrinking closet, down to repeated car accidents. Constant distraction, preoccupied with something, manifesting in how I operated in the world. But as the boomeranging continued, Daniel’s inner turmoil became my anguish. I thought about him constantly and never knew what to expect.


For two months, Daniel didn’t come over. We stopped contacting each other, though neither explicitly said it. For my part, I decided the whole thing was too big a struggle. I deleted his number, which of course only suggests finality, as if reversing it isn’t simple. But thoughts of him hung around, like mosquitos you just can’t seem to swat away.

Then, he surfaced again. Annoyance was almost overcome by the excitement I felt. The unnamed number got its name back. “Why are you contacting me?” I said, then immediately worried this was too dismissive. “I wanna see you,” he responded. It took a while, but this time I said no. I fancied this cutting off an act of self-preservation. He honored the break, apart from a couple more texts and me finally saying no more communication.

Less than a month later, I gave in and contacted Daniel. A moment of weakness, I told myself. Friday night, jet-lagged, home alone. He replied right away. “I just can’t get you out of my mind.” Of course, I invited him over. A lot had changed since we last got together. I had moved, started a new job, he had another new job. When we saw each other, it was if no time had passed. I think we were both surprised by how strong the chemistry still felt. After the hottest sex yet, Daniel threw his leg over mine and scooted next to me – a casual affection he’d never exhibited before.

For the first time, he stayed and we talked. For hours. Next to each other, naked, my hand on his back, his on my arm. It was mostly about family. Each of us with a very Catholic mother. His father’s lost battle with alcoholism. It was then Daniel told me he was married, to a woman, with two young kids, in the process of getting divorced. I was stunned but pretended not to be, worried if I made a big deal out of him being in my bed he might never be again.

He hadn’t told his
wife he’s gay – nor anyone in his family – and insisted no one knew. As we
talked, his phone across the room repeatedly rang and dinged with texts. He
tried to ignore it, which became difficult. “My cousin thinks I’m at the gym,”
he said, tone completely flat. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the
phone, unsure which way to go, body positioned between two worlds, equally
powerful in that moment, each in its own way.

The inevitable side won. Conversation dropped off, as it always had. Agitated, he went and looked at the blue screen glowing in the dim light. “I have to go,” he said. Once again I affected a lax, sure that’s cool response. After he left, my mind rolled back over our interactions, now, with this new information. Some things made more sense, others led to bigger questions.


We had plans for Daniel to come over the following Saturday. He cancelled last minute – in the hospital, another car accident. He was clearly shaken. I had my coat on, ready to go, worried he was there alone. Then he said an aunt was with him. In other words, don’t come. We checked in after that. His pain lessened. We agreed he’d come over soon.

I never saw him

A few days after the accident, I got a long message from Daniel. He said it had caused him to reevaluate who he is and what he wants. He made a vague reference to feeling lost, and a relationship to God and faith. He needed to recover his life, he said. In short, he couldn’t see me anymore. He apologized twice, which felt unnecessary, once “for all the chaos he had created.” His use of the exact word I’d been using for months to describe his life felt telling.

I sat at my desk in
silence and reread his note, work spread in front of me, suddenly unable to
concentrate. With this decision to will a piece of himself away, I wondered,
what would happen now?

I went out and wandered the streets a while – a gray sky fittingly somber – feeling almost breathless with sadness. At first I thought it was all about the situation of Daniel’s life, the inner battle I’d recognized, how his body would claw its way to connection, then seize with shame and flee. And the chaos he himself had called out. That familiar, relentless, brutal chaos that can engulf a life with such conflict within. Representations of how we resist living as we’re meant to, at odds with how we believe we should.

But the sadness
lingered for weeks after. “Why are you
so sad about his life?” a couple of
friends asked.

It took me a while to recognize I was using Daniel’s situation to obscure my own. Till the end I struggled to accept I’d developed real feelings for him, beyond the bedroom. I felt foolish. Romance from a distance is essentially fantasy. And I’d told myself from the start I wasn’t looking for a relationship, knew this would never be more. But maybe that’s what made those feelings possible. Opening my heart was somehow safer than when trying for a lasting relationship. After multiple burns, I have to admit I’ve struggled with that in recent years, which I suppose contributes to why new ones don’t last.

I’ll never know the true nature of Daniel’s feelings. But what I know to be true is sad. Meeting Daniel reawakened me to how insidious homophobia can be. I haven’t been naive to the fact it still exists. But I’d forgotten what it feels like so close to the skin.

On one of our last exchanges Daniel had just bought a new car, soon battered in an accident. He sent me a picture. I said I hoped for a ride one day. “Definitely,” he said. More banter, then I signed off with, “Don’t be a stranger.” I had said this before, though never to Daniel. The lightheartedness is always overshadowed by the suspicion you will forever remain that. Maybe I already knew.

His immediate
response, a single word: Never.

I hope when it comes to discovering a relationship that feels right the subtext of that word doesn’t prove true.


Picture Credits: Greg Willis

Three young girls squirmed their way into our courtyard.
They jumped in excitement, pointed at me, and motioned me to follow them. I
stood, not really wanting to go, but the oldest ran to me and grabbed my hand.
I looked at Moussa. He nodded and laughed at the girls’ urgency.

The girls were light-skinned and slim-figured Fulani, an
ethnic group living and herding just south of the Sahara Desert in west Africa.
The youngest wore loose-fitting panties with the words “Minnie Moose” on her
bottom, the older two – perhaps six and eight in age – wore loose cotton
shifts, all six feet were bare.

We didn’t speak a word in common, but we played. I’d stop
and pretend to hear something. They’d listen, then see my smile and giggle and
pull at me. I’d resist. They’d jump up and down and plead. I’d follow, then
stop again, turn and begin walking back. They’d run to stop me and pull me
onward. We wound through passages wide enough for a donkey but not a cart,
passed between walls of mud that separated family compounds.

From behind the walls, always, I could smell it, women
lighting fires for cooking and the aroma of toasting millet rose with the
smoke. We shuffled along the sandy ground, telling noisy dogs to be quiet and
collecting at least a dozen more children as we walked. We turned a corner and
the passageway opened onto a large square and found two camels surrounded by
half the quartier, the neighborhood.

My new friends were the remaining children of an ageing
mother who had given birth to seven – the death of four sons taking its toll on
her emotional and physical health. Because it was the girls, not the boys, who
survived, their father had taken a second and younger wife, hoping for sons.

Men with multiple wives are mandated to treat each with
equal attention and respect, but this is rarely what happens. More often, and clearly
in this case, the older wife was left by herself to worry about the future of
her daughters.


In west Africa, to some extent still, marriages are arranged
by fathers and approved by grooms and their families. Girls are given in
compensation for the sins of a brother. Girls are bartered from one family to
another as payment of a father’s debt. Women generally marry with a dowry, objects
which she will own and use: pots, pans, textiles, and mats. She will be
proprietor of the family grain. She will have children. These things make up a
woman’s worth. The rest sits in the hands of her husband and father, and real
daily power in the hands of elder co-wives.

In Mali’s capital city of Bamako some years later, I met a
Bamana woman in her forties. She dressed in the fashionable urban style of
carefully-tailored factory-cloth ensembles with head wraps to match. She didn’t
look much different from other privileged women, but she spoke English and had
her Master’s degree from a French university. Her husband was a physician. They
lived in a private house in a part of the city occupied mostly by expatriates
and government officials.

During the two weeks I knew her, she was offered a six-month
academic internship in the U.S. To leave Mali and return, she had to have
special re-entry papers issued by the Malian government. For Mali to grant her
these papers and re-entry from the United States, she needed written consent to
leave in the first place from both her husband and her father. Her husband was
proud of her and wrote a letter with his blessing.

Her father, though, was a village man with three wives. He
thought his eldest daughter had moved to the city and abandoned him long ago
and, by so doing, shamed his family name; she had studied English in school
rather than learned how to cook millet on her mother’s stove, she married an
outsider, and, she had no children – a fact which led her father to inquire of
his wife whether this daughter, in fact, was a sorcerer. In response to his
daughter’s request to travel, he’d said, “No.”

Her choice: she could decline the internship and remain in Bamako.
Differences might be smoothed over with her father, but she’d be resentful and
her father would never be happy with her. She would, however, remain safe. Her
alternative was to defy her father and leave without means of return. The
father would feel further humiliated, disown her, and it would not be out of
the question – should she manage to return anyway – that she would pay with her
life. I don’t know the outcome of her story. I left Bamako before she decided.


The girls and I made our way through the crowd. In the
central square, two camels towered over a crowd of hooting, cheering men and
women. Two men looked to be negotiating.

One man shook his head. The other slapped the back of his
own head. One flapped his arms and looked incredulous. The other clucked his
tongue and said a few words under his breath. The larger camel snorted and
sprayed saliva and swayed and stomped.

The men quieted.

The snorting camel raised its head and stretched its sinewy
neck back so pieces of straw, fell loose from its chest, then he blew a wad of
camel snot the size of my fist which hit the ground with a splat.

The female camel bent her front knees, then her back knees,
and dropped belly to the ground. The girls looked up at me and giggled.

The snot-spitter swayed and bucked, lifted his front legs,
and mounted the female. The crowd applauded. A woman on the far side of the
circle began to sing in a high, nasal voice, a local language and local humor –
other women covered their mouths laughing before joining her in song. Children
clapped rhythm.

How many people had gathered to watch? I’d guess a couple
hundred, all smiling.

The male settled onto the female’s single hump. She turned
around to look at him and bat her three-inch long eyelashes.

A camel penis is slender as a human finger but about three
feet long and muscular, so it finds ingress. Both animals strained their faces
toward one another, and, during the entire five minutes of breathless dromedary
ardor, they nuzzled lips.

Even in the sweetest of towns, which Diré – on the Niger
River was – life in West Africa is hard. What options would my three young friends
have? What choices will they make? Copulating camels provide moments of social
levity and needed relief, but then it’s back to raising babies and washing
clothes, lighting fire and pounding millet.

The Wrestlers

Picture Credits: Rudy and Peter Skitterians

In the autumn I
went along with my dad to Runcorn Wrestling Alliance’s training gym and on the
train we talked about his glory days. He told the same stories most of the
time. There was Terrible Ted the wrestling bear who he would drive around in
the back of his pink Cadillac. I wasn’t sure if a bear could fit in the back of
a muscle car but I had seen match reports and pictures of wrestling bears from
the period.

“You have to
get them as pup,” he said. “Before they open their eyes and then they’ll find
you’re its mother.”

“What did you
do with the claws?” I asked.

“They can be
trimmed down and you’d make sure they were well fed before you went out with
them but bears love to wrestle.”

He smiled with
longing for the bear as if it were an old friend.

Once in a bar
he had shown his wrestling pictures to a barmaid on his smart phone. She was
interested up until she saw the images of bear and called out the animal
cruelty and distress caused by removing the pup from its mother. Dad was hurt
by the comments and reacted by reaffirming how much bears love to wrestle and
how well cared for they were. Terrible Ted even had his own rider and demanded
a bucket of cola before every match. He was a bigger attraction and better paid
then most of the boys.

Dad believed
this regardless of whether it was true or not.

I wondered what
would have happened if our timelines had been switched? If I was born in 1943
and he 1985. If he grew up under my influence rather than his. Dad passed his
eleven plus but was too socially awkward to do well at school. His Asperger’s
wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his seventies. He was an autodidact and had
picked up bits of Latin, an interest in Roman history and a deep knowledge of
British heraldry. If I was born back then with five siblings who were each sent
out into the forces or to boarding school, what trajectory would my life have

We changed at
Manchester and headed on for Runcorn where we caught a taxi at the station to
the community centre where I could see boys hauling in parts of a wrestling
ring through the fire doors from the back of a van.

Dad struggled
out of the taxi, slipped a polo in his mouth and lit a cigarette.

“I’ll just have
this and then we’ll go in,” he said.

He told me he
wasn’t a smoker and he didn’t inhale. Yet he still had to sneak between
carriages on the train to smoke out of the window on the way here. Whenever
anybody caught him not abiding by the rules he would just stare at them with a
blank expression in his eyes, rarely would he react or get angry and whoever
was dealing with him would soon not know what to do.

I stood beside
him, still smaller, with a pair of running shoes, Lonsdale jogging bottoms and
a polo shirt in my rucksack.

There’s a photo
of me and my dad in the mid eighties. I’m dressed in some crazy outfit mum had
configured for me with ankle boots, oversized shorts and braces. Dad is
standing behind me leaning on his red Ford Cortina. He’s more than double my
height, shaven headed, in a black T-shirt and jeans with a tattoo of a
Rottweiler half-hidden beneath a gold watch. However much changes between us,
or how gradually frail and shorter he becomes, this will always be how I see
our relationship. While the body changes, this is who we were on some deeper
symbolic level of meaning. Man and boy.

I didn’t know
what to expect? I still maintained the faint desire to have a go in the ring
and it remained an unfulfilled ambition. There was that and also the feeling
that I didn’t care any more. Nothing mattered to me. The sheer silliness and
ridiculousness of wrestling appealed to me. But now I was here, sober and
feeling anxious, with my belly cramping and the feeling I was going to shit

“Do you know
what we’re gonna do?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Just get in
there and have a roll around.”

When we went
inside most of the attention was directed at Dad who had hands to shake and
people who wanted to introduce themselves to him. I stood by the door holding
my rucksack by the strap before finding a toilet to get changed in. After a
discussion with Andy Baker, the wrestler who was running the promotion, it
seemed that Dad was here to lead a seminar as a guest trainer but he was
unaware of this. “Just do what you normally do and I’ll chip in,” he said.

Andy began
warming up the trainees who were mostly boys from the nearby Grangeway Estate.

What was I
supposed to join in?

Dad had led me
to believe I was ready to jump in the ring and start calling matches, and this
wasn’t the feeling I was getting from the boys, perhaps this was how they did
things in the sixties but not now.

Andy, who
looked like a more jacked version of Leila’s boyfriend Sam, with his slightly
receding hair and toothpaste commercial teeth and manly stubble, got them
started with some light cardio drills and moved onto squats and push ups. I
joined in but quickly felt myself lagging behind, my quads were stiff after
about twenty squats and I stopped before it got too embarrassing. Dad was
watching by the ring.

I joined him,
ran my hand along the canvas of the ring apron, then patted it. The canvas was
rough and tightly packed over the ring by a system of bungees around the ring
frame beneath.

“Jump in,” Dad
said. “They won’t mind.”

I looked
around. Andy cast a gaze in our direction.

“I don’t know.
I feel like you’re not allowed in the ring. It’s some sort of threshold.”

yourself,” he said.

I patted the
canvas again, feeling the heavy mats beneath. It definitely wasn’t soft.
Pulling the bottom rope toward me the tautness barely gave an inch. This was
hard rope. I don’t know what else I thought it would be? I didn’t fancy the
thought of running them, the cables lacing your body as you lassoed from one
side to another.

While the
trainees were dismissed for a drink break Andy came over. “Anything you’d like
to do?” he asked.

“He’s a good
wrestler,” Dad interrupted. “We’ve only gone through the basics but it won’t
take much to get him ring ready.”

“That was years
ago,” I said. “And it was really basic.”

Please, I
thought. Stop telling this guy I know what I’m doing.

“Alright then.
How about you just go over some stuff with Dave?”

“Sounds good,”
I replied.

Going over some
basics with whoever Dave the Wrestler was sounded better than climbing in the
ring with somebody even though, really, this is what I had come here for. I had
never set foot in one. There it was, a few feet away, a theme park I could
climb into and perform the simulations I reenacted in the playing fields at
school in the late nineties.

Andy called
over to Dave and a big guy who was probably about my age, heavily stubbled with
the lightly hippy look of somebody who had been on the Manchester alternative
club scene, led me to a judo mat go over the basics.

“Do you know
how to lock up?” he said.

I told him I
did and then proceeded to lunge at him with my arms clawing out around his
shoulders and arms.

“That was
alright,” he said. “But a bit rough.”

Watch, he said.
I looked at his footwork. His right foot was forward in a split-legged stance.
His arms were crooked and palms open by his sides. I copied, replicating the
stance and the intensity on his face.

“You take a big
step in with your left leg and your left arms goes around their neck like
this.” He did as he said, lunging in and then securing the nape of my neck in
his cupped hand. “Your right hand then pushes into their bicep like this.”

combination meant that it seemed logical for my hand to reach round and cup his
neck while my right secured his biceps. We pushed against one another, becoming
the image of Grecian sculpture, bronzed in endless struggle, wrestlers. We
repeated the collar-and-elbow position for the next half an hour or so, taking
deeper steps back, lunging in with more attack until we heard the smack of our
clashing bodies.

Why hadn’t Dad
told me any of this stuff? Maybe he had and I had forgot. I still remembered
all the holds and the reversals, how to pull a punch, how to bump, but this
lock-up was the most basic position in pro wrestling and I doubted the
thoroughness of my learning.

What else
didn’t I know?

Across the room
I could see guys going over running sequences in the ring. Somebody would take
a headlock, the other guy would slingshot them into the ropes to escape.
Instead of simply stopping, the wrestler who was sling-shotted ran across
across the ring where he hit the facing ropes and came back running toward his
opponent who throws himself at his feet. I never quite understood this – it’s
something you see in wrestling all of the time – one of the conventions that
defies logic and reveals the artifice. Why would the guy lay down in front of
the guy for him to just run over him and hit the other ropes? The idea was that
the manoeuvre, known as a “sleep” was once an offensive move in pro wrestling.
Wrestlers would fling their bodies sideways at the legs of an incoming opponent
in order to trip them. In time, wrestlers got “wise” to this and began evading
the trip by leaping over it. An alternative interpretation I’d read in a
wrestling forum was that the sleep was intended to be an evasion itself. Seeing their opponent catapulting toward them from
the ropes the wrestler had no choice but to evade them by “sleeping” on the
floor. But how plausible was this? Who evades an oncoming three-hundred pound
man who’s out to batter you by laying on the floor in front of them? Don’t
worry about it, it’s fake for God’s sake, it’s only wrestling was the kind of
reply I was used to. Why did it matter to me? Pro wrestling was clearly staged
and looked nothing like a fight in its own right, why was I so drawn to those
wrestlers who did make the effort to conceal the cracks in narrative logic?
After the wrestler slept and his opponent leaped over him he came off the
facing ropes again and this time the wrestler leapfrogged his opponent –
supported by the opponent ducking his
own head – rather than simply headbutt the guy in the balls. This final time
the opponent comes off the ropes the wrestler leaped up into the air and
donkey-kicked him in the chest. Why wouldn’t the guy just have headbutted him
in the balls? The sequence was once of the most popular in wrestling. I didn’t
know what it was called but I had seen countless variations. Sometimes the
manoeuvre at the end was different, it could be a succession of moves or lead
into another sequence known as high spots.But what irked me was the sleep followed by a leapfrog as if to completely destroy any kind of plausibility.

“Anything else
you want to try?” Dave asked. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing and for
him to teach me everything again from beginner level. I looked around at the
wrestlers planning matches and going over sequences. Dad had always told me
wrestlers called matches in the ring when he wrestled. They would constantly
communicate and improvise high spots
in response to the crowd. If the crowd were down, they’d get them up with some
action. If the crowd preferred hold for hold wrestling, they’d give them
wrestling. Yet the kids here seemed to be planning matches move for move. Dad
was trained in 1966 in by Steve Rickard. In the great age of kayfabe, many fans
didn’t know for sure if wrestling was fake or not. There was a lot of
confusion, often wilful, about what was fake and what wasn’t. This meant the
in-ring style could be more hold based and realistic. There wasn’t as much
flying around as there is now. Nobody did rococo sequences as they looked
collaborative and gave the game away. In the forty years since, with the
secrets of the business being much more open, with international styles of
wrestling becoming known to one another and fans being more deeply educated in
the conventions of pro wrestling, the in-ring performances had become more
maximalist and intricate.

The next hours
passed with me learning basic throws and knock-downs. The mechanics would be
demonstrated and then Dave would find a passing trainee and we would repeatedly
drill the movements. A trainee would run at me and I had to knock them down
with a nearly-straight outstretched arm called a clothesline. The trainee would
feel my contact and fall to the floor. I had to count my steps and turn at the
precise moment he would roll to his right, enabling us to return to our exact
starting positions and repeat the movement.

When my forearm
was red from smashing trainees, Dave decided it was my turn to run some drills
in the ring. I wanted nothing more than to get in there and let my fantasies
run wild. But it also meant standing up in front of everybody and revealing how
bad a wrestler the son of Earl Black was. Dave showed me how to run the ropes
by planting your standing foot, making a pivot, falling into the top ropes with
your mid back and then bounding in three measured steps across the ring before
pivoting and repeating the process. While the timing and pacing were difficult
to get right, what was harder was the ropes themselves against the tender flesh
of my upper and mid back. I don’t know why this surprised me? Maybe it was how
implausible rope running looked in terms of a fight but the actual physics of
it were painful. The ropes were hard. Taunted by the wingnuts of the
turnbuckles and the tension applied to the structure by ratchets and cabling
beneath the ring. What’s more, it wasn’t enough to glance the ropes as you came
off them. The propulsion was real. What you needed to do was attack the ropes.
But this meant throwing your back into the cheesewire whilst remembering your
footwork and whatever high spot you were supposed to be running at that moment.

When I just
about had the hang of rope-running in an old-man-walking kind of way, Dave
introduced the sleeps and leaps I had earlier derided. Had he read my mind? Was
my dislike of them so obvious? I had to do thirty in total, seamlessly,
sleeping and leaping while my opponent ran the ropes back and forth. I got
halfway and collapsed. I felt a little dizzy and my skin whitened. My heart
beating hard, I panted, pissing sweat.

I sat in a
squat and closed my eyes.

“You blown?”
Dave laughed.

Dad was looking

“Now you know
what if feel like to be a wrestler!” he said.

Then he pointed
his camera at me and started taking snaps. I didn’t feel like these would be
the most flattering photos but didn’t have the reserves to shield my face or
get out of the way.

How could I
have got so out of shape?

When I was
training with Dad in the field all those years before, I played football three
or four times a week to the point where I worried it was stopping me gaining
muscle. I would do four workouts a week on the weights, not lifting heavy, more
high-intensity circuit training. I was lean, hard bodied, with a six-pack.

Once the
session had finished all the trainees sat crossed-legged on the mats and Andy
invited Dad over to talk about how to make it as a wrestler and to take any
questions. Dad told his favourite stories. His greatest hits consisted of the
riot in Jakarta airport, getting his head tangled in the ropes and a woman
wrestler running to the ring from backstage to knock him out with one punch and
stop him struggling and going to see the promoter Stu Hart while he “stretched”
young trainees in his basement gym known as “the dungeon”, the screams heard
all around the house. He told them not to worry about getting six-packs and to
eat meat, fish, eggs and cheese and plenty of it. He didn’t always seem aware
of what his audience wanted from him and struggled with specifics or to
remember exactly what things were like back in the sixties. “I’ve been hit in
the head with too many steel chairs!” He laughed then talked about how
wrestlers today use too many moves and throw too many punches. “The more
punches the less it means,” he said. “The more you expose how bent it is.”

I said nothing,
watched from the sidelines and thought about how good this felt. Seeing Dad in
his element. Talking about the glory days. Instead of making my own I had
become dissociated from spontaneity, the originality of our family trade, the
aliveness of being in the ring, of having a body and performing. After he had
finished the boys formed a queue around the gym and took it in turn to shake
his hand and thank him for coming.