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.

As
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.

Sometimes,
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.

All
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.  

Despite
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.

Sister
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.

The
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.

Every
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.

Sister
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.

Heidy
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.

Heidy
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.

She
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.

Sister
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
herself.  

Still,
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 .

*

Twenty-three-year-old
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.

—Be
careful on the slide, she cautions him.

When
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.

When
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.

—No,
you have destroyed my life, she told him.

At
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.

At
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.

When
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.

Floridalma
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:

5:30
a.m. wake up, administer medication

7:00
a.m. breakfast

8:30
a.m.–2:45 p.m. school

1:00
p.m. lunch

1:30
p.m.–4:00 p.m. homework, chores

4:00
p.m.–5:00 p.m. recess

5
p.m.–6 p.m. church

6
:00 p.m. dinner

8:00
p.m. bedtime

*

Sister
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.

On
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.

Sister
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.

Sister
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.

About
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.

Angelica,
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.

Nelson,
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.

Josue,
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.

*

Dreams.

Gustavo
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.

Abimael
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.

Floridalma
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.

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

*

Social
studies class. Third- and fourth-graders.

Today’s
lesson: de la violencia a la paz. Violence versus peace.

—Take
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.

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

—If
one boy punches another boy.

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

—If
siblings fight for the love of the mother.

—One
at a time, Sister Modesta says.

—When
they drink, people become violent.

—Brothers
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.

*

After
class, Ignacio Bachub approaches Sister Modesta.

—I’d
like to be a chef, he tells her.

—Whatever
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.




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
laugh.

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.

In
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.”

Some
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.

*

The
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.

“Hello.
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.

“Me
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.

*

Further
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
door.”

The
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.

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

Okay.
Wait for it. Try to smile.

He
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.

“But
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.

*

I
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.

This
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.

*

When
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.

I
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.

I
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.”

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

“We’ve
got picture of you, too. You and the Feds.”

In
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.”

*

In
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).

Aware
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.

As
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.

Some
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.

*

I
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?”

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

“Last
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
candidates.”

I
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.

Later
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.

*

I
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.

*

I
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.

As
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.

Voting
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.

Near
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.

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

“Who
are you?”

I
repeated myself. I asked if X was home.

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

When
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.

At
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.

I
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.




Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




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
Flies
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
said.

And that was the end of the
matter.

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
yourself.

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
over.

*

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
waited.

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
leave.

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
childhood.

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.




Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

In
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.

—The
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.

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

He
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.

Alvaro
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.

As
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.

Alvaro
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.

Alvaro
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.

*

Alvaro
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.

Two
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.

Alvaro
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.

Alvaro
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
Spanish-speaking
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.

As
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.

The
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.

*

As
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
poverty.

Alvaro
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
money.

I
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.

They
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.

They
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.

New
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.

However,
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.

Two
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.

*

After
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.

In
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.

*

A
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.

Alvaro
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.

Stepping
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.

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

He
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.

The
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.

Alvaro
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.

He
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

It’s
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
encountering
someone he
had not expected.

A
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.

Days
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.

*

Alvaro
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.

—That’s
enough, Alvaro says.

He
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.

Alicia
removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

—I’d
like to play “Amazing Grace.”

—Play
“Down in the Valley.”

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

—That’s
OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

She
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.

He
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.

What’s
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
God?

I’m
an infidel,
he reminds himself.

As
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.

The
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.

—That’s
all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes
playing.

—That’s
correct.

—Does
anyone want to say anything?

—I
hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

Alvaro
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.

—In
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.

At
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

Any
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.

What
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
catharsis.

Flatness
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.

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

The
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.

But
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.

What
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.

Around
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.

But
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.

And
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.

How
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.

Declared
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
display.

Writers
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.

Consider
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.

Chaplin
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.)

Bored
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.

After
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.

As
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.

And
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.

The
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
you
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
clumsy
, he calls out, all
grace.

Or
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.




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
guerre
, 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
monster.”

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
chicken.”

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
Jimmy.

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
dangerous.

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
sure?
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
Anyway
, 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,
a
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
Solo
, 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
it.”

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
die
. 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.




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
followed?

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
myself.

“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.”

“Suit
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.”

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
on.

“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.




Wrathful Wiccan Wikipedians

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

When I was seven, my dog, Indiana
Jones, disappeared. My parents had just divorced, my dad was living in a small
commune in the University Park area of Denver, and my mother would come home
from work every night and cry herself to sleep. Indiana Jones was my anchor.

Soon after the disappearance, the
commune phone rang. Someone called out my name. It was for me. The voice, deep
and husky, said that they would return my dog on the “eclipse of the new moon,” a pagan reference that I did
not get at the time.

My mother had been a hippie, but the
fact that I was going to my father’s commune every other weekend often left her
on the verge of nervous breakdown. It’s different when you’re a mother living
with your child in a commune versus when your child is there without you,
especially when the father of your child was prone to wearing tin-foil on his
head and worrying about black helicopters.

That night, my dad had a lecture
somewhere in the mountains. We got lost and when we stopped at a 7-Eleven in
Golden to ask for directions, I spotted Indiana Jones tied to a fence. We broke
him free and went back to Denver and my father never went to his lecture. In
the end, one of my biggest childhood traumas had come not, as my mother feared,
from the commune itself, but from the realization that some people were so mad
at my dad that they would steal his young son’s dog as revenge.

*

Ten years later, long after the
commune had dissolved, my father wrote a book about Satanism called Painted
Black
(Harper Collins, 1990).
The book was entertaining, but also a bit of a mess. He had blown the whole
Satanism thing out of proportion, confused certain bands and elevated singers
like Ozzy Osbourne into real threats. However, at the time, there had been real
black magic murderers, like Adolfo Constanzo in Matamoros. As a high school
student reading the book I began to understand my father’s talent as a
University of Denver religious studies professor. He gave a relatable
perspective on these dark occults, written in accessible language.

The book sold well, but was poo-poo’d by his fellow academics. My father was also mocked, front page, by Denver’s longtime weekly, Westword. On the other hand, our teacher and editor on the Thomas Jefferson school newspaper got us out of class so we could watch my father debate Satanists on none other than the Geraldo Rivera Show.

Afterward, my dad never made much of that brief time in the spotlight, rarely talked about it except with a wave of the hand. He chose to spend most of his life teaching while writing or co-authoring dozens of academic books with staid titles like: The Engendering God, Male and Female Faces of God, or The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness. He slipped quietly away from the buzz of best-sellerdom and back to the sleepiness of academia. In fact, he used the publisher’s hefty advance to pay for my drinking at a very expensive private liberal arts college in Indiana. In a way, Painted Black, with all its failings, helped me become the writer I am today.

*

A few weeks ago, my father called me,
somewhat distraught. As usual, I thought he needed advice on how to stop the
refrigerator ice-machine from overflowing. Instead, he told me that someone had
created a Carl Raschke Wikipedia page.

“Well good,” I said. “It’s about
time.”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not good at
all.”

My healthy seventy-year old father was
huffing into the phone. He was on sabbatical and working on his next book from
his second-home in Oklahoma. When he writes my father is happy and talkative,
but now he was as distracted as he was curt.

I live in Europe so by the time I’m winding down, everyone in America is winding up. After I hung up, I kissed my wife goodnight, then sat at my computer. At first glance, the Wikipedia entry was six or seven long paragraphs long. Slowly, I realized that the entry entirely focused on my father’s book, Painted Black. It was under the very reasonable headline, Satanic ritual abuse moral panic, modern popular culture and new religious movements. It was like Westword’s attack, but on a far-larger scale.

The first sentence went like this:

Raschke has written and commented on topics such as Satanism, Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music and certain new religious movements. His work in this area as well as his role in the development of the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular the book Painted Black (1990), have been much criticized in academia.

It wasn’t terrible or outwardly offensive, but to have someone’s long and distinguished academic career, their thirty some books and hundreds of other publications, reduced to “Dungeons and Dragons” and “heavy metal music” on a website where the majority of internet users get their first understanding of a person or topic, was if not nasty, at least demeaning. Ultimately, the entire page was little more than a cut-and-paste Nexus-search compendium on anything negative ever written about Painted Black. He’d written nearly twenty books in his career and hundreds of essays and articles, all about theology, post-modernism, and densely academic topics, yet his Wikipedia page centered around this one pop book.

It was hard that my father was, after
so many years, a public target and it was even harder for me, his son, to learn
that Wikipedia, which I use almost daily, was little more than a platform for
well-written, but bitter blog posts.

Reviewing Painted Black in 1991, scholar Jonathon S. Epstein writes: “Painted Black adds additional fuel to the flames of hysteria surrounding satanism [sic] in America”

Scholar Arthur Versluis (2006) is highly critical of Raschke’s Painted Black, which he describes as an “effort to awaken an American inquisition” and refers to the book as “breathless sensationalism”.

In an article on Wicca and media for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and the News Media (2012), scholar Sarah M. Pike describes how a media report during the trial for the West Memphis Three “failed to consult experts on Wicca and Satanism” but rather referred to material by Raschke, who she describes as a “widely discredited ‘Satanism expert’”

I googled the “scholars” Arthur Versluis and Sarah Pike, who had two decades ago reviewed my dad’s book. They were both young theology academics at state universities, while Jonathon S. Epstein lists himself as a consultant for the Rock ’N’ Roll hall of fame. None of them were my father’s peers. It would be like a writer from Teen Vogue having the keys to Peter O’Toole’s IMDB page and focusing entirely on the movie Supergirl.

Suddenly, I was questioning all the
information I had ever gleaned from Wikipedia and incorporated into my writing.
How much of it had also been slanted and plain wrong? I had sat in on my
father’s classes, proofread his books, argued politics and philosophy over
whiskey, and while I was critical of the man like most sons are of their
fathers, especially ones who let their sons grow up in a commune with weirdos,
this Wikipedia entry felt unjust, if not infuriating.

I decided to take action. The editor of my dad’s article screen-name was Bloodofox. This Bloodofox’s other entries were limited exclusively to Norse and Germanic mythology. Heathenism. Paganism.

Bloodofox was a Wiccan.

When my father had lived in a commune,
there had been Wiccans living there. They taught me about Wiccan ideas, but
most of the explanation involved tarot cards and listening to the band Rush. Of course, I had only been seven years old. I
was older now. It was as if all the old wounds of my childhood were flooding
open, thirty-three years later, I could clearly hear that phone call promising
to return my beloved dog on, “the new moon.”

*

Joining Wikipedia is a bit like
attending Catholic mass and the Freemasons simultaneously. You don’t need to
give too much information beyond a screen name, but there are endless pages and
rules, many of them obscure, protocols linked on other pages, nothing binding,
but almost all leading to certain punishment if broken.

When you sign up for Wikipedia, they
ask you to edit a few things unrelated to your interests. My test was to
correct grammatical mistakes for a relatively skimpy page about the Congo.
Next, I was asked to proofread a vague historical event in the Marshall Islands.
I guess I passed because then I was given the green light to edit whatever I
wanted.

At the time I did not know that one of these rule was “you can’t edit family or friends.” Almost every fiction writer I knew on Wikipedia had been added by their spouse or partner. Of course, I immediately started editing my dad’s page. Minutes later, I was blocked by a bot. Then someone named bonadea blocked me. Bloodofox instantly reverted all my edits back to what they had set before. I reverted them back again. Suddenly, I was accused of vandalism. Bonadea accused me of being in an edit war, which to a writer who spends most of his days in a bathrobe, felt glorious.

I went back to Bloodofox’s page and discovered that he had won a Wikipedia contributors award. There was a small section where people had commended Bloodofox’s work. They even had a link to cyber-bullying against women and a brief passage about how Wikipedians protect each other. I figured if Bloodofox could write about my dad, I would at least be able to post something on Bloodofox’s “comments” section. I wrote that Bloodofox had written a disproportionately negative piece about Carl Raschke and this made me “sad.” Little did I know, I was kicking a hornet’s nest.

*

Whenever I hear someone say that they
are an Ayn Rand fan, my first thought is that they are not a big reader. Ayn
Rand always reminded me of my old Denver neighbor Phil, a frumpy white programmer and insufferable libertarian who
sprinkled Ross Perot signs on everyone’s lawn and talked about The Fountainhead as if it were the Bible. It was only after a
motorcycle accident and subsequent conversion to Unitarianism that Phil’s
incessant diatribes actualized into reasonable conversations about the cost of
light-rail or John Elway’s injuries.

Tech billionaires love talking about
free information if they think it can make them money. There are many
mind-numbingly peppy TED Talks where you can hear Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy
Wales explain how to get rich off of free information. The only time I heard
dissent during these talks was when someone asked him how Wikipedia can accept
donations while adhering to the ideology of Ayn Rand. Jimmy Wales claimed that
objectivism and charity were not mutually exclusive, which is a little like
saying there’s a place for LGBTQ in ISIS.

It is inherently troubling that Ayn
Rand’s philosophy shrouds many people’s go-to place for information. Ayn Rand
is often espoused by Republicans although it is amusing to imagine the
notoriously blunt author in a room with Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. If truth
favored the Republicans then May 1st would celebrate George W. Bush’s Mission
Accomplished and the liberation of Iraq. If history is any indication, when
ideologies influence information, history is often rewritten.

The next morning, after attempting to
change my father’s page, I looked at my phone and found a flood of warnings. My
attempt to join the open discussion at Wikipedia had led to a torrent of
threats of excommunication. As I brushed my teeth and then my kids’ teeth, I
wondered, is this what Ayn Rand’s utopia is going to look like, a land of angry
white programmers publicly smearing academics?

My most aggressive Wikipedia enforcer was a skinny kid from UCLA who either admired Stromboli or Metallica, because he went by the name of Master of Puppets. I asked Master of Puppets politely who I could go to for mediation. Master of Puppets told me nothing was wrong with the entry, that Bloodofox had written straight from fact, and that was good enough.

“Yes, but…”

“You must also stop asking questions,”
he warned. “Or you will be blocked.”

“Why?”

“You must stop asking ‘why?’ or you
will be blocked.”

I had been in the Peace Corps in Armenia so I understood Soviet Bureaucracy, the cold efficiency of veiled threats concealing ignorance over the genesis of certain protocol. But what was fascinating was that so many of these Wikipedians whose pages I visited, such as with Master of Puppets, professed anti-establishment attitudes, yet were simultaneously creating an Orwellian system to stop anyone who questioned them.

The Wikipedia Talk page accusing me of “disrupting”.

Over the next few days, my dad’s colleagues, other tenured professors, and notable academics joined the “war.” They spent hours debating Bloodofox’s entry, reasonably explaining my father’s academic legacy, and because of their efforts, they too were all blocked. They were accused of being “sock-puppets,” or someone who is closely associated with the subject. When their suspension was lifted, they returned to the debate only to be blocked again. In fact, every single person who worked on Carl Raschke’s Wikipedia entry, with the exception of Bloodofox, was at first blocked, then permanently kicked off.

Victor Taylor, an English professor from York University, was beside himself when he was permanently blocked after making a few edits on my father’s Wikipedia page. He wrote a letter demanding to be unblocked, but was coolly rebuffed by KrakatoaKatie (named I would guess after a fiery East Indies volcano). Discouraged, Taylor wrote my father an exasperated email saying that he felt Wikipedia operated “like a cult, with only external layers and no discernible core.” It was much like the cults my father had written about in Painted Black.

Since these academics knew as little as my father and I did about how Wikipedia works, they wrote brilliant emails arguing their case. Eventually, Wikipedia did something called a UserCheck lead by J. Gordon, the first editor with a seemingly regular name. The UserCheck confirmed that everyone who had been writing on my father’s page was linked to Carl and could not contribute to my father’s page. I am sure the prohibition of peer-review aged a few of my father’s Ivy-League colleagues considerably. In the end, there was however one contributor who was not a sock-puppet and could legitimately edit my father’s page. According to J. Gordon, this editor was, Duikelmaan, which was, actually me, his son.

*

Anarchists, anti-establishmentarians,
and often programmers are zealots with facts, their self-righteousness buoyed
by truths derived from big data. Wikipedia, and similarly free information
portals, often march to a new kind of fascism, where even though millions of
followers are separated by culture, race, and geography, they see themselves as
gatekeepers to an empirically-purified future. The elite old guard, professors
and academics, colleagues and department chairs, men and women with
“intentions” are replaced by what they believe is the truth produced in vast
cerebral, collective knowledge of internet users.

I have lived in the Netherlands now for almost a decade and my biggest complaint is that the Dutch’s adherence to egalitarianism reduces democracy to a Yelp review, where everyone and anyone can topple great institutions based solely on personal experience. In this case, Bloodofox, a professed pagan, read Painted Black many years ago, was incensed how my father portrayed certain pagan groups as cults, including the Wiccans, and later, found in Wikipedia a perfect way to exact revenge. Wikipedians are decentralizing authority just as quickly as they recentralizing it in the hands of those practiced in Wikipedia protocol. The “intentions” are still there, but gone is the academic debate.

Larry Sanders, co-founder of
Wikipedia, recently said in a Vice interview[1], that one of his biggest regrets was
not putting in place an expert-reviewed system, much like Twitter has verified
checks. “I do think it has a root problem that’s social,” Sanders said. “People
that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the
asylum.”

*

In a Salon piece entitled, “Revenge, Ego, and the Corruption of Wikipedia,” Qworty, a senior editor at Wikipedia, systematically writes hundreds of negative things about Barry Hannah and several published fiction authors. The reason was much like Bloodofox’s. Qworty had had his fiction spurned at many of the conferences Hannah attended and found Wikipedia a perfect place to exact his revenge.

There is also Philip Roth’s open
letter to Wikipedia, published in The New Yorker, where
he goes to great length to refute an entry about his novel The
Human Stain. Roth pointed out several inaccuracies on his Wikipedia
page, claiming to be the highest authority on himself. The response from
Wikipedia was exactly as you might imagine. “I understand your
point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,”
writes the Wikipedia Administrator to Philip Roth, “but we
require secondary sources.”

Over the next week, my father and I became bad amateur detectives. We traced a photo of a spiritual Norse tree on Bloodofox’s page to a lumpy Wiccan and rabid Bernie Sanders supporter on the northern East Coast. We also discovered that Bloodofox’s wife was a Wiccan, a proud heathen family, pagans, worshipped goddesses, the earth, old trees. If this was Bloodofox, and I’m not sure it was, then he was a soft, white middle-class, intellectual cum middle-manager, who, according to his numerous blog posts, enjoyed farmer’s markets and was ready to send Wall Streeters to the guillotine in exchange for a lower cable-bill.

Ironically, Bloodofox, according to his Linked-In page, was an IT manager for a retirement fund, the same retirement fund that the University of Denver used. My dad called the retirement fund and they agreed that this particular employee had been spending an inordinate amount of time on Wikipedia, but all they could do was ask him not to do it at work. And once again, we had zero evidence that this was the same Bloodofox that had written my father’s Wikipedia page.

Going through Bloodofox’s Facebook page, I realized we both liked exotic whiskeys. Enjoyed many of the same books. Like the same movies. In real life we might be friends, but in the world of Wikipedia, we were fighting in a world of friction and fiction, where entire careers could be rewritten by someone with a grudge.

In the end, my father never had his page changed. He said that in academic circles, his career and accolades were known, and that was enough for him. But still, any time a student or reader of his work, reads his Wikipedia page, they will learn about my father not from his accomplishments, but from Bloodofox’s grudge. This, in itself, should be a red flag for not only how the internet supplies us with information now, but how we will be remembered by the generations to come. 


[1] Wikipedia’s Co-Founder is Wikipedia’s Most Outspoken Critic, Zack Shwartz, Vice, November 11, 2015.




The Lady in the Boot

Picture Credits: LEEROY Agency

I
admit I was more accustomed to rowdy seedy bars in backstreets. Unlike the one
I was in which oozed elegance and splendour. It was marble-floored,
air-conditioned, the walls were not smudged and the seats not moth-eaten. The
music didn’t assault one’s ears and the air was pristine. No vile smells of
sweaty bodies and stale liquor, or choking marijuana smoke, and hands were not
reaching for the large-bottomed barmaids in their lovely black and white
uniforms.

Even
the ladies-of-the-night were formal and proper. They sat with their backs
straight, their legs crossed, laughed with their mouths closed and drank their
wine with the utmost panache.

I
was here with my two good friends to celebrate my first ever royalty check. We
drunk our overpriced drinks quietly, daunted by the fact that we were just
visitors to such classy places.

Two
tables to my right was Kamanga, a man well known to many residents of Nairobi.
In the tabloids he was often seen shaking hands with the high and mighty.
Kamanga was a fixer who also had his finger in many shady deals. If one wanted
a competitor intimidated, or had a pregnant mistress who was refusing to get an
abortion, he was the man to call. If one’s daughter was dating a loser who
refused to let the girl be, Kamanga made sure he saw reason, courtesy of a few
broken bones.

Kamanga
was in the company of three other men. Similarly pot-bellied, and by the way
they spoke to the barmaids, with massively inflated egos as well. The four kept
talking in a conspiratorial manner while staring at three young women who were
seated at a table a bit further off. These women were engaged in rather
animated talks and seemed to be in celebratory mood.

Kamanga
urged a member of his posse to go talk to them. The man stood up, slightly
agitating the well-stocked table, and strolled to the three young women.
Without a word he pulled up a chair to their table. Once seated he outstretched
his hand to the bewildered women. They hesitated before shaking his hand.

The
man commenced introducing himself and concluded by stating he was a lawyer and
that the blue BMW outside was his. The ladies didn’t seem impressed at all. As
a matter of fact, there was a lot of irritation showing on their faces. He went
on and on about how beautiful the ladies were that he just had to come over and
introduce himself. My friends and I watched on amusedly.

“Listen,
sir,” said one of them in curtly, “we are just here for the drinks, not to
mingle.”

The
man, unperturbed, singled out the one of the three women who seemed least
hostile. He bombarded her with cliché upon cliché: eyes like cowrie shells,
smile of angels, most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on, and so on.

The
lady tried to fend him off without seeming rude. The other two would tell him
to get on his bike, but he would very calmly reply that he wasn’t talking to
them. The polite lady’s “Thank you, but I’m not interested”, “I’m sorry, but
you’re not my type”, “I’m just here to have fun with my girlfriends” all went
unheeded.

Finally,
resignedly, she said she had a boyfriend. The man sighed disappointedly and
angrily walked back to his table. It seems the only thing that can get a woman
from unwanted attention is to claim she is “taken” by another man.

When
the man sat down I heard some choice words thrown at the three women by the
gang. It reminded me of my usual watering holes, where barmaids hurl
unspeakable words at touchy-grabby customers.

“I
once knew a woman like these three girls,” said Kamanga, “who think they are
too good for some men. Just because she has much book and can speak the Queen’s
English and drive a German car. All that don’t mean shit. She is still a woman
and must never forget that.

“Her
name was Njeri,” continued Kamanga, “prettiest thing you ever saw. Big titties,
big ass and exceptionally curvy. Every time I saw her she left my mind and
loins aflame with unsatisfied desire. Njeri and I lived in the same apartment
building in Eldoret Town. She worked for an NGO that paid her really well.
Which made her think she could look down on everybody.

“Njeri
was insufferable. I recollect her haughty tones, her phony English accent and
the way she shook hands as if the other was infested with leprosy. Regardless,
I really wanted to smash that. Time and time again I tried asking her out but
she laughed me down. I’d rather hang than let an uncultured, uneducated
fisherman between my thighs, she often said. I gave up when she said well-bred
ladies did not fraternize with sewer rats.

“It
was the year 2007 and that December there was an election. The general election
that most Kenyans avoid talking about. On D-day we went and voted and went back
to our homes to await the results. Everything was peaceful until the
presidential results started streaming in. It was evident the out-going
president had rigged the election. Like some constituencies had more votes for
the president than the actual voters. Despite the irregularities, he was
quickly announced the winner by the electoral commission and was sworn in at
night.

“The
opposition weren’t having any of it and violence erupted in many parts of the
country. Eldoret town amongst them. As most of you remember the president was
from the Kikuyu community, and you all know we vote along ethnic lines. Tribes
supporting the opposition party started venting their anger and frustration on
tribes that supported the president. Members of the Kikuyu tribe who lived in
opposition strongholds had it worse. Many were beaten, raped, killed, had their
houses burnt down and property stolen.

“It
was a devilish time where neighbour turned upon neighbour, friend upon friend
and even in-laws. It was also a time when old scores were settled. Many Kikuyu
began fleeing from hostile territories. And their travel was full of peril. One
group fled to a church and the church was razed down killing many of them. A
woman fleeing with a mattress and other odds realizing the child on her back
hadn’t cried a while, turned the child to her front to find arrows sticking in
its back.

“Others
met with roadblocks manned by enraged youth who would board the buses and tell
everybody to hold out their National Identity cards. If it bore a Kikuyu name
you were pulled out of the bus, and the driver ordered to drive on. All these
was broadcasted in the evening news.”

Seated
there sipping my beer I remembered those unforgettable days that forever
changed Kenya. I was sixteen years old then. My family and I lived in Kikuyu
land, therefore we were safe from the aggression of other tribes. Each evening
we watched the ghastly news of death and destruction, and it felt like we were
watching carnage in an alien country. Kenya had always been billed as one of
the most stable countries in the continent. A country that had never
experienced civil war or a coup. A country whose transition of power from one
president to the next was always peaceful.

Schools
were suspended, and every day in the streets of my village refugees streamed in
by the dozens to their relatives. Haggard, hungry, devastated, clutching onto
their little bundles. The refugees gave harrowing descriptions of what they had
endured at the hands of colleagues, schoolmates, fellow church members and
neighbours whom they had borrowed from one another the odd cup of sugar.

Odhiambo
was a man I knew all my life. A bicycle mechanic who was slightly mentally
challenged. Regardless of this, he was easily the best bicycle mechanic in the
village and all the surrounding villages. It seemed he had a secret language
with the bicycle tribe. They could speak to him and inform him exactly where
and what was ailing them.

One
morning in the midst of all this post-election madness, as I walked to a shop
for some bread. I heard many people shouting and yelling. It was coming from
Odhiambo’s shed. I rushed. Odhiambo was on the earth in his greasy overall. His
face was all bloody. The angry mob was kicking him left and right.

No
one was shouting “thief”, but I knew why they were beating him up. Odhiambo was
a man who rarely talked, who mostly kept to himself and never did anyone any
harm. He was the most peace-loving man I am yet to meet. He was a man who
always had his radio tuned to one station, Radio Citizen. A man who spent his
days at his shed repairing bikes and haggling with customers who wanted to take
advantage of his mental challenges. They were beating him up because he was
Luo. Retaliation against their kinsmen who were being persecuted in other parts
of the country by tribes such as the Luo and Kalenjin. Odhiambo hadn’t done
anyone any harm. He had woken up, worn his overall, and carried his tools and
radio to his station like any other day.

A
woman yelled that he should be circumcised since his tribe didn’t traditionally
circumcise their men. Hence the Luo are seen by tribes that use circumcision as
a rite of passage to manhood as forever immature.

A
neighbour pulled me away towards home. I went crying.

“Why
do you cry for these animals?” he asked. “You know very well what they are
doing to our people in their homelands.”

Odhiambo
didn’t live to see the next day. He was either beaten to death or bled to death
from the circumcision. That is the one person close to me whom I lost during
the violence. But I couldn’t grieve him, I wasn’t supposed to grieve him. He
was the enemy.

We
stopped killing each other after forty-five days. Only after the intervention
of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. He brokered a peace
treaty between the president and the opposition leader who was to become prime
minister, a newly created position. The two leaders formed a government based on
a fifty-fifty power-sharing agreement.

Someone
coughed loudly and brought me back to the bar.

“In
our building there were several Kikuyu,” said Kamanga. “All fled but Njeri.
Initially we didn’t think the skirmishes would reach our affluent
neighbourhood. But it did. Gangs were going door to door flushing out the
undesirables. Most of the residents in the building were uneasy about Njeri,
because harbouring a Kikuyu was putting one’s self at risk.”

As
Kamanga talked, I caught up on some history: Eldoret, which is part of the Rift
Valley province is the traditional home of the Kalenjins, who voted for the
opposition. Part of the reason why some Kikuyu found themselves living in the
Rift Valley away from their traditional home in Central Kenya was due to British
colonization.

The
British took most of the arable Kikuyu land and they were forced to look for
land elsewhere through settlement schemes. These Kikuyu were always viewed
suspiciously by the locals as grabbers who had come to steal the Kalenjin land
like the British stole their land. The second is the Kikuyu are the most
entrepreneurial community in Kenya, popularly referred to as a money-grabbing
tribe. They are everywhere trying to eke out a living.

After
the elections, politicians trumpeted that it was about time they did away with
the cockroaches that had occupied their land, and the rallying call was heeded.
Those who had been jealous of their rich Kikuyu neighbours took advantage of
the situation and kicked them out to take their land, cattle and other
property.

“Well,
being Luo myself I was safe in Eldoret Town, a Kalenjin town,” said Kamanga,
“unlike Njeri who was Kikuyu. The opposition leader was a Luo man, after all,
whom the Kikuyu had rigged out of presidency.

“Two
weeks in, I decided to leave for Nairobi to stay with my brother’s family till
everything had settled down. Njeri too was thinking of ways to skip town. From
our balconies we could see smoke emanating from many neighbourhoods. We could
hear cries day and night. We didn’t dare to venture out. In the apartment,
tempers were flaring up. Many wanted Njeri gone. She was risking their lives
being there, they said. They even threatened to direct the gangs to her
doorstep if she didn’t leave. So you see Njeri was in a very hard place. She couldn’t
stay, and due to the roadblocks erected by angry youth, she couldn’t leave.

“When
Njeri heard I was leaving come morning, she knocked on my door that night. She
wore a rather revealing nightdress. She didn’t beat around the bush. She wanted
me to take her with me but understandably I wanted nothing to do with her. She
tried manipulating me with her feminine wiles; using honeyed tones, touching my
arms and really playing up the damsel in distress. I wasn’t having any of it.

“Suddenly
she grabbed my hand and gently started pulling me towards the bedroom, but I
said I wasn’t in the mood. She tried kissing me and unzipping my pants but I
flung her away from me. I thought ladies didn’t fraternize with sewer rats, I
said. She sunk onto the floor in a heap and began sobbing. I felt so much
pleasure turning down her advances. Oh, it was so invigorating.

“The
next morning I packed a few things and was ready to leave when a delegation of
members of the apartment held me up and beseeched me not to leave Njeri behind.
I would be subjecting her to untold horror when the gangs reached the
apartment, they said. I held firm to my stand. She always thought I was not fit
to shine her shoes, why should she need me now? How dare she ask for my help?

“A
few men called me aside and basically said I shouldn’t condemn Njeri to death
just because she refused me. Eventually I gave in. I hid Njeri in the boot of
my car.

“The
streets of Eldoret town gave the impression of the beginning of the end of the
world. A fog of smoke blanket everything. Businesses had been broken into and
looted. Elephant-sized rocks had been placed in the middle of the roads and
tyres were burning everywhere. Vehicles and kiosks were smouldering on the
roadside. Young men with bows, arrows and machetes patrolled the streets.
Others were carting away television sets, heavy sacks and even fridges. I did
see a few bloody corpses by the roadsides, with arrows sticking out of them.

“Every
few hundred meters I was waved to a stop. Young men thrust their heads into my
car and asked for my ID. But mostly on seeing my face, they could easily tell I
was Luo and waved me through. In every stop, the young men chanted that it was
time they uprooted the weeds on their land.”

Many
people in the bar were listening in to this story as Kamanga’s husky voice
carried a far distance. I could tell the three ladies were also listening in.
The story was being told for their benefit, after all.

“Outside
town, the story was the same. Broken-into shops, smouldering houses, rocks on
the road and people carting away stolen property. I drove down the Rift Valley.
Every little town I passed or every village, it was as if the Army of Death had
paid them a visit. And every kilometre or so there were road blocks manned by
angry young men with crude weapons.”

“But
you will have to agree it was quite risky,” said an older gent in a table near
to the three ladies, “you risking your life over a girl who wouldn’t piss on
you if you were on fire.”

“Hold
your horses, sir,” said Kamanga, who immediately took a big chug of his beer.

“With
every passing of a roadblock I grew angrier and kept questioning myself: What
if I find a gang who want to look into my boot? What then? Won’t they accuse me
of collaborating with the enemy? Why am I risking my life over a girl who
thinks her vagina is too good for the likes of me?”

“But
I’m sure you would have easily talked to them, being a Luo,” someone said,
“maybe given them a few coins to look the other way, said she was your wife or
something.”

“Yes.
I’m sure I could have worked something out,” said Kamanga. “All I’m saying is I
would’ve easily gone to such troubles if she had been nicer to me.”

He
took another big chug of his beer.

“I
reached yet another roadblock and pulled over. I handed over my ID, they handed
it back and ushered me along. One young man shouted they would not relent until
my tribesman, the opposition leader, was made president as he had clearly won
the election. The Kikuyu had run this country for many years, another said, it
was time they gave the top seats to other tribes to enjoy the fruits as well.

“I
didn’t drive off immediately. There’s something about this gang that I liked.”

He
took another gulp of his beer.

“I
got out of the car, strolled to the boot and opened it. I pulled Njeri out by
her hair and informed them she was Kikuyu. They immediately got hold of her.
Three of them dragged her into the bush. No one asked me any questions. As I
drove off I could hear her screams.”

There
was an atmosphere of shock and disbelief in the bar. Even someone dropped their
bottle to the floor. Then I heard some murmurs from a few drunken men – served
her right, what did she expect?

“It’s
been nearly fifteen years and she’s still missing,” Kamanga said, in a manner
as if he was giving a toast. He laughed hard, a maniacal laughter, and other
men joined him. Including, surprisingly, my two friends. They seemed to have
thoroughly enjoyed Njeri’s demise.

“Be
nice to that man who shows some interest in you,” said Kamanga, “you might
desperately need him tomorrow. That’s the point I’m trying to put across to
women here.”

Some
clients, mostly women, walked out of the bar in disgust. Including the three
young women.

“But
that’s in the past now,” said Kamanga, his voice beginning to slur from the
alcohol. “Isn’t the government constantly shoving down our throats the
forgive-each-other doctrine over the atrocities committed then? So that we can
build a more coherent country? So that we never turn into savages ever again…
Well, long live Kenya.”

I
was mad with rage, and perhaps due to the alcohol in me, I decided the best
course of action was to rush to the nearest fuelling station, buy a gallon of
petrol and burn his car. But something curious happened. A pretty woman, in her
mid-thirties, walked slowly to the posse. She stared at them for a while. I was
sure a tirade of abuse would follow. Maybe even a spirited charge at them.
Instead, she asked, in a shy flirtatious manner, whether she could sit on
Kamanga’s lap since the other chairs were occupied. Kamanga more than obliged.

“You
see,” he said boastfully as the woman tenderly sat on him, “this is a woman I
would not leave in the cold to be devoured by wolves.”

I
couldn’t understand the act. But then again, I have never been one to
understand women. The act gave me so many colliding thoughts that I decided not
to burn Kamanga’s car after all.

As
I huffed in anger and confusion, I asked myself: Why am I this angry? Is it
because of poor Odhiambo? Is it because of the thousands that were killed in
the violence, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees?

Am
I angry because of the rampant tribalism that never seems to ever go away? Or
is it due to this woman who is now, by Kamanga’s countenance, whispering
naughty things in his ear. Perhaps it’s all down to Njeri, a woman I had never
met. If yes, am I angry only because she was a woman from my tribe? Would I be
as angry if she was from another tribe? Yes? No? And what does it say about me
that I have friends who relish such wickedness?

Later
Kamanga and the lady excused themselves. Kamanga was so drunk he could barely
stand straight. As the lady supported him on their way out, I heard him ask her
if she could drive or whether they would have to hail a taxi.

That
was the last time anyone saw or heard from Kamanga.




On this Day

Hannah, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this photo of you from exactly five years ago today.

Do you remember that day, Hannah? “Meet us in the park,” your friends said, “we’re down by the river,” and so you (pictured, left) went, and you all sat in the shade because Ellie (pictured, right), one of your oldest friends, sunburnt so easily. Mark (not pictured) bought everyone ice creams and you lay around on the daisy-jeweled riverbank, the air fragrant with barbeque and coconut sun cream and freshly cut grass, and you chatted and laughed and had a good time. You don’t remember what you talked about though, do you, Hannah, because why would you – you thought you’d have hundreds more of these lazy afternoons, no need to commit every conversation to memory, no need to do anything but feel life wash over you, bask in its pulsing rays.

Look
how happy you are, Hannah. You’re positively glowing. Look how young you are.
Life hasn’t done its damage yet, hasn’t wrinkled that youthful face, shadowed
those shining eyes. This was before The Year Everyone Died, wasn’t it, Hannah?
Before Mark (who took this photo, captioned it “Summer of Love,” and uploaded
it to Facebook for you to enjoy this special memory) was found dead in his
flat, alone, his cat curled on his lap. Before Ellie was found dead, alone, on
the night of Dan’s funeral – Dan
(not pictured) who overdosed, alone, “accidentally” they said but who knows, I
mean they said Ellie died of “natural causes” but what’s fucking natural about
dying at the age of 34? This was before Carl (not pictured) died, alone, jaundiced
and bloated and surrounded by empty whiskey bottles in a hotel room in Beirut.
Before your Nan (not pictured) died, surrounded by family in hospital, a couple
of days before Christmas. Do you remember what your Nan said, Hannah, when you
told her you loved her?

“If
I could bottle up all that love, I could go on forever.”

But
nobody goes on forever, do they, Hannah? We just thought we’d remind you of
that today, five years since this photo was taken, and what have you even done
with your life in those five years, Hannah, are you making the most of every moment,
are you doing your dead proud? Because you survived, Hannah, and they didn’t,
and your incessant googling of “survivors’ guilt” won’t slacken its noose.

We’re
only reminding you of all this because we’re such good friends, Hannah, which
is why we’re on a first-name basis. We care so much about you and your memories, and by care we might mean own, but you don’t need to read the
small print, Hannah – just trust
in our relentless algorithms.




In Search of Kunufeh – a recent journey to Israel and Jordan

At the end of last winter I caught a cheap flight to Tel Aviv, met up with a friend, and we made our way to the Holy City on a local bus. We’d spent a mesmerising night in Jaffa, the Muslim quarter, woken by the call to prayer, and brushing by young Israeli hipsters in the market area where we ate overpriced food. We planned to cross into Jordan in the south of Israel by bus, then travel into the desert. But more on that later. On our very unglamorous hikes between train and bus stations we had our first glimpses of the B side of Israel – gritty neighbourhoods, concrete eyesores, Ethiopian dress shops and foreign workers traipsing by. We missed upmarket Tel Aviv and moved on.

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

From crusaders to missile fire over the Garden of
Gethsemane

As the bus carves through Jerusalem’s sparse surrounds
to the wind-swept, rock-bound city, I try to remember biblical references from
girlhood Mass attendance and my love of art history. Jesus Christ. Calvary. The
Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane. Then Caravaggio, Mantegna, Fra
Angelico. I hadn’t really intended to visit Jerusalem, being unsure what to
wish for and expect, but it was on the roadmap we had drawn up on our way to
nearby Petra and Amman, places I had yearned to visit for years. Already the off-duty
kid soldiers at the bus station, machine guns slung in laps, made me uneasy, as
I recalled border skirmishes, Palestinian youths shot, bulldozers, missiles. We
hop off our bus and ask street directions from a gentleman in Hasidic dress. In
my ignorance I had assumed traditional clothing might be reserved for special
occasions, but I was soon to see that this aspect of life in Jerusalem – the
dapper tights, shoes and shiny black skirt, the hair curls and extravagant hats
– is a vital omnipresent feature.

Air Bnb has a
stranglehold on the world of el cheapo tourism on every continent. We book
ahead as we move – our lodgings include a Bedouin tent in Jordan’s Wadi Rum
national park and I receive a WhatsApp vocal message from our host Tariq Ali,
spoken while desert winds blow in the background. In Jerusalem, we enter a
couple’s apartment – their existence,
it seems – complete with selfies taken in Washington, weird soft toys, broken
hair dryer. Life in the contested territories might be cheap, but for a young
childless couple in Jerusalem, the cost of living is high. Extra shekels from
tourists help. By the end of our days there, we are wondering whether R (guy)
will one day be wearing Hasidic garb, and modern C (girl) is destined to wear
headscarf, drab skirt and flat shoes, leading a batch of children, the little
boys with shaven heads and corkscrew curls. The
Chosen People
– is what I frequently feel as I see these family units pass
us on the streets.

Up and over the
hill through the heaving Mahane Yehuda market, we cross the modern centre and
join tourists of all nationalities funnelling through the alleyways of the
walled city. Our first visit is by night and there is a chill off the ancient
stone. With little forewarning we find ourselves in the floodlit open-air arena
before the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter, watching nodding worshippers
from afar. The flagstones descend in a mild slope to the grass-tufted stones of
the wall. There is a continual arrival of men to pray. And of women to a sectioned-off
stretch of wall to the right. Used to the emptiness of churches in Italy where
I live, I watch the way worshippers stride towards the undeniably holy energy
of the site. I remember photos in my father’s Time magazine of the Western Wall. I remember the Camp David talks
and the Six Day War; the decades of blockades, missiles and slaughter. Good
guys versus bad guys. Headline fatigue. Munich, Sadat, Begin, Arafat. Now I am
standing before this timelessly powerful monument, breathing the cold air in awe,
remembering the House of David and the crusades, thinking that this is the
source, this is what it was all about.

King Herod, errant
observer of Judaism and vicious despot who executed his beloved wife Mariamne I
and three of his sons, was a client ruler of the province of Judea under the
Roman empire. Herod was responsible for the construction of the Second Temple,
built upon the four sustaining walls around the Temple Mount. The Western Wall
is the last remaining wall from this grand structure destroyed by the Romans in
70CE. Today’s Temple Mount is the site of the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the
Rock, whose golden cupola rises above the labyrinthine Old City with its four
religious zones existing shoulder to shoulder – the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and
Armenian quarters. First constructed under the Umayyad Caliphate in 691–2CE,
the Dome of the Rock is built over the Foundation Stone central to Judaic and
Islamic beliefs. It is both where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son, and
where the Prophet ascended into heaven. Maddeningly, we are unable to enter the
Holy Mosque, having missed the afternoon when non-Muslims are allowed to visit
the grounds, so we opt for over-sweetened tea while watching visitors.

A brief, winding
hike away stands the equally significant bastion of Christianity, the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre. This fourth-century cluster of sombre domes is built over
Calvary, supposedly the site of Christ’s crucifixion, and bears his hallowed
tomb, guarded by a brusque Greek Orthodox priest, given the property is
governed by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches.
The religious determination of milling tourists gets under my skin – there are
women wiping the tombstone with cloths, or laying hands there to absorb the
distilled energy of centuries. I find myself placing a hand on the ancient
rock, thinking of the many souls who have passed through here before me beneath
the same redolent light.

When I was in my twenties
I drove a tiny Renault around Cathar and Templar country in the south of
France, sleeping in the back seat and sunbathing in fields with French cows. My
fascination with the crusades took me to Albi, Carcassonne, Rocamadour; my love
of architecture and art history took me into every cathedral rising on the
horizon, where I pored over Black Virgins and Romanesque capitals and barrel
vaults. I’d fallen for Ancient Greek history in high school and followed that
up in university with a course in religious conversion movements and the
missionary-speared economic expansion of capitalist Europe in Africa. Walking
through the religious sectors in Jerusalem makes these intersecting interests
tumble into place. On our last afternoon we take the Via Dolorosa towards the
Mount of Olives, a ridge east of the Old City which has been a Jewish cemetery
since antiquity, also where it is said Christ ascended into heaven. We look
back to the burnished cupola of the Dome of the Rock. The overlapping of
history and religion is astonishing. We stare at the much-contested capital,
plundered and suppressed countless times, which has seen a succession of
Jewish, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Christian, Persian, Arab, Turkish, British and
now Israeli leaders, including the ever-meddling Trump clan. In 2007, the city
celebrated 3,000 years of existence from its establishment by King David.

I wonder if there has ever been a sleepy period of peace along these stony valleys. As we return towards the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas delivered his treacherous kiss, we recall Monty Python’s Life of Brian – Brian in his nappy on the Cross and John Cleese as a Roman centurion. We halt when we see smoke rising from the nearby Palestinian territories of the West Bank, followed by an outbreak of gunfire and crackling. We follow the whine of sirens crossing beneath the glistening afternoon cityscape.

Western Wall, Jerusalem

Desert fire, desert wind

We take a night bus out of Jerusalem towards the
border resort of Eilat. Date palms, roundabouts; more kids with machine guns
and boots. At 6.25am we wait for our documents to be checked on the Israeli
side, and then march through to Jordan to wait for our passports to be stamped.
We had decided to take the Aqaba crossing, visiting the Wadi Rum national park
before heading north to Petra, before ending our trip in Amman. A friendly
border official shares an orange with us. His cranky colleague fires up his
computer under a broken ceiling panel with cables dangling above our heads. The
border has been sketched out along the gap between two arid mountain ranges
pressed to the north-eastern corner of the Red Sea. A few hours later Aqaba is
behind us. From afar, its minarets and handsome, crooked hotels face the
equally handsome crooked hotels of Eilat on the Israeli side, both resorts
offering diving trips, seafood fare and middle-eastern delicacies. We drive
north into the desert on a broad road in a crazy taxi.

There is a turn
off the dusty highway towards a valley of monoliths. This is where we are
headed for the next few days, where we are soon to meet Tariq Ali, who will
transport us to his alluring Bedouin camp. On the screen, we saw a brief row of
individual tents under a rockface, each one decked out in remarkable fabric. It
seemed too idyllic to be true and, though neither of us has voiced it, I think
we are both fairly sure we will bum out on this one. We are picked up by Tariq’s
“brother”, told to hoist ourselves into the truck and the vehicle jolts through
a dusty bessa-block village before the bumping ride over red sand begins.

It is not yet
sunset. The sky is at her most appealing, rose and resonant orange bordering a
saturated blue. We fly through a wide valley walled by glorious rock formations
that run to around 150m high. The valley is immense. Occasionally, skirting
these sculpted rocks, we see a half-dozen tents in formation. Evidence of
tourists like us. The sand is grooved by tyre tracks with tiny flowers surging
on mounds; camels idle across the sand or are led by robed men on foot. The
hugeness is hard to describe. The panorama becomes more dramatic, more
extensive, more impossible to comprehend with mere vision, or the cameras and iPhones
we abandon in order to invite our senses to expand. The odours of the desert;
the texture of wind; the disarming quiet when the engine stills.

Our tent is a
peaked, fabric-lined box, raised off the ground. A steel-framed opening on a
jamb provides an overwhelming view of the reaches of the reddened valley. We
are thrilled as kids. Across the valley we see a faded wall of rock which we decide
immediately we will march to on foot.

Communal meals take place took place in a long, tapestried tent with lounges surrounding an evening fire. Window openings overlook the smouldering panorama as the cold mounts. The cook prepares chicken and vegetables in an ashen-covered hole in the ground. Guests are scant and quiet; our hosts ironic and teasing – used to a steady stream of tourists. Though we venture out on a jeep ride to vantage points along the valley the following day, the most startling moments are when we pace out into the immensity of the desert ourselves: in one instance a startling canyon with bleeding russet rock faces; on another afternoon we climb the first pinnacles of the stony walls above our campsite. Up here we sit in the rustling desert silence, watching the miniscule traffic threading along the valley paths below, or the stationary rock masses that have observed the fleeting lives of humans. I could have stayed there a week absorbing the unexpected birdsong, the smell of the earth, the sensation of light, the cooling winds over the implacable mountains.

Petra, Jordan

The wounded valley – a walk through Petra

We travel on to Petra by bus where we’ve booked a
cheap hotel in the town above the widely visited rock settlement. Our room is
between the main mosque and a startling pastry shop run solely by men, where we
ogle circular trays of golden syrupy Jordanian sweets, taking home a batch for
breakfast. We head downhill in the morning to the entrance to Petra, where we
present our Jordan Passes (bought online before we left, allowing travellers
entry to many archaeological sites and the chance to waive the visa fee) and
join tourists heading inside. Sculpted out of red sandstone by the Nabatean
people and originally known as Raqmu, at its peak in the first-century CE Petra
was a vital trading city inhabited by 20,000 people. Originally nomadic Arabs,
the Nabatean people became sophisticated builders who harnessed erratic desert
water supplies in order to establish the naturally fortified settlement. A
client state of Rome, and eventually a part of the empire, Petra dwindled in
significance after an earthquake in 363CE and faded from prominence, being
revealed to Western eyes by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in
1812, who gained entry to the site disguised as a Muslim.

Today’s Petra is a
UNESCO site, keystone of Jordan’s thriving tourist industry. Visitors enter via
the 3–4 km long Siq, a natural passage between sandstone walls leading to the
wider valley where the spectacular main buildings are carved out of marbled
rose rock. Along the Siq we dodge locals charging through on festooned
horse-and-carts transporting elderly tourists, and I recall my aversion to
Venice and Rome in the summertime, fearing this will be a similar tourist trap.
The narrow gorge opens onto the astounding façade of Al Khazneh, the Treasury
building, its two tiers of columns and decorated architrave extending to the
cliff edge above, remarkably preserved. The distinct Nabatean style emerges
from this alcove excavated from the vertical rock, with shallow caverns looming
behind the acanthus-topped columns. The cool earthen smell and the abandoned
quiet of the ancient façade contrast with the melee of tourists below speaking
all languages – the Bedouin guides with their oiled black locks and kohled eyes
who make Johnny Depp look like a fraudulent copycat, camels in colourful saddle
gear like gawky young women.

Snaking through
the valley is a wider road that widens before a carved reddish amphitheatre.
Rather than the incense traders of yore, today’s arena is busy with souvenir
sellers and young men walloping ponies; a wry boy who looks part old man offers
a ride on his Ferrari-4×4 donkey. The theatre looks towards a series of
dramatic façades chiselled into the stone, identified as royal tombs. At the
end of the day these grow golden in the light and we climb to the chambers
within, long-ago emptied prisms awash with textured rock planes. From this
humbling vantage point you turn back towards the gilded spread of the hidden
valley – the half-ruined Roman road and a Byzantine church atop a hill, the
massive sandstone block foundations of the great temple smashed by the long-ago
earthquake, and the well-worn trail leading up to the serene monastery of El
Deir.

We drink fresh pomegranate juice, buy cheap scarves from women who pretend to compete with their sisters ahead. There is a sense of not-yet-unruly mass tourism – I hear an elderly Australian couple, the guy struggling with a walking stick, and wonder how they have come so far. By the end of the day the winding path reeks of horseshit, the tourists have set off uphill to their hotels and the dying light catches exquisite detail in the diorama before us – the manmade enhanced by centuries of desert wind. The invisible Nabateans return as ghosts and gods.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Amman – the welcoming arms of a well-fed city

On our first morning in Amman we read of the
Christchurch massacre on the other side of the world, ahead of time. Muslims at
prayer in the suburbs. Families. Kids. It is a revolting outrage, made more
obscene by the fact that we are travelling in a peaceful and welcoming Muslim
country, where the pre-dawn muezzin has been a soothing balm through our
slumber.

We catch a bus out
of town to the ancient Roman settlement of Jerash, with its pitch-perfect
theatre and stunning oval piazza, and the 60-ton stone Corinthian columns of
the destroyed Temple of Artemis standing amidst flowery grass. We walk under
Hadrian’s arch, erected when the Roman Emperor visited his dominions in the
winter of 129–130CE, with his entourage and preferred Bithynian lover Antinous,
who would soon drown in the Nile and be deified after death.

Back in Amman we set out downhill to the centre of this crammed, elegant city draped across a ring of hills, also settled by waves of conquerors from the Persians to the Ottomans. Since 1921 Jordan has been ruled by the Hashemite family, who claim descent from Muhammed’s daughter Fatimah. We pass the central mosque in the midst of a vast souk where we buy tea and incense; I admire the red and black traditional dresses adorning ranks of plastic models – though there are no slim sizes for me. In shops and falafel bars we see photos of King Abdullah II and Queen Rania enjoying local food haunts. It feels as though there is love and closeness in the community. We eat unforgettable falafel sandwiches at Al Quds Falafel, and an unbelievable meal at the downtown Hashem Restaurant. We join a queue to the city’s top sweets bar – Habibah – that specialises in kunufeh, a semolina dough soaked in syrup and rose water with a layer of cheese beneath, sprinkled with pistachio nuts on top. Amazing! We join a row of beatific faces eating from plastic plates in a side street. Above us, there is another hill to climb towards the ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules – visited on this sparkling afternoon by locals and tourists alike – for the lavish view of the many-faceted buildings covering the surrounding hills, including the crisp arc of the second-century Roman theatre still in use.

The call to prayer rings out, and we are coming to the end of this rich voyage. The afternoon sun lowers, cutting over the city, highlighting the ridge miles away that we will have to climb to get back to our cheap hotel. Several things I have learned on this brief Middle Eastern jaunt: an Italian passport opens more doors than an Australian one; the desert is a place I would like to return to; I thought I knew how to make hummus but I was clueless.




A Tale of Two Rice Fields

Picture Credits: Suhas Rawool

While a cornucopia of paper houses burn, I stand transfixed by the flames as they enter into the sky, the fire and smoke interlacing as both make their way into the rapidly-darkening horizon. Perhaps there was a prayer I could have uttered as this shrine of offerings was cleansed by the flames to join my grandfather beyond the mortal veil. Some eloquent last goodbye, proving that our bond as gōa-soon and gōa-kong had something more to it than just pleasantries at weekly lunches. But all I could do was continue to look at the flames as paper bills with inscriptions I couldn’t understand were continually consumed and rebirthed as ash.

It
was the last day of funeral celebrations for my grandfather, and although I was
surrounded by my family, I had never felt more out of place. A common aspect of
Chinese ancestral worship, even among diaspora, is the burning of joss paper,
paper-maché cars, microwaves, and other objects. These are meant to be
veneration of the dead, a method of providing for them in death what they once
had in life. Once, these beloved objects were buried in the graves with the
dead themselves; now, miniature carbon copies take their place in altars and
shrines all across the world, each a reminder of the deceased’s earthly
possessions. In the end, perhaps it is these mementoes and relics, the ones
that exist only to be bought and burnt up, that tell us the most about what we
value.

I
have probably never felt as connected to these traditions and practices as I
should be, considering that the people who were participating in these rituals
make up fifty per cent of my extended family, as my mother is one hundred per
cent Chinese-Filipino. In films such as The Impossible and Cinema
Paradiso
, tragedies like these are meant to bring families closer together.
In The Impossible, the sheer horror of the Indian Ocean tsunami is
overshadowed by how the Bennetts manage to reunite and emerge stronger than
ever before. Instead, in my personal tragedy, the wave I am faced with is the
deluge of comments in Hokkien from distant cousins and aunties. The only action
is me nodding blankly, trying to pretend I understand a single word they say.
Spoiler: I don’t.

It
makes perfect sense that we return to our ancestral roots in the face of loss. But
that didn’t seem to help my situation when I was sitting blankly and trying to
comprehend everything, when I knew (and still know) absolutely nothing. Maybe
it is odd that I haven’t even learned the basics of a language I should
probably be fluent in, but am I to blame when my parents only ever seem to
speak their native languages behind my back? That just might be the thing about
our roots and our traditions – if nothing else, we know them, and we know that
they are unlikely to change any time soon.

Perhaps, though,
that’s what we need to know about dealing with the ones that we love when they
inevitably leave us. We all have our routines, our daily rituals. When the
boats of our lives inevitably encounter rough waters, they are our life rafts,
allowing us to at least attempt to begin anew, perhaps better than before. Then
again, is it not these routines and practices that shackle us to the past?

As
Warren Buffett once said, “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they
are too heavy to be broken.” Past the scent of burning paper and the chain of
white-clad people that made up the funeral procession, maybe all of our rituals
and all of our offerings were designed not for us to forget our past – but to
create a new way forward, our memories merged with our most wanted wishes. Honouring
our past, while embracing the future: isn’t that what we are constantly trying
to work towards?

Before
my grandfather’s passing, weekly Sunday lunches were always a treat: a time for
my little brother to buy toys and a time for my extended family to actually
interact with one another. With one less seat at the table, however, it
sometimes feels as though as there is a spectre sitting at the dining room
table with us. We once went to a different restaurant each week, but I have now
memorized the order in which we go to these establishments, as dictated by my
grandmother – first, Banana Leaf, second, Via Mare, third, Wooden Spoon, and
fourth, Kaya. This weekly rotation of meals and malls is yet another routine,
something meant to keep the train of life chugging right along even with a bump
in the tracks.

If
there is one thing therapists specializing in grief counselling can agree on,
though, it is that there is no right way to grieve, or even a right amount of
time to grieve for. Reports from the medical department of the University of
California Davis say that expecting one to grieve for a year is but a myth,
because it depends on the person, or the group of people. Some grieve through
offerings and prayer, others through routines that attempt to include the
person as if they were still here with them in some way, but as the saying
goes, “to each their own”.

Some
would say that a world where everyone goes through life with a perfect
understanding of everyone else’s cultural traditions and practices is
impossible. But respect isn’t understanding. We will all face loss at some
point in our lives, and we all will try to find our little ways to cope. There
will be times when we won’t ever truly “get” something, but that isn’t the
point. All we have to do is give everyone their space, and a sign that we care.
We don’t need to understand the exact purpose of what they’re doing, but we can
appreciate it nonetheless. We must all continue to grieve, regardless of our
individual sorrow. Life will go on despite our mistakes, our regrets, and our
lost loved ones. That’s why on the path that we call our lives, the only
possible direction is forward. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. If it is only
in death that we are all truly equal; we must learn to respect the ways in
which we are different before we all end up six feet under.




Art and Good Government

Picture Credit: Ambrogio Lorenzetti

A little while ago, an
old friend who lives in another part of the country was visiting my cottage for
the first time. To our mutual surprise, we discovered we both had a print of
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco “Allegory of Good Government” hanging on our
respective walls. Nor are my friend and I alone: Niall Ferguson, the historian,
in his latest provocative history, The
Square and the Tower
(2018), reveals that the very first picture he ever
bought was a print of Lorenzetti’s Allegory. Lorenzetti (c1290–1348) painted
the fresco in a room in the Palazzo Pubblico of the medieval republic of Siena.
The fresco was a revolutionary artefact of the fourteenth century. It portrayed
a vista of an idealised Siena and the surrounding countryside: it is probably
the first true landscape painting in Europe since the Ancient Roman frescos,
and the extravagant city roofscape is testament to Lorenzetti’s innovative
experiments with perspective. But it was not for these reasons alone that I and
the old friend (and, I imagine, Niall Ferguson) had given houseroom to the
print.

The fresco is one of a
pair: on the opposite wall is the “Allegory of Bad Government.” The Palazzo room
in which both are to be found is The Room of Nine, where the Council of Nine
met nearly seven hundred years ago to govern the republic. The didactic purpose
of the frescos is clear from the strap-line at the base of the Allegory of Good
Government, which begins “Turn your eyes to behold her, you who govern her…”
Bad Government depicts an enthroned tyrant wielding a dagger and flanked by the
figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War; the streets are
empty, the houses are damaged, the only trader is the armourer; and the
countryside is ravaged – a location for advancing armies. Good Government shows
celebratory dancers in the street, artisans at their various trades in the
shops, and builders among the roof tops raising a new tower; in the
countryside, peasants are working in productive fields, huntsmen are riding
forth to find game, and packhorses are making their way to the city, laden with
goods. The message to the Council of Nine seems clear: take heed that you
govern wisely to bring happiness and prosperity to the republic.

Yet things are not always
as they seem. The Sienese Republic lasted four hundred years, but it was only
intermittently and infrequently democratic. The Council of Nine were a group of
merchant-princes, drawn from families that had long become extraordinarily
wealthy from banking and trading: Sienese families had been bankers to the Pope
and had dispatched traders to travel as far as Persia. The Allegories were
pieces of public art, commissioned by the Council. Were they commissioned to
instruct, or to celebrate? Langton Douglas’s classic 1902 A History of Siena is
unambiguous: “…the whole composition is a tract, written in buon fresco, with the object of
glorifying the plutocratic regime”. Certainly, the Council were no strangers to
glorifying projects: the Torre del Mangia – the great bell tower of the Palazzo
– constructed around the same time as the frescos, was deliberately raised to
be the tallest building in all Italy.

However, we (who are
surrounded by public art) must recognise that not all artists who receive a
commission embark upon projects of glorification of their public patrons. There
are, of course, occasions when the aims of the artist and the patron are so
contradictory that the project flounders. A famous and extreme example would be
John D. Rockefeller Junior’s demand that Diego Rivera remove the portrait of Vladimir
Lenin from the mural commissioned to adorn the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s.
But more often than not, commissioners are prepared to grant some license, and
accept some gentle instruction, from the commissioned.

In 1355, the citizens of
Siena rose in revolt, expelled the Nine, and established a Magistry of Twelve,
chosen from among the small traders of the city. But by that time, Lorenzetti
had been dead for eight years, a victim of the bubonic plague that killed half
the inhabitants of the city – a catastrophe from which Siena never completely
recovered. Who is now to say whether Lorenzetti was the brilliant tool of the
Council of Nine, or the harbinger of the Magistry of Twelve?




The Body is a Battlefield

Pic Credits: linspiration01 https://goo.gl/XeJVbR

Hordes of angry women wrote to me after the publication of Woman of Substances: A Journey into Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment. It wasn’t me they were mad at. The book is the accumulation of eight years’ research into the trauma, misogyny (often that “internalised” bad boy) and mental-health issues that can lie behind women’s problematic substance use. My social-media inboxes became a kind of safe harbour for readers to dock their most rageful thoughts.

I’ll be honest, I found it exhausting to read these messages during a press period where I was asked, relentlessly, about the four pages of my book that spoke of my own childhood trauma. “Maintain the rage!” one woman wrote. I aged ten years wondering if I possibly could. The common denominator in all these messages was that the owners had felt catastrophically disempowered, often around ownership of their bodies. These were women literate in mental health, so they probably knew well that anger is the emotion that shelters shame, fear and rejection. It feels empowering, but it’s transference all the same.

All this ties into a thesis that arose out of Woman of Substances: that the body becomes our battlefield. Some men will find this a familiar concept too, but women, from a young age, are conditioned to be the diplomats, the carers, the ones who absorb the blame. And so a woman who is distressed might stage a silent rebellion through her body. At one end of the scale, she chops off her hair after a breakup. At the other end, she puts her foot to the accelerator and drives her body into the ground, startling bystanders. Parents, newspapers and police press conferences may warn her of the dangers of getting paralytic, but at least when she raises that bottle to her lips or inhales on a pipe, it’s her executive decision.

I argue that there’s a key triumvirate of self-destructive behaviours; or maladaptive coping strategies, as they’re more diplomatically known. As well as problematic substance use, there’s eating disorders and self-harm. The three can often rotate – one popping up like Whac-A-Mole the moment another is smacked down – or they can coexist. Through their physicality they offer relief from intrusive, circular thoughts. But they’re imbued with violence. Drinking feels like drowning oneself. Taking drugs feels like obliteration. Self-harm takes the focus of pain from the emotions to a precise point on the body. Throwing up is the literal purging of shame.

These behaviours are often in part down to the exploration of self-loathing, but I also posit that any act of aggression against the body is an act of regaining ownership of it, just as when a person inflicts violence upon another, they now wield the power. To decide to harm oneself can be particularly appealing to an adolescent with no autonomy, or to a person who has experienced childhood sexual abuse, or to someone who has been shamed for their sexuality, or to one who endured endless medical procedures when young, or to anyone who feels that their body has been co-opted by everyone else.

*

When I started drinking at thirteen, I retreated inside my body. I stopped using it – for sport, for games, for affection – and I only did things to it.

My teens were a distilled version of the War on Drugs: all prohibition and punitive measures. My mother made me sign a four-page contract without my lawyer present, packed with clauses that prohibited my favourite activities. A curfew was established that only allowed me to walk home from school at a brisk pace. Allowances were made for small privileges in exchange for lengthy chores. The lock on my door was removed, as was the red light bulb in my room; apparently it didn’t look groovy and psychedelic – it made the house look like a brothel.

From this point on, alcohol became a form of psychic emancipation. I was blind drunk every day after school. How was I managing it? Nobody knew. I was the Criss Angel of drinking. Every time the key to the drinks cabinet was hidden, I’d pride myself on finding it. In Dad’s desk drawer? Laughable. Behind the salt cellar? Come on. After a while I got my own key cut at the cobbler’s on Slough High Street so that I didn’t need to bother playing the game. When I was finally rumbled and forced to hand that over, I resorted to Dad’s terrible home-brew in the shed, which yeastily expanded the gut and sent one into quite the stupor. Tiring of that, I just broke into the cabinet with an icing spatula.

“It’s like you WANT to get caught,” Mum would snap, amending the contract at the kitchen table.

As the jaws clamped tighter around me, autonomy was achieved through more imaginative methods. Every time I felt enraged I got another hole punched in my ear. When I started getting frisked at the front door as I left, I’d buzz-cut another few inches of hair off my scalp when I got home. At school, I noticed that my friend was whittling away into her arm with her set of compasses during maths class. I pulled up my sleeve and showed her my own homework.

Mutilating the body may be a silent act, but it literally scores a story into the skin. Over the decades there have been varying explanations for self-harm, from hysteria in the late nineteenth century, to suicide ideation in the ‘50s, to rote diagnoses of borderline personality disorder (known by many in the medical profession as the “dustbin diagnosis”, into which difficult women are chucked) from around the 1980s onwards.

In her 2017 book Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm, Sarah Chaney was critical that psychiatry “has largely suggested narratives framed in clinical, biomedical or individual terms.” Often, she points out, “this ignores the things that happen to people or the environments they live in. Poverty, homelessness, abuse, racism, oppression.” Certainly, the DSM – the standard classification of mental disorders used by many mental health professionals – tends to pathologise as mental disorders women’s responses to the specific challenges they face in patriarchal society. (Perhaps that’s because there are only four women among the twenty-four-strong taskforce behind the latest edition.)

In the 1964 autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanna Greenberg (writing as Hannah Green), teenager Deborah is admitted to a mental-health facility for three years. There, she is constantly monitored because of her propensity to express her anger through self-mutilation. She seizes back control by creating a secret world – with even its own calendar and measure of time – where they cannot interfere with her. This desire for agency is echoed in much of Sylvia Plath’s work, including the poem Stings. Plath – who had expressed suicide ideation since childhood – wrote, “It is almost over. I am in control”.

There will always be those who view self-harm less as the individual asserting control over themselves than an unforgivable stab at eliciting attention – which is then all the more stubbornly withheld. For Woman of Substances, I interviewed Dr Ben Sessa, a Bristol-based child psychiatrist who also conducts clinical trials in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with alcohol-dependent adult clients. They’re twin interests, in his view. He told me, “We have all these sentimental feelings for little children who are being abused and hurt, but then we don’t accept what happens to them when they grow up, when they display antisocial behaviours. It’s a sloppy understanding of developmental psychology.”

Sessa gives the example of visiting a fifteen-year-old girl in casualty after she’s self-harmed with an overdose. “The nurses will say: ‘Don’t let her get one over you; she’s a manipulator, an attention seeker.’ I hate that term, ‘attention seeker’. I go up to this kid and say, ‘Good for you for seeking attention. You deserve attention. You have my attention.’ It’s a recognition that they’re not bad people; they’re the most vulnerable people. These are natural adaptive responses to pain.”

*

It’s eating disorders that can have the most complex relationship with substance use. Research from Columbia University has found that three per cent of the general population have eating disorders, but when we narrow that population down to people with problematic substance use, the figure rises to thirty-five per cent.

The shared risk factors include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or impulsivity; unhealthy parental behaviours; peer and social pressures; and a history of sexual or physical abuse. As journalist Kelsey Osgood writes in her memoir How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, “It never occurred to me to try to lose weight in any healthy way, or to strive for a body that ‘looked good’. I wanted to be repulsively thin.”

When substance use and an eating disorder occur together, the individual’s inner struggle can quickly escalate to a crisis. Most eating-disorder wards and drug-and-alcohol facilities are separate services and each is generally unequipped to treat a dual diagnosis, let alone an additional mental illness and history of trauma. So someone presenting with both will fall between the cracks. Both issues can be life-threatening and require intensive therapy, despite which there will be high relapse rates.

It was a combination of bulimia and alcohol poisoning that Amy Winehouse’s brother Alex attributes her death to. Winehouse had a terrific self-awareness, analysing her behaviour and motives in depth in her lyrics, but she also had no control left over her life. She was hopelessly entwined with the needs of another person with problematic use – her husband – and was bundled off planes and onto stages by her management. She was hemmed in at home by the paparazzi. There was no period factored in for recovery. By the time she refused to sing at the ill-fated Belgrade concert and instead took a seat on the stage, she was practically a prisoner of her schedule. Her body, which made newspaper headlines, became a very public act of defiance.

In many ways, her situation isn’t unusual. Girls are hounded by their own self-inflicted paparazzi: Instagram, Snapchat, other social media. They’re compelled, pressured and shamed into capturing themselves as a commodity in every waking hour. In this sense, an eating disorder can be reframed by the individual as a magnificent feat of endurance, as can slicing the skin or drinking like a lemming off a cliff. Look what I can do, it says.

As well as the more obvious desire not to grow outwards, an eating disorder can signify a desire not to grow up. Just as losing oneself in substances guarantees arrested development, so becoming smaller freezes the advent of adulthood. That can be appealing to one who feels that childhood didn’t go the way it ought to have. In the case of those who have received unwanted attention as children, getting thinner suggests a desire to disappear from view altogether: If I starve myself, nobody will notice me. If I overeat, no one will want to touch me and I’ll become invisible.

There’s a further complication with women’s bodies, this time accidental, not deliberate, and that’s the hormonal mayhem inflicted by taking substances or dramatically losing weight. Alcohol raises oestrogen levels, which can contribute to panic attacks, poor memory, anxiety and depression. In one study, blood and urine oestrogen levels increased up to thirty-two per cent in women who drank just two drinks a day.

The flipside is that women suffering low progesterone might be attracted to alcohol and benzodiazepines such as Xanax, because these substances can quell anxiety. But there’s no literature for the laywoman on this matter; only scientific papers that take some unearthing and decoding.

That’s the effect of substances on hormones, but the reverse is also significant – hormones affect a woman’s response to substances. In week one of her cycle, the menstrual phase, fatigue is likely to hasten the effects of drugs and alcohol. In week two, the follicular phase, oestrogen levels rise along with impulsivity, making women more prone to benders and relapses. Oestrogen is also thought to sensitise the brain to THC – the psychoactive component of cannabis – and in general slows down the elimination of substances from the body. In week three, the ovulatory phase, there’s an influx of progesterone, which tempers the individual’s interest in substances. In week four, the luteal phase, oestrogen and testosterone plunge. There may be a craving for alcohol, as there is for carbohydrates in general.

*

Having reached the proverbial rock bottom, I quit drinking for eight years before cautiously reintroducing alcohol. Now, drinking doesn’t feel like self-harm; the emphasis is on enjoyment. Having more than three in a row, in fact, fills me with horror as my edges start to blur. It’s hard to imagine that getting shitfaced had like being in control, but then, harming myself had felt like action in place of the passivity I felt as a depressed adolescent.

Now I had to rethink my relationship with my body. Sport put me in control in an entirely different way (with endorphins replacing the ding-ding-ding dopamine-kick of drugs) and getting stronger and stronger feels like the greatest way of achieving agency. Naturally, it’s all become very addictive.

Remembering to use the body instead of do things to it is a pretty common awakening when people tackle their substance use. I’ve got a friend who stopped shooting speed and now has her own yoga centre. Another is a competing body builder who gets the same gory enjoyment out of her four a.m. starts and rations of food as she did with her four a.m. crashes and lines of coke. It all taps into the same grizzly capacity for endurance. Similarly, many quitters turn to running. They’ve got a head start with their all-or-nothing mindset.

For some women, particularly those who have been in abusive relationships, empowerment begins with being put in touch with services that allow them to control their own finances and with agencies that help them restore order in their lives and visualise a new self. For those seeking treatment, a program that encourages self-reliance could be a better fit than one that relies on surrender to a higher power.

One alternative to AA/NA is Women for Sobriety (WFS). There are thirteen acceptance statements in its “New Life” programme, and instead of introducing herself as an alcohol or addict, a woman states her name and something positive about herself. Similarly, SMART Recovery offers meetings that focus on the individual’s own resources to tackle upcoming challenges or meet goals (full disclosure, I’m on the board of the Australian outpost of SMART).

Even with the best-laid plans, if a person has the kind of triggering incident that makes them feel out of control, they’re likely to whip out one of their old, comforting behaviours – scoring the skin, purging, or getting obliterated. It’s as though they’re falling back into a lover’s arms. That’s why it’s important that treatment programs and professionals reframe “relapse” so that it’s not a source of further anguish. Lessons could be learned from the world of business, where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities – and as inevitable. Self-flagellation is the last thing that’s needed.

 *

Woman of Substances is published by Head of Zeus and is in shops and online stores such as Amazon. The reference list for this research is viewable at www.womanofsubstances.com/bibliography.




Buyer’s Remorse

Picture Credits: Bertsz

It’s
2:47 a.m. and my husband Marc hums in his sleep,
as if contemplating something lovely and harmless, say, a buffet of nice
cheese. He garbles
a few words, sounding like an amused drunk, “Gerflah … kezabulla!” Then the snoring
starts.

By
day, Marc is an architect as well as a hands-on father who folds more than his
share of laundry. He takes care of insurance policies and clumps of yucky stuff
in the drain. He thinks my wrinkles and gray hair are sexy. Nearly fifty, he’s
still as trim and athletic as when I first laid eyes on him, back when he was
twenty-one and I was seventeen. But right now I’m wishing we’d never met.

“Roll
over,” I order, nudging his shoulder not so gently. He lets
out a throaty guffaw, as unflappable in sleep as he is awake. I reach for the earplugs.

I
can deal with the snoring. The problem is that we bought a house. Buying a
sweater is hard enough – there is nothing in my closet that has not been
returned at least once for a different size or color – but signing the papers
on a house is the most colossal commitment I have ever made all at once.

The
house is outside of Berlin, where I’ve lived since 1994. Marc is German but I
grew up in Detroit. Our twenty-seven year relationship has grown over time, bit
by bit, like one of those add-a-bead necklaces: blind date, long-distance,
joint lease, one account, two kids… But who said I wanted anything hanging around
my neck?

“It’s not like the question of coffee or tea,” said Frau
von B, the smirking therapist I visited for years. “You can have both, you know
– a fear of commitment and a long-term relationship.”

After my parents’
divorce when I was seven, my mom, a
free-spirited musician, stayed in the city to face addiction and poverty in a
string of grungy apartments while my dad, a conservative doctor, hightailed it
to the suburbs with his new wife and took up golf. Joint custody left me straddling the divide
between country club and thrift store.

Committing
to one lifestyle or the other was impossible. I was a perpetual outsider – be
it at the private academy I attended in Waspy Grosse Pointe or the almost
entirely black Detroit public high school from which I graduated. I was not the
kind of girl who married the boy she took to the prom. But that’s the kind of
woman I’ve become.

“I was seven-teen, going on eight-teen…” This is how I launch into the tale when
people ask how we met. I tell them how I noticed Marc’s elegant hands and calm
gray eyes, how we hid behind our menus, electrified when our furtive glances
met, how neither of us ate a bite, how the very next day, in a rented tux and a
borrowed dress, we endured that all-American rite of passage: the prom. I
hadn’t planned on attending but Marc was curious. He was a foreigner and I had
always felt like one; we made the perfect couple.

Moving to Berlin a few years later seemed the most
obvious thing to do. It was a playground of bullet-pocked streets and
underground clubs. Rent was cheap and so was beer, but
forging my way in a new country wasn’t easy.

Little old ladies scolded me for crossing
the street at a red light. Grumpy bureaucrats refused to grant me permits. People
at parties lectured me on the vacuity of American culture. And I – scrappy by
nature, chameleon at heart – wrangled with them all like a native. My German
became impeccable but I grew homesick for a place that no longer existed. I
could go back to visit, but the gap initially created by my absence had closed.

I found myself paralyzed: committing
to the future meant giving up the past. Waves of depression swelled. When they
knocked me down – panic attacks leading to catatonic days in bed – Marc rushed
in to save me, locking us into the roles of invalid and caregiver, a bond neither of us had imagined: one that
imprisoned us.

Eventually I sobbed to Frau von B
that Marc was having an affair. She was sympathetic but duly analytical,
diagnosing the situation as a “spätpubertierender Befreiungsversuch” – a late pubescent
escape bid.

I
made a bid of my own, dabbling in adultery, ditching a floundering career and
embarking on serious self-help: yoga, meditation, retreats – the whole
spiritual shebang. The idea of a fresh start was alluring. I threw away junk,
pureed kale, painted walls lavender. When the dust of mid-life crisis settled,
it turned out I still loved the guy I had taken to the prom. But a little
equanimity only goes so far… Sometimes that guy was just a twit in a V-neck
sweater.

And
sometimes he was a divine prince. Watching him drive the car made me giddy with
desire. Every conversation was a thrill. Finding him was sheer luck, a life
together more than I deserved. But over time my fickle heart would beat a
little slower. He’d make a tone-deaf comment. I’d notice that V-neck sweater. Then
it was all downhill again…

His
stash of Houellebecq novels signaled inner decay. His failure to laugh at a
joke betrayed the icy Teutonic blood in his veins. His inability to appreciate
Radiohead made me wonder how I could have chained myself to someone so
essentially different. Of all the men in the world, why this one?

With
a shrug, Frau von B once ventured, “Perhaps you use doubt to keep love alive.”

It
made sense. Any long-term relationship requires a lasting connection. Some
couples worship at the same altar, be it The Muscle Shack or Our Lady of
Perpetual Suffering; others are linked in a mutual effort to sell hot tubs or
save the spotted owl. We bond by playing a never-ending version of hard-to-get
– I am hard to live with, but he gets me.

And I
remain dubious of the happily-ever-after – even though the odds my marriage
won’t end in divorce are no longer as bleak as winter in Berlin. I cope with
the Siberian cold and impenetrable clouds by hiding out in the sauna and
blasting myself with 10,000 Lux. Escape fantasies alleviate the anxiety, but
it’s hard to imagine yourself traipsing around Asia with a backpack when you’re
shopping for roofers in Germany. And then there’s the mortgage, which literally
means “dead pledge”.

When
Marc first brought up the idea I said, “Are you crazy?”

Talk
of interest rates and property tax was a complete turn-off, yet I swooned at
the vague notion of being rooted to a piece of land. My ups and downs might
have become less Himalayan but my neurotic ambivalence had segued from romance
to real estate.

We
spent weekends driving out to look at places for sale: too big, too small, too
far from the city, too close to a wind farm, under a flight path, over a sinkhole…
Just as we were losing hope we discovered a viable house near a nature reserve.
But we had searched long enough to know that there would always be a hitch.
Asbestos siding was attached to the wood construction using aluminum East
German coins in place of washers.

“You’ll be rich when you take it down,” the owner joked
nervously.

The
property also boasted some iffy plumbing and creative
wiring, a buckling roof, a collapsing barn, a handful of dead fruit trees… But the
view expanded to a sliver of lake in the distance. I looked into those calm
gray eyes. It was clear this was the one. Some instinct was always telling me to
run, but a deeper-seated one was seeking home. We made an offer fifteen minutes
later.

So far we’ve torn down half the barn.

At
3:59 a.m. I am still wide-awake, doubts running rampant in my head like a horde
of mutant hamsters. Will this be our financial ruin? Should
we have held out for a place in need of less improvement, displaying more charm,
closer to the lake? In short: something better?

I wake to a frosty morning, my enthusiasm for the project
having plunged lower than the temperature. We need to drive out to
our little barren patch of Prussia and turn off the water before the pipes
freeze, but I’d rather be on my way to Polynesia – as a different version of my
younger self.

My teeth clench as we roll through the last
intersection and hit the autobahn. Marc drives: not a prince, not a twit, just
the man I love. Trees
hurtle past the windows much too fast. I feel trapped, at the mercy of forces
beyond my control: time and nature.

“There ain’t no cure for life,” Frau von B used
to sing now and then in her off-key warble, misquoting Leonard Cohen with
Freudian flair.

I stand in front of the house with a set of skeleton keys in my hand. It looks
worse now that the leaves have fallen.

“I’m afraid,” I say.

“I know,” Marc says.

The
echoing space is cold and sooty – the coal-burning oven has been ripped out
since we were last here – but the way the winter sun scatters oblong shapes
across the floorboards makes it feel remarkably promising. Marc shuts off the
water and shifts into architect mode, zapping measurements with his laser gun,
tapping along the wall to discern where the wiring runs. My fingers dance over a pane of stamped glass held into the bathroom door
with two S-shaped brass handles – an awkward construction that is nonetheless
charming.

We follow the creaky stairs that lead up to the attic, discussing
which walls to knock down, where windows should be. I can see the view of
the lake that is still obscured by peeling woodchip paper, stacks of bricks and
a layer of asbestos. But I can also sense the chaos of construction, the exorbitant
cost, the endless hassle. Marc knows exactly what I’m thinking.

“It’ll be worth it,” he says, taking my hand.




To the Country that Created Us

/labor migrants, turning into
emigrants/

And here’s to where we all began,
Here’s to the land that made me
And made me who I am
M. Mathers 

The way home always seemed to me the longest ever taken, as there is nothing in the world you miss and want to see more than your mom frying eggs for breakfast in the small kitchen, while you smell already fried sausages resting several inches from your nose on that brownish fruity tablecloth you saw a fortnight before through Skype. Nobody but that woman who raised you who you are and who you call now every time when you feel like you would be the happiest living being if she was in your kitchen frying those eggs, half of the Earth closer. Probably she is the only reason to take those two long overnight flights and the full day transfer in the middle of nowhere, where only the camels enjoy their time. Just the way she looks at those things coming out from your suitcase, things that are not going to be in the local stores any time soon, probably any time during at least the next two decades. The way she tastes new food filled with another new food, the way she spits it out laughing her guts out, resembling a kid eating Bertie Bott’s who, having taken a green bean, expects apple flavour but gets grass. Yes, she is definitely the only person worth spending every single minute with.

*

After two days with no sleep
the warmest thing I got leaving the airport was her hug, actually the only warm
thing. My home city seemed to be in bad spirits that morning, as I think is every
second-sorted capital of a “developing” country. That’s their tolerant word to
say it is behind the whole world, even behind all the neighboring countries,
but still a promising word as it has the hint of some hope and even
possibility. In simple terms, everything I saw the first minute I stepped from
the plane was “developing”, even people. After some years living abroad people
always remember things like the wrinkles on their mom’s face, the pastry from the
local bakery, cheap prices for petrol and cigarettes, but other things, like
cracks in the roads and people’s hangover odour shock every time like the first
time. It is not that you forget about them when you don’t see them, but every
time you hope to see less of them and they keep staying and make your tremulous
I-miss-home-so-much feeling fade away.

Development. The only word I had in my mind while waiting for the
taxi. My home country, having once everything, needs to develop for its people
to have at least a decent life, before they can even think about a good
one. It is the largest country in Europe, culturally and naturally rich, but its
people still have to struggle to fulfill even basic needs, let alone esteem and
self-actualization, spending for living expenses about two hundred dollars a
month.

Pressing me with its weight,
like a once-grand, immense submarine, sunk and heavy at present, my country
crushed into me like an enormous concrete wall with no way to swerve to avoid it.
Buildings hastily made of dirty grey Soviet cement panels with their wide
windows-eyes shadowed blue, green and white were watching the trains as they
penetrated tunnels and came back into sunlight like giant worms. They hurried
passing not-painted-since-the-last-century bus stops, next-to-the-subway
markets, president-owned candy shops and football-fan graffiti walls with
writings like “Zero Tolerance”, “Make Russia away again” and “Proud to be son
of this nation”. With every cell of my body feeling like I don’t belong here
any more and will never ever want to, I heard every graffiti letter, every foul
corner, every turnstile and streetlamp whispering my name and saying Welcome
home
.

*

I was looking out of the
window of my taxi with no markings, badges or rear-view mirror, staring at the
streets that were left behind in time, like in slow motion watching every
person going nowhere, standing on the same spot. I have never been to Africa,
but at some point it occurred to me it could look very similar. At least I
would expect it to.

Streets were busy and crowded
though. Never saw them being so diverse, full of people from the Middle East,
Asia, post-Soviet countries; tourists, students, labour migrants, refugees –
hundreds of eyes, sparkling with other cultures, beliefs and customs, were
watching the streets that raised me, the cracks in the roads that drove me, the
benches in parks that were once keeping my secrets. At least those eyes still
shine unlike eyes of those who were born there and who were now living years of
their life in either despair or crying sadness.

Everywhere they are, people
talk. They were talking in the supermarkets, in the subway, in the streets, in
coffee shops, all the way around me. Occasionally and definitely not
deliberately I experienced their words crawling into my head through the ears,
poisoning my guts, which almost totally forgot how to speak my national
language, and spreading like black death, making the rest of my thoughts fall
down sick, not being able to cast a vote any time soon.

Everything they were talking
about was around the prices that were too high for an average family, transport
fees and rent raised almost every two months with no visible improvements,
lowest-quality Chinese products flowing to our market and making our domestic
production stuck, stunned and choked with own goods that people didn’t want to
buy, preferring cheap to good. Gas stations, factories, mines, hospitals, even
supermarkets were sold; the land was dying under the pressure of prices, fields
were divided between the groups that can be defined as those who have their own
crops and make profit out of them, those who rent their fields out to get profit,
those who inherited fields from their parents but leave them empty having no money
to afford the cultivation.

Desperate and poor, having
participated in several revolutions during the last two decades, having lost
hundreds of people in them and thousands of people in actions they still could
not name War, having lost a whole piece of the country’s territory and struggling
to not lose two more, having managed to move thousands of inner refugees and
make the army no one even heard of before, having kicked out the ex-convicted
president and got the candy-factory-owning one, the whole nation was silently
moving from their yesterdays to tomorrows, ignoring the news about politics,
economy and international debts, focusing on their own financial profit,
gaining of which will promote their chances of moving out the country for the
sake of their families.

The nationwide cut on the
exemptions and preferences, cancellation of pensions for elderly in future for
those in their twenties now, introduction of new insurance-only medical care,
reduction of the number of public facility employees led to young and
middle-aged labour force flowing out of the country in order to find their place
and better life wherever.

*

That very morning, sitting in
my kitchen and watching my mom frying eggs and bacon, I got distracted from my
thoughts by news buzzing on TV reminding the nation of the anniversary of the
loss of the amazing singer, writer, composer and person whose name was known to
everyone in the country and whose death upset every each of them.

Personally I viewed him as one
of those who lived with country in his heart, being the real son of his
motherland. In one of his many songs he said “Every day, about one thousand
of our citizens apply for emigration, every day about five hundred of them come
to a foreign land in attempts to find a better life with the goal of staying
there, these people estranged from their culture, their customs and their
faith, most of them are working as unskilled blue-collar labourers, sometimes not
even getting the status of a citizen of a foreign country to the rest of their
life, and perhaps their problem was the fact that the answer had to be sought
in themselves, and not in the geography textbooks
”.

*

Those patriotic sayings and
songs were pretty inspiring when I was a high school student, but were too weak
to fight the circumstances which led to people viewing their land as something
they want to be far from, the further the better, turning me and millions of
others into people looking for answers in geography books, the worst truth
being in fact that we succeed in finding them. Although the statistics of
emigration and demography definitely should be the thing to be worried about.

The surge in emigration after 2014
forced people to talk about its fifth wave. Soon about a million citizens fled the war in the East, trying to obtain refugee status in
other countries. Financial insufficiency, fast decrease in living
standards
and the lack of work forced citizens to travel
abroad to an extent greater than
ever before. The results of a survey in 2016
state that the majority of people living in my
country said they wanted to leave it and one third of them to never come back. The plan
of the authorities to save the economy by remittances of the residents working abroad and
supporting their families failed, as in the last years immigrants are trying to take their families with them and gain a foothold abroad.

In
2017 authorities officially reported of forty-two million people living in the country, while everyone understands this number is too optimistic and strongly embellished as well as the official numbers on emigration. In case of emigration statistics, only people
who are eligible for permanent residence abroad are considered
to have left the country, but most of the residents do not plan
to return home and do not live in the motherland, having only business or family
visas for decades. In fact, government and the presidential administration believe that about thirty to
thirty-three million people actually live in the
country. And according to the consumption of bread, some experts believe that
the actual number of the population is twenty-four to twenty-five million. In any case, this number is much smaller
than the official one.

*

A fortnight before the
Independence Day those TV news dappled with reports about people striking,
budget money being stolen, roads having holes to the extent of people seeing
gas pipes in them, hospitals running out of vaccines, though positively
finished with the special video project “Road to Independence”, which had to be
broadcast episode by episode every day up to the day we should all be proud of
as well as proud of those things our country has reached after the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991, highlighting the new reforms and leaving aside the
poor life of usual people.

According to the reports in
2015, before the beginning of the armed conflict in the east of the country,
about one seventh of the population was already working abroad. In 2015 it was
stated that during five years migrant workers transferred from abroad about 35
billion dollars, being on the top of the world rate of migrant workers’ capital
flow back to the motherland. For comparison: the country’s estimated budget for
that period was about 18 billion dollars. During later years, the situation
changed and the capital flow became more than 80% lower, as now people move out
of the country together with their families instead of sending them money for
living, which is still now enough, making the country drawn even more.

As stated in the annual global
Wealth Report prepared by the Swiss financial conglomerate Credit Suisse, in
2018 my motherland was in the twenty worst countries in the world, according to
the level of wealth of the population. It ranked 123rd out of 140 countries in
terms of personal wealth. Today one fourth of its population lives below the
poverty line.

*

Those
too-far-from-being-optimistic looks in other people’s eyes soon became the
usual thing I tried my best to ignore, being pretty successful in it, as I knew
that very soon, in several days, I will land in a superpower on a different
continent, in a land where the majority of people don’t even know where my
motherland is located, as well as nothing about how poor it is, about how poor
the one single country in Europe can be.

Last days of my visit I was
still busy, packing my suitcases and applying for documents to last for another
year. Walking through the streets of the city I was going to leave for unknown
amount of time, I watched people wandering around with baby strollers and
buying falafel in the corner shops. That day I passed the cafe which is
considered to be the place with the best chocolate in the country, which made
me stop and buy several candies that I started eating straight out from the paper
bag on my way to the subway. That moment I was sure my life just became light
enough to bear, because of those new documents flying in my pocket and
hand-made cherry truffle melting in my mouth. By this year, with so much time
away, I totally forgot that before I left it for good, I could not even afford
myself buying things from the shops of that level of fanciness.

That was a beautiful day with bright sunshine over my head, full of great expectations for the country worthy being patriot of, while some drunk students, enjoying their summer holidays, were passing by, on their way to the dormitory, singing songs and chanting “Glory to Ukraine”, to that land that made us and made us who we are, to that land so many of us love the further – the better.

Jan 2019