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.




Men holding hands in public

Picture Credits: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

I watched him lift his
partner’s hand over the garbage can at the edge of the pavement as they walked
briskly along the street. I was sitting outside a café in Hamburg’s “gay street”,
Lange Reihe. A gay man myself, I
couldn’t help watching these two twenty-something guys as they walked past
hand-in-hand. Would I have noticed if they’d been a straight couple? Probably
not.

In his book Picturing Men: A Century of Male
Relationships in Everyday American Photography
, John Ibson remarks that
physical closeness between men used to be probably just a sign of close
friendship. This collection of photos depicts affection between men of various
ages and from various social classes between the years 1850 and 1950. The men
are shown with arms and legs entwined around each other. It’s a safe bet that
not all them were gay or would have considered themselves gay. Here’s further
evidence that a taboo on same-sex male physical intimacy is a relatively recent
phenomenon. Social customs change with time, and will certainly change
dramatically again, whatever people think or want to think.

There seems to be some
doubt about when adult males routinely stopped holding hands in the UK as a
sign of close friendship. It’s thought that the Oscar Wilde trial at the end of
the nineteenth century made men more conscious of public displays of affection.
It’s also believed that the social upheavals after the Second World War,
especially with regard to the changing status of women, may also have led to
the practice being dropped.

In the 1950s and early ’60s,
I used to hold hands with my friend Robert when we were in primary school. We
were bosom boyfriends throughout childhood, and nobody took exception to our
friendship or looked askance at it. I suspect that nowadays some parents,
teachers and peers might feel edgy about it. For the record, Robert isn’t gay
and he’s fathered two lovely daughters.

Years later in the 1970s,
when I was at university, Roger, a close male friend held my hand when I went
into hospital to have minor surgery. Nobody commented on this adversely or
joked about it; it was accepted as natural by the staff who looked after me.

Holding hands can give
out different social signals, as can hugging and cheek-kissing.

In recent years, hugging
between men has become fairly commonplace, though cheek-kissing (certainly in
Anglo-Saxon cultures) is still not the norm. I remember about five years ago my
partner and I thought we’d stumbled on a local gay café in downtown Brussels.
It turned out that the male students were doing what is the cultural norm in
this part of Belgium, kissing each other three times on both cheeks when they
meet. Their sexual orientation was irrelevant to this affectionate greeting
ritual. Walloon guys do it all the time.

Fast forward to April 2017.
There was a much-publicised nationwide campaign in The Netherlands in protest
at a vicious attack on a gay couple, Jasper Vernes-Sewratan and his husband Ronnie
Sewratan-Vernes. In the light of subsequent publicity, lots of men in the
Netherlands, including high-ranking government ministers, had photos of
themselves holding hands published on social media.

And in May this year, twenty-eight-year-old
Melania Geymonat and her twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend Christine Hannigan were
attacked by a group of teenagers in a brutal and disgusting episode on a London
bus simply because they were clearly a same-sex couple and because they kissed.
If ever there was evidence that kids need age-appropriate relationship
education at school, this incident provided it.

When I first visited the
United Arab Emirates in the 1990s, and later Kuwait, I was curious about how
many men seemed to walk along the street holding hands. And not just Arab men,
but also immigrant construction workers. Many men in the notoriously homophobic
Gulf States hold hands in public as a matter of course, as do men in India and
Pakistan. I was told by locals that it was non-sexual. Maybe so. But honestly,
how do you draw the line between displays of platonic friendship and public
displays of gay affection? And why should you?

Now I know that most
people fear being jeered at or worse, gay-bashed. That’s probably why many of
us don’t hold hands as a matter of course. But just think for a moment.
Straight couples of all ages do it, and not just young folk. For most people
it’s a touching gesture of tender love and affection; hardly a proclamation of
sexuality, still less an indication of imminent sexual congress. And two women
holding hands while walking along in public hardly turns a head. But if two men
hold hands? Shock horror! Or is it?

People,
whether gay or straight, have different takes on it. I sounded out a few of my
friends about how they would feel to see two men holding hands or kissing in
public. Ben, a sixty-three-year-old veteran gay activist, told me that he was always
pleased to see men holding hands in public. He went on to say that he regularly
holds hands with his partner, although they sometimes decide not to, especially
when they are around drunks on the street or late at night.

Angus,
a twenty-two-year-old aspiring medical student who identifies as straight, said
it was still unusual to see two men holding hands in the street, so he’s
initially curious or even puzzled when he sees it, but then his brain registers
what’s going on, and he says he’s happy that they’re happy. Thirty-one-year old
Katie, also straight, commented that she didn’t give it a second thought and
was happy that two men can now feel comfortable enough holding hands,
especially as it hadn’t always been the case.

And
Leah Mack, a former relationship counsellor, who now lives in Australia, commented
that she thought it was good to live in a country where same-sex relationships are
legal and that many onlookers would not see them as inappropriate and that yes,
she would feel happy to see male couples walking hand-in-hand.

It’s
encouraging to hear all these affirmations of gay relationships. But we shouldn’t
be lulled into complacency. For every one of these nice liberal reactions,
there are surely still countless more unexpressed reactions of embarrassment or
disgust. Facial expressions often give the game away: a smirk, a turning of the
head, or even a curl of the lip, and you know they’re silently thinking “How
disgusting!”, “Why don’t they keep it private?” or some other such sentiment.

But
over and above the question of whether people approve or disapprove of same-sex
relationships, there’s also the wider issue of public displays of affection (PDAs).
There are lots of people who have reservations about all kinds of PDA between
people of any sexual orientation. A quick surf through posts on Quora will confirm
this. Even gay men have reservations about other gays holding hands in public.
The reasons are many and various and are often associated with a fear of being
at the very least verbally abused. Gay men who are not publicly out, and may
not want to make gestures of affection in places where people might know or
recognise them. Single gays may feel envious. For others, it’s because they
feel that PDAs are somehow false and should be expressed only in private. Some
are worried about the reaction of parents with children. And for others, there’s
the concern that public displays of affection might offend the religious
convictions of onlookers.

And
take twenty-eight-year-old Craig, an acquaintance of mine who’s gay and from
the north of England. He says he doesn’t like his friends making “aww, that’s
cute” remarks when they see him with his boyfriend. He finds it condescending.
He thinks it can do lasting hurt to people who just want to get on with their
lives and not be looked at like exhibits at the zoo.

Yet there is a glimmer of
hope. Nowadays, you can see the occasional gay couple holding hands or stealing
discreet kisses in the big cities of countries with liberal values. But consider
Poland and Hungary, countries where LGBT+ folk are caught in the crosshairs of
contemporary culture wars; LGBT+ people can get seriously beaten up and abused
there.

Many gay men feel awkward
or fearful of holding hands. Most would say they’d avoid doing this on public
transport or in dark, deserted places. Are gay PDAs becoming more acceptable in
straight society? Recent populist trends are showing a level of intolerance and
hatred towards the LGBT+ community that might have surprised liberal opinion
just a few years ago.

On the other hand,
pioneers need to step out boldly if they want to change social habits. Hand-holding
and affectionate kissing between men could transform our public spaces. They
might then become less threatening and contribute to a reduction in the stress and
fear that so many of us experience. Instead, friendlier public places could
help gay individuals to feel freer to demonstrate affection and intimacy with
another human being, which is surely our right.




Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me – About Ageing

Picture Cfedits: Carlos Eduardo Du

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.




What Happens When Your Psychiatrist Pretends He’s Mick Jagger

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Men.” I told her.

“Any particular type?”
she asked.

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

But still she carried
on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence on the
other end.

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

“Ma’am, I’ve already
told you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“It itches, too. I think
it’s old.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




On Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wreckless Abandon

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

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

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

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

Just like that, he
was out the door.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

I never saw him
again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His immediate
response, a single word: Never.

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




Pounding

Picture Credits: Greg Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

The men quieted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Wrestlers

Picture Credits: Rudy and Peter Skitterians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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?




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




On Discovering Authors

There
is a book that had been on my reading list for a while. For one, having lived
for a little while in Bombay (I lived in the south where people still call it
that), I have a fascination for the city like no other, a soft spot for any
story that is based here. The nuances are abundant, hard to capture, but so
vibrant when done right. There are some cities like that – more personality
than massive plots of land, that swallow you whole and let you influence them
just as much as they change you. Countless poets and writers have written about
them, and Bombay – amchi Mumbai – as a writer’s delight, doesn’t disappoint. I’ve
read of the drug lords, of a foreign criminal fleeing the cops, of love and of
death in Mumbai, of a feminist writer from Kerela who lived about two hundred
meters away from where I did, on reclaimed land, forty years ago. I’ve watched
all the glitzy Bollywood movies. I’ve been a regular traveler in the local
trains, going back and forth from Churchgate to Andheri, walked along Marine
drive in the rain; at noon; at 3am, the skyline lit up on Diwali; with friends;
with parents; gone for morning jogs; looked out for hours at the glorious
Arabian Sea, and cried. Despite the garbage it keeps throwing back, the crowd,
the inevitable floods every few years, the rain and humidity it brings along as
side products, the sea is undoubtedly one of Mumbai’s redeeming qualities. The
food and the people come a close second. Sita aunty worked in our house,
cleaning dishes, doing jhadoo pocha
for two years. She would call me baby, even as I turned twenty-one. Even five
years after we moved, she still calls every Diwali, and asks my mom “Baby
kaisi hai
.

Yet
nothing could have prepared me for this book.

*

A
few minutes past or before my twenty-fourth birthday, depending on which time
zone I wish to adhere to, I find myself in a book store, in a quaint city in
Portugal. I’ve been reading about Pessoa, and Lisbon through his eyes, where I’m
spending my birthday weekend, but my mind is elsewhere. It’s riddled with
longing for a city that I met briefly, but that will forever have a place in my
heart; mysterious, charming and often impenetrable, dangerous and alluring,
seductive in its offering of misery and joy in equal amounts, but above all the
presence of possibility – everywhere. Some may call it hope.

There
are similarities to these two cities, I think, my mind trying to draw
connections in its wandering, to stabilize. While Lisbon is built on seven
hills, Bombay was built on seven islands. It owes its name, and its origins in
a sense, to the Portuguese, who called it Bom
Bahia
– the good bay.

I’ve
spent two hours in my flight here, reading a real account of squatters and
scavengers, of the poorest and filthiest of India, immersed in their world,
holding on to their ray of hope as if my own living depended on it. But the
world I inhabit is vastly different from the ones I’ve been reading about.

One
beer down, but more drunk on the charming bookstore I’m sitting in, this stark
difference between a world long gone (Lisbon in the 1930s) and a world very
much alive but farther from my reality than I can ever hope to comprehend
(present-day Bombay slums), doesn’t quite register fully.

It’s
my birthday, supposedly an occasion of celebration and I can’t be bothered to
fight the cognitive dissonance, so I pick up another book.

Livro do Desassossego:
the Portuguese translates as “The book of disquiet”.

As
someone who so often finds herself feeling a sense of disquiet, turmoil, anxiety,
Desassossego (I like the soft ring to
this word), I feel strangely comforted with this book in hand. Perhaps that is
the mark of extraordinary prose, sympathetic to its bone; a writer that takes
pleasure in language, pleasure in observing, no matter what the subject.

He
writes of certain kinds of eateries in Lisbon where people with uninteresting
faces, but that have a certain kind of digression from life, are frequently
found. And I wonder if I could be one of those uninteresting faces, in a
different time.

*

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is
a curious title. It refers to a huge billboard near the international airport
in Mumbai, hosting an advertisement of Italian tiles, “beautiful forever”,
behind which lies Annawadi – the slum that makes the setting. This book – Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death,
and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
, by Katherine Boo – is so much harder, because it isn’t fiction.
You grow attached to the characters as you follow them through the sewage
strewn slum lanes. You know these kids live, but that they are always on the
brink of death through disease, starvation or accident. You know they will
fight each other for the aluminium-foil wrapped meals you ate in your
international flights. Maybe you got a business class upgrade. I don’t think I
will ever be able to look at the garbage I throw away in India in the same way
again. We are known to be a dirty nation, we discuss it with our upturned noses
in our posh clean homes. And even so, I never knew how many boys have skipped
school to work in the garbage business, collecting and sorting, that their lives
depend on it, literally; that a garbage bag makes for a bed on nights when
there is a possibility of it being stolen. And perhaps for this ignorance, this
book needed to be written. One feels mawkish while retelling their experience
of the book to another but the writing itself is neither sentimental, nor
crass; it is personal, the details having been so compassionately captured.

You
try to detach, you try to contemplate on what makes the system, the structure,
such; to think of what you can do as an individual. What can you do, having
turned a blind eye your whole life, beyond the concoction of pity, sympathy,
guilt, shock, helplessness, sorrow you feel inside, for these have no purpose,
no value?

It’s easy to spiral down life’s bigger questions as you read this book – the moral dilemma, the frustration at the system. In a place like Annawadi, is a moral compass a privilege its inhabitants can afford, when the choice, every minute, is between watching your family starve, and trying to be correct in a ruthless, unfair world? Katherine Boo captures the essence of these questions in her dedicated narration. One can only imagine the monumental task she has executed with such grace.

*

I
tried hard, on that trip to Lisbon, to think about what growing a year older
meant to me. Perhaps I was supposed to have some kind of epiphany, maybe there
were vows and promises to be made about the year to come. The day itself was
only a means to reconnect with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Lisbon’s
trams, and the old neighborhood of Alfama, though, were altogether too charming
to entertain such existential thoughts. And wasn’t I there to escape anyway, to
drink away my millennial sorrows, those larger-than-life anxieties? And so I
let the pressure to be more slide.

*

Pessoa
wasn’t discovered, as an artist, until after his passing, when trunks full of
his works were found and studied, and his genius acknowledged. He lived his
life as a translator of French and English works, none of which were his native
languages. He is now regarded as one of the most significant literary figures
of the twentieth century.

Katherine
Boo is a journalist who has spent her career studying poor communities. On
being asked in an interview about the slum dwellers’ reactions to her, she said
that she was a circus act to them – a pale-skinned, blonde-haired old woman
following them, asking questions. She went on to say that they had more
pressing concerns, and the fascination wore off soon. There was always more work
to do, families to be raised.

That
image of Pessoa, hunched at night, scribbling away on bits of paper, and that
of Katherine Boo, sitting around in Annawadi, have stayed in my mind. They
remind me every time I feel “uninspired”, when hope is crippling at best, at
how silly that idea is. That what I do in this life, day after day may
seemingly have no impact, that one ought to create for the sake of creation
itself, for the love of life. And maybe this love for life can make one wander
into dark corners, and light a spark. Compassion, not blame, is the only thing
sure to work in the face of hopelessness. Maybe you’d make a ripple, a dent,
however small – be the catalyst of change, and maybe you’d be forgotten. Who is
to know, in a world driven by the kind of chaos, the mechanics of which, we are
yet to understand. Must the end result be our only motivation for creation, for
action? They’ve given me a glimpse into what it is like to be life-affirming
and desperately sad in the same moment.

In
Abdul’s words, to be ice, in a world made of water.

The
two authors I discovered this birthday, Katherine Boo and Fernando Pessoa, have
reignited that little sparkle in my heart. And what more could I have asked for?