Spotlight: Maranda on Fire

I started firewalking after seeing a picture of a monk burn himself to death, but of course it’s more complicated than that. The monk came to history class where we were studying Vietnam, talking about what a mistake it had been, and about the protests against the war, in our country, and over there, where they took it a lot more seriously. You see, in Vietnam they’re Buddhist, and they’ve got monks, and to make their point these monks didn’t carry signs or pass out flowers; instead they’d go to busy city streets, douse themselves with gasoline, light themselves on fire, then just kneel down and burn, not moving a muscle, not flinching, or even gritting their teeth. They’d just burn and melt and die. In class we were looking up at a slide of one of these monks in flames. Maranda was in class with me, sitting across the darkened room, and I glanced over to see the side of her face catching the light from the screen. Her eyes were fixed ahead like the others and then she asked, “How did he do it? Not feel any pain?” Our teacher said it had something to do with meditation, detachment, letting go, some kind of crazy Buddhist trick he didn’t quite understand. The room was quiet for a few more moments then somebody mumbled something about paper cuts, another mentioned toothaches, and most everyone agreed that this guy was not like us, not even close. But I knew they were saying that because they didn’t understand. And though I didn’t understand either, how he did it, I knew we weren’t that much different from each other, that monk and me, it was just that he’d figured it out, how to control his thoughts, shut off his mind.

*     *     *

That night I was sitting in my friend JD’s basement playing poker. It was about ten o’clock, I had a pair of jacks, and was wondering if it was good enough to win the four dollar pot. Then I realized I didn’t care either way. I folded, then at the end of the hand got up and said I was leaving.

“What?” JD asked. “Why?”

“I just don’t see the point in it.”

“Come on, Owen,” he said. “We’re having fun, hanging out, there doesn’t have to be a point, does there?”

“Maybe not, but I just …”

“Is it Maranda?”

“What do you mean, is it Maranda?”

“Something happening with you two?”

“Come on,” I said. “We’ve been friends since first grade.”

“You’ve been acting funny around each other lately,” he said.

“They haven’t even been talking to each other,” my other friend Pete added, and I looked at the both of them incredulously, as though they were confusing me with someone else, though really I couldn’t believe they’d noticed, that they’d been paying attention at all.

“I’m just tired of playing cards, that’s all,” I said and left.

*     *     *

On my way home I walked past Maranda’s house. She lived on the same block as I did, our big backyards touching at the corner. I saw the light on in her bedroom and slowed but didn’t see her. We’d been friends, like I said, for a long time. She’d never been a tomboy exactly, but had always liked to play—kickball, soccer, ghost in the graveyard, that was our favorite. Base was the cedar deck on the back of her house, and there were lots of good hiding spots in the evergreens that ran between our yards. Some days if it were just the two of us we’d race back and forth from one end of her yard to the other. Maranda was faster than I was when we were kids and usually won, but neither of us cared. It was just fun to race.

We weren’t quite kids anymore though. That had all changed the last weekend of summer. Maranda had been gone July and most of August, to her aunt’s farm in Gettysburg, where she went every year. When she returned, I didn’t recognize her. I was at a party and I saw her profile from across the room and I said, “Wow, who is that?” When she turned and smiled at me I realized it was Maranda, but she looked taller, thinner, with her cheekbones higher on her face. Her skin had a new glow to it, and she’d let her hair go long; it was down to her shoulders, and lighter than its usual brownish-red. She walked up to me smiling and gave me a hug, which was something new. As she held me, I felt her breasts on me, and this was new too.

“Owen,” she said finally. “How are you?” Even the sound of my name coming from her mouth was different. This was a new Maranda.

The party was at Ginny Bauer’s place, which was an old farmhouse with a big barn, silo, and a few acres of property. Most of the houses in our town were built in the ’50s and ’60s, so when you went to Ginny’s you really felt like you were going somewhere, doing something different, and because her parents liked to travel, she had a lot of parties. This night just about everyone was there, and there was lots of beer, which I was drinking, and rum punch, which Maranda was drinking, but neither of us had ever been much at drinking, and we began to feel pretty carefree in a short while. It was a warm night, the house had a big in-ground pool, and most of our friends were hanging out there, doing cannonballs or complaining about being splashed, but Maranda and I found ourselves stealing away, walking back behind the barn where we sat on some old tractor tires and unexpectedly began to kiss. At first I couldn’t believe it was Maranda and me, but she was so warm and curvy, such a good kisser, that after a few moments I forgot about that. And as we kept on I forgot about everything else. I’d kissed girls before, but only awkwardly. This was different, it was like the rest of the world had disappeared, and I think I really lost track of myself for the first time in my life.

But I guess you can only kiss for so long, or maybe Maranda had drunk more than I, but after a while she stopped kissing me and was unbuttoning me, and all of sudden she’d taken us beyond just the kissing, and I guess I’d been dreaming about something like this happening, of course I had—daydreams, night dreams, all kinds of dreams—but I hadn’t expected them to ever come true. In a way, I was more awash in sensation, the tingling feeling shooting all the way to my fingers and toes, but at the same time the world had come back to me, and I opened my eyes, was looking around, trying to get my bearings, checking to be sure no one was watching, and then I guess I couldn’t resist looking down at Maranda, and she was pulling her hair back from her face, and like I said, this new profile of hers was absolutely beautiful, and I felt myself smile at the sight of us. But I guess she must’ve felt me looking at her because she opened her eyes and looked up at me, and from straight on she looked like the old Maranda, the old friend I’d played with all my life, and she must have seen something too, maybe the same thing, because she pulled herself back quickly, as if startled, and then we both looked away from each other. She got up and stepped away while I stood and buttoned up. She’d pointed herself away from me, and I felt I myself wanting to say something, but only let out a low “Uhhmmm …” She began to walk quickly back to the party with her long, loping stride, and I followed behind.

*     *     *

We’d avoided each other since then, not so much as looking each other in the eye, and I’d been doing all I could to stop thinking about her, but it was hard, because I didn’t know exactly what I was thinking. I only knew that I didn’t feel like myself when I thought about her and that I’d wake each morning before five o’clock, with the feeling that all the air had been sucked out of me. I’d try to fall back to sleep, but never could, feeling at turns dirty, raw, weepy, weak, or desperate, and this anguish was something I’d never really experienced before in my life, as everything had always gone along just well enough. My friends—who I’d always done most everything with—they and I didn’t do sports, or drugs, and we didn’t have girlfriends. I’d been getting tired of that, had hoped it might change that year, that something might actually matter, but then finally something of consequence happened, and it was only making everything worse.

*     *     *

When I got home that night my parents were out, gone as every Friday during the season to my brother’s football game. Our town was mad for football and my brother was the team’s starting center. He said it was one of the most important positions on the team, but I figured who’d want to be the center, having the quarterback putting his hands between your legs every play? Sometimes he wanted to practice snapping the ball to me, but after the first time I always came up with a good excuse to avoid it, and he’d get our dad to do it instead. I guess I didn’t understand football, or my brother, or my parents that well. But this had never been a big problem for me. It’s not like I thought I’d be better off with another family. My mom, with her television shows and coupons, my dad with his job and newspaper, my brother always hiking his football: They were my family. I couldn’t imagine things any other way. It just so happened that I was the one always on the outside. Sometimes I even felt like a visitor, like I was watching them be a family. But this was just the way things had always been. I was used to it.

I went to my room and started looking through some boxes of old papers and pictures and stuff. I knew I was too young to be sitting home on a Friday night reminiscing, but there I was, looking over old class pictures from grade school, wondering where the years had gone. And there were other pictures too—a big group of us eating popsicles on Maranda’s back deck on the Fourth of July, Maranda and me at Six Flags, smiling at the camera, not a care in the world. I wondered again how it had happened. There’d been no reason for us to wander off together, go sit on tires, kiss, any of it. We’d even talked about it over the years, when others had coupled up; we could see how silly it was: the handholding, the phone calls, the dates, the inevitable breakups. “Just gets in the way,” we’d agreed, though exactly what it got in the way of we didn’t say. I thought maybe we’d talked about others as a way of talking about ourselves, but it never felt like that. It just felt like, well, Maranda and me, like it always did. I shook my head and told myself I had to stop thinking about her. But I knew it wasn’t as simple as telling myself to stop. I had to keep my mind occupied.

I put the pictures away and went through some of my old schoolwork, finally pulling out a report I’d done on firewalking in junior high. According to my report, firewalking had been used as a ritual by lots of different cultures, as an initiation into manhood, proof of faith or bravery, or an act of penance. And even though the fire would be between 600 and 1200 degrees, the key was simply telling yourself you wouldn’t get burned. You had to be “in the moment,” and unafraid, which isn’t easy because we’re born with two fears—of falling and of fire.

I thought about that, and the fact that we acquired all our other fears over time, through living. It seemed to me that fear of falling and fear of fire were both kind of the same thing—fear of death. I figured that’s what all fears were based on and thought that would have been an interesting angle to add to my report, though of course I wasn’t thinking about that in junior high. I stopped and tried to remember what I had been thinking about then, what had kept my mind occupied, but I couldn’t do it. Then I thought back to that monk we’d seen burning up in class that day, and that’s when I decided maybe I should try it—not burn myself or kill myself—but firewalk. I needed to do something, and thought if I could walk on fire I’d kind of be like that monk; at least I’d have more control over things.

*     *     *

In our town you could burn your leaves, and the next Friday night, after my parents had gone to the game, I raked the leaves from the back yard into a ten by three foot section behind the garage. I covered them over with small pieces of kindling and mulch we got for free from the city dump, then doused it all with lighter fluid, threw down a match, and watched the fire burn. I couldn’t walk until the flames had died down and there were only coals, the embers. While waiting I tried to sit and relax, not meditating exactly, I didn’t know what that was, but I was just sitting there close to the fire, watching the flames dance, feeling the heat, listening to the crackles and hiss. All week I’d been thinking about it, preparing myself, imagining myself walking over the coals. Now I was going to do it.

I had a small tub of water set up at the end of the run, just in case. After the flames had died down, I got up and walked around the edge of the bed barefoot, figuring to build up to it gradually, like settling down into a steaming hot bath. I did this a few times, concentrating not on my feet or the fire, but my breathing like I was supposed to. Finally I told myself it was time to go through. I stood at the edge, and standing close like that, in my bare feet, it was easy to stay “in the moment” because all my senses were paying close attention. Survival instinct, I suppose, like peering over the edge of a cliff. I stood a few moments, took some deep breaths, looked ahead, exhaled one more time slowly, then took a step, then another, then a third. The coals felt crunchy, like eggshells. I could feel that, but not any heat, not any pain, and I felt myself smile at this realization, and then I felt it—sharp prickles of heat under me, and I lunged forward, getting off the coals in two quick strides. I stepped into the tub of water swearing quietly, but when I stepped out a minute later I couldn’t feel any pain. Back in the house I inspected my feet and saw there were no blisters or burn marks. I rubbed a little Aloe vera on them just to be safe, then told myself though I hadn’t made it all the way, it was a start. I’d walked on fire, and more importantly, I’d been “in the moment,” “let go,” and stopped thinking about Maranda. Of course, once I told myself this, I started thinking about her again. But still it was progress. And nice to have gotten away for a while.

 *     *     *

The next Friday night I set up another fire. As it got going, I strolled around the perimeter again, breathing in and out, visualizing myself going through. When it was time to walk it, I did so without a thought, not feeling the fire at all, not even realizing I was moving until I was done and stepping back onto the grass. When I looked back over the fire bed I could hardly believe I’d just gone through it. I had no recollection. My feet felt fine. I waited a few minutes, then did it again. Same result. I did it again. Success.

“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind me. I looked over. It was Maranda.

I was sure she’d seen me so there was no sense in denying it. “Firewalking,” I said.

“Why?” she asked, calmly.

“Something to do, I guess.”

“Can I try?” she said, coming closer.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “You’ve got to plan for it, you’ve got to think about it, you can’t just jump on and—”

“I’m going to try,” she said, taking off her shoes.

“I don’t know, Maranda.”

“You just did it, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, and she looked straight at me and shrugged. This was how she’d always been. If I or someone else could do something, climb a tree, go off the high dive, bike around the block in under two minutes, she could do it too. Or at least she’d try. So I didn’t argue with her, but just watched as she stood on the edge of the fire and took a few deep breaths. “Just breathe,” I said. “And don’t look at it.” She gazed ahead, which gave me an opportunity to really look at her, and again I was amazed that this was Maranda, so regal and lovely and curvy. She was wearing a snug white sweater and blue jeans which she’d pulled up around her calves. She exhaled once hard, then took a step forward, then another. I walked backwards to the end of the fire, and looking at her face almost straight on I could see again that she wasn’t as beautiful as from the side: Her eyes were a little too close together, her chin a little square, there was still some of that obtuse matter-of-fact quality in her that had always surfaced when she was concentrating. She looked like the old Maranda again as she was making steady progress across the embers towards me. As soon as she’d finished though, and set her feet onto the grass beside me, she relaxed and smiled, and I was nearly knocked over by her transformation back to a beauty.

“Wow,” I said.

“I did it,” she said excitedly.

“Yeah.”

When she turned to go past me I could smell the shampoo in her hair. She went to pick up her shoes, turned halfway towards me, then said, “You know that party?”

“Yeah,” I said quickly.

“I don’t know what happened.”

“Me neither,” I said. “That was … strange.”

“I never, I mean, I never did that before,” she told me. “I don’t want you to think that I—”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. I didn’t think that. I just … well, I guess I don’t know.”

“We can just forget about it, right?”

“Yeah, we should. I mean, well, maybe …”

“You don’t want to forget about it?” she asked, turning towards me.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down.

I could sense she was waiting for me to say something more to her, but nothing came to mind. “Well, I think we should just forget about it,” she said, then turned and walked back towards her house.

After she left I realized I’d been spending my energy trying to stop thinking about Maranda and what had happened, but hadn’t considered what she’d been thinking, or feeling, and I began to think about that, especially what she was thinking about me, and this was even worse. I didn’t feel just empty, but nauseous. I tried to walk the fire again that night but one step and my feet were burning. Concentrate, I told myself. Then I said, No, don’t concentrate. And then I gave up; I knew I was trying too hard.

*     *     *

During the week I tried to do other things to keep my mind busy. One day I went to the basement and tried to work out with my brother’s weight set. Another I went for a long walk to the park at the other end of town. I worked on some old card tricks I used to be able to do pretty well. One night I snuck two beers from the basement fridge and drank them while I played chess on my computer. But nothing worked. When I’d see Maranda at school I couldn’t help but watch her, but she never looked my way. When my eyes were on her I’d get those tingling sensations, but I could hardly enjoy them because as soon as I looked away it was like I was catching myself, and then I’d feel lost, adrift, like a kid left behind at the mall.

*     *     *

Finally Friday came and I could do my firewalking again. And Maranda came over again too, and we took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down. Still, we didn’t look each other in the eye, even when we said goodnight, and she went through the evergreens towards her house. After she left and I put out the fire, I tried to get to sleep as soon possible, because I knew if I waited too long, the swirling would come back.

*     *     *

[blockquote align=left]we took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down.

Somehow news of our firewalking got out, and the next Friday night there was a small crowd of kids from school gathered in my backyard watching me set up. A few said they wanted to try, but most just wanted to watch. I’d never had much attention paid to me, so this was something new, and I kind of liked it, those dozen or so people, watching me get the fire going, asking questions, waiting to see me walk it. JD and Pete were there, and they were looking at me like they didn’t know me. “You should try it,” I said to them, but they just shook their heads.

Maranda came over just after I’d finished my first pass and she said, “What’s going on?” to no one in particular, and they filled her in, as if she had no previous knowledge of the firewalking, and she let them believe that was the case. After I’d gone, two guys who’d been suspended from the football team tried, but neither could make it more than two steps without yowling and jumping off. Then a guy from the soccer team tried and he made it across, but nearly ran doing so, and not surprisingly burned the balls of his feet. A couple of girls consoled him while a guy named Rob, who’d been a kid with us all along, but who’d been sent away to a juvenile detention facility that summer for winning a fight a little too decisively, tried next, and he moved across the coals gingerly, methodically, breathing loudly through gritted teeth, but he made it all the way across. When he was done he got high fives from the other guys and said it was just a matter of “tuning things out.” But I could see when he pulled his socks and shoes on that his feet were hurting a bit. I did another pass then someone got a call on their cell phone about a party starting up, and everyone split, and it was just Maranda and me.

“Why didn’t you walk?” I asked her.

She just shrugged and bent to take off her shoes. “I’ll go now.”

Because I’d run out of leaves to burn, and maybe because there’d been a crowd, I’d added extra wood chips and the fire was hotter than ever before. Though Maranda walked it without getting hurt, she said she’d felt it a little, the heat on her skin, and told me to be careful when I said I was going to go one more time.

I stood at the edge of the fire, looked down at it, then up at the night sky, the branches of the empty trees swaying in the wind. I took in a deep breath and even with the fire before me, I could smell October in the air, I could feel the chill of autumn coming, and then I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it: walking on fire in my backyard. It was as if it were the first time I realized what I was doing, as opposed to just being bent on doing it, and I felt glad, like something had been lifted off of me. I looked over at Maranda, she was looking at me, and I felt myself smile at her. I looked ahead then, took a few deep breaths, and stepped forward. I took two, three steps and felt nothing. I was even able to tell myself I was feeling nothing, and still keep on. I took another step, then another, into the middle of the fire, the hottest stretch of it, then I felt myself coming to a stop and I began counting: one … two … three … four …. While before when I’d walked the fire successfully I’d had no clear thoughts, had shut them off, just a blank mind, this time I was still aware of myself, with even a dim recognition of the fire hissing below me. But I felt no pain, felt nothing, and just stood motionless counting: … five … six … seven …. I got all the way up to ten then felt something—Maranda’s hand grabbing mine. Then I felt myself grabbing back. And then the pain came rushing to me, the feeling of my feet getting seared, as if the skin were being peeled off. I jumped sideways towards Maranda and we got twisted around each other and fell onto the edge of the fire, her shoulder dipping into the coals, the ends of her hair getting singed. She let out a little scream as we scrambled together onto the grass. And then we just lay there, wrapped around each other. I had my eyes closed, then opened them to see Maranda looking straight at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Hurts a little,” I said.

“Me too,” she told me. She was looking right at me, and I realized she was beautiful, even straight on like this.

“But this feels good,” I told her and pulled her closer to me.

She sighed and pressed her head into my neck and shoulder. “Me too,” she said. “I feel good.” And we stayed there a few more minutes until finally she put her mouth to my ear and said, “Let’s go to my house.”

“Okay,” I said, and we got up and picked up our shoes. My feet stung a bit, but it was bearable, and Maranda and I put our arms around each other and went through the evergreens towards her house. When she let out another sigh, I kissed the top of her head and pulled her closer to me. Maranda, I thought. Maranda. I didn’t want to stop thinking about her after all.

*         *        *

Steve Nelson - Photo

Steve Nelson lives and writes in Milwaukee and Chicago. He earned his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and has had work published in The Rambler, Storyglossia, eye-rhyme, The Absinthe Literary Review, The Rathalla Review, and elsewhere. His essay “Mind Wide Open” is included in the anthology The Runner’s High: Illumination and Ecstasy in Motion, and “Night at the Store” was published in Phantasmagoria and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The Mutability of Self

“We rest. — A dream has power to poison sleep;

We rise. — One wandering thought pollutes the day;

We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;

Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.”

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 
I sit down to write a story about something that has happened. The main character is me, so the story must be nonfictional, but he feels distant. He lives outside of me, outside of time, no longer connected to this body that sits before the computer. Even his body is different from my body: He is leaner, more nimble, and his neck is longer; his shoulders slump comfortably forward. I am none of these things. I am swollen with memory and regret. He is a construction, scraped together from pilfered memories and stories others have told me or I have told myself.

*     *     *

I look through old photos—Facebook insists that they constitute a “memory”—and come across a series of exotic animals. They’d been taken at a zoo that was located on a small parcel of land somewhere near the Pacific coast in Southern California. My girlfriend M. and I had been driving down Highway One in the quintessential Canadians-come-to-California trip—stopping at every vista point to look at the ocean and eating at cheap seafood restaurants—when I saw a sign that read, Zoo: next right, and pulled in. To see, perhaps, if zoos were different here somehow. If California’s magic extended to its zoos.

The animals were lively. M. and I held hands and laughed when monkeys skittered along the treetops, chasing one another. The sky was clear, and the air was balmy, with a cool breeze rolling in off the ocean. The gorillas beat their chests at a group of small children. Peacocks paraded on a concrete path, their long, rainbow tails dragging along the ground. We saw a cage full of chinchillas. I told M. that she looked like a little chinchilla. She punched my shoulder and called me an asshole. I laughed.

I look through old photos. None of the photos from that day speaks of a good time—they are of animals looking downtrodden. How did I get that so wrong? In one photo, capybaras graze dolefully on a patchy lawn, behind thick reflective glass. In another, a pat of flamingos ambles about a concrete, man-made pond. In yet another, a bald eagle spreads its wings behind a mesh wire fence spanning the entirety of its enclosure, its fierce eyes staring straight ahead. I had not bothered to exclude the animal’s cages from any of the photos. There is not even the suggestion of natural habitation. Indeed, one photo in particular stands out as if to embody this truth. In it, a frog in a sparsely adorned, shoebox-sized display stares directly at the camera, one of its hands pressed into the glass, as if to say, Please kill me.

frog

Please kill me

*     *     *

I sit down to write about the time I went to the zoo with M. Perhaps I write about a budding relationship between two twenty-one-year-olds, of the first time either of us rented a car. Perhaps I describe the grandeur of the California Coast, the tourists who stop at every vista to take photos and listen to the waves crash against the steep, pockmarked cliffs, or the way the fog drifts in off the ocean. Or M. vomiting on the side of the road—yelling Pull over, pull over, pull over—when I made her carsick with my overzealous driving. I stop writing.

The animals. Why did I take those photos? They look so sad. Did I think they were happy? How could I have gotten it so wrong? And the corollary, a more painful question: What did I get wrong yesterday? What do I have wrong today? My emotional truth? My politics? My religion? My very understanding of humanity? Will I look back many years from now and see a mistaken man, turning away from the memory of my past self with disgust? I sit down to write about the past, and I am paralyzed with judgment. My fingers stiffen with rigor on the keyboard or grip the pen I hold in my hand. My mind revolts at the thought of casting back, so I fall back on the Socratic paradox. I know that I know nothing. I know that I know nothing. Nobody knows anything.

Sad lemur

Sad lemur

*     *     *

Scio me nihil scire.

I know that I know nothing. I will never stop changing. The speck of me on the continuum of life takes up almost no space. My knowledge is even smaller than that, for cosmic knowledge is boundless. The equation is something like this:

( my knowledge / ∞ ) ≈ 0

There is no comfort in experience—only a growing numerator dwarfed by an infinite denominator. No matter how much we learn, it is still nothing by comparison. No matter how much we change, we never approach stasis. So we must make peace with our mutability and hoard knowledge for its own sake because there is nothing else. Everything we hoard will slip through our fingers.

We are never the same person—only different. I write this sentence now, and I am already different. I watch who I was drift away into a vague story as yet untold. I look over my shoulder, see his cheerless gaze and his lips mouthing the words, Please be kind. There is forgiveness in mutability, an acceptance that two instances of our selves will never share the same space because they cannot. The instant we split, he is already wrong. Or I am already wrong. Or we are both right until somebody asks about moral absolutes. Schrödinger’s cat lives. The present bleeds ever so softly into both past and future.

All the men I’ve been crowd me, jostling for space on the page—the memories themselves morph depending on which man holds the most sway, today. They each bring their own version of the story. Some are louder than others. They rise and fall with the passing years.

A bald eagle spreads its wings. It is a majestic creature.

A lemur climbs a hemp rope, twisting its head playfully to stare at the crowd of onlookers.

I call M. a chinchilla.

A bald eagle spreads its wings to test the bounds of its cage.

A lemur climbs a hemp rope, believing that, this time, it might escape.

I call M. a chinchilla, tickled by my own joke.

A bald eagle musters what pride it has left, and leers at the gaggle of tourists outside its cage.

I call M. a chinchilla. She does not laugh. Shortly after, we break up. She says I am mean to her. I should not have made her vomit.

*     *     *

I look through old photos and forgive the photographer. He is no better, no worse, than the writer who sits and contemplates the photographer. He didn’t know then how horrid the existence of a caged animal is, just as I still do not know a great many things now. Perhaps I do not know the horror of the downtrodden among humans or the joy of an uprising. Perhaps I do not know the existence of an emotion for which words do not yet exist. I do not know what I do not know. Scio me nihil scire.

I sit down to write a story about something that has happened. The main character is one of many mes. He makes jokes at the expense of those he loves. He acts selfishly. He drives too fast and walks too fast and loves too casually. I forgive him. He eats Bubba Gump Shrimp and buys t-shirts with campy logos on them or polo shirts with alligators on them. He takes photos because he thinks he is supposed to. He forgets to feel empathy for creatures in pain. I forgive him. He listens to Limp Bizkit albums, the volume cranked up. He sings so loudly his voice drowns out his girlfriend’s entreaties. I dig deep and forgive him.

Writers Read: The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World is a historical fiction novel set between the 1750s and 1810s, encompassing the time frame of the Haitian revolution. Carpentier creates an alternative history to the popular narrative of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The story is narrated by Ti Noël, an uneducated slave of the French plantation owner, M. Lenormand de Mézy. He bears witness to shifts in power from the French slave masters and colonial government; to Macandal’s execution; to the slave revolt that forces de Mézy to flee with Ti Noël to Cuba; to the dictatorial King Henri Christophe and his forced labor; to the whips of the mulattoes that take control of the North afterwards, bringing the dark-skinned Haitians back into servitude. Varying degrees of racial hatred—between the French and Haitians, between whites and blacks, and to some extent, between lighter-skinned mulattoes and darker Creoles—lead to extreme violence: rape, dismemberment, and beheadings. Ti Noël lives through these later incarnations of suffering much like he did as a French slave. The novel is infused with the mysticism, voodoo, and music of the slave cultures brought from various parts of Africa (and embodied by characters like Macandal and Boukman). Creolization is hinted at throughout, especially when Ti Noël and de Mézy flee to Cuba, the African slaves spreading their culture and music throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

[blockquote align=left]Voodoo, music, Macandal, Boukman, and animism: These systems of belief dynamically interface with the daily practices and culture of their believers. They exist.

The fable-like tale is rife with magical elements, which Carpentier refers to as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. The author is credited with the beginnings of Latin Magical Realism. Yet, Carpentier’s magical realism remains distinct from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s in that Carpentier never strays from the realm of the possible, focusing on the particular extremes of Latin America and native belief systems. In The Kingdom of This World, these elements are both magical and real, in the way that these African-bound ideologies exist simultaneously as magical and real to the resisting slaves. Voodoo, music, Macandal, Boukman, and animism: These systems of belief dynamically interface with the daily practices and culture of their believers. They exist. Macandal, a pre-revolutionary figure, becomes a voodoo folk hero and is burned at the stake by the French. Boukman is a voodoo priest. After Henri Christophe becomes king in the Cap Haitien, he builds his palace and citadel into the cliff face with bull’s blood and the labor of recently-freed blacks. Like Macandal does earlier in the novel, Ti Noël shape shifts into various animals, finding out with each form that he does not fit in, much like the problems he faced in Haiti as a poor black man, always on the losing side. He returns to his human form, and in a moment of clarity, realizes that he has squandered his life. While Macandal changes into animal forms to serve men, here, Ti Noël changes shape in order to hide from the violence and injustice. The various wars serve later causes, unbeknownst to those suffering through them. Ti Noël states:

Photo: Alejo Carpentier, author of "The Kingdom of This World."

Photo: Alejo Carpentier, author of “The Kingdom of This World.”

In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World. (179)

In the end, Ti Noël disappears into a hurricane, which destroys the last remnants of the French plantation of M. de Mézy.

As an alternate history of the Haitian revolution, Carpentier leaves out Toussaint L’Ouverture, mentioning him only in a single line about a carpenter who builds a nativity scene for the slave masters. Much of the Haitian revolution occurs while Ti Noël and his master are in Cuba. A Cuban author and musicologist, Carpentier pays homage to the ripple effects of the Haitian revolution, namely the spread of African culture to Cuba and its huge influence on Cuban music. Slave music, as embodied by the drums of war and feared by the French as well as Henri Christophe, is a form of resistance. Similarly, this authorial decision also highlights Cuba’s own revolution and its failed ideologies. Carpentier differentiates between revolution and reaction—the former can be a means of progress while the latter reveals a cyclical and cynical pattern in history.

Carpentier, Alejo. The Kingdom of This World. Trans. Harriet de Onís. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957.

 

Diana OdassoDiana Odasso is currently an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles and translation co-editor and blogger for Lunch Ticket. She has translated texts from French to English (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written blogs for the Huffington Post. An interview with author Susan Straight was published in Lunch Ticket in the 2015 winter issue. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys and Boston Terrier.

Lower East Side Library: A Love Affair

On November 18, 1966, I got my first library card. I had just turned six. We lived on New York’s Lower East Side and our branch was Seward Park. Built in 1909, the red and grey four-story brick building stood near the intersection of East Broadway, Essex Street, and Canal. Unless it was raining or really cold, the Seward Park Library was an easy walk from our apartment on Grand Street off the F.D.R. Drive. The Children’s Library was on the second floor. My parents followed me as I ran upstairs to the librarian’s station. When I had her undivided attention, I announced, “I’m getting my own library card.” She pulled out her stampers and a red ink pad and got to work. Then it was my turn. I concentrated on writing my name in big block letters. When I finished, I held the little yellow square card flat in my hands, careful not to bend the corners or smudge the ink, the way I held my hamster babies when they were old enough to touch.

Libraries-008-768x1024Like my first pets, the card was all mine, and it also came with responsibility. At first, I was only allowed to take out two books at a time, but, as I got a little older, the librarian trusted me with six. I agonized over which books came home and which books got left behind. How do you choose among Charlotte’s Web, Sounder, and The Phantom Tollbooth? I promised Harriet the Spy I would be back as soon as I had read and returned the others. I spent hours sitting on the floor of the Seward Park Library, or spread out at a table, oblivious to the shifts in light that came through the big picture windows as day became night. When it was time to leave, the librarian stamped cards she pulled from the pockets pasted inside of each book. I hugged the towering stack of stories to my chest as I walked carefully down the steep stone library steps and onto East Broadway. It’s likely my mother or father accompanied me, but, when it came to reading, I was in a world of my own. As much as I loved the Lower East Side, I knew nothing greater than lying in my bed, reading by flashlight, and escaping for long stretches at a time.

IMG_4697In the sixties, my neighborhood experienced a cultural transformation, as did the rest of the country. New York City public schools had heated debates about the pros and cons of integration and a host of related proposals, including racial balancing. Because of the Lower East Side’s ethnic diversity, integration was not an issue at P.S. 110, the elementary school my brothers and I attended. Instead, as outlined in a 1963 School Board report, “the comparative size of different minority groups” drove decisions on such things as busing and language curriculum. While going through my father’s clutter after his death, I found a file overflowing with his handwritten and typed letters on the subject, and newspaper articles with headlines like “School’s Racial Issues Called Public Matter” and “Schools In City Will Open Today Despite Boycott.” The articles, most from The New York Times, the New York World-Telegram and Sun, and The Village Voice, had been cut out and marked up. Select passages were underlined, circled, or asterisked in pen. They were often cited in his letters, serving to defend or destroy a given argument.

In a pre-Google, pre-Internet world, this type of cross-referenced critical analysis was no easy feat. The aforementioned 1963 document, formally titled “District Proposal for Integration,” laid out plans to address issues of disparity, most of which are unresolved to this day. One section stated:

The curriculum will be restudied on all levels. Greater emphasis will be placed on the job opportunities, diverse cultural groups in our city, and the role of the Negro and other immigrants in American history.

 In English, there will be a new emphasis on books written by non-white authors, especially biographies and autobiographies. Books that include members of a minority in a real but favorable fashion will be selected for use.

In the reading program, as rapidly as possible, we shall develop material which is real and will therefore be of natural interest for children of various ethnic origins living in a big city.

Some Sundays, my father and I went uptown to the Donnell Library, which faced the Museum of Modern Art. For a Lower East Sider, the subway ride uptown was a special treat,  but also intimidating, with a city-mouse/country-mouse feel to the experience. Things looked shinier on 53rd Street; buildings were newer and taller, streets seemed cleaner, sounds and smells were subtler, and everyone looked much more magazine-like than anyone on Grand Street. Way downtown, we were all children of immigrants, and we played a critical role in our parents’ American Dream. It didn’t look like uptown people had the same dream, or, if they did, perhaps they already lived it. The children’s section in the Donnell Library felt like a supermarket, its shelves filled with a wide selection of everything. In comparison, Seward Park seemed more like a bodega, much smaller, a little messier, but the librarians knew you and what you liked. While I was impressed with the Donnell Library, I never felt attached. Good thing too: it was torn down to build condos. In contrast, Seward Park Library was recently granted historic landmark status and remains as vital as ever.

There was a time when the Seward Park Library boasted the highest circulation of any branch in New York City. A 1913 New York Times article painted this picture of the library card-carrying immigrant:

Centuries of famine and dearth of knowledge, and of cringing subservience to those who have had it, have taught the east side immigrant two important things about books: that what they contain can feed a starving mind and a hungering imagination with such royal richness as their lives could never afford them; and that their contents can lead him, step by step, along the journey to success and power and dominance. It is not far-fetched to say that many of the statesmen of the future are now in the making at Seward Park Library.

Here, Eastern European Jewish families like ours gained access to the kind of literature and learning tools that both kept them connected to their culture and opened them up to all-things American, including English language proficiency. With the Forward building just across the street, home to the world’s leading Yiddish newspaper, the library was often the meeting place of socialists and intellectuals, including Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Trotsky. The library equally committed to serving the specific needs of the Chinese and Italian communities, with Chinatown and Little Italy only a few blocks away. By the ’60s, the focus shifted to the growing number of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. No stranger to bilingualism, the library quickly added Spanish language books and services, as it had done with Yiddish years prior.

Civil rights concerns were always part of the Lower East Side ethos. In 1909, the very first meeting of the National Negro Conference, now known as the NAACP, took place only a few blocks away from the Seward Park Library itself. The library’s history includes the work of two pioneering librarians, Pure Belpré, the first Puerto Rican to work for the New York Public Libraries, and writer Nella Larson Imes, the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL’s prestigious training school. Imes later took over the 135th Street Library’s children’s division and became a significant author and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

IMG_4696Along with a fifty-year-old library card, my files and piles are filled with evidence of my literary love affair that started at a very early age. I had crayoned my name and the words Books and Love on a ragged piece of paper torn from a composition book, the black and white marbled-cover kind. Further down the page, I had pecked out a story of sorts using my father’s Underwood typewriter. My little fingers must have pushed down as hard as they could on the silver-circled keys, each with a letter on top. With each strike of a key, I triggered inky levers to rise up and move toward the roller, transporting a piece of the alphabet, punctuation, or a symbol. Sometimes the levers jammed together before they hit the paper and left their mark. My first line:

i       read and i read i love to read books.

Notes from my father to my elementary school teachers support the sentiment expressed in this early work of non-fiction. On virtually every report card he signed, my father mentioned my passion. In second grade he wrote, “Rochelle reads continuously at home,” followed by, “constantly,” the next year. By fourth grade he wrote, “Rochelle is a voracious reader.”

IMG_4698In my 6th grade autograph book, I found another clue. Next to Favorite Author, I wrote Richard Wright. Looking back—all too aware that 1963’s goals of emphasizing diverse writers had yet to be met—I reflect on why Wright’s Native Son meant so much to me. I realize now that it spoke to a larger Lower East Side narrative about oppression, social justice, and fairness. These are the themes that so many of my favorite childhood books have in common—books as different as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle.

Although the soundtrack to my Seward Park Library memories is all whispers and hushed tones, I have no question about its impact: the Seward Park Library, and the books I borrowed, amplified my world-view and my voice. I didn’t know it at the time, but with each book I borrowed, I kept so much, and was also entrusted with the responsibility of returning so much more.

Jeanette May, Fox, 2013, Archival Pigment Print, 24 x 36 in.

Spotlight: Morbidity & Mortality

Mere Mortals

I had lots of crushes on boys growing up. I might even have loved some. But Señora served me my first real heartbreak. She was my Spanish teacher when I was a senior in high school. She was in her mid-forties, with short blonde hair and smooth, tan skin. She spoke softly, and her bearing was regal, even though mischief sometimes glinted in her blue eyes. She was committed to her job and very clever at it, so we were eager and adoring. She invented tunes to help us remember irregular tenses. Perched cross-legged on a stool, she’d warble verbs at us from behind a big guitar. Señora was the kind of beautiful where, by looking at her too long, you’d start to feel a glare of light that could make you blush and cast your eyes down. I don’t know if there was a single student of hers who could say they didn’t love her a little.

She read us Marquez and Borges and Lorca. Through her I discovered that popcorn in Spanish is palomitas, which means little doves. (Knowing that, who could resist becoming an acolyte?) One day during a lesson on the Spanish Civil War, she shut the lights off in class and projected Picasso’s Guernica onto the wall, which made us tremble. She gave students pet names. She was interested in who we were. Being in Señora’s class, we felt we were in on a great secret. When we walked out into the school, we knew no one felt the way we did, that no one had read what we had read or been changed the way we’d been changed.

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica

 

When I was sending out college applications, I asked her for a recommendation. I felt confident that she’d write me a strong letter. After all, I worshipped her. She sent sealed letters to the schools and gave a copy to me.

It’s not that she was unkind. The opposite was true, and the letter’s gentleness was what made it unbearable. I don’t have the document anymore. I probably did something an angry teenager does—crumpled or burned it, or tore it up and ate it, but the essential points will be with me until I die. “Mary is not a natural language learner,” she wrote. “It’s difficult for her, but Mary tries very hard.”

I don’t think she would have obliged my request if she didn’t think the letter would be helpful. Still, I was crushed. The way I saw it, Señora was applauding what she saw as my brave perseverance in the face of substantial cognitive deficiencies. It was the epistolary equivalent of a pat on the head. I was sad and embarrassed. I thought I had a talent for Spanish. And I thought talent was a magic that absolved a person of toil.

When I graduated from college five years later, I applied to an MFA program for creative writing. I felt it was my vocation. Language got me high, and I was still coasting on that lofty, cushioned plane of academe. I was good at school. My transcript said so. I wrote a single essay, stuck it in the mail, and did not think to worry. When my application was rejected, I was initially confused. Then I walked to the bathroom of my tiny duplex, turned on the shower, sat down inside it, and cried for a long, long time. It was just like every bad breakup scene from the movies: Here is the unrequited lover, soaked to the bone, with no vase for her flowers.20160207_123226

For ten years I did a lot of random things which amounted to generalized sulking. On a whim about a year and a half ago, I signed up for a writing seminar in Big Sur where Pam Houston was teaching. She read an essay she’d written called Corn Maze, which is a dance of such precision, such periscopic clarity, that it seems superhuman. It was concise and full of soul. I was electrified. I decided to apply to MFA programs again. This disremembering of agony is like what happened after my first childbirth experience. The body forgets that pain just as long as it takes you to be stupid enough to get pregnant again. Then midway through your second 36-hour labor, the memory comes roaring back with all the clarity of an IMAX film. The emotional wilting of ten years past had finally reached critical distance. I submitted applications to five schools. Though I now attribute the result to a series of clerical errors, I was admitted to all of them.

At last, I thought. Through some alchemy of time, bitterness, motherhood, drinking and wandering, I had attained (let’s just say it) genius. The writers—more than one of them—finally saw me, and they loved what they saw. Though too late now to be considered a wunderkind, I had something better: the wisdom of experience. In the rapturous five months before school started, my feet scarcely grazed the ground. I would look in the mirror, blush shyly, and look away. Then look again.

In preparation for the MFA residency, students are asked to submit up to twenty pages of writing that will be workshopped by a small group of peers and a faculty mentor. I hammered out thirteen pages with wild Rachmaninoff zeal and sent them along, feeling whole and indestructible.

When workshop day rolled around, my peers and our faculty mentor each opened a copy of my essay. It’s not that they were unkind. They praised parts of the piece but devoted the majority of our time (days and days, it seemed) to constructive criticism. This part is confusing. Consider restructuring. I need more information here and less over here. At the end, a consolation: It’s just a draft. The horror lay in the fact that they were telling me my essay needed work.

One wonders, what did I expect? We go to school to learn, to be criticized, to improve. But I had come for a high-five. I was there for the rose. I didn’t arrive expecting helpful suggestions because I made my old mistake—I assumed that being admitted to grad school meant that I had a genuine gift. I clung to that inalienable talent like a grail. After the residency, I saw the trophy was as plasticky as a cup plucked from an arcade game.

I quailed then, as I do now. The bliss of being accepted to grad school had derived from a long-awaited affirmation. It was not an anticipatory thrill, but the gratification of a job well done. Unfortunately, the writers I met at the program generally knew more than I did. Worse, they saw problems in my work that I hadn’t seen. This left me to face the devastating prospect of having to work hard. Which, till now, I had been sure was the very opposite of talent.

I did not drop out after the first workshop. I would be lying if I said I am not tempted, at least once a week, to raise my white hanky, to go back to settling for all of my second favorite pastimes, to begging my daughters (they, who love me reliably!) for a hug when they would rather be coloring. I thought about dropping out this morning. No, I haven’t withdrawn yet. But the day is young.

In another class I took six months ago, Pam Houston remarked that she revises a piece fifty times, on average, before it’s finished. The students in the room sucked a loud, collective gasp. I choked a little on my coffee and thought about crying. It seems she sees more than other humans. Yet, she toils like a mortal.

Seventeen years ago, when I was seventeen, Señora said I worked very hard. It turns out it was the best compliment one can receive. It is not enough that I love writing or reading. No matter how fiercely I feel it, no matter how occasionally acrobatic my turns of phrase. It’s not sufficient to buy the bouquet. (Your beloved will not answer their door.) Talent, for what it’s worth, is bound up with stamina. This is a Sisyphean labor of love: There’s nothing to do but keep pushing.

Writers Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In the bestselling medical ethics-centered nonfiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot uses primary resources, including one thousand-plus hours of personal interviews, to piece together a life—Henrietta Lacks’s—lost too soon to cervical cancer yet forever immortalized, thanks to the science of cell culture. Like a wedding cake, the book is rich in its many layers. There is the history of tissue research and the shifting legality behind it, which is absolutely fascinating, there is the heart-wrenching racial component, as Lacks is a black women who dies in the early 1950s, and then there’s the human interest aspect, which, for me, is the most gripping. Through a structure that mirrors the complexity of a cell, Skloot teaches the reader a thing or two about craft, while raising “important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class” (xiv).

The book, which takes the form of a braided narrative, begins with a prologue, wherein Skloot explains her relationship to the story we’re about to read. What might otherwise read as biography is in fact investigative reporting with a twist: Like in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief or Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees, the narrator herself is a character, and she is smart to reveal this from the beginning. As a young biological sciences student, Skloot stumbles upon what will later become the idea for this project when she is introduced to HeLa cells—cancerous cells that were extracted from the then-living Lacks’s cervix without her consent, then grown in culture medium until they divided, ad infinitum, and spread “like crabgrass” to become a valuable and viable research tool (41). The young Skloot immediately wants to know more about the woman behind these miraculous and fruitful cells. But she hits a wall, and not of the cervical variety. There is practically no information to be found on the lady whose tissue has been involved in polio, cancer, and AIDS advancements, as well as space research, to name a few. Some articles claim her name was Helen Lane. Others say Henrietta Lakes. One 1976 Rolling Stone piece by Mike Rogers gets it right, as does the Adam Curtis BBC newscast The Way of All Flesh from 1998. But by and large, the masses are ignorant about Lacks and her cells. Even the Lacks family has a limited comprehension of what their beloved matriarch has contributed to medicine. The enterprising Skloot, however, with a background in science and an MFA in creative writing, sees this hole in public knowledge as an opportunity to tell Lacks’s story, which has, for her, become a fixation at this point (6).

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Photo: Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House

Just as soon as the author reveals her relationship to the narrative, she vanishes—zooming in on braid number one—the Henrietta Lacks braid. For thirteen of the novel’s thirty-eight chapters, Skloot acts as an omniscient third-person narrator, here to reveal a woman to us. It’s 1951 in Baltimore, and Lacks is about to discover her deadly cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. We meet her husband David (who is also her cousin) and their five children, including one who is a newborn and another who will later be institutionalized for epilepsy and cognitive disabilities before dying at age fifteen. We find ourselves rooting for Mrs. Lacks’s recovery, for her own sake and for the sake of her five small children, even though we already know her fate—Skloot revealed that much in the prologue, using the retrospective mode. But even post-mortem, Lacks’s braid lives on, like her cells; the focus merely shifts away from her and toward the living Lackses.

After she discloses Lacks’s fatal tumor, the author pans the camera back even further than the ’50s. She stops in the year 1920, when Lacks is just a girl, and briefly touches upon the next twenty-two years of Lacks’s life. As soon as we find ourselves invested in this feisty, independent spirit—this strong child who develops into a strong woman—we jump forward to 1951 again, where we meet tissue culture researcher George Gey—the man responsible for growing “two dime-sized pieces of [Lacks’s cervical] tissue” into “the first immortal human cells” (33-34). As it turns out, Lacks’s will be the first cells not to die in his lab “like all the others” (33). This chapter represents the second braid in the book—the science braid—which ultimately fills eleven chapters. (It also fills our brains with detailed but digestible knowledge. Kudos to Skloot for her handiwork here.)

[blockquote align=left]In the prologue, we learn that the author is both the narrator and a character, but she makes us wait forty-two pages until she re-enters as the leading figure of the third braid, and this heightens the suspense. “I realized I needed to be in the book,” she said.

In the prologue, we learn that the author is both the narrator and a character, but she makes us wait forty-two pages until she re-enters as the leading figure of the third braid, and this heightens the suspense. “I realized I needed to be in the book,” she has said of her role as herself—a twenty-something doe-eyed, ambitious journalist who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Her strand is not a self-aggrandizing one, though. On the contrary, it is often interwoven with hard-won information about Lacks’s four living children, especially Deborah, with whom Skloot eventually forms “a deep personal bond” (7). The journey for the narrator to get to this place of mutual understanding with Deborah, however, is paved with tension and strain, as the Lacks children are implicitly distrusting of white people and the media and doctors, and Skloot represents two out of the three.

The effect of multiple narratives coming in and out of focus maintains our interest and creates a sense of tension, which is necessary in a story where the ending is known. As memoirist and teacher Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Two [or more] essential time lines braiding … give[s] us a simulation of change and growth” (107). In this case, change and growth come on the part of the characters: Deborah learns to be more trusting of the “other” that Skloot represents, and Skloot forms a lasting connection with a family so different from her own. Moreover, Skloot uncovers previously-unknown information about an influential but obscure female figure in medical history. Perhaps even more important than the personal change Skloot documents is the societal change. As part of the science braid, she presents the shifting views and laws concerning medical ethics and patient rights over the decades. And, as she reminds us in the story’s afterward, “The [tissue] issue isn’t going away anytime soon” (327).

In combination with the braided construction (in the author’s own words, “It’s three narratives braided together … the story of me and Deborah, the story of Henrietta … and the science [surrounding the HeLa cells]”), Skloot chooses a non-linear structure to tell her story. The book begins in 2009 with Skloot’s prologue, rewinds to 1951—the year when Lacks dies but her cells live on—then delves even further into Lacks’s past (1920-1942), before all three braids move forward chronologically towards 2009, when the book is printed—ten years after Skloot first began her investigation. Turn to the back of the book, and you’ll find a chronological accounting of events from 1998 to 2009—in case you can’t keep it straight.

“The narrative jumps around in time back and forth between [sic] the three different narratives … and between multiple stories and scientific discoveries …” Skloot has shared, adding that in the writing of them, she tackled them separately and chronologically (and with three different-colored flashcards) before daring to weave. Ultimately, this jumping around—like the braided construction—keeps us wanting to read on, wanting to turn the pages so that we might fill in the blanks, be they gaps in the timeline or missing pieces to of any of the three stories. Ultimately, while each strand is separate, there is overlap. “I became a character in her story, and she in mine”, Skloot writes of Lacks, and this human interest piece, overlying the historical and the scientific, is what makes this not only an informative read, but also a richly satisfying one (7).

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008.

 

Melissa GreenwoodLA native Melissa Greenwood is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program, where she studied nonfiction writing. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store in Toronto. Now, Melissa lives with her boyfriend in Victoria, British Columbia, where she teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, serves remotely as Copy Edit Manager for Lunch Ticket, and tries to sneak in the occasional Netflix viewing. She plans to move back to southern California come April in search of a communications job at an independent school. 

Honey West and the Truth

I’m a Boomer. Born in the mid-fifties, I’m a child of the sixties who came of age in the seventies. I share a cultural heritage with every member of my generation, a cultural heritage defined, in large part, by the television programing we watched. Before cable balkanized our choices, ABC, CBS, and NBC reigned supreme, creating a collective and unifying pop culture experience. This Dream Factory conspired with Madison Avenue to give birth to the same longings and beliefs in what was possible, in all of us, no matter where our parents or grandparents were from. There were, of course, exceptions, as when the Dream Factory and its advertising sponsors co-dependently agreed not to air diversified programming and enabled the South to maintain its illusion of segregated bliss. An example was the very short-lived Nat King Cole variety show. However, by and large, we Baby Boomers traveled the seven seas with Gilligan, happily watched Elizabeth Montgomery twitch her beautiful nose and ate the same breakfast cereals brought to you by General Mills. Walter Cronkite was everyone’s great white father.

My childhood ambition was to be an actress, an ambition greatly influenced by the copious hours I spent in front of the television set. My family’s only TV, a big Zenith black and white console, was dragged back and forth between the living room for the family viewing of The Ed Sullivan Show and my parents’ bedroom for late nights of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Peyton Place, well after my bedtime.

On Friday nights I was allowed to stay up a little later, and after The Addams Family I would watch a short-lived ABC series called Honey West, starring the blue-eyed blond Anne Francis as Honey West. She was everything I wanted to be at the time. Beguiling and fearless, she was a slick, self-possessed, gun-toting private eye. I loved Honey West. At ages nine and ten I pretended to be her in the bathroom mirror. Honey had a mole on her chin that sat to the right of her lower lip: her beauty mark. I had a mole on my high left cheekbone: my beauty mark. This shared feature allowed me to create the fantasy that we shared much more—a sense of autonomy (we answered to no man), assured of our place in the world, and in control of our destiny. This is what Honey West demonstrated to me each week as she stood her ground and maintained her own sense of personhood. And so a certain belief in what my life could be formed in my imagination based on her grit and confidence. We were kindred spirits, and I believed that this blue-eyed blond embodiment of our culture’s idea of beauty and I had everything in common. It didn’t occur to me that Francis’s kind of beauty was the default. It didn’t occur to me that my light brown skin and dark brown eyes, full lips and kinky, curly hair would be perceived as less suitable than Anne Francis’s azure eyes, soft blond flip, and model-thin frame. I couldn’t imagine the complicated ways in which beauty and femininity were defined, and that what constituted beauty in our culture was so narrow. I simply basked in the rays of our imagined similarities and felt beautiful as well. There began the belief that I could play a beautiful woman on TV, too. I could do that because I, too, was beautiful.

It was the sixties. I came of age in Brooklyn, New York, not the swampy rural, flat tobacco countryside of my parents’ North Carolina youth, where lines of civil and social division were clear and impenetrable. My parents knew their place. My parents kept their place. And though the deep human longing for more and for better led them to join that hopeful migration out of Southern tyranny and into Northern possibility, the action did not squelch the sense of careful restraint that was bred into them by accident of Southern birth and by fear. They kept their place up north as well. They figured out where they were welcomed and lived only where they were allowed to live, in newly-constructed public housing created to keep them separate from the rest, a spanking new corral for the children of sharecroppers with nowhere else to go. They kept their place by cooperating, self-segregating, frequenting only the institutions they felt comfortable frequenting, because habits die hard. See, you could take the Southern Negro out of the South but it was harder to take the South out of the Southern Negro.

I was a child of the Northeast living in the belly of America’s media mecca, starting school in the midst of a “war on poverty” created in a White House occupied by a scion of the South called LBJ. This led to a richly-layered, early education, paid for by a booming economy. An education that helped create in me a sense that I had a place in this culture because I lived in a “melting pot” and American values were my values. The three networks we watched on our Zenith Black and White reflected a reality I grew to believe and saw as my own. Even when that reflection looked nothing like me, and it hardly ever did, I continued to believe in my place among the television’s stars and starlets. I believed in the reality of what I saw and heard on our Zenith. It was our window to a larger world: of possibility, adventure, and change. I longed to be an actress, a longing that conspired with advertising and the programming it supported to brainwash me into thinking that I was the same as Anne Francis, that I could be Honey West, that the world I aspired to inhabit one day—that very Dream Factory—would open its doors for me as widely as it had opened its doors for her. I would cling to this fantasy for decades.

I wonder at times why I was so naïve. Was it just the Dream Factory or was I already ripe for manipulation? Was it just the steady diet of make believe that conspired to warp my psyche, to encourage the silly notion that I would ever be Honey West? Did the Cheerios go down as easily inside other budding Boomers as they did inside my gullible mind or was I just special?

Even still, I am a performer of some ability. I gratefully acknowledge that certain aspects of my skill set, my comic timing, lets say, may have come from the hours spent in front of the Zenith watching the creative genius of Gleason, Carney, Lucy, and Desi. My flair for the dramatic could have been encouraged by drinking in classic Hollywood (Bette Davis, James Cagney, Edward G., and Ida Lupino) on those long ago Sunday afternoons with my dad. I have a deep love for story and the elements of drama: action, dialogue, setting, and description. I’ve always had a need to drink up flavor in a turn of a phrase, a nod of the head, a look in the eye. I was a willing patsy.

Last year, one of my reps told me that depending on the lighting, it couldn’t always be determined that I was an African American, and would I consider darkening my skin? The request was made, I’m sure, to be helpful, to help me help him more easily place me into those specific slots that someone of my age and career-status could occupy. Change my skin color in order to make someone else’s job easier.

It was a moment of truth that wasn’t immediately apparent. A moment that took months to unravel from years of dream-building inside thick walls of bogus “melting pot” social studies assignments, Coca Cola jingles, and Sly Stone “Everyday People” refrains. It was a moment of truth in need of an audience, in need of my attention. A moment of clarity in which to finally wake the fuck up and acknowledge: I wasn’t Anne Francis, Honey West was only a fantasy, and America’s default color didn’t include my particular shade of wishful thinking.

I slipped out of my fantasy and woke to the reality that people who looked like me didn’t get their stories told with regularity. It wasn’t good business; there was no money in it and even less interest. And I’m very aware that my “come to Jesus” moment came long after it did for others. The moment I realized that people like me were only supporting players, background props in the stories of others, came way after I was past the age to even play a prop. It occurred the year I applied to an MFA program in creative writing.

Acting is a vocation that allows me to maintain my fantasies about what’s plausible because it demands that I wear a cloak of pretend. Writing nonfiction requires that I strip away my tendency to live in the Land of Oz. It demands the clarity of mind necessary to look at the harsh reality of my choices, my truth, my culture, and my country. That is—if I’m going to be honest. Good acting requires the ability to create authentic behavior under imaginary circumstances. Writing creative nonfiction requires a self-knowledge and personal willingness to put my authentic self on the page. In front of the camera or on stage, I can be honest in my creation of behavior without necessarily living my own truth. But in order to write creative nonfiction, I must be willing to see past the lies I’ve been living and stake my claim to reality. Perhaps that clarity has come with age, assisted by the snail-paced limp towards change in my Dream Factory, but it’s how I have finally let go of a little girl’s fantasy … and kissed Honey West goodbye.