Acts of Creation

The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

On March first, the American astronaut Scott Kelly returned from a year aboard the International Space Station. In the pictures he took from space, sunset cast a rosy blush over the Earth’s broad face. The aurora borealis skittered, green over the planet’s arc, and the Milky Way was a great starry sheet, torn up the middle. Kelly photographed American cities, burning on their electrical grids like sprawling light-spiders. In this moment, a view from above takes on all kinds of significance. It’s alternatingly calming and rattling. There we all are, the Americans, way down below, in the throes of the ugliest election cycle in memory. It seems like peace is reserved for space. Down here, we are drowning in noise.

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Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

As Scott Kelly’s spaceship was descending, I was opening a new book. The Sixth Extinction was written by Elizabeth Kolbert, a science writer for the New Yorker. The extinction event referred to in the title is one that we are in the process of carrying out, because (in case you missed it) our species has a penchant for unchecked depletion of the environment. Books and essays on climate change are not fun to read, unless you like getting the shit scared out of you about the upcoming apocalypse. As Kolbert says in her introduction, “If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so.” I didn’t want to read this book. I wanted to read Harry Potter with my daughter (she who will inherit my Earth). I wanted to abscond to a realm where the worst thing around is a horcrux, and even that can be dismantled by love. But my wise mentor, Sharman, herself an acclaimed nature writer, added the book to my reading list this term. Predictably, it was a great, important book. A necessary one. Kolbert describes the systematic whittling down of biodiversity, our oncoming age of erosion and simplification. Look around, she says, because in a best case scenario, fifty years from now a third of the species you see will have vanished.

Not long after Kolbert’s book was published, another necessary work appeared. Between the World and Me is a father’s letter to his son. Ta Nehisi Coates describes the way American “Dreamers” have profited from African American subjugation for centuries—indeed, this practice forms the basis of our earliest economics. Near the end of his message, he connects the violence of white supremacy to ecological violence. He says, “…the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” Coates’s work deserves to be read and discussed by all conscientious Americans. Come for the lyrical prose, stay for the adroit account of contemporary white supremacy. There is a mindset among a certain political set which regards things like white privilege and climate change like some kind of Santa Claus, a quaint myth that one may choose to believe in, or not. The thing is, even if climate change were not occurring (a reality I won’t waste Internet space to debate), an ethos of plunder is deeply problematic.

The same species that engineered a Space Station is responsible for acts of extreme social and ecological depredation. We are capable of catastrophic consumption. And we also permit impoverishment of language. Paucity of speech has strategic value: when we oversimplify, when we deny nuance and complexity, we give the narrative of ignorance a broad berth. The blunt linguistic cinderblocks of hate speech have the power, for example, to induce a KKK rally near my Orange County home, in the year 2016. This is the same taut dialectic that thinks drill, baby, drill is cute, rather than violent. As Coates tells us, climate change and white supremacy are part of the same program of entitlement, the same culture of relentless diminishment. If anyone is still searching for evidence, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is a racist billionaire, adept in the crude lexicon of plunder. And bodies are being battered and harassed at his mob-rallies all over the country.

Humans are also capable of recognizing subtlety and crafting observation-based arguments. We achieve our highest feats when we pay careful attention. David Foster Wallace built books as complex as space stations. Emily Dickinson’s quickstepping meanings steal over us when we least expect. Kolbert reminds us how the writings of John Muir inspired leaders to create Yosemite National Park, how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring got the word out about the pesticide DDT.  We are a wrecking ball of a species, but one which also produced algebra and opera and iambic pentameter.

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Photo credit: Scott Kelly

On the evening of March first, I was with my sister in New York to see the musical Hamilton. She’d been lucky to score the tickets last October, and accepted whatever seats were available. The tickets were sold at a discount due to a “partially obstructed view” but beyond that, we didn’t know where they would be until we arrived. We didn’t really care as long as they let us in the door. It turned out that we were in a box that hovered just above stage left. We had a bird’s-eye view of the performers, with a minor blind spot downstage. We also had a breathtaking unimpeded view of the audience. As the show got closer to starting, what had been an expanse of red velvet chairs became a sea of people. The excited spectators found their seats. They shed their coats, they took selfies, they chatted and dug in their purses for glasses. The pages of their playbooks fluttered like settling birds. Somewhere below us the orchestra tapped and moaned like a weather system. Then the lights came down and what ensued was an astonishing display of verbal agility. The performance was a two-hour lyrical outpouring, an old American narrative presented in heartbeats of new, complex meter. There is a song, near the end, which tells the story of parents losing a child. When the lights came down at the end of the number, the theater plunged into darkness. We could all have been suspended in outer space. But then the dark was populated by flickers of bright white—the blooming of stars across a fathomless sky—they flowered out of the blackness one by one, from the depths of purses and pockets and sleeves. White tissues, hundreds of them, everywhere wiping cheeks, dabbing at eyes, moved by the complexity of human feeling lifted into verse.

Scott Kelly is back on Earth with the rest of us. The other day he posted a video of himself standing in his first rainfall since returning. He looks up, astonished and giddy. The lens is blurred by a splotch of rain. He raises his palms toward the sky.

We have all the evidence we need to prove our plunder of people and country, but there is plenty that we still don’t understand. A picture snapped from the cosmos reminds us simultaneously how far we have come and how much captivating mystery remains. Contrary to what simplistic political language suggests, as our planet’s biota reduces, our problems multiply. We can respond with bombast. We can make ample parade space for our worst, least articulate selves to maraud. Or we can muster powers of observation and chase nuance. We can look around. We can pay careful attention to what’s happening and use facts and information to foray bravely into the dark, probing for ways to elaborate rather than despoil. We can apply our weird, fantastic minds to acts of creation.

Spotlight: The Last Cigarette

On September 26, 2009, at about a quarter past one in the morning, while outside, a cloudy night sky was closing in on Padua, he, lying on his king-sized futon next to his profoundly asleep wife, was shaken by a violent cough. Eyes staring into the dark bedroom, he was overcome by the age-old fear of asphyxia. When he started breathing normally again, he got up, stumbled to the bathroom, entered the darkness there, leaned on the sink and started coughing again. When it stopped and he turned on the light, he noticed that the white porcelain, the faucet, and the edge of the toothbrush holder were covered in tiny specks of blood. He stood perfectly still for a second. He could hear his wife moving in their bed, as if she were pulling up the covers, and then becoming still again. He cleaned the sink with some water, dried his hands, wet his forehead, his cheeks and neck. The reflection in the mirror was that of a middle-aged man, balding and terrified; underneath, he could read the caption: lung cancer at the age of forty-two. He had started smoking when he was fourteen and a half, at school, in October, at recess. He got his first cigarette—a Merit—from a friend who would steal the money from his mom to buy them. In a year’s time, he was smoking a pack a day. His wife kept asking him to quit; she made him promise every New Year’s Eve, the minute they raised their champagne glasses. He would have liked to quit, but he couldn’t. He’d try and then start up again almost immediately. Cancer seemed, in his opinion, to be a remote possibility—something that happened to other people, like the lightning that struck shepherds in summer, at random, in the fields, at night. But the blood in the bathroom sink was undeniably his. He ran a hand through his hair. He had never been so close to death. He closed his eyes. His chest ached. He opened his eyes again. He peed, trembling. The kids’ toys were in the tub: a dinosaur, a Hot Wheels, a small-winged Winx. He turned the light off. The silence in the condominium sounded like distant thunder, barely audible. Before returning to the bedroom, he stopped at the door of his kids’ room, taking in that warm darkness full of breaths. In the semi-darkness, he noticed that his son had thrown off his blanket and had wrapped his legs around the enormous stuffed dog they’d bought at Ikea some months earlier. His daughter slept arms spread out, mouth open, eyes closed. What was she, a four year old, dreaming about? A shiver ran down his spine: Those two would soon lose their father, and he, too, would lose them forever. Morning came slowly. At five it was still dark, and was raining heavily; at six the white light of dawn started to filter through the blinds. He got up, went to the kitchen and looked out. Fat yellow leaves floated in enormous puddles that dotted the road; he went back to bed and tried to fall asleep. His neighbor’s alarm clock went off at half past six, and was immediately silenced: an oversight. At seven his wife yawned; at seven-fifteen, she yawned again; then she woke up, one piece at a time. When she opened her eyes, he told her about what had happened that night; she minimized it, or tried to. The children woke up at eight-fifteen and they got in the big bed with them. The little one, in her pink Hello Kitty pajamas, took his face in her tiny hands and kissed his cheek noisily—she did that every Sunday. His boy, who was six, and was particularly proud of his Ben 10 pajamas, was missing one front tooth; his wife tickled him to see his sweet lopsided smile. The warmth, the limpid intimacy that marked their Sunday mornings, like a sort of family ritual, now tugged at his heartstrings. How could he separate himself from his children? How would he find the strength? In the bright light of that autumn morning, he understood that the meaning of life had always escaped him; and that disarming, unbearable thought was a gift that death was awarding him: a reparation of sorts.

But it wasn’t cancer: Death was not pointing a finger at him. Two weeks later, a sixty-or-so-year-old doctor, who looked like he had seen too much pain to still feel pleasure, told him he had nothing: nothing. They had x-rayed him, CAT scanned him, ultrasound scanned him, twice; they’d ordered ten pages of blood tests, urine tests; they’d palpated and examined; they had moved him from one doctor’s table to another, from one doctor to another. Nothing. His cells continued to reproduce normally. The blood that had stained his sink on the night between September 26th and 27th was probably just the consequence of a particularly violent cough. But he had to stop smoking: Everyone said so. He was still young enough to benefit from the immediate suspension of that stupid habit. You won’t be forty forever, said the sixty-year-old physician; don’t forget that. And he, lying almost naked on those cold doctors’ tables, had an overwhelming desire to have grandchildren, to spend Christmas with his grown-up children. He absolutely had to meet their future families. Who would his daughter fall in love with? Would her husband be like him? And his boy, who at six had an almost paternal love for his little sister, and his class mates: What kind of father would he be? He imagined him tall, with a beard that was impossible to imagine now, and a child on his shoulders: They were both smiling and the child was missing a tooth. When he completed all the physicals, and he was finally spared, he promised his wife he would never smoke again. The packet he had bought on the morning of the 26th at the tobacconist’s near his house lay closed in a desk-drawer in his study, like an alternative he had decided against. To him, it was as if death itself were locked in that wooden prison.

He resisted. He put on an inevitable ten kilos, which, in part, he lost the next spring when he joined a gym. And even if it wasn’t true, he told everyone he could really taste the flavor of food again. He was less tired in the evening. Every once in a while he really craved one—especially after lunch, while the taste of coffee lingered in his mouth. But he resisted. He thought about his children. Their future. Before going to bed at night, he would go into their room, stand near their beds, and it seemed to him that there was nothing more beautiful than his two children sleeping peacefully: Their fragility was safe under the roof that he and his wife had built, or bought. When at night it thundered, his little girl would slip into the big bed, and cuddle up close to him, because she knew her father was stronger than the storm. On some nights his boy would help him clear the table, carrying the plates one at a time, stumbling between the dining room and the kitchen, as proud as could be. Sometimes, the boy would yell at his sister. Lovingly, tenderly, firmly, he would tell his son not to yell but saw himself in his son’s stance.

After so many years of empty days, he was suddenly happy. Up to now, he had floated on the surface of life; now, finally, he had leapt into the palpitating heart of his existence, fully: Death, which had, for one night, touched his home, his life, had awarded him a new outlook—clearer, deeper, fuller.

The night of September 26, 2010, he and his children were home alone. His wife had gone to a meeting planned by a cousin of his who had just had a baby and, to pass the time or to earn a little extra money, sold products for the home: air fresheners for the bathroom and herbal toothpastes. The children were a little older now: His son had a huge new front tooth in the place of the one he had lost, but was missing the other one; and his daughter had started acting like a pretty little miss. In the morning she would ask her mother to braid her hair. She was in love with a friend in nursery school, or at least she thought she was; and as soon as she got home, she would tell them that she and Luca had slept next to each other after lunch. The teacher said that they often held hands.

They ate. They watched a few cartoons. Then the children asked if they could take a bath, both of them: It was a while since they had taken one together. A few months earlier his wife started saying that they were too big, and that it wasn’t proper. They insisted a bit. In the end, he said yes. He prepared the tub. His little boy went to get the dinosaurs he kept in his room; his little girl scurried under the bed to get two Winx. He turned on the electric heater to warm the bathroom, then, diligently, turned it off, and put it back in the cupboard under the sink. He looked at the toothbrush glass: Had there really been blood on it a year before, or was it just a bad dream? The children got undressed, threw their toys in the tub, and jumped into the warm water. He could still see the lines of their bathing suits. He told them not to squirt water on the floor, and to behave; he winked at his little boy, who smiled. Then he went to get their bathrobes. He passed in front of his study. Was his packet of cigarettes still inside his desk drawer, or had his wife thrown it away? He opened it. It was still there. He lifted the cardboard lid: There was one left. He pulled it out. Exactly a year had passed since that night with the blood, and the panic. In the end, he had won. He was free. Sure of that fact, he wanted to try the thrill of that last cigarette.

He went to the kitchen, turned on the gas burner, leaned his head in and, careful not to burn his hair, lit the cigarette. While he was going out onto the balcony, he looked at the clock on the oven: It was nine thirty-four. He closed the door behind him—he didn’t want the smoke to filter into the house. He leaned his back against the wall, and breathed in deeply. The sky was bright, lit up by the yellow lights of Padua. He could see the Big Dipper up above. In summer, before going to bed, he would go out onto the balcony, sit on the white lawn chair, light a cigarette and look at the stars: Month after month, they moved slowly north. He breathed in again. An airplane flashed through the sky. What if it were to explode right above his house? He imagined the ball of fire lighting up the sky, the deafening crack that would come immediately afterwards, the pieces of aircraft falling to the ground. A huge wing would fall right in the garden in front of his place; and the bodies, the bodies of the passengers … how would they fall? A human downpour. Crashing sounds as they hit the ground. He shivered. What were the chances of an airplane exploding then and there? He waited. The shiny outline disappeared silently. No explosion. Lightning, blood in the sink: The wheel rarely stopped at death in the lottery of life. On the balcony opposite his, a man wearing underwear and an undershirt appeared with a cigarette dangling from his lips and waved from across the garden that separated them. He waved too, drawing a luminous circle with the red tip of his cigarette. Had the neighbor, too, imagined the airplane explode in flight? He looked at the clock in the kitchen: nine thirty-eight. A smoke, therefore, took four minutes. He went back in.

It took him a bit to understand that the shrieking he heard was his son’s voice: It seemed much older, much more distant—but it was coming from the bathroom down the hall. How long had he been screaming? He was calling out desperately: Papa, Papa, Papa. He ran. He opened the door. His little girl was floating head down near her Winx; a T-rex was looking on from the edge of the tub, white-eyed, paws held out as if praying. She’s not breathing, shrieked his son, she’s not breathing anymore, she’s not breathing, and he cried, mouth open wide, tooth  missing, face exactly like his father’s. And he, holding the wet lifeless body in his arms, thought about the blood in the sink, the airplane falling suddenly, the drawer with his cigarettes, the lightning that in summer struck down the creatures of the earth, at random, like a blind and terrible finger.

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L’ultima sigaretta

Il 26 settembre 2009, intorno all’una e un quarto della notte, mentre fuori un cielo pieno di nuvole scure si chiudeva intorno a Padova, lui, disteso sul letto matrimoniale in stile futon, accanto al sonno profondo di sua moglie, fu scosso da un attacco improvviso e violentissimo di tosse: con gli occhi sbarrati sull’oscurità della camera, sperimentò l’antichissimo terrore dell’asfissia. Quando riprese a respirare, si alzò, barcollò fino al bagno, entrò in quel buio, appoggiò le mani ai bordi del lavandino, e riprese a tossire. Quando smise, e accese la luce, vide che la porcellana bianca, il rubinetto, il bordo del bicchiere con i quattro spazzolini, erano ricoperti da minuscole goccioline rosse. Rimase fermo per qualche secondo. Udì sua moglie muoversi nel letto, come se si stesse sistemando le coperte sulle spalle, e tornare immobile. Con un po’ d’acqua pulì il lavandino; si asciugò le mani; si bagnò la fronte, le guance, il collo. Lo specchio davanti gli mostrava l’immagine del volto di un uomo di mezza età, un po’ stempiato e pieno di paura; sotto, scorrevano i sottotitoli: cancro ai polmoni, a quarantadue anni. Aveva iniziato a fumare a quattordici anni e mezzo, a scuola, in ottobre, durante l’intervallo: la prima sigaretta – una Merit – gliela offrì un suo compagno di classe che rubava alla madre i soldi per comprarsele. Nel giro di qualche anno, arrivò a un pacchetto al giorno. Sua moglie insisteva perché smettesse; se lo faceva promettere ogni capodanno, mentre facevano tintinnare i bicchieri pieni di spumante. Lui avrebbe voluto, ma non ci riusciva. Ci provava, ma riprendeva quasi subito. Il cancro tutto sommato gli sembrava un’eventualità piuttosto remota – qualcosa che poteva succedere solo agli altri, come quei fulmini che d’estate colpivano pastori a caso, in campagna, di notte. Ma il sangue sul lavandino del bagno gli apparteneva in modo inequivocabile. Si passò una mano tra i capelli. Non era mai stato così vicino alla morte. Chiuse gli occhi. Il petto gli faceva male. Riaprì gli occhi. Pisciò tremando. Nella vasca da bagno erano rimasti i giocattoli dei bimbi: un dinosauro, una macchina delle Hot Wheels, una piccola Winx con le ali. Spense la luce. Il silenzio del condominio sembrava un rombo lontanissimo, appena percettibile. Prima di tornare in camera, si fermò davanti alla stanza dei bambini, e gettò uno sguardo su quel buio caldo e pieno di respiri: nella penombra, vide che il grande aveva gettato a terra il copriletto e ora stringeva tra le gambe un enorme cane che avevano comprato all’Ikea, qualche mese prima; la piccola teneva le braccia aperte, la bocca spalancata, gli occhi chiusi: cosa stava sognando, quella creatura di quattro anni? Ebbe un brivido profondo lungo la schiena: presto, quei due piccoli avrebbero perso il padre, e lui, avrebbe perso loro per sempre.

La mattina arrivò lentamente. Alle cinque era ancora buio, e pioveva forte; alle sei la luce bianca dell’alba iniziò ad infilarsi tra le tapparelle: lui si alzò dal letto, andò in cucina, guardò giù: foglie gialle e gonfie galleggiavano nelle enormi pozzanghere che riempivano la strada; tornò a letto, cercando di dormire. La sveglia dei vicini suonò alle sei e mezza, e fu subito spenta: una dimenticanza. Alle sette sua moglie sbadigliò, alle sette e quattro sbadigliò di nuovo, poi, si svegliò, un pezzo alla volta. Quando lei aprì gli occhi, lui le raccontò cos’era successo quella notte; lei minimizzò, o cercò di farlo. I bambini si svegliarono alle otto e un quarto, e si infilarono nel lettone. La piccola, tutta rosa nel suo pigiama di Hello Kitty, gli prese il viso tra le minuscole mani, e gli baciò una guancia con uno schiocco – lo faceva tutte le domeniche. Al grande, che aveva sei anni, e che era particolarmente orgoglioso del suo pigiama di Ben 10, mancava un dente davanti; sua moglie gli fece un po’ di solletico per vedere quel sorriso sbilenco pieno di simpatia. Quelle calde tenerezze, quell’intimità senza ombre che accompagnavano tutte le loro domeniche mattina, come un rito fondativo della famiglia, ora gli straziavano il cuore. Come avrebbe salutato quei bambini? Con quale coraggio? Nella luce vivida di quella mattina autunnale, gli fu chiaro che il senso della vita gli era sempre sfuggito; e quella consapevolezza disarmante e insostenibile era un dono che la morte gli anticipava, come una specie di risarcimento.

Ma non era cancro: la morte non aveva puntato il dito contro di lui. Due settimane dopo quella notte, un dottore sulla sessantina, con lo sguardo di chi aveva visto troppo dolore per poter essere ancora felice, gli disse che non aveva nulla: nulla. Gli avevano fatto i raggi X, una TAC, due ecografie, dieci pagine di esami del sangue, urine, palpazioni, ispezioni – il suo corpo era passato da un lettino all’altro, osservato da medici sempre diversi. Nulla. Le sue cellule continuavano a riprodursi con i ritmi consueti. Il sangue che aveva sporcato il lavandino durante la notte tra il 26 e il 27 settembre probabilmente era la meccanica conseguenza di una tosse particolarmente violenta. Ma doveva smettere di fumare: questo glielo dissero tutti. Era ancora abbastanza giovane perché l’interruzione immediata di quello stupido vizio sortisse qualche effetto. Lei non avrà quarant’anni per tutta la vita, gli disse il medico sessantenne, ci pensi. E a lui, quasi nudo sui lettini gelidi di quei gelidi dottori, venne una grandissima, improvvisa voglia di nipotini, di Natali trascorsi con i suoi figli ormai grandi – voleva assolutamente conoscere le famiglie che avrebbero avuto. Di chi si sarebbe innamorata la piccola? Suo marito sarebbe assomigliato a lui? E il grande, che a sei anni mostrava già un senso quasi paterno verso sua sorella e i suoi compagni di classe, che genitore sarebbe stato? Lo vedeva alto, con una barba che adesso era impossibile immaginare, e un bambino sulle spalle; sorridevano entrambi, e al piccolo, mancava un dente. Quando finì tutte le visite, e fu finalmente graziato, promise a sua moglie che non avrebbe più fumato. Il pacchetto che aveva comprato il 26 mattina, al negozio di tabacchi vicino a casa, rimase chiuso in un cassetto della scrivania nello studio, come un’alternativa alla quale si era detto di no. Gli pareva che in quella prigione di legno fosse rinchiusa la morte.

Resistette. Mise su l’inevitabile decina di chili, che però in parte perse in primavera iscrivendosi in palestra. Anche se non era vero, diceva a tutti che aveva ripreso a sentire il gusto del cibo. La sera era meno stanco. Ogni tanto gli veniva una voglia feroce di fumarsene una – specialmente dopo pranzo, quando la bocca sapeva di caffè. Ma resistette. Pensava ai suoi figli. Al loro futuro. Prima di andare a dormire, si fermava in camera loro, accanto ai loro lettini, e gli pareva che non esistesse nulla di più bello di quelle creature che dormivano serene: quelle fragilità trovavano riparo sotto il tetto che lui e sua moglie avevano costruito, o comprato. Quando la notte tuonava, la piccola si infilava nel lettone, e si stringeva a lui, perché sapeva che il papà era più forte del temporale. Certe sere il grande lo aiutava a sparecchiare; portava due piatti alla volta, barcollando tra il salotto e la cucina, pieno di orgoglio. A volte, sgridava sua sorella, con affetto, tenerezza, fermezza: lui gli diceva di non farlo, ma si riconosceva in quei gesti.

Dopo tanti anni di giornate vuote, era improvvisamente diventato felice. Fino ad allora, aveva galleggiato sulla superficie della vita; adesso, finalmente si era tuffato nel cuore palpitante della sua esistenza, fino in fondo: la morte che per una notte aveva lambito la sua casa, la sua vita, gli aveva regalato uno sguardo nuovo – più lucido, più profondo, più vivo.

La sera del 26 settembre del 2010, lui e i suoi figli rimasero a casa da soli. Sua moglie era andata a una riunione organizzata dalla cugina del marito: da poco aveva avuto un figlio e, per passare il tempo o per integrare lo stipendio, vendeva detersivi per la casa, profumi per il bagno, dentifrici alle erbe. Per cena, prepararono tortellini. I bimbi nel frattempo erano un po’ cresciuti – il grande aveva sostituito il dente che aveva perso con un nuovo incisivo sproporzionato, ma aveva perso l’altro; la piccola aveva iniziato da qualche mese ad avere atteggiamenti leziosi, da femminuccia. La mattina chiedeva alla mamma di farle le treccine. Si era innamorata di un suo compagno all’asilo, o così le sembrava: dopo pranzo, raccontava quando tornava a casa, lei e Luca dormivano in due lettini vicini. La maestra disse che spesso si tenevano per mano.

Mangiarono. Guardarono un po’ di cartoni. Poi i bambini gli chiesero se potevano fare il bagnetto, loro due: era molto che non lo facevano insieme. Sua moglie, da qualche mese, aveva iniziato ad essere contraria, le sembrava che non avessero più l’età, che non fosse bello. Insistettero un po’. Alla fine, lui disse di sì.

Preparò la vasca. Il grande prese alcuni dinosauri che teneva in camera e li portò in bagno; la piccola raccolse due Winx da sotto il letto. Accese una stufetta per scaldare l’aria, poi diligentemente, la spense, e la ripose nel mobile sotto il lavandino. Guardò il bicchiere degli spazzolini: c’era stato davvero del sangue, lì sopra, un anno prima, o era stato solo un brutto sogno? I bambini si spogliarono, gettarono i loro giochi nell’acqua, si infilarono in quel tepore bagnato. Avevano ancora il segno chiaro del costume. Lui si raccomandò di non fare schizzi sul pavimento, e di comportarsi bene; strizzò l’occhio al grande, che sorrise. Poi uscì a prendere gli accappatoi. Passò davanti allo studio. Dentro al cassetto della scrivania, c’era ancora il pacchetto di sigarette, o sua moglie lo aveva buttato via? Lo aprì. C’era. Sollevò il piccolo coperchio di cartone: ne era rimasta una. La tirò fuori. Era passato un anno esatto da quella notte di sangue, e spavento. Alla fine, aveva vinto lui. Era libero. Fu per questa sicurezza che volle provare l’ebbrezza dell’ultima sigaretta.

Andò in cucina, accese la fiamma azzurra del fornello, chinò la testa facendo attenzione ai capelli, e si accese la sigaretta. Mentre usciva in terrazza, guardò l’orologio sopra il forno: segnava le 21 e 34. Si chiuse la porta dietro – non voleva che il fumo entrasse in casa. Si appoggiò con la schiena al muro, e aspirò forte. Il cielo era chiaro, illuminato dalle luci gialle di Padova. In alto, si intravedeva la costellazione dell’Orsa Maggiore. D’estate, prima di andare a dormire, andava in terrazza, si sedeva su una sdraio di plastica bianca, si accendeva una sigaretta, e guardava le stelle: mese dopo mese, si spostavano tutte insieme verso nord. Aspirò ancora. Nel cielo, il luccichio di un aereo. E se fosse esploso in volo, proprio mentre passava là sopra? Immaginò la palla di fuoco illuminare il cielo, il boato assordante che sarebbe arrivato dopo qualche secondo, i pezzi della carlinga che cadevano giù. Un’ala immensa si sarebbe piantata nel giardino davanti casa; e i corpi… come sarebbero scesi, i corpi dei passeggeri? Una pioggia umana. Il tonfo quando arrivavano a terra. Rabbrividì. Quante possibilità c’erano che quell’aereo esplodesse in quel preciso istante? Aspettò qualche secondo. La sagoma luccicante si allontanò in silenzio. Nessuna esplosione. Il fulmine, il sangue sul lavandino: la morte esce raramente, nella ruota della vita. Nella terrazza della casa davanti comparve un uomo in mutande e canottiera, che teneva una sigaretta in bocca; con la mano fece il gesto del saluto, da una parte all’altra del giardino; lui ricambiò, disegnando un cerchio luminoso con la brace rossa della sua sigaretta. Aveva visto anche lui, l’aereo esplodere in volo? Buttò un’occhiata all’orologio della cucina: 21.38. Una fumata, dunque, durava quattro minuti. Rientrò.

Non capì subito che la voce che sentiva urlare era quella di suo figlio: sembrava molto più adulta, molto più lontana – e invece veniva dal bagno, in fondo al corridoio. Da quanto gridava? Lo chiamava disperato: papà, papà, papà. Corse. Aprì la porta. La piccola galleggiava immobile accanto alle sue Winx; un TRex la guardava dal bordo della vasca, gli occhi bianchi, le zampe davanti come in preghiera. Non respira, gridava il grande, non respira più, non respira, e piangeva, con la bocca spalancata, con il dente che gli mancava, con il viso uguale a quello di suo padre. E lui,  con il corpo bagnato e inerme tra le braccia, pensò al sangue sul lavandino, all’aereo che cadeva all’improvviso, al cassetto delle sue sigarette; al fulmine che d’estate colpiva le creature della terra, a caso, come un dito cieco e terribile.

Translator’s Note

I always translate using two columns, in parallel. I set my author—in this case, Paolo Zardi—on the left-hand side, and trudge along down the right, stumbling, falling, picking myself up again. His words are there on the left guiding me; his words in my voice are on the right. I try to listen to him carefully, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, he gets ahead of me. His text rushes forward, while mine lags behind. And not just because his has already been beautifully created. Sometimes it’s a matter of strokes. Length. Space.

I hate it when the parallel text isn’t parallel at all because one language needs more words to say the same exact thing or perhaps not exactly the same thing. (Nuance.) So I adjust the margins, making the texts run parallel again. And the words walk hand in hand for a bit, until one of the two languages falls behind, and I start playing with the margins again. I do this while flipping pages, jotting down notes, rummaging through the thesaurus.

I like it when I find exactly the right word, and the original is reflected in it. I like it when my column is finally complete, and the two versions can stand next to each other. And I like to hope the author’s words are reflected but never distorted.

Matilda - Translator - Photo_ResizedPaolo Zardi published his very first short story in the anthology Giovani Cosmetici. Since then he has published two collections of short stories: Antropometria [Anthropometry] and Il Giorno Che Diventammo Umani [The Day We Became Human], two novellas: Il Signor Bovary [Mr. Bovary] and Il Principe Piccolo [The Tiny Prince], and two novels: La Felicità Esiste [Happiness Exists] and XXI Secolo [XXI Century], finalist in the 2015 Italian Strega Prize. He was the editor of the anthology L’amore ai Tempi dell’ Apocalisse [Love in the Age of the Apocalypse] and has published short stories in numerous reviews and anthologies. He blogs at grafemi.wordpress.com  

 

 

Matilda - Photo_ResizedMatilda Colarossi is a freelance translator and teacher. Born in Italy, raised in Canada, and adopted by the city of Florence in her adult years, she loves to read, write, translate, and teach. She blogs at http://www.paralleltexts.wordpress.com

 

 

Unearthed Earth, Wind & Fire

Writing creative nonfiction presents a challenge: the task of bringing clarity to unearthed memory—snapshots of long forgotten folk, environs, longings, often triggered suddenly, unexpectedly rushing to the surface. These snapshots call the writer to fill in dark spaces, the faded shadows in imperfect memory.

In February, Maurice White, the founder of the seventies jazz-soul-fusion band Earth, Wind & Fire, passed away. Hearing the news caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought of the band leader in many years. I had, however, never stopped listening to one of his songs: one he co-wrote with two other EWF members. The title song to Earth, Wind & Fire’s sixth album, That’s The Way Of The World, filled me with something long ago, and fills me with that same something today—a joy, a lightness, a sense of what’s possible. I’ve listened to it for decades, perhaps once a month, allowing the song to repeat on my iTunes till I tire of it, temporarily. Then, and only then, do I turn the song off, letting it go till the next time I need to replenish that particular psychic well.

The record was a birthday present from Paulette and Audrey, my younger sisters. They knew I loved the album, and they loved me in the way younger siblings love: sometimes worshipfully, other times not so much, but we were sisters, and it was us against the world. I remember their faces. Late afternoon, our parents still at work, we had the apartment to ourselves. It was our time: time to conspire, bicker, laugh, and eat sweets. Having pooled their money to buy it, my sisters proudly presented me with the gift-wrapped LP. They took pleasure in my squeals of delight. We were close, then. I took our closeness for granted in that way the young do, when the future feels far away.

Hearts of fire creates love desire
Take you high and higher to the world you belong
Hearts of fire creates love desire
Higher and higher to your place on the throne

*     *     *

The streets of 1970s East New York, Brooklyn held a vibrant urgency. Rough neighborhood. Outsiders held that saccharin-sweet image evoked by the Presley hit “In The Ghetto.” I prefer the message conveyed in Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City.” Early mornings, living in a two-fare zone, young and old alike hustled to catch the bus for the short ride to the elevated subway, in order to make it to work on time. In that section of East New York, we had two choices: either take the number 6 bus to the Pennsylvania Avenue station and catch the IRT number 2 train there, or strike out on the much longer walk down Van Siclen Avenue, crossing New Lots Avenue’s commercial district (site of the 1977 NYC blackout riot) in order to catch the number 2 train there. Either way you were headed out of the neighborhood toward downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan. I lacked the patience needed for waiting at bus stops. Once I started high school, I chose to walk.

As I read what I’ve written I ask myself: Stevie Wonder? Am I romanticizing the community of my youth? Perhaps. How has time altered my perception? What am I seeing clearly? What am I manufacturing?

While still in junior high, my morning routine included walking my youngest sister Audrey to elementary school. Paulette (who my parents called the “knee baby”) and I would later stop by the candy store across the street from George Gershwin Junior High for Now & Later fruit taffy or a jumbo pack of bubble gum. The fellas were already busy under the hoops. Street basketball thrived in East New York. You could usually find a game, day or night, at least ‘til the crack epidemic of the 1980s decimated the troops—the same epidemic that caught hold of my sister Audrey years after I left junior high, years after I’d stopped walking her to school. But till then there was the old German bakery where the three of us pooled loose change after school to buy strudel, our snack of choice while watching Dark Shadows. There was the seedy but welcoming Penn Cinema movie house on Pennsylvania Avenue. It ran Superfly and Deep Throat for weeks. I paid to see one and snuck in to see the other.

A dreamy kid, sort of combination streetwise/space cadet, I always managed to float above the fray. Usually with a book in my hand, I knew which subway cars to sit in and which ones to avoid, depending on the time of day. I cultivated the kind of body language and eye contact that discouraged unwanted attention. Quick exits, no time to dawdle, and yet I held about myself a certain quality, a teenage black girl’s version of Harry Potter’s friend Luna.

“No, no,” my younger sisters once protested in an attempt to explain away my behavior. “She’s not stuck up—she’s just in her own world.”

*     *     *

Floating within my own imagination, with the help of an inner Top 40 hit parade, I managed to avoid the darkened stairwells and psychic stumbles others fell victim to. A soundtrack accompanied me as I maneuvered the streets of East New York, Brooklyn: popular music that spoke to my yearnings, interceding, blocking psychic interlopers masquerading as friends. Earth, Wind & Fire sat at the top of my inner hit parade, and “That’s the Way Of the World” was the anthem that spoke to those nascent longings. Music has that way of informing existence. A harmony, rhythm, lyric, or melodic structure might attach itself to the inner life like a puzzle piece, changing a body’s personal chemistry. It’s like alchemy.

Maurice White once told an interviewer that he “wanted to do something that had not been done before.” White named the group for three of the elements in his astrological chart, and with a strong belief in the healing power of music, he imbued the lyrics of Earth, Wind & Fire with spiritual meaning, infusing the band’s songs with ideas of peace, love, and universal harmony. The entire group, steeped in traditions of jazz, blues, rock, funk, and gospel, was bent on defying classification. They bucked the genre segregation prevalent in the music industry at the time and successfully bridged the gap between what was considered mainstream and what was known as R&B. Philip Bailey, the band’s falsetto-voiced lead singer, said that “Maurice’s whole vision was to kinda sneak a little jazz on people and make it commercial.” The result was a funk-laced, highly melodic fusion of genres. The horn section, reminiscent of big band, added a muscular drive, while guitar and keyboard riffs glided between jazz and rock, and it all supported high gospel lyrics that literally took you to church, lifting you into the possible.

The 1970s brought an identity-seeking nationalist fervor that captured the imagination of the neighborhood’s youth. One group in particular, The Five Presenters, drew on the vulnerabilities of young men, thriving on their thirst for place and identity. An offshoot of the Nation of Islam, Five Presenters believed that God was black and resided only in black males. Women were subordinate—having no God inside of them. This was a problem for me since I knew these fellas. “Gods?—Negro Please.” Still, the group was responsible for lots of name changes. Clarence became Shamick, and Roy became Kassim. My childhood friend Bruce became Shakor. Between the growing nationalism and the fifty or so street gangs co-existing in Brooklyn at the time, many of the young men and women I grew up with succumbed to sad early death, addiction, and incarceration. I was one of the lucky ones. Was that resilience, the random draw of birth order, or a personal soundtrack full of abstract spirituality?

You’re a shining star. No matter who you are.
Shining bright to see, what you can truly be.

That’s The Way Of The World was both the soundtrack and title to a 1975 film starring Harvey Keitel. The film flopped, and the album struggled till the release of the single “Shining Star.” That’s what sent the LP over the top. Releasing “Shining Star” changed everything. It had a joyful funky dance-able groove with motivational lyrics. Becoming one of the best-selling albums of that year, “That’s The Way Of The World” eventually went triple platinum.

As I develop my writer’s craft, I’m more convinced that genre-bending is required for my own CNF. The disparate nature of the New York City of my youth requires thinking outside convention. Diverse rhythms, racial disparities, confluences of culture, expectations, sensibilities, glaring differences in wealth within the confines of small spaces, architectural schizophrenia, and perception—the differentiation between how I perceived what happened then and how I perceive it now—it all calls for a loose attachment to the devices of traditional memoir and storytelling. There is a struggle for honesty and clarity in the retelling. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing. I’m feeling a lot like my young Luna self, floating above the chaos while delving into the past, attempting to make sense of fragile shards of memory.

When Maurice White died last month, a little dam broke, flooding my awareness with long-lost remembrances. His death, that trigger, became a key to unearthing memory for the purpose of filling in my story—one of many keys, combinations of psychic objects, meant to unlock the wall safes within my own subconscious. My long ago hit parade is another such object. There are many safes to open.

As a little kid, I loved the Beatles. I still do. It is said that there is only one cover of a Beatles tune that ever improved upon the original. That was Earth, Wind & Fire’s recording of “Got To Get You Into My Life”. As much as I adored the Beatles, when I first heard it, I’m not sure I recognized the Earth, Wind & Fire’s rendition as the Beatles’ classic. That’s how gloriously distinct it was from the original.

If you look way down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart, cause you’re never, never old

Thank you, Maurice.

Writers Read: The Ecstatic by Victor Lavelle

The Ecstatic by Victor LavelleThe Ecstatic is Victor Lavalle’s intriguing debut novel cataloguing two months in the life of Anthony James, a 23-year-old horror-movie loving, obese, unstable, socially inept, obsessed with cleaning, sometimes-schizophrenic, college dropout. Anthony’s narrative begins on September 25, 1995, when he is abruptly rescued from “living wild in his apartment” (3) in Central New York and hauled back to the family home in South Queens by his women-folk, which include: his also sometimes-schizophrenic mother, his 93-year old tabloid aficionado grandmother, and his 13-year-old half-sister, Nabisase, a beauty-pageant debutante. Here, he is ensconced in the basement of the house for his own “safe keeping.”

Anthony, in a type of stream of consciousness conversation with the reader, narrates The Ecstatic in first person. He tells the reader about the ins and outs of his new life. The audience only ever sees the world through Anthony’s eyes. The dialogue of others is given to the reader by Anthony in hearsay. Rather than using customary dialogue techniques, employing bi-directional conversations with punctuation and quotation marks, the author begins sentences meant to convey dialogue with m-dashes. This technique has the effect of locking the reader even further in the mind of the protagonist. Scenes, which would otherwise be felt as taking place between people in casual, expectedly real world settings are, instead, narrowly focused and conveyed, unfiltered through Anthony’s mind’s eye. Add to this that Anthony’s descriptions are only “moment specific,” that is, he doesn’t give you an overview of any of the people or places he experiences, just specific (and remarkable) descriptive observations about one or two particular characteristics about them. The reader is left with a distorted view of both characters and their surroundings. Unable to gain any accuracy of perspective of what is actually going on in Anthony’s world, the reader has to live it with him on a moment-to-moment basis. [blockquote align= right]The reader lives every detail of people, places, things, and events strictly through Anthony’s incredulously fractured perspective. This tactic on the part of the author works implicitlycreating a window that appears natural into Anthony’s unsteady, erratic unnatural world.

In this manner, Lavalle never allows the reader an exit out of the protagonist’s mind. Anthony’s inner thoughts and perspectives are the reader’s only companion, the reader’s only window into the world of The Ecstatic. The reader lives every detail of people, places, things, and events strictly through Anthony’s incredulously fractured perspective. This tactic on the part of the author works implicitlycreating a window that appears natural into Anthony’s unsteady, erratic unnatural world:

We reached Baltimore –What exit? I asked my mother.
—None.
—I thought we were going to Maryland.
—Virginia. You don’t listen.
I had been to Baltimore once, that bipolar city. On one block was moderately regal Penn Station, then four blocks over a quadrant of desiccated row houses. The neighborhoods went like mood swings, good to bad, horrendous to opulent, without warning (86).

The instability and unreliability of the main character, in combination with the unusual point of view created by the author, makes reading The Ecstatic much like walking through a house of mirrors inside the mind of a madman. The reader feels trapped, disoriented; perceptions are unreliable, distorted. The overall mood is detached and effectively surreal. The Ecstatic’s first person point of view limits the exposition of the story from being seen from any other perspective other than that of the offbeat narrator’s. Lavalle peppers Anthony’s descriptions of his experiences with a multitude of peculiar, yet creatively effective similes and metaphors. This further defines the odd character of Anthony making him seem almost larger than life.

Hence, the plot of The Ecstatic is minimal, the story heavily and almost exclusively character driven. The overt tone of the protagonist as he tells his story is curiously light-hearted, almost casual, as if the crazy things he does and experiences, the social exchanges he has with secondary characters, are completely normal and expected in his world. This only adds to the air of madness that plays about the narrative.

[blockquote align=left]The instability and unreliability of the main character, in combination with the unusual point of view created by the author, makes reading The Ecstatic much like walking through a house of mirrors inside the mind of a madman.

The extreme character driven plot causes scene descriptions to be dependent solely on the perspective of the protagonist and whatever facts, sometimes incomplete, he chooses to share with the audience. As such, scene transitions are disjointed and hard to follow, though once inside a scene, firmly planted again inside the mind of the peculiar and idiosyncratic twenty-three-year-old Anthony, scenes become vivid and easy to picture in the mind’s eye: “Inside the reception area was a mix of purple and cream. The carpet, the chairs, the walls were these two swirled hues. It was like standing inside a bruised sky. Heaven as a lounge (46).”

In this manner, Mr. Lavalle diligently leads the reader, through Anthony’s unconventional perspective, to the real under-story masking the overt one: though we, as a society, tend to judge and classify others based on collective, established norms of behaviors and expectations, we all may be at one point or another in our existence people whose actions and behaviors are difficult to understand, “in some way like strangers”… “people at the mercy of their minds,” or ecstatics (the title: an explanation).

The author, Victor Lavelle. Photo by E. Robateu. Courtesy of Random House.

The author, Victor Lavelle. Photo by E. Robateu. Courtesy of Random House.

At first, the abrupt ending of The Ecstatic may put-off the reader. Its conclusion leaves the narrative abruptly hanging, unfinished, its purpose somehow unexplained. Yet, upon reflection, it seems evident that Lavalle may have purpose, and a very surprising conclusion he hopes his audience will get as they muse and lay hidden within the folds of flesh that envelope them when they, reading, become a part of Anthony and live life through his tilted focus.

The author presents an unexpected parallel between living the human condition and the pack of feral dogs that willy-nilly roams and dominates the neighborhood. That parallel seems to indicate that whether you are young or old, rich or poor, American or foreign, black or white, male or female, perpetrator or victim, ecstatic or seemingly normal, living the human condition is like living the hard, mean, conflict-driven existence of “a dog’s life.” In The Ecstatic, and for Anthony, this implication seems to carry a double meaning, as living “a dog’s life” seems to suggest both a “dog-eat-dog world,” and/or “a dog’s life of Riley,” depending on circumstance or opportunity. “Now there really are only two ways to react to the extraordinary,” says Anthony, “The first is to ponder the grand purpose until all the fun is sucked away and the second is to enjoy it” (271).

The author seems to further clarify this meaning as the pack of feral dogs race around the neighborhood in mirror and parallel to the absurdity of the human condition of racing through life, trying to get ahead, only to start all over again:

The dogs sprinted along 145th Avenue until they reached 225th Street. There they made a right for one block, right again on 144th Avenue, down to Brookville Park, right once more to the corner of 145th and started again. A good-sized circuit. I thought some driver, at least one, would beep at the dogs and scatter them, but not one did. (271)

The Ecstatic also provides an illustration for the way society’s labels and stereotypes isolate and separate people from each other. The reader is meant to ponder whom is actually the crazier, the one who maintains and adheres to the tedium of social expectations and appears normal, or the one who, out of “madness,” chooses to disregard them altogether in favor of a more personalized, yet reviled type of freedom.

[blockquote align=right]The Ecstatic also provides an illustration for the way society’s labels and stereotypes isolate and separate people from each other.

Overall, the take-away from this curiously different narrative is the fresh and innovative perspective Lavalle presents on characterization. However, for most of the narrative, The Ecstatic moves roughly, disjointedly and unreasonably between scenes retold by an unreliable and unlikeable narrator and takes too long to get to its point. Anthony is obviously intelligent, and yet he makes repeated decisions that are unwise, improper or just foolish, and the reader is forced to go along with it, or quit reading. Secondary characters are intense, in-your-face, but equally unlikeable. It is hard to have sympathy for either Anthony or the people that populate his world. And, even though the message of societal freedom versus bondage and the plight of the human condition is commendable, the message comes too late in the narrative to be truly appreciated or integrated in conjunction with the developing story.

In the end, varying degrees of annoyance at all of them undermines sympathy for the characters and their plights.

Miriam Gonzales-PoeMiriam González-Poe holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Round-upCulture ShôkFine LinenInner Circle, and other publications. She is currently a staff writer for Drunk Monkeys and lives in Los Angeles with her family, where she spends her time balancing the demands of the real world with her personal harmonic convergence. She is also an award-winning jewelry artist, producing works under Mac Originals.

On Writing Life’s Wounds: Elena Ferrante and Feminine Writing

Research for my critical paper

Research for my critical paper

“Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all,” explains Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of My Brilliant Friend and the other Neapolitan novels, in one of her rare interviews.

After my father passed away, I stopped writing. Grief can be all-consuming, a vortex where feelings, thoughts, and memories get sucked in and churn about. During the sleepless nights that followed his death, I binge-watched four seasons of Breaking Bad. It was the only thing terrible enough to counter what my family had endured: a long losing battle with pancreatic cancer. The show’s segments on illness were harder to watch than the gory deaths. A corpse dissolved in a bathtub of hydrochloric acid? No problem. Walter White’s trip to the oncologist? Endless tears …

Several months later, when I began writing again, I wrote about my father. Call it catharsis or processing, perhaps. Maybe a form of gluttony: the reliving of the memories as I wrote, edited, and crafted them, as if they were still happening. Dad still somehow living on the page. The ego trying to survive intact, clutching to memories better left washed out by time. Gradually, the need to chronicle merged into my everyday. I had another baby. I began to write fiction again (all that time watching them sleep, what else are you going to do?) and decided to finally apply for an MFA.

Right after my MFA program at Antioch began, life slapped me with another series of tragedies. My first cousin was found dead in the Galapagos, a gunshot wound to her left temple. My mother and dog were injured in a home invasion. And last June, as my husband was in the midst of a psychotic break from bipolar disorder and alcoholism, as he wandered in and out of institutions, I filed for divorce. This was after I found out about his pathological lies, the jobs he never had, the finances that never existed, the past that never happened, our five-year straw relationship; after I filed emergency custody and became sole guardian of two boys, ages two and four; after his wreckage crept back against me in the form of debts, lawsuits, and liens; after I was threatened physically, filed police reports, and had extra security on my mother’s house; after he disappeared for good. I stopped writing again. I stopped reading. I took the semester off. Some nights, I lay fully clothed in the bathtub and stared at the ceiling.

The lawyers told me to stay quiet, so I was silenced by necessity, by the danger of violence and other repercussions. Mostly, it was the unknown that censored me. Later in the summer, a few bad poems trickled out as I read self-help books like The Power of Now and A Spiritual Divorce.

daysofabandonI also picked up Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are the cleaned-up, literary versions of Breaking Bad: the melodrama, the hyperrealism, the interiority, the intense relationship between Elena Greco (Lenù) and Lila. Much like the relationship between Walter and Jessie in Breaking Bad, the Neapolitan novels pivot around this troubled friendship; the girls circle each other like buzzards. Who will destroy whom first? I read Ferrante’s other novels: Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter. (N.B.: Do not read The Days of Abandonment after your husband abandons you. The protagonist, Olga, unravels over one hot summer: dog poisoned, vomiting child, locked in an apartment with no way out, character on the precipice of a breakdown. Was I going to unravel too? The possibilities were real.)

When I returned to my MFA program, I decided to write a critical paper on Ferrante, hoping to unpack her feminist ideology, find survival between the lines, or something like that. Strange idea. Even after reading the Neapolitan novels, her three earlier novels, a plethora of interviews and articles, and several books on 1970s feminism, revisiting Jacques Derrida, and writing thirty pages for a critical paper, I am still neck-high in Ferrante and wondering what the hell has happened to my life.

Elena Ferrante’s books are indebted to second-wave feminism, particularly Continental writers like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray and, in Italy, the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective led by Luisa Muraro. In Ferrante, you can read the ideological traces of difference feminism and écriture féminine (feminine writing). Cixous’s écriture féminine highlights how patriarchal structures have entrapped women’s language. In her 1975 seminal article, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous writes, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies …Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Writing from the female body, writing about women, writing outside of traditional forms are means of reclaiming a buried voice (or as Ferrante also calls it, female alienation-inclusion).

Ferrante does this with ease. She writes too much. Her female characters write too much. There are 1700 pages of the Neapolitan tetralogy, from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of the Lost Child, and Ferrante has three previous novels with similar characters, themes, metaphors, and plot lines, such as abandonment, jealousy, patriarchal oppression, class violence, female friendship, maternal ambivalence, petty scheming, self-esteem problems, boyfriend troubles, to name just a few. Her female characters are tumble-dried by the men in their lives: bamboozled, impregnated, and abandoned, others beaten, exhausted, and dried up. Even though there is something self-defeating about her women, their voices have a radical urgency. Ferrante writes and rewrites life’s wounds.

To complicate things, Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The author has removed herself from the story, which is both fascinating and annoying. (Why does she get to be mysterious Ferrante while we are all still stuck being ourselves?) In interviews, Ferrante says the reader must extract the author’s shape from the text itself. From this action of searching (and never finding), the reader becomes engaged in the work.

Here's a picture of Ferrante's translator, Ann Goldstein, instead.

Here’s a picture of Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, instead.

In Ferrante’s work, there is very little redemption; instead, a glut of epistemological questions abound. How can we translate knowledge? How can we exist, write, and know? Can we ever approximate truth, or does writing always keep us at arms-length from the object of inquiry? Who the hell is Elena Ferrante? There are the feminist questions, too. Are our words captured through a patriarchal lens? Are we even aware of our own entrapment? In fairness, I had not pondered these questions in regards to my own writing before.

Will I always remain arms-length from the real, like Lenù who has left Naples, her friends, her old neighborhood, who fashions her stories from their lives with exploitative drive? For all Lenù has studied and written, what does this protagonist know in the end? Without spoiling the Neapolitan novels, the answer is not much. While I still have much to learn about my own narrative, I have to reconcile a certain futility as well. Because in the real world, outside of books and dreams, what you know has real consequences. I can write circles around the events surrounding my cousin, mother, and missing ex-husband. Yet this will not bring me closer to my cousin’s killer or my mother’s attackers, nor closer to knowing the truth about my ex-husband. Writing will not resurrect my father. Perhaps by writing I can process these things, but I cannot hope to solve them. Writing my grief is neither a means to an end nor a conscious feminist liberation. Yet, the opposite— silence—is impossible, be it from lawyers, advisors, friends, family, or the systemic suppression of the female voice (too whimsical, too domestic, too emotional). As a female writer, I am almost lucky that while my story has violence, it lacks the trappings of sentimentality. I was advised (by a man) that my divorce saga would make a great screenplay, but would I consider killing off a character in the end?

In Vanity Fair, Ferrate says, “I hold that male colonization of our imaginations—a calamity while ever we were unable to give shape to our difference—is, today, a strength. We know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us.”

Ferrante has translated what she has witnessed or experienced—her personal knowledge—into the fictional realm, perhaps driven by a necessity to cure her own wounds. Just like the texts I wrote about my father, just like my mediocre poems, just like the tentative beginnings I make writing about divorce, I write because, like Lenù in the Neapolitan books, I cannot help myself. Is it some brave feminist thing? Only insofar as everything I say, do, or touch is feminist by my very nature. For me, feminism happens whether I want it to or not. I may not resolve life’s wounds, I may not escape patriarchal forms, I may never know anything, but I’ve built up a healthy store of “fuck its.” So fuck it, let’s write.

Now, the question is, how to translate this with the same brilliance as Ferrante.

Catechism, Truth, and Creative Writing

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I learned that truth may not depend on facts in a classroom at the St. Irenaeus Parish School. As a high school junior, I was among the church’s youngest Catechumens, or unbaptized probationers preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation into the Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Although my siblings and I attended mass regularly with our “Cradle Catholic” father, our mother, a nondenominational Christian, refused to support baptism until we were old enough to make a fully-informed decision.

I was a committed student of the faith, yet openly skeptical. During a lesson about the role of scripture versus tradition, in reference to the Church’s mostly unwritten teachings, I asked Father Rod if Catholics regarded everything in the Bible to be true. “Do Catholics believe the earth was actually created in six days? That a talking snake in a garden paradise convinced Eve to eat an apple?”

He said, “Yes. The Bible is full of truths, but not always facts.” He explained that the creation stories in Genesis are symbolic. As for the fruit Eve plucked from the tree of knowledge, ate, and shared with Adam, he said, “It could have been a fig, an olive, a grape … it doesn’t matter.”

Catholics believe that Adam and Eve lived in a verdant garden and were tempted to eat a forbidden fruit, but the lessons associated with their transgression are far more significant than the specific characters, setting, and action in Genesis. Adam failed to protect the garden and his wife, and the couple was consequently banished from paradise. Lesson: There are consequences for our actions. More importantly, Adam failed to demonstrate complete obedience, severing humanity’s foundational connection to God. Lesson: Divine covenant requires self-sacrifice.

Biblical scholarship suggests that Catholics’ approach to Genesis represents a midpoint among contemporary interpretations. At one end of the spectrum, Biblical literalists regard the scripture as history. Adam and Eve, the first humans, really lived in a garden watered by a river flowing from Eden, where they encountered a talking serpent that persuaded them to defy God and eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, a sin that carried harsh punishment, including: pain in childbirth, physical labor, and death.  Readers at the other end of the spectrum consider Genesis to be a religious myth—an entirely fictional tale inspired by human desire to know and understand our origins. God created an orderly cosmos from chaos—filling the sky with stars and the earth with vegetation and every kind of animal—and Adam and Eve in his image, who were charged to populate the earth and cultivate and care for Eden and warned that the penalty for eating fruit from the tree of knowledge was death.

Like the good priest said, “Many truths.”

The particulars of our own comparatively more mundane stories likewise hold many truths, often because they originate in memory. We may very well be what we remember (Wilson 2003). According to University of California neurobiologist James McGaugh, memories are “reconstructions,” not fictions. When people “recall … [it] means they’re telling a story about themselves and they’re integrating things they really do remember in detail, with things that are generally true.” Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the “anti-memoir,” A Chronology of Water, would concur.  Events occur in identifiable places and at precise times and dates, but they do so “with composition, point of view, blind spots, and tricks of the eye.”

My memories of moving from Southern California to Upstate New York, for instance, are dominated by my body’s physiological response to extreme geographical change. I grieved the loss of high, rocky mountain peaks, hot, dry southwestern deserts, and distant horizons. The cool, wet gloom that shrouded the gray cliffs at the Pennsylvania-New York border chilled me. I felt trapped by the rolling hills that blocked my view. Yet transforming this personal, embodied memory into a compelling narrative would require the basic research on which scholars and writers rely to ground truth in evidence and would thereby increase knowledge and understanding. So, in addition to reading journal entries and looking at photos of my move east, I examined maps, temperature records, and tree and plant keys to select the specific details necessary to ground the contrast between the warm familiarity of my life at home in Southern California and the immediate cold and discomfort of my new environs in Upstate New York.

480-6185I left Palm Springs, California early in the morning on a hot August day—nearly ninety degrees; temperatures would reach 115 later that afternoon. I was comfortable in cut-off denim shorts, a sports bra, and Birkenstocks. I climbed into my bottle green Ford Ranger pickup, praying that the truck’s 2-70 air conditioning system—for two windows down at seventy miles per hour—would make the ten-hour drive through the desert to Albuquerque, New Mexico bearable. I started the engine and leaned forward over the wheel with my elbows up to facilitate cooling. I watched the steep, rocky face of Mt. San Jacinto slip away in my rear view mirror as I drove east on the I-10 …

Screen-shot-2011-08-02-at-12.42.31-PM-1024x574It was a cool sixty degrees, cloudy and wet, when I arrived in Binghamton, New York—seventy miles southeast of Syracuse—four days later. My new home faced a hill blanketed by hardy birch; slender, white branches bedecked with still-green leaves rose above the rooftops. I pulled a worn UC Davis sweatshirt over my head as I climbed out of the truck, pushed my fists through each sleeve in turn, and examined my chilled finger-tips for the blue tinge that signals a Raynaud’s attack. Though my hands were already uncomfortably cold due to temperature-induced vasospasms, my fingers remained a healthy pink. I shoved my hands into my armpits to warm them.

More generally, the search for truth often blurs the line between research and creative practices. Creative writing can serve as an artistic means of generating the information typically used to substantiate knowledge claims and increase understanding. Poets, fiction, and creative nonfiction writers, playwrights, and screenwriters use imagery, narrative, and drama to impart meaning about events and concepts. Facts in the form of vivid, sensory, and telling details both establish the narrator’s reliability and help to engender a continuous experience for the reader or viewer. English composition expert Jason Wirtz argues that basic research is so essential to creative activity that writers need to research a topic until they can “embed the research seamlessly into a … story” (Wirtz 2006).

nlaDonna Lee Brien’s biography of Mary Dean, The  Case of Mary Dean: Sex, Poisoning, and Gender Relations in Australia, manages to do just that (Brien 2004). Mary Dean was allegedly murdered by her husband on their first wedding anniversary in 1895. Brien’s strategy for investigating Mary Dean’s life and understanding the legal rules and cultural context that enabled her husband to walk free despite the death sentence (Regina v. George Dean, 1895) included close and critical reading; imaginative, speculative, and reflective thinking; experimental and exploratory writing; rewriting and editing; and public circulation and peer review. According to Brien, this work resembled a “state of generative cross-fertilisation” that made it impossible to know if the completed biography was a work of history or creative writing (Brien 2006). Indeed, Brien’s mastery of the Deans’ life story, of the law report “Regina v. George Dean, 1895,” and of gender relations in 19th-century Australia allows the reader to relax and indulge in the narrative.

So what about Eden, the fruit, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve?  Most scholars agree that Genesis was written or compiled during Moses’s life, sometime during the middle Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE), thousands of years after Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Given the fallibility of normal memory, the narrative of the Fall understandably contains few specific details, yet sufficient geographic and botanical information to provide a credible context—a warm Middle Eastern climate, a garden of fruit trees (fig, olive, and grape “vine” are native), and a river that divides into “streams” called the Tigris and Euphrates—for a wonderful story that contains many truths.

References

Wilson, Anne E. and Michael Ross. 2003. “The Identity Function of Autobiographical Memory: Time Is on Our Side.” Memory 11, 2:137-139.

Wirtz, Jason. 2006. “Creating Possibilities: Embedding Research into Creative Writing.” 95, 4: 23-27.

Brien, Donna Lee. 2004. The Case of Mary Dean: Sex, Poisoning and Gender Relations in Australia. Queensland University of Technology.

Brien, Donna Lee. 2006. “Creative Practice as Research: A Creative Writing Case Study.” Media International Australia 118, 1: 53-39.

 

Writers Read: The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit gets the title for her work The Faraway Nearby from Georgia O’Keefe. “From the faraway nearby” was how O’Keefe would sign letters to the people she loved after moving from New York City to rural New Mexico. Says Solnit, “It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together” (108). It is in this way that the author takes us on a journey through her own life along with the lives of a number of historic figures, literary and otherwise. The Faraway Nearby is memoir meets history lesson meets philosophical musings. It’s as much about Solnit’s relationship with her mother and the impact that Alzheimer’s has on them as it is about the craft of writing and the role storytelling plays in all of our lives. On the surface, this is a book about family dynamics, a trip to Iceland, mental and physical health problems, and the dilemma of dealing with three big boxes of apricots. That said, this is not a book that allows the reader to remain on the surface.

“What’s your story?” asks Solnit. She not only poses the question throughout the book, but also chooses this as the narrative’s opening thought. She quickly establishes that stories “are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there” (3). She then deepens our understanding of how empathy connects with the book’s overarching theme of searching and journeying by bringing us back to this idea periodically, including toward the book’s concluding pages, in which she states, “Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand” (194). Solnit allows us to travel and expand in this way as a result of what she has to say and also because of how she has opted to say it. The Faraway Nearby begins and ends with “Apricots,” not only as a story element, but also as a chapter title. In fact, the structure of the book is such that the thirteen chapter titles reverse and repeat after reaching “Wound,” “Knot,” and “Unwound”—the sixth, seventh and eighth.

[blockquote align=right]On the surface, this is a book about family dynamics, a trip to Iceland, mental and physical health problems, and the dilemma of dealing with three big boxes of apricots. That said, this is not a book that allows the reader to remain on the surface.

The book jacket refers to the work as “a marvelous Russian doll of a book in which stories contain stories and chapters mirror themselves,” and this Russian doll analogy is contained within. “I am, we each are, the inmost of a series of Russian dolls,” writes Solnit, adding, “you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you.” While this imagery is certainly relevant to the experience of reading Solnit’s work, it is the ways in which the narrator describes a labyrinth that captures this work most powerfully and provocatively. “A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer,” says one passage. “It’s not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence” (188). Additionally, a description that associates labyrinths with “a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book” acts like a mirror used to reflect the book’s own structure and spirit (189). This is not only a product of the previously mentioned repeating and reversing chapter titles, but also the result of a second story line—literally a line—that appears on the bottom of every page. From its enigmatic opening statement, “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds” to its concluding question, “Who hears your story?,” the spool of thread-like story unfolds page by page and requires a constant emergence from the primary story in order to follow along. That is, of course, unless one were to read the two stories separately, finishing one before starting on the other.

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.

The Faraway Nearby is a compelling example of how simple, seemingly contained personal stories can become expansive and universal. “My own story in its particulars hardly interests me now,” says Solnit, soon after she proclaims that “writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone” (65, 64). In doing so, the narrator underscores the responsibility of those who travel into creative nonfiction territory, a responsibility that includes having “an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand” (65).

Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. Viking Adult, 2013. Print.

Rochelle Newman

Born on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She lives in Los Angeles, has over three decades of U.S.-Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in theatre from UC Irvine.

On Patience, Grief

A view from the Avenues neighborhood of downtown Salt Lake City during a cold air pool on Dec. 2, 2010.

A view from the Avenues neighborhood of downtown Salt Lake City during a cold air pool on Dec. 2, 2010 Photo Credit, I Keep Running.

 

Last Wednesday, a whitish-grey mixture of clouds and smog covered the Salt Lake Valley, obfuscating the downtown skyscrapers and the mountains in the distance. Visibility was limited to a few stoplights.

Welcome to Beijing.

Inversion is the technical term for what was happening outside. In meteorology, an inversion is a deviation from the normal change of an atmospheric property (temperature) with altitude. The temperature itself is inverted. Clouds and smog are trapped in the valley by the cold air and the heat and clean air above and outside the valley, until a storm comes to restore balance. It could be a couple days. It could be a month.

My wife and I drove the eight miles or so to St. Mark’s Hospital, parked, walked up the stairs to the first floor, took the elevator to the fourth floor, signed in, and waited. Our normal doctor was off for the day, so we met with a midwife. My wife, Cat, was ten weeks pregnant but had been experiencing some worrisome symptoms. Signs of blood are never good. The midwife, a sweet lady in her mid-fifties with curly blonde hair, led us into the sterile room with two chairs, a small sink, and one of those bulky hospital bed-tables. She brought up Cat’s chart on the computer. She asked Cat questions. Cat responded, nervously. A large inhale.

The midwife said, “It could just be a UTI. But let’s do an ultrasound to make sure.”

We went to another, darker room. She looked inside. She could not find anything.

“The doctor said it was hiding two weeks ago,” Cat said as we sat there. Her on the table, me in a chair, the midwife’s eyes locked onto the computer screen … “but we still were able to find the heartbeat.”

“Hmm. I’m not finding anything, but let me grab the doctor.”

We sat there in the shadowy room. A single, solitary lamp and computer screen lit the darkness.

After a solid fifteen minutes, the doctor, a short, Japanese man with a friendly demeanor came by.

He also looked.

On the screen there was a circle in black and white inside a trapezoid with equal sides.

“Yes, well, as I’m sure you know, here,” the doctor pointed on the screen, “is where we’re looking at the uterus. Think of this as the condo for your baby,” he said. “But you can start to see here,” he pointed to the southwest corner of the picture,” that it’s not a perfect circle. It’s collapsing.”

It looked like a balloon deflating.

But he didn’t stop there.

“And for a baby of ten weeks, we’d expect to see something in the condo.”

There was nothing in the condo.

 

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*     *     *

I’ve never been a patient person. In middle school, I wanted to be in high school; in high school, I wanted to be in college; in college, I wanted to be working in the real world. Then, when I was working in the real world, I wanted to be back in college.

And: When I was single, I wanted to be engaged; when I was engaged, I wanted to be married; when I was married, I wanted to have kids because if we were eventually going to have kids, well, we might as well start and not put it off.

Likewise: When I started writing, I immediately wanted to get published. Then, I wanted to be a full-time writer already. And I couldn’t understand why it was all taking so long. I didn’t even want to be a bestselling authorI just wanted to be tapped into the vein of the literary bloodstream.

Patience, endurance, and self-control are virtues I very much lack.

Because I am a young man, my writing is still, primarily, about me. I hope to change in the years to come, to exist outside of myself and for issues outside of my world, but for now it’s difficult for me to write about anything that is not deeply personal. I write to process, at least in initial, first-draft-sort-of-writing. I cannot write about anything other than what I am processing. Generally, it is existentialthe search for meaning. Sometimes, it is the existence of God, or police brutality, or racism, or systemic inequality, but generally it is what is happening right now, in front me.

When I sat down to write this blog post, there was only one thing continually running through my mind. Grief. Not teary-eyed-spasms-of-emotion. Just blank, listless, merciless, monotonous grief.

This is the form grief takes for me. It may be different for others.

For me, patience and grief are related. Patience is waiting, trusting, having faith. It is synonymous with hope. Its antonym is impatience: when the result you desire is not achieved within the time frame you wish it to be.

*     *     *

“The word we use for this is miscarriage.” The doctor said, spelling it out for us in full, in case we were confused by his earlier analogies.

The technical term is miscarriage, a deviation from the normal change expected in a woman’s body. The fetus itself is inverted, and by inverted I mean no more.

Ten to twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Before this pregnancy, words relating to the female anatomy used to make my head warm and slippery. Words like uterus, ovulation, Fallopian tube, spotting, heavy bleeding. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I was still getting used to being married. But now I heard all of it in rapid succession.

Real life shit. No more romantic comedy shit. No more movie-magazine shit. Real life shit.

My wife cried on the white paper tissue wrapped atop the bulky table.

The doctors left us. We embraced. And then we left the hospital and both went back to work because we had to. I listened to David Bowie’s Blackstar and tried not to cry.

I felt strange the rest of the day, largely because I had just spent ten weeks acclimating myself to the idea of fatherhood, and I hadn’t actually become excited about the baby until a week earlier. It all felt too otherworldly and surreal. I had finally made peace with the idea, and excitement had begun to creep in.

But then, Wednesday.

Wednesday felt symbolic: Don’t get your hopes up. Expect the worse. Everything is polluted.

Welcome to Beijing.

No more.

*     *     *

Thursday, we both took a half-day. I was in the next room when I heard a cry of pain from Cat in the bathroom. This was it. She felt a plop, she said, so much blood.

The next day some of Cat’s girlfriends came over. The day after, some friends brought us dinner. We made the appropriate calls.

I did not want to talk to anyone about anything.

Sunday, I woke up hung-over, and we took our dog to the dog park and then ate lunch and came home and watched TV separately in different rooms of the house. I watched The Wire, and she watched True Blood, because apparently we were both behind on HBO shows from the early 2000s.

My wife and I are both devastated, but I know I will never understand the violence and trauma a miscarriage commits against a woman’s body. I never will. And so I do my best to be there for her. In whatever little way I can. With the tissue and the blood.

I came home Monday to the trash dragged over the kitchen floor by our dog. I yelled at her, cleaned it up, and lay down on the couch. I pulled the blanket over my eyes to blot out the ceiling light. There were not enough blankets.

I’ve never been good with patience. I’ve never been good with grief.

Why the hell does it all take so long?

Perhaps I am still too young to have perspective on the wide arc of history, especially my own. I think about what an older friend once said to me: “Life crumples up, but it eventually straightens out again, and I try not to worry about the in-between too much anymore.” I’ve adopted this as a sort of guidepost because it’s honest but not completely despairing.

Our culture doesn’t like to talk about suffering or death. It goes against the core of American ideals: youth, beauty, prosperity, and happiness. And I think because of this, we young people, who are generally privileged because we are isolated from death and suffering, are caught off guard when they come knocking. How to deal with grief or practice patience are not priorities we, as a society, hold very closely. We want everything instant and airbrushed. I think art, therefore, should disrupt this.

If it were up to me now, I’d end up in total despair about the state of the world, the state of my world, the state of my household’s grief. My friend’s wisdom is a perspective I hope one day to fully understand. And perhaps one day I will. With time.