My job is as a roaster and green buyer for a coffee company. I roast the coffee but I also source the green (unroasted) coffee beans (technically green coffee is a seed and not a legume), and so it’s my job to taste samples and figure out what roast profiles work best for each specific origin or blend. It’s a fun job at times, and incredibly monotonous at others. For a while, I worked by myself: I would “cup” the coffee—the process of evaluating a coffee based on objective and measurable standards—and then come up with the profile.
To cup coffee, you measure a small amount of freshly roasted whole beans, say 11 grams or so, and grind them in a few bowls to smell and taste. You first cup or evaluate the coffee based on its dry fragrance just after grinding and before you brew the coffee. Then you cup for aroma, which is how the coffee smells once it interacts with hot water. Finally, you take your fancy tasting spoon and slurp the coffee to aerate across your palate and taste for balance, acidity, sweetness, body, and overall consistency.
As a “professional,” I mostly know what I’m doing. What coffees I like and what aspects I like about various regions and varietals, and what I think works well in our coffee lineup for the season. It is a job easily managed by one person. However, as our company grew and we added staff, I realized the additional benefits of cupping, tasting, and evaluating coffee as part of a team are much more holistic. To hear other people’s critiques helps me create and curate coffee origins and roast profiles that are more diverse and complex than when I do it in a room by myself.
Around the same time, I realized the principle also applies to art and writing.
For many years I thought of writing as a solitary, purely individualistic endeavor. In my mind, I saw Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Woolf and Wallace typing away in dark rooms somewhere, their eyes half-glazed with a mixture of genius and insanity. This was my picture of a writer. A lone artist hammering away at the page in a Parisian bar, a café, or a New York apartment, isolated.
The process of writing is, after all, a solitary endeavor. You do not sit around in the park with a group of friends and write together like it’s a card game. You do not write with others the same way you dance or make music. You sit by yourself and try to come up with words.
But the next steps of writing (and arguably the most important) are rewriting and editing. And these steps are best done within a community.
Contrary to my desire to be a genius artist all on my own, I need others to help me make art. While I wish I were the person who is 100% autonomous and brilliant, the truth is that everything decent I’ve ever done is better when vetted by others. Sometimes it’s my wife or my family. Sometimes it’s a close friend or fellow artist. Sometimes it’s my colleagues on a journal, such as the one you’re currently reading. Often times, the best writing and art seems to come out of a collective where artists and writers are in constant dialogue with the world and others in their community.
What I didn’t understand as a young writer (though I am still a young writer) was that succeeding in the world of published and professional writers is not so much based on your own individual genius but your engagement in the literary community. Everyone belongs to a particular niche, genre, cohort, time-period, or community that fuses them and hones their craft. Finding a community helps you learn what particular niches grab you, what you like, and how to learn objectively from pieces you don’t subjectively “like.” You read works by classmates and friends, in journals, from editors, by agents. All artists—whether they be comedian, writer, painter, dancer, or musician—are generally part of a larger group.
There might be reclusive or solitary examples like J.D. Salinger or Emily Dickinson, but in general, works of art or ideas are often created in cultures or pods of community: Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Sandburg of the Beat poets, for instance, traveled together and wrote about each other in their New York and San Francisco communities. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Stein loosely collaborated as ex-pats in Paris. James Baldwin and William Styron exchanged letters while they each wrote books dealing with race in the South. Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace had a close relationship. Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro have made nine movies together so far and garnered multiple Oscar nominations/wins. Each of these pairs or triplets or groups complement each another, even if they were not editing and critiquing each others’ work directly. Sometimes its just a sort of mysterious collective consciousness.
Collaboration breeds creativity.
So when I get an article published, though the byline may say written by Levi Rogers, what it really means is written by Levi and Lauren, David, Mike, Alex, Katelyn, Mary, Lyndsay, and Nick. Because while it may be “me” sitting alone at a coffee shop in Park City at this particular moment, the piece didn’t start solely with “me” and it won’t end with “me.” All of them will be involved.
Just like coffee is a complex undertaking that passes through multiple hands including farmers, importers, green buyers, roasters, and baristas, until the coffee seed becomes a brewed cup, so it is with writing.
What I Brought Back
Peace Corps Lesotho, 1980-82
I brought images of a motorcycle, a tsetututu,
sputtering down pot-holed roads to a village
where men stuff mint in their nostrils,
women stretch their mouths in ululation,
boys extend legs in Bruce Lee moves,
and babies are secured on mothers’ backs
by blankets with airplane designs.
Also, images of volunteers, stumbling
to outhouses in morning’s wee hours,
holding torches, what we call flashlights,
already the smell of maguena, fried balls
of dough, drifting from local cafes
and smoke rising from dung fires.
I brought back a Botswanan basket
woven with dark grasses flowing between
light grasses, named Urine of the Zebra,
hardened lava, black and porous,
plucked from a trickling volcano,
photos of me running in a cosmos field,
the purple blossoms brushing my shoulders.
I also carried a vision of a future me,
with a baby in a front pack,
but didn’t know I’d call her Palesa,
the Sesotho word for flower.
Freya at the Farmers’ Market
Freya, her skin tanned the color of russets
in a nearby bin, greets me like an old friend,
the way she’s done since we met
at a yard sale years ago. Every time I’ve seen
her walking the streets—her wrists pulled low
from heavy bags—she’s worn layers
of pants and sweaters, matted hair framing
her face. Today, broccoli and carrots spill
over the top of her shopping bags in vibrant
green and orange. Notice how plump these are,
she says, fingering some Thompson raisins.
I nod, thinking how farmers groom fruits
and vegetables for this market, nurtured
with optimal sun, shade, and water.
The vender plops my acorn squash on a scale,
and Freya’s eyes follow the needle, tipping
to three pounds. If I gauged her age
from her weathered face, it would be close
to sixty—but her smile and the lilt in her voice
seem under forty. I wonder if she escapes
the sun’s rays and wonder where she sleeps
at night. Do you know of any jobs? she asks.
Sorry, I say, turning away to a booth
of grapefruit, a young blush on their skins.
If an Egg Floats
Floating can denote death, like fish belly up
or a human corpse. Or a bad egg—light
in weight and smelling pungent.
I pull eggs from a carton; faint blue text
indicates they expired twelve days ago.
Before beating them to make a soufflé,
a golden entrée that rises as if winged,
I use a water test to determine freshness—
the one I learned in the Peace Corps
thirty years ago when I lived without
refrigeration. Eggs laid by African chickens
had no expiration label, so I’d grab some
from my kitchen counter, lined up next
to the cheese and radiated milk, and pray
they’d sink in the water bowl. Today
in California, two eggs resembling
inverted white rockets—their plump ends
bobbing toward the water’s surface—
fail the exam. On their way to demise,
these eggs won’t puff up for a soufflé;
they won’t soar anywhere.
My parents were not joiners. Mom was a healthcare worker. Singing on the church choir and attending occasional PTA meetings was the extent of her activism. My dad, employed as a transit worker, occupied his free time trying to out run his despair. Though both of my parents were members of labor unions (Local 1199 Hospital Workers and the Transit Workers Union), membership in those organizations didn’t inspire activism. They concerned themselves with the day-to-day; social activism was reserved for elites. Plus, there was a feeling that those who spoke loudly thought too much of themselves. Yet, by the very nature of their labor my parents provided a public service. Did that count as activism?
I’ve begun to ask myself what it means to commit one’s life to public service. Teachers, nurses, social workers, firemen and police officers are all, in their way, public servants. Are writers? I suppose it depends on what we choose to write. Can the writing of memoir be a public service? Can it further the cause of social justice? As an MFA student at Antioch I’ve been challenged to find ways to use my writing to further the cause of economic or environmental or social justice. What does that mean exactly? Must the seeds of public service be sown early, or am I capable of growing my empathy and the will-to-serve later in life?
To engage in social activism one needs both a cause and a voice. Since I was raised to conform, to fit in, to know my place within clearly defined boundaries, I had no need for a cause. And since my parent’s usual response to any strong display of independence, assertiveness, or opinion-making was to say, “Be careful, if you behave that way you’ll never have friends and you’ll never find a husband,” my emerging voice floundered and remained stuck in my throat.
They meant well. They were being protective, trying to prepare me for the world they knew and understood. And so, though I chafed under the criticism, I learned to keep my feelings and opinions to myself. Not the best way to foster an activist’s sensibility.
It was, however, a challenging time for my two conservative southern parents. Social mores were shifting. And family was not my only refuge. The year 1967 ushered in the so-called “Summer of Love.” I turned eleven, began to menstruate, and discovered Bulfinch’s Mythology in the school library. I grew obsessed with the Greeks. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, became my hero and I secretly began to fancy myself one of her nymphs. Over the next two years I’d live in those stories, partly as an escape from family drama but also in love with the soap opera. Were seeds planted then?
Meanwhile, white women began burning their bras, James Brown’s anthem “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m proud)” signified the shift from passive nonviolent resistance to a more militant Black Power consciousness, and as the ’60s morphed into the ’70s, I silently began considering my mother’s subservient acquiescence and my father’s bullying with the regal defiance of activist Angela Davis. These events, along with nationwide student protests and the daily count of American war dead, played out nightly on Walter Cronkite and in the pages of my parents’ newspapers and magazines. I soaked it all in. Seeds.
Looking back on those times I ask myself: Did that fierce Athena nymph girl die back then or is she still inside of me? While I write my own creative nonfiction I wonder: Are those seeds still there? Are they just waiting for rain?
The goddess Athena once inspired my private resistance. I now look for inspiration in my present life, examples of voice, courage, and grit that say: Yes. It’s not too late to find a new path, to give back, to defend myself—to find my voice.
* * *
Soon after the close of the Democratic National Convention, I heard the following story on the radio.
In 1969, a twenty-two-year-old Hillary Rodham spoke to her graduating class at their all-women’s college, Wellesley. She was the first graduating student to ever do so at the elite school. That fact seemed odd to me as I began my research for this piece. Wellesley College was founded in 1870. For almost 100 years a female representative of the graduating student body was denied an opportunity to speak. This appears to be a clear dismissal of the feminine voice in an environment where that collective voice should have been predominant. Except for Cornell, the Ivys didn’t begin admitting women until 1977. I can’t imagine the traditionally all-male Ivy Leagues taking that long before allowing a male student the opportunity to address his graduating class.
Rodham spoke after the invited guest speaker had completed his address. The distinguished Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Williams Brooke III, a Republican, was the first popularly elected African American in the United States Senate. He was a centrist Republican, dedicated to civil rights, and was said to be a thorn in the side of President Richard Nixon. Though an advocate for social justice, he believed in fighting “within the system” and was not a fan of public protest. He found much of the protestation occurring on college campuses across the nation problematic. During his address titled “Progress in the Uptight Society Real Problems and Wrong Procedures,” Senator Brooke said:
The waves of protests passing over the United States both mirror and create deep social tension. In some cases one finds it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to determine which protests are based on just grievances and which are merely exploiting issues for the sake of some ulterior purpose. It begins to appear that the process of protest has assumed a self-sustaining momentum, searching for political fodder on which to thrive.
Then Hillary Rodham took the stage. She deftly incorporated her concerns over Senator Brooke’s message into her own prepared speech:
[. . .] I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said. This has to be quick because I do have a little speech to give.
[. . .]
If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.
[. . .]
But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation.
The response was instantaneous. Though Rodham received a standing ovation from classmates, the administration was not at all pleased, feeling that she had both spoken out of turn and shown disrespect to the Senator. The incident made the national press, with Rodham becoming one of only five student commencement speakers in the country to be featured in the June issue of a Life Magazine article titled “The Class of 1969.”
It was the first and last time a student speaker was allowed to follow the visiting commencement speaker at Wellesley College.
I mention Hillary Rodham’s 1969 commencement speech not because I knew of it at the time, but because it was part of the larger cultural shift occurring, a shift that informed my budding world view. I also mention is as both an example of one woman using her voice in the midst of strong pushback and as an example of Hillary Rodham’s early orientation toward social justice and public service. Our backgrounds are completely different, Rodham was a young woman of far more privilege than I, yet I admire the courage and self-possession required to speak truth to power.
* * *
When the media introduced me to Hillary Rodham Clinton, years after her 1969 commencement address, I was proud that she had chosen to keep her family name Rodham. It spoke to her strength and revealed to the public a woman who trusted her own mind and was clear in her own self-worth. Rodham Clinton, however, would be vilified for her personal show of strength and for her confidence. The biggest challenge in the current effort to create workplace diversity worldwide is not race, but gender. Around the world there is a much greater bias against equality for girls and women than there is towards racial equality. I’m not surprised.
In the midst of this highly unusual presidential race, I can’t help but notice how high the bar is for the first woman to ever win the nomination for President of the United States in a major political party. For forty years, Rodham Clinton has endured queries and comments disparaging her credibility, integrity, trustworthiness, likability, authenticity, appearance, and motivations. She has had to answer the same questions time and time again. She has been called Lady Macbeth, has been accused of having a craven thirst for power and of enabling the sins of her powerful husband. She has been criticized for successfully raising money, an area where men have succeeded for years. A New York Times headline says “Hillary Clinton Victim of her own Success.” At nationalmemo.com you can “Watch Hillary Clinton Answer 40 Years of Sexism.”
It is not my intent to endorse a political candidate (though, admittedly, I have my preference). Nor is it my intent to debate the pros and cons of neoliberalism. The courage to stand in her truth as that twenty-two year old, and the resolve to keep standing in the midst of a world filled with haters inspires me. So it is my intent to express gratitude for the grit and courage required to keep standing and to persevere. The example acts as a warm bath over my own frozen voice box.
Voice is necessary to pursue social justice. My voice is necessary.
Athena would be proud.
My last living memory is of my husband carrying my half-conscious body away from the thick heat and clinging wetness of the rice field. Something has bitten my right heel, leaving a crescent of bloody marks. He places me on our cart, jumps on, and prods Sakhi, our cow, into a jingling trot. Sweat and tears mingle with dust, drawing near-black streaks down his cheeks.
For one whole day after I die, he sits by my body. At night, he lays down beside it. When some street dogs wander in because of the smell, and start howling as though in sorrow, the neighbors come. By now, rats have bitten chunks off my toes and fingers, and flies are feasting on what is left.
They clear the animals out with kicks and shouts. The tallest man, our village Sarpanch, bends over to my husband, gives him a few short slaps, and says, “Your wife is dead. You hear me? You understand? Kunwarba is no more.”
My husband opens his mouth in soundless response.
Nobody asks about what happened. A few of them had seen him bring me home, blood foaming from my gaping lips. News of the dying and death gets around quicker than anything in our village.
They take my stiff, soiled body for the final rites. Him, they take to the city hospital. Two men grab him by his armpits and drag him between them like a drunk man. The Sarpanch waves everyone away as the lines on his face grow sharper and deeper. Like the nearby village leaders, no doubt, he has bigger concerns: the fear of another drought season, even as water continues to be scarce and the dam repair work goes far too slow.
My husband wanders back a day later. Sakhi had been left tied inside our shed—a small, cool shelter. He brings her out and ties her to the lone limdo tree, putting a bucket of stale water and a pile of chaff within her reach.
He squats under the tree in a watchful silence: thin shoulders curved over his knees, eyes wide and wild like a rabid dog’s, and an old fragment of yellowed cloth covering his white hair. Though it is time for the monsoons, the sun is as bright as in mid-summer. Spears of scorching light escape through the tree’s almost-bare branches and fall relentlessly on him.
The Sarpanch’s wife comes by to leave bits of food and a can of water from the daily tanker. She, who had only ever given me dagger looks, begins this daily, silent charity towards my husband. He eats without knowing—even trying to chew a piece of tire rubber before spitting it aside. As for the water, he pours half the can into Sakhi’s bucket and barely remembers to drink the rest himself.
At dusk, he hangs a flickering kerosene lamp from a tree branch and continues sitting till the shadows get long enough to go inside. Lying on the thin, worn mattress, he does not sleep, as if waiting for morning to start his vigil again.
A few days pass like this. From a distance, my husband may seem a wise yogi meditating under that limdo. On closer view, his dimmed eyes and the constantly mumbling and dribbling mouth tell a different story. The heat gets worse, though a wind rises weakly once or twice a day, tossing dry leaves, old newspaper, and empty plastic bags around him.
All this waiting—for what, I do not know. To entertain myself, I fly with the birds, beating them to their favorite tree branches. I play with the ants and insects, crawling into their little crevices and homes. I sit on Sakhi, whose tail swishes rapidly as if a thousand flies have descended on her.
The villagers begin calling him “Gaman Ghelo,” then just “Ghelo.” Schoolboys twirl their fingers near their temples as they spit out the word. He simply looks away. Sometimes, he throws stones, clumps of soil, twigs, whatever is in reach, if anyone comes closer. Not that many do, for he is still wearing those rat-bitten clothes, and he reeks like something dug up from a dry river bed.
One boy is more vicious than the rest. He lopes over like some big movie villain and lands a kick on my husband’s face, sending him sprawling sideways. When the old man stays motionless after falling, the boy runs. His friends, following him, yell a count in English they must have been learning in school: “One, two, three… eight, nine, ten…”
Some numbers I want them to know: fifty—the age of the man they knocked over; fifteen—my age when I met him as a child bride; twenty-five—how many years I had been his wife; fifty thousand—the amount we had got for our farmland to pay for my sick parents’ hospital bills; two—bottles of rat poison we had bought to end our constant worries about work and money; one—the number of times I had been pregnant, and he had gone from the happiest to the saddest I had ever known.
But his grieving existence now has to be worse than my bodiless one. I am no longer of his world and I have not reached the other one. No matter what happens to me next, though, I will never miss the screaming aches from long hours of back-breaking work, or the times when we had less to eat than the wandering, begging gypsies, or the churning agonies about who would take care of us in our old age.
I soon give up trying to understand why I am still here. The other spirits I meet in this in-between world offer no explanation. Some of them have been here longer than they can recall.
They do educate me on the basic rules: never leave the village limits; only communicate with people through dreams—and only those with whom you shared life memories; be prepared to be called away to the next world without warning. The rest, they say, I will have to figure out as I was as much a sinner as them and deserve no help.
In my new form, I am buoyant with an unending energy. I float well above the tallest trees to look into many of our village’s houses and streets. Other lives are interesting enough, though I now see we were not too worse off.
The crippled mother, three doors down, is often beaten by her son’s wife for not moving quick enough. The newly married couple who has their own home, separate from both their families, never sleeps together. The gypsies at the edge of the village, in their makeshift shelters of tarpaulin and bamboo, do not practice black magic with their strange music—it is to help their starving children sleep. And the Sarpanch’s wife cries on the nights he does not come home, knowing, as I do now, he is with his whore.
As my husband rarely sleeps, it takes me some time to figure out how to make dreams. Eventually, I find, in the moments when he hovers on the edge of sleep, if I focus my attention long enough, I can.
Not that it is easy. Mostly, it is like trying to swim, unseeing, through murky ocean depths. I have to overpower his every breath and thought till his defenses cannot hold up and there is a break in that dense wall. Only then, I can slip in quickly before his mind snags onto something else or closes back up. I never have full control either. But, the dreams bring him sleep and, hence, rest. Maybe this is why I am here.
I pick happy memories and simple wishes, weaving them together so that, at least while asleep, he can smile again. Once, I take him up to a hilltop and we fly kites so high that, holding onto the strings with both hands, we also soar. Another time, we are at the cinema, and the hero and heroine on the screen turn into the two of us, singing and dancing on a beach filled with golden-silver sand, while a full moon glows white over us.
After a few such dreams, my husband lingers more and more in a part-awake, part-asleep fog. The line between the real and the dream world disappears. The house dream does it. As we had never had anything better than a one-room brick hut, I dream us a mansion on a riverbank. Coming to him as his shy, new bride, I take his hand and lead him in.
We enter the first room lit up with rainbow colors and furnished like a king’s palace with gold and silver fixtures encrusted with precious gems. Each such beautiful room leads to many other rooms in an intricate maze going up, down, and across.
In one room, there are long banquet tables loaded with large, bottomless pots and dishes of food. The aromas are richer than any we have known. Each time he finishes one plate, I hand him another freshly filled one.
In another room, celestial Apsaras cast pleasing spells with their graceful undulations, lush birdsongs, and perfumed melodies.
In yet another room, many rocking cradles are filled with smiling babies of all sizes and shapes. And, when he turns to me with a watery smile, I have the ripe, swollen belly he has always wished to see.
I present one room after another, filled with everything he has ever desired since childhood—from motorbikes that run like the wind; to clothes and shoes softer than the finest mulmul; to mobile phones in glittering, bejeweled cases; to an entire amusement park filled with magical rides. When we look down from the balcony of a room high up, or up from the stairwell of a room way below, the different views of all its wonders make them all seem new to us again.
And so, with each room, my husband discovers new capacities for joy within himself
* * *
When daybreak forces his eyes open, my husband shuffles out to the tree. This time, however, his low muttering draws my attention. He is talking to me. Not who I have become, but the me in his head: the wife he thinks is still alive. What he says is as useless as udders on a bull, of course: how he will build us a bigger house before our child is born. I try to reason with him, but, my poor Ghelo cannot hear me.
So, he brings out his toolbag. Though the few tools are old and somewhat rusted, he keeps them clean and wrapped in old rags. Each year, after the few months of field work are done, he takes them to go work at nearby construction sites—even at the old dam once, though the pay was not worth the effort.
The land our hut and shed stand on is about fifteen square feet. If the old hut is removed, there is space enough for a larger one. This is what my husband sets about to do. Moving our one-room contents into the shed, he begins with his hammer.
Throughout the day, people stop to ask what he is doing. To each, he gives the same reply. “I’m building a bigger house for when the child comes. She doesn’t have long to go now.” They shake their heads and go on. When the Sarpanch’s wife brings her bundle of food and can of water, she keeps a greater distance than usual. The end of her sari, which covers her head and veils half her face, slides off entirely as she rushes away. Before dark, my husband has torn down most of our married home.
He sleeps fitfully in the shed and is up at twilight. A bigger house needs a deeper foundation, he explains, as he starts digging into the ground. Now, passersby say, “Are you building a Taj Mahal for your dead wife, brother?” or “Carry on like this and they’ll make a news story about you, Ghelo.” Though his chin and hands shake, he turns away as though not hearing their mock.
He works with a strength I have never seen. Each stroke of the shovel comes down quick, striking the dry, stony soil to loosen big, heavy chunks. With a flick of the wrists, he tosses the dirt into a corner. Sweat streams from every pore and he throws off his soaking shirt to continue barebacked.
His pace gets slower after lunch. Till, he hits something unyielding and stops altogether. Kneeling to clear the soil away with his fingers, he pries loose a mud-encrusted skeletal hand. As he pushes aside more soil, more skeletal remains become visible. He lets out a cry at the horror, unable to move.
Hearing the choking sound, a squat, gray-haired man walking by comes over. Seeing what my husband is bent over, he drops his stick and hobbles back the way he has come. I can hear his shouts of “Hare Ram! Hare Ram! Shiva! Shiva! Shiva!” long after he is gone.
As night falls, I rise above the rooftops and treetops and see how all the familiar fears and superstitions are spiraling around like dense, black smoke.
Two things happen the following day. First, the Sarpanch and two of his men come over to check for the skeleton. My husband, who has not been able to stop shivering since seeing it, has somehow managed to move it to the pile of dirt and cover it up. So, they find nothing but a big hole in the ground and a chattering, shaking old man, who jumps in his skin any time they so much as look at him. Second, the Sarpanch’s wife does not show up with her food and water charity.
Sakhi lows a few times, and that is when my husband’s mist clears. He pats her, puts his arm around her, and rests his head on her side—like I used to after feeding her. Then, as if he cannot trust his legs to bear his weight, he walks unsteadily towards the village crossroads.
He does not stop to greet anyone and nor does anyone offer him a quick bidi smoke or chat. The blazing sky makes him blink rapidly, so he stares at his sluggish feet instead. By the time he reaches the market, the attitude of the village seems harder than the old skeleton bones he has unearthed.
At the kiraana shop, the young owner we have watched growing up turns his back coolly to attend to other customers. At the vegetable stall, the woman will not take the potatoes my husband holds out for weighing. And, at the tea stand, when he picks up one of the many glasses of tea, the boy takes his money with a sighing reluctance. Is it a dreadful ignorance or willful cruelty? What makes humans inflict such suffering on each other? And they say we spirits are evil.
Later, my husband lies in the shed unable to sleep, and I know all too well how hunger must be clawing his insides apart, how tiredness must be making it painful to move even a finger. I push away the thought that creeps in like a cold worm: how might it have been if he had dropped like a ripe fruit instead, leaving me alone? I beg the other spirits to tell me what is in my power to help him rest. No answer. My husband and I are on our own, in our separate worlds of mute despair.
Two weeks after my death, Sakhi falls down and gives up. She has been with us a long time. During those long months of construction work, I used to complain of loneliness. He brought her home one evening and said, “Here’s your Sakhi, your new best friend,” pleased with himself. Barren like me, she had been sold off cheap by her previous owner—what good was a cow who could not give milk?
The neighbors come to remove her too. Our head priest, fat legs draped in the many folds of a crisp white dhoti and bald head covered with an ornately styled red phento, stands by watching with the Sarpanch. They talk in low tones of how to get my husband off the land so it can be consecrated. The priest advises the Sarpanch to build a Shiv temple there to stop the malignancy from spreading further. The Sarpanch nods readily. He has not managed to bring running water or proper electricity to our village, or get the dam repaired so the fields can have good harvests. But he will take on this temple to help his political ambitions.
I knew this powerful man when he was a plump boy called Babulal with pillow-like cheeks I used to pinch. The day I got married was the last time we looked at each other. Afterwards, I drew the end of my sari over my head and face whenever I passed him or any other man.
As I see him now, his broad chest held high and his long legs striding wide, I have to wonder at a world that allows men to go about as if they own it and women to live as if they must endure it.
Even so, we have shared memories from those few childhood years before we had separated into the different tribes of men and women. We had stolen marbles from each other, traded food from our thaalis at annual melas, danced garba and dandiya together at festivals, and, with the innocence that knows no selfish motive or desire, we had enjoyed bathing together in the river.
I go to the Sarpanch at night as he sleeps deep next to his wife. She is turned away from him, cradling their son, the spit of him, in her arms. What do I hope for? Only that he will not send his men to harm my husband or force him out; that he will help him to leave in peace. I want the Sarpanch to remember the kind, patient side of himself I once knew.
I take him into a big car and out onto a wide, open road. As the car picks up speed, going so fast the outside is a blur, he talks with some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen. One after another, they appear in the seat next to him, praising his Panchayat’s achievements, asking his counsel on agriculture and law policies, and giving him large donations to continue his good work.
At the end of the road, a plane awaits. He flies to a mountaintop, where none other than the Prime Minister shares a cup of tea with him and asks for his guidance on thorny party matters. An eagle lands on his arm and advises him of the right responses for the country’s best possible future. The Prime Minister, unaware of the eagle’s magical powers, is greatly impressed with his answers, of course.
Soon, they both get on a boat and ride to an island filled with people celebrating his new promotion to the National Party Leader role. All the finer things of life are here in great abundance for his personal pleasures: food, drink, women, music. A couple of well-known singers have written poetic verses in honor of the occasion and to congratulate his benevolent wisdom and good nature.
When he returns home, riding a bucking horse through the mountains, the broken dam has been fixed so the fields of his village have plenty of water and the best harvest in decades. And, it is none other than old Gaman, who has taken care of this impossible work while he, the Sarpanch turned National Party Leader, dealt with other important matters.
* * *
In the violet flush of dawn, my husband sees the figure of the Sarpanch walking up the lane with a tiffin full of hot, spicy breakfast and a steel flask of tea. The men who usually accompany him are nowhere to be seen.
The two men eat and drink in silence under the limdo tree. My husband’s appetite is so fierce he swallows many morsels whole. The Sarpanch does not eat much, though he drinks most of the tea, watching my husband over the rim of the little cup.
Having had their fill, they sit back and regard each other. The Sarpanch’s voice is like wind sighing in the grass, “Gaman Bhai, what are you going to do?”
Tears stand in my husband’s eyes on hearing his real name spoken with such care. He hesitates before replying, struggling with the visible lump in his throat, “I must build a bigger house for my wife and the coming child.”
The intense blue of the morning sky is bursting through. The air is soft and warm as milk. The Sarpanch tilts his head back, looking up at the tree as a couple of brown leaves flutter to the ground. “Gamania, you may as well try to put these leaves back in the tree as expect the dead to return. My men took Kunwari to the ghat. I watched her body burn to ash. Don’t you remember?”
My husband squats lower under the tree and rocks back and forth, his hands clutching the earth near his feet. For the first time, I see him as another might: a tired, frightened, old man with so little left of his mind it slips as easily from him as water from a smooth stone.
The Sarpanch’s face clouds over darkly. He casts out another thought in a more measured tone, “Gaman, why don’t you work on the dam for me? I need a man of your expertise. Take a couple of the strong Jhala boys. Do it in less than a month and I’ll make sure you get paid well. The whole village will be in your debt forever.” Rubbing a hand across his forehead, he wavers at the last bit. “Get away from all this death too, haan?”
My husband squeezes his eyes shut and begins humming—a tuneless drone. The Sarpanch peers at the face in front of him, brown and gnarled like a tree’s bark. My husband pauses to hawk up some phlegm and spit it out a few inches from the Sarpanch’s feet, then resumes the grating noise.
The Sarpanch stands and says, “Gaman, you leave me no choice. If you are not gone by the end of day, my men will help you leave. Understand?” His mouth twisting hard from holding back other words he wants to say, the Sarpanch walks away.
These men the Sarpanch speaks of have one job and they are not only good at it, they enjoy it. The most well-known story about them is how they once drowned a teenager simply because the boy had giggled at one of them for tripping over a step. To them, my poor Ghelo will first be fodder for their own entertainment, then an excuse to put on a spectacle for others.
My husband remains slumped by the tree, though he does, in time, stop the vibrating sound. I wish he had been a drinker. Although in a dry state, our village has a couple of illicit stills, which many law-abiding men frequent. Drink might put him to sleep better than my dreams. Yet, when he does nod off, I unroll a happy memory from our early married life.
An owl hoots, insistently, into the evening air. A chorus of gentler hoots answers her call. The young ones had hatched a short while ago, safe in the worm-ridden wooden beams of our shed.
My husband of one week runs into the shed so quick its rotting walls shudder from the impact. The outside light spills around and over him through the doorway and casts long sideways shadows at his feet. His gaze travels up to the loft, catching the owl’s nest on the way. The chicks make him grin.
I dangle a painted, jeweled foot from my perch in the loft, pulling it back before he can grab it.
His mouth opens wider and a gurgle of pleasure escapes. He hoists himself up and draws me close, crushing me into his chest. With one turn of a wrist, he loosens my hair, letting it fall thickly into his fists. His nimble fingers untie the three buttons holding my blouse together and it billows open sweetly, like clouds parting.
Lying back on the straw, I stare at him as a fire dances all through me. With the brilliance of a solitary star, his love shines down on me. There are no other sounds now, save for our jagged breathing.
His tongue finds the deep hollow in my throat and leaves hot streaks all the way down my ribcage. The day has left its salt on me, and he takes it in hungrily. Studding my skin, his hands leave their earthy smell on me, as an animal marking his territory.
My knees curl as my thighs turn to liquid. With hands still colored with wedding mehndi, I clutch the jet hair near his temples, and arch myself into the air to sink my teeth gently into his lips. As I let go, I roll us over so that I am sitting atop. My shoulders ripple in silent laughter at his surprise.
All that is left of the day is a thin, fading golden line. One instant, the sky is all red and purple colors, like a raw bruise; and the next, a solid darkness has swelled over it. The season’s first rain shower begins.
As water pounds the shed’s roof, we become urgent too. The world turns into a hot, swirling ocean from which we emerge eventually, drenched in our own moisture and holding onto each other.
I wind my arms around him tighter as we hear more frequent storm noises: a sharp cracking; a long rumbling—monsoon is finally having her play, too. The sounds seem to get nearer and louder. I am gripped by a sensation of being borne away on a great express train, roaring, flashing, dashing headlong.
My husband lets out a breathless, raspy cry, which turns into a harsh, tearing scream…
* * *
I cannot sense her presence anymore. My wife is gone. So has my grief for her.
I stand on top of the shed and watch as people crowd around the foundation pit I had dug to build our new house. That is where my naked, rain-soaked, mud-streaked body now lies, arms clasping the half-skeleton I had found. The men had laughed while making the arrangement. After wiping the blood off me with my shirt, they had taken a phone photo for the Sarpanch.
Spirits stay on in the living world because of unfulfilled material desire or unfinished business—this is what I had often heard. An old widowed relative had died when I was a child, and the cautionary tale of how she had continued to inhabit a corner of the house was repeated by family members. She had been thrown out of her home by her son in a most merciless manner. So, her spirit had stayed on for resolution or retribution—this part changed depending on who told the story—and only made the final crossing after.
I do not know why I have stayed on. Time drips steadily like melted wax from a burning candle. The drought is getting worse though the authorities have not officially declared it so. Water from the daily tanker does not cover all drinking and cooking needs. The dam repair work has stopped due to a legal inquiry into its missing funds, so the fields are dry. Cattle herders are walking many kilometers for fodder. People are leaving the village to find other jobs.
They blame me and my wife for all this trouble. I am now haunted by the living. Nearly every week, led by the priest, they come with godly prayers and sacrifices to make me leave. Yet, here I remain, waiting expectantly—for resolution or retribution.
Jenny Bhatt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others, Femina India, Wallpaper, Storyacious, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, York Literary Review, The Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, NonBinary Review, Alphanumeric, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the U.S., she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com.
He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory…
~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
I owe a debt of gratitude to middle school Latin. I could already pronounce and spell many words in the language of medical terminology when I started work in an equine specialty and emergency hospital in 2005. So much was new to me in medicine. I found the familiar in horsemanship and in language: her roots in the twins, Latin and Greek. There was comfort in the familiar.
With my Latin roots, it was easy to differentiate between the suffixes for various classes of drugs, and to position the x-ray cassette correctly to capture, say, the dorsolateral-palmaromedial oblique view of the carpus. I loved the rigor and the specificity of this work. But I hadn’t suspected the limitations of science and knowledge to be so acute. Or that I would learn to speak for the non-verbal, to reconcile with words; what I wasn’t prepared for was how little we could actually control.
* * *
Col.ic (n.): a sharp sudden pain in the stomach; from Medieval Latin colic passio “intestinal suffering.”
The horse has more unfixed organs than other large mammals, an advantage that allows speed—the full stretch into a gallop. With our modern practice of confining horses, their organs rebel against immobility by twisting among each other. Colic is a blanket term for the myriad gastrointestinal conditions that cause pain to a horse. It’s a clinical sign, not a disease.
Note: horses like to start dying after you’re asleep, preferably in snowstorms. In the hospital, you never say, “We haven’t treated a colic in a while” unless you want to guarantee a 3 a.m. page. My pager would shriek on the bedside table. I’d shake off the groggy and call into the clinic’s back line. The intern would answer, and say just one word: “Colic.” Colic is a four-letter word. I’d drive north to take my place on the surgery team.
Some colics are medically managed, and others surgically. Colic surgery requires anesthetic induction, a ventral incision, dorsal recumbency: so much Latin to describe what happens when a surgeon, an intern, and two technicians undertake the opening of a horse’s abdomen while his caretakers cry, pray—stand at the crossroads—in the conference room. Maybe the patient had an intussusception, a glorious word from the Latin intus (within) + suscipere (to take up), that particular obstruction when a bit of intestine slips back along the length before it. I controlled the anesthetic chart, its matrix of symbols and codes representing the elements of the horse’s life, his heart and lungs and blood.
In recovery, I transcribed: the surgeon might order 9600 milligrams of trimethoprim sulfa given orally every twelve hours; I wrote on the chart, 10 x SMZ 960mg PO q12h. I also translated: I’d read on the chart, TPR WNL, BAR, APP^; I’d say to the horse’s caretaker, “He looks good today, bright, no fever, even ate some bran mash this morning!” I wrote codes and crosschecked doses, but this says little of the lives I cared for. I controlled language, interpreted code to find life. The charting, the terminology, is where we chronicled our influence.
* * *
Uni.lat.er.al (adj.): occurring on one side; from Latin unus “one” and lateralis “side”
Hy.dro.ne.phro.sis (n.): cystic distension of the kidney caused by the accumulation of urine; from Greek hydro “water” and nephros “kidney.”
Ure.ter.o.cele (n.): cystic dilation of the lower part of a ureter into the bladder; New Latin from Greek and Latin urina “urine” and –cele “hernia.”
I met my dog, Arthur, in 2012, a few hours before he was scheduled to be euthanized. He was tied in the corner of the treatment room, where large dogs were most comfortable at the emergency vet practice where I worked in British Columbia. He’d had diarrhea for a few days. In the course of working up the case, the veterinarians inadvertently discovered Arthur’s congenital unilateral hydronephrosis with concurrent ureterocele. He needed major surgery, and his family said no: they chose to euthanize. I looked into this dog’s eyes and I said no.
I contacted my friend at a non-profit pet adoption group that regularly managed medical-necessity rescue pets, who convinced the family to surrender Arthur—to give him a chance at life. The charity funded the surgery to remove his atrophied kidney and distended ureter. I took him home to foster during his recovery. The term is “foster-fail,” for those pets who go into foster care and end up adopted by the foster parent. I have three foster-fails. As care provider and parent, I wrote both objective and subjective notes in his medical chart.
Objectivity and subjectivity require different languages: code switching. His objective notes read: TP WNL (temperature and pulse within normal limits) R ^ 60bpm (respiration elevated to sixty breaths per minute) QAR (quiet, alert, responsive) CRT <2 (capillary refill time less than two seconds). In his subjective notes I wrote, “Arthur wagged his tail and lifted his head. He’s got some pain, but he’s happy to see me.” Medical charting has a form and a creativity that speaks to my own balance of art and science, my brain’s overlapping hemispheres. I’m privileged to know both correct terminology and descriptive language to tell the story of a recovery.
* * *
De.men.tia (n.): a mental illness that causes someone to be unable to think clearly or to understand what is real and what is not real; from Latin demens “mad” and mens “mind.”
My dog Keegan’s dementia was different than my grandmother’s vascular dementia. At the Christmas gathering, Grandma patted my hand. She said, “Katy? How are you? How is school?” I answered, shouting past her deafness. Five minutes later she asked, “Katy? How are you? How is school?”
There was no facility to keep Keegan safe, like Grandma’s apartment with nurses on call. He lived with me, where he’d been since I was sixteen—half my life. Keegan was my soul. He’d been through all my changes with me.
His last year saw him diminished by Canine Cognitive Dysfunction—doggy dementia. He paced next to my bed at night, huffing and whining near my face. At the door leading outside he stood by the hinges. Once outside, he knew neither why, nor what to do. There is a drug for humans with Parkinson’s Disease that happens to work in some dementia dogs. It worked for Keegan and gave us one last year.
The day after he died, I wrote:
“I don’t remember who I was before him–I was no one, I was a child. Our lives were completely intertwined. I have never been sad without also being angry, and I don’t know how it works. I have nothing to be angry about. He lived a long and extraordinary life. He climbed mountains and canoed rivers and battled disease. There are hundreds of people whose lives have been touched by him. Most dogs never leave their block. Keegan saw the world and made his mark upon it.”
I don’t remember writing this, yet here it is, in a document titled, “A Life Less Ordinary,” dated March 31, 2009. I was in my fifth year of veterinary medicine, but would not call myself a writer for many more years. Here I was making writing inherent to my experience with death: writing life against death.
* * *
At December’s MFA residency at AULA, we learned about Narrative Medicine, a burgeoning interdisciplinary field described as “a model for humane and effective medical practice.” I took part in a workshop with Phillip Mitchell, who was interviewed with Emily Rapp Black (Still Point of the Turning World) and Juliet McMullin (The Healthy Ancestor: Embodied Inequalities and the Revitalization of Native Hawaiian Health) in the Lunch Ticket Summer/Fall 2016 issue. Founder of NarrativeCare, Mitchell leads writing workshops for caregivers as “continuing education that deepens relationships through the power of story.” He taught us by example:
Phillip first establishes a safe space, then guides a close reading of an excerpt from literature, in our case, the first few pages of The English Patient. He encourages the workshop to notice visceral, sensory details in the language. Then the group writes to a prompt. He usually leads workshops for health professionals who want to enhance their narrative skills, to learn fluency in empathy through storytelling, to create patient-centered practice by understanding more fully their patients’ stories. In December, we were a group of writers.
Our prompt was to write about “a room of caring.” We were undone in our language. In that safe space we translated, transcribed, interpreted. I came equipped with medicine and language. All I could control was words. This is what I wrote, transcribed from my notebook:
“It is my last night with you warm, in my bed. For 16 years, we have touched almost everyday. After tomorrow, I will feel you in the cool steel of an urn. Tonight, I set an alarm, every 2 hours, though I will not sleep, to remind me to keep your catheter patent, plunge 2 or 3ccs of heparinized saline into your arm leg. This will make it easier tomorrow. I will hold you close all night, worship your hair, take clippings of the amber curls, smell your feet, thankfully the same smell in every terrier’s feet—how else to live with this forever? In this rented apartment, this tiny bedroom, I will love all of you one more time. Your ghost will only visit me once. I will move to another country.”
* * *
I wanted Keegan to go out with dignity, on a good day. When enough of his medical conditions were irreversible, at the start of a decline with only one possible ending, we parted. He had stopped eating, and so he spent his second-to-last night on IV fluids in my hospital, tied in the same spot where I would later meet Arthur. Keegan didn’t bounce back.
We left his catheter in his leg for his final day and went to the park. Among the March daffodils, Keegan stood, looking out across the calm, blue-black expanse of ocean to where the Olympic Mountains of our home country rose on the other side. In our sixteenth year of us, we spent one last night together. A veterinarian friend came the next day to our verandah, in the sun and breeze, and put Keegan to rest.
* * *
Eu.tha.na.sia (n.): the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering; from Greek euthanatos “easy death.”
Keegan’s death was easy, and the hardest thing in the world. His suffering was gone, leaving mine in its stead. Now I write, and rewrite the same stories. Stories of animal life and animal death. My comfort in the familiarity of language—of Latin roots, of coding and subjective and objective language, of medical terminology—only holds me so far. My practice is to ease suffering with language. To love and write and remember. There is so little else I can control.
A Field Guide for Immersion Writing is Robin Hemley’s non-fiction methodological primer for writers on immersion journalism. In this compilation, Mr. Hemley covers a gamut of approaches to tackling immersion-writing projects, using examples of his work and other writers’ works to apply the mechanics of the narrative process. His techniques cover advice for undertaking and refining such sub-genres as memoir, travel, investigative, and journalistic endeavors.
Mr. Hemley writes about the subject and sub-genres of immersion writing, including one chapter on ethics and legalities, and his last chapter on practical “how-tos” for crafting a book or article proposal. Written in first person, the author acts as the narrator for his audience. At the beginning of each chapter, Hemley briefly introduces the specific genre or sub-genre he will be discussing and then breaks the chapter down into further section specifics.
[blockquote align=right]Though the reader may not always agree with the author’s point of view, Mr. Hemley does a consistent job of keeping the subject matter interesting by providing a series of almost continuous anecdotal first-hand accounts of his own experiences.
Though the reader may not always agree with the author’s point of view, Mr. Hemley does a consistent job of keeping the subject matter interesting by providing a series of anecdotal first-hand accounts of his own experiences, as well as the experiences of fellow immersion writers both historical and contemporary. In laidback, engaging, sometimes-humorous language, the author illustrates his ideas and concepts in words that are clear and easy to understand. Chapters build upon previous chapters, sometimes overlapping in information and genre approach, but this repetition only serves to emphasize the information, rather than complicate it, and there is no reader overload.
At the end of each chapter there is a section entitled Exercises, which provide the reader with creative opportunities and prompts to implement what has been learned in the previous chapter.
As a rule, this writer does not often like books that tell her how to write. Many times such narratives can leave a writer feeling “talked at,” and contain a majority of information that can be found during a thorough search on Google. For free. However, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing is one of the few exceptions to this rule. It is a must for every bookshelf.
From the beginning, readers will find themselves engaged by the deliberate way in which Mr. Hemley lays his knowledge and experience out for the writer in a step-by-step guide, outlining specificities and techniques that end up teaching even a seasoned writer how to build, or further a successful immersion writing career. Many of the author’s techniques are those of which experienced writers will recognize they already employ when crafting their stories; for them, Mr. Hemley offers validation and a refresher course. For writers, both beginning and seasoned who are interested in starting an immersion writing project and are needing a clearer map of the process involved, A Field Guild for Immersion Writing offers fresh and easy tools for implementation. The author’s conversational, non-confrontational style keeps the pages turning. Mr. Hemley’s exercise ideas at the end of each chapter, are both provocative and creative, and Mr. Hemley’s last chapter on crafting a proposal, something with which many writers, especially newcomers, need help, employs a made-easy, non-scary approach that is a relief for any writer.
Mr. Hemley’s concluding paragraph speak of his intentions in crafting this narrative:
I recently learned that the Japanese word sensei doesn’t mean “teacher” in the simple sense as I have long believed, but is better translated as “one who has gone before.” It’s in this spirit that I have written this book and used the examples I’ve threaded throughout—it helps to know that others have gone before. When I’m driving in a storm or at night and the visibility is low, I’m always grateful when up ahead I see a pair of taillights I can follow to keep me from drifting, to keep me on course of my destination, wherever that turns out to be (187).
For this writer, Mr. Hemley provided just that.
Miriam González-Poe holds an MFA in Creative Non-fiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in The Round-up, Culture Shôk, Fine Linen, Inner 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.
“Isn’t it her right to write her experience in the way she experienced it?”
My friend and I were having a heated discussion about the New York Times best-selling novel, All the Bright Places, and I’d said that I thought the portrayal of one of the main characters reinforced negative stereotypes about people with mental illnesses. I took issue with scenes depicting the character as violent, and the scenes that minimized mental health diagnoses as constricting labels. I worried that certain portions of the book denigrated the use of medication. But even though the book is fiction, those scenes were based on the actual experiences of author Jennifer Niven. In interviews, she’s spoken about how All the Bright Places was inspired by a boy she knew and loved who had bipolar disorder. She witnessed his highs and lows and his daily struggles up-close. Was I wrong to criticize her experience?
My friend’s question haunted me for several days. I also have personal knowledge of what it’s like to love someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder: my father. It is a complex illness characterized by alternating periods of mania and depression. These periods can last for weeks, months, or even years. Having bipolar disorder isn’t a universal experience: no two people exhibit the exact same symptoms, and no one’s experience is more authentic. Some people, like my father, spend more time inhabiting the soaring highs of mania. He refused to take medication for most of my childhood because he loved the highs, the energy, and the productivity. He hated how the medication brought him down. But that was what it was designed to do. Without it, the mania warped his thoughts into paranoia and delusion. Other people with bipolar disorder dwell for long periods in the depths of depression. I haven’t seen this aspect of the illness up close. When my father naturally cycled-down from his mania, he would sleep excessively for weeks on end—sometimes for twelve or more hours a day—but he never experienced debilitating depression or contemplated suicide.
Because the symptoms vary so widely, there isn’t a single treatment that works for everyone. Many people spend years working with their therapists before they find the right balance of medications; others, sadly, don’t have the access or resources for treatment. As I thought about the wide spectrum of bipolar disorder, I had to ask myself, was I being critical of All the Bright Places because it didn’t match what I knew about the illness? Did I write off Niven’s character as stereotypical because his illness is portrayed differently from what I experienced with my dad?
As a writer, I understand that the words I choose will have a subtle but concrete influence on the people who hear or read them. When I discuss my father’s illness, it’s important for me to say “my dad had bipolar disorder” rather than “my dad was bipolar.” Using this language distinguishes the difference between the person and that person’s illness. When I say had rather than was, I’m recognizing my father as separate from his disorder. I’m identifying him as the loving father who told me ghost stories at night while we drove across the Midwest and Canada in our Volkswagen camper. I’m also acknowledging that he was sick, not selfish, when he spent every cent he’d ever earned living in a hotel in Paris for two years—money that could have financed college for my brothers and me.
By saying he had an illness rather than was that illness, I’m categorizing the painful memories of his behavior as symptoms: I don’t define him by the times he would stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk afraid of the microwaves being beamed at us, or how he spent the first ten minutes of every phone conversation listing his resume and accomplishments to identify himself for the government agents who were listening. I show that I understand he couldn’t keep a job because he was sick, not lazy.
I’ve chosen to see my dad as the one who pushed the swing harder each time I asked to go higher and higher; the one who taught me how to fish; the one who boasted to all his friends when I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA; and the one who held his granddaughter—my niece—for the first time and said, “I feel like my life is complete.” Those are the true memories of who my father was. He was so much more than his illness.
When I discussed this essay with my partner earlier this week, he said to me, “Before I met you, the only things I knew about mental illness I’d seen on TV.” This is not uncommon, and it’s why the way bipolar disorder is represented in books and media is so important. Too many misconceptions persist in our society. For example, you may not know that one in five people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. You may not know that someone with a mental illness is not more likely to be violent, but they are more likely to be a victim of violence. Or that mania can be as destructive as depression. Or that people with mental illnesses are “productive members of society.” They go to school, work, and coach their children’s soccer teams.
But people are afraid to talk about their mental health with friends and neighbors. They fear the discrimination and stigma they will face. Research has found that in the United States, there is a widespread preference for social distance from individuals with mental illness; the general public is unwilling to work closely with, marry, or be the neighbor of individuals with mental health problems. They are seen as dangerous, unpredictable, incompetent, and to blame for their illness*.
Why? Because all they know are the unrealistic depictions they’ve seen in media and in books of untreatable madmen and psychos. And because it is a taboo topic, most people will never know that their hair dresser struggles with an eating disorder, or a friend is dealing with postpartum depression, or that their coworker is on medication for an anxiety disorder.
As I read All the Bright Places I was angry at every instance where Niven’s depiction didn’t “get it right.” I don’t want people to think my father was violent or his life was hopeless. I don’t want people to believe that mania is romantic and thrilling, or that mood stabilizers turn people into vacant, emotionless husks. I scoured the internet looking for proof that Niven’s portrayal was wrong, but what I found was something more nuanced.
Reviewers both praised and criticized the book’s depiction of mental illness. A Bustle reviewer wrote, “She strikes right in the heart of what it’s like living with mental illness in contemporary America,” while Disability in Kidlit had a stance more similar to my own: “The book also does an awful job of portraying the means to recovery for depression or any mental illness.”
It would have been easy to disregard the reviews that did not match my thinking, only searching until I found what I wanted to find. But I kept reading and researching. One reader on Goodreads, whose mom had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but refused treatment, thanked Niven for writing a book about the terrible feeling of loving someone but being powerless to help them. Another said it was the best depiction of what it’s like to be depressed that she’d ever read, and she finally felt understood. Some worried that Niven made light of mental illness, and complained that bipolar disorder was used as a gimmicky plot device.
I found the answer to my friend’s question among the chorus of diverse voices sharing their opinions and insights about the book. I realized that there was value in the opinion of each reviewer, and I was wrong to expect a single perfect narrative. Much like there’s no perfect cure, there is no perfect way to write about mental illness.
Niven had every right to write about her experience loving someone with bipolar disorder. A story based on personal experience is not immune from criticism, and criticism does not de-legitimize that experience. The purpose of scrutinizing a book is to identify where it can be improved, not to suggest it shouldn’t exist. Books like All the Bright Places help open dialogue around the complexities of mental health, so that writers and readers alike are exposed to the many unique perspectives in our society. Dialogue builds empathy and allows us to understand how telling our personal experiences will affect others. All the Bright Places is a touching and emotional story that succeeds in spreading awareness about mental illness, and depression in particular, but it also has its flaws. It is possible to appreciate how this story helps to dispel some misconceptions of mental illness, while also pointing out how it reinforces others.
As I write this essay about my own experience with bipolar disorder, I hope it also will start a dialogue. I want people to discuss what’s working with my words, and where there’s room for improvement. We can’t stop looking at literature and media with a critical eye; doing so is necessary for us to learn and grow. The purpose of criticism isn’t to exact a final judgment of whether something is right or wrong—a false dichotomy that has increasingly paralyzed our society—but instead, it is to engage in an open exchange of ideas that elevates our understanding of the world.
*Parcesepe, Angela M., and Leopoldo J. Cabassa. “Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States: A Systematic Literature Review.” Administration and policy in mental health 40.5 (2013): 10.1007/s10488–012–0430–z. PMC. Web. 20 July 2016.
Victoria Miller has a BA in comparative literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. She spends her days producing video games for a major publisher where she often finds herself juggling flame-engulfed-chainsaws and excel sheets. When she’s not slurping the best ramen in LA or proclaiming her hatred of olives, she reviews submissions as Lunch Ticket‘s YA (13+) Co-Editor and even finds time to work on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @tigrvix.
Suppose you say water.
We’re on the boat, making for Babson Island, one of three tiny beach slabs that connects at high tide. We set anchor, mark the drift, account for wind, row to the shallows. This place has sand dollars. You find some, bring them to me. I will wrap them in tissue to assure a safe journey, feel something split in me when one breaks years after the moments on this island. It’s funny how we know these things: A song will have meanings we can only guess at—the strains of trumpet or your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking making me curl like a fist; the smell of soap, or brie cheese, these things will kill me later, but we don’t know this yet. For now, we’re still on shore, collecting things. Each piece of kelp, a malformed shell, the sand dollars. I want to fill my pockets with them, add them to the collection of you. Even broken, these objects will rest on the mantle as unruined remains.
In Mexico, we climbed the ruins at Chichen Itza, looking for a history unconnected to us, the steps so steep we moved diagonally to avoid falling. At the top you leaned back onto the old pillars and reached for my face as if we were the pinnacle, as if we would be cast there for the sky, for the tourists to admire even when we returned back to the coast. On the plane you drew for me a dog and a dragon, creatures not meant for water. I keep the papers, trace the indents from the pen with my fingers to feel where you’ve left your mark. My mouth is still yours, my insides changed as if the stones of a ruin had molded to us, and we had swallowed the image.
To say water now, in all of its forms—shower, river, puddle, ocean—is to bring an image of us at the edge of something. I imagine you in this water. Do we meet, tethered together as if moored to the ocean floor? It should be. There’s the mahogany box you made for me, still filled with receipts, notes, letters: proof. It’s all water and movement and the rushing of what we have collected, trying to mark the set and drift of these tides, of ocean mass, the undersurface mountains of silt that peak just before they give way to water.
Walking the Dog in Autumn I Stop to Tie My Shoelace
We do not understand trees,
(are we even able to write about trees anymore?)
why certain ones have turned already, apricot-edged,
marmalade-bright next to others still summered
as though they’ve forgotten or are immune.
How easy to feel foolish looking at them, dissecting
when—just for right now—we are in the sweet spot.
Four children old enough to shower themselves, the oldest permitted
but not licensed, the youngest with Jack O’ Lantern teeth,
the girl seconds away from bra, body as yet unloathed,
and the middle boy out of the hospital and able to tie his own shoes.
My parents, too, are young enough to shower themselves,
Dad in remission, Mother flexible,
fingers agile enough to tie her laces.
How wrong is it to wish stasis, the irrational desire
to have all of the selves—past, present, future—overlap right
here with the trees that no one can explain?
But I am privileged. Educated enough to question trees,
moonlight, time, mothers, anything—everything—becoming cliché
obsolete, unwritable. And still
the need to make a poem so that tomorrow
or two months or when the disease returns,
we have proof. I am still someone’s child. My children
(not mine, but of me)
tethered, my marriage whole.
To be jam-stuck
in this sweet spot
would mean never to see all four become
however they will become,
would eliminate spooning warm apricot preserves
into my father’s mouth when he can no longer make
brain command the hand.
I want both—this and the becoming—
smooth or bark-rippled, all their skin soft as a pocket
I will never understand.
Emily Franklin’s work has been featured on National Public Radio and published in DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, Mississippi Review, Post Road Magazine, and The New York Times, as well as long-listed for the 2015 The Sunday Times EFG Story Award. She is the author of two novels for adults, Liner Notes and The Girls’ Almanac. Her seventeen novels for young adults include Last Night at the Circle Cinema, a Junior Library Guild selection, an ALAN Pick, and a 2016 Sydney Taylor Honorable Mention from the Association of Jewish Libraries.
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