Foreword | July 24, 2018
Foreword: Second Skin
In his over 4000-page, seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust looks at our paradoxical relationship with time—how we both change and don’t change, how our experiences are transient and at the same time somehow always there, remaining like glittering fragments floating in space. “People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad,” he says. The fin de siècle Frenchman was carrying on the tradition of Walter Pater and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with their aesthetic faith in a certain meaningfulness and even immortality to be found in artistic beauty.
Many of Proust’s comments were prophetic of the new discoveries of relativity and, later, brain science. But he was also capable of being quite plainspoken and realistic regarding human experience, for example about our paradoxical relationship to both happiness and change. “Desire makes everything blossom,” he said, but “possession makes everything wither and fade.” He also held what amounts to old-fashioned stoic views—for example, that we change and in order to grow must accept this, as well as grief: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”
Many of the pieces in this issue of TMR concern how time and experience mark us in permanent ways yet at the same time help us develop strength and resilience—a second skin.
In her memoir “Mordwand,” Natasha Sajé describes waitressing in a restaurant in a Swiss village in the 1970s. She takes the job over an attractive au pair position because she needs money and is trying not to burden her parents. Working there over the winter, she develops an awareness of class and opportunity and reflects on how working at the hotel left a mark on her: “A part of me had hardened, the way cheese left uncovered becomes tough as plastic.” Wondering about how it happened, she concludes, “Perhaps I realized, although I am able to articulate it only now, that hard work enables one to appreciate the luxury of leisure.”
Steven Schwartz’s “The Loneliest Moon” recounts his battle with severe insomnia after he develops sleep apnea and begins using a breathing machine. Schwartz has recently retired, and anxiety about the machine prevents him from sleeping more than a few hours a night, evoking a degree of emotion that he has never experienced before. He reexamines his childhood and relationship with his parents, for the first time realizing the effect of his desperate urge as a boy to live up to his parents’ confidence in him as the “good child.” His crisis with insomnia precipitates a useful look at his past.
The stories in this issue include “Life on Mars” by May-lee Chai. In Chai’s fiction, Xiao Yu is a young teenage boy sent from China to live with his uncle in America. The US is not what he expected, and his uncle isn’t the stable married man that his parents had assumed. His wife has left him and he works at a menial job in a restaurant. Xiao Yu feels compelled to help him and meets the boss’s son, Andrew, who is failing math in summer school. He is able to tutor him, and the boys form a friendship. Xiao Yu is swept up in the freedom of the American lifestyle; he’s also fascinated with Andrew’s tattoos and develops a crush on him. A near drowning incident brings them even closer. It is the story of a young man being in a new, freer place, and despite his immigrant struggles forming a relationship and finding a place unlike anything he has experienced before.
Based on a true event, Carolyn Ogburn’s story “Ordinary Time” is a tale of the permanent legacy of someone admired in childhood. The protagonist is Caleb, an Episcopal priest, father, and husband of a woman who is a recovering alcoholic. He comes to Grand Saline, Texas, to pay homage to the Reverend Charles Moore, a Methodist pastor who committed suicide by immolation in a strip-mall parking lot, out of disillusionment at the lack of progress against racism and homophobia, issues that had concerned him since he was a young man. Caleb sets up a camp chair and spends several days in the parking lot, meeting people who knew Moore. He reflects on how the minister influenced him to follow a religious vocation and on how the memory of him continued to resonate in his life.
JM Holmes’s “The Legend of Lonnie the Lion,” from Holmes’s new collection How Are You Going to Save Yourself, is a story about identity and parentage. The protagonist is the son of a former pro football player, Lonnie Campbell, once a legend with the 49ers but now out of shape and long divorced from the young man’s mother. In this retrospective narrative, the boy remembers a couple of summer visits with his father and the complex relationship that developed between the two. It soon ends, but the young man still admires and loves a father who, although fallen and imperfect, was in fact not just a past star but a humane person.
“The Man Who Fell out of a Tree” by Robert Leonard Reid is a comic tale set in Renaissance Italy, about the talented choirmaster of a small-town basilica that suffers financial woes and whose Cardinal hopes to put the town and basilica on the map. When the choirmaster is fired from his job for peeping at a young novitiate in the convent next door, the Cardinal hires an incompetent man with a bizarre theory of choral music whose compositions are awful. The “second skin” in this story is the new life the choirmaster falls into after his firing. He meets and marries the woman from the convent and develops a new enjoyment of life.
Ernest J. Finney’s “The Pickers” is about Tracy, daughter of a single mother who is a junk dealer. Tracy has been marked by growing up in this poor and unstable environment, with a mother who seems incapable of showing affection or even much interest in her daughter. Yet Tracy has mastered the business and embarked on a career as a fine-collectibles forger of both paintings and documents. Mother and daughter no longer work or live together but have a codependent relationship built on the fact that they admire one another’s skills and don’t have anyone else. Tracy has a longstanding connection with a gallery that sells fine collectibles, and when she offers them a new set of forged drawings they make an offer without the usual price-haggling and questioning that she’s accustomed to. As she sorts out this strange interaction with the gallery staff, she comes to a realization that is shocking even to her, which leads her to make a bold change and reinvent her life.
All three of this issue’s poets were runners-up in the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. Chelsea Rathburn’s poems are poignant and personal, using fairy tales and mythology to create sharp portraits of motherhood and womanhood. Simmering with witches, porn, egg-babies, and slaughtered deer, they critique a patriarchy that marks women with its scars. Matty Layne Glasgow’s lush, fractured poems circle around the figure of the “deciduous qween.” The speaker asks, “Will I remember how to move without emeralds, / without boas green as leaves wound around every / branch of this body?” For Glasgow, the body is both a jeweled ornament and a root deeply connected to the earth. Margot Wizansky’s poems tell the story of Emerson Stamps, the grandson of slaves and the son of sharecroppers. Stamps was a friend of Wizansky’s, and with his permission she writes about his life. Racism and resilience are powerful themes in this elegant, spare work.
Kristine Somerville’s omnibus book review “Rags to Riches: Four Biographies from the World of High Fashion” tells the stories of the transformations of Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James, and Alexander McQueen from largely self-taught, self-conscious
outsiders to ambitious talented designers who for a time dominated their industry. Through a sense of individual style and personality, they reinvented themselves, developing personae in which they felt more comfortable. They designed clothes for women that either liberated them from strict social constraints or endowed them with a sense of power and purpose.
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