“The Ride” by Robert Stewart
BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Robert Stewart’s “The Ride” recounts the story of his wife’s determination in completing a month-long cross-state journey on horseback and the role he played as a semi-silent supporter.
We touch these stars above.
Fresh distances. Rider and Horse are one.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
I am trying to track down my wife. She rode off by horseback two days ago, not to the crests of Montana or shores of Morocco but into rural Kansas and Missouri, along reaches available to me by truck in a few hours—the subtle gravel roads of four miles per hour, among sunflowers, wood bees, ticks, and barns, sagging into history. This is beautiful country. It is flat, dry country with half-completed homesteads and suburban ranch homes among acres of fescue and foxtail or soybeans laid in along creeks. Most houses sit back off the road a ways, and for Lisa to get permission to water her horse or pitch a tent, she gambles twenty minutes or so, three or four times a day, to ride up a stranger’s gravel drive toward the front door, dismount, remove her wide straw hat, fix her hair, execute a smile, and hope someone’s home.
She got started at 11:15 AM on Wednesday, mid-May, two days ago, on a solo horseback trip of three weeks or three months, however it goes. By instinct, it seems, given my profession as an editor, I seek order in the patterns of roads and stories that I imagine we both might discover in the weeks ahead, albeit me in support only. She headed out from her horse’s rented pasture, near Edgerton, in east-central Kansas, south on Crescent Hill Township Road in the direction of Osawatomie, once home to John Brown, his Jayhawker, antislavery forces, at least two massacres, and configurations of “bleeding Kansas,” which my mind has begun to conjure.
Sparky, the dog, and I kept up with her (he on foot, me by car) for a while, until she seemed to settle in and find her pace. Then, at a curve where the gravel road turns dead south, I stood beside the car and watched her ride about a mile until she and Chief, her Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, disappeared behind a hill.
Have you ever watched your wife of five years vanish into a horizon line? Two years ago, Lisa started her own consulting business, took every job, worked nights, weekends, holidays. She banked her earnings, and this summer, as boss, owner, and sole proprietor, gave herself time off to travel. By horse. That first day, Chief’s shimmering red coat and bulk made for easy tracking from a rise on the prairie. The horse spooks easily: at a rusted tractor, a windmill, a cow and its calf; so if you were to watch the horse and rider, your wife—if you are lucky enough to have a wife you admire—you would see them shift in the road from right edge to left, to shy from monsters of all sorts, monsters under a bright sky. A trash can is a monster. A single hay bale. A highway overpass could be an opening into hell, and Chief no Orpheus to lead her out. She must walk him through and reward him with a prune on the other side.
Earlier today, she was “separated from her horse,” as the expression goes, on a chipped-rock road where a horned cow charged the fence, sending Chief into a swirl and Lisa down on the rocks. The horse paused and looked back at her from a hundred yards off, then took up a trot, as Lisa called it, “heading for home.” It turned out that a young man driving to his boss’s house about two miles down that same dusty road stopped his pickup to gather Chief by the reins and drove on, holding his arm out the driver-side window, which is how he came to lead the horse into his boss’s front yard to wait for its owner. “I didn’t figure she needed to walk farther than necessary,” he would say. Kindness.
I sped immediately southward sixty miles, when she called, to find her sitting on her poncho under a tree and the horse tied to the grille of the truck. Her left sleeve and half her white shirt blazed with blood. She had gotten a ride from a lady after the “wreck” and would later get five stitches at the county medical center, along with two hours of advice from the doc: “Call off this ride,” he said. She won’t. I have faith in my wife’s faith.
She will go on, and I will wait each evening at home for her to call and confirm that she has settled in somewhere, putting us both motionless in time, as poet Archibald MacLeish says cryptically, as the moon climbs. Acquaintances want to know of her, Why do it? She has dreamed of going off alone on horseback since girlhood, and she has in mind writing projects that later will leaf out from the trip. All good, all beside the point. A woman riding by horseback alone on these back roads helps even me with this distant aesthetic—as MacLeish has said of poetry, so it is with her—that she should not mean but be. She wants to be a dreaming girl again, the girl who rode bareback in the red-shale gullies of Oklahoma and, later, over the wooded hills of her parents’ farm in Missouri.
You should have seen the collection of bulls and cows, all horned, in the pasture we walked Chief past the day after Lisa’s abrupt dismount—some Brahman bulls, some Highland and Lowline or Zebu, for all we knew—maybe fifteen head collected under a wide shade tree, lying or standing in such tight congress and with such fierce eyes, you would understand whose law passes on life and whose on death in these parts. The law of power, the law of speed, the law of standing with one’s kind. One cow of that group had charged Chief the day before, sending Lisa’s body onto the jaw-rock road.
A public garden in Paris, France, has a Greek marble sculpture of Theseus appearing to get the best of the Minotaur, a confrontation I take, now, as factual and real. I will drive these gravel roads every week or two during Lisa’s ride, delivering supplies to her in the territory of many-shaped creatures, in a Kansas or Missouri county of dust and ditches bordered by wire fence and hedges of mulberry and sage. Our GPS-enabled phones don’t always match maps ripped from atlases, and sometimes I want simply to hand Lisa a spool of string that will lead her through the labyrinth.
The time has come, five days in, for me to once again track down my wife. I have beside me in the truck the checklist of supplies she has dictated in several calls during the week. Before leaving Kansas City, I stop at Starbuck’s for 24-packs of VIA Instant, at CVS Pharmacy for bug repellent and sunscreen, at Sutherland’s Lumber for forty feet of nylon rope to replace the length she lost, then at the Hy-Vee Party and Liquor for Budweiser and ice, which I put into the cooler, and which, after this ninety-five-degree day, I darn well better not show up without.
Farther south, I stop by Backwoods Outfitters to replace a ripped rainfly for her tent and pick up heavy-duty twist ties, on impulse. I stop at the Flying J truck stop in Peculiar for gas. I stop in Rich Hill at the Amish café for sandwiches we will share on the tailgate of the truck once Chief settles into pasture or on the new picket rope I am bringing. I have more vitamins, nutrition bars, vacuum packs of salmon and tuna, small cans of beef, and a canister of individually wrapped prunes, Chief’s favorite snack. I always forget something. I always run late. The list lying on the truck seat has directions to her vicinity, scribbled landmarks, town names, likely roads she will be traveling, all of which insinuate into my thinking a kind of purposefulness, a belief that I am a participant on this trip. I am not. Not even close.
These are roads I did not know existed. 1700 Road. 2300 Road. All dust and gravel. North of Drexel, where Lisa crossed into western Missouri, gravel roads have names; south, they have numbers. A girl about eighteen tells me this outside a Drexel Casey’s, as she and two younger sisters, all with the same round, freckled faces and Fudgesicles, open the enormously long doors of their Camaro. She laughs about the road names. I had been north of Drexel, looking for Sharon Cemetery Road, and missed it, which was a good thing. My wife was south of there already, riding down what I knew—from her—only as the first gravel road east of Drexel off of 18 Highway. When I ask about finding 18, the girl at the Casey’s describes it as a “sixty-five-mile-an-hour highway,” which means blacktopped. The gravel road my wife said to look for turned out to be 1800 road, but the girl at Casey’s told me people there just call it “Old Ballpark Road,” if they call it anything.
The afternoon has gotten on; I am hoping my wife has found a place to stop for the day. I turn onto 18 Highway and then right on what seems to be the first gravel county road, unmarked, though I pass field roads, farm roads, driveways, gravel trailing into some expanse or another. After I drive two miles or so, blowing a plume of white dust, an older gentleman working on a tractor beside his house looks up and waves me into his driveway. “She’s back there,” he says and points. “Drive on back through the yard. It won’t hurt nothing.”
My wife is down the slope a ways, in a grove of black walnut trees. How did that gentleman know who I was? I am starting to love everyone. I can’t explain it. It’s just to say, they are sweet. Human beings in the best sense. It is not my nature to drive across someone’s yard, invited or not, forty acres in size or not. I park near his truck and introduce myself. He’s Jerry, and his wife is in the house with vertigo. We talk, and I thank him for helping out my wife. “Nothing to it,” he says. “She won’t take up much room.” That’s all. When I walk down the slope to where my wife is grazing the horse, Jerry goes back to work on the tractor.
Each day of her trip now, I follow in my mind the roads she might be on, with fences behind which curious donkeys, bulls, llamas, and horses would be tracking her progress, or beside a paved road, where a fellow on a riding mower would wave and stop to give directions. This second Sunday, I seek relief at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, near my office in Kansas City. On what can I concentrate but the pale dust of country roads or satellite views of where, in my perpetual speculation, she might be now? The Gospel has Yeshua rising into heaven, and two men in white, called, in Willis Barnstone’s translation, “informing angels,” saying to the crowd that watched Yeshua rise up, “People of Galilee, why do you stand there gazing into the sky?” The sky has come to a little screen, and I spend too much time gazing into it, or down from its satellite. What kind of spiritual vision is this, in my life, that I have become unsettled by the unknown? Relief comes in seeing myself in the company of those people in the Gospel, likewise unsettled.
“We can’t be kind or courageous in the abstract,” the priest said this morning, “but only in a given place and situation.” I teach this to my writing students, or try to. Theory comforts, and comfort gets us nowhere, is how I take that message. Lisa and I like to assume the world’s general beneficence, and I wonder how much hope I can claim against how much faith. Here at home, my bed—our bed—feels embarrassingly comfortable, the coffee maker an abomination of efficiency, the cast-iron skillet wearily weighty as I carry it four steps to the stove top. These things I know, and I am their witness. I tell my students, Write what can be known. I do not say, Write what you know but what can be known; in that difference lie the world’s offerings. The phone rings, and Lisa relays the number of a particular gravel road to orient me to her location; then the phone empties itself of sound, flat and dark as cured iron.
I am often consoled by others that I can talk to her daily for progress and hear the comforting punctuation of hoofbeats among our words. Such power of connection, however, lives for me, now more than ever, within the equal power and certainty of her separateness. Spouses, parents, friends, once saw their people off on ship or train or wagon and let them go. Had to. The tantalization of satellite and cellular communication reinvents for us, in the way of technology, a new kind of separation.
A Zen monk once asked his teacher, “Both speaking and silence belong to the relative world: How can we escape these two errors?”
The teacher replied, “Partridges chirp among the scented blossoms.”
I am not so smart as to understand the range of that response, or why Lisa and I decided not to install in our phones an app called “Find My Friends.” In promise, that app would locate her at every moment, clop by clop, the sky dropping its pin like the tail on a donkey. We thought about the illusion of separateness and how each day has as its finest moment the moment of revelation. We travel, have maps, phones; and Lisa calls to say a coyote loped across the road with a rabbit in its mouth. I detect in her words a stillness. Her voice comes out of nothing, or perhaps out of the wind. We have this connection, the satellite and cell phones chosen, the loping coyote, which looked, as it ran, neither left nor right, and her on horseback mere feet away.
Is it within me, then, as for the great teachers, to neither speak nor stay silent? My mind shuttles among signs of the material good. The more she moves through the physical universe, the more transcendent she seems. “When the holy spirit moves in you,” Yeshua says to his people, “You will receive the power, and you will be / My witnesses.”
The sky early this summer burns blue—not the blue of a distant glacier but the whitish, torchy blue of an acetylene cone. This will be a summer of drought.
Before Lisa ends her ride for good, cornstalks now green will expose roots baked and shut down. Later, while she is still riding, a friend in northwest Kansas will write to say, “One hundred fourteen degrees, and wind.” We all will take this heat together, suburb to spread, as one weather wag would say on radio. The country Lisa rides through now has known all that in past years, as well. An older gentleman Lisa once knew in Vernon County, Missouri, remembers dust so thick in the 1930s, he said, “All the babies had to leave town.” These very counties on each side of the Missouri-Kansas line carried on horseback Kansas irregulars and Missouri bushwhackers in the 1860s, burning barns and homes at will, sometimes to crusade for a cause, sometimes just for meanness. Lisa rides the same land where Jake, the narrator in the border-war novel Woe to Live On by Missourian Daniel Woodrell, would flee in panic after attacking a farmstead in Missouri. “Hog paths became our highways,” Jake would relay across time. The land spreads and rolls in gullies and sections, as it did then. The people, especially the people Lisa meets on farms and ranches, however, do not hide in the barn when a stranger rides up their road. These days, they open their doors. They bring water.
Each afternoon, not too late, if possible, Lisa rides up on a house, hoping for hospitality. In my telephone earpiece or sometimes in person, I hear her detail the scenes—an extended family having a birthday party for one of the nieces in their side yard looks down their driveway at this woman riding up on a horse. She does not ride past and wave, as would a neighbor in a pickup. She turns in, like a dream delivery. My earpiece relays her stories each evening or day, sometimes vivid, extended stories, sometimes sketchy; and my earpiece does a good job relaying the ritual. But it can do nothing to relay the experience itself.
Because of Lisa’s experience, however, I have the honor of meeting a gentleman in the early stages of dementia named Harold Gene Spain, who owns and now has started to give away to members of his extended family large sections of Dade County, Missouri, western edge of the Ozarks. He’s not tall, wears a black, smallish cowboy-style hat, and repeats his stories. When he insists on feeding Lisa’s horse himself so she can go on with me into Golden City to the café, Lisa, of course, objects. But Harold Gene’s wife, Joanne—a trim, elegant woman of the farm, in complete possession of herself—whispers to Lisa, “It’ll be good for him.” Harold Gene walks off with a bucket of feed, as if the horse belonged to his own daughter.
Lisa had ridden onto their property earlier than normal in the afternoon and asked for a place to pasture her horse. It was hot. While I drove after work for my weekly run to bring her supplies, she spent a couple of hours visiting with the Spains and had met their grown daughter still at home, with Down syndrome, and the daughter from about half a mile east on County Road 182. “You know,” Harold Gene said to me when I drove into his drive and stepped out of my truck, “We’re adopting her,” meaning Lisa. His voice said it as a joke, I think. “After you two go to dinner,” he says again, “she can just stay here with us.”
“She’d probably like that,” I say.
“She’ll be staying here,” he says.
This night, Lisa wants to rest up in a nearby motel, while Chief is safe in his pen at the Spains. When we return in the morning, I attend while Lisa retrieves her saddle from the cab of Harold Gene’s pickup, parked in the pole barn, and saddles Chief. Chief stands at the hitching pole, calm, as Lisa has come to say, as a good Amish horse. We all visit into late morning, and Lisa tells me to take a photo of her hosts. “Let’s get daughter in here with us,” Harold Gene says, meaning Lisa, geared up in her wide hat and spurs. I touch the screen for its electronic click and set in time Joanne Spain, Harold Gene Spain, and my wife, all standing bravely together. Less than twenty-four hours ago, no heartbreak existed. Now, they prepare to say goodbye.
County Road 182 runs east and west, and Lisa on her horse heads west, back in the direction of flatter farmland. This will turn out to be the final week of four weeks and one day. The road swells between cool dips where creeks move, and on a rise every half mile or so, some kind of house or barn. I creep along ahead of her, keeping sight in the mirror, stopping now and then to watch how Chief reacts to a congregation of cows and bulls or a farm dog that had charged my truck and trotted back to its yard. She turns her horse directly at those dogs, faces them, while edging away. I see from the rise ahead, she handles that dog easily. Textbook: the one about horse handling she could write. Today, more than usual, I stick with her a while, not ready to drive home. In the distance ahead, I see the crossing where she will turn north; behind me, I know, she will pass a farm soon with three dogs, at least. The speck of her wide straw hat appears over a rise, then the stately bounce of her horse, approaching that yard, and out pour the three dogs, silently from this distance, like the flickering of an old film. They swarm her horse, and I see two more dogs, at least five total, and Lisa turning Chief in circles to keep them from biting his legs.
Five furious dogs swirling one horse is entirely unreasonable, so I prepare to crash through what seems to me an invisible yet palpable barrier between my life in support—an outsider, observer—and Lisa’s life alone on the actual ride. I turn back toward her, windows up, and drive my four-by-four half-ton air-conditioned Silverado through the pack of farm dogs, dispersing its fury, muffling its menace. Two of the bigger dogs persist along the road, even after the others run off, but those two she faces down and soon regains the four-beat gait of her Missouri Fox Trotter, the get-along amble of the long ride.
Days earlier, she told me, two German shepherds came up behind her horse, snarling and nipping, until she felt Chief make a jerk with his body, whichwas, in fact, Chief kicking one dog in the head, enough dissuasion to convince both dogs to go lie down a while, up on their own lawn. “Lions cannot daunt him,” says Cervantes of the knight errant, “nor demons affright nor dragons, for to seek, assault, and overcome such is the whole business of his life, and true office.” We have, here, however, not Quixote but Dulcinea, undaunted. She insists on hauling the saddle in her arms morning and evening; she cinches, halters, grazes, or grains her own horse and, at end of day, hoses him down if her host has a hydrant handy. One day, just one, she digs to the bottom of her pommel bag for the Ruger .380 she carries, which holds six plus one rounds, the “plus one” being the round she now chambers after some over-friendly farmhand stopped his truck and stood way too close, pressing his arm on her thigh, on a low section of farm road. She knew he then went up ahead to his work, where she would soon pass. This, she told me later, after she had moved through, her arm still wrapped to cover the wound from her earlier fall, her horse calmer now and used to what the road brings, hulking hay bales and wild turkeys. All went well as she passed the man. A nod. A “See ya.” A little legal silver salute lying at the top of the open pommel, never raised.
Lisa offered no animosity toward those dogs or toward the horned cow, the aggressive farmhand, or the panther yet unseen in the grass. No sentimentality, either. The dogs, she said later to a friend, were doing their jobs. Their jobs, to be dogs. “Yield to the willow,” wrote Japanese poet Basho to his pupil, “all the loathing, / all the desire of your heart.” When I now read that little poem, I imagine the willowy legs of the horse kicking out and back under its huge body. Wind then enters the image, and I begin to lose my serenity entirely; I realize that I have taken the poem wrong. That first day, when I stood on a rise and watched Lisa ride out of view, I wanted to learn to adapt to the new reality we faced, each on our own. I had my own projects to return to. I had my rationalizations, that this separation could be put to good, productive use. I did not want to be poor in spirit, as, I think, Basho suggests; I did not want to consider the willows or, for that matter, the lilies.
Instead, I had burdened that little poem with an argument for analogies—comparisons between the lilt of horse and limbs of a tree, the contrast between brute and beauty—as if Basho were asking for an appraisal. I had yet (have yet, most likely) to understand how to neither speak nor be silent. How to avoid those two errors. If Lisa needs water, she asks for water. She does not ask, How deep is the well? I speculate, but perhaps that speaks to why she has found so many welcoming folks. She needs a place to camp and graze her horse, and, in that simple sincerity, she makes good company. No one could have told me this on the first day of Lisa’s trip, that she, Lisa, would become the landscape and I a trespasser.
At about 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the final day of her trip, I am in my office, unraveling a failure of subject-verb agreement in a written report submitted to me. I become momentarily lost, forced to trek backward through the meandering trace of a sentence—from its grammatical subject, the rocky shore, to an errant participial verb looking (over the edge), as if the rocky shore were looking over the edge of itself. Road maps, even grammatical ones, take on added significance lately; so when I find syntax disconnected from its message, I imagine a telegraph line must be down, somewhere, in high winds.
The phone rings. Lisa says, “Call around and rent a horse trailer. I need you to come get us.” How much more direct can a statement be? I need you to come get us. The Buddhists would call her statement perfect sincerity. I jot it down on a ruled pad. Call around. Come get us. No shift in point of view; no ambiguity. For her sake, I had hoped that the ride would have gone a few more days and returned her by horse to Chief’s rented pasture, where she started out. I am, however, unaccountably relieved that we—and yes, my presumptuous participation shows up again in that plural pronoun—have made it through: horse, rider, me.
I have a project. I find a sixteen-foot stock trailer for rent near Harrisonville, Missouri, and that will do. Lisa had ridden—actually, alternately walked and ridden—beside a four-lane highway that June day in ninety-eight-degree heat and horse-high weeds for two miles in the wrong direction, and I am to find her in the shade of a cabin undergoing renovation off Highway E, south of Archie, her horse unsaddled in the same shade. That’s it.
When I pull onto the gravel side road, about an eighth of a mile off the four-lane and its pickups flinging themselves north at seventy-five miles per hour, I believe I will be arriving at a moment of stillness. I am wrong. Lisa seems more energized than ever, roused by drought and sun and contentment that she has arrived at her time to end the ride.
She had thought she might ride longer. She had thought she might ride shorter. The Zen scholar R. H. Blyth has written that there is a Sun Buddha and a Moon Buddha. The Sun Buddha lives 1,800 years; the Moon Buddha lives one day and one night. Says Blyth, “Wherever life is, it is life.” When I arrive, pulling the rust-scoured stock trailer, I prepare myself for any kind of emotion. I find no particular drama discernible in Lisa, just contentment in being at this place and time. She is a woman in action who tends to stay in action, and she leads her big, trusting, muscular horse up a steep hill from the cabin to the road and lets him stare a moment into the trailer. If Chief has a memory of his past, as a trail horse working in the Missouri Ozarks, he will sense that this trailer signals the end of the workday. We don’t know what he thinks, but we know that old training allows him to step with little shyness onto the trailer deck and in.
I will ride on her adventure, now. At dinner parties and receptions, wherever one person perks up enough to ask about this ride, I will find a soft seat from which to gaze again over the pieces and scraps of landscape I myself saw through barn slats and below the sun visor of a truck window. I suspect those people will be rare, and that the telling of this story will best be realized privately, in Lisa’s own writing. There, she will turn her experiences and her terms in directions that will guide us over these and other roads. One of my wife’s favorite living poets, Marie Ponsot, reportedly said while recovering from a stroke, “Syntax is a tool more important to human existence than the wheel.” More important, maybe, than the horse. So it is, now, that our rig rattles westward along Kansas Highway 52 on its way to 69 North, then 152 farther west toward Edgerton, piecing together the right roads in the right pattern.
Robert Stewart’s books include Working Class: Poems (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2018), The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art, & Values (essays, Serving House Books, 2014); Outside Language (essays, Helicon Nine Editions, finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards 2004, and winner of the Thorpe Menn Award); Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press 1988, revised second edition 2017). He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for editing from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the magazine industry’s highest honor; he was editor of New Letters magazine for eighteen years, until March 2020, and managing editor for over two decades previously. Essays on travel and language have appeared in North American Review, Borderline, and elsewhere. He directed the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University in Kansas City for thirty-six years, until 2018.
“At 54, Lisa Stewart set out to regain the fearless girl she had once been, riding her horse, Chief, 500 miles home. Hot, homeless, and horseback, she snapped back into every original cell. On an extraordinary homegoing from Kansas City to Bates and Vernon Counties in Missouri, Lisa exhausted herself, faced her past, trusted strangers, and stayed in the middle of her high-strung horse to document modern rural America, the people, animals, and land.”
“Dead Ear” by James Steck
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In “Dead Ear,” an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, James Steck writes about ER medicine, a sudden hearing loss, and the discovery of his Buddhist faith.
When I was thirty-five, I went deaf in one ear.
Nothing had really gone wrong before. I’d had the usual romantic reversals, but I was successful in school and at work; I was an active outdoorsman, and I was reasonably happy.
I woke up one morning with my ear feeling stuffed, as with a bad cold. I didn’t usually prescribe medicines for colds or take them myself, but on this occasion, my ear was so plugged, I took a Sudafed and went to work. As it happened, an ENT surgeon walked through the ER on his way to his office. I told him—and I thought I was merely engaging in small talk—that I had the worst case of Eustachian-tube dysfunction.
“Can you hear the phone with that ear?” he asked. He said it with that flat tone some policemen use.
Since it was the ear I usually used, I recalled that I’d had to switch sides with the phone that morning when I’d talked to a teller at my bank (an activity that used to be possible). The ENT guy arranged a hearing test for when I got off shift that day.
For the hearing test, I sat in something like a telephone booth (another anachronism, like phoning a bank teller) and the audiologist sent a series of squeaks into each of my ears. When she was testing my bad ear with squeaks, I had a difficult time distinguishing the squeaks from the sounds of silence. I imagined that those latter sounds were from cosmic rays or from my own brain electronics. I regarded the hearing test as a school quiz. I strategized and tried very hard to raise my hand at the right moments.
I’d gotten only one sound correct, the loudest one, at 100 decibels. In the audiologist’s office was a pamphlet explaining the decibel system. It said that 100 decibels was a level equivalent to the sound of an explosion.
The cause of my deafness was a rare condition called “sudden sensorineural deafness.” I read about in my favorite textbook, a British textbook. British texts were more concerned with the clinical story than the technical aspects. The language was cool, like David Attenborough talking about mangrove swamps. In the case of sudden sensorineural deafness, the book said when it struck, many patients heard the sound as of a great door closing.
The ENT doctor prescribed prednisone for two weeks and said it might work. “Take care of your other ear,” he said. “No rock concerts or scuba diving. Carry earplugs.”
This wasn’t good that he emphasized preventive medicine.
In the days after my hearing loss, before my brain compensated, I walked around with a noiseless right hemisphere. I could see palm fronds shaking and birds with their mouths open and bicycles gliding, but there was no sound whatsoever. I went to a dinner party where the people on my left were engaged in their usual repartee but the people on my right were opening and closing their mouths like freshly caught fish. Moreover, I worried that they were talking about me. The audiologist had warned me that newly deaf people could be a little paranoid.
The prednisone didn’t work at all. I was frustrated because it seemed that in the ER I could always do something. The treatments I administered there always worked—at least partially, or for a while.
Around this time, I visited my parents back in Wisconsin. Even though it was fall, my little town looked as if it were hunkered down for winter. The dull redbrick houses had all their windows and doors closed. I took a walk to the local Catholic church, St. Jude’s, the center of my social life during my teens. There was almost no one on the streets, and when cars passed, the drivers looked straight ahead without acknowledging me.
St. Jude’s was unlocked. It was the first time I’d been inside a church since college. The modernistic stained-glass windows looked pretty good. I could make out the scene of Veronica offering Jesus her handkerchief and Gabriel announcing the pregnancy to Mary. There was just a trace of incense, as if it were being used as air freshener.
I spotted the votive candles, of two sizes, one-dollar and three-dollar. I genuflected, made the sign of the cross, and did what I saw Guatemalans do: I tapped my coins on the candle stand to wake up the saint whom I was petitioning. I paid for and lit one of the bigger candles. I prayed that my hearing would come back.
I went back outside. I did not actually imagine that votive candles would improve my hearing, but I did put my finger in my left ear to test whether I was still deaf in my right.
Some years later, a friend of mine contended that there was scientific evidence that prayer did some good, but you had to be praying for another person. That would explain why I was still partly deaf. I prayed only twice more in my life (for seriously ill family members), and both times it worked.
I did some reading about deafness. The fullness I’d felt in my ear was the usual way patients recognized that something was wrong. It was less common to perceive the loss of hearing directly. Like most people with sensorineural deafness, I also got tinnitus, ringing in the ear. Tinnitus is a phantom sound generated by the brain in the absence of input from the ear. The brain needs constant acoustic stimulation, as if it’s a toddler singing “La, la, la.” The frequency of the tinnitus resembles the lost hearing. Low frequencies sound like the ocean and high frequencies sound like the neighbor’s phone. My tinnitus sounded like that place between radio stations when you’re driving in the West.
I got in the habit, when I was at a table with a group of people, of sitting at a certain corner facing the rest of the group and, whenever I was walking, gravitating to my companion’s right side. Once, I met someone who was also deaf in her right ear, and we ended up circling each other like mating geese.
No one knew the cause of sudden sensorineural deafness, but the most popular theory was that it was caused by a virus, based on some positive evidence: traces of the herpes virus in the diseased ear.
Needless to say, I always got a worried when I caught a cold or when my good ear started ringing. There was a period when I supposed that dehydration was the cause of my plight and I walked around with a bottle of water always in hand.
At some point, when the topic came up, I told people that a virus had caused my deafness and that “viruses have to live too.” I meant that. Not that I was a partisan of viruses, but I appreciated the interconnectedness of life. My observation about viruses was the result of a satori—a sudden enlightenment. The enlightenment was largely ineffable, but it had to do with the comparative triviality of my suffering. I felt as if dwelling on it somehow took away from other people’s distress, as if world suffering were zero-sum.
I told my friend, Ginny, the Buddhist, the one who said I wasn’t breathing right, about my satori, and I mentioned in passing that I’d had perhaps a dozen such satoris in my life. This was even before I hit my head in Tikal. For example, I told her, during my surgical rotation in medical school—the rotation in which I didn’t see the sun at all—I was walking home one evening, and I noticed the light from a streetlamp broken up by an oak tree. I suddenly understood, “Let there be light.” Light precedes and is necessary for life. My insight was undoubtedly prompted by the compression of all my free time in those days into my walk home. At my report, Ginny seemed almost envious—insofar as a Buddhist can get envious.
* * *
Although I hadn’t been to church since college, I considered myself a cultural Catholic. The Jesuits had a saying that they didn’t seek to have influence over a boy for his entire life—between the ages of thirteen and seventeen was sufficient. I think they were onto something. I liked church rituals and Renaissance art. I liked cathedrals and Gregorian chant. I regarded romanticism as Catholics’ gift to the world. I embraced the idea that we should behave as if someone were watching and as if we might die (probably in a bus accident) later that day. I did not discern that Protestants held any principles that differed from those of good banking.
I did think too much about dying. I had a fear of dying myself, and in the ER, I had a fear of other people dying. Months went by without my witnessing any patient die. If a patient was critically ill, I got them to the elevators. If they weren’t breathing, I intubated them and got them on a respirator. If their heart wasn’t beating, I put them on an external pacemaker. If they were brain dead, I let the people upstairs decide what to do. I did not want to watch anyone die.
One day in 2010, I had a patient with a perforated stomach. The stomach’s hydrochloric acid was pouring out over his insides. He was a middle-aged Thai fellow, gray and under-nourished from chronic suffering. He looked like the victim of some nineteenth-century historical tragedy. The reason for the perforation was stomach cancer. I gave him several doses of morphine, but his mouth remained stretched in a grimace.
I thought that something could always be done. I called the surgeon on call, who leafed through the fellow’s chart and examined him briefly. He wasn’t a mean surgeon; he had the thick dark eyebrows and humorous eyes of the black Irish. He was said to have “the best hands” in the department.
He came out of the workroom shaking his head. “You can’t sew up the stomach when there’s cancer there,” he said.
“Just cut the cancer out and sew up the remaining tissue,” I said. The patient kept crying out, and I couldn’t think straight.
“I’m sorry. It can’t be done.”
“I’ll call someone else.”
As a courtesy, the patient’s oncologist came down from clinic. He walked in and out of the patient’s room as if there were a revolving door at the entrance. He said to me, “Why is the patient suffering like this?” He said it in a soft, perplexed way. It sounded like a philosophical question.
“I was trying to get a hold of surgery,” I answered.
“He’s dying,” the oncologist said. He ordered five times the usual dose of morphine, and after the patient got the drug, he stopped breathing, forever.
A few weeks later, a banker in his seventies came in with a headache that he knew from the beginning was not good. He was especially tall and a little awkward, and he had a fringe of gray hair. He looked like the sort of person who’d played basketball in high school because of his height but had gone no further in his sports career. That the headache was serious wasn’t evident to me at first.
After ordering a CT scan of his head, I stayed at his bedside a minute with him and his wife. I mentioned that I liked my bank because the tellers were nice. He was keenly interested in what bank it was and what it was about the tellers I liked. Because he had come to the ER during a financial panic, I commented, “People don’t like bankers so much these days.”
“People have never liked bankers,” he said with a smile.
It was the last thing he ever said. His face suddenly took on a dazed expression, and his eyes unfocused, just when the tech arrived to transport him to the CT suite.
“He may be having a stroke,” I said to his wife. “We’ll see what the scan shows and what we can do about it.”
“No, he’s dying,” she said like a teacher gently correcting a middle schooler.
She was right. There’s not much room for the brain in the cranium; otherwise the bone couldn’t serve its evolutionary purpose of protecting it. On this fellow’s scan, I could see a white torrent of blood, and I could see the blood pushing his brain downward against the unyielding tentorial membrane, squeezing his brainstem. The brainstem functions—breathing, temperature control, heartbeat—went out one by one, like the lights of a great city at night.
That evening I turned on the television and by happenstance landed on a PBS program featuring a favorite poet of mine, W. S. Merwin. It was a documentary about Siddhartha Gautama. I was rapt. Gautama had been born in Nepal; a week after he was born, his mother died. In midlife he became concerned with the problem of suffering. No matter what your circumstance, he said, you will end up losing everything you love, but there is joy in the transitoriness of things. Twenty-five hundred years before John Lennon, Siddhartha Gautama imagined there was no heaven and no hell. Twenty-five hundred years before Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust, we are carbon,” Gautama imagined that we are all recycled and therefore that the next person you meet could be the Buddha. Ginny was right. And on account of a TV program, I became a Buddhist.
James Steck practiced and taught emergency medicine for forty years. He is married with two adult children and lives in suburban San Francisco. This essay is one chapter of a memoir of his working life, entitled People Who Are Trying to Die.
“Chromie Thief” by Terrance Manning Jr.
Growing up poor is the subject of our new featured prose selection, Terrance Manning Jr.’s “Chromie Thief,” a nostalgic essay that delves into how we find strength through the things we hold on to. The essay first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of TMR.
Terrance Manning Jr.
We’d only just moved to our new house on Summit Street when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox in the basement—some faded Craftsman box filled with wrenches and crowbars. My brothers and I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theatre: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother Jonny and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”
At the hobby shop on Lincoln Way, she pushed my treasure across the counter. “We found them,” she told the owner, this slinky-looking old man with tiny glasses. “Buried in the attic of our house.” She kept saying “we,” though it was I who had found the coins, which was frustrating. I wanted to speak up, explain to the owner that—of course—I would be the one receiving any payment. But before I could, he slid the book back.
“You got about a buck’s worth, kid. Want the money or the book?”
I chose the book.
On the way home, Mom walked slowly behind, as if more disappointed than I was. I kept fast-walking ahead and having to wait at the corners for her to catch up. Even disappointed, I still felt the excitement of filling the thing, adding to its value, stuffing a coin per year in every pre-cut slot. It was—along with my lucky, quarter-machine rabbit’s foot, my tin-toy Rusty Wallace car, and a yellow marble I’d found by the Monongahela—one of only a few items I kept in a shoebox by my bed. A box of worthless treasure that I was determined to make valuable, despite Mom’s moping.
Though later, as we got used to Dad’s absence, there was a certain lightheartedness about her. She didn’t have a driver’s license or a car; she just liked to walk. She walked all over our neighborhood, across Faucet and Lincoln Way. On sunny days, she’d come home with big overflowing Rite Aid bags weighed down to her knees. Because she, too, loved her things: her lipsticks and perfumes; her blow-dryers and sandy face soaps; her on-sale Point Break VHS and Richard Marx cassettes. She’d play music in the dining room, singing along with Marx and belting “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” so loud you could hear her from the front porch.
At night, she made spaghetti and we ate it for days, until the microwave couldn’t warm it without transforming the noodles into slushy piles of sauce and water. On special occasions, she made us sloppy joes, ham barbeque, macaroni and cheese. She bought groceries from the Schwan’s man—a guy who drove around the neighborhood in a military-looking truck, selling frozen food from side compartments. He’d stop by once a week, knock at the door, and my mother bought something every time—until, eventually, we ran out of money. Then, she’d close the blinds, too embarrassed to turn him away, say, “Shut your mouths,” and we’d hide behind the couch so he’d think no one was home.
I thought everyone ordered from the Schwan’s man. “Got them fish sticks from the Schwan’s man,” I’d tell my friends. “Got some French toast sticks, too!”
“French toast sticks?” they’d laugh.
The last thing left from the freezer was a triple box of frozen garlic bread. Mom called it “ice-box surprise,” and we ate every slice, stuffing more in our mouths before we were finished chewing. I was up all night puking garlic, the smell of it in the snot dripping from my nose, the taste of if it in my mouth for days—cursing my mother.
But she was twenty-nine and separated and single in a new house. On good days, she was energetic, even funny. I just never understood why she slept so much or why one day she’d be smiling, laughing, and the next screaming that we were starving little pigs. I remember how beautiful she looked happy—a transformation. She had the bluest eyes. A smile full of gray teeth from some pills she’d taken as a kid for her heart condition. I wonder now, older than she was then, what she dreamed of, if she imagined a different future or a different reality, one where she was a writer or a poet-millionaire, where she’d gone to college and never married. Though none of those dreams would have distracted her for long, not when money dwindled and food did too, and she was reminded suddenly of her sons—hungry, growing, uncontrollable boys.
She’d retreat into her bedroom, sleeping late with the blinds pulled shut, the only light the glimmering blue of her midafternoon television while she watched soap operas alone under a heat-rimmed blanket. And my brothers and I would crowd the stove, reaching our forks over the flame, burning hotdogs and salami and ham until we’d smoked out the house and eaten all that was left. Then we’d sneak out to find what we could at our friends’ or in the dim, unattended aisles of the Co Go’s or Jimmy Mart.
My brothers and I still shared the street-side bedroom, but we had an open basement and a garage. We cranked Dad’s wrenches to tighten wheels or change bars on our bikes. Then we rode wheelies up and down Summit Street. We built jumps behind St. Angela’s Church, the tanning salon, synagogue, and Taylor Neilson’s front yard. We bought twenty-five-cent donuts from Feig’s Bakery and ate them on the curb out front. It was ’94, when everyone’s biggest joke (or threat) was to “Lorena Bobbitt” you; when everyone, it seemed, rode a GT or a Diamondback; and everyone—really—had suddenly always loved and listened to Nirvana, using Kurt Cobain as a fill-in for those moments when they were feeling these complicated, unexplainable emotions: did-bad-in-school anger, lost-my-dog sadness, or fear of getting old. They’d cast their eyes to the street, assume a certain pensive look, and say, “Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain, man,” an act of which I am, unfortunately, many-times guilty.
My best friend was Dave Sheerer. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and chubby in the cheeks. He was quiet but prone to turning red and screaming, “Fuck you, dude” when pushed too far. I met him after he rode his bike into an open sewer grate. The next day he pedaled back up the street like it hadn’t happened, eleven stitches hanging from his face like a goatee. We were the same age, same grade, and he was, like us, an outcast. Kids called him “Dave Queer” because he was shy and wore glasses and the name rhymed. But after he split his chin, my brothers and I accepted him, told the story over and over, how the skin sagged, how he climbed out and didn’t even cry. Because that was how we measured toughness—if you cried or not.
When we weren’t riding bikes or marching through the woods to swing on the vines behind my mother’s house, I was helping Dave with his paper route. People used to invite us into their homes, offer us sandwiches. They paid Dave with thin envelopes and offers of Pepsi or milk. Here and there, he’d throw me a few bucks for helping out. But the real perk came with the trust of Dave’s customers.
I was happy at Dave’s.
I used to think his family was rich. Not in the size of their house, but in the things they had: two cars, a van, a fully packed refrigerator, snacks in the cabinets; a computer, two La-Z-Boy recliners, televisions in four different rooms; and unlike ours, their walls were decorated with family and school pictures. Anything we’d had hanging on our walls had burned up when the first house burned down. We didn’t have stuff stored in spare rooms, boxes filled with memories. We had a television, a radio; we had a glass-door chest where my mother carefully placed plastic plates; she called it the “china cabinet.”
Stuff, no matter how random, equaled class. I wouldn’t have said that then, or even thought it, but I must’ve felt it—that invisible connection between things and a better life, one with consistency, even happiness. That powerful feeling of claiming: This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.
I remember Dave’s dad had this penny jar at the top of their steps. It was a giant five-gallon jug spilling pennies from the mouth. The thing drove me crazy. I imagined them finding out that I was a coin collector and giving it to me.
“Well, T-bone,” they’d smile, “you’re a collector now. It’s time for you to take this jug and call it your own.”
This was the year my brothers and I, along with our friends from the neighborhood, became enchanted by the mesmerizing power of chromies.
All of us believed that with shiny things came big rewards. Like Vinny G’s thick, silver rope chain slapping off his chest as he boxed with his brother in their front yard, or the twenty-four-inch rims on Henry P’s eighteen-wheeler that he used to let us buff at five dollars apiece, paying always, when we finished, from this thick, unfolding wad of cash. We all wanted wads like that. We wanted chains and bracelets. So we scratched and scrambled for anything with value.
That summer, we were after “chromies”—chrome-plated valve-stem caps for tires.
We didn’t buy them; we “jacked” them; we wore them on our bikes. Some kids wore classic ones—shiny hexagons. Some had polished black aluminum ones. Some had dice or eight-balls or skulls with red-pin eyes. One kid glued nine-millimeter bullet shells over plastic stems and rode around as if untouchable as they flashed and glimmered between his spokes.
Like any collectibles, the more diverse and unique they were, the more valuable. There were brand-name chromies, for instance—Mercedes, BMW, Ford—that came with high trading value. This kid Ryan “the Weirdo” Turner had every set. He kept them in a giant pickle jar to show them off: the silver-winged, the gold-crowned, the half-moons and diamonds. We’d avoided him since the time he pulled his dad’s pistol out and held it to his head threatening to pull the trigger, but all of us knew he’d trade brand names for war chromies—guns, bullets, skulls, and grenades. He was so bent on building a war collection, you could get a couple pair from him for a single set of red-and-silver storm-trooper heads.
But we weren’t satisfied with stem caps. We started snapping hood ornaments, too. Same logic: the shinier, the more unique and expensive, the better. My brother Chris was the first to do it, and we followed in step. We stole them from the vehicles parked up and down our street.
Not every vehicle had them, only nice ones, the occasional Lincoln or Buick. “Dude,” we’d shout, cruising down some street. “Some sick-ass chromies back there.” We’d drop our bikes, sneak up, and take them before anyone could catch us. Then later, we’d sit around my garage comparing, trading, even exchanging them—sometimes—for money or food.
When we stripped all the streets, we moved to parking lots. Small ones in front of Big Ed’s or National City. Then church lots, where there were always nice cars, always a variety of brand names to take. We’d ride in on sunny days and scour the lot for any blinking signal of chrome. When we spotted them, we’d twist them free as church bells rang and the steeple glistened in the midafternoon sunlight, because, like a trip to the Weirdo’s, it was worth it. A few sets of caps might get a buck or two from guys who paid cash—older guys or guys too afraid to walk up and steal shit themselves. Here and there, someone might pay five or ten bucks for a hood ornament—a Pontiac or Mercedes—and that was free dinner.
I used to imagine extending my reach as my collection grew, taking the search into new neighborhoods, making bigger money in bigger cities. Just my brothers and me, “the boys.” Maybe friends we could trust. Chris would be our leader, since he stole without fear or hesitation. We’d become the most powerful chromie thieves in Pittsburgh, rich with every brand and design. People respected stealing because stealing was a kind of control—and we were all seeking that wonderful, maddening feeling of it.
I was so obsessed that one day, standing on the corner of Lincoln and Guise, I watched hungrily as a Corvette slowed for a red light, engine rattling and purring, with (not real) diamond-topped chromies shimmering from its tires.
I couldn’t help myself. I slipped around the back, started stripping them in the street. This old woman behind us started honking, and the Corvette driver opened his door, shouting. But I’d just stripped one cap, and chromies were only valuable in pairs. Nobody wanted one.
I went for the other—nearly had it, too—but the light turned and the driver slammed the gas and drove off, pulling my hand in a snapping turn that flung me off balance, sending me rolling in the road. My arms were brush-burned and bleeding from the tumble, and I yelled, “Fuck you” to the woman as she honked past.
“You all right?” Dave asked as he ran over, laughing.
“I’m fine,” I said. I dusted my knees.
“You got the one,” he said, grabbing my shoulder. But I shuddered him off and whipped the chromie as far as I could throw it.
Dave chuckled and shook his head, the way he always would when he figured whatever he had to say wasn’t worth saying anyway.
“Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain.”
My mother had a hole in her heart, and when she was nine, she’d had open-heart surgery to repair it. After the operation, the doctor told her there was a chance she wouldn’t live past twenty. The way my mother tells it, the doctor was less encouraging, an asshole, had made her cry: he said she’d be lucky to live to twenty. She says in high school, people teased her about the scar the surgery had left. Guys at the bus stop called her “worm chest.” She says my dad came down to the bus stop and beat them up—no words, no shouting. He just started fighting.
The story makes me laugh—picturing Dad in his early twenties, hair still long and black, thin dark mustache, walking to her bus stop, that face he makes when he’s mad.
My mom says, “Your father was crazy—always beating people up. He’s a violent man. He’s an abuser.” In that way they differed. He hardly talked about her. If he did, it was dismissively, some sarcastic comment about stealing his credit cards. But she took every opportunity to trash him. It made us uncomfortable—not the lengthy, teary-eyed proclamations of guilt, but the spotlight she was always shining, illuminating all the worst parts of us. We felt as anyone might feel: embarrassed, angry. Like all she had was the bad; the only memories she kept were her worst.
As a child, she’d had three fathers. All “abusers.” All “animals.” Her own father had been hard to live with. He used to beat her always, and my grandma, too.
Once, he beat Mom so bad she wet her pants. He dragged her up the steps by her hair and threw her in the tub with her clothes on, calling her a dirty pig. She was twelve. I was well into my teens, maybe sixteen, when Mom told me this story, and I felt an overwhelming anger, hate, and helplessness. I told her that if I ever met the guy, I’d punch his throat in, make him shit his pants, calling him a dirty fucking pig the whole time.
She said I was like my father. I told her, “Damn right I am,” but she shook her head. She wasn’t giving me a compliment.
The last year my brothers and I lived with her full-time, I was still a kid; I was eight. We didn’t know about her childhood. We only knew that she was either in the darkness of her room or somewhere alone, and that when it came time to eat and there was nothing in the fridge, she’d get overwhelmed and find reasons to scream or slam her bedroom door, or—early on—shell out half-hearted beatings to try to control us. But they only ever left us laughing.
Then, when we were down to a cabinet full of green beans and tomato sauce, my mother handed us food stamps and sent us to the gas station for frozen dinners and root beer. We loaded bags—filling them with candy, with Butterfingers and peach rings and Skittles—and bowed our heads at the counter as we handed over those big paper ones and fives. Getting outside was a victory, and we swallowed down the candy before we got back home.
I hated those trips. I used to linger around the magazine aisle pretending to read until that perfect time when the store went suddenly empty. I’d slide up to the register, quickly pay, and be out the door.
But one day, Mom gave me a twenty-dollar stamp and sent me for a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. “And bring me all my change,” she said, because we liked to snag a buck or two of the real cash you’d get back.
I waited outside the front doors with my hands in my pockets, whistling. I was waiting for the rush to pass.
When the parking lot was empty, I whipped inside, grabbed the milk, the eggs, a Reese’s cup, and a Coke, but as I darted to the counter, this tiny old lady tied me to it. We shared a glance, one that asked who would get the courtesy of checking out first, but cars were unloading in the parking lot, people already pumping gas, others walking in.
“Sorry,” I said, and pushed my stuff onto the counter.
The clerk wasn’t happy with this choice. He was a tall, skinny man with a fully gray ponytail. He was known for watching kids like a hawk, proclaiming often, “Two students at a time,” as it was printed on the glass. We called him “Ponytail.”
“Ladies first,” he said to me, scolding. He handed back my items. Then, as if to dismiss my childish decision, he said, “Anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she said. “The lottery.”
People spilled into the store as the woman enunciated numbers, slowly. “Seven. Eight. Eight. Four. Five straight. The rest boxed.”
The bell on the door rang, and a girl from my school walked in with her mother. I saw her recognize me. I turned back to the counter. The little old woman had shimmied away, and in her place was Ponytail, glaring.
“Wake up,” he said. “Got a line behind you, Hoss.”
I put the milk and eggs on the counter. He rang them up. I handed him the bill. He stared at it a moment, then he held it above his head, high in the air, and examined it against the light in front of everyone. He shouted into the back room, to a guy reading papers and making marks in a log, “Jim? We give cash back for food stamps?”
“Yeah, Bob,” the guy said without looking. But I suspect Bob knew. He was teaching me a lesson. My body was so stiff, I could hardly collect the change. After that, when I needed something from the store, I didn’t pay for it; I stole it.
Though she’d never admit it, my mom was a thief, too. She wasn’t as blunt or reckless as we were, but she could scheme. Number one on her list of schemes was returning: taking things back after using them halfway.
She was the returning queen—a pair of shoes, a half-melted candle. She always had an explanation: it didn’t fit, or it smelled like shit. She even took lipstick back and claimed she was allergic. Then, when there was nothing left to take back, she bought dollar items with twenty-dollar food stamps and pocketed the cash.
She was brilliant at making small money last, which I didn’t think about then—how we’d be out of food, eating diced tomatoes and garlic bread, and she’d be buying lipsticks and George Michael cassettes. She had to know that my brothers and I were stealing. We’d bring home throwaway cameras or G. I. Joes or cap guns with extra caps. How could we have paid for these? She didn’t ask; she ignored. Chris used to keep cash in his wallet, money he got for chromies or for bike parts from a bike he might have taken, and my mother would sometimes find it on the dresser. She wouldn’t ask questions. Instead, she’d pluck a five from it. If he complained, she’d cry and say we took advantage of her, that she did our laundry and made us vanilla milkshakes and provided a heated house for us to sleep in, and by the way, Your piece-of-shit father hasn’t sent us money.
That was the only argument she needed. We’d go back outside to roam the neighborhood, and she’d go back to her bedroom with impunity, because, I think, we must’ve thought she understood what it meant to take, since so much had been taken from her. Besides, the more my mother ignored, the less she tried to control us, and were free because of it. Though I would’ve taken the warm bedrooms, video-game dens, and family dinners of my friends over the kind of freedom my brothers and I shared.
Over time, we kept getting into trouble, kept stealing. We were the first to be blamed for every crime in the neighborhood. A porch set fire, a house egged, a tire slashed, a windshield bricked, and the police showed up on Mom’s doorstep. She’d apologize. Then, later, she’d chase us through the house calling us “rotten,” screaming that we’d end up in prison. She’d break us off, catching us in a corner with a wooden spoon, a book. If it hurt, we refused to cry. Though mostly we laughed, like the time she chased Jonny through the house smacking his naked, pre-bath body with a belt, leaving welts all over him, and Chris and I laughed so hard it hurt, even when she started whipping us, too.
I don’t remember what was funny, except that Dad’s beatings were worse—a fist, a steel-toed boot. Maybe that’s why we laughed, like there was something funny in the difference, the innocence of my mom’s punishments compared to the brutality of my dad’s.
But there was resentment, too—growing since Dad had left. Mom didn’t work; she “rested.” She said Dad wouldn’t pay child support. He said he paid every month, that she was spending it on herself. She called him a deadbeat, a drunk. He called her lazy, a victim. She’d say he was lying, that he’d beaten her, was a monster. He’d tell us she’d taken money from him, called his work to threaten him; she was a schemer, a thief.
It wasn’t easy choosing which one to trust. It was easier to react, and we reacted to the shift in power at Mom’s.
Chris was the first to harden, to become bold. He was only nine when he started smoking weed, breaking into places, vandalizing. When confronted, he was vicious. He’d tell Mom to leave him the fuck alone, and though I wanted him to shut up, he was our leader. Jonny and I backed him. Mom’s innocent beatings started losing innocence. She’d use anything in reach to hit with, screaming so loud we couldn’t hear each other laughing anymore.
We didn’t know a family night, or domestic games, or dinners and prayers and smiles at the kitchen table like at Dave’s. We knew Mom’s bad days, her screaming, her blaming us for being like our father. We rarely saw her leave her room. Between Mom and Chris, the choice was easy. Chris took care of us. He stole sandwiches from the deli. He went out on his bike and came back with beef jerky and Pepsi. He stuck up for us. He fought for and protected us. Like those nights Dad used to come home smelling like whiskey and ground steel beneath his welding coat. He might wake us up and make us march into the kitchen, make us call him sir, stand about-face against the wall. Or he might play Mellencamp and Springsteen and lift us up to dance while he slurred the words to “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “Born to Run” and Mom shouted over the music to turn it down, to let us sleep, that he was drunk. But as the music switched, his mood tended to switch with it. When that happened, it was Chris who stole us away to our room and locked the door, so we could lie in bed and pretend to sleep, no matter how late the music blared in the kitchen.
Now, on Summit, Mom treated us like enemies—as if we were the dark, grizzly shadows of our dad, left behind to torture her, to taunt and remind her of a life she didn’t or couldn’t have.
“Your father is a violent man,” she was always saying.
She held—like no one I’ve ever known—deep, scarred grudges. I could hear it in her voice when she spoke to us. It was the darkness she returned to, in her bedroom, in her heart, where she was a woman filled with hatred and regret. Maybe there, she felt alive, even powerful in her anger. Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she thought that if she hid away and slept, her life might be different when she woke.
By the end of summer, my shoebox overflowed with chromies and hood ornaments. I’d lock my bedroom door and dump it on the floor. I’d spread everything out neatly, looking over it, counting, logging. I had skulls and crosses, chrome and gold. I had arrowheads, spades, and bullets. A hundred hexagons, fifty rounds. I had ornaments wrapped in bandannas: jaguars, eagles, a Mercedes three-point star. Wrapped carefully in a white bandanna was a chrome angel with thin, sleek wings and a spine arched as if melting in the wind—my prized piece.
I’d open the blinds and let sunlight pour over everything, walking slowly around as it glimmered there.
I had my pennies—as many years as I’d pulled from wallet change or the give-a-penny at the BP. I had a 1909 VDB and an 1857 eagle’s head, rarer and more valuable than the others. I had all I’d taken from Dave’s customers (except the candy): fluffy pens, staplers, paperweights, and glass figurines. I still had the porcelain baby’s head, my favorite, with its tiny, pinpoint eyes and grinning lips.
I could stay for hours, drunk on value as I ran my fingers over all I’d collected, all I’d stolen. All mine. All me. All glowing in the middle of the floor, as if I’d opened up my chest and let my chromie soul melt onto the hardwood.
Down the hall, Mom’s television would play softly through the walls, a murmur. The muffled sound of soap-opera voices. Or a movie. Or, sometimes, only music—the sound of Restless Heart spilling through the house as I examined my treasure.
When autumn came, it stripped the neighborhood to a bare, windblown brown. It was chilly. The vines behind the house swung into the air and back again, as if the ghosts of ourselves were swinging without us.
I fist-fought Dave after school one day for a reason I don’t remember. He’d made fun of me or challenged me or wouldn’t let me come over for dinner—and we fought. I choked him. He pulled my hair. Neither of us wanted to punch, so we didn’t. I just called him a pussy and he turned red and told me “Fuck you,” before he stormed up Faucet Street.
At home, my brothers and I were in trouble. Chris had stayed home from school again. Jonny was mouthing off. I was leaving things around the house. Mom was tired, she told us, had a headache, and wasn’t in the mood for bullshit. No dinner. Get the fuck to bed. So we marched to our room.
“Can’t wait to live with Daddy,” Chris said loud enough for her to hear. “Least he feeds us there.” Then he threw his fist to his lips, smiling.
“Debbie cooks,” I said, because this is what we did. Partly to test my mom. Partly to pretend, among each other, that we didn’t care. I knew that mentioning Dad’s girlfriend, overtly comparing the two, might change our circumstances.
Mom hated Debbie. She hated her so much, in fact, that she refused to call our pajamas “pj’s” (which is what Debbie called them), and insisted on “jammies,” despite how ridiculous it sounded. Sometimes when we talked about Debbie, Mom attempted to be better, nicer, in a kind of competition.
“Wish we lived with Debbie,” I said. Those walls were paper thin.
We lay around making fart noises under our armpits, laughing, shelling out comments to the walls, until, finally, Mom burst into the bedroom with a belt and started whipping us with it, shouting again to go to sleep.
When we finally turned out the lights and Mom left, slamming the door, we lay in the darkness, breathing heavily.
It was impossible not to laugh.
Jonny farted, and we lost it again. I fell off the bed with a thump, holding my stomach. I don’t even know what was funny. But we were boys, each a year apart and hungry and used to sleepless nights.
When Mom came back in, she charged at Chris, who until then had been making more comments than any of us. She grabbed him by his hair and dragged him into the hall, smacking him in the mouth.
At first we laughed at him, but she wasn’t easing up. Jonny and I followed them out. We called lightly for her to stop, to let him go.
Chris had this long, dark hair that fell equally down the sides of his head into an early ’90s bowl cut. He used to stand in front of the mirror for so long soaking it with hairspray and mousse, combing it into perfect swoops in the front. In the hall now, my mother had handfuls of it. Her face was a terrible, screaming red. She smacked ceaselessly at him. Jonny and I pulled her wrists, tried peeling her fingers from his hair.
“Let him go,” we said, shoving. But she was strong—much stronger than we’d ever known her to be.
At the old house, she hadn’t punished us; my father did. When he came home, she’d tell on us for mouthing off or leaving the yard or breaking a dish, and he’d pull out a paddle, line us up in the kitchen, and beat us individually while she begged him, eventually, to stop. But Summit Street was a training period for my mother. She had figured out, I think, that we responded to pain—and it had to hurt. Unlike my father, she hadn’t learned to stop.
Jonny punched her first. He was seven. He hit her in the stomach. I shoved her. Chris stood up. She kept his hair but grabbed me, too. She threw her weight into me, smashing my head and shoulder through the hallway wall, stunning me. She dragged Chris through the living room to the front door and pushed him onto the porch.
“Stay the fuck outside,” she screamed.
She jammed the ironing board between the handle and the baseboard, told Jonny and me that she’d call the cops and have him arrested if we let him in. She said they’d come and take him away; we’d never see him again. She said to shut our fucking mouths. This time we listened. This time we went to bed. This time, we lay quietly in the dark.
That night, Chris slept on the front porch. It was cold, and he didn’t have anywhere to go, so he curled up inside his shirt and slept with his head on the stoop.
In the bedroom, I ached to go outside. My face was scratched; it burned a little where it was cut. I stared out the window, where streetlight shadows played off the side of the neighbors’ house. I kept looking for Chris, waiting for him to run down on the road and goof around or flip us the finger, but he never came. I could hear Jonny breathing in the dark. I knew he was awake, too, by the way he breathed, but neither of us was willing to make a sound.
I could’ve opened the bedroom window and called for Chris, but I was too scared that he’d be taken away. So I lay instead, imagining Chris outside—a rock—and feeling sad for him.
I tried thinking good things: of eating a giant bowl of pasta or ice cream; of rollerblading down Henderson Street or riding bikes behind the church; of Chris and his old guitar; how he’d gone to a few lessons, had learned some chords, how he stood on my uncle’s table once, in front of my family, and sang all of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and everyone clapped and cheered. When he finished, he smiled for them.
I remembered how, at night, Chris would strum the guitar to make Jonny and me jealous. We’d ask to play and he’d say no. Until, one night, Jonny tried grabbing at it and Chris knocked him over the head with it. It wasn’t even hard, a thump. But Jonny started crying. So Dad came in, took the guitar outside, and smashed it to pieces against a porch post.
I can see it still, the look on Chris’s face when he heard the guitar rattle and break outside the window.
Dad dragged the broken neck of the thing into the kitchen, whipped it against the wall, called us ungrateful assholes, and dealt his beatings. Mom begged him to settle down, but when Dad drank, he was either the most passionate man, whiskey-voiced and full of brokenhearted love, proclaiming always his deep loyalty and debt to us—“I love you boys,” he’d say. “My sons. I’d die for you”—or he was angry, with a darkness covering him, and he’d become a different man.
Mom taunted him the night he busted up the guitar, called him “Tough Guy” to draw him from us. She challenged him, pushed him. Then he smacked her. And she ran from him. And he chased her down the hall, punching her in the back.
My brothers and I lined up in the kitchen—about-face—the way Dad preferred, to show him that we had surrendered, that he had nothing to prove; we feared him.
The night Chris slept on the porch, I imagined him strumming his guitar again, singing Garth Brooks the way he used to sing it—reluctant and willing all at once, voice cracking at the end of the lines. It’s one of a few peaceful images I still have of him. I wanted so badly to be bigger then, to give him that at least—my braver self—and walk into the living room and open the door. But he didn’t need it. He understood having things taken from him. Besides, Mom didn’t hold anger the way Dad did. She fizzled out, felt sorry. I expected her to fold that night and let Chris in. But she didn’t.
I had underestimated her; we all had.
My only offer to my brother was to stay awake all night for him. I could rescue him that way. I imagined running away, emptying my treasure box, my coins and chromies and marbles and G. I. Joes, and selling it all for a hundred bucks. My brothers and I could live on our own, be chromie kings. We’d twist and snap every blinking speck of chrome from everywhere we went. We’d become rich. Maybe even famous—or feared. We’d be powerful then.
But at some point in the night, the quiet black sky turned to blue, only slightly, and I fell asleep. In the morning, Chris was gone. At first light, he’d walked a few blocks to a friend’s house and called my dad to come and get him.
After that, despite months of arguments, court battles, and the Allegheny Family Division maintaining Mom’s custody, all three of us went to live with Dad in Bethel Park.
We never became chromie kings, as I had wished for that night, but we continued to steal chromies from every back alley and driveway of the neighborhood until the summer ended and we went back to school, or eventually lost interest.
How could I let go? These things that meant so much. That I worked so hard to take. These small pieces of those older than me, those wealthier, those happier, those who had enough that they didn’t have to take from others. Those flickering, sharp-edged chromies that I chased down the street as I would a dream. That I chased as if to steal a better version of myself. Things that—as the good always did—ran forever from me, back to a nicer neighborhood with nicer people living a nicer life. A place I didn’t know how to get to, other than try and steal it.
Chromie thief: desperate and chasing.
My mother, too. Woman lost. Woman on her own and living with rage and haunted by her memories. I won’t say that we were too young or that she was struggling with depression, because it’s more than that. I realize now that I don’t know her. Not then. Not ever. She’s become a mother in glimpses: her dark hair piled in a bun; her face smiling. Her striking, sad blue eyes. On sunny days, walking back from the store, shifting grocery bags between her hands. Trying to cook and failing. Singing Marx in the kitchen. And I feel sorry for her. I wonder what she thought of us then. That we’d stolen from her? That we’d given? We could be beasts—starving, angry, and wishing we were better than we were.
I regret that.
But maybe everyone should be allowed to cling to those things that strengthen them—even if it hurts, or makes them worse. At least, for a moment, they can pretend to have fixed themselves.
Even now, when I pass a car in a parking lot or a church or walking into the bank, I glance down at the tires and look for chromies. I don’t even know why, or what I’d do with them. It’s a habit, a reflex, my eyes always seeking that flutter of light from something small and fleeting. Or maybe I’m waiting to kneel down on the road, knees bending in the sunlight, to strip away all the chromie caps from all the black tires, so I might breathe again that stagnant air—the same brutal smell it’s been for twenty years.
Meet the Author
This essay was the first thing I wrote out of graduate school, without the trusted eyes of an MFA workshop or thesis advisor—which was both frightening and freeing.
Originally, I had this memory of chromies, of stealing and collecting them as a kid, that I’d been playing with, trying to figure out why it had stuck with me so long. As I was writing into it, reliving the sight of a pair of chromies or their smell or the feeling of them in my hands, I found myself interested in the value we assign things, especially insignificant things, and the way that empowers us. Mostly, I wanted to know why. I knew I wouldn’t stop until I answered that question or at least came close to it. What I didn’t know was that this essay would become my mother’s as much as my own. Or that I’d save the document as “Mom’s Chap” for a year before finding a title that represents us both, for different reasons.
I still don’t know, fully, what this essay is about. Maybe dreams, or pain, or disappointment. Maybe it’s about escaping. But it’s also about holding on to things—whether valve stem caps or memories—to try and find strength from them. It’s also about my mother, who, despite our differences, was tougher and more complicated than I ever gave her credit for. I hope others can find connection here, a little bit of his or her own story. I’m just happy that someone (other than my wife) actually read this and enjoyed it. And I’m happy, now, to let it go.
Terrance Manning, Jr. is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in creative writing. Recent work has won the Narrative Spring Story Contest, the Iowa Review Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction. Other work has appeared in Witness, Boulevard, Southwest Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and the Normal School, among other magazines, and his fiction and nonfiction have received special mentions in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Mythopoesis” by Daniel Vollaro
BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Our latest selection is Daniel Vollaro’s poetic memoir about the myths that form our identities and worldviews.
Let me tell you about the time I heard the sound of drumming coming from a hole in the ice.
It begins on the cove at Spruce Run Reservoir, on one of those glorious Saturday mornings in December when the air crackles with cold and the entire world feels as if it will shatter with one sturdy kick. We are moving on the ice, little bundles of momentum in secondhand down jackets and twice-patched snow pants and black gloves and hats knitted by our mothers and grandmothers, circling and figure-eighting in an awkward ballet that moves to the scraping of metal blades and the slapping of our hockey sticks on hard ice.
This is hockey in the cove, without a new pair of skates or a proper ice hockey stick between us. The puck is the only regulation item on the ice (someone’s brother’s best friend supplied it). The rest is hastily dragged out of closets and garages and thrown together to resemble, more or less, the hockey players we have seen on television. This is the era of Bobby Orr, the Esposito Brothers, and Wayne Gretzky. We play with football jerseys and plastic street hockey sticks. The goalie is wearing his gold Pop Warner football helmet. I am skating with my mother’s speed skates. The blades are twice as long as those of regulation hockey skates, and because of this, I cannot turn quickly, so I am always bumping into other boys or skating out of bounds. The big sports in our town are wrestling and football. Most of our families are too poor for hockey, not like the kids from Tewksbury and Cranford, whose parents can afford to spend hundreds of dollars for proper equipment and ice time. No, we are woeful amateurs, laughing at our half-assed skating and hacking our way around the ice and calling out lines from the movie Slapshot, which just came out this year.
“Yeah, sure, old-time hockey.”
“I’m puttin’ on the foil.”
“Iron League, baby. Iron League.”
“You can’t put a bounty on a man.”
“I just did.”
The reservoir is frozen solid from one end to the other, and we are skating in the tiny cove nearest to our housing development, just a five-minute walk away. We all know that the Indians are down there, twice buried, along with the farmhouses and the ancient oak trees and the old ironworks from the Revolutionary War and the body of the woman who chose to drown rather than abandon her home when the waters filled the valley.
We move like kids who only lace up their skates once or twice a year, legs splayed out, bent over at the waist, teetering and crashing into one another, falling on our asses and skidding across the ice. Our sticks are thrust out in front as we move, sweeping and stabbing after the puck, which slides languidly through and in front of us, as if it is moving in an entirely different dimension, completely disconnected from the game we are playing.
The game is barely a game. I am in it, but I do not know the score. I don’t even know all the kids on the ice or how many players are supposed to be on a regulation hockey team. From my vantage, barely able to keep upright, the ice is a chaotic battlefield with boys whizzing past me, shouting and war-whooping, while others lie splayed flat or are on their knees, laughing and gasping for breath.
Out of this pandemonium, someone connects with the puck and sends it sailing toward the goal nearest to the lake end of the cove. The puck appears to be rocketing toward the goal, which is undefended at the moment, but at the last second, it curves and misses, sailing out to the middle of the reservoir in a straight line.
I am nearest, so I skate after it. As soon as I leave the pack, my ankles straighten and my legs cease their wobbling. This is much better, I am thinking. My skates are designed to go fast in long stretches, and I feel the speed building in my legs.
The puck is still moving unimpeded toward the other side of the reservoir.
“Hey, the ice cracks out there,” I hear a shout from behind me. Then laughter. I glance down at the solid, rock-hard sheet of ice beneath me, at least six inches thick, probably thicker. They’re just messing with you, I think. No turning back now.
The puck keeps going.
I am farther out from the shore than any of us has gone yet this year. We are afraid to venture behind the familiarity of the shallow cove, afraid of the holes hollowed out by hot springs and the possibility of one of us falling through a patch of soft ice.
I feel a new chill coming off the ice.
The puck slows ahead, and I am finally gaining on it when I spot the first crack—a hair-thin line that slices down through the ice. It is subtle, almost invisible, but definitely there, and it runs deep.
The puck finally stops, and I catch up with it. I turn, swing my stick back with both hands, and take a hard swipe at the black disc, sending it rocketing back to the pack of waiting boys.
I can hear it then, a low rumble behind me, from somewhere in the general vicinity of the reservoir’s center. The sound is coming from far off, but it appears to echo against the low hills surrounding the reservoir and then boomerang back in my direction. The rumbling ceases suddenly and is immediately followed by a sound like wind blowing over a taut wire—the unmistakable song of cracking ice.
When I turn to gaze back in the direction of this sound, I see it for the first time—a column of white smoke dancing on the frozen lake. The column is spectral and wavy, but it stays fixed to the same spot in the ice.
I hear the rumbling again.
I am dashing back to the safety of the cove, moving as fast as my skates will carry me.
* * *
More boys arrive, and the game finally loses whatever thread of order was preventing it from descending into an all-out brawl. Some of the kids from over near Demott’s Pond think hockey is the Hanson brothers, sticks swinging and chopping at anything that moves. It is getting ridiculous.
At some point, Danny and I peel off and head toward the column of steam rising from the middle of the lake.
“We could skate all the way across,” I suggest.
“That’s not a good idea,” Danny says.
Danny is brave and tough—everyone knows this—but he is cautious too. His dad is a town councilman, and Danny is always reminding us of this fact, as if to say, “If I get in trouble, my dad will be in trouble too.”
We leave our skates behind, stashed in a hollowed-out tree trunk. We don’t trust the boys from Demott’s Pond. Skating beyond the cove is not an option because patches of snow are glued to the surface of the ice. Also, there are ripples frozen into the ice, tiny wavelets caught in midmotion when the reservoir congealed from a liquid into a solid. There are cracks, too, bigger than the one I saw earlier. Some of them are the width of a finger or a golf ball, each filled up with packed snow.
We walk. Each step is careful. It is Danny’s idea for us to space ourselves out on the ice. If we walk close together, he says, that might put too much pressure on one spot.
“It’s still thick out here,” I say.
We’re looking down as we walk, especially in the patches of clear ice. We are plumbing the dark blue depths for signs that the ice has thinned out beneath our feet. The ice is opaque, mercurial, full of whitish grains and tiny bubbles and hairline fractures. There is a dark body of water down there somewhere, but we cannot tell how far beneath our feet it begins.
The temperature is dropping, and the wind is picking up, piercing through the gaps in our winter coats, little daggers that stab at our pink skin underneath. I can feel my earlobes beginning to numb, and the tips of my toes.
We push on.
Danny knows about the reservoir. His father has told him things, or so he says.
“There are hot springs down there,” he says. “Down near where the Indian burial mounds are.”
We never tire of telling the story of the Indian burial mounds. They are in a secret place in the valley beneath our feet, a hidden grotto located in a clearing with big stones marking each of the four directions. For two hundred years, the grotto was watched over by a Delaware Indian family that had refused to move west with the other New Jersey tribes in the late eighteenth century. They stayed behind in the valley, vowing to protect their ancestors’ bones forever. Over the subsequent generations, this family became Westernized. They ceased dressing and speaking like Indians. They cut their hair short. They joined churches and lost the feel and heft of their native traditions. They blended in. They assimilated, but never so much that they forgot who they were and why they lived in that valley.
We first heard this story from the older boys in our neighborhood. There was no origin for this myth, no author. We simply accepted it as an article of faith.
Now those burial mounds lie under the deepest waters of Spruce Run Reservoir, and the last member of that Indian family who refused to move away sometimes returns to the shore to stare in the direction of that burial ground. He lives in an old trailer in Glen Gardener, on a hill with a view of the reservoir from his front porch.
“I don’t believe that story,” Danny says.
“Believe what you want,” I say. “It’s true.”
The wind picks up again, fiercer than before, lifting snow off the ice and pushing it across the surface in an ankle-high sheet like a layer of fast-moving sand particles. Some of the snow swirls up into a funnel that dances across the flat horizon like dust devils in the desert. Is this what I saw before, a snow devil? The wind dies down, and the funnel evaporates.
“We’re lost,” Danny shouts over the wind.
“No way,” I shout back.
“Where are we going?” Danny asks.
I don’t say it, but we are following a mirage.
* * *
Even as the wind is howling around us, I am thinking about Indians. They are never far from my mind, having long ago entered my personal pantheon of heroism, alongside Bruce Lee, General Patton, John Wayne, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. We play Indians easily, as if the role was scripted long before we were born, a mash-up of warrior-shamans from the Sioux, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, and Apache tribes who wear feathered headdresses and ride horses across the plains in a never-ending Hollywood fantasy reel. New Jersey was the home of the Leni Lenapi and the Delaware and the Powhatan Renape Nations, but they were long ago pushed out and eventually forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. There are no reservations or Indian kids with long black ponytails pumping gas at the local Citco station. There are no souvenir shops. There are only rumors and whispers of their long-ago passing—stories about trails turned to colonial roads turned to highways; that inexplicable pile of moss-covered stones in the woods; the never-ending search for arrowheads (though I have yet to find one); the persistent lore of ruins and burial sites now covered over by the murky, impenetrable waters of a man-made lake.
And there are the places with Indian names, so numerous that we have made a game of remembering them. Danny and I play it. One of us will pick a letter—H, for example—and then try to name all the New Jersey places with Indian names.
“Hackensack,” I say.
“Hoboken,” Danny sings out.
“Hopatcong,” I offer.
“Ho-Ho-Kus,” we both say together, belly laughing because we love the way it sounds.
“Psych,” he says, pushing me.
“No way, I said it first.”
“Hockhockson,” Danny says.
“No way, that’s not a real place.”
“Is too. It’s a swamp.”
“Swamps don’t count. It’s only towns and cities.”
Spruce Run Reservoir was made in the year of my birth, 1964, by building a nearly hundred-foot earthen dam and then flooding the valley behind it with over ten billion gallons of water. This man-made lake was waiting for me when I arrived in Clinton two years later, just a ten-minute walk from my house (Later, I would learn that the reservoir was created as a hedge against drought and to provide an always reliable source of water to northern New Jersey). I was mesmerized by the scale of it. The dam towered over the northwestern corner of my hometown, looming up behind the Little League field like a giant tidal wave that had been frozen and fossilized at the precise moment it was about to crash down on the town. I sometimes stand in the outfield and gaze upon this dam, contemplating the biblical enormity of deluge, the possibility, however remote, that this massive earthen wall will suddenly break, drowning all of us.
The reservoir envelops my life, strange and terrible, as if I live within walking distance of an outsized footprint left by the gods. It is always there, as water is to all life, running through me.
We were instantly drawn to it, in the way that water always attracts people. We would walk the five minutes from our front porch to the water’s edge, through the neighborhood and down the gentle slope of Union Road to where it bends through a stand of trees and then disappears abruptly into the mossy brown waters of Spruce Run. Where, I often wondered, does that road lead?
As a boy of five or six, I traveled there often with my father.
“If you follow the road underwater,” he grinned, “you will come out on the other side.”
I tried to imagine what lay down there. Closing my eyes, I let my imagination step forward into the cool water and slowly, one careful step at a time, continued to walk on Union Road. Soon the water was at my waist, then my chest, then swallowing me whole, head and all. The water was unclear, with a greenish hue, but my the eyes of my imagination soon adjusted to the dark, and I saw that I was descending into a valley. There were full trees down here, with green leaves still attached to branches and dangling like stoic tropical fish in the fading light. I passed streetlights and abandoned cars, with fish swimming peaceably through the open windows. And when I finally reached the bottom, I stood on a street very much like the one I lived on, except for the crushing silence. There were no children down here, or birds, or even the sound of a plane passing overhead, only empty houses and a yawning loneliness that frightened me so much I opened my eyes with a gasp and squeezed my father’s hand to make certain I was standing on dry land.
From my first memories, the reservoir was always there—a quiet, gloomy deep from which, somewhat perversely, my first thoughts about the natural world took form. Spruce Run was alive with its own unnatural rhythms. Most winters, it would freeze, which seemed perfectly in keeping with the behavior of any other lake in the Northeast, but in the spring and summer, the Water Authority would deliberately siphon off water, which caused the shoreline to recede. These man-made droughts were not predictable; they could come at any time and might last weeks or even months before the water table would suddenly rise back to normal levels. The water level would sometimes drop as much as twenty feet, exposing a ring of previously submerged mud along the shoreline that baked hard and dry in the sun within just a few days. The reservoir was only about ten years old, and there were old things still visible in that layer of mud—a wine bottle, full and still corked; boots; toppled tree trunks; truck tires; the foundation of a house with half of a brick chimney still standing. The surface of this new shoreline would crack and flake like peeling skin, and if the drought lasted long enough, blades of grass and fingers of skunkweed began to poke through these tiny fissures in a hopeful grab for sunlight. A drought could last one week or half the summer, but at the end of an especially long one, the newly exposed shoreline would be covered by a carpet of green that was indistinguishable from the old shoreline.
During these droughts, I would sometimes wander the shoreline looking for the Indian burial ground. I didn’t know what to look for. I picked through the blades of new grass, searching for arrowheads, and although I never found anything remotely Indian in these excursions, I never lost faith.
* * *
We stumble on the hole by accident, just as we are huddling to decide whether or not to keep looking. Danny sees it out of the corner of his eye when the wind dies down for a moment. The spectral white column has reappeared over the ice, this time very close. Just twenty feet away.
“Over there,” he points.
The hole is not big, perhaps four feet across. Its edges are ragged, and the ice around it has thinned out. We can see air bubbles trapped underneath, just a few inches below the surface. Tendrils of steam dance on the water’s surface.
We edge closer to the hole, one tentative step at a time.
We hear it then, a cracking sound from far off, carried in the wind, and then from a closer position, a deep rumbling that increases in its pace and frequency until it becomes a steady rhythm.
Maybe it isn’t drumming that I hear (and speaking as an adult who has subsequently known Indians and visited reservations and heard the sounds of chanting, tremulous and trance-inducing as they float up from the steady beat of the hand drum, I am now certain that it could not have been drumming). As we stand near the edge of that hole, peering down into its deep, wet blackness, I can feel the collective mystery and terror of that reservoir staring back at me through this single unblinking eye. The dark power of ancient death radiates up from beneath our feet, and it seems to me in this moment that I can gaze through the iris of history itself, into the three centuries of Euro-American farmers who lived and died in that valley and the eons of native peoples who came before them, and somewhere, floating inside this steaming black vortex, my own story, an infinitesimal speck—a birth certificate from Kingston, Rhode Island, with my name in those raised letters that feel like braille, a ship’s manifest for a transAtlantic passage from Italy in 1900, and, further back still, a cavalry sword and a few stories about a Union soldier whose horse was shot out from under him once and who twice homesteaded in North Dakota after the Civil War ended.
Today, if you ask me simply, where did you come from—and if I could somehow, for an instant, untangle myself from society’s expectations of how I should answer that question, free myself from the stultifying logic of genealogy and culture and race, names on a family tree that trace the chain of begetting fanning out behind my name into the anonymous oblivion of Scotland and England and Naples—if I could speak of myself in mythopoetic terms—I would say that I was born from that reservoir. I rose up out of those still, murky waters, then stood on two unsteady legs and walked upright on land for the first time.
Daniel Vollaro is writer from northwestern New Jersey who now lives and works in the Atlanta Metro area. His essays have been recently published in Adbusters, Boomer Café, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Rise Up Review, and the Smart Set. His fiction has been published recently in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Thrice Fiction. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he teaches writing courses. Read more of his work at danvollaro.com.
An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
“A Shapeless Thief” by Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy’s debut memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, about mental illness and her family, was published by Penguin/Random House in May, 2019. “A Shapeless Thief,” which is taken from the memoir, first appeared in TMR 37:2. The essay was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015.
A Shapeless Thief
By Marin Sardy
My mother knows the earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates, and that these plates move hundreds of miles with ease. They arrange and rearrange themselves, very quickly sometimes, creating natural phenomena when they shift. There is one place, the Shear, where the plates have fallen away, leaving a bare, scraped expanse extending for hundreds of miles. In another place, near Monterey, California, a plate dropping into the ocean has created a series of horizontal shelves at the continent’s underwater edge. On one of these, she says, a city thrives beneath the waves.
Sometimes plates duplicate themselves or multiply, resulting in two or more that are nearly identical and seem to contain the same location. For this reason, she says, it’s important to pay attention to details when you travel, to make sure you stay on the right plate—in the correct Roswell; in the Anchorage where you grew up. Each Roswell, each Anchorage, is a distinct colony. And if you accidentally end up in the wrong colony, you won’t find the people you know, because they’re not there. This is why flying is tricky. You go up in the air, and when you come down, there’s no real way of knowing if you’ve landed on the right plate or another by the same name. You fly to Santa Fe to see your sister, but when you go looking for her, you may not be able to find her.
So check the sky. See if it looks different today. Strange. See if it looks like a different sky than the sky you remember seeing over Santa Fe. And if you go to your sister’s house and she’s not there, look at the pillows. They might be the wrong color. These are the little things that help us know where we are.
In bits and pieces over many years, my mother has described to me this earth, the one she inhabits, expansively elaborating on the details of plates and colonies, as well as the Assay, a natural force that continually sorts us according to where we belong. It’s more than a single fantasy. It’s a whole system of rules and perceptions that constitute an alternate world—a foundational delusion that emerged slowly in her mind when I was in high school and developed into a full-scale paracosm by the time I finished college.
I’ve been told that when I was very young and my mother was still sane, she sometimes spoke of the universe as existing in two streams. First Stream was our tangible, everyday reality. Second Stream was a separate, inner place, the realm of the imagination and spirit. Then the boundary between realities became so porous that she lost track of the differences between imagery, metaphor and physical fact. The two streams ran together.
Now she doesn’t bother to explain much, because she knows I understand the basics. She’ll bring up the topic only if there are new developments, usually as a prelude to offering important advice: “Stay away from California for a little while.” Or, “Make sure you have plenty of gas!” This isn’t overprotectiveness on her part; it’s reasonable concern. Her world is one that is capable of shifting beneath her feet. The houses she has lived in, the cities they were built in, the very rock they stand on—all can be yanked out from under her.
This may explain why she moves regularly through several states, never living in the same place for longer than a year but instead looping back to visit the same spots again and again. She never flies anymore. She’ll take the train from New Mexico to Monterey. She’ll work her way by bus up to Bellingham and maybe take the ferry to Anchorage, sleeping in hostels and befriending the twenty-somethings she meets there. Sometimes she gives me a name and a number. “Hang on to that,” she says. “If you find yourself in a bad situation, this is someone you can contact for help.” Or: “Remember this name. If you meet someone by this name, you could take her home and give her a place to sleep for the night. She might become your roommate!”
My mother’s travel habit began in the grip of her descent into psychosis, twenty-seven years ago, when she was nearly forty and I was eleven. She spun into a manic six-month round-the-world romp that stretched from Hawaii to North Africa to Australia and then returned periodically to many of those places over the next several years. This was spurred by a belief that someone was after her, and it may have started because my grandparents were trying to have her hospitalized. After a few months in and out of clinics in Alaska, she went along with their plan to try one in Dallas. There the effort reached an unexpected climax when she bolted across a parking lot, jumped into a cab, and disappeared into the night. She resurfaced with a phone call, two weeks later, from the other side of the world.
I was offered few explanations for my mother’s behavior beyond being told by my father that she was “ill” and it was not her fault. At some point the word “schizophrenia” reached my ears, but it meant little to me. In place of understanding I took hold of the tokens of my mother’s travels, as if they were crumbs forming a trail I could follow to this new place inside her. Whenever she returned from a trip, she would bring back such wonders for my sisters and brother and me to pore over—embroidered housedress-like garments from Tangiers; all kinds of currencies. The Australian coins were our favorites: kangaroo, platypus. Once, my older sister organized the coins into a booklet and labeled them. Although we were savvy enough to sort out where the various European currencies came from, there were a number whose origins we couldn’t decipher from the script. My sister labeled those “Arabic Nation.” We asked our mother, but she didn’t know. She had gone missing in more ways than one.
To this day, my mother has never accepted the idea that she has a mental illness, and she has never taken medication for it. She has not been specifically diagnosed with schizophrenia, either, but she knows it is what people say about her. At least two doctors have said they believe she has some form of it. And it runs in our family—my brother began to show similar symptoms about a decade ago and eventually received the same diagnosis. (He, too, resisted the idea and ultimately abandoned treatment.) But official diagnosis for my mother would require a doctor’s observation that her symptoms have lasted longer than one month, and none have examined her repeatedly over such a period of time. For nearly a quarter century, she wouldn’t allow any doctor to examine her at all. My sisters and I, on the other hand, have observed that her symptoms have lasted for twenty-seven years.
Even as a child, the word schizophrenia struck me with its frightening poetry. Its exotic and convoluted array of letters captured the sense I had of the illness—confusing and bizarre, mysterious, infamously inscrutable. During the first few years of my mother’s illness, I witnessed what I can only describe as a disintegration. She went from leading a healthy, engaged life to being a mistrustful recluse who lived off cigarettes and screwdrivers. For a while she nearly imprisoned us in our own house, barring the door with heavy pieces of furniture and having lengths of wood fit to the windows so they could not be slid open. She was so afraid of assassins that her fear seeped into me, too. I did as she asked for a long time. After a while, though, I rebelled, and eventually I just gave up, choosing instead to detach myself by playing video games all afternoon while she fitted the TV antennae with balls of foil or simply sat very still for hours on end.
I rarely found words for what I saw my mother do, what I heard her say, so her illness seemed always to live in the shadows. In the closet, under the bed. As a child I felt schizophrenia to be a dark, shapeless thief. What other image could fit what I had seen? How does a child articulate the absence of what is necessary? The absence of sanity. The absence of the mother I had known. To my eye it appeared that, more than anything, she had been stolen.
Now, grown and far more educated, I feel nearly the same. Schizophrenia still defies the most fundamental question about it: What is it? I can tell you it is a brain disorder that causes distortions in perception, thought, and emotion. I can explain that it arises by way of chemical and physical processes inside the brain. But if I reach much further, I soon arrive at the edge of human knowledge. We have not yet grasped how the brain creates perception, thought and emotion to begin with, let alone how it produces such spectacular distortions. One important study compared contemporary researchers’ various hypotheses to the fable of the three blind men of Hindustan: each, when asked what an elephant looked like, felt a different part of the beast and described it. One, feeling its trunk, said it looked like a snake. Another, feeling a leg, proclaimed that it looked like a tree. . . .
I have only what I have seen. For instance, that the inherited wealth that paid for my mother’s globe-trotting is now long gone. In recent years, needing an allowance from my grandmother, my mother began living near the epicenter of her family, New Mexico, hopping once or twice a year between Roswell, Santa Fe, Denver, Colorado Springs and Tucson, where her six brothers and sisters and various other relatives live. This was for her a fairly circumscribed and blessedly consistent movement pattern, although she still ranges farther from time to time. Right now she is in southeast Alaska.
Because I lived in Santa Fe for several years in my early thirties, I could see her regularly. She also called often, which was important to me, since she had no telephone for most of that time, so I couldn’t call her. She was too paranoid to keep a phone of her own, but she would use pay phones and relatives’ phones. She just wouldn’t leave a message, ever, and while on the phone, she wouldn’t refer to people she knew by name, and if you lingered without speaking for more than a couple of beats, she’d hang up on you. If behind this paranoia there was a delusion, however—some belief that would make sense of this—she has never explained it to me.
A new pattern emerged when I moved to New York, and she stopped calling me. Before moving I reiterated several times that I wanted her to call me regularly, but she skirted the issue, and it was only after I left that I realized there was something in her mind getting in the way.
When I visited Santa Fe a few months later, I tried again, although I didn’t think it would make a difference. “Mom,” I said. “Call me.”
“Oh, well, you’re over there now,” she said. “So far away! I think it’s better to—to stay close.”
“Yeah but, Mom. Why does that matter? It’s a phone.”
“Hmmm. I try to call Sadie,” she said, referring to my younger sister, who lived in Santa Fe too. “I’ve been trying to call Sadie! She never answers.”
“Sadie has to turn her phone off when she’s at work. So call me.”
“Well. I think I’m just going to stay focused on what’s nearby. I just think that’s a good idea right now.”
Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—inflexible positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement. A decade ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, she called me often. But in New York it is as if I have fallen off the edge of the world. Recently she got a phone again. Now I can call her, and she’s delighted when I do, but she still won’t call me herself.
Certain places, it seems, must be avoided. When my older sister got married in Bozeman, Montana, my mother missed the wedding. I cajoled and then harassed her about it as the date approached, but she was evasive. Every time I brought it up, she shifted the focus to the lovely wedding gift she had bought.
At first I thought she didn’t like the idea of attending a crowded event, so I tried bargaining. “You don’t have to go to the reception,” I told her. “You can just go to the ceremony.” When that failed, I went all the way. “You don’t even have to go to the ceremony,” I said. “You can just see her beforehand, on that day. Or the day before that.”
I got nowhere. She wouldn’t relent and wouldn’t say why. I have since racked my brain trying to understand what it is about Bozeman. If it is about Bozeman at all. But her whole world is a cipher, and in it there are codes I can’t break.
In her youth my mother was one of those people who seemed to catch everyone’s eye. “Like a sprite,” my aunts say. “Like an elf.” Petite and pale, with a heart-shaped face and a delicate smile, she was beautiful and alluring and had a distinctive, distant charm. Now approaching seventy, thick around the middle, with her once dark hair a peppery gray, she still seems somehow like a pixie. Her eyes dart about her, and her hands flit with precision as she speaks. When quiet, she turns inward, and it is almost as if I am watching her curl her head under a wing. She isn’t beautiful anymore. Jowls hang low on her face, and when she smiles she reveals teeth weathered and crooked from malnutrition. But her blue eyes seem to have intensified in color, and her bony fingers are as articulate as ever.
These days my mother has a very clear sense of what kind of information upsets others—things “people don’t like to hear about.” So she has been in the habit, for nearly two decades, of reserving discussion of certain topics for my sisters and me.
“Marin, I’m glad you’re here because there are some important things I need to tell you about,” she says, peering at me with wide eyes, her hands clasped politely in her lap. “I’ve learned about a few things that I think you might want to do. I have found out—I’ve found out that now is a good time to move to Pluto.”
Despite her refusal to accept her illness, she knows that the world reaches her in a different form than it reaches others, and I am almost certain she knows that something about this cripples her. But she still fights for the validity of her thoughts, as anyone else would.
“Pluto?” I ask. “Like, the planet?”
“There are some exciting developments happening there right now, and you can buy a home at a good price. Right now, before it really catches on. They’re setting up a colony there. Homes for young people, and you’re at the age that you could go there and really get started on your life.”
“Mom,” I say, “I have a life.”
“Oh, but this is such a great opportunity! It’s so affordable! You could really find a nice house there and have a nice place to live.”
There is no point in arguing with delusions, but I hate to play along with them, either. Usually I engage just a little, to show I care. I offer something like, “So, how do you know they’re colonizing Pluto?” But I’m not very good at hiding my impatience.
“I’ve seen it! I’ve seen—I know this, Marin. I’ve—I understand this.” She pauses, her eyes searching. I can practically see the wheels turning as she sorts through her mind looking for a response solid enough that I won’t silently reject it. As much as she’s shared the material of her delusions with me, she’s almost never let slip anything about where they come from or how they’re formed. And she knows I’m a skeptical listener.
“Such a beautiful place! Do you know the oceans there have waves that are capped with fire? Can you imagine? Fire-capped waves?”
“That’s a beautiful image, Mom,” I say, genuinely, picturing it. “It kind of takes your breath away.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? And there are all these condos for sale there now! You might want to do that!”
“Mom,” I say gently, “I just really want to be here right now, okay?”
“Well, think about it and see if you don’t change your mind. Also, there’s something else I want to explain to you, too. Your uncle Robert has been staying in the condo in Santa Fe, and I want you to know that the condo belongs to me. It’s mine, and he—somebody—took it away from me. Now, while I don’t have a home at all, Robert goes and stays in that place and acts like it belongs to him.”
I’m annoyed now, inevitably. I rub my forehead. I say something like, “As far as I know, the condo has always been Robert’s.” I say it wearily, not to convince her but just because it’s a reasonable response that is neither condescending nor untrue. The condo does belong to Robert, but I qualify the statement because I recognize that I’ve never actually seen the deed.
“Well, it wasn’t always his. He went and got the papers from where they were filed, and the people at City Hall didn’t notice, and now he’s told everyone it’s his, and there are no papers, so everybody thinks it is his. But maybe one of these days, Marin—this is why I’m telling you this—those papers might turn up. So if you see, at some point, some papers that look like they have to do with a house, if you find them lying around somewhere, I want you to take them and keep them someplace safe. Because then I might be able to get my house back.”
“I don’t think they would leave those kinds of papers just lying around.”
“Well, you never know. You never know!”
Sometimes I just stare at her and remind myself that she’s on her own trip and it’s not my job to fix the unfixable. But she tends to persist until I say something like, “If I happen to come across some papers that look like the deed to Robert’s condo, I’ll do that.”
“Good,” she’ll say. “Now, what are you up to today?”
Other times, though, her voice might turn sad. As in dreams, much of the symbolism in her delusions expresses her own feelings about her life as she struggles to understand it. But this is a dream she can’t wake up from.
“All these homes I’ve had, that people have taken away from me!” she once said plaintively. She lifted her chin and gazed into the distance with innocent eyes. “It’s almost too much for a person.”
And that was too much for me. Although I know that nobody has ever taken a home from her or even claimed any property that was rightly hers, I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. But I could never say that, really. I’ve never been able to protect her from anything.
For a decade or more, since my mother sold her last residence, she has been wondering how she lost her home. She keeps searching for a place where she can live and be safe for the rest of her life. But she’s too erratic and irrational. She has spent all the money that bought her former houses—a trust fund from my once wealthy grandfather, a divorce settlement, her own sporadic earnings. Now she rents small apartments, one after another, rarely committing to a lease longer than six months.
To explain this, I have only a theory: when she arrives at a place, it is new, unsignified, a clean slate. Then her visions and voices begin interacting with this physical environment, and, slowly, over the course of months, meanings accrue. All the powers of the universe work their way into the smallest details. Here is where a bright light visited me one night. I stayed quiet for it, and watched. Loaded with emotional import, the details often turn ominous or antagonistic. Someone has been burying horses in the backyard. I’ve seen the teeth coming up out of the ground! Eventually, every detail of the place seethes and echoes so resoundingly with the influence of powers only she can see—everything pointing back to her, for her, about her—that the only way to keep it under control is to flee.
This is, I think, why she wouldn’t live at her mother’s house in Roswell, her hometown, despite being welcome to live there for free until my grandmother passed away last year. The dozens of paintings on my grandmother’s walls made her uncomfortable. She started moving things around, hiding things. It baffled my aunts and uncles and frustrated my grandmother. I could only guess what my mother wouldn’t say outright: the paintings were looking at her, talking to her, and when they upset or frightened her too much, she had to escape. She put them away in corners to sap them of their power, and when my aunts and uncles tried to convince or force her to stop doing this, she moved out. Nowadays she rents an apartment for a few months or a year, buys a white comforter, and keeps nothing on the walls but a small cross and an image of whatever saint has recently caught her attention.
I think if she had a house of her own, she would still leave it periodically for months at a time. But she wants that house, her house. She wants to see the return of at least one of the many homes she has lost in her lifetime, which she believes were stolen. And the weird truth is that, in a way, they were stolen. Schizophrenia stole them, by taking away her capacity for long-term planning and remembering. The ability to keep track of time is a prerequisite for virtually everything a person can have or do in life. In the timeline of the universe, my mother lives in a bubble that disintegrates into chaos two weeks in either direction. That’s about the extent to which she can pin down reality well enough to manage her life within it. Beyond that it becomes too warped to be of use.
She can manage a weekly budget but not a yearly budget. She can sublet a room, but she can’t get through the paperwork required to qualify for low-income housing. In her paranoia, she often refuses to sign her name on official-looking documents. She hasn’t worked in over a decade. For several years she has lived on Social Security benefits and an allowance from the family. She can do fairly complex tasks like shopping, cooking, or balancing a checkbook, but she has trouble maintaining the relationships required to keep a job. Momentary concerns overwhelm the bigger picture, which dissipates into mist.
Trying to help my mother is a frustrating and usually useless effort. She won’t often accept help, preferring, she says, to take care of things herself. The harder we push, the more she resists. I try to be as cooperative as possible, hoping she’ll go along with my plans if I act optimistic. But mostly, my hands are tied. Over the years, we in her family have sometimes tried to maneuver around her to get her finances under control, but we couldn’t legally do much without her permission. No one could have forcefully intervened. She functions far too well to be declared incompetent. This is how it happened that she spent and wasted all she had, spending more to live than she could earn, buying and selling a long series of houses, condos, apartments, and cars, each time losing money on the deal until she had nothing left.
When people first meet my mother, she peers up at them expectantly, immediately asks how their day has been, and often says something disarmingly cute. She’s fond of giving gifts, doling them out almost as offerings to the gods: a coupon for a latte at Starbucks, a brochure for a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. “Look at this,” she’ll tell my friends, holding up the photo of a jewel-blue seascape. “You may be interested in doing something like this in the future. Maybe this will give you ideas.”
She may or may not decide to say something risky. And if she does, it may or may not be apparent that it’s a delusion. Often it’s necessary to know the people she mentions in order to know whether what she’s saying is true. Relating to my mother involves a delicate interplay between realities, one that few people are prepared to learn. So my role is to be her translator. When she speaks to friends of mine, I try to stand slightly behind her so I can signal—a sharp nod or a quick shake of the head—to indicate whether they should interpret a given story as fact or fantasy.
When my mother first met my husband (then a new boyfriend), in a Santa Fe bookstore, she pulled a book on Italian cooking off the nearest shelf and asked if he liked Italian food. She concentrated hard for a moment, and as she continued I could see her working her way toward a thought. It was clear from her manner that she was seeking, not scheming—listening, perhaps, to the ruler of her strange, secret world. Then she announced that T.J., my father, was a friend of the book’s celebrity-chef author, Giada De Laurentiis. Only after we left could I tell Will that my dad had never met Giada De Laurentiis—though my father does make great Italian food. The delusion apparently sprang up as my mother was speaking.
Other things my father has done, according to my mother, include being swept away in a tsunami in Hawaii in the mid-’80s. As she tells it, he drowned, and in the confusion, another man appeared and took his place. This man was very helpful and began taking care of us, and after a while nobody noticed anymore that he wasn’t T.J. He let everyone call him by that name, and for a while my mother believed that he was the real T.J. But a few years later she caught on, and when I was about twelve she explained to me that the man I called Dad was not actually my father but a replacement. “I call him Mr. Ree,” she said. I didn’t catch the significance of the name until my older sister sardonically spelled it out for me: “Myster-ry.”
As the rest of us experienced it, my mother divorced my father in 1984, when I was nine, in a period of sustained and probably paranoia-based rage, after nearly a dozen years of marriage and the birth of us four children. My dad, stunned and horrified by her descent into madness, moved into the house next door, and we settled into a joint custody arrangement. Years later, when I asked him why he hadn’t fought for sole custody, he said, “I just couldn’t do that to your mother.” For the rest of my childhood, my father was in that same house and my mother stayed within the neighborhood. We moved back and forth between the two homes about once a week.
For years my mother would refer to my father only as “Ree.” “How is Ree?” she would say when I was at her house. “Are things okay over there at his house?”
At some point in my teens, I dryly asked her if it bothered her that her children were being raised by a stranger.
“Well,” she said, “he seems to be a nice enough man, and he has really, truly accepted this work of taking care of you kids. So I guess it’s worked out okay.”
Her mind is forever another country, a long-lost homeland that only she has seen. And I am her bridge, even when I can’t see one side from the other.
Nowadays my mother’s delusions fade in and out, and with these shifts, her memory changes. Sometimes she still calls my dad Ree, other times by his real name. He first became Mr. Ree not long after their divorce—not long after he, in a last-ditch effort to get help for her, had her briefly committed at the state psychiatric hospital. During the next two or three years, her rage and paranoia toward him were so thick that she couldn’t speak to him without shouting, and for a while she wouldn’t allow him to see her face. She kept her head shrouded in a scarf when she drove up his driveway to drop us off. Now, when her stolen-house delusions turn toward a cabin he owns and when she tells me why it rightfully belongs to her, he is Ree. But when, maybe, she hasn’t thought about him for a while and isn’t upset about anything relating to him, Ree slips away, and he is T.J. once again.
The hardest losses for me to witness are this kind—not of home or fortune but of the relationships her illness has made so difficult. Or impossible, as for anyone she comes to fear through her paranoid beliefs. I know she feels these losses as much as any. The inevitable by-product is her own loneliness.
Even for my sisters and me, loving our mother is never simple. My younger sister, Adrienne, is an ongoing point of confusion because she usually goes by her nickname, Sadie. My mother seems to assume that Adrienne and Sadie are different people, but she doesn’t take issue with it. I didn’t even realize that this was the case until one of my aunts mentioned a conversation she had had with my mother while Adrienne was traveling in Asia. “Is Adrienne still in India?” my aunt asked. “Yes,” my mom answered, “and I think Sadie is, too.”
For a few years she also thought there were two of my older sister. I may be the only one who remains singular, and I admit this has always been a relief for me—although I know my doppelgänger could emerge at any time.
“Mom,” I once asked her, “don’t you think it’s strange that I’m the only one there has never been two of?”
“Oh, I know!” she said. “Isn’t that remarkable? It’s amazing how things can happen sometimes. Everyone but you!”
For many years, my mother was sure that my brother had, like my father, been swept away in a tidal wave in Hawaii and that this little boy who called her Mom was another child. This boy, this false son, was just as sweet as her son, however, so she embraced him as her own. But she worried that her real son was still out there, lost and alone. She only hoped someone kind and loving had taken him in.
She finds lost children everywhere she goes. They’re always young people, often travelers, and when she speaks of them to me, it is to ask for my help in keeping an eye out in case they might need shelter or a surrogate family. “You can adopt each other!” she says sometimes. One of her more elaborate delusions involves an actual organization, the Arc of Anchorage, which in reality provides support for people with disabilities but which she says facilitates the process by which people can adopt each other. Because there are so many of these orphans wandering around, she explained to me, somebody decided to help them take care of each other.
She has often suggested that I adopt my brother, whom she hasn’t seen in about ten years. She knows, because I have told her, that he is in Anchorage but that on any given day I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what she makes of that. But I can tell that she knows, from her own observations and intuition, that her son is struggling and isolated.
“Any news from up north?” she asks me every time we talk. This is her way of saying, “Have you heard from your brother?”
“Not lately,” I almost always answer.
“Why don’t you give the house a call?” she suggests next.
“You mean Dad’s house?”
“I can’t reach Tom by calling Dad’s house, Mom. He doesn’t like to go to Dad’s house.” For a long time I used this reply to evade what I never had the heart, or the guts, to truly explain. But when Adrienne told me she had already tried to explain that Tom is mentally ill, with unclear results, I thought I should give it a try too. During a visit to Santa Fe, my mother asked for news from Alaska. I looked at her squarely. “I can’t call him because I don’t know where he is, Mom,” I said. I took a breath. “He’s homeless. He lives on the street.”
She looked down, her face furrowed in annoyance, and began picking a cuticle.
“Tom has schizophrenia, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, pulling her hands back close to her body, still looking down and picking at her fingers.
“Mom, that’s why I can’t call him.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“Come on, now, Marin! Let’s not talk about that today.”
My words sounded cruel in my ears as they grated across her. But I hate to hide the truth from her. Her mind does that so brutally well already.
“Tom is going to deal with his life,” she said sternly, “the way he decides to. Now, let’s not talk about this.” I realized she had already thought this through. And she got it right—for years my brother has refused help from anyone, even help to get off the street. My mother understands, perhaps better than anyone, that his troubles are ultimately his to overcome.
The balm for these rough times comes in the small moments with my mother, the easy ones. Moments when nothing can be gained or lost, when one of us notices something lovely in the world: she sees a bird outside the window and remarks at the brilliance of its red wing. She bends to pet my dog and comments on how daintily she lifts her paw! For all the confusion and fear induced by her ever-reconfiguring world, it also grants her the full richness of its magic.
Driving down the road in Santa Fe one spring morning, when a gust of wind picked up a spray of fallen pink petals and swirled them over the road in front of my car, I wished she were there to see it. I knew she would feel its beauty and for a moment be filled by it. I miss her whenever I have these moments alone. One day in Central Park, I walked past a shadowy grove of leafless trees after a morning rain had left their branches laden with drops of water, clinging so densely that they seemed like pearls strung along the undersides of the limbs. “Mom!” I wanted to say. “Look at the droplets of water shining on the trees!”
“Oh!” she would say. “Isn’t that lovely!” Her voice would be high, captivated. She would pause. Her bubble in space-time would encompass us both, and for a moment I would feel as if the entire world began and ended there.
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, the Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine.
Five Ways For Writers To Avoid Oversharing
Today’s blog post comes from author Erika Dreifus
Not long ago, another writer paid me what I considered to be a supreme compliment. Essentially, she said that I write well on personal subjects without “oversharing.”
The comment pleased me, but it puzzled me, too. That’s because I’ve received plenty of criticism for being—well, let’s just say a bit too forthright with my words. And no small amount of that disapprobation has come in response to words on the page (or screen), rather than those flowing from my vocal chords.
But I do try to disclose judiciously. Therein rests the pleasure; the comment suggested that I’ve been at least somewhat successful in meeting that aim. When I considered it more carefully, I discerned some patterns that may have helped me earn my fellow writer’s praise. If “oversharing” concerns you, too—I’m well aware that not everyone experiences this particular anxiety—these five tips may be helpful.
1. Try the second-person point of view.
I know. You’ve heard that some editors detest the second-person point of view. You’ve heard correctly. But sometimes, it’s a technique that works. And sometimes, editors agree.
Some of my most autobiographical writing, in poetry and prose, has succeeded (I think) because it employs a mediating, distancing “you” to create what might be best described as a “safe space.” A space in which I’ve waded though some difficult material a little less fearfully. A space in which readers, for their part, might be a little less overwhelmed with the insistent thrum of what Joan Didion termed an “aggressive,” albeit admittedly sonoric
Case in point: the four-essay sequence I call the “Sunday in the City series,” a quartet that stemmed from an assault I experienced in early 2009. Initially, and instinctively, I drafted all four essays using the second-person perspective. (One, later published in a column featuring first-person work only, was adapted for that venue.)
As I worked, I came to see these deeply “personal” essays as being at least as much “about” the people they cited and alluded to as they were about me. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing. In fact, again recalling Didion, I perceived a benefit: an easing of the pressure embedded in the first-person entreaty to “listen to me, see it my way….” A chance—for both the readers and for me—to breathe.
Still not convinced? Will you perhaps try the third-person point of view instead? At the very least, it may get you started working on difficult material.
The third-person perspective sure seems to have helped the pseudonymous Anna Lyndsey, author of the new, buzzed-about memoir Girl in Dark. According to this New York Times T Magazine piece, when Lyndsey began writing about the strange illness at the heart of her story, “even the act of writing ‘I’ was enough to make her wretched. So she wrote in the third person instead. ‘The girl in the dark did this, she did that . . . it was a bit like a fairy tale.’” Notably, “[i]t was only after an agent, who had heard about her situation, asked to read her work and requested she change voice that Lyndsey entered her own story.”
I can’t help wishing the agent hadn’t made that request. I’d love to see the original—and to know if Lyndsey might, in fact, still prefer it.
2. Move beyond memoir.
Pro tip: “Personal” isn’t always a synonym for “autobiographical.” I write about many subjects that matter to me deeply, that I probably wouldn’t write about at all had they no links to my own experiences or viewpoints. But I’m not, primarily, a memoirist. Nor do I aspire to that title.
In fiction, I’ve sometimes transferred to characters the role of dealing with subjects that, for various reasons, I haven’t addressed in print in my own voice. Take, for instance, how lingering distress over an incident that I witnessed many years ago emerged some time later in the history belonging to one of my characters (a character who happened to be different from me in innumerable ways—male, a Baby Boomer, a spouse and parent, etc.).
But fiction isn’t the only alternative. Which issues matter to you? Which ideas get your blood going? What would you love to read more about? Maybe—just maybe—others may have addressed those topics, too, in ways you can analyze and discuss in writing. Maybe you needn’t re-invent the wheel.
For example, last year, rather than writing all about my own status as a woman who hasn’t had children, I pitched a review-essay on books relating to that topic. Yes, I wove into the final piece some of my autobiographical thoughts and circumstances. But the essay wasn’t about me. And that, I suspect, considerably reduced any risk of “oversharing.”
3. Take your time.
No more thought pieces. That’s it. Let’s keep our thoughts inside, think on them, our thoughts, let them become ideas even. Then write. Ok?
— Jennifer Gilmore (@jenwgilmore) January 27, 2015
Some writers seem to have an instant opinion on every single event (or pseudo-event) that makes the news. They consider themselves thought leaders and cultural commentators. In some select cases, they may merit such titles.
But too many insta-pieces suggest that, above all else, their authors simply love the sounds of their strident voices (or maybe the sounds of their equally strident computer keys, clicking away). Subject-matter expertise, reflective prose, critical reading and examination of other sources—sadly, too much insta-punditry lacks these staples.
I can be as susceptible to clickbait as the next person. But I’m getting better. These days, when I see certain headlines and bylines, I don’t think, There’s something I want to read. There’s something that might make me think about an issue in all of its complexity. No. I think, What is this person spilling from her guts/preaching about this time? And then I move on to the next item. Because sometimes, less really is more. Sometimes, it really is a matter of quality, not quantity. Sometimes, readers really don’t need to hear your every thought on every subject. Certainly not immediately.
I’m not saying one should never write a timely, self-inflected opinion piece. We all know that editors look favorably on work with a current “hook.” (As it happens, being child-free/childless also energized this pegged-to-the-news commentary.) But I do think that, for many of us, there is value to the notion of “everything in moderation.” And in taking one’s time.
4. Check (with) your sources.
A great deal of my published writing has connected, in some way, with my family history. Much of this has to do with the history of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, met and married in New York, and became the parents of an only child (my dad).
My paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2002, loved to talk and share stories. These days, she might be considered “an oversharer” (I cringed whenever she regaled companions with tales of my toddlerhood toilet-training triumphs). I believe in my bones, as the saying goes, that she would bless my telling her stories. Moreover, much of what rests behind this material is historical—and it’s “public” history, about persecution and war and immigration.
But that’s not the case with everything I write that may be inspired by family background or circumstances. Which is why, whether it’s a short story rooted in my maternal grandparents’ not-so-amicable divorce, or a poem written the morning after my young niece’s lead performance in her school’s winter musical, I share my work. With my mother. With my niece’s mother. (In that vein, if you write about her own offspring, you might pause and review Andrea Jarrell’s recent Washington Post piece titled “Why I’ve Quit Writing About My Children.”; at this point, not even receiving her children’s blessing is necessarily enough for Jarrell to proceed toward publication.)
In some cases, I’m asked for a simple change. In others, there may be a request that I not to attempt to publish the piece. Not now, anyway. Although I may sometimes wish they’d opine differently, having others “vet” my work this way helps avoid the sort of overshare whose impact may go beyond me to cause trouble or pain for those I care about most.
5. Confide in (trusted) others.
To an extent, this point overlaps with #3 and #4 above. So I’ll keep it brief:
Sometimes, we write to exorcise demons, large and small, acute or chronic, direct or intergenerational. But sometimes, sharing what’s obsessing us—over coffee with a close friend or in a 50-minute therapy hour—alleviates the pain sufficiently. Sometimes, when we hear ourselves articulate aloud what the problem is, we don’t need to take the story any further. We have shared it sufficiently—taking it further may indeed risk an overshare.
Ultimately, I can’t help suspecting that any tendencies I have to avoid oversharing may be due in part to some nature/nurture circumstances. In my case, for instance, having been born to parents who put a premium on privacy—you will never, ever find my parents on Facebook—likely has something to do with the lingering lure of discretion.
Then, I recall the cautionary lesson imprinted in my first after-college job, in which I worked for a government agency in Washington. We were routinely advised to think carefully before we spoke: “Imagine what you’re saying repeated on the front-page of the Washington Post.” That something dire might result was implicit.
Which raises a related point: I held that job during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In other words, I’m a Gen Xer who came of age before email, before the Internet, before texting and blogging, and so on. Some Gen Xers have obviously embraced “viral” culture more freely than others; I’ve always been a bit of a “late adopter.”
Finally, there’s the fact that before I entered an MFA program, I’d already earned a PhD in history, which means that I’d spent a lot of time immersed in lives and worlds other than my own; I’d already learned how to read, think, and write beyond my own life and times.
But as the points above suggest, you don’t need nature, nurture, or six years of doctoral study in history to avoid oversharing in your writing. That capacity rests within every writer’s grasp. We all can reach for it. If we wish.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio) which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She writes poetry and prose in New York, where she also works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit her online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”
Questions We Don't Ask, Stories We Should Tell
I don’t come from a family of natural-born storytellers. That is, we don’t have Irish ancestry, and we aren’t fishermen. During holiday get-togethers we sometimes share somewhat exaggerated memories of childhood hijinks (like the time my brother hog-tied my sister and locked her in a closet because she wouldn’t play hand-hockey with him) but these stories are usually fleeting. On the average night, we like to argue about politics until my mom gently changes the subject by offering us more food. Overall, we keep our big stories to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s simply a different manner of communication. But because I’m the only writer in my family, I care about our stories.
This past summer my family made a trip to Casper, Wyoming for a reunion with my dad’s side of the family. My dad is one of seven kids and I’m one of sixteen grandchildren, which made for a chaotic week of catch-up and drinking in the backyard while swatting flies. During this week, I hit a storytelling goldmine. With help from photo albums, beer, and nostalgia, my grandparents, aunts, uncle and dad swapped stories about growing up in Casper in the same small house where all of us stood. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines scribbling quotes word-for-word into my notebook or squeezing shorthand versions of local legends into the margins. I acted as a scavenger of sorts, gathering up scraps of stories from my family’s lives for my own devices, to color my fiction with real-life details. I listened, but it was as a bystander, not as a niece or daughter or granddaughter. I think about this often, and wish I could take back. It turned out, this week in Wyoming was the last time I would see my grandpa alive.
In the week before he passed away, he had been hospitalized for what seemed like a minor infection, and I wasn’t worried. This was my tough-as-nails, mountain man grandpa. Three years ago, he had two incredibly painful knee replacement surgeries done at the same time “just to get it over with.” Five years ago, he was kicked out of a hardware store for being “unruly.” The man was a force to be reckoned with at any age, and I knew he wouldn’t go out without a fight. I was right about that, at least. My grandpa died on a Friday in January, surrounded by his children and some of his grandchildren.
By 5 a.m. Sunday morning, we were on the road from Kansas City to Casper. That night when we arrived at the hotel, my dad pulled me aside to ask if I would write something about my grandpa. He wanted a “narrative” of my grandpa’s life that we could print up and pass out at his funeral. “Not an obituary,” my dad told me. “Something longer, that tells some of his stories.” I said yes immediately. During the drive to Wyoming, I had spent hours rolling through a catalog of memories and the handful of stories my grandpa told last summer. I wanted to write something about him, based on the scribbled pages from my notebook. Instead, my dad’s offer allowed me to write (and learn) more about who my grandpa actually was.
Over the next few days, I asked a lot of questions. I met with my grandpa’s sister, Donna Lu, and asked about my grandpa’s childhood. What were his parents like? Was grandpa as ornery as a kid as he was in adulthood? Sitting down with my grandma, I asked about how they met. Where did they go on dates? What is the secret to a successful, 53-year marriage? With my aunts and my dad, I asked about what he was like as a father. What kinds of adventures did they have together? What were grandpa’s most meaningful pursuits?
It occurred to me that although I had always known my grandpa was a true character and a strong family man, I knew very little about what had happened in his life. After three days of mini interviews, I had six typed, single-spaced pages of stories from my grandpa’s life – stories I had never heard before. I never knew that my grandpa grew up on a farm in Nebraska, that he lied to the nuns at his Catholic school and cut class to go pheasant-hunting with his friends, that he played semi-pro baseball and got into brawls with the umpires over bad calls. He embarked on a road-trip to California with a buddy but stopped in Casper because he only had $5 left in his pocket, and stayed because he met my grandma at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. In the basement of his business, Lammers Do-It-Yourself Store, he built a meat-locker where all his hunting pals kept the game they shot in the mountains on ice. For years, he had an unofficially reserved seat at the back of church, which he secured each week by arriving 30 minutes before mass started. I never knew any of this, because I had never thought to ask.
Two nights before the funeral, I sat down to write the narrative. One thought would not leave my mind: our lives are so full. We are more than blood and bones and bodies – we are stories. Our heads and hearts archive our best and worst days, the people who moved us, the experiences that changed us, and the places that anchored us. If we don’t write our stories down, if we don’t tell someone our stories, then we let part of our history disappear. But more importantly, if we don’t ask the people we love these questions, then we are at fault.
In my grandpa’s case, six pages of notes barely served as an outline for the hardships and joys he experienced in his long life. I can’t imagine how many stories I missed out on. In the future, I won’t make the same mistake with anyone else in my family. It doesn’t matter whether any of them are storytellers. It is my duty as a writer to ask and listen, write down and remember every word, and ensure that no one’s story goes untold.
"Blazingly Honest Subjective Truth"
Last week, author Cheryl Strayed started a thread on her Facebook page about the state of book reviews. Strayed felt that reviews of memoirs aren’t just saying whether or not the book is worth reading, but that no matter what, the critic takes the time to bash the entire genre. Even in positive reviews, Strayed found that the critic will state how the book is “so unlike most memoirs,” suggesting that good memoirs are not really like most memoirs, i.e., the genre of memoir stinks. The thread is over 100 comments long now, with heavy hitters like Ned Stuckey-French, Robin Romm, Matthew Batt, Debra Monroe, and Stephen Elliott (to name just a few) chiming in with their thoughts.
A few years ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote in Harper’s about an ongoing public argument between Jonathan Franzen (his famous “Why Bother?” essay) and Ben Marcus. Ozick concluded that the problem for these men—who were discussing, to greatly oversimplify, what fiction can and should do—is that there is a general lack of good criticism. Without good book critics to help readers determine what was worth reading in contemporary literature, writers like Franzen and Marcus (and all of us as readers) would continue to be frustrated by attempting and failing to decipher, through all the noise of the modern world, what was worthy of our reading time.
One of the only rules we have about blog content here at the Missouri Review is this: don’t be negative. That’s not to say to avoid criticism—not at all—but to not be a pugnacious jerk just for the sake of doing so. An example? Try this review of four memoirs by critic Neil Genzlinger. In this omnibus review, he eviscerates three of the four memoirs. When in the first sentence of your review, you hope for people to shut up, as Genzlinger does, I mean, you aren’t exactly getting off to a generous start, right? This is exactly the kind of vitriolic reviewing that concerns Strayed.
As a reader, I learned nothing from Genzlinger’s review. There are too many mediocre books? There are memoirs that are self-indulgent? Is anyone surprised by either of these things? Genzlinger’s article is a perfect example of what Charles Baxter has labeled “owl criticism”:
They don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment …The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. … By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.””
Americans don’t like critics or their criticism. We are openly hostile towards reviewers and critics. The word “critic” has such a negative connotation that you might as well call a book reviewer “terrorist” or “pedophile.” As Americans, for a long time, we have taken a “I know what I know” attitude towards, well, just about everything, and now that social media provides the opportunity for everyone to showcase his or her “knowledge,” we dismiss book critics (or cultural critics, social critics, etc.) as being elitist and protecting the status quo.
Let’s agree that the general state of book criticism is not in great shape, even if there are some very good book critics and thinkers out there. Why does memoir seem to set critics off? Strayed wrote that memoir is after the “blazingly honest subjective truth.” The complexity of those four words put together sounds perfect to me: it seems straightforward but in fact puts a tremendous responsibility on both the writer and the reader.
She is suggesting something that is, I think, an intriguing challenge that leads to some confusion. One commenter on Cheryl’s thread said that memoir “fails as accurate journalism”; another wondered aloud why there so many disclaimers in memoir. These seem to go hand in hand for me. Why so many disclaimers? Well, that one is easy: lawsuits. This is America, right?
The former comment, however, is what is really troubling, and suggests a concern with memoir that cannot easily be dismissed. Memoir and journalism are not the same. At all. To me that’s like comparing my filing cabinet to a bowl of grapes. It just doesn’t make any sense. But what the commenter is after, I think, is a criticism of memoir that is philosophical: what is true? What in your narrative is real? What actually happened here?
Now that is a great, big, huge, tremendous, gargantuan question and there are many people much smarter than me that struggle mightly, on a daily basis, with that very idea. What I sense is a desperate desire for truth and an inability to know how to find it. Tuesday, I watched five minutes of some CNN show called “In The Arena,” during which E.D. Hill interviewed Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I won’t bore you with the details, but both showed a remarkably lack of understanding (or interest in understanding, or even an interest in pretending they had an understanding) of presidential power and military intervention in Libya. They couldn’t care less as long as they got their talking points and soundbites in.
Well, that’s really frustrating, isn’t it? Especially when substance over style, celebrity over content, product over art, begins to permeate book culture, too. Right, Laura Miller? As one commenter on Cheryl’s thread noted: “Good memoir is not self-aggrandizement or narcissism.” And, yet, many critics seem to view memoir as inherently narcissistic without even reading the book. In a world that is increasingly complex and polemic, any claim on a narrative as a “true story” is instantly met with hostile distrust.
I think this generally points to a culture that is illiterate. Yes: illiterate. A culture awash in conspiracy theories and political correctness and “deniability,” mixed with a failing education system, leads to confusion and anger. Why is this book “based on actual events” rather than “true”? Why aren’t those definitions clear? What am I to make of this? These type of complaints – and others you’ve certainly heard – rejects complexity for the sake of simplicity. That’s dangerous. That’s dangerous for writers and readers. And, yeah, for book critics, too.
One of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. With the sheer amount of information available to us, and the ability to access that information almost immediately, this is increasingly challenging to do. Book critics still have a valuable role to play in what we read in contemporary literature. Good critics have a responsibility to attempt something greater than Owl Criticism. And as readers, we have a responsibility to call them out for it.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.
Hoax Reactions: Authenticity vs. Truth
It seems as though it is time once again for more hand-wringing about the cruel deceptions wrought by authors upon their publishers (and/or by publishers upon a naive and trusting public): another memoir turns out not to be true!
As reported by the New York Times, Love and Consequences, Margaret B. Jones’ memoir “about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods” has turned out to be in fact the pseudonymous work of Margaret Seltzer “who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family,” and who “graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood.”
Publisher Riverhead Books (a unit of Penguin) is pulling the book from shevles and cancelling the author tour. Sarah McGrath, Seltzer’s editor at Riverhead, is quoted as saying “There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one.”
So, the author is set up as villain yet again. Seltzer is hardly an innocent, but, in the words of The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman: “This reporter places all of the blame for this squarely on you, the viewers.” As you destroy a creature’s natural habitat, the canny survivors will try to find their way into new environments. It would seem that the increasing demand for socially conscious “true” memoir reflects the public devaluation of socially conscious fiction. And so, like coyotes and black bears nosing around the cul-de-sacs of our suburbs, fiction writers hungry for scraps of public attention slink into the aisles of Memoir.
As for myself, I’m less interested in why a writer chooses to fabricate a memoir (greed and the desire for attention seem to be the pundits’ favorites) than I am with the public’s obsession with memoir’s “truth” — and I believe there is cause for concern in as much as the cries of outrage at a memoirist’s “lies” bespeak a general distrust of or even disdain for fiction.
A commentary in the L.A. Times today (a link worth reading) touches on this issue:
How many talk shows would have booked Seltzer/Jones if she had forthrightly admitted she was a white writer of imaginative fiction with a social conscience that impelled her to write about gang life in South Los Angeles?
It’s sad enough that this is presented as a rhetorical question. And one has to wonder even beyond the sphere of mass media culture how much this attitude manifests itself even among literary publishers. The “ideology of authenticity” remains strong in literary criticism and academia, and though certainly the desire for “authenticity” has been an engine for combatting oppression and drawing out minority voices, it seems just as often today to be a means of exploitation and imaginative repression. Taken to extremes, insisting upon authorial authenticity denies the possibility of authorial empathy. If you are not writing of your own direct experience, what you are writing cannot be “true.”
The longstanding ancient and medieval view of literature in the West has been that it’s made up of history, fable, and fiction. History is valuable because it tells us what happened and what we can learn from it. Fable is valuable because it provides us with examples of right moral conduct. Fiction is good only for light entertainment and diversion, which to many a devout medieval mind meant is was good for nothing, if not indeed actively dangerous to one’s spiritual life.
Is the pendulum of culture swinging back to towards a variation on this attitude? If one takes the temperature of popular opinion by what appears in internet discussions, it is not at all difficult to find online conversations about the socio-political meanings of movies and television shows constantly interrupted by posters genuinely castigating the others with cries of “It’s just a movie!” As if taking a fictional narrative seriously is the height of foolishness.
(In some ways I would love to be able to point to posters who interject with “It’s just a book” — but books don’t seem to merit even that level of attention anywhere other than niche literary forums.)
And so I would like to add this one additional motive to the list of reasons why a writer might scratch through “a novel” and write “a memoir” — the desire to be taken seriously. That may well not excuse the writer’s deception, but I think it directs us back to the source of the problem: the standards of the audience.
At the end of the NYT article, Sarah McGrath is quoted as saying “There was a way to do this book honestly and have it be just as compelling.” But one seriously questions whether or not McGrath would have found a market for it.