Pushcart XLI: Kalpana Narayanan, “Dr. J” (nonfiction) from Granta #130

My father has his own language for everything. A friend of a friend is a FOF. A suitcase is a rolly-polly. When I finished my MFA, I was a NINJA: No Income, No Job, No Assets. The tree in his and my mother’s front yard, he points out to me as we walk, is called M-Squared, because it’s either a maple or a magnolia, he’s not sure which. Growing up in the South, I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere: ‘I can do all things through Jesus Christ who Strengthens Me.’ One day in high school, I went out to my dad’s car and saw that he had made his own bumper sticker. It said: ‘I can do all things through Lord Venkateswara who Strengthens Me.’ My dad moved to Atlanta twenty-nine years ago with one suitcase, and began to name the new things he saw, and press himself into this life, and a world sprang up around him.

 

Complete essay available online at Granta

There are those who make their home where they are, in spite of ties to distant lands; and there are those who go looking for home, sometimes for years. We see both sides here.

In spite of Narayanan’s restlessness throughout, her admiration of her father shines through. It’s a good essay to read now. It’s also painful, with the gunshots of the Kansas City murder still ringing in my head. I kept thinking: it could’ve been this man. I think that’s the gift an essay like this brings us: it introduces us to someone in a close, personal way, so he’s not a stranger any more, and maybe that proliferates just a bit and changes a few attitudes. Not enough, not nearly enough. But some.

I went looking for header art for this post, as I always do. Granta features the writer’s photograph of her father; I often use the art that accompanied a piece in publication, when it exists, as an acknowledgment, but that image felt too personal somehow; I didn’t want to intrude. So I googled “Home”. All I got were images of houses, lovely clean modern suburban American houses sitting on large green lawns. Although that no doubt matches Narayanan’s home experience, it felt too parochial, just as the snapshot felt too personal and home feels like home when you find it. One thing I’m sure of: home is not a building.

India is still his home. It’s where his mother is. It’s where, the day after he cremated his father’s body, he and his two brothers drove out to the Ganges, dumped in their father’s ashes and then took a dip together in cold, holy water. My dad says that as a child, his father would wade into the Kaveri River, carrying my dad on his shoulders, and that day it was my dad’s turn to carry his father’s remains into the water. It’s ‘Bol Radha Bol’, a song about two rivers, people, merging, that he knows all the words to, and that he croons at night.
But it’s Atlanta where he’s commissioner of the NBA: the Noontime Basketball Association, a group of Georgia Tech faculty and staff that play at lunchtime, and Atlanta where he goes by Dr J, a name his friend gave him in the eighties, in the era of Julius Erving’s slam dunk.

Every once in a while, the thought comes to me: “I want to go home.” I’m not sure where that home is. My family lived in Connecticut for a couple of years when I was about 8 years old, and when we moved to Florida, I always looked back to Weston as home. I was in Florida for ten years. But I left as soon as I could, and headed for New England. For Home, away from home. I’ve never lived in Connecticut (I did get married there) but I’ll always feel more drawn to bricks and four seasons and a nearby sea and other states an hour away than to any other settings.

But home? Home should be something more. Maybe this is homelessness, similar to Narayanan’s, but without the constant searching; a kind of settling into homelessness as home.

Three visions of home. Maybe there are as many visions as there are us.

Pushcart XLI: Cate Hennessey, “Beets” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre 17.2

I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot.

Oh, the lure of seed catalogs: beautiful flowers, vegetables you want to eat right off the page. Who could resist? But so much doesn’t show up in those pictures: the dirt, the bugs, the weather that won’t cooperate, the animals searching for a meal, the seeds that never sprout, the sprouts that never bloom, the fruits that warp or bubble or shrivel. I tried it once. Literally, once. I grew some sweet peas, not for the produce but for the flowers, germinating the seeds on my windowsill then transplanting them to containers in the sun. Lovely and sweet-smelling, if sparse, they attracted bees from miles around. Then there were the three cherry tomatoes that made it into a single salad. I’m a city girl; I’ll stick to the supermarket.

But I understand the impulse. What is a seed but hope? This tiny, ordinary thing, stuck into the dirt beneath our feet, will somehow turn into something growing and alive, something to nourish body and/or soul. Forget the thing with feathers; the speck in your hand, that’s hope right there. But that isn’t all a seed needs: an element of luck is required, too, or your perfectly-timed planting can be derailed by a late frost or an early heat wave. Or something more catastrophic.

Hennessey creates a nice progression as she moves from beets and seeds to hope and its unavoidable partner, luck, from her diningroom table and her catalogs to her grandparents, who knew more about planting beets when they were children than she’ll ever know.

That most hobby gardeners need to learn how to store beets, that I need to learn how to store beets, kills me. Busia and her sisters and rural Poland would have known this by age 8, maybe earlier. Would they have had names for different varieties of beets? Or was only one kind of beets grown in sub-Carpathian Poland between the world wars? I don’t know; the people I want to ask are all dead.

So often, by the time we know the questions we need to ask, the people who know the answers are dead. But they leave something behind, of only the desire to find out.

Hennessey’s grandparents met in the camps, and survived. Here she pays a tribute to luck, but recognizes its limitations and honors those not so blessed:

If there is redemption from war, it is in them….
Of course that I am here at all is a direct consequence of the war that threw my grandparents together. But there were millions and millions for whom the family story ends only in death, given not even the strange and eternal gift of trauma. A future woman looking at the bird feeder becomes impossible. So I am back to lucky. The millions dead quite outweigh the scribbling, this moment at the table in which the snow lies still and the trees flutter with birds.

We then close the circle and go back to beets and seeds, the catalog and the kitchen, but it has a new feel to it now, an element that we’d not seen before. There’s a history there, and the seeds mean more, the purples and reds are more vibrant because we know how it came to be that the catalogs span the table. That’s what history does, especially the intimate history of families and individuals: it adds undertones to what would otherwise be ordinary.

And by the way, I’m craving roasted beets right now, tossed with a splash of orange juice and sprinkled with a little nutmeg and salt.

Pushcart XLI: Doug Crandell, “Winter Wheat” (non-fiction) from The Sun #469

That fall my brothers and I would be sowing the fields on our own for the first time. Dad was working extra shifts at the ceiling-tile factory with the threat of layoffs ever present. One night he sat us down and said, “Wheat’ll be yours to get in the ground. Work together.” That was it. Derrick was eighteen, Darren was almost fourteen, and I was ten and proud to be included. “Questions?” Dad said. He was so spare with words that every one he did speak seemed significant. He looked at us, his eyes like round black stones. I envied the manly hair on his arms.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Doug Crandell seems like someone I’d like to know. The internet tells me his day job with the University of Georgia involves working with employers to reduce barriers to employment for the disabled. He’s also found the time to write five books with some of the most compelling titles I’ve seen, things like The Flawless Skin of Ugly People and Hairdos of the Mildly Depressed. Of his memoir The All-American Industrial Motel, Publishers Weekly says: “Throughout, Crandell struggles with the idea of what makes a man: is it working with your hands? Can a real man make a living off words? And, perhaps most importantly, how do men comfort one another in times of grief?”

Those are the same questions that permeate this essay, which I presume is also a memoir of one season when Crandell was ten years old. A stranger came to town: a man with a different way of being a man. A man who looked a little like a hippie or something, with his long hair and his beard. A man who held his baby because, well, it was his baby, why shouldn’t he hold it? A man who hugged and sang and played music while working – hard work, farm work planting winter wheat, 80 acres of it – and made work fun. A man who treated three young neighbors like friends and paid kindness for kindness. A man who left a space when he was no longer there.

I had the bad luck to read this while wasting a spare quarter hour in a coffee shop, and even though the story went exactly where I knew it was going to go from the bottom of the first page, I was glad I had extra napkins to wipe away the tears. Is it a sappy story, yes. Is it a new story, no. But it’s well-told, and there is a twist of sorts: the boys’ father is the centerpiece. He holds his first reactions of uncertainty and disapproval in abeyance, but, in the end, one honorable man recognizes another, and three boys learn that honor comes in different shapes and sizes.

In his Introduction, Bill Henderson named Wendell Berry as his muse for this year’s volume. This piece fits perfectly with that intent.

Pushcart XLI: Monte Reel, “Naming Happiness” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.101

Almost every day during the fall that I turned forty, I walked to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a large flower garden.… On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the same thing.
She stared at the stripe of sunlight that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the pond.
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the same game.
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, to casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that this is a serious problem.

One of the many concept I swam around in during the Chinese philosophy moocs I took last year was the differing attitudes toward language and naming. The Confucians, particularly the later Mohists after the Linguistic Turn of the mid-Warring States period, put great stock in names, in precise language, in the concept of “rectifying names” to form the basis of “bian“, distinctions, arguing. The Mencians, and later the Daoists to an extreme degree, were less enthusiastic about language (and eschewed bian entirely) since it represented a social construct and therefore wasn’t natural. The problem they always ran into was how to teach and represent Daoism without language, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in.

Reel seems to combine both viewpoints: he wants to name the world, but using poetic rather than factual or scientific understanding of his nature guidebooks. The complementary bookend closing the essay reveals his discovery of the term “The Road to Happiness” to describe the glimmering stripe of light over water, found in an English translation of a 1950s Russian physics paper. ” The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me with something I’ll call ecstasy.”

There’s a definite beauty to the phrase “The Road to Happiness”, and I’m not about to stand between anyone and his ecstasy. But it doesn’t bring me ecstasy, and I wonder if this naming he seeks is purely subjective, almost solipsistic. When I hear the phrase, I think of someone walking out on that road and sinking beneath the surface of the water, which brings to mind something other than happiness. However, I do appreciate that some phrases grab us in ways we don’t understand. It’s a more personal, spiritual take on the Confucian/Mohist “rectifying names”.

Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds.… Attempting a generalized grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté.… This logic had formed an alliance with the fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever magic remained in the world.

I always get nervous when a writer invokes Thoreau. Nature essays are not my thing. I’ve read some great ones, thanks to Pushcart, but I’m one of those glass-half-empty people when it comes to the wonders of the natural world: Yes, sunsets are beautiful, there’s nothing like snow-capped mountains or a murmuration of starlings, but please, let me enjoy them from an air-conditioned or heated room and for god’s sake those are spiders and here come the bees what are you crazy?

Reel tells a story from his childhood: he collected “Indian beads” and created stories about the people who had made and traded them. Research revealed the objects to be the fossilized remains of creatures known in Linnaean classification as Delocrinus missouriensis, and in common parlance as “sea lilies”. They aren’t lilies at all; they are ocean-dwelling animals related to starfish, and related species are abundant today in Monterrey Bay. In 1989, the fossilized remains from eons past were named the state fossil of Missouri due to their plentiful presence in the state.

This raises the question: how did so many sea creatures end up in Missouri? And the answer is found in earth science: 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still plodding around, the Great Plains were part of a large sea. Reel found this information disappointing; I find it exhilarating. I celebrate the imagination of a child, but I also celebrate the amazing processes by which the world exists in the form we see it today. And don’t get me started on what happens when we ignore reality and live in fantasy.

I thought of Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, which has the speaker leaving a scholarly lecture on stars to stand under the still night sky and look up. In another poem, Whitman acknowledged his enormous respect for science (“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!… Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!”) before presenting his own orientation: ” Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” I think Reel is making a similar point, that science can take him so far, but it is not his dwelling. By the way, one of the University of Iowa professors who runs their Whitman Web mentioned a reading of Whitman’s poem I’d never heard before: given the references to time, he wasn’t escaping science, he was bringing it outside with him, checking out the light that had travelled years to get here. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though I’m not sure it fits with the science of the time.

I had a strong reaction to another section of the essay:

The Germans, I would learn, had come up with the precise word for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself, to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.

German often has wonderful words for concepts that take entire sentences to express in English, so I was delighted to find another. Except… a bit of research tells me that Beziehungswahn is a clinical term captured in the English diagnostic phase “ideas of reference”. This is not some universal oneness better ascribed to Buddhism – or, again, Whitman (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles”). It is instead the psychotic delusion that the waitress at the coffee shop is talking to her customers about you, or the color of that man’s tie is a message meant only for me. It’s “everyone’s laughing at me” on steroids, and it’s exquisitely painful and disabling, not soul-expanding at all. But I may be misreading Reel’s intent, and I may be misinterpreting the use of the word.

Reel is a well-established journalist and author of The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.

Pushcart XLI: Jane Lancellotti, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Write a One-Star Review” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Winter 2015

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: "La Critique" (c. 1830)

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: “La Critique” (c. 1830)

“The highest Criticism,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay “The Critic as Artist,” “is more creative than creation.” What he meant, of course, is that the riches of the imagination are as crucial in judging art as they are in creating it. Notice how the godlike capital C for Criticism is working here. How it makes you wish that Wilde himself could show up next to the reviewer’s desktop and cover the whole darn keyboard with his paisley cravat to prevent the cynic from posting that he would rather scoop out an eye with a rusty spoon than read Great Expectations.
Through the ages, there have been major thinkers, such as Matthew Arnold, whose fluency and insight elevated the ways in which we talk about art. Only now, instead of Arnold of Great Britain, we have Arnie from Massapequa, who misguidedly equates Jane Eyre with “another of those cheesey love novels written by Danielle Steel.”

Complete essay available online at Narrative

When a newly-published friend found himself squeamish about facing Amazon comments, Lancellotti read the online reviews for him, and discovered the universe of haters. They’ve always been there, and not just since the Internet. They’re the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the creative arts, the people who sneer, “My five-year-old draws better than that” at the museum, who want books and movies about good guys and bad guys, not ambiguity and symbolism and structural amplification of effect. They’ve just become more visible in the past ten years. I used to follow “Least Helpful”, a compendium of less-than-insightful negative reviews. They mostly do movies now, but their Classics Revisited section makes the point of this essay. Or you could just ask the next teenager you see what he or she thought of The Scarlet Letter. I happen to think the way literature is taught in most schools has something to do with it, but that’s just a hunch.

But so what? Maybe I’m speaking as a non-writer who doesn’t have to deal with the issue, but there are plenty of serious literary reviewers out there (like the NYT and Washington Post, both of which gave the friend’s book positive reviews, not to mention dozens of literary websites and journals), and chances are, readers who are considering buying a serious book take those reviews more seriously than what’s on Amazon. Isn’t there room for everyone? BuzBo and ChaCha have a right to their opinions, too, and as long as they’re not writing for Kirkus Reviews, why shouldn’t they express those opinions? I doubt Jane Austen is losing sales because of them.

Who are these people? Are they online versions of the bully who kicks over bicycles? Or the kid who gets his bicycle kicked over? Or are they, more likely, past-hopeful writers whose thwarted ambitions propelled a spite-filled review of Philip Roth?

The more important issue is: why do we get so nasty? Lancellotti wonders if internet reviewers would be as harsh to the author if they met face to face. I doubt it; consider road rage, where cars offer some kind of protection. Maybe there’s a clue here as to the nasty turn political discourse has taken. Maybe we’re all just getting meaner, because we spend hours a day in consequence-free jousting on media like Twitter where the snarkiest comment wins. Nastiness inflation, if you will. I have to wonder if it goes back to the first “My kid beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

Another issue the essay mentions is the function of criticism, of the book review. The word “critic” comes from the Greek word meaning “judge”. That implies a set of at least partly objective standards to which a work should be compared, rather than a tongue-lashing. But the word has a definite negative connotation, so much that we soften it as “constructive criticism”. And criticism goes much deeper than book reviews; it’s often an analysis of an entire approach to literature, and a description or proposal of guidelines for that approach. But that isn’t the kind of criticism that’s happening on Amazon, nor should it be.

If I may, ahem, criticize – I don’t think this essay adds much to the ongoing discussion of  why anonymous internet reviews are so negative, and it brings even less to a clearer understanding of the genre of criticism. At first I thought we were getting a more personal view from the writer’s angle, but that’s dispensed with quickly in the opening and closing paragraphs in favor of what might be called “ain’t it awful”: the conflict between popular taste and artistic vision. It is, however, an essay about art: the impact of art, various views of art; and that seems to be the focus, so far at least, of this year’s Pushcart. Personally, I preferred how Dominica Phetteplace explored the issue – or, for that matter, Vi Hart’s video essay. But that’s only my opinion, as a reader, based on my personal taste – not as a professional literary critic. I’ll leave that to the people who are trained. People like the editors of Narrative Magazine and the Pushcart series. And I’ll try to learn from what they see.

Pushcart XLI: Lia Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, 69:3

There are things I’m supposed to never mind. “Never mind” means silent and agreed upon, and that I must want, more than anything, to get through the day, and so should assent to go along. Glance. Turn the page. Turn away from a scream, and the place from which scream would rise, if cultivated by attention paid.
 
Subjects one might avoid: ruined land, ruined animals. Because the issues of the day can begin to feel old, and people get tired of feeling bad.
 
When I was a child I was not daunted. I let myself get completely exhausted.
 
Never minding makes it possible to do things like eat what you want, and talk about simple, daily things.
 
A scream is not speech.

I wasn’t sure if this would be considered an essay or a prose poem. Then I noticed that Washington College’s Literary House Press, who will be publishing it in a limited-run illustrated letterpress edition this coming fall, calls it a “lyric essay.” That’s a good description. We go from Munch’s “The Scream” to #419 and back again, and it hangs together beautifully though it may take some time to understand how.

As with several of the pieces I’ve read in this anthology so far, I was very aware of a kind of prescience in that the essay was written at least a year and a half ago, yet it’s painfully, tragically appropriate to now. Of course, I can’t rule out that I’m simply seeing everything as pertinent, no matter how far afield. But given all the recent screaming (including mine), I have to wonder: were we never-minding all along?

I learned a great deal about “The Scream” from this piece. I did not know that Munch created four different versions of the scene we all know, nor that one of them, a pastel, includes a poem, hand-written by Munch in two columns on its frame, a poem nearly, but not quite, identical to one he’d written in his diary three years earlier:

I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting – the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness – I paused
tired to Death – Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on – I stayed
behind – quaking with Angst – I
felt the great Scream in Nature

I also did not know, until Purpura’s essay told me, that the location of the painting is an actual road in Oslo, one that, in Munch’s time, overlooked both a slaughterhouse, and the insane asylum where his sister lived.

I did not know any of this, and that surprised me, given the ubiquity of this image. Which is, of course, Purpura’s point, though she expands the scope well beyond art history.

Purpura points out how we’ve trivialized the painting, turned it into a joke, a t-shirt icon (not to mention a cake at the café Munch Museum). The power is too much, so we’ve reduced it to the never-minding of signifying upset without the messiness of being upset. She compares it to busts of composers in her elementary school music room:

I remember the bust of Beethoven and Mozart (and Haydn and Liszt and Chopin) in my elementary school’s music room. I couldn’t make any sense of them: a pianist with no arms; but joyless composer who wrote “Ode to Joy.” Their limbless bodies in marbly coldness. Stunted and chopped. I knew I had with a bit of neck was meant to be never minded. Another version of how-things-are-done. The men, canonical. The sculptures, memorial. A cliché of sight. I understood.
Still it was hard to see anything but severedness.

I’ve been in maybe two or three dozen music rooms over the years, and most of them had similar busts. Now I want to run into all of them – all that severedness! – and smash all those busts. Or melt them, I suppose, they’re probably plastic, cheaper than marble or plaster. She’s right; they don’t make sense. How did I never realize this before?

Munch’s painting looks very different to me now. As does #419.

#419 is a cow; that’s a tag in its ear; there’s a #308 right behind it, a #376, and a #454 – all jammed in the frame of the photo.. This must be a mixed lot. If I stand back just a little or, rather hold the newspaper out at arm’s length and unfocus a bit, the numbers fade and the cows are wearing bell-shaped earrings.If I shut my eyes, and shut many more things – doors in the brain, as if windows in cold – if I conjure up Heidi and green fields and milk pails, I can hear the little cowbells tinkling.

We see what we want to see because it’s easier when we sit down to eat a cheeseburger – as I do fairly often – if we don’t think about cow #419. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as we are all discovering now. Call it compassion fatigue, or settling for not-the-worst, or just plain not wanting to look. Never-minding has its costs, and eventually the piper must be paid. Then the screaming begins.

Pushcart XLI: Paul Crenshaw, ” The Hornet Among Us” (nonfiction) from War, Literature, and the Arts #27

The Japanese giant hornet is not the largest insect in the world, but perhaps the most fierce. It can grow to two inches in length, with a wingspan of three…. Here’s how the hornets work: scouts zoom around, searching for honey bee hives. This is all they do, from when they wake in the spring to when they hibernate in the fall. When a scout finds a hive, it leaves pheromone markers around it, which draw other hornets. When the others arrive, they begin systematically slaughtering the bees. A Japanese giant hornet can kill 40 honey bees in an hour. A nest of Japanese giant hornets, around 30 or so, can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. The hornets seize the bees one by one and literally slice them apart. They cut off their heads and limbs and wings and keep the juicy, most nutrient-rich parts, which they chew into a paste to feed to their larvae. They eat the bees’ honey and devour their young. They do not take over the bees’ hives or carefully consume all they have killed. They take only the flight muscles and other juicy bits and leave the heads and limbs lying around.

~~ Complete article available online via WLA Journal

As I read this, I wondered: does an insect even have a brain? Turns out it does, though it might be more accurate to call it a ganglion, a collection of nerve cells, rather than what we think of when we say “brain”.

A team of researchers at Macquarrie University in Australia consisting of a zoologist/neuroethologist and philosopher have hypothesized that an insect “has a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” That is, insects may experience a mental state, that it “feels like” something to be an insect. Maybe they wonder if these giant meat creatures who keep intruding into their spaces and swat at them have brains.

Crenshaw takes a more behavioral view of insects in this essay. As a lifelong entomophobe, I found it quite creepy to read about all the ways certain insects wage what can only be called war. I was a lot more comfortable with his etymological exploration of the word “hornet” in various constructs: it’s related to buzzing. He attributes Biblical references to hornets to Hebrew words for panic, or army. We’ve been observing insect behavior for a long, long time.

I wonder what it feels like to be the Japanese giant hornet destroying a honey bee colony, or an army ant, fire ant, wasp, or spider, the other insects whose behavior Crenshaw examines before turning to the most panic-inducing, war-waging creature of all.

When Rome fell to the barbarians, while the city was sacked and burned, while a thousand years of darkness set upon the western world, someone, looking at everything they had ever known fall, must have thought that the invaders in all their glorious multitudes looked like swarming ants. When Masada was surrounded, one of the besieged surely believed the Romans were hornets, alien, so far removed from humanity that they were of another world. When the Greeks stood at the narrow neck of Thermopylae, they must have seen the hordes coming for them, wave after wave after wave, as non-sentient, some form of mindless drone. And when the airplanes lit the night skies over Baghdad, a child, huddled in a corner somewhere, certainly believed that some creature from nightmare, from legend or lore or myth, had arisen like prophecy.

I know what it feels like, on this day, to hear the buzzing of hornets.

Pushcart XLI: Eric Wilson, “I Sing You For An Apple” (non-fiction) from New England Review, 36.2

Photo by Randi Ward

Photo by Randi Ward

When the phone rang that evening in 1978, I was caught off guard. “How soon can you be here in DC?” the voice was asking. I lived in Los Angeles. “And—you do know Old Icelandic, right?” Old Icelandic, spoken by the Vikings some thousand years ago, was extinct.
As I hung up, I wondered: How had my career come to this?

~~ Article available online at lithub courtesy of NER

What a charming memoir, I thought after my first read. Multiple amusing anecdotes told with a pleasant air of bewilderment shading to exasperation, moving from the personal to the universal by the end: That guy criss-crossing the country waving children’s books at esteemed professors isn’t just a character, he’s a national treasure, and the books serve an important cultural purpose. Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

I should’ve paid more attention to that last bit: there is indeed always more.

Wilson was a professor of Germanic languages until universities started cutting programs like that in favor of… well, I’d imagine in the 70s it would’ve been contemporary philosophical theoreticians, because no one’s ever learned anything about the present by understanding the past (yes, that’s sarcasm, and for our daily dose of irony, now they’re cutting those philosophy courses to focus on business, computer science, and STEM. Don’t get me started). But Wilson made the best of it, forging a career as a translator which included, one summer in 1978, touring the country with a writer and political activist from the Faroe Islands at the request of the State Department, who wanted to be on his good side should his efforts to promote independence from Iceland succeed.

The title comes from one of those amusing anecdotes about Jacobsen’s visit: he wandered lost around the Grand Canyon on his own, finally running into a couple of fellow hikers, and asked them for help:

He had told other hikers, “I sing you for an apple!” People, sensing something was wrong, must have been solicitous of him, giving him water to drink as well as apples and perhaps even sandwiches. He told me he planned to write a memoir about his trip to America.
He would not entitle it the Faeroese “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” It would be just what he had told the other hikers, in English: “I Sing You for an Apple!”

I saw the film “Arrival” a few weeks ago, after having read Ted Chiang’s story “The Story of Our Lives” on recommendation of a mooc friend. I’m not sure I’ve encountered two detailed examinations of translation difficulties in such a short time before. Between the language problems (which I’ll leave for those interested in reading about the difficulties of negotiating Faroese, Danish, and Old Icelandic) and Jacobsen’s eccentricity – amplified by his fondness for all varieties of American booze – Wilson had his hands full trying to shepherd him from place to place while explain everything from high-heeled shoes (which, I gather, aren’t worn in the Faroe Islands) to cornrowed hair.

The Internet wasn’t available in 1978, so Wilson had only the brief biographical sketch given to him by the State Department. Thirty years later, he googled the name:

At the time of his visit, I had no idea how important he was in his Islands, nor to what degree he was loved. In translating his books for the various professors we met with on our trip, I hadn’t realized the full magnitude of his accomplishments. This was a language that had come close to extinction; now thanks to the children it was being kept alive.
I scrolled through the list of his works, which was exhaustive. Plays, children’s books, works for adults. But nowhere did I see either “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” or “I Sing You for an Apple!” So I realized it was up to me to tell his story.

As I do for all pieces I blog, I went looking to see what was available on Mr. Jacobsen. I thought
I might find an image to serve as a header, maybe a photograph, or the cover of one of his books. I did find those things, but I found something else, something that made him and his work even more personal to me. There’s always more, remember?

Wilson recounts a particular children’s book Jacobsen showed to a professor on his trip:

[T]he next thing I knew he was over on the young professor’s side of the table, presenting a small children’s book that I hadn’t seen before: Lív og Hundurin. On the cover we saw a girl named Lív and a blue-eyed dog with a long red tongue.
Lív æt ein lítil genta, hon var rund og næstan altíð glað. I was able to sight-read the Faeroese: “Lív was a little girl, she was round and almost always happy.” In the colored illustrations, Lív played with her dolls, and her friends Kára and Hanur and Eyð played with their building blocks—when one day Mamma opened the door and out of nowhere there appeared a blue-eyed dog. It smiled at Lív, a long bright red tongue extending down from its eager smile.

I rather sailed over that at the time, then later realized it was part of the effort to preserve the Faroese language in the next generation. But an article by writer/translator/photographer Randi Ward turned it into something far more significant:

Lív (1981) is a book-length poem dedicated to everyone who experiences loss. Lív, the Faroese word for life, was the name of Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen’s daughter. She was struck and killed by a vehicle in 1980 while visiting her father’s home village of Sandvík.
Steinbjørn sent copies of Lív to friends and family to thank them for their support. The volume was later made available to the public free of charge.

~~Randi Ward

Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

Boethius and Bojack

As, then, righteousness itself is the reward of the righteous, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the unrighteous.
Accordingly, by this way of reckoning, whatever falls away from goodness ceases to be; whence it comes to pass that the bad cease to be what they were, while only the outward aspect is still left to show they have been men. Wherefore, by their perversion to badness, they have lost their true human nature. Further, since righteousness alone can raise men above the level of humanity, it must needs be that unrighteousness degrades below man’s level those whom it has cast out of man’s estate. It results, then, that thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book IV Chapter iii

Last year, when I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I noticed a lot of references to Boethius in the Hollander notes. I’d come across the name before, but had it filed under “medieval Catholic theology” and thus had ignored it. Dante was a way of finding some points of interest in that category, so I made a mental note to look into Boethius a little more. And, like most mental notes, it got lost.

Enter Bojack Horseman, the most unlikely route to medieval Catholic theology ever. I had no idea how unlikely, however, since I knew less about Bojack Horseman than I did about Boethius. A recent Millions article by Joel Cuthbertson teased with: “We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius, the 6th-century Christian philosopher.” That got my attention.

I started with Bojack, since I figured he’d be easier to comprehend than Boethius. Problem is, I’ve never taken to animations a la The Simpsons or South Park, and my tolerance for frat boy pranks and sex humor is limited, so after a couple of episodes I got the idea – he constantly misbehaves and feels quite bad about being a jerk, but not bad enough to change his behavior – and figured I’d be better off with Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy.

It seems the most popular point from Boethius is the paradox of God’s omnipotence coexisting with free will. For whatever reason (hmmm…?) that topic, fascinating as it is, just doesn’t interest me at this time; I’m more interested in his idea that bad people feel bad, even if they seem to be feeling pretty good, because that’s part and parcel of being bad. Some years ago, as a self-comforting measure, I decided we don’t know what people go through in their heads, we only know what we can see, and I have to imagine bullies, tyrants, and megalomaniacs can’t be truly happy people, no matter how they taunt the rest of us with their power. Maybe this is fantasy, but it’s how I cope with seeing the bad guys win again and again.

For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy. The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favour by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.

Finally, Good Fortune, by her allurements, draws men far from the true good; Ill Fortune ofttimes draws men back to true good with grappling-irons.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book II Chapter viii

It seems to me Plato made some gestures in the direction of goodness as a benefit in itself, rather than as an instrumental benefit, at least as concerns his theory of justice in The Republic. But that’s not quite the same as what I’m getting from Boethius (who is, incidentally, classified as a neo-Platonist): that doing evil, no matter how profitable or pleasant, degrades our humanity, and getting away with it degrades our humanity even more. Hence the animal metaphors, from Circe turning Odysseus’ men to swine, to the animal lexicon in reference to evildoers (dog, pig-headed, beast, the word “animal” itself), all the way to Bojack’s world where about half the players are half-animal.

Consolation… is divided into five Books, each Book divided into alternating chapters and songs. As a special treat, I discovered the folks at Cambridge University reconstructed the music of those Songs, a project not as easy as it sounds, since written music was still in its infancy in the sixth century. In fact, Boethius himself is credited with the system of using letters for names of notes (though he used a lot more than just A thru G and staves didn’t exist yet), which Guido built on a few hundred years later. The chapters are dialogues between Boethius as a prisoner awaiting execution, and Lady Philosophy, who offers him consolation, hence the title of the work. They read to me very much like Plato’s Socratic dialogues, though I’m sure a more sophisticated philosophical historian would notice significant differences.

Why are Nature’s changes bound
To a fixed and ordered round?

Love it is that holds the chains,
Love o’er sea and earth that reigns;
Love—whom else but sovereign Love?—
Love, high lord in heaven above!

Love, all-sovereign Love!—oh, then,
Ye are blest, ye sons of men,
If the love that rules the sky
In your hearts is throned on high!
 
Boethius, COP, Book II, Song vii

 
 
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars”
 
Dante: Paradiso, XXXIII, 142-145

I can see why Dante would have been interested in Boethius, given the similarities between them: both were punished as enemies of the state, both created their greatest works while in desperate straits, both used muses as figures in their writing, both constructed belief systems to deal with injustices dealt to them, including a view of a higher, deeper, more meaningful goodness and justice, and a more jaundiced view of the prosperity of the wicked. Dante even borrowed Lady Philosophy for his work In Convivio. But I also see a difference: Dante then turned to his Divine Comedy where he completed his journey through the hierarchy of joy: poetry at the bottom, then philosophy, and above them both, the divine. In this way he did Boethius one better, though it seems to me Boethius, or at least Lady Philosophy, considers philosophy and religion to be one and the same.

Cuthbertson stops short of attaching any of this to the authorial intent behind Bojack: “these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths.” The scripts have a tendency to drop a line or two of profound insight into the strangest places once or twice per episode (of the two I’ve seen, that is), and while I’m not willing to sit through the rest of it to get a better feel for the series overall, I can’t believe the character’s name and his combination of human and animal characteristics was chosen randomly.

In any case, I’m glad this came across my path. I’ve just done the most preliminary reading of Boethius, of course, and am just sketching out some points that interest me at the moment. I’m just starting a Philosophy course that begins with proofs of God’s existence, and as a vaguely Christian agnostic still recovering from the religious trauma of my youth, I hoped this would get me closer to the right frame of mind. I hope to run into a more rigorous, structured outline of all this at some point, to put it into a more accurate frame. But I’m glad my mental note from last year was moved to the top of the pile. Funny, where a half-equine reprobate can lead, if you give him half a chance.

Pushcart XL: Barbara Hurd, “The True Seer Hears” (non-fiction) from The Fourth River, #11

Insects outnumber humans by two hundred million to one. Most of them hear, most of them make noise – clicking grasshoppers, stridulating dung beetles, head-banging termites…. and except for the usual crickets and cicadas, most of them do it out of audible reach of the likes of me, who rose early this morning to sit with my granddaughter Samantha on a downed hemlock at the overlap of forest and field and test the truth of the poem I loved many years ago. You will never be alone, William Stafford wrote, you hear so deep / a sound when autumn comes. Autumn – with its sounds of coherence? – has clearly come to Appalachia – the hills are yellow and bronze.

I confess: I’m not much of a nature lover. I further confess that a big part of my unenthusiam stems from a near-phobic aversion to insects. As a result, reading this essay was less than comfortable for me. I appreciate the sentiment, however, and understand the importance of the tiniest (and creepiest) critters in the overall biosphere. All I ask is that they keep away from me.

I’m particularly fond of the multisensory aspect conveyed by use of the term “seer” (which is indeed a formed from “see”) and the emphasis on hearing in both Hurd’s enumeration of buggy sounds and in the title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is the focus of much of the essay. Carson’s book was perhaps the first academic-quality ecology book to make its way into the general public consciousness. Published in 1962, the first Earth Day would follow in 1970, leading to the current division between those who want to leave an intact planet behind for their grandchildren and those who bemoan the passing of such things as incandescent light bulbs and spray cans. Who could’ve guessed.

But Hurd’s point is more general than one book, or even one movement:

Can we simultaneously hear what’s not yet come, what’s here, and what’s gone? Polyphonic silences, like polyphonic music, demand deep listening. Such listeners historically have been called seers, or fools – the difference is sometimes very slight. Is a fool someone whose listening has not yet led to truths? Or someone who hears sounds that do not and never have existed, nor ever will? And can one hear too much? Perhaps to truly hear the world requires both heightened sensitivity and a fair amount of filtering and skepticism. Balance, in other words.

There’s Carson, and there’s whatever celebrity is pushing the latest antivax or contrail conspiracy theory. Alfred Wegener never saw his plate tectonics theory accepted; today it’s taken for granted. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren waited years before the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers was made part of the medical canon. Physicists keep changing their minds about whether the universe will expand, contract, or just peter out in time. Science takes its time – wisely so – before putting the stamp of approval on an idea. And many of us will never forgive the medical establishment for all those years of margarine.

But it goes beyond scientific theory as well. Every time we take a stand on any issue, particularly a controversial one, we are preparing our epitaph. For those in the public eye, every decision becomes part of history. It might be worth thinking about how you want to go down in history when choosing a hill to die on.

Also remember: history is always written from a point of view. Insects have been around 2000 times longer than people, and, as Hurd points out, greatly outnumber us. Who will be around to write the history?

Pushcart XL: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell” (non-fiction) from The Point #9

A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant named Chris Herron gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take in the travel market for a place like hell to become a premier destination. … The joke was posted as a “case study” on Herron’s personal website and quickly went viral in the marketing blogosphere—a testament to the power of effective branding.

~~ Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ll admit it: I was initially disappointed the entire piece wasn’t about Herron’s prank. At first it seemed to me like a cute, barely relevant anecdote a public speaker might use to introduce a talk, something to get the audience on his side before stating her case. About two-thirds of the way through the essay, however, it becomes evident that the anecdote is not trivial, nor is it irrelevant; in fact, it’s pretty much the point.

O’Gieblyn takes us on a personal tour of hell as she understood it during different phases of her life, from age 5 to college. Many of her recollections of childhood were familiar to me. I spent fewer years in fundamentalism, but we went through much the same childhood processes of uncertainty and fear, unanswered questions we end up feeling ashamed for asking.

We follow her to a strict Bible college, and this would probably be a routine religious biography except for a visit to a megachurch which brings Herron’s advertising plan for hell back into focus.

Hybels keeps a poster in his office that reads: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Rick Warren’s Saddleback motto is “Let the target audience determine the approach.”

Late last year, I had quite a reaction (the online equivalent of a hissy fit) when Coursera started referring to its courses as “products” and making changes aimed at “increasing revenue.” That’s nothing compared to my visceral reaction to reading O’Gieblyn’s description of churches using words like “business”, “customer”, and “value”. Add that to images like the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles, the Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, and it seems to me that church has become the problem. It’s no wonder I felt accused when a bag lady at the bus stop noticed my long blue skirt (my version of jeans, so much more comfortable at my age and size) and asked if I were “one of those Christians”

Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us. determine the approach.”

O’Gieblyn drifted away from fundamentalist religion, but still feels a kind of nostalgia for old-style hell and wonders if we need more discussion of the nature of evil in our lives right now. I’m not sure about that approach, either. First, I don’t see a need to equate hell, or the devil, with evil. People can get themselves mighty twisted without any supernatural intervention.

But even granted the need for a Lucifer to explain how evil came into the world: Most Christian religion holds that God created Adam and Eve with free will, and put the forbidden fruit in the Garden, so they would choose to obey him, rather than obey because there was no option to disobey. Doesn’t selling salvation by fear mean people are running away from something? Some of the most appealing people I know are religious, but I didn’t know that for quite some time. They aren’t running around screaming, “I’m a Christian so I … [don’t drink, vote pro-life, tithe, whatever]”. They simply lead lives that have at their core a generosity, a gentle solidity, that’s irresistible. Isn’t it more in line with the original Plan if the church creates something people run towards?

Pushcart XL: Sarah Vallance, “Constance Bailey in the year of Monica Lewinsky” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, Winter 2014

Constance Bailey is the poorest person on their list, the woman from Little Brothers tells me when I turn up at their office in Roxbury and offer to volunteer. At eighty-eight, she has no friends or family.
“She hasn’t thought much of the volunteers we’ve sent her in the past,” the woman says, scrunching up her forehead. “She’s picky. I’m not going to lie. The last few visitors didn’t work out. She didn’t take to them at all.” The woman puts on a pair of reading glasses and looks down at a notebook in front of her. “There’s a scribble here that says she doesn’t want any more visitors. Never mind, let’s try and see what happens.”

Vallance is white, comfortably middle-class, Australian, young, educated, visiting Harvard for a year to research her dissertation on access to health care for the elderly poor of the African American community. Ms. Bailey, old, poor, black, alone, and very, very crochety, provides her with supplemental insight into the human side of that project. Vallance’s essay about her year visiting Ms. Bailey goes about how you’d expect: two women from opposite sides of the earth, from opposite strata of the most obvious criteria, who develop a very close and caring relationship.

The essay is not without its humorous points. Monica Lewinsky isn’t one of them; in fact, she’s barely mentioned. There is, however, an attack cat. And there’s this:

I look up at a poster behind her of the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly logo with its single long-stemmed rose. A red rose seems like an odd symbol for a charity that matches volunteers with old people, but that thought leaves my mind almost as soon as it enters.… I spent more time than I should pondering the name Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Are they little in stature or little in age? It is a slightly creepy name for a charity.

For some reason, this strikes me as hilarious, but I don’t think the name seems creepy at all. There’s an organization of Catholic nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor, so why not little brothers of the elderly? Little Brothers is not an overtly religious organization like the nuns, however. It was founded right after WWII in France, came to the US in the 50s, and now has a sprinkling of chapters in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Boston. It’s motto is “Flowers Before Bread.” While I don’t dispute the importance of either, I’m not sure a hungry person would agree with the priorities. But in the richest country on earth, as we keep hearing, we should have both in abundance.

Connie and I share an odd worldview. Neither of us likes people very much, but we care deeply for their welfare. We talk about the contradiction and decide we are parked misanthrope, part humanitarian. I tell her that my father, a geologist, preferred rocks to people. “A rock will never disappoint you,” he you say. “And they don’t speak.” Connie laughs and tells me she wishes she had met him. “He would have loved you,” I say, and she smiles.
Connie has always preferred animals to people. We were both like this since we were little. “Animals are a lot easier to love,” Connie says, and she is right. She would rather be alone with her cat and an old persons in need of visitors. I am pretty certain I will be the same. We talk about the paradox of loneliness: that we are more likely to be lonely with others than without.

As a confirmed hermit, I agree with that last line.

Vallance’s story has its parallels with Ms. Bailey’s. A riding accident left her with serious traumatic brain injury, so she had to re-learn language, writing, and walking before doing PhD research was on the docket. Something of a miracle, really, though I suppose the determination to get up and walk was a major factor. But isn’t the possession of such determination a miracle in itself? Having that tool in our personality doesn’t mean one is a better person; it’s an unearned gift some are granted. Taking credit for the grace bestowed upon you is poor form.

So why put Lewinsky in the title? A time marker? The print form of click bait? I don’t think so. I see a thematic relationship about assumptions drawn from surface features, assumptions that we sometimes cling to in order to retain our paradigm of the world, assumptions we sometimes have to struggle against in order to see reality. Assumptions can be tested and, when necessary, released, but only if we’re willing to tolerate some cognitive dissonance and be more flexible about who’s part of us, and who isn’t.

Ordinary, nice old people must exist in the world, but no one writes essays about them. The cranky curmudgeons are a lot more interesting, especially when they have attack cats. Though, from what I’ve learned about current practices in non-fiction, I’m wondering if the cat is added in for reader interest. See, people who make things up in their essays: you taint the pool.

Pushcart XL: Daniel Lusk, “Bomb” (essay) from New Letters #80.3/4

Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

The night the atom bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” fell from a plane over Nagasaki in faraway Japan, Kay DeWitt got her first period. I know because I was outside her house, kneeling on a concrete block beneath the downstairs bathroom window, when she burst in.

~~ Complete essay available online at the author’s Facebook page

A couple of years ago, I took a dogmatic hard-ass stand over a non-fiction piece titled “Corn Maze”, a Pushcart-winning article that was more or less the author’s admission that non-fiction isn’t necessarily truth, but an arrangement of reader-hooking elements around a core of truth, and who cares that the people quoted in the article on adventure vacations didn’t exist and the quotes were made up, the people who did exist gave boring quotes and it’s all about what makes a better narrative. I got pretty self-righteous about it, tried to figure out what I was missing.

Just about a week ago, one of the non-fiction pieces I wrote about opened with a little girl getting very sick and sitting on dirty towels usually used to clean up the dog’s muddy paws. The article was full of details about deaths and illnesses caused by work conditions around the world, then the piece ended with the sentence, “The only part of this essay I have invented is the dog Lynx.”

I was again perplexed: why include that detail, then? What was the truth: were the towels clean? Do Were they muddy for another reason? Do towels muddied by a dog’s paws make the story so much better than, say, just taking used towels with that hamper smell, or ruining perfectly clean towels? Were there towels at all? I wondered if I should address any of this in my post, but I decided no, the essay was available online, the dog was a small detail (so why inclulde it?) and the ending sentence made a pretty cool ending, answering the question of why it was included, and it truly had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the piece (which was important and serious) and I really wanted to discuss the subject, not rant about non-fiction should be non-fiction again, and anyway, if you admit something is invented, is it still cheating? And it was a pretty cool ending, a kind of pulling-the-rug-out thing.

And now I run into it again, except this time, it isn’t one detail in this short (less than a page) piece that’s changed and the rest are true, it’s one true thing and the rest is invented, with the mea culpa again tacked on at the end:

You can believe that this is true. So even if I admit that I’ve lied about everything but the bomb and not having sisters, the bomb is so big it would make you believe any small, human story I told you. Even if there was a Kay DeWitt having her first period, saying I was outside her window on that August evening in 1945 is still a lie. But hearing that the bomb killed more than 75,000 people, as it reportedly did, that would be unforgettable for anyone, even if they weren’t alive yet when it happened. That part, the bomb part, is the truth.

I’m so confused. At least the bomb is the truth. Wait, what am I saying??!?

I have to admit, I’m not even 100% sure this is categorized by Pushcart as non-fiction. It’s not fiction (they label fiction, but not poetry or non-fiction, as part of the byline for each piece). It’s listed as an essay in the back material. But Daniel Lusk is primarily a poet, and I’ve been fooled before by prose poems. But it doesn’t read as a prose poem. It reads as an essay, and maybe it’s ok to make things up in an essay (which isn’t journalism, after all, it’s point of view, and isn’t this the same as including dreams and wishes, which aren’t true but are appropriate when labeled such?), especially a self-referential essay about it being itself a lie.

I have to say, this is the only piece, fiction or non-fiction, I’ve ever read about the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima that had me thinking about something other than the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not even trying to figure out whether it’s grotesque or ironic or some other artsy thing to compare Lusk’a view – or, non-view – of a girl bleeding from her vagina to the view experienced by six-year-old Keiji Nakazawa as his world burned and melted before his eyes, later shared with the world in the mangas I Saw It and Barefoot Gen.

What is the purpose of an essay, any essay? To persuade, evoke, inform, amuse, invite, confound? What was the purpose of this essay? I have no idea. Is it “good”, whatever that means?
I’m undecided: It’s brilliant. Or a deception. Or a brilliant play on deception. The only thing I’m sure of: I think I want to read more by Daniel Lusk. And, just as the ultimate goal of a biological organism is to reproduce, that may be the ultimate goal of all writing. Or at least of all writers.

True, or false?

Pushcart XL: Wendy Rawlings, “Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction

So the situation was: our niece Amy up at 4:20 a.m. with vomit out one end and diarrhea out the other, except diarrhea not so much diarrhea-y but rather small particles of waste in bloody slurry. Amy’s parents and three sisters sleeping the profound sleep of the post-Christmas holiday-exhausted, so Amy, age 11, procured old towels used to wipe off Lynx (Irish Setter) when he came in from yard with dirty paws, set them up as nest in bathroom, and just sort of bled and vomited until light of day. Not really so bad (it would, after all, get so much worse) other than nastiness of forced evacuation of Stouffer’s lasagna consumed at dinner with large glass of orange juice and then the long stretch of dry heaving afterward. Amy grateful for one thing: had iPad for company.

~~ Complete essay available online at Places Journal

Hey, if you think the opening sentence is disgusting, wait until you read about the Chinese factory workers who killed themselves rather than work another day. Too far away? Then how about some of the lowest paid workers in America doing one of those jobs we keep hearing about: the jobs Americans don’t want: picking spinach in Salinas Valley all day long with no access to toilet facilities. Because they are what this story is really about. Amy is just collateral damage. But she’s someone who matters to us, so she draws us in so maybe we can look at the true cost of an iPad or cheap lettuce.

Calling this essay far-ranging would be like calling the moon a big rock. It meanders from Amy to iPad factories in China to produce farms everywhere to Lilly Pulitzer clothing (really?) to the etymology of “karaoke” to a Facebook friend named Quonnie to the medical details of hemolitic uremic syndrome to those fragrant plastic boxes of Fresh Spring Mix that I often buy when I get tired of Red Leaf or Romaine (I’m not stupid, I’m always nervous about that “triple-washed” reassurance, but I pretty much cross my fingers and hope I won’t be a statistic). Rawlings even admits at one point, ” I think I’m losing control of this story.”

I don’t think she lost control of it at all. I think the frenetic pace, the rapid-fire changes of topic, the intermixing of humor and tragedy, is the story. Lai Xiaodong, burned to death in an explosion caused by the aluminum dust he used to polish iPad logos in Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu, China, is the story. Bai Bing and Wu Mei, poisoned by the n-hexane used to clean iPads in a Suzhou factory, is the story. Paco, the spinach picker, is the story. Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming, two of the eighteen Foxconn employees who committed suicide by jumping from the Foxconn building, are the story (a problem remedied by safety nets because working conditions, well, do you want to pay more for your iPad?). Brianne Kiner, one nine-year-old who was hospitalized with E.coli toxicity in Seattle after eating a contaminated Jack in the Box burger, is the story (and if I may interject my own factoid, it’s ok now, the danger of E.coli contamination of meat has been reduced by washing meat, not to mention lots of other foodstuffs, with ammonia).

If it’s a wide-ranging story, it’s because it’s a wide-ranging subject. And by the way, I don’t mean to pick on Apple, and I don’t think Rawlings does, either. It’s just that Amy had an iPad, and the details of Microsoft’s sins – or Lilly Pulitzers (“From South America to the Far East, our product is made all over” their Facebook page proclaims, hoping people will think of the exotic and not the child labor or low wages) – are less well-publicized. But I don’t think this essay is intended to be investigational journalism, but a personal reaction using existing investigational journalism as a resource.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my “friends” on Facebook (I put friends in quotation marks because she’s not really my friend, just someone I knew in college, from which we graduated almost 25 years ago) posted a photo of “Minimum Wage Barbie.” The doll’s wearing a McDonald’s uniform and carrying a tray with a Happy Meal on it. Across the top of the doll’s box are the words GIRLS! This will be you if you don’t study. My “friend” added to her post, “I’ve been laughing about this all morning.” Now, you will probably accuse me of being overly sensitive and politically correct, but I walked around for the rest of the day thinking about Bai Bing and Wu Mei, Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming and their shitty jobs and their shitty useless dumbass deaths. They didn’t work in dangerous, low-wage jobs because they hadn’t studied hard at college. And in fact, I remembered that my Facebook “friend” hadn’t done much studying at the second-tier liberal arts school in the Northeast that the two of us attended.

As we become more and more globalized, we have to realize that our choice affect other people. It’s easy to say, “Family first,” and nearly impossible to see Paco or Bai Bing as family. That’s the value of this kind of essay. Maybe the locally grown produce or the shirt made in the New Jersey factory is more expensive, and we know there are no guarantees nor is every American factory a model of worker safety and fair labor practices. But maybe the cost of reducing prices is getting a little too rich for us. Maybe, as in the previous poem “Waiting for Rain” we need to think of humanity as a family, as one body, one organism, if for no other reason, than in self-interest. How long will it be before the 1% regards us all as disposable as Bai Bing, or Wu Mei – if they don’t already.

By the way, Amy survived her bout of economically-induced illness. Which is more than you can say for Bai Bing et al.

Pushcart XL: Catherine Jagoe, “A Ring of Bells” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, 27:2

Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.

~~Complete article available online at Gettysburg Review

This is what I love about Pushcart – about reading in general, actually. You never know what’s on the next page. It might be bells.

A few years ago, I sang in a choir at the local Unitarian church. The sexton would ring the steeple bell just before the service, using a thick rope hanging from the ceiling and stored well out of reach at other times. I can hear the bells every Sunday still from my apartment. When the Longfellow Chorus, another of my singing projects, used the church for its concerts, those bells chimed in to help with our final piece. There’s another church with a carillon that plays a 20-minute set of hymns in the evening, but that’s automated; there’s something particularly quaint and charming about actual bell-pulling.

There’s more to bell-ringing than just yanking on a rope. Jagoe takes us through the technical process, the effect it had on her as an adolescent, and the persistence of the memories, a lifetime later.

For those interested in finding out more about the craft, there’s a lovely video that covers history and technique. But this isn’t a how-to essay. It’s much more personal than that.

My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me…. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.

Like Jagoe, I’ve sung in choirs since I was a kid. I’ve never pulled bells, but I did ring in a handbell choir for a while. And like her, after adolescence my only connection to church was music. I like to sing, and for amateurs with a fondness for polyphony and harmony, church is where the music is. In churches, as in schools, music is often the victim when expenses must be cut. Jagoe makes a convincing case that a church’s music program is about more than providing background music during the offering, and a school’s music instruction teaches more than scales and time signatures.

Pushcart XL: Anthony Doerr, “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul” (non-fiction) from Granta, #128

The O'Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

The O’Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

I am driving my twin sons home from flag football practice. It’s September, it hasn’t rained in two months and seemingly half of the state of Idaho is on fire. For a week the sky has been an upturned bowl the color of putty, the clouds indistinguishable from haze, enough smoke in the air that we tasted in our food, in our throats, in our sleep. But tonight, for some reason, as we pass St. Luke’s hospital, something in the sky gives way, and a breathtaking orange light cascades across the trees, the road, the windshield. We turned onto Fort Street, the road frosted with smoldering, feverish light, and just before the stoplight on Fifth, in a grassy lot, I notice, perhaps for the first time, a little house.
It’s a log cabin with the swayback roof and a low door, like a cottage for gnomes. A little brick chimney sticks out its shingles. Three enamel signs hang on the south side; a stone bench hunkers on the north.
It’s old. It’s tiny. It seems almost to tremble in this strange, volcanic light. I have passed this house, I’m guessing, three thousand times. I have jogged past it, biked past it, driven past it. Every election for the last twelve years I voted in the theater lobby three hundred yards from it.
And yet I’ve never really seen it before.

Anthony Doerr gets me every time. I start out thinking, well, this isn’t going to be anything I’m interested in, the history of Boise, Idaho. And I end up in tears, and I’ve made a new friend named John and his new wife Mary, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been dead over a century; they are part of my life now, and I’ll think of them whenever I see an old cabin in some corner of a nothing town somewhere: someone was here. They had a story, and now their story is part of my story.

Doerr interweaves present with past with distant past as he remembers Boise before “eighteen Starbucks, all twenty-nine playgrounds, all ten thousand streetlights” and thinks about his own road to parenthood, the process of preparing a nursery for twins just as John had prepared his cabin for Mary, on her way from Colorado, back in the mid-19th century when Idaho was still a territory. He uses this concept of preparing a welcome as a connection: “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself…. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.”

And he brings in storytelling – the theme I’ve sensed for several pieces now in this anthology, the theme dear to every writer and every reader – as a beautiful close to the story, a close that loops back to the opening:

What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this?
What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, we’ve typified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: 100,000 of them going into the ground every hour.
Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until the day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.

Like I said, he gets me every time. He makes me want to tell someone’s story, quick, before it’s too late.

Pushcart XL: Poe Ballantine, “Father Junípero Admonishes a Bird” (non-fiction) from The Sun, #460

I met Dabber Jansen in 1979 on a trip to Arcata, California, to see my ex-girlfriend, who was his girlfriend at the time. He was at work driving a truck for Eureka Fisheries when I arrived, and …. turned out to be a self-styled radical intellectual, like me. Dabber was thirty. I was twenty-three. He and I stayed up long after my ex had gone to bed, drank all the liquor in the house, and discussed Planck’s constant,The Marriage of Figaro, and the influence of Joseph Campbell on the work of John Steinbeck. Fattened on the milk of the beatnik revolution and disenchanted with science, law, organized religion, journalism, politics, and the military, we both viewed Art as the last noble pursuit. About four that morning, Dabber dragged out his manual Royal typewriter and inserted a piece of paper into the roller, and, along with a few pickled poems, a friendship was born.
 

Complete essay available online at The Sun.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I never fell for the romance of the offbeat intellectual anti-hero – the Jack Kerouacs and Hunter S. Thompsons. It all just seems very self-indulgent to me. Maybe my attitude is a combination of envy of those who understand everything so easily, coupled with a terror of finding myself on the street with nothing. How do people live, even in the short term, going from nothing to nothing, taking what comes, getting by on what’s to be had?

Ballantine and his friend Dabber show different routes through the seeming aimlessness through the lens of male friendship. That friendship hits a few bumps in the road, particularly on a trip to Mexico, but they patch things up later and find themselves reminiscing while their children play.

The title comes from an amusing scene: the mistaking of St. Francis for Junípero Serra. While one is universally acclaimed for his benevolence, humility and grace, to the point where admonishing a bird would be viewed as completely out of character, the other has a more complicated history.

The last paragraph seems to be Ballantine’s repudiation of the artistic life, or at least a reluctance to pass it on to the next generation; I’m not sure I quite buy into it. I have to believe there are many artists who have not been miserable and self destructive, and who’s to say those who are would be any happier if they were truck drivers or computer engineers? Yet I remember Salieri’s words from the film Amadeus : “If [God] didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?” Lack of talent doesn’t seem to be the issue for either of these friends, but for one of them, it just isn’t enough.

Then again, the scene at the end smacks of happy domesticity. Come to think of it, even St. Francis went through a bad-boy phase. Maybe Dabber’s path was the right one for him, after all.

Pushcart XL: James Hannaham, “Artist’s Statement” (non-fiction) from Gigantic #6

As a black artist of color with an Irishman’s name, I feel it is necessary to let the viewer know that I am black. By using such a methodology, I may allow the reader to begin the process of dismissing my work for its highly specialized racial content, or conversely, the procedure reality of praising it excessively for its Negro-specific performativity with regards to the blactification of subject matter, and in the case of academic and/or funding institutions, commence the compartmentalization and commodification of my identity as well as the inherently intrinsic angry political nature of the work for the consumption of those sympathetic to, or pitying of, what they may or may not perceive to be my apparent st(rug)gle(s).

Pretty strange that, as someone who knows very little about art, I should find the art-related pieces in Pushcart so much to my liking. This one’s good. It’s great. If I’m reading it correctly. Because, well, it’s written in gibberish. But it’s great gibberish. I think.

The gibberish is, I’m pretty sure, satire on typical artspeak. Then sprinkled in are some pokes in the ribs, some winks, and a few high-falutin’ references to the likes of Sarte, Nietzsche, Clarinda Mac Low, and Aimé Cesairé, a couple of whom I’ve actually heard of. But this is not gibberish, and the references are not random. This means something. This is important. The entire piece could be rewritten (translated?) into everyday language, and would still be a powerful statement. But, like colorizing old Hitchcock films, that would alter the art and in fact weaken the statement.

I deeply wish the article were available online, because I am not qualified to dissect it; and in fact, dissecting it is exactly the wrong thing to do. So let me start elsewhere: James Hannaham has the coolest bio anywhere on the web. It begins: “James Hannaham would prefer that you not cut and paste this bio if you ever have to introduce him at a reading or a panel because it is pretty irreverent. It’s also kind of lazy of you to do that, though I know your life is busy and it would be easier to just half-ass it.…” then goes into his two books and his career as a journalist and artist, before closing with: “You will probably have cut that last bit out if you’re introducing him at a reading, because it’s sort of confusing for someone to be a novelist and a journalist and then suddenly seem to swerve into visual art , but it does make a certain kind of sense in the larger scheme of things (sorry about all the “s” in this sentence). ” Hey, I was confused back at “blactification,” you really don’t have to try this hard. In any case: I love this. This is the kind of bio (and article, for that matter) my buddy Jart would write, and I’m not saying that just because Jart is black (and, yes,he’s one of the few black people I know, but in my defense I hardly know any white people, either… I’m kind of a hermit), but because he has the same streak of irreverence and self-mockery that’s really a “who, me?” mockery of everything around him.

Where was I? Oh, right, the piece. Poets & Writers tells me it’s an actual Artist’s Statement from one of Hannaham’s word art exhibits, a kind of contributor’s note. The explanation of the art. While BASS includes a section of contributor notes, Pushcart does not, I suspect on the principle that “the art must speak for itself” (and yet, I do so love to read those notes in BASS, which tells you what sort of reader I am). If you’re going to write a statement, you might as well make it a Statement.

Insomuchas reader supposition trends towards the normative cloud, thus postulating the hypothesis of apparent pallidity which is then ascribed and projected onto the part of the originator, no linguistic challenge to this customary standard can possibly forthcomb from the substantial quality inherent to the materiality of the art object, being itself composed primarily of black figures (text) upon a background of whiteness. Ergo (or “nergo,” to reconfigure the turn in an anagrammatical pseudo-Nubianism), it becomes incumbent upon the expositor herself to telegraph the projected mahogany nature of his (in this case) epidermal externality.

I didn’t put this kind of thought into blog design when I made the background black and the text white; seriously, it’s just that it’s more restful on my eyes. But I’ve never been happier that I did it that way. Because the ubiquity of white paper and black ink truly does kind of hit me as a great metaphor , and it’s embarrassing I never thought of it that way before. Think about it: no one ever described Stephen King as a white author. But as an artist, Hannaham’s race is always in the mix, either as a plus or a minus. And in a classic self-reference, this becomes the reason his race is always in the mix.

So much came to mind as I read this. The fantastic SNL skit following Beyonce’s half-time performance (“Maybe the song isn’t for us…But usually everything is!”). The Twitter comment about “white roles like god”. Rand Paul whitesplaining at Howard University (which, I must say, was surpassed by John Kasich goysplaining the Old Testament to yeshiva students after asking what they were studying at yeshiva. That’s gotta go in the –splaining hall of fame.

Lest I be accused of whitesplaining this piece: I’ve said many times, I have no idea what I’m doing here, I just read stuff and write about my reaction to it. And I’m certainly not artsplaining or writersplaining. So I’ll just say this piece entertained and instructed me (tip of the hat to Isaac Bashevis Singer there). And amused me, in an oblique way: since it’s not available online, and since it was short, I decided to dictate it, using Dragon, so I could pick at it at my leisure, highlighting here, bolding there, block copying quotes. I find reading aloud is often useful, since I often notice things I would have missed on silent reading.

Dragon choked on it.

“Linguistic stratagem” was no problem. It handled “socioeconomic stratum” with ease. But “telegraphication”? “Communitizing”? “Fleshtified”? The suffixication that is the stock in trade of pretense turned into word salad. It was delicious. I’ve seen familiar texts, like the Pledge of Allegience and words to Christmas carols, turned into nonsense this way, but this bloviation to language direction was a little different.

Don’t be dismayed by the verbal thicket. Hannaham lays out his purpose pretty explicitly, if not clearly:

In the tertiary reconfiguration above, yet another eventuality becomes emergent, not that of discourse, nor of bibliophilic culpability, but, based on the secondary alabastration in the praxis of the textuality, a contingency of narrational racification, insomuch as the personage in question, by applied verb-tense reflexivity and alphabetical augmentation, becomes emancipated from the circumstance of the oppressed to the locus of the gaze itself, insofar as we posit, in this repositioning, a juxtaposition that negligeés any sense of authorial absolutism, as Bourdieu might not put it.

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Seriously, I couldn’t.

Pushcart XL: Jordan Kisner, “Jesus Raves” (non-fiction) from N+1, #18

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

It was Facebook that delivered me to Liberty Church. A friend from college posted a video that caught my eye; it looked like a trailer for a Sundance short or a promotional video for a well-funded line of men’s accessories. I clicked, and was met with sweeping shots of the New York City skyline and two beautiful faces: Paul and Andi Andrew. They could be J. Crew models, but they are pastors, and the video was the story of their church, of how they left ministry positions at one of the most powerful megachurches in the world, Hillsong Sydney, and moved to New York, where they knew no one, because God asked them to.
I closed the video and wrote my friend an email. “Tell me about your church?” He responded immediately, because he is a good friend, and invited me to come check out Liberty for myself, because he is a good evangelical.

One of the best things about Pushcart is the variety; not just the variety of fiction mixed with poetry and non-fiction, but variety within those genres. The non-fiction, for example, ranges from memoir to essay to thought piece to the undefinable. And included in that is some real journalism, first-person investigations of things as diverse as an interstate rest stop, a gathering of Juggalos, and this piece on the Liberty Church of NYC, which in summer 2013, included in its ministry visits to Montauk dance clubs to invite partiers to worship at a “pop-up church” housed at the Wash Out Bar the next morning.

I find it interesting that my religious biography is very similar to Jordan Kisner, but with very different results: we both were ardent evangelicals for about five years in late childhood / early adolescence (she from age 9 to 14, me from 11 to 16). That’s where the similarity ends. She seems to have shed those years like a skin and moved on, whereas I still struggle with the trauma. Maybe her more gentle separation – she simply lost interest – is why her article, while factual and (at least as far as I can tell, since I can’t know what’s omitted) objective, is quite positive.

She explains that, as she was preparing to travel to Montauk, a number of happy coincidences fell into place: a house became available, as did a car for transportation, and a cop didn’t stop her for speeding. Then she reports on the church service itself, led by Pastor Green:

Imagine the way God loves you, he told us. You are completely and totally known. He sees the depths of your heart…
Right then, something happened that I wasn’t expecting, which is that I remembered what it feels like to be a Christian, or what it felt like for me. There’s a membrane between imagining God’s love as a thought experiment and experiencing it as absolute reality, and if you slip across it the entire known universe breaks open and then reorders itself to be more whole and beautiful than you thought was possible. I had forgotten. It’s a tragedy you can’t truly explain what this feels like, the safety and wonder and rest and joy and shattering humility and crazy peace, because when you feel it all you want is for everyone else to feel it too. It’s like you’ve been let in on the most magnificent secret and all you want is to bring everyone else along, because if everyone knew the secret it could solve every problem in the world. This is what Christians call, in a terrific understatement, “the Good News.” This is also called grace. Sitting in that converted bar, I got maybe seven seconds of a vivid memory of grace, and the echo alone was enough to remember why people who do wild things to spread it: they’re filled up with a love so great it demands to be given away.

First-person, experiential journalism. I understand that point of view. My experience has been very different. But it’s not my article.

“If you look at Jesus’s life, he did missional Christianity,” Jessi said. “He went where people were broken. It’s so cheesy, but what would Jesus do? I really do feel that Jesus would, like, be hanging out with the homeless in Union Square.” She inclined her chin toward me and smiled a little lopsidedly. “I think Jesus would be hanging out in the clubs.”
The Liberty kids spent most of Saturday on the beach, listening to the new One Republic album and getting tan. When I arrived, it was like I’d stumbled across a group of extras from 90210: Jessi, voluptuous and tan in her bikini; Jessi’s friends Gracie and Monica, bleached blondes with curled and lacquered eyelashes; Leah, with her waist-length hair…

Where’d the homeless from Union Square go?

I freely admit my own bias: an instinctive suspicion of both “cool, hip” religion and anything that smacks of 90210 and voluptuous blondes in bikinis. Yes, I have such a negative attitude towards organized religion, which makes my take on this article suspect. Yet I know some strongly religious people, and I admire them. What’s interesting is that I only found out they’re religious by accident, and we’ve never discussed belief at all. It’s just that they are people who embody grace in the sense I understand it: the bestowing of unearned kindness with no strings, just because that’s what they’re here for. It’s like they’re wearing a delicious perfume, one you can’t quite identify, and at some point you just have to ask what it is. And that, to me, is evangelism.

Pushcart XL: Dubravka Ugresic, “The Age of Skin” (non-fiction) from Salmagundi, #177

In Slavic languages one doesn’t have two words for the two types of skin that one has in English (skin, leather), German (haut, leder), Dutch (huid, leer), Spanish (piel, cuero), or Italian (pelle, cuoio). Slavs use the same word for the skin that covers one’s body and the leather from which shoes are made. Perhaps this absent difference is a question of civilization-or perhaps even explains the poor man’s fascination with real leather?

As I started reading this piece, I was confused, then annoyed. I don’t understand; what is the topic? The first section started off ranting about the voracity of the publishing industry; the second, quoted above, shifted into a linguistic consideration of “skin”. And I disagreed with the flatness of the statement that English has one word for skin and another for leather; we also have calfskin, lambskin, and snakeskin, among others, for leathers, sharkskin for fabric, skins for apps, scalp for the skin of the head… But I do understand how the distinction is made. Leather is processed skin, as beef is butchered cow meat (somehow lamb and chicken remain the animals they are carved from). I don’t know that it’s a question of civilization as much as of squeamishness and denial. I was in my 40s before I realized the contradiction of a vegan wearing leather shoes. But all this is picking at details; back to the article.

I remained confused throughout, as it skipped around from one skin-related topic to another. Lenin, and mummification. Obesity as fleshy excess. Organ theft. Popular culture that romanticizes Hannibal Lecter and Dracula. Tattoos. Skin art.

Peter van der Helm, the owner of an Amsterdam tattoo parlor, has figured out a way to monetize the skin of the dead. Around thirty of van der Helm’s clients have bequeathed their inked skin to his company “Walls and Skin.” In the hope that their skin may one day adorn an art collector’s walls, each client has even paid a few hundred euro to be involved in the project. When they die a pathologist will remove the skin bearing a designated tattoo, before sending it on to a laboratory for processing. “Everyone spends their lives in search of immortality and this is a simple way to get a piece of it,” said van der Helm.

By the time I finished the article – which is relatively short, by the way, and has been translated from the original Croatian – I despaired of writing about it. What could I say, it was a jumbled and random collection of observations about skin? And, by the way, that completely ignores the elephant in the room, the color of skin. Is that because I am so blindingly Americocentric, and in Ugresic’s native Yugoslavia (she now lives in Amsterdam) people found different, though just as ridiculous, reasons to hate each other?

But in one of those bizarre twists of human psychology, while I was doing other things and relegated Pushcart and blog posts to the inactive memory locations of my brain, it started to make sense. It happens that way, sometimes: understanding requires background percolation. Somehow connections formed, and I started to see: our human integument, what covers us as a single species, what unites us and holds us together, is beginning to fray. Everything in the essay is merely a sign, a symptom.

Many postcommunist transitional societies have turned their citizens into zombies. As Dutch king Willem-Alexander put it, in the twenty-first century we await the “society of participation.” “Self-management” is probably what linguistically inventive followers of contemporary trends would say. Both “participation” and “self-management” are euphemisms for a message that is as sharp as a scalpel: today, the individual has been reduced to his or her bare skin.

Yes, we live in the age of skin. Our age-the corpse to which we are pressed – isn’t in the greatest shape. The corpse’s skin grows darker, new purple blotches surfacing, the cranium, from which the brain has been extracted, has shattered and taken the skin with it, threatening dark pigment spreading everywhere, the nails turned completely blue. We exhaust ourselves, there is never enough balsam, we cover the dead spots with liquid foundation, and our bodies too. There’s an odor spreading everywhere, seeping into our clothes, our hair, our lungs, there’s nothing that will get it out.

From preserving tattoos after death, to skin care regimens that cost more than the allotted food stamp budget for a family, to covering ourselves in other species’ skins (not to mention SUVs and Hummers on the road), we are feeling threatened. From the novels that insist we must kill another to survive, to rich people paying the poor for their organs, to fat-hatred (there’s a heartbreaking snapshot of one train rider complaining that another rider is fat and assuming, erroneously of course, that’s a sign of wealth), we devalue each other. For some reason, we can’t see that one creates the other.

The Golden Rule was not a Christian invention; for one thing, it was taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and for another, virtually every religion has some version of “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s one of those things that’s really hard to put into practice, however, especially when we’re scared and feel as though our very skin is threatened. But it’s perhaps our best bet at protection. And, in another bizarre twist of human psychology, we seem unable to learn that.

Granted, I may have missed the entire point; I’m no expert here. I just react to what I read. Frankly, Ugresic’s essay, read at a time when hate seems to be conquering everything in its path, depressed me thoroughly. Maybe I’m just looking for some glimmer of light, in a very dark room.