The Penultimate Scene

My second year of grad school I gave birth to our first baby the second week. I had a teaching fellowship which was the only reason we had health insurance and I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) take a leave. My boss had agreed to let me work in the writing center that semester, instead of teach a class, and all my professors had been advised that I might miss a class. 

We ended up with a pretty tricky labor and a c-section and my husband drove me up to school the first few days. Our now almost nine year old loves to hear the stories of her nursing and her chirping in various seminars and workshops those first weeks. 

It was, of course, exhausting. We lived far from campus and the commute was long and I often missed my stop because I fell asleep. I was pumping every chance I got, between classes, between writing center sessions. On one particularly complicated day, I was reassigned to run my consulting sessions from the library where I did not have a pump room (there were two designated pump rooms on the whole campus and I mostly used generous bosses’ and professors’ offices). I had five minutes between students and was sprinting from librarian to librarian with my pump slung over my shoulder, leaking through two layers of breast pads, trying to explain I needed a clean quiet place. A lovely art historian, also a mother, offered me her cubicle only to have an undergrad lean over the particle wall once the sound of the pump started and have him blanch and run away. 

I did a whole semester mostly without thinking. My husband was still traveling for work. I got mastitis and infections; like most every other newly minted mother, I hardly ever got to sleep. It felt magic, also. I forget this part sometimes. But I read TS Eliot out loud at 2 and 3 and 4 am while nursing. I read our few-week-old Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, not because I’m so precious as to think I should be reading, instead of watching Bravo, with our baby, but because I was assigned these books and if I didn’t read them out loud I’d fall asleep. I talked through the papers and the novel I was writing with her. She was a lump. But, really, mostly, I talked to her non-stop because I had no one else to talk to then. I had friends, but not yet the sort that one could ask to come sit with you while you nursed in the middle of the day. Some of the friends that I have now are the people who came sometimes and did that anyway. 

Anyway. We had our baby in September. The semester ended four months after that. The last night of the semester--I stayed late to work at the writing center one night a week; it was winter in New York so it was dark--my friend had drawn me the most perfect card. I opened it and I started sobbing and I did not stop the whole way home. 

That whole semester, I’d not thought much about how tired I was or how lonely. I’d not thought about the chafing from the breast pump, or the way sometimes I felt like I’d fall over on the subway, the way sometimes, when meeting with a student, helping with a paper on music theory or philosophy, I’d briefly fall asleep. But that day--my friend had drawn a breast, with milk arcing from it, gushing, a lovely note below the arc--I broke a little bit. 

I think, I said to her, I’m just breaking now because I can. We had six weeks off before the beginning of the new semester. We were driving down to Florida where I’d have help. I’d have only to take care of the baby. I’d have my mother in law, cooking for us, weather warm enough that I could strap the baby in the running stroller and go running and be quiet and not think in the middle of the day. 

This whole story sounds silly, reading through it. Just another mother. Just another story that I tell in which nursing features prominently. The world right now feels exponentially more tiring. But the way I’m breaking now, reminds me of that night. 

My husband and I are both vaccinated. We’re relocated again, to Portland, Maine this time, which is vertiginous and strange—it’s very cold—but also, for the first time in months, he is employed. I’m on my own with the kids and remote school again but I have signed them up for so much summer camp my hope is they will come home everyday so tired they can’t speak. 

When I talk to students about endings I often talk to them about how little an ending’s success or failure has to do with the actual last scene. Endings are contingent on beginnings, and on middles; often, with my favorite endings, they’re heavily contingent on the penultimate scene. My favorite ever penultimate scene is Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”: before the joyful ending, and good fucking god who doesn’t crave, right now, a slightly joyful something, there is a moment that undercuts the joy, reminds the reader that it’s transient, just a fleeting instant. It’s the only reason, I would argue, Moore gets away with what she gets away with in that final scene. 

The world feels so profoundly broken I can’t breathe most days and I’ve been crying after I put the kids down each night. I deleted Twitter. I’ve limited my news intake. You know all the reasons that this feels like this. It feels worse than ever, even as we’re getting the first glimpse of relief. Why does the world have so many problems, asked our six year old the other day. 

But this is not about that: it’s about the way the problems hit you at weird moments, how you just put your head down and keep going because what the fuck else are you supposed to do besides put your head down and keep going, until, suddenly, you can’t breathe. It’s about the moment just before the other maybe bigger moment; the moment that you’re close enough to something separate or new or different that you start to look at what the time up until now has been and some part of you breaks. 

Not Writing

I’m not writing right now. I’m taking notes. I’m reading a lot, watching lots of bad TV after the kids go to sleep. I don’t mind not writing because it feels like part of writing to me. Because the world, right now, everything: I’m trying to take it in; I’ve been quite sad.

No one ever has to write a novel. No one has to write a second or a third, and, if they do, no one has to publish it. If it gets published, no one has to give a shit. It’s a strange thing to do, and to continue doing, knowing all of this. Sometimes, usually on a run, I try to hold that idea in my head, to roll around in it: what would it feel like, to just be quiet, to just listen, from now on. 

It’s sort of extraordinary, to remember and then to try to make sense of that feeling of I don’t have to do this. That feeling that, each time I choose again to do this, it involves a level of insanity, of self-delusion, an almost obscene level of self-importance, that I can’t quite look at head on. I have to do this because it is my job, but my job is also teaching, it’s also writing about other people’s work, reading, talking to other writers about their work. 

I think often about critics who started out as fiction writers, the ones who don’t write fiction any more, the idea presented by plenty of smarter people before me that an important and necessary step of Becoming a Writer is acknowledging how far your work is from the work you want to make and deciding whether you want to double down now that you know how impossible the work in front of you still is, or to just get out. 

I don’t think that “getting out” is anything approximating failure. I think it’s smart and self-protective, and not in the patronizing, secretly doubting one’s courage or whatever bullshit way that might be read. I mean it truly. I think not writing, stopping writing, finding other ways of telling stories or creating intimacy, engaging with the conversation, deciding to be in the actual world instead, is a completely admirable and sometimes necessary choice. 

It feels important to remind myself that this isn’t a thing I have to do, if only to appreciate the urgency I also feel when I feel again like I have to finish something at all costs. It feels important to find my way back to the place that, when I do make something again, it’s because it’s something I feel desperate suddenly to be making, that--and please know I recognize that this feels more spiritual or whatever than I am--it has to be about the thing, and not about whether or not anyone will ever give a shit.

Another way of saying maybe what I’m trying to say is, when I am outside of a project, the remembering I don’t have to do this feels important. It is a reminder too that I don’t just want to Make Something but I want to Make Something Good; it’s a reminder that I don’t often trust I can. I think it gets harder and harder, as one gets older, maybe in all things, to drown out the voices that might tell you that you will inevitably fail (I know already that I’ll always fail; getting back inside of something is largely finding a way to convince myself I might fail a little better this time around).

I’m not saying this in order that someone respond here and offer me encouragement. That’s a lovely impulse but I’m fine. I say this because I know a lot of people that I know and love are in a similar circumstance and it feels worth saying that that chasm is huge and mawing, sometimes it feels awful, but also, I think it’s just one of many necessary steps. 

Anyway. Instead of writing, I’ve been reading. Often, reading is the way I find my way back. So much is so awful and one of the worst things for me has been the isolation. It’s felt like a pretty extraordinary gift in this particular time to be a person who gets to and loves to read, to get to hear from other people, to feel close to them, even as we can’t.

I thought I’d offer some of it down here; if I’ve been going on and on in this space (no doubt to the point that some of you have stopped opening these emails) about offerings, I think maybe one thing I feel up to giving right now is the particular gift of what other people have to say. 

A friend of mine, Jordan Kisner, is also a brilliant essayist and journalist. Her collection of essays, Thin Places, came out a year ago, and comes out in paperback soon. It’s so sharp and deeply felt and I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough. 

This essay that Jordan also wrote, on Silvia Federici and waged housework I’ve had open in a tab for weeks, returning to and re-considering it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/17/magazine/waged-housework.html

I love George Suanders and also love to be challenged with regard to the things I love and this Jennifer Wilson essay on the Empathy Industrial Complex felt so exciting and necessary and shifted something for me:  

https://www.bookforum.com/print/2801/george-saunders-looks-for-life-lessons-in-russian-literature-24370

This Katy Waldman piece about the show Dickinson, which, after reading this, I started watching and am obsessed with:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/alena-smiths-subversive-dickinson

This Namwali Serpell essay on the Pixar move “Soul” felt like a master class in thoughtful, lacerating criticism:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/pixars-troubled-soul

This Hannah Gold interview with Vivian Gornick:

https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/vivian-gornick-taking-long-look-interview/

Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child; there’s so much about this book I love, not least the sentences, which pretty continually stunned me, but also the deliberateness and care with which it was built. I talked to Jessica about it for Lithub here: but also, you can just buy the book here

Other books that came out recently and that I found to be pretty wonderful in different ways: 

Justine, by Forsyth Harmon

What’s Mine is Yours, Naima Coster

Brood, Jackie Polzin

Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan

I’ve been kind of obsessively reading books about and by writers and visual artists and some that were really wonderful, I thought, were: 

Hold Still, Sally Man

Faux Pas, Amy Sillman

Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez

I read Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women years ago and wrote about it and clearly none of you read that because only now does everyone seem to be reading the book, so this is me re-upping on my belief that it is amazing and well worth the investment that its size demands. 

The Power of Adrienne Rich, Hillary Holladay

The Woman Who Says No, Malte Herwig

Being Here is Everything, Marie Darrieussecq

The Equivalents, Maggie Doherty

My Friend

My friend died a couple of weeks ago. She was in her nineties, lived a good long life. She was my husband’s family friend whom I got to know the year I had a new baby and my husband’s mother took me and my eight month old up to her friend’s house in Maine while my husband travelled for work. Her husband is a filmmaker, my friend, and he traveled often also. We stayed in their old family house up on top of a blueberry field for two weeks. 

My friend was a law professor, brilliant, loving, warm and unrelenting. The day we met we talked for hours. Our oldest daughter was eight months old, and, at one point, so engrossed were we, my mother in law, my friend, and I, that we looked over to find the baby--to whom we’d forgotten to pay as close attention--gnawing on the lip of an empty beer bottle she’d found in the recycling. 

I want to mourn my friend, to celebrate her, but also, I knew her hardly at all. She lived over ninety years but I only knew her the past seven. Her hearing was bad the last few years and, one of the last times we spoke, I was at MOMA, sitting by myself in front of one of my favorite Joan Mitchell paintings and she called me and I answered, but she couldn’t hear me, so I yelled and people turned and stared. I knew she would have loved the Joan Mitchells and I wanted to talk to her about them. I’d just read a book about Mitchell and wanted to tell my friend about that--she was a voracious, constant reader, my friend, her Maine house was teeming with books--but she just kept asking me to repeat myself. We hung up. 

 I’d sold my novel a couple of months prior, which was part of why she’d called me. That summer, again in Maine, again staying at her house--it was the fifth year we’d spent at least some time with her--we’d gone for a drive after my then-agent told me that the book I’d written wasn’t the direction she thought I should go and I’d cried to my friend that I felt unmoored, lost. 

In my experience, said my friend, this isn’t a direct quote, but it’s a memory. It’s strange, how much sadder it feels now, that I can’t quite remember, that I won’t ever hear words and syntax in the specific way that she built words and syntax when she talked, that we can’t go on drives like this. But she told me, in all the years she’d spent married to her husband, surrounded by artists and writers and painters, the only work she’d ever had much interest in was the work that it was clear to her the maker had no choice but make. 

I got another agent not long after this conversation. We sold that book. It came out last year. I’d called my friend to tell her but she hadn’t answered and I’d left a message. She’d called me back as I sat in front of the Joan Mitchells. It felt perfect, but then she couldn’t hear the things I said. I called her again once I’d left the museum. I’m so happy, she said. It was cold out. I was walking to the subway. People turned and stared again, because, again, I was yelling. I cried a little on the street. 

Another friend of mine, who knew about my friendship with this friend, who I texted, when my friend died, called a few days later to see how I was doing. She wanted to know the last time I’d seen my friend, if, I don’t think either of us knew what she was asking, if, maybe, it felt like we’d seen each other enough or something before she died. We hadn’t, of course. She couldn’t go to Maine this year because of Covid. Since the moment that I met her, I’d wished I knew my friend my whole life. I wished I’d had her to call all those other times I was driving in a car trying to figure out my life. I wished I could sit with her in the kitchen, looking out over the hill where her house sat, talking about everything. 

Once again, this letter isn’t about anything but what’s been written. I’ve been thinking so much this year about friendship, loneliness, isolation, and connection. I’ve lost touch with some friends, feel separate from them. I have lost some friends, full stop. I speak to some friends on the phone more than I ever have before this. Friend is one of those slippery elastic words that means nothing really. We have some friends, a few years. We have some friends our whole lives. There’s this feeling, maybe, that it’s more okay to absence ourselves from friendships than it is to absence ourselves from family, but then what of those of us who’ve never quite had hold of the word family. Some of us walk around often with a feeling that we can’t trust any of these words and that at any point everyone we love might leave us. The word friend can feel dull and flimsy in the face of that. 

My friend moved around often. She taught in Cambridge then in Austin. Her husband spent a good amount of time in France. They had friends all over the country, the world; she was often on the phone when I got up each morning in Maine, talking to someone in a different time zone. The last couple of years she was often traveling to friends’ funerals. This whole time, trapped inside our houses, I’ve been thinking the only thing I want is to love well and better. My friend did that daily. I’m so glad and grateful that I got the chance to learn from her.

Rat Knot

The last time we were in Florida for an extended period of time I itched a hole in my head each night while our children slept until it bled. We had a newborn and a not-quite two year old and it was summer, which meant my husband was gone for weeks for work. We were here, in part, so I could be close to my in-laws. Every night, close to bedtime, I would strap the kids into the car and drive the two blocks to their house from the one where we lived. They would help me feed and bathe the children, my mother in law would cook.

Our youngest daughter only ever slept when she could feel and smell me. She only fell asleep while nursing, and then she’d wake up and wail the moment I tried to put her in the crib. We’re past this time now so there’s no need to send me the various strategies to avoid this. We tried plenty. But for eleven months I mostly never slept. 

In the mornings, I would boil five or six eggs to make sure that I was eating, to make sure the toddler got protein, as each day passed in that particular shapeless mush of very young kids. Most mornings, I would strap both of them into the double running stroller we’d bought on craigslist and run and walk for hours. The baby, who had the most perfect rolls of fat all over, was not supposed to wear sunscreen, and the visor on the stroller, which was seven or eight years old when we got it, was broken, and her legs turned a warm nut brown from all those walks. 

My husband coached sailing then to make a living. In addition to this being our only source of income, he loved this job a lot. He was in Curacao that summer, Italy, California, at least one or two other islands and European countries that I can’t remember now. 

I was angry at him almost always. It wasn’t his fault I was angry. We had two tiny babies and he was skyping me from hotel rooms with ocean views and calling me from outside restaurants where he’d gone to have a meal with colleagues and he’d laugh sometimes, a little drunk after a long day on the water, and I was often furious with him. 

The head-itching started when we were still in Brooklyn. I had a meeting, when the baby was five weeks old, with an editor who was interested in my first novel, and I stayed up itching my head the night before, anxious. The baby wasn’t sleeping and I was nursing and then pumping and then going through my closet in my head, trying to imagine what of my clothing I could possibly fit into after having given birth. 

I wore three layers of breast pads to keep from leaking at the meeting. I wore a cardigan, in case the milk came through my dress, but it was hot and humid and I sweat. The night before, the itching had resulted in a knot as well in my then very long thick hair and I hadn’t had the time to unknot it. I’d been in the shower, trying to un-knot it, but the baby was crying from outside the bathroom and I’d started leaking milk again; I had to feed her, and also pump in case she got hungry while I was gone. I had to make sure the toddler had everything she needed. I tied my hair up in a bun and went to the city from our Brooklyn apartment on the subway, fixing and re-fixing my breast pads, hair still in a knot. 

I kept meaning, then, to deal with it, the knot. I must have, in the months that followed, worked at it, pulling strands out of what was by then a larger and larger messy nest. The knot was still there though and I was still itching months after that meeting. It mostly happened at night, sitting up with all my husband’s pillows and my own behind me because he was somewhere far away again, I’d dig my nails into my head until blood appeared beneath my fingernails and then I’d try hard to stop. 

Maybe it’s worth adding here that meeting with the editor didn’t work out. No one bought that novel that time. It would be another nine-ish months before someone did. So then I was a failed not even novelist, in addition to alone with a newborn and a toddler, in addition to not having slept in months. Every day I tied my hair up tighter and tighter to keep my nested knotted mess a secret from my in-laws and my husband on the days that he was back. 

This story has gotten longer than I meant it. It feels even more self-indulgent. I remember, at the time, thinking there was something in all this worth unpacking, but time passes. Mostly, I was too tired to think too much about it then. 

Sometimes the only way to see clearly what a moment holds inside of it is to feel separate from it. It was all so small and local, the overwhelm and isolation. My friends were mostly in New York and none of them had children. I had one friend, here, who I’d hardly known before I got here, but her visits, once a week or so to hold the baby and to let our toddlers play together, it’s hard to say clearly how much they meant to me then. I kept losing weight from all the nursing and the walking and the running and not ever having time for full meals. I got dizzy often, almost passed out. I was lonely, mostly, which I think is why I’ve been thinking about that time so much. 

Anyway. The knot was still there months later. It was Fall I think when I finally told my husband. He was home more often. We’d had the fights about all the things we needed to have fights about and moved to some other place that felt less scary, felt more solid. Our toddler was in “school” a few days a week which meant we could breathe a little better. My husband wasn’t traveling as much. 

I have to show you something, I said to him one day. I’d no doubt just been running and had gotten in the shower, only to realize for the thousandth time at that point that there was no unknotting. I think the baby was napping and our toddler was at pre-school. I showed him the knot. 

He cut it out is the end of the story. He found some hair cutting scissors in a drawer somewhere in the house and we took a picture of it: it was, he said then, I think we were laughing, the size of a small rat. My hair was uneven but I wore it up still. It felt better: not reaching up each night to find the knotted mess of it. 

There is no great lesson here, no revelation. I hate even the idea of that. This is not about some great metaphor hidden inside this story. It is really only that I wanted to write to you about that knot. It remained difficult, that time, having very small young children, in the same way that it’s hard for most everyone. It was also, of course, magic, watching them forming. Sometimes, now, I miss it--those tiny perfect bodies, the heft and smell and sounds of them. It was nice to be able to spend those hours outside walking, all that time alone, completely silent, with my babies, to be married to a person who would so carefully and thoughtfully, not talking, brush my wet hair after he cut out that knot. 

It feels far away too, that time. That baby sleeps now, talks and reads; she just built a model rocket ship. I think this letter, like all the others of these lately, is about the strange and certain doggedness of time, how I’ve been trying to find hope there. The sludge of it as long as you are in it; the shock of looking back and realizing--that murky, muddy, knotted mess it used to seem like--how far away, eventually, it is.

Taking Pictures

I have been taking very bad pictures of Florida and posting them on Instagram. This is not new I guess. It is what lots of people do. They are not bad so much as jarringly mediocre. Florida is in so many ways so beautiful and then I take a picture and all of it is wrong, a mess of plants, the water doesn’t look as blue, I catch the light at the wrong angle, the landscape looks too staid and dull. 

This is silly, I guess. I’m a writer. I understand that seeing and feeling something is not the same as being able to hold it or to offer it to other people. I keep taking pictures though. Sometime a few days ago I decided I would take a picture a day, post it online, regardless of how bad, how mediocre. I want to have a document of this time and I want to force myself to see how difficult it is to hold anything well enough to offer it to other people. I want to do this so that when I write about this place later I can keep myself accountable, to be able to look back on these photos and attempt to make sense of the sensations of right now. 

I haven’t wanted to write one of these for the same reasons. Because I’m not sure of the sensations, because I’m not sure how to hold them well. Because it’s so much monotony and blandness, but also, intense and awful and specific. Because our lives are fine enough amidst so much that is not.

Through a strange confluence of circumstances that feel mostly just like what our lives are, we’ve been living in a mostly empty rental. We got a bed from my husband’s mom’s friend, some cheap bunk beds online. All our stuff is still in storage in New York and we were meant to stay at my husband’s parents’ friends’ and then my husband’s parents’, but best laid plans, etc. and these plans weren’t especially well thought out. 

We have a foldout table where the kids do school and a couple weeks ago my mother in law found a couch and a couple chairs at a thrift store. It’s starting to look homey, I said yesterday as we set up a bookshelf another friend of my husband’s mother leant us. It’s not our home, said our six year old. 

It’s not. 

It’s this weird other space in this weird other time we’re living in. I hate this place, said our eight year old the other night at dinner. We were sitting outside eating. It was a perfect night, warm but breezy. We’d spent the afternoon swimming at the beach. I mentioned some of this to her. I miss snow, she said. 

What she misses, too, maybe, what I miss, is the feeling that one gets of feeling like you have a place that holds something of who you are, of where you know you have to go, inside of it. It’s something I’ve come a long way in thinking holds value. For years, I, and then my husband and I, were itinerant, we hardly ever stayed in a place long enough to put pictures on the walls. We were in Florida then New Orleans, then so many different New York apartments. We were often somewhere else in summer for his job. 

Time and space are the two things I’m thinking about non-stop now, how we hold it, what we do with it, what happens to it once it’s gone. Our kids aren’t babies any longer. We’ve already failed, for this not insignificant portion of their lives, to give them a clear and solid sense of home. There’s so much about parenthood that’s quietly sad but also fine enough up close. They eat more processed foods than we meant; they use screens too much. But the idea of this big thing that I see now I wanted, maybe meant to give them, and we didn’t. That holds a different weight because it’s gone. I can’t go back and give it to them now. 

Giving things to people: that’s too what these letters are supposed to be about; an offering, I’ve said over and over. I think I’ve not been writing because I’m not sure what I have to give you, because I want to have something solid before I offer it. 

I’m working on a thing and in that space of thinking, in each scene, how can I press it slightly harder? What’s the impulse past the first that feels actual instead of made up. I did an interview with a writer (also my friend) I respect a lot and we talked about this. Books that feel like what life is versus books that feel like what a writer imagines life might be. This is, maybe more than any other thing, what interests me in fiction writing, pressing into spaces that feel closer to life than life even is willing to get sometimes. I think that’s why so many books infuriate me, movies too, because they feel too cultivated and curated, because so little of life feels like that to me. But then also, I want to write books with shape and texture such that they still feel like books, they offer pleasure. This is, I think, the whole tension, where all the work lives, in what I try to make. It’s a tension in my life as well. I want to talk about things. To say things out loud and sometimes that means not being as careful or as nice as other people. I’ve been thinking, too, about what that means. 

Once, I tried to propose an essay collection around the idea of the construction: not only, but also, which, I was told, was not that sexy; like most of my ideas, it wasn’t really marketable. But my belief in it remains. I’m taking pictures now because I’m so unimpressed by my capacity in taking pictures, because I’m playing with how absurd I find Instagram to be. But also, I’m doing it because I think pictures are capable of holding something, because I’m interested in, even as it’s silly most of the time and perpetuates so much of what I hate about being a person right now and especially a writer, I also want to see what other things that Instagram might be. We’re living in an empty rental, my kids sense of home is skewed and fluid, but also, it’s warm and we go outside, go swimming. I’ve failed to give my kids all sorts of things since they were born, but also, I’m glad to give them this small slice of Florida and their grandparents right now. My desperate need to always value what feels true has hurt me plenty, can be alienating. It’s hurt people that I love as well. But also, the relationships I do have still feel the better for it. But also, I’m not sure I know how else to be. 

 

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