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Rebecca Makkai’s third novel, The Great Believers, travels between 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, following a group of friends impacted by the AIDS crisis. The main characters, Yale and Fiona, confront the disease and its impact on their friends and family, as they struggle to make the best of their own lives. With its themes of reconciliation and redemption, and its focus on subjects such as activism and access to healthcare, the book feels spookily relevant in the age of Trump.
Makkai has created a gorgeous and compassionate narrative, one which asks how we can move forward from disaster.
She recently talked with the Rumpus about her research methods, how she arrived at the book’s structure, and her attachment to the story and its characters.
The Rumpus: This novel is strongly grounded in the history of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the response of the Chicago gay community during that time. In your acknowledgments, you recognize some of the folks that helped you learn the history. Can you describe how you started your research and how you found and approached your resources?
Rebecca Makkai: When I started the book, it didn’t focus as much on the AIDS epidemic. Originally, it had much more to do with this art scene in Paris in the 1920s that is referenced in the book. But slowly the AIDS plot line took over, and I went into that research pretty naively.
First of all, I assumed I’d be able to go to the library and find a lot about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. In terms of book-length work about AIDS in Chicago, though, I found very little. There was one short documentary, Short Fuse, about the founder of Chicago ACT UP that I did manage to watch, and which I reference in the Acknowledgments. During the time when I was writing, a graphic memoir came out from an AIDS nurse in Chicago (Taking Turns by M. K. Czerwiec). There are many books about Chicago history and about Chicago LGBTQ history that have a few pages devoted to the AIDS epidemic.
But because there was so little out there, it forced me to do some real legwork, which I think is essential for this project, and honestly for any project where you’re writing about real situations. So I went to the Harold Washington Library. They have on file every back issue of the Windy City Times, which is our largest gay weekly in Chicago. It started in 1985, which happens to be when the novel starts. I sat down and read every issue from ‘85 to about ‘92. I also threw a bat signal out on social media saying I wanted to talk to people. It was hard, at first, because I have tons of gay friends, but they weren’t necessarily the right age or hadn’t lived in Chicago during that time.
Rumpus: So what happened?
Makkai: I sat down with several people, each time getting one step closer. And finally, I hit the jackpot when a writer-friend introduced me to these two men, Dr. David Moore and Dr. David Blatt. They’re married, and they were the founders of the AIDS Unit at Illinois Masonic, which became the model for AIDS treatment around the country and around the world. They were incredible, and invited me to their apartment twice and let me interview them forever. They hooked me up with some activists, with a charge nurse from the unit, and with the art therapist from the unit.
Towards the end, one of the most amazing things happened. I had this photo as my laptop wallpaper that’s of, I believe it’s five guys outdoors at night at a candlelight vigil. I knew who one of them was. This is a person who I knew was not alive anymore. I was trying to find online who the other people were, and I had names for some of them. Specifically, I knew the name of one guy in the back row, Bill McMillan, but I didn’t know if he’d survived.
Meanwhile, I was working on a scene late in my book at this ACT UP march against the American Medical Association in ’90, where a bunch of guys from ACT UP walked into the County Building dressed as straight businessmen. They got up on a ledge with a banner and took off their dress shirts to show their ACT UP shirts underneath. I’d been watching a YouTube video of that protest obsessively because I’d been writing the scene.
Anyway, I had this photo on my laptop, and an amazing lawyer I was interviewing saw the photo and asked if I wanted to talk to Bill McMillan. He was still around. The only survivor from the photo. And it turned out he was one of the guys out on the ledge with the banner. At that point, I’d been staring at this photo for two years and watching the video for months. Bill met me in a restaurant to talk, and it was as if someone walked out of an iconic painting to talk to me. He’s an incredible person; he was a hairdresser who became an essential ACT UP activist. And he’s still a hairdresser.
My initial frustration with research became a blessing. I wasn’t able to sit back and rely on the historical version of events. Even if I’d read the same information in a book, there’s something fundamentally different about sitting across from the real people involved and talking to them about it.
Rumpus: Circling back a little bit, you said The Great Believers originally started out as a book about the group of Paris artists and then it morphed. Could you explain how that transition happened?
Makkai: I got the original spark for story right after I finished my second novel. In a cab, between my agent’s place in Chelsea and Grand Central Station, I passed this very tall, thin woman with ebony skin, really beautiful. I’m not sure if I was right, but my thought was, “My God, this is an international superstar model. This person is incredible.”
I started to think about the life of models and then specifically about artists’ models and what it would be like to not be an artist but to embrace the role of muse instead. I thought about women who didn’t necessarily have the access to arts training, or those who lived in times when they wouldn’t be taken seriously, for example the 1920s, and how being a muse might have been its own art form.
So the original idea was about a woman who’d been an artist model back in Paris in the ‘20s, who at the end of her life must become an advocate for the art she helped create. This ended up being the character Nora in my novel. I did the math, realized she would be an old woman in the 1980s, she couldn’t live much past that, and started to think about her relationship with the gallery director who would be buying the art.
But one point early on, I was telling my husband my basic idea. I said, “There’s this woman, there’s this painting of her, but no one believe it’s her. She’s trying to convince them that it was her…” He stopped me and said, “Honey, that’s the plot of Titanic.”
It was kind of devastating. But by that point I was already starting to focus more on the gallery director, and to think about what he might be like and to think about Chicago in the 1980s. I began to research the AIDS crisis. The more I discovered, the more the story took shape. I realized that’s where I wanted it to go.
Rumpus: There are many artists in The Great Believers, but the two main characters are administrators. Yale works in development for a university gallery, and Fiona raises money for Howard Brown health center. Was it a conscious choice to take both of these characters one step away from the creation of art?
Makkai: That’s a good question. Not really. The ‘20s artists originally played a much larger role. Even in a late draft I had a lot more about Modigliani and Soutine. Ultimately, I cut that back because it wasn’t the heart of the novel.
It wasn’t a conscious decision make Yale something other than an artist. He was a character who arose exactly where I needed him to be. His role as an administrator came about because Nora, the model, needed him.
Fiona is our 2015 character, and was not central to the book at all originally. She kept popping up, though: she’s in the first chapter at a party that’s important for the plot. Then she came back in another scene at a benefit where Yale ends up crying on her shoulder. I’d given her this detail, about her long earrings and her brother who had died, and he always told her that her earrings would get caught on something. The detail intrigued me.
I’d written about half of Yale’s chapters, thinking it was just his book, when I started having a crisis of confidence. I had a lot of concerns about writing across difference, and if I were only telling his story I wondered if that felt too much like an attempt at ventriloquism. I considered adding another voice. It’s funny because it was a move born out of fear, but I loved the result. I loved the echo chamber it created because of the thirty-year time gap. I loved that Fiona inhabited the future, or what would be the future of 1985, and is able to tell us what happened to everybody.
So I didn’t think about the distance between Fiona and the world of the art. She is, however, someone who has not fully processed her emotions. She’s living in the aftermath of her life and her decisions. As artist, she would have had to process her emotions in order to create decent art. It was important to me that she be someone who hadn’t dealt with her trauma. On instinct, I don’t think I would’ve allowed her to be an artist because an artist wouldn’t have been as messy. Not that artists all have their act together. Just… she wouldn’t have repressed as much.
Rumpus: A number of public tragedies color the background of the book (the AIDS crisis, WWI, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and the Bataclan club shooting in Paris). Were those events in your mind early in the planning of the story?
Makkai: The AIDS epidemic was important from the beginning, and fairly early on, I realized that, for my 1920s model, there were several years where no one made art. World War I occurred, and a lot of people were dying of the flu.
I tend to outline partly in a Google calendar. I enter what my characters are doing on different days. That method became really important with this book, especially because I needed to know how long particular characters would be waiting for things like HIV test results. I also entered historical events on the calendar, and I realized Yale is supposed to be in Wisconsin interviewing Nora when the Challenger shuttle explodes. It ended up being one of the weirdest scenes in the entire book. It might be my favorite scene, actually.
Then for Bataclan, I was staying at a residency at Ragdale Foundation in the fall of 2015, writing the 2015 sections. I wrote them largely in real time, trying to writing Fiona’s day by the end of that actual day. As I was writing, the terror attacks happened.
At first I didn’t include them; this didn’t seem to have anything to do with my book. Later, I considered moving the events to a different year to avoid the attacks, but I didn’t want to be writing specifically about the 2016 presidential election or its aftermath. There was also severe flooding in Paris in early 2016. It started to make sense to write the attacks into the book. (They’re in the background, but they do affect the action.) Ultimately, it worked with some of my emerging themes. My characters are trying to live their lives while the disasters of the world are encroaching.
Rumpus: Another of the themes of the book is family, particularly how Fiona’s connections to her brother Nico and her connection with Yale, who is a kind of chosen family, affect her relationship with her daughter.
Makkai: I think the topic was naturally going to come up with this story, if only because I was writing about a population of people who’ve largely been excommunicated from their biological families and have needed to form new ones. On top of that, at this period in time, those chosen families are being broken apart by illness. When your friends are all you have, that puts so much more weight on them, and on romantic relationships.
Originally Fiona wasn’t as connected to the other characters. As I revised, I decided the character Nico (whose funeral takes place early in the book) would be her brother, and that the elderly woman, the model Nora would be her great aunt. Fiona became a way to draw the world closer together.
Her family became central to the book; her brother, her great aunt, her daughter are all characters. In contrast, Yale really does not have a family presence. We hear his father once on the phone.
What’s interesting, though, is that by 2015 Fiona has very little family left herself. Her brother is gone, her parents are gone, and she’s really ruined her relationship with her daughter, in part because of the trauma from her early twenties that she hasn’t dealt with.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Makkai: I’m working on a couple of short stories and am playing around with a few different novel ideas. I think it’ll be hard for me to transition into something new because I love this book so much. I don’t mean that in terms of the writing I did, but the real people I interviewed and the characters who sprang up in the wake of those talks. Writing the book felt quite urgent, even though it’s a historical subject. I’m going to have to work hard on the next project not to make it feel more frivolous to me in some way. I’m not going to be content to write something that doesn’t achieve the same importance for me personally.
When I was a little kid, I used to ride around my block shirtless on my Big Wheel—until one of the neighbors complained to my mom that it wasn’t appropriate. She made me wear a halter top, but I would ditch it behind some shrubs as soon as she was out of sight. I didn’t fit in, but perhaps as a concession to my desire to be “one of the boys,” she finally bought me a T-shirt that said, “I can beat up any boy on the block.” Needless to say, adolescence was a nightmare.
When my mom realized that hide and seek had given way to boy-girl parties, and Spin the Bottle to Seven Minutes in Heaven, she armed me with Teen Form bras, puffy sleeve shirts, and prairie skirts. She also offered me a perm and Sun-In, but Jovan was completely out of the question. Musk, like tampons, was strictly for sluts… Not that maintaining my feminine virtue was difficult. In sixth grade, I may have only weighed eighty pounds, but I had already broken the Kinsey Scale.
I finally found my tribe in college, and the outside world seemed to be changing, too. In my late twenties, I met a woman and we fell in love. We became domestically partnered, then civilly unioned, then Massachusetts married, and then eventually our marriage was recognized federally. We did many of the things “regular” people do, including having children.
Before I had kids of my own, I always thought I would raise them gender neutral, but in my experience that didn’t work. When I would have lunch with my friends who had daughters, their kids seemed perfectly happy to sit quietly and scribble away in their coloring books. My boys would immediately turn their crayons into projectiles.
When it came to video games, I tried to steer them toward the educational kind, encouraging them to shoot letters and numbers rather than humans. Despite my best intentions, they’d often receive “manly” gifts from well-meaning people who wanted to make sure the two-mom thing wasn’t stunting their masculinity.
At one point they had so many toy guns my wife and I organized a buy-back program. We also bought them a fuchsia tutu, adding it to the dress-up box alongside the firemen outfits and spacesuits. My oldest son took a liking to it, and started wearing it over his cis-gender clothing.
When he was about to start kindergarten, we’d heard that our neighborhood school was ranked among the best in the city. Our neighbors all agreed, yet mysteriously none sent their own kids there.
I figured out why pretty quickly. I couldn’t find my son at pickup on the first day of school. He’d been parked outside of his classroom in a canvas chair—a miniature replica of the kind that comes with a side arm pocket for your beer.
I learned that this “take a break” chair was only one of the school’s disciplinary mechanisms, doled out by non-teaching assistants known only by sobriquets like “Sensei” and “Mrs. M,” to manage the kids who were too loud, too fidgety, or just too bored to sit still and silent.
He learned virtually nothing in class, and compounding matters, he spontaneously decided to begin wearing his tutu every day. Walking him to school in the morning was a daily reenactment of my own childhood alienation, as the boys in his class stared at the both of us—the boy who dressed like a girl and his mom who looked like a boy.
I didn’t want to respond as my mother had responded to me—with a sartorial makeover designed to erase his difference and stifle his individuality. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to experience the alienation I felt as a kid, and felt again in these moments as an adult.
Had the school been fantastic, or even okay, my ambivalence about what to do would have been greater. But no matter what they’re wearing, any kid who’s spending most of his school days sitting outside of his classroom in a folding chair isn’t going to thrive. And my son’s time inside the classroom wasn’t much better.
With no options for a transfer in sight, my wife and I became desperate to get him into any private school that would offer us financial aid. Eventually he got an interview at a progressive school, and when I saw their reaction as he walked in wearing his tutu over his dress clothes, I knew he had a shot.
The whole car ride back to his home school, he talked excitedly about how much he loved the progressive school, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of relief—like maybe, just maybe things were going to work out.
When we arrived, his classroom was empty, and he remembered it was time for PE. He said he could walk himself to the gym, but I insisted on taking him. When I opened the door, all of the kids were sitting silently on the floor as Mrs. M patrolled the room from her folding chair.
A couple of the kids started pointing and laughing at us, and then more joined in. Their laughter started reverberating off the walls, and I began to feel like I was underwater. I wanted more than anything to protect my son. And I was having all kinds of terrible thoughts in my head, about handling the situation the way we used to when I was a kid, when slights—even perceived slights—were resolved with more than a warning on a T-shirt.
At that moment, Mrs. M suddenly screamed, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!!! DO YOU HEAR ME? SHUT THE FUCK UP!!! ALL OF YOU!!!”
Of course I was horrified. But I was also deeply grateful because she said exactly what I wanted to say and couldn’t. And, in fact, the kids did shut the fuck up.
From that day on, I never worried about my son’s physical safety. But I still worried about how his experiences at the school would shape his attitude about education, his self-concept, and how to deal with conflict. Sometimes sticking it out to be part of the solution is worth it, and sometimes the solution is to put your kid’s well-being over your politics.
The following year my son went to the progressive school. He thrived there socially and academically, and at some point he just stopped wearing the tutu. I didn’t ask him why he stopped just as I didn’t ask him why he started. Maybe the tutu was an expression of his individuality, but not necessarily his gender. Maybe he just grew out of it—literally. Or maybe he’ll revisit all of this again down the road.
The thing I’ve learned about kids is that you only ever get a glimpse of the grown-up people they’ll become. You can try and force them to conform to your value system, whatever that may be, or you can support them as they struggle to find their own way in the world. My son is in the fifth grade now, and he has only a vague recollection of what I just told you. And that’s totally okay. He’s his own person, just like his two moms.
In Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil envisions a world that recalls Ariel’s “rich and strange” fathoms in The Tempest—depths of water or being brimming with strangeness, with life. Sea creatures and human subjects are interchangeable, sometimes via metaphor, sometimes beyond metaphor’s comparative distances. Nezhukumatathil mines the title for its many meanings: in these poems, “oceanic” by turns indicates vastness, depth, profundity, inclusiveness. It is also a narrative of immense love.
Reading Oceanic, I felt renewed wonder at nature’s immensities—not an expected feeling, I later reflected, in our ecological and political moment. Yet “wonder,” a term so often found in responses to Nezhukumatahil’s work, aptly describes her poetry’s unique relationship to the natural world. Expressing awe, fear, and joy are political acts in Oceanic, particularly in a canon of nature writing that so often erases the voices of people of color. These poems invite us—sometimes literally—to return to the joy of observation, of presence. “Listen,” the speaker of “Invitation” reminds us, “how this planet spins with so much fin, wing, and fur.”
Also the author of a forthcoming collection of essays, World of Wonder (2018), and poetry collections Lucky Fish (2011), At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), and Miracle Fruit (2003), Nezhukumatathil is poetry editor at Orion magazine and professor of English at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Nezhukumatathil and I corresponded via email from early March to early April.
The Rumpus: I’d like to ask you about the title, Oceanic. Language of the sea and all its varied, strange creatures informs many of these poems. The word “oceanic” can also suggest vastness and enormity or, as you write in “Invitation,” a “boundless, limitless” being. Does the title have other meanings for you and your work?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: So many of the poems collected here can be read as love poems at their core, and for me, “oceanic” also means the way I myself love: the earth, my family, my friends—it’s complex and dark and rippling over with light too. And also so much of what and who I love is yet still mysterious, unexplored. Which makes sense when I compare it with the ocean—something like humans have only seen about five percent of the world’s oceans. Five percent! There’s still so much about the ocean to understand and witness and yet, I kind of hope we never do in this lifetime.
Rumpus: Yes, and a kind of oceanic expansiveness and inclusion is also apparent in these poems. Their subjects range widely but communicate a connectivity that reminds me at times of Whitman, who you reference at the beginning of the penultimate poem, “My South.” Can you talk about how you perceive relationships between “disparate” beings—a starfish and a pining lover, say—and the role they play in your writing?
Nezhukumatathil: Actually, I grew up reading mostly science and natural history books—studying field guides and various oceanographer’s history books. I didn’t even know who Dr. Seuss was—I just thought he was one of my parents’ friends! But as I was reading these nature and science books, I found myself accidentally (?) placing narratives on these creatures and plants, anthropomorphizing them entirely—so that when I did start to read literature, the way I knew to make sense of human interactions was indeed through the vocabulary of the natural world by default. In other words, my language for metaphor and making connections to the natural world with human relationships is not really anything I have to work at, but rather, how I’ve always seen the world since I was a little girl.
Rumpus: That seems in some ways related to a universal impulse—to make sense of the world via metaphor—but here specifically through the language of the natural world.
I noticed that in many of these poems, there is slippage between what is human and what is animal. A classroom assumes the eyes of a scallop, while a pregnant swimmer imagines herself as a whale shark. Do you see “human” and “animal” as separate categories?
Nezhukumatathil: One result of me growing up and being a huge reader and never finding anyone who even remotely resembled me physically—especially in the nature and history books I was reading—is that honestly, I think I began to try and find myself in the animal/plant world. In some ways those worlds felt more “at home” to me than say, being the only Asian-American family in a tiny town in the Midwest. But yes, imagine being a child in the 70s/80s—Asian-Americans were barely represented and shown in any television, movies, music videos at all, let alone a near absence from what I could find in libraries. And if they were depicted, it was to be a punch line. So in some very real (and sad) ways, I looked elsewhere, to the animal and plant kingdoms, for a feeling of kinship.
Rumpus: And lack of representation, or harmful representation, so often invites new—and wonderfully new—modes of self-imagining.
In addition to creatures and beings, there are so many places in these poems. Their geographies range widely: the Great Wall of China, a wintry Niagara Falls, the “silver ribs” of a farm silo. Do you think of Oceanic as a travel narrative? What is the significance of these sometimes highly-traveled spaces in a text that elsewhere focuses on the unexplored and unknown?
Nezhukumatathil: Going back to when I was assembling this as a manuscript, I discovered I wanted to make this a collection of love poems—some more loose than others, of course. And for those poems that touch on what is “known”—let’s face it, by mainly white travelers who never cease to amaze me with their audacity and confidence of voice in having ‘authority’ over places where they are just visiting—I wanted to highlight the ignorance and gall of people who view difference as something to complain about. Conversely, I included poems like “In Praise of My Manicure,” that showcase a speaker who is sick of apologizing for being different and in fact, wants to double down on standing out in a crowd now. Especially when we have governmental leaders who try to show us that differences or the unknown should be feared or hated, I found myself casting and shaping this manuscript into one that sings the praises of other cultures, being your own golden love and champion, and to marvel at the unknown instead of fearing it.
Rumpus: I love that as an impulse for new love poems: finding ways to celebrate and write lovingly of difference, and not resorting, as many white writers do, to a narrative of othering when writing about travel.
There are also more familiar, intimate places in some of these poems. In an article on Haibun, you wrote that because you have moved often, you “are like clover… easy to remove and attach again in any given space.” The idea of home seems important here and even longed for, as in “Travel Mommy Ghazal” and the end of “My South.” Does the process of making homes in new places inform your writing?
Nezhukumatathil: Place has always figured prominently in my work for precisely that reason—of having to be uprooted for most of my childhood and into my twenties when I felt so unmoored. But I remain fascinated and in awe of immigrants like my parents who willingly left India and the Philippines and all that they knew of home and family to explore the unknown, to create a new sense of home together. Now that my own family (my husband, the writer Dustin Parsons and our two sons) is here in Oxford, Mississippi—this is our first full year here after being in a tiny town in western New York for sixteen years—I finally feel it in my bones that this is a place where my whole family can thrive and be active members of making a community beautiful. I feel more comfortable here and seen with my brown skin than perhaps anywhere else I’ve lived in America and feel so lucky to be part of a dynamic literary community.
Rumpus: So, in a sense, your writing includes both searching through the unknown and a kind of arrival—a sense of home.
One of the things I find most striking about your work, both in Oceanic and elsewhere, is its warmth and joyfulness. When I search for articles about your writing, I often encounter the word “wonder”—wonder for language, for the natural world, for places, for familial intimacy. There is also an environmentalist reading of Oceanic, as the epigraph suggests, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” You are poetry editor at Orion and have taught courses on environmental writing. Can you talk about the balance of wonder and fear in environmental writing? Is it ever difficult to maintain that wonder, that brightness, in the current political and environmental landscape?
Nezhukumatathil: Oh, it is definitely difficult to keep a mind of wonder and awe after I turn on the news and get a taste of whatever horrible hatred is on display any given day. But then I remember I have two young sons who are quietly (sometimes not so quietly) observing how their father and I move in this world and I want them to have empathy for others who don’t look like them, who come from different walks of life… I want them to look upon the world—and each other—with tenderness because they saw their parents do the same.
It’s easy to be jaded (and believe me I have my days), but not for long when I have these three bright and golden hearts around me who believe in such goodness in the world around them. Honestly, they are the ones who inspire and who also serve as a catalyst for me turning back to my early first loves in reading: being so hungry and curious and excited about the natural world.
Admitting a love or joy, or yes, wonder for the natural world is, especially as a woman of color, one of the most vulnerable things we can do. It’s also very political. Again, growing up, I simply had never seen a single Asian-American girl/teen/woman depicted in pop culture or literature as having hopes/ fears/ dreams/ crushes/ desires/ joys/ sadnesses, so when I do it now in my writing in both poetry and essays, I include “myself” as a way of saying I exist, and have a heartbeat, and I am three-dimensional—that’s definitely a political and purposeful choice. Imagine how radical that notion is—still!—for some people: that a brown woman can love and want to protect and feel angry and lament and be in awe of AND also sing the praises of the natural world. How audacious and beautiful is that?
My mother rises in a red and blue double helix of flame through my body. I can feel the DNA wires of her inside me, hot, hot, grape-vining up from my big toe to my skull and going back again in a never-ending loop, her blazing colonization.
She made me. When I was one-celled, the power and rhythm of her youth and hope—life—was the force that split me in two, what doubled me over and over until I was a floating zygote in a sac-shaped tissue bag, with nary any skeleton, but with a brain and the all-important beating heart. A little seahorse, a big-headed alien. Deep eyes open, then fluttering closed for the duration like a hatchling bird’s, blue bruises under skin.
I was attached to her by the sturdy rescue rope she had let down to me from the wall of her uterus, the placenta nourishing my still visible circulatory system on her diet of uppers, downers, and roast beef. Second by second I became a fetus. Already I was creating eggs of my own that would make me another set of daughters, and inside those fetal daughters were shaping more eggs to make those girls yet another set of daughters.
Sometimes I believe I want to go back there, not just to my mother’s womb to understand what it was to me, but to the weeks my brain shaped, to the time before I was skeletal, when I was only and significantly a galaxy of cells, a morula of potential. I have a birth anomaly of the nose. Some of the cartilage never formed, but rather huddles inside the tip in a round ball. This is a known defect that can be caused by a mother’s prescription drug use. Or back to the time at the end of the first eight weeks. I want to hear the world from inside my mother. I want to feel what I felt when she swallowed yet another mind-bending drug.
Nobody checked me for drug dependence at birth—they didn’t in the 1950s—but surely I was a junkie. I slid out of my mother way too early at only four pounds. In withdrawal, I was plopped into an incubator until I could learn to properly breathe the world. I couldn’t keep food down.
I soon got to take my faulty pyloric valve home, but my mother had to tape newspapers to the walls in order to feed me, since I projectile vomited. She nourished me, I hurled the milk back out at the wall; she prepped a bottle and I gulped it before spectacularly regurgitating. Surgery was contemplated because starvation caused weight loss.
I remember hunger the way other children remember love.
Imagine being pregnant in 1953. Women could work, but only as teachers, nurses, or secretaries expected to quit as soon as they married. They were paid less, though at the supermarket, they weren’t charged less for food, and they paid the same as men to go to the dentist. Unmarried women were considered spinsters by twenty. TV was slowly working its way into more and more households, and at every commercial break, women could see the things other luckier housewives had: new pink stoves, washing machines, blenders. New brands of detergent and bars of soap. Thinking for yourself had gone right out of fashion. You could be a zombie mama all day long so long as you had the children clean and quiet and dinner on the table at 5 p.m.
When women and mothers tried to kick against the prick, they were labeled hysterics. Hysterics were big. Hysterics were loud. Hysterics shrieked. Hysterics crumpled and wept hot tears. Hysterics believed life had cheated them. Hysterics thought hubby was cheating on them. Perhaps most alarmingly, hysterics nagged. Men loathed nags. My father hung a paddle by the telephone and on it was a poem: For nice young brides, who like to nag; for naughty girls who have a fag; for sweet young kids who now are brats; for smart young wives who soon get fat; for barking dogs and the howling cat; for fighting mates who like to spat… and so on.
Doctors, men who blamed women for not adapting to their intellectually decertified lives, gave them phenobarbital to calm down and sleep, and amphetamines to rev back up. It didn’t matter what the wives thought about all this. Wives didn’t have voices: husbands reported good but not good enough results.
One day when I was barely two, when my stomach valve was fixed, I wandered away from the sandbox. My mother couldn’t find me anywhere and my brother couldn’t say where I’d gone. The whole emergency team of our small town descended to excoriate my mother and save me, but after a day hard at searching, the fire chief removed his hat, swiped his brow, and declared me dead and drowned. He advised that the family should have the pond drained to find my body.
I can imagine my body floating. I’m an infant in bloomers and I float pink ruffles up in the reeds, while above me the red-winged blackbirds shriek.
I did not drown, but the shock of this possibility, the now-public knowledge of my mother’s turpitude, led to the pond being drained—I vividly remember the heavy machinery, their noise and commotion, and the feeling that I was responsible. I had only tried to go back in the house by an unused door and gotten myself stuck behind the screen. My poor mother coped by going on a medication tear; I remember being that toddler poking her to see if she would wake.
We lived on a small acreage, a place whimsically called Merryview Farm, proclaimed as such on a sign my father made and hung till my mother, embarrassed, made him remove it. My father raised horses—hunters, jumpers, and Shetland ponies. This was very much my father’s thing, his entry into “polite society” after an impoverished youth, but my mother had to roll up her shirt sleeves too to make it work.
She was earth, soil, manure, the sliver moons of dirt under her fingernails. She was pitchfork and manure pile. She was the scratchy pink intercom on the counter listening for a mare having birth contractions. She was tenderness to foals. She was the small grooming song she sang to the Shetland ponies. She was the warmest heart I ever knew—when in rare moments I could access it. Once, she woke me at 2 a.m. to carry me in my nightgown through the dew wet night into the barn so I could watch a filly’s birth. Oh, heaven amongst all heavens. Oh, perfection. Oh, melting heart.
When I was five, my father tried to have my mother committed. There must have been a precipitating event. Whatever it was, it was bad enough that he managed to convince her that she needed to be locked away for an indeterminate time, at least three months. I remember her baffled, puzzled agreement—but am I crazy? Have I actually got bats in my belfry?
We children went across town to live with our grandparents. Dad drove Mom across the US border to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and when they arrived, my mother refused to get out of the car, so Dad went on ahead to register her.
He left the keys in the car. Straight away, Mom leaped to the driver’s side and laid rubber, leaving my father stranded ninety kilometers from home, and blasted back to her parents’ house to get us. We kids stood at the top of tall stairs behind our grandparents who insisted that Mom couldn’t have us, that it wasn’t safe. She flew up the stairs in a rage to grab us, and her father, his loyalties by then rotted, pushed her, hard. Her body rolled over and over and splatted onto the tile. Nobody ran to her, but when she pulled herself upright she was livid. She put out her hand and there was no opposition. We slid past the shields of our grandparents and went back home with Mom.
I stole chocolate chips, or baking chocolate, or rhubarb out of the fields which I cooked with sugar in the baby bottle warmer. I ate dog kibble from the yawning bag in the basement. Mom’s punishments for my unseemly hunger were generally privation-based. I was sent to bed without supper, or after just a slice of white bread dunked in water. People don’t stay cross, I’d think to myself upstairs, acutely lonely at being cut off.
Once, my father told my brother and me to strip, then turned us outside onto the porch, locking the door, leaving us naked in a blizzard of sleet needling our skin. I could hear my brother’s teeth knocking. Our mother didn’t come back. My brother fisted the door. Over and over and over and over until I joined him, two naked children pounding for their lives. When my mother shot the lock and pulled wide the door, she gave an embarrassed laugh for their forgetfulness.
At six, stress-triggered, I lost all my hair to my HLA-B27 gene variation and my undiagnosed ankylosing spondylitis. I wore baby bonnets, which targeted me at school.
One time, after I was spanked over my father’s lap, he insisted I sit naked in front of the family.
My mother told me that one evening when she came out of my brother’s bedroom after reading his bedtime story, my father brandished a rifle. She begged for her life, and for our motherless lives, sleeping soundly mere feet away, but he told her she was no good no good no good and refused to put the gun down. Finally she remembered to appeal to his vanity and told him that if he shot her, it would screw up his new white pants.
Yet, yet, there is still more to the family lore about firearms. An older friend, dead now, confided that when she was over at my grandparents’ pool, sunning and drinking, my mother showed up in her Comet with a handgun, and kept the family friend, along with my grandmother and aunt, hostage for several hours.
After a teacher told my class about spontaneous combustion, how it could alight in stacks of newspapers without a spark, I begged my parents to get rid of the stacks of Spectators and Globes which climbed past my head. My teacher had said that in rare cases, spontaneous combustion could also happen to people. Each night I fretted my mother would spontaneously combust, bursting into flame like a Hallowe’en firework, sputtering out in a black starless sky.
The years passed as the years will, with my father moving out to begin an unendingly contentious separation. All our animals were given away, sold, or slaughtered. On Sunday nights instead of roast beef, now we had Salisbury steak instant dinners on TV trays in front of Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show. Now things were a lot more relaxed.
But who am I kidding? Relaxed? With no expectations on her, my mother went to hell. Without a man, she was an ongoing threat to other marriages and despised. I sometimes had to pretend at a friend’s house that I hadn’t just said goodbye to her dad at my own house.
An addict is highly unpredictable.
I never knew which mother I’d find when I reluctantly wandered in: someone suicidal begging me to kill or stop her; someone passed out in her orange overstuffed chair, a cigarette stuck to her bottom lip, unsmoked, ash flagging like a penis; someone grabbing a jug of water to douse yet another chair fire (the gulleys were wide and black); someone full of laughter and “fun,” who binge-shopped women’s couturier fashion she couldn’t pay for or painted the kitchen cabinets brown with yellow sunflowers, who smoked pot and flirted with my brother’s friends.
She arranged her vicious circle each morning. on the leaf of the pine table before she downed them, a pinwheel fourteen inches across—so many uppers to up the downers and so many downers to down the uppers. Yet, one year, she pulled herself together to go to nursing school, where she excelled and graduated before lapsing.
My mother’s addiction deepened and she became—we all became—increasingly isolated. Adults didn’t come to our house. Mom devolved, becoming more and more disheveled, less able to yank herself back from the brink to make sense of a date or a detail.
My mother moved the couch to the lawn and installed a turquoise vinyl waterbed in the living room so she didn’t have to climb stairs to go to bed, or sleep in the room she’d shared with my father. My mother peed in the kitchen sink, in full view of anyone coming to the door. Once, when Englebert Humperdinck was playing on the quadrophonic hifi, she and my kid sister went after each other with knives.
I refused to engage. I cleaned ceaselessly because the new dog shit in the basement, holed up in my room reading, or babysat for twenty-five cents an hour. I was embarrassed to be me. Dragging myself to high school to be stared and pointed at because I was wounded, smart, and beautiful became my new perdition. I was secretly queer and not so secretly non-binary, so putting on makeup and a girdle, a bra and nylons, a menstrual pad and a belt, a skirt and a blouse—that felt like dressing a gorilla in petticoats. At night I bound my breasts to push them back in.
Nothing queer reached our Ontario town, so I fucked boys. I fell in love with dark boys who looked like butch girls—boys who were mean, good-looking, and slavish—while secretly crushing on girls.
Periodically, Mom would lurch to rageful attention, screaming after my first kiss that I was a slut, or one night when I got in a car wreck and didn’t come home at curfew, that I was a whore.
This essay hurts me. Surrendering to my memories hurts me. I keep trying to make my mom the good guy or the bad guy, but life doesn’t parse like that, the way a sentence does.
I usually only say about my childhood: It was difficult. Because it’s easier, that shorthand. It’s easier than talking about the price tags of addiction or my anger about a system that created it. My childhood made me a better, tougher person, but it also made me a trauma survivor. When I was a child, derealization was common. “Mom,” I’d say, “I’m having the it’s-not-real feeling again.”
I long to go back to hug my mother and her lost potential. She couldn’t play the game. So what? She was denied life’s goodies—and by that I mean meaningful work, and peer respect—because she was mouthy. How is that fair? How is that merit-based? Give me a person any day who’s grouchily themselves and won’t change night and day around when they get mad. Give me a WYSIWYGer.
All I see when I look back for her—now long dead from complications after a fall—is excess. Her body was the center of my known universe.
The mascara she spit into. The billow of her face powder. The Chanel of Chanel No. 5. The candle of her lipsticks in irresistible tubes. Her nail varnish and the sharp blink of its remover. Her razors. The toilet of the bathroom after her enemas. The dead animal of her makeup on her fur coat collars. The metal of her menses, the round sarcophagi of toilet paper-wrapped pads in the trash. The clean of her Dove soap. The bouquet of bedsheets hanging on the line in the drizzle and sun. The stench of the skunk who lived in our yard. The dizzy of lilacs. The sharp of sweating horses. The eye-water of manure. The sweet of cinnamon buns.
The riddle of whether or not I loved my mother. The puzzle of whether or not she loved me.
We never said.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.
Avid radio listeners of the tri-state area will recollect that at one point WNYC, the NPR-affiliated public radio station of New York City was noteworthy for its commitment to arts-related programming. There was a sort of Golden Age of WNYC, that is, now mostly wiped out, the period in which one might regularly hear shows like The No Show, The Next Big Thing, and New Sounds, the last of which persists like a sort of white rhino on the despoiled grasslands of the WNYC broadcast day, programs that originated in New York City, and which were reflective of the great artistic diversity of the city.
Chief among these truly wonderful radio programs was the show entitled Spinning on Air, a musical offering (often including performance and interview) devoted to conjoining, for example, folk music and experimental music, world music and jazz, and everything between, into a buffet of carefully and lovingly curated eclecticism. It was hosted by David Garland, a musician himself, with a charmingly gentle and thoughtful voice, who seemed on air ageless and oracular and genial and curious. As a highly partisan fan, as well as a passionate musical autodidact, I later grew used to finding Garland, outside of his radio personality guise, turning up as a musician in incredibly unusual settings, and this only fed the legend of Spinning on Air, that Garland seemed to know every musician, or at least all the very interesting musicians, and to have played with a great number of them. Garland’s taste and interests were part and parcel of what made his show so great.
That Spinning on Air was cancelled by WNYC is just one among the many blots on its corporate record. The change in Garland’s circumstances, however, have had one welcome result, namely that he has had, in his programming afterlife (Spinning on Air is now available as a podcast), the time and space to work intensively on his music. Verdancy, his enormous, impressive, and scarcely fathomable new album (four hours of music!), arrived on the first day of spring, and is just what fans of his program would have hoped for. It moves through dozens of idioms, from the purely acoustic to the synthesized and back again, encompassing art song, improvisation, passages that sound medieval, passages that sound Middle Eastern, Eastern European, minimalist, and so on. The feeling of the whole is charmingly against the grain of contemporary music and its boxed, computerized, auto-tuned simulations.
I have enjoyed few recent recordings as much as I have enjoyed Verdancy. And, because I love Garland’s radio interviews, I was really excited to try to interview him myself, which we did by phone in late February. His answers, below, are just as good as his on-air questions were and are. His album is very great, too.
The Rumpus: I’m interested, first of all, in the effect that your move upstate has had on your new compositions. I’m wondering if you can sketch out what your surroundings are like now in Red Hook. You’re in Red Hook, right?
David Garland: Yes, the town of Red Hook in the Hudson Valley.
Rumpus: What kind of an impact has this move had on your new work and how does it relate to your youthful experiences of the rural?
Garland: Well, I lived in the city for more than forty years, I think, having grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, in an environment that’s kind of like the one I have now around me—with trees and grass and woods and stone walls, rolling landscape, and things like that. I loved living in the city, and, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I would like to be again in a more natural environment, but I didn’t really think that was going to happen. So I didn’t hold that as some dream that interfered with my life at all. My wife was the one who spearheaded the idea of moving out of town. We were in a midtown apartment near Carnegie Hall so we were paying for that, paying for a huge storage space, paying for a parking place, and she realized that we could actually own a place outside the city for less than that, less than what we were spending. So, that’s what we did, and it’s kind of funny because the house we live in ties into my hometown because Lexington, Massachusetts, was, I can see now, in retrospect, a kind of extraordinary place with lots of interesting people living there. People associate it with MIT and with the colleges in the Boston area, and it was a little bit of a mid-century modern experiment, some of the neighborhoods of Lexington. Architects chose to create some communities there and one of those architects was a guy called Carl Koch. He created what is generally considered one of the first successful modular prefab designs and it was called “Techbuilt.”
I was used to seeing these sort of boxy but modern buildings with a lot of windows and interesting shapes to them in some of my friends’ communities in Lexington. Meanwhile, a lot of what people want when they move here to the Hudson Valley is an old farmhouse to fix up. We wanted something more mid-century modern because we love that, my wife and I. All our furniture was from that era and all our decorations. But we always had them in a standard New York City apartment prior to this. But we saw a house up here that I recognized as being a Techbuilt because I knew them from my hometown and it was painted a sort of olive drab and in a bit of disrepair but we got it and returned it to the way it should be. So, we live in this wonderful, modest, mid-century modern house with woods around us. We’re not in the middle of nowhere but we have a nice isolated feel to where we are and the house came with a separate rental that has become my studio.
So, I was able to get everything out of storage and all my instruments into one place and start to live with the light, the nature, and, before long, I realized I was living in a whole different sense of time which grows out of place and the perceptions that come through the big windows of the house. We see that change is constant and endless and non-periodic despite all the various periodic measurements of time. The change is continuous and that is not even an impression but an experience which is tied in then to this specially modified guitar that my son Kenji Garland created which makes the strings sustain and yet creates an endless variation in overtones because of its, in a way, instability. And, because of the sustaining nature of that guitar, I quickly got into the idea of lengthy pieces.
I had been sort of heading in that direction and I was starting to experiment with this guitar and then I decided to explore where I could go with all my instruments at hand with the natural world all around me, with the light, and I don’t know if serenity is the right word, but along with human anxieties there is a natural serenity that you can tap into! It’s there if you can make yourself available to it. I was in the situation where I had all my tools at hand and I’ve got this new tool of the guitar and I wanted to explore that.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the guitar for a second. It’s obviously so interesting and so central to the project as a whole. I want to bear down on what exactly is unique about its design and what you’ve discovered about it as you’ve been playing it. So, how’d it come about?
Garland: Well, my son is a smart kid and he’s about thirty years old (not quite thirty yet) and he is sort of an inventor and an experimentalist at times. He created some sort of system where he was placing speakers on an acoustic guitar and connecting them so that the speaker would vibrate the instruments and I thought it was really cool and I used it in some of my music and then he took it apart to experiment on something else, after which I said “Could you please recreate that?” That’s when, instead of simply recreating it, he realized, “Oh, I could do this and I could do that; I could mount some stuff inside.” Then he created this system by which the vibrations of the strings sort of engender further vibrations and the whole body of the acoustic guitar is animated with electronics. This is not an instrument that plugs into an amp.
Garland: It’s an acoustic instrument. It is an acoustic experience, and I think, when you listen, some musicians will attend to the fact that, “Hey, I’m hearing the buzzing of the metal wire on the frets.” It is sort of a new sonic experience. Some people will just probably presume that it’s kind of like what Jimmy Hendrix did but it’s not at all that. In the world of electronic music, there’s a phrase “electro-acoustic instruments” which usually just means something plugged in but, in fact, I feel that this is something along those lines: a truly electro-acoustic instrument in that electricity is making an acoustic event. It’s not what you think of as acoustic in that it’s not plugged in: it’s the sound of natural vibrations in the air and on the ear.
Modified Guitar demonstration - Vimeo
Rumpus: How is it different from an EBow?
Garland: What makes it very different from an EBow is that an EBow is sort of designed to animate one string at a time. With this thing I’m using a twelve-string guitar. So you’ve got twelve strings vibrating and one’s going to provoke another so you get quite a lot of activity and part of the playing technique is interacting with the body of the guitar because the body of the guitar is vibrating. My right hand would normally just pluck the strings but by placing my hand on the body of the guitar I’m muting some overtones and provoking others to emerge; I’m changing the vibration basically but the strings are always activated. Sometimes, if I strum a chord, the real activity accumulates gradually (and I noticed this when I overdubbed something). The greatest activity in the vibration and the vibrating strings and the interaction of the overtones and all this didn’t really kick in until it started to accumulate over the course of a minute. This is something that you control, in a way, and bear witness to as well.
Rumpus: [Laughs] Did you arrive at a tuning that maximized its capabilities or did you leave it in a standard tuning?
Garland: I generally use a standard tuning but I would change it if it suited what I was working on, if it suited the music. I did some experimenting with re-tuning it; I did some experimenting with re-tuning each of the twelve strings differently so they’re not doubling but that almost gets cluttered. As a guitarist, I don’t know my way around the instruments like a pro so I try to, as a kind of self-discipline, use the standard tuning and make things happen with that rather than re-tuning things for every piece.
Rumpus: So, the electronics aren’t actually in the way of the fret board or the plucking. They’re somehow sort of disguised so you can play normally without it getting in the way?
Garland: Yeah. It doesn’t physically get in the way. But it certainly changes what you do. One of the remarkable things is that you can put this in any guitarist’s hands. It’s the instrument they know with additional attributes.
Rumpus: How much composing did you do for this project with an eye with an eye specifically on the modified guitar? Did you actually through-compose parts for the guitar?
Garland: I’m someone who’s written songs that are quite chromatic and sometimes kind of angular with unexpected chord changes and things like that; that’s one thing I’ve always loved to do. This instrument led me to simplify my harmonic language. I realized it’s not well-suited given the fact that it doesn’t reach full vibration potential unless it’s been vibrating for more than a minute. It’s not something on which to play fast key changes or to play a sequence of chords that aren’t naturally related because when you play a simple sequence or chords that are naturally related then you have the potential for vibrations carrying through one chord the next. That can happen really beautifully with this instrument. The instrument itself, given is semi-unpredictable stability in terms of exactly what’s going to happen and what overtones are going to be most prominent when you play it, really kind of suggested to me the idea of using simple chord cycles because every time the cycle repeats, it’s inevitably going to be a little different because different overtones are going to be more or less prominent so it was a process of kind of finding out what the medium did best. This is something I think I learned in art school working with clay or working with charcoal. The point is not to control the medium, the point is to interact with the medium, to find out what’s natural to it and what’s native to it and work with that, respond to that. That’s something I learned long ago and always applied to whatever creative activity I’m doing. So, that’s how I approached the guitar. I started playing music as an improviser so that comes naturally to me but I guess I’ve since become a composer. I’m not so interested in loose, free improvisation. I’ve done that. I did it decades ago so it’s something very old to me; I’m more interested in structuring things and working with a kind of structure that makes for a good listening experience.
Verdancy album preview - Vimeo
Rumpus: Given that the drones are an inevitable bedrock because of the guitar that you’re playing, that would argue that the long pieces, of which there are five or six here, were utterly central to the project. Is that how you thought about it?
Garland: Yes. There are four pieces that each use a cycle of four as their fundamental material and each is in a different language so those are the foundation of the album. It’s not a concept album but it is an album where everything kind of speaks to everything else and it all relates to the whole experience.
Rumpus: Then are the shorter pieces methods of transit between the longer pieces for you? Or do you think of them as freestanding?
Garland: They’re all methods of transit in and among themselves, you know, all the pieces, in a way, which is a little different from some of my other albums. I’ve always tried to not consciously work in a style, not even consciously my own style or not in a limited way. None of my music sounds like rock or country or jazz; I don’t like working in sort of recognizable genres like that because I always want a sense of new discovery in the music I listen to so I try to make that, too. On other albums, I’m as likely to use an accordion as I am to use a computer as an accompaniment to the songs but here everything is more part of a sound world and I did that deliberately because there was so much more to explore in that sound world. Even the short pieces are all part of that world. Some pieces, of course, are deliberately to shift the texture, but they’re all part of the whole.
Rumpus: The sequencing must have been a really interesting part of making the album, then, because the whole flows so remarkably. There have been times when I’ve been listening to it this week where I have to stop what I’m doing and look at the computer and verify that a new piece has begun because the transitions are so seamless. Was there a point in assembling the whole that those sequencing kinds of decisions were really an uppermost piece of the creative act for you or was it just an intuitive sequencing?
Garland: It was all very deliberate, you know. That part, I suppose, is true of my experience of making radio shows. I love the way one piece can connect to another; it can make really interesting reverberations, not just by being similar but by contrasting or shifting in emphasis or this sort of thing so I was very aware of all the things that might connect or might distinguish one piece from another in the assembly of it. I always wanted it to be in a physical form so each of those four big pieces that I mentioned is on one of the four CDs that comprise the physical set. They’re sort of landmarks that are distributed in that way and then I distributed other things around them. Then I did, very deliberately, sort of bring the album to a sense of completion with the final song.
Rumpus: Did you think of those four sections—the four volumes, if you will—as having distinct and discreet meanings? I know you’re resisting the concept album, and I’m not trying to thrust it upon you, but I’m interested in whether you thought of the distinct volumes as having distinct moods from one another?
Garland: Not entirely distinct. I wasn’t sort of thinking “This is the happy volume,” or, “This is the sad volume.”
Rumpus: Or “winter” and “spring.”
Garland: Not so much. I do feel that there is some element of the four seasons in the four chord cycles that each of those four pieces in based on. I did think of that. I do think of it as a whole. Without thinking a lot about it, I did want to avoid a really distinct difference in the four volumes, one to another. One eventually covers similar territory in terms of texture and mood, I think.
Rumpus: I want to shift and talk about the lyrics a little bit because, as I told you before, I’m also a really big fan of Grapefruit by Yoko Ono.
Garland: Oh, yeah! Right.
Rumpus: So, Grapefruit, to me, summons up a whole conceptual apparatus—which is the sort of Fluxus set of principles for making work, and so on—and Grapefruit appears as a sort of passing mood in the album, it seems to me, but I’m wondering if we can impute from its presence ideas how the lyrics were made generally and if there are strategies and conceptual modalities that engender the lyrics generally.
Garland: I didn’t use a cut-up method or anything like that. I do love juxtapositions that that kind of approach creates and I loved Yoko’s color piece which I set to music because there’s meaning but there are things that kind of confound meaning or have the wonderful quality of being a language written by someone who doesn’t fully know the language so normal grammar is defeated. I have various approaches to the lyrics. The piece called “Povidej mi” which is sung in Czech by Iva Bittová was the result of my writing a poem in English and giving it to Iva just as we were about to record and saying “I want you to sing this in Czech.”
David Garland & Iva Bittová - Povídej mi - Vimeo
Garland: Because I wanted the qualities of language without the burden of meaning, which is something I really enjoy in music. I had French lessons in school and that sort of thing but I’m not great at French and yet I love to listen to music in French for the few words I can catch and all those that I can’t, just for the texture of that language. I wanted that experience of language in a language that only a small percent of the population of the world speaks. I kind of like that idea: that, for people who speak Czech, the language will have real meaning but, for everyone else, it will be the shape of language. With Iva—who’s such a great improviser and always up for being asked to do something spontaneous—I don’t know how her pretty spontaneous translation of the text is close to the original. I assume something’s lost in translation or, rather, something’s gained in translation. The piece called “Lux Temporalis” is something that I wrote in Latin without knowing Latin. I created myself a sort of vocabulary of the subject of words, the types of words I wanted and I arranged them in ways that felt right to me, so—I don’t know what you’d call that, the idea of writing in a language you don’t know. I’ve since input that Latin in a Google Translator and came out with a poem I’m very pleased with! [Both laugh]
But I didn’t write it in English. I don’t know how deliberate it was but I think I’m fully aware that the lyrics represent different approaches. Some are personal, like “Wave after Wave” is a type of love song that I think is fairly plain spoken and “Deflected” is an angry song, also in its way fairly plain spoken. The piece “I’ve Forgotten” I realize, in retrospect, is sort of like Beckett. It’s very terse. I wanted to create on the album what was, for me, a stimulating and comfortable mix with equal emphasis on instrumental and song. Most albums kind of do one thing or another: they’re either songs or they’re instrumentals, but when I make music I like to consider all the rules and expectations and use some and not use others. Should they be songs or instrumentals, I don’t care. I don’t think that’s an interesting distinction or not an important one to make conceiving what the material will be. Some of the songs are almost instrumentals in a way and some of the instrumentals are almost songs so I was kind of deliberately ignoring some of the expectations about that.
Rumpus: I noticed that. There are a couple of pieces where the vocal doesn’t come in until well into the piece. There’s an eruption of the voice instead of: “Oh, this is a song and this is doing what songs do.”
Garland: The whole idea of proportion was something that’s underlying the whole album: the thought that maybe the introduction is longer than the song or the songs happens and then there’s this whole other thinking that happens and playing with proportion, I think, is a fascinating thing. It’s intriguing to the intellect and it’s intriguing sensually as well.
Rumpus: Perhaps it has also to do with what you were saying earlier: with conceptions of time and light, when you’re in the rural space as opposed to the urban space. For example, I always have this experience: my father lives in Arizona and I’ve been numerous times to the Grand Canyon and my idea of the Grand Canyon is that the perfect audience with the Grand Canyon would require the amount of time that the Grand Canyon has been there!
Rumpus: To really know what a powerful rock formation is like, you’d have to sit there for a hundred million years because so various are the situations and the light and the development is so slow-acting that to do the tourist thing of swooping in for a day and walking a mile down the Bright Angel Trail is not really perceiving, observing, and taking in what’s happening in that space. In the same way for me, some of the longer pieces on the recording have that kind of elaborate development involved. Natural time. If you’re waiting for a two-minute pop song idea of development you’re going to be disappointed in this recording. You have to back up and wait for change to happen in a more geological way, or in an old growth forest kind of way. It’s going to happen according to..
She hated the child, unfortunately, the moment she saw it. It was small and red and mewling, but that wasn’t it; there wasn’t any specific detail about the child that bothered her. She could not say there was anything wrong with it. She had never been squeamish; it wasn’t the blood or viscera that covered the child, that the nurses wiped down with a towel before handing the child to her. They counted the child’s toes in front of her, then the fingers. “She’s exhausted,” said one of the nurses. They took the child away, wrapped in a cloth.
Had she believed that once it was born, she would feel differently about it than she had during the months prior?
No, that’s not right: there were moments, weren’t there, when it was still inside her (she tries, and rejects, the phrase “a part of her”) when she felt a kind of affection towards it, this other being, this passenger, this alien. For example: one evening, sitting in the swing that hung from the roof of their back deck, three stories above the ground, her shoes off, brushing the floor of the deck with the toe of one foot, coming off, touching again, a light repeated momentum; and she looked at the lights of other houses, the train passing by on the elevated tracks in the distance, the whole sense of the city around her, and she rested a hand on her stomach and felt as though she were contributing to the continuance of the world. In that moment it seemed to be enough.
There had been complications with the pregnancy. It was a breach birth. They had performed a C-section. The child was lifted out of her body by a doctor’s gloved hands, behind a screen that separated her face and chest from her too-open body below. The screen was paper, the same hospital-green as her gown. Now, in their apartment, she could feel the stitches pulling at her each time she breathed.
She had been told to press a pillow against the incision when she coughed or took a deep breath, to support the stomach. She found herself coughing more than she had expected.
It was the existence of the child that repulsed her. She waited to feel some kind of maternal affection. She had studied beforehand to prepare herself. She knew that the brains of new mothers often flooded with certain chemicals (Oxytocin, Phenylethylamine), the purpose of which was to cause them to forget the pain of childbirth and bond with their children. She imagined this as a sort of redemption, almost religious in nature, taking herself out of herself, displacing her ambition and selfishness, self-centeredness, with love.
She could not tell her partner that she did not love the child. Perhaps he felt it anyhow. Several times each day she placed the child on her chest for skin-to-skin contact. She held it there. Perhaps something would change.
She didn’t want anything to change. She understood it would be easier if she loved the child. But she did not want to love it.
She held the child to her chest, sitting on the living room couch, and thought about her intentions, about what she wanted: a sort of nautilus shell, each part replicating the whole, but itself infinitely divisible, ungraspable. She wanted to want to love the child, and she saw that want disappearing, slowly, along a long spiral, as she tested each “want” and found it give way to another: she wanted to want to want, etc.
Each detail of the child surprised her with its ugliness, even as she examined each and understood that each was perfectly normal. Other children were not more or less beautiful, uglier or less ugly than hers. But they were not hers. The force of the child’s existence in each of its parts, its fingernails, for example, or its squashed nose, the fold of fat at its knee, the violet-brown stump that hung from its belly waiting to fall off. The way its eyes, after several days, began to track wherever she moved. It seemed at times like a dead thing returned to place its claim on her.
At home she worked at her desk while the child slept, when it slept, in an adjoining room. She could glance up at it, from time to time, as she worked. She had agreed to work from home for the first several weeks after the birth, ostensibly to give herself time to rest. During those times when she left the house, her partner home watching the child, she felt first a sense of unbelievable freedom and then, almost as sudden, a growing dread that she would have to go back. The most mundane activities, going to the supermarket or the pharmacy, standing in line at the bank, picking up laundry, were colored by this sudden polarity. Occasionally at first she would make up errands so that she could experience that initial rush of leaving the house. After a time, however, because she knew how quickly the rush would turn to dread, she began to avoid leaving: the loss of freedom she experienced—or more precisely, the foreknowledge of that loss—seemed worse than not to experience the freedom in the first place. But then at times she couldn’t help it; she felt that she needed to leave the house immediately, the way a body feels after a certain period underwater that it must rise, no matter the consequences, and so she felt again the rush, and the immediate turning to dread.
Perhaps it would be easiest to call it postpartum depression, make an appointment with someone who could give it that name, render it abstract and known. She imagined this: for a time, perhaps weeks or even months, she could give over responsibility for the child entirely to her partner, to her parents, while she worked through (she thinks of the phrase in quotation marks, “worked through”) how she felt with a professional, someone with long fingers and eyelashes (where did this specific image originate?). She imagined a couch in an office building, a window too high to see out of, a box of tissues, a tiny bowl of plastic-wrapped mints. The feel of the mint in her mouth, the flat mint taste of it, as she rode the elevator back down to street level following her appointment. When she thought of this, she experienced the same promise of freedom that occurred in the first moments before she left the apartment; which meant, she understood, that the same dread would follow, as soon as she made the choice. And how much worse to have that dread of return last for months rather than, as now, a few hours?
She had been the one who insisted on keeping it when she got pregnant. She and her partner had talked about the possibility before; they had been together, dating, then married, long enough that it was impossible not to. These conversations never came to any firm conclusion. Her partner wanted a child. Or at any rate he was not opposed to it. He was good with children, the way that someone who always has the option of leaving them can be good with children. When she learned that she was pregnant, he told her he would support her if she wanted to get an abortion. That’s not right: he told her he would support her whatever she chose to do. They argued about this. I don’t want you to keep the child for me, for my sake. But what arrogance to think that she would. Why did she keep it then, and carry the child to term? Was she bitter that it was her decision and not his, that it would always be her decision? Was it spite? She doubted it, but it seemed interesting to think it might be. He had cheated on her once, years ago, and in revenge she had slept with someone else as well. From this she had learned the impossibility of balancing one’s own pain with another’s. Of canceling pain out like that. No amount of pain that one gave could ever equal the fact of being hurt. One observed the pain one gave in return as a reptile might, with a sort of animal coldness, while the initial pain remained as engulfing as ever.
She was old for a new mother, she knew, in historical terms. For her part, she had never been categorically opposed to the idea of having a child. It was in fact something she had supposed would happen at some unspecified further point, the way other transformative things might happen to her: old age, sickness, death. In this way she had assumed she would live out all parts of human life, without desiring in any exact moment to commit to them.
Sometimes, out on errands, she would begin walking in a direction marked in her mind as “away,” and for a time regain the feeling of freedom that she experienced and lost in the same moment she left the apartment. This could only be maintained so long as she did not allow herself to question what she was actually doing. As soon as the thought occurred to her that she was walking away from her life, all sense of freedom dissipated. She had no desire to leave her life. She loved her life: she loved her apartment, she was satisfied with her marriage and the neighborhood where she lived, she loved and was proud of her work (she was an editor at a well-regarded university press). She did not want to leave any of it.
She did not even, when it came down to it, want to leave her child. What did she want, concerning it? She wanted it not to exist. Not to stop existing. Nor for it not to have been born. To have been born and simultaneously not to exist, without entailing an end.
Or to exist in some way that its existence did not press itself so forcefully on her own whenever she looked at it, or heard some indication of its existence, or heard no indication of its existence for long enough that she could not prevent herself from going to check on it. There was something horrifying about its body, the fleshiness of it, the too-apparent creaturely desire. She thought of a diagram she had seen once of the embryological development of a series of animals—a fish, a salamander, a turtle, a piglet, a rabbit, a human being—each repeating the forms of the earlier animals in its development. Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. She had asked her doctor about this early in the pregnancy, when the child was still, aside from the occasional nausea, an abstraction, and was told that it was rubbish. Still she had the sense of it growing from something unbearably ancient, one long prehistoric monster stretching back through herself and through her own parents (part of what horrified her was how she, too, was implicated in this sequence). She imagined she could see in its face traces of the forms it had passed through and shed.
At times while it slept she forgot what she was working on, and could only listen to it breathe. Other times she would go to look at it and feel herself becoming fascinated, as if standing at the edge of a building with the knowledge that she might at any moment throw herself down. Not that she wanted to, but fixed, swaying on her heels, with the knowledge that she might. She kept trying out the thought, as she looked in on the room: I am a mother. This didn’t seem to make any more sense than if she had insisted on thinking I am a hydrangea or I am a continental shelf. She didn’t take any pleasure in hating the child. If she had seen it in the arms of someone else, standing in line at the supermarket for example, she might have smiled at it, or at the very least felt indifference. It was the fact that it was hers that made her hate it, this claim that it had over her and her body. Perhaps part of it was the reminder that she had a body. She was happiest when she forgot this. The authors she worked with wrote about words like embodiment and thingliness, and in a theoretical sense, she understood them. She was raised Catholic, though she was no longer a believer. She had the sense, from her father, that Catholicism had less to do with what you believed than what you did: if you attended mass, made confession, did your penance, and so on. Faith, contra Protestantism, was too much to ask of human beings; acts were enough. This seemed like a kind of mercy.
Her partner kept a chair beside the child’s crib and would sit there at night, looking on as the child slept. He brought a book in with him, as though he had intended to read, but the book would remain on his lap, unopened. He showed affection to the child in a way that seemed, to her, more natural than her own mothering. He spoke, sometimes, in a low voice, the child in his arms. Things about the world the child was coming into: what an apartment was, how long they’d lived in it, how much city there was beyond its walls and how many people. She could not ask him whether he loved the child. To do so would be to open a breech, a chasm between them—or perhaps between herself and the realm of the human. It would be to imply the possibility that she might not.
And what if he said no? What if they stood there, the child asleep not ten feet away from them, admitting to each other that they did not love it, that they felt at best cold, at worst a creeping horror each time they thought about it, theirs? And what would change with this knowledge? Would they decide, each knowing now how the other felt, to get rid of it, to put it up for adoption? Of course not. They would raise it, each fulfilling their duty as best they could, perhaps at some point in the future beginning to take pride in the child, perhaps feeling affection for the person the child becomes, perhaps having learned who the child becomes feeling love for that person, though it couldn’t be called a parental love. But always with the memory of their conversation, a poison working its way through everything they felt for the child and each other.
Even if she grew to love the child, this knowledge of herself would lay beneath that love. And would this disgust remain, would she see how the stratum of the younger child remained beneath the face of the older, no matter how it changed? A reminder, visible only to her, of the monstrousness of its brute, dumb being and desire?
Yet she wanted to know whether her partner loved the child. Perhaps she wanted to feel herself accused by his love of what she was incapable of or incapable of wanting.
While she was pregnant they had lost the habit of having sex. They had tried, carefully, once or twice, since she had given birth. There was an awkwardness to it that caused her to wonder whether they could still be lovers. Being someone’s lover required an agency, a sense of one’s own individuality that could be eroticized in some way, objectifying and being objectified in its turn. To feel oneself a separate being from all the world, if only for a moment, and selecting, from all the world, one other separate being.
Their intimacy now consisted of a mute warmth, bodies next to each other. In the first several weeks after delivery, when the child had cried with colic, a terror of the world and an all-consuming need, she had been so tired that at times she wondered whether she was hallucinating, whether she had given birth at all. At times, as she lay in bed, it seemed that the child had been born dead, or, when the doctor had lifted it out of her, it had turned out to be something other than a child: she thought again of the developmental chart which the doctor had told her was rubbish, and this merged with a story she had heard once, on the radio or elsewhere, about the woman who had given birth to rabbits. Rabbits? her partner had murmured, likewise in a state ambiguously between sleep and wakefulness. It had seemed necessary to tell him then: I do not love rabbits. That’s fine, he had said, his mouth in the crook of his armpit, arm tucked under his head. And suddenly she was awake with the feeling that something had been destroyed, and could not remember whether she had said rabbits or our child, which in the half-dream were the same.
When did she first know the child was sick? It seemed she imagined the sickness before it began. A cough, among the other animal noises. A tablespoon, maybe more, of vomited milk. Then, early one evening, fever, difficulty breathing.
Her partner repeated, each time they took the child’s temperature, that low fevers are common in newborns, that it wasn’t necessarily anything to worry about. Still, they should take the child in to see the pediatrician in the morning.
That night, the child began to howl in a way it hadn’t before. She rose from bed and took the child from its crib, raised it to her breast, hoping it was hungry. She felt immediately the heat of the child with an intensity that repulsed her. It ignored her breast. Her partner had come with her, out of worry, and now stood at her side, asking questions she did not pay attention to. They dressed and drove with the child to the emergency room. It had stopped crying, and was now making small rattling sounds, seemed to be having difficulty taking in breath.
The doctors gave the child steroids and antiviral medication, and told her it would be best if they stayed at the hospital overnight.
A nurse-practitioner sat with her and her partner in another room, asked them questions (how old, when did you first notice), tried to reassure them both, but focusing always in particular on her, as the mother. The nurse-practitioner, a woman perhaps a decade older than her, had washed-out blond hair, and something about her face gave the impression that once upon a time she was very tan and had lost it, years ago, under the hospital’s florescent lights. She suspected, for inexact reasons, that the nurse-practitioner was a mother.
She toyed with the idea, as the nurse-practitioner spoke, that she herself was causing this sickness in her child. She thought of stories of mothers making their children sick, out of a pathological need for attention. She pictured herself dipping her finger in some toxic substance—house cleaner, perhaps—and touching it to the lips of the child, feeling the child’s mouth reflexively suckle. She imagined admitting to the nurse-practitioner, in front of her partner, that she had said spells over the child, that she had burned small fetishes in the child’s shape and buried the ashes.
Should she should be shocked at this, she wondered? Instead she felt anew how incredible it was that this world could exist inside her: the nurse-practitioner’s mouth opening in horror, her partner’s excuse—“You don’t mean that, of course she doesn’t mean that, she’s been under a great deal of stress”—even her own feeling of guilt in the situation imagined; and all of this while life continued as usual around her, the nurse-practitioner speaking, her partner speaking, her own face looking tired and concerned and making the appropriate noises in response to what the two other people in the room with her were saying.
During the next week, as the child recovered, friends came to visit them, couples who had children of their own, bringing food, saying, “We know how difficult it is at the beginning. And with a sick child!” She was polite. When appropriate—when it had happened previously as a greeting—she kissed the women twice, once on either cheek, and hustled them in to the living room. “He’s sleeping right now,” she told them, in a hushed voice, and they smiled and nodded, knowingly.
Once, years before she had met her current partner, she had driven by herself from the college she had attended in the Midwest to Nevada, out to the desert, because she could and because she had never seen it before. She found herself on a road where she was the only car for as far as she could see in either direction and she pulled over to the side of the road and left her car and, after a moment’s hesitation, began walking, out across the desert. She didn’t know what she was doing. She wanted to walk far enough that the sky and the desert were the only things she could see. She wanted to feel, for a moment, the danger that she might lose herself in it.
There was a wind; she could see her footprints being eroded even as she stood there. She hunched down, taking a kind of pleasure in them as they..
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If you’re not a mother and not planning to become one, you may think Molly Caro May’s memoir, Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood, has nothing to do with you. If you have a mother, though, or a friend or a wife or a coworker or anyone in your life who is or may one day be a mother, then I would argue that it absolutely does.
While May’s subject matter is universal in scope and applicable to a vast audience, I would not know how very common May’s story was if I hadn’t experienced something eerily similar myself. Body Full of Stars, as its subtitle announces, is the story of one woman’s “passage into motherhood,” and the “rage” that sometimes accompanies that transition. Oh, you thought motherhood was all sweetness and light? Then this book is here, finally, to set you straight.
May’s story begins with a birth. As she prepares to labor and deliver her baby, May feels strong and peaceful, connected to her breath, her baby, her mother, her mother’s mother, and all the women throughout history who have labored and delivered before her. This sense of connection does not surprise her; in fact, it is part of why she wanted to go on this adventure in the first place—to join the common thread of humanity, and of femininity specifically. Despite complications with the birth—“the laboring woman,” as May refers to herself at that time, is rushed to a hospital and delivers there with a vacuum, not in her own home without intervention, as she had hoped—May delivers a healthy baby girl, and, at first, all seems right with the world.
Not long after May and her husband, Chris, get their baby home, however, things start to change in ways neither of them could have anticipated (because these are not the kinds of stories we usually tell each other about having babies). Whether due to the difficult delivery or pregnancy more generally, May experiences an initial incontinence that she assumes will pass, but doesn’t. So, in addition to the difficulties faced by many new mothers—sleep deprivation, nursing, emotional malleability—May finds she can also no longer hold her urine. She’s open and graphic about the effect of this physical disorder on her life, and it’s heartbreaking to read that a woman who loves hiking, who dreamed of carrying her baby on long walks through nature, now must accept that she will either have to walk in urine-soaked pants or not walk at all. As if this weren’t enough, May’s vaginal tone is severely decreased, and she suffers a prolapse. These physical wounds force May to confront her own history with “woundology,” as she calls it, an attachment to suffering that may have been holding her back for years.
Binge eating, weight fluctuation, and dissatisfaction with her body have been aspects of May’s identity since she was much younger, but it is only in light of her new injuries, ones she has little control over, that she recognizes how much she once craved those self-imposed problems with her body. Indeed, she has spent her life cultivating such concerns, attaching herself to them, and making them a part of her identity. Faced with the necessity of healing herself, May realizes just how closely she has come to identify with the idea of woundedness, both as an individual person and as a woman. Her friend and doctor tells her, “You’re holding on to a vast collective suffering and it isn’t serving you.” But how can she revise her identity when she is so very tired? And how could she have known that such an act would be required of her when she became a mother? As May points out:
Because we are a culture focused on the singular act of birthing, no one tells you what comes before or after birth. Not really. How can they? It’s different for every woman. There may not be one narrative. However, there is one truth. Before and after are not times where all you do is glow. These are passages full of rocks and caverns and shards of light. Maybe we protect the uninitiated women (and men). Maybe we hope they won’t lose themselves like we did. Maybe time passes and we forget what we wanted to tell them in the first place. Maybe we are scared to put the words baby and hardship in the same sentence.
Within a few months of her daughter’s life, though, May is not afraid to put these words together, or to write a story that combines the intense love she feels for her daughter with the physical and mental hardship she undergoes while adjusting to her child’s existence.
For May and her husband (as, I would guess is also true for most male/female partners) part of the trouble stems from a rapid shift in the dynamics of their relationship. Because Chris is busy building their house from the ground up, he, May, and baby Eula live in May’s parents’ guesthouse for part of that first year, and May ends up spending a great deal of time with her mother. The two have always been close, but May is surprised at how much she desires her mother’s company as she becomes a mother herself. “I had no idea that I had no idea about my mother,” she writes. “I had no idea how hungry I would become to align with her and away from men.” For May, the change in her relationship with her husband is sudden and stunning. “Though we’ve never operated with prescribed gender roles,” May writes, “we are now—woman cares for babe, man builds shelter.” For a couple that has always taken pride in their modern, equal partnership, this change, combined with lack of sleep and no permanent home to call their own, provokes arguments, misunderstanding, and drama.
By now you might be thinking—does this woman have postpartum depression, or what? Couldn’t she just take a pill and be done with it? Well, yes. But no. The label “postpartum depression,” in both May’s and my own experience, can be misleading. What May is feeling isn’t really depression per se. Instead, as the subtitle of the book makes clear, what May feels is not sadness, but anger. She is irritable from lack of sleep, enraged that her baby cries and she can’t make it stop, furious that her partner does not seem to feel the same desperation she does to make the baby happy. “He has never been so inadequate to me as he is these days,” she writes. A pill might soften these emotions, but it cannot change the facts. It cannot make two people understand each other on its strength alone.
It’s not until their friends come to visit, and May hears Chris telling them the story of Eula’s birth, that she starts to understand that her husband is moving through his own passage into fatherhood. Because of the pain of labor, May’s eyes were closed during most of their daughter’s birth, and so she did not watch the machines monitoring her own and her baby’s life as her husband did. She did not see the indication of her baby’s faltering heartbeat, or the looks of anxiety on the doctors’ faces. But Chris did. “Maybe it’s more of a heartbreak to watch someone deteriorate than be the one who deteriorates,” May realizes. “Maybe it’s worse to witness an unraveling than to unravel.” This recognition fosters a new empathy for her husband, and, soon, for herself as well.
As May moves through what she now calls her “postpartum challenge,” she does not return to her old self, but instead becomes someone new, a more grateful, more joyful woman. Instead of clinging to a now-outdated idea of self, May allows herself to grow alongside her child. “You’ve been waiting for a reason to take care of your body your entire life,” her husband points out. “You’ve wanted to heal and heal deeply.” In order to do this, May must slow down. She must find space in which to stop, look around, and take stock of everything she thought she was and believed up until now. “I’m still trying to release my fear of domesticity, of being a woman at home who cooks,” she writes, even as she takes pleasure in shopping for healthful food, planning meals, and preparing them for herself and her family. This process teaches May that “mother can be a verb. It’s orchestrated that our children teach us how to mother ourselves.”
While the necessity of caring for oneself is certainly a profound and important truth, it is possible that some readers will find aphorisms like these somewhat frothy. There were moments when May was a little bit too hippy dippy for me, where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes, such as when she tells us that “Someone told me metal near my body was bad, so I cut one underwire out of my bra, forgot about the other, and walked around with uneven breasts for months without realizing it.” Or her admission that when she lived in the city she used to “pour my menstrual blood into the soil of our eighteen apartment plants.” Her obsession with her cycles and with blood in general, and the way she tries to drive home a point by breaking text into single lines didn’t always hit home with me. But none of these qualms matter much compared to the bravery and compassion May doles out in this book. I have never read anything so honest about the transition into motherhood before, and after crossing that threshold so recently myself, I am immensely grateful to May for putting it down on paper for all the world to see. The way we tell our stories matters, and May points out that who we tell them to often dictates the how.
How would I retell our story for Eula? Your mama’s fire grew so hot, it shone on all parts of the cave, parts they’d never seen before. All at once, she and your papa could see all the clutter and dust in their home. They cleaned it up. It was hard work, many days and many nights, and their muscles grew tired and sometimes they gave up. But they did it. From time to time, the dust blew in again. They learned that dust always blows in. But now they each had a strong fire, and they swept as they went and all was as it was.
No doubt May and her family have benefited greatly from the deep internal work it took to live and then write this book. Such work is individual, and up to each of us to do on our own, but everyone who reads this book will also benefit from a generous, accurate, and hopeful story that ends not with a happily ever after but with honesty, dignity, and strength in the face of life’s ongoing challenges, whether we are mothering our children, or just ourselves.