Last week concluded the first installment of our Creative Writer’s Showcase. We are so thankful to all of our participants! This week, we are embarking on a one-of-a-kind view into the life of a classroom teacher during the Coronavirus pandemic. We are lucky to have these dispatches from Josi’s classroom, which we will be printing on Thursdays for the rest of the month of October.
On the first week of my first year of teaching, I learned how important birthdays are to young children. It was one of Tina’s first birthdays since being adopted, and her mom, who worked at my school, kindly asked if I could do a little something to make the day special for her. I remember her excitement at handing out cupcakes, and I remember her asking when we were going to sing.
Personally, I never want to sing happy birthday. I think it’s a cheesy, awkward song. But to children, it isn’t cheesy. It’s a moment where you’re showered with attention and allowed to enjoy it. A birthday is a day where everyone is supposed to be nice to you, and for young humans, it means a lot.
The software we used to take attendance would show a little candle next to someone’s name if their birthday was within a week. Whenever I saw the candle, I’d panic just a little, worrying again that I’d forget to stock the prize box with cool toys, or let them down by failing to set aside enough time in the day for a mini-celebration.
Eventually, I started making “birthday bags,” little gift bags with trinkets and candy that I could give to a student on their birthday as we sang before dismissal. I made a little tradition where the birthday kid could pick any game to play in class (usually Seven Up, or Simon Says) and even pick a Kidz Bop song to play on YouTube and dance with the class. I got that birthday thing down.
Then, last Friday, the first Friday of the 2021-2022 school year, happened.
As the class and I sat down to review the calendar and today’s schedule, I noticed that Casey’s birthday was this weekend, but she was absent today. She came in later, but her birthday totally slipped my mind. And surprisingly, she didn’t mention it.
Around 2:00, the school secretary came by with an envelope for me and didn’t say what it was. I assumed it was something related to the staff meeting we would have later, that I could look at after dismissal, and continued teaching and monitoring the students in their small groups. After all, It was a particularly hectic afternoon.
Several girls were crying for an unknown reason. One was on YouTube, instead of the math site we were supposed to be on. The school custodian came in to let me know he caught two girls throwing paper towels all over the restroom. On top of all that, dismissal time was forty-five minutes away.
Masterfully, I calmed the crying girls and helped them talk through their feelings. I directed the girls in the restroom to clean up their mess, and affirmed to the class that that kind of behavior is not acceptable. I clarified that avoiding your work by using unapproved websites like YouTube would result in a call home to your parents, and you would have to make up the work during one of our break times. I coordinated the last part of our school day, which involved picking new class jobs for the next week, celebrating the wonderful writing work we completed, and cleaning our desks.
The students were dismissed, and I walked them outside to wait to be picked up. That’s when Casey walked back over to me with her mom, who asked, “Did you get to hand out those birthday invitations?”
My stomach dropped. Of course. The envelope. But why didn’t Casey mention it was her birthday this morning, when we looked at the calendar, I wondered. Oh right. She came in late today. And it slipped my mind.
I did the only thing I could do: I apologized, ran back to get them, and helped Casey hand out the invitations to all the girls still waiting to be picked up. I promised Casey and her mom that we would sing Happy Birthday and give her the birthday bag on Monday.
But I felt like a failure. Even though we finished our writing projects for the week, had a wonderfully successful math lesson that morning, and lined up quickly after all of our outdoor break times, I had failed that day because I didn’t pass out those invitations. I let Casey down, on her special day.
It was a non-teacher friend who reassured me that the situation wasn’t my fault.
The parent didn’t send me an email. The student didn’t know she was supposed to hand them out. The invitations landed on my desk at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. And, birthdays are not academic. It’s not my job to celebrate your child’s birthday.
I’m still conflicted on this point. And I’d like to mention that the parents did not blame me (at least, not to my face). The student didn’t seem all that bothered. And, on Monday, when I was supposed to make it up to her, Casey was absent. When she finally came to school on Wednesday, she remembered to remind me to sing happy birthday for her several times throughout the school day. Even when I was teaching. Especially when she was supposed to be working on something.
What is a teacher’s job? Obviously, it is to teach Math, Reading, and Writing to young minds. By extension, it is to promote good learning habits and behavior, including taking turns, teamwork, organization, etc.
But where do we draw the line between teaching and parenting? I have several students who can’t tie their shoes. Should I set time aside to teach them?
Yesterday I walked past the Globe Theater. It was intense. Just walking past it.
I’ve been in London now for over a week. I’ve seen a bunch of the tourist things you’re supposed to see, and not seen others. I saw the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavation at the British Museum. I saw all the old manuscripts on display at the British Library. I’ve had fish and chips 3 times. And yes there have been things that made me stop and stare. Most of those moments occurred in Kew Gardens.
But to understand why just seeing the outside of the Globe was such a moment, I think we need to establish something. London is not cute, and it’s not quaint. If you’ve ever been to the center of London, you know this. There’s a street called “London Wall.” It’s a street, not a wall. It follows the path of the old Roman Wall (built around the year 200; torn down around the year 1800) but the two sides of the street are lined by modern office buildings. South of the Thames, particularly in the Southwark and Elephant-and-Castle neighborhoods, I get a similar vibe to certain parts of Queens: cute, little, old buildings with apartments on the top floors and immigrant-run restaurants and shops on the bottom floors. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling at home since I got here. Ok fine. That part feels homey and comfortable—the part where the immigrants live. But most of the rest of central London that I’ve seen is aggressively angular. The old world charm that suffuses other European cities is so conspicuously absent from even the tiniest corner of most parts of the city that even the occasional Tudor-style beam-and-stucco pub comes off as the Disney-ish fakery it so obviously is.
The only thing cute or quaint about London is the naming. When I was a kid, I used to say things like “Massachussetts? More like ASSachussets!” And it seems to me that the “more like” guy got to name all the things in London. Because when you try to play that game in London, you find the work has already been done. “Cockfosters? More like…” nope, that one’s good already. “Newington Butts? More like…” Nope, there’s nowhere to go. And you need that kind of amusement, just like you need parks, because the physical experience of the city is mostly hard edges.
Now. I’m not faulting a city for modernizing. Nor am I faulting a city that was literally leveled by fire for taking the opportunity to Build Back Better (something American cities could use some advice on how to do). But I won’t pretend something of the charm and beauty of an older city, of an older pattern of architecture, isn’t lost. What would be the point of pretending? And so, across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral, accessible by way of the spare, modern Millennium Bridge (a footbridge, to be specific) and right next to the Tate Modern, which looks like an abandoned factory, is this round building of plaster panels framed by wooden beams and covered by a thatched roof. A thatched frigging roof.
That roof… I bet they put some sort of fire-resistant resin on it. They have to, right? The great fire of London was in 1666, but the Globe burned down in 1613, a victim of the sparks from its own stage-magic. It was rebuilt a few years later and then torn down again in the 1640s, a casualty of the Civil War.
But from when it was built in the 1590s until the day it was torn down, a Londoner with a free afternoon and a penny (a bit more than the price of a loaf of bread—about ten dollars in modern American currency) could go there (or to the Curtain, the Swan, the Rose, the Bear Garden…) and see a play by William Goddamn Shakespeare. I don’t believe in magic… but that’s magic, isn’t it? And it’s still there. It’s been there for about thirty years now, and the price for groundlings is, in constant dollars, or rather pounds, the same as it was in the 1590s. The idea of that much beauty and grace and artistry; of that many dirty jokes and human-spirit-affirming speeches being nearly free for nearly everyone in the city. And that’s to say nothing of the beautiful affirmations of queer and interracial love that many of those playwrights crafted… The feeling I experienced standing on that bridge looking at that theater was nearly religious.
Just seeing it, it was like a door opened. I was walking with Anuja at the time and stories just started pouring out of me. About how before there was the Globe, there was the Theater, founded by James Burbage (his son, Richard Burbage, originated the roles of Hamlet and Richard III and a bunch of others). There was a dispute over the ownership of the Theater, though, and so James and his cronies literally dismantled the Theater, timber by timber, and used the disputed materiel to build a new one on a plot of land they were more secure in their ownership of. Stories poured out about how people, when they visited the theater, cracked nuts and ate the meat as they watched the plays, and how that cracking sound must have echoed off the wooden interior. About how, then as now, the theater-folk were constantly living under the threat of closing down due to plague. About how even though the 16th century Christian divines were ignorant of modern germ theory (as opposed to wilfully ignorant but that’s a rant for another o’clock) they somehow knew that closing down the place where people went to congregate was a good idea. About how the first permanent, purpose-built theater in England, the Red Lion, was built in Whitechapel, which was a tannery district outside the walls of London. How it must have smelled when the Londoners walked or rode the distance outside the walls to see the plays! The Red Lion went out of business in about fifteen years.
It all just came pouring out. I wonder if I would have felt the same way had I not had pieces by Shakespeare memorized. It felt as though they were inside me, clamoring to come out:
Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio A fellow of infinite jest…
Nay, I can smile and murder whiles I smile…
Thou, Nature, art my goddess…
The places in my body where those memorized lines and speeches are lodged were buzzing with the same mixture of anticipation and contentment that all of me felt when I was getting off the plane in London-Heathrow, on the cusp of seeing Anuja for the first time in 18 months. Every muscle alternated between tense and relaxed, except the ones I was smiling with, and my whole being was suffused with one thought: I’m almost home.
True Crime Tuesday is off again today–we wish Mary a speedy recovery and know she’ll be back with thrills and chills and deep psychological exploration for us soon. In the meantime, we’re bringing you another episode of Big Cat, Little Cat, and we’re going to take a moment to introduce Thursday Night Writes, a virtual writing group on Zoom. Join Erika (and upon his return from his travels, Adam as well) on Thursdays from 9-11 PM Eastern US time for a no pressure, accountability focused writing group. Get together with friends and other writers, bring whatever you’re working on, check in with your goals, and then go write for a while…whether you keep your camera on or off, we’ll be here to keep you company. We’ll make breakout rooms available as needed for people who want to chat a little or who are seeking feedback, but the focus is really just on comfortable accountability while you write.
Let us know if you would like more groups like this, too–we know the timing of this one may not work for you, but you can suggest a time that will.
There may even be appearances from Big Cat, Little Cat or the cat who has yet to appear here. Inevitably, they’ll start stepping on Erika the moment she thinks of a really good sentence.
Description: Two cats, a large orange and a small grey, sit together on a bed. The orange, with an air of unspoiled innocence, says: “Why must I sit on my human every time they try to write?” The little grey snaps: “Fool, you would tamper with millennia of tradition.”
My grandmother was known for entertaining guests; in fact, the stone at her grave makes note of her skill as a hostess. I recall standing in the kitchen with my mother, while we were preparing the house to sit shiva* for her. I was busy getting the table organized, setting up coffee, and making sure the house would be ready to receive guests after the funeral. My mother was standing there, frustrated, trying to arrange a vase of flowers (something my grandmother seemed to do effortlessly,) and Mom looked up and said she needed her mother’s expertise. This was an unusual moment of vulnerability for my mom, but it was in keeping with such moments: she wasn’t allowing herself to express grief for her mother’s death, just commenting on how she wished she could arrange the flowers as well as her mother had been able to. I felt the weight of that moment, the smothering of grief and loss beneath the weight of social obligation, the same way I felt the weight of the moment when I’d covered up the mirror in the front hallway and set up the hand washing station at the front door.
Grandma used those amazing hostessing skills to support my grandfather’s business endeavors. She used them when they owned Timber Point Country Club in the 1960s. And they were often on display when I was a small child. Grandma and Grandpa had a wonderful house for children to ramble through, situated on the south shore of Long Island, with plenty of space for us to be outdoors and out of the way. But even amid the labyrinth of corridors, the lush backyard, the house was not without its shadows.
The imaginary monsters of childhood lurk in closets and under the bed, and everywhere else. Mine hid in public restrooms, the boiler room of our home and in my grandparents house. In their living room, where no one ever sat, hanging near the fireplace, were two pencil sketches: one of a cat, and the other of a man. I always found the sketches creepy. Another monster was a rabbi, whose portrait haunted the long hallway between the front and back of the house. He had a long brown beard, you could see a kippah on his head, and over him was draped a tallis (prayer shawl). There was no way for me to avoid those places in the house. Seeing the fireplace pictures could be limited– we only had to walk towards the fireplace and see those pictures when we were leaving.. And the air always felt colder near the attic, and the eyes in the painting followed me as I rushed past it, keeping my eyes pointed at the floor, and feeling the nerves in my stomach every time. That rabbi knew what a terrible person I was, all my dark secrets, he was watching, and reporting it all back to the one who sits in judgement.
In spite of those things, the house is a place I remember fondly, with good memories of love and celebrations. My grandparents’ friends were frequent visitors.Some of them they had known since my mother was a child, and some of them were more recent acquaintances. And I was expected to find the sweet spot between being a charming grandchild and being out of the way. I think all of the girls were (there were three of us, close in age, with 22 months between my older cousin and my younger sister,) an expectation we lived up to with varying levels of success… Woe betide the shy child, though–the scolding that she would endure for being frightened of strange, loud people who had usually been drinking quite a bit could be a lasting bruise on even the most self-possessed and secure sensibility.
Another monster was Mr. Gilbert. My grandparents’ friendship with the Gilberts went back at least as far as my mother’s childhood. The story my mother has told most frequently is that when she developed osteomyelitis (at age 8 while at summer camp) Mrs. Gilbert would come and sit with them daily through the treatments and uncertain diagnosis, and she would bring popsicles. I remember Mrs. Gilbert as the person who gave me a giant soft rag doll, taller than I was, in a bonnet and calico dress, and who had given me the small quilt and matching pillow that sat across the foot of my bed throughout my childhood, and even beyond. I remember her because people seemed to expect we would have some kind of special connection because we shared the same birthday. Mr. Gilbert was never my favorite… never as kind or as interested as any of the others, always distant. According to my mother, Mr. Gilbert was a wonderful, sweet man. I don’t remember him that way.
I was probably three or four when Mr. Gilbert became a monster. It was a normal sort of day at Grandma and Grandpa’s with women in the kitchen, men somewhere else, and kids wherever we were supposed to be. I was in the kitchen, perched on the island. I had carrot sticks, fancy ones, cut with a crinkle cutter, and I was happily crunching away while a game of Scrabble took place at the table nearby. Mr. Gilbert smiled and began to chat with me. Most children, we know, are curious about bodies, so Mr. Gilbert naturally asked:. “Would you like to see me take my ear off?”
I have no idea if I answered, or he just did it without waiting for consent. I just know that what came next caused me to fear him for the rest of his life.
He took off his ear.
I watched him as he reached back, put his thumb behind his ear, and, with a firm tug, detached it from his head. He placed it on his open palm and displayed it for me. Then he put it back on. I didn’t scream. I didn’t cry. If I had, this story would have become part of family lore, told and retold for maximum embarrassment, again and again, or I’d recall the castigation from my grandmother, or possibly both. There would undoubtedly be some kind of shame involved. I can only assume I sat there, silently, not sure what to do next, as he “reattached” his “ear.” I can remember, though, that after that day, I tried to avoid him whenever he was present… and Mrs. Gilbert as well. And I kept the story to myself until I was in my mid twenties.
I don’t know why it took me so long to tell this story to anyone. Did I already know that the fear of something totally imaginary, like removing an ear, would make my mother think less of me? Or that expressing the fear of someone important to my grandparents would lead to an intense repreprimand from Grandma? Did I know somehow that it would be dismissed as overreacting? It wasn’t overreacting for a preschooler who was still discovering so many things about the way the world works. Those instincts–fear, distrust–keep us safe. We train ourselves out of trusting our instincts though–not because of good old American boldness, but more likely just in the name of politeness, in the interest of avoiding conflict. Sometimes we allow “no” to be the beginning of a negotiation, instead of remembering that “no” is a complete sentence.
I’m not very good at saying no to other people. I don’t listen to my own instincts, and I get in my own way far too often. Just like fear can be a thrill or a warning, “no” can be both weapon and armor. I’ve let my own fear of hearing “no” from other people be a barrier to taking chances. It joins forces with the other negative voices inside my head to gain so much power that instead of protecting me sometimes, I let it take me down. And as I’m sitting here acknowledging the power of fear and the power of “no,” I wonder… why is it so hard for me to find my own power in there and to defeat the “no” voice?
When I started to write this story, I was thinking about childhood fears and body parts falling off. I thought about Mr. Gilbert’s ears and about my sister, who feared her belly button becoming unknotted and who was convinced that if that happened that she would go flying around the room and deflate like a balloon. I thought I was writing about the power of childhood fears… how the world remains frightening and mysterious when you’re not ready to puzzle some things out completely. Things like how, after I read the book Helter Skelter, which I read way before I was really ready to read it, I refused for years to sleep with my bedroom windows open from the bottom, because there was something in the book about breaking into homes to commit murders that way. I didn’t know that telling this story would lead me down a road I hadn’t traveled in a long time… or how scary that road would still be. Mr Gilbert took his ear off for me more than four decades ago, and I was afraid to say “no” then. I’m still afraid to say “no” now. Saying “no” feels dangerous, and so does not saying no. It’s a little like a puppy chasing its tail. At some point, something has to stop the cycle of fear and consequences, or something has to grow bigger than the fear of the consequences. When I finally told the story about Mr. Gilbert’s ear, I had grown–grown beyond the fear of detached body parts being a real thing, beyond fear of retribution from adults about being afraid, and beyond fear of the story being told by my parents as a tale of childhood embarrassment mislabeled as cuteness. And although I thought I had stopped being afraid of childhood monsters many years ago, I’ve discovered that childhood is filled with real monsters. Not the kind that loses body parts or drinks your blood or turns you into a werewolf. The monsters do something much worse. They take your inner “no” voice away. And the silence can cripple you for life.
I’m a grown up. I’m a parent. I still remember the feelings about embarrassing childhood stories, and so I’m careful when I pick and choose stories to tell about my own children, especially online: asking permission, blurring details and keeping things as anonymous as I can. Because I’m afraid that if I tell embarrassing stories about my children without asking, they’ll lose the word ‘no’ the way I did.
And that zombie ear that scared me so much when I was a kid? It was just a hearing aid. Not so scary after all. Not nearly as scary as feeling trapped, not nearly as scary as being unable to say no.
*Sitting shiva means sitting on a low stool for seven days, in company with your friends and relatives. It’s a Jewish mourning ritual.
Clearly, these two have their rituals. They’re cats–creatures of habit, after all. In fact, with the change of seasons, the rituals change a little, too The changing angle of the sun means a change in sleeping spots and sleeping patterns. One thing doesn’t change, however, and that is the insistence that one or more of them sit in a way that will make their presence known any time Erika sits down for a long writing session. Her writing rituals, therefore, include some cat related tasks. She actually described her process to Adam recently, and it included a few intereting steps. She’ll post about it on Twitter-you can look there or comment here to find out more. What are your writing rituals? A favorite spot? A favorite beverage? A chat with a mentor? Tell us about it here in the comments or on social media and tag it with #IvoryBoilerRoomAsks. If you’re on Twitter, don’t forget to tag @IvoryBoilerRoom along with @DrWhippersnap and @WhatTheMamaSaw
Another weekend has arrived, and we’re here with highlights from what we’ve been watching, reading and listening to. Mary’s had to sit this week out due to illness, but we know she’ll be back soon. Meanwhile we all wish her a speedy recovery (and you can leave your well wishes for her, too.) In the meantime, enjoy our recommendations, and if you see that one of us has been checking out something that you too love, let us know…and share your own suggestions with us in the comments or on any of our social media pages.
This week Andrew has been reading Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory which he has been obsessively poring over (at local cafes and at the university). He is so excited to interview the author, Dustin Friedman today, and you all can listen to the podcast episode in a few weeks. For his teaching preparation, he has been rereading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, as always, loves the Gilded Age soap opera narrative that truly takes a turn for the worse (but he won’t spoil it for all of you).
Andrew finished a motivational audiobook, The 4 Word Answer and recommends it to all, since it really has helped him stay grounded and in control of his authenticity. The quest is to focus on 4 words everyday that you can turn to for maintaining peace and happiness in your life. Andrew’s words are authenticity, empowerment, creativity, and kindness. What are your 4 words?
This week Andrew hasn’t been watching a lot of new shows due to a busy schedule, but he did start to watch the new season of The Morning Show (and enjoying it, so far). He does want to start watching the new season of Sex Education when he gets a chance (maybe as he starts Fall Break for Stony Brook University).
Erika has been working with some difficult writing this week, and has had family visiting, so it’s been a week for some less serious media, in fact, mostly a return to old favorites. She escaped to the homophobia-free world of Schitt’s Creek a lot this week. Listening to Dan Levy’s David Rose explain that he likes “the wine not the label,” has helped her organize some thoughts
One of those difficult pieces may appear this week on the blog, and another later this month, so keep reading. Meanwhile, as Erika has done some reading and writing about LGBTQ history month and Orlando has gotten ready to celebrate Pride, this TEDx Talk by Misty Gedlinske has also helped Erika with some of the stumbles her writing has taken.
Hannah Gadsby’s stand up special Douglas and a lot of documentaries have also been on screen. And while the film itself isn’t an old favorite, the characters of Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan are, and Erika finally made time to watch the third installment of the Bill and Ted movie franchise, “Bill and Ted Face the Music” which was probably her favorite of the trilogy. She also watched Baking Impossible, which gives The Great British Baking Show a nerdy upgrade by combining baking and engineering for some amazing outcomes. This weekend will definitely feature the new episode of The Great British Baking Show, and possibly also the new season of Sex Education if she’s feeling up to it.
Not much on the classical end of Erika’s playlist this week–a little Mozart, a little Handel, a little Corelli here and there. Instead, Liz Phair made an appearance, along with Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan and Stella Donnelly’s Boys will be Boys ”Like a mower in the morning, I will never let you rest,” was a good phrase to hear this week. There’s been some space for Ani DiFranco and 10,000 Maniacs, too.
The only new (to her, not newly published,) book on Erika’s list this week is by friend of the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, Lev Raphael. His collection Book Lust! Essays for Book Lovers has been a nice vacation for Erika, a space to read about other people’s writing instead of reading, revising and re-reading her own. Erika knew this one was for her when she opened the book, and saw the title of the very first essay, “Bad Sex Blues.” If you haven’t listened to the three part interview that she and Andrew did with Lev earlier this summer, in part 2, they talk about writing sex scenes, which Erika was struggling with (and may have finally begun to make some progress on in the last few weeks.) She’s still reading from Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Shout and The Great Gatsby and several other things she’s picked up and put down in the last few weeks.
Adam finally finished The Powerbroker by Robert Caro. Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, what a long book! It is really beautifully written. Anyone who can make budget-meetings feel as immediate and exciting as tabloid romance is someone to learn from. Adam is also reading Roisin Campbell by J. P. Garland, a historical novel about 19th century Irish immigrants in New York. Stay tuned for news of collaboration between The Ivory Tower Boiler Room and author J. P. Garland.
And, with Adam being reunited at long last with his most dependable binge-watching partner, the new season of Sex Education was easily dispensed with, and Squid Games is well underway.
Adam has not been listening to much music this week, leastwise not on speakers, but a few pieces have been playing on repeat in his head: Trumpet Concerto by Franz Josef Haydn (Thank you Squid Games) “Time” by Tom Waits Various songs by Tom Lehrer, including “Be Prepared” and “The Old Dope-Peddler”
Anyway, have a great week, everyone. Remember to come back tomorrow for some more Big Cat Little Cat and Monday for the new Big Think and the new episode of the podcast!
It is strange being in the city that, for over three hundred years, was the political and economic center of the world… and not really caring. I arrived in London on October 1. The reason I’m here has nothing to do with the Globe Theater or the tailors on Savile Row or the scones.
My fiancee had been in India for some eighteen months; I had been in New York during the same interval, and, because of the vagaries of international travel, England was the only place we could legally meet. And yes, the other day I did go to the British Library to see the stolen books, and tomorrow I’ll be going to the British Museum to see the stolen artifacts. And a few days from now (this I’m a bit less ambivalent about) I’ll be watching Twelfth Night at the Globe theater. Really quick because I am, in fact, nerding the fuck out about this performance: I insisted on standing in the pit for authenticity. Also, the showing will be at 2 PM; a lot of Globe productions nowadays start at 7, whereas in Shakespeare’s era, the theater would have started at three when the sun was overhead. But the production I’ll be watching will, at least, be authentic in its starting-time. Another point of similarity is that, then as now, the theater is constantly at risk of closure due to plague.
Another irony, on top of being in London and not particularly caring, is being in London and not particularly feeling like I’m in London. Yeah, the accents are there and the thermostat is in centigrade, but I can’t help thinking that I have traveled a quarter of the way around the world just to land in Brooklyn. The area I am staying in is called Camden Town, which is made up of a combination of residences and converted factories, planted athwart the beautiful Regent’s Canal. The buildings tend to be about four storeys tall, there are parks and splashes of local color and hipster eateries (sooo many hipster eateries… How many pastries do you have to order from bakeries that are operating out of converted factories before you might as well be in Brooklyn? Whatever the number, I am way past it).
But of course even a place that is the same will nevertheless have its differences. The canals in Brooklyn are essentially open sewers (follow this link, and please don’t think too long about the phrase ‘black mayonnaise’); in Camden Town, the canal is home to dozens of houseboats that travel up and down its stream at will. Boats can even go up and down in elevation using these controlled waterfalls called locks, which are amazing things to learn about. One of the houseboats is home to a bookstore. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The inside is warm and cozy and filled with books and chairs. Anuja and I spent long precious minutes just standing among the shelves. The selection is amazing, too—the only books on that boat I don’t want to read… are the ones I want to reread. And the fellow who runs it is–how even to describe him? He sits there next to his houseboat-bookshop wearing a top-hat and green suit, sporting a long but carefully combed white beard that looks like it might once have been red. I thought it would be rude to snap his picture, but I fell in love with him a little bit. I wish I had stayed to talk a little while longer, at least long enough to ask what it is that happens in a person’s life that makes them decide: “I’m going to be a character out of a storybook and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop me.” I bought from him a volume entitled The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran, partly because I have always wanted a physical copy of The Prophet, but partly because I felt I needed to buy something; needed to contribute in some way to the livelihood of this person who is himself a dream come to life. Dreams are so fragile.
Speaking of joy, the reader will no doubt be wondering what a reunion looks like after 18 months. At least part of the answer is: lots of crying. I feel lucky that I, as a cisgendered, heterosexual man, am capable of tears. I wonder what this reunion would have been like without tears. I don’t think it would have been possible. Or at the very least, it would have required far more antacids and analgesics than I brought (the stomach and lower back are not the only places to carry such types of emotional distress but they appear to be my body’s preferences). The first time I cried was standing outside the London flat she had arranged—a few sniffles; nothing major. The second time was that very night. We were relaxing on the couch watching Together, a movie about the Coronavirus Pandemic starring Sharon Horgan and James MacAvoy. I started bawling like a newborn for a friend I lost to the Coronavirus a bit less than a year ago. Moments like this have come at intervals. While we’re watching TV, while we’re in bed. One of us will just say something and then… that becomes the activity. One person crying, the other person comforting. All I can say is that I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, this is, on some level, what I signed up for.
You might think it’s the inverse: that we are getting together to finally enjoy each other’s company and share some good times. And… yes. Of course. But that’s far from the main reason. The good times are already good. Yes, having your best friend there helps make good times even better, but not having them there isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s every miserable thing that’s happened to us this year—a friend dying of COVID, a health-scare in the family, then another, a particularly bad attack of lower back cramps or carpal tunnel syndrome… And what do you do when the person you most want to share your grief with just isn’t there? Obviously, you do the best you can. You manage.
If I’ve learned anything this year it’s that there is a kind of hierarchy to living. It’s really hard to experience life fully when there is nobody to talk to. So of course when we are isolated in our respective homes, we try to reach out using Zoom and other forms of social media. But that is merely another level of the hierarchy. Using Zoom for social interaction is exhausting, and anyway, it represents an incomplete social interaction. No smell, no touch, very little body-language, no sense of the other person being in the same setting and context. It’s the most sterile interaction. So occasionally (or more often depending on preference, level of vaccination, and level of risk-tolerance) we try to visit each other in person. Many of those interactions take place at a distance of six feet, sometimes with a fist-bump or elbow-bump at the beginning and end; some with a furtive handshake or even hug. So much is added to that interaction that is absent from the Zoom-calls. But again, it’s a partially sterile interaction. The body-language is there, but you don’t even have to take off your coat. So some of us (again, depending on risk-tolerance and level of vaccination) have full in-person interactions with hugs and kisses and hand-holding and sitting next to each other and so on. That is a real interaction. And I’ve been privileged to have such interactions this year. But once you get in that door, there is another hierarchy. Even the physically-closest interaction with a person you are not as close with emotionally is going to be unsatisfying in some vague way.
But what does the body do in the absence of those fulfilling social interactions; in the absence of being fully physically present with one of the scant few people with whom you can be fully emotionally present? What did I do for eighteen months, talking to Anuja on the phone or on some video-call platform, but never getting closer than that? The answer, as I realized about a week before I was to get on the plane to London, is that I began to shut down some of the parts of myself I wasn’t using. Yes, just like an old mansion in a 19th century novel. After a few months, I just wasn’t experiencing the highs and lows. And as I realized this, I realized simultaneously that when I saw Anuja in person for the first time, I was going to get emotional pins-and-needles, like when your foot goes numb because you’ve been sitting on it, and then when you stand up, the blood rushes back.
And that’s what has been happening. It is awful. But it is also marvelous. A useful analog is Theoden in The Two Towers when he, too, returns to full use of his emotional faculties after a long period of lying prostrate beneath layers of grief and depression. His first words are: “Dark have been my dreams of late.” But what is the first thing he does when he finally stands up; when he finally stretches his limbs; when he finally breathes the free air as an emotionally engaged human? Does he run and jump? Drink and carouse? Sing and dance? No. He mourns his dead. And that’s exactly what I did, too, right there on the couch, crying for my friend who died, with Anuja’s arms finally, firmly, wrapped around me. I feel lucky, in an odd way: so many of us have experienced grief and loss this year and last. It’s an embarrassment of riches to be able to fully express that grief in a healthy manner, and no longer to have to bottle it up in the name of survival.
So many people travel, as tourists, with a similar purpose, if you think about it. We visit castles that are now in ruins; or we visit castles that remain active as residences but were made famous by figures long dead. We visit the Globe theater, despite the fact that the man who wrote the plays for which it is most famous is 405 years dead; despite the fact that the Bear Garden and the Swan and the Rose and the Red Lion and the Blackfriars are gone, and the Globe is gone too, technically, done in by a fire in the early 1600s and rebuilt as well as it could be. We are all of us here to mourn. So as odd as it may seem to have travelled 18 months and three thousand miles to see Anuja, only to end up crying my eyes out for my dead friend, it does make sense. Everyone travels to get in touch with history. If I am given my preference, why should I not come here to get in touch with someone who likewise is no longer with us; who likewise was a scholar and an artist, but whom at least I knew personally?
I usually answer questions honestly rather than conventionally. And I expect this is going to be a trip for those kinds of answers. Ok, someone will say: ‘Did you have fun on your trip?’ And I’ll probably just say ‘yes,’ because that question doesn’t invite a fuller answer any more than ‘hey, what’s up?,’ and I respect that. But if someone says: ‘Did you have a good trip?’ I will be tempted to say: ‘Yes, but maybe not for the reasons you would expect.’ If someone says: ‘What was the best part of the trip?’ I may have more than one answer. But the real answer—the deep-down answer—is that the best part of my trip is: this time if Anuja is upset about something, I can wrap my arms around her. It’s just that simple. People get upset about things. And for eighteen months, I have had to use my words as the poor substitute they are. Not being able to hold her when she is suffering, not a single time in the past eighteen months, is among the worst pain, in my admittedly sheltered existence, I have ever felt. And now that pain is just… gone.
Just gone. Just like that.
So yeah. I’m having a fabulous trip. I’m experiencing happiness and contentment on a level I didn’t know possible. I’m also experiencing grief and ambivalence on a level I didn’t know possible. But the grief is what makes the positivity possible, which means that, if the grief were less, the joy would also be less. And, perhaps more importantly, the grief and joy both feel as though they are expanding my consciousness from within. Every time I experience a new low, it feels as though I have grown to accommodate it. And then every time I experience a new high, even if it is nothing more epiphanic than a walk along the bank of the canal, it again feels as though I have grown to accommodate it, and, like a balloon, I was not able to contain emotions this large, until I did contain them, and then suddenly I was able to contain them. And what emotions wait for me tomorrow? I could not even tell you, because they are too enormous for me to imagine. So yeah. I’m having a great trip. I couldn’t imagine a better.
As usual, right after sending this piece live, I encountered a suitable quotation whose source should not have surprised me:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked… The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain… When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. -“On Joy and Sorrow” (p131) from The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran (Word Cloud Classics, San Diego)
Mary’s True Crime Tuesday is off this week. But we’ll be receiving dispatches from Adam’s trip to England starting tomorrow. Apropos of which…
Description: Two felines, both alike in dignity, but not in size or color, in fair London where we lay our scene. The small grey asks the large orange: “So what do you think of London so far?” The large orange answers in Cockney: “I’m chuffed, innit?” Second Panel. The small grey says, as patiently as he can (which isn’t much): “Big Cat, you’re from Florida and you’ve been here for three days. Can you please just” But the large orange interrupts: “Cheerio, Guvna!”