May 17

Malcolm #52essays2017 no. 16

I often feel awkward, if not outright apologetic, as a white woman who gave her very white son the middle name of Malcolm after Malcolm X.

I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a follower of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I am a big fan of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program (and for God’s sake, if you’re not familiar with it, stop reading this and go read it now), and I often fantasize about what a Malcolm X-Black Panther alliance could have done, had Malcolm not been assassinated.

My reasons for choosing Malcolm as a middle name go back a long way. They go back to my mother telling me when I was twelve that Malcolm went to Mecca and saw all races getting along and wanted to make that happen everywhere. They go back to hearing Alex Haley speak when I was in high school. They go back to first hearing the Phil Ochs song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which starts “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers / Tears rolled down my spine / And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy / As though I’d lost a father of mine / But Malcolm X got what was coming / He got what he asked for this time / So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” They go back to wishing Malcolm were alive every time an unarmed black man is shot by the police. But most of all they go back to this line from a speech of Malcolm’s I read in graduate school:

We didn’t want anybody telling us about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and note hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.

I underlined that passage long before I knew I’d have a son. I underline that passage back when I did hate a lot of where I came from. I still hate some of it, still hate that I had ancestors who were slave owners (even if one of them set his slave free). I still hate that I had ancestors who profited from the labor of enslaved people, even if only directly — because really, if you bought cotton in the United States during the era of slavery, you profited from slave labor. (And really, if you bought it afterward, during the era of sharecropping, you shouldn’t feel that much better about yourself).

Malcolm X gave this speech in Detroit just after his home was bombed. I cannot imagine what that is like — to have your home with your wife and four young children bombed — but I know it is a daily reality for many people.

I can’t pretend to understand the lived experience of African Americans. And I can’t claim not to feel slightly uncomfortable claiming one of their martyrs as one of my heroes.

But he is one of my heroes, and those lines from that speech that I underlined so long ago came back to me when I was pregnant. I didn’t plan to become pregnant, and my son was born out of wedlock in a relationship that many didn’t think well of. But that line came back to me — “You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself.” I didn’t want my son to hate himself, and so I didn’t want him to hate his origin, and so I gave him the middle name of Malcolm, the man who taught me that.

We all of us have small, personal stories that run alongside the larger historical ones. Sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they cross pollinate. Sometimes you start out admiring someone for the work he did and end up loving him for one small line. Sometimes you want to support a movement and end up selfishly supporting only yourself.

I get very odd looks from white people when I tell them that I gave my son the middle name Malcolm after Malcolm X. I don’t know what kinds of looks I get from people of color because I live in Iowa, a state where 2% of the population is black and something like 26% of the prison population is black. I visit a prison every two weeks, but even the people I see there are mostly white, because I work with the inmates with the highest level of privilege, and most of them are white, and if you don’t think there’s something wrong with that, I don’t think I want to know you.

I think a lot about racial justice and the ways in which I’m not doing enough to achieve it. My son’s middle name reminds me of a lot of things, from my idiosyncratic personal reasons for choosing it to the larger societal struggles it stands for. But most of all it reminds me that I have to try harder.

Apr 17

Fears #52essays2017 no. 15

I’m afraid of listening to new podcasts, even when they come highly recommended. Sometimes I’m even afraid of listening to new episodes of podcasts I love, and so I listen to old ones instead. I’m afraid of the pieces of paper on my desk, and I’m afraid of sorting or organizing them because I might lose one and thus forget the book I’m supposed to order for someone or the phone call I’m supposed to make. Sometimes the piles just sit there for months and months, and then I’m afraid of them because they’ve been there so long and everyone will think I’m crazy if I bring them up now. Of course I am crazy. I have a hospital record to prove it.

I’m afraid during thunderstorms and wish someone would hold me, but I’m not afraid of tornadoes. I’m often terrified to drive but I’m not afraid of flying. I’m not afraid of public speaking but I’m afraid to call my friends.

I’m afraid of making plans for my son because he so often doesn’t like them, and how do I explain to another parent that my kid refuses to play with their kid all of a sudden when they played together so well last week? I’m also afraid of being alone with my child because I don’t know what to do to keep him occupied. I am 41 years old and my brain doesn’t occupy the space of a five year old’s mind very well.

Most of these fears are a daily presence. They form the basis of my self talk and shape my waking hours. When I take enough medication, I’m still afraid but the fears don’t bother me as much, sort of the way they say morphine doesn’t ease the pain; it just makes you not care about it.

It’s hard, because I am, for instance, afraid of feeding my child because there are so few foods he eats and they aren’t consistent, and it’s not feasible to take him out for a stripey grilled cheese sandwich at Panera for every meal. Once I made him a grilled cheese sandwich at home and he rejected it because it didn’t have stripes. Then I found a grill so I could make a striped grilled cheese sandwich and he rejected it because it was only supposed to have stripes on one side. Today he said he’d eat one with no stripes and he did and I nearly died of shock.

I would give almost anything not to be so afraid. My right foot? Maybe. I could limp along on crutches if I weren’t so afraid. But trades don’t work like that. I can’t give up a body part to be rid of part of my mind.

What worries me most is that my son has inherited this trait from me. At night we lie in bed and he asks me questions about all of his fears. He walks in behind me when we go places so he can hide behind my back. He is anxious, but he can’t tell me that, so he throws things and screams and hits. I do my best to help him with early interventions, but I worry he will end up just like me, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

When I was in graduate school my friend said if she could just get migraines like Joan Didion’s migraines then she’d be okay. She could write essays about them. I used to read The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem again and again so I could read about how she’d call her husband to ask for the time because she never remembered to pack a watch, about how afraid she was to ask the assistant district attorney anything and thus relied on observations to tell her stories. If I could have fears like Joan Didion’s fears, I could make them into art.

But in my experience ailments are not art; they are impediments to it. Mental illness may have an association with creativity, but it’s hell to live through for the sake of creativity.

I write about my fears from a position of privilege. I won’t lose my job as a result, and if I lose friends, well, I am not sure they were my friends to begin with. I am likewise lucky in my family, who have not disinherited me yet, for all that I sometimes write about things they might wish I wouldn’t.

The wind is blowing outside my house right now and it’s cold and wet outside, and I’m afraid of another long day indoors tomorrow. I’m afraid that I won’t remember ever what it’s like to be happy or remember any of the things I used to like to do. Right now I’m afraid of even the simplest of matters: I’m afraid to cook an egg because it seems too complicated. I bought peach yogurt in addition to my usual raspberry and lemon and I’m afraid to try it. I’m afraid when I look at the books on my shelves because I know I read most of them at one time but I can’t remember when I had the energy and attention to do such things.

I am afraid, in other words, of living, but life still goes on.

Apr 17

The Psych Ward, Nineteen Years Later #52essays2017 no. 14

Yet why not say what happened? —Robert Lowell

12 April 2017

There’s a paperclip on the floor of my room and I’m oddly thrilled by it — it must be contraband. I’m tempted to leave it there just to see if anyone notices and what they’ll do.

I have my own room here which makes it an improvement over the UI, but I have to share the phone with everyone else on the floor, but it’s a cordless (of course — we might strangle ourselves with a a cord), but at least I can take it to my room, but then I feel bad for hogging the phone. I think it has call waiting, but I was too scared of pressing the buttons to find out.

My Stitch Fix is supposed to arrive Friday and I won’t be able to respond because I’m here. I sort of look forward to the email I’ll send them. Dear Stitch Fix, I couldn’t respond to your latest styling of me because I was on the psych ward. I’m imagining now a whole line of styling tips just for the psych ward. Wear your ankle boots in but then realize you’ll have to exchange them for slippers. How do you accessorize scrubs? So many questions.

My handwriting has really deteriorated. I wonder if I’ll be able to read this later. My hand hurts from writing, too. Out of practice of a side effect of the depression or the drugs, who knows.

I wish I could open a window.

13 April 2017

It is so strange not having the internet. Did I say that last night too? Well, it is still true. There is some internet here — a computer with a web browser — but no internet where you can talk to people. All those sites are blocked. I haven’t tried it yet to see, but I’m sure it’s true. And I can’t think of what else I’d want to do online other than seeing what everyone is up to. What’s going on in the normal world while I’m here.

In half an hour there’s movement group and I guess I’ll go. There’s nothing else to do here but read or write or knit, and I can’t concentrate on reading. I wonder if they’d let me have my laptop to write on. Maybe, but not in my room I’m sure, and I don’t know how easy it would be to write in the dayroom.

Fashion report: today I’m wearing skinny jeans paired with a navy Loft t-shirt and my burgundy Madewell cardigan. And slippers.

I wish my hand didn’t cramp so horribly while writing. Maybe it will get easier if I keep doing it. I can only hope.

Movement group at 10 and then time to kill and then lunch and then time to kill and then coping skills group, which sounds awful (worksheets! worksheets!) and then time to kill and then my friend comes and then Mom and Peter come and then time to kill and then bedtime and that will be another day here.

Mom says more than a day and less than a month is how long I’ll be here. I hope it’s a lot less than a month. This place is comfortable but horrible. Fifteen minutes until movement group.

I brought four books with me and I already finished one — I was rereading The Hero and the Crown. I brought Fire and Hemlock too, and the book discussion book (Station Eleven) and What the Living Do. I was listening to Station Eleven and thought I could do that here while knitting but of course I can’t because it’s on my phone and I can’t have my phone.

It is nice not to be responsible for any email. I wonder how much I’ll have when I get out. I wonder when I’ll get out. I wonder if I’ll be any better. I can’t quite imagine it. I wasn’t better when I left the psych ward last time; I just wanted to leave so I pretended to be better. What if it’s all just pretending? What if everyone out there is just pretending to be well and we’re all in the depths?

It takes a long time to write things by hand. Even writing like this, with little care for how the letters come out.

There’s some gunk in my sweater and I just had it cleaned. There are also several holes in it and I just got it last year, so I guess Madewell isn’t necessarily made well, or maybe I’m just careless with my clothes and go moths. That’s likely, really, if I’m honest with myself.

I should ask Mom to bring me shampoo. My hair is starting to smell.

Seven minutes till movement group. I’m a clockwatcher now.


I wasn’t supposed to have the phone in my room and then I got criticized for being on the phone for too long. One of their suggested activities is call a friend, but apparently there are limits. I will have to learn them so I can squeak by just under them. I should call K tonight but I’m afraid to use the phone now so I won’t. I’ll just hide in my room. And with any luck I will sleep.

But the rules, God, the rules are so much like high school. Don’t be where we can’t see you. Fifteen minute checks. Lights you can’t turn off. I’m waiting for them to tell me I can’t block the bathroom light with my chair. Just take that from me, I want to say. You’ve taken everything else.

My friend came to visit and brought me a stack of New Yorkers — I only asked for two. Then Mom and Peter came for a much shorter time — just enough for Peter to do a little Lego. Peter brought me flowers and all his drawings from playhouse. I’m so sad I can’t take care of him.

This narrative is descending rapidly in to journaling, dreaded word. I must do something about that, try to work in a phrase as good as glib martyr.

My Stitch Fix box came. Peter was very proud that he carried it into the house for me. I sort of wish they’d brought it, but there are no decent mirrors here, so it’s sort of beside the point. It’s almost monastic here except that of course they do allow the TV to be on seven hours a day.

I really hope this trazadone helps me sleep. I woke up at four this morning and never did fall back asleep. I’m weary but not tired or sleep.

It takes 55 laps of the hallway to make a mile. 55. I can’t even.

I miss Peter. I even miss the cats. But I have to be here, in this country as far away as health.

16 April 2017, nighttime

I didn’t write at all yesterday — I felt better and I didn’t seem to need it as much. Plus the group here has really coalesced so I’ve been hanging out more. We rated all the psych wards we’ve been on and decided this one is the best despite the lack of phones. Tonight we watched Dirty Dancing.

Yesterday afternoon I got a pass to go out with Mom and Peter and we bought flowers for the garden and new shoes for Peter and I went home and opened my Stitch Fix.

A came to visit today and I made her do some of the puzzle. We’ve been on a puzzle kick but I am terrible at them. Then another friend came and I had a pass so we went for a walk all the way up to the cemetery and then we went to Oasis and I actually ate.

Tomorrow I get to go home.

19 April 2017, on the outside

I got home on Monday afternoon and I’m still not used to it. I’m back to work but just part time, four hours a day, which seems like about all I can handle. People were trading numbers on the ward the last day I was there and I gave mine out but didn’t get any, so I hope some people get in touch. I feel terrible for the people who are still there when so many of us were leaving.

It’s strange and overwhelming being in the outside world. I can do anything I want but I often don’t know what to do. I’m trying to set a goal a day the way the nurse told us to, but I still refuse to say affirmations in the mirror. The classroom in the ward where I had my intake had a whiteboard with a big list of affirmations — Be kind to yourself, I <3 you, Don’t give up, I’m here for you, One day at a time. In the middle of them was a smaller list: Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata. “I can think of a lot more sleep meds than that,” Mom said.

The social worker made my next appointments with my psychiatrist and my therapist for me, so I don’t have to do that. Mom is going to to stay home from choir tonight to help me with Peter.

Everyone wants to help and I don’t know what to tell them to do. I have to put Peter to bed and get him up (well, really he gets me up) and take him to playhouse. The day to day isn’t really something people can help out with. I wonder if people would take him on the weekends more.

I do feel better than I did when I went in. It’s not a rebirth — you don’t come out to everything shining and new. You come out to your same old messy house and all the same problems you had before. But I’m no longer panicking at stop lights, and I’ll take that. It’s a start.

Apr 17

The Birthday Photos #52essays2017 no. 13

The pictures are from my seventh birthday and they make me cry. My mother found them the other day and originally thought they were from my fifth birthday, so she labeled the one she posted on Facebook that way. I looked at it and thought that was the last birthday I had while my father was alive. But I didn’t remember my father there for that birthday, and he’s not in any of the pictures. (Neither is my mom, but she’s rarely in the pictures — she took most of them.) Later my mother decided it was actually my seventh birthday (perhaps the label on the pictures tipped her off—they are labeled 5TH BIRTHDAY, but someone crossed out the 5 and replaced it with a 7), and then I thought that is a birthday when my father was dead.

It’s a little ridiculous that my reaction to the photos has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father. In fact it was a wonderful birthday. Three friends came and got along, and we had a magician, a medical school classmate of my mom’s who did magic on the side. He pulled things from our ears and made them disappear, and to this day I’ve never seen a better magic show, maybe because that one was so small and happened right in front of our eyes. It was a good birthday, as all my birthdays but my sixth were, and my mother made it happen. But it’s hard now for me to look at any picture of my childhood and not measure it against my father’s presence or absence.

In a few short months my son will be five-and-a-half, the age I was when my father died. It’s like a clock counting down to that date, and the closer it gets the more I expect something awful to happen, though that makes no more sense. But I can’t help but look at him and wonder what he knows, what he remembers, what he will remember of this time.

The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is that it must not matter so much that my father died because I was too young when he died to remember him. Multiple people have said this to me, people who apparently remember nothing of being three and four and five. I pity them. I have so many memories of my father and of that time. I remember fishing for leaves with him off the limestone wall that marked the border of the college where he taught. In my memories it is always autumn there, as is appropriate for a small liberal arts college with old brick and stone buildings. My father always wears a long sleeves and a coat and tie and smokes a pipe, just like a professor in a book or a movie. I remember riding in the way back of the station wagon with my friend and my father saying pollylops and ephelants and giving us the mayonnaise jar full of peppermints and lemon drops, as many as we wanted, and we always wanted some of each. I remember watching tennis on television with my father as he sat in his Swedish modern chair, his pipe rack by his side and the black and white TV balanced on an end table across from his chair. Don’t ever tell me I do not remember him.

The first photo ever taken of me is actually a photo of my father. He is carrying me out of the hospital on a snowy night. My mother walks a few feet behind him. For years I assumed she must have taken the photo until the day I realized the dim figure in the background was her. It’s hard not to read that photo as symbolic: my life has been defined by my father, while my mother, who did all the work, is relegated to the background. If I were to stage a photo of how my life has actually been, my mother would be carrying me proudly, and my father would be a dim shadowy figure lowering behind. But that’s not the photo that was taken, by whomever took it — my grandmother? — and even though my photo is truer to my life, the actual photo has had its influence.

It’s hard for me not to imagine how my life might have gone if my father had lived. I know my parents would have divorced. I know in reality I would have grown up to argue with my father horribly, for he was, as one of his students described him to me, a Neanderthal in his beliefs (though I hear perhaps the Neanderthals were more advanced than we are). But it’s hard not to imagine the good times, the things we would have shared. Perhaps I would have grown up to love watching tennis and football. Perhaps we would have done translations together. Perhaps I would have applied myself more under his eye.

It’s no good to speculate, but it’s hard not to. In the meantime, the photos watch me watching them, daring me to look and see.

Mar 17

On Knitting #52essays2017 no. 12

My mother and I learned to knit from a book called Knitting in Plain English. She got it first from our local branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and later bought a copy. I remember her showing it to the woman at the knitting shop, who attempted to dissuade her from the purchase. “It’s a very basic book,” she said, but my mother was undeterred. She bought the book, and we taught ourselves knitting from its instruction. Later we made one of the beginning projects in it, a shawl, all garter stitch, which we gave to my grandmother for Christmas that year. I mocked up a tag to go with it about how the variations in the knitting were part of the beauty of the handmade garment and should not be considered flaws. Our gauge was all over the place in that shawl, sometimes tight and anxious, sometimes so loose as to make mesh.

We still have the shawl, and the years have been kind to it, stretching out the tight spots and shoring up the loose ones till it almost looks as though it had been knit by a single hand instead of a couple of people working at cross purposes.

My mother still knits: she is a knitter, the kind with a yarn stash and a dozen projects going at once, the kind who has special bags for carrying around socks she’s knitting and who goes to conferences and conventions of other knitters and stops at farms to see sheep and sometimes attends sheepdog trials. She first learned to knit while she was pregnant with me and the knitting got mixed up with the morning sickness and she thought she’d never do it again, but for some reason when I was in junior high she decided to get that book out of the library.

I can knit but I don’t. I’ve made a handful of things over the years, mostly scarves and hats, although once I knit a doll sweater, doing the sleeves on four points and feeling very proud of myself. I can hardly imagine taking on such a project now. For years I’ve proudly said that I don’t knit at all, some sort of latter day rebellion against my mother’s obsession.

But lately I have been knitting. I have been knitting hanger covers, a slightly ridiculous project but one that uses up bits of yarn too small for anything else. I’ve been knitting hanger covers to deal with my mood disorder.

It started last fall when a drug I was taking gave me akathisia, making me feel constantly as if I’d had too much coffee, only worse. I wanted to jump out of my skin, and I was desperate for anything, anything that would calm me down. My mother suggested knitting. I tried it, and it worked, at least a little bit. During the few weeks I was experimenting with that drug, I made three hanger covers. Then we gave up on the drug and my need to occupy my hands stopped.

Recently, though, this latest bout of anxiety and depression has left me unsure of what to do not only with my hands but also with my whole self. In the evening after dinner I clean up and then wander the house, unable to read, unwilling to watch Paw Patrol with my five-year-old son, incapable of thinking of some other way of occupying myself. The other night my mother again suggested knitting. I tried it, and it seemed to work: I had something to do, at least.

It’s not a cure for depression by a long shot, and I may end up with every hanger in the house covered before I’m done with this illness, but it’s keeping me sane, at least a little bit.

Of the many books about knitting my mother has purchased over the years (the original one is long gone — it was, in fact, quite basic), the only one that’s caught my eye is one called No Idle Hands, which is a social history of knitting. I’ve not read it (and thus I apologize for discussing a book I haven’t read), but it deals with a concept I’ve read about elsewhere, that women are rarely truly idle. We fold laundry while watching TV, iron while listening to the radio, knit socks for soldiers while sitting by the fire in the evening. Of course no one knits socks for soldiers anymore (and I can’t remember the last time I ironed something), but the pattern still exists. It’s hard even for me to feel idle at home. I always feel I should be doing something, and that feeling worsens when I’m depressed.

For now, though, my hands are not idle, and for that I am grateful to my mother and to whatever impulse led her to that book so long ago.

Mar 17

Depression #52essays2017 no. 11

Like many people, I suffer from depression and anxiety, but I tend to feel I’m the only one. In my right mind I know that’s just another lie depression tells me, but I’m not in my right mind when I’m depressed. I’m in my mind that says this is the worst thing in the world and I don’t know how much more of it I can stand.

I’ve been in that mind a lot lately, which makes writing hard because it makes living hard. It makes everything hard. Figuring out which shoe to put on first is a major ordeal, as someone I know once put it.

I don’t have any dead people or things to write about this week. No objects are striking me with their history, and the dead aren’t telling any tales. There’s just me and my wretched brain that wants none of this.

I first became seriously depressed the fall of my junior year of college. There were contributing factors — I was romantically disappointed, my friends were all abroad or had moved off campus or had become biochemistry majors, which was in its effect much like leaving the country. I was completely lost in most of my classes. Greek history and calculus were like swamps I was trying to move through when I tried to pay attention to them, so mostly I stopped paying attention or attending to the swamp at all. If it hadn’t been for Homer and a colonial American history class, I might not have made it through the semester at all.

I feel I’ve told this story before on this blog, but it bears repeating. At the end of that semester I had to pack and store all my belongings because I, too, was moving off campus at the beginning of the next semester. I had to do all this during finals week, and the girl who was moving into my dorm room kept wanting to know when I would be out. “I have a 9 am final on Friday,” I kept telling her, “so not till after that.”

I packed and packed and moved all my crap to my friend’s basement, leaving out only a few things: the books I needed for my finals and my anthology of Romantic poetry and prose edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling. I don’t know why I kept it out, but one night that week late I got it out and sat on my bed and opened it up and read “Frost at Midnight.” I wouldn’t read Dante till the next semester, and it didn’t solve all my problems, but reading that poem was, for a moment, like emerging and seeing the stars again.

My house is still chaos, but that book is one of the few I can locate. Perhaps my next treatment for my current slump will be to pull it out and read Coleridge again. It’s spring, not winter, but I can only hope that it will help.

Mar 17

Telephone #52essays2017 no. 10

Unpacking ought to make me happy, particularly seeing the books, my old friends, but instead it fills me with dread and makes me wonder yet again if a match wouldn’t be a great boon to the endeavor that is my life. It’s tempting to get a dumpster and just trash everything and maybe set it on fire for good measure, since 2017 is turning out to be as much of a dumpster fire of a year as the last one was. But I can’t really countenance throwing away books, much less setting them on fire, so I’ll settle for unpacking them bit by bit and putting them back on the shelf.

I own a four volume set of George Orwell’s journalism, letters, and essays. Once upon a time, back when I had oceans of time in graduate school, I read the first half of one volume. The flap of that book has been marking my place halfway through for over a decade now, though, and I perhaps ought to give up on the idea that I’m ever going to read any more of it, but I won’t. After all, I have the day off today and my son is in daycare. Perhaps I’ll read some more today.

I’ve written already to my seventeen year old self, but it’s my twenty-seven year old self I think of more these days. She was a mess, but she didn’t realize how lucky she was: in a writing graduate program with very few requirements, earning enough money as a teaching assistant to live quite nicely, nothing to do with large swaths of time but read and write. I’d kill for that existence now, or so I think. Perhaps it would leave me just as depressed and paralyzed now as it did then.

I have spent half a lifetime being treated for depression and anxiety, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Lately it’s been less so, which is part of why this week’s essay is so late and so scattered. I can’t wrap my head around much of anything, much less write it down.

My study is impassable at the moment due to boxes of books and boxes and piles of… other things. A bag of assorted cords and cables. A battery charger, A toy truck, An ancient lockbox. I’m not sure what else. It’s of course classic writerly denial to believe one can’t work because one’s study isn’t clear, but I cling to denial as hard as the next would be writer, and so the clutter is distressing me. I’m working on it: this morning I unpacked four or five boxes of books (discovering the Orwell in the process), but there are yet more, plus, of course, the toy truck and the lockbox and the battery charger and the assorted cords and cables, none of which have a home.

There’s also my old telephone, which I should just pitch and will once I can get myself to throw out with it the things that people wrote on it over the years. It’s a basic off white phone from AT&T, and its model number was 700, so my friend wrote on it in Sharpie “700 Club Member Complimentary Phone.” That started a trend, and soon other people were writing things on it, some swapping in the word phone for another in a line from a book or song (“The phone was forced to lie flat and bare as the palm of his hand,” “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my phone and I was free,” Telephone Planet, Singin’ in the Telephone), others just making phone references (“ALL CALL BRAK!”). I had to go get the phone to remember all those — there are more, but some have worn off over the years, and the whole thing is dingy.

There. I did it. I put it in the trash can. This essay will be the memorial to my first telephone, which I got in high school and used up until I gave up on landlines all together when I moved back to Iowa six years ago.

I had other phones in there, because eventually I wanted cordless phones. I had a purple one I was quite fond of for a time, and later a svelte black one. But I always kept the 700 Club phone around, it being important to have a phone that wasn’t cordless in case your cordless phone died.

I used to spend many hours on the phone talking with friends, and now I never do in part because now I don’t have those swaths of time anymore and in part because now I rather hate the phone. But I’m nostalgic for the days when I didn’t.

Feb 17

Tennis #52essays2017 no. 9

I’ve realized that all these essays I’m writing are about dead people or their stuff, or both. My family is full of dead people, and they owned an awful lot of stuff, much of which, despite recent winnowing, is still around. From a writing perspective that’s good news — I won’t run out of material. From a reading perspective it may be less so — how many essays about cancelled checks and tobacco pipes and bourbon decanters do you really want to read? Will this be a history of my life in 52 objects? I thought of that as a conceit and may use it, but I don’t promise to stick to the plan.

The pipes showed up a little while ago, unearthed from somewhere in my mother’s basement. I hope she’s pitched them by now, because if I see them, I’ll want to keep them, and I have no earthly purpose for keeping pipes. I don’t smoke and don’t plan to start, and they aren’t for the most part fancy pipes of the sort one might display handsomely if one had an overly large house and a pipe rack and were fond of dusting.

I have a small house and no such rack and hate dusting, so I would be much better off without them. They are no substitute for my father, and he is long gone.

My father always smoked a pipe. He did keep his pipes on a rack, but in my memories of him he always has one in his mouth or in his hand. I’ve known other pipe smokers since, and pipe smoking is surely the fidgetiest hobby known to man — so much cleaning and tamping and lighting it’s a wonder anyone ever actually smokes from them.

But my father did, no matter where he was. He smoked a pipe while teaching, back in the days where one could do such a thing in a college classroom, and he smoked while playing doubles tennis on the college courts. You got to those courts by going through our backyard and through another yard and then you were there, red and green courts with a few bleachers where I’d sit with my yellow plastic mug, and the tennis players would give me water from their thermoses. This was Iowa in the summers long ago, and it was hot, and they kept this ice cold water in thermoses that they all brought along to the courts.

I was quite young then, three or four years old at most, and I can’t quite imagine that my father simply left me sitting in the bleachers for an entire game, but that’s how I remember it, by myself with only incidental grown ups milling around.

I never became a tennis player despite those early years at the courts. I went to camp for a million summers after that, and one year I spent every evening after dinner trying to learn to serve a ball over the net and failing every time. No one much tried to teach me, but I may have been unteachable. I did not want to play tennis; I only wanted to pass the tennis part of my camp honors without failing miserably and being an embarrassment to myself and to tradition. I never did learn, though, and they let me do my serves from the service line instead of the baseline, so I was half way to the net and had only to get the ball over a few yards. That I could do, sort of.

I can’t imagine how much I was left to myself as a child. My own child, at five, seems hardly older than a baby, though I register him for kindergarten tomorrow. But there I was, watching the balls fly over the net and later, after my father died, trying to hit them myself with his heavy old racket. That racket is long gone, too, and I don’t miss it, nor will I ever play tennis again. But I still remember my father, long pants, button down shirt, pipe perched in the corner of his mouth, hitting the balls over and over again.

Feb 17

The Bourbon Decanter #52essays2017 no. 8

My father was a drinker, if not a drunk. Opinions vary on whether or not he was an alcoholic. I think he was, though I’ve heard arguments against it, but perhaps at this point it doesn’t matter, as he’s been dead over thirty years, and debating the illnesses of so long ago seems like a waste of time. But he was a drinker, a man who mixed himself a row of drinks every night at the kitchen counter throughout all my childhood, a man from whom I learned the word jigger at a very young age.

Bourbon was his booze of choice, and he made it into whiskey sours, though I believe he also drank it neat. I remember him standing at the counter and measuring and pouring and mixing — we had a little two-headed pewter jigger he liked to use, and various other implements of the sort people once used for mixing drinks back in the days when people drank more such concoctions at home. Our house was not far removed from a 1950s academic cocktail party, though it was the 1970s by the time I showed up on the scene to wonder at why grownups took so very long to drink their drinks when I could down my apple juice in no time.

We have been clearing out my mother’s house and recently she offered me a bourbon decanter. I had not idea there was such a thing, although I suppose now that I think of it that people in old movies drink their liquor from lovely decanters they keep on their sideboard and not poured straight from the bottle they keep in a cupboard. I own no sideboard and drink bourbon perhaps only once every month or two, so I declined the offer. The bourbon decanter was, my mother said, a wedding present, though she could no longer remember from whom, and I likely wouldn’t know the people even if she could.

As with so many things we have uncovered, the bourbon decanter is a relic of a life we no longer live, a life with formal dining rooms and sideboards, a life of dinner for twelve on china and large roasts. We did keep two small glass items that apparently are meant to form a rack where you rest your carving knife. Surely they have a name, but what it is I couldn’t say, as I rarely cook anything that needs carving, and on the occasions when I have made a turkey I’ve ended up hacking away at it with a paring knife. Such are the times we have descended to.

My mother’s family does not come from hard scrabbling, at least not for a few generations back, longer ago than anyone now living can remember. We come from grace and ease. My great grandparents had servants and took vacations of the sort where all my great grandmother had to carry was her purse. I have been reminded often that this was not uncommon for the time they lived in, but still, they had servants; they were not servants themselves, which presumably other people’s great grandparents were.

My father’s parents were not so well to do, and my grandmother on that side (who was the same age as my great grandmother on my mother’s side because generations in my family are off) kept plastic over her furniture, perhaps due to a lack of servants. But even she had silver, a few pieces of which we still have and drag out to use on rare occasions.

My house was built in 1931 and has now been added onto twice. It’s still not a large house by 2017 standards, but it was much smaller when it was built, and it was a house for a family. There were two small bedrooms and one bathroom and a living room and a kitchen, and that was the whole house. The people who lived here first did not keep servants, nor can they have had much room for china and silver. I don’t have much room for it myself, many decades and two additions later. But it humbles me to think of a family in that small space, as it humbles me every time I think of raising children in the era before on demand TV.
The bourbon decanter isn’t something I remember my father using, so it was easy enough to let it go, handsome though it is. The weight of history is upon almost all the objects in my life, and I am trying not to let it drag me down.

Feb 17

Letter To My Seventeen-Year-Old Self #52essays2017 no. 7

a bunch of mixtapes

All of my mixtapes, many of which I made at age 17.

Dear Laura,

You won’t always hate your body. You will grow into it. It’s not that you’ll grow any taller — sorry about that — but you’ll grow comfortable in your own skin (the breast reduction will help). They say you find love when you’re happy with yourself, and weight loss will work this way for you: once you’re happier, you’ll lose some weight. (The rest, unfortunately, you will lose because you will be very, very sad — when you gain this back, you will think it a small price to pay for not being so depressed.)

The music you’re buying now — those few used CDs you pick up at the Record Collector among the dozens and dozens you want — will fill you now. In later years it will come to haunt you, so that just listening to In My Tribe by the 10,000 Maniacs or Lulu by Trip Shakespeare will fill you with such aching and heartsickness that you’ll know you’ll never truly forget what it was to be seventeen. You will never forget this sense of aloneness, of loneliness, of being on the verge of something that never quite comes. You will never forget it, and you will never feel it again. You will almost miss it, almost miss being that girl looking through the CD bins, that girl at a party who is recognized by one of the record store clerks as the girl who browses but rarely buys, that girl who hopes that such recognition will be the break she needs but who will end the night as she does so many others, alone and listening to music, confused and on edge and not sure why except that nothing ever really seems to happen.

But things will happen: love and travel and adventure and heartbreak, all the things you think will never happen to you. They’ll happen, and they’ll be wonderful and terrible by turns, but they’ll never have the poignancy of what you have right now, the thing you have and don’t realize. It’s not innocence, that condition that you were spared. And it’s not nostalgia that makes me say this to you now. I would not go back to that time for ready money. It’s that there’s a quality to these teenage years that isn’t replicable, something about hope in the midst of despair, some belief that better things are to come.

You will look back at Bill Clinton and start to think he wasn’t all that bad, but don’t let go of the radical fire in your belly. You’ll need it to fight bigger fights in the years to come.

You’re starting to slack off in school now, unbeknownst to anyone, because you can get away with it, but later you’ll wish you’d worked a bit harder. In some respect book learning won’t do you much good, but you might have found more uses for it if you had stuck with it more.

You are going to have to get a job. An actual job, working full time, where you have to show up and frequently do dull and repetitive things. You will try to avoid this for as long as you can, rather to your detriment.

Remember to thank your mother. She does more for you than you know, and while it’s probably not Constitutionally possible for children to be properly grateful to their parents, you should put forth some effort.

I’m scolding now, and that’s not what I set out to do. This was meant to be an It Gets Better, which is a thing we say in 2017 that wasn’t around in 1993. It’s meant as a message to LGBT youth, although as with so much else it’s been coopted by the wider culture, including apparently by me. But it’s worth noting that though the threats now are very real and although the progress wasn’t all that we could have hoped (where’s that federal nondiscrimination law, eh?), there are positive things that happened for LGBT people that you never could imagine. Maybe moral progress is real, though the events of 2017 will make you doubt it all over again.

But back to you, because, selfishly, this letter is about you: things will get better. They’ll also get worse, and you’ll have things happen and fall into pits of despair you can’t yet imagine. But this inescapable loneliness you feel now will not always be there. Things will start to happen to you, and you’ll make things happen too. And one day you’ll wake up and find you’re 41 and still thinking about being seventeen. You’re reading Mrs. Dalloway right now, so you know in fiction about how all times can exist concurrently in the present one. In the years to come you’ll learn that’s true of life, too.

Hang in there.