Everyday she brushed and she brushed, the salty tangle and mass heavy with sand and grit. She trudged through the muck, finding plastic cartons and sodapop tabs and even a whole piano once. She watched it sink, the water pressure causing keys to be pressed, composing certain chords and then others. The proportions of the instrument made even less sense underwater, stolid curvaceous middle, stubbed legs. The light refracted off the strings inside pinging light in myriad directions. It landed gently and there it was, the most exclusive concert hall, an audience of kelp. Occasionally, a fish would dart too quickly and sound a note, more of a muck than a pitch. Each day, she lost her beautiful hair ornaments, the shiny eels and the lugubrious whales getting netted, stuck, torn off her head. But still, she brushed and brushed everyday, her long web of hair that wove around the world, untangling the plastic cartons and sodapop tabs, and there was no one to help her.

Kafka in Cleveland

There is a moment in Kafka’s Trial where the main character opens the door to a room where he witnessed atrocities the day before.

Typically in the horror genre, the twist would be that there are no signs of what occurred the day before, only silence and darkness.

Instead, he finds that the atrocities are still only going on. He is not crazy, the world is crazy.

I remember how excited I was going to Hazel, which I thought for sure was haunted for the first time. Staying hours in the cafeteria, never having seen so much food, gorging myself on excess of every kind, not knowing there existed such things as mistakes or pain. That I could be a recipient of pain, a maker of mistakes, and most surprising of all, be someone who causes immense pain were things I hadn’t learned yet. Being so ready to leave, biding my time in hopelessness on the couch while you slept in the room. I will walk to the campus bookstore which I thought of as my Tiffany’s. I will breathe the dusty air in Harkness where I was solidified in her class. I will walk by 205, that hallowed space where I spent so much time, reading Kundera on the floor, practicing, loving music, honestly just wasting time, because I was just a kid, I had so much of it then. I will go to my favorite room where I would watch the sun rise on the walls at 7:15 when the school opened. Or I would watch it in Hazel in the upper corner, listening to the heater, reading everything is illuminated in the resplendent light during practice breaks. The first difficult and complex female friendships of my life, best friends today. My beautiful friend who loved to read. I can see her pea coat and her gloves and scarf and her hazel eyes. The first love, the first pain, the deep love, the secret passageway, that one moment I’ll try to express the rest of my life, losing my shit in the food co-op when I first realized that losing someone is something you experience over and over again every time you do something without them for the first time. I’ll walk by my old homes. The home I shared with girls across from the hall from my best friend. Chasing the sunlight in a car. The studio where I would pray on my knees alone in the night, and leave at 3 am to wander the streets because I didn’t care what happened to me. The studio where I quietly put my finger around the idea of being free. And the music, all the music I loved alone in the library, all the texts I read and studied and listened to. All the people who taught me, and played with me, and made me. All the magic of sound which, like every moment in life, happens only once and dissipates.

I have so much sadness when I think of my time there, and I think it’s because the door has been closed for the last 6 years. I’m about to open it.

snail in a Rothko

Back to the darkness, to the sleeplessness, a return to the baby-faced snail in the hollowed ground, unctuous, bumping into roots and rhizomes, antennae yearning, moving forward over ground, slowly leaving itself behind, a dying phosphorescence, dial on a light dimmer, drenched dirt granules clinging to the sodden veil of slime and the emptiness it carries a safety to crawl inside, to collect and distill, gather itself in monolithic sadness

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: Thoughts

One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory, it made me laugh out loud more than any book ever has and moved me to sad tears when I wasn’t in funny tears. I would proselytize this book about a priest’s daughter to anyone and I found myself reading funny bits out loud to family members and friends, insistent that everyone should hear the comic and poetic genius of Lockwood.

The pervasive tone of this book is one of love that Lockwood has for her family. She writes this memoir while staying in her childhood home as a grownup (with her husband) to save money and she records and observes her family for this memoir. While she is not religious anymore, that doesn’t stop her or her family members from loving each other in such a full and nourishing way. It was a joy to read this book just to see the deep love that is capable between a family that disagrees about something that more often than not rips other families apart. Also refreshing is her fondness for religion, the lack of resentment for her past and her past religion. There are moments of regret and wistfulness and of course, actual ugliness…such as when she writes about her rape, or the many failings of the Catholic church… but so often, people who are no longer religious are so devoutly and violently atheist. This book wouldn’t have been possible without her strong love and curiosity for her family and the objectiveness and empathy with which she is able to view people who have viewpoints very different from her own; viewpoints that I wouldn’t hesitate to say are wrong.

What I love most about Lockwood is that she is always in awe… not of a god she doesn’t know, but of every detail of every person in her life. She looks at everything with light, reverence, and love, the way many religious people I think, would be envious of. She writes about the similarities and differences she has with her father (the person most different from her, though their occupations as priest and poet have a natural closeness) but neglects the similarity she has to the Father. Her writing reminds me of the Christian God’s purported omniscience, capable of seeing everything about his flawed people, and doing so with unwavering love. She examines a lot of the uglier issues of the Catholic church and also the uglier mindsets and thoughts that her beloved family believe without letting them influence how she feels about them as a whole. Many religious people I know believe that humans are inherently sinful, bad, but can become good by acceptance of God into their lives. This book is beautifully the opposite. Humans are good, and sometimes what makes them the most “human” or “inhuman” is God, the Church, and the societal and self-harming things you must do to serve them.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy: Thoughts

I don’t remember which bookstore I was in when I picked this book up last summer and read the words “In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house.” Something to that effect, and I immediately wanted to read it. My own life had just shifted radically and I wanted to see how someone else was dealing with losses much larger than my own. I loved the voice of this memoir, and I loved especially, reading about her assignments as a journalist for The New Yorker, but the content was difficult to read. The terrible loss of her son was difficult to read of course…

(most devastating of all was her gratitude for him. “And the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is nothing I would trade them for. There is no place I would rather have seen.”)

…but more difficult was Levy’s self-centeredness and entitlement.

I had looked to this book originally to get out of my own grief by delving into the grief of someone else. To remember that my suffering is not the only suffering and that all humans are connected. I wished the whole book that Ariel Levy would have done something similar, sought out empathy. This book is almost a catalogue of people and situations she has been a victim of. She admits her privilege and entitlement and narcissism at some points, but she doesn’t go far enough, preferring instead to blame literally anything else for the misfortune in her life… most grossly, she blames (her self-serving definition of) feminism for teaching women we could have it all. “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism, a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we could life, what would become of us.” She briefly entertains the possibility that her affair with an ex-lover could have caused the alcoholism of her wife, but ultimately, Levy is a victim of her wife’s alcoholism. It is incredible to me that this woman is a reporter as she seems so incapable of being able to be in someone else’s shoes, completely incapable of being objective and seeing anything outside of her privileged white lens. By the end of the book, you get the sense that maybe she has been humbled, but somehow, the circumstances that led to her humbling have only served to enlarge her ego, to lead her to see herself (very dangerously) as wise, and a victim of life itself… chosen for a modern greek tragedy.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Thoughts

This book, it’s author, and premise felt like required reading for me. Stories about adolescent children of Chinese American immigrants growing up in New York City by a woman who grew up in NYC with immigrant parents. Though I’m not even close to my adolescence anymore, having just moved to New York 9 months ago, I feel very much that I’m growing up here and was curious if this book could serve as a roadmap in any way. And anyway, being the child of an immigrant, and being an adolescent aren’t things we really grow out of, they are parts of our identity that keep revealing themselves to us over time.

I felt more like this was a book about the otherness of being a child, rather than the otherness of being from elsewhere. We all know what it’s like to be other because we have been children and childhood is when we first navigate that knowledge that we are ourselves before we are assimilated. Zhang writes poignantly about the desperation with which we want to be known and loved… the simultaneous reluctance and emotional dependence we feel for them. Her portrayal of a “selfish” mother who gave up her life and dreams and resents her children and feels trapped by them was a complex piece that imagined how the volatility of uprooting a life can cause damaging shifts in someone’s mental health, and how they might perpetuate that volatility towards their children. She showed the helplessness of adolescence so much. How little we are in control of our actions and the actions of others… how helplessly we love those who confuse us and mistreat us. And I especially loved the way she wrote about a girl who’s grandmother administered a love that was unbearably suffocating, made less bearable by the girl’s own suffocating feelings of obligation to return that love. The girl also had to bear with her grandmother’s delusions of grandeur, a pride adopted that was necessary for survival at one point, that calcified into personality. When our parents tell us the stories of their lives, they romanticize hardships. I think children of immigrants then often romanticize hardship the way our parents as a way of relating, a way of belonging. As a point of pride, or to cover up our guilt at never having had to live through such hardships. I felt that Zhang romanticized the immigrant experience and the poverty and hardships endured and whereas I feel confused about my belonging amidst two cultures, the voices of the stories in Sour Heart seem to resound with pride and confidence in a belonging to Asian culture.

Perhaps because of that, I didn’t resonate as much as I had hoped I would with Zhang’s voice. I felt excluded by her culture and experiences somehow; though there were many similarities in people and situations encountered, her point of view was so different. Some of the writing was beautiful and authentic and heartbreaking, but more often than not, I felt like she was a very comtemporary Brooklyn writer trying too hard to find her voice as a young girl while romanticizing her experiences with all the ego of adolescence.

I was sad not to relate to this book more, and it made me realize how much I had been hoping for something familiar, something that would make me feel understood, make me nostalgic. But the particulars of someone else’s experience of otherness can serve to make us feel more isolated. This is precisely why we need more literature about otherness. No one can speak for anyone else. We can only speak to others about our own experiences. I keep approaching books about otherness hoping it will make me feel sameness. This book in its defiance of my expectations and needs is in itself, the very representation of the beauty that happens when otherness is wholly itself, existing to be heard, not to speak for others.