Today we are pleased to feature Rosaleen Bertolino as our Authors Talk series contributor. Currently in Mexico, Bertolino gives a short talk on her writing preferences and why she likes to “bend reality” in her short stories such as in “Children” featured in Issue 21.
If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer…
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
In her 1943 essay “We Refugees” Hannah Arendt explains the predicament of the suicide that “in their own eyes” feel themselves as having failed life’s standard. Having given into despair in themselves, they die “of a kind of selfishness”; the failure of how to define, or redefine, one’s self-worth given the loss of assumed standards makes for the quandary: “If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded.” This quandary speaks to standards of citizenship and social belonging that in turn speak to systems of society and behavior that are radically reconfigured in the lives of displaced peoples. The refugee being a prime example of such, one that Girogio Agamben in his 2008 essay “Beyond Human Rights” argues as “perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today… the forms and limits of a coming political community.”
I am learning of how standards are reconfigured in a year of working with Afghan families living in a school building in the center of Athens. My assumptions of dignity and belonging are changed as I am gradually invited into these lives. It begins with an invitation to have tea on the spread blankets that cover the floor of a classroom, where we leave our shoes at the blanket’s edge. Mattresses are pushed up against walls; some pillows are on the floor. I’m urged to use a pillow as I am a guest but I shake my head, saying it’s not necessary, only to realize this creates confusion and a look of disappointment, so I accept the pillow, and drink the sweetened tea. I have a bag of raisins with me. There’s a feeling of comfort and hospitality, as we drink the sweetened tea and share the raisins. We discuss the fact that some of the children are attending the Greek public school. I’m asked if I will find a dentist for a 3 year old whose top front teeth have all rotted. It will be her birthday at the end of the month. It is not the date on her paper but the one her mother gives us in April. When I’d asked her father he said he wasn’t sure what the date of her birthday was. But her mother knows, and tells me. We plan a party. I still have a string of lights with me, a cluster I’d forgotten to bring to the Christmas party we had in December. I plug them in and they start flickering, this makes Heniah, who takes a quick intake of breath, laugh. She keeps plugging and unplugging the lights as they flicker in their nest of color.
Changed circumstances will change how we see what we see. These small living spaces are made unexpectedly new. Even the city is made new. Omonia square where buses and metro stops make for intersections and gatherings, where information on squats, cell phones, fake passports, border smugglings, and plain old advice on everything from medicine to asylum petitions are hawked. It is also a world where Unés, one of the refugee children I’ve grown close to, notices things I’ve never paid attention to. He pauses in our walk along a crowded street as someone who is selling potato peelers loses his grip, and the peeler skids across the pavement, Unés picks it up, checks the blade and gives it back to the man who is surprised anyone would pick up the now broken peeler, and thanks him. We pause at a pet shop because one of the puppies catches Unés’ attention. There’s also a snake and a parrot on display. When we leave Unés points to a huge ice-cream stand with its exaggerated plastic cone. I must have seen the thing too many times to remember because it sits just outside the metro stop, but this time I see it as he does, and smile.
We speak a mix of English, Greek, and Farsi words, a jumble of emoji symbols, VIBER and WhatsApp emoticons and letters. There is salam, “hello” and bedrood, “goodbye”. Thanks to the weekly games and books and songs in English that Alicia, Judi, Eirini, Stephanie and other volunteers and donors have made generously available some of the children are now speaking in near-fluent English phrases. We have become as familiar to them as they have become to us – Rocha, Heniah, Unés, Narghes, Rakia, Azize, Maedeh – we know each other’s names, even ages. Judi is asked why she isn’t married, and if she was ever married. I’m asked if I have any children. One afternoon I show a video on my cell phone of couples dancing tango at the studio where I go. I’m asked if I do this too, Azize and her sister would like to come with me, next time I go. We go to a Luna Park where there are bumper cars and a Ferris wheel, and high-flying space-cars in which Heniah, fearless, pushes on the gears so the air-borne car will go higher. She is giddy and I am anxious. Maedeh, who is 14, comes with me to a play my daughter is in. It is Ramadan and she asks if she can skip the fast since she will be walking in the heat to the theater. Her mother is okay with this, and she dresses in white tights and her scarf and tells me you can tell the difference between Syrian and Afghan women by the way they wear their scarves. The Afghan women wear them more loosely around their heads, less tightly folded around their faces. There’s a moment in the play when the top comes off one of the actors, it’s a split-second; the actor is a statue that comes to life, her white, spray-painted breasts are bared. On our way back to the squat Maedeh will mention it, that the actor “lost her blouse” and I will nod and ask if she will tell her mother and she says she might which makes me think I may not be invited to take her daughter anywhere after this, but ask then if it surprised or bothered her. She shakes her head and says, very simply, “This is Europe.”
In Agamben’s essay he references Arendt’s point that one of the things the Third Reich ensured before Jews and Gypsies were sent to the extermination camps was that they had to be “fully denationalized…stripped of even that second-class citizenship to which they had been related after the Nuremberg Laws.” Agamben is making the point that the concept of the nation-state founded as it has been on assumptions of citizenship and national belonging was a way to draw the line between what lives were “doomed to death”, and which remained with human, legal, rights. He argues the point first put forward by Arendt in relation to the Jews. He notes that “What is new in our time is the growing sections of humankind are no longer representable inside the nation-state – and this novelty threatens the foundations of the later.” In other words, human rights as they have been historically tied to citizenship are now, as he explains, “Beyond Human Rights”, an insufficient insurance, or reflection, of our humanity.
I get a message from Heniah’s brother, who is 12, that her birthday party will be at 2:00, and would Judi and I like to come. Like the invitation to tea I feel it’s important to go, and want to celebrate my fearless 4 year-old’s day. I pick up a lemon pie that looks fancy and some paper plates, cups, plastic forks, party hats, and arrive after Judi. We’re invited to sit on the floor in the classroom that is now the family’s living space, the wide blankets are cleared and what was once a school desk is brought in so Heniah can sit there and blow out her candle. We’ll wait for the guests, mothers and their young children who arrive from other squats, and camps, some from as far as the Malakassa camp, where mostly Afghan families are housed; everyone arrives with a small gift, wrapped in colored paper. There are clips for Heniah’s hair, colored plastic bangles, a coloring book. There are balloons taped to the walls and the Christmas lights I’d brought are hanging from the blackboard where they have been taped. Heniah has had her hair in tiny braids so that now curls all around her face, and Rocha puts new clips into it.
But what is most impressive is the 3-layered cake that’s been prepared for the guests. My bought lemon pie, while delicious, is nothing compared to this chocolate cake, which Heniah’s mother, Azize, has made.
There is excitement as people gather. The women shed their veils and change into clothing that would make them indistinguishable from anyone else in the city. Sleeveless dresses, skirts, loose shirts with low necklines. Azize puts on make-up and earrings. When she wears lipstick I think she looks like an Italian film star, but I’m not sure which one, maybe Monica Bellucci. There is music, and then dancing; the women pull me up from the floor where I’m sitting to join them; Raikia shows me how to move my arms in a slow, sensual wave, I start to laugh, feeling awkward at first, but then happy. The children are also dancing in a circle.
Judi asks me, “who do you think is happier in a moment like this, a group of women in the UK or US or these women?” I say, without much thought, that I think right now this gathering is a very happy one, and that everyone in the room is enjoying themselves. When Judi asks Maedeh why there are no boys, or men, she says they are never present at the women’s parties but that they are not missed either. Judi asks if she wouldn’t want a boy to dance with if she liked him, and Maedeh gives an emphatic “No!” and tells us when the time comes, her father will find a boy for her and will ask her if she likes him, if not he’ll find another one. She says two boys waited for her sister who is 19; “one waited for nothing” because Mina didn’t want to go to him, and now there’s another in Sweden. Maedeh is matter-of-fact, “If a boy wants to wait and I like him then we can get married when we ready.”
We share stories, and our lives. When Maedeh speaks Judi and I expect that she and perhaps some of the other women would wish to have some of the choices we in our western worlds assume are the better ones, and find out that’s not the case, that things are also less patriarchal if more gender-specific, than what we assume. For example, Narghes, who is also 14, tells me it is her mother who will pick the wife, or suggest someone, for her older brother, because her father is dead. She tells me her father had taught her to read, and wanted her to learn languages. At some point in our conversations, I share a anecdote from Greek Orthodox weddings, that the liturgy uses the quote from the Bible about the wife fearing her husband at which point the wife stamps her husband’s foot in symbolic resistance. Azize and Maedeh look suprised, and ask why a wife would be told to be afraid of her husband, I say to remind them of who has the authority, they tell me both have, but each has a different kind.
There are other ironies and surprises; that we communicate across language and culture in ways that reinvent our language and culture. My VIBER messaging with Narghes was a mash-up of discourses, and went on from our first month of friendship. When she messaged me that she’d like a pair of black tights if I could find them for her, to when the family moved to the Malakassa camp, and finally got their papers under the family reunification law to go to Geneva. We shared hundreds of texts, emojis, voice messages, in our digital exchanges –
Bai Bai [Bye Bye] – Narghes writes, Okey [Okay]; You vato slip??? [you want to sleep???]; Hi you kam tomoro [you come tomorrow]; Andrstan [Understand]; vat taim you kam [what time you come]; Hi Adrianne you kam tomoro my mazr koking for you [you come tomorrow my mother cooking for you]; Ined nmbr hosin and maide [I need number hossein and maedeh]
The nation state, says Agamben is in demise, borders are being contested, people are being smuggled through at costs that sometimes include their lives, certainly the EU is in crisis, and the refugee influx has magnified what Agamben explains as the “unstoppable decline of the nation-state and general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories.” But as Arendt said of the Jews in 1943, “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity.” These families, unhoused, as they are from country and citizenship are examples of this challenge; rather than feeling themselves as having failed life’s standard, they show us how the standard is life itself, as in sheer life, as in what it means to continue with the traditions and values that shelter us.
Narghes’ mother wants to give me a gift, it is a black patent leather bag someone has given her, and she thinks I might like it. She also ties up the bag of raisins I’ve brought because there are still some in the bag, but I say I want her to keep the raisins, and she says tashakor [thank you]. My proximity to these lives has made the obvious newly tenable, and newly proximate.
It’s disconcerting – one morning, coming downstairs to brew my coffee, I hear a higher-pitched female voice crooning, “Come on, baby, roll over. Roll over! You can do it, baby.”
Frost still on the window, my husband’s playing home movies from when our first child was born eight years ago. The mommy voice making me cringe is mine: There’s my tiny daughter, belly-down, face scrunched up, struggling to overturn herself onto her back.
When she finally does it, her exposed umbilical hernia wiggling, my voice hits an even higher note as I say, “You did it! Baby, you did it!”
Why does this bother me so much, my vulnerability loud in my mother voice? Perhaps because my chosen persona is tough: dark, wild-haired, lots of silver rings and chains, black-studded motorcycle jacket, ripped jeans – a woman with swagger.
Yet, part of that swagger is in my mind: In real life, I’m carrying a blond toddler boy moving like a Tasmanian devil in one arm, and holding my elfin daughter’s tiny hand in the other as she tries to skip away.
My bent back, carrying the weight of two bodies borne from mine.
My first writing mentor, a prominent woman poet – she also never married or had children – studied with Anne Sexton, one of my muses. Mothering wasn’t enough to keep Sexton rooted here. Or did it uproot her?
During workshop, my mentor shared an anecdote about persistence: In her graduate school class, she was one of eight, and the only woman. Yet, she was the only student who became a poet of note, simply because, according to her, she persisted in her writing and submitting.
In graduate school (before marriage, before children), I fell into a pesky trap, thinking a woman poet must dedicate her life to art: living austerely, writing rather than eating, living alone rather than choosing a partner, not having children. Primarily: persisting in her art.
Yet, our lives go the way they go. I met a man and married him, and we had two children. I was still a writer, yet a writer with two small humans, constant, dependent. My breasts heavy with milk, stomach still loose from childbirth, always, always exhausted.
They had invited a prominent woman poet as the visiting writer of the semester; she wore rainbow knee socks and read juicy poems full of the body, childbirth, and children… During her visit, we all celebrated her work. But a few weeks afterward, my program director told me, “You’re a good poet. You wrote a good book. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t start writing mommy poems.”
I had no idea how to file this conflicting input. … hadn’t he invited this prominent writer, whom he now seemed to be dismissing as a cautionary tale? And what on earth was a Mommy Poem? Is a poet who is a mother not supposed to admit to that fact in verse? Does a child appearing in a poem diminish it? If the speaker’s body is a vessel, does her brain stop being interesting?
Is that really how it is, if your mother voice takes over a poem, the work is diminished? If your body is a creatrix for another body, that body swells into your art, depleting you? If you’re a mother who writes as a mother, you’re no longer a writer?
I published one of my first poems in Alaska Quarterly Review right after I finished graduate school, and then my first chapbook came out in 2007. Then I didn’t really publish anything until 2012. During those five years, I had my first child and I was writing, but not actively focused on submitting. My daughter and son were born four years apart – I had two difficult pregnancies; both were born early (my son nine weeks, my daughter three) and each spent weeks in the NICU. Those experiences catalyzed my writing, which contained a rawer love, grief, vulnerability and a frantic desire to create art, since time had become scarce.
A poem, “Necessary Work,” that I wrote about my daughter’s time in the NICU, when I was overcome with worry, won Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2012, and was selected by Li-Young Lee, a poet I admire so much. That moment pushed my belief that mother/children poems do have a place in the literary world, and that’s good for me because so many of my poems now touch on the concerns of motherhood: how the mother-body fails a baby during pregnancy, the mother love and the mother guilt (I’m not doing enough, I want to run away), the immense and crippling love we feel for our children:
Your life starts with one word, sing, a prayer candle set
floating in my womb, yes, one word, then another. Hear this: Jug. Rice.
Tears on stone. Broken-necked lily. Hold on. Winged baby. Sing. While you’re
in the hospital, my kitchen is cursed: My hands are afraid to break apart
this bloody meat, to mingle my fingers with warm sinew and tendon,
to pat spice and salt into flesh. My grandmother set a place for the dead,
if her soft-footed brother might drop from heaven into the night kitchen,
looking for bread or sweet milk, the way the living look for love.
In “Baby Poetics,” published in The American Poetry Review, Joy Katz touches on one of the difficulties of writing the mother/child poem, which is that we as writers and readers both must find the baby or child trope “wondrous”:
People are expected to have certain feelings about children. A baby activates a set of cultural expectations that operates, in a poem, like subliminal advertising. For instance, babies are supposed to be wondrous. The fact that many people find them so, and that I am expected (by my mother, if not many others) to find them so, pressures the poem. The expectation is out there, daring me to find the baby other than wondrous. A baby in a poem always threatens to make me feel one of the things the world expects me to feel—if not wonder, then love, awe, tenderness. That pressure means the possibility of sentimentality is strong, no matter what the poem is actually doing.
It’s that expectation of sappy sentimentality that actually doesn’t permeate the work of mother-writers I admire so much: Traci Brimhall, Juliana Baggott, Maggie Smith, Jenn Givhan and Molly Sutton Kiefer, just to name a few. What does is the reality of life with children, how love and grief expand, about how our conception of time alters, speeds up, slows down.
A poem that does this so well, and that I return to often, is Smith’s “At your age I wore a darkness”, in which she considers depression, what she’s handing down to her daughter and her daughter’s life after she’s gone, framed against her daughter asking what’s beyond the sky:
What can I give you
to carry there? These shadows
of leaves—the lace in solace?
This soft, hand-me-down
darkness? What can I give you
that will be of use in your next life,
the one you will live without me?
Can a place still hold its inherent importance in a life– its spirit and meaning, when the people who are inextricably tied to it are gone?
I have been turning this question over in my head and exploring the answer in my writing for some time now. Loss, and longing for Place: these have been themes for me that seem to reoccur almost unconsciously in my own work.
This summer I was able to step outside the “boundaries” of the written page to explore the question for myself when I finally travelled back to my mother’s home country, Greece, after too many years away. The last summer we were able to visit, eight years ago, my son and daughter were 5 and 2, respectively. That summer was also the last one that saw my grandmother alive and well, although “well” is not the right word, as the tumor in her brain that claimed her life one year later was already working its damage. My grandfather had passed away two years before, only a matter of weeks after my daughter was born.
With both my grandparents gone, there was no one left to lift their arms in greeting to us when our family of four tumbled out of the taxicab in front of their apartment building this past July. Yet I still craned my head to look towards the side balcony, where my grandmother had stood eight years ago in her soft housedress and waved to us when we first arrived. In the years since their deaths, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that a gigantic door in the universe somewhere had slid closed; that behind the door my artist grandfather still sits painting and there, in her kitchen, is my grandmother, making jam from the sour plums that hung heavy on the tree by the front veranda. In these intervening years, I couldn’t imagine Greece without my grandparents in it. If they were gone, surely the place was gone, too? How could one exist without the other?
When I was a newish mother, I remember leaving my son for the first extended length of time when he was about ten months old. He seemed impervious to my departure, yet when I came back home a few hours later, and took him from his grandmother, he burst into violent tears.
Why had my return saddened him to that extent?
Later, when talking to an older and wiser friend, she told me what she had learned years ago and what I hadn’t known until then: that very small children separated for periods of time from their mothers (and fathers, too) often cry upon their return because it is only then, upon being returned to the familiar landscape of their bodies, that they realize just how much they missed them.
Perhaps his tears were a response to the knowledge that he had existed, for a time, in a space without the person most connected to it. The child misses his mother, without even knowing it. Place, existing separate from the attachment to the people most important to it, can be frightening.
Place is rooted deeply inside of us – it is like the ultimate time capsule. Its value lies not in just the geographical parameters that we can identify, but in the sounds, smells, and feelings that arise when we think about a particular location. A smell can shake us from the present and send us spinning back in time. A sound can make us pause and close our eyes, as we struggle to bring to mind some other place, some other time. Yet I always thought place had value the most because of the people who were tied to it. Like an empty house on moving day, place without the people who make it alive for us would seem hollow.
I know, intellectually, that it is possible to miss something without even realizing it. Last year, for example, my parents came to visit one weekend and brought with them a box of correspondence – from old but good friends I had made during a semester I spent in London – that had been in the wardrobe in my former bedroom back home. I hadn’t thought about the existence of that box and its contents in over two decades, yet each letter, note, and postcard brought back a piece of me that I had been unconsciously missing, and filled me with questions:
What would have happened if the box had ceased to exist? What if it had been discarded, or destroyed?
How can you miss something you forgot existed?
Would I ever have remembered any of the things inside of the box, or the people attached to them, if the box had vanished?
It’s actually a terrifying thought — to miss something, or someone, only because a sudden reappearance triggers the memory of their existence in the first place. No matter how hard we might try and tell ourselves that things don’t matter, that we need to unmoor ourselves from attachment to place and possessions, the truth is that they do matter, in real and compelling ways.
I thought about that box of letters when I stood in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens this summer, in front of my favorite piece, this bronze statue of the Jockey of Artemision:
As a child and young adult, I had been to the museum so many times that I can’t count them all. I know I always rushed through most of the rooms until I came to the one that housed this statue. There, I would stare and stare at the horse and boy, and imagine what it must have been like to be the fishermen who found them in fragments at the bottom of the sea. When I was in college, I had a postcard of this statue taped to the wall of my dorm room. Yet, in the eight-year gap between visits to Greece, I had not thought about this statue once; in fact, I had forgotten about it entirely until I entered the room. Away from Greece for so many years, the jockey and his horse had simply ceased to exist for me.
I am not sure why that fact seemed so terrible to me as I stood looking at the horse and boy that afternoon. I think there, in front of that beloved statue, the enormity of what it had meant to be away from Greece – from my second home country, from a place that is so inextricably tied to who I am – hit me full force, and along with it, all the other losses attached to it. I was a child again, crying at the return of something precious.
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
“What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words.”
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
I went camping recently in the Mokulumne Wilderness, 8200 feet up in a remote region of Northern California. I had last been there with my three daughters and a boy who was fond of the eldest. He was the first of his kind, the first boy, to be invited on a family trip. His name was Magellan, which elicited no end to the commentary from friends and acquaintances. You let a boy named Magellan near your girls? But Sophie and Magellan were twelve, going steady, so to speak, banned by his parents from even the small gesture of hand-holding, and he was sweet with her, not-holding her hand as she climbed granite boulders six feet high and roasting marshmallows expressly for her as she lazed about in a camp chair by the trickle of late July snowmelt.
As the night grew frosty beneath the stars he began to tell us stories about growing up in Alaska. His father had taken him backpacking several times in the Alaskan wilds. His earliest memory of this was when he was about seven years old. “We didn’t take blankets, so when we got cold, we lay on the ground and covered ourselves really deep with leaves” he told us, with a mixture of apology and pride and embarrassment. He went on to say that he and his father also took very little food, eating what they found for sustenance. What they ate, exactly, he left vague and unspecific. “Sometimes we ate berries if the bears hadn’t gotten there first,” he said. This wasn’t a romanticized account; he was clearly grateful to be in the presence of such amenities as a campfire and not-dogs, to be “roughing it” with four girls who were more suited to the comforts of home.
I spent a good deal of that night imagining his seven-year-old self Christopher McCandlessing his way through the tundra, plucking berries of unknown origin, and I fed him the fare of a farmhand for the rest of the trip, trying to fatten him, I suppose, like a little Hansel. I’ve revisited his stories a number of times since, trying to crawl into his childhood for a while to see how it must have worked. What was the wilderness like to him, in that small body of his? How did its skies look from the spot where only his eyes showed through the autumn foliage, lying awake next to a father who was philosophically opposed to comfort, curled up in a pile of dry leaves? It is not unimaginable, of course; his experience was neither more memorable nor more terrible than the childhoods of Frank McCourt, or Jeanette Winterson, or the countless other orphans and refugees and neglected offspring who have given us their narratives as testimony to the infinitude of ways children can be both deeply vulnerable and deeply resilient. Even poetry seems to have developed a preference for the ‘true,’ the factual—the eyewitness testimony, the documentary footage—in place of the imagined. It is interesting to think about the impulses behind the ascendance of memoir in both prose and poetry, the prevalence of attempts to climb into someone else’s childhood, or back into one’s own, perhaps as a way of learning empathy, especially in an era that simultaneously whines about a lack of such emotion and demands it with a fervor that borders on militancy. Depicting childhood as a largely terrifying enterprise is common. The impulse seems to be to create empathy, and perhaps change, out of the recognition of suffering and grief.
But the imaginative landscape of the non-terrifying childhood, the sort of childhood that is shaped more by curiosity and exploration than by the kind of trauma and abuse that forces one to adopt a defensive posture, is also worth dwelling in. “Childhood is the well of being,” writes Bachelard, in his confounding, intriguing book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” does this amazingly well, and watching it with a large audience recently I was intrigued by the reactions to some of the scenes. We are so inured to injury and emergency, both as narrative devices and as existential certainties, that we forget, or else cannot believe, that most of the time life eases on without fanfare or tragedy. At one point in the film the girlfriend of the main character, Mason, passes him the cell phone while he is driving. She wants to show him a photo of a cute furry animal. Everyone in the theatre audibly sucked in their breath; a few people even murmured, “Oh God!” We were prepared for the Accident Narrative, the sudden swerve from the road, the sound of next scene’s ventilator capturing their breath. Earlier in the film Mason’s (second) stepfather, with a can of beer in his hand, volleys with him when he is late for curfew, and we brace ourselves for the Abuse Narrative. Indeed, we have already seen the child at the mercy of one beastly stepfather—it isn’t as if the film pretends such things don’t happen— so it is all too natural to expect more. We wait for the sound of his head to be knocked on the doorframe, and when we don’t hear it, the audible sound of breathing begins again in the theatre. As an audience, we seem most comfortable with the grand mess, the traumatic, than with the ordinary, with actual life.
Much contemporary writing about childhood takes the form of memoir, and sadly, much of it feels like instructions for disaster, apocryphal childhoods that give us the bleakest views of the most painful experiences imaginable. This affords many of us perspective; the toils and griefs we face (my students refer to some of these as “first-world problems,” an expression that seems surprisingly apt) so often pale in comparison to the significant maelstroms known intimately by so many on a daily basis. I grew up in a home and during an era where the barometer of perspective for one’s ailments and sufferings was The Train—the one Train that stood in for what was really many trains, the trains that carried Jews from their homes and lives to the concentration camps. Like many Jewish children of the post-war era, I was instructed in Holocaust studies at a very young age, and learned that nearly any amount of suffering could be endured so long as you were not on the train. (My therapist since tells me that this isn’t a very effective strategy for rearing the young). It’s an interesting way to create endurance and self-reliance in a human being, though. On the other hand it can also be, and often is, a false crust whose main function is to disqualify any sorrow or grief that cannot measure up to the death camps.
When I was taking courses in Waldorf Education, our teacher training taught us to do “child study,” where we would envision a child in their natural “habitat” at night before sleeping, to try to understand their struggles in the classroom in the context of their lives. For a traditional Waldorf teacher, this involves lighting a candle and imagining the child surrounded by light in their home, as they are sleeping, and holding them in your thoughts for a few moments each night. Despite some of the more religious connotations of such experiences (Waldorf schools are founded on anthroposophy, and anthroposophy is described as the study of the soul) it is an amazing way to hear a child, to see a child, to go back into your own childhood, even, into the imagined and lived experiences of the self. I have even taken to doing this on occasion for my college students, whom I learn far less about than third-graders. The practice of noticing them, of being in their worlds, feels critical to the possibility of teaching them anything of magnitude.
Understanding someone’s childhood truly is entering a sort of portal to the lived experience, the locket of individuality. Poetry and film and literature do this for us. We get depth and perspective about our own lives and origins, transcending nostalgia with a kind of inherited memory. But so often we privilege the discourse of anxiety and awfulness over that of pleasure and hope and imagination, memorializing terror and trauma rather than imagining the inverse. This is a sensible reflection of our times in many ways, but privileging what is “true” over what can be imagined may be a miscalculation with grave implications for the poetic imagination. If we cannot envision anything other than what we have, it may seem we have no choice but to accept it, and as a result we actually can become inured to the pain of others. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” Jack Gilbert tells us in his poem “A Brief for the Defense,”a beautiful piece that demands that the reader hear laughter even “in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” It makes me think of the moment in My Dinner with Andre where theater director Andre Gregory says to the playwright Wallace Shawn,
How does it affect them (an audience) to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? You see, I don’t think so, because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world you are showing them in a play is exactly the picture of the world that they have already…so the play simply tells them that their impression of the world is correct, that there’s absolutely no way out, there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent.
This is an argument I never quite stop having with myself, as a writer who works with, writes about, and sometimes writes for children. I do think that it is critical that contemporary writing stretch beyond the lived experience of memoir, and even beyond the ordinary experience of “Boyhood.” It is, for example, through the poetic prose of Joyce that his ordinary childhood is exalted in Portrait of the Artist. And often, the imagined lives of children are both instructive and important for writers and readers. Some of the most memorable childhoods are literary childhoods, lived by imagined children who live at the whims of their creators, imparting experiences and sensitivities that exalt childhood itself. Characters like Fern, in Charlotte’s Web, invoke a child’s ability to spend day after day in a farmyard, depicting the child’s relationship to a world that adults can’t often manage to see. Similarly, the worlds of slightly older books such as The Cricket in Times Square, with a cast of Manhattanite mammals living adjacent to a family’s newsstand, the young Mario privy to their world in ways that can potentially invite even the most cynical residents of New York (myself included, in the days when I used to live there) to revisit the crannies and alcoves of the tunnels with both curiosity and a kind of modest wonder, the sort of wonder that tells us that sometimes our impression of the world is potentially alterable. Many narratives describe the oddly seductive lives of orphans, who move through the world without the wisdom or love of parents and who, thrown thusly back on their own resources, often seem to find treasures the universe hides from others. Some are truly orphaned (the orphans of Narnia, to take one obvious example). Some are self-imagined orphans (for example, in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). Some are more ambiguously orphaned: think of Pippi Longstocking, in Astrid Lindgren’s stories, whose father exists, but as a pirate in the South Seas, king of a cannibal tribe. The orphans instruct us in worldliness, resourcefulness, thrift, thievery, and lonesomeness: qualities essential for both children and writers living lives scalloped by fear or promise and who are forced to inhabit the terrain in between.
Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom depicts both a true orphan (Sam) and a self-imagined one (Suzy). Sam has lived much of his life in foster homes, while Suzy at least in part aims to evade the bleakness that keeps Bill Murray and Frances McDermott awake at night in their separate beds, idealizing life without a family. “I love you, but you don’t know what you are talking about,” Sam tells Suzy, when she romanticizes his parentless life. He’s right, but so is Suzy: there is something magical about the idea of a childhood uncontaminated by the presence of adult surveillance, a surveillance that so often seems mostly intended to quell their (our) anxieties and to force the spontaneities of innocence into their (our) more rigid conceptual schemes. Some have argued against Anderson’s contrivances, against the almost candied atmosphere of the film. But do we have less to learn about the reverie of childhood from Moonrise Kingdom than from sober and strictly factual accounts? In many ways I believe Anderson has touched the essence of childhood. It is an imagined childhood that is in some ways privileged and idealized, with its lush settings, loving adults, art, music, and the overall sense of a trustworthy, benign universe—but I am unconvinced it is less worthy of attention or any less serious than less idealized accounts that insist on placing children in the underbelly of reality.
“I just imagined that I was a sleeping prince,” Magellan told us by the campfire, as he spoke of his sleeps in the wilderness. “Or someone who had to pretend that they were dead, because the bones of dead people are usually really cold.” Only a child thinks like that, in images that are both wholly metaphoric and entirely literal all at once. “It seems we only languish during maturity in order to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish from our memory before we were able to learn their language,” writes Thoreau. Writing about childhood is trying to learn that language before it vanishes altogether from the conscious ear. It is the revelation of a tender and secret universe, one that teaches a child how to be a child, and reminds a reader how to hear and to see it, wearing those fresh and stinging eyes to look out at these strange lands.
Twelve storeys up in Boston (yes, that’s in British-English, where storeys are not the same as stories) – three days into the word-storm of AWP… I wake after three hours sleep, on a still-visible tidemark of my home time zone. Other tidemarks show through, like one left by Anne Carson’s reading yesterday evening – the point-by-point enumeration, with the sound of logic, of a train of thought… What I sit up and write isn’t imitation, isn’t homage, and is nothing to do with her meaning. At three a.m. a tone, her tone, feels like a place, a set of inner rooms (look, with numbers on them). You can walk through them. Pausing. Glancing around a little guiltily, an interloper. Not quite sure if you’re welcome. But trying the sound of your voice, how it echoes, in each…
Theses at three a.m.
1. That even starting from nowhere, going nowhere else, still simply the numbering of things creates a sense of movement. An illusion… as innocent as a painted backdrop hand-winched along outside the window of a train in an early motion picture.
2. That I catch myself believing that’s what they did – the hand-winching, I mean – because I’ve written it, though I don’t have a shred of evidence.
3. That this too is a kind of movie. Stop-motion animation of a thought like Play-Doh or Plasticine.
4. That human figures made from Plasticine or Play-Doh, from beach sand or mud, grow naturally between our fingers, where they have a kind of life.
5. That somewhere a mullah might even now be denouncing a child for doing that thing, unthinking, with blasphemous hands.
6. That God might, secretly, be eaten up with fondness, at the sight of these blunt malformed child-made creatures. Sad too, knowing that they cannot be allowed to live.
7. That somewhere in the floodplain mud, the alluvium, just outside the city, where the shanties go up, is a lump that desires to be golem.
8. That it was people’s crying out for order, in unformed mud-voices, that set the golem’s mud-tread going in the alleys of Prague.
9. That Golem, in his off hours, must have dreamed of river beds. Or been afraid to sleep, always hearing the drying and trickling away of his skin.
10. That the mullah too wants to get some order into the sticky, the palpable world. For its own good.
11. That, equally, a monk might nail a numbered list of theses to a door, thud, thud, and hear the echoes spreading like the tread of boots.
12. That form is always, in God’s eye, reformation. And creation always recreation.
13. That the rabbi of Prague too watched his hands at their work, and wondered what was being done.
14. That a word breathed in to it made all the difference.
15. That in the breath of ‘thesis’, melting one way into ‘this is’ and the other into ‘these’, we already have a hint of number.
16. That verse was born from voice-mud, in the hands of recreation, with a hint of number, with a hint of tread.
17. That Thesis and Antithesis were a marriage made in Heaven, or in Hegel. Ask their only child, Syn.
18. That there’s always some danger when mud-shapes begin to conceive of themselves. (Aside from God: Don’t I just know!)
19. That each poor bare forked and early Play-Doh figure is somebody’s niece or nephew or great-great-grandchild’s thought nearly conceiving what it is.
20. That to give a child a doll too lifelike, too eyelash-blinking-perfect, is uncanny. Too made already. Too far from the true cloth or true plastic, let alone true mud.
21. That now CGI can seamlessly make seem such perfect monsters, we maybe have to hand-winch the backdrop, as clunky as this, or get clumsy as toddlers, just to reassert a sense of what is true.