Judy Longley’s poem “First Breakfast at Home Following an Emergency Appendectomy” appeared in our Summer 1998 issue. Her collection My Journey Toward You was the 1993 winner of the Marianne Moore Prize for Poetry. Read More
Bess Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds returns to the stage.
My friend D’s first retreat was a dive into the deep end. It was ten days long, silent, held at a famous meditation center, and led by a renowned teacher. On her first evening, after orientation, she returned to her room, lay down on her bed, and began to drift off to sleep. Then she discovered a deer tick on her body. Panic set in, but not from fear of Lyme disease. Could she manage to locate tweezers and a first aid kit somewhere in the Zendo without breaking the freshly imposed silence?
Spiritual retreats seem a topic ripe for comic exploitation. Seeking … something, folks who don’t know one another are thrust into monastic discipline and imposed camaraderie for a compressed period of time. In my own experience, retreats follow a pattern. There’s the first morning feeling: What the fuck have I got myself into? And the last evening feeling: What a special group of people this is! And in between, the constant judgments about who’s annoying and unworthy; the instabonding with roommates you’ll never see again (and if you do, they won’t remember you); and the encounters with stalwarts from central casting, like the one who weeps spontaneously for no apparent reason, the one who can’t stay off e-mail, the one getting over a bad divorce, the one who always arrives late, the one who tries to (or is asked to) depart, the one who wears craft clothing, the one who sits on the floor in perfect full lotus when everyone else is in chairs. There’s moderate outdoor activity, a repressed undercurrent of sexual and romantic curiosity, the required holding-hands-in-a-circle moment and, of course, the gatherings during which a teacher imparts wisdom. All of it begs to be staged. Read More
This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today: cartoonist Vanessa Davis.
“As I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me…”
An excerpt from The Child Poet.
One Saturday toward noon in January 1951, three friends and I made our way home after playing soccer. The milky rays of a nearly white sun ploughed the damp earth, and our shadows moved neatly beneath our soles each time we lifted a foot to take a step. When we reached my house I waved goodbye to my friends. Without replying they continued on their way.
My solitary steps echoed along the sunlit corridor; my parents were at the store. And then I went into my brother’s room, although I hadn’t meant to go in … A shotgun someone had lent him was propped against the wall. As if moving by their own accord, my hands reached for it. I walked to the backyard and climbed onto a pile of bricks that were being used to build the new kitchen. There was no one around; the bricklayer and the peon were having lunch in the old dining room.
Standing on the bricks, I saw some birds alight on the sapodilla tree next door, to be momentarily covered by the branches … Until they returned to the air, over my head, high in the blue above … And without wanting to, I aimed the shotgun at them and fired, not intending to kill a single one.
I watched with relief as they all flew on until they were lost in the distance. But as I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me. Such was the blow I felt from the shots that I thought infinity had entered my belly. Read More
Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world.
But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:
The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.
It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable.
So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn’t realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.
When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”
Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.
“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.
Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.
The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.
I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?
There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More