Editor's Notes 23.1

November 29, 2021

Editor's Notes 23.1

On a beautiful day in early April 2021, I was living my best pandemic life. In the morning, I’d walked in the sunshine to the hospital to get my second Pfizer dose. On the way, a cardinal singing furiously in a purple red bud tree gave me the side-eye, as birds will do. I felt an unusual lightness. I was feeling something like hope.
     After the shot, I’d decided to get in a workout in case I had side effects coming my way and I wouldn’t be up to exercising the next day. I did a twenty-minute ride on the stationary bike, laid out a yoga mat, and was in a deep lunge with my right leg bent and forward, trying to work the stretch into my hip flexor, breathing into it, when a spider dropped down on her string and dangled about six inches away from my face, just to my left. Hanging onto my stretch, I reached up and felt for her silk. My plan was to pinch the silk with my fingers, swing her away from my hair, and carry her to the door. Hard to explain now, with everything that’s happened, but from the beginning she struck me as a benevolent spider, a friendly arachnid. I wasn’t afraid. I just wanted to get her away from my face and outside, uncrushed.
      But I couldn’t find her silk. There was nothing there. How was she keeping her body suspended in the air? I stood up out of my stretch and she rose with me. I moved my head to get a better look and she flitted out of view. Threading my fingers into my hair, I felt around carefully, trying to catch her without squishing.
      I could see her! How could she be right there and yet not right there? Going to the mirror, I stood still and looked forward. Yes. There she was. Just up and to the left of my left eye—but when I reached for her, she slid down her silken cord and out of my frame of vision. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t catch her. As soon as I turned my focus on her, she was gone, and as soon as I thought, Okay, then, she’s gone, well, then she was back.
      Like the darting shadow of the mouse that lived in our pantry that one summer or the idea I had for an essay in the night but didn’t write down. Think of all the things you see—you’re sure of it—but then when you turn your full focus on them to try to get a better look, the thing you want to study flits away like Tinkerbell whizzing off to save Peter from Hook.

     Perception is a slippery thing—a weasel vanishing into her hole, a tiny fish sliding past in a stream, a flash and a shadow that leaves us wondering whether there was ever something there at all. You know where I’m going. The dance I was joining into with my new spider friend was like writing an essay.
     Most of seeing is mustering the willingness to look, and even then, there’s so much that resists our gaze. Grief, for example, or trauma; memories that cause us shame or make us feel regret; rage, identity, anything and everything that puts us at risk to lose something we depend upon—a concept of ourselves, a well-practiced narrative of the past, a social position, a dream for the future, a feeling of safety, or most terrifying of all, a person we love. The essays you’ll read here see these risks and then step forward anyway to examine wildfires and drug dealers, the West Bank and Los Alamos, mining and new motherhood, bank robbers and mountaineering, cassette tapes and a dangerous experiment called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” sexual violence and the stories that save us.

     I’ve been teaching essay writing for two decades now, and while I never have to plan this moment into my lessons, the time for me to approach the whiteboard, marker in hand, and draw a lake, a big lake, always arises on a day when an apprentice essayist is doing the equivalent of looking directly into the sun. He wants to write about why he never got the love he needed from his father or she wants to face her belief that if she starves herself thin enough she’ll feel okay in her own skin or maybe they felt a heart-lifting joy once with their now-dead mother and they’ve been trying to find their way back to that joy through a grief that feels like shackles. You know, the big things.
     I draw a little sailboat on one side of the lake. “You are here,” I say. On the other side of the lake, I draw a fierce cartoon cloud with puckered blowing lips. “This is the wind,” I say—although from my consistently excellent drawing, I’m sure this is already obvious to the students. I draw swirling lines blowing from Wind’s generous lips back across the lake to the little sailboat. This usually gets a few smiles. I add choppy waves to the water and point out the obvious. “The water is rough.”
     I tap the little boat. “You are here in your little boat.” I tap the shore on the opposite side. “You need to get over here. How are you going to get there? Can you go straight across?” I swirl on more threatening wind with my fat-tipped marker.
      Silence. I’m either setting them up or off my rocker.
     “Can you go straight across? Can you sail directly into the wind? Any sailors in the room?”
     Happily, there’s usually someone who’s done something they’re willing to consider sailing.
     “No,” that brave student says. “No. You wouldn’t get anywhere.”
     “Right!” This is where I get all seize-the-day. “You cannot sail directly into the wind. You have to tack.” I redraw the boat’s nose a little to the left and then a little to the right, erasing the bow with a smudge of my palm and drawing again, like a stop-motion animation in super slo-mo. “You go a little to the left and then a little to the right.” I make a zigzag line across the surface of the lake all the way to the other side. “By tacking, you can sail against the wind and get where you want to go.”
     The students nod their heads. Sometimes, inspired, one jumps up to draw in a shark or a pirate.
     “It’s the same with writing an essay, okay? You need to figure out how you’re going to zig.” I slash the board with the marker. “And zag.”

     One way we sail against the wind is through metaphor. Another is with the momentum of a good story. Or characters that help us to better understand ourselves. Or information pulled from another discipline to create a frame for deeper understanding. These strategic shifts of perception are everywhere in these pages. Certainly, the pandemic has made its mark. As a species, we’re adept at not thinking about death, but we’ve all been living so close to mortality, asking who we want to be and how we want to live our precious lives on this ravaged and beautiful planet. In Desiree Cooper’s page-turning “Crime Spree,” COVID-19 hangs like a shadow, but the essay isn’t about the virus. It’s about a feeling we’ve all had, that feeling of deserving something that isn’t ours: “So many of us walk around believing there’s a moral wall between good people and bad people. But in my experience, that wall is permeable, like snow fencing. The slide from law-abiding to lawless can be swift and random. Like a plague.” In “Snow Hymns,” Michael Garrigan rides a horse named Patsy Cline out of a blizzard in the Siskiyou Mountains in the middle of the night, led by an old-timer named Bill, a man who “makes his own time, writes his own story”; Garrigan is trying to make it to a place where he can feel as good in his own skin and story as he imagines Bill does in his. In “Boom: A Story of Erasure, Accident, and Exposure in the New Mexico Desert,” Tyler Mills—pregnant with her daughter—looks at the history of the nuclear program at Los Alamos: “The swell of a sonic boom looks like the fan a boat drags behind it through the water. My shape, as I grew, shuddered with this sound. I held this life inside of me, and the boom held me inside of it.” The writers here think about what we hold, what we let go, and what we must never give up on changing. Marion Denard’s “Another True Story” begins, “You can go years surviving rape by telling yourself you weren’t”—and then weaves back through both her own memories and the stories of other trauma victims to a deceptively simple truth: “This is a true story. It is not unique. It is an everyday, run-of-the-mill, small-town rape story. She trusted a boy she knew. He raped her. She survived. These things happen, but they shouldn’t.” And in Jessica Johnson’s “The Polaroid Baby and the Shape of Time,” Johnson brings us back to her peripatetic childhood with her miner dad, beneath the surface of the earth, across the sea change of motherhood, and into the best description of life with an infant I have ever read: “It was still new, this feeling that you’re working constantly and accomplishing nothing,” and also, “Because C. was herself, because I was in love with her, my daughter was a powerful kind of gravity.”

     My spider is not really a spider. I mean, she isn’t—and she is.
     At the ophthalmologist’s office, a lovely woman just a tad older than me plopped dilating drops onto my upward tilted eyes. When my pupils were giant, dark pools, so wide open that the iris was a mere outline and my pupils had become actual windows to, well, the back of my eyeballs, she leaned forward with a special magnifying glass held up to her own eye. “Look at my ear. Look left. Look right. Watch my finger.” When she sat back, she was smiling. “Retina looks okay. Retina is intact.”
      She explained that my spider—a floater—was the shadow of a fiber in the goop that makes up the stuffing of the eyeball. I had experienced a sudden and partial posterior vitreous detachment. I shouldn’t run or jump or stand on my head for at least six weeks because there was some danger of the vitreous having tugged on the retina, but with luck, that would be the worst of it.
      “So.” I paused. “How long will the floater be there?”
      “Oh,” she said, pretty casually, “forever. You should definitely make friends with it. I have some patients who name their floaters.” She tells me that over time my brain will adjust. My brain will become so accustomed to the spider that I will cease seeing her. It won’t be the case that she’s gone, but she will appear gone.
      Me? I’m not one to look away.
      I’ve named her Charlotte. Naturally.

     Charlotte is helping to teach me about life in an aging body. In “Nest,” Jan Shoemaker takes on the growing weight of things as we age, the burdens we are forced to lay down to free up our arms and strength for the inevitable—as Shoemaker says of living through her gentle husband’s Parkinson’s disease: “I wonder how I can prepare for whatever is slouching toward us, wonder how to be ready.” She knows there is no ready, as deeply as we all wish for that readiness.
     The stories in these essays have sustained us at River Teeth during this past year—forging paths, assembling patterns, and locating the right words to not only help us process this current crisis, but also to move us into the future with the wholeness and compassion our broken world requires. Our stories, and what we make of them, will get us through—and then they’ll guide us forward. Marion Denard reminds us of Tim O’Brien’s words in “How to Tell a True War Story”: “But this too is true: stories can save us.”
     Thank you for being here. Thank you for reading.


Photograph by Ella Neely

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