Gargoyle Girl

When I was fifteen I spent a lonely summer month living with a French family in the Parisian suburb of Rueil-Malmaison. The family didn’t like me, and I kept giving them more and more reasons not to like me, without exactly realizing that was what was happening. Their dislike of me was something I merely suspected until the day we were at the mall, and Isabelle, the girl my age, explained my desire to return to a store we had already left, telling her mother animatedly, “Elle a trouvé une robe mille fois plus belle, et maintenant elle veut acheter cette robe-là!” [She found a dress a thousand times prettier, and now she wants to buy that one]. The way she rolled her eyes at the “mille fois plus belle,” obviously mocking me, was pretty clear. So now I couldn’t deny that when Nathalie, the younger one, had bought a pastry and offered to share with Isabelle, but pointedly not with me; when we had been at the pool and they had invented some game that involved jumping in together, but I was not invited to join; when we had been playing Battleship, and I realized that I had made a mistake when Nathalie asked for I-whatever, because I heard “E,” and she yelled “Tu peux gonfler d’orgueil!” [You can swell up with pride]—all of these moments were part of a settled dislike.

From a young age, I have had a remarkable ability to pretend that things are OK when they are not at all OK (an early memory: after dropping my father off at the airport, when he was going on a short trip to help my grandparents move, I was sniffling in the car, because he had left, and my mother asked if I was all right. “I think I’m catching a cold,” four-year-old me sniffed). During the first part of my visit, I had held to the American custom of changing clothes every day, but once I realized how much the family disliked me, I kept out two outfits, enough to get me to the end of my time there if I wore each outfit three or four days, and packed the rest of my belongings. It never occurred to me to ask the student exchange company to find me another family, and it never occurred to me to admit to my family and friends back home how miserable I had been. My parents had paid a lot of money for the trip; they would be disappointed to know how painful the experience had been.

I went home and told everyone I had had a wonderful time. Then, sometime later, my parents began asking more pointed questions. Eventually they let me know that the father of the family had written a letter to tell them how awful I was. He wrote in French, and the letter was two pages long, but the only phrase I remember distinctly is that the primary charge against me was that I hadn’t worked to “integrate” [se intégrer] myself into their family. This was true. I didn’t go to Mass with them on Sundays.  On weekday mornings, the two daughters spent the entire morning studying. This did not strike me as a good use of my limited time in France, so I would go for walks. Sometimes I walked along Rue Napoleon Bonaparte to the centre-ville [downtown] and stopped in a stationery store and bought one of those little metal canisters of lozenge-type hard candies (the fact that I bought candy and didn’t share it made it into the letter from the father). More often, though, and more and more often the lonelier I became, I would walk along the main street until I came to a tiny side street called Rue Berthe Morisot, which cut over to the Seine River. There, on the riverbank, I would sit on this big rock and read or watch the water.

The next year, I would sit in math class and think about how I would go back, and how every time I would return to Paris, which would undoubtedly happen every few years for the rest of my life, I would visit my rock, and that place by the river off of Rue Berthe Morisot would be sacred to me. But then instead of becoming the free-spirited world traveler I dreamed of being, I became a scholar (and, later, a mother) instead, and I never had enough money or time . . .  I didn’t return to Paris until 2012, when I tagged along with my bestie Ann when she was going to a conference.

She was busy with her conference during the days, and so I had the chance for some do-overs, starting with Notre Dame. When I went there with my French family, they explained to me that since it cost money to climb up to have the view, and they had all seen it, they were going to stay below, and I was to climb up alone. I don’t really blame them for hating me; I was as far as it was possible to be from the benign groupthink that constituted their family dynamic—once I had climbed up to where I could see not only all of Paris, but the gargoyles as well, I forgot about my French family completely. I don’t know how long I was up there (maybe half an hour? certainly not more), but by the time I came down to the ground, the whole family was ready to kill me. While I was in Paris in 2012, I climbed up to see the gargoyles with the delicious thought that no one knew or cared where I was and that I could stay up there as long as I damn well pleased. Which I did.

120       124  122      119

The trip to Rueil-Malmaison was a little bit complicated, involving a train that went outside the zone covered by my pass and getting dropped off a good way from the river and trying to find my way to it by heading west and hoping for the best. (It’s a difficult river to miss, so this was not a bad strategy.) The family had moved, which meant I didn’t have to decide if I was going to creep them out by knocking on their door. Rue Napoleon Bonaparte had had some major construction, which had me worried for a while that everything was entirely different, but eventually I found it: Rue Berthe Morisot.


The rock was gone, but the river itself was unchanged. I expect it will be the same the next time I visit my spot.


The night before we left, Ann and I went out for our one super-expensive fancy meal. One of the many entirely legitimate reasons my French family disliked me is that I was a picky eater. Even though it turned out that I was to receive only one free pass—I told them my first day that I didn’t eat tomatoes, and they made a big fuss about not making me eat tomatoes while somehow communicating to me that I didn’t get to have any other foods I wouldn’t eat—I’m sure they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice how little I relished the mushy eggplant in the ratatouille that was a family staple or my general tepidity regarding new foods, especially of the vegetable variety.  They loathed me, they snubbed me, they wounded my shy and lonely pride, AND THEY TOLD MY PARENTS, but I have to give them credit—the next year, when visiting relatives, I ate the green beans they offered me entirely because of having survived green beans in France. During the course of my late teens and early twenties, I worked at overcoming my pickiness, and by the time of my super-expensive amazing French meal with my friend in 2012, I was able to enjoy my food this much:


So, thank you, I guess, Famille L_______–I was awful, and you were awful, but in this one way you made me a bit less of an antisocial gargoyle.



“Buyer’s Remorse”; or, What You Will . . . in which a former tightwad spends $25 on a jar of vegan Nutella

I was in Chicago last summer and stopped by Eataly, the fancy Italian grocery store/restaurant chain. I admired the mushroom selection, bought a hunk of ciabatta, and then made my way toward the exit . . . and that’s when I encountered Eataly’s display of chocolate hazelnut spreads. Something like twenty different varieties of high-quality imported Nutella analogues. And here I was, a Nutella-lover who hadn’t touched the stuff in the nine months since I’d gone vegan. Several minutes of obsessive label-reading later, I had found a jar of dairy-free Nutella-type spread . . . but it was $15, and I was pretty sure I would feel like an idiot if I impulsively spent $15 on vegan Nutella.

So I didn’t. I went home to Fort Wayne and thought about that hazelnut spread for the next five months. Five months, people. Five months—long enough by any of my standards to justify buying myself a jar the next time I was back in Chicago, in January.

In my mid-twenties, having noticed the way that buying a thing that attracted me ended up making the thing a little less attractive, I began to develop a discipline of waiting. This served me well in my early thirties, when my ex-husband and I were supporting ourselves and two small children on his income as a part-time English adjunct and my income as a part-time freelance copyeditor. It’s too long ago for me to remember the ups and downs of our income; all I remember is that in the year when we were supporting a family of four on $29,000, it was $1,000 too much to qualify for the Earned Income Credit. It certainly wasn’t too much to avoid spending enormous amounts of energy to avoid spending money. We got through those years with no credit card debt and no student loan debt (I was still finishing my PhD), a source of pride then and now . . . but what I couldn’t fully recognize until it was over was just how much it sucked to be so broke.

How broke?

So broke that Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette was my second bible.

So broke that I made my own broth, bread, yogurt, and granola; cooked and froze beans and grains in one-cup quantities; and cooked almost all our meals from scratch.

So broke I had an ongoing “needs” list that I built up over the winters so that I could buy things we needed during the summer garage sale seasons . . . because garage sales are way cheaper than thrift stores.

So broke that I made this homemade bumblebee costume for my four-year-old out of a shirt I bought at a garage sale, a “stinger” made from a toilet paper roll and electrical tape, and wings made from a wire hanger and black panty hose. He’s smiling in this picture from his preschool costume parade, but he hated having a homemade costume, so I called my sister to ask to borrow my nephew’s store-bought Spiderman costume for trick-or-treating (Spiderman was big that year, evidently).


We were, following the terminology of my sister’s high school boyfriend, “broke,” not “poor.” We had cultural capital up to our eyeballs, and many of our friends were either graduate students or large homeschooling Catholic families, all of whom were living nearly as frugally as we were.

But oh lord, how it sucked. This phase of my life came abruptly to an end shortly after we moved to Fort Wayne.  After my first week in a tenure-track academic job, I spent the weekend making bread and yogurt, among other things.  Monday morning came, and I was exhausted.  “Ohmigod,” I realized, “I just spent the weekend wearing myself out to save maybe twenty bucks, and now I have to go to work again!  Nooooooooo!”  The frugal phase was truly over a few weeks later, when I saw a container of pine nuts at the grocery store and realized that I could afford to buy them for pesto, instead of using walnuts, as I’d been doing for years.  This made me very, very happy.

But because of those six years of hardship, apparently there are limits, which I may have with me the rest of my life, on how much indulgence will ever be comfortable for me. When I returned to Chicago in January, I was on a mission—I would not leave without my vegan hazelnut spread, goddammit! At Eataly, I once again went through the label-reading process, finding a non-dairy jar after reading approximately eighteen labels. After a moment’s hesitation about spending $15 on a 7-ounce jar, I headed to the cash register. “That will be $24.36,” the cashier said.

“No, no,” I corrected him. “This jar was like fifteen dollars.” We looked at each other. “Hang on a minute, OK?” Yes, I did actually leave the cash register and go back to the display. Yes, I found that I had read the wrong price label. Yes, $24.36 was the correct price.

Reader, I bought it.

Vegan Nutella

Once home from Chicago, I toasted me up a slice of bread, spread a thick schmear of my $25 Nutella analogue onto it, took a bite, and waited for angels to sing. This did not happen. I began to bargain with myself, as one does in the stages of grief: It’s OK. Just make it last, and making it last will make it feel more worth it. I made it last. It’s been eleven weeks, and I still have enough for one more piece of toast.

Vegan Nutella Empty

It never became anything other than a thoroughly idiotic purchase, though. After I’m done with it, the next time I have a craving, I’ll do what I did my first fourteen months as a vegan: melt vegan chocolate chips into some peanut butter, and go to town. The flavor of peanuts is less refined than the miracle that is the hazelnut, but at least there is no aftertaste of Regret.

Rachel E. Hile

The Last Time I Was in Shavasana Pose…

The last time I was in shavasana pose was in July 2014, the day before I was to drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Kansas City for the third time that summer, this time for the funeral of my great-aunt Irene. And I bet that almost anyone, finding themselves in “corpse pose” just after the death of a loved one, would find it hard not to think of that specific corpse. I did. When you cry lying on your back, the first tear on each side creates the path, and all the next tears trace the same path over and over again, until there’s a mess of salt water wetting the hair in a puddle behind your ears.

I don’t remember if I cried at the funeral. I do know that I got very very busy with work right after I got back home. I think of Irene often, but I think of her life, not her death. I wear the earrings I have that were hers a lot; I was very sad when I thought I might have lost my favorites and thrilled when I found them again just last night. I put them on this morning and wore them to the Zen retreat my son and I went to in Indianapolis.

Before the retreat began, there was a yoga class in the zendo. I’m no yogi. The only reason I was at yoga classes at all the summer of 2014 was that my kids were going to be in Europe with their dad and stepmom for three weeks, and so I bought a 40-day all-you-can-yoga pass so that I would miss them less. In fact, I made two trips to Kansas City while they were gone, once to say good-bye and once for the funeral.  But today I thought, why not do the yoga class—it will make sitting all day easier. So I pushed and twisted and strained my body through the sun salutations and the stretchy this and the warrior that and was saved from possible disaster by a friendly assist from the teacher with a yoga block. Fine. No problem.

And then it was time for corpse pose, and here came the tears again, one fat tear rolling down each side, followed by others and others and others.  How I miss you, Irene. “Now remember to focus on your grieving,” the teacher said. Of course he said “breathing,” but I heard “grieving” and for a split-second thought: “Oh, it’s not just me?”

We started the retreat with chanting Kwan Seum Bosal, which is the Korean name for the bodhisattva of compassion. In the middle of the chant, there is a very repetitive section where we simply chant “Kwan Seum Bosal” over and over again. My mind wandered back to Irene and to how ordinary her life was.  I read an obituary recently for a professor who taught at my alma mater, and it was frankly astonishing. Honor after honor, award after award, achievement after achievement. I often see my friends memorializing their loved ones on social media with testimonies to how fierce and funny and amazing and brave and and and the loved one was. There was nothing particularly flashy about Irene. She was my grandmother after my mom’s mom died when I was five. She played organ. She was smart and very very tidy. She went to church. She took care of my great-uncle and made sure he ate things that would keep him from having another heart attack. She loved her seven siblings and all their families and her two sons and my mom and my mom’s family. She made Thanksgiving dinner for the first thirty-three years of my life. She and my great-uncle had a camper with a map on the back that showed all the states they had visited. My sister and I loved to hang out in the camper when we were at their house. Why do I miss her today? Because she was kind and gentle.

[Irene’s obituary]

During the break before lunch, I sat by the fire and stared at the flames and thought of her long slow dying for the first time in years. I saw her alive twice that summer, an early summer trip with my kids, when we didn’t know how near the end was, and then alone later, when I knew it was good-bye.

And yet, I couldn’t say good-bye. It felt rude to speak of it. And I was afraid of her dying-ness; I didn’t know what to do about her weak and old and sick and dying body. And so I was polite and reserved and felt the time ticking by while I was a coward.

An African man, Aboudie, worked at the nursing home; I don’t know what his job title was. Aboudie opened the door for me to encounter my much-loved aunt for the last time in my life honestly. The second day I was there, Irene took Aboudie’s hand in hers, looked him in the eye, and thanked him for all he had done for her. He smiled and gripped her hands and said, “We all have to die sometime.” I remembered Gerasim in Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the one character who faces Ivan Ilyich’s dying-ness with unselfish equanimity:

Ivan Ilyich felt good only with Gerasim. It felt good to him when Gerasim held his legs up, sometimes all night long, and refused to go to sleep, saying: “Please don’t worry, Ivan Ilyich, I’ll still get some sleep”; or when, suddenly addressing him familiarly, he added: “Maybe if you weren’t sick, but why not be a help?” Gerasim alone did not lie, everything showed that he alone understood what it was all about, and did not find it necessary to conceal it, and simply pitied his emaciated, weakened master. Once he even said straight out, as Ivan Ilyich was sending him away: “We’ll all die. Why not take the trouble?”—expressing by that that he was not burdened by his trouble precisely because he was bearing it for a dying man and hoped that when his time came someone would go to the same trouble for him. (76)

I sat by her bedside, thinking. If Aboudie was like Gerasim, I was like Ivan Ilyich’s family, tiptoeing around the truth because it seemed somehow impolite to acknowledge it. And of course, Ivan Ilyich’s family are a bunch of assholes who make his death harder. I envied the fact that Aboudie got to have a moment with Irene, and that I might not. So I overcame the disinclination to be honest and sobbed, “Oh, Irene, I love you so much! I’m going to miss you so much!”  She exclaimed, “Well, I love you, too! I always have!”

I did better after that. I held her hands. I played old songs for her on my iPhone. Once when she had a coughing fit, I dove into her bed to prop her upright with my back until some nurse’s aides could come help.

Staring into the fire today, I relived everything I could remember about those days, and the tears kept rolling down my face. A young Taiwanese woman who is studying to be a healer was sitting next to me,  and she was worried about me. “If you are suffering, throw that suffering into the fire.”

“I’m not suffering,” I assured her.

“If you are angry, you can burn that up in the fire.”

“I’m not angry.” I paused. “I’m not angry. I’m not suffering. I just cry a lot.”

What I might have said, channeling Zen Master Seung Sahn, could be: When you’re sad, just be sad.  When you’re happy, just be happy. I spend so much time when I’m sad arguing with myself about whether or not I should be sad, but it’s better when I remind myself to just be sad and not think about it so much. When I remember to do this, I’m sad for a while, and then I stop being sad. Simple.

“Now remember to focus on your grieving.” I must have gotten interrupted in my grieving in 2014 when I came back from the funeral and immediately started work co-chairing a horrific time-suck of a university-wide committee (the dreaded USAP, for coworkers reading this). Or maybe I did it myself, turned it all off when I left the yoga studio that day in 2014 and went home to pack, not knowing that the key to reopen my mourning would be the shavasana pose.


Pain, Abjection, and False Idols

I was crying on the phone today with a nurse from my doctor’s office, a suppliant asking for pain relief for the 16 hours between the time of our call and my root canal, scheduled for tomorrow morning at 7:45 am. And the nurse just had to bring up natural childbirth.

“It’s better not to take pain medication before surgery, because you build up a tolerance, and then you need even more pain meds after the surgery,” she said.

“It’s not surgery!” I protested. “Everyone says the pain will get better as soon as the procedure is finished.”

“Well, pain is different for everyone,” she chided. “Look at me, I had two births with no pain relief, but my sister, she had to have an epidural and all that stuff. People are different.”

I didn’t bother telling her that I also had two births with no pain relief, because that would undoubtedly have taken us into a comparative analysis of pain. “Surely this isn’t worse than childbirth, is it?” she might have asked me sweetly.


Several years ago, I told one of my best friends, one of my natural parenting friends whom I met in my earliest months as a mother, that if I should have a third baby, I would get the damn epidural. She was shocked and tried to persuade me to reconsider what I would do about the hypothetical third birth that in fact never happened, reminding me about the dangers for mothers and children of highly medicalized births. And if I had actually gotten pregnant again, I would have done a lot of research and thinking and maybe changed my mind, but since I didn’t, I could just go with my gut when I told her, “I think I already learned as much as I can learn from pain from going through that twice. I don’t think there is more to learn about that, and if there is, I’m not interested.” I had decided that I was willing to weigh the possibility of slightly worse outcomes against the certainty of more pain than I want to go through a third time and to choose the slightly worse outcomes.

What had changed for me? Well, when I had those two unmedicated births, I was a sincere, nearly ardent Catholic, and Catholicism has a millennia-old tradition of prizing suffering. I wasn’t so fundamentalist as to think that suffering in childbirth was my necessary punishment for Eve’s sin; rather, in a tradition that valorizes suffering—especially unnecessary suffering that one chooses for oneself (hairshirts, flagella, stigmata, and more for the celebrated saints; Lenten mortifications of the flesh for believers today)—it just made sense for me to embrace that pain.

And I did learn things, not so much the second time as the first. I remember the fear of splitting apart, of breaking entirely and unfixably. It was because of my fear that I ended up pushing for three hours with that birth—I was afraid, and so I was holding back. There came a moment when I realized—like really realized, not intellectually and logically, but fully and in every way—that there was no going backward, that the only way to get to the other side of this terrifying event that was happening to me and in me, that was happening in every way except *by* me, was through it. No backing up, no going around it, only straight through. He was born shortly after that moment. I did not break. I still think of that moment sometimes when I have to complete something difficult or unpleasant. So yes, I learned something—achievement unlocked.


I no longer believe that choosing avoidable suffering is in any way a spiritually meritorious act, and I have spent the years since I left the Catholic Church distrustful of anything that smacks of asceticism, but I have recently come to believe that there could be a spiritual dimension to enduring unavoidable suffering with patience.

I had some calcifications in my breast biopsied earlier this month (I know, right? What a great month I’m having! At least the biopsy results were negative). The process to get me into the biopsy contraption was itself quite uncomfortable. I lay there a while, facing away from the door, trying not to move, with my right breast . . . well, I don’t know if it was visible from the door, but that’s the first thing I thought of when I heard the door open and the male doctor’s voice speaking to me. I wondered if the female mammogram technician would return to the room for the biopsy. Of course that’s usually what happens, but my mind wandered onto the thought experiment of what I would do if the man walked into the room and, say, tweaked my nipple. Here I was, lying on a table with a hole in it, my breast hanging down through it and squeezed between small mammo plates: cowlike, compressed, potentially malignant, and yet always and inevitably coded as sexual in our culture. What would I do? It was an easy decision: nothing at all, because to do anything, even to yell, would risk me shifting my position, which would mean starting the whole process of getting me positioned again. This is the abjection of being a medicalized body.

There was also the part where I told the doctor that it usually takes extra shots to numb me for local anesthetic, and that therefore he should inject me with extra lidocaine (a 100% nonaddictive local anesthetic) instead of waiting and seeing. He didn’t. He waited until I cried out when the pain from the first sample fanned out and intensified just as the needle was grabbing the second sample.

“What’s wrong?” he barked.

“It hurts!” I moaned.

“Well, you have to tell me that.”

So then I had another ten minutes holding still in the uncomfortable contraption while we waited for the second dose of lidocaine to take effect. This is the abjection of “the doctor knows your body better than you do.”

And yet there was one valuable part of the experience: I stayed present. Twenty-five years ago, when I had my wisdom teeth removed under local anesthetic, I worked to separate my mind from my body as much as I could. I went somewhere in my mind and tried to remember details from the plots of movies I liked. I kept my mind busy; my body was on its own. Both because I now know that the body knows what happens to it even if the mind goes away, and because I have recently been working to strengthen my practice of meditation, I wanted to stay present. More specifically, I wanted to try to be emotionally temperate: neither ignoring nor minimizing nor amplifying what I was feeling. “Biopsy is just biopsy,” I said to myself, based on a bit of wisdom I read a decade ago by an Indianapolis Zen teacher. And also: “This sucks,” I said to myself. “Yep, it sure does. Here we are.”


So there might be something valuable in being able to patiently endure unavoidable pain, but I reject the idea that there is spiritual merit in seeking out avoidable pain. It might be possible to endure avoidable pain as a form of practice, to prepare oneself for patience in facing unavoidable pain, but still, I think the human tendency is to move pretty quickly to ideas of merit and to patting oneself on the back.

But with the opioid epidemic, the medical establishment has turned what used to be avoidable pain into pain that is, practically speaking, unavoidable, and with that conversation with the nurse today, I could see how an individual medical worker’s spiritual ideas about pain and suffering can intersect with the new practices in pain management. I don’t believe that the nurse believes that she and her sister simply have different tolerances for pain. I believe that she believes that she has merit for having given birth twice without medication, because otherwise, why on earth would she bring it up with me? The upshot of my two calls to my doctor’s office today is that the office won’t call in a prescription to cover 16 hours of pain relief, but they recommend that if the pain gets really bad or the swelling gets worse, I should go to the ER. This is the abjection of “we have to treat you like an addict, because you might be an addict.”

–In solidarity with the citizens of the Land of Pain and Abjection from a visitor who will almost certainly live there someday, because I’m so sorry you have to put up with this shit every day.



Old Wine in New Skins: Art for Our Time

Once upon a time, there was a man named Dr. P, a singer and music teacher. He was alive, a real person—not a character in a story. In the years leading up to his death in 1983, he became unable to make sense of the things he saw with his eyes. An eye doctor told him his vision was fine but that he should see a neurologist. Thus did Dr. P come to encounter Dr. Oliver Sacks, who would tell the story of Dr. P in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Over the course of two visits, Sacks determined that Dr. P could make sense of visual input only if it were abstract or schematic—such as the face cards of a deck of cards or a set of Platonic solids that Sacks carried in his neurological kit—or by focusing on small details—recognizing a photograph of Albert Einstein by his hair and mustache, recognizing his brother because of his square jaw and large teeth. It became clear to Sacks from his time with Dr. P and his wife, Mrs. P, that the couple had developed ways of making music stand in for the sense-making work that our visual cognition does for most of us: when he sang a dressing song or an eating song, Dr. P knew what he was doing and could move through the necessary actions of his day . . . but if he were interrupted in the song, he would lose the thread of what he was doing. At the end of their second meeting, Dr. Sacks’s only prescription for Dr. P was more music: “You are a wonderful musician, and music is your life. What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the centre, now make it the whole, of your life” (Sacks, 18).

pittsburgh man-who-mistook-wife-for-hat-play-review
Photograph by Heather Mull for the Pittsburgh City Paper

Dr. P was alive, a real person—not a character in a story. Had Sacks published a case history in a neurological journal, he would never have become a character. But Sacks was interested in story: “we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what’, a real person, a patient in relation to disease—in relation to the physical” (Sacks, viii). And so Dr. P became a character.

How we treat characters isn’t so different from how we treat other people—we project our own wishes, aversions, and interpretations onto our fellow humans as readily as we do onto Anna Karenina. But a character, fixed, written, doesn’t push back the way a living person does. And a character, fixed, yet endlessly encounterable and reproducible, can become meaningful for the projections of those living in later times.

For Sacks, the story of Dr. P was a story about right-brain dysfunction—one of his audiences in the book was his fellow neurologists, because the field had persistently shown more interest in the syndromes that developed from left-brain lesions in patients: “The left hemisphere, like a computer tacked onto the basic creatural brain, is designed for programs and schematics; and classical neurology was more concerned with schematics” (Sacks, 4). More attention to the right brain is necessary, he argues, because of what right-brain neurological syndromes can teach us about more fundamental questions of identity and cognition: “it is the right hemisphere which controls the crucial powers of recognizing reality which every living creature must have in order to survive . . . . for the physical foundations of the persona, the self, are here revealed for our study” (Sacks, 4-5).

When composer Michael Nyman read Sacks’s book, he immediately began work to adapt the narrative into an opera. For Nyman, who thinks musically, the composition process involved the creation of “a self-supporting, self-referential musical structure on the narrative. . . . The musical process had to relate not simply to the gradual accumulation of diagnostic evidence but also to the precise perceptual problems that visual agnosia presented to Dr. P” (from the liner notes to the 1990 CBS recording). Put simply, Nyman’s music for the opera uses the songs of Robert Schumann, deconstructed, to create a schematic musical scaffold for the action, just as Dr. P’s “eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs” structured his days (Sacks, 17). Snippets of these melodies appear, reworked and repurposed, throughout the opera, and the centerpiece of the work is Dr. P singing Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht,” which demonstrates how perfectly whole and sound Dr. P’s musical intelligence and ability remain.

But librettist Christopher Rawlence also read the story and also had the chance to impose his own readings and interpretations onto the characters. He gained deeper insight into Mrs. P through a four-hour visit he made with Oliver Sacks to visit Dr. P’s widow in New York City. When asked for permission to create an opera, “she was unhappy at the prospect of a musical (as she saw it) making light of the ordeal he had been through” (liner notes). Through that meeting, Rawlence came to perceive more keenly in how many ways Mrs. P’s love had enabled Dr. P to survive and to create and sustain “body music” to replace his lost “body image” (Sacks, 18). Rawlence’s addition to the story was to deepen the role of Mrs. P, who, by the end of their meeting, agreed to let the project proceed because of her belief in “die heilige Kunst”—the communion that had sustained her husband until Alzheimer’s ended his life (liner notes).

Another of Rawlence’s additions picked up on the “Zen-like paradoxes and jests” that Dr. P was known for. For Rawlence, “what interested me were the questions of how and when a person becomes conscious of a disease that is eroding his consciousness, and the point at which that person is no longer neurologically capable of knowing that something is wrong. Zen koans address themselves to the paradoxes of consciousness” (liner notes). The libretto includes several references to Zen koans; of these Buddhist allusions, the most significant to me is the quotation from the Heart Sutra []: “Form is emptiness, / Emptiness form” . . . because here we arrive at a whole new frame for the experience of meaninglessness, which pushes me to interpret Dr. P’s struggle allegorically. I have loved this opera since 1990, but like all of us, I have a mental storehouse full of things I love that I nevertheless don’t often revisit . . . but lately I’ve been listening to this opera a lot. It moves me in a way that it didn’t 20 or 25 years ago, and I think that’s because this moment—personally and professionally for me, nationally for us—represents an unusual degree of challenge to the ongoing project of pushing back against the sense of meaninglessness.

Rawlence’s decision to emphasize the Buddhist concept of the non-existence of the self as a discrete entity is legitimate, the more so since neuropsychological research since this piece was created in the 1980s has provided empirical support for the hypothesis that the individuals’ felt sense of a unitary self is a convenient fiction imposed by the brain (see, for example, Klein and Gangi’s 2010 review article). But the pathos of the story of Dr. P and Mrs. P lends an emotional weight to the concepts explored, concepts that could be discussed purely rationally in, for example, a neurological or psychological research article. With story, as Sacks recognized, we have emotion linked to concept in ways that become unpredictable, depending on who experiences the artwork, and when.

Commenting on the opera, Sacks writes “Dr. P and his wife both have elements of the heroic, but the real hero in ‘The Hat’ is surely music—the power of music to organise and integrate, to knit or reknit a shattered world into sense” (liner notes). For Sacks, for Nyman, for Rawlence, in the 1980s, Dr. P is a sort of tragic hero. For me in 2019, though, Rawlence’s allusion to the Heart Sutra opens the narrative to allegorical interpretation, and such allegoresis can take the interpreter in directions never intended by the original storytellers.

For me, Dr. P becomes not just a tragic character but another Sisyphus, specifically Albert Camus’s own reappropriation of the Sisyphus myth, and Camus’s lyrical definition of absurdity maps literally to Dr. P’s experience of visual agnosia—all the usual visual input but with no ability for the mind to process the information into a world of real and meaningful objects:

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (Camus)

For Camus, Sisyphus is “the absurd hero,” and his heroism derives from his consciousness of the absurdity and meaninglessness of his eternal task: “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” But Dr. P pushes back against the waves of meaninglessness surrounding him not with scorn, not with consciousness, but with dressing songs, bathing songs, eating songs. Mrs. P conspires with him to fight meaninglessness: she lays out his things, in order—clothes, shaving tools, food—and I imagine her setting him on the right path by leading him in song, singing alone until he takes up the melody, takes it into his body to animate him toward the next daily stone to be pushed up the hill. If we have to live in an absurd world, we would likely all prefer to see ourselves as Camus’s Sisyphus—lip curled in scorn, flexing our massive muscles and then pushing our shoulder against the boulder to get it started on its ten thousandth ascent.

camus sisyphus

And maybe it’s like that on some days.  But some days the fight against absurdity is not heroic but is itself absurd: we grab hold of each other and create the songs together that will lead us to continue striving, not striving to push a boulder but just to keep believing in things and acting based on beliefs, instead of giving in to nihilism and cynicism. “The final therapy, as Freud said, is work and love” (Sacks, 164).


Why We Memorialize

I’ve never lived on land where war is part of the living memory of the people. I’ve never fought in a war or even handled a gun. No one I love has died in war. And I didn’t know how those facts affected my worldview until I went to Belgium in 1999 and, because I was with older male relatives who cared more about military history than the art museums that are my go-to destinations when I visit new places, spent a week encountering memorials of World War I. I didn’t choose to visit the IJzertoren in Diksmuide, the memorial to the Canadian soldiers who endured the first German gas attack, the German World War I cemetery, the Belgian World War I cemetery, the Tyne Cot British cemetery, In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper (Yprès), or the Flanders Field American cemetery. I went along with the agenda because that’s what you do when you’re traveling with a group. If I had been president of the United States and it had been the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, I would have all the more gone along with the agenda, because that’s what you do. If it’s too rainy and windy to fly a helicopter, I believe that the “leader of the free world” has command of sufficient resources to find some cars to get him there safely.

If he had left the US Ambassador’s residence and made the arduous 60-mile drive to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, I wonder if Donald Trump, Giant Man-Baby, could have experienced the surprising weight of grief that I felt in 1999 for people who had been dead for eighty years, now one hundred. People remember when they can’t help but remember, but people create memorials so that others, even in the distant future, can imagine in some small measure what it was like. And I got it . . . so much so that at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic concert last night—where they were performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a pacifist masterpiece that juxtaposes the anti-war poems of soldier Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin requiem—when I saw the small red poppy pin on the conductor’s lapel, I immediately teared up. That week in Belgium, all those dead, all the devastation of the landscape, come to my mind whenever I see that stylized memorial poppy.


If you have grown up in America, and nothing in your city ever had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by bombs, if your city and countryside are not dotted with cemeteries for people of all nations who died there trying to defend your nation’s right to sovereignty, then you will have an impoverished sense of the cost of war. Maybe you could read some poems and imagine what it would be like to suffocate from the inside after a gas attack, or to watch a friend suffer thus and be helpless:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues . . .

—Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Or maybe you could visit other memorials, where the scenes of devastation are fixed so that people remember. At the top of the IJzertoren, a 360-degree mural shows what the viewer would have seen in 1918, just above the windows circling the tower.


In Ieper, you can buy postcards showing the destruction of the Lakenhalle, a medieval marketplace that now houses the In Flanders Field Museum.




Right before your eyes, you can see that they rebuilt the structure after the war to look just as it had before. The people of Ieper felt that it would be admitting defeat to design more contemporary structures, so the city creates the effect of a perfect medieval town built in the 1920s.


Or you can personalize the experience by going to In Flanders Field Museum, where you will be given the name of a soldier when you enter the museum and will receive periodic updates on his story as you progress through the museum. My ex-husband had the Canadian soldier William Bower, and I had William “Ewie” Parker, who died in 1917.



It would be nice for me to continue to live with as much privilege as I have so far, to be so far from the battlefield that my nation’s ongoing war, of almost two decades’ duration, with Afghanistan has not required me personally to make any sacrifices. But I have an imagination and a functioning ability to empathize, and so the efforts of European memorializers continue to work on me, to remind me of the long-lasting scars that war incises into entire nations, not just on soldiers and families. And I extrapolate from the way that World War I still felt like a very recent event in Belgium in 1999 to wonder how long the wars we are fighting in the Middle East will feel like only yesterday to the people who will still live there someday, when and if these wars are ever over. But in order to be moved by the work of the memorializers, you have to show up.

Rachel E. Hile

What I Learned from Working 13 Hours on Election Day at the Democratic Party Headquarters

There was a moment when I was on the phone with the League for the Blind and Disabled, one of the many calls I made trying to find a ride to the polls for a disabled voter after learning that the van we thought had a power-wheelchair lift did not in fact have a power-wheelchair lift. I was waiting on the phone line, and I remembered the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which is of course a parable about sinners but in that moment for me was a parable about diligence.

And I laughed, because I thought how a hater could see the work to get every voter to the polls as self-interested—like hucksterism rather the diligence of that shepherd. And it’s true—anyone who calls the Democratic Party headquarters to ask for a ride to the polls is likely to vote for Democratic candidates . .  . but that was the farthest thing from my mind.

We had a team of seven people off and on throughout the day organizing rides for voters and answering questions from voters who called in. The amazing volunteer drivers—including the strong and steady guy who was able to help that incredibly motivated voter to make it from his home to the car to the polling place and back without his wheelchair, with his arm in a sling, using only his walker and the driver’s arm—were always ready, and some went into the phone-bank room to call people while waiting for the chance to give a ride to a voter.

The weird thing is that I wasn’t thinking about the outcome at all. At the end of the day, when I was bidding farewell to the 75-year-old powerhouse in charge of assigning Democratic poll workers—who had been up calling people until 11 pm the night before, was already at headquarters when I arrived at 5 am, and left at 6 pm, only a few minutes before I did—I saluted him and said, “It was a pleasure working with you today . . . like in Titanic, where the musicians play while the boat is sinking and then salute each other . . . but I hope this has a better outcome!” (5:13 in this video)

For Indiana, there wasn’t a better outcome. True, it would be worse to literally be at the bottom of the actual ocean, but as election nights go, it was pretty awful for Indiana Democrats. At the results watch party, the party chair mentioned the people who will become disillusioned because of last night’s losses and will stop participating in the Democratic Party. That will happen—she’s right. After she went to talk to someone else, I continued the conversation with the group by saying “The Democrats need to be more like Cubs fans!”

But I don’t think that’s quite it, because what we need, not just for the Democratic Party, but for the future of democracy in America, is less spectating and more involvement. I wrote about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in one of my first blog posts in 2016, back when I was one of the horrified liberals who showed up in droves to Democratic Party meetings all across the country, before I became one of the disillusioned ones who dropped out of Democratic Party activities in the summer of 2017, and before I returned in summer 2018, motivated primarily by a desire not to wake up this morning feeling as shitty as I did the morning of November 9, 2016. It’s still true—to the extent that fewer people now participate in our democracy, our democracy is weaker. In 2016, about 55 percent of eligible voters in Allen County, Indiana, cast a ballot (~150,000 out of ~275,000). Yesterday, it was about 45 percent (~125,000), and four years ago, it was about 27 percent (~75,000 votes cast). These aren’t the numbers of a thriving democracy; the percentage of the voting-age population who voted hasn’t been above 60 percent since 1968.

Yesterday, we gave rides to the polls to a little over one hundred voters, and we answered questions for some uncounted number of other voters who called needing help. None of the races that Democrats lost yesterday was lost by one hundred or fewer votes. In terms of outcomes, then, none of those votes “made a difference.” In terms of process, though, it was important—it was what Buddhists would call “practice,” meaning not practicing to get better at something or practice to prepare for something more important in the future—rather, practice as a process and way of being. The practice of democracy means that we behave as though every vote is important, because we believe that every vote is important.

Declining participation in the activities of democracy indicates declining faith in the ideals of democracy, and the Republicans who want to suppress as many votes as possible in, say, North Dakota and Georgia; who want to dilute as many votes as possible by gerrymandering; and who actually want to legislate Democratic power out of existence in North Carolina are not practicing any form of democracy that I learned about in school.

As with any faith tradition, though, the way to grow in faith is to practice—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)—and the ability to participate as a Democrat in Indiana, which last night was a redder state even than my home state of Kansas, stems from faith in the goodness and rightness of democracy.

How can we strengthen the faith that democracy is the most just form of government? Only through practice. How can we get more people to practice democracy before November 3, 2020? I don’t know. For myself, I’m going to work on turning the paper forms people submitted this year asking for a ride into a spreadsheet, so that in 2020, we can be more proactive in calling potential ride-needers and more organized in bundling riders to the same polling place with a single driver. I’d like to also think about dividing the city up into areas and dispatching drivers from their homes instead of headquarters. What are you going to do?

Rachel E. Hile