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A Tiny Trauma

A year or two ago, I was at the dentist having a filling done. They put something in my mouth so that I couldn’t close it, probably something like this:

Plastic Mouth Opener

I absolutely hated this experience. Tears were rolling out of my eyes, one after the other, dripping down into my hair, and instead of asking them to remove the thing, I tried to talk myself through it. They’re not hurting me, it makes their job easier, I can get through this, this is OK, this won’t last very long. I didn’t want to ask for something special, didn’t want to make their jobs harder, didn’t want to be difficult. I got through the experience and went along with my life.

But now when I’m in a dentist’s chair, the same thing happens. I tremble while big fat tears roll down my face into my hair. And I’ve had a couple of particularly crappy dental procedures this year: I had a root canal in March, and last week I broke a tooth, so there was a long appointment to prepare for a crown. For both of those, I took a Xanax and listened to music very loudly through my earbuds—but needing to do that made sense, because those were procedures that everyone agrees are unpleasant dental experiences. But this past Thursday, I had to admit that something is now deeply messed up with my relationship with dentists.

My temporary crown fell off Thursday morning, so I scheduled a trip back to the dentist for the lunch hour. I forgot to bring a Xanax to work, but I wasn’t too worried, because this was just not going to be a big deal at all. When I got there, the technician said she didn’t think there was any need to numb me, because creating a new temporary crown was going to be pretty quick and thoroughly painless. And it was.

But it didn’t matter. Same tears, same trembling, same feelings of utter abjection and helplessness. I think this is what trauma is, right—an experience that doesn’t leave you, the afterlife of which you can’t control? And this is innocuous—something that is not secret or embarrassing or humiliating or shameful, as so many traumas are; something that is not so horrific that I can’t even think or talk or write about it. So if it seems dumb that I’m saying I was traumatized by ten minutes in a dentist’s chair with a piece of plastic in my mouth . . . well, I think it’s dumb, too, but I think it helps me to understand trauma better.

I did a lot of emotional work in my late teens and twenties, mostly because I had to, and I learned enough through four years of weekly therapy to have a pretty stable adult life. Eventually, though, in the past couple of years, I figured out that a lot of what I had learned was about control and clamping down and avoiding anything that looked like a potential slippery slope to depression. I had learned to “stop it,” as the Bob Newhart skit advises:

I really hate that skit.

I became adept at “stopping it” through the kind of mind-body split exemplified by my self-talk when I was trying to get through that experience at the dentist: trying to *think* enough that I wouldn’t *feel*, using thoughts to deny my emotional experience, which was also necessarily my physical experience.

And I don’t think that these were bad skills to develop when I was in my early twenties. I just think I relied on them for too long and didn’t realize that they were tools, not truth. I’ve been working for the past couple of years on doing a better job of welcoming my difficult emotions, and that means also accepting the ways those feelings are in my body.

I don’t really know how to get to where I can be calm in a dentist’s chair again. By not advocating for myself in the moment when I needed to, I now have a problem that I have figure out how to solve (preferably before I get the permanent crown placed in a couple of weeks, hahaha). It’s helpful for me to have had this experience, though, because it confirms so much of what I’ve been thinking about the emotional work I need to do now, all these decades after I felt like I had figured things out.


Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, Children’s Books That Are Not Really for Children

For some reason, when I was in first grade I made up my mind that I wanted always to be prepared. (I was not a Boy Scout.) I decided on a set of things that I should always have with me, and I made sure that every day, my jeans pockets were weighted down with the entire collection: small pencil (with the tip stuck into one of those triangular pieces of rubber that help children learn to hold a pencil correctly, so I didn’t stab myself), pad of paper, Kleenex, and I can’t remember what-all. My only other strong memory from first grade was being annoyed when someone else succeeded in opening a jar that I had not been able to open. I’m sure I was a pill and also, evidently, something of a worrier or control freak.

The next year, when I was seven, my parents gave me a signed copy of Maurice Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life. The book haunted me, from then to now. It made me strangely sad and lonely and discontented, but I kept reading it until it became part of me. You can listen to the whole thing now if you like:

HPP Cover

If you didn’t listen, OK then. Jennie the Dog has “everything”: “her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from.” But Jennie is discontented because “There must be more to life than having everything!” So she throws “everything” into the nice leather bag you see on the cover of the book and sets out to find something she doesn’t have. She decides that she wants to be the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theater, but she is told she needs experience. To get experience, she becomes nursemaid to a baby who won’t eat, whose nurses are punished when they can’t make Baby eat by being fed to the lion in the basement.

Jennie fails to make Baby eat because she accidentally eats everything herself (she has a prodigious appetite). She manages to avoid being eaten by the lion, but she is a failure, and everything in her bag has gotten broken over the course of the story. She huddles alone in the woods, her bag full of useless everything next to her:

Jennie Failed in the Woods

But then the shadowy figures of the members of the World Mother Goose Theater troupe approach.

The WMGT comes to Jennie Correct Orientation

It turns out that they consider almost having been eaten by a lion to be an “experience,” and so they invite her to accompany them to the Castle Yonder to become their leading lady in their production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! She goes with them, leaving the leather bag that holds everything by the tree:

Alone two page spread

The Epilogue tells us that “Now Jennie has everything. . . . She is content.” Yet she still writes a letter to her old master:


As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry. I can’t tell you how to get to the Castle Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.


The book was almost unbearably sad to me when I was a child. Jennie was happy, but why couldn’t she have taken the bag with her? Why couldn’t her master visit her? Why did the book have to be written such that the cost of the new life was the entire sum of the old life?

And what is “everything” anyway? I think of this book when I think about the ridiculous multiplicity of all the objects I own. I think of this book when I mention to a coworker that I have three pairs of eyeglasses in my cubicle, because I’m middle class (the prescription sunglasses) and middle aged (the progressive lenses, balanced by a special pair of computer glasses). I thought of it this morning when I packed up my backpack for a work “team-building” trip to the zoo: umbrella, sunscreen, prescription sunglasses, Chapstick, mints, a book, a sweater, earbuds, a Clif bar. I don’t travel light even though, when it comes right down to it, I don’t really mind being rained on. I don’t need a book or earbuds to entertain me. I don’t need a snack. I think it’s the same thing that made me load down my pockets as a six-year-old: not so much a desire for comfort as a desire to Be Prepared, to be someone who has her shit together.

Thinking tonight of this book, which was so overwhelming for me as a child, I wonder if it was emotionally autobiographical. What did it cost Maurice Sendak to become an artist? What did it cost him to be a gay man who lived with his partner for fifty years but never came out to his parents? It probably cost him something so near to the entirety of his old life that it may have felt at times like it was the entirety. But he chose it anyway, because “there must be more to life than having everything.” There is living something genuine. There is following your own path. There are all the moments and thoughts and experiences without which Sendak could not have created the body of work that he did.

Sendak Collage

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

My new official job title is a hoot—no, really. I am a “scientific communications scientist”—me, a person with a PhD in Pretty Pretty Poems! If the root for “science” appeared only once in my official job title, it would be amusing . . . ironic. But twice? TWICE?!?! ROFLMAO

So then today at lunchtime I ran to the pet store to buy a Feliway diffuser to help my cats, who are super-pissed at me for drugging them, caging them, and then moving them with no notice and against their wills to this shitty apartment in West Lafayette. At the cash register, some anti-anxiety soft-chew cat treats caught my eye, and I thought for a second before telling the clerk: “Naw, I need to try one thing at a time. It wouldn’t be good scientific method to do both.”

I got to the car and was like “Who the fuck am I?”—the same question I asked myself last week while biking home from work—I, who have biked to work I think twice in the thirteen years I’ve worked at my previous job, biked to work three times last week. Who am I? If you were to plop me down into a new life in New Orleans, I’d have a southern accent in like five minutes, and in the same way (apparently), I make dumb science-y jokes now instead of English-major jokes. ~shrug~

My gorgeous bike commute to work

Eight years ago, I wrote a little essay about Buddhist ideas of non-self and my then-recent experience of trying two different SSRIs to help me deal with the massive anxiety triggered by going through the tenure and promotion process. On Lexapro, I learned what it’s like to be bored: “I would walk from my car to my office thinking, ‘I have no pep. I have no pep. I am pep-less.’ Come 9:00 at night, I would start thinking about going to bed, not because I was tired, but because I wasn’t interested in doing anything else with my day.” My doctor switched me to Prozac, and suddenly I was “Rachel 2.0! . . . But then I went past Rachel 2.0 into Too Much Energy: I would lie in bed trying to sleep, and it was as though I could feel every cell of my body pulsing with energy.” I concluded:

I’ve been going to the library every day since Thursday to watch some visiting Tibetan Buddhist monks create a sand mandala, which they will then destroy in a ceremony on Tuesday evening. One Eastern religious concept that has always been hard for me to grasp is the idea that what one thinks of as one’s self—personality, predilections, interests, tastes, etc.—is actually just ego. I have identified completely with my personality, and so it was nearly impossible to understand that idea. And yet, in the past two months, my personality has changed three times: from my normal state to my anxious state, to a bored and lethargic state, to a hyperenergetic but non-ruminative and also non-creative state. So who is “I”? I feel less sure of that than I did before, and also, at least this morning, slightly less attached to the idea of “I” that has been a source of pride for all these years. Being around the monks makes me, at least temporarily, a nicer person. Being on these medications gives me experiences of other types of lives: bored! hyper! Being rushed makes me anxious. Skipping exercise makes me sick. When teaching goes well I get energy; when it doesn’t go well, I lose energy. I am not “I,” but a process, a series of interactions with the rest of the world, with the rest of you.

This whole thing of finding a non-academic job started a year and a half ago, when I had an epiphanic experience that included the insight that I needed to care less about what people thought about me professionally. I had started to recognize the insatiability academia had created in me as insatiable. It always made sense before that I wanted more, because there was always the next summit: finish PhD, get tenure-track job, get tenured and promoted to associate professor, get promoted to full professor. Once I had achieved those things and still felt hungry, I started to realize that it’s not possible to get full at this particular feast. I had managed to avoid craving material possessions, but I began to see my craving for respect and recognition as being a stumbling block to peace. I worked consciously on detaching from my professional identity for the sake of peace, and then I ended up succeeding enough that when a job for an English teacher was advertised at the state-supported boarding school for gifted 11th– and 12th-graders where my daughter was to be starting school this fall, I applied. I made it to the campus interview stage, but when I began to feel sure that I wasn’t going to get the offer, I decided to look for non-teaching jobs. It was time for a change. Fortunately, my experience with medical editing, which put me through graduate school in Pretty Pretty Poems, was enough to get me this gig as a “scientific . . . scientist,” lol.

I feel like a different person in a different life, but I don’t want to press too hard on the idea that I have no essential self, because one thing I remembered in my first week in this job is that something that feels like one of the basics of my personality is that I love to learn. After fourteen years as a professor, I spent a lot more time teaching than I did learning, and way more time on committee work than on learning as well. And of course it’s valuable to teach, and of course the more one knows, the deeper one’s learning in a subject area can be . . . but my delight in my new job so far is the delight of new learning, the delight that it is *my job* to learn about a whole new physical condition and the medical device designed to cure or palliate that condition, to write a report on the clinical evidence for the safety and performance of the device, and then move on to learn about something else totally new, every four to six weeks. And if I also ride my bike to work, and if I also makes friends in the woods by the Celery Bog with little guys like this . . .


It’s because I’m Nobody, really, just like Emily Dickinson.

Two Ways a Novel Can Be True: My Take on Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (with Spoilers*)

Earlier this month, I was crying while reading the news, as we do now. Maria Isabel Bueso, 24, has been in the United States since the age of 7, when she was invited to come from Guatemala to California to participate in a clinical trial for the treatment of the rare genetic disease mucopolysaccharidosis VI. Her participation in the clinical trial helped others with the disease and also extended her own life, but she must continue receiving treatment to stay alive. Two weeks earlier she had received a letter informing her that she must leave the country within 33 days or else be deported.  I felt powerless to do anything other than cry at the breakfast table, helpless (since I drafted this essay, the Trump administration has reversed course, after many people suffered a great deal of emotional anguish and expended a great deal of emotional energy). I wrote in my last post here about the power of art to create specifics and individuals rather than generalities of the large scale. But here I was encountering a story about a specific person, and what I felt was the same helplessness I usually feel when reading the news.

But when I finished reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous the next day, I didn’t feel hopeless. Yet both of these were specific and true stories about real individuals. What is the difference?

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is billed as a novel/memoir about being Vietnamese in America, or about being the son of a mother traumatized and damaged by the war in Vietnam, or about coming of age as “the queer yellow faggot that I was and am” (199), but Vuong’s political commitments extend beyond race and sexuality, widening out by the end of the novel to include an indictment of Purdue Pharma—whose lies about OxyContin led to the opioid epidemic, which has had and still has a disproportionate impact on lower-class people of all races—and the human race, whose careless and selfish exploitation of animals serves throughout the novel as rich source of metaphoric meanings: the tortured macaque whose brains are spooned from its still living head and eaten by virility-seeking men becomes, metaphorically, both Little Dog’s grandmother and his mother. Little Dog himself is, of course, a dog, reminiscent of the line in Vuong’s poem “Thanksgiving 2006,” where the speaker tells a stranger: “I am ready. / I am ready to be every animal / you leave behind.” (Yes, Vuong is a vegan.)

Little Dog is a thinly fictionalized version of Vuong—part of the book was published in The New Yorker as memoir two years ago). So when he writes early in the novel that he is 28 years old (10) and then later tells his mother that “I’m not with you ’cause I’m at war. Which is one way of saying it’s already February and the president wants to deport my friends” (173), I check Wikipedia to learn Vuong’s birthdate and see that the February when he was 28 was 2017—days or weeks after Trump’s travel ban threw down the gauntlet, a klaxon blare telling us that he wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t pandering: the racism, the xenophobia, the hatred, the fear of all brown people and Muslims were truly Donald Trump.

From the beginning, the novel read like a memoir, so much so that I had to stop myself from googling the author to learn how many of the details tracked from the novel to reality. But then there came a moment when I was absolutely sure, beyond any doubt, with every fiber of my being, no need to google or speculate: Trevor was a real person that the real Ocean loved, and Trevor died. The shift was sudden, easy to identify in terms of genre: the book shifted from the form of a novel to an extended prose poem, and the emotional impact on me as a reader was immediate: I started to cry and kept crying through all eight pages of the prose poem. It called to mind the weirdness of arriving at the section titled “More Winter” in Carole Maso’s The Art Lover (1990)—a layered novel that plays with the distance between fiction and reality, starting with the novel-within-the-novel written by Caroline, the main character of the novel, shifting back and forth from novel to novel-within-the-novel until “More Winter,” when suddenly the speaker is Carole Maso, addressing her dead friend Gary Falk. She had spent the novel fictionalizing their friendship, his death from AIDS, turning their lives into the story of Caroline and Steven, and then she speaks to him. Caroline had been a first-person narrator, but when Carole speaks, she introduces a second-person addressee: “you” . . . Gary.

In both cases, the shift in style signals a shift in the assumed truth value of what is written. How do we know? It’s not so hard with the Maso novel: the name “Gary,” a new name, appears in the third paragraph, and “Carole” is named in the fourth paragraph. The name “Carole” on the book’s cover and Gary’s illness make the reader’s work effortless: Gary is to Steven as Carole is to Caroline. I have the hardback version, the first edition, and the book jacket copy makes it clear as well, from the beginning of Maso’s story’s life in the world: “In a daring and heartrending move, Maso breaks the fictive form with a harrowing account of her friend Gary Falk’s death from AIDS.  She exposes the nearly unutterable wound at the center of The Art Lover, and we are allowed to see what is at stake for the author in her creation.”

What about the Vuong novel? When we literature teachers teach our students a lyric poem, we always caution them You can’t assume that the speaker of the poem *is* the author of the poem. The speaker is a fiction. But you can say it all day; people are still going to equate the speaker of a lyric poem with the poet. Why? And why did I do it so naturally upon turning the page and reading the first line, “Trevor rusted pickup and no license”? The narrative pauses – a sign that we are now in lyric mode – and the emotional tenor changes. It’s hard to keep believing that this is fiction, because it’s hard to imagine someone merely imagining so much raw pain. The shift in genre is the only explicit hint that we are now some distance closer to reality—Vuong doesn’t signal it, instead focusing on how Trevor, meat-eating product of the toxic masculinity that makes him hate and fight his queerness, nevertheless was too gentle to eat veal: “Trevor who would never eat a child. Trevor the child with the scar on his neck like a comma” (156). But Trevor is also the calf.

Only later, after the narrative picks up again, does Vuong reference the truth value of the character: “Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was” (178). This is “the unutterable wound at the center” of this novel.

I wrote last time about the emotional work that art helps us do. Vuong is explicit about the transformations that writing allows him to make:

You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. (189)

And this is the second way that a novel can be true. If Vuong opens a wound and bleeds his suffering out for eight pages of true true true poetry, why didn’t he just write a memoir for the rest of the book? Why call it “A Novel” on the cover? He answers the question in an interview published in The Paris Review:

This is why I chose the novel as the form for this project. I wanted the book to be founded in truth but realized by the imagination. I wanted to begin as a historian and end as an artist. And I needed the novel to be a praxis toward that reckoning.

This is the same things that James Joyce gets at when he has his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus proclaim: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” That transformation of “truth” or of “the reality of experience” through the artist’s praxis is a bigger and broader way of being true than a memoirist can achieve.

* I am not a book reviewer but a literary scholar by training and vocation—in the world of literary scholarship, we assume that our reader has read the same work, and thus we are free to speak of what strikes us most, interests us most, without the coyness required of the book reviewer, who must tease and titillate while leaving the most delectable morsels for the reader to discover on her own.



On the News, Emotions, and Art

I had an emotionally painful time at the one-day Zen retreat yesterday—all day long, just me and pain, no distractions. So at the end of the day, when we were no longer silent and the Zen teacher started a discussion about what to do with the distress created these days by the news, I didn’t really want to talk at all. But then someone said something that struck me as a wrong-headedly intellectualizing approach. Thinking work isn’t emotion work, and I really hate the narrative that emotional distress means you’re not sincere enough in your practice of religion: #tooblessedtobedepressed and similar bullshit. So I said something about art, and how the artists are working overtime to make sense of this moment—literally to make sense, meaning, and story out of meaningless meanness and hopeless facts. But I said it all jumbled and garbled and without visual aids, and I didn’t even articulate the main thing, which is that thinking can’t transform feeling, that the only way to do emotion work is to do emotion work, and that imagination has a role to play in all of this.

I was in Chicago last month and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. Usually I snap a photo of the most striking pieces of art I see whenever I go to a museum, but I didn’t take a picture of the piece that has haunted me ever since, Adrian Piper’s “Imagine [Trayvon Martin]” (2013):


Here is a story in the second person. The bright red crosshairs encourage “[you]”—the bracketed “you” that a grammarian would include as the implied subject of the imperative verb—to imagine that moment of looking down the barrel of a gun, but the soft-focused, faded version of the same photo that accompanies Martin’s Wikipedia page [] is a gentle reminder that the story of his life was bigger than the story of his death. Imagine that, too.

Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” (2015) was making the rounds on social media last week:

“A Small Needful Fact”

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

Here, too, there is a reminder: the story of Eric Garner’s life was bigger than the story of his death. He lived and did things and cared about things and made things happen that may perhaps still be happening. What I love about this poem is the speculation, the invitation to imagine that Gay emphasizes by the repetitions of “perhaps” and “in all likelihood.” Gay doesn’t know—he’s just spinning out a train of speculations to imagine the meaning of a life that meant more than the death that ended it. He’s creating a story that is fiction, but true in the way that fiction can be true. It’s hard for us to imagine the lives of other people—we are born narcissists who grow into empaths, if we do, through training, the love of others, and speculation . . . and much of that speculation is nourished and guided by artists and storytellers.

Journalists are bound to nonfiction, and capturing, say, what is happening at our border involves creating a sense of the massiveness of the human suffering currently being sadistically perpetrated by our government, with our money, in our names. There are of course individual vignettes, little snippets within the news about individual human beings with names, but the impression I get of the news coverage of what is happening at the border is a sense of the scale, not a sense of the individuals. This is appropriate, because the scale is an abomination.

Politically engaged art is not enough to fix the world—as Anne-Marie Grey of the UN Refugee Agency reminds us, social change requires more than storytelling. But this is not about fixing the world—it’s about how to work with the emotional distress caused by the news. Over and over again in the past three years, I’ve read and heard people talking about the strong emotions they feel when they engage with the news: anger, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair. Art won’t transform those emotions; I’m suspicious of anything that professes to transform emotions, because I think most of people’s words on this topic are about intellectualizing or repressing.  Politically engaged art elicits different emotions, and maybe the best we can hope for is a wider emotional palette in response to what is happening in the world, rather than to magically and impossibly turn anger into joy or the dispassionate calm that people wrongly think is what the word “Zen” means. Reading news coverage of police brutality against black people makes me feel anger and despair and guilt. Engaging with the works of Piper and Gay that I’ve written about here makes me feel love and grief and perhaps especially wonder, as I imagine the years and years of ordinary minutes and ordinary days that added up to daily lives that had meaning for these two men I never met and never will—only when all meaning ended for them did their lives become meaningful to the whole world, and that diminishes them. The art that moves me the most overwhelms me with a sense of the bigness of what I don’t see and can’t see, the rich mysteries that hover at the edges of what I can perceive, think, know. So there is another emotion: humility.


On Taking Love Seriously; or, a meandering review of Julian Barnes’s The Only Story (with spoilers)

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?” So begins Julian Barnes’s most recent novel, The Only Story (2018), before the narrator acknowledges that it is actually not a real question, “because we don’t have the choice. Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love” (3). A few weeks ago, when I was rereading Philip Sidney’s extremely long prose romance The New Arcadia and bemoaning to myself the fact that we don’t take love seriously anymore, not like Sidney did in the sixteenth century, I was forgetting about Julian Barnes, who is basically obsessed with love and has been for his entire career (almost four decades now).

But mostly, I think I’m at least a little bit right. In so many of our stories—novels, movies, television—love is either a product (as in the wildly successful Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise), a plot device, or a joke. Love provides a convenient happy ending that the audience has been trained to accept as the tying up of a loose end instead of the unraveling of a new one. People in love are stupid and irrational, and the suffering they experience is their own damn fault for feeling too much.

And so it struck me how interested Sidney is in the experience of love, what it feels like to fall in love. So much attention to step-by-step progressions of love in the characters Pyrocles and Philoclea, so many exemplary stories of what true love looks like, so much conversation among the characters about love, even a story about suffering in love told to illustrate Cupid’s vindictiveness toward those who refuse to love. But over and above all, Sidney conveys a sense of love not as foolishness but as something that must be respected because of its power. Pamela warns her sister Philoclea that “virtue itself is no armour of proof against affection,” and the tale provides numerous examples of characters whose lives and plans are changed beyond recognition by the sudden experience of love. Instead of treating these characters as ridiculous, Sidney suggests that this is just the way it is: love is more powerful than individual will, and sometimes that works out well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

And so it is in the world that Barnes creates in The Only Story, which begins in the late 1960s in Surrey. In Part One, he creates an unlikely pair of lovers: 19-year-old Paul, home from university for the summer, who meets and falls in love with Susan, the 48-year-old married woman with whom he is randomly matched for a doubles tennis match at the local club. Barnes painstakingly chronicles the progression, development, and experience of love so carefully that it seems at first that his whole point is about love. Why must there be the age gap? I think because most people would consider these lovers to be ridiculous, a matter of laughter like so many stories in which the person in love is the butt of the joke. But here, the love is never anything less than real, total, and life changing, and by the end of Part One, when they move together to a small house in London, it reads like a happy ending:

We were together—under the same roof, that is—for ten or more years. Afterwards, I continued to see her regularly. In later years, less often. When she died, a few years ago, I acknowledged that the most vital part of my life had finally come to a close. I shall always think of her well, I promised myself.

And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t. (100)

If you were to stop reading before that last sentence, it would be just as though you had seen a performance of Into the Woods Jr., which cuts out the entire second act of Sondheim’s brilliant and heartbreaking tale of suffering in order to have a happy-ending play that children can perform as their parents coo proudly, because Barnes’s novel is not a love story about an unlikely pair of lovebirds but an exploration of the cost of love, measured in suffering.

I read because there is so much I don’t understand, and the only way to become a compassionate person is to understand more and better, at least a little bit. I tell people that the thing of most value that I got from reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was some ability to imagine what it’s like to be an addict—the horrific, phantasmagoric scene of Mt. Dilaudid, with the leaked-out piss damaging the finish of the wood floor, the smell of the shit that had escaped, Pamela Hoffman-Jeep’s broken bones, and all of it predicated on Fackelmann’s choice to tackle Mt. Dilaudid even though doing so meant certain death at the hands of the man he had double-crossed. Coming at the end of the novel, though, after hundreds of pages of addiction, suffering, and overcoming and not overcoming addiction, the scene was horrifying but not incomprehensible.

Halfway through Part Two of The Only Story, I thought of Infinite Jest. “Ah, now I can imagine what it’s like to love an addict,” I thought. Because after they move together to London, Susan becomes an alcoholic and destroys her mind. And Paul loves her, because he loves her. In Part Three, Paul—now an old man whose heart was “cauterised” by this first and only love—collects sententious sayings about love and mulls over whether they are true or false; one that he finds true is “In my opinion, every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster once you give yourself over to it entirely” (245). Part Two is as painstaking a description of the disaster into which their love brings them as Part One was of the experience of first love. At the end of this section, it seemed to me that the book was “about” what it’s like to love an addict.

But the quality that makes literary fiction literary—as I will someday argue in print, unless I don’t—is its rich propensity to become allegory. It’s not just a story, but a story that can broaden out to be about my life, or about life in general. Paul, looking back from the vantage point of the present day, describes his life after Susan in the third person: with his “cauterised” heart, he attempts to keep a good distance between himself and the women he dates, and he mostly succeeds. Love is a dangerous force, as dangerous as it was when people created the god Cupid to explain this thing that overtakes us; as powerful as it was in Sidney’s Arcadia, when it turns the previously virtuous Queen Gynecia into a fool when she falls in love with Pyrocles, who is already in love with Gynecia’s daughter Philoclea. The upside of love is that you have a partner with whom to share your suffering; the downside is that double the amount of suffering enters your life: your own suffering and the suffering of your beloved. Paul will not make that mistake again: “the key was: ‘Once you give yourself over to it entirely.’” You don’t have to, and Paul won’t, ever again.

We believe in love, don’t we? And because we believe in love, Paul’s loveless life after Susan seems an unhappy ending. But we believe in giggling baby Cupid love, not malicious Cupid-of-the-lead-arrow love. But both of these are true metaphors for the experience of true love. Another of Paul’s favorite aphorisms—“In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd” (201) calls to mind Barnes’s interest in “fabulation” (see A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters [1989] and also p. 170 of The Only Story) and also the “Chronology” chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), in which he provides three chronologies of Gustave Flaubert’s life: the chronology of triumphs, the chronology of failures, and the chronology of what Flaubert himself wrote about his life at various points. If you flick the lens a bit, ignore some parts and overemphasize others, a happy story can become an unhappy one, and vice versa. Everything we see, every moment we experience, is colored by who we are in that moment, and we lie to ourselves as much as we lie to others, without even knowing it.

Per Anaximander, I will never read this book again in the same way, but I hope that I will always be as interested in love, take it as seriously, as Barnes does.



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.

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.