Thrashing Thru the Passion, the latest album from Brooklyn indie-rock band the Hold Steady, begins with a striking description: “He shaved his head at the airport / In a bar at the end of the concourse.” The song is called “Denver Haircut,” and it’s an intriguing enough opening that you can imagine being there at the far end of Concourse C at Denver International Airport, watching some guy with a cordless Wahl clipper and a sense of purpose.
October, 1931. Imagine that you’re riding a southbound train from Montreal to New York City. The woman across the aisle smells strange, a mix of rose water and formaldehyde. She has packages everywhere, on the seat beside her, in the rack above, bags, boxes, some wrapped in twine, some in brown paper. The paper looks stained, as though what’s inside is leaking. She’s got a portfolio full of prints and drawings. She keeps knocking over a big striped umbrella.
Hen Medic: Maude Abbott and the Dawn of Cardiology
Rain pelted down onto Altamount Road below, the delicate en pointe technique of a thousand ballerinas rumbling across a stage. Earlier, the sun had exploded into full bloom for an hour, after which rain clouds shuffled in again. I was resting on a single bed as mid-afternoon light filtered through the darkening clouds and cast the sky in an impressionistic purple-gray hue. In this unfamiliar guest room with its pomegranate-velvet Victorian sofa, I listened to the soft violence of the monsoon shower through the flung-open windows. The same sound had been a steady backbeat to my childhood years in Bombay. Then, just as quickly as the rain shower had come, it disappeared.
It was a hot Los Angeles day when Dad took me to the Oaxaca Festival. As the women onstage twirled their colorful skirts, I could feel the sun sink into my skin and sweat drip down the sides of my face. The light fell directly on my neck and shoulder. I wished I’d brought sunscreen.
In the early 1990s, as fighter jets flew over burning oil fields in Kuwait, the star wars of the Cold War relegated to recent memory, astronomers questioned the apparent emptiness of the outer solar system. There had been a long-standing presumption that the outer reaches were entirely devoid of the matter—the planets, the asteroids, the moons—that existed in abundance closer to the sun. What if, instead, out in that deep and dark expanse, items existed but only fleetingly? What if the gravitational pull of larger planets cut the lives of smaller objects short? Was it possible that there were more beautiful things to explore? But without the technology or means to prove it, the presumed void remained just that—a void.
A statuette of the Virgin Mary stood guard as my mother and I sipped from glasses of wine cooler on our living room floor. We’d propped our front door open to let in the breeze, leaving only a flimsy screen between our shelter and the world outside. Every once in a while, we’d hear our neighbor calling for her wayward son or the laugh track of a sitcom playing too loudly in the next house over. We’d echo it with giggles of our own, seated on faux mink blankets from the Philippines laid over ceramic tile.
“No one has mastery before he is at the end of his art and his life.” —Michelangelo
On that bright morning in November—the first day I saw her—Anna Lea Lelli wore the outfit that distinguished her on the streets of Rome: a long cape and beret. The beret emphasized her craggy jaw and prominent Roman nose. Under her Scottish wool cape, Lea wore a gray suit in gabardine and a cream-colored silk blouse with French cuffs and pearl cufflinks. Just the right amount of cuff showed under the suit, no doubt perfectly tailored to her years ago. At her neck was a silk scarf, on her hand a carnelian ring carved with the face of Mars. She held a cane with the silver head of a horse, the patina worn from the warmth and pressure of her hand.
Normally along this straight back road in Idaho lay only quiet flatlands stippled with clumps of yellow grass, but today the prairie was bustling with cars and RVs and people gathered around camping chairs and telescopes. We were all here to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017—not only the first total eclipse of the sun to cross the country from Pacific to Atlantic in a century, but the first to grace the mainland at all in thirty-eight years. Since thirty-eight happened to be the median age in the United States, this meant roughly half the people readying to see today’s eclipse hadn’t yet been born the last time, and half who witnessed it then, in 1979, had since died. My husband and I, driving down the road in a blue compact, were a man and woman on the sadder side of the median, but only by a few years, so we weren’t used to it yet. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t decide how much this was worth, witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. I feared I might have lost the ability to distinguish true excitement from an admirable effort to keep life exciting.
A wooden chair, washed up on the beach between Nauset and Wellfleet. All drawings by the author.
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
Amos C. Martin Ltd., Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada, circa 1960. Photo by Clarence Martin
I think of him now the way I saw him last: my grandfather, seated on the edge of his hospital bed with the pale shanks of his legs angled to bare feet on rubber floor. He was thumbing through a Maclean’s when I arrived at dawn. Despite the catheter tube and the IV drip at his side, he wasn’t taking this one lying down—not yet, anyway. On that December morning, his eyes sparkled with unspent energy.