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.
I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
We’re charging into the new year reading slim volumes with grand ambitions. These books and their authors look to visual art, science, medicine, and history to pull literature—and with it the reader—in a new direction. We’re reading deeply in order to carve and reclaim human stories from disease, politics, the simplifying narratives of recorded history, and a monolithic literary canon. In 2016, read to embrace the “exquisite ache” of complexity with us!
I Watched You Disappearby Anya Krugovoy Silver, Charmed Particles by Chrissy Kolaya,High Dive by Jonathan Lee, Wide Sargasso Seaby Jean Rhys, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Artby Julian Barnes
On Nantucket, eighty-year-old Connie Congdon and I sat in her dim living room looking at the 120-year-old plaster dildo that a mason had found in her chimney. It now rested in a pink dress box on her lap. At my feet, three sweet-faced Australian shepherd dogs snapped at houseflies. A catbird sang in the street. Her house is an old colonial buried deep in a nest of lanes in the historic downtown.
Connie said she usually kept the box in the pantry, near the urn of her daughter’s cat, Spanky. In the box were the other antiques the mason had found with the dildo: six charred envelopes from the 1890s addressed to Captain James B. Coffin; letters from the same James B. Coffin to Grover Cleveland and Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl; a dirty and frayed shirt collar; a pipe that still smelled of tobacco when I fit my nose in the bowl; and a green glass laudanum bottle. These items must have been hidden in the chimney by James’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Coffin, sometime between when the letters were dated and when she died in 1928. The fireplace was later sealed up, and a closet was built in front of it. With these valuables, Connie kept a CD recording of her late husband, Tom, being interviewed about the dildo for Nantucket Public Radio. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice,” she said.
When I first heard of the Nicaraguan Canal Project, I thought of the 19th-century artists Martin Johnson Heade and Norton Bush. It was winter, and I was driving through Wisconsin, early evening, listening to the news. The canal, the reporter said, would be three times as long and twice as wide as the Panama Canal. It would fit extra-large container ships. It might stimulate Nicaragua’s economy. Environmental groups were protesting potentially large-scale disaster.