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.
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.
“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.
In his thirty years of work in publishing, my grandfather never once revealed to his colleagues he was gay. Doing so could have cost him his job as a children’s book editor at a prestigious house, or at the very least, his reputation as an honest, hard-working family man. It took me only ten minutes, in a phone interview with the same publishing house, to accidentally out him.
The walk to the outhouse was some thirty yards—across the bare back yard, past a fishpond filled in with sand after a turkey had drowned there, and through a gate at the garden fence—to a little unpainted hut behind two salt cedar trees. It was quiet inside, the murk tempered by sun slanting in between weathered boards. The hush was lovely—breezes outside cocooning the silence inside. When I was seven years old, I discovered solitude there. And the pleasure of staring. At men. In lieu of toilet paper, our outhouse was stocked with last year’s mail order catalogs, with pages of men’s underwear for me to hover over. I was several years shy of learning about sex—from a Roman Catholic booklet so primly informative that I pictured two fully clothed adults just returned from Sunday Mass, facing each other in straight-backed dining chairs and holding hands while some kind of mystical transference occurred between their covered laps. Though I had been to confession, I hadn’t yet discovered that my body could be an instrument of sin, of shame. Somehow, I had absorbed the need for privacy, for keeping the secret of my mail order fascination.
Three weeks ago, my 11-year-old Indian American cousin woke me up with a series of heartbreaking text messages. Didi you up? Mom dad and everyone else can’t stop watching the news. Theyre thrilled. Kashmir sounds like kishmish. Whats the lime of control btw? Why do hindus dislike muslims? I had not yet gotten out of bed in my small, sleepy university town in Western Massachusetts. But my aunt and uncle were up early in the morning as friends and neighbors, fellow upper-caste pajama-clad Indian Americans with unbrushed teeth and undemocratic hearts, had gathered in their New Jersey apartment to watch the Home Minister of India officially and unilaterally revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, live from the parliament.
Part of what makes Jammu and Kashmir special is what makes India special. As a kid, I used to mug up from my school textbooks that India is the land of festivals, colors, dances, languages, religions, so on and so forth, but I was unable to appreciate the water in which I was a fish. Now when I go for months without hearing words that I don’t understand, as every cashier in every store asks me to ‘have a good one’ in the exact same tone and pitch, I have to listen to a Rajasthani or a Tamil song just to reorient myself. I need to know that there will always be so much that I don’t know. Therefore, I must constantly remember India, much of which is sort of me but not quite me, because it makes me feel bigger than myself.
Start small. Your brain created this mess; it can get you out. Right?
The key must be to think the right thoughts. Your elaborate rituals have so far kept the airplane from nose-dive and tailspin, but they don’t prevent that boulder of fear from implanting itself cozily in your gut weeks ahead of any flight. You first notice its presence the year your annual life tally reaches nineteen, the year the solid base of your adolescent invincibility begins to erode under waves of ontological dread—like this whole time it was just made out of stale bread, not stone at all, and now it’s sogging apart.
An introductory essay to Stories from Syria, a portfolio published in English by The Common and in Arabic by Akhbar Al Adab (Egypt).
Today, in the second installment of a transatlantic literary collaboration which I hope will last for many years to come, Akhbar Al Adab publishes the original Arabic texts of stories by Syrian writers whose English translations appear in a special portfolio in Issue 17 of The Common, a literary magazine based at Amherst College. The first portfolio in the series contained stories by Jordanian writers and was published in Issue 15 of The Common, which followed the collaboration’s inaugural project: an issue of the magazine (Issue 11, Spring 2016) entirely dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation entitled Tajdeed (Renewal), in which editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker and I selected stories and artworks by twenty-six writers and five artists from fifteen Arabic-speaking countries, with eighteen translators bringing the work into English.