For you, it’s your marriage. Your husband and his six-pack and fifth-a-day habit. Him and his blank job applications sitting in a pile on the floor. Him and his teary proclamations that your lives will never get better in California. Him saying you are the only thing he has: if you leave, I’ll have nothing. Does he see that you’ve wanted this the whole time? To leave? He must. Maybe it’s you that breaks. Your willingness to take it. Your eagerness to soothe. To pick up beer cans and cigar wrappers. Certainly, it’s the illusion that breaks. That it’s perfectly reasonable to marry someone only after months of knowing them. Did you even know what marriage would be? Did you only assume it would be all pleasantries and his-and-hers bath towels? Well, those are gone now too. It’s what you used to gather what he smashed on his way out. The dinner plates. Your bike helmet left in pieces on the sidewalk. You know what was left behind because he’s the one that walked away, but you’re the one that asked for the vow to be broken.
It is Ramadan in Saint-Denis, the banlieue north of Paris. It is almost 21:00h on a June Sunday, and the sun hangs a hazy orange in the sky. The elevator in Amir’s building is broken so we climb the six stories, past the floors of muffled French Arabic and children’s screams. His mother’s home has one bedroom and a narrow tile-floored kitchen, like the one in my grandmother’s apartment in Beijing. There is a cigarette lighter for the stove, but I am too clumsy for this, so Amir manages.
“Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.” —Marcel Duchamp, Life magazine, 1952
For many years I hardly told anyone that my grandmother’s sister Teeny was married to Marcel Duchamp, and before that to Pierre Matisse, the art dealer son of Henri. Friends I’ve known all my life have stopped me in disbelief when these facts have come up in passing—a disbelief arising not from the facts themselves but from my never having shared them. The first time I ever mentioned the connection to anyone outside the family, I was in college, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue with my professor, the poet David Shapiro. “Wait,” he said, “Teeny Duchamp is your great aunt?!” I was surprised he knew exactly who she was.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
On a Pacific Northwest wild-fire summer evening, Emmett and I drive the babysitter while the edges of the world burn. She’s chatty and optimistic about fall classes, but I’m distracted by the sun, which is Crayola-Orange, perfect circle, unnatural and eerie. The sky is a muted monotony of ash, like gray-brown construction paper. She prattles away, while I think about being trapped in a naughty child’s apocalyptic crayon drawing.
This story about how history and imagination infect one another unwittingly began a week after I arrived in Delhi for a month-long writing residency. The Sanskriti residents were told that we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. It was about to open to the public. O.P. Jain, the founder of Sanskriti, was a major supporter of the restoration, thus this outing.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance where we traipsed alongside a river full of plastic garbage, climbed through hills of brush, stumbled over unrestored ruins, and finally arrived on top of a hill, a plateau, where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. At its entrance, a brand-new sign informed visitors that the tomb held the remains of Jamali, a sixteenth-century Sufi court poet and saint, and a person named Kamali whose identity was unknown. The conservator of the restoration would guide us at the site.
When we entered the small space of the tomb, I was stunned by its beauty. Two white marble graves sat side by side on the floor. The red and blue circular ceiling was decorated with sunbursts and floral forms carved in plaster. A band of Jamali’s verses encircled the ceiling. The conservator spoke, “Some have thought Kamali was Jamali’s wife or perhaps his brother. Others have thought that Kamali was a disciple of Jamali, the saint. The undisputable fact is that both were men. A symbolic pen box, traditionally a sign of a male, is carved on each of their tombs. It is believed, through our oral tradition in Delhi, that Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover.”
“But,” I said, “the new sign out there that you just put up says his identity was unknown.”
The conservator explained that in India a public sign would never mention homosexuality.
The basement crawl space is tinged with dread. And a little bit of pride too. Because both my late husband John and my father—and even the firefighter I had to call when it flooded—hated the idea of having to go in. The dimly lit space is only eighteen inches high, a tight spot for a grown man, and full of spider webs. The floor is dirt; overhead is crumbled fiberglass insulation. You climb a ladder and go through a small rough hole in the house’s fieldstone foundation, then crawl about seven feet to reach the valve that supplies water to the outside faucet. This needs to be turned on in spring and off in late fall so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. To get out, you have to crawl backwards and reach a foot through the rough hole, searching blindly for the top step of the ladder. That last six inches is hell on the knees, all sharp rock and crumbling mortar.
This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. (…) Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? —Joan Didion, “Why I Write” (1976)
In the margins of the Strip, planes shimmer in and out of Las Vegas. I photographed this periphery, populated by plane watchers. Why they watch and why I write seem to be connected by a tenuous link that became clearer as the afternoon transpired.
Sundown marks the time and the place for a discreet show among Las Vegas locals. At the golden hour, vehicles on Sunset Road veer toward McCarran International Airport and park in front of the runway. While the casino-jammed stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip blinks itself awake in the background, the airstrip stages a steady stream of landings and take-offs. Every day, new and seasoned plane watchers come here to view the aircrafts rolling between the sky and the Vegas skyline.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
I had one recurring nightmare as a child: I am standing in the dry bed of a creek looking upstream, the sun shining and the stones warm on the bottoms of my feet. Suddenly, a roaring wave rushes toward me around a bend and I have no choice but to be swept along with it. The water drags earth from the river banks until it is so thick with sediment it has turned the color of Swiss Miss.
“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” —Isaiah 40:22
In the cosmology of Patrick Burke, a flat-Earth believer, humans can spoon-eat uranium flakes like Cheerios.
The Hubble Space Telescope never existed, nor did dinosaurs. Hiroshima was dynamited, the Titanic sunk for insurance, and New Orleans flooded by government agents.
Earth—our sapphire speck, our pale-blue lifeboat in an ocean of dark—does not, after all, perch on a Milky Way tentacle. Earth does not spin like a Dervish; rather, its plane reclines and stretches beyond the thousand-mile-thick ice wall encasing us. The land reaches out, sprawling with undiscovered countries and unimaginable lifeforms. At some point, the world meets sky, earth bleeds into atmosphere, and God lives at that nexus of matter waiting for us.