All posts tagged: Essays

On Naming

Filthy McNasty's SignTo exist humanly, is to name the world, to change it. ~Paulo Freire

When I was 19 my full-time job was bartending a pub called Filthy McNasty’s. McNasty’s sat on Rose Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the roughest streets in the city center at the time. Fights punctuated each hour of the night and later, after I’d moved on up from McNasty’s, a friend was stabbed near there in a skinhead-like attack. Indoors, customers called me “Garth” because of my wild, unkempt hair, like Garth in Wayne’s World. I didn’t wear makeup and favored baggy jeans and t-shirts; I guess this made me infuriatingly gender ambiguous. My fellow bartenders, with their straightened, bleached-blonde hair, penciled-on brows and figure-hugging polyester tolerated Garth to the best of their abilities, aside from one woman, whose actual name I don’t remember, but whose tan outfits—tight pants and jacket—and extremely thick accent conjured the name “Tanner” in my mind. This word, Tanner, also captured the sound of her voice. She clearly despised me/Garth. She would sashay away from us when the bar wasn’t full enough to force us close together. We could barely understand one another’s accents so the physical distance was a welcome relief.

Olivia ZhengOn Naming

What We Were Like Then


poetry room bookstore

We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.

My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.

Emily EverettWhat We Were Like Then

The Art of Grief: ‘Windows and Mirrors’


“Con mortuis in lingua mortua.”

—Modeste Mussorgsky

Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.

Julia PikeThe Art of Grief: ‘Windows and Mirrors’

Meandering Zone


We are barreling north out of Salt Lake City, and David is talking about the clouds. “They don’t look like the clouds in the East,” he says. “They’re uniform, but fuzzy.” Out the window, the topaz sky shimmers over the mountains. The snowy peaks echo the color of the fuzzy western clouds, which stretch across the air like floating bedsheets. 

Julia PikeMeandering Zone

We Lived in the Desert, Then


Outside the town of Price stretched hundreds of miles of dusty sagebrush ringed by near and far cliffs of dirt and rock.  Yet in the little town proper, thanks to a primitive grid of irrigation canals—mud walls buttressed by ancient Model-T wrecks—there were grassy lawns and trees, like the glorious apricot tree under which my father, my mother, my sister, and I sat that late summer Sunday afternoon with the Russian couple whose names I can no longer recall.

Julia PikeWe Lived in the Desert, Then



He calls me and says, “I got a good North Country story for ya.” Then after the story he says, “I don’t know, man. I just feel like it would be cool to write something about the people up here. They’re such fuckin’ characters.” Or he’ll say, “If we could just write something about Mom and Dad, you know. I think our upbringing was super unique.” He has also talked about writing rants about people who don’t know the fucking speed limits around here, who hold him up on the two-lane highways that wind through our mountains. Or about making a website that would provide snarky news about the North Country, with headlines like Wilburs Still Fucking Inbred and Way to Fuck It Up, APA. We’ve been having one-way conversations about his writing projects for years. Sometimes he talks about working on them together, and sometimes he talks about doing it himself. I tend not to say much.

Julia PikeFraternity

The Radical Familiar: Matisse’s Early Nice Interiors


The paintings may be best known for what they are not. They were made on the heels of work now considered Matisse’s most groundbreaking, the paintings from the period between 1907 and 1917 when he engaged with the early perceptions of modernism. His trajectory through these years widened his ambitions and shows him becoming more cutthroat within them, first leaving behind the saturated exuberance of fauvism, then, by degrees, flattening color and form into strange and austere near-abstractions.

Julia PikeThe Radical Familiar: Matisse’s Early Nice Interiors

Reading in Public: An Elegy


I was riding the F train home the other day reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The local went express at Jay Street in Brooklyn, and I exchanged an exasperated smile with a woman on the platform. “Is that good?” she asked, pointing to the book. “I’ve been meaning to read it.” I called Whitehead’s disturbing way of mixing history and invention in his novel about slavery, “steampunk abolitionist” and she liked that. Manners obliging, I asked what she was reading. “Something with Ove in the title.” It was funny in surprising ways, but she couldn’t remember the name. We agreed nothing induces amnesia like being asked what you’re reading. The name and author came to her on the local. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Bachman. I promised to look it up. I got off at the next stop feeling rich for our impromptu book club, and grateful for a moment of literary communion that’s all but disappeared.

Olivia ZhengReading in Public: An Elegy

Keats-Shelley House, Rome, Italy



Hoisting our backpacks, my students and I start up a narrow staircase that points us left and right. In November 1820, John Keats and his friend Joseph Severn climbed these stairs to two small rooms above the Spanish Steps, ready to stay until the end, which they knew wouldn’t be far away. Nevertheless, they rented a piano. Getting that piano back downstairs must have been a nightmare. Not to mention the armloads of drapes and rugs, and the sheets and the pillows, and the mattress, stained with sad rings of blood. But it was the law: all movable furnishings of a consumptive’s sickroom, even the wallpaper, must be burned. And then, on a late February day in 1821, would have come the carrying-down of Keats’ small body itself: a twenty-five-year-old man, five feet tall and wasted to the weight of an adolescent, the luminous eyes closed for good.

Julia PikeKeats-Shelley House, Rome, Italy

The Serpent Lesson: Adam and Eve at Home in Ohio


In the beginning, the Lord God created man in Adams County, Ohio, just north of Peebles and south of Chillicothe.

On the very western edge of the Appalachians, in the craggy countryside of southern Ohio, the three branches of a small river called Brush Creek converge in a valley lined with pitch pine and chestnut oak trees. A steep rocky bluff rises one hundred feet above the riverbed. And on top of this bluff lies an ancient mound of soil, waist high, built in the shape of a serpent. The snake’s head—120 feet long and 60 feet wide—faces the north end of the bluff, overlooking the river. From there, the snake’s body stretches southward 1,300 feet in loose waves, and ends in a tightly curled triple spiral.

Julia PikeThe Serpent Lesson: Adam and Eve at Home in Ohio