There is something post-decadent about Versailles in winter. The fountains are off; there are not many tourists. Everything is still fiercely geometric and over-the-top, but in this gray, expired kind of way, at least for most of the day; sunset, and the crisp, clear chill of nighttime being the exceptions. Most of the sculptures are covered with tarps, and tertiary destinations like the amphitheater and “outdoor living room” are gated off entirely. As at all times of year, there is remarkably little furniture, the bulk of it having been moved to the Louvre in the name of égalité. I spent the first five years of my career working in grand museums, and this has always been one of my favorite things about them: that they are bastions of opulence that seem morally defensible, inclusive and elite at once. Because Versailles too is now a museum, the awesomeness of its grandeur has been contextualized into an argument against itself, its ostentation forgiven as a public good. At moments it feels almost Soviet, and you can’t help but be reminded that if you trace the political spectrum far enough left or right you end up in effectively the same place.
It was mid August when my mom and I made the trek into South Central Houston to visit Sidney. We wound through the dense medical district towards the massive complex of 5 buildings making up MD Anderson Cancer Center where Sidney, my mom’s former student, was being treated. As we made our way out of the parking garage, groping toward centralized air conditioning, I marveled at the sheer number of cars from all over the country occupying what was only a single corner of MD Anderson’s campus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After dethroning Memorial Sloan Kettering as the U.S. News & World Report‘s best hospital in cancer care in 2015, MD Anderson boasted around 140,000 patients a year and rising.
It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.
She had been dead nearly a decade before she sought me out. I was in my late twenties when she first came to me; then, again and again over a period of several years, whenever I came home to visit and always in the middle of the night as I slept in my old room. Before it was mine, it was hers. In the recurring dream or vision, I opened my eyes to darkness and knew I was not alone. She stood in the far corner by the closet, waiting for something. The air between us, a conduit—even from across the room, I felt her body tingling my skin. You don’t always have to see a thing to know it exists.
When we identify respect (coming from the root word meaning “to look at”) as one of the dimensions of love, then it becomes clear that looking at ourselves and others means seeing the depths of who we are. Looking into the depths, we often come face-to-face with emotional trauma and woundedness. Throughout our history, African Americans have pounded energy into the struggle to achieve material well-being and status, in part to deny the impact of emotional woundedness. Truthfully, it is easier to acquire material comfort than to acquire love. —From Salvation: Black People and Love, by bell hooks
Home is not just a house; it’s this yearning for a place where you’re safe, [a place where] nobody’s going to hurt you. —Toni Morrison, in conversation with Claudia Brodsky at Cornell University on March 7, 2013
“We need to do more, Mom,” my son tells me. He’s fifteen, supports the Kurdish resistance and fancies himself an anarcho-socialist (“It’s not like being an anarchist, Mom, okay?”). The Young Socialist lives in a state of perpetual indignation about the state of the world. He insists that governments can and should do better, and that capitalism is the root of almost all problems—past, present, and future. He hopes for radical social change, but when I call him an idealist, he’s furious: “It’s practical, that’s all. Marx and Öcalan, their ideas would work if people weren’t just so… stupid. And greedy.” I usually tell the Young Socialist that, because I’m a literature professor, my version of “do more” is of the teaching and writing sort, rather than the man-the-barricades sort, which I know disappoints him. He says: “We’re all complicit, Mom. You’re white and a professor, and there’s no way to escape your own privilege, even if you’re only white by accident.”
“You Like to Have Some Cup of Tea?” and Other Questions About Complicity and Place
There are two twin girls in the courtroom. They look very much alike, with fine blonde hair, tightly bound, and short, pretty noses. One can see they have not yet reached the point in life where twins become separate. If they were to trade places, it would not be easy to tell the difference. But do not look at them in this way. A year and a half ago, a curtain fell between them.
This is a story about stacked tenses. It is an essay about the present tense: a now that is continually layered with what is coming and what is going, what is half buried, and what may bear fruit.
It is about seeing more than is comprehensible and learning to make sense of it. It’s about the dance between receptivity and agency. It’s about history in the present, clairvoyance, and freedom. It’s about destiny and release; side chicks and the sacred; questions that untangle themselves in their response. And circularity: a facet of both life and its records, of which this is one.
I had no idea what the short sentence meant, only that it came from the Bible and when I said it, all the other campers in my Bible study group laughed and I was off the hook for answering any more questions about God, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, none of which I knew anything about.