All posts tagged: Long Reads

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’

Welcome to the Future


Dog in Beijing

By lunchtime, Beijing had reached 102 degrees and our four-year old twins were hungry. We’d spent the morning exploring the shadeless Yonghegong Lama temple and now sought out the refuge of the simple vegetarian buffet nearby where my vegetarian husband and I had had a transcendent meal on our last trip six years before. To our dismay, it had been, according to a nearby security guard, demolished. One of our twins emitted hangry squeals, the other went boneless. The air was dense with humidity and pollution. On our way to the temple from the subway stop at the top of Yonghegong Street, we’d passed another, fancier-looking, vegetarian restaurant and so we elbowed our way all the way back up the narrow corridor of manic Buddhist commercialism thick with incense and the calls of hawkers selling religious tchotchkes and crowds of midday worshippers and tourists; we drowned in sweat.

Avery FarmerWelcome to the Future

At the Edge of the World


A snippet of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The room was full, though not as jammed as the time I’d visited the summer before, when the space felt hot with the exhalation of hundreds of miserable souls. It was still full enough that I bumped into people and they bumped into me as we moved around with our heads bent uncomfortably backwards. A couple of women sat on the floor and leaned back to stare at the ceiling more comfortably, but an official, known unofficially as a shusher, indicated that they should rise. He and other shushers moved through the crowd of upturned faces whispering “shush” and “silenzio,” reminding us that the Sistine Chapel is a place of worship and not an art gallery. 

Sunna JuhnAt the Edge of the World

Current Obligations


Dear Brian:

I hope you don’t mind my addressing you this way. You addressed me as P., after all—no last name. Although we’ve never met, you offered condolences for my loss.

DoostiCurrent Obligations

Beautiful and Splendid

When I speak to Dave on the phone the first time, he tells me his father died from cancer, that what he’s selling is part of his Dad’s huge collection of vintage stereo equipment. I’m sitting in the parking lot of an animal hospital in Northern Virginia, where I’ve just dropped off my dog Swayze for palliative radiation for her own cancer.

I tell him I’m sorry to hear it.

“He didn’t do anything but sit in a chair for two years while they kept him alive. He’s better off dead,” Dave says. “He was 82. He lived his life.”

I’d driven to Virginia from Maryland’s Eastern Shore where my wife, Susan, and I live and was trying to arrange a time to visit Dave back in Maryland so I could look at a few things he was selling on Craigslist: two reel-to-reel tape players and a vintage 200 watt Kenwood receiver, all listed far below their value. I’d buy the stuff from him, and then sell it at market value on eBay. The money would help pay for Swayze’s chemotherapy. I didn’t want Dave to know that though.

Olivia ZhengBeautiful and Splendid

Un Walker en Nuyol

“Exaggerate to exist.”
―W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety (1948)

[1] From El Gueto

Friday, January 4th, 1985. It is 7:50 am. The temperature outside is below freezing.

“The city” isn’t altogether alien to me. I have seen it featured in a thousand movies. As a boy I came with my father, a theater actor, to buy Broadway plays. I am familiar with its grammar. Indeed, I make my way through conversations, although, in all honesty, my English is still precarious.

This time around, though, I am alone and I am learning to cope with it. I barely have any money. The $67-a-week I make shelving books at a local library are barely enough. Collect calls are expensive. I used to write long letters while I lived in the Middle East, but I have lost practice. Plus, for now I don’t feel like sharing my thoughts with others.

I have landed in a small apartment on Broadway and 121st Street, next to The Jewish Theological Seminary. They have given me a scholarship to study philosophy. I share the apartment with three other young men, one called Francesco from Italy with a heavy accent, Arno from Canada, and Ritchie from the United States. It has taken us time to get acquainted with one another. I understand what they all tell me, though I am at a loss every third or fourth word, especially with Arno’s lingo. He speaks fast and uses strange words. He says I talk English like a “primitive.” Franco’s syntax isn’t good either. His accent is heavy. He helps me when I fumble.

Olivia ZhengUn Walker en Nuyol

Journals in Ice

harbor107 Water Street, Stonington, CT

One day I entered this room and wasn’t afraid of ghosts. It was after a friend phoned, spoke in a register that calmed me. But tonight, opening the yellow door with its gold metal sun, there’s a knitting-up in me. As if a spider lives in my throat, wove a web inside my chest. Inner bodice of silk he runs up, pulls. On a pound-for-pound basis spider silk is stronger than steel. Remember that Ivy said the scarlet room always felt occupied.

Olivia ZhengJournals in Ice

Ivory Teeth


My mother is driving us away from Spokane International Airport when she tells me about the elk. Before dawn, she warmed her Ford Ranger and headed into town, planning to catch up on some work before I arrived from Baltimore. At one moment there was no elk. And the next: elk. A world of elk and the metallic rip of something under the hood, the sort of sound I fear on the long flights home. That undeniable knowledge that something has gone horribly wrong.

Olivia ZhengIvory Teeth

The Bodhisattva of Route 128



Once upon a time I fell in love with Jack Kerouac, the words of Jack, the ghost of Jack, the idea of Jack. It started with On the Road, and then it wasn’t long before I set out to read everything he’d ever written, nearly fifty years after he’d written it. I was married, middle-aged with kids, living in the suburbs. My 20s had been spent working, getting married, going to grad school, and having my first child. My 30s were spent raising two children and piecing together part-time work as a writer, urban planner, and volunteer. Then, one month before my 40th birthday, further infatuated with Jack’s Visions of Cody and The Dharma Bums, I latched onto the idea that I myself had never driven across the country before, had never experienced the typically American rite of passage known as “the road trip.” This was something Ineeded to do. Now. Alone. At least that’s the story I told myself and my family and friends as I planned and made my escape.

Olivia ZhengThe Bodhisattva of Route 128


people by forest

1. Seocho via Gangnam

My family and I are struggling along Teheran Road in Seocho-dong, Seoul, and it is my fault. I should have conducted us one stop farther to Gangnam Station, where the number ten exit would have deposited us in front of our destination, but we are disoriented by the city’s newness and haven’t yet learned the subway stations, nor do we know the banks and stores and restaurants piled atop each other in metallic high-rises footnoted by cafés and tea rooms and dessert shops. It is late May, nearly summer, when people punctuate meals with shaved ice covered with red bean jelly, rice cakes, diced fruit, grain powder, green tea, condensed milk, and ice cream for more richness. Humidity surrounds us and compresses our chests, though the forecast today says “mildly dusty.” Tomorrow, when it says “very dusty,” the sky adopts a yellowish tinge from pollution that Koreans claim drifts over from industrialized China. The passersby do not wear sunglasses, a strange omission for a country obsessed with pale and poreless complexions.

Olivia ZhengCease-fire