Charlotte came to town on Friday to see an exhibition at the Scott Polar Institute. Over lunch in a cafe decorated with images of sinister clowns, we had a lovely discussion about publishing and life and whatnot and she asked how I'm settling in England (or something along those lines).
I replied, truthfully, that I am still drifting between surprise and confusion, although I like the place. To illustrate I told her where I had been all morning: a Church of England harvest festival ceremony in the Trinity College Chapel, listening to a hundred small children sing hymns in what might be described as posh accents.
This seems so improbable.
Recently someone asked if we have any trips planned this autumn and we both reflexively answered no. Then, upon reflection, we realized that Byron needs to venture out to York and Manchester, spend some time in Sweden, and pop over to Seattle. We're both going to Spain and France. My mother will be visiting and I'll take her on various escapades, as yet unspecified. I'm planning another stateside book tour. In fact, we travel so much that our suitcases sit half-packed at all times.
Why, then, do we both feel like we never go anywhere?
I have no definitive opinion. Although I should probably state that this itinerant existence is by no means as glamorous and thrilling as it might look from the outside. Life doesn't feel any different now than it ever did -- and this is probably why I keep moving. I'm convinced, even with evidence to the contrary, that the next adventure will be the good bit.
This belief is of course useful when you lead a life complicated by chronic illness. If I allowed myself to remember all the reasons why I cannot move easily through the world, I would be incapacitated by fear. The illnesses are nowhere near as difficult to manage as the frustration of living with a dysfunctional body.
Lessons in Taxidermy came out at about the same time as the new novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. My book presented a true account of a child forced to confront danger and despair. His book, a work of fiction, showed a child narrator responding to the events of 9/11. My book received uniformly good reviews; his garnered more attention, a significant portion of which was hostile. I haven't read his novel so I can't comment on the relative literary value of the book, but I think that I understand some of the public reaction.
It is not, as some writers have stated plaintively, that there is no longer a need for novels. The trouble with writing about 9/11 is that most people are not prepared to accept that an individual who was not harmed in the attack could profit off an event that caused so much collective agony. This is in my opinion a more honorable position than the implied voyeurism (and explicit exhibitionism) of the memoir form. I did not want to profit on my childhood, or settle scores, but still felt compelled to tell the stories. Figuring out how to structure the book in a way that was not mercenary delayed publication by years.
Much of the gossip about Safran Foer hinges on the fact that he is well-paid. Most writers are not. Those of us who do not make vast amounts of money from our craft tend to be jealous and critical. This is pernicious and silly, so I will not address it. As Byron often points out, you would have to be a capitalist to care about such things. The more important issue is a question of ethics: what is the responsibility of the writer, in the writing?
My book does not feature even a single reference to 9/11, and this was a deliberate choice. I thought that it would be cheap and lazy to use an event that I did not directly witness as a narrative theme. Beyond that, although I've written a memoir, I do not believe that most direct experience is appropriate to use for some obscure literary goal. If I was trying to make a point with my own book, it is that human suffering is not symbolic. My pain, and rage, stand for nothing whatsoever. My body is simply a body.
This does not mean that the events of the past few years have not influenced my writing, and life. Within weeks of the attack I was on a plane for Italy; there were perhaps a dozen other passengers and we all stared down in shock at the smoke billowing from Ground Zero. Wandering around Rome with Gabriel, I started to take the notes that form the foundation of Lessons in Taxidermy, and resolved that I would move to Europe at the first opportunity. Back home again I watched my most valued work project implode; then one of the only people I love nearly died in an accident. There is no way to communicate how desperately horrible that time was. I can say this with conviction because I tried, and failed, to write that book. I generated two hundred thousand words on the subject, not a bit of it interesting. That manuscript was junk, and I threw it away.
One of the primary difficulties in writing about 9/11 or the devastation of New Orleans is the fact that the events are not, essentially, extraordinary. They are tragic. They are inexcusable. But events of this scale and severity happen all the time, all around the world, and always will. The experiences I describe in my book are not shocking, despite what some reviewers say: fear, hunger, confusion, and terror are normal features of too many lives. This is called the human condition. Only a society that is both spoiled and complacent would think otherwise, or fail so miserably to respond.
But I am a member of that society; worse yet, a citizen expatriate. I love my country but I left, in a divorce more wrenching than any I've experienced with lovers or friends. With this action I made a deliberate statement of intent. I do not support my government to the degree that I removed my body from the scene.
This does not mean that I can or will stop thinking about what is happening at home. I'm hampered in writing about it because of my belief that I am most qualified to address what I know is true. In other words, I am not a novelist. I do not have an imagination sufficient to comprehend what evacuated people are dealing with right now; but in a way it is merciful that I cannot, because I am already stricken and adrift, my mind churning with all the hundreds of bureaucratic details. To translate: I will not rush off to write a short story about people stranded in an attic while water rises as a way of expiating my own anxiety. I am a pragmatist, and must continue to reiterate that public health and safety should be of paramount concern to a wealthy nation.
I find solace in almost nothing except literature, and recently I've been reading books written during and just after WWII. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, George Orwell, MFK Fisher, and scores of others certainly believed that their experiences were fit subjects for review, analysis, and even fiction. Their books tell us something about what happened in those years; their ideas challenge us to debate the meaning of existence, and the responsibility of the writer, long after the lives have ended.
Should we ask whether Jonathan Safran Foer is making an appropriate choice in his topic? Probably, but only if we also ask why so few people have dared attempt to render a literary account of this part of our history. His decision to publish that book is not better or worse than the instinct that many people have to remain silent in the face of tragedy. My decision to exclude ideas, episodes, or people from a book about danger is no more or less ethical than any other decision made in the text. Writers write, or don't write, according to their own idiosyncratic desires.
Marguerite Duras asked Why do people write about writers? Surely their books should suffice. But remember, she wasn't just a novelist, and her life was not summed up by a colonial love affair. She is also the author and protagonist of the memoir La Douleur.
London friends - you should all check out The Reading Frenzy on Saturday.
Chloe has always been a generous and amusing friend; I miss wandering through the store and hearing the latest news and gossip delivered in her dulcet voice. I also miss the store itself; her taste in books and knick-nacks is impeccable. My 3D wallet was stolen in Barcelona two years ago and I have never been able to replace it.
The contribution that Chloe has made to the lives and careers of countless artists, musicians, and writers is impossible to sum up. So, really -- don't miss the event!
Byron failed to purchase a domain in a timely fashion, and had to move his web site here: http://www.foment.net/byron
This makes his journal an appendage to mine - an accessory, if you will. Maybe this will start a trend; everyone should have a mad scientist as a pet!
It is now officially conker season.
Last year one of the terms under which I purchased the boat was a repudiation of the entire month of January. Instead of a birthday and cancer anniversary I now have Boat Day.
Which is today.
Truman Capote wrote Anxiety, as any expensive psychiatrist will tell you, is caused by depression; but depression, as the same psychiatrist will inform you on a second visit and for an additional fee, is caused by anxiety. I rotated around in that humdrum circle all afternoon.... when you're in that kind of a sweat, the only lasting remedy is to ride with it: accept the anxiety, be depressed, relax, and let the current carry you where it will.
In the same passage he also decides that he is too upset to go out for food, and eats a moldy chocolate cake. He doesn't mention whether or not he was popping pills, but there was definitely some hard alcohol mixed up in the whole scene.
I followed his essential advice, minus brandy and fungus, by sitting around listening to Doc Watson and reading Truman Capote:
Some cities will always remain wrapped boxes, containers of riddles never to be solved, nor even to be seen by vacationing visitors, or, for that matter, the most inquisitive, persistent travelers. To know such cities, to unwrap them, as it were, one has to have been born there.... of all secret cities, New Orleans, so it seems to me, is the most secretive, the most unlike, in reality, what an outsider is permitted to observe...
There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when 'our' side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified -- still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function
When people ask why I moved to England the invariable reply goes something like: I believe that a wealthy nation should provide free basic health care to all citizens. I moved to a place where that is true.
The truth is of course more complicated and harder to address. There are fragments that might make a larger picture - the fact that I was fifteen years old when I started volunteering in a veterans home. The fact that, because truthful HIV education was banned in my high school and condoms were not easy to obtain, I took on a personal crusade to distribute hundreds in the provincial school (very much against the rules of the place). The fact that as an undergrad I was encouraged to become a writer but chose to study public policy and work at the health department. The fact that I believed it was my personal responsibility to force an institution of higher education to fully implement the Americans with Disabilities Act, and was then hired by the school to write the policy. The fact that while many of my peers were partying, I took an advanced degree in public administration. The fact that I went on to work for various advisory boards that were charged with implementing federal civil rights laws.
Even after I stopped working for the government I retained my essential commitment to service. I am not partisan to any political party; I am instead wedded to a larger idea of social justice. This, to me, is mostly about health, safety, and civil rights. I would vote for any politician who has a track record of commitment to public infrastructures that protect the citizenry.
Since September of 2000 I have watched in appalled disbelief as the institutions that should protect my fellow citizens have been systematically dismantled. I have said, and honestly believe, that letting our activism focus on the war distracts us from the fact that all of the systems we have counted on are being reduced or eradicated. Because I still have many friends who work in government I hear about all of the subtle and lethal changes - it is quite possible to destroy an entrenched public policy (like equal rights for people with disabilities) by simply refusing to issue the official opinions on how to implement rules.
For years I've rattled on about the fact that critical disaster relief services are underfunded or nonexistent. If my nation truly wishes to defend against terrorism, it should surely have adequate plans in place for mass evacuations -- and should obviously have sufficient supplies of firefighters, ambulance drivers, nurses, and community police officers. Not to mention all of the equipment, supplies, drugs, and blood that might be required if another American city is attacked. The fact that we do not is very difficult for me to understand; do the members of the radical right think that their own children will be somehow magically impervious to disaster?
I grew up in a military town. When I was poor and desperate I married and became a military spouse. I have shopped at the commissary. I have used military hospitals. I have supported our armed forces, absolutely without question, even when I did not intellectually agree with their assignments. I have been critical of base closures, and have consistently opposed reductions in force -- because a standing army is central to national security. When it became clear that our forces, after many reductions, were so stretched that we could not viably fight in the middle east without involving the National Guard, I railed endlessly to whoever would listen. Because the National Guard is supposed to protect our shores; the National Guard is supposed to be around to protect us in times of national crisis. They cannot do so if they have been sent elsewhere. I asked, again and again, What if we have an earthquake? Flood? Wild fires?
It is a matter of simple math to realize that if you send a third of your available military overseas, a third are ramping up to go, and a third are new recruits (if that is even true these days - recruitment is down), you are asking for trouble.
Watching as public health and safety systems were slowly eroded made my heart race. I had more panic attacks in 2003 than I had in the previous ten years combined - because I can in fact imagine what it looks like when the world falls apart.
But still, I did not want to abandon my country. I did not want to move, even when the opportunity was presented. Although it is not necessary for me to live in the United States to continue my work (I can write anywhere), it seemed somehow wrong to leave, so long as I was safe.
The critical moment for me came when veterans services, which are by all accounts woefully inadequate, were cut once again. When I heard the news it honestly felt like my brain buckled. If those of our citizens who should be most honored are no longer entitled to the basic services their valor has earned, that single fact has more meaning than anything else. The United States, personified by our presidential administration and all the elected politicians who consented to this travesty, made a clear statement. Of faith, if you will.
I knew, in a visceral and often painful way, that the next disaster would be a colossal tragedy. Maybe I am a coward, but I left the United States because I was frightened and weary. I knew that I might not survive a significant natural or man-made disaster without a unified public safety system in place. I knew that even if I could, it would hurt too much to watch my neighbors die. This is a classic immigration story: my family moved because another country offered us greater material security. In doing so we're no more selfish than any of the people who streamed out of Europe in times of trouble to create the United States, my own great-grandparents included. The main difference is our destination. My country does not want me - no matter what my accomplishments I am just a piece of human litter, along with all the veterans, the elderly, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised.
What happened in New Orleans is, simply, criminal. There is no way to excuse the obscene and immoral way that our nation failed to protect its citizens. I am shocked, but not surprised, that anyone would try to argue otherwise.
The practical objection to a holiday in the United Kingdom is simple: it costs more for four people to stay in a decrepit seaside town for a few days than it would to fly to Spain. This is an inexplicable and unavoidable fact - and I am a cheapskate.
Beyond that, both adults in the family travel so often the idea of being home is actually more seductive than any other option. I mostly just want to be on the boat. But still, if you call it a holiday, you must fill up the time with some activities that are not part of the daily routine.
On the first official day of our vacation we walked to Cineworld to catch a matinee showing of High Society. This remake of The Philadelphia Story was definitely a bad idea; casting Bing Crosby in the Cary Grant part? Frank Sinatra in place of Jimmy Stewart? Grace Kelly where Katharine Hepburn should be? Appalling, really - but then they also decided to make it a sort of quasi-musical with Louis Armstrong and his band providing narration, which made up for the rest. Seeing it on the large screen was also quite a treat; the theatre was nearly empty so nobody minded as we giggled through the film. Though the sexual politics of the original script seemed both more banal and more sinister, as depicted by Bing in his cap. When Grace, addled with a hangover, about to marry one man and in love with ol' Bing, thinks that she has slept with Sinatra, she says (to paraphrase): I'm an unholy mess of a girl! Bing replies (I'm approximating as I did not take notes) now that isn't even good conversation. This is hilarious, and adds a twist to all of my childhood memories of his boring family Christmas specials.
The elder child has limited reserves of energy because of her illness (for those of you following that narrative track she has been diagnosed and it won't kill her, so we feel deeply relieved and very lucky), but the youngest was amenable to joining us on some excursions. We took him to the Museum of Zoology, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, the the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. We are not the sort of parents who march children around, forcing them to appreciate things, and we never bother with the activities museums (wrongly, in our case) imagine children will enjoy. We just drift and offer interpretations when asked; this is much easier when the museums are free and empty, as was true in all of the facilities we visited.
Our son, who at age eight stands as tall as my chin, is a studious sort of child. He is quiet and conscientious and made a complete tour of each room before declaring an opinion, which usually displayed some piece of arcane scientific knowledge I did not know he possessed. A few hours after we left the zoology museum he asked to go back to see one of the skeletons; he wanted to make a sketch and needed the real model to assure that his depiction was anatomically correct. And yes, he does use all of these ten cent words. I would find it strange but remember being chided for having a large vocabulary as a child - I guess it is just a genetic predilection. My son looks like Byron but acts like me; the girl is my clone but acts like her father (either one, they are both pathologically charming). Byron and I wandered around shivering in the excessive air conditioning, looking at the taxidermy specimens, while the boy very patiently completed his drawing.
We've been terribly neglectful friends in general. I have been trying to figure out how to get over to Amsterdam to see Amy Joy and Dishwasher Pete since they had the baby, but it is hard to organize the trip around schedules and illnesses. It is also often too complicated to figure out how to see friends in this town, for the same reasons. But we made a concerted effort and managed to go to Grantchester to see that new baby. We also caught up with Karen and Iain, although their new baby was asleep. We had drinks with David and Sarah (who do not have a new baby at the moment), and Rachel (also no baby on hand), along with assorted other new people.
Of course, all of the social activity meant that my email slid out of control again, but this is a consequence of holidaying. Byron had to sneak off to check his. He texted me on the boat with the news from the states, which was grim, made grimmer by the immediate media focus on gas prices. As the days passed and the trauma increased we both retreated into a state of repressed depression; our son is too sensitive to deal with news of this nature, particularly given that he knows we live on the edge of the Fens. It has already occurred to him that the town could be flooded, but he feels reassured by the fact that we live on a boat. He knows that I would collect him before being washed downstream.
I tend to wait until after a crisis passes to be upset, but this spring and summer were awash with sorrow over the tragic death of a colleague, the wrenching loss of a beloved aunt, yet another cousin diagnosed with cancer, the bombings in London, and sundry other things I have not yet had time to think about. It is hard to maintain a facade of calm and competence, but I believe that it is necessary to try, in part because I know that life offers an unending supply of sadness and you have to create the little bits of happiness on the margins. The news from New Orleans hit me hard, and by that I mean in every traumatized neural pathway, every broken bone, every scar. Whenever people weren't looking, I was crying.
But again, it would not count as a real vacation unless we left town, so I decided to take everyone out on the river. I needed petrol, which requires a three hour journey to the Fish and Duck, through countryside: flat, endless fields, sheep, cattle, herons -- this is the best part about living in England. Life on the boat is serene, even when it is mucky and hard.
The children lounged around in the cabin or sat on top of the boat reading. Byron and I took turns steering, which gave me another chance to be astonished by my newly found physical strength, as the rattle and pull of the engine shook up my ruined arm without a hint of pain. It was too sunny for me to be outside, but I put on my straw hat (there has been some debate as to whether it is actually a hat, or a decorative planter) and slathered the exposed bits of my body with sunblock every fifteen minutes. By the end of the first day I was literally filthy, covered in dirt and spider webs and streaks of grease. I think it is safe to say that I have never before, in my entire life, been dirty. My mother reports that I was even pristine as an infant - insisting on changing clothes if a speck of food soiled my dress. It was quite honestly amazing to find myself, at age thirty-four, piloting a canal boat through rural England, covered in grime. I had an excellent day.
We bought diesel at a pub older than the country we are citizens of and set off for Ely, where we found a mooring on Lavender Walk. It is nice to live in a place where your surname is considered normal. It was too late to visit the Cathedral or Oliver Cromwell's house but we walked through parks and churchyards as the sun set. You know all of those religious paintings in American churches, that show fantastically unimaginable light streaming through clouds? It looked like that.
We ate dinner at an empty though tasty Indian restaurant and settled down for the night as a lightning storm rolled into to town, lighting the sky above us, and fell asleep to the sound of rain hitting the water.
After a (for the adults) hugely entertaining visit to the chandlery Byron did assorted repairs on the boat to prepare her for winter. For some reason Ely has a large population of Muscovy ducks, and a very strong and menacing contingent of swans. At one point there were fully ten gathered at the hatch, and I had to close it against the lunging beaks. Before I moved here I would not have believed it, but swans are scary.
The trip home to Cambridge took most of a day, with minor stops at pubs and to fish my hat out of the water. We met some very interesting people going through the locks and moored at home just as the light disappeared.
On the last day of our holiday we took a bus to Milton Keynes, and from there a train, to reach Bletchley Park. This is, for anyone concerned with the history of computer science, kind of like a religious pilgrimage. It would similarly appeal to those who are interested in code-breaking, or the secrets of WWII. This does not happen to fully describe either of my children, who enjoyed looking at the Enigma machines and then spent the rest of the day hanging out on the playground. Byron and I wandered around in a daze, trying to see as much as possible. The complex, for obscure reasons, offers a model railway and toy museum along with the diplomatic telegraphy hut, the war pigeon display, and a huge room crammed with Churchill memorabilia. Oh, and they also have a photography museum. It was the oddest and somehow most endearing assemblage I've seen in this country. Though I haven't traveled much.