(1) I’m a big, fat vat of soup. Deep below my surface, I am roiling, ingredients churning, interacting, breaking down to add flavor and texture. Sometimes I’m hot and bubbling, giving off a delicious aroma. At other times, I’m tepid and lifeless, the gas off, a greasy film forming, unappetizing, dull.
What’s in the soup? Well, let’s dip in the ladle and fish out an ingredient. Ooh, it’s a book I’ve owned since I was eight, dog-eared and well-thumbed, its browning pages loose in the binding. How to be Topp is a satire about success written by a fictional school boy. It’s a fairly silly book and I don’t think I’ve ever read it all the way through. But it was illustrated by Ronald Searle and its pages are full of splatters, spidery calligraphy and loose, scratchy drawings. I may not look at this book for years but it’s in the soup, adding its flavor.
When I was eight I read a lot, several books a week. It’s a pattern I have kept up ever since. Each of the many books stacked on many bedside, in my Kindle, on my phone, and my desk, all end up sliced, diced and scraped into the soup. Many of them break down completely, their pages diluted, vanishing from memory. But each sentence, like a single granule of salt or a delicate frond of dill, though disintegrated, has added a few more molecules to the flavor and body of the soup that is me.
There are the Grove Press books on the top shelf of my grandfather’s study, “grownup up” books I climbed up to purloin and read in private. There are all the Gerald Durrell books that fed my fantasies about raking through the jungles of Borneo and Brazil for aardvarks and toucans, kitted out with a solar topi and a butterfly net. There are 92 volumes of PG Wodehouse, Professor Branestawm, Raymond Chandler, Geoffrey Chaucer, Spiderman.
There’s the girl I kissed in David Heller’s basement in 1975, the bucket of coffee cooked over a campfire on a patch of Israeli wasteland one dawn, the snow boots my mother made me wear that were too big and made me trip over every hummock of snow in downtown Brooklyn. There’s my dog Pogo’s third litter of puppies, two stillborn. The boss who yelled at me while eating an egg salad sandwich. My first Rapid-o-liner. My second stepfather’s broken toe when he kicked in the door of my mum’s MGB. All are bobbing in the drink, coming up to the surface, then subsiding like Moby Dick into the darkness below. There’s Moby Dick, Holden Caulfield, JJ ‘Dynomite’ Walker, the English Beat, my Latin teacher, Jenny’s stuffed hippos, Jack’s soccer cleats, my Pakistani orthodontist.
My soup is rich and complex and like none other, a unique combination of stuff that has been cooking for decades. It contains some ingredients found in your soup, maybe lots of them, but the way they interact with the rest of the bits and bobs bobbing around is all mine, all me.
This cauldron of soup is the source of all I create. If I write a story, make a drawing, come up with an idea, it’s all because of this big bubbling vat of experiences and influences. If I neglect the soup, forget to add new spices, fail to stir it up and fill some new bowls, let the pilot light go out and the temperature cool, the soup becomes anemic and tasteless, a bland consommé that’s forgettable and without value. But if I work the soup, it fills me up.
Being an artist or a writer means reading, looking, listening, cribbing, copying, from a zillion sources. That’s much of our job. These slices of inspiration may have disproportionate effect when they first enter the soup, big undigested chunks that are too obvious when they show up in the work. But over time they break down and dissolve, leaving only ripples that intertwine with others to form a new flavor note, subtle and unique.
We are all vats of soup. Make sure you tend yours, stirring and adding new ingredients every day. Keep the hot on medium-high and take the lid off now and then. And don’t be afraid to dish it up to share with others, to pour a few tablespoons into their tureens. I want to taste your soup. Here’s a spoonful of mine.
(2) I am walking my dog when it happens. The woman does not see me. The woman does not see my dog. The woman points her car my way and guns it, and when I see she doesn’t see me—doesn’t see my bright blue shirt nor my arm waving ‘hello neighbor’ in the air nor my big yellow lab standing at the side of her driveway—I dive to my right and the bumper of her car clips my hip and I tumble down and over the newly-mowed grass of her lawn and the next thing I know I’m lying there, just lying there, pushing to get up and looking at my dog looking down at me with her tail wagging, wagging wagging wagging. The dog licks my hand. We are alive, the dog seems to say. We are okay.
For the last decade I’ve been walking my dogs in a downtown neighborhood, and at least once a week I hear myself screaming, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” at some giant SUV with a mom driving her kids to school (coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other), certain that one day this composite character of a mom is going on take me out. And yet it is not until today, this day of me tumbling on the grass, focused on a wagging tail, when I feel the constant anticipation in me. When I start to think about how much time and angst and exactitude and energy I spend laying out blueprints that say: This. Yes this. Surely this is how it is going to happen.
I do not think of myself as a worrier, an anticipator of disaster. In fact, in my fantasy mind of who I am, I am the opposite of this. I am the positive thinker. I am the dreamer. I am the Annie song ‘Tomorrow’. I am the woman who banks on today and hopes all good things for the next, the lighthearted comforter patting shoulders and holding hands, telling those panicking around me, “Relax, really, it will be what it will be. It will all be fine.” I remember telling my mother this when she was dying. “Don’t worry,” I said over and over again. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. And I will take care of everything.” One night while my mother was sleeping, I was on the phone with a friend whose mother had died the year before. “Watch her feet,” she warned. “We all die from the ground up. If you think your mom is getting close, check her feet. If the bottoms are turning any shade of blue, be ready to call people, to say your goodbyes.” For the next many days I was a vigilant, albeit sneaky, foot-checker, wafting sheets at the end of my mother’s bed when I was sure no one was around. I imagined the possible shades of blue. I imagined the time I would have with her at the end, the people I would call and in what order I would call them, and how fast they would all get there and how we would surround my mother in a giant circle while she passed on.
Of course that’s not how it happened. It was noon on a Sunday. I was sitting there alone with my mother when her breaths became shallow and sporadic, sometimes gasping. She scared me. I backed away and leaned against the other bed in the room. At some point a nurse came in, put her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, listened, waited. Minutes passed. I moved closer. The nurse told me to sit down, though I remained standing. The nurse turned off the beeping machines. Silence. Out in the hall I called my brothers. “Mom’s gone,” I said, “can you come over?” One brother said he would see me later. The other brother said, “Why would I come now if she’s already gone?” I called her husband. No answer. So I stopped calling people. I walked back to my mother’s room and, standing in the doorway, saw that the nurse had pulled away the sheet.
Maybe this is the story. It never happens the way we think it will happen. I am 36 years old. I am 36 and alone with my dead mother and I am wearing the soft purple shirt she gave me that I only pretended to like and that I will put in the trash at my hotel and I am staring at, taking inventory even, of my mother’s naked body, at her open, thick-looking eyes, her shoulders her breasts her stomach her hips her knees, the palms of her hands, open and still. The nurse comes back. I never even make it all the way to her feet.
All that I time I wasted in the planning, in the imagining. All that time, wasted.
I think about the conversations I have in my head that I never end up having with another human being. The constant inner-planning. The scenario staging. My fear of the ever-dreaded surprise. When I was growing up there was no such thing as a good surprise. Lack of planning, lack of proper and thorough anticipation meant falling off a cliff. Surprise meant moving towns or changing schools or the child support check showing up late or wondering if I could afford school lunch. As an adult there is still no such thing as a good surprise, and yet I still refuse to see myself as that person, as the worry wart (what a horrible name), the multi-scenario imaginer of events that I so very often am.
I recall another story told by the friend whose mother had died with blue feet. She and her sister are sitting on either side of their mother’s bed, each of them holding one of their mother’s hands, and as their mother takes her last breath the sister slides Mom’s wedding rings right off and onto her own finger, admiring it, watching it sparkle, then looks at my friend and says, “It’s mine. Mom always wanted me to have it.”
How, I think, could my friend have ever imagined her mother’s last breath would happen like this?
Within minutes of my being knocked to the ground, the woman is out of her car, hand over her mouth in shock, apologizing and sobbing hysterically. I am hugging and comforting her. “It’s okay,” I repeat as I rub her back, “and I’m okay. I really am. I’m okay, see? I’m sorry this happened too, but here we are.” I gesture to my dog, my yellow lab at the end of her leash, panting and smiling, wagging her big yellow tail. “See, we are all okay.”
Eventually I let go and turn to brush grass clippings and leaves from my sweatpants. I check to see if there are any rips or tears, and there are not. I rub the bottom of my leg and feel a hot stinging sensation, a burning, down the side of my calf. But I don’t pull up my pants leg because I don’t want to scare her, to worry her.
Days later, I will be thankful for emails I sent within the hour because once I get over the shock of getting hit by the car, the terror of what it feels like to see a car barreling straight for me, I can barely imagine it. No matter how many times I try to reconstruct the stage, I can’t do it. I am mostly blank. I have what think is a road burn on my lower leg, but it is healing and will probably not even leave a scar. My ass aches a little where her bumper knocked me to the grass, but mostly I feel fine.
More days pass. I simply feel lucky.
The woman calls and tells me she has a confession: she never saw me at all. Never saw me, even though it was 9:30 in the morning on a bright sunny day and I was wearing a blue shirt and waving ‘hello’ and walking a big yellow dog. Unlike me, she never imagined this could happen. She tells me she only stopped because she heard a thud, and it was only when she saw me lying in the grass with my dog that she realized what had just happened. I listen quietly, but what I feel is enraged … not at her, but at her lovely lack of forethought. This is what normal people are like, I think, and this is what I envy: the luxury of true spontaneity. The lack of expectation of impending disaster. How comforting it must be to never imagine and imagine and imagine such an event. The lack of worry and anticipation. The lack of mentally creating and dreading what-might-be.
I think back on all the energy and time I’ve spent imagining such a thing, all the times I’ve screamed at some mom driving her kids to school, imagining a very real someone running me right over, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” and I pause. I want to scream, but what’s the point? Maybe it never happens the way we think it will happen. I think about the time I was alone with my mother, and time wasted. I remember my mother’s last day on this earth, my purple shirt, her exposed body lying atop a white sheet, and yet what I remember most clearly, most vividly, are my mother’s hands. Her open, unassuming hands.
(3) Last night, Dylann Storm Roof entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, sat through an hour-long meeting, and then opened fire on those in attendance. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, was among nine individuals who were killed. Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location. “There is no greater coward,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the N.A.A.C.P, declared in a statement, “than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.” Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.
Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.
That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.
In the wake of the suppressed rebellion, Charleston lawyer Edwin Holland specifically blamed black churches. These preachers, he accused, carried “the Sacred Volume of God in one hand” while spreading ideas “of discord and destruction, and secretly disperse among our Negro Population, the seeds of discontent and sedition” with the other. The city decided the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which attracted nearly 2,000 congregants, was the problem. New draconian measures were instituted that banned religious services without a white person present. The AME Church, only built four years previously, was then burned to the ground even as the conspirators were hung from the sky. Seven years later, the state constructed an arsenal just around the corner to house arms and ammunition. They wanted to be prepared the next time their black population conspired an insurrection. Soon, in an agreement with the War Department, this location transformed into the South Carolina Military Academy–also known as the Citadel. The crown jewel of southern militarism, then, was in part birthed as a way to protect whites from the type of racial threats the AME Church posed.
This was just another moment in a long history of white angst over black churches. When slavery was originally established in America, enslaved persons were not even allowed to be baptized because it was feared that such an action would grant them civilization and problematize their coerced labor. Owners eventually embraced a paternalistic interpretation of Christianity that brought blacks salvation yet reinforced their current station in life. But even then, their worship was to be governed by white authorities and their message was to be filtered through white leaders. Measures were taken to ensure these gatherings were places to ameliorate possible revolt, rather than foment it, and harsh retaliation was instituted when those borders were crossed. Even as the “invisible institution” became more visible through organization and brick and mortar, white society still tried to control its power. Thus even while the black church became a bastion of harmony and a reservoir for support for black participants, it also became a locus of dread for white observers.
This paradox has remained in place ever since. Black churches became a central recruitment point for soldiers and a prominent pedestal for emancipation messages during the Civil War, yet they were also frequently targeted by Confederate forces. They were primary locations for mobilization during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr. even used the Emanuel Church in Charleston for meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—but also venues for violent backlash, as seen with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Sadly, these attacks continue to appear in staggering numbers today. If one were to find a central crossing point for racial conflict in America, it would be hard not to choose a church.
In 2014, a monument to Denmark Vesey was raised in Charleston’s Hampton Park. It was meant to represent both a cooling in this racial conflict and a symbol that this violent past is indeed past. Yet tensions continue to simmer. The Confederate flag, a symbol of racial superiority, is still displayed in South Carolina’s capital. Police brutality is still inordinately directed toward the African American population throughout the nation. Today’s cultural circumstances still necessitate a reminder that black lives matter. And churches remain very much at the center of these conflicts. Created, in part, to resist the racist oppression forced upon them, they represent the most potent threat to white supremacy. This is especially the case in Charleston, where the Emanuel Church is located in the heart of the historic district–a tourist area otherwise dedicated to preserving the memory of the Old South–and not sequestered away to a segregated black area of the city. Last night’s shooting once again demonstrates the contempt many whites have for black churches as they continue to serve as a symbol of black organizational power.
Just as the original Emanuel Church was torched in 1822 due to fears of racial unrest, its replacement has become yet another location for American racial warfare. History has demonstrated that a particular segment of white America has often responded to racial fears with violence, yet this particular plot of land in downtown Charleston has seen more than its fair share of that unfortunate tradition. More, it stands in for the pregnant and powerful role of black churches in America—physical embodiments of both the necessity of strong black communities, yet also their continuing threat to white society.
Something else now
Abeltje Quintijn said: