The flat world that we usually see, where we are felt cut-outs on a felt board, being moved around from bed to work to play to bed, the board had turned so I could see the cracks, and how it was put together.
How I’d been told to think of things, how people did, how I didn’t want to not think, my idea of cycles and emotions and events come and go, on their time. Nothing happens on my time. Now I know this.
I pushed the cart, a tank of a vehicle. I needed to lean on it. Still weak from some tiny particle that got inside my body and tossed the whole place like a thief looking for jewelry.
What was beautiful about taking a box of Quaker Oatmeal Squares and putting it in the cart, from the shelf at Checkers in Lawrence Kansas in October of 2019 wearing my new-to-me black sweater and denim skirt an flip flops? What beautiful about gazing on the humble but colorful bags of frozen fruit, Best Choice? Drawings of the fruit before it was frozen. What beauty in me being alone, and past the mourning of what I wanted, mostly, on the balanced place of (if I’m very lucky) half my life behind, and half ahead. Beautiful about the bags of frozen fruit, in the hand identifiable pieces, but hard frozen, no longer themselves, exactly.
Beautiful about not having the ghosts of Whitman, Melville, James Baldwin, for comfort, people who had walked the same street and ridden the same subways and looked at the same river, the East River. My ghost friends who felt the horror and hysteria and very heavy, settled love of New York City and its endless arms. Manhattan sleepy Sunday off-tourist time downtown, when it’s unseasonably warm, its oldest and narrowest streets, where the new gloss and grubby greed and the African burial ground and the Statue of Liberty all coexist as New Yorkers do: crabby, internally focused and also presenting themselves, hard, always planning: where to get off the train, how long will it take to get, how the Sunday trains will fuck you, at a time they think you should stay home, say, noon.
I had actual living friends in New York, too. Some of them were writers, and all of them were alive.
No, I was in Lawrence, Kansas, on land taken from the Sac and Fox and Kickapoo and Potawatomi. I’m at the grocery where they tell all the newbies to go: “it’s the best.” Best selection of “ethnic” food for people who came from China or Peru, to study or research. Cheap. Local. Big American flag. Annual meat sale. The longboats of meat, red, red, red.
Here there aren’t so much ghosts of writers as there are actual writers, people who put down words about what happens, and some of them stick to the insides of others’ minds. The imposing bulk of The Greats is less a discouragement, but it’s less an encouragement, too. Could anything good come out of Nazareth?
And the land here, you see lots of land that just belongs to plants here. Just outside town, there are farms and open lands, with hay roll-ups and dark cows at leisure and many enormous birds, hawks who make the lazy circles they are accused of making in “Oklahoma.” They do this without pay.
I push the cart: bananas, frozen raspberries in an opaque white bag, box of cereal, fresh spinach in a plastic shell, box of granola bars, wearing plastic coats inside, and a vat of fatty yogurt. Presealed bag of cherry jelly beans.
The skies are the main difference. In the Checkers parking lot, the whole sky is like, this is what’s up! Look at me! And in New York the sky worked with the buildings (the ones I miss most at the Bloomingdale’s stop, for some reason), and the bridges, and the rivers. It was a team effort.
Stars here, lit windows there. Narrow restaurants both places (nothing helps a restaurant like being narrow). In Lawrence, people regularly stirred by the comings and goings of kids who become almost adults, and buy suits and sit up straighter and get jobs, and in New York, people regularly stirred by rent increases, far away wars, going to a bar in a different neighborhood one night, being willing to chat one day when you’re both so sick of the fucking Sunday trains.
And the Kill Creek exit. And Key Foods. And a Metro card. And a Turnpike ticket. And a gas pedal. And a pole to hold. And the Nostrand stop. And the uneasy pale faces, and the uneasy dark ones, and the wigs of the orthodox, and the leggings of the college girls, and the limestone of the school on the hill conquering nature, and the brownstones that have never heard of nature, and don’t trust her, that’s for sure .
Taking the train into the city, climbing up, seeing how long the line is, turning around to go straight back to Brooklyn. Leaving a full grocery cart and walking the whole line of the city limits, where the Mr. Steak used to be, the factory with the white smoke, where the house tracts become field that are the just outside town strip club, and the roads, gravel, wander toward another town.
Images: Flat surface and part of the curved wall of depression for an Aten disk,
My friend is having electromagnets shot at her brain for a half hour a day. When I first heard of this treatment, I thought it was like those magnetic bracelets they want to sell you at the fair. But no, it’s an FDA approved (trademark) treatment for several mental health problems.
Because this is a five-days-a-week and seven weeks long thing, you get to know others getting treated, and their spouses or siblings or parents who have brought them. I’ve sat in plenty of therapists’ waiting rooms, and the feeling there is always tense. You’re always like, is that person REALLY crazy? Are they more messed up than me? Don’t make eye contact!
At the magnetic treatment clinic, we frequently chat. Everyone knows we are there to either have treatment for mental health problems (depression, maybe other things), or supporting someone who’s already run the gambit of every SSRI and all the therapy.
At this clinic, we can all trust each other. We all get it How long has your person been getting the treatment? Has it helped? Can it work? Yes, I say. I think it can. I think it has.
I chat with a husband about Hamilton and Jefferson. I chat with another husband whose wife hadn’t left the house in ten years.
There have been two very young women. One of them has a helper dog, and the dog’s family have warned everyone not to flirt with or pet the dog while the dog is working. It’s very difficult. It’s a very attractive dog.
The clinic has gone from terrifying (first visit) to comforting. We have a routine, all of us who take my friend. The techs know us. The glass jar full of candy. The off-brand cookies laid out for us. The felt autumn leaves that have been taped on at some point in our seven weeks. The Chiefs banner has gone up.
The styrofoam head (the tech told me her name, but I forget), used to show how the little cap the patients wear works. They shoot magnetic impulses at your head. Your eye may twitch. Your teeth may ache. They may need to move the magnet around a little if you get sore, though nothing is touching your head at all. The magnets are pulsing hard.
Now we are more worried about how it will feel to stop treatment.
Last week, I was sitting in my usual spot. I was plowing through another dense abstract text for grad school, gritting my teeth and wishing I had oxen. I glanced down when I thought I saw a movement. It was a movement. It was a big carpenter ant making his way across the floor.
I went back to reading about how nation states and democracy and colonialism affected the spread of secondary education around the world.
“What is it?” the receptionist said.
“It’s just an ant. If it was something worse, like a roach, I would have said something, but it’s just an ant.”
He walked over and leaned down. “Is that an ant? It’s big!”
I currently have the tiniest of ants trying to settle in the corner of my living room, lured by snacks I occasionally eat there. They are so tiny I haven’t bothered to do anything more than squash them with a piece of paper. Or even my finger. Which is gross.
In the house I grew up in, every spring we had the big carpenter ants, like the one in the clinic. Big black gobs of body.
“I’ll take care of it,” the receptionist said, going to get a kleenex or something.
“No! I’ll take him outside,” said the other woman in the waiting room. I hadn’t seen her before.
“Well, okay. If you want to.”
She picked up a business card from his desk and tried to set it in the ant’s way. The ant wasn’t having that. Then it was on the card, and it quickly walked off again. “I love insects. I know it’s weird.”
“Here, use this,” I said, offering her the big 8×10 envelope I had put my school paperwork in.
“Thanks,” she said. She crouched down with the orangey brown envelope, got the ant on this larger life raft, and rushed out of the office to change the ant’s life forever. For all I know, the ant met his true love this way. He would never have met her if he had stayed all his life in the magnet clinic waiting room.
Or it ruined his life. He thought he had achieved enlightenment, turns out there are other worlds of suffering he had never imagined.
One of the songs my dad sang to us was “The Ants Go Marching.” His other songs were “Summertime,” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and “Won’t You Come and Climb the Mountain With Me?”
He would get a little scary with the ants marching song. That was his job, as a dad, to push our fears in front of us, where we could see them. My mom would scoop us up and cover us with her body until the ant departed.
The ants go marching one by one,
The ants go marching one by one
The ants go marching two by two,
the little one stops to tie his shoe,
and they all go marching
down (here his voice got scary)
to the Earth (still scary)
to get out of the rain
Bum bum bum.
We had matching red nightgowns with white lace trim, technically Christmas pajamas, because mine came with a cap that made me Mrs. Claus. We had matching bedspreads, which were pale rainbows. We had a large population of stuffed animals on shelves hung on the wall. We had a record player to listen to music, and a tape recorder to make our own radio shows.
I could never live in the south. The bolder racism and the insects. Nothing ever dies there.
The young woman came back. “Here you go,” she said, returning my envelope.
She set the business card, which hadn’t been big enough for the job, put it back on the receptionist’s desk.
“Let’s just throw this away, why don’t we,” he said.
My friend came out, finished.
More about transcranial magnetic stimulation.
I drove the length of Emporia, Kansas, from the college that my great-grandmother and my grandfather attended, to the river at the other edge. They have 25,000 people.
My current home which has 96,000.
My great-grandma’s hometown is currently at 383.
The perky downtown has ramen, Mexican, a wine bar, a brewery, and a place called Bourbon Cowboy, which I only notice on Sunday, when it is too late to check it out.
Past downtown, I cross the tracks. Emporia has more trains than anywhere I’ve been. I had heard them all night, upstairs in the house built by the founder of Emporia’s bank, Will Wayman, in 1901.
The edge of town is the Cottonwood River and Veterans Memorial Park. Someone has mounted a Huey, and someone has parked a Sherman tank. There is also a huge anchor, painted white so it looks like a twisted elephant bone. Our American wars are memorialized. Emporia was only five years old when the Civil War began.
I walk out on the bridge. The shape is rainbow, but the color is grey. A shirtless guy is fishing off the side. The water is roaring dangerously, making a short but powerful little waterfall. Bobbing sticks and one sad blue beer can bubble around so vigorously I imagine being pushed underwater and ruined.
A couple with decidedly old-fashioned haircuts and sunglasses are looking, too. “It’s really raging, huh?” I say. We chat about rain, about the floodgates of the Missouri River.
This White was a good friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s. TR visited White in Emporia.
I check off another Roosevelt box on my Roosevelt pilgrimage score card.
White is most famous as a newspaperman, and I have a newspaper fetish. I got a copy of the still printing, still showing up Emporia Gazette. It is owned by descendants of White’s.
News: Mr. G’s Express Car Wash to begin washing cars at 6th Avenue and Prairie Street. Mr. G’s dream was to own this “friction” car wash, and this makes me wish I had a dream that seemed that approachable.
“The lot was supposed to be the location of Walgreens.” W.A. White would be happy. He did not like chain stores.
Volunteers needed for Bingo Every Tuesday Night.
There is no Sunday paper, which is an affront to my civic religion. The museums are all closed, too. What does one do on Sundays? When I was wandering Sunday morning, church time, I did have the sensation I was walking among the heathens.
On the campus of Emporia State, I find one building, Plumb Hall, that was there when my great-grandmother was in school there, in 1919. The institution was transitioning from a get these kids taught model to deeper philosophies and ideas of pedagogy.
Tuition was free because everyone was lazy relied on the government for everything.
The bookstore in town is also named after a Plumb, Plumb’s daughter, who was one of the Teacher’s College. In the window of the bookstore, a white cloth mannequin with an alien-length neck wears one of Miss Plumb’s dresses.
Also on campus is the memorial to Fallen Educators. The memorial has a big slab of marble like an open book, and several more, smaller marble pieces that are engraved. Someone has left a wreath of flowers, and someone else has left a bouquet of white roses. I find the names of teachers at Columbine, and names of teachers at Sandy Hook.
In a place so peaceful, cheerful, thriving, it is strange to see.
But that weekend, there are two more mass shootings in America, adding to the casualties of our second Wild West period: people die at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, and at a bar in Dayton, Ohio.
Very soon, students will be back at Emporia State University, and all our other public schools, making history we can’t see from here.
I get coffee at a lived-in little place with a whole wall dedicated to Dirty Kanza, which I later realize is an annual bike ride. Waiting in line, I use my sunglasses to flirt with a kid who is amazed that my eyes can appear and disappear like that. I chat with his parents, who tell me they can drink coffee as late at night as they please. The kid asks for coffee, and they tell me they already give him coffee. He has their genes, so it doesn’t hype him up.
I don’t know whether to be sad or happy for their genetic situation.
We may think of Kansans a hundred years ago as provincial or isolated.
My great-grandmother went to college.
She traveled to San Francisco to visit her daughter, and her husband drank his first glass of wine, as fast as he would drink milk, gulp, gulp, gulp.
She received regular postcards from the son who traveled the world, and then dealt with his divorce and many remarriages.
She saw electricity, indoor plumbing, airplanes, and television come in. Maybe a hundred years ago there was actually more to see.
We go into the American Girl Store at the mall. I am looking after her, as we are in the middle of a medium-sized family crisis, and others need to be at the hospital. I have never been in this store. My parents did not love me enough to buy me an outrageously expensive doll that I would no doubt destroy, as I destroy most things, with affection and intensity.
The American Girl store is indeed a wonderland. Just because the doll is smaller than humans, all the stuff for the doll is incredible, and when it actually works, no one says, “Of course.” They say, “Wow!” As if small things could never work.
When a gaggle of aliens that size arrives on Earth, they will no doubt be disappointed. The microwave really opens, but it does not microwave. There are tiny plants you can pull up, yes, but the plants are not actually edible, as the “Vegetable Garden” sign says. (Well, they could be edible for aliens, what do I know?)
My niece and I marvel at the doll-sized bowling alley, which automatically keeps score and returns your ball. We ogle the Mars capsule, where a doll has test tubes, a clipboard with a blueprint and a list of steps for an experiment, one of those glove-reach-in safety things you can use to handle plutonium, and silver bags labeled “mac and cheese” and “green beans.” It’s the coolest toy I’ve ever seen. But then, would I want to play “alone on Mars” with my doll? There’s only room for one.
Around the corner, there is a room where you and your doll can get your ears pierced. A little girl is in the chair and the mother is trying to soothe. “It only hurts for a second.” Does it? I had my ears pierced 33 years ago. I don’t remember.
“I didn’t cry. She cried,” my niece says, referring to her sister again.
I understand that older sisters best not have emotions.
The room is pink. The gun fires. The little girl cries. But it’s over.
Image: Marble grave stele of a little girl, Greek, ca. 450-440 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We went to Galaxy’s Edge on Day 4 of public access. Our level of “Star Wars” interest and expertise ranged from loving the first three movies and having seen the others to that plus some knowledge of comic books and books.
Our group got two reservations because there were 8 of us, and only 6 could go at a time. Children can be passed between adults, if you have a larger group. Our kids were not that into it, so they toured only part of the time. Our check in was easy.
CANTINA WARNING: The day we were there, you had to line up to get a RESERVATION for the cantina. We thought the line was to actually get in, so we didn’t even try to line up until two hours into our reservation. We had done a lot of research and read that we should not line up right away. We had several obsessive Disney park readers/podcast listeners, and had chatted with people who had already been there in days prior.
So when we were not able to have a drink at the cantina it was, needless to say, a real bummer.
A cast member did let us go in the cantina for a second to look and take a photo. That was very kind of her.
We had to ride Hyperspace Mountain to feel better. Hyperspace Mountain is incredible, incredible, the best thing that ever happened to you.
SHOPS: I also felt a little better when I bought my souvenir, a little plush Lando with bedroom eyes.
The shops were very cool. There were fun things ranging from $10 to $25,000. Or however much the real Stormtrooper suit and bespoke droid cost. I wasn’t paying close attention, to be honest.
The creatures are cool. The whole place looks real cool.
PLAY APP: The game on your phone was… a lot. It was too much running around and phone time for us. It did seem to do some interactive things, but we didn’t feel like we had time to mess with it much.
You earned credits for stuff, but we didn’t figure out what that meant. I assumed it didn’t mean you could buy anything (haha like Disney would charge you less), but they do refer to money as “credits,” and photo pass people were fun to talk to, as they are in character.
CHARACTERS: Meeting Chewy was my greatest joy. I just love meeting Chewy. He’s a deeply empathetic, spiritual walking carpet.
We also met Rey. Well, she met us. We decided not to line up to meet her, and she approached us. It’s cool how the characters mingle, though it could be frustrating for some not to know you will get your moment with the character, and the photo you want if you wait in line.
Blue milk is tasty. Get some.
The popcorn we found gross to just okay.
The sausage sandwich our testers called “the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten,” with a “sour aftertaste unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
SMUGGLER’S RUN: Look at the “windshield”even if you’re not the pilot. Keep your job buttons in the corner of your eye. What you do isn’t super critical. We were just okay at our jobs, and we didn’t crash or anything.
If you want to be a pilot, stand to the left of the person passing out your cards. This is right after you are called from the room with the chess set. For both of our rides, the first two people get pilot, then gunners, then engineers.
I enjoyed it, but in many ways, honestly, I like “Star Tours” better, because the original characters are in that ride, and there are no familiar characters in “Smuggler’s Run” (well, a tiny bit of Chewy, but that’s it).
We discussed how the land appealed to deeper “Star Wars” fans, and is probably incredible for them. But it’s true, a lot could have gone over our heads.
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they’ll die before I do, and I’ll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.
I’ve previously taught that Carver poem to high school students. I found some lesson plan on catalogue poems, using it as inspiration. It was different reading the poem with middle schoolers. I didn’t know them, or get to know them. It was an hourlong, one-off workshop.
They shared their favorite line. “I live in a bad neighborhood,” one kid said. “So I know about the police car.”
I don’t think I responded to this right.
I wasn’t expecting it. We had a mixed group, of students from more affluent schools, and schools with great struggles. I want to affirm this, to say, “I know, too, being afraid of violence in the neighborhood. Not like you. But I know people getting shot down the block, and sitting in the gym the day after our students, our friends, our kids, were shot, a completely silent gym with three hundred teenagers in it. They have never been silent.
Maybe I said, “Thank you for sharing that.” I didn’t have time to open a whole can of, what our are neighborhoods like? And that wasn’t my job that day. Writing together was the thing. The connecting with people different from you happens on the side. It’s more effective that way. I know as a student in the Richie Rich suburbs of Kansas City, I never worked alongside students from the city. I wonder how I would have reacted.
What I wanted to say was, “I’m sorry that’s normal for you. I wish it wasn’t. You deserve to feel safe.” But I didn’t even know the kid. And it wasn’t about me and my white Richie Rich school guilt, or me looking like a nice person in front of them.
Many students chose the lines about sleeping as their favorite. “I have a hard time sleeping,” several said, in different groups. “I’m afraid to sleep because I have nightmares,” another said.
No one chose the cleaning woman with the spot on her cheek, which is my favorite.
I fear middle school students because their need is so raw. My high schoolers were about half open, half shut. My college students are 95% shut. Middle schoolers are 95% open. I’m so nervous about damaging them.
Fear of not falling asleep. Fear of seeing that the oil cap is missing, and that when I get to the car parts store and buy a new one and put it on, the car will belch white smoke and lurch because I overfilled it with oil in my panic. Fear of ruining the car my dad is loaning me to help me get through grad school. I’ve said that.
I had also written my own catalogue poem. I write my own when I have time. I didn’t even remember writing the thing. Writing for the audience of my students means I keep a distance, I write as a character.
Rejection lurks wherever people want something,
Which is everywhere.
It is in a new school, at all the lunch tables….
Rejection is sometimes so silent that
You don’t realize he’s gotten you
Until you recall, vaguely: how long ago
Did I send that?
We just read mine, and then they wrote their own poems. A student came up to me at the end: “Your poem was really good.”
It’s easy for me to forget that this is any part of writing, that someone just likes it. That a kid could read it and think, that’s right. Other people feel rejected, too. Adults feel rejected.
It’s easy for me to get lost in writing as defending what I think I am (a writer, an artist), achieving some thing that will justify me calling myself a writer (get published again, publishing without publishing a book isn’t good enough), nagging myself to write just as a healthy practice (I’m bored with myself, why bother).
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to hear.”
Image: Cuneiform tablet, fragment of the Weidner God list, circa late 1st millenium, BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In these last few years of (sort of) voluntary reduced means, one spending pleasure that remains is the grocery store. There is no concern at the grocery store for if one should be spending money, one must buy food, mustn’t one? A child of the ’80s, the grocery store is also the only place I feel good about capitalism, with all its choices.
(This comes at the cost of periodic fury when, with all the myriad options, they still don’t stock my New Orleans coffee, or my vanilla yogurt.)
I loaded up the cart and pulled out my debit card.
I had $85 in my checking account.
The clerk had already loaded all $85 of my food into my two reusable bags. One was a bag someone gave me, with wildlife on it, showing someone else had donated to wildlife. The other was my New Yorker tote bag, which every snob needs, to show that one is that type of person.
I said, I work! I swear I work! And I’m a good person! I’ve been working in public education for twenty fucking years and I still owe $30,000 in student loans, I don’t need a house with an ‘updated kitchen’ or a speaker I can talk to because I’m lazier than George Jetson and can’t even push buttons, just let me have some fucking groceries, man, be cool!
Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know who you were, the check out guy said. I had no idea. Our educational system is so messed up. Thank you for all your hard work. I respect you so much. Please take your groceries, and this coupon for a free bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon next door, and a free orchid on your way out, and have a nice evening.
It’s no problem, I said. Everyone makes mistakes.
We will not be charging you for groceries in the future. Please come see us again.
The reason our family had money, for the first ten years of my life, was that my dad happened to have been born with skills and interest and been born at a time he could go to college cheap, he met a woman who helped him return to college, and he did work men had traditionally done, work that was well compensated and highly respected by most people (except Shakespeare).
If you can’t get your parents to stop fighting, you will have to start worrying about so many things you never considered: did you bring your gym clothes to Dad’s? Who are you going to ask for money for the field trip everyone else is going on? Whose house will you be at on that day?
When I couldn’t pay for my groceries, I wished I was back in my Brooklyn, where I knew a lot of people were struggling financially, and I did once have my card declined. I went ahead and sorted out what I wanted and didn’t, and I felt okay about it. Shit happens, right? Even to white ladies. In the scruffier part of Brooklyn or Queens, I felt like we all knew good people sometimes came up short because it was hard to make ends meet. Everyone knew the city was a hard place to make it.
I decided that the Lawrence gods had punished me for going to the too-fancy grocery store instead of what everyone knew to be the best local, no-frills grocery store in the world. I took my mom’s money and bought trash bags and cat litter and a few green vegetables. The card went through.
I carried five bags of groceries around the side of the house. They were so heavy. In New York, I never would have bought this many groceries at once. I wouldn’t have been able to haul them home, or get them up and down subway stairs.
So it worked out this time, the cat said.
Well, I brought you some wet food, I said.
Meow, she said. Meow.
I picked her up, and she purred for 30 seconds. Then she wiggled.
I put her back down.
I’m sorry you live under this brutal capitalism regime, she said, as I put half and half in the fridge.
Can I have some wet food?
I’m sorry, too, I said. Here you go.
Image: detail of “Grocery Store Window, Macon, Georgia, February 1935,” Walker Evans. Metropolitan Museum of Art.