In late April or early May of 2021, Henry and I decided we were vaccinated long enough that we could take the blue line downtown. We wanted to go to our separate colleges for different reasons. H wanted to work out at the gym and I wanted to check my mailbox in the English department. It would be my last time visiting the college before I graduated and never went back there again. I wanted some closure. It had been over a year since I set foot inside the school. The blue line seats always felt sticky, or maybe I was always sweating my ass off. I think Henry and I sat next to each other and probably didn’t say much. It was nice to be back in the tunnel of non-language. People on the train were sleeping, surrounded by food wrappers, and I thought, this is how the world should be. The robot voice announced the LaSalle stop, and I exited and walked up the stained concrete steps. I walked past the immigration office and the fancy brunch spot. I walked past the Harold Washington library with its cornice of owls flaming at the corners against the sky. I walked past the closed down Panera which felt like a metaphor for grayed shells of social interaction and leisure. At the college, I showed the security guard my college ID and my vaccination card, but he said since I hadn’t filled out some kind of back-to-campus form with a recent test, I couldn’t enter. I said, but I’m vaccinated, because at the time, that felt like the end-all-be-all of my ability to become infected or to infect. I didn’t meet the formality, and I walked back outside to the sidewalk, past the set of revolving doors that I had funneled in and out of for two years.
Feeling defeated and kind of stupid, I roamed around the street for a bit taking selfies with street-art and buildings of the college like a sentimental montage. I didn’t want to come all the way there for nothing. I remembered that the college’s museum of contemporary photography was open, so I walked to the corner of Michigan Avenue to find the little door. Unlike the building that contained the English Department and my mailbox, the photography museum was open to the public. I just had to get my temperature taken by a security guard and put my phone against a QR code that led to a personal health quiz. Thinking back on this, I wonder why these safety measures didn’t last. It seemed reasonable to ask everyone if they were feeling bad.
The museum of contemporary photography is very small. I remember being able to have my tote bag with me instead of leaving it at the front desk. My water bottle was leaking and I felt self conscious that the wet bag could damage something. The exhibition was about reproductive health. I was one of the only people there, and I walked around collaged art set up like panels or dividers to verge around like a maze. In another room were portraits of women in European countries who had gotten illegal abortions. Upstairs there was a short documentary about a queer couple trying to get pregnant. The trans person in the relationship was receiving fertility treatment. The film was dominated by pregnancy test reveals where the couple wept out of their disappointment and frustration.
Downstairs, I had to give my phone to an attendant before entering a room with a curtain. I assume this was so I wouldn’t film anything for privacy or copyright. Inside the room, I was confronted with many TVs playing documentaries of people giving birth in reverse motion. The films had been flipped into backwards time with no sound. I watched one video of a woman naked and red in a birthing tub, her partner holding her. The baby was underwater below her legs. I watched as the baby squeezed back into the mother’s body, disappearing into her. Without much thought to it, I started to cry. There was no pamphlet or wall text to explain it. A child was entering instead of exiting.
I walked with my grandma through the botanical gardens and she had to stand still and look around. No one told me at the time, but she has cataracts in her eyes and will have surgery soon to remove them. Cataracts block the vision with built up debris, like milky water, I think. It made sense that she had to stop every few minutes as she walked; her view of the world is contaminated by a fog of having lived.
My aunt and my mom’s cousin were ahead of us walking through the irises. They are so fluffy, I said, numerous times. The iris is also a part of the eye. The irises were at peak growth: teardrop petals in globby frills and peachy colors all in rows, with people walking slowly, looking down. I walked through the iris rows for a bit and remembered that Iris was a name in my secret iPhone note “names for my future children”. The name combines my dad’s parents’ names: Irv and Bess. My eyes watered but I couldn’t tell anyone. Entering another part of the garden, the shade of the trees hung over us. My grandma stopped again, and so did I. She looked around and smiled. How tranquil, she said. I curl the word tranquil around my mouth like an iris, like a word I forgot existed.
In her book The Wedding Dress, Fanny Howe wrote: “How does a change in vocabulary change your life?” And then, “Is it possible to imagine another world (God)?”
If you ever have doubts about population growth, go to the St. Louis zoo and look at all the screaming crying babies. Children are inescapable at the zoo. I like to walk around the zoo and pop a birth control pill in my mouth.
I was walking with my grandma alongside almost my entire family, like 20 people, for M and R’s birthdays. We walked past animals sitting on man-made branches, we walked past so many strangers, we walked past sleeping lions, and everything blurred around like memory. Somehow my vision singled out a mother on a bench with her kid on the side of the path. She was rocking him, singing a song into his ear. I stared at them. I had to look away.
Sometimes I think my tears are not hormonal or biological, but a deeper mourning for someone who is not here. The future and grief for the future follow me, take my shape like a shadow, joining me through public spaces.
At one point, our giant Jewish family was walking together in a cluster past the lizard house or something, and another giant Jewish family walked past, they yelled out my mom’s name, and then we all combined into one mass. They were our relatives, too, from out of town, somehow walking in the same section of the same zoo in the same city. Women surrounded my grandma in a half-circle. They hadn’t seen each other in many years. In one passing, our family doubled in size with people unknown to me.
I was reminded of the author Fanny Howe while out one night. I was at an experimental music show at this venue by the Mississippi River that used to be a bathhouse in the late 1800s, and is now a nonprofit that sometimes hosts weird experimental shows. All around are shells of industrial warehouses watching like sleeping history. My friend Z and I like to find each other at shows and talk about books. Standing against the old brick building, he told me that he was reading Howe’s newest (newer?) book Night Philosophy, and he’s kind of obsessed with her right now. You know that trend of contemporary hybrid collage personal essay that everyone’s trying to write right now, he said, and there’s always a big revelation at the end? Well, Fanny Howe’s writing is everything that those writers are trying to do, but better, and there’s no forced realized thoughts or metaphors that wrap everything up into sense. Z said something like this, and it struck me enough to check out The Wedding Dress from the library almost immediately, which is a nonfiction collection of hers from 2003.
Her most famous essay from the book is “Bewilderment” which is a manifesto on confusion and uncertainty as a poetics, a way of life, a politic. This essay is about how Howe goes about her writing of characters and poems and plot as a writer, and also her life. She describes God as emptiness, the randomness of dreams, and uses religious, art, and literary references to prove how we must view our art forms as a method of searching instead of knowing something for-sure ~ “the truth, but still not quite.” It’s all a calling for “childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure”, all of which makes me feel less alone. Bewilderment is the reality that we are all lost, meandering creatures in the woods, walking towards who knows what.
It kind of reminds me of the film “The Point” I watched as a kid. I used to watch this movie on VHS when I couldn’t fall asleep at night, which was a childhood problem that I don’t have anymore. Perhaps my sleeplessness back then was also based in anxiety of the unknown. “The Point” is no different from any standard fairy tale. The cartoon kid is banished to the woods, where he runs into random animals and monsters, and looks down an endless spiraling hole, a portal, tumbling.
“A dream often undermines the narratives of power… It is instead dazzled and horrified.” Howe goes as far to say that the opposite of bewilderment, binding to one answer, is the root cause of war.
“Afterall, the point of art - like war - is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”
The doom of the pandemic never ending and getting worse has been really fucking with me. I’ve seen a lot of people announcing their illness this past week, many for the first time. Covid in the summer feels like a slow burn. Unlike last summer or the summer before that, we had all made plans to be fully out in the world. And for the most part, we all continue to pretend like we will be okay. My anxiety brain, my anxiety heart, keeps repeating: no, we will not be okay. How can we be okay. How do you perform okayness.
H and S and I drove to St. Vincent’s to go thrift shopping the weekend of my 30th birthday. We were talking about children and climate change, children and inherited mental illness, children and inherited disaster. Maybe what we learn from covid with our lack of certainty, we thought, relates to how we should view our unborn or never-born children: we can’t control the world, we can’t control a person who falls out of us. The child can’t go back in. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to not be able to guarantee someone a happy life.
The spread of this illness has created its own illness in my mind. My body is not the same, and I am not the same as a person. I did not experience anxiety or depression like this when I was younger, before the pandemic. This anxiety and depression is only comparable to the first year after my dad’s injury. Maybe these events have broken some faucet in me that kept all my tears inside me for so long. I can never expect the faucet to turn back in.
My mom bought me the Calm app this week. I think she is worried about me. I am using the app mainly to listen to ambient music while I read and write. Maybe this accounts for something. I tried the guided-meditation with the lady’s voice coming out of my phone, as I lay down on my back on my yoga mat. It felt like an empty space for my bad thoughts to burn and I feel ashamed because her voice doesn’t heal me and the thoughts will not erase, will not go down the stream of water like she told me to imagine.
Does it help to write, my mom asked. Yes it does, I said. Racing thoughts turn into dark matter on the google doc. It’s not grasping me; I let my feelings become something, planted and waiting to find out what it means. Fanny Howe assured me: language is supposed to go towards uncertainty. In prose, I craft my thoughts into aliveness, instead of something that is ruining me.
Dodie Bellamy wrote: “When writing happens, my world shifts” and “a portal opens. Things tumble into it.” Writing is an access point to movement, shifts, instead of standing still in a hell-moaning spot. I reach (read) around and find my memories. In this way, I acknowledge that life is capable of transformation, and someday my body will morph out of its current pain and into something else.
The writing keeps going towards the unknown. If I knew where my writing was going, where would be the discovery of this act, “the point” of it? The writing keeps going and going, like Bellamy writes. I want excess, to distract from emptiness. Maybe somewhere in these paragraphs something will happen.
When I cry, I lick up the mucus from the crevice below my nose. I poured apple cider vinegar into my mug and texted my twin “you’re my inspiration”, because she drinks this stuff religiously. I’m reading “Bee Reaved” by Dodie Bellamy at my desk, and I get to a part about her thinking about her younger self in the darkroom at college. I think of my college friends S and J, and I start to cry. Just thinking about them, that we knew versions of each other in our early 20s. Something about that feels powerful. I think about the first time I ever saw J, she was taking photos in the basement of the venue called the hairhole. She was wearing brown shorts. I remember the first time I saw S - they were walking up from leaving our dorm into the afternoon, and I was walking into the dorm on the sidewalk. We walked right into each other. We had been chatting on Facebook the months before. I used to know the exact shirt she was wearing - maybe it was striped, button down tank top, and shorts. I used to know the image more clearly.
Oh how running into someone changes your life.
On my yoga mat that I barely use, on my 30th birthday, in a cloud of never-ending anxiety about holding a big group of people together who I love and I don’t want them to get sick, I remembered the phone video from tour in 2015 of H saying “it’s going” while S and C danced and then I came out and whipped my ponytail around: this is the memory that broke my cloud into water: it’s going!!
I walked down the path of Tower Grove Park with D. I saw two parents with their singular child between them, holding each small hand of their kid like a chain link.
Sobbing into the green hill, sobbing into D’s t-shirt. The context is only that we were walking through the park, past the big trees and candy colored pavilions, having a serious conversation about our relationship and how we care for each other. The three people in the distance walking toward us, holding onto each other, tripped my sadness of being childless – which is my choice, for now, in a world I hate. In a world where I can barely take care of myself. The earth rises in temperature, viral disease, mass murders, greedy billionaires. I’ve written this all before. I keep writing it. A better future never comes.
I feel like I’m mourning a loss, I said. But you still have so much time, D said.
The sun through the park looked like a painted line over the specks of people in the field.
When we were having a similar emotional conversation around the neighborhood, D stopped us in our tracks to look down. An oval-shaped infestation of ants like a spill on the sidewalk, maybe surrounding a piece of food or something dead. The ants were zinging, a thousand moving particles created one black hole, the world.
We felt small and insignificant. We felt the air pause. What does it matter?
Matter: short-lived, ancient, and beyond.