Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stay Alert

Sage words of wisdom by Yale professor Timothy Snyder.

Stay informed, dear readers. Stay aware, stay kind, and stay brave.

"Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism," Snyder writes. "Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance.
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom. 

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning. 

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges. 

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. 

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don't use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev. 

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow. 

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them. 

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so. 

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can. 

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good. 

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports. 

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.) 

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hope Flickers

"We are all here together, not alone at all, not distant nor lost, and it’s time, once again, to fight for the country we want our country to be."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


A too-short night. My pounding heart. The feeling that I knew all along. The map, too red, all blood. The women behind me in the ballot box: my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, all of the women, black and white, dead and alive, who have fought for a voice in this country. They're fading even as I type: they're slipping from my vision, moving to the periphery, looking on with heavy, hooded eyes.

It took women to vote our woman down.

Our lives won't change, my partner says, as half-hearted reassurance.

That's just what I'm afraid of, I reply.

And we sit at the kitchen table, the morning still dark, the tea grown cold, our hands sweaty, empty. Even touch doesn't help. Later, I stand at the sink, choking back sobs. The grief will come in waves, I realize - a little today, a little tomorrow, the sadness parsed out in bits and pieces for months and years to come.

I try to summon love. I try to send it out, to exude it. I try to think of sunshine, of women's voices, of babies being born. I try to think of families.

No sweetness comes, though - not today.

The hope didn't go away; it's still inside. I'm carrying it in my heart - but there's no place to put it now. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Woman Who Will

I was up before four AM. Election day. Election day. My heart has been pounding all week, it feels like, my body pent up with an odd, unfamiliar tension. History is about to change.

Meanwhile, I look around and am hard pressed to recognize the excitement in other people’s faces: this daring to hope. We are on the brink! I want to scream—to my students, my colleagues, random strangers in the grocery store, old women peering at bags of sugar and gaggles of teenagers wheeling a cart to their car. I imagine a glass ceiling, shattered. On my commute, alone in the car, I let myself imagine what it will feel like to see her win. I think of my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, and of the daughter or son I might one day have. Pride wells in my eyes.

Meanwhile, people are posting on Facebook, and not all of it’s good. One female student of mine posts that she’d rather have a cigarette put out in her eye than vote for Hillary Clinton. I read that and grieve, but only a little; I’m used to it now, the raw hatred. People can’t stand her voice, her face, her figure, her clothes. They speculate on her sexuality; they compare her to Satan. She’s stumbled and fallen and clawed at the glass ceiling; she’s worked hard to understand women’s lives – poor women’s lives – and make them better. She’s faced so much discrimination, so much sexism in her career, and other women, my peers, are slinging mud. It hurts my heart.

I saw Hillary speak once. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and Hillary came and spoke in our chapel to a crowd of thousands of women. She didn’t speak with grace or softness; she spoke with strength and confidence. It was almost as if she didn’t care if we liked what she had to say. Someone asked her about her Iraq vote and she answered honestly, carefully, as though she hadn’t been asked it a hundred times before. She voted with the information she had. She regrets the decision. She made a mistake; she changed her mind. I remember leaving the lecture feeling proud, an odd tingle palpable even then—she might be the one.

And today, more than ten years later, it turns out she is.

As a senior in college, I took a course called Women and Development. My professor was Lois Wasserspring, one of Wellesley’s best. The class was small, intimate, a group of maybe twelve women, all seniors I already knew. At the end of the semester, Louis invited us all to her home, a sprawling place in Wellesley Hills decorated with things she’d collected in Latin America.

That night, Lois told us about her experience with glass ceilings. She was one of the first six women admitted at Princeton, and on the first day of class, when she entered the classroom, a man spit on her.

Gloria Steinem was criticized for saying that young women just didn’t understand the feminist struggle. Women everywhere took offense at her critique of Bernie Sanders and his followers, but in all honesty, I agreed with her. I hear women beat each other down all the time. I seem them marginalized. I know how it feels to be seen as prey - all women do. 

Recently, I overheard a conversation between several young women. They were discussing a friend of theirs who’d accused a young man of rape.

Jessa’s my girl and everything, one of the woman said to the other, but we all know she sleeps around.

I’m tired of living in a world where women hate women almost as much as men do. I’m tired of seeing men tear Hillary Clinton apart for the way she sounds and the supposed lies she tells. I’m tired of reading essays by my female students about the times they were raped, the times they were punched, the times they were shut down with a few harsh words. I’m sick of teaching students who got pregnant at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I’m tired of hearing the regret in their voices, now that they know better: If only I’d had an abortion. If only I’d turned down the ring. If only I’d stayed in school.

If only I’d known I had a choice—had a voice.

I’m tired of feeling like a raging feminist when I tell a man not to use the word “slut.” I’m tired of hearing other faculty members call my twenty-year-old female students “girls” and not “women.” I’m tired of feeling afraid to walk down a dark street, or to wear a tight skirt, or to look a man straight in the eye. I’m tired of being afraid on the trail in the middle of the day. I’m tired of the number of students who sit down in my office, bow their heads, tug at their sleeves to cover thumbprints on their arms. I’m tired of our junky, underfunded Planned Parenthood – one of two in all of New Mexico.

Today, I’ll take a shower and get ready with care. I’ll dress in my best. I’ll vote for the woman on the ballot, and I’ll say a silent prayer that she’ll win. I’ll permit myself a moment to hope, to remember my grandmothers, to imagine the way my great-grandmothers might feel, watching me vote for a woman for president for the very first time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


When you realize you accidentally mailed your painstakingly-edited book to a potential reviewer, instead of a clean advanced review copy - an ARC. When you go over the hours and days and weeks you spent reading, re-reading, highlighting, underlining, marking the tiniest of errors, feeling relieved that you'd found them, feeling delight in marking them, knowing they'll be fixed in the end. When you remember the deadline, the email your publisher just yesterday sent: time is a-wasting. When you think of your book, mailed yesterday, god-knows-where by now, dust in the wind, might as well be.

When you frantically email the person you accidentally mailed the edited book to. This person is a respected author, an esteemed professor, and you have never met her. You are emailing her now, trying to conceal your frantic tears, trying to explain the situation. Look for the book, you type with trembling hands, and wait, gnawing the inside of your cheek. Luckily, she replies quickly and is kind. You are filled with relief. She will mail the edited version back to you as soon as it arrives. You spend the rest of the day reasoning with yourself: a few extra days won't matter, right? Maybe the designer can work fast. Publishers always pad the schedule, don't they? Things will be fine.

Later, though, you stave off tears. You miss your book.

When you drive home, teary-eyed, missing your book, and finally pull into your space, and the world just seems so blah. You hate yourself for mailing the wrong book. You unload your purse, your textbooks, your stack of papers to grade, everything BUT your marked-up book, which is now somewhere between here and Chicago, so vulnerable, so precious, so many hours of labor in those 298 pages. You slog inside, look for the cat, find her sleeping and pick her up, fur and bones and cat, warm cat, and you let your tears dissolve into her fur. You miss your book.

When you decide to have another look in your car, just in case but probably not - you don't let yourself hope, you don't let yourself wonder - and you go out again and look in the backseat and there's a tote bag with a tablecloth inside, left over from the Day of the Dead table your co-worker, Liz, made at work, and inside you feel something hard alongside the tablecloth, a frame most likely, the picture of your grandparents you brought to display on the table, but instead, when you draw it out, it is your book, your marked up book, there all along.

Dear readers, this is me. This is where I've gone: Booklandia.

I'll be back soon, I think.

Meanwhile, happy fall, my lovelies. Happy leaves and pumpkins and turkey and witches and winter on the wind, just beyond.

Love and snowflakes,


Saturday, September 17, 2016


Well, the review copies have. Meanwhile, as you wait to feast on my very first book, enjoy the press release!

Love and happy changing leaves,



One woman’s solo journey from Guatemala to Argentina provides the backdrop for this empowering travel memoir.

“McCahill is a blues traveler, singing for citizens of the world who have no public voice. She depicts beauty within despair, allowing us to hear a comforting melody in an unsettling breeze and see the gorgeous colors within a bruise.”

— Sascha Feinstein, author of Black Pearls

SANTA FE: Kate McCahill’s debut, PATAGONIAN ROAD: A YEAR ALONE THROUGH LATIN AMERICA (Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2017, 9781939650542), chronicles one teacher’s solo journey from Guatemala to Argentina.

Spanning four seasons, ten countries, three teaching jobs, and countless buses, this unconventional memoir personifies a growing culture of women for whom travel is not a path to love but a route to meaningful work, rare inspiration, and profound self-discovery.

Following the trek Paul Theroux outlined in his 1979 travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express, McCahill transports the read- er from a classroom in a rugged Quito barrio to a dingy rented room in an El Salvadorian brothel, and from the sto- ried neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to the heights of the Peruvian Andes. As McCahill chronicles her own struggles with language, romance, culture, service, and homesickness, PATAGONIAN ROAD: A YEAR ALONE THROUGH LATIN AMERICA ultimately becomes a testament to courage, solitude, and the rewards of taking risks.

About the Author:

Kate McCahill lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Com- munity College. Her writing has been published in Vox, The Millions, and in the Best Travel Writing and Best Women’s Travel Writing anthologies by Travelers’ Tales. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Patagonian Road is her first book.


On Twitter: @katekristiina


By Kate McCahill

Published by Santa Fe Writers Project, Distributed by IPG

Non-Fiction | 230 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | $16.95 US | Trade paper | ISBN: 978-1-9396505-4-2

Available at bookstores everywhere and through IPG
814 N. Franklin, Chicago, IL 60610 | Orders: 1-800-888-474 | ipgbook.com

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Man Who Quit Money

Published in 2012, Mark Sundeen’s account of Daniel Suelo’s intriguing, humbling, and penetrating life is required reading – even if you just get around to an excerpt. For all of us who have stayed up fretting about the contents of our bank account, or have spent hours in traffic on the way to or from work, or have moved to a city or an apartment because work dictated such, then The Man Who Quit Money is the book for you. Your life doesn’t have to be the way it is; this is the essence of Suelo’s captivating story. He is the man who quit money –gave it up in 2012 and has lived without it ever since. Some days are hard, but most aren’t. Life without money is liberation, the ultimate freedom – at least as far as Suelo is concerned.

The Man Who Quit Money begins with three quotes, one excerpted from the Bible. Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in the barn…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

And this is who Suelo has become: Once a fundamentalist Christian, now a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Christian and a member of the Church of the Great Blue Dome. He does not hoard; he does not fret. A man can live for weeks without food. Wool stays warm even when it’s wet. Have faith, and the Lord will provide. The Man Who Quit Money made me a believer, not a born-again Christian but someone who trusts the earth a little bit more, and her capacity to provide, and protect.

The Man Who Quit Money isn’t organized chronologically; rather, each chapter addresses an element of Suelo’s life as a vagrant, a pauper. One chapter talks about food, and how he gets it – in dumpsters, in the desert, in the forest, and in the kitchens of friends. One chapter addresses sex and love – how does one fit romance into a life with no money? (Not very well, it turns out – the other person kind of needs to quit money, too, and it’s rare to find someone who wants to go live in a cave.) One chapter chronicles Suelo’s life before quitting money – social work, the Peace Corps, a few months in India tracking sadhus. The result of this arrangement is a slow teasing out of ideas – that poverty is accepted around the world, but not in America. That America’s greed, her addiction to material possessions and to wealth, has sickened her, maybe permanently. That we’re trained treat the poor with cruelty.

It’s impossible, pretty much, to live as Suelo does, and as Jesus himself did – penniless and ragged. Living without money is definitely illegal – you need to pay taxes, earn money, pay what’s owed. Taking up space on this planet costs dollars. Suelo lives the way he does because he’s educated, fit, clever, and single. He’s free in more ways than one; still, his lifestyle takes work, and he’s constantly explaining himself to those who so fiercely depend capitalism. Giving up money in this day in age makes you a slacker, a mooch. Once, though, we did live without money, and this is part of the book’s point – we bartered, we traded, we used the woods and our wits to feed and clothe ourselves. We were closer to the land, and all that the land had to provide.

Sundeen’s chronicle of Suelo’s extraordinary life is written with tight precision and acute description – and the pages glisten with hope. In between the narrative come flickers of what our lives might look like without money – our bodies would be healthier, worn by the land, the outdoors, and not the hunch of a commute or a cubicle. Our work would be valuable, tangible, and probably minimal – caring for the self, the family, the land, need not be all-consuming. Money is fake, the book screams. Money is not true validation; it’s an illusion. In the end, more stuff only leaves us emptier.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Submit! Submit!

We're open for business, so send your writing and art to the Santa Fe Literary Review, the hottest little rag in town. Postmark December 1. Include a sweet little note and I'll put your submission on the top of the slush pile.

Meanwhile, happy almost-fall, dear readers! Let the season of cozy fires and reading under blankets commence.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Patagonian Road: In Print!

It's official, dear readers!

PATAGONIAN ROAD is due to hit presses in the spring of 2017, with a soft release in February and an official, real-deal, bigtime release in April! Thanks to Andrew Gifford at the Santa Fe Writers Project for believing in this project.

While you await my pages, do feast your eyes upon the preliminary cover, as well as the tantalizing copy that we hope will lure in readers near and far.

Thanks for the years of support, dear readers. It's finally happening!

Spanning four seasons, ten countries, three teaching jobs, and countless buses, Patagonian Road: A Year Alone Through Latin America chronicles Kate McCahill’s solo journey from Guatemala to Argentina. In her struggles with language, romance, culture, service, and homesickness, she personifies a growing culture of women for whom travel is not a path to love but a route to meaningful work, rare inspiration, and profound self-discovery.
Following the route Paul Theroux outlined in his 1979 travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express, McCahill transports the reader from a classroom in a rugged Quito barrio to a dingy rented room in an El Salvadorian brothel, and from the storied neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to the heights the Peruvian Andes.
A testament to courage, solitude, and the rewards of taking risks, Patagonian Road proves that discovery, clarity, and simplicity remain possible in the 21st century, and that travel holds an enduring capacity to transform.
“McCahill is a blues traveler, singing for citizens of the world who have no public voice. She depicts beauty within despair, allowing us to hear a comforting melody in an unsettling breeze and see the gorgeous colors within a bruise. If a feeling of loneliness pervades her essays, so do feelings of wonder and pleasure. It’s simply impossible not to share her joyful and frequently bewildering sensations of travel.”
— Sascha Feinstein, author of Black Pearls

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seeing Palenque

This is Palenque: green and growing and growing 
and it is summer and we are in love.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Kristin Hannah's sweeping WWII novel, The Nightingale, offers a narrative scope reminiscent of Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See. The novels are similar; both detail the horrors of war as well as the human beauty, the strength, that always prevails. Both tug at the heartstrings, leaving readers sobbing, sympathetic not only for the victims but for the brutes, the Nazis, many of whom were victims themselves, prisoners to a dangerous idealism and with families of their own at home. Both The Nightingale and All the Light are rare books, magnificent sagas that span time and space, generations, cultures, and languages. They're books that leave the reader grateful for the written word, for the power of story, and for the relative safety we Americans inhabit today.

Yet Hannah's work is different than All The Light, or any other war epic that chronicles men's experiences. Cold Mountain, The Things They Carried, Birds Without Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls; these are the great war stories of our modern age, the many books about the soldiers on the front and the women who stayed behind. Yet so few attempt what Hannah has succeeded in executing: a well-written, expertly-researched chronicle of the women only, not the ones who "stayed behind" but the ones who watched their men, neighbors, and friends get torn away, who waited for the war to end and meanwhile protected their houses and land, their farms and children, paying for that protection with whatever they could muster: their words, their meals, their bodies.

The Nightingale follows the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, both French. From their small town of Carriveau, Isabelle jets around France, stealing through war-ravaged Paris and across the icy Pyrenees, hustling fallen Allied pilots across the mountains to the safety of Spain. She falls in love; she comes under fire; she gets shot at and interrogated, imprisoned in a special concentration camp for female traitors. Vianne, meanwhile, holds down the fort, protecting her children's lives with her own, watching as her town is decimated by soldiers. Her body is ravaged by hunger, illness, and rape. She commits an accidental betrayal, and her best friend is taken away to be murdered. She carries a Nazi's baby, gives birth, and never tells her husband the truth. Some secrets are better left untold.

Of war, Vianne remembers at the end of the book, the men tell stories and the women get on with it. Such is the style of The Nightingale; perhaps women have even more to lose in war than men, and so it's easier - healthier - to forget whatever traumas were endured than to keep them alive. Though Hannah is a storyteller more than a poet, her writing poses lingering questions that will resonate with any reader, of any gender or age: What constitutes a full life, and what constitutes a fair trade? What makes living worthwhile? Which secrets should always be kept? What do we as a society forget as the years go by, and what are we destined to relearn?

Get thee to a library, dear reader, and put your name on the list for The Nightingale. You may have to wait, but I can assure you, my lovelies, that it will be worth it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Irish Eyes

In Ireland, people ask us where we’re going if they see us looking at a map. Sometimes, they tell us to put the map away, and then they just walk us to where we want to go. Community meetings happen in the schools or in the pubs, and everyone we walk past smiles. Lovely day, they say, even on the shittiest days. All the drivers wave when they pass by.

At the bar the other night, I sat and read the news: fifty dead and fifty more hurt, a massacre of unutterable horror. One man hid in a bathroom stall while, in the next one, everyone inside was gunned down. One woman remembers the last drink she ordered before she made it out the exit, just in time. Cell phone videos play a pumping beat, a shrieking crowd – drunk, euphoric – and the guns sound like part of the song. I sat at the Irish bar and felt sick, and the bartender, his eyes so kind, asked what was making me sad. I told him, and he didn't say he was sorry, or how terrible, or how sick. He looked down at his hands – big workman’s hands – because somehow the Irish know when words just won't work.

In Ireland, no one mentions Donald Trump unless we bring him up first. Many Irish have relatives in America now. People ask me when my wedding is, ask about my dress – even the men ask about my dress. Every morning when we leave for the next town, they wish me a lucky marriage. They make little jokes about grandkids, and they wave as we walk away.

It’s a kind place, Ireland, a gentle and beautiful place. At least, that is what we see: rolling hills, sweeping views, crashing coasts buffered by munching sheep. We see sweet, smiling faces and polite, well-behaved children. We see friendly cows, friendly dogs, shy but friendly cats. People offer us rides and seem embarrassed when we push money into their hands. They push it back towards us, shaking their heads.

Every night as I wait for sleep to come, I marvel at this beauty: unsullied and raw and real. Still, every place knows death, knows blood, and these shattering coasts are no exception. Everywhere there’s ugliness; every day you can find it, if you look. I think back to a dark-eyed, brooding student who, in the middle of class, said something to the woman next to him that made her scream and leave the room. Neither of them ever came back. There’s the woman I met in Santa Fe who walked there from Guatemala, and on the way, her baby died. She had to leave him behind. Him, she said, a fist against her mouth. There’s the boy I knew my whole life who, when I brought my college friends to my hometown, raped one of them beneath the toboggan chute before it was even dark out. All tragedies, all small compared to fifty people dead. The horror of that guy in the bathroom stall still pervades my dreams, and I think that life is too fucked up to fathom.

Who have you lost? a friend recently asked, and I thought of a life cut short beneath thin ice, another halved by pills and booze, a third crushed beneath the weight of sorrow, small at first but enormous by the time a decade passed. I thought of my father’s face in his hands the day his mother died. Without death, I know, we couldn’t live. Without blood, there would never be beauty.

Still, to make sense is impossible.

So the best we can do is to mourn and then learn. We must grieve, weep, and remember. We must rally, lobby, speak out, and educate. We must change our laws. We must change our minds, and once that's done, we must be brave and fight to change other minds, too.

Meanwhile, may we the living seek out beauty today, and say a prayer: For the stranger who shows you the way. For the lover who teaches you trust. For the wedding that’s just around the bend, and for all the years that stretch beyond it  – happy years, you hope, but of course you never know. For the child who runs into the rain just as it’s starting to fall: she’s dancing now, and her grandfather runs out to join her. For the bird that smacked the window and fell, and for my partner, who went out and stroked it and stroked it until finally it beat its wings and flew away. For all the little gifts that make up a day, and for the lessons we might take from the horror. For the laws that might change when we finally decide that we won't lose our freedom if we put down our guns.

To all those beautiful lives lost on a terrible Florida Sunday: May your deaths not be a waste. May we learn from this terrible loss. May beauty grow up from your ashes.

Monday, May 9, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a finely written, wretchedly beautiful account of one neurosurgeon’s struggle with lung cancer. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the premise of this sensational book: Thirty-six-year-old Paul Kalanithi spends his whole life training to fulfill his destiny: to become a neurosurgeon. Different paths lead him to the profession – studies in English literature, philosophy, biology, and ethics bring him, eventually, to Stanford, where he’s poised to become one of the best neurosurgeons in the world.

And then his life changes: lung cancer just when things are finally starting to get good. Now the book becomes beautiful, truly shimmering. Death becomes not the enemy but the inevitable end, the thing which gives all else its meaning. And so what begins as a biography, a list of admirable milestones reached and challenges overcome, turns into something different, a story raw and yet perfectly controlled, a humble account of the time one young man faced his death.

For Kalanithi looks death straight in the eye. In the book’s tugging Epilogue, Kalanithi’s wife Lucy writes, “Paul faced each stage of his illness […] not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one.”

Reminiscent of Jill Bolte Taylor's MY STROKE OF INSIGHTKalanithi’s descriptions of the mind – and his symptoms – are remarkable, and remarkably interesting. As a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi knows just where to press in the brain to make someone feel unutterably sad. He knows what makes people speak in numbers, not in words, and he muses upon the value of language to a life – what is living without words, for example? What does it mean to survive without the ability to listen – or to speak? When does death become a blessing? When does the doctor make the choice to pull the plug?

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a gift to the world. As Lucy writes in the Epilogue, Kalanithi would certainly have saved many lives had he lived. He would have comforted and cured and guided and grieved so many times, in a relationship “that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.”

With a mastery of language and an appreciation for the work that came before—explorations of prose by T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, and even analysis of the Scripture itself—Kalanithi writes not only from a doctor’s perspective, a scientist’s, but also from that of an artist and a lover of beauty. The book, though considered unfinished, is nevertheless flawless, so tightly bound and emotionally wrought as to be unforgettable.

Most poignant about Kalanithi’s narrative is his examination of Lucy’s and his decision to have a child. Despite the death sentence of his cancer diagnosis, Kalanithi and Lucy conceive a daughter. Eight months after she’s born, Kalanithi dies. His final words – both to the reader and to his child – are these, which I’ll leave you with, dear reader:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

May we give thanks for every day, because each one is a gift, and we’ve only got so many. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Woodsy Girls

Aspen Matis's GIRL IN THE WOODS (William Morrow), a new memoir about a young female hiking the PCT, appears at first glance to closely follow the parameters of Cheryl Strayed's chronicles of hiking that same route. Yet, in ways both good and bad, GIRL IN THE WOODS is a different animal; it's younger, rougher, less polished, at once more and less raw. It's less careful, more reckless, more boundless. It's more naive.

There are lots of reasons not to like GIRL IN THE WOODS. Skim reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and you'll see. For this is the story of a white female who has everything: a ritzy Massachusetts upbringing, a life filled with books and clothes and trips, parents who are still together, a college acceptance at one of our nation's tops. The book is also the story of a novice who ventures into the woods unprepared and almost dies. And it's the story of a girl who didn't dress herself until she was sixteen, didn't wash dishes until she was 19, didn't cook, didn't clean, didn't know how to brush her hair. She's a pampered protagonist, and her writing is youthful, borderline sloppy, peppered with comma splices and phrases repeated.

Yet it's also a story of devastation, and of feeling insatiable, and of staying alive. It's about being alone, and not being alone, and being afraid to be alone, and ultimately wanting nothing more than to be alone. At the beginning of the book, I rolled my eyes at the comma splices, and by the end I was rolling my eyes at the love story, how easy it came, how perfect. 

But in the middle, I was crying. I was gripping the book with both hands, reading fast, letting hours slip by, phone calls going unanswered, meals going uneaten. Matis did what all memoirists dream of: she took something horrible - her rape - and she made it into a gift. She made it into something true, and real, and, very frequently, solemnly beautiful. 

I read the book in a day and a night, and then I went outside into the New Mexican night and inhaled deeply: pine, stars, a sprawling sky, the lights of Albuquerque in the distance. 

I thought of the PCT: that rugged, storied trail. Matis wrote of the men there, the prevalence of men hungry for women, the hunger they all felt on the trail. I thought of the "trail angels," who provided food and booze and weed and clothes and baths. I thought of the days Matis ran the trail, wild with thirst, her heart pounding hard, her life on the line. I thought of the comfort she gave up, the suffering she took in exchange. All of those days on the trail. 

GIRL IN THE WOODS, however flawed, remains worthwhile, rare, a fleck in a very dark night.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Happy Spring, dear readers, and a kiss from the sunny plains.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Random Family

I don’t usually like being chucked into a book, and I spent the first few chapters of Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s ambitious, saga-esque work of non-fiction, wondering why LeBlanc hadn’t written an introduction. She doesn’t interpret; she doesn’t try to inform beyond the lives of her characters. She doesn’t examine the system directly; she doesn’t give background information about laws, or neighborhoods, or people, or policies. She just throws you right into it: the daily ups and downs of life in the Bronx for an everyday teen. The story starts with the beautiful Jessica, so young and already months away from getting pregnant with the first of five children. From there, the story skitters and jolts from character to character: the wild, drug-using Lourdes, Jessica's mother, and her crazy brother, twelve and already out on the streets, breaking night. There's no pause, no situating. The narrator is invisible, unknown.

But after a while, I started to get it. This is immersion journalism; these are LeBlanc's characters’ lives. In Random Family, the struggles of half a dozen poor New York City teenagers are chronicled with grace and honesty. These kids – adults, really, because kids in the ghetto grow up at age five – were raised by the street, and they’re rugged and clever. The men deal drugs and the women have babies. A lot of the characters, men and women both, get arrested and go to jail; they get beaten and recover. They get kicked out of their moms’ houses. Their moms become grandmothers at thirty. Their babies get molested as toddlers. The book breaks your heart, and it makes you gasp, exasperated, at all the little mistakes – mistakes the system facilitates. All the little choices that make life harder, and all the little things that compound bad choices: no time or money for birth control, quick and expensive loans, abundant cigarettes, booze, and weed - and worse. A shitty transport system means a shitty life if you don’t have a car. Cheap sugar means rotten teach by three.

I realized an introduction wouldn’t do this book justice. It wouldn’t be fair. I could come to my own conclusions: that this was the story of an America I’d never seen, where girls became moms at twelve, and three-year-olds passed around blunts and bootie danced. Men had multiple wives, and gunned each other down in the streets. This was a story about a system stacked against the people who lived there, a system designed to see them fail. 

Random Family is a chaotic tumble of breakdowns and letdowns, betrayals and grief. It’s pain paired with joy: the beauty of the teenagers, their clothes and jewelry and hair and makeup, and the  beauty of the love in the ghetto: between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. People take care of each other’s kids; people share what little they have. People do their best to keep each other alive.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Halfway through Random Family, I looked up and found myself on a Southwest plane, half-full and on its way back from Atlanta. I’d been at an expensive educational conference, and I was exhausted, though I’d learned a ton: about accelerating students, interpreting data, and the obstacles young men of color face at community colleges today. I was wearing a nice outfit, and my new laptop slept in my bookbag.

I held Random Family in my hands and thought about all that I had, growing up: summer camp, a grassy yard, a dog and cat, a laundry line. A street that I could bike down. Friends I could explore the woods with. Skis and a ski pass; figure skates. Soccer balls; a tennis racket. A subscription to Highlights and a bookshelf of books, all mine. I thought about all the choices, big and small, that brought me to this moment. Some of those choices I made for myself, but most were already set for me, because of who my parents were, my grandparents. Because of the color of my skin, my class, my caste, all of my inheritances, I was one of the lucky ones, and I had had it so good. I hadn't done anything to earn that. I held LeBlanc’s Random Family in my hands, and I cried: it was so late, I was so tired, and there was just so much suffering in this world. I felt so suddenly guilty. Plus, our country is so sharply broken, and it probably won’t ever get fixed. There are so many of us who will go through our lives – on planes to conferences, in our cars to school – never knowing how bad things could be.

Dear readers, if you haven’t already, please go to the library and check out Random Family. I can assure you it will change your life. Don’t let the absence of high-level explanations dissuade you, because those don’t exist in the ghetto, and this book is true to that world. In its title and in its telling, Random Family depicts a realm just up the road, or just downstate - not far from you. Desperation lives around the corner. This is America, Random Family proclaims: severely fucked up, but wretchedly beautiful nevertheless.