Photo: Robert Dann
Photo: Robert Dann

Women We Read This Week

Rachel Klein’s “The Other Side: Reflections on Motherhood at the Holocaust Museum” in The Toast

Upon returning to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., writer and comedian Rachel Klein recalls the unexpected impact it had on her the first time she visited 14 years ago. In this beautifully rendered essay, Klein remembers thinking that her role as a school field trip chaperone on that first trip would somehow provide her a level of distance, of disconnect from the emotional experience the museum is supposed to evoke. But Klein is pregnant with her first child, and impending motherhood has a strange way of making you heed any and all calls to examine your own mortality and empathize with the experiences of others.

Klein’s writing is fluid and clear, and at times even humorous. She is adept at rendering both scenes and introspection; the fact that she still recalls her first trip to the museum so vividly even after so many years means that it clearly was an impactful moment. But now with the wisdom and distance that comes from the passage of time, she can look back at the experience and discover just how much it means.

The last time I was in this city, I had had no choice but to bring my child with me, inside of me. The second time, I returned alone. Back in D.C. after fourteen years, I felt bracketed on one end by the visceral memory of the first time I felt, with the fullest force, how much motherhood could compel me to behave in ways unforeseen and uninvited by my previous self, and on the other by a decade-and-a-half of living with and for two humans I had created inside me—two humans who now hardly needed me in order to conduct their daily lives, to follow their interests and passions, to live as fully as they can in this imperfect world. Friends of mine who’ve yet to start their families or who are choosing not to have children at all often remark, with vicarious excitement, that I’ll be “done” with kids when I’m in my early forties, as if it’s something one can be “done” with, something one passes through—as if the self who enters the experience of parenthood is the same self that emerges on the other side. As if there is an “other side” at all.

Tiffany Jenkins’s “My secret life” in Aeon

Secrets can be fun; I’ve always been a fan. This has led me to be labeled a “very private person,” but really, I’ve just always enjoyed reveling in “knowing things other people don’t know.” In this fascinating and well-researched essay over at Aeon—one of my favorite publications—sociologist and author Tiffany Jenkins ponders the cultural decline in the value of secrecy, and its special importance in childhood. When my 8-year-old and 3-year-old sons play hide and seek, the younger one blurts out his hiding place as soon as he has assumed it: “I’m under the table!” Jenkins, who has also witnessed this phenomenon among her nieces, explains:

One reason, suggests the Dutch-born phenomenologist Max van Manen in Childhood’s Secrets (1996), is that young children have trouble with the idea that they are not there. Hiding teaches them the more complex idea that, although you cannot be seen, you still exist, after which comes the successful closeting away, from adults, for hours, in secret camps, constructed at home or in the garden, which allows them to create and control their own environment, aiding the development of independence.

Jenkins pulls from popular literature as well as research and academic texts by sociologists and psychologists to unpack the science on secrets. She shows us that secrecy has both advantages and dangers: Depending on their content, some secrets can be burdensome, even toxic, but the ability to keep and selectively share secrets is essential to our development as autonomous individuals and to forging relationships with peers.

Secrets are a currency that is spent creating inclusion and exclusion. But confiding in someone is also an expression of trust – and a requirement of intimacy, which is why sharing a secret is so precarious: you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, offering the keeper an opportunity for manipulation and coercion. They might reveal your secret! With secrets, loyalty is affirmed, and outsiders pushed away. Nothing is worse than the false friend who discloses a confidence. The problem is not so much what they reveal – the boy you fancy; that you bunked off maths – but their betrayal.

Alison Gillespie’s “There’s a Secret World Under the Snow, and It’s in Trouble” on Smithsonian.com

I’m a sucker for “backyard ecology” stories—the ones where we finally explore the places we’ve been overlooking because they’ve been hiding in plain sight. I also enjoy stories that bring climate change realities closer to home. In this reported feature for Smithsonian.com, Alison Gillespie examines the impact of climate change on snowfall, and how those changes will affect animals and ecosystems right here in North America. She explains how climate change has led to unusual, unpredictable snowfall: more or less snow than usual, snow at unusual times of the year, or no snow at all. So how does this affect the creatures that have come to rely on predictable snow levels and timing?

The phrase “blanket of snow” is more than a poetic metaphor—when snow is present, the soil temperatures underneath it stay consistently warmer. Counterintuitively, warmer air temperatures and a lack of snow can actually cause the exposed ground below to become colder. Without the snowpack’s protection, exposed soils freeze more readily. A frozen forest floor spells trouble for animals, even those that hibernate. We often think of a snowy winter landscape as empty and cold and imagine that the majority of animals are sleeping underground, unaware and unaffected by how much snow is above their heads.

Gillespie shows us that changing snow conditions could lead to changing ecosystems. I find pieces like these really important because they tell us about how climate change isn’t just about those distant polar bears running out of ice; it’s right here in our backyards.

Olivia

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