Irina Reyn’s “The Photograph” in Brain, Child
In the Facebook era, the absence of public documentation of certain events in one’s life speaks as loudly as the visible display of others. What are we leaving out of our public narratives and why?
In this elegant essay, at once tender and reluctant, Irina Reyn speaks to her wariness of sharing photos of her baby. “To have a baby is to become one thing: Mother,” she writes, and to share photos of one’s baby is to voluntarily submit oneself to the confines of that role, to accept life (in a description of parenthood that will now haunt me at the end of every day spent trying to find lost baby socks) as “the long purgatory of errands before death.”
So Reyn withholds her photos, as if to stymie the absorption of her previous self by motherhoood. But she also comes to recognize that photos have captured her baby’s transformation into an “entire little person,” and that without the photos the ephemeral and unique moments of early motherhood would be lost. Once she shows one photo to a friend, she’s unable to stem the tide; she’s “wading into that soft place of pride and achievement.” For in addition to providing the proof that she has become this one thing, this Mother, they are also evidence of her ultimate achievement: a new, stunning person.
I vowed to myself when I had my baby in June that I would not change my profile photo to one of me and baby: that I’d stay me, my identity distinct from motherhood, but already my will is eroding, already I have too many photos of the baby gazing at the camera in a fall woods or before a brilliant blue Oaxacan wall, and I can hardly resist: my life has blurred into hers, and these are its salient moments. Reyn’s essay is the kind that floods you with gratitude at the knowledge that other mothers struggle with these questions, too, and that you’re not alone in projecting big anxieties onto seemingly minor decisions.
Gila Lyons’ “A Girl And Her Car” in The Rumpus
A car is a way of being in the same body—four heartbeats speeding towards a common destination. Thank you, Gila Lyons, for this simple sentence. It takes the telegraph poles and the radio scan skipping between stations, the stars through the dashboard and the cool lining of my mother’s coat tossed to the back as a blanket and provides the words I have been looking for without realizing it–perhaps for much of my life–for the utterly non-mechanical, animal sense of being with one’s family on the road. In this lovely, rhythmic and trenchant essay, Lyons moves from the backseat of youth to the driver’s seat of adulthood, not in metaphor but in actual fact. She renders it all, five-senses strong. Lyons rides with her mother, then takes the wheel herself, wondering all the while about the ways that the world configures women and cars–as bad drivers, as mechanic shop pin-ups, of which she writes.
In what other place of business would such decor be acceptable or so routinely ignored? Imagine waiting in line at the bank, or sitting in a vinyl seat before a dental cleaning, or waiting to order a muffin at a bakery, with walls coated in glistening torsos and sultry stares.
It takes skill to move from the poetry of memory to the gender politics of traffic stops without any grinding gears. This piece is just a lovely, lovely ride.
Sarah Smarsh’s “Poor Teeth” in Aeon
One day in first grade, my class sat cross-legged on our storytime carpet as a woman in scrubs told us all about the importance of brushing our teeth, her delivery of this information urgent to a degree my small self found utterly baffling. Brush my teeth? I’d been brushing my teeth twice a day as long as I could remember, even on the days my mom picked me up from school early for my dentist appointment downtown, a twice-yearly occurrence that I wouldn’t have minded bumping up to quarterly, mostly because we got stickers at the end of every visit, big yellow ones that said DR. FRED LOVES ME.
It took me years to realize that not everyone in town saw Dr. Fred and even more years to realize that not everyone saw a dentist, period—that the excellent and regular dental care I got as a kid was a massive privilege. And it might have taken me until this week, when I read this piece by Sarah Smarsh, to realize how the absence of that privilege—various political and industry machinations have rendered dental care as a beast separate from healthcare, and as such it’s even more elusive—plays such a subtle role in reinforcing the circumstances that failed to allow for it in the first place. This is beyond what a kindly hygienist could tackle on a school visit.
Smarsh uses Orange is the New Black’s Pennsatucky as an entrypoint to a strory that’s both broadly relevant and deeply personal. Her grandmother was wearing dentures by 35; at 50 her father nearly died of heart failure after his blood was poisoned by an abscessed tooth; Smarsh’s own childhood was riddled with tooth-related pain and embarrassment and anxiety. ”Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities,” she writes. “People without jobs are poor. Poor people can’t access dentistry—and so goes the cycle.”
It’s just so good, top to bottom. And if you click the link and find yourself quickly scrolling past the top image, read it twice. I did.
Jill Futter’s “Yay, Dream Camera!” on JillFutter.com
This morning I woke up with Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview. Part of my sleepy face was plastered on top of the black and white photo of Sontag on the book cover. In the first few pages I had underlined: “Look, what I want is to be fully present in my life…That’s what a writer does, a writer pays attention to the world.” For me, part of being fully present and part of observing relates to photography, mostly to the photography of others and being able to see the world through many curious eyes. I have been following photographer Jill Futter’s work for several years now, and her recent work on the streets of New York City, especially the series of black and white photos in this blog post , give me the feeling of someone who is fully present in a moment, in a scene. Futter writes about acquiring a new camera:
I don’t want fancy shoes, or shiny bags, or luxury vacations, or pretty clothes…I just want my dream cameras. About two weeks ago, I finally got to check off the last on my (very short) list of film camera musts with a mint-condition 1988 Leica M6 I scored off eBay. It arrived at my doorstep with a silky-smooth, razor-sharp Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2, and I’m quite pleased with it! This M6 is my first-ever rangefinder, so the freshness of its super-quiet shutter action and the brightness of the viewfinder was instantly intoxicating. I’ve always loved the simplicity of film and how it slows me down, as a digitally-trained shooter, but somehow, this particular camera elevates the picture-taking experience for me, even though I’ve always shot manually, film or not. I can’t wait to take Leonidas with me on my adventures next year (more on that as said adventures unfold). Yes, all of my cameras have names.
In Sontag’s 1996 “A Letter to Borges” she writes that, “Some people think of reading as a kind of escape: an escape from the ‘real’ everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.” Futter’s photos remind me of this, of being fully human and present in life.
Hannah Gersen’s “One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling” in The Millions
This piece is, I admit, probably most enjoyable if, like me, you at some point in your life fell down the Friday Night Lights rabbit hole and spent an obsessive six months watching every episode that ever aired and dreaming in a Texas accent. But a relationship with the show isn’t necessary to appreciate the wider observations here, particularly about how compelling mundanity can be as a plot point, a driver of stories. As Gersen puts it,
I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points (save for a few bizarre episodes in Season 2) are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia or hunting terrorists. No one is cooking meth in order to pay for cancer treatments. No one even gets cancer in Dillon! Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in a variety of stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands and trying out for quad rugby teams. They’re perusing real estate listings and filling out insurance forms. They’re buying cars and driving cars and fixing cars. Someone is always waiting for a ride. Someone is always heartbroken. Someone is always broke.
The centerpiece of the show, of course, was always the relationship between Coach Taylor and his wife Tami, and even this, Gersen points out, lacks the melodrama that you might expect; the appeal lies, instead, in, “the way their marriage is portrayed, quotidian scene by quotidian scene.”
The thing about this essay, though, is that it isn’t only about Friday Night Lights itself; it’s also about the experience of watching it as a grown up, looking back. My period of Friday Night Lights obsession happened to coincide with a month-long stay with my parents in California, and it got me thinking – of course it did – about my own small-town upbringing, my own high school experience. One afternoon I found myself driving aimlessly, along Highway 246, down streets where friends used to live, trying to feel my way around after more than ten years of living elsewhere. I ended up at my old high school, and I did a quick drive through the campus, feeling like a trespasser, anxious not to be caught even though it was the middle of summer and no one was around. It couldn’t have been more different from Dillon, Texas – here, for instance, was the field where the lacrosse team practiced, because we didn’t even have a football team. And yet it felt newly alive; for four years I had spent eight or nine hours a day here thinking almost exclusively about myself, plotting my escape to somewhere bigger and more exotic, and I suppose in a way I was surprised to see the buildings still standing in my absence. And yet, as Gersen writes:
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why something inspires you, but I think Friday Night Lights got me thinking about the adults I’d grown up with, adults whose personal lives I’d never fully imagined because I was a kid, living my kid-life. I began to look back on my childhood in a different way, to think less about how I lived and more about how other people lived.