Elizabeth Alexander’s “Lottery Tickets” in The New Yorker
This is a love story. A tale of loss, but a love story before that, and after that, and always. What to do with that which we cannot fathom? Examine it from every conceivable angle. Study it for signs. Decipher its unique science. Translate. Glean the inevitable significance that comes through retrospect. By unspooling the story from numerous possible beginnings, Alexander gives us the life of her beloved Ficre–its vibrancy, its honey-gold sweetness–even as her reason for telling us all this is his untimely death. This story begins here, or here, or maybe here. Through this method, Alexander constructs a place where the story can live–protected and eternal–a complex and multi-roomed dwelling, not unlike the honeycomb Ficre gave Elizabeth when they were first dating.
Its structure was ancient and iconic. Did you know that honey was found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb and is still edible? he said. We marveled at the honeycomb’s simple construction and deceptive strength, and held it up to behold its incomparable gold. We looked all around us through the honey’s gold light. Then we ate it.
One possible beginning Alexander puts forth is the day she and Ficre met:
…an actual coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, love at first sight. I felt a visceral torque…a literal churn of my organs: not butterflies, not arousal; rather, a not unpleasant rotation of my innards, as never before. Lightning struck and did not curdle the cream but instead turned it to sweet, silken butter. Lightning turned sand into glass.
They marry. An artist and a writer. They make two sons.
This essay is filled with beautiful, original detail: “The day he died, the four of us were exactly the same height, just over five feet nine.” “It seemed a perfect symmetry…” After Ficre’s “big heart burst,” it’s as though his absence from the physical world gets directly transferred to the sons he left behind, accelerating their growth. While Ficre’s physical form, his personal volume, ceases to be, his boys “sprout like beanstalks toward the sky,” one of them outgrowing his shoes, seemingly overnight. “His growing seems avid, fevered. It feels like the insistent force of life itself.”
That insistent force of life pulses throughout this essay, from the repeated visits of a hungry hawk to the family’s oak tree, to the reminders of nature as” pure and elemental, necessarily violent…,” to the urgency behind a last minute purchase of 100 lottery tickets, to the impossible sadness of children rating their grief on a scale of one to ten. “I was a ten in sadness when I was crying, Mommy, but now I’m a six.”
Read it. And hold your loved ones close.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “‘All the Time. Every Day.’ Surviving Street Harassment in Mexico City” in Fusion
Fazalizadeh gives us an incredibly human portrait of street harassment by combining video and sketch portraits of the women she interviews in Mexico City. For the almost two years I lived in Mexico City, I endured daily groping on the packed metro, questions from taxi drivers about whether I was in town for spring break and wanted to take off my shirt or stop at a bar for a shot of tequila, and, once, on a very crowded bus, a guy jerked off on my arm. And these are things that pass unperceived or ignored by those around you because they are so normal. I don’t think people realize how draining it is to endure this on a daily basis. I am thankful for Fazalizadeh’s work because it humanizes something that a lot of people think is harmless but that actually carries a very high cost for those who deal with it every day.
Sarah Johnson’s “How Much Can a Marriage Take?” in DAME Magazine
I’m not one for Valentine’s Day and its saccharine, over-marketed representation of love as a bunch of pink fluff. But I love a good love story—a real love story. Johnson’s essay about her marriage traces the relationship’s ebb and flow, the high spikes on the graph that she’ll always remember—like that one night her husband went AWOL from his duty to drive ten hours just to spend the night with her—and the low, uneventful lines, the mundane in and out of living, that represent marriage the rest of the time. How do we survive it when it doesn’t feel like the “love” we expected? To answer this, she recalls a wedding promise she and her husband exchanged at their spontaneous Vegas chapel wedding: I promise to remember what we have left to discover in each other.
She also reflects on her own parents’ marriage of 40 years. And instead of getting sentimental, she gets funny. Her parents didn’t survive 40 years by exchanging sappy love notes (and one gets the impression there may have been very little of that), but by doing something a little more pedestrian:
My father used to hide my mother’s cigarettes before he went to work in the morning. He’d leave a note: “Where are your cigarettes? Are they in the freezer?” Mom, showered and ready with coffee, would look in the freezer and find a second note: “Could they be in the bedroom somewhere?”
Importantly (I think, anyway), Johnson asks: How can you be married for 10 years and never fart in front of your spouse, as she and her husband find out about a couple they know? You can’t, she seems to say. Perhaps, this couple still has something left to “discover in each other,” but eventually you can’t hide what’s fundamentally human. Getting to know–and accept–your spouse in all those ridiculous, mundane moments is the only way to sustain.
Rebecca Bengal’s “Slowly, and With Much Expression” in Guernica
Rebecca Bengal’s essay opens with her father, who is profoundly deaf, and the advent of closed captioning, when it became possible for a little scroll of words to run along the bottom of televisions, pairing words and television. It was a moment of transformation, of forms colliding: “Subtle moments missed in other films were suddenly illuminated and made comprehensible; plots were clarified; gaps were filled; mysteries were solved; the visual world was explained. Was it made larger, I have later wondered, or smaller?”
“Slowly, and With Much Expression” focuses on the work of photographer Alec Soth, using the release of his latest collection, Songbook, as the impetus for talking more broadly about the history of images paired with words. Songbook is a collection of photographs entwined with lyrics from the Great American Songbook, but it’s a project that stemmed from another, The LBM Dispatch, a newspaper collaboration between Soth and writer Brad Zellar. The LBM Dispatch, writes Bengal, “was after the dark heart of Winesburg, Ohio, as much as it was modeled on small-town papers, Agee and Evans, or the WPA travel guides….” Bengal’s essay, which leaps and winds, brings us not only through this relationship between Soth and Zellar, but between Walker Evans and James Agee as well, and, more expansively, between image and word and form.
Pictures are luckier, they are looser than words. Words have to fight harder to arrange themselves, to express that which in a photograph might be the mingling of order and accident, that strange convergence otherwise known as grace.
Ultimately, we might wonder how these collaborations give us the opportunity to tell and retell stories, shifting their elements, their focuses, and their very mediums, and what is revealed or obscured as we do.