Photo: Sally

Women We Read This Week

Meaghan O’Connell’s “A Birth Story” on Longreads

So, Meaghan O’Connell’s “A Birth Story” is a fascinating, horrifying, gripping read just for its bare revelations of the capacities of the human body. It’s the kind of piece that has you physically wincing, grimacing, then recounting detail in awe to your significant other, and it’s all that more memorable because it chronicles an ordeal so many women have gone through. Birth only gets more mesmerizing after you’ve endured it; you’ve got to compare the absurdity and intensity of your suffering with others, to see how yours matches up to the dreamy Ina May fantasy O’Connell both sweetly and wryly debunks here.

But it’s not just the fact that it’s a narrative of one of the most pivotal, gruesome, and physical human rites of passage that makes O’Connell’s piece great. It’s funny. It mocks the stereotypical contemporary birth plan – “the yogurt popsicles in the rocketship mold,” the natural labor, the birth stools, the “catch your baby, Meaghan, catch your baby!” It shows the absurdity of all these soft, rose-colored fantasies without contempt; it retains a musing, distant reverence for them while also acknowledging their complete absurdity once you are actually completely subject to your body, with people “fish[ing] around in [your] vagina” and the recurring, intensifying sensation of “your body being twisted and wrung out from the inside.”

At the same time, and in a way I’d imagine resonates with anyone who’s given birth, O’Connell captures its messy, conflicting, surprising resonances, few if any of which are rosy: purple, maybe, blood-red, raw. Hers is the anti-Ina May narrative and yet no less poignant or transcendent; just don’t read it if you’re pregnant. — Sarah

Margaret Moser’s “She’s About a Mover: Portraits from a life shaped by music” in Oxford American

Moser opens her essay on a music-infused night in 1966 in New Orleans. Her wonderment over “a glittering parti-colored float” and the high school drumline whose “[r]hythm infused the earth below into the clouds above” is immediately palpable, as is her deep-in-the-gut tie to music. Chronicling her ever deepening involvement—commitment? love?—in the music world over the next five decades, Moser exposes her desire “to be inside the secret heart of rock & roll,” and just how she went about getting in.

Her family’s move to San Antonio in 1966 brought Moser into close proximity to the Texas music scene, which she embraced enthusiastically. Seven years later, Moser relocated to Austin, an emerging “music mecca.”

“The notion that Austin in the early 1970s floated under a hazy violet crown of non-traditional country music, pot smoke, and cold beer is patently true… [the] counterculture zeitgeist… came in the form of underground press and progressive radio stations like The Rag and KOKE-FM, organic food stores and head shops, cheap housing and cheap gas and cheap covers at the growing number of clubs popping up, and the sense that Austin was the place to be. And music threaded the lifestyle.”

Through the convergence of preparedness and opportunity—Moser’s take on “luck”—she moved from groupie to columnist for the alternative Austin Sun and eventually to director of The Austin Chronicle’s Austin Music Awards. Moser recounts partying with John Cale, attending the funeral of friend and acclaimed blues pianist Pinetop Perkins and watching a Son Volt show backstage with famed Tex-Mex musician Doug Sahm. While Moser does describe a number of her own accomplishments in the music world—coining the phrase “New Sincerity,” for starters—she places more importance on these personal tales. Diagnosed with terminal Stage IV colon cancer in August 2014, this is Moser’s chance to shape her legacy. And it is Moser’s relationships with a variety of musicians—perhaps a symbol of her successful entry into “the secret heart of rock & roll”—which stand out as the truest, most delighting moments of her music-filled life.

“I wanted to live in the stage life, dazzled by color and sound, constantly in motion, driven by excitement and power, loved by the stage lights, part of the story. It intoxicated me to participate in the most benign, basic aspects of rock & roll… thrilled with the insider knowledge of how things worked.”

Clare

“Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink” in The Paris Review

In this short interview Nell Zink talks about her decision to work construction to support her writing. She rejected the traditional path of teaching English or seeking a job in publishing because she didn’t want to do what many of her colleagues had done: seek out and imitate other writers. Zink explained,

Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think. So after I got out of college I worked construction, mostly. I waitressed some in winter.

Zink eventually ended up settling in Germany, which has been important to her development as a writer because, “Poverty in Germany is not criminalized. There are beautiful public spaces and bike paths and frequent buses and trains, and you never have to live in a crime-ridden slum because they don’t have them.”

Zink’s story struck me because in the U.S. we both look down on manual labor and criminalize poverty. I remember when I was trying to be a full-time writer and had no health insurance and got sick, a friend from Spain said, “In Europe, you would never have to worry about this. You could be a poor writer, but your health would be taken care of.”

Alice

Rachel Syme’s “Caftan Lyfe” on The Awl

Heading into the twilight hours of 2014, I thought I had made a thorough inventory of everything I regretted about the year. Then Rachel Syme came along and added one more thing to the pile. Would everything wrong with this shit year have been better if I’d just had a caftan? According to her, maybe!

Let me tell you about what happens when you put one on: you change. The caftan is a genderless, borderless, timeless garment. It has been worn by men and women for thousands of years—by the berbers in Morocco, by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, by Russian peasants, by British queens, by Jewish princesses (both of old Hebraic and modern Long Island origin), by West African leaders and Haight hippies and movie stars. When you put one on, you melt into this history. You step out of time. The anxiety of 2014 feels like it exists on a continuum; the man or woman who wore this beautiful, body-swallowing masterpiece before you probably felt just as unsure of the future, but look, the caftan made it. You can make it too.

Fortunately, 2015 will probably be just as shitty as 2014, simply because it is a year and years tend to be shitty. But they also tend to be wonderful—you just have to work a little harder for the wonder—and I now fully intend to make a caftan part of my own personal arsenal towards that end. No waistbands, no regrets.

Rachael

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