I have faith in baskets. Especially square and rectangular baskets, though I have them in other shapes. The faith is about how baskets, strategically placed on shelves and surfaces throughout my house will save us from the chaos of our collective modes of moving through life—or keep us looking like people who care. There are 5 humans in this house, each of us with a different approach to Stuff. These approaches range from “It’s where I have always lived and it is all my space”—that would be the 5-yr old, and why not—to outright hoarding (books-and-papers—that would be my husband, who is a child of a hoarder. My mother-in-law kept, among other things, every flower arrangement we ever sent her. She was the Miss Haversham of floral arrangements). I’m the daughter of a collector. As best I can figure, the distinction is about intention—my father meant to have over a thousand duck decoys, and hundreds of antique oyster cans, among other collections. The only thing my mother collected was clothes—red silk blouses and classic cotton bandanas in particular. The son-in-law who lives with us has ADHD as forceful as mine and is a little oblivious to the stuff he leaves in his wake. He’s working on it, but he has a full-time job with a finance company, is finishing his BA, and thinks that spending time with his kiddo is more important than picking up. My daughter is a retail manager who has weird hours and more stress than her salary could possibly compensate for. She and I both try. My major tool to combat this 5-person storm of compulsion and obliviousness is baskets. I put them where things pile up (inside the front door), sometimes with names on them. This has helped with the tripping-over-other-people’s-shoes problem. But mostly they turn into miscellaneous collections of Stuff that we forget we have. Yet my faith has held firm. We’re about to do some major renovations on the house. These require a lot of packing away of things, but also a great confrontation with Stuff We Don’t Need. It’s a good thing. But God help anyone who suggests I let go of any of my baskets.
What are the ethics of writing about what is, at heart, someone else’s tragedy? Name Withheld
THIS QUESTION was sent into the Ethicist at the NYT. The writer had witnessed a murder. Although I’ve never seen anyone killed, this kind of question has haunted me my entire writing life.
I’ve tried different approaches: ignoring the material, disguising it, writing it raw, then cycling back to ignoring. Some of this has worked well. Some, not at all. The unwritten about events haunt me, but frankly so do things I’ve written about.
Contrary to contemporary therapeutically-influenced ideas about memoir—-writing is not closure. In fact, if I’m any kind of example of the human psyche—-closure is a tidy aspirational ideal that cannot be attained.
Sure, I’ve put things behind me. But that doesn’t mean they are over.
And I continue to dither. Take the AIDS epidemic. It devastated the neighborhood I lived in in San Francisco—and killed two of my friends and many of my acquaintances. But I’m still trying to truly write about it. Is it “mine”—and is that pov simply that of an observer, or…or…I go round and round.
The Ethicist gives an incredible response I couldn’t have predicted:
“It’s worth recalling that “tragedy,” a word we use to describe events like this one, originally designated a literary genre, a form of storytelling. Whatever is going on in us when we experience a tragic narrative — Aristotle wasn’t the last to speculate about it — we surely learn something about our own emotional repertory; it may serve as a rehearsal of our responses to actual horrors. Classic novels have taken inspiration from real homicides; nonfiction works immortalizing such events have joined the literary canon, too.
We’ll do better, in my view, if we don’t think about what happened as someone’s possession.”
This is memoir, mostly of childhood, mixed with poetry. Here is a section.
The boy wanted the snake. Ten years old, my first husband stood by the side of the pond in the deciduous woods. The snake was thick, thick as his boyish wrist, and he was good with snakes; often caught them and took them home. Kept them alive and what passed as happy for a snake in a glass terrarium, fed them mice. His mother forbade this, despaired, eventually collapsed and gave in. She just refused to clean his room. He kept it tidy. And this snake was free of charge. Twisted on a branch out in the water, healthy skin, its sharp, glittering eyes perceived like part of its brain. Its tongue tasted the air. He tried and tried, using every trick he knew. Another, longer branch, like the snake handler he was. But the snake would not comply. The pond was too murky, too cold, too deep. The sun began to set. And then the snake swam off, in the opposite direction. Tired and muddy, he went home. And looked up the snake in his big snake book. And identified it properly for the first time. It was a species of pit viper. The world’s only semiaquatic viper, and New Jersey could be the top of its range. North America’s only venomous water snake. As an adult, it was large and capable of delivering a painful and potentially fatal bite. It was a water moccasin, and it could kill a child. He’d tell me this story more than once when we were married, and it would remain the story of the one who got away—the snake. But to me it was the story of the one who got away but was surely coming back—death.
it’s Bicycle month, and Bike To Work Day, and there are free snacks out on the Rail Trail. You work remotely, and don’t bike, but you like a festivity. Maybe you’ll score a second breakfast. But when you come home you are carrying a large shallow cardboard box that broadcasts its contents: doughnuts. A lot of doughnuts. Crullers, glazed, sugared, and doughnut holes. You’ve been giving them away on your return trip along the Acequia Trail. They were leftovers, and the organizers were glad to pass them on. You’re feeding the homeless guys chatting on the bench and the lady who sometimes lives in the tunnel, the by-pass under St. Francis. And there are plenty left over for me.
you say the roses are blooming all over town
These nice-looking doughnuts from a road trip a few years agi.
Knowing Alma Gottlieb is like having an in-house anthropologist on call. I always learn from her perspective. Here is the opening of her essay, with link to the whole.
The notion of a “theory” comes from science. As such, the term conveys all the legitimacy upon which the scientific method relies. It should not be tossed around casually like a frisbee in the park.
The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” we are now reading about in mainstream publications is not a theory. Therefore, it should not be called a theory. And it should not be graced with capital letters. Both these practices suggest unearned legitimacy. And, unearned legitimacy carries great risk.
We now know that repeatedly making false claims will train people to slowly accept those false claims. Recent research by a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists warns us that we humans tend to increase our belief in any claims—true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, likely or unlikely—the more often we hear or read about them. So, as we repeatedly encounter something being called a “theory,” we become more easily inclined to agree that it IS a theory. Once that happens, it moves into the realm of science. As such, we begin to attribute it truth status.