Posts Tagged ‘memory’

The Vagrant in Sweden

June 27th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.


We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862


P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

Voices From Chernobyl

March 15th, 2011 | Meera

In 2006 I wrote a short review of an extraordinary book. At the time it seemed a warning look back at the past; in the wake of today’s Japan, it seems all but augury. The review originally appeared on Bookslut; I reproduce it below. A link to the book appears at the bottom of this post. It comes highly recommended. In fact, let me know if you want to borrow my copy.

Photo by Swobodin

…it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize.

—Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association.

When moody visionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the “poetic faith” a reader must arm herself with in order to access the truths lying beneath the illusions of literature, he probably never imagined that it would also be a necessary attitude for reading a work of nonfiction. Yet the most striking aspect of journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning oral history Voices From Chernobyl is the way the text makes use of overt theatrical elements to test the boundary between literature and reality—and the way it demands an active effort on the part of the reader to see beyond the mythic quality of the tragic stories it contains. It’s a challenging requirement, and Alexievich does not make the task easy.

She divides her book into three parts, echoing the three-act structure of a traditional play. Similarly, each individual narrative is treated as a dramatic soliloquy: “Monologue About Memories,” “Monologue About a Moonlit Landscape,” “Monologue About an Expensive Salami.” When she wishes to describe a person’s demeanor or behavior, Alexievich inserts into the text what look for all the world like stage directions: “[Cries.] [Silent for a while.].” The narratives are full of the repetitions, half-sentences, and interjections that represent the natural rhythms of speech, and although these are interviews—the last of which was completed in 1996, ten years after the disaster—Alexievich’s voice as a questioner is conspicuously absent. Perhaps most telling of all, in three instances several short narratives are grouped together to give us a chorus straight out of a Greek tragedy: “Soldiers’ Chorus” in Part One: The Land of the Dead; “People’s Chorus” in Part Two: The Land of the Living; “Children’s Chorus” in Part Three: Amazed by Sadness.

The images contained in these histories are almost painfully literary: cats and dogs roam deserted villages; conscripted soldiers dig up great swathes of earth in order to bury it somewhere else; beautiful, lush fields are full of poisoned cucumbers and tomatoes; people come out of their houses to wonder at a jewel-like fire that glows over the reactor. The interviewees themselves often seem drawn towards metaphor—at one point photographer Viktor Latun is quoted as saying, quite lyrically, “the scientists had been gods, now they were fallen angels.”

Nothing could be added to make all this seem more like a cautionary myth or a dark fable.

And yet we can gain a great deal by bracing ourselves against the invitation (half-serious, half-ironic) to read the book as a nightmarish drama with a broad moral. In its specificity and its attention to the particulars of individual experiences, Voices From Chernobyl has much that is valuable to say about this catastrophe, this human failure. These narratives are more than evocative—they are interrogative. They raise hard questions about the uneasy relationship we have with science; the difference between heroism and tragedy; the impact of a history of collectivism on the response to what happened; the parallels between this disaster and the disaster of war.

In this Alexievich has achieved something quite unexpected: she has crafted a book that is simultaneously a historical artifact and a literary invention. What is true here cannot help but reach toward metaphor; what seems symbolic is nevertheless a statement of fact. In combining these approaches Alexievich highlights the limitations of both. It is unbearable to think of Chernobyl as history; it is equally unbearable to think of it as myth. To read this book is to stumble back and forth in the space between the two, and to experience what feels like an intolerable inability to bring real understanding to these devastating events.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen

Loving Observation: Photographing the Science Museum

January 17th, 2011 | Meera

The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.

There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.

I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.

Some Amazing Thing (Paper Fish)
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.

Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.

I bring my camera, of course.

You might not want to look too close
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.

Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.

Together Forever
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.

One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.

Waiting to Walk
Photo taken at the MIT Museum.

It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.

White Cross Violet Ray
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.

That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.

maniraptor tickles your spine
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

And When You Look Up

January 5th, 2011 | Meera

There was that moment, years before, when you first discovered that you could see the air. How could it have taken so long? Maybe it was only that you’d never sat just so, interrupting the course of a streak of sunlight as it ran—like a river on a mission—down to its journey’s end, its peaceful, silent terminus.

Maybe you’d never been in a place so friable before: a place where the matter of the world was engaged in an occupation of slow and constant crumbling, and had been for some time—the debris of which was so light, and so plentiful, as to become a force that defied gravity itself. You could see it there, levitating above your head. It took the form of great clouds of dust that dropped and rose and eddied in the sunlight, like broken twigs in the flow of a stream.

So the moment came, late though it was, and there it was: the air. Oh, not the air, all right; let us be truthful, if we must. But close enough: the air’s attorney, its surrogate form, its full and official deputy in all matters pertaining to visibility. The air was bright as diamonds. And there you were, amazed.

And there is this moment, years later. Night, not day. No sunlight to be found, not on this half of the earth at any rate; no radiance whose course you might cut off. No dust, either, for the world is now so cold that it has frozen all its chalky parts to itself, and will not release from its hard core nor the slightest bit of powder nor the merest speck of smut. All that breathes about you is obscured. Indeed, you have forgotten as you walk that the air had ever been unveiled.

But then it starts to snow.

So fine a snow is this that if you try to spy a flake it disappears; so fine that though a few rare flecks brush your lips like needles, you cannot be sure of their actuality.

Still you understand: the world up there is kindly crumbling. And when you look up, it strikes you that you stand just so: interrupting the business of a streetlamp.

On The End and What You Do Before

May 13th, 2010 | Meera

There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.

That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.

When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.

Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.

The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.

These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.

Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?

If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.

And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?

These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.

Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.

Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.

Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.

So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.

Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.

I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)

But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.

What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.

Come it did.

When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.

And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.

For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.

In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.

The First Forgetting

March 7th, 2010 | Meera

I’m four, going on five, and walking with my class along a corridor that goes between the room where we take our naps to the room where we paint our pictures. I’m wearing the tiny red-checked uniform of my kindergarten. It has a pocket on the right hand side, and inside it is a piece of tissue paper that I used a few minutes ago to blow my nose. I’m fingering it nervously because I don’t know what to do with it now. There is a rubbish bin, I think, by the bathroom, but I am too shy to ask if I can leave the little choo choo train we’ve made—chugging along so smoothly—to walk over there and throw it away. I keep worrying at the tissue, wadding it up and tearing bits off it as I walk.

Then I have an idea. I am the last one in line, the caboose to this convoy. I roll the tissue into my palm, tight and invisible, and casually remove my hand from my pocket and lower it to my side, still balled up. Like a practiced sneak, I slowly unfurl my fingers one by one. The tissue falls, my step quickens. In a moment I am a few feet beyond it—and no one has seen. I let out my breath.

This isn’t the earliest memory I have, but it’s one of the few that has a distinct narrative—it makes me laugh to consider how terrified I was of doing anything even remotely against the rules, or that called attention to myself—and how devious I was willing to be in the service of that anonymity. It tells me I have not, perhaps, changed all that much.

There are other things I remember: eating porridge with slices of boiled chicken at my upstairs neighbor’s house, singing “You Are My Sunshine” in rounds in the car, burning the skin of my knees on the scratchy red carpet that only existed in one room of my family’s old apartment, getting Barbie dolls out from under the bed. But in general, the impressions I have of my early childhood are few, vague, and fugitive. When I can see them at all they are like the patterns on the insides of your eyelids—try to focus on them, and they change.

It’s not uncommon for a few startlingly clear visions to persist from a very young age. When I ask, my friend Regina says she can feel herself lying on her brother’s warm, comforting back, the two of them in a cot surrounded by the noise of strange children at a daycare center; she was 18 months old. Yvette, not much older than that when she was in the hospital for heart surgery, has on her tongue the taste of the popsicle a nurse thought to give her: Grape. But for the most part, when it comes to early memories we are all, relatively speaking, paupers caressing a small handful of coins.

You might imagine that young minds haven’t yet developed the neurological capacity—the physical equipment, so to speak—to store memories about experiences over time. Brain structures known to be vital for processing episodic memory, after all, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, do not develop fully for years.

Sensible as this theory seems, it’s hard to pit it against the facts. Six month-old babies can remember previously formed associations, like the fact that if they kick their leg just so, a pretty mobile that some strange scientific hand has tied to their ankle will twist in the air above over and over, like a bird, all color and light. And pain, of course, just as well as pleasure, makes its way into the brain. When my nephew was barely a year and a half old he crashed his head against a glass table. For days, my sister says, he’d return to the same spot and show her how it had happened, pantomiming his bump, face crumpling into a facsimile of the wail he’d wailed when it first happened. It is almost as if—not really, I know, but as if—he had some intuition that the moment would not last long, and thought to place it with someone who could hold it after he himself had forgotten.

Amazingly, scientists have been able to show that the ability to form complex episodic memories starts literally in the womb; we know this thanks to Dr. Seuss and two curious researchers. In 1986, A.J. De Casper and M. Spence asked pregnant women to read aloud one of three similar excerpts from The Cat in the Hat every day, several times a day, for six weeks before they gave birth. Three days after each baby was born, an ingenious set up allowed them to “choose” which of the three short passages they wanted to hear by varying the rate at which they suckled on a teat. By significant margins, the tiny infants showed they remembered and preferred the familiar reading to the ones they had never heard before. (A control group of unread-to babies had no particular feelings on the subject.)

In other words, children are not, by any means, sieves through which experiences flow like water without ever being caught. Yet the empirical evidence that most of us hold fewer memories from the earliest years of our lives than from later ones is impossible to ignore. If people are asked to describe as many childhood memories as they can, almost none of the items they recall will have occurred before their third birthday; after that, the number of memories they cite soars markedly. A statistical analysis of memories plotted against age finds that the scarcity of early recollections is even greater than you would expect after taking into consideration the fact that the older a memory is, the more likely it is to have decayed.

Caroline Miles, questioning a hundred college-aged women in 1893, found that the average age from which a first recollection came was 3.04 years; no subject of hers cited an event, impression, or sensation dating from when they were younger than 2.6 years. Since then, over a century of studies of early childhood memories have arrived at conspicuously similar figures, with some small, but interesting variations across culture and gender: Women typically remember slightly more childhood details than men, Americans typically reach slightly further back than do Chinese.

Psychologists have a name for this lacuna in our lives, this band of time at the end of which, it seems, we each line up to drink deeply from Lethe’s stream and give up most of what we once knew. This first forgetting. Depending on who you ask, it is called in the literature either “infantile amnesia” or “childhood amnesia,” names which have something of the absurdly overblown—they make us all sound like so many desperate soap opera characters bumbling about in a world full of strangers, our whole past lives erased at a single stroke.

And yet there is, truly, a note of tragedy about this very ordinary amnesia. We have reason to believe that the sensations we have as infants and very young children are exquisitely intense, full of vivid sounds, shapes, smells, images, and ideas that fly across our consciousness from every corner. Because we are less cognizant of established patterns, less able quickly to file away each impression into a neat category as soon as it arrives, we are (in the way so many of us strive to be in our adult lives) flooded with excitement and adventure—hyper-aware of the bright, sweet world in which we live.

Paper Cranes Everywhere Begin Evolving To Be Less Colorful

But look at us now. Look at me. In the face of all that wondrous experience I imagine to have once coursed through my brain like rivers of fire, here I am today: working eagerly at the meager store of memories I have from my childhood as if they were a few small pieces of tissue in my pocket, wearing thinner and thinner with each rub.


As with so many questions about memory and experience, no one really knows for sure. No one, any longer, believes Freud was right about the mind’s need to quell the “trauma” of psychosexual development by repressing memories associated with growing up, as if the entire adult human race were a limping legion of soldiers who had survived a war, each tender from the wounds of childhood itself.

Instead, most current theories seem in one sense or another to treat the fierce, beautiful memories from this period of our lives like lost treasure, buried under the ground somewhere and we without a map.

Maybe, some have argued, it takes a while for the brain to develop the ability to properly label individual memories with information about the way in which they arose, so that while we may on some deep level remember an experience itself, we are unable to access it because we no longer remember its source. If, for instance, you had not yet developed a sense of self, to what anchor could you safely attach your memories of things that happened to you? I like this notion. I think of balloons that ought to be tethered to a pole, to a tree branch, to a chubby wrist, coming free of their loose knots. Once they had flown high, ranged far away, could you bring them home again?

Or maybe, others say, the tens of billions of synaptic connections we lose as we age into adulthood prevent us from retrieving the recollections we formed early on, because many of the complex strings of firings that once led our minds from here to there have now been broken somewhere along the line. I like this notion, too. I think of a spider’s web that someone has walked through, intricate and gauzy. All unknowing, they shake their heads free of the fine threads as they step away, and leave this corner fragmented from that. I think of a house with ten thousand rooms and a thousand locked doors.

And maybe, still others guess—the ones, I imagine, who love words as much as I do— before we can use language to describe an event, even if only in our minds, memories live in silence. Wanting names, they persist—but cannot be called. I love this notion best of all. It feels less lonely than the others.

I think of a mind full of old friends, waiting for me to remember who they are.

and you will be the one to look up to me

Samson and Me

January 10th, 2010 | Meera

At five I couldn’t see the point of hair. I wanted it out of my way, so my mother obliged. She circled me slowly, shearing it off to just above my chin, and the air filled with a most satisfying ripping sound. Close to my ears the scissors crunched, closing their legs hungrily on my black wings.

At eleven I wanted everything under control. I was up when the sun was a murmur, stomach turning at the prospect of breakfast so early. My hair was a thick fountain I had to subdue into a ponytail neat enough for school and my desire to do things exactly right (a desire since mostly lost). I worked and reworked it, each time finding I’d sat my rubber band too far to the left or the right, or that threads of too-short hair were escaping from its noose, or that where I thought I had brushed my scalp into perfect smoothness there was still a small hillock of hair, invisible but to my own questing fingers. My sandwich sat uneaten.

Later I was a teenager, and let my hair down, and—bliss—it was a pair of doors I could shut against the world. Teachers nattered at it, instead of me. (Also, though I did not realize it then, I’d grown a set of blinders. Nothing could be seen beyond the edges of my hair, but for several years there was plenty to occupy me between their curtains: the curve of a friend’s back as she walked away, the crazy softness of a boy’s lip, my gigantic fear of being unloved.)

I began to imagine it would one day grow so long it would descend into the ground like roots, fixing me where I was. Perhaps that’s why it all came off in one dramatic gesture. How many other things were tangled in it! I looked down when it was done and saw them all snipped in half. Slick heat and sweat. The idea of being beautiful. The memory of dancing to “Copa Cabana” some school-day afternoon, laughing through my fingers. Some of them I’d have wanted to keep, if I’d known that’s where they’d been.

The year I turned 21 I was living in Jerusalem with an English boy, and it had been two years or more since I’d sat in a revolving chair, leaning my head back for a cut like a patient ready for surgery.

I was very happy then. As for my hair, it was happy, too. It wriggled with happiness; I could feel it sometimes when we sat on the bus together and everyone else leaned a little towards the speakers, listening to the hourly news. My hair leaned towards the English boy. It waved down my back like the shining tide of a gentle sea. At night we arranged ourselves, he and I, like two bookends tucked into each other. That was so he could brush my hair a hundred times, giving it all the attention of a tailor smoothing out a magnificent piece of fabric that had not yet received its first cut. When we parted the boy took some with him; for all I know he has it still.

Lately I have been cutting my own hair, chopping at it like a woodman who doesn’t care how rough are the edges of the stumps he leaves behind. I am all business. What is gone is gone.

Natalie Angier (I do adore her; she inspired my only fan letter to the New York Times to date) has written that the skin is the organ with the biggest mouth. She says it trumpets our emotions with its goosebumps and blushes, reveals our weaknesses with its scars and scrapes, and is, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, the well-judged cover for a book no one, really, will ever read from first to last page.

She’s right, of course: skin is a loudmouth. But if you ask me, what hair lacks in volume it makes up for in storytelling style. It may be bloodless—at least by the time its questing fibers are pushed up from beneath the scalp—but it has a heartbeat. How else to explain the fact that it can keep time (let’s see skin do that)?

Don’t believe me? Try this. Take a few long strands of hair from a brand new mother, all relief and tears, her sweet infant barely out of its packaging. Get them right from the scalp, and don’t worry; she’ll barely notice you. Take more from a woman whose child is now three-months known, her eyes bleary from 90 interrupted nights. Another from a six-month mother, practically a veteran of cradling and lullabies and midnight messes, and still more from the head of one just beginning to hear her nine-month-old babble like a brook.

All set? Right. Now. Check the very highest tip of the hair from the newest mother, the flickery spot where it emerged from its follicle, for cortisol. That’s a substance that’s a marker for stress (people call it the fight-or-flight hormone). When a woman becomes pregnant she is flooded with cortisol. It soothes her response to pain, gives her more energy, and—some evidence suggests—makes her more attentive to danger. Look at the nib of that hair, and you’ll find cortisol in spades right there, just at the point of her baby’s birth. Now move three centimeters along the hair, and test again. Less cortisol. Another three centimeters, and test again. Still less, in an utterly predictable monotonic progression.

Do the same thing with the hair from the other women, and you’ll find the level of cortisol decreasing from high to low, step-wise along the hair, in just the same way—except now the highest level won’t be found at the tip. It’ll be three centimeters along with the mothers of three-month-olds. Six centimeters along with the mothers of six-month-olds. And so on.

Line them all up against each other, matching hormone levels as you go, and what you get, in effect, is an astonishingly accurate calendar of pregnancy’s effect on cortisol production in a woman’s body. Here is where it all began, two cells meeting, merging, making plans for the future. Here they’ve grown into a little lemon, here there are hands that wave through amniotic fluid as if swimming. Here everything is ready at last, racing like a freight train towards that long-awaited emergence.

All this happens, of course, because a growing hair takes on all manner of free-floating biochemical stowaways in the blood it absorbs from its follicle, each of which is permanently incorporated into its cellular structure at that precise point. If someone were trying to poison you with lead, your hair would know. If you’d been good and given up all your vices, your hair would speak your virtue. And though it has no life of its own, hair still breathes the air you breathe, drinks the water you drink. It remembers where you live.

It’s all there—the inner ebb and flow of anxiety and love, the things you’ve brought into yourself, the places you’ve traveled—all documented in a curl. It doesn’t go away, either. Hair can keep a secret for more than a thousand years, it seems. And knowing that, I am a little rueful over the decades of ink I’ve spilled below my chair. Whole novels’ worth, perhaps. The longer the strand, the deeper the communiqué?

I’m growing it out now, you know. I’m waiting to see what my blood writes in it.

A Very Commonplace Gesture (3)