Reading the News

 

“Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation / Grant us thy peace.” —T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

The sky’s still here, the sun’s out, the first bulbs are sprouting in the garden. Everything seems OK. But I fear the ghosts—the demons, devils, tribes—inside us. I remember the months I spent in the archives in Spain, principally Madrid and Granada, trawling through newspapers from the early 1930s. In particular, I remember the small articles, the notices so tiny they nearly dissolved among the ads—offhand reports of edicts against Jews in Germany; accounts of random violence in Madrid. None was more than a ripple in a lake, the benign burbling of some creature breathing beneath the surface of things. No storm yet, no kettle-drum rolls, no ominous movie soundtrack. Just incremental history, as slow as a cake rising in the oven, even, sometimes, sweet-smelling.

But still. There I sat, a U.S. government grant recipient paid to study the life of a gay poet murdered by Fascists in 1936. I sat there with my crisp and eerie knowledge of what later unfolded—the gradual and then sudden suppression of rights not only in Spain but across Europe; the bombs; the round-ups; the mass graves. Blessed with a hindsight I wish I had now, I knew where those little articles led. As I read them, I made invisible underlinings, reminding myself—as we’ve been reminded lately by the likes of Masha Gessen—that this is how it happens. The tanks don’t just suddenly appear on the streets: we get there in increments.

So how do we function? Do we merely note the warning signs and hope to survive?

I remember sitting beside the open window of the reading room inside the archive in Granada (a repurposed Renaissance palace, one of the loveliest archives I’ve ever used), reading those terrible newspapers from the summer of 1936—the black headlines, the trucks, the guns, how the city morphed overnight into a battleground. I’d take a break midway through my morning and go across the street for a coffee, and sit there chatting with the bartender, and wonder how this peaceful and pretty city could have turned so abruptly into a killing zone in our own century. The barracks, the truckloads of victims ascending the steep road to the cemetery next to the Alhambra, where the firing squad waited.

And here I sit now, in my own country, sipping coffee, chatting with friends. The sun is out, the streets calm. I read the headlines and turn the page and every so often wonder if 50 years from now a scholar on a government grant will be poring over the articles I’m reading today, asking how did they not know.

How long before we enter the time of cords and scourges and lamentations? Or are we there already and just don’t see it?

Snow, Unpublished

“Publication,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1863, “is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”

… We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Words of commerce—merchant, sell, parcel, price—mark this small poem (# 788). The implication is clear: to publish is to sell out, to enter the marketplace.

I’ve just spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan in what was once a department of “external relations” and for the past several years has been a department of “marketing and communications.” The obsession today is with our “brand,” with selling and promoting that brand, something universities are increasingly wont to do.

I’m glad to be getting out of the selling game, though I’m not in truth getting out. This bit of commercial property, for example: lesliestainton.com. What does that represent, if not myself in the marketplace? My “brand”?

We brand animals. We have branded people whom we regarded as property. So if we “brand” outselves, who owns us?

Dickinson urges that our “thought” belong “to Him who gave it,” not to the marketplace. To publication.

In the age of Facebook and all the rest of it, how quaint, the writer in her garret.

Here sit I in mine, gazing out the window at this week’s latest gloss of snow. Think of it falling, how it quiets the world, blots, sharpens, defines (memo to self: reread The Dead this Christmas). How beautiful the cardinal and woodpecker look against its erasures. How it brightens, makes things new, makes us new. Takes my breath, literally, away.

That’s what Dickinson proposes: don’t turn this stuff into commerce. (Of course we do: we blacken our snow as quickly as we can. We scrape it away, and if not, pay a price here in Ann Arbor, where there’s a law requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within 24 hours of its falling.)

How to use this image to strengthen writing? To remind myself it’s not about publishing—it’s about going out into that snowfall and wallowing in its revelations. The sudden blessing of idea, of language. Old thought wiped clean; that clarifying plunge in temperature. Dwelling in this, rather than shoveling it up the instant it lands and heaving it out into the street.

Requiem in Chalk

In the week since the election, I’ve been turning to words for consolation—as I did when I was 13 and spent the summer away from home for the first time and was deeply homesick (I lost six pounds the first week). I was attending a summer boarding school in Virginia, and in the evening, after supper, we’d sit at desks in the gymnasium to do our homework. Because I was taking classes in typing and drama, I had little to do, so I wrote in my journal instead. It was the first time I’d really kept one.

Bathed in citron light from a score of overhead fluorescents, the cavernous gym took on the quality of dream as I traveled beyond that particular time and place into the territory of language. The aches of my adolescent heart arranged themselves into sentences and then paragraphs, which in the instant of their conception made things clearer, if not always better. Night after night, I pinned my fluttering longings onto the lined pages of my journal like so many moths. There they sat: inert, visible, somehow tamed. Writing was power.

I thought of all this last week as I walked across the Michigan campus some eight hours after Hillary Clinton conceded the election. I hadn’t felt so numb since 9/11. Fogged in thought—in fear—I nearly stepped on the first phrase before I saw it. Chalked onto the pavement, in capital letters: “Stay strong.”

And then: “You belong.”

And then: “This is still home.”

The more I walked, the more I encountered. “Estamos juntos.” “Be kind.” “Love>fear.” At the center of campus, the words were so thick I couldn’t untangle them. I began to cry. A student came over and said, “You look like you need a hug.” He confessed that he was worried about his gay mothers. I said I was worried about so many people on the margins. We talked. Then he headed to his next class, and I walked on. More words, more evidence of a godlike voice among us. Praise the anonymous writer—writers—who got up early that morning, or went straight out into the dark just after the news broke, and with the most primitive of instruments (a stick of chalk straight from elementary school) conjured language to soften the hard day ahead. As I stood there, sobbing, a Muslim student walked up to me and held out her arms. Surrounded by words, we embraced.