This morning, my grandfather visited me in the form of a heron. I'm pretty convinced it was him: I've never seen a heron around here before.
I never had much of a relationship with my grandfather. Conversations with him were more like monologues where he described his war memories, like icy shower floors in South Korea or lost chocolate bars and loose change fallen from the pockets of pilot trainees after he'd surprise them by flipping an airplane mid-air. He once surprised me by poking my thumb with a fishing hook. "This is why you don't touch this," he forewarned.
I'll never forget one night after everyone fell asleep, in a strange display of emotion, my grandfather told my brother and me that we were worthless. Our greatest sin was that we didn't do enough for our mother, his daughter, his greatest source of pride. After that outburst, I nervously clenched every muscle in my body and cleaned up after everyone as soon as we finished a meal. Any meal. I never wanted to be called worthless again.
There was undoubtedly some greater depth to this man that I was too young to comprehend or appreciate. Nevertheless, through the unfiltered lens of a child, I could sense the palpable sorrow. For his generation, "swallowing trauma" was simply a part of being a man.
My grandfather and grandmother lived on a slowly sinking lake in Florida. There he caught small fish and fed them to a great blue heron that he named Oskar.
My grandfather, Ormand, was a pattern maker, a woodworker.
One day, too old to drive, from the back seat of my parent's car, Ormand said with a timbre of longing and regret that if he could have gone to college, he would have been an engineer.
When we'd visit our grandparents, I would discover small piles of drawings made with a draftsman's hand
— ballpoint pen drawings of dozens and dozens of blue herons, all named Oskar.
As I write these words, I cannot tell you in all honesty if I'll ever have the courage to go back to normal. I've never been normal, and I'm not sure if normal is a place where I ever belonged.
I'm not normal. But I'm not worthless.
...or at least this is what my grandfather told me early this morning, in the blink of a heron's eye.
- On beauty. The elegance of a beautiful woman who rejects having to be seen.
- In the city, like climbing quicksand, a lot of people want to be seen.
- On gratitude. The capitalistic ethos of checks and balances, the abstraction - consequence of industrialisation - has profoundly disrupted our human capacity to both practice and experience gratitude.
I’ve never thanked the people who made my clothes.
- On France. Or America. Or both. I’ve lived in France for 15 years - I can pretend to belong here, but I never will. There are certain aspects of my American core that I cannot seem to extract and repurpose. For instance, when French strangers see me eating - let’s say on a bench in a park - they might look at me and say bon appétit in passing.
And yet - and I’ve confirmed with other Americans in France - there’s something so twisted and cynical about the American identity that I could never accept these bon appétit’s at face value, as a celebration of food for the love of food. Rather, I always interpreted these bon appétit’s directed at me on a park bench as code for, “You should be sitting at a table, you idiot.”
“Sadder than destitution, sadder than the beggar is the man who eats alone in public. Nothing more contradicts the laws of man or beast, for animals always do each other the honor of sharing or disputing each other’s food. He who eats alone is dead (but not he who drinks alone. Why is this?)” (Baudrillard, 15).
I jog up and down the canal. Sometimes I stop and smell the flowers (literally and figuratively). On more than one occasion, when I’m walking in my running attire, someone (usually a man) will say something like, “You stopped?” or bon courage in passing. Similar to the the bon appétit’s, I interpret these bon courage’s as a duplicitous way of telling me I could use some more exercise.
My French friend assured me that it’s just genuine sportsmanship in the name of sport.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Verso, 2010.
“(Surveillance capitalism) strips away the illusion that the networked form has some kind of indigenous moral content, that being ‘connected’ is somehow intrinsically pro-social, innately inclusive, or naturally tending toward the democratization of knowledge” (Zuboff, 9).
In April 2021, I deleted my Twitter account after nearly 12 years of what I referred to as "sending messages in bottles" on the platform. One day I woke up to my pile of short-form quips, blurbs, and customer complaints, and I thought, "What story are you telling? Is this the legacy that you want to leave?" I grew out of my Twitter shoes.
I ended my Twitter tenure with 510 followers: a solid group of mostly strangers who never paid much attention to me as far as I could tell. Except for the guy in Barcelona who compared my writing to Murakami's. Except for the handful of feminist Swedish men who also happen to be computer programmers. Except for Jesse. Except for Sonia. Except for Mia. Except for Ed.
Goodbye friends, may we meet again.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books Ltd. 2019
I spoke to my friend on the phone yesterday, one that had left Paris many years ago. Despite her 8-month-old baby chewing on her slippers, she exclaimed,
“Oh, I wish I could come over and take care of you.”
Up until this point, I willingly bore the crux of being 36, a gay woman without a family, in a foreign country, completely on my own. Any feeling of loneliness or victimhood I cast aside as my own doing, the consequence of all the choices I had made up until that point.
In December, I was hospitalised with pancreatitis, an episode so grossly nauseating and painful, the only way to describe it would be the sensation that you get in your gut, just before you’re about to vomit after a night of binge-drinking. Only, I wasn’t really a drinker and I hadn’t drunk anything the night before, but that churning, bloated, perpetual, nauseating sensation was enough to make me associate alcohol with pancreatitis and want to stop drinking forever.
“Est-ce que je vais mourir ?” I mumbled to the nurse in my silly American accent as she gave me another morphine injection. It was 4 o’clock in the morning, what seemed to be my body’s witching hour. It was my fifth evening of morphine injections, no food or water, and dreams of carbonated limonade and strawberries.
“Il ne faut pas penser des choses comme ça,” replied the night nurse, this one young, with soft Maghrébine skin.
A week later, the nurses started to put up Christmas decorations. When I could finally move, I’d get up and look out the window at the softly exhaling chimneys on the hospital rooftops, lightly dusted in snow. It never snows in Paris.
My brother flew in from the United States and sat at my bedside every day. The furniture in my room was akin to something like that of a public library, mismatched and ripping at the seams. When the hospital refused to feed me anything but vegetable broth, my brother would sneak me fruit juice from the grocery store.
Into the second week, I started to have embarrassing night sweats where the nurses would have to change my gown and bed sheets every morning. Other patients in my hallway started to get rowdy in the evenings. I wanted to go home. My doctor refused to let me leave until I clocked 24 hours without a fever but my fever stuck with me for days. We joked that if this happened in the United States, I would be paying medical bills for the rest of my life.
My brother left on Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, determined to get my strength back, I took a short walk down the Canal de l’Ourcq and stood atop the Rue de Crimée lift bridge, which felt equivalent to climbing a mountain. I watched families pass by, I watched cormorants as they dove in and out of the freezing water. I stood there like a ghost who returned from the dead. I saw a lone woman pass by in a striking red coat; little did she know that she made my entire day.
I had gallbladder surgery at the beginning of February. I woke up from the surgery with four Saint Sebastian esque holes in my torso. I proceeded to catch pneumonia. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of my studio apartment, I willingly bore the burden of being sick and alone.
I devoured a memoir by David Wojnarowicz about the AIDS epidemic. Soon David became this familiar presence in my dreams. Sometimes he’d just stand in the corner, his long face, his Adam’s apple, arms crossed, my gay brethern. Other times, he’d blow on my forehead and then disappear into a haze when I’d wake up shivering, soaked in my own sweat. His spirit possessed me and instilled in me this mantra that my suffering was a rite of passage to a higher level of consciousness, to another world.
Exactly a year later, the world was struck with Covid19. Like a boxer already in the ring, I was ready for round two.
On a separate but somehow associated train of thought, I remembered that before I had any real concept of suffering or death (or anything really), I took a bus from Providence to New York to see the aftermath of September 11th in October 2001, my sophomore year at art school.
I made the journey with one of my professors with whom I was completely infatuated (I was 19). From Port Authority, we trekked our way downtown and arrived at this massive empty block with cranes scouring through mountains of debris. To my surprise, even after a month, there remained piles of lightly smoking soot. But the most impressive sight was the ominous steel skeletal structure of one of the toppled buildings, warped, splayed, and splintered, 3 or 4 stories high.
The worst thing was the smell.
That day, I lugged along my 16mm Bolex film camera but the thought of taking any footage of the wreckage felt extremely disrespectful and embarrassing. There was a crowd of people standing around gawking but my professor and I shared this stoic “nothing to see here” mentality. We crossed the street and kept walking as if, in fact, we were locals with somewhere else to go.
I quickly wound up my camera. Without bothering with the light meter, I caught the backside of a woman in front of us, walking determinedly on her way to work. Today, somewhere in my keepsakes I have a blurry film strip of a lone, dark figure on a sidewalk. I’m fine being the only person who will ever know that not pictured, a stone’s throw across the street, was the eerie wasteland of a national disaster.
I found out later that a friend of mine who has lived in Berlin as long as I’ve lived in Paris was also there, in front of the wreckage. He said saw me but I didn’t see him. At the time, he asked me, “What the hell were you doing at Ground Zero with Professor Rossi?”
The rest of the day, Professor Rossi and I hovered around uptown. She said everything in the Chinese wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was “fake” which made me love her even more. She took me to a giant, secret underground dim sung restaurant in Chinatown. Speaking flawless Chinese, she barked orders at the servers in her characteristic authoritarian way. But for the most part, we ate in silence, barely digesting the monumental sight that we had seen or admitting to the fact that we were even there.
At the time, I thought it was necessary to make the pilgrimage, the near 4-hour bus ride, from Providence to New York. I wanted to connect with 9/11 in some palpable human way; I wanted it to be more than pixels on a screen.
But now, the memory doesn’t seem real at all. Rather, it’s something I had nearly forgotten — a single sentimental thread that grows longer and thinner every day, just barely connecting me with my old friend in Berlin or with that young precocious girl in art school.
In fact, these days I hardly remember anything at all.