The first Christmas Ibrahim and I lived together in America, I told him about the lights. There had to be lights, I said. And a tree you cut down from the woods and put up inside the house as if it were still in the ground — only with lights, and ornaments. Trust me, I said.
So we went to the hardware store to buy the lights, and there were all kinds of colors. What’s this? I said. Blue lights? Why not? We strung them all over the bushes in front of the windows, outside, and we switched them on. That was when I realized they were flickering lights. They were not the kind of lights that just glowed: they were on some sort of rhythm where they flashed on and off, and the effect, well, the effect when you were inside the house was as if a police car were parked behind you on the shoulder of the highway, and the policeman was writing you a ticket. We tried to reset the lights so they would just stay lit, or be off, but they kept flashing, and scaring me. I think it was mainly me they were scaring.
So now it is Christmas twenty-four years later and I remember this. And I feel like a police car is parked outside our houses and the lights are flashing, but there are no lights. They are invisible. They are in our hearts. And when I look up at the night sky I remember Ibrahim telling me that every person has their own star in the sky, and I look up and see there they are all together, all the stars enjoying the sky.
My child is leaving for school. For the 13th time, my child is sharpening her pencils and this time she is also assembling pillows and curtains and baskets and everything she will take to her new home, one half of a dorm room we are told has three windows, and she is happy like when she first started school and like she has always been. To make sure the colors will match she has put together a vignette in the living room like they do in IKEA: ‘this could be your dorm room!’ She is ironing her hair ribbons (yes) and mulling over her colorful new Japanese pens, and I am wondering how it will be when her voice is heard more in another galaxy than in our house. And the days before drop-off are taking on a kind of slow motion quality where I notice everything:
she is looking up from her book on the beach! the wind is blowing her hair! look! she is strolling across the room to pick up a pencil! How did she become so tall? I have known her longer than anyone in the world and it is wonderful.
Have I mentioned we don’t have TV, and how not having TV is so last year?
Not having TV is code for: we have better things to do, like read the classics.
Not having TV is also code for: we are the elite.
But that was before Downton Abbey became crack for the elite. Wait: that was before Downton Abbey become crack for anyone with a weakness for good-looking people in bad situations, which is most of us.
During the first season I listened patiently to legions of people who told me how great it was, that it was a travesty bordering on emergency we hadn’t seen it, that we were missing out on some serious cultural fun. Like any good caustic avoiding the quicksand of melodrama I’m thinking: they’re all the same, these Masterpiece shows. One person draped in silk walks languidly into a room and speaks to a person in tweed and there is a pause, someone puts down a book and strolls over to the window and looks out sadly, looks back and says one more word, and then it’s the next scene, which is pretty much the same except for the degrees of starch in the clothing. I’m thinking: I don’t have time for this. I like a little excitement. I like a show where one person wearing cheap polyester walks slowly into a room and says something to another person, shots break out, and they all sit down and eat pasta.
I can’t chime in about the show. It’s bigger than me. It’s conspicuous, like a fake accent. Like I have been living on a compound or something. I have to keep changing the subject whenever it comes up, in public and in private. I’m starting to wonder if my lack of curiosity is passe and dangerously quaint, on the brink of being more studied than the show itself.
When my daughter and I notice the first season on Netflix, our excuses for avoiding the series crumble like a house of shortbread. We glance at each other. What harm could there be in trying it once? And so it happens: we watch the first episode of the first season. Then the next. Then — in the space of a weekend – the second season. Still in our pajamas in mid-afternoon, we are as hollow-eyed as Lady Sybil in the grips of preclampsia. We are speaking in clipped tones. My daughter is calling me Mum. I can hardly bear to open my closet for the clothes that will never hang there, that haunt my other clothes like ghosts. And the baby. Who will take care of her?
Then the dreadful news. What? We must wait a month for the next? How will we pass the time? Could another series stave off the pangs? A friend tells us to try Jewel and the Crown. They tell us it will hold us over in a pinch. We don’t believe them.
We watch the next season in lockstep with everyone in the States, and debrief in unison. We have pitched our feigned indifference like Lady Edith’s fiance dropped her at the altar. We watch aghast and share in a collective gasp as Matthew, tooling along in his motorcar, gets shoved off the road by a lorry and stares up — glassy-eyed and clearly dead — from a ditch. Oh God no! Why couldn’t he just have broken his arm? Answer: He has s contract to go on Broadway. Do I have to tell you everything?
When a polar vortex is scheduled to hit the midwest on the first night of the fourth season, I consider whether it could be worth ordering a cable box, so we won’t have to leave our living room in arctic winds. The box arrives and lays around the living room. I am afraid to open it.
I get all tense, wondering if we can figure out how to set it up. Where are my glasses? Why is the print so fine? Where is the cord? Where, for the love of God, is the outlet?
Naturally, we miss the show. And here I am over my salad, fending off tears.
What happened to you? my daughter says, so calmly. You’re acting all crazy. We can watch it anytime.
WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? I cry, in a stage whisper, as if someone else were in the house listening. DON’T YOU CARE ANYMORE?
And then it hits me: I feel like I should be there in the audience, in real time. They worked so hard for us, having all of those terrible things happen and being so brave and all. It’s like they’re back, I said, they are expecting us, and we are not there. Don’t worry, my daughter says, they are still there, and they will certainly see you when you show up at the door, and invite you in for tea — if only to the kitchen.
So yesterday I set up — for the first time in about 20 years, before a CD player arrived in my house — a record player. I was so excited. I would introduce my daughter to all the songs I used to love. It would become a new tradition: listening to records Mom loved in the living room. As it happens, my daughter enjoys music; she even makes it herself. I was not disappointed. She liked my records. For a few glorious minutes — and I hope unobserved — we were both doing the twist in the living room. As we were twisting vigorously to music recorded before I was born, I felt especially young. Just one more song! I begged. You have to hear this!
I knew better than to expect her to love the Smithsonian collection of early American ballads like I did when I was twenty-five, but to hear Mavis Staples sing ‘I’ll Take You There’ for the first time on a record, with the crackling that sounds like applause before the song, the crackling that introduces any record and makes you hold your breath before the music — and to see my daughter break into the smile I have loved since I first saw it on her — this kind of joy, I knew, would be worth all the heartache or existential perplexity that ever filled the hours’ of listening to the records, or the time in between. I kept twisting. The more I twisted, the younger I felt. Lulled by the some kind of powerful nostalgic euphoria, I kept yanking records out of their jackets to play one song. But people, I was living on borrowed youth. My daughter had homework to do.
I’m having fun and I don’t want this to end. So naturally I’m thinking: tomorrow I can listen to my heart’s content. I can play my favorite records while sifting through my ski-hill of mail. I can play my favorite songs while cleaning the refrigerator! But the pairing did not work. For whatever reason, hearing them made me sad. Most of the records and more of my favorite songs were scratched. I realized that neither they nor I were as young as I was imagining us to be. Some songs I had to admit I had already heard enough for one lifetime, if not two. I felt like a piece of warped cardboard.
I wanted nothing more than to helicopter myself to therapy, and keep the kleenex box close. I tried to console myself, for which the sound of wind in the trees was better than anything. I was here. I am here. Before this moment I loved my life with some kind of crazy passion. And now, four minutes before my daughter is likely to walk through the door, our living room floor is littered with records and the whole experience was kind of surreal, like bringing home a baby and realizing: there’s a baby in the house, and now it’s crying.
But you can always twist.
Yesterday my daughter and I were catching dinner on the fly at a new franchise which was different from other pseudo-Mexican franchises in the scale of its logo (larger, much larger and flatter; colors bolder and more dated), the size of the chunks of meat slapped into the bowl of rice and beans (smaller, much smaller) and that like a sports bar it had two (big, really big) TVs propped up in each corner so we were kept company by the evening news. Does not everyone watch the news? Should not everyone watch the news? The TVs presented the unfolding of the latest small-scale American massacre, which – sadly, viewed from this angle – felt like a bad franchise: imitative, poorly conceived, repetitive and dreary.
We did not used to have shootings like this, I said to my daughter. What do you mean? she asked. I mean, people used to shoot but not so many people at a time. You mean, like, one at a time? she asked in wonder, as if she were hearing about knights jousting, hoop skirts, or people gathering in the parlor to listen to the radio. Yes, one at a time, and not all that often, I said. We were watching the line of small children step carefully away from the school, hands on each others’ shoulders, led by teachers as if they were on a field trip crossing a busy street except that their eyes were closed. Against my will I found myself reading the crawl: a parent wondering if her two children who had escaped murder while witnessing their classmates killed could be in shock. Really? In unison my daughter and I picked up our trays and tossed our plastic bowls into the trash. Those were the instructions. The tortilla chips were thin, brittle and overly salted; they gave them to you, like they gave you the news, whether you wanted them or not. The décor was cheap. The lights were brash. Everything, even life, felt cheap under these lights. The people were nice, said my daughter. She did not mention the news. Yes, I said, they were nice. My daughter is used to this. My daughter, who would weep at the sight of a possum crushed by a car, is used to this.
Now, schools are enlisting workbooks written by psychologists to help children understand how to cope with living in a world where violence often surprises us. They talk about how adults can help children to feel safe. Really?
How do we explain to children that it is OK for people in certain costumes to visit certain places and attack people wearing other costumes who may be children, parents or grandparents; that your President is endorsing and your parents are paying for this whether gladly or reluctantly; that — risking I may sound prim — in the realm of entertainment it is OK to imagine, construct, fund, direct, produce, distribute, show, sell and watch spectacles of people wearing matching and non-matching costumes, slinging assault rifles and attacking other people wearing matching and non-matching costumes – that the TV stations and your parents are funding this; but that it is NOT OK for people to visit certain other places with real weapons and open real fire on real people? That is a lot to ask of parents and their children. It could take all day.
The reality of it, the particular wrenching awfulness, does not belong to the spectators. The endless presenting and commenting by newscasters, the talking about what we saw and read in the news, feels like a dismal cultural habit of poaching on the tragedy of someone else’s life. Public outrage in the wake of these events is always brief, reform is thwarted since we live in a country of such rugged individuals none can agree on what to do, and commentary is diluted to a thin stream of gossip.
The news makes it seem as if watching the news is doing something. TV makes it seem as if watching TV is doing something. If I were President I would take a page out of the pacifist book, suspend broadcasting for three months and draft a bill banning gratuitous violence. Take away violence-for-consumption, and guns would begin to seem pointless. Disable the franchise, disable the heroicizing, disable the poaching on tragedy, make violence as unglamorous as reclining in a stupor on the couch with a bag of flimsy tortilla chips and guns – like the networks that profit from stoking fear and depicting violence real and imagined, and the addled souls who take up a sorry weapon as a path to glory in the news — may have nothing to do.
America is going to be fine. I know this because I have just gone to a county fair. Tell anyone to visit the craft exhibition hall at the Berrien County Youth Fair if they have any doubt. I can give directions. Tell them to make sure and see the layer cakes and yeast breads laid out neatly by ages 8-12 and perhaps their parents in the home ec hall, or the marigolds in floral, milling around in vases on the white painted shelves like teenagers at a grange-hall dance, and wilting as it is the fourth day of the fair; make sure if they can spare the time that they stroll down and visit the fairy-size rosebushes tucked into tiny fern embankments in “miniature silk flowers, ages 9-15.” They must not miss the carrier pigeons, the speckled bantam roosters and the signs above the poultry cages written in careful script: “Thank you River Valley Custodian for buying my rabbit.” Or the book bag sewn out of John Deere fabric by the youngest sewing contestant, an eight year old boy with an eight syllable name, or the sandblasted mirror that broke in the car on the way to the fair but was entered anyway with the note “This broke on the way to the fair but I am still proud of it so I will enter it anyway.” Imagine the tears. I am pretty sure anyone who looks at this mirror will agree our country is going to make it and make it well not because of our prowess in innovation but because we still make stuff with our hands, and make it well. We are never going to stop doing this because it is part of what makes us happy. And for every cake someone baked, for every goat that got a ribbon, for every dress someone cut out and sewed, for every cactus that was placed in a dish with sand and rocks, someone had to put it in a car, drive it over, steady it, take it out and set it on a shelf, or in a crate, or behind a fence, and before that happened someone had to decide they were going to enter it in the fair, and before that happened someone had to offer to help the child do something, and that was the start of a very small dream and after that someone had to see it through, and all of that takes heart, and gives it back in spades. I never thought I would write a paean to 4-H life but people, here I am. Next year at the tail-end of summer you might find make your way over the fair to find me judging layer cakes because I believe I would be good at it and I hope you are right there with me, hanging little prize tags on the floral arrangements, or at least admiring the roses.
My grandfather used to say his best time in school was spent staring out the windows, which he said were tall like doors and thrown open to passing clouds and the alluring gossip of birds. Having placed first in the county, my grandfather quit school at 8th grade to support his widowed mother by working as a teller at the bank, and then as a soldier. A few houses over, his future wife, my grandmother-to-be was selling scissors door to door to buy medicine for her mother, who had been supporting the family by taking in mending and ironing after her husband died, until — in the melodramatic fashion of the time — she too became ill and died. At sixteen, my grandmother went to work for a milliner to support herself and her sister, and took part of her pay in hats. My grandmother was a soprano and when she wasn’t stitching hats, sometimes she sang as a soloist in a cathedral. One would think neither my grandfather nor my grandmother would have much time for dreaming. But still they dreamt. I do not mean the kind of dreaming one does at night, but the kind that happens in the day, in the absence or even in the presence of other kinds of noise, like teachers writing on the board and whirling around to see who is and isn’t listening, or hat-makers telling you to work faster: the kind of dreaming that blurs the sound of their speaking, that walks over your consciousness with silky feet, murmurs to you like a siren, and winds you up like a top. I mean the kind that makes you believe you might go places such as you have heard about in books, and see wonders that shall not be named, at least not here, the kind that happens as you are stitching a cluster of violets onto a hat and your hand is moving so fast you may prick yourself. One glorious thing after another lays itself down like a path and you walk along until you run out of thread. That is the point of dreaming. Then there comes a moment if one is living in this world that dreaming closes up shop and gives way to doing something, anything, that can be named without yearning. This is what is usually called life, is sometimes referred to as work, and is to play what east is to west. Much of it is wonderful, and most of it is forgotten. After seventy years of bending to the necessity of work and circumstance, what my grandfather remembered acutely and without regret were the moments of abandon, of looking out the window and watching the birds.
After eighty years of housekeeping, what my grandmother remembered was hitting D over high C in the vaulted church, and how it felt to make a hat with a clutch of violets, a bird of paradise and a cluster of grapes, and how its very heaviness made her feel lighter than air, walking down the street.