Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
One of humanity’s most defining characteristics has got to be the desire to make records, keep them, and share them with the next generation. And yet, obstacles to such a pursuit have run rampant throughout history. In the middle ages, despite the best efforts of scribes, “one bad-tempered abbot, one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm – and all those centuries are undone.” (172) And perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, as Anthony Doerr imagines, paper will be obsolete, such that our species will be reliant on our virtual memory, as data stored only in computer systems.
The associated reverence is mocked as superstition in the middle ages, or labeled academic pursuit in modern day, and later, attributed to nostalgia in centuries to come. However, by then, no one can deny the beauty of such a craft, or the way stories have an ability to entwine their way into our personal lives, soothing us, and directing our own hopes and dreams.
Perhaps expectedly, the advancement of technology – while astoundingly imaginative – is what is most mocked in this text. A cannon so large that it could destroy a city – at the expense of beloved livestock that hauled it to battle? A bomb so sophisticated that it can be operated with a cell phone – at the expense of innocent children, including the one who assembled it? A ship so advanced it can transport the last humans on earth across the galaxy – at the expense of leaving their heritage behind?
Reading all of this makes me recall the quote from the book I loved last month, Sea of Tranquility:
"When we consider the question of why...there's been this increased interest in postapocalyptic fiction over the past decade, I think we have to consider what's changed in the world in that timeframe, and that line of thinking leads me inevitably to our technology...My personal belief is that we turn to post apocalyptic fiction not because we're drawn to disaster, per se, but because we're drawn to what we imagine might come next. We long secretly for a world with less technology in it." (190-1)
That is, indeed, what Mr. Doerr’s characters seek by the end – simple lives. A view of the sunrise. The feel of dirt beneath their feet. Companionship. Air to breathe. And paper on which to record and share.
Because whatever disasters they witnessed in their lifetimes, these characters conclude that by the end of their journey, “The world as it is is enough.” (568)
You will live a hundred lifetimes in this book. Follow the threads, suspend your disbelief, and delight in the emerging tapestry on display in the final pages. Enjoy.
I love film adaptations from children’s books, but I had another reason to run out to see Lyle, Lyle Crocodile this fall. My family recently moved across the country, and I found myself intensely nostalgic not only for the place we left but also for who we used to be before this transition.
Something happened during the pandemic, though. Despite the library’s best intentions, my kids became more focused readers, no longer allowed to grab random picture books from the shelves and flip through them within the library’s walls. Our inspiration for reading stemmed from what was most within our mental recall, that is, a lot of Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Book series hold their own value, don’t get me wrong, but I started to notice that we sat together less and less frequently, and read my childhood favorites even less than that.
So I was already on edge this summer as we geared up to move out of state, and from city to suburban living. Among other changes, I realized we would no longer have built-in bookshelves in the living room. If I couldn’t display those childhood favorites, would we sit and read together again? With my youngest children now seven years old, would I also have to say goodbye to an era, to childhood, in addition to everything else?
It was while I was hyperventilating, trying to resist the ephemeral nature of time, that I saw a preview for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, which was to be released in theaters on October 6th. I stared at the screen, entranced, and knew I absolutely had to be there opening weekend. This movie is a sign, I realized. This movie is a metaphor.
Lyle, along with the young son Joshua, takes center stage in this story, but after reviewing the plot now as a mother, I see another dimension peeking out between the lines. In the storybook, the action seems to begin with Mrs. Primm entering the upstairs bathroom and encountering Lyle for the first time – a real shock to be sure – but the story for Mrs. Primm herself begins long before that.
The Primms, like my family, enter the story in a moving van, distraught by many things, like where to put the piano (Mrs. Primm’s first concern) and where to freshen up (Mrs. Primm’s second concern). Now I wonder, was the piano really the only piece of furniture that was hard to place? And, after doing all of that work, was there no powder room on the main level where this hard-working mother might refresh herself? Nonetheless, the focus here is on the mother, and the need to wash her hands draws her to the discovery of Lyle in the bathtub upstairs.
Once the family overcomes their collective shock, Mrs. Primm begins to settle into her new home. She cleans, decorates, and entertains. And, she is drawn out into the community, presumably where she can enjoy Italian ice and visits to the park, just like Lyle.
After my family moved this summer, there were no scaly surprises in our new bathrooms, although perhaps my “Lyle” appeared in the form of my property tax bill, among other expenses that jumped up dramatically. But maybe all of that would pay for something good? I waited in anticipation for something like Lyle that would draw us into the world and then accompany us home to rest.
I’m still adjusting to the shock of driving everywhere – I really mean everywhere in this suburban environment – but overall, I’m trying to focus on how we’re engaging in our new place, how our kids are involved in sports and activities through the town and at school. This is where I meet people. The bus stop especially is a daily check in for neighborhood parents.
The thing is, we don’t have a clue as to what the Primm family did with their time before Lyle came into their lives, before they lived on East 88th Street. Did Joshua enjoy sitting next to his mother on the sofa while she read to him? Or had he just outgrown that, same as my kids? Whatever their lives were like before, they learned to love Lyle, miss him when he is gone, and celebrate his return. Realizing this, I think the Primm family has a message for anyone trying to settle in after a big move:
Be entertained. Be cozy. Be together. Bring delight to the community.
How to do this? My first thought is to throw a barbeque and invite the neighbors. Never mind that summer has passed. We’re here now, and it’s time. Bus Stop BBQ, here we come.
Grace be with us all
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month I spent working a part-time job where we were encouraged to wear pink shirts on Fridays. That first Monday, though, we kicked off the month by wearing all things pink. My manager bought scarves for the team. I brought pink pom poms and tucked one in my ponytail. The boss distributed pink tutus for the ladies and pink bow ties and suspenders for the guys.
I was surprised by his short burst of sharing. Usually it was a heads down, fast-paced, take your breaks at staggered times type of place. Little time to get to know each other. And of course, we were back to work after this brief exchange.
So I didn’t see a good opening to share the news I’d just found in my email.
My friend Grace had been on hospice for breast cancer recurrence when she finally succumbed earlier this month. The thing is, I had been thinking of her just the week before – before I knew she had died – and I found myself reflecting on the last emails we exchanged. This was in August. I felt like I should have checked in one more time.
She had been cancer-free for over twenty years before it recurred. I met her during her remission a couple of years ago when we signed up for the same writing class.
I remember the first night of that class. It was January, 2020, and I had just finished a brisk walk from the Red Line stop at Park Street to GrubStreet’s old location in the Steinert building on the Boston Common. I reached the back of the dimly lit entry hall just as a group of writers scuttled into the tiny elevator. I knew I wouldn’t make it onto that ride, so I slowed my pace and prepared to wait for the elevator light to reset so I could push the button.
Before I could reach out my hand, a Chinese woman blew into the vestibule, crossed the floor and poked impatiently at the button. I knew her action wasn’t going to call the elevator. I waited for a polite moment and then gently pressed the same button again once the light reset.
It was a small moment, but one that, for me, captured the essence of Grace – who ran after life, demanding the best, and quickly.
Self-described as a global nomad and journalist, Grace Segran had a passion for travel, for writing, for Jesus, and for her late-husband Raja. She leaves behind a plethora of personal narratives for us to enjoy, as well as advice for those who may shirk from hospice care.
Today, I am grieving the loss of her life, and I am grateful to have known her. She encouraged me – in writing, in faith, and in life. Even with only months to live, she asked me about my life. When I said I wanted to go back to work but didn’t know what to do, she suggested Walgreens, saying it was fast-paced and interesting. She also sent me the link to a song that sustained her during her breast cancer metastasis – https://youtu.be/rNXd0KQaYXg – a production of “Yet not I, but through Christ in me.”
And I thought of her during subsequent writing classes, including during a session in which I didn’t know how to respond to a prompt. This is what I wrote, and it’s how I’d like to always remember Grace:
"I don't know what to write -- which makes me think of Grace, who never knew what to write in class either. What if the prompt doesn't fit? What if you want to write something else? I think of her smiling eyes behind her glasses, playful and a little devious, daring me to play hooky and grab a cup of tea with her in the kitchen. She'll tell me tales of Scotland, and I'll wonder if I'll ever see the world through her eyes -- to have a brush with death and a heart full of gratitude for one more day. Let's stay here in the kitchen, Grace. We'll get back to work eventually. There is time. There will be enough time for it all."
I wanted to come to your memorial service, Grace. I told you that. But I had to attend virtually instead. I’m sorry I never met your daughter, the one who shares a name with my own. I’m sorry I never met your granddaughters. But I’m so glad I was there to sing with the worship team “Yet not I, but through Christ in me” and to hear your brother-in-law proclaim your immense faith and the comfort you found in your last days in Psalm 130 and your anticipation of seeing Jesus for the first time:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”
You told me once, Grace, that you wished you could write more about your faith. Know that your faith was proclaimed and witnessed. And we cherish it.
I am so glad to have known you, and I hope that one day, we will meet again.
Feed My Starving Children
In moving to our new neighborhood, it became quickly clear that this community is service oriented. At least, fundraising opportunities abound – both for community-based programs and for the like that support school-based activities. Our new church (or my “old” one, having spent my elementary and high school years there) was no different. The service activity I accompanied my middle school daughter to a few weeks ago, however? That certainly was.
Most of the time, when I think of supporting a community with sustenance, I think of canned food drives. In the past, I’ve written about food drives we’ve hosted at family gatherings, or my volunteer work at a food pantry in Boston during the pandemic. But at Feed My Starving Children, we did something completely different.
We were handed hair nets when we walked through the door. We were instructed to remove all jewelry and told to wash our hands well. Then, we were taught how to bag the rice mix that had been formulated to support starving people and nurse them back to health.
We assembled in groups of six or seven in stations in the workroom, manning individual spots in order to scoop in the vitamins, vegetables, soy and rice that we weighed and bagged, sealing each before loading a box that would be shipped to receiving distributors. Kids as young as six participated, standing on overturned wooden crates in order to reach the activity. My daughter joined one group. I joined another, and we quickly got to work.
In just one hour (maybe less), the sixty-odd volunteers prepped and boxed over 18,000 meals. Now that’s an assembly line! Afterwards, we gathered in the warehouse to pray over the boxes that would be shipped to South Sudan where they would be received by a group called Reach International and distributed to those in need.
I had previously prepared food for others (most consistently with Community Cooks in Cambridge), but this was food prep on a whole other scale.
Feed My Starving Children is not a huge organization, but they are helping relieve hunger in the way they know how, stating that 98% of their deliveries reach their destinations.
That night, I was glad to have been a part of their work.
You have to read this book. I think the last time I said that was when I read Daniel Nayeri’s memoir Everything Sad is Untrue in May 2021. I remember really liking Emily St. John Mandel’s earlier apocalyptic novel Station Eleven when we read it for book club in 2017 – before the COVID-19 pandemic, when we wondered if something like that might come our way at some point – but in Sea of Tranquility, she takes the craft to a whole new level, while following the familiar and satisfying hero’s journey.
Beyond that, Mandel gives us just enough of each character to appreciate their humanness before we jump around in time to the next section. From the beginning, it is clear that we could be following any of these characters but that the one who stands out the most is the one with the mystery surrounding his presence and his name.
Gaspery-Jacques Roberts at first intrigues the reader, then commands our attention as someone worth investing in, and by the end, satisfies our own hero complex that our individual lives can matter immensely even while living peacefully, calmly and quietly. It is one thing to braid character stories across space, but to do so across centuries of time is quite a feat. I would love to go back and read this book again to see if I can grasp all of the connections that become clear by the end.
The symmetry and self-awareness of this text is truly enthralling. To go forward and then backwards in time while asking and answering existential questions is absolutely amazing.
Regarding those answers, it is clear that this book is meant to raise the question of religious involvement or spiritual meaning and then dismiss them in the name of advancing science and technology (which bothers me; I mean, isn’t there a way to include an appreciation of religion?). Still, by the end, I embraced the main character’s conclusion that no matter where he is in time, no matter what he chooses to do with his life, no matter the types of lives he encounters through the other characters along the way, he believes he is real and that he matters, and that the challenges he faces matter too, even if people in general tend to exaggerate their fear of the end of the world.
I have been vague in my review here because I really don’t want to spoil this read for you. You really have to take the ride (on an airship) yourself. I read it in two days, but I will be thinking about it for quite a few more.
I’ve noticed that books published in a similar timeframe can touch on similar themes or ideas. Last summer, for example, I read about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, in Michelle Harper’s memoir The Beauty in Breaking and Julia Alvarez’s novel Afterlife. A beautiful metaphor, for sure.
This month, everything I read seemed to touch on the coming end of the world and what we should do with our limited time on it. A more daunting quest than repairing pottery, authors sure were creative in their solutions, often looking for a scapegoat to the problem of finality.
Mr. Burkeman spends most of his book assessing the reasons why we might obsess over time management and all of the small and large decisions we make in our lives that determine productivity and effectiveness. On a personal scale, these decisions seem to matter a great deal, but I’ve also noticed, based on the commentary of circles of friends, the news, and other loud voices, that many of us feel the need to react to what feels like the coming of the end times, to do what we can to push it back, to make life better for future generations. In Burkeman’s words,
"It's the understandable tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy, so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history, to which all prior time was always leading up." (210-211)
His words remind me of a character from Sea of Tranquility who muses,
"When have we ever believed that the world wasn't ending?...there's always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we're living at the climax of the story. It's a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we're uniquely important, that we're living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it's ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world." (189)
And yes, Burkeman points out, while "[i]t is true, as more upbeat commentators like to remind us, that people have always believed they were living in the end times…much of the news these days is really rather good: infant mortality, absolute poverty, and global inequality are all falling rapidly, while literacy is rising, and you’re less likely than ever to get killed in a war." (229-230)
Still, the world has huge problems. What to do about them, Mr. Burkeman?
His arguments are long-winded and meandering, but his point in the end is to let go of the need to control your life and, by extension, what happens to the whole world. Once you let go of “your need to know that everything will turn out fine,” “you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.” (233)
The trick being, that you should do this work without it going to your head. "You might imagine...that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful...but what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well" (211)
Bottom line (and this is rather harsh and devoid of religious belief): "what you do with your life doesn't matter all that much -- and when it comes to how you're using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less." (208)
"To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn't realize we were carrying in the first place." (210)
Ms. Mandel’s character Gaspery-Jacques Roberts demonstrates how heroic a life can look when embracing this mindset. His small, sacrificial decisions had huge ripple effects in her novel. Perhaps it helped that he seemed to be selfless by nature, and yet, he seemed to almost laugh in the face of decision, a word that Burkeman points out stems from “the Latin word decidere, which means "to cut off," as in slicing away alternatives, [similar to] words like "homicide" and "suicide." Any finite life -- even the best one you could possibly imagine -- is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility." (60)
Burkeman posits that "once you're no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a "life well spent," you're freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time." (212)
The philosophy here is really interesting, but my main observation is that this guy is really long winded for someone completely obsessed with time management. The format is a huge contrast to the "live simply and unhurriedly" book I wrote about in 2021, though the ideas of embracing limits and slowing down are perhaps similar. Still, Burkeman seems intensely motivated to include all of his research, which reminds me stylistically of books like Flyboys and Hidden Figures. It shows clearly that he really believes that we need an entirely new approach to the phrase “using your time well.”
One of Mr. Burkeman’s main points is that we should embrace the fact that we will never reach that peak efficiency we desire, nor will we ever cross some pre-ordained finish line of productivity. He seems to have always cared about these things, but it is clear that there was a sudden impetus for his need to find a different answer. All to say: he became a father. Having a toddler forced him to recognize his limits, and above everything else, his limited control over his time (and his child).
In the end, Mr. Burkeman admits that accepting his limits will likely remain an ongoing aspirational quest, and in admission of how difficult such a mindset truly is, he offers a few hints and hacks for how to get around this conundrum.
First, march with the army. Maybe not literally, but Burkeman points out the subliminal thrill of coordinated group activity, the sensation of feeling part of something magnitudes larger than yourself. His example pertained to infantrymen who never deployed but developed camaraderie simply by performing drills, marching together. I certainly recognized this from my own experience on dance teams and in choirs.
Second, increase the number of novel experiences in your life within the limits of necessary routines. I have always wondered why life seems to accelerate as we age and also why certain periods of time seem to occupy disproportional space in my memory, namely why experiences like “high school” and “college” and, in particular “study abroad” dominate above so many other life changing and significant events. Burkeman’s book is the first place I read a satisfying explanation, and the reason, he claims, is within the number of novel experiences during that time frame.
Still, Burkeman warns against cramming in too many novel experiences, explaining that while it might work, “it's liable to worsen another problem, "existential overwhelm." Moreover, it's impractical: if you have a job or children, much of life will necessarily be somewhat routine, and opportunities for exotic travel may be limited. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have....[like] going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or journaling, playing "I Spy" with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you're doing in the present." (241-2)
As I continue to settle into my new home and wonder how best to use my time, my days, and these years we have ahead of us, I’ll be thinking of Mr. Burkeman and picturing him playing “I Spy” with his toddler. Especially because, in the end, Mr. Burkeman, I think this is what matters most: your connections to others. However you use your time, may you remind people how much they matter, regardless of how they spend their time, and may they serve to reflect the same reminder for you.
The Worry Worksheet
Sometime in the months leading up to our recent move, we reconnected with our church in Arlington, MA, and one Saturday afternoon, I attended a prayer meeting.
I’m not great at prayer. I guess most people say that. (If you’re good at prayer, you probably just stay silent on the subject and jump in more readily than others during pop-up prayers.) Also, I felt strange about jumping back into church activities when I had one foot out the door already, calling moving companies and gathering boxes. But, a friend invited me, and I embraced the opportunity to practice prayer among friends and familiar faces, who all understood we are all on our way to somewhere, together here for just a little while.
After opening us in prayer, my friend directed our attention to a worksheet, which she passed out along with pens. Great! I thought. An ice breaker of sorts that also served a purpose. A way to put thoughts to paper first before sharing them outloud.
My friend’s “Worry Worksheet” was divided into three columns. On the far left, I was meant to list the things I was worried about. In the middle, I was supposed to turn the worries into prayers, and on the right, I was supposed to describe ways I already saw God at work in those prayer requests.
Basically: ascending difficulty from left to right. Right? Before even writing a word, I imagined I’d have a much easier time filling in the left-most column (my worries), and increasing difficulty in completing the other two (prayers and gratitude). And yet, when I reviewed the page in order to write this post, I can see that the opposite, in fact, happened.
My left-most column lists six distinct, well-defined worries, but there is white space surrounding those words. In contrast, my handwriting in the other two columns spills outside the lines as I see how I tried to cram in all of my prayers and thanks. I remember that during the prayer meeting itself it was such a relief to see that on paper, to see how much I had to be thankful for.
Also, with all of that scribbled onto paper and then summarized in prayer in small groups, I felt more prepared to turn my mind and prayers to other needs, in order to pray for our local churches, towns, the nation, and the world.
I found this exercise so helpful that I leave it for you here, courtesy of my friend’s mother who devised this scheme based on the verse from Philippians 4:6-7, which says:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
There was a guy in my high school who would chew his fingernails to the nubs. Then he would go for the skin around the nail. He would dig in deep. His fingertips had divots and were rimmed with dried blood.
“Don’t do that,” I told him from across our lab table in AP Physics C.
He paused for a while and then went back to it.
There are things you hope you’ll spare your children. Stress isn’t on the list, per se, but when I think of that guy from high school, or another jittery high school student I tutored when I lived in the Bay Area nearly two decades ago now, I definitely hope my kids will be challenged without feeling judged or boxed into impossible situations. I hoped to avoid the extremes that I saw lead to anxiety and depression.
So when we were shopping around for where to spend this next phase of life, it seemed prudent to choose a location where our kids would find both challenge and support, and to try to avoid the cutthroat communities that seemed to scream “Harvard of bust.”
I also aimed to avoid mass shootings and natural disasters (like fire and drought).
But two days after we moved in, a young man shot into the crowd gathered at a local Fourth of July parade nearby. Then, two weeks after we moved in, my kids spotted a funnel cloud at the park (which fortunately didn’t touch down).
And two months after we moved in, while I was in the process of writing an article to raise awareness for Physician Suicide, I learned of another tragedy in the community.
Waves of grief shock a community when a 13-year-old dies by suicide. I don’t know all of the details, but I know she went to my daughter’s school. And I know my new neighbors had known her for a decade, that their daughters had been close with her, though less so in the past couple of years when she became unhappy.
I found myself in Barnes and Noble, wandering among tables boasting support for “Love is Love” and “Science is Real” and wondering what to give to the survivors of suicide. Being a writer, I finally settled on journals, as well as small bouquets of roses (flower shortages limited choices) for the daughters who were trying to make sense of what had happened, who were scrolling the internet for information, and whose wellbeing was now of utmost importance to their mother like never before.
Even here, I thought. Even here. There is no community secure enough to avoid the suffering.
Even in the community I was writing about – doctors who spend their lives supporting the health of others – are more likely to struggle with suicide.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but the National Alliance on Mental Illness seriously needs to get a better acronym for their campaign. I mean, SPAM? Then again, the takeaway here could be that some things need to be SPELLED OUT and not glossed over. Don’t shirk from the word suicide, for starters. Don’t couch it in an acronym.
According to their website,
“After years of advocacy and preparation, 988 is now available nationwide as the new number to contact for mental health, substance use and suicide crises — a simple, easy-to-remember way for people to get help. This new number will allow people to quickly connect with support during a crisis, 24/7, no matter where they live.”
In support of their efforts to make resources readily available, I want to post those resources here. May you never need them. May they be here for you if you do:
One character, for example, suffers a head injury and suddenly suffers from severe intellectual disability and moderate physical disability. Wingate poses intriguing questions here: How would a less-than able-bodied person be treated in dangerous wild west towns during the Reconstruction era? In addition to that, the choice of placing Benny, a woman of Italian heritage, in 1987 America allows Wingate to weave in intergenerational trauma of World War II, as well as women’s rights during the 1970s when Benny was a teenager. Lastly, while the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t been established yet in 1987, it is clear that Wingate means to say that Black lives do matter and matter a great deal more than acknowledged by those in 1875, 1987, and presumably also today.
Abelism, women’s rights, effects of slavery, economic hardship and educational disparities in the south, haunting effects of World War II… Again, timely.
Above all, and perhaps also a timely topic considering the disconnectedness we all felt during the pandemic, this book highlights the interconnectedness of communities whose surface characteristics might lead more toward segregation than not. Namely, the Black and white communities Wingate describes in 1987 Louisiana turn out to be more closely related than some of the members knew…or than some of the members chose to acknowledge.
In order to show this, The Book of Lost Friends takes on physical form within the text. It’s a book in which the Black characters note the names of missing or separated family members, people sold off during slavery or sent off to fight in the Civil War, or displaced during Reconstruction. When able, the characters submitted this information to The Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper, which published ads for these “Lost Friends” beginning in 1877 and continuing “through the early part of the twentieth century,” according to Wingate. (A database curated by the Historic New Orleans Collection provides access to ads from November 1879 to December 1900.) Preachers were asked to read these ads to their congregations in hopes of reuniting loved ones.
Sometimes it worked.
This past winter, my family busted out of our pandemic bubble and took a trip to DisneyWorld. One hot afternoon, while we were standing in line for frozen treats, the couple in front of us turned around and noticed our shirts.
“You haven’t been waiting in line since 2019, have you?” the man joked.
I appreciated the break in tension as I glanced down at my homemade, iron-on transfer which read “Stowell Family Vacation 2019.”
“Good one,” I told him. “Nah, I just didn’t want to spend the money on new shirts this time. But we definitely waited three hours for the Seven Dwarfs!”
By that point, I was used to people commenting on our family shirts – the neon colors I chose so I wouldn't lose anyone, or the phone numbers I had ironed onto the backs of my kids’ shirts so they could be returned to us if lost. But I wasn’t prepared at all for the comment to come.
When it was our turn to order treats, the vendor took a glance at my shirt and said, “Oh my gosh! Stovall! Maybe we’re related!”
I blinked at the thirty-year-old Black man in front of me, noted his name tag, and considered how to react.
I decided to focus on the spelling of our names.
“Oh, it’s actually “Stowell,” but that would have been cool,” I said, gesturing to his last name, which was spelled “Stovall.”
Then we hovered there for a minute.
He continued to smile at me, so I smiled back. And something warmed inside of me. His face was so earnest, it made me wonder if we could be related, even though “Stowell” was only my name by marriage, not birth. Could we have been related somewhere in the distant past? This man seems so excited by the idea that I really wanted to be related to him. I wanted to stay in that moment of connection.
It took an awkward shrug and nod to the still-growing line behind me in order to transition to placing our order, but we parted with smiles, and a few minutes later, when one of my children decided to get a soft pretzel instead, I knew just who to ask where to find a vendor selling such a snack.
I walked back to Mr. Stovall. I guess it sounds strange now to type it out like this, but it really felt like we knew each other, all because we wanted to. He eagerly offered directions, and once again, I felt reluctant to walk away.
I remembered Mr. Stovall when I got to page 211 of Wingate’s book. She writes of a character approaching the holders of the Book of Lost Friends:
“I look up and see a colored man, stout as a woodcutter, standing over us. He folds and unfolds a hat in his hands….
“I come ‘bout the Loss Friends.” He glances toward the Katie P. “I hear…heard it from a fella. You put me in the Loss F-friends, too?”
“We look toward the landing nearby and see the singing man Juneau Jane wrote the letter for on the boat, and he’s pointing somebody else our way. Word of us has spread.
“Juneau Jane gets her pencil and asks the man who he’s looking for. It’s nobody we’ve got on our pages already.
“She takes down the names of the man’s people, and he gives us a nickel before he goes back to work, loading seed bags onto a swamp boat. Then comes another man.” (211)
The characters fill their book with names of lost friends. No matter what they face in life, it’s clear that their main desire is for reunion with their people.
It’s a gruesome book, and it’s a beautiful book, and once again, I have my sister to thank for sending it. If I had to critique it in some way, it’s that I wish I knew the Benny character better. She spends most of the book telling the reader that she has a secret past that she is reluctant to acknowledge. When it all comes out in a rush at the end, I remembered my writing teachers telling me that a story should tell it all at the beginning so as to not keep secrets from the reader, and then spend the rest of the text deepening the problems and insights. I think that could have happened here. I think we could have learned about Benny’s past early on and gotten a lot more out of her by the end. Still, the read is completely worth it just for Hannie’s story. Benny’s story, if nothing else, drives home why Hannie’s story – and real stories like it – are so important today.
Last December, while in the middle of Grub Street’s year-long MFA-level intensive called the Memoir Incubator, my writing teacher asked my class to draft a letter to our future selves, to be mailed to her and returned to each of us after graduation. At the time, I was struggling with how much I had on my plate – all of the reading and writing for the course, in addition to contemplating major life changes, parenting four children, and negotiating the holidays during a pandemic. I didn’t want another assignment. I dashed off something rather quickly on my computer and mailed it off to my teacher.
Months later, my little ditty of a letter brought me to tears as I read it again. How true that the passage of time adds poignancy to the most mundane events. How true that simple language and short sentences can reveal the condition of our hearts. As busy as last year was, and as nervous as I was standing at that podium during my graduation reading, I would do it again. I would start as soon as possible.
Here’s what I wrote:
December 28, 2021
By now, you have finished slashing and shaping your manuscript for your second reader. Tonight, it feels like you’re stalled at a page count of 367. Tonight, you are distracted by whether you should buy a new house, more your family, apply to private middle school for your daughter, or simply whether you should call your parents.
I hope as you’re reading this that you have crossed those finish lines that seem impossible right now – that you were able to cut down the manuscript and send it to Tracy Slater, that you were able to continue to meet with your writing group, that you were able to sign up for an agent or editor meeting, that you were able to revise your manuscript for class (AND take your family to DisneyWorld!). I hope you enjoyed the Muse and the Marketplace after waiting two years to go!
This has been so much work. You have done so much work already. This work has taken you away from friends more than you would have liked. This work has forced you to revisit the worst parts of yourself, and the times in your life that you wish you could change. It has been time-consuming and emotionally dangerous.
When all of this is over, don’t feel sad. You had been waiting years to take this course, and now you have done it! Whatever happens, your work can’t be taken away from you. If you need time now to read or purge the basement or move or print out photos or check in with friends or go for a run, take that time. I hope you’re watching your sons play Little League. I hope the kids are all swimming through the spring. I hope you’re out in the sunshine, soaking up the promise of summer.
There will always be more to write, more to research, more to connect with. Take a moment. Take a breath. It’s okay. You did this. You helped your classmates. You got to edit and comment and shape stories. You got to do this for an entire year.
May there be other years like this one.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.