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There Are No Seasons: A Reading List on Loss, Love, and Living with Fire in California

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

As a child in Northern California, fall was my favorite time of year. My birthday is in mid-August, so I was always ready to tackle the next school year, and was excited because our hottest days, our true summer, had yet to come. But the past several years have felt different here, ever since the Tubbs Fire tore through Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties in October 2017. This deadly, unprecedented fire blazed across canyons and hills, jumped the 101 freeway, and cut through the city of Santa Rosa without warning — destroying entire neighborhoods in the night and killing 22 people.

Growing up on the San Francisco Peninsula in the ’80s, the image of the Forest Service’s mascot, Smokey Bear, was ubiquitous, but while we were taught that wildfire was a threat, it was a theoretical danger to us. As I’ve gotten older, fire has mostly remained a disaster that has happened somewhere else. The fall of 2017, then, felt markedly different: from then on, fire was no longer confined to wilderness. It found its way into cities, to the Pacific coast, to places previously thought as safe. It forced us to wear N95 masks long before the pandemic. It turned our sky orange. It has made us question where in the West, ultimately, is safe from fires — and the effects of climate change. But, as the writers below know, that place does not exist.

Two years ago, Longreads writer Tessa Love published a beautiful braided essay on fire, home, and belonging. We ran it to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, which ignited in Butte County on November 8, 2018, and obliterated the town of Paradise, near Chico, near where Love grew up. The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying over 18,000 structures.

Love and I had been in the latter stages of editing her piece in October 2019 when fires sparked across Northern California yet again. One of these wildfires, the Kincade Fire, forced my family to evacuate our home in West Sonoma County. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say something like, it felt so surreal to pack up and leave my home while editing this essay on someone else’s experience with wildfire. But the truth is that when my husband and I became experts at packing go bags — and had memorized the zone lines on our local evacuation map — I no longer viewed fire as a mere possibility. It was a given, and something that directly affected our community. It had been the third year in a row that we had either evacuated our home or packed our valuables into our cars just in case, so no, it was not surreal. It was the new normal.

As we approach the anniversary of the Camp Fire, Northern California is recovering from a recent powerful storm. But the threat of fire this year remains, even as November brings cooler temperatures. Because when it comes to fire, there really are no seasons.

At the moment, there’s no shortage of reported features about wildfires; I’ve read some notable pieces recently, like Andrea Stanley on climate trauma and the need for long-term mental health support for communities like Paradise, Zora Thomas on what it’s like to be a hotshot firefighter, and Lauren Markham on how assisted forest migration can help save our trees. I’d also recommend David Ferris on the devastating CZU Lightning Complex, which burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in fall 2020, and its effects on the region’s ancient coast redwoods, which are the tallest living things on the planet. For this reading list, however, I’ve selected six personal essays, including “California Burning,” the story that Love and I worked on together. Each piece uses the spark of fire to explore other themes, whether home and belonging, or idleness, or memory. Read more…

Curator Spotlight: Robert Sanchez on Highlighting Notable Storytelling from City Magazines Across the U.S.

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Related reading: Elaine Godfrey on the death of a local newspaper in Iowa and Nickolas Butler on the power of community journalism in Wisconsin.

Last week, the Black Mountain Institute announced that The Believer, the literary and culture magazine founded in 2003, will publish its final issue in spring 2022. It’s yet another blow to the world of print media, and reminded me of the other dismal headlines I’ve read this month lamenting the decline of small-town newspapers — and the ultimate cost to the communities they serve.

In a time when publications and newsrooms continue to struggle, Robert Sanchez’s tightly curated City Reads account is a beacon on Twitter. City Reads tweets the best writing from city magazines across the U.S., shining a light on local and regional stories that I might otherwise miss. Sanchez is a senior staff writer for 5280, Denver’s award-winning magazine, and has written many longreads we’ve read and enjoyed over the years. I chatted with him via email last week about the process of curation, the importance of amplifying city journalism, and his recent 5280 story on sifting through and reading the 8,500+ letters and postcards mailed to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, demanding justice in the Elijah McClain case. Read more…

Curator Spotlight: Vesna Jaksic Lowe on What It Means To Straddle Multiple Cultures

Passport and travel documents, a watch, an open book, and coins on top of paper maps
Photo by Taryn Elliott

As I gathered stories for my recent reading list on the power of names, Vesna Jaksic Lowe’s newsletter, Immigrant Strong, came to mind. In each issue, Jaksic Lowe recommends excellent writing by and about immigrant writers, and creates a space for stories on identity, belonging, multicultural life, and even the complexities of returning home. 

Since 2009, reading and recommending stories we love has been at the core of Longreads. We also remain inspired by the work of fellow curators, like Jaksic Lowe, who read widely, explore their interests and obsessions, and make it easier for people to find something to read.

After consistently enjoying Jaksic Lowe’s reading recommendations, I asked if she’d be willing to discuss her work and perspective. In this short Q&A, we talk about her newsletter and curation process, a few of her favorite reads, and her recent trip back home to Croatia — a journey that always stirs up emotions. Read more…

​​’Names Have Power’: A Reading List on Names, Identity, and the Immigrant Experience

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In first grade, I had a conversation with two classmates, Beth and Jenn, about our names. Being identical twins, they often came to school in matching outfits. I remember their knit sweaters, green and red, with their full names stitched over their chests: Elizabeth and Jennifer. I liked these names: pretty and all-American. They said their middle names were Marie and Lynn, which were just as common, easy, and palatable.

“My middle name is Ann,” I said reluctantly. “It’s kind of short for another name.” Luckily, they didn’t ask about the other name and moved on to something else. I was relieved. 

I continued to tell people, throughout most of high school, that my middle name was Ann, even though that wasn’t true. It was Anongos — my mother’s maiden name — which was embarrassing to me. I didn’t go by my full first name either. My friends called me Cheri, but my name is Cherilynn: a name that, to this day, is both mine and not mine, and one that I write only on important forms and legal documents.

From an early age, I understood the power of a name: It can shape and define you, reveal who you are, and feel like a part of your skin — or a foreign layer your body rejects. In my 20s, I had grown more comfortable in my skin to be able to say: My middle name is Anongos. But by then, as Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson explains in her essay on being Filipino American, I also knew how American I was — how detached I was from my cultural heritage — and was glad to at least have a connection to my family’s culture through this name.

When I got married in 2012, I wanted to take my husband’s last name as my own and to continue the family tradition of keeping my maiden name as my middle name. When filling out the form before our ceremony, I wrote in Rowlands, which pushed Lucas into the middle and dropped Anongos from my name forever. I was sad to let this part of me go — one I had finally embraced, yet never fully inhabited — but was also open to what a new name would bring. 

* * *

I got the idea for this reading list a few weeks ago, when the flood of 20th-anniversary coverage of 9/11 led me to revisit Osama Shehzad’s essay on getting shit for his name. These essays dive deep into questions of identity, belonging, and the power of names — and shine a light on the immigrant experience in America. Read more…

Death of Writing, Writing of Death: A Reading List on Artificial Intelligence and Language

The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?

You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book, I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.

This had 20x the feel of a human trying to write a funny thing than a bot

Pretty sure a person wrote this without any technology more complicated than Microsoft word

not a bot! the punchlines are too consistent

For everyone afraid that AI is taking over, the bot said Brenda was a bird…

Try a language generator at Talk to Transformer, an AI demo site.

Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…

‘Every Single Person Migrating Has a Story’: Caitlin Dwyer on the Emotional Underlayers of Family Separation

Photos and artwork courtesy of Wafa Almaktari. Illustration by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

For couples and families separated by borders, financial circumstances, and national policies beyond their control, their relationships remain in limbo. As people spend months and often many years physically apart — not knowing when or if they’ll see their loved ones again — love can take on a new shape: It might evolve into pain, or defiance, or patience.

Caitlin Dwyer

“Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy,” Caitlin Dwyer writes in “The State of Waiting,” her new Longreads essay about a Yemeni couple — and their long-haul love — in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Dwyer, a writer in Portland, Oregon, produces and hosts Many Roads to Here, a podcast on migration and identity in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the U.S. tell their own stories. I last worked with Dwyer in 2019 on a story called “Shared Breath,” in which she beautifully explored the intimate, unique connections between organ recipients and donor families. Read more…

“We Can’t Rush This Kind of Power”: An Educator on Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers During the Pandemic

surreal moment of a butterfly entering the pages of a book
fcscafeine / Getty Images

During this period of remote learning during the pandemic, poet and educator Paola Capó-García decided to reimagine her senior English class into a more immersive and focused eight-week poetry course. Through poems, she thought, perhaps her teenage students could reflect on “the particular chaos of 2020” and begin to process the loss they’d experienced over the year. In a piece at Teachers & Writers Magazine, Capó-García recounts this special time spent with her students, and how she created a safe, quiet space for them to think, to write, and to heal.

Poetry is so often neglected at the high school level, deemed too difficult, too precious, or too esoteric to tackle. And when it is taught, it’s typically filtered through dead white men. But teaching Whitman and Frost does not fit into my politics as a teacher and human, and it certainly does not fit the narrative of the students my school serves. I’m not interested in widening the gap between them and poetry, between them and knowledge. My goal, now and always, has been to make poetry accessible, exciting, and useful to young people. To teach them that the way they speak and live is already poetic. To help them manage the messiness of 21st century youth with 21st century language. And in this extra-messy age of Covid and Zoom and rightful apathy, poetry felt like the perfect way to make sense of it all.

Between a raging pandemic, civil rights unrest, controversial U.S. election, and graduation on the horizon, the students needed a space to explore the enormity of their feelings. To address this, I designed the writing prompts around the concept of loss. The world we’re living in is punctuated by overwhelming loss, and it must be confronted and articulated in cathartic ways.

I value the elegy as a poetic form for teenagers because it invites healing; it’s a way to give grief a name and exit strategy. I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.

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‘The Price For Your Return to Normal Is My Life’: On Dismantling Layers of the Doll

D-Keine / Getty Images

“Trapped indoors as they and we have been for a year, it occurs to me that White people have just figured out what it’s like to be in a living nightmare,” writes Baltimore-based writer Breai Mason-Campbell. In “Seeing in the Dark,” a stunning essay in the first-ever issue of Pipe Wrench, Mason-Campbell reflects on how the pandemic “has been like smelling salts for the soul, quickening even the most apathetic Whiteness,” and opening the eyes of Nice White Folks, even if momentarily, to the reality and experience of being Black in America.

They now understood what it felt like to be distant from their freest selves, so they listened when we said that our grief is a nesting doll: That inside the outer sphere where Corona had stolen our loved ones, our job security, and our sense of safety, was another layer. A more suffocating circle of experience that White people, previously blinded by the light of their own incandescence, could now begin to make out from the shadows, their eyes adjusted by the global shroud of doom. These grief-bound White people, uncharacteristically able to see in the dark, became more discerning. More sensitive. More human.

But white attention is short, she writes, and Nice White Folks can retreat back into their homes — back to (their) normal — until the next moment signals them to check in with a friend or take to Twitter or donate to a GoFundMe page or post a black square or display a BLM sign.

Justice was a seasonal item, it turned out. And empathy, its sister-at-arms awakened by the storm and subsequent power outage, was being sent back to the secreted and suppressed corners from whence she emerged. Her only-just-forged outer doll dismantled and packed up in the garage. Back to business as usual.

What’s needed, she says, is the support after the funeral: the support, the solidarity, the action three months later — a year later — when everyone has moved on. “How are you going to help the family now?” she asks.

We all share the grief of Covid-19, the outer doll of fear, uncertainty, and isolation. But beneath that breastplate of horror, there are layers upon layers of sarcophagi limiting the agency and humanity of people like me.

White men, White women, Black men, cis women, cis men, hetero folks, people with degrees, people with generational wealth, anyone who doesn’t share their neighborhood with drug dealers: Corona helped you build up some armor. Use it. Now is the time to show mercy with brave and decisive acts. Stop confusing irresponsibility with freedom. Accept accountability for the fact that where you live, what you buy, how you handle the noise on your block, and where your kids go to school all help or hurt somebody’s chances at life itself. Make. Different. Choices.

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“I Was at a Loss for Any Facts that Would Actually Stick”: An Investigative Reporter on Losing His Mom to QAnon

WASHINGTON, DC—JANUARY 06: Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the Stop the Steal rally. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

I Miss My Mom,” Jesselyn Cook’s HuffPost piece, is another read on losing a parent to QAnon.

At Buzzfeed News, Albert Samaha recounts his unsuccessful efforts to pull his mom out of QAnon. She had been an early adopter of the far-right conspiracy theory and has believed, since 2018, that Donald Trump is the anointed one — a savior in a war between good and evil. By 2020, it was clear to Samaha that there was no longer any “overlap between [their] filters of reality,” and he had given up trying to argue with her over basic, indisputable facts. After all, in her eyes, he was a dangerous member of the “liberal media” — a journalist of the “evil deep state.”

In the piece, Samaha traces his mother’s journey to QAnon, first explaining how she came to the U.S. from the Philippines and was initially indifferent to politics. But that changed during the 2000 presidential election, and in that race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, she “saw the candidates as pieces on God’s chessboard.” Later, she would declare her support for Barack Obama, but that period, writes Samaha, “turned out to be the final chapter of [their] political alignment.”

Meanwhile, she wondered where she’d gone wrong with me. Was it letting me go to public school instead of Catholic school? Subscribing to cable TV channels operated by the liberal media? Raising me in Northern California? She regretted not taking politics more seriously when I was younger. I’d grown up blinkered by American privilege, trained to ignore the dirty machinations securing my comforts. My mom had shed that luxury long ago.

She was a primary school student, living in a big house in the suburbs of Manila in 1972 when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in response to a series of bombings across the capital and an assassination attempt on the defense secretary, which he blamed on communist insurgents. But Marcos had actually orchestrated the attacks as justification for his authoritarian turn — a plot exposed only years later. The successful conspiracy ushered the Philippines into a dictatorship that jailed dissidents, embezzled public funds, and installed a bribe-based bureaucracy my grandparents refused to participate in. Having a hard head runs in the family. To this day, my aunties and uncles debate if they would have been better off had their parents just given in to the new rules of the game.

The year my mom began falling down QAnon rabbit holes, I turned the age she was when she first arrived in the States. By then, I was no longer sure that America was worth the cost of her migration. When the real estate market collapsed under the weight of Wall Street speculation, she had to sell our house at a steep loss to avoid foreclosure and her budding career as a realtor evaporated. Her near–minimum wage jobs weren’t enough to cover her bills, so her credit card debts rose. She delayed retirement plans because she saw no path to breaking even anytime soon, though she was hopeful that a turnaround was on the horizon. Through the setbacks and detours, she drifted into the arms of the people and beliefs I held most responsible for her troubles.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 6, a piece of shrapnel landed in my text message inbox: photos of my mom and an uncle among a crowd of Trump supporters in front of the state capitol in Sacramento.

Outraged, I texted them both a righteous screed proclaiming my disappointment with how irresponsible they were, gathering with maskless faces even as COVID cases surged in California — and for what? It was one thing for my mother to risk her life at campaign rallies, but now she was doing so on the basis of a lie, a lie that only seemed to gain momentum. Would it ever end? Would my mother spend the rest of the pandemic bouncing from rally to rally, calling for an overthrow of a democratically elected government, breathing in the angry shouts of mask-averse white people who probably would’ve preferred she go back to the Philippines if not for the pink MAGA hat confirming her complicity?

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“The Internet Is Inside Us”: Patricia Lockwood on the Portal, Twitter, and Her New Novel

Charlotte May / Pexels

Reading poet, essayist, and novelist Patricia Lockwood on our internet lives is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and losing your mind. Lockwood’s musings and observations on what it’s like to be extremely online in our digital and social media age are incomparable. Her essays and lectures — like “The Communal Mind” from 2019 and her coronavirus diary from last summer — are hilarious, absurd, pure, and human. In a conversation with Gabriella Paiella at GQ, Lockwood talks about her debut novel No One Is Talking About This, the strange experience of following current events on Twitter, and how the internet is “no longer an externality” — it’s inside us.

Your London Review of Books talk “The Communal Mind” is excerpted from your book. Do you remember the turning point when you started to think of the internet as a “communal mind” and, as you put it then, “a place we can never leave”?

It did start to feel like we were locked in there. I think, honestly, it probably was 2012. It had to take a political turn. It became the place where we were imbibing the news. The point in which it turned from a communal free space of play to a place where we were getting our information was probably the difference.

We were starting out with a very bare bones, text-based version. There weren’t images. You couldn’t embed video. Ultimately, I think what changed it was the quote tweet, because that meant that as soon as you went into the portal, you were experiencing an argument first thing. You didn’t even know what these people were talking about, and immediately you were faced with the discourse. That to me was the full evolution into hell as we are experiencing it now.

I do think it’s healthy to be pulling away from Twitter at this time. But in times like this, you’re like, “Okay, I’m jumping into the portal, and I’m seeing what’s happening because it is a million eyes.” It’s the only way you can experience all sides of it. The absurd sides and the tragic sides. It’s not like it was this completely hilarious event, obviously. It’s not like it was entirely tragic either. And the portal has really evolved into a place that we can experience all those sides—the only place that you can do that.

Read the interview