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Story wrangler, Senior editor, Longreads.

Quarantine Brain: How ‘the Internet Became More Internet’ in 2020

Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

I spent most of December buried in this year’s editors’ picks, working with the team to compile our Best of 2020 lists. As you can imagine, most of that reading was heavy, emotional, and mentally exhausting. The first essay I read after wrapping up my final list on investigative reporting was Alexandra Tanner’s hilarious deep-dive into the bizarre world of Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram which, somehow and strangely, was a breath of fresh air. But what is fresh air in 2020, in a year of masks and poorly ventilated spaces and smoky skies and air filters?

While lighter than most anything I’d read in weeks, Tanner’s Jewish Currents essay on mad Mommy bloggers is still dark, yet it encapsulates 2020 in one entertaining dose, just like E. Alex Jung‘s Vulture piece on quarantine culture, published earlier this month. For those of us who have had the privilege of isolating and staying home with Wi-Fi, we’ve been online all the time: “hotboxing off bad weed,” writes Jung, “our brains smoothed into little pearls.” At first, there were attempts to return to normal, Jung explains, but in the end, nothing has made sense. Driven by a new and exciting generation of content creators on TikTok and the spirit of the Dadaists, the most memorable moments of the year were the most spontaneous, and the most resonant art “channeled the hive mind of the internet”: created, shaped, and owned by everyone and no one.

It was TikTok, the app Cooper made her name on, that became the most fertile storytelling medium of the pandemic — accomplishing what Quibi could not, which was to create bite-size entertainment people actually watched. In place of top-down decision-making, a more horizontal body — collaborative in an accidental and serendipitous way — appeared.

Formally, the Dadaists embraced chaos and nonsense. They favored collage and montage, whether through photography, typography, or sculpture; the collision of dissonant ideas and images was a way to jolt viewers out of their stupor. A common refrain was “Everybody can Dada.” In many ways, the internet has allowed for a realization of Dada without a centralized authority (which is so Dada). Just as it emerged from the bowels of World War I (and the 1918 influenza pandemic), you could see glimmers of a similarly absurdist sensibility reflecting the times — a Gen-Z/millennial cusp brand of disillusionment and anger. The coronavirus is the accelerant thrown on a fire that has long been burning: a for-profit news media, the erosion of our public institutions, a two-party political system made up of a white-supremacist death cult and corporate nostalgists.

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The Mormon Mommy Bloggers of Instagram

One of Alexandra Tanner‘s internet activities this year, during lockdown? Obsessively following Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram. Spending her quarantine days closely observing these women’s lives, perhaps she’d learn something about America, she thought. In an essay at Jewish Currents that’s at once hilarious and terrifying, Tanner explores this bizarre, mad world: one of mass delusion and conspiracy theories.

The mommies started wearing t-shirts sunnily screen-printed with the phrase FREEDOM KEEPER and attending anti-mask rallies. They posted videos implying they were foregoing chickenpox vaccines in favor of exposing their children to the virus via mysterious, black-market-looking envelopes labeled VARICELLA. They posted that they were approaching new vibrational energies, that they were moving into a fourth dimension of consciousness, that they were becoming a part of the Great Awakening.

NOW IT’S JUNE. There’s an amazing new steam mop out and all the mommies have it. Cops are beating protesters unconscious with their riot shields and the mommies are all posting the same graphic, which reads i understand that i will never understand above a line of fist emojis: one black, one brown, one white. The steam mop is made by Bissell. Soros is paying Antifa to usher in the New World Order, which will persecute Christians and Republicans so Jews and socialists can finally rule the globe. The infrared thermometers that now take our temperatures outside grocery stores or doctors’ offices are acclimating us to the idea of having guns aimed at our heads. Marina Abramovic has taught Jay-Z and Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton and Rihanna to cook and eat the spirits of small white children. The Bissell steam mop is only $79.99 on Amazon and I have to try it. The West Coast wildfires were started by left-wing arsonists. Yoga is Satanic. Tarot is Satanic. When a celebrity wears a Band-Aid on their left hand they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears a flower crown they’re telling you they eat children. When a celebrity wears dark eye makeup they’re telling you they eat children. If I swipe up the Bissell steam mop will be automatically added to my Amazon cart.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Investigative Reporting

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our team picked and featured hundreds of in-depth investigations published across the web. Here are our top picks.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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The Last Patrol (Nathaniel Penn, The California Sunday Magazine)

In July 2012, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance gave an order that killed two Afghan civilians on a motorcycle near an operating base outside of Kandahar, in a volatile region in Afghanistan. Lorance was convicted of murder. The narrative weaved by Sean Hannity and others at Fox News framed Lorance as a war hero; he was pardoned by Donald Trump in November 2019 and served six years of a 20-year sentence. The former Army officer, who had been advised to take interviews only from conservative media outlets, agreed to talk with Nathaniel Penn, and the result is an incredibly riveting and comprehensive piece on his case.

Arriving on the dirt road that led into the village, the patrol discovered two of the three Afghan men lying beside a ditch. They were dead. Their companion had run away. Near them, the motorcycle leaned on its kickstand.

It wasn’t at all the scene Lorance had imagined. “If I would have been up there,” he told me, “and would have known that they were stopped and off their motorcycle, I would never in a million years have said, ‘Fire at them.’ I would want to go talk to them and get intel out of them. I’d be like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I would want to know everything about them.”

A woman and two children stood near the bodies, weeping.

Holy shit, Lorance thought. Did we just kill good people?

The way to find out was to do a Battle Damage Assessment. Skelton was the intelligence specialist who carried the SEEK. But Lorance wanted Skelton to follow him into the village to carry out the mission and get the biometric enrollments. The engagement with the motorcycle had been necessary and unfortunate, but it wasn’t important. He ordered two of his men to conduct the Battle Damage Assessment while he proceeded into the village. They had the necessary training, even if they didn’t have the SEEK. They knelt by the bodies.

Captain Swanson, who had been alerted to the situation, was radioing Lorance from headquarters. What was happening? he asked. Were the dead men combatants or civilians? Had Lorance done the Battle Damage Assessment?

No, Lieutenant Lorance replied, they hadn’t been able to do the Battle Damage Assessment. The villagers had taken away the bodies.

As he spoke, he knew he had just made a critical mistake. He should have said that his men would get to the Battle Damage Assessment eventually, that they didn’t have time to do that shit right now. Because when you speak over the radio, “you might as well be putting your hand on the Bible,” as one member of the platoon told me.

In the years to come, Lorance’s decision not to use the SEEK device for the Battle Damage Assessment would prove to be crucial and polarizing. It would contribute both to his imprisonment and his pardon.

The weeping woman was screaming now. Lorance told himself that her tears didn’t necessarily mean he’d done anything wrong. The men whose bodies she was crying over could be insurgents. That shocked him — the idea that the Taliban had families, too. It had never occurred to him before.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Essays

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors picked and featured hundreds of beautifully written and poignant essays published on the web. Because of the wide range of writing across many topics and themes, it was a challenge to sift through them all over the past several weeks to compile a definitive Best of Essays list. As I shortlisted stories, I realized there could be many different versions of this list, but, in the end, these eight reads really spoke to me.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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Mississippi: A Poem, in Days (Kiese Makeba Laymon, Vanity Fair)

Kiese Makeba Laymon was on a book tour when the pandemic hit in the U.S. In this stunner of a piece that unfolds over 14 days, the author writes on fear, racism, death, and home amid a moment of awakening. We follow along on the journey, from event to event in Ohio and West Virginia, with Laymon’s observations and thoughts interspersed with daily COVID-19 death counts and the latest words or orders from Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. It’s a powerful meditation, one that will stop you in your tracks.

We are awakened, I want to believe.

75 miles from the armed confederate statue in Oxford, Emmett Till’s childish body was destroyed. 70 miles from that armed confederate statue, Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death. 160 miles from that armed confederate statue, Medgar Evers was murdered as he enters his home. 80 miles from that armed confederate statue, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis.

It took way too much Black death to get here.

I am wandering around the spiritual consequences of materially progressing at the expense of Black death. I want to be courageous. I wonder, though, when courage becomes contagious—when courage is credentialized, subsidized, and incentivized—if it is still courage at all.

Today, as I prepare to push send, and I lather my hands in sanitizer, it feels a bit too much like cowardice.

Maybe I’ll wait to send tomorrow. Maybe I won’t send at all.

The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, a group of white men, unanimously vote to keep the armed confederate monument in the middle of Oxford, the town where I live, teach, and write.

Humiliation, agony, and death, are what I feel.

It could all be so much worse, is what the worst of white folks want us to recite.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Arts and Culture

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. In an unprecedented, strange, and chaotic year, we’ve leaned on writers’ reflections and commentaries on the world around us to help us make sense of moments, of our lives. We revisited a wide range of arts and culture stories featured by the team this year and selected eight favorites that resonated with us.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.

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I’ve always loved how Teju Cole observes and moves through our world: a flâneur of modern life, always with a notebook or a camera in hand. Here, we follow Cole on a pilgrimage to Italy as he chases the life of Caravaggio, an artist (and fugitive and murderer) whose emotionally charged, often violent scenes and chiaroscuro technique I studied closely in my AP Art History class. In Rome and Milan, Cole revisits Caravaggio’s paintings “to learn the truth about doom” — to sit with unease, and to experience the artist’s pain and turmoil (“I would find in him the reprieve certain artists can offer us in dark times”).

Cole then travels south, to Naples and along the coast of Sicily, and later to Malta, to the places where the painter spent his exile; he captures both the mundanity and intimacy of encounters with guides and strangers, like his meeting in Syracuse with D., a young migrant who arrived by boat from Libya eight months earlier. (They share a silent, beautiful moment with “The Burial of St. Lucy.”) Part-travelogue, part-profile, part-art criticism, and part-commentary on the ills and horrors of our world, it’s a stunning piece with masterful scope, but also turns inward — a read you’ll likely sit with quietly long after you’ve finished.

I sat on a bench in the middle of the room, the two paintings set at a right angle to each other. I was awe-struck, out of breath, caught between these two immensities. The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange. It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration. It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors. It can also often be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight. But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you — to call you — to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Writing on COVID-19

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors featured many COVID-19 stories from across the web, and below, we’ve narrowed down 11 picks that really resonated with us. This roundup is focused on reported features; we initially included a few pandemic essays in this category, but those will instead appear in the upcoming Best of Essays list. 

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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How the Pandemic Defeated America (Ed Yong, The Atlantic)

The Atlantic‘s coverage of COVID-19 was exceptional this year, and Yong’s deep, thoughtful September feature lays it all out. How did the U.S. get here? Everything that went wrong was predictable and preventable, and despite all of its resources and scientific expertise, America’s leaders failed monumentally to control the virus at every turn.

The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.

Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess (Doug Bock Clark, GQ)

Another devastating read, “The Pariah Ship” by Michael Smith, Drake Bennett, and K. Oanh Haat, recounts the nightmare journey of Holland America’s MS Zaandam.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws of tourism, and cruise ships are a symbol of the disastrous effects that COVID-19 has had on the travel industry as a whole. Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, which departed on January 20 this year from Japan’s Port of Yokohama, was the first ship to suffer a major outbreak. Clark’s account of the voyage and subsequent quarantine of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew is riveting yet terrifying. He weaves stories of numerous people on board, from the more-privileged (a pair of traveling couples called the “Four Amigos”) to the overworked and underprotected (like security crewmember Sonali Thakkar). His reporting of the U.S. government’s response is superb, especially from the perspective of Dr. James Lawler, the infectious-disease expert called in to lead the evacuation of American passengers back to the U.S. We also get a glimpse of what the experience is like for the ship’s captain, Gennaro Arma, who was eventually the last person to disembark.

The Amigos, reduced now to three, along with the 325 other American evacuees, were still waiting on the buses. They had spent three hours idling on the pier and then, once they drove to the airport, sat on the tarmac for two more hours. Now, as the delay extended into a sixth hour, the passengers were nearing revolt. They were exhausted. And more problematically for the largely elderly passengers: The buses had no bathrooms.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where it was still Sunday afternoon, the fate of the waylaid evacuees was being decided. Around the time the passengers were exiting the Diamond Princess, Japanese officials had blindsided their American counterparts with the news that some of the passengers boarding the buses had actually tested positive several days before. Soon many of the highest-level members of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were arguing about what to do. Representatives from the CDC continued to fear spreading the virus. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for the State Department, wanted to bring everyone home anyway. Those urging the evacuation noted that the planes had been prepared with isolation units to contain the sick.

As the debate raged, the evacuees were demanding to be let off the buses, quarantine be damned, to find a bathroom. Carl was breathing so hard his masked breath fogged his glasses as he strained to control his bladder. Some seniors were crying. Finally, a few were allowed to relieve themselves in bottles beside the bus or were brought to a nearby terminal.

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On Trees as Social Creatures and Fungi as the ‘Fabric of the Forest’

Photo by Lukas Hartmann

In Ferris Jabr’s story on the interconnectedness of trees at The New York Times Magazine, take a stroll through the old-growth forests of British Columbia with Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist whose research has changed our understanding of trees. (Simard was the inspiration for Patricia Westerford, the dendrologist in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory.)

Trees were once viewed as individual and solitary organisms, competing with other trees for resources. But the forest ecosystem is supported by mycorrhizal networks: an underground fungal web through which trees exchange carbon, water, and nutrients and communicate with one another. “It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society,” writes Jabr. “There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.” It’s a fascinating dive into the social life of forests, and you will never look at trees the same way again.

She handed me a thin strip of root the length of a pencil from which sprouted numerous rootlets still woolly with dirt. The rootlets branched into even thinner filaments. As I strained to see the fine details, I realized that the very tips of the smallest fibers looked as though they’d been capped with bits of wax. Those gummy white nodules, Simard explained, were mycorrhizal fungi that had colonized the pine’s roots. They were the hubs from which root and fungus cast their intertwined cables through the soil, opening channels for trade and communication, linking individual trees into federations. This was the very fabric of the forest — the foundation of some of the most populous and complex societies on Earth.

Trees have always been symbols of connection. In Mesoamerican mythology, an immense tree grows at the center of the universe, stretching its roots into the underworld and cradling earth and heaven in its trunk and branches. Norse cosmology features a similar tree called Yggdrasil. A popular Japanese Noh drama tells of wedded pines that are eternally bonded despite being separated by a great distance. Even before Darwin, naturalists used treelike diagrams to represent the lineages of different species. Yet for most of recorded history, living trees kept an astonishing secret: Their celebrated connectivity was more than metaphor — it had a material reality. As I knelt beneath that whitebark pine, staring at its root tips, it occurred to me that my whole life I had never really understood what a tree was. At best I’d been aware of just one half of a creature that appeared to be self-contained but was in fact legion — a chimera of bewildering proportions.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Business Writing

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting hundreds of business stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these nine reads, including coverage of the wildest startup collapses and in-depth explorations of pandemic insurance, TikTok content houses, 5G, and the state of the fossil fuel industry.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

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Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani (Aaron Gell, Marker)

Carolyn Rafaelian spent 15 years building a jewelry empire, making her company, famous for its $30 expandable wire bracelets, one of the fastest-growing fashion brands ever. But what led to Alex and Ani’s fall? Aaron Gell’s piece has it all: an odd alliance between a spiritual “earth mother” founder and an Army major-turned-CEO, business decisions influenced by astrology and New Age practices, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit against Bank of America, and even a spinoff into a “university”that was meant to share the company’s life lessons with the world.

Buzzwords aside, the curriculum mostly aimed to impart an essential truth behind Alex and Ani’s appeal: Its products were not just glittery trinkets but spiritual armor designed to protect, inspire, and ennoble the bearer as she made her way through the world. Retail employees at the company’s “bangle bars” were known internally as “bar tenders” for their patience and empathy. They’d draw out customers’ personal stories — what AAU president Dennis Rebelo called “story birthing” — prescribing just the right stones and talismans (the Eye of Horus for protection, light, and reason; the dragonfly for grace, change, and power) for each unique journey.

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‘Anyone Can Walk in the Woods, But Who Truly Knows Them?’

Pixabay CC0

Tristan McConnell‘s recent essay at Emergence Magazine just might be the deep breath you need amid your busy week and a chaotic, never-ending cycle of news. In “Illuminating Kirinyaga,” McConnell takes us on a journey into the shrinking forests of Mount Kenya and writes about the land, coexistence, and the people who commune with the trees.

We immediately meet Joseph Mbaya, a man who lives in Kiambogo, a village on the edge of the forest. Mbaya forages for medicine among the trees and finds treatments for everything from arthritis to indigestion; the sap he collects from a red stinkwood tree can help treat an ear infection or a toothache, for example. There’s also Samson Thureinira, an elder living in the foothills, “still strong as a cedar’s trunk,” writes McConnell, and who moves “on a timescale more akin to trees than humans.” The indigenous saplings in Thureinira’s tree nursery are part of a reforestation program led by the Mount Kenya Trust that will, hopefully, help to protect these forests long after he and Mbaya are gone.

They, and other foresters of this landscape, understand that the forest can be used without destroying it.

Mbaya’s visits to the high forests mark him out. While the swirling centrifugal forces of modernity have sucked so many others into a prison of quotidian constraints, Mbaya’s forest walks are a portal to a different, slower, and more meaningful world. Anyone can walk in the woods, but who truly knows them? As we strode, paused, scrambled, and sat, Mbaya painted the forest with his knowledge; trees and plants were illuminated by their names and made more vivid in their value and uses. To see the forest through his eyes— however fleetingly and partially—is to be granted a rare glimpse of an understanding that feels as inaccessible as Mount Kenya’s soaring peaks. But appreciation and preservation of the mountain and its forests is dwindling.

DEEP INSIDE THE fractured forests that still ring the mountain, a hallowed sense of wonder persists. One morning, soon after the sun burns mist from the mountainsides and clouds shroud the peaks, I visit part of the mountain’s few remaining areas of old-growth woodland with a pair of young Kenyan foresters from the Mount Kenya Trust. Marania Forest, on the mountain’s northern fringe, is a revelation: thickly towering trunks of eight-hundred-year-old rosewood reach overhead, the trees’ crowns held up to the light of the canopy, pencil-straight cedar and craggy-barked olive are draped with lichen, and moss carpets the earth, muffling sound to a church-like silence. It is dark, crowded, and otherworldly—the ground soft underfoot, the trunks damp to the touch, the trees centuries old, the sunlight breaking through in narrow shafts. At our feet, fallen trunks breach the understory like shipwrecks, gradually decaying and returning to the soil—to its subterranean fungal networks and the spreading roots of neighboring trees—as food for the rest of the forest. We all smile, the foresters and I. It is a routine venture out for them, and my first to these old forests, and yet our reactions are the same: joy and reverential wonder. We instinctively drop our voices to a whisper. We walk and talk, feet sinking into the damp, spongey soil as the foresters teach me about the trees.

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‘Transforming Craft Into An Act of Protest’: Embroidery In Response to Femicide in Mexico

Photo by Eva Elijas

In “Memory Weavers,” a piece in Hazlitt on the femicide crisis in Mexico, Amandas Ong writes about Bordamos Feminicidios, an embroidery collective that sews the stories of murdered women and, through their handmade creations, raises awareness of female-targeted violence.

There are only three basic requirements to be part of Bordamos Feminicidios, and for Minerva to assign you a story to embroider. First, the embroiderer must tell the narrative in first person. “I want them,” she says, “to really try and imagine the life of this woman, who we only know in her last moments.” To honor her is to build a profound empathy with the fantasy of a life fuller and more complex than a broken body. Second, the embroidery should be done on a pañuelo, a standard white handkerchief, though Minerva has begun allowing deviations to this rule, because she finds it endearing when the embroiderers add personal touches to their work. “I have received tablecloths or fabric of all shapes and sizes, stained with coffee and wine, with little cats and flowers sewn into the bottom,” she says. “I love it. It means that these women are working on the embroidery everywhere and whenever they can, and the decorative details are like little kisses to the deceased.” The third rule, she says, is that the words must be in purple.

Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference, against the lack of willpower to reverse or address a societal ill, is something that Mexican women, and women around the world, are familiar with. For centuries both in reality and the literary imagination, women have been the faithful scribes of tales revealing personal and social resistance to injustice or oppression. They did not do this with pens, or quills, or rigid implements that were good for scratching script onto stone—all of these were traditionally believed to be instruments that wielded real power in the realm of the public, where only men’s words counted. Instead women spoke through the objects they had created with their hands, some of which would never cross the threshold of the home.

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