Author Archives

Jacqueline Alnes

Cross Talk

Photo Collage by Homestead Studio

Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | November, 2019 | 34 minutes (9,431 words)

To get to Kamp in rural Missouri every year, I flew from Jakarta to Singapore to Tokyo to Minneapolis to Springfield. There, my mom rented a car, picked our trunks up from storage, and drove my brother and me up winding roads to drop us off first, always first. The welcome party was a horde of college-age blond-haired, summer-tanned counselors jumping around in costumes: ballerina skirts over basketball shorts; children’s floaties tight around biceps; the beleaguered orange hair of a synthetic lion mane worn too many times. Without other kids there yet, a product of our early arrival, the party seemed surreal. I slouched in the back seat of the car. Maybe I could disappear.

“I can’t do this,” I moaned, though I knew deep down that I would. After all, I was the one who had discovered Kamp. A popular older boy on my swim team in Indonesia, one with crew-cut brown hair and a glistening set of abs, had bragged to the other kids about how much fun it was. I begged my parents to let me and Erik attend, so they logged on to our family’s dial-up internet. Years later, a search for Kanakuk Kamps would render a list of news articles rife with reports of sexual abuse and molestation, but back then it led you to its website, which only featured pictures of clean-cut kids splashing in the pool or standing on a kelly-green soccer field, their arms around one another. My parents signed us up.

“You say that every year,” my mom said. She turned from the driver’s seat to look at me, her green-blue eyes unblinking. “Come on, get out.”

“But this year I’m serious,” I whined. Though I liked Kamp for the lake swimming and kickball tournaments, it felt like a test of identity, one I never passed: to prove I was a good, Christian, American girl.

“Come on, Jaggin’,” my brother said. The counselors rushed toward the car, the chant of howdy y’all, get rowdy y’all growing louder as my brother opened his door. We said a quick goodbye to my mom, and Erik and I followed our counselors into the cavernous dodgeball gym.

“You gonna be OK?” Erik asked. Though I was 12 and he 11, he often took on the role of an older sibling in how he cared for me. Lecrae’s Who u with? Are you in it to win man? Are you livin’ in sin reverberated from stacked speakers. LED lights flickered a kaleidoscope of colors over the walls. Without Kampers, the scene felt depressing, like a birthday party no one had bothered to attend.

Mungkin,” I whispered. I shrugged. My use of Bahasa Indonesian was a ploy to make him feel tethered to me, though he was confident enough not to need me at Kamp. When we were in America, the language felt like a set of tin cans and string no one else could touch.

“Please try to have fun,” he said, and walked to the boys’ side of the gym, where he pantomimed skateboard moves with his counselors. I wrung my hands and waited.

One by one, the other Kampers came in. They separated by gender, the way we would remain throughout Kamp. Boys’ and girls’ cabins were on separate sides of the property, our dining hall tables were on opposite ends of one long room, and parties were divided by an unmarked line on the gym floor. The only way I would see my brother throughout the week was if he passed my cabin on the way to somewhere else.

Girls began to populate my side of the gym. To me, all of them looked like my American Girl dolls at home, their noses perfectly freckled, skin like shimmering bowls of cream, hair wild and undone. They danced politely around me in their oversize basketball shorts and baggy T-shirts, all modest enough to meet the Kamp dress code. They talked about soccer tournaments and complimented hair braids.

‘Mungkin,’ I whispered. I shrugged. My use of Bahasa Indonesian was a ploy to make him feel tethered to me, though he was confident enough not to need me at Kamp. When we were in America, the language felt like a set of tin cans and string no one else could touch.

“You’re from Kansas City, too? No way!” Two girls hugged, as if the proximity of their neighborhoods was a sign from God. I knew it was just coincidence. Girls came from the same hometowns every year: Knoxville, Naperville, Dallas, Fayetteville, Wichita, St. Louis, Tulsa. The city names sounded so American, especially prefaced by a suburb of. I often wondered what it would be like to say I had been raised in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home on Ashley Spring Court or Savannah Hills Drive. During summers in America, I had seen the miracle of glittering, planned streets, and I wanted them as my own. Instead, my family moved frequently. Before Jakarta, we’d lived for four years in Balikpapan, Indonesia, in a home we deemed the Vitamin House because B-12, our address, was sprayed yellow on our driveway.

I stayed away from the other girls, hoping they wouldn’t ask me any questions, especially about where I was from. I knew that my body — a gangly array of tanned limbs and blond hair cut to my chin — looked like the Kamp girls, but I felt split in half, like I didn’t belong. My vision of America came from the filtered peek I received each summer on our two-month trek through grandparents’ living rooms, the Mall of America, and cousins’ lush backyards. I fell in love with the silky green grass I was allowed to touch with bare feet. But I didn’t know the country well, not at all. I felt like a tourist in a land that everyone else said was mine, and though I’d been coming to Kamp for three years, the initial night always felt shocking, like a full-body plunge into ice-cold water.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Smile, I reminded myself. Kamu orang Amerika.

Eventually, in the gym swollen with the noise and heat of nearly 300 campers and counselors, the Kamp leader who went by the initials of something like JP shushed us all over the microphone.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he crooned, like a poorly paid late-night radio host. “How are we all doing tonight?”

The Kampers cheered. I raised my voice in a half-hearted yay while scanning the boys’ side of the room for any sign of my brother’s freckled cheeks or the white-blond spot on the back of his head that marked him like a fawn. My counselor shot me a glare.

“Let’s play Who Traveled Farthest to Kamp!” he yelled. I twisted the edge of my T-shirt in my hand. “Stand up now, and when I name a state, you’ll sit down if you get eliminated.”

We all stood up. I tried finding Erik again. Most of the counselors were new each year, so maybe we could lie about where we were from. The bobbing sea of boy-hair left him camouflaged.

Half the crowd sat down at “anywhere outside Missouri.”

Another chunk crumpled to Kansas.

Texas.

Oklahoma.

Soon, I could see my brother, one of only five or so of us left standing.

JP, wearing a bandana around his balding head in an attempt to look hip, dragged the cord of his microphone behind him into the crowd.

“Which one of you thinks you have it?” he asked. I shot my brother a glance, hoping my eyes would say we could pretend to be from Illinois? He gave me a thumbs-up, not understanding. He didn’t mind the attention; somehow his status as the Boy From Indonesia earned him extra credibility.

A boy with scruffy brown hair raised his hand. “Virginia,” he yelped into the microphone.

“Ooh,” JP sang. “Virginia. How long did it take for you to get here?”

“A day,” the kid said. I looked around. The girls in my cabin flitted their eyes at one another, impressed. Two of the other kids sat down. My palms began to sweat, and I rubbed them on the tie-dye I LOVE TABLEROCK LAKE tourist T-shirt my mom had purchased for me at the local Walmart.

“Anyone from further than that?” JP murmured. He swaggered toward me, and I again eyed at my brother: help. I was the one who struggled with words under pressure. On a family vacation to a different island, a man had approached me asking, “Where’s the slide” in a British accent. I’d responded “Disana, disana,” before he backed away, saying “SORRY” slowly and loudly. Sometimes even my tongue got tangled between lives.

“Where are you from?”

I wasn’t from anywhere, I wanted to say. I wasn’t allowed to be from Indonesia; no matter the fact that I had lived there for five years — longer than anywhere else in my life — no matter that I spoke the language, no matter that I no longer remembered what America was like, I could never be from Indonesia. I’d always be a white foreigner, the daughter of parents wealthy enough to live on the compound, holder of a passport from the USA.

“Jakarta, Indonesia,” I whispered.

The crowd went silent.

Is that in California? someone behind me whispered.

Probably, a different voice whispered back.

“That’s near Bali, right?” JP responded. I nodded yes, though I wanted to him to know the difference between the tourist resort town and where I lived. People went to Bali for a pristine beach, trinkets, and the idea that they were somewhere foreign, without ever actually experiencing the realities of the country. I wanted to believe that my years in Indonesia had been different. I learned to squat rather than sit while waiting for the bus, watched the snake man wrangle a spitting cobra into a cage, and woke each morning to the wail of a mosque, the prayers a soothing cadence. I wanted to tell him that I came alive in the rhythm of a place where I could never belong — but I didn’t.

I wanted to tell him that I came alive in the rhythm of a place where I could never belong — but I didn’t.

He adjusted his bandana before making the hang-loose sign with his free hand. “Rad.”

***

The first days of Kamp passed in a haze of chlorine and a crackle of bonfire. One afternoon our cabin trekked from the soccer field to the volleyball court, where we had been told we’d get to play against a boys’ cabin. One of the girls walked next to Melissa, who was secretly my favorite counselor. Melissa was blond, tan, and wore a small purple sport watch on the inside of her wrist. Kampers and counselors alike were drawn to her intensely caring and exuberant spirit. Melissa was who I dreamed I might turn out like someday, when my braces and glasses would finally come off, when my hair would grow past my chin and cascade down my back, when I would move to America and change not only my appearance but also the part of me that grew anxious whenever I was around too many other people. I wanted to give tight-squeeze side-hugs like Melissa instead of turning away. I wanted to be able to love others without abandon, without worrying that who or what I was would never be enough.

I wanted to be able to love others without abandon, without worrying that who or what I was would never be enough.

Boys waited at the volleyball court. The other girls, out of earshot of our counselors, had whispered throughout the week about biceps and dimples and hunky hair. I wanted to participate, but even speaking about the boys seemed like a sin. As girls, we were supposed to view the opposite sex as brothers, protecting them from our preadolescent forms by wearing one-pieces at the pool, long shorts, and baggy T-shirts everywhere else. Plus, when I scanned the lineup, my actual brother was there. Only 13 months younger than me, he’d been assigned to my partner cabin. I raised my hand in acknowledgment. Without him around, I’d been able to pretend my life in Indonesia was a distant dream and that my small attempts at being social were equivalent to a queen bee rallying a hive.

“Melissa, you know we’ve got a star on our team?” the boys’ counselor teased. He and Melissa had been flirting all week in the way that only Kamp counselors could. They’d pass notes filled with scripture and make fun of each other’s college mascots. Sometimes Melissa left her long hair down after illegally drying it in our cabin, and she’d flip it over her shoulder.

“Is that right? I’ve got some stars, too,” Melissa said, her voice light.

“This kid,” the counselor said. He grabbed my brother by the shoulders. Erik raised his hand in a fist pump. I could tell he’d spiked his hair with water from the bathroom sink, and he was wearing the same shirt he had on two days before when I’d spotted him at the dining hall. “He’s a two-time I’m Third Award winner.”

“Wow,” Melissa said, her voice suddenly sober. The I’m Third Award was the highest at Kamp. As we were told at every meal, chapel session, Bible study, and worship time throughout the week, the award was named after the life motto of Captain Johnny Ferrier, a man who drove his fighter jet to the ground — and certain death — rather than risk killing others by attempting a safe landing. I’m Third meant God first, others second, and yourself third. By winning twice, my brother had earned a spot as a near-saint. “Well I’ve got his sister,” she added.

I’m Third meant God first, others second, and yourself third. By winning twice, my brother had earned a spot as a near-saint.

Melissa came toward me and I flinched; I hated to be touched by anyone. My face grew hot. In previous years, for my immobilizing anxiety, I’d won the Meek and Humble Certificate, an award allocated only to girls, because I had managed to spend a full week speaking only a few words.

“You must be pretty awesome if you’re this legend’s sister,” the boy counselor said to me. “And you guys are from Indonesia? Pretty cool.” I stared down at my white tennis shoes, the curly pink elastic laces erupting from them like confetti. I kept my head down, not wanting my cabin to suddenly gain interest in where I was from. They’d left me alone after the opening ceremony, and my international residence had evaporated overnight, the immediacy of what flavor Kool-Aid was available with lunch and who launched furthest from the blob in the pool reigning supreme as conversation topics.

But now, if the girls in my cabin realized, the questions would start: What is it like there? Do you live in a hut? What do the people look like? Whenever I was asked about Indonesia, I stuttered at the impossibility of what felt like describing another life. I didn’t know how to compare countries. As I’d left Alaska after kindergarten, my memory there was a blur of moose roaming the backyard and fields of fireweed coloring the mountains hot pink. Indonesia was complicated. I could describe my life as a child: To get to school, I scootered past monitor lizards poking their prehistoric heads from the drains; at recess I whacked my wrist against a taut tetherball, a crowd of caged gibbons behind the school chirruping me on; and in my backyard, I pulled ribbons of gray fading skin from the base of a eucalyptus tree to reveal streaks of pastel oranges, purples, and greens. But to describe who I was there and what that meant — a white American girl on a compound in Balikpapan, and now a girl in a gated, walled-off home with rotating security guards in Jakarta — seemed too big of a task. Usually I stopped at It’s different. In the rare times I did explain, people responded with remarks like, “They really live like that?” or “Whoa,” which made my stomach feel like it was ballooning toward my throat, all of me taut with failure.

Looking back, I realize now that at the age of 12 , it was difficult for me to navigate the glaring privilege of the life I led. Even now I feel reticent about my time in Indonesia, as I still feel like an outsider, someone whose words fall short again and again and again. Though I want to consider myself different from the tourists who collected trinkets and memories of time spent on beaches, was I? Am I? I spoke the language, yes, learned the customs, respected cultural norms, consumed local food, was invited into the homes and weddings of Indonesian friends, and tried to remain aware –– as much as was possible for someone in second to eighth grade –– about the privileges I was afforded. But I was also someone who attended exorbitantly priced international schools with other expatriates; lived in homes with marble floors and gated walls; flew to Singapore every other month to get my braces tightened; and, with my passport and family’s financial resources, could leave at any time. My memories of Indonesia are dual in nature. Sometimes I remember myself with compassion: I was a child who remained sensitive to the workings of the world, who tried her best to let love and respect lead her through the thorniness of privilege, place, and power. But other times, I remember myself with disdain: I did not deserve –– and still do not deserve –– the privileges I had and have access to; I am saddened that I, with my presence in Indonesia, contributed to a legacy of colonialism. But there is also this: I was a child. What agency did I have during those early years of my life, when I didn’t have the chance to choose where or how I lived? What grace can I give myself and my family, all of us wanting to respect the communities we landed in during our many moves, all of us seeking to nurture those around us in different ways? Now, it seems possible to hold an array of truths in my mind –– I was a source of harm and also did my best to make a home –– but at Kamp, I only felt a complicated tangle of emotions, with no way to parse them out.

Looking back, I realize now that at the age of 12 , it was difficult for me to navigate the glaring privilege of the life I led. Even now I feel reticent about my time in Indonesia, as I still feel like an outsider, someone whose words fall short again and again and again.

At the volleyball court, the game started with the crack of a first serve. I positioned myself in the back corner, half-heartedly lunging for the ball when it soared my way. After the boys scored a point, I watched as my brother clapped backs and received noogies; he could speak the language of physical affection. The longer I watched him, the further away I felt. Was I the strange one for not belonging to both worlds? Here, he was revered for his awards, his ability to stir a crowd into laughter with his movie impersonations, his athleticism. And in Indonesia, he was a laki-laki, nomor one, praised because he was male, because he was blond, because his skin was porcelain. The men in our lives would ask Erik to help drive the car, give him candy, ride their motorcycles. I, on the other hand, was pinched and prodded at the market for showing my bony legs and tan arms, an anomaly in a predominately Muslim country. I was only a perempuan or gadis, a girl or virgin. My only wish was to belong somewhere, fully and completely, as I could in my bedroom: hair down and bobbing, my voice singing a made-up song in whatever language emerged, my legs and arms swinging with a rhythm I composed.

Comp-e-tition! Woop! Jesus is number one! a girl with French braids and freckles in my cabin began chanting. The thwack of the volleyball from the boys’ side only made her louder, and a few of the other girls chimed in.

Awesome! Awesome! Hit ’em in the head with a big ole possum! the boys cheered back. Sweat trickled down my brow, and I whispered Jesus is number one just in case He was listening, realizing, even while I said it, that the reassurance was just as much for me as it was for God; in Kamp, surrounded by reminders that I should be proclaiming my faith, I felt even more compelled than usual to try believing. Both cabins grew louder, but when someone served the volleyball into a thicket of nearby woods, we all moved to sit on the wooden barrier separating the edge of the court from grass, tired. The chants quieted down. Some of the boys moved close to the girls in my cabin, a proximity Melissa didn’t notice because she’d run to help the boys’ counselor find the ball.

One of the boys, a mop of brown hair framing green eyes, turned to a girl in my cabin. “Ba-gus … sek …” My body froze. “Hey, Indonesia, how do you say it again?”

Erik leaned over from his spot on the barrier. “Say what?”

“You know, what you taught us.”

Bagus sekali!” Erik said, and gave the boy a thumbs-up. I glared at them both, especially when the girl in my cabin giggled back.

“What’s that mean? You speak another language?”

“Kind of,” the boy said. He shook his hair so his bangs swayed to one side. “Erik has been teaching us Indonesian.”

I felt like taunting the boy, asking anda bisa berbahasa Indonesia? You think you can speak my language? The way he spoke the words made me angry, using them only to impress a girl. He didn’t know the cacophony of cicadas screaming high in the rainforest trees, the clucks of a dusty rooster, the high whine of motorcycles straining uphill that turned the language to music. And toward my brother, I felt something I hadn’t before. In my eyes, he had everything: the right clothes, Kamp awards, friends, and the ability to belong anywhere. Why had he given away a language that felt like ours in a country that didn’t?

When Melissa called us to go, I left without saying sampai jumpa to Erik. I was angry without fully understanding why. Usually my brother felt like a kind of home, somewhere I didn’t have to explain my past or present, but watching him give away part of what had tethered us together, our words made me feel further unmoored, as if I didn’t belong even with him. I felt like the long snakes that sometimes hid on the concrete wall near our home, only their flickering tongues peeking out from behind lush leaves of ivy.

***

A few afternoons later, during Flat-On-Back hour, Melissa called my name.

“Wanna join me outside?” she asked. I sat up in my bed, sentence half-finished in my diary, and nodded yes.

From attending Kamp so many years in a row, I knew that I’d been summoned for my Porch Talk. These special sessions spent one-on-one with counselors were designed for Kampers to share their testimonies or deepest struggles. In the past, I’d been so tight-lipped that my sessions had lasted only 10 minutes at most. A couple of the counselors had drawn me a picture of a cliff — me on one side, God on the other — and then filled the gap in with the arms of the cross, telling me that if only I accepted Jesus Christ as my One True Lord and Savior I’d be saved forever, lifted up to Heaven, forgiven for the sins I hadn’t been brave enough to confess to them. Usually, I took whatever paper they gave me, let them place their hands on the back of my head or shoulders as they prayed for me, then shrugged off their touch as soon as I could, returning to my bunk to write in my diary or read the Bible.

This year would be different. I had never told a testimony before, but I had heard enough at church services and Kamp to know the general outline of the narrative — doubtful sinner experiences a dramatic event, feels God’s presence, lays down life for Christ — and so I’d begun to devise one during the hours spent on the soccer field or swimming. If I could tell a good enough story, maybe I’d belong here as much as my brother did. Maybe Melissa would think I was special.

“How are you?” she asked as soon as we were outside. Another counselor and Kamper sat at the other end of the porch, their heads bowed together in tears or prayer.

“Good,” I said shyly. The wood slats of the porch beneath me whorled in what looked like fingerprints. I traced the grain with my pointer finger before realizing that I was supposed to be a girl brave enough to tell a testimony. A good American girl. I looked up and offered Melissa a smile.

“Do you want to tell me a little bit about your faith journey?” She sat cross-legged and leaned forward.

“I don’t really know where to start,” I said cautiously, which was true. I was supposed to be a Christian. I had been baptized in the Catholic church and served as an altar girl at mass for four years in Balikpapan, our parents watching us from the pews. The priest, an elderly Indonesian man, mumbled at the podium, so mostly my religious experience was knowing when to ring the bell, recite my prayers, and try my best not to laugh at Erik when he pretended to swig the chalice if no one was looking in our direction. My parents took my brother and me to church on the compound sometimes too. Church there, some sort of unitarian service, was more fun than the rigid kneel-sit-stand-pray solemnity of the Catholic mass, but I didn’t learn to distinguish between Catholicism and other types of Christianity until I was in my early 20s. To me, God was God. And as a child who took comfort in following rules, in knowing the “right” way to live and love, God was not only God, but also community. Believing in God — and adhering perfectly to every rule set before me — meant in my mind that I would finally find solid footing in terms of identity. The part of me that felt unmoored by moving so often during childhood took solace in the idea that I could be a Christian: something definable, something unchanging.

When we moved to Jakarta, we didn’t attend church because of a series of bombings that had happened a couple years before, but I tried my best to believe on my own, to quiet the voice in my head that said, How can you know for sure that there’s a God out there? In many ways, on the outside, I seemed like a Christian. One of my favorite books was Rachel’s Tears: The Spiritual Journey of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott. After my fifth or sixth time through the book, I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom and tried to convince myself that I too would stand steadfast in my love for Christ if ever a school shooting happened, that I would die for Jesus. I wore a cross necklace to school, chastised a popular girl when she told me my T-shirt had a “condom pocket,” and wrote worship songs of my own: You surround me, but with clarity or love? Do your arms wrap around me like the wings of a dove?

But my diary from the time wasn’t one of a steadfast believer. I flip-flopped enough between belief and disbelief that I had a codeword, “tnm,” that I would use to differentiate between my entries written by my sinner-self and “the new me.” Looking back, I realize that I learned the language of “new” versus “old” from Kamp, where they preached a fundamentalist version of being saved. While as a baptized Catholic I had technically been freed from original sin, the allure of Kamp was that I could choose to commit myself to Christ. In my mind, in the black-and-white thinking I often reverted to, committing myself to Christ meant not only that I’d be a Christian, but also that I would be “pure,” and that, if I prayed hard enough, I might eventually shed the shell of fear that kept me from wanting to be close to other people. I also believed that if I was Christian, my family would better be able to love me because I was “good,” not trusting fully at the time that they would –– and do –– love me unconditionally; I think I didn’t love myself enough at the time to be able to recognize that. If I believed in God and tried hard enough, as I was taught at Kamp and in sermons, I might be comfortable with greater levels of emotional intimacy, be able to articulate the complex struggles I experienced with identity, or be happier. When I look back at myself from where I am now, I see my fears –– my fear of emotional intimacy, physical touch, my desire to have someone at Kamp tell me I was “good” –– sprang from a lack of self love. I internalized so much guilt about who I was as a foreigner living in Indonesia, about not being able to believe without doubt, and about my shortcomings as a person, that I was afraid to be close to anyone for fear they would see too much of me and dislike me as much as I did myself. I thought religion could save me, give me worth.

For these reasons, I tried my hardest to believe. But “the new me” entries in my diary only lasted a few days, sometimes a week after Kamp, and then I would unravel and make a mess of my newly-saved self. I would still follow the rules of Christianity I’d been taught like modesty and no physical intimacy with boys, but the pulse of true belief often faded away, leaving me feeling muddled. I began to hate myself for not being able to believe like everyone else at Kamp and church seemed to, as if my lack of faith was just another personal failure. During one of these confusing periods, I wrote: I guess you could call me Christian, although if writing solely for myself, I only read the Bible in hopes of making a connection in my life, trying to see the way out of my lonely Friday nights, trying to let my parents love me. Right now I’m stuck, like when you’re driving in a car through a long tunnel and you can’t see the light on either side. It’s the place in tunnels where most cars crash, I think.

“That’s OK,” Melissa said. Her pen hovered over the blank page of her notebook. “What do you struggle with most in your faith?”

“Doubt,” I responded honestly. Whereas I aligned myself with Thomas of the Bible, needing to see something before believing it, my brother believed in the unseen. He’d once claimed to see the cherry red of Santa Claus’s suit disappearing into our bathroom in Alaska, and he would keep his belief until he was 12, my mom breaking the news to him in tears. I, on the other hand, had questioned Santa’s existence at the ripe age of 5. On a piece of computer paper, I had calculated the route for my mathematician dad, telling him that it was physically impossible for a Santa to fly around the world, especially if he stopped to eat cookies.

“Why do you doubt?” Melissa asked. Part of me withdrew, not wanting to give any more about myself away; I had not told any other counselor that I doubted, because I wanted to be a good Kamper. But something about Melissa made me want to talk. If she kept my secrets in her notebook, maybe I would mean something to her. Though I shied away from physical affection, my story in her notebook would seem like a kind of closeness, an emotional intimacy I could handle.

“It’s complicated,” I said, and I twisted a chunk of my shirt between my fingers. How could I explain something that I hadn’t been able to put words to in my own diary? The doubt itself was complicated, a gnarly-rooted plant taking hold somewhere deep within me: How could there be a One True Christian God if outside my home every other person believed just as fervently in Allah? How could Christianity be the only thing that was right and real if another set of people sang their own beautiful prayers? I felt like Thomas; I couldn’t believe without seeing a scarred palm. During those years, I often begged God to show me a miracle, a form of proof that He existed, something like a meteor flaring across the night sky. I had heard testimonies from visiting pastors about dramatic moments in their lives –– God showing Himself by saving them from drowning after a fishing boat capsized or sending them a friend when they were at rock bottom in their life or putting their cancer in remission after doctors said it was incurable. I wanted a sign like that, but I’d been met with silence, which I interpreted as a message from God that I needed to trust Him, even in the absence of a miracle. I tried my best to dampen my own misgivings, for my faith wasn’t just a means of community or identity; it was also a form of absolution. During a time when I felt perpetual guilt –– over my inability to believe fully in God, my presence in Indonesia as a foreigner, the sadness I saw in my mom’s eyes when I winced during our rare hugs, and my inability to understand why physical touch was so impossible for me though I’d only ever been treated with love –– Christianity offered a salve. I could be pure, no matter how often I stumbled through the complexities of life. I could be good, no matter how often I internally berated myself for not being good enough. This is why I kept trying to believe: I wanted the feeling of salvation to wash over me again and again. I wanted to be clean.

A few months before Kamp started, I woke on our usually quiet street to the sound of motorcycles chuffing down the road, voices shouting, and the familiar crackle of a morning prayer vibrating over a loudspeaker. I left my bed and padded over to my brother’s room across the hall.

“You want to see what’s going on?” I asked, shoving him awake. He opened his eyes and looked up at the broken ceiling panel above him, one that had collapsed in the middle of the night weeks before from the weight of a dead rat and thousands of maggots, all of them raining onto his bed.

“Mom said to stay inside,” he mumbled. Usually he was braver than I was, not afraid to break the rules if he was sure he wouldn’t get caught. He drank Coca-Cola from the fridge while Mom was gone and threw the empty cans into a construction zone next door.

“Come on,” I said. “I wanna see.”

He slouched out of bed and the two of us made our way to the front room of the house, where a balcony on the second floor overlooked the neighborhood park. The park was nothing more than a dusty patch where no house had been built, but that day it was to be transformed into the local site of slaughter for Idul Adha, a holiday celebrating Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his own son and Allah’s subsequent grace in killing a sheep instead. Already, this early in the morning, throngs of people milled about, and goats brayed loudly. Some of the animals had plastic bags tied over their heads. I pinched my wrist to keep my eyes from welling up.

“Whoa, they’re gonna do it,” my brother said, nudging me to look toward the edge of the park, where a long knife glinted in the sun. A group of people flipped a goat onto its side and it wriggled in the dirt. They chanted a familiar prayer while they tugged limbs into place and steadied the head. The man with the knife aimed toward the throat, and soon bright red blood seeped from the goat’s neck and into the ground, the crowd voicing praise. I watched as the goat was hung with a rope from one of the park’s feeble trees, blood dripping down.

I watched as the goat was hung with a rope from one of the park’s feeble trees, blood dripping down.

Later that day, our doorbell rang. One of our security guards, a man with a face that looked not much older than mine, was waiting outside. Usually he joked around with Erik, the two of them throwing wiffle balls at each other over our tall gate, but that day he was somber. In each hand he held a steaming bowl of meat, rice underneath.

“I share goat with you,” he said slowly in English. “As Allah waters ground, may he bless you.”

My mom took the bowls in her hands. We thanked Effrianto and told him to have a happy holiday. When he’d gone, we put the meat on our dining room table. My mom and I, largely vegetarian at the time, didn’t care to eat it, and it went untouched by my brother and dad as well. We left it out on our dining room table the rest of the day, I think as a sign that even though we didn’t partake in the meal, we respected it, communed with it at our table. We all seemed to recognize that it was far more than just food. In a sense, it seemed like a moment representative of inequity that roiled under the surface of our lives. There was something I couldn’t name, at 12 years old, about the stark differences in not only religion, but also in class and race that unsettled me while living in Indonesia: a child roaming the streets barefoot while the heels of my feet kissed cool marble; the stooped older women hawking meager vegetables across the street from machine gun guards who stood stiff outside the gates of my school. My whiteness and wealth perturbed me the older I grew, and I begged always to move back to America, as if that would erase the world’s disparities, as if that would absolve me of my guilt.

On Idul Adha, with the goat on my family’s table, I felt stronger than ever the notion that Christianity couldn’t be the only acceptable religion. According to my Bible, Effrianto would perish in flames because he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, but how could that be when his act was more generous than any act I’d seen in my own religion? In that moment, I felt torn between believing in a Christian God and admitting to myself that I was stuck in some kind of limbo. But with Melissa in front of me, two hair ties around her wrist, a pearly white smile, blue eyes that looked at me searchingly, I wanted to be a Christian, to forget about all the confusion and adopt what I thought might be a normal, easy identity: a girl who believed in God, a girl who might one day live on Enchanted Crossing Lane in a suburb of some American town.

“Have you accepted Christ as your savior?” Melissa prompted. I was aware that long minutes of silence had passed between us, but I never knew how to articulate the storm of identity that raged in me whenever I left Indonesia behind.

“Actually, I have,” I lied. Though I’d tried over and over to commit myself to Christ, using the language I’d heard others use, writing a contract in my diary and signing my name, I didn’t actually believe.

“I’d love to hear your story, if you’re willing to share,” Melissa said. She flicked her pen between her fingers.

“On Christmas Eve we were on a flight from Jakarta to Thailand. When we landed, everyone in the streets were gathered around television sets in the windows of shops. There was footage playing that looked like a horror movie — waves taller than buildings smashing into land, houses crumbling, streets turned into brown rivers, people screaming. We watched with everyone else, but we couldn’t understand Thai so we walked to our hotel, not knowing what had happened or where, not knowing if the scenes were a movie or real life,” I said, all of the information true. We had been flying that night, we had landed and seen footage from the tsunami, we had received dozens and dozens of phone calls from family members calling my dad’s work cell phone to see if we were alive.

“Wow,” Melissa said softly.

“We had planned to go to Phuket for Christmas, a town that got hit hard, but my dad had picked Chang Mai at the last second,” I said, as my last truthful statement. “For months before the tsunami, I had prayed and prayed for a sign that God was real. Show me, I begged. I wanted to know that He was real. In that moment, in the hotel room, with my dad receiving phone calls from people wondering whether we were alive or not, I began to realize that God must have saved me and my family for a reason.”

I began to cry in front of Melissa, though I hadn’t planned on it. Part of my sadness probably did come from the experience of the tsunami, an event I hadn’t really processed. To hear my grandmother’s voice warble into tears over the long-distance line when she heard my voice, alive, was unsettling. Later, to write letters in school to survivors in Aceh felt like a cruel trick, something to remind me of how useless I was in helping anyone actually heal. What could the words of an American girl with a life, a school, a home, and a family do when so many tangible walls and meals were needed? I felt terrible that I, of such little faith, had survived a storm for no clear reason. And the idea that I’d just used such a devastating event as a lie made my shoulders shake harder with grief.

Melissa, of course, took my tears as relief that I’d finally told someone my testimony. She rubbed my back with her palm and scooted closer to me. I didn’t move away.

“God kept you alive for a reason,” she said. “You’ve been blessed with a servant’s heart and an opportunity — there’s an entire country of nonbelievers around you. You are a light.”

I nodded and tried to smile through my tears. Wasn’t this what I had dreamt of when I read Rachel’s story? That I would save others from damnation and defend my faith? In that moment, I wanted so desperately to feel as though my life had changed, as though I could be absolved of my guilt and my failings. I wanted some sign that I was moving through the world in the right way, as Christianity seemed to promise would happen if I believed fervently enough. Instead, my stomach churned with the ghost of greasy meat gone sour.

At Kamp’s last supper, the entire dining room was silent. No kitchies stood on the counter to stir batter and belt Disney songs, no one squabbled over the last hot limb of fried chicken in our basket, no one broke into the familiar cheer don’t gimme no pop no pop don’t gimme no tea no tea, just gimme that milk moo moo moo, just gimme that milk moo moo moo. The only sounds in the room were the crinkle of oily parchment paper in the chicken basket, the squish of jelly as I swirled my knife to make a sandwich, and the tap of an anxious Kamper’s foot against the floor. We were all supposed to be quiet in order to prepare our minds and hearts for what was coming next, an event called Cross Talk. I nervously glanced at the boys’ side in an attempt to find Erik, who I hadn’t seen since the volleyball game, but his small frame remained hidden.

JP entered the room, unadorned. He looked smaller or wearier somehow without a bandana on his head or microphone in hand. “Let us bow our heads. Lord, we call upon you to descend upon this place, to enter the hearts of each and every one of these Kampers,” he said. I wasn’t used to an earnest, sober JP. Usually he spoke in his own form of Christian slang. He referred to his wife as “Wifey” rather than by her name, which all of us girls found titillating, and called new believers “baby C’s.”

“Tonight, Lord, we have the opportunity to come to you, to lay down our sins and failings and ask you into our hearts. I pray that each Kamper here receives you,” he said. I clenched my eyes shut tight, feeling that he was speaking only to me. “I know there is doubt in this room, Lord. I know there are souls heavy with wrongdoing. This is the night to give those burdens up to You, because You alone Lord can save, and You alone Lord can heal.”

He closed his prayer. As we did every year on this night of Kamp, we followed JP down the main road, stopping every so often to watch different scenes from Jesus’ last days on earth. In one, two female counselors had wrapped sheets around their bodies as dresses. One woman, playing Martha, busied herself by clanging pans and pots from the kitchen. Mary sat by Jesus’ feet, listening to his every word. Do not be distracted by many things, Martha, Jesus said. There is only one important thing, and Mary has chosen it. Mary began to wash Jesus’ feet and I was struck by the intimacy; I hadn’t seen anyone give affection at Kamp besides same-sex side-hugs, and the moment between Mary and Jesus felt tender. What if there had been an actual Jesus? What if I had been denying his dusty feet? His stories? I was surely Martha, worrying about whether or not I’d get to shop at Limited Too or not during prayers, comparing the lush blond and silky brown hair of my middle school crushes during worship. As we walked along the road to watch the Last Supper, I realized I was probably Judas, too. I had betrayed Indonesia to get a foothold at Kamp, and I had betrayed my supposedly Christian faith by lying to my counselor. I had been jealous of my brother, coveted the clothes of my cabin mates, and harbored a false belief in Jesus. As Judas turned away from the table, clink of heavy coins in his cloak, I began to cry, suddenly overwhelmed by my transgressions.

Dusk settled in over the tallest limbs of trees as we made our way to the kickball field. The night was quiet aside from siren songs of cicadas and the low rumble of a generator. A spotlight illuminated a wooden cross that nearly reached the height of the tall backstop fence. We filed in and took our seats on the dewy grass of the outfield. No one spoke.

From somewhere in the dark, I heard the sound of skin being slapped. Thwack. Thwack. Crucify him, a man yelled, and a chorus of voices joined in.

Away with him. King of the Jews? Thwack.

Messiah? Thwack. Save yourself.

I crumpled my shirt in my hand. From somewhere near the front, I heard soft, low sobs.

Jesus, surrounded by a pack of angry, shirtless men, was brought to the front of the kickball field. His chest was ribboned with red welts that looked too realistic from where I sat. As Jesus was kicked and beaten by the other men, I cried.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing, Jesus said. His head slumped to one side as the other men lifted him to the cross.

If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself, the men yelled, slapping him once more. I heard myself in their jeers and began to shake with grief. Here, now, after telling a testimony, sitting in front of a life-like Jesus, shouldn’t I finally feel as though I could accept Christ in my heart?

Jesus’ body crumpled on the cross, his arms extended. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit, he whispered, and the spotlight was shut off, leaving us all in the dark. I heard the murmurs of sadness around me: sniffle of a nose, choked gasp of a sob. The counselors weren’t supposed to comfort us during the ceremony, so we all curled into ourselves, hugging our knees and wiping our tears with the backs of our hands.

A few minutes of silence passed, and the spotlight kicked back on. Jesus, wearing fresh white robes, stood blood-free and smiling on the cross. “Tonight you have the opportunity to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” Jesus said.

JP rolled a whiteboard onto the field and left it by the cross. On the other side of Jesus, a few counselors gently set a towering bell on the ground. “Confess your sins. Lay down your life for Christ. Ring the bell of salvation,” JP said. Soft worship music began to play — guitar chords, humming, and the song of Jesus we need you — and Kampers began a mass migration to the front of the field.

I could guess what each of the girls in my cabin was writing. A few evenings before, at Campfire Night, we had been encouraged to voice our sins. Some girls wept when they confessed what they perceived to be wrongdoings: having a crush on a boy who wasn’t Christian, posting pictures to MySpace that weren’t Kamp-approved, wearing immoral clothes to school, or dancing to “Genie in a Bottle.” One girl’s story has stayed with me through all these years. The whole week, I thought she had everything. She was beautiful, had a steady Christian boyfriend, and lived in Kansas City. On Campfire Night though, she wept as she told us about how her boyfriend had sprinkled rose petals on her bed for their first anniversary and begged to touch her. He had pawed at the button of her jeans until she complied, telling her they’d break up if she didn’t submit to him. Our counselors responded by asking if she was wearing makeup, or if she’d thought about her clothing choices, and the girl sobbed even harder as she described her short jean shorts.

All of us were harmed in some way by that circle. I realize now that the identity I so longed for — that of a simple American girl — was only a mirage. The actual lives of my fellow cabinmates, if only I had stopped to listen, were filled with grief and complication. I wish now that I could return to that place. I would tell each girl that their worth came not from men or God or what they kept hidden, but from the innate and fierce beauty of their independent hearts and minds.

The night of Cross Talk though, they penned their wrongdoings on the whiteboard. They knelt by Jesus’ feet and raised their hands to the heavens.

I sat frozen on the grass. I felt like I would burst with the impossible decision in front of me. To stay seated in my spot would mean that I wasn’t a true believer; I might go to hell, and Melissa might sense that my testimony had been a lie. Jesus’ bodily sacrifice on the cross — a violence that had just played out in front of me — would be wasted. But to walk to the front of the field, to list my sins and ring the bell of salvation felt fraudulent. To do so would be to claim a Christian God as being the only one true God, renounce other people’s beliefs as false, and reduce an entire country to the category of “nonbelievers,” elevating myself in not only race and class but religion as well. I did not believe in Islam, but I did believe in the earnestness of the daily calls to prayer, the immense, undeserved generosity shown to me, and the footage of hands raised to sky or heads bowed toward the ground after the tsunami.

I sat and wept into my knees. Years later, I would want to reach out in time to hold that young girl’s hand in mine, lead her away from the dramatic, manipulative ploy unfurling on the kickball field, and tell her that her worth as a person — as a girl, a daughter, a citizen of any country— did not depend on whether or not she rang the bell that night, on whether she believed at all. I would let her know that Indonesia — all of its immense beauty, its complications — would remain with her, blooming in strange turns of guilt and desire. Some mornings, before dawn, she would ache for the melody of a long-gone adhan, and her tongue would speak the language of a place she never belonged. She would grow up to assert herself in the world as a woman. She would become someone who made her own thoughtful decisions about who to love and how, someone who settled for nothing less than equality and respect in relationships. She would find her own church, one where the footfalls of a long run became prayer, birds chittering in the trees a sermon, the dappled sunrise above a form of miracle. But there, in that moment, my only options were to ring the bell or not.

She would find her own church, one where the footfalls of a long run became prayer, birds chittering in the trees a sermon, the dappled sunrise above a form of miracle. But there, in that moment, my only options were to ring the bell or not.

A figure stepped gingerly across the dark grass toward me. Erik squatted next to me on the grass.

“Can I give you a hug?” he asked. His cheeks were shiny with the residue of tears. I nodded yes. When he wrapped his arms around me, I was reminded of how small he was, how young still. Despite his ability to make friends, despite the show of bravery he put on to prove to me that everything would be OK wherever we went, I realized he must feel some of the anxieties related to identity that I did. Though he was pak and nomor one and a boy at Kamp, those labels came with their own outrageous expectations of what it meant to be a man. None of them involved crying on his sister’s shoulder when he was supposed to be accepting Christ into his heart.

Apa kabar?” I asked.

“Sad,” he whispered. He looked around furtively for a counselor. “I don’t know what to do.”

Saya juga,” I said in agreement. “I’ll go up there with you if you want.”

He nodded, and we made our way to the whiteboard. I couldn’t think of any sins that I wanted to confess to all of Kamp. Was confusion a sin? Doubt? Mistrust of this choreographed night? Because I couldn’t see any options other than believing in Kamp’s version of God or eternal damnation, I hated myself for not being able to believe. The bell began to ring, cheers rising up after. Another one saved! Hallelujah! My stomach turned.

Erik wrote on the board and asked me to come with him to the bell. We stood in a line as Kampers, one by one, often guided by their counselors, pulled the worn rope. Too many people were around for me to ask Erik if he actually wanted to, but years later, far enough away for us both to probe the past, he would tell me that he thought if he rang the bell, it would mean he belonged to something. It was only then that I remembered his struggles with friendships in Indonesia; he had one good friend at school, but other boys made fun of him because he was not aggressive enough, didn’t wear Quicksilver shirts, and cried too easily. At Kamp, he was a hero, his sensitive heart elevated by counselors who saw how he took the trays of other boys after dinner or the way he ran across a soccer field just to make sure I was doing OK.

When my brother made it to the front of the line, his counselors appeared and prayed over him. I slunk back into the shadows, where I held my arms around myself and looked up at the night sky. Constellations usually covered by Indonesia’s smog began to emerge from memory: Orion’s belt blazing bright, Lyra’s lines transforming into imagined chords. I tried to lose myself in the rigid boundaries of ages-old light. Around me, Kampers hugged one another, inconsolable. Even after being saved they wept, and I couldn’t tell if their tears were those of relief or anxiety. I listened as Erik rang the bell, one note within the music of other repentant hearts, a song of salvation that I couldn’t bring myself to sing.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Location, Location, Location: Six Stories on Moving House

Getty Images

 In “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion muses on how her perception of New York City –– and who she is as a result of living there –– has evolved over the span of eight years. When she first arrives in New York City she describes herself as “twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.”

Didion’s exquisite sentence brims with a preemptive nostalgia, one that I have experienced often but struggle to put into words. When I was a child, I used to look forward to moving because it meant for a brief period of time –– during the miles that unfurled between the sticky heat of Louisiana and the crisp blue summer sky of Alaska, for example –– I could suspend myself in the allure of who I might become in any new place. I would often dream that I might shed my tendencies toward introversion or that I would find my true self reflected back to me in ways I didn’t know existed, not realizing that I had to do the work of growth on my own. Before I learned language for any geography and before I sullied the dream of myself with who I was in reality, I could exist as a figment of imagination passing through an unfamiliar world. 

Like the shine of any silver exposed to too much air, the idealized version of myself –– and any new place I came to –– was inevitably tarnished the longer I lived anywhere. But then my family would move again, and I would be free to once again imagine that a place would be enough to change me. My childhood was one of moving boxes and beige walls; divide my age by the number of places I’ve lived, and the answer comes to 2.25. And I have not stopped moving: I attended college in North Carolina, graduate schools in Oregon and Oklahoma, and now live in Pennsylvania, where I hope to put down roots. But even here, I live in an apartment with unpainted walls. A hallway downstairs is stacked with plastic bins and boxes I keep telling myself I’ll unpack soon, though it’s been months since I moved in. And I still use a GPS to get to the grocery store, some sign I’m scared of committing to knowing this geography, the many circuitous routes that point toward home.

What does it mean to always be leaving a place –– and the sense of self created there? What does it mean to have the privilege to move? How do we idealize locations –– both where we are and where we hope to be? What effect does perpetual transition –– both desired and undesired –– have on a person? A family? A community of people? 

1.  This Hell Not Mine: On Moving From Nigeria to America (Kenechi Uzor, July 7, 2017, Catapult)

After Kenechi Uzor leaves his home in Lagos, he wonders if the opportunities advertised about the U.S. –– opportunities, literary magazines, freedom, safety –– are really what they’re made out to be. Uzor bears witness to injustices against “brown souls and unknown bodies, and trans and cis and more. All suffering from the other” and weighs the cost of a life lived in the U.S.

So we sought escape, convinced that to leave was to live. We fled for dry eyes, for a sigh, for firm handshakes and raised heads, for two closed eyelids, we fled. For our babies and grannies. For light.

2.  Two Moms Share Stories of Migration and Breastfeeding (Sarah Mirk, August 5, 2019, Bitch Magazine)

Realizing that stories about migrating across borders during parenthood are underrepresented, a group of Portland-based Latina and Indigenous immigrant parents created a bilingual exhibit, Amamantar y Migrar, to share their stories through audio narratives, videos, and photographs. Sarah Mirk curated two narratives –– one from Minerva, whose mother made the difficult decision to leave her in Mexico for a time, and Maria Elena, who was taken to an immigration center even though she was breastfeeding –– for this multimodal piece. 

I tried to breastfeed, but since I didn’t get enough to eat, I didn’t have breast milk to feed my baby. We arrived here, I gave birth to my third daughter, and nine months after she was born, immigration agents showed up at my work. I was still breastfeeding my daughter.

3.  Location, Location, Location (Jeannie Vanasco, October 15, 2017, The Believer)

Part personal memory of her upbringing in an uneven saltbox house, part reflection on the significance of a moveable dollhouse her late father built for her, and part history of the house moving industry in Chicago –– and the violences that accompanied such an industry –– Jeannie Vanasco explores what it means when the stable walls of a home become transportable, and what types of grief exist in both the construction and loss of a place. 

Pressured to accept food, whiskey, and cash, they signed the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, agreeing to move west of the Mississippi River within the next two years. The wigwams and wooden lodges would be replaced with thousands of new homes for white people. White men would become rich moving them.

4. The Barriers Stopping Poor People From Moving to Better Jobs (Alana Semuels, October 12, 2017, The Atlantic)

The percentage of people who move within the U.S. has been cut nearly in half since the 1950’s. Why? As Alana Semuels reports, factors like zoning in certain states, lack of incentives for low-income workers, and proximity to family affect people’s decisions on whether or not to move, and have led to shifts in the populations of cities across the country.

The supply of workers isn’t increasing fast enough in the rich areas to bring wages down, and isn’t falling fast enough in the poor areas to bring wages up. Why is this? Why have people stopped moving? The reason, economists believe, is that while there are good wages in economically vibrant cities like New York and San Francisco, housing prices are so high that they outweigh any gains people stand to make in earnings.

5. They’re Fed Up With America’s Racism. So They’re Moving to Africa. (Mark Beckford, May 20, 2019, Narratively)

When Lakeshia Ford decided she was going to pack up her life and her budding career and move from New Jersey to Ghana, her family could not understand why she wanted to make the trek to a country thousands of miles from home. Even more surprising, to some, was Ford’s reason: the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ghana’s fast-growing economy and “Year of Return” initiative in 2019, under which the Ghanaian government hopes to encourage people of African descent to move to Ghana, have attracted many African-Americans to the country. As Mark Beckford reports, Lakeshia Ford is one of a growing number of African-Americans relocating to Ghana in search of community, job opportunities, and freedom from the violence prevalent in the United States. 

6. Keep Moving: The Nomadic Life of an Assistant Basketball Coach (Michael Croley, November 12, 2014, Sports Illustrated)

What does it take to be a Division I head coach? What sacrifices is a person willing to make –– in regard to uprooting family, turning down other lucrative career options, etc., –– to vie for an elusive spot? Michael Croley, in this profile of assistant coach Gus Hauser, who has moved six times in 11 years, seeks to answer these questions and more.

Like their colleagues in academia, they give up nearly all control of their life in order to move where the jobs are and more often than not, like Gus, uproot their families every two or three years. The sight of Brown, the success he’s had and the stir his presence caused, leads me to believe every single coach, except for a handful, is always working for his next job, and that next job will be dependent upon who he can sign, how many of those signees he steals from the other men in the gym that day, and then if they can turn those guys into players within their system.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Swipe Right: A Reading List about Online Dating

Getty Images

They wrote you an intro

Wow and hello. You seem phenomenal and you probably receive four million messages but I just couldn’t resist…

Gorgeous woman, you are taller than me. I’m bummed.

I am capable of taking care of you financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I love unconditionally, with all my heart, and I love you as you are. 

Your hair looks nice. See ya.

My self-summary

Some days I log in and read introductory messages that ring hollow, like the promises of car salesmen. Others, I receive long and far too intense missives declaring love or making some other absurd commitment based on a quick glance at my photos. And most days, I receive a tepid “hey.” Most days, I ask myself why I bother maintaining a profile –– what am I hoping to find? And isn’t there a better way to date?

I had never used a dating app until a few months ago: a combination of introverted tendencies, a series of summers spent at an evangelical Christian camp, and a traumatic sexual assault in college made it so I was scared to form relationships with people I knew in real life, let alone strangers on the internet. But after my first long term relationship ended, I moved across the country to a town where I knew hardly anyone and made a profile for the first time. While uploading photos and answering questions, processes which underscore just how much artifice is involved with online dating, I grew a little nervous. I had heard stories from friends about men who ghosted them; who retaliated viciously via email and other social media platforms when rejected; or who showed up to the date and weren’t exactly who they said they would be. After being in a safe, committed relationship for so long, the idea of trusting someone to be kind and respectful on a first date was nerve-wracking, but I took precautions in my own way, and tried dating.

At first, it was fun, even exceeded my expectations. I met people I otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to find within the scope of my daily life. I explored parts of my new locale with people who have histories here, and enjoyed visiting places I’ll continue to return to. And the dates were lovely, for the most part. There was homemade pizza and wine in a park; dates who snuck away to secretly cover the bill without asking for anything in return; and hikes where we foraged for berries in spots only a local would know. 

But there was also the guy who lived at home, told me his mom cooked for him every night, and that he would expect his partner to do the same. There was the man who told me, after a few dates, that his friends had agreed I was “too smart” because I had earned my PhD. And, there was the date who leaned across the table to pet my hair and told me I would be “even hotter if I hunted,” though he had proselytized veganism to me just moments before. 

After some time, skimming profiles no longer excited me. Instead, the series of photos started to look like a grid of loneliness, in each answer some sort of want.

I spend a lot of time thinking about

Are dating apps the best way to meet people in this day and age? Do they even work?

Gina DiVittorio’s viral video about dating on Hinge.

How much of my relatively positive experience on dating apps is based on location? My identity as a straight, cis, white woman who has an invisible –– rather than visible –– disability?

Are there ways to improve online dating so that it is safer, more inclusive, and less discriminatory?

What I’m actually looking for

The same as everyone else, probably: to permanently log off these apps.

1. What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe (Allison P. Davis, March 21, 2016, Travel + Leisure)

I use them all—Tinder, chiefly, but also Hinge, Bumble, Happn, Desperat*n (I made that one up) 3nder, Flattr—and they are all swipes to nowhere. In boom times I experience a weak trickle of men; during drought, it’s like I’m in the dating version of The Martian—except Matt Damon did eventually receive messages from humans.

When Allison P. Davis left Brooklyn to travel across Europe, she wondered if dating would be any less lackluster, or if Tinder would offer her anything other than sex. In chronicling a variety of dating experiences and encounters in London, Berlin, and Stockholm, Davis ruminates on the differences between dating in the U.S. and abroad, particularly as a black woman. 

2. Diary (Emily Witt, October 25, 2012, London Review of Books)

Subletting an apartment for a week in San Francisco, Emily Witt goes to a bar alone in hopes of finding some form of human connection. Instead, she ends up perusing OkCupid. Witt, in this piece, offers a comprehensive history of online dating and ruminates about the specific kind of loneliness that beckons people to online dating apps. 

I wanted a boyfriend. I was also badly hung up on someone and wanted to stop thinking about him. People cheerily list their favourite movies and hope for the best, but darkness simmers beneath the chirpy surface. An extensive accrual of regrets lurks behind even the most well-adjusted profile.

3. ‘So Can You F*ck?’: What It’s Like to Online Date With a Disability (Sarah Kim, April 15, 2018, The Daily Beast)

It’s not news that lots of women receive ridiculous and misogynistic messages on dating apps, especially on Tinder. But as a 22-year-old with cerebral palsy, I get one at least twice a week.

‘So can you f*ck?’

‘But you look normal in your pictures.’

When Sarah Kim creates online dating profiles, she questions whether or not to immediately disclose her disability or to let potential suitors get to know her before sharing. By interviewing a range of experts like sexologist Dr. Mitchell Tepper and therapist Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, and other people with disabilities who have dated using apps before, Kim offers valuable insight and ultimately comes to the conclusion that how –– and when –– to disclose can be handled in a variety of ways, and decisions are best left up to each individual.

 

Related read: Online dating is hard enough. Try doing it with a disability. (Timothy Sykes, January 18, 2014, The Guardian)

 

4. How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love (Kevin Poulsen, January 21, 2014, Wired)

As summer drew to a close, he’d been on more than 55 dates, each one dutifully logged in a lab notebook. Only three had led to second dates; only one had led to a third.

Most unsuccessful daters confront self-esteem issues. For McKinlay it was worse. He had to question his calculations.

After largely striking out on OkCupid, Chris McKinlay decided to put his mathematical prowess to the test, using a Python script to create a database of women’s answers and subsequently analyze patterns. With his unconventional approach, he succeeded in going on far more first dates –– but not many at all led further. As Kevin Poulsen notes in this strange and fascinating story, McKinlay had to strike a balance between calculation and human intuition in order to find true love.

5. What It’s Like To Date Online as a Trans Person (Brittany Wong, October 29, 2018, Huffington Post)

Tinder only enabled users to select gender identities such as “‘transgender,’ ‘trans man,’ ‘trans woman’ and ‘gender queer’” three years ago. Slow to evolve, OkCupid, Tinder, and Grindr have put transgender users at risk in their failure to incorporate inclusive models, as Christiana Rose, Dawn Dismuke, and Jackson Bird explain in their interviews with Brittany Wong.

Though roughly 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, there’s still a widespread lack of understanding of trans issues among the general public. And sadly, transphobia is on the rise; 2017 was the deadliest year for transgender people, with at least 28 deaths tracked by the Human Rights Campaign.

6. I Thought My Immigrant Mother Would Never Accept My Queerness. I Was Wrong. (Krutika Mallikarjuna, February 19, 2019, Bitch)

Of the many pitfalls of being a queer desi woman swiping through Tinder, I never expected to find myself getting trashed in a bar trying to forget that I was on a date with a white girl named India.

After a date unsettles her, Krutika Mallikarjuna finds herself reflecting on her mother’s reticence to accept her as queer, and experiences a deep depression. Mallikarjuna, in this essay excerpted from The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America, chronicles the ways her relationship with her mother has evolved as a result of therapy and phone calls, eventually leading to shared laughter over a date gone wrong.

7. ‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating (Ashley Brown, January 9, 2018, NPR)

OkCupid released a blog post in 2014 showing dating that “most men on the site rated black women as less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities. Similarly, Asian men fell at the bottom of the preference list for most women.” Through interviews with people who have encountered racism on dating apps, and interviews with experts who consider how apps might evolve to become more inclusive, Ashley Brown offers a harrowing portrait of the harm caused by racist dating app users.

Other dating experts have pointed to such stereotypes and lack of multiracial representation in the media as part of the likely reason that plenty of online daters have had discouraging experiences based on their race.

8. Guys are Reporting Women On Tinder for the Crime of Not Being Into Them (Lauren Vinopal, September 10, 2019, MEL Magazine)  

After Lauren Vinopal politely declines a date with a man, he sends her a slew of rude text messages before reporting her to Tinder, resulting in her being banned from the platform. When Vinopal researches the cause, she discovers she’s not the only woman to be banned for rejecting a man –– in fact, there are a large number of others who share her experience.

Many other people have reportedly been banned for reasons that have nothing to do with terms and conditions — e.g., disclosing that they have herpes, identifying as transgender, or in the strangely specific case of 32-year-old Nichole, posting a picture with a dead deer during hunting season.

9. Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline (Ashley Fetters, September 5, 2019, The Atlantic)

Such a staggering number of millennials start dating because of connections made through apps that Camille Virginia wrote a book called The Offline Dating Method, which provides tricks and tips for potential daters to make conversation in public and frequent places where they might find a partner. Ashley Fetters, in addition to providing an overview of Virginia’s book, contemplates how much the era of “stranger danger” and the increasing prevalence of convenience in apps across the board –– in areas of food, services, etc., –– have contributed to people relying on online dating.

In the years since, app dating has reached such a level of ubiquity that a couples therapist in New York told me last year that he no longer even bothers asking couples below a certain age threshold how they met. (It’s almost always the apps, he said.)

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

National Parks: A Reading List

Getty Images

I have a small booklet of illustrated postcards from National Parks, both ones I’ve been to and others I have yet to see: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Glacier, Olympic, and more. The cards are whimsical. Each in the set features an outline of a park, and a smattering of critters, landmarks, and flora and fauna in bright colors. There is a cartoon banana slug; a meadowlark, beak open in song; a sunny yellow coneflower, petals all the way unfurled; a bighorn sheep; a branch of a ponderosa pine; a hiking boot looming larger than a small illustrated tent; and a herd of antelope making their way toward Delicate Arch.

Whether because of the tiny size of the cards — a whole park scaled down to the size of a palm — or the natural world tuned to carefully blocked hues of teal and mustard and coral and lime green and blue, when I look at the postcards, I tend to daydream about the National Parks in a way that mirrors the illustrations themselves: my perception of the parks becomes two-dimensional, sanitized of any complication. I envision myself hiking along a dirt path, a Steller’s Jay swooping down to scavenge for seed, Ponderosa pines lining the way, the sky blue and open above the picture-perfect peaks of a mountain chain. In my daydreams, there is never anyone else around: there is just me moving through a landscape freckled with flowers, silence broken only by the chittering of birds.

Some parts of these daydreams are feasible, which I know from time spent in parks. I have followed a dirt trail for miles around a lake in Grand Teton, the woods quiet save for the stirring of small creatures. I have hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in a day, the sun baking every shade of orange-red rock in sight. I have kept my body still in Yellowstone in hopes of watching a coyote limber across a field just a few moments longer. I have foraged for blueberries in Acadia, sat by the placid, shockingly-blue waters of Lake McDonald in Glacier, and hiked through parts of Denali, pink fireweed lining my way.

The time I’ve spent in National Parks has always seemed restorative, a reminder that there is wild beauty to be protected. But my perceptions can be complicated, underlying tensions teased from what I simplify. For example, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land, she grew up with the myth of Yellowstone National Park being “void of people” when it was established in 1872, before learning as an adult that the lands where the park was created “was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations.” She writes, “Like any good story with the muscle of privilege behind it, it seemed believable. And I never asked the question: ‘Who benefits from the telling of this particular story?’”

What stories have I told myself about the natural parks? Why do I imagine myself alone there, when I have rarely — if ever — experienced solitude on the trails? What kinds of privileges afford me the ability to travel to the parks, and who are parks truly accessible to? What types of harmful histories have I buried or blurred in the way I’ve narrativized the parks in my own mind? What environmental protections have the park lands been granted and what is at risk in a time of climate change and a president’s dangerous decisions? The essays curated here approach these questions — and more.

1. Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream (Kathryn Joyce, HuffPost)

As a child, the outdoors felt most like home to Cheyenne Szydlo, a trait she carried with her into her professional life as a wildlife biologist. But when she earned the chance to find the elusive — and possibly locally extinct — Southwestern willow flycatcher in The Grand Canyon, her experiences outdoors took a sinister turn, not because of any natural threats, but human. A man named Dave, her river guide, perpetually harassed her and threatened to sexually assault her. 

Szydlo’s story is far from uncommon, as Kathryn Joyce writes in this harrowing longform piece. From interviews with Szydlo, women firefighters, and other women park employees, as well as a bevy of researched statistics, Joyce emphasizes the dramatic scope of sexual assault and harassment that far too many women have experienced while working in national parks and other natural places.

The agencies that protect America’s natural heritage enjoy a reputation for a certain benign progressivism—but some of them have their own troubling history of hostility toward women.

In 2012 in Texas, members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance; only 8 percent of the state’s 500 game wardens were women. In 2014, in California, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service filed a class-action lawsuit—the fourth in 35 years—over what they described as an egregious, long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained.

2. We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us. (Latria Graham, May 1, 2018, Outside)

Number seven on a list of “22 Things Black Folks Don’t Do,” an article Latria Graham finds on BlackAmericaWeb.com, is “Go to national parks.” Graham, who encounters, both online and in life, an array of stereotypes about black people not liking the outdoors, explores the premise of those stereotypes by mapping the locations of national parks and discussing the ways in which historic practices of segregation still influence people’s perceptions today. 

By blending gorgeous ruminations of growing up on her own family’s land, reminiscing on the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston’s work helped her discover her own voice, recounting her trips to national parks and incorporating hard-hitting research, Graham’s essay asks readers to evaluate their own internal biases and work to make real change. 

The parks were designed to be clean and white, and if we let the data tell the story, that’s how they’ve stayed. In 2009, the National Park Service did a comprehensive survey of the American public, consisting of phone interviews with more than 4,000 participants. According to their data, African Americans comprised just 7 percent of visitors.

3. Dear Mr. Abbey (Amy Irvine, Autumn 2018, Orion)

In this direct address to Edward Abbey, Amy Irvine writes about how life within public lands has changed since Abbey’s death, and also ways that his work might be reconceived if thought about through a more contemporary lens. Irvine, as she reckons with who has the freedom to travel to natural lands — “a privilege that belongs to the able-bodied, upper classes” — tells Abbey about the destruction of natural lands that has occurred as a result of Trump’s decisions, and discusses the ways in which her experiences of natural parks and solitude differ than Abbey’s because she is a woman.

Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it “Amy’s country”? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours because it’s all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the region’s Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another.

4. The Government Won’t Let Me Watch Them Kill Bison, so I’m Suing (Christopher Ketcham, May 20, 2015, Vice)

The history of bison in North America is a long and sordid one, which includes settler colonial violence that, at one point, led to there being only 23 bison left in existence. Though the population of bison has increased since then, there are still tensions surrounding their existence, as Christopher Ketcham reports in this piece. Most notably, Yellowstone National Park “culls” (through slaughter) bison from natural lands. The damning part? For over a decade, park officials haven’t allowed the public to watch, spurring the ACLU to file a letter of intent to sue. 

I once saw a video of bison being trapped in preparation for their sorting and slaughter. It had been filmed in 2004, in Yellowstone, the last year the Park Service permitted viewing of their bison operations. In the video, the bison are angry, bucking and kicking. The wranglers cry, ‘Hyah, hooee, yah yah, uhsh uhsh,’ smiling as they whip and beat the animals from catwalks. The camera angle shifts to the colliding bodies of the creatures, which cram in the bottleneck of the chutes.

5. From Yosemite to Bears Ears, Erasing Native Americans from U.S. National Parks (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, January 26, 2018, Collectors Weekly)

Though the National Park Service prevented wholesale industrialization, they still packaged the wilderness for consumption, creating a scenic, pre-historical fantasy surrounded by roads and tourist accommodations, all designed to mask the violence inherent to these parks’ creation. More than a century later, the United States has done little to acknowledge the government-led genocide of native populations, as well as the continued hardships they face because of the many bad-faith treaties enacted by the U.S. government.

Accompanied by photographs, maps, historic promotional materials, and other artifacts, Hunter Oatman-Stanford lays bare a multitude of violences and injustices perpetrated against native populations in the creation of National Parks, as well as chronicles the ways in which the harm of this history still affects people today.

6. Are We Losing the Grand Canyon? (Kevin Fedarko, September 2016, National Geographic)

During an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko notes how much of the landscape has been impacted by human development and ruminates on Edward Abbey’s prediction that the wilderness he was writing about “is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial.

How much of the Grand Canyon should be developed? And in what ways? What tensions exist because of the Grand Canyon’s capacity to generate revenue? And who has been harmed in the process of development? Fedarko explores answers to these questions, and more, in this longform piece.

But according to U.S. Geological Survey data, 15 springs and five wells inside the Grand Canyon area have levels of uranium that are considered unsafe to drink, due in part to incidents in older mines, where erosion and problems with containment have allowed uranium to leach into the groundwater.

7. Clothing Companies Are Funding Our National Parks Because Our Government Won’t (Jen A. Miller, August 27, 2018, The Outline)

Jen A. Miller, who has a goal of visiting all 417 sites in the U.S. overseen by the National Park Service, began receiving Instagram ads for “Parks Project,” a company that seeks to fund NPS-related charities through their sales of shirts and other goods. Upon researching further, Miller discovers that “Parks Project” is not the only company attempting to help with NPS funding through the sale of merchandise, a noble goal, though one that still falls far from providing the kind of money NPS actually needs to thrive.

And while on paper it looks like the National Park Service budget has gone up from $3.276 billion for fiscal year 2009 to $3.460 billion for fiscal year 2018, when adjusted for inflation, it’s really an 8 percent drop. The New York Times has referred to this paradox of rising crowds and shrinking funds as a “crisis” — I was in Zion National Park in Utah right around the time their reporter was, and I don’t think the pictures do justice to the massive crowds I had to work through.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

On Representations of Disability: A Reading List

Getty Images

Around the age of 3 or 4, Harriet McBryde Johnson sits in front of her family’s television set and thinks, “I will die.” The thought comes to her after an advertisement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association flashes across the screen, one that depicts a small boy’s journey from running bases as a baseball player to using a wheelchair and then to bed, one he never rises from. Born with a neuromuscular disease, this commercial, and then a telethon around the age of 5, are Johnson’s first encounters with depictions of disability in mainstream media, as she writes in her memoir Too Late To Die Young. From that first scene, the line I will die, I will die, I will die, serves as a sort of chorus, one that punctuates Johnson’s progression from kindergarten student to law school graduate to protestor and beyond. Johnson reclaims the line; as she moves through life, I will die is no longer a source of fear, but rather a lyric of defiance.

The negative representations of disability Johnson encounters in childhood do not leave her in adulthood, particularly in relation to her wheelchair. She protests against entities like Jerry Lewis, who claims, in a letter penned for Parade Magazine, that wheelchairs are a form of “steel imprisonment,” a “dystrophic child’s plight.” When, being photographed for The New York Times Magazine, the photographer asks to remove Johnson’s chair from the frame, saying that Johnson looks “frail.” The photographer argues that Johnson will look “beautiful and powerful out of the chair,” “brave,” but Johnson advocates for herself.

Johnson’s memoir reveals a litany of ableist assumptions directed toward her and other disabled people, as well as the emotional and physical tolls these perpetual violences take on her throughout her life. Harmful messages, distributed through television ads, telethons, looks others give her while she’s out, snide comments, the highly inaccessible way our world is physically built, seep so much into her consciousness that at one point, she sees wheelchair dancing as being “undignified.” It takes her years before she reckons with her own beliefs, questioning whether they are borne from what others have told her about her disability or about what she herself has experienced in her body. Then, she explains the joy that comes from moving through the world in her wheelchair, saying, “we can in our own way play with sight and sound, combine rhythm and form, move in our chairs and with our chairs, and glide and spin in ways walking people can’t.”

Though Johnson’s life experiences are unique to her, the underlying themes within her book resonate far beyond. I saw myself reflected in some of her passages, particularly when I thought back to my own experience using a wheelchair for a few months as a result of neurological symptoms, during which time I felt a sense of shame. Johnson’s reckoning with her own internalized ableism helped me realize that my feelings came not from my use of the wheelchair, which allowed me to move through the world, often with great joy, but from how I thought others might perceive me.

Her memoir, too, encouraged me to ask questions: How does pervasive ableism affect the way our society continues to be architected? In what ways have disabled people been represented in media and how can representation continue to evolve so that disabled people have more agency? How are invisible disabilities treated versus visible? What have other disabled people’s experiences been engaging with different accessible tools and technology? The essays curated here cover an array of topics related to those questions, as well as delve into intersections between disability and race, class, and gender.

1. Common Cyborg (Jillian Weise, September 24, 2018, Granta)

Jillian Weise writes against Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ exposing numerous flaws in Haraway’s argument, namely, the fact that Haraway neglects to acknowledge disabled people. Weise discusses what it means to claim a cyborg identity, and how disability is treated by a group of people she names ‘tryborgs,’ who “preach cyborg nature,” but “do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine.”

They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured.

2. What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry (Keah Brown, September 5, 2018, Teen Vogue)

In this essential reported piece, Keah Brown, author of recently published The Pretty One, interviews three models with disabilities — Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax — and draws on her own experiences with cerebral palsy to emphasize the need for increased representation of diverse bodies in advertising, media, and modeling.

Disabled people and disabled models are still left out of most campaign ads and runway shows. This lack of representation has implications: When you go so long without seeing yourself it is easy to interpret that lack of representation to mean you’re ugly and unworthy, that you deserve to be invisible or even worse, are grotesque.

3. How Designers Are Failing People With Disabilities (Justin Rorlich, March 6, 2014, Hazlitt)

With estimates that there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world who control more than $8 trillion in disposable income, you’d think there would be competition within the wheelchair market to create products with sleeker, more efficient design. But no, as Justin Rohrlich exposes in this piece, hardly any work is being done within big corporations to advance wheelchair design. Instead, individuals like Andrew Slorance are taking matters into their own hands.

In no other market do we force people to simply take whatever product gets shoved down their throats, especially one of this size,’ Donovan says. ‘It’s really sort of unbelievable.

You’d think that companies would have figured out long ago how to sell to a cohort this size. For some reason, it remains barely-touched.

4. The Complicated Dynamics of Disability and Desire (Lachrista Greco, April 6, 2016, Bitch)

After a teacher in middle school tells Lachrista Greco she’s using her invisible disability as a “crutch,” Lachrista begins to make a connection between her disability and how wanted she feels in relation to others. In examining harmful cultural moments like Kylie Jenner modeling with a wheelchair, essays by other disabled writers, and personal memories, Lachrista explores how disability is connected to desirability, both in her life, and in our culture as a whole.

Jenner appeared on the cover of the magazine sitting in a brass-colored wheelchair—sexy, glamorous, and blank. It’s fetishization to the nth degree for Jenner, an able-bodied person, to pose in a wheelchair wearing a black latex bodysuit. It’s “crip drag,” as comedian and disability rights activist Caitlin Wood calls it.

5. The Amputee Cyclist’s Art of Self-Repair (C.S. Giscombe, May 23, 2019, The New York Times)

After seeing a banner that reads “Do you remember when prosthetics weren’t mind controlled?” while on a bike ride through the U.C. campus, C.S. Giscombe reflects on his own prosthetic; ruminates on intersections of race, class, and disability; and confronts ableism.

He was amazed — as some people are, ‘because of your handicap’ — that I was riding at all, and as we talked and climbed the topic of touring came up and he was quick to inform me that it was a thing sadly beyond my capabilities, though we had just met. ‘Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy,’ as my friend the poet Jennifer Bartlett has observed.

6. Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities (s.e. smith, September 20, 2018, Vox)

After seeing a device called a Sock Slider ridiculed on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, s.e. smith compiles a list of other tools mocked on the internet: “banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more.” In interviewing people with disabilities, disability scholars, and compiling research about costs of attendants, smith not only makes clear that the use of these gadgets enable some disabled people to live independently, but also examines the role of the internet in spreading harmful messages.

When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.

7. I Love ‘Queer Eye.’ I Don’t Love The Way It Portrayed People With Disabilities. (Jessica Slice, July 26, 2019, Huffington Post)

Representations of people with visible disabilities on television are far and few between, so when the Fab Five of ‘Queer Eye’ featured Wesley, “a Black man, loving father, 30-year old community activist and wheelchair user” on an episode, Jessica Slice had hopes that the team would empower Wesley to embrace his identity as a disabled man in the same way they encourage others featured on the show. Instead, the episode falls short in many ways, which Slice chronicles in this well-researched piece.

Critically, being disabled is not a negative. It’s an identity, just like being queer, Black or Latinx is an identity. If it makes you pause to hear ‘Black, but not really,’ or ‘gay, but not really,’ then you should have the same reaction to ‘disabled, but not really.’

8. (Don’t) Fear the Feeding Tube (Kayla Whaley, May 8, 2018, Catapult)

When her mom brings up the idea of a feeding tube, Kayla Whaley recoils. She feels shame and fear thinking about such a concrete change being made to her body until she speaks with others who have gone through the surgery. This essay, in addition to providing a history of gastronomy tubes, also chronicles Kayla’s emotional turn from revulsion to delight in relation to her g-tube, and the ways in which her feeding tube allows her to connect with her body in new and surprising ways.

More than that, knowing what was inside felt like sharing a secret with myself. Seeing inside my gut, learning to recognize its patterns and moods, felt intimate in a way that was wholly unexpected but altogether a joy.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Workshopping Workshop: A Reading List

Getty Images

When I think of workshop, I think of fluorescent lights and scuffed linoleum. Long tables configured into a square, beverages — iced tea, coffee, kombucha, root beer, lemonade, reusable metal water bottles — dotting the square’s perimeter. A window, maybe, where crows blur past just before the last light of day fades. Notes of a distant marching band needling their way into the room. I think of what is insisted — we need to know more about the speaker. The arguments over minutiae — does the sidewalk cover the length between her house and the gas station? The compliments, the summaries, the probing, the attention to detail, the wanting for more, the gifts of enthusiasm, the rooms where cultures of respect flourish, and those where someone tugs at a thread until any sense of community unravels.

What I mean to say is workshop is a tender ecosystem, one that connects the physical — stacks of marked paper, chalkboards, typed longform letters, uncomfortable chairs — with what often seems intangible or difficult to put into words. At its best, for me, workshop has held a kind of magic. In those spaces, I felt a sort of inner calm, a knowing that the others in the room brought their most complicated, nurturing selves to my pages and me to theirs. We demanded a lot from one another — held each other accountable for lazy moves, questioned form, encouraged experimentation — but did so with trust, and often joy.

But it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, during my undergraduate and MFA, I wrote almost compulsively about neurological illness; after losing parts of my memory, writing was not a salve, necessarily, but granted me the illusion of control, a feeling of power over my body and history that I often felt I lacked. The problem with writing about invisible illness, though, is simply that: it’s invisible. Invisible to doctors, my former Division I coach, former friends, administrators, professors, nearly anyone with authority to declare me well or unwell. It is also, due to the careful ways I choose to dress and present myself, invisible to peers. Once, in workshop, I submitted a piece about one of my neurological episodes in which I repeat the same word for hours on end, my head lolling back and forth, out of my control. In the hallway after my session was over, a peer, repeating the harm done to me by disbelieving medical professionals and so many others, quipped, “Well, I’ve never seen you do that before,” in a tone that suggested she didn’t trust the veracity of my narrative, or that she didn’t consider my illness grave enough to be worth writing about.

Different brushes with disbelief and a sundry of other insensitive questions have peppered my workshop experience over the years, both in workshop and in the halls after, but haven’t caused me any significant grief. As a white woman who passes as able-bodied when not episodic, I experience privilege in many ways. However, these questions from peers are usually rooted in deep-seated cultural misconceptions about what we perceive disability to be, and are rarely corrected by instructors, who have at times allowed the personal questions about my symptoms and condition to pass within workshop as being about “craft.”

As I move from workshop participant to workshop facilitator, I have been deeply considering exclusionary practices and systems of power — not only in workshop, but in academia as a whole — that allow for the perpetuation of harms directed toward people of color. In workshop, what, if anything, can be written on a syllabus or spoken aloud in class to ensure that each and every participant’s work is read with care? What is the role of a facilitator? What texts might be read throughout the course as a means of encouraging workshop participants to grapple with their own identities?

The vital essays curated here are not necessarily a direct answer to these questions, but they bring to light the violences engrained in workshop settings as well as offer resources for meaningful change.

1. Unsilencing the Writing Workshop (Beth Nguyen, April 3, 2019, Lit Hub)

When I asked a group of writers how they would describe their workshop experiences, responses included: crushing, nightmare, hazing ritual, test of endurance, awful, ugh. I’ve heard of students drinking before their workshops; I’ve heard of students crying in class and after it; I’ve heard of students never looking at their workshopped pieces again.

Most workshops follow the same format: the writer is silent while peers question, critique, and praise their piece. When Beth Nguyen began teaching her own, she wondered what it might mean to invite writers into the process by allowing them to speak. Nguyen ruminates on how unsilencing the workshop shifts dynamics of power, as well as offers practical examples from her courses to help others make similar beneficial change.

2. The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate (Rani Neutill, May 2019, Longreads)

When Rani Neutill, the only woman of color in class, submits her piece to be workshopped, a white psychiatrist responds by saying he hated her piece, and wonders aloud “when this writer learned to speak English.” Neutill examines the ways in which people of color “do not have the privilege of only showing, not telling” in their work, and questions the structure of workshop, the role of her instructor, and the multitude of ways in which the white psychiatrist inflicts harm through his treatment of both her and her work.

His commentary is laced with paternalism and condescension. It is spiked with hate and the repulsive natures of his probable desires. It undermines me. He probably does not register this. I can psychoanalyze him, but he cannot psychoanalyze himself. Such is a white man’s privilege.

3. The Optics of Opportunity (Hafizah Geter, June 19, 2019, Gay Magazine)

Among many other atrocious acts during a mysterious fellowship funded by Barnes & Noble, writing instructor Jackson Taylor uses the n-word in class. Hafizah Geter, a participant in the fellowship, not only reveals the many problematic elements about the fellowship and its origins, but also illuminates how larger systems of power continue enabling racism.

As I pushed back against Taylor’s racism, I did so consciously held hostage by my silent white peers and their white perception and notions of respectability — who heard our objections to a racism they couldn’t muster the energy to see, and thus would not allow our concerns to hold water.

4. To Know By Heart: Workshop, Whiteness, and Rigorous Imagination of Ai (Claire Schwartz, December 25, 2015, Electric Lit)

In ruminating on a memory from workshop with Professor Elizabeth Alexander at Yale, her study of Ai’s poem, “Child Beater,” and the ways in which she and other white family members and friends are complicit in perpetuating conditions that allow for racism and violence, Claire Schwartz comes to complicated conclusions about how language connects us to acts of both harm and beauty.

But. Can you imagine hearing and not intervening in a racist joke? Can you imagine attending a university that invests in private prisons? Can you imagine being an American and never learning black history? Can you imagine studying the Holocaust without talking about Japanese internment? Can you imagine teaching a science class without Henrietta Lax, without the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without any thought at all to whose bodies have produced your knowledge?

5. When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself (Matthew Salesses, July 20, 2014, NPR)

I have had “good” and “bad” workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.

Matthew Salesses reckons with the ways in which writers of color are too often expected to defend not only their work, but their selves, in workshop, and presents ways in which workshops can be constructed so that the burden falls not on writers of color, but on instructors and peers.

6. Political Revisioning: How Men Police Women’s Anger in Writing Workshops (Jen Corrigan, October 22, 2018, Bitch Magazine)

When Jen Corrigan writes about her anger for workshop, a man named Andrew responds, “I just didn’t really believe it.” Corrigan explores the ways in which women’s anger is dismissed and disbelieved, both in workshop and outside of it, historically and at present, and advocates for workshop participants to scrutinize their own belief systems and biases before entering into conversation.

At first, I wondered if I was being too sensitive. I’ve never been overly delicate about being critiqued, but I instinctually questioned my perception of Andrew’s criticism. But, really, I wasn’t upset about Andrew’s critique of my essay because he had not critiqued it at all; he had critiqued me, my anger, and the way I processed and responded to aggression from men.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Lions, Tigers, and a Rabbit Named Bugs: A Reading List on Animal-Human Interactions

Getty Images

I don’t remember how I first met her — did I catch a glimpse of her shimmying through a gap in the fence? — but I know that it was love at first sight, at least on my end. Part of my joy, I think, came from the fact that I never expected to see a rabbit within 10 feet of my kitchen window. At the time, I lived in a house on the corner of a small-town neighborhood street, and my backyard was relatively plain. No brush or trees shaded any part of the yard from the Oklahoma sun, trucks regularly revved past, and a number of kites and hawks threaded patterns in the sky above. Why would a rabbit visit a balding patch of fenced-in lawn rather than take cover in the murmuring field of tall grass nearby?

After that first sighting, years ago now, I searched for her within the movement of shadows at sunrise and sunset. Sure enough, she returned. I began learning her patterns: clover by the kitchen window until the sky painted itself into the color of morning, clover near the back corner of the lawn just before sunset, and occasionally, a nap near the fence post to escape the late afternoon heat. One morning while she was out, I eased the back door open and stepped in slow-motion, out onto the patio. Her ears perked up and swiveled, marking the source of the sound. She drew her feet close and twitched her nose. I took a seat on the concrete and, before long, she returned to eating.

As the summer months wore on, I sat with her often, and I also began buying carrots that I would throw in her direction. Timid at first, she crept closer and closer to me until I could feed her from an arms-length away. She would let me sit in the yard nearby while she rolled around in a sandy spot, her way of bathing, and when I returned from my morning runs, she would often sniff the air, stretch her body like a cat who’s just risen from a nap, and then hop in my direction. I named her Bugs.

After she disappeared that first fall, I didn’t fully expect to ever see her again, but Bugs returned for two summers. Sitting with her day after day, morning and night, encouraged me to engage with parts of the natural world I otherwise would have ignored. Over the course of our time together, I watched a pair of kites build a nest in a tree overhead, hoping that I’d never catch the sight of their shadow if they decided to swoop down one day. I studied the nuances in what I thought had been a plain lawn: purple flowers speckling the space in spring, dandelions during the height of summer, a flurry of minute insects hovering and crawling in the heat. I watched the sun melt down over powerlines and neighboring roofs, starlings and skeins of geese alternating overhead.

Over the years, my relationship with Bugs prompted me to think more critically about how I treated the natural world. I fed Bugs carrots daily and began videoing our encounters for Instagram, so that even strangers became invested. The second summer I knew her, she had a baby, and the two of them frequented my yard. There, Bugs taught her offspring to crouch low when the form of a hawk passed overhead, roll in the sand pit, and wriggle lightning-like through the slats in the fence. Though my intentions were borne from love and respect — and a desire to be close to another creature — was I harming Bugs by giving her food? Would she think other humans were safe or did she only know my scent? By inserting myself into her routine, was I disrupting an ecological web I had no right to be part of?

There are bigger questions that arise from those encounters, too. How have animals adapted to survive in a world increasingly overrun with humans? What kinds of relationships exist between humans and animals, and what well-intentioned actions from humans bring harm? The following essays address the oft-complicated connections between animals and humans, explore fascinating forms of adaptations that have sprung from living in increasingly inhospitable environments, and wonder about the future of us all.

1. Are Cities Making Animals Smarter? (Paul Bisceglio, August 16, 2018, The Atlantic)

Night after night, goldfish and koi began disappearing from an office pond protected by concrete walls. Worried, the landlord installed security cameras, only to find that the intruder was a surprising one: a fishing cat, better known for living in swamps than in the center of a bustling city.

In this fascinating read, Paul Bisceglio chronicles the work of Anya Ratnayaka, a conservationist who started tracking several fishing cats in the heart of Colombo, and wonders about how — and which — animals will successfully adapt to life as cities continue to infringe on natural habitats.

Mizuchi’s GPS-collar data had placed him not only in local ponds and canals, but also in the parking lot of a neon-lit movie theater and in the middle of a multilane traffic circle. His territory, which stretched about two square miles, was mostly covered with asphalt and packed with cars.

2. Horseshoe Crabs Have Survived All of History – and Remind Us How We Could Too (Lenora Todaro, July 3, 2019, Catapult)

Lenora Todaro meditates on intersections between human life and the natural world in New York City in her monthly Sidewalk Naturalist column. In this riveting installment, Todaro writes about horseshoe crabs, who somehow continue their “450 million-year-old lineage” despite “ice ages and asteroids,” low survival rates, and currently, in New York City, harrowing encroachments by humans on already too-small hospitable environments.

So here is New York city water, not at its best: a swirling mass of plastic bottles, glass shards of airplane size liquor bottles, coffee cups, candy wrappers, plastic straws, abandoned IHOP sugar packets. To find horseshoe crabs, we had to peel aside the sewage to see if any creatures were stirring beneath, oblivious and perhaps impervious to the garbage.

3. The ‘Othering’ of Animals and Cultural Underdogs: Debut author Pajtim Statovci on Kosovo, migration and cats (Pajtim Statovci interviewed by Carolina Leavitt, April 27, 2017, Electric Lit)

Pajtim Statovci, author of the novel My Cat Yugoslavia, speaks with Caroline Leavitt about the othering of people and animals; ways animals are used as symbols in literature and life; and his attempts to undermine conventional means of representation in his work.

We place animals in different contexts, such as literary works, where they are anthropomorphized and interpreted through the human world, for example as symbols of human characteristics, even though we don’t have access to animal consciousness, and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to be an animal.

4. How rats became an inescapable part of city living (Emma Marris, April 2019, National Geographic)

With urban rat populations on the rise, Emma Marris visits several cities around the globe, meets with rat experts, and studies the history of the rodents to give a better understanding of their immense capacity for adaptability, as well as the ways they mirror the way we as humans live.

Some of the things we hate most about rats—their dirtiness, their fecundity, their undeniable grit and knack for survival—are qualities that could describe us as well. Their filth is really our own: In most places rats are thriving on our trash and our carelessly tossed leftovers.

5. The Man Who Made Animal Friends (Ian S. Port, September 21, 2015, Rolling Stone)

At The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in South Carolina, visitors can pay to take pictures with lion, tiger, and liger cubs, and visit apes, elephants, and other animals during tours through the park. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder and director of T.I.G.E.R.S., views his establishment as a community where animals and people live in harmony. Others, like zoo experts, view his park as being harmful to animals.

All of T.I.G.E.R.S. staff members must complete an intensive apprenticeship. No formal education is required, but recruits must be single and childless. They cannot expect any time off for any reason. They must be within 20 pounds of their “perfect athletic weight or working to get there,” able to do push-ups, pull-ups, and run a 12-minute mile.

6. Animal magnetism (David P Barash, May 13, 2014, aeon)

Why are humans fascinated by animals? How do our interactions with animals change depending on the context in which we observe them? What do we see of ourselves in other species? David P Barash, in considering animals in zoos, in veterinarian offices, as pets, in the wild, and across time, hypothesizes a variety of reasons why we remain enthralled by other creatures.

We are living, breathing, perspiring, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, eating, defecating, urinating, copulating, child-rearing, and ultimately dying animals ourselves. It is plausible that deep in the human psyche there resides the simple yet profound recognition of a relationship between Us and Them.

7. Can Elephants Be Persons? (Sarah Kasbeer, Summer 2019, Dissent Magazine)

Does only harm come from anthropomorphizing animals, or can respect for other living beings stem from the inclination? Are zoos an ethical place for creatures to reside, or is it better we let them free, even while we destroy their natural homes? What makes a person a person instead of an animal, and where do we draw the boundary between the two?

Sarah Kasbeer considers these questions and more in this nuanced and vital essay, one that centers around the predicament of Happy, an elephant living alone at the Bronx Zoo.

It has long been said that to anthropomorphize—ascribe human characteristics to animals—while intuitive and enjoyable, is unscientific and misguided. But given the recent research into animal consciousness, what was once considered a cardinal sin of ethology has since returned to favor, so long as it’s implemented responsibly.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, GuernicaTin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Why We Write Memoir: A Reading List

Getty Images

No matter how many years pass, no matter how much I work in therapy, no matter how far I remove myself geographically from the site of trauma, whenever I open the YouTube video on a channel I cannot forget the name of, I start to drown. It is not a quick plunge underwater. When first the browser loads, I tell myself, as is my natural response to any inkling of pain, that I am fine.

The first sound is my laughter — a strained version. In the video, I hold my hands to my belly, as if emulating a kind of joy, before gripping the door frame to my college dormitory. My laugh reaches almost a shriek in pitch. Behind the camera, one of my former Division I college teammates cajoles, “Talk to us, talk to us, Jackie.”

I pause the video. I remind myself that I am here, in a new-to-me town in Pennsylvania, years and miles from this day, but my body tightens like a fist. I want to leave my apartment, to run beneath a sky tinged the soothing, sugar-spun pink of cotton candy. I want to weep. But instead, though I feel some kind of water rising around me, I press play again. I have to, I tell myself. I’m writing.

The thing about the video is that I do not remember it being recorded. In it, though I appear “normal” with my black Nike shorts, purple-framed glasses, dirty blond hair sleek to my shoulders, I am experiencing one of many mysterious neurological episodes that would plague me that semester. With the episodes came what doctors would later term aphasia and a transient alteration of awareness. In layman’s terms, this meant I would repeat a few words (“Sky News, Sky News, Sky News,” “Aurora, Aurora, Aurora”) for minutes at a time. I wouldn’t remember the episodes when I later woke up. A few of my teammates, gathered behind the lens of the camera, knew this. I don’t know what prompted them to film that day, if it was a gesture of care that turned cruel, or just a means of entertaining themselves from the beginning.

When I do speak in the footage, I first say, “I, um.” I glance down at the floor. Hoping to confuse me, the boys filming ask where I’m going tomorrow and where I’m going yesterday. I respond, “I, I, I” and look at my watch. As they continue to prod with their questions, my voice reaches a higher pitch. I shriek “No! Noo! I-no! I-no! I, I.” This is the part where I feel the water rising around me at my desk, where I know I’ll spend the rest of the day in what feels like a bottomless ocean, suspended by a grief I cannot name or easily swim out of.

I have been writing about this video for six years, as part of a memoir that I am still wrestling into being. After watching this video, when I am in the watery deep, I ask myself questions: How can I write ethically about my teammates, who both cared for me and inflicted deep pain in turns? What happens if they read this someday? Why, in a world where there is far more horrific news being reported daily, am I trying to add my voice? Why, if I don’t consciously remember this moment, can’t I let the video rot in oblivion where it belongs?

I have reported this footage to YouTube dozens of times. Each time, I select the option “Hateful or abusive content” and pick “Abusing vulnerable individuals.” I shrink away from the word “abusive,” telling myself it’s really not that bad, but then I remember that within the video, one of the girls observing — someone I considered a friend at the time — says, “You guys are so mean” and a boy from the team says, “she’s gonna cry” before they continue. Even while coherent, while completely within themselves, my teammates knew that their actions were harmful. And for me, though I don’t consciously remember this video being taken, my body holds a history of its own. The trauma lives in the way I isolated myself for years because I feared other people more than I feared my symptoms. The trauma lives in the way I used to scream when a tender former partner tried to care for me during episodes. The trauma lives in the fact that the video is a testimony I cannot ignore, a memory I cannot blur out of being like so many other incidents that happened that semester between the soft of my body and those teammates.

At times, these six years of writing have felt like living within a dense fog: I cannot see where I’m going or where I’ve been. The drafts seem to become both more refined and completely opaque as I press forward. But recently, my life has shifted in fundamental ways: I broke up with a partner who knew the contours of my history as well as he could and moved halfway across the country. Here, in this new place, alone, I have been working on a proposal version of the book. In some ways, the tectonic shifts in my personal life and geography have allowed me to see the story in a whole new way, as if I’m finally far enough away to make meaning. During this process, I have been practicing tenderness toward myself. I do leave my desk to chase cotton candy clouds each morning, all the while reminding myself to breathe. I email terrible drafts of my overview to writer friends who nurture me while I probe old wounds. And I have spent innumerable afternoon hours with the essays below, each writer’s words a lifeline pulling me from the deep.

1. Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy (T Kira Madden, March 22, 2019, Lit Hub)

I may have believed that to write The Thing down is to take one more step away from The Thing itself, one more step removed, one more page and another and another until there is a thick stack of proof, of growth, of Tada!—the restorative salvation.

After writing Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden reckons with the idea that writing memoir is inherently cathartic. By closely examining her reaction to seeing a boy pounding his fists against the closed windows of his mother’s car, Madden considers the differences between life itself and life reexamined, and discusses the importance of allowing readers to enter a work.

2. But What Will Your Parents Think? (Morgan Jerkins, May 2018, Longreads)

This past February, during the book tour for my essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, one of the recurring questions I received most frequently from readers was about how I pushed past the fear to write about the most intimate aspects of my life?

Rather than providing her audience with a list of coping mechanisms, Morgan Jerkins told the truth: she never overcame fear, particularly the fear of sharing her work with her parents, but learned to acknowledge — and write within — its presence instead.

3. Amy Tan on Writing and the Secrets of Her Past (Nicole Chung, October 16, 2017, Shondaland)

Amy Tan discusses unexpected sites of discovery, reconciling her memory of loved ones with alternative realities, cultivating empathy while writing, and the importance of community in this riveting interview about her new memoir Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination with Nicole Chung.

Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. The book is not about happy situations — it’s about trauma, and the times when characters have to question who they are. It’s about my questions, and who I am.

4. Annie Dillard and the Writing Life (Alexander Chee, October 16, 2009, The Morning News)

Wanting to be a visual artist, Alexander Chee originally didn’t conceive of himself as a writer. One day, however, before a friend borrowed his typewriter, he wrote a story that “came out as I now know very few stories do: quickly and with confidence.”

Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory. But I didn’t know this then.

Chee, who most recently published How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, reflects on the significant impact Annie Dillard had on his beginnings as a writer.

5. A Reckoning is Different than a Tell-All: An Interview with Kiese Laymon (Kiese Laymon, interviewed by Abigail Bereola, October 18, 2018, The Paris Review)

What’s the difference between a tell-all and a reckoning? How does audience change how a book is both written and read? What effect can memoir have on the level of personal relationships as well as within the realm of larger cultural conversation? Kiese Laymon addresses these questions and more in a brilliant interview by Abigail Bereola, as they discuss his groundbreaking memoir, Heavy.

I think people conflate memoir with autobiography a lot, but memoir is the artful rendering of an experience. For me, to get to the artfulness of it, I had to think of a person who could help me keep the good fat and cut out the bad fat.

6. Writing truthfully about my father: An act of resistance, an act of love (Allie Rowbottom, July 27, 2018, Salon)

Allie Rowbottom’s father, after reading a draft of her memoir, JELL-O Girls, says he feels suicidal. In this ruminative piece, Rowbottom provides a window into her writing process as pertains to the ethics of representing others, as well as conveys how important it was for her to stay true to her own story, even if it revealed wounds that others had not yet reckoned with.

I’m doing it right now, as I did when I sent my dad my book, as I did when I wrote it, chronicling my experience on the page, saving myself through writing, despite the painful fear of what the work I produce might lead my father to threaten or create. Facing this fear is the most challenging work I have ever done.

7. The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books? (Rebecca Makkai, December 6, 2018, Electric Lit)

She might just as easily, as many have done before her and many continue to do, ask how one could post about books on a day when there’d been a mass shooting, a day when babies were in cages, a day when toddlers were gassed, a day when… well, any other day, really.

How — and should we? — write or celebrate art with so many atrocities in the world around us? By examining historical instances of people writing in the midst of unimaginable horrors and considering the context within her recent novel, The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai asserts that art, now, as much as ever, can serve as a vital form of resistance.

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, GuernicaTin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: A Breakup Reading List

Getty Images

A late bloomer as far as relationships go, my first encounter with heartbreak came from the track. It was junior year. The district meet: all big Texas sky and girls next to me adjusting hair ties and heat waves shimmering ahead. At that point in my life, I had devoted myself entirely to running. I had skipped every pool party and social gathering for three years to chisel myself into a faster time, a college scholarship, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — something that would finally indicate to me I had succeeded. I had won handily the year before, and everyone in the stands anticipated I’d win again. But when the gun went off, and I eased into a pace that should have felt easy given the rigor of my training, my legs stiffened. With each of the eight laps, I grew slower. Girls passed and I watched their ponytails sway across their thin frames. No matter how much I cajoled myself forward, no matter how many times I reminded myself of the years of work I’d put in, my body didn’t respond. I came in close to last.

Usually, at the end of a season, I jumped right back into running, but that loss felt like an irreparable fissure between me and first love. Heartbreak tasted like Coca Cola and boxes of Sour Patch Kids, and sounded like Coldplay’s “Fix You” repeated for melodramatic effect on the bus ride home. Too sad to study splits at night, and having ignored all social situations for years, I found myself reaching for something to fill what felt like a hunger inside me, a gnawing that reminded me of the ways I’d failed, the potential I’d lost. Those nights, I began a ritual of reading in my closet. I devoured books until one or two in the morning. At first, there was an escapist tendency to my reading; I wanted to forget the world I was living in and enter another. But, after weeks and a stack of novels, I realized that the words were guiding me back to solid ground. In reading about the nuances of another’s life, I was far enough removed to engage with what felt like the losses in my own. Slowly, I began to heal. I returned to running and pursued longer distances and faster times, my muscle evolving through training cycles; I’m sure there’s a metaphor for love buried somewhere in there.

Recently, over a decade after that track race, I experienced heartbreak again, but this time with someone I thought I might spend a life with. Just as I had after my district race, I mourned the possibilities of what could have been. I reviewed my own shortcomings. I doubted in my capacity to feel that sweet burn of distance again, the ache of muscle that indicates you are moving through the world as well as the bounds of your body will allow. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust again, to love. In the weeks that followed, as if grooved into some map of memory, I found myself reading a book a day, disappearing from the world for a few hours before surfacing again. I read and I ran and I read and I ran until I sloughed away the dead parts of the past, and trusted that the beautiful parts of the relationship — the parts that taught me compassion and made deeper my vulnerability and nurtured me toward growth — remained with me, even if the person who had fostered them did not.

Here, in case you, too, are experiencing any variety of heartache, is a reading list of essays that have allowed me to grieve. They’ve been friends telling me exactly what I needed to hear, and ultimately, have given me hope that there are new and unexpected futures ahead, even if now I only have a glimpse.

1. On Nighttime (Hanif Abdurraqib, May 15, 2019, The Paris Review)

Hanif Abdurraqib ruminates on places he has spent a series of nights: watching over a hospital bed, working at a hotel, waiting up for a long-distance love. By holding his experiences of heartache up to the light and carefully considering Lucy Dacus’s song “Night Shift,” Abdurraqib explores the liminal space that exists between hearts that are whole and broken, and moments that bleed between darkness and light.

In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun.

2. The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t (Rachel Monroe, April 2018, The Atlantic)

Finding true love amid the slush of online dating profiles often feels like a fantasy, which is why, when about a dozen women connected romantically with a man who called himself “Richie,” they felt lucky beyond measure — but only at first. Rachel Monroe, in this riveting read, reveals how Derek Alldred deceived so many women, explores the history of the con man, and, in a most satisfying turn, explains how his victims banded together after heartbreak to ensure he would never have the chance to con again.

Even Derek’s victims, who understand better than anyone else how these things work, repeatedly questioned one another’s choices when speaking with me: How did she let it go on that long, why did she let him move in when she barely knew him, how did she not see through this or that obvious lie?

3. When I couldn’t tell the world I wanted to transition, I went to Dressbarn (Katelyn Burns, May 23, 2019, Vox)

But by March of the following year, my dysphoria became too much to bear. My wife did her best to come to terms with my coming out, but we broke up when I told her I was starting estrogen, and I moved out shortly afterward.

After divorce, Katelyn Burns reflects on her relationship with a “little black Calvin Klein dress with stripes” that reminds her both of past heartbreak and a new world of possibility that opened when she first tried it on.

4. Love Running (Joseph Holt, March 2019, The Sun)

Joseph Holt’s ex-girlfriend was the reason he began running, but after their breakup, he continues on his own. Solo, running becomes both a reminder of their past as well as a salve for heartbreak.

I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.

5. How to Be Heartbroken (Brittany K. Allen, March 20, 2018, Catapult)

How much is the way we grieve the end of relationships influenced by portrayals of breakups in popular culture? Is there comfort to be had in performing different stages of heartbreak? How do we know when we’re ready to move on? Brittany K. Allen addresses these questions and more in this gorgeous exploration of “halving” herself from a former partner.

Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.

6. The Breakup Museum (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2018, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Married for two-and-a-half years, Leslie Jamison peruses the exhibits featured in The Museum of Broken Relationships, a place where people from around the world send otherwise banal objects — “a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988” — that somehow represent love lost. Jamison ruminates on what it means to separate from a partner, what we carry with us after a relationship is over, and how objects can conjure memory.

Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

7. Her Fiance’s Mountain Bike Crash Was a Tragedy. What She Did After Was a Miracle (Gloria Liu, February 14, 2019, Bicycling Magazine)

Just three weeks before Will Olson was supposed to move from Colorado to Vermont, where his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie McDonald lived, he perished in a freak trail biking accident. Gloria Liu tenderly chronicles McDonald’s grief in this deeply moving piece, but also notes how heartbreak, over time, can evolve into some kind of hope.

As Bonnie spoke more about the experience, she came to use the term “heart opening” instead of heartbreaking. ‘I never knew my heart could feel this much loss and this much love,’ she says. ‘I never knew my heart had this much capacity.’

 

***

 

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

 

‘If Any of My Old Friends Are Reading This, It Is Okay Out Here.’

A woman is baptized during a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly gathering. Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | June 2019 | 16 minutes (4,301 words)

Religion can offer narratives that help us make sense of the world, answers to difficult questions like: Where do we go when we die? How can we best love others? Why do bad things happen to good people? Within belief systems, people learn to love, to grieve, to serve, and to live, often with the hope of some eternal reward at the end. For many people, there is beauty and comfort to be found within these faith-based communities. But what happens if you are someone who begins to doubt everything you’ve grown up believing, everything you’ve built your life around? What happens if, by expressing this doubt, you are shunned forever by your family, community, partner, and way of life? How do you learn to move through the world and make meaning?

Amber Scorah, in her riveting debut memoir, Leaving the Witness, explores the upheaval of exiting a faith. Raised from birth as a Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah experienced difficulty tempering natural desire and curiosity for the sake of faith. As a teenager, she had sex with her boyfriend and was promptly disfellowshipped, leaving her unmoored from a religion that had served as the blueprint for her life up to that point. Rather than leave, Scorah, afraid of being killed by God at Armageddon and unable to see a sustainable path to an alternate future, returned to the faith. She married a Jehovah’s Witness and they moved to China and began preaching. There, Scorah’s doubts swelled until she could no longer suppress them, and she left, not knowing what grief and beauty lay ahead.

Leaving the Witness, witty and moving in turns, offers a rare look into the workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the various complications that prevent others from leaving despite their own doubts. Scorah, by untangling and exposing the mechanisms that once held her, offers a path for others to imagine new and unexpectedly hopeful futures for themselves, despite the fear and grief that accompany such a transition. I spoke with Scorah via Skype about her writing process, how she’s learned to dismantle harmful dichotomies, and how she has learned to carry and grow from immense loss.

*

Read more…