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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Leah Sottile, Elon Green, Lisa Whittington-Hill, Kate Morgan, and Virginia Morell.

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1. Did James Plymell Need to Die?

Leah Sottile | High Country News | March 1, 2021 | 26 minutes (6,500 words)

The toll of criminalizing homelessness in small cities and towns across the American West.

2. The Dissenter

Elon Green | The Appeal | March 2, 2021 | 37 minutes (9,288 words)

“Former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson’s fiery dissents on mass incarceration and sentencing in America’s most carceral state garnered international attention. But the rise of the first Black woman on the court was characterized by one battle after another with the Deep South’s white power structure.”

3. OCD is Not a Joke

Lisa Whittington-Hill | The Walrus | March 1, 2021 | 12 minutes (3,114 words)

“People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often depicted as Type A clean freaks. The reality is much worse.”

4. Once Upon a Tree

Kate Morgan | Sierra Magazine | Febuary 25, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,685 words)

“Before a disastrous blight, the American chestnut was a keystone species in eastern forests. Could genetic engineering help bring it back?”

5. The Dogs That Grew Wool and the People Who Love Them

Virginia Morell | Hakai Magazine | February 23, 2021 | 16 minutes (4,105 words)

“The dogs did more than provide fur. They were also part of village life: sometimes, a favorite wooly dog would keep a weaver company.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Akto in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. - As many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps in Xinjiang, but China has not given any figures and describes the facilities as "vocational education centres" aimed at steering people away from extremism. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY CHINA-XINJIANG-MEDIA-RIGHTS-PRESS,FOCUS BY EVA XIAO (Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Ben Mauk and Matt Huynh, Katie Engelhart, Devon O’Neil, Ariel Saramandi, and Tananarive Due.

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1. Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State

Ben Mauk, Matt Huynh | The New Yorker | February 26, 2021 | 28 minutes (7,000 words)

“Survivors of China’s campaign of persecution reveal the scope of the devastation.”

2. ‘We Are Going to Keep You Safe, Even if It Kills Your Spirit’

Katie Engelhart | The New York Times | Februaary 19, 2021 | 15 minutes (3,794 words)

“For the millions of Americans living with dementia, every day during this pandemic can bring a fresh horror.”

3. The Final Descent of Dean Cummings

Devon O’Neil | Outside | February 22, 2021 | 44 minutes (11,327 words)

“‘This isn’t a tale of savagery,’ said former H2O lead guide turned Cummings nemesis Will Spilo. ‘This is a tale of mental illness.'”

4. Death Takes the Lagoon

Ariel Saramandi | Granta | Febuary 8, 2021 | 16 minutes (4,066 words)

“Ariel Saramandi on the sinking of the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius.”

5. “Dr. Lecter, My Name Is Clarice Starling”

Tananarive Due | Vanity Fair | February 23, 2021 | 19 minutes (4,811 words)

“The movie is so scary because it seeps into people’s consciousness through fears. It really works on fear more than anything else.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17: During the coronavirus pandeimic a covid positive patient lays prone on his stomack to help his oxigene levels inside the ICU at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital on Thursday, Dec. 17, 020 in Los Angeles, CA. ICU availability in Southern California at 0% amid deluge of COVID-19 patients. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from David Armstrong and Marshall Allen, Jesselyn Cook, Jason Sheehan, Tom Lamont, and Heather Stokes.

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1. Dying on the Waitlist

David Armstrong, Marshall Allen | ProPublica | February 18, 2021 | 22 minutes (5,663 words)

“In Los Angeles County and around the country, doctors have had to decide who gets a lifesaving COVID-19 treatment and who doesn’t.”

2. ‘I Miss My Mom’: Children Of QAnon Believers Are Desperately Trying To Deradicalize Their Own Parents

Jesselyn Cook | HuffPost | January 11, 2021 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

“What it’s like to lose the person who raised you to a far-right cult.”

3. Remnants on a South Philly Stoop

Jason Sheehan | Philadelphia Magazine | October 1, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,600 words)

Chef Omar Tate caught the attention of the food world with a pop-up celebrating the Black American food experience. He was right on the verge of blowing up. But instead, everything else did.

4. The Student and the Algorithm: How the Exam Results Fiasco Threatened One Pupil’s Future

Tom Lamont | The Guardian | Febuary 18, 2021 | 27 minutes (6,759 words)

“Bright students in historically low-achieving schools were tumbling, sometimes in great, cliff-edge drops of two or three grades, because of institutional records they had nothing to do with.”

5. Voices on Addiction: A Thief in the Night

Heather Stokes | The Rumpus | February 16, 2021 | 9 minutes (2,303 words)

Heather Stokes recounts what addiction has taken from her and her mother. To feed crack addictions, her bother and uncle stole not just possessions from the family house, they robbed the women of personal safety and any chance at stability.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

May 31, 1977 —Cambridge, MA — Photographs of American slaves, possibly the oldest known in the country, have been discovered in the basement of a Harvard University museum. Among the previously unpublished daguerreotypes discovered are these (L-R): a Congo slave named Renty, who lived on B.F. Taylor's plantation, "Edgehill"; Jack, a slave from the Guinea Coast (ritual scars decorate his cheek); and an unidentified man.

This week, we’re sharing stories from Clint Smith, Hanif Abdurraqib, Lise Olsen, Jaya Saxena, and Emma Carmichael.

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1. Stories of Slavery, From Those Who Survived It

Clint Smith | The Atlantic | February 9, 2021 | 29 minutes (7,250 words)

“The Federal Writers’ Project narratives provide an all-too-rare link to our past.”

2. Grief’s Anatomy

Hanif Abdurraqib | The Baffler | January 4, 2021 | 8 minutes (2,074 words)

“Hope awaits organizers like a trap.”

3. Undetected

Lise Olsen | Texas Observer | February 8, 2021 | 15 minutes (3,762 words)

“Prior to his arrest, local authorities had dismissed nearly all of those incidents as an unusual spike in natural deaths—a run of bad luck. But public records and interviews reveal that, time after time, investigators in Dallas made critical mistakes and overlooked or ignored signs of foul play.”

4. The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment

Jaya Saxena | Eater | Febuary 8, 2021 | 13 minutes (3,400 words)

“The story of being bullied in the cafeteria for one’s lunch is so ubiquitous that it’s attained a gloss of fictionality.”

5. Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird Are Goals

Emma Carmichael | GQ | February 9, 2021 | 21 minutes (5,324 words)

“Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe both had Hall of Fame–worthy careers before they met. But to reach new, boundary-obliterating levels of achievement on and off the field, they needed each other. And, as they tell Emma Carmichael, their work is just getting started.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Gus Garcia-Roberts and David Heath, Melissa Gira Grant, David Owen, Geoffrey Himes, and Traci Brimhall.

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1. Luck, Foresight and Science: How an Unheralded Team Developed a COVID-19 Vaccine in Record Time

Gus Garcia-Roberts, David Heath | USA Today | January 26, 2021 | 35 minutes (8,808 words)

Credit for the COVID-19 vaccine “belongs to a series of uncelebrated discoveries dating back at least 15 years – and a constellation of unsung scientists.”

2. QAnon and the Cultification of the American Right

Melissa Gira Grant | The New Republic | February 1, 2021 | 24 minutes (6,170 words)

“The conspiracy theory has become a theology of right-wing rebellion.”

3. How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change

David Owen | The New Yorker | February 1, 2021 | 27 minutes (6,802 words)

“Molly Burhans wants the Catholic Church to put its assets—which include farms, forests, oil wells, and millions of acres of land—to better use. But, first, she has to map them.”

4. The Poet Laureate of New Orleans

Geoffrey Himes | The Bitter Southerner | Febuary 2, 2021 | 33 minutes (8,266 words)

“Earl King’s lyrical blues and electric stage presence set him apart. But he’s never been properly honored as a Louisiana writer who penned songs for Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. New Orleans doesn’t have a poet laureate, may we suggest this posthumous honor for the King?”

5. The Grief Artist

Traci Brimhall | Guernica | January 6, 2021 | 20 minutes (5,018 words)

“In the wake of a loss comes the urge to create.”

All that Glitters

An illegal mining site in Madre de Dios, Peru / Ernesto Benavides for The Atavist

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s 10th anniversary story, “The Gilded Age” by award-winning reporter Scott Eden. Gold mined in the jungles of Peru brought riches to three friends in Miami—but it also carried ruin.

Scott Eden | The Atavist | January 2021 | 5 minutes (1,352 words)


The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in longform narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.

In 1511, the king of Spain gave his New World explorers an order: Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold. Humanely was not how it happened.

When gold was discovered on Hispaniola, the native population was forced into serfdom to mine it. Within a few decades, the Taino people had been almost completely “exterminated in the gold mines, in the deadly task of sifting auriferous sands with their bodies half submerged in water,” writes Eduardo Galeano in his seminal book Open Veins of Latin America. Rather than carry on, some of the enslaved people killed their children and then themselves. Francisco Pizarro’s men entered the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the Incan capital in modern-day Peru, and melted down breathtaking works of high-karat art because bars were easier to stack and transport back to Spain. Hernán Cortés did the same after he captured the Aztec treasure house. “They crave gold like hungry swine,” one Aztec observer said of European invaders. A conquistador named Hernán de Quesada, whose brother founded Bogotá almost incidentally while searching for El Dorado, also set off in search of the mythical golden city, taking 6,000 captured natives into the jungles and mountains of what is now Colombia. None survived.

Gold wasn’t the only metal the Spanish wanted. In Quechua, the language of the Inca, the mountain was called Sumaj Orko, “beautiful hill”—a perfectly shaped conical peak made almost entirely of silver that sits in present-day Bolivia. In 1573, colonists began conscripting indigenous people to toil in the mountain’s shafts, working under a form of forced labor known as the mita system. “It was common to bring them out dead or with broken heads and legs,” wrote a contemporary observer. The biggest boomtown in world history, Potosí, grew at the foot of Sumaj Orko; its population at one point rivaled Paris’s. Up to eight million people, many of them children, are estimated to have died working in Potosí’s mines.

Spain was merely a middleman for all the blood metal. The crown used its colonial spoils to pay off the massive debts it had accumulated in Europe’s banking houses. Gold and other precious metals financed the late Renaissance and, next, the industrial revolution.

The pillaging continued, bringing with it other forms of cruelty. In the 18th century, the miners who came to the Minas Gerais region of Brazil during a gold rush were also slave traders; they preferred buying their human beings from the West African slave port of Ouidah, because the people sold there were said to possess magical powers for divining the richest sources of gold. In 1886, after gold was discovered in Tierra del Fuego, a European engineer orchestrated a genocide there, exterminating the Selk’nam people, hunter-gatherers who had lived in the region for millennia. In the 20th century, General Augusto Pinochet abolished the rights of mine workers in Chile’s lucrative high-desert gold and copper pits. Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s murderous spy chief, allegedly took bribes from multinational mining corporations to help them secure control of Yanacocha, which in the 1990s was the world’s most productive gold mine.

By then a new kind of colonist had emerged in Peru. On foot, they came down from the Altiplano, from some of the poorest places on earth, migrating to low-lying rainforests where they’d heard gold was in the ground. They hoped that the tools and skills their forebears had used since time immemorial—shovels, portable sluice boxes—would help them find wealth.

They came to a remote department in the country’s southeast called Madre de Dios—Mother of God—that was covered almost entirely with dense jungle. In time, the new colonists earned enough money to rent heavy equipment. They could dig faster. There were no laws to stop them; squatter’s rights ruled. You took what you wanted. The miners began tearing down forests, clearing the way to search for the glittering flakes that could change a man’s life forever. Or end it.

Peru is the kind of place, in the words of one gold industry participant, ‘where you can do everything right and still get in trouble.’

There once was a sawyer who lived in the rainforest. His name was Alfredo Vracko Neuenschwander, but everyone called him Don Alfredo. He grew up in Madre de Dios. His father, also a logger, was an immigrant from Slovenia, but Don Alfredo treated the forest like he was a native. He took from it only what he and his family—a wife, a daughter, and two sons—needed to survive.

Don Alfredo was tall and slim, and he wore black horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like an Apollo mission engineer. His timber concession, which he obtained in 1975, was located in a part of Madre de Dios called La Pampa. To the west was the high sierra. To the east was the jungle, vaporous and immense. Don Alfredo and his family lived in a small compound—a house and a handful of outbuildings—in a one-hectare clearing he’d hacked out of the jungle. The roofs were thatch. There was no electricity. He’d built everything himself out of the wood—achihua, pashaco, copal, tornillo—found on the roughly 6,000 acres of his concession. His sawmill consisted of wooden poles propping up a metal roof over a large circular saw and an ancient planer manufactured by the American Saw Mill Machinery Co., in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Nearby was an orchard of yucca, papaya, banana, and cupuaçu, a football-shaped fruit with meat prized for its pear-like taste. Fat boas slid under the fruit trees. Flocks of oropendola birds shrieked in the canopy alongside howler monkeys.

For the better part of a decade, starting in 2007, Don Alfredo tried to save his land and the rest of La Pampa from informal gold mining. It was then, and remains today, an industry of wildcatters: people who don’t pay taxes, who don’t bother to seek government licenses or perform environmental-impact studies, who just start digging. Informal mining accounts for as much as 20 percent of the world’s newly extracted gold. In other words, up to one-fifth of the global gold business, worth more than $30 billion a year, according to some estimates, is a black market. And like all black markets, the illegal gold trade is vulnerable to the whole range of organized iniquity: bribery, human trafficking, money laundering, murder for hire, terrorism. The South American gold business is particularly fraught with these dangers, the Peruvian one perhaps most of all. It’s the kind of place, in the words of one industry participant, “where you can do everything right and still get in trouble.”

No one knew the ugly side of Madre de Dios better than Don Alfredo. On a sunny November day in 2015, he waited for the authorities to arrive. At his behest, they’d scheduled an interdiction—the Peruvian National Police would go into the jungle, find a mining site that Don Alfredo had recently reported, chase off or arrest the miners, and destroy their equipment with explosives.

Afternoon turned into evening. The police were delayed. The setting sun flared off the nearby Guacamayo, a stream that runs into the Rio Inambari, which flows into the Rio Madre de Dios (from which the region takes its name), which runs into the Beni, which joins the Mamore, which feeds into the Madeira—a tributary, at last, of the Amazon. Don Alfredo stood on the balcony of his home, listening for the sounds of arrival: the motors of police vehicles turning into his driveway off the Interoceanic Highway, which stretched from Rio de Janeiro to Peru’s Pacific coast. Completed a few years prior, the highway had transformed a series of rude dirt tracks and ancient footpaths into a modern thoroughfare navigable by trucks and heavy equipment, easing the way for miners to infiltrate ever more deeply into Madre de Dios.

Don Alfredo almost certainly would have heard the motorcycles approach, their rumble fainter than the phalanx of police vehicles he’d expected. The two bikes appeared on his property, carrying four riders. The men stopped in the driveway and dismounted. They were carrying guns and wearing black balaclavas.

Don Alfredo opened his mouth to scream.


Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Elizabeth Weil, Amirah Mercer, Jason Motlagh, Esmé E. Deprez, and Michael Paulson.

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1. The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try.

Elizabeth Weil | ProPublica | January 25, 2021 | 17 minutes (4,374 words)

“A climate scientist spent years trying to get people to pay attention to the disaster ahead. His wife is exhausted. His older son thinks there’s no future. And nobody but him will use the outdoor toilet he built to shrink his carbon footprint.”

2. A Homecoming

Amirah Mercer | Eater | January 14, 2021 | 23 minutes (5,810 words)

“The imagery of veganism propagated by the wellness industry erases the long — and often radical — history of plant-based diets in the Black diaspora.”

3. Highway to Hell: A Trip Down Afghanistan’s Deadliest Road

Jason Motlagh | Rolling Stone | January 22, 2021 | 28 minutes (7,027 words)

“The $300 million Kabul-Kandahar road was meant to be a symbol of the new Afghanistan. Today it reveals everything that has gone wrong in America’s longest war.”

4. How I Helped My Dad Die

Esmé E. Deprez | | January 27, 2021 | 22 minutes (5,600 words)

“His body wrecked by ALS, my father insisted that his death, like his life, was his to control.”

5. ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Was Their Ticket. Then 2020 Happened.

Michael Paulson | The New York Times | January 21, 2021 | 18 minutes (4,540 words)

It was a smash Broadway hit, then 25 company members got sick and the shutdown put everybody out of work. An oral history of a tumultuous year.

The Geography Closest In

Photo by Mats Silvan/Getty Images. Edit by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

Miranda Ward | Adrift | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | January 2021 | 15 minutes (4,339 words)

The bald conclusiveness of a positive pregnancy test draws a clear line between yes/no, this/that, knowing/not-­knowing. For a moment at least it clarifies everything, or distils it, into a single and irrefutable piece of knowledge. This certainty, when it comes to the body, is rare (later a doctor will tell me: if everything in medicine were as reliable as a pregnancy test, my job would be a lot easier), so I hold on to that piece of knowledge, which is proof of my own productivity, for as long as I can.

But doubt, worry, have a way of threading their way through even the solidest conviction. Threat is everywhere: a light fever, an undercooked egg. Indeed the more I read the more I realise how fragile a pregnancy is, how it isn’t as simple as a positive test and a baby nine months later, which is something I suppose I always knew in the abstract but never had any real frame of reference for before. I was aware that some of my friends and acquaintances, for example, had had miscarriages, but I had not until now really understood what it meant, in both practical and emotional terms, to have to hold an awareness of this terrible possibility always alongside a hope, a longing, for it not to happen to you. Most of what I know about pregnancy, in fact, comes from fiction, from books, films, TV: the way certain signifiers – wooziness, weakness, nausea – are used to suggest a pregnancy before it is confirmed; the way, once it is confirmed, a woman must somehow both alter her behaviour drastically and hardly at all, vomiting copiously into a bin at work seconds before giving a presentation just as if nothing is amiss, but studiously avoiding, suddenly, a whole litany of food and drink; most of all the way a baby is almost always the inevitable result of a pregnancy. The plain fact of it – that at least one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, perhaps more, since sometimes a woman might miscarry before she even knows she’s pregnant – had somehow eluded me, or else I had somehow failed to think of it in tangible terms.

What does that statistic actually mean, practically speaking? It means that nothing is a given. It means that there are people – a lot of people – for whom the result of a pregnancy is not a baby. It means that even the purest elation is often shaded, especially in the early weeks, when miscarriage is most likely, with fear.

I develop a set of superstitions for protection; certain shirts for luck, certain routes home from the library or the grocery store, certain songs skipped or repeated. An aping at control. And for a while everything is normal, in the sense that nothing is normal, in the sense that I feel slightly ill, weary, a little as if I am not myself. My overriding emotion is happiness, but there is also a part of me that feels as if I have become separated somehow from my body, as if it is acting of its own accord, and the thinking part of me is just along for the ride. There are psychological adjustments to make – I have to play the phrase I’m pregnant over and over to myself to believe it; I have to think about what is good for me not in terms of my body only, but also in terms of the invisible body-­to­-be inside me. There are physical symptoms, too, though they are mild (another thing I didn’t realise: that while some pregnant women are indeed debilitated by illness or weariness, not everyone is). I am never actually sick, though I am dogged by a whisper of nausea that asserts itself at odd times and leads me to keep a pack of digest­ives on my bedside table. I can feel a largeness, a tenderness, to my breasts, and although I know it’s far too early for the pregnancy itself to show I feel fuller somehow, heavier than I was before I knew, as if the knowledge itself has some weight or substance to it.

This is not an unpleasant feeling – because it is a novelty, and because the pregnancy is so unequivocally desired – but it is hard to escape a sense of uneasiness, too. I find myself tracing familiar routes around Oxford, where I’ve lived for years, ever since I moved to the UK after university; I know the roads well, and yet I feel every encounter between feet and pavement to be different now, because I am differently bodied. What I have is a sense, visceral and unignor­able, that my body no longer belongs wholly to me – and in a way it doesn’t. As I walk I feel not exactly a ‘we’, but a blooming plurality, an ‘I and…’, perhaps, the assertion of a possibility taking physical form. Where once I occupied my mind during walks with long, elaborate daydreams, there now seems to be no room for anything other than the immediacy of experience and the planning and execution of the tasks of my own daily life. I take to listening to radio shows and podcasts, tuning out my external surroundings and internal circumstances, focusing on the minute details of, say, a true crime story, losing myself in the voice of the presenter.

* * *

Geographers write about the inseparability of the body from our experience of place: we sense places, are bodily present in them, see them, hear them, smell them, move within them. How else do we know a favourite room or city or mountain trail? The body, as Tim Edensor writes, is the means through which we experience and feel the world.

To which he adds: bodies are not only written upon but also write their own feelings upon a space in a process of continual remaking.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten. The pregnancy is largely unspoken of: we have told our doctor, and our parents, which perhaps lends it a weight in the world that it wouldn’t yet have had we not told anyone, but day to day I move through the hours without anyone but us knowing, because the pregnancy is still invisible. When I stand in front of the mirror I see nothing different, but nothing the same, either. When I go to the swimming pool, as I do most mornings, an almost religious habit, the place of it has shifted, though the change is microscopic, under the surface. On a quiet morning I watch the play of sunlight on the bottom of the pool and I am in a foreign country. In the changing room, pulling off my wet suit after a shower, I am self­-conscious for the first time – can they tell? But I want them to tell, even though there’s no way they possibly could, even though when I think of it I have the sense not so much of the world tilting on its axis but of the axis itself having drifted elsewhere. I smile knowingly at a visibly pregnant woman undressing and she looks away, uncomprehending or embarrassed or both. I am the foreign country, or else I have lost the map of this place. Walking home, along the same roads I have always taken, the green of the trees fading into yellow, I feel somehow both lonely and plural.

* * *

And then.

One morning, a few weeks after that first definitive, positive test, I wake up and feel my old self again – that is to say, not ill, not weary, not plural or novel – and that evening I experience some mild pain, a quick gush of blood which soon slows to an ambiguous but ominous trickle, and a sense of doom. I am not sure what the appropriate reaction is: denial? Despair? I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark. Alexander lies down next to me, his body settling around mine. He tells me the things I both want and don’t want to hear: that it’s OK, that we don’t know for sure that anything’s wrong yet, that he loves me. He’s meant to be playing football in twenty minutes. Do you want me to stay? he says. I’ll stay with you. No, I say vehemently, as if this is in fact an uncharitable suggestion, you should go, you should play, what can you do at this point, what can I do? Nothing. Even after he’s pulled his socks over his shinpads, laced up his boots, he hesitates at the door: are you sure you don’t want me to stay? I don’t want you to stay, I say emphatically. If I were being honest – with him, with myself – I’d say exactly the opposite: stay, please. Instead I lie back and stare at the wall for an hour until he gets home and we go to sleep.

The next morning I call my GP, who arranges an emergency scan for me at the hospital. The soonest the scan can be done is in two days, so in the interim period I carry on as usual: I go to meetings, answer emails, run errands. It’s not as hard to do this as I would have imagined it would be, and after all, what choice do I have? But it’s also indicative of the ongoingness that will characterise much of the next two months.

I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark.

I would have imagined, too, that a miscarriage was a definite thing – yes/no, this/that, knowing/not­-knowing – a neatly shaped happening with a beginning, a middle, a definitive end, each closely following the other. Women say, ‘I had a miscar­riage’, and until now I have always heard their experience as being something contained, even while brutally uncontrollable: all those stories of blood-­drenched bathroom floors, of unimag­inable agony, of horror and shock, of sadness and then resolution (often in the form of a baby arriving a year or two on, as if some consolation must always be offered): what I understand now, of course, is that these stories are told retrospectively, packaged in the way that all stories, to some extent, must be. But when I phone the doctor I’m unsure, grammatically speaking, how to phrase my concern: do I say to him that I have had a miscarriage, that I’m having one, that I’m worried I might have one in the future? The idea of the miscarriage in progress perplexes the part of me that imagined that this is a thing that can only happen privately, violently, suddenly, because it is a thing that is happening without much noise at all, and meanwhile here I am transcribing an interview, here I am meeting with a freelance client, wearing a new skirt I bought yesterday from the charity shop, here I am buying groceries and planning dinner, with nothing but a question mark inside me.

Alexander and I take a taxi to the hospital for the scan; it’s early morning and the driver is playing loud Pakistani pop, which is somehow soothing, and drowns out my own thoughts. In the waiting room Alexander scrolls restlessly through his phone. A little plastic radio on a cabinet in the corner of the room is pumping out cheerful tunes punctuated by cheerful radio host banter. I take my book from my handbag and lay it on my knees, open at my marked place. Knausgaard, A Death in the Family. In his younger-­self narrative, the author’s father has just died, while in his current­-self narrative, his partner is heavily pregnant, lumbering around, practically bursting with new life. But I cannot read on. I become fixated on a single paragraph, a description of a piece of artwork, which strikes me as incomprehensible. I read it over and over again until my name is called.

The scan reveals an embryo with no heartbeat. I lie on the bed, naked from the waist down, a blue plastic sheet draped over my legs. Alexander holds my hand while the ultrasound technician swirls a wand around inside me, talking us through the image of my uterus on the screen. It is illegible to me – darkness, light, hazy shapes – but to her the meaning is crystal clear. I’m so sorry it’s not the news you were hoping for, she says. She gives me a wad of tissue to wipe myself with before leaving the room to let me get dressed. She leads us back to the waiting room, which is fuller now, no one making eye contact, the radio still humming; a doctor will see you soon, she says, to talk to you about what happens next. ‘Soon’ is an ambiguous word, and time becomes difficult to perceive; we are there for what feels like both an eternity and an instant. I take my book out again, stare again at that same page; Alexander unlocks his phone, moves his finger across the screen in a kind of robotic motion.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten.

Sometimes these things resolve naturally, the doctor says when we are finally called in to see her; sometimes intervention becomes necessary, or desirable. She schedules me for another scan the following week, so we can monitor whether there’s been any change: in other words, whether the products of conception, as the embryo is now known, have been partially or even wholly expelled. After the scan, she says, we can decide how to proceed; you don’t need to make any decisions now. Good, I think, though I’m a little hazy on exactly what kind of decision I might be called upon to make; she has described the various forms of intervention but I can’t quite situate them in relation to my own body, my own products of conception.

She is very young, the doctor, soft-­spoken, apologetic. She says to call if anything changes before my next appointment, if I have any concerns. She gives me a business card, circles a phone number that’s operational 24/7. To minimise the risk of infection, she adds, seemingly as an afterthought, you shouldn’t take baths or swim.

No swimming. Of course. But I am thrown by the thought of this: the removal of the most obvious physical coping mechanism I have for dealing with what is essentially an entirely uncontrollable physical situation. I realise I’ve said this out loud without really meaning to. A silence falls, either respectful or uncomfortable.

I’m a swimmer too, the doctor says suddenly, as I’m standing to leave, abandoning, briefly, her professional distance. I’d hate not to be able to do it.

After the appointment we walk to a Starbucks near the hospital. It’s dark and anonymous inside, and smells of sweet pastries and wee. I order a latte, two shots, why not, and we sit at a counter at the window, watching buses trundle by. It’s mid­-morning and the place is full of new mothers and their prams, though occasionally someone in scrubs or a suit hurries in and then out again. Alexander texts his boss to say he won’t be coming in to work today. Not just the day but the month, the year, stretches out before us, suddenly open. What will we do with it? What can we do? The coffee is too hot, tasteless, the milk burned, but I suck it down in a rush, turning the inside of my mouth furry. Before all this, the test, the pregnancy, the ungrowing embryo, we were planning a wedding; we had set the date, hired a venue, made arrangements with the registrar. We should have cancelled everything – my due date was too close to the wedding date – but we never did; too superstitious, or preoccupied, or both. Now, of course, I say, devastated, amused, we won’t need to change the date. We can simply pick up where we left off. I feel myself begin to rewrite the map again, to slip in and out of familiarity with myself and my surroundings. There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

A thought – terrible, comforting – hits me square in the face then, that there’s relief to be felt. The awful thing, the dreaded thing, has happened, and I need no longer fear it. I hate myself for feeling this but can’t let go of it, either, because I think it’s a way forward, a way out, a small tremble of light.

* * *

The second scan is no more or less enlightening than the first: there is still an embryo, there is still no heartbeat. No change, in other words: an unwanted stillness.

The doctor gives me a leaflet, which outlines in clinical language the three ways of managing a miscarriage when preg­nancy tissue remains in the womb: expectant, medical, surgical. The first is the wait-­and-­see approach, taken on the assumption that the tissue will pass naturally out of the womb with time. The second involves taking a course of medication to stimulate the passing of the tissue out of the womb: a potentially painful, lengthy, and often messy process, not always entirely effective, sometimes necessitating the third approach anyhow, which involves surgical removal of the tissue.

I still don’t know how to decide what to do, so I put it off: if nothing’s happened in a few weeks I’ll opt for some kind of intervention. I want above all to trust my body to do whatever needs doing, but already it’s betrayed me once, so what do I know?

Still no swimming, obviously, the doctor says sadly. Other­wise, proceed as normal.

As normal. Nothing is normal, I start to think – but then again, in a kind of terrible way, everything is normal again, isn’t it?

* * *

The present­-tenseness of the event, the miscarriage, which is not so much an event as a continual unfolding of uncharted territory, a vast grey area, makes it virtually impossible to talk about in any way that makes sense of what is actually happening. I don’t know what to tell people because the language I have is not elastic enough to encompass something which is past, present and future all at once. So I do what the doctor suggests: I proceed more or less as normal, going to meetings, going to the supermarket, scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, doing the laundry, eating, sleeping, working. I let myself lose track of time. At one point, in a notebook, next to a to-­do list, I write: The calendar is a kind of enemy, reminding me of the facts of things, the time it is actively taking to go through this process of miscarriage. I take to walking – long, slow strolls at the very edge of dusk, through parks and quiet suburban neighbourhoods that smell of woodsmoke and exhaust fumes. I feel my muscles going slack, and an irrational fear grows daily: what will my body become while I can’t swim?

My fear is really a form of vanity. I know that with each day or week that passes without a swim my body will start to look subtly different. I’ll lose, am losing, the public indicators of my fitness – the muscle, the shape of my arms and legs, the things that say to other people that I’m disciplined, that my body is under control. And I don’t want them to see what I know: that nothing is under control, that this body is not working properly, that athletically, reproductively, it is not doing at all what it’s supposed to do.

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round.

Words come to me on my walks, as they used to on my swims. Some of them are obvious. Why is this happening to me? I think selfishly, inevitably, as I climb the hill to the park on a soft bed of wet leaves, fresh-­fallen after a night of howling wind. But other things, too, drifting like the smoke and the fumes. Disobedience. Betrayal. Softening, slackening, slowing. Undisciplined. Back at home, in my notebook, I write: I guess I feel disconnected from a part of myself. Not that I’m not still the same person or can’t be again, but that for a while I and some other part of me are not quite coinciding. I’m talking about the swimming, not the miscarriage, or at least ostensibly I am. I have a deep sense of geographical dissonance, like a dream of a familiar place in which the location of everything is slightly wrong, so that you round the corner and suddenly come upon a street that should be miles away, or discover that all along there has been an extra room in your house.

One Sunday afternoon, sitting in a booth at my local pub, I see a woman I used to see most weekday mornings at the pool; she always wore a bright pink cap, a navy swimsuit. She’s about my age, sitting with a friend, eating lunch. Perhaps it’s her local too, I think, for the first time realising, stupid as it sounds, that these people I’ve been brushing up against at the pool are people with lives outside that context, just like me.

Occasionally I log on to Facebook and check the page for the triathlon club I belong to. I look through the list of times from a recent 400-­metre time trial, spotting familiar names, noting the improvements, and wonder how much I, too, could have improved by now. For a moment I’m gripped by something which feels a little like jealousy but isn’t quite – desire, perhaps, something almost carnal. But then the desire, or whatever it is, fades: I’m here now, and maybe, if I can admit it to myself, I’m actually a little relieved that I’m not sweating away in a pool, that I don’t have to worry about how fast or smoothly I can cut through the water, how hungry I’ll be later, how tired.

* * *

The poles of the earth have wandered, the journalist John McPhee once wrote: even that which seems most permanent and solid is, in its own way, shifting. It’s true literally – think for example of the tectonic plates, the movement of the continents, which still, on average, drift a few centimetres a year apart, about the rate at which our fingernails grow, as the geographer Doreen Massey frames it, a reminder that the body is never in stasis either. In other words the whole world is a continual work in progress; the present is not some kind of achieved terminus, Massey writes. To underline this idea, she describes the slow movement of what she calls the ‘migrant rocks’ that came, over the course of millions of years, to form Skiddaw in the Lake District. Solid and eternal as it seems, she says, the mountain is not timeless. Like she and her sister, staying in a hotel in Keswick, it’s just passing through. It was once elsewhere. It will be elsewhere again someday.

It’s easy to lose your footing here, to feel that nothing is solid, but I’ve always found something comforting about this idea that place is essentially unfixed. The rigidity of permanence would be too much to bear, surely: who wants to be stuck in the same place forever? Who can know and love anywhere and not see that a point on a map is one thing, a living, breathing place quite another?

It’s a concept that scales well – if the world is a work in progress, then so too is a city or a street or a swimming pool. So too is the body, which is, after all, as the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, the geography closest in; it’s the first place, the place we must make peace with – subject, like all places, to the pressures of time, of external rhythms and events, changing from moment to moment, year to year, getting older, bigger, smaller, more or less capable of performing certain tasks, more or less like it was at the beginning.

There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

Sometimes we’re in control of that change, or we think we are. Exercise in particular gives us the illusion of power over our own physical futures. Take your recommended thirty minutes of activity a day and stave off all kinds of bodily evil. Lose a bit of weight, add a bit of muscle, establish a routine, live forever, or longer, anyway. The geographer John Bale wrote of exercise as a literal form of recreation: through time, repeated action, the body is re-­created so that it works better. It incorporates knowledge, becomes stronger, fitter. Progress. Maybe next week, or the week after, I’ll be faster than I was last week. All it takes is discipline, resolve, another few thousand metres racked up. Most of all denial: of the body that wants, of the possibility of vulnerability or limitation. A few years ago, I remember, I became obsessed with watching Olympic swimming races; I trawled YouTube, read interviews with the athletes, fascinated by all their talk of sacrifice and discipline. And isn’t this why I watched in the first place? To see what happens when we write certain kinds of want out of our body, and one singular, possessive, demanding want into it: to be the best, the fastest, the one standing on the highest platform of the podium?

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round. The fact of the matter is that not that long ago, my body was capable of run­ning 13.1 miles, of swimming 3,000 metres without complaint; not that long ago, my body was actually hosting another body, or the beginnings of one.

And now everything is different, and everything will be different again someday, and different again, and different again.

This excerpt has been lightly adapted for publication on Longreads.

* * *

Miranda Ward is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer. Her memoir Adrift: Fieldnotes from Almost-Motherhood is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK. She grew up on a cattle ranch in California and now lives in Oxford.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

German flag fluttering front of Reichstag building. Berlin, Germany

This week, we’re sharing stories from Caitlin L. Chandler, Kelan Lyons, Daniel Loedel, John Colapinto, and Shay Castle.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. The Doctor vs. #MeToo

Caitlin L. Chandler | Columbia Journalism Review | January 19, 2021 | 25 minutes (6,432 words)

“How an HIV specialist in Germany is using media law to erase reporting of sexual abuse allegations against him.”

2. After killing his cousin, Clyde Meikle found purpose in prison through service. Now he’s asking to go home.

Kelan Lyons | Connecticut Mirror | January 16, 2021 | 20 minutes (5,342 words)

Incarceration led to a rebirth for Clyde Meikle.

3. My Sister Was Disappeared 43 Years Ago

Daniel Loedel | The Atlantic | January 17, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,508 words)

“A casualty of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Isabel haunted my childhood like a ghost. Then I started searching for her.”

4. The Day My Voice Broke: What an Injury Taught Me About the Power of Speech

John Colapinto | The Guardian | January 19, 2021 | 18 minutes (4,655 words)

“I had always known that the voice is a kind of aural fingerprint, something unique to every individual and from which listeners draw strong inferences. But in “speaking around” that injury, I was apparently projecting a new personality into the world: a more monotone, less enthusiastic, less engaged personality.”

5. Life and Death with a No-Good, Grumpy Dog

Shay Castle | Boulder Beat | January 2, 2021 | 14 minutes (3,688 words)

“The other thing people say when a pet dies is, ‘She had a good life.’ But did she?” Shay Castle pens a moving obituary for her dog, Sydney.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

WASHINGTON, DC, JANUARY 9: Two National Guards are seen through the fence where roses are left and which now now surrounds the US Capitol building three days after it was stormed, invaded and vandalized by Trump rioters in Washington, D.C., January 9, 2021. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Timothy Snyder, Austin Carr, James Murdock, Myriam Lahouari, and Brian Hiatt

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. The American Abyss

Timothy Snyder | The New York Times Magazine | January 9, 2021 | 18 minutes (4,500 words)

“A historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump, the mob, and what comes next.”

2. The Cruise Ship Suicides

Austin Carr | Bloomberg Businessweek | December 30, 2020 | 18 minutes (4,587 words)

Cruise crew members experienced a “more extreme version of the household lockdowns that have sent people tumbling into depression.”

3. Orange is the New Peach

James Murdock | The Bitter Southerner | January 5, 2021 | 15 minutes (3,947 words)

“Southern winters have been getting warmer. Ten years ago, Joe Franklin started growing citrus on his farm in Statesboro, Georgia — a place where no one expected oranges to grow. Now, Franklin’s citrus groves teem with life and might actually help, in a very small way, to combat climate change.”

4. The Catch

Myriam Lahouari | BBC | January 7, 2021 | 9 minutes (2,427 words)

“The men call up to Sofiane, telling him that he and his brother have to jump. Guelord shouts that the younger boy needs to go first. Sofiane should throw him down.”

5. The Spirit of Neil Peart

Brian Hiatt | Rolling Stone | January 7, 2021 | 26 minutes (6,674 words)

“Rush’s virtuoso drum hero lived by his own rules, to the very end. For the first time since Peart’s passing, his bandmates and widow discuss his legacy and his final years.”