In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.
This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.
Consistent, long-term pain, the kind that (Toni) Morrison suffers in her back—and that keeps her from standing for longer than six minutes—allows for a steady stream of thoughts, a ruthless spinning of the mind.
To our minds, this spinning feels akin to accomplishing something, I think. If we can’t tend to our lives in the physical realm, the mind kicks in double-time, and this weekend, my husband away at an Army training for the month, I’ve spent the hours in my bed accomplishing the task of going over errors big and small. I check them off like items on a to-do list: ways I’ve burdened my husband with impossible expectations; friends I’ve failed to call back; writing assignments I’ve left unfinished; jobs I’ve quit or underperformed at; bad impressions I’ve made; ambitions I’ve curtailed—all the ways I’ve failed to live a life I envisioned. These are the kind of terrifically unhelpful thoughts that surface inside the void, or at the very edge of it. Truly boring stuff, the kind I find too tedious to even bring up to a therapist. But, alone, in the dark, that doesn’t stop me from going there. When our bodies shun us to the back rooms of the world, away from colleagues and lovers and friends, we have only ourselves and our reckless, pulsing imaginations: This is where regret lives. Not big, dramatic regret, not those fatal mistakes for which we seek absolution, but the mundane, everyday regrets that go unnoticed until it’s too late, the ones that make up the unalterable course of our lives. The tiny little messes.
I generally know better than to go down these paths, but the tricky thing about chronic pain is that it blurs your mind, weakening not just your body but also your psyche, leaving it with just enough strength to follow the path of least resistance, to retreat to the most dimly-lit hiding place. There, I find myself clinging to people, dreams I’ve lost, plot lines that didn’t go the way I intended. It’s hard to see sometimes how or why I lost them, whether my health or just the natural course of life was to blame, and whether there is, really, at this point, a decipherable division between the two.”
I am used to pausing beside train trestles, tilting my head to watch passing planes, perpetually looking forward to: to the evening, to the weekend, to the next year in a new place. But for the first time I find myself unable to fix my gaze on the horizon; I find my relationship to time and place and days transformed. I do not strike out in discovery but rather roam the same terrain over and over: woods of oaks and maples and beeches; grassy sloping pastures punctuated with dogwood; beds of red clay and teal slate in a creek animated by intermittent waterfalls; rocky, fern-covered hills that rise to open Midwestern sky.
Before gestation, I dominated time in the way I dominated my body. Long runs whittled the latter into sculpted hardness, and the discipline of schedules and fixed points – Saturday, summer, graduation – brought the former into focus as a series of arrows pointing always one towards the next. Time as trajectory, body as tool of the mind. And then this baby began growing and my body expanded into a force to which the “me” of my mind was subjugated, bobbing about unsteady and insignificant as a paper boat in surges of blood and hormones. Time yawned open, a vast canyon I fell into, with the erstwhile tidy arrows echoing off the walls.
But pregnancy is characterized by a total physical and psychological immersion in the present and the body. There is no room for nostalgia, regret, the lingering glance back, because the web of gestation is spun so tight that the past becomes inaccessible, so remote as to belong to another person’s life. The future is equally impossible to conjure: how can one imagine the brand new human built from scratch, the meteoric impact of her arrival? The boundaries of the world shrink to the parenthesis of the belly. There is no hiding the slow stubborn implacability of time and our rootedness in it beneath the decorations of tasks and substances, of retrospect and projection.
At Vela, Sarah Menkedick reflects on presence and the “incomprehensible expanse of time” in this incisive meditation on pregnancy and motherhood.
I don’t know where you live, but where I live, it’s 97 degrees on a Friday in June. After a brutal winter, I try to remember this is what I longed for. My commute home liquidates. Drips slide down my spine, disappearing into the waist of my government-approved pencil skirt. Yesterday, I couldn’t take it: I wore shorts. I’m yearning for my grandparents’ swimming pool; its strange shape and dense vegetation are different from the community pools I frequented as a child. Theirs is utterly private, difficult to maintain, and very, very cold. Ready to grab your towel? Take a dip in these six stories about swimming pools.
Oasis or battleground? Swimming pools have long been sites of racial tension in the United States–this month, a police officer pulled a gun on a black, unarmed, bikini-clad young woman after she was attacked (physically and verbally) by white poolgoers.
Susan Shapiro traded unhealthy habits for a new obsession: swimming laps atop her apartment building. Her fondness for exercise accidentally landed her in physical therapy, where she learned the importance of pacing herself.
3. “Size.” (Leanne Shapton, The Paris Review, July 2012)
Two summers ago, I read and loved Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton’s memoir of her life in pools. Beautiful meditations on training for the Olympic trials as a teen and descriptions of swimming pools all over the world accompany photos of bathing suits and miniature paintings. What better to read poolside? Here, the Paris Review excerpts Shapton’s book.
A water park is a swimming pool on steroids, right? Grantland introduces you to Jeff Henry, the Steve Jobs of water parks. (Henry’s latest ride is called “Verrückt”–that’s “insane,” in German. It’s over 17 stories tall; it’s the tallest water slide in the world.)
This award-winning essay is a favorite of Vela editor Sarah Menkedick: “[It’s] one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out.” Maybe the summer heat is getting to you, too. Maybe someone pooped in your metaphorical (or literal) pool. Ward’s essay moved and encouraged me, too. It’s about perseverance and acceptance, in or out of the pool.
I was 18 the first time I swam. I took a step into a sectioned-off part of Calcutta’s biggest lake, and I was scared. Ragini dreamed of performing daring athletic feats and reveled in basketball and cricket. But her size, self-consciousness and the taunts of her family held her back from embracing her true self. After years of struggling with an eating disorder, she shakes off the haters and plunges into the depths of self-love.
There are small shifts from year to year, variations that are traditions in themselves: We alternate who gets first pick of the bedrooms, which duo makes the expedition to the Food Lion to buy a car-load of groceries, which family hosts the mid-week covered dish supper, who cooks what and when. The first night we always pick up pizza from the place down the road. At some point all the women convene at The Top Dog for a “long ladies lunch,” followed by a stop at the Pea Island Gallery. There are trips to pick up more beer, wine, chips, bread and cream cheese (a top five of Things We Always Run Out Of), a wild goose chase or two in search of some hard-to-find ingredient for dinner. Inevitably someone will need to drive to the far-away state-run liquor store to re-up. One day will probably be consumed by rain.
There is a short list of things we could do that we haven’t done before, that we talk about doing while knowing we probably will not do them.
-At Vela, Eryn Loeb returns to the shores of North Carolina, juxtaposing the subtle changes to the landscape with the familiarity of her family’s routine.
Last week, I became Someone Who Lives in Sin with Her Boyfriend in a Downtown Apartment, whereas before I was Someone Who Chose to Do a Service Year in Baltimore and Therefore Lives with Her Parents Long After. Luckily, my parents live 20 minutes away; circumstance leads me to move in spurts, a box here, a shelf there. My new place is lovely—third floor, historic, quirky—and frustrating, but it is mine (ours), and no one else’s, and there is power in something coming true that I thought, in my darkest moments, might never happen. Moving is on my mind, so here are five essays about relocating, repacking, and rearranging.
From Mars to Madison, Wisconsin, “following” your partner across town or across the country can foster resentment or strengthen your relationship. Ann Friedman, one of my favorite journalists, explains how shifting societal norms and evolving technology encourage folks to take the plunge or remain long-distance.
Life inside the cloister is fascinating. Poverty, silence, chastity, obedience: these are not characteristics most of us would devote our lives to. These women find freedom in strictures and structure. What is it like inside the convent walls? Here are five pieces explore the lives of nuns and those inspired by their works.
Alex Mar moves into a Dominican order in Houston: “I traveled here, arriving just yesterday on an early flight, to answer a question that I’ve had for years: Why would a woman make the very specific choice to marry God? […] Why would she choose to live with his many brides and very little privacy and pooled resources; to abandon any and all romantic partners, along with the possibility of ever again touching someone else’s naked body; to set aside every personal need and closely held ambition in favor of the needs of others? I wanted to understand who this woman was—call her a nun or a sisteror a woman religious—and why I’ve harbored a fantasy about her since I was a young girl.”
Three years ago, Sarah Menkedick launched Vela Magazine in response to the byline gender gap in the publishing industry, and to create a space that highlights excellent nonfiction written by women. Last week, Menkedick and her team of editors launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow Vela as a sustainable publication for high-quality, long-form nonfiction, to pay their contributors a competitive rate, and to continue to ensure that women writers are as recognized and read as their male counterparts. Menkedick chatted with Longreads about her own path as a writer, the writer’s decision to work for free, building a sustainable online publication, and the importance of featuring diverse voices in women’s nonfiction.
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Let’s talk about Vela’s origins. You created Vela in 2011 as a space for women writers in response to the byline gender gap — yet it’s not a “women’s magazine.” Can you explain?
Like so many women writers, I was discouraged by the original VIDA count in 2011. I was also a bit disenchanted with a certain narrowness of voice and focus in mainstream magazine publishing, which tended to be very male, because men tend to dominate mainstream magazine publishing. Talking about the alternative to that gets really dicey, because it’s icky to talk about a “womanly” or “female” voice. I wanted to say: nonfiction and literary journalism written by women doesn’t have to sound like this sort of swaggering male writing, or like the loveable snarky-but-sweet meta writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. It can be like . . . and there we run short on models, because there aren’t very many women being widely published whose work falls into that middle zone between “creative nonfiction” — which tends to be more academic, more experimental, more the types of essays appearing in literary magazines — and traditional journalism.
We are expats and nomads. We are products of multiple countries. We run away from places that don’t feel quite right, only to never find where we belong. These stories celebrate the journey of returning to (or discovering) our roots, and the elusive, ever-evolving concept of home. Read more…