Associations & Place & Other Shoes


delhi sisters

our front yard in Delhi. Who on earth knows what is happening in this picture

I wrote another post ahead of time, with a passage from a book and something about Robyn and dancing, and maybe you’ll see it next week. This morning I’m going to spend a few minutes just writing.

I am trying to really think of Aleppo, and I am equally trying not to think about Aleppo. How the mind does that, tries to save us from the engulfing intensity of our feelings, but reminds us that we need to feel. When we feel, we are restored to humanity.

I talked to my mother yesterday morning. I sent her a book to read on her Kindle, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan. She is on her way here. She is traveling East this time, through China and Los Angeles and then across the United States.

The Association of Small Bombs is mostly set in New Delhi, India. A place we lived when I was nine. I hadn’t thought about that for a while. Well, I had, maybe a week before, in a conversation but before that it had been a long time since I’d thought about it carefully enough to remember my bicycle and the smell of trash burning and the dirt on the roads and my scabbed knees.

The main event in the novel takes place in a market not far from where we lived, one we visited often. For a month we lived in a hotel, and I ran around that hotel like Eloise, in the restaurant and pastry shop, speaking in my broken Hindi to people who responded in way better English.

In 1998, my sister, baby niece, and I went to Delhi and Kashmir (which is where the heart of the story in Association is, and is where my brother-in-law’s family is from) and then got stuck in Delhi for two days. My niece was 4 months old. We went to South Ex and Pizza Hut. We sent the bill, I believe, to my father (oh, to have a father).

I underlined a lot of sentences in the book, his observations of human behavior, his descriptions of sounds and light and grief and longing. One spot where he leaves the third person narration of the novel entirely and writes, after describing one character’s love for Delhi, “Fuck, I love Delhi.”

As I read it, I kept thinking, do I love this because I know this place, or do I love it because it is brilliant? It is a NYT bestseller in which the author didn’t italicize words that the average English reader might not understand, didn’t over-explain shit. Understand it or don’t. Stories transcend all of that. If you’re familiar, great, if you’re not, that’s fine too. You have a heart. It feels the same things other hearts feel. Regardless of what the particulars of your life are. Regardless of what the particulars of their lives are.

Yesterday, someone gave me the gift, via email, of a real story. One without flourishes, or disguise. A vulnerable, direct story. The honest truth. I cannot explain to you what it means to me to be given such a gift.

We had a beautiful few days with the storyteller Lyn Ford, who shared stories and wisdom and love, and made individual connections with everyone she came in contact with–my sons and the friends who came to dinner to welcome her into town on Sunday. When Lyn told her stories–not only the traditional folk tales of her childhood, but also her personal stories–people saw themselves. One story she told Tuesday afternoon gave me everything I needed to remind myself to move forward. On Monday, the group discussed the generosity of giving a story, the generosity of listening to a story. The great gift of taking your shoes off and letting someone else slip into them. The great gift of walking an emotional distance in someone else’s shoes and then looking at them and recognizing that they are as human as you are.

It is our responsibility to see ourselves in others. I don’t believe cruelty or apathy can exist in the same moment as empathy. But the mind tries to save us from the engulfing intensity of uncomfortable feelings. It is our same mind that reminds us that we need to feel. But it is easier not to. This is the great conflict, the balance we must strike.

In the moments when we stand on the precipice of cruelty, when anger or fear or injustice has reached us, those are the moments where the effort of our empathy must outpace our craving for sweet somnambulism.

Remember when Yusef Komunyakaa was here? And he gave us this prompt, “I see you, child…”? How about just “I see you…” and look around and see, really see the people here. Let them see you too. Thank you for reading this long, unedited winding essay. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for letting me see you, you are beautiful.




And now, for some nonsense from the text message files:

When my younger son saw this photograph from several years ago, randomly sent on Saturday by my friend Amanda (she’s coming back!!!), he asked: Is that Gatorade? You don’t drink Gatorade! Is that photoshopped?*

*I did not answer: “Mama will try anything if she’s hungover enough. Including a gel-ice eye mask and a terrible artificial orange drink.” I was just glad that he doesn’t already know that. Small accomplishments in parenting must not be overlooked.

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