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How I Learned To Love The Mall

I get a text: "I am at a mall."

It's Jim. He's at a mall. This is not the first time I've received such a text. People tend to think of me when they visit malls.

"Still awaiting the illuminating essay how I learned to stop hating and love the mall."

Earlier that day I'd gone to the mall to see a baby kangaroo. I follow this mall on Twitter; they follow me back. We have a mutual love. It's no secret.

"Because this makes me want to build a doomsday shelter."

I know: I have a fetish. I have a strange and insatiable fetish for malls. For the skylights and fake trees, the slick reflective tiles, escalators carrying teens to the food court. Nail salons. Generic clothing stores. Kiosks. The fountain.

A fetish for something that everyone else hates. A fetish for ugly. I can try to help you love the mall. But it might just be a predilection.

* * *

I have very distinct rules for enjoying the mall.

I never, ever go to the mall with other people. I can't even imagine going to the mall with other people. (Jim, as a male on your own, this might not work for you, especially if you bring your camera. I acknowledge that this part of it makes it a huge benefit to be a white female, although I still think I get weird looks sometimes.) This allows me to experience it at my own pace; five minutes if that's all I need, or fifty if the mood strikes. The Zen of the Mall is being alone with your thoughts; not speaking, just listening. Mall acoustics are fantastic in that they both magnify and mute: the hubbub of commotion reduced to a hush of distinct words. It allows you to both be very much in the moment, and also alone and separate from other people's experiences should you wish to be.

Of course, it's important to support the businesses in malls or there would be no malls. Many of the stores in malls today are small businesses: locally-owned, specialized; I feel completely comfortable spending money to support the local artists in the airbrush store, or the family-owned baseball cap store where the bags are generic and the grandson helps at the cash register during the holiday season. (I also spend money in locally owned businesses downtown and in my own neighborhood.)

Whenever I feel obligated to go to a mall to shop, though, I can feel the same pressures that make other people hate the experience. I don't like feeling obligated to move faster through the crowds, I don't like that there has to be a destination. There is no enjoyment when you have a distinct purpose: there is no stopping to enjoy the way the light through the skylight hits the walls, the way the fake leaves on the fake trees are flapping in the fake breeze.

I know the plants are probably fake; I love them anyway. They're well-placed and well-chosen, symmetrical; a form of interior landscaping artwork. I love their futuristic plasticity; I love that maybe someday when we're no longer here, they could still be. 

It's very likely that one day I will be approached by mall security for the number of photos I take in malls. For the fact that I go to the mall almost exclusively to take photographs. (In fact, I have been approached by them once, when I'd very obviously arrived at the nearly empty mall to take pictures with my larger camera. Since then, I've stuck to cell phone photographs and point-and-shoot cameras.) Of course, I try to avoid taking pictures of children, and anyone else who very obviously doesn't want to be photographed. While it's too late to create something like this, I also think that mall society presents a very interesting cross-section of humans, and documenting it makes sense to me. More than anything, it's the light I love. Mall architecture is designed for photography: the skylights filter the light perfectly, creating a beautiful assortment of postive and negative space and well-lit landscapes. There are focal pieces, textures, and a calming emptiness. There is ample room to move around and find different angles, find the way the light hits the geometry of the cathedral ceilings best. The mall is, to me, a playground of light and portrait subjects and sculpture, the largest photographic studio you can imagine.

After visiting the mall kangaroo, I was headed back to the car when I saw an older lady sitting cozily on a bench near the Macy's entrance, just watching the people go by. She had a smile I recognized from older ladies on park benches; the joy of experiencing humanity as an observer, watching life happen, watching the people go about their business, feeling their experience in a way that is easy. When it's too cold for park benches, mall benches make wonderful substitutions. I can't wait until I'm the age where it's acceptable to stare at passersby with that look in your eye: I'm enjoying watching life through you. I'm enjoying imagining your stories, where you might head next, what brought you here in the first place. 

I wanted to take this woman's picture, but when I thought about it, I realized that it was enough to take her story and her lesson. Sit down. Watch life go by.

But these are just my rules. 

* * *

When I moved back to Ohio three years ago, the first thing I noticed was how suddenly accepting I was of everything that once stood for conformity. Sports. Cars. Malls. These were the things that, when I lived here in the 90s, drove me to dress all in black, and yet to decry the proliferation of Doc Martens worn by those who didn't even listen to punk music; to make blanket statements like "I hate jocks" or "look at all those assholes with cellphones." 

But when I moved back here, I started to understand something important that I couldn't grasp before: There's a unique and delectable challenge to finding self within sameness. It narrows the scope of vision and focuses it on smaller but more important differences you might not have noticed before: it helps you to realize that, truthfully, there is no sameness. That's a myth constructed for us, a myth we don't have to buy into even when we're participating in the very thing they are selling.

Of course, there's also a huge element of nostalgia embedded in these "conformist" fetishes. Not the nostalgia for something familiar but just the opposite: the nostalgia of an alternate reality. When I go to a ballgame, I'm imaging what it might have been like to grow up as a jock, a girl who embraced the sports side of her tomboyishness (instead of the side that cut her hair off and played bass in bands). When I visit the mall, I'm visiting someone else's teenage years, someone who spent hours with friends swinging their feet under a table and gabbing over a shared tray of french fries, someone who flipped through records at Sam Goody's (not just on the occasion you were there with your grandma and convinced her to buy you the new Sir-Mix-A-Lot cassette in spite of the explicit content sticker). Someone who wears lots of Ed Hardy.

Because more than lists of rules and appreciation of the way the skylight forms the sun onto its walls, my love of malls is about other people's stories. I visit to absorb them, to reimagine them, to collect them. What the mall teens wandering in packs talking about. What the woman at the MAC counter with a saddlebag of makeup brushes does when she clocks out from showing people the best way to apply eyeshadow. I go to the mall because I want to be that old lady on the bench, absorbing life as it goes by. There are a million places I could do this, but the light, the plants, the shiny floor tiles, the people: it's a little slice of perfection for me. It's easy. It's society under one roof. It's social commentary. It's both futuristic and nostalgic. It's heaven.


(There is a much longer essay to be written — one that would require a lot more research that I have time to give right now — about where I think malls should be headed: more social and community engagement, less commercially-focused. I also want to acknowledge that malls are currently horribly unenvironmental, both ecologically and socially. This doesn't mean that they always have to be: I'm a believer in progressive approaches to improving the impact these already-built structures have on our lives and our environment.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


The Knock on the Door

For the second time since we've lived here, someone knocked on our door today, having run out of gas on our drive. It was two young girls in thin coats, freckled, one wearing more eyeliner than the other, both of them faintly red-headed, and I said I would drive them to the gas station. When we got up to their truck, there were two boys inside, bundled up, looking the other way. The face of the boy in the back was obscured by the fog of his breath on the window pane. I thought I saw a patchy beard, but couldn't be certain. They wore work coats, their heads pulled back in the hoods like turtles retreated into shells. The boy in the passenger seat stared the other way, east, toward our mailbox, to where the day lillies would grow in summer. 

The truck was at an angle on the drive. We decided that I could get around the truck; the boys didn't want to get out of the truck to push it anyway. The girls grabbed their big bright pink wallets, and I drove them to the gas station. 

"Are you sure those guys are going to be okay?" I asked them. "If you want I can call my husband and ask him to have them come inside..."

"No, they'll be okay, they're bundled up."

I said this honestly because I was afraid that the boys with faces obscured by breath fog and hoods were going to rob the house while we were out getting gas. I wanted them to know it wasn't empty. I tried to say it casually, off-handed. I didn't want them to know I was mistrusting of anyone.

We got back with the gas. The boys were still in the truck. The house was fine. This is not that story. Or any story really, just what happened after I heard a knock on the door.

The girls were going to culinary school. One of the boys lived here, the other didn't. They were all from the same small town. "Up towards Dayton?" They spoke like young girls do, everything a question. Everything a wonder.

"I grew up in a small town, too." 

"Yeah, just cornfields." Said with the spite of someone who only recently left a small town for the big city. "It's my first time living in the city."

"How do you like the city?"

"It's fine. The traffic is too much sometimes?"

We talked about cars. It was her dad's truck, the girl with more eyeliner; the gas gauge was broken. I told them I'd bought my car from my mother. The marginally intimate conversation of newly acquainted strangers stuck in the same car. I asked how old they were. "19?" Oh, running out of gas at nineteen, with boys in your truck and a culinary career in your future. 

Suddenly I felt weird for asking. "I didn't really need to know how old you were. I guess I'm just making conversation."

They were going to become bakers. Pastries and stuff. They didn't have AAA. "We called the police and they said they couldn't help us either." I said it was a colder winter than I could remember in a long time. "What a day to run out of gas."

The emo looking woman in the gas station booth had to run their payment twice; the girl with less eyeliner stood holding the red plastic canister, hands shoved into her sleeves. I had to wait for a woman buying Marlboro Lights with a credit card to finish her transaction before we could figure out why the gas wouldn't pump.

We rode back to the house, the interior of the car smelling faintly of gasoline. The sound of it sloshing against the red plastic at her feet. 

I had some 80s Todd Rundgren playing when they knocked on the door. Blue-eyed soul ballads with saxophone. I introduced them to myself, and then to the cat. I was wearing pajama bottoms and a big sweater, my hair was uncombed, gray bits sticking up more than the rest. I put on a proper coat to go outside. I can barely remember nineteen, thin coats, work that starts at noon.

The girl with less eyeliner sat in the backseat. "Do you not know many people here either?"

"No, we do, but since my husband and I both work from home, we..."

"Don't get out much?"

"Yes, I guess you could say that. During weekdays at least." I thought of the roaring fire we had last night. I thought of how we pretended to be Jacques and Julia while cooking spaghetti. How I like to sit with my toes shoved under his legs on the couch.

Our car choked as it started. Their truck was nearly blocking us in; a service truck had to stop traffic so that I could reverse into the oncoming lane.

The boy in the passenger seat, looking the other way out the window. Refusing to get out and push the car. 

"They're not chivalrous kinds of guys."

The girl with more eyeliner pulled a five and two ones from her big bright pink wallet and tried to hand it to me. I backed away on the ice. I told them I'd do it for the karma, not to worry. I told them to be careful backing out. My voice sounded genuinely concerned.

They were going to be late to work. They didn't know many people here yet. They liked our house. 

I can barely remember nineteen.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


More Feelings About Baseball


I. Boobs
Last weekend I spent two days walking my boobs around a convention center. Or so it felt.

I want to write about being a woman at a sports convention. I had a lot of feelings about it. Many I can't put into words. I don't know where to begin. I guess boobs is as good a place as any to start.

I wasn't the only pair of boobs walking the floor that day. There were a healthy number of women walking the convention floor, wearing red scoop-necked shirts that screamed REDS. Many carried backpacks filled with memorabilia, one had flown in from California to tell Danny Graves that she never held his departing gesture against him. Many pushed strollers. Some carried seats from the demolished Riverfront Stadium for their husbands, who carried baseball bats in tubes. (I could write another entire essay about people carrying around baseball bats in tubes.) There were also the Mrs.-es. They wore shirts that said Mrs. Votto, or Mrs. Bruce. Most of the Mrs.-es were on the arms of other men, presumably their husbands, sometimes pushing a stroller, always with their hair in place. Because the wife of Joey Votto would never leave the house with her hair out of place. (No, seriously: before I get too far into this, I have to mention how well put together everyone looked. I'm obviously not spending enough time getting ready in the morning.)

And then there were the rest of us. Childless, manless.

I dressed in a uniform I was comfortable in but that wasn't too feminine: royal blue jeans and motorcycle boots, Cincinnati raglan shirt. I hid my hair (oh the historical implications of a woman hiding her hair!) under a gray tweed baseball cap. I haven't done this in years: tomboy it up, tried to blend in. Stuff a load of baseball cards into my backpack so I can hang out with the boys. Pass.

With one difference: I felt obligated to apply lipstick before I had my picture taken. I did not do this to seduce baseball players, players I couldn't even bring myself to put my arm around, instead hovering slightly above and behind them, letting them put their arms wherever they wanted to but too afraid to put mine anywhere because oh my god that's a giant famous baseball player standing there next to me. Because I was not there to seduce them; I was there to have my picture taken with someone I admired on and off the field, because I enjoyed watching them out on that patch of green. Because they were a part of a team I loved and cheered for and groaned over and reveled in. 

* * *

Photographs are, admittedly, something we put out there to seduce the rest of the world, or at least to memorialize our potentional for seduction. And sometimes we invite attention we didn't expect.

The day after Redsfest ended, I posted a photograph on Twitter of myself standing with three relief pitchers, amused by the fact that our photo had been bombed by the adorable kid of one of the pitchers. Soon after posting the photograph, I was contacted by someone who told me he liked my look and would be happy to get me into one of the baseball-themed t-shirts he produces. I realized as our conversation progressed that he was talking to the lipstick-wearing girl in the tight-fitting raglan shirt smirking at the camera without a husband or a baby in sight exactly the way that people assume a woman like that expects to be talked to, especially one who has just posted a photo of herself on the internet: Compliment her looks! Ask her if she works out! (I laughed at that one for a good ten minutes from prone position on the couch. Does lifting a chocolate chip cookie to my mouth count? Angles!)

To be fair, he was completely kind in our exchange. And this kindness, truly, is part of a greater conversation on how men are raised to be kind and flattering and complimentary towards women, while it's this very same behavior that can make many women feel uncomfortable and, in the wrong context, even threatened. Sometimes we welcome the flattery, and other times it leaves us shaking with fear. In no way am I scolding this particular dude who was not in the least bit threatening. I'm just using him as a vehicle to get to my greater point of how my experience at the convention was colored by my gender. 

As disarmed as I was by the conversation, I knew it wasn't his fault. Or the fault of the guy sitting behind one of the baseball memorabilia tables that he felt the need to compliment my hat as I stood there admiring the design of the Topps Heritage cards. Or Eric Davis's fault for calling me "cutie pie,"or my fault for smiling and gushing about it on Twitter when he did. It wasn't my fault, or anyone's really, for assuming that all the women standing in line wearing lipstick wanted to be kissed by Brandon Phillips. Or for noticing how it was mostly women who wanted their picture taken with Corky Miller, mostly women who wanted to hug Sam LeCure. (Though it's pretty obvious that the beards at Redsfest - Cingrani, Miller, Hoover, LeCure - essentially acted as beards for women who love baseball. With the bearded ones, it was somehow just as socially acceptable for women to coo and ogle and fan themselves with convention floor maps as it was for us to stand there listening to them talk about how excited they are for the year ahead, which players they're most afraid to face from the pitcher's mound, how they keep fit between the end of the season and spring training, what they think of new manager Bryan Price.)

It wasn't the behavior of a single individual that made it weird to be a woman at a sports convention; it was part of a greater culture. It's the expected behavior toward a pair of boobs walking the floor at a convention center without a man or a baby or a backpack laden with sports memorabilia, wearing red lipstick. No one has formed the mechanisms yet for dealing with the unexpected phenomenon of a woman at a sports convention. Not even other women. Presumptions are made: She must be a Mrs. Votto; she must be here with her kid. 

They don't know how to deal with it any better than we do. It's embedded in my own insecurities and defense mechanisms and feelings of competitiveness: I feel so out of place. I'm not like these other women.

II. Balls
When the truth is this: there's a certain amount of privilege to experiencing a sports convention - and spectator sports in general - as a woman. I've already addressed how we get to appreciate things about baseball that men don't. We're asked philosophical questions. We're some of the first chosen when we volunteer for a game of toss & catch with our favorite pitcher. (The moment I realized I was essentially being pitching coached by Sam LeCure in the art of throwing a ping-pong ball so he could catch it with a lint roller - "nice and easy, underhand, like this..." - was pretty wonderful.) We're offered a sweeter laugh from the players when we crack bad jokes about standing on platforms to make ourselves taller in pictures. Our cameras are given flirtatious lickety-split smiles from Billy Hamilton. We're okay to take selfies and get hugs. We have a bathroom all to ourselves. We're allowed to let ourselves soften when we see a newly-signed player sitting there by himself, everyone else too afraid to talk to him, and even though we don't have a lot to say, we talk to him, about how overwhelming this must all be, about how he likes Cincinnati so far, about how overwhelming this is for us too.

Our small talk is acceptable. Because we are women, because we wear lipstick. We get away with a lot more because we have ponytails. Because we are unexpected.

III. What Turns Us On
I think I finally get why some men say they can't understand women. I'm trying to explain how I feel about being a woman at a sports convention and I can't even make sense of it. It's weird! People expect you to want to marry Joey Votto! or It's great! The players are so nice to you and you get picked first for games!

The simplest explanations we give for our feelings as women are also sometimes the most contradictory. We ourselves are contradictions. We don't do much to dispell the myth that we're at the game to ogle the players, because, to be honest, maybe sometimes we are. We talk about how we would never want to seduce a baseball player, but love to talk about our crushes on them (though everyone knows that a crush is a just crush because there's no intent behind it). We don't do ourselves any favors by applying lipstick before we meet our favorite pitcher. Lipstick, I once read, is meant to mimic the flush of blood to the lips when a woman is sexually aroused. Because sometimes we probably are. But sometimes we just want to look good in pictures.

Even when we are getting off on something, it's not necessarily by the physical presence of a man. For some of us it could be the idea that we're standing in a room with a bunch of people (regardless of sex!) who are semi-immortalized on pieces of cardboard, making us part of some niche moment in history. For some of us it could be that we're all collectively gathered together in a common spirit of love for a team, for a city, for potential and hope. For some it could be getting a picture of your two favorite beards in the same room, or finding a hat your size in the $10 bin. For some of us it could be the excitement of meeting someone we've long admired, realizing that nearly thirty years after we used to watch him in the outfield, even though Riverfront is a decade gone, we're still both here on earth and we both have memories of that time and here he is signing our baseball card. For some of us it's Chris Heisey. For some of us a lipstick is just a lipstick. For some, it could very easily be the simple beauty of the whole thing.

That might be what turns me on. 

IV. A Different Kind of Buzz
I learned recently that Lorde based her song "Royals" on a 1976 National Geographic photograph she saw of Kansas City Royals player George Brett being offered a multitude of baseballs by fans to be signed. For those of you who don't spend as much time as I do listening to car radio, the lyrics of the song go:

We can never be Royals
It don't run in our blood
That kind of lux just ain't for us,
we crave a different kind of buzz

I get this so much. The fact that the origins of the song lie in baseball makes it even more appropriate to what I'm trying to say.

Part of me wonders if the whole reason I feel so awkward, so desparate to prove myself at baseball games and conventions as a "true fan," the whole reason I try so hard to learn how to keep score, that I worry so much whether or not I have the right card in my hand to be signed, is that these sports things weren't intended for grown women. Of course there are women who are true fans who know the game inside and out. Of course there are female sportswriters. And of course there are women who grew up with baseball. But really I'm none of those. I wasn't Doris Kearns Goodwin: my dad hated baseball, still does. I had to come to it on my own, as a fully grown woman with breasts and lipstick and hormones and still a love for the mathematics and artistry of baseball in the way Tom Seaver described it to Roger Angell:

Pitching is a beautiful thing. It's an art -- it's a work of art when it's done right. It's like a ballet or the theatre. [...] When you do it, when you can sense sometimes that it's been done right, it's an extraordinary feeling. It's the most beautiful thing in sports.

Or as Eve Babitz writes in Slow Days, Fast Company:

The baseball field below was gorgeous. It was the first I'd ever seen, but I'm sure other people must think it's a beautiful one. The grass all mowed in patterns like Japanese sand gardens and the dirt all sculpted in swirling bas-relief. "It's so beautiful," I gushed.

I find baseball, like Eve Babitz and Tom Seaver, simply beautiful. When I finally came to baseball, and it appeared to me that there was room for me only as a Mrs. Votto or a peanut shucking statistician with a hot dog paunch and a sunburn, I didn't know where to place myself. (Though I'm working on that hot dog paunch.)

And so I'm left wanting to make a place for myself in this world as a grown-up woman who has suddenly become really interested baseball the same way Lorde describes wanting to be a Royal: I crave a different kind of buzz. It don't run in my blood, but I'm injecting it anyway. Because I find the whole thing beautiful and enjoy the proximity to beauty.

V. "For the sake of feminism and for the sake of baseball."
I suppose I wrote this whole thing for a purpose and maybe that purpose is this:

The entire problem might come down to a word I relied far too heavily on in what I've written up to now, a word even Lorde relies on in her song: the collective "we." The assumption is that we as women have everything in common, when, really, we're all just a bunch of "I"s - even those like me who have yet to figure out what "I" means among a mess of "we"s - enjoying an impermanent "we" for the sake of team spirit. For the sake of feminism and for the sake of baseball. 

Let some women be the Mrs. Vottos. Let some women wear scoop-necked shirts. Let some be Fox Sports Ohio girls. Let others shove their babies into the arms of a patiently waiting Jay Bruce, let some carry heavy backpacks laden with signed baseballs. Let some know statistics. Let some keep score. Let some now be the ones entering the batting cage. Let some be the ones who find beauty in the way the dirt is raked between the bases, the way the setting sun hits the outfield wall. 

Let us each have our own reason for being there too.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Eight Reasons You Should Submit To The Cincinnati Anthology

1. Because of the streetcar.
That's right, the streetcar. Everyone has an opinion on it, whether it's right for the city or not, whether it should be completed or not, and it has come to represent the way this city operates in many ways. Cincinnati has been accused of self-sabotaging; I'd like to prove that wrong. Whether or not the streetcar happens*, this anthology will help remind us that we're capable of creating and completing something worthwhile together as a city.

2. Because we need to show the country that art exists outside of New York, Chicago, and LA.
Thanks to a national arts culture dominated by the coasts and Chicago, often other cities get left behind when considered for the cultural treasure troves we really are. You don't have to move to New York to be a writer, nor do you have to move to LA to become an artist; in fact, it's a lot cheaper to do it here. But people tend to forget that, the flyover gets lost in the muddle. This piece at Belt Mag reminds us that in the midwest we are at risk of being perceived as exclusively consumers, not creators. Let's remind everyone that we are CREATORS, and damn good ones at that.

3. Because we shouldn't be compared to New York, Chicago, or LA. 
When I moved here two and a half years ago, I grew used to hearing the phrase "well, we're no Manhattan..." And my first reaction was to say "Of course we're no Manhattan. We're Cincinnati." This is a city all its own, with issues all its own, and there's a discovery process that needs to happen outside of a comparison with other cities. I want to have a conversation about Cincinnati for what it is, not what it is in relation to elsewhere. 

4. Because you love this city.
Have you ever stood atop Carew Tower and had your breath taken away as you watched the sun set over the serpentine Ohio? Have you ever considered what visual riches we have in the architecture and in these hills? Have you ever been halfway through a Banh Mi at Pho Lang Thang or a pulled pork sandwich at Eli's or the cheese bread at Blue Oven Bakery and been beside yourself with how good it all tastes? Were you at Lumenocity? (Why weren't you at Lumenocity?) I can't shout loud enough how much I love this city. I can only write it. Or draw it. Or photograph it. I want to see what it is that others love about this city too.

5. Because you hate this city...
...but you want it to get better. We have our scars; we're complex. It's not all sunsets and trips to Findlay Market. There is still crime, there are still vacant buildings, there is still racism and provincialism, there are still battles over public transportation. Like any other city in the world, we are changing (and sometimes remaining stubborn) and growing (and sometimes shrinking), and without real analysis of what it means to have experiences as residents of this city, we won't have the ammunition to make it a better place. 

6. Because you live here.
Every day you get on your bike or you get in your car and travel down Central Parkway or across the Western Hills Viaduct, avoiding potholes to get to Music Hall or Findlay Market or across the Brent Spence Bridge to watch the fireworks over the river from The Point in Covington. You hate 71. You hate 75 even more. You hate to love Skyline and the Bengals. But the community of it all - the love and the hate alike - matters to you. You have commentary on the way things should be headed, you have hope for it becoming the city of your dreams. It may already be the city of your dreams. In any case, you know this city better than anyone else, and your individual experiences matter when shaped as a collective; they matter to you, to the rest of the city, to the rest of the world.

7. Because you left.
When I lived in New York, there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't reminded of something from home: memories of the woods and the hills and the river mighty and wide. Every time that plane descended back into northern Kentucky, I felt those ghosts stirring, and I know you do to, and I know you have words for what that feeling means to you. What this city means to the person you've become. Even if you never think about home: think about it now. You must have left for a reason. It might help you and help us to say why.

8. Because WKRP is not real.
And yet it's what every single one of your non-Cincinnati friends brings up every time you tell them you live in Cincinnati. Time to put the Venus Flytrap myth to rest. Submit today! (Tim Reid, we'd even accept a submission from you.)

All the submission information you need can be found here, but if you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below, or send them to rustbeltcincy@gmail.com. The deadline is Friday, December 6th, but email and let me know if you have a good idea and just need a day or two more.

*For the record, I hope it does.


Memento Mori

I’ve been thinking very much about my Grandma recently. She died nearly a year ago, ten months ago to the day to be precise, and her ashes were recently laid to rest under a tree planted in the woods where she used to take walks, even on cold days like this, bundled up in knitwear and down. I saw a female cardinal playing in the snow this morning, crown sharp and alert, and something in the way it turned its head, something in its watchfulness reminded me of her. Of her goodness and her curiosity. I wrote the following piece shortly after she died, and shared it with no one. It felt too personal and raw, but I think it’s time to share this. Not on any anniversary: just on a day when I was thinking of her. When she felt strong in the nature around me. 

* * *

If I were to set the very moment of her death into words, permanent words, it would go like this:

First: Mom brought Grandma home from the Memory Unit to die, and I came to be there too. It was late in the night as I watched Grandma take her last breath, and I saw her at peace. 

Then: I knew intrinsically that she was no longer there in that body, but somewhere nearby as Aunt Mary held her hand and Mom stroked her knee. Finally liberated. 

Finally: A moment that I will never again forget as long as I have the capacity for memory. Grandpa had come to say goodbye to her body, Mary still holding her hand. Grandpa touched his wife's shoulder and wept, saying goodbye in a way only he knew how, a wordless goodbye that comes from seventy-five years of being in each other’s lives. He left the room to get a tissue, and as the rest of us were sitting there, the door at the foot of her bed blew open. Not widely, nor dramatically, but quietly, just a few inches, just enough to let her spirit go. The following day when we told my brother, he told us that he’d woken up around 2:15 from the strangest dreams. “That’s about when the door blew open. She was coming to say goodbye, John.”

Those would be my words. What else do I have left to give her but my words? 

* * *

The day after her passing, we went into her old room at their house to collect remembrances of her for each of her grandchildren. We found pieces of sterling silver and turquoise, scorpion pins, and fish pendants. Decorative fans from Japan, pearl necklaces, and combs. Her jewelry choices reflected a favor for non-precious minerals, an assemblage of rock and stone and silver. My chosen remembrances were to be found in a lower drawer, where I came across the pillowcases she used to use on the guest beds, the ones I remember so vividly from the nights I’d sleep over and wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn only for her to feed me a piece of bread and stroke my hair. On her nightstand -- as if she'd only just left them there the other night, not many years ago when she was moved into the Memory Unit -- were several mass market paperbacks by Elizabeth George and other mystery writers, two books of Emily Dickinson poems, a book of the wit of Mark Twain, old Irish blessings, a Wendell Berry novel, and a Muriel Spark novel. I took the latter two, slipping them into her old canvas tote next to the pillowcases. The Dickinson poems I brought home to send to cousins Daniel and David. 

The next morning, I pulled out the Muriel Spark, and noticed for the first time the title: Memento Mori. On the cover, she’d affixed a return address label circled with a ballpoint pen. On the back: her initials distractedly scribbled in teal pen, and next to the title, a page number written in her hand: p. 172. I quickly flipped to the page, and saw an underline: “That is our memento mori.” Memento mori: Remember your mortality.

Not knowing what the book was about, I scanned the page for context, and realized that the character is visiting a nursing home. He describes a group of patients huddled around a television, emitting noises, attempting tasks but instead of, say, pouring themselves a glass of water, they end up with water jugs over their heads instead. This. This is a reminder of your mortality. This: this too was how her life ended.

I flipped through the rest of the book and found other underlined passages. Some denoted important character names or plot points, but the bulk of them were about aging and senility: p. 10 - “attempting to put her thoughts in alphabetical order”; p. 13 - “Her resemblance to himself irritated him.”; p. 23 - “doleful hands”; p. 37 - “‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’”; p. 44 - “How nerve-racking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”; p. 58 - “He rose to leave, for he knew how Charmian’s memory was inclined to wake up in the past, in some arbitrary year.”; p. 67 - “arcus senilis” underlined and written as well at the top of the page; p. 119 - “‘We’ll soon be senile ourselves at this rate,’ said Granny Green. ‘Sh-sh,’ said the sister. ‘We don’t use that word. They are geriatric cases.’” and underlined: “‘To think that I spent  my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!’”; p. 121 - underlined twice: “‘Remember you must die,’”

I raced to write these lines down as I turned each page of the book, like transcribing a long lost audio recording. I was suddenly privy to Grandma’s very private reading of this text, the lines that were important to her, the lines which resonated the most with her right before she began to disappear. Remember you must die.

Thinking there might be more, I picked up the Dickinson, and noticed how she’d marked a certain poem with a paperclip and a pencilled check, a poem that held such significance to her later life that we gasped as we read it: 

The Lost Thought. 
I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

And another poem, dog-eared:

A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, -- some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was,
Have I the art to say.

But somewhere in my soul, I know
I’ve met the thing before;
It just reminded me -- ‘t was all --
And came my way no more.

The later years of my grandmother’s life were dominated by her Alzheimer’s. We watched her begin to repeat herself, then stop remembering us, then stop remembering herself and the reality of the physical world around her. Her “Alzheimer years.” As if it were just a phase she was going through. Alzheimer’s is a misunderstood disease: in films, we’re shown a woman who can’t quite recognize her children, who misplaces things or gets lost driving to the grocery store. A distant-eyed Gena Rowlands unable to recognize James Garner's face. This is just the early stage of Alzheimer’s. What’s hidden from us in the Hollywood rendition is the moment when that person disappears altogether, when all they are able to do or say resembles the acts of an infant, when she utters nothing but garbled words and helpless cries, unable to sit erect, her fingers pinching and trembling against your wrist as if squashing spiders that only she can see. When her eyes are distant, nearly hollow, almost abandoned. Almost. Later in her life I fed my grandmother like a child, stroked her hair the way she once stroked mine, telling myself she was still in there somewhere, unable to imagine where on earth she might have gone. Willing her to come back to us for one last conversation.

When someone dies after many years of suffering from Alzheimer’s, there are no last words, there is no note. Nothing that would signify someone’s last great wisdom before slipping away into the light. We don’t even know if there is a light. All we have left are the words they left during life, real life, before

In the days after her death, I went back to emails she sent me when she was just on the verge of all this, before, when the signs were still so small that they didn’t show up in letters, unless they were letters she’d forgotten to send. In one of her emails, she writes about the process of going through her things for the move to The Knolls, a retirement community on the edge of town.

Moving is progressing slowly but inevitably with lots of help from your mom 
who is quick to say, "You don't need this--throw it out, give it to the Good 
Will or whatever.”  Otherwise we would have to fill our yard at the Knolls 
with our useless trash (also known as “memorabilia")  Books are hardest to 
part with, but if their pages haven't been turned sometime in the last 50+ 
years, they need to be gone.  Besides there are always new ones to take 
their place.  Right?

This, too, could be a metaphor for death (Right?), but instead I looked literally to her books and to the words she’d underlined and cherished. It made me realize that the books she did keep were the ones whose pages she turned most often. Most importantly, she saved an Emily Dickinson given to her by my Aunt Mary, her daughter, and when she passed she still had other books on her bedside table, either in the process of being read before she was no longer able to read, or read long ago and loved and underlined. Piecing together her last words from pencilled marks in a book and scraps of emails. This is what it is like.

Remember you must die. “To think that I spent my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!” Hardest to part with.

But here is the most magnificent thing about her death, about her departing: as hard as it was to watch her go, as soon as we let go of the body, she came back to us. The memories of her from before. Hiking a trail on a crisp autumn day, her gray hair moving in the wind, sitting cross-legged in a club chair doing a crossword, Jeopardy on in the background, watering the plants in the greenhouse overlooking the ravine, looking out the window at the birds on the feeder, handing me a Madeleine L’Engle book, saying she’s one of my favorites

We all talked about how strange this feeling was, my aunts and uncle and mother and sister and cousins and I, how it’s as if the moment she died, the Mom/Grandma we knew before she got sick with Alzheimer’s had suddenly come rushing back into our lives. 

“It’s like the Alzheimer’s version is no longer there to get in the way of who she was,” said Mom.

“I felt as if she was right there in the car with me,” said Aunt Joann.

“But now that we have her back I want to shout, NO, don’t take her from us!” cried Aunt Mary. 

None of us expected this part of losing her: that we’d have to lose her twice. Not only that, but that the second time would be harder. People assume -- as even we assumed -- that the passing of someone with Alzheimer’s would feel like a blessing. And it did, for a moment. The first thing we were all saying is that we felt an enormous sense of peace once she was at rest. The peace of knowing she was no longer trapped in that decimated body, trapped in a mind that she couldn’t control. That we ourselves were no longer trapped in the thought of Grandma not how she used to be, but how she was in that moment, with the eyes that couldn’t quite see you, and the tongue that couldn’t form any recognizable words. But the overwhelmingly dominant feeling is still one of profound loss, and because we’re suddenly able to remember everything that she was, because it’s all come rushing back with the force and weight of an ice storm, the memories of things she said or did, a look she gave, the way she held your hand, the knowing smile she once wore -- the loss is all the more profound. 

Again, Dickinson:

Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With "This was last her fingers did,"
Industrious until

The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then 't was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.

A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him, —
At rest his fingers are.

Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

At one point in the Muriel Spark novel Grandma so carefully underlined and left behind on her nightstand, as close to a final note as we’ll ever get, there is a passage she didn’t underline, a sentence she wouldn’t know would reverberate with me so strongly after her passing, but a sentence that stopped me like a downed tree in the road: “A good death doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul.” 

It had been years since she had been afforded the freedom to bear herself in any way, dignified or other. She was carried by a body that disobeyed her, a brain that betrayed her thoughts, twisted them, turned the outside world into a hallucination, her words into garbled songs. But her soul: as I watched her die, I knew her soul was still strong, still good. I knew when that door opened six inches, gently, that her soul was no longer fighting, but walking gently, composed. And so it was: A good death.

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

How removed we are from death now, how sterile and unseen it has become. My entire fear of death was built on a foundation of having experienced it too little. I feared that the burst of noise that is our lives, once silenced by death, would have no echo. But having experienced her death, having stood at the side of her bed in the middle of the night as she gave one last breath for each of us present, I can tell you that this is what death is like: motionless, hushed, the sound of a candle being extinguished. And then: the cacophony of memories that follows, a cacophony that is both torture and ecstasy. The noise of these memories is what makes you wail and shake and hold your head in your hands. Mourning is the noise of memory that follows the quiet liberation of death.

In her Dickinson book, Grandma had marked another poem with a tiny pencilled checkmark, almost as an afterthought:

The dying need but little, dear, --
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall, 

A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret,
And certainly that one
No color in the rainbow
Perceives when you are gone.

It won’t be the first time I’ve argued with Grandma over large and important life philosophies, but, dear Grandma, I beg to differ with your beloved Ms. Dickinson: I wish you knew how much all the colors of the rainbow perceived your absence. Particularly these: the deep blues and greens, the turquoise and teal. The colors you wore and loved and chose to adorn your surroundings. The colors of your pillowcases and scarves, the agate slab paperweight we found in your desk drawer that was the color of your eyes, rimmed by a white halo where crystals had formed like arcus senilis later formed in yours. The colors of the illustrations in your Dickinson book. The color of the blue ballpoint pen you used to mark those words. After you were gone, to my eye these colors shone brighter in nature, even still in this gray and brown January. There: solid as agate, unobtrusive and bright. 

You are now, again, still there.

©Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.