On one sweltering, late-summer afternoon in Pennsylvania, the kind of day that invites a certain dreamy idleness, my grandfather taught me how to make clouds disappear.
Each time I look at myself in the mirror, a host of victims and perpetrators returns my gaze.
What did I expect to learn about this strange heritage by spitting in a tube?
Two hundred years ago, Missouri and Maine became yoked forever by the conditions of their statehood, a slave region and free region forced to walk arm-in-arm into the United States. Designed to preserve the Union, the Missouri Compromise revealed just how precarious that union was. The Compromise granted white supremacists a seat at the American table of power and, by virtue of the concessions they won, guaranteed them a future seat. The deal involved powerful anti-slavery interests, but not enslaved people—an extraordinary compromise, that conceded nothing to the population at the center of the debate.
Two hundred years later, I am wondering about what we carry—we who have lived in the states of compromise. It is 2020: a time of quarantine, of enforced and voluntary distance, of the cutting of the breath, the spirit. I am wondering what positions are binding, are fatal, whether we might commute what lines we can.
Listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2019, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2020.
All week, I’ve been thinking of what to cook. I’m like Paula Deen, pre-diabetes: butter, cheese, heavy cream, and more butter. Chong Suk Ahn, Mom, never cooked Thanksgiving dinner; I’m not sure my father’s family would’ve known what to do with the pungent heat of kimchi, the slickness of seaweed in the back of the throat or the briny rubber of squid. Holidays were left to my grandmother and aunts who padded around the kitchen in house shoes with white, thin soles and told nosy children to go play. They were a different kind of mechanic; with beat-up tin measuring cups, Pyrex dishes and aluminum foil, they laid out a table as if they had taken apart a luxury car. Turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, greens, sweet potatoes, potato salad (no raisins), chitlins, rolls, butter beans—the thighs of my corduroys were already rubbing together. Besides a left-hand turkey made of construction paper and glue, I’m not sure mom even understood Thanksgiving.
Like the mother in A Christmas Story, she did not want me shooting any animals, or birds. Perhaps she was also afraid I would shoot my eye out, but I think now she was more afraid of what I would do to others. We lived at the time on the grounds of an institute for the developmentally disabled where she worked, and I was angry at the divorce that had led us there. I was afraid of the gray buildings on the hill above us, and I was afraid of the residents ...