Dept. of Speculation
There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.
"You need to get out of that stupid city," my sister said. "Get some fresh air." Four years ago, she and her husband left. They moved to Pennsylvania to an old ramshackle house on the Delaware River. Last spring, she came to visit me with her kids. We went to the park; we went to the zoo; we went to the planetarium. But still they hated it. Why is everyone yelling here?
* * *
He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He's from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent. People who call themselves "comfortable" when what they mean is decadently rich. You're so judgmental, my shrink tells me, and I cry all the way home, thinking of it.
Later, I am talking on the phone to my sister. I walk outside with the baby on my shoulders. She reaches out, puts something in her mouth, and chokes on it. "Hold her upside down!" my sister yells. "Whack her hard on the back!" And I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand.
I develop an abiding interest in emergency precautions. I try to enlist my husband's help in this. I ask him to carry a pocketknife and a small flashlight in his backpack. Ideally, I'd like him to have one of those smoke hoods that doubles as a parachute. (If you are rich and scared enough you can buy one of these, I have read.) He thinks I have a morbid imagination. Nothing's going to happen, he says. But I want him to make promises. I want him to promise that if something happens he won't try to save people, that he'll just get home as fast as he can. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Leave behind the office girl and the old lady and the fat man wheezing on the stairs. Come home, I tell him. Save her.
A few days later the baby sees the garden hose come on and we hear her laughing.
All my life now appears to be one happy moment. This is what the first man in space said.
Later, when it's time to go to bed, she puts both legs in one side of her footy pajamas and slyly waits for us to notice. There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face. For years, it embarrassed me. Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way.
We dance with the baby every night now, spinning her round and round the kitchen. Dizzying, this happiness. She becomes obsessed with balls. She can spot a ball-shaped object at one hundred paces.Ball, she calls the moon. Ball. Ball. On nights when it is obscured by clouds, she points angrily at the darkness.
My husband gets a new job, scoring sound tracks for commercials. The pay is better. It has benefits. How is it, people ask. "Not bad," he says with a shrug. "Only vaguely soul-crushing."
Excerpted from Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Copyright © 2013 by Jenny Offill. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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