Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Where I Already Was

"I would love to travel deeply and widely. And what is the deepest and widest you can travel? It's to come back to where you already are. And I saw my own circumnavigation of the earth, in my mind's eye, and I realized in that moment that nothing would be more dear to me than where I already was."

–Emmet Gowin

By Emmet Gowin

For those who do not know, Emmet Gowin is one of the still-living photography greats of our time. From what I can tell, he is a deeply thoughtful and empathetic man, and his photographs dictate that. I knew of him before 2022, but it wasn't till March of this year at a portfolio review that a photographer suggested I take a look at his work. I instantly became fascinated and purchased a photo book that demonstrates a small snippet of his life's work. I recommended that book in a previous post on this blog.

I think this quote is incredibly true, especially for photographers. Even for those who do not photograph, it holds a lot of truth (though it doesn't necessarily need to be taken literally). For photographers, it feels very literal, because traveling in one's mind's eye means actually going somewhere. Mentally processing "home" or the place that made you who you are typically requires a camera.

Many photographers speak about the inability to make meaningful work in a place that the photographer does not know well. Sure, a naturally beautiful place is going to lend itself to nice photographs. (That brings up another discussion I've heard which is the question of travel photography being legitimate since the places are "easy" to capture...I disagree, but just something to think on.) Back to the original idea – can you really know a place if you're only just meeting it?

Living in Dallas, my hometown, I have come to find that the places that most people find unattractive or mundane are the places I want to photograph. I see merit in the idea that we need to get out into the world to make work. But I love the challenge of finding beauty in the simple. 

And of course, what makes this place so "dear to me" is my family and friends – who I photograph often. 

Making photographs in Dallas is easier for me than anywhere else that I've been in the world so far. It also brings me the most joy. The opportunity to explore who I once was, who I am, and who I could be is possible through photography here – where I was born. 

My brother at my parents' home

Monday, December 5, 2022

Ripple Effect

Hello to the few people who read this blog where I share about things that may or may not interest you. (My friends who aren’t into photography but subscribe to this…you’re so nice, and I’m sorry if I bombard you with unnecessary info haha :-))

Today, a section of the article and photos from my graduate work looking at the positive impact of employment on adults with disabilities was published on NPR. In honor of that, I wanted to share the full article and some photos here.

From the age of two, I have always had at least one close friend in my life who has an array of disabilities. It started with my brother Chase and has expanded outwards to his classmates and therapy buddies ever since he started attending motor therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, and school. When I was too young to attend full days of school, my mom and Chase were stuck with me. I couldn’t be home by myself, so I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms. In those waiting rooms, I’d befriend kids who were like my brother and, at the time, didn’t seem much different from me either.

When you’re that young, it’s difficult to differentiate between neurotypical and not. I knew plenty of kids from preschool who didn’t talk much or behaved erratically, so the kids in those waiting rooms seemed run-of-the-mill to me. It was a long time before I realized that my brother was not “normal.” It would be even longer before I realized the roadblocks that Chase would face as an adult, and what that meant for the broader disabilities community.

In recent years, I have become engrossed with the world of meaningful employment for adults with disabilities. What does it look like? Is it possible for their unemployment rate to lower? How can more companies employ neurodiverse individuals? My interest stems from my connection to my brother Chase. I know and love Chase as well as his friends. I want them to experience as full a life as anyone else. The difficult moments come when I remember that Chase cannot work. He is too cognitively disabled to understand the concept of a job much less hold one down. As I’ve looked into this subject and spent time with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who are high-functioning enough to hold down jobs, I feel a bittersweet joy. There is joy because I’m seeing the community I love thrive, but there is sadness because I know that for Chase – and others as low-functioning as him – life will not include this specific component that, for so many, brings meaning and empowerment.

Ruth Thompson owns and operates a restaurant in McKinney, Texas that employs adults with IDD. It is called Hugs Café. When speaking with Ruth, it is clear that her passion lies in working with this population. Her passion created Hugs but what has allowed it to last is the team she built.

“We are a restaurant that has zero percent turnover. That is unheard of anywhere,” Ruth shared. “My initial vision for Hugs was we would train them, employ them for a while, then they’d move on and others would come in. After the first year, we had so many say, ‘please don’t tell me I have to go somewhere else.’ They found a home, a family, a community.”

Many of the staff members at Hugs had not worked previously, and the fulfillment they have found through their work has shown a boost in confidence for each of them. Tameka, a Hugs employee who once rarely spoke and struggled with communication, now is one of the kitchen leads and regularly calls Ruth to discuss work-related topics.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) is roughly double the unemployment rate for neurotypical adults. The stigma that adults with IDD wouldn’t be helpful in a fast-paced company is perhaps the greatest obstacle they face when seeking employment. Each person I spoke with who works in either employing adults with IDD or helping adults with IDD acknowledged this then countered it. With the proper training, most adults with IDD can be an asset to any company. The catch is that the employers will likely need to be trained as well.

Max is a thirty-five-year-old man who lives in Dallas with his parents Linda and Matt. Max has disabilities that limit his cognitive functioning but has found meaningful employment at the Catholic church he and his family attend in Dallas. He has held the same position at All Saints Catholic Church for 17 years as a groundskeeper. He changes out trash bags and keeps the grounds as well as the inside of the church clean by going in twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. The position has changed over the years but previously included window-washing and vacuuming as well. Initially, Max required substantial training and he still requires a refresher on his training every so often. On a day-to-day basis, though, Max completes his work successfully on his own. Max’s mom Linda emphasizes that what makes this work meaningful to Max is not just that he’s doing work but that the church truly needs this to be done.

When I ask Max what he loves about his job, he says “I get to make the church look beautiful and clean.” His coworkers – fellow maintenance and groundskeeping staff – love to joke with him and check in with how he’s doing. Some of their small interactions have become ritual to Max – his boss Darrell will make a joke and Max smiles then says, “get back to work!” Darrell lets out his booming laugh. When I see Darrell in the parking lot he says, “I love joking around with Max.” Still, the work can be a solitary experience for Max.

“In the parish directory, they publish a list of the staff. He still doesn’t get listed among the staff. He just was listed as part of our family,” Max’s dad Matt shared with me. “You know, we even wrote in advance, make sure you put Max in the part of the directory that lists the staff. He doesn’t get invited to the staff Christmas party either. It’s not perfect. He gets a W2, he has a badge, he has a key, he’s on staff, but I guess they just forget about him.”

Seeing throughout my life the way people have struggled to engage with my brother Chase, this was unfortunately not all that surprising to me. Because individuals with disabilities engage with the world in a very different way than neurotypical people, they are often written off as incapable. Not only that, but most people do not encounter any individuals with disabilities on a regular basis. They are somewhat of a hidden group of people, making them a mystery to some.

Neurotypical people – employers and passersby ¬– sometimes don’t know how to respond to or communicate with people with disabilities. This lack of knowledge leads to misunderstanding. If you don’t understand someone, it’s easier to just not employ them. And meaningful employment of someone with disabilities goes beyond nominal employment, too. It is not a favor to them – it is an opportunity for both the company and the individual to experience success. To be meaningful, it must be mutually beneficial for both parties. This can be accomplished through proper training for both employer and employee.

Though employing someone with disabilities requires additional training, the benefits outweigh the costs. With the proper infrastructure, adults with disabilities can thrive at a company. Linda has seen firsthand how Max has managed to thrive in his work for 17 years.

“Building a team around the person with a disability so they have connections at work. Those people taking him or her out to lunch every now and then. The team, I think, would help keep them on track. There are also training agencies that help keep employed adults with disabilities up-to-date on what their daily life at work is supposed to look like,” Linda shared with me when I asked her how to make people with IDD succeed at work. When Max first started working, he had just graduated from JJ Pearce, a public high school in Richardson, a suburb of Dallas. The Richardson Independent School District’s Transition Program trained him when he started his job. Some years later, Max received an update in his training through the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, a government agency that administers programs that ensure Texas is a state where people with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities as other Texans to live independent and productive lives.

National Core Indicators shared a data brief on people with IDD in integrated employment – employment not designed specifically to employ adults with disabilities – in 2016. Their findings showed that only 14.8% of individuals with IDD are employed at a company that is not specifically catered towards individuals with disabilities. 43.7% of individuals with IDD engage in unpaid facility-based activity. The employment rate of people with disabilities in an institution is 3.5%. For people with IDD who are not born into families with resources, their opportunities for employment are miniscule.

Max has a strong support system and lives at home. This seems to be a crucial factor in employment. People who are in facilities or group homes (and have uninvolved parents) do not have advocates the same way that people whose parents are still actively involved in their lives do. There are adults with disabilities who can drive but many cannot. Most adults with intellectual disabilities have a difficult time staying on schedule so they need someone to remind them when to get ready for work and when it’s time to go home.

All these small but important details set them up for failure if an advocate or their parents aren’t there to support them. Furthermore, many services for individuals with disabilities are not government-funded. Because of this, if the family is not able to afford services on their own, the child will grow up without the proper therapy, support, and education he or she needs to reach his or her full potential. Not only does a family need to be supportive of their child with disabilities for their entire life, but they need to have the funds to provide specialized therapy, education, and training to prepare them for a fulfilling adulthood.

For these adults, their employment brings meaning and empowerment to their lives. It has been clear to them for most of their lives that they’re different. In many situations, individuals with IDD are made to feel less capable of contributing something valuable. Employment demonstrates to them and to the people around them that they can bring something to the table.

JP Morgan Chase has developed an inclusion program in their Dallas offices in an effort to offer employment opportunities to people with IDD. The program has been a success and the company has had multiple employees with IDD working for them since early 2020. This has been done mostly through something called “job carving,” a term that refers to job creation based on someone’s specific skills. Many individuals with Autism enjoy repetitive tasks and are gifted in attention to detail.

For example, previously, employees would have to search for errors or inconsistencies in data even if it were was not technically their job. This task was unenjoyable for most if not all of those employees, and they frequently made many errors due to fatigue according to Bryan Gill, Executive Director of JP Morgan Chase’s Business Solutions Team. Through job carving, those aspects of their jobs were eliminated because they could now be done by people who especially enjoyed those tasks. Their new neurodiverse employees are highly skilled in these jobs and rarely make errors.

Mandy Noerper, Associate Director of Support Services at My Possibilities – a continuing education and career services center for adults with IDD, spoke with me about the potential of this population. “I think people don’t realize they can do integrated employment…But in one of our partnerships, they’ve talked about bringing in a guy who does the job nobody else wants to do. He does data entry and quality control. In the last year, he said he’s done twenty-six-thousand entries with zero errors.” In Mandy’s experience partnering with companies in the Dallas area, she’s seen that employing adults with IDD is possible as long as the company is sincere in their desire to employ the population. It is entirely possible for a person with IDD to be valuable to any company – the right job just needs to be found for them.

For the people in this population who get to experience employment, it’s a chance to prove to themselves and to others that they can contribute value. For so much of their lives, it’s apparent to them that they’re different. Many of the people they encounter don’t have high expectations for their abilities. But employment flips that on its head. Not only does the company benefit from the person’s work, but the neurotypical coworkers have their conceptions challenged and if it’s a front-facing role, the customers do, too. Best of all, the person with IDD realizes how much more capable they are than previously thought.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Photo Books I'm Loving this November

 It’s been well over a year since this substack was active, and I started it with all the best intentions. But then it started to feel more like a chore and less like fun, so I stopped. If you know me, you know I’ve enjoyed reading and writing since I was able to do it — you’d cringe if you had to read the journals of 7-year-old Hunter (a lot of entries about Pikachu, see below evidence) — but it’s increasingly hard to find the time and energy to write when adulthood just requires a lot of my brain power.

I’ve dreamt for a while about someday opening a space where I could sell photo books, related books, coffee, and pastries. But of course, doing something like that is super daunting and intimidating, so trust me, I’m not hinting at anything like that happening anytime soon (…unless someone wants to invest, hit me up! Haha.)

As a way to assuage my brain’s persistence in reminding me about this dream, I thought I’d share some photo books I’ve been enjoying this year! Some of you who follow this are photographers, but many of you aren’t, and I know photo books are typically only popular amongst photographers or photo-lovers. Hopefully I can convert some of you :-) All books are linked – just click on the title.

Echo Mask by Jonathan Levitt

Echo Mask is a collection of photographs made on the eastern coast of the United States. Levitt was a reviewer at a portfolio review I attended this past spring, and that is how I became familiar with his work. He is a very kind human as well as a very talented photographer. He hails from coastal Maine and that is immediately apparent in the work, though some of it is made in the southeast. The overall feeling of the work is a harkening back to basics – human emotion only in the context of nature, not in the context of all the distractions and technology that permeate daily life nowadays. Physical people are scarce in the work in a literal sense, but are very much a part of the work in the metaphorical.

Emmet Gowin, published by Aperture

If you are unfamiliar with Emmet Gowin, he is one of the greats (in my opinion, though I do believe that opinion is widely held). He has been a photographer for his entire adult life, and taught at Princeton in the photography department for many years. This book, published in 2013, is an exhibition catalogue. It was also my first experience seeing Gowin’s photography anywhere other than a computer screen. I have found it to be a wonderful comprehensive look at the work he has done – from the vast amount of portrait work he has done of his wife and her family to the bird’s eye landscapes he has done in later years. Black and white square images are his chosen format, and if you know me, you know why that speaks to me (it’s how I like to work, too).

The Forgotten by Rosalind Fox Solomon

This book was a gift to me, and I am grateful for it. I had never heard of Rosalind Fox Solomon before (sorry to my fellow photographers reading this), but after I spent time with this book I of course had to listen to any of her interviews I could find. She is a fascinating woman who did not pick up a camera until her late 30s. Needless to say, the camera changed her life. She is and was a natural talent, though she had the chance to study with Lisette Model (one of the greatest ever). The Forgotten is a difficult book. The photography itself is beautiful but a dark and gnawing message becomes clearer and clearer as the book progresses. Again, black and white square images.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, put together by Sarah Greenough, Sarah Kennel and Sally Mann

I mean…if you know me, you know I had to include this. Mann is my absolute favorite photographer of all time, and has had an inexplicable influence on me both in my work and in my day-to-day life. I just can’t say enough good things about her. So yes, this is a very biased portion of the newsletter. This giant chunk of a book contains SO much goodness within it — in part because it is so large. This book takes us through Mann’s family work (both infamous and famous), her elegiac and haunting southern landscapes, work about Civil War battlefields, further landscapes looking at churches, and work about her husband’s battle with MS. It’s ridiculously good.

Hopefully you are finishing up this letter with a newfound interest in one of these books…let me know if you do decide to pick one up, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Happy weekend,


Thursday, July 1, 2021

Some July Reads

I love cold weather. I am not a person who embraces summer for all its sweaty, sun-soaked, sunburnt glory. If you can call it that. I don’t find sweat or sunburns glorious. You probably don’t either. I digress. It’s July now, and soon it will be August, and right now is about the time when I start to count down to Halloween. Honestly, it just makes August harder to get through, but I love autumn.

How do I make it through July and August every year? Every day, I tell myself that I like summer. I lie to myself until I believe the lie. Some days, it works, but most days, I just hide inside all day. For weird people like me, books are great this time of year because all we want to do is hide from the sun. Good news, though! For normal people like you, books are also great because have you ever heard of a beach read?! Well, of course you have. That’s why we have the wonderfully predictable but still lovely Elin Hilderbrand.

I must start this list with an Elin Hilderbrand book. Because I just mentioned her but also because if you don’t know who she is then I get to enlighten you. In all transparency, her books are not much in terms of literature or depth. But they’re incredibly fun, full of juicy drama, and easy to fly through. They’re the essential beach read.

The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand (2019)

This beach read follows the lives of several people, all of whom are connected to one another in some way. Madeline King and Grace Pancik are best friends, and the story follows their families’ lives for a summer. Madeline is a writer, Grace is a passionate gardener (and passionate about her handsome landscape architect), Grace’s husband is in financial trouble, Madeline’s son and Grace’s daughter are dating, and a wild rumor is circulating throughout the island. The story takes place on Nantucket and each chapter captures the luxuriously lazy feeling of a summer vacation (while also keeping you on the edge of your seat for all the drama) (!!!). Warning: this book is cheesy, like every Hilderbrand book, but the writing is worth it for the story.

No One Asked for This: Essays by Cazzie David (2020)

I knew I loved Larry David, and I had feeling I loved his daughter Cazzie David, but now I know for sure. Cazzie is hilarious, and her writing shows that (surely a difficult feat as so much of comedy is delivery and inflection – I would know, such a comedian myself) (if you know me, you know I’m joking, I am not funny) (hard to demonstrate this in writing, I rest my case!!!!). Her self-deprecating humor and wild, strange, and/or embarrassing stories kept me entertained the entire book.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

Two half-sisters – Effia and Esi – are born into different villages in eighteenth century Ghana, and their lives take two dramatically different turns. Due to the growing slave trade, Esi is imprisoned and shipped to America where she endures enslavement. Her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. Effia, on the other hand, is married off to an Englishman and lives in a castle in Ghana. One thread follows Effia’s story as well as the stories of her descendants. The other thread follows Esi’s story as well as the stories of her descendants. Gyasi’s beautiful storytelling allowed me to gain a deeper understanding into the intergenerational pain that was wrought by colonialism and slavery. This is a heartbreaking but important book.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)

Haruki Murakami is a captivating writer, and this book is my favorite of the few of his I’ve read. The story follows Toru as he navigates college in Tokyo and his devotion to Naoko, his ambiguous more-than-friends-but-not-really-committed friend. As Naoko descends into devastation following the loss of their mutual friend, Toru finds himself able to experience independence outside of their hometown. We follow Toru through his experience of college, and that experience is filled with description of food, cityscapes, and the people he encounters. Warning: there is a rape scene that I found to be quite disturbing in this book. This book may not be for you if that is especially difficult for you to tolerate.

Light Years by James Salter (1975)

I am not normally the person who can read a book that’s known for its beautiful prose. Sure, I love beautiful prose, but I get bored if the story alone can’t hold me. As Elin Hilderbrand has shown me, I will always choose interesting story over nice writing. WELL that was until James Salter! I just read this book about a month ago, and it is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and I was never bored. The scenes captured in Light Years are so richly written that I could picture myself there – in their cozy upstate New York home, in the streets of Italy, in the car, down by the river.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts if so. Any book recommendations for me, please??

Happy reading,

Hunter :-)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Some June Reads

I am not a book expert, and I often don’t have the patience or intellectual stamina to make it through some of “the classics,” but I love to read. Not only do I love to read, but I love to walk around bookstores (and avoid eye contact with the salesperson for fear they might speak to me), I love to hear what my friends are reading, and it’s pretty typical for a conversation to remind me of a book. And I can’t help but ask, “have you read ____?” I do my best to not sound like “oh, yes, I’m so sophisticated because – didn’t you know – I read,” but I just can’t help but want to talk about books.

I began this little substack (these posts will go out via email and also live on here) back in the new year in hopes that I’d write a lovely, magazine-length review every month at least. But between grad school and my brain’s way of being, that did not happen. A much more feasible task for me would be a digestible (both for myself and the reader) list of book recommendations. I could say that this is for you, reader, but in all honesty, it is for me, because book recommendations come out of me like word vomit and I need to just get it out of my system. Okay, it just being for me was a joke, I sincerely hope you get something out of this, even if it’s just the idea that reading could possibly be fun.

Hold Still by Sally Mann (2015)

Alright, alright, I KNOW what you’re thinking. “You’re a photographer so that’s why you like it.” (If you don’t know who Sally Mann is, she is one of the most important photographers of our time nbd. She also happens to be an amazing writer.) Hold Still is Mann’s memoir. But it is more than the tale of how she came to love photography and her resulting career. Mann uses Hold Still as a chance to explore memory, family, life’s nuances, and death. It was nominated for the National Book Award when it was released in 2015, and for good reason. Not only does she navigate these relatable and ever-relevant subjects so gracefully, but plenty of image-heavy description fills the pages. When I read this, I was transported to Mann’s porch in the beautiful hills of Virginia.

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker (2020)

A novel about cults, droughts, the mother-daughter relationship, and the power – for good or evil – of community. Honestly not my typical read as it has a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. Godshot follows the story of 14-year-old Lacey May. Lacey’s mother is an alcoholic and a chronically poor man-chooser, but Lacey still thinks she hung the moon. When Lacey’s mom skips town, though, the religious cult they’re apart of moves in on Lacey and she has no one to protect her from their bizarre and abusive scheme. Despite the weight of the topics this book deals with, Bieker still finds a way to integrate humor and sensitivity.

Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn by Molly Young (2021)

I love everything Molly Young writes, and I find many of my reads in her newsletter Read Like The Wind. Molly has not put out a book, she mostly writes for publications, but she has released two zines. (A zine is basically a short, self-published book.) Both zines are wonderful, but I particularly enjoyed this one that took me down a rabbit hole of an array of topics that I never previously thought could be connected. Sleepy Hollow Motor Inn explores a homicide, an old motel, the Titanic, a rare blood disorder, and two different pandemics.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

I read this right before COVID hit us in 2020. The setting of this book ­­– Savannah, Georgia – is part of what it makes it so enjoyable. The city itself is a character in this story; as I read it, I felt immersed in the sticky humidity and Spanish moss and Old South architecture that characterizes Savannah. Savannah is an interesting character, but each human character in this novel is even more interesting. We meet society ladies, country boys, a recluse, a drag queen, an antiques dealer, a con artist, and a voodoo “priestess.” Oh, and there’s a murder mystery, of course.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (1989)

Peter Mayle’s writing is like floo powder (non-Harry Potter fans, floo powder magically transports you to wherever you’d like to go). Mayle worked in advertising in London for many years before retiring to the south of France with his wife. He lived there for many years and put his creativity to use by writing and publishing tons of stories about his culinary (and other) adventures in France. Mayle is hilarious and thoughtfully observant. He is self-deprecating while describing French culture in a simultaneously loving and critical eye. I actually think I gained weight when I read this book because I couldn’t stop ordering my poor husband to make me French food “like what Peter Mayle ate in the chapter I just read.”

Have you read any of these?? Do you have any recs for me?? I’d love to know so email me if so. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Social Distance with Vesta Gul in "Death in Her Hands"

It’s February 2021, and most of us in the United States have grown accustomed to a lifestyle of isolation. I’ve been quarantining with my husband since March. We quarantined in Texas, and then moved to D.C. where we quarantined some more. It’s been lonely. You get it. Well, so does Vesta Gul. Sure, she may be a fictional character living in a fictional world, but she chose to quarantine before it was cool. Ottessa Mosfegh’s newest book Death in Her Hands was released in June 2020, and it serves as an indirect homage to the limitations of human sanity when in near-complete isolation.

We meet Vesta, our main character, after she’s lived in a cabin in the woods for nearly a year. She’s chosen a locale in the northeastern US, and she only leaves her house for daily walks with her dog Charlie and a trip into town once a week. At the start of the novel, Vesta finds a note on her walk with Charlie. It reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no body to be found. Vesta takes the note home, and the resulting story follows her train of thought. Her mental spiral due to isolation and a new, perceived threat reminded me a bit of my own life experience this year.

This book is a thrilling joyride of both suspense and confusion. Shortly after the onset of the story, I began to realize how unreliable the narrator Vesta was. Though the events recounted to me by Vesta were fascinating – and kept the pages turning quickly – I found myself questioning every situation. Is Vesta imagining this, or is this real? Her descriptions of her response to the world grow more concerning as the book progresses. What starts out as anxiety due to a murderous note turns into several days without bathing or eating and perceiving threats in places they likely don’t exist. Mosfegh’s use of these details made me wonder if I’d ever find out the truth. With only Vesta’s voice as my source, I figured probably not, but I couldn’t stop reading anyways. Rather than a murder mystery, this book is the story of a woman reaching the end of her sanity. Though it is an exhilarating read, it also is an uncomfortable one.

Once Vesta perceives the threat of a murderer on the loose, everything changes. A perceived threat coupled with her isolation pushes her past the brink. Sound familiar? It felt like a hyperbolic metaphor for my experience in the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolated from friends and family? Check. Long walks with dog? Check. Terrified of dying? Check. A silent killer on the loose? Check. Mosfegh has a clear understanding of the inner thoughts of an anxious person, either because she has experienced anxiety herself or studied it thoroughly. As Vesta navigates her days, we follow her train of thought. Intrusive thoughts appear randomly and suddenly, reminding me of my own all-too-real daily encounters with anxiety.

I recently heard a writer named Molly Young speak on a podcast called Nerdette. She shared her theory that there are two types of people: there are people who read books for an escape. These people want to read the opposite of what they’re dealing with so they can detach. Then there are people who read books relevant to what they’re going through. If you are one of the latter, Death in Her Hands might be for you. Still, if anxiety is a frequent friend in your life, I would encourage you to approach this story with caution. There is no shame in taking a break from the story for a bit or putting it down altogether if you find it troubling.

Vesta is a misanthrope. She harshly judges every human she sees on the rare occasion she ventures into town, and she even judges her neighbors who she has never met but seen from afar. She disdains people for a variety of reasons: their appearance, their intelligence, their food choices at the grocery store, their shoes, the way they talk. “Bethsmane wasn’t for ladies. It was for people who hunted or drove trucks. It wasn’t an elegant place…The place wasn’t cultured by any measure. People ate fast food…Women mostly dressed in cheap synthetic materials. The blouses they wore were tie-dyed and glittery, and many women had tattoos on their arms,” she muses when thinking of the town she lives near. “She was…chubby. From behind she reminded me of a clapping seal, the way her buttocks flattened, her hands raised as if in prayer at her chest,” she remarks about a woman she encounters in a public bathroom.

Multiple users on Goodreads wrote that Vesta’s distaste for people is a turn-off for them in the book. “Word of warning: This woman hates fat people and it’s mentioned over and over and over again,” Goodreads user Michelle laments. “People don’t want to talk about how they relate to a character’s more unsavory qualities,” Mosfegh shared with the New York Times, “so they’re like, ‘God, she was really gross.’ Everybody’s so obsessed with being liked.” To me, Vesta’s harsh perceptions are meant to reflect the truth. That we all have ugly parts. We’re human. As a reader who deals with anxiety on a daily basis, I can unfortunately and admittedly see a bit of myself in Vesta. When I am at my lowest, and I’m just trying to get my groceries so I can get home and finally rest after a long day, the people around me are my metaphorical punching bags. Sure, the attacks are only in my mind and will forever stay there, but I still catch myself judging the occasional dawdling woman who won’t get out of my way as I try to navigate aisle number five. As the entirety of the book works as hyperbole, so does Vesta’s perception of humankind. I think Mosfegh’s portrayal of Vesta is meant to be a challenge to the reader: how much of Vesta resides in you?

With each passing year, I realize more and more how powerful the human brain is. It is a frightening thought at times: how little we understand about our brains, how mental illness can gradually and sneakily creep up on us, how careful we must be to take care of ourselves, our minds. The situations we choose to stay in, the people we choose to surround ourselves with, the places we choose to live, the food and drink we choose to consume. People always say that teenagers think they’re invincible. It’s true, at least in my experience. I’m still young, but I’m at the age now in which my mortality feels real, and I can see and feel the impact of even small daily choices. Another glass of wine? Another cancelled FaceTime (or in non-pandemic times, coffee date) with a friend because “I’m too tired”? Vesta had the chance to harness her anxiety and depression. She didn’t take it. She chose to burrow herself further into it. Death in Her Hands surprised me. I went in expecting a murder mystery and came out on the other side reminded of what could happen to me – or anyone – if I neglected myself long enough. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Balm that Heals Holiday (and Pandemic) Woes

I reached a point this year, around September, when I had run out of coping strategies. The pandemic had endured for several months, and I was back in school for the first time in a few years. Doing yoga in the hallway of my DC apartment just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I needed some peace. I needed to be transported. I needed: Christmastime.

In 1965, Charles M. Schulz lovingly welcomed the world into his 30-minute special A Charlie Brown Christmas. For those who were familiar with Schulz’s then- and now-famous Peanuts comic strips, Charlie Brown and his crew were familiar territory. For those who aren’t familiar: Peanuts is a comic strip centered around an underdog-type character named Charlie Brown. Charlie, his dog Snoopy, and his friends navigate daily life together. Charlie’s best friend Linus is the philosophical type while Charlie’s little sister Sally is always hungry for attention. Peanuts had been around for 15 years by the time A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered, but never before on television. Kids and adults watched their favorite comic characters come to life. A Christmas miracle.

In September of 2020, I needed a Christmas miracle. Let’s be honest, we all need some kind of miracle. Charles M. Schulz saved my day once again on a random Sunday in September. I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every December (and sometimes other months, too, if I need a pick-me-up). Every year, it comforts me with its piano-led soundtrack and beautifully illustrated setting. Both children and adults can enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas. That’s what makes this television special, well, special. It inspires a chuckle or two (or three) as you notice the snarky quips that characters exchange with one another. “How old are these kids supposed to be?” I often wonder. A few minutes in, it’s clear that these kids don’t talk like kids, they talk like adults. Even better, they talk like adults who lack complete self-awareness. Schulz preserves the naivete of youth while allowing room for intelligent conversation. The result: comedy.

Our main character Charlie Brown is a kid, but he talks through the tough stuff in this television special. 

Why am I sad during the holidays? 

Shouldn’t I be happy? 

What is the true meaning of Christmas? 

Has even my dog (Snoopy, of course!) “gone commercial”? 

Charlie’s distress rings true to the adult viewers, while kid viewers can indulge themselves in ice skating scenes, cheerful music, fluffy snow, and Christmas play rehearsals. Snoopy swings Charlie Brown’s friends around the ice skating rink while Charlie Brown waxes poetic on the true meaning of Christmas. 

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah or Kwanza, the months of November and December are marked by holiday festivity. Charlie Brown’s own questioning of his lack of joy amidst so much excitement feels relatable, especially in a year like this one. But even on the “normal” years, many adults (and some kids, too) find the holiday season to be depressing, almost an emphasis on hard things like family issues, mental health issues, relationship issues. To be lonely when every person around you seems to be surrounded by people who love them? That’s something Charlie Brown understands.

This year, I recommend living vicariously through Charlie Brown and his castmates as we watch characters hold hands, sing, and dance together. Back in September, I sat in my apartment, hoping to immerse myself in the world of Charlie Brown. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t sitting in my apartment but was in fact joining Charlie Brown on his quest to discover the meaning of Christmas. I succeeded, to a degree. 

The visuals of A Charlie Brown Christmas draw me in. Vivid colors – bright pink, deep red, night sky blue – pull me through Charlie Brown’s neighborhood, and bonus: the neighborhood is covered in snow. Snoopy’s doghouse is decorated for Christmas, and I think of the Christmas decorations my mom would strategically place throughout my childhood home. Snow begins to fall on Charlie Brown, and I remember that time I was let out of school early because the snow was starting to build up on the roads and Texas doesn’t have snow plows. The pink stage curtain at the Christmas play rehearsal reminds me of my fifth-grade holiday pageant. The stars twinkle as Charlie Brown looks up to the night sky, and I remember looking out the window on Christmas Eve, wondering if Santa and the reindeer were on their way.

Charlie Brown is the butt of most of or perhaps all of the jokes in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie’s “friends” are unpredictable. Sometimes they’re kind to him, and other times they exclude him or call him names. He’s called “block head,” “stupid,” and “hopeless,” among other things. The bullying is lighthearted, and humorous, but bullying nonetheless. Charlie again finds himself to be the most relatable character on the screen in this way. It is rare to make it through life without being on the receiving end of cruelty at least one or two times. Perhaps you’ve been bullied. Perhaps your family has alienated you or your friends have turned on you. We’ve all been there to varying degrees, and so has Charlie Brown. He’s there to sit down next to you and say, “me, too.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas has aged well. It is timeless, guaranteed to bring joy to little ones excited for the holidays as well as a smirk to even the most cynical of adults. Even if you’re a bit of a Scrooge, consider watching this special. Take the chance to detach from 2020 for just half an hour today.

Where I Already Was

"I would love to travel deeply and widely. And what is the deepest and widest you can travel? It's to come back to where you alread...