- Second Skin
In his over 4,000-page, seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust looks at our paradoxical relationship with time—how we both change and don’t change, how our experiences are transient and at the same time somehow always there, remaining like glittering fragments floating in space. “People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad,” he says. The fin de siècle Frenchman was carrying on the tradition of Walter Pater and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with their aesthetic faith in a certain meaningfulness and even immortality to be found in artistic beauty.
Many of Proust’s comments were prophetic of the new discoveries of relativity and, later, brain science. But he was also capable of being quite plainspoken and realistic regarding human experience, for example about our paradoxical relationship to both happiness and change. “Desire makes everything blossom,” he said, but “possession makes everything wither and fade.” He also held what amounts to old-fashioned stoic views—for example, that we change and in order to grow must accept this as well as grief: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”
Many of the pieces in this issue of TMR concern how time and experience mark us in permanent ways yet at the same time help us develop strength and resilience—a second skin. [End Page 5]
In her memoir “Mordwand,” Natasha Sajé describes waitressing in a restaurant in a Swiss village in the 1970s. She takes the job over an attractive au pair position because she needs money and is trying not to burden her parents. Working there over the winter, she develops an awareness of class and opportunity and reflects on how working at the hotel left a mark on her: “A part of me had hardened, the way cheese left uncovered becomes tough as plastic.” Wondering about how it happened, she concludes, “Perhaps I realized, although I am able to articulate it only now, that hard work enables one to appreciate the luxury of leisure.”
Steven Schwartz’s “The Loneliest Moon” recounts his battle with severe insomnia after he develops sleep apnea and begins using a breathing machine. Schwartz has recently retired, and anxiety about the machine prevents him from sleeping more than a few hours a night, evoking a degree of emotion that he has never experienced before. He reexamines his childhood and relationship with his parents, for the first time realizing the effect of his desperate urge as a boy to live up to his parents’ confidence in him as the “good child.” His crisis with insomnia precipitates a useful look at his past.
The stories in this issue include “Life on Mars” by May-lee Chai. In Chai’s fiction, Xiao Yu is a young teenage boy sent from China to live with his uncle in America. The US is not what he expected, and his uncle isn’t the stable married man that his parents had assumed. His wife has left him, and he works at a menial job in a restaurant. Xiao Yu feels compelled to help him and meets the boss’s son, Andrew, who is failing math in summer school. He is able to tutor him, and the boys form a friendship. Xiao Yu is swept up in the freedom of the American lifestyle; he’s also fascinated with Andrew’s tattoos and develops a crush on him. A near drowning incident brings them even closer. It is the story of a young man being in a new, freer place and despite his immigrant struggles forming a relationship and finding a place unlike anything he has experienced before.
Based on a true event, Carolyn Ogburn’s story “Ordinary Time” is a tale of the permanent legacy of someone admired in childhood. The protagonist is Caleb, an Episcopal priest, father, and husband of a woman who is a recovering alcoholic. He...