Alan Lightman makes his mark on the “always outstanding collection [that] seems to outdo itself each year."
Best-selling author Alan Lightman selects the year’s finest nonfiction as this acclaimed series celebrates its fifteenth year. He has chosen a diverse, very personal collection that celebrates the essay as an independent genre unlike any other. This year’s pieces embrace stylistic freedom and strong opinions and afford the reader a fascinating view of the writer’s mind as it struggles with truth, memory, and experience. Featured writers include Jamaica Kincaid, Edward Hoagland, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Gordon, Edwidge Danticat, and others.
Last winter, at the end of December, my family and friends rented neighboring apartments on an island off Florida and waited together for the new millennium. We came from Massachusetts and Connecticut, Maryland and South Carolina, all of us sensing some cosmic event. For the past twenty-five years, we had been visiting each other at birthdays, naming ceremonies, the deaths of parents, bat mitzvahs, postmortems of love affairs gone bad.
An island off the coast of Florida is an ideal spot to ponder the meaning of one thousand years. First of all, you’re cut off from the rest of the world and its day-to-day rumblings. For a millennium-size view, you need distance and space. Second, life moves at a slow pace on an island, and a person has the time and the quiet to think. A half-mile away from the center of town, only a single road meanders through the palm trees and low shrubs at the edge of the sea. Most people get around by cycle or on foot, accompanied by the silent stares of ospreys and crows. The most demanding activity of the day might be embarking on a trip to the small market for milk or shaking the sand from your sandals after a walk on the beach. And the weather is pleasantly warm, adding to the unreality of the place. As you stand on your deck in shorts and T-shirt, gazing at the waves sliding in from infinity, a light-year from e-mail and telephones and faxes, you feel that you might at last be prepared to take stock.
On the eve of the millennium, December 31, 1999, we gather in one of our condos. All in all, there are nineteen or twenty of us, including college-age children born through our years together, a six-month-old baby named Grace, and my mother-in-law, Harriet, perky at age eighty- three. We sit on the screened balcony drinking cold beer and retelling stories until the smooth ocean light starts to fade. Then we begin eating. Sam, a schoolteacher who spent last summer in Zanzibar and received private lessons on the local cooking, serves a Zanzibari feast. In fact, we’ve been smelling Sam’s dinner in preparation all afternoon as aromas wafted from his kitchen window. Rice spiced with cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, and coconut milk; masala and onions, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, seasoned with cumin, garam masala, and Zanzibari red curry; lightly fried pompano caught earlier in the day by David and his two daughters. Sam’s cooking for his friends has always been an expression of love.
Sam himself is ablaze in his Hawaiian shirt with yellow blossoms and pink fishtails. “What’s your wish for the millennium?” I ask him as he passes around a bowl of kiwi, cantaloupe, and honeydew for dessert.
“That my millennium countdown clock doesn’t explode at midnight.” There follows a discussion of the purpose of digital millennium countdown clocks after their final moment. And will they start over on a count to 3000 or freeze in stupefaction at 0:0:0:0?
Mary, often hours or days late for any occasion, arrives from Washington, rumpled, having been driven for the last few hours by an old acquaintance in Tampa. She inquires sheepishly if her friend might sleep here for the night. “She’s welcome, no matter what,” says Cathy, “but I do have to ask one question. She doesn’t snore, does she? It’s all right if she does, but I’d like to know in advance.” Mary smiles and takes off her trademark floppy straw hat.
Lucile brings me baby Grace to hold. She bends over, and the African necklace that Jean and I gave her twenty years ago dangles from her neck, a large metallic disk made from the bottom of a Masai cooking pot and hung on a strand of dark hemp. Seeing the necklace, I remember the trip to Kenya and our return home after five months of traveling. When Jean and I finally arrived at the airport in Boston, sweaty and dirty and jet-lagged, demolished by a twenty-four-hour vigil in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, dragging our luggage and ourselves across the floor, we passed through customs and heard happy shouts and hollers. Then we saw Sam, Susan, Cathy, and Lucile, holding a huge banner that read kelcome kome from kenya, kean and kalan.
We go to the kitchen for beer. Some of us play cards; others stare at the giant condo television as it jerks back and forth between millennium celebrations in China, Japan, England, and France. For the last week and more, we’ve been watching the networks summarize past centuries and forecast the next. Fifteen minutes per decade. The printing press, DNA, the steam engine, plastics, computers, Martin Luther, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln. “In twenty years, we’ll all be cybers,” someone calls from the kitchen. “Our brains will be wired to the Internet.” I feel stretched and compressed aat the same time. I’m drowning in speed, I feel like a point of nothingness, a blip, my life will be over and done in the ripple of a wave. “Chhhhhange the channel,” I yell in confusion and begin clicking the remote control. One of the enamel fish falls off the wall.
“If you’ve seen one millennium, you’ve seen them all,” says Lucile. Lucile, who has been asking whether she should color her beautiful silver hair, takes another drink of her single-malt scotch and adds, “Even though I think the millennium is a superficial mark, still, having so many friends with so much history together in one place makes me feel blessed.” “It was supposed to be magic, and it is magic,” says Cathy, in vague response. Cathy sometimes pulls up her shirt when she’s drinking, so tonight she’s wearing a one-piece bathing suit under her clothes to protect the children. At this moment, Cathy, Mary, and Kara sit glaring at each other at the card table, the last three players not yet bankrupt, each intent on winning the forty-two-dollar pot. Kara, my thirteen-year-old daughter, holds her cards close to her chest along with her remaining two dollar bills and says nothing. My other daughter, Elyse, brings out a watercolor sketch she made on the beach this afternoon; people gather around to compliment it.
The TV has been temporarily turned off. A fan hangs on a stem over my head; its arms revolve and beat the air. I listen to voices.
“What are you reading?” “Not one of the ten best books of the millennium. I’ll give it to you when I’m finished.” “Let’s see your hat, Celeste. Where’d you get it? That’s a great hat on you.” “Half of them come into my classroom with no breakfast. They don’t have food at home. How can you teach kids like that? We’re giving them breakfast now. It makes a difference.” “My mother doesn’t want to live anymore. She mostly stays in her house, wanting to die.” “These roses came to the door and I thought they were for me, but they weren’t, they were for my twelve-year-old daughter. Twelve years old, and she’s getting flowers from a boy. So I say to Alexis, ‘You’ve peaked. It never gets any better than this.’” Someone howls. Mary hands me millennium eyeglasses, the frames sparkling with dots of color. I put on the glasses and look toward a candle, where I see the glowing numerals 2000 magically hovering in space.
“What do you see?” asks Jean.
“The millennium,” I say.
“I’m so glad our girls are having fun with our friends,” Jean says. It’s only eleven o’clock, but I am a morning person and already drowsy. I nod and sink into a chair. To wake myself up, I drink some tart apple cider, feel its claws in my throat.
Harriet tries on the millennium glasses and grins and drinks a little beer. “My friends are all too old,” she says. We pass around the glasses.
With a last round of shouting, the card game has ended. Cathy, the victor, takes a bow and immediately gives half of her winnings to Kara. We push aside the sliding glass doors and walk to the dark balcony, where we see a navigation buoy blinking on and off near the shore. Farther out, a curved line of lights from the fishing boats glitters like a strand of pearls. Then back to the living room. A few of the women link arms and begin singing. If you see me walking down the street . . . Walk on by.
By now, we are all much reduced and sit in the puffy white couches, squeezed against one another, David and his wife, Alice, and their daughters, Celeste and Christine; Christine’s boyfriend, Scott; Lucile; Sam; Susan and Flip and their children, Connor and Grace; Harriet; Jean and me and our daughters, Kara and Elyse; Elyse’s friend Laura; Mary; Cathy. Bobbi and George and their son, Jake, from Virginia, would have been here, but they were commandeered by a house move.
It’s 11:47; thirteen minutes to go. The television, taking an intermission from its distillations and prophecies, has shifted once again to Times Square, to the thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers and others gathered in a sea of heavy coats and scarves, hats and mittens, clouds of steam, the sound of yelling and screaming, the colored floats and the neon signs, the cameras and wires, the newscasters in their elevated booths surveying the scene as if they were Roman emperors. And the huge silver New Year’s ball, suspended from heaven. The ball hovers like a galaxy, shimmering, waiting. In all the years I have watched that giant sphere in Times Square, this one seems the biggest, a full moon on the horizon, a bright eye, a world. It vibrates there as we watch, it hums, it absorbs all the air and the light in New York. It seems to promise something, but what? What is happening? Then the final countdown begins. The silver galaxy descends, slowly, slowly. Or perhaps the earth is coasting up to meet it. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.” We stand up and we hug and we kiss, and we completely forget to examine Sam’s millennium clock.
And it occurs to me now, as I sag half sleeping against a wall, that one thing that matters is genuine human experience — that amid so much superficial and fake in our wired-up nervous digitized modern world, this moment is real, this moment in time with my dear friends around me, the sounds of their voices, the sounds of their breathing, the shapes of their faces.
The qualities I treasure most about these essays are their authenticity and life. In reading an essay, I want to feel that I’m communing with a real person, and a person who cares about what he or she’s writing about. The words sound sentimental and trite, but the qualities are rare. For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either. When you care about something, you continually grapple with it, because it is alive in you. It thrashes and moves, like all living things.
When I’m reading a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observations and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his anchor line, testing and pulling hard.
I suppose that in the end, the real subject of an essay is the essayist. Not the bald facts of autobiography, on the one hand, or the bald opinions about issues, on the other, but some kind of union between the inner person and the outer world, a melding of internal and external, the life and mind of the essayist in reaction to the universe. The essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself, and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.
I can make no claim that these twenty-one pieces were the “best essays” of the past year. Despite our combing through dozens of magazines and journals, searching for everything tapped on the keyboards of known essayists, soliciting suggestions from trusted friends, it is inevitable that some essays will have slipped by the editors’ notice, perhaps even very good ones. Ultimately, the selection is subjective anyway. What I can say is that I liked all of these essays a great deal, they made me think, they got under my skin, they took me on journeys, they made me feel alive.
Alan Lightman Copyright (c) 2000 by Alan Lightman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.
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