Diane Mehta

Dip Your Hand In

Wandering around in cemeteries forces you to wrestle with all the possibilities your life has left to offer. When you’re middle aged, and closer to death, it’s inevitable that you’d look back on your experiences to help you understand the future. There’s as much variety to cemeteries as there is variety of experience: The overgrown cemetery in London’s Harrow on the Hill, with soft moss creeping up slanted, buck-tooth tombstones; Golda Meir’s smooth, sun-scorched tomb high up on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem; and Montmartre cemetery in Paris, ambling between dusty, crowded Jewish tombstones, on some of which are carved names of bodiless people murdered in the Holocaust. Lives extinguished too early, etched on the tombstone that records the history of the long-lived.


Cemeteries are grounded in centuries of history and people’s contributions to it, and free from the burdens of misery and joy that color daily life. You can disappear for hours in them, losing yourself in strangers’ families and lives, instead of your own. But, as in life, there’s a lot more information than you realize, once you feel compelled to start digging. 


You have a shared history with your family and it has, literally and figuratively, a plot. On the surface it seems fixed, but like history itself, investigated with a new lens or through the facets of a prism, your personal history is very much in flux. If you think of it as a Venn diagram, it quickly becomes clear how difficult it is to puzzle out the logic. First, you must separate the Roman from the Arabic numerals, and then the digits from the symbols, and then you tinker until you see where they overlap. But there’s the rub. Are those sets of histories and circumstances finite? You look at the paper trail of curated information: birth and death certificates; marriage licenses; family trees; diplomas and college degrees; letters; diaries; scrap books; bank statements; immigration documents; and photographs of vacations, births, and graduations. But what happens in the moments before and after the photographs, behind facts and after the obvious? What is the truest story of your life? 


I want to believe that the knowledge we seek is what’s eternally being worked out, a kind of laboratory experiment that fuses generations living and dead. Some sort of collective, accrued-upon imagination. I like to think that floating around in cemeteries are thousands of secrets, forever opaque to the living: glass that grows, ears with other galaxies singing in them. They are places that feel quietly theatrical because they do not belong to us but to the dead. We cannot measure what goes on in cemeteries any more than our instruments can measure what truly goes on in space. Dark matter is incomprehensible except as something inferred: It has a gravitational effect on visible matter, but we don’t know what it is. Similarly, the dead exert their gravity on us in that we cannot let them go. True, the dead may not care about us any longer. They have no hearts, no brains. They are spirits who have plunged off the edge of what we, and the machines we make to measure what is living, understand to be life. What we seek is knowledge, and they have all the information, being dead. Or so we think. 


Writing in a letter to his son, who he expects will not read the letter until he is an adult, the terminally ill pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead imagines becoming an expert at being dead: “I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself.” The human act of knowing, while dead, is a wry leap of faith. It makes death less macabre to think that we can accrue expertise in it, as if the dead had their own style of living. 


When I first visited Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, five years ago, I had just become a middle-aged woman, tugging my bag of clichés: divorced, mid-40s, one kid, trying to create a future in which I had a better grip on reality. My mother had been dead since I was 35 and my father had suffered six strokes, emerging astonishingly intact from all of them. I had become comfortable in hospitals and among the emotions and procedures of illness. But the clock was ticking faster. My father’s years were fleeing fast and mine were starting to look abbreviated. I began writing a novel, perhaps as a way to look more closely at my parents’ lives, and their unhappiness, instead of my own. I set it in 1946, conveniently 20 years before I was born. I would get to the heart of their miserable marriage. The novel would be ugly, like life, to show what it was like to be my mother, to be Jewish and pathologically smart, angry, overlooked, and die, in that order. I’d also broach the story of my father, whose Jainism shaped his moral center but left him emotionally remote. There would be romance in it, but it wouldn’t be between my parents, because that, in my roundabout logic, seemed like the truest way to understand what love was. In one draft I made the mother-character commit suicide, and in the next I gave my fictional parents a happy future, together. I wanted more love in my future, from them and from others, even if my only option was to find love through my fictional characters and try to pin that fake love on my parents so I could feel it and steal it. 


I loved being stuck in this story of my parents, because it had no proper order. What happened would depend on the mood or moment I felt compelled to explore. “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,” said Graham Greene. I could pivot my parents’ story whichever way I wanted, and let the narrative coax out its own imaginative logic. 


Green-Wood intrigued me because its wooded-glen landscape seemed to be an orderly and frankly lovely way of thinking about the dead while I was not in mourning. By the time I moved to Brooklyn, where my mother was raised, she’d been dead three years. At the time I visited Green-Wood, twelve years after she died, it was at the close of a difficult year in which I was investigating everything about myself, and I could feel the delicate April promise of better times ahead. It was easy to feel serious at Green-Wood. In it, I imagined homespun tales of turn-of-century Jewish families, like the one my mother grew up in. Maybe I felt a little closer to my mother there, even though she is buried in New Jersey. But Green-Wood was pretty enough to buoy the spirit. The cemetery-park was twenty blocks away, and until that year, I’d never thought to visit. Surprised by the grand neo-Gothic entrance, I marveled, inwardly thrilled, and decided that I’d hit a jackpot of macabre leisure. I took a left and wandered up a steep hill that twisted down into woodsy acres, where I meandered between angels reaching out with sad longing from concrete plinths. I’d been binge-watching Doctor Who with my son, and they reminded me of Doctor Who’s weeping angels, predatory creatures that sweep you back in time to steal the life you’ve already lived. (You are alive, cemeteries insist.) Angels lean, mid-grief, over stone caskets or pose on plinths, their pre-Raphaelite hair eternally curling and their tall, muscular wings poised powerfully behind them as if reminding us that they could just take off. They are here to protect the dead. But it is we, the living, who need protecting, not from death but from not properly living. 


I’ll get what I want! you think when you are in your twenties. “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to be known for the syntactical fireworks in my poems, to find a rugged beautiful lover with a svelte way of thinking, to rid myself of the anxiety that I might be permanently flighty or miserable, to see myself as lovely instead of ugly as my childhood peers taunted, to live a radical and unusual life enlivened by literature. 


Twenty years later, my life was numbing. I hadn’t published enough, I walked away from a job to raise my son, and I found parenting laborious and intellectually unsatisfying. I wanted to work. I didn’t feel loved. What had I really accomplished? How often do we finish what we set out to do? Maybe it’s only when you have exited a time in which you were not really living that you figure out how to.


“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said Thoreau. He had decided that contentment, or some version of it, was interior instead of material. Thoreau was only 28 years old in 1845, when he went to live at Walden Pond. He died of tuberculosis at 45, which for me is just the beginning of middle age, but in line with life expectancy back then. Walden Pond was an awakening, especially for a Transcendentalist like Thoreau, who believed he’d find divinity in nature. What was so fulfilling about Thoreau’s afternoon rambles or the passing of shadows on the ground? 

“I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tingeing the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin.” 

What does it mean to have noticed things? Is that what living is? Perhaps it’s not that he was doing nothing but that he was actively doing. Thoreau’s idea of experience is different from mine. When I am outdoors, I am still a creature of desire: Just as I want nice shoes or good friends, I want the sunshine to change my attitude. I want to see a landscape so unbearably beautiful that it elevates me and remains in the camera of my brain as Experience #2,452. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Thoreau advises. I have lived, I have lived! I think. Can I suck out all the marrow of life, the way Thoreau describes it? 


Maybe in our uneasy plod towards the future, we make our observations about ourselves. Looking around the grounds at Green-Wood, I stared with horrified fascination at the private mausoleums in which wealthy families chose to be buried. Waste of money, my child-of-the-Depression mother would have said. What vanity to build little house-fortresses in this dead-souls park, with swirling surrealist skies pulsing overhead and the ground quietly churning with maggots, worms, and human cells. So much pomp, yet each gravestone announced, with proud certitude, a life boiled down to one thing: Ida was a good mother, Stan was a good earner.


When we meet people, we always ask what they do. And while it’s true that what we do deeply defines us, it’s also true that it deeply restricts us. The historian Jill Lepore showed, in her biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, how brilliant she was, and what how different would have been for her if it hadn’t been the 18th century and women were allowed to attend school. She was a wife and mother. And without Lepore to elucidate her life, we’d have only that one official story, a side note to her famous brother. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has also warned of the danger of a single story. Her first stories were about white and blue-eyed characters who played in the snow. Her discovery of African writers saved her from having a single story of what books are. She observes that Western literature has a single story of sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, with people who Kipling said are “half-devil, half-child.” You create a stereotype with only one story, she explains, and stereotypes are incomplete. 

I decided to change the story of Ida and Stan. Ida wasn’t a good mother, but she was beautiful, and she wanted to be a statistician. Math to her was like a spider web she was forever unspooling. Stan was tired of working at the docks and wanted to be a photographer. Was my story better than their single-story tombstones? Maybe the boiled versions were true. I fretted: Would I, too, be distilled to an aphorism? Ugly immigrant came to mind, the story of my childhood, or overly passionate malcontent writer. Better to have nothing, or a quote. I looked around for simple gravestones that listed only the years lived, and ran through the possibilities left to the imagination. Those were more satisfying. This man, musical prodigy, was composing a jazz sonata in his head when he was knifed on his front steps. This woman created the science of home economics and loved to climb mountains. Here is a marine, killed days after the Battle of Belleau Wood began, during that first American entry into World War I. It is because of men like him that the tide turned against the Germans. Down the slope is a man who spent his life in and out of a federal prison, after a childhood in foster care. His mother, a drunk, was thrown in an asylum when his baby sister was discovered dead from neglect. His father was stationed somewhere. 

My mother is buried in a section of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey called King Solomon Memorial Park. She is under a wide-canopied tree. She was a wife and mother, her tombstone says, overlooking her quantity of feeling, and the things she taught me. 

After we moved to the States, in 1973, my mother went out giving my sister and me a proper education. As sensitive as my father, a physician, was to understanding the mechanics of the body, so was she sensitive to, and skilled at, the contemplation of art and ideas. She wanted us to be critical people, to have opinions. Our mother quizzed us on the instruments in the orchestra pit at Carnegie Hall, asking that we identity them visually and also by their sounds. We did the same with paintings by Rembrandt and Monet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observing the white-lace frilly collars that reflected light on the faces of Rembrandt’s subjects and the pointillist diffusion of outdoor light in Monet’s landscapes. We learned what direction is, on the stage or at the symphony. We go to see the same music over and over, she explained, because each conductor interprets it a different way. I must have been thirteen then, when she turned to me to describe this newly grand, grown-up secret of what conducting was, his feeling about a piece of music. She loved the flamboyant, breathless conducting styles of Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta, the former expressive and the latter violent in their gestures. They were men of bold interpretations and grand, arm-flinging feelings. She loved the big feelings, I realize now, because they took her out of everything that felt ordinary.


My mother took us to see Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town several times. It’s a universal story about an ordinary couple in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, in the early 1900s. The play clearly struck a chord in my mother, but it has taken me much of my life to figure out why. “We like the sun comin’ up over the mountain in the morning, and we all notice a good deal about the birds,” says one of the residents in Grover’s Corner. They live out their lives without too much introspection. Their cultural references are simple: They know Robinson Crusoe and the Bible, Handel’s Largo, and Whistler’s Mother. The drama probes nothing less than the meaning of life, and it comes up empty. Our Town is about regret. It was clear that my mother, even in middle age, regretted her inability to live her life more fully. She was probably my age then. It seems exciting that she met a handsome Indian man and married him, then went to India and raised two children there. Less exciting is her prolonged unhappiness, the weeks she disappeared into an asylum, the years she spent at Breach Candy swimming pool, which famously only permitted Indians like my father if they were married to foreigners like my mother.


Once my parents left India, my mother’s life was no less domestic and ordinary than the women in Grover’s Corner, cooking four decades of meals for their husbands. I wonder at what point she swerved from a woman of intellectual exuberance into a despondent housewife who had so little, and who told me that the radio saved her life. Could she have known that her children, and a handful of articles, letters, recipes, and conversations, would be the sum total of her output? Decades later, past the point of heart transplant surgery and ICU wards, she was calmly reconciled to the fact that her possibilities had vanished. She hadn’t done much with her talents, she had underestimated herself. Finally, just like the residents of Grover’s Corner, there was no more angling for anything deeper, she was simply living. “Do you want to have children?” she asked me before she died, and pointed out that she will never meet them. 


When Our Town’s protagonist Emily Webb dies in childbirth, she begs the dead, who are attending her funeral, to relive a moment in her life. Sensing how it will end up, they insist that Emily select an unimportant day. Emily picks her 12th birthday. 

“I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything.—I can’t look at everything hard enough.”


Delight turns to despair: Emily is pained by how little attention the living pay to the significance of each moment. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance,” that’s what living is. It brings up the riddle of what fulfillment is.  


Indians have always checked their fortunes before marriage, seeking guarantees for fulfillment. My father was one of three out of six children in his family to choose a love marriage over an arranged one. While I was writing my novel, I hired an astrologer in India to tell me my father’s horoscope despite the fact that he has already lived most of his life. The astrologer gave me specific dates for fortunate or unfortunate days or years, and, based on my father’s birth date and time, culled insights into my dad’s personality and marriage. He said my father was a man whose truths should be taken with a 30- to 40 percent discount, and that he had a roving eye. The entire horoscope was amusingly false, except that my father’s marriage was destined to be difficult. How would my father have handled this warning before marrying my mother? 


If you knew what happened in your marriage, in your life, it might ruin everything. Burdened with foresight, you’d have no free will, no variety of feelings, no serendipity. You’d just be good at everything, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’d be stuck in a sort of If this then that classical-logic-guide-to-life. It doesn’t allow for the way you conduct yourself and the multitude of decisions that influence your path, the way a marriage goes horribly wrong or a pregnancy ends or the way a man’s cologne smells or woman’s gorgeous, provocative hat. The burden of knowledge would make the days unbearable. 


​If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.


Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” has always felt so true because knowledge so often has pain built into it. And with pain comes a certain humility about your little spot on earth and what you do on it; there are constancies of joy but there are even more constancies of suffering.


My second time at Green-Wood, I came across an idyllic little lake surrounded by shady trees that reflected darkly back upon themselves, with tiny little benches set up on slopes for contemplation. But I think of cemeteries as noisy places, full of conversations going on below the surface. I like to imagine my mother here, with other Brooklyn-born Jews engaging in era-long chats grounded in their experiences. I imagine Bernard Malamud’s luckless grocer Morris Bober, in The Assistant, looking for people who appreciate his talent for finely slicing meats. ‘Why so sad, skin-and-bones, eat, eat?’ he’d ask. But listen harder: Maybe we know, more than we let on, what in our lives is truly meaningful. It’s not the cash drawer of the successful storeowner across the street. My mother, if she were listening, would shake her head and say, with Morris it wasn’t at all about the meats, it was about his joy talking to the people who came into the store: the Swedish painter for his beer, the Italian girl for ham. She had a knack for seeing things with more reality than they appeared.


I used to think my mother didn’t understand me, but I now know she knew exactly I needed, even if she couldn’t give it to me. Yet now, when life has put me on high boil, or in a downward spiral, I miss her empathy, which she only seemed able to muster when things were truly awful. Rock bottom is a situation in which she seemed most comfortable, like the time we dropped her at the mental ward, hysterical, yet days later when I visited she was in her element, lively and lucid as all the crazy people shuffled around in their slippers. I have one story of this illness, but there are others: the approach of an undignified death in a life that was not lived fully; the side effects of heart disease; the vividness of her still-resilient mind blossoming; her relief at being removed from society and locked away, a madwoman in her attic; and her adjustment to the cold hard fact that she was running out of time.


It seems inevitable, in our obsession with immortality, that we struggle to make sense of time. It’s compelling to separate experience into eras, so I can conveniently perceive my decisions as age-related, not unlike the way surveys predicate your answers on age-appropriate responses, tagging you: wild spirit, mother, old lady. Sometimes I try to get ahead of it, and do things now that I think will matter to me in retrospect. I’ve been absorbing my mother’s death for sixteen years, thinking about all the conversations and experiences we sadly didn’t have together. Since then, I’ve been sheepishly calculated about trying to create memories with my father, so that when I am forced to pass the rest of my time without him, I’ll have something real to hold onto. Shadowing my efforts are the things he didn’t give me in my childhood and all the questions he can’t or won’t answer. Over the years, my father has revealed little about what he feels. He has been a reliable mystery.


In response, I’ve been determined to accrue some set of feelings and rules that define and describe him. When I started researching pre-Independence India for my novel, I discovered that I could use my father’s encyclopedic knowledge of Indian social and political history, and the history of medicine, as a primary reference. I emailed, because he had grown hard of hearing. Typing seemed to make his memory unfettered, and his emails arrived like little gifts, packed with curious details about daily life in the forties. Those emails are artifacts, but they are also memories I am stealing. Decades from now, when he’s gone, I’ll have something distinctive: a cache of shared and now fictionalized memories, a trope of a film within a film.


How quickly the last decades of the Raj opened up to me! My father is a researcher, and his expertise is in understanding how to develop new drugs to treat disease. Growing up among typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other infectious diseases, he understood the crises those diseases created for families like his. Serendipitously, his knowledge of the history and methodologies involved in studying infectious diseases was extensive and precise. He could help me create and define the fictional character, an epidemiologist, who I had modeled on him. My father described the whites-only hospitals with their Australian nurses, and the not terribly effective treatment for syphilis, rampant back then. It usually went hand in hand with tuberculosis, he said, especially among mill workers because they frequented prostitutes and they bunked together, in groups of eight or so, and TB spreads quickly in places in tight quarters with limited ventilation. If I asked about what kind of treatment a woman in a bombing might have had in a 1946 Bombay hospital, I’d get a detailed response about the medical equipment and ventilation in the hospital rooms, medicines available, procedures for treating the likely injuries, and an analysis of how the body might react.


But it was always the offhand remarks about daily life, related to my barrage of questions, that I found delightful: Screw-on caps or bottle caps were not available, so soda bottles were sealed with marbles; it was rare for a doctor to be a Muslim; he heard parrots, crows, and nightingales in the mornings; Jain families like his were more likely to be against Muslims than actively siding with Hindus; penicillin was in short supply and mostly available to soldiers so the treatment for a trauma patient would be to maintain his fluid level; there were no cafés in hospitals; the Jain religious leader Rajchandra, a “genius,” would recall 1,000 items after looking at them for a few minutes, and my father had classmates that could recall 100; there were no cookies in Rajkot, where he grew up, but in Jamnagar, nearby, his aunt had biscuits made by Glaxo.


I was capturing his history and making it mine, making him more mine than he was by simply being my father. Except it wasn’t really his history, it was a fictionalized version I’d manufactured for my 100,000-word story. Then I’d grow greedy, and would curveball into a question that concerned his feelings about my mother: “If you were you, and mom was her, and she cheated on you, how would you feel?” I’d never get a proper answer to a question like that. For the most part, I had avoided digging into my history with him, and had relegated his history to 1946, when he was sixteen, rather than when we were all in India, in the sixties, and all the time since. Instead of reconceiving my past with him, or my idea of him, I had solicited his help conceiving a new family in another time period. That father had no gaps in his story, and I was privy to all of his conversations. I didn’t get the family history I wanted, but my father gave me layers of context to the city I was raised in.


The Bombay of my childhood, from 1966 to 1973, was not the exuberant, colonial port city of the 1940s that I discovered in my research. In the forties, Bombay was a wartime port city with fancy department stores and a frenzied jazz scene, and fat hotels with throbbing ballrooms and big-band dances. Huge waves of migrants were entering the city. Between 1941 and 1951, the population swelled from 1.7 to nearly 3 million. (It is at least 13 million now.) So, if you were coming to Bombay for your pot of gold, you had to find a niche. My father remembers every kind of specialist: kalaiwalas, who shined zinc coatings on brass utensils; dhobiwallahs, who my mother said tried to break a stone by beating it with your laundry; and men who fluffed lumpy bedding through string stretched across giant bent bows. There were, as they are still, ice sellers, barbers who cut your nasal or underarm hair, knife sharpeners, and fortune tellers.


​My father understood his options. Like everyone, he specialized, then specialized further, to secure himself a job. He wanted to be a pediatric physician, but that meant limiting his options to caring for wealthy children who were seldom sick or working in a clinic treating destitute children with all kinds of diseases. The former would be unsatisfying but would pay the bills handsomely and the latter would give him the challenge he was after, but he’d have to cobble together a living. Instead, he chose a field that so specialized that it was in its infancy. He earned his M.D. from the University of Bombay and his Ph.D. in pharmacology. From India, my father wrote Dr. Harry Gold, a professor of pharmacology at Cornell Medical College in New York, asking for a fellowship. Gold had defined the field of “clinical” pharmacology, the study of medicine on people, by designing the first clinical trial for humans, using the first double-blind study. Dr. Gold invited him to New York, offering a stipend of $200/month. In my version, he got the fellowship because he was so brilliant. But my father says only someone from India would have taken so little money.


In April 1960, my father arrived in New York, where he met my mother, and where a different history begins. Not only had my father been a student of a man who invented his field, but he invented himself and his specialty, and he invented a new life with my mother. I’d be dishonest if I argued that she invented herself with him, because all she really had was her tumbleweed of sadness, my sister and me, and her fascinating ideas.


​When my father gave me a copy of the “glowing recommendation” he received from Dr. Gold, he blushed with pride. He had been keeping it, this first document of achievement, for more than 50 years. As he submitted this document to me, I sensed he was not only submitting to growing old but securing his legacy. I was the archivist now, and he, 83, was turning over what he thought was one of the proudest moments of his personal history to me.


My mother had destroyed as much as possible before she died, in order for us not to see the nature of her jagged feelings. But what’s left is a trove, an archive of letters to her parents from her first European trip. Not long after her funeral, my father photocopied those letters and gave them to my sister and me. Those 50 pages of wild feeling, eloquent for a woman of 18, stunned me. Suddenly I could access the part of her life she waxed nostalgic about: experiences she had when the world, and foreign men, were just beginning to open to her, during a time I didn’t exist. Now she doesn’t exist, but here are the letters, through which, as I read them, she exists in 1957 and I am accompanying her to Nice and Rome, and islands off the coast off Sweden. What will the pastor’s son in Gilead feel when he reads that letter from his long-dead father? His own memories will fade; these are more concrete.


I don’t understand my father better after all my research, but I wouldn’t have been able to write my book without him. He provided the funny notes, niche histories not available in books or articles, localisms, and quirky asides. What I do know is that he listens carefully to my factual questions and responds promptly. But the more I probe his feelings, the more I come up empty. I’d like to think he is more quiet than empty, stymied for half a lifetime by my mother’s often brilliant loquaciousness, but it’s also possible that this idea of him is a fantasy. The truth is that she crushed him with her contempt and her pathologies, and he drained the love out of her with his indifference. They were together 40 years, and during that time they lived like two silos together, slowly isolating themselves from others as married couples often do. Through my single-story lens, they were a stereotypically Prozac housewife and a breadwinner husband with contrasting East-West sensibilities and oil-and-water religions in a puzzle-piece household.


It reminds me, from my middle-aged perch, that you have to shape your own possibilities. I’ve gone through life ricocheting from one city to another, from one friendship or lover or job to another, eager to collect experience in order to ensure that I would not end up with an ordinary job in an ordinary town, a passionless marriage and an unlived life. But happiness does not arrive in the usual ways.


Give me the secret, I say to the skeletons in the cemeteries. “Play your part!” one screams. Some throw ears and noses at me, and others appear with formulas no one had ever seen. There is a young girl delivering the afternoon sermon and an older man weaving together the remnants of exploding galaxies on a 19th century spinning wheel. The ordinary spirits laugh but it sounds like owls. “I thought you were going to be a window dresser,” my mother yells from New Jersey, and my father shakes his head at me and says I have a vivid imagination.


Invention is how our souls move forward. Maybe you fulfill your possibilities not in a eureka moment but in reading between the lines you struggle to see. You start a conversation. You rewrite your stories from a different moment of experience, as Graham Greene suggested, and hold them up to the mirror. You figure out what you feel and you don’t take it to the grave. What I have learned, I’m less sure of. I am sitting here with my Venn diagram, turning the circles around. Sometimes I feel like an old man with the earnestness of a 20-year-old and the heart of a middle-aged woman. Now that I’ve dipped my hand in, I defer to Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe this is what aging is, experimenting with the universe, seeing what shaped you, making good use of it.


Diane Mehta’s poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, comes out in 2019 with Four Way Books. She is finishing a historical novel set in 1946 India while working on a collection of essays. She has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica, and A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.