The stories and poems collected here are largely about perspective, specifically the shifting perspectives of age. Our governing principle as we chose work for this issue was youth versus age—or experience. The result is that everything you’ll read here is on the same essential spectrum of concerns, but it’s a spectrum without a middle—without all of us people in the middle between youth and age. It’s unexpectedly refreshing. When you think about it, we (all of us middle people) usually dominate the narrative. Progeny of Dante perhaps: Midway through the journey of my life / I came across a dark forest. . . . Leave the Poet in the dark forest—just for a while. He’s not going anywhere.
We always had in mind, naturally, that youth itself is a kind of precocious brilliance: the enthusiasm, naivété, the inspired heedlessness of not knowing better, the exquisite wonderment of seeing things for the first time. My children once thought that windshield wipers were the most extraordinary feature on our car, and surely the quality that set it above all other cars on the road. Only an adult could have recognized how gorgeous it would be to go around thinking of windshield wipers as a miracle. Art teachers often try to coax their pupils toward insight by getting them to see things again like a child, to recapture wonder, and then synthesize it—as only a grownup could. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the perspective of the very grown up. As you move into your later years, all of the painful reconciliation of middle age folds into a functional understanding of the world, something that you can live with—and die with. How much more you know, how you narrow your scope and become more efficient in your needs and your expressions.
My grandmother, much to everyone’s dismay, went deaf in her old age. She couldn’t hear a word—unless she was talking to children or her priest. She was an excellent reader of lips, my father tells me, but if she didn’t want to talk she just turned in the other direction. Narrow but efficient, and unequivocal.
I have a very dear friend, deep into her eighties, who only ever refers to sex as fucking. And sometimes in conversation you can see that she really likes the way the word sounds because she’ll figure out a way to repeat it just a few more times: fuck, fuck, fuck. She’s not being grumpy. She’s a clear-eyed minimalist and a spade is a spade.
The other day I sent my father a short interview I’d come across that Igor Stravinsky gave when he was about seventy-four, in which he discusses music and the church. It’s a dense treastise full of declarative sentences: “Religious music without religion is almost always vulgar.” It’s the expression of comprehension and the discarding of what’s extraneous, broken, or full of static. Over forty years after he’d detonated classical music into the modern period with The Rite of Spring, the elderly composer rails against the hollowness of secularism. The interviewer asks: “Must one be a believer to compose in these forms?” Stravinsky answers, “Certainly, and not merely a believer in ‘symbolic figures,’ but in the person of the Lord, the Person of the Devil, and the Miracles of the Church.”
My father, a musician and former seminarian, wrote back to me a single line: “I must have read this at some point but it is more meaningful now.” Now he is Stravinsky’s age as an old man. At some point though my father was a young man—as Stravinsky was when people ran from auditoriums, clutching their ears in horror at polyphonic noise he’d composed and called music.
The detonation is less important than what it revealed.
The remarkable picture on our cover is by the photographer Gillian Laub. When I look at that last line above, I can’t help but think of her work. Most explicitly her first monograph Testimony (2008), an unflinching collection of portraits of victims of violence in the Middle East—not photographs of war, but of its aftermath. More recently, Laub traveled to Georgia to photograph a racially segregated prom. The portfolio, which published in the New York Times, drew so much negative attention that the small town merged its two proms. Laub returned to document the new, improved event and discovered a bramble of racial dynamics far more complicated, and more embedded than what she’d thought she’d seen when she first reported the story. The documentary film she made about her experience, Southern Rites (2015), demonstrates perhaps most profoundly the inadequacy of language, and especially the inadequacy of conventional ideas of storytelling when discussing race in America. The story of a prom was an expression, not necessarily a story, and the integration of the prom was hardly a neat resolution, let alone a happy ending.
Throughout her work, whether photographing teenagers in the American South, girl soldiers in the Middle East, her exotic Westchester family, or beachgoers in Tel Aviv—as on our cover—Laub’s images portray the complexity of surfaces and the challenge of subtext, all visual not verbal. She pushes a golden light over subjects we’d rather turn away from, teasing out highlights, sheens and angles. Then she defies you to describe any of her subjects as simply pretty. Because the image captured in the frame is only the threshold of a story, and stories, and things that can’t be neatly tied up, and things we shouldn’t necessarily turn away from.