I dress my infant daughter, belt her into her stroller and walk her down a mile stretch of tree-lined streets to our library in Charlottesville. I ride the elevator down one floor to arrive at section 92, peruse the names, the faces, the back covers. I often leave with a stack five or six books high, with works like Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Roxane Gay’s Hunger. From the depths of a red-brick building named for two of our country’s founding fathers—a building bolstered by marble columns and topped with a pointed pediment—I retrieve the best of today’s memoirs, written by women.
Six months ago, I made it my job to raise a tiny human. To prepare her for a life that, in just a few short years, will be lived largely outside the walls of our home. I will watch as she both shapes the world and allows herself to be guided by it, like water carving a canyon. And yet, these are our days right now: rooms, windows, soft carpeted floors. The inward-swinging side of my front door. So I crack open the covers of these books while she naps. I immerse myself in true stories authored by powerful female voices who push out against rock and find that their pliancy makes them stronger.
Bagged or unbagged, I avoid the statue of Robert E. Lee. The small block-by-block park in which it stands runs along the library’s west side, and I’m grateful that it’s out of the way, even if just barely. Beneath the canopy of her stroller, my baby stirs from an urge that is both thirst and hunger—a primal wanting for which we don’t have a word because the desires diverge before we can speak. I won’t waste my steps. Out the library’s south-facing door, I turn left, and left again. I pass my synagogue—an unsuspecting temple with five turrets and arched doorways, vines climbing up to a glass-windowed hall. And I’m reminded of an old proverb:
“What’s truer than truth? The story.”
I’m drawn to the adage, perhaps because at first, it evokes a firm, unyielding, no. Story is myth. A fanciful stringing together of events to present a moral. To make sense to our ethnocentric, human selves.
But then I hear my own rebuttal, quiet but resolute. It says, yes. It says, without story what would our lives be, other than an infinite set of entirely trivial data points? This moment, for instance: the specific cerulean hue of the sky, the sound of my breath, the squeak of stroller wheels, the winding ant trail, the car horn, the traffic cone, the crosswalk, the corner, the curb… Story is the sieve we use to sift through the noise and find meaning. It is the lens through which we look at the world and at ourselves and arrive at a common denominator. It is subjective and mercurial and flawed—which is exactly what makes it the purest, unadulterated piece of truth, if not (as the saying insists) truer than it. Each day I live I become more convinced that objectivity, like many of the virtues we glorify, is a mere construct. A fallacy. Stripping ourselves of our humanity to reach some form of certainty, what does that achieve? We can go about our lives erecting stones but they will only ever be nonliving.
That’s why I have these books in the basket of my daughter’s stroller. The urge to read them arises from the same deep-seated need that brought me into being: give me skin, give me eyes, give me lungs. I want to experience another person’s unique reality. I want a point of view so different from my own that when their words resonate, I feel—with profound awe—that I’ve stumbled upon something universal. I want a meeting of minds and bodies and spirits that can only be achieved through turning the pages on which these brave women have written down their lives. I want their self-evident truths. Their declaration of personhood.
I turn onto Park Street and am reminded of last August. The flag-wielding hate that gathered and the Nazi chants that reverberated across my town, my neighborhood. I’m reminded of being sixteen weeks pregnant, of laying on the couch by the front-facing window of my home and watching my daughter, not even the size of my palm, kick her foot in rhythmic pulses down by my hip. It would be three more weeks until I learned her sex, but I promised her, “we will outlive this”. We, as in she and I, and the lives she might one day bring into the world. We may carry the surnames of our fathers and husbands, but the matrilineal bond is a deep and endless river—a force uniting daughters of daughters from womb to womb since the beginning of humankind.
I look down at her now as she dozes, her eyelids softly closed, her dimpled chin tucked into her shoulder. “Adira Malka,” I lean in and hum, touching her toes, “Strong Queen.”
It’s the voices of women that I hear—ancestral, present-day, future—as I sing my daughter’s Hebrew name. Voices of women who have gifted language and legend to each next generation, sowing seeds of hope within us when there was more often reason to despair. And it’s the voices of women that I will continue to seek out this and every August as the asphalt beneath my feet swelters. I am tired of hate blighting the world, invading my hometown, crowding my thoughts. It’s peace and reason and fairness and justice and love that I will embody. That I will become. That I will pass on.
We turn onto our street—the street that, four months ago, was strewn with flyers insisting “It’s okay to be white.” They were sealed in zip-loc bags and weighed down with stones—to our driveways, our lawns, our sidewalks. I remember forging down our street, holding back tears—my baby girl then ten weeks old, swaddled against my chest as I gathered and discarded the remaining pieces of hegemonic angst.
I step in through my front door, putting thoughts of days past aside. I unbuckle little miss Adira Malka and set my books on the coffee table. She wakes up and demands to be nursed. I kiss her head and bring her to our rocking chair. The remote is in reach, but the television stays off. My evening news lies between the covers of these memoirs. These written accounts of women’s lives lived today are my barometer for how we are faring in the ongoing battle to weather our adversities. They are my sense of duty and promise in the world.
“What’s truer than truth?” I hear myself say, “The story.”
I realize that I don’t just believe these words. They are the water in the well that lies within me. And like the bucket that lowers, I find myself returning, over and over again, to this: Our prophecies self-fulfill.
As I nurse my baby, I open the covers of the memoirs I brought home, reading the first passages in each. My eagerness to take in these women’s life stories lies somewhere between thirst and hunger—a desire both familiar and also ineffable. From these pages, there is an outpouring of love and strength and perseverance. I hear a coalescence of resilient voices. Like a river flowing into the future, it promises to pave a new path, eroding stone along the way.
Dana Mich is a Jewish mother and writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, Brevity’s Nonfiction blog, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and her memoir writers collective @movingforewords.