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Matters of Conception
Reproducing the Unknowable
I have always thought of curiosity as a practice and quest for attention, for reciprocal love. Though I grew up in the same apartment as my father my whole childhood and into my twenties, I never really lived with him. To this day we remain strangers. One of the few fond memories I have of interacting with him was the tradition of my mother telling me my father knew everything except one thing. He would beam with pride as she said this and answer any of my questions. As I got older, eight or nine, I dreamed up wilder and more abstract inquiries. His otherwise extreme reticence, lurking quietly in a dark room by himself nearly naked behind a glowing TV or computer, suggested knowledge to me, questions inconceivable to me, beyond my capacity to ask. And though I sensed the wink of it all, that by not naming the one thing it could be anything, he could know nothing—I also knew I played a part in the unknowability.

The known ruins the unknown in an obvious sense: possibility and probability are vanquished by the answer, the result, the fact, whatever is. But then there is the next cycle of possibilities—on the largest scale, think of reincarnation. A death ends all possibility for a life, but a human who begins a new life as a willow tree suddenly has a new breadth of experience, of possibility, of ways of feeling, of winters and summers, elemental and human catastrophe. Of impossibilities too—speech, movement across continents, responsibility for wars. Mythologies are conceived around this conversation of knowable and unknowable phenomena. We invent within the structures of the known because the structures—the limits or constraints—are effected by the unknown.

In any moment of interaction with my father, the only thing he didn’t know might be the very thing I actually needed to know. I never knew how to catch him exactly, to expose him, and by the time I realized I did not know whether he loved me or could, I stopped being able to stomach the game. Where language fails us, we use language to express the approximate: I have no words, I don’t know what to say or better yet a metaphor which transforms the unsayable into an image. It allows us to hold the unknowable—something that can exist in the imagination, the mind’s eye, a rhyme that resounds in the ear, a piece of stuck music. We keep these sensory phrases with us because we cannot keep with us the thing itself, the mixed feeling, the chameleon longing or unknowable source of our pain.

Shortly after giving birth to my son I learned I have a relatively mild form of a common neurodegenerative condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, the most prevalent type, 1A. The disease involves the peripheral nervous system and explains beyond terror and self-consciousness why I’ve always found Darwin my enemy—I fall to prey on a minor beach walk let alone a hike. I always felt humanity evolving past me, as if I were some archaic form of human unequipped to walk on ice or hike a gentle hill. I barely make it down a single step off a stage after a reading without an invisible hand reaching out to ease me down. My hands are perfectly weak, almost mannerist, and my feet are arched into one brand of zippered boots that have come to define me at black-tie events or tropical excursions. I get by fairly easily—my gait doesn’t reveal itself immediately, my weak nerves almost suit my overall nervousness. I am proud to be athletic of imagination and sorrow instead. It turns out my son inherited this disease, caused by a duplication of the PMP22 gene. Shockingly, no one else in my family carries the disease—it is de novo in me, meaning by some fluke it appeared in me during embryonic development.

The disease is autosomal dominant making it a fifty percent chance that I will bestow it upon any offspring (how funny that I worried for my whole childhood about passing on my father’s colorblindness and baldness). Now when my toe feels numb I wonder about what my son feels in his feet. There is a micro-level of empathy to motherhood, likely because of the physical bond but just as much because it begins nonverbally, which is related but not the same thing. Patients with CMT 1A only depend on wheelchairs in about five percent of cases, though many will need leg braces at some point in their lives. The disease has no anticipation, meaning there’s no way of predicting how severely CMT will manifest in each person, even within the same family. Though my presentation of CMT is mild, how severely the disease will manifest in a future child of mine is unknowable. Now that I know of my disease, I hope to spare a future child the possibility of severe disability.

While potentially making daily life harder—running, climbing, even walking or buttoning a coat, the disease does not shorten the lifespan. It is not, in other words, life threatening. So much of what ails us is. So much of what kills us is surprising, is rare, is unexpected, is unknowable. Do you want to know when and how you will die, for surely one day you will as will I as will my son. At my first appointment at age nineteen, my general internist said what makes adult medicine different from pediatrics is that it stops being about growing up and starts being about preventing death. When we find ourselves in the middle of our lives with enough information, the gift and curse of science, we start trying to prevent death before birth. We start to play God. It is a goofy game because we know we can’t know, the unknowable ping-ponging off our sturdy factual racquets. Percentages, test results, probes made from our cheek cells to test DNA biopsies of embryos fertilized in laboratory cultures through intracytoplasmic injections.

On some level, we have children not to be lonely. We don’t want to be alone in the world. We don’t want our species to become lonely. By combining one’s biological information, we narrow down a self while expanding the possibilities of what humanity will be. The word reproduce suggests creating again something that already exists, and yet it is both the known and unknowable parts of ourselves (and our partners) that we are reproducing and even reconfiguring—or in my case filtering out. We are generous. We are selfish. Selfishness and selflessness are often the same, like mirrors that reflect never just ourselves but also the rooms we pass through.

I wait for results from an egg retrieval in hopes of having a future child who won’t suffer from CMT—hormone levels on day 2, day 6, number of eggs, number of fertilized eggs, number of day five blastocysts, day six blasts that will be biopsied and frozen for preimplantation genetic screening (PGS), number of chromosomally euploid embryos that go on to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), number of CMT-unaffected. And as the information and answers proliferate, the questions do too. One example is the mosaic embryo which contains a certain percentage of abnormal cells and therefore the uncertainty of developing into a healthy or unhealthy fetus. Even in the answer there is the reminder of chance, of facts being as broken and beautiful as art made of ceramic shards.

The increased probability of creating a genetically healthy child leads to an increase of unease, of what it means to be human within and without science: Will I let myself know the sex? Will I let myself lose something I know more easily than something I don’t know? Given my last pregnancy’s fifty-fifty odds of ending in success due to a large placental abruption in the second trimester, will I attach more or less to what I know might or might not end in a life? Are my frozen embryos safer where they are now, where more of them may survive than will ever survive in me? (I’m not having eleven children.) Are their biopsied cells taking anything away from what they might grow to be? Should I love the parts that are tested as much as the parts that will be implanted in me? Will I watch the monitor as a white shooting star passes through my cervix into my uterus or will I already be checking for the warm rush of blood on the way out? Will such a loss happen when I am standing or lying down and how will I blame another instead of myself?

Writing is an act of making something symbolic of the unknown, a little bark that lets us float a while on the unknowable. For many it is a necessary practice of survival, not because we make sense of our selves or express any truth, but because the very arbitrariness of our thoughts and feelings is the only barometer of experience. Or perhaps the randomness of experience leads to an overwhelming amalgam of thoughts and feelings that words or materials can help us hold on to and let go of. We need form to give us a sense of pause even when it’s obvious time will not stop for us. We are forever moving and moved through it. Form is arbitrary and all we have—and like Ozymandias, it too will change in the elements. Any knowable fact is subject to contradiction and evolution; nevertheless, the knowable both satisfies and torments us. Eleven blastocysts were sent to the lab from seventeen eggs, fifteen mature, thirteen fertilized. Soon eleven will be replaced by a much smaller number of unaffected embryos. Form is the random particular. Fact is a tipping of the hat to that which exists and passes out of awareness. What is an embryo but our first form, our first arrangement of cells, the dwelling place in which the unknowable first meets the knowable. If only our thoughts could proliferate and divide as embryos, random and organized, precalculated and spontaneous as any pre-life is.


Embryo 1

As I’ve gotten older the knowable has made the unknowable less tolerable. I have a history of leaving places and returning, making a great drama of premature departures—schools, summer camps, relationships, cities. Then I make a great plea to return and when I do I give in wholeheartedly—is this home? Is this a matter of control or of coming to terms with relinquishing control, with seeking the confinement that is belonging. Is this a cry for independence and solitary freedom or the opposite, a rebellion against loneliness, a desperation for family above all, to be claimed by one’s origins or a need to be the one claiming, creating. I believe I create and create again because no creation satisfies for long. Why? Because I still crave being created. Early on, at the beginning of working memory, age three, I said in a dusty thrift shop this is the closest I will be to being born and my mom was amused and said yes, yes that’s true I guess. I am still sad about this, time passing and only occasionally allowing itself to be wholly felt like a planet suddenly dizzy in its habitual orbit. It would be unbearable to carry time with us always. We made clocks to forgive our forgetfulness—which is not to say I want to begin again. After the recurring dream of my mother putting me back inside her by way of a trick operation I didn’t know either of us needed, I wake up blushing. Dreams are our brain’s best strategy for reminding us that what we know, what we learn and encounter daily, is just a sieve for the unknowable. The little silver holes of image and place, faces and sounds distill who we are from what we think we know.

Embryo 2

When I knew I wanted to try to have a child, I feared losing children along the way, haunted by my mother’s miscarriages. In a way this wall of phantom siblings between my mother and me became my own creation. Instead of a cushion of lost blood that kept me at a remove from my mother biologically, as if the hormones she needed to carry me had made me me more than her genome, the eleven miscarriages became my future. The unknowable became particular, became countable at least in my mind. This switch from past losses to what would be lost was unbearable, much more so than the fear of losing any abstract child. I convinced myself I would have to literally reproduce my mother’s history like a rite of passage toward true motherhood and selfless love. This conviction was either the self-sabotaging work of my brain or the self-preserving work of defining the unknowable, naming or in this case numbering the potential loss.

In a sick way, I could remain hopeful because after all her suffering my mother’s journey did result in a child, two children. I did not have to worry about a new unknowable journey but instead of retracing a traumatic path with a happy ending, the ending being my own existence. Losses delayed my mother’s dream of having a child, but in retrospect she got the exact children she wanted. Does loss make love stronger, make gains more special? Maybe we have to think so. What I wanted most would have to follow a string of losing what I thought I wanted. I couldn’t therefore trust my own desire, which is synonymous I think with the survival instinct. Though I now know of many other traumas of pregnancy—placental abruptions, placenta previa and accreta, cervical incompetence, stillbirth, no matter how many probables and improbables we tally, anxiety fools us into forgetting there is endless possibility, and endlessness means only that the imagination itself cannot stop nor can it hold everything at once. As a result of my father’s riddle I became a hunter of people’s interiors as much as their knowledge, wanting to be told people’s secrets but also to decipher what was secret even from them. Maybe this was a way to tolerate a missing part of myself, this game I played now and then with a parent I couldn’t fathom. I made him feel good as I pretended to believe his answers, and I felt good being the cause of his thought. I could create responsiveness and it was my responsibility to. We cannot hold even all that we can create.

Embryo 3

We cannot create everything we must hold. Some of it is given. Some of it must be given away. There is such a thing as retained products of conception (RPOC), when the body holds on to what the baby needed to live. The first ultrasound after I gave birth was disgusting, to see the remnants nobody was feeding off of anymore, to see the placenta my body made that had almost let two lives down. I did not have a child to have something to nurture or someone to escape myself through. In many ways I do not ever plan to stop being a child, and a child is the last thing needed to survive adulthood. I had a child to become a mother and more paradoxically to permit my genuine search for a new mother—neither a replacement nor supplement. For years already I had searched and found mothers in mentors but this was different—I wanted the arbitrariness of biology, someone for whom I had no affinity beside absolute need.

Finding a mother is not something you can advertise or request nor can it be a seduction or competition. It is one of many arbitrary relationships that is traceable by blood or fate. Not arbitrary at all—a relationship that will never be mutual except in love. The very nature of the quest made me aware of its impossibility. To create another is to be mother, not child. To seek the unconditional is to provide conditions. But how to shut off the search and let love? If I was ever born, it isn’t possible. If I was never born, it is impossible. I did not like the idea of becoming what I wanted for myself, of transitioning from child to mother. I thrive off overwhelming ambivalence.

Embryo 4

I love art because it is both finite and infinite, often beautiful in a tangible way and painful in the possibilities it points out. We discover a sculpture or a song or a poem that pleases us, holds us even though its message is unlimited, amorphous, often bringing us to the surface of our own suffering with no companion but the object itself. To me this overlap is meaningfulness, an exquisite container that offers pleasure for the inevitable toxin: living. Our bodies contain our deaths this way. The body laboring culminates the development of the fetus but in producing the baby it begins a less containable journey. It is what art does for life and why the question of which matters more is irrelevant to anyone who needs art to live. The relief of holding the baby in one’s arms is the loss of holding the baby inside. There is now a voice but never again the kick from under the breastbone. The rhythm repeats inside out for a short window or maybe forever. We call this sensation of inward awareness beyond ourselves intuition. Birth involves first breaths, crying, often suctioning and learning to suckle. There is instinct but there is also adjustment: to air, to touch, to sound and light.

Transcending the individual, birth itself is a grotesque display of human love that gestures toward the species, only to become the most individual and inward bond, so focused between two faces, the purpose of reproduction for the outside world becomes blurry. The very presence of other bodies, other people’s smells or voices that once provided comfort and withness may become toxic in the bubble of new birth. The baby now outside becomes an inner world and the inner world may feel empty or literally engorged, hardened and without room for self or other. What is this space between the hyper-vigilant new mother and the blind needing baby but an anti-womb, the first experience of the unknown, the entrance into the knowable. This is mommy’s voice still. This is the way you eat here. The gestures in sleep will mimic those of the watery world within, and we the mothers will gain slight enchanting insight into our own invention of peace, the pre-scream lifetime. Our wombs are for many of us unknowable until inhabited, made knowable by the inside taps at the doors and walls of our bodies, our centers of gravity shifted, our balance of weight and even of power redistributed, disturbed, sleep-deprived, and pushed up against furniture we used to slide easily by.

Embryo 5

When we begin to know our baby, we only fear more and more what we might lose. This is obvious and how love works. What may be unique about motherly (or maybe parental) love is the way we love before we know whom we love or can’t say when we began to know the beloved. The entire journey is through the unknowable to a knowable that changes too quickly to be anything but arrows to more unknowing. And that direction is terrifying, and disorienting it is mostly what love is: the dimpled knuckles, the round round yawn, the desire to banish everything for this person and at times to banish this person to feel once again whole and alone. Having the chance to find out how many healthy embryos I have and still not to know what will stick, to know my chances, my age statistics, my AMH number, my FSH number, my stress expressed through my veins, to not know under literal sedation what is being removed from my ovaries, to wake and be told a number that could be a number of children I will have but by all probability and science will not be. What does it all mean? What do the numbers, the expectation of results and the results themselves mean to us who desperately seek to create life and not lose it?

What does it all mean for me, desperately seeking to contain the unknowable in words, poetry? First, it shuts me up, the promise of scheduled facts. Not because the data itself scares me but because it ultimately is just another arrow toward what we can’t know. Who will the child be? How will we love them? The facts we wait for are not answers, not questions, not life or art. I am losing my patience with knowing and wonder if soon I will put myself to sleep counting down the days till my transfer—the day my doctor will insert a catheter through my cervix and shoot a microscopic embryo via air bubble directly into the top of my uterus—or whether I will start loving my own improbably unprovable version of a you.

Embryo 6

Will the loss be easier now that I have one son because I will go on for him? He is here. His features have somewhat narrowed the many versions of him I imagined before his birth. He is enough for me. Or will it be harder, remembering how I almost lost him and didn’t, imagining he is not here. Will I be lonelier than ever in my greed, feeling he is not enough, that I deserve somehow more offspring in this world we go on ruining? How many days this week did I forget to recycle? To have one child is truly more than one can ask for, I think sometimes, but then again I was the second child. My mother said I was a gift because you can’t expect more than one miracle. How could she after eleven miscarriages? Should I want to see your face if I lose you? Should I want to hold you forever as if you had lived? Or should I discard you as if you are just another shed lining of mine, another egg meant to be lost monthly from the center of my life, a sign of time passing healthily. It is a question of choosing fate or blame, what someone else decided for you or what you are responsible for yourself. One is the freedom of losing control. The other is the prison of being in control. Prison for me.

Embryo 7

Where else does the knowable brush up against the unknowable? Of course in terms of our lifespan, we know we will die but not how or when or what will come after. And birth: we know we were born but not what came before it. We of course can’t remember the process itself, but we know it happened. We are the proof. Sometimes the circumstances of our birth are as unknowable as our death. And beyond the opposite ends of birth and death, most of the middle is unknowable until we wade through it. We could say, at first simply, that the past is knowable and the future is unknowable, which would make the present the clash of the two. And maybe this is an easier way than time or space to think about the struggles and honors of living. But it gets confusing—memory distorts. We forget. The future can be planned, imagined. Are they both equally unknowable?

Negative capability, Keats’ famous dictum, is of course an opportunity to celebrate the unknowable rather than try to make it knowable. Dickinson had the same idea, dwelling in possibility. Is this a practice for consuming as well as creating? And maybe more importantly can we do this outside of art? I have ideas of what I will have to do tomorrow. I don’t know certain aspects of how the day will unfold, the weather, the mood of my son when he wakes, what kind of bird I will make eye contact with on my way to the coffee shop. And I don’t seem plagued by this, at least not at the moment. I focus on what I can control, what I have to do, what I know will happen. And even that may be wrong, but that doesn’t phase me—there are emergencies, surprises, disasters, blessings that save us or force us away from our expectations.

Split Embryo

In my experience, intelligence is individual but there are two general categories minds usually fall into, sometimes overlapping. The first kind is a knowledge or “knowing intelligence,” a quality I admire and like to lean up against, befriend: a mind that can relate and display knowledge from a variety of areas, rigging up the right fact for the right moment to push a conversation or idea forward. The second kind of intelligence is one I have come to accept and appreciate, the one I feel I identify with more often, and which I call “vacuum intelligence.” Vacuum intelligence relies on invention, imagination, perception and zigzagging association. A vacuum is not an empty space but a forcefield that pulls in, absorbs, brings together, covets, sneaks, clears the way. I don’t know whether it is a compensation for lack of knowledge or gift of freedom from it, but this is the kind of intelligence that can create context when there is none, an intelligence equivalent to unconditional love. It can be dangerous because it has no foundation but that which it invents, motorized by wonder and conviction rather than history and learning. When the two intelligences meet you make either beauty or cruelty. They are powers of knowing and not knowing and they need each other in this our chaotic and recycled world.

Embryo 8

Romance is one expectation we come to have in life that is very often defined by its unknowability, its unpredictability and thwarting of circumstance. Like finding a mother as I became one, I knew when I was ready for romantic love because I felt able to love even though I had no object or person to love, even though the love itself was still unknowable. We seek the unknowable in and often against our wills. I had to plan a search for a lover and know my plans would fail me. I had to anticipate and place myself strategically opposite the unknowable so that in some slight breeze I might catch the face of a known or unknown other whom I would give anything for and likely be heartbroken by.

What does it mean to make oneself vulnerable? It doesn’t mean simply to bear the skin for the arrow—more often it means to make the wound ready, ready to be deepened or reopened. There is always a prior wound to expose. And exposing wounds is how we beckon and test the unknowable. Superstition is our way of trying to dupe the unknowable—to imagine that our actions or thoughts might change or affect what happens is to suggest a level of magical knowability. A belief in god, faith of any kind, can be thought of as a way of making the unknowable knowable, perhaps falsely, perhaps metaphorically. That our brain must be aware of its limits is what makes it great. And what makes us suffer. We cannot conceive of everything, not our origins or our ends, and yet our neurons fire in large part as a result of how we process previous experience. In my quest for another mother I was able to cope with the unknowable experience of becoming a mother. I had to suspend disbelief, knowing that the woman I sought to be my mother was not biologically my mother nor had she raised me. At what point did she have to know she was my mother in order to be my mother? But doesn’t a mother have to know, at least as much as the child, which child is hers?

Embryo 9

In the Anthropocene, the geological period in which humans have come to define the direction of our planet, destroying climate and species at a rapid rate, can there still be a sensible way to consider our geological scale without acknowledging the knowable limits of our existence, without accepting the unknowable afterlife of our self-destruction? Does science give us the ethical responsibility to stop things from happening, to prevent the chaos we have caused, and what about when it’s too late and we know that? Should we still reproduce our species if it’s ruining our species and many others to do so? How much are we supposed to let what we know and can find out affect the way we interact with what we don’t, can’t, or should not know? That should is subjective and I guess that’s the point. We each must decide how we will change our lives as a result of information. Even the faithful must make choices. Sometimes we reason. Sometimes we rationalize. Fate and free will, we must admit, coexist. Things happen beyond our control and things happen within our control.

The ocean represents the unknowable, and yet it is one of the most apparent and one of the most carefully, cosmically controlled elements of our planet. As a girl I imagined that the ocean must recognize me on the shore as I looked out at the water, seeking an end, learning the horizon was not the end of it but just the end of my own vision, an illusion rather than a line. The ocean seemed threatening, and as I went deeper it dared me. We, humans, are so often historically caught up in its freak nature—rogue waves, ships at sea in storms, the depths we can’t fathom, the liquid darkness like the one we came from, the interior of our mother, a person who will remain to most others a complete stranger. Why do we find shells beautiful? Ruins, odd shapes and asymmetries, skeletons hardened and bleached, abandoned by life and death and uncovered suddenly by time and the elements? The fossil is the earth’s secret. It is the knowable unknown we collect on our walks. We can touch and hold what can’t be said: enigma, from the Greek for “dark saying.”

My first memory at the beach was with my friend’s father. In the shallow waves as he held my hand and my friend’s on opposite sides of his gigantic frame, we asked which of us he would save if a big wave came. It may have been my friend who asked, being his daughter and bolder, but I was wondering the same exact thing. He answered the right way—quickly, kindly: both of you he said. But what if you had to choose she said. And he gave her a knowable look. I did not have a father I knew or who knew me. We passed each other daily in dark hallways but never spoke or touched. Looks can provide important information, and information, at first glance, provides security, but sometimes we know too much, not because the information itself harms us but because it forces us into a more tortured relationship with the unknowable. From that moment on I have been shy, well terrified, of the ocean and fathers.

Embryo 10

My mother was overbearingly loving and protective while my father was an enigma I lived with who seemed too cold to express love to anyone but the child he was unloved for being. They exaggerated each other. Though I reject my mother’s insistence that my father loves me, I wonder sometimes whether in fact he does. The poles of unknowability.

For a couple years I felt I might find a father as deeply as I felt I could find a mother, many mothers—the impossible to contrive relationship which must pre-exist selfhood. But fathers are not easy to find as a girl grows up. When my mother asked my father at a dinner table, looking at his grown daughter across from him, whether he found her beautiful he paused and reddened: I don’t know what to say to that. It was disgusting to wonder whether he meant I was not beautiful to him as a daughter must be or whether he feared transgressing some idea of fatherhood, to even contemplate his answer as a question of sexuality. I tried to watch the scene unfold through the mirror behind him. In mirrors we suspend awareness of dimension and direction. We remain unknowable as we take ourselves in.

Maybe what I have been after this whole time is the chance to escape the self, to not feel alone, to feel—beyond accompanied—unindividuated again. More often in life, ironically, it is when I’m alone that I feel closest to wholeness, and when I’m with others too long that I long to feel myself again. It’s sad to write that I guess, but it’s just another manifestation of the unknowable wrestling the knowable, the knowable making the unknowable unbearable. Only parts of existence can be known. The big picture of why we are here will remain unknown. The known helps us probe the big question but as we probe, we find sometimes we are doomed and sometimes we are saved, and the act of questioning makes the question bigger which can be beautiful and torments us like most beautiful things.

Embryo 11

If I ask myself whether peace is an illusion I usually just wonder what peace is. If everything goes back to definition, to ontology, the unknowable become easier for me. It is a big round opalescent emptiness that we can scrub the circumference of until our tools, our hands, our bodies become part of it. Maybe that is peace or maybe peace is the end of war, of argument, of chaos. It may be that everything only becomes itself in relation to the things we create or cause, the uglier parts. Are children this way? Glowing holes we polish with our disintegrating selves. It is so strange to spend so long trying to fill something in only to find the process makes the emptiness more distinguished. As if empty things can be kept empty. As if an old Coke bottle could hold some old taste without the glass and the taste could be held and the holding, even holding nothing, could be what fills us.


It’s late December and before the end of the year I may know which embryos are healthy enough to transfer back to my uterus or whether I’ll need to retrieve more eggs and make more embryos or have them made by some unknowable force, more knowable than nature: the embryologists in the IVF lab. This has become a common process, a blessing though costly emotionally and financially, for many couples facing infertility today. But what does it mean when I’m given new information, when my eleven blastocysts leave behind a few healthy embryos, the rest discarded? Will the new number of normal, the new knowable create a new structure for me to think in? Is what we know a container, a form for what we can’t know? I guess this is how poems work, how language works, maybe even how the body works. The knowable will continue to make the unknowable harder to bear but it will also shape the unknowable and that is what makes a lifetime worthwhile beyond art, which may be the purpose I’ve been seeking all along in struggling between wanting to be alone and write and wanting to love and even create other humans.

After I’m done excavating or filling my body with potential life, other knowables will emerge. The results of a mammogram for instance may provide a kind of urgency, stress, or relief that will shape a few moments of or maybe the rest of my life. The city I end up living in may determine the things I do during a single day, the space I trespass, the kinds of plants I see, but it may also change how I think about what I don’t know. Unlike many natural disasters, an earthquake has no predictors. It is an unknowable that has no signals and somehow that settles me. In Southern California, I don’t have to trust anyone is keeping an eye out or tracking the weather. I fend for myself with the mountains always in view and the ocean close by, knowing the cliff that makes my perspective so expansive is able to crack open in a second like a life does at any bad news.

Every day as I sit in the car in Los Angeles, still not knowing how to drive, much of the world feels unknowable to me, but what I am able to look at and learn as a passenger (free not to focus on the road) is also one of the reasons I refuse to learn to drive. I want to hold on to the freedom to look in all directions at any moment, inwardly too, to see exactly what signs I am passing, what debris is stuck in the freeway fence, what plants have sprung up where no life should be, and then wonder by association, by recollection, by some unknowable force in me what, in a place where fire comes as frequent as rain, my life will—better yet—what it could be.

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of the chapbook Bed (Tupelo Press, 2021), winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize, and The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Her second full-length collection, Lying In, is due out in 2023 from Milkweed Editions. She is a poetry editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books. You can find more of her work at