Kill your darlings

The two rooms in the Renwick Gallery are dimly lit and packed with people, mostly my age and younger, scurrying from one window to the next to shine flashlights through the pane of glass separating these viewers from the gruesome scene on view. The scenes are miniatures, dioramas of unexplained death created more than 60 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, the founder of forensic science. They’re on display in an art gallery, and in press clippings the curators have tried to emphasize that these are artworks made by a woman using a feminine craft to subvert gender norms (women don’t solve crimes), but as far as I can tell, the visitors huddled around the dioramas are really only interested in solving the mysteries before them.

I do my best to wait patiently as groups of twos and threes block the view of a diorama for five or six minutes so they can point the flashlight at likely clues. They sweep over the meticulous detail in the handmade tiny rocking chair and the mini reproductions of actual newspapers from the 1940s; they flash the light across scaled-down, hand-knit blankets in favor of fake blood. As museum attendees they disregard the whole point of this exhibition—Frances Glessner Lee changed the way people evaluate crime scenes by teaching gumshoes to observe each of these dioramas for 90 minutes at a time, and each of these tiny scenes is carefully constructed, at a cost comparable to building a house at the time—and they focus on finding a solution.

I want to elbow my way past the amateur sleuths and station myself in front of each diorama and drink in all the details with the kind of serious reverence France Glessner Lee deserves. This is because I’m a snob: I generally hate art museums because they never give enough (I think) context for the art on display, and I have cultivated an interest in Frances Glessner Lee’s legacy since I interned almost a decade ago at the house-museum in Chicago where she grew up. The minute I glimpsed her childhood portrait, the dare-you-to-hold-me-back smirk on her face, I was hooked. I finally wrote about her for Lady Science in September, a few weeks before this exhibition opened.

As we climbed the step up to the Renwick, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had only a handful of times before. Last year, when I visited the Morgan Library’s exhibition on Charlotte Bronte, I wandered a gallery of Bronte’s juvenilia, early drafts of Jane Eyre, her writing desk, her dress, in a state of shock that made me grateful I was encountering my literary icon, the guardian angel of my writing life, alone. And several years before that, we saw a production of “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving weekend, with Shirley Jones in a different role than the one she played in the film version. Afterwards, we stood in line for her autograph and I was so star-struck by this person who embodied Marion the Librarian, the woman I’d always aspired to be, that I said literally nothing to her as she autographed the CD I purchased for her to sign, so that she kept glancing at Jen, who stood at a distance to capture the landmark, extremely awkward, moment on camera. My failure to express myself to Shirley Jones haunted me when we met Lydia Davis a few years later, when I mustered a few token sentences as well as the unspoken gratitude that so many of my heroes are dead.

But here’s what I would have said to Frances Glessner Lee, if she were still living. Here’s what I whispered into the darkness surrounding the dioramas that are still used today to train law enforcement on the art of observation: Thank you for saying yes when people told you no. Thank you for using the privilege of your birth to champion science and evidence for the good of people less fortunate than you. Thank you for taking a tiny world, and making it that much bigger.



The Morning After


I am standing on a precipice, breathless with exhaustion and gratitude and surprise. After years of wrong turns and bad equipment and Road Closed signs and avalanches and misreading the map, I have not expected to ever find my way to the top. I am not so much afraid of heights as I am confident that the climb will kill me. Why should I succeed, even when I have tried to foresee all the major dangers, planned a zillion escape routes, packed all the necessary provisions? On the summit, I think, So this is what it’s like to be on top.

II. Freiburg (Hope)

In January I am suddenly aware that this is the year I will turn thirty, which means I should start planning for the milestone now. I decide to attend a two-week writing program in Freiburg, Germany, not far from the fairy tale Black Forest. I don’t speak the language and the idea of eight hours in a plane makes my stomach churn, but I have never been to Germany and I know that this will be my last summer off from work because next year I will have a real job, and the program director is a fellow alumna of my MFA program. The universe seems to say, “You can climb this hill.”


During the spring of our first year of college, my roommate and I discover we can order safe-sex supplies for free from our college health clinic. Neither of us needs anything for the usual reasons; both of us are curious. When we retrieve the female condoms from our student post office boxes we are stumped. We wash off of the spermicide and slip the clear rubber circles around our wrists like friendship bracelets. She takes her off five years later, on her wedding day. Mine turns amber, the inside edges brittle and mottled with cracks, like fossilized mother of pearl. I wear it like a tattoo and forget that it is there, forget that I might have to explain, in delicate terms, what it is and what it means, if anyone asks. To my surprise, no one ever asks.

IV. Freiburg (Dream)

We hike through the Black Forest, pound our way up a hill that keeps climbing and climbing, and I think of the Hillary Step on Mt. Everest. The last push before the summit, the place where Sir Edmund Hillary did not falter. I think, If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, if I just keep moving, my legs will keep me going. It’s what I learned after 130 employment rejections, after five years of piecing work together, after dozens and dozens of story rejections, after mile 20 of my first marathon, a feat had seemed easier than facing the same challenges of everyday life: in the spaces between the muscles and tendons and sinew in my knees and hips and ankles, there’s energy enough to keep moving.


What I remember most about my senior year of college is the feeling of regret. After four years of trying to find my place and my self I finally fit in, just in time to leave. I am convinced that this will be my life’s pattern: just as I get comfortable it is time to move on.

VI. Freiburg (Friends)

“You’re turning thirty?” she says. We’re falling behind the others, all of us wandering up the twisting cobblestone lane following the vague desire for one more ice cream cone before this trip is over.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m finally an adult.”

“Oh,” she laughs. “You’re already an adult.”


Midway through my thirtieth year on Earth it occurs to me that I do not need to plan so hard. “Everything will be fine,” a friend says, and it becomes my mantra.

VIII. Freiburg (Home)

The morning after I return from Freiburg, I wake just after three in the morning, my body convinced that it is mid-day and my mind racing, already, to pitch forward into the next chapter. I roll over and feel on my face a rough, not-quite-familiar thing. In the dark, my fingers trace the edges of the amber bracelet, no longer an endless circle and no longer on my wrist. I grip the broken rubber bracelet in my fist and think, I need to find another one. Before dawn, I get up and set the bracelet in the bottom drawer of the jewelry box on the dresser. Then I remember. I climbed this hill.

The Morning After
The Morning After

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