The Perfect New York Times Magazine 'Lives' Essay

Have you always dreamed of writing one of those "Lives" essays that appear on the back page of the New York Times Magazine? Yes? Jesus. Our readers used to be cool. Anyhow. The point is, the magazine's 1,384,674 editors are now sharing tips about how to write an essay that doesn't make them want to roll their M.F.A. diploma into a big old cocaine-and-rat-poison blunt, due to despair. The perfect "Lives" essay is now within your grasp!

This is, after all, a democratic call for submissions, for a section that has recently featured a diverse range of unknown authors like... Toure, Caitlin Flanagan, and Frank Rich's son. The 1,384,674 pithy writing tips can be found here. Or, you can just absorb all of them through osmosis by reading the essay below, which we like to call "The Platonic Ideal of a New York Times Magazine 'Lives' Essay, Based on a Scrupulous Adherence to the Editors' Tips."


Adumbe Sings The Blues, But Probably Not How You Expect

Adumbe didn't talk. She laid there in her crib, silent. "Is she dead?" we asked. "No," said the orphanage lady. "You see, Adumbe was born without vocal cords."

When we adopted my daughter Adumbe, my husband and I were both freelance war photographers, thrown together by the heady atmosphere of the Eritrean civil war, as so many people are. We were white, she was black. That's not something we ever cared about or even something that ever entered our mind. I include that fact only to evoke a sense of detail. She was beautiful— a little bundle of beauty, amidst all that chaos.

"Let's take her home to New York City and start a life together— a real life, outside of all this chaos," my husband and I told one another at the same time.

"Jinx," we giggled. Then my husband was shot dead, but that's not what this essay is about. I'm not the sentimental type.

Back in New York City, Adumbe and I made a life together as best we could. She grew bigger and bigger, as babies do. She outgrew her crib, and then her kiddie bed. She outgrew her baby clothes. She went to school, and rode the schoolbus, and rolled her eyes along with me at the constant pledge drives on WNYC. But one thing she never outgrew: the fact that she didn't have vocal cords.

I remember one time, when Adumbe and I went for a frozen yogurt. She was wearing her pink sneakers, which she had insisted (in sign language) be accessorized with pink laces. I ordered her a small strawberry frogurt, her favorite. As the frogurt associate handed it over, he gazed at Adumbe, smiled, and said, "So I guess pink is your favorite color, huh?" Adumbe gazed right back at him. She didn't say a word. You see, the man didn't know that Adumbe could not talk. It was a very uncomfortable moment. A particular, evocative moment.

Later that night, I went home, closed my bedroom door, and didn't cry. This is no Hallmark card. This is my life.

There were lots of other evocative moments. Thousands probably. Suddenly Adumbe was 12 years old. One day, she burst in the door after school and ran into my office, where I was busy working to put together the annual Memorial Homemade Dinner for my late war photographer husband, which is just a once-a-year thing where I get together on a warm, breezy summer's night with good friends like Annie Liebovitz and Bill Cunningham and Terry Richardson and Jill Abramson's dog, and we all swap stories about my late husband over Coloradoan microbrews and injera, and give each other strong, hopeful looks. It takes a lot of organizing. When Adumbe ran into my office that day, I knew it must be something important. And indeed it was. In her hand, Adumbe held a crumpled flier that she'd picked up at school. "TALENT SHOW NEXT WEEK," it read. On the back, my daughter had drawn a detailed, evocative picture of herself, microphone in hand, on stage, with little musical notes coming out of her mouth.

Knowing Adumbe as I do, I knew that could only mean one thing: she wanted to sing in the talent show.

Though it pushed me to the outer limit of my comfort zone, I encouraged her in her dream. The big night arrived. I put on my traditional Eritrean netela so that Adumbe could see a comforting and familiar kind of head covering when she looked out into the crowd. One by one, her classmates came to the stage—singers, dancers, rappers, dancing singers, rapping dancers, human pyramids composed of a singer perched atop a dancer and a rapper. These kids were good. Finally, the assistant principal, Mr. Albertson, said the words: "Next to the stage, Adumbe!" My stomach fluttered. Although I believed in my daughter fully, there was no getting around the scientific fact which had been affirmed and reaffirmed by pediatricians, surgeons, and assorted other medical specialists on two continents: Adumbe did not have vocal cords. She had never been physically capable of making a sound her entire life. Now, here she was, striding confidently towards the microphone, in front of a packed auditorium, as the first few notes of her backup music began pouring through the speakers. How was this going to end?

That's not important. Afterwards, we went back to the frozen yogurt place. "Strawberry?" said the frogurt man, looking somewhat chastened. Adumbe looked at me. I turned to the man. "No," I said. "She actually hates pink."

That frogurt place is now a SoulCycle.


Photos via Anson0618 and AISPIX by Image Source/Shutterstock.