On August 7, 2016, I wrote to my friend Mark Baumer. I am wondering if you want to invent siblings for each other, I said. We were both only children.

I like the idea of doing a collaboration around siblings or not having siblings, Mark wrote. I am going to create an email thread called “Siblings Not Siblings” where we both simultaneously discuss this project and create it at the same time.

Our ultimate goal was to write a book. What crystallized instead is this email thread, composed less than a month before Mark left for his second cross-country walk. I revisited “Siblings Not Siblings” on January 21, 2019, the second anniversary of Mark’s death, and was struck by its candor and kinship. Both then and now, the correspondence feels cathartic. I hope it brings comfort to you.

— Claire Donato

 

Siblings Not Siblings
by Mark Baumer and Claire Donato

mark baumer <everydayyeah@gmail.com>
Aug 7, 2016, 10:06 PM
to claire

I heard you don’t have any siblings. I don’t have any siblings either. Do you know of a good place to get siblings?

Claire Donato <somanytumbleweeds@gmail.com>
Aug 7, 2016, 10:16 PM
to mark

I don’t have any siblings. I don’t know where to get them. Sometimes, my friend calls me “brother.” My lack of siblings causes me worry, because one day my parents will die, and I’ll have no one with whom to mourn. But maybe this speculation of having no with with whom to mourn is illusory: what if one’s siblings die before one’s parents? What if I die? How does a person grieve the loss of a sibling? I would like to send a card to someone that says For My Loving Brother on Your Birthday.

mark baumer <everydayyeah@gmail.com>
Aug 8, 2016, 3:16 PM
to claire

I don’t have any siblings either. I used to have a family dog. My parents called it my brother. It died when I lived in California for a year. After he died I used to crawl under my office desk at work and cry. I imagine sibling death is maybe worse than dog death. But maybe not. One thing I enjoyed about having a dog as a brother was not sending him birthday cards. I don’t think I get enjoyment from sending/receiving cards.

Claire Donato <somanytumbleweeds@gmail.com>
Aug 9, 2016, 12:23 PM
to mark

I also don’t have siblings. I wish I knew where to find one. Right now, I am crying at my desk because I am experiencing an emotion that feels like grief, only this grief wasn’t caused by a death. It is a grief caused by a feeling I once called love. Long ago, this love began choking on an object. I tried to give it the Heimlich maneuver and failed, and it died in my arms. Now I am covered in a full-body rash. No one on the Internet can see this.

If I had a sibling, I would call them crying, and they would invite me to their home for a slice of gluten-free bread. Together, we would sit on a wooden bench in their backyard, drinking sun tea from glass jars. Their backyard would be covered in raised beds filled with every organic vegetable. My sibling would say: Do you want to pick some purple kale? It is the color of an amethyst. Then they would hug me and let me sleep in their guest room, even though this scene takes place in the mid-afternoon.

What was your family dog called? My family cat was Tess. She was black and white with a pink nose, and also psychic. Days after my family adopted her, I stood at the top of the stairs and told her I didn’t want her. I was six. I’m not sure anyone in my family loved her—how can you love a pet if you don’t love each other?—so she frequently hissed in a feedback loop that looked like no love –> hissing –> no love –> hissing.

When my parents separated, my dad kept Tess. I think he tried to love her in his way, even though he traveled to Thailand too much to be with her. The day she was put to sleep, his friend the veterinarian came to pick her up. He called my mom crying. He never told me this, though he did tell me that sometimes he feels her ghost walking across his bed.

I’m attaching a JPG screen capture of two photographs I took of myself and emailed to myself. Looking at it makes me feel like I have a sibling. Maybe you can try this exercise to see if it helps you feel like you have a sibling too.

mark baumer <everydayyeah@gmail.com>
Aug 16, 2016, 9:58 AM
to claire

My family dog was named Bernie. I think I always wanted a sibling so I would have someone to do sports with. Bernie was pretty good at chasing all the balls I hit in the woods, but it would have been nice to have someone to play basketball against. My dad did a lot of sports with me. Probably more than any other dad I knew, but he was still limited with how much time he could spend with me because you know work, capitalism, etc. I always imagined a sibling would have made me a better person, but who knows. I think I was fortunate in some ways because I lived near my cousins. All three of them lived within a mile of me in our small rural town.

Claire Donato <somanytumbleweeds@gmail.com>
Aug 31, 2016, 11:46 AM
to mark

I told someone that I want a sibling. He is also an only child, but he has never wanted a sibling. During this conversation, I remembered how the mother of another friend stopped speaking to her siblings after their mother died. They got into a fight about money and quit one another. Sometimes, I quit people, and sometimes I quit things, e.g. binge drinking. Sometimes, quitting feels like failure; sometimes, it feels like an embodied fuck you. I’m sure my sibling would be supportive about my embodied fuck yous, thereby making me a better person. Maybe my sibling would help me become more assertive!

Growing up, I did not live by my cousins. They lived in France and had names: Louis-Xavier, Marie-Julie, Pierre-Martin. Together, they form an international hyphenated triptych! Once, Marie-Julie came to visit my family in the US. She stayed for a few weeks. We ate a lot of Kraft macaroni and cheese (the poisonous kind) and listened to Madonna. She wore black clothing and had dyed red hair. Was she my sibling? We sat together in the backseat of a car and my parents drove us somewhere.

mark baumer <everydayyeah@gmail.com>
Sep 1, 2016, 12:30 PM
to claire

A person I know with two siblings told me, “I think it’s unfortunate your parents didn’t try to make more of you.” I feel pretty good with how I turned out, but the second child always seems to be an improvement on the first unless the parents are too tired and have already given up. Actually I don’t know what I’m saying. It doesn’t seem fair to second children to say subjective things like, “They are better/worse because…” I’m a little sad my parents didn’t have four or five children and make us start a band together.

Claire Donato <somanytumbleweeds@gmail.com>
Sep 3, 2016, 5:03 PM
to mark

In 2012, The New York Times published an article called “The Family That Cobras Together.” It’s about a Canadian family who practices competitive yoga. Incidentally, there are four siblings in this Canadian family, and in the article, the word “siblings” appears four times:

  1. Tobi was 9 at the time, too young for the 104-degree yoga room, so he sat in the lobby with his siblings while his parents took a class […]
  2. […] then with his parents when his siblings took class.
  3. Gil likes the strength poses; his siblings grouse, “He was born with a six-pack!”
  4. The siblings like the intimacy of family yoga. “The facade is gone,” Von says. “Everybody is stripped down to the basics. There’s no real hiding.”

*

Yesterday, I told a friend about my imaginary sibling: how she has a garden filled with purple kale the color of an amethyst; how she has a guest room where I could retreat from my life. She would let me stay with her, I said. My friend has a younger sister who is starting college in the fall. He said he wants to be this kind of sibling to his sister. My sister can come to my house and sleep on the couch, he said.

*

Remember The White Stripes?

 

I think about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and then I think about Blackfish. I think about all the captive orcas related to siblings: Sakari (GreatGrandbaby Shamu), Makani, Kalia, Adán. I think about Shouka, a French orca who spent the first nine years of her life with her her parents and siblings. Then she was transferred to a Six Flags Worlds of Adventure in Aurora, Ohio. Wikipedia: “She was the only orca at the park but had bottlenose dolphin companions named Merlin and Cupid for seven years until they were relocated due to compatibility concerns.” Another orca, Unna, lived in Orlando with her parents and siblings for the first six years of her life until she was transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio.

mark baumer <everydayyeah@gmail.com>
Sep 19, 2016, 1:27 PM
to claire

Yesterday, I decided to look for something I could call a sibling. I looked under a rock. There were no siblings under the rock. Years ago I remember looking for siblings inside the bread I was eating. I did not find any siblings. I ate the bread. Later, I got sweaty thinking about all the bread I ate. I no longer eat bread. I still don’t have siblings. I can’t remember if I searched for siblings anywhere else yesterday besides under a rock. I’m pretty sure the rock was named, “blimmbo,” and it was actually a pillow. I don’t really like pillows. After I looked for siblings I might have set the pillow on fire and then put it in a trashcan. It was still burning when I woke up this morning for yoga. I think the instructor could smell all the smoke in my hair, but she didn’t say anything. It wasn’t long until my sweat drowned out all the smoke in my hair. Eventually I made it to work. As I was walking into the office, I noticed I was only wearing one shoe. Maybe all humans who don’t have siblings should only wear one shoe. This would be a nice symbol. I just had a vision. It involved being less sad about my parents’ inability to grow a second child with their bodies. The vision all involves standing before a large crowd and saying, “Siblings and siblings.” Somehow, I feel emotionally okay today with not having a sibling.

 

 


 

Mark Baumer (1983-2017) was a writer, an activist, a performance artist, a yogi, a son, a friend, and a vegan who was walking barefoot across America to raise awareness about climate change when he died. On January 21 — the 101st day of his walk — he was struck and killed by an SUV in Florida. He was 33.

Claire Donato is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press), a not-novel novel, and The Second Body (Poor Claudia; Tarpaulin Sky Press, reissue forthcoming), a collection of poems. Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Territory, DIAGRAM, Bennington Review, BOMB, Fanzine, and The Elephants. Claire teaches poetics and advises theses in the Writing Program at Pratt Institute, curates digital language art (most recently for Brown University’s Interrupt V Festival), serves as a Mentor for the PEN Prison Writing Project, is a children’s reading and zine tutor, and lives with one cat and ~50 houseplants in a psychic’s building in Brooklyn.