Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time
A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday
April 16, 2021
from “All Thy Waves”
in Put Off My Sackcloth
by Annie Dawid
“On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again…I was defenseless against its allure.”
The Humble Essayist Press is pleased to announce publication of its newest collection of essays, Put Off My Sackcloth by Annie Dawid. The daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and an American mother prone to suicidal depression, Annie Dawid, in these essays, traces the history of her life, pivoting between the hanging trees of her most despairing moments, the dizzying shifts of her youth, her archetypal dig into the horrific mass suicides of Jonestown, and the aching “architectural wonders” of her beloved son, Elijah. The writer Jill Christman describes the book this way: “In these essays, Dawid never flinches and when she can laugh, she laughs. She takes us down deep, but she shows us the sparkle of light glinting at the exit of the cave—and love? Love wins.” Our feature this week is the first paragraph of her book. You can learn more about Put Off My Sackcloth and The Humble Essayist Press here.
The Paragraph of the Week
During my last sojourn in That Place, I could listen only to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson singing mournful, soothing gospel. I could read only literature from the nineteenth century and earlier. In the solipsism of my condition, I discovered that King David’s Psalms described depression with beauty and accuracy, and I found some solace there. I ate only cereal, and that with effort. I could not bear the sun and prayed for rain. Nights were marginally better, when I did not have to confront the light. In the wooded park where I walked my dogs, I found the darkest places and the least-trod paths. On one bend of a trail I’d never seen before, I discovered the hanging tree. Like a car wreck, it drew me back again and again. I didn’t want to study it, to want what it promised, but I was defenseless against its allure. Every afternoon I walked around the old oak, admiring its solid, sturdy arm under which I believed I would achieve my final rest, like a bird, nesting. As school was out, I did not teach and had no daily obligations. I was six months’ pregnant – six months off my meds.
Annie Dawid was too gloomy during her pregnancy in the summer of 1999 to understand why she suffered depression. She thought it was the result of despair caused by the Columbine shootings and the anxiety of bringing a child up in such a world. Also a friend had told her that she could not be a good mother given her tendency to depression. She found herself drawn to the “hanging tree” of suicide. The real problem though was that she was off her medications. What helped was a doctor who told her that “in scans of severely depressed people, whole sections of their brains remained unilluminated,” and she understood why she was not thinking clearly. Slowly the doctor’s words sank in, and she delayed suicide, aware that she would be killing her unborn child, and eventually took a low dose of medication that diminished her anxiety. Friends she trusted promised that “it’s not going to be like this always,” and Dawid started to repair herself. She read T.S. Eliot’s poetry and found belief in “something bigger and stronger than humankind," and, overcoming the “allure” of the hanging tree, gave birth to her son who made the world look “entirely different.” Caring for another human being, loving and mothering her son, and taking her meds revealed to her “the myriad delights of living.” This transformation is the theme of Put Off My Sackcloth, stated succinctly by a friend: “Hell sometimes disguises paradise.”
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We at The Humble Essayist Press are proud to announce publication of Yesterday's Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance by Joe Mackall. You can learn more about Mackall's book and our fledgling press at our website here. You can read The Humble Essayist feature on the book in the Archives here.
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Folly Beach, my newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
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