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December 12, 2014
from “It Begins with a Knock at the Door”
“Steven Church felt himself go into that 'separate place' of the writer, 'felt a lens slide down' over his eyes and his 'brain shift into the hyper-writer mind state.'”
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. Ultrasonic, published by New Orleans, is his fourth work of nonfiction; his fifth book, a memoir, will be released in 2015 by Dzanc Books. The first essay in Ultrasonic, “Auscultation,” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the 2011 Best American Essays. Church is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for the nationally recognized literary magazine The Normal School and a member contributor to both Byliner.com and Longreads.com. He teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.
The Paragraph of the Week
A knock at the door. A call for help . . . and as I began, I saw myself from my own writer-mind, saw myself as a character standing there in my neighbor’s living room. This young father, a writer, a kid really. This punk. This jackass. He thought he knew a lot of things, thought himself wise beyond his years. He thought he was funny because he didn’t leave out the farting, because he couldn’t help describing Larry as a large sea mammal. He thought he could see where the story was going from where it started. But this writer couldn’t imagine what it was like to be Larry or Myrtle. He knew nothing of raising a son alone, a son who would become a Major League baseball player, or of losing that son to cancer. He knew nothing of war, of torpedoes, or of a love that lasts for 64 years and more, knew nothing of such loss. He knew nothing of these people as real people. He only imagined, speculated, predicted what couldn’t be predicted about them as characters. He was a simple neighbor, a man who could lift heavy things. They needed his help not because he was wise or funny or good at storytelling, certainly not because they need his sympathy or jokes or essays, but because he was big enough to pull Larry out of a bathtub.
What makes Steven Church’s condemnation of nonfiction storytelling convincing in the essay “It Begins with a Knock at the Door” is that the story he tells is so moving. Larry and Myrtle are a loving elderly couple in his neighborhood, she the mother of a Major League ball player who died of cancer and he a combat veteran of World War II. When Steven is called upon to pull Larry out of a bathtub where he has fallen, he felt himself go into “that separate place” of the writer, “felt a lens slide down” over his eyes and his “brain shift into the hyper-writer mind state”—“a strange and exhilarating feeling” that is the real subject of this essay. As the writer, he feels compelled to say that Larry in the tub looks like “a large sea mammal” and that Myrtle in her nervousness cannot stop farting because these details will make the reader “laugh or wince” just as he did. They will make the story real. Church has nothing but contempt for this writerly state of mind which is a distancing device that allows him to write about others while knowing “nothing of them as real people.” But the story of this couple is told in such a disarming way that we are drawn into the experience before we realize we are being manipulated. The writer is so honest and self-deprecating and sincere that we care about Myrtle and Larry not as characters but as people—at least we think we do while reading. When I got to the part where Larry almost slipped back into the tub I shouted out “oh no!”—something The Humble Essayist never does. It is his demonstration of mastery over the writerly skills he is dismantling that makes this critique so devastating.
December 5, 2014
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddox:
A World Series Requiem”
“This requiem is fueled by guilt, but it is, in fact, about something else: what came before the guilt, the yearning for mastery and accomplishment that the young men shared.” --THE
Jeremy Collins, an essayist whose award winning work includes a 2009 Pushcart Prize, lives in Colorado with his wife and two daughters. Much of this essay, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddox: A World Series Requiem" takes place at Young Harris College, a small liberal arts school in the north Georgia mountains, where he and his best friend Jason Kenney studied as undergraduates. He teaches English at the Early College of Arvada. You can read the entire essay here at SB Nation.
Paragraph of the Week
The comet Hale-Bopp streaks across the sky each night in March 1997. I want a shower, but I don't want to go inside. So I walk across campus, down Maple Street, and over Corn Creek to the darkened baseball field. The chain-link gate clicks open. I step across the diamond, onto the perfect green, and take a seat in centerfield. Thin trails of clouds ring the mountains. I untie the knots, loosen the laces, and remove Jason's basketball shoes. Shoes off, socks off, my feet sink into the soft grass. The comet — a silver-white ball of iridescence hurtling 100,000 miles per hour through interstellar space with dusted up foul lines — looks close enough to touch. I put my head into my hands and fall apart. I'm not ready as the feelings, all the colors of feelings, wash over me.—Jeremy Collins
Why is Jeremy Collins barefooted on a ball field at night with his head in his hands as the comet named Hale Bopp soars overhead? It’s complicated. He has just completed the best basketball game he will ever play, scoring 30 points with apparent grace and ease in a Young Harris College intramural match up. Even the arrogance of waiting for the defense to set up before he drained his last three-point shot, seems more confident than cocky. He raised one finger skyward in honor of his friend Jason Kenney who had scored his high of thirty points the year before. Jason himself had learned about grace in athletics from hours of grueling practice in sports, including practicing in the dark when necessary. He also followed the career of Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddox so closely that he could anticipate each pitch in a game. The reason Jeremy falls apart with his head down is that Jason had died in a car wreck the year before. Jason the driver. Jeremy riding shotgun. Both boys drunk. Jeremy spent the years that followed “searching for solid ground.” So, this requiem to Jason is fueled by guilt, but it is, in fact, about something else: what came before the guilt, the yearning for mastery and accomplishment that the young men shared before pouring the “gold liquid” that destroyed their dream. In high school, Jason had been a promising athlete but lost his spot on the team due to drinking. College was the place for him to regain control and with Jeremy’s support the two young men became disciplined in sports and school. They had just completed a forty day period of sobriety when the accident occurred, and the night before Jason died his father switched the menu from burgers to steaks after seeing his son’s report card. The “darkness around us is deep,” Jeremy Collins writes, quoting the poet William Stafford, and death cannot be undone. The dream of mastery, that once glowed like the incandescent ball of light in the night sky, is hazy with “dusted up foul lines,” but enough time has gone by for Jeremy to be grateful for the dream of excellence that Greg Maddox gave to him and Jason, and when Jeremy meets Jason’s hero one day in person, the word he says—a word that catches the author off guard—is “Thanks.”--THE
November 28, 2014
from “Once a Tramp, Always…”
by M. F. K. Fisher
“These are the times of our lives, and they can, ‘like a sword tap on the shoulder,’ make us feel like royalty.”—THE
As food critic for magazines such as Food and Wine, Gourmet, and The New Yorker in the mid-twentieth century, Mary Frances Kennedy may have had the best job in the world! Her essays were gathered in collections such as Gastronomical Me and With Bold Knife and Fork and are often as much about life as they are about food. The Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “Once a Tramp, Always…” which was published in With Bold Knife and Fork, but I first read it in The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology edited by Phillip Lopate.
Paragraph of the Week
I was perhaps twenty three when I first ate almost enough caviar—not to mention any caviar at all that I can now remember. It was one of the best, brightest days of my whole life with my parents, and lunching in the quiet back room at the Café de la Paix was only a part of the luminous whole. My mother ate fresh foie gras, sternly forbidden to her liver, but she loved the cathedral at Strasbourg enough to risk almost any kind of retribution, and this truffled slab was so plainly the best of her lifetime that we all agreed it could do her nothing but good, which it did. My father and I ate caviar, probably Sevruga, with green-black smallish beads and a superb challenge of flavor for the iced grass vodka we used to clean our happy palates. We ate three portions apiece, tacitly knowing it could never happen again that anything would be quite so mysteriously perfect in time and space. The headwaiter sensed all this, which is, of course, why he was world-known, and the portions got larger, and at our third blissful command he simply put the tin in its ice-bowl upon our table. It was a regal gesture, like being tapped on the shoulder with a sword. We bowed, served ourselves exactly as he would have done, grain for grain, and had no need for any more. It was reward enough to sit in the almost empty room, chaste rococo in the slanting June sunlight, with the generous tub of pure delight between us, Mother purring there, the vodka seeping slyly through our veins, and real wood strawberries to come, to make us feel like children again and not near-gods. That was a fine introduction to what I hope is a reasonably long life of such occasional bliss.—M.F.K Fisher
Occasional bliss—that makes life worth living! Restraint has its place, M. F. K. Fisher admits, especially since her temptations include potato chips, caviar, and a big bowl of mashed potatoes with catsup, but there are times when the full life calls for the extravagant gesture. There was the event described here when she and her father ate from an entire tub of caviar together on one of “the best and brightest days” she ever shared with her parents. The Café de la Paix, located across from the cathedral in Strasbourg that her mother loved, was rococo in décor and nearly empty. A line had already been crossed when her mother ordered “fresh foie gras,” against doctor’s orders. After dinner, portions of caviar were served with “iced grass vodka” by a head waiter who knew restraint, at first apportioning the caviar in small servings one grain at a time, but he lived up to his reputation for excellence by having a sense of the moment as well, increasing the portions as the family asked for more and eventually putting the entire “tin in its ice-bowl” on the table, a gesture that Fisher calls “regal.” When is such indulgence allowed—no, required? When the event is “mysteriously perfect in time and space” and it could do “nothing but good” despite the dangers to bend the rules, and, above all, when the ingredients of the moment add up to a “luminous whole.” These are the times of our lives, and they can, “like a sword tap on the shoulder,” make us feel like royalty. Bathed in “slanting June sunlight” with the giddiness of vodka “seeping slyly” into their systems and a dessert of strawberries ahead this moment is temporary for M. F. K. Fisher and her family. Eventually it returns them to the world of adult restraint and responsibilities but only after allowing them to feel momentarily like happy children once again.—THE
November 21, 2014
from Still Life with Oysters and Lemon
by Mark Doty
“We are our attention to a world made vivid by our loving gaze.”—THE
In addition to being an award-winning author of eight volumes of poetry, Mark Doty is a writer of nonfiction that is both lyrical and meditative. “Mark Doty’s prose is insistently exploratory,” Bernard Cooper writes, “and it all seems effortless, as though the author were wondering, and marveling, aloud.” Our Paragraph of the Week comes from Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, a reflective memoir on the solace that art can bring during times of grief. Doty is also the author of three other volumes of nonfiction prose: Heaven’s Coast, Firebird, and The Art of Description. He is currently at work on a new volume of poems and a prose meditation on Whitman called What is the Grass.
Paragraph of the Week
“It’s a simple painting, really, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by one Jan Davidsz de Heem, painted in Antwerp some three hundred and fifty years ago, and displayed today—after who knows what places it has been—in a glass cased at the Metropolitan, lying flat, so that one bends and looks down into its bronzy, autumnal atmosphere. Half-filled roemer (an old Dutch drinking glass, with a knobby base) with an amber inch of wine, dewy grapes, curl of lemon peel. Shimmery, barely solid bodies of oysters, shucked in order to allow their flesh to receive every ministration of light. It is an atmosphere; the light lovingly delineating these things is warm, a little fogged, encompassing, tender, ambient. As if, added to the fragrance evoked by the sharp pulp of the lemon, and the acidic wine, and the salty, marsh-scent of the oysters, were some fragrance the light itself carried.”—Mark Doty
The painting Still Life with Oysters and Lemon holds secrets which it reveals as gifts to the poet Mark Doty while he is grieving over the death of a lover, gifts that he begins to catalogue in this paragraph. It’s “shimmery” surfaces catching “every ministration of the light” create an intimacy that calls him back to the world, offering him a “tangible vocabulary” for loving once again. The painting does more than celebrate the here and now, though, because its “secret subject” is also what it resists: the “immensity of time” that the paint freezes and holds in suspension, the atmosphere of a caught moment that remains “warm, a little fogged, encompassing, tender, and ambient” even though the moment itself is long gone, simultaneously serving as a reminder of what has been lost as well as what is here. The painting teaches him to hold onto what he loves even as he lets go, freeing him to remain in love and yet love again. But the “deepest” and “nearly unsayable” secret that the painting gives to him—to all of us—is the injunction to pay attention because that is how we empty ourselves into and become a part of all that we love. Each of us, he argues in his reflective memoir Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, is “a bright point of consciousness in a wide field of consciousness from which we are not really separate.” We are our attention to a world made vivid by our loving gaze. “That, in a field of light we are intensifications of that light.”—THE
October 14, 2104
“Our hearts feel a pang as we wave to the cabooseman. And yet, we have these paragraphs rattling, this ‘scarf of smoke’ we breathe in, and hold.” –Sarah Wells
Our Paragraph of the Week is in memory of Judith Kitchen who died at home last week. Judith was a great friend of all writers and a personal friend of mine. Every time I saw her she would throw her arms in the air and shout "Steve!" giving me a big hug. I will miss her. She is the author of six books including her reflective memoir, The Circus Train, a book-length essay that is a model for this emerging genre. She is the co-editor of four influential anthologies of short nonfiction with one still in the works: Brief Encounters to be published in 2015 by Norton. She also created Ovenbird Books where she spearheaded a nonfiction series called “Judith Kitchen Select: An Imprint, An Aesthetic.” You can learn more about the press at http://www.ovenbirdbooks.org.
I have already written a Paragraph of the Week for Judith—you can find it in the archive for the week of September 19, 2014. So I have asked one of my students, Sarah Wells, to write the commentary this time. Sarah is the author of a collection of poems entitled Pruning Burning Bushes and the managing editor of River Teeth. She is also a degree candidate in nonfiction from the Ashland MFA program. Her commentary grew out of a class discussion of The Circus Train. Denise DiRenzo, another student in the class, pointed out that in one section of the text Judith writes that she misses the cabooseman waving from the back of the circus train when she sees a modern train roll by, “[s]urprising you every time with its missing punctuation mark.” Sarah astutely noticed that the last sentence of The Circus Train text has no end mark of punctuation and in her commentary ponders what that means. I think that Judith, the consummate teacher, would appreciate these insights from students emerging out of one of those wonderful, serendipitous turn of events in class that make teaching so rewarding.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
Just so, one word. Sound asserting dominion. The images recur—they return and return. They well up when they are most needed. We use them as touchstone, benchmark, hallmark, yardstick—those compound words of accretion. They tell us how to “read” our lives. Or, at the very least, to measure it. To return to the strawberry patch is to become aware of self as distinct from others. Though I am told my first sentence was “My do it!”—implying a sense of independence long before I see myself sifting the dirt into affable silence. To go back to the merry-go-round might imply adults reverting to childhood, but I like to think of it more as the marvel of being suspended between past and future. To conjure the circus train… It must have meant something as it moved across my horizon and vanished into the haze. It must have meant something, because it keeps on trailing its scarf of smoke
The glory of this last paragraph of The Circus Train is Judith Kitchen’s trailing scarf of smoke, that missing punctuation mark—error? of course not—because these indentations of ink on the page are no full end stop, not even a pause or em dash or ellipsis. The train has “vanished into the haze.” “It must have meant something” : yes, one woman’s memories and images compounded into language and words into story so that we might join her in marveling at “being suspended between past and future.” This is the power of searching for the self in literature: the present-tense writer survives between her past reflections, and forever, for future readers. These meditations in the face of mortality are the click-clack of the gears on the tracks that we grind against in our impermanence; they are the ruminations that defy death. “These days you drum your fingers on the steering wheel as you sit at the barrier, looking up the tracks, waiting for the train to end.” The train, it rumbles now into the distance, the crossing lights dimming, warning bells ceasing. Our hearts feel a pang as we wave to the cabooseman. And yet, we have these paragraphs rattling, this “scarf of smoke” we breathe in, and hold.
November 7, 2014
from The Sanctuary of Illness
by Tom Larson
“The Sanctuary of Illness is not about Tom Larson’s heart attack; it is the story of healing. But the healing is grounded in the fear described in the opening paragraph with its insistence on acting ‘now.’”—THE
Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for more than fifteen years. His books include The Memoir and he Memoirist and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Ashland University in Ohio. The Paragraph of the Week comes from his most recent book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease published by Hudson Whitman.
Paragraph of the Week
Christ, not now. It’s March, I’m at home in San Diego and getting ready to teach my Monday evening class. It’s strange: in the hour prior, I’m hot, sweaty. Constipated. Confused. Breathless, having just lumbered up the stairs to Suzanna’s and my bedroom. The second story—how many times have I done that? I tell myself it’s work, it’s stress, nothing else. I’m out of shape, easily winded. Indeed, for months, I’ve been trudging on the treadmill, a lot slower than usual. But I’m not sick. I’m older. What age? I have to remember. Fifty-six. Driving to class, I’m heating up, rolling down the window for a breeze. At class, I’m no better. I give my flock a writing assignment, which I check, moving from student to student. Ten minutes pass this way. Then I excuse myself—a quick bathroom stint, I think, should dispel this acidic burn in my throat. I lean into the toilet, try to vomit. Nothing. I crap, blow-it-out like bird shit. That’s got it. I rush back to class, wondering what’s happening? I don’t know. I do know I don’t want to suffer in the way I’m suffering right now. How will I make it through the next three hours? I’ve never left in the middle of class, and only twice in fifteen years have I canceled—the day my mother died and the day one of my twin sons left home, leaving a cryptic note that terrified Suzanne and me. I rationalize it—tonight’s lesson needs completing. It’s amateurish to postpone the work. Maybe I can do ten minutes on each essay we’ve read and let them go. From my notes, I outline on the board the writing strategies in each piece. And here it gets strange. The taste of reflux soils my mouth. I feel as though I’ve just plunged off a cliff and halted midair. Afloat, I sense there is no future; however many years are telescoped into these few minutes. Years into minutes. A spiral appears, widens, pinwheels, and sucks me in. I recall how I’ve told students it’s a copout to say, “It felt like an eternity” or “Time dragged on” or “Hours rushed by.” Clichés, I’ve called them. How do you capture trauma, intensity, in words? There’s no other side to this thought. I discuss one essay in two minutes, the next in a minute, the next, in thirty seconds. My words are boggy, slow. Then I hear myself speak—as though I’ve been called on—“I’m afraid I’m not feeling well. I have to leave.” In my bag, I stuff books and papers. My hands sweat. My legs quake. “For next week,” I say—and stop. Everyone is looking at me. “I have to leave.” I’m running.—Tom Larson
In the opening paragraph of The Sanctuary of Illness, Tom Larson is having a heart attack without realizing it. His task is to get from “Christ, not now” to the urgency of yes, now, and by the end of the paragraph he is running toward it. He creates this building sense of intensity in part with clipped phrases. “I’m hot, sweaty. Constipated. Confused. Breathless.” He also describes his thought process to show us a mind that has become “boggy” and “slow” as he attempts to rationalize the truth. “I tell myself it’s work, its stress nothing else.” “I’m not sick. I’m older,” he adds, but is confused about he facts. “What age? I have to remember. Fifty-six.” The trip to the bathroom offers a counter movement against this journey toward now—a false delay of the inevitable. Responsible thoughts about meeting the demands of his job like an adult also derail him momentarily on his way to the truth. “I’ve never left in the middle of class, and only twice in fifteen years have I canceled,” he explains, trying to give himself a pep talk. But the heart attack won’t be stopped by good intentions, and the insistence of now returns as he considers increasingly short shortcuts: “Maybe I can do ten minutes on each essay we’ve read and let them go,” he thinks at first, but as the discussion actually begins, he becomes increasingly desperate: “I discuss one essay in two minutes, the next in a minute, the next, in thirty seconds”—until the “years turn into minutes” and he runs out of time, offering us a cartoonish and child-like image of his disorientation: “a spiral appears, widens, pinwheels, and sucks me in.” Even clichés—the last resort of a writer in pain—are enlisted into the cause: “I’ve told students it’s a copout to say, ‘It felt like an eternity’ or ‘Time dragged on’ or ‘Hours rushed by.’” Here, at the dead end of language, he crashes into the inevitable “now” and tells the class he is leaving, and when he says “For next week” he realizes at last the insanity of invoking any moment but the present. The Sanctuary of Illness is not about Tom Larson's heart attack; it is the story of healing. With the help of his partner Suzanne he learns to eat better, exercise, and reduce stress. But the healing is grounded in the fear described in the opening paragraph with its insistence on acting “now.”—THE
October 31, 2014
from “The Spiritual Universe” in The Accidental Universe
by Alan Lightman
Here, in an encounter with nature that Lightman does not understand, he feels the “sense of wonder” that science and religion share.—THE
Alan Lightman has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He is the author of six novels and five collections of essays including The Accidental Universe and A Sense of the Mysterious. He was the guest editor for Best American Essays of 2000. In the introduction he wrote the following:
For me the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either. When you care about something, you continually grapple with it, because it is alive in you. It thrashes and moves, like all living things.
The Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “The Spiritual Universe” in the collection entitled The Accidental Universe.
Paragraph of the Week
“Then, one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what we exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.”—Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman is not a religious believer. He finds the arguments of Richard Dawkins and others against an intelligent designer of the universe “completely convincing” though he knows that falsifying an argument does not “falsify the proposition” and admits that science “can never know what created our universe.” Despite his skepticism, though, Lightman knows he must make room in his beliefs for this wondrous moment with the ospreys. He and the birds watched each other from their separate nests for a summer. When the time came for the fledglings to fly, they “did a loop” around his house and headed “straight” at him, their talons filling him with terror. Fortunately, the young birds took a sudden vertical turn, veering off, but not before their eyes met his in a momentary “look of connectedness,” “mutual respect,” and “recognition.” For Lightman, the universe divides into an objective world that follows the laws of science and a personal one based on “faith” or “intuitive knowledge” or “wisdom.” These two worlds meet in transcendent moments of exhilaration when he has “the immediate vital experience of being connected to some divine order.” Here, in an encounter with nature that Lightman does not understand, he feels the “sense of wonder” that science and religion share.—THE
October 24, 2014
by Sarah Einstein
“Unfortunately, he pays a mental price for each joy in his life, and Sarah Einstein fears—in this essay about risking vulnerability in the face of abuse—that the spun glass of their fragile, but genuine, friendship will come crashing down.”—THE
Sarah Einstein is the winner of the 2014 AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her memoir Mot which will be published in 2015. She lives in Athens, Ohio where she is a PhD student in creative writing at Ohio University and works as the managing editor for Brevity magazine. The Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay version of “Mot” that originally appeared in Ninth Letter and was reprinted as a Pushcart Prize winner in 2011.
Paragraph of the Week
“Mot is genuinely my friend, and I know the ways in which my world is better, less lonely, because of him. I am grateful to him for getting me through a very difficult period of my life, a time made harder than it should have been because it echoed events of sexual violence in my past. I don’t want to run away from him in fear and I worry about what it would mean for him if I did. But what if Mot is just this sweet, naïve guy the Others throw up to get what they need from the world, taking him back down again when they feel like it? What if someday Moloch looks me straight in the eye and says, “We warned you.” For a few hours, the world feels made of spun glass, everything on the verge of shattering.”—Sarah Einstein
This paragraph requires a little decoding if we are to see the beauty of Sarah Einstein's essay “Mot” and register its power. Mot is Tom, a man whose life has been turned inside out by abuse when he was a boy. His mother tried to kill him in an oven as a child because he was “supposed to be a girl,” and his aunt tied his shoelaces together and told him to “run down the stairs.” To protect himself, Tom became Mot, the “vessel” of mythologically transformed characters from his past that he calls “The Others.” They are “The Big Guys” upstairs “who really pull the strings” and they include Jack the “likeable” one; Antoinette, the sister who died; the harpies who are all of the women who tried to comfort him; and Moloch who lives in his throat and is the hunger he cannot starve away. Mot’s insanity creates hallucinations that frighten Sarah, who met him when she worked as a counselor in West Virginia, and she has reason to fear: at one point he admits that he abused his sister. "There are a lot of bad characters over here," he says, warning Sarah of the demons that haunt him. But the “daedal hand of delusion” that creates this motly assortment of voices in his head also produces a mind so protean that Sarah is drawn to him. After leaving her job, she follows him to Amarillo for reasons she at first does not understand. Sexually molested at her work place, she allows herself to be “gentled” through her own fears by Mot’s desultory but shimmering conversation and their mutual “love of empty hours.” He takes comfort in her friendship as well. “I think I could love you,” he tells Sarah, “if They let me feel love.” Unfortunately, he pays a mental price for each joy in his life, and she fears—in this essay about risking vulnerability in the face of abuse—that the spun glass of their fragile, but genuine, friendship will come crashing down. After all, Moloch, who lives in Mot’s throat and often speaks for him, warned her.
October 17, 2014
from “The Deer at Providencia”
by Annie Dillard
“Our complicity in evil is unavoidable, Annie Dillard's essay suggests. Like delight, suffering is built into life.”—THE
Annie Dillard is the author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which she calls a “sustained nonfiction narrative about the fields, creeks, woods, and mountains near Roanoke, Virginia,” felt like a book of essays to The Humble Essayist when he was a young man and inspired him to begin writing essays himself. There are so many stunning paragraphs by Annie Dillard that it would take a year of weeks devoted to her work alone to get through a small portion of them, so the paragraph below from “The Deer at Providencia,” which at first glance seems so plain, may seem like an odd choice. In it she casts an eye on a moment of evil. But if you look with her, the unadorned scene stays with you long after you close the book. I know that the subject of evil haunts her because she keeps returning to it in later books such as Holy the Firm and For the Time Being. You can hear her read an essay aloud about the same issue from a different angle at this NPR link:
You can find the essay “Deer at Providencia” in Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk.
Paragraph of the Week
“Repeatedly the deer paused, motionless, its eyes veiled, with only its rib cage in motion, and its breaths the only sound. Then, after I would think, ‘It has given up; now it will die,’ it would heave. The rope twanged; the tree leaves clattered; the deer’s free foot beat the ground. We stepped back and held our breaths. It thrashed, kicking, but only one leg moved; the other three legs tightened inside the rope’s loop. It’s hips jerked; its spine shook. Its eyes rolled; it’s tongue, thick with spittle, pushed in and out. Then it would rest again. We watched this for fifteen minutes.”—Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard and a small goup of men—some from North America and some from Quito—watch a staked deer in a jungle village in Ecuador struggle to free itself. The deer is “pretty” and delicate, the skin “almost translucent, like a membrane.” To escape, it paws at its bindings and ends up getting three of its legs caught in the loop at its neck, making matters worse. Unable to stand it cannot get any slack in the rope so the grip of the neck loop tightens. After much struggle, the deer lies still with its eyes closed, “only its rib cage in motion, and its breaths the only sound.” Just when Dillard thinks it has given up, the deer takes her breath away by erupting to struggle again, kicking, thrashing, jerking and shaking helplessly against the rope, “its tongue, thick with spittle.” The men are surprised by her detachment. “I remember feeling very old and energetic,” Dillard explains. She was thinking about being a carnivore: “I eat meat.” Later, she enjoys a dinner of “gama” stew while watching the deer from a distance “still convulsing in the dust.” “Gama” is deer meat. The stew was “good” and tender. “It is a fact,” she adds, “that high levels of of lactic acid, which builds up in muscle tissues during exertion, tenderizes.” Our complicity in evil is unavoidable, Annie Dillard's essay suggests. Like delight, suffering is built into life. “These things are not issues; they are mysteries.” The last time she passes the deer she says “‘Pobrecito’— ‘poor little thing,’” as if in sympathy, but admits that she is actually “trying out Spanish” and “knew at the time that it was a ridiculous thing to say.”—THE
October 10, 2014
from “Reflections of a Moderately Disturbed Grandfather”
by Joe Mackall
“The boy in the ‘rustbelt Buick’ from the future who acts as if he is ‘perpetually aware of a camera’ is an emissary of the world beyond family, a world that ‘beckons us all.’”—THE
Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and of the memoir. The Last Street Before Cleveland. He is co-founder and co-editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction. He is also the director of Creative Writing at Ashland University and the founder of the Creative Nonfiction program in the Ashland MFA. The paragraph of the week comes from his essay “Reflections of a Moderately Disturbed Grandfather” which first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of River Teeth.
Paragraph of the Week
“As the day nears dusk, I watch as my oldest granddaughter runs out of our house toward a car full of other high school kids. The girl behind the wheel—somewhere between sixteen and the rest of her life—is a little overweight, which for some reason comforts me, until I notice she wears the too-thick makeup of a young woman wanting a life she doesn’t yet understand. A boy jumps out of the rustbelt Buick to let Ellie in the backseat. I don’t like the kid right off; I know he can’t be trusted. His movements are too deliberate. He acts as if perpetually aware of a camera. He has too-beautiful hair. He doesn’t even acknowledge my wife or me as we smile miserably from the front porch. I hear the tinkling of an empty can spilling out of the car and hitting our driveway. Assuming it’s a Miller or Bud, I tense; my muscles clench. I then feel the warmth of my wife’s fingers on my arm, which is just enough to keep me still. Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world. The world outside of our family and our home has been whispering to her since she was old enough to realize there was something else out there. It beckons us all, of course. But on this day, it echoes with the wail of pain.” –Joe Mackall
“I’m just imagining this,” Joe Mackall writes after describing his granddaughter as a teenager heading off in a car beside a boy with “too-beautiful hair.” His granddaughter, Ellie, is only four years old, and still innocently unaware of such temptations. Mackall admits he loves her childlike nature in a way that is “not typical, perhaps not even normal” citing the fact that he “mourned the day she stopped watching the Wonder Pets” as evidence. This “moderately disturbed” grandfather knows his life as a professor doing work he loves surrounded by family he adores and a wife who can calm him simply by touching his arm, is blessed. But the boy in the “rustbelt Buick” from the future who acts as if he is “perpetually aware of a camera” is an emissary of the world beyond family, a world that “beckons us all.” He is the harbinger of an “emotional dystopia” where people “easily connected electronically” are “disconnected in just about every other conceiveable way” in a “country increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, downsized, and droned, teetering on the dream-edge of itself.” He wants more than innocence for Ellie and knows that someday she will grow out of saying “Let’s go catch the rain, Pa.” He wants for her the fruits of desire so that she might, in a phrase he appropriates from John Updike, “skate upon the intense radiance” of life’s joys. So he hesitates to tell Ellie, “No,” fearing he will never stop, but “reveres” the day she learned to say the word: “No Pa. No Momma. No bath.” To a grandfather “alive in a paradise of rage and radiance” it brings comfort. “All young girls ought to scream the word No,” Mackall writes, “early and often.”–THE
October 3, 2014
from “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection”
in Portrait Inside My Head
by Phillip Lopate
“Has there ever been a more urbane or witty advocate for the essay than Phillip Lopate?”—THE
Phillip Lopate has long been the dean of the personal essay. His own collections such as Bachelorhood, Against Joi de Vivre, and Portrait of My Body bristle with wit, charm, and intelligence, and his anthology entitled The Art of the Personal Essay is indispensable to those who love the form. But lately he has been on a roll. Last year he published a new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, and To Show and To Tell, a book on the craft of nonfiction which Patricia Hampl described as “much more than a ‘craft’ book” because it is “a delight in itself…immediate, fresh, witty, winningly honest.” Our Paragraph of the Week comes from the introduction to Portrait Inside My Head.
Paragraph of the Week
“I consider the essay to be a wonderfully fluid form, possessing the freedom to wander in search of sudden discovery. It has a long, glorious history as a literary testing ground of intellectual thought and psychological self-portraiture; and a heterogeneous assemblage of essays offers an ideal field in which to demonstrate the form’s range. The risk is to be told that ‘collections of multi-purpose, previously published prose are often bitty and unsatisfying,’ as one TLS reviewer phrased it. Yet I persist in putting forth a collection that will include my musings on movies, literature, friendship, sex, urban history, city form, and the nail parings of daily life, so that the reader can enjoy the fluent play of a single consciousness, a sensibility flowing through disparate subject matters. I persist because I know the truth, which is that, deep down, you love essays. You may be ashamed to admit it. But you love essays, you love essays, you are getting very sleepy, you lo-o-ove essays…”—Phillip Lopate
Has there ever been a more urbane or witty advocate for the essay than Phillip Lopate? In his presentations and readings and in the books he writes and edits he makes a solid case for a form that generally produces groans in agents and publishers—not to mention the myriad college freshmen slumped over their compositions—and at the end of this paragraph, he even tries to use the power of suggestion to lull the reader into loving the form: “you lo-o-ove essays.” What is his case for the essay? It is not just “a wonderfully fluid form” which means that it can take on a “range” of subjects such as “movies, literature, friendship, sex, urban history, city form, and the nail parings of daily life.” The miscellany of topics which Lopate enjoys collecting is not sufficient to win readers living in a world of digital distractions because such variety can be “bitty and unsatisfying” in itself. What distinguishes the essay is “the single consciousness” that acts as “a sensibility flowing through disparate subject matters.” In To Show and To Tell, his recent book on the craft of literary nonfiction, Lopate describes the essay’s appeal this way: “What makes me want to keep reading a nonfiction text is the encounter with a surprising, well-stocked mind as it takes on the challenge of the next sentence, paragraph, and thematic problem it has set for itself.” Lopate’s attempt to mesmerize us into loving the essay may seem futile and sound a little desperate, but those who love the form do take delight in watching another mind at work, and close the covers on a “miscellaneous assemblage” of good essays feeling a little less alone in the world.—THE
September 26, 2014
From “Seam” in Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness
by Ana Maria Spagna
“What divides Ana Maria and Roberta—what divides our country—does not go away in this eerie moment, but a seam forms “where life meets death,” a scar that is the mark of our shared humanity.”—THE
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of three award-winning books of nonfiction. Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness was a finalist for the 2012 Washing State Book Award, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw was named the Best Book of 2004 by the Seattle Times. In her books she struggles with ethical questions about the way we treat each other and the environment where the answers are never simple or easy. Rather they are hard-won discoveries that emerge out of the writing process itself. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “Seam” in Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.
Paragraph of the Week
“They dove. So many of them. They saw the plane upside down and dove. Thirty-eight-degree water, and our friends dove, fully clothed, They performed CPR, some for the first time in their lives, on people they knew and loved, and they did it for two hours, on small boats skimming down the lake racing for civilization and waiting for paramedics to make a determination, even though they already knew. Still, they could not stop. Two bodies. Two boats. Twelve responders. Some people prayed, and some did compressions; others just drove the boats. Why? Why did they do it? Why does anyone do it? Because it’s right or because it’s hard wired in the brain? You do it without a thought: you’re in the cold water, and you’re entering the fuselage, and there they are, the bodies. One still belted upside down, pinned in place, one floating prone, and you can’t get them out, because you are too cold and you need breath, and it’s dark as hell, and for weeks you’ll stay up all night, sleepless, agonizing because you should have done more or you could have done it better, and there is no comfort. All you know is that the edge is still there, the seam where life meets death, and how you behave on that seam is all reflex, and probably a measure of how you behaved the whole time.” --Ana Maria Spagna
One of the bodies trapped in the icy waters of the drowned fuselage in a remote lake in Washington State was Ana Maria Spagna’s friend, Roberta. It is a friendship created despite tension since much divides the two women. Ana Maria and her partner come from church traditions that preach “Eco-theology” and advocate for “No Nukes.” Roberta was a Pentecostalist with a church that taught creationism. The differences were not superficial, Ana Maria admits, and never go away completely. “To say that Roberta’s politics were not like ours would be an understatement.” But when Ana Maria’s garden failed, she began purchasing vegetables and fruit from Roberta, and later offered to help weed the garden. “Would you?” Roberta said gratefully. “I didn’t want to ask.” The crash occurred because the wheels did not properly retract flipping the hydroplane when it hit the water. Without hesitation, members of Spagna’s small community dove into “thirty-eight-degree” water saving three of the five in the crash, but losing two: a doctor who shoved his wife out of the plane to safety but did not escape himself, and Roberta. Attending a conference, Ana Maria and Laurie were not in the area when the plane went down and learned about it in a text message: “Hurry, we need your help…It’s Roberta.” Spagna forces herself and us to look at the scene through the eyes of the rescuers by slipping into second person: “You’re in the cold water, and you’re entering the fuselage, and there they are, the bodies,” one “still belted upside down” and the other “floating prone.” It is a haunting scene, one that keeps rescuers up at night agonizing over their helplessness: “you are too cold and you need breath, and it’s dark as hell.” What divides Ana Maria and Roberta—what divides our country—does not go away in this eerie moment, but a seam forms “where life meets death,” a scar that is the mark of our shared humanity. Continuing in second person, Spagna sizes up both her life and ours: “how you behave on that seam is all reflex,” she admits, but it is also “probably a measure of how you behaved the whole time.”—THE