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Fall 2016


(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)

William Bradley

from “Best Thing”

in Fractals

by William Bradley

“Okay—that’s the worst thing about the cancer that William Bradley barely survived when he was a young man…”—THE


William Bradley is the author of Tales of a Multiverse in Peril!, a chapbook collection of story/essay hybrids published by Urban Farmhouse Press. Fractals is his first full-length book.  His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader.  He lives in Canton, New York, with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.


You can learn more about him and his work at his website.


The Paragraph of the Week


The worst thing about having cancer when you're young—if your experience is anything like mine—is knowing that the world is moving on without you. Even as you're in a chemotherapy room, or in a hospital bed, or just confined to your parents' house, you know that your friends are applying for jobs, are getting engaged, are selling off their dorm fridges in order to put that money towards the security deposit on a small apartment. You can hear it in their voices when they call you—that nervous excitement that comes with finishing school and embarking on an unknown but thrilling future. And you know that you're stuck. That's the worst fucking thing. That feeling like everyone else is sprinting through the meadow, but you're caught in quicksand. They're getting farther and farther away from where you are, and you're sinking, and though their glances when they look back show concern, they can't stop to help you. Not for a lack of compassion—it's just not possible.

—William Bradley



Okay—that’s the worst thing about the cancer that William Bradley barely survived when he was a young man, worse than “painful diarrhia,” vomiting up "tiny mouthfuls of bile,” and the tissues in his mouth cracking and falling apart.  Feeling “caught in quicksand” while “everyone else is sprinting through the meadow” was worse than the chemotherapy, the fear of death, and even loneliness.  He felt “stuck” and there was nothing anyone could do.  “Not for lack of compassion”—it was “just not possible.”  But the best thing about cancer was a friend his age dropping by the hospital, the kind of guy who like him makes “vaguely homophobic” jokes, though neither of them are homophobes and William is “embarrassed to have ever been the type of guy who made such jokes, even ironically.”  They pass offensive boy-talk back and forth like “Okay, Nancy, now lets go wax your vagina” and “Easy there, Liberace,”  but they say them to clear a space so that his friend can also say “you know, I love you,” and William can say, “I love you too,” all the while “avoiding eye contact, because, you know.”  So if there is a “best thing” about having cancer as a young man when the honest expression of friendship and affection is so hard, “that,” Bradley says in his customarily understated way, “would be it.”


September 9, 2016

from Gratitude

by Oliver Sacks

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”—Oliver Sacks

The Paragraph of the Week goes to Oliver Sacks who taught us so much about the peculiarities of certain brain disorders and about seeing the humanity of people who suffer them. “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology," he wrote, but in "examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.” That wisdom is on display in his small memoir Gratitude about the final months of his life when he knew he was dying of cancer.


Dr. Sacks was born in 1933 in London and was educated at Queen's College, Oxford. He completed his medical training at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital and at UCLA before moving to New York, where he soon encountered the patients whom he would write about in his book Awakenings.  He spent almost fifty years working as a neurologist and wrote many books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, and Hallucinations, about the strange neurological predicaments and conditions of his patients. The New York Times referred to him as "the poet laureate of medicine," and over the years he received many awards, including honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Royal College of Physicians. His memoir, On the Move, was published shortly before his death in August 2015.  You can learn more about his work here.


The Paragraph of the Week comes from Gratitude.

The Paragraph of the Week


And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence—an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence—I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, "Happy Thallium Birthday," a souvenir of my eighty-first birthday last July, then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated eighty-second birthday earlier this month. Here too is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive—hence the lead casket.

—Oliver Sacks



A month or so before his death at eighty two, Oliver Sacks gathered together “metals and minerals” as he did when he was a boy, the things of youth having become “little emblems of eternity.”  He knew that he was dying of liver cancer and even though he describes himself as “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiams,” he found that he was, for the first time apparently, “detached from life,” as if seeing himself  “from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.” From this height he could “achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”  He cannot deny that he is afraid, but his primary response to the “all- too-close, not-to-be-denied presence” of death is gratitude for his family and friends, his lover, Billy, and for a life of reading, travel, and writing.  “Above all,” he explains, “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”  So he gathers his gifts of minerals and metals which have acquired meaning from a lifetime of thinking about such things, including a “charming” box of element 81 for his “Happy Thallium” eighty-first birthday and—for a birthday he knows will be his last—crystaline thorium, deadly but “as beautiful as diamonds,” in a lead casket.


Oliver Sacks

September 16, 2016


from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

by Bich Minh Nguyen

“When she touched me I felt the cool of her jade bracelet on my skin.” —Bich Minh Nguyen


Once again we have found a Paragraph of the Week with ready-made commentary by the author for our feature.  Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is, as author Bich Minh Nguyen explains, “an homage to childhood, suburbia, and all the bad food, fashion, music and hair of the deep 1980’s” by an author whose family fled Vietnam in the final days of the war when she was a child and settled down to American life in Michigan.  It is also, she adds, “about an immigrant’s dilemma to blend in or remain apart.”  In one of the many moving sections in the book Nguyen imagines her mother’s grief at discovering that the family had to flee Vietnam without her and describes her difficult reunion with her mother many years later in Massachusetts when Nguyen was a young woman.  Our Paragraph of the Week and Commentary comes from that story.

In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen often goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal best book of the year. Stealing Buddha's Dinner received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. Her most recent novel is Pioneer Girl. She is at work on a series of essays about high school, music, and the Midwest.  You can learn more about her and her work at her author’s webpage.

The Paragraph of the Week


It was early May in Saigon, 1975, a few days after the city's fall, when my mother returned to the house where my father, Anh, and I had lived with Noi. I imagined her opening the door and feeling, instantly, the emptiness. The smell of it—notes of incense and jasmine tea. She stumbled back out in the narrow street. A man sitting in his doorway called out to her. They're gone. They went to America. She didn't believe him. Maybe they left you a note, he said. He was bored; the whole day lay in front of him. She went back into the house to look again for the note that wasn't there. She got down on her knees to examine the floor, but found only dust. She left our house slowly, the shock so clear on her face that the neighbor leaned forward to repeat the news to her—They're gone—as if she were hard of hearing. They went to America.

—Bich Minh Nguyen




In the end, I left my questions unanswered. I couldn't comprehend the loss, the nearly twenty years' absence, the silence and unknowing, the physical distance literally impossible to break. I didn't know what to say to make anything different. I didn't know what to do with so many years between us. In the end, my mother and her family drove me to the hotel in Newton, Massachusetts. I got out of the car. We hugged our good-byes. My mother assessed me up and down, as she had a few hours earlier, and pronounced me too skinny in the way that Vietnamese women do. When she touched me I felt the cool of her jade bracelet on my skin. They walked me to the door of the hotel and let me go, waiting until I had pushed beyond the revolving door into the lobby. I turned to see them once more—my half-sister and her husband, my niece and nephew, and my mother. They waved and smiled as if I were going down the jetway to an airplane and a long, long flight out of there. I walked to the bank of elevators. In the end, I left my mother all over again.

—Bich Minh Nguyen

Bich Minh Nguyen

from “Falling”

in Steady and Trembling:  Art, Faith, & Family in an Uncertain World

by Tom Montgomery Fate


“Letting go, knowing people change, learning to move on.”—Hayley Loggins

It is time for another Paragraph of the Week from one of Denise Wilkinson’s tenth grade English students at the Carlton Public High School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada.  Our second installment from Denise’s students comes from Hayley Loggins, a 15-year-old dual citizen of the USA and Canada.  Hayley chose a passage from Steady and Trembling by Tom Mongomery Fate as her Paragraph of the Week.

Haley is athletic, participating in multiple sports every year; she is also an accomplished artist having pieces featured in various exhibits and winning several awards for her work. “She believes,” she writes, “in enjoying the present to its fullest, doing all her tasks and activities to the best of her abilities so that she will always have her best foot forward for whatever the future brings her way.”


Tom Montomery Fate is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Beyond the White Noise, a collection of essays, Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir, and Cabin Fever, a nature memoir. He is currently a professor of English at College of DuPage, in suburban Chicago, where he also lives with his wife Carol and three children.  You can learn more about him and his work at his website here.


Haley’s teacher, Denise Wilkinson asked her students to write THE Paragraphs as part of their classwork.  She gave the students paragraphs and urged them to find universal themes, learning to “trust their ability to talk to the author in that one small moment of text.”  That confidence is one of the hidden lessons of writing THE Paragraphs. I encourage all teachers to assign THE Paragraphs and watch the magic of this conversation between students and writers unfold.  You can learn more by going to the “For Teachers” tab or clicking here.

Paragraph of the Week


That night at supper Tessa recalled her own fear when she first rode a two-wheeler. Like Abby, she didn't trust that the training wheels would "catch her." But what I most remember is when we took the training wheels off. Over and over I sprinted behind Tessa down the path with my hand on the small of her back as she pedaled and coasted and wobbled and dipped. It was awkward because I was both slightly pushing her forward and trying to hold her up – wanting to both keep her going and keep her from falling. As I panted along behind, I encouraged her and reiterated two instructions: "Keep the handle bars straight," and, "Don't shift your butt in the seat." Her face was screwed so tight in concentration that I don't know if she heard. She was listening more to her body – to what it knew about balance, to what it feels like to roll upright into the wind on two thin rubber tires in spite of gravity. Seeing her focus, I stopped talking, other than an occasional, "You’re doing great!" She didn't say a word after the first few attempts. Though, when she finally fell in the dirt, she looked up at me like I had let her down. I consoled her, inspected her scrapes, and then said what my Dad had said: "Get right back on. You can do it!" After a half-dozen more attempts she could nearly balance herself. Then she began to say it. The same thing I had said to my Dad.


"Let go!" "Let go!"

—Tom Montgomery Fate



Letting go, knowing people change, learning to move on. These are things we all realize are going to happen, things that we all try to prepare ourselves for. However as much as you try you can never really prepare yourself for the pain you feel in the end. All you can do is survive through it and move on. I feel that the memory of his little girl riding without her father for the first time helps symbolize this pain. I believe this because as happy as you are at that moment you have that deep pain inside, the type of pain that leaves you knowing that you can't stop your children from growing up, from seeing the bad in the world. Knowing that one day they will be gone, and you will be sitting alone in a quiet house that seems empty except for the memories that fill it, when the only thing you can do is try to prepare them for their life ahead. I believe this scared feeling is what propels the paragraph forward. The feeling of wanting to know if you are being the best parent you can, but then finding the strength to see that the best way to prepare them is to love them, push them forward, and help them up when they fall. This is why I think the bike really helps to symbolize the fear of failure, the fear that you might let your child down. I connected to this paragraph through a different type of relationship. I knew coming into high school that I could lose friends and gain them. Knowing this helped me, but I don't think I was ever fully prepared. I knew I would grow apart from some people and closer to others, but when it really happens to you it is a lot harder and sometimes the people you think you will have by your side forever just turn into a distant memory.

—Hayley Loggins

Tom Montgomery Fate and Hayley Loggins
Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates


“The constant self-control required to be on guard and ready is a ‘slow siphoning of the essence,’ enervating in subtle ways.”—THE


Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story "The Case for Reparations." He lives in New York with his wife and son.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from his most recent memoir, Between the World and Me.  It describes the hardened "face" that he had to put on as a young black man walking the streets of Brooklyn where he lived and the effect of wearing this "mask" on his soul.—THE

Paragraph of the Week


In those days I would come out of the house, turn onto Flatbush Avenue, and my face would tighten like a Mexican wrestler's mask, my eyes would dart from corner to corner, my arms loose, limber, and ready. This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I'd heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates



In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates shows the soul-withering nature of living under the constant threat of crime and of being physically assaulted by the police and other authorities.  He is haunted by the death of his friend Prince Carmin Jones, a fellow Howard University student who died at the hands of police in West Baltimore and whose face had been “lean, brown, and beautiful.”  Seeing that kind of brutality against his friend and other innocent African-American men, he realizes that he cannot even protect himself, not to mention his son, without distorting his life. The “violence of this world” and the “rules designed to protect” a black man from it, “would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason.”  The constant self-control required to be on guard and ready is a “slow siphoning of the essence,” enervating in subtle ways.  When black children are told to be “twice as good” it translates into “accept half as much.”  It suggests that they live in a society that puts “a gun to their head” and “a hand in their pockets.”  Saddest of all, it accustoms them to life in a world in which whites get “a raft of second chances” and blacks live “twenty-three hour days.”  In those lost hours are missed opportunities for smiling, loving, and pleasure, for “finishing the last bottle of wine.”  The loss of that kind of affectionate “softness” is the hidden cost of bias.  Life is measured in moments, and the “moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much,” Ta-Nehisi Coates laments, are gone forever.


Paul and Lucy Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi


“And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time.”—Paul Kalanithi


The Paragraph of the Week comes from When Breath Becomes Air, a book by a promising, young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and sadly died soon after completing his memoir.  “Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful,” writes Atul Gawande,  "the too-young Dr. Kalinithi's memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”  The book is not only a moving tribute to his tenacity and openness to love in the face of death it is also a testament to the “the delicate alchemy of agency and opportunity” that writing offered him as he suffered from the disease.  The commentary comes from the epilogue, written by his wife, Lucy, herself a doctor, who assisted in his transformation from surgeon into writer and was his “wife and witness” to the end.

The Paragraph of the Week


And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time: The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day—no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can't go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett's seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I'll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over "I can't go on. I'll go on."

—Paul Kalanithi




Paul was proud of this book, which was a culmination of his love for literature—he once said that he found poetry more comforting than Scripture—and his ability to forge from his life a cogent, powerful tale of living with death. When Paul emailed his best friend in May 2013 to inform him that he had terminal cancer, he wrote, "The good news is I've already outlived two Brontës, Keats, and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven't written anything." His journey thereafter was one of transformation—from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all. I am proud to have been his partner throughout, including while he wrote this book, an act that allowed him to live with hope, with that delicate alchemy of agency and opportunity that he writes about so eloquently, until the very end.

—Lucy Kalanithi

from “We Regret to Inform You”

in An Earlier Life

by Brenda Miller


“Brenda Miller is not merely parodying rejection letters, but is instead lamenting a lifetime of rejections.”—THE

Brenda Miller is the author of four previous essay collections: Who You Will Become, Listening Against the Stone, Blessing of the Animals, and Season of the Body. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and serves as associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She lives in Bellingham, WA, with her dog Abbe and a rotating crew of foster dogs who take up temporary residence.

“We Regret to Inform You” is an essay masquerading as a series of form rejection letters that makes up the epilogue of An Earlier Life, Miller's memoir of linked essays.   You can learn more about An Earlier Life at  You might also check out her promotional video for the book at her website here.

The Paragraph of the Week


Dear Tenth-Grader:


Thank you for your application to be the girlfriend of one of our star basketball players. As you can imagine, we have received hundreds of similar requests and so cannot possibly respond personally to every one. This letter is to inform you that you have not been chosen for one of the coveted positions, but we do invite you to continue hanging around the lockers, acting as if you belong there. This selfless act will help the team members learn the art of ignoring lovesick girls.



The Granada Hills Highlanders


P.S. Though your brother is one of the star players, we could not take this familial relationship into account. Sorry to say no! Please do try out for one of the rebound-girlfriend positions in the future.

—Brenda Miller



“We Regret to Inform You” appears at first to be a send up of form rejection letters from editors and publishers that writers know all too well.  It borrows the language of those letters with phrases such as “we cannot possibly respond personally” and “this letter is to inform you.”  As we read on, though, it becomes clear that Brenda Miller is not merely parodying rejection letters, but is instead lamenting a lifetime of rejections.  She is rejected as a contestant in an art show, as a dance partner, and as a leading lady in a play; she drops out of college, has several miscarriages, becomes barren (“not a word we use these days”);  she is tossed aside as the girl friend of “a Native American Man twelve years [her] senior,” snubbed in marriage after a five-year relationship, and foiled in an attempt to be a step-parent—intensely personal “regrets,” all delivered with the ironic impersonality of form letters.  The essay is her tour de force epilogue to An Earlier Life, a memoir in linked essays about learning to “[b]ecome who you will become.”  The book ponders a simple question: why is this becoming “so hard?”  The answer can be found in the Hebrew name for God which she translates as “I am what I am becoming.”  It is also in the Hebrew word shalom which, she points out, means goodbye as well as hello, an irony she eventually accepts but not without a fight.  “I sulk,” she writes, “I slam doors, rattling the Shalom in the entry.”  And, of course, the answer to the question about why becoming who we become is so hard is in the phrase that haunts us all: “we regret to inform you.”


Brenda Miller
Jan Shoemaker

from “Big Shot”

in Flesh and Stones: Field Notes from a Finite World

by Jan Shoemaker

“What are we to make of our ‘love of perishable things’ in a world where all that we love perishes?” –THE

We have reason to celebrate here at The Humble Essayist.  Flesh and Stones: Field Notes from a Finite World written by THE’s former student and great good friend, Jan Shoemaker, will be published at the end of this week.  It is her first full-length collection of essays.  I urge all of you to head to your bookstore or to your computers to pre-order it right away!  The date for publication is November 3, but if you act quickly you might receive it sooner.  This publication is not just good news for Jan, her teachers, and the Ashland MFA where she studied, it is also good news for literature since Jan is simply one of America’s finest essayists.


The Paragraph of the Week


The poet David Ignatow writes, “In the next world, should I remember this one, I will praise it above everything.” I would like to be so large, so able to magnanimously allow the return of all the ones I love to the Void, the Source—call it what you will—from which they came. I would like to celebrate the Eternal churning out its finite forms and the Eternal receiving them again. But I am no detached bhikku, no wise arhat, no faithful Christian willing to fall backward into the arms of her unseen Lord like people do in those trust-building games. I have not handed it over to Jesus—the burden and heartbreak of my willful love for perishable things. The best I can hope for is to have the courage to love them well enough despite their devastating fragility and their non-negotiable term limits. The best I can pray for is the faithfulness to love them like they need to be, like they love to be loved.

—Jan Shoemaker 





What are we to make of our “love of perishable things” in a world where all that we love perishes?  How do we worship an “Eternal” that can’t stop “churning out its finite forms”  and also can’t stop taking them back again?  How do we consign our loved ones to “to the Void, the Source—call it what you will—from which they came.”  The poet David Ignatow claims he will spend an eternity in the “next world” remembering and praising this temporary one, but Jan Shoemaker has no such faith in a world hereafter.  She refuses to hand over the “burden and heartbreak” she feels at the death of her father in the essay “Big Shot” or her mother in the essay “The Dear Good Wood.”  Her solution is to love them “well enough” while she and they are alive.  The “term limits” on her loved ones lives is “non-negotiable” and their “fragility” is “devastating,” but that does not demand that she develop a magnanimous spirituality.  Rather, it insists, while they are alive that she “love them like they need to be, like they love to be loved.”


Judith Kitchen and Sharisa Grimwood

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen

Commentary by Sharisa Grimwood


“…‘blossom to fruit to blossom to fruit.’  That is as close to forever as life gets.”

—Sharisa Grimwood 


This week marks an anniversary of the death of Judith Kitchen who was an inspiration to those of us who write creative nonfiction.  She taught all of us, by precept and example, fresh ways to approach a nonfiction text as a work of art.  My favorite of her books is The Circus Train, her last and we feature a paragraph with commentary from that remarkable book here.  You can learn more about Judith and her work at Ovenbird Books.

The commentary is from Sharisa Grimwood, one of Denise Wilkinson’s tenth grade English students at the Carlton Public High School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. She lives with her mom, dad, sister and her dog in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She has always loved to write and her most recent writing has consisted of journaling as she travelled to a rural community in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador to help build a school. She was also able to spend time in the Amazon Jungle during this trip of a lifetime. Besides writing and travelling, Sharisa enjoys playing basketball, reading, sketching and painting, listening to and making music, relaxing at the lake and spending time with family and friends.

I think Judith would have been mightily pleased to know that she has begun to influence and inspire yet another generation of writers!—THE


The Paragraph of the Week


Zoom in. I am alone and the sun is descending. Holding me down in its fierce need to keep me there, sifting the dirt, so alive in that moment that each leaf seems to make its own claim on the eyes, each rustle a claim on the ears. The dirt is dry, and it crumbles to powder with a touch, spills through the fingers to make a small mound to smooth and smooth until the fingers feel as though they know this one small piece of land. This one garden, this one June morning, this one sun beating down, this one tree – this could be mine forever. And forever, a word that should frighten a four-year-old, seems so very real. So solid and physical that it is there, waiting for me to call it up. Forever. So I write it down, setting it squarely next to the strawberry patch that will move from blossom to fruit to blossom to fruit in a circle that cannot be broken.

—Judith Kitchen



When I first read this text from Judith Kitchen’s The Circus Train, I took it literally. I thought it was talking about someone being outside and wanting to take care of a tree forever, seeing it grow and thrive. It is about so much more than that. I learned about the author, Judith Kitchen, and I found out that when she was writing this, she had terminal cancer and this was one of the last books she wrote before she died. I read the paragraph again and my eyes welled up with tears. There are many possible levels of meaning here. This paragraph could be about her life. She realizes that the sun is descending on her life because she is nearing the end of it.  When she talks about sifting the dirt beneath a tree and that it crumbles to powder, it is like life is slipping through her fingers. She no longer has a strong hold on life. Her fingers smooth the mound of dirt until they “know this one small piece of land.”  The author appreciates this moment in time and this special place. She wants to hold on to it forever. She wants to remember it forever. I am sure that there are other special moments and cherished memories that she wants to hold on to as well.  Everyone can relate to this because at some time in everybody’s life, there has been a time when they wish a moment could last forever. They try so hard to make it last, but in the end, nothing can last forever. Judith Kitchen wants to hold on to this moment, so she writes the word “Forever” by the strawberry patch where the circle of life is ongoing – “blossom to fruit to blossom to fruit.”  That is as close to forever as life gets.  This paragraph made me think about how amazing life is and how you should make the most of your time here on earth because you never know which day will be your last. People need to be more aware and more grateful for all of the blessings in their life and they need to see the beauty in their life, and their surroundings. I am impressed by Judith Kitchen’s writing and her ability to write a simple paragraph that has so many layers of meaning.  Sadly, Judith Kitchen has passed on, but her writing is a legacy that will continue to impact and touch people’s hearts.

—Sharisa Grimwood

Robet Root

from “Anasazi:  (The Four Corners)”

in Postscripts

by Robert Root


“But the ‘American Century’ is ending, and it will be the only one we get.”—Robert Root


Following the recent election I turned, of course, to my books and came away wiser after re-reading “Anasazi:  (The Four Corners)” from the collection Postscripts by my good friend, Bob Root, an essay about an early Pueblo culture which flourished in the southwestern United States between 200 B.C. and 1500 AD.  The demise of the Anasazi may have been brought about, Bob writes, by “twenty-five years of drought” or by “overpopulation or counterproductive agricultural practices,” but the important fact to note is that this culture, like all cultures, was temporary, the seeds of its destruction sewn into what made it great—a sobering reminder to us at this time.  Robert Root is the author of some twenty books of nonfiction including Postscripts, Happenstance, Following Isabella, and The Nonfictionist’s Guide.  You can learn more about him at his website here.  Both the Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary come from Bob's "Anasazi" essay originally published in the Fall 1991 issue of North Dakota Quarterly.

The Paragraph of the Week


We are all Anasazi, always in transition, either in ascent or decline, changing in our agriculture and architecture and art, adding intricacy to our ceremonies and our society, making our inauspicious debut before the footlights of history or mingling undetected among a new troupe of players for a final crowd scene. Our cultures are only kinds of mud wattle, varieties of adobe or stones and mortar, ever in need of repair, restoration, replacement. Culture doesn't solidify like cooled magma; it is always fluid, metamorphic, protean, and even the hardest rock eventually wears away.

—Robert Root



In America we like to see ourselves as forever young, a mere two hundred years old and still growing up; we like to think that the destiny of the planet is indistinguishable from our own national future. But the “American Century” is ending, and it will be the only one we get. To our amazement and chagrin all history was not simply a prologue to the American moment, and the past was not only a European past. Here on our own continent others came before us—Hohokam, Mogollon, Hopewell, Anasazi, and countless others—cliff dwellers and mound builders just like us, if on a different scale. Like them, we too are caught in the flow of history—in our turn we are becoming prologue.

—Robert Root

Mimi Schwartz

from Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village

by Mimi Schwartz

“Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, [and] we are all being tested.”—THE


Mimi Schwartz is an author, editor, and teacher of memoir, personal essay, and narrative nonfiction. Her ten books include the award-winning book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village, which has been called “a template for all who wish to confront the mysteries of goodness.” In it she attempts to understand a small, German village where the cruelty of Nazi Germany toward Jews was tempered by kindness.  Her other books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed and Writing True: The Art & Craft of Creative Nonfiction (co-authored with Sondra Perl). She is Professor Emerita at Richard Stockton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.   Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her book Good Neighbors, Bad Times, published in 2008, a book that speaks to us now more than ever. —THE

The Paragraph of the Week


Dear Hans,

...I still like to think of that Friday evening when I was supposed to deliver the starched collars to your house. As soon as I reached the door, I realized that the Sabbath had probably begun because I heard your fine clear tenor voice sound out on the road. I very timidly knocked on the door and your mother received me in a very friendly way and asked me into the living room. And I stood there as though I had been nailed down. There was this wondrously laid out table with such a festive atmosphere.... In spite of my presence, you, Hans, continued to sing your Ado, Ado, Adonai from deep in your throat. Your father with the typical thing for his head had the book in his hand and this picture I always have before my eyes.... The memory doesn’t let me go. . . . Is it this very special moment that is soothing to think of? Or is it reassuring to remember how one and the other respected each other?

   In this sense I stay connected to you, dear Benheimers and send you my greetings of my family from all my heart.


Inge Wolfman

—Mimi Schwartz



“So was Benheim special or not?” Mimi Schwartz’s son asks after she returns from her last trip to Germany before completing Good Neighbors, Bad Times.  Her goal in the book was to determine if the stories she heard as a child from her father and others about the kindness toward Jews in this small town in Nazi Germany were true.  In the end, she does find many “small acts of defiance” by the people of Benheim against the cruelty of Hitler’s Germany, from the barber who cut hair under the the sign that read “No Jews allowed here” to carpenters who fixed Jewish windows after Kristallnacht and were sent to the war front never to return.  But the “treasured proof” of “ethereal” acts of heartfelt affection “made concrete” was this letter from the young, blonde German, Inge Wolfman, who refused to join the girls’ Nazi Youth group, did not “yield to Nazi pressure” when the mayor appeared at their door with a whip in hand, and who wrote this letter to “a Jewish man she barely knew,” Schwartz writes, “not out of friendship—that would be easy to explain—but because one moment of memory binds the girl of ten and the boy of thirteen in a shared community now lost in guilt and grief.”  Sadly, even in Benheim many Jews were eventually rounded up and taken to concentration camps.  “To this day it haunts me,” Inge says.  “We should have done more.”  But by 1939, it was too late.  “The time to stop the Nazis was in 1933,” when they first made a grab for power, Mimi Schwartz argues, reminding us of the importance of stopping tyranny while there is still time.  Unfortunately, it is 1933 all over again around the world as bigotry becomes normalized and tolerated, including here in America, and, like the people in Benheim, Germany when the Nazi’s ruled, we are all being tested.


December 2016

from Dreams from My Father

by Barack Obama


“It is this awareness of both Americas in our president that I will miss.  I miss it already during his sad presidential valediction.”—THE

To celebrate the holidays, The Humble Essayist will take the month of December off.  So instead of posting The Paragraph of the Week we will have The Paragraph of the Month this December.  We thought we would use this month as a way of saying goodbye to President Barack Obama. The paragraph we have chosen comes from his memoir Dreams from My Father published in 1995, long before he became president.


We have some amazing new works of nonfiction to look forward to next year, and I'm eager to dig in!  THE will be back with a new Paragraph of the Week on January 6, 2017. 

The Paragraph of the Month


Smitty's voice had fallen to a whisper, and everyone in the room began to smile. From a distance, reading the newspapers back in New York, I had shared in their pride, the same sort of pride that made me root for any pro football team that fielded a black quarterback. But something was different about what I was now hearing; there was a fervor in Smitty's voice that seemed to go beyond politics.  “Had to be here to understand,” he had said. He'd meant here in Chicago; but he could also have meant here in my shoes, an older black man who still burns from a lifetime of insults, of foiled ambitions, of ambitions abandoned before they've been tried. I asked myself if I could truly understand that. I assumed, took for granted, that I could. Seeing me, these men had made the same assumption; Would they feel the same way if they knew more about me? I wondered. I tried to imagine what would happen if Gramps walked into the barbershop at that moment, how the talk would stop; how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.

—Barack Obama



Smitty, from Smitty’s Barbershop near Hyde Park in Chicago is whispering earnestly to the other black men in the room, including a young Barack Obama, about his elation when Harold Washington became the first black mayor of his city.  “Had to be here before Harold to understand what this means,” Smitty said.  “Before Harold seemed like we’d always be second class citizens.”  Barack, Smitty implies, could not understand because he had not lived in Chicago under the decades of Richard J. Daley’s time as mayor when a black mayor seemed impossible, and had not experienced “a lifetime of insults, of foiled ambitions, of ambitions abandoned before they've been tried,”  but because he is black, he is included in the conversation.  What Smitty does not realize is that Barack, who had a black father and black grandfather, also had a white mother and a white grandfather, and it is his white grandfather that he is thinking about as Smitty speaks.  “I tried to imagine what would happen if Gramps walked into the barbershop at that moment, how the talk would stop; how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.”  It is this awareness of both Americas in our president that I will miss.  I miss it already during his sad presidential valediction.  Due to the color of his skin and his African name, he was cast as a radical and a Muslim who was born in Kenya and he is none of these things.  He is a centrist American leader and a Christian who never loses sight of both sides of his racial heritage.  It was probably inevitable that many would make false assumptions and misread him—even Smitty did.  As he left the barbarshop, Smitty asked his name and, when the future president answered, the barber said “Barack, huh.  You a Muslim?”  Obama answered that his grandfather was, but that was not the grandfather he was thinking about while sitting in Smitty’s chair.


Barack Obama
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