(Click on the name of the author or simply scroll through the text.)
September 1, 2017
from “Best Thing”
by William Bradley
“Okay—that’s the worst thing about the cancer that William Bradley barely survived when he was a young man…”—THE
Last week we lost one of our best young personal essayists with the death of William Bradley. I first met William at an AWP Conference years ago when he stunned me with an excellent presentation on political language. Since then we had become friends and when he published his book, Fractals, I gave him a Paragraph of the Week. He was a thoughtful man with a huge heart. In his honor I will republish that paragraph and commentary here.
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 lived in Canton, New York, with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.
You can learn more about William 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.
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.”
from When Women Were Birds
by Terry Tempest Williams
“When the sun lit its feathers ‘he ignited like a flame: red, blue, and green.’”—THE
Terry Tempest Williams was a visiting writer at the Ashland University MFA in Ohio this summer. She read from her work and gave inspiring talks about writing, the power of stories, and her lifelong commitment to conservation. All of us were reading and talking about her books and, during a delay on my plane flight back, I read When Women Were Birds. In it she writes about writing as an act of defiance against forces that silence women. “As the pages accumulate,” a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “her voice grows in majesty and power until it becomes a full-fledged aria.” It is the source of this week's Paragraph of the Week—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
And so I kept my date with the painted bunting, driving in the dark, down a snow-packed road in coastal Maine. I knocked on the door. The pastor opened it and invited me inside. His wife had three cups of coffee brewing. The only light in their home emanated from the woodstove in the kitchen, where a large picture window framed the feeder outside. It was 6:30 a.m. We sat with long pauses between words. Mainers are never ones to say too much. At 6:43 a.m. the painted bunting arrived, like a dream between the crease of shadow and light. His silhouette grew toward color for the seven short minutes he stayed. And when dawn struck his tiny feathered back, he ignited like a flame: red, blue, and green. There were no other birds around him. He was alone with his singular tapping on the lip of the feeder, eating one sunflower seed at a time, and then he flew—
I have not dreamed of white birds since.
Terry Tempest Williams
When Terry Tempest Williams opened her dead mother’s journals she found that they were blank. “Erasure,” Williams wrote. “What every woman knows but rarely discusses.” So she decided to fill in the journals herself. It became the “journal of invisible ink” rewritten in pencil, the journal of everything in “an expanding and collapsing universe,” and the journal “as interrogation” revealing secrets. It became the journal as “feminism,” the journal as “creative listening,” and the journal as “conceptual art.” It became the journal as a “creation myth,” “fairy tale,” and “love story.” It became the journal as “code,” “calligraphy,” and scratchy “repetations.” The journal was like the albino robin that Williams saw as a child. She called it “The Holy Ghost” and often dreamed about it, but when she became an adult she visited a pastor and his wife who lived “down a snow-packed road in coastal Maine” to see a painted bunting that arrived in the colorless pre-dawn landscape “like a dream between the crease of shadow and light.” When the sun lit its feathers “he ignited like a flame: red, blue, and green,” and the ghost bird, like her mother’s empty journal, was filled in at last.
from Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story
by Jon Kerstetter
I was crossing. I could feel the tension, one side pulling against the other… humanity versus inhumanity, healing versus killing, doctor versus soldier.—Jon Kerstetter
Jon Kerstetter has experienced a number of improbable crossings during his life transforming himself each time—from a native American boy without many opportunities to a doctor, from a doctor to a soldier serving in Iraq, from a flight surgeon to a stroke victim, and from a man whose stroke took away most of his power over language to a writer graduating from the Ashland MFA in creative writing. I had the privilege of being one of his teachers there and this remarkable book, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, is the culmination of his struggle to master language and tell his story of a man driven to excellence. The Paragraph of the Week is about his most dramatic crossing, from being a doctor to being a soldier after a bloody bombing at The Canal Hotel in Baghdad during the Iraq war, and no one can tell it better than Jon, so I will let him give the commentary paragraph as well.
Jon Kerstetter received his medical degree from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota, and his MFA degree from Ashland University in Ohio. He served as a combat physician and flight surgeon for the U.S. Army and completed three combat tours in Iraq. His writing has appeared in The Best American Essays, River Teeth, and other literary journals. Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story is published by Crown: Penguin/Random House and is available at bookstores and on-line.
The Paragraph of the Week
After two days of working in that temporary morgue, I developed a judgmental attitude that seemed to find reasons to hate Iraq and hate my enemy. Bleeding became more than a clinical status; it meant that Iraqi insurgents destroyed lives without regard for the ethics of war. The char of flesh represented not just a burn but evil that occupied every thought and action of the enemy. Even the way I spat took on a defiant and aggressive demeanor. I had a more vivid sense of mortality and a clearer sense of my personal vulnerability and my absolute need to fight. I was crossing. I could feel the tension, one side pulling against the other, an internal battle with its own unstoppable momentum, humanity versus inhumanity, healing versus killing, doctor versus soldier.
During that internal battle, a strange thing happened. Aside from my secret desire to run from the repulsiveness of piecing human bodies back together, I wanted to get as far away from Iraq as I could. I wanted to be near my children. I needed their presence to sustain me. I needed to touch their skin and see that they were safe. I thought of my kids so often during the Canal Hotel experience. They would just pop into my consciousness. While I was working on a body part, trying to make it fit together, Justin or Darren, Katelyn and Jordan, would just appear in my thoughts, sitting at the dinner table or going off to school, laughing at something I said. I wanted them to leave me alone, because it felt like they were watching too closely. I wanted to shield them from the things I saw, but they kept interrupting me, as if pulling me back from the inhumanity of the bombing. They were like a counterbalance to the emotional maelstrom of the work I was doing. While the Canal Hotel bombing pulled me closer to the horrible aspects of war, my children pulled me back toward, the beauty and meaningfulness of fatherhood. Even in the midst of the hellishness of war, I could see, and perhaps escape back to the love that grounded me as a person. I needed my family; they needed me. And that was sustaining and simple and uncompromising. It reminded me that I was their dad and I needed to go home.
by Brian Doyle
“The true coming together of hands in prayer belong to Jennifer Brickhouse and Stuart DeHann who held hands as they jumped.”—THE
Following the death of essayist Brian Doyle, Assay magazine asked me and other writers to offer a tribute to the great writer and man. Brian Doyle (born in New York in 1956) was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. You can learn about his many books here and can read all of the Assay tributes to Brian here.
For my contribution I used the “Paragraph of the Week” format that I created for The Humble Essayist and with the permission of the magazine reprint it here.
All of us who knew or met Brian or read his essays are aware that he had a huge heart—but how big was it? I chose a paragraph from “Leap” in the collection Leaping which is set against a backdrop of one of the world’s greatest atrocities on 9/11 so that we can take its measure. The essay is about a couple who held hands as they leapt to their deaths from a burning skyscraper.
Paragraph of the Week
Their hands reaching and joining is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.
The brief essay “Leap” is for me the most moving piece of writing about 9/11. In it Brian Doyle gathers a series of details that suggest the enormity of the event. The bodies “struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.” A child, riding the shoulders of his kindergarten teacher running away from the tumbling buildings, sees falling bodies and thinks “that the birds were on fire.” Doyle gathers quotations from a handful of eye-witnesses who described people “jumping,” “leaping,” “flailing,” and “falling,”—“too many people falling” but the phrase that makes real the number of victims to me, perhaps because it is so unobtrusive, is that people were “lining up” to jump. These metonymies of the much larger horror bring us to our knees, and Doyle offers three passages from scripture on destruction, love, and peace as a solace. But the true coming together of hands in prayer belong to Jennifer Brickhouse and Stuart DeHann who held hands as they jumped. In the face of mass death, Doyle holds onto this gesture. It confirms his belief in God and in people who “have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires.” To him, the gesture provides evidence that “love is why we are here.” They hold hands and he “holds on to that.”
The End of Nature Series
from “The End of Nature”
in American Earth
by Bill McKibben
“We have seared nature with the human brand.”—THE
In The End of Nature, published in 1989, Bill McKibben redefined the challenge for the environmental movement. He argued that idea of nature as a wilderness beyond the touch of humans was no longer conceivable. A cataract may be beautiful, but if it is loaded with “a mix of chemicals we’ve injected into the atmosphere,” it has changed its meaning to us. This redefinition leads to the realization that nature is “not another world, and there is nothing except us alone.” It is the end of nature. We would like to start a new feature at The Humble Essayist named “On The End of Nature” in honor of McKibben’s book in which we choose on a regular basis a Paragraph of the Week by an author on the topic and write a commentary to explore its meaning for us. To do so we will draw from many of the writers in McKibben’s anthology American Earth as well as other sources. In a sense we have always done this kind of work since it is in the tradition of the essay to write about nature, but with this new feature we will be more intentional about the task. We will begin with a Paragraph of the Week from McKibben himself.
The Paragraph of the Week
And so what if it isn't nature primeval? One of our neighbors has left several kitchen chairs along his stretch of the bank, spaced at fifty-yard intervals for comfort in fishing. At one old homestead, a stone chimney stands at either end of a foundation now filled by a graceful birch. Near the one real waterfall, a lot of rusty pipe and collapsed concrete testifies to the old mill that once stood there. But these aren't disturbing sights—they're almost comforting, reminders of the way that nature has endured and outlived and with dignity reclaimed so many schemes and disruptions of man. (A mile or so off the creek, there's a mine where a hundred and fifty years ago a visionary tried to extract pigment for paint and pack it out on mule and sledge. He rebuilt after a fire; finally an avalanche convinced him. The path in is faint now, but his chimney, too, still stands, a small Angkor Wat of free enterprise.) Large sections of the area were once farmed; but the growing season is not much more than a hundred days, and the limits established by that higher authority were stronger than the (powerful) attempts of individual men to circumvent them, and so the farms returned to forest, with only a dump of ancient bottles or a section of stone wall as a memorial. (Last fall, though, my wife and I found, in one abandoned meadow, a hop vine planted at least a century before. It was still flowering, and with its blossoms we brewed beer.) These ruins are humbling sights, reminders of the negotiations with nature that have established the world as we know it.
With his book The End of Nature Bill McKibben demonstrated convincingly that nature as something out there, beyond human influence, no longer exists. “There’s no such thing as nature anymore—that other world that isn’t business and art and breakfast is now not another world, and there is nothing except us alone.” We have seared nature with the human brand. Furthermore, we turned nature into a greenhouse, that is poisoning the atmosphere, “a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden” The book’s thesis is as damning as it is frightening, but hidden in this chapter which McKibben selected for his anthology American Earth, is the Paragraph of the Week about the intersection between people and nature that offers a glimmer of hope. In it kitchen chairs line a river bank, a “graceful birch” grows between old “stone chimneys,” an obscure path leads to an abandoned pigment plant, and the stone walls of old farms crumble under the leaves of restored forests where McKibben and his wife found an ancient flowering hop vine from which they made beer. It is true that nature as pristine and separate from humanity is long gone—in the same way that the older idea of the nature as a place of danger has largely yielded—but that does not mean that nature does not fight back. “[T]hese aren't disturbing sights—they're almost comforting, reminders of the way that nature has endured and outlived and with dignity reclaimed so many schemes and disruptions of man.” In them lies the hope of a more enlightened—perhaps even redeemable—interplay between humans and the natural world. They offer solace. McKibben calls these interactions “negotiations” and writes about them affectionately. This is our post-nature world now, and our hope, indeed our survival, depends on our entering these negotiations aware of all that is at stake both for the planet and ourselves.
from Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life
by Lee Martin
“To me, though, the most important piece of advice is the paragraph-long acknowledgement page which serves as a reminder that it takes a village to write a book.”—THE
My favorite story about Lee Martin comes from his home page. Among his students at Ohio State, he’s known for his collection of wind-up toys—a collection that keeps growing as more and more people present him with additions. He insists that each one has a pedagogical purpose, and, therefore, an important place in the classroom, where he invites students to not take themselves too seriously. It could be the motto of The Humble Essayist!
I also like his favorite quotation about writing, which he passes on in each class he teaches. It comes from Isak Dinesen, who said, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”
Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and four other novels: His other books are the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train.
The Paragraph of the Week comes from his most recent book which is on the subject of writing: Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life.
The Paragraph of the Week
My fourth grade teacher once told me I had no imagination. I've never forgotten. This is a book for all those who dare to dream and to devote themselves to the craft of writing. My lifelong apprenticeship started when I first fell in love with the power of story. Along the way I've had the privilege of learning from those more advanced than I and passing on what I've learned to others. I've been blessed with a teaching career that now approaches its thirty-sixth year. I'm so grateful for everyone I've met along my journey. To try to name you all would be a fool's game. If I sat in your classroom or you in mine—if we had the chance to talk about writing, wherever we might have been—you had a part in this book. For that I thank you, and I wish you a happy life, rich with the stories you have to tell. I'm so blessed to be a part of this family of writers. May we all keep doing the good work. Peace and love.
Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life by Lee Martin is loaded with sound advice for writers presented in a friendly and disarming way. There are solid chapters on “Organizing the Memoir” or “The Value of a Beautiful Sentence,” but I particularly like the surprising prompts such as “Mad Libs for Creative Nonfiction” or the zanier chapters like “Enough about Me, Tell Me What You Think about Me,” “The Art of the Twerk: Writing the Miley Cyrus Way,” and “The Art of the Snark” which is really about the limitations of being too snarky in writing. To me, though, the most important piece of advice is the paragraph-long acknowledgement page which serves as a reminder that it takes a village to write a book. My biggest mistake as a young writer was trying to go it alone, so I holed away in my study, withdrew from the writing community, and tried to carve my own path. What I forgot is that other writers—in the classroom or in conversation—can challenge you, pull you out of set ways, and reveal to you parts of yourself that you had missed. Writers talk endlessly about books and propel you to the library or bookstore with a list of titles in hand. Above all, they develop your weak side. Lee calls them a family, which seems about right. They squabble, get petty, sometimes cheat, which you can expect from a lifetime of rejection, but in the end they are united by a love of language and all that words can do. To those hanging hesitantly at the edge of this community, I say leap in. Find a reading and buy the book. Go to a conference. Attend a writing class. Join a writer’s group. Or take the plunge and get a degree. You might begin by reading Lee’s book which is a generous invitation to that world.
by John Hersey
Afterwards these six ordinary city dwellers saw immediate death, slow death, horrible illness, grief, and suffering that changed their lives forever, but, in the moment before the blast “none of them knew anything.”—THE
John Hersey, served for a time as Sinclair Lewis’ secretary, worked several years as a journalist, wrote novels, won the Pulitzer Prize, and taught for two decades at Yale, but he is best known for a slim volume, Hiroshima, which describes the lives of six ordinary people who lived through the bombing of that city. He died in Key West, Florida in 1993. Though the thermonuclear bombs of today are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs America dropped on Japan, the book remains a timely reminder of the human costs of any nuclear war.
The Paragraph of the Week
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go in-doors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.
What strikes me now when I re-read the first paragraph of John Hersey’s nonfiction classic, Hiroshima, is the last sentence: “At the time, none of them knew anything.” Miss Toshiki Sasaki, who was 1600 yards from the center of the blast, had been shuffling papers at her desk and had just “turned her head away from the windows” when “the room was filled with a blinding light.” Dr. Fuji—the one sleeping in his underwear—stood in his one-doctor hospital by the river 1,550 yards from the blast and felt the building “lean behind his rising” before falling into the water, throwing timbers over his chest. Mrs. Nakamura’s life had been upended before the blast by the death of her husband in the war, and she supported herself and her children by taking in piecework in her home 1,350 yards from the blast center. She was feeling sad watching her neighbor next door dismantling his house “board by board,” and was moved “almost to tears” by pity for him, herself, and her community when the light flashed. After the blast 1,400 yards away, which looked like “a large meteor colliding with earth,” Father Kleinsorge found himself “wandering around in the mission’s vegetable garden in his underwear, bleeding slightly from small cuts along his left flank” and saw that all of the nearby buildings had collapsed except the Jesuits’ mission house. Dr. Terufumi Sasaki fell to his knees in the hospital corridor 1,650 yards from the blast and said to himself “Sasaki, gambare! Be brave” when the blast tore into the building killing the colleague in the lab he was walking to see and the patient whose blood specimen he was carrying. The Reverend Tanimoto, tired from having helped a friend move boxes with a handcart, had paused by a rock garden 3,500 yards from the blast center when “a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky.” He threw himself down between two rocks in the garden, pressing his face against the stone. When he raised his head he saw that his friend’s house had collapsed. Afterwards these six ordinary city dwellers saw immediate death, slow death, horrible illness, grief, and suffering that changed their lives forever, but, in the moment before the blast “none of them knew anything.”
from “Discovering Place”
in Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place
by Robert Root
“As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, the goal of all our ‘stitching and unstitching’ is the illusion of ‘a moment’s thought.’”—THE
I have been teaching Landscapes with Figures this semester, Robert Root’s anthology of essays on place, and Bob has graciously agreed to join in on the on-line conversation with my students. In his thoughtful introduction Bob discusses some of the challenges facing those who emphasize place in their writing such as the interesting distinction between insiders and outsiders, but much of what he says about the nonfiction of place can be said about all good writing, such as the advice he gives in our Paragraph of the Week supported by a delightful reference to Oscar Wilde.
Bob is an amazingly prolific author with some twenty books of nonfiction to his name. His most recent—just released by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press—is Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. “As Robert Root walks through the Wisconsin Landscape,” writes Tom Montgomery Fate, “he reads the windblown hay field, the dripping green wood, and the crooked blue river with as much care and precision as the three writers he’s following.” Forward Reviews writes that “Root’s celebration of pristine places is a valentine to a small region that inspired giants of conservationism.” Everyone who cares about the environment or writing on place—or about great writing in general—should get this book. You can learn more about Bob at his website.
The Paragraph of the Week
Writing about place while you're in place provides a sense of immediacy to the writing. From the reader's perspective that sense of immediacy isn't dependent upon the writer's having composed the essay on the spot; for the writer—or at least for me—it always helps to have launched the writing in place. It makes it a little easier to recapture that sense of immediacy later on, which is better than having to invent the sense of immediacy from scratch. This acknowledges that immediacy is partly a literary device—one of my favorite and most often repeated comments by Oscar Wilde is his remark that he revises everything eleven times, ten times to get everything right, and the eleventh time to put in that touch of spontaneity that everyone admires about his writing. Immediacy isn't simply something you start with; it usually is something you painstakingly preserve or consciously construct over many revisions.
While teaching Bob Root’s Landscapes with Figures: the Nonfiction of Place I came across this gem that applies to all writing: the idea that writing is not naturally spontaneous or immediate. Like Bob, I carry a notepad in my pocket in order to capture some moment in a phrase or two that I might write about later, and also, like Bob, I have to work hard to get this bit of insight, caught in the moment, on the page of the final version where it can live. “Immediacy isn't simply something you start with,” Bob explains, “it usually is something you painstakingly preserve or consciously construct over many revision,” an insight that the joke by Oscar Wilde makes memorable. I find this constructed immediacy throughout Bob’s writing as in this moment from his piece “Anasazi” which accompanies his commentary in Landscape with Figures: “The night was without a moon, and the sky was densely packed with stars of every magnitude and configuration. Lying in the tent, staring through the tent flap, dazzled by the shining immensity of the universe, I fell asleep pondering how such a universe would have seemed to a primitive man on a planet blanketed in impenetrable darkness, a man seeing that spectacle through a square window or t-shaped doorway or a kiva smoke hole deep in the recesses of an overhang on the side of a cliff.” As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, the goal of all our “stitching and unstitching” is the illusion of “a moment’s thought.”
in Queen of the Fall
by Sonja Livingston
“Essays. But nothing like the forced compositions of school days. More like the sun cracking open before sinking into Lake Erie.”—Sonja Livingston
The writer and teacher, Judith Kitchen died on October 6, 2014, and we at The Humble Essayist have marked the occasion since then with features by and about her. Through her teaching and writing Judith encouraged and challenged several generations of essayists to write literature. This year I thought we would pay tribute to her with a Paragraph of the Week by her former student, the essayist Sonja Livingston who writes about Judith’s gifted teaching, quite appropriately, in a personal essay. We have all had teachers like this—haven't we?—who set our heads spinning and send us into the world changed and inspired. Sonja, who "took the long way to class driving along the Ontario Lakeshore" listening to classical music "while watching gulls and herons take flight" to prime herself for "the movement of words on the page," captures that student exhilaration here.
Judith Kitchen was a poet, critic, and author of nonfiction, including a masterful novella-length essay called The Circus Train, her last book. Sonja Livingston's latest book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history, memory and imagination to interact with and illuminate the lives of fascinating American women from the past. The result is a series of poetic essays. Her book, Queen of the Fall uses memory and personal experience to consider the lives of girls and women she’s known more personally. She teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, and in the study abroad program through the University of New Orleans in such places as San Miguel de Allende, Edinburgh, and Cork. Both the Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary are from the essay “Flight” in Queen of the Fall.—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
Judith Kitchen. A teacher who did not abide tardiness, lack of preparation, or prolonged deficiencies of imagination but who harbored certain soft spots for President Clinton, for Norman Maclean's novella of fly fishing, and all that's possible when words come together in just the right way. We read—did she assign Woolf, talk about Montaigne? I only recall my mouth hanging open while following a rumination on the color green by Marjorie Sandor and the feel of galaxies expanding while reading Albert Goldbarth's mash of religion, poetry, and physics. Essays. But nothing like the forced compositions of school days. More like the sun cracking open before sinking into Lake Erie.
From the French for making an attempt. Essayer. To try. Human thought winding its way toward understanding as it considers the words of a jump-rope song, a bride handing out favors on her wedding day, or the memory of a fourth-grade play that never quite fades. Essay. An entirely gorgeous word. Like the workings of human heart, but freer still. Wild and flapping. Capable of as much movement as a car headed west on the New York State Thruway, words becoming automobiles and airships and even shorebirds as they push forward and double back, hovering here and there, abrupt landings followed by august flights—each object, idea, and memory rising and, for a moment, held against the light.
from Spinning: Against the Rules of Angels
by Jill Christman
“For the moments of their encounter, this man who since his death had only returned as a memory and a voice guiding her through grief, crossed from the spiritual into the physical.”—THE
Jill Christman’s nonfiction is rich in humor and insight. Her voice, which ranges from hilarious to heart-wrenching, is her tool for probing life’s mysteries as anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing her read aloud knows. In her new essay she uses that voice to recreate the strange experience of seeing a lover, who has long been dead, in the unlikeliest of places, the bicycle spin room at the YMCA. Sure of her way around any narrative essay, Jill tells the tale with skill offering insights into love, loss, and transformation.
Jill is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure, the winner of the AWP award for creative nonfiction, and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood. She teaches nonfiction at Ball State in Indiana where she lives with her husband, the poet Mark Neeley, and their two children. You can learn more about Jill and her work at her website.—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
I love to set a quarter spinning on a smooth table. The quarter is only a coin, twenty-five cents, something I could spend on twelve minutes of parking or a gumball, but when I balance it vertically with one finger and flick it hard on its edge with another, the quarter dervishes into a cyclonic blur, skidding across the table. Why is it so satisfying to watch this silver spinning? The quarter changes. While it spins, the quarter is not a quarter. Its borders disappear—but you can't touch it. You want to. You want to touch it, to feel with your finger what it is to spin your way to transformation, but if you do, the quarter drops to the table, regains its ridged edges. Done. The quarter is once again a quarter.
Jill Christman’s essay “Spinning” is about her seeing a doppelganger of her fiancé Colin who died when Jill was in her twenties. It happened while she was riding her exercise bike in a class at the local YMCA, and Colin’s exact look-alike got on a bike at the back of the class. As always with Jill the story is told with humor and pathos, but it is the image of the spinning quarter that caught my eye. What fascinates her is the ability of the quarter when spun to exist in two states. Spun into “transformation,” it is both disembodied and yet still very real as merely touching it confirms. It is a matter of “losing boundaries” which is the rule of the angels that Colin’s twin breaks. For the moments of their encounter, this man who since his death had only returned as a memory and a voice guiding her through grief, crossed from the spiritual into the physical. The ethereal became corporeal, and until Colin’s double walked out of the door at the back of the gym, she on her spinning bike rode into the realm of the uncanny.
from “The Ghosts I Run With”
by Matt Tullis
“When Matt Tullis passed the window of his old hospital room during a marathon in Akron, he was running with ghosts.”—THE
Matt Tullis teaches at Fairfield University. His areas of focus are narrative journalism (both the study of it and the reporting and writing of it), as well as convergent journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. He is the host and producer of Gangery: The Podcast, a podcast focused on narrative journalism and the reporters who write it, and an associate editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction. The Paragraph of the Week is from his essay “The Ghosts I Run With” that appeared in SB Nation which is part of his newly published memoir Running with Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer.
The Paragraph of the Week
I started walking and stretched. I got going again, and then, toward the end, was coming down South Main Street, toward Canal Park. I looked off to the right and saw the hospital. My room and the place our support group met had long since been demolished and replaced with a big, new fancy hospital floor, but I could see where my hospital room had once been, where I had once looked out a window from my hospital bed onto the streets of Akron, streets I was now running. I thought about those days and nights when my mom or dad begged me to get out of bed, to take a walk down the hallway, just to sit up, to care, to want to live. I thought about the nights I couldn’t sleep, and the nights I could. I thought about the day I was supposed to have brain surgery to remove that infection, and how that surgery was called off at the last minute. I thought about how, when I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t walk from my bedroom to the kitchen without getting exhausted, without feeling dead.
When Matt Tullis passed the window of his old hospital room during a marathon in Akron, he was running with ghosts. There was Janet, the nurse in the children’s oncology ward who brought him sausage biscuits from Macdonald’s many mornings and “died of cancer after years of caring for kids with cancer.” Todd who got his prosthetic leg caught in the stirrup while riding horseback but managed to unhook it before being dragged and “laughed like a maniac.” Melissa, whom Matt was sweet on, who struggled like him with baldness and vomiting from the chemo. Their doctor who died of bile duct cancer, the “most caring man I have ever known,” Matt wrote, who told him his “heart was strong maybe a hundred times.” There were many more “who didn’t make it”: Terri, Laura Jo, Shelby, and Little John. “All of them ghosts now.” There were the kids in his group who created the game “Road to Remission” featured in a spot on Good Morning America. Five of the eight died. “Only Tim, Michael and myself, reached remission,” Matt thought until one day he called the nurse to ask what Tim was up to and the nurse said “Oh, Matt.” All gone. So on this day while running a marathon “that makes him feel more alive than I have in my life” Matt Tullis passes the hospital where he and so many children were treated and feels the presence of all of those who shared his ward and did not survive, ghosts running with him.
from “Of the Meaning of Progress”
in The Soul of Black Folk
by W.E.B. Du Bois
Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply, “We’ve had a heap of trouble since you've been away.”—THE
W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, teacher, professor, and author. He taught at Atlanta University and was one of the co-founders of the NAACP. The Paragraph of the Week comes from The Souls of Black Folk which he wrote in 1903 after graduating from Harvard and studying in Berlin. Randall Keenan argues that it is “a rare good book, which has and will continue to warn of man’s potential to destroy himself and others.”
The Paragraph of the Week describes an admirable family that Du Bois came to know when he taught for a time in the Tennessee hills, in particular a girl named Josie who, despite her lack of education, was eager to learn. In the commentary, taken from the same essay, Du Bois describes the family ten years later after it fell upon hard times. Du Bois identifies several factors such as isolation and poverty in the downfall, but the most important is racism which he calls “the Veil” that destroys hope. “I have called my tiny community a world,” Du Bois wrote, “and so its isolation made it, and yet there was among us but a half awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding, from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages, and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity.” The “weak wings” of people like Josie “beat against their barriers, barriers of caste, of youth, of life, at last, in dangerous moments, against everything that opposed even a whim.”
The Paragraph of the Week
Next morning I crossed the tall round hill, lingered to look at the blue and yellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas, then plunged into the wood, and came out at Josie's home. It was a dull frame cottage with four rooms, perched just below the brow of the hill, amid peach-trees. The father was a quiet, simple soul, calmly ignorant, with no touch of vulgarity. The mother was different,—strong, bustling, and energetic, with a quick restless tongue, and an ambition to live "like folks.” There was a crowd of children. Two boys had gone away. There remained two growing girls, a shy midget of eight, John, tall, awkward, and eighteen, Jim, younger, quicker, and better looking, and two babies of indefinite age. Then there was Josie herself. She seemed to be the centre of the family always busy at service, or at home, or berry-picking, a little nervous and inclined to scold, like her mother, yet faithful, too, like her father. She had about her a certain fineness, the shadow of an unconscious moral heroism that would willingly give all of life to make life broader, deeper, and fuller for her and hers. I saw much of this family afterwards, and grew to love them for their honest efforts to be decent and comfortable, and for their knowledge of their own ignorance. There was with them no affectation. The mother would scold the father for being so "easy"; Josie would roundly berate the boys for carelessness, and all knew that it was a hard thing to dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.
—W.E.B. Du Bois
Commentary (Ten Years Later)
Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply, “We’ve had a heap of trouble since you've been away.” I had feared for Jim. With a cultured parentage and a social caste to uphold him, he might have made a venturesome merchant or a West Point cadet. But here he was, angry with life and reckless, and when Farmer Durham charged him with stealing wheat, the old man had to ride fast to escape the stones which the furious fool hurled after him. They told Jim to run away, but he would not run, and the constable came that afternoon. It grieved Josie, and great awkward John walked nine miles every day to see his little brother through the bars of Lebanon jail. At last the two came back together in the dark night. The mother cooked supper, and Josie emptied her purse, and the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silent, yet worked the more. The hill became steep for the quiet old father, and with the boys away there was little to do in the valley. Josie helped them to sell the old farm, and they moved nearer town. Brother Dennis, the carpenter, built a new house with six rooms; Josie toiled a year in Nashville, and brought back ninety dollars to furnish the house and change it to a home... Josie shivered and worked on, with the vision of schooldays all fled, with a face wan and tired,—worked until, on a summer's day, some one married another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, and slept—and sleeps.
—W.E.B. Du Bois