Archive

Spring 2016

 

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

 

April 1, 2016

 

from “This Old Man”

by Roger Angell

in The Best American Essays 2015

 

“As long as they are healthy, the old don’t lose their turn in the lifelong spin-the-bottle of human desire.”—THE

 

Roger Angell is a senior editor and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His writing has appeared in many anthologies, including The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and The Best American Magazine Writing. His work has also been collected in nine of his own books, among them The Stone Arbor and Other Stories, A Day in the Life of Roger Angell, and, most recently, Let Me Finish. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from “This Old Man”which won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism and was selected for The Best American Essays 2015.  You can read the full essay here.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson's words: "Rowing in Eden— /Ah—the sea") isn't reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you've had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.—Roger Angel

 

Commentary

 

Occasionally the truths that personal essayists stumble upon are surprising until clearly stated.  Once the writer puts the idea into words, a discovery, like this one about the persistence of desire in Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” can become obvious and all we are left to say is “of course.”  I’m not sure that the “unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love” among the old is “widely treated like a raunchy secret,” but it is little discussed and probably hard for the young to imagine or accept.  Furthermore, the “invisibility factor”—the notion that the old have had their turn and should absent themselves and their wrinkles from the pleasures of physical loving can become, I suspect, an unexamined assumption of the young and a debilitating, self-imposed curse for the elderly.  Of course the old “yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity.”  Of course the old want to “be with someone else tonight, together in the dark.”  Of course, the old crave “the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach.”  As long as they are healthy, the old don’t lose their turn in the lifelong spin-the-bottle of human desire. “Just look at our faces,” he writes. those lined maps of human longing.  Of course they seize fresh opportunities for intimacy, to be "stunned and altered again."  “Wild Nights” are their luxury to claim as his reference to Emily Dickinson makes clear.  Of course, “Wild Nights!”—THE

 

April 8, 2016

 

from Fire Shut Up in My Bones

by Charles M. Blow

 

“Charles M. Blow did not select his very specific sexual orientation; it selected him.”—THE

 

Charles M. Blow has been a columnist for The New York Times since 2008 and recently the author of the memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones which is the source of The Paragraph of the Week.

 

 The Paragraph of the Week

 

And while the word bisexual was technically correct I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. But in addition it would seem to me woefully inadequate and impressionistically inaccurate. It reduced a range of identities, unbelievably wide and splendidly varied, in which same-gender attraction presented in graduated measures—from a pinch to a pound—to a single expression. To me it seemed too narrowly drawn in the collective consciousness, suggesting an identity fixed precisely in the middle between straight and gay, giving equal weight to each, bearing no resemblance to what I felt. In me, the attraction to men would never be equal to the attraction to women—in men it was often closer to the pinch but it would always be in flux. Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, "What are you?" I'd reply with something coy: "Complicated." It would take many years before the word "bisexual" would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn't only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity. Nonetheless, when saying the word, I'd follow quickly with details meant to clarify.—Charles M. Blow

 

Commentary

 

Sexuality is not a choice between gay or straight, but a spectrum of desires—and it is complicated.  As you read the final chapter of Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, these complications, these subtle gradations of desire, become clear.  It took Blow years to realize that his attraction to men was not caused by his rape by his uncle, Chester. It was instead a trait in his nature that his uncle intuited. “It is possible that Chester glimpsed a light in me, and that moved the darkness in him.”  But one reason that the young Charles, who was clearly attracted to men, hesitated to use the word “bisexual” to describe himself—aside from its negative connotations in American society when he grew up—was that his attraction to men was not fully developed, and sometimes it “withdrew” from him “almost completely.”   During these times, he wrote, “I was acutely aware that I missed the primal tug of the female form, the primary sensation and the peripheral ones.  The look of soft features and the feel of soft skin.  The graceful slopes of supple curves.  The sweet smells.  The giggles”  Eventually he married and had “three beautiful children” with his wife, and, though the marriage eventually failed, he came to accept the “counterintuitive fact” that his attraction to women was fully formed.  “The thing in me that yearned for those sensory cues from a woman,” he wrote, “wouldn’t quietly accept a substitute.”  Blow did not select his very specific sexual orientation; it selected him.  “I wasn’t making a choice,” he wrote, “I was subject to the tide.”

—THE

 

 

 

4/15/2016

 

from “One Art, Any Number of Works”

in Wherever the land is

by Amy Wright

 

The result is “One Art, Any Number of Works,” a mixed genre, ekphrastic tribute to beauty and childlike wonder as well as a lament for their loss.—THE

 

Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe and Cracker Sonnets, both forthcoming in 2016.  She is also the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, Coordinator of Creative Writing and Associate Professor at Austin Peay State University.  She was awarded a Peter Taylor Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  You may read some of her work at here.  The Paragraph of the Week is from “One Art, Any Number of Works” in Wherever the land is which can be purchased directly from the publisher, MIEL books, here.    

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

 

Commentary

 

“One Art, Any Number of Works” by Amy Wright is an elegy to her brother Jeremy who died of cancer as a young man.  It draws, ostensibly, on the villanelle “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop and “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, but is in fact a tapestry of allusions that evokes strong emotion.  It consists of three interwoven elements.  The first, written in thirteen sections of prose, is the story of Jeremy who comes across as an adventurous and fun-loving young man who rode motorcycles, enjoyed spelunking on the family farm in Virginia, and died with grace and dignity.  Each of these sections is coupled with the name of a painting stolen from the Isabella Gardner museum in Boston in 1990, a theft valued at $500 million dollars that, according to the FBI, “represents the largest property crime in U.S. history.”  The museum heist is more than a property crime, of course, but an incalculable loss to humanity that evokes feelings of anger and sadness, becoming here a metaphor for Jeremy’s early death.  Jeremy’s discovery of a cave, for instance, is coupled with a stolen Degas charcoal showing dancers floating ephemerally in a billowy plume above the smoke stacks of incinerators, and looking at it with the essay in mind I register fury and loss on many levels.  The final frame about Jeremy’s acceptance of death is accompanied by another Degas, a painting of a jockey and horse calmly preparing for weighing in at a race, their backs turned toward the viewer. Looking at it, I think of the words of the hospice director at Jeremy's death: "Seeing him let go changed my life." Scattered among the prose and the references to stolen paintings is a third element, a sequence of graphic paragraphs—or concrete poems—such as the paragraph of the week.  This one captures the spirit of Jeremy: a swirl of clover, a sense of curiosity and impending discovery, a hillside "starred" with violets and clover, a swerving dirt bike, and, sadly, circling buzzards.  The result is “One Art, Any Number of Works,” a mixed genre, ekphrastic tribute to beauty and childlike wonder as well as a lament for their loss.—THE

 

April 30, 2016

“Solitudes”

by Alice Meynell

in Prose and Poetry

 

Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was an English poet, critic, editor, and suffragist.  She also, in personal essays, wrote a finely etched prose.  As Lydia Fakundity put it in her anthology The Art of the Essay, Meynell’s style requires a “second look” from the reader: “the occasional dense sentence, the elliptical summation, the startlingly chosen word, force a more careful pace, a dislocation from the preconceived and obvious.”  Meynell, she adds, “studies writing as minutely as eyelids: ‘beautiful, eloquent, and full of secrets.’”  Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “Solitudes.”

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

And, although solitude is a prepared, secured, defended, elaborate possession of the rich, they too deny themselves the natural solitude of a woman with a child. A newly born child is often so nursed and talked about, handled and jolted and carried about by aliens, and there is so much importunate service going forward, that a woman is hardly alone long enough to feel; in silence and recollection, how her own blood moves separately, beside her, with another rhythm and different pulses. All is commonplace until the doors are closed upon the two. This unique intimacy is a profound retreat, an absolute seclusion.  It is more than single solitude, it is a multiplied isolation more remote than mountains, safer than valleys, deeper than forests, and further than mid-sea. That solitude partaken—the only partaken solitude in the world—is the Point of Honour of ethics. Treachery to that obligation and a betrayal of that confidence might well be held to be the least pardonable of all crimes. There is no innocent sleep so innocent as sleep shared between a woman and a child, the little breath hurrying beside the longer, as a child’s foot runs. But the favourite crime of the modern sentimentalist is that of a woman against her child. Her power, her intimacy, her opportunity, that should be her accusers, excuse her.—Alice Meynell

 

Commentary

 

For Alice Meynell, the intimacy between a mother and her baby are “the only partaken solitude in the world.”  Alone with her child the mother can feel her own blood move “separately beside her” at a different rate marking off subtle differences within the bond.  It is a “profound retreat” that can only be measured against times alone in the grandeur of nature, in remote mountains for instance, or in the forest depths, though these sublime moments in the end fall short of the “absolute seclusion” of mother and child.  It is the double nature of the mother alone in a closed room with her child that amplifies the separation from the world—a seclusion shared—and the child’s vulnerability in this relationship makes betrayal of the bond “the least pardonable of crimes.”  The wealthy in Alice Meynell’s day often excluded themselves from this unique maternal experience by relegating the care of children to wet nurses and nannies, and modern mothers in two-income households struggle to keep this time from turning into just another chore in a long day.  What harried mother—or father for that matter—has not struggled to stay awake rocking or walking a child to sleep?  But the reward for that care and attention is the most “innocent sleep of all,” that “shared between a woman and a child, the little breath hurrying beside the longer, as a child’s foot runs.”—THE

 

“Second-to-Last Words”

in Mint Snowballs

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

“the loss ‘hidden inside’ the loss”—THE

 

Mint Snowball is a book of stand-alone paragraphs.  Here is the way the author, Naomi Shihab Nye describes the collection. “I think of these pieces as being simple paragraphs rather than prose poems, though a few might sneak into the prose poem category, were they traveling on their own. The paragraph, standing by itself; has a lovely pocket-sized quality. It garnishes the page, as mint garnishes a plate. Many people say (foolishly, of course), they don't like poetry, but I've never heard anyone say that they don't like paragraphs. It would be like disliking five-minute increments on the clock.”  How could The Humble Essayist resist?

 

Naomi Shihab Nye is a well-known poet from San Antonio, Texas with many books of poetry to her credit.  She has also written several volumes of prose including Mint Snowball where the Paragraph of the Week, “Second-to-Last Words,” appeared.—THE

 

Paragraph of the Week

 

Second-to-Last Words

 

She says, I have left everything inside my house and when I die, you will not find it there. You will not find it because I have hidden it inside itself. Consider the day he held my hand for a hundred miles. I never told anyone about this, even who "he" was—they would have made something of it much less than it was. He comforted me, but I would call it political, not personal. Can you imagine anyone else seeing it this way? If you discover my sewing kit tucked into its crack, knot the blue silken thread, find something in your own life coming loose. But don't assume that's how I held my needle. Please, please water my plants. They are not “mine” exactly, so they will not die with me. Read the stories whose pages I have bent back in the magazines beside my bed. Then you may throw them away. I had a few problems with that. I'm not sure what will happen to the bed itself.  I have given it a map so it may follow me, away from here, from people measuring days, but I don't really expect to meet it again. If anyone wants to publish my letters, I leave that to you. Just remember how I removed a wall in my studio to put windows in. How there were many things I had not yet decided.—Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Commentary

 

When a friend dies we don’t just lose the person we know, though that loss may hurt us the most.  Nor do we simply lose the person known by others though communal loss gives rise to funerals, wakes, and eulogies.  Naomi Nye reminds us in “Second-to-Last Words” that we also lose the person that we did not know, the person that the dying friend alone knew herself to be, which is a complete and irremediable loss, the loss “hidden inside” the loss.  We have no hope of knowing her secret loves or lovers.  We may find her sewing kit and use it to mend our damaged selves, but we cannot assume that we are going about the process of repair in the same way she would have.  What she leaves behind—the plant, the bed—no longer belong to her and are no longer reliable guides to who she was or has become.  We might get hints of the part of the person we never knew in the magazine pages she turned down, the letters she left behind, and the choices she made.  “Just remember,” she insists, “how I removed a wall in my studio to put windows in,” but revealing as that bold gesture is, all of that exposure does not shed light on the person we never knew or the person she barely knew,  the person lost to herself as well as us in the “many things” that she “had not yet decided.”  For complete understanding, “second-to-last words” are not the last word.—THE

 

May 13, 2016

 

from Amazons: A Love Story

by E. J. Levy

 

 

“The truth, I feel now, is that beneath everything is joy...a radiance that feels like desire, that feels like a magnificent longing like saudades.” --E. J. Levy

 

Since memoir allows room for reflection, the best commentary about a passage of text can come from the author, and that is the case with this week’s Paragraph of the Week by E. J. Levy.  The paragraph and the commentary come from her memoir Amazons: A Love Story which the writer Barbara Hurd describes as “a young girl’s quest for her own identity entwined with her determination to save the Brazilian rain forest, the paradoxical story of sensual beauty and arid dislocation—from home, loved ones, and self.”  In the paragraph selected here, Levy describes an inexplicable transformative moment near the end of her time in Brazil that drains her.  In her commentary she finds words to describe what she later calls her moment of grace.

 

E. J. Levy’s writing has been featured in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and The Paris Review among other publications and has received a Pushcart Prize.  Her debut collection, Love, In Theory won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award and the 2014 Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writer’s Award.

 

Paragraph of the Week

 

A few days later, I will be walking alone among the sandy hills beyond camp, among the scrappy creosote that smells of tar, my mind blank as the blue sky, wondering what other people think about when they're alone, imagining others' thoughts more interesting than my own, feeling inadequate even in my solitude, as I pick up rocks and pop them in my mouth and suck them to keep my dry mouth wet and quell my thirst, and I will feel sad, and then I will feel deeply lonely, and then I will shift to something beyond loneliness: I will feel unfamiliar to myself, vacant, as if I were an absence more than a presence and in that instant I will seem merely an empty space, an 0, a hollow tube with the world showing through both sides, a mirror with the glass punched out, and I will be terrified by this emptiness and at the same time uncannily calm, becalmed, to feel myself indistinguishable from everything around me, to feel that I am nothing, that I am all of it and nothing at all.—E. J. Levy

 

Commentary

 

It is hard to describe this sort of thing without sounding like you've gone one too many rounds with William James, without sounding like a nut or a salesman. In that moment, I will feel only great joy, profound happiness, as if I am fallen terribly in love with everything and I understand then for the first time that this lovely imperfect world is all there is and it is enough, more than enough. I will feel my senses dilate as they do at the beginning of a love affair, but unlike love this joy will not fade, though it will come and go. Or rather I will come and go from it. This radiance, this joy is like a vast subterranean river, there beneath my life, my days, a current I will step into and out of, but that does not leave me as all else must and will.—E. J. Levy

 

May 20, 2016

from “Some/One”

by Shannon Huffman Polson

in River Teeth Fall 2015

 

“She gazed into the realities of her service in Bosnia and saw a hard truth that the demands of war had obscured.”—THE

 

For the next three weeks The Humble Essayist will celebrate the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference that runs during the first weekend of June by focusing on writers connected to River Teeth magazine.  The RTNC is a wonderful gathering of essayists, memoirists, and other writers of nonfiction at the campus of Ashland University in Ashland Ohio.  I will be there reading manuscripts, meeting participants, and giving a talk called “The Art of Research” with my friend, the writer Jill Christman.  You can learn more about the conference here.

 

The Paragraph of the Week by our first River Teeth writer comes from the essay “Some/One” by Shannon Huffman Polson which appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.  Polson is the author of North of Hope:A Daughter's Arctic Journey as well as essays in Cirque Journal, High Country News, Alaska and Seattle magazines, Huffington Post, and Ruminate Magazine, where her work was given honorable mention in the 2015 VanderMey Prize for Nonfiction. Her current project about mythology, community, and pathfinding is based on her experience as one of the Army's first women attack helicopter pilots.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

There are things, once you know them, that become impossible to forget, that will not be covered by the new-born colors of dawn. Worlds are not so separate as we are wont to believe, nor so connected either; what is certain is that one cannot walk into another world and expect to leave unchanged. Words and war will change you. The mind may move toward pleasant memories over time, the purpose and not the betrayals, but I cannot forget a knife slicing an infant's throat in its mother's arms. Could you forget a hand reaching up from a mass grave? And if you cannot forget these evil things, no matter what you do (and I have tried), you must somehow bear them.—Shannon Huffman Polson

Commentary

 

When Shannon Huffman Polson was a helicopter pilot in the Bosnian war, she concerned herself with daily matters.  “I thought about maintenance checks for the aircraft,” she writes, “the logbooks to be inspected, how soldiers were holding up through guard shifts, perparing my map for that night’s mission.”  Her job was to take care of her people.  She believed, based on stories of atrocities, that the Serbs were “animals”who ran their vehicles over the skulls of wounded Bosnians and slit the throats of babies in their mothers’ arms.  She believed that U.S. soldiers would not do such a thing.  “Perhaps I had to believe.”  But she knows that war changes people, that you cannot forget “a hand reaching up from a mass grave.”  You are forced to bear these memories.  After she left the service, she became a wife and mother with a toddler son and another child on the way.  But even before she learned, along with her neighbors, the news of Abu Ghraib, she came to understand through introspection that “[n]o one is innocent.”  It is “too easy to assign blame.”  She gazed into the realities of her service in Bosnia and saw a hard truth that the demands of war had obscured.  “The real fear is that you will look into this darkness and see yourself," she writes. "And that, of course, is what happens.”

 

May 27, 2016

 

from “London, When We”

by Katherine Robb

“They ‘sat on soft park grasses’ and ‘read Russian literature’ and ‘wandered through galleries’ when they lived in London and ‘sat in nosebleed seats watching the Royal ballet dancers explain love and deceit through sinew and pirouette.’”—THE

 

The second writer in our series celebrating the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference is by Katherine Robb, a writer and attorney. Her writing has been published in Blue Fifth Review, Grays Sporting Journal, the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal, Hobart (online), Jenny, Tincture Journal, New York University Annual Survey of American Law, and Taconic Press. She recently finished her first novel.  Her Paragraph of the Week comes from her essay “London, When We” in the Fall 2015 issue of River Teeth.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

When we lived in London, we sat on curbs eating handfuls of day old pastries and drank Ice Dragon from thick-glassed green bottles, admiring the quickness with which we felt nothing but the spin of our own imaginations. We let bubbles encase us at clubs named after churches when we lived in London, and we rode the tube the next morning, dirt sticking to the glycerin residue on our skin, our skirts inching high, our fingernails black. We watched as people moved to seats further away, giving us a wide berth as we rode through the city trying to remember where that friend of a friend who knew a friend who had a place with a shower that spun hot water lived. When we lived in London, I slept in a slick turquoise sleeping bag, never once missing sheets. When we lived in London, our landlady burned garbage in her backyard, but not until the piles grew high and dense like the bougainvillea here.—Katherine Robb

 

Commentary

 

In “London, When We” Katherine Robb recites memories to her husband in their home in San Francisco.  In London when she  lived with friends, they “cooked everything in a pot someone swiped from a sidewalk.”  They “memorized café menus” and “stole toilet paper from Starbucks” when they lived in London and “ate bangers at a street faire where someone bought patchwork pants.”  When they lived in London they “weighed less and dreamed more” and she “wore knee-high black leather boots with heavy buckles and four-inch lug platforms.”  They “sat on soft park grasses” and “read Russian literature” and “wandered through galleries” when they lived in London and “sat in nosebleed seats watching the Royal ballet dancers explain love and deceit through sinew and pirouette.”  When she lived in London, she loved her husband but did not yet know him.  “When, when, when,” he says as the heat cuts on in their comfortable home in San Francisco.  “When you lived in London you were just a kid.”  She tacitly agrees.  “But isn’t it true,” she adds, that “whether or not we lived in London, it’s the memories of the living that matter.”—THE

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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