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Summer 2014

 

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Henry David Thoreau     E. B. White     Vivian Gornick     Jill Christman

 

Brian Doyle    Elena Passerello     James Baldwin   Kathryn Winograd    Roger Rosenblatt                                                                                                                                                                                              

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July 4, 2014

 

 

from "Walking"

 

by Henry David Thoreau

 

"The essay is called 'Walking' and the point is that we do not properly walk the earth on paths flattened by the footsoles of others, but as 'saunterers' who leave the world of jurymen behind as they wander toward the holy."--THE

 

Thoreau is probably the most influential of American essayists leaving his mark on writers as varied as Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard.  His experiment in living deliberately on Walden Pond—building a cabin and making “the earth say beans instead of grass”—began 169 years ago on the Fourth of July in 1845, and it was his own declaration of independence from the “quiet desperation” of a life of conformity.  The book Walden, the product of this experiment, is a gift to his country and the world.  The Humble Essayist’s fascination with the power of the written word began with his reading of the paragraph below from Thoreau’s stand alone essay “Walking” when he was a young man.  It changed his life. 

 

from “Walking”

 

We hug the earth — how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree at least. I found my account in climbing a tree once. It was a tall white pine on the top of a hill, and though I got well pitched I was well payed for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before, — so much more of the earth and the heavens. I might have walked about the foot of the tree for three score years and ten, and yet I certainly should never have seen them. But, above all, I discovered around me, — it was near the end of June, on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute and delicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward. I carried straightway to the village the topmost spire, and showed it to stranger jurymen who walked the streets, — for it was court week — and to farmers and lumber dealers, and wood-choppers and hunters, and not one had ever seen the like before, but they wondered as at a star dropped down! Tell of ancient architects finishing their works on the tops of columns as perfectly as on the lower and more visible parts! Nature has from the first expanded the minute blossoms of the forest only toward the heavens, above men’s heads and unobserved by them. We see only the flowers that are under our feet in the meadows. The pines have developed their delicate blossoms on the highest twigs of the wood every summer for ages, as well over the heads of Nature’s red children, as of her white ones. Yet scarcely a farmer or hunter in the land has ever seen them.

 

Comment:

 

The energetic contraries of Thoreau’s opening sentence—“hug” and “mount”—certainly deserve their exclamation point.  It punctuates an irony that runs through all of Thoreau’s work.  We can “elevate” ourselves through the child-like act of merely climbing a tree.  When we are “well pitched” into grandeur our shirt fronts end up smeared in tar.  I can picture a blackened Thoreau, the gadfly of Concord, marching up to townspeople in for jury duty with a pine blossom in hand only to learn that none of them had seen it before—which means, of course, that they have also not seen the view that Thoreau could take in from the tree’s topmost branches.  What change of perspective do we achieve when we discover “new mountains” embedded in a horizon that has until then bounded our lives?  Thoreau’s use of religious language—“heavenward” and “spire”—to describe the pine blossom is one clue, comparing the pine tree to the spires in town.  The “delicate, cone-like blossoms” themselves with their suggestion of both fertility and beauty is another.  The notion that nature, like the architects of antiquity, lavishes as much attention on the blossom unseen in high branches as it does on the flowers we wade through in a meadow is yet another.  The essay is called “Walking” and the point is that we do not properly walk the earth on paths flattened by the footsoles of others, but as “saunterers” who leave the world of jurymen behind as we wander toward the holy, shedding our civilized selves and catching glimpses of a natural grandeur we could not imagine in the “three score years and ten” allotted to us on earth.  Such vagrancy—committed when we cut our own path in the woods or when we mount a tree with childlike wonder—enlarges our lives. —THE

 

July 11, 2014

 

from "Once More to the Lake"

by E. B. White

  

 

"White’s story works double-time to illustrate his larger point:  the roles we play may stay the same, but the actors who play them, sadly, do not."

                                                                                   --THE

 

I didn’t want to start The Humble Essayist with two dead white guys in a row, but Friday, July 11, was E. B. White’s birthday, so I couldn’t resist.  Next Friday we’ll rectify the situation by featuring Vivian Gornick.  White wrote essays and books for children and was a contributor and editor for six decades at The New Yorker beginning in the 1920’s.  He also had a hand in creating The Elements of Style, a guide to elegant prose, which he wrote in collaboration with his teacher at Cornell, William Strunk.  One of the “Elementary Principles of Composition” in the book is to “make the paragraph the unit of composition,” an idea that is certainly illustrated in this “Paragraph of the Week” from his finest essay, “Once More to the Lake.”

 

 

from “Once More to the Lake”

 

One afternoon while we were there at that lake a thunderstorm came up. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect. This was the big scene, still the big scene.  The whole thing was so familiar, the first feeling of oppression and heat and a general air around camp of not wanting to go very far away. In mid-afternoon (it was all the same) a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that had made life tick; and then the way the boats suddenly swung the other way at their moorings with the coming of a breeze out of the new quarter, and the premonitory rumble. Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills. Afterward the calm, the rain steadily rustling in the calm lake, the return of light and hope and spirits, and the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain, their bright cries perpetuating the deathless joke about how they were getting simply drenched, and the children screaming with delight at the new sensation of bathing in the rain, and the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.

 

 

Commentary:

 

In this essay White tells a story about taking his son to a freshwater lake in Maine that his family used to go to when White was a boy.  The familiar smell of lumber in the paneled cabin reminds him of sneaking out as a boy to take a canoe on the lake that for a summer morning took on the silence of a cathedral.  As White tells the story a curious doubling of past and present occurs—the dragonflies on the end of his fishing rod float with a helicopter stillness just like the ones he watched as a boy, and the minnows dart about in the lake’s shore each carrying identical shadows that dart with them.  It is in that doubling that the story becomes more than a story, the essay describing the patterns we enact in life: the roles that we play as we grow older, roles that are persistent if not eternal.  Without revealing the remarkable ending, I would like to discuss the way White illustrates his idea by looking at the penultimate moment which to me is one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written in a personal essay.  In this extended metaphor comparing a summer storm on the lake to a theatrical performance, White’s story works double-time to illustrate his larger point:  the roles we play may stay the same, but the actors who play them, sadly, do not.  Scene,  second-act climax, drum roll, the ba-da-dum of snare and cymbal, and deities watching from the hills—these references to theater, which is life’s double, extend the metaphor, but what we learn in the final paragraph of the essay is that the comedian in the thunderstorm, along with all of the other actors at the lake, are expendable.  The roles persist, but they—and by they here I mean you and I—will come and go.  The joke may be deathless, but we, alas, are not. –THE

 

July 19, 2014

 

 

 

from The Situation and the Story

by Vivian Gornick

 

"The solution is an act of humility achieved in a state of tranquility."

                                                       --THE

 

Vivian Gornick is the author of the memoir Fierce Attachments and three collections of essays: Approaching Eye-Level, The End of the Novel of Love, and The Men in My life.  The Paragraph of the Week is from The Situation and the Story, her guide to the art of personal narrative.  In the book she offers a way for writers to move from being self-absorbed scribblers to "truth speakers."  It is the way of the humble essayist.

 

from The Situation and the Story

 

“I began to see that in the course of daily life when, by my own lights, I act badly—confrontational, challenging, dismissive—I am out there on that raft before I have found the narrator who can bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.  When I am doing better, I am able to see that the flux is a situation.  I stop churning around inside my own defensiveness;  adopt a tone, a syntax, a perspective not wholly mine that allows me to focus on…what?  the husband? the guides?  the illegals?  No matter.  Any one of them will do.  I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand.  I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.”

 

Commentary:

 

We have all acted “badly” in this way, right?  Faced with some situation we have become “confrontational, challenging, dismissive,” and, as Gornick points out later, “defensive.”  Gornick shows the nonfiction writer the way out of this contemptible frame of mind to the more gracious state of the “truth speaker,” by using the extended metaphor of a raft.  When we are petty, we are on a raft “riding the onslaught” of our on “internal flux”  The word flux is right, suggesting waywardness and helplessness, but it is the word ‘internal’ that is curious.  The flux—the “churning”—is not in the situation but in us, a seething ferment that must be tamped down if the writer is to avoid drowning in the self.  The solution is an act of humility achieved in a state of tranquility.  “I become interested in my own existence,” she writes, “only as a means of penetrating the situation at hand.”  With that sentence, the humble essayist is born!  Writers create a persona out of a chastened self by striking the right tone, crafting sentences, and finding a fresh angle on the situation.  They right the raft by finding the story, the underlying meaning in “internal flux.”  Whether they use first person singular or plural, they find a serene ‘we’ inside the tumultuous ‘I’, and when they do, Gornick explains using a different metaphor elsewhere in her book, they come to “a clearing where the sense of things is larger than it was before.”—THE

 

July 25, 2015

 

from "The Avocado"

by Jill Christman

 

“Stay here,” she tells herself, remembering the lesson in being fully present.  “Don’t go.”

                               --THE

 

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure which was the winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2002.  She is an associate professor of English at Ball State University and teaches creative nonfiction in the Ashland University, low-residency MFA program.  “The Avocado” appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Fourth Genre.  In the end it is an affirmation of the female body despite the sadness of inevitable losses, an affirmation offered in gratitude for the many gifts the body brings.  Copies are available on-line from the magazine’s site, http://msupress.org/journals/fg/ .

 

from “The Avocado”

 

If the answer was the smooth, brown pit at the center of a ripe avocado I bought for breakfast from the men on the corner in San Jose, Costa Rica, then the question began with the slippery green nubs on the surface, the ones I ran my thumbs across for courage as I walked back to my single bed in the pension, past a group of men on the street, all of them hissing que guapa que guapa que guapa.  Twenty years old, blue-eyed and dark-haired, I didn’t know my own beauty, would never have thought to consider such a phrase—my own beauty—but I held a growing sense of my body’s place in the center of things.  I mean this in a geological way:  the shifting and slipping of solids and liquids, the crunching of plates, the obliteration of the eruption, and, afterward, the layering, the building up.

 

Commentary:

 

When Jill Christman holds a nubby, “slippery green,” avocado to her shapeless dress in her essay “The Avocado,” she is clinging to new life.  In despair at age twenty over the death of Colin, her fiancé, in a fiery wreck at an intersection in Oregon, she has escaped to Costa Rica, an alien environment with hissing men.  The avocado is in contrast to her lover’s ashes delivered to her at the funeral home in a cardbord box, ashes she kissed before licking her lips in order to keep some part of him alive.  He had taught her to be present in love-making, not to let herself “slip out, a curl of steam, a wisp of vapor” during sex, and now he was absent and in his place was an avocado.  At first she is afraid, perhaps offended at the men who hiss que guapa at her, but the phrase means “what a beauty” and, realizing that the men are not being “aggressive” or “unkind,” she accepts the pension clerk’s explanation that the phrase is a compliment.   Later when she dips her knife into the flesh of the avocado, she sees that it is not the “desexed” Avocado green of interior decorators, but a complicated gradation from “buttercream” to the green in the densest part of the forest.  The bite she scoops out has the feel and texture of ice cream.  “Stay here,” she tells herself, remembering the lesson in being fully present that her fiancé had taught her.  “Don’t go.”  Over time, change happens: the “tectonic plates” of her body, the “shifting and slipping of solids and liquids” spew the pent-up volcanic lava of her anger and pain, and harden into a larger life.  She evolves from “grieving girl to lover, lover, lover, then wife, then mother, my baby thriving.”  She would suffer more grief in a miscarriage while trying to have a second child, but would eventually give birth to a baby boy.  The avocado taught her lessons about staying alive, being present in life, of life embodied. “How will I ever be grateful enough,” Christman writes, “for my body and what she has done.”—THE

 

August 2, 2014

 

from "Playfulnessness:  a Note"

by Brian Doyle

 

“Essayists can startle themselves because they can be themselves, without ‘filters’ or ‘mannered disguises.’” –THE

 

While on vacation I learned that Brian Doyle, the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon and a tireless champion of the essay, died.  He is the author of twenty-eight books of essays, poems, nonfiction, and fiction.  We plan to do a new Paragraph of the Week honoring Brian soon, but in the meantime we would like to publish a feature from our archives on Brian done in our first year as a site.  Brian's paragraph comes from his essay “Playfulness: a Note” which was first published by Welcome Table Press as part of its “Occasional Papers on Practice & Form” and was reprinted in the fall 2013 edition of River Teeth:  A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. You can find the text at Project Muse.

 

from “Playfulness: a Note”

 

Thesis: the essay is the widest fattest most generous open glorious honest endlessly expandable form of committing prose not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering shambling shuffling nutty wandering salty singing voices in our heads, but also because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively.—Brian Doyle

 

Commentary

 

Where do I begin with this paean to the essay, a form generally dismissed as stodgy?  For me, the tipping point to giddy glory in this sentence-long paragraph is the place where I have to stop to take a deep breath: the word ‘startlement’.  Don’t get me wrong.  The rest of the paragraph—all that comes before that word—is a hoot.  Going backwards from ‘startlement’ we find that the essay is hardly stodgy but “liable to hilarity,” its singing voice deserves at least six comma-less adjectives beginning with “maundering shambling,”  its speaking voice can be admirable when not brilliant, and it lives by filching from other forms.  The hyperbole of “widest fattest” brings comfort to all of us unemaciated stylists.  He is asking for fullness, richness, and a cherubic verbal chubbiness in our essays and, since essayists are magpies, he doesn’t really care how we achieve such glorious waistlines in our prose.  But it is the word ‘startlement’—separated from the stately word ‘thesis’ by all of this fun—that carries the real weight of this paragraph because it sets up his theme.  The essay, as he writes later in the piece, “is the most playful and coolest form because it is the most naked.”  Essayists can startle themselves because they can be themselves, without “filters” or “mannered disguises.”  They are not just trying out the speaking voice or the singing voice, but, as he writes in the penultimate sentence of the essay, they make surprising self-discoveries for the rest of us by attending to “the inner voice that we all have in the deepest chambers of our hearts.”—THE

 

August 12, 2014

 

from “Harpy” by

Elena Passarello

 

A scream may, as Elena Passarello writes, be “somehow clownish,” but it is also a reminder that we are built for agony.  –THE

 

Elena Passarello describes herself as an essayist, a performer, and a plus-size-foot model.  She is the author of the essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat published by Sarabande, a book about the power of the human voice to capture and convey the whole of human experience.  Philadelphia Weekly describes it as a “dinner party at which David Sedaris, Mary Roach and Marlon Brando are trying to out-monologue one another.”  Our “Paragraph of the Week” comes from her essay “Harpy” about her victory in the annual “Stella Shouting Contest” held in New Orleans.  You can hear the actual scream by Googling “Yay!  A girl is the winner of the Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans”—but please read her paragraph and the commentary by THE first!

 

from “Harpy”


 

            The third scream, I think, is the scream that won it.  You can hear me lose a battle in my throat.  You do not have to assume that I will be mute for days afterward; you know it.  Because on the e of that last “Stella!,” the sound sinks lower into my neck and starts ripping.  Imagine the margin of a piece of paper torn, notch by notch, from a spiral notebook, or an anvil dropping through floor after floor of a cartoon tenement.  I did not tell myself to make this hurt, but there I am, punching lower and lower into myself to see what comes up.  The noise is just awful, but it is mighty loud.

 

Commentary:


 

            To win a screaming contest Elena Passarello had to lose a battle in her throat.  Her essay “Harpy” describes her victory in the 2011 Stella Shouting Contest held annually in New Orleans in honor of Marlon Brando’s famously anguished scream as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.  It is the sinking vowel at the heart of her third scream that measures the depth of her loss and seals her victory, and she offers a series of metaphors for damage as the vowel “starts ripping” at her lower neck.  It is the sound of a page torn from a spiral notebook or an anvil crunching through the layers of a tenement building.  The phrases “notch by notch” and “floor after floor”  suggest an unrelenting pumping against the closing folds of her vocal cords, but the figures of speech taken from school and cartoons also serve as a reminder that this is a performance, mostly for fun, and not the real thing.  It is the last figure, though, that raises the stakes as she punches “lower and lower” into herself to see “what comes up,” and the result is “mighty” and “awful.”  She writes later in the essay that the scream on stage allowed her to reach a vocal limit “where our body tells us sound is no longer possible.”  To win the Stella Shouting Contest she discovers that space found in all of us that “hurts so much that we require it.”  A scream may, as she writes in the essay “Down in the Holler” be “somehow clownish,” but it is also a reminder that we are built for agony. --THE

 

 

August 15, 2014

 

from “Notes of a Native Son”

by James Baldwin

 

“Acceptance, without rancor or complacency, is the way to live and love in a violent and evil world.”--THE

 

James Baldwin is the writer of stunning books of nonfiction, classics of the genre such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time.  Phillip Lopate, who wrote that Baldwin was “the greatest American essayist in the second half of the twentieth century,” argued that he “yolked together two opposites, tenderness and ferocity.”  That yolking—the spanning of such extremes—is the subject of our Paragraph of the Week from his essay, “Notes of a Native Son.”

 

Paragraph of the Week
 

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition.  The first was acceptance, the acceptance, totally, without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are:  in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace.  But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second ideas was of equal power:  that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.  This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.  This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.--James Baldwin

 

Commentary


 

The poles of Baldwin’s paradox of acceptance are clear but not easily bridged because there are perils on either side.  None of us can live a life of venemous anger—the way Baldwin’s racist father did—without being destroyed.  When Baldwin, the son, threw a half-full water mug at a white waitress in a bar who told him “We don’t serve Negroes here,” he knew that he was on the verge of succumbing to the same anger that had ruined his father.  But he also knew, after looking at his father’s shriveled face in the coffin, “his blackness … equivocated by powder,” that merely acquiescing to evil is unacceptable as well.  Evil that slowly poisons the mind is as bad as the quick and sure and deadly kind.  “One must always,” Baldwin writes, “be in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene.” And yet, there is another way which he sketches out in this paragraph.  If victims of injustice can fight without anger, they can survive, intact and whole—that is the larger truth that sweeps past Baldwin’s paradox.  Acceptance, without rancor or complacency, is the way to live and love in a violent and evil world.  Unfortunately the reconciliation of such opposites is not a matter of mind or will, but of “heart”—love and justice must mix in our lives naturally—and as Baldwin thinks about his father dead in the casket he realizes he has no one from his past to instruct him on the repair of that damaged organ.—THE

 

August 22, 2014

Paragraph of the Week

from “Birds and Nietzsche” in Phantom Canyon

by Kathryn Winograd

 

Little deaths define love, yes, but so, too, do small acts of deliverance. --THE

 

The poet, Kathryn Winograd, is the author of Phantom Canyon, a book of lyric essays from Conundrum Press.  “Here is the lyric essay at its most perceptive and powerful,” Robert Root says about the collection.  Jill Christman comments on its dramatic intensity, calling the book a “page turner” for those caught up in the mysteries of love, family, and loss.  “As a writer, teacher, mother, daughter, and survivor,” Christman writes, “I needed this book.”  Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her piece “Birds and Nietzsche” in which she finds fresh language for love.  Kathryn read this essay at the Ashland MFA residency this summer and you can acess it at the MFA website or find it here.

 

Paragraph of the Week


 

Here is my image of you: standing on our precarious rocking chair, me steadying it, and you rolling the naked bird so lightly from your fingers into the hollow bowl of that nest.  And how we stood there beneath a half dying tree, my mother looking through the door window, watching us as we waited in wonder to see the bluebird with the whole sky on its back hop from branch to branch, then disappear beneath the porch eaves, a bright bee pinned in its beak.--Kathryn Winograd

 

Commentary


 

Despairing of words for love, which Friedrich Nietzsche described as markers for “something already dead in our hearts,” Kathryn Winograd goes searching for images instead.  She settles on this one of her husband Leonard returning a fallen bluebird to its nest.  When she found the nestling among the rocks near their house, its translucent skin reminded Kathy of her own premature babies, and she feared that touching the doomed creature would be too hard.  “Let it die,”  she said, but Leonard disagreed and Kathy “scooped it up” and wrapped it in her shirt.  “How little I understood …the quiet little deaths” that define long-term relationships, Winograd admits, thinking of her mother, “widowed for years,” who still cried each night behind closed doors.  Little deaths define love, yes, but so, too, do small acts of deliverance.  The bluebird rescue may be comic as Leonard steps into a rocking chair that Kathy steadies, but he successfully lifts the small creature to the “hollow bowl of that nest.”  Later Leonard will place a blue egg in Kathy’s hand, the fruit of love that goes unspoken here like a caesura in a poetic line, but it is in this paragraph that love pronounces the poetry of its new name, not only in the stark image of a “half dying tree” and the irony of a widowed mother watching from behind a door, but also in the alliterative giddiness of the blue bird “with the whole sky on its back” as it hops from “branch to branch” and disappears beneath the eaves, “a bright bee pinned in its beak.” –THE

 

July 29, 2014

 

 

from Making Toast: a Family Story

By Roger Rosenblatt


 

“When we are alone, the masks we adopt in grief can stare back blankly, leaving us bereft.”--THE


 

Roger Rosenblatt’s essays for Time magazine and PBS have won two George Polk Awards, the Peabody, and the Emmy.  He is the author of six Off-Broadway plays and fourteen books.  When Roger’s daughter, Amy, a gifted doctor, mother, and wife, collapses and dies from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of thirty-eight, Roger and his wife, Ginny, leave their home on the South Shore of Long Island to move in with their son-in-law and their three young grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, known as Bubbies.  Making Toast and its sequel, Kayak Morning, chronicle Rosenblatt’s grief.  These are reflective memoirs, the phrase we at The Humble Essayist use for book-length essays.  Our Paragraph of the Week from Making Toast is about a trip that Roger, whom the children call Boppo, takes to Burning Tree Elementary School.

 

Paragraph of the Week
 

"When, on another day at Burning Tree, I visited Sammy’s class, I decided to drop in on Jessie’s class first, to say hello.  Her classmate Arthur saw me in the hall, ran ahead, and announced, “Boppo’s here!”  Jessie’s and Sammy’s friends all call me Boppo.  So do their teachers.  One afternoon I was standing by my car, waiting to pick up Jessie after school and take her to a piano lesson. A teacher, whom I do not know, called out, “Boppo!  Are you taking Sammy home, too?”  I am become Boppo, even in Bubbies’s school, where I was asked by the principal to play Dr. Seuss one morning to honor the doctor’s birthday.  I sat in a rocker, wearing the floppy red-and-white-striped stovepipe, and read The Cat in the Hat to two- and three-year-olds.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see Amy at these moments, standing off to the side of a classroom, hands on hips, making an amused frown.  Her father, Boppo the Loud and Absurd.  Boppo being Boppo.  After a visit to Burning Tree, I walked out to the asphalt parking lot, which was bright with sunshine and packed with cars.  Everything dead quiet.  No one there but Boppo the Great."--Roger Rosenblatt

 

Commentary
 

When we are alone, the masks we adopt in grief can stare back blankly, leaving us bereft.  Roger Rosenblatt’s mask is Boppo, a mispronunciation of the name “El Guapo”—the “handsome one”—that he had chosen for his grandparental nickname.  “El Guapo” was too hard for the children to say so it became Boppo.  Roger added the title “the Great’ when he created a song to celebrate himself called “Boppo the Great,” a phrase that even his grandchildren groan over, especially when Boppo threatens to have the entire school sing the song in his honor.  All of this silliness is, as Roger intends, a distraction from the leaden grief that has gripped this household of children who have lost their mother, Roger’s daughter Amy, after she died suddenly of a heart condition.  It is one of many distractions which include “the word of the day,” a punching bag for Sammy (and Roger), an elaborate playhouse, reading “letters” from James Joyce to Bubbies, and fixing breakfast according to the children’s specific preferences including toast without crusts for Sammy and plain buttered toast for Bubbies.  In this paragraph we see that the distractions, which distract Boppo as well as the children, have spread beyond the household to school and Roger allows himself to imagine Amy looking on bemused as Boppo the Great reads The Cat in the Hat to a class of children.  But when he is alone in the “dead quiet” of the parking lot beside the school, the persona of Boppo no longer serves as a distraction from grief and becomes a measure of his loss.  “No one there but Boppo the Great,” Rosenblatt writes.  In solitude, it is another name for the great emptiness that no distraction can hide for long.--THE

 

September 5, 2014

 

from The Small Heart of Things

by Julian Hoffman


 

“The world beckons and when we respond we are home.”--THE


 

The Small Heart of Things by Julian Hoffman is this year’s winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Terry Tempest Williams who judged the contest writes that the book “reminds us we are not strangers in the world if we remain open to awe and respectful of the tenacious spirit required to live in place.”  It is, she adds, “a book of patience.”  Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Canada.  In 2000, he and his partner, Julia, moved to the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece where they monitor birds in sensitive upland areas.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from his introduction to the book. 

 

Paragraph of the Week
 

But place also pertains to the relationships we foster with the wider world around us.  “Awareness,” says the writer Sigurd Olson, “is becoming acquainted with environment, no matter where one happens to be.”  One autumn, while putting the shopping in the bed of our truck, I watched a kestrel arrow low over the supermarket car park, snatch a small animal from an abandoned lot piled high with rubble and debris, and settle on a hummock of broken concrete beneath a streetlamp to feed.  It was so close that I could make out the black fretwork on its cinnamon back, and our eyes locked together when its head suddenly swiveled.  Shoppers pushed their trolleys past me, and I could hear the slam of closing doors, but I was so caught up in the eyes of the kestrel that I stood there with a bag dangling from my hand.  I watched with wonder until the very moment it left.--Julian Hoffman

 

Commentary


 

The world beckons and when we respond we are home.  “Anywhere,” Julian Hoffman writes in The Small Heart of Things, “can take hold of us” and, like the kestrel that sinks its claws into its prey, “burrow deep within.”  The falcon dips into an abandoned lot beside the supermarket, snatches prey out of the rubble, and settles “on a hummock of broken concrete beneath a streetlamp to feed.”  Hoffman was close enough to see the “black fretwork on its cinnamon back” and when the head of the bird “suddenly swiveled,” their eyes locked and the writer was filled with wonder.  Other shoppers pushed past him and the door slammed shut, but he stood transfixed, a stranger to the conventional world of commerce.  Hoffman describes many such moments of being “held in awe by the seemingly insignificant” from places around the world where he has traveled and lived.  Dolphin seemed “suspended in an enduring moment” as they “climbed into the air” above the Black Sea, “passing from one medium to the next, dragging sprays of water like silver harnesses from their tandem tails.” An owl flapped slowly above the hills of Bulgaria, “its muffled wings bearing it off in a silent glide, the earth dimming it like a cupped flame, until it was taken up by the dark.”   These moments can happen anywhere—that is Hoffman’s point—and more “mystery” can be found in them than in “a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.”    “Everything beckons,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, reminding Hoffman that this kind of seeing into “the small heart of things” does not require hard work on our part.  The things are already there, calling us home. –THE

 

 

September 12, 2014

 

from “Postscript to a Postscript to ‘The Ring of Time’”

by Robert Root
 

“Robert Root knows that time is not a ‘ring’ or a ‘circle’ with each day the same, as the weather in Florida might suggest, but a ‘spiral.’”—THE


 

Robert Root has written and edited seventeen books of nonfiction including, most recently, his memoir, Happenstance, which Lia Purpura called “gorgeously shaped meditations illuminating both the mystery of happenstance and the miracle of intentional choices.”  He has written literary criticism as well, including E. B. White:  The Emergence of an Essayist.  His craft book, The Nonfictionist’s Guide:  On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction, is a thorough and spirited poetics of the genre and one of the best places for any writer of essays and memoirs to learn about the form.  He was one of the co-editors of The Fourth Genre anthology and served for many years as an editor for the influential Fourth Genre magazine.  The Paragraph of the Week is from his essay “Postscript to a Postscript to ‘The Ring of Time’” in his recent collection of essays from Nebraska entitled Postscripts:  Reflections on Time and Place.  You can hear him read from this work—and hear The Humble Essayist himself introduce him—at this link:  Ashland MFA .

 

The Paragraph of the Week
 

“Often in my life I have felt a palpable ache, a sensation in my arms and chest, from longing to hold that baby in my arms again.  Maybe I would feel that way even if her mother and I hadn’t divorced, but maybe it comes from a sense of irretrievable loss from not having been with my children each day.  When you are a divorced parent, it’s not enough to rebuild your life from your own happiness with another partner; you may feel blessed and grateful, a recipient of unmerited grace, but a part of you is always holding your breath, longing for certain signs of your children’s happiness, irrefutable indications that anguish is no longer waiting in the wings just out of your peripheral vision.  Sharing your daughter’s joy at her wedding might be just such a sign; just because you had to marry twice to find your contentment is no reason to believe she hasn’t gotten it right the first time.  Exhale all the way for once.  For once, on faith, stop holding your breath.”—Robert Root

 

Commentary
 

Ever since the divorce from his first wife, Robert Root has carried this ache—he calls it palpable—from “longing to hold” his baby girl in his arms.  Now on the plane ride to Sarasota Florida, he sits with “the overhead light off,” his “mind restless with images” of his daughter who is about to marry.  He admits that these feelings of parental loss, though common, are aggravated by divorce which creates an “anguish” that even a happy second marriage cannot erase:  “a part of you is always holding your breath.”  He is aware of the “illusion of timelessness” created by the repeated cycles in our lives and worries that his mistakes will circle back on his daughter.  But as a student of E. B. White, and his well-known essay “The Ring of Time,” Root knows that time is not a “ring” or a “circle” with each day the same, as the weather in Florida might suggest, but a “spiral.”  We are not cursed with a selfish immortality that creates endless but lifeless replicas of the phases of our lives like the cycles of the moon.  We make children, instead, an act of generosity as well as generation which spins away from us in a “corkscrew,” creating a new center.  So Root can exhale “all the way for once.”   Over time, his daughter will carry his love and longing into the future, but she will also live her own life, make her own mistakes, and find her own unique joys.  “What a blessing” he writes, “to measure time this way.”—THE

 

 

September 19, 2014

 

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen


 

“During moments of intense awareness time dilates, rippling outward as the clock slows, ‘finding time for finding time for time.’”—THE 


 

Judith Kitchen is the author of six books, including Only the Dance and Half in Shade, and is the co-editor of In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes, an influential series of anthologies of brief nonfiction.  A new anthology called Brief Encounters will be published in 2015 by Norton.  Our Paragraph of the Week is taken from her most recent book, The Magic Train, a lyrical reflective memoir on illness published by Ovenbird Books, an independent press dedicated to the publication of experimental literary non-fiction.  Ovenbird Books includes a nonfiction series called “Judith Kitchen Select:  An Imprint, An Aesthetic.”  You can learn more about her work and the press at www.ovenbirdbooks.org.

 

Paragraph of the Week


 

“This morning I saw robins in the bush outside my window.  They were fretting in the cold, and I worried about them.  They ruffled their feathers and tossed their beaks and looked decidedly as though they wanted April.  I want April, too.  But I’m stuck inside, and this watery scene will have to do—for the time being.  I like the phrase ‘for the time being.’  Time being what it is, I move through it as if I were swimming.  Stroking my way through the minutes and hours.  I know I don’t appear that way—appear resolute, as though I know what I am doing at all times.  I like the phrase ‘at all times’ as though each minute were, somehow, equal.  As though they added to each other in steady increments and you could dip in and pull one out and it would stand for all the rest.  But I know that all times are not equal, that sometimes you don’t notice its passage and sometimes you have time on your hands.  I like the phrase ‘time on your hands’ when you can actively hold it and feel its weight.  It’s heavier than you might think, and that’s when time hangs heavy.  I suppose I could play around with that phrase, too, that I could easily go on like that—puffing my thoughts out like those robins in the bush, finding time for finding time for time.”—Judith Kitchen

 

Commentary


 

The reason Judith Kitchen is “stuck inside” on a wet morning in March is that she has just completed a particularly difficult round of chemotherapy.  Robins begin and end the paragraph, ruffling their feathers and “fretting in the cold.”  She is fretting too over the meaning of the clichés of time.  “For the time being” she is stuck inside her cancer, where each moment calls for a courageousness she cannot “at all times” maintain.  The phrase “at all times” seems to level time to clock time—which is the enemy here—those leaden hours of our lives when we are stuck is some dull job or task or illness and each minute on the clock we are watching is the same and has equal weight, the dull time of one damn thing after another.  But times are not all equal as the clichés “time on your hands” and “time hanging heavy” remind us.  During moments of intense awareness time dilates, rippling outward as the clock slows, “finding time for finding time for time.”  Kitchen gets weary of playing this game of retrieving clichés from their emptiness, of allowing her mind to bring fresh meaning to dead words, but not before she arrives at her true burden.  Her book, The Circus Train, is her “pre-posthumous memoir” about the way memory and language shape who we are even as—no, especially as—we are about to let go of who we are.  When death is near and time is about to be taken away forever, “you actively hold it and feel its weight” and discover in the gut that it is “heavier than you think.”—THE

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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