Archive

Summer 2016

 

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

June 3, 2016

from “Chin Music”

in Greatest Hits and Some That Weren't:

Personal Essays and Memoirs, 1990-2015

by Michael Steinberg

 

“Screw chin music,” Mike told himself, a pitch thrown just under the batter’s chin.  “I’ll take his goddamn head off.”—THE

Our final feature celebrating River Teeth Nonfiction Conference is by Michael Steinberg who will be one of the presenters at the conference this weekend.  Steinberg is the founding editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, as well as an award-wining personal essayist/memorist and a teacher of and commentator on literary/creative nonfiction.

His latest book (his sixth), Greatest Hits And Some That Weren’t: Personal Essays and Memoirs, 1990-2015 is a collection of eleven essays and memoirs about his lifelong passions, curiosities, and preoccupations—including; the shaping influences from his early years of growing up in New York City; his twin obsessions with baseball and writing; his sense of himself as a congenital New Yorker living in the Midwest; his fascination with overseas travel— in addition to his mid- and later-life reflections on being an aging ex-athlete and a longtime writing teacher and writer.

Steinberg's collection has just been released in time for the conference and we are excited to be among the first to make the announcement.  His Paragraph of the Week comes from an essay called “Chin Music” that can be found in his new collection.—THE

Paragraph of the Week

 

He'd caught me by surprise again. I should have known that he'd have the last word. But this time I couldn't—wouldn't—jump through his hoops again. So, I took a deep breath, bowed my head, and slowly walked toward the mound—all the time knowing exactly where I was headed. When I got to the rubber, I kept going. At second base, I pushed off the bag with my right foot and began to sprint. I began unbuttoning my shirt, and as I passed our center fielder, Ducky Warshauer, I tossed my cap and uniform jersey right at him. Ducky stared at me like I'd just gone Section Eight. When I stepped onto the walkway outside the locker room, I heard the metallic clack, clack, clack of my spikes on the concrete floor. I opened the door and inhaled the familiar perfume of chlorine, Oil of Wintergreen, and stale sweat socks. For a moment I thought about going back out there; instead I headed straight for the shower and pushed the lever as far to the right as it would go. As the needle spray bit into my shoulders, I watched the steam rise up to surround me.   —Michael Steinberg

Commentary

 

A young Michael Steinberg is walking off the field after throwing a bean ball at his VFW coach.  “Screw chin music,” Mike told himself, a pitch thrown just under the batter’s chin.  “I’ll take his goddamn head off.”  The coach had asked Mike to throw a pitch at his best friend’s head as a way of intimidating young recruits trying out for the team, and Mike in an act of defiance convinced the coach to take a bat and step into the box himself.  Mike hurled the ball at the grinning coach and “clipped him right on the bill of the cap,” knocking the coach down, shaken but unhurt, and then Mike turned and walked off the field ready to quit the team.  Steinberg recalls this incident decades later when he decides to retire from teaching, realizing that this seminal moment in his youth was not just about his youthful act of defiance but also the manipulation of young people by adults in authority.  After an outburst in class with a talented but rude student Mike the teacher begins to wonder if he were turning into his old coach.  He had seen colleagues grow cynical and vowed that he would not become like them.  “For the most part I kept the promise,” he writes, “but in the past decade I’d noticed there were more and more students who could push my hot buttons.”  So, like the young ball player who walked past the mound and second base to a locker room that smelled of chlorine mixed with wintergreen, the teacher walked away from teaching, the “clack, clack, clack” of cleats echoing in his memory.—THE

 

June 10, 2016

from Night

by Elie Wiesel

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”—Elie Weisel

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than forty internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from Night, a classic on German atrocities in World War II in which Wiesel chronicles the herding of his family and other Jews into cattle cars, the starvation, exposure, and systematic slaughtering of human beings at Auschwitz, and the forced march to Buchenwald which killed his father a nearly killed him.  “As a human document,” A. Alverez has written, “Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism.” 

The Paragraph of the Week, with a single sentence lagniappe, describes the complacency and wishful thinking of the Jewish community, as the humiliation, deportation, and mistreatment of Jews began, and the commentary, which is far more appropriate than any thing I could devise, comes from Weisel’s Nobel Prize address.  It is a warning to all humankind to condemn bigotry as soon as it rears its ugly head.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

ANGUISH. German soldiers—with their steel helmets and their death's-head emblem. Still, our first impressions of the Germans were rather reassuring. The officers were billeted in private homes, even in Jewish homes. Their attitude toward their hosts was distant but polite. They never demanded the impossible, made no offensive remarks, and sometimes even smiled at the lady of the house. A German officer lodged in the Kahns' house across the street from us. We were told he was a charming man, calm, likable, and polite. Three days after he moved in, he brought Mrs. Kahn a box of chocolates The optimists were jubilant "Well? What did we tell you? You wouldn't believe us There they are, your Germans. What do you say now? Where is their famous cruelty?"

     The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out—and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling.—Elie Wiesel

 

Commentary 

And then I explain to him [Weisel’s younger self] how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.—Elie Wiesel

 

June 24, 2016

from “Once More to the Lake”

in Essays of E. B. White

 

“I have always loved the dragonfly in ‘Once More to the Lake,’ the one that lights on the tip of E. B. White’s fishing rod…”—THE

 

It has become an annual tradition for us to celebrate the summer with a paragraph chosen from the best summertime essay THE knows, “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White.  As usual it will run for two weeks.  E. B. White, who worked for many years at The New Yorker, wrote elegantly, and this little essay is his masterpiece and THE’s favorite. So we have made it a summer tradition to choose a new paragraph from it as The Paragraph of the Week and hope to continue to do so until we run out of paragraphs.  I figure that gives us ten more summers! The Humble Essayist will return with a new paragraph and commentary two weeks from now on July 1.

 

Check out the past Paragraphs of the Week by E. B. White  in the Summer 2014 and Spring 2015 archives and read the entire “Once More to the Lake” here.

The Paragraph of the Week

We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches from the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floor-boards the same freshwater leavings and débris—the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday’s catch. We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of.—E. B. White

 

Commentary

 

I have always loved the dragonfly in “Once More to the Lake,” the one that lights on the tip of E. B. White’s fishing rod when the writer takes his son to the family’s summertime vacation spot.  The other details are fine, too.  The “chucking of the rowboat under the chin” is a delightful personification capturing the playfulness and low lapping mumble of the waves—you can almost hear their sound in the word “chuck”—while the rest of the sentence about the “leavings and débris” serves as a reminder that behind the nostalgia lies something deadly:  “the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday’s catch.”  Death lurks “under the floorboards” of this essay and will have the last word.  But it is the dragonfly we remember, the one that hovers “a few inches from the surface of the water” so like the dragonfly of his childhood suggesting there had been “no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory.” The dragonfly convinced White "beyond any doubt" that the passing of time is a “mirage," though by the end of the essay he will discover that he has it backwards.  The passage of time is very real, and the dragonfly hovering forever just there, out of reach, is the illusion.—THE

 

July 1, 2016

from “Economy”

in Walden

by Henry David Thoreau

​“Why do we write about ourselves?”—THE

 

It is time on our second anniversary to declare our independence once again.  After all, our enterprise here at The Humble Essayist is a celebration of the musing of “the first person.”  What a great time we have had over the last two years selecting Paragraphs of the Week and this year we innaugurated THE Themes as well. 

 

For our inaugural issue on July 4, 2014 we did a Paragraph of the Week from one of the granddaddy’s of the genre, Henry David Thoreau, and we have made that a tradition, returning to the master from Concord each year on the week of the holiday for a paragraph. There are enough great paragraphs by Thoreau for many lifetimes of such anniversaries.  Our selection this month comes from the essay “Economy” in his most famous work, Walden.  There is a nice annotated version of the text online here.  Check it out, after you have read THE below.

This issue raised in this week's feature is why we write about ourselves--especially on a site dubbed The Humble Essayist.  We get two different views:  Henry Thoreau's and THE's.  

 

Thanks to all who have participated in the site this year, commented on it on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.  Thanks, of course, to the writers whose work we have used reminding us that the tradition of personal nonfiction is strong in our time.  Above all, thanks to our loyal readers who keep the page alive! —THE

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.—Henry David Thoreau

Commentary

 

Why do we write about ourselves?  We here at The Humble Essayist argue that it is an act of humility:  to pin down an idea larger than ouselves, the self is the best anchor.  Henry David Thoreau had a different take.  He begins by pointing out that the self—the “I”—inevitably does the talking no matter how much we disguise it in third person or first-person plural.  The self, despite limited experience, is abundant in subject matter which comes readily to hand.  “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” Thoreau explains.  For Thoreau, a “simple and sincere” discussion of one’s own life is the basic requirement of good writing.  Unlike THE, Thoreau expresses no need to attach himself to something larger—though he does that in each essay of Walden.  What makes the self intrinsically interesting to him is that each of us is so different and so lonely, every other’s story a message from “a distant land.”  It is not some encompassing idea that matters, but our differences which the essay reaches across.  To read an essay is to put on someone else’s coat, aware of the different size, but confident that the seams will not split.—THE  

 
 

July 9, 2016

from Levels of Life

by Julian Barnes

 

“Rising above loss in an attempt to gain a more encompassing perspective—the usual prescription given to those who grieve—is problematic.”--THE

 

Julian Barnes is the author of several books of stories and essays, as well as a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and numerous novels, including the newly published The Noise of Time.  His other recent publications include Levels of Life and Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art.  Barnes has received several awards and honors for his writing, including the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending and, in 2011, the David Cohen Prize for Literature.  Our Paragraph of the Week, a series of “tormenting” questions on the subject of mourning, comes from Levels of Life, a memoir about grief and aerial ballooning.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

For here is the final tormenting, unanswerable question: what is "success" in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination of both? The ability to hold the lost love powerfully in mind, remembering without distorting? The ability to continue living as she would have wanted you to (though this is a tricky area, where the sorrowful can easily give themselves a free pass)? And afterwards? What happens to the heart—what does it need, and seek? Some form of self-sufficiency which avoids neutrality and indifference? Followed by some new relationship which will draw strength from the memory of the one who has been lost? This is like asking for the best of both worlds—though since you have just endured the worst of a single world, you might feel yourself entitled to it. But entitlement—the belief in some cosmic (or even animal) reward system—is another delusion, another vanity. Why should there be a pattern, here of all places?—Julian Barnes

 

Commentary

 “You put together things that have not been put together before,” writes Julian Barnes in Levels of Life. “And the world is changed.”  Barnes’ book is a memoir about the death of his wife, but the “thing” that he put together with her death was aerial ballooning which takes up more than half of his text and acquires symbolic meaning.  We know that his wife’s death devastated him.  It is as if  “you had dropped from a height of several hundred feet,” he writes, and the “shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.”  For Barnes the solution was to float far enough above his grief to get some sense of perspective on the loss of his wife, and he tells many diverting stories about aeronauts such as Fred Burnaby, Felix Tournachon, and Sarah Bernhardt along the way, but he is never completely clear about whether it is better to float or remain earthbound.  Rising above loss in an attempt to gain a more encompassing perspective—the usual prescription given to those who grieve—is problematic.  “For here,” writes Barnes, “is the tormenting, unanswerable question: what is success in mourning?  Does it lie in remembering or forgetting?”  You may want clear markers in grief, but the metaphor of the clouds floating past the balloonist will not allow it.—THE

August 6, 2016

from “What I Believe”

in Two Cheers for Democracy

by E. M. Forster

 

“E. M. Forster calls those who put friendship above all else ‘The Beloved Republic’, the peaceful and fragile confederacy of the kind and benevolent that is necessary for civilized life.”—THE

E. M. Forster was a twentieth century English novelist, short story writer, and essayist.  He is best known for his novels which include classics such as Howard’s End, A Room with a View, and A Passage to India. His essays, collected in Abinger Harvest, Two Cheers for Democracy and The Prince’s Tale and Other Uncollected Writings are less well known, but are written out of the same humanistic spirit of sympathy and understanding that is found in his fiction.  The essay, “What I Believe,” which is the source of The Paragraph of the Week, is an anthem for these civilizing values.  Check out the entire essay here—after you read the Paragraph of the Week, of course.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

I believe in aristocracy, though—if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke. I give no examples—it is risky to do that—but the reader may as well consider whether this is the type of person he would like to meet and to be, and whether (going further with me) he would prefer that this type should not be an ascetic one. I am against asceticism myself. I am with the old Scotsman who wanted less chastity and more delicacy. I do not feel that my aristocrats are a real aristocracy if they thwart their bodies, since bodies are the instruments through which we register and enjoy the world. Still, I do not insist. This is not a major point. It is clearly possible to be sensitive, considerate and plucky and yet be an ascetic too, and if anyone possesses the first three qualities I will let him in! On they go—an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People—all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart's affections, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.—E. M. Forster

 

Commentary

When I think about friendship I inevitably recall the choice that E. M. Forster poses to us in his essay “What I Believe.”  Forster calls those who put friendship above all else “The Beloved Republic,” the peaceful and fragile confederacy of the kind and benevolent that is necessary for civilized life, and he is willing to put his faith in the “natural warmth” of its happy and mutual reliability. Writing in 1939 when Hitler had reached the brink of power, Forster was well aware that this republic of loved ones had no army and was under threat.  “During the present decade,” Forster explained in a radio address delivered at the time, “thousands and thousands of innocent people have been killed, robbed, mutilated, insulted,” and “imprisoned.”  News reports of book burnings at the University of Berlin prefigured the “Age of Bloodshed” that Hitler’s fanaticism would bring to Europe and the world.  It is against this backdrop of rising hatred that Forster wrote “What I Believe” and, argued for the existence—and persistence—of The Beloved Republic even in the darkest times.  Forster claims that The Beloved Republic can be found everywhere, its citizens easily recognizable.  They are not heroes or saviors or politicians who exude “iron will, personal magnetism, dash, flair,” and “sexlessness.”  The Beloved Republic does not consist of special people, but of ordinary folks.  Forster describes this happy band of true friends as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”  These people, he writes, amplifying on the idea, “are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”  They make up “an invincible army, yet not a victorious one.”  Forster lived in an age of causes—both on the left and on the right—and realized that friendship could easily be dismissed by dogmatic believers as a “bourgeois luxury,” but he saw personal relationships as the last great hope of humankind.   “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” Forster explains, framing the question at the heart of his essay, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”  The dilemma—let’s call it Forster’s choice—reveals the fist hidden in the soft folds of any faith that is not based on loving relationships.  “Probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice,” Forster admits.  “Still, there lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard.”—THE

 
 

from Ready for Air

by Kate Hopper

Commentary by Maisy Hrischuk

 

“‘I dip back into dreams’ sounds way more pleasant than falling, which is how I feel sleep comes and takes me away.”—Maisy Hrischuk

 

Denise Wilkinson teaches tenth grade English at Carlton Public High School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada.  This year she asked her students to write THE Paragraphs.  She assigned paragraphs and asked students to find universal themes in them.  “In a way, supplying a paragraph made the task easier as they did not have to read several large texts and decide on paragraphs,” Denise writes, “but it also made it much more difficult.  Rather than being able to take the small section of text in context of the larger work, students were forced to make inferences, discuss their understandings with me (who has read all the works from which the paragraphs are taken), and really trust their ability to talk to the author in that one small moment of text.  I believe they rose to the task.”

 

We at The Humble Essayist agree!  We will publish three separate works by Denise’s students as Paragraphs of the Week over the next few months.  We hope to make such student work a regular feature here, so teachers—please consider placing a THE Paragraph or THE Theme assignment on your syllabus and send the best results to me here at The Humble Essayist.  You can learn more by going to the “Teachers and Students” tab or by clicking here.

 

The first student, Maisy Hrischuk, is a tenth grader in Denise’s class at Carlton.  She lives on an acreage along with her parents, brother, cat and dog.  Her hobbies include creative writing, drawing and gardening.  Here commentary is based on the Paragraph of the Week by Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

“I dip back into dreams, dreams of San Vincente, of that dusty town thousands of miles away that exists in memory, in words. I float high above the village, tilting into the wind. Strands of hair flutter behind me like the tails of a kite. The air is soft, like silt against my skin, and the whole valley is before me, burned pastures stretching out of view. Below me, San Vincente is little more than a pale road the colour of bone, curving around a matapalo tree. Then I am in the centre of the village, Betty and Tirza and Sara are waving to me. At their feet are babies, lying in the dirt. They are Tirza’s babies, the ones who died. They speak to me: venga, come.”

—Kate Hopper

 

Commentary

 

“I dip back into dreams” sounds way more pleasant than falling, which is how I feel  sleep comes and takes me away. The way Kate Hopper describes her dream in Ready for Air is so light and airy: “I float high above the village,” it reminds me of chiffon and the memories it brings back to me, playing in my pink dress as a child feeling like I was a princess. Much like her village, that feeling “only exists in memory.”  Wide open space, “burned pastures stretching out of view,” seeing for miles and miles, this brings joy to me, but to others it could bring fear. The idea of fear or being feared is what fuels dreams. It fuels the fire that is the dark side of your mind. The one that keeps you up until 3 a.m. because you're too scared of what comes next or what has happened. You then go to your sanctuary, San Vincente for her, pen to paper for me.

—Maisy Hrischuk

September 26, 2016

 

from Narrow Road to the Interior

by Matsuo Bashō

translation by Sam Hamill

 

“Passing through pine woods sunlight couldn't penetrate, we came to Konoshita, the ‘Under Woods’ where the Kokinshū poet begged an umbrella for his lord in falling dew.”—Bashō

 

 

We at The Humble Essayist are always on the lookout for those moments in books of nonfiction when authors comment on their own paragraphs, creating willy-nilly THE Paragraphs.  We recently did that with a feature devoted to E. J. Levy available in the archives.  The Paragraph of the Week for this week is a new twist on that concept.  It comes from Narrow Road to the Interior by the poet Matsuo Bashō, the creator of the haiku in Japanese literature.  Narrow Road to the Interior is a haibun, a mixture of prose and poetry, that describes Bashō’s walking tour through northern Japan in 1689.  On part of this journey, he and a fellow traveler crossed the Natorigawa river in early spring to visit at sunset the Shrine of Tenjin, the god of letters.  They were led by a painter named Kaemon who often guided writers to sites made famous by poets, and as farewell gifts the guide gave each of the travelers a pair of straw sandals with blue straps.  In return, Bashō wrote a haiku for Kaemon.  In a sense, his haiku is a highly distilled commentary on the prose description of the visit—perfect for The Humble Essayist.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

We crossed over the Natorigawa on the seventh day, fifth moon, and entered Sendai on the day we tie blue iris to the eaves and pray for health. We found an inn and decided to spend several days. I'd heard of a painter here, Kaemon, who was a kindred spirit and had visited all the nearby places the poets had made famous. Before him, these places were all but forgotten. He agreed to be our guide. The fields at Miyagi were carpeted with bush clover that would bloom in autumn. In Tamada, Yokono, and at Azalea Hill there were andromeda flowers in bloom. Passing through pine woods sunlight couldn't penetrate, we came to Konoshita, the "Under Woods" where the Kokinshū poet begged an umbrella for his lord in falling dew. We visited Yakushido Shrine and the Shrine of Tenjin until the sun went down. Later the painter gave us drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama. And two pairs of new straw sandals with iris-blue straps—kanamuke, farewell gifts. He was a truly kindred spirit.

—Bashō

Commentary

 

To have blue irises

blooming on one's feet—

walking sandal straps.

—Bashō

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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