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Archive: Summer-Fall 2019

Welcome to the archive on peersonal prose.  To read it, click on the name of the author or scroll down the page. Occasionally on the phone the links do not work.  If so you can scroll through the page to your writer.  Joe Mackall and Thomas Larson,  Phillip Lopate,  Scott Russell Sanders, Henry David ThoreauE. B. White,  Patricia Hampl,  Chet Raymo, W. E. B. Du Bois, David Lazar,  David Lazar and Heather Frise, Sonja Livingston, Jill Talbot, Jeff Gundy, Anne McGrath, Sam Pickering, Scott Russell Sanders, Linda Hogan, Jack Turner, Paul Hawken, Judith Kitchen, Michael Steinberg, T. Fleischmann, Sonya Huber, Steve Almond.

May 31


from The Last Street before Cleveland:  An Accidental Pilgrimage

by Joe Mackall

in Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry

by Thomas Larson

"How could I not have noticed the beauty of a red tractor stalled in a dormant cornfield?"

—Joe Mackall

            In his memoir The Last Street before Cleveland, Joe Mackall returns to his hometown in Ohio in an attempt to understand why one of his buddies from his past died mysteriously.  His experience becomes an “accidental pilgrimage” through the addiction and depression of his youth as he comes to understand the dark forces that had shaped him and the friends, a journey which culminates in a momentary, but life-saving, spiritual epiphany.  Thomas Larson devotes a section of his new book, Spirituality and the Writer to Mackall’s story to illustrate the power of memoir to capture moments that not only change lives, but save them.  Tom has generously agreed to let me excerpt it here.  The featured passage is from Mackall and the commentary is from Larson’s book.  You can learn more about Thomas Larson's work and his book Spirituality and the Writer here.


Passage of the Week


     I listen to the snow squeaking beneath my feet and the geese honking overhead. I hear an Amish horse and buggy in the distance. As the buggy approaches, I'm stunned by the aesthetics of the black horse breathing vapor against the background of a snow-laden field. Having lived for fourteen years in an area of rural Ohio dense with Old Order Amish, I've seen horses and buggies hundreds of times. But something's different […] How could I have missed seeing how beautiful is an Amish horse in a nimbus of winter vapor? Have the clip-clopping hooves always dripped with such exquisite harmony? How could I not have noticed the beauty of a red tractor stalled in a dormant cornfield? […]

     Where has this beauty been hiding? I feel as if I need to bellow this beauty. So I do. I scream. I scream again. No words come out, just an elemental primitive, joyful hollering to the hills.

     This is outside the boundaries of my experience. I'm without words to describe it. I have nothing to measure it against.

     My personal deus ex machina.

     This has to be the love I've never really believed in. The love of the Creator. God's love.

—Joe Mackall





     Such is his vision, thirteen pages before the memoir's close. He calls it the "descent of grace," "some version of Paul's great glimpse." […] Most striking for me is how Mackall has been ensouled by the pantheistic sunrise of God's love, Not God but God's love: Landing on God's love incarnates nothing. Except, perhaps, the words that make God's love so. In this regard, Mackall emphasizes for maybe one-tenth of the book this dramatic and lasting deliverance through which he is valued. The simple beauty of his prose overcomes the malignant spirit he had no idea he himself could overcome.

     God's love may redeem Mackall, but it doesn't delink his personality, his past, or his failures from their adamancy. It takes time to awaken, it takes work to stay awake. How do I know God's love on that Amish-bright day with its Polaroid-like amalgam of forces is real? Here's one way: The Last Street before Cleveland does not assert that given his travail all will be well. Had that been the outcome, Mackall would have written a devotional, a book of prayer, not a memoir

 —Thomas Larson

Mackall and Larson

June 7, 2019

from “The Lake of Suffering”

in Portrait Inside My Head

by Phillip Lopate

“The hospital is Phillip Lopate’s isolation chamber where time stops, he cannot breathe, and nowhere begins, a crowded place characterized by metaphors of separation:  'the planet of illness,' 'a leper colony,' 'a spaceship.'”—THE


In “The Lake of Suffering,” an essay about a life-threatening illness that Phillip Lopate’s daughter, Lily, endured as a baby and a child, we are often invited into the author’s suffering mind.  The illness itself was a nameless and mysterious gastrointestinal condition that manifested itself early in the child’s constant spitting up but in the end required long-term hospital care and continuous professional monitoring.  After the Lily was diagnosed and placed in hospital care, the long hours at Mount Sinai became an endurance test for Lopate in which we see deeply into the washed-out soul of the exhausted and alienated father wandering through a maze of corridors crowded with anonymous people wearing name tags.  For a time this antiseptic place takes over his life.


Paragraph of the Week


…as soon as I entered the hospital complex, I had the feeling that I was nowhere, in a liminal no-time zone along with all the other marked creatures, crawling past the soda machines in the underground tunnels that connected the various wings and pavilions, a whole planet of illness, a leper colony. I would take the elevator up to the fourth floor (Friday nights and Saturdays, to honor the Sabbath, it stopped automatically on every floor), making way for the gurneys in the elevator, and prepare to hold my breath for six, seven, eight hours. The hospital was like a spaceship: no gravity, no up or down, white, weightless.—Phillip Lopate



The hospital is Phillip Lopate’s isolation chamber where time stops, he cannot breathe, and nowhere begins, a crowded place characterized by metaphors of separation:  “the planet of illness,” “a leper colony,” “a spaceship.”  The elevator itself is a chamber within a chamber of sorts as well, and the parenthetical comment about the doors opening on every floor during the Sabbath seems eerily ceremonial and meaningless at once, as we picture the ding and whir and excruciating wait when no one steps on or off and the sliding doors slowly close.  It is an anonymous world for the lost and aimless with “no up or down, white and weightless.”  Later he writes that the universe of the hospital so preoccupied him that the “outside world began to recede in reality and color.” In his best and most personal essays Lopate often retreats into this watcher mode of being, observing himself among others but separate too, seeing them as if from a distance.–THE  

Phillip Lopate
Scott Russell Sanders

June 13, 2019

from “Earth’s Body”

in Staying Put

by Scott Russell Sanders

“Yes, I am light too!”—THE


Sometimes when I have trouble sleeping I lift Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders from my bookshelves and reread “Earth’s Body” alone in the bedroom downstairs, the pages lit by a single lamp. The essay describes a night when Sanders can’t sleep because he fears death.  “Surely you know the place I’m talking about,” he writes speaking directly to me as he traces the grain in his oak table with his finger.  “You have skidded down the slope to oblivion, for shorter or longer stays.” 


What do we hope for when we open a book like this in the middle of our night of fears?  “Eternal life, I suppose” is Sanders’ answer, though he is quick to add that the eternal life he is talking about “is not some aftertime, some other place, but awareness of eternity in this moment and this place.”  Then, in this essay that is essentially one, long lyrical passage written just for me but with everyone in mind, he writes this:


Paragraph of the Week


The earth and our own bodies, by casting shadows, seem to be the opposite of light. But if you have gazed up through the leaves of a tree at the sky, if you have watched the jeweled crests of waves, or held a shimmering fish in your hand, or lifted your palm against the sun and seen ruby light blazing through the flesh of your squeezed fingers, you know that matter is filled with fire. Matter is fire, in slow motion. Einstein taught us as much, and bomb testers keep proving it with cataclysmic explosions. The resistant stuff we touch and walk on and eat, the resistant stuff we are, blood and bone, is not the opposite of light but light's incarnation.—Scott Russell Sanders




It is an epiphany of course, a flash of insight into one of life’s mysteries.  The science helps, the discovery that all matter is energy, “fire in slow motion,” proving that the blood and bones of our bodies are “not the opposite of light but light’s incarnation,” but the examples of translucence cinch the deal with me.  The light through leaves, the glitter along waves, the fish “shimmering” in his hands which are my hands when I was a boy and above all the fingers pressed together and glowing in sunlight—all of these images make the ephemeral real and although I have read this essay on many nights and I am not outside with him except in words, I hold my hand up to the lamp and watch the ruby glow pass through the clamped edges of my fingers.  Yes, I am light too!


It is here that he introduces the phrase “living midnight” which he found in The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist book of wisdom.  Living midnight is the ordeal of passing through the still hour of our worst fears of annihilation.  On the other side of it is the answer to the question that he and I took into the sleepless dark about what abides when this “cramped house of skin” dies.  It is eternal light incarnated for now as you and me.  By enduring this midnight of the soul, you can come out on the other side renewed, not beaten, to accept the “private extinction” of your own death and “return to daylight charged with passion and purpose.”—THE

Henry David Thoreau

July 7, 2019

from Walden

by Henry David Thoreau



“In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price.”—Henry David Thoreau


Five Years of The Humble Essayist!


We are going to take a three-week break here at The Humble Essayist which means that it is already time to trot out our annual Henry David Thoreau Fourth of July feature.  Thoreau started his project in essential living at Walden Pond on that holiday and we began The Humble Essayist on that date as well, FIVE years ago on July 4, 2014!  This year we will enlist the help of Richard Poirier whose important scholarly work,  A World Elsewhere, devoted a revealing section on Thoreau’s subversive use of puns.


Have a great holiday everyone.  We’ll be back with a new feature on July 12.



The Paragraph of the Week


At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price. I walked over each farmer's premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it, took everything but a deed of it, —took his word for his deed, for I dearly loved to talk, —cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on. This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my friends. Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat? —better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it.

—Henry David Thoreau




[Thoreau’s] effective use of punning begins here with the remark that he “walked over each farmer’s premises.” Characteristic of his best efforts, the phrase does not anxiously call attention to itself, so that for many readers it can pass, as indeed it seems to have done, for what it most obviously says—that he walked over the land owned by farmers.  Thoreau’s best jokes occur, however, precisely where he sounds most harmless, most idiomatically familiar. Following on his claim to possess all farms in his imagination, the phrase means he “walks over” not only the land they own but the “premises” on which they base their claims of ownership…The expression “I cultivated his friendship” is so familiar we can be depended upon, almost, to miss the fact that in this context, where the word “cultivate” must also mean to till and improve the land, Thoreau means not only that he makes friends with the farmer but that he improves him by his talk….And operative here is still a more suggestive pun.  It has to do with the very good joke about his “seat”: “Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.  What is a house but a sedes, a seat?—better if a country seat.” The various meanings of seat in the passage allow us to take “country seat” as a reference to a rural estate.  It can also be satiric of that kind of ownership, referring, in this context, to an old-fashioned country out-house.

—Richard Poirier

E. B. White

July 12, 2019

from “Once More to the Lake”

by E. B. White


“Perceptions…form a gateway inviting him in, returning him to a world ‘infinitely remote and primeval.’”—THE


Essayist and editor, E. B. White was born on July 11, 1899, and we at The Humble Essayist celebrate his birthday each year on the Friday near that date with a feature on his finest essay, “Once More to the Lake.” The essay is about White returning with his son to the vacation spot that he and his family used to visit when he was a boy. Along the way White wonders whether “the tarred roads had found it out” and “what other ways it would be desolated,” but when he wakes up on the first morning and hears his son sneaking out to take a boat onto the water just as he himself had done decades before, he begins to experience a series of uncanny sensations guiding him toward an insight into the transience of life. You can read the entire essay online here.


The Paragraph of the Week


I was right about the tar: it led to within half a mile of the shore. But when I got back there, with my boy, and we settled into a camp near a farmhouse and into the kind of summertime I had known, I could tell that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before—I knew it, lying in bed the first morning, smelling the bedroom and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat. I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation.

—E. B. White




Though he has had his eye on it from the beginning, E. B. White waits until the fifth paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to introduce his theme explicitly.  His discovery begins with a feeling, the creepy “dual existence” of being both father and son after returning to his childhood vacation spot with his boy.  The rest of the essay will be his attempt to sort out the implications of the odd feeling ending with a surprisingly right image which is the real meat of the piece, but it is interesting to see how he raises the issue here.  What prompts the feeling are sense experiences in the once familiar setting of “the summertimes I had known,” he explains.  Perceptions--the smell of the bedroom, the sound of his son sneaking out of the house—form a gateway inviting him in, returning him to a world “infinitely remote and primeval.”  Earlier in the essay he had told us about sneaking out quietly to the lake himself as a boy, not letting the oars of his boat rub the gunwales “for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral” and now he follows these perceptions that beckon like a soft wake.  Simple acts such as “picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork” cause him to oscillate between being boy and father, an illusion the buoys him for a time—it is tempting to think that the self persists in these shifting roles—but collapses at the end of the essay as the truth about the passing generations emerges and the source of the creepiness comes clear.


July 18, 2019

from The Art of the Wasted Day

by Patricia Hampl


“Patricia Hampl compares the writer-reader relationship to lovers who are so comfortable in each other’s presence that they can be alone together in silence.”—THE


Patricia Hampl is the author of six books of personal prose including A Romantic Education and Virgin Time. Our Paragraph of the Week comes from her most recent essayistic memoir, The Art of the Wasted Day. The book is in part a travelogue of the places where thinkers who have influenced her lived and worked and in part a tribute to her husband who recently died.  It becomes, in the end, an extended examination of the role of solitude in our lives, especially in the lives of authors. In this week's featured paragraph she considers the intimate relationship between writer and reader.


The Paragraph of the Week


We do not, in the act of composition, have an audience. We have a reader. The writer is the mouth, the reader the ear. The body is language and it is shared. We write to a singular other whom we must allure, embrace, enchant. We are whispering into that singular shell-shaped ear. This is probably inevitable, for our first literary experience is not as a writer, but as a reader. We read as individuals, and as writers we write not for readers in a collective sense, but for what earlier generations frankly called the "dear reader." It's a crazy love affair, this murmuring into the ear of the elusive yet intimate mystery person. Being so intimate, of course it has to be done in private, in the solitude of the lonely mind.

—Patricia Hampl




Writers “pine” for solitude, Patricia Hampl writes. They “court it” and “steal it away from the rest of so-called real life.” And yet, as they compose, someone else lurks about the room because language is a “shared experience” and “its purpose is to communicate.” So, who is this dear reader looking over the shoulder of Hampl as she sits at the writing desk—and me, now, as I write about her? Well, the reader is not an audience. Those are a different group of dear people who show up at readings long after the act of composition is done to see a public performance that is more “like trotting out your precocious five-year-old,” Hampl jokes than presenting “the act of conception to the crowd.” She compares the relationship between writer and reader to lovers who are so comfortable in each other’s presence that they can be alone together in silence. She quotes Rilke’s idea of the ideal relationship as “two solitudes” that “protect and touch and greet each other.” For her the mouth of the writer and the “singular shell-shaped ear” of the reader share language as one body in “a crazy love affair.” Even when we write a diary we are not alone, she adds, paraphrasing Virginia Woolf:  “we all like to look good to ourselves even in that privacy.” So who are the dear readers we address when we write? “We are,” Hampl concludes. Our dear readers are the others, residing “in the solitude of the lonely mind,” who are none other than ourselves.


Patricia Hampl

July 26, 2019


from Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God

by Chet Raymo



Chet Raymo is a professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and the author of many books of nonfiction including The Soul of the Night, Crossing Brandon, and The Path.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from his book Honey from Stone in which he takes us through hours of the church day, from matins to compline, as a way to explore the role of mystery in the pursuit of human knowledge.


The Paragraph of the Week


Once I climbed Brandon Mountain with a friend. It was a fine bright day as we set out from the bridge at Brandon Creek. By the time we had ascended a thousand feet, clouds had rolled in from the sea. At 2,000 feet we entered an unbroken cover of cloud. At the saddle between Brandon and Masatiompan we cautiously hesitated, turned south, and moved carefully along the ridge toward the summit, mindful of the steep cliffs that fell away sharply to the east. And then an amazing thing happened! As we approached the summit of the mountain, our heads popped out of the clouds; for a moment our decapitated heads rested on white cotton like laboratory specimens. Another step—shoulders emerged. Then torsos. Step by step we lifted our bodies out of white fleece into a sky of stunning clarity and perfect blue. The summit of Brandon Mountain was an island of rock that protruded ten feet above the cloud, a hundred square feet of solidity in a universe of air. From horizon to horizon the top of the cloud stretched as smooth and uninterrupted as the surface of the sea. White cottony cloud! It seemed as if we could have stepped off our island onto it. It seemed as if we could have walked across it to those other islands to the south, the distant summits of McGillicudy's Reeks. A temperature inversion of remarkable definition had reduced our world to a clean slate, a featureless interface of blue and white, a tabula rasa, a fresh creation. A borrowed metaphor came to mind: Knowledge is an island surrounded by a sea of mystery.  On Brandon’s cloud-truncated summit, that metaphor was startlingly real.

—Chet Raymo




In Honey from Stone Chet Raymo argues that science is not a discipline that claims to have all the answers, but a way of exploring the universe that ends in mystery. He contrasts that view of science with a Catholicism that is uncomfortable with mystery whether it comes from the scientists like Galileo or from the mysticism of Saint Lawrence, Teresa of Avilla, or Saint John of the Cross. The Church has it wrong on that point, Raymo contends. What should I adore, he asks, echoing the mystic Saint Lawrence, the creator or the creation, and answers the creation which spews out myriad and vastly different experiments in being.  The mystery of the universe is what matters, not an all-knowing God. It stirred up our solar system which made room for human life, but it also lit the star Vega that will burn out too soon for its planets to materialize and has in its sky our sun as a tiny star.  What better illustration of this unfathomable universe of churning but serene mystery than Raymo’s description of the bed of clouds that hides all but the tip of Brandon Mountain. As he and his friend approach the summit the uppermost part of their bodies emerge above the clouds first, and “for a moment,” he writes, “our decapitated heads rested on white cotton like laboratory specimens.”  Once they stood on the summit, they could see a vast expanse of “cottony” white with other mountain tops poking through here and there in the distance, and a phrase that is the theme of Honey from Stone came to Raymo in a metaphor: Knowledge is an island surrounded by a sea of mystery.”


Chet Raymo
W. E. B. Du Bois

August 2, 2019

From The Souls of Black Folk

By W. E. B. Du Bois


“How does it feel to be a problem?”  W. E. B. Du Bois asks himself in The Souls of Black Folk before describing the day he realized that he, by virtue of being black, was one.



William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil-rights activist and author who coined the phrase “double-consciousness” to describe the mindset of African-Americans in a racist society.  The term may sound sociological, but it appeared first in The Souls of Black Folk, his collection of personal essays. This week we feature the paragraph where the phrase originated and in our commentary attempt to understand what it means.


Paragraph of the Week


After the Egyptian and Indian, Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double- consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.—W. E. B. Du Bois




“How does it feel to be a problem?”  W. E. B. De Bois asks himself in The Souls of Black Folk before describing the day he realized that he, by virtue of being black, was one.  The children at his schoolhouse were exchanging “gorgeous visiting cards” and all was merry until one girl refused his card “peremptorily, with a glance.”  From then on he felt “shut out from their world by a vast veil.” He asked himself, “why did God make me a stranger in my own house” and his life of “double-consciousness” began, the “peculiar sensation” of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.”  Or worse, “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” What is lost to Du Bois is the chance to see himself clearly and achieve a fully “self-conscious manhood” unstained by the contempt of those who would exclude him. When he looks at himself he inevitably wears the eyes of his oppressors as well as his own. He has no wish to “Africanize America” and remake it in his own image, nor does he intend to “bleach his Negro soul.” He simply wants to see himself as “both a Negro and an American” without also seeing the peremptory glances of those who, as he wrote, would curse him, spit upon him, and slam the “doors of Opportunity” in his face.—THE

David Lazar

August 9, 2019

from “Ann; Death and Maiden”

in I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms

by David Lazar


“The mind is always working to ward off sentimentality by interrupting itself in an attempt to be more honest.”—THE


David Lazar is the editor of the journal Hotel Amerika, the author of I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms, and co-editor with Patrick Madden of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He teaches English and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. We will devote two features to David’s latest book, beginning this week with a paragraph from “Ann; Death and Maiden.”


The Paragraph of the Week


Polymorphous Ann, in a state you'd kiss a telephone pole while looking over your shoulder to see if I were witnessing it in sorrow or pain. Can you imagine the scenes? Have you versions of your own? They were intense and recriminatory and full of a sense of the inevitable. I remember trudging off to a party one night after a particularly cute ronde of accusations, whose against whose escapes me, but we were determined to socialize in the way that younger people think that socializing while miserable is part of some dark gospel of experience. Our general dark economy of failure and heartbreak meant that I could usually get the better of her (though just) through daggers of insinuation and insult, whereas she would always one up me through behavioral outrageousness. In short, no matter what I would say to try to and let some of the blood drain from my wounds (and in the process from her heart), she could do something to wound me further, deeper, more painfully. At this particular party (which could have been Anyparty) no sooner did I have my coat off, reaching, rather desperately, for my first drink of the night—there, I should specify—than I noted one of my colleague's arms around her, stroking her back, her head leaning toward or into him. Feeling my gaze—the point, of course—she turned and gave me one of those looks, or rather, not one of, because I think of it as distinctly hers, so heartbreaking was it, so incapable was I of responding to it at the time, a look that would have done Henry James proud, part hopeful and part self-loathing, part pleading and part lower-grade spite. In the spirit of sinking to the occasion, I shrugged a shoulder and turned away, walked off. Is there such a thing as having the final gesture? What's final, after all? I suppose when I spotted them making out in his car later that night I might have asked the same question.

—David Lazar




David Lazar has a style which, for want of a better word, I would characterize as interruptive, and our Paragraph of the Week is a prime specimen. It is very much like the digressive style of Montaigne, an essayist he admires, but in a highly compressed form, the turns coming rapidly and often parenthetically. It’s not for everyone—I think Lazar even says that in one of his essays—but by the end of the first essay in I’ll Be Your Mirror I was stunned by its cumulative power.  The essay is called “Ann; Death and Maiden” which tells the story of Lazar’s fraught relationship with a woman who, years after they split up, kills herself. This paragraph gives you an idea of what the couple put themselves through. The paragraph tells—really, the entire essay tells—a simple story: look at how I hurt the one I loved; look at how she hurt me; it is just so, so, so sad. Fortunately, Lazar cannot leave it at that. His mind is always working to ward off such sentimentality by interrupting itself in an attempt to be more honest. First he gives us wrenching details such as kissing the telephone pole or “one of my colleague's arms around her, stroking her back, her head leaning toward or into him.” Then there are the precise characterizations of the give-and-take of their recriminations: a “particularly cute ronde of accusations,” the “daggers of insinuation and insult,” the “socializing while miserable” as “part of some dark gospel of experience,” and “a look that would have done Henry James proud.” That last reference to Henry James is from a remarkable sentence describing Ann’s baleful gaze at him while flirting with another man that illustrates what is most distinctive in the shape-shifting of Lazar’s style: the many self-correcting phrases in sentence after sentence often coming in parentheses or set off by dashes.  There are too many to list here, but my favorite is the bit about “reaching, rather desperately, for my first drink of the night—there, I should specify,” the word “there” being the kind of thing that only someone as scrupulous as Lazar would specify.  In the end all of these tiny, contrary verities shimmer into a larger truth. What Lazar does in essay after essay—whether it is the defense of his own sensibilities by means of apologia for the indefensible pop song “Lollipop” or the surreal lines accompanied by stunning illustrations by Heather Frise in “Mothers, Etc.”—is let the text show a mind relentlessly at work in a desperate attempt to keep a heart from breaking.


From “Mothers, Etc.”

in I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms

by David Lazar

For David Lazar the personal essay is by its very nature “transgenred...”—THE

For David Lazar the personal essay is by its very nature “transgenred” each essay an attempt at something new that pushes the form by changing genre gears in surprising ways. So in his collection I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms he explores a variety of options.  He essays his own meandering mind, his conversations with dead writers, and an interview with himself. He also essays in aphorisms. Perhaps the most interesting genre-bending essay is “Mothers, Etc.” a brief surreal piece broken up by much white space and accompanied by the illustrations of Heather Frise, a filmmaker, educator, and visual artist. This mixing of genres opens a stunning variety of options to the essayists by exploiting possibilities inherent in the multifaceted form itself.

The Paragraph of the Week is an excerpt from “Mother’s, Etc.” with Frise’s artwork serving as the commentary. It illustrates one possibility in the wide array available to the essayist.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week


The yellow leaves will fall around Mothers, for all Mothers are fallen, and sometimes we find our Mothers when we aren't even looking for them, like when we're looking out the window or going to the tearoom or swimming out too far.—David Lazar


Commentary: Illustration by Heather Frise

David Lazar and Heather Frise
Heather Frise.jpg
Sonja Livingston

from The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion

by Sonja Livingston

“By the end of her search Livingston realized that it was not the beautiful building or the statue that mattered…”—THE  


Sonja Livingston is an associate professor of English at the Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of Ghostbread, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, and Queen of the Fall.  The Paragraph of the Week is from her new collection of essays, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, a chronicle of her hesitant, but in the end it seems, inevitable return to Corpus Christi, the Catholic church of her childhood.

Paragraph of the Week


This is the legacy of Corpus Christi. The men and women who left mothers in Palermo and uncles in Limerick to cross oceans to try for better lives built thousands of churches in their adopted cities of Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Buffalo. They woke early to help lay the bricks with their own hands before going off to work full days in railroad yards or building canals. They broke themselves; in some cases, to build the same churches that now sit empty or have become condominiums or weedy lots. Sad, yes. Heartbreaking even. But it took a search for a statue to help me see that their devotion wasn't about bricks or even doctrine so much as their ability to look beyond individual concerns toward the common good.  It was about creating spaces in which they could come together to elevate and consecrate the Ordinary life.


—Sonja Livingston


The through-line story of this collection of essays about Sonja Livingston’s spiritual journey is her quest to find a missing statue of Mary that had graced her Catholic church when she was a child—and I won’t tell you whether or not she found it.  What matters, as she explains in the Paragraph of the Week, is what the search for the statue taught her. The temptation is to think that the statue, like the church building, mattered in itself. “I’d loved the sandstone building on East main and Prince Streets for as long and as hard as I’ve ever loved anything,” she writes, and the lost statue of Mary with its modest crown and “the legion of blue glass candles flickering at its feet” was “the softest spot in the church—softer perhaps than anywhere at home.” By the end of her search, though, Livingston realized that it was not the beautiful building or the statue that mattered, but the sacrifice, devotion, and the call to duty for the common good that they inspired. The church and the statue brought the faithful together “to elevate and consecrate the Ordinary life,” and by the end of the book Livingston found her place among them.


August 20, 2019

fromAlone, Together

by Jill Talbot

in River Teeth


“The things in her catalogue become mnemonics for a lost past, evoking nostalgia.”—THE


This year River Teeth magazine turns twenty, and we at The Humble Essayist want to celebrate by devoting the month of September to essays from the latest Spring 2019 edition. The magazine is undergoing big changes. I has a new home at Ball State University and the writers Jill Christman and Mark Neeley will supervise and manage the magazine’s production and solicit writers for new work, but, we are assured in the introduction to the new edition, the current editors, Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman, will “still be active and decision-making editors.” What I have always admired about River Teeth is that the essays are both intelligent and have heart, and this selection from Jill Talbot about the death of her parents is no exception. She is the author of the memoir The Way We Weren’t , which we featured in the summer of 2015, and teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas.  In this paragraph she describes staying in the house of her parents soon after they died.

You can read the complete essay at ProjectMUSE here.

The Paragraph of the Week


I’d step into the frame of their bedroom door, remembering all the nights I whispered into the dark that I was home. Or I'd pull out drawers in the front bathroom—full of lipsticks and eyeliners, insulin strips and night creams—where I used to watch Mom put on her makeup when I was little, wishing she'd let me wear my own. Or I'd look over at the chestnut bench in the living room, remembering Dad lacing up his walking shoes while Satch and Raley's barks echoed against the hardwood floor. Or I'd gaze out the back door and remember the yard when it was still full of grass, and that night Dad sat next to me on the porch telling me not to be stupid after Mom found cigarettes in my purse.


—Jill Talbot



After Jill Talbot’s parents died—“no one knew how quickly they’d go,” she writes—she stayed in their house for several months to feel close to them while she decided what to do next. She did some chores: signing checks in her mother’s name to pay the bills and watering the plants. She had not kept plants at her own place, but found she liked taking care of them for her mother. Mostly, it seems, she wandered the through rooms that she grew up in. Looking in her parents’ bedroom she remembers the times she whispered “I’m home.” Opening a drawer she pictures her mother putting on makeup. Gazing at a bench in the living room she hears in memory her dad’s dogs barking, and opening the door to the backyard she recalls the time her dad warned her not to do something stupid when she had toyed with smoking cigarettes.  The things in her catalogue become mnemonics for a lost past evoking nostalgia, but when she returns to her own place and mentions to her daughter Indie that she enjoyed tending her mother’s flowers the future beckons: Indie surprises her with “two hanging baskets, pink periwinkles, one on each end of our balcony” bringing a part of Jill’s mother back into their lives. “What fullness,” she writes, “their heavy blooms arcing and spilling over like a fountain.”



Jill Talbot
Jeff Gundy

from “Wind Farm: Four Variations”

by Jeff Gundy

in River Teeth Vol. 20 #2


“But the latest variation is the farm of windmills which...have an elegiac beauty.”— THE


This year River Teeth magazine turns twenty, and we at The Humble Essayist will celebrate the achievement by devoting the month of September to the latest Spring 2019 edition which includes Jeff Gundy’s essay “Wind Farm: Four Variations.”


Jeff Gundy’s eighth book of poems, Without a Plea, is just out from Bottom Dog Press.  Recent essays and poems by him have appeared in Cincinatti Review, Artful Dodge, and Terrain. He regularly reviews books for The Georgia Review and is at work on a nonfiction manuscript named Wind Farm.

The Paragraph of the Week


The beauty of windmills is awkward and pragmatic, like the great blue heron’s—or, better, the great egret, which is snowy white as the windmills. A beauty years in the making, expensive and complicated, an engineered and calculated beauty requiring access roads and giant cranes, buried cables linking the great spindly machines. They are lonesome even in their clusters, keeping their distance the way farmers have always been lonesome. The giant blades thrum their two notes day and night, yielding to and using the invisible wind, sifting it for power, sending it off to be used with no knowledge of where, of how.

—Jeff Gundy



One of Jeff Gundy's four variations of the family farm must be the farm where nothing happens when young Jeff, killing time in the seventies before his draft number came up 355, hung out with young people “almost” his friends, “eager to know each other in the common or Biblical sense.” Another might be the worn out farm, a flat land where “most of the year, nothing grows” and “the fields are empty, the ditches brown and exhausted” except in the spring when the fields “urged on by ammonia, purified by glyphosate” pushed the “artificial rush of corn.” Another variation could be the doomed farm, where some family members died and others survived by repeating lies accepted at the time: “We lived in the best country in the history of the universe. We never lost a war.” They were “hillbillies without the hills” enduring “boredom, war, marijuana, and unpredictible, sometimes fatal, sexual predicaments.”  But the latest variation is the farm of the windmills which evoke the “loneliness of farmers” too, and gouge the farmland with ugly access roads, but in this essay as metonymy for a fraudulent American dream and the impending ecological disaster it has wrought, they have an elegiac beauty “like the great blue heron’s—or, better, the great egret, which is snowy white as the windmills.”


Anne McGrath

from “Of Milk and Stars”

by Anne McGrath

in River Teeth, Vol. 20 No. 2

“Out of the exhilaration and exhaustion of nursing and mothering, McGrath realized that we are all kin.”—THE


This year River Teeth magazine turns twenty, and we at The Humble Essayist will celebrate the achievement by devoting the month of September to the latest Spring 2019 edition which includes Anne McGrath’s essay “Of Milk and Stars.”


Anne McGrath's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ruminate, Lunch Ticket, Brevity Blog, and other publications. Her audio stories have aired on National Public Radio, the Brevity Podcast, and Petrichor Audio Magazine. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine, a reader at Hunger Mountain, and a graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.  You can find the issue of River Teeth with the essays we have been celebrating this month here.

The Paragraph of the Week


Even with an infant latched to my breast night and day for the better part of a year, I still loved being part of the breastfeeding club. I loved the efficiency of it, loved that, like the fish and the loaves, my supply would never run out, loved that the more Will nursed the more milk I produced, loved that I didn't have to sterilize bottles or mix up chemically enhanced formula, that I could dash out of the door carrying only my baby, a burp cloth, and a small diaper bag. I could simply lift or unbutton my shirt and voilá, dinner is served. I loved the stoned feeling that accompanied my exhaustion. I loved feeling slightly superior to mothers who didn't breastfeed, or who did so shamefully hidden in a dirty public restroom. I wore the breast is best mantra proudly and was not shy about nursing in public, almost daring a confrontation. The notion that my body had everything needed to nourish and grow my baby for his first year of life seemed astonishing, the heartbeat of all things. To my son, I was a universe. I suddenly saw myself not as someone frivolous—a person with a propensity for long baths, mascara, and pedicures—but as a provider and protector, a lioness.—Anne McGrath



If breast feeding transformed Anne McGrath into a nourishing universe for her baby son, it also latched her to our universe as well. The word mammalis meaning “of the breast” joined her to the mammals of the animal kingdom, transforming her into a lioness. Breast feeding connected her to other people: “I wept uncontrollably at the sight of the legless man who rolled on a dolly,” she wrote, “bought more dinners for homeless people than I could afford, and overtipped the pizza delivery guy.” Those “languid milky moments” with Will at her breast “were close to perfect.” She was Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath, breast feeding a starving man. She was Hera, the creator of the Via Lactea, “spraying droplets of milk into the night sky” that formed the Milky Way. When she signed on to give extra milk to a mother who had none, she discovered that many mothers had offered and felt “the collective power of maternal kinship.” There were black holes in this universe: Will was delivered by C-section after many hours of labor, mothering him “was like an extreme sport” since he was colicky putting a strain on her marriage, and her next baby had the condition “Trisomy 18” and was aborted, though Anne’s milk continued to flow like tears serving as a reminder of her loss.  Out of the exhilaration and exhaustion of nursing and mothering, McGrath realized that we are all kin. “We come from the same supernova” she writes, quoting Allan Sandage, each of us the product of “a universe astoundingly porous and interconnected.”—THE

Sam Pickering


from “Terrible Sanity”

by Sam Pickering

in River Teeth Vol 20 No. 2


“Sam Pickering’s genteel war against the present.”—THE


This year River Teeth magazine turns twenty, and we at The Humble Essayist will celebrate the achievement by devoting the month of September to the latest Spring 2019 edition which includes the essay “Terrible Sanity” by Sam Pickering. In our Paragraph of the Week, taken from Pickering's essay, the name Prokosch refers to Frederic Prokosch who made up and published outlandish interviews with celebrities such as one in which Virginia Woolf when asked about James Joyce’s Ulysses supposedly said this: “When I read it, it struck me as a wild miscalculation.”


Samuel F. Pickering, professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, is the author of many collections of essays including his selected essays called The Best of Pickering. His unconventional teaching style was an inspiration for the character of Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society. His most recent book is The World Was My Garden, Too.

The Paragraph of the Week


Prokosch inscribed copies of his books to famous people. Although he did not present the copies to the people, later he sold them. He enhanced the provenance of the books by claiming they'd once belonged to the people to whom he inscribed them. In my basement are remaindered volumes of my books. I lack the gumption to dedicate books to and afterward claim the acquaintance of celebrities. But recently I inscribed several books to myself from myself. Instead of selling them, I donated them to the fifty-cent and one-dollar book sale at the Mansfield Library. "For Sam Pickering," I wrote, "a wonderful companion, a man whose presence I cannot and don't wish to escape, a grand fellow who brightens my days and whose conversation makes barren moments blossom. From your great, greater, and greatest admirer, with best wishes, indeed with love, Sam Pickering."

—Sam Pickering



In pursuit of his project of becoming an old man, Sam Pickering has 1) decided to live in the past and 2) not be constrained to tell the truth about it, a Biden-esque approach I fully endorse. Part of his plan is a variation of Frederick Prokosch’s practice of inscribing books to famous celebrities, except that Pickering inscribes them to himself. From your “great, greater, and greatest admirer,” he writes effusively in one before signing his own name. In another he writes at length, in part, this: "For Sam Pickering, whose vast breezy reading keeps the wind in my jib and me out of the Doldrums....Your research has kept me from plunging into the wake kicked up by the breast and crawl strokes of so, so many television pundits, saving me from drowning in a Sargasso Sea of bluster and gagging ignorance. Your friend, morning and evening and tea time, too, as always, Sam Pickering.” Clearly Pickering being Pickering is a distraction from the festering goo stirred up daily in The White House by the greatest old liar of all time, and reading Pickering is a welcome distraction too, but all are not pleased. When a reader complained about his inscriptions to himself he responded: “to demand an apology for a dedication penned by a title page me is stunningly naïve and presumptuous....Nonetheless, thank you for writing. Your opinion is important to me, and have a happy new year.” Unfortunately, as the ellipses in the inscription and the apology suggest, that is not even the half of it. For the rest of Pickering’s genteel war against the present you will need to purchase River Teeth Vol. 20 No. 2 and read the essay in full. Still from what I have written it is clear that Pickering’s old man project is off to a good start, and my enthusiasm for it indicates that I’m not far behind.


October 27, 2019


from “Grass-covered Chest”

in River Teeth 20:2

by Fleda Brown


“Why do writers put themselves through such painful remembering Fleda Brown asks in ‘Grass-covered Chest?’”—THE


This year River Teeth magazine turns twenty, and we at The Humble Essayist have celebrated the achievement by devoting the month of September to the latest Spring 2019 edition which includes the essay “Grass-covered Chest” by Fleda Brown.


Fleda Brown's collection of essays with Sydney Lea, Growing Old in Poetry (Green Writers Press), came out in 2018. The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her eighth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy (BOA Editions, Ltd.) came out in 2013. Her memoir is Driving with Dvořák (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Professor emerita at the University of Delaware, past poet laureate of Delaware, she lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.


The Paragraph of the Week from “Grass-covered Chest” takes on a subject at the heart of nonfiction, memory, by gazing into the eyes of of Mnemosyne in Dante Gabriel Rosetti's painting . We have reproduced a public domain image of it here.


The Paragraph of the Week


In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Mnemosyne, also titled Lamp of Memory and Ricordanza, the goddess is holding up a small chalice, apparently to fill the lamp she holds in the other hand. She is very still, sedate, with heavy Pre-Raphaelite hair and green draped gown. Her almost somnolent eyes appear not to be recollecting, but, the way it looks to me, suffering, enduring. Her lamp itself is made of what appears to be flames on all sides. Rossetti has inscribed on the frame of the painting, "Thou fill'st from the winged chalice of the soul/ Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal." What is the goal, then, of memory, that it is so full of fire to get there? What is the goal when there is suffering in the memories?—Fleda Brown




Mnemonsyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the nine muses, haunts the writer of personal prose. In the famous Rosetti painting she holds a chalice and a flaming lamp and, according to writer Fleda Brown, her “somnolent eyes appear not to be recollecting but...suffering, enduring.” Why do the writers of nonfiction put themselves through such painful remembering Brown asks in “Grass-covered Chest?” The essay recreates disturbing memories of her mother trapped in an unhappy marriage, of her brother who suffered seizures and died young in an institution, and of her father trapped in autism “like a caged animal.  Fierce, raging, and electrically attractive.” Why bring all that back? It is a question often asked of nonfiction writers. When Brown’s friend Harris died suddenly of a heart attack why did she and her other friends “dredge up” as many memories as they could? What is the goal of memory that “is so full of fire to get there?” Memory is “ragged,” “distorted,” and a fleeting “impression” but it is also a part of us. Shaped to deliver the present, it becomes us. “I don’t know if there is a need for a goal” for memory, writes Brown, “other than to be completely aware of this gorgeous, extravagant combination of immediacy and memory I’m made of.” And, like her grass-covered chest, it has handles and goes where you go: “You can easily pick it up. You could put it anywhere.”—THE

Scott Russell Sanders

The End of Nature Series

October 27, 2019


from “After the Flood”

in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World

reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

by Scott Russell Sanders


“On our lips, nostalgia usually means a sentimental regard for the trinkets and fashions of an earlier time, for an idealized past, for a vanished youth. We speak of a nostalgia for the movies of the 1930s, say, or the hair-cuts of the 1950s. It is a shallow use of the word.”—Scott Russell Sanders


In 2017 we started a new feature at The Humble Essayist called The End of Nature Series in honor of Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking essay and book The End of Nature. He argued that the idea of nature as a wilderness beyond the touch of humans was no longer conceivable.  A cataract may be beautiful, but if it is loaded with “a mix of chemicals we’ve injected into the atmosphere,” its meaning has changed for us.  This redefinition leads to the realization that nature is “not another world," leaving us with the grim reality that "there is nothing except us alone.”  It is the end of nature.


In the series we choose on a regular basis a Paragraph of the Week by an author on the topic and write a commentary to explore its meaning for us.  To do so we draw from many of the writers in McKibben’s anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau as well as other sources. We would like to devote the month of October to this important series.


This week we turn to essayist Scott Russell Sanders once again for a paragraph from his 1993 collection Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. The essay describes his return to his homeplace in Charlestown Ohio in the Mahoning river valley that had been flooded by a dam. Although he mentions the politics of these “acts of erasure” that “we have repeated from coast to coast as we devour the continent,” he is more interested in the feeling of nostalgia that these losses create in us, attempting to do justice to a term that we often dismiss as sentimental.  Both The Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary come from Sanders’ essay. ”—THE

The Paragraph of the Week


Of course, in mourning the drowned valley I also mourn my drowned childhood. The dry land preserved the traces of my comings and goings, the river carried the reflection of my beardless face. Yet even as a boy I knew that landscape was incomparably older than I, and richer, and finer. Some of the trees along the Mahoning had been rooted there when the first white settlers arrived from New England. Hawks had been hunting and deer had been drinking there since before our kind harnessed oxen. The gravels, laden with fossils, had been shoved there ten thousand years ago by glaciers. The river itself was the offspring of glaciers, a channel for meltwater to follow toward the Ohio, and thence to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. What I knew of the land's own history made me see that expanse of water as a wound.”

—Scott Russell Sanders



The word nostalgia was coined in 1688 as a medical term, to provide an equivalent for the German word meaning homesickness. We commonly treat homesickness as an ailment of childhood, like mumps or chickenpox, and we treat nostalgia as an affliction of age. On our lips, nostalgia usually means a sentimental regard for the trinkets and fashions of an earlier time, for an idealized past, for a vanished youth. We speak of a nostalgia for the movies of the 1930s, say, or the hair-cuts of the 1950s. It is a shallow use of the word. The two Greek roots of nostalgia literally mean return pain. The pain comes not from returning home but from longing to return. Perhaps it is inevitable that a nation of immigrants—who shoved aside the native tribes of this continent, who enslaved and transported Africans, who still celebrate motion as if humans were dust motes—that such a nation should lose the deeper meaning of this word. A footloose people, we find it difficult to honor the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place. We are slow to acknowledge the pain in yearning for one's native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return. ”

—Scott Russell Sanders

October 11, 2019

The End of Nature Series


from “Dwellings”

in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World

by Linda Hogan

Reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Edited by Bill McKibben


“The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us.”—Linda Hogan


Linda Hogan is an essayist and novelist of Chickasaw ancestry and co-editor of the anthology Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. As part of our month-long The End of Nature Series we take our Paragraph of the Week from her essay “Dwellings” in which she thinks about what it means to make a home on earth. She considers many examples of dwellings on earth in her essay—some successful, others not—and ends with her own home which is “enlarged beyond its wooden boundaries” by being a shelter she and her daughter share with birds and the heavens. Both The Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary come from Hogan.—THE

Paragraph of the Week


It was in early February, during the mating season of the great horned owls. It was dusk, and I hiked up the back of a mountain to where I’d heard the owls a year before. I wanted to hear them again, the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest. It had fallen from one of the bare-branched trees. It was a delicate nest, woven together of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass. Holding it in my hand in the rosy twilight, I noticed that a blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there. I pulled at the thread a little, and then I recognized it. It was a thread from one of my skirts. It was blue cotton. It was the unmistakable color and shape of a pattern I knew. I liked it, that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life. I took the nest home. At home, I held it to the light and looked more closely. There, to my surprise, nestled into the gray-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair. It was also unmistakable. It was my daughter's hair, cleaned from a brush and picked up out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherry where birds eat from the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remain on the trees.

—Linda Hogan



I didn't know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn't matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside of our wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with night's citizens, it all came alive. The world opened in the thickets of the dark. The wild grapes would soon ripen on the vines. The burrowing ones were emerging. Horned owls sat in treetops. Mice scurried here and there. Skunks, fox, the slow and holy porcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on pollen in the dark. The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us.

—Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan

October 18, 2019

The End of Nature Series

from “The Song of the White Pelican”

in The Abstract Wild

by Jack Turner

reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

edited by Bill McKibben


“Indeed, in love and ecstasy we are closest to the Other, for passion is at the root of all life and shared by all life.”—Jack Turner


A guide for decades in the in Yosemite and the Grand Tetons who also hiked the mountains of Peru, Nepal, Pakistan, China, Tibet, and India, Jack Turner is skeptical of the idea of wilderness arguing that humans have put their mark on the most remote of places, but he still believes that human interaction with the animal world is meaningful and in this essay, “The Song of the White Pelican,” he explains why, taking on the pathetic fallacy that the Otherness of animals completely separates them from us. “Some people fear that extending a human vocabulary to wild animals erodes their Otherness,” he explains. “But what is not Other? Are we not all, from one perspective, Other to each and every being in the universe? And at the same time, and from another perspective, do we not all share an elemental wildness that burns forth in each life?”


“The Song of the White Pelican” is part of a collection of Turner's essays called The Abstract Wild. It was reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, an anthology that we have featured this month at The Humble Essayist. Both the Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary are from Turner.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week


So there are many good reasons for the pelicans to be above the Grand Teton, but exactly why remains a mystery. The pelicans we see there in July are not migrating. Yellowstone pelicans winter in Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. Then in late March or early April they fly to the Great Salt Lake. In late April or early May they fly to the Molly Islands. Perhaps the pelicans over the Grand Teton in July are returning from a foraging mission. Perhaps they are nonbreeding adults on a lark. Perhaps someone will put a radio collar on one and find out, though I hope not. Whatever science would discover is not worth the intrusion into their wild lives. What interests me is not that pelicans can soar, that soaring is useful, or that they soar here. What interests me is the question of whether pelicans love to soar.

—Jack Turner



When I see white pelicans riding mountain thermals, I feel their exaltation, their love of open sky and big clouds. Their fear of lightning is my fear, and I extend to them the sadness of descent. I believe the reasons they are soaring over the Grand Teton are not so different from the reasons we climb mountains, sail gliders into great storms, and stand in rivers with tiny pieces of feathers from a French duck's butt attached to a barbless hook at the end of sixty feet of a sixty-dollar string thrown by a thousand-dollar wand. Indeed, in love and ecstasy we are closest to the Other, for passion is at the root of all life and shared by all life. In passion, all beings are at their wildest; in passion, we—like pelicans—make strange noises that defy scientific explanation.

—Jack Turner

Jack Turner

The End of Nature Series

October 24, 2019


from Blessed Unrest

by Paul Hawken

reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

edited by Bill McKibben


“Paul Hawken  sees human civilization not as some aberration in the saga of the earth, but as the way the planet has evolved to protect itself. ”—THE


In his 2007 book Blessed Unrest the environmentalist Paul Hawken called for “an assembly of humanity that is representative but not centralized” to attack the problem of global climate change and environmental degradation and “to heal the wounds of this world.” He compared this loosely organized but focused movement to the immune system in the body. He sees human civilization not as some aberration in the saga of the earth, but as the way the planet has evolved to protect itself. It is a message he has amplified on more recently in his newest book Drawdown which sees progress against the increase in carbon levels happening in myriad small human projects from reforestation and changed farming practices to the world-wide education of girls and innovations in alternative sources of fuel. We decided to end our month-long look at environmental issues on a hopeful note by choosing the Paragraph of the Week from Blessed Unrest. As usual with this series, both the paragraph and the commentary are from the author. THE will get back to work next month!—THE

Paragraph of the Week


The [environmental] movement, for its part, is the most complex coalition of human organizations the world has ever seen. The incongruity of anarchists, billionaire funders, street clowns, scientists, youthful activists, indigenous and native people, diplomats, computer geeks, writers, strategists, peasants, and students all working toward common goals is a testament to human impulses that are unstoppable and eternal. The founder of Earth First, Dave Foreman, and the chair of the New York Council of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, David Rockefeller Jr., want the same things for Alaska: no drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, moratoriums on indiscriminate game hunting, wildlife corridors for migratory species, permanent protection for the roadless areas of the Tongass and Chugach old growth forests, elimination of all clear-cuffing in the national forests, challenges to all timber sales and concessions by the Department of the Interior, and banishment of destructive bottom trawling in the fisheries. The list goes on. The two Davids do not know each other. They do not have to hoist a pint or exchange e-mails to work together, because their goals are the same, however different their politics, backgrounds, wealth, and education. This is the promise of the movement: that the margins link up, that we discover through our actions and shared concerns that we are a global family.

—Paul Hawken



The ability to respond to the endless injustices and hurts endured by the earth and its people requires concerted action and hinges in part on understanding both our function and potential as individuals and where we fit into a larger whole. Antigens dot the surface of our body's cells like lapel pins that proudly proclaim, "It's me, don't hurt me, I am you." Viruses and invasive diseases have their own antigens that warn the body that a "not me" has arrived. Millions of different kinds of antigens tag the different microorganisms and cells that find their way into the body, especially detrimental ones. With almost perfect symmetry, millions of different antibodies, proteins that can lock on to antigens as neatly as a key to a hasp, neutralize these invaders while simultaneously signaling for help. This is the beginning of the immune response, the ability of the body to maintain the self, to be a human rather than a petri dish for opportunistic microorganisms. The hundreds of thousands of organizations that make up the [environmental] movement are social antibodies attaching themselves to pathologies of power. Many will fail, for at present it is often a highly imperfect, and sometimes clumsy movement. It can flail, overreach, and founder; it has much to learn about how to work together but it is what the earth is producing to protect itself.

—Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken

November 1, 2019


from “Only the Dance”

in Only the Dance: Essays on Time and Memory

by Judith Kitchen


What catches her eye, as “the leaves have gone mottled, yellow to green to orange under our feet,” is the passage of a lifetime captured in an autumnal moment.--THE


Judith Kitchen who died the first week of November five years ago, practiced the art of essay and memoir with consummate skill and probably did more than any of us to teach, promote, explore, and explain the forms that The Humble Essayist celebrates. Each year around this time we feature her work, and this year my mind went back to the title piece of her first volume of essays, “Only the Dance,” which I read some twenty-five years ago. The book came out the year after my first book, A Geometry of Lilies, and was published by the same press, so I have long had an affection for it.


For Judith, fall was a season that taught essential lessons about “time and memory,” the subtitle of her book.  “October,” she writes, gazing at the autumn day. “Outside my window, purple flowers, pale as ghosts on tall, unwieldy stems. And by the fence, a flamboyance of late roses. Overnight, the trees have turned. Maples on fire. Or gone mottled, yellow to green to orange under our feet.” Truth may be beauty, she insists, but in the fall, purple blossoms going to seed and late blooming roses make room for another truth well.


“If only dying could be like this,” she writes exploring these truths in The Paragraph of the Week.

The Paragraph of the Week


If only the body could rise, newly aware of itself, teeter on tentative legs and dance. Harvest of marrow. The body, so full of everything it never said, but, nevertheless, knew. And the knowledge, now, glistening in the late afternoon. Slant light. Granting a kind of dignity to the familiar. Soccer fields full of motion, young bodies spinning, the ball caught at the apex of its arc, everything shimmering and unreal. The upstairs windows of white frame houses remote in the sun's blank stare. Then the treeline, a fringe of black lace at the top of the hill, and the backdrop sky receding.

—Judith Kitchen



“If only dying could be like this,” Judith Kitchen writes in “Only the Dance,” a short piece in her first volume of personal essays. What catches her eye, as “the leaves have gone mottled, yellow to green to orange under our feet,” is the passage of a lifetime captured in an autumnal moment. We begin the sequence as an infant teetering “on tentative legs,” awaken as young adults to something more as we observe Emily Dickinson’s slant of light that lends “dignity to the familiar, “ and take delight in young bodies “full of motion” lifting life to a sensual “apex” where “everything is shimmering and unreal.” It is Yeats’ dance and dancer made one, but in the end we get “only the dance,” as her title makes clear, so this passionate display blazes against a background of relinquishment, a life hemmed in by “houses remote in the sun’s blank stare,” a line of trees, a “fringe of black lace at the top of the hill,” and “the backdrop of sky receding.”  There it is, the entire life from birth to death—a recapitulation of what matters—captured in a fall moment: “a burst of flame, a final, triumphant shout to the silent universe: I was here, this is my blossoming, brief moment of consequence.”


Judith Kitchen

November 8, 2019

“Elegy for Ebbets”

in Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond

by Michael Steinberg


“In his essay ‘Elegy for Ebbets’ Michael Steinberg overcomes cynicism and sentimentality to reclaim his childhood love of baseball.”—THE


A founding editor of the magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Michael Steinberg has been a fixture in the world of essay and memoir for many years. In 2004 his memoir Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year and the anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Robert Root, has long been one of the defining texts of the genre. The Paragraph of the Week comes from the title essay of his new collection, Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond. It originally appeared online in Sport Literate.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week


A similar kind of moment keeps Tom and me riveted to our seats at the Metrodome on that blustery March night. It’s the top of the eighth, and Ripkin is only one shy of hit number 3,000. Most likely, this’ll be his last at bat. For once, the crowd is hushed and still. No cell phones ringing, no music blaring, no computer games bleeping. We’re all in this together, holding our collective breath, concentrating on each pitch. When the Twins’ pitcher goes to ball two in the count, even the home fans begin to boo. On the next pitch, a low slider on the hands, Ripkin slices a bleeder to the right side. Everyone groans. It looks like a sure out. But just as the second baseman moves over to field it, the ball takes a big hop over his shoulder, skids across the carpet, and winds up in short right field. We all stand in unison and cheer. On natural grass, that ball would have been a routine play.

—Michael Steinberg



In his essay “Elegy for Ebbets” Michael Steinberg overcomes cynicism and sentimentality to reclaim his childhood love of baseball. When he was twelve he could buy tickets for “a buck and a quarter apiece” with his friends Heshie, Kenny, Sugar, and Billy and watch in awe as the Dodgers played on the “emerald green, manicured grass” of Ebbets. He immersed himself in the scene, taking in the patter of the announcer, the sounds of the crowd, the slow-pace of the game, and the Hammond organ playing “The National Anthem” as he watched the likes of Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese play. Over the years, though, this love faded, as the Dodgers left New York for L.A. and the sport became over time more commercialized. It was no longer fun for him to go to enclosed stadiums cut off from a supporting neighborhood, and the experience of watching on TV with its barrage of commercials was worse. By the time of the owner’s lock-out in 1994 he was ready to “give up on baseball for good.” Then he read an essay by Pete Hammill arguing that such sentimentality was “a form of resentment” and Steinberg reassessed his attitude and gave baseball one last try. His determination to rediscover the game itself, beneath the myriad changes, allowed him to “look beyond the media circus and corporate P.R.” and appreciate baseball the way he would “an opera, a ballet, or a play” and to respond with joy on the night when he saw Cal Ripkin on AstroTurf in one of those domed stadiums reach hit number 3,000.


A Tribute to Michael Steinberg

Despite all of their bluster, writers are, by and large, a shy bunch. Mike Steinberg had a gift for taking lonely souls like me in and making them feel part of a happy, noisy, talkative, generous, and friendly community.  I first got to know Mike at the AWP Conference in Portland in 1998. My second book of essays had come out from Georgia Press, and he invited me to be on a panel of nonfiction writers. From that moment on I was never lonely again at one of these events.

Mike was most keen on the idea that the writer find the “inner story” of any piece of writing. “A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out their ‘inner story,’” he liked to say, “that is, the story of their thinking.” In this he was the champion of writing as a vehicle for discovering the truth behind the events of our lives.

Mike died yesterday from a shockingly sudden bout with cancer leaving all of us who loved him saddened. Fortunately we still have his inner story which is on full display in his newest collection of essays, Elegy for Ebbets. We featured the title essay at THE on November 8, 2019. I'll reprint it here as an end-of-the-year tribute to one of the great writers and writing teachers of our time.

Michae Steinberg
T. Fleischmann

November 15, 2019


from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through: An Essay

by T. Fleischmann


“Anyway, you never get there,” writes T. Fleischmann in Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “you just keep going.”—THE


T Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay as well as Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through. A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at Essay Daily, Fleischmann published critical and creative work in journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and others, as well as in the anthologies Bending Genre, How We Speak to One Another, Little Boxes, and Feminisms in Motion.

The Paragraph of the Week, from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, explores art and the body, identity and community from the author's transgendered perspective.  The symbol for the pain experienced along the way is fractured ice, and the joy is in the ache of warm hands.—THE

The Paragraph of the Week


...fracture. Split through, split apart, split into and out of blue. Split so the split is black and the ice is white. Split with tendrils of crack. And where it is still whole and hard, there beside the split it is whitest, although the whitest whites are just smaller splits, cracking the fractured ice into itself and out of its blue. A fog of small splits about each break and a hard dark split so there is no whole, just a clear ice and a clear ice. Because I lifted the block, wetting my hands on the white, dropped it onto the gray slate of creek rock. Because my hands ache from touching the ice. Because I can now put the two whole ices one atop the other, the white splits and dark crack splits each finding a fracture to match. And because the ice melted to water by my hands can find the static hum of the splits and fill and quiet them. Tonight it will grow colder and colder still and grow still in the colder, and the mends will become rends, and it will restore a clear hum. And maybe then I will have a block of ice again, to break...—T. Fleischmann




“Anyway, you never get there,” writes T. Fleischmann in Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “you just keep going.” It is for me the central insight of this book-length essay about the writer’s life as a person in gender transition. Fleischmann is forever arriving but never arrives at a true gender identity. At times desires and pleasures might repeat making gender seem stable “as if our love has to be just so,” but then it changes because the true gender for trans is trans. Fleischmann’s heartbreaking symbol for unfreezing gender rigidity is melting ice.  In its frozen state large chunks of river ice may seem pellucid but on close examination the blue is riven with splits and fissures. Only by lifting a chunk and smashing it against another can the lines of the chunks reveal themselves, and only by taking the ice into warm but aching hands does the melting temporarily “fill and quiet” fissures which at night form again. Fleischmann first noticed ice in the picture book of a lover, Simon, who is left behind in the various changes the author undergoes in the book, but in daydreams Simon returns and the lovers in imagination are reunited, the two of them “holding hands, and going exactly where we should be.” And where is that? “Where everything is impossible so we try to make it real. Where it’s spring, and the season of ice has passed.”—THE

Sonya Huber

“The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As a Writer: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’”

by Sonya Huber

in Literary Hub

“ the end Sonya Huber rejects the three-word command, and encourages other writers to reject it too.”—THE


Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.  In the essay that gives us the Paragraph of the Week she takes on the familiar writing workshop chestnut: “show, don’t tell.”

Paragraph of the Week


When I was taking a sculpture class in college, I sewed a kind of wall hanging about secrets I had to keep. I wrote things on pieces of paper and tucked them into bumps and layers in the fabric. I sewed pockets shut. I kept my secrets safe. I made art out of the things that I assumed I would never be able to say. I don’t even know where that wall hanging is now, but the thought of it breaks my heart. I wanted to show what it was like to be me.


—Sonya Huber



The writing maxim “show, don’t tell” can be liberating, Sonya Huber admits, a discipline that teaches the young writer “to see subjectivity emerging through…details,” but in the end she rejects the three-word command, and encourages other writers to reject it too.  She argues that there are many selves to honor in nonfiction: “the knower,” “teller,” “wisher,” and “dreamer” as well as “the describer,” and it is certainly a gift for nonfiction writers that they are allowed to give voice to all of these writerly selves. The crucial insight to me in her essay is the connection between “show, don’t tell” and the suppression of female voices. “Today the imperative sentence resonates with all the creepiness of forcing someone to keep a secret,” she writes.  “For many of us, ‘don’t tell’ in other forms has been a tight constricting rope that has mangled our voices and changed our books and the years of our lives.” The steely command "don't tell" kept her necessary truths sewed shut too long in pockets of fear.


Steve Almond

from William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life

by Steve Almond


“So what are the threats to the interior life that make our moment so perilous?”—THE


Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Against Football and Candyfreak. His short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he hosts the New York Times “Dear Sugars” podcast with Cheryl Strayed. Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children.


The Paragraph of the Week, taken from William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, is about the need to nurture private contemplation which is under fresh threats in our time. To make his point Almond turns to Stoner, his favorite novel—and, as it turns out, mine as well. The book by John Williams is about an obscure and unfamous professor of medieval literature who accomplishes little that is remarkable by society’s standards, but nonetheless lives a rewarding life.


The hunch that Almond mentions in the opening sentence is his intuition when he quit his newspaper job that literature, not journalism, was his true calling.


Paragraph of the Week


Stoner confirmed that hunch, more forcefully than any book I’d ever read. It exerts a stubborn grip on readers like me because it offers something increasingly rare in modern life: a dogged devotion to the inner life. By “inner life,” I simply mean the private realm of thought and feeling through which we come to know ourselves. I stress the term because I believe our entire species is, at this perilous moment, engaged in a pitched battle for the inner life, one so pervasive it has become as invisible as air.

—Steve Almond



So what are the threats to the interior life that make our moment so perilous? The list begins with our “shallow” heroes Steve Almond writes in William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life. We “worship athletes and moguls and movie stars…who possess the glittering gifts we equate with worth and happiness.” Our politics are dominated by “a preening demagogue birthed in the oxymoronic swamp of reality television.” Our movies are “paeans to reckless ambition.” Even our literature is dominated by “agents and editors” who care more about celebrity authors and movie deals than the work itself. Most of all, our technology, including “omniscient devices the size of candy bars,” create irresistible distractions that accelerate “our cognitive and emotional metabolisms: our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward” privileging “action over contemplation.” What chance does contemplation have?  Despite all of those threats to self, though, the word-of-mouth success of a novel like Stoner “within an empire whose industrial energies are dedicated to annihilating the inner life” offers hope, Almond suggests, and serves as a reminder that “a meaningful life arises from the willingness to pay attention, especially when it hurts to do so.”


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