Archive: Summer-Fall 2020
Scroll through the texts or click on a name: Patrick Madden and Mary Cappello, Patrick Madden, Cheryl Strayed, Claudia Rankine, Henry David Thoreau, E. B. White, Joy Harjo, Mary Ruefle, Joe Bonomo, Bernard Cooper, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Brian Doyle, Scott Russell Sanders, Jennifer Sinor, Aleksander Hemon, Tiffany Promise, Helen Macdonald 4 texts, Rebecca McClanahan.
June 5, 2020
by Patrick Madden (feat. Mary Cappello)
“Do our books not tackle social issues?”—Mary Cappello
Is it possible to write, publish, and read personal essays—those mullings of the individual mind—in a time of political upheaval that calls for social action? One important literary magazine, lamenting that “literature on its own changes nothing,” is delaying some of its services because these “are not normal times.” Many of us, I know, struggle with this issue of literary irrelevance, and Patrick Madden’s new book, Disparates, addresses it in the essay “Listening”.
Disparities is more than a collection of essays. It is a compendium of ways to essay the world. As Elena Passarello writes, Disparates, “plays constantly: with shape, with subject, with language; it even plays well with others in several lively collaborations.” For those who want to see the many ways an essay can be in the world, Madden’s work is a great place to start.
But in “Listening,” one of the final essays in the book, Madden raises questions about his entire project. He calls himself a “frivolous forty-something writer” and admits that his essays “serve very little purpose and affect very few lives and only in very small and temporary ways.” He looks ahead with dread to the year of societal collapse we are now living through and wonders in our Paragraph of the Week why he cannot write culturally relevant essays.
“Listening” is one of his collaborative essays. It grew out of a Fourth Genre “Inter-view” with Mary Cappello prompted in part by a shooting and the trampling of a guard in Walmart on Black Friday in 2015. Cappello’s response to Madden’s earnest questioning is our commentary this week. Taken together the two paragraphs offer a succinct defense of essaying in a time of social crisis.
Patrick Madden is the author of three collections of personal essays: Quotidiana, Sublime Physick, and Disparates. He is also the coeditor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. This is the first of a two-part series on Madden. Next week we feature his essay “Inertia.” Mary Cappello is the author of six books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour; Swallow; and Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A new book, Lecture, due out in August from Transit Books, is about listening, the subject of her commentary here.
The Paragraph of the Week
In writing this essay, hoping for some inspiration about what to do, wanting writing to be a relevant act, I recalled that one of the topics Mary and I touched on in that first conversation was the value of writing like ours: essays published in small-circulation journals and later in university-press books, literary think pieces that meander and apprehend a menagerie of ideas toward inconclusiveness. I had mentioned to Mary the lament I began this essay with, that I am a frivolous writer who admires but cannot seem to write culturally conscious and culturally active essays, like Martin Luther King’s, which approach social ills head on and, with power and grace, signal a way forward.
Do our books not tackle social issues? Not head on. That doesn’t mean that they don’t contribute to changing the landscape from which social issues emerge. . . . If [an essay is] going to help a reader to think and respond with you in concert, you’re modeling a different kind of response to being in the world. This is what writers do. That’s what I want in great writing. If that man had a different surround sound, would he have been encouraged to buy a gun? And the people who trampled the guard at Walmart: they all must have been tuned in to the same station. All it takes is trying to listen differently, being encouraged to listen differently. What is it we do if not ask people to try to listen differently?
June 12, 2020
by Patrick Madden
“Experience…demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events.”—Patrick Madden
Patrick Madden is the author of three collections of personal essays: Quotidiana, Sublime Physick, and Disparates. He is also the coeditor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. His books are not just collections of essays, but projects in the many ways a writer can essay the world, and his newest book, Disparates, is no exception.
Like Montaigne, who wrote essays that meander freely, Madden likes following his thoughts wherever they lead, but—and this is the trick—they do lead somewhere. The paragraph this week, from the essay “Inertia,” illustrates the tension between nearly missing the point and yet getting it. The “clothes” in the opening sentence refer to a Montaigne costume that hangs on his office door.
The Paragraph of the Week
I suppose I could store the clothes elsewhere, at home or in Joey’s office, and perhaps I will, though I feel a fleeting glee every time I glance over my shoulder to my door and see the outfit hanging there, alongside portraits of my children and below a copy of the dot-matrix sign my father years ago hung in all his children’s bedrooms admonishing DO IT NOW! do it quickly, in response to our general lackadaisy, our tendency to ignore chores, refuse requests, or to get caught up in too many tasks, then complain about our lack of time. Little did we know, my father knew. I smile at the incongruities of existence, the recursions and extrapolations, the way experience seems to close upon itself but refuses to shut, remains open, confounds our automatic responses, demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events. I think, also, to Montaigne’s office, with its inscriptions in the rafters, words to live and write by, such as I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE. Which humble habit, though it opposes my father’s fine advice, fits the essaying process aptly, admirably, as well as enacts the metaphor we seemed to have abandoned paragraphs ago.
The metaphor that essayist Patrick Madden seemed to abandon began with the phrase “the moment of inertia” earlier in the essay and was interrupted with a digression about a stunt that he and a friend cooked up involving a Montaigne costume. The stunt is fun—and I won’t ruin it here by summarizing it—except to say that Shelli Spotts, a costume designer at Brigham Young where Madden teaches, made a spot-on replica of Montaigne’s finery from his well-known 1580 portrait which Madden and his friend Joey Franklin used to hilarious effect. Before the digression Madden was drawn to the topic of inertia because he had lost the knack for closing his office door in one try with the least amount of effort, a little game involving inertia that he amused himself with, and in our Paragraph of the Week taken from the penultimate moment of the essay he completes the metaphor with the phrases carved into the rafters of Montaigne’s study: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE, the moment of inertia being a metaphor for the essaying process itself. With it Madden arrives at his point about essaying, that “experience…demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events.” It is true, as Elena Passarello writes that Madden’s new book Disparates “plays constantly: with shape, with subject, with language; it even plays well with others in several lively collaborations,” but the essays are not just play and the essayist, “a thoughtful distance from events” only apparently gets lost. The clue is in the phrase “seemed to have abandoned,” indicating that he had a point and knew early on where he was headed before a delightful story got in the way giving him time to think “some distance from events,” an intention he underlines by drawing our attention to the word “seem” in the essay’s final sentence: “Seemed to, grammarians might note.”
from Tiny Beautiful Things:
Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed
“Dear Sugar is…an explosion of the advice column into a prose work of art.”—THE
The author of best-selling books such as Wild and Brave Enough, as well as the novel Torch, Cheryl Strayed is also the author of Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of advice columns she wrote under the pseudonym Dear Sugar for The Rumpus magazine. On the day that she revealed her identity as Dear Sugar she called her columns an exercise in “radical sincerity” as important as “writing about socially significant things or political things.” The book clearly struck a chord. “Big-hearted, keen-eyed, lyrical, precise,” George Saunders wrote of her work, “Cheryl Strayed reminds us in every line that if defeat and despair are part of human experience, so are kindness, patience, and transcendence.” He was thinking of all of her books, but I can’t come up with a better description of Tiny Beautiful Things.
The Paragraph of the Week is part of her answer to the letter that asked what she, as a forty-something year old, would tell herself in her twenties.
Paragraph of the Week
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don't look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
For this reading I chose the Audible version of what we, in our family, call Dear Sugar narrated by Cheryl Strayed herself, and it was probably a mistake. On pandemic afternoons while I was repairing the tool shed, transplanting hydrangea, painting trellises, mowing the yard, or chopping wood, I was listening to my phone and weeping. Essays don’t usually affect me this way, and to be honest, Dear Sugar is not a book of essays. Essays are generally about the questions, not the answers. Dear Sugar is instead an explosion of the advice column into a prose work of art. The letters range from silly to heartbreaking. In one a woman writes that she is afraid to marry and live her life because she may have an inherited propensity to die young. Sugar’s advice: “there’s a crazy lady living in your head.” In another, a woman driven to the brink by her children whom she loves dearly sometimes loses it and explodes, helplessly, when she is angry. Sugar’s advice: “I don’t think you’re helpless. I think you are a good mom who has on occasion been brought to the edge of her capacities for tolerance and patience and kindness and who needs to learn to manage her anger and her stress.” In another about a writer’s insecurities she bluntly, and famously, advises “write like a motherfucker.” Most often, though, Sugar tries to help—to open a new way of approaching the problem that haunts her correspondent—by telling her own heartbreaking, funny, sometimes outrageous, and often ordinary stories, like the one in our Paragraph of the Week about her mother who loved her dearly, died young, and was, as her friend Steve Almond told her, the original Sugar.
June 26, 2020
from “Stop and Frisk”
by Claudia Rankine
“You are not the guy and still you fit the description.”—Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine is the author of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Nothing in Nature is Private, and Citizen: An American Lyric. We at THE have long been interested in work such as hers which crosses genres, inhabiting that place where prose, poetry, and film meet. Our Paragraph of the Week is a montage from her prose poem “Stop and Frisk” in Citizen. After you read it and the commentary you can click on the link to see the brief film version that Rankine made in collaboration with filmmaker John Lucas.
Paragraph of the Week
Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew….And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description. You can’t drive yourself sane. This motion wears a guy out. Our motion is wearing you out and still you are not that guy…. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now….Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same. Flashes, a siren, the stretched-out roar….And still you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
Reading Claudia Rankine is discovering that you missed the point which is the point. It is like losing the thread of the argument which was the argument all along. You read “everywhere were flashes” and “you are not the guy and still you fit the description,” and “each time it begins the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins the same.” Over and over you read and think there is some problem with the writing, until you realize you’re the problem. As she puts it, “you can’t drive yourself sane.” Reading Claudia Rankine is like watching an off-balance basketball player take a shot that should never go in, but goes in anyway. It is like looking at the stars until they all begin spinning. No, that’s you. You fit that description. You’re the one spinning.
from “If the Injustice Is”
in “Civil Disobedience”
by Henry David Thoreau
We begin year six—as we have each year since The Humble Essayist began in 2014—with the writer who started it all for us, Henry David Thoreau. On Independence Day in 1845 he moved to Walden Pond to live deliberately and work on Walden. To honor his masterpiece we created our website on July 4, 169 years later.
On this sad Fourth of July week, as Americans stumble through a pandemic, suffer economic collapse, and are stirred to confront racial injustice, Thoreau seems to be particularly relevant. His personal manifesto, “Civil Disobedience,” has probably done more to change the world for the better than any other single essay, inspiring many leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
During our own time of civil disobedience it is important to remember that it was written because Thoreau “could not for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave's government also."
In the Paragraph of the Week, Thoreau makes a succinct argument for when civil disobedience is justified. For our commentary we have transformed his paragraph into a video essay called “If the Injustice Is.” Please read the paragraph, watch the video, and spread the word. You can read Thoreau’s complete essay here. https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Thoreau/Civil%20Disobedience.pdf
The Paragraph of the Week
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth,— certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
To see video, please go to video-essay archive here.
July 10, 2020
From “Once More to the Lake
By E. B. White
“…the whole place steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness.”—E. B. White
Each year around E.B. White’s birthday (July 11) we feature a paragraph from his essay “Once More to the Lake.” White was the author of essays and books for children such as Charlotte’s Web. In addition he was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine and the co-author of The Elements of Style, a guide for writers. We are tempted to put the word “classic” in front of each of these achievements.
We have featured six of the paragraphs by now and you can read each of them and our commentaries by scanning through our archives.
The Paragraph of the Week
Up to the farmhouse to dinner through the teeming, dusty field, the road under our sneakers was only a two-track road. The middle track was missing, the one with the marks of the hooves and the splotches of dried, flaky manure. There had always been three tracks to choose from in choosing which track to walk in; now the choice was narrowed down to two. For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative. But the way led past the tennis court, and something about the way it lay there in the sun reassured me; the tape had loosened along the backline, the alleys were green with plantains and other weeds, and the net (installed in June and removed in September) sagged in the dry noon, and the whole place steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness. There was a choice of pie for dessert, and one was blueberry and one was apple, and the waitresses were the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain—the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference—they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair. —E. B. White
In his essay “Once More to the Lake” about the inevitability of change, E. B. White does not tip his hand until this paragraph, paragraph seven. Up this point the emphasis has been on the unchanged nature of returning once more to the lake of his childhood, this time with his son. The cabin partitions are unchanged, the smells the same, and his son sneaks off at dawn to ride a small boat along the shore, just as he had done. “I could tell,” he writes, “that it was going to be pretty much the same,” and he ends paragraph six with this declaration: “There had been no years.” But the illusion “pretty much” begins to crumble in our Paragraph of the Week. The road to the farmhouse for dinner still leads past the tennis court, which is reassuring in its familiarity, but the middle track made by horses drawing carriages has disappeared and the courts are in disrepair, the damaged baseline tape, weedy patches, and sagging net causing him to feel discombobulated and empty. The waitresses, country girls serving pie, also look the same, except that they have seen the movies and now have clean hair like the stars. I won’t give away the striking end of the essay, except to say that it is this paragraph that begins to pull back the “dropped curtain” of the illusion of eternal summers at the lake and bring it, and the truth, into view. —E. B. White
in How We Became Human
by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, is a member of the Mvskoke Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she is the author of nine books of poetry, including An American Sunrise (2019); Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015), and How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems 1975-2001. She is also the author of the memoir Crazy Brave (2013). Some of her best poems have been in prose, and like us she is fond of the paragraph as a poetic form. “Rainy Dawn” is a single paragraph poem from her 1989 collection Secrets from the Center of the World.
Paragraph of the Week
I can still close my eyes and open them four floors up looking south and west from the hospital, the approximate direction of Acoma, and farther on to the roofs of the houses of the gods who have learned there are no endings, only beginnings. That day so hot, heat danced in waves off bright car tops, we both stood poised at that door from the east, listened for a long time to the sound of our grandmothers' voices, the brushing wind of sacred wings, the rattle of raindrops in dry gourds. I had to participate in the dreaming of you into memory, cupped your head in the bowl of my body as ancestors lined up to give you a name made of their dreams cast once more into this stew of precious spirit and flesh. And let you go, as I am letting you go once more in this ceremony of the living. And when you were born I held you wet and unfolding, like a butterfly newly born from the chrysalis of my body. And breathed with you as you breathed your first breath. Then was your promise to take it on like the rest of us, this immense journey, for love, for rain.—Joy Harjo
At a “ceremony of the living,” Joy Harjo closes her eyes and when she opens them again she is transported back in time to a hospital room when she was pregnant with her daughter. Looking southwest the young woman with child hears “in the brushing wind of sacred wings” and “the rattle of raindrops in dry gourds” the spirit voices of her grandmothers who have come to tell her that there are “no endings, only beginnings.” I know from reading Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave that her daughter came to her in a dream from the place of the spirits looking like an adult and asking to be born. This is not a good time, the mother-to-be said, but in the spirit realm time has no meaning and the next day she felt the baby move. “I had to participate in the dreaming of you,” she writes alluding to the days of her pregnancy, but propels her child forward in time by adding “dreaming of you into memory.” For Joy Harjo birth is a letting go. It is the freeing of a child to take on an “immense journey” that, completed in the spirit world, has no end. The child, like her mother, does so for love in this life, but also for grandmothers in the distant past who speak to her in the brushing wind and when it rains.
August 7, 2020
from “In the Forest”
in My Private Property
by Mary Ruefle
“When the voice of Mary Ruefle’s paragraph is in the woods she thinks about language, and her musings start off tame enough.”—THE
Mary Ruefle has published many books of poetry, including Dunce (Wave Books, 2019), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize and longlister for the 2019 National Book Award in Poetry; My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016); Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013); A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006), an art book of “erasures,” a variation on found poetry; The Adamant (1989), winner of the 1988 Iowa Poetry Prize; and Memling’s Veil (University of Alabama Press, 1982). She often writes prose poems and paragraph poems. The Paragraph of the Week is one of her paragraph poems from My Private Property.
The Paragraph of the Week
In the Forest
When I wander in the forest I am drawn towards language. I see meaning is quaintly hidden, shooting up in dark wet woods, by roots of trees, old walls, among dead leaves, strangely lonely, suggestive of some wild individuality, silently symbolical of old Vienna, but lacking in details. When I wander in the forest, I am afraid of getting lost, and I feel most strongly that something is waiting for me, under a fallen log, behind a tree, there in some high-up hole in the tree trunk, though I seldom look up, no, as I walk I look down, drawn to the root system as I stumble, and I don't think that it is Sanskrit waiting for me, not for a minute, I think what time is it and shouldn't I begetting home, one can't always be wandering in meaning, dark as it is it will be getting darker, though if it begins to snow I look up, I lose myself in the snow as it falls between branches and builds up also on every one, I lose myself just as my steps are beginning to leave tracks in the snow on the forest floor, and soon the fallen logs are covered with snow, and when my tracks are covered I am completely lost, the snow has muffled everything, and the silence frightens me as much as the forest ever did.
When the voice of Mary Ruefle’s paragraph is in the woods it thinks about language, and her musings start off tame enough. She is drawn at first to the picturesque, “dark wet woods, by roots of trees, old walls,” but these safe woodland sights soon give way to “dead leaves” and feelings of isolation. The deeper she goes the more afraid she gets, fearing getting lost or that “something is waiting” for her behind that log, that tree, or in that “high-up hole in the tree trunk.” When it starts to snow she is terrified as everything, even her tracks, are covered in white. What time is it, she asks, and shouldn't I be getting home? But when the voice of Mary Ruefle’s paragraph is in the language, it thinks about the woods. She is terrified of the silence and afraid of meaningless meandering, of getting lost on that white page with its many erasures—how will she ever stay on track?—so she keeps her eyes down, avoiding lofty sentiments “suggestive of some wild individuality, silently symbolical of old Vienna” that the words might evoke, checking their root meanings to keep them real, though she seems suspicious of that random Sanskrit etymology. She is rattled by how hard it all becomes in the language where she thinks about the woods because it all seemed so easy at first in the woods thinking about language, so “quaint” before it turned “strangely lonely.”
August 14, 2020
from “Don’t You Know That It’s So”
in Field Recordings from the Inside
by Joe Bonomo
“Did the ’50s end and the ’60s begin on this day? Did a past of limitations make way for ‘a future erupting with possibilities?’”—THE
Joe Bonomo is the author of Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, Installations (National Poetry Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Conversations With Greil Marcus, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays), Field Recordings from the Inside (essays), and No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing. Five of his essays have been selected as notable in the Best American Essays series. He is the music columnist for The Normal School, and a Professor of English at Northern Illinois University. In the Paragraph of the Week from Field Recordings from the Inside he ponders the coincidence that the poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the same time that The Beatles began recording their debut album.
Paragraph of the Week
I think about the confluence of death and birth on a gray February morning in London. Something—fandom? residue of a dream?—requires that I lay a kind of transparency of consequence over the two-mile grid of London streets and green Primrose Hill. Fantasy on my part, but look: Plath’s home at two o’clock on the map, to Abbey Road’s seven o’clock, sprawling Regents Park just south. What’s revealed? Imagined links. Invisible correspondences. Plath’s suicide and the Beatles’ recording sessions overlapped, and in that alchemy I need to believe that something was forged, that a thick boundary was established, that the ’50s ended and the ’60s began—or if that’s facile, that a rejection of the world gave way to a future erupting with possibilities. Or it’s simply, indulgently, my own obsession for finding meaning where meaning doesn’t exist, mania scored by a song.—Joe Bonomo
In the essay “Don’t You Know That It’s So” Joe Bonomo yearns to find some meaningful connection in the coincidence that on February 11, 1963 Sylvia Plath killed herself at the same time that the Beatles had begun recording their first album, Please Please Me. The doctor at Plath’s London Flat declared her dead as the Beatles were working on their first song that day called “There’s a Place” which describes the solitary mind as a retreat when feeling “low” and “blue.” Did the ’50s end and the ’60s begin on this day? Did a past of limitations make way for “a future erupting with possibilities?” In the end, he finds little more than “coincidence.” It is highly unlikely that any of the Beatles, including the well-read John Lennon, would have encountered the poet’s work since her most famous poems were not published until two years later. It is possible that Plath heard the single “Please Please Me” on the radio while living in London, but again not likely. He admits that “even describing the events as intersecting gives them more relation than they deserve.” But the human urge to find meaning in separate but coincidental events that in themselves seem consequential is irresistible, and as he listens to the lines “In my mind there’s no sorrow” and “There’ll be no tomorrow” he hears “an unintended, impossible threnody for a deeply despondent woman who retreated from the world” at the same time that a “declaration of independence” for a new youth culture announces itself.—THE
August 21, 2020
from “The Wind Did It”
in Maps to Anywhere
by Bernard Cooper
“He understood that much in life comes to us paired this way: ‘day and night, mother and father, happy and sad in tandem and yet forever apart.’”—THE
Bernard Cooper is the author of six books including Maps to Anywhere where I found our Paragraph of the Week. He is the recipient of the 1991 PEN/USA Ernest Hemingway Award, a 1995 O. Henry Prize, a 1999 Guggenheim grant, and a 2004 National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in literature. His work has appeared in several anthologies, including five annual volumes of The Best American Essays, as well as in magazines and literary reviews including Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. He has contributed to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” and for six years wrote monthly features on art for Los Angeles Magazine.
In this unforgettable paragraph he explores the idea that life is a mixture of paradoxes that are experienced together but do not blend leading to an unexpected connection between father and son.
The Paragraph of the Week
I learned from my father that pleasure can merge with pain. The catalyst for my new knowledge was horseradish. I'm not sure when my hungry father inserted the spoon in his mouth….All I recall is the guttural noise, low at first, as though it came from outside the house, tugging me from my reverie. But the groan was deep in my father's throat, growing in volume, borne on the air, resounding in the room. And then I saw the silver spoon as he slid it out of his mouth…My father knocked on his head with his fist, whined like a whistle, fanned his face. My father shuddered and pounded the table. His eyes were wide and red and wet from the sting of spice, the heat of the root. He gulped water to no avail. He sucked ice but that was futile. He tilted his head from side to side. Cartilage cracked. He blew his nose in a paper napkin. “God,” he blurted, “is that ever good.”
When he was a boy the musings of writer Bernard Cooper were interrupted one day when his father ate horseradish. As his mother shook her head at the dad’s antics, “something opened up” inside the young Bernard. “I couldn’t think of any word for what I understood,” he explains, though he was feeling it himself as he was having the realization. “Had I been pressed to describe it, I would have said that black and white can mix together, but remain black and white even though they make gray.” He understood that much in life comes to us paired this way: “day and night, mother and father, happy and sad in tandem and yet forever apart.” He called it “the principle of pleasure hand in hand with pain.” Word and flesh and word made flesh. Glory and pathos inside one old man. And despite their differences, he and his father ended up being alike in looks, gestures, and in the “Semitic inflection” of their voices that turns every sentence into a question, but there’s something unexpected deeper: “a dreamy world view” that they share “engaged in thoughts that vacillate between the present and the past, ending finally in a pleasant limbo between the two.”
August 28, 2020
from “Standing By”
in The New Yorker
by David Sedaris
“What if standing by in an airport we become the trash we always are deep down?”
David Sedaris is the author many collections of personal essays, including Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and most recently, Calypso. The Paragraph of the Week is from “Standing By” which first appeared in The New Yorker. Written in 2010, it serves as a reminder of the base instincts that can take over during times of conflict.
Paragraph of the Week
They were like children from a catalogue. The little girl's skirt was a red-and-white check, and matched the ribbon that banded her straw hat. Her brother was wearing a shirt and tie. It was a clip-on, but, still, it made him and his sister the best-dressed people in line, much better than the family ten or so places ahead of them. That group consisted of a couple in their mid-fifties and three teen-agers, two of whom were obviously brothers. The third teen-ager, a girl, was holding a very young baby. I suppose it could have been a loaner, but the way she engaged with it—the obvious pride and pleasure she was radiating—led me to believe that the child was hers. Its father, I guessed, was the kid standing next to her, the taller and more visually dynamic of the brothers. The young man's hair was almost orange, and drooped from his head in thin, lank braids. At the end of each one, just above the rubber band, was a colored bead the size of a marble. Stevie Wonder wore his hair like that in the late seventies, but he's black. And blind. Then, too, Stevie Wonder didn't have acne on his neck, and wear baggy denim shorts that fell midway between his knees and his ankles. Topping it off was the kid's T-shirt. I couldn't see the front of it, but printed in large letters across the back were the words "Freaky Mothafocka."
My son Sam, who is a David Sedaris completionist, tells me that the last sentence of “Standing By” is the best ending of any essay ever, so I will not give it away here—except to say he may be right. In the essay Sedaris is stuck in a line of about 35 stranded passengers at the Denver airport, and finds himself getting increasingly agitated with the crude looks, language, and behavior around him blaming it on the airport’s corrupting influence. After taking in the young man’s "Freaky Mothafocka" t-shirt, he wonders what the t-shirts he didn't choose said, maybe “Orgasm Donor” or “I’m Not a Gynocologist But I’ll Take a Look.” Later he complains to the lady next to him that they couldn’t even spell “motherfucker” right. Another waiting passenger grouses about “the gal at the gate” who gave him misinformation, and when he says “I should have punched her is what I should have done,” Sedaris says “I hear you.” Two others start in on rap music and Sedaris zones out—“you learn to go brain dead when you have to”—but when someone grumbles about “how quickly one man can completely screw up a country” and another responds with “We’ve got to take our country back…maybe we need to use force,” Sedaris, who voted for Obama and despises the Bush-Cheney team, gets steamed. “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to hate,” he says to himself. “Think you can out-hate me asshole. I was fucking hating people before you were born,” glorying in his fury. At that, he stops himself, surveying what has been passing through his mouth and mind, and wonders whether the airport is really the culprit: “what if this is what we truly are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?” What if standing by in an airport we become the trash we always are deep down?—a thought that haunts him on the flight home. He wonders how flight attendants can stand all this ugliness and discovers that they have their ways for getting revenge, but to say more would give away the best ending ever.
September 4, 2020
from Intimations: Six Essays
by Zadie Smith
In the last essay of Intimations, Zadie Smith “compares racism to a deadly virus enveloping her city and follows the metaphor’s implications to a dire conclusion.”
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free, and, most recently, Intimations: Six Essays. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. She is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Paragraph of the Week and the commentary are both from Intimations which was written in the early months of the covid-19 lockdown in New York. In the last essay of the book, she compares racism to a deadly virus enveloping her city and follows the metaphor’s implications to a dire conclusion.
The Paragraph of the Week
Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion—contempt—from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work and thought, They can’t possibly feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals. Animals being both subject to man and a threat to him simultaneously.
I used to think that there would one day be a vaccine: that if enough black people named the virus, explained it, demonstrated how it operates, videoed its effects, protested it peacefully, revealed how widespread it really is, how the symptoms arise, how so many Americans keep giving it to each other, irresponsibly and shamefully, generation after generation, causing intolerable and unending damage both to individual bodies and to the body politic—I thought if that knowledge became as widespread as could possibly be managed or imagined that we might finally reach some kind of herd immunity. I don’t think that anymore.
September 11, 2020
by Brian Doyle
“The true coming together of hands in prayer belong to an anonymous couple who held hands as they jumped.”—THE
Since 9/11 falls on Friday this year, I thought I would reprise this tribute to the late essayist Brian Doyle who wrote about the atrocities of 9/11 in his essay "Leap." The essay describes a couple who held hands as they leapt to their deaths from a burning skyscraper, and in the Paragraph of the Week he sees their act of love and sacrifice as a form of prayer. I also want to rectify an error I made in my original reading of the text by naming the couple who jumped. "No one knows who they were," the text clearly says, "husband or wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell." I apologize for the mistake. The couple is anonymous which only adds to the power of the piece because unidentified they become a symbol for all who died that day. You can hear Doyle read the text here and learn more about the recently published collection by Doyle called One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder here.
Paragraph of the Week
Their hands reaching and joining is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.
The brief essay “Leap” is for me the most moving piece of writing about 9/11. In it Brian Doyle gathers a series of details that suggest the enormity of the event. The bodies “struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.” A child, riding the shoulders of his kindergarten teacher running away from the tumbling buildings, sees falling bodies and thinks “that the birds were on fire.” Doyle gathers quotations from a handful of eye-witnesses who described people “jumping,” “leaping,” “flailing,” and “falling,”—“too many people falling” but the phrase that makes real the number of victims to me, perhaps because it is so unobtrusive, is that people were “lining up” to jump. These metonymies of the much larger horror bring us to our knees, and Doyle offers three passages from scripture on destruction, love, and peace as a solace. But the true coming together of hands in prayer belong to an anonymous couple who held hands as they jumped. In the face of mass death, Doyle holds onto this gesture. It confirms his belief in God and in people who “have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires.” To him, the gesture provides evidence that “love is why we are here.” They hold hands and he “holds on to that.”
September 18, 2020
from The Way of Imagination: Essays
by Scott Russell Sanders
“Each of these steps, Sanders realizes in a call for enormous cultural change to achieve justice and save the planet, requires an act of humanity’s greatest gift, the imagination.”—THE
Among Scott Russell Sanders’ more than twenty books are novels, collections of stories, and works of personal nonfiction, including Staying Put, Writing from the Center, Hunting for Hope, and A Private History of Awe. In the past decade he has published many works including A Conservationist Manifesto, his vision of a shift from a culture of consumption to a culture of caretaking, and Earth Works, a selection of his best essays from the past thirty years. The Paragraph of the Week is from his new collection of essays, The Way of Imagination. You can learn more about Sanders and his work at his website, here.
The Paragraph of the Week
Consider what a mysterious power [imagination] is. We can see things that are not actually present before our eyes—not only things remembered, such as a childhood bedroom, but also things we have not experienced, such as climbing Mount Denali, as well as things no one has experienced, such as a journey to the stars. We can travel into the past or future while our bodies never budge. We can lay out plans in our minds, step by step, for a meal or a house, before lifting a hand to begin the work. Imagination keeps us from being trapped in the present arrangement of things. We can live in the midst of slavery and envision slavery’s abolition. In the midst of a society that oppresses women, we can envision their acquiring rights equal to those of men. In the midst of damaged land and endangered species, we can foresee their restoration.
—Scott Russell Sanders
At a dinner Scott Russell Sanders learned that his fellow guest was inspired to buy up large tracts of land and restore them to their original state after reading about “the forest primeval” in the poem “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Sanders used the dinner conversation as a way to “reverse engineer” the man’s benevolence—to reason backwards from the desired result to discover its causes. The first step, he realized, was “the transfer of vision from a writer’s mind to a reader’s mind” illustrating the power of art to create a vivid and indelible impression on a reader. In addition, Sanders’ dinner companion performed a mental leap that “propelled him backward and forward through time,” seeing in his mind’s eye the pristine forest of the past thriving in a future well after his life would be over. But neither the power of art nor the ability to move through time can restore the forest without compassion for people in the future he will never meet. Each of these steps, Sanders realizes in a call for enormous cultural change to achieve justice and save the planet, requires an act of humanity’s singular gift, the imagination, the ability to envision, time-travel, and feel empathy to avoid being “trapped in the present arrangement of things.”
September 25, 2020
from “Running through the Dark”
in Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World
by Jennifer Sinor
“…by staying silent about her role she passes her sense of guilt to a someone else, evoking an ‘I’m sorry’ from a stranger in the early morning darkness.”—THE
Jennifer Sinor’s books include the essay collection, Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as the memoir, Ordinary Trauma. In addition, she is the author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary. The Paragraph of the Week is from her newest collection, Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World.
The Paragraph of the Week
This morning I hit a deer while running. Most likely she is dead. By the bottom of the hill, I have opened Toni Morrison's “menu of regret.” My failures spill freely onto the pavement, the accident having driven a wedge into the room of my heart that I try to keep locked. “People don't like mean boys,” I say to Aidan. “No one will play with you.” And when Kellen butts his toddler head into mine because he wants another story, instead of opening Goodnight Moon again, I dump him roughly into his crib. My friend has no children, has no job, writes all day in her windowed house high in the mountains, while I steal two hours at a noisy bookstore before I head to campus and cut corners on my teaching, send apologies over email like Valentines. When I was seven I hurt my father. At thirty-seven I did the same. I steep anger into my husband's morning tea.
Jennifer Sinor did not hit the deer. While running she spooked a deer that ran into an oncoming car, but she feels complicit. She tries to do the right thing, telling the driver that “they always run across the road,” but by staying silent about her role she passes the blame to someone else, evoking an “I’m sorry” from a stranger in the early morning darkness. Guilt, though, is not so easily thwarted. “Hurt People Hurt People,” is the title of another essay in this collection, and the shame she feels has a way of compounding into a “menu of regret.” Later when Sinor gets home she snaps at her older son, and puts her baby boy down gruffly when he butts her head. She wallows in resentful thoughts of her friend who can write without distractions, rehearses past betrayals of her father, and nurses anger toward her husband. I’m reminded by the title and situation of William Stafford’s well-known poem “Traveling through the Dark” in which a driver hits a pregnant doe and does the right thing by pushing the deer over a ledge, avoiding more deaths, but only after he “thought hard for us all.” Guilt is complicated and such “hard thoughts” have a way of staying with us despite good intentions, darkening the days we run through.
October 2, 2020
from “Life During Wartime”
in The Book of My Lives
by Aleksander Hemon
“At the onset of war, however, such things could still be treated as horrifying exceptions,” writes Aleksander Hemon in The Book of My Lives.
Aleksander Hemon is a Bosnian-American novelist and a writer for The New Yorker. The Paragraph of the Week is the conclusion of “Life during Wartime” in his essay collection The Book of My Lives. The essay about being the culture editor of Naši dani in 1991 before the Bosnian War serves as a warning about the dangers of ignoring signs of authoritarian rule and a deteriorating society that is particularly timely for Americans.—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
In July, I quit the editing job and went for a few weeks to Ukraine, just in time for the August putsch, the collapse of the USSR, and the subsequent Ukrainian independence. When I came back to Sarajevo in early September, the magazine had been shut down; Pedja and Davor had moved us all out of the Kovači apartment and back to our respective parents’ homes, as we had no more money to pay the rent. The city was deflated, the euphoria exhausted. One night, I went to the Olympic Museum café, where we used to hang out a lot, and I watched glassy-eyed people stare into the terrible distance, barely talking to one another, some of them drugged to the brim, some of them naturally paralyzed, all of them terrified with what was now undeniable: it was all over. The war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die.
Before the war in Kosovo started, there were troubling stories published in the magazine Naši dani where young Aleksander Hemon worked as culture editor. The Yugoslav People’s Army used tanks to disperse anti-Milošević demonstrators. Two students were killed. Later news of atrocities arrived from Croatia: photos of decapitated corpses and comments by a Serbian military leader about using rusty spoons to gouge out Croatian eyes. “At the onset of war, however, such things could still be treated as horrifying exceptions,” writes Hemon in The Book of My Lives, but as war loomed more reports of transporting weapons to arm Bosnian Serbs came in with news of “increasingly belligerent Bosnian parliament sessions” and Radovan Karadžić pounding the table “with shovel-like fists.” At first young people like Hemon handled the news with hedonistic oblivion. “The more we knew about it, the less we wanted to know,” and the horrors were normalized. “The structure of our lives,” he writes, “relied on the routine continuation of what we stubbornly perceived as normalcy.” Within a matter of months, though, the truth became undeniable: “The war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die.”
October 8, 2020
from “You Were Always on my Mind: A Love Letter to Migraine”
in Brevity September 2020
by Tiffany Promise
“Tiffany Promise’s love affair started off greasy and soon became unbearable.”—THE
Tiffany Promise was awarded an MFA in creative writing from CalArts in 2010, and an MA in psychology from CIIS in 2013. Her work has appeared in tiny journal, Every Day Fiction, High Shelf, Sunspot, Black Clock, and is forthcoming in Peculiar. The essay “You Were Always on my Mind: A Love Letter to Migraine” is in the current issue of Brevity.
The Paragraph of the Week
We met when I was eleven—on the cusp of my first blood—in that Taco Bell on University with the refried beans stuck to the windows. I thought you were so cool with your Pearl Jam T-shirt, Nevermind spinning in your Discman. Curling into that corner booth, I rested my head on the greasy Formica and instantly fell into your ouch: that blinding sting, heavy-handed hug. I was used to being bullied, so I didn’t even try to fight.
Tiffany Promise’s love affair started off greasy and soon became unbearable. “For a night or two, we’d fritter away heartbeats,” she writes in her love letter to Migraine, “and sweat through our underpants, gag on each other’s tongues.” The more space she made for him, the more he took, “almost stanching the god-shaped hole” in her chest. He was dependable: if she missed a dose of lithium, he’d “always, always” show up, his arms full of “roses and expired chocolates—their smoggy centers tasting of decay.” When they married it was “magic” at first: she no longer had to lop of chunks of her body to feed him. She just had to “throb” to his “sloppy beat.” Eventually, though, he hurt her, her muscles atrophied and her blood turned to dust. Injections, electric shock, sunglasses, and drugs didn’t help. He wouldn't let go. He remained loyal even when she tried to run away, and each night that he caught up with her, he rubbed her brow with a reminder: “Till death do us part.”
October 23, 2020
from “Tekels Park”
in Vesper Flights
by Helen Macdonald
“I knew that meadow intimately. It was richer, more interesting, had more stories to tell than any other environment in my life.”—Helen Macdonald
If H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is one of the finest recent memoirs, Vesper Flights, which has just come out, is its equal in prose and one of the finest collections of essays in our time. We are so enamored of it here at The Humble Essayist that we plan to devote a month to our four favorite paragraphs from the collection. We begin with this gem from her essay “Tekels Park” in which she describes a favorite meadow near where she lived as a child that has since been destroyed.
The Paragraph of the Week
The nine-acre meadow was the best place of all. So much of what was there must have arrived in hay brought for long-dead horses, as seeds from lowland meadows: scabious, knapweed, trefoil, harebell, lady's bedstraw, quaking grass, vetches, diverse other grasses and herbage. And butterflies, too, marooned in this small patch of the nineteenth century: common blues, small skippers, grizzled skippers; marbled whites, small coppers, and grasshoppers that sang all summer and pinged away from my feet. The other side of the meadow was different, and more what you'd expect on acidic soil: a low sea of sheep's sorrel, stars of heath bedstraw, white moths, small heaths, anthills and wavy hair grass brushed with fog by the sun. I knew that meadow intimately. It was richer, more interesting, had more stories to tell than any other environment in my life. I'd press my face in the grass to watch insects the size of the dot over an 'i' moving in the earthy tangle where the difference between stems and roots grew obscure. Or turn over and prospect for birds in the thick cumulus rubble of the sky.
In “Tekel’s Park” Helen Macdonald makes a distinction between losing precious childhood toys and treats and the destruction of a meadow that she loved as a girl. “When habitats are destroyed what is lost are exquisite ecological complexities,” she writes “and all the lives that make them what they are.” This kind of loss is not just about her, and she cannot reduce it to nostalgia. All she can do is “write about what it was.” Aware of the magic of names, she lists a cacophony of weeds brought in as seeds with the hay to feed horses beginning with “scabious,” “knapweed,” and “trefoil” and ending with “vetches.” She uses the verb “marooned” to describe the butterflies’ confinement to this patch of paradise and fresh adjectives like “grizzled” and “marbled” to characterize their colors, and I love the verb “pinged” to indicate the zippy flight of grasshoppers leaping from a little girl’s footsteps. Always with Macdonald there is ease with scientific terminology such as “acidic soil” from her naturalist’s training, but isn’t the metaphor of “wavy hair grass brushed with fog by the sun” lovely? She is intimate with this environment. The shift in scale between her close inspection of creatures “the size of a dot over an ‘i’” in the nap of the soil and her hunt for “birds in the thick, cumulous rubble of the sky” is accomplished by merely turning over, capturing the magnificence of the spot, and the word “rubble”—so unexpected and so right—offers a precise visual image for a gathering storm while serving as a an emblem of all we are destroying.
October 30, 2020
in Vesper Flights
by Helen Macdonald
What is it about this “moment cut from a few seconds of moving history” that causes it to “hang bright” in Helen Macdonald’s mind forever?—THE
Here is the second installment of our running, four-part tribute to Vesper Flights, the new essay collection from Helen Macdonald. You can find the first entry in our archives here. The piece seems particularly relevant during this week of news with stormy implications.
The Paragraph of the Week
Driving on the M25 on a summer evening I found myself headed for a wide column of storm-lit rainbow above Heathrow. The sky was congested and bruised, and even at seventy miles an hour, the pull of wind towards the storm tugged at my car, rushing across the elevated motorway section to fill the vacancy left by air pulled up thousands of feet to the cloud's blossoming apex I couldn't see its white top stroked windward, but I could see the small crosses that were transatlantic jets steering their courses around the storm's perimeter. Half-feared for them. There were clips of lightning through this atmospheric carnage, and small turquoise pools of clear sky. And across one of these I saw a flock of parakeets flying straight and fast, with clipped wingbeats and streaming tails straight out behind them. It was a moment cut from a few seconds of moving history that will hang bright in my mind forever.
What is it about this “moment cut from a few seconds of moving history” that causes it to “hang bright” in Helen Macdonald’s mind forever? First it is the Wordworthian beauty mixed with fear caught in her description: the rainbow “storm-lit,” the sky “congested and bruised,” the airplanes like “small crosses,” and of course the surprising flock of parakeets clipping their way across a momentary patch of blue. Such a storm is capable of unleashing “hail and brilliant hell” before it just vanishes. The storm is also a thing explicable by science: water droplets fall through the cloud hitting dust, the collisions transferring electrons turning the top of the cloud positive and the lower part negative until “lightning leaps across these differentials.” But these cumulus beauties are “made of more than stuff.” They are “also the things of metaphors and memory.” For her grandmother they recalled “the terror of the Blitz” and for her they brought back memories of her father who taught her to calculate a storm’s distance by counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” causing her to feel “a slow wonder” at the passage of time as she reenacts the count again. Above all they represent “all the things that come toward us over which we have no control.” In literature they are dark and stormy nights. In life they are the news, Brexit, or “the next revelation about the Trump administration.” Will it pass without event or will “all hell break loose?” Watching the storm Macdonald is “stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts before the storms of history.”
November 6, 2020
from “Swan Upping”
in Vesper Flights
by Helen Macdonald
Just before the Brexit vote, Helen Macdonald became obsessed with “swan upping,” the ancient British practice of clipping the upper feathers from the wings of swans so that they cannot fly.—THE
Here is the third installment of our running, four-part tribute to Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. The featured essay, called “Swan Upping,” describes the ancient English practice of clipping the wing feathers of swans in a humane way using skill and craft knowledge. In the end it is about seeing universal excellence in local traditions around the world, an idea that makes room for national pride within a “more inclusive England.”—THE
The Paragraph of the Week
The past was always conjured in Brexiteers' dreams of the future, as it was in Donald Trump's stump speeches across the Atlantic. The winning power of the Brexit campaign slogan used by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, 'We want our country back', lay partly in its vagueness, which let it appeal to all manner of disaffected constituencies, but also in its double meaning. 'Take it back' in the sense of saving the nation from things perceived to threaten it—seen variously as immigrants, faceless European Union bureaucrats, globalisation, the 'Westminster elite' of Britain's political establishment—and 'take it back' also in the sense of back in time, to some ill-defined golden age. Preserving a continuous national heritage and tradition was an explicit part of the 'Leave' campaign. For years I had read in tabloid articles that the EU was destroying much-loved English traditions—baseless claims that it's bureaucrats were going to ban everything from English breakfasts for truck drivers to the Queen's favourite dog breed, even barristers' wigs. The quaintness of these conjured shibboleths was no accident: Brexit rhetoric was all about a battle to save English values and an English way of life beleaguered by waves of immigration and European interference. It had weaponised history and tradition.
Just before the Brexit vote, Helen Macdonald became obsessed with “swan upping,” the ancient British practice of clipping the upper feathers from the wings of swans so that they cannot fly. “Allll up!” she heard the crews shout as they boxed in a “male swan” with “wings raised heraldically” and grabbed it expertly by the neck before bringing a bird “the size of a large dog with a flexible neck and wings that can break necks” into the boat. After the cygnet and female were likewise captured, she noted the gentle—in fact, “courteous”—way the crew tied the web feet and wings with strings of soft braided cotton to keep the birds safe before the removal of feathers—all part of this uniquely British institution, the kind that Brexiteers consider threatened. She thought of the eccentric painter Stanley Spencer during a trip he made to China in 1954 as part of a cultural delegation. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, had just made a speech about how much the Chinese loved their country. After a silence Spenser said “I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near.” His point: it is the excellence of parochial traditions, no matter how different they may be, that makes them universal, an answer, in short, to the call of the Leave campaign to “take it back.” Local skills like swan upping “are craft knowledges, ones learned from apprenticeship, not from books,” Macdonald realizes, “and universal in the very nature of their specificity,” glimpsing a “more inclusive England in the most recondite of traditions.”
November 13, 2020
in Vesper Flights
by Helen Macdonald
“Now walking in the half-light with her friends Helen Macdonald is thinking about Stu and what he faces in hospice care, what we ‘all face at the end of our lives’ long summers when the world parts from us.’”—THE
In our final feature on the new essay collection Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald takes solace in advice about life's last challenge from a friend who is soon to enter hospice care. The lesson is accompanied by the flight of nightjars.
The Paragraph of the Week
For years, on and off, I have woken in the dark, shouting out loud, stricken with horror at the impossible fact of death. It has been my most abiding and paralysing terror but it was Stu who banished it from me. At the hospice he looked me in the eye, very seriously, very quietly, and said, of what was happening to him, It's OK. It's OK. I knew it was not, that what he was doing was reassuring me, and it was an act of such generosity that for a while I couldn't find anything strong enough inside me to reply. It's OK, he said. It's not hard. Those are the words I am remembering as we walk onward, as the minutes pass, until night thickens completely and there is starlight and dust and the feel of sand underfoot. It's so dark now I cannot see myself. But the song continues, and the air around us is full of invisible wings.
Stu and his wife Judith are dear friends of Helen Macdonald and the three of them have come to a field at dusk to watch nightjars. Stu, a large man “with curly hair and a huge old goshawk,” is “formidable and faintly scary” in appearance, but gentle in spirit. He is careful with animals and has “an astonishing capacity to reassure, to teach, and inspire.” He marveled in wonder one day when he saw a white stag emerge from the woods like “something out of a medieval legend” and had tears in his eyes when describing baby rabbits abandoned in a field. Now walking in the half-light with her friends Macdonald is thinking about Stu and what he faces in hospice care, what we all “face at the end of our lives’ long summers when the world parts from us.” She ponders the fact that “we all one day will walk into darkness.” And that’s when they hear them, the nightjars—a churring sound—and the three of them are rewarded when a female followed by a male appear in the half-dark. When Macdonald told Stu about her fear of death, he told her “It’s OK” and “It’s not hard.” Those are the words she thinks about as the three of them walk back to the house and “night thickens completely.” It is so dark the friends cannot see each other, but “the song continues and the air…is full of invisible wings.”
November 20, 2020
from “Book Marks”
in In the Key of New York City
by Rebecca McClanahan
“The Evening Train journey that the other Rebecca McClanahan embarks upon at first leads back to herself.”—THE
Rebecca McClanahan is the award winning author of ten books of poetry, fiction, and personal prose. Her latest is a memoir in essays called In the Key of New York City about her time living there. Our feature is from the essay “Book Marks” about McClanahan’s habit of reading the marginalia of library books to figure out the reader’s story. It originally appeared in the Southern Review and was reprinted in the Best American Essays 2001.
The Paragraph of the Week
I am worried about the woman. I am afraid she might hurt herself, perhaps has already hurt herself—there’s no way to know which of the return dates stamped on the book of poems is hers. The book, Denise Levertov’s Evening Train, belongs to the New York Public Library. I checked it out yesterday and can keep it for three weeks. Studying the clues readers leave in books is one of my obsessions—tracking the evidence and guessing the lives beneath. Even as my reasonable mind is having its say (How can you assume, the marks could have been made by anyone, for any reason, over any period of time . . .) my other self is leaving on its own journey.
The Evening Train journey that the other Rebecca McClanahan embarks upon at first leads back to herself. She realizes the woman in the margins has, like her, “taken her blows but feels she deserves them” based on the underlining of “serviceable heart” and “Grayhaired, I/ Have not grown wiser.” She and her counterpart read the same book, wear red lipstick, and, she suspects, are about the same age. McClanahan, who also knows heartbreak, ferrets it out in the underlining of “surface fissures,” but begins to see differences between her and the other reader when she senses in the circling of the entire poem “The Batterers” that more “has been broken than a metaphorical heart.” McClanahan’s ex-husband never hit her, and she doubts—but is not sure—she would have tolerated it. Soon, though, the journey is not about the “phantom woman” or herself, but the dangerous tendency to take literature too personally and miss what it has to teach beyond our own predicaments. The reader underlined “gradual stillness” but missed “blessing” and, with suicide on her mind, takes “toxic…fumes” out of context prepared to discard “a life no longer worth the trouble.” In the end the woman’s marginalia becomes its own poem, one that takes on a life of its own, leaping from the page, and McClanahan’s Evening Train ride turns into a rescue mission. “Wait up,” she wants to say, though she knows the impulse is crazy. “I want to tell you something.”