Archive: Summer-Fall 2020


June 5, 2020


from “Listening”

in Disparates

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.

—Patrick Madden



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?

—Mary Cappello


June 12, 2020


from “Inertia”

in Disparates

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.

—Patrick Madden



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.”



Juneteenth, 2020

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.


—Cheryl Strayed



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”

in Citizen

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.

—Claudia Rankine



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.


See the John Lucas film version here.


July 31


“Rainy Dawn”

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


“Rainy Dawn”


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.

—Mary Ruefle




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.”

—Bernard Cooper




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."

—David Sedaris



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.

—Zadie Smith



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.

—Zadie Smith


September 11, 2020

from “Leap”

in Leaping

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.

—Brian Doyle



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.”


© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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