THE Themes

Archive

Note:  For now we have discontinued doing THE Themes while we pursue our interest in lyric prose, but the archive remains available with its rich THE Theme content, and we may take them up again some day.  Feel free to read about them here and browse through the listings.

 

We at The Humble Essayist believe we have created a tiny subgenre of nonfiction with our Paragraphs of the Week, and now we suspect that—willy-nilly—we have stumbled upon yet another that we have crowned with the old fashioned term “Theme.”  Yes, we would like to dismiss that ancient word from its assigned duties in high-school and college classrooms, upping its literary status by adding THE Themes to our humble page. In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

Like variations on a theme in music, THE Themes combine commentary paragraphs from past Paragraphs of the Week so that a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   The sections will be divided by the venerable pilcrow (¶), sometimes called the Blind P, which will become the symbol for this new form.  In a sense we are acknowledging the fact that the personal essay and the reflective memoir have become—when taken as a whole—the wisdom literature of our time.  We are excited about this new feature of The Humble Essayist and plan to do one every other month next year.

 

Check out our THE Theme Archive below.

 

Words Falling Free, Postscripts to a Postscript to a Postscript, Old Flames, Talons and Transcendence, A Coincidence of Wants, On Grief, The Kingdom of the Sick. The ThicketWither We Will Walk, The Mind, the Raft, and the Whirl, A Seam Forms, Painted Bunting, The Body, Simply to Be Human,  

Our first THE Theme, Called "Words Falling Free" was on the shape-shifting power of language.  It ran for the month of December  in 2015.

 

 

Words Falling Free

 

“Those flowers which lay under red cloth suddenly turned red, while those under yellow became yellow.  Beneath the coat blossoms bloomed in rainbows.”—Sam Pickering 

 

Selecting a single a paragraph from “Playing by the Book” by Sam Pickering is not easy.  I might choose the lovely description of his children playing soccer on a summer evening when “silver and gold rumpled the horizon, and dark fall seemed distant.”  Or the hilarious paragraph about his flight to Kirksville, Missouri where he posed as an “antologist” with a pregnant woman who was so round she could not see the ants at her feet.  Or the zany one about a partially overheard conversation in which one traveler said “that’s a bigamy” to another, explaining that “if you marry two, that’s a bigamy.”  But if I had to, I would choose his paragraph on the Joseph’s coat because it is about the transformative and redemptive power of the written word.  “Beneath the coat blossoms bloomed in rainbows” in the myth, but for us, and for Pickering, they bloom beneath his pen, changing the “undistinguished, gray flowers” into a rainbow of tulips.  He follows this paragraph with another one I might also choose because it is pure Pickering: a description of walking through a field and woods spreading the Joseph’s coat of his words over the drab and rainy scene.  “Dodder” and “Joe Pye weed” and “vervain” and “sweet everlasting” and “puffballs-in-aspic” as well as some twenty other trees and plants glow through their names each caught in a rainbow of sentences like this:  “A silver maple exploded into loud yellow stars while a butternut hickory stood silent, its bark pinstriped and formal.”  And this:  “The jagged leaves of beggar ticks had turned purple, and the calyx and seedpods of wild indigo shined formal and black.”  Yes, in this essay of riches, the paragraph I would choose is dyed in myth and rich in meaning, but the one I didn’t is breathtaking, too, composed in an unremarkable field on a “day that seemed a loss” until Pickering lifted his pencil and began to play with words and “suddenly the land was clothed in color, and delight.”

 

 

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

 


 

Lauren Slater has gone to a convent to learn from Sisters Julia and Patricia how to fall safely because she has epilepsy, a condition bringing on seizures which causes her to collapse—except that in this nonfictional text called Lying: AMetaphorical Memoir we are not sure that the nuns exist, that there is a convent, or, for that matter, that Lauren has epilepsy.  It may be Munchausen’s disease in which patients pretend to be ill to gain attention, or it may also be depression which colors so many of her perceptions.  At one point, for instance, she enters an Alcoholics Anonymous program even though she is not alcoholic and enjoys the attention of others in the program.  The illness may also be a complete literary fiction as the title suggests.  When we read Lying we fall into Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole where nothing is as it seems or can be taken at face value.  What happens is not what matters here, and the author feels no obligation to be true to facts because facts—and the words that convey facts—cannot tell her story.  Medical terms such as OCD, depression, bi-polar disorder and autism, which were used in addition to epilepsy by various doctors to describe her condition, miss the mark as she “falls straight into the hole” of this book.  What she does hope to be true to is the intensity of her experience, the “something else...beyond proof ” that “takes over” and is the only fact she trusts.  It is not her life, but her story:  what it felt like to be her as she grew up with a mother who was both witch and wonder in her mind, and the one person she can never get a true bead on.  “Oh, Mom, I miss you,” Slater writes, using several meanings of the word “miss.”  “Give me a kiss good-bye.”   Writing the metaphors of her life as it they were facts allows language to do its transformational magic.  “You say ‘snow’, and turn into snow,” she writes in a memoir “shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.”  It is a story she can get to only if the words fall free of the facts they seize allowing truths they release but cannot capture to rise.—THE

 
 

Postscripts to a Postscript to a Postscript

 

“As a student of E. B. White, and his well-known essay ‘The Ring of Time,’ Robert Root knows that time is not a ‘ring’ or a ‘circle’ with each day the same, as the weather in Florida might suggest, but a ‘spiral.’” 

 

 

Our second THE Theme is on the temporary victories, the inevitable losses and the unintended consequences implicit in what E. B. White dubbed “the ring of time.”  To do that we draw on the commentaries about three of our past writers:  Robert Root, Rebecca McClanahan, and Jill Talbot. It ran for the week of 2/19/2016.  You can find biographies and the original Paragraphs of the Week by these authors in the archive.  

 

Postscripts to a Postscript to a Postscript

 

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

 

 

 “One more time, Dad,” Rebecca McClanahan implored her father, “we can make the trip again.”   She was thinking of a childhood vacation brought to mind by “the Route 66 mug,” “that vintage flour sifter,” and “this Lionel train complete with smoke pellets and uncoupling tracks” that show up on her computer screen as she surfs the web.  She was thinking of her mother’s gloves “with hand sewn beads and scalloped edges” that come to her now as the only “Sunday softness” she can remember.  But her father sadly shook his head, no.  “You don’t understand,” he explained.  “I want it to be then, NOW.”  Suddenly, as she writes her essay “Things Gone the Way of Time,”  it all comes back to Rebecca, the “whole shebang,” a word she hasn’t used in years, her entire childhood from her brother’s hands beneath her father’s on the steering wheel as the boy pretended to drive, to the “metal grips” of her “first nylon that dug into skin.” Memory, that “hand-knotted string of pearls,” does “take us for all we’re worth,” and losses along the way have the “power to disconnect everything we’ve snapped so carefully together” leaving us with a future when then is never NOW and where the “fumbling-in-the-dark” of love and death look a lot alike.

 

“She left.  He did, too.”  That is the way Jill Talbot and her lover Kenny were.  The way they weren’t is the truth that looms between those two sentences.  In a paragraph near the middle of her memoir The Way We Weren’t, Jill hunts for metaphors for the “betweenness of it all” where she spent much of her adult life.  She watches Blue, a “heeler/Boxer” mix, chase balls “in the liminal moment of pre-sunrise,” without bringing them completely back.  She revels in the betweenness of other liminal times: “night and day, sunrise and moonset,” and wonders whether it was “preference,” which suggests intentionality and other desires fulfilled, or mere “stubbornness” that kept Kenny at the edge of her life, just beyond her reach.  In the end, these motives seem secondary to her five-word autobiography:  “She left.  He did, too.”  And yet, the longing for what didn’t happen does matter, and that story of loss, not the desolate poles of her autobiography, is Talbot’s story, though not the whole story.  The other half is the serendipity of what did happen while she and Kenny were busy making other plans—Indie, their daughter.  Indie has Kenny’s dimples, legs, and smile as well as a hint of his impishness, and even though she cannot bring Kenny back, Indie is there for Jill “every day.”  Indie is more than a reminder of Kenny.  She is also her own, complete self, the child that Kenny missed out on.  At eight she likes “yellow rain boots,” “never wears an outfit without a peace sign on it,” “designs her own haircuts,” and “goes to Rock climbing class every day with her buddy, Jackson.”  Jill and Indie live these moments together.  When Indie makes a fort of leaves and dances in it, Jill claps her hands and sings “a made up song about the fort, without hesitation.”  They are in the moment now, together, all sense of betweenness left behind.  That is the way they are, and it matters, too.—THE

 

 

Old Flames

 

"It's a crazy world, huh?"

--Sue Silverman

 

Assuming an attitude of command in a world that had used her before, Kim Barnes pawns her deer rifle in Idaho for a bus ticket and arrives in Spokane without a dime.  She’s confident because she has “curled her hair like Farrah Fawcett,” wears “[p]urple eye-shadow” and “a blouse that dips nearly to her navel,” and—above all—because she wears a “real” fur coat that she earned by modeling.  She checks into the Ridpath hotel under her grandmother’s name, orders from room service, gets a pass from a taxi driver who says “next time” when she searches through her purse and coat pockets “while he watches in the rearview,” puts a vodka tonic on a tab she will never pay, and picks out a “darkly handsome” man who looks like her idea of “a French sailor boy.”   When he helps her with her coat he “runs his hands” down the sleeves and the “fur lifts, settles.”  What she does not tell him is that she had been in Spokane before when two men into “violent porn” used her to make pictures.  She is past that now, she assures herself, and appears “more light-hearted” than she really feels saying to herself that this is “her room, her rules.”  But if she has set the rules, she still does not know how to play the game which feels like freedom except that “no is never the right answer.”  After all, it is not her room—she will need to sneak away the next day—and sometimes no is the right answer.  When she wakes in the morning, her “French sailor boy” has “set sail,” and she leaves the Ridpath to “shop the day away” she claims, re-entering a world that she has “no idea how to live in.”

 

 

On the night that Jo Ann Beard figured out that her husband was having an affair, she lit her first cigarette in four years and “launched” a smoke ring in his direction.  His face “twitched, like a horse’s hide” and “turned into clay.”  After he left, the house settled over her shoulders “like a stucco cape.”  Later, during her nervous breakdown, Elizabeth, her best friend since childhood, says, “I think you’re this upset because you want to leave him,” a conclusion that makes sense to JoAnne in a “grain-of-truth-to-it way.”  The marriage had become loveless.  In the world of Beard’s essay, men and women are dangerous for each other, a lesson reinforced by her various relationships with the boys in the essay.  Whether it’s Dave Anderson, the middle school sweetheart that she and Elizabeth tormented with phone calls, the boys at the high-school party who whipped up “concoctions of lemonade and Everclear,” or her boyfriend Darkness who lifts her “airborne for a breathless millisecond” before careening toward the train tracks in his car, the boys of her youth were “dangerous,” the word her friend Elizabeth offers when asked.  Her relationships with them did not prepare JoAnn for love.  Instead, she and her boys entertained each other for a time with silliness, sex, drugs and alcohol as they hurled themselves toward the inevitable crackup.

 

 

Except in memory, “its own accurate reality,” summer days were never like the “all American weekends” at Palisades Park for Sue William Silverman.  She identifies herself as a “white, Anglo-Saxon Jew” with an enduring teenage crush on the singer Pat Boone, famous for his smooth voice, white bucks, and—these days—his Christian family values. Studying the photographs of the happy, Boone family on “their bicycle built for six” and marveling at the “four generations of Boones, a family all together,” she feels an old longing, “a pale throb of memory.”  Her life turned out differently.  “You, yourself, have no children,” she admits, “two divorced husbands, two dead cats,” and “estranged relatives.”  Above all, Sue, abused as a child by her father, has “never been anyone’s daughter,” a wound that her perfect heartthrob cannot mend.  Pat Boone may have all the answers wrapped up in his God, but Sue has “no answers, none.”  She doesn’t even have her old white bucks, “lost—like so much along the way.”  She did finally meet her idol.  They had a conversation and he “noticed the embroidered flower” on her jacket, but the moment, like a question mark on the word “huh,” never completely shed its irony.  So you met Pat Boone, she says, “ironic, huh?”  When Pat Boone descended “ex machina” into her adult life, a “nostalgia more real, more intense than the past itself” returned.  “If only Pat Boone could make the past like he used to.”  But he never really could.  All she can come up with “backstage in the green room” with the father “she always wanted” is this:  “It is a crazy world, huh?” —THE

Talons and Transcendence

“Here, in an encounter with nature that Alan Lightman does not understand, he feels the ‘sense of wonder’ that science and religion share.”—THE

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  A single theme is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.  In a sense we are acknowledging the fact that the personal essay and the reflective memoir have become—when taken as a whole—the wisdom literature of our time.  We are excited about this new feature of The Humble Essayist and plan to do one every other month.

 

Our fourth THE Theme is a commentary on what birds can teach us about becoming fully human based on the work of Julian Hoffman, Alan Lightman, and Helen Macdonald. You can find biographies and the original Paragraphs of the Week by these authors in the archive.

 

Talons and Transcendence

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

After the death of her father, Helen Macdonald bought and trained a goshawk, a training period that was arduous, anxiety ridden, and—most important—all-consuming.  The “H” in the title of her book H is for Hawk is not only for the hawk but also for Helen who took temporary solace in shedding her humanity and becoming a wild predator, a transformation that taught her salutary lessons.  “I’ve learned how you feel more human” she writes, “once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.”  The measure of the distance she traveled during her ordeal is the killing of the rabbit with her bare hands.  “I'd reach down and put my hand on the bunched muscles of the rabbit, and with the heel of one hand at the back of its head where the fur was soft and tawny, I'd pull once, twice, hard on its back legs: with the other, breaking its neck.”  To be certain it was dead, she committed the taboo of touching its glossed-over eye.  There is nothing sentimental about delivering this coup de grâce.  She had to “harden” her heart.  But the act does, at least, require a heart.  It is human to kill this way, unlike the way a goshawk kills by devouring prey alive.  The humanity in her would not allow the helpless creature’s death to occur “somewhere in the taking of the meal.”  H is for Hawk is about feeling around the edges between human and inhuman as well as life and death, and by the end of the book, when she touches the edge of an envelope with a lost note of love from her father, humanity finally wins.  She gives up her hawk and her mourning and crosses back to the world of the living.  When she returns it is another act of human responsibility prefigured by the mercy killing of the rabbit when her battered human heart ballooned “into a space the size of a cathedral.”

 

 

 

Alan Lightman is not a religious believer.  He finds the arguments of Richard Dawkins and others against an intelligent designer of the universe “completely convincing” though he knows that falsifying an argument does not “falsify the proposition” and admits that science “can never know what created our universe.”  Despite his skepticism, though, Lightman knows he must make room in his beliefs for one wondrous moment with ospreys that he describes in The Accidental Universe.  He and the birds watched each other from their separate nests for a summer.  When the time came for the fledglings to fly, they “did a loop” around his house and headed “straight” at him, their talons filling him with terror.  Fortunately, the young birds took a sudden vertical turn, veering off, but not before their eyes met his in a momentary “look of connectedness,” “mutual respect,” and “recognition.”  For Lightman, the universe divides into an objective world that follows the laws of science and a personal one based on “faith” or “intuitive knowledge” or “wisdom.”  These two worlds meet in transcendent moments of exhilaration when he has “the immediate vital experience of being connected to some divine order.”  Here, in an encounter with nature that Lightman does not understand, he feels the “sense of wonder” that science and religion share. —THE

 
 

A Coincidence of Wants

Bartering is the symbol of this “coincidence of wants,” a sad but touching consolation “taking place inside a huge broken promise.”—THE

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  A single theme is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.  In a sense we are acknowledging the fact that the personal essay and the reflective memoir have become—when taken as a whole—the wisdom literature of our time.  We try to do one every other month.

 

Our fifth THE Theme is a commentary on what Charles D’Ambrosio calls “a coincidence of wants,” which occurs when a need opens up in a troubled person and another, ordinary troubled person fills the gap. It is a kind of emotional bartering that is a force for good in the world, and a theme in the writings of Sonya Huber and Sarah Einstein as well as D’Ambrosio.  You can find biographies and the original Paragraphs of the Week by these authors in the archive.

A Coincidence of Wants

“they’d taken the hollow…and filled it with each other.”

—Charles D’Ambrosio

 

Sometimes the best response to turmoil is simply to be human.  In the 1980’s when President Reagan began the “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill in America, Sonya Huber worked at one of the residential centers that were left to handle the suddenly released patients. These were desperate people, the “ill-protected, underpaid, overworked and often injured” underclass in American society, and, like most of her co-workers, Huber had “scant training” to handle their problems and earned minimum wage.  She found herself  struggling to help people in a “facility in a state of chaos” that had become “part of a national problem.”  In Two Eyes Are Never Enough she argues convincingly that “higher pay and benefits” as well as “training and certification” and a “clear career path” for mental health workers is needed to begin addressing this ongoing national disgrace.  But she also makes a case for a quality that no training can guarantee:  the “guts to just be human,” of applauding small virtues, listening, insisting less, and, above all, of not growing defensive about the failings inherent in the human condition.  Higher pay and better training are necessary, but no guarantee of a successful program.  What matters in the end is the unteachable ability to accept “the simple reward of a quiet comment,” to “witness another human being going through something,” and to “find the sense to simply shut up and say, ‘You did great.’”

 

 

Mot, in Sarah Einstein’s memoir Mot, is Tom, a man whose life has been turned inside out by abuse he suffered when he was a boy.  His mother tried to kill him in an oven because he was “supposed to be a girl,”  and his aunt tied his shoelaces together and told him to “run down the stairs.”  To protect himself, Tom became Mot, the “vessel” of mythologically transformed characters from his past that he calls “The Others.”  They are “The Big Guys” upstairs “who really pull the strings” and they include Jack the “likeable” one; Antoinette, the sister who died; the harpies who are all of the women who tried to comfort him; and Moloch who lives in his throat and is the hunger he cannot starve away.  Mot’s insanity creates hallucinations that frighten Einstein, who met him when she worked as a counselor in West Virginia, and she has reason to fear:  at one point he admits that he abused his sister.  "There are a lot of bad characters over here," he says, warning Einstein of the demons that haunt him.  But the “daedal hand of delusion” that creates this motly assortment of voices in his head also produces a mind so protean that Einstein is drawn to him.  After leaving her job, she follows him to Amarillo for reasons she at first does not understand.  Sexually molested at her work place, she allows herself to be “gentled” through her own fears by Mot’s desultory but shimmering conversation and their mutual “love of empty hours.”  He takes comfort in her friendship as well.  “I think I could love you,” he tells Einstein, “if They let me feel love.”  Unfortunately, he pays a mental price for each joy in his life, and she fears—in this memoir about risking vulnerability in the face of abuse—that the spun glass of their fragile, but genuine, friendship will come crashing down.  After all, Moloch, who lives in Mot’s throat and often speaks for him, warned her.

 

 

The promise in a loving family is that joy has a future in children and that the death of an individual member, sad though it may be, is “a nothingness where an investment of love lives on.”  So what happens when a family is damaged and any future sense of belonging is lost? In the essay “Orphans” from his collection Loitering:  New and Collected Essays Charles D’Ambrosio found himself in an orphanage in Russia looking for an answer.  There he discovered an intimacy in the present among children without families that stands in for, but does not replace, hope for the future. The kids at Svirstroy had knocked a hole in the partition dividing boys and girls and called it a telephone. The vandalism was not destructive, but “about their hope for love.”  They planted a forked stick at a spring along a path and draped it in cups fashioned from plastic bottles creating an ersatz “site of special meaning” and “communal mystery” where they shared cool drinks of water.  “None of the kids expressed a sense of being rooked out of an imagined rightful life.”  They “developed minds and equipped their souls with buffers so pain was not cumulative,” and home was “the present tense of experience” that “neither stemmed from the past nor was predicated on a future.”  Bartering is the symbol of this “coincidence of wants,” a sad but touching consolation “taking place inside a huge broken promise.”   The dirty hands of children passed bottle caps, cigarettes, or cookies at arranged times and locations in the here and now in compensation for the “enormity of their dislocation.”  Coming from a family broken by suicide, failure, and an emotionally distant father, D’Ambrosio knows that these heartbreaking transactions in the present, lovely as they are, are not enough.  As a writer he struggles to patch up the emptiness he feels in his own life with words, a literary version of the “nothingness where an investment of love lives on.”  But he is in awe of these children who despite their circumstances are incapable of self pity:  “they’d taken the hollow where that emotion normally resides and filled it with each other.”

THE

 

November 25, 2016

On Grief

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

THE

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking a handful of our Paragraph-of-the-Week commentaries.  A single theme is examined in the light of various viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.  In a sense we are acknowledging the fact that the personal essay and the reflective memoir have become—when taken as a whole—the wisdom literature of our time.

 

Our sixth THE Theme is a commentary on grief and it is dedicated to my sister, Alicia Chittenden, who died this month.   She shaped much of who I am.  Here is a passage about her in my memoir about my mother's death called The Book of Knowledge and Wonder:

After my mother died and my father remarried, the new family moved to New Jersey. I was twelve by then, and my brother and I lived with our new sister in a split-level in the suburbs of Trenton, not far from the Princeton headquarters of American Cyanamid. I was in seventh grade, and the memories of those years, unlike the ones before that time, come flooding back with ease. My newly acquired older sister was pretty and popular with lots of friends and she took on, as a personal challenge, the task of socializing me for which I am forever thankful. I was a loner and a misfit after my mother’s death—the “sensitive one” my father told everyone—but I also yearned, by nature, to break out of that isolation. I was as much my father’s child, after all, as my mother’s, and in the end I secretly enjoyed the Saturday night that all of my sister’s girlfriends cornered me in the laundry room and showered me with kisses.

Nothing can bring back my lively, funny, and daring sister, but the authors below write beautifully about grief and helped with my own sense of loss.  You can find biographies and the original Paragraphs of the Week by these authors in the archive.

On Grief

“…what is success in mourning?  Does it lie

in remembering or forgetting?”—Julian Barnes 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Right away Kathleen Finneran uses up the main point when in The Tender Land she comes across a dying jellyfish by the ocean: she notices the fact that she calls out Sean’s name when she sees something new—Sean, the brother who killed himself when he was fifteen.  But then she does this lovely thing: she draws us in sensually.  The canvas is bare—the time of day when beach and sky look the same—and the jellyfish itself is ordinary, like a “glossy spill,” but rewards a steady gaze:  “dark maroon at the center, lighter and lighter red toward its edges, the whole shimmering expanse of it covering a wide circle.”  We see right away that it is in trouble, in the wonderful verbs “heaved” and “collapsed” used to describe the maroon center, and the “pale edge” of the creature seems already lifeless, a part of the bland canvas it is becoming.  We feel, like Finneran, the urge to place a finger on this creature, feel invited but afraid of this slimy goo.  We are are entering the arena of the taboo, which is the urge to touch what we fear, releasing powerful forces.  And then, this woman with her dog lumbers into the scene.  How many times does Finneran do that in this book—have someone blunder in at a climactic moment?  I love the tone of the woman.  It is a reminder that when we have entered holiness, that set-apart place in life, we look a little stupid to others, right?    Holiness is a private state and those outside can only sniff at the edges, curious at our ecstasy and a little dismissive.  By this time, the work of the passage is largely done, and all Finneran can do is mess it up by overdoing its effects, so I like the way she handles the actual touching of the jellyfish by downplaying it.  Unlike her mother, Finneran is not a believer.  For her what matters are the worldly wonders, all that Sean has missed, like this mysterious jellyfish.  The jellyfish doesn’t sting.  It doesn’t burn.  When she touches it she feels its warmth, the warmth of life, but quickly washes that off her finger.  She is not transported because that would be false to her and her book.  The jellyfish is no angel, that central image for others in The Tender Land.  The death is not sublime.  The creature just stops breathing.  But so for a moment do we.

 

 

Why is Jeremy Collins barefooted on a ball field at night with his head in his hands as the comet named Hale Bopp soars overhead?  It’s complicated.  He has just completed the best basketball game he will ever play, scoring 30 points with apparent grace and ease in a Young Harris College intramural match up.  Even the arrogance of waiting for the defense to set up before he drained his last three-point shot, seems more confident than cocky.  He raised one finger skyward in honor of his friend Jason Kenney who had scored his high of thirty points the year before.  Jason himself had learned about grace in athletics from hours of grueling practice in sports, including practicing in the dark when necessary.  He also followed the career of Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddox so closely that he could anticipate each pitch in a game.  The reason Jeremy falls apart with his head down in his essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddox” is that Jason had died in a car wreck the year before.  Jason the driver.  Jeremy riding shotgun.  Both boys drunk.  Jeremy spent the years that followed “searching for solid ground.”  So, this requiem to Jason is fueled by guilt, but it is, in fact, about something else: what came before the guilt, the yearning for mastery and accomplishment that the young men shared before pouring the “gold liquid” that destroyed their dream.  In high school, Jason had been  a promising athlete but lost his spot on the team due to drinking.  College was the place for him to regain control and with Jeremy’s support the two young men became disciplined in sports and school.  They had just completed a forty day period of sobriety when the accident occurred, and the night before Jason died his father switched the menu from burgers to steaks after seeing his son’s report card.  The “darkness around us is deep,” Jeremy Collins writes, quoting the poet William Stafford, and death cannot be undone.  The dream of mastery, that once glowed like the incandescent ball of light in the night sky, is hazy with “dusted up foul lines,” but enough time has gone by for Jeremy to be grateful for the dream of excellence that Greg Maddox gave to him and Jason, and when Jeremy meets and compliments Jason’s hero one day in person, the word he hears in return—a word he wishes he had said—is “Thanks.”

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

—THE

 

THE Theme:

The Kingdom of the Sick

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.”

Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  A single theme is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

Our newest THE Theme is about illness.  “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” writes Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor.  Here are three writers who have, as all of us must, served time in that shadowy place.

 

The Kingdom of the Sick

 

“The worst thing about having cancer when you're young—if your experience is anything like mine—is knowing that the world is moving on without you.”—William Bradley
 

 

In the opening paragraph of The Sanctuary of Illness, Tom Larson is having a heart attack without realizing it.  His task is to get from “Christ, not now” to the urgency of yes, now, and by the end of the opening paragraph of his memoir he is running toward it.  He creates this building sense of intensity in part with clipped phrases.  “I’m hot, sweaty.  Constipated.  Confused.  Breathless.”  He also describes his thought process to show us a mind that has become “boggy” and “slow” as he attempts to rationalize the truth.  “I tell myself it’s work, its stress nothing else.”  “I’m not sick.  I’m older,” he adds, but is confused about he facts.  “What age?  I have to remember.  Fifty-six.”  The trip to the bathroom offers a counter movement against this journey toward now—a false delay of the inevitable. Responsible thoughts about meeting the demands of his job like an adult also derail him momentarily on his way to the truth.  “I’ve never left in the middle of class, and only twice in fifteen years have I canceled,” he explains, trying to give himself a pep talk.  But the heart attack won’t be stopped by good intentions, and the insistence of now returns as he considers increasingly short shortcuts:  “Maybe I can do ten minutes on each essay we’ve read and let them go,” he thinks at first, but as the discussion actually begins, he becomes increasingly desperate:  “I discuss one essay in two minutes, the next in a minute, the next, in thirty seconds”—until the “years turn into minutes” and he runs out of time, offering us a cartoonish and child-like image of his disorientation: “a spiral appears, widens, pinwheels, and sucks me in.”  Even clichés—the last resort of a writer in pain—are enlisted into the cause:  “I’ve told students it’s a copout to say, ‘It felt like an eternity’ or ‘Time dragged on’ or ‘Hours rushed by.’”  Here, at the dead end of language, he crashes into the inevitable “now” and tells the class he is leaving, and when he says “For next week”  he realizes at last the insanity of invoking any moment but the present.

 

Okay—here’s the worst thing about the cancer that William Bradley barely survived when he was a young man, worse than “painful diarrhia,” vomiting up "tiny mouthfuls of bile,” and the tissues in his mouth cracking and falling apart.  Feeling “caught in quicksand” while “everyone else is sprinting through the meadow” was worse than the chemotherapy, the fear of death, and even loneliness.  He felt “stuck” and there was nothing anyone could do.  “Not for lack of compassion”—it was “just not possible.”  But the best thing about cancer he writes in his collection of essays called Fractals was a friend his age dropping by the hospital, the kind of guy who like him makes “vaguely homophobic” jokes, though neither of them are homophobes, and William is “embarrassed to have ever been the type of guy who made such jokes, even ironically.”  They pass offensive boy-talk back and forth like “Okay, Nancy, now lets go wax your vagina” and “Easy there, Liberace,”  but they say them to clear a space so that his friend can also say “you know, I love you,” and William can say, “I love you too,” all the while “avoiding eye contact, because, you know.”  So if there is a “best thing” about having cancer as a young man when the honest expression of friendship and affection is so hard, “that,” Bradley says in his customarily understated way, “would be it.”

 

A month or so before his death at eighty two, Oliver Sacks gathered together “metals and minerals” as he did when he was a boy, the things of youth having become “little emblems of eternity.”  He knew that he was dying of liver cancer and even though he describes himself as “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms,” he found that he was, for the first time apparently, “detached from life,” as if seeing himself  “from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.” From this height he could “achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”  He cannot deny that he is afraid, but his primary response to the “all- too-close, not-to-be-denied presence” of death is gratitude for his family and friends, his lover, Billy, and for a life of reading, travel, and writing.  “Above all,” he explains, “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”  So, in his last collection of essays called Gratitude, he gathers his gifts of minerals and metals which have acquired meaning from a lifetime of thinking about such things, including a “charming” box of element 81 for his “Happy Thallium” eighty-first birthday and—for a birthday he knows will be his last—crystalline thorium, deadly, but “as beautiful as diamonds,” in a lead casket.

—THE

THE Theme:  The Thicket

 

“One must always be in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene.”—James Baldwin

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  A single theme is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

Our THE Theme for this week is on the paradox of forging an identity as an African-American man.  James Baldwin formulated this paradox in “Notes of a Native Son” as a daily battle between acceptance and rancor, and it still poses a challenge for young, black men in our country who make these choices daily. A lifetime of such binary choices becomes the “the thicket of racial/ethnic identity” that every black person in American must negotiate.   The commentaries in this THE Theme are on the work of four excellent African American authors:  James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jerald Walker, and Clifford Thompson.  It is interesting in these examples to keep an eye on fatherhood in this struggle and telling that in each case for these writers black identity is forged in the shadow of a father who can do only so much to lead his child through the maze. You can find the original paragraphs of the week and commentaries in the archives.

 

The Thicket

 

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition.  The first was acceptance, the acceptance, totally, without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are:  in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace.  But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power:  that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”—James Baldwin

 

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

 

 

In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates shows the soul-withering nature of living under the constant threat of crime and of being physically assaulted by the police and other authorities.  He is haunted by the death of his friend Prince Carmin Jones, a fellow Howard University student who died at the hands of police in West Baltimore and whose face had been “lean, brown, and beautiful.”  Seeing that kind of brutality against his friend and other innocent African-American men, he realizes that he cannot even protect himself, not to mention his son, without distorting his life. The “violence of this world” and the “rules designed to protect” a black man from it, “would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason.”  The constant self-control required to be on guard and ready is a “slow siphoning of the essence,” enervating in subtle ways.  When black children are told to be “twice as good” it translates into “accept half as much.”  It suggests that they live in a society that puts “a gun to their head” and “a hand in their pockets.”  Saddest of all, it accustoms them to life in a world in which whites get “a raft of second chances” and blacks live “twenty-three hour days.”  In those lost hours are missed opportunities for smiling, loving, and pleasure, for “finishing the last bottle of wine.”  The loss of that kind of affectionate “softness” is the hidden cost of bias.  Life is measured in moments lost, the “moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much.”

 

 

“And he did this while blind”—that was the refrain at the funeral of Jerald Walker’s father, a refrain that the son “could no longer stand to listen to.”  In Street Shadows, Walker writes that it was as if “sightlessness was the core and sum” of his father’s life.  But while the preacher droned on, Jerald remembered the story of the dirty laundry when his dad, to get Jerald’s goat, planted boxers in with the dry cleaning for a pretty clerk to find in order to bring his proud and defiant son down a peg.  When the eulogy was over, Walker rose and told this story to the congregation about his father’s ability to laugh despite the troubles life handed him.   It was a lesson Jerald was also learning from his writing teacher, James Alan McPherson, who complained that the characters in Walker’s stories had become their stereotypes as black victims of ghetto life.  McPherson urged him to see that black people are not merely a “repository of pain and defeat.”  What mattered is the spirit of the people in the face of these ordeals “to struggle and aspire for something better.”  Being black does not define a person, nor does being blind.  “Life is a motherfucker,” Walker came to realize as he studied more under his kind and thoughtful teacher, distributing stereotypes of victimhood everywhere, but “living it anyway, and sometimes laughing in the process, is where humanity is won.”  It was a lesson his father had taught him as well.

 

 

When he turned thirty in 1993 and was about to become a father for the first time, Clifford Thompson attended a Seder where the guests shared fondly remembered stories and songs from the Jewish tradition that they had learned as children, and Thompson slowly seethed.  What was “the black American equivalent of a Jewish camp song,” he asked himself in Twin of Blackness?  Where “were the fondly remembered pieces of a black tradition that didn’t make us laugh?”  He could not just make up a black tradition.  “It had to be there already, it had to be good and old.”  How, he wondered in despair, could he guide “a child, a bi-racial human being...through the thicket of racial/ethnic identity?”  About the same time as this Seder, he had begun to listen to jazz—discovering Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps along the way.  He also read The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray and eventually became friends with the author.  American culture was “uncontestably mullato” Murray argued, which rang true to Thompson.  Boys in The Brady Bunch can “slap five” and kids from his neighborhood “could turn their jacket collars up in imitation of Fonzie on Happy Days.”   Not only is America a cultural stew of continuously improvised art, it is a racial stew as well with whites and blacks tracing their lineage back to Thomas Jefferson and  an increasing number of Americans choosing bi-racial marriages. "Blackness did not exclude" Clifford Thompson from "being an American, it made him American."  As Murray pointed out, “Americans look like no one so much as one another: to a great extent, they are one another.”  What is the black-American equivalent of a Jewish camp song?  In a country where “the first jazz was played on instruments left over from Confederate army bands,” the tradition is grounded in the continuously evolving improvisations of all American art, but especially American jazz.  “Art,” Murray said to Thompson once, “comes out of play based on survival,” and with American improvised art forms as the bedrock of his cultural heritage, Thompson was equipped to bring his daughter into the world.

—THE

THE Theme:  “Whither We Will Walk”

 

“Subtle as it may be, this magnetic tug points us toward the ideal world and is a clue from the universe to our better natures.”–THE

 

 

Here are two paragraphs that talk to each other.  One is from my commentary on Henry David Thoreau written as part of our annual tribute to the great essayist from Concord.  The other is from my commentary last month on Wendell Berry.  Together they become a THE Theme about nature as a teacher of our better selves.

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  In this way a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

I am taking a break from the computer, so this THE Theme will be up for three weeks, but I’ll be back with a brand new “Paragraph of the Week” on June 16.—THE

 

 

“Whither We Will Walk”

 

“Whither we will walk” was not for Henry David Thoreau an idle matter.  The choice of direction was a clue to the hidden, spiritual purposes in our lives.  Are we drawn to a darkening eastern horizon—the way to town, Europe, and the past—or to a glowing western sunset with its hint of adventure?  Which way calls to us?  It is worth pondering for a moment before we take that first step.  When we pause at a crossing on a solitary evening stroll, eyeing several paths, the feeling that one invites us “directs us aright.” We can discern the “subtile magnetism”—the sense of being drawn to the right path—as long as we can let go of those conscious thoughts of what we ought to do that confuse us as we try to find our way.  Not taking heed of this message from the universe about our true natures is a kind of “stupidity,” a word that in Thoreau’s time might have retained some of its Latin associations with “stupor” and its overtones of being stunned, dazed, and  bewildered.   Often our reason for hesitation, Thoreau writes in the essay “Walking,” is that the sense of direction is only beginning to form “distinctly in the mind” of the walker.  Thoreau described his own tentative steps in the next paragraph:  “My needle is slow to settle,” he explains, and it “varies a few degrees.” For him, the right direction was southwest, the way of “wildness” and “freedom,” though he would be the first to admit that what is right for him may not be for others.   Our inner compass alone can show us the way, and for many the familiar, if darker, horizon may have the stronger pull.  Like “the migratory instincts in birds” we must first feel it and yield to its “general and mysterious movement.”  Subtle as it may be, this magnetic tug points us toward the ideal world and is a clue from the universe to our better natures. –THE

 

  

In “An Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry walks into the Daniel Boone National Forest near Pine Ridge Kentucky to escape the “roar of the highway” that is “the voice of the American economy,” the “machinery and the workings of an insane greed.”  It takes a while.  The first night he is lonely, and on his second day, climbing zigzag paths to an overlook, he can still hear the Mountain Parkway, “a steady continuous roar.”  But he had come to “enlarge rather than diminish the hope of life,” so he presses on. Eventually the highway sound subsides.  Free of “all superfluities” that he could not carry on his back, he is reduced to his “irreducible self,” as he walks through “the landscape as one of its details.”  He leaves the trail and descends into the pathless woods following a stream that “seems sunk in a deep contented meditation on the sounds of l.”  The stream itself is a clear and pristine world.  “If it weren’t for the shadows and ripples,” he writes, “you would hardly notice it is water; the fish would seem to swim in the air.”  Before dawn on his last day, the moonlight “seems more potent than the air.”  The buzzing of insects, which registered as a “shimmer” in his mind as he slept, continues in his waking state.  Preparing to leave, he passes “near to the sleep of things.”  If he were to stay another day it would be even better, he thinks, realizing that “to renew the life of that possibility” was the reason he entered the woods in the first place.  “What I am leaving,” he writes, “is something to look forward to.”—THE

 
 

The Mind, the Raft, and the Whirl:

Three Lessons in Composing Nonfiction

“In a whirlpool, art is not the pool but the whirl.”—THE 

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  In this way a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

This week we have three lessons in nonfiction, in particular, the way that writers harness the “miscellaneous assemblage” of content in their essays and memoirs.  The writers are Phillip Lopate, Vivian Gornick, and Eliot Weinberger.  Their goal is to whip a whirl of stuff into a thing of beauty.

 

The Mind, the Raft, and the Whirl

 

Has there ever been a more urbane or witty advocate for the essay than Phillip Lopate?  In his presentations and readings and in the books he writes and edits Phillip Lopate makes a solid case for the essay, a form that generally produces groans in agents and publishers—not to mention the myriad college freshmen slumped over their compositions. What is his case for the essay?  It is not just “a wonderfully fluid form” which means that it can take on a “range” of subjects such as “movies, literature, friendship, sex, urban history, city form, and the nail parings of daily life.”  The miscellany of topics which Lopate enjoys collecting is not sufficient to win readers living in a world of digital distractions because such variety can be “bitty and unsatisfying” in itself.  What distinguishes the essay is “the single consciousness” that acts as “a sensibility flowing through disparate subject matters.”  In To Show and To Tell,  his book on the craft of literary nonfiction, Lopate describes the essay’s appeal this way:  “What makes me want to keep reading a nonfiction text is the encounter with a surprising, well-stocked mind as it takes on the challenge of the next sentence, paragraph, and thematic problem it has set for itself.”  Lopate reminds readers that  those who love the essay take delight in watching another mind at work, and close the covers on a “miscellaneous assemblage” of good essays feeling a little less alone in the world.

 

 

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

 

 

 

“The image is not an idea,” Eliot Weinberger states, quoting the familiar phrase from Ezra Pound.  It is instead a vortex “into which ideas are constantly rushing.”  Art “focuses the attention,” Pound also wrote, and it does so in a way analogous to yoga.  To help us to get an understanding of this process Weinberger in "The Vortex" turns to the Yoga Sutra by the second century Sanskrit author Pantanjali from Kashmir.  Yoga “stops the vortices of the mind,” Pantanjali wrote.  By mind here he means the whole mind, “its total, non-specified, non-individualized sense.”  The task of the artist—the writer—is to arrest this swirl and hold it in a momentary suspension for the mind to absorb.  Certainly the essays of Eliot Weinberger accommodate a swirl of subjects.  He presents us with an array of topics including, in one essay, a swirl of blood from the throat of a girl slit during an Aztec sacrificial ritual, the whirlpool that Plotinus argues receives the souls of the dead, the gyres of William Butler Yeats, the centripetal vortex of Empedocles’ contemporary Anaxagoras, the swerve of Lucretius, the coiled serpent Shesha, the spiral staircase in a dream of William Carlos Williams, Aphra Behn’s translation of Descarte’s toubillons, William Dampier’s description of a waterspout in the Celebes Sea and Ahab from Moby Dick firing a pistol into a similar waterspout, Whirling Dervishes, Yahweh’s whirlwind, and at last, from Herman Melville, the concentric circles “all round and round in one vortex” that “carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”  In An Elemental Thing Weinberger uses an array of literary techniques to shape this multitude, including catalogues, juxtapositions, parallelism, onomatopoeia, white space, and striking imagery and does so with what Forest Gander calls a “merciless understatement.”  Artistry, “The Vortex” reminds us, is not in the wild, cumbersome and limitless variety at a writer’s disposal, but rather in what the writer makes of it all.  In a whirlpool, art is not the pool but the whirl.—THE 

 

A Seam Forms:

The Mark of our Shared Humanity

 

“…a seam forms ‘where life meets death,’  a scar that is the mark of our shared humanity.”—THE

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  In this way a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.

 

This week’s THE Theme is actually called “A Seam Forms” and it involves the stubborn lessons that loss can teach.  “I grieve that grief can teach me so little,”  writes Maggie Nelson in Bluets, quoting Emerson, and the suffering described in these three works does seem initially to lead only to despair.  What lesson can we take from the agony of a young person turned a quadriparalytic by a car accident, the victims of war in Iraq and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and innocent friends who drown after a small aircraft crashes into a lake?  What wisdom can we share?  What solace can we offer?  And yet, each of these pieces over time wrenches some meaning from the horror.  Grief may not be a teacher, but it is a feeling we share, and it can open the way to a fuller understanding of the shared human condition.

 

A Seam Forms:

The Mark of our Shared Humanity

 

In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a meditation on agony in 240 numbered paragraphs, blue is the color of unbearable loss, or, more precisely, the color we are given in consolation for our loss.  Most of the book is about the loss of Nelson’s lover:  “I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world,” she writes.  But it is the suffering of her friend, the victim of an accident which turned her into a quadriparalytic, that is the most compelling story of loss in the book.   On the way to the hospital to visit her friend, our forlorn narrator is inundated by blue:  blue periwinkle blooming beside a gas station, an industrial blue under the peeling walls of a gym, and the blue bottom of a swimming pool seen through a nimbus of clouds and sunlight on blue water.  But it is the terrified, throbbing blue of her friend’s eyes that reveals the horror.  They were the only part of the body that moved, and the "blue was beating."  Most of Bluets is about the agony of such loss.  Words of condolence don’t help.  Grief seems endless and pointless, as her quoting Emerson makes clear:  “I grieve that grief can teach me so little.”   Writing about loss does little more than add “a blue rinse” to our sorrow, she notes, quoting the poet John Ashbury.   “I would rather have you...than any of these words,” Maggie Nelson explains addressing her lover.  But over time, the blue objects in her window collection begin to fade, allowing her to become “a student not of longing but of light,” and her friend, who roundly asserts “that she continues to suffer,” admits that her “life can change, does change,”  and witnessing her friend’s struggle to make “a livable life” helps Nelson love green again.

 

 

 

When Shannon Huffman Polson was a helicopter pilot in the Bosnian war, she concerned herself with daily matters.  “I thought about maintenance checks for the aircraft,” she writes in her essay “Some/One,” which appeared in River Teeth magazine, “the logbooks to be inspected, how soldiers were holding up through guard shifts, preparing my map for that night’s mission.”  Her job was to take care of her people.  She believed, based on stories of atrocities, that the Serbs were “animals” who ran their vehicles over the skulls of wounded Bosnians and slit the throats of babies in their mothers’ arms.  She believed that U.S. soldiers would not do such a thing.  “Perhaps I had to believe.”  But she knows that war changes people, that you cannot forget “a hand reaching up from a mass grave.”  You are forced to bear these memories.  After she left the service, she became a wife and mother with a toddler son and another child on the way.  But even before she learned, along with her neighbors, the news of Abu Ghraib, she came to understand through introspection that “[n]o one is innocent.”  It is “too easy to assign blame.”  She gazed into the realities of her service in Bosnia and saw a hard truth that the demands of war had obscured.  “The real fear is that you will look into this darkness and see yourself," she writes. "And that, of course, is what happens.”

 

 

 

In the essay “Seam” from Potluck by Ana Maria Spagna, one of the bodies trapped in the icy waters of the drowned fuselage in a remote lake in Washington State was Ana Maria’s friend, Roberta.  It is a friendship created despite tension since much divides the two women.  Ana Maria and her partner, Laurie, come from church traditions that preach “Eco-theology” and  advocate for “No Nukes.”  Roberta was a Pentecostalist with a church that taught creationism.  The differences were not superficial, Ana Maria admits, and never go away completely.  “To say that Roberta’s politics were not like ours would be an understatement.”  But when Ana Maria’s garden failed, she began purchasing vegetables and fruit from Roberta, and later offered to help weed the garden.  “Would you?” Roberta said gratefully.  “I didn’t want to ask.” The crash occurred because the wheels did not properly retract flipping the hydroplane when it hit the water.  Without hesitation, members of Spagna’s small community dove into “thirty-eight-degree” water saving three of the five in the crash, but losing two: a doctor who shoved his wife out of the plane to safety but did not escape himself, and Roberta.  Attending a conference, Ana Maria and Laurie were not in the area when the plane went down and learned about it in a text message:  “Hurry, we need your help…It’s Roberta.”  Spagna forces herself and us to look at the scene through the eyes of the rescuers by slipping into second person:  “You’re in the cold water, and you’re entering the fuselage, and there they are, the bodies,”  one “still belted upside down” and the other “floating prone.”  It is a haunting scene, one that keeps rescuers up at night agonizing over their helplessness: “you are too cold and you need breath, and it’s dark as hell.”  What divides Ana Maria and Roberta—what divides our country—does not go away in this eerie moment, but a seam forms “where life meets death,”  a scar that is the mark of our shared humanity.  Continuing in second person, Spagna sizes up both her life and ours:  “how you behave on that seam is all reflex,” she admits, but it is also “probably a measure of how you behaved the whole time.”

—THE 

 

Painted Bunting

 

 

“Erasure,” Terry Tempest Williams wrote.  “What every woman knows but rarely discusses.”—THE

 

 

The silencing of women’s voices can take many forms including self-censorship, Weltschmerz, and neglect in the publishing world, and yet the methods that women writers have used to overcome those silences, or help each other overcome them, are as varied and creative and bold as the ways these words are suppressed or repressed in the first place.  This week’s THE Theme looks at three kinds of silencing and the creative ways that courageous women who write have found to break through.

 

 

 

 

Painted Bunting

 

In her memoir When Women Were Birds Terry Tempest Williams opened her dead mother’s journals and found that the pages were blank.  “Erasure,” Williams wrote.  “What every woman knows but rarely discusses.”  So she decided to fill in the journals herself.  It became the “journal of invisible ink” rewritten in pencil, the journal of everything in “an expanding and collapsing universe,” and the journal “as interrogation” revealing secrets.  It became the journal as “feminism,” the journal as “creative listening,” and the journal as “conceptual art.” It became the journal as a “creation myth,” “fairy tale,” and “love story.”  It became the journal as “code,” “calligraphy,” and scratchy “repetations.” The journal was like the albino robin that Williams saw as a child.  She called it “The Holy Ghost” and often dreamed about it, but when she became an adult she visited a pastor and his wife who lived “down a snow-packed road in coastal Maine” to see a painted bunting that arrived in the colorless pre-dawn landscape “like a dream between the crease of shadow and light.”  When the sun lit its feathers “he ignited like a flame: red, blue, and green,”  and the ghost bird, like her mother’s empty journal, was filled in at last.

 

 

 

“Some memories come unbidden,” Jill Kandel explains in So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village.  “They stay and stay and stay.”  Her encounter with a woman from Sikongo is one of those memories that she “does not seek” and cannot escape.  The baby in the “grimy chitengi” strapped around the mother’s emaciated body suffered from kwashiorkor, an extreme state of starvation in which the “muscles dying from lack of protein aren’t strong enough to hold in the abdominal cavity.”  Kandell knew the disease from her days as a nursing student when she and her fellow students called it “kwash,” reducing the ugliness of the condition by “shortening its name.” But here in the Sikongo there was no hiding from the horror, and Jill involuntarily covered her nose.  She and her husband came to Africa when they first married, idealistic and hopeful, but “[r]obberies, deception, despotism…drought, bribery, tribalism,” as well as the challenge of spending day after day keeping her house decent and her family clothed and fed, turned much of her time in Africa into a nightmare.  What happened to their “wonderful plans,” she asked?  “Refugees.  Kwashiorkor, starvation.” After returning home she tried to put these memories behind her, submit them to her control, but some—such as a face-to-face encounter with an emaciated woman from Sikongo carrying a soiled and filthy baby on her back—are like the shifting sands of the African desert and will not be contained.  There is beauty for her in Zambia, the land of Victoria Falls and nights “lit by the Southern Cross and the village fires,” but like the acacia karroo tree native to the land, the bloom and thorn come together.  Her task, she came to understand over time, was not to control or forget, but to look into the eyes of the woman in her nightmare.  “Finger the thorn, feel the point, mark out the blood. And write.”

 

 

 

While searching an empty field angrily shouting “Zora!” Alice Walker literally stumbled into the grave of the legendary black novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.  One of the reasons Zora is legendary is this essay, “Looking for Zora,” which helped revive interest in Hurston whose novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is now considered an American masterpiece.  Hurston died penniless in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, the setting of her most famous books.  One sign of the neglect she experienced at the end of her career was that she had lost her connection with New York editors as her handwritten letter in the final year of her life to “the editorial department” at Harper & Brothers suggests.  The other sign is that few in her home town even knew about her and her work.  And then there is this unmarked grave in an overgrown section of the town’s all-black cemetery.  Walker admits that later the sadness of Hurston’s lack of recognition upset her.  “Such moments,” she explains, “rob us of both youth and vanity” and “are also times when  greater disciplines are born.”  But she realizes as well that “there is a point at which grief seems absurd” and “laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity” as the sassiness of calling out “Zora” in a weedy field demonstrates, and the Zora who answers her there would agree.  “I am not tragically colored,” Hurston wrote.  “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”  Walker celebrates her discovery by famously purchasing a grave marker with an inscription borrowed from the poetry of Jean Toomer.  “Zora Neale Hurston,” it reads in part, “A Genius of the South.”—THE

 

The Body

“How will I ever be grateful enough for my body and what she has done.”—Jill Christman

 

 

Our bodies register our joys and agonies from birth to death.  They are lifelong companions.  Our way into the world.  We are born from bodies, suffer our bodies, and give them as gifts to each other in love.  “Our bodies,” the poet John Donne wondered “why do we forebear?”  His answer:  “We owe them thanks because they…did us to us at first convey” and “yielded their forces.”  The body measures us, sizes us up in the mirror each morning, and generally finds us wanting.  It is our task master, our jailer, and our teacher, and, alas, our companion in the grave.  In our THE Theme for this week we take on the body from the point of view of three writers:  Jill Christman, Elena Passarello, and Alice Meynell.  They take us from death to birth with a shout out in the middle.

 

THE Themes are a aspecial feature of The Humble Essasyist.  In them we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries.  In this way a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.   Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir.  You can find the original Paragraphs of the Week that prompted these commentaries in the archive.—THE

 

The Body

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

For Alice Meynell in “Solitudes” the intimacy between a mother and her baby are “the only partaken solitude in the world.”  Alone with her child the mother can feel her own blood move “separately beside her” at a different rate marking off subtle differences within the bond.  It is a “profound retreat” that can only be measured against times alone in the grandeur of nature, in remote mountains for instance, or in the forest depths, though these sublime moments in the end fall short of the “absolute seclusion” of mother and child.  It is the double nature of the mother alone in a closed room with her child that amplifies the separation from the world—a seclusion shared—and the child’s vulnerability in this relationship makes betrayal of the bond “the least pardonable of crimes.”  The wealthy in Alice Meynell’s day often excluded themselves from this unique maternal experience by relegating the care of children to wet nurses and nannies, and modern mothers in two-income households struggle to keep this time from turning into just another chore in a long day.  What harried mother—or father for that matter—has not struggled to stay awake rocking or walking a child to sleep?  But the reward for that care and attention is the most “innocent sleep of all,” that “shared between a woman and a child, the little breath hurrying beside the longer, as a child’s foot runs.”—THE

 

Simply to Be Human

“What matters is the spirit of the people in the face of these ordeals ‘to struggle and aspire for something better.’”—Jerald Walker

 

The greatest challenge during difficult times may be, as Sonya Huber writes, “simply to be human” and see others in the same light.  That is the subject of the THE Theme this week.  To gather the sections for this THE Theme I went back to features from our first year to find commentaries that still seem relevant in our own challenging times.

 

In THE Themes we explore an idea that appears in the work of various writers by linking several of our Paragraph of the Week commentaries from the past.  In this way a single idea is examined in the light of several viewpoints, glowing anew, we hope, in the borrowed light.  Our goal is to identify and deepen our understanding of the ideas that run like seams through the bedrock of essay and reflective memoir, the wisdom literature of our time.  You can find the original Paragraphs of the Week that prompted these commentaries in the first year archive.—THE

 

 

Simply to Be Human

 

Sometimes the best response to turmoil is simply to be human.  In the 1980’s when President Reagan began the “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill in America, Sonya Huber worked at one of the residential centers that were left to handle the suddenly released patients. These were desperate people, the “ill-protected, underpaid, overworked and often injured” underclass in American society, and, like most of her co-workers, Huber had “scant training” to handle their problems and earned minimum wage.  She found herself  struggling to help people in a “facility in a state of chaos” that had become “part of a national problem.”  In Two Eyes Are Never Enough she argues convincingly that “higher pay and benefits” as well as “training and certification” and a “clear career path” for mental health workers is needed to begin addressing this national disgrace.  But she also makes a case for a quality that no training can guarantee:  the “guts to just be human,” of applauding small virtues, listening, insisting less, and, above all, of not growing defensive about the failings inherent in the human condition.  Higher pay and better training are necessary, but no guarantee of a successful program.  What matters in the end is the unteachable ability to accept “the simple reward of a quiet comment,” to “witness another human being going through something,” and, when someone is barely getting by against nearly impossible odds, to “find the sense to simply shut up and say, ‘You did great.’”

 

 

 

Suki Kim is an American, born in South Korea, who wrote a book called Without You There is No Us about teaching English in a North Korean school organized to educate the sons of Pyongyang’s elite.  These are the young men in the final days of Kim Jong-il’s rule who will one day assume positions of power in one of the world’s most impoverished countries under the authoritarian control of the next Great Leader, Kim Jong-un.  Gossiping with the boys in the cafeteria she allows herself to relax in their presence and feel “freedom from the constraints" that wound all of them "so tight."  The constaints are real.  She cannot say anything negative about North Korea and must never make comparisons to the West disparaging of her students’ homeland.  Her lessons are monitored by  “minders,” and her contact with the students limited.  But in the cafeteria away from the rigid rules of the classroom she is amused when one boy, who brags about his many girl friends, is called out by the other boys as a “disaster” with girls, and she secretly delights in the good-natured give-and-take among the students when “Disaster” in English becomes the boy’s nickname.  Joy sweeps over her when her essay assignments—which she slipped past the minders as application letters—evoke glimmers of independent thought.  Essays, which she alone taught the students, seemed to liberate them.  “I consider writing essays is climbing a peak of mountain everyone is afraid of climbing,” one wrote.  She is touched to read that on the day that she left for summer break and sang a patriotic song with her stoic boys, “teacher you cried and of course we cried in our minds too.”  She is proud that not one essay mentioned the Great Leader or the slogan about his “powerful and prosperous nation.”  But she is well aware the these patriotic songs and slogans are latches over the mind-forged manacles that control these students. A few days before her final departure from the school, The Great Leader died, and the students were consumed with grief.  He was a father to them.  With classes dismissed she had to hand in her stack of precious, graded essays to an ill student in the infirmary who was so distraught that he ignored her.  She knows that the flimsy badges—soon to be replaced with the badge of the New Great Leader—will continue to weigh heavily on these boys no matter what glimmers of hope shone in their conversation and on the pages of their essays.

 

 

And he did this while blind—that was the refrain of the minister’s eulogy at the funeral of Jerald Walker’s father, a refrain that the son “could no longer stand to listen to.”  It was as if “sightlessness was the core and sum” of his father’s life, Jerald Walker writes in Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.  But while the preacher droned on, Walker remembered a story of about dirty laundry when his dad, to get Jerald’s goat, planted boxers in with the dry cleaning to bring his proud and defiant son down a peg.  “We don’t clean these,” the pretty clerk, not much older than Jerald, explained holding up the underwear.  When the minister’s eulogy was over, Walker rose and told this story to the congregation about his father’s ability to laugh despite the troubles life handed him.   It was a lesson Jerald was also learning from his writing teacher, James Alan McPherson, who complained that the characters in Walker’s stories had become their stereotypes as black victims of ghetto life.  McPherson urged him to see that black people are not merely a “repository of pain and defeat.”  What matters is the spirit of the people in the face of these ordeals “to struggle and aspire for something better.”  Being black does not define a person, nor does being blind.  “Life is a motherfucker,” Walker came to realize as he studied more under his kind and thoughtful teacher, distributing stereotypes of victimhood everywhere, but “living it anyway, and sometimes laughing in the process, is where humanity is won.”  It was a lesson his father had taught him as well.—THE

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