Archive

Winter 2015

 

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January 9, 2015

 

from “In Search of a Cheerful Subject”

by Bonnie Rough


 

“In her quest for a cheerful subject for her writing, Bonnie Rough returned to her own memory of blossoms during a difficult time.”—THE


 

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA (Counterpoint), winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award.  Her writing has appeared in several anthologies, including Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion (Three Rivers Press), The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1 (W.W. Norton), and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 (Houghton Mifflin). Her essays have also appeared in many magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Sun, Huffington Post, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, and Brevity.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from  “In Search of a Cheerful Subject,” an essay in which she attempts to follow Van Gogh’s advice and find a subject that will “cheer everyone up.”  You can read the entire article in Defunct:  A Literary Repository for the Ages.

 

The Paragraph of the Week


 

I agree with Van Gogh because one spring years ago, blossoms simply arrested me. Their frothy pinkness piped the curbs like cake frosting. Their bubble-gum fluff stuffed gutters, jammed my windshield wipers, fluttered in with the mail, iced trash cans like cupcakes. I was working for the newspaper in an American blue-collar town certainly no less dreary than Van Gogh’s Paris. There, I reported on cops who abused women, houses that burned to the ground, fights among millworkers and managers. Yet into my journal each night for a short time went blossoms, blossoms, blossoms, their candy pink petals a non-stop confetti as soft as fingertips, piling into ditches like endless parfaits, heaping at the bottom of the schoolyard slides, coming inside plastered to soles of my shoes. All through town for those few days, I could only gasp and shake my head.                                                          —Bonnie Rough

 

 

Commentary


 

In the spring of 1888, the French Impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh decided to lighten up and paint orchards of almond blossoms: “these subjects are among the ones that cheer everyone up,” he wrote to his brother, Theo.  In her quest for a cheerful subject for her writing, Bonnie Rough returned to her own memory of blossoms during a difficult time when she served as a reporter in an American town “no less dreary than Van Gogh’s Paris.”  As she wrote stories on abused women, house fires, and union busting, she filled her notebook with “blossoms, blossoms, blossoms.”  It is not clear whether she wrote about them or drew them in the margins, and it doesn’t really matter.  Imagery of blossoms, whether they were verbal “confetti” or visually “endless parfaits,” accumulated on her pages like the heaps of “candy pink” spring blossoms at the “bottom of schoolyard slides.”  Later in the essay she discovers the one consistently cheerful subject behind all of our lives, and it is not blossoms. I urge readers to turn to the full essay to find out what that subject is.  But the answer, as usual, is less important than the quest because it is the yearning for joy despite our despair that fuels this piece, a joy beckoning us with the alliterative flourish of “frothy pinkness” that “piped the curbs like cake frosting.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            —THE

 

January 17, 2015

 

 

Sonya Huber

from Two Eyes Are Never Enough


 

In this paragraph, Sonya Huber makes a case for a quality that no training can guarantee:  the “guts to just be human.”--THE


 

Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and Opa Nobody, and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post Magazine, and other journals. She received the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Award from Terrain and her work appears in True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction. She teaches in the Department of English at Fairfield University and directs the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.  The Paragraph of the Week is taken from Two Eyes Are Never Enough: A Minimum Wage Memoir published in an affordable edition by Shebooks.  You can order her book here.

 

Paragraph of the Week


There were times when it was almost magic, when I did my best and it was good enough.  I praised the kids’ artwork, and applauded when they sang songs and read poetry at the evening “coffeehouse” we organized.  I whooped with joy when someone made a three-point shot on the basketball court outside.  I made sure to mention a small victory, like when someone managed to attend therapy regularly.  And sometimes, after cooking dinner, running through the chore routine, and all the checklists and schedules, I’d steal time to simply talk to one of the kids in my caseload.  When I could be quiet and just listen, peace would descend as a resident confided that he was scared about having to appear in court to testify against a parent.  For once, I’d shut up and not urge him to do his homework or stick with “the program.”  Instead, I would muster up the guts to just be human and witness another human being going through something.  What could I say, anyway?  And after the court appearance, sometimes, there was the simple reward of a quiet comment:  “I couldn’t have done that without you.”  Instead of protesting  that I didn’t do anything, or didn’t understand what I had done, sometimes, I’d once again find the sense to simply shut up and say, “You did great.”                                                                     --Sonya Huber

 

 

Commentary


 

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, Sonya 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 in this paragraph, she 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.’”

                                                                                                   --THE

 

 
 

from “Days in the Branch”
by Joseph Mitchell


 

“Mitchell once said that, in picking his subject, he would ‘pick someone so close that, in fact, you are writing about yourself.’ In his memoir he was writing about himself, and the stream-of-consciousness was his.”—Robert Root


 

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), whom Calvin Trillin called “the New Yorker reporter who set the standard,” began contributing to The New Yorker in 1933. His earlier newspaper reporting was collected in My Ears Are Bent (1938) and his profiles, "Reporter at Large" pieces, and short stories for The New Yorker were published in four separate books between 1943 and 1965 and later collected in one omnibus volume, Up in the Old Hotel (1992). His last book, Joe Gould’s Secret, composed of two stories about a colorful fraud written twenty years apart, was filmed with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. In the late sixties and early seventies Mitchell began a memoir, never finished, from which The New Yorker has published two excerpts: “Street Life” (February 11, 2013) and “Days in the Branch” (December 1, 2014). A third excerpt is forthcoming.


 

Our guest Humble Essayist this week is Robert Root who selected Mitchell's paragraph and wrote the notes above and our commentary below.  Root has written and edited seventeen books of nonfiction including, most recently, his memoir, Happenstance and a collection of essays called Postscripts:  Reflections on Time and Place. He has written literary criticism as well, including E. B. White:  The Emergence of an Essayist, and his instruction book, The Nonfictionist’s Guide:  On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction.  He was one of the co-editors of The Fourth Genre anthology and served for many years as an editor for the influential Fourth Genre magazine. His work appeared in the Humble Essayist


 

These are mighty paragraphs—both the Paragraph of the Week and Root’s commentary—so take a deep breath and dive in.  The length is by design because, as Root writes, Mitchell does more than record a landscape, he is generating it on the page as well.--THE

 

Paragraph of the Week


 

On its way to join Old Field Swamp, Pittman Mill Branch runs in back of my home—or, to be more exact, in back of the gardens and orchards and pastures in back of my home—and a stretch of about a quarter of a mile of it is owned by my father and has been since my childhood. Several years ago, the Army Engineers, in a flood-control project, cut a canal through the branch, and in the process a considerable section of the old stream was straightened out and incorporated into the canal. Also, little by little, over the years, the old bottoms and bogs and sinks and sloughs on both sides of the stream have been drained by a network of ditches designed by my father, and now, in most seasons, if you keep to the ditch banks, you can walk across the branch without getting your shoes wet. Also, although there are a great many old trees still standing in the branch, most of the very old ones that used to grow in the bottoms have been cut for timber and most of the vines that used to hang between the trees have been chopped down and most of the underbrush has been thinned out. My father has sown grass seed here and there, and places that used to be under water most of the time or knee-deep in mud are now as green as lawns. Nevertheless, some wildness is still left in the branch, some of the old, old original wildness. Taking a walk in it, I always come across tracks of wild animals on the ditch banks and on the canal bank, and I always see at least one wild animal of some kind. Early one morning last summer, around daybreak, going for a walk to the farther side of the branch, I saw a raccoon on the canal bank. It was eating a frog. A few minutes later, I saw a diamondback water snake. And then I saw an old and obese opossum crawl out of one of the ditches. It waddled along the ditch bank for a short distance and then abruptly darted through some bushes and into a hole in the base of the trunk of a dead tree. And then I saw a box turtle. And I saw a pair of muskrats. And then, passing through a grove of hickory trees, I sensed something moving along a limb far up above me, and glancing upward I saw fleetingly and out of the corner of an eye what I am sure was a wildcat or, as we call it, a bobcat. It is still possible to see a wide variety of birds in the branch, and a wide variety of insects, and a wide variety of wild flowers. When I think about the changes that the branch has undergone in the years that I have known it, however, my heart sinks. When I first knew it, as a child, and I sometimes marvel at this, it had hardly been touched by the axe and the crosscut saw and the ditchdigger’s spade and the stump-digger’s dynamite—it was still quite wild. Parts of it, in fact, were still primeval. The stream still ran in the same bed it had run in since time immemorial, and growing in sloughs along the banks of the stream and out in the wettest of the bottoms were scores of giant old virgin-growth bald cypresses, a majestic tree with snuff-brown bark and ferny pale-green needles that rises out of the mud and the muddy water and goes straight up a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five feet and that sometimes lives to be a thousand years old or more and whose wood is so resistant to rot that boards sawed from it used to be used for coffins (up until my grandfather’s generation, most country people in my part of the South were buried in family cemeteries in homemade cypress coffins) and for such things as shingles and gutters and rain pipes and watering troughs and for the sluices underneath water mills and for the water gates on rice plantations, and are even now used for such things as the kind of water tanks that sit unpainted and naked to the weather on stilts on the roofs of office buildings and apartment houses and hotels in New York City. In among the cypresses, but in drier locations, were giant old virgin black gums and giant old virgin tulip poplars. On the slopes rising gently upward from the banks of the stream on both sides of the branch were old longleaf pines and old water oaks and old swamp maples and old sweet gum and old hollies and old magnolias and old sweet bays and old swamp hickories and old black walnuts and old wild persimmons and old wild cherries and old dogwoods. At the feet of many of these trees, ferns grew. On the trunks of many of them, mosses grew. On the upper limbs of many of them, mistletoe grew. The underbrush was dense. In it were clumps of huckleberry bushes and clumps of cattails and thickets of wild-plum trees and thickets of the kind of reeds that are used for fishing poles and thickets of blackberry canes and patches of wild strawberries and patches of wild roses and patches of wild violets, and clumps and thickets and patches of many other kinds of herbs, shrubs, and small trees. Vines overran the ground and overran the underbrush and overran the trees. Every tree no matter how young and spindly supported at least one vine, and running this way and that between the large trees were great briery ropes and nets and webs of intertwined vines of a dozen kinds. Wild-grape vines and bullbrier vines were the most prolific. In July and August, in some parts of the branch, you could reach up almost anyplace and pick a handful of wild grapes—small, musky-flavored, not very juicy, blue-black ones that we called fox grapes, and plump, honey-sweet, juicy brown-speckled amber-green ones that we called scuppernongs.

                                    —Joseph Mitchell

 Commentary


 

Ian Frazier claims, “Reading Joseph Mitchell I realized for the first time that non-fiction not only can be poetry, at its heart it is poetry,” and Erin Overbey asserts that Mitchell “paired a reporter’s precision with a novelist’s sense of narrative to create a series of intricate and revelatory profiles.” The first remark links him with The New Yorker’s great essayist, E. B. White, the second makes him White’s antithesis, and yet the two comments together may get closer to the complications of Mitchell’s style, so often compared to that of his idol, James Joyce (Mitchell’s 1943 collection, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, was often compared to Joyce’s Dubliners). In his profiles and Reporter-at-Large pieces the people he meets talk in distinctive stream-of-consciousness monologues. Speaking about his profile of Joe Gould, Mitchell once said that, in picking his subject, he would “pick someone so close that, in fact, you are writing about yourself.” In his memoir he was writing about himself, and the stream-of-consciousness was his. “Days in the Branch” is seven paragraphs and 5,085 words long. The first paragraph runs 511 words; the second runs 1,510 words; this one, the third, runs 1,017 words. The length of the paragraphs is determined by the lengths of the sentences (The sentence beginning “The stream still ran…” runs 195 words) and on Mitchell’s almost hypnotic use of repetition and parallel phrases (“giant old virgin-growth bald cypresses” echoed by “giant old virgin black gums and giant old virgin tulip poplars”; “old longleaf pines and old water oaks and old swamp maples . . . and old wild persimmons and old wild cherries and old dogwoods”). There are sixty repetitions of “and” in the first paragraph and eighty-eight in the second and eighty-three in the third, 231 “ands” altogether, and four more paragraphs to go, and repetitions of adjectives like “giant old” and “old” and “thickets of” and “patches of” and “overran” and so on. The writer is not so much reporting the facts of the scene as recovering them at the moment of composition, as if the prose were conjuring up details of memory and cataloging them. That “old longleaf pines” catalog runs 44 words; if you replace each “and old” with a comma, you can reduce it to 23 words. But read the original phrase aloud and then read it again without every “and old” (or worse, reduce it to “On the slopes . . . were many kinds of trees”). Mitchell makes the reader stroll with him through a rich and varied and ancient terrain, slowing the pace of the stroll with the pace of the language. Like his profile subjects, he uses the generative power of stream of consciousness here to recover the particulars of childhood scenes. The details help him work his way back in time until, rather than simply remembering them at some remove, he once again inhabits events as they occur.—Robert Root

 

 

January 30, 2015

 

from Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood 


by Kate Hopper

 

“What if I accidentally drop her,” Kate thought. “What if I accidentally throw her.”

 --THE


 

Kate Hopper is a writer, teacher, editor, and mother who writes memoir and essays.  She is currently at work on her first novel.  “I have spent the last decade,” she explains on her website, “writing about motherhood and reviewing motherhood literature that explores the dark side of motherhood, the humorous side, and the places where these two intersect.”  For her the battle is against the “myths of motherhood still perpetuated in our society” and she takes on those myths by writing honestly “about what it’s really like to be a mother.”


 

She is the author of Ready for Air:  A Journey Through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words:  A Writing Guide for Mothers and is the co-author of Silent Running


 

I hope she forgives me for choosing this particular small paragraph from her wonderful book.  I simply could not resist!  Sometimes a short paragraph delivers a powerful thematic punch—and that is certainly the case with her Paragraph of the Week. For those who feel cheated by a fourteen-word paragraph that repeats three words including one obscenity, I will say, in my defense, that I quote liberally from other sections of the book in my commentary to give some sense of her scope as a writer.  

 

The Paragraph of the Week


“Fuck Joy,” I say.  “Fuck joy, Mom.”  And I lean back against the pillows.

                                                —Kate Hopper

 

Commentary


 

The target of Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood is the myth of motherhood, the belief that mothers will “fall instantly in love” with their newborns, and everything “will be perfect.”  For Kate Hopper, the mother of a premature baby, the myth became a burden.  During her first pregnancy she discovered that she had developed preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition in which mother and child are locked in a battle for survival.  After her baby was born, Kate’s sickness grew worse, the buildup of fluids in her body taking an enormous toll, causing her to dream of “drowning, drifting underwater.”  Meanwhile, her daughter developed sepsis while in the NICU, a separate section of the hospital set aside for preemies, and often when Kate visited alarms went off because her baby stopped breathing.  “Breathe, goddamnit,” Kate would mutter.  “I will not breathe until you breathe.”  When Kate took the baby home, she had trouble breast feeding and, of course, the baby cried—a lot.  “What if I accidentally drop her,” Kate thought. “What if I accidentally throw her.”  Kate does not “punt” her daughter down the stairs as she one time fears and slowly conditions improve as her premature baby grows into a healthy child.  The book is Kate Hopper’s attempt to “reconcile myth with reality.”  Over time Kate had feelings of maternal love for her daughter, but she didn’t feel that kind of love at first sight that the myth calls for.  “Hell, I didn’t even want to love her,” she admits, “because I was so afraid I’d lose her.”  It is natural to have feelings of love for a newborn, but it is also natural, as this book makes clear, for a new mother to lift herself from her pillows and declare, without apology, “fuck joy.”—THE 

 

 

February 6, 2015

 

from Without You There Is No Us:

My Time with the Sons of the North Korean Elite

 

by Suki Kim


"Essays, which Suki Kim alone taught the students, seemed to liberate them."--THE


 

Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter, a murder mystery about a young Korean-American woman, Suzy Park, living in New York City and searching for answers as to why her shopkeeper parents were murdered. The book received positive critic reviews and was named a runner up for the PEN Hemingway Prize, as well as winning the PEN Beyond Margins Award and the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award.


 

Her most recent book is the memoir Without You There Is No Us:  My Time with the Sons of the North Korean Elite.  In it she writes of her time as a temporary teacher in a school designed to prepare the elite to serve in the upper-levels of North Korean society.  She found a society tightly controlled, where poverty and oppression are common.  The government was “more like a cult than a political system, enslaving its own people psychologically, intellectually and emotionally,” she explained in a Goodreads interview.  And yet she saw that her students were not simply elites in a cruel totalitarian system; they were also boys “in a traumatized population” who could touch her heart as well.  Our Paragraph of the Week comes from this book which offers thoughtful and heartfelt commentary on a country that remains a mystery to the rest of the world.   

 

The Paragraph of the Week


 

At such moments, it was as though we were sitting in any school cafeteria anywhere.  They were simply college students who were interested in the one thing most boys their age were interested in: girls.  At moments like those, I forgot where I was. Or if I did remember, I quickly made myself forget.  And my guard was down, and I felt a sudden freedom from the constraints that wound all of us so tight, and I looked across at their mischievous faces and felt such tenderness for them, and I became a momentary confidante for their gossip about girls and a well-wisher on the twentieth birthday of my charming student, and I felt pleased and relaxed until my eyes would catch the shining metal pins on their chests, the eternally present face of their Eternal President, there on each of their hearts, marking his territory, although they were just badges, and these young men could easily pull them off and throw them into the trash along with the uneaten grub on their trays, but then it would dawn on me that such a thing would never happen, and that this glimmer of hope was only a mirage.

                                                  —Suki Kim

 

Commentary


 

Suki Kim is not sitting in “any school cafeteria anywhere.”  She is an American, born in South Korea, 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 imoverished 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 here in the cafeteria 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 gimmers 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.

                                                                 –THE 

from “Playing by the Book”

in Trespassing

by Sam Pickering


 

“Selecting a single a paragraph from 'Playing by the Book' by Sam Pickering is not easy.”--THE


 


 

Sam Pickering is the author of twenty-eight books—he thinks, including The Best of Pickering published in 2009.  His most recent book is All My Days Are Saturdays from the University of Missouri Press.  He mentions in an e-mail that he writes six-to-eight hours a day and “has perfected the art of writing the unread.”  He also jogs and last summer entered the Nova Scotia Championship Half-Marathon.  “I finished last,” he explains, “but won a shiny medal because my division, the over-70 ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ division, doesn’t suffer from overpopulation.”   Our Paragraph of the Week comes from “Playing by the Book” which can be found in the collection of essays entitled Trespassing.  It is, in my opinion, our best essay on the essay.--THE

 

Paragraph of the Week


In Kirksville a linguist told me a story and I wrote it down so I wouldn’t lose it.  Among the Circassians living in the mountains above Antioch in southern Turkey, the tulip is known as “Joseph’s Coat.”  Before casting Joseph into the pit, his brothers stripped him, tossing his coat of many colors onto the ground.  The coat covered a patch of tulips.  Until that moment tulips had been undistinguished, gray flowers.  The coat, however, changed the tulip.  Those flowers which lay under red cloth suddenly turned red, while those under yellow became yellow.  Beneath the coat blossoms bloomed in rainbows.  When Reuben picked up the coat to dip it in the blood of a goat, perfume rose in a cloud, and “the sons of Israel were sore afraid and rent their clothes and put sackcloth upon their loins.”—Sam Pickering

 

Commentary

 

Selecting a single a paragraph from “Playing by the Book” by Sam Pickering is not easy.  I could have chosen 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 I chose this paragraph about 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 could have chosen—and probably should have chosen—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, it 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 chose is dyed in myth and rich in meaning, but the one I didn’t choose is breathtaking, 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.”—THE

 

 
 

February 20, 2015

 

from Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption

by Jerald Walker

 

“What mattered is the spirit of the people in the face of these ordeals 'to struggle and aspire for something better.'”—THE

 

Jerald Walker is the author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction and named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Walker studied under James Alan McPherson and has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including multiple times in The Best American Essays.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from a chapter about his father in Street Shadows entitled “The Mechanics of Being.”

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

At some point during the eulogy, when I could longer stand to listen, an incident I had long forgotten came to mind.  I was probably thirteen years old, and my father, as he had so often before, asked me to take some of his clothes to the dry cleaner.  Ordinarily this wasn’t a big deal, but I had plans to join some friends at the park, so I whined and complained about being called into service.  A mild argument ensued, which I lost, and a short while later I stormed out of the house with a paper bag full of his things.  At the cleaners, I watched the clerk remove each article of clothing, my boredom turning to horror as her hand, now frozen midair, dangled before us a pair of my father’s boxers.  The clerk, very pretty and not much older than me, smiled and said, “We don’t clean these.”  I couldn’t believe that my father had made such an unpardonable mistake, a blunder of the highest order, and the more I thought of it the more upset I became.  Halfway home, swollen with anger and eager to release it, I started to run.  When I arrived, out of breath, my hands clenched by my sides, my father wasn’t in the living room, where I’d left him, but sitting on the porch.  The second I barked, “Daddy!” he exploded in laughter. His large stomach quivering beneath his T-shirt, his ruddy face pitched toward the sky.  I could not, despite my best effort, help but join him.

                                                —Jerald Walker

Commentary

 

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.”  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 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.

                                                                              —THE

March 27, 2015

 

from “Living with Goodness”

in The Last Good Obsession:  Thoughts on Finding Life in Fiction

by Sandra Swinburne


 

“Living with goodness can be hard.”—THE


 

Sandra Swinburne is the author of a literary memoir entitled The Last Good Obsession:  Thoughts on Finding Life in Fiction.  In the book she sees her own life through the lens of fictional characters created by authors as varied as William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, and D. H. Lawrence.  She asks hard questions about her own life and, according to essayist Lia Purpura, “keeps these vital questions alive as she examines both reading-life and lived-life parallels.”  The stakes are high:  “read and be changed; then read again and be changed again,” writes Purpura about the theme of Swinburne’s book, “but whatever you do, take your own measure of things.”  The goal: “To remain awe-filled but not starry-eyed."  The Paragraph of the Week comes from the essay “Living with Goodness” which examines the price of goodness in her own life, as the wife of a surgeon who specializes in pulmonary medicine, through the lens of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

 

The Paragraph of the Week

 

During a rotation of ICU work, an HIV/AIDS patient spiraled toward death under my husband’s care, but, in compliance with the patient’s wishes, the family could not be told the diagnosis.  Dozens of relatives hovered at the bedside, unable to comprehend why their loved one was so ill, why he was not recovering.  Their grief and rage accumulated over several days until the nearness of death caused them to erupt in accusations against the only outsider in the room, the good doctor.  Shouting about incompetence and insinuating physical threats, they frightened the nurses, who called for security guards.  They wanted that doctor barred from the room.  They wanted the patient moved to a different hospital that would provide adequate care.  And my husband still could not tell them why their son, their brother, their nephew, their cousin continued to die after everything possible had been done to save him.

                                                                                                                      —Sandra Swinburne

 

 

 Commentary

 

Living with goodness can be hard. It is a challenge for author Sandra Swinburne, the wife of the “good doctor” in her essay “Living with Goodness” who finds that her husband’s daily encounters with life and death render her grumblings about grading papers or being disturbed by his late night phone calls from the hospital as petty.  “How do you roll over and complain about having a morning headache,” she writes, “to someone who’s dressing for work in the predawn darkness?”   Living with goodness is likewise hard for Emma, the literary analog that Swinburne includes in her essay, who in Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, goads her kindly but mediocre husband, who works as a public health officer in Tostes, France, into performing a disastrous clubfoot operation beyond his skills.  But living with goodness takes a toll on the good doctors too.  Charles Bovary is haunted by “the tap of the wooden leg on pavement” as the “young victim” of his failed procedure makes his way through town.  Swinburne’s husband feels the sting of living with goodness one night when he made his customary rounds through the hospital’s intensive care unit.  Unable to tell the full truth about his AIDS patient’s condition he must endure the family “shouting about incompetence and insinuating physical threats.”  Following his patient’s wishes, he must stand silently by as the dying man’s loved ones “wanted that doctor barred from the room.”  The doctor’s willingness in this ethical tangle to keep his secret is the price he pays for living with his own goodness.  But the cost is not his alone to bear.  Later, when he gets home he tells Sandra to keep “the doors locked, just in case.”

 

                                                                                                                                                                    —THE

 

March 6, 2015

 

from “The Enormity Club”

by Jan Shoemaker


 

“Transfigured by spray and sunlight, the skier is ‘immortal…in his moment.’”—THE  


 

Jan Shoemaker writes and teaches in Michigan where she lives, she explains, with "her inestimable husband and delinquent dogs."  Her essays have appeared in many journals and magazines, among them:  Sufi Journal, Fourth Genre, The Sun, Colorado Review, and MAKE Magazine.


 

She writes wickedly good sentences hemmed in by humor, aware of human limitations, grounded in a profound, at times agonizing, moral sense, and animated by a large heart.  Sentences such as this:


 

“When my students come to me, as they do from time to time, with their own darkness, or I get notes that alert me to their depression, I try to help with what small wands I have—waving away deadlines, sitting with them after school, listening.”


 

Or this: “I don’t believe loving requires flesh, but flesh sure gives a better return on investment than thin air.”


 

Oh, and this: “I first mistook menopause for my disappointment with T. S. Eliot.”


 

And this lovely springtime bit: “Sparse blades of grass and the slim shafts of mayapple—their parasols still chastely closed—split the damp earth and the overstory greened along its limbs, repeating a tale repeatedly told.”


 

And this wonderful reminder about teaching:  “If what you crave most is a place in which you can disappear not only from the world but from your own fears or sorrow or regret, an American high school is a regular witness protection program.”


 

And, oh my, this: “I turn blearily and hopefully to the lottery about the same time each year, like an alcoholic licking his lips when he glimpses the nail polish remover at the back of the medicine cabinet—to hell with six months of sobriety:  this will work.”


 

And, alas, this: "The sod made such a final seal."


 

And, of course, this:  “Buddy came to us twelve years earlier, the Buddha in a golden retriever suit.”


 

But dang—this is a website about paragraphs not sentences!  The Paragraph of the Week comes from Jan Shoemaker’s essay, “The Enormity Club,” which first appeared in the Sufi Journal of Mystical Philosophy and Practice.  A trip to the magazine's site will lead you to the full essay.

 

The Paragraph of the Week


 

Down at the beach, tucked beneath a white birch in a heavy Adirondack chair, my feet extended into the sun, I soaked up the joys of the lake without getting wet.  Far off-shore a water-skier crisscrossed behind a boat, skipping over the wake.  Before I could stop her, Judgmental-Mind grabbed the mic in my head to broadcast the skier’s transgressions:  the waste of fossil fuels for one person’s pleasure, the roar of his engine cutting through the music of water slapping shore.  But the other voices in my mind booed her right off the stage, because it’s a radiant vision—a skier, a wake—and we are happy to behold it.  All speed and grace, the water and sun transfigured his face and flashed off his back and he was immortal, I realized, in his moment.

                       —Jan Shoemaker 

 

Commentary


 

Jan Shoemaker recruits her high school students into The Enormity Club by teaching them that the word enormity means “evil,” not “large.”   The club is “pretty exclusive,” she explains because the distinction is being lost over time and has “already become an anachronism, or soon will.”  It is this change, this flux in all that she loves, that bugs Shoemaker.  “I don’t like change,” she complained to a friend, before “upon reflection” realizing that “is a lot like saying, ‘I don’t like life.’”  But her love of life, whether it is directed toward her “gentle husband,” her “artsy, bookish daughters,” or “her wise old golden retriever,” is insatiable.  It is the thought of losing all this, all that she loves, that is hard for her to reckon with, and in this essay she struggles with the loss of her mother first to Alzheimer’s and later to death.  These are the changes she cannot abide.  But in her more generous moments that occur again and again in her essays, Shoemaker recognizes that the fleeting and changeable moment seized in its fullness, has a lasting beauty of its own and is a kind of immortality.  When she stops clinging to her old ways, a new self takes the microphone, a person who can love the wake of a noisy skier “cutting through the music of water slapping shore” because “it is a radiant vision.”   Transfigured by spray and sunlight, the skier is “immortal…in his moment.”  Nothing holds back the twin enormities of disease and death—even the word itself can’t help but die a little each time it is used to mean “big”—but the shifting moments, given their due, are enormous enough to fill a life and sustain us in our grief.

                                          —THE

 

 
 

March 13, 2015

 

from “Orphans”

in Loitering:  New and Collected Essays

by Charles D’Ambrosio


 

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


 

Loitering:  New and Collected Essays gathers the best work from Charles D’Ambrosio’s first volume of essays, Orphans, with essays written since.  The result is a stunning compilation of rich and subtle personal nonfiction by a master of the craft.  “As is the nature of his brilliance,” writes Leslie Jamison, “D’Ambrosio resists conclusions.  He honors the complexity embedded in his grief—not always a source of solace, but ultimately a powerful tribute.”  The writing creates its own world, a world given to tragedy, tenderness, and loneliness in which language at least is always surprising and beautiful.  “Once you tune your brain into D’Ambrosio’s strange and beautiful frequency," writes Anthony Doerr, "you’ll find yourself searching for it for the rest of your life.”  D’Ambrosio is also the author of two collections of short stories—The Point and The Dead Fish Museum.  Among other awards, he has been the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Whiting Writer's Award, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from his essay “Orphans” based on a trip to the Russian orphanage at Svirstroy where bartering by children functions as a form of intimacy in the present, but is, in the end, a meager consolation for dashed hopes.

 

The Paragraph of the Week


The curious tension here is that children are the future, and the ruptured promise a place like Svirstroy tries to repair is vast.  The future requires kids; without them, there’s eventually no tomorrow.  In time, of course, everybody runs out of tomorrows.  The one thing you can say about the future, Joseph Brodsky has written, is that it won’t include you.  That’s true, and yet the dyad of money and children plots you way out there in that world of tomorrows you don’t get.  Your dream, then, is of a nothingness where an investment of love lives on.  You believe in a time that’s not your own.  The main problem with barter is the need for a coincidence of wants:  you have to want what the other person’s got, and vice versa.  And you have to arrive at a specific place in the universe on time.  And here’s the thing that was so hard for me to feel precisely:  over and over, what I saw at Svirstroy were these little hands passing things, bottle caps and cigarettes, a cookie, a twig or leaf, small frequent exchanges where skin contacted skin, just briefly, but perfectly timed, now.  In the enormity of their dislocation, the kids arrived for each other, always.  They were there, they were present, and bartering was the deal that confirmed it.  It made me sad, these transactions, these little dirty hands reaching and finding, this coincidence of wants, taking place inside a huge broken promise.  Born into a world where their wants went unmet, where their time was taken away, they found reassuring coincidence in bartering.  In those little moments I felt like I was seeing the kids isolated—lovingly so—in currents that were crushing them.

                               —Charles D'Ambrosio

 

Commentary


 

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? 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 

 

 

from The Tender Land:  A Family Love Story

by Kathleen Finneran


 

“Right away Kathleen Finneran uses up the main point, 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…”—THE


 

Kathleen Finneran is the author of The Tender Land: A Family Love Story, a memoir about her family’s struggle to cope with the suicide of her brother Sean when he was fifteen.  It is a patient and thoughtful work that allows the different but complexly interlocking lives of her family to unfold before us, her portraits of shared pain, individual guilt, heartbreaking confusions and failures, and moments of  ordinary beauty all drawn clearly and, yes, tenderly. The most moving portrait is her own as she reveals her special bond to Sean whose mind was curious and hungry for the world as is her own.


 

My former student, the writer Bridget Pool, first drew my attention to this lovely paragraph from Finneran's memoir in a class that I taught in 2012.  She described the writing as “magnificent” and I agreed right away.  Today’s commentary was my attempt, lightly edited, to describe my thoughts about the paragraph to her and other students in the class back then.

 

The Paragraph of the Week


 

Once I saw a red jellyfish that had washed up on the shore of an island in the north Pacific.  I knelt down next to it, feeling almost humbled by its beauty.  It was the first jellyfish I’d ever seen, and as with every new encounter, I had the urge to call out to you.  “Sean,” I say when no one’s around.  It was a gray autumn day.  The ocean and the sky were nearly the same color.  On the beach, the jellyfish looked like a glossy spill, dark maroon at its center, lighter and lighter red toward its edges, the whole shimmering expanse of it covering a wide circle of sand.  Every few seconds it heaved and collapsed from its center, sending a ripple out from the dark maroon spot to paler parts of its body.  I knelt there, watching it.  I want to touch it, but I was afraid.  A woman walked by with her dog,  “You’ve never seen a jellyfish?” she asked as the dog sniffed the sand around it.  She stood with me for a moment.  “If you’re thinking you can save it, you can’t,” she said.  She was a native, accustomed to what happened near those waters.  I was not.  She signaled to her dog, and they continued down the beach.  I watched the jellyfish a while longer.  I wanted to touch it while it was still living.  I knew nothing about jellyfish.  Would it sting me?  Burn me?  These are the things you would know, Sean, the things you could tell me.  I reached out and touched its maroon middle.  When it moved again, sending a single beat through its body, a faint warmth rose up, leaving my hand coated with mucus.  I walked to the water and washed it off, and when I returned, the jellyfish was no longer breathing.

—Kathleen Finneran

 

Commentary


I like the way this passage builds.  Right away Kathleen Finneran uses up the main point, 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.

—THE

 

 

from The Slow Farm

by Tarn Wilson


 

“But it is Texada itself that Tarn Wilson comes back to as she thinks of her past, the tug of that ‘world designed for children.’”—THE


 

Tarn Wilson is the author of The Slow Farm, a memoir about her childhood on Texada Island by Pocahontas Bay in British Columbia.  Her essays have appeared in magazines such as Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Ruminate, South Loop Review, and The Sun.  She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.  You can learn more about her and her work at tarnwilson.com.  The Paragraph of the Week comes from a chapter entitled "The Orb in the Center of My Chest" in The Slow Farm, exploring the nature of the attraction of this island childhood home on the writer.

 

The Paragraph of the Week


 

Most likely, it was our age.  Rima and I tumbled out of the school bus into Pocahontas Bay at just the stage when children are in love with the ordinary world, when they first explore, independently, the boundaries of their own backyards.  Ours happened to be a lush, almost primeval forest.  And I confess, even now, I can’t fully let go of the feeling that Texada, with its salty silences and black soil and heavy silver light, has some special magic, that the island—in the unworried, affectionate way of a distant but benevolent grandmother—loved us.

—Tarn Wilson

 

Commentary


 

Remote, lush, and primeval as Texada Island in Pocahontas Bay was, the Edenic wilderness did not protect Tarn Wilson’s family from life’s harsh realities.  Jack Wilson and his wife Janet were a young, idealistic, back-to-the-land couple in the early 70’s when they moved the family to a remote island north of Vancouver, but Jack’s uncompromising self-sufficiency and Janet’s loneliness drove a wedge between them that natural beauty alone could not repair, eventually ripping the family apart.  Tarn Wilson, herself, has moved on from her time as a child when her father, using a flashlight and an orange, explained why the moon, that formed a “path of light on the waters of Pocahontas Bay,” changed shapes.  She is a public school teacher now, committed to the “often frustrating effort to improve the world from within.”  But despite her adult distancing from the family struggles of the past, she cannot shake the hold of Texada on her.  “For years I could write about nothing else,” she confesses.  In part the love of the place was the legacy of her parents’ unremarkable but steady love: “the gifts she gave me without thinking,” Wilson writes of her mother, “the ones she cannot remember.”  Wilderness created in the parents of Tarn and her sister, Rima, an unusual blend of vigilance and benign neglect.  “At just the right moments they lavished us with attention,” the author explains, “or abandoned us to our private worlds.”  But it is Texada itself that Tarn Wilson comes back to as she thinks of her past, the tug of that “world designed for children,” the synesthesia of “salty silences and black soil and heavy silver light” that rendered the setting both loving and magical.  Repeatedly, this “gouged” and “abundant” island of  a childhood in the wilderness rises, unbidden and luminous, into her adult consciousness like the “shining, rising and disappearing back of a whale.”—THE

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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