Archive Winter-Spring 2020

 

January 3, 2020

 

from Stumbling Into Joy

by Kate Hopper

“It had been her dream since college to create that throbbing sound...”

                                                                                                                              —THE

 

We begin 2020 with one of our favorites, Kate Hopper. She describes herself as a teacher, editor, writing coach, and mother (and wife and daughter and sister and friend…the list goes on and on). She writes memoir, essays, and is currently working on her first novel.  She is the author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, winner of a MIPA Midwest Book Award, and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and the co-author of Silent Running: Our Family’s Journey to the Finish Line with Autism.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from her longform essay in Creative Nonfiction’s True Story series. It is called Stumbling into Joy and is about the author accomplishing in midlife her dream of leaning to play the bass guitar. Learn more about her book here.—THE

Commentary

 

When Kate Hopper’s family gave her a bass guitar as a mother’s day gift, the author squeezed her husband Donny and their two daughters saying “He bought me a bass! What?” and began jumping around. It had been her dream since college to create that throbbing sound, but life, with its “ups and downs,” as Janelle Monáe sings in “Tightrope,” got in the way—until now at age forty-three. Her daughter, Zoe, pointed to the gift and shouted “Open it.” It took Hopper a while to get the hang of playing her dream—fingerings and tricky rhythms take time to learn—but eventually she could play a “fast and funky bassline” and even perform it in public. Her inspiration along the way was June Millington, lead guitarist with Fanny, the first all-female rock group, who played with “joyful fearlessness” and believed that music took young women “somewhere else, some place where they don’t have to listen to messages the world is beaming at them.” It is “a safe place” where they could hear “something in themselves” which Hopper describes as “the pleasure of residing inside each note” where all at last “makes perfect sense.”

 

—THE

January 10, 2020

 

from “The Lawns, So Well-Tended”

in Terrain.org: A Journal of Natural and Built Environments

by Anna Maria Spagna

 

“Evil demands action not metaphors and the false comfort of subtlety is, like her small-town rental, a temporary indulgence—one she eventually will reject, ‘nuance be damned.’”—THE

 

 

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of seven books including Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going, the memoir/history, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and two earlier essay collections, Potluck and Now Go Home. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Nautilus Book Awards, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, and she has four times been a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from a recent essay called “The Lawns, So Well-Tended” that appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Terrain.org: A Journal of Natural and Built Environments. You can read the complete essay here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Talking about weeds and immigrants at the same time is problematic, I know. There’s a decades-long debate about the dangerously interchangeable adjectives—invasive, non-native, alien—and what their use suggests about the need for purity, the impulse to exclude, the crusade to eradicate. But plants and people are not the same, and comparing them is over-simplifying, and over-simplification can over-complicate things. It’s not hard in a garden, or for that matter, in a democracy, to see what’s causing the real trouble. But even when we try to eradicate racism, misogyny, poverty, injustice, here they come, creeping back, insidious as ever.

 

—Ana Maria Spagna

Commentary

 

“The Lawns, So Well-Tended” by Anna Maria Spagna reluctantly finds nuance to be a temporary but ultimately inadequate refuge for sanity in a politically divided time. The essay is ostensibly about her year-long battle with an unruly lawn during a stint as visiting professor in a college town of otherwise perfect lawns. She is drawn to “the orderliness of small-town life: the mailbox at the door, and garbage cans on the curb, and everyday kindnesses, too.” As a gay woman from the more rugged terrain of the state of Washington, she takes comfort in the welcome the town gives her, but feels uneasy about feeling so comfortable as well. As a writer she knows the tidy lawn can stand for the purity she despises such as the characterization of immigrants as “invasive” and “alien,” but by nuance it can also signify the eradication of all that she deplores such as the “racism, misogyny, poverty, injustice” that keep coming back like weeds. Throughout the essay she turns over a mix of metaphors in her mind testing the notion of small-town complacency as a balm in an evil world, and even takes pride in bringing her own lawn over time into shape: “I can conform! I can belong! I can!” In the end, though, she knows can’t.  Evil demands action not metaphors and the false comfort of subtlety is, like her small-town rental, a temporary indulgence—one she eventually will reject, “nuance be damned.”

 

—THE

 

January 17, 2020

 

Faith—is the Pierless Bridge”

from “The Butterfly Nail”

in Wherever the land is

by Amy Wright

 

“A bridge without any girder is a magic carpet.”—Amy Wright

 

For years now poet and essayist Amy Wright has been writing prose translations of Emily Dickinson under the title “The Butterfly Nail.”  I first discovered them in her 2016 chapbook Wherever the land is published by MIEL books, but I have also found versions that have appeared online since 2011.  Provocative and dense in texture they are not intended to be either traditional translations or critical commentaries, but works of art in themselves.

 

“What I am working to create is not a facsimile, but another work altogether,” she explained in an interview with Sarah Escue, “an apple in itself, if one that falls not far from the tree from which it sprung.” Wright’s translations do not explain the poem, but deepen, enrich, and complicate it allowing it’s truths to cross boundaries. “I think of translation as a means of communicating across time or country or language or media potentially universal insights.” In her translations Wright explores the enormously rich interconnection between poetry and prose that has long been an interest at THE so we have stretched our usual format to feature one example this week.

 

Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one poetry collaboration, and six chapbooks, including the essay collection Think I’ll Go Eat A Worm. Most recently her essays won first place in two contests, sponsored by London Magazine and Quarterly West. Her writing appears in Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Appalachian Heritage, Waveform: Anthology of Women Essayists, and Southern Poetry Anthology Volumes III and VI. She is also the nonfiction editor at Zone 3 magazine.

 

You can read more excerpts from The Butterfly Nail here and here, and you can read her interview with Sarah Escue here.

I will not add commentary to Wright’s translation except to point out all the work that the word “soluble”—which means both “dissolvable” and “solvable”—is doing. Language in Wright’s translation, draws on the poem but has a life of its own.

 

Poem

 

Faith—is the Pierless Bridge

Supporting what We see

Unto the Scene that We do not—

Too slender for the eye

 

It bears the Soul as bold

As it were rocked in Steel

With Arms of Steel at either side—

It joins—behind the Veil

 

To what, could We presume

The Bridge would cease to be

To Our far, vacillating Feet

A first Necessity.—Emily Dickinson

Translation

 

A bridge without any girder is a magic carpet. It defies reason, going where the mind cannot, on that furthest limb, beyond comprehension, and yet, to comprehend it—or imagine it, if one can imagine eternity, is enough.

The “Scene” one takes on faith is “slender” as the eye of a needle, narrow as the slip of one breath into the next. Saddlebags of theories would prevent entrance. The metaphor of a journey is a traditional linear one, reflective of that need to move forward, if “vacillating.” E.D. uses the metaphor ironically, dissolving the illustration upon “arrival” to make the point that the carriage leads to that moment where, were the bridge to dissolve, the priority would become apparent. The bridge never had any supports to begin with. To step onto it, the first relinquishment must be made—to count on the underbellies of bridges or one’s vision before “Necessity.” That desperate lunge from the plank of the collapsing image is the real gesture, from which the poem itself becomes the soluble walk by which a wobbler makes it.

—Amy Wright

 

January 31, 2020

from “Introduction”

in Best American Essays 2018

by Hilton Als

“He wonders why he couldn’t make a stinging rebuke against the clerk and ‘read that young man to filth.’”—THE

 

Hilton Als became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1994 and a theatre critic in 2002. He began contributing to the magazine in 1989, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town.”

 

His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. His most recent book, White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award in 2014, discusses various narratives of race and gender. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2017.

 

The Paragraph of the Week comes from the introduction he wrote for The Best American Essays of 2018. Later Als revised the essay under the title of “Revealing and Obscuring Myself on the Streets of New York” for the October 25 edition of The New Yorker making a number of small changes and dividing our Paragraph of the Week in two. I have chosen to use the original one-paragraph version. It may be less clear, and no doubt it wears out the reader, but that may be the point, and it has a raw, cumulative power missing in The New Yorker version. You can read The New Yorker version here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/revealing-and-obscuring-myself-on-the-streets-of-new-york

The Paragraph of the Week

 

On my block there's a big store, part of a chain that sells electronic devices. I've been in the shop exactly three times—once to get a device fixed, once to buy a Christmas gift with my white German goddaughter, and once to replace a missing something to fix another device. Each time I've gone into the store, done my business, and am about to pay, I've been asked for my ID. I am not asleep to the fact that none of the other customers—usually affluent Europeans, yuppie mothers, and the like—are asked, for anything but their credit cards once they belly up to the electronic bar to make a purchase. For those of us who are not them, the exchange of capital for goods becomes a kind of sickroom: May I see your ID? The sickroom glows with blood, the blood that floods your face your neck your back as you hand over your ID instead of—what? A fuck-you? And why not a fuck-you? Because the worker who asks you for your ID is black or Hispanic and male, too, and he needs to make a living, even if it's at someone's literal and figurative expense. He can't look at you. (A side note: this is always the point in the story when you become a third-person figure. Your body can't bear it and so becomes a different body, watching as things happen but trying not to feel, despite the rush of blood to the face the neck the back. In this situation and others like it, your "I" recedes, running further and further back into the hidden world housed in the body the world hates.) He looked at you before, smiling, as you decided to purchase the shit you needed, but all of that changes when he asks, “May I see your ID?” The tone was the same as it was when he was showing you the junk you needed, friendly like, but now there's a threat: If you don't have ID, who are you other than a thieving threat? There's a bright lift to his voice: May I see your ID? Surely someone trained him to say that, just as my mother and father, respectively, showed me how important it was to despise racism and its various inevitable humiliations, and to empathize with workers who were oppressed by a corporate system that puts their head in a yoke just so they know who's boss. Who is the slain, who is the victim? Speak! So wrote Sophocles in Antigone, and maybe that's the start of the essay in my head that I can't write because of the blood pounding in it as the young man swipes my card and swipes my reason several blocks away from my home, away from Love. The transaction closed, the thing I needed now bagged, weighs heavy in my hand like evil, like shame: Why couldn't I forgo my mother's ethos and "read" that young man to filth? Because by not looking at me—May I have your ID?—he was, perhaps, frightened to discover what he would find on the other end of his learned question/inquisition: at the beginning or end of his own street, rocky with the stones of compromise, smiling all the while, the better to survive.

—Hilton Als

Commentary

 

Hilton Als makes several important moves in this long paragraph, all of them helpful if we are to understand what he calls the May I see your ID? syndrome. I’ll try to reproduce some of them here on my way to making a different point about what happens when we read his tour de force paragraph. He begins by saying that the question, not asked of whites when they buy something in the store, turns the marketplace into a sickroom for African Americans and other minorities. The blood that flows through this ward of American capitalism is the blood of humiliation and anger rushing through his body when Als buys anything and is asked to show ID. That embarrassment is followed by a furious realization, contrary to his mother’s ethos, that saying “fuck you” back would be entirely appropriate though he also realizes that the salesclerk is likely a person of color, too, who is forced to ask the question, and that the question is, in fact, bigger than the two of them—a systemic problem. The clerk can’t look at him and Als notes that this is the moment when he switches into third person seeing himself as if in someone else’s story, and the “I” recedes. The fact that the question is delivered in the same polite voice that the clerk uses to sell the products is unnerving because it reveals that the clerk is being coerced into saying it, showing the dominion of powerful owners over anyone involved in the transaction, so that both know “who’s boss.” When the clerk swipes his card, Als thinks of Antigone—the woman in Greek mythology who stood up to power—but when the transaction is done he feels mostly shame as he takes his bag. He wonders why he couldn’t make a stinging rebuke against the clerk and “‘read’ that young man to filth,” but he knows that the clerk is frightened, afraid of the possible consequences in the streets of the compromises he makes to keep his job and earn a living. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how exhausting it is to live with this constant questioning of self and others, what a waste of precious time it is, but here, in a paragraph about buying something as simple as a Christmas gift or a cell-phone adapter, Als forces us as readers to run through the experience ourselves, bludgeoned for a paragraph by the interior barrage he lives with daily.

—THE

 
 

February 7, 2020

 

from Surfacing

by Kathleen Jamie

“What is a boon for archaeology and for the glimpse it provides of ancient pre-history points to a threat to the Inuit way of life as well as to all of civilization.”—THE on Kathleen Jamie

 

Kathleen Jamie was born in the west of Scotland. She is one of Britain's leading poets and the author of acclaimed works of non-fiction, Among Muslims (1992), Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012). She is a Professor of Creative Writing at Stirling University. The Paragraph of the Week is from Surfacing (2019), her most recent book of nonfiction.

 

 

​The Paragraph of the Week

 

I stood on top of the clump of earth and trained the binoculars. Even so the animal was at the edge of my vision. How many miles away, I couldn't say. Now I was fixated, waiting for the moment the creature moved and revealed its nature. It could be a woman picking berries, as it was berry season. Perhaps even a bear. We had been warned against walking down that way, alone. They kept a gun at the site, just in case. I wanted this distant creature to be a bear. It was surely large enough. A bear eating berries on the tundra - how thrilling! I watched till my eyes strained. But then, after long minutes, my woman-or-bear spread two black wings and took to the air. A raven! A raven, visible as an event on the landscape. I laughed at myself. Clearly, there was work to do with scale. One had to make allowances for this extraordinary light. But then again, maybe it showed how readily, in this unfixed place, the visible shifts. Transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird. A sea can vanish, rivers change course. The past can spill out of the earth, become the present.

—Kathleen Jamie

Commentary

 

Author Kathleen Jamie takes a walk outside the remote Alaskan village of Quinhagak and sees an animal shape in the distance, but even with her binoculars she cannot identify it. It could be a woman picking berries or something more sinister—a bear, for instance. It is hard to tell in the glare. Suddenly the shape spreads wings and is transformed before her eyes into a raven. In “this unfixed place,” she realizes, “the visible shifts.” The raven is not the only shape-shifter here. The tundra riverbank near Quinhagak is eroding due to global warming, and she is there to write about archaeological workers who are extracting and preserving artifacts frozen in place for centuries before the ice softens to mud and the precious objects float into the sea. The world is an "unfixed place" we have all come to learn, and we have dangerously accelerated the cataclysm to come with our greed. Those who live in Quinhagak take deserved pride in the culture they are preserving, but what is a boon for archaeology and for the glimpse it provides of ancient pre-history indicates a threat to the Inuit way of life as well as to all of civilization. The past may surface, “spill out of the earth” and “become the present,” as Jamie suggests, but, since the earth itself is “an unfixed place,” it points to an uncertain future for us all.

—THE

 

from All I Feel Is Rivers: Dervish Essays

by Robert Vivian

 

“Reading Robert Vivian’s essay, I am at first awash in language, lost in a dizzying mix of figures of speech and a cacophony of sound, but these are ‘Dervish Essays’ after all….”

—THE

How could The Humble Essayist resist Robert Vivian’s newest book of “Dervish Essays.” Each piece is lyrical, tracing the solitary mind at work and letting it sing in words which is the kind of nonfiction THE celebrates.  Not only that, each essay is a paragraph long!

 

The Paragraph of the Week is the title piece from his newest collection, All I Feel is Rivers: Dervish Essays. Vivian is the author of four novels and two essay collections, Cold Snap as Yearning and The Least Cricket of Evening, as well as another collection of dervish essays, Immortal Soft Spoken.

The Paragraph of the Week:

 All I Feel Is Rivers

And dawn seeping over them, then slowly brighter and brighter until I am lit up by a cathedral of dust motes in the woods by another river and sheer majesty in my veins and hosanna praise my only voice. And all I feel is rivers, and all I ever wanted in clear rushing river speech which is my truest name and new rhythms and harmonies blessed by the earth and rain that blesses every branch, every leaf, my face, my eyes, my ever-newborn seeing that goes on almost forever, all I feel is rivers and the current is my life force, the current writes the poem and opens the flower, the current kisses the cold foreheads of the dead and the current makes love with the entire earth, the current walks the many miles and the current stacks the wood, weeds the garden—for all I ever feel is rivers, all I ever dreamed of becoming, the only emotion is water and it is rising up inside of me, all the rivers are converging in my heart and every fish, heron, and kingfisher, the rivers do me make and do me break, the rivers vision of paradise and all mother life in this world, holy breast and all fecundity, the birth canal of every verb, and all I feel is rivers, all I do not know and dream of is rivers in the sprawling ink and handwriting of the fields and mountains, the rivers leading me to books and far away, the rivers writing down the poems in the middle of the night and the rivers reciting them quietly like a bare hush of wind, rivers in my sweat and river in my gonads, the rivers as vast and teeming as the clouds, the stars, the river-born sentences as I take up their headwaters and all their outpourings, runoffs, I a human river, a water poem, and water pouring through your fingers, your mouth, human oxbow of the holy bend and with a pebble and a snail as brother and sister, scribes who draw letters with their whole bodies all their lives, writing into that bed of stone words that will keep washing away forever.

—Robert Vivian

Commentary:

 

 


Reading Robert Vivian’s essay, I am at first awash in language, lost in a dizzying mix of figures of speech and a cacophony of sounds, but these are “Dervish Essays” after all so a little verbal vertigo is to be expected. The first clarifying effect I cling to in this swirl of language are the repetitions of the title, that, like the face of the dervish, shows itself with each rotation, dividing the paragraph into separate whirls. The first whirl is a “hosanna” of praise to the dawn light and glittering dust motes coming off of the rivers. But the paragraph keeps spinning, and in the next whirl, as the speech flows from him, he is drawn outward—like the dervish’s billowing skirt—to accept the blessings of the earth “every branch, every leaf, my face, my eyes, my ever-newborn seeing that goes on almost forever.” And in the next whirl he realizes that the current that carries his words also runs through the rivers and, since the many are manifestations of this one force, all apparent oppositions collapse: the current that “kisses the cold foreheads of the dead” also “makes love with the entire earth.” Even his dreams of paradise are included, the next twirl of the skirt reveals. It is the spirit that makes and breaks him, the force of creation itself, “the birth canal of every verb.” And that last word, “verb,” bring us to the final whirl of his dervish skirt where we are reminded that all of this spinning has also been about writing as well, and I, his dizzy reader, realize that my first vertiginous response to the paragraph is right. It is a mistake to schematize the piece, wrong to break it down by its repetitions, because the words flow as one into and out of the world and into and out of us who read them, and, like all of the paragraph-long essays in this slim and exhilarating volume, the universe of his perceptions becomes a paradise for us all where world and word spin together forever.

—THE

 

February 21, 2020

 

from Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood

by Robin Hemley

 

“Robin Hemley…agrees with Hannah Arendt who wrote ‘I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective’ and ‘I indeed love only my friends.’”—THE

 

Robin Hemley is the author of numerous books, including Invented Eden; Reply All: Stories; A Field Guide for Immersion Writing; Nola; Turning Life into Fiction; and Do-Over! He has won many awards for his writing, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, as well as residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Fine Arts Work in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and others. The Paragraph of the Week is from his newest collection: Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood .

The Paragraph of the Week

 

What other travelers meditate on is their business, but in my case, the questions I've sought to understand, if not fully answer, are those surrounding nationalism, patriotism, and the almost universal need that people have to belong to some collective or another. I'm in agreement with Hannah Arendt when she writes, "I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love 'only' my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons?' Like Arendt, I was born without the patriot gene, at least where the loyalty is to a country or an institution. My loyalties are multiple. There are few places I have ventured that I dislike and few people I've met from whom I cannot learn something. I am the person who will gladly talk to my seatmate on a plane (in most cases). I'm interested in your beliefs as long as you don’t foist them upon me. I'm curious about what you can tell me about your blind spots and more interested in what you can tell me about my own.

—Robin Hemley

Commentary

‘You American?” a passenger sitting next to Robin Hemley on a flight to Hong Kong asked. “You patriot?” After a brief conversation, his seatmate turned on an in-flight movie, and Hemley pondered the question. He himself does not have “the patriot gene” or feel the need “to belong to some collective or another.” He agrees with Hannah Arendt who wrote “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective” and “I indeed love only my friends.” I first encountered this idea in the essay “What I Believe” written by E.M. Forster as Hitler rose to power. Against a dark backdrop of growing nationalistic fervor Forster continued to have faith in the persistence of what he called “The Beloved Republic.” Its members are not heroes or saviors or politicians but a band of true friends in “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”  These people, he writes, amplifying on the idea, “are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”  On the brink of war Forster saw such personal relationships as the last great hope of humankind. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” he declared in the shadow of the Third Reich, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Today, with the re-emergence of nationalism in America and around the world, loyalty to the collective over the individual is all too common again. To understand this sad state of affairs Hemley traveled to exclaves, enclaves, and overseas territories along the borders of countries such as India, Russia, Canada, and Cuba where cultures mix and patriotism is charged and problematic. He found his share of antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia along the way—the ugly upshot of nationalism—but he also, thank goodness, found members of The Beloved Republic whose friendships transcend national boundaries and offer hope for us all in a dangerously divided world.

—THE

 

February 28, 2020

 

from “On the Reliance of Verbs to Survive Death”

in How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences

by Sue William Silverman

 

“Of course it is preposterous, this notion of defying death by hauling memories into the present and keeping them always alive that way.”—THE

 

Sue William Silverman is a memoirist, poet, and teacher of writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published several books, including Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You; Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction; The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (Nebraska, 2014); and Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay “On the Reliance of Verbs to Survive Death” in her latest memoir How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences due to be released on March 1. In the essay she visits the Atlanta office of her former psychiatrist only to find out that he has died a few days earlier. The receptionist allows her to spend a few moments in the office which she writes about here, itemizing the various ways she must collapse time in her mind to keep him alive.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I must morph three time frames together: the "me" who I was/am when I live(d) in Georgia, when I was/am still his regular patient; the "me" who I was/am sitting on the couch two days after his death; and the "I" who I am now, at 2:34 p.m., May 13, 2015, in my home in Michigan. My responsibility here, as I discover how to survive death, is to merge selves and time frames into one present continuous moment. I must re-create the past as if it's the present: all eras coalescing into now. I refuse to consider the death of any given day. I carry each day forward with me.

 

—Sue William Silverman

Commentary

 

Of course it is preposterous, this notion of defying death by hauling memories into the present and keeping them always alive that way, and much of Sue William Silverman’s memoir is tongue-in-cheek. So in this devastatingly sad essay in a tour-de-force collection on escaping mortality, she sits in the office of her dead therapist deciding which object to steal and write about in order to keep him alive for an eternity, arguing with herself about whether she should filch his glasses or grab his Nike tennis shoes—“for all time”—and settles on a ballpoint pen which will forever bear the words “American Homecare Supply, Georgia” when she writes about it on May 13, 2015, at 2:34 p.m in her Michigan home. Yes, it is ludicrous and embarrassing, but she is also deadly serious about this little time trick along with her many other “techniques” for keeping death at bay. It is, after all, what personal essayists do, dragging the past into the present to keep it—and all of us—just this side of entirely gone.

—THE

March 13, 2020

from Heart Berries: A Memoir

by Terese Marie Mailhot

 

“I think you imagined I was sacred before you used me. My heart has an extra chamber now.”—Terese Marie Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot was born a First Nation Canadian from the Seabird Island Band. She graduated with an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She served as Saturday editor at The Rumpus and was a columnist at Indian Country Today. Her work appears in West Branch, Guernica, Pacific Standard, Elle, Medium, BuzzFeed, and the Los Angeles Times. She serves as faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and she’s a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.

Our feature—both the Paragraph of the Week and the Commentary--comes from her memoir Heart Berries  about trauma, sexual abuse, addiction, and neglect. It is also about the story of her fraught love affair with the writer Casey Gray—the “you” in these paragraphs whom she married. The two paragraphs mark off the emotional turmoil she endures in her memoir employing exactingly concise and surprising ordinary language.

Paragraph of the Week

 

You said you love to failure. I made you full and flushed. You loved me until your body failed your will. You said making love was kissing my eyelids. I kept them open once and saw you differently. You rooted against me and forced my eyes closed like little coffins. I wondered how many bitter ghosts it took to create a cold feeling in a room. My face was covered in your sweat. I was all points and sharp corners before I loved you.

—Terese Marie Mailhot

Commentary

 

I think you imagined I was sacred before you used me. My heart has an extra chamber now. I am more fragile than you know, more squaw and ornamental. I can turn my chin and pose like a figurine. I wonder how much you can know about being used? Can you wash me like a saint? From squaw, to mother with a face, and pores, and a body, and my own good history—I want my large heart, but older and safer, and clean. Can’t you wash me? Or hollow me out for good? Wash me in my own regard and pain, and let me dry out. Let me kill every ladybug and laugh when I do. Don’t leave me. I can’t bear to lose my sons, or any more of myself, or you.

—Terese Marie Mailhot

 

March 27, 2020

 

from “Is All Writing Environmental Writing”

in Best American Essays 2019

by Camille T. Dungy

 

“Camille T. Dungy…calls for a ‘de-pristining’ of nature, a term she invents for her rejection of a ‘rapturous idealized’ view of the wild.”—THE

 

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. Dungy has also edited anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and From the Fishhouse. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, the Georgia Review, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is a professor at Colorado State University. The Paragraph of the Week is from her essay "Is All Writing Environmental Writing" which in Best American Essays 2019.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Looking out my office windows where I live now in northern Colorado, I see the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on most days, and the actual Rockies on really clear ones. People in Fort Collins navigate by those mountains—which are to the west, and so, except on about five overcast days a year, you always know just where you are. The mountains are a constant guide. Consider how different this topographical navigation is from an orientation based on your proximity to a particular building, to a particular street—south of Houston, or SoHo, for instance—or navigation by some other man-made landmark—east of Central Park. Here I'm using references from New York City, the environment of my husband's youth; for him, thinking to navigate by nonhuman landmarks took a little time. Similarly, “two streets down from the Waffle House,” we might have said in the Virginia town where I once lived, or “just after the entrance to the college,” or "We're the house with the blue trim. If you reach the Church of Life, you've gone too far." In such urban environments, it might be difficult to remember that you are, in fact, in an “environment,” given that we've come to think of the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman, more akin to the foothills of my childhood than to the cul-de-sacs terraced into their sides. But that line of reasoning slides us toward the compartmentalization I resist. Our environments are always both human and other than human.

 

—Camille T. Dungy

Commentary

 

The answer to the question in the title of Camile T. Dungy’s essay “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” is “yes,” but only if we resist the idea of compartmentalizing literature into “human” and “other than human” subjects.  She does not want a literature that forgets that we are a part of nature and focuses solely on human experience, one that fails to see the mountains through the skyscrapers or the paths in the foothills running behind suburban cul-de-sacs. At the same time she resists the tendency to see “the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman,” one that might attempt to separate the scenic beauty of the Tallahatchee River, for instance, from the murder of Emmett Till whose body was discarded there. She calls for a “de-pristining” of nature, a term she invents for her rejection of a “rapturous idealized” view of the wild.  “Writing takes off for me,” she explains, “when I stop separating human experience from the realities of the greater-than-human world.” She is not insisting that we all write about the perilous fact that we are headed toward the sixth great extinction on planet earth, no matter how urgent that issue is, but Dungy’s notion of a literature of “fuzzed lines” between the human and more than human is radical because it bring us “face-to-face with the fragility of the Holocene—or, more precisely—the destructiveness of the Anthropocene,” reminding writers and readers alike of the damage that is done when we “build an age around the concerns of one species” and ignore the “delicate balance required” to sustain a rich variety of plant and animal life on a shared planet. If all writing is environmental writing in this way, it asserts that the edges of the natural and human worlds overlap and never lets us forget that “we live in community with all the other lives on earth.”

 

—THE

 
 

April 3, 2020

from “Standing Naked in a Pool of Her Clothing”

by Mary Haug

in River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction

“When Mary Haug watched a silver-haired woman kneel while bathing herself, she felt as if ‘she had joined a veritable ritual practiced by women for centuries.’”—THE

Our Paragraph of the Week is from Mary Haug’s essay “Standing Naked in a Pool of Her Clothing.”  It describes a visit to the baths in South Korea and is the first in our month-long celebration of the new anthology River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction which included Haug’s essay. River Teeth magazine, created by the editors Joe Mackall and Daniel W. Lehman, has for two decades published emerging and established writers of essay and memoir.  The founding editors will stay on as the magazine heads into its third decade under the new leadership of Jill Christman and Mark Neeley. Thanks to River Teeth for all it has done to promote personal prose.

Mary Woster Haug is the author of Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir published in 2014. She has published in several literary journals and anthologies and is currently writing a memoir about a murder that shocked her small South Dakota hometown in 1962. She is Professor Emeritus of English from South Dakota State University.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I once watched a frail, silver-haired woman kneel at the edge of the pool for forty-five minutes as she scrubbed herself, dipping a bowl into the pool and pouring the water over her head. There was something ancient about this woman and her scrubbing, and I imagined her years ago leaving the children and the cooking pots, the man in the rice field, and the small hut filled with smoke and grease, to gather by a stream with other women, to strip off her filthy, tattered clothes and wade into the cold, rushing water, to sit on the pebbles glittering beneath the stream, scrubbing off the dirt and grime of her daily life. In that moment, I felt as if I had joined a venerable ritual practiced by women for centuries.

—Mary Haug

Commentary 

At the age of 81, Mary Haug’s mother stood humiliated and shivering in a nursing home “her clothes in a pile around her feet.” It was the first time Mary had seen her modest, Irish-Catholic mother naked. Earlier, when she visited South Korea, Mary, modest herself, was reluctant to go to the hotel spa where Korean women commonly bathe naked, but she did and there she saw “girls gently scrub the backs of elderly women too stiff to reach round and wash themselves.” A woman who spoke no English mimed for her the various ways to bathe in the pools of bubbling water, overcoming the barrier of language to share the intimate experience. When Mary watched a silver-haired woman kneel while bathing herself, she felt as if “she had joined a veritable ritual practiced by women for centuries.” She knows that her mother would never have approved of bathing naked with others, but wonders if a relaxing of their inhibitions might have been a balm to them both as her mother became old and ill: “It might have been my hands that comforted her in her suffering, my tender hands that eased her dying.”

—THE

April 10, 2020

 

from “Small Rooms in Time”

by Ted Kooser

in River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction

 

“When robbers killed three people in a house where Ted Kooser once lived, the writer and poet admitted ashamedly that the deaths disturbed him less than the fact that they had happened in a place where he and his family once felt safe.”—THE

For the second feature in our month-long celebration of River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction we have chosen a Paragraph of the Week from the essay “Small Rooms in Time” which appears in the anthology. It is by Ted Kooser who is currently a Presidential Professor at The University of Nebraska where he teaches creative writing. In addition to fourteen critically acclaimed volumes of poetry he has published six books of nonfiction: Local Wonders, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Writing Brave and Free, Lights on a Ground of Darkness, The Wheeling Year, and A Poet's Field Book.

“Small Rooms in Time” is about Kooser’s response to murders that occurred in a house where he once lived prompting thoughts about what the houses from our past—frozen in time in the mind—mean to us.

The Paragraph of the Week

If my luck in this life had been worse I might have been that other father, occupied by some mundane task, perhaps fixing a leaky faucet when my son went to answer the door. But I was lucky and my son was lucky, and today, long after the murder, finding myself imagining that damp cellar room, peering down into it as if looking into a miniature cellar, I don't hear shots or see blood on the steps. I hear only soft sounds: my breath as I sit with my book, Diana's stocking feet as she pads along the hall above me, and water running into the bathtub as she gets ready to give our baby a bath.

—Ted Kooser

Commentary

 

When robbers killed three people in a house where Ted Kooser once lived, the writer and poet admits ashamedly that the deaths disturb him less than the fact that they happened in a place where he and his family once felt safe. What strikes him is the way the rooms of the houses of our past “become unchanged places within us, complete in detail.” It is not that life in that house had been perfect for Kooser, his first wife, and their baby son. Not long after living there the marriage fell apart. It is rather that their ordinary lives that played out in those rooms continues to play out in the toy house of his mind, and since the murders, that safe place is now out of reach. It was this sense of house as refuge that was disturbed by the murders. Kooser knows he and his family are the lucky ones, but since the killings “I have often peered into those rooms,” he writes, “where things went good for us at times and bad at times.  I have looked into the miniature house and seen us there as a young couple, coming and going, carrying groceries in and out, hats on, hats off, happy and sad.” Like the Alzheimer patient who used to bang on his door repeatedly to be let into a house where she no longer lived, Kooser feels locked out of that ordinary but safe past, unable to get in, “knowing by instinct that something good must still be waiting just inside.”

—THE

 

April 17, 2020

 

from “Black Marks”

by Sydney Lea

in River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction

 

“On his wife’s birthday writer Sydney Lea gazes at fresh tire marks likely made by teenage boys burning rubber, and weighs the role of chance in our lives.”—THE

A former Pulitzer finalist, Sydney Lea founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review. In the summer of 2018, Green Writers Press reissued his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. (We featured the work of Fleda Brown in 2019. You can read it in the archives.) This Paragraph of the Week is from Lea’s essay “Black Marks” that considers the role of luck in our lives. It is the third feature in THE’s month-long celebration of the new anthology River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction which included Lea’s essay.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Spring's familiar flocks of snow geese have begun to course over. Their doglike yelps sound woeful enough, yet the birds strike me as icons of life. Those that survive will come by again in late October. I imagine an autumn rain, this buckled roadbed a welter of mud and yellow leaves. I will smell that chamois odor of decaying sweet fern, which certifies the absolute death of summer.—Sydney Lea

Commentary

 

On his wife’s birthday writer Sydney Lea gazes at fresh tire marks likely made by teenage boys burning rubber, and weighs the role of chance in our lives. Twenty years earlier his wife and daughter arrived at this spot seconds after a car skidded across the road and hit a pine tree sparing his loved ones but killing a boy. In another incident, he himself narrowly missed killing a girl who was chasing a dog he ran over. “How sadly different,” his life would have been, he realizes, if either near miss had happened. Snow geese honking dolefully overhead mirror his melancholy mood and seem to him to be “icons of this life.” Only some of them will return in October, when he will “smell that chamois odor of decaying sweet fern which certifies the absolute death of summer.” The geese, like the marks on the road, serve as a reminder. We all await fortune’s “defining moment” where meaning and the end collide.—THE

 
 

April 24, 2020

 

from “God Guys”

by Maureen Stanton

in River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction

 

“Painting was transformative and soothing, the strokes becoming ‘a meditation, a quiet, steady motion that I get lost in,’ Maureen Stanton admits.”—THE

Maureen Stanton is the author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America, winner of a Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction, and Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood. Her nonfiction has been widely published, including in Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, New England Review, and Florida Review. She teaches at UMass Lowell.

 

This Paragraph of the Week is from “Good Guys,” an essay about work and meaning. It is the final feature in THE’s month-long celebration of the new anthology River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction which included Stanton’s essay.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

In painting, you are attempting the impossible, trying to control or defy the substance's natural property: flow. It's a somewhat ridiculous endeavor, but satisfying when you succeed. Transformation by paint is immediate. Paint beautifies. Paint redeems. It cleans and camouflages and lies. I am never as fast as the fastest painters, but after several months I can flick my wrist in one fluid motion to create a perfect arc around a doorknob. Painting becomes a meditation, a quiet, steady motion that I get lost in, a wide-open space where I can think and dream, lying under a ganglion of pipes with a bucket of Alaska Blue. Painters call missed spots "holidays," as if you were absent while painting. It's the right word. Hypnotized by the repetitive act of brushing or rolling, your body takes over, your mind checks out. You're split in half as neatly as the nucleus of an atom.

—Maureen Stanton

Commentary

 

Much of Maureen Stanton’s essay “Good Guys” is about the meaninglessness of applying for a temporary painting job with an atomic energy company when she was younger. To get security clearance she needed a “good guy” letter—yes, that’s the term in the letterhead—attesting to her fitness for the job as well as her willingness to fit in with the guys, apparently.  She had to take a psych exam, watch a film, pass a standardized test, undergo a health exam, have an interview with a psychiatrist, and get fingerprinted and photographed. Before she did the actual work, she was required to take a break, a concession negotiated by the union. All the while, she was subjected to some generally good natured, but sexist, banter for being a “lady painter.” When she entered the controlled area where the reactor is located she saw only ugliness at first and ribs a pipe fitter who thinks the site is beautiful, though later she too saw beauty in the curved ceiling and the rectangular tank of water for cooling rods, admitting that the “water is perfectly still and deep, calming.”  When she gets to the work itself she found it beautiful and calming, too. Painting may be paradoxical, a going against the natural tendency of paint to flow, as well as a kind of lie—a “camouflage” and a cover up—and she may not be the best at it, but eventually she learned how to circle a doorknob using a flick of the wrist. Painting was transformative and soothing, the strokes becoming “a meditation, a quiet, steady motion that I get lost in,” she admits,  “a wide-open space where I can think and dream, lying under a ganglion of pipes with a bucket of Alaska Blue.”  It was hypnotic and liberating, as the mind takes a “holiday,” the term painters us for missed spots, and is freed to roam, sheared from the body, the two “split in half as neatly as the nucleus of an atom.”

—THE

 

from “Winter in the Abruzzi”

in The Little Virtues

by Natalia Ginzburg

 

“There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man.”—Natalia Ginsburg

 

Natalia Ginsburg was a mid-twentieth century Italian author whose work explored family relationships, politics, and philosophy. She wrote novels, short stories and essays, for which she received the Strega Prize and the Bagutta Prize.

 

“Winter in Abruzzi” is from her collection The Little Virtues: Essays translated by Dick Davis. Growing out of her experiences in exile with her family in a small town during World War II, the essay serves as a reminder that times of dread and monotony have their own beauty and should not be taken for granted. In that way it also speaks to the ache of our time.

You can read the essay in full here. It is only eleven paragraphs, which is the way we measure things here at The Humble Essayist, but please before you leave read these two paragraphs below first.

Paragraph of the Week

 

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.

—Natalia Ginzburg

Commentary

 

What are the “intensest joys” of Natalia Ginzburg during her winter living in exile in the Italian town of Abruzzi during World War II? They include “the various desultory events” of small-town life: “the green stove with its long chimney that went through the ceiling” where she, her husband, and their three children cooked and ate; the bell of Santa Maria that sounded when a person died; the dressmaker who sometimes made dumplings for her; the story about a father killing one wife who served him the children of another wife in a stew; Giro’s shop where hungry boys chased after the rotten oranges that the stingy grocer threw away; long walks in the snow; and many more details of life in a poor, wartime village. All the while Ginzburg dreams of something better, though she never gives us the contents of her dreams. Perhaps she longed just to escape exile and find safety for herself and her fugitive husband. Perhaps her dreams were grander. She came to learn what mattered the hard way which is the way we learn this lesson I’m afraid. It was not the dream which is an illusion that has "nothing to do with reality," but the time that passed while the dream “glowed within us,” a time long gone that we look back on with regret. “And in this succession of hopes and regrets,” she writes, “our life slips by.”

 

—THE

 

from Folly Beach: An Essay on Family, Fear, Physics, Philosophy & Fun

by Steven Harvey

 

“The sand fort—our folly—looks brilliant, the twin castles mighty and fortified, bounded by thick walls and topped with a cracked conch.”—Steven Harvey

For more than five years we at The Humble Essayist have been promoting on a weekly basis the personal prose of more than 200 writers, and it has been a pleasure. This week though we celebrate the launch of a new book by The Humble Essayist himself, the hardly humble Steven Harvey.

 

The book, Folly Beach: An Essay on Family, Fear, Physics, Philosophy & Fun begins at dawn on Folly Beach as the author in the year of his retirement from a lifetime of teaching strums his ukulele and realizes that he is waving goodbye to all he loves. The thought colors his week, but does not darken it, as he looks up architectural follies—goofy and useless buildings that do little more than celebrate their own creation—and contemplates the power of  creativity as a consolation for loss.  The book, a folly itself, is full of such apparently useless but life-affirming creations including a sand fort that he and his family build which is the subject of our Paragraph of the Week. A second paragraph from the book about the collapse of the fort provides the commentary.

Learn more about Folly Beach at Steven Harvey's author page here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

The sand fort—our folly—looks brilliant, the twin castles mighty and fortified, bounded by thick walls and topped with a cracked conch. As we gather around it our bodies cast evening shadows over the scene. With one wave the sea spills into the moat and laps up the walls. Maddie adds more shells and shifts the empty hermit crab shell into a defensive crouch guarding one of the jackknife-shell drawbridges. Squinting in the glare, Owen surveys the enemy as it swirls closer. He pats the waves with his bare hands and then cups his hands against the approaching water, but the tide floods between his feet and hands and sweeps past him. It creeps between wall crevices, disintegrating buttresses and spreading onto the castle grounds. Owen and Maddie dance in front of the tide, waving their arms and screaming at the water but they cannot stop its advance.

Commentary

 

One corner of the fort completely collapses and water pools there and soaks into the dry sand. Maddie and Owen create an outpost for survivors on the tops of sunken pylons and throw mud inside the castle to build it up, but the water keeps coming, hitting the beach from one angle and receding in another forming foamy chevrons as it retreats, getting closer with each series of waves. Soon another corner collapses and the entire moat fills with water. A wave brings down most of the eastern wall and water in waves comes crashing into the fortress. Unable to contain his excitement, Owen dances more wildly, arms in the air when the castle begins to collapse. He grabs some mud in both hands with no clear plan, but stops and merely stares as waves overtop the Donjon and flood the empty hermit crab shell. The castle keep is the last structure to fall, collapsing into its own melting foundation—the cupola roof sinking into the dark fortress sliding like a sash into sand lit yellow at sunset—and when it is done, Maddie and Owen stomp down the rounded remnants of former glory. When we leave, the fortress is indistinguishable from the rest of the beach as if it were only a dream.

 

May 15, 2020

 

from Lineage

by Robert Root

 

“You get to choose the color of hopeyou have to choose it.”—Robert Root

 

In Lineage, Robert Root once again scours his past to uncover his true inheritance from his ancestors. In the end he finds that he is closest to his grandmother, Betsy, pictured below, who may or may not have met him when he was an infant. Like him, she was a highly educated student of human psychology, eager and earnest about life, with an ambition to write. For that reason his search for Betsy becomes the most intense, and moving, portrait in the book.

 

Robert Root is the author of many books including Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale, Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now and Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. He has written two essay collections, Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place and Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. He is also the author of two memoirs, Happenstance and Lineage.  The titles themselves indicate his fascination with recovering the past.

 

The Paragraph of the Week is from the memoir Lineage, his newest book. He likens it to a medieval polyptych in which he arranges  "discreet images into an impressionistic whole" assembling "brief essays and vignettes to investigate images, texts, and memories across family history." The goal is not only a better understanding of the past, but a coming to terms with the present. You can learn more about his work at his website here, and learn more about Lineage, including more excerpts and photos, here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Most of us have had our portraits taken for one sort of commemorative occasion or another: the school yearbook, graduation, wedding, employer’s promotional event. We usually have a portfolio to look through, a chance to choose the photo we hope best represents ourselves the way we want to be seen by whoever views the image. Often the photos have been retouched at the photographer’s studio, blemishes deleted, colors heightened or subdued, background cropped to increase or decrease contrast. If we hold up the final portrait, place it on our shoulder, and face ourselves in the bedroom or bathroom mirror, how often does the face of the living subject replicate exactly the face preserved in the photo? How well does the commemorated you record the living you? How well, I wonder, would the living face of the woman in the portrait that hung in our living room all the years I was growing up have resembled her photographic image?

—Robert Root

Commentary

 

Few cast a colder eye on the past than Robert Root. Sorting through the photographs, hand-written notes, published material, and other artifacts of his ancestors in Lineage, he scrupulously questions each source, as he does here wondering if the photographer’s enhancements hide the real person in the photo. And yet, of all of his relatives it is this woman, his grandmother Betsy—psychologist and newspaper columnist—that he feels most akin to even though he cannot remember meeting her when he was a child. So he studies and compares her pictures, gathers information about her private and public life, and edits and publishes her articles. In a creative writing session he writes a letter to her and then, following the instructor’s prompt, writes her letter back to him, all in an attempt to bridge the gap between them. He adopts her throwback theory of lineage—that we not only inherit physical traits from relatives, but attitudes, mannerisms, talents and ambitions as well, even from relatives from the distant past. It is our complete lineage. Beyond all of the research, it is this belief in a shared, inherited sensibility that connects him most intimately to his grandmother and offers the best guide for reaching her. Emotion pushes back against skepticism. “If there were a way for what I feel to reach my grandmother somehow—a way I don’t believe exists—I’m sure my feelings would reach her.” Later he writes, “all I can do now is feel what I feel and believe it’s enough to be able to feel it,” adding that this mutuality of emotion is as “close to being in touch with one another” as he and his grandmother will ever be. The grandmother he seeks is within him, in the feelings of love and affection he inherited from her, he realizes, and reservations about recovering her at last recede. “You get to choose the color of hope,” he explains, “you have to choose it.”

—THE

 

from “The Physics of Sorrow”

in River Teeth 21:1

by Leonard Winograd

 

and from “On the Intimacies of Revision”

in Essay Daily

by Kathryn Winograd

 

“…maybe it's this black hole we're in, waiting until the right time to come out and show itself.”—Leonard Winograd

 

“Revision is an act of intimacy. It is a process of craft, a process of heart.”—Kathryn Winograd

“The Physics of Sorrow” by Leonard Winograd is about the fragility of human beings in a dynamic and evolving universe pocked with black holes, and the inability of a father to protect those he loves. His anxieties come into sharp focus when he learns that his newly-married, twenty-eight year old daughter Kitty had an epileptic seizure in her bed followed soon after by another while talking with her sister Mira, and a new black hole opened in his life.

 

It is only the second published essay by Leonard, who is a playwright, but it is accomplished and artfully constructed. His wife, the essayist and poet Kathryn Winograd, worked with him on the revision. She helped him frame the original, which Leonard dismissed as “a list of everything that sucks about retirement,” and identify the main thread using colored markers. At her urging he made cuts and revised sentences and each time when he came back with a draft from the basement the essay improved. Kathy described the process in a piece she wrote for Essay Daily called “On the Intimacies of Revision,” and it is a brief but illuminating clinic on the revising process that I urge all essayists to read.

 

So here it is. Our first husband and wife team at The Humble Essayist! Leonard Winograd is a playwright who taught English and literature at the Community College of Denver for over 30 years. Kathryn Winograd, poet and essayist, teaches creative writing at the Regis Mile-High MFA. Her most recent book is Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children.

—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

I can't forget, much as I try, Mira’s description of her as she had that second seizure. Sitting in the dining room, Kitty began talking about experiencing déjà vu, smelling something burning. When Mira asked her what she was talking about, she slowly turned to stare at something in the corner. There was a look of horror on her face, and then she began to shake fiercely, drool coming out of her mouth. What dark thing so terrified her? Where did it come from? All their lives we tried to shelter and protect them, insulate them from the encroaching fires. Where was that insulation now, those wall anchors, that siding wrapping the house, that defensible perimeter, keeping the darkness, the flames out, keeping the cracks, the rot from infiltrating? How had it got in? Or maybe it hadn't, maybe it's inside her, maybe it's inside all of us, all along, some dark monster we try to hold back, keep down, repress, maybe it's this black hole we're in, waiting until the right time to come out and show itself.

—Leonard Winograd

Commentary

 

Revision is an act of intimacy. It is a process of craft, a process of heart. The writer bears down into what he had originally, intrinsically, only touched on, and did not yet fully know. And that knowing, when it happens, makes its presence felt in even the smallest changes: an added phrase for context at the start of an essay, “Since I retired,” or a change of phrasing from “smelling gas” to “smelling something burning” that links inner fires to outer fires, or the heightening of a transition from “Maybe it’s all the solitude, introspection that darkens things” to an allusion—here, to King Lear, Shakespeare another passion of the husband’s—“The mortal smell hasn’t only come off me.” Or, more heartbreakingly, through the switch from a throw-away cliché like “a kick in the teeth” to a father’s cry against the blackest of holes: “And yet, and yet, it is Kitty, Kitty, who has incomparably suffered the most.”

—Kathryn Winograd

You can find Leonard’s essay in River Teeth 21:1 and those with access to Project Muse can read it here. Kathryn’s full essay can be found at Essay Daily here.

May 29, 2020

 

from Travel Light, Move Fast

by Alexandra Fuller

 

“Then quite suddenly, but slowly, very slowly, Dad’s hand moved….Mum sat utterly still, her eyes closed.”Alexandra Fuller

 

In Travel Light, Move Fast Alexandra Fuller recreates the chaotic and unpredictable life of her father who squandered his inheritance in unrestrained living mostly in Africa. He “lost nearly everything,” she writes, “and it wasn’t easy.” His was, she wrote, “a riotous little life.”

 

What struck me the most, though, were moments of tenderness and heartfelt affection that emerge in her story as well. The two paragraphs below which describe her dying father capture one such moment. In it he reaches his hand up “slowly, very slowly” to the face of Tub—his affectionate name for his wife—as a way to say goodbye.

 

Fuller is the author of several memoirs including Travel Light, Move Fast, Leaving Before the Rains Come, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

 

Both the paragraphs are from Travel Light, Move Fast.

 

Paragraphs of the Week

 

He touched her hair first. Then he worked his way down her forehead, her arched brows, those cheekbones, that chiseled nose; as if her legendary beauty were one of his beloved old maps he'd pored over, tracing every river and contour, before heading out into the bush and getting completely lost anyway.

 

From her jawline, he ran his forefinger across her chin until he met the little cleft in the middle, then he gave a tap. "Chin up, Tub," he may as well have said the words, his final instruction to her. And at last her lips, he slowly ran his fingers over her lips, back and forth until she smiled; her final gift to him.—Alexandra Fuller

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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