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Like Memory

 

I've mentioned before how scenes that surface in my reading, whatever my reading, sometimes trigger unexpected moments in memory, often rising from some deep catacomb in my mind. In the past, when I was more professorial—some blog entries may suggest academic tendencies—I would have tracked down literary or psychological references about it and quote other people's examples. But lately I'm less inclined to pontificate publicly about such theories and more internally prompted to learn how such moments happen to me.

 

Take, for example, how moments in Michele Morano's essay "All the Power This Charm Doth Owe" ignited moments in my own memory. I admired her earlier book, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, and I was moved and thoroughly engaged with Like Love, her most recent work. Throughout intimate, artful, and absorbing essays, she explores the complications and ambiguities of relationships. Readers living through them with her risk reviving complications and ambiguities in their own pasts. That could be a good thing—I recommend it; certainly, it set me to reviewing memories of my own that I haven't consulted for a very long time.

 

That particular essay startled me with references to Iowa City. Morano and I both graduated from the University of Iowa, many years apart. The experimental nonfiction courses I studied in eventually became her MFA program. As graduate assistants we both taught courses for undergraduates. She mentions teaching an "Introduction to Literature class that included Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream"; I taught Interpretation of Literature, as well as courses other GAs avoided: Drama (including a Shakespeare play), Medieval & Renaissance Literature, and Ancient & Biblical Literature (the course that eventually got me a college teaching job and a career).

 

In her essay, Morano refers to familiar locations. She recalls having "looked out on the English-Philosophy building where I taught and took classes, and on the massive library where I'd spent so many hours . . ." Reading that sentence I immediately visualize those buildings and navigating sidewalks between them, their entrances, staircases, hallways. I stop reading to tour memories of the EPB: the office I shared with another GA, classrooms I learned or taught in, offices where I met teachers and advisors. I remember searching shelves in the library, checking out or returning books, sitting at tables near windows with a view of the Iowa River, eventually earning a study carrel.

 

"The heart of Iowa City is a leafy, T-shaped pedestrian mall," she tells us, and recalls sitting on a bench there with a companion, "ice cream in hand, the music from a live salsa band down the block rocking our feet and shoulders. Small children marched past, followed by their parents, and the occasional grad student waved hello." What comes back to me is climbing up to the Old Capitol Building from the riverside, crossing to the university bookstore, circling the block to Prairie Lights Bookstore where so many literary readings were held, walking to a bar where some graduate poets and grad students worked, sitting alone at a movie theater matinee. Much more of the city winks from memory's shadows. I lived there six and a half years, through four years of teaching and a post-doctoral year. Being a grad student and hanging out on campus were things I was good at.

 

Michele Morano ponders aspects of love in her Iowa City life; I lived a different life from hers in my time there. My wife and I lived in a sprawling graduate student apartment complex where, in time, my son and my daughter were born, where my interactions with student families were social and energetic, especially when we gathered for volleyball, and possibly where that first marriage began to unravel. Morano's essay didn't remind me of any of that, some of which I've written about elsewhere, but it's only now, writing this, that I start thinking again about those aspects of my Iowa City life.

 

It's not that I'd forgotten them by any means but reading Morano's essay didn't immediately call them to mind. The reading turned on a light in a darkened room and reminded me of having been in it. I remembered the room and some more superficial aspects of it. To really remember living in it myself I would need to step fully out of that author's life and let the light further illuminate other spaces to reveal more of my life there to me. The illuminating happens the more I write about being there, the way writing tends to do. For now, I'll settle for recalling the spaces in Iowa City that, decades apart, Michele Morano and I both wandered through.

 

 

Notes: Morano, Michele. "All the Power This Charm Doth Owe," Like Love. Columbus, OH: Mad Creek Books, 2020: 153-191. Michele's website:  www.michelemorano.com

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Waiting for the Apocalypse

 

We are living in a time of fundamental change, making it necessary to reassess who we are, what we value, why we make certain choices. What we are confronted with is disturbing, even alarming, its scale and scope extending to universal dimensions.

 

Days before I wrote this, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, sending images and sounds from a distant planet that alter our sense of our place in our solar system. Here on Earth a global pandemic had caused over two and a half million deaths worldwide, a fifth of them in our country. Politically, the democracy that once distinguished us had been at severe risk, and its restoration is still under challenge. Much of this century's entertainment focuses on the chaotic and the apocalyptic, abundant depictions of our civilizations, our cultures, our very existence facing willful degradation and potential extinction. The helplessness of the people of Texas confronted with freezing weather, inoperable power, and inaccessible water sources provides a concentrated image of where we are on a larger scale. The cumulative effect of all this has been to awaken awareness of our irrelevance to the universe.

 

But recognizing our irrelevance to the universe shouldn't encourage indifference to the lives we're actually living or the places we experience them. Many of us can't help sharing their thoughts about what they've realized. Any number of encouraging posts by people on Facebook emphasize how to recognize who we are and where we are and how to adjust positively to that knowledge. My friend Lisa Hadden recently posted a passage from Lyrical Zen titled "Ancestral Mathematics." It listed the number of ancestors, from 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents on up to 2,048 ninth great-grandparents and, by the 12th generation, a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years necessary for any of us to exist. To be alive today means that your lineage never terminated from the earliest homo sapiens in your genealogy until now.

 

I'm a grandfather; I'm aware that my lineage has extended beyond me. Once there was me, then I became one of two ancestors, and now I'm one of four ancestors my descendants can trace. Making it into the group of eight great-grandparents is remotely possible, but probably no further. By then, each younger generation of my lineage will have generated even younger generations, offspring I may never have knowledge of. That's the way life works. The great-grandparents I met as a toddler left only the slightest, foggiest impression on me; likely I made little on them. By the time I came along, I was only the newest of their great-grandchildren, and they saw me seldom before they left existence. In the course of daily living, we seldom consider how transitory existence is for everyone, even when we acknowledge those in generations before ours who are no longer with us or those friends and prominent strangers we were once familiar with who have now "departed"—have "passed," as funeral directors politely term it. My grandparents gone, my parents gone, recently my sister and my brother gone, one of my closest friends gone. Over the past 400 years more than four thousand ancestors gone.

 

That "Ancestral Mathematics" post, after enumerating generations past, asks readers, "Think for a moment – How many struggles? How many battles? How many difficulties? How much sadness? How much happiness? How many love stories? How many expressions of hope for the future? – did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment?" The questions are not ones we can readily answer, although family records sometimes may hint at some of them, but we recognize the issues being raised. How much happiness? How much sadness? What and whom did they love and who loved them? What did they hope for and what hopes were realized? We can't always say but we certainly believe that these were what they experienced. How different could they have been from us?

 

The questions we might ask of our ancestors are ones it would be fair for our descendants to ask of us. They are questions we might ask of ourselves. What consolations did we find as we waited for the apocalypse? What happiness did we find in the world we lived in? What did we do to make a better world for those for whom we would be ancestors? What hopes did we try to fulfill and how well did we realize them? What struggles, battles, difficulties will we have left our descendants to face? When the time comes that none of our descendants will ever have been in the world when we were, what will we hope they might still carry on from us? How much more at peace with themselves do we hope they'll be?

 

 

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Book and Movie

 

I just completed a rare combination, at least for me, of reading and viewing. I read Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle, an updated 2017 edition of his original 1995 book. Then I viewed The Dark Divide, a film based on Pyle's book starring David Cross as Pyle and Debra Messing as Pyle's wife Thea. A short promotional video included scenes from the trailer, interviews with Pyle, Cross, and director Thomas Putnam and occasional mention of Bigfoot. The book is a series of chapters about Pyle's travels in Bigfoot terrain, his research, and his conversations with people who wrote, both pro and con, about Bigfoot's existence. Pyle isn't totally convinced but, especially in additional material for the new edition, tends to lean that way. A respected lepidopterist, he also writes authoritatively about butterflies, moths, wildlife, and terrain. His scientific observations often deflect his attention from narrative. The book is less a nature memoir than a blend of informative reflection interspersed with trail observations.

 

Pyle as a writer was not unknown to me. Years ago, living near Denver, I discovered The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, his 1993 nature memoir about the High Line Canal in Colorado, near where he grew up. Because I'd grown up near the Erie Canal in western New York, I was curious about parallels we perhaps shared in our youth and also eager to learn about unfamiliar western terrain. Recently, a joint online presentation of Pyle with Scott Russell Sanders led me first to his Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays and then, somehow, to both the Bigfoot book and the movie.

 

Curiosity about the film made me read the book first. It's not often that a nature book gets dramatized into a story film. The Dark Divide is not a documentary; it doesn't play like an episode of Nova or Nature or other PBS programs. A trailer I'd seen convinced me it was filmed in the Pacific Northwest and offered a thorough sense of the terrain Pyle traveled through to research his book. The movie's title was taken from the subtitle of the book; viewers shouldn't expect close encounters of the Sasquatch kind. Spoiler alert: A single muddy footprint is the only sign of Bigfoot in the film. Pyle is sometimes alarmed by vague sounds, but no hairy giants emerge from the forest.

 

Though ostensibly set in 1995, the film was created decades later. In that 27-year-long-gap between them, the personal changes in the lives of the main characters altered the interpretation of Pyle's experiences in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In the book Thea Pyle has a minor but useful role as a backup figure in her husband's travel plans, but she died in 2013, twenty years after it was published; in the film, she is introduced as suffering from cancer and Pyle is presented as hesitant to leave her to head into the wilderness to hunt for lepidoptera. Only after her death does he set out, haunted by her earlier urging. The film presents Pyle as someone psychologically unprepared for wilderness wandering; Cross plays him as often confused or clumsy or uncertain, while the Pyle who narrates the book is assured and reliable and confident as both scientist and outdoorsman.

 

The film is dedicated to Thea and the credits mention drawing material from Pyle's other books. These alterations in the life facts surrounding the book affect our understanding of the film as an adaption of it. The film is largely the story of one man's expedition into unfamiliar terrain in the wake of tremendous loss, responding belatedly to the encouragement his dying wife gave him while they were still together. His experiences are alternately comical, arduous, harrowing, and healing. He comes through them as a man altered in his sense of himself. The Dark Divide is an actual portion of the landscape in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, but metaphorically it suggests the descent into grief and ascent into recovery. The visual elements of the film reinforce that distinction sequentially—at one point, Pyle clambers through a long underground passage, finds pictographs on cave walls, and weeps in the darkness before emerging. He is a stronger individual by the end of his trek.

 

I'm quite fond of both Where Bigfoot Walks and The Dark Divide, but I'm not inclined to recommend reading and viewing them sequentially or even close together. They don't reinforce one another as perhaps a production of a Shakespearean play might validate a previous reading of it. Instead, together they make us aware of the demands each genre makes on the way it presents its material. That's not a criticism; it's an explanation.

 

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Writing In Place

Rocky Mountain National Park

 

An invitation to visit Diane Freedman's advanced undergraduate course titled "Cabin in the Woods," online at the University of New Hampshire, sent me searching for my writings about place. I'm to share some writing and some personal reflections centered on "the reality/idea of a cabin" and discuss what influence it might have had on my writing and thinking. Students will read Walden and investigate other works that offer variations on Thoreau's example or openly acknowledge his influence. The course description mentions such writers as Annie Dillard, May Sarton, Bernd Heinrich, Henry Beston, John Haines, Sue Hubbell, Anne LaBastille, Tom Montgomery Fate, and E. B. White, most of whom mention Thoreau's presence in their writing. I've made pilgrimages (of a sort) to some of the places explored in their books—the sea has swept away the site of Beston's The Outermost House, Thoreau's demolished cabin exists only in reproduction, and White's shack on the Maine coast can barely be seen from a distance—and walking the land where they and such Thoreauvian writers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth have walked has invigorated and inspired me. I've even been inside Leopold's shack.

 

Once, on sabbatical, I spent a week at Great Pond in Maine where E. B. White so often vacationed throughout his life, the inspiration for his great essay "Once More to the Lake." The following week, carrying a copy of White's essay about Walden, I stayed in Concord, strolling around Walden Pond, walking through the cemetery where Thoreau and Emerson are buried, steeping myself in the atmosphere of place. The essay my pilgrimage inspired, "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," retraces White's visit and records my own, both deeply aware of Thoreau's sojourn there. I reread it recently, realizing how much more writing in place I did in the wake of that research trip.

 

I'd already written about my time in a cabin in the woods a decade earlier. In the summer of 1993, I lived for two weeks on Scoville Point, the end of a narrow peninsula on the northeast side of Isle Royale National Park, where I hoped to get to know the island in the way the diarist Ruth Douglass experienced it in 1848-1849. It was my first time as an artist-in-residence at a national park. I hiked and canoed on my own for one week and then my wife and I hiked and canoed together the second week. I remember how silent we were driving away from Lake Superior at the end of the residency, not eager to return to the frantic world where we usually lived.

 

That first park residency prompted me to apply for others. During one summer in Colorado, in the midst of researching and writing about Isabella Bird's time there in 1873, I lived for two weeks in a very comfortable cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park, once owned in the early 20th century by the Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White. It gave me ready access to forest trails and mountain tops, with coyotes and mule deer and elks and cottontails and golden-mantled squirrels, magpies and hummingbirds and green-tailed towhees for occasional neighbors. In time I would climb 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak. It was exhilarating to think of myself as an inhabitant of that park, to wake each morning and see the mountains waiting for me across the flatlands below the cabin.

 

Two years later, no doubt inspired by reading both White and Thoreau, my final residency took me to Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, encompassing Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Point on the mainland, and Isle au Haut, the furthest island offshore. Over days of wandering coastal shorelines, climbing up rocky bluffs, summiting open-topped mountains, sometimes sitting on a cobblestone beach until rising tides reminded me to find higher ground, my immersion was continually rewarding. The park rangers let me stay for one night in a cabin on Isle au Haut and I envied them their opportunities to occupy it longer.

 

In my short virtual visit to that course, I may be asked to answer that question about what a cabin in the woods might represent for my writing life and mind. I'll need to revisit my earlier writing, find those envelopes filled with AiR photos, skim the daybooks and journals I kept, try to relive my nights in those cabins and my days wandering beyond them. I may also have to read Walden once more. Even though I've already dog-earred very many of his pages, I'm certain Thoreau will remind me again how much I still need to write about place.

 

 

Notes: "The Pattern of Life Indelible," "The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky," "Terra Cognita," and "Time and Tide" are in Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 27-44, 45-67, 149-177. They can also be found online:

 

"The Everlastingly Great Look of the Sky: Thoreau and E. B. White at Walden Pond," The Concord Saunterer New Series. 12/13 (2004/2005): 370-387.

 

"The Pattern of Life Indelible," Ecotone: Reimagining Place 1:2 (Winter/Spring 2006): 152-167.

 

"Terra Cognita" and "Time and Tide." Acadia National Park Artist-in-Residence Online Catalog.

 

"Time and Tide," Ascent, 2010, http://www.readthebestwriting.com/time-and-tide-robert-root/

 

 

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Everybody Wants to be Thoreau

 

(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1984)

 

Everybody wants to be Thoreau. That is, the best of our modern essayists and nature writers have imbibed the spirit of the author of Walden along with their taste for outdoor air, and he continually haunts their perceptions of the world and their judgments about their own and others' work.

 

Pre-eminent among them is E. B. White, who, describing his retreat from hectic New York City life to an idyllic Maine saltwater farm, wrote his own Walden in One Man's Meat. Throughout his career White continually felt Thoreau's presence at his shoulder, declaring, "I should hate to be called a Thoreauvian, yet I wince every time I walk into the barn I'm pushing before me, seventy-five feet by forty, and the author of Walden has served as the conscience of my trivial days." Time and again White used Thoreau as the measure of conscience and of observation, writing that, "I'd like to stroll about the countryside in Thoreau's company for a day, observing the modern scene . . . and offering belated apologies for my sins." He wryly observed that "Thoreau is unique among writers in that those who admire him find him uncomfortable to live with—a regular hairshirt of a man."

 

Other writers find him equally omnipresent. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe John McPhee discovers that everyone canoeing the Allagash River with him has virtually memorized Thoreau's The Maine Woods, discussing around the campfire Henry's accuracy and the Allagash's changes. Thoreau is the ghostly passenger in each canoe, somehow an essential element of the forest and the river.

 

But he doesn't only haunt the locales of his life—Concord and Cape Cod and Maine; his spirit travels wherever literate people wander the wilderness. Edward Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire is a Walden of the American southwest, writes of reading Thoreau while rafting the Colorado. Trying to discover support for his own perceptions, Abbey most often turns to Thoreau. In Beyond the Wall he writes that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul," and then adds, "Or as an old friend of mine once said, 'If I regret anything it is my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?'"

 

Such writers not only see themselves in Henry's terms but judge each other by measuring their integrity and insight against Thoreau's. Larry McMurty calls Edward Abbey "the Thoreau of the American West," and Edward Hoagland writes of Abbey that "like Thoreau, he is at times ornery and subversive in thrust, undeterred by the tastemakers of his own day, a man still 'with the bark on.'" The Washington Post identifies Hoagland as "the Thoreau of our time," and the American Academy of Arts and Letters claims that Hoagland's voice sounds "like Thoreau's, the sharp note of man's independence." Scott Elledge says of E. B. White that, "early on, he knew, like Thoreau, that contemplation was a form of creativity."

 

All this sense of Thoreau's ghostly presence in modern creative life, all this measuring of modern accomplishments against Thoreau's model, should make us suspect that something in his life and work still speaks with vitality and force to fundamental, universal issues. E. B. White called Walden "a document of increasing pertinence" and Edward Abbey wrote, "Thoreau becomes more significant with each passing decade. The deeper and faster our United States hurl themselves into industrialism, urbanism, militarism and authoritarianism—with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America—the more poignant, strong and appealing becomes Thoreau's demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile."

 

As we turn with delight and pleasure to the writing of our modern day Thoreaus, we might do well to occasionally return to the source, just as they do.

 

Note: Thoreau's influence continues

 

Fate, Tom Montgomery. Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild (2012)

Gessner, David. Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (2021)

Gessner, David. A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod (1997)

LaBastille, Annie. Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness (1976)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Living at the End of Time: Two Years in a Tiny House (1990)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (1995)

Sanders, Scott Russell. "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86). Originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122.

 

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Reading Thoreau

 

I'm curious about the effects writing can have on readers, certain that what we react to in literature arises from our own personalities, the experiences we've had, our memories of people we've known and events we've lived through. Talking to people about books you and they have read or films or plays you and they have seen you often sense that they read something other than what you read or witnessed a different performance even though they sat right next to you when you witnessed it. I remember, years ago, seeing An Unmarried Woman with faculty friends and hearing reactions that varied widely among the happily married couple, the divorcees in a second marriage, the troubled married couple, and the never-married bachelor.

 

Over the years I've gravitated toward writers who eventually revealed their admiration for the same earlier writers. One such writer is Scott Russell Sanders, who examines his relationship with Henry David Thoreau in "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations," an essay collected in The Way of Imagination. It's a significant study of the effect an individual book may have on a younger writer's development of over the course of his career.

 

Sanders tells us that he first read Walden at seventeen, "at the urging of a high school teacher who sensed that my adolescent mind, brimming with questions, would benefit from grappling with a truly radical thinker." He admits, "Much of the book baffled me." Because Sanders' country upbringing was among "thrifty, resourceful people," he appreciated "Thoreau's effort to provide some of the necessities of life with his own hands"—the physical labor constructing his cabin, chopping firewood, fetching pond water, and hoeing beans—but he didn't understand Thoreau's taking "pains to distinguish between the necessities of life and the luxuries, between enough and too much." He was excited by "Thoreau's desire to lead a meaningful life" and thrilled by his effort to explain what he lived for. His high school teacher was certainly right about Sanders' "adolescent mind, brimming with questions." He too imagined life having "a purpose beyond mere survival and the passing on of genes, beyond piling up possessions, beyond auditioning for paradise"—(what a great phrase)—but he didn't know what its purpose might be.

 

He quotes Thoreau's best-known passage: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary." That first reading of Walden encouraged Sanders to emulate "Thoreau's determination to observe and enjoy the marvels of Earth, to be fully awake and alive, right here, right now."

 

In the interval since that first reading, "fifty years and many rereadings later," Sanders acknowledges that Walden has become both "less bewildering, since I have made my share of difficult choices and suffered my share of losses, and also more challenging, since I have come to recognize more clearly my own limitations as well as those of the book." He recognizes that both he and Thoreau moved beyond Walden in their lives and their writing but acknowledges that the first reading was a formative experience for him and that "the example of Thoreau's life and the challenge of his thought remain potent influences for me, as they have been potent influences for generations of readers." Considering the age in which we live, the kinds of lifestyles that multitudes of us have acquiesced to almost automatically, he asserts that "we need more than ever to ask the questions posed in Walden": What is life for? What are the necessities of a good life? What is our place in nature? How should we spend our days? These are vital questions.

 

The broader assertion Sanders makes in the essay is this: "Great books read us as surely as we read them, revealing by the aspects of our character and personal history they illuminate, who we are." He confesses telling his students that, even if Walden doesn't speak to their condition, other books will—they will, in essence, read them, reveal who they are. Who we are is not always something we know well and he hopes that, whatever the book may be, it will be "giving voice to what you have felt but have not been able to say, asking your deeper questions, stirring you to more intense life." It's what reading Thoreau did for him and what it's done for a good many other readers, myself among them.

 

 

Note: "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86), was originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122. Downloadable at https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/DAED_a_00260

 

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The Way of the Essayist

 

I've been collecting the nonfiction of Scott Russell Sanders for over thirty years now. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont, the last writing workshop I attended as a student, I sat with him at lunch a couple of times. I remember he insisted that "nonfiction" or "non-fiction" was not a useful term for what he wrote, since it only identified what his writing wasn't—it was not fiction. He pointed out that it was also non-poetry, non-play, non-article.

 

I tended to agree with him, though I was then deeply involved in "creative nonfiction," the adjective an effort at specifying the nature of the noun. Dropping the hyphen helped. Others preferred "literary nonfiction" or "nonfiction narrative," each alternative suggesting the possibility of "non-literary non-fiction" or "non-creative non-fiction" or "nonnarrative nonfiction." I felt we were stuck with "nonfiction" and later used it (self-consciously) in my own titles and subtitles (The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction; Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place).

 

Sanders' intimate, open essay "The Inheritance of Tools" in Best American Essays 1987 introduced his writing to me and led me to his first collection, The Paradise of Bombs and Other Essays, centered on family and place in the Midwest—he lived and taught in Indiana. In an essay from Writing from the Center (1995), he wrote, "I write from within a family, a community, and a landscape, concentric rings of duty and possibility. I refuse to separate my search for a way of writing from my search for a way of living." I liked the idea of what he termed "a literature of inhabitation." I'd grown up and attended college in western New York, earned graduate degrees in Iowa, and taught for decades at a university in Michigan. Sanders and I were, in a sense, coming to our writing from similar places. His collections like Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (1993) and Writing from the Center encouraged me not to be one of the "nomads who write about no place at all" but to be among the writers who "have settled down and rooted their art in a chosen place . . ."

 

Recently, with the release of his most recent collection, The Way of Imagination, Sanders was interviewed online about his writing. He explained that, instead of "nonfiction," he prefers specific terms for what he writes: essays, personal narratives, memoirs. Over time he has become, increasingly, an investigator of ethical and moral issues centered on daily living, the focus of books like The Force of Spirit (2000), and A Private History of Awe (2006). I particularly admired Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journeys (1998), which alternates chapters about his relationship with his son with his efforts to find reasons for hope in a world that his son thinks has made his father desolate. In the interview Sanders claims, in regard to the calamitous state we have recently been living in, "I'm not optimistic, but I am hopeful." He believes in "the human capacity to change, to learn" and it's the reason he keeps writing essays.

 

Referring to Montaigne, Sanders explains that the word "essay" comes from a French word "meaning to test or to try." In his own writing process, "an essay almost always starts with a question, a question I don't know the answer to or at least I don't have a satisfactory answer for. And the essay is my way of trying to come to a better understanding of the thing that puzzles me or moves me or bewilders me." He thinks that an essay, at least as he writes one, "doesn't start by knowing what you want to end up saying—it's a quest to figure out something or at least to gain greater insight into something. [. . .] And when I'm writing a piece and I feel a sense of discovery, I know the essay is alive."

 

I'm one of the readers of Scott Russell Sanders' essays who has often discovered how alive his essays are. In the very first pages of The Way of Imagination I was aware that I was reading perhaps his most profound and observant collection. Even before I finished reading it, I volunteered to review it for River Teeth because I wanted to urge everyone to read it. It's a very vital volume.

 

Note: Further Reading:

 

Root, Robert. "Creative Nonfiction," Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume Two: Dimensions of the Midwestern Literary Imagination. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016:179-184.

 

Root, Robert. Review, "Meditative Naturalist, Intimate Essayist, Visionary Author," review of The Way of Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders, River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, January 8, 2021.

 

Root, Robert L., Jr. Review, A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8:1 (Spring 2006): 143-147.

 

Sanders, Scott Russell. Interview by Mitch Tiplitsky, Morgenstern Books. October 3, 2020.

 

Sanders' Website: https://www.scottrussellsanders.com/

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Once an Inauguration

 

On the night before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, partly anxious about potential disruption the next day, memories of earlier inaugurals kept me awake. I didn't expect to have them surface, but memory often decides on its own what you should think about.

 

Biden is the 46th president since our first, George Washington. As someone pointed out the next day, inaugurations have occurred every four years without fail for 232 years, a total of 58 altogether. Biden is the 15th to be sworn in during my lifetime, his inauguration the 19th I might have witnessed. I was barely two years old for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's third inaugural, and though I might have later heard about FDR's fourth one and his death and Harry Truman's victory over Thomas Dewey, it wasn't until Dwight David Eisenhower's inauguration that I was in any way a witness.

 

My family leaned Republican politically. My father, my uncles, and some aunts had seen military service during World War II, conflicts between North and South Korea were heating up, and everyone I knew "liked Ike," a celebrated general. Eisenhower was inaugurated in January 1953 and, for the first time, we could witness it live on television, as it was happening, rather than wait to read about it later in newspapers or magazines like Life.

 

I saw it on the small television screen in a large wooden cabinet in the house of friends. We clustered in front of it until urged to clear away so everyone could see the screen; the sound of on-screen speakers alarmed their little dog Maggie and she barked and growled at the machine until they put her outside. I don't really remember much of the ceremony.

 

It was a grand year for pomp and circumstance. About six months later we watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a somewhat grander occasion than the inauguration. I made sure to buy the View-Master slide reels of both events so I could see images of them over again. I probably watched Ike's second inaugural as well but don't recall View-Master recording it.

 

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy campaigned in our town, I saw him among crowds on the Big Bridge over the Erie Canal but didn't pay much attention. By the election my friend Dave and I were in the Southwest and, returning across the border from Mexico into California, we were asked by an official whom we'd voted for. When I told him I'd have voted for Nixon, my family's choice, but was a week and a half too young to vote, he approved, told me I was also too young to have crossed into Tijuana on my own, and cheerfully sent us on our way.

 

I started voting in college, somehow more liberal than my parents. The Vietnam War, which I was against, determined my politics. In the 57 years and 15 elections I've been allowed to vote in, my preferred candidates served 24 years, my rejected ones 32 years. At one point I felt as if my vote jinxed the candidates I favored.

 

If I review my lifetime voting record, I'm aware that I haven't been strictly partisan. I've voted for candidates who were likely to support those causes I care about—education, environment, employment, healthcare, diplomacy, peace—or, since the candidates I most admire seldom win their party's nomination, for candidates who might do the least harm. I supported moderate Republicans over ideological Democrats—William Milliken in Michigan, Robert Ray and Fred Schwengel in Iowa, for example—in the days when it was possible for Republicans to be moderates and when a bipartisan approach at least produced somewhat positive results, if not as fully positive as the general population needed them to be.

 

I've often said that I'm against what Republicans stand for and don't know what Democrats stand for. I know that what the party in power stands for may change when it's out of power, and vice-versa. At this year's inauguration, I thought all the generalized positions the speakers espoused were encouraging, all the promises positive. Much of it was moving and reassuring. But then I remember, before he was elected, all the accurate negativity his own party rivals expressed toward the character and motives of Donald Trump, how loyally and aggressively they supported his character, motives, and behavior once he wielded power, and now how sternly they decry the deeds they themselves fostered and abetted. Truth is the proper thing to uphold before abundant falsehoods lead to destruction, not something to pretend to promote later on.

 

It was inspiring to listen to the promises Biden's administration is making. I watched the inauguration all the way through. I hope it will be one I want to remember.

 

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Duck and Cover

 

When the City of Waukesha's warning siren sounded one Friday morning, I opened its website to learn what it was warning about. Vague possibilities entered my head—in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, armed vigilantes in Michigan had swarmed the state house to intimidate their governor and partisan politics in Wisconsin could get as menacing. A host of memories emerged from long seclusion. I needed to know what the city thought I needed to know.

 

The city tests its weather warning sirens at 9:30 a.m. every Friday from April to October, the website explained, to see if they work and if we all can hear them. I could confirm, if asked, that they did and that I could. But the website also claimed that the tests "will not occur if threatening weather is possible." That wasn't reassuring, suggesting that, if I didn't hear the sirens, threatening weather was likely and if I did hear them, it was unlikely. I didn't ask how often threatening weather might occur at 9:30 a.m. on Friday mornings between April and October.

 

But rather than a weather warning, the first thing I thought of that morning was the catastrophe preparation I'd been grilled in during my school days growing up in Western New York. It wasn't natural disaster we were taught to be alert for but forms of destruction brought about by fire or aerial bombardment.

 

Sometimes during the school year, preferably on a sunny, temperate day, we'd hear the fire alarm sound and line up in our classrooms for a swift but orderly departure from the building. We'd move out onto the sidewalk circling the school or perhaps onto the playground or playing fields and wait for the all-clear signal. Sometimes firemen showed up, especially if the fire drill were the result of a defective alarm or a careless or reckless child, but most often we simply stood around until re-entering. The message of the drills was direct and brief: in case of fire, get out of the building.

 

The air raid drills were more ominous, preparing for a foreign power to drop bombs on our community—our troops were fighting in Korea, and our Cold War with the Soviet Union included a nuclear armament race. We needed strategies ensuring survival. People built fallout shelters in basements or backyards, underground refuges stocked with emergency provisions and supplies. Students were taught to stay in their school buildings during air raids, away from doors and windows where glass and debris might spew across the classrooms. "Duck and cover," we were told. We were shown filmstrips of people dropping wherever they were, in parks and playgrounds and shops, curling under whatever was nearby. At the warning signal students either hid under desks or, given enough time, made swift but orderly progress into hallways to kneel facing the walls, bending our heads, and covering our necks. When the all-clear sounded and we rose to return to our lessons, we didn't ask how curling up in a ball on the classroom floor would have saved us from the blast of an atomic bomb.

 

Catastrophe, we were encouraged to believe, was always imminent, even if relatively remote. My parents worried more about polio—58,000 new cases and over 3,000 deaths in 1952—than school fire or nuclear attack. But times change. Today, with students at risk from random gunmen, schools require active shooter drills to prepare students to lock themselves securely away if a killer enters their hallways. Unlike my childhood drills, we now need to guard more alertly against one another. Eight years ago, as my wife and I shopped at a mall, in a salon across the street a man killed his hairdresser wife and two of her co-workers and wounded three others before killing himself. Such events are no longer rare.

 

As I write this, the Coronavirus has infected over 23 million people and killed over 385,00 in the United States. The pandemic still surges rather than abates. As I write this, our Capitol and our Congress are recovering from assault by supporters of a malign and sociopathic narcissist. We're uncertain at the moment how much insurrection and sedition we and our long dysfunctional and ineffectual government still have to face. The combination of plague and anarchy is daunting.

 

The present moment should remind us of the constant need to be ready for disaster, catastrophe, possible annihilation all the time. None of those we've gotten through in the past were overcome without cost; complacency puts us in peril, as the scale of our latest losses and persistent alarm makes us aware. If we are alert to what may be imminent, we'll be able to cope with what we don't want to be eventual. We'll have no need to duck and cover.

 

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A New Year Morning

 

This morning, like so many lately, low hanging clouds seem tempted to become freezing fog, and I gaze at gray skies above snow-covered roofs and lawns, empty street and driveways, and stark leafless trees. None of the condos across from ours show signs of life, as if, like me, none of my neighbors feel the urge to rise and start the day. I witness no bustle anywhere. For a moment I pretend my glumness is not mine alone but, since I don't interact with my neighbors, I can't verify that assumption. I've often allowed myself winter blues, but I know it isn't only the weather affecting me.

 

I keep reacting to the times we live in. The pandemic that has killed so many people and broken so many families will continue to surge while, in America at least, efforts at prevention and healing will constantly be hampered; the impact of climate change with its fires, floods, storms, and species extinction will increase while we continue to exploit the earth. If I scroll through posts on Facebook or check online news at NPR or CNN, my levels of foreboding rise. The president who in his single term decimated every aspect of American life I value—education, environment, employment, health care, human rights—continues relentlessly to undermine the democracy, this week inspiring riots in our Capitol building. I want to be cheered by the presidential election and the shift of power in the Senate out of the hands of committed hypocrites but still feel the weight of uncertainty and tension.

 

I lived through the last half of the 20th Century. It had abundant moments of social and political and environmental upheaval but, living the life of a reasonably well-educated and relatively solvent citizen, a reliable worker and responsible family man, I usually felt like a distant observer, a bystander only vaguely distracted by the news of the world. So far, the 21st Century hasn't provided any reassurance about my remoteness from the public sphere. If anything, it's been heightening my remoteness from the most intimate aspects of my own life.

 

I'm now at the age my grandparents were in my youth, when their siblings were passing on and I attended their funerals with my parents, not always certain who the person we were mourning had been or who he or she had been related to, seldom recognizing that person's offspring, often unsure if I had ever even met that person before. Now I tune in to year-end recitals of the prominent deceased, remembering some songs they recorded or a film they appeared in or one or more of their books. Often, they are either my age or the age my grandmother was at her death or occasionally younger and I nod when someone says they left too soon. I check birthdates in all obituaries.

 

In 2019 my sister, my cousin, my aunt, and my closest colleague all died, and I learned of earlier deaths of relatives and friends I hadn't known about. I attended only one funeral before planned memorials were postponed by the spread of the pandemic. In mid-2020 my younger brother died unexpectedly, his funeral put off indefinitely. All these occasions would have required travel and none of their bereaved wanted friends and loved ones to gather until . . .well, whenever it would be safe. For all of us, any sense of closure has been curtailed indefinitely, any acceptance of their absences suspended.

 

There are absences among the living as well. We haven't visited our son in California in over a year, will not be with our daughter in Florida and her family for most of the year ahead, see our daughter in Wisconsin and her family half an hour away only intermittently, only wearing masks, social distancing, and air hugging. Too often I feel confined in our condo, less a home now than a cell or a fortress under siege. I'm challenged by the lack of connection I feel with the people I love most and with the outer world in general and haunted by the awareness of the deaths I've distantly experienced of family members and friends.

 

And the very world we live in seems tormented by uncertainty, its air suffused with the virility of the pandemic, its democracy reeling, our daily existence nothing we can comfortably take for granted. I keep looking out my windows, noticing that the fog has lifted though the sky is still all one single shade of gray-white. I look off to the southeast. I wonder if there's any chance of sun at all.

 

 

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