Boethius and Bojack

As, then, righteousness itself is the reward of the righteous, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the unrighteous.
Accordingly, by this way of reckoning, whatever falls away from goodness ceases to be; whence it comes to pass that the bad cease to be what they were, while only the outward aspect is still left to show they have been men. Wherefore, by their perversion to badness, they have lost their true human nature. Further, since righteousness alone can raise men above the level of humanity, it must needs be that unrighteousness degrades below man’s level those whom it has cast out of man’s estate. It results, then, that thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book IV Chapter iii

Last year, when I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I noticed a lot of references to Boethius in the Hollander notes. I’d come across the name before, but had it filed under “medieval Catholic theology” and thus had ignored it. Dante was a way of finding some points of interest in that category, so I made a mental note to look into Boethius a little more. And, like most mental notes, it got lost.

Enter Bojack Horseman, the most unlikely route to medieval Catholic theology ever. I had no idea how unlikely, however, since I knew less about Bojack Horseman than I did about Boethius. A recent Millions article by Joel Cuthbertson teased with: “We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius, the 6th-century Christian philosopher.” That got my attention.

I started with Bojack, since I figured he’d be easier to comprehend than Boethius. Problem is, I’ve never taken to animations a la The Simpsons or South Park, and my tolerance for frat boy pranks and sex humor is limited, so after a couple of episodes I got the idea – he constantly misbehaves and feels quite bad about being a jerk, but not bad enough to change his behavior – and figured I’d be better off with Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy.

It seems the most popular point from Boethius is the paradox of God’s omnipotence coexisting with free will. For whatever reason (hmmm…?) that topic, fascinating as it is, just doesn’t interest me at this time; I’m more interested in his idea that bad people feel bad, even if they seem to be feeling pretty good, because that’s part and parcel of being bad. Some years ago, as a self-comforting measure, I decided we don’t know what people go through in their heads, we only know what we can see, and I have to imagine bullies, tyrants, and megalomaniacs can’t be truly happy people, no matter how they taunt the rest of us with their power. Maybe this is fantasy, but it’s how I cope with seeing the bad guys win again and again.

For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy. The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favour by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.

Finally, Good Fortune, by her allurements, draws men far from the true good; Ill Fortune ofttimes draws men back to true good with grappling-irons.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book II Chapter viii

It seems to me Plato made some gestures in the direction of goodness as a benefit in itself, rather than as an instrumental benefit, at least as concerns his theory of justice in The Republic. But that’s not quite the same as what I’m getting from Boethius (who is, incidentally, classified as a neo-Platonist): that doing evil, no matter how profitable or pleasant, degrades our humanity, and getting away with it degrades our humanity even more. Hence the animal metaphors, from Circe turning Odysseus’ men to swine, to the animal lexicon in reference to evildoers (dog, pig-headed, beast, the word “animal” itself), all the way to Bojack’s world where about half the players are half-animal.

Consolation… is divided into five Books, each Book divided into alternating chapters and songs. As a special treat, I discovered the folks at Cambridge University reconstructed the music of those Songs, a project not as easy as it sounds, since written music was still in its infancy in the sixth century. In fact, Boethius himself is credited with the system of using letters for names of notes (though he used a lot more than just A thru G and staves didn’t exist yet), which Guido built on a few hundred years later. The chapters are dialogues between Boethius as a prisoner awaiting execution, and Lady Philosophy, who offers him consolation, hence the title of the work. They read to me very much like Plato’s Socratic dialogues, though I’m sure a more sophisticated philosophical historian would notice significant differences.

Why are Nature’s changes bound
To a fixed and ordered round?

Love it is that holds the chains,
Love o’er sea and earth that reigns;
Love—whom else but sovereign Love?—
Love, high lord in heaven above!

Love, all-sovereign Love!—oh, then,
Ye are blest, ye sons of men,
If the love that rules the sky
In your hearts is throned on high!
 
Boethius, COP, Book II, Song vii

 
 
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars”
 
Dante: Paradiso, XXXIII, 142-145

I can see why Dante would have been interested in Boethius, given the similarities between them: both were punished as enemies of the state, both created their greatest works while in desperate straits, both used muses as figures in their writing, both constructed belief systems to deal with injustices dealt to them, including a view of a higher, deeper, more meaningful goodness and justice, and a more jaundiced view of the prosperity of the wicked. Dante even borrowed Lady Philosophy for his work In Convivio. But I also see a difference: Dante then turned to his Divine Comedy where he completed his journey through the hierarchy of joy: poetry at the bottom, then philosophy, and above them both, the divine. In this way he did Boethius one better, though it seems to me Boethius, or at least Lady Philosophy, considers philosophy and religion to be one and the same.

Cuthbertson stops short of attaching any of this to the authorial intent behind Bojack: “these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths.” The scripts have a tendency to drop a line or two of profound insight into the strangest places once or twice per episode (of the two I’ve seen, that is), and while I’m not willing to sit through the rest of it to get a better feel for the series overall, I can’t believe the character’s name and his combination of human and animal characteristics was chosen randomly.

In any case, I’m glad this came across my path. I’ve just done the most preliminary reading of Boethius, of course, and am just sketching out some points that interest me at the moment. I’m just starting a Philosophy course that begins with proofs of God’s existence, and as a vaguely Christian agnostic still recovering from the religious trauma of my youth, I hoped this would get me closer to the right frame of mind. I hope to run into a more rigorous, structured outline of all this at some point, to put it into a more accurate frame. But I’m glad my mental note from last year was moved to the top of the pile. Funny, where a half-equine reprobate can lead, if you give him half a chance.

Pushcart XL: Barbara Hurd, “The True Seer Hears” (non-fiction) from The Fourth River, #11

Insects outnumber humans by two hundred million to one. Most of them hear, most of them make noise – clicking grasshoppers, stridulating dung beetles, head-banging termites…. and except for the usual crickets and cicadas, most of them do it out of audible reach of the likes of me, who rose early this morning to sit with my granddaughter Samantha on a downed hemlock at the overlap of forest and field and test the truth of the poem I loved many years ago. You will never be alone, William Stafford wrote, you hear so deep / a sound when autumn comes. Autumn – with its sounds of coherence? – has clearly come to Appalachia – the hills are yellow and bronze.

I confess: I’m not much of a nature lover. I further confess that a big part of my unenthusiam stems from a near-phobic aversion to insects. As a result, reading this essay was less than comfortable for me. I appreciate the sentiment, however, and understand the importance of the tiniest (and creepiest) critters in the overall biosphere. All I ask is that they keep away from me.

I’m particularly fond of the multisensory aspect conveyed by use of the term “seer” (which is indeed a formed from “see”) and the emphasis on hearing in both Hurd’s enumeration of buggy sounds and in the title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is the focus of much of the essay. Carson’s book was perhaps the first academic-quality ecology book to make its way into the general public consciousness. Published in 1962, the first Earth Day would follow in 1970, leading to the current division between those who want to leave an intact planet behind for their grandchildren and those who bemoan the passing of such things as incandescent light bulbs and spray cans. Who could’ve guessed.

But Hurd’s point is more general than one book, or even one movement:

Can we simultaneously hear what’s not yet come, what’s here, and what’s gone? Polyphonic silences, like polyphonic music, demand deep listening. Such listeners historically have been called seers, or fools – the difference is sometimes very slight. Is a fool someone whose listening has not yet led to truths? Or someone who hears sounds that do not and never have existed, nor ever will? And can one hear too much? Perhaps to truly hear the world requires both heightened sensitivity and a fair amount of filtering and skepticism. Balance, in other words.

There’s Carson, and there’s whatever celebrity is pushing the latest antivax or contrail conspiracy theory. Alfred Wegener never saw his plate tectonics theory accepted; today it’s taken for granted. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren waited years before the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers was made part of the medical canon. Physicists keep changing their minds about whether the universe will expand, contract, or just peter out in time. Science takes its time – wisely so – before putting the stamp of approval on an idea. And many of us will never forgive the medical establishment for all those years of margarine.

But it goes beyond scientific theory as well. Every time we take a stand on any issue, particularly a controversial one, we are preparing our epitaph. For those in the public eye, every decision becomes part of history. It might be worth thinking about how you want to go down in history when choosing a hill to die on.

Also remember: history is always written from a point of view. Insects have been around 2000 times longer than people, and, as Hurd points out, greatly outnumber us. Who will be around to write the history?

Pushcart XL: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell” (non-fiction) from The Point #9

A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant named Chris Herron gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take in the travel market for a place like hell to become a premier destination. … The joke was posted as a “case study” on Herron’s personal website and quickly went viral in the marketing blogosphere—a testament to the power of effective branding.

~~ Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ll admit it: I was initially disappointed the entire piece wasn’t about Herron’s prank. At first it seemed to me like a cute, barely relevant anecdote a public speaker might use to introduce a talk, something to get the audience on his side before stating her case. About two-thirds of the way through the essay, however, it becomes evident that the anecdote is not trivial, nor is it irrelevant; in fact, it’s pretty much the point.

O’Gieblyn takes us on a personal tour of hell as she understood it during different phases of her life, from age 5 to college. Many of her recollections of childhood were familiar to me. I spent fewer years in fundamentalism, but we went through much the same childhood processes of uncertainty and fear, unanswered questions we end up feeling ashamed for asking.

We follow her to a strict Bible college, and this would probably be a routine religious biography except for a visit to a megachurch which brings Herron’s advertising plan for hell back into focus.

Hybels keeps a poster in his office that reads: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Rick Warren’s Saddleback motto is “Let the target audience determine the approach.”

Late last year, I had quite a reaction (the online equivalent of a hissy fit) when Coursera started referring to its courses as “products” and making changes aimed at “increasing revenue.” That’s nothing compared to my visceral reaction to reading O’Gieblyn’s description of churches using words like “business”, “customer”, and “value”. Add that to images like the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles, the Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, and it seems to me that church has become the problem. It’s no wonder I felt accused when a bag lady at the bus stop noticed my long blue skirt (my version of jeans, so much more comfortable at my age and size) and asked if I were “one of those Christians”

Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us. determine the approach.”

O’Gieblyn drifted away from fundamentalist religion, but still feels a kind of nostalgia for old-style hell and wonders if we need more discussion of the nature of evil in our lives right now. I’m not sure about that approach, either. First, I don’t see a need to equate hell, or the devil, with evil. People can get themselves mighty twisted without any supernatural intervention.

But even granted the need for a Lucifer to explain how evil came into the world: Most Christian religion holds that God created Adam and Eve with free will, and put the forbidden fruit in the Garden, so they would choose to obey him, rather than obey because there was no option to disobey. Doesn’t selling salvation by fear mean people are running away from something? Some of the most appealing people I know are religious, but I didn’t know that for quite some time. They aren’t running around screaming, “I’m a Christian so I … [don’t drink, vote pro-life, tithe, whatever]”. They simply lead lives that have at their core a generosity, a gentle solidity, that’s irresistible. Isn’t it more in line with the original Plan if the church creates something people run towards?

Pushcart XL: Sarah Vallance, “Constance Bailey in the year of Monica Lewinsky” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, Winter 2014

Constance Bailey is the poorest person on their list, the woman from Little Brothers tells me when I turn up at their office in Roxbury and offer to volunteer. At eighty-eight, she has no friends or family.
“She hasn’t thought much of the volunteers we’ve sent her in the past,” the woman says, scrunching up her forehead. “She’s picky. I’m not going to lie. The last few visitors didn’t work out. She didn’t take to them at all.” The woman puts on a pair of reading glasses and looks down at a notebook in front of her. “There’s a scribble here that says she doesn’t want any more visitors. Never mind, let’s try and see what happens.”

Vallance is white, comfortably middle-class, Australian, young, educated, visiting Harvard for a year to research her dissertation on access to health care for the elderly poor of the African American community. Ms. Bailey, old, poor, black, alone, and very, very crochety, provides her with supplemental insight into the human side of that project. Vallance’s essay about her year visiting Ms. Bailey goes about how you’d expect: two women from opposite sides of the earth, from opposite strata of the most obvious criteria, who develop a very close and caring relationship.

The essay is not without its humorous points. Monica Lewinsky isn’t one of them; in fact, she’s barely mentioned. There is, however, an attack cat. And there’s this:

I look up at a poster behind her of the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly logo with its single long-stemmed rose. A red rose seems like an odd symbol for a charity that matches volunteers with old people, but that thought leaves my mind almost as soon as it enters.… I spent more time than I should pondering the name Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Are they little in stature or little in age? It is a slightly creepy name for a charity.

For some reason, this strikes me as hilarious, but I don’t think the name seems creepy at all. There’s an organization of Catholic nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor, so why not little brothers of the elderly? Little Brothers is not an overtly religious organization like the nuns, however. It was founded right after WWII in France, came to the US in the 50s, and now has a sprinkling of chapters in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Boston. It’s motto is “Flowers Before Bread.” While I don’t dispute the importance of either, I’m not sure a hungry person would agree with the priorities. But in the richest country on earth, as we keep hearing, we should have both in abundance.

Connie and I share an odd worldview. Neither of us likes people very much, but we care deeply for their welfare. We talk about the contradiction and decide we are parked misanthrope, part humanitarian. I tell her that my father, a geologist, preferred rocks to people. “A rock will never disappoint you,” he you say. “And they don’t speak.” Connie laughs and tells me she wishes she had met him. “He would have loved you,” I say, and she smiles.
Connie has always preferred animals to people. We were both like this since we were little. “Animals are a lot easier to love,” Connie says, and she is right. She would rather be alone with her cat and an old persons in need of visitors. I am pretty certain I will be the same. We talk about the paradox of loneliness: that we are more likely to be lonely with others than without.

As a confirmed hermit, I agree with that last line.

Vallance’s story has its parallels with Ms. Bailey’s. A riding accident left her with serious traumatic brain injury, so she had to re-learn language, writing, and walking before doing PhD research was on the docket. Something of a miracle, really, though I suppose the determination to get up and walk was a major factor. But isn’t the possession of such determination a miracle in itself? Having that tool in our personality doesn’t mean one is a better person; it’s an unearned gift some are granted. Taking credit for the grace bestowed upon you is poor form.

So why put Lewinsky in the title? A time marker? The print form of click bait? I don’t think so. I see a thematic relationship about assumptions drawn from surface features, assumptions that we sometimes cling to in order to retain our paradigm of the world, assumptions we sometimes have to struggle against in order to see reality. Assumptions can be tested and, when necessary, released, but only if we’re willing to tolerate some cognitive dissonance and be more flexible about who’s part of us, and who isn’t.

Ordinary, nice old people must exist in the world, but no one writes essays about them. The cranky curmudgeons are a lot more interesting, especially when they have attack cats. Though, from what I’ve learned about current practices in non-fiction, I’m wondering if the cat is added in for reader interest. See, people who make things up in their essays: you taint the pool.

Pushcart XL: Daniel Lusk, “Bomb” (essay) from New Letters #80.3/4

Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

The night the atom bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” fell from a plane over Nagasaki in faraway Japan, Kay DeWitt got her first period. I know because I was outside her house, kneeling on a concrete block beneath the downstairs bathroom window, when she burst in.

~~ Complete essay available online at the author’s Facebook page

A couple of years ago, I took a dogmatic hard-ass stand over a non-fiction piece titled “Corn Maze”, a Pushcart-winning article that was more or less the author’s admission that non-fiction isn’t necessarily truth, but an arrangement of reader-hooking elements around a core of truth, and who cares that the people quoted in the article on adventure vacations didn’t exist and the quotes were made up, the people who did exist gave boring quotes and it’s all about what makes a better narrative. I got pretty self-righteous about it, tried to figure out what I was missing.

Just about a week ago, one of the non-fiction pieces I wrote about opened with a little girl getting very sick and sitting on dirty towels usually used to clean up the dog’s muddy paws. The article was full of details about deaths and illnesses caused by work conditions around the world, then the piece ended with the sentence, “The only part of this essay I have invented is the dog Lynx.”

I was again perplexed: why include that detail, then? What was the truth: were the towels clean? Do Were they muddy for another reason? Do towels muddied by a dog’s paws make the story so much better than, say, just taking used towels with that hamper smell, or ruining perfectly clean towels? Were there towels at all? I wondered if I should address any of this in my post, but I decided no, the essay was available online, the dog was a small detail (so why inclulde it?) and the ending sentence made a pretty cool ending, answering the question of why it was included, and it truly had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the piece (which was important and serious) and I really wanted to discuss the subject, not rant about non-fiction should be non-fiction again, and anyway, if you admit something is invented, is it still cheating? And it was a pretty cool ending, a kind of pulling-the-rug-out thing.

And now I run into it again, except this time, it isn’t one detail in this short (less than a page) piece that’s changed and the rest are true, it’s one true thing and the rest is invented, with the mea culpa again tacked on at the end:

You can believe that this is true. So even if I admit that I’ve lied about everything but the bomb and not having sisters, the bomb is so big it would make you believe any small, human story I told you. Even if there was a Kay DeWitt having her first period, saying I was outside her window on that August evening in 1945 is still a lie. But hearing that the bomb killed more than 75,000 people, as it reportedly did, that would be unforgettable for anyone, even if they weren’t alive yet when it happened. That part, the bomb part, is the truth.

I’m so confused. At least the bomb is the truth. Wait, what am I saying??!?

I have to admit, I’m not even 100% sure this is categorized by Pushcart as non-fiction. It’s not fiction (they label fiction, but not poetry or non-fiction, as part of the byline for each piece). It’s listed as an essay in the back material. But Daniel Lusk is primarily a poet, and I’ve been fooled before by prose poems. But it doesn’t read as a prose poem. It reads as an essay, and maybe it’s ok to make things up in an essay (which isn’t journalism, after all, it’s point of view, and isn’t this the same as including dreams and wishes, which aren’t true but are appropriate when labeled such?), especially a self-referential essay about it being itself a lie.

I have to say, this is the only piece, fiction or non-fiction, I’ve ever read about the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima that had me thinking about something other than the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not even trying to figure out whether it’s grotesque or ironic or some other artsy thing to compare Lusk’a view – or, non-view – of a girl bleeding from her vagina to the view experienced by six-year-old Keiji Nakazawa as his world burned and melted before his eyes, later shared with the world in the mangas I Saw It and Barefoot Gen.

What is the purpose of an essay, any essay? To persuade, evoke, inform, amuse, invite, confound? What was the purpose of this essay? I have no idea. Is it “good”, whatever that means?
I’m undecided: It’s brilliant. Or a deception. Or a brilliant play on deception. The only thing I’m sure of: I think I want to read more by Daniel Lusk. And, just as the ultimate goal of a biological organism is to reproduce, that may be the ultimate goal of all writing. Or at least of all writers.

True, or false?

Pushcart XL: Wendy Rawlings, “Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction

So the situation was: our niece Amy up at 4:20 a.m. with vomit out one end and diarrhea out the other, except diarrhea not so much diarrhea-y but rather small particles of waste in bloody slurry. Amy’s parents and three sisters sleeping the profound sleep of the post-Christmas holiday-exhausted, so Amy, age 11, procured old towels used to wipe off Lynx (Irish Setter) when he came in from yard with dirty paws, set them up as nest in bathroom, and just sort of bled and vomited until light of day. Not really so bad (it would, after all, get so much worse) other than nastiness of forced evacuation of Stouffer’s lasagna consumed at dinner with large glass of orange juice and then the long stretch of dry heaving afterward. Amy grateful for one thing: had iPad for company.

~~ Complete essay available online at Places Journal

Hey, if you think the opening sentence is disgusting, wait until you read about the Chinese factory workers who killed themselves rather than work another day. Too far away? Then how about some of the lowest paid workers in America doing one of those jobs we keep hearing about: the jobs Americans don’t want: picking spinach in Salinas Valley all day long with no access to toilet facilities. Because they are what this story is really about. Amy is just collateral damage. But she’s someone who matters to us, so she draws us in so maybe we can look at the true cost of an iPad or cheap lettuce.

Calling this essay far-ranging would be like calling the moon a big rock. It meanders from Amy to iPad factories in China to produce farms everywhere to Lilly Pulitzer clothing (really?) to the etymology of “karaoke” to a Facebook friend named Quonnie to the medical details of hemolitic uremic syndrome to those fragrant plastic boxes of Fresh Spring Mix that I often buy when I get tired of Red Leaf or Romaine (I’m not stupid, I’m always nervous about that “triple-washed” reassurance, but I pretty much cross my fingers and hope I won’t be a statistic). Rawlings even admits at one point, ” I think I’m losing control of this story.”

I don’t think she lost control of it at all. I think the frenetic pace, the rapid-fire changes of topic, the intermixing of humor and tragedy, is the story. Lai Xiaodong, burned to death in an explosion caused by the aluminum dust he used to polish iPad logos in Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu, China, is the story. Bai Bing and Wu Mei, poisoned by the n-hexane used to clean iPads in a Suzhou factory, is the story. Paco, the spinach picker, is the story. Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming, two of the eighteen Foxconn employees who committed suicide by jumping from the Foxconn building, are the story (a problem remedied by safety nets because working conditions, well, do you want to pay more for your iPad?). Brianne Kiner, one nine-year-old who was hospitalized with E.coli toxicity in Seattle after eating a contaminated Jack in the Box burger, is the story (and if I may interject my own factoid, it’s ok now, the danger of E.coli contamination of meat has been reduced by washing meat, not to mention lots of other foodstuffs, with ammonia).

If it’s a wide-ranging story, it’s because it’s a wide-ranging subject. And by the way, I don’t mean to pick on Apple, and I don’t think Rawlings does, either. It’s just that Amy had an iPad, and the details of Microsoft’s sins – or Lilly Pulitzers (“From South America to the Far East, our product is made all over” their Facebook page proclaims, hoping people will think of the exotic and not the child labor or low wages) – are less well-publicized. But I don’t think this essay is intended to be investigational journalism, but a personal reaction using existing investigational journalism as a resource.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my “friends” on Facebook (I put friends in quotation marks because she’s not really my friend, just someone I knew in college, from which we graduated almost 25 years ago) posted a photo of “Minimum Wage Barbie.” The doll’s wearing a McDonald’s uniform and carrying a tray with a Happy Meal on it. Across the top of the doll’s box are the words GIRLS! This will be you if you don’t study. My “friend” added to her post, “I’ve been laughing about this all morning.” Now, you will probably accuse me of being overly sensitive and politically correct, but I walked around for the rest of the day thinking about Bai Bing and Wu Mei, Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming and their shitty jobs and their shitty useless dumbass deaths. They didn’t work in dangerous, low-wage jobs because they hadn’t studied hard at college. And in fact, I remembered that my Facebook “friend” hadn’t done much studying at the second-tier liberal arts school in the Northeast that the two of us attended.

As we become more and more globalized, we have to realize that our choice affect other people. It’s easy to say, “Family first,” and nearly impossible to see Paco or Bai Bing as family. That’s the value of this kind of essay. Maybe the locally grown produce or the shirt made in the New Jersey factory is more expensive, and we know there are no guarantees nor is every American factory a model of worker safety and fair labor practices. But maybe the cost of reducing prices is getting a little too rich for us. Maybe, as in the previous poem “Waiting for Rain” we need to think of humanity as a family, as one body, one organism, if for no other reason, than in self-interest. How long will it be before the 1% regards us all as disposable as Bai Bing, or Wu Mei – if they don’t already.

By the way, Amy survived her bout of economically-induced illness. Which is more than you can say for Bai Bing et al.

Pushcart XL: Catherine Jagoe, “A Ring of Bells” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, 27:2

Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.

~~Complete article available online at Gettysburg Review

This is what I love about Pushcart – about reading in general, actually. You never know what’s on the next page. It might be bells.

A few years ago, I sang in a choir at the local Unitarian church. The sexton would ring the steeple bell just before the service, using a thick rope hanging from the ceiling and stored well out of reach at other times. I can hear the bells every Sunday still from my apartment. When the Longfellow Chorus, another of my singing projects, used the church for its concerts, those bells chimed in to help with our final piece. There’s another church with a carillon that plays a 20-minute set of hymns in the evening, but that’s automated; there’s something particularly quaint and charming about actual bell-pulling.

There’s more to bell-ringing than just yanking on a rope. Jagoe takes us through the technical process, the effect it had on her as an adolescent, and the persistence of the memories, a lifetime later.

For those interested in finding out more about the craft, there’s a lovely video that covers history and technique. But this isn’t a how-to essay. It’s much more personal than that.

My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me…. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.

Like Jagoe, I’ve sung in choirs since I was a kid. I’ve never pulled bells, but I did ring in a handbell choir for a while. And like her, after adolescence my only connection to church was music. I like to sing, and for amateurs with a fondness for polyphony and harmony, church is where the music is. In churches, as in schools, music is often the victim when expenses must be cut. Jagoe makes a convincing case that a church’s music program is about more than providing background music during the offering, and a school’s music instruction teaches more than scales and time signatures.

Pushcart XL: Anthony Doerr, “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul” (non-fiction) from Granta, #128

The O'Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

The O’Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

I am driving my twin sons home from flag football practice. It’s September, it hasn’t rained in two months and seemingly half of the state of Idaho is on fire. For a week the sky has been an upturned bowl the color of putty, the clouds indistinguishable from haze, enough smoke in the air that we tasted in our food, in our throats, in our sleep. But tonight, for some reason, as we pass St. Luke’s hospital, something in the sky gives way, and a breathtaking orange light cascades across the trees, the road, the windshield. We turned onto Fort Street, the road frosted with smoldering, feverish light, and just before the stoplight on Fifth, in a grassy lot, I notice, perhaps for the first time, a little house.
It’s a log cabin with the swayback roof and a low door, like a cottage for gnomes. A little brick chimney sticks out its shingles. Three enamel signs hang on the south side; a stone bench hunkers on the north.
It’s old. It’s tiny. It seems almost to tremble in this strange, volcanic light. I have passed this house, I’m guessing, three thousand times. I have jogged past it, biked past it, driven past it. Every election for the last twelve years I voted in the theater lobby three hundred yards from it.
And yet I’ve never really seen it before.

Anthony Doerr gets me every time. I start out thinking, well, this isn’t going to be anything I’m interested in, the history of Boise, Idaho. And I end up in tears, and I’ve made a new friend named John and his new wife Mary, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been dead over a century; they are part of my life now, and I’ll think of them whenever I see an old cabin in some corner of a nothing town somewhere: someone was here. They had a story, and now their story is part of my story.

Doerr interweaves present with past with distant past as he remembers Boise before “eighteen Starbucks, all twenty-nine playgrounds, all ten thousand streetlights” and thinks about his own road to parenthood, the process of preparing a nursery for twins just as John had prepared his cabin for Mary, on her way from Colorado, back in the mid-19th century when Idaho was still a territory. He uses this concept of preparing a welcome as a connection: “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself…. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.”

And he brings in storytelling – the theme I’ve sensed for several pieces now in this anthology, the theme dear to every writer and every reader – as a beautiful close to the story, a close that loops back to the opening:

What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this?
What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, we’ve typified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: 100,000 of them going into the ground every hour.
Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until the day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.

Like I said, he gets me every time. He makes me want to tell someone’s story, quick, before it’s too late.

Pushcart XL: Poe Ballantine, “Father Junípero Admonishes a Bird” (non-fiction) from The Sun, #460

I met Dabber Jansen in 1979 on a trip to Arcata, California, to see my ex-girlfriend, who was his girlfriend at the time. He was at work driving a truck for Eureka Fisheries when I arrived, and …. turned out to be a self-styled radical intellectual, like me. Dabber was thirty. I was twenty-three. He and I stayed up long after my ex had gone to bed, drank all the liquor in the house, and discussed Planck’s constant,The Marriage of Figaro, and the influence of Joseph Campbell on the work of John Steinbeck. Fattened on the milk of the beatnik revolution and disenchanted with science, law, organized religion, journalism, politics, and the military, we both viewed Art as the last noble pursuit. About four that morning, Dabber dragged out his manual Royal typewriter and inserted a piece of paper into the roller, and, along with a few pickled poems, a friendship was born.
 

Complete essay available online at The Sun.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I never fell for the romance of the offbeat intellectual anti-hero – the Jack Kerouacs and Hunter S. Thompsons. It all just seems very self-indulgent to me. Maybe my attitude is a combination of envy of those who understand everything so easily, coupled with a terror of finding myself on the street with nothing. How do people live, even in the short term, going from nothing to nothing, taking what comes, getting by on what’s to be had?

Ballantine and his friend Dabber show different routes through the seeming aimlessness through the lens of male friendship. That friendship hits a few bumps in the road, particularly on a trip to Mexico, but they patch things up later and find themselves reminiscing while their children play.

The title comes from an amusing scene: the mistaking of St. Francis for Junípero Serra. While one is universally acclaimed for his benevolence, humility and grace, to the point where admonishing a bird would be viewed as completely out of character, the other has a more complicated history.

The last paragraph seems to be Ballantine’s repudiation of the artistic life, or at least a reluctance to pass it on to the next generation; I’m not sure I quite buy into it. I have to believe there are many artists who have not been miserable and self destructive, and who’s to say those who are would be any happier if they were truck drivers or computer engineers? Yet I remember Salieri’s words from the film Amadeus : “If [God] didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?” Lack of talent doesn’t seem to be the issue for either of these friends, but for one of them, it just isn’t enough.

Then again, the scene at the end smacks of happy domesticity. Come to think of it, even St. Francis went through a bad-boy phase. Maybe Dabber’s path was the right one for him, after all.

Pushcart XL: James Hannaham, “Artist’s Statement” (non-fiction) from Gigantic #6

As a black artist of color with an Irishman’s name, I feel it is necessary to let the viewer know that I am black. By using such a methodology, I may allow the reader to begin the process of dismissing my work for its highly specialized racial content, or conversely, the procedure reality of praising it excessively for its Negro-specific performativity with regards to the blactification of subject matter, and in the case of academic and/or funding institutions, commence the compartmentalization and commodification of my identity as well as the inherently intrinsic angry political nature of the work for the consumption of those sympathetic to, or pitying of, what they may or may not perceive to be my apparent st(rug)gle(s).

Pretty strange that, as someone who knows very little about art, I should find the art-related pieces in Pushcart so much to my liking. This one’s good. It’s great. If I’m reading it correctly. Because, well, it’s written in gibberish. But it’s great gibberish. I think.

The gibberish is, I’m pretty sure, satire on typical artspeak. Then sprinkled in are some pokes in the ribs, some winks, and a few high-falutin’ references to the likes of Sarte, Nietzsche, Clarinda Mac Low, and Aimé Cesairé, a couple of whom I’ve actually heard of. But this is not gibberish, and the references are not random. This means something. This is important. The entire piece could be rewritten (translated?) into everyday language, and would still be a powerful statement. But, like colorizing old Hitchcock films, that would alter the art and in fact weaken the statement.

I deeply wish the article were available online, because I am not qualified to dissect it; and in fact, dissecting it is exactly the wrong thing to do. So let me start elsewhere: James Hannaham has the coolest bio anywhere on the web. It begins: “James Hannaham would prefer that you not cut and paste this bio if you ever have to introduce him at a reading or a panel because it is pretty irreverent. It’s also kind of lazy of you to do that, though I know your life is busy and it would be easier to just half-ass it.…” then goes into his two books and his career as a journalist and artist, before closing with: “You will probably have cut that last bit out if you’re introducing him at a reading, because it’s sort of confusing for someone to be a novelist and a journalist and then suddenly seem to swerve into visual art , but it does make a certain kind of sense in the larger scheme of things (sorry about all the “s” in this sentence). ” Hey, I was confused back at “blactification,” you really don’t have to try this hard. In any case: I love this. This is the kind of bio (and article, for that matter) my buddy Jart would write, and I’m not saying that just because Jart is black (and, yes,he’s one of the few black people I know, but in my defense I hardly know any white people, either… I’m kind of a hermit), but because he has the same streak of irreverence and self-mockery that’s really a “who, me?” mockery of everything around him.

Where was I? Oh, right, the piece. Poets & Writers tells me it’s an actual Artist’s Statement from one of Hannaham’s word art exhibits, a kind of contributor’s note. The explanation of the art. While BASS includes a section of contributor notes, Pushcart does not, I suspect on the principle that “the art must speak for itself” (and yet, I do so love to read those notes in BASS, which tells you what sort of reader I am). If you’re going to write a statement, you might as well make it a Statement.

Insomuchas reader supposition trends towards the normative cloud, thus postulating the hypothesis of apparent pallidity which is then ascribed and projected onto the part of the originator, no linguistic challenge to this customary standard can possibly forthcomb from the substantial quality inherent to the materiality of the art object, being itself composed primarily of black figures (text) upon a background of whiteness. Ergo (or “nergo,” to reconfigure the turn in an anagrammatical pseudo-Nubianism), it becomes incumbent upon the expositor herself to telegraph the projected mahogany nature of his (in this case) epidermal externality.

I didn’t put this kind of thought into blog design when I made the background black and the text white; seriously, it’s just that it’s more restful on my eyes. But I’ve never been happier that I did it that way. Because the ubiquity of white paper and black ink truly does kind of hit me as a great metaphor , and it’s embarrassing I never thought of it that way before. Think about it: no one ever described Stephen King as a white author. But as an artist, Hannaham’s race is always in the mix, either as a plus or a minus. And in a classic self-reference, this becomes the reason his race is always in the mix.

So much came to mind as I read this. The fantastic SNL skit following Beyonce’s half-time performance (“Maybe the song isn’t for us…But usually everything is!”). The Twitter comment about “white roles like god”. Rand Paul whitesplaining at Howard University (which, I must say, was surpassed by John Kasich goysplaining the Old Testament to yeshiva students after asking what they were studying at yeshiva. That’s gotta go in the –splaining hall of fame.

Lest I be accused of whitesplaining this piece: I’ve said many times, I have no idea what I’m doing here, I just read stuff and write about my reaction to it. And I’m certainly not artsplaining or writersplaining. So I’ll just say this piece entertained and instructed me (tip of the hat to Isaac Bashevis Singer there). And amused me, in an oblique way: since it’s not available online, and since it was short, I decided to dictate it, using Dragon, so I could pick at it at my leisure, highlighting here, bolding there, block copying quotes. I find reading aloud is often useful, since I often notice things I would have missed on silent reading.

Dragon choked on it.

“Linguistic stratagem” was no problem. It handled “socioeconomic stratum” with ease. But “telegraphication”? “Communitizing”? “Fleshtified”? The suffixication that is the stock in trade of pretense turned into word salad. It was delicious. I’ve seen familiar texts, like the Pledge of Allegience and words to Christmas carols, turned into nonsense this way, but this bloviation to language direction was a little different.

Don’t be dismayed by the verbal thicket. Hannaham lays out his purpose pretty explicitly, if not clearly:

In the tertiary reconfiguration above, yet another eventuality becomes emergent, not that of discourse, nor of bibliophilic culpability, but, based on the secondary alabastration in the praxis of the textuality, a contingency of narrational racification, insomuch as the personage in question, by applied verb-tense reflexivity and alphabetical augmentation, becomes emancipated from the circumstance of the oppressed to the locus of the gaze itself, insofar as we posit, in this repositioning, a juxtaposition that negligeés any sense of authorial absolutism, as Bourdieu might not put it.

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Seriously, I couldn’t.

Pushcart XL: Jordan Kisner, “Jesus Raves” (non-fiction) from N+1, #18

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

It was Facebook that delivered me to Liberty Church. A friend from college posted a video that caught my eye; it looked like a trailer for a Sundance short or a promotional video for a well-funded line of men’s accessories. I clicked, and was met with sweeping shots of the New York City skyline and two beautiful faces: Paul and Andi Andrew. They could be J. Crew models, but they are pastors, and the video was the story of their church, of how they left ministry positions at one of the most powerful megachurches in the world, Hillsong Sydney, and moved to New York, where they knew no one, because God asked them to.
I closed the video and wrote my friend an email. “Tell me about your church?” He responded immediately, because he is a good friend, and invited me to come check out Liberty for myself, because he is a good evangelical.

One of the best things about Pushcart is the variety; not just the variety of fiction mixed with poetry and non-fiction, but variety within those genres. The non-fiction, for example, ranges from memoir to essay to thought piece to the undefinable. And included in that is some real journalism, first-person investigations of things as diverse as an interstate rest stop, a gathering of Juggalos, and this piece on the Liberty Church of NYC, which in summer 2013, included in its ministry visits to Montauk dance clubs to invite partiers to worship at a “pop-up church” housed at the Wash Out Bar the next morning.

I find it interesting that my religious biography is very similar to Jordan Kisner, but with very different results: we both were ardent evangelicals for about five years in late childhood / early adolescence (she from age 9 to 14, me from 11 to 16). That’s where the similarity ends. She seems to have shed those years like a skin and moved on, whereas I still struggle with the trauma. Maybe her more gentle separation – she simply lost interest – is why her article, while factual and (at least as far as I can tell, since I can’t know what’s omitted) objective, is quite positive.

She explains that, as she was preparing to travel to Montauk, a number of happy coincidences fell into place: a house became available, as did a car for transportation, and a cop didn’t stop her for speeding. Then she reports on the church service itself, led by Pastor Green:

Imagine the way God loves you, he told us. You are completely and totally known. He sees the depths of your heart…
Right then, something happened that I wasn’t expecting, which is that I remembered what it feels like to be a Christian, or what it felt like for me. There’s a membrane between imagining God’s love as a thought experiment and experiencing it as absolute reality, and if you slip across it the entire known universe breaks open and then reorders itself to be more whole and beautiful than you thought was possible. I had forgotten. It’s a tragedy you can’t truly explain what this feels like, the safety and wonder and rest and joy and shattering humility and crazy peace, because when you feel it all you want is for everyone else to feel it too. It’s like you’ve been let in on the most magnificent secret and all you want is to bring everyone else along, because if everyone knew the secret it could solve every problem in the world. This is what Christians call, in a terrific understatement, “the Good News.” This is also called grace. Sitting in that converted bar, I got maybe seven seconds of a vivid memory of grace, and the echo alone was enough to remember why people who do wild things to spread it: they’re filled up with a love so great it demands to be given away.

First-person, experiential journalism. I understand that point of view. My experience has been very different. But it’s not my article.

“If you look at Jesus’s life, he did missional Christianity,” Jessi said. “He went where people were broken. It’s so cheesy, but what would Jesus do? I really do feel that Jesus would, like, be hanging out with the homeless in Union Square.” She inclined her chin toward me and smiled a little lopsidedly. “I think Jesus would be hanging out in the clubs.”
The Liberty kids spent most of Saturday on the beach, listening to the new One Republic album and getting tan. When I arrived, it was like I’d stumbled across a group of extras from 90210: Jessi, voluptuous and tan in her bikini; Jessi’s friends Gracie and Monica, bleached blondes with curled and lacquered eyelashes; Leah, with her waist-length hair…

Where’d the homeless from Union Square go?

I freely admit my own bias: an instinctive suspicion of both “cool, hip” religion and anything that smacks of 90210 and voluptuous blondes in bikinis. Yes, I have such a negative attitude towards organized religion, which makes my take on this article suspect. Yet I know some strongly religious people, and I admire them. What’s interesting is that I only found out they’re religious by accident, and we’ve never discussed belief at all. It’s just that they are people who embody grace in the sense I understand it: the bestowing of unearned kindness with no strings, just because that’s what they’re here for. It’s like they’re wearing a delicious perfume, one you can’t quite identify, and at some point you just have to ask what it is. And that, to me, is evangelism.

Pushcart XL: Dubravka Ugresic, “The Age of Skin” (non-fiction) from Salmagundi, #177

In Slavic languages one doesn’t have two words for the two types of skin that one has in English (skin, leather), German (haut, leder), Dutch (huid, leer), Spanish (piel, cuero), or Italian (pelle, cuoio). Slavs use the same word for the skin that covers one’s body and the leather from which shoes are made. Perhaps this absent difference is a question of civilization-or perhaps even explains the poor man’s fascination with real leather?

As I started reading this piece, I was confused, then annoyed. I don’t understand; what is the topic? The first section started off ranting about the voracity of the publishing industry; the second, quoted above, shifted into a linguistic consideration of “skin”. And I disagreed with the flatness of the statement that English has one word for skin and another for leather; we also have calfskin, lambskin, and snakeskin, among others, for leathers, sharkskin for fabric, skins for apps, scalp for the skin of the head… But I do understand how the distinction is made. Leather is processed skin, as beef is butchered cow meat (somehow lamb and chicken remain the animals they are carved from). I don’t know that it’s a question of civilization as much as of squeamishness and denial. I was in my 40s before I realized the contradiction of a vegan wearing leather shoes. But all this is picking at details; back to the article.

I remained confused throughout, as it skipped around from one skin-related topic to another. Lenin, and mummification. Obesity as fleshy excess. Organ theft. Popular culture that romanticizes Hannibal Lecter and Dracula. Tattoos. Skin art.

Peter van der Helm, the owner of an Amsterdam tattoo parlor, has figured out a way to monetize the skin of the dead. Around thirty of van der Helm’s clients have bequeathed their inked skin to his company “Walls and Skin.” In the hope that their skin may one day adorn an art collector’s walls, each client has even paid a few hundred euro to be involved in the project. When they die a pathologist will remove the skin bearing a designated tattoo, before sending it on to a laboratory for processing. “Everyone spends their lives in search of immortality and this is a simple way to get a piece of it,” said van der Helm.

By the time I finished the article – which is relatively short, by the way, and has been translated from the original Croatian – I despaired of writing about it. What could I say, it was a jumbled and random collection of observations about skin? And, by the way, that completely ignores the elephant in the room, the color of skin. Is that because I am so blindingly Americocentric, and in Ugresic’s native Yugoslavia (she now lives in Amsterdam) people found different, though just as ridiculous, reasons to hate each other?

But in one of those bizarre twists of human psychology, while I was doing other things and relegated Pushcart and blog posts to the inactive memory locations of my brain, it started to make sense. It happens that way, sometimes: understanding requires background percolation. Somehow connections formed, and I started to see: our human integument, what covers us as a single species, what unites us and holds us together, is beginning to fray. Everything in the essay is merely a sign, a symptom.

Many postcommunist transitional societies have turned their citizens into zombies. As Dutch king Willem-Alexander put it, in the twenty-first century we await the “society of participation.” “Self-management” is probably what linguistically inventive followers of contemporary trends would say. Both “participation” and “self-management” are euphemisms for a message that is as sharp as a scalpel: today, the individual has been reduced to his or her bare skin.

Yes, we live in the age of skin. Our age-the corpse to which we are pressed – isn’t in the greatest shape. The corpse’s skin grows darker, new purple blotches surfacing, the cranium, from which the brain has been extracted, has shattered and taken the skin with it, threatening dark pigment spreading everywhere, the nails turned completely blue. We exhaust ourselves, there is never enough balsam, we cover the dead spots with liquid foundation, and our bodies too. There’s an odor spreading everywhere, seeping into our clothes, our hair, our lungs, there’s nothing that will get it out.

From preserving tattoos after death, to skin care regimens that cost more than the allotted food stamp budget for a family, to covering ourselves in other species’ skins (not to mention SUVs and Hummers on the road), we are feeling threatened. From the novels that insist we must kill another to survive, to rich people paying the poor for their organs, to fat-hatred (there’s a heartbreaking snapshot of one train rider complaining that another rider is fat and assuming, erroneously of course, that’s a sign of wealth), we devalue each other. For some reason, we can’t see that one creates the other.

The Golden Rule was not a Christian invention; for one thing, it was taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and for another, virtually every religion has some version of “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s one of those things that’s really hard to put into practice, however, especially when we’re scared and feel as though our very skin is threatened. But it’s perhaps our best bet at protection. And, in another bizarre twist of human psychology, we seem unable to learn that.

Granted, I may have missed the entire point; I’m no expert here. I just react to what I read. Frankly, Ugresic’s essay, read at a time when hate seems to be conquering everything in its path, depressed me thoroughly. Maybe I’m just looking for some glimmer of light, in a very dark room.

Pushcart XL: Tiffany Briere, “Vision” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #59

Romare Bearden: "The Visitation" (1941)

Romare Bearden: “The Visitation” (1941)

For three nights, my mother hasn’t slept. Since her cousin died, his spirit has visited her each night, for hours at a time. He appears from the waist up on the north wall of her bedroom, facing her directly, blinking but not speaking. He doesn’t frighten her; on the contrary, she hopes that one of these nights he will claim her, escort her to the other side, where he now resides. She prepares me for this possibility.

Interconnectedness. That’s the single word I would use to describe this essay. Everyone mentioned has connections to disparate sources, and they all find joy in every connection.

I can’t even follow the connections – a grandmother from India who went to Guyana as an indentured servant, begetting a father from Guyana who with a mother from Jamaica begat the author herself, now married to a scientist of German descent who never heard talk of spirits before but sits with his mother in law and holds her disease-gnarled hands.

And there’s Briere herself, who is interconnected, not just with the West Indies and America and white and black, but with science and art: after earning a Yale PhD in genetics, she went on to earn an MFA from Bennington. In a world where the arts and humanities are being forsaken for science, she has run the other way, and I love her for it. But she has not abandoned science, not at all; she recognizes that art and science themselves are interconnected, and remain so in spite of our current obsession with dividing them, with declaring one to be a worthy pursuit and the other to be trivial. Check out some high-end mathematicians on Twitter some time: they’re all about the art, the beauty, the symmetry, the elegance of their field. Or read how Briere describes what lab science borrows from history, psychology, literature:

What attracts me to genetics isn’t purely the validation of thought or the process of discovery, but, rather , what it symbolizes. Our genomes contain our complete ancestral history, a record of where we’ve been. The history of our evolution has been transcribed and it lives in every one of our cells. And perhaps more inspiring than this record are the vast open regions that represent where we, as a species, have yet to go. These regions are wide open, ready to be filled with fortitude and endurance.
Genetics, like storytelling, is a search for core truths, for what informs the human condition.

The hand-on-the-back that forms the thread of the piece – an unseen force that crops up for Briere on several discrete occasions, always memorable but never quite categorizable – serves as a psychic symbol for that interconnectedness. The 21st century, too, has poets of the body, and of the soul. And that led me back to Whitman.

A few weeks ago, Jeet Heer tried to draw a connection between Sarah Palin and Walt Whitman: her rambling speech versus his catalogs. I had a pretty strong negative reaction to this. Whitman’s catalogs were meant to enumerate the inclusivity of all things, the unity with him of all: “every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”. He was drawing a line from him to everything else. Palin was drawing a line around herself, and those she deems acceptable, to separate them from what she sees as unacceptable. It’s true they both drew lines, but lines can communicate, or rope off, can pull up or tie down. To see Whitman’s interconnectedness as Palin’s division struck me as a hideous miscasting. And yet… Whitman himself considered himself the poet of body, of soul, of slave and slavemaster, of everything. Who am I to argue.

But back to Briere:

I’m a child, impressionable, and my mother’s explanations of the world are bigger than skyscrapers and dinosaurs. She says that our ancestors are always with us, that our dead relatives inhabit our lives…..She says the fabric of humanity is ancient and unfathomable. She says life is infinite and eternal. She says when I meet my ancestors, I will recognize their faces and know them by name.
In other words, heaven is family.

I have to admit, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to talking about family connections. My family was bizarrely interconnected, yet also dissociated, due to both a divorce that happened before divorce was commonplace, and the immigrant need my father felt to assimilate. There are benefits to assimilation, to be sure, but there are also losses when carried to an extreme. I’m envious of the generations of memories and influences Briere carries with her. In contrast, I should have inherited a kind of stoicism, of hardiness, but as it was stripped from its generative context, it never suited me anywhere near as well as Briere’s always-present ancestors suit her.

Maybe this, then, is the opening theme of this volume: spanning divisions, interconnecting. From Adele in the first story, we have spanning gender, age, culture, all set in New York City, the very model of a modern multiculturalism. The women who sing the blues, sing different blues of different shades, from different places, yet at some deep place, the blue is universal, and that’s why each culture has its own lyric. Interconnections. Universality. Or maybe I’m just reaching for it as a theme because I want it to be there.

Pushcart 2015: Matthew Vollmer, “For Beds” (non-fiction) from New Orleans Review

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Merciful God, we humbly thank Thee for setting the earth on its rotation around the sun, thus providing humanity with periods of light that permit us, as we go about our daily business, to recognize with relative clarity the things of the earth, and for the atmospheric changes and angles of the sun that allow us to sense the progression of time and thus acknowledge all manner of climatological differences. So too do we thank Thee for creating a period of darkness during which our eyes might find respite and our minds repose, and where we might also experience a reprieve from sense-making, most palpably experiencing, in our dream-states, the joys and terrors of embarking upon adventures much greater in scope than we would ever hope to undergo during our comparatively prudent daytime excursions. But most of all, oh LORD, we thank Thee for the beds upon which we sleep, and for which we too often take for granted, failing to remember the hay-or-leaf-stuffed animal skin mattresses of yore, or the goat-skin waterbeds of Persia, or the heaped palm-boughs of Egypt.

The last few pieces I’ve read have been pretty intense. I like intense, but even so, it was nice to read something a little lighter. And it is available online (thank you, New Orleans Review.

Just because it’s not as gut-wrenching as Alzheimer’s disease or disabled children, that doesn’t mean it’s not crafted. For those familiar with formal prayers there’s a recognizable progression: A universal opening acknowledging That From Which All Has Come, the focus on a specific item in that creation for which these particular thanks are offered and some elaboration of its value to the earthbound, a request for a blessing upon this cherished object, and a reminder to be vigilant in thankfulness.

We therefore ask a blessing upon these our beds, that they may not do us harm but fulfill their promise in providing us a place to safely slumber, that they might be rafts upon which we lie to escape the storms of life, and that furthermore, they may remain a place where children are forbidden to jump—if only so that children may discover the joys of benign transgressions…

And just because a piece isn’t gut-wrenching doesn’t mean it can’t provide a vehicle for contemplation. A bed is a wonderful thing, isn’t it. Just ask someone who sleeps on a sidewalk.

It’s a selection from A Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology, edited by Vollmer, updating the traditional prayer book with more modern concerns: “Post-Game-Day Blessing”, “For People Who Are Seeing Their New Rental For the First Time,” “For the Moth, But Also for the Spider.” I’m deeply fond of a quote from the trailer: “let us not forget what is shallow & what is deep eventually meet,” from Sasha Steensen’s “Poems for Lent”. It’s wonderfully autological: true, even profound, on a shallow level, at least if you squint, but if you think of it beyond the time we give our Hallmark Card profunditites, it’s of course ridiculous, since where shallow and deep meet, either a) shallow is no longer shallow, or b) deep is no longer deep, or c) both, so shallow and deep never meet… and all that still leaves the whole T-or-F of the mandatory coexistence of shallowness or depth (as well as Łukasiewicz’s many-valued logic needed to determine where shallow is no longer shallow etc etc), and it’s true again, since shallow and deep have met in those very lines.

… where was I? Oh, yeah, yammering about intense. Boy, I’m gonna hate this post in the morning…

Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

Pushcart 2015: Edward Hoagland, “Hippies and Beats” (non-fiction) from New Letters, #80.1

Being a little younger than the Beat generation writers (although my first book was published in the same year, 1956, as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems) and yet older than the mainstream Hippie movement later on, I observed both the certain skeptical affinity.

I was uncertain through much of this essay. A reminiscence? I don’t sense much affection, or even much connection to the people and things that went before. There’s some compare/contrast, but it’s a short essay, just over four pages, so how informational can it be? For such an august literary personage with such an interesting past (he literally ran off to join the circus as a kid, served in the army, graduated from Harvard, travelled the world writing about peoples and places; how many people can claim those disparate things?) this seems an odd approach.

The two movements – the Beats of the 50s and the Hippies of the 60s – sometimes get conflated by virtue of the shared flouting of convention, but Hoagland points out some fundamental differences: how women are viewed (“The Beats were patriarchal, for the most part”) and the anti-intellectual intellectualism (“The Beats didn’t read very much that wasn’t Buddhist or Beat, but they weren’t anti-literate, like many Hippies, who seemed to regard reading as an Establishment activity”).

And, by the way – did any of it make a difference? How’s the Establishment doing today? Does anyone get the sense that protest itself has been co-opted? Then again, maybe it always has been that way – per deliciously telling phrases like “mainstream Hippie movement”.

But towards the end, music plays in the language, and my heart was indeed captured:

Freedom and ambivalence were what the Hippies sought. The winters were character-building and they learned carpentry, chainsawing, latrine-digging if they stuck around, while their main stoner drug edged toward being decriminalized. But that was less romantic than hitting the road and spilling the beans in compulsive cadences, banging around, depending on the kindness of strangers. My rocking-chair friend and my girlfriend both also died too young, perhaps from a shared distrust of doctors, or from smoking fungicide marijuana. Ginsberg intoned famously at the beginning of “Howl” that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” Dubious, but certainly people he loved.

From the rhythm of that third sentence – a rhythm of rocking chairs and cadences – to the aching nostalgia of the last: Is anything as glorious, as significant, in the retelling as in the experience?

Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

Given the chance, the more sentimental among them would probably return in summer. Summer was when it seemed as if all the residents of the Baldock threw open the doors of their homes to the bronchial, hawking churnings of the passing semis and wheeled coolers out to the picnic tables that had not yet surrendered to rot. There they would sit, cans clutched in cracked hands, as their dogs whipped smaller and smaller circles around the trunks of the Douglas firs to which they were chained. In those moments, it was possible for them to imagine that they had merely stopped there briefly on a long road trip, that they were no different from the men and women with sunglasses perched on the tops of their heads who trooped in and out of the nearby restrooms, mussed and squinting.

We think we know people, based on very little information about them. Say “librarian”, “football player”, “mother”, “homeless”, and you fill in a lot of blanks to come up with a general idea of what this person is like – quiet or outgoing, smart or stupid, pleasant or scary. Good or bad. Worth knowing, or not.

We think we know people. But we don’t.

Journalist Inara Verzemnieks stumbled upon a community of people who were clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, trying desperately not to slip further – because they know, as we all do, how hard it is to climb back up even one rung, let alone the whole stretch. It’s a community that was about to be involuntarily dispersed. Perhaps that was the best thing for it; perhaps not. But what struck me was how it challenged every assumption we might make about the people who bear the labels we stick on them, and how uncertain it left me as to right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t.

The community was that of a group of people who lived at the Baldock rest stop on an Oregon interstate. Homeless, you might say. Or, you might not.

The access they gave me didn’t seem to depend on my being a reporter… Instead, I suspect, they were judging me by a more subtle rubric, reading me for clues that would help them gauge my capacity to understand.

Verzemnieks discovers the Baldock in the course of researching a story of a meal-delivery service. She discovers people like Joleen, who’d lived in a van with her boyfriend for three years on top of some intermittent stays when the weather was too cold for a campground. Joleen’s kids visit her at the Baldock on Mother’s Day. She meets The Mayor, who served as a sort of intake worker: “I don’t have money, booze, or cigarettes to give you, and don’t give me any shit. But I always have food to share. Ain’t no one out here gonna starve.”

We meet Ray (Joleen calls him “Dad” as they’ve forged a particularly strong supportive bond), who feeds his dog Sweetpea and gasses up his old motor home with his Social Security check. He may have lived at the Baldock for twelve, thirteen, seventeen years, no one’s sure. And people like Jack, the newbie, caught first in the housing market collapse, then in trucking industry cutbacks.

It’s easy to sit in judgment on the homeless. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they make better decisions? It’s harder to look close, and realize each story is unique. Yes, mental illness and general foolishness come into play, but so does bad luck. And don’t forget: it’s not as easy as you think to get back into society, once you’ve fallen out of it. Yes, some people do it. Then again, some people are Yo-Yo Ma and Einstein and Gandhi. Some people are indeed talented, and that includes a talent for navigating modern life. And some people are not so talented at that particular skill, or perhaps they just lack a support structure – family, friends with extra rooms and generosity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people.

“You know what I love most about Thanksgiving?” Jack said. “Football. It’s been months since I’ve actually seen a game on TV, not just listen to it on the radio.” Everyone nodded and they talked about how luxurious it would be to sit on a sofa again, stupid with turkey, tasked with no other concerns than whether to flick between the college or pro games. It struck them all as the height of decadence, of insanely good fortune.

The Last Days started with a maintenance worker informing the residents the rest stop would now be the responsibility of the Oregon Travel Experience. The handwriting was on the wall:

Others, like members of any neighborhood group upon hearing rumors of possible planning changes, turned to the public computer at the community center for reconnaissance.…And though none of what they could find was written in what one would call plain, unadorned speech, one phrase in particular, about helping the rest stops achieve their “full economic development potential,” seems to them to translate as having something to do with money – be that making money or saving it. Either way, it was not a concept that they suspected would live comfortably alongside homelessness. Intuition told him that much.

Their intuition is straight-on: “the Baldock Restoration Project” was underway. Notice, it was the rest area, not the people, being restored. A solar energy installation was planned. The State of Oregon has published an official report citing the US Department of Transportation’s “environmental justice Order 5610.2” and outlining the planning and execution of the relocation of the Baldockians.

To their credit, they didn’t just send in State Troopers; they did make efforts to understand the community, to meet different needs with different solutions. Yet I wonder why, if they were to select one image of one Baldock resident, they chose the one they did.

It’s hard to find fault with a solar energy project; it’s not easy to be against finding stable living situations for people living in their cars. If I’d just read the Oregon report, I might think they’d done a good thing. But now, having met these people on a more intimate level, I’m not sure. The local news story actually offends me with its high-and-mighty, “Ain’t it Awful” hysterics.

This is what point-of-view can do. And it occurs to me, maybe the “forward/back” “good/bad” theme I’ve been so determined to force on everything, is really a matter of point of view. The Oregon report, while including details of the Baldockians’ varied stories and attempting to take a sociological view, to evince concern and “environmental justice”, is clearly from the observer’s side. Verzemnieks tells the story from the residents’ side. She doesn’t skim over the ugly stuff, but she presents these people as people first. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for people, when you see them as people, as one of us, instead of one of them.

“Some people would say they wouldn’t be caught dead living like this, in this nasty old RV,” [Ray] said. “But you know what, I consider myself so fortunate to have this. Because when you’ve had nothing – and I’ve been there – living like a no good dirty bum, low as you can go, in the streets, and people won’t even look you in the face, like you’re an animal or something and you don’t have shit, you’re thankful for whatever you can get. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so thankful.”
He jabbed his face with his fists, trying to hide the tears.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lose this. I can’t live like that again.”
No one spoke.

The piece ends with an intense emotional punch as we see that even success has its price.

Oregon seems to feel it solved the problem. Verzemnieks doesn’t seem so sure. I wonder if there is a solution. I wonder about Joleen, and Jack. I wonder about Ray and Sweetpea. I wonder.

Pushcart 2015: Maribeth Fischer, “The Fiction Writer” (non-fiction) from Yale Review, #101

"The Storyteller" :  Zimbabwean art

“The Storyteller” : Zimbabwean art

Even now, I see her hands and forearms covered with ink – phone numbers, dates, reminders about meetings, words she wanted to remember. And once, sitting at the bar at Smitty McGee’s, she swung around on her stool, lifted the hem of her skirt and showed us her leg, covered to mid-thigh with writing: notes about the novel she was working on; a song lyric she’d heard while driving. Another time, over coffee in the morning, I saw words from the day before imprinted on the side of her face. I knew how she slept then, hands tucked under her cheek. I didn’t mention that the words were there and later, after she saw herself in the mirror, she said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Geez, would you let me run around with my dress stuck in the back of my underwear too?”
       “It was hardly noticeable,” I laughed. The ink had been smudged, like faint bruises.
       I’m still not sure why I didn’t tell her she had writing on her face – it is the kind of thing you’d want your friend to let you know. It seems fitting that I didn’t, though, for this is how I’ll always remember her: words literally pushed into the pores of her skin.
       Writing a story on her body so that her body had a story.
       In the end, this was all she was – a story we would tell repeatedly. Each time, we would embellish it more, highlighting certain moments, habits, things she used to say or do.
       Like stripping an old car for salvageable parts: that’s what we would do to her life.
       It’s what she had done to ours.

Stories. A writer’s life revolves around stories, of course, but so do many aspects of our lives, as illustrated by many of the works I’ve already encountered in this volume: the woman who tells her son a story, and the son who lives the story she tells, in “The Mother”; the story a young writer-to-be, misplaced in military service, told himself about his adequacy in the face of absurdity, while the perpetrators of that absurdity told themselves it was a necessary security precaution, in “My White House Days”; the story the perpetually down-on-his-luck loser of “Say” told to get a song from the only person who mattered; the stories we tell to get through blackouts, lonely evenings, jobs that grate down our ethical sense, or to comfort us in a world that seems at odds with everything important to us. Stories that tell us what we want to hear, when we can’t hear it anywhere else. Stories let us make sense of the world.

Maribeth Fischer tells us a horror story in which the monster is a story.

She was bamboozled by a twinned pair of diabolical flim-flam artists: one, a new friend, and the other, her own tendency, the one we all have, to see what she wanted to see, to fulfill some subconscious need. When Natalie, a fellow writer came to town and showed interest in her, Fischer was swept away with the feeling of being noticed, of being chosen by someone who seemed greater than herself. She threw herself into the friendship, as she had in other relationships, urgently trying “to make myself indispensable; if I’m not , no one will need me. And if no one needs me, no one will want me.” It’s not as flattering as being selfless and compassionate, but, as examined in “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved”, it probably underlies a great deal of do-gooderness in the world. Fischer is astute enough, and honest enough (what admirable honesty!), to recognize it later as she writes this memoir.

But not at the time.

Natalie affected more than just Fischer. The heretofore lackluster writing group blossomed and expanded, developed energy and enthusiasm. She was, after all, a Success, having landed a lucrative two-book contract with Random House, which led to requests for an article series by The New Yorker, then a second article series. The town was so overwhelmed by their good fortune to have this amazing resource available to them, no one really noticed there wasn’t a single word in actual print…

Because for the nine months that Natalie was in our lives, she was a big-time author whose life was about to change in wonderful, dramatic ways. She was a wonderful teacher and Kent was in love with her and she was, as Randy Lee said, happy. And I was a woman who was fun and spontaneous. Fun. A word that had been gone from my life until Natalie brought it back to me…. The members of the writers’ guild began to see themselves as writers, began to believe that their stories mattered. And so they did. And I can’t help it: I find something beautiful in this capacity to believe so fervently in the stories we fabricate that we become what we dream.

If Fischer had written this as fiction, it would’ve been too unbelievable. How gullible are these people, we’d wonder. But I’ve been there.

There are people who not only can project the image of What They Are so strongly it overshadows the reality of what they are, but they know exactly who will be susceptible and who will not. I’ve had “friends” like this. They are Batmans who know when they see a Robin. These friendships can work, for a time. It’s only when Robin thinks maybe Batman should do something a little different in this case, or when Robin gets a little limelight, that Batman gets upset. As Fischer says in a turning point in her relationship with Natalie: “…I had unknowingly betrayed her, broken an unspoken pact.” Two things happen then: the relationship falls apart, which feels like catastrophe to Robin; but that’s followed by a gradual regaining of sight, the ability to see the story one has been acting out. Someone else’s story. Not a story of rescue and redemption, but a story of dominance, and, surprisingly, mutual need.

There’s an Armenian motto I came across several years ago, via a sculpture by John Ventimiglia featured in my local public library: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the world.” That’s pretty astute writing advice right there: a story requires, not just a teller, but a listener, who has a pre-existing milieu of beliefs and needs into which the story falls; from there, it moves outward. Fischer tells us how that interaction might play out when the listener is herself a storyteller.

Stories, the only thing that allowed Scheherazade to survive for a thousand and one nights.
Stories, the only thing that allows anyone to survive loving someone she will one day lose.

Even though she eventually recognized how she’d been fooled – her friend Kent had been bilked out of a considerable sum, in fact – Fischer still felt a loss, the loss of the story, the belief. This is what turns the essay from a “This happened to me” story into a story that, as Roxane Gay tweeted a couple of years ago, “look[s] outward as much as it looks inward.” The writer, whose job it is to make the reader believe, is by nature a believer of the story that surprises, that takes unexpected twists and turns. The writer is vulnerable to the perils of belief, the price of her art.

Pushcart 2015: Thomas E. Kennedy, “My White House Days” (non-fiction) from New Letters , V79#3-4

I used to be able to tell about this straight out. Not that I was proud of it, but neither was I ashamed. Years ago, I had what used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself. When I broke down, I decided it was because of secrets, and I didn’t want anymore secrets. Then I began to heal and didn’t want to talk about the breakdown any longer, tended to gloss over that period of my biography.
At the time, late summer-early fall of 1963, I worked in the White House – in the executive office building, now referred to as the old EOB, which housed inter alia the office of the Vice President. JFK was president. I worked as a stenographer for the White House Communications Agency – WHCA, responsible for the president’s travel. You might think you see where this is going – 1963, responsible for the president’s travel – but it’s probably not what you think.

Now, I didn’t write 30 books, as Kennedy has, nor did I go to writing school and I certainly don’t teach it (as Kennedy does), but it seems to me, if you’re going to write an essay about My Years in the White House, and your name is Kennedy, your first sentence should be “No, not one of those Kennedys” instead of tucking that information into the middle of the piece. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer. And I suppose, if he’s written 30 books and won numerous awards (this is his second Pushcart), I should’ve recognized the name. Maybe that’s my problem, but it’s just the beginning of how jerked-around I felt by this piece.

But none of that is the point. Or maybe it is the point, since Kennedy gets pretty jerked around himself, by the military in the name of National Security. The absurdity of all that, and its effect on a perfectly normal, bright and promising boy whose only failing was earnestness, is the point.

A product of Queens, NY parochial school and a less-than-idyllic home life, he joined the military in 1963 hoping for an assignment in France, where he could learn more about the literature and language he had already come to love. When offered a position at the White House, however, he saw it as a privilege to serve the President, so France would have to wait.

What he didn’t count on was the security interview:

His questions seemed ordinary enough that I don’t remember them – until he asked:
“Have you ever engaged in normal sexual relations with a woman?”
Suddenly I was back in confession with the priest. But I had what I thought was the right answer – that is, the answer they wanted…
With mild indignation, I said, “No!
The major looked up at me from his pad and asked, with slight incredulity, “No?
The trap had snapped shut. I had exposed myself to the suspicion that I was a rat who smelled strange bread in women. There was no going back. I blushed. “No.”
His eyes were on me, then dropped to his pad, where I imagined his printing in all caps the word RISK. “Have you ever had abnormal sexual relations with a woman?”

And it goes downhill from there, culminating in Kennedy’s “nervous breakdown”. Thankfully, he recovered, though it took some time – about 50 years, in fact – to come to terms with it.

To those born in the Digital Age, or even the Age of Aquarius, it may seem implausible that a 19-year-old male would assume that chastity was a virtue, or, for that matter, not a subject of shame. To those of us who grew up in the same era, perhaps around Fundamentalists rather than Catholics, and perhaps had our own troubles that assured our chastity was not at risk, and also specialized in giving authority figures the answers they wanted, let me assure you it isn’t that outlandish. I had my “nervous breakdown” – my first two, in fact – before I realized, courtesy of the psychiatric profession, that chastity was a symptom, though of what, I was never sure.

So I have some appreciation for what Kennedy went through. That he went through it at the hands of the government, in the name of some bizarrely intertwined combination of morality and national security, is tragic.

Just recently I saw the film The Imitation Game, and by coincidence a rerun of the older Fat Man and Little Boy. Both of these were set in the WWII era. Both involved men older and with more experience in the world than the 19-year-old Kennedy, but were nonetheless ground up by military authority, here or in the UK, in the name of national security. How we treat our heroes! Worse, how we treat our kids, on their way to becoming heroes, should they make the mistake of entering the military in a state of earnest innocence.

Pushcart 2015: Mary Hood, “Breaking It” (Non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013

 
 
From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color.
 

And after this walk, blue’s gonna be even harder.

There’s a stylistic flair to this short essay, clearly emphasizing the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps “meditation” would fit as a descriptive. Each paragraph is broken up by white space, giving the impression of individual thoughts, related but also self-contained. The language is beautiful, varying from straightforward narration to deeper considerations of what is being narrated.

Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does – nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

Hood’s quest on this day ends up distinctly un-shallow.

Since it’s such a short essay focused on a couple of images, it would be spoiler-ish to reveal those images beyond saying it’s the juxtaposition of a stand of pines destroyed by beetles, and a bird caught on a fence of hog wire. These events allow for consideration of larger issues: the human effect on nature, sure, but also the difference between spotlighting a single victim and presenting statistics in numbers too large to understand, a difference long understood by charity marketers who know we will be moved to respond with a check to the story of one starving child more readily than to hearing the huge numbers of children who have already died. Towerkill is something we hear about on the news (or I guess most people do; I’d never heard of it), but one bluebird is a different story. And, perhaps the all-inclusive theme of legality vs ethicality.

I didn’t realize until after I’d read the essay a few times that each sentence matters, each image, each thought, builds up to the final paragraphs, to an overall thought-cloud that encompasses blue, eleven, quests, insects and pines, birds and fences, and related to all these – people, and what we do, what we can do, what we could do. It’s kind of overwhelming, really. I’m amazed at how much is in there, how, on a frame of evocative language and imagery, a wealth of interrelated musings have been somehow compressed and streamlined into four pages. To do the essay justice, I would have to quote it all. I think that’s good writing.

And as I read these essays, I say over and over, “I don’t particularly like nature writing, but…” Maybe what I don’t like are routine essays, the beautiful but routine “seascapes” (and, all too often, cute animal portraits) of the written word.

I still remember, 30 years later, an entire 90-minute linguistics class examining the word “broken” and its close relatives. “The window broke” is absurd; windows don’t just break, they are broken, but this word has a way of removing action from consequence, and leaving intent questionable. Beetles don’t intend to break trees; we don’t intend to break birds. Does that reduce the loss?