Love Letters

I open my Word-a-Day email a few days late yesterday… from Saturday, and I am once again, led like the hapless rats of Hamlin by the Pied Piper of an unfamiliar collection of letters, with an “x” and a “z” nonetheless, outward, to the megalopolis of the New York Times.

I can pronounce the word without the helpful megaphone, and I’ve encountered it before, but it remains elusive, tickling the edges of memory. Scrolling down the definition appears, then the etymology. Its pedigree is true, Greek and Latin, and is followed by the example:

And there’s that link, the one that lures me to the Times, the melody carried in the title, those notes “teenagers” “link school curriculum to the world.” Once I’ve arrived, I am not disappointed. All that glitters is truly gold. The Learning Network editors explain the contest from last December to “‘connect what you’re learning in school with the world today.'” “Relevance” rings in my head, relevance and rigor, the new “Rs” in education.

They add that the editorial staff valued the ability of the 56 selected essays to eloquently and creatively connect disparate texts, ranging from art to music to print, to the requirements of class in 450 words, concluding, “…they gave us something new to think about, and we hope you feel the same way.”

I had overlooked this particular article in the world of Times offerings; it was originally published on March 13, March 13 when my first cancellation occurred as a substitute at the local middle school where I had come to feel at home, March 13 when this community learned that the schools in this county, on order of the governor, would be starting Spring Vacation a week early, minus jubilation, no end in sight.

The essays inspire—these are the proof of minds at work, of the future four walls, hard work, and collaboration can build. Two shine, towers of light in the haze.

The first is by Teva Alon that ties Edward Albee’s “The American Dream” with the Times, “Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall.” The accomplished young author mounts a stunning comparison between the “characters fully engaged in a capitalist society” in a world of “materialism and superficiality” that Albee depicts. The mall clearly embodies Albee’s “capitalistic nightmare,” and underscores Teva Alon’s closing” “The American Dream Mall is just an extension of a capitalistic nightmare that Edward Albee could only dream of, signaling that of we are not careful, we are inching closer to a world where we truly believe that money can buy happiness.”

During this time of stay-at-home, the dramatic enforced pause that the pandemic has demanded, the imagined silence in the three-million-square-foot-mall with its commitment to our amusement, our “dreams,” our desires, echoes and with it a hope that our excesses might have been curbed.

Sara Jarecke’s essay, the one that used epizeuxis, is the other. She compares the broad topic of the “study of rhetoric” with a Times feature,”We Learned to Write the Way We Talk” by Gretchen McCulloch. She tells about her experience with Advanced Placement Language: “I stumbled my way through foreign terms—epizeuxis, amplification, anastrophe—and learned their meanings and sound,” and concludes with McCullough:”no matter how we write, either informally or a breath away from perfection, we write to connect with others…”‘We’ve been learning to write not for power, but for love.'”

That says it all.

Choosing Wisely

book cover from Amazon

Does anyone else balk at making book recommendations to trusted bibliophile friends? It is rare that I feel unerring confidence when I advise someone to read a book I love, because, to be honest, it is seldom that I don’t love what I read. If I don’t, I have usually not completed it, though that, too, is pretty rare. And it’s gotten rarer still as I’ve stuck to my resolution to write something about every book I finish.

That act of consciously attending to something about a text, whether it’s a powerful quote—even one somewhat extraneous to the book’s merit but resonant for me—or a quirk of character or place, once I’ve given that attention to a book I’ve completed, I almost always cement my fealty to something about it, sort of the difference between a first impression and a deepening relationship.

A while back during one of our almost-monthly Zoom chats (that last at least an hour), I recommended Lily King’s latest novel, Writers and Lovers, to Maria, a dear friend and deep reader. I ascribe that adjective as a distinction between her reading and mine. I’m a “gobbler” of text, she a connoisseur, one who savors and lingers. We have been held in mutual thrall with Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but after I suggested Writers and Lovers, I worried.

I needn’t have. On Saturday we will have a Zoom dedicated to W & L, and Maria has invited her book-lover daughter-in-law, too. In rereading it, another habit I’ve yet to cultivate with any great success—”Too many books too little time” my mantra— I’ve deepened my infatuation. We’re in a relationship now.

A truly captivating story demands that we pass it on, doesn’t it? With any luck, everyone wins, and the wonder grows. So that’s what I’m doing today, passing it on. Fingers crossed… .

Emily and Me

These Fevered Days Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, written by Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann, may not be everybody’s idea of a great read, but I am in awe of Emily, her poetry and her choices, and have read many books about her. The premise of this one though got me thinking about my own “ten pivotal moments.”

When Emily was only 14, Ackmann contends, she wrote a letter to a friend—Emily was a devoted correspondent— and despite her disavowal that those words held any significance (Emily’s standards were high, even then), she wrote, “All things are ready,” knowing that her writing, her exploration of her rich inner world would sustain and, one day, distinguish her.

I’m no Emily, and I feel almost profane as I claim that when I was little, I knew writing would matter—always. While my father wanted to make sure that we all attended church, that we received the spiritual education that had comforted him, taking all six of us to actual church services wasn’t manageable. What he did do was get us to Sunday School for the hour before. Once we were stowed in our respective age-appropriate rooms, Hinson Memorial Baptist Church on Portland’s east side took over.

I was eight or nine when I noticed that the religious school’s monthly newsletter, printed on more substantial paper than the Oregonian that hit our steps each morning, featured an opportunity for kids to write in response to a prompt. A small photo was included with each winning submission, and this publication wasn’t merely local! Some of these kids came from places like Illinois—imagine that!

The invitation that moved me to write asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I knew the answer: a missionary. I wasn’t thinking about audience when I wrote my response; I wrote from my heart. I did want to become a missionary—long before Poisonwood Bible.

I’m pretty sure I waited for an immediate response and equally sure that when I didn’t hear anything for a day or two, I forgot about it. But the day came when a letter addressed to me announced that my “piece” had been chosen, to please send a small photo. The envelop also included a five dollar prize. Five dollars! That was what I got from my parents for Christmas shopping money for my siblings! Five whole dollars, a check, my first, from my writing.

Even without the money, that my words meant something to someone else, meant the world to me. One of my ten pivotal moments? Yes, I was “ready.”

Part of the Whole

“From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters…” This lyric weaves through my head as we stand surrounded by stately giants. Imagine living 1500 years. The “Big Tree” we’ve hiked to inside Prairie Creek Park has. But it is far from alone.

Richard Powers’ Pulitzer prize winning novel Overstory talks about the intimate communication between trees, their roots forming a sustaining connection deep beneath our often oblivious feet.

Before we chose which of the wilderness trails to explore, we stopped at the Visitor Center across from Jedediah Smith State Park. Google is fine for an overview and provides interesting backstory about Smith, but the two people who greet us offer something we’re cherishing much more these days: human contact, granted we’re all masked and regulation distanced, but still…

They tell us that people have been visiting in a steady stream, though in reduced numbers, but assure us that we’ll have some company wherever we go. And we do encounter others, families, and lone hikers, bird and photo enthusiasts, but oh, it’s quiet in this cathedral of trees. This silence is a presence. I ponder Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” as fellow wanderers eddy around us.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in   
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

To be still and sentient demands a discipline I often lack, but here among these ancients who pulse with life, their stillness and movement a mystery to me, I feel whole and part of it all.