Good Prose and Good Science — Quibbling with the Masters

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IMG_4897At first Steven Pinker was my new hero. Within the first few pages of reading his widely acclaimed “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” he debunks the long-standing myths about the evils of passive voice and killing one’s darlings.

We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should . . . push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naive style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.

Finally! Someone is speaking my language.

And he doesn’t stop there.

The classic manuals . . . try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. A famous piece of advice from this school crosses the line from the grim to the infanticide: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetuate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Though commonly attributed to William Faulkner, the quotation comes from the English professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1916 lectures On the Art of Writing.)

I was thrilled. My top two pet peeves on bad writing advice soundly tromped by the latest style guru.

Pinker goes on to say what most writers would readily agree with, that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. What’s more, you should acquire “the habit of lingering over good writing wherever you find it and reflecting on what makes it good.”

That’s what he proposes to do in his book, to teach the principles of good style by “reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”

By now, I’m bubbling with enthusiasm, and eagerly turn to his first example, the opening lines of “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer.

That’s when my giddy glide toward Pinker fandom comes to a screeching halt, because this paragraph is a ghastly example of good prose.

Shouldn’t, above all, good prose make sense? Failing that, what good is “style”?

But this example is so full of logical inconsistencies and pure nonsense, I’m amazed that a scientist (the supposed epitome of logical and rational thought!) would write it, let alone that a stylist would recommend it. Surely Pinker could have found a better example of good prose.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. It’s not so much the style I object to as its substance:

We are going to dies, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Okay, he has an intriguing premise in his opening line. It makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you want to find out more. I’ll give him that.

But the next sentence is clearly nonsense, and rather than intrigue me, it makes me question the author’s intelligence: not a good sign of good prose. He says, “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” But if “most people” are not born, “they” are not people. His sentence makes no sense. He’s referring to something that doesn’t exist and calling it a person. His terminology is all screwed up. He goes on to call these non-people “potential people,” “unborn ghosts,” and “possible people,” when, in fact, “they” are nothing, non-entities.

What he’s really trying to say, in what he thinks is a clever way, is: “We’re lucky we’re alive.” Because in the bijillion possible ways our DNA could have been strung, it was strung in the way peculiar to us, thus making me “me,” and you “you,” and not someone else.

Fine. I get that. I’m lucky I’m going to die because I’m lucky I was ever born. I’m also lucky I was born a person and not an ant, or algae, or a cancer cell. I’m lucky my daddy’s sperm beat out all the other sperm to penetrate my mother’s egg, and that it was that particular egg, and not another, or I could have a sister I never knew existed because I never would have been born. I’m lucky in a bijillion ways that doesn’t include a specious argument comparing me with “potential people.” Which makes me wonder what caused him to choose that clumsy and rather irrational example?

But let’s move on. Next he claims those potential people (or potential ways of stranding DNA) “will never see the light of day.” Never? Really?

Who is to say that one of those potential people, as he calls them, or possible DNA strandings is not being born as we speak, or will not be born next week, next year, and next century? In fact, aren’t all people pulled from that pool of DNA possibility, including future generations, which will go on peopling our planet onward to eternity, or at least the end of the human race?

If you really think about it, based on his logic, it’s not so much that we “actual people” are luckier than those “potential people,” but that while we are lucky now, at this point in time, they will be lucky later on when our luck has run out.

So, that sentence about “the light of day” makes no sense either. But the next one is even sillier.

He says “certainly” the set of as yet unborn potential people includes poets and scientists greater than the set of already produced people. Certainly?

There’s two things wrong with this sentence.

First he’s presupposing that DNA alone is responsible for poetic and scientific greatness, when certainly our parentage, education, place of birth, economic status, and any number of other criteria is equally important. We could almost certainly say that people who had the potential to be greater than Keats and Newton have already been born, are alive this moment, but sadly for them and us, they were born to a Pygmy tribe in Africa, a female in Afghanistan, or a crack baby in the ghetto. None of which would have had the education or opportunity to reach her or his full potential as poets and scientists.

The second problem with this sentence is that it does not belong in this paragraph. It does not support his topic or strengthen his argument about how lucky we are to be alive. A good editor should have deleted it.

But his most stupefying statement is his last, remarking on the “stupefying odds” that “you and I, in our ordinariness” were ever born. How strange he would come to the conclusion of how “ordinary” we are, for it defies the very point he was making all along. In the terms of his own argument, the very point he is advancing, our very lucky and exceptional birth would qualify us as extraordinary; indeed, far surpassing all those innumerable unlucky, unexceptional, unborn ghosts.

Pinker claims that Dawkins’ purpose, as an “uncompromising atheist and tireless advocate of science,” is to explain how “his world view does not, as the romantic and religious fear, extinguish a sense of wonder or an appreciation of life.”

If that was his purpose, then he failed miserably. For all he did in that opening was to irritate this reader with all his non-logical arguments. The only “wonder” of it for me was how a scientist could write it, and how a stylist could praise him for it.

If I could rewrite his paragraph to remove the logical inconsistencies and yet retain what Pinker claims was Dawkins’ purpose–to move the reader to marvel at the wonder of existence–here is how I would do so:

We are lucky to be alive. That joyous fact should far outweigh any grief in the knowledge of our eventual death. We are lucky because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people containing you and me. Our birth is an exceptional and extraordinary accident. Out of all the innumerable sand grains among the sand dunes of time, the winds of chance happened to pick up the ones producing you and me and spun us into being. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, you and I, in all our uncommon glory, won the mother of all lotteries.

Lucky indeed.

Blogging A Trail of Bread Crumbs – 2014 Recap

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Hansel and Gretal Offterdinger_Hansel_und_Gretel_(1)Blog posts are like a trail of bread crumbs leading you back through a misty past. They tell you where you were, not where you’re going. I can’t say I’m unhappy to leave 2014 behind. And if a few of those bread crumbs get gobbled up by birds, so much the better.

Still, it’s instructive, looking back before you plow forward. Here are a few trends, challenges, and highlights from my last year of blogging.

Is Less More, or Just Less?

I wrote fewer posts on this blog in 2014 than in previous years. But I’ve always been a slow blogger. Even at the beginning in 2012 I was posting only twice a week. Eventually it turned into once a week, then every ten days of so. I’ve gone as long as two weeks between posts now. I seem to be racing toward some decline. But it worries me. I don’t want to stop blogging. I don’t want to lose you, the readers who have come to mean so much to me. I love blogging. I want less to be more. Is that possible?

Into the Pit and Out Again

One reason I’ve blogged less is because I’ve been challenged more–both personally and professionally. Early last year, I thought I lost my son to addiction for good. I’d given up hope. In desperation, I created a new, anonymous blog, just to vent all the rage and grief and craziness I was feeling. And it helped. It brought me back from the brink, and him as well. Now he has 8 months of recovery behind him and still going stronger than ever. Still, we take it one day at a time. There’s no other way.

Professionally, I was thrown down into the pit as well. I finished the last draft of my novel in December 2013.  2014 was supposed to be the year I sent this darling out to agents and publishers. I put it aside for a few weeks so I could re-read it fresh. That’s when it all came crashing down. I hated my novel!

I was devastated. After so many years of tender loving care, this baby too was lost to me. In a frantic, I reached out to a few writer friends and researched the web, searching for a life-line, hoping this was a normal reaction. Did all writers end up hating their novels? It turns out, most don’t, but some do. It’s not uncommon. I found a new beta reader and, working with her strong encouragement and deep insight, went through the draft one more time. (Thank you, Kerri!). Now I’m back on track again. I’ve finished what I hope will be my final draft, and set it aside for another read. I’m keeping my fingers crossed I won’t hate it this time.

I had one more personal crisis in 2014, but I’m saving that for another blog post. All this did slow me down and drain away some of the energy and inspiration for keeping this blog going. In retrospect, I’m surprised I wrote as much as I did. Maybe I’m more resilient than I thought.

Now for the 2014 highlights:

Most Viewed Posts: A Blast From the Past

According to my WordPress Annual Report, my most viewed posts in 2014 were written in 2013. Hmmm. What does that mean? Well, I could take it sunny-side up: My writing has staying power, or so WordPress euphemistically suggests.  Or it could mean my best blogging is behind me. Well, time will tell. Here’s my two most viewed posts:

Binge Blogging

Series are all the rage now, both in television viewing and reading. We love characters who linger, whose stories become our stories, who return to us day after day, week after week. Even season after season and book after book. We boast of our binges: mine was Downton Abbey last week. I re-watched all of Season 4 during the afternoon, then watched the premier of Season 5 that evening. I went to bed fully sated.

Binge blogging, sadly, is not quite the same. It’s done less for the pleasure of readers and more to accommodate long-winded writers. Like me. I take more pleasure in my series than my readers do. It’s a guilty indulgence.

The first one was a 4-part literary deconstruction, tying together the themes found in the writings of Milton, Wordsworth, and Lacan. (I know, ouch!) The first and last posts in the series are listed below.

The next 2-part series on Annie Dillard’s writing and my own was much more popular:

Hu-More, Not Less

Three personal favorite, which readers also seemed to enjoy, were attempts to lighten an otherwise overly heavy and oh-so-serious blog load. Not to mention, help me lift my head out of those pits I mentioned earlier, if for just a moment. It was quite refreshing. Maybe I need to hu-more in the future.

Freshly Pressed (Again!)

I’ve been freshly pressed three times now. Each time is a surprise and delight. Gifts that come from out of the blue. The last time was in June 2014. This one’s about marriage: drifting apart, pulling together, and finding that magic balance.

My First Guest Post!

I was also honored, and delighted, to be invited to write a guest post on poetry for the lovely Luanne’s blog, Writer Site. I posted it on my site as well.

Your Favorites and Mine

Surprisingly, and happily, some of my readers’ favorite posts were mine as well, and several featured my poetry. I can’t tell you how gratifying that is. I haven’t written much poetry in my life, but all of it is deeply personal. I think sometimes that to truly know me, who I am at heart, you would have to read my poetry. And you have. Without blogging–without my poetry being read–large, intimate parts of me would remain relatively unknown.

Three of your favorite posts featuring my poetry:

Two of my favorite posts featuring poetry from my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens:

Two of your non-poetry favorites this year was a photo-essay on fallen oak trees, and a list and lament about all the books I’ve abandoned this past year.

Hugs and Kisses

Thank you for bearing with me through this long post, and through this last challenging year of infrequent posts–those bread crumbs scattered along a dark trail with its few gleams of light, and rare laughter.

Your comments and encouragements have meant the world to me, and made all the difference. May you all have a truly marvelous 2015.

A Cranky Reader: What I Crave When I Read Poetry

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Reading CzakoAdolf-2I was invited to write a guest blog post about poetry on Luanne Castle’s Writer Site. The following was first published on her site in a slightly different version.

I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry lately, how some speaks to me and some not at all. While reading recent issues of prestigious literary journals, I was surprised to find that not one poem—not one—moved me. Amazing!

Most seemed like intellectual exercises or obtuse offerings of random thoughts and images. None engaged me intellectually, or stimulated my sensibilities, or even challenged me—let alone invited me—to a second reading. Instead they were studies in disappointment. I left them unfulfilled, still hungry and, admittedly, cranky.

Is it me? Is it them? (Sigh).

Just what is it I crave from poetry?

Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

That’s what I want: The thing we die from lack of. That’s why I read poetry. What I look for in other works of art too—in prose and painting and music that rise to the level of poetry.

I want what Emily Dickinson referred to when she says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Something that tickles the hintermost parts of my brain, where I feel the synapses stretch and snap, reaching toward something just past my grasp.

I want what T.S. Elliot meant to when he writes that “poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” Something dark and dormant, lying just below consciousness, rising into the light: a curved fin, a humped back, gliding momentarily along the surface of thought before dipping below again.

We have all felt that, I’m sure. Something deep and delicious, once known and now forgotten, woken momentarily. Something within us re-ignited, flashing briefly before dissolving into darkness again.

In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish says: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”

He says: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.”

He says:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

Reading his poem, I’m with him. I’m saying: Yes!

But then he almost ruins it with the last two lines:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Pointing to something static. Not in motion. Art for art’s sake. An artifact showcased in a museum.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

If it doesn’t make us squirm, if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t urge voyages, is it art? Is it poetry?

Stevens calls modern poetry “the poem of the mind.” It’s “the act of finding what will suffice.”

He says:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

A poem must construct something that it inhabits, that speaks to the reader, in the “delicatest ear of the mind,” “exactly, that which it wants to hear,” what the reader, that invisible audience, wants to hear—which is not the play, not the poem, but “itself.” Itself “expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Stevens is saying that a poem can no more “be” than “mean.” Rather, it must act. It must unite poet and reader in the act of finding what will suffice.

It is not static: It is “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.” It is always moving. It moves us to capture it in its passing. It moves us beyond ourselves, where the top of our head lifts away and there we go unbounded, grasping for a brief moment what lies always, already, just beyond our grasp.

That which suffices. That which the lack thereof we die of every day. That’s what I’m looking for when I read poetry.

I want to feel my synapses snapping.

O Holy Night – The Sacred and Sublime in Art & Images

deborahbrasket:

I hope you enjoy this. Wishing you all a Holy Night full of light and love.

Originally posted on Deborah J. Brasket, Writer:

Wikipedia Commons A_Rose_Made_of_Galaxies_Highlights_Hubble's_21st_Anniversary_jpgI’ve gathered some images, sacred and sublime, to scroll through as you listen to Charlotte Church sing “O Holy Night“, one of my favorite Christmas carols.

I love this song, not only for the haunting melody and beautiful  lyrics, but also because night has always seemed holy to me.

When I walk out beneath the stars on a cold or balmy night, I’m awestruck by such beauty and mystery and magnificence. I feel humbled and incredibly grateful, as if witnessing the hand of the divine writ large across the sky.

The images below are my gift to you. They reflect what this season is all about for me, a sense of the sacred and sublime–scenes of the birth of Christ and families celebrating Christmas.

Photos of spectacular sunsets and winter wonderlands–nature in all her glory.

And finally, images of an infinite universe stretching out and wrapping about the earth as…

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Sweet Whispery Sounds for a Wintry Afternoon – The Moon Song

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IMG_3148 (2)I don’t know what it is I love about this song by Karen O, which debuted in Her, the acclaimed film by Spike Jonze. I think it touches something sweet and innocent, safe and warm inside me, and hints at some similar presence out there in the universe, in some “quiet, starry place,” as the lyrics suggest, “a million miles away.”

It probably also has to do with the film itself, which, for all its simplicity, and even silliness, spoke to something deep and complex about life and love and its potential. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

You can listen to the song here.

When you are done, listen to “The Moon Song” by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden from their album Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories). It’s not the same song as above, only shares the same name. But it tells a story too, without lyrics, as Metheny’s work always does. And if you are watching the rain or snow fall outside your window, this will warm you.

Here are the lyrics from Karen O’s “The Moon Song”

I’m lying on the moon
My dear, I’ll be there soon
It’s a quiet, starry place
Times were swallowed up
In space we’re here a million miles away

There’s things I wish I knew
There’s no thing I’d keep from you
It’s a dark and shiny place
But with you my dear
I’m safe and we’re a million miles away

We’re lying on the moon
It’s a perfect afternoon
Your shadow follows me all day
Making sure that I’m okay and
We’re a million miles away

Read more: Karen O – The Moon Song Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Happiness Like Holiness

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Poppies by The Yes Man under Creative Commons Licence

Poppies by The Yes Man under Creative Commons Licence

I’ve been ill–nothing serious–but lying in bed day after day, even surrounded by good books, tends toward melancholy. Reading Mary Oliver’s poetry this morning is the perfect cure. This one especially speaks to me.

Poppies
by Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

Turning Anger into Action, in Ferguson and Elsewhere

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justiceI am so angry at the outcome in Ferguson, that there was no indictment to allow a court of law to settle the matter of guilt or innocence in the killing of an unarmed young Black man. It seems this tragedy was bungled from day one in every way imaginable. At the very least a special prosecutor should have been brought in rather than allowing a district attorney that the community did not trust lead the investigation.

I do not know, now does anyone, whether Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown. If he was truly so in fear of his life that he shot an unarmed man who in self-defense–a man who some witnesses say was surrendering and that others say was charging him. No one will know now, because the case will not go to trial to determine that guilt. It was a small thing for a grieving family to ask for–a trial. How could such a simple thing be denied?

I feel for the family of Michael Brown, for a community that lives in fear of the police, who seek justice for their dead sons. I can’t imagine what that would be like–to raise a black son knowing that any kind of brush with police could end in his arrest or shooting or death. And that it was far more likely for my son than for the son of my white neighbor, or the son of a police officer, or the son of a mayor.

When I look at how angry this injustice makes me–when I am so removed from the situation–I can fully understand how the anger of those who are intimately affected could turn into a rage that would upturn police cars and set them on fire. I can understand, without condoning, because anger, unchanneled, is wild and destructive.

My prayers now are that this justified anger is channeled into action, into changing an unjust system of law that allows community oversight of police departments, that requires body cameras for police officers, that ensures members of law enforcement represent demographically the community they serve. And that channels that anger into political action that unseats mayors and governors who are as tone-deaf as these in Ferguson, Missouri, were.

Today I am trying to channel my anger into action by writing this blog post. I know that not all my readers may feel the same as I do about the outcome of that Grand Jury, but I hope that all can sympathize with the mothers of Black sons the way that I do. And pray for the day when all our sons and daughters, whatever their skin color or economic status, will be treated equally in the eyes of the law, with justice and restraint and compassion.

The Light-Craving Stories of George Saunders

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800px-Near-Death-Experience_Illustration public domainWhat is it that I love about the wildly weird, dark and dorky stories of George Saunders?

Ever since reading his collection “The Tenth of December,” I’ve been trying to figure this out.

His stories are not easy reading. People are tortured, puppies drowned, nefarious things are happening behind a guise of bureaucratic goodness. Often the stories start in confusing, abrupt ways, and are written so lean it’s hard to see what’s holding them together.

His characters are usually bizarre or just plain sad: pathetic morons, smug hypocrites, nerdy adolescents, clueless housewives, loser dads, lame do-gooders.

At first you think Saunders is making fun of them, judging them, exposing their hypocrisy, their meanness, their arrogance, their stupidity. You think: this satire. It’s ironic. It’s absurdist.

Much of what he writes has a hard comic edge. Some of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

But then you realize he’s not laughing at these characters. He’s not laughing with them either. Most are too naïve, too serious, too un-self-aware to have the capacity to laugh at themselves. They have no idea how comical they are, although they may be painfully aware of how they are made the butt of others’ jokes.

The stories aren’t about the characters at all. They are about us—the readers. How he moves us from A to Z.

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut (and quoted in a NY Times interview).

“He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Saunders is taking us on a hilarious, diabolical, fun-house tour, and at the end, we realize how all these crazy, ridiculous, pathetic losers we meet along the way are us in disguise. Me, in a different life—my son, my daughter, my mother, my poor dear deranged grandpa. Beneath the pathetic veneer is someone we love, or someone worth loving.

In the same interview, Saunders talks about how his family has influenced his writing:

“My life with them has been everything to me. And loving them the way I do—I think that was a very major development in my artistic life. Suddenly everything mattered. What helped them was good, what hurt them was bad. And then that feeling got writ large. I became aware . . . of the fact that cruelty or even just mere thoughtlessness had an object: someone was getting bruised. And someone must have (or should have) loved that bruised party as much as I love my family. So the world became morally charged. . . . People were precious and not just my people.”

But these kinds of revelations in his stories do not come easily, without struggle. Or without a cost. They come like The Misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s short story. He stands over the silly and self-absorbed Grandmother with a gun held to her head. And then, just before he kills her, he holds up her heart, the heart she never knew she had until that very moment.

They come with regret, with a deep, gut-wrenching sadness. And sometimes, at the very end, with a heart-searing and heart-soaring softness.

The first story in Saunders collection, “Victory Lap”, opens with a young teenage girl floating down a marble staircase imaging all her secret admirers below. It’s written in a 3rd person stream-of-consciousness point of view, in the vernacular of the blissfully naïve and hopelessly romantic. She gushes about how lovely everyone is, all the girls at school, all the boys:

“Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelope! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What does that even mean?

There is so much she doesn’t know. Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what about a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-feed, did you have to like push the milk out?”

When she’s happy like this, she tells us, as she pirouettes around the house practicing ballet, she imagines a conversation with a baby deer trembling in the woods. She admonishes the hunter who slays the deer’s mother.

“Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy.”

She believes in niceness. “In a straw poll at school, she had voted for people being good and life being fun.”

While she’s practicing ballet, alone in the house, a meter-man who’s not a meter-man knocks at her back door. “Something told her to step back in, slam the door. But that seemed rude.” So she smiled and asked, “How may I help you?”

Next we meet Allison’s nerdy teenage neighbor, Kyle, who she calls a “poor goof.”

He’s just come home from school to see a note his father leaves him about placing their new expensive geode out on the back deck.

“Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice . . . ?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten. Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although: problem. If he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he’d leave an incriminating new trail of microclods”

He has imaginary conversations with his Dad, who calls him Scout, and his mother who calls him Beloved Only. He imagines them watching his every move with disapproval, and him explaining away his failures at meeting their strict standards, even though they both send “weekly braggy emails to both sets of grandparents” about him.

While he’s out on the back deck ready to set the geode he sees Allison with the meter-man who is dragging her toward his van. When she resists, he punches her in the stomach. The man sees Kyle and warns him to stay away: “Move a muscle and I’ll knife her in the heart. Swear to God. Got it?”

“Kyle’s mouth was so spotless all he could do was make his mouth do the shape it normally did when saying Yes.

He was just a kid. There was nothing he could do.”

He imagines going inside, pretending he never saw anything. Imagines how he’ll look and what he’ll say when eventually he learns that Allison was raped and murdered while he was innocently sitting inside playing with his railroad cars. He imagines how pleased his parents will be that he hadn’t put himself in harm’s way. “Super job, Scout.” “We are well please, Beloved Only.”

Then he was running.

“Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod); transporting a geode without its protective wrapping: hopping the fence, which stressed the fence, which had cost a pretty penny; leaving the yard; leaving the yard barefoot.”

He throws the geode at the head of the man who falls, his head a bloody mess. Allison crab-crawls into the house and calls 911.

The story could have ended here. It would have been a good story. But Saunders takes it further. He pushes the narrative into something beyond a would-be rape gone bad, a skinny scared kid saving the beautiful princess next door. He pushes the story past mere good into sublime. He takes the reader to that state of grace, where we feel that heart-searing, heart-soaring softness.

Allison watches from the window while Kyle does a wild, crazy “Who’s the man!” dance on the hood of the car.

“You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? You think I won’t?”

He lifts the geode again. Ready to bring it down on the injured man’s head once more.

“Kyle, don’t,” she whispers.

She has nightmares about that day, about Kyle murdering the man. About his bloody head dissolving. And Kyle looking at her with that look: My life is ruined. I’m a murderer. Until her parents remind her, over and over again. It didn’t happen like that. You stopped him. You saved Kyle.

“You did so good, Mom said.

Did beautiful, Dad said.”

The final story in the collection does the same thing. Pushes the story to a satisfying conclusion, and then takes it further, into the sublime.

In Saunders’ title story, “The Tenth of December,”(which you can read online) a boy with “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerism” walks with his pellet gun out into the snowy woods. Here he will confront the wily “Netherworlders” who live under rocks, and today seem intent on capturing the new girl from Montreal in his homeroom class.

“He just loved the way she talked. So apparently did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.”

In the middle of this fantasy, he sees a coat left lying on the snow, and off in the distance a half-naked man leaning against a tree.

“What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.”

Despite fears and misgivings, he sets racing off across the frozen duck pond with the coat to rescue the old man, for “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

The old man, who is dying, and who wants to spare himself and his family the indignity of a slow, painful, humiliating death, has come out here to end his life. He has just sat down to wait peacefully for what he hopes will be a quick and relatively painless death, when:

“Oh, for shitsake.

On for crying out loud.

Some kid was on the pond.

Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.

You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—

Damn. Damn it.”

The boy falls through the ice and the dying man must try to gather enough strength to get up, get down the hill and save him. Painstakingly, cursing the whole way, he does. He manages to pull him out, get him dried off the best he can, and then forces the boy to get up and moving, so he can run home before he freezes to death. Then Eber sits back to finish what he had started.

The story could have finished here, but it doesn’t. He sits there, thinking about what he’s doing. Two weeks before Christmas. Before Molly’s favorite holiday. He’s “offing” himself. Too late, he has second thoughts.

“He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.”

I won’t tell you how the story ends—you really need to read this. My little summary here doesn’t do it justice. But I will share what Eber comes to realize, which is at the heart of nearly every Saunders story I’ve read so far. That moment of grace.

“He saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, he now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—-had never been—-his to withheld. Withhold”

This last shows his dying brain misfiring.

At the end of another story called “ComCom,” not found in this collection, the narrator and a man called Giff are murdered. Afterward, they rise together above the world:

“Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below and we hear their prayer, grievances, their million signals of loss . . . . All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?”

He learns:

“This is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”

That’s what I love about his stories. He shows us that in the end, when all the superficialities and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives. And like Eber, we realize those “drops of goodness” that we experience at each other’s hands, though few and far between, are worth all the other absurd humilities and indignities that life may heap upon us.

One drop of grace is all it takes to save us from each other and ourselves.

“The Mountain of My Love” – Poem by Hayden Carruth

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Lovers William_Powell_Frith_The_lovers

The Lovers by William Powell Frith, Public Domain

In the graduation speech that went viral last year, George Saunders wrote:

“Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was ‘mostly Love, now.'”

For a long time I could not find the poem he mentioned. But a reader who heard about my search found the poem and kindly shared it with me. Now I share it with you, a deeply moving testament to love and marriage, as our lives wind down.

Testament

by Hayden Carruth

So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below.

 

Growing Up in a Haunted House

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photalia moonLast October I posted a series of true life tales about the hauntings, ghosts, and demons I experienced growing up, and later when I had children of my own. The first is printed below with links to the others.  Happy Halloween!

While ”intellectually” I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, and the like, I have experienced such. And I cannot deny that the phenomena which I and others–indeed, all known cultures and societies–have laid claim to, are “real.” The reality they seem to have is unexplained, often unverifiable, and usually fleeting and ephemeral. And yet they persist in haunting humanity.

Throughout history, people whom we usually credit with intelligence and integrity have reported ghostly experiences, among them the psychologist Carl Jung, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Sir Winston Churchill, as well as a host of current well-known celebrities, such as Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, and Halle Berry.

I can neither explain, verify, nor dismiss the reality of the experiences that I relate here. I can only state that these things occurred as I remember them, or as others I trust related them to me. And most were witnessed by more than one person.

Our House on a Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill largeWhen I was a kid “House on Haunted Hill” was my favorite spooky movie. I first saw it a few years after my own family had escaped, just barely, from a haunted house experience. While living there I was not aware of all the horrors that house contained, and only learned the full account when my mother felt I was old enough to learn the truth.

I was eight years old when my parents rented a home set on a hillside in an older, respectable neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska. The attic had been converted into two rooms, a tiny room overlooking the back yard and garage; and a huge room overlooking the front yard. This larger room had been recently renovated and then abruptly abandoned, it appeared. The high pitched ceiling and walls were covered in a richly varnished, knotty pine paneling. Finely crafted drawers and book cases had been built beneath the eaves. But the floor, made of rough, unvarnished planks of wood, had been left unfinished. And a large reddish-brown stain that looked like a puddle of blood had soaked into the wood.

Nancy_Drew_-_Ghost_of_Thornton_Hall_Cover_ArtThis was my bedroom and I loved it. Being an avid fan of Nancy Drew mysteries, the giant blood stain only added to the allure of the room–that and the trap door on the floor of the walk-in closet. While the door had been nailed shut, I could still probe the cracks with a ruler, detecting steps that led downward—to where, no one knew. My discovery sent chills of delight down my back.

In fact, I was thrilled to have the whole second story all to myself. Even though the second smaller room could have easily accommodated my little brother, my mother made him sleep down below in the tiny room at the bottom of the stairs. She claimed the small room upstairs was “too cold” and used it as a storage room instead. She filled it with unpacked boxes and unused furniture, forbidding me to play there—which, of course, made the room seem even more desirable.

I remember entering the room often to play by myself and looking out the dusty window toward the mysterious barn-like structure that faced the alley. The structure, which could easily have accommodated several cars, sat empty nearly the whole time we lived there, and my brother and I were forbidden to play here as well. It too was considered “too cold” for human habitation. The one time I did enter, my eyes were drawn upward to the high rafters where, through the rotting roof, splinters of light filled with ghostly dust motes fell to the floor. I did not enter again. When some teenage boys wanted to use the garage to rebuild a car, they moved out after a couple of nights, never to return—even though they had paid rent for a full month.

I thought it strange when my mother kept wanting to move me out of my lovely upstairs “apartment” to a room below and I refused to be moved. She kept asking if I was afraid up there all by myself, and I insisted I wasn’t . This was true. I knew what needed to be done to stay safe, although I never shared this with my mother. It was a ritual that I religiously followed. Every night after my mother heard my prayers and tucked me into bed, I would pull the covers tight over my head and stay there until I fell asleep. I knew somehow that no harm would come to me if I followed this ritual. And no harm ever did come to me.

I might well have been very afraid if I had heard what my parents heard at night as they slept in the room below mine.

Athenodorus_-_The_Greek_Stoic_Philosopher_Athenodorus_Rents_a_Haunted_HouseOften my mother was woken by the sound of heavy, dragging footsteps lumbering across room over her bed, and she would wake my father and make him go upstairs to investigate. At first he did so wearily, thinking she was imagining it. But once he woke early enough to hear it himself and went dashing up the stairs—but nothing was there and I was sound asleep in my bed.

We moved shortly thereafter. That’s when the neighbors told us about the horrible tragedy that had taken place in the house before we moved in. They hadn’t wanted to tell us earlier and scare us away. Apparently the previous owner of the house had murdered his wife in my bedroom and then hung himself afterwards from the rafters in the garage.

If some other tragic event took place in the small room next to mine upstairs—the coldest room in the house–we never learned. Whatever haunted that room did more than drag its feet across the floor or blow cold air down our spines. During our final days in that home, my mother, to her terror, found this out–with no one but my three-year-old brother at home to save her.

More about this in my next post.

You can read the full series of ghost stories at the links below.

 

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