In June of 1994 I narrowly escaped becoming a wife. Wifedom was not the problem. If a fight breaks out on a bus, is the bus the problem? No. Even if the argument involves some value judgment of the vehicle—“This bus stinks.” “No it doesn’t.” “It’s dirty.” “It’s cleaner than your mouth.”—the vehicle is simply the means of expression for the frustration, anger and misunderstanding that occurs between human beings.
And so it was with our near-marriage. Neither of us was an adequate communicator, at least not adequate to the situation. We had stumbled into relationship a few years earlier and had enjoyed a long peaceful spell, unlike the drama and fireworks of other relationships we had negotiated. That seemed a pattern for a good marriage, and on the second request I said yes.
I remember it well. I had spent the morning at the MOMA in New York City, and found a little church to sit in on my way uptown. It was a shadowy place, with smelly Catholic incense leaking from the walls and a life-size crucifix above the altar. Several mumbling people sat in the pews. I slid into the empty back row. I didn’t mumble, but my thoughts weren’t organized or calm. I started noticing things, sensory things. A little daylight squeezed in through a couple of high, stained glass windows and that seemed hopeful. The floor was linoleum, and I kept thinking how I hated the feel of linoleum underfoot on a cold winter day. But it was spring. It was one of those warm spring New York days when the leaves are emerging and the whole city smells of…well, to be honest, exhaust and dogshit. On my way out of the church I thanked it, I thanked the building though I wasn’t sure why. I felt almost as if the church itself had decided to marry, relieving me of that burden and decision.
So we almost did. Her religious affiliation was with the Quakers, who threw themselves into prayer and debate and finally, a year later, reached consensus around witnessing our marriage. Perhaps it was just too long to wait for affirmation, an affirmation given to more traditional couples without any such scrutiny. Yet I was impressed by the scrutiny. At the end of that year I felt I had left the scrutiny to others and done too little of it myself. I was vaguely aware that this marriage had become not just a test case for others, but a political sticking point for me. It had become an activist’s weapon, and lost its meaning as a marriage, as a commitment to another, as an act of love.
We invited about thirty friends and family. Everyone was asked to bring a pie. A seamstress friend of mine made me a purple wedding frock. Two weeks before the wedding I called it off. The truth is, and the reason for telling this story now is to practice telling the truth, especially the hardest truths, some of which carry shame and all of which carry the knowledge of having done harm—the truth is that in my confusion and continued uncertainty about something called love, I glanced elsewhere and became attracted to someone else. That is the situation my not-wife and I were inadequately prepared for. We lacked the ability to sort out what was reactive and what was not, and whether, as a couple, we were actually suited to one another, and whether marriage was still the best way forward for us. We weren’t actually suited to one another, but a clumsy and unconscious unveiling of this was not helpful or necessary. It was hurtful. It caused harm to everyone involved.
There. I’ve said it. And one more thing. While I regret that my not-wife was unable to forgive me, this has taught me that forgiveness, which is a word we use too often as a shallow platitude, isn’t for someone else to grant. Real, felt forgiveness has its source inside. To my surprise, because I’m still a clumsy animal prone to surprises, forgiveness of self and others is activated by truth-telling. I’ve wanted and feared to tell the regretful piece of this story, the shameful, guilt-ridden piece, for a long time. I broke the marriage. By my own actions I caused a great deal of harm. We have that before us now. Now go on.
Someone receives a midnight phone call. There’s static on the line. The message isn’t entirely clear. A location is mentioned, then another. A name is given. Then the muffled words “the goods.”
It sounds like a scene from The Godfather, but it’s happening right here in our town. We’re off to another day of vaccinarama, the continuing roll-of-the-dice-rollout that drives the good citizens of Arizona to intrigue in order to secure themselves an inoculation.
Listen, as the medical worker who jabbed my arm said, “Consider yourself a lottery winner just to be here,” and I do. I consider myself one lucky duck to have glanced at my email at just the right moment in time to snag a place in line. That day outside the Elks Lodge, it looked like the crowd had arrived for the Flagstaff Folk Festival, eight months late or four months early. We were there to hear the songs of our youth played over and over again, live and local. But instead, it was vaccination day, and the smiles were radiant, the relief palpable. We queued up for forty minutes and longed for the live band, or even the piped-in music, but maybe by the time we head out for our second shot a quartet will be playing under the elk heads.
One of my early memories is standing beside my mother and watching our family doctor uncork a little vial of clear liquid intended for me. He probably didn’t hand it to me with the words, “Bottoms up!” but still, there was a festive, let’s-make-a-toast mood in his office. The drink was syrupy sweet and not to my liking, but it would save me from something called polio, I was told. I was too young to know anything or think much about polio. Or smallpox, for which I was vaccinated in a signature speckled pattern on my upper right arm. In grade school, when a classmate fell ill with measles, mumps or chickenpox, and later German measles, we were sent to stand beside her and breathe in her germs and come down with these diseases ourselves in order to “get them over with.” It was awkward to arrive at the house of a girl I didn’t really know, enter her bedroom and sit close to her on an uncomfortable chair and come up with news from school. “Oh, the rabbit got out,” I remember telling one patient who just looked at me and sighed feverishly. Yet I left with what I was supposed to leave with every time, and put the childhood diseases behind me so they wouldn’t come back to threaten my life as an adult. We never thought there was much danger of that anyway, until we almost lost our friend Patrick.
Patrick worked in Chad for a humanitarian organization. His young daughter, Ellie, came down with chickenpox and recovered easily but not without first passing on the disease to her father. He contracted chickenpox in his lungs and, close to death, was airlifted out of Africa and back to his home country of England. After some time in Intensive Care he recovered, and was able to return to Chad, but his proximity to death was sobering for all of us, and a necessary reminder of our great good fortune as beneficiaries of medical interventions, magic potions, syrupy sweet liquids and shots in the arm that saved us from crippling diseases and early deaths. The little glass vial of the polio vaccine was a precious, life-giving elixir. I was too young to know it, but I’m old enough to know now that a long line of sixty-fives and older, standing outside in the sun, shuffling slowly forward, happy to be there, excited to see one another out in the light of day—it’s a reminder that to be able to choose this way of keeping life close, of choosing life in this way, is a choice that belongs to everyone. This is a case, not the first nor the last, when what you do affects what I do, when my winning lottery ticket is worth less without yours.
The intrigue, the crapshoot as I’ve been heard to call it, will level out here in the great state of Arizona, I hope, especially as more vaccine becomes available. But if we’re wondering how to do this thing, this thing we’ve never done before, a good first step might be to look around at the places where the rollout is working well, like our neighbor, New Mexico. The Grand Canyon state shares a long dusty border with the Land of Enchantment. Can’t we teach each other something?
Years ago, in the days when I preferred to tap on an Olympia manual typewriter fed with canary yellow paper, I wrote out this passage attributed to the Koran:
Said Jesus Son of Mary (peace be on him): The world is but a bridge—pass over without building houses on it. He who hopes for an hour hopes for eternity; the world is an hour—spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.
I’ve had those words taped to the wall of my room in every house I’ve inhabited, and from house to house their meaning has shifted, as if the passage itself is a bridge supporting no one interpretation, but home to the tent camp of ideas that mark our passage (a different sort of passage) through life. But today, as our third foot of snow falls, my eyes come to rest on the rest is unseen. The ground is gone. Even the sky is gone. Instead, there’s something above us unfurling shrouds of snow, and the earth floor rises up to meet it. Closer and closer come earth and sky. We all look legless. Heads, arms, torsos hovering above chilly whiteness, our bottom halves buried in steep snowbanks. It’s a thick, stalled, stuck-in-place river and we’re out in it, fishing for what we don’t know. Or wading out to serenade someone—a late sleeper; a weary number-cruncher working from home. Then someone shuffles by, walking on water, just because they found the perfect pair of snowshoes at that yard sale last summer and had the good sense to plunk down a six-dollar (bargained down from ten) investment in their future. Three bucks each shoe, they point out. Someone else has their own Iditarod going, a border collie on a long leash towing them on a dinner tray through the fluffy ashes of the storm.
How easy it is to make friends when the snow falls. A gang of three women roams the neighborhood, armed with shovels. I join them and that makes four. The man on the corner cranks up his snowblower and puts the women out of business, but when the snow keeps falling we’re out there again, clearing driveways, revealing sidewalks, making things manifest. It’s like a baby’s game of peek-a-boo: the blanket’s up, the face is hidden; the blanket’s down and there we are, where we’ve always been but seemed not to be. When the snow makes the world disappear, it emboldens us and we come forward. Have you noticed how the shy ones blossom from behind their masks?
My friend, Lynne, notices things, antelope in particular. But other things as well. She has an uncanny sense of who’s out there behind the trees, or under the rocks. She’ll pick up a stone and turn it in her hand until even I can see it was tooled, an incomplete arrowhead discarded for some flaw eight-hundred years ago. When we walk together, my web of noticing increases.
The last time we went up on the Peaks we were taking our chances. It was October, just a hair before the first expectation of in-town flurries. The trail was clear to the saddle, but along the ridge to the summit the snow was deep in places. Windblown, it edged down the mountain on both sides of the trail. At one point, to catch our breath under the guise of simply admiring the view, we stopped and looked out at the triumvirate of Kendrick, Sitgreaves and Bill Williams. Suddenly, a movement in our near field of vision pulled our attention in. The creature was ten or fifteen yards from us, a sinuous bounder of an animal, the size and shape of a mink but pure white. Its disguise was ingenious, and we could only imagine it was perfectly timed for the recent snowfall. As it moved across the rocks it looked like the ground itself was heaving. Only its dark little eyes and whiskers gave it away.
Unseen. The long-tailed weasel’s life depends on becoming invisible. In the mysterious way of things, some unknown amount of time before the first snow ever appears, the creature’s coat turns from brown to white and the disguise is complete. The animal itself is a prayer. And its wondrous life-sustaining disguise, met by our ability to notice—a prayer. This is a good way, isn’t it, to spend the hour we are given?
Remember the Alamo? When it comes to history, the man in the White House seems to have limited recall—or a grand sense of irony. To stage one of his last presidential appearances near the site of that great American trouncing at the hands of the Mexican army—well, what can I say? But if it’s a promise of revenge--Remember the Alamo! Second time’s a charm!—it’s both a past and a future I don’t want to dwell on. As photo ops go, the message of this one may have been too subtle or too complicated for our turbulent times.
Meanwhile, the vaccination waltz is playing out more like a rugby game. My brother and sister, both doctors, describe secret passwords leading to semi-clandestine gatherings for healthcare workers in sports arenas in California and Texas. My brother announced he waited in line for three hours and finally got vaccinated on first base. Over and over I’ve heard the words, “You have to be in the right place at the right time.” Wow. Really? Our ideas about an orderly progression of all things Pfizer and Moderna—scrap that script.
There are tales of relative youngsters side-stepping the system by figuring out where the anti-vaxxers live and showing up there. Plenty of vaccine in Lake Havasu City, I heard last week. See London Bridge while you’re at it. And then came surprising news. Apparently, my grandfather was the grandson of a little-known chemist named Charles Erhart who, with his cousin Charles Pfizer, emigrated from Germany in 1849 and started a chemical company in Brooklyn, New York. Soon enough they were producing pharmaceuticals to treat parasites, and painkillers and antiseptics for the casualties of the Civil War. In 1891, when my great-great-grandfather died, Pfizer, playing by the rules, bought out his cousin’s share of the business for half its value. For the grand sum of $119,350, paid to the Erhart heirs, Charles Pfizer became the head of the company that would then go on to create Viagra and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Was this our family Alamo? Were we trounced by the fickle fortunes of the pharmaceutical duo, the cousins who tossed a coin and called heads you win, tails you lose, but death will do the deciding? Great-great-grandfather, it turns out, was on the confectionary side of things. He made things sweet, palatable. It was he who made the medicine go down. That’s worth a lot more than money to me, to know I carry the genetic matter of a man who softened the blow. Who eased the pain. Who made the bitter pill easier to swallow. We could use him around here these days, passing off medicine as candy—not to prey on a national gullibility, but to deliver to us what we are hesitant to accept and so badly need: a curative, a kind word, a country.
It isn’t over. We have a tendency to think this way: anything that begins, ends. Sometimes it’s convenient to think of endings as disappearances, eradications, events that never happened. But history is not a record of entombed facts. History teaches the ever-presence of all that was. There is no ridding ourselves of what was once, for it turns into what will be. The past and future converge in a place called the present. The present is where endings live on.
There are so many words for what happened on Wednesday—enough to cause a weariness of language. Who is deeply surprised? No one, I suspect. Only the most naïve. I turn away from the logistical recaps and opinions generated by those events, to take a look at what happens inside me when I feel a threat to an order and predictability I didn’t even know I took for granted. We’ve been walking a tightrope for at least four years, learning to navigate the constant threats to order and predictability. We’ve gotten quite good at it. Our most workable strategy has been to shrug it off. There are many tragic historical precedents for this. Many. But that’s what we do, we turn away, we reach saturation and turn toward the east where the sun is rising.
But then something arrives that pushes us beyond our ability to imagine or navigate, and we sit in front of our screens and watch in shock and some of us cry. And then for a day or two the air feels electric. The thing we thought ending or ended, rattles the house, rattles the enclosure in which we’ve imprisoned it, or tried to. I know I’ve tried to wall off the disturbances in order to do my work, but the clanging sounds like the start of a prison riot, spoons percussing against the bars of a wild thing’s cage.
I recently saw two women, two partners judging by the energy between them, standing in a kitchen and talking to one another. The one was distressed and spoke her fears. The other listened intently, openly, and came toward her to put her arms around her. And she said, “Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.” When I heard those words, I felt like a stone was lifted off my heart. I left the kitchen then to give the two the privacy they deserved, but those words, those three sentences, stayed with me and have stayed with me since. It was the purest form of comfort: Don’t be afraid. I didn’t know I needed comfort but those words shot right into me and took care of something, and right then I decided I too would be a promulgator of those words. I would offer them sincerely, because we need to be told we are safe with each other and held by each other and we’ll manage together. And it’s true, we’ll manage it, whatever it is, and better two than one, and if we look around and are open to it, there are always at least two.
I know. People will argue it may be time to be afraid, and we aren’t safe or held, and knowing that is what gets things done. It isn’t. It moves us into a reactive place that often sends us in the wrong direction. Try this. No matter what your inner weather is right now, say to yourself, Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Say it with conviction. See if the clamor doesn’t die down and the world feel safer, friendlier, more familiar. This is a present we have to live in, after all. This is the convergence of two great vehicles, the past and the future. We’re little in the scheme of things. We’re a mouse in the Colosseum. We’re right here where endings live on and become the next thing, and the next, and the next. Don’t be afraid. It will be alright. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.
If you’re the one who lost your grocery list and coupons last Sunday outside my house, don’t worry, I have them and will keep them until the organic power greens coupon with a 75-cent savings expires on January 31st. But the two-or-more avocado coupon with a savings of 40 cents expires on January 3rd, just a few days from now, so there’s some urgency about the avocados. Both coupons are attached to your grocery list with a paperclip, and I see from the list that you have company, possibly all of them vegetarians, but vegetarians with a sweet tooth. Brussels sprouts, leeks, beets, red and white wine, olive oil, butterfly noodles, finished off with whatever delightful dessert calls for mascarpone, most likely tiramisu. And I’ve learned that a vegan tiramisu can be made with avocados, so I’m feeling more certain about where that mascarpone is headed. Your handwriting, by the way, is surprisingly legible for someone in a hurry. It’s hurried but legible, and just so you know, the r in mascarpone comes after the second a instead of the first. I can certainly understand the confusion of marscapone vs. mascarpone, the former reminiscent of at least one mobster.
Speaking of Italy, here’s the word on tiramisu: Its translation is “pick me up,” and it was created as an aphrodisiac and served to the brothel clientele of a town called Treviso. The point was to keep everyone invigorated and eager to pay for the next pleasure-seeking session. Nothing like rich, sweet, caffeinated food to accomplish that with no complaints!
So, it’s the end of the year, in the way my culture measures years. I’ve tried to glean some message from your lost list and this is what I’ve come up with: Every lost thing becomes something to be found. Every found thing becomes something to be lost. Like Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and transitions, we stand in the world facing forward and back, future and past, planted yet divided, encompassing the is and isn’t. Your list flew from your hand or your pocket or your purse and landed in the winter tangle of my Virginia creeper where I spotted it hugging the fence. Perhaps it called out “Pick me up!” or perhaps I was feeling the overabundance of recent lost things and needed a found thing, even if it was two coupons and a grocery list. Pieces of paper blown across sidewalks and into bushes and yards have always interested me. Every one represents an expectation or a transaction. Sometimes it’s a receipt from the cleaners but sometimes…sometimes it’s a confession of love or a short work of fiction or a kid’s drawing of the planet we call home.
How many things—entities, beings, ideas, convictions and hopes have you lost this year? And how many new ones found? I won’t keep a lost list, not on this late afternoon in late December when the light itself is lost and the temperature is dropping and my family has gone home and my dear friends and I are getting older by the minute, losing sight and hearing and even smell, yet alive still, mostly alive. A found list, though. That’s different. It starts this way:
Satisfaction in being by myself
New trails to walk at the end of the day
A story to tell
The ability to be patient
A way to express what’s on my mind
Cookies on my front porch
A feral cat under the house
A pair of scratched Ray-Bans
2 coupons and a grocery list
What have you lost this year? What have you found? Keep in touch.
Last night we watched the planets collide. Or so it seemed. And it got me thinking back to the three kings bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi astride their camels. What confidence, curiosity, or desperation does it take to follow a star, even if that star is actually two planets conjoining?
And what are the stars I follow, even when I can’t see them? Friendship, community, family, work, attention, keeping the gutters clean. It’s a good list to consider. Easy to fall into abstractions. But watch the concrete tangible stars emerge when you think of how you spend your days. You cut someone off in traffic and a sinking feeling creeps into your gut. That feeling is a star you follow. You remember it before you do the same thing again.
In my family version of the Christmas story, everyone—kings and shepherds alike—finds their way to Bethlehem by the light of the star. It’s a story, and we liked that version of the story, so that’s what stuck. When I think of the heroes of the Christmas story I think of the sheep. Maybe because I was a sheep in our first grade Christmas play. We were a chorus of baas surrounding the manger where the baby lay—the baby was a sack of sugar wrapped in a blanket. Our instructions were simple: Baa and keep baaing except when Mary or Joseph speaks. A couple of years later, in his own school play, my brother played the Virgin Mary and had to deviate from the script to tell the sheep to settle down.
I think of the sheep because, of all the players on that cold desert night, they were the ones who didn’t follow the star; they followed their shepherds. They weren’t oriented toward the cosmos; they were far more worldly than that. They weren’t dreamers, as the kings and shepherds were, they were hungering for anything that looked like grass, or a few juicy sprigs of rosemary. Pragmatic, those sheep. Irreverent. Practically profane.
In nativity scenes, whether painted by one of the greats or a three-dimensional homemade thing sitting outside in your neighbor’s yard, the sheep are there, swarming the manger. Some of them have that bored expression you find in snapshots of relatives who’ve overeaten. Others look fondly at their shepherds. And still others are nibbling on the baby’s cushion of straw. Who could not love these sheep? They are exactly who we are. They bring themselves—their full selves—as gifts for the occasion, because what else would they do? Who else would they be? If this is an occasion, I hear them say, every day is an occasion. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Even the cosmos is enacting what it enacts without effort or guile. The star is beautiful, the star is grand and handsome, but isn’t also a single juicy blade of grass?
December 8th is Rohatsu in the Zen tradition, commemorating the moment of the Buddha’s awakening. According to legend, it happened in the early morning, in the presence of Venus, the morning star. Siddhartha sat unmoving after a rough night of temptations by the demon Mara, until finally he came to a deep understanding of the cause of suffering. Can you see him there? Above him the leaves of the fig tree rustle like clapping hands, and the fragrance of the figs themselves remind him of his own appetites, his own preferences—human things. He’s been a practicing ascetic for many years. He’s close to death by starvation. Then clap! Here comes the smell of figs—the whole tree gives off the scent of abundance—and he laughs aloud. He’s enlightened!
I like this version because it involves the sensual world. The smells, the tastes, the sounds of our human lives. In another story, before Siddhartha sat beneath the tree, he lay on the ground, close to death, and a child came to him and fed him a pudding of milk and rice to restore his strength to live another day. And what a day it was. It was the day and night and early morning of his awakening, when Siddhartha became the Buddha and one of the great spiritual teachers in our human history. His life was prolonged by a child. And she (she’s portrayed as a girl named Sujata, but of course she’s anyone, everyone, just as the Buddha is anyone, everyone) represents compassion in this world. Compassion and wisdom are the two roots of Buddhist tradition. In the poet Jane Hirshfield’s words: “One great tap-word of Buddhism is compassion, which is the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected.”
About five years ago I made a decision. It arose out of my experience of anorexia when I was a twelve-year-old, and again when I was in my early twenties. I decided to make a practice of saying yes to any and all food that was offered to me, if it was offered in friendship. I learned to enjoy cookies this way, if they weren’t too sweet. Cookies were a big step for me. Then I began to discern all the other areas in my life where I said no, and I vowed to open my mind to yeses. This has been a tremendous practice for me. It’s a practice of ahimsa or kindness to self. Like the child Sujata, I offer compassion to the starving one, the ascetic, in the form of food or praise or the encouragement to go fishing in the middle of the day. I embody the child and the ascetic both, as most of us do. The jailer and the jailed.
This is the time of year when ceremonies and rituals abound. Rohatsu has just passed, Hanukkah is upon us, soon enough Christmas and Kwanzaa. Take one of William Stafford’s poems with you as you walk out into the world today. This one’s called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The little dog died. Zenna. We put her down last Thursday, right there stretched out next to Ann in the bed. She was Ann’s dog, half chihuahua, half Italian greyhound—a perfect balance of character. The greyhound mellowed out the chihuahua and the chihuahua lit a fire under the greyhound. She might have had meerkat in her too, because when she wanted your attention, she’d sit up on her hind legs with her front legs folded over her chest. She was often very serious, but just as often she made people laugh. She ran like a greyhound, fast and banking on the corners. She’d greet me by racing up and down the hallway of Ann’s house, over and over, riding the throw rugs like surfboards until she was exhausted. She did this up until the last month or two of her too-short life. She was only ten when she died—middle-aged for a small dog. No one could tell us why she was dying, what she was dying of. For some reason that hurt my heart the most. It seemed unfair (as if fairness came into it) that we should lose her to something unnamed.
Zenna loved a lap, which is why so many of my photographs are taken from behind her head, behind those long expressive ears of hers. I was always trying to see what she saw, trying to gain her point of view. She was such a kind dog. That kindness extended to Ann always, but especially at the end. I’m certain she lived beyond the time when she needed to die, and would have continued to, for Ann’s sake, if Ann hadn’t returned Z’s gift of love with a gift of her own: letting her go.
Often there are no words for these creatures who don’t pursue us with language, but with their big eyes and hearts. These images are my farewell to Zenna, and my wordless thanks. Two hawks and an osprey (an osprey!) circled Ann’s home in the desert as we carried Z’s body out to the vet’s car. The night before, an owl hooted from an ironwood tree close to the house. Zenna was enjoying some cheesecake at that moment, but she cocked her ears, then went back to licking the plate. My guess is that when the birds come for you, the promise of flight is not frightening, but a promise of freedom, release and return.
This is a story about a stutter. Not the soon-to-be presidential stutter, but the stutter of a man named Ted Hoagland, a writer and teacher of mine at the University of Iowa. Ted himself has written eloquently about his stutter in an essay called “On Stuttering,” which I recommend to you, but his experience of his stutter was necessarily different than my experience as a student in his classroom. Every week I walked into the overlit room in which he taught, and whatever hesitation filled my mind, I let go of it at the sight of Ted at his desk, surrounded by arrogant young apprentice-writers who droned on and on before the class began, while he, the teacher and accomplished writer, sat silently, working out what I assumed to be his own hesitation.
We critiqued two student short stories each week, in a way that now reminds me of a cat playing with a mouse for sport. One student named Jeffrey loved the word irony and worked it into his criticism of every piece. “I think you’ve overdone it on the irony here,” he’d say, or “Scrap the ending. Too ironic.” I believe I succeeded in being respectful to every windbag I met in the halls of the English Philosophy Building where we converged for workshops and classes called Forms of Fiction, but sometimes I found it extremely challenging. To watch the windbags’ antithesis at work in the form of our teacher, Ted, was the balance my education needed.
Ted began each class with a short monologue. He’d speak about the themes that appeared in both of the week’s submissions, and the pitfalls both pieces presented and how they dealt with them. He’d thank the students who were about to go under the knife, and from that point on he’d say no more. He was a head-wagger and full body stutterer. His shoulders contorted and his back arched as he tried to speak. I don’t know the technical terms involved in stuttering, but I do know that for Ted, with a stutter as extreme as his was, making himself understood, unless on paper, was a magnificent act of courage. And endurance. Even that short monologue was an endurance exercise for him, and for the class of young whipper-snappers who’d decided they had enough to write about to try and make a career of it. Or they knew enough about writing to imagine themselves right there in Ted’s seat one day. And not just one day, but one day soon.
I understand now, looking back on all of us, that of course we had little to write about and that was the reason for all the talk. All the windy holding-forth that happened in that classroom was the direct result of having nothing to say. And the fact that Ted didn’t interrupt us, didn’t intervene and scold us, or at least beg us to tame our bulging egos, the fact that he sat in silence while we all carried on, strikes me now as its own teaching tool, but a tool we didn’t know how to accept when it was given to us, nor how to use if we could accept it. Silence wasn’t fashionable in our twenties. We believed language was our life. And the subtleties of silence, the wide worlds of difference between deference, defeat, and tact, wouldn’t dawn on us for a long time.
I hear that some years ago Ted lost his sight, and through a risky operation it was restored to him, but during that time he lost his stutter, or most of it. What an extraordinary development for a man, a writer, who has always expressed himself within the safety of the written word. To venture out into the spoken, but with the understanding that less said is often the greater gift. A lesson for all of us.
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