There’s No Original Art

scarfWhat a joy to be knitting something beautiful for a woman I don’t know and never will.
She’s a guest at my church’s soup kitchen, where every guest gets a gift at Christmastime.

The yarns are a rich red and orange wool interlaced with red-orange nylon eyelash.
She’ll say “how pretty —at least I hope she will.

Maybe it will become her favorite scarf,
make her feel special, dressy, worthy in a way that the world doesn’t usually value her.

But maybe she’ll leave it by mistake on the bus,
where it will ride up and down town alone on the seat
until a quick turn slides it to the floor.

The next passenger doesn’t notice it caught in his boot as he steps off the bus.

The red-orange lies limp in the gutter’s blackened snow.
A child walking by with her mother points with “Oh look! Can I have it?”
“No, we don’t take dirty things from the street.”
[Read more...]

Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more...]

The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

[Read more...]

A House Blessed

vincent-van-gogh-paintings-from-the-yellow-house-4The doorbell rang around 11:00 a.m. My hubby George and I were both upstairs.

“Can you get it?” I called to him from my study.

“Nope, I’m changing my clothes. I don’t have pants on,” he answered.

So I ran downstairs and opened the door.

A small woman stood there smiling, wearing a suit and a straw hat that seemed to be from an era long past. She looked to be in her early sixties. “I’m Rose Goldman,” she said. “I grew up in this house.”

“How lovely,” I replied.

Not missing a beat, she continued, “I know it’s odd to have a stranger come to your door, and I’d understand if you weren’t comfortable letting me in, but…” [Read more...]

Everybody Should Write Poetry

Vision After the Sermon (1888), Paul GauguinPeople who read poetry but don’t write it are like those who have just heard about the burning bush. They’ve got to write poetry. They’ve got to read it also, because then they’ve heard about the burning bush, but when you write it, you sit inside the burning bush, which is different. I think everybody should write poetry.

This radical viewpoint is that of poet Li-Young Lee, speaking to the editors of a rich book published a couple years ago, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith. When I recently quoted Lee’s words to a friend who is a fine poet, at first he scowled. Doesn’t writing poetry take special dedication and talent and hard work? That’s what his scowl seemed to ask. And yes, of course, writing good poetry does take all this.

But that’s not Lee’s unconventional point. He’s saying, in effect: everyone needs to nestle down inside language to get to know its ways, to get comfy with how playful it can be, how expansive, how unexpected in its openings to new experience. [Read more...]


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