Sorting Through the Past

I’ve been cleaning out an attic—not my own—along with drawers, closets, shelves, storehouses, and barns —also, not my own, or at least not primarily. I don’t live here anymore, though I’ve always called this place home.

I’m doing these things in preparation for the sale of a farm that has been lived in continuously, and happily, for forty years. During that time, the house accumulated the contents of others’ houses, boxed up and moved in when the people who owned them grew sick and old and eventually died. Life was too busy to sort through all of it, so generation piled upon generation, like the Iron Age after the Bronze.

In the heat of a Southern summer, in the eaves of the old house, dimly lit and with little ventilation, old cardboard boxes must be gone through. They crumble and split at the touch, disintegrating like frail pastilles. The close air is heavy with the scent of insulation, musty paper, aged cloth, bitter red coins, and for some reason, the contents of ladies’ purses that I remember from my youth—the patent leather kind with hard metal clasps: Kleenex, face powder, rouge, lipstick, and mints. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Recently I sang Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the Seattle Symphony. In his adaptation of The Requiem, Britten juxtaposes Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass. The male soloists sing Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” the story of Abraham and Isaac, right up to the angel and the ram. But in Owen’s poem, Abraham kills Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Turning an ancient story on its head, using a corrupted Old Testament story to represent the terror of the world wars, is horror at an elemental level. The depth of this horror shows how much our stories are knit into our bones; ripping a story apart rends us in two. How much then, must these stories be making us whole?

I believe in being intentional. But I wonder at our desire to make our own decisions about what these formational stories should be—to suppose our individual sensibilities might do better than centuries of a more collective wisdom—instead of holding ourselves accountable to discerning the wisdom in the stories that make us up. [Read more...]

The Narratives We Need, Part 1

“Tell me a story,” my son has started to say after reading his bedtime books. The first time he made the request, I looked at him as I don’t do often enough, seeing the soft cheeks and hands already changing so fast for his three years, blue eyes looking at me with trust more complete than I could understand anymore. I looked at him with awe, awe for who he was, that he was, that somehow I had been given such a gift without deserving, and such responsibility.

“Tell me a story…” The first time he asked I was charmed; a moment later I felt a flash of panic.

The stories of childhood sink deep, said Kim Todd. “Each word falls like a stone to the muck at the bottom of the mind, unimpeded by currents of distraction or critical distinctions.”  These are the stories that will inform our lives, help us write the narratives of our lives, frame our experience, give us direction for grief. [Read more...]

Shaping the Heart

The following post is an edited version of the commencement address given at the graduation ceremony of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program on August 3.

I’d like to share a few thoughts that have emerged from the two texts we’ve been studying together: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Richard Rodriguez’s Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

Though they are vastly different books—one an old-fashioned Western elevated to the heights of tragedy and the other a collection of essays that dance around questions of race and ethnicity—they focus on the same subject.

On the literal level they are concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico, but because they are ambitious works of literature they have other goals in mind. These authors are interested in the borders between cultures, customs, sensibilities—how people eat and drink, how they regard their possessions, how they endure the vicissitudes of life. [Read more...]

Heading Home on the Back Roads

Today Good Letters welcomes back former blogger Dyana Herron as a regular contributor. Dyana is a poet who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. She served as SPU’s MFA Program Coordinator and Development Associate for Image Journal before relocating to Philadelphia with her husband last year. We are glad to share her words with you once again.

Since I retired as a regular contributor to Good Letters almost exactly one year ago, I’ve moved from Seattle to Philadelphia. Neither are cities I expected to live in before I had sudden reason to live in them. Living in a city at all, in fact, was never necessarily the plan.

Why, then, do I find it a shock each time I go back home to Southeast Tennessee, where my family still resides? Why, standing in the muggy July air I know the feel of as well as the feel of my own body, looking on the hills whose shape I know as intimately as the geography of my father’s face—even in the dark—do I feel so strange, so out of place? [Read more...]


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