Fall Gratitude

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In celebration of this autumn day (a welcome change from the heat of the past few weeks), I offer some short and memorable readings.

The first is Jeb Sharp’s essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” I was tempted to quote it, but the part I wanted to quote deserves everything preceding it. After reading the essay online (months ago), I found the journal in which it is published, Clockhouse, and ordered a print copy, which sits now on my desk. It’s coming with me to Hungary. (The desk is not.) It’s one of the most moving essays I have ever read.

The second, which I have mentioned here before, is William Lychack’s magnificent (and very short) story “The Ghostwriter.” (If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can find it in his story collection The Architect of Flowers, which, like Volume Three of Clockhouse, will come along with me.)

The third and fourth are poems: May Swenson’s “Water Picture” and Edward Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude,” both of which I first read about thirty years ago and reread with different understanding today.

Hirsch’s poem holds all of this together, including the photo above, taken earlier this month, of the ceiling of the Ady Endre Libary, formerly Baja’s synagogue, and the one below, from this morning’s outing to the corner store. I wish I knew what the cat saw at that moment; I’m pretty sure it was something I did not see.

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“Go to Peoria”

Yesterday I came upon the story “The Ghostwriter” by William Lychack, whose work I had never read before. It starts with a man who has heard the voice of God saying, “Go to Peoria”—and who has followed that voice. Within the space of five pages, the narrator, a ghostwriter, takes those three words and changes them into something I didn’t expect, not the opposite of my expectation, but something more like “that and its opposite and something else.” When a writer can do this, it’s no fluke—so I intend to read his collection The Architect of Flowers. I am holding off just a little until I have made more headway through my current readings and kept to my budget for the month.

The story got me thinking about how stories in general work. I love the distillation of the short story, the way it makes the most of its time. A good story is a riddle of sorts; it bares itself in a surprising way. Also, this story plays intriguingly with the idea of a takeaway; the ghostwriter’s work is all about takeaways, but in his work he goes beyond his work.

We often think of “going beyond” one’s work in external terms (working more hours, taking on more tasks, etc.), but one can go beyond by going inward, into the subject and principles of the work. This is the neglected part of teaching: thinking about the subject matter and the lessons. Not attending meeting after meeting, but thinking and reading. A performer “goes beyond” by practicing and practicing until the fluency itself opens up the piece in new ways. He reaches a new place of entry. It is not mystical in practice; it comes from persistent work. But the work is not “busy”; in fact, it leaves the busyness behind.