Sunday, December 25, 2016

12/25: As The Year Comes To A Close, Treat Yourself To Some Essay Collections

2016 is, finally, at long last, almost (hopefully!) over.  Given the general tumult and peculiar furors of this year, we could all probably use a day to treat yo' self, so please enjoy some end-of-year essay & book recommendations from the extended Essay Daily family.


Lawrence Lenhart

Mad Feast (Matthew Gavin Frank) 
Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse (Nicole Walker)

Hyperphagia always sets in at around Thanksgiving. This December, I found myself reading as much food as I was eating. Matthew Gavin Frank's Mad Feast is an unconventional cookbook that tours the American palate and character (state by state by state). Whereas Frank is often inventing his family—an uncle awaits him in every state it seems, a composite of strangers posed as distant relatives—Walker's actual family is tenderly there on each page, ready for her next meal. And what are they having for dinner? In one essay, it's tongue tacos. She plays with her food too—turning "tongue" from modifier to verb and "taco" from noun to euphemism—contemplating the phonemic calories of cunnilingus. 

Sens-Plastique (Malcolm de Chazal, translated by Irving Weiss)

It's a book of cosmogonic aphorisms from a Mauritian writer who also dabbled in primitivist outsider art. Written in 1947, but translated much more recently, Chazal writes about universal matter and its natural forms. 

Becoming Westerly (Jamie Brisick)

For those of you who finished reading Barbarian Days (William Finnegan's surfing autobiography that nabbed a 2016 Pulitzer) and wondered what wave to ride next, look no further than Jamie Brisick's biography of surfer Westerly Windina (formerly Peter Drouyn). Like any good biography, Becoming Westerly's (2015) subject transforms before our eyes—only in this case that transformation involves not just the meteoric rise of a surfing legend, but also her gender reassignment in Thailand. In The Endless Summer, the conventional wisdom goes: "The ultimate thing to do in surfing is to be actually covered up by the wave." In Becoming Westerly, though, the pleasure's in the uncovering.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Amitav Ghosh)
In 2016, as populist politics took hold of our hemisphere, it felt as if we'd turned our collective backs on social ideals like climate justice and multiculturalism. Ghosh's The Great Derangement (released this October) is adapted from a series of bright-minded, sharp-tongued lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago about climate change. One of his staggering conclusions: For too long, we have drawn the line between serious fiction and science fiction; one lives in a mansion while the other is sequestered in faraway outhouses. Ghosh makes the case that, if we are to come to grips with climate change, we need to evict readers from the mansion. 

We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (Deepa Iyer)
We Too Sing America (2015) provides necessary context and resolution for an array of America's ethnophobias. Iyer examines case studies in national intolerance, from racist statecraft to public backlash, and from that hysteria constructs an ethos of empathic advocacy. 

3 More! (just 'cuz)
Coast Range (Nick Neely)
Animals Strike Curious Poses (Elena Passarello)
Proxies (Brian Blanchfield)


Erin Lyndal Martin

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder: Broder elevates the confessional essay while putting it in the context of social media. Her essays are funny and ultimately help us find compassion for others and ourselves.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This book examines some famous artists through the lens of their loneliness. Along the way, Laing touches on many other topics and includes a heartbreaking account of the first AIDS epidemic.


Wren Awry 
 Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape: Nature essays are too often written by white men--dead or otherwise--and sometimes white women, and they rarely takes race, colonization, and history into consideration. Savoy's collection takes on the Grand Canyon, a historic plantation in South Carolina, the Arizona borderlands, and much, much more in a voice that is knowledgeable, powerful, and curious. As a geography geek, I especially appreciate sentences like: "Elongate lithic compasses stand high above valleys collecting their eroded debris. West to east these are southeastern Arizona's offering to the Basin and Range province."

Other essay and essay-ish collections I've been reading and rereading: The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, and Heroines by Kate Zambreno. 


Erica Trabold 

The Abundance by Annie Dillard [note: the Malcontent may disagree —ed]

What a joy to reencounter Dillard's "greatest hits." Whether you're a new friend who wants to read Dillard's best stuff or an old friend who wants to read Dillard's best stuff, this book is a sure way to fall in love with her lyricism and passion for nature and its details.

Creative Nonfiction's new series of single-issue, long essays called True Story is an altogether lovely, pocket-sized reading experience. I read the first two issues, Steven Kurutz's Fruitland and Steven Church's Trip to the Zoo, on my commute and lost track of where I was going.

The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs
Everything We Don't Know
by Aaron Gilbreath


Sarah Viren

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (translation Bela Shayevich)
-In many ways, Svetlana Alexievich's books are the opposite of essays. Rather than witnessing one mind on the page, we are confronted with hundreds of disembodied voices. But there is also something quite essayistic about the way she constructs her oral histories (or "novels in voices" as she calls them). This book, for instance, revolves around a central question (i.e. What did the fall of the Soviet Union mean to those living within it?) that those voices are trying to figure out. I began reading Secondhand Time after the election and kept finding myself wishing that the U.S. had someone like Alexievich to document our multitude of voices. Because if we did, maybe we wouldn't have been so surprised to find out that nearly half of us were planning to vote in a fascist. 

Some Versions of the Ice by Adam Tipps Weinstein
These are essays written in the key of Borges, which is to say they deal in a brand of fictionalized fact that makes the reader consider (once again!) the distinctions we draw between the stuff of knowledge and the material of imagination. They're also quite funny and beautifully written. 

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
Like Weinstein's book, this book of essays is about interrogating facts, but in this case the narrator sounds much less like a weary academic and more like a sleep-deprived new mom (who happens to be as smart as a weary academic). Galchen's essaying comes in the form of vignettes, some that consider babies or our reactions to babies, some that consider women writers who did or did not have babies, some that consider how Frankenstein or Godzilla were really like a baby. Which is to say, this feels very much a book-length essay about what it means to have baby brain (i.e. that mode of thinking that exists in the weeks or months after you've given birth and you rarely see anyone else except your baby and you are TRYING to think rationally and be a normal human being, but it's hard: Megan Stielstra also captures this state quite well in her collection Once I Was Cool: If you couldn't tell already, I am currently trapped in this state: help!).   


Nick Greer

Brian Blanchfield's Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat) is a collection released in 2016 that did it all for me. Its intelligence is furtive, to use a word Brian does, and all the more powerful for it. I'm not one to laugh out loud or tear up or emote at all when I read, but I found myself running the gamut when reading this book, sometimes within the course of a single essay.

William Gass' On Being Blue (NYRB Classics) is older and didn't shake me like Brian's book did--in fact, when Gass waxes personal, which usually translates to the psychosexual, I found myself cringing--but it's an ecstatic, indulgent book/essay that has helped me be more ecstatic and indulgent in my own thinking and writing. Its subtitle is "A Philosophical Inquiry," but the parts that most resemble philosophy are its least inquisitive. It's his more "poetic" sections that I find most surprising, the prose blocks where he lists, permutes, and associates without worry for through-line or causation, but of course this is exactly what gives his essay a sense of forward movement. Sometimes accumulation is arrangement.

Another 2016 release, one that is both sly like Blanchfield and rhythmic like Gass, is Jennifer S. Cheng's House A (Omnidawn). I especially love the first third of the book, a series of lyric essays called "Letters to Mao." Her writing here moves like Stanislaw Lem's descriptions of the sentient world-ocean (ecumenoceanus?) in Solaris: a "polished surface" that "swirls and crumples," each essay a "pool of grey light...rising and falling to the rhythm of invisible waves." 


Brian Blanchfield

The right books found me at the right time this year.

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, by Kiese Laymon, 2013. I love this short book of agile, unflinching, formally inventive essays—half cultural studies, half autobiography—about misogyny in hiphop, about the cipher in a Mississippi public school boys’ room, about avenues of reverse migration back to the South, about survivor’s guilt, about matriarchy in his family and in civil rights, about the specter of the worst of white folk, and about the revolutionary act of black men telling other black men I love you. This book is real.

Folio: Columns, 2003-2014, by Luca Turin, 2014. A hundred or more very brief essays by a perfume aficionado ostensibly about aspects of olfactory experience and the contemporary scent industry. They begin squarely in that arena but quite often extend to pithy provocative considerations of gender, memory, globalism, and more. Excellent, idiosyncratic, incomparably incisive writing. I’ll never forget the search for “a happy masculine.”

The Making of the Pré, by Francis Ponge, 1971, tr. Lee Fahnestock, 1979. This is a notebook, toward a poem. Not a very good poem. An extraordinary notebook. An exhilarating paratext of speculative attentive essaying and layperson resourcefulness, ranging art and philology and literature, starting and restarting an investigation into the word that translates loosely to “meadow.”

Calamities, by Renee Gladman, 2016. This book of essays occupies the three-way intersection of daily dream capture, conceptual art score (documenting a repeatable experiment), and deeply interior (frequently metaphysical) autobiography. Fleeting and deepening at once. Sensational.

Apalache, by Paul Metcalf, 1976. I think I found this book in San Francisco, at the poetry mecca that is Books & Bookshelves, 99 Castro Street, earlier this year. A revelation. It’s a long work, an epic, of unremarked documentary collage, splicing early U. S. colonial historical accounts with Charlotte Observer reports of a contemporary arson crime in Monroe, North Carolina, and the prosecution and trial of a black civil rights activist there. Expertly turned, and turning still.

When the Sick Rule the World, by Dodie Bellamy, 2015. The first book I read this year, and the one I needed most. I bought it in the last hour at the book fair at the godforsaken MLA conference in Austin. I cracked it open at the airport waiting for my return flight, my suitbag meaningfully crumpled in the plastic chair beside me at the Sbarro or whatever. Almost immediately I relaxed, and found, as I always do in the best of the New Narrative writers, a home in the abjection and go-for-broke candor and bodied intelligence. The opening essay on whistling as a gendered activity is effortless, brilliant.

This was also the year I finished the final books of two trilogies that together expanded for me what had seemed possible in prose and essaying. The first is Roland Barthes’s posthumous lecture notes for three courses, each rooted in a fantasy. In the books repeatedly he is “merely opening a dossier” wherein a more exhaustive exploration might be made. I love the books’ annotative form, and the editors of the series are ingenious, preserving the incompleteness crucial to the endeavor of open inquiry. Best of the the three is How to Live Together. At the end, Barthes was learning (and teaching) a new intimacy in intellection, which did not compromise his brand of cultural close reading.

The thousand-plus pages of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1933 and 1934 when he was eighteen and nineteen have a flavor of Montaigne, except the excursis is actual. In his sixties, seventies, and eighties he returned to and in some cases—where the originals have gone missing—reconstituted his travel journals, which were in retrospect a remarkable elegy for any number of discrete communities of Eastern Europe, all of which would be corroded if not entirely obliterated by the Nazis. Preserved are the precarious innocence and absorptive educability of youth, the privations of traveling on foot, and the ancient nature of hospitality. But mostly, it’s the best example I know of a writer reinventing language, to say precisely what needs saying. The descriptive sentences have a way of springing with the newness of each discovery the traveler makes. Read them all, in order, but the middle one, Between the Woods and the Water, is the one where he has sex in a barn. 


Renee D'Aoust

William Bradley's "Fractals" -- Bradley’s micro-essays add up to a gestalt—the formation, disintegration, and reformation of a life. Pieces that deal with his formation primarily cover events from his childhood while pieces that deal with his cancer bespeak of disintegration. Reformation happens throughout in the sense of wanting to do and be better.

Sonja Livingston's "Ladies Night at the Dreamland" -- Livingston’s book becomes “a place of possibility, the Dreamland, where nothing is lost.” While the “Dreamland” was an actual theater, Livingston has the ability “to call out names and listen for voices [she] might recognize.” The conjuring is such that we don’t realize we recognize these voices until Livingston brings forth narration for their long-lost souls. Combined with personal essay, her use of perception and interiority brings to life women of different eras. I especially admire Livingston's artful writing in the essay form and the University of Georgia Press (the Crux Series), which published this collection, is publishing such great work.

Penny Guisinger's "Postcards from Here" -- One of Guisinger’s projects is to help women speak up in real time. Written words—essays and postcards—give agency to the voice in ways that spoken words often don’t. This is a gem of a book.

Patrick Madden's "Sublime Physick" -- Madden has written 12 associative, discursive, elegant essays in the mode of Montaigne. Like the classical essayist’s varied, but basic, topics, no subject is too mundane for Madden’s contemporary pen. The collection asks in essence what it means to be human and how we might explore the idea of wonder.

A few more suggestions --

If you haven't had the chance to check out John Griswold's ongoing series at his Oronte Churm blog over at Inside Higher Ed, do! Start with his piece on why he went to Standing Rock to support our water protectors (and be sure to read the others). Here's that link:
And I think experimental essayists should read Lance Olsen's really cool Berlin memoir/travelogue/anti-memoir/reflective, smart romp: [[ there. ]]. Olsen writes, "the first definition of the word experimental is of a witness: having actual or personal experience of anything."


Ty Clever

New: The brief essays that comprise Renee Gladman’s Calamities explore the paradox of essaying: that the essayist is drawn by the difficult and unresolved, yet must always remain a beginner: “This was an essay in which you were allowed to pursue the unsayable, even though the pursuit perpetually returned you to the beginning, your first mark, the moment before anything could be said. . . .”

Rediscovered: Gladman’s statement could serve as a description of Paul Valéry’s astonishing essay, “The Man and the Sea Shell.” Valéry opens by pointing out that “ignorance is a treasure of infinite price,” and that his essay is an attempt to “describe and preserve” his ignorance regarding sea shells. What follows is a wide-ranging—and necessarily inconclusive—meditation on creativity, intention, and the idea of order.


Christopher Cokinos 

I fell in love with Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. He rightly has a reputation as a philosopher with a sense of style, and his overall pessimism and sense of all things as blindly striving struck a chord--as did his approach to solace through aesthetic reverie.


Nicole Walker

Lawrence Lenhart's The Well-stocked and Gilded Cage. My students and I loved it best of all the books we read this semester.

Lily Hoang's A Bestiary which might be the truest hybrid text I've read.

And Liao Yiwu The Corpse Walker because no matter how bad it gets, you're probably not walking corpses across the country. 


Jen Hirt

Because you want to see how a military-trained dolphin would write a letter to Sylvia Plath, and because you want to see how Tolstoy's daughter's Russian tortoise composed her memoir, and because you want to snap your fingers to the the free verse escapades of a beatnik mussel, all essayists should read Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (2014). Sure it's two years old, and sure, it's short stories, each from the point of view of an animal who dies in the midst of human violence. But follow Dovey's suggestion to go to her website to see the sources for this book, and you'll find over 60 of them, many nonfiction, and a lot of them straight-up history. Essayists love research, and essayists love short story writers who do their research too. These stories feel as real as essays, to be honest. Dovey's epigrah from J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello says it all: "Each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself, says he, is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation." So, at one moment a story, at the next, an essay. All of it a revelation.


Scott Broker 

Eula Biss, Note from No Man's Land

Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

Jenny Boully, The Body: An Essay

John D'Agata, Halls of Fame

Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Lia Purpura, On Looking


Erik Anderson
Some essayish things, recent and not so, I read (or reread) and loved in 2016: 

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
Kerry Howley, Thrown
Toni Morrison, What Moves at the Margins
Hilary Plum, Watchfires
Suzanne Scanlon, Her 37th Year: An Index


Elena Passarello
My favorite thing that read this year, hands-down, is Ed Piskor’s mind-blowing HIP HOP FAMILY TREE comics series. I picked up a collection of the first four issues on a whim at the Fantagraphics store in Seattle, read it in a day, re-read it immediately, and then rush ordered the rest of the series. It’s brilliant nonfiction—expansive, singular, well-curated. It’s also wonderfully drawn and thrilling in its attempt to pin down a nebulous piece of American Culture (the birth and growth of hip-hop). Piskor reports with the authority of a historian and the biases of a fan, along the way using visual tropes from great serial artists like Alan Moore, Hervé, Crumb, all the great superhero comics, and a bunch that I know I’m not savvy enough to catch. He’s already twelve issues into the FAMILY TREE, and he’s only covered a decade of hip-hop. I cannot wait to see what his next installment.


Chelsea Biondolillo

I came late to the Limber boat, but I'm glad I found it eventually. Angela Pelster's debut collection is fanciful, strange, and beautiful. She roams over a wide range of topics, while staying literally rooted to her theme of trees and tree-like growth. Since I can't help but read as a teacher, this one is definitely going to get added to my lyric essay reading list for students. 

Also, the news this year has not all been good, so I'm reading Wendell Berry's What Are People For? and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit plus all the Ta-Nehisi Coates I can get my hands on and . Because I think it is important to know what the stakes are, but also know that the wages of trying is hope. 


T Fleischmann

Renee Gladman's Calamaties from Wave is my new favorite and is great to reread. I'm excited recently by Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and Wind Instrument by Kazim Ali (Spork), and by the work of Micha Cárdenas.


Joseph Bradbury 

Useful books for 2016 and anytime:

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Denise Levertov, Tesserae

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books

David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh

John D’Agata, The Making of the American Essay

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths


Will Slattery

 My favorites this year:

Brian Blanchfield's Proxies: Essays Near Knowing.  The frequency with which this work is included in this list speaks volumes as to its excellence.

Although not new, I read Hilton Als' White Girls for the first time this year.  I cannot recommend Als highly enough as both a prose stylist and a cultural critic.

Although technically comprised of poems rather than essays, Timothy Yu's 100 Chinese Silences is an outstanding collection that shows a sharp, penetrating, thoroughly essayistic mind at work.


Ander Monson

One of the benefits of coming late to the Liked Best game is that I see many favorites here on the Essay Daily list. Y'all have already iterated some of the titles on my list. I dug—a lot—:

  • Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself... 
  • Blanchfield's Proxies (though I think I had that on my list last year
  • Lily Hoang's Bestiary (thanks Wayne Koestenbaum for that pick)
  • I do want to shout out Luca Turin's Folio: Columns, 2003-2014 that I recommended to Blanchfield. Really wonderful brief essays and maybe the book I was most surprised by this year. Trained as a chemist, somehow somebody signed up Turin to review high-end perfumes for a Swiss magazine in German (a language he does not speak). Each little essay is an alchemy. Bad ass.
  • Lenhart!
  • Gabriel Blackwell's Madeleine E (bought for more people this year than any other book)
  • Nicole Walker's Micrograms which New Michigan Press published
  • gotta give a shout-out to March Sadness—not a book but a collection of essays and a machine for understanding memory, time, and sadness. (See March Fadness in 2017.) That was maybe the most fun thing I participated in all year.
  • Susan Briante's The Market Wonders (some cross between essay-poems and poem-essays)
  • Ken Chen's Juvenilia (says poetry, and sure, but also essaying)
  • Albert Goldbarth's The Adventures of Form and Content (really love this book that just came out or is maybe about to just come out from Graywolf)
  • Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice
  • Eliot Weinberger's The Ghosts of Birds
  • Christa Wolf's One Day a Year
  • and Mary Cappello's Life Breaks In: a Mood Almanack, which is taking me a very long time to read, always a sign of something excellent working on me
Cheers to you & yours.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

12/24: Special Delivery -- from Dave Mondy

Spot a boxy UPS truck pinballing through town -- especially today -- and there's a slight twinge.

It's not nostalgia -- I don't miss delivering UPS packages -- but I when see a brown-clad man darting toward a front door, managing that I-might-slip-on-ice shuffle, I flip back to my brief time as a UPS delivery guy. The feeling fades quickly.

But say I saw a purple Bachman's truck -- as I did yesterday, back in MN for the holidays -- well, it was instant internal time travel. Shooting me back to my mid-twenties, when I worked for years as a seasonal Flower Delivery Driver.

On New Year's Eve, I wrote about being a bartender on New Year's Eve. So on Christmas Eve, I thought I'd write about being a delivery driver on Christmas Eve.



But then, an election happened (perhaps you heard about this?). And I read all these great advent entries here (seriously, read all of them), and it seemed insane to post anything unrelated to these insane political times. It's almost all that's on my mind. All the time. But all I've got are frothing facebook posts -- mostly unposted, always unhelpful. Instead, I'm starting to show up to actual gatherings. Listening. Not writing. I know, I know, you're dying to hear my white male take on issues of the day, but alas, you'll have to hold that baited breath. For now:

The Poinsettia Holiday Happiness Bouquet© adorning the foyer of every office building?

The package pinned awkwardly behind your screen door?  

They all arrived via a human holding an honestly interesting job. And before I crash-landed in academia in my early thirties, I held a bunch of those jobs. So here's a few snapshots of, say, a single Delivery Day.


Christmas Eve, 7:00 AM-- 

Idling in a big boxy Dodge Diplomat -- an outmoded, gas-gobbling Diplomat (note to self: avoid easy political joke!) -- I'd sit in on the edge of the Bachman's lot, waiting.

Waiting for my weird car to be filled with flowers.

Bachman's Floral had a standing battalion of signature purple trucks, ferrying bouquets to the fortunate year-round, but on a few heavy holidays, they needed extra help. Specifically: Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas Eve.

On those days, if you'd taken the training and passed the proper checks, you could pull your car into their huge, heated garage...

To emerge as the operator of a mobile greenhouse. Your previously shitty car was suddenly bursting with flowers, chock-full of gladiolas, hydrangea, loose-stem roses, calla/stargazer lilies, floating carnations in odd sealed globes, a 55-lb. ficus, and especially, at this time of year: one million Poinsettias.

It's funny. You might actually laugh, actually pushing leaves aside as you order an Egg McMuffin -- quick eats, before bliztkreiging through your delivery list, trying to empty your car of its floral contents before noon -- so you could re-load a new batch. You're paid per flower. The more you deliver, the more you make. 

First on the list are office buildings -- and those always go smoothly. You wonder: Is there anything more joyous to deliver than flowers?  (Maybe presidential pardons?)

Say a name to a receptionist, and watch her call it out. Watch a middle-manager walk toward you with a big smile. Sometimes, they give you a hug. Sometimes, even better, they give you a tip.

And then, you're off to the residential deliveries. Most go smoothly. Most.


Christmas Eve, 11:00 AM-- 

"These must be from Terry!" the woman said. "Can you come in, put them down?" 

There's only one answer when an old woman asks this.

"Can you put them, where...? Right there looks good..."

Okay, will do.

"Can you, sorry, can you open them?"

Sure, okay.

"Those must be, those are carnations but these are, what, violets? I think those are violets, of some strange sort, but those are... I'd have to look in my flower book?"

She said it as if asking a question, as if asking permission. Permission to go get her flower book. But she already knew: I was a pushover. I'd look at that flower book. I'd stay.

"Would you like coffee," she said, "or I suppose this is a busy time..." 

That's the dialogue I remember, and yes: Using her flower book, we identified every bulb. I stayed there for about a half hour. Leaving her house, I worried I was behind schedule -- and I remember her sweatshirt, too: bright red and puff-painted with a giant Christmas tree. A shirt exactly like her: almost annoying, if not so endearing.

But then, I was worried about delays with the upcoming nursing homes. Rightly.


Christmas Eve, noon -- 

Be nice, I'd always tell myself. Before mouthing, just a few minutes later, Fuck this!

For example: I had to find a "May Simington" -- just a standard Poinsettia drop-off -- but then, I was sent to four different buildings as the Diplomat idled. And when I finally found the right receptionist...

She looked down. Found the name: May Simington -- a Sharpie line drawn through it. "I'm sorry, she's passed."

It gets as unceremonious as that, I remember thinking. The black Sharpie line of death.

That very same year, as I left, I saw an old woman bashing her wheelchair against the front door.

Full of misplaced gallantry, I held the door open -- and I held that gentlemanly pose as she zoomed down the front drive. Immediately followed by a panicked attendant, yelling, "No no no no, Mary Mary Mary, no no no! Mary, where do you think you're going?" Mary didn't know. Didn't even know how she got outside. Muted crying. The sudden smell of urine. "Did you see how she got out?" the attendant asked me. "No, god, that's terrible," I replied, slinking back to the car with the undelivered Poinsettia.


Christmas Eve, 4:00 PM -- 

Speaking of flowers and death, the strangest Christmas delivery was to Lakewood Cemetery.

"This one goes to the mausoleum," the desk attendant said -- and then he drew a quick map, with a winding line leading me through Lakewood's sprawling grounds. 

But I still got lost. I circled past the giant grave of Hubert H. Humphrey several times before finally arriving at a massive stone cube.

Inside, a janitor led me down to a lower level which was (yes) completely dark. He clicked on a light that (yes!) did that flicker-creepily-before-fully-buzzing-on thing -- and then the man went back up the elevator, leaving me alone. I wandered the hallways, poking my head into various corridors, until finally finding the right spot: This large square room, the walls a grid of smaller squares. Filing cabinets for human bodies.

I found the cabinet engraved with the recipient's name, and then... what? What do I do now, I wondered. Knock? 

I set the flowers down on a stone bench and left the room -- but stopped short, doubled back, to unwrap the Chrysanthemums. Then, I faced them toward "her". Back in the car, I looked over my delivery list, where I could read reprints of the "secret" messages sealed inside the cards. The message inside the mausoleum delivery: 

Merry Christmas to my beloved mother. 


Christmas Eve, 5:30 PM --

Reading the secret messages was one of my best things about that job. Here's one of my favorites:

Dear Max,
Can't wait til you and your owner visit me in the new year. Don't worry about flying in the kennel. They give you drugs and you sleep the whole time. You'll love Colorado. We have a huge yard. While the humans are inside doing whatever they do, we can run around all we want.

But my all-time favorite message was: 

I'm sorry I asked that. I'm sorry. I was drunk, it was a stupid thing to ask, I'm sorry. Love you.

I still wonder, still want to know: What the hell did he ask?! Picture him typing that, ordering flowers online at 3:00 AM.

That message belonged to a late bouquet on the last day I worked delivery. The address adorned a hulking, old-money mansion on Lake Calhoun. An extremely elegant, extremely attractive middle-aged woman answered my ring. She wore workout clothes, and behind her, I can still see two objects: a Nordictrack Ski Machine and a giant Miro -- quite possibly an original.

Back in my Diplomat, I convinced myself she was flirting with me. Driving away, I chided myself for actually buying into the "delivery man in a porno" cliche. And, nonetheless, kept thinking: You should go back. Ask about the Miro. She'll be impressed you know it's a Miro! She'll see you are artistic and attractive and...

Of course, I didn't actually go back. I'm not a maniac. But that was the problem with being a seasonal delivery driver. You were in self-imposed isolation, self-imposed meditation, all day long on a happy holiday. If you were newly single, thoughts could get pretty desperate. Pretty dark. Even, or especially, if your car was fully infused with floral aromas.

The goal, always, was to finish before it got dark -- but within a Minnesotan December, the sun sets around 4:30 PM. So I'd always find myself finishing up the final drop-offs in the frozen nighttime. 

Fortunately, my last delivery lent me a gift.


Christmas Eve, 7:00 PM -- 

I'm so lucky I wasn't filmed.

Had camera phones already been ubiquitous, I'd be a GIF Star right now, my folly endlessly replayed beneath the caption, DELIVERIES: YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

The 55-lb. potted Ficus had been in my backseat all afternoon -- with delivery instructions reading After 5pm, so I put it off until the very end of the day. And trying to lug the damn thing up a tiered walkway around Nokomis, I fell. Though "fell" doesn't do justice to my spill. 

This was a cartoon-character-slipping-on-a-banana, leap-into-the-air-before-crashing-down, ultra-embarrassing tumble. Listen: I had dirt from the Ficus pot smeared across my chest when I rang the doorbell.

I suspected my back was fucked, but driving home, I assured myself I was fine -- and then, in my apartment parking lot, I couldn't stand to exit my car. Had to barrel roll out the side, resting my knees beside the open car door; then, I pulled myself upright using the seatbelt like pulley. Without the adrenaline burst, I'd be kneeling there still. Back in my apartment, I collapsed on the fake parkay, crying.

The only positive of physical pain: It drives out all other kinds. A person in pain desires only cessation of pain -- and if it arrives, he's happy. It took an hour to find a painless position on the couch, and another hour for the Advil and Maker's to kick in, but then: euphoria. And then, the happiest thought: I'll never be able to do this again.


Honestly, I liked delivering flowers -- but as with so many jobs I've enjoyed, there was this counter-intuitive relief (this exhale) the exact moment I knew I was free of it: That was cool... and thank good I never have to do it again.


Christmas Eve, Coda -- 

Speaking of pain cessation and flower deliveries...

Yesterday, flowers were delivered to my brother's hospital room. 

Some delivery person dropped them off just moments before I arrived. The flowers were still wrapped, and as my sister unwrapped them, we saw: roses, interwoven with pines boughs, revealing a Christmas tree motif. It looked pretty good. Then I looked back at him.

My brother's heart has never worked quite right.  

If you spotted him walking around, day-to-day, you'd never know this -- but one of his mitral valves loves to allow a backflow of blood. Oops. A tiny, important flaw. In eons past, we'd never know this, of course. He would've just keeled over at some point. And even a few years ago, even if we knew what was wrong, the only solution would be to apply a bone saw to his chest plate, just to fix this tiny trouble.

But now? 

On Wednesday, they simply stopped his heart for an hour, deflated one of his lungs, and sent robotic arms into his chest cavity -- via a keyhole incision in his armpit -- to stitch things up.

And today, just two days after his surgery, he left the hospital as an outpatient. And here's my question:

Did you know we could this?

Watch this video of a surgical robot pealing a grape, and then restitching a grape.

Did you know we already had this technology? 

It seems so sci-fi, but yeah, humans can already do this. We're amazing! Right? My brother has a long recovery ahead of him, but I'm already humbled by his willpower (handling pain that puts my ficus injury to shame). And here's the thing about this fellow: Even if I were to ignore my personal bias, I'd conclude that he's the type of guy we need more of, not less. A philosophy prof teaching critical thinking and ethics to med students at the world-famous Mayo clinic. A thoughtful, empathetic guy. And now, because of things humans invented, he can hopefully stick around a little longer.

I didn't mean to add this odd addendum at the end of this post. But I've been so myopically pessimistic lately. And I've talked on the phone, a lot, with my brother about our mutual pessimism regarding The State Of Things. And yet, if only we don't fuck everything up, I've now seen firsthand that humans can do such cool things. It makes me think of so many other cool things I've seen this year: Moonlight, for example. Other great movies. Other great books. I'm tempted to ramble on now, recommending many things, as if this were a year-end list. 

But no one, no one, needs that. From me. So instead, I'll just add a final "delivery"...  a final restatement: If only we don't fuck up everything, we can do cool things.

That seems like a corny conclusion. Something to write on a website at 3:00 AM when ordering flowers. Something to keep private.

Thank god no one can read this sealed card.

Dave Mondy has been honored for his work in many genres: food writing (Best American Food Writing), travel writing (Solas Awards), creative nonfiction (notables in Best American Essays), sports writing (Iowa Review nonfiction contest), radio (Prairie Home Companion), and theatre (many national tours, fringe festival awards, etc.). He currently teaches creative nonfiction and other writing classes at the University of Arizona.

Friday, December 23, 2016

12/23: Dave Griffith, “You gotta serve somebody”: On the Religious Essay

The first day of Advent this year was November 27th and it ends tomorrow, December 24th.  This is not something you would know from looking at my son’s LEGO Star Wars Advent calendar, which has twenty-five cardboard windows, behind which reside various cellophane bags containing either Christmas-themed LEGO people (mini-figs, for the uninitiated) or a handful of pieces that once assembled resemble a snowman, or toy-sized replicas of spaceships, like Boba Fett’s ship, Slave 1 and Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter.  Really it’s just an awesome Countdown to Christmas calendar.

My son is a LEGO freak.  Put a handful in a bowl, pour milk over them, and he would eat them.  Likewise, he L-O-V-E-S Star Wars, so every morning he wakes up completely geeked to open up another window, which I, bleary-eyed, supervise from the couch at 7:30 am, coffee in hand. 

This is mostly a good thing.  My wife and I are cradle Catholics, and we are raising our children in the faith, albeit in the Dorothy Day-Thomas Merton-Berrigan Brothers tradition, and so this morning ritual of assembling small LEGO contraptions (LEGO in Danish means “I play well,” btw) is at the very least inspiring in him a sense of building anticipation, a sense that we are readying to celebrate something really big, something game-changing.

Advent calendars, like Advent wreaths, rosary beads, and eating fish on Fridays during Lent are practices that fall under the broad heading of popular piety, devotions that are not required of faithful Catholics in any kind of dogmatic way.  They are, according to very insightful post on Godzdogz, a blog run by students at Oxford studying to become Dominican monks (and that I cite here just because the title of their blog is ridiculous) “. . . a bridge between the things of God and the things of the world . . .” 

The online Catholic Encyclopedia, a much more buttoned-down, yet very handy and thorough reference if you ever need to settle a bet on the origins of the doctrine of transubstantiation or what happened at the Council of Trent, notes that the “feelings of devotion” found in popular pieties are “derived from four principal sources”:

1.      by the strong appeal which they make to emotional instincts, or
2.      by the form which puts them within the reach of all, or
3.      by the stimulus of the association with many others in the same good work, or
4.      by their derivation from the example of pious persons who are venerated for their holiness.

In other words, they make us feel good, anyone can do them, they help create community, and they tend to be rituals practiced by monks, priests, and other religious, people for whom doing this kind of thing is easier because they aren’t as encumbered by the quote/unquote vicissitudes of everyday life, and therefore they inspire us to get up off our asses and make some kind of gesture or sign that we actually believe in something.

I’ve never thought of the essays I write as popular or particularly pious in any way.  I tend to regard them as too Christian for some and not Christian enough for others.

And yet this idea of popular piety appeals to me as a writer of what some scholars have called “religious essays.”  Religious essays don’t get much mention at the AWP—I should know because I keep pitching panel ideas and the powers that be keep rejecting them—nor even in explicitly religious publications, which tend to favor certainty over the kind of doubt that essaying inspires, but I assure you, the religious essay is a thing.  It is given a surprisingly lengthy entry in Tracy Chevalier’s 1000 page tome Encyclopedia of the Essay, which begins:

In some ways, the term “religious essay” is an oxymoron, since “religious” is commonly used to suggest faithful devotion or orthodox certainty while as Graham Good suggests in The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (1988), the essay tends to explore “inconsistencies” rather than reinforce existing systems.

The entry cites writers like John Henry Newman, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and Theilhard de Chardin, Elie Wiesel, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry, all of whom coincidentally grace the bookshelves in our house, with a special place given to Maritain and de Chardin.  Both Frenchmen inspired Flannery O’Connor, especially de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist whose mystical theory of human evolution inspired the title of her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

The fact that the religious essay gets some love in this enormous reference book is not any kind of validation of faith any more than an entry on food essays is a validation of the importance of food, but this list of writers is objectively impressive.  They all, each in their own ways, bear witness to the hidden, messy aspects of humanity.

But religious folks don’t have a corner on this market.  Maritain, one of my personal heroes, was adamant that there is no such thing as a Christian Writer. There are writers who happen to be Christian, for sure, but seeing your writing as part of, or proof of, your devotion to Jesus, will, he believed, lead to bad art.

Which is why when I reflect on what makes the best so-called religious essays good I must admit that it’s not because the writer has made an iron-clad case for belief, or spectacularly shamed abortionists, but because they have helped remind me that my problems, and the world’s—those things that keep us from being our best selves—are not new, but ancient.  They have always been with us and will always be, no matter how morally or ethically enlightened we feel we have become.

If I do have a bias, though, it is that great art creates a bridge between the things of God and the things of the world.  If you’re not comfortable with the phrase “things of God,” then insert some word or phrase that for you describes those things that are transcendent, mysterious, or metaphysical.

I’m usually leery of saying such things in spaces that are not marked as explicitly friendly to earnest discussions of religion, but I’m offering these words here because I believe that we essayists are, by our nature, religious beings. The root religio is generally interpreted to mean “to bind together,” or “reconnect.” (This is the meaning that St. Augustine, who most credit with the creation of the memoir, used in his writings.) To my mind essayists are in the business of creating communities around faith and doubt, connection and disconnection, by helping us to define and refine our thinking and our selves.

Baldwin, Bell Hooks, Tim Wise, Roxane Gay, and Ta-Nehisi Coates take on race; Sontag, Didion, Solnit, and Leslie Jamison chronicle the ethical and moral conundrums of the places and times they inhabit; McLuhan, Postman, Foster Wallace, and Ander Monson,take on media, technology, and how our self-hood is challenged by all that we passively consume; and Woolf, Audre Lorde, Hooks (again), Richard Rodriguez, and Gay (again) confront issues of gender and sexuality.

These are by no means exhaustive lists—I know I’ve left some important names out—but they are my own personal flash-anthologies, groupings that have coalesced in my mind over the years that I have been essaying.  They are all guiding lights, whom I learn from, steal from, and emulate. But, frankly, none of them, even McLuhan and Rodriguez (both Church-going Catholics), speak directly to my own particular religious experience as a forty-year old, midwestern, white, straight, cis-gender, Catholic pacifist.

This is why the so-called religious essayists noted above are, to my mind, such an important part of the essayistic and literary tradition. From age to age, they seek to define and refine what it means to be human in a world that often appears dominated by a spirit of resignation and indifference in the face of the evils of war, poverty, and bigotry, all in the name of unfettered mercantilism.

Essayists who take seriously religious traditions, take as their starting point a notion that humans are vessels of the divine and are therefore called to lives of discipleship and witness to truths and principles that will lead us out of such moral morass towards lives defined by love and selflessness not hate and opportunism.

As our new Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan would have it, “You gotta serve somebody.”
And essaying, whether you think of yourself as religious or not, is a form of service, of discipleship, to an ancient and innately human compulsion to seek the truth wherever it may be found.  For many of us—and here by “us” I need to expand beyond essayists to all manner of artists, to include our readers who labor in so many different ways to earn a living and provide for themselves and their families, and do so while shouldering the weight of grief, anxiety, self-doubt, and addiction—when we come to the page, whether as writers or readers, we are searching for good news, for truth, for beauty that will restore to us some courage and dignity that will help us in turn to bring good news, truth, and beauty to others in whatever way we are able.

I’m afraid I’ve crossed the sub-generic boundary from religious essay into sermon, another fascinating and rich literary tradition, but whose roots are not explicitly religious.  According to the OED, the word originates in the 13th century from the Old French root sermon, meaning simply to talk, or discourse, pre-dating the word “essay” or the practice of assaying by nearly three-hundred years. This is a bad habit of mine, but one that as I’ve gotten older have learned that I just have to own. 

Maggie Nelson, another essential essayist who I should have mentioned earlier, devotes a few paragraphs in her 2011 The Art of Cruelty to an essay I wrote on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, reflecting on my concern that we can’t be like Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), both “pervert and detective.”  Nelson disagrees, saying, in essence, that we “more often than not” we are both, though, she writes “. . . well-intentioned moralists like Griffith may wish that it weren’t so.” 

I cringe a little now at how piously absolute my statement is.  But in my defense I wasn’t just writing about Blue Velvet, I was writing within the context of the second Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with folks like military prison guard Charles Graner in mind, someone who believed his job was to keep our country safe from terrorists by “roughing up” suspected Al Qaeda operatives, a euphemistic phrase found in the Senate Intelligence Report on CIA Torture translated into photos of Iraqi men (most of whom were pretty criminals rounded up in police state sweeps), naked, stacked in pyramids, being menaced by guard dogs, and mock executed.  It was, as many of you will remember, a moment when America’s moral fiber was being called into question.  The word ‘soul’ was bandied about a lot.  People were asking, What have we become?

I counted myself as a part of that “we.”  In the Blue Velvet essay and the several other that comprise my first book, I was writing to try to understand my own fascination with violence, and how I might be able to reason my way free of its allure.  Nelson calls me on my failure to find a way out by saying that there is no way out, you’re human, to which I would say I assayed: I attempted, I tried.

In the end, I’m grateful to Nelson.  She exposed, without even knowing it, a dualistic note in my thinking, one of the most fundamental Christian heresies: the idea that the universe is governed by two opposing forces good and evil, and the evil must be rooted out at all costs, a doctrine that can be easily perverted into an “us vs. them” proposition—either you’re with us or against us—which makes for a jingoistic theology and foreign policy, as well as, unwittingly, to the creation of propaganda instead of art.

But one thing that I think Nelson completely missed, or, really, just couldn’t have known, is that my desire to separate the pervert from the detective is not connected to Catholic shame and self-hatred, or a demand that art have a neat moral calculus, as much as it is that I know my nature and I must try to resist it.  Make of it what you will, this is a reflective and religious impulse, an examination of conscience.  When I teach essay writing, I sometimes call this a “move,” making it sound that we’re doing when we essay is all just rhetorical chess.   Actually, for me, it’s more of a spiritual practice that has been engrained in me no doubt from reciting the Confiteor at Mass (“I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…”), from preparing for confession, and from reading the great religious nonfiction writers, many of whom I have already listed above.

This is all to say that my absolute statement—you can’t be both—was not made in a dogmatic spirit, but as a public declaration that I saw the danger of thinking that I could be both; a fear that in being both I was somehow better, more enlightened.

I wished that I had put it in those terms, but then again, no, because then Nelson would not have been goaded into conversation with me, or the me who wrote those words ten years ago. 

This is all to say that I believe the essay, and especially the religious essay, is a means of putting ourselves and others to the test.  It is as the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac said of the essays he and his compatriots wrote during the rise of Nazism, a means of “spiritual resistance,” a means of holding oneself personally accountable, of giving testimony to what we believe to be true, even at the risk of ostracization or worse.

I feel a long way from my sons LEGO-building morning ritual, and yet now revisiting the list of why popular pieties stoke feelings of devotion in us, I’m more convinced than ever that the essay is a form whose popularity and importance. Will never wane.  Essays invite us to dialogue; they engage us in deep contemplation over what is true and what is illusion, and in so doing put us in conversation with a long, long line of thinkers and writers who though we may ultimately disagree with, often earn our respect because of their willingness to ask difficult questions, to bear witness, to resist easy answers.

There’s one more way that LEGOs factor in here that, in the spirit of Advent, in the spirit of preparing for the arrival of something, I need to share.  While it is generally agreed that the root of “religion,” religio, means to connect, or bind together, there is another earlier, competing interpretation, that scholars trace to Cicero, whose own essays span the first century before Christ.  Cicero favored re- (again) + lego, which comes from the Latin legere, variously meaning to “read,” “consider,” or "choose", to “select,” "go over again," or "consider carefully,” and, it is sometimes even translated “I put together.”

It is this sense of the word “religion” that I want to privilege on this day and in this season of hope, the sense that we are all carefully considering and putting together an understanding of what we are here for, what we are called to do.  As my favorite religious essayist Thomas Merton wrote: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”


Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He lives in Northern Michigan, where he directs the creative-writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts.