A few years ago, I’d excerpted a six-week portion from the semester-long university class I taught on personal essay: individual stories with universal significance. Every two or three years, I taught the sequence to older adults with biographies layered by time in an evening class. I’d had six or eight participants in past sessions. This class brimmed with twenty-one rural adults in Northwestern Wisconsin, which this time felt like high stakes.
What might have passed as acceptable a few years ago, would not now. I tended to progressive, that is, left-leaning politics, and as the center has moved harsh right, it is easier to feel like an outlier in my home community. I hoped I could behave.
Back home, dashing from the fresh cold air of outdoors to the closed-up scent of a house in winter, I noticed an odor coming from the bathroom. Poor toilet bowl! So much had been deposited over the years. Mere swishing was insufficient to the build-up of rust and calcification. It needed a thorough scrubbing.
I put down my coat, stacked the copies in the precarious pile on my desk, and checked my email. The roster had arrived.
I read the names, all twenty-one.
My stomach rumbled. My bladder shrank. At the moment, our small community bristled with yet another divisive issue: a public and private collaboration on a historic auditorium used as a space for the arts. People from both ends of the controversy would be in the room, and I’d heard personal attacks from both sides.
I flummoxed around as I made final preparations for the class. How could this work? How could those who saw themselves as fiscally conservative in the face of a fluffy rural arts project co-exist with those who considered the arts an economic driver and essential to the human experience? Friends, families, neighbors had been living like nerve-endings since the last election, and now a bristling local issue was deposited on top.
I pondered and added a note to my usual orientation: bathrooms, syllabus, break-time, format. That evening, after those preliminaries, I continued: “In this seminar, we are writing personal stories with universal meaning. Our values and beliefs will be apparent. This is not argumentative writing; rather, it is writing about how we have overcome an obstacle, learned, or changed as a result of a personal experience. Please refrain from politicizing.”
I would keep the focus on the inner power of the personal essay!
We went around the room introducing ourselves. One of the participants who had lived in Venezuela brought up the frightening politics there.
“You could use Venezuela as the setting for your writing, but the personal essay depends on seeing the writer change as a result of an experience,” I reminded.
Another mentioned golf. I let it pass—the politics of it—the classism, the use of water, and the environmental degradation for the purpose of hitting tightly wound little balls.
For our first example, I’d selected “Leaf-Peepers” by Stephen King in part for the name recognition, but also the surprise of a warm and low-drama piece from a writer known for high-stakes horror. For the second example, I offered “Hidden Behind Mao” by Wang Ping, an intricate piece about risking everything to read forbidden books—Grimm’s Fairytales, The Tempest, Huckleberry Finn—during China’s Cultural Revolution. She’d immigrated to the United States and now taught at Hamline University a mere hour away.
The session went well. People began generating ideas. I was relieved.
On the day of the next class, I took on the toilet bowl, the bi-annual scouring of the crusty rusty build-up: empty the water from the bowl, pour in vinegar, soak some toilet paper in the vinegar, and line the bowl with the paper. Leave it on for eight hours.
While on my knees over the toilet bowl, slapping vinegar-soaked toilet paper under the rim, I listened to a radio broadcast on the history of gun violence in the United States. The program explored the constitutional place of gun ownership: “originalism” in which the constitution is static or the “living constitution” where the concepts are upheld but not the exact details that surrounded them in 1787.
I looked forward to the creative non-fiction class that night. I’d selected a nature piece by Wisconsin writer Aldo Leopold called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a perfect match, I thought, for this group of rural Wisconsin people.
That night, we went around the room reading Leopold’s essay aloud. I’d read it many times before, and used it as a teaching tool on occasion, but this time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. The obvious item: a gun.
Ten years ago, I taught at a northwestern Wisconsin 2-year college that was a feeder to the University system. The students were 100% rural. They often wrote essays involving guns: shooting rats in a chicken coop, target practice on the back forty, deer hunting. One student wrote about his first kill—a goose—how the blood ran onto its breast, how sorrowful he felt, how he recognized the unnecessary waste of it. During that teaching stint, several students lost friends in a bizarre shoot-out during hunting season following the confrontation between a hostile rural hunting party and one hunter, a recent Hmong immigrant.
Now, as these rural adults on a quest for enrichment read paragraph after paragraph of Leopold’s essay, I started some mental squirming.
In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold describes the moment early in his career as a trigger happy young naturalist when he killed wolves for a living. At the time, Leopold believed fewer wolves meant more deer. What he came to understand is that more deer mean a denuded habitat. For a mountain, the catastrophic degradation of the landscape takes years, if ever, to overcome.
The moment after Leopold shoots the wolf and sees “the green fire” go out in its eyes is not the point of the piece. The point is that he realizes an intricate balance exists beyond what he and most of early twentieth-century culture understood. The landscape needed wolves.
This in itself is divisive in our rural area where wolf hunting comes and goes with political change, but I was too deep in other muck at the moment to notice that controversy.
Before reading, I’d described Leopold’s bio for those who didn’t know him. He’s one of Wisconsin’s treasures for his work and best-known book, A Sand County Almanac. He comes from the tradition of other Wisconsin nature writers: white males like naturalist John Muir, novelist August Derleth, and scientist William Ritter. I restrained myself from pointing the scarcity of women nature writers of the time and the prolonged suppressed absence of nature writing by any person of color. Remember, no politics!
“Leopold is one of the early conservationists,” I said.
I told how he’d been a professor at UW-Madison and bought a shack on a rundown piece of land in the sand barrens where he and his family went on weekends, a large family of five children.
No politics! No comment on overpopulation, on the resulting exhaustion of resources, and absolutely no soap-boxing on the consumerism of our time!
The Leopold shack is the setting for much of his writing. He died there in 1948 while helping put out a fire on his neighbor’s property. They listened. Neighbors and neighborliness held meaning.
But then I slipped.
“A ‘green fire’ has been adopted as an identifier by some environmentalist groups,” I said.
The room chilled.
I’d said it—the egregiously blatant temper-flaring dirty word: environmentalist.
How could I! My squirming moved into its next phase: backpedaling.
“As a result of his work, there’s been a decade’s long experiment on Isle Royale.”
A soothing sigh of recognition breathed through the room. Isle Royale! Nature, hiking, camping, rocks, water, and that stunning ferry ride from the mainland. We rural people know camping! Leave the opulent resorts of the world for those poor suckers who scrimp all year to lie around a concrete pool and get inebriated while inhaling the fumes of tiki lanterns.
But after this slight recovery, I carelessly unconsciously said it again.
“His environmentalism contributed to our understanding of interconnectedness.”
I did say “environmentalism,” but I’d nicely refrained from inserting the words “white dominant cultural.” The original stewards of this land we call the United States had maintained the balance of nature. No talk of Native Americans and the persistent ongoing willful law-breaking of treaty rights.
Nevertheless I‘d said it again. Environmentalism.
In that moment, I would have been more comfortable reciting George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words.”
I fumbled through the rest of the session, brushed my papers together, and drove home.
When I walked in the door of my home, I smelled vinegar: acid, sharp, and cleansing. I put down my briefcase. In the bathroom, I got down on my knees, again, pushed the vinegar-soaked toilet paper aside, and scoured the toilet bowl. Even for an earthy person, the odor of toilet bowl scum is a powerful experience. It stank. It stank of old urine, biologically-slimed iron, and inattention. Even the scent of full-strength white vinegar with 6% acidity could not camouflage it. I scoured. I scrubbed. I thought about next week’s model for dialogue—“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway—abortion—and quickly flushed it.
Over the next weeks, people developed their essays. They had the grace to follow the guidelines of the seminar even though I hadn’t. I was moved by the stories of their quiet lives: a father grieves the passage of time as he moves the swing set out of the yard as his children grow beyond it; a scientist describes her enchantment with nature in childhood and how it soothes and supports her at a turning point in adulthood; a woman grows in compassion as she tells the story of her mother’s one piece of finery, a fancy hat; the daughter of a Cuban immigrant finds a travel poster for Cuba in her mother’s dresser after her death; a group of architects goes skiing together one last time; a mother questions her decision to live in rural Venezuela when her eight-month-old daughter is stung by a scorpion.
As people honed their stories, they shared them in small groups and read excerpts to the full group, too.
Although I am a champion crier, I was not the first to cry. Nor was I the last. The stories touched us and blurred our schisms and lines. We had all grieved the passing of time. We all recognized the balm of nature. We all had parents and varying degrees of compassion for them. We’d all experienced the loss of friendship. We’d all made choices that impacted others.
Political elements lived in every single personal story: sexism, classism, racism, immigration, environmentalism, more. Yes, it’s edgy now. We live individual lives impacted by larger political movements. That’s a given. But the personal essay gives us a glimpse of each other when we write from the heart.
Oh, the toilet bowl looks better.
Kathleen Melin is the author of progressive education and parenting memoir By Heart (Clover Valley Press 2008). Her creative and journalistic work has appeared in Feminist Parenting, Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, and random regional, national, and even a couple international publications. She is astounded that her MFA entitles her to teach, which she does irregularly, but mainly, she writes and cares for her farm in northwestern Wisconsin.