“Stories can conquer fear, you know.
They can make the heart bigger.”
— Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist
“Stories can conquer fear, you know.
They can make the heart bigger.”
— Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist
Many years ago, in 1989 in fact, I enjoyed the memorable experience of attending a public reading at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, created by Roger Angell and A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I still remember the evening vividly, the great selections and talented readers. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and highly recommend it. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”
I was recently reminded of some musings by Giamatti about the nature of baseball, and specifically how the game relates to the idea — the concept, the notion, the pull — of home. His ideas suddenly seemed vitally important to me, helpful to something I was (and still am) writing. So I found the track in my iTunes Library, listened and listened again while transcribing word for word. Here I offer you that one three-minute preamble — words that struck me, and have stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Now, hopefully, a lasting internet artifact.
Please note that I endeavored to transcribe his words faithfully and accurately. The punctuation is my own, faithful to my own ear and to what I imagine to be, perhaps, Mr. Giamatti’s own predelictions, though I’m sure he would have managed the lineup differently. Any sloppiness to these sentences is entirely, I think, due to context. He was speaking from notes, as I recall, but the expression was primarily oral, not written. Thoughts are not always “complete,” as if were.
“There is no great long poem about baseball. It may be that baseball is itself its own great long poem. This had occurred to me in the course of my wondering why home plate wasn’t called fourth base. And then it came to me: Why not? Meditate on the name for a moment. Home.
Home is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy, the accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, the freedom from wariness, that cling to the word home, that are absent from ‘house’ or even ‘my house.’ Home is a concept, not a place, a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins. A mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes that one is an original — perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discreet, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate, and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen.
So of course home drew Odysseus , who then set off again because it isn’t necessary to be in a specific place, in a house or a town, to be one who has gone home. So home is the goal rarely glimpsed, and almost never attained, of all the heroes descended from Odysseus . All literary romance, all Romance Epic, derives from The Odyssey and it is about going home. It is about rejoining, the rejoining of beloved, rejoining of parent to child, the rejoining of land to its rightful owner or rule. Romance is about putting things right after some tragedy has put them asunder. It is about restoration of the right relations among things. And going home is where that restoration occurs because that’s where it matters most.
Baseball is of course entirely about going home. And to that extent, because it is the only game you ever heard of where you want to get back to where you started (all the other games are territorial; you want to get his or her territory), not baseball. Baseball simply wants to get you from here back around to here, and that I think is why baseball is its own long poem, its own endless epic. We’ll come back again to this later. What we’re going to engage in now however is the way in which baseball, while it has never given itself to the literary expression that is as epic as its own unfolding, is clearly, in a game that recommences with every pitch, superbly fitted to the short poem. To the quick burst, for the shot. And we have three distinguished readers and three distinguished poets who have written quite remarkable, both descriptive and analytic, poems about baseball.”
The poems that were read following Giamatti’s introduction were: “Polo Grounds” by Rolfe Humphries, “Pitcher” and “Base Stealer” by Robert Francis, and “Cobb Would Have Caught It” by Robert Fitzgerald.
Robert Fitzgerald, “Cobb Would Have Caught It”
In sunburnt parks where Sundays lie,
Or the wide wastes beyond the cities,
Teams in grey deploy through sunlight.
Talk it up, boys, a little practice.
Coming in stubby and fast, the baseman
Gathers a grounder in fat green grass,
Picks it stinging and clipped as wit
Into the leather: a swinging step
Wings it deadeye down to first.
Smack. Oh, attaboy, attyoldboy.
Catcher reverses his cap, pulls down
Sweaty casque, and squats in the dust:
Pitcher rubs new ball on his pants,
Chewing, puts a jet behind him;
Nods past batter, taking his time.
Batter settles, tugs at his cap:
A spinning ball: step and swing to it,
Caught like a cheek before it ducks
By shivery hickory: socko, baby:
Cleats dig into dust. Outfielder,
On his way, looking over shoulder,
Makes it a triple. A long peg home.
Innings and afternoons. Fly lost in sunset.
Throwing arm gone bad. There’s your old ball game.
Cool reek of the field. Reek of companions.
Also of note: The Poetry Foundation, where I signed up for spectacular email updates, recently provided a link to a sweet collection of baseball poems. Click here and start running around the bases . . . Lots of good poems there, even some home runs.
“Being an artist is not just about what happens
when you are in the studio.
The way you live, the people you choose to love
and the way you love them, the way you vote,
the words that come out of your mouth…
will also become the raw material
for the art you make.” — Teresita Fernandez.
A friend passed along a terrific interview with a sculptor whose name I didn’t recognize, Teresita Fernandez. It turns out that she currently has a show at nearby Mass Moca (see video at bottom), so I’m hoping to experience it. (Road trip, anyone?) Credit for the interview goes to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; just follow the link, like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, and you’ll get there to read it in full: a wise and thoughtful piece.
At the conclusion of the article, Teresita offers a brief list of practical tips for emerging artists. I think the general wisdom — and moreso, the warm humanity expressed here — makes it worth reading for absolutely anybody. I love that she does not separate her art from her life, or from any life. It is of a piece, a life’s work entire.
Here’s some examples of Teresita’s truly awesome work, sprinkled throughout.
1) Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studiopractice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
2) Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
3) Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
4) Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
5) Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
6) When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
7) Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
8) You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
9) Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
10) And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.
I’ve been reading more poetry lately, like returning to an old friend, and this morning want to share two things.
First, from this morning, rereading a poem by W.S. Merwin titled “Berryman.” I’ll give you the last seven lines, you can look up the rest:
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
As for me, I hear those words and accept them in my heart as true. Self-doubt seems central to the experience, though it’s nearly impossible to write without wild spasms of self-confidence. It’s why some writers drink, I’m sure, to trick yourself into feeling that way.
You die without knowing, that line, transcends the subject of writing. We can’t ever be sure, but we persist, and we can at times, in fact, think so. We may say, quietly, in bed to our loved one, “I think it’s a good book.” And we might even believe it. But in the next moment, in the silence between our last word and her reply, we can also know that our life has a been a delusion, a failure, and that none of it amounts to much of anything at all, when we had hoped for so much more.
Ah, the writing life.
I’ve had so many books go out of print over the past two years. Just a staggering number, more than 40 books . . . going, going, gone. It’s the business I’m in, there are all sorts of rational reasons, excuses, palliatives I can apply. But still, it cuts deep. It just does. It feels like that photograph in the movie “Back to the Future.” Marty keeps looking at it, panicked, watching the images slowly disappear.
Maybe that’s what alzheimer’s feels like during brief snatches of clarity. You are helplessly aware that it’s all slipping away, and you can’t even be sure that any of it was real.
If you have to be sure don’t write, Berryman tells us, through Merwin. Such is life. You can’t you can never be sure. What can you do? You write some more, and hopefully it will be good.
Two nights ago I stood up at the head of the table — we were hosting friends and family on Christmas Eve, just a lovely evening — and I said a few words in preamble to a poem I wanted to share, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.”
Which is funny, right? The title got a chuckle. Typical Jimmy, to go dark at a time like this. But the truth about darkness is that it gives us an appreciation of light. Poems purportedly “about” death are really about life. At least, that’s certainly the case here. “I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement.”
I hope you like it.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.
Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:
In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.
Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.
In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.
The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.
A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.
In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author. Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”
Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.
This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.
It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.
I found this photo tucked away in a file with a large group of promotional shots that were never used. Not sure what we were thinking here.
Of course, yes, The Little Engine That Could is that rarest of things: a perfect book. I should know, I read it to my kids more than a hundred times, I’m sure.
I just knew he’d make it over that mountain.
Watty Piper, forever!
I guess it’s true of most readers. We have these embarrassing gaps in our reading lives, all those books we didn’t get to, the awful holes we hope to one day fill. It’s an impossible task, a job (and a joy) that can never be completed.
To that end, I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.
I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m disinclined to offer up a review. But I wanted to share a few thoughts, beginning with this incredible illustration by Quentin Blake.
I keep returning to that page, staring at that picture. Just a few simple lines that capture such depth of feeling. There it all is, being a kid, looking up at a parent with love and wonder while snuggled up warm in bed. Two dots for eyes — two dots! — and yet they seem to express the essence of that relationship. The father registers only as a looming presence without detail, like a great tree in a forest. He is, simply, there. A force of nature and comfort. It’s amazing, I’m stunned by it, in awe of it. So that sums up an important part of today’s blog.
Wow: Quentin Blake.
Then there’s the storytelling of Mr. Dahl, which is a gift I’ll never have. The man tells stories. Whoppers. But here, today, I want to focus on Dahl’s writing style. I admire the clarity and directness. I’m also charmed by the Englishness — the strangeness to my American ears, the weird things they happily eat, the peculiar names of things — where every detail seems just a little other-worldly, even in a fairly straight-ahead, naturalistic novel such as this one. This is the distance of time and place. A different world, yet still familiar.
Here’s the paragraph that went before the illustration above. I keep reading it over and over again. Now I get to type it, feeling like a weekend musician at home with a guitar banging out a Beatles tune, channeling that great artistic beauty through my fingertips (I love typing out great passages from books):
I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling stories. The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.
That paragraph, to me, is absolutely perfect. The writing is direct, specific, concrete (not abstract), interesting (lumps of wood) and for the most part, quite plain. I really loved living in that gypsy caravan. Few would claim that as an example of great writing — except for the obvious fact that, wow, that’s great writing. The absence of flash. An arrow doing its swift work, slicing to the next sentence.
The only tricky moment in this paragraph, where the language uplifts and surprises us, giving the reader temporary pause, occurs in that more elaborate third sentence, which was perfectly set-up by the direct predicate-verb structure of the previous two sentences. I really loved, and, I loved. Which leads to this: The kerosene lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove, and wonderful it was to by lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room.
You heard that, right?
And wonderful it was.
Again, all I’ve got is wow. There’s so much there, the essence of being loved, of feeling secure, of being a child safe from harm, snug and warm. Can writing really do that? It feels like a small miracle. Is this why I love books?
And it all happens on page 7.
I finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie’s bestseller, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There’s just times in your life when you’ve got to rectify old wrongs, and this was one of them. I had to read that book.
I’d heard that it was a great book from many sources, including some trusted friends. (A curious phrase, by the way, “trusted friends.” As opposed to all those other friends we have, with crappy taste, the friends we can’t possibly trust.)
So I took Alexie’s book out of the library and read it. Now I am a member of the club and say without hesitation: Stop wasting your life and read it already! Today I’m not looking to review a book that’s already been reviewed hundreds of times. My focus is on the book’s final two paragraphs. To me, those six sentences felt exactly right, forming a poignant, understated conclusion.
I don’t think that reproducing it here involves any spoilers, or anything that could diminish your enjoyment of the book, so here goes:
Rowdy and I played one-on-one for hours. We played until dark. We played until the streetlights lit up the court. We played until the bats swooped down at our heads. We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky.
We didn’t keep score.
I love the repetition of “we played,” repeated four times, the rhythmic, accumulative power of that device, the simplicity of the word choice, the interplay between light and dark, and that great, four-word conclusion. We didn’t keep score. Perfection.
Back four years ago, I wrote a decent post titled “Best Last Lines from Books,” and I think you might enjoy it. So click away, folks. It’s absolutely free.
I am proud of my friend, Lewis Buzbee, who has written this much-acclaimed book — and it just came out this week. He is a great writer and friend and I can’t wait to read this new one. A book for anyone who has gone to school, or cares about education.
A classic back-to-school book.
“Buzbee’s affectionate account [is] a subtle, sharply etched critique of contemporary public education. . . . Deeply affectionate toward teachers, harshly critical of budget cuts, the book offers an eloquent, important reminder (which in a perfect world would inform policy) about the nature of school.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A bracing rejoinder to the didactic, data-driven books from policy gurus and social scientists. . . . From the layout of schools to the distinction between ‘middle school’ and ‘junior high school,’ Buzbee spreads engaging prose across the pages, providing both a reminiscence of better days and a considered examination of the assumptions we all make about what does—and does not—constitute a quality education. . . . A welcome book on the importance of education for all.”—Kirkus Book Vault Reviews