I’m in Anchorage for 12 days of teaching graduate students. This year’s keynote speaker is non-fiction writer Richard Rodriguez, who wrote one of my favorite essays of all time, “Late Victorians.” It weaves public and personal, culture, architecture, the AIDs epidemic, St. Augustine, death, sex, heaven, hell, youth, age, geography, language, comedy, tragedy, freedom, limits, ripening and decay. It sounds like a hodge-podge, but like the very best collage or mosaic, every piece matters, and in the end it all coheres, like a sermon, like a prayer. Reading that essay in graduate school taught me how much a single piece of writing can hold. It taught me to weave ideas, to make connections. I wrote about “Late Victorians” in graduate school, then years later, taught a seminar about its structure, which I think of as a spiral staircase, to my own graduate students.
And this morning, the man was in the room with me. He stood up and spoke to us, and it felt like he spoke not to a collective “us,” but to each of us individually. To me. Only occasionally glancing down at his yellow legal sheets of notes, he spoke for an hour. It was Sunday. It was church. He spoke about books and words, language and music, with religious passion. He said he began writing to talk back to life, which had slapped him around. He said he wondered what sorrows had brought all of us to the page, to that room, to writing. He described his impulse for writing as “the drama of loneliness.” He argued that it’s our loneliness that connects us to other human beings. I thought of myself crouched at the end of that tunnel I described in my last post, how it was the words of others that drew me out, that propelled me to my own page.
He wrote and read because he was lonely as a child. He talked about Ground Zero, the hole, the nothing, the emptiness we write our way around. He said “I became a writer because I was so sad, and broken.”
Like a woman quoted in Hester Hill Schnipper’s book, After Breast Cancer, I write this blog because, like her, I feel the experience of cancer dismantled my life, and I sit here reconstructing it, brick by brick (or log by log, since I live in Alaska). But no, not by log or brick. I built it again, word by word. Otherwise, I am sad, and broken, and frightened.
He told us to listen. He stared out the window and pulled gray out of the sky and into his talk, and green from the birch trees. He reached into the day before and pulled the memory of a boy he sat next to on the plane, a boy traveling alone, putting himself to sleep playing a video game. He told us to read. He reached back to the past , to how he, a Mexican-American boy, discovered D.H. Lawrence, recognized that Lawrence was a working class man, like his father, who understood the weight of a coffin. Which reminded him of a time he attended a funeral with only two other mourners and he had to help carry the coffin, so he then understood its weight himself. He said in his Mexican-American family, people died, while in America, they “pass on.” He told us fight against euphemisms and dead language like that, to say it straight and true, to reject such labels as red or blue or green or black and white, to describe America or the dream of America.
He had kidney cancer seven years ago, and he said the oncologists wouldn’t use the word “cancer.” They spoke of a “growth,” and maybe it was “malignant.” It was as if, he said, they feared uttering the word “cancer” might cause it to go wild, out of their control.
Last night I got up my courage to talk to him. An erudite man in a suit and nice shoes and intense brown eyes, he was warm and welcoming. He asked me what brought me here. He asked me what adjective I’d use to describe Alaska. Did it remind me of my childhood home? Was it ancestral memory that brought me? No, I said. My childhood home was an ancestral memory of Latvia, which I recognized when I went there. Alaska was something other. Intimate, I said. That’s the word I’d use. He looked surprised and then pleased. “I never would have said that,” he said. “Tell me why.” By his question, he led me to put something into words for the first time. It’s a place that saw me, I said. I hid as a child, I said, like you, and when I came here, I encountered a place where I allowed myself to be seen. “Do you know the poem The Archaic Torso of Apollo?” I asked. “For here there is no place that does not see you.” Talking with him was like that too.
I told about the breast cancer. He told me he’d had kidney cancer seven years ago. And then it was time to go to his evening reading.
I stopped at my small dorm room to change, and Mara called me from Cape Cod to read me the passage that was her family’s supper-time prayer. It was called “Resurrection,” and written by a woman named Molly Fumia. “Resurrection: The reversal of what was thought to be absolute. The turning of … dying into living anew ….When we begin to believe in all that is endlessly possible. May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances.”
Each day is an extraordinary second chance to stand before the world, the way Richard Rodriguez stood before own his life yesterday morning, stood before his whole experience, and wove a sermon out of thin air, the way Rilke stood before the broken statue of a God.
And then today. This morning. He gave another talk “There is nothing mundane about our lives,” he said, with intensity, to the audience of graduate students and teachers. “You are in God’s novel,” he said. “Everything is happening to you. You must sit still.”
After his talk, I waited a few minutes while he talked to another faculty member about the desert. I asked him to sign my book. He handed it back to me and looked right into my eyes with his dark brown eyes. “You’re going to be fine, you know,” he said. I thought he was talking about my writing. “You know that don’t you?” I stared at him, and then I knew he wasn’t talking about writing. He was talking about my life. “You are going to be fine. I’m sure of it. I know these things.” He placed a hand briefly on my cheek before turning to the next person waiting to talk to him.
Eyes that bore into me. Bored past questions about writing and not writing to the thing that preoccupies me the most, past my sadness at friends afraid of me now, not knowing what to say about my journey with cancer, past my loneliness.
“You are going to be fine. You understand? I know these things.”
Past structures, past writing, past “Late Victorians,” past craft, past talent. I think of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks;
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
Even past that. Past everything, into a field of pure blessing.
The last line of one of my own poems says this:
Teach me how to live here. Yes, my eyes are open.