"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dear Mr. Berry

Dear Mr. Berry

My husband wrote you, and you wrote back. Thank you. He wrote you on behalf of my despair. He wrote you because I graduated from a lovely little school, the one where Rachel Carson studied, out in Pittsburgh. I proved I was a writer by generating copious words, hundreds of pages, and defending those words. The paper next to my desk says I have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. But I feel like a fraud. My thesis needs extensive re-working to be publishable, and a writer is a writer in two ways, as one who answers the call within her heart to put words to paper, and as one who revises her texts because writing requires discipline.  What that paper whispers to me is this: "You can put lots of words on a white blank space." I have yet to prove if I can make those words artful, as artful as I admire in your writing.

Thank you for writing back.

This sounds sentimental but when I ask my high school students who they'd invite to a dinner party, I give them my list to get them thinking. You are on that list. If I could choose from among the living and dead, I'd invite Flannery O'Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Brian Doyle, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Russell Sanders. You all come to mind first because of something I talked about with Mr Sanders during my first summer residency for my MFA. I said I loved Hannah Coulter andJayber Crow, but the first time I read Hannah Coulter I kept expecting something to happen. By that, I meant I expected you to manipulate her circumstances to "sex up" the plot. Please excuse the common parlance. When you confounded me by writing a novel that made me feel I'd sat with my friend's grandmother for several enjoyable hours, I felt resurrected. Your term. God's term. The one you used at the end of one of my favorite poems, "The Mad Farmer Manifesto." I stumbled around trying to articulate this to Mr. Sanders, and he took my ideas and lifted them to the heavens like a priest offering them as Eucharist. "He writes about fidelity," said Mr. Sanders and that's the hard thing to do. When I left that residency, I intended to write about how hard it was to love Mary, the Mother of God, because I converted from Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity and I am supposed to be devoted to her. -- I confess, she scares me. She has her stuff together. I am, again in common parlance, more of a hot mess after that two years earning that MFA than I was beforehand.

Which is why I want to say how important it was for you to write back.

My husband knew you would. Here's how.

You trade sheep with Adam Moody of Moody Meats. His daughter Rachel once wrote you about raising young boys. She treasures the letter you wrote back to her.

One of Adam's employees Josh met you. Another, Justin met you. They told me that you have such a generous heart that you sometimes entertain perfect strangers like we are angels. You do this in due season and when it works.

And, Mr. Sanders said he's met you several times. He spoke fondly of you.

I hope I meet you someday, on terra or in heaven. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis meets George MacDonald, his literary hero. I hope I stroll past them on my way through sharp, bright, dangerous place where God's love burns and I find you there.

Thank you for writing back in your handwriting. I should return the favor. I type this because my mind races with every thought I want to share with you. I pray this missive does not read like diarrhea of the pen.

I feel ashamed because the first essay I ever read by you, "Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer," chastised me. I'd been teaching high school language arts for an on-line school for a couple of years. The computer distracted me, divided me, kept me working, sometimes with thirty tabs open. I'd be texting someone, using a cyber-meeting room and have a phone ringing in my ear. When I finished those long days, I couldn't touch a phone. I should have slammed shut my laptop lid but Facebook, this horrible social networking tool, connected me to the people outside my house. It became my drug. I learned to think and write so many words so fast through fingers that tap keys like I imagine someone can read Braille.

Here I am tapping out this letter to you. I think I should do what Doris Lessing character does in The Golden Notebook. I should scrawl this out until my wrist aches, and I have a flat spot on my thumb. The computer tabs are distractions. I lack focus most of the time. I open tabs and stumble around reading The Atlantic,The New Yorker, or some Washington Post article, looking up recipes, or ordering supplies. I read your article and thought about those old days when I lived and wrote closer to the rhythm of reality. You wrote in your article that you work with horses. I smelled their dusty musk. Hot dirt, a hint of horse pucky. I smelled the cucumber-crisp air that wisps into my room because I sleep with the window open most of the year. I rubbed my empty hand and remembered the way the horses at a nearby ranch leave a film of body oil on my palm after I run their necks or coil their manes in my fingers.

I need to write like that, close to dark and light, dirt and dust, heat and cold. The blandness of temperature and the unsatisfying pursuit of a teaching career remind me that I live in a zoo. My controlled environment with easy meat bores me. I write words without the fidelity of meaning.

Thank you for writing back to tell my husband that you don't have much advice for a writer so discouraged she cannot write. "If she wants to write, she will." Admonishment of the kindest sort.

I've been writing since I was a teenager. At fourteen, after my parents with help from my grandfather and even us, the kids, built a home with our own hands, I took to sneaking off to write. As the oldest, I had to sneak away from chores and distractions. It didn't happen often, maybe a couple times a week. I'd fill my canteen with our sweet well-water. I stacked several mechanical pencils, a college-ruled spiral notebook and my cassette walkman with headphones. I balanced them with an apple and my 35mm instant camera on my left arm and snuck out the back door, a wood-framed screen door that had to be eased closed, or my mother might hear its sloppy whack and call me back.  I'd creep like a settler through the woods to a remote concrete bridge and lay on it, cold in the off-season, hot in the summer, while penning poems or ranting about parents. I finished stories started at my desk that morning.

I am writing again about that place. I'm reworking portions of my thesis, about the young years when my little sister Naomi Ruth slept at my feet while we built the house, about her desire to live closer to the earth, or rather to be buried naturally in it. She is thirty and surviving stage four cancer. Writing about her cancer, about the natural cemetery our church has initiated, about living and dying closer to our natures, that is the story to which I'm trying to be true. Writing about it leaves me broken sometimes.

I write you all these words because I wish I could redeem myself as a writer. I want to write something worth reading some day. It's a compulsion. I sometimes rebel. I want you to read this, but I know it's because I'm self-conscious that you might think I'm one of those writers who wants her name in lights, or on the cover of a book, at any cost. I don't. I want to write one thing worth reading. One thing about fidelity. One story with substance and style. I want to write one story, even slowly that does what your poems, essays, and stories have done for me. They've reminded me that living simply rewards me best. It expands my heart with gratitude, faithfulness, simplicity. Things of real value.

Thank you for writing me back. I've wanted to tell you how much your work has changed me. Now I have a reason.