The essay’s engine is curiosity; it’s territory is the open road.–Cheryl Strayed
I was having a particularly awful set of days last week. Thursday morning was all minor set backs and fits. It took a couple of hours after waking around 5:00AM for a the desolate mood to set in. I had a slew of meetings to attend, to prep, to run, or to observe, as I had had every day for the previous two weeks. And I was nearing the end of my push to observe twenty-two of my student staff hosting review sessions for various classes around campus. The observations themselves weren’t the main factor keeping my mind-heart balance in a funk. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe seasonal depression was finally catching up to me–since it was March and still below 20 degrees. Maybe it was all the things that I’ve been forced to realize in the last year about my life and relationships–you see, this is how dramatic it felt. Like I was some sci-fi extra waking up from a dream-reality to realize I’m sitting in a pod of primordial ooze. Like I’d been foolish to think life was on track. And yet, even though I could reasonably see and feel that I was simply focusing on the wrong things and that nothing had really changed in the last two days to warrant this sudden jarring of my positive outlook, I couldn’t unthink the things I was thinking. My mood didn’t lift until sometime Friday night.
And nothing was ever the same again.
Cheryl Strayed guides her students with the idea that this is the “invisible, unwritten last line” of every essay–that as writers the goal is to move our readers by shifting the earth around them. I like to think of reading experiences–the really good ones–as keys that unlock something inside of us. Something that once unlocked, can’t be locked again.
D had been on the side lines of my terrible, horrible, no good very bad day all Thursday, and when Friday morning wasn’t showing signs of being different, she texted: “Seriously. Do something for yourself.” She was trying to get me to take a half day and visit a friend who was enjoying a day off herself in Chicago. I settled for leaving right after my last meeting of the day–which ended at 3:00PM.
I was on the open road by 3:30PM toward Ravenswood and my friend J, armed with my will to be happier and an overnight bag. At some point in the evening, J and I decided to turn the music off and step away from the crackers and port wine cheese. We moved our beers from the couch to the kitchen table and swapped reading material. We were talking about our nonfiction origins and loves–pieces that had awoken something inside of us when we read them, the ones that had stayed with us ever since. I told J that my students had recently read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in preparation for a sentence workshop. I told her that I couldn’t say anything else about it until she had read it herself. She sat me down with a copy of David Quammen’s “Strawberries on Ice.”
“Joyas Voladoras” was not assigned reading in my graduate studies. I read it only after I’d purchased the Best American Essays 2005, years after graduate school, on a hunt for fantastic nonfiction reading assignments for writing students. I can see myself, in my upstairs office at school, during the last weeks of summer sun pouring in through the broken blinds, books piling up on my desk in preparation for the semester’s syllabi. I was assigning “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”–a whimsical essay by Kitty Burns Florey remembering a time in American school life when diagramming sentences was king–and there it was. Doyle’s flash essay precedes the Burns Florey piece in the book’s line up. Looking at the table of contents, a mandatory ritual after any Best American purchase, the Latinate title was a flashing sign that said Danger, beware of boredom up ahead! I didn’t recognize Doyle’s name. I was worried that whatever the topic was, it would be out of my realm of interests. I was nervous that the prose would be laborious. I was assuming that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (So, basically, I was thinking like a typical under-motivated student.) And, I was wrong.
Once I had read the first sentence, I couldn’t stop until I devoured the thing whole.
D met up with J and I last Friday at some point and we had a family evening–making food together and enjoying the laughter of people you love. I was amazed that only hours before I had felt the world spinning off into a dark place I’ve been before. With “Joyas Voladoras” as it is with other pieces close to my heart–pun intended (read the piece)–the element of surprise is the main delight. This piece embodies the way nonfiction can start logically, interestingly, and firmly rooted in verifiable facts and concrete science only to shatter the expectations of itself it had just built to end up somewhere abstract and deep in the emotional world. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, as they say, but I had to marvel at how human expectations are so easily upturned and how a good piece can move the earth ever so slightly into place.