Before the sun rose over the fallow field across from our home this morning, I picked up the book I’ve been reading since last June, back when the days were longer and darkness was just a brief period before bedtime. It’s not like me to take so long on one book. And it’s not like I haven’t read dozens of books in the meantime: novels, nonfiction, poetry, how-to. But with this book of essays, it hasn’t been the normal speed-read to the end. I pick it up in the summer mornings. I read one essay or part of one essay in the early darkness of late autumn evenings. I put it down after a quick read at lunch, the sky gray even though it is mid-day. The seasons change, the days lengthen and shorten, and over and over for the past nine months I read from this one book.
I bought the book, Earth Works, when I heard the author, Scott Russell Sanders, speak at a library event in a suburban community near the city where I lived at the time. A friend and I scarfed down dinner and drove through rush-hour traffic to sit among a sparse crowd of senior citizens. Obviously the community didn’t know who had come to visit.
Remembering that evening–the readings, the question and answer session, the visit with the author afterward–I feel the exhilaration again. Sanders, who has written fiction, memoir, even children’s picture books, will always be first and foremost an essayist to me. I first met Sanders at a Wendell Berry reading at Indiana University, where Sanders taught literature for more than three decades. But I came to know him in his essays, in his weighing out of life’s mysteries paragraph by paragraph. His literary give-and-take helped solidify my own love of the form, and I am hard-pressed to write an essay without turning my thoughts to Sanders.
But in the past nine months, it’s not just a matter of getting through the density of Sanders’ most recent essay collection. Without pre-planning or subjecting myself to a stunt, I have been living out his essays one by one.
I read Sanders’ essay “Singular First Person” and find an answer to my own writing insecurity. Often I wonder how many people could be interested in the life of a woman who grew up on a farm, survived cancer, never had children, and married late in life only to become a step-mom to three sons. There couldn’t be many. So why write from “I”?
“I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine,” Sanders said, “but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8).
And so I pass through the door he has opened, and prop open a door of my own.
“The Inheritance of Tools” reminds me of the barn full of wrenches and hammers and tractors I said goodbye to last fall, when my step-dad passed away. Although I didn’t claim the tools, I understand Sanders’ idea of the “double inheritance” that comes with items left behind by a loved one. The volumes of The Old Farmer’s Almanac that sit on my bookshelf, the small notebooks with my step-dad’s handwriting, even his padded vest now hanging in my husband’s closet: they all come “wrapped in a cloud of knowing,” as Sanders describes it (54).
And there’s more, each essay cracking open the door a little wider. The fear that my faith may somehow be destroyed by too much scientific curiosity is bolstered by Sanders’ own claim to have “surrendered” his faith “under the assault of science” (238). My love of Wendell Berry is explained to me in detail through Sanders’ own introduction and appreciation of Berry’s work, what he calls the “confidence, clarity, high aspirations, and moral passion of the voice on the page” (272). My struggle to find my way as a writer is matched by Sanders’ long journey in the same direction, both his stubbornness and the “pleasure of living among words” (150). Even my questions about writing a memoir are not answered in Sanders’ own memoir, but in his essay describing his foray into the genre and his wrangling with truth-telling, where he exhorts writers to “abide by the promise implied in the nonfiction label” (288).
I could go on.
What I will miss the most when I finish this collection is the grounding I have found. Though my life changes and my career shifts, as my family undulates in death and marriage and birth and separation, as the days grow longer, then shorter, then longer again, I find myself increasingly drawn to the earth beneath my feet and to the minutes I inhabit, even as they pass away, to what Sanders calls “Staying Put.” We all have a choice, Sanders says,
“whether to go or stay, whether to move to a situation that is safer, richer, easier, more attractive, or to stick where we are and make what we can of it. If the shine goes off our marriage, our house, our car, do we trade it for a new one? If the fertility leaches out of our soil, the creativity out of our job, the money out of our pocket, do we start over somewhere else? There are voices enough, both inner and outer, urging us to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory. I know them well, for they have been calling to me all my days” (115).
Strangely, this essay found me after a major shift in location and situation. I married and moved miles away. My old house sat empty and for sale. My new house felt unfamiliar and uncertain. I wasn’t tied to either place, and I felt adrift. Because of my new commitment, I couldn’t–didn’t want to–stay put in the old place. Yet I didn’t have the vision for what it means to put down roots in a new place. Sanders’ words gave me that vision.
“It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place” (126).
So, as Sanders said, I have a choice to make, but mine isn’t about staying or going. I made that choice when I said “I do.” I have to decide where I will be. I could live stranded between two places, or I could accept that I am here now. It means I have had to let go of old habits, old communities, old work. I have to develop a taste for well water and remember to add salt to the softener; I must learn to navigate the narrow, ice-covered country roads in the winter; I have to welcome the deer and rabbits and squirrels into our lawn as they walk between food sources; and I must quit calling the creek running behind the baseball diamond a “river,” like a city girl.
I have only 47 pages left of the book. Were it a novel, I would have to stop even now and finish. Plots and characters demand resolution. Were it a poem, 47-pages-to-go would have kept me from ever picking it up in the first place. And had it been a self-help manual, I would have long since sought its answers.
But since this is a book of essays, I won’t rush to the end nor will I avoid it. I will allow its questions and answers–Sanders’ own examination of meaning and love and history and ecology–to lead me in my reading as in my living.
And when I am finished, I will leave the door propped open for those who follow behind.