Two Men I Never Met
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course called Ethnic American Literature. Being that I was 1) an English major, 2) from an ethnically homogenous small town, and 3) desperate for "culture," I was incredulous when the reading list my professor passed out that first day had no Ralph Ellison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Toni Morrison, but was instead full of all these, as he called them, "regional writers," a mix of poets and novelists and essayists from my home state that I'd never heard of and was sure had absolutely no relevance to my life. After all, I was going to teach, and how was I supposed to do that if I wasn't introduced to the writers who'd been anthologized?
I went to another professor and complained (and, Minnesotan that I am, this practically killed me) until she loaded up my arms with every Toni Morrison book she owned. And walking back to my dorm room, clickity clack, holding these canonical texts close to my chest, I felt fortified. Soothed. I would teach myself, then! And for the rest of the semester I gave those regional authors only bitter, cursory glances. I never took another class with that professor.
Sometimes I can't believe I'm edging up on thirty. I'm twenty-eight now, but when my husband and I are riding our bikes or when I'm climbing boulders to get a better view or when one of my seventeen-year-old students and I are talking about music or snowdays or the moon, it's impossible for me to grasp that I'm not ten years younger, that I'm not still some kid acceptably excited about the color of watermelon against a blue sky.
But when I think about who I was in that college classroom—just nineteen, maybe twenty, but so so sure—I can feel the weight of years that have passed. I feel regret, something that didn't touch me then, I was in such a hurry.
I'm glad I read Morrison and Silko. And I'm thankful for the part of me that's always been thirsty for the largeness of the world. But if I have learned anything in this first third of life, it's that understanding comes slowly. Sometimes you need to wait. And often when you are ready, you will realize too late what you have missed, and it will ache like the memory of a person you have wronged.
My Ethnic American Literature professor introduced me to Paul Gruchow and Bill Holm, but I didn't listen to any of these men—actually hear them—until this past year, until something told me to look toward home. Then it was a flurry of books, of staring out windows, of wanting to hold not just Gruchow's and Holm's thoughts but their weathered hands, to speak and write back. So I searched out their contact information—letters already forming—to learn instead of their early deaths. One in 2004, and one just this past year.
It's a funny thing to grieve for two men whom you've never met. But as I forge ahead in my writing, I am talking with them after all in the one way I can. I write, I suppose, to say I'm sorry. And I write to say thanks. These men loved Minnesota and valued writing about home as I believe many of us should, and as I'm learning to.
This essay was originally published in A View From The Loft on September 13th, 2010. Thanks much to editor Dara Syrkin for her kindness and support.