September 24, 2012

On Bravery: Scott Russell Sanders

There is a man I met through his words three years ago, and ever since, I have wanted him to be a close uncle, a pull-that-chair-up-to-the-fire kind of friend. He has written twenty books, taught thousand of students, won dozens of awards, and met with important people about important things, so I know it's not only me that has felt this way. Still: I thought if I could just meet him, if I could just shake his hand, perhaps my appreciation would ring clear to him even in the wake of so much praise.

This last weekend, I spent the early minutes of an 8:00 Saturday morning hiking through the north woods at the Audubon Center. I had on a too-thin coat, no gloves, and my camera slung around my neck. The air was tight with a chill I hadn't felt for half a year, and the light was brilliant with it. It streaked through the pines, caught on the maple leaves already a vibrant red. I paused and looked, kneeled, scrambled up on rocks, tilted my ears toward the sound of birds. Took deep breaths. It is good--deep down bone good--to wake up like that.

I remembered this man, my hoped-for friend, once saying something similar in a book.

I was thinking of that book, the light, of gratitude, and of the paper and pen in my pack--how there is so much I want to do, but time, time, time, the turning of the world, its bigness, my smallness, its troubles, its beauty, and my inability to say sometimes what it is that I actually accurately feel, and how some people can, and how I have so much to learn, and want to, SO MUCH do I want to, because what is life if it's not learning and growing, and changing, even when that's scary, even when I doubt if I'm brave enough to reach in and find the truth and offer it up--its as I was thinking these things that I turned back down the winding, leaf-strewn trail, and found myself one minute later walking step for step with warm-faced, kind-eyed Scott Russell Sanders.

"Beautiful morning for a walk," he said. "A good way to greet the day."

And I said yes, I said beautiful, and then I shook his hand.

In thirty minutes, he would give his keynote address at the conference we were both there for. In two hours, after his talk, the rest of the conference-attendees and myself would rise to our feet in a standing ovation. It is not everyday you hear someone speak about the power of the imagination. It is not every morning that you feel you're in the presence of a true, gentle champion of--in my inability to put it any other way--the things that are right. "We can be hopeful," he said, "because the imagination exists, and with it, the power to vision ourselves out of the situations that otherwise make us slaves to money, to prestige, and the voices that arise from outside our true selves."

Later still, I would reach for the book I had brought for him to sign--the one I read first, three years ago, that set me thinking about place and about home and our responsibility to the spaces that sustain us--and I would realize that in my rush I had grabbed the wrong one. I would feel sheepish, a little angry at myself, and wouldn't quite find the gusto to walk up to him again and have him sign the inside of this other book anyway.

But before that, before he gave his words to the lot of us, he took a walk with me. Yellow leaves slipped down around us in the wind. I said thank you. He asked my name. We talked about teaching. About place. About his granddaughters. My baby. We stood outside of the conference room for some time, talking over a good several things. I know it's unhelpful to hold people on pedestals. He is just a man, this Sanders, a man who has lived almost forty more years than I have. And if it hadn't been his book, perhaps it would have been someone else's. But it was his. And I am writing these words, sharing this experience with all of you, thanking God that I live in a time and in a place where experiences like this--the walking and the writing and the thinking--are possible. And it makes me want to be more brave.

35 comments:

  1. It is good to see the ordinary in a person, a writer, to realize that they are just like us, enjoying a walk in the woods. We, as writers, are all striving to be understood, to resonate, to hope our words will touch a heart, move a mind, light a fire. As always, you've presented a thought-provoking piece here, Emily. Thank you.

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    1. It was my pleasure to share. It seemed more prudent to sit on this essay for at least a day or two, maybe do a little revising before I sent it into the live world, but there's been so much swirling around in my mind these days that I just needed to let this one loose. Happy to know it resonates!

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  2. Aw, so lovely, Emily. Glad for you. I do hear a quiet braveness, by the way. Thanks for the beautiful post.

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    1. Yes: but too quiet? That's my concern when it comes to bravery. I've been wondering lately if maybe just the thing to amp up my voice is this wee one inside of me. Perhaps for him or her I will find the louder, stronger words. I hope so.

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  3. I can really feel a respect coming through your words; a sense of reverence that makes me want to read some of his work, even though his name is unfamiliar to me.
    This lovely piecemade me think of Barry Lopez's essay 'Grown Men', where he shows a similar respect for men who have grown old enough to no longer need to be macho and competitive......
    But can we also ask how your session at the conference went?
    Ian

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    1. Ian, you should absolutely read some of his work. Part of SCR's keynote was a reading of an essay he'd composed for the conference that has just been published (at lightning fast speeds, apparently) in The Georgia Review called "The Way of Imagination." That would give you a good, strong, satisfying taste.

      And I haven't read enough Barry Lopez myself. His name comes up a lot in these place-based circles. Any particular books or essays of his you'd recommend?

      And the session? Went well! I hope to post about it with links and all in the next few weeks. :)

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    2. okay, sounds like we need to swap recommendations! For Lopez, the book I adored is his most recent, 'Resistance' - a powerful mix of the human and the natural. The essay I mentioned above is in a non-fiction collection of his called 'Crossing Open Ground', which has some wonderful pieces.

      I just read an excerpt from 'The way of imagination' on the GR website. Your suggestions for one of his books?

      Looking forward to your impressions of addressing the conference!

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    3. Love a good recommendation swap! Hmmm... "Writing From The Center" was the one that got me right from the beginning, but that might be because the title essay was about Midwest writing. I'm currently reading "A History of Awe," which I love. I've also heard his newest, "Earthworks," is full of solid ruminations.

      Excited to read more Barry!

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  4. Oh how happy this story made me, Emily! To think your child has already walked and talked with SRS. And now I've got a new book for my wish list. Thank you. Hope you keep basking in that light for a good while.

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    1. It was a good morning. It makes me happy to know you understand all the reasons why. :)

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  5. Thank you for introducing me to this author. I see one reviewer has compared him to the likes of Wendell Berry, whose writing I adore. I can't wait to check out some of his books.
    I think it's wonderful that you met him on your walk, outdoors. A natural, happenstance meeting- perfect!.

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    1. Hi Leonora,

      I'm happy to introduce you to SRS. I think he should be more widely read. He has important messages. And yes, I loved the way I met him. I was mentally pinching myself when he appeared next to me on that lovely trail!

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  6. You have such an intimate voice in this post, as if you're sitting across the table from your readers, a mug of coffee hugged between your hands. Thank you for sharing your Saturday morning with us. Those people who first inspired us come to life in a way that supports what we thought all along are incredible gifts.

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    1. I'm glad you felt that way, because that is the spirit in which I wrote it: "You just have to hear what happened this weekend." A special collection of days, indeed.

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  7. How lucky you were to meet such a fine writer! And how many can say they walked with him and shared some personal exchanges? And that you appreciate it so much, that he is that meaningful to you, says a whole lot about who you are and what you want to be.

    One more thing, I've read some of the best writers who share their views of the natural world, and met a few too. None were better than you.

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  8. Emily:

    This is a fine essay abnout your grand encounter with Sanders during your walk, and at the conference. It was your intimate writing that drew me into and through your beautiful piece. I will certainly find and read some of Sanders' work.

    I've read all of Barry Lopez. I recommend: Crossing Open Ground; esp. essays:
    "Children in the Woods", "Searching for Ancestors", and "Grown Men".

    From his book About This Life, I liked: ""A Voice", "The Whaleboat", and "A Passage of the Hands".

    Your piece was heartwarming and heartfelt.

    Gratefully,

    Richard

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    1. Thank you, Richard. Another Lopez fan! Isn't it both wonderful and overwhelming to think of how many books and authors there are that need to be read? I write to express myself, of course, but I'm also spurred on by the way I feel when I read a particularly memorable essay, story, poem... it is a gift to be able to affect readers like that, don't you think?

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  9. You are a gifted writer. Thank you for reminding me of this writer and his words.

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    1. Mary, thank you. Thank you for reading. So happy to bring you back to SRS.

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  10. Scott Brisse has a nice ring to it. Just sayin'. ;-)

    I'm sorry you grabbed the wrong book and missed his autograph, but wasn't the walk so much better than some ink on a page? After all, ink fades over time.

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    1. Ha! That's good advice, actually, as my husband has consistently declined every male name I've suggested to him thus far. Can't remember if I've tried out Scott yet. :)

      And yes. YES! I'm sort of a sucker for final images (it's that writer in me), so I'll take a walk in the woods memory over an inked one any day.

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    2. Hmmm - not sure if my unfinished comment was sent! At any rate, your fresh, honest writing is surely one of my good things for today. Also I'm thinking about cucumbers and ice cream (well, maybe since you're pregnant but not at the same time I hope!).

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    3. Sadly my mother's cucumbers have been all eaten up, Barb, but the ice cream? There is still PLENTY of that to go around!

      I'm not sure why you're earlier comment didn't go through, but I'm glad you left this one anyway! A good thing in and of itself.

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  11. You write well. An excellent account of your meeting one of your heroes.

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    1. Thank you, Anon! I have several literary heroes, but this one--in case you couldn't tell--does claim a special place on that shelf.

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  12. "And I said yes, I said beautiful, and then I shook his hand."

    What a piece. What a morning...

    And I am embarrassed to say that while I have heard his name, never have I read his words. Now, I am going to do just that. Thank you, Emily...for the introduction!

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    1. I'm so glad that I'm able to introduce some of you to Sanders work. I think you're really going to like it, Erin. A bit of land ethos mixed in with family ruminations all spun together with an outlook on life I admire. You'll have to let me know what you think!

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  13. Emily, I love the phrase, meant through his words. It is nice that you got to meet and talk with someone whose writing made a difference in your life. I felt uplifted just reading your wonderful post.

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    1. I'm glad, Sandy. I was writing more for me and my memory than anything else, but I'm happy this piece has brought you to a lighter place. And yes: so great to meet someone that's mattered to me in an intellectual capacity. Now if only I could end up on the same trail as Louise Erdrich!

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  14. The tone of your piece reminds me of my feeling for my most beloved professor - not a writer, but an interpreter of words. Sadly, he's gone now, and I never had a chance to tell him how much I appreciate him. As these things happen, I didn't appreciate him nearly as much at the time as I do now. Many of his precepts have guided even my first, halting attempts at writing.

    I still remember the day he crouched down before a hapless classmate, fixed him with "that" gaze and said, "Your words are beautiful. Your words are elegant. But are they true?

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    1. Wow, what a line. I think I'll still remember it for months and years to come.

      I think that first paragraph is why many people go into the teaching profession; it's certainly why I did. Just to have a positive impact, you know? Even a small one. We live on in so many ways that we'll never be aware of.

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  15. A beautiful, inspiring post, Emily - and, as ever, wonderfully written and so involving...

    Very special, uplifting days like these are such treasures to store up in life - real catalysts for renewal of purpose - and such an inspiration in that lifelong, daily challenge towards bravery which faces us all as we learn and grow.

    Scott Russell Sanders sounds a wonderful writer - I love his words on the power of the imagination; they resonate with so much that's very close to my heart.

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