All These Things – E. B. White and Letting Go

            In his essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” E. B. White uses two distinct tones toward his subject matter of the problem of human acquisition and inability to shed our possessions. By initiating the essay with a wry and occasionally sarcastic tone, White creates an expectation in the reader that there will be a humorous approach to his subject throughout the essay. This continued singular tone for most of the work makes his last-minute shift to a more wistful and vulnerable approach to his subject an effective, forced reflection for the reader on how we use – often unwittingly – our physical environment to protect our emotional and psychological worlds.

            Early in the essay, White suggests that the things in his apartment have a will of their own:

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of ones worldly goods to go out again into the world.

The reader knows right away that this will be a tongue-in-cheek narrative; naturally, the narrator is the only one with a will in this series of events, but his suggestion that he is in some kind of battle with the objects in his life is funny. The narrator is in some form of denial. He suggests that he is a victim of some sort of universal scheme.

Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ball point pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I once had a man send me a chip of wood that shows the marks of beaver teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.

This series of random acquisitions as preying on the narrator begins to raise the reader’s eyebrow. The gnawed wood chip is especially noteworthy, as one can imagine no purpose in retaining something like that; yet White did keep it. One might use a bank memo book, but what can one do with beaver-chewed wood chips? By throwing in that ridiculous item, White now creates suspicion that he is more culpable than he admits.

Another day, I found myself on a sofa between the chip of wood gnawed by the beaver and an honorary hood I had once worn in an academic procession. What I really needed at the moment was the beaver himself, to eat the hood. I shall never wear the hood again, but I have too weak a character to throw it away, and I do not doubt that it will tag along with me to the end of my days, not keeping me either warm or happy but occupying a bit of my attic space.

At this point, White decides to lock up the apartment and go to a fair, further enhancing the reader’s growing belief that the narrator is in denial. White meets that belief:

A fair, of course, is a dangerous spot if a man is hoping to avoid acquisition.

For multiple paragraphs after he locks his apartment, White writes about his experience at the fair. It is a seemingly strange shift, until he reconnects with the last lines of the essay, which open, “But that was weeks ago.”

As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.

No more jokes. Now White is allowing himself to feel the pain and loss of leaving the familiar.

After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.

Visiting birds, dogs, gardens, “the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow” – now White’s loss is shifting to life. The reader understands that the possessions have only been a cover for busying the narrator with things that are not important. What is painful and held at bay in his emotions is the living elements of his home that he must abandon and cannot take with him. This revelation makes the delivery of White’s final words devastating, when the reader realizes the entire essay has been a protective cover for another reality:

In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

I say security is something to be challenged.

And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.

Beyond Teddy Bears and Candles – Where Do We Go from Here?

The national response to the post Saving Everyone’s Baby was, quite simply, astonishing.  As a writer, a mother, and a child advocate, I woke up around 3:00 a.m. the morning I wrote the post, just staring into the darkness.  Like many of us, I was struggling with how to process the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial.  It was not so much that I thought it was the “right” or the “wrong” verdict — I have no idea.  But I realized that no matter what the verdict had been, it would have given me no comfort.

I got up a couple of hours later and wrote the post.  I was trying to do what all writers do, use words to process emotional and intellectual issues.  I was trying to work through my questions in a way that didn’t make me part of the pitchforks and torches crowd.  I was in pain, but the writing helped me understand what was really making me feel so sad and conflicted.

I sent the post to my friend and fellow advocate, Jim McKay.  I put it on Facebook.  I also asked readers to share it, which I almost never do.  What happened in the next few hours was a complete surprise to me — 4,000 plus people around the country began reading, sharing, and commenting on Saving Everyone’s Baby.

I want specifically to thank the following people and organizations for being part of this dialogue:

I don’t know everyone by name and every place where things happened, but Jim McKay shared this as well:  “Your post is getting great buzz within the child abuse prevention community. It has been re-posted by organizations and advocates in Washington state, Idaho, New Jersey and Oklahoma, as well as by some of our folks in Parkersburg and Princeton.”

While the vast majority of comments about the post were positive, there were serious frustrations expressed by some readers, and I honestly want to thank those people as well.  One angry comment was by a woman who thought I was trying to tell her she did not have a right to be angry.  I re-read the post and I don’t see that anywhere, but she helped me further articulate what I am saying.  I am saying feel whatever you need to feel, but don’t stop with that and don’t be satisfied with that.  Move on.

We don’t do a good job sometimes of moving on after something like this.  We are great at going to a funeral.  We know how to grieve.  But we don’t seem to know very much about how to avoid the next opportunity to grieve.

That’s where the other voice of frustration came in, someone who was upset that people seem to only speak out and come together when a pretty white girl dies.  And you know what?  He or she (I’m not sure of the person’s identity) has a point.  To some degree, we still seem to classify “values” of human beings, even children.  I hope that is not really what the dynamic is.  I tend to think it is something else, something also not good, but something else maybe we can do more to change.

Bear with me here, because this will be hard to say without pushing buttons.  I think there sometimes is a gap between the group of people making up the largest percentage of “helpers” and the groups of people most in need of help.  That would make sense.  People with resources are able to help those without, it’s just basic math.  But when the people with resources (time, money, connections, influence) don’t really understand what is happening in the worlds of those they are trying to help, a feeling of hopelessness can set in for everyone.  I think this thing with a larger perceived responsiveness to a white child’s death is part of the dominant “helper group” feeling more connected to that kind of child and therefore feeling more of an opportunity possibly to get involved.

When you can’t break into someone else’s world, you don’t know how to help and you eventually learn how to care less.  You focus on what you think you can fix.  If this is true, then it has a chance of changing, and that should give us all some hope.

But where do we go from here?

I don’t have magical answers, just a lot of questions.  But now because of you, I also have a spark of connection that may light a larger fire for change.  Change is a hard word.  I’ve been involved in prevention work for long enough now that I have a pretty good handle on the reality that an issue like child abuse and neglect is not going away any time soon.  It’s not going away because poverty is not going away, sexual abuse and incest are not going away, domestic violence is not going away, unintended pregnancy is not going away, and alcoholism and drug abuse are not going away.  The well-being of children is tied directly to the well-being of the family, and families will always face trouble.  We see it a lot in my home state, the cycle of families becoming stuck in one place with these issues, unable to chart a new course without years of effort and yes, assistance.

Love and care for children is not political, or at least it should not be.  But there was some questioning of what it meant when I said, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn” with regard to what parents “deserve.”  It means that I believe if we are going to slay this monster, we have to look beyond our judgments of adults in the equation.  We have to look at the children first and foremost, and drop this craziness about who is worthy of help.  All children are worthy of help, and if their parents’ behavior gets in the way of focusing on the kids, I say just let it go.  Our national policy conversations sometimes seem to just talk right past children as if they are not even there, or as if they are some afterthoughts to what makes this nation strong.  If we put a roadblock on our ability to change outcomes for children because we don’t want to “reward” parents for “bad choices,” we are just fueling the next generation of dysfunction.

It boggles the mind.

I have set  up an email specifically to manage conversations with people who want to write follow-up posts here on some of the many complex issues not addressed in the original post.  The address is essediem@gmail.com, and I welcome anyone who wants to write on additional and connected issues.  I do require transparency of authorship, so please be prepared to include a short bio about yourself if you plan to write for Esse Diem.  While I have extended this opportunity to several specific people, I don’t know who if anyone will take me up on it.

I do know this blog strives to honor children and childhood.  I do not write about the issue of child abuse and neglect very often, as I prefer to leave that to the professionals.  But I am open to making some space here for continued discussion at the discretion of those who know more than I.

Until the next post, thank you all again for your time and your commitment to children.  Some days it is hard to know what to do next, but I think getting up and knowing we need to do something other than grieve is a good first step.

This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around

Every politician in a rural state with an aging demographic wants to know The Answer to The Magic Question:

“How do we get young people to move here and stay here to start careers and families?”

I probably shouldn’t think this is funny, but for some reason I do.  The situation itself is not funny, but the bizarre machinations around constructing arguments to lure 20-somethings to rather than away from Appalachia are a little bit amusing.  Part of the problem looks like this:  We say we want young, talented, intelligent, educated, passionate people to want to call West Virginia home.

Fair enough.

But then we talk about the offer, and about the very people we want to attract, as if they are not wise enough to see what is written in flames about 50 feet tall.

This ain’t no party.  This ain’t no disco.  This ain’t no foolin’ around.  

True story, I had some dialogue with a public school employee in a neighboring county last week in which he disclosed he’s had 3 students talk about suicide as the school year winds down.  This seems unusual, right……aren’t most kids thrilled for school to be out?

No.  Not any more and not here.  For an increasing number of children the end of school means three months of food insecurity and the lack of physical protection that comes from reporting to a public place every day.  It means hunger, and fear of violence, and isolation.  For many kids, it means exposure to serious drug abuse like methamphetamines and to its associated crime.

It means too much time on your hands and not enough of anything else.

This is but one aspect of our situation.  We don’t want to lead with such misery for obvious reasons — Don’t smart ambitious young people want to be in hip urban centers with lots of good times and easy living?  That’s what it looks like on TV anyway.  The thing is, I don’t think these people are the ones we really want and need.  So why are we trying to get them anyway?  No offense Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl; you’re entertaining and all, but you are the last thing we need over here.

This ain’t no party.

I say we market what we have for real and get the most hard-core world-changers we can. No one needs self-absorbed “what’s in it for me” types right now.  I’m not falling for the idea that these people are part of any solution.

This ain’t no disco.

We need that piece of the 20-something puzzle that wants more.  They’ve already done the research and they know that PR efforts to market the great outdoors and low rent is a weak sales pitch.  I’m betting we are on the edge of a different attraction…..the nation has suffered several years now of throwing off the costumes of wealth and easy money, sexy start-ups and Internet-driven marketing schemes.  McMansions, gargantuan gas-guzzling vehicles, and extravagant parties are dwindling and even a source of embarrassment.  We see more clearly what that all was, how false and how wasteful.  No one wants to churn that back up, they want to build on what’s real.

This ain’t no foolin’ around.

I’m not sure what is more real than the opportunity to turn away from “all for me” and turn towards “all for the world.”  Our world of Appalachia is in peril, and that is nothing new, but what may be new is the chance to harness global concern about our local issues to attract the right young people who will change the future of this state and consequently the world.

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  Despite popular belief, they are lawyers too.  They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

They know right from wrong, they know giving from taking, and yes, they are 20-somethings.

I don’t think they want a sales pitch or a hand out.  I think they want us to get out of the way and allow their innovation, perspective, and talent to change the future of this place.

Will we? (David Byrne for Governor)


“The Play Center”: Changing Children’s Lives

When I was a child, I grew up with Sunrise Children’s Museum. 

I remember the planetarium, when the room became as dark as night in the country and stars in constellations emerged as if by magic on the curved sky of a ceiling.  I remember leaning back in the tilted seat, my face unavoidably turned toward the heavens, and listening to Mr. Gardener speak the names of Orion and Pegasus and the Big Dipper, and then those same beings would appear as connected stars before my eyes.  He spoke of seasons, and change, and science, and the stars spun as he described the tilting of the earth on its axis.  Our moon, our solar system, other galaxies became realities for me as I sat there in the pitch black room, becoming part of the universe and listening to what seemed, if not the voice of God, the voice of someone who had an inside channel.

There were pencils in the gift shop with tiny geologic specimens in the tip.  There were animals in environments designed just for them in the basement. A woman named Loa Martin would hold a boa constrictor and let us kids touch it to understand that in fact, reptiles were not slimy, they were dry — dry and cold, because their blood was cold.  You can hear all day that mammals are warm-blooded and reptiles are cold, but until you put your hand on a boa you really haven’t “learned” it.

There was a sloth, “an arboreal and nocturnal animal,” who I only ever saw active on a tree and in a room lighted with an orangish-red light.  Why, I asked, is this room so dark?  Because this is nocturnal animal, it is only active at night.  Click……my mind got it.

I am grown up now, and so is the Sunrise Museum.  It is now the children’s discovery museum at The Clay Center.  Family members and very good friends have been employees there and volunteer leaders on its behalf.  I renew a family membership every year, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia (which I clearly have) and everything to do with opening the world of the arts and sciences to my child.

My little girl asks every week to go to “the play center.”  As soon as we are in the door it is, as they say, ON.  She starts with wind currents and balance, then moves to water and more wind and erosion.  She moves to magnetic fields and physics and how machines work; sound waves, animation, lasers, and exoskeletons.  She runs experiments on how feathers keep birds dry, sees the life stages of a butterfly, and marvels at the teeth still set in the jaw bone of long-demised deer.

I also support “the play center” for children other than my own.  A close friend told me a story about some children who came to the art portion of the museum.  This particular group of kids was from a county more rural than most in West Virginia, and there were children in the group who had never been up a flight of stairs.  One child shrank against the wall in confusion when she saw the winding staircase with its great wood banister in the original Sunrise Museum. 

Moments like this open our eyes to how much  of a life-changing experience a simple field trip can be.  Sometimes it is not even about the detailed experiments or art, it is the opportunity to see new parts of the world, parts many of us take for granted.  In this same group a guide asked the children about what they saw in a painting by Anne Shreve.  The painting was a still life that included a large frilly pink seashell.  The children were silent.  “What about this?” asked the guide.  “What do you see here?”  More silence.  Then an intrepid young soul piped up gently, “A birthday cake?”

Never underestimate what one visit, one opportunity means to a child.  Every day, lives are changing and opening to the world of arts and sciences…….and beyond.

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 5, After College)

This is the conclusion of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 5, After College) 

 

30 years of John's journals, 1980-2010

 

 Ironically, so many Christians befriending me in spite of my struggles had an effect they didn’t anticipate.  I felt intense guilt for being attracted to other men, but I was greatly encouraged that there were people who knew the ugly truth about me and still chose to be my friend.  There was a part of me that began to think, “Hey, if these people will still be my friend, then maybe this is not such a horrible thing after all.”  

In the years after I graduated from college there were many times I felt that I had to choose between my faith and my sexuality, and for many years I chose Christianity. The prolonged conflict between these aspects of my personality, however, took its toll.  At the age of 32 I took a job in a new city and took the next seven years off from church.  

Today, I describe myself as an agnostic.  My beliefs have changed, and I am no longer convinced that it is a sin to act on my sexual desires.  I am now 42 years old and for the first time in my life I am ready to date someone of the same gender.  

Whatever happens, you can be sure I’ll record every major development in my journal.

Image credits: John Warren