To celebrate our fortieth anniversary, the following are drawn solely from interviews, essays, short stories, poems, and Readers Write pieces that have appeared in the magazine.
Will is the means by which we overcome the problems that life or genes have handed us. Without it, there is no true character.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had trouble with transitions. I don’t mean the usual life transitions of birth, death, divorce, moving — everyone has trouble with those. No, I mean the little transitions, like the one between waking up and putting my feet on the floor. Or between turning off the car and going into the house. Or between getting out of the shower and getting dressed. You can see why life has been very, very hard for me.
I can’t count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV — nothing everyone else hasn’t suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can’t seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.
Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss. Living is.
How can one accept — let alone enjoy — aging in a culture where God is twenty-five; where advertisements are filled with twenty-somethings in halter tops and tight t-shirts, unless the ad is for a drug to treat incontinence, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol? What about the wisdom of age? What about endurance? What about the beauty of a face etched by years that were not always easy?
I was seventy-six in April, and the reason for my relative longevity is that I never take any legal drugs — except a few months ago. I was at a party, and I took an aspirin. I didn’t even have a headache. I just gave in to peer pressure.
I used to say, watching two elderly women crossing the street in flowered hats, holding each other’s arms, “Look at those cute old ladies.” I didn’t mind the stereotypes that pepper movies and television shows. Now old people are no longer cute or mean or silly or wise to me. They are people, in all their broken fullness. Despite the glitches in faculties and functioning, anyone who’s lived that long has learned something the rest of us don’t know.
As lines add history to a face, cracks only improve the value of a heart — take it from me, I’ve got a heart cracked like crystal, and when you hold it up to the light it’s not without class.
They told me that her blood was too thick for her heart to pump, and I wondered how it was that someone stayed alive so long after nothing’s left. I had seen bugs crushed and gone so quickly. I couldn’t decide if life was fragile or tenacious beyond belief.
To everyone’s surprise, wildlife abounds in the deserted environs of the doomed [Chernobyl] nuclear plant. Elk, wild pigs, wolves, and rabbits all seem to be flourishing. These animals have somehow learned to cope with the high levels of radiation. Who knows, perhaps there are mutations: A pig that can climb. A rabbit with a prehensile tail. An elk with a unicorn’s horn. Cells are quick-change artists. Life loves life. Humans may end, but the world won’t.
This increasingly intelligent, fast-moving civilization needs to be applying some of its intelligence to things that change slowly. . . . If we are constantly tending to the immediate, day-to-day problems, we’ll lose that sense of the long term, and then we could be really sorry.
Romania had been under communist rule since 1945, but it was after Ceauşescu came to power in 1965 that life really began to deteriorate. . . . Then, one night in the late 1980s, a group of men dressed as street sweepers draped the statue of Lenin in Bucharest with big truck tires and set them on fire. It was a bold and daring act in a country where, it was said, for every Romanian on the street there were two secret police officers. The next morning traffic was detoured while workers from nearby factories were brought in to clean the statue with razor blades. That day I realized that change was possible.
It was thanks to women like Eppie that this moment in history could exist — a moment when a woman could be a serious contender for the presidency of the United States. In the 1970s Eppie had defied her husband by helping to found a Planned Parenthood branch in her town. She’d started a women’s empowerment group before most of us even knew what empowerment meant.
No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.
Possibly the heart of our humanity is to want something we cannot achieve by our own efforts.
Sisyphus was a highly productive worker.
The worst indictment I ever heard from my father was when he’d say of another man, “He’s so lazy he stinks.”
Our thoughts limit what we’re capable of doing. There are external forces arrayed against us, but there are also internal forces that sabotage us before we even get started. Our mind is good at setting us up for failure and getting us to think small. But I have found that we will do for love that which we don’t think is possible. So the question to ask ourselves is “What do I love?”
There’s an African proverb: “When death finds you, may it find you alive.” Alive means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live.
Happy and content one day, / ambition and desire eat you alive the next. / It’s always been this way. Back and forth, / back and forth. That’s the way it goes.
Artists who whine because they need a grant and the government doesn’t help them — well, tough shit. I had the same problem. I worked in a bookstore for seven years to make money to buy art supplies. And that was fine. I don’t think artists should ever expect anything from anybody. For the artist, sacrifice and hardship are a part of the process.
It’s better to go into the world half-cocked than not to go into the world at all.
I gathered my shoes and wallet on the other side of the metal detector and took a last glance at my father, who was still there, still waving. That mangled finger had always been a symbol of his shortcomings and deformities to me, but now I saw it was also a testament to all that he’d sacrificed for our family. He’d lost that trigger finger building the business that had fed and clothed me. I imagined he was not only waving me goodbye but waving me forward with that symbol of his own woundedness.
We’re all doing time. The highest compliment in prison is “He knows how to do his own time.” How few of us do.
If you open yourself to grace working through you, then grace works on you and in you as well. Grace is what has kept me going.
When I think about the fact that a nation has sentenced me to death, all I can do is turn inside myself, to the place in my heart that wants so desperately to feel human, still connected to this world, as if I have a purpose.
Walking my woods, I see every tree, every sprig of jewelweed, every salamander, and, yes, every snake trying to hold on in a paved world, and I’m reminded exactly what hard work survival is.
This night I am here: in this bruised self, in this bruised world.
We go on, she told me, because we must. We go on because our life is bigger than the grief. We cry when we need to cry, and get angry when we need to get angry. God will forgive us when we curse him. We go on, she said, until we finally have a day when the pain is not so great.
There are no miracles. There are no trumpets, no fanfares, no absolutions. But she sees now that there are brief moments of, if not goodness, then kindness: a thoughtful gesture, a friendly word, an absence of anger now and again.
If I were God, I would make a world just like this one, where everyone comes raw and naked and dependent into it; where everyone enters bloody between the legs or through the cut belly of a woman; where nothing is for certain and there is so much to learn. I would make the world unfair as this world is unfair, because only in a world like this one is it possible that maybe the rich will take down their fences; maybe the poor will get together and break the fences down; maybe those who know how to read will teach those who don’t. Maybe the fed will feed the hungry. Maybe the lion will lie down by the lamb.
Yes, illness and grief were a part of us, indefinitely — but so, too, were love and the ability to listen and learn over time, however long that might be.