All I Really Need to Know I Learned from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’


If America’s most beloved blockhead taught us anything, it’s the power of perseverance. Who but Charlie Brown would try (and fail) to kick a football a few hundred times and still dust himself off to try again?

If Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang taught fans additional lessons, many of them came by way of the iconic 1965 holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Though early viewings appeared disastrous to CBS executives and sponsors, in its own Christmas miracle, the show’s premiere pulled in 15 million viewers (second only to Bonanza that week) and secured an Emmy, a Peabody, and a place in the hearts of generations of viewers.

As gentle and big-spirited as it is, for modern audiences, it’s also a little boring.  Where are the death-defying action sequences?  The celebrity voice actors?  Or at least a cameo from Santa.  Instead, audiences must settle for the story of a sad boy who fails to direct a Christmas play; selects the lowliest, sprig-sized tree on the lot; and finds himself at odds with a culture that prefers a more commercialized take on the holiday.

Insert a couple of Vince Guaraldi songs and that’s about it.

Though the plot falls short, the philosophy doesn’t. Re-watching it today feels like a masterclass in self-help.  If Charles Schulz and Brené Brown had a love child, they’d name their sage Charlie Brown.

Read on for three Charlie Brown-inspired life lessons that extend well beyond the holiday season.

1. Good Grief, Your Feelings Are Your Own.

Moments after the opening ice-skating sequence, a visibly troubled Charlie Brown laments, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus.  Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”  He tries clarifying his feelings: “I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.”  Rather than serve as a shoulder to lean on, Linus removes his thumb from his mouth just long enough to reply, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”  Linus’s emotional invalidation only deepens Charlie Brown’s troubles.  What a blow, and even more painful since it came from a supposed friend.

Linus’s dismissiveness serves as a lesson for the rest of us.  We needn’t understand, or empathize with, someone else’s emotions.  Simply acknowledging them is enough.

2. You Are Not the Disaster You Think You Are.

No sooner does Charlie Brown reveal his sprig-sized Christmas tree as the play’s centerpiece than his actors begin to revolt.  One look at the lowly tree confirms what many of the children already assumed to be true: their play’s director, a perennial loser, is incapable of finding a win.  “Boy are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” grumbles Violet.  “You’re hopeless,” Patty adds.  “You’ve been dumb before…” Lucy says, “But this time, you really did it.”  As the actors storm off the stage, Charlie Brown is left alone with Linus and his humble tree.  “Everything I do turns into a disaster,” he moans.

Not everything.  Were it not for Charlie Brown’s “Everything-I-do-turns-into-a-disaster” outburst, Linus would never have shared his minute-long recitation from the Book of Luke.  And if Linus hadn’t, then Charlie Brown would never have been inspired to bring his “tidings of great joy” in the form of his humble tree.  And if he hadn’t, then Charlie Brown and the gang would’ve never bestowed upon the tree the necessary TLC to transform it from a sprig to a full-bodied fir.

As Charlie Brown demonstrates, the road is long and winding.  And though our decisions can sometimes seem momentarily disastrous, that doesn’t mean that we are.

3. Be a Blockhead.

Following the sprig-sized Christmas tree’s extreme makeover, the Peanuts gang makes peace with Charlie Brown.  “Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy says, “but he did get a nice tree.”  Except, of course, that he didn’t.  Charlie Brown got a terrible tree, though in doing so, he set into motion the ideal conditions to reveal his true message.  “I won’t let all the commercialism ruin my Christmas,” Charlie Brown previously proclaimed to no one.  “I’ll take this little tree home and decorate it and I’ll show them it really will work in our play.”  And that’s exactly what he did.  And that’s exactly how it played out.  It was not the way he planned, of course, but the outcome remained the same.  In placing principle over popularity, he opted for the real tree rather than the artificial version—despite the haranguing he knew would soon come.

Charlie Brown, we salute you.  And we thank you for your lesson:

Sometimes, the head knows exactly what it wants; other times, we’re better off following our big, old blockheaded hearts.

The Anti-Adventures of Gary Paulsen

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If Gary Paulsen taught readers one lesson, it was to always carry a hatchet into the woods.  But if he taught us a second lesson, it was to occasionally pack a notebook, too.

Paulsen, who died Oct. 13, 2021, is best remembered for his 1986 Newberry Honor-winning young adult adventure book, Hatchet, whose lead character—13-year-old Brian Robeson—taught a generation of city kids like me that if we kept our wits about us, and held our hatchets close, we might just survive in the wild.

Thankfully, most of us never had to test the accuracy of that lesson.  Especially me, whose every encounter with a can opener ended in stitches.  I knew I was no match for a bear, or a porcupine, or a moose.  And I knew, too, that in my incapable hands, a hatchet was more of a liability than a lifeline.

Yet for reluctant readers, Hatchet was a lifeline.  Even my least literary friends burned through its pages faster than a fire kindled by Brian Robeson himself.  The book went on to sell more than 4.5 million copies, prompting Paulsen to write four additional books featuring Brian’s trials in the wilderness.  By book five, I began to wonder: how much trouble can one kid get into in the woods?

Hatchet fans didn’t care.  Suspension of disbelief was a small price to pay for a few more adventures with Brian.

Meanwhile, I spent my adolescence admiring Gary Paulsen’s far humbler hero—14-year-old Wil Newton, the main character in Paulsen’s 1988 book The Island.  If you’ve never heard of The Island, you’re hardly alone.  While Kirkus Reviews bestowed Hatchet with a coveted starred review, hailing it as “a winner,” the kindest remark Kirkus could muster for the The Island was that it would “appeal most to the unusual reader.”

At Wil Newton’s age, I was that unusual reader, preferring The Island to Hatchet because I preferred Wil to Brian Robeson.  While Brian’s plight centered on a singular purpose—survival—Wil was navigating something that defied back cover copy.  When he and his family move to a former logging town in Wisconsin, Wil begins embarking upon daily pilgrimages to an uninhabited island just a few miles outside of town, spending his days—and eventually his nights—studying nature’s rhythms, and writing and sketching in his notebook.

While Brian Robeson remains in constant conflict with nature, Wil Newton seeks out harmony within it, recalibrating his life by way of his self-imposed solitude on the island.  According to the book flap, Wil is “trying to see through the kernel of clear truth hidden in the cluttered world around him.”

Which was a far cry from what Hatchet readers had come to expect.

Those who’d reveled in Brian’s MacGyver-like resourcefulness were puzzled by Wil’s quiet, introspective journey.  Thirty-three years after The Island’s publication, I can still hear the echo of some exasperated editor whose pleading margin note surely read: Maybe add a few more bears?

While Gary Paulsen penned dozens of adventure books (many of which found homes within the Brian’s Saga series, and the Mr. Tucket Saga series, and a series aptly titled World of Adventure), it’s his more understated, “anti-adventure” works that continue to resonate with readers like me.  Books like The Island, of course, but also The Haymeadow, The Monument, The Winter Room, and The Voyage of the Frog.  Each of these relies upon young characters tiptoeing toward the existential, confronting life and death and the natural world in a manner with more universal implications than some of Paulsen’s more rip-roaring adventures.

While Hatchet provided readers with some much-needed escapism, The Island centered its focus on what we can never escape—mortality, which, in the immediate aftermath of Paulsen’s passing, now takes on new significance.

In the spring of 1999, shortly after the release of Brian’s Return—the fourth book in the Brian’s Saga series—I shared a brief encounter with Gary Paulsen at a bookstore where I’d later work.  At some point during our 30 second conversation, I made mention of how much I’d enjoyed The Island, and how it had spoken to me.  Paulsen halted his autographing pen, our eyes momentarily locked.

“Is that right?” he asked.  “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”

A few decades later, when I was nearly twice Wil Newton’s age, I, too, moved to a former logging town in Wisconsin.  With a population of 60,000, my town was far larger than Wil’s, though it shared similarities—namely, an island not far from my home.  By that point in my life, I was too old to pull off any adolescent-inspired journeys of self-discovery, though that hardly kept me from trying.

That August, when the river was low, I buckled into a life jacket and made the 50-or-so-yard swim to the island’s shoreline.  While Wil’s island was a true example of untouched wilderness, mine came complete with a strand of telephone lines and the Highway 12 bridge humming with not-so-distant traffic.  Still, I ventured deep into that island’s shadowy interior, where all traces of human presence (a few busted beer bottles and shards of a porcelain plate) soon gave way to something wilder: water ripples, frogs, and the occasional great blue heron.  That afternoon, I studied flowers and rubbed tree bark to dust in my hands.  I made careful note of the various textures of rocks and touched muck and nearly strained my ears trying to hear silence.

There were no bear sightings that day, though that was probably for the best.

After all, I’d forgotten my hatchet.

But I remembered my notebook.

How Ramona Quimby Made Me Brave


We didn’t know he was dead when we entered the room, but it didn’t take long to confirm it.

November 6, 1991.

I was a curly-headed kindergartner who figured his grandfather would live forever. I figured wrong.

Standing in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom that day, I watched as the paramedic’s hands hovered above my grandfather’s chest like a bee afraid to land. At last, he found his mark: smashing his hands into my grandfather’s heart in an act that looked more deadly than lifesaving.

Until that moment, death had seemed a hypothetical—something that could happen, but that didn’t necessarily have to happen. As long as you ate your veggies and buckled your seatbelt, you’d be blessed with eternal life.

My grandfather’s death ran contrary to that thinking.

In my first existential murmuring, I wondered: Why bother with broccoli if we’re all going to die anyway?

I didn’t voice this sentiment, because I didn’t voice much of anything back then. I was a relatively quiet child to begin with, though I became abnormally quiet after my first brush with death. Some days I struggled to work up the courage even to say hello to my teacher, or my bus driver, or my friends. Parrots held longer conversations than I did.

My reluctance to talk never seemed like a problem until it suddenly was one; my elementary school informed my parents that I wouldn’t be graduating from kindergarten to first grade alongside my peers. Instead, my silence reserved me a spot in a yearlong purgatory called “Reading Readiness,”—a loosely defined “catch-all” class for those of us not yet emotionally or academically ready to continue on.

I didn’t mind. After all, it was there, on a carpet square in Ms. Pfleiger’s classroom, where I was first introduced to a character named Ramona Quimby.

She and I became fast friends, though we were an odd couple: she the outspoken, unruly, and nonexistent one, while I was quiet, well-behaved, and cripplingly aware of my own mortality.

Over the next few years, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books became my sacred texts. I turned to them in times of trouble, leaving the crumbly roads of the real world in favor of the smooth sidewalks of Ramona Quimby’s Klickitat Street.

Ah, Klickitat Street! The name alone sounded like sanctuary. Cleary once said she’d selected the name because it captured “the sound of knitting needles.” But to those of us from out of town, it was more than that: it was a sun-dappled, tree-lined, living monument to childhood. A landscape run amok with milkmen and paper routes and little red wagons.

The greatest tragedy that ever occurred on Klickitat Street was the passing of the Quimby’s cat, who died of natural causes. It was the kind of loss I could get behind. One that required but a moment of silence.

When Beverly Clearly died on March 25 at the age of 104, my first thought was: how on earth was she still alive?

It seemed somehow incomprehensible that a woman born during the Wilson Administration had only just left us. I credited Cleary’s longevity to vegetable eating and regular seatbelt use. She lived as long as 13 8-year-old Ramona’s combined; a breathtakingly long life, during which she sold more than 91 million copies of her books.

That’s a lot of Ramona Quimby, whose spunky outspokenness paved the way for generations of young readers to live ferociously. More pluck than poise, Ramona Quimby entered the room like a Mardi Gras parade, trumpeting trouble wherever she went. But it was never real trouble, merely the misadventures of a young person trying to crack wide her world. Her life was the laboratory through which kids like me could run our own experiments. What are the consequences of cracking an egg over your head? Or locking a dog in a bathroom? Or doodling in a library book? Ramona had answers for all of the above.

Yet Ramona Quimby endures not because of what she did, but for what she felt while doing it. Beverly Cleary, who was 8 years old in 1924, somehow never forgot the anxieties of that age. She tapped into that turmoil, encouraging Ramona to take the road that didn’t always lead directly to happily-ever-after. The more one read, the more one realized that it wasn’t all smooth sidewalks on Klickitat Street.

One night when I was 7 or so, I stayed up late reading Ramona the Brave. Ramona was up late, too, anxious about her father’s late return from a night of bowling. Book in hand, I turned the pages as fast as I could, desperate to give her a little relief. That night Ramona said her prayers, “then repeated them,” Cleary wrote, “in case God was not listening the first time.”

I couldn’t speak for God, but I was sure listening, and I called out to poor Ramona trapped on the page.

“Your dad’s going to be fine,” I promised. “In books like yours, dads always are.”

Pages later, Ramona heard the rumble of her father’s car, followed by the squeak of the door, then the sound of the thermostat turning.

Upon finding his daughter still awake, Mr. Quimby sternly (but not too sternly) told Ramona to go to sleep. Which she did, now that she could.

For me, Ramona’s greatest act of bravery was that she wasn’t afraid to be scared: a lesson I myself was only beginning to learn.

“What’d I tell you, Ramona?” I whispered. “Didn’t I tell you he’d be back?”

Smiling, I placed the book on my bedside table and flicked off the light.

For too long, my heart had felt too small to bear the loss of the man who wouldn’t be coming back.

But my heart was bigger now. And I was bigger now.

And with every word, the weight lifted.

The Time My Grandma Was in ‘Playboy’

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It’s the kind of startling revelation that seems a little too good to be true: that at some point prior to the mid-1970s, my grandmother—wife, mother, and pillar of her midwestern community—was featured in Playboy magazine.

Not as a centerfold, but as a writer.

I first learned of this a quarter century after my grandmother’s death, while visiting my parents’ home in Fort Wayne, Ind.

One minute I’m sorting through boxes of my grandmother’s writings—lamenting her lack of success, despite her lifetime of effort—and the next, my mother’s remarking, “Well, she did publish in Playboy.”

I lift my head from the sheaths of typed pages.

“Wait, where?”

“Playboy,” my mother repeats. “At least I think so. You should really ask your aunt and uncle.”

I do ask my aunt and uncle. The former has no recollection, while the latter retains only the foggiest memory. As my uncle tells it, he was home from college in the early 1970s when his mother mentioned her publication in passing. He can’t recall the context, only the gist: that his mom published in the most popular magazine in his dormitory.

Which is to say nothing of its popularity nationwide.

In 1972, Playboy’s circulation topped 7 million. Compared to today’s numbers, that’s Time and Sports Illustrated subscribers combined. In those days, Playboy readers were middle-class, middle-aged, well-coiffed professionals who drove new cars, dreamed of travel, and knew how to sip a good scotch. That is, if the magazine’s 1960s era “What kind of man reads Playboy?” ad campaign is to be believed.

While the majority of these readers enjoyed the magazine for its articles…seriously, readers ought to enjoy the magazine for its articles! In 2017, following the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Pete Vernon of the Columbia Journalism Review remarked that Hefner had printed “more serious journalism and fiction than just about any other magazine publisher.” Even a cursory glance of the magazine’s table of contents confirms it. Over the years, it showcased many of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, among others.

But had it showcased Corrine Hutner Wittenberg, too?
In April of 1948, The Folio—Indiana University’s campus literary magazine—published a poem titled “Anniversary” by a poet known simply as “C.H.” At the time of the poem’s publication, C.H.—a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Corrine Hutner—was a 19-year-old English major at IU. Though written eight months prior to her mother’s death, my grandmother wrote with astonishing prescience of the grief soon to come. The poem explores the complexities associated with the anniversary of a death.

My neighbor woman comes to call / And says she happened to be close / And only stopped to rest awhile— / How strange she calls upon a ghost:”

Reading it, I can’t help but note the echoes of Robert Frost in its phrasing. Or the rhythmical hints of Shakespeare in its lines. Yet what strikes me most is the narrator’s reference to herself as a “ghost,” a vanishing act seemingly replicated by my 19-year-old future grandmother’s refusal to use her full name for her first publication.
Days after learning of my grandma’s alleged publication, I take my search to the search engines, stringing together one set of keywords after another in the hopes of confirming or denying the claim. I receive no such closure. Though I find nothing to prove that Corrine Hutner, or Corrine Hutner Wittenberg, or “C.H.” ever published within Playboy’s glossy pages, I also find nothing to the contrary. For me, the absence of proof merely means I’m not looking in the right places.

Next, I call the magazine’s corporate office. Despite my long and earnest message, I receive no reply. I mull, I speculate, I theorize. And eventually I arrive at this: if my grandmother published under a pseudonym in her earliest work, might she also have employed a pseudonym later? Particularly for a publication like Playboy, whose reputation would’ve spelled trouble for a female, high school English teacher, such as herself. What would her midwestern colleagues have thought? Or the members of her synagogue? Or her bridge partner? Or my grandfather? Or my mom?
In a 1966 issue of American Judaism my grandmother published a story titled “In the Talmudic Tradition.” She published it under the name by which we all knew her: Corrine Wittenberg.  Her bio makes no mention of Playboy or any other publication, stating simply that she “teaches English in a Fort Wayne, Ind., high school.”

Her story, which runs all of three and a half pages, is about a group of Jewish women who, over afternoon coffee, question a rabbi on issues pertaining to good and evil in the world. Though the rabbi hardly gets a word in, the women leave satisfied with the answers that they themselves have supplied. Especially Rose Frankel, a widow of 11 years, who, while on her drive home, at last comes to terms with her own long held grief.

I read my grandmother’s words carefully:

“There is more to man than just his intellect, Rose Frankel, concluded; there’s a continuation of things, a pattern.”

Every time I reread the story, I see more glimpses of Corrine Wittenberg in Rose Frankel.

I wonder: What if Rose Frankel published in Playboy?
Since I’m only a paywall away from the learning the truth, I invest eight bucks in a one-month pass into Playboy’s digital archive. The archive stretches back to the magazine’s beginnings in 1953, so I limit my search from 1966 to 1971, the period that—based off of my uncle’s foggy memory—seems likeliest for my grandma’s publication.

Beginning with January 1966 (which features an interview with Princess Grace and a story by Roald Dahl), I scan the pages for any and all female-sounding pseudonyms; Rose Frankel, most of all. Making my job easier is the inconvenient truth regarding Playboy’s gendered publishing history of that era. While women are, indeed, a focal point of the magazine, their role is mainly confined to pictures rather than print. In fact, throughout these years, I’m hard pressed to find a woman’s name in any byline. And certainly no Rose Frankels.

Changing tack, I leave the pseudonyms behind and turn to content. What subjects might my grandmother have written about?

Since much of what I know of my grandma’s creative work revolves around her American Judaism story, I search the contents for the most Jewish-themed pieces I can find. But I can only find works by well-known writers who were not my grandmother: Sol Weinstein’s “On the Secret Service of His Majesty the Queen” (August 1966), Harry Golden’s “God Bless the Gentile” (December 1966), and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Riddle” (January 1967).

Bleary-eyed, I close my laptop. I’m 50 issues deep, and so far, Corrine Wittenberg and her alter egos are nowhere. Had I known my grandma better, I might’ve had some insight into this mystery. But the truth is, I barely knew her. We shared 10 years on this earth, and she lived just miles away, but that time and distance did little to bring us close.

I think we enjoyed our time together, though admittedly, much of what I remember of her is confined to a single rainy afternoon. I was nine or so, and we’d just come across a recipe for chocolate-dipped bananas. We immediately got to work, melting the chocolate in the pot, sliding the bananas onto popsicle sticks, and then placing them on a cookie sheet in the freezer.

Though we’d both dedicate our lives to writing, she died before we could ever discuss our shared passion. What might our relationship have been like if we had another 10 years? Or at least a few more rainy afternoons?

Maybe, over chocolate-dipped bananas, the older me would’ve said, “So Grandma, tell me about the time you published in Playboy.”

“Ah,” she’d have smiled. “Now that’s a story, indeed…”
After reading my grandmother’s boxes of creative work, I turn to her less-creative work: her journal, her query letters, her high school lecture notes. The more I read, the more a single word emerges: “evidently.”

Evidently, evidently, evidently.

The word pops from the pages as if aglow in neon light.

This is my Hail Mary. My shot in the dark. My once more unto the breach.

Leaping to my laptop, I return to Playboy’s archive, then use the “search” feature to determine when and where (and in what frequency) the word “evidently” ever graced the magazine’s glossy pages.

I count four instances in the January 1967 issue (featuring an interview with Fidel Castro), and five in the October 1970 issue (which includes an excerpt from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). The other issues make occasional use of the word, but not so much as the ones noted above.

I trace every “evidently” back to the byline, but eventually the “evidentlys” run out.

My throat tightens at the inevitable truth.

Evidently, my grandma was never here.
A few weeks back, I donated a box of magazines to a thrift store.

Not Playboy’s, but literary magazines.

Not just any old literary magazines, but the ones that had been kind enough—or foolhardy enough—to publish my early work. Most of these publications occurred throughout my graduate school years, and I’d been gobsmacked and grateful every time.

I’d like to tell you I read those magazines cover to cover. (I’m sure Playboy readers would like to say the same of that publication.) But the truth is, I barely flipped through them. Back then I fetishized the publication credit far more than the piece itself. In my defense, I was a broke grad student in search of a job. Every line on a CV, I liked to think, brought me one step closer to being employed. It would’ve been nice to dedicate an afternoon to pleasurably paging through a literary magazine, but it seemed an indulgence I could hardly afford. If I wanted a job, I’d have to write my way into one.

I dumped those magazines and never looked back.

I wonder if my grandma might’ve held on to hers a bit tighter.
Weeks after failing to find a Playboy publication that likely never existed, I stumble upon a startling photograph of my grandmother in a 1967 high school yearbook. In it, my 40-year-old grandma is the epitome of style, complete in skirt, matching jacket, and what appear to be pearls. Her right hand holds a textbook as her eyes point toward a student just out of frame. A soft smile graces her lips, while the front row students reflect it back, their pencils at the ready. If the photo’s caption is to be believed, the class is engaged in an “interesting discussion about medieval English literature.”

Suddenly I see my grandmother in a way I never have before: attentive, engaged, and seemingly satisfied. She appears fully in control of her classroom, and dare I say it, hopeful.

And why shouldn’t she have been?

The photo was taken the year after her publication in American Judaism and 27-years before her death. In the time between she’d write thousands of pages that no one would ever read, but how could she have known that then?

For all she knew, maybe a publication in Playboy awaited her.

I like to think that my grandma’s truest legacy can’t be found in the pages of Playboy, but on her death certificate, instead.

Typed beneath “Occupation” are the words “English Teacher.”

But did her commitment to her students make up for the lack of success she received in her literary life? Did she find sufficient satisfaction in a stack of Chaucer papers? Or in a sentence properly diagrammed?

Had she lived long enough, I would’ve asked her these questions, along with the most important question of all.

“So Grandma, tell me about the time you didn’t publish in Playboy.”

“Ah,” she’d say. “Now that’s a story, indeed…”

Bonus Links:
B.J. Hollars Explores the Midwest’s Strangest Corners
The Time I Opened for Bon Iver: On Allowing Failure to Flourish

The Time I Opened for Bon Iver: On Allowing Failure to Flourish


Swinging wide the door to The Local Store in Eau Claire, Wisc., it was hard not to feel like a rock star. Not because I am one (What’s the opposite of a rock star?), but because, due to the store’s back-to-back scheduling of events, I was opening for Bon Iver.

All right, that’s not entirely true. Probably not even a little true. What I mean to say is that a song I’d written—the only song I’ve ever written—was being debuted alongside a few other first-time songwriters’ attempts directly before a pre-release listening party for Bon Iver’s latest album, i,i.

My elevation to opening-act status was not made at Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon’s request, but rather, what I imagine was his horror. Nothing like a tune from B.J. “What’s a Flugelhorn?” Hollars to get the party started.

I’d have never written the song in the first place were it not for a solicitation from a local middle school chorus teacher, who gathered together a few writers and promised to set our words to music. Initially, I’d demurred (“I have too much respect for music,” I’d said), but she insisted. And so, we writers momentarily set aside our novels and our essays and tried to determine what a song was supposed to sound like. I had some vague notion, of course, but given my own defection from music following a two-week stint of fifth-grade trumpet, I was feeling vulnerable in a new medium.

And that vulnerability felt glorious.

What a rare gift to be given permission to fail. Or rather, to spin it more optimistically, to “succeed to a lesser extent.” While writing the song, I’d set the bar so low that even I could limp over it. The product hardly mattered. What mattered was the process; specifically, my attempt at utilizing the fundamental skills I employed in other literary genres and applying them to lyrics.

The resulting song—thanks to the talented chorus teacher—wasn’t half-bad. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a fleeting hint of pride. Not for what I’d done, but for what we’d done together. We took a risk and the risk paid off.

In the hour or so leading up to Bon Iver’s listening party, 40 of us took our seats in The Local Store for a sing-along from our selection of newly-composed songs. As the program neared its end, I turned to spot a roomful of fans anxiously awaiting the Bon Iver listening party, fans that hadn’t intended to hear a B.J. Hollars’s original but may have heard one anyway. And lived to tell of it.

The idea that an amateur like me can share a “stage” alongside a Grammy-Award winning band like Bon Iver (even if only by way of a listening party) speaks to one of art’s greatest gifts: its potential for inclusion. From finger painting to a gallery exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, it’s possible to carve out space for us all. And sometimes, if the scheduling works in your favor, even the same space.

That night, while leaving The Local Store, I watched the Bon Iver fans descend upon the room we’d just vacated. Within minutes, they’d be encircled around a record player in that darkened room, heads bowed as they did that rarest of 21st-century things: sat silently together. The scene was repeated at 59 other locations worldwide, thousands gathering for a first listen of Bon Iver’s latest effort.

Within hours, reviews for i.i. began pouring in. Most were positive, with the exception of a scathing two out of five-star review from The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas, who called the album a “misfire,” claiming Vernon’s melodies were “uninspired” and accusing the musician of, on a few occasions, “squat[ting] in his comfort zone.” As for Vernon’s lyrics, Beaumont-Thomas remarked that the songs “feature a few lucid pleas for understanding…amid acid-addled sermonizing.”

Thank goodness he wasn’t there for my opening act, I thought.

For me, Beaumont-Thomas’s final line left the deepest cut, the reviewer arguing that if Vernon is “trying to build Bon Iver into a mini-utopia of shared values,” then “he needs to be a stronger leader.”

To critique i.i on its artistic merit is one thing, but to critique Vernon’s well-known effort to create and support a robust community of artists and musicians—a community, I’ll add, in which even a guy like me can occasionally sneak in the back door—seems a rather low blow. If Beaumont-Thomas means—as I think he does—that Vernon’s so-called “burgeoning hippy paradise” has corrupted his musical vision, then I suppose we can agree to disagree. But for my part, I prefer to think of Vernon’s community of artists as something larger than any album, more vital than any song, and more empowering and inspiring than any review.

While it’s true that my songwriting “career” began and ended with a single song, that song wouldn’t have been written at all were it not for the chorus teacher’s willingness to populate her own “mini-utopia” with imperfect “songwriters” like me. In doing so, she reminded me that vulnerability can serve as rocket fuel for the muse. It doesn’t guarantee greatness, but it guarantees growth.

As all artists know, it’s easy to create the safe thing, but it’s courageous to take the risk. Which is why the art that I admire most invites failure at least as often as success. Leave it to the critics to tell us whether or not we pulled it off. “While they are deciding,” as Andy Warhol famously said, “we’ll make even more art.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel J. Ordahl.

Tracing Footsteps Not My Own: Going Through the Motions, Learning to Write

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1.Guiding my food tray through the crowded cafeteria, I leaned toward the young woman sitting by the window and whispered, “The ducks fly at midnight.”

She nodded, soon rising from her own seat to relay the message to a friend, who relayed it to another, until at last, all interested parties had been informed of our midnight rendezvous by the giant elm just outside of Old Main.

This was in the fall of 2003, when I—a fresh-faced first year at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois—was busily experimenting with the freedom that comes when one’s parents are 364 miles away. Not that anyone was counting.

That September night—once the homework was done and my laundry was safely on spin cycle—I made the lonely walk across the empty quad. Yet with each step it seemed to grow more populated, one silhouette after another springing forth beneath the street lights.

Maybe there were six of us in all, all budding writers whose love for the written word far surpassed our ability to actually write them. Undeterred, we’d stuffed our pockets with our poems anyway, and then—just hours after our coded, hushed whispers had been tendered and received—began our trek to poet Carl Sandburg’s birthplace, just a mile or so off campus.

Shuffling beyond the safety of the dorms, we cut across what looked like prairie: an expanse of field doused in milky moonlight. At 19, I didn’t even know what prairie was, figuring it was just the name we gave to a nondescript landscape. The word we used when we couldn’t get away with “mountain”, “meadow”, “ocean” or even “plain.”

Our late night pilgrimage across the prairie should have been taken with reverence, but at our age we gave it none. It was simply a place to pass through en route to another place. Kind of like our understanding of college itself.

That night, we marched along the sidewalks until we approached the three-bedroom home with green shutters, which had long ago been converted to a historic site. We lifted the latch on the hickory fence, giving ourselves access to Sandburg’s backyard. We should have known better, should have figured that what we were doing was wrong. Yet we’d convinced ourselves that Sandburg would’ve wanted it this way. After all, we were doing this in the name of almighty poetry. And surely such an honorable pursuit transcended any trespassing laws.

Perhaps slightly less honorable was the fact that we were all at least a little in love with each other. But who could blame us? Love, too, seemed an essential ingredient for poetry, and we sought it out—for the sake of the poems, of course—as bashfully as children.

Heads bowed, we gathered around Remembrance Rock, a knee-high boulder in Sandburg’s backyard. One after another, we unfolded those poems in our pockets, reading them aloud until the words ran out. At which point we didn’t much know what to say to each other. Our poems had served as our scripts, and how could any casual conversation ever live up to our art?

Our homage paid—and our awkwardness growing—we let ourselves out through the gate.

As the others started back toward campus, I lingered behind just long enough to read the historical marker.

“Um…guys?” I called.

They turned.

“We weren’t just reading to the stone.”

“What do you mean?” one of the young women asked.

“Sandburg’s ashes are here,” I said. “We were reading to him, too.”

That whole walk back we prayed he hadn’t heard us. Prayed we hadn’t offended the ghost of Carl Sandburg with the paltriness of our poems.

We still couldn’t think of a single word that rhymed with “love” but “dove,” and somehow we feared that wouldn’t pass muster with Sandburg.

2.One hundred and twenty-five years prior, at that same midnight hour, young Sandburg’s life began; he was born to Swedish immigrant parents on a cold January night in 1878. His father, an illiterate blacksmith’s assistant, was overjoyed to welcome his son, placing him carefully into a three-legged cradle alongside his mother.

3.In 1897, 106 years before 19-year-old me descended upon Galesburg, 19-year-old Sandburg left.

He was restless, and who could blame him? The world loomed large, and he was anxious to find his place in it.

“What came over me in those years 1896 and 1897 wouldn’t be easy to tell,” Sandburg later explained. “I hated my home town and yet I loved it. And I hated and loved myself about the same as I did the town and the people.”

Sandburg was confronting the same quarter-life crisis so many of us face: the itch to leave the familiar behind in search of something new.

From June to October of 1897 he rode the rails west, meeting strangers everywhere he went. And with each interaction, he grew. One summer night Sandburg shared a car with a man from Chicago, who struck up a conversation with the budding poet.

“What I like,” the man confided, “is to sleep under the stars.” He went on to explain how the stars gave him great comfort, made him feel that “whatever is wrong with the world or with me sometime is goin’ to be made right.”

The chance encounter stuck with Sandburg: reaffirmation that lives must be lived before poems can be written. And 19-year-old Sandburg knew he still had much living to do.

Sandburg reflects fondly on these early years in his 1952 memoir, Always the Young Strangers. Upon reading it, one is introduced to a number of strangers who flittered in and out of Sandburg’s life. But it’s clear, too, that in his late teens and early 20s, Sandburg was also a stranger to himself. Hoboing was a way to rectify that, as much a personal journey as a physical one. The trip changed him.

“I was easier about looking people in the eye,” he wrote later. “When questions came I was quicker at answering them or turning them off. I had been a young stranger meeting many odd strangers and I had practiced at having answers.”

4.While Sandburg searched for his future on the rails, I searched for mine in the third floor study carrels of Knox College’s Seymour Library. Fortified by hot chocolate and breakfast bagels, I spent many late nights there, thundering through one writing session after another, always with the hopeful intention of cobbling together a couple of readable lines.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the lines I did write readable, though I did make a lot of them. In fact, for several months during my junior year I managed to write a story every day, more a poorly conceived experiment on the limits of “the muse” than a serious attempt at honing my craft. At the start of each day I’d search everywhere for anything resembling a story idea—a fragment of pilfered prose from a random page, or a whisper half-heard in a hallway. From there, I’d get to work pounding out my requisite 2000 words; this, in addition to a full load of classes and my mornings spent mopping dorm floors.

If you’re sensing a hint of pride, it’s because I am proud. Not of the work, but of my ability to carry it out. Today, I’m baffled by the output of those early years and attribute it mostly to my commitment to process over product, of setting the lowest bar possible and then skipping over it with ease. It was my way of protecting myself from falling too much in love with my words, always aware that there would be other words—and maybe better words—if I just kept churning them out.

I just kept churning them out, and the more I churned, the easier they became.

Much to my relief, the majority of those words are now gone—buried deep on a laptop that hasn’t worked in years.

Sandburg felt similarly of his own early drafts, noting the “preliminary trial and error” process was “intended only for my own eyes.”

“I don’t know what Rembrandt’s earlier practice portraits, which he destroyed, looked like,” Sandburg once remarked. “But for good reasons he destroyed them.”

Despite this sentiment, Sandburg himself left plenty of early poems behind, the earliest of which he collected in a volume printed in a Galesburg basement in 1904. Cardboard bound and tied with ribbon, only 50 copies ever saw the light of day. In Sandburg’s later years, this probably seemed 50 copies too many. But at 26, how proud he must have been: his very own collection of original work, which he’d fittingly titled In Reckless Ecstasy.

For me, at 19, it was more than a title. It was a way to live a life.

5.This is a story about writing and failing to write and trying to feel less alone. And I suppose, too, it’s about “finding myself” with the same reckless ecstasy that Sandburg himself once employed.

Along the way, I came into contact with various strangers myself, many of whom crowded the seats alongside me during our 7:30 to midnight writing workshop on the second floor of Old Main. There, in that wood-paneled room, we debated endlessly about what made a story work. In all those hours over all those weeks, I’m not sure we ever came to any consensus. Except that for a story to work, all the conditions must be right. The same holds true for an essay. The characters must converge with the setting which must converge with the plot, and all of it must look effortless. No seam can ever be exposed. No non-sequitur can ever dare break what fiction writer John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream.”

By the winter of my junior year, I knew plenty about vivid and continuous dreams. I’d been living in one since my arrival in Galesburg two and a half years prior. The dream was maintained, in part, by the magic of that prairie at midnight, especially when viewing the thick blanket of snowfall from the second story windows of Old Main. As our class wound down we’d button and buckle ourselves into the warmest coats we owned, then move toward the exits, mustering the courage to push wide the double doors and embark into the bone-chilling cold. That prairie wind had a way of leaping down our throats, but with every exhale, we breathed it back where it belonged.

Boots cracking against the frozen snow, we clouded the night with our breath, still sharing with one another the story of the stories we hoped to one day write.

What a wonder it was to be alive back then. What a wonder to not yet be history.

6.One floor below our workshop classroom, Old Main housed a bit of its own history: a maroon chair known as the Lincoln Chair—a title given due to the legend that Abraham Lincoln once lowered himself into its arms. Likely on Oct. 7, 1858, in the moments before or after he debated Stephen Douglas in the fourth of seven debates on the subject of slavery. The blustering cold Galesburg afternoon wasn’t enough to deter the 20,000 spectators who had gathered outside the east entrance of Old Main to hear the men argue for competing visions of their country.

Though born 20 years too late to take his place among the crowd, Sandburg remained fascinated by his hometown’s connection to Lincoln. At 17, while en route to work at Barlow’s dairy farm, he’d regularly stroll past the edge of Old Main, often pausing to read Lincoln’s words immortalized on a pair of bronze plaques affixed to the building.

“He is blowing out the moral lights around us,” Lincoln said of Douglas, “when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.”

Standing in the very place where those words were once uttered, it didn’t take much for Sandburg to imagine the debate he’d missed: how that tall, lean lawyer from Springfield had condemned slavery in no uncertain terms.

I wonder if, even at 17, Sandburg had already begun dreaming his biography of Lincoln.

I wonder, too, if he’d ever dared sit in Lincoln’s chair.

Certainly I had, occasionally sneaking down to that chair when I was sure no one was looking, my shoes clip-clopping down the uneven black stairs as I prepared to indulge in an impossible luxury: feeling history against my skin. Lincoln’s chair served as a much-needed confidence boost on the days when I felt like an imposter, which was most days.

I figured if it could bear the burden of a man as great as Lincoln—and perhaps Sandburg—then surely it could manage a lightweight like me.

I soaked up all the strength I could, and then—knowing that I’d outstayed my welcome—had the good sense to make myself scarce.

7.By the end of my first term of college, we “ducks” had halted all midnight flights. Within the span of a few months our lives had taken us elsewhere, dispersing us amongst our various newfound interests. Our occasional nighttime wanders to Sandburg’s backyard had been replaced by term papers, student government, pickup soccer and the campus literary magazine. From that point on, if we needed a dead poet fix, we’d settle for a viewing of Dead Poets Society.

Life went on just as it was supposed to.

I went to class when the bell in the bell tower rang, and I left when it rang again. All the while I imagined Carl Sandburg doing the ringing. Which, in fact, was his job while he was a student at nearby Lombard College. He’d spend hours flipping through the theological texts stacked high around him, and then, at the appointed time, he’d reach for the rope and send his fellow students scattering.

Each evening, at the sound of the last bell, I’d hustle to my third-floor library carrel, where, when I wasn’t writing, I was paging through the books in the stacks. During my undergraduate years, I believed every word any professor ever told me. When they told me to read Primo Levi and Raymond Carver and Maya Angelou, I just did. To me, their insights were sacred. And never to be questioned.

Which is why, on the day a professor handed me back my paper, along with a note informing me that my writing was an injustice to myself and my classmates, I believed the professor was correct.

Embarrassed and ashamed, I crumpled that paper into my backpack, then slunk to my dorm room to begin the process of rerouting my future based solely on the professor’s assessment. Flipping frantically through the course catalog, I decided that biology looked like a good enough fit. Though I worried whether I had the stomach to dissect a frog, I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the gutting I’d just received.

How was it, I wondered, that the thing I wanted most in the world now seemed further out of reach?

My head spun. I tried to recall what a ribosome was and failed.

Lying on my bed, staring up at that dorm room ceiling, I told myself I had two options: become a biology major, or recommit myself doubly to my craft.

My choice was not heroic; I did what I did because I figured I couldn’t do the other thing.

Even I knew better than to think I had the stomach to peel back the skin of a frog.

8.Ten years removed from the hallways of Old Main, I now fill other halls, primarily at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where I teach English. Every day I fill students’ margins with scrawls in an effort to repay a few karmic debts. Every day, I’m reminded of other debts still in need of paying.

Like the “ducks” who flew with me when I didn’t dare fly alone.

And my fellow students who buckled and buttoned themselves alongside me as we faced that prairie wind together.

But most of all, those professors who helped a young stranger like me feel a little less strange, especially as it became clear that my self-imposed exile on the third-floor carrel would only get me so far. When you’re young enough, it’s still possible to believe that one might create anything from nothing. But in fact, “anything” always has its limits, and “nothing” always has its roots.

On my last day at Knox College, I met once more with a beloved poetry professor who’d been attending to me for years.

“Any parting advice?” I asked.

He pulled from his pocket a light blue sticky note, upon which he wrote five words:

“Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’”

“Read this,” he said. “It’ll change your life.”

I suppose I was expecting something a little more pragmatic, something that might help me get a job. I pocketed that note all the same, then promptly forgot all about it.

It was the one recommendation he ever gave me that somehow sat dormant for years. I’ve kept that scrap of paper in my wallet for a decade now, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I bothered to heed his advice.

One fall day while reading student stories, I came upon that scrap and tracked down the poem.

I savored the words, each of them falling from my lips as I came to Rainer Maria Rilke’s last line:

“You must change your life.”

But by then, Rilke’s advice was already a decade too late. I’d changed my life by not changing it.

Nevertheless, how wondrous it was to imagine myself taking advice from Rilke. How wondrous, too, to think I was looming in Sandburg’s long shadow, while he himself loomed in Lincoln’s. But the truth is, Lincoln, Sandburg, and I all made our own way independently of one another. Any geographic convergences—be it by way of a campus, or a building, or a chair—likely didn’t alter our lives. Maybe Sandburg and I took a little more interest in the one who came before, but I am who I am regardless of their influences—much as I wish otherwise.

Whether whispering poems in Sandburg’s backyard or taking a load off in Lincoln’s chair, mostly what these men taught me is that I was not them, nor would I ever be.

Instead, I’d have to settle for being the guy cloistered in the third story carrel, one who, many years ago, chose a pencil over a dissection knife and never looked back.

Image: Flickr/H. Michael Miley

Ray Bradbury’s Keys to the Universe

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In the summer leading into my senior year, I received a letter from my literary hero. My mother — noting his famous name on the return address — hand-delivered it to me while I shelved books at the local bookstore.

“This came for you,” she said.

I glanced up from the stacks, read the return address, then slowly unfolded the letter.

There was my name at the top, followed by the backstory: how he’d received a copy of an essay I’d written and been humbled by its contents.  Tasked with writing about a “great American,” I’d bypassed the usual fare (presidents, astronauts, etc.), and wrote instead about him — the writer who’d changed me.

“It is one of the finest essays I have ever read,” he wrote, adding that he’d keep it in his desk drawer as a “permanent piece of literature for me to read from time to time.”

And just below, in his thick black scrawl, his signature: Ray Bradbury.

I was dumbstruck, dumbfounded, just plain dumb.

In my stupor, my mind leapt to a June night five years prior, when directly following closing ceremonies for my seventh-grade school year, my mother had driven me to this very bookstore to pick out a book of my choice.  It was a rare, late-night bookstore visit, and as I browsed the shelves, pointer finger dragging across the tops of the titles, it eventually fell to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.  I chose it, devoured it, and as a result of its power, rerouted my life’s trajectory.

To receive an unprompted congratulatory note from the man who’d written it — in that very store, no less — seemed a kind of kismet worth capitalizing on.

And since his letterhead noted his home telephone number, I decided to give him a call.

I picked up the phone, dialed, waited nervously for the rings to give way to Ray.

“Hello?” a booming voice answered.

“Mr. Bradbury?”

Following a few minutes of cyclical thank you’s and bonding over our shared Midwestern roots (Ray hailed from Waukegan, Ill.; I, from Fort Wayne, Ind.), I at last grew bold, did what any budding fiction writer might when he had his hero on the line.

I lied.  Spectacularly.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll be in the area soon.  I’d love to swing by and shake your hand.”

“Well, come on over then!” Ray agreed.

The reality was that 2,200 miles separated Indiana from L.A. — no short commute, especially by way of my 18-speed Huffy.  And so, I settled on my second best option: I used my earnings from the bookstore to purchase a plane ticket.  A few months later I boarded a plane, hailed a taxi, scheduled a shuttle, and at last reached Ray Bradbury’s front door.

At 17, Ray Bradbury, too, indulged in the occasional lie.

“I was going nowhere when I was seventeen years old,” he explained to biographer Sam Weller.  “I had no talent.  I couldn’t write a short story.  I couldn’t write an essay or a poem or a play.  So I had to lie to myself when I graduated…”

That lie came in the form of a prophecy he placed beneath his senior yearbook photo: “Headed for Literary Distinction.”

He didn’t believe it, though he hoped to make it so.

A month prior to graduation, Ray was cast in a role in the senior class play.  He slipped away sometime before curtain call, making his way to the top of the high school’s tower.  “I looked at the setting sun,” he said, “and I knew that this was the last night when I would be famous for a while.”

Yet not for too long. Throughout the 1940s Ray continued to hone his short story skills, publishing dozens, many of which found their way into his debut collection, Dark Carnival.  By the mid-1950s he’d become a household name — The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 doing much to solidify his status.

Despite his yearbook quotation, success had hardly been guaranteed.  Ray, I was proud to learn, was even scrappier than I was.  As a teen, he’d plucked scripts from dumpsters behind Hollywood studios simply to study them.  Upon getting a knack for how they were written, he went further by pitching his material directly to the stars themselves.

Scrappier still, a decade or so later — with a pregnant wife at home and $40.00 in the bank — Ray boarded the bus to New York to share his work with editors.  On his final night staying at the YMCA, Doubleday editor Walter Bradbury suggested he link together his Mars stories.  Ray stayed up all night doing so, crafting an outline that later became The Martian Chronicles, and returning home with a $700.00 check.

I marvel at such miracles; in particular, Ray’s ability to forge his own fate as the opportunities presented themselves.  But I marvel, too, at his refusal to leave anything to chance.  Perhaps his stick-to-itiveness is best illustrated by way of a story he shared with me during my visit to his home all those years ago.  How, as a young, broke, telephone-less writer in L.A., he’d given editors the telephone number of the gas station payphone across the street.  His bedroom window flung wide, whenever that phone rang he’d leap out the window and sprint across the street. Then, as casually as possible, he’d answer, “Hello?”

Now that’s how it’s done, I remember thinking.  That’s how you become a writer.

The shuttle dropped me in front of the Bradbury home at a few minutes before 9:00 a.m, leaving me three long hours to whittle away before our noon meeting.

I perched on a low wall across from his yellow and white Cheviot Hills home and waited, reaching for my tie-dyed-covered spiral notebook and jotting some notes.

Reading them now, I see a young man so full of zeal that he’s all but unrecognizable to me.

“I wonder if he can see me,” 18-year-old me wrote.  “All he’d have to do is glance out his window and look at the boy furiously writing down every word…All he’d have to do is glance.” This continues for a few cringe-worthy pages, eventually concluding with lines that, today, feel a little too good to be true. “For the first time,” I wrote, “as I sit across from his house scribbling away in this notebook, I feel like a writer.”

Maybe it was my variation of Ray’s aspirational yearbook prophecy, my roundabout way of saying “Headed for Literary Distinction” in a more personal, low-stakes fashion.

My final line: “I felt a rain drop and I pray it holds off for another hour.” (It didn’t.)

At noon I made my way up to the Bradbury doorstep: shook the water from my hair, wiped my feet on the mat, then knocked on the front door.  His wife Maggie answered (“Well hello there!”) and led me into the living room to meet Ray.

There he was, smiling broadly with red suspenders blazing.

“Welcome!” he called, and for the next hour or so, proceeded to offer me every key to the universe he had.  He walked me through the books on his shelf, shared with me his paintings, his poems, his work.

In turn, I committed several embarrassing acts.  Including giving him my senior photo (the one with me holding a copy of Dandelion Wine), as well as a baby food jar filled with rainwater and dandelions gathered from my front yard, vintage 1998.

“Dandelion wine,” I explained, and though it wasn’t — not the kind you’d want to drink anyway — he accepted my offering, seemingly appreciative of my attempt to strive toward the metaphor he himself had written about: how we might bottle, cork, and stopper time by capturing a glint of summer in a jar.

“Thank you,” Ray sighed, holding the amber goo up to the light.  “I love it.”

For a moment it seemed he’d transported back to Waukegan, to being a 12-year-old boy in his grandfather’s lawn, dashing once more in search of dandelions.

The play-by-play of what happened that day isn’t as important as the fact that it happened at all.  At least for me.  The real accomplishment, as I later wrote to Ray, was that I’d managed to “transform my hero into my friend.”  (Which, if you can get past the schmaltzy sentiment, is an accurate representation of how I truly felt.)

And it’s how I continued to feel through our decade-long correspondence, most of which was filled with affirmations by him and the airing of anxieties by me.  In recent years, these letters, too, have become difficult to return to.  Not only because Ray is gone, but because that version of me is gone, too.

Who was that earnest young man in those letters? I wonder.  What ever became of him? 

“I’m in love with my younger self,” Ray once said.  “He was lousy, but I love him.”

I was lousy, but I loved me, too.  Loved my zest and gusto and “anything can happen” mentality. The way the stars always aligned when I needed them to, the way the bottom-of-the-ninth-with-bases-loaded scenario meant the grand slam was always just a pitch away. Even today it’s an alluring idea: to imagine our lives as one eventuality after another.  To dispense heartily with probability and believe in possibility instead.

My essay was titled, “With Zest and Gusto the World Was Saved.” That’s about all I could tell you of its contents.  It’s been lost for years, which is probably just as well.  If my other writings from that era are representative, then I imagine it was a highly dramatic, purple-prose-infused caterwaul complete with lots of heart and not a lot of substance.  As such, I have a hard time believing it was one of the “finest essays” Ray had ever read.

In his letter, Ray noted that my essay had reminded him that he was a teacher, too; that there were people who were reading his words for more than the stories, but for the writing lessons they offered.

My title was a nod to a line Ray himself had written: “[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”

The words are as true today as they were when I first read them. Only now, I know that Ray’s advice transcends writing.

He was teaching me how to live.

“Now listen,” Ray told me as our conversation wound down.  “You’re making all the right noises.  Most important is that you stay enthusiastic about life.”

He kissed my cheek, called me his son, told me to live my life with zest and gusto.

I waved goodbye, stepped outside, tilted my head toward the rain, and tried.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.