Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the day I finished reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams we took a trip to a lambing farm. What better way to understand the feelings of others, after all, than to observe the grand drama of life and death played out by a bunch of sheep? Which is what we saw mostly, once we filed out of the van and made the half mile walk to the barn. We paid our admission, then joined the rest of the herd of humans anxious to observe the miracle that is the newborn lamb. And what a miracle it was! Imagine lambs as far as the eye can see, all of whom were knobby-kneed and wobbling. There was the occasional bleating courtesy of the mothers (I actually took an audio recording), but the lambs themselves remained quiet.
One lamb, in particular, remained quiet.
I hadn’t noticed it was stillborn, though this information was whispered to me once we started our trek back to the van. Amid all those miracles (a literal outpouring of lambs!), one miracle quickly turned into a private disaster. But was it really private, I wondered as I buckled my seat belt, just because we human were kept separate behind the glass?
The fact that I did not know what to feel merely confirms much of Jamison’s argument: that empathy does not come naturally or easily. Think about it: How empathetic is it, really, to offer condolences to the survivors of someone who’s passed on? How can a sympathy card ever achieve its aim? And more to the point, why do we rarely go further than a modulated response when we hear of somebody else’s misfortune? We follow protocol, sure, but protocol is not empathy.
But perhaps there is power even in protocol. In her title essay, Jamison writes about serving as a “standardized patient”; that is, an actor describing her maladies for the benefit of burgeoning medical students. She literally adopts a persona and follows a script, all in an effort to test the medical student’s use of protocol. Did they acknowledge her as a human being? Did they voice empathy? By essay’s end, when the playacting turns real—when there are struggles beyond the script—Jamison notes, “Whatever we can’t hold we hang on a hook that will hold it.” Yes. That’s exactly what we do, isn’t it? And when empathy is the product of death, the hook in question often comes in the form of a sympathy card.
Which is perfectly fine, acceptable, and the proper use of protocol. Certainly we have all been the recipients and senders of such cards, and regardless of which end we were on, those cards probably made us feel good.
Of course, I sent no card to the mother sheep, provided her no hook to hang her grief. I had been so overwhelmed by the abundance of fleeced-newborn life, after all, that one death was hardly even a distraction. For me, it was hardly a distraction. But hadn’t the mother sheep—whose tendrils of bloodied umbilical cord still slung from her backside—just watched her world dim indefinably? Hadn’t she just witnessed the thing once inside of her bleat, and then crumble, and then die?
I know what you’re thinking: Who are you, Hollars, to thrust your emotion onto a sheep? I get it. After all, I have watched enough nature documentaries to know that sometimes the antelope falls victim to the lion, that even when the stoic cameraman cuts away, the story is far from finished. For the stillborn lamb in the barn that day, the story is already finished. But not for the mother, who I imagine standing stoically herself—war-torn and ravaged—watching from a distance as the other mothers performed their biological imperatives without complication. Without complication—that is the key.
Have I mentioned the way that barn overflowed with expectant mothers? And not just the barnyard variety. It was as if all the pregnant humans in attendance—my wife included—had made the pilgrimage to get a new perspective, watching intently as those mother sheep birthed without fanfare. Earlier, I wrote of the “miracle” of the births, but if I was to ask a ewe—and she was to respond—I can’t imagine the word “miracle” bleating from her blackened lips. Perhaps it wasn’t a “miracle” for the sheep in question. Perhaps it was merely a Saturday.
Which helps me believe what, exactly? That the stillborn lamb was an equally innocuous experience for the mother sheep? If it’s true, as Jamison writes, that empathy is “realizing no trauma has discrete edges,” then perhaps my inability to map my perceived grief onto the mother sheep is proof of my new understanding on empathy’s limits. I could offer condolences, give that sheep an extra bucket of feed, but probably neither action would heal the wound I do not know she felt.
Ugh. My head is swirling again, and suddenly I find myself feeling too much. Write back soon. Help me make sense of what I think I’m trying to say.
I have been thinking a lot about scale. Mostly thanks to John D’Agata’s About A Mountain (which utilizes scale in terms of size, space and story), but also for more personal reasons.
But first, D’Agata, who writes of the spectacle that is Las Vegas, and more specifically, the spectacle that is our country’s half-baked effort at disposing of nuclear waste. I’m speaking of Yucca Mountain (D’Agata’s mountain in question), as well as the Department of Energy’s initial decision to store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste inside the mountain’s bowels. As D’Agata argues, it seems a dangerously simplistic solution to a complex problem: bury what you cannot fix. Out of sight, out of mind, in a mountain.
But D’Agata writes of more than a mountain, and more than the specter of nuclear waste. He writes also of the Stratosphere Tower (our country’s tallest freestanding tower), as well as Las Vegas’s overwrought parades and oversized birthday cakes—both of which point to the boisterousness of the city. But for me, the takeaway beyond the mountain’s mayhem and the city’s glitz was the idea of scale itself.
The idea (one which D’Agata dismisses) is that big things last forever. (I refer you to Shelley’s “Ozymandias”). Because, of course, big things do not last forever. No matter how well we reinforce reinforced steel, we can never escape the rust. Everything—big and small—is always at risk, though the risks vary. Ask Goliath, he’ll tell you: it’s not the size of the rock in the sling, but the aim of the guy who slings it.
Which brings me back to the personal reason why I’ve been thinking about scale: because today we had our ultrasound. When M. and I walked into the hospital, I thought not of big things, but of small ones, and in particular, the special vulnerability that comes with being small. Of course, I had no control of what that ultrasound might reveal, and yet that hardly kept me from slipping into the bathroom in the moments prior, of pressing my hands to the countertop and staring into the mirror to whisper my amateurish prayer. Two and a half years prior, I’d performed the same ritual for H.’s ultrasound, and as I returned to that mirror, that countertop, I found myself thinking of scale differently. I was no longer thinking in terms of physical size, but emotional weight. I began thinking of scale in terms of perspective. Which is, of course, a primary reason for bothering with scale at all. What is scale but a means to help us fathom the unfathomable? A tool to assist us in wrapping our heads around something beyond our understanding.
Throughout the road trips of my youth, I’d sit in the backseat, stare at the atlas, and wonder: How did we fit the entire country into these pages? How did we take such a big thing and make it small? The maps’ scale helped me sort out my bafflement, but just as I began to understand that an inch could represent a hundred miles, I started to wonder if it might work in the reverse as well; if perhaps we might make a small thing big?
Now I know you can. That is, assuming the bigger body intuits how to build a smaller one. And the prayer whispered in a hospital mirror doesn’t get lost in the mail.
The odd thing about that prayer is that it wasn’t the only prayer I prayed that day. In fact, just an hour or so after the ultrasound, I found myself praying again--or being prayed to--while waiting my turn to speak at a Catholic middle school’s career day. As I skimmed over a few of my notes, a pair of students’ voices hovered across the PA, asking us to rise in prayer.
I admit, Friend, that I’ve never before been asked to rise in prayer. I’ve been asked to kneel, of course, but never to stand. I was alone in the room—no witness to rat me out—and yet I did stand, and then, out of habit, rather comically put my hand over my heart as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Though, truth be told, I suppose I did make a kind of pledge in that moment. Or a bargain, at least. Blasphemous as it might be, in exchange for a favorable ultrasound, I was ready and willing to pledge allegiance to any god who might parlay my prayer into a promise. Would have sacrificed any lamb upon any alter. For me, it wasn’t even a matter of faith, but a matter of scale: I could still fathom life, but a life without life seemed unfathomable.
All right, I’ll spare you any more melodrama. (After all, this letter was supposed to be about D'Agata's book, remember?) In any case, feel free to shoot me some melodrama sometime soon so we can balance out the universe a bit.
I’ve spent the last few days cleaning out the storage room in the new house, and let me tell you, it’s been a transformative experience. Transformative for the room, sure, but transformative for me as well. I feel like I’ve finally found the guts of this place, and as I sit here—cross-legged on the old leather couch left behind by the previous owners—I’m just now getting a sense of the history of this structure. If the house is a body, then I am in its heart, ten-thousand wiry veins and pipes and electrical cords humming outward toward the extremities. Last night, as I was daydreaming down here, it was inconceivable to me that the copper pipe just above my head was the same copper pipe that ran water to the shower upstairs. It was a reminder, I suppose, that everything has its source, its starting place, its humble origin.
Which is my less-than-subtle segue to this week’s read, Donald Hall’s Unpacking the Boxes. I hadn’t intended to read another Hall, but you know how it is—the mind goes where the mind wants to. I’d hardly finished Life Work before I knew I needed to read deeper into Hall’s life story. You and I are both young enough (and naïve enough) to believe there is something to be gleaned from autobiography, that cracking the code to the writing life might be as simple as imitating the lives and routines of our more successful predecessors. And so, every time Hall tells me he drinks black coffee and reads the Globe, I find myself wondering: Where the hell can I get a copy of the Globe? And when he writes about his leisurely dog walks around Eagle Pond, I think: Might some more centrally located pond work just as well?
All of this is lunacy, of course, though my instinct toward imitation is the first step for many young writers. Yet what’s strange about this relationship (can I call it a relationship?) is that I have no intention to imitate Hall’s writing style, merely his lifestyle.
During our senior year at college, I attempted a similar tact, though rather than seeking out black coffee and a subscription to the Globe, I followed in E.B. White’s footsteps. First, I considered adopting a dachshund like White’s hot-dog-impersonating, Fred. Next, I decided what I really needed was to purchase a remote farmhouse in Maine. When both of these larks fell through, I just went back to writing, hopeful that I might write my way into a position that would allow me to adopt the right dog, or at the very least, rent the right farmhouse.
In Hall’s most recent memoir, he describes his own beginning: a young boy who at fourteen discovered he had a passion (and penchant) for poetry. The book tracks his growth from his Exeter years to his Harvard years to his years spent overseas. He writes about his poet friends (beers with Bly, spaghetti with O’Hara, bathing his baby while Adrienne Rich watched on), and perhaps there is a lesson here as well: always make friends with geniuses (though I suppose you and I will just have to make do with each other).
Yet of the many autobiographical lessons Hall offers, I was most struck by an encounter he shared with his undergraduate professor, Archibald MacLeish. According to Hall, MacLeish accused the young writer of being “lazy,” which offended Hall, mainly because of the long hours he dedicated to his poems every day. Only later would Hall understand that MacLeish’s comment “…referred not to hours worked but to the ambition of my endeavor…” Hall added: “I began to grasp notions of scale.”
This, of course, has long been our great debate. Do we write fast or do we write well? Do we allow our work to cool or must it always simmer? What are the proper proportions between reading and writing, and are we fools for dedicating too much time to either pursuit?
Sometimes—as you’ve kindly pointed out in kinder terms—I find myself reaching for the low hanging fruit. But there’s a reason for it; namely, because the low hanging fruit is the fruit I know how to reach. This is not to say that I’m ashamed of my previous work or that the work came easily. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that if that the conditions were right (if I had Hall’s newspaper, for instance, or White’s dog), maybe I could do better.
I kid, of course, but only a little. The true conditions would include more time (always more time) and more energy (always more energy) and more genius (which we’ve already covered). And yet every time I sit down at the keys, I do what I can with what I have and hope I’m getting better.
Rest assured, the fruit never seems low when I’m reaching for it, but I’ve also never consciously tried to reach higher. I fear that doing so might be my undoing, that raising the bar too high (or to continue the metaphor, “the branch”) would send me into a tailspin. After all, there’s less room to fall when the bar is low (not to mention that nobody ever starved eating low hanging fruit).
All metaphors aside, what I’m talking about, really, is the fear of failure (and Lord knows you’ve heard me whine plenty about that). What’s nice about Unpacking the Boxes is that Hall devotes a bit of time to thinking about failure as well. Specifically, he writes about his two or three years lost in the poetic wilderness. How until that point, he’d been successful writing short-lined free verse, though after he “exhausted this vein,” he struggled to know where to go next. “…I felt frustrated,” he admitted, “and flailed about seeking a new speech.”
I imagine finding one’s “new speech” is akin to recreating the wheel. Only in this version, you’re already quite familiar with the wheel you’ve got, and it’s always worked faithfully. What then, might provoke someone to let go of what works in search of what might not? Wouldn’t the risks be too great? Or perhaps Hall had found himself in a position where reinvention was possible, even imperative, to allow the work to continue.
The work must always continue. That’s what Hall always seems to be getting at. Even in the face of his wife’s death, and his mother’s death, and his mother-in-law’s death, the writing continues. There’s a line from Robert Frost’s “A Servant to Servants” that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: “…The best way out is always through.”
Whether it’s grief, or writer’s block, or the curse of one’s continually humble origins, the best way out is through. And as I sit here on this abandoned couch in the heart of my house, I can’t help but wonder how anything ever gets through; how the tangle of wires and pipes always find its end point, even when no one’s watching.
Write soon. I'd like to hear from you.
Apologies for the long overdue thank you for Donald Hall’s Life Work, which I received several years back and continue to enjoy thoroughly. Perhaps “long overdue” does not do justice for my long silence, though I hope you read this silence not as a dropped frequency between friends, but as proof of the great mulling over of many things, all of which were spurred by Hall.
On my most recent reading, I found myself studying the book not so much for the words within, but for my own notations from my previous encounter with it. I often date my notations—(as you know, my sentimentality knows no bounds)—though I regret that in this instance, I didn’t. And so, the book has become a time capsule without a clear start date, though I still recognize the young fool who once cluttered its pages with his notes.
For proof of that fool, you need only open to the first page—the page prior to the title page—which the younger me employed as tracing paper. However, rather than trace the title in its entirety, I only bothered to trace the second word: Work. I hadn’t even made it to the first word on the first page, and already, I’d zeroed in on “work”—highlighting it not only as a reminder to myself (“Get to work, Hollars!”), but so that I might consider the word conceptually as well.
Which is what Hall does for the remainder of his book, providing a kind of biography of work, a personal exploration of his ancestors and himself and the ways in which work has changed. For his own part, Hall claims—in the opening line, no less—that he’s “never worked a day” in his life, though I begin to doubt him when he makes casual mention of his pre-dawn, witching hour wake-up calls, his black coffee and mornings at the keys. I mean, that’s got to be work, right? Even for those of us who claim to love it.
Not so, says Hall, and as proof, he shares an anecdote from his college reunion, one in which any number of former classmates make mention of Hall’s self-discipline.
“For me…it required no discipline to spend my days writing poems and making poems,” Hall reflected. “If I loved chocolate to distraction…would you call me self-disciplined for eating a pound of Hershey’s kisses before breakfast?”
Sure, I get it, but writing—under no circumstances—should ever be confused with Hershey’s Kisses. The Kisses are the reward, after all, for a good day at the keys.
Don’t get me wrong; I admire Hall’s gusto for the craft. But on the other hand, I admit that some part of me just wants to see the guy break a little, want him to reveal some chink in the armor. Though I suppose what I really want is some hint of solidarity, some clue that writing is still hard, even for a guy like him. Yet by book’s end, I feel as if I’ve missed most of his toil. For Hall, it seems the problem is never finding the right word, but finding enough time in a single life to write down all the right words.
Which brings us to mortality (somehow we always get back to mortality, don’t we?), and Hall’s great moment of clarity—his theory for why we work. After surviving a bout of cancer, he came to this conclusion: we work to defy death.
I kind of like that. After all, how many times have we heard the phrase “Work oneself to death?”, and yet in Hall’s usage, death is not the result of the work, but the sparring partner, someone we might dodge again and again if we get the rhythm right.
The other reason I appreciate the idea of “writing as defiance” is because it draws attention to our less-than flattering motives. Yes, we writers write for all kinds of magnanimous reasons (says the writer), but we also do it for more selfish ones (the writer whispers). Such as our attempt to sate our insatiable egos, or—related—fulfill our illogical dreams of fame and fortune, however silly that may seem. My motives, too, are about as pure as the Mississippi River, though I tell myself that the other reason I write—the reason I wake at my own pre-dawn witching hour and bumble down the stairs—is because the act of writing seems the most meaningful way I know to pass the time.
Have I told you about the time I first created something? I’m not even sure what that something was, though if memory serves, it involved a popsicle box and a toilet paper roll. Regardless, by the time my “something” was complete, I paraded my creation around my living room the way I imagine God must have—in God’s living room—after creating the heavens and the earth. I admit, ashamedly, that for a brief instant in my fifth year of life, I felt as if I’d changed the course of human history. Be it by divine spark or unfathomable genius, I had been given the simplest of materials (see: popsicle box, toilet paper roll) and created…something! I spent much of the remainder of that afternoon peering out the window and awaiting my ticker tape parade.
I regret to inform you that there was never any ticker tape parade. And even more tragic, by day's end, my mother mistook my “something” for trash and disposed of it without a second thought. She hadn't even remembered that she'd disposed of it, and by the time I dug it out of the trash, my something was well beyond repair.
No, I did not require therapy to overcome my loss—(the world’s loss! I thought). Instead, I just got over it. Because it’s easy to get over things that are destroyed when there’s some new thing pressing on the horizon. As I grew older, I applied this logic to my writerly pursuits as well.
One last word on Hall, because I feel as if I owe the man an apology:
I didn’t mean it when I said I wanted to see him “break.” I do not want that. It’s hard enough just watching him come close.
But we do watch it, near book’s end, when he writes of the struggles of growing old. He notes how “Every day is a seesaw of hope and despair” (something I know), and also “Once a day I weep…” (which I do not know).
After I read this, I realized that the last thing I wanted was for him to break or be broken. I don't want that kind of solidarity if that’s the cost. What I much prefer is for him to leave me with the impression that he is--and always will be--unbreakable. That’s the kind of solidarity that serves us all.
All right, enough with the prattling, I’ll turn off my faucet now. But please write soon. Let’s not let another six years slip by.