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Mundane complexity and shocking beauty

I am mired in the mundane: now that Manko has moved out and I am about to relocate to my temporary home in Houston, I must make decisions about LAN phone and DSL service, whether to get a prepaid cell phone (and if so from which provider), in order to “port” my old LAN phone number to a cell phone for those people who don’t read the blog or don’t have email or who I have forgotten to notify but don’t want to lose…and all of this keeps me in front of the computer for many wasted hours. The compensation for these wasted hours is that occasionally, while looking for something else, I click on a link to unexpected beauty. That poem by Szymborska yesterday, and today a reminder of Tillie Olsen, a memorial that reads like a poem itself, and the existence of the book I meant to write in the 80s. Someone else wrote it. Good.

Tillie Olsen’s writing literally changed my life in 1973. I was in my first semester as a graduate student in English at the University of New Orleans. The “research methods” course all grad students had to take was called a “runaround” course, because Prof. Reinecke taught it like a treasure hunt. At the beginning of a class period he’d give us a list of twenty questions that required research in the college library (we didn’t use computers for research then, of course), and it was our job literally to run around the sprawling library, using indices that led us to bound volumes of journals or tiny-print reference books or dusty old books bought up by the train-load by Louisiana State’s book buyers. They were questions like, “What are the two main theories of the function of the orllg in Cymraeg epic?” The answers didn’t matter; finding the resources that provided answers was the point, and we had to submit our list of resources by the end of the class period. Our grade reflected how many of the twenty questions we were able to answer in the allotted time. It was both exhausting and exhilarating, and just writing about it reminds me how much academic study has changed. Now, although grad students are no longer dependent on the book-buyers of their institution to provide them with resources, they have lost the physical and sensual pleasures: the smells and colors of book dust, the heft and textures of old books and the oily fingerprints of other hands that held them, the grain of book covers, the hike up the stairs, the nooks where we could stumble over other students having oral sex, the slouchy chairs where we might fall asleep.

One Tuesday afternoon as I scavenged for answers to Prof. Reinecke’s arcane questions, I came across an issue of a journal unimaginatively called College English, and in it I paged to an article by Tillie Olsen entitled “Women Writers: One in Twelve,” about the relative scarcity of women writers in the history of English literature. It didn’t blame men or elaborate a conspiracy theory; it didn’t blame the keepers of the canon. It examined the lives of women and noted that few women had the conditions necessary for sustained literary work. It spoke of the necessity, for any writer, of concentrated time; the difficulty, for women, of breaking loose from the responsibility to feed, clothe, and nourish other people. I had left Seth, then six weeks old, with a babysitter three hours before I found this article, and my breasts were heavy with the milk he would need in another forty-five minutes. My car was threatening to break down again; I had to get to the babysitter’s, nurse Seth, and then get to work on time, all of which required the car; and I still had five more questions to go on the day’s list of runarounds. I didn’t have time to read the article, but I got the truth of it from the opening paragraphs, and I rocked back against the bookshelves and slowly slid down, leaned forward over breasts that felt like they were full of rocks, put my head on my arms, and cried.

A year and a half later, while I was living with Seth in a tiny shack surrounded by cow pasture near a crossroads called French Settlement in the bayous of rural Louisiana, I wrote to Tillie Olsen, and she wrote back to me. By hand. Her handwriting was so tiny, I had to hold it up to the light to see it. Her script looked like footprints of tiny insects, but fire shot out of her pen. She put words together in unexpected ways. I agree with John Leonard, she wrote “prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or Pascal.” She wrote to me, a nobody, a 28-year-old single mother living in a shack in Louisiana, writing stories nobody would ever publish. I loved her for it, and I took courage–not just from the letters she wrote me, but from the stories she wrote and the way she wrote them. I took courage because she understood what it was to be a woman, and poor, and a mother, and to dream of saying something, writing something, that mattered. I held onto her letters for years, but they disappeared in the move to Africa.

Then in 1980, I met Meridel LeSueur. I went to a writers workshop in Austin, Texas taught by Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Meridel LeSueur. What a constellation of great spirits! (I choose these three links because each has a photograph that might have been taken around the time I took that workshop.)

Meridel LeSueur was even more outspoken in her radicalism than Tillie had been. Meridel told us that she had gotten up at 4 a.m. when her children were young and had poured cold water over her head to wake herself so she could write in the hours before the children woke up. She celebrated the writing of working-class women; she urged us to read each other, to publish each other’s work among ourselves, and to never give up. She told us the reason why nobody knows the stories of poor women is that poor women lack access to publishing power. She told us that if we ever hacked our way to privilege, we should tell the stories of the women who didn’t make it, or we should use our privilege to help them tell their stories. I wrote to her after the workshop, and she wrote back. On paper, in envelopes, with stamps on them. As we did then. We kept up with each other till I finished my Ph.D. and took the job at Smith, and then I never heard from her again. I think she thought I had sold out. She told me to go to a community college, not to the ivy league. I was dismayed that when I applied for jobs, community colleges wouldn’t touch me. I was overqualified. Only Cornell and Smith asked me to work for them. That irony.

The best thing I have ever done, Singing Away the Hunger, came directly from the lessons I learned from Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur. I got swept up in the swirl of life and never wrote the book I dreamed of writing, the book about Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur, two women who shaped my politics, my ethics, and my understanding of literature and class. I’m glad somebody wrote that book. After I move, I will see if I can lay my hands on a copy of the book that Constance Coiner (who apparently shared many of my passions and concerns and died in an airplane crash or bombing in 1996) wrote about them.

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