If you love the essay form as I do, you’ll want to turn to the current issue of Notre Dame Magazine. I believe I have already mentioned Mel Livatino’s superb “Dogged by the Dark,” but I’m going to promote it again, because it is so good. Livatino is coping with his wife’s dementia, and one way a writer copes is by writing. Here’s a sample:
One morning each week I wake up alone. On that day—typically a Wednesday—my wife is with her daughter, who takes her for a day and a half each week. Kathy has advanced dementia. She no longer knows my name or her full name; she forgets she has children and grandchildren; she does not know where we live; she no longer knows the names for such common things as kitchen, refrigerator, bedroom, grass, sky, sun. And of course she is no longer capable of conversation. So while I miss her for that day and a half, I am also glad for the time alone to think and write and read.
Those mornings when I’m alone start much the same. The room is dark when I awaken. I do not want to be awake yet, but I am, so I lie on my back and look into the dark space above the bed. That’s when the hurt begins. The hurt is brought on by a sense of aloneness. It has grown since my retirement from teaching nine years ago, which coincided with the onset of my wife’s dementia. I know as I look into the dark space of the room that this hurt will weave itself into everything I do that day. It may go undetected while I’m concentrating on something—shopping, driving, cooking, writing, reading or talking to someone—but it will be there beneath the surface. And when the day goes slack, the hurt will become palpable again.
The whole thing is that good. I am not a spiritual person—seriously, the closest I come to religious faith is the occasional diversionary joke about being a Buddhagnostic, and spiritual concerns cross my mind about as often as I wonder about the latest jai-alai scores—and “Dogged by the Dark” is a meditation on God’s love. But the quality of Livatino’s mind and prose carried me past all resistance to pondering faith.
Also worthy of your attention is “How Far We Have Come” by Art Busse. A taste:
For hundreds of thousands of years our species has evolved. Millennium upon millennium of gradual shifting in response to the ebb and flow of the natural world. A hundred thousand years of living this way, a hundred thousand years of living that way, etching patterns into our genetic codes, imprinting the attributes of generation after generation of the winners of the race to survive and the battle to breed. What effect can the last few thousand years of history have on that?
Yet here we stand on the thin ice of civilization dismissing all that dark water beneath our feet as if it didn’t exist, as if we weren’t carrying the instincts of our animal ancestry into the future in every cell of our bodies. We are the beings who came down out of the trees with rudimentary tools in our hands, fanning out from Africa to populate a world and threaten it with extinction. We’re monkeys in suits, pushing buttons, telling ourselves stories that we take to be real, inventing new weapons with which to club and hack at each other, smug in the moral delusions of culture.
We’re clever little creatures, but not clever enough to do much more with that intelligence than leverage the effects of our bad habits through technology. What they still do with clubs and knives in Africa, we in the civilized world have learned to do with gas chambers, nuclear bombs and spreadsheets, imagining wrongs that will allow us to use our cherished instruments to right.
While I’m singing Notre Dame‘s praises, I’ll mention how terrific its website looks. (Click on the image.)
And last, while on the subject of essayists, Portland‘s editor Brian Doyle has a new gig at The American Scholar. He will contribute an essay to the magazine’s website each Friday, as part of “The Daily Scholar.” (He is taking Michael Dirda’s place.) His first contribution is an introduction called “Storycatcher.” After noting some of the other Brian Doyle’s who are about in the world, he writes:
This Brian Doyle, whom I have known for 50 years, is addled by stories, and that’s what he would like to write about in this space. That’s it. He thinks stories are wild and holy and necessary and crucial and hilarious and heartbreaking and the food of our souls and our national idea. He thinks all stories with humor and substance are steps toward a world of peace and joy and all stories with greed and lies in them are slimy retreats. He’s riveted by the way people tell and speak and sing their stories, and he thinks that often the very best pieces of writing are the ones where the writer leaps out of the way of a story as it passes from teller to listener.
I too am addled and riveted by stories. I suspect we all are. It’s what keeps us in this business that promises little in the way of remuneration, esteem, or groupies. Storycatchers, indeed.