As I girded myself at the end of Thanksgiving for this week’s news cycle of impeachment shockers and “presidential” deflections, I started thinking about the five-year-old who had been seated two seats away from me at the matinee showing of Frozen II and of the anthology edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Best American Essays of the Century, that I was in the midst of reading.
Both left me weepy.
In the wake of, literally, years now of watching the values and morals—those good old human values, forget just American, of honesty, integrity, inclusivity, respect, honor, kindness, empathy, generosity, (the list goes on)—which I had been taught as a child, wrecked, dumped, scorned, annihilated, (the list goes on), I am feeling, frankly, fragile.
Give me any glimmer of soul and I am sent to tears, even the crystalline one of a rotund, buck-toothed snowman who extemporizes on everything, including the cucumber (really?) much to the glee of the five-year-old who bounced from her seat. “Cucumber,” she chortled. “Cucumber!” —Disney apparently once more successful in mining the mysterious depths of childhood humor.
I, on the other hand, grew glummer as cartoon characters danced through choruses of “just do the next right thing” and contemplated in their own big-eyed, silly ways the unbalanced porcelain (come on, Disney!) world that buffeted them. No real solace to be found in an animated world that embellishes what I know now, in the grown-up world, has the weight and density of a pixel.
Enter the Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. “Here,” Oates says, “is a history of America told in many voices.” Old friends– Twain, Hurston, Thurber, Wright, Porter, McCarthy, Carson, Walker, Baldwin, Momaday, Angelou, Kingston, Rodriguez, Manchester, Ozick, and Gould, (the list goes on)– gathered together into one volume.
“The more we know of history of both the natural and the civilized worlds,” Oates says in her introduction, “the more we understand that our tangled lives are ever evolving.” And the more I understand why it’s these tangled, complex souls, sifting through the dust and dirt of a real world, that I have learned to know and love.
I read the story of a man, a “deformed man,” Randolph Bourne calls himself, and I understand the struggle to live in grace and dignity in 1911 . . . in 2019. I follow Alice Walker in her search for the grave of Zora Neale Hurston and we find the field of shameful weeds, Walker’s foot poised in a sunken unmarked hole. “Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?” she asks. I walk the shoreline’s “Marginal World” with Rachel Carson amid spiral shells and ghost crabs and discover in this world of “exquisite beauty” the evidence of “continuing creation” and the “relentless drive of life.” I stand on the frontline of a war, the “Bloodiest Battle of All,” William Manchester calls it, in Okinawa where 4000 men died, a place soaked in blood and shit where my father will be shipped to six years later to finish out his medical service, and where the shinbone of a fallen comrade blown to bits impales Manchester, what he will carry the rest of his life: “Nations may make peace. It is harder for fighting men.”
Here, in these essays, in creative nonfiction, I find the human weight and depth of soul I need: vulnerable and searching, complex and world-wise (the list goes on) and, sometimes, world-weary.
But moral. And tear-worthy.