When I took Kathy to my meet my parents, Dad got out his boarding-school yearbooks. He’d never done such a thing, shown anyone the elegant 1930s volumes—certainly never to one of my girlfriends. I suppose her work as an educator made his sharing of that lost world relevant, but he also was showing a pretty young woman the smoldering dreamboat he’d been. His pilot’s career had taken him from Michigan’s snows to coral atolls in the glittering Pacific to the firebombed ruins of Tokyo and finally to Florida’s unruly interior.
I think Dad sensed more about Kathy than their short acquaintance would suggest. His sense of her happened in the way we know some people at once, or presume we do, how we see in their countenance what we admire and need. Perhaps he saw her strength. Kathy had launched herself into the world almost as fiercely as he had. She didn’t share my fear—of drifting rootless, alone and unknown—but must have had his terror: of being trapped, unable to take off for the horizon. Growing up, a willful child, she’d run away from home, angry—or not. She was searching for something. Her mother sometimes saw, from a window, Kathy receding: the diapered girl disappearing across a soybean field. . . .
[Kathy,” a concise memoir essay of 750 words that appeared in Brevity, concerns the historic meeting between my father and my future wife. The link takes you to the complete essay at the Brevity site.]
Why I Hate My Dog
among Longreads “Best of 2016“
In this lighthearted portrait of his family’s rescue dog, author Richard Gilbert explores the larger bond between human and animal.
Belle Krendl, “our” dog but really mine, is a furtive, ragtag creature. She suffers in comparison to our prior dogs—and to most we’ve known. In fact, she suffers in comparison to any pet we’ve ever owned, including jumpy, escape-prone gerbils; a pert exotic lizard that refused to eat; cannibalistic chickens that stared with malice in their soulless green eyes; and a sweet, dumb, tailless black cat named Tao who spent his life staring into space with huge yellow eyes—but once, in a blur, grabbed and gulped down a gerbil our daughter dangled before him by way of introduction.
A Jack Russell terrier, or maybe a Jack cross, Belle Krendl is covered in whorls of stiff white hair. Bristly brows and white lashes accent her black eyes, as do her lower eyelids, a disconcerting garish pink. In the house, her movements are wary; outside, she streaks like a Greyhound after any creature unwise enough to enter our yard. Her long skinny legs with knobby joints—King crab legs, I call them—make her too gangly, at 16 inches tall, for a proper go-to-ground Jack. At 22 pounds, she’s too heavy for a lapdog. She’s ambivalent about cuddling anyway. We’re seldom inclined to offer much physical affection, given her peculiar odor, an intermittent acidic stink, especially pungent when she’s hot from running. A mouthful of missing, broken, and bad teeth partly explains her vile breath.
“She’s a rescue—6 years old when we got her!” we crow, cashing in where we can, harvesting meager props for having saved her from euthanasia. In reality, she’d been lodged at a no-kill shelter. It had placed her twice in good homes before we showed up. . . .
As an extension of human ego—an undeniable dog role: something that kindles pride in their owners—she’s a washout. The odd thing is how close I’ve grown to Belle. The odd thing is how much her anxious nature illuminates mine.
[You can read the rest online at Longreads.]
A Close Call With a Bad Cop
When I hear about police violence, I think of our encounter.
from The Good Men Project
“What are you doing?” he said, hands on hips, staring at us over the car’s trunk as we approached.
“We’re walking,” Dad said, without breaking stride.
The cop spun and jumped in his car. Its engine revved and the car peeled away toward the ocean. Dad’s body blocked my view, but I heard a long circling squeal. The car flashed ahead of us and t-boned the curb—BOOM—and bounced onto the sidewalk. The driver’s door flew open and the policeman jumped out and dashed around the hood toward us.
I realized this was the cop who’d hassled me and Winn Dixie’s other bagboys one night, at the other end of Atlantic Plaza. We’d stocked shelves and mopped floors and were talking beside our parked cars, our keys in our hands when a cruiser roared at us across the lot and skidded to a stop. This cop, leaning out behind his blinding high-beams, said, “Move along.” I was shocked by his rudeness—and even more by my own response, anger.
Now that officer was running at me and Dad. He pumped his arms and jerked his head. I was 16, a high school sophomore, and my stomach went hollow. Dad kept walking. We were almost on him, and I could see his red face and his eyes flashing white. He was young, I saw—maybe early 20s, I think now—and stood with legs planted, arms bent, glaring at Dad.
[Read the rest online at The Good Men Project, including my proposal for how to help police officers better deal with the burden of their jobs.]
My granddaughter, Kathy, sprinted down the upstairs hallway of her house, wailing for her mother. But her mother, my 30-year-old daughter, wasn’t home. She and her husband had left Kathy with me while they went to buy a larger car—Baby Number Two was due soon. I’d been on duty about three hours when Kathy realized her parents were really gone, and dashed for their bedroom. She was wearing only a red shirt, having shed her diaper and her britches somewhere. I hadn’t been able to get shoes on her in the first place. I ambled behind her down the dim hall, wondering how I’d deal with this crisis.
I’d already learned not to tell Kathy “no,” except in injurious situations, so I don’t recall doing anything to set her off. But on top of the Terrible Twos, she’s in a mommy phase. And she’ll only nap at day care, so she’s always exhausted on weekends at home. Her parents, Claire and David, had warned me that they had to drive all the way to northern Virginia for the best deal. Their getting back to this southwestern tail of the state meant I’d agreed to tend Kathy, alone, for over 12 hours.
They’d left at 7 a.m., and soon afterward Kathy had taken me into their bedroom. She’d had me “throw her away”—toss her onto their bed—and then she’d wrestled from Claire’s closet a green foam yoga mat. “Mommy’s,” she’d informed me, and we’d regarded it there on the hardwood.
Now, as I entered the master suite again, why was I surprised to see her, in profile, crying atop that very pad? She was in the classic yogic “child’s pose” as she wept tears, straight down—holding perfect form!—and whimpered, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”
Kathy’s sadness bruised my heart. And her cries underscored that I’m losing my lonely crusade to have her call her mother Mama instead of Mommy. All my life I’ve envied friends, often but not always from the South, who even now, as senior citizens, refer to “Mama” and “Daddy.” So warm and so comforting, I imagine, to their inner child. If I’d grown up in backwoods Georgia, where my father farmed until I was 5, that would’ve been me. Instead, my parents transplanted me to a Florida beach town, and my Mama became Mommy. . . .
[You can read the entire essay on Longreads.]
Reclaiming Our Land and Childhood Dreams
from Utne Reader
After moving to Appalachian Ohio, Richard Gilbert struggles to successfully fulfill childhood dreams of farming. Shepherd (Michigan State University Press, 2014) details his journey through the practical difficulties of family scale sustainable farming to becoming a seasoned breeder and agrarian. In the following excerpt from the prologue Gilbert shares his desire to reclaim the land lost in his boyhood, and the mysterious problems that come with lambing season.
Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life. As if the strong feelings they stir prove their validity, dreams propel the dreamer through an indifferent world. Which explains how I, a guy who grew up in a Florida beach town, find myself crouched beside a suffering sheep in an Appalachian pasture.
“Richard, I think you should call the vet,” says my wife. Kathy and I flank the ewe’s prostrate body.
Our third lambing has just begun this spring of 2001, and Red is in trouble. I’d found the little ewe in distress and had urged her up and nudged her inside an old shed, where she’d collapsed and resumed straining, panting as if in labor. But nothing happens; no lambs, hour after hour.
Kathy knows I’m reluctant to seek paid help. We’re on a tight budget and I’m trying to be a practical farmer, even if still part-time: commercial shepherds do their own veterinary work, or they simply shoot and compost ailing ewes. Profit margins, razor thin, can’t support farm calls.
But Red, small and fine-boned, white with a roan patch on her neck, is a special case. She emerged four years ago from the anonymity of our new flock, fifteen rambunctious ewe lambs, by insisting on making herself our pet, surprising us and astonishing her wild flockmates. During a disastrous renovation of our farmhouse that summer—we maxed out our credit cards, spent our kids’ college savings, and borrowed against our retirement accounts—she’d sidle up every afternoon to be petted. As our other sheep stared at her in wide-eyed horror, Red mooned up at us with trusting eyes, charming us and lightening our cares.
So I relent and call Maggie Swenson this Sunday afternoon. She arrives as heavy shadows from hickory and locust trees fall across the pasture. Maggie announces after a quick check that Red’s cervix isn’t dilated, and then she sits back with a puzzled frown on her elfin face. Red sure appears to be in labor. I mention ringwomb, when a pregnant ewe comes to full term yet fails to dilate for delivery, which I’ve heard about in an e-mail listserv for shepherds.
“Could be,” Maggie says doubtfully, her short gray hair luminous in the shed’s deepening gloom. I wonder if ringwomb is even a recognized sheep ailment—there are so many, and I can’t find it in my reference books—or just more gossip from my virtual colleagues, who keep me fretting about the endless woes that sheep are heir to.
Gardening and Being
In the growing season of 1870, the editor of The Hartford Courant set out to chronicle for his readers the delights of gardening. In My Summer in a Garden, published that fall, Charles Dudley Warner argued that one who plants a garden is doomed to suffer, and lose, in the unrelenting fight against weeds, bugs, and frost. He was humorously undercutting romantic notions of nature, of recreating one’s own Eden, planting vine and fig tree, yet clearly he hoped for a more elemental relationship with the earth. “By gardening,” he wrote, “I do not mean that insane desire to raise vegetables which some have; but the philosophical occupation of contact with the earth …. In a half an hour I can hoe myself right away from this world, as we commonly see it, into a large place, where there are no obstacles.” . . .
[“Gardening and Being,” 1,079 words about the soulful side of gardening, appeared in Orion magazine. It describes how my transformation of an Indiana soybean field into a homestead transformed me. The link takes you to the full essay at Scribd, a pdf that can be read or downloaded. Here, and below, under “Guest Essays Online” is a link to another essay, a reflection for Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour about this essay upon its 20th birthday.]
A Dry Year
William, I’ll call him. His real first name was likewise one that people always slap a nickname on; but in the formal way of some country folk, he didn’t abbreviate. So a gracious air of olden times arose with his mention. And William was who I wanted, all the locals said, to rebuild my pond. We’d recently moved to the hilly Appalachian region of Ohio and bought a small farm with erosion issues. William was the best excavator—that’s what they call men here who bulldoze and backhoe and otherwise gouge the earth: excavators. A great title, both elevated and elemental.
William was about impossible to get, everyone said. And here I was a newcomer, a flatlander, who needed a dam reshaped and a gully below it filled. But I figured such a man, who could move earth to make crooked places straight and rough ways smooth, was worth pursuing. So I called William and he came. . . .
[“A Dry Year,” about a man who carried a terrible burden, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The link takes you to Scribd where you can read it or download it.]
from River Teeth
I look across the restaurant table at our daughter, small, pale, thin. Sensitive to where meat comes from because we raise sheep, Claire’s been a vegetarian for several years, which means she eats mostly bread, cheese, and pasta. She’s stuck a PETA button on our refrigerator back home; the slogan, beside a photo of a fluffy baby chick, says, “Your food had a face.”
Now, hunched forward, picking at her salad, her long brown hair on her shoulders, her elbows tucked against her ribs, Claire seems gathered into herself, tensed for a leap. This is her next-to-last moment with us before we leave her at Northwestern University. She’s already said goodbye to her brother, who is staying with a friend back home in Ohio. Kathy and I had hoped to linger with her over this meal. But I can barely hear her above the brittle clatter in the “Asian fusion” restaurant she picked. And the dish I ordered is awful—when will I learn I don’t really like tofu? I’m eating Kathy’s meal, dark bits of beef, tasty but too salty.
[“Wild Ducks” appeared in River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. It can be read by clicking on the link, which takes you to my Scribd archive.]
My Father’s Tractor
When I was growing up in Florida, Mom would take us in the summer to visit our old Georgia hometown. As I played with children there, I knew that Leesburg was where I should have been living instead of Satellite Beach. “Listen,” a boy said to me one night, “that’s hounds on a trail down on the Muckalee Creek.” The romance of coonhounds baying in the swamps and my sense of having been torn from that world almost brought me to tears.
By the time I was a teenager, the differences between my Georgia peers and me had become too stark for me to enjoy visiting at all. I’d imprinted on the landscape, however, on the vast fields relieved by dark islands of pine and bordered by creeks haunted by alligators. My earliest memories cluster there. Dad brushes silently past me into the white farmhouse as I stand looking at him. Screams and running as a bat flies down our chimney and beats against the high ceiling. Mom takes us to see a long rattlesnake someone has lynched from an oak’s high limb for all to see. Dust rises behind a red tractor as my father disks. There’s booms and flying chunks as he dynamites stumps in a pasture. And my terror when Mom leaves me and Meg in the car and descends the banks of the Muckalee to pick magnolia blossoms; that’s where—has she forgotten?—she once showed me the path an alligator scuffed as it dragged one of Dad’s newborn calves into the black water.
As a college student, feeling uncomfortably rootless, I drove to Leesburg myself. We’d been gone fifteen years by then. In the town’s only grocery, I told the proprietor that we’d lived on the Stage Road Ranch. The man thought for a moment. Then he said that my father’s ability to estimate the weight of a pen of market steers was the most remarkable skill he’d ever seen. I was proud that Dad’s competence as a cattleman was still honored. I suspected that he was remembered less fondly there by my mother’s close circle of friends.
[“My Father’s Tractor” appeared in SNReview and can be read on Scribd.]
from Memoir Journal
I walk the gravel driveway to the barn and wonder what happened to September, a month I’ve learned to savor. “Any fool can admire October,” I told my son Tom just last year, “but September is subtle.”
Here in southern Ohio the tulip poplars and black locusts drop leaves. Yellow petals flutter across the road. Brown fronds tumble after cars, rasp on the blacktop and curl in the parched ditches. The roadside trees are dusty, their heavy foliage sags, but the hayfields take on a sheen as the worst of the heat lifts. Rains are sparse but moisture lingers, and the grasses use every drop. Summer has spent itself and fall hasn’t arrived. September hangs in the balance, a mellow retrospective on the struggle that’s now history, another growing season’s savage extremes. What a dry year. Or, Sure got flooded. . . .
[“Remembering Paul” appeared in Memoir (And), now Memoir Journal. The link takes you to the full essay on Scribd.]
Review of A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews.
from River TeethHarry Crews begins his classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by conjuring in intimate detail someone he doesn’t remember. Here’s his defiant opening sentence: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.”
[The review continues at River Teeth.]
The Medium and its Messenger
A review of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart.
from Woven Tale Press
Here’s three good reasons to read Beth Kephart’s book on writing memoir: her lapidary prose; her vision of memoir as an instrument of inquiry and transcendence; and her superb annotated list of recommended memoirs. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir is more a meditation—on the writing life and on life writing—than a simple how-to book, as indicated by its winning a Books for a Better Life Award in the motivational category. Published in 2013, it is in its fifth printing.
Kephart is the author of 21 books of fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent memoir, her sixth, is Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time, which explores her mother’s death and her own growing obsession with birds and flight. Her blog, Beth Kephart Books, features concise posts, from her home in Philadelphia or from her travels, on what she’s writing, reading, and thinking. A recent seven-line post titled “brilliant first draft? hardly?” is typical in its poetic compression, rhythmic sensitivity, and deft declaration. It opens:
I write a first draft, but it isn’t good. Plank, by plank, I take it apart. A new prologue helps me see what the book might be; it gives me a sail and a chart. A shift in tone pushes me to go more real, less arch. A shift in tone places into question every single anecdote and scene.”
Her savory prose and her buoyant view of memoir likewise shine in Handling the Truth’s opening paragraph:
Maybe the audacity of it thrills you. Maybe it’s always been like this: You out on the edge with your verity serums, your odd-sized heart, your wet eyes, urging. Maybe this is what you are good for, after all, or good at, though there, you’ve done it again: wanted proof, suggested the possibility. You teach memoir. You negotiate truth. Goodness doesn’t matter here. Bearing witness does.”
Writing memoir, she makes clear, is about becoming a vulnerable seeker after truth. Pitfalls include narcissism and anger. Again and again she returns to language, to “the atmosphere created by word choices.” Much is contained in that, including and perhaps especially persona. The indiscriminate “I” seldom works, she observes. The self on the page is a construct of a self that’s aware of the effects it is creating.
[The review continues, with an interview, at Woven Tale Press.]
Thomas Larson’s Heart and Soul
from Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog
“As long as humans feel threatened and helpless, they will seek the sanctuary that illness provides.”—Dr. Robert R. Rynearson
One evening, as he teaches his Monday night memoir class in San Diego, Thomas Larson, age 56, feels his throat burn with acid. He’s hot, breathless, confused. In rising panic he flees to a bathroom, then dismisses his students and races to an emergency room. Prepping him for the angioplasty and stenting that will open two blocked arteries and save his life, a nurse peels off his clothes: “They’ve been stuck on me like a soiled diaper for half-an-hour. My body is leaking its insides. It’s not the soul coming out, wet and furious. It’s my skin, like packaging, trying to strip itself of the invader.”
Larson, author of The Memoir and The Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written:The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” depicted this March 2006 attack in a Brevity essay, “One Way It Happens.” His new book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman, January 15, 2014), relates his experience of three heart attacks and their aftermath. Though it spans six years, the book is stunningly concise, 128 pages.
Half a million Americans die from heart disease a year, one-third under age 65, Larson tells us, four in five felled without any foreshadowing pain, dead as quick as 51-year-old James Gandolfini on the bathroom floor of his hotel, and “swoosh—it’s time to update the Wikipedia page.” Dire statistics are one thing, but living through Larson’s ordeal is jolting. Here he riffs, having arrived for his first post-infarct stress test:
Right off, the waiting room strikes me—purgatory’s nursery. On the tight-weave chairs a dozen of us heart patients sit, mid-afternoon. . . . In the ward from which the attendant will come, I imagine the smell of catheters, tubes stuck in flesh, the caustic stink of a draining infection under the scrub-brush sparkle of this cardiology wing, computers on wheeled platforms, the weight scales, the boxes of purple gloves, the plastic holders where my file goes on the outside of the door so Dr. J can, in seconds, scan the chart of whichever room, like rowed animal cages in a zoo, he enters.
Larson’s season in hell has just begun. Genetics partly explains it, his father dead at age 61 from a massive infarction; his older brother, morbidly obese, dead of the same at 42. Larson had been a vegetarian for 25 years, so was trying. But he was middle-aged busy and had become obese himself on a diet rich in cheese and eggs. And even his veggie dishes contained artery-clogging oils.
[The review continues on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog.]
Jim Minnick’s The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
To earn cash, Thoreau famously hoed a two-and-a-half-acre field one summer—seven hours a day “making the earth say beans instead of grass”—but thereafter planted only a garden. As he tartly observed in Walden, “The farmer is endeavouring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.”
Jim Minick and his wife, Sarah, learned this lesson during twelve years spent growing blueberries on their Appalachian Virginia farm. They hoped to supplement Minick’s university teaching and to allow Sarah, a schoolteacher, to stay home. In The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family, Minick tells how they cleared two-and-a-half acres and made them say blueberries. Grubbing out tree roots and planting 1,000 bushes staggered the couple, then in their late twenties. After developing a thriving, certified organic, pick-your-own business—any one of those elements a triumph—they saw that they needed at least four times as many plants to make money. But propelled by an evergreen American dream, they couldn’t have foreseen how much raising their crop would cost. Or how long and hard they’d work.
[Review written for Brevity, where it continues.]
Richard Todd’s The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity
I’m haunted by past sins and follies: my quip that hurt a friend; the foolish act trying to impress a woman; my silence when my father, being thrown out by my mother, told me he loved me. How we leak guilt and shame. Dear God, forgive us our trespasses. Yet isn’t anyone worth knowing aware he’s let himself down?
The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity meditates upon how we feel at this edgy moment about ourselves in our diminished nation. There’s much to lament with so much shorn of context and community. Consider Richard Todd’s local mall—the same as yours or mine: a farmer sold out for profit; a developer bulldozed woods and fields for gain; the mall’s cash registers hum; and we stampede there in welcome postmodern anonymity. “Yet something unfortunate has happened here,” writes Todd. “You can feel it. As you drive past, the scene is not uplifting. No one has been exploited, but everyone has. This is the feeling, of course, that exudes from much of built America, from our endless date-raped landscapes. Something that began as consensual has ended in tears.”
[Review written for Brevity, where it continues.]
Guest Essays Online
“How We Spend Our Days: Richard Gilbert,” a self profile for Catching Days.
“Gardening and Being,” an essay about my Orion essay titled the same. Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“E.B. White & Me.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“Don’t Enshrine Craft.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“From Blogger to Author: Learning the Blogging Genre & Blogging My Book.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“What Makes a Memoir ‘Too Personal?’ ” Shirley Showalter’s 100 Memoirs.
“Three Lessons on the Path to Publication of my Memoir.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“ ‘Wild Ducks’: How an Essay of the Empty Nest was Hatched.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“Writing by the Think System.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“Spiritual Affinities in Eckhard Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke & Virginia Woolf.” Sunny Room Studio.
“What I Learned from Wild.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
“Richard Gilbert Talks ‘Shepherd’ on Hashtag #CNF.” Interview for Nonfictional Tendencies, July 2014.
“Dancing with Elemental Forces: Richard Gilbert’s Shepherd“: Interview with Brevity, May 2014.
“Richard Gilbert Grows Hardy, Hearty Prose“: Interview with Hannah Stephenson for Columbus Alive, May 15, 2014.
“Emotionally Harrowing“: Interview at Sunny Room Studio about farming, teaching, writing, spirituality, April 2014.
Interview with Learnist, February 2014.