I wrote a while back about The Oracles, the book group organized by our good friends Ted and Anne Gleason. Ted was my high school religion teacher—he and his wife, Anne, brought together an amazing group. That was nine years ago. Ted chose the books, led the discussion, hosted us for dinner, and assigned an end-of-the-year essay. There were ten of us to start and apart from Ted and Anne none of us knew each other. As for age span I'd say forty years. Make that forty years plus. We came from different places and we did different things. But we all clicked. We loved books, we loved talking about them, and we came to love each other.
Ted and Anne are gone now (they met in kindergarten and were married for fifty-eight years—they died within six months of each other). We lost Andy too—he died too young—that was three years ago. We're still meeting once a month. Every year we choose a theme and each one of us chooses a book. We still write essays and read them aloud. Until COVID-19 hit, we took turns hosting—most dinners are show-stoppers. The last few times we met on Zoom and, in June, we read our essays over Zoom. In-person or on Zoom, Henry leads us in a toast to those no longer with us.
This year we read memoirs: Michelle Obama's "Becoming," Tara Westover's "Educated," "Becoming Ms. Burton," Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant" (we were allowed two months for that one), Oliver Sacks' "On the Move," and Shalom Auslander's "Foreskin's Lament."
My choice was "Becoming Ms. Burton," and what follows is my essay:
Here we are going on twelve weeks—confined to four walls, sheltering in place. We’re told to socially distance from friends and children and grandchildren. We’re taught to say “physically distance” so as not to lose the human connection. Still we can’t touch. We can’t get close. When we wash our hands we’re supposed to sing happy birthday (not once but twice).
But we can open the windows, and we can step outside.
We go for long walks, a mask or scarf on or close at hand. We bake bread for the first time in many years. We experiment with recipes we’ve never tried. We pull out the sewing machine. And we Zoom.
We’re told to journal if things get bad or we feel too much stress. That got me thinking. Why do we keep journals or diaries? Why write memoirs? Why tell stories?
Ulysses S. Grant was house-bound after a bad fall. He started to write to pay off his debts. But that’s not the only reason he kept writing. He wanted to pay tribute to the many people he encountered throughout his life—he worries about leaving someone out. And then he begins a conversation—and he can’t call it quits.
Michelle Obama—I think—wanted to inspire—to show that no matter your background you can make something of your life. “And look who I became.” Her memoir is also a challenge to us all. She wouldn’t be where she is today if she wasn’t smart. She worked hard. She made good choices. Sometimes she took the road less traveled. She showed she was vulnerable.
Susan Burton wants us to see how disparate circumstances can shape our lives. Why do some people end up in jail and not others? The messages our parents and those around us impart when we are very young make a difference. It’s not the money. Not good schools or fancy schools. It’s the people around us and the stories they tell. She’s a fighter too—fighting for her own life, fighting for justice. And using words to win the battle.
Like Susan Burton, Tara Westover, raised in the Idaho mountains with seven siblings in a home where school was an anathema, struggles to survive—her oppression comes from her family and isolation. She writes to find clarity, to gain control, to shape her own life and not be shaped by others. She writes to take comfort in a world where her own parents reject her.
Shalom Auslander in Foreskin’s Lament writes to amuse, titillate, raise questions, and challenge our assumptions. He also wants to deepen our understanding of God.
Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology—and a writer by profession. He tells us his journals are “not written for others,” and that writing gives him “pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.” “It takes me to another place—irrespective of my subject—where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.”
Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings is the sum of three lectures she gave at Harvard in 1983. She too writes because she has no choice. She tells us anger is the emotion least responsible for any of her work. She traces the path she took to become a writer—learning to listen, to see, and to find a voice. The journey she takes is an inward one through time, “Forward or back, seldom in a straight line.”
Looking back on her life she too felt confined—not like all of us in the midst of the pandemic but by choice. Her memories set her free. Sheltering in place takes on new meaning: “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Why do we write? To pay off debts—and to pay tribute. To inspire and to challenge. To survive. To clarify and to titillate. To find joy—and to combat the ravages of time. We write to speak from the heart.