Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Meds for English majors

Still Waters
“He leads me beside still waters.” Psalm 23

It seems I was something of a kid when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me they were offering me a scholarship. The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening, but I remember that moment very well--middle of the day, middle of a meal, our two little kids sitting beside us.

I won't forget that call because my being chosen for a scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal, I thought, that fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year or so away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a scholarship winner—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, just like me, who said she was an aspiring poet. Someone from the Conference picked us up, and we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to a small jet. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to more than a few others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

Even today, I'm thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, but it wasn’t an easy place. I’d lived most of my life with people who prided themselves on their church-going. Adultery was very real, but something of a scandal; by no means was it ordinary.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Most of us lived on stage—dawn ‘till dawn.

I learned a great deal about writing, but much more about life itself and my place in it. In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, on a Sunday morning, I walked away, alone, out into a meadow, away from people, away from the madding crowd, to a place where I found my own green Adirondack chair, where I sat alone for an hour. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my three-year-old boy would feel like in my fingers at that moment; at the very same time I recited, over and over again, these very words. The 23rd psalm. Over and over again. It was the closest this Calvinist has ever come to chanting.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream just across the road, but no still waters anywhere at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I certainly didn’t see them or experience them. But I know this: that Sabbath morning's very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two of Psalm 23.

Honestly, I know still waters. He led me there.


RJ said...

this is a truly beautiful and encouraging post for me... i have been there, too and am so glad you name it so clearly.

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death?...