Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise.
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
-Lewis Carroll

In my dream we are in a boat upon a lake, neither of us speaking, my grandfather and I. We are fishing on a foggy summer morning, like we did for a brief period a very long time ago. He looks the same: baseball cap on his head, dark, squinty eyes, ruddy skin, double chin, pot belly, but sickly, just beginning to show the signs of the disease that would kill him. He stares out across the water, silent, holding his fishing pole. He does not look at me.

“I was there the day you died,” I offer. “Good Friday, 1980. I came over and mowed the lawn and cleaned up the yard. Then I sat by your bed awhile. You moaned and spoke gibberish. I went home and that night, we got the call you were dead.”

He continues to stare off in the distance. I do not understand what he is waiting for. Do the dead wait for the fish to bite? I realize my own fishing pole is slack in my hands. Did I bait the hook before casting? I remember he taught me to bait the hook with cheese. I could not stand to impale the worm, watching it twist and turn to escape the barb stuck through its body.

“You were kind of a jerk,” I say as gently as I can. “You were mean sometimes. Always calling me Bub. Never letting me play pool on your table because you said I would destroy the felt. You were kind of a jerk.”

I see he does not respond to my criticism. We had just started going fishing when he got sick. We were never close, and I feared him, but when we were out on the water, he changed. Between us there became an unspoken bond. But for the life of me, I cannot remember what we talked about on those cold mornings out on the lake.

Now the fog swirls around us, and I hear voices. “Please,” I call. “Help us. My grandfather is sick.” The voices continue their murmuring. They sound a little like Gregorian chant, like monks in the distance saying their Liturgy of the Hours.

“I stayed behind in the chapel after your visitation and before they took you to church. They accidentally rammed your casket into the door frame when they wheeled you out.” He is unaffected by my words, and I realize he does not care. I continue anyway. “Christopher is dead, lost at sea. Sean is dead, a delayed victim of the Vietnam War. Do you know where they are? I cried for you at the funeral. I think my father thought I was weak. Sixteen years old, and I cried for you, as much as for the end of innocence as for you. We had only begun to talk, like this, on the water.”

The sun begins to burn away the fog. I see the far shore. There is a lone person standing there and I cannot tell if it is a man or woman, but the person waves at us. My grandfather starts slowly reeling in his line. The sun grows hotter and more intense.

“You never told me how hard it is,” I say. “You never told me how hard it is to live.” But as I say the words, I realize he did tell me, every day, while the cancer ate through his prostate, his intestinal track, his colon, his bones, while he writhed in pain on that Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, while struggling to come to terms with the fact that after working all his life, raising ten children, and coming to retirement, he died.

“Do you remember the garden?” I am overwhelmed by the scent of tomato vines ripening in the sun. The furrows he plowed with the push tiller, the tepee of string bean vines, strawberries with the earth shrouded in plastic and the green shoots of the plant sticking through. I used to hide behind trees and the woodpile and watch him work. I believed he could not see me, that I was invisible—games of a child. He could see me. He was ignoring me.

The fog is gone. We are in a boat beneath a sunny sky, my grandfather and I. A solitary tear runs down his cheek. He is not a man to cry. Crying was for sissies. Yet, the tear is there, tracking gently down his cheek. Regrets. He regrets something.

In the distance, the man on the beach—I’ve decided he is a man—has gone away. The sand is unbelievably white.

“I need to tell you that everything is gone, everything is changed,” I tell him. “The garden is gone, the house is gone—sold to the first offer that came along—grandma is gone, I do not speak to anyone in the family anymore. We are like the sound of thunder in the distance. We are heat with no lightening. Everything is gone. Everything you worked for—gone. What do I do now, now that life is so hard? I wish you would tell me.”

He is far away, sitting right next to me in the boat, receding in the distance. The light shifts to winter and declines away in the sky. Twilight time.

“I am dreaming you alive again,” I tell him. He is shadowy and indistinct in the dusky glow. “I wish I could dream you all alive again: mom, grandma, you, Christopher, Sean, the life we had, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, family reunions, Notre Dame football games, Christmas, and trailer trips—the trailer is gone, too. Where are your travel journals, the ones you kept in a drawer in the trailer where you wrote what we did on those trips?” I realize he is fading with the day. “Sometimes, I no longer believe that world existed,” I tell him. “I am trying to hold fast to the memory, but I do not remember what you told me in the boat on those mornings on the lake. I wish I did.”

He is gone now, and I am alone in the boat in the darkness on a lake of my childhood.

“Did you tell me that life would be hard? Did you tell me you believed in me? Did you tell me I would get through? I am asking what you told me because I am losing the memory piece by piece.”

It is too late. He has vanished. Even his essence has evaporated into the darkness. Far off, a bird screeches in the night. The water is alive with fish, swarming around the boat. Everything is blue, quiet, like glass. Far in the distance, a lighthouse, guiding me to shore, and across the water, I hear the voices again, lingering in the golden gleam. And in this dream life I am alone on the water beneath a million stars, waiting for what comes next.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Treasure Hunt Without The Treasure

I have written previously on about a former student of mine lost in community college hell. Such is the educational reality in America these days that one must wade through a lot of crap to get to a decent university and a desired program of study. This is the case for Elda, a student much too smart for her particular ring of Dante’s Inferno. However, she hasn’t allowed her woefully deficient education experience to damage her sharp sense of humor.

Logging on the other night, I found her latest rant lodged in my inbox. A new semester brings yet more grievances from the land of allegedly higher education. She listed her most pressing pet peeves:

“Expensive college textbooks that are assigned merely because the professor must assign a book or is too lazy to make his own multiple choice exams and thus, I must go buy a $200 book for a class I have already taken in high school.”

“Taking a class I have already taken in high school because a 3 on the AP exam is not sufficient for the high, high standards of community college.”

“Online classes—I made the mistake of signing up for 3 of these this semester because they were the only classes open at the time, and now I’m stuck with ‘Tell me about you, what are your interests, if you could be any part of a bicycle which would it be?’”

“Quizzes on a syllabus. Yes, I repeat, a quiz on the syllabus.”

“Deadlines that are not truly deadlines. If you’re posting an assignment and you’re going to say that it’s due on February 15, then why do I get the full points only if I post it on the 13th and partial points if I post it on the 14th and even fewer points if I post it on the 15th? Am I the only one completely baffled by that or am I just weird?”

“What is an online treasure hunt? Are these teachers trying to kill me?”

“And if you’re going to post an online treasure hunt then please have the decency to tell me what I’m looking for before I have to click the little button that says ‘Begin treasure hunt.’”

I wish I had better news with which to console her. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed major cuts in all areas of education in California, including a 500 million dollar decrease in the CSU budget. In a report released by The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, students were in dire straits before Brown’s proposed cuts. According to the press release announcing the publication of the report, “the students at CSU Northridge are struggling to finish college as tuition soars, class offerings shrink, and families are devastated by the economic turndown, the housing crisis, and the very high levels of joblessness and underemployment.” Because of these cuts, “A large portion of students face enormous challenges to graduating and preparing for their future.” The report discusses how students must support their families while completing their studies, and therefore are burdened with an overwhelmingly high level of stress.

The key findings of the report are disturbing:

58.6% of students said their families relied on them more now for financial support

26% of both Latino and African American students’ families in this study cannot pay their bills

Parents of more than 1 out of 10 students overall had lost their job; 21.3% of students have parents who hours or salary was reduced

40% of Latino and Asian students, 25% white students, and 20% of African American students helped support or provide emergency aid to other family members

80% of all students say it is harder to meet expenses today than two years ago; 30% say it is much harder or they simply cannot meet their costs

2/3 of students say they are unable to get the classes they need to progress towards degree attainment; most think it will take at least one additional year to graduate.

One of the co-authors of the report, Gary Orfield, education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, says “If we care about the future of this state…then there is only one option—to listen to the struggling students and to find ways to lift their burdens and preserve the state’s promise.”

Meanwhile, President Obama’s federal budget submitted this week offers only bleak news for students and their educational futures: cuts of $100 billion to Pell Grants and other higher education programs mainly benefiting low and middle income students. He also wants to reduce loan subsidies for graduate students and stop paying the interest on their student loans while they are enrolled in a degree program as opposed to waiting until they finish the degree as it is now. This means the interest will accrue the moment the loan is awarded, exploding the amount of student loan debt in a job market that may not support the repayment of those loans.

The death of education is the death of a culture and our future’s end. We must do better. If we are to convince our children that education is the key, the treasure at the end of the hunt, we must offer them the support and a map to get there. Right now, they are lost in the wilderness of a poor economy and weak job market, all while facing disappearing classes and a lack of educational opportunities. They are on a treasure hunt built on lies: no weapons or tools to hunt with, and certainly no treasure to be found. The message from the government at this point? “Good luck, kids!”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sin of the Brother

I did not set out that day intent on murder, but that is what happened.

I was nineteen, and reveling in the freedom of my first car. The world was an open door, it was summer, and every day was a gift. My mother decided it was time to bring me back to earth. She had me running errands all over town, both before and after my part time job at the aerospace parts warehouse where I sweated out every afternoon from two to eight.

So it was on that fateful day she sent me off to pick my sister up from some activity or day camp. I was not happy. For one, I would barely have enough time to pick her up, drop her at home, and rush to work. Second, the streets surrounding the school would be clogged with traffic, and I hated traffic. However, I was given no choice but to fulfill my obligation.

I raced the streets to the school, double parked, and hit the horn as soon as my sister came out of the gate. She got in the car and I sped away toward my destiny. About six blocks from home, the street slanted downhill in a deceptively steep incline, and I took the opportunity to accelerate. At the bottom of the hill was a flock of pigeons, gurgling over some seeds or bread crumbs. I figured they’d hear my approach, or feel the yellow tornado of my little hatchback on the horizon, and fly off at the last second. They didn’t. In a moment of confusion and panic, the entire gaggle flew into my front grill and I mowed them down. I can still hear my sister’s screams.

I pulled to the curb, shaken, and because of the squeal of my tires and my sister’s cries, several parents behind me pulled over, and at least five or six people came out of the houses. I walked to the carnage in the middle of the street. There was my handiwork for all to see. Pigeons, pieces of pigeons, blood, guts, and feathers littered the asphalt. I was ashamed and devastated. I had killed animals, helpless, defenseless birds, and the only way the situation could have been worse is if I murdered an endangered species or ran over a, gulp, human being.

Right in the center of the mess, strangely undamaged except for a tiny bit of blood near its mouth, was a perfectly snow-white pigeon. I reached down and stroked its downy plumage. The tiny body yielded to my touch, still pliable, but obviously, undoubtedly dead. Suddenly, my sister was at my side, and we stood there in the middle of the street, holding up traffic, the center of the entire neighborhood’s attention.

“Oh my God!!!” she screamed. “You killed the Holy Spirit!!”

To a child who had just made her First Holy Communion, a product of Catholic school, a weekly attendee at Mass, someone who had a picture in her room of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity of sacred mystery, I had indeed killed the Holy Spirit, the entity so often portrayed as a white dove surrounded by a halo of light or fire. And there before us, a breeze ruffling the light feathers, was the Sacred Symbol, dead. Her brother had done the deed.

I tried to ease her back to the car, but this seemed to only fuel her raging fire. She twisted and sobbed and refused my hand. I got her into the car, finally, started the engine, and eased away from the horrific event. “I’m…telling…mom…you…killed…the Holy Spirit,” she sobbed brokenly.

“I didn’t even see them,” I offered weakly.

“Yes…you…did. You did…it…on purpose.”

Well, she had me there. I was not afraid that my mother would be upset over the dead bird. But she would nail me for driving recklessly with my sister in the car, and my sister would put on a good show depicting the life-altering trauma she had experienced. Then my father would get involved, as well as my grandmother, who would be upset that I had killed the Holy Spirit and driven so irresponsibly with my sister in the car. My aunts and uncles would get a good chuckle: “Did you hear? Paul killed the Holy Spirit.”

“Okay, look,” I said to my sister, pulling over to the curb yet again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see the damn bird…”

“Oh my God, you sweared,” she nearly screamed.

“Swore, and so what. I already killed one third of God.”

“What?” I’d lost her there.

“The white bird is only a symbol.”

“No it’s not.”

“There are a lot of white birds.”

“But there is only one Holy Spirit.”

I was getting nowhere. “Okay, why don’t we stop for candy and we’ll talk about it.”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“But you do want candy?”


“And you’ll promise to settle down and not tell mom?”

This was the deal-breaker, the point of contention. She hesitated a long moment. “Can I get a Slurpee, too?”

I had five bucks in my wallet. “Sure,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

Tears dried up like magic, and we were off to the local 7-11. “We did finger painting today,” she said cheerfully. “I drew our house. I can bring it home tomorrow.”

The crisis had passed. I had gotten away cheap. How much is it worth to kill God and buy off the witness? Two bags of M&Ms and a Grape Slurpee.

But long after that fateful day, I wondered if all the bad luck in my life was not a product of that day when I ran down the Holy Spirit with my brand-new-to-me used 1978 Chevrolet Chevette on a residential street one hot summer.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

12th and Falling

Stanley Aronowitz teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He studies labor, social movements, science and technology, education, social theory and cultural studies. This is the long way of saying that when he announced the death of critical education on last September, he knew of which he spoke.

He begins his essay, entitled “Education Reconsidered: Beyond the Death of Critical Education,” by telling me something I already knew: “Credentials seem to have lost their advantage; parents and politicians are complaining that the schools have faltered in delivering what students need.” His first point leads directly to the second. Graduating from an education school with a license or credential does not, on the whole, produce good teachers, and therefore, the public has lost faith in, and no longer trusts, the educators in our schools.

People hear the media’s overwhelming focus on failing schools; they see the incompetence of school administrations and teachers; they are hit with increased fees and taxes to pay for school systems mired in entropy and stagnation; they realize the failures of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation; they observe the falling graduation rates—12th “among capitalist societies” and falling; and they hear President Obama and others decry that “the engines of global economy are math and science, and this country is turning out fewer trained physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists.”

Aronowitz argues what we do not need is more time in school, more discipline, and more homework. He also says to stop punishing teachers for students’ poor performance. We need to use the time in school more productively and stop focusing so much energy and attention on standardized testing scores. Because of this heavy-handed focus, teachers are tempted to teach to the test in order to receive positive performance reviews, pay raises, and tenure. Once the testing concludes, many times so does the instruction. We must use every minute of every day in the classroom to educate kids for life. I have argued for a longer school day, but we could make a huge difference now if we use the time we already have in the classroom more judiciously.

Aronowitz asserts that the right and the left have thrown their weight behind the idea that “schooling should serve the economy; first and foremost students should be prepared to take their respective places in the world of work.” The goal of education is not to prepare a child to fit into a workplace niche. “Education should be a preparation for life,” Aronowitz writes. Working and making a living are a part of that life, however separate from a job, people must know themselves and the world and understand the beauty and truth of life. We must educate our children not to simply be a cog in the economic machine, but to have a deeper life of the mind.

Aronowitz breaks down what each stage of a child’s educational life should include, using the work of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Bruner. Age three to seven requires imagination to be the subject and object of learning. “Reading, writing, and math need not be withheld, but the main content of learning at the earliest years can be delivered by means of play,” Aronowitz writes.

The years eight to twelve should not confine the student to a desk, but transfer the classroom “to a large extent, from the school building to the wider world.” He advocates trips to museums, research labs, health and senior centers, concerts, factories, offices, parks, even streets. Literally anything could be a site for learning.

Age eleven to eighteen should introduce academic rigor and higher order thinking skills. “Rote should be combined with a broader understanding” of the uses of particular knowledge. Introduction and development of math skills, chronology of history, laws and procedures of the sciences, and ecology, all have a central place here at this level of education. The middle and high school levels are where we have dropped the ball. What we offer high school kids today does not challenge them to excel and is woefully insufficient to prepare students for the rigors of college and university study. We must push our students harder at this level, meaning more critical and analytical thinking, self-directed learning, and the idea of research as a way forward to a more complete understanding of the universe. No more forty math problems on a worksheet. No more busy work.

Aronowitz also has interesting views on student publications and the requirement to teach philosophy. He argues that “students need their own periodicals that they control without interference by school authorities.” These outlets for writing and opinion foster critical thinking and create an environment where “criticism of both school and society can flourish outside the official channels.” He tells us that like the French, we should include philosophy as a core subject. Knowing the ideas behind world cultures and thinking teaches students how to think. The concepts of doubt and skepticism, so crucial to a method of inquiry, can be taught and developed here. Students should be required to read and understand complex texts and differentiate between fact and propaganda.

Aronowitz returns to his initial point at the end of the essay: “we need a major reformation of education schools.” He writes, “the students must be required to major in subject matter, and education becomes only a minor. The education minor should not focus on teaching methods, but on the concepts associated with critical thought, that is, philosophy and history, but not only of education.”

Education schools have failed to produce better teachers or improved education. They teach theories over subject matter, and they neglect to get down to the basics of the art and craft of teaching. Many of these teachers of teachers, the education professors, have never set foot in an elementary or secondary school classroom. The professoriate, Aronowitz argues, needs renovation as much as teacher education.

Aronowitz does not hold out much hope for major changes in the future. “School reform is unlikely except in the cosmetic sense,” he writes. “But we need projects that challenge the mainstream if there is to be any change at all.”

The art of teaching is one of constantly rethinking and revising practice, procedure, and methodology. We never reach perfection, and every year presents new obstacles and challenges. We must rise to meet these challenges if we want to reform education in America. 12th place and falling is just not acceptable.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Highlighter and A Pencil

For far too many years, I had an almost pathological aversion to annotating my books. Was it because I wanted to resell my textbooks at the end of the semester? I did need to scrape up every penny I could find to pay for those books, and many times, I would rush to the library to check the course books out before anyone else got them because there were no pennies left to scrape up. However, the answer is no, I kept every book I purchased during high school and college. When the semester ended, I simply had grown to love them all too much. I’m the guy who at the end of my ninth grade year, was sickened by the sight of my fellow students burning their books in a bonfire at the bus stop.

The reason I could not mark up my books for so many years was that I did not want to mess up the pages with yellow highlighter and penciled notes. That is not what you do with holy objects, and to me, books are sacred.

So why am I a committed annotator now? I got over my trepidation and changed my thinking.

Reading a book, indeed, reading any text is an engagement of minds: reader and writer. It is a discussion, an argument between two intellects across time and space. One of the parties might even be dead and therefore, it is an argument that transcends the grave. The book might be ancient, but that is why when we write about literature, we write in the present tense. The poem may be crumbling, but the analysis, the discussion, is happening now.

My engagement with my books started tentatively. I used a highlighter, and I made the marks infrequently but quickly before the gods of literature struck me down for blasphemy. “You did that to my book?!” I thought I heard them scream. I used different colors of highlighters before settling on yellow only. Other colors are too garish, like a literary strip club on the edge of town. Yellow makes the text stand out without ostentatious linear flamboyance.

My next foray was to put a tiny pencil mark in the margin, a “yes,” or “what?” or “huh?” Yeah, I was a real, high-brow annotator.

It took a while, but I finally began writing definitions of unfamiliar words, background data and dates, and questions and comments on nearly every page, filling the margins on all sides until the text overflowed. I took the words apart, I rubbed the pages between my palms like Play-Doh, I lived inside the paragraphs and did not clean up the pizza boxes. I made the book mine.

Although I don’t think I need to worry, anyone who covets my library after I’m gone will find only over-used, well-worn books on the shelves. And many of the annotations will make sense only to me, because I wrote the notes to myself. It is an exclusive club with just two members: the writer and me.

One must engage with the text. Highlight main characters, interesting dialogue, a potent image. Also, yellow in unfamiliar words, names, historical events, and items needing further research. Use yellow only; highlighting a book need not look rainbow pretty, although different colors could be used for different categories of notations.

Use a pencil to make notes in the margins: dates, definitions, questions, your thoughts, what the passage reminds you of, and anything else the book fires up in your imagination. Use pencil because you can erase. Different readings of the same book can provoke different thoughts and ideas at different points in your life. Leave some space for the future, I always say, as well as for maturity and autumnal reminiscence, which is quite different from juvenilia jangling.

And what if money is so tight that one must sell the books at the end of the semester? Or what if one cannot buy them in the first place and must use library copies?

Use Post-It notes, those sticky squares of paper that peel off easily without permanent damage to the page. The larger sizes allow plenty of room for annotations while the adhesive lets you affix the square right to the relevant line or paragraph. Yes, the squares could lose their stickiness and fall out of the book, but there are not a lot of other options for annotation. You simply must get your hands and the page dirty.

Really and truly, a reader must fully engage with the text she studies. This is not about light reading or reading for fun, although I often mark up those books, too. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool reader, a student of everything, annotate, deconstruct, disassemble, pick apart everything you read. Pick the word-bones clean and fully link up with the writer’s mind. You, the writer, the book: locked in battle, deep in discussion, maybe even kindred spirits shouting “Amen, Alleluia, Yes it is!” to the literary gods in heaven. There is no better life of the mind, no other Holy Grail of discourse than to read and note and cogitate.

Engage the book, mark it up, dare to annotate. If you exhaust your copy, fill every margin with notes, ideas, questions, cover every sentence in florescent yellow, it’s okay. As the ad slogan says, “Don’t worry; we’ll make more.”

Books, that is.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “The process of writing…includes as a dialectic correlation the process of reading, and these two interdependent acts require two differently active people. The combined efforts of author and reader bring into being the concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. Art exists only for and through other people.”

For Sartre, and many other cultural critics, art requires three things: the artist, the object, and the viewer. It is only through the communion of these three that the art is fully realized.

In literature, there are also three conjoined entities: the writer, the book and the reader. Only through the work of these three can the story, the image, the poem be fully imagined and come alive.

Writers write to be read, and anybody who says otherwise is a liar. It is a way for the writer to process the world, to make sense of the experience of existence. Therefore, shut down a writer, refuse to publish him, and he will die. Although it has happened to so many writers and artists, the lowest level of hellacious frustration must be to die before anyone reads the work. We admire Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but no writer wants to be Emily Dickinson. Writers require readers to actualize their work.

Tim O’Brien, in his book The Things They Carried, characterizes the dead as books on a library shelf that no one is reading right now. In a dream, a child version of Tim O’Brien talks to a girl on whom he had a crush, and who subsequently, has died of cancer. He asks her what it is like to be dead. “Well, right now…I’m not dead. But when I am, it’s like…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.”

“A book?”

“An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and start reading.”

I think about those lines every time I walk into the library: all those lives, those ideas, those minds, those characters, just waiting for me to pull them down from the dusty shelf and bring them back to life by reading them.

Writers are often asked in those inane interviews or by the patrons who wander into the book store to hear them read, “For whom do you write? Who is your imaginary reader?” As if a writer could conjure a fictional reader alongside his fictional characters! Writers often respond that they write for themselves first, as a way of figuring out what they think.

In truth, it is both ways. We write as a way of making sense of the world, of figuring out our own minds, but we also need to be read. We want readers more than anything else in the world. We crave the communion of minds. A writer without readers is a man without a country.

I think of all the writers I’ve talked with over the years in my reading, often late at night, long after the house has grown silent and ghosts wander freely. Age nine, plowing through one Hardy Boys mystery after another, never realizing that Franklin W. Dixon was the nom de plume of a number of pulp fiction writers. Twelve, and it’s Louis L’Amour, lost in his saga of the Sackett family in the Old West. Brother Ray Bradbury and the creepy carnival, the burning books, and the Illustrated Man. Sylvia Plath, poet and novelist, desperately trying to live while frantically attempting to die. She made me Esther Greenwood. And Frost, and Cummings, and Eliot—oh, we’ve had some great talks! Shakespeare’s kings, Chaucer’s pilgrims, and Huck and Jim floating down the Big Muddy looking for freedom. A dark, stormy night at Wuthering Heights, Pip and his great expectations, the jagged, jiving poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and of course, on the road with Kerouac. Hundreds, thousands of writers whose crude symbols on a piece of pulped up wood led me to visions and hallucinations and adventures. Stories brought to life, Dr. Frankenstein, I presume? Every writer works at the top of the house. The reader brings the lightening.

I love the fragile schizophrenia of reading at night. In the silence, the voices come to me:

“He did not want to be the father of a small blue pyramid.”

“Summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree.”

“If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

“To be great is to be misunderstood.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”

Because your pen and your words go with me.

The voices come fully fleshed out and alive again. On the deck with Horatio Hornblower; sailing across strange seas with the Dawn Treader; with Peter in Neverland; longing for Ithaca with Odysseus; dying on the battlefield with Hektor, in sight of the walls of Troy and home. I have traveled the universe and back, and all my wars are laid away in books, to paraphrase Ms. Dickinson.

Art and literature need us. They are calling from the marbled halls of the museum, across the years from the dusty library shelves. They whisper secrets and promises. They tell us how to live in a world where we are destined to die. They tell us how to be heroes. Listen. Shhh! Listen.

In the quiet communion of writer, book, and reader, the dead and the lost return to tell us stories of love, regret and adventure, and we imagine them to life again and again. The boy and the book and the long dead writer, deep into a winter’s night, traveling.