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how the light

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I am having a great time writing my “Narrative History” of Amherst Writers &Artists. I’m doing it as an introduction to the huge amount of Archives of AWA in the Jones Library, Amherst — newsletters, publications (We’ve published 39 books and a literary journal for almost 40 years!) — so much that it would be impossible for some grad student wanting to research our history to get a true “feel” of who we have been. And still are. I’m trying to provide the stories, my own and those of others willing to contribute their stories.

But yesterday morning before daylight I came downstairs and in the lovely dark –Kafka said even dark is not enough solitude for the writer. I came down to write, and was thinking about strangeness, how John Gardner said the most important thing in good writing is a quality of strangeness.

Last week, when Hurricane Florence moved over North Carolina, a letter came from an extended family member there. He is an artist making stunningly beautiful jewelry out of glass, Barry Summers, We had been exchanging thoughts about “strangeness,” and I had sent him a copy of my book, How the Light Gets In, which has a chapter on “strangeness.” His letter was about his strange experience with an artistic spider.

Barry is an artist with words as well as with glass, and — I confess it — to manipulate him into more writing, I had promised him story for story. His was about a spider in his front yard. She was building a web that stretched between trees twenty to thirty feet apart. Thinking that his landlord would be mowing the lawn and risked web-in-face, he considered taking it down. I’d like to think he also wanted to discourage the spider from further construction in the face of a hurricane. He took a long, thin pole and wound up the web. Whether this was an act of compassion for the landlord, the spider, the hurricane, or himself, is not clear. My responding story didn’t make it into my chapter on “strangeness.” It might reveal that side of me that is — well, weird.

A good friend in my workshops and in the management of AWA, Nancy, told me that her husband’s father had died and his mother was in a nursing home. Their small farmhouse was in Norfolk, a beautiful suburban area, and it was unoccupied. I could go there for a week to write. I went, and it was as they said — old fashioned, comfy, a lovely place to write. I did for a couple of days. Then one day I wandered from room to room, looking closely at everything. On the walls of every room there were honorific framed plaques and papers praising the man for his participation and leadership in the Masons. Every room. I asked myself, where are the honors for his wife? On every floor there were handmade, braided rag carpets. Not commercial ones. I imagined, and still believe, they were her hand made rugs. I turned up the edge of one to look at the stitches, and saw that moths were having, and had been for a long time having, “their way with them.”

I went into the kitchen and went to the sink to make my lunch. I admit feeling very judgmental about the difference in the visible praise for their two lives. I was using a knife and noticed how it was worn down to a very narrow width. I held it in my hand, thinking of the many meals that woman had made standing at her sink. I was feeling connected to her — it is not too much to say I was loving her, when all at once she was in the room. I mean it — she was there, and she was furious. She did not want me there! Every hair on my body stood on end! I was being told to GET OUT!

I called Peter and told him to come and get me, ASAP! I packed my bags, gathered my papers and waited on the porch. Later I wrote a poem about it and gave it to Nancy. Later, her mother-in-law died and Nancy asked my permission to read the poem at the memorial service. That eased my feelings about the whole thing — even if the woman who used the knife didn’t feel I was honoring her, at least Nancy must have understood.

That is not the same “strangeness” as a spider building a web between two universes — but now that I say that, hmmm. Maybe there are some similarities!

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