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To the editor of The Sun

Once a week, I have to come up with an opinion piece—a self-assignment to keep my mind working in a way that I feel is adequate for continuing to live. Five hundred to a thousand words, on whatever topic has impressed itself on me and stimulated thought more substantial than what pants I should put on this morning (which otherwise seems to be all there is to life at seventy-eight). [sigh] Fighting “the dying of the light?

So I read a lot, and one of my favorite places to find things worthy of my attention is The Sun. Reading what others are writing when they aren’t trying to make money (or that’s what it seems, anyway) prods my own “inner processes.” Like some other people, I have opinions about what’s going on in the world, and like some other writers, I tend to write in order to find out what I think. What others think gives me footholds. It’s pretty easy for me to find five hundred to a thousand words to spin off from somebody else’s idea.

But what do I do when someone else writes something that gets to me under my cerebral radar? Frances Lefkowitz, in the September Sun, “Saturn Is The Biggest Planet On Earth” almost lost me in her first page or so; I think, Another musing on the peculiarities of the English language. By the time I finish the essay, however, I am feeling things about myself and my relationship to the world, far deeper than what words I have to express myself to others.

Here there are feelings I cannot speak, even though they ought to have words. Other ways of asking myself, who am I? It’s unnerving to suddenly discover, even in the privacy of my own thoughts, my nakedness. There’s this public part of me that sits down and writes my arrogant opinions, five hundred to a thousand words, to be read to a group of peers whom I’ve known for years and who have heard most of my rants—and then there’s this other part of me that feels unnamable vulnerabilities, exposed to me by a writer who has never met me, who doesn’t even know I exist.

“’What do you need to sit fully into your seat?’ the yoga teacher asks us in an earnest, probing voice.” That was the first sentence in the essay, and it slipped past me like a glance from a stranger. “’To sit fully into your pose, into yourself, into your life?’”

Maybe, if I were in her yoga class and heard the teacher say those words, I would have picked up on it and realized the depth of what they meant. But reading them, intent on getting a sense of what the essay was about, like what the title of the piece really means, I allow them to be shoved aside for a moment, looking for meaning perhaps to be revealed later on.

Which, of course, they were. Plural. On several levels. Metaphors within metaphors. An ocean of meaning. That’s not to say that Ms. Lefkowitz had all that in mind when she wrote the piece; her music simply touched me in places that I can’t name, much like a Brahms adagio. (Who knows what he was really trying to say?)

Like a poet, the author crams meanings—levels of meaning—into her paragraphs: for instance, she is describing a meeting between volunteers and some high-school students about a book of oral histories they are composing.

“The students had conducted their interviews in many different languages: in English and Spanish and street English and Spanglish; in rural Southern and urban Northern; in Tagalog pure and Tagalog second-generation; in Samoan and Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, and Laotian; in the many dialects of islands and wars and cities, of ambition and survival and remembering and forgetting.”

That part of a paragraph, if it had been broken up into any-length stanzas, would have been read—the first time—the way one would read poetry, sensitive to the layers and levels of meaning, expecting to stop and savor, to probe the depths of one’s being for resonance. All the words not said that spoke of suffering and compassion and shared humanity.

“To sit fully into your seat.” To be with another person, to acknowledge them at the same time you recognize them in yourself and feel the connection. The seemingly simple list of languages blooms into something else, a softly spoken recognition like a touch on an arm, ready to listen. One needs to be centered, first of all, to hear another’s voice.

Frances (at this level of intimacy, surnames seem wrong) is writing about trying to help people deal with the twin necessities of getting along in a foreign land while holding onto their own identities, their cultures, their families. She knows this, for she has experienced it herself.

And she asks the question—of herself as much as of the reader—“where does one belong?” With all the languages and built-in assumptions that separate them, and with all the divisions and dialects within them and the built-in assumptions that separate them, how does one fit in to one’s life at all? It’s enough to cause one to envy the simple villager in a far-off isolated place, where the world—reality—all makes sense because everybody one knows understands the same language and the same assumptions.

She ends with a scene in which she is with her four-year-old niece, the one who spoke the title of the essay, “Saturn Is The Biggest Planet On Earth,” and who seems to know who she is.

“We are sitting at the kitchen table doing homework out of a purple folder. And though she is actually on her knees in the chair—her legs folded underneath her, the soles of her bare feet facing up, her bottom resting on her calves—she is sitting fully into her seat. Next to her, perched on the edge of my own chair, I try to figure out if my time has passed, if I have both absorbed and lost too much to ever get my body to unfurl like that again, or if I still might have a chance to settle into my own place in this world.”

It’s one of those pieces that, when I finish reading, I have to close the magazine instead of going on to the next story.

And then I have to think. And the only way I can think is to open the computer and begin writing.

 

Donald Skiff, November 10, 2007

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