I am writing this from an artists’ colony in Florida. I flew here yesterday morning, after waking up — as we all did — to a changed world. A terrifying, disorienting world. A world we didn’t know existed – or perhaps denied its existence – until denial has become no longer possible. With a broken heart, I boarded a plane I didn’t want to board, to come teach on a day I desperately didn’t want to teach. I walked through two airports, one foot in front of the other, looking at the sea of faces passing by me, feeling a bewildering sense of separateness, of alienation.
To be a writer, and to be a teacher of writing, is to constantly, steadfastly open oneself up to what is. To not shy away. To feel fear and embrace that fear — otherwise known as courage — and to find a voice for what feels impossible to say. Yesterday, I was reminded of one of the “sins” listed in the holy Yom Kippur prayer of Al Chet: “For the sin of succumbing to despair.”
Twice in my life, I have wondered if I would ever be able to find words again – if finding words is even something worth attempting. The first was when my son was terribly sick as an infant, and we spent a year not knowing if he would survive. During that year, I sat at my desk — when I could bring myself to sit at my desk — and stared into space. The futility of my own endeavor loomed large. What could my small pen do, when faced with the enormity of that impossible loss? The second time I wondered if I would ever find words again was on September 11, 2001. On that day, a writer friend sent around William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Acceptance speech. Just about every writer I know received or sent that rousing cry, those healing words. I decline to accept the end of man.
And so, this morning I will leave my solitary room and walk to a classroom where students will be waiting — people who also boarded planes yesterday morning, who also put one foot in front of the other, who also did not succumb to despair. I decline to accept the end of man.
I will lead them in meditation. I will read them poems. I will ask them to write from the deepest parts of themselves. We will talk about grace, courage, commitment, endurance, and kindness. We will transcend. It’s all we can do. We will go high.