To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Probably because the Olympics are still in recent memory, the book cover of a Lord of the Sun made me think of those relay runners, beginning in Athens, scaling the steps in Pyeongchang, and placing the torch into the hands of Yuna Kim. What must have it been like for each of the runners and this gold medalist figure skater to complete the lighting? Like containing infinity in the palm of a hand or eternity in an hour?
Some of what we hold is small, like the hummingbird my niece Andrea attracted to her gloved feeding station. Demanded of her may not have been an athlete’s endurance and skill but surely the watcher’s patience and tenderness. How did she sit still so that the bird could trust to eat out of her hand? The same miraculous feeling that arose during the lighting of the Olympic flame Andrea shares with this exquisite photo. This must be the experience of the poet Mary Oliver who writes of the grasshopper—the one with “enormous and complicated eyes”—who eats sugar out of her hand.
There are objects I have held over the years (even a pet rock in the 1970’s; a pet I never bothered to train), but most days I do not consider them precious. Blake’s words remind me that if I look closely, maybe there is a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Today I will catch hold of blessings: my Shih Tzu’s tiny face, rosary beads, a Dove soap bar, a mandarin orange, and oh, my soon-to-be published memoir that, at long last, fits perfectly in my hands.
My convent memoir completed, I sent out numerous query letters, synopses, and proposals hoping an agent would snap me up. After all, who doesn’t want the inside scoop on those saints or wretches (depending on your experience) called nuns? When the response was silence, I realized I needed help. I signed up for the annual Willamette Writers Conference and an editing session with Molly Best Tinsley.
First item of my day was to Google Molly. She is a writer of short stories, spy novels, and a memoir. In addition she is a teacher, and is professor emerita at the United States Naval Academy. She has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Sandstone Prize and the Oregon Book Award. Critics write of her complex characters and intelligent, clear style.
Impressed with her qualifications, I sent in my twenty-five pages and received not only an astute critique but a request to read the next twenty-five. When she asked to read the entire manuscript and showed an interest in possible publication, I knew she believed in the book.
Belief in a book. Belief in the writing. The words take me back to my two years at the Northwest Writing Institute where gifted professors Kim Stafford, Joanne Mulcahy, and Jim Heynen encouraged me to examine with kindness my writing and the writing of colleagues. Jim Heynen’s words stay with me: “When critiquing a work, believe in the possibilities.”
To believe in the possibilities requires not only focus, but also reverence for a work. Molly Best Tinsley has been that kind of editor for me. In the words of my Facebook post, she has guided, questioned, and challenged me to write at the top of my game and beyond. What more could a writer ask?
Two statues depict different versions of Alma Mater, learning’s nourishing, bountiful mother. The bronze sculpture at Columbia University is a dominant goddess, garbed in voluminous robes and a laurel leaf crown. She holds a book on her lap and a scepter in her hand. My favorite is the bronze statue of Alma Mater, a humbler version, at the University of Havana in Cuba. The sculptor formed her as young, beautiful, simply dressed, head bare, and hands open in welcome.
Sister Theona (whose name meant “The Good God”) taught me from 1961-1964. My Alma Mater, she was neither dominant nor laurel-crowned, although I cannot remember her without a book. Neither was she young or beautiful, although her hands were graceful and open. Sister did not necessarily occupy a favored space for every student at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Portland, Oregon. For me, though, her influence was, and remains, unmatched.
As an eighteen year-old, I had cemented my learning domain by taking shortcuts and spending quality time with the mirror, American Bandstand, and the telephone. I learned from Sister Theona that study walls are simply threads. A snip here, a snip there and what do you know? An academic world opens wide.
I remember the phrases she wrote on the blackboard:
It is not the event that makes us happy or sad, but the thoughts we build around it.
Live the questions (Rilke).
Husband the moments.
The last phrase was at the heart of Sister’s belief about learning. Correlations assume each academic discipline connects with another. One truth nourishes the next. Correlations promise entrance into a Wisdom that is intelligent and agile, unstained and secure, just and prudent.
Sister Theona (the Good Goddess) probably continues to ask, “Correlations, anyone?” Undoubtedly she expects a deluge of related ideas, even from God.
I loved taking a photo of the Irish child as she stepped through the entrance to Bunratty Castle outside Limerick. For me, she was Alice through the Looking Glass and Lucy entering Narnia. I often wished I had that sense of adventure, especially in my choice of books.
Although I still prefer historical fiction, I have had to change. Writing query letters about my memoir to agents required me to broaden my reading choices. What agents want is talent, a platform, dedication, and a knowledge of authors they represent. What has that meant for me? Stepping over the stone entrance into the diverse territory of memoir.
Know the agents. Know their authors. Know the books. That is how I met Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God, a story of one man’s passion not only for the Amazon, but for our natural world. That is why I read the fun, wild, sometimes raunchy, How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea and why I am halfway through the food-and-family Licking the Spoon by Candace Walsh. On my shelf waits Between Them: Remembering My Parents, by Richard Ford. Tomorrow I head to the library to pick up Him’s When Broken Glass Floats, Hickam’s Rocket Boys, and Burrough’s Running with Scissors.
Good thing I’m retired.
Maybe the only way my memoir will get published is DIY, but I value what has come from the agent search. I pick up a book, settle myself in my reading chair, and I’m that little Irish explorer dressed in yellow, ready to step through the gate into some place new.
“Starting from anywhere” is one of those lines from T.S. Eliot that makes me feel wise and wonderful, although Eliot’s poetry often is beyond my comprehension. What hooks me every time is the word cadence.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season.
It would always be the same; you would have to put off
Sense and notion.
Journey is an old theme that contains infinite interpretations. I began to write my memoir, If You Came This Way, the story of my family, the convent, and my decisions to remain too long in a place where I did not fit. Now the memoir is complete, but a question remains. What exactly is at the heart of any journey?
The Dear Lucky Agent Contest (http://tinyurl.com/j4d3kqz) encouraged me to attempt a new understanding of my writing odyssey. One contest requirement is to submit the first 150-300 words. Ah, if that doesn’t demand a clear-eyed knowledge of a starting point. Next, I had to map my memoir’s route in one sentence. I fussed for a while. Impossible to put my unique story in such a confined space. Yet, I did. After I met the challenge of both word count and succinct sentence came an experience akin to hanging out with Eliot, a belief that I’m little wiser and a little more wonderful.