The Letter Project

August 20, 2012

Special Delivery (361)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 3:13 am
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A letter from Sally Baker Reece, concerning her reading, her classes, and her life.

Dear Theresa,

          I promised to write to you after spring semester, and already it’s almost time for fall classes. There is a particular question that has lingered since our Contemporary Fiction class last winter, after reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: What is so unbearable? How does it relate to the characters? To life?

          The book was so much on my mind that I had a nightmare after we finished the discussions. I dreamed I was scheduled for a lethal injection for not returning a library book! (Do you think it was The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Éliade?) I awoke to the smell of coffee with sweeter than usual cream, still thinking of the dream, appreciating the heaviness of my own life.

          I still needed to answer my own questions after we finished our discussion of Kundera’s novel. Sabina represented lightness, a person who did whatever she wanted because she had no real commitments. When her lover and friend(s) Tomáš and his wife Tereza died, Sabina should have been lighter than ever, but she was burdened by their deaths. Then her other lover and friend, Franz died, leaving her alone.

           Sabina had no bond with anyone, no burden (heaviness) of love, no meaningful connection tying her down to this life. There was no one to truly care about what she was made of, what she thought or felt, no one to appreciate her quirks. (“We all need someone to look at us.” Chapter 23).  The burden of being “light” was so unbearable that she died. I understand the metaphor of cremation making her lighter than ever, but that was just her body. It sadly ironic that the character Sabina ,representing lightness, finally had the greatest heaviness: lack of someone to love. I think this must be how it feels for very old people whose family and acquaintances die before they do. It would be so lonely to be the last one standing!

          So this is how I answered my own question. Sabina didn’t have anyone to love deeply, passionately, platonically. No one to worry about. It did not give her peace. It made life unbearable. As a worrier, I would find the loss of those I love (and worry about) absolutely unbearable!

          It’s no wonder I would have a nightmare then. Not just from the reading, but the events in the Myrtle Beach shooting late last winter, not far from Auburn University. Then, March 2, the auto crash that killed three sorority sisters and critically injured two others. Five young women, from our own campus, driving to the airport for Spring Break, doing nothing wrong.

          The poor parents of the girls who died are burdened with the unbearable lightness of no longer being able to worry about the safety of their daughters. The parental worry that ties our guts in knots and keeps us awake at night, the burden of our bond with our children is a weight we would rather than not carry.

          The Alpha Xi sorority sisters’ parents will never be able to hear the word ‘spring’ and think of life. For them, after making their daughters promise to be safe and enjoy their vacation, it meant tragedy and ultimate loss. Just as I felt when my husband died, they must have wondered in their shock how people could go on with their lives. How could they go to the beach, to work, to Starbucks when just after taking their midterms, three young women with promising futures, were gone in an instant, ten minutes from campus, not far from my own home. Is that all? There was temporary comfort in the memorial services at the university, but the parents are burdened with the lightness of eternal emptiness.

          I couldn’t help but wonder if the three women knew in a flash that they weren’t going to make it, if they worried about how their parents would survive their losses, if they thought their parents were going to be angry, repeat over and over “if only, if only, if only…” I wondered what books the young women had read, what papers they wrote. Who will sleep in their former rooms, their beds, and not feel haunted? How long will it be before the burden of lightness, of absence, is a memory and mere story among the future members of Alpha Xi Delta?

          So this letter turns out to be heavy, which is not what you’d wish to read toward the end of summer! After all of our heavy reading (especially The White Hotel) last semester, it was time to move on! I must admit I was disappointed not discussing Sargasso Sea (I’d been prepared so it’s not a total loss!), but I understand. We needed the laughter, ending with Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces! I really enjoy your skit requirements and I think most of the students do, too. They make the work more memorable, but of course you know that!

          In June, I went right into the Imaginative Writing Class with Wendell Mayo, then second session was with Sharona Muir’s Summer Poetry class. Thank you for recommending those professors! Both classes were intense and exhausting, but wonderful. The challenge of writing and producing something nearly every day (in Dr. Mayo’s class) and every week in Dr. Muir’s helped me make up for lost years, especially the last two summers, when I was not writing.

          I followed your advice: I wrote about my late husband in both summer classes. Our last assignment in Dr. Mayo’s class was to write a ghazal or pantoum.  He said it was too difficult to attempt the villanelle.

           I preferred the villanelle over the ghazal and pantoum because of the traditional brooding and sad tone of the villanelle, which was more suitable to my subject. So, I taught it to myself. My poem is called “Young Widow’s Dream.”  I worked on revisions for Dr. Muir’s final assignment, after studying a few assigned Shakespeare sonnets. She thinks it’s ready to be sent out! I will send it with the poem I did in your class (now revised) called “To My Late Husband.”

          Monday (a few days ago) I had lunch just outside Cleveland with seven women from my own sorority. We lived in the house by the windmill on Clough Street in the late1960s. I read them my new poem and at least a few of them cried. I’m not sure if it was because they knew my husband, knew us as a young couple, or if it’s because we’re all old enough to expect to be widowed at this point in life. Whatever caused their response, I will submit the poem. It’s a promise to myself.

          During the week that I’ve been finished with classes I have sorted through papers and reorganized my work space. I am very excited about studying Modern Poetry in your upcoming class! Oh, and this is great news—Dr. Mayo invited me to be in his workshop this fall! The caveat is that the class cannot be filled the Friday before the semester starts. I am hopeful. There’s one space left right now…

          In Dr. Muir’s class I wrote what I thought was a prose poem. You know my lack of restraint when I write drafts…It turned out to be a long piece that is not quite a poem. Dr. Muir’s comments were still encouraging: “Sally, this is an extraordinary piece of writing.  The story is gripping, and your careful and heartfelt evocation of the facts and feelings in the situation of the premature infant and his family are most impressive, clearly a labor of love.” As we said in the sixties, I’m psyched!

          She recommends it be revised as a creative nonfiction piece. I’m hoping to work on it in Dr. Mayo’s class. I must admit, I wish you were the instructor reviewing the work I’m about to revise. I shouldn’t be so biased, I suppose, and I will be lucky to get Dr. Mayo’s male perspective on my “feminine” writing.

          I would still be dazed when it comes to writing poetry were it not for the “list” exercises you had us do in Imaginative Writing. All of my poems (and to some extent, stories) are created from lists. It helps me to be more focused from the start, yet pour out the swirling thoughts on paper.

          I am also pondering the comment you made after class one day: “Maybe you’re a poet.” Even though I might not be, the study of poetry has already affected the way I write. That’s a good thing!

          Hopefully, you’re still enjoying summer. I know how you value the time to work on your writing projects. Congratulations on all your recent publications. I have skimmed your recently published chapbook, The Galaxy to Ourselves (love the title!) and once my correspondences are up to date, I’m going to throughly enjoy it without the pressure of deadlines, before fall classes.

          Well, should I apologize for the length or the sad subject matter of this letter? I’m thinking my memoir should first be a collection of poems, just to control the volume! Smile.

 

Fondly,

 

Sally

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