I cleaned out my work office yesterday. I rearranged the futon, moved my desk to face the window, hung new artwork, and covered the ugliest cabinets with stick-on wallpaper. I’m one floral arrangement away from a Martha Stewart sponsorship.
The hardest challenge was releasing stacks of library books I’ve nestled around me for the past months. At the beginning, they represented potential and curiosities untapped, but as the year wore on, they made me guilty and a little sad. Maybe this is just a history nerd thing, but do you ever walk into a bookstore or library and get overwhelmed with how many words we will never have the time to read? What are we missing? What if it’s the ONE secret we can’t figure out?
Since my memoir debuted in February, I’ve had time to reflect on what it means to share words with thousands of strangers, and new friends. Michelle Kuo’s striking memoir, Reading with Patrick, has given me vocabulary around the value of how sharing words really can change people.
Michelle, a bright-eyed Harvard grad and new teacher, moves to a skeletal town in the Arkansas Delta with the goal of transforming young lives through liberation literature. She reflects authentically about her years teaching in an alternative school for troubled teenagers, but the heart of the book is story of what happens after she moves away for law school. Her favorite student, a gentle giant known for his love of independent reading, is arrested and jailed for murder. Michelle is drawn back to Helena, Arkansas, and dedicates her year to his education behind bars.
They study grammar, vocabulary, the work of James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Emily Dickinson, C.S. Lewis – all the greats. But where Patrick shines the most is when his inner monologue – anonymous for eighteen years – finds expression in the pen. Michelle and Patrick stumble into a literary genre in which he excels: letter writing. Patrick’s letters – first awkward and riddled with incomplete clauses – bloom into extraordinary poetry and prose. They’re all addressed to his young daughter, who doesn’t know her father except from behind bulletproof glass. Michelle writes:
I had been searching all along for a form in which Patrick could write. I had thought it was poetry, but now I had really found it: the letter. This was the medium that captivated him even more…The letter injected writing with purpose, it was a plea to be heard, it was one person addressing another…How to express to a child what you know, what you wish for her? What could you say that is worth keeping? (239)
What do we say that is worth keeping? What do we pass along in speech or words that ensures people know who we are, and what we love? Everything Happens for a Reason is dedicated to my son, Zach. I wrote the dedication before any other words crystallized onto the page, before the book was even possible and before I knew the number of months and years ahead. It’s always been a love letter to him, and my family, trying to capture all the deep ways we’re woven together.
Michelle gets it. She wants Patrick’s letters to be grandiose and radical, but understands that to expect that is to miss the “hidden work” of the letter.
What is a letter but a stab at the void, an admission of need and of friendship, an expressed desire for a place in the world of human relationships? You give an account of yourself that you hope is worth reading. It is like deciding to look into a mirror while burnishing it. (275)
And Patrick gets it, too. He gets the feeling of timelessness in a letter, and in poetry. He understands the embrace built on a foundation of careful speech and written word. For him, the power of poetry and letter writing begins in the memory of his mother, and extends into his imagined future with his daughter. It’s the memory and dream of love.
What good are words, anyway?
Imitating a W.S. Merwin poem, Patrick writes,
Let me imagine that I am there with you / when you need me even a little late