We all have heroes. If you don’t have one, find someone. Today.
I keep more than my fair share, so that on any given day, in any situation, I can look to my heroes for encouragement. For example, when I feel like giving up, I turn to Winston Churchill, who inspires me to “never, never, never give in” even when faced with really bad odds.
When I need writing encouragement, I turn to Grace Paley. She’s my literary hero. She shows me that even an ordinary life is worth writing about. Her work brims with characters who are so expertly crafted you’ll see them hanging laundry from a third-floor window in the Bronx. When I read her stories, I understand that even though I haven’t fought wars in the Crimea or been kidnapped by a band of renegades in Australia, my life is worth writing about, providing I have the guts to shine a light on it.
Many years ago now, I signed up for a writing workshop taught by Grace Paley at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I saved for months for this workshop, which was well out of my working-writer’s budget. I remember walking down Commercial Street to get to the Fine Arts Center; a grey dawn breaking, early morning fog weaving in and out of the shops. The merchants swept sand into the street and set chairs at sidewalk tables for the early breakfast crowd. I hugged my new journal to my chest.
At the Fine Arts Work Center, I signed in at an outdoor table and the girl pointed to a steep exterior staircase that led to a second floor conference room with windows that overlooked the sea. This is where we gathered, a handful of writers, waiting for Grace Paley to arrive, with the sea lapping like a dog outside the window. We smiled, coughed a little, introduced ourselves. You could see we all felt a bit shy, even the long, cool writers with their legs stretched out, some of whom had published work in literary presses.
Every once in awhile one of us looked towards the stairs. Voices down below. Was it Grace Paley? yes, it must be. We could hear her chatting with the girl at the table.
Then a slow, steady tread on the stairs. It seemed to go on forever until we caught a glimpse of grey hair, round shoulders, a baggy sweater. Her face was broad and round and friendly, her eyes deeply set in shadow. Her hair was kind of flowzy, caught in the sea breeze and it blew every which way, except across her face. She smiled at us and said, “Well! If that isn’t a flight of stairs all right! Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
She’s considered one of the best short story writers of her time. Among many other accolades, she won the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the American Award for Achievement in American Literature. Her 1994 Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
I don’t remember knowing all that then. I just loved her stories. If you are not familiar with her work, here is an excerpt from one of her stories. It’s about a husband leaving his wife.
An Interest in Life
By Grace Paley
My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No-one can tell me it was meant kindly.
“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”
“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.
Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning.
I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries. I don’t like to leave kids alone in a three-room apartment full of gas and electricity. Fire may break out from a nasty remark. Or the oldest tries to get even with the youngest.
“Just this once,” he said. “But you better try to figure out how to get along without me.”
Grace taught so well, which is rare for a great writer. Very good writers often make terrible teachers. I confess I don’t remember what she said or worse yet, what I said. I tried hard to listen, but I was star struck. I wanted Grace Paley to think I was the best emerging writer she’d ever met. As if Grace Paley was a talent scout.
She gave us a writing prompt and we bent our heads over our papers, but my hand froze. I couldn’t write a single intelligible sentence. I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person. They could tack me to the wall and it would make no difference to me or the other writers. Here was Grace Paley trying her best to teach me something and I was too breathless to take it all in. What would she think?
When it came my time to read, I was so disappointed in what I wrote, the writer’s version of tongue-tied, but I read it anyway. Blah. Blah. Blah. Grade-school composition stuff.
Oh! how I’d love to say that she was blown away by my prose. If only she had said, where have you been?! You don’t even know how good you are! But, that wasn’t the way. She made a few very, very kind comments and then it was time to break for lunch. We talked about where to eat. Grace raved about a codfish sandwich she’d had the day before at one of the outdoor cafes. Delicious! We all filed out.
That afternoon, as I listened to the other writers read their work I felt warmed, sustained in the white hot light of the summer sun over Provincetown. If you haven’t been to P-town you should go. Colors are brighter there; reds more red, blues more blue, the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen. We sat in a room overlooking the sea with Grace Paley, surrounded by dunes and an incoming tide, and it was all so good. Even if I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, it was a fine thing to have met her.
It was the most extraordinary kind of ordinary day.
Find yourself a hero that leaves you breathless. It will do you the world of good.
(Please feel free to share your heroes in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them.)
My neighbor, age sixty-something, has waged a war on our local coyote pack. Very early in the morning I hear his shotgun. The noise is startling, territorial. I imagine my small herd of horses dispersing like stars, the coyote lying motionless on the hill.
Later in the day, I meet my neighbor in the clearing between our properties. I ask if he fired the shots.
He smiles, “Yeah, I finally got that coyote I’ve been after. He goes after the rabbits and, anyway,” he adds, “he didn’t look too healthy. I think he had the mange.”
I don’t mind the hunting. I understand the primal thrill of hunting, a deer in the sights, filling a freezer for the winter and providing for a family. A successful hunt makes us feel we belong in the wild, that we’re not outsiders after all.
Ten years ago, we moved to the northwest hills of Connecticut. Our new house lay in the direct path of a nightly coyote run. We’d wake, pre-dawn, to the pack racing past our bedroom window, howling and yipping as they raced off to what our neighbors nicknamed, Coyote Ridge.
The barking and howling was electrifying, like no domestic dog sound I’ve ever known. We kept our Border Collie under close watch.
The coyote scares me, but I consider him my spirit animal, if such a thing exists.
As a kid I could pass for a coyote; the pointed nose, the tawny coat. One year I insisted on prowling around the house on all fours, inhabiting the coyote body or letting the coyote inhabit me. That year I snubbed vegetables, but chomped on any bone put in front of me. I’d tear at the meat with my canines and suck the marrow out of pork chops. And not just my pork chops. The rest of the family’s as well. When it was time to clear the table, a heap of bones on my plate.
My father, alarmed. Table manners were important to him.
“At least she’s eating,” my mother said.
That was the year I practiced howling while sitting cross-legged on my bed, but I found I really needed to be on all fours to get in a good howl. I needed to throw my chin up, press my ears flat back.
The coyote is known as the Song Dog. He boasts at least eleven documented vocalizations, the highest number of vocalizations of any wild North American mammal. The lone howl, perhaps the one we associate most with the coyote and the wolf, is believed to be territorial. The translation; ‘this is my hill’.
Even though, Connecticut is mostly urbanized, the eastern coyote thrives here, preying on grasshoppers, small rodents like voles and rabbits, deer, and sometimes, on small livestock like goats and sheep. Coyotes prey on house cats and they’ll attack and kill even large domestic dogs, though they rarely eat them. Their quarrel with dogs is almost always over territory. Attacks on humans are rare, but they have occurred and with terrible consequences.
The eastern coyote, is larger than his western cousin, about the size of a German Shepherd dog. He can live practically anywhere, making cozy dens out of downed trees, culverts, under suburban decks, in drainage ditches, and concrete sewer pipes. Although he’s wild, he adapts to rapid changes in his environment with incredible speed. He’s equally at home in the forest or on the streets of New York City.
Last year, a lone coyote loped through a coffee shop in New Haven, not far from the Yale University campus, startling patrons and easily evading wildlife control officers. The coyote is a testament to adaptability; consider that he thrives in all of these places without manipulating his environment in any way at all.
And that’s what rubs my neighbor, and others like him, the wrong way. I mean, it seems like there must be some sort of trickery going on.
A google search finds several groups here in Connecticut dedicated exclusively to coyote hunting. They say the pelts fetch anywhere from thirty to fifty-five dollars. Some hunters eat the coyotes they catch and share recipes for Cajun coyote and coyote stew, both of which get high marks.
But, there’s more to coyote hunting than making a meal out of him. Many of the hunters and trappers take a photo of the dead coyote and then leave his body in the forest. And unlike deer or elk hunters who tend to have a deep appreciation for the animal they hunt, coyote hunters freely admit loathing for their target.
On one forum, a discussion as to why:
“They prey on wildlife.”
“They kill dogs.”
“They’re a nuisance. I can’t stand them.”
“Their populations need controlling.”
Hunting isn’t an effective tool for population control. In some areas where seventy percent of a group were culled, the coyotes increased their numbers in just a few short years. Females simply became fertile at younger ages and gave birth to larger litters.
Here, in Connecticut, their range expands year after year.
Last spring, while trail running in the forest, I came eye to eye with a female coyote. She was loping up one side of a ridge and I was loping up the other. We met at the top. I don’t know which of us was more surprised, but she was definitely more at ease with our encounter.
This was her territory. Not mine.
I looked into her yellow eyes, glass-like, expressionless. Scary as hell.
Then she faded back into the forest, leaving me with the thrill of the encounter and nothing more.
Yesterday, I walked the field again that separates my neighbor’s property and mine. A herd of deer startled and bounded away, thin legs like birch twigs, white tails flashing. I thought at first it was my sudden presence that startled them, but on the edge of the forest I see the familiar triangular shaped face, the yellow eyes, the shadow of the Song Dog.
(This essay originally appeared in Writing the Wild in slightly different form.)