68 Chapters
Medium 9780253000958

A Private History of Awe

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

When I rise from meditation each morning, I gaze through an uncurtained window at the waking world, and I bow. The gesture is plain enough—hands drawn to my chest, palms pressed together, a slight bend at the waist—but its meaning is elusive. If you asked me to explain my little ritual, to say whom or what I honor with my bow, I would be hard put to answer.

It’s a question I ask myself with increasing urgency as the years run by. The urgency is not the same as I felt at the age of ten or fifteen, when I prayed fervently each night, having been persuaded by preachers and Sunday School teachers that there was one and only one combination to the door opening from life into immortality. Nor is it the urgency I felt in my twenties, when the Vietnam War pressed me down to the roots of conscience as I struggled to choose between going into battle, exile, or jail. Nor is it the urgency I felt during my thirties and forties, when my children, still young, looked to me for guidance about ultimate things.

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Medium 9780253329561

Chapter Three

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

The only troublesome items Zuni had not allowed the surgeons to replace were her eyes. Both lungs, one kidney, various joints, even the valves of her heart, those she had been content to let go, for they did not seem to be intrinsic parts of her. Let the doctors fiddle with her ears or pancreas, she would not care. But if she ever gave up her eyes, the ones she had used to design the Enclosure, to memorize the contours of earth, to trace the shifting tones of daylight, she would no longer be Zuni Franklin. Would the surgeons consent to be fitted with new hands? They should have realized that an architect lives in her eyes.

So when the drugs no longer cleansed the blight from her retina, she had to put up with dimming vision. And when she announced her plans to retire from the Institute for Global Design at age seventy-six—nine years early—everyone assumed her balky eyesight was to blame.

“Are you afraid blindness would spoil your work at the Institute?” a video reporter asked her.

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Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

The courtroom is filled with the ticking of a clock and the smell of mold. Listening to the minutes click away, I imagine bombs or mechanical hearts sealed behind the limestone walls. Forty of us have been yanked out of our usual orbits and called to appear for jury duty in this ominous room, beneath the stained-glass dome of the county courthouse. We sit in rows like strangers in a theater, coats rumpled in our laps, crossing and uncrossing our legs, waiting for the show to start.

I feel sulky and rebellious, the way I used to feel when a grade-school teacher made me stay inside during recess. This was supposed to have been the first day of my Christmas vacation, and the plain, uncitizenly fact is that I don’t want to be here. I want to be home hammering together some bookshelves for my wife. I want to be out tromping the shores of Lake Monroe with my eye cocked skyward for bald eagles and sharp-shinned hawks.

But the computer-printed letter said to report today for jury, and so here I sit. The judge beams down at us from his bench. Tortoise-shell glasses, twenty-dollar haircut, square boyish face: although probably in his early forties, he could pass for a student-body president. He reminds me of an owlish television know-it-all named Mr. Wizard who used to conduct scientific experiments (Magnetism! Litmus tests! Sulfur dioxide!) on a kids’ show in the 1950s. Like Mr. Wizard, he lectures us in slow, pedantic speech: trial by one’s peers, tradition stretching back centuries to England, defendant innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and so abundantly on. I spy around for the clock. It must be overhead, I figure, up in the cupola above the dome, raining its ticktocks down on us.

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Letter to a Reader

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

Since you ask for an account of my writing, I will give you one. But I do so warily, because when writers speak about their work they often puff up like blowfish. Writing is work, and it can leave you gray with exhaustion, can devour your days, can break your heart. But the same is true of all the real work that humans do, the planting of crops and nursing of babies, the building of houses and baking of bread. Writing is neither holy nor mysterious, except insofar as everything we do with our gathered powers is holy and mysterious. Without trumpets, therefore, let me tell you how I began and how I have pursued this art. Along the way I must also tell you something of my life, for writing is to living as grass is to soil.

I did not set out to become a writer. I set out to become a scientist, for I wished to understand the universe, this vast and exquisite order that runs from the depths of our bodies to the depths of space. In studying biology, chemistry, and above all physics, I drew unwittingly on the passions of my parents. Although neither of them had graduated from college, my father was a wizard with tools, my mother with plants. My father could gaze at any structure—a barn or a music box—and see how it fit together. He could make from scratch a house or a hat, could mend a stalled watch or a silent radio. He possessed the tinkerer’s genius that has flourished in the stables and cellars and shops of our nation for three hundred years. My mother’s passion was for nature, the whole dazzling creation, from stones to birds, from cockleburs to constellations. Under her care, vegetables bore abundantly and flowers bloomed. The Great Depression forced her to give up the dream of becoming a doctor, but not before she had acquired a lifelong yen for science. When I think of them, I see my father in his workshop sawing a piece of wood, my mother in her garden planting seeds. Their intelligence spoke through their hands. I learned from them to think of writing as manual labor, akin to carpentry and farming.

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Voyageurs

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

In morning mist on a northern river, a slab of stone tumbled from a boulder into the water, where it came to life and floated, turning into a sleek black head that swam in circles dragging a V of ripples behind it. A beaver, I thought, as I watched from shore. But no sooner had I named it than the creature bobbed up and then dove, exposing a long neck and humped back and pointed tail. Not a beaver, I realized, but an otter. I was pleased to find a label for this animate scrap, as though by pinning the right word on the shape-shifter I could hold it still.

Presently a second otter, then a third and fourth broke free of the boulder and slithered down into the mercury sheen of the river. They dove without a splash, their tails flipping up to gleam like wands in the early sunlight, and they surfaced so buoyantly that their forepaws and narrow shoulders lifted well out of the water. Then one after another they clambered back onto the rock and dove again, over and over, like tireless children taking turns on a playground slide.

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