#30 Richard Rodriguez: Religious and Cultural Complexities 2010
Religious and Cultural Complexities, November 28, 2018
Journalist Richard Rodriguez tackles today’s diversity of cultural and religious traditions in conversations and conflict. He talks about how society keeps an individual’s religion quiet and views this as a strength and weakness in America. Through humor and personal storytelling, Rodriguez offers his input and experience as a writer on the complexities of faith and class.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
- Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior
- D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love
- James Agee, A Death in the Family
Jesse Holcomb (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On today’s episode, Richard Rodriguez on the bravery of the good writer and the generosity of the good reader, from Festival 2010. This is Rewrite Radio.
I’m Jesse Holcomb, assistant professor of Journalism at Calvin College. On this episode of Rewrite Radio from Festival 2010, Richard Rodriguez delivers the speech he rewrote after realizing that Festivalgoers really did want him to talk about the complexities of faith and class in his life as a writer. Starting with an Elvis-singing taxi-driver in the Sinai and a Thanksgiving turkey blessed with a Hindu hymn, he unfolds his American story.
Richard Rodriguez writes about the diversity of cultural and religious traditions in conversation—and in conflict—throughout our country and our world. The winner of a Peabody Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an Emmy, a Fulbright, and the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Race Relations, he is also the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. His other books include Brown: The Last Discovery of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.
Born in California to immigrants, Rodriguez is a journalist as well as a writer of memoirs. He has written regularly for several newspapers and magazines and has contributed to PBS’s NewsHour and reported for the BBC. A nominee for a Pulitzer Prize, he has also published work in Harper’s, Mother Jones, Time, and The American Scholar, among many others.
Now, Richard Rodriguez’s plenary lecture from Festival 2010.
Richard Rodriguez: [00:02:33] Thank you for that. I spent a terrible afternoon—I was going to go jogging in my hotel and I had been to the Seminary for lunch and I had an interview in the morning with an editor from Ploughshares, the Evangelical magazine, and I realized that maybe I had written this speech for the wrong place, that the questions that people were asking during the day were about illegal immigration, about Barack Obama. I did an essay for Newsweek magazine in which I insisted Barack Obama, our first black president, is really brown. [laughter] And I am spending more and more time since September 11 thinking about Islam.
I have been traveling through the Middle East with a Palestinian driver who thinks he's Elvis Presley and who sings Elvis Presley songs as we drive through the Sinai. [laughter] And people wanted to know what I was thinking about in the desert, why I was in the desert, and what I was thinking about the Abrahamic religions, about the God of the desert, the God who appears to Moses, of the protection that Jesus takes in the desert and Muhammad from the cities: from Mecca, from Jerusalem, the way the desert protected these men.
And I thought to myself, "Maybe I should rewrite the speech, but that means I don't get to watch Oprah Winfrey this afternoon [laughter] and I'm not even sure what this whole thing is about." The last time I was at Calvin College the woman who was driving a very large Cadillac had to drive me back to the airport because a snowstorm was due in. And she said, "You know you Californians you can't deal with snow, you can't deal with real weather." [laughter] And at that moment, to prove the existence of God, her Cadillac did a hundred and eighty degree turn. [laughter]
But I am told that there are young people in this room who want to be writers. Why anybody would want to be a writer in the age of Twitter, I do not understand. So this speech, which was the first speech I was going to give, is the speech for them. It is, I should tell you, one of the few times in my life as a writer that I've ever been asked to talk about my religious life.
[00:04:54] I go to religious schools regularly, I go to schools like Yeshiva University and Orthodox Jewish School in the upper west side of New York. I've been to Baptist colleges. Usually at Baptist colleges will ask you if you want to drink and and I'll say, "Oh yes, please," and they'll bring out the punch. [laughter]
I'll go to Jesuit universities and the Jesuits will say, "Do you want a drink?" and I'll say, "Yes," and I'll say, "Do you have a gin and tonic?" and they say, "Well, we have seven types of gin." [laughter] This is a reason for converting to Catholicism. [laughter]
But curiously enough, at even religious schools I'm often asked not to talk about religious matters. I am brought to these campuses to talk about the issue of diversity in America, racial identity, what it means to be Hispanic, this category that Richard Nixon dreamed up at the end of his administration. I think in part to separate brown from black in America at a time in which blacks were were rioting in Chicago and Newark.
And it did it. We now believe in America that Hispanics exist, even though you will never—if you traveled to Latin America—you will never meet a Hispanic. You can go to Colombia, Argentina, Medellín, Colombia. You can you can walk the streets of Medellín and ask for Hispanic, “Has anybody seen a Hispanic?” and they will say, "Oh no, Señor, you had to go to Dallas, Texas." [laughter]
The struggle to be a writer in America, which writes about religion, is that Americans—both the greatness of America and I think fundamentally a weakness—is we have decided in the secular society to be quiet about religion. We don't talk very much about it in our public lives. That is, I think, our strength. It gives an air of toleration to our neighbor, to the people next door who might be of another faith. You don't say too much about what you did during Lent or Easter.
It is also a weakness because we don't know very much about how religion is a part of our public life except as the politicians who are not very religious insist on telling us. But there was a suggestion recently at Harvard University that there be now a mandatory class, a religion class that all undergraduates would have to take because religion is on fire all over the world.
And the secular faculty just came down hard on the suggestion. The idea of making Harvard College students learn a course on religion was a waste of time. And so there are now graduates of American universities and colleges who graduate without knowing how to identify the three major Abrahamic religions, without knowing how to identify the fact that we as Christians, are brothers in faith to the Jews and Muslims, without knowing that Yahweh is related to God is related to Allah. We live in a world in which there is a silence about religion.
And all the things that I think about it is I come back to this country from the Middle East have to do a lot with religion with the way religion is playing out in this country. It has been crucial to my Americanization, my religious identity.
I am Roman Catholic, but my neighbors in Sacramento, California were Mormon and I took care of their dog when they went away on summer vacations and I thought a lot about the Church of Latter Day Saints and when I learned about the persecution of Mormons in this country by other Americans, I thought about my neighbors. And then one year my Mexican Aunt Lola married my uncle Krishna from India. And suddenly Bing Crosby used to go on and on about why Christmases—we used to have Brown Christmases at our house. The Indians would come and the Mexicans would come.
And my Hindu—Dr. Gupta, who was my uncle's sister—would, over our turkey dinner, the great Pilgrim holiday, the great English Protestant holiday, would raise her hands over our turkey and chant a Hindu hymn. And the turkey did not flinch. [laughter]
[00:09:49] And then one year this woman starts showing up, this blond lady shows up to our Christmas and I don't know who the blonde lady is. She doesn't say very much. She sits over on my aunt's blue sofa, you know, the one by the window. She's very demure. She has this kind of Clairol silver-blond hair. And she smiles slightly and she drives me crazy. [laughter]
"Who's the blond lady?" I ask my mother come going home after Christmas dinner. And my mother is tired. And I'm in the back seat and I'm being tiresome again, I'm asking too many questions. My mother's sighs. That was my mother's answer to all my important questions: my mother would sigh. [laughter]
"Who is the blond lady and why does she come every year to my aunt's house?" And I remember I was blowing my breath against the back seat car window. [breathes loudly] Cold glass forming a cloud, and with my finger I drew circle within circle within circle.
My mother said, "What do you want to know?" "I want to know why she comes every year. Who is she?" My mother says, "Your uncle Krishna, his nephew Kamini, he was a law student. He went to law school and he met her there and they fell in love."
And that phrase just hung over it, the silence that followed: "They fell in love." That's why the blonde lady was there. That's why Pocahontas was there. [laughter] That's why we find ourselves in very strange situations driving across the Sinai Desert looking for the Abrahamic god.
I first began to pray to God in Spanish, but I was educated as a grammar school student by Irish Catholic nuns. I should say immediately that the recent sexual scandals affecting the church and indeed affecting, in Ireland, both the the convents and the rectories, sadism, certain brutality toward children, especially in orphanages, sexual and non-sexual, have nothing to do with my life. They were not part of the education that I was introduced to.
The Sisters of Mercy were not sentimental people, however. They were Irish women who came 6,000 miles to California to shove the English language down my throat. [laughter] They were not—well, you should know I guess about the Irish generally, when they sing their songs Danny Boy, these are not sentimental people. They may weep a lot in the pub, but these women were determined that I become an American, that I get this voice, that I know how to use this microphone, that I am able to say in a room like this, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am Richard Rodriguez."
I remember there was a nun, my first grade teacher, wrote my name on the board and she wrote "Richard" and it sounded like that: "Rich-erd." And she asked me to repeat it after her. And I could not. It's not that my mouth could not, it is that I would not.
I was what you would call a minority student in those years. I was the son of parents who had very little education. My father had two years of Mexican grammar school. My mother had more. There were no books in our house. I was what the English would call a scholarship boy. I came to school without preparation of the most basic sort. I did not have a voice.
There are some of you in this room who grew up the first in your family to go to college. There are some of you in this room who grew up knowing already by the fourth or fifth grade more than your parents knew. There are some of you in this room who knew how to read books in a house in which books were never read. You are white. You are black. You are brown. It is an American story. It is never told in America.
It took the nuns two years. Two years of picking on me: "Richard stand up," "Richard take your hands out of your pockets," "Richard, look up to me when you speak," "Richard, I can't hear you." Two years. That nun with the mustache, she was the hardest of all. [laughter] She was relentless.
[00:14:57] And then one year they came to my parents house, like three Furies from a Greek tragedy at the door. [laughter] And I opened the door and they came in in their gowns. And they asked my mother, "Would it be possible, Mrs. Rodriguez, would it be possible for you to speak more English to your children in the house? That Richard especially seems so shy." In a moment, she complied. And everything began to change in my life. The bird was released from the nest.
My story is a story of educational success in America. My story is a story of what happens to you when you go away to school and you are taught in the school room not to use language that way. "Don't use a double negative." And then you go home and your parents speak that way. I have a friend, a black woman in San Francisco. She went to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Bryn Mawr is a very fancy woman's college in Pennsylvania, and she remembers going home to South Carolina one summer, getting off the Greyhound bus.
This is an American story. Getting off the Greyhound bus and walking to her house with the police. The summer heat coming through her shoes as she was walking down the sidewalk. And as she came up the front steps of the porch, the screen door opening. And her mother saying at the screen door, "I don't want you speaking white in here."
You learn to be bilingual if you are a scholarship boy or scholarship girl. You learn to use language in two different ways. You also learn quite early to translate at Safeway when the clerk asks your grandmother for some innocuous question, and you would have to respond. You end up becoming the public voice of your family, answering the phone, answering the door.
But I want to tell you tonight because I am here talking about religion that my primary drama, my primary journey was one of social class.
I am not Hispanic, and if you had expected to come here tonight to hear Hispanic, you're out of luck. Mexico is a puzzle to me. I go down with the BBC to Latin America. I speak bad Spanish. I'm connected to those people but I am in some sense foreign to those cultures, but I have the Indian's face.
I am from the Indian and from the Spaniard. From the Collision of those two cultures in the 16th century in Mexico. The rape. The riot of passion. The tyranny of one culture over another. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was named Antonio Banderas. [laughter] And he made love to my great-great-grandmother who was an Indian. Her name was Banina la Malinche. And I am the fruit of their passion.
But the primary story that I want to tell you tonight is one of class. What it means to move from one social class in America to another.
I was recently at Eastern Kentucky University. Appalachia bleeds into the student body. There's a special fund in that school that faculty members are invited to rely on if they see students coming to class who look undernourished. Who looked like they're not eating. That's my kind of school.
When I travel to the American South I am still—I am still horrified when I hear people, particularly middle-class people, refer to the white poor in the South as trash. Trailer trash. There is no other population in America that is referred to as as trash. And it offends me deeply. These people with bad teeth and bad voices. Accented speech who are clownish to us. And I say to you that if they are white trash then I am brown trash.
[00:20:11] My story of this education was a story of my first book, my scholarship boy story. I went to several universities in the United States and in Europe. I was that first generation of affirmative action. I don't want to talk about politics. I am bored with politics. I live in London though. I come back and all Americans do now on television is talk about politics. Republicans and Democrats. Red and blue. I'm bored with the way Americans are talking about America. That is not the most important thing to talk about in America. I think it's more important that the majority of American women now are living without men. What political party is that?
Anyway, I was the first generation of affirmative action and everything came to me because I was Hispanic. But of course the irony was that I wasn't. I was Geoffrey Chaucer. [laughter] And I was appalled. I accepted an invitation to Yale University to go teach English Renaissance literature at Yale. And then the ceiling collapsed and I could not go. And I was paralyzed with guilt both because I had used my education to separate myself from my parents and because I was a fraud. I was not Hispanic.
And so I left the university in protest against affirmative action and also a letter to the chairman of the English Department at Yale in which I insisted that affirmative action had to include the white poor. Because some Hispanics are white. Some Hispanics are black. Some Hispanics are Indians. Some Hispanics like Richard Rodriguez are mestizo, we are mixed race.
I left the university in a huff. And I went to Los Angeles and I worked for an ad agency, literally spending an entire day working up a jingle for American—I almost did it—for a U.S. airline. I won't tell you which airline. [laughter] I was going mad. If there are writers in this room tonight, young writers who want really to write, that's what I want you to be: writers who want really to write.
The reason I began writing Hunger of Memory is because I was so lonely. I was so desperate to communicate with somebody else, to get some sense of what I had done in my education, and I needed to talk to somebody, have a listener for that story.
One of the things I want to encourage young people, and this is this is especially true of young writers, but young people generally, is to dare to be lonely. There are people now in Silicon Valley who are making billions of dollars from trying to distract us from loneliness. And on any American campus you can see kids crossing the campus on their cell phones or you see them in the classes with their Blackberries. In fact, Barack Obama is not our first black president. He's our first Blackberry president. [laughter]
This insistence on connection by people who are lonely, who don't want to be lonely. Every day I get invitations from people I barely know who want me to join their social network on Facebook. Why would I want to do that? [laughter] Who are these people? [laughter] They have a thousand friends. I don't know a thousand people in my entire life. [laughter]
I think to myself, you know, my favorite American book is a book of essays. Thoreau's Walden. It was written within the density of loneliness: a man separating himself from Concord, Massachusetts, going into the woods by himself. You can't write Walden with cell phones ringing. [laughter]
Well, recently there was an item in the paper about a young woman who was mowed down by a bus not far from Concord, Massachusetts because she was walking across the intersection, plugged up, talking, listening. The bus blasted its horn, she didn’t hear, and she was mowed down.
[00:24:55] If you want to be a writer—be lonely. If you want to think—be lonely. If you want to meet God in the desert—be lonely.
I love that biblical injunction, "Be still and know God." "Be still and know." "Be still." "Be."
There's a wonderful book, a memoir written by Maxine Hong Kingston, maybe some of you know, called Woman Warrior. The first sentence of that book Maxine is quoting her mother who—her mother is saying, "What I'm about to tell you, you must never tell anyone else." And of course her daughter then tells all of us what her mother just said. And I said, "Of course that's what writers do: writers tell secrets. Writers are always listening. Writers are always blabbing to strangers."
I began writing about education and I write an essay for The American Scholar, which is the great journal started by Emerson—Ralph Waldo Emerson. I wrote an essay called Going Home Again. And I thought, "Well, of course, my parents will never read that magazine. They'll never see it." But there's a tiresome neighbor on down the street who was a librarian and said to my mother, "I saw your son's piece in The American Scholar." And so by that time my parents were arthritic and bow legged, but they walk down the next day to the library to read the piece.
And then my mother wrote to me a note. I was then in New York. She wrote a note in her kind of mixed English and Spanish and she said, "What happens in the house is private. I don't want you talking about our lives to Los Gringos,” meaning you.
I put that letter in my book. [laughter] It's included in a chapter at the end of the book in which I say that there are some things so private, there is something so personal, that you can only say them to a stranger.
Note to young writers: if you want to be a writer, if you really want to be a writer and are daring to be lonely, then also read. Read and read again. Because other books give you permission. Other books teach you about how far you can extend your own writing style. Other writers become competitors.
One of the embarrassments of my life is that it Borders Books and at Barnes & Noble, I am in a section called “Latin American studies.” The great literary tradition—nobody calls it that—is this shelf called literature. The writers that I love: Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Geoffrey Chaucer. No one said exactly says that they're white literature, but there's another shelf not so close by called black literature. I'm in Latin American studies and it's way over by the air conditioning unit. [laughter]
It's beyond astrology and lesbian literature. [laughter] And I'm on the shelf next to this memoir of a gang banger in Los Angeles, on one side. And on the other side is a biography of a drug lord in Colombia. And it gets really lonely over there. [laughter] And I asked friends of mine, "If you ever find me there, would you just pick me up [laughter] and take me anywhere in the bookstore, [laughter] preferably the grand opera?"
But when I wanted to write about my life, I had no models for what I was trying to write. No American models. Americans don't talk about class this way. We are a very generous society: we send money to Haiti after the earthquake, send money to Thailand after the tsunami. But this issue of class, social class, embarrasses us. We are a society—I think largely due to the Puritans who taught us that there was some election, some blessing in being middle class, and there was something deformed about a life of poverty.
So I went to the English writers. The English writers write about poverty and class mobility. Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, D. H. Lawrence—especially D. H. Lawrence.
[00:30:00] I thought D. H. Lawrence because he was banned in so many libraries that he was writing about sex—it turns out he was writing about poverty. He is the son of a coal miner. He writes about his father. His father's beauty. His envy of his father, seeing his father shirtless. The muscularity of his father's torso. The young boy already growing effeminate from his love of books. His bad lungs. Knowing that he could never be his father. Wanting to be in some way his mother's son.
Thinking about Lawrence allows me to transition to the issue of religion. I was not only a scholarship boy at Sacred Heart School in Sacramento, California. I was also an altar boy. And it was like nothing else in my life. It brought me so close to the altar. I can still—because I was of the last generation that heard the Latin Mass—I can still recite both the priest line: "Introíbo ad altáre Dei—I will go to the altar of God." That is what he said. And the altar boy would say, "Ad Deum qui lætíficat iuventútem meam—The God who gives joy to my youth."
And did God ever. Sixth grader, seventh grader, eighth grader. When other boys were beginning to date the prettiest girl in the school, I would go to weddings. You got paid a dollar for going to weddings to be an altar boy at a wedding because you had to sweep up the the rice afterwards. I went to show many Saturday afternoon weddings. Watching the young man and the young woman. If one of them was likely to cry, which usually the man, not the mother-in-law.
I remember one wedding where the young man with dark wavy hair began weeping uncontrollably. And the priest said, "Repeat after me: 'With this ring, I thee wed.'" "With this, [sniffle] with this ring I..." And the bride looked over to me with this eternal feminine smile. And it was our private compact and I thought to myself, "Honey, do you know what you're getting in for?" [laughter]
But then in the middle of arithmetic class—in the middle of arithmetic class—the nun would ask me to go to the church for a funeral. It was so routine. And so spectacular that you could just walk out of a classroom and walk into a church of grief.
I remember one funeral. I remember a young man had been found in a hotel downtown. And he'd been murdered, found in his bed murdered. And he was being buried from our church. Very unusual, that kind of violence coming into that church in those days. I remember there were only two mourners: there was an older woman—maybe his mother—and a much younger woman—maybe his sister or a girlfriend. The old woman did not weep. The young woman looked down for the entire mass.
We went to the cemetery. I can remember everything about that day. The dew on the grass. The grass had been newly cut. The smell of summer. The smell of growth. There were not enough mourners that day, so the undertaker needed the altar boys to help carry the casket to the grave. It was the first time I carried death. The first time I knew the weight of death. Sixth grade.
Years later I was reading D. H. Lawrence. I was reading Women in Love. The coal miner son—his brother, Paul's brother in the novel—dies and he's brought back to the mining village. This young man has died in London. He's brought back to the village. And the working men in the village are struggling with the coffin as they bring it into the house because he's going to be laid out on the kitchen table.
And the way Lawrence describes that weight, the way the men—it was rather, I saw when Lady Diana died the way the men who were carrying her casket moved forward by moving sideways. That particular weight. The way they struggled to—and I thought to myself, "Lawrence knows the weight of bodies."
[00:35:02] I read that novel in college, but at that moment what the book taught me was to remember something that had happened to me in sixth grade. I remember that and I'd forgotten it. I'd forgotten that after the funeral we got in the car—in Father Cormac's Chevrolet—and father Cormac, as we were driving off, pulled out his cigarette and started smoking and said, "We all have to die."
We all have to die. And I remember going back to school and arithmetic class had become history class and I still had some little specks of grass on my shoes. And I was again a student. But I had carried death that day.
When people ask me about what the church has been in my life, what being Christian has been in my life, I tell him that it is been my life. It has brought me close as to what it means to be alive. And it wasn't simply the carrying of the casket, but it was the memory of the carrying the casket when I went back to the arithmetic class, you understand.
There's a chapter called “Cradle” in my first book and Random House, which had the contract for the book said, "Get rid of that chapter." Chapter about being an altar boy. "We don't understand what that chapter is doing in this book."
I didn't get rid of the chapter. I changed my agent and Random House refused to publish the book. It went through nine publishers. They turned it all down. I thought, "The book will never be published. I can do something else with my life. I don't have to be a writer. That's fine. I can about go back to making little jingles for ad agencies."
And then a small publisher in Boston published Hunger of Memory. And then it ended up on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, which in those days made a book famous. Not Oprah, but the New York Times Book Review. And overnight I became a writer.
And suddenly I was on the Today Show. I was hoping I was going to get interviewed by Jane Pauley and not Bryant Gumbel. [laughter] Because I knew Bryant Gumbel will be a problem. And I was sitting at 6:30 in the morning on the Today Show in the green room listening to Rod Steiger. And he was drunk. And he was talking about his wife—his ex-wife Claire Bloom. "That bitch." And I thought, "It's kind of interesting to be a writer." [laughter] And Barbara Mandrell was there and she waved me when she went onto the show.
Then a few weeks later I ended up on the Merv Griffin Show. I remember standing behind the curtain. Mort Lindsey in the orchestra. Suddenly the orchestra came to a pause and I thought I was going to faint. I went out on the set and the men behind me said, "There's a step up to the podium where Merv sits. Don't stumble over the step." It was enough that I could walk. [laughter]
Orson Welles was on the show that night, the greatest American filmmaker, a fat old man who did wine commercials. On the show that night he was doing magic tricks for Merv. He and I walked out in the parking lot and behind the Hollywood Theater. With the taping had been, there was going to be another taping after us.
When we first parked in that parking lot, no one was there. When we went back out, because there was a second taping, the entire cast of Falcon Crest was coming to do the second. I don't know what Falcon Crest is. I think Joan Collins was in that. Maybe not. Joan Forsythe? I don't know. There were hundreds of people—hundreds of people.
And this man said, "You." He didn't say Hispanic, "You." And I was walking with Orson Welles, and I looked over at Orson and I pointed to Orson. "No, you." And I went over to the barrier. What did he want? "Sign, autograph." And I said, "That's Orson Welles." [laughter]
I often meet writers who write against silence, who have written one novel that doesn't get published and then start another, sometimes have three or four novels that never been published on their shelf. I do not understand it. The bravery of it, the recklessness of it. I could not have gone on writing unless there was a response.
[00:40:16] Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Tis the good reader who makes the good book." There is a reciprocal relationship between the writer and the reader, and if you don't get what I'm talking about now, I'm not making any sense. You understand. It works both ways. You recreate the book that I've written and when you can't, then the book doesn't exist.
Observation for young writers in this auditorium: if you are a writer, look to your audience, find your audience, find people who can understand what you're doing because without them you cannot write. Writing does not belong to you. They finish the sentence.
My greatest disappointment in this digital age, and the reason I probably would not have become a writer if I were now 20 years old, is because we live in an age of more and more is filled with chatter and messaging and social organizations based upon fictions. Digital technology, I think, has created this immediate connection to anybody in the world, but more and more we have nothing to say to each other.
There was a man in prison, a man named Joe Loya who wrote to me when he was in prison in Pennsylvania. He was a bank robber. He wanted to start a correspondence with me, and I assure you I have no sexual fantasies about men behind bars. And I didn't want to do it, and I thought, "Oh, what would Sisters of Mercy want you to do?" [laughter] So I said, "All right, I'll do it. But I only want to talk about literature. I don't want to talk about anything else. Don't want to talk about your sex life, don't want to talk about any—your criminality. I don't wanna talk about anything. Your books, the books you're reading. [laughter]
Your laugh. The letters came every week, 18, 20 page letters, the tiniest handwriting. Careful careful careful. He was writing to me about Russian novels. Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. He loved Philip Larkin, the English poet. W. H. Auden. And for three years, we had a communication that felt like it was in the 18th century. And then he got out of jail. A Benedictine priest friend of mine went to pick him up in prison and took him to the airport and he went to Los Angeles and he began to resume a regular life. Ultimately he got married. Now he has a little baby girl, whom loves very much. He's very successful in his social life. We don't write each other letters anymore. We write each other email: maybe a sentence, two sentences, three sentences.
I know we live in the age of the blog. I have never read a blog that sounds anything like what Americans used to sound like when they wrote letters to each other in the 19th century. I've been recently reading correspondence between young men in the Gold Country of California who had come there from Ohio, from Kansas, from New York, looking for gold, writing home. "Dear Jen, it troubles me so that I do not know whether you will ever read this letter, these sentences I'm writing to you." These were very simple people who were writing these letters, but they were very elegant letters for two reasons: one is that almost everyone in America of the working class in those years knew the Bible. Knew its cadence. Knew its diction.
And the other is that many of them knew Shakespeare. One of the great entertainment in the Gold Country in the 19th century among unschooled men were Shakespearean plays. All up and down the Gold Country, there are second-rate British actors proclaiming Hamlet tonight. They also knew Opera. There was Italian opera all over the Gold Country.
[00:45:13] The density of their letters, the density of away Americans sounded when they pulled apart into silence and began to write to someone they loved sounds nothing like a blog. Do you hear me? If you give yourself to that communication, it is so deep that it becomes a communication as much with the self as with the other.
I write essays. I don't write novels. I don't read short stories. I write essays. I don't write poems. I write essays. I write about affirmative action. I write about AIDS. I write about the discovery by Columbus of the Indian and what the Indians were doing in 1492. They came out of the forest to greet Columbus. They did not go into the forest. Isn't that amazing? They had never seen three galleons on the horizon before. It's like seeing three spaceships. Logic would have tell them to go into the forest to hide. They didn't go into the forest to hide. They came to the water's edge, waiting for Columbus. In the history of the world, there are fewer acts of such intellectual bravery.
I write about our brown president. I write about the death of American newspapers. American newspapers are dying. No longer do we read newspapers to learn of our city, to learn who died, who was born, wedding announcements, 4-H competitions. We're not very curious about strangers anymore in America. And I write now about Jerusalem, Damascus, Jetta. I write essays. I write about the desert God.
The newspapers that I used to write for I no longer write for. The LA Times I used to write for almost weekly. They would publish anything that I wrote. They would let me write anything that I wanted. They wanted an essay on September 11th. I said, "I can't write on September 11th. I don't have the energy to write a September 11th. I will write an essay on September 10th. I will write an essay called ‘September 10, 2001.’ I will write about the baseball scores that night. About what normalcy felt like the night before calamity."
I used to write for the NewsHour. I don't write for the NewsHour anymore because all the essayists got fired recently because a decision was made at PBS—by whomever, I don't know, I never heard from anybody on the show—to replace the essayists at the end of the hour, although we were the most popular segments, to replace this with a 24-hour seven-day-a-week webpage.
You get the point. We are changing in America and don't tell me it is changing you. We did not get changed by the Model T Ford. We invented the Model T Ford because we were restless. We were not changed by the birth control pill. We created the birth control pill. And we invented Steve Jobs. We invented the internet. Even Al Gore invented the internet. [laughter]
There is something in our restlessness that we want. We want to be away from the family. We want to be only with family. The woman on the airplane getting off the airplane yesterday, she was shouting into her cell phone. The plane door hadn't opened, so we were stranded in that plane listening to her talk to her husband. I guess it was her husband, her boyfriend her gigolo—I don't know who he was. [laughter] "I'll meet you outside. I have to get my luggage. I'll meet you outside. Did you hear?" Who is she? Did she know we were there? [laughter] Does she care? Why do I have to know about her life? Why do I have to know that her daughter is with her?
The last lesson for young writers: trust what you already know. Trust what you already know. As you get older, and especially if you have cancer surgery as I had recently, then everything becomes valuable to you and you suddenly realize that "you know, I knew things that day carrying that casket that I'd forgotten."
[00:50:03] James Agee, the Knoxville, Tennessee writer, wrote a wonderful memoir, which is a novel, but it's really about the death of his father who died when Agee was 10 years old and it scarred Agee for the rest of his life. It's called A Death in the Family. Some of you may have read it, many of you probably have not. There are six pages that begin that novel, a description of a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee, and there is nothing in that description that you do not know.
The kids are playing in the street. There are several shades of twilight. The kids are beginning to run into the house as the sky darkens. There are screen doors slamming shut. There are dogs barking in the distance. Somebody's father is standing with a hose watering the garden and his shirt, his T-shirt has turned neon blue in the dark.
There is nothing in that description that you do not know. What James Agee knows as a writer is that he has the bravery to tell you something that you think in your life is not important enough to remember. Do you understand? Dare to remember. Dare to take your life seriously. Dare to realize you do not have to live in Paris or New York to become a writer. You could become a writer in Grand Rapids. You can become a writer in Sacramento, California.
Thomas Aquinas, the great church father, says that the act of writing is a form of prayer and boy does that feel true to me on days when everything is dry and stuck. On days when the words come quickly and easily and fast like water you realize "it's nothing I'm doing today that’s different from what I did yesterday." It's a grace.
The ancient people used to talk about inspiration as a wind that comes through chimes, making the chimes sound as music. The muse, the muse is here today. She wasn't here yesterday. She's here today.
The Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost has made these words possible. St. Augustine says, about chanted prayer, he loved the chant of the church, Gregorian chant. He used to say that if you sing to God you pray twice. I would like to say did if you write "dear diary," if you write complicated letters to your friend in prison, if you forsake email for complexity, you live twice.
I used to think that Charlton Heston had it easy in the desert. God spoke to him and thunder clasp. The water parted for Charlton Heston. The rocks were on fire. Who wouldn't believe in God in a world in which the rocks were on fire? [laughter] But I think to myself now, "I think the rocks are on fire everywhere. And I think God is speaking in the desert all the time." And I think to myself, "The act of writing is an act of listening to the mundane and finding what is miraculous in the mundane."
I was at Kenyon College in Ohio. It's a very fine liberal arts college. Has a very fine literary tradition. I was to be the commencement speaker, which is almost as daunting as doing this. Commencement speakers have it worse because you are complete irrelevance. Unless you are Oprah Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres, no one exactly knows who you are. Maybe they saw you on television once or something. "What did he say?" And grandmother's only there to see her grandson.
So, Ohio is almost as polite as Michigan, everybody politely sits there, and they're waiting for you to finish so that they can see their granddaughter get her diploma, which is what they came for. [laughter] So I finished my speech. There had been two deaths that year: two students had died in car crashes. Nothing was said of that. One of the deans told me that.
[00:54:58] That morning at the Kenyon Inn, which is the hotel right across the street from the college, I’d seen this family. They were yelling at each other. It's like a family on vacation and Disneyland. "Who has the camera? Did you forget the camera? I think the camera's back in the car. Get the camera, Ken! I told—" This kid went back, he's swearing under his breath.
Well, when it came time for the graduates to be announced, they announced the names of the two students who had died and a member of their family came forward to receive their diploma and there came the kid who'd forgotten the camera.
But now he was as solemn as a priest. He had his two hands stretched out, not like the other kids receiving diplomas, and he walked off. And we all knew. And there was over there, a kid 17, 18 years old, and his face was bathed in tears, over by the oak tree.
And the ceremony of graduation went on. A became B became C. The students in alphabetical order. I was sitting next to a lady astronaut. She'd gotten an honorary degree. And we are watching H become I, J, K. Young women, young men. Graduates. The living.
And I said, "What is it like to go to outer space?" And then I laughed, I said, "I guess everybody asks you that." She said, "Yeah, that's one of the reasons you go, to tell other people." [laughter] That was nice, I thought. I said, "But what is it like?" She said, “The noise. You remember the noise."
R, S. Another student, a young woman on the water polo team died in a van in Georgia. Her sister came up to receive her diploma.
She said, "The noise is so intense that it runs into your body. It isn't your ears that hear it, your body hears the noise. It comes as a vibration. So thrilling at the moment of propulsion. Like nothing you have ever been trained to hear." And then she says—
R, S, T.
—she says, "The rocket disengages from the capsule and you are thrown forward into outer space. And there is a silence." Everything, everything is magical. The boy carrying the casket. The capsule flying into outer space. The young man under the oak tree weeping for his friend. Everything is magical. Who needs rocks that are on fire?
And then she says, "You see a color spectrum that is so fine and so clean, outside your window. And look," she says, "There's Australia. You can pick Australia up in your hand."
The chairman of the board was sitting on the other side. He was a banker in Chicago. He might be in jail for all I know. [laughter] He looked up at the sky, the gathering clouds. "Looks like rain," he said. And so it did.
Thank you very much. [applause]
Jesse: [00:59:26] Many thanks to Richard Rodriguez for skipping Oprah to rewrite this speech and for sharing his story.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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