Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Author Spotlight: Sam Pickering

The University of Missouri Press has three books in print by Sam Pickering, who some years ago gained fame as one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society. In his most recent book, All My Days Are Saturdays, he writes about teaching and his recent retirement, visits to various locales, and, as he tell us, "the many people I meet . . . who tell me their stories, small tales that make one laugh and sigh." Also by Sam Pickering from the University of Missouri Press are Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life and Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia. Here he ruminates about a life of writing essays about life.

Vicki’s father bought an old farmhouse in Nova Scotia in 1947, and since marrying Vicki, I have spent summer months in Canada. Last week I watched an old woman with a blue cane shopping for strawberries in Sobey’s grocery in Yarmouth. Flats of strawberries lay displayed on a counter. Atop the flats were wooden boxes, each containing a quart of berries. The woman hobbled slowly past the counter sampling berries. From each of the first three boxes she selected a single berry, eating it slowly and then shaking her head and spitting the green topknot into a scrap of tissue paper. The taste of the berry she removed from the fourth box, however, met with her approval. As she chewed, she nodded. Reaching into the flat, she picked up the box and placed it in her grocery cart.
“Personally,” H. G. Wells wrote, “I have no use at all for life as it is, except as raw material. It bothers me to look at things unless there is also the idea of doing something with them. I should find a holiday, doing nothing amidst beautiful scenery, not a holiday, but a torture. The contemplative ecstasy of the saints would be hell to me.” 
A long time ago, I might have agreed with Wells. Nowadays, observing not only seems good enough but mete and right. Once upon a time I dreamed of legendary faraway places with unpronounceable names. Now I stay at home or, when I travel, wander familiar paths. Yesterday I jogged eight miles along backcountry dirt roads. A haze of bloodthirsty buccaneering deerflies sailed about me, all ready to board my head and shoulders. In past years I studied my shadow on the road and plucked the flies from the air before they unsheathed their sabers. I always bettered the record of the tailor of nursery fame who swatted seven flies in a single blow. During a run I never failed to make at least two of the piratical flies walk the plank every mile, often finishing a run having deep-sixed at least thirty of the one-eyed and peg-legged. Yesterday I ignored the flies and let the boldest settle on my neck and arms. Instead of letting the insects bother me, I looked at the flowers growing on the shoulders of the road, which included flags of blue vetch, sunny two-flowered Cynthia, and woodbine, its blossoms jeweled crowns set with white, pink, and yellow. While constellations of water lilies flickered like stars on the surface of still ponds, balls of bullhead lilies rolled in the currents eddying through slow streams.
A wag recently remarked that the lives of essayists are so dull that in order to enliven their days they eventually start sending themselves e-mails and telephoning their homes and leaving messages for themselves. Some even go bankrupt ordering items they don’t want just so Fed Ex or UPS will rap on the door and disrupt the humdrummery of fitting verbs to nouns and paragraphs to pages. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “a writer’s country is a territory within his own brain.” My country doesn’t fill the atlas. Rarely do I forsake the dirt road for the asphalt highway. Yet my country seems a wondrous place rich with domesticity and good humor—hokey stories that keep me smiling. After a time the lively person slips too easily into the cold grasp of good sense. Nonsense quickens, but it is harder to write. I jog and write in part because I don’t want to settle into an armchair and become one of those rancorous old boys who is not happy unless he is recollecting an aged grievance. Laurence Sterne argued that digressions are the sunshine, the life, and “the soul of reading.” For my part I am a rambler and think digressions are the heart of essays. Yesterday I broke my run to search for snakes, turning over bits of wood and broken fish boxes lying beside the road. I found six red-bellied snakes, small necklaces gleaming with life and, more important, bright with the capacity to make passersby appreciate the beauty of living.
I have written a couple of shelves of books. In them I described the appointments of my days: years when children trod the stage of my life, decades in classrooms, the stacks of many libraries, a few faraway places, and always a lively variety of people. Have I been successful? In my terms, you bet I have been successful. I have enjoyed a rich life and had great fun. Moreover, I’ve perfected the art of writing the unread, and I am now working on writing the unwritten. Last week I received a letter in which my correspondent called me “America’s Most Neglected Literary Treasure.” Of course I immediately carried the letter into the kitchen and read it to Vicki. “It’s always nice to hear from a friend,” Vicki said as she stirred the pea soup she was making. “How did you know the letter was from one of my friends?” I asked. “Oh, come on, Sam. What are friends for if not to praise and exaggerate wildly?” Vicki said. “Now leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m busy with this soup?”

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