Saturday, February 18, 2012


After that good stop in San Jose, described in an earlier post, we drove up Wednesday morning to the Palo Alto/Stanford area and spent a couple of pleasant hours on the Stanford University campus, mostly at the museum where we found an extensive survey of the Depression-era work of the photographer Walker Evans. It seems like a good moment to remember those dark days. Evans documented the poverty and racism that held much of the South in the grip of another form of slavery. It's a sad reality that our society seems still to have much to learn about human compassion and mutual responsibility. The haves keep having--more and more--and the have-nots keep not-having very much by comparison. It's my hope that the American electorate will have finally come to understand that their distrust of government is a shabby delusion fostered by those with vested interest in maintaining this destructive myth. We'll see. November is now not far away.

That afternoon, a wonderful reunion with a very old friend, Yumiko Tsumura, justly admired for the fine translations she made with her late husband, Sam Grolmes, from the work of contemporary Japanese poets. Now remarried, she still lives in the house they shared, Sam's room untouched and converted into a shrine that celebrates both their love and their collaborative work. We spent the evening remembering good times at the University of Iowa's International Writers program in the late 1960s and retracing the passage of time in our lives since then.

Thursday morning we set off on the short drive from Yumiko's to the Menlo School for my scheduled address to the school assembly. The event had been instigated by Emily, whose name is familiar to readers of The Buddha Diaries as our part-time assistant, a jazz musician just beginning to make her way. (Emily herself was that same day on a flight to New York, where she is scheduled to play a gig at Joe's Pub tomorrow evening, Sunday. New York readers, take note. We heard her band, Noah and the Megafauna, performing live on WNYC public radio yesterday: they were terrific. If I were only in New York City, I'd be there!) Anyway, helping me make arrangements for this tour, she was very eager that I should include her old high school, and set things up for me to speak in the series they were planning for their Writers Week.

Cautioned in advance that high school students have a short attention span and little tolerance for boredom--along with the perfect medium to alleviate it: the cell phone!--I worried that my talk might betray my advanced age and irrelevance to the concerns of youth... I need not have been concerned. Confronted with more than five hundred students and a handful of faculty, I found myself comfortably able to connect with this audience--unfamiliar both in age and size--and to hold their attention for the span of half an hour or so. The title of my talk was “Listening to the Call”—a topic that is close to my heart as one who for long years declined to listen to the call I'd heard at the age of twelve, to be a writer. My invitation for questions met with the usual silence for a few moments at first, but then a hand went up, and another, and another… Great questions, thoughtful, personal, engaged with what I had been talking about. It was a lively session, I thought, and particularly gratifying to know that I had managed to connect with a good number of young people whose lives might be in some way affected by what I had to say. A privilege for which I have Emily to thank!

We hit the freeway right after the talk, for the six-and-a-half hour drive south to Los Angeles. Ample time to reflect on the past few days. I learned a lot about the kind of planning that works out—and the kind that doesn’t. And came home with a renewed sense of the kind of “teaching” I love most: the kind that allows me to follow my own adage, “Tell me who you are.” It’s what I do. Like writing, for me, it’s all about the continuing search for my own humanity, and finding the common ground of that humanity in my fellow-human beings. To learn more about ourselves and our potential, howsoever we choose to do so, therein lies the deepest and most rewarding satisfaction. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’m afforded to pursue this work.


robin andrea said...

Sounds like it was a great trip, peter. I admire people who can speak publicly. In the days when I had to open my mouth in front of a room full of people, even when those people were my co-workers and fellow committee members, I always sounded like I was just about to cry.

Doctor Noe said...

When I was these students' age, I encountered my first literary heroes – Melville, Upton Sinclair, Orwell and Walker Evans' partner in chimera James Agee. From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to his collected film criticism, Agee helped me to heed the call.