Archive for May, 2022


This piece was presented as the forward to “Sonder, Vol. 8,” a collection of memoirs written by my writing students.


I was halfway to work on a January 27 morning when I got the call. I had been listening to my old graduation party playlist that day, and it was Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book” that bore the brunt of that first interruption. It was the first of many.

Through my car speakers I could hear my wife’s voice. Something like my wife’s voice. It was louder than usual, urgent. There was too much energy behind it. At first, I thought she was trying to tell me some exciting news and was tripping over her tongue to get it out. I strained to catch the words.

They came out in a frantic tumble and I only caught two: “Roger died.”

My mind latched onto them. Did I hear correctly?


“Roger died.”

Roger, the second of my wife’s three older brothers. Roger, who would pick a friend up at the airport in the middle of the night on a moment’s notice without complaint. Roger, never much cared about owning a home but routinely gave his weekdays and his weekends to help a friend put a new roof on his … or a new set of cabinets, new copper plumbing, a pool, a new deck.

Roger, who was great to talk to if you were tired and didn’t want to do anything more than nod at the appropriate places – the one who everyone agreed was the most audacious loudmouth they ever met … was gone.

 I don’t remember much after that. For some reason, I continued on to work. I had classes to teach, and I’d already driven half of the 60 miles.

I didn’t last long. By the time I finished explaining to my morning Tuesday-Thursday class that I wouldn’t be holding class next week, the initial shock was wearing off. In its place came this smothering weight of emptiness. I knew then it would be a while before I tasted “normal” again, and that “normal” would be different.

I canceled the rest of my day classes and was back home in an hour.

I do not have the right words to describe the moments I shared with my wife when I got there. I think maybe some moments are meant to remain private. We embraced. We wept. That is enough.

I decided to hold my Journal and Autobiographical Writing class via Zoom later that evening. Since we only meet once a week, I couldn’t afford to fall so far behind. It was unlikely that the following week’s class meeting would take place.

It seemed the right thing to do, and it was.

We read the scene vs. exposition assignments that evening – me in my daughter’s room, which doubles as my office when she is away at university – and the eight young women enrolled in the course logging in from who knows where to bring their first bits of writing to the group.

I talked awhile about writing and about language. I’m sure I talked about the writing they shared – what worked. What didn’t. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that for those few hours I felt … not normal … but something. I felt cocooned, like the grief of the day, expansive to the point of pushing out everything other than dread, had mercifully lifted. Listening to their words and interacting with them about the craft of writing, one of my true loves, was a balm.

A few days later, Debbie and I were in Tahlequah, a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, where Roger spent most of his life, and where Deb and I spent the first two years of our marriage while I went to grad school.

There were so many reunions (I hadn’t been back in years), joyous under any other circumstance, but this time they were drenched with tears. Roger’s three daughters, Dondi, Dee-Dee, and Diamond. His five surviving siblings – two brothers (David and Billy) and three sisters (Reta, Darla, and Debbie). His grandchildren. His ex-wife. His longtime companion, Liz, who calls him the love of her life, though they never married. Still, it was on Liz’s couch that Roger breathed his last.

And then there were his friends – too many to list – and so many more that couldn’t come because of a snowstorm.

Roger wanted to be cremated, so there was no body – just this crazy picture of him in an Elvis Presley suit and dark sunglasses – the suit was also present at the memorial. Dondi, his eldest, gave the eulogy.

She reminded us all of Roger’s humongous heart and of his bohemian approach to life. A “nomad,” she called him, then reminded us that even Jesus Christ said of himself that he had nowhere to lay his head.

It could be said that Roger had no permanent home. But that would be wrong. If home is where the heart is, then Roger had a home wherever he went. His heart covered all the territory. It had room for everyone.

After the memorial we went to Reta’s place to eat and reminisce. Deb’s 92-year-old mom, who is bedridden most days, even came out in her wheelchair for the occasion. I don’t believe she understood why we were all there, but I count that a mercy.

Toward the end of the gathering I realized I had foolishly neglected to take pictures, so I tried to make up the time. I pulled out my phone and darted from family member to family member.

“Reta, come over here next to Darla and Deb.”

Deb, go stand next to your mom.”

And then, wanting to get a shot of Debbie with her older brother David, I said this:

“Hey Deb, come take a picture with your brother, Roger.”

It was out of my mouth before I could catch it, and it reverberated over the entire room. Everyone heard it. We all felt it. We all wished it were true.

Deb and I were supposed to begin our drive back to California the next day, but the snowstorm that had blown in was still dumping, and we were forced to delay. As a result, I was still at Debbie’s cousin’s house on Thursday night, when class was supposed to meet again.

I confess now that I had intended to cancel that meeting, but the delay, and maybe something else, changed my mind. I Zoomed in from a downstairs office and was greeted by eight familiar faces in little boxes on my laptop. I was so happy to see each of their smiles, to hear the concern in their voices for me and for my family. Again, the balm of their presence and of the opportunity to hear and talk about writing began its work.

Coincidentally, the memoir assignment that week was to write about a friend or family member. They were beautiful pieces, written with surprising sensitivity and vivid detail. Neither of these things is usual so early in a semester. I don’t know if it was obvious to my students or not, but each one put me – emotionally raw as I was – on the verge of tears. I could barely hold it together to give my thoughts on their work. And yet, I logged off that night with a sense of joy and optimism and purpose.

I have reflected much on why that is, and my conclusion is that there is something magical about the act of writing deeply and sharing it with others. There is something magnificently affirming to read well crafted, honest renditions of another human being’s experiences – even if, or maybe especially if, they are painful.

No one is alone. No one is the only one. Whatever it is, we have felt it. We can relate. We can give comfort and through another’s words, we can be comforted.

That is the lesson of Journal and Autobiographical Writing. That is the gift that this class and this wonderful group of young women were to me in the spring of 2022.

What follows is what they have chosen as their best work, so there is no need for me to prattle on. I believe it speaks for itself, and that it speaks loudly.

The words that follow are a celebration and a balm. They are a confession and a regret. They are joy and sadness.

They are, more than anything, a gift.


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