One of my goals as a writer is to inspire people to pay attention to where they are,” Scott Russell Sanders says.
Sanders, whose latest book, A Private History of Awe, has just been published by North Point Press to resoundingly enthusiastic national reviews, has made a life’s work of thinking, writing and teaching about the sense of place. In Sanders’ case, that means the Midwest in general and Bloomington, Ind., in particular.
Sanders has done as much as any writer of his generation to put Indiana on the map. In just over 20 years, he has compiled a body of work, including novels and short stories, children’s books and, especially, creative non-fiction. Sanders is widely regarded as one of America’s leading essayists; his writing about the natural world and how we humans relate to it has garnered numerous awards. He has also earned the Frederick Bachman Lieber Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest teaching award given by Indiana University, where he has worked since 1971.
In A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes, “Even as a child, before I could imagine death, I sensed that the force I thrilled to in thunder storms could crush me. Now, of course, I know that everything I make, everything I love, everything I am will eventually be scattered like the sand of the mandala. My wonder has always been clouded by fear. The word that comes closest to embracing the dread as well as the reverence, the shadow side as well as the light, is awe.”
Sanders talked about embracing awe in a wide-ranging conversation at his home in Bloomington in June. Sunlight played across his garden and through the windows of his front porch as he spoke.
Sanders: There’s a motif that runs through the reviews of A Private History of Awe that says, “This is a really ordinary life this guy has led, in a very ordinary place — and it’s amazing, absolutely fascinating.” They’re startled that I’ve been able to make them interested in a place, a long marriage, stability of vocation, no drug problems, no prison record, no homicides in the family, not seduced by a father or mother. So what could be interesting about this person’s life?
They read it and come away really loving the book and surprised that they’re interested.
I actually say in the preface to the book that what I’m pursuing is a kind of ordinary insight — these are openings, things that happen in all peoples’ lives. I’m telling about what I’ve seen as a way of inviting you to think about your life.
Readers are told that unless you look like and act like and have the adventures of the people you see in People Magazine, or that show up on reality TV shows, or in histrionic memoirs, your life is completely empty. It’s analogous to saying what could possibly be of interest to the human imagination in Michigan City? Or in Bloomington? In Evansville?
NUVO: Toward the end of A Private History of Awe, you write about trying to teach books about happy families and not being able to find them.
Sanders: Strife is dramatic and harmony and cooperation are not dramatic. And yet, our well-being depends on the fact that most of us, most of the time, are cooperative. We’re polite with one another. We don’t punch one another out when we walk down the sidewalk. Husbands and wives and partners living together most of the time cooperate on things. That’s the nature of life. If it wasn’t, our species would have been extinct long ago. So we take passages of harmony and mutual care for granted and we’re interested in where things break down because breakdown is threatening. It’s that which we need to know about, that which we need to avoid.
When you walk across the room and one thing in your customary place has changed its position, you notice that. That’s because, in an evolutionary sense, that might be a threat or an opportunity.
So long as the surroundings are unchanged, so long as the pattern is consistent, you figure you don’t need to pay attention here because this is all known.
The price we pay for this is that it tends to erase the significance from our ordinary lives. It projects all significance on breakdown, destruction and dysfunction. It’s like Freud basing a whole theory of mind on people who were ill.
I’m interested in paying attention to one’s life and to the lives of ordinary people, not because they’re dysfunctional or broken or dramatic, but because they’re here at all. And we should pay attention to places, not because they’re spectacular or famous or show up in movies, but because they’re places where people actually live.
NUVO: But drama attracts us.
Sanders: Yes, I understand the appeal of dramatic things. We’ve been drawn to them as long as stories have been told. Look at the Odyssey — it’s a whole string of scrapes that Ulysses gets into. We’re not interested in the days and days of clear sailing, we want the Cyclops.
But my own life is not a life that has been filled with tragic disruption or brutal parents or suicide attempts. The life I have to write out of is one most people would regard as uneventful. That doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Similarly, it shouldn’t mean to readers that their lives are meaningless. Or that their places — their Indianas — are meaningless.
NUVO: What do you mean when you use words like awakenings and awe?
Sanders: Awakening is an important word for me. It has to do with that waking up from the habituated routines of our lives. That’s going to be as true for a businessman in Manhattan as a farmer in Iowa. We all fall into routines and we become habituated and stop recognizing how astounding life is moment by moment. Being able to talk — to send vibrations through the air, to be able to walk on two legs. These things are so familiar we cease to feel how amazing they are.
For whatever reason, I’m made in such a way that this habituation is occasionally broken through. Maybe, to some extent, it’s because I pay attention to those moments; maybe it’s the result of the discipline of writing; or maybe it’s just how my nerves are wired — but I astonish easily.
You’re with somebody you love or you’re with a child; listening to music or looking at your hostas in the backyard, and something comes over you, how miraculous it is to be here. The wind is blowing and the birds are singing and you feel that sense of utter rightness.
Then you get tired and go in to supper. You fall into your routines again.
One of my hopes in writing this book was to relive for myself some of those passages in my life, but also to issue it as an invitation to readers to be more aware, more receptive to those awakenings in their own lives. I hope it’s easier for a reader to turn away from this book and think about his or her own life than it would be if this book were about the 17th guy to climb Mt. Everest and how he lost his arm from frostbite. There you’re focused on what an amazing thing this guy went through. Whereas there is really nothing in A Private History of Awe that’s outside the scope of most people who would read it.
NUVO: You observe that sometimes it seems to you that all other forms of matter on Earth are closer to God than humans are. That we’re the alienated ones.
Sanders: The irony here is that our very gifts make it possible for us to be alienated. It’s the imagination, it’s the mind. Other animals have minds, but as nearly as one can tell from the outside, that house wren out there calling over his nest doesn’t need to learn how to be a house wren.
Our ability to imagine, our self-consciousness, means that we can fall into the delusion that our self is contained in an autonomous bubble that’s independent of other things.
That’s an illusion I don’t think the house wren is capable of having. Our self-consciousness, which is responsible for some of the greatest glories of human achievement, confronts us with a puzzle: All human beings are trying to figure out how to be human. Beyond biological impulses that we share with other animals, most of what we do as adult human beings is the result of having to make choices. But the making of choices means that we can make mistakes. It means that we can claim for ourselves powers we really don’t possess.
So how do we break through that? I love that Blake passage from “Heaven and Hell” where he says if the doors of perception were cleansed we would see everything as it is — infinite.
For ordinary people like us, the best we can aspire to, I think, is a recognition that awakening is the deepest goal of existence. It’s not to accumulate money, it’s not about status or possessions, but to become as fully awake to this mysterious reality as we can be. To keep that in front of us.
There are a lot of different practices — prayer, meditation, gardening, writing — that focus one’s attention in ways that relax the ego and simply open us to what is. Any practice that does that is nurturing and vital.
NUVO: Guilt seems to play a significant part in many of your life’s important passages …
Sanders: Guilt has been a very significant part of my personality and I don’t pretend to know where it comes from. I do think that some of it comes from being the son of an alcoholic father. As a boy I felt deeply and completely irrationally responsible for the pain and disorder of my parents. The sense that if only I were perfect it would make these problems go away. It’s a classic response to having a dysfunctional parent. But while I could understand it, that doesn’t make it go away.
Another source of it, I think, was being such a pious little boy. I was a devout Bible-reader and church-goer and pray-er to a God who I felt was watching every move I made and every thought in my head.
I do think that guilt can be corroding. I don’t think it’s the best motive for good behavior — because it’s exhausting.
NUVO: Generations — your relationships with your ailing mother and with your granddaughter — serve as reference points throughout your book.
Sanders: These circumstances made me more aware that we’re always dwelling in this stream of generations. The book is about the ethics of caring. What we do best as a species is take care of things. It can be a place, an institution, a school or an ailing elder. Our ability to care about and to take care of others is us at our best.
NUVO: Is caring the way we come to terms with what you call the “authentic self”?
Sanders: That’s when I feel most authentic. Again, I want to insist on how broad caring can be. It can mean engaging with my students or it may be taking a walk with my wife, just feeling a sense of utter connection with her. Or it could be holding my granddaughter — or holding my mother in her later years when she became so childlike and dependent. But it can also be the sense of caring I feel about the Indiana landscape, especially the part where I live. There’s a kind of beauty and nobility here we don’t take good enough care of, that we don’t honor enough.
NUVO: You place an emphasis on the importance of living in proximity to family, friends, a familiar landscape.
Sanders: For me, the unit of value is the web of relationships. If the unit of value is the individual and his appearance, status and wealth, then you don’t stay put. You’re not loyal to anything except the cultivation of the self. But that seems to me to be a recipe for misery — your own and other people’s.
But if you realize what I believe is really true of us, that our lives are only meaningful in relation to other people, places, to our work, then you can say that committing yourself to a set of relationships, if they’re nourishing and worthy, and elicit care from you, is the guide to the source of greatest satisfaction in life. It also gives you the chance to make a real contribution.
NUVO: It seems the culture defines the self in reductive and materialistic ways.
Sanders: Advertising is addressed to that atomic, isolated self. What advertising says is that the universe is all about you. It’s about your appearance, your sophistication, your pleasure, your gratification. And, right now, you are inadequate. You don’t possess what someone is willing to sell to you. If you buy it, then you — this isolated ego sitting on a couch — will be richer, sexier, better, happier.
Even though our rational self knows that’s a complete crock, our emotional self falls for it. That’s why advertising works. It’s aimed at the smallest conceivable notion of what the self is.
NUVO: Is art part of the solution, or part of the problem?
Sanders: It can be either. There is a lot of art that’s just an elaborate way of showing off. That’s true in all media.
But art can often be an antidote. It carries us outside our own little arena of consciousness. It enables us to imagine lives that are different from our own. And it focuses our attention. When it’s well-done it redirects our attention and refreshes our awareness.
NUVO: You call mortality the one lesson we never unlearn.
Sanders: When I was a boy I was obsessed with death. I nearly died as a result of an operation, but every child has some experience that brings the sudden awareness that you, too, will die. You forget it, you repress it, you push it off to the edge of your mind, but you don’t get rid of it.
I really was terrified of death. A lot of my church obsession and Bible obsession was driven by that. I’m convinced that is the root of a great deal of religious practice, everywhere in the world: the yearning for some kind of assurance that we will continue in some form.
Then, something strange gradually happened in my middle years. I think it began after my father’s dying when I was 35 and he was 64. I got over my fear of death. I do not look forward to old age, to dependence — I’ve seen too much of it, the kind of humiliations and limitations that can and usually do come with extreme old age. But death itself doesn’t frighten me and I don’t know why that came about. It’s not because I feel that I will have life eternal. In fact, I think the odds are against it.
It seems to me the healthiest form of awareness of mortality is to feel how precious every moment is. To not always be craving something that isn’t here, but to be truly present. If life has a purpose it has to be about developing awareness. And if humans have a distinctive role to play in the universe — which is a big if for me — it doesn’t have to do with amassing money or sexual conquest or putting a ball through a basket. It has to do with perception. With gazing back at the miracle of creation and responding to it. That’s what we’re here for.
NUVO: Gary Snyder talks about the importance of knowing the names of all the plants in your yard.
Sanders: Knowing where the water goes when it pours off your roof, and that it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and how it gets there and what the path is. Knowing where our weather comes from, the fact that the moisture here is drawn up the Mississippi Valley and encounters these westerly winds that come across the Great Plains.
That’s where we are. To be at a particular place and to feel that you’re one more creature there. That your life is really integrated in that place: That is awesome.
Works by Scott Russell Sanders
1986 Bad Man Ballad
1988 The Engineer of Beasts
1989 The Invisible Company
Short Story Collections:
1983 Wilderness Plots
1984 Fetching the Dead
1987 The Paradise of Bombs
1991 In Limestone Country
1993 Staying Put
1993 Secrets of the Universe
1995 Writing from the Center
2000 The Force of Spirit
2006 A Private History of Awe
1985 Hear the Wind Blow
1998 Hunting for Hope