Summer 2019 Letter from the Editor

Exponent-Summer-2019-cover-finalThe following is the Summer 2019 Letter from the Editor by Pandora. To receive this issue in print, subscribe here by July 15. Cover art is by Exponent blog founding mother Brooke Jones.

I am sitting at my desk. My office building is empty, my coworkers went home hours ago. But my keyboard clicks and my screen glows and I continue long after what is needed. At one point I look at the window that divides my office from the hallway and notice that it is dirty. My mind drifts and I see myself with a squeegee, across one way, turn, across the other, turn, never down. I know how to wash windows. My grandfather was a janitor and window washer, my dad worked with him as a young man, and I was taught from an early age to perform what my father considered a critical skill. I grew up knowing that whatever happened – I could clean, I could work with my hands, I could take care of myself. 

My father grew up in poverty. His large family lived in rough, compromised conditions and struggled with many of the accompanying issues – truancy, addiction, violence, early marriage. As with many families in this situation, they also maintained close relationships and both his parents, in their own way, communicated strong values rooted in fierce pride and resiliency.   

I came into my father’s life when he was 19, a boy now old with experience. He had survived the impact of many bad decisions, his own and those he loved. He carried his past with a mix of haunted caution, a young man’s swagger, and the optimism of Horatio Alger. He would rise above. I watched and took it all in.  

I heard all the stories over and over and over. Going to school in clothes handed down ten kids too big or too small and being teased; the summer he worked for new clothes and then gave it all to his mother for rent; the precious leather jacket he stole only to have it stolen from him; his mother reading Rudyard Kipling after a meal of fried potatoes; dropping out of high school; a broken heart, hitchhiking across the country with a guitar and a knapsack. There were stories with a moral, stories of courage, stories in the cracks of the stories, spoken and unspoken. I felt the aching hunger and pain and neglect and wanting. Wanting never fully resolved. 

I tracked the cost. I have watched my father push himself, reinventing, working beyond any expectation to exceed, the drive for perfection mixed with deep, ancient self doubt. I have seen him pursue money, wrestle with it, and finally come to an uneasy peace. I have seen the damage and strength in his relentless belief in the future. I have seen him refusing to eat fried potatoes and oatmeal ever again. Choice as a symbol of change. 

I grew up in my father’s shadow, working. Working is what kept the distance, put food on the table. I worked in crop fields and gas stations and machine shops and stores. Not because I had to but because I might have to. I always knew that the difference between my life and the life of a person who did not have a home or the next meal was a hand of cards, a step in one direction or another. A lost job, an injury, a shift that may or may not be in your control but almost never in your line of sight. I grew up with respect. I grew up with fear. I grew up in comparative privilege. I grew up not taking anything for granted. 

I don’t claim to understand or to have fully experienced need. But I am grateful to have listened to my father with a generational perspective, to have incorporated this history into my own call to pay attention, to help, to walk alongside the stories. But I know in my inherited heart that it is grace that keeps me fed. I never assume I earned it or that I am entitled. I grew up next to a survivor and know that we can work and work and work but that does not guarantee anything. The stories of my own family and my global family keep me from judgement. We are in this together, we are responsible for one another, we are all one moment from hunger.

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5 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.” Novelist Hilary Mantel (reviewing a book by Elizabeth Stout).
    That virtue is so evident in this post. It answers the plea of every writer: How do I create a world with lines on a page? With a novelist’s eye and ear, you sweep together years of keen observation and insight to construct that world. It was a privilege to read. It reminded me of a poem by Seamus Heaney, “Digging.” He speaks with pride of his father’s ability to cut turf in the bogs of Ireland, and then decides to follow a different path: “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.” You are digging with your pen, and I, for one, am grateful.

  2. mariagriffin8 says:

    Beautiful!
    Thank you!

  3. Heather says:

    Pandora your words are spun from magic. Bless you.

  4. Emily U says:

    Pandora, this made me cry. You are such a talented writer. My own dad’s experience with unemployment was formative for me, too. It’s so true that life is much less secure than it often seems, and that our own successes hinge on a lot of luck. Humbling thoughts.

  5. Linda says:

    ‘You are digging with your pen, and I, for one, am grateful.’ Beyond grateful and deeply thoughtful.
    Amen, sister!

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