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Essay

Waterfalls

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He came along in my life when I needed him, even though I didn’t know I did. I wanted to write, but I knew little about it really. Some of my new friends, other grad students, told me that Ray Carver was coming to teach. They could barely contain themselves. “You don’t know his work?” they said, as if I’d been off somewhere in foreign service.

I hightailed it to the bookstore and bought a couple of volumes of his short stories. He never wrote a novel.

On first reading, I didn’t know what to make of him, truth be told. His stories had this angular sharpness that made me cringe, almost in fear, as if life could be cut us up into bloody pieces that refused burial. Reading a bunch of his stories together was like coming on a yard full of glass shards, unforgettable and alarming beauty. They were like nothing else I’d ever read.

That was 1980. Ray Carver was dry at the time, not the dead-and-gone drunk he was for so terribly long in his life. He was working on what most consider today his strongest stories, Cathedral, a collection that included the story “Cathedral,” the story, he says somewhere, that changed his life, a story of hope that’s in just about every anthology undergrads can buy these days.

He climbed Parnassus in the literary world, became a cult figure. Soon, there were thousands of Carvers doing what he did, or trying, writing something people began to call “dirty realism.” Me too. Count me among the disciples. I could show you lean-and-mean stories I wrote back then, Hong Kong-grade ripoffs. Ray Carver, and his editor Gordon Lish, taught a generation of fiction writers how to be newly-minted Hemingways, sparse and tight and frightfully close to the bone.  

He liked me. And, if you’re wondering, yes, there’s considerable idolatry behind that statement. Consider it a confession. Raymond Carver liked me, liked my writing. The only way I can explain how much that meant to me back then is to say that it means as much to me today.

Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac featured a Carver poem from a moment in his life that every Carver-ite recognizes, the moment Ray Carver discovered he was going to die from cancer that wasn’t going away.  Here’s the poem.

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

Don’t ask me what a poem is–I don’t know. To me, this feels more like prose than poetry, but frankly I don’t care because whatever it is communicates with a place in my soul few things do. There’s more.

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

To say Raymond Carver wasn’t a religious man would be shamefully judgmental and idiotic.  If “by your fruits you shall know them” is a rule of biblical thumb beyond nuance, some might judge he wasn’t. He left a trail of brutal ugliness, after all. But most of us are religious in one way or another; some are, perhaps, just better at it than others. And then, of course, it’s worth remembering this scripture too: not all who cry, “Lord, Lord. . .” are.

“Are you a religious man?” the doctor says. Carver replies with characteristic honesty.

I said not yet but I intend to start today

The doctor is a kind man. 

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at himfor a minute and he looked back

Ray Carver was not a big talker.  Trust me, he was not a stirring lecturer or a classroom stand-up comic. His ways were halting and what he said often seemed muffled. It was easy to miss some remarks. I never saw him drunk–who knows what he might have become with a quart of something running in him?  And, of course, this silent moment in the doctor’s office holds the clear recognition of destiny.

He knows it. Listen.

it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong.

The book that best documents what happened in Ray Carver’s soul after this moment in the doctor’s office is a book of poems he titled A New Path to the Waterfall

There’s just too much in that title and yesterday’s poem for me not to take heart. No one I know is God, although some presume themselves approximates. I don’t know the state of Ray Carver’s soul. I have no idea of what may have happened on his death bed.

But to me, at least, that Carver poem is a blessed offering I’m greatly thankful to have opened when it came in my inbox. It’s gorgeously arrayed with hope.

And hope, in this world, is something I need. 

My guess is, I’m probably not alone.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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