Two weeks ago I flew to Sioux Falls to visit my good friend, Lois, in her new home. She and her husband left a Chicago condo off Michigan Avenue facing the lake to settle in a small town with less excitement than a big city. That weekend we attended the South Dakota Annual Festival of Books, a free conference that would be rare in a big city like Chicago. There are pluses for small towns. And I might add, anyplace that is home to one’s grandchildren holds excitement.
Back to the weekend and the Festival of Books. The keynote attraction on Saturday was Jane Smiley on the main stage in conversation with a local radio personality. Smiley came across as a composed, self-assured woman, emitting an occasional monosyllabic answer to the delight of the audience. She was comfortable in the spotlight and seemed to harbor no insecurities. Of course, why not, since she has won a Pulitzer Prize, studied in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar, and written many books—the most recent a trilogy covering 100 years.
Earlier that day, Lois and I had spotted a solitary tall blond with a bright red jacket, jeans, and matching red running shoes striding briskly toward the Larson Memorial Concert Hall where the festival was held. A few minutes into Smiley and the radio personality’s conversation, Lois nudged me. The lone walker had been Jane Smiley. Lois recognized the red shoes.
On Sunday we had a difficult time choosing which of the various breakout sessions to go to, except for Robert Olen Butler’s discussion of his new novel, Perfume River: A Novel. I like his writing. In fact one of his small pieces, Nostalgia, was in Self in 1994. That piece impressed me so much so I cut it out and saved it all these years, and even included it into a post: So What’s Nostalgizing, that I wrote on February 2, 2015.
Once when a writing instructor asked us to bring a copy of what we considered a good piece of writing, I brought Nostalgia. Others brought longer, more nuanced examples but Nostalgia, to me, was perfect. And it spoke right to my heart. It was like a painting or photograph or snippet of music that trips open a trap door to expose a forgotten memory—soft and misty—unclear to the brain but familiar to the heart.
Butler sat in a folding chair facing his audience and directly in front of Lois and me in the first row. He and I were eyeball to eyeball. If he moved up a foot our knees would touch. There was the man who wrote words that always caused my breath to catch in my throat whenever I read them. I needed to tell him. I got up and leaned down to speak into his left ear.
“I just want to tell you I Iove your writing,” I said. He smiled. Then I added, “There is something you wrote in the 90s, a short piece about nostalgia. I have read it over and over again for years. It is so well written. Not an unnecessary word. I have carried it around with me all this time.”
He looked pensive. “I don’t remember it.”
I gave him a synopsis as he stared at the floor. He nodded.
Maybe he didn’t remember after all. But, back in my seat, I felt content in finally telling Robert Olen Butler how much his writing has meant to me. And maybe, just maybe, some day someone will give me the same compliment.
I can only hope.
I am delighted that my story, Baby in the Closet, has been reprinted in Hospital Drive: A literature and humanities journal of the UVA School of Medicine. “This anthology is our editors’ choice of work published since the first edition of Hospital Drive in 2007.” It is the first print edition.