“We all crave radiance in this austere world.” —Elizabeth Alexander
At the January 2011 VCFA residency I prefaced my lecture on teaching writing with this:
“Last Sunday morning as I was preparing to leave my cozy, warm house and enter a snowy world to drive to Vermont College for our all day faculty meeting, I heard an interview on NPR with Elizabeth Alexander whose new book, CRAVE RADIANCE, contains a poem with these lines: “We all crave radiance in this austere world.” While I don’t habitually consider the world I live in all that austere, I was feeling its bleakness that morning after hearing news the day before of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords along with eighteen other people, another sad, senseless, violent act perpetrated by a person whose lack of radiance in life sought to steal another’s. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem caught fire inside my imagination in that moment and I realized that I live as I do, as a writer and teacher of writing, because I crave radiance, and that you are here studying writing because you, too, crave radiance. We are meant to be radiant beings and to share that response to life with others, teaching and learning, reading and writing, bringing stories of radiance into our world—sometimes joyful or funny stories, sometimes sad ones that reflect the reality of moments of austerity and pain, real stories and fantastic tales, ones that are read by children who also crave radiance.”
Now, as I prepare to attend the January 2013 VCFA residency, I am still feeling the dimming of radiance we all experienced on December 14, 2012 when little children, some in the act of reading our books in hopes our words would bring them comfort, courage, and escape, were shot down in the halls and classrooms of their own school, Sandy Hook Elementary. Between this 2013 residency and that 2011 one, there have been other violent acts, many others, in our world, so many ways to dim the radiance in these children’s lives and in our own lives.
Over the years I’ve assumed we would make progress in curbing gun violence, but I’ve never taken an active part in trying to make that happen. Now, that has to change. I must find a way to do whatever is in my power to make change happen. As a writer whose books these very children might have read, those books, in fact, that were silent witnesses to their last moments, I cannot write another word for children to give them stories if I do not fight for them to live to read them.
When I was a child there was a saying that went something this: “Your freedom extends to the end of my nose.” Can we not say that the freedom of the gun extends only to the beating of my heart? When a fist hits a nose, the bully’s freedom must be curtailed. After all, we always say freedom implies responsibility. Who is responsible for the terror of these children and the grief of these families if not all of us who do not act to stop the next bullet before it hits the next innocent heart? Whether we who write for children and young adults take overt political action or write stories that help change the world and save lives or stories that change lives and save the world, we will do what we can to overcome the world’s austere darkness with radiance.