Now, this is more like it. At first I was unsure if we’d moved far north enough – a line of thinking you’ll no doubt remind me of mid-January – when the temps were in the 90s earlier this week. But last night it rained (and I’m just enough of a Scorpio to adore the rainfall) and I awoke this morning to a chilly 50-odd degrees with a high hovering somewhere just about 60 today. I realize that would make some people shudder but for me, it’s heaven. I plucked a fluffy sweatshirt out of the pull and snuggled into it with glee this morning. Despite my previous entry, there are some things about fall that make me incredibly happy, most of them quite simple. With each passing day, we get a little more settled and situated here. I now know my way around – at least in theory – although my appallingly inept sense of direction gets me turned around every time I exit a storefront. Everyone should get either a map or a smart husband to help point them in the right direction. I have both, and I still don’t know when I’m headed South. If the fate of the pioneers rested in my hands, the Donner situation would have been the exception rather than the rule.
As part of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, Tuesday and Thursday early evenings are largely spoken for with a series of planned events to which spouses are always welcome. This past Tuesday, we were invited to the home of KWF president Charles Eisendrath and his wife Julia who, as the name suggests, is a lady of great refinement and legendary kindness. Whilst he had us captive, Charles gave us a presentation of his life story which includes a number of hair-raising incidents while working as a foreign correspondent in places like London, Paris, Argentina and Chile. It was very cloak-and-dagger stuff harkening back to romantic days of investigative journalism I’m unsure still exist. He played a role in unraveling the infamous French Connection, which resulted in serious threats on his life. If his schedule had worked correctly that day, he would have been interviewing Salvador Allende in his office in the Presidential Palace in Chile on the morning the Chilean military attacked. Instead, Charles watched from a rooftop as planes carrying missiles targeted Allende's office - missiles Charles believes were actually what killed the president. (I also discovered that Charles grew up in St. Louis, attended John Burroughs and began his journalism career – entirely unintentionally – as an intern at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
If that wasn’t enough, Charles ended his talk with the most riveting tale of all. While leaving Costa Rica after a family trip five years ago, the small plane carrying Charles, Julia, their two sons and daughter in law crashed into the jungle. Somehow – and when you see the photographs of the wreckage, you do wonder how – they all survived.
The point of telling us the story, however, wasn’t to impress us with his survival skills. It led into what Charles believes is the real point of the fellowship – the active and energetic pursuit of one’s dreams in an all-too-precious lifetime. (It's a philosophy he explains in this piece from the 2001 Michigan Fellows Journal.) When people hear Chris was awarded this fellowship, they often think it’s a year of teaching or just a year of study. But the atmosphere and the real intent of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship seems so much more than that. How many people ever get the gift of a paid year away from your regular job where you’re encouraged to engage in whatever you think will help shape or reshape your life – as a journalist and as a person?
The journalists here are being encouraged to enhance themselves within their fields, certainly – otherwise, why would their employers let them come? They’re also being encouraged to pursue other dreams. One fellow is studying healthcare issues of immigrants but also wants to learn how to make her own chocolates. Past fellows have seized the opportunity to learn things they’ve always wanted to – or, in some cases, were afraid to – like learning to play the guitar or ice skating.
The encouragement to make the most of this year is extended to the spouses and partners of the fellows. Originally, I assumed I’d take the time here to force myself to hammer out the book I know I have in me and attend a few classes at the University of Michigan. It’s funny how things change. As I’ve mentioned, the class situation didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped this semester but, in one of those rare revelatory moments in life, I’ve stumbled instead onto something I feel strongly I’m supposed to be spending me time on.
A few years ago, author Dave Eggers started an organization at 826 Valencia in San Francisco. The point of 826, as it came to be known, was to encourage children to write via a number of free services, including after-school drop-in tutoring, workshops and the mere existence of a supportive, nurturing environment. In the United States there are currently four 826s – the original, 826 New York, 826 LA and, of all things, 826 Michigan, right here in Ann Arbor.
For a while now, Thomas Crone (a good friend and fellow writer in St. Louis) and I have bandied back and forth the idea of teaching writing workshops to children. Suddenly, the idea of taking classes simply because I could seemed much less appealing (and inspiring) to me than spending dedicated time each week volunteering with and essentially shadowing the good folks at 826 Michigan.
I’m told there’s already an organization underway in St. Louis basing itself on the 826 model and, at first, I found that a bit discouraging. (After all, I wanted to be the one to bestow it on my home land!) But there’s so much to learn here that could be applied in a million different ways and, most importantly, it matters to me. It feels like the right thing to do, so I think for now I’m just going to do it – starting with training to be a tutor for the drop-in sessions – and we’ll all see where it takes me from there.