A New Essay of Mine Is Online: How an Oregon Basketball Coach Taught Me to Pay Attention to the Little Things in Coaching, Teaching and Life

(photo from Oregon Quarterly)

I have a new essay up online–in Oregon Quarterly, the University of Oregon alumni magazine. It’s about the Oregon Ducks and going to college and coaching basketball and teaching and learning to focus on the little things in life that make success possible. You can read it here.

Actor Joe Knezevich Will Read the Audio Version of PURE ACT

I just found out an actor named Joe Knezevich is doing the reading for the forthcoming audio version of my book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  

Here’s a link to Joe’s website, which includes trailers showing him in movies and commercials as well as snippets from audio books he’s done: http://www.joeknezevich.com/demo.html.

Among his many credits is a recurring role on the long-running TV series The Vampire Diaries. Joe has a great voice. I’m excited he’s doing the book.

German Translation of Lax Book Published

I’m pleased to be listed as a contributing editor for the first German translation of my favorite collection of Robert Lax’s poems, 33 Poems. My German isn’t terribly good but I speak fluent Lax and was able to help improve the translations.

The book, called 33 Gedichte, was just published. To read more about it (in German) or purchase a copy, click here.

Dipping My Toe in Translation

In order to insure the first German edition of Robert Lax’s 33 Poems would be as accurate as possible, I recently helped the translator and publisher, Thorsten Scheu, with his translation. My contribution consisted primarily of matching the German to the English and, with my intimate knowledge of Lax’s work (and improving knowledge of German), suggesting where the translation might be improved. It was a small part of the overall work, but it was enough for Thorsten to list me in the book as an editor, which delighted me.

My relationship to German is long and spotty. My grandmother’s parents were German and she grew up speaking German in the U. S., but I don’t remember her ever using more than an occasional German word in my presence. My first real encounter with the language was in grade school. I went to a Lutheran school with German roots and the only foreign language we could study there was German. If I remember correctly, I was forced to learn it from the 4th through the 8th grade.

I didn’t love the language, possibly because of how it was taught, but when I went to high school I took two more years of it to fulfill a language requirement and then did the same thing in college. One reason I never embraced it more fully was I never thought I’d be in a position to use it.

But then, just five years out of college, I started leading tours in Europe, including in Germany, and, for the next decade or so, found myself needing to use German every year. To my surprise, I started to like it and I did some studying of it on my own.

During those same years, I met and then married my wife Sylvia. Her mother was German and Sylvia herself spoke German exclusively for the first five or six years of her life. It was a sad day for her mother when Sylvia told her she had to be careful because this new man in her life knew their secret language. Being with Sylvia and her mother improved my German immensely.

But even then, I would never have had the confidence I’d need to help with a translation from English to German if I hadn’t decided in April of 2020 to take on a “pandemic project.” While clearing books from a shelf, I came across a Bible written in “heutigem Deutsch”: contemporary German. Sylvia told me a friend had given it to her years before. Since I had never read the entire Bible and I’d already thought about spending some of my pandemic time furthering my knowledge of one language or another, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.

To keep my new task from seeming onerous, I told myself I didn’t have to read every day but I had to average a chapter a day. I struggled a bit at first but eventually I enjoyed the work more and more, and two weeks ago I celebrated a full year of reading the Bible in German. At that point, I had read 40% of it. Which means I still have a year and a half to go!

When I first started reading the German Bible, I had to look up words in almost every sentence, but now I can cruise through several sentences at a stretch without looking anything up. It was that growth in my knowledge of the language that gave me the confidence to attempt translation work.

One interesting byproduct of my German Bible reading and translation work was I found more in Lax’s poems than I knew was there. Because translating slowed me down, I paid more attention to every word and saw how very carefully Lax had chosen each one. Because my German teacher was the Bible, I saw how strongly Lax’s work was inspired by Biblical rhythms and language too.

These good experiences with a language I once disliked have me thinking about maybe someday trying my hand at translating a German work into English.

Meanwhile, though, I have the rest of that Bible to read.

33 Gedichte (33 Poems) by Robert Lax (trans. by Thorsten Scheu) is scheduled to be published in a limited edition of 100 copies by Sprachlichter Verlag in June 2020.

The image at the top of this post comes from  Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

Coming Soon: An Essay on Goodness

Three months ago, in the midst of all of the post-election rancor, the editor of Notre Dame Magazine asked me what I would think about writing an essay on Goodness. He was tired of reading so much about the badness in the world, he said. I told him I’d take the project on but had no idea what I’d do with it. He seemed especially pleased at my not-knowing.

Given the times, with death and uncertainty, everywhere, nothing could have been better than spending the holiday period thinking about Goodness. The essay came to me in bits and pieces while I took long walks alone. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to write some kind of traditional essay, but I didn’t expect the more lyrical piece I ended up creating: a meditation on what Goodness is.

The issue my essay will be in is at the printer’s now and will be mailed out to the magazine’s almost 200,000 subscribers sometime in the next 2-3 weeks. When it goes up online, I’ll post the link here.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to think about where Goodness appears in your own life. It’s a much better lens through which to see the world than the ones you find in most news outlets or social media.

 

“The Story Catcher” is a Best American Essays 2018 “Notable Essay” Selection

I just learned that my essay on Brian Doyle, “The Story Catcher,” published in the Autumn 2017 issue of Notre Dame Magazine is listed among the “Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction 2017” in Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als.

A piece by Brian called “Everyone Thinks that Awful Comes by Itself, But It Doesn’t,” published in the February 2017 issue of The Sun, was selected too.

It makes me very happy to see Brian honored in this way.

My TIN HOUSE Essay on Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s THE EVERGLADES is now online

Tin House has selected my essay on Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s classic environmental book, The Everglades: River of Glass, as one of their sample pieces online for the fall 2018 “Poison” issue.  Here’s the link.  Let me know what you think.

Another Piece on Brian Doyle: Turning MINK RIVER into a Play

Oregon Arts Watch just published my piece about a Northwest theater director and playwright turning Brian Doyle’s novel Mink River into a play.  You can read it here: http://www.orartswatch.org/brian-doyle-and-the-language-of-the-stage/

Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine

My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27.  Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.

I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue.  If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at mcgregorpdx@yahoo.com

Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.

To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.

Thoreau, Gandhi, Malcolm X: Books About Spiritual Quests

The following post appeared today on the Combined Academic blog in England, in celebration of Robert Lax’s 100th birthday:

THE HIDDEN AND THE TANGIBLE by Michael N. McGregor

I don’t know when I first put spiritual and quest together. In my childhood church the word spiritual was seldom used, so I never thought about it. It took on meaning when I heard it spoken in the plural, applied to moving songs by enslaved people. It still bears that soul-deep sound for me, the suffering and longing for freedom.

Quest, I’m sure, came first through knights and Argonauts, the tales and myths of boyhood. While spiritual sounds softer, more ethereal, quest suggests a hardy physical journey, a dauntless searching through the material world. It’s the joining of these elements—the soft and hard, the hidden and the tangible—that gives the term spiritual quest a holistic feel, a sense that it involves one’s whole being.

I was well into writing my biography of poet Robert Lax  before I realized that it was the story of a spiritual quest. This realization got me thinking about the books that influenced me when I was young, most of which, I found, had spiritual quests at their core.

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The first that came to mind was Walden, which I first read in high school. It made me want to homestead in the Canadian woods just north of my Seattle home. I don’t remember Thoreau calling his solitary living a spiritual quest, but his book is full of things described in holy ways: the woods, the lake, the west. The benefits of simple living. His quest was for a way to live that kept him in the moment and in nature. His physical movement was small—a short walk from his Concord home—but he roamed continents in his thoughts, explored exotic lands within his soul.

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The second book I thought of—Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—is more focused on movement, in this case a motorcycle ride, but that movement is even less necessary in terms of getting places than Thoreau’s walk from Concord. What’s more important for Pirsig is being away from one’s regular routine, out where paying close attention is both possible and needed. There, a mindful focus on the seemingly mundane unlocks his narrator’s thoughts about the Greek ideal of Quality, a value he finds lacking in the modern world.

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I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal the third book that came to me, The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, because I’m not sure I read it. It’s possible I only saw the Bill Murray movie. In the film, Murray plays a man who returns from World War I traumatized by his experiences. He rejects the regular life offered him and sets off on a quest for meaning. His quest takes him through the things that matter to other people, all the ways they seek fulfillment, including books. In the scene I remember most, he sits outside, alone and cold, somewhere in Asia, feeding pages from a suddenly useless book into a warming fire. He has realized that what gives life meaning is ineffable.

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Two other books that came to mind don’t describe journeys per se. Not chosen ones, at least. One is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he explores the psychological states of Holocaust victims. A Holocaust survivor himself, Frankl finds that the survivors’ most important trait was the understanding that in any circumstance, no matter how dire, we retain the freedom to choose our attitude toward it.

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The other book is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays drawn from Baldwin’s life that echo Frankl’s thinking. Instead of focusing only on the individual, though, Baldwin looks at our society. Not only do we have the ability to choose our attitudes, he says, but the choices we make determine our common future. The quest implied in both these books is to become a person who can make what are, in essence, spiritual choices.

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The last three books I thought of are all a type of spiritual autobiography and so, I guess, more truly fit the category: Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (in which I first encountered Robert Lax).

I found Gandhi’s book tedious in places but his story of becoming sensitized to the world’s needs through experiences of prejudice and encounters with the less fortunate inspired me to pursue more of these encounters myself. Once again, my memory of a book has been altered by a movie. Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” shows him riding through India in a third-class train car to learn about the life of the common people. In the scene I remember most, he sits in his homespun clothes, still and aware, absorbing the noise and chaos of the lives around him rather than fleeing. It is this acceptance of the moment, his poorer countrymen’s reality, that allows Gandhi to transcend his privilege and become a true leader.

Autobiography Malcolm X

Malcolm X’s book is even more clearly about the struggle with one’s self as well as with society. In many ways it is the most extraordinary book on this list because Malcolm X had only his own awareness and fire to change him from an angry hustler for whom racial oppression is a given into a touchstone for whites as well as blacks, an evolving consciousness enlarged by his mistakes as well as his triumphs.

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Merton’s book is the one that most emphasizes the spiritual. It’s tempting to say that he had fewer physical things to struggle against—he wasn’t a victim of racism or a Holocaust survivor; he didn’t have the mental problems of Pirsig’s narrator or the horrifying memories of Maugham’s hero—yet Merton was aware that his main struggle was against his worldly self: his complacency, his egoism, his misplaced desires. Nothing outside his own consciousness forced him to confront himself and the life he was living. Yet he was willing to relinquish everything to find the meaning he desired, to reject all physical comfort in pursuit of a purely spiritual good.

So what has been the benefit of reading these books? Awareness, I suppose. Increased sensitivity. And camaraderie across the ages: a feeling that I’m not alone in my own spiritual pursuits. These fellow seekers give me courage and models to remember when my own struggles, however comparatively small, sometimes seem too much.

Michael N. McGregor is the author of the new biography Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (Fordham University Press, 2015) .  A former journalist and editor, he is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Portland State University.

The photograph used at the beginning of this post was taken by Michael McGregor.