“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the simplest word, the tiniest generosity can set in motion.”—Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from her essay, We Were Made For These Times (quoted throughout the post.)
Do you remember why you started writing? I know—that’s a loaded question, right? A simpler question might be: Was there a specific event or book or story that first prompted you to put pen to paper?
Or perhaps there was a person, as there was for me.
Finding Mr. Raymond
Anyone who’s ever read my bio (all three of you) knows that my writing journey began when my sixth grade teacher assigned me to read The Hobbit. My wife, who had heard the story of Mr. Raymond and the start of my love of reading and fantasy often over the years, recently asked me if I had ever thanked him. I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t. Indeed, I never saw or spoke to him again after leaving my elementary school on the last day in his classroom.
My wife, being her naturally gracious self, made it her mission to find him so that I could properly thank him. Turns out that Mr. Raymond only taught that one year, his first after graduating from a local university. From there he went on to enter the Peace Corps, graduate from law school, become a partner at a law firm, and raise a family. She found him listed as the Associate Director of a Jesuit Retreat in a nearby metropolitan area.
Wow—full life, eh? No small wonder I never bumped into him again.
To Sir, With Love
With his permission, and your indulgence, allow me to share a slightly abridged version our recent correspondence.
Hello Mr. Raymond,
After an extensive internet search (read: “virtual stalking,” sorry), I’m fairly sure you were my sixth grade teacher at Burke Elementary in 1973. I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I wanted you to know that I’ll never forget you, and that you inspired me in a special way. A way that’s changed my life. Allow me to explain.
It seems to me it was a large class, and as I recall, our group behavior really challenged you as a first year teacher (sorry for any part I played in that). But you definitely had a reputation as “the cool teacher.” I think, as a way of dealing with the challenge, you instituted a “divide and conquer” strategy for your reading lessons. A handful of us were put into an advanced reading group. You gave us each a copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and let us read on our own. I quickly became utterly enthralled—totally immersed in a beguiling new world.
After I swiftly finished the book, you gave me a gift that kept on giving: a boxed set of The Lord of the Rings paperbacks. I now realize this was no small thing, for a first-year teacher, right out of college, to open his wallet and his heart in such a way for one of his students. During our discussions of LoTR, you mentioned that Tolkien had based Middle Earth on a version of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire (that the lost glory of Gondor represented the fallen Rome). I became an ardent fan. So much so that when Tolkien passed, I was determined that I would become the writer that carried the world of Tolkien forward.
Fast forward thirty-plus years. After a successful run in the lumber wholesale business, my wife and I moved to our summer cottage, seeking to live simpler and more meaningful lives. For me, that meant getting back to writing. In hindsight it’s no surprise, but the epic fantasy world I built on the page is set against the fall of Rome, and features the Germanic tribe of the Goths (the inspiration for the Riders of Rohan, in the recesses of my mind).
I recently finished a rewrite of a manuscript that feels as close to ready for publication as anything I’ve written thus far. Whether that’s true or not, it feels like a summit has been reached, and I’m in a position to pause and enjoy the view.
I’ve long credited you with my love of reading epics, and hence, my coming to what I consider my true calling, and my life’s work. I think of that gift you so generously gave, and it makes me want to pass it along to other young people, so I routinely apportion a large part of our charitable giving to youth literacy. I intend to do more as my writing career progresses.
All I can say is, thank you. From the bottom of my Hobbit-loving heart.
The very next day I received his reply.
I am overwhelmed by your email. I saw it yesterday afternoon and shared it with my wife (while I was in tears) last evening. She was also overwhelmed. It is unlike any other Christmas gift (or gift of any kind) that I’ve ever received. Words can’t express the joy, and humility, I feel. I will cherish your email letter the rest of my life. More importantly, I will cherish our friendship (newly established after 43 years !!) no matter the physical distance between us.
As a person of faith, I believe that God’s given us gifts to use, and asked that we treat each other with kindness, generosity and respect. Your effort to find me so that you could personally thank me for acts that occurred 43 years ago, and your passion and perseverance in honing your writing skills is clear evidence of your use of your God-given gifts and your kindness, your generosity and your respect for me. Thank you.
My wife and I have not infrequently reminded each other, and sometimes our now-adult children, that we never know the impact we have on those we encounter each day, even those we meet just for a moment. Your email letter drives home that reality, in spades.
A woman in our office shared with me yesterday afternoon that her husband, about your age, keeps a dog-eared copy of The Hobbit near their bed, and reads it often. . . . It’s been years for me, but I’m going to pick it up again and re-enter the adventure.
Vaughn, I’m very happy for the success you and your wife have had in life. It’s a great delight that you have supported charities for youth literacy. I’m excited and anxious to hear about the future of your story. Please keep me apprised as things develop.
Steve (a.k.a. Mr. Raymond)
An Accumulation of Acts
“It is not given to us to know which acts, or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”–Clarissa Pinkola Estes
It feels wonderful to establish this reconnection. But, for me, it feels bigger than a simple heart-warming moment. To his point, the story of Mr. Raymond demonstrates the potential effects of the little things—small acts of gratitude and kindness. But it also demonstrates scale.
“What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”—C.P.E.
When I say scale, I’m referring to what Estes’ terms an “accumulation of acts.” Think of it. Mr. Raymond’s kindness to a geeky 12 year old back in 1972 led to you and others reading this essay today. And if, having been inspired by Mr. Raymond’s gift, my words end up touching even a small number of readers, and some percentage of them is inspired to their own gesture of gratitude or kindness, well, that is an accumulating scale, don’t you think?
Showing Our Souls
“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire.”—C.P.E.
Now let’s bring the power of storytelling into the equation. I’ve explored the issue before, most recently in an essay here at WU, but I’ve come to believe in the ability of storytelling to powerfully commune with, and thereby inspire and even persuade, our fellow human beings.
We storytellers wield a mighty power to move people. We became storytellers because of our empathy—our intense desire not just to explore how others see and feel things, but to convey those outlooks and emotions to even more folks. Or, in Estes’ words, to stand up and show our souls. When you think about it, we storytellers are built to achieve scale.
Shining the Light—Backward and Forward
“To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”—C.P.E.
As writers we understand that we only improve by writing. In other words, through practice. But we are not simply practicing at assembling sentences and paragraphs. We are practicing at displaying the lanterns of our souls. Exposing our souls’ light takes fierceness and courage. Through practice we become fiercer, braver.
Shining for others takes empathy. Through practicing gratitude and kindness, we become more empathetic. And thereby better storytellers.
What better way to practice gratitude than to reach back, to thank those whose actions tipped us toward enduring good? And what better way to practice kindness than to offer those same sorts of gifts to readers and future storytellers?
So yes—we are built to achieve scale. And I believe that together we can achieve critical mass.
Are you with me, WU? Let’s light some fires.
Is there someone who helped to inspire you to embark on your writing journey? Have you ever told them? How do you pay it forward? How’s the lantern of your soul shining in these shadowy times?