At the Dying of the Year

by Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff

Now win­ter downs the dying of the year,

And night is all a set­tle­ment of snow… 

—Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End” 

 We all have our cir­cles of par­tic­u­lar­ly mourned lost ones. As our hemi­sphere dark­ens down in this ele­giac sea­son of the win­ter equinox, and death has been so relent­less­ly in the air dur­ing 2015, I wave my own lit­tle flags of grat­i­tude to some of my men­tors and acci­den­tal teachers.

bk_Wolff_Robinson160John Rowe Townsend (1922−2014): More than a decade ago, hear­ing him lec­ture on the canon, I sud­den­ly admit­ted to myself that I did­n’t actu­al­ly know Robin­son Cru­soe. I imme­di­ate­ly read it: a sur­pris­ing 250-year-old sto­ry, a sur­vival man­u­al, a panora­ma of ways of dis­cov­er­ing the dai­ly world and of pon­der­ing exis­tence.  And just this week, lis­ten­ing to Trea­sure Island in my car, and being more con­cerned with hawsers and cut­lass­es and scoundrel muti­neers than with speed lim­its or miles per gal­lon of Reg­u­lar, I thank John again for remind­ing his audi­ence to go to sea with Jim Hawkins. 

Lloyd Alexan­der (1924−2007): A life­long music lover, his instru­ment was the vio­lin; he told me that he’d played for years in “a wretched quar­tet” and tact­ful­ly agreed with me about a knot­ty fifth-to-fourth-posi­tion shift.  Every hard-work­ing musi­cian should have such pierc­ing lessons as a wretched quar­tet can teach. 

bk_Wollff_MoreMore160Vera B. Williams (1927−2015): Using her unique micro­scope, she showed us how tiny injus­tices are huge injus­tices and how we might rise to meet them. Among the essen­tial jol­li­ties she cel­e­brat­ed: More, More, More, Said the Baby. Read­ing it with a very young child can’t not make each of us feel bet­ter. And her radi­ant Scoot­er let new light and air into my world.

Wal­ter Dean Myers (1937−2014): Bren­da Bowen put a copy of a new book called Fall­en Angels in my hands in 1989. That sto­ry sharply shift­ed the way I looked at 1968, a year I thought I had known. His books can teach us about every war ever, between two peo­ple or among mil­lions. In our recent  epi­dem­ic of urban vio­lence and despair, I’ve heard myself ser­mo­niz­ing at the evening news: “They haven’t had enough Wal­ter Dean Myers to read!”

bk_WolffNation160Sir Ter­ry Pratch­ett (1948−2015): The giant tur­tle swims slow­ly through space, and on its shell four ele­phants walk in a cir­cle, and on their backs they bal­ance Dis­c­world, whose inhab­i­tants car­ry on with a ludi­crous­ness we can rec­og­nize. But it’s his nov­el Nation that holds pride of place in my book­shelves, where Mau and Daphne go about their baf­fling, com­pli­cat­ing work, encour­ag­ing me by their exam­ple as I go about try­ing to do mine. 

Tom Feel­ings (1933−2003): In his hands the shat­ter­ing sto­ry of The Mid­dle Pas­sage is a col­lec­tion of 64 black and white images, a trag­ic bal­let of almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble cru­el­ty. And every time the media bring me news of a new doc­u­ment or movie or play or poem, promis­ing new­ly pen­e­trat­ing artic­u­la­tion of the appalling crime of enslave­ment, Tom Feel­ings’ indeli­ble por­traits speak up again, mak­ing the unfath­omable fath­omable, shap­ing the sever­est ugli­ness into pro­found­ly affect­ing art.


Ruth Heller (1923−2004): Tire­less, vibrant artist, cheer­leader for gram­mar. Ruth and I cruised down the Yangtze Riv­er togeth­er. She bought a pair of woven boat track­ers’ san­dals on the sun­shiny bank of the nar­row Shen­nong Stream. “What are you going to do with those?” I asked her. “I’m going to hang them in my stu­dio.” “Oh! Then me, too!” (Ever since enter­ing ele­men­tary school, I’ve been copy­ing peo­ple who know more than I do.) My pair of rope san­dals hangs in my stu­dio to this day. Vis­i­tors ask about them, giv­ing me oppor­tu­ni­ties to tell about Ruth and the river. 

George Gib­ian (1924−1999): When I was in col­lege, one pro­fes­sor encour­aged me as a writer. By the time I grasped that I should thank Mr. Gib­ian (a man of mod­est, dig­ni­fied mien and dar­ing intel­lect) in the acknowl­edg­ments of a book, I found that he had died two years ear­li­er.  

Mark Har­ris (1922−2007): The next teacher to encour­age me, 25 years lat­er.  It was he, dur­ing a sum­mer walk on the Ore­gon coast, who direct­ed me to sit in my chair and stay there and keep writ­ing.  The dizzy­ing rever­ber­a­tions of our lunchtime ram­ble set­tled down after a while and I did what he said.

bk_WolffKooserLet’s lis­ten to Poet Lau­re­ate Emer­i­tus Ted Koos­er in Local Won­ders:

Life is a long walk for­ward through the crowd­ed cars of a pas­sen­ger train, the bright world rac­ing past beyond the win­dows, peo­ple on either side of the aisle, strangers whose sto­ries we nev­er learn, dear friends whose names we long remem­ber and pass­ing acquain­tances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away. 

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Suzanne Staples
8 years ago

As always, Jin­ny takes us on a con­tem­pla­tive walk, turn­ing our hearts with her ele­gant­ly assem­bled words. They are a gen­tle nudge to keep my mind open to peo­ple like Wal­ter Dean Myers and Vera B. Williams and John Rowe Townsend, and all of those she names as fel­low trav­el­ers whose gen­er­ousi­ty have so enriched us. Thank you!

Reply to  Suzanne Staples
8 years ago

Gosh, Suzanne. Thank you! But would­n’t we be our bet­ter selves if we had the pres­ence of mind to thank our elders and bet­ters dur­ing their life­times? Good New Year wish­es to you and everybody.

Amy Kellman
Amy Kellman
8 years ago

Jin­ny, That is love­ly. George Gib­ian is the only name I don’t know and Mark Har­ris the only one I did­n’t know per­son­al­ly. All the rest impact­ted my life as a read­er, librar­i­an, and friend. Thanks.
Love, Amy

Reply to  Amy Kellman
8 years ago

Amy, thank you! Lucky you to have known these elo­quent fig­ures. Lucky them to have known you. Hap­py New Year to you and all of us.