Discussion Question: Good Sadness and Bad Sadness


S.D. Smith

S.D. Smith (pictured above) made a great point yesterday. To quote the man himself:

“Maybe JR, there’ something in the discussion of what kind of sad is helpful and what kind of despair is basically hurtful. There’s a difference between digging through the septic tank to recover the wedding band and just going for a swim in the thing.”

Leave it to S.D. There’s potty humor, and then there’s S.D. Smith potty humor. But, as I said, the man makes a good point. What are the proper purposes of sadness in song and story? Allow me to answer in three principles, followed by two ways of getting sadness wrong.

Principle #1: A good sad story clarifies what is important to us. We love better when ponder what it would mean to lose the thing we love. Which is what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is about:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I love that last line–“To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Autumn, in many ways, is sadder than winter. The leaves’ last burst of beauty before they die and fall is more affecting than the cold and barrenness that follow after they’re gone. The best sad stories and songs do something to our souls that is comparable to what the autumn leaves do. Beauty and loss commingle–the beauty sharpened by the loss, the loss sharpened by the beauty.

Principle #2: A good sad story strengthens our empathy muscles. A good sad story makes us better at feeling for people who hurt, and that’s a good thing.

Principle #3: A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say. A good sad story makes me realize that sadness is a thing to be gone through and not stepped around–because it does good work in our souls. I’m not especially interested in fiction in which sadness or hurt don’t do any particular work in people’s souls–either the characters’ or mine.

There are plenty of sad stories that don’t pass these tests. On the one hand there are sentimental stories. I ran across a great definition of sentimentality recently. Sentimentality invites us to enjoy another person’s pain rather than entering into it. Sentimental stories violate Principle #1 by cheapening the things we value rather than making them more dear. Sentimental stories violate Principle #2 by distancing us from hurt or, alternately, giving us a substitute for hurt that has no nutritional value.

I have been wanting to mention how much I love the old George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It makes me want to cry every time I hear it (and I’ve heard it a lot).

“We found some letters by his bed/ Dated nineteen-sixty two,/ And he had underlined in red/ Every single ‘I love you.’”

I defy anyone to show me a more perfectly delicious sadness in song or story. But it occurs to me that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t pass the test I’m proposing here. It is time I acknowledge that I love that song because it’s the best sentimental song in the American songbook.

If sentimentality is one end of the bad sadness spectrum, the other end is meaningless hurt and sadness. Here I’m going to criticize a couple of books recommended by some of this blog’s most faithful readers. I am not, of course, criticizing said readers. Believe me, this blog can’t afford to lose you. I invite any and all to come to the defense of The Road and The Giving Tree.

The Road is a brutal example of a story in which suffering and sadness seem to point toward no greater good. The only way I can tolerate The Road (which, by the way, has a lot of beautiful writing and and a lot of writing that’s just the right kind of ugly for the subject matter) is to view it as a thought experiment: “Let’s pretend the universe is meaningless, and see where that idea gets us.” Where it gets me is high-tailing it back to the gospel. So it at least did that much for me. I know people who see hope in The Road (and I think this is truer for the movie–which I haven’t seen–than for the book).But as I said in a comment yesterday, any hope a person sees in this book is hope that he brought there himself. He didn’t find it there. I realize that I may have overstated my case. Again, I welcome all efforts to convince me otherwise, because I think pretty highly of Cormac McCarthy and would like to like The Road better than I do.

If The Road offers the brutal version of meaningless sadness, there’s a kinder, gentler version of meaningless sadness, and it’s brought to us by [cringe] The Giving Tree. I re-read this story after two otherwise right-thinking commenters recommended it, and I remembered why I dislike this book so much. The sadness and the sufferings of that most generous tree don’t amount to anything. The tree gives, but she gives only to indulge (and only temporarily) the whims of the boy who never benefits or grows as the result of her sacrifice. She cannot give him what he needs, and what she can give turns out to be limited. The Giving Tree might try a little tough love. What looks like sacrifice is really just co-dependence (forgive the pop-psychology word, but it’s the only one that fits). The Giving Tree is, in essence, an unfunny martyr-mother joke. You half expect it to end in a scene like the one depicted here.

There, that ought to give everybody something to talk about. Somebody, please convince me that I’ve got The Giving Tree all wrong. People love this book, and if possible, I’d prefer not to be the contrarian.

My Favorite Sad Children’s Book



The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes (illus. Louis Slobodkin)
Wanda Petronski lives on the wrong side of the tracks. She comes to school every day in the same ratty blue dress. She sits in the back corner of the classroom where the rowdy boys sit. But she’s too unsure of herself to be rowdy. The popular girls don’t pay Wanda a lot of attention except for a game they play every morning in the school yard:

“Wanda,” Peggy would say in a most courteous manner, as though she were talking to Miss Mason or to the principal perhaps. “Wanda,” she’d say, giving one of her friends a nudge, “tell us. How many dresses did you say you had hanging up in your closet?”

“A hundred,” said Wanda.

“A hundred!” exclaimed all the girls incredulously, and the little girls would stop playing hopscotch and listen.

Every day she wears the same dress, but every day she claims to have a hundred dresses in her closet, “all lined up”–velvet, silk, every color, every style. The girls’ persistence in tormenting Wanda every morning is matched by Wanda’s persistence in her outlandish sartorial claims–not just a hundred dresses, but fifty shoes, then sixty, plus hats and coats to match.

Eleanor Estes’s portrayal of schoolroom dynamics–especially the not-quite intentional hurts that children do to one another–is spot-on. There is so much sadness in this little eighty-page book, which was first published in 1944. Wanda has no answer for the popular girls whose lives are so easy by comparison–only those face-saving claims that are all the more humiliating for their overt falsehood. A hundred dresses, all lined up.

I have heard forgiveness defined as “The fragrance that the flower leaves on the heel of the one who crushed it.” I could never quite make sense of that idea until I read the end of The Hundred Dresses. Wanda’s generosity toward the girls who have so sweetly bullyragged her is genuinely moving. I hope you’ll get hold of a copy and read it for yourself.

The Joys of Sadness



Last week a couple of little girls came into my wife’s library and asked, “Do you have any sad books?” What a great question. There’s a lot to love about sad stories. For one thing, sad stories remind us whatreally matters to us. We feel sadness at the loss (or else the absence) of things we value.
I don’t suppose they knew it, but the girls who asked my wife for sad stories were looking to affirm the things that mattered most to them by feeling what it would mean not to have them. By looking to enter into another person’s sadness (even a fictional person’s sadness), they were looking to experience their own lives more fully. That’s why I love sad stories.

In children’s fiction, nobody does sadness like Kate DiCamillo. The same ache haunts The Tale of Despereaux, The Adventures of Edward Tulane, The Magician’s Elephant, and Because of Winn-Dixie (I haven’t read her other novels). In each of those stories, the hurt, the loneliness, and the sadness nourish the souls of characters and readers alike.

There’s a great moment in Edward Tulane in which a grandmother tells an awful fairy tale: a beautiful but self-absorbed princess is turned into a pig and eaten. The granddaughter is shocked at the suddenness and brutality with which the story ends. “No one is living happily ever after,” she complains.

“But answer me this,” the grandmother says. “How can a story end happily if there is no love?”

It’s a great question, and one we needn’t protect our children from. Without love, there is no hope for a happy ending. The good news is that we live in a world that, though broken, is still shot through with love. Every sadness, every hurt is redeemable. Which is why we need not pretend that hurt and sadness don’t exist. So sing sad songs. Tell sad stories.

Tomorrow I’ll tell about my favorite sad book for children. Meanwhile, what are yours?

The Happy Hypocrite: A Quick Review

I’m forever on the lookout for stories that offer the reader an opportunity to inhabit grace. I ran across one yesterday that I would like to commend to you. It’s called “The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men” (1915), by Max Beerbohm. This long-ish short story depicts the beauty of grace. And, as its title suggests, it also presents grace as a scandal–which it surely is. “The Happy Hypocrite” tells the story of Lord George Hell, the worst of the rakes who stalked Regency London. He is a spendthrift, a gambler, a glutton, a drunkard, a cheat, a liar, a philanderer, and a fop. His one “virtue” is that he doesn’t smoke, but that is only because he considers smoking to be unfashionable. His life of debauchery has left him bloated and purple–a terror to all who see him.
Lord George Hell has never loved anyone but himself. But one day he meets a beautiful and saintly girl named Jenny Mere and loses his heart to her immediately. He makes a fool of himself–or, in any case, a different kind of fool–expressing his love to the girl on their first meeting. But she rejects him flat. She can see his wickedness in the lineaments of his face. She is saving her love, she says, for a man who has the face of a saint–a face that is a true mirror of pure love.

Lord George is heartbroken. But he is also rich. He is so rich, in fact, that he has made it his practice to get whatever he wants. He goes to the most gifted mask-maker in London and has himself fitted for a mask of a saint’s face. When he presents himself to Jenny Mere, she sees the face of the man she has been waiting for. She loves him and marries him. George leaves the debauched London scene behind to live an idyllic country life with his little wife. He seems genuinely to be reforming.

But George’s past catches up with him in the person of an old lover who, in a fit of jealousy, rips the mask from his face.

I won’t tell you what happens next. You can read it for yourself here on Google Books. I got it on my Kindle for $2.39.



When I was a boy, an old man told me a story that I’ve always loved in spite of the fact that it was almost certainly a lie. He said he was walking across a long railroad trestle one dark, dark night when he heard a train coming. He had come far enough that he knew he couldn’t turn around and outrun the train to the far end of the trestle. He considered running toward the train in hopes of beating it to the near end, but without knowing how far he was from solid ground, that was awfully risky. He decided his best bet was to crawl over the edge of the trestle and hang there until the train passed by.

So there he hung by his fingertips as the train rumbled past—the engines, then the freight containers, then the coal cars. Coal car after coal car after coal car clattered over the trestle, mere inches above his head, while he grunted and strained and sweated, praying that his now-numb fingers could keep their purchase long enough for the train to pass.

When the caboose finally clackety-clacked by, the man discovered that he lacked the strength to pull himself up. It was all he could do just to hang there, arms extended and straining against their sockets, and not plummet to the ground below. His lantern was long gone, having vibrated off the trestle about the time the engine thundered past. So he dangled there in the dark, waiting for daylight to come. It was a miserable night, filled with terrors both real and imagined.

But he held on until dawn, when he was disgusted to discover that he was hanging only a few yards from the end of the trestle. His feet dangled only two or three feet from the ground.

The old boy played the story for laughs. But the ironic twist at the end doesn’t change the fact of the genuine terror of hanging there in the dark and the silence, unsure if you’ve got the strength to make it through to morning—and unsure of what will happen even if you do make it that far.

The real reason I love that story is that, in spite of all appearances, the outcome never hinged on the man’s success or failure at “hanging in there.” The outcome came from the solid truth that terra firma was right there, ready to receive him. We devise all sorts of strategies for hanging in, holding on, but even the best and truest of those strategies aren’t nearly so true as the fact that God is holding on to us. We grunt and sweat and struggle in the dark—and there’s always the possibility that we will lose our grip and fall—but we don’t dangle more than a foot or two from the palm of God’s hand.

My First Paid Writing Gig



In elementary school I had a friend named Donny—a small, double-jointed fellow who smelled of peanut butter. I remember him as having a fuzz-stache for as long as I knew him, but I’m probably just extrapolating back from junior high. Surely he didn’t have a fuzz-stache in second grade, when this story takes place.
In the fall of that second-grade year, Donny caught a bad case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for a few days. “Pneumonia,” one of my classmates intoned, shaking her head gravely. “Your lungs fill up. You drown from the inside out.”

“Your lungs fill up?” one of the boys asked. “With what?”

I didn’t have to ask. I knew what Donny’s lungs would fill up with: peanut butter. I pictured him in his hospital bed gasping for breath, every wheezing exhalation filling the room with the smell of sorrow and peanut butter.

In Donny’s absence, our teacher gave everybody a sheet of construction paper and assigned us the task of making Donny a get-well card. I wrote a poem on mine. I don’t remember all the details, but I was particularly proud of a couplet that went something like this:

He laid in the bed in his hospital room
And looked out the window at the yellow moon.

On the front of the card I drew a picture of Donny in a hospital bed, tubes sticking out all over the place, looking dolefully at a crescent moon framed in the window (and wondering, no doubt, if he would ever stand beneath an open sky again; I could be a melodramatic boy when I had a mind to be).

Donny recovered, and there was much rejoicing when his mother brought him back to Mrs. Curry’s classroom. My rejoicing, however, turned to bewilderment when Donny’s mother grabbed both my little hands and started speaking to me with a tearful earnestness that I had only seen on television.

“Jonathan,” she said, “I can’t tell you how much your card meant to Donny and to me—that you would take the time to write such a lovely poem.”

Well, for one thing, I hadn’t taken a lot of time. I had just found some words that rhymed and strung them together into something that made grammatical sense. For another, hadn’t everybody written a poem or something? For the first time it dawned on me that my classmates had probably scrawled “Get well soon!” on their construction paper, scratched out a picture, and moved on to the next activity. Obviously I had overshot the assignment. And this woman, overwrought with worry and relief, had mistaken my poem for a gesture of particular loyalty and friendship.

“You’re a sweet boy,” she continued. “Donny is lucky to have a friend who would write him a poem to cheer him up. A poem!”

Except that I hadn’t written a poem for Donny. Yes, Donny’s illness was the occasion for the poem, but I wrote it because I liked writing poems. I drew the picture because I liked drawing pictures. I liked Donny and wished him well. I certainly didn’t want him to drown in peanut butter from the inside out. But this woman was misreading the evidence.

“Donny’s father and I wanted to give you a little something to show you how much your card meant to us.” She started digging around in her big purse.

Now, this was getting interesting. I had heard of people getting paid for writing. I even had aspirations of writing for a living one day. But I had never dreamed of going pro at seven years old! What does a get-well poem fetch, anyway? Ten bucks? A hundred?

“We looked around the store for something we thought you’d like.” Donny’s parents owned a convenience store. “And with Halloween coming up, we thought you could use this.”

In two outstretched hands, she presented me with a tube of vampire blood. Vampire blood! Who pays a poet in vampire blood?

I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and I still don’t. Surely there is some deep meaning in this payment in blood, but I can’t seem to get to it. Do you, dear reader, have any suggestions?

Audience Participation Friday: Unforgettable



In a comment last week, EmmaJ pointed to something I had never seen or heard tell of: “The Georgia Rambler.” Every week Charles Salter, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal, used to get in his car, drive somewhere in the state of Georgia, and ask the locals, “Who is the most unforgettable person in this town?” The stories he gathered—and there were some remarkable ones, as you might imagine—became the basis of a weekly column called “The Georgia Rambler.”
This past summer, the NPR radio show This American Life replicated the experiment. They wrote the names of the 159 Georgia counties on slips of paper and drew nine out of a hat (an Atlanta Braves cap, naturally). Then they sent nine producers to those nine counties to ask Charles Salter’s question: “Who is the most unforgettable person in this town?”

The result was a very entertaining radio program. In an idle hour, you might want to give it a listen: click here to hear it.

EmmaJ warns that there is a moment of inappropriateness at about 15:30, when a fellow is swimming across a lake while smoking a cigarette. So you might want to skip ahead at that point. I hesitate to mention this for fear that some readers of this blog will skip straight to the 15:30 mark. [Digression: When I was little, my cousin Jason (the one who got in trouble with the SWAT team for shooting pigeons on the roof of the Houston Mall) went to see Jaws II. His eyes were aglitter when he got back: “Want me to tell you all the cussing parts?” he asked.)

Anyway, the Georgia Rambler is the inspiration for this week’s Audience Participation Friday. Who, dear reader, is the most unforgettable person in your town? I know what you’re thinking: aren’t people from small-town Georgia at an advantage in this exercise? Maybe so. All the more reason for those of you who aren’t from small-town Georgia to show us what you’ve got. I know, for instance, that at least one of this blog’s regular readers lived in Wasilla, Alaska for many years. If she didn’t meet some unforgettable characters, I’ll eat my hat. There’s at least one reader who lives in Austin, Texas, a town that seems to think that all its residents are unforgettable.

So there: let the unforgetableness begin. Who is the most unforgettable person in your town?

Thanks again to EmmaJ for the idea.

The Slab

“It’s around here somewhere, boys,” I said, kicking at the pine straw. The lot was still vacant, but it was hardly identifiable, overtaken as it was by brush and vine and scrubby pine saplings. It had been a full twenty-five years since I had been there; but still, how does a concrete house slab just disappear? I imagined eager souvenir hounds chipping it apart and carrying it away piece by piece. But that seemed unlikely. Could we be in the wrong spot? I sighted with a surveyor’s eye across the playing fields to the back exit of the school. No, this was the place.
It was past lunchtime, and I could see that my boys were losing interest. “Keep an eye out for broken teeth,” I said, “hanks of hair—that sort of thing.” They gave skeptical looks. This wasn’t working out the way I had pictured it. How many times had I told the boys about the Slab? How many times had I gone over the speech I would give when I finally took them to see the Slab for themselves. Clearly I should have sussed things out before bringing them cold like this. There we were, and the Slab was nowhere to be found. It seemed a shame, however, not to give my speech.

“Boys,” I said, “this ground was once stained with the blood of my enemies.” Was that an eye-roll I saw? Perhaps I was overstating the case. I started again: “Such deeds have been performed on the ground where we stand,” I said. “How many wrongs have been avenged on the Slab? How many boys have stepped onto the Slab and walked away—or were carried away—as men?”
I looked into the faces of my sons—eleven, twelve, thirteen—and it dawned on me that I was not much bigger than them when I had last been in this place.

*** Read More

Serious Business: A Story of Fourth-Grade Art and the Ayatollah Khomeini



The county Board of Education put on a summer enrichment program for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, and I signed up for a painting class. (I signed up for Rocketry too, but that fact doesn’t figure into this story). It was the summer of 1980; the American hostages were still being held in Iran (surprisingly, that fact does figure into this story).
The first day of our class, our teacher stalked in five or ten minutes late. She surveyed the bright and willing faces of her nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old students. She seemed unimpressed.

The teacher wasn’t much taller than the eleven-year-olds in the class, but she was an imposing presence nevertheless. Her eyes somehow flickered back and forth between heavy-lidded indifference and an artistic wildness that I have since decided was mostly affectation. But it made an impression on me at the time, I don’t mind telling you.

“If you’re here because you want to paint pretty pictures for your mama…” she began, then she paused for effect. Her gaze fell on me; she could see on my face how much I loved my mama, and it disgusted her. “If all you want is to make pretty pictures for your mama, I’d suggest you leave this class right now and go get yourself a camera.”

My mama, of course, was paying for my art lessons. She was expecting to get at least one pretty picture out of the deal, and who could blame her? There was an artist in town who made a good living painting pictures of derelict barns and outmoded farm equipment, all in neutral tones. He was one of my mother’s favorites, and I secretly planned to surprise her with a painting in his style.

“Art isn’t just pretty pictures,” the teacher was continuing. “Real art says something. Real art makes a stand. Real art is political.” She had made her way to a large stretched canvas that faced against the wall, and even I, the naive ten-year-old, could see a Dramatic Flourish coming.

When the teacher whipped the canvas around to face us, it electrified the room. It was a life-sized portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Only when you looked at it closer (the teacher invited all of us to come up and get a closer look), you could see that the pupils of his eyes were actually the silhouettes of people running for terror, and his flowing gray beard was actually the smoke of a burning village at the bottom of the canvas. There were more people running in terror out of the village houses. They were naked, for some reason. Lurid flames licked in the background.

It was a political painting, the teacher explained. It took a stand.

I don’t know how many Khomeini supporters there were in Middle Georgia at the time, but I had to admit, this painting would definitely give them something to think about. It was strong meat.

I gave up on my idea of painting a barn and a rusty harrow. That didn’t Say Anything. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t have Anything Much to Say–not at ten years old, anyway. I ended up painting a picture of a football player. He was the last person remaining on the field; even the stands were empty. In the top-right corner of the canvas, a blue balloon was floating away into the ether. The balloon was supposed to Symbolize Something, though I don’t think I knew what, even at the time. My teacher was not very impressed (see–she wasn’t entirely lacking in judgment). Mama wasn’t impressed either, though she was polite about it. Shortly thereafter I put away my paints and moved on to other interests.


“Ball,” he said, and he gestured to the heavens. I looked where my little boy was pointing and saw a full moon hanging high in the winter sky.
“That’s right, you brilliant boy,” I said. “It is a ball. The moon is a great big ball.”

He didn’t know more than four or five words at the time: Mama. Daddy. Ball. Dog. Plane. What a remarkable thing–to have words only for one’s favorite things in the world.

“The moon is a ball,” I told my boy, “and so is the earth we’re standing on. This whole world is one big ball set spinning in the universe.”

He smiled at me. It was not a smile of comprehension, but of contentment. To me it seemed to say, “Of course this whole world is a ball! And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a great ball where dogs trot and planes soar overhead and my mama loves me and my daddy holds me in the cold night and tells me what I suspected all along: that the moon is a ball, and the world is too.”

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