Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Ellen Goodman Writes Her Final Column

First, it was Anna Quindlen. Her farewell column, “Stepping Aside,” appeared in the Newsweek issue of May 18, 2009. (Please see my May 12, 2009 blog entry).

And now it is Ellen Goodman. Her final piece, “Letting Go,” appeared on New Year’s Day in The Washington Post and other syndicated newspapers.

Who will replace them? As far as I can tell, no one.

I looked forward to Goodman’s columns because they made so much sense. Two things were special about her writing: She could see the universal in the commonplace and she could see connections between people, events and ideas that eluded most of us. That’s why her columns were so anticipated. Reading her made us pause and exclaim, “So, that’s how it is! I wonder why I never thought of it that way.”

What distinguishes memorable columnists from the merely good ones is their sheer professional longevity. Goodman began writing her columns in 1974, always with verve and wit and always on target. If this isn’t brilliance, I don’t know what is.

Readers can choose from hundreds of her pieces to prove her versatility, passion, insight and facility with words. I will pick only two to make my point.

When I read “Letting Go,” I immediately remembered the column that first indicated her unique voice. But that was so many years ago! All I could recall about it was the revealing role a bird played in the midst of a make-believe world. A quick Web search, with my vague recollections as keywords, brought it all back.

The article was published in March of 1979, and began this way: “The moment of truth came at 3 p.m. on our second day in the Magic Kingdom. There, in the middle of Fantasyland, a small brown bird got up and flew away.”

Goodman was visiting Disney World in Florida. The sight of a real bird put the entire Disney creation in context for her. And through her insight, our sights also opened up.

“In Disney World, they (the birds) may sing, they may bob their heads, kick their legs, move their beaks, blink their eyes and flap their wings. But they do not fly away.”

She was not complaining. She “loved the rides, loved the fantasy and the monorails.” But her point was this: “You don’t have to be a Save-the-Snail-Darter fan to see something weird about the idea of taking acres of natural land and carving out artificial streams and waterfalls – each with its own plastic inhabitants … Standing there, watching the flight of the brown bird, I thought of that 1960s song, ‘Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.’ The writer was way off. If we were to pave paradise, we’d put up a perfect imitation, plastic apple and all … We are much more fascinated with the man-made than with the natural. We are more impressed with what we have made than with what is just there … It’s a form of human narcissism, I suppose. We find teensy transistors more marvelous than seeds, Disney lands more extraordinary than natural ones. But it is the sort of pride that can be shaken by a small brown bird in a big plastic world.”

I can almost hear Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey applauding.

The other column is more recent. It's reflection on a summer holiday Goodman spent in Casco Bay, Maine, in 2008. The island scene is typical. You and I would pass over it with probably no more than a glance. But from the ordinary, Goodman evokes the poignant sense of mortality, rebirth and the mystery of time. As well as any writer, but within a 750-word constraint, she could see “the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.”

“Along the dirt road there is a dilapidated stone wall. Blueberries and chokecherries, wildflowers and bushes have pushed their way around and under the remains, toppling what once marked the neat border of a seaside farm … Permanence and transience are on my summer mind … But if transience is on my mind, if the luxury of summer comes with its own penumbra of loss, it's largely because there is a dying in my family. My Aunt Lorna is facing death with the trademark honesty and character that have marked her life and her approach to an unforgiving illness … A few weeks ago, a new grandson arrived in the midst of her dying. She has already built a web of memories with her adored granddaughter. Now comes this little boy. A boy who will know her only through our stories. It was, she told me in one succinct word, bittersweet … So here I am this morning, out where the land has upended the human wall, casting stones aside. Enough berries have grown in its place to fill my bucket to the brim. And the day is bittersweet.”

I will miss Ellen Goodman’s columns, and I know you will too.

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