Dear Paul Crenshaw,
It’s late Friday night. I’m in this Starbucks, one of only a few patrons left, and of course, Birdy’s cover of “Skinny Love” comes on. I don’t remember when I first heard it, but that piano and that voice send me spinning, swimming through memories. The sun’s set but the sky’s still an ombre of periwinkle into Stevia green into Easter yellow. The empty tables have me fidgeting for connection, for a recognizable face to appear.
Your collection of essays, I would argue, is a testament to how we value connection. In so many ways, that is how This One Will Hurt You has resonated with me. These essays are beautifully sown with symbols and questions and cared for with tender watering and light. Perhaps now—as I sit with these piano chords and the approaching night—is the best time to honor your words. On rare occasions, I find that books reach out a gentle hand, speak with a welcoming voice, and remind me of why we’re here to bond and cherish. This One Will Hurt You has done so and more.
Yours is a collection I did not want to finish because I didn’t want it to end. The bits of humor, the emphasis on family relationships, and the brightness of new life are mesmerizing. Each of these essays is truly a marvel.
A number of them may be about the strength of subtleties, such as mismatched socks. We learn this from the narrator’s daughter: “When I asked her why she didn’t simply wear a different pair,” he relays to us in “Lightning and Thunder”, “she explained that she liked the first sock.” What brings two mismatched socks together? Maybe the love of one, or the other, or both of them together. This is a moment that sticks with the narrator, becoming a part of how we understand the daughter’s presence.
In other essays, we focus on longevity, how memories shape and stain and grow over time. “Don’t get caught up in the unimportant details, the white couch,” the narrator tells us in “Choke”. “Wait for the red wine.” Details seem especially important to this collection in terms of how we frame and scaffold and cradle the past. And so we ask ourselves the question: what details matter when we tell stories? How do our choices about detail, manifested through diction, affect the story?
“Inside there will be warmth and light and food and laughter,” the narrator remarks in “The Night Before Christmas”, “but for just a moment I wish to keep walking, to hold this silence, to hold this place in my heart for just a few minutes longer.” Here he speaks of savoring the silence after snow, that incomparable quiet. Other writing often describes it as smothering, but no, in this case, in your writing, the covering of snow allows the narrator to stop and exhale, to hold a moment in time, even for the slightest second.
Perhaps writing is how we hold on to moments, despite that they are gone, and details are how we grip on to them. “The Wild Thing with People Feet was my favorite” offers a glimpse of this as the narrator connects with a book from his past: “There is no father in the story, and after mine left I read the book again, trying to understand why.”
“Lightning and Thunder” may also speak to this in its second-person point-of-view. When the narrator brings his newborn daughter home, the future looms, and he has “only the ultrasound to go on, and then the birth picture”. And then, years later, when he writes about this scene, the narrator observes: “you forget to look at [these pictures] until she no longer looks that way, because you have her now.” When the narrator views the pictures again, he connects his grown daughter to a moment when he was uncertain about their future together, what “geography lies ahead” and “what pictures and personalities will be formed.” It’s a reverberating reflection, like thunder, a stunning consideration of time, uncertainty, and change.
Now I’m heading home. The highway hums. Heat lightning flashes in the distant sky like cannonfire in fog. I’m thinking about “Cold”, how one motion of concern by a character can serve as a life-altering moment which we turn over and over to fully fathom. I’m thinking about the grandparents in the essays, how we come to know even those close to us only over a long spread of time, beyond lifetimes, such as in “The Bear”, “The Giving of Food”, and in “Palm Sunday”. I’m thinking about the humor of “My Possum problem, and how it finally ended” and “Of Little Faith”, how it is paired with observation, making the punch lines all the more enjoyable. Then I approach my front door and open it, and from inside I hear voices welcoming me home.
Mr. Crenshaw, your work is an achievement that has enchanted and transformed me. Your storytelling talent is a blessing that had me reveling in each paragraph, sentence, and word. I have been so moved by This One Will Hurt You. I know I will never be able to do my gratitude justice in words.
With the utmost respect and admiration,