Originally appeared November 2018 in the blog

After struggling to complete my junior year of college, I withdrew from school, went back to southeastern Illinois, and got a job as a pressman in a tire-repairs manufacturing plant. I ran presses that molded rubber into plugs or patches. Day after day—eight hours a day, and sometimes ten—I loaded my press with slabs of rubber or sheets of patches, and “cooked” them until they were done.

Unloading each batch of plugs was the worst part of the job. I wore protective sleeves on my forearms and two pair of cotton gloves on my hands. I had to tip the tray that held the rubber up on its tracks and, while holding it there, use the heel of my right hand to rub the plugs off into a cardboard box. The tray and the plugs were hot, and despite the protection offered by the gloves and sleeves, I always managed to burn myself.

Day after day, tray after tray. I opened the press machine. I closed it. I opened it. I dislodged the plugs. I started again. It was monotonous and hot and risky work. Only months before, I’d sat in classrooms talking about poetry and novels and plays and essays, only a good part of the time, I didn’t sit in those classrooms because I had a motivation problem and wasn’t going to class. I was young and stupid, and I came close to throwing away the chance of a lifetime.

I came from a part of the state that was working class.

If you didn’t farm, you might work in the oil fields, or at the refinery, or at the shoe factory, or the garment factory. You might build bicycles at the AMF Roadmaster plant, or gut chickens at Kralis Poultry, or you might make chain link fence at Master Halco, or work for Kex Tire Repairs like I did. And, if you went away to college and couldn’t make it there, you could come home and do this work, and no one would think anything was out of the ordinary because you were from this part of the world where most people made their livings from manual labor, and college and a life beyond it was meant for other people instead of you. 

So, when I came home, my parents and those who knew me assumed I’d settle into this working life, and it would be mine until I became too old or too sick to do it anymore.

Let me make it clear that I have nothing but the highest regard for the people who do this kind of work. My father farmed our eighty acres until his heart gave out. My mother worked as a housekeeper, cook, and laundress in a nursing home after she retired from teaching school.

At Kex, I spent my days with good people who knew what it was to put in a honest day’s work for an honest wage. I felt their dignity each day and admire their perseverance even more now that I’m years beyond the time I spent in their company.

But I knew—in fact, I knew right away—I wouldn’t stay. It didn’t take too many days of that kind of work to convince me that I had to find a way to get back to college. I saved my money, and I went back, and, when I did, it was with a renewed determination and purpose. At the time, I didn’t know where this dedication would take me. I only knew I was going. I graduated with my undergraduate degree, and then, over the years that followed, I completed three graduate degrees.


I find myself now in my 37th year of teaching at the college level. I’ve published five novels (with a sixth forthcoming), three memoirs, two short story collections, and a craft book for writers. Still, to be completely honest, there are times when I complain about the work I do—when I moan that the writing is hard, that the teaching demands too much of my time, that the work goes underappreciated.

That’s when I think about those days at Kex, and the hot presses, and the burned arms, and the exhausting tedium of that work. I think of the men and women there who were working to keep a family housed and fed even when their bodies were sick or broken. I think of the way they all wished me well when I told them goodbye, even though—I know this now—they knew they were there for the duration.

 So, this Thanksgiving week, I look back on those days of hard, manual work, and I give thanks for what it taught me, and I give thanks for the fact that for more than thirty-seven years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to spend my time doing what I choose to do rather than what I have to do, and I remember the men and women and all they taught me about work and what it takes to keep your dignity and your capacity for joy through this labor that wears you down.

I give thanks for what I love and for the struggles that have allowed me to spend the years writing and teaching. If I could somehow speak to each person with whom I worked that year and a half at Kex, I’d tell them they’re never far from me. I call upon their will, their strength, their courage, and their grace in everything I write. I may have left them, but they never left me, and for that, above all, I give thanks.

A Kind of Intelligence–the Whale Who Knows “Thank You”

A Kind of Intelligence–the Whale Who Knows “Thank You”

A humpback whale is caught by crab nets, entangled in the mess of nylon lines that cut into her tail, mouth, even her blubber. Coast guards and volunteers come to her rescue, diving into the ocean to sever the nets, one by one, line by line, taking the risk of getting caught by the nets themselves, in the lapping waves, or if the whale slaps her tail in distress. But the whale stays in stillness, until she’s free. Instead of leaving right away, she circles around each diver, touching, nudging, and “kissing” them one by one, as if to say:


Thank you.
Tears well up in my eyes as I listen to the story, real stories off the coast of California, Hawaii, and other places…

A whale is a cetacean, a sea mammal. It has a much larger brain than a human’s, in fact, the sperm whale champions in the realm of brain, its intelligence shown through the epic battle between Ishmael Ahab and Moby Dick, between Man and Whale. For a long time, scientists argued that it’s not the size, but the spindle neurons involved in social conduct, emotions, judgment, and theory of mind, the special intelligence that mark humans as God’s chosen species, conqueror of the earth. Despite countless stories, eyewitnesses, field notes, videos, and studies, they firmly believed, until 2019, that only humans own such intelligence, therefore, are capable of higher intelligence, cognition, or emotions for pain, joy, love and gratitude, for self-awareness and community.

How much do whales, porpoises, and dolphins have to give to prove their emotional intelligence? How many humans do they have to lift from a stormy sea, how many kisses for their human rescuers? How much more love and forgiveness must they give to counter greed and violence in this world?

To know gratitude, one needs to know kindness. To know kindness, one needs to know love. To know love, one needs to know self, who we are, why we are here, how we relate with others outside the self, with communities, other species, rivers and mountains.

“To know love, one needs to know self”

It’s all bundled together, around the spindle, an axis that spins and weaves all the energy and matter and spirits together, and they are called spindle neurons, padded with fat, the oil that protects and moves the neurons smoothly, sending love and gratitude, the special kind of intelligence, through our brain, body, the world.

Because love can’t be born on its own, cannot exist or grow without the spindle of communities, it can’t move without the protection of gratitude. Self can’t exist without the other, individual can’t live without the communities, forgiveness can’t happen without gratitude, and life can’t go on without the ocean of love. The whale knows how to grieve, play, love, learn, and teach.

Do we know, as humans, how to play, grieve, learn, and teach our spindle neurons, just as generously padded with love, covered with gratitude, as the whales?

The divers cry as the freed whale circles around and around, saying goodbye and thank you, one by one, her body bleeding from the nylon lines, her heart flowing with gratitude.

I cry as I listen to the story, my tears joining the ocean of gratitude, my spindle neurons strengthened by cetacean love.

Tuesday, November 3rd, Americans voted.

They knew they were taking risks in the worst pandemic of virus and race. The lines were long, the threat of violence and virus was pulsingly visible.

But they went anyway, to exercise their special kind of intelligence, because they knew who they were, knew who had sacrificed their lives so that they could stand in long lines to vote, and they must honor it with gratitude, as an individual, as a community.

Cetaceans came from the ocean, then moved to the land, then moved back to the ocean, each transition transformed them, each transformation was traumatic, but they embraced it and triumphed, and became the flowers of the sea, with their special kind of intelligence.

I know we can transform and triumph through this pandemic, together, as a community, a country, with our special intelligence for love and gratitude for the self, the community, and life on earth.