The writer, Barry Lopez, died this past Christmas Day. He was 75 years old. I never met him myself, though when he wasn’t traveling he lived outside of Eugene, Oregon up the MacKenzie River a-ways. By all accounts, he could be a challenging guy, his love of our natural world and our systematic destruction of it rendering him judgmental and angry at times.
I first heard of Barry Lopez in May of 1977. At the beginning of that school year my family had moved to Albany, Oregon. It was a rough year for me, and in March, I moved in with some family friends to finish out my sophomore year in Southern California. While I was still in Albany, though, I got to know Kendra.
Kendra was a profoundly awkward and uncool classmate who loved to write, as I did. Shoulders stooped like many tall young women, she walked a gangly stride down the hallways, her school books pressed to her chest with her arms folded over them. Her nasally voice could be piercing. Her clothes were always nice, her hair cut in the latest fashion, but these things didn’t sit easily on her, her clothes somehow seeming as if they were meant for someone else, her trendy haircut never quite styled right. I suspected the hand of her mother, trying to make her as acceptable-looking as possible, a mission that was thwarted by Kendra herself.
Initially I’d hoped Kendra and I could be friends, but apparently a mutual love of books and writing coupled with our outcast status weren’t enough to forge something quite so close as friendship. Kendra could be abrupt sometimes – not unfriendly exactly, but not warm and inviting either. We might not have been friends, but we were friendly to each other after a fashion. We shared two classes: sophomore literature, and pre-journalism, which was required if you hoped to write for the school newspaper. Also in those classes was Curt.
Truth be told, I had a little crush on Curt. He was nice enough looking, tall, brown-haired and freckled with an abundance of confidence. His wise-cracking was frequently truly funny, and he aspired to be a good writer, too. But whatever luster he had was tarnished daily by his treatment of Kendra. He’d clearly decided to make her life hell, and he was good at it.
Having myself been on the receiving end of this kind of torment I understood that the worst suffering didn’t come necessarily from the words and actions themselves but from their relentlessness and incomprehensibility. You knew you’d done nothing to warrant this laserlike dismembering of your personhood, and still it came. Curt scrutinized Kendra’s every movement and utterance.
“Walk much, Wagner?”
“Who taught you to apply foundation, a bricklayer?”
Kendra would answer a question in class, or offer a comment, and Curt would scoff. He’d sneer her last name. He’d say, “No one wants to hear it, Wagner. That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
The literature and journalism teachers shut Curt down whenever they heard him, but of course he was stealthy as well. And he perplexed them. How could someone who gave insightful, emotional comments about To Kill a Mockingbird be such a bully?
For her part, Kendra tried not to take Curt’s comments lying down. As the end of the first semester drew near, she flared up at him more and more often: “Stop interrupting me, Curt. I’m not finished.” Or the less erudite but equally admirable, “SHUT UP!” I admired her courage.
When I left West Albany High School in March, I asked Kendra if she’d like to write letters to each other and she agreed. I’d hoped the distance might create an opportunity for us to open up to each other more, but her letters remained superficial, detailing classes she was taking, activities she’d participated in. I answered dutifully; it had been my idea, after all.
In early May, I received a letter from Kendra that shimmered.
She wrote to tell me about the artist in residence who’d come to the school the two previous weeks. He was a young writer, no more than 30, and if you were a student in one of the advanced writing classes, you were allowed time each day to meet with him in small groups to talk about your writing. As a member of the newspaper staff, she qualified. Cruelly, she was put in the same small group as Curt. Every day, she marshaled her courage to share her work so as not to waste this precious opportunity with the writer. Every day, Curt ridiculed and snorted at her work – until eventually he was silenced by the writer’s withering stares and his wondering aloud if Curt was serious about writing?
On the last day with the writer, at the end of the last seminar, he asked Kendra to stay behind.
I picture Kendra, standing in front of him, her books clutched against her chest, her shoulders rounded. It must have been a thrill to be asked to stay behind; she must have been grateful that this charmed life she’d been living for the past two weeks would last a few moments more.
She’d gotten used to the gentle, thoughtful cadence of his speech. “You’re good,” he said. “Keep writing, tell your stories. And jokers like that – ” he jerked his head toward the door Curt had recently exited through – “I know it doesn’t help to say ignore him, but I want you to know it gets better, so just keep writing.” Barry Lopez held out his hand for her to shake. “Thanks for being here these last two weeks.”
* * *
Since his death, Barry Lopez has been celebrated and remembered for his commitment to the natural world and for his gorgeous, deep writing. I’ll remember him for that, too, but I am most grateful to him for this moment, for helping my friend to change her story about herself. It would have been so easy for him to see her as a floundering pariah. He could have chosen not to truly see her. But he made the tenderhearted, generous choice, and I believe it gave her a powerful talisman, something she could take out and touch whenever she needed reminding that she was worth seeing, worth reading, worth knowing.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. – Barry Lopez