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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Take a walk down an old dirt road along a springtime borrow ditch with Flagstaff author Mary Sojourner in today’s installment of That Thing With Feathers. Mobilized to fight this pandemic by staying home, she takes us out her backdoor in Flagstaff, Arizona, and into a bigger, deeper world as only Mary Sojourner can.​

Fun and Games

Mary Sojourner

If even the planets can’t fathom Here who will break up these fun and games? —Ramprasad

Mystery tosses a fatal illness to humans. “Here. Catch. Or, if you’re lucky, don’t catch.”

Mystery tosses you and me Not Knowing. “Here. Catch. You are in this game whether you want to be—or not.”

We are locked down in our houses. If not by laws, then by our all-too-human need to believe that if we can just figure it out, we will not die. We go into the tedious light of the internet. We smother in information: Do this. Don’t do that. How to survive social isolation. How to create charming meals out of the distinctly non-charming contents of your dwindling food stores. How to keep your kids amused. Yourself amused. How to have fun with online dopamine manipulators when you are terrified—or worse yet, bored. How to survive being in the dangerous solitude of your own company,

Mystery has tossed us one guaranteed respite—as long as you are lucky enough to live where you can walk in the non-human world. The critical words are “lucky,” “non-human,” and “walk.” No crowded urban trail. No influencer destination. Mystery invites you to walk out the door alone: “Here. Step away. Step out.”

I am lucky beyond measure. I have walked by myself on an old dirt road for decades. Each time, I’ve been given something new. Three days ago, after late spring snow and rain, I headed east toward what was left of the day. I moved slowly, not from physical limitation (thank you, Mystery), but because I felt joy. Joy in the temporary absence of trucks and cars on the road. Joy in the dark ponderosa rising on either side. Joy in water running like a little western river in the borrow ditch.

Long ago, a friend taught me that the hydraulics of a borrow ditch are the same as the ripples, eddies, and rapids of any river. He was a boatman—and trained me in what little I know of paddling a stream by pointing out the runnable flow in a springtime borrow ditch.

I walked along the roadside ditch imagining that I was in a tiny canoe. I risked my life in a three-inch-high rapid, sighed in relief when I eddied out and scouted what was about to be a dangerous trap of two-inch-high boulders. I looked up on the bank to get my bearings, and saw a waterfall pouring out of a little hole in the dark earth.

I walked out along the dirt road yesterday. Water still trickled out of the little hole in the bank, ran down into the borrow ditch, and was—in an instant—part of the greater stream and carried away. I watched till the setting sun chilled the air to near-ice.

I wish I could write that I understood how I might be part of some greater something, or that I was instantly freed from my lifelong terror of dying. Mystery isn’t a pop guru. “Thank you,” I said to being where I was. “Thank you.”

Mary Sojourner is the author of 29: a Novel; the short story collections The Talker and Delicate; an essay collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest; and memoirs, Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire and She Bets Her Life. She is an occasional commentator at her local NPR station and the author of many essays, columns, and op-eds for High Country News, Writers on the Range and other publications. A graduate of the University of Rochester, Sojourner teaches writing in private circles, one-on-one, at colleges and universities, writing conferences, and book festivals. She believes in both the limitations and possibilities of healing through writing—the most powerful tool she has found for doing what is necessary to mend. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The months ahead will be challenging for arts organizations, including Torrey House Press. Connection though story will help us all manage this essential stay home time, and THP will be innovating more ways to give authors a platform to inspire and comfort. We’ll need your help to do it. You can help Torrey House Press weather this storm by donating here.

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