I just taught a writing course for a dozen neighbors here in Vermont. We spent about eight or nine weeks going from totally blank page to twelve credible, intriguing new short stories (fourteen stories, actually; I wrote a couple as well). During that time, I spent probably fifteen or twenty hours a week giving feedback to individual authors, writing the next week’s assignment, making mid-week recommendations to writers who felt stuck.
Yesterday, we had our event to celebrate that work. And I spent days doing the page layouts and cover designs and uploading files and managing the book printing experience; taking orders and managing payments for the books; making posters and writing press releases for the event; making name tags and orientation signs for the event; unfolding and setting out chairs; writing a script and recruiting members of our local community theater group to perform story excerpts; welcoming guests and chatting with folks I hadn’t met before.
The event itself, the performance and the conversations and the post-performance snacks and drinks, went from 5 to 7pm. And then it was done. Nora and I carried our gear out to the once-again-empty parking lot, shooed the neighbor’s chickens away from the cars, backed away and drove off.
I got an email from a friend last night, saying how much he’d enjoyed reading my most recent novel during a long beach weekend.
I spent some time this afternoon making a green-bean-and-potato casserole that we’ll take to a friend’s house, during this first week after her husband’s death.
I worked for six hours yesterday morning at our town’s transfer station, helping a couple hundred people manage their trash and recycling while the regular attendant was at another site managing our annual large-trash and scrap-metal collection. And I had two hundred greetings, eighty or a hundred brief conversations, fifty people who couldn’t lift something and let me do it instead.
My last big book, The Adjunct Underclass, sold thousands of copies in its first six months, probably two hundred in the three years since.
It’s easy to discount the value of the ephemeral things that we all do to bring pleasure and comfort and new ideas to the people around us. Our meals don’t last, our conversations don’t last, our classroom coaching doesn’t last, our favors that we do for friends when they’re in need don’t last. They evaporate as soon as they’re concluded. But their invisible traces do last, they change the course of the river in some tiny and unknowable way. They lend their grams to the scale of kindness and good will, tipping it a little more in our favor.
As Nora said last night, a whole bunch of people were celebrated yesterday, and their family members got to see them in a little richer and more complex way. The host organization got to build more interest in their larger arts mission, the partnering theater group got to shine once again on our makeshift stage. And yes, all that is done, gone forever. But its residue is not.
These twelve writers may never again write another short story (though one writer told me that the experience had given her the courage to go back to college and major in English). But even though they won’t become internationally famous authors, we won’t acquire any Pulitzers, they’re very slightly different people because of that experience.
We have to have faith in the durable effects of ephemeral acts. We have to believe that the accretion of goodness builds more good around us. Pleasure and kindness are the things we can create through whatever temporary medium presents itself to us. We can’t sign our work like a painting, but it’s unmistakably ours. It doesn’t endure like a wall, but in its own way, it lasts.