Guest Post, Michael Schmeltzer: The Dread Sacred (a Joy Manifesto)


Michael Schmeltzer bio photoLet me begin at the end like every apocalyptic film. The sun like a pregnant belly swells. We are old (or not.) We are sick (or not.) There is war enough to make us mad, even with nothing on earth to gain. We leave a book half-finished, a bill unpaid. Whether you’re a friend or stranger, reader or writer, let me say this so there is no misunderstanding; I don’t want to die.

This, of course, doesn’t matter. Our world, without our consent, will end, not with a bang but a whimper.


Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Sanford, Ferguson.

Other worlds end with a bang but not a whimper and all too soon. We are told black lives matter but repeatedly shown, in a multitude of ways, they do not. In the not so distant past, violence struck like a hammer to our hearts: a movie theater, an elementary school, a church, a night club. If you let it, the evil and hate, the cynicism of society, will convince you no lives matter.

If that happens, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?


In the film “Last Night,” the world ends engulfed in a bright light. There is no scientific miracle, no hero on a rocket. No one survives.

“In addition to the dread is a sort of freedom,” Leah Umansky writes in her book “Straight Away the Emptied World.”

Sometimes I drive and sing wildly out of tune. Sometimes I wonder what if I crash? Is this the song I’ll die singing? I ask myself in the same way I watch apocalyptic films. It’s not the final scene I’m concerned about; it’s the moments before.


The characters in “Last Night” know they won’t make it. The two protagonists, having known each other only for hours, decide to kill each other moments before the world ends. They listen to a crowd countdown the seconds as they hold a gun to the other’s temple.

We know we won’t make it either. So then what? What does dread determine we do?


Let me begin again, this time where I love. My daughters, eight and five, are at school. I drop them off, kiss them goodbye. I return to my unusually quiet home. I wash and fold clothes, empty the dishwasher. This is what I do with my one wild, precious life. Yet, bored by the domestic, I am deeply in love with it, even the piss-mess and stink of the litter box.

In the evenings my children sit on my lap, tug on my arms to anchor me to the couch. At night my cats knead the soft skin of my forearm while I talk with my wife about our day. When I say I don’t want to die, do you feel it more deeply now, when you know the beginning of my joy and not just its inevitable end? Mary Oliver said it so well. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”


I tell my daughters I love them: before they go to school, when I pick them up, when they go to sleep. I tell them directly and often, and they return such radiance. It’s a litany of joy, and I dread the silence their loss can bring.

It’s terrifying to love simply and openly, bluntly, but children deserve it. I want to look every child in the face and tell them they are enough. They are worthy. I would tell them every day. They deserve it all.

At what point do people disagree with me? At what age do people feel it necessary to ask “What have they done with their lives?” or “What were they doing moments before the end?” Seventeen? Twelve? At what age do people look at a child shot and without dread say they deserved it all?


“Tell me something to make me love you,” the character Sandra says in “Last Night.”

We owe the dead this much, a chance to be heard.

“Tell me more. I want to love you. It won’t be hard,” she continues.


“Often I think we can, if given half a chance, love anyone,” writes Jane O. Wayne.


When the shooter confessed he said he almost didn’t do it because everyone was so nice. It’s the proximity that wounds: the almost, the half a chance.

The shooter almost didn’t do it. Oh god, then he did.


Imagine joy enough not to pull a trigger.


A church. A mosque. A cemetery.

Our sacred spaces are not always safe spaces. We as writers are often called to witness this simple and tragic truth. But if there is any wisdom or modicum of comfort I can offer, it’s that we are not only called to witness tragedy, but joy as well.


“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote.

What can we say about that sentence other than how little it understands happiness, or the power inherent in it.


If we understand only a single angle of joy, then we only understand a single angle of loss.

“Tell me something to make me love you.” In other words, teach me your joy so I may wish you safe from harm. Teach me your joy so I may mourn you properly when the world ends.


None of us make it.

‘I don’t want you to go,’ he said, the tears dropping from his eyes, slowly at first, then spilling like a river.

I don’t want to go. But we’re not at the end yet, we’re in the moments before. We have time to tell each other more.


In the final scene of “Last Night,” the two protagonists lower their weapons. Everything hushes. They kiss. Only the sound of their embrace can be heard. Then the world is engulfed in light. This is how the film ends.


This can be the way the world ends, too.


Guest Post, Michael Schmeltzer: In Every Word a Wardrobe

Michael SchmeltzerYears ago, a professor in my MFA program asked us to identify the most important word in Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” I chose “cold” because it changed from stanza to stanza, from blueblack to splintering to driven out. One word in various garbs, a new form in each line.

From then on I knew within every word there was a wardrobe, and in every wardrobe a dozen outfits. Rejection is no different; it can shift from shirt to suit in the span of a sentence.


Form rejections are marked most often by the simple accessory of “unfortunately.” No matter how many layers the response wears, we are quick to pick up that single word. We recognize the form no matter the source.

But unfortunately does not belong solely to the literary realm. For instance, unfortunately, there’s nothing more we can do. Maybe we are with a sick pet at the vet’s office or at home watching a courtroom drama. Maybe we are at an auto shop, the staccato speech of an impact wrench like an alien tongue. One word can waltz from room to room and still belong. One word can cinch around our throats like a belt.

The next time you receive a rejection, pay attention to what it wears. This will tell you where you are, and how devastated you should be.


Rejection: to refuse, throw out, rebuff. To fail to accept (as in an organ transplant).

Devastation: the termination of something caused by so much damage it cannot be repaired or no longer exists.

As writers we know rejection. As humans we will know devastation.


My friend Merced was born June 11, 1985. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis eleven months later. Beginning in 2010 she would need oxygen full time.

In three sentences we travelled twenty five years. Unfortunately, we are unable to travel much further. Look carefully. Do you notice for what occasion “unfortunately” has dressed?


On November 1st Merced was listed for a double-lung transplant. On November 7th they found a set and rushed her into surgery. The speed in which they found a match was nothing short of miraculous.

Double-lung transplant. Miracle. Merced. Brightly robed and ethereal, all of them.


Rank the rejections in order from least to most devastating:

1) Rejection: literary.

2) Rejection: form.

3) Rejection: acute.

If you acknowledge either of the first two as devastating, you have already failed.


Periodically an article will come out showcasing famous authors who were rejected: Stein to Orwell, Faulkner to L’Engle. Plath. Le Guin. Nabokov. We are meant to identify with the rejected, and at the same time find encouragement.

There are articles on ways to cope with rejection. There is even a website devoted to helping writers “persevere through rejection.” And yet I am sure none of these (a)dress it correctly. In truth, most rejections dress the way children do on Halloween: silly villains and cartoon monsters. So many writers jumping at shadows.


If you’ve been devastated by a form rejection, you are using the word devastated incorrectly.

If you’ve been devastated by the body, yours or another, then I am with you. I grieve.


June 11, 1985 – October 11, 2011


Dear Merced,

How are you? I always like to imagine you are well and taken care of. Tell me this is so and my world would be a little brighter.


I love you guys and hope I will be able to visit you again!

Love always,


After I heard the news, nothing matched or made sense. The form rejections kept coming, a blur of boring costumes. Unfortunately, sorry to inform you, we regret, we’re going to pass.

Pass as in throw, as in so much of life is out of our hands. Pass which immediately becomes passed. And now all of it past, irretrievable. Sorry to say it’s not the right fit. Like receiving gifts from an acquaintance, everything was the wrong size.


Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

– from “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke

I too was neither father nor lover so where are my rights in this matter? To be honest, I am not exactly sure but I have read repeatedly all sorrows can be borne if you make them into a story; here is mine about the one rejection with a veil over its face.

But today there is a stretch of sky like blue fabric unrolled, the sun like the crash of a cymbal, loud and absolute in its understanding of light. For a moment all I want is to tailor words with the proper attire. I want to match the heat of this world.

Sky, sun, fire. Language and radiance. It is enough to remind me what most rejections look like. Small things, really, naked and harmless.