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Louisville Courier-Journal
Saturday, August 19, 2006

‘A Private History of Awe’
IU’s Sanders’ moving testament


By Scott Lurding
Special to The Courier-Journal


Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “everyone has a vocation, talent is the call.” With A Private History of Awe, Scott Russell Sanders proves once again why he is counted among the sage writers of our time. Recognized as one of America’s finest essayists, Sanders has crafted a moving testament to the spiritual and personal journey in our lives.


With candor and quiet authenticity, Sanders considers “the force that animates nature and mind,” its power invoking within him “wonder … clouded by fear.” He relates the life experiences and relationships in which he has encountered awe, “this rapturous, fearful, bewildering emotion” that awakens him to the universal force.


A creative writing professor at Indiana University and the author of 19 books, Sanders uses his coming-of-age story in the baby boomer generation to develop this deeply moving book that goes beyond being just a memoir.


His narrative reflections describe important moments in his personal journey, from when he was a child of 4 watching a thunderstorm in the safety of his father’s arms to adulthood when he became a father himself at the birth of his daughter.


In one of the book’s most powerful reflections, Sanders describes his decision to register as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, explaining that he “had come to understand conscience as a sympathetic vibration between my innermost fiber and the force that brings new creatures into being and lavishes so much beauty on the world.”


As he relates stories about his childhood in rural Tennessee and Ohio, his education, and his early career, some of the most poignant examine relationships with his energetic mother of his youth and the deteriorating mother of his late middle age, and his alcoholic father.
He tenderly describes the evolution and development of the deep love he shares with his wife. And Sanders sympathetically relates what made his father so special, while honestly describing the negative impact of his father’s “shameful secret.”


As an adult, he confronts his father about his drinking. “I wanted an excuse to hit him, as if I could beat sense into him, as if I could snap the rope that was dragging him down. And if he pounded me, at least I’d have a reason for all this pain.”


Sanders deftly weaves stories of his past with the present experience of his mother’s physical and mental decline and his granddaughter’s development, her “ferocious, irrepressible” urge to speak, learn, walk and explore. He punctuates his own experiences in the cycle of life, the “perennial flow” of the universe, with a mother whose “self is breaking up” who is “dissolving into the flow of things,” just as a granddaughter is “gathering into a focus of curiosity, preference, humor, and desire.”


Watching his newborn granddaughter and her “clarity of perception,” Sanders wishes “for all of us blessed with consciousness … that we remain forever awake to the isness of things. … The moment we begin taking this skein of miracles for granted, we cease to live, no matter if our hearts still beat.”


Through beautifully crafted language that describes the moments of awakening in his own life, Sanders has written a book full of honesty, wisdom, and power.


Scott Lurding, a Louisville native, is associate publisher of The American Scholar and associate secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Washington, D.C.


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