Essays

How the Federal Government Saved Literature in Tennessee
By Margaret Renkl
Literary Hub, 4 May 2017

In 2009, on New Year’s Day, I got fired from my job as the book-page editor of the Nashville Scene. I was standing in line at Target when the paper’s editor-in-chief called my cell and got right to the point: “We’re canceling the book section,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I have to let you go.”

“OK,” I said.

“Happy New Year,” he said.

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The Passion of Southern Christians
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 9 April 2017

NASHVILLE — In the world of apostolic betrayals, it’s Judas who gets the headlines, but the everyday believer is more apt to fall in line behind Peter. Coldly handing Jesus over to his death in exchange for 30 pieces of silver was an over-the-top, cartoon-level move, but Peter’s terrified denial of the man he believed to be the savior of the world? That one seems immensely human to me.

I have a lot of sympathy for Peter these days. Here it is nearly Easter, and for the first time in my life I don’t want anyone to know I’m a believer.

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Last Breath
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 26 February 2017

Weeks ago, when they first appeared in the neighborhood, I assumed they were starlings. A flock of starlings is the bane of the bird feeder — a vast, clamoring mob of unmusical birds soiling the windshields and lawn furniture, muscling one another aside so violently that no other birds dare draw near the suet.

But this flock stayed high in the treetops, far from my feeders, too far away to recognize. Then a cold snap kept all the puddles frozen for days, and every bird in the ZIP code showed up at my heated birdbath to drink. That’s how I finally got close enough to know them for what they are: cedar waxwings, the most exotic of all the backyard birds.

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Late Migration
By Margaret Renkl
Guernica, 6 December 2016

Every monarch in the world is hatched on the leaf of a milkweed plant somewhere in the continental United States, and almost all of them spend winters on fir-covered mountains in central Mexico, in clumps so thick that tree branches can crash to the forest floor from their weight.

But this March, a storm brought such shattering winds and rain to their Mexican wintering grounds that millions of butterflies died before they could return to the US to breed.

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Quoth the Vulture ‘Nevermore’
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 31 October 2016

The rains we’ve been waiting for, yearning for, have finally arrived in our part of Tennessee, and the sugar maple leaves are falling now in great clots. Rain is falling and leaves are falling and my youngest son, like his brothers, has received his Selective Service card in the mail, and today I have returned to my house to find a lone black vulture standing in my front yard.

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Good Neighbors, No Politics
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 22 October 2016

A few years ago an app surfaced on Facebook that could identify how many of your friends were liberal and how many were conservative. One of my real-life friends clicked the button to see how her Facebook list stacked up and was shocked by the result. “I had no idea I liked so many Republicans,” she said. No wonder she was surprised. Facebook is very, very good at tracking our political leanings—and at serving up more of what it has decided we want.

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Red in Beak and Claw
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 31 July 2016

Two years ago, a day before the baby bluebirds were due to hatch, I checked the nest box just outside my office window and found a tiny hole in one of the eggs. Believing it must be the beginnings of a hatch, I resolved not to check again right away, though the itch to peek was nearly unbearable: I’d been waiting years for a family of bluebirds to take up residence, and finally an egg was about to shudder and pop open. Two days later, I realized I hadn’t seen either parent in some time, so I checked again and found all five eggs missing. The nest was undisturbed.

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Un-Resolved: A Resolution to Stop Resolving to Lose Weight
By Margaret Renkl
Nashville Scene, 30 December 2015

The American ideal of reinvention, of becoming a new creature simply by deciding to be one, is both a delusion and a kind of seduction. It’s also a delusion I embrace, a deceitful seduction I fall for every time, despite the fact that for me — as for virtually everyone else — making New Year’s resolutions is an exercise in failure.

When I was younger, these flops weren’t so obvious because my resolutions took a mostly unquantifiable form. I would vow to be patient, to behave more kindly toward annoying people, to listen in conversations without waiting for an opportunity to jump in, to turn my whole body away from the computer when someone I love enters the room. When I was younger, apparently, I just wanted to be a better person.

Lately what I want is to be somewhat less of a person.

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Recompense
By Margaret Renkl
Proximity, 13 September 2016

It’s October, when your birthday always seems to fall on the most splendid day of the year. Even if it’s a work day, you must find some time to set aside your small whirring machines and your contentions. Maybe there is a creek that all summer has been still and dry and now is wet and tumbling with tiny twigs and leaves and sweetgum balls. Maybe there is a field gone golden with weeds, with finches perched in the seedcrowns. Maybe there is an old train track that hosts no trains but lays out a whole parade route of purple thistles, or a dirt road where the close pines have set down a thick carpet for your hurting feet. Maybe there is a lake where a bald eagle sometimes fishes, and you think to see it dive, to hear its wings rise up to break its fall, to watch its yellow feet pull a sleek brown fish from the green water.

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Caregiving: A Burden So Heavy Until It’s Gone
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 8 August 2015

“Marry an orphan,” my mother used to say, “and you can always come home for Christmas.” What she should have said was: “Marry an orphan, or you’ll have four parents to nurse through every torment life doles out on the long, long path to the grave.”

As it happens, I married the opposite of an orphan, a man whose relatives live deep into old age despite diseases that commonly fell others: cancer, sepsis, heart failure, emphysema. My husband’s elders get sick, and then they get sicker, but somehow they persevere.

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What E-Books Really Cost
By Margaret Renkl
Chapter16.org, 20 April 2012

The Justice Department rode in on a white charger last week to defend the American consumer from predatory pricing in the e-book market. The hitch? Justice wasn’t aiming for Amazon, the online goliath that’s selling e-books at a loss to drive sales of its Kindle e-reader (and create a de facto monopoly of the e-book market). No, the target is Apple and five U.S. publishers destined for extinction if Amazon realizes what looks like its ultimate goal: to become an entirely self-contained, in-house publishing industry—Amazon the agent, publisher, distributor, and bookstore. It’s hard not to wonder if, deep in the bowels of its corporate megalopolis, Amazon is beta-testing an e-author, too.

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Teaching Sam to Drive
By Margaret Renkl
Ladies’ Home Journal, December 2007

“Okay, you have to slow WAY down here,” I’m saying. Sam, at the wheel, doesn’t respond. He’s not ignoring me; he’s concentrating too hard to speak. His hands, correctly positioned at 10 and 2 o’clock, grip the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles are white, and his face, furrowed in concentration, is beginning to turn red. It occurs to me to wonder if he’s actually holding his breath. Then it occurs to me to wonder if he’s forgotten how the brakes work on our 12-year-old Camry. This is not his first time behind the wheel, but he’s never parked before, and he’s approaching the last row of spaces in the supermarket lot without decelerating in the least.

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Ode To Ralph
By Margaret Renkl
Parenting, October 2007

It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’ve had a bad dream, the kind that makes you afraid to go back to sleep. So I’m padding around the house, checking on my brood. Sam, 15, is all knobby legs and elbows sticking out of the trashed bedclothes. Seeing him now reminds me of the tiny clutch I used to feel standing in his doorway when we first moved him out of the crib: how small he seemed, how vulnerable, his knees tucked under his chest. “As long as he sleeps with his bottom in the air, he’s still a baby,” my mother used to say. But no one at my house sleeps with his bottom in the air anymore. Even Joe, 9 the baby of the family, is a smaller version of Sam, tangled up in the sheets, and the corners of his room are stuffed with bike helmets and baseball bats and lacrosse sticks.

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What My Children Teach Me
By Margaret Renkl
Ladies’ Home Journal, October 2007

Four years ago, through a fluke of YMCA scheduling, my two younger sons ended up on the same fall soccer team. Sam, my eldest, had abandoned soccer years before in favor of baseball, so each week I had to sit through only one soccer practice instead of two, the Saturday obligation was over with one 40-minute game, and I had a single absurd jersey color to wash each week instead managing one load for fluorescent orange and another load for Barney purple. Plus, the coaches were brilliant—offering just the right combination of skills, encouragement, and gentle reminders that soccer players don’t tackle each other, especially not when they’re on the same team. I know a gift from God when I see it, so that team is exactly where my sons have stayed ever since. (Henry, 11, plays in his own age bracket; and Joe, 9, plays up.) All the other soccer moms I know are jealous. They think I’ve pulled off some kind of cosmic act of fraud. Isn’t total subservience to the demands of the league the whole point of being a soccer mom?

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