Make your soul grow

When the name Kurt Vonnegut is mentioned, it is often his most critically acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse-Five that immediately springs to mind. Much of Slaughterhouse-Five is drawn from Vonnegut’s own experiences as a prisoner of war in World War 2. While in this way his novels do contain subtle clues surrounding his personal life, far more can be located in his largely uncovered collections of non-fiction writing, typically in the form of essays, letters, interviews and even speeches. And so while Vonnegut is best known for his fiction writing, in this piece I’m going to shine a light on two hugely insightful bodies of writing that fall outside of that category.

The following passage, from his autobiographical collection Fates Worse than Death is as wonderful an anecdote of childhood, growing up and memory as I have come across. It is quite long for an excerpt, but should you read it the whole way through you will discover it was well worth the read. To listen to a reading of the excerpt, click here.

"No matter where I am, and even if I have no clear idea where I am, and no matter how much trouble I may be in, I can achieve a blank and shining serenity if only I can reach the very edge of a natural body of water. The very edge of anything, from a rivulet to an ocean, says to me "Now you know where you are. Now you know which way to go. You will soon be home now."
That is because I made my first mental maps of the world in the summertime when I was a little child on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, which is in Northern Indiana. Maxinkuckee is three miles long and two and a half miles across at its widest. Its shores are a closed loop. No matter where I was on its circumference, all I had to do was keep walking in one direction to find my way home again. What a confident Marco Polo I could be when setting out for a day's adventure.
Yes, and I ask the reader of this piece, my indispensable collaborator, isn't your deepest understanding of time, and space, and, for that matter, destiny shaped like mine by your earliest experiences with Geography? By the rules you learned about how to get home again? The closed loop of the lake shore was certain to bring me home, not only to my own family's unheated frame cottage on a bluff overlooking the lake, but to four adjacent cottages teeming with close relatives. The heads of those neighboring households, moreover, my father's generation, had also spent their childhood summer times at Maxinkuckee, making them the almost immediate successors there to the Potawatomi Indians. They even had a tribal name for themselves, which sounded like ‘Eptomianhoys’. Sometimes, my father, when a grown man, would call out to Maxinkuckee in general, "Eptomianhoy?" and a first cousin, fishing from a leaky rowboat, or a sister reading in a hammock, or whatever, would give this reply, "Ya, Eptomianhoy!"
What did it mean? It was pure nonsense from their childhood. It was German, meaning this: Do abbots mow hay? Yes! Abbots mow hay! So what? So not very much, I guess. Except that it allows me to say that after the Potawatomis came the Eptomianhoys, who have vanished from Lake Maxinkuckee without a trace. It is though they had never been there. Am I sad? Not at all, because everything about that lake was imprinted on my mind when it held so little information and was so eager for information, it will be my lake as long as I live. I have no wish to visit it, for I have kept it all right here. I happened to see it last spring from about six miles up on a flight from Louisville to Chicago. It was as emotionally uninvoling as a bit of dry dust viewed from under a microscope. Again, that wasn't the real Maxinkuckee down there, the real one is in my head.”

For me, the passage, and particularly that last line, is a reminder that there is value to be found in even the most banal moments of our daily lives. In the early months of the pandemic, it became incredibly hard to escape the trap of monotony and the despair that came with it, a time in which everything seemed to be done passively. Yet Vonnegut’s words serve to highlight that even things that are done passively - things that appear to be banal - have an incredible amount of meaning. That meaning, however, is dependent on our ability to be intentional about finding the good and the excitement in things. To be open to possibility. Recently, I have found that I’ve lost the ability to be present - caught up in the busyness and pressure of my final year of high school it has felt like everything outside of my to-do list is merely an afterthought, a distraction, or otherwise just lost time. Reading that Vonnegut passage directly challenges that way of life, because contained within that anecdote is the suggestion that if anything, the present is an investment into the memories of the future. Things may appear unimportant or insignificant, but nevertheless they become imprinted on our minds. In fact, the memory of an experience or a thing can often transcend the experience or the thing itself. Personally, I’ve found comfort in the idea that my experiences will at some point be viewed in retrospect and that what I do now can shape that. The thought of that has been grounding, and I’ve often returned to Vonnegut’s wonderfully expressed anecdote because it is the kind of thing that provides genuine, credible hope and encouragement.

The second piece comes from an unlikely source. In 2006, a group of students at Xavier High School were given an English assignment in which they had to email their favourite author asking them to come and speak at their school. Five of them chose Kurt Vonnegut and while he did not visit the school, he did end up being the only author to respond. In his response (which was authenticated), he suggested to them the following:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He continued to assign the students the following task:

Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

It’s almost been a year since we created Expressing my thoughts and collecting those of others through this platform has been a way to make my soul grow. Every time I publish a piece, somebody asks me how I manage to find the time to write with everything else I have going on. The answer is that I don’t find myself having to make the time - the more I write, the more I want to write. The pieces I have most enjoyed putting together have been the ones I’ve felt compelled to write. I hope it is a compulsion that never stops, because with every compulsion comes a growth in the soul.

I am always wary of assuming a ‘holier than thou’ position in the things that I write and say. Yet, if I were to offer one piece of advice, it would be to find something to make your soul grow. Something through which to experience becoming.