NEA Literature Fellowships

Scott Sanders

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2004 - Prose)

From the creative nonfiction piece "The Force of Spirit"

Legend has it that Mozart died while composing the Requiem, a few measures into the section beginning with the Latin word Lacrimosa, which means tearful or weeping. "On that day of weeping," the verse proclaims,

              again from the ashes will arise
              guilty mankind, to be judged.

That much he orchestrated, but he never completed the remainder of the verse:

              Therefore, spare this one, O God,
              Merciful Lord Jesus,
              And grant them rest.

Officially, the one to be spared from God's wrath was the dearly departed wife of the count who had commissioned this Mass for the Dead, but the ailing Mozart must also have been mourning himself. Another scrap of legend claims that in those final days he said, "It is for myself that I am writing this." I suspect he was grieving as well for his own dearly departed, especially his mother, who had died some years earlier in Paris while he was there looking for work.

Ruth's mother died last October, not long before the chorus began rehearsing the Requiem. By the time of her death, Dessa McClure had been whittled away by Alzheimer's disease for half a dozen years, losing her memory, speech, balance, and strength, becoming again as a little child. This was not the sort of child she had aspired to become, for she meant to find her way to heaven by achieving a clear vision and a simple heart. Toward the end, her vision grew cloudy, and the world became a blur of strange rooms and unknown faces. And at the very end, while she was rising from a bath, her heart quit.

The nurse who'd been helping her at the time told us afterward, "She went limp all of a sudden and dropped right down and was gone."

Ruth's father, still able to get around fairly well back then, had just been to see Dessa in the special care unit, where patients suffering from various forms of dementia drifted about like husks blown by an idle breeze. She had seemed almost happy, he recalled. She even whistled a bit, and showed no signs of pain. And he was sure she'd recognized him by the way she squeezed his finger and smiled. He let that be his last glimpse of her, for he chose not to look at his wife's body after the nurses brought him news of her death.

But Ruth saw her laid out in the nursing home, still crumpled, as if, when breath departed, the body had collapsed like an empty sack. Ruth was so appalled by the image that she insisted on seeing her mother's body one more time before the cremation. And so, after we had finished our business in the funeral home, she and I slipped into a back room to gaze for a moment at the shell of her mother resting on a cart, all but the face hidden by a white sheet, the skin pale except for dark rings under the shut eyes. We knew this face, yet it seemed aloof and slack, for it had been peeled away from the person to whom it once belonged. Beneath the sheet, the body lay as motionless as a piece of furniture covered with drapery in a vacant house. I put my arm around Ruth, not so much to comfort her as to comfort me, to feel the warmth and weight of her. She tilted her head against my shoulder and stood there for a long while without speaking. Then she leaned forward, ran a hand over that forsaken face, and turned to go.


The heart is only a muscle. It's a meaty pump that shoves and sucks the blood that carries the oxygen that carries the electrons that keep us alive. It beats forty or a hundred and forty times a minute, hour after hour, day after day, until, between one contraction and the next, it falters and stops. When surgeons lay the heart open to repair valves and carve out damaged tissue, they find no spirit hiding there, no seat of the soul. Biologists can trace it back down the evolutionary path to the earliest twitchings of life in the sea.

Yet who can accept that we're merely meat? Who can shake the suspicion that we're more than two-legged heaps of dust accidentally sprung into motion? Whatever the doctors and biologists claim, we go on using the word heart as if it pointed to an emotional center, a core of integrity. We trust those who speak from the heart. We're wary of those who are heartless and hard-hearted. Have a heart, we say, begging for kindness. Home is where the heart is, we say. We're drawn irresistibly to our heart throb, who knows how to pluck our heart strings. We long to feel heart's-ease by fulfilling our heart's desire. In our earnest pronouncements, we appeal to hearts and minds, heart and soul. Swearing most solemnly, we cross our hearts and hope to die, if what we say should be a lie. Heartfelt and heartsick, heartland and heartache, heartwood and heartbreak: the word, like the muscle beating in our chest, is indispensable. The beliefs we truly live by, the ones we'll die for, are those we hold in our heart of hearts.

Scott Russell Sanders was born in Tennessee and reared in Ohio. He studied in Rhode Island and Cambridge, England, before going on to become a Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. Among his more than twenty books are novels, collections of stories, and works of personal nonfiction, including Staying Put (Beacon Press), Hunting for Hope (Beacon), and A Private History of Awe (North Point Press). His writing has won the AWP Creative Nonfiction Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. He and his wife, Ruth, a biochemist, have reared two children in their hometown of Bloomington, in the hardwood hill country of Indiana's White River Valley.

Photo by Christina Rahr

Author's Statement

This is my second NEA fellowship - I received the previous one, for fiction, in 1983-1984 - so I am doubly grateful for the honor, the encouragement, and the financial support. The earlier fellowship freed me from teaching for a year, during which I finished a novel, Terrarium, and my first book of nonfiction, Stone Country, both of which were published in 1985, and both of which are still in print. Twenty years and a dozen books later, I was staggering under family, community, and professional responsibilities, when the second fellowship freed me for eight months of concentrated work, during which I finished a memoir, A Private History of Awe, which appears in March 2006 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. During those months I also helped care for my dying mother and for my first grandchild, and their interwoven stories became part of the new book. Meanwhile, I continued work on a project called Common Wealth, which is a defense of our shared sources of well-being - from clean air and drinkable water and stable climate to public lands and libraries and schools - as a counterbalance to our society's exaggerated emphasis on private wealth and personal consumption. In speaking up for the realm of public goods, I wish to show that happiness, health, security, beauty, and meaning derive primarily from the commons - those gifts from nature, culture, and community that we share by virtue of our membership in the human family. During the fellowship period, I drafted pieces of the book as talks, which I delivered in various places across the country. Perhaps in this way I can make my small offering to the common wealth, and thus partly repay the generosity of my fellow citizens in establishing and funding the NEA.