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Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sunday, 19 February 2006

Author offers inspiration to tune into life

Daniel A. Hoyt
Special to The Plain Dealer

As I sprawled on the couch and read Scott Russell Sanders' A Private History of Awe, my cat, as he often does, came and claimed my body as his personal futon.

Sanders inspired me to listen a little closer to the cat's guttural purr, to peer deeper into the pink opalescence of his dirty ears, to appreciate his uninvited affection. It is high praise indeed that Sanders' book gave me a fresh new perspective on the pleasant feline nuisance in my lap.

In this memoir, Sanders traces moments of transcendence from his earliest memories through his mid-20s when his first child was born.

The entire work is a rich, poetic reflection on the moments when we tap into "the force that animates nature and mind." In his prologue, Sanders writes, "The enlightenment I wish to describe is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention."

He called it A Private History of Awe, but Sanders welcomes in everyone and everything. His sensibility encourages spirituality to exist in harmony with advanced science. His vision includes attention for all of the world's living things from "dark-eyed pansies" to "chorusing" cicadas to the pets on our laps.

Most of all, though, Sanders looks at the people: his father and mother, his wife and his friends and his own growing self.

The book is split into four sections - Fire, Air, Water, Earth - but Sanders doesn't limit himself to our idyllic connotations of the elements. Instead, he creates unexpected metaphors and connections. The Air section, for instance, ends as a teenage Sanders wakes up in a blustery convertible; his rascally father is driving along in excess of 120 mph.

The first section, Fire, is the strongest and richest, and it includes accounts of Sanders' boyhood living in and around the Ravenna Arsenal about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland. In the 21,000 acres of the arsenal, Sanders watches the family dog succumb to a divine and deadly wildness by running off with a pack of his feral brethren, and Sanders learns about the power of the U.S. military machine, which he later will protest against during the Vietnam War.

Sanders writes, "I soon learned the sound of bombs from explosions at the ammunition dump, which rattled the china in Mama's corner cupboard and, at suppertime, rattled the fork against my teeth."

Throughout the book, Sanders steps away from the tale of his own life to compare and contrast the newest and oldest members of his present-day family: his baby granddaughter and his failing, senile mother. The writer, now 60, watches and celebrates as the baby opens up to the world and discovers her own moments of meaning and awe.

"At seven months," Sanders writes, "Elizabeth gazes boldly at everyone she meets, without caring if they gaze back. She reaches for everything within the span of her arms, feeling it, gumming and licking it."

But Sanders also watches and mourns as his mother loses more and more of herself, her memories, her faculties. A few of these paired moments truly deepen the book. But when Sanders breaks away from his own narrative too frequently, as he does in the third section, Water, it starts to feel contrived. The digressions disrupt the overall narrative momentum.

Thankfully Sanders, who has written nearly 20 books, including highly praised nonfiction, regains his balance in the final section. In Earth, Sanders becomes a father and embarks on his teaching career at Indiana University, where he strives to inculcate his students with the possibilities of life and literature:

"Maybe I could put into their hands a story or a poem or a play that would lift their hearts, open their minds to the world's wonders . . ."

In A Private History of Awe, Sanders himself has written just such a story.

Hoyt is an assistant professor at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea.
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