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My friend Wiletta Woodson died this morning. I’m sad that I won’t have the joy of talking with her anymore in this lifetime; though I’m certain we’ll have plenty to discuss in the next go-round. But I’m not weeping at her passing. Wiletta lived well into her 90’s and I have a smile on my face as I type these words. She lived a helluva life. Some of the stuff we talked about would curl the hair on the heads of some of the church ladies I have known…
I last spent time with her a few years ago when Lindi and I joined our friends Brad and PJ to visit Wiletta and her husband Steve; to share a meal and another amazing conversation among the many we’ve had with her over our 40+ year friendship. I am glad to know that Brad & PJ visited Wiletta this past Sunday. I just know how much that meant to her.
Wiletta worked in the library at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon when I arrived there in 1972; a bright-eyed, naive freshman. In an environment where most faculty, staff, counselors, and fellow students were fairly-to-deeply conservative, Wiletta was the go-to person if you needed someone to talk to about sex or drugs or anything that felt awkward to discuss in Christian circles. Her compassion and acceptance of everyone – no matter what – helped a lot of students in need who had no one else they felt they could turn to. Wiletta is one of the most open, accepting, and joyfully curious people I have ever known. Brad and I could share some stories that would make some people laugh and others turn beet-red with shock. I’ll save them for a future novel instead of sharing them here in this loving tribute.
Thank you, Wiletta. Your long, wonderful life made mine more wonderful, and our world a better place.
I read a review of My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff, in Entertainment Weekly last month. Though I had a pile of other books to read, the review inspired me to reserve this one at the library. It came in the same time as two other books high on my ‘must read soon’ list, so I set it aside assuming I wouldn’t get to it. But I finally cracked open My Salinger Year two days ago, thinking I’d skim through it over the weekend since it is due back Tuesday and someone else has it reserved. Instead, the past two days have been a headlong dive into Rakoff’s book and Salinger himself.
In the late 1990’s, Joanna Rakoff, after leaving graduate school in her early-twenties and dreaming of becoming a published poet, gets hired as an assistant to the literary agent for J.D. Salinger. Though the events of this book transpired not so long ago, the times she describes feel like ancient history. Rakoff was hired during the last moments of the pre-digital age. She transcribed letters on a Selectric while listening to her boss’s voice on a Dictaphone with foot-pedal controls for playback and rewind. No emails. Just imagine!
One of her tasks was to respond to fan mail that came for Salinger. Though his last book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, had been published in 1963, the impact it, and Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and especially The Catcher in the Rye continued to have on readers was profound. Stacks of letters arrived from teenagers, college students, World War II veterans, and others. The letters were by turns raw, heart-breaking, deeply revealing, grateful, poignant, and very personal to the writers. Rakoff was told to reply with a form letter that Mr. Salinger had instructed the agency not to forward any mail to him, and then toss the letter into the trash. She didn’t exactly obey the instructions. Read the rest of this entry »