His mother dies three weeks before the end of the quarter. A boy, a good student: he emails me to tell me the news, asks permission to be absent. Of course, I say, take as much time as you need. I tell him he can withdraw, take an incomplete, but he promises to be back in class next week. And he is.

I see him settled into his accustomed seat, his wire-rimmed glasses nestled securely on his nose, his khaki shirt buttoned, his feet encased in battered running shoes. I catch his eye, and we nod to one another, understanding. He needs to be here. The students flanking him know he needs to be here. A bright thread of tenderness coils around us.

We’ve been talking about white space. About the necessity of pause, of absence. The power of the gap. Of what is unsaid and unspeakable. I have nothing much more to tell them, these students who are winding their way toward their final projects, so I allow them to work with each other, to mull and brainstorm while I walk among them.

The boy sits attentively in his circle, making astute comments to the others. He leans forward on the small desk, crosses his forearms, tilts his head. I’ve told the students to be playful in this project, to use other media, to see it as a performance of all we’ve been learning about lyric forms. As a professor, I rarely feel in control, always feel like an imposter, that there’s been a mistake. But with this particular class, there’s a give and take in our discussions, an ease to our camaraderie; we’ve somehow become teachers to one another.

When the time comes for the presentations, the students rise to the task. One girl unfurls a quilt with sections of her essay printed on each square; she tells us she and her mom and her sisters stitched together this story of family over Thanksgiving. One girl has made her own soap and buried scraps of her essay inside the rough-hewn cakes. She brings in bowls of water and towels, asks us to wash our hands with her essay while she reads about shame, about wanting to be cleansed. She begins to cry, and I finish the recital for her.

The boy has brought in play-dough, small cans of it that he drops on each desk. He asks us to take the lump and squeeze it in our fists. That’s all, just squeeze, then he gathers them up and puts these little sculptures on display at the front table. Each lump looks different, unique, modeling the individual shapes of our palms, the ridges from our inner knuckles.

The boy stands aside and begins to read, his voice soft at first then growing more forceful. He asks us: What is the shape of emptiness? Then he pauses, allows the question to remain unanswered. We gaze at our playdough impressions, see how we all have different ways to hang on. He made visible the air we never see. The shape of our holding, our hollow spaces pressed into clay. The form of the word, please.

Years from now, this boy will become a man. He’ll marry and have two children, and I’ll see the pictures on Facebook. He’ll be my friend in the way many of us are friends these days: through screens and updates and thumbs-up. On the anniversary of his mother’s death, he posts pictures, her face so like his own. I wonder if he remembers our classroom, the large windows that looked out toward the bay, the way light filtered in and made us all pause. I’ll watch his hands as he carries one baby, then another, and see how full they have become.

But for now, when he finishes reading, he gathers our hands and gives them back to us one by one. We take them from him carefully, so we can carry our emptiness into the day. We compare them, showing off the shapes of our grasping. Curled like prayers. Like anger. Like love.


Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. She lives and works in Bellingham, WA, with her dog Abbe and a rotating posse of foster dogs that find their new families through Happy Tails Happy Homes. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and the Rainier Writing Workshop.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore