5.25.2010

100 years

My grandmother would have been 100 years old today.

The last entry in her college journal is Shakespeare's Sonnet 104:

     To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
     For as you were when first your eye I ey'd,
     Such seems your beauty still.


5.21.2010

slaying dragons

Forever-goneness. A glorious term coined by my young-woman grandmother to describe the end of day. Coined before she met her future husband, before she bore six children. Before her oldest child, her daughter Nancy, died. Run over by a car, dropped off from school and exiting the car on the street side. Before two of her other children, Jeffrey and Becky, died of illness in early childhood, one in a crib and the other in an institution. Before her husband died young, after a long illness, carrying around his oxygen tank, getting his kids to buy cigarettes for him. He died when their youngest child, my namesake, was still a teenager. I was only a baby and never knew him.

I never talked with my grandmother about Nancy or her other children. Or about her husband. Nor have I talked about them with my mother, or my aunt, or my uncle, or anyone. I have always wondered. I observed my grandmother as a pillar of strength and words and opinion. A strong woman, widowed, with a tragic story. I wondered what it could possibly be like to lose your child. To have your child stolen away in a fast flash of metal. To watch your child die, not able to save her. As a parent, that is the greatest fear. Forever-goneness.

Unbelievably, this week I learned that a long-time friend witnessed the death of his sister when he was a child. She was run over by a car, and he saw everything. I had no idea. And since my initial shock, I've been sitting with this, sitting with the child inside my friend. It's heavy. My friend, in his forties, still feeds dragons. Still chases ghosts. Forever-gone, but not gone. He chooses to bear the weight, he would not give it up. The weight is part of his joy and his identity. Remembering. She is not gone. Forever-with.

I had never considered the child witness. Did my uncle, the second-oldest, witness his sister's death? What about my mother? Three living children, and three gone. What do they remember? What ghosts might my mother still chase? Does she feed dragons? How about my aunt, the youngest, born years later? I've been hugging my kids extra-tight this week. Gazing at them extra-long, watching them together. Playing, laughing. Loving. Happy. What you want for children.

A poem by my grandmother, for those who feed dragons in the night:

     Star, bright star, above my tallest tree
     Telling me calmly that my work is done,
     Telling me peacefully to sit and watch the night,--
     Tell me, what will there be when day is done?

     Wind, cool wind, that through my tallest tree,
     Breathing the sweetness of a summer night,
     Breathing away the cares of a long, toilsome day,--
     Tell me--will there be soon an end of night?

5.19.2010

using my words

My grandmother was a writer. She went to college. She had six children, three of whom died as children. Her husband died young, when I was a baby, after a long sickness. I knew her as a writer, a strong single woman, a newspaper reporter, a photographer. Opinionated and vocal, particularly about politics and world events. She traveled, and Lebanon was her favorite place, Beirut in particular. She was opinionated about the writing of others. She encouraged me in my writing, as did my parents. She wrote me letters when I went away to college. I always knew her to keep a daily journal, a daily ritual, written in the tiny space of a desk calendar, year after year. I am lucky to have her journals and other writing.

In college, my grandmother kept a journal for a writing class. Here is what she wrote there on the topic of journaling:
For almost a year, I have kept a diary that I write in absolutely every night. Twice, I have been in bed almost asleep before I remembered that I hadn't recorded the events of the day. Both times, I jumped out and scribbled a few lines hastily, conscientiously, and immediately. But that was months ago, before the habit was firmly established. Now the writing is as much a part of my nightly routine as scrubbing my teeth. I jot down everything that happens during the day as well as a good many of my thoughts. Believe it or not, the little book has an enormous influence for good in my life. Many times I've been stopped from doing things merely by the knowledge that I wouldn't like to see the fact recorded in my diary as being done.
Of course I am curious about what my young-woman grandmother might have been tempted to do but stopped. But more, I'm struck by her habit. To my knowledge, journals do not exist from the years when she was raising her family, only from later. Perhaps she didn't write then, or maybe they no longer exist? I'm so curious about what writing habits she may have followed and what she may have written when her children were young and at home, when her husband was still alive, when she was working as a reporter. 

And her writing is so seductive, as I want it to be deeper, more personal and searching. Her later daily journals are mostly factual, what she did that day, every day. Lots of baseball, jazz, visits from family, trips to the library and to the liquor store (to buy sherry for bridge games), the mundane day in and day out. There's very little editorializing, and virtually no feeling. Her college journal is far more introspective, but reads like a series of exercises for class, which is exactly what it is. I search for meaning in her words that I do have, and pine for more of her. I miss her.

One of my special-favorite authors is Terry Tempest Williams. I love her writing and have been lucky enough to hear her read from her work in person numerous times. I was joking with a friend recently that if I can't marry Terry Tempest Williams, I want to be her. She wrote at length on the topic of writing in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, an essay titled "A Letter to Deb Clow," part of which I share here, and all of which is worth reading:
I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation....
The importance of using your words. The responsibility to speak. The act of accessing your knowledge and using your words. Actively using them, not stuffing them down. A number of years ago, I found myself, for various reasons, shut down and not accessing my true self. I wasn't aware of it, I hadn't done it intentionally. I was just going along. Occasionally I would experience a lucid moment in which the real me came to the surface, and meeting resistance from those closest to me, I would push those thoughts back down. Usually with a note to self like "this is the path I've chosen" or "I signed up for this, it will be this way forever." I had dumbed myself down and mostly numbed myself as well.

The spell was broken one night while I was driving home from work. At that time, I drove 1.5 hours each way to work. (That kind of car commute, my friends, is numbing by itself.) That evening, my other favorite author, Michael Chabon, was being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. And as I listened I was completely blown out of my complacency. Here was Michael Chabon, talking in the exact same way he writes, smart, funny, passionate, articulate, and with LOTS OF BIG AND WONDERFUL WORDS. Like, this guy does NOT DUMB DOWN. Not at all. I had already read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a truly fantastic, beautiful and challenging book. But Michael Chabon's voice, his spoken words, just talking, answering questions about his book and his life, got through. I remember sitting there in my driveway as the interview ended, considering what in the hell I was going to do next.

Hearing that interview with Michael Chabon set in motion a series of events over the following months that upended everything I knew and completely changed my life's path. For the zillion-times-over better. And what I am so grateful to have learned from Michael Chabon, or what, really, he reminded me, is that It Is Important To Use Your Words. Speak truth to power, if you will. Don't dumb down or squelch yourself, not for anyone. And now, the stakes are higher. My children are watching. I love Almighty Dad Keith Wilcox's essay on being courageous. He says, "If you can't be proud of yourself then your kids will see that and learn from it." Read it.

I will use my words. I will use my words. I will use my words.

5.14.2010

forever-goneness

My beloved grandmother kept a journal for her entire life, beginning when she was in college. I am lucky to be the custodian of her journals and other writing. She wrote daily. One of her college journals, labeled "English Language 111," begins with this brilliant and topical little essay:
The worst feeling I have ever known is the guilty awareness of things undone. When I realize that another day has disappeared into forever-goneness, with all those plans so faithfully made at the beginning of the day having departed just after they were born, I wonder why mortals were ever given the faculty to think. My eyes will not stay open and it takes all the will-power I have to pull a thought from the blank that my mind has become. The more my whirling brain strives to solve the problem of dividing one vacant hour in the morning so that it will stretch over the preparations for three consecutive classes, the more I comprehend that all this worry is merely a foolish waste of time and I may as well go to bed.
This day is headed into forever-goneness, and comes another tomorrow. With that, gentle reader, I may as well go to bed.