What I’m Digging

Listening, reading, and watching much right now. The world provides much rich fodder.

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Excerpts from President Obama’s Inaugural address. Here’s the full transcript.

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

…We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

…Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.

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From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs…

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.

…I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

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Jodie Foster, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. Full transcript.

I hope you guys weren’t hoping this would be a big coming out speech tonight, because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the stone age. In those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family, co-workers, and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met.

…I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world. It’s just that from now on, I may be holding a different talking stick. And maybe it won’t be as sparkly, maybe it won’t open on 3,000 screens, maybe it will be so quiet and delicate that only dogs can hear it whistle.

ImageFrom Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek:

It snowed. It snowed all day yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud. The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl…

…My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.

Of Blue Nights

The author. Her daughter, Quintana Roo. Her husband, John Dunne.

I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.

This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.

For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.

Mother and daughter

The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.

Which makes me think of what Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister, said in his eulogy: “We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.”

Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.

During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,'” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”

What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?

A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.

As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.

My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

So she writes. And remembers.

As I do. As I will.

Reading List

My dear, writer friend Amanda asked me for a post on the books I’ve recently or currently reading. She’s also the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old, so her reading time is pretty limited. Here’s to finding a few quiet hours with a great book, sweet friend!

Nora Ephron wrote my favorite movie, When Harry Met Sally…as well as Heartburn, Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and a plethora of others. I read her first book of essays: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman, and liked it so much I had to have her second book, this one.

I love Nora Ephron. In fact, one of my life goals is to have a really delicious, hilarious lunch with her in New York. Cocktails would also suffice.

If you’ve never read anything by Joan Didion, this is a pretty intense and incredible place to start. A vivid, detailed and sometimes disturbing account of the late sixties and seventies in America: everything from the Manson murders to Ms. Didion’s notes from a recording session with The Doors.

I was stunned and shocked to learn in the first pages of this book that I’m not the only one on the planet who, when asked what I’d like, often responds with the words: “A pony!” It’s also a handy addendum to the question, “Anything else?”

Anyway, Ms. Crosley writes funny. This is a wonderful, quick read. I love her honesty, sarcasm and commentary on how the way we grow up doesn’t necessarily seem strange or weird…until you start meeting a whole bunch of people who grow up completely differently. For instance, while a camper at a Christian summer camp (Crosley was raised Jew-ish), one of Crosley’s fellow campers is shocked to discover that she didn’t have “horns.” Crosley’s response had me laughing for the better part of the day:

“I had no idea that people thought Jews had horns. Where I came from, Jews had good grades and BMWs.”

This is a bold statement, but I’m not afraid to make it. If you haven’t read any Billy Collins, you’ve missed one of our country’s finest writers. I give you:

“…Just think-
before the invention of the window,
the poets would have had to put on a jacket
and a winter hat to go outside
or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at.

And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall with striped wallpaper
and a sketch of a cow in a frame.
I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman’s heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.”

I reluctantly admit to you that my knowledge of Patti Smith music was minimal. As in, it began and ended with “Because The Night.” However, I picked up her memoir Just Kids in the bookstore, read the first page and immediately bought the book.

All that I didn’t know about Patti Smith as a woman, writer, artist, friend and lover comes to beautiful light in this book. Again, I didn’t know of her years-long relationship/friendship/kinship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe until I read this book, a vibrant, honest and wide-eyed story of love, art, music and growing up.

A great book for writers of all sorts about our evolving profession, mission and inspiration in the digital age. Also comes with helpful career and health tips, like:

“Also, don’t use the word ‘learnings.’ You might not realize it right away, but slowly, inexorably, your soul will start dying.”

I first heard about Stewart O’Nan on NPR. His latest novel, Emily, Alone, garnered wonderful reviews. I decided I’d go back a bit and picked up Last Night at The Lobster, a novel about the last night of business at a Red Lobster in Connecticut. Warm yet lonely, this book says so much about jobs, the relationships we build within them and around them and how we define ourselves. Lots of bittersweet and an especially telling read for anyone who’s ever worked for even a moment in the food and beverage industry.

Now. How about your recommendations?

The process

I’ve written a number of posts about my Father. His life and death have served as my lens since that day in July, 2009. I talk and write about my Dad because it helps, because honestly I think I might go crazy if I didn’t. It’s also a way to keep him part of my life.

I worry sometimes about talking about him “too much.” Worry that friends and family will grow weary of me and my occasional tears. The other part of me thinks, why do we ever stop talking about those we’ve lost?

I’ve negotiated and endured grief the past year and eight months since he died. I’ve read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and you should too, by the way. I’ve had long conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances about people they’ve lost. I’ve even asked friends to write about their grief. Maybe there’s a book in here somewhere for all of us.

I’m always fascinated with each person’s grief, as unique as their fingerprint and just as beautifully complicated.

Here again, is some of mine, from a journal I keep. Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts.

March 22, 2011
Grief is not orderly – it follows a path only it knows. Talking to a friend the other day about her Dad’s dementia, I told her about the day we left Dad at Birchhaven. I use the word “left,” because that’s what it felt like to me. I felt as if we abandoned him. I felt as if we did what he said as my Dad he would never do – leave. I wish I could forget the way he hung his head when Steve so calmly explained things. I wish he hadn’t seemed so lucid that day – that it didn’t seem like the world’s biggest mistake to leave him in someone else’s care. There’s nothing natural about leaving your Father behind like that. It was the worst day of my life. Worse than laying my head on his still-warm chest after he died. Worse than imagining him in the frozen ground. Worse because I feel like we broke him. Worse because we have to find a better way to care for each other than this.

March 29, 2011
Dad’s birthday. He would have been 82 today. A terrible night’s sleep. Up at 5 am and cried over coffee. Huge spider in the bathroom that I caught with a glass and plate and put outside. I sang my heart out to Adele on the way to work. Korean for lunch with the boys. Ate bee bim bop – rice, five kinds of veggies, spicy pork. Delicious. Tried a taste of red bean ice cream. Lovely with a slight chocolate flavor. Will tells hilarious (though alarmingly awful) story of a centipede he encountered while living in Hawaii. They are large and move as if on ball bearings. Listened to Purple Rain on the drive home. Called my brother to talk about Dad and asked him for a story.

When Steve was 13, we spent a few weeks on North Lake. One day, Steve, Dad and Grandpa Ray took out the neighbor’s aluminum fishing boat. Three quiet men; lines in the water. Grandpa Ray suddenly passes gas, and the sound reverberates so much in the aluminum boat that Dad looks up and says, “Did you say something, Ray?” Without missing a beat, Grandpa says, “I said, ppfffffftttt!” mimicking the sound of his own gas. Steve cracks up with laughter and our Puritan father who never felt comfortable acknowledging bodily functions, blushes red with embarrassment.

Later, I kill an enormous bug, obliterating it to pieces. Which reminds me of how I relied on Dad, because he was the killer of bugs. The righter of wrongs. That evening, friends send me text messages telling me they just toasted Dad with a bit of whiskey. Little by little, I find ways to celebrate him.

April 6, 2011
Yesterday, I spoke with two friends at work about the moment he died.  I talked about how surprised I was at how quickly after he died that he no longer “looked” like himself, how it has assured me all the more that our bodies are vessels for the energy, spirit or soul within.

I say that, though it’s nearly impossible to parse, because it’s their flesh and blood, hair, skin, laughter, smell that we miss. In the thick of life, body and soul are hopelessly, undeniably tangled. We forget where one begins and the other ends.

As I finished the story, one of my friends began to cry – and immediately began apologizing. Then, I apologized for upsetting her. And we all struggled for a moment: she embarrassed; me apologetic; the other friend nervous. It’s easy to forget how very close to the surface we carry our pain and losses. They exist like a first sub-layer of skin, so incredibly resilient you ignore them almost entirely. And then, like finding a massive, deep bruise on your skin that you have no recall of how you obtained, there too is that flash of pain, the sub-layer penetrated, bleeding now, tear ducts springing into action, your body reacting in turn.

Dear Dad

Happy Dad: sandwich & scotch

Today marks six months since my Dad died. This is one of my favorite photos of him: standing on the patio in our backyard during a party, sandwich in one hand, scotch in the other, supremely happy.

The idea that six months have passed is both hopeful and daunting to me. Never have I been more amazed at the way time expands and contracts, accelerates at break neck speed and then stops entirely.

The experience of grief is something I constantly remind myself not to fight against. When in doubt, I try to breathe and surround myself with friends.

My Mom and Dad both trained me to “look up” the things I didn’t understand. So, like Joan Didion, I often turn to books for research, for solace. I have read Didion. I have read Auden. I have read Lamott. I have read Dillard. They all help.

My Mom spent the holidays with me, our first without Dad. They were strange days, one of us trying to “out-happy” the other one day, talking at length about the man I called Dad and she called husband over oysters and beer on others.

During the first weeks after Dad died, I thought I might have lost my ability to write…or perhaps my reason. The first words I “had” to write for a work project following his funeral felt wrong and sounded hollow to me. The client was happy, though, and I realized that it might be a long time before anything felt right or sounded good to me.

That’s grief.

I agree with Joan Didion that grief is nothing like what you hear. Nothing like we expect. The better news is that my moments of joy are also nothing like what I’d expected.

This morning, I flew back to Charleston from an incredible weekend away. As the plane took off, I looked at the glittering lights, a sight I always love. It occurred to me that if my Dad is truly in me and all around me, he was seeing it, too. And while I still carry the ache of missing him, I am happy knowing that perhaps my Dad and I share something larger: vision. And I can carry him with me wherever I choose to go.