Archive for May, 2018

What Would Stacey Think?

amywink May 16th, 2018

The Sunday after my birthday, I told the story of my faith journey with the Creating Spirit to my Sunday school class at First. I was nervous but some people knew I could do it and I felt their support as I talked. It was the first time I’d narrated my experience this way, but I had thought about it for a long time. I closed my talk by saying that I had come to church in March the year after Stacey’s and my mother’s deaths to grieve and I spent a lot of time crying in the balcony until by September I started laughing again.

Though I am still in such deep grief some days, I am laughing so much more than I ever expected to be, just 2 years into this new life, and every time I laugh, I know Stacey is with me. She worked so hard to make me laugh sometimes, and she usually succeeded because she was very funny. And we had laughed a lot together in our last months, when we knew the end was coming. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we fell back on our sense of humor after our initial shock. She had spent a lot of time worrying about having an old age like her mother, who had several major health issues and had been on the brink of death many times, and also, ironically, outliving her money because her grandmother had lived to be 92. When Stacey was diagnosed, it was clear she wasn’t going to make 92, or even 52, so she could start spending the carefully gathered hoard of money she had meant to use to get to her old age. As we talked about the 3-year-deadline she’d been given, she said, “I guess I’m not going to have to worry about being old either.” I replied “yeah, I guess you should have been more specific when you said you didn’t want to be old like your mother.” And we laughed. All the times we laughed are what I hold dear now, and what I remember most fondly. I can make myself laugh by thinking of those moments, even the ones when we joked about death, because what else is there to do?

When it became clear that the experimental drug (the one that worked for Jimmy Carter) was not working (Why not Stacey, Lord?) and she felt she had been betrayed by her doctor who had not really informed her of rules of the study she’d agreed to enter, she sat in her own darkness but I could not leave her there, just like she never left me. I texted her “your mind is a dangerous neighborhood right now, and you know how I feel about leaving people alone in bad neighborhoods” and we sat together, via our phones, in that dangerous neighborhood until I said the right thing and she laughed. Then she thanked me for making her laugh and we walked out of that bad neighborhood together. I am grateful I was able to do that. Thank you, God, for a sense of humor.

Recently, BFF Caroline asked what I thought Stacey would think about my return to the Methodist church, (and becoming so religious) and I have thought about that for a long time. My answer at that moment was she would be ecstatic about my writing, having walked with me through my long darkness as well as some of my most creative times. But I imagine she’d have been taken aback by the startling depth of my faith, something we never talked about specifically–preferring the “spiritual” not “religious” discussion. She had been similarly surprised when I mentioned a desire for chickens, a hereditary craving that I wrote about for our City Ancestor/Country Ancestor project, and just like she had been floored when I decided to buy a horse, something she never knew because she’d come into my life in the middle, when I had almost put that dream away for good.

But early in our friendship, I had mentioned that I didn’t think I was very good at being Christian (given public perceptions of what is deemed Christian, re: Baptist, and I was a free-range, unchurched person-of-faith), to which she, my Jewish-turned-atheist friend who had read the entire Bible on her own, had replied, “Oh, no, I think you are exactly what a Christian is supposed to be. You do all the right things, you just don’t talk about them.” Once, much later, after a moment in which I ranted against some public idiocy I can’t recall and wrote a rather fiery response in an email about how we are saved by grace, she had carefully asked “so, what is your religion?” (after 20 years, she asked!) and I replied “ecumenical Zen-influenced Christian” and she said “well, I thought so.” I should have just said Methodist.

So, what would Stacey think? I don’t think she’d be surprised for long, having known I had a deep but private faith– though an equally deep lack of faith in myself– and I know she’d be very happy that I am so deeply happy and creative again. And I have made myself laugh by thinking about her arrival in Heaven, because I know that after her surprise wore off, she’d have marched right up to Jesus and threatened to break his arm if he didn’t help me after all I had done for her and everyone else in my life. I imagine He said “It will be all right. Don’t worry. I have my best people working on it.” And He would laugh.

Thinking about Scout

amywink May 7th, 2018

This weekend, I found myself talking about Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, two singular writers and icons of literary difference both of whom our culture would like to make much more manageable and comfortably definable than either wanted to be. Saturday, as I sat with friends, I told a little story to the child who had climbed onto my lap about Harper Lee and her great book, To Kill a Mockingbird. When one friend brought up Lee’s second book, I explained I had not read that to my surprised audience (among whom I am notorious for reading). So I continued, saying that I was disturbed by what happened to Harper Lee and the push for the publication of her “second” book, which was clearly an early draft of her original masterpiece and one which she had not published without significant pressure from others who desperately wanted to make her into a different writer than she was (and cash in her reputation as well)–I may not have explained all of that because the 4 year old sitting with me might have found it all quite dull and I am pretty sure if she wants to know, she’ll ask me again some time. I know she was listening.

Sunday, I spent some time explaining how I came to be who I am now and how I discovered the route by which I would eventually come to know myself as writer and autobiography scholar. In the context of my narrative, I talked about how I had finally found the cache of women writers culture had hidden when I took the first Literature By Women class at Southwestern University (now famed in song and story) and was introduced to writers I had not known (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, etc, etc, etc.) and writers I had been looking for: Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Jane Eyre I had read when I was in 8th grade (by myself, not in school). At the moment of those revelations, I had only known Emily Dickinson as “the” woman poet who in my education had only been described in terms of her oddity: how she was weird, how she never married, how she only wore white, how everyone wondered what was “wrong” with her, how she may have had epilepsy, or migraines, or agoraphobia, or. . . .(and the other woman poet I knew of in high school, Sylvia Plath? Crazy.)

But in that class, and others I took at Southwestern, Dickinson was recognized not just for her oddity but also for her poetic genius. One of my professors, herself an oddity and poetic genius, explained to us in our writing class that if we had only seen a single poem of Dickinson’s (I think it was A Narrow Fellow in the Grass), we would still have to recognize her as the poet she was, even if she never wrote another thing. Of course, Dickinson’s own poetry, bound into chapbooks for her friends, or left stuffed in her desk to be found after her death, was simply for herself and her circle, which I found out much later was quite large and she kept up correspondence with at least 90 people. That is hardly a recluse. But once her family decided to publish, they ended up wrecking what had been her unique voice in an effort to make her poetry more like other poems of the day. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I heard what I continue to think and hold as the most succinct and apt description of Dickinson: “She just didn’t like stupid people.” Amen.

I have been thinking of both these writers and how our culture likes to box them up into a nice package, surrounded by speculative questions. Harper Lee “only wrote” the one book, how sad. “If only” she had written more. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing autobiographical novel. If that was the only thing I had written, I’d retire quite happy thinking “my work here is done.” If the book I wrote interrupted my quiet life and forced me to be more public than I ever was comfortable being, I’d retire from public life as well with a “No, thank you.” (Anne Tyler keeps to herself and does just fine. Mary Oliver too. We are not all able to be aggressively public as publishers want us to be, jumping through hoops on command). Perhaps this is what disturbs me most about Harper Lee, that we forced her to be more public, to be the center of constant speculative demands that she perform more for her audience, that somehow we are more important than she was to the production of literary art. We would have preferred she perform for us, instead of listening to her own still voice and choosing the life she wanted. But she gave us the amazing story of a little girl, suddenly coming into understanding of the world around her and remembering what her life had been like because of that moment. That’s plenty.

Dickinson chose the life she wanted and seemed quite happy at it–she wrote over 2000 poems. I have no demand for “if only” from her– but our culture continues to wonder about her, particularly speculating on her relations with others: Was she a virgin? Did she have an affair? Was she a lesbian? Was she a pawn in hiding the affairs of others?

Seriously. What is wrong with us? Did we never graduate from junior high school? The woman wrote 2000 poems!!

What is wrong with us, of course, is sexism. That we view writers who are women through a different kind of lens than we do writers who are men. It’s the lens that Joanna Russ explained in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, first published in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, and a book that continues to be relevant to this day.

Sadly.

But I am glad the book is still out there and is now being discussed in my broader circles than the graduate class on Feminist Theory in which I read the book in 1988, though I do have to keep reminding myself that this is a good thing.

I have been thinking of these two scouts, Lee and Dickinson, lately because I have lived unconventionally as well and recently someone tried to put me into a nice conventional box. It is an odd feeling, that unintentional boxing, and one I had not run up against in a long time (not since my mother finally gave up trying to do it after I turned 40). I bucked against it instantly because I am allowed to live my life to the contrary. I cannot be put in a box. I will keep living and working to make sure no one else has to live in the box that someone else decided was the better fit. And I will keep telling the stories of my resistance.

We can all tell how we lived our own lives differently; how we enjoyed our time on this earth; how we came to know ourselves in new ways so that everyone who listens can think of their lives and how to live despite what the world may tell them is the “right” way to do so. Our lives are far more complicated and interesting than convention allows them to be. Sharing the stories of how we dared greatly ourselves, especially if our own daring is not what others might understand, makes daring greatly even more possible.

The story I want to tell the four-year-old about Harper Lee is not the story of Lee’s “failure” to write more, or the crappy first draft her public demanded to see and claimed was her second novel. I want this child, this scout who climbed into my lap, to hear the beautiful story of someone who wrote an amazing and wonderful book about a little girl named coming to understand her world and that one beautiful book keeps making a difference for those who read it, and that one book was enough to set in motion an enormous change in a world deeply reluctant to shift. I want to let her know that Harper Lee was enough and what she did, in her own quiet and unconventional way, was plenty.