Five. That’s how many people in my small world have died since November. People I knew. People I cared about. Yes, it’s been a long, cold winter.
My Aunt Emma was 103 when she passed yesterday, a peaceful death with her daughter and three grandchildren by her side. I visited her weeks ago, and though she couldn’t remember who I was, she held my hand and smiled at me, her eyes bright. She lived in New Orleans all her life. I spent Mardi Gras with her about five years ago. She had dozens of strands of beads around her neck by late afternoon, but she kept bending over to pick up more from the ground. My cousin would tell her every few minutes, “Momma, you’ve got enough beads already!” But then a young frat boy would kiss Aunt Emma on the cheek and crown her with another set of beads. Costumed revelers on the floats would point at her and toss more beads into her lap. The next morning, she woke stiff and sore. She couldn’t remember the day before, that she’d been at Endymion all day, her shoulders piled high with beads. “Elenore,” she said. “My neck hurts.” Elenore laughed and told her about the parade and how of course her neck hurt, what with all those beads. And five minutes later, Aunt Emma would complain of her sore neck again. She was a dear, sweet woman, and I’ll miss her.
This morning, I drove a friend to a doctor’s appointment. I asked if he was scared. He said he felt like he had two people inside him, one who is afraid everything, and someone else who is never afraid of much. I am often afraid of everything. Overthinking. Worrying. I’ve been reading Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. Of Forni’s 25 rules for considerate conduct, my weakest is #17, Assert Yourself. Odd that being assertive could be part of being civil, but according to Forni, if we say “yes” when we really want or need to say “no,” everyone loses something in the end.
On my long drive to work, I listen to audiobooks. As research for novel-in-progress, I listen to books on evolution, genetics, botany, agriculture, and lately, prison camps and war. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about torture and famine by listening to Escape from Camp 14 and Bonobo Handshake and reading Nothing to Envy. We are sometimes so cruel to each other, and it can take such an incredibly long time to heal, to learn to see the world and ourselves in a way other than through paranoia, shame, and self-loathing. These books give me lots to think about in creating the world and characters of my novel, but sometimes the way is so very dark.
I read an essay in The Atlantic recently about how artists (writers) don’t need to live like artists. They don’t need to be “drunk, unhappy, destitute, scarred by war or parenting, buoyed by illegal drugs” to write, but rather, what they need is solitude and a degree of tranquility. Writers need to be able to sit with themselves and delve into pain and make sense of it, not numb it away with drugs or party it away with social activities. In the essay, Joe Fassler describes how Ingmar Bergman, one of his heroes, chose to do very little each day beyond writing and storyboarding. He took a stroll. Ate a cookie with milk. Perhaps went to see a film (one of his own) with friends in the evening, but little else. I see the value of that. I see how the hurry of life, the worry of meeting deadlines and expectations agitates me and keeps me from sinking into the world of my writing, my novel and my stories and essays. I also see how #17, Assert Yourself, could come in handy these days. A few more dashes of “no” sprinkled here and there and just a quiet stroll to stretch my legs after a long morning of typing would go a long way.
But I have a family, a hectic life and I must get from here to there and back again before I turn in for the night. One of my students captured the rush of it all quite well in a blog post for Bluestem this week. For now, like him, I’ll write when I can. Soon, though, the “no’s” will bubble up inside me and find their way out.
If you, like I on this cold, snowy February day, need a balm, I offer this song. It was written by my late friend Margaret O’Brien’s niece, Lynn O’Brien. I daresay my Aunt Emma would have loved it, too.