"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, May 13, 2013

State of Mind: On Friendship, Grief, Gingersnaps and Equality

As I write this, my parents are in Florida for my godfather's funeral, who died suddenly of a heart attack last Wednesday, and my three-month-old nephew is giggling at me (or his hanging raccoon) from his bouncy chair on the table next to me.  Yesterday was Mother's Day and while my sisters, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew spent church and brunch with our 90-year-old Gram, Mom and Dad were en route to Florida to take care of my godmother.  In her suitcase, my mother carried a container of gingersnap cookies that Cora and I had made earlier in the week, from my great-grandmother's recipe.

My mother has known Liz and Bruce for forty years; she met Bruce at freshman orientation at college.  Mom and Liz would later room together; Liz and Bruce would marry the week after graduation.  Over the course of forty years, their friendship would remain strong.  When their daughter arrived, my mother would be her godmother.  When I came along, Liz and Bruce would be my godparents.  Liz was maid of honor for my mother, a sister by choice, since my mother is an only child.  These are the kinds of friendships that turn into family and the incredible loss of Bruce brings other issues of mortality into sharper focus, closer to home.  I remember when my grandmother's brother died, I overheard somebody I didn't recognize say something about what it means when the cousins start dying off.  The same thing is happening now:  my parents are now the generation that is facing mortality and I've heard from various sources that the Boomer generation will not live as long as their parents, one theory being that they're so dependent and trusting of "the fixes" that they do not feel the need to take care of their bodies and their health because there will always be an angioplasty or Lipitor to take care of the problem.

When Gram turned 90--three days after being diagnosed with terminal cancer--Liz and Bruce sent a lovely note filled with memories, one of which was memories of Liz coming to stay with Mom during college and Gram making gingersnaps for her.  The chewy kind, not the crunchy kind.  Liz wrote that she spent most of those weekends face-down, sleeping, because that's what college kids do, but she wrote of the incredible love and hospitality that Gram showed her.

When my sisters were in college, attending the same college that Liz, Bruce, and my mother had (Luther College in Decorah, Iowa), the Hoberts lived not too far away and provided occasional weekends-away for my sisters when the seven-hour drive up to northern Minnesota was too far, physically standing in for my parents when my sisters needed that support.  When Hoberts moved from Iowa to Florida, we made good use of their moving sale, ending up with their yellow couch, which was a queen-size pullout.  It weighed a ton. I have good memories my sisters and I trying to haul that thing up several flights of stairs when K2 moved to Rochester, because it was too big to fit in the elevator.  It's rather hard to move a couch that size, that heavy, when you're laughing like loons.

The news about Bruce came while I was dropping Cora off at her house after babysitting her at my parents' house.  Cora had extracted a promise from me that the next day, we would make animal cookies (spritz, which we usually just make at Christmas).  As I drove back to my parents' house, trying to process the loss, naturally imagining my own parents and their various health issues in the place of Liz and Bruce, and the realities were not comforting.  Since I bake when I'm stressed, the prospect of making cookies with my three-year-old niece seemed like the natural thing to do to deal with the grief.  And so, as I took butter out of the fridge to come to room temperature overnight (and then putting it in the microwave for safekeeping, since Daisy Doodle has been known to eat anything left on the counter), I found my great-grandmother's recipe for gingersnaps when I went looking for the spritz recipe.  Cora calls them "Molasska" cookies.

This had to be the recipe that Gram used to make the gingersnaps that Liz remembered.  And so on Thursday, after the spritz were done (and Cora heard "squirrel" when I said "swirl," so they were animal cookies after all), I made a batch of gingersnaps for Mom to take to Liz.  These are the perfect gingersnaps.  They're not too heavy on the molasses and the other spices fill out the flavors--and they're chewy.

On Mother's Day, we took Gram to church, even though she doesn't hear much of it and then we took her to my sisters' house for brunch (which my brother-in-law had made while we were out).  The pastor asked the congregation to think of all the mothers we've had in our lives, beyond the one we call Mom. Who else has nurtured us, taught us, been formative in who we are?  The way we define family is unique to each individual and no two families look quite alike, nor should they.  This doesn't make one family better or worse than another.  The house I grew up in doesn't look like the house that Cora and Henry are growing up in--and I have no plans for children myself.  We talk about the sandwich generation, about the role the economy is playing in grown and educated children living with their parents, of active aging parents moving in with their Boomer kids.  Families do not look the same as the seeming ideal of the 1950s household, simply because how long we live, when we choose to retire (if we can, at all), and the decisions we make that cause us to question and affirm the relationships of those closest to us.

Today the Minnesota State Senate is voting on Marriage Equality (the House passed the bill on Friday) and it's expected to pass, then will be signed by the governor.  This follows Rhode Island and Delaware  approving marriage equality in their states and it appears Illinois is next in line.  Sometimes our families are legal in nature, sometimes they are by friendship and choice, sometimes they are religious.  We don't need our families to all look the same, but we all want the same thing out of life:  to love and support each other, to teach and challenge each other to be better and larger than themselves, to take care of each other when we cannot do that for ourselves.  That is what families do.

That is the reason that my mother is in Florida right now, the reason that I'm babysitting my niece and nephew today in their stead, watching Henry snuggle and toot in his sleep, the reason that I used my great-grandmother's gingersnap recipe to send Gram's love to Liz.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer Reading: Sarah Bakewell's HOW TO LIVE

All this happened in the span of thirty minutes:

...I packed up my 3-year-old niece and 3-month-old nephew into my mother’s car and drove them the fifteen minutes to their house, after a day of babysitting them;

...while I’m standing in my sister’s foyer (with my brother-in-law), my father calls to say they’d just gotten the news that my godfather, a dear friend of my mother’s from college (married to her college roommate), died this morning from a heart attack at the age of 63;

...on the drive back to my parents’, two cop cars and an ambulance taking care of a bad accident on 42nd St. in Robbinsdale.

The grief is intense right now, but that’s not why I feel the need to write right now.  It’s because today has been full of those little moments, my nephew’s volcanic puking and my niece’s cheeky adorability, my dad trying to get Henry to sleep, my mother painting with Cora, the brightness of the flowers I brought to my sister’s work to cheer her on her first day of work back from maternity leave, my parents’ dipsy goldendoodle playing ball by herself outside and refusing to come in.  The reason I need to put this all to paper (cyberspace?) right now is because I’ve just finished Sarah Bakewell's National Book Critic Circle Award winning book, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, and as I close the back cover, I’m responding to this truly excellent biography of Montaigne as a human being as well as an essayist myself.

I foresee that I’m going to be recommending this book to everyone I see, both writers and non-writers.  Bakewell’s book is gorgeously multi-layered:  to learn about the writing means learning about the man and learning about the writing and why his Essais were so brilliant and revolutionary (in terms of writing, not necessarily their ideas, though there is argument for that) is that their purpose spans time and place:  I find echoes of current political attitudes towards civil rights in the rights taken away during Montaigne’s time; Bakewell also mentions Tiananmen Square in the context of Montaigne’s philosophies.  Bakewell’s weaving of biography and criticism and such here is exactly what Montaigne’s essays are supposed to do—and they exist both in and out of space and time.  Especially in light of those three moments of this evening—the children, my godfather’s death, and the car accident—the question of How to Live? is particularly poignant.  And Montaigne’s approach fills in some of the gaps that need to be filled, not just in my life, but others’ too.

But because I am a writer, an essayist, I keep coming back to the writing aspect of things, Bakewell’s discussion of Montaigne and his writing:  “The idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever.  It had to be invented. […] Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements.  Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events, although he could have done…”  Montaigne, Bakewell argues, "was the first writer to create literature that deliberately worked in this way, and to do it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention."  I’m in the midst of writing a critical article on two Irish essayists (the essay is very, very rare in Irish literature) and it’s been very interesting to recognize aspects of Robinson and Arthur’s philosophies of writing craft in Bakewell’s observations of the 16th century Montaigne: the belief in the local, the ordinary, the purpose in getting to the minutiae so as to show the universal in a specific place, the specific in the universal experience. 

That’s why my niece and nephew matter, that’s why Bruce matters, it’s why the people still dazed from their car accident matter.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t know any of them—if I write my joy in my family right, if I write my grief right, if I write the fear of uncertainty right, you’ll recognize your universal in my specific.  And if I write an essay that tries to work through my godfather’s sudden death, the grief that my godmother must be feeling, the grief that my mother must be feeling, I will naturally return to the everyday memory-making that is forming my (and my parents’) relationship with Cora and Henry, how it’s the everyday memories of Bruce that will linger longest, how the car accident and Bruce’s heart attack are reminders not just of how quickly life can turn—but why it’s not the dramatic moments that are important.  We won’t talk about Death when we gather to remember Bruce—we’ll talk about his life, the quirks that made him absolutely unique.  And if I wrote that essay, if I wrote it right, you could substitute any name you wanted for the people I’ve mentioned, and the ideas should still work.

This is why essays matter.  This is why essays are essential.  Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live—but we write essays in order to live, as well. 

The whole point of Bakewell’s book—and of Montaigne himself and his writings—is to learn to pay attention.  No other writing form does this in quite the way the essay does.  The uncertainty that the essay relies on—Montaigne’s classic “though I don’t know”—is amplified by the Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic philosophies that prized different perspectives as a way to understand the interactions of self and world.  What made Montaigne great—and his Essais what they are—is his absolute commitment to refusing to commit to a side.  His are not arguments—they are explorations.  The multiplicity of perspectives he considers is absolutely unique at this point and this is what allows his work to find that specific in the universal and the universal in the specific.  (Even though it could get him in trouble.)  To find the value in the ordinary, rather than in the dramatic and impressive, is a good lesson for all of us.  She writes of Montaigne using Plutarch’s (fictional) techniques of “stuffing in fistfuls of imagination, conversations, people, animals, and objects of all kinds, rather than by coldly arranging abstractions and arguments.”

But I keep returning to Montaigne’s belief in the power of the ordinary, the power of considering all possible perspectives.  These are the things that are important to me right now, the making of memories with Cora, so that some of her earliest memories of me are things like cooking and baking, even to painting our toenails (like we did a couple of days ago).  Cora was quite upset that I’d taken our matching polish off my fingernails, so it might have to go back on when she gets up.  But this is my life, nothing new under the sun, but it still feels special and wonderful.  Why that is is the beginning of an essay.

Joe Bonomo, in a recent post to the Brevityblog, observes, “Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.”

When Bakewell writes, “Montaigne reminded his contemporaries of the old Stoic lesson:  to avoid feeling swamped by a difficult situation, try imagining your world from different angles or at different scales of significance.”  Bonomo, likewise, has a similar perspective: " It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human."  But what the essayist attempts is different, because what we do is not invented.  It may be a play of the imagination, but the purpose is different.  It is a matter of paying attention, at a different angle than what fiction writers or poets do.  All genres are necessary.

I take a break from this to try to convince my parents’ dog, an adolescent, overly-exuberant doodle, to come in and stop barking at people walking by—she won’t—and I spend a good twenty minutes failing to catch her.  (She’ll listen to my parents, but they’re not here.) I come in—without her—and my irritation is poisonous.  Maybe it’s better that I don’t catch her while I’m in this mood.

Then, Bakewell in one of her delightful Montaignian moments, reminds me, “We understand nothing of a dog’s experience: of ‘the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts.’ They understand nothing of ours, when for example they watch us stare interminably at the pages of a book.  Yet both states of consciousness share a certain quality: the ‘zest’ or ‘tingle’ which comes when one is completely absorbed in what one is doing.  This tingle should enable us to recognize each other’s similarity even when the objects of our interest our different.  Recognition, in turn, should lead to kindness.  Forgetting this similarity is the worst political error, as well as the worst personal and moral one.”

The same is true of joy as it is of grief.  All that binds the two are the ordinary moments of life, both absolutely universal and absolutely unique.  And in the waning light of this day, as I sit at my parents' dining room table as rain moves in, a male cardinal on the fence, fire-bright.