Young ‘uns

A few weeks ago, when we were having a rash of notable deaths, one of my friends was asking, in her grief, whether it would just be like this from here on out. One of her icons, one of her heroes, after another. And Tim very quietly said to me, “Now would be a great time to start liking the work of artists younger than yourself. Every time is a great time.”

Well: yeah. And the immediate aftermath of a death is not the right time to say it more loudly than that, which is why I waited. But yeah. Because you’re not trying to replace anybody. No one will ever replace the artists of your childhood, the people who inspired you in your teens, those who touched your heart and lifted your mind in the first days you were an adult. Those people are irreplaceable.

But that doesn’t mean you go quietly into a downhill spiral of fewer and fewer artists to love. I think too many people do. The studies show it: most people stop liking new music in their late twenties or early thirties. They stop seeking it out–or maybe they never sought it out, and they stop being in situations where it finds them automatically. I think this is maybe less true on average for books and movies, but still somewhat true: the shape of things you seek out slows down.

And it gets easier to feel like the world is getting worse. Like things are getting sadder, diminishing. But they’re not. There’s more good stuff out there. The kids are not only all right, they can be there so that when the artist who was 30 when you were 15–30 and living hard, 30 and partying all night on the tour bus–turns out to be mortal, as statistically it turns out a great many of us are–there’s the artist who was 15 when you were 30.

And no, they don’t sound the same. They won’t feel like being 17 and having your life ahead of you. They’ll feel like being 37, or 57, or 87. And still choosing to have your life ahead of you.

That’s a pretty good thing to sound like too.

Cultural translation, part 375

This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

I hate the second week of March.

Today I’m wearing the shirt I bought when my grandpa was dying.

There are drawbacks to having a very sticky memory, and this is one of them: Grandpa died six years ago, and I have never once worn this shirt without thinking of the circumstances of its purchase. It’s a lovely bottle green, it’s a fabulous color for me, the fabric is soft…but it is permanently the shirt that I bought when my grandpa was dying.

I sometimes think that after six years I should stop having this lurching vertiginous feeling every time we do something with my side of the family and I’m in charge of making the reservations or buying the tickets or whatever. Every time–every single time–I have a horrible moment of conviction that I have reserved (or bought or whatever) the wrong number. And my brain doesn’t forget at those times. It’s not that I have moments of thinking Grandpa is still alive. Because what I invariably think is, “Where’s Grandpa going to sit?” So the thing in my brain that lurches like that knows that it’s Grandpa missing. But it happens every time, and it’s not tied to a number. My brain knows that we are different numbers at different times. We’re just…always one less than we’re supposed to be, whether we’re four or five or six or seven or…I don’t know, it could get up to seven billion, I suppose, and it’s still seven billion but no seat reserved for Grandpa.

I hate the second week of March.

And it’s not just Grandpa; Gran died on the same day as he did. I have this sense of doom every March. It’s good to keep an eye on that sort of thing so that you don’t mistake it for actual knowledge, and I’ve had this same sense of doom last year and the year before and so on, with no actual doom attached. My dark forebodings should not be reinforced with confirmation bias. The people I love who are going through tough medical things are not any likelier to have a hard time because of my feelings about early March.

Still and all. I am always glad when we get through this bit.

What mid-March is, threaded through

We have all sorts of things going on, tasks and chores and ideas, attempts at healing and social things, worries and relief. And threaded over and under and around and through it is the fact that we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of my grandpa’s death. Like his mother before him, he died on March 16, cementing the next day’s St. Patrick’s Day associations for me pretty permanently. Maybe there’ll come a time when I don’t think of it, but I kind of doubt that. On the day he died, I was so glad and so grateful to have a loved one cooking corned beef and cabbage for us because it was hot food made with love, but now the association is so strong I hope I never eat it again.

I brought all his books home and cataloged them and stacked them up, and I have been reading through them. Some of them I bounce off, some I read through, and you see them in my book post. There were hundreds. Now there are less than twenty. When I realized the five-year anniversary was coming, I was grateful that there were not fewer, because I will soon be done reading Grandpa’s books, and if there had been two or three, if there had been only a handful, it might have felt like the right thing to try to finish on the anniversary, and I think that would have been wrong. I think that would have been too much synchronicity to bear, and yet it would have been hard to resist that kind of narrative pull. So I will just keep at it steadily, and I will finish reading them when I finish reading them. The universe is full of ragged ends and things that don’t come out evenly, and that is better than okay, it is good. The tidy packages, the tied-up strings, they are not how life works.

When I have finished reading my grandpa’s books that he owned, I will be okay. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I will cry. I will probably cry like my heart is breaking all over again, because it will be one more thing, one more piece of loss. But I can never lose my grandpa all the way. I knew that the day he died, and I was right; I know it just as much now. Every year for his birthday I buy myself a book for Grandpa and me. And it’s a good tradition, but that thing I said up there about things coming out evenly, I meant it, so if I’m somewhere in an odd little bookshop and I find a book for Grandpa and it’s not coming up on February 1, I buy it for Grandpa and me anyway. Or I get it from the library for Grandpa and me. Of course it’s not the same. It’s not remotely the same, that’s the horrible part. But I can only do the part I can do, and this is the part I can do, the stories, the remembrance, my side of the conversation.

And putting more of the protag’s grandpa in the book I’m revising. Because he belongs there, and because.

Being imperfect, together

In my internet wanderings, I ran into this open letter to lung cancer patients who smoked. And…I feel pretty strongly this way. I run into obits sometimes where they specify that someone died of lung cancer even though they never smoked, and I think to myself, because if they had, their families wouldn’t have permission to grieve? My grandpa smoked, back in the day, and he quit before I was born, but his COPD contributed to his death. He didn’t have to earn my grief with perfect lung-related behavior. He didn’t even have to earn my grief with perfect Grandpaing. Not a one of us is perfect. Not a one, though some of us are amazing. Sometimes we get a chance to do better. We try our best, except sometimes we don’t. We try our best at the things we can manage. Except sometimes we don’t. And we love each other anyway. And then we’re gone, and we’re allowed to grieve. We don’t have to justify our grief with righteousness.

I get upset about this in the fundraising letters from the charities I support. Habitat for Humanity sends me these letters about these families in trouble, all the good choices they’ve made and how they’re in trouble anyway, the virtuous poor, and I think, okay, yes, I believe in those virtuous poor, I believe that happens sometimes, but. But. I also believe in people who didn’t make perfect decisions and still need a place to live. It’s all right to say, “We believe that it’s not okay for people to be homeless.” It’s entirely fine to say, “We are people who think that other people should have a safe warm place to sleep. Is that who you are too? Join us. Be people who think that too. Be those people, together.”

Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

I never met the man, but you can spot him at whatever age. Whether you’re watching the Weavers videos from 1951 or the concerts before the first Obama inauguration in January of 2009, Pete led with his grin. You can see immediately that it’s the same guy because he’s lifting his chin and grinning in the same way. With so many 94-year-olds, you’d say, well, he had a good run, or, I guess he was about done, it was time for a rest. But with Pete, no; with Pete there was still so much to do. There was always so much to do.

Because Pete Seeger was one of those people who appeared to honestly and truly believe in improving the world. All the way through. He was blacklisted and shut out for so many years after the HUAC testimony, and he kept on singing about making the world a better place, and he kept on making the world a better place. I’m a Gen Xer, the young end of Gen X; grunge and cynicism are my coming-of-age music. Also I am not a fan of the banjo. But in college I discovered Pete Seeger, and I just couldn’t resist. Fell in love with the Peteness right away. And when you hear him in person, as we did in 2011, when you hear him sing “We Shall Overcome”–not only do you believe for a minute that we shall, but for a minute you can even believe in we. Even if you’re a congenitally grumpy Xer. Because Pete.

Just last week, Timprov and I were driving home with four new tires and zero new photos (…long story), and I asked what he wanted on the CD player. And he said, “I don’t care…wait, have we got More Together Again?” And we did, so we put it in: Pete with his grandson Tao and Arlo Guthrie and other musicians they know and like. And we sang along all the way home, “Midnight Special” and “Abiyoyo” and “Guantanamera” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “This Land Is Your Land,” all of it, all of it, through the dark night home with Pete.

Edited to add: I realized the obvious thing to link. Here, have Precious Friend.

Marylyn

I was worried, because I hadn’t heard from her at Christmas in the last few years, not even just a signed card. I made out my Christmas card list today, and when I wrote, “Marylyn,” I stopped and looked at it and hoped, and hoped, and wondered.

And tonight I find that my Marylyn died on Tuesday night.

She was my seventh grade English teacher, one of the two absolutely formative English teachers I had as a writer. (Ron Gabriel is gone from us also.) After that she was my friend, genuinely and honestly my friend, and we would get together and have coffee and pie at the Garden Cafe. She was one of the first adults who was my friend when I was a kid, not because of my parents but because of me, one of the first adults who taught me how good that can be, being friends across decades. The kids I have in my life, if I am good for them at all, owe a portion of that goodness to Marylyn Bremmer.

I feel like I should be able to put words on the flood of memories I have, on her merry laugh and her grave tones of serious advice, on the time she terrified a room full of smartass seventh graders into maybe taking a little better care with each other from then out. On the imitation she did of a Texan doing Mark Antony’s funeral oration. On the way she looked at the description I’d written of my friend Becca and said, “She sounds so very much like my Charlotte,” and we could talk about girl friends and lasting friends and what all that meant. I’ll pull myself together and write something coherent in the condolence letter to her family. But mostly I just keep hearing her chuckling in my head, saying, “Now remember, dear, when you publish your first novel, make sure the dedication page has it m-a-r-Y-l-y-n.”

Do not approve. Am not resigned.