Planting a Garden

My garden keeps me sane.

I write that even though I count my blessings every day. Almost two years ago, I moved into this apartment, worried that it was too expensive for me. It was, really — and still is. The rent takes a significant bite out of my monthly income, and if you saw my apartment, you would ask why. It’s three rooms, a living room and two bedrooms, or rather a bedroom and my office, plus a small kitchen and bath. But it takes up the entire first floor of a house, so I have windows all around, and it comes with a back porch. Around here, that much space is a luxury. It’s close to parks, a town center full of charming little shops, and two tram lines. Best of all, it’s on a quiet street lined with trees that are at least a century old. My rent pays for all that.

At the time, I justified it to myself because I don’t have the expense of a car, and the office is a workspace, where I do all my writing. It definitely has its drawbacks — it’s in an old building, as old as the trees, and there have been a series of maintenance issues. But I’ve been feeling particularly lucky recently, because of the garden.

In March, the world changed. I was in Budapest at the time, for Spring Break. There was a virus somewhere, far away . . . but we were going to keep it out of the United States with travel bans. And then suddenly it wasn’t far away, it was here. From the apartment in Budapest, I started training to teach my university courses online, meeting with colleagues for the first time on something called Zoom. I flew back to the United States the day the ban against travel from Europe went into effect, arriving an hour before the deadline. It wasn’t a deadline for Americans, but at first no one realized that, and the plane was filled with college students who had been summoned home by their parents. They had gone to study abroad, and would now be finishing their courses from suburban bedrooms.

The spring was a confusion of teaching on Zoom and trying to make sure I knew where my students were — from China to California, since they had all been sent home. We all got through it, and when the university semester ended, I breathed a sigh of relief. I still had a lot to do, but at least I wasn’t frantically turning handouts into PowerPoint presentations so I could screenshare them on Zoom. At least I wasn’t spending twelve hours a week, or more, sitting in front of my computer and making sure my face was visible on camera (nine hours of classes, three hours of office hours, but often it was much more, especially when it came time for individual paper conferences).

When the semester ended, I had time to rest . . . and that was when the sense of limitation hit me. The sense that there was nowhere to go anymore, except the grocery store and pharmacy. The bookstores, museums, and cafés were closed. I could still go for a walk in the park, and I was grateful for that. It was still spring, with birds and flowers and sunshine . . . but it wasn’t the same. I could not get on the tram — even aside from the health risks, it was better left to essential workers. And anyway, there was nowhere to go. It felt as though my world had shrunk to the streets immediately around my apartment. I sewed masks and made banana bread, and wondered why I felt so down, despite how very fortunate I knew myself to be. But knowing something intellectually and feeling it aren’t the same thing.

That’s when I wrote to my landlord and asked if I could create a garden in the space beside the house. It’s not the best space for a garden: it’s fairly narrow, and only a strip of it about four feet wide gets consistent sun. The rest is shady. But I did not want to grow vegetables. No, I just wanted plants and flowers, and many of those tolerate shade well. He wrote back to say “Sure, go for it.” And so my garden began. I knew at the beginning that I needed to have some raised beds, because the soil was rather poor and rocky. In the raised beds, I could add the sort of deep, rich soil that many of my plants would need. Now, as I walked around the neighborhood, I looked to see what other residents were growing. What would grow well here, in the relatively cool, rainy summers of Boston? What would survive the winter? Most importantly, I walked around my favorite park, a small wetland preserve with a pond and woods. What grew wild? What could I adapt to a garden?

There is no garden center where I live. I bought plants at the hardware store and on Etsy. I started with hostas, periwinkles, and violets. Once the raised beds arrived, I ordered bleeding hearts, heucheras, geraniums — all plants for shady gardens. Then I got extravagant with irises and daylilies. I made some investments, plants that would likely not bloom for a while: a hydrangea Annabel, an azalea. Finally I splurged on flowers I was not at all sure would make it, but that I wanted anyway — foxgloves, columbines, two roses (Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison). Instead of scrolling the news, I scrolled plants. I researched hardiness zones and light requirements. As packages arrived, I unpacked them quickly so I could get each new plant into the ground. Every morning, every noon, every evening, I would walk out in the garden, seeing what had grown, making sure the new plants were watered just enough to get through hot days.

It kept me sane, amid the craziness of early summer — it’s keeping me sane now. There is something gardening provides, that sewing and baking do not. It’s the engagement with life, a life different from your own. It’s the sense that some things are out of your control — how quickly a plant grows, the weather. It allows you to participate in something larger than yourself, the slow march of summer and the year. It forces you to be patient.

Of course, it presents problems. At the beginning of summer, I took down the bird feeder, because I wanted to put up a bird bath. But without the feeder, the birds stopped coming, so I put it up again. With the feeder came birds — sparrows, cardinals, jays. But also squirrels,those forces of chaos, those havoc-wreakers. I have plants on my porch as well, in pots, close to the bird feeder — there is really no other place for either the bird feeder or the pots. But the squirrels like to investigate them, perform intricate acrobatics among them, sit on them. (I have seen them sitting, staring at me, in a pot of basil — with their furry gray butts planted comfortably among my herbs.) Should I try to get rid of the squirrels? But then, they are so funny! There are three, evidently a family, who visit every day. They sit on my porch furniture. The jays scream at them, when they want their turn at the bird food. On the theory that at least one of them is probably male, and at least one is probably female, I’ve named them Lara, Moe, and Curly. Anyway, they are only one species among my menagerie. I have birds, as I mentioned, and one morning I met a bunny hopping behind the house. There are worms, bees, and in the evening mosquitoes of course.

My garden is small, but it’s also a neverending sources of adventure. Will the phlox, which arrived looking like a bunch of sticks with dead leaves on them, survive? Is the peony Sarah Bernhardt growing yet? Will slugs eat the violet leaves? Do I have space for a dwarf lilac — perhaps if I move the lavender? Suspense, tension, even danger (I mentioned mosquitoes), but also beauty and comfort. A garden provides everything a good novel should. And it’s given me a sense of meaning and purpose, through this strangest and most difficult time.

These photos are of my garden, just after the raised beds were put in. They’re much fuller now, and the long woodland border is slowly being filled with hostas and other shade plants. It’s still a young garden, so it looks as awkward and gangly as an adolescent. But wait and see . . .

The long woodland border. I have since planted irises, daylilies, and a peony. More hostas are coming.

The raised beds in back. Roses Iceberg and Souvenir de la Malmaison just moved into the one at the right.

The other raised bed — the sunniest in the garden. If I move the lavender, can I fit in a dwarf lilac?

The pots on the porch, the last time they were growing beautifully, before the squirrels started sitting on them . . .

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The Fox and the Hedgehog

Sometimes I am a fox, and sometimes I am a hedgehog.

When I am a fox, I am restlessly curious. I nose about in the woods, finding one thing and another: mushrooms, moss, tree stumps. I want to smell everything. I want to feel the wind in my fur, so I climb to the high hilltop. I wander for miles every day. I watch the sunrise and sunset. I walk through streams, get my paws wet. Chase mice and rabbits through the grass. Jump back when I see a snake wriggle over the rocks. I am always surprised, exploring, discovering.

When I am a hedgehog, I do none of those things. I curl in on myself, tuck my nose into my belly. My outside is spiked, impenetrable — or at least I hope so, because there are so many animals out there who might like an Erinaceous snack. There are thunder and lightning out there. Rain, snow, wind. When I am a hedgehog, I retreat into the house of myself. I don’t want anyone’s dreams but my own. The world is too big, and all I want is a small corner to sleep in, under last year’s fallen oak leaves.

In the last few years, I’ve been more fox than hedgehog. While I was researching my books, I went to the Freud museum in Vienna, to St. Michael’s Mount off the coast of Cornwall. On the island of Great Blasket, off the coast of Ireland, I looked down at the Atlantic. In Barcelona I walked along La Rambla until I saw the Mediterranean. I sat in cafés in Budapest. In all these places, I felt like a fox slipping through the forest, sniffing and observing, as unobstrusive as possible. You would not have noticed me, but I was noticing everything.

But lately, I’ve been a hedgehog. It started especially in March, when we were all called home to shelter in place, to tuck ourselves into our homes and not come out for a while — to hibernate. I was working all that time, teaching online, so I was not really hibernating, but it felt like a long sleep. If I had not been teaching, I would have lost track of the days, the hours. It was difficult, intense work, yet it had a stillness to it — conducted from the fixed point of my chair, my desk. My motion was motionless enough to fit within a camera frame. I chased my students by sending emails.

And now that the semester is over, I am still a hedgehog, because the world feels twice as difficult as it did before. It’s no longer possible to slip through it like a fox, or like water, or wind. Now I have to walk carefully. The sidewalk becomes a ballet of avoidance. The grocery store becomes a calculated risk. No one is unnoticed anymore–we are all possible disease vectors. Sometimes the news, and other people, feel overwhelming. My university is already planning for the fall, and who knows what that will look like?

So to keep myself sane, I clean the house, and plant a garden, and listen to the birds, which seem so much louder this summer. I try to avoid reading the news seven times a day — I try cutting it down to six, then five. Maybe I’ll get to four soon. If I can make it to three, maybe I’ll stop dreaming of airports that turn into academic conferences. Maybe I’ll sink into a deep sleep, rather than the strange half-sleep of hibernation. Maybe I’ll remember what day it is.

I have always had this hedgehog side, since I was a child — I was more of a hedgehog then, shy, timid, curled in on myself because the world was too large and didn’t understand. I’m not sure the world has understood much since. It seems the same old world, driven by the same fears and impulses. When I am a fox I slip through it, observing. When I am a hedgehog, I curl in on myself and ignore it, dreaming my own dreams.

That is what I am doing now.

(The image is by Milo Winter, for an edition of Aesop’s Fables.)

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Putting My House In Order

My house is a mess.

It doesn’t look that messy. Books are on the shelves, where they should be. Pillows are on the beds or sofas or armchairs. I can move around in it with relative ease. If a visitor came, I would not be ashamed to have her sitting in my living room or office. There are clean teacups in the cupboard. I could make her a cup of tea.

The mess is different. It’s contained in neatly stacked folders, a pile of them, with receipts for taxes. In neatly stacked piles of books for various projects. Neatly stacked binders in which I organize my writing — but I’m behind, and things have not been organized for a while. A long while. It’s a kind of mental messiness, in which I know where all the projects are, and all the things I need for the projects, but there are so many of them . . . The tops of the shelves are covered with these piles. And because there is always a new project, always something to do, the old projects don’t get filed away. And I am always afraid of missing something, losing something.

So I need to put my house in order, because it’s an extension of my brain, and I need to put my brain in order. It feels exactly like my office, filled with things I need to remember, stacked in various places. It feels as though I’m always managing those mental stacks, and that effort is exhausting. I try to externalize it as much as I can — of course I have a to-do list, or rather a to-do notebook. But it’s still there in my head, creating stress and worry.

I’ve been stressed and worried a lot lately. It’s the beginning of the semester, so there is so much administrative work to be done. Tasks that used to be easy, like sending in a copy of my CV at the beginning of the semester, have been made a hundred times harder by putting them on the computer — now I need to upload everything from my CV into a program, figure out where my strange and sometimes uncategorizable projects fit into an academic template. I need to file for reimbursements, again on the computer. Request funding for conference travel. And then, of course there are all the tasks associated with actually teaching . . .

In my writing life there is also work to be done — I have a whole book to proof this week, among other projects. There are so many people I should get back to, so many things I should do. All smaller things that are not actually my writing — things like interviews, reviews. It’s difficult finding time to actually write.

Sitting here, thinking about it all, I feel a sense of helplessness, of being overwhelmed. I don’t know where to begin, except by going down my to-do list, item by item. But I think this is going to take more. It’s going to take a kind of spring cleaning that is not about dirt, but about mess: assessing, evaluating, organizing.

I’ve found that when the inner is not working, you have to work on the outer. That’s why I need to put my house in order. And now that I think about it, it’s not even the whole house — just my office, which contains all the work I do, and therefore all the mess I make as I do it. It contains all the files, the binders, the books I’m currently using for research. It contains all the teaching material, all the printouts. All the bills and receipts. I’m going to start with one corner and slowly make my way around the room — corner by corner, step by step, straightening out both my office and my life. It’s going to take a while . . .

But in order to do my best work, I need a sort of peace and quietness of the soul. I need to have an uncluttered mind. And this is one way to get there.

(The image is A Favorite Author by Poul Friis Nybo.)

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Discovering Women Artists

I love discovering women artists I did not know about. It’s a little sad that the discovery so often seems to be online. I have spent a lifetime in museums, and I’ve seen so few women artists represented . . . The occasional Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo. It’s as though women only started painting at a particular period in time, which isn’t at all accurate . . . there were professional women artists in the medieval period.

But this narrative, that women artists were few and far between, dominated my childhood. For me, as for many other women, reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Angel in the House” was transformative, because it gave us a reason why our female predecessors were missing — like the hypothetical Shakespeare’s sister, they had not been given the opportunity and support to develop their talents. The alternative narrative, the one that had been implicit in the cultural cannon I grew up with, was that women simply did not have the mental capacity for that sort of genius. Oh sure, maybe a few women here and there . . . but they were exceptions. I was probably not that sort of exception.

But Woolf wasn’t quite right either . . . Yes, women had lacked opportunities and support. Barred from life drawing classes, they had painted what they could. But the women were there. They were painting, drawing, sculpting, making pottery. We know, because their work exists — artists like Angelica Kauffman, Rosa Bonheur, and Sarah Bernhardt (who was known almost as much for her sculpture as her acting) were not only good, but prolific. So where had their works gone? Often, into private collections. Sometimes, their works had been bought by museums and still languished in storage rooms, not part of the main narrative of art. In the interest of creating and curating that narrative, which moved with seemingly irrefutable logic from movement to movement, museums had left out whatever branched from that main narrative, whatever existed on a byway — anything that disturbed the logical flow from, say, romanticism to impressionism to symbolism to expressionism . . .

Women often painted in those branches and byways. They painted flowers, or interiors, or genre paintings that were considered technically masterful, but perhaps not truly “innovative” . . . They were, perhaps, painting on porcelain. Or fans. Or perhaps they were doing what might be classified as “crafts,” although when male artists designed wall hangings or decorated rooms, those were still considered art . . . Women were often recognized as good technicians. They were rarely considered geniuses.

I’m actually not interested in arguing that they were, because I think the genius narrative of art impoverishes it. If we are to worship geniuses, and to argue about who is and is not a genius, we will have very little art to look at. Instead, I want to look at art as a tree with many branches, where each twig, each leaf, may be interesting in itself. Or a road with many byways branching off it, where those small paths may lead to the most interesting places. In fact, the art we look at least may be the most interesting, and the “lower” arts — illustration, pottery, embroidery — may teach us more than the most famous Picasso. I will confess: my eyes have grown tired of Picasso. I want to see delicate botanical paintings. They speak more to me, and to this particular cultural moment, than another blue harlequin. (This is not at all to discount Picasso, whom I admire even though I do not love, simply for painting so damn much that every major museum I’ve ever been to has its Picasso, proudly displayed.)

But the paintings I love to look at are the ones I’ve never seen before, the ones I can’t find in museums. They are often featured online by sites such as Female Artists in History. What I see there is like an eye wash for dusty eyes — every new image clears my sight, and I think, Oh, you can do that. You can see a room in that way, with sunlight flooding through a window shaded on either side by green curtains. You can paint onions and chrysanthemums. You can even paint female models with no reference to a male viewer, either inside or outside the canvas. Women were painting in ancient China, and Renaissance Italy, and Australia during the World Wars. Women were and are painting all the time, all over the world.

This is important to me because it gives me permission, a permission I did not quite have growing up, to create the way I want to. In those little branches and byways, even though I may not be a genius, even though I’m just off on some side road, some offshoot, doing my own thing, hoping it will be good. If the world is and was filled with women creating art, then I don’t need to be exceptional. I can just be, and do.

The following paintings are all by Blanche Hoschedé Monet, the daughter of Alice Hoschedé, Claude Monet’s second wife. Her father was Ernest Hoschedé, who was one of Monet’s first patrons. The family relationship was, shall we say, complicated. Blanche actually grew up in the Monet household, with her mother and siblings, as well as Monet, his wife Camille, and their two sons. After the deaths of Camille and Ernest, Alice married Monet. Blanche later married Monet’s and Camille’s son Jean. She was the only one of the children interested in painting, and Monet’s only student, as well as his assistant. After the deaths of Alice and Jean, she took over running Giverny and helped Monet with his work. It’s clear from her paintings how deeply she was influenced by him and impressionism, but to me, her work has a sensibility of its own, a different approach — softer, less influenced by a sense of balance and proportion inherited from the academic painters. It feels more spontaneous. To me, it’s a little more modern. And the colors are beautiful.

What do you think, should I write some poems about these paintings? I’m feeling inspired . . .

Bois Tailler En Automne (Effet d’Hiver) by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Primevères by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Le Jardin de Monet à Giverny by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

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Morning in Budapest

This morning, I woke up in Budapest.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’ve been waking up in Budapest for almost a week now, since I arrived on a Swiss Air/Helvetica flight from Zurich. My luggage, probably tempted by the thought of snow-capped mountains and chocolate, decided to stay in Zurich for an extra day. It arrived the next morning, looking a bit tired. But then, I was looking a bit tired as well. December was not an easy month. I had final papers and portfolios to grade, then preparations for Christmas, all while fighting a sinus infection. (The sinus infection won, at least for the month of December. It finally moved on at the end of the year. I’m sure it had other parties to attend.)

It was dark when I woke up. Upstairs from me lives a woman who knew my grandmother. She does not leave her apartment much anymore, and I think she is a little deaf, because her television is rather loud. I can hear it through the ceiling. She turns it on when she wakes up at 4 a.m., so I often wake up then as well. I can hear the news, the morning shows. On Sundays, I can hear the music of the Mass. Several times, I’ve met her on the stairs and helped her carry up her groceries, but last summer I did not see her at all. I know she remembers me — I’m Dóra, who used to live here so long ago, as a child. Kata’s daughter, Ilona’s granddaughter.

There is something strange about coming back to the apartment where I lived when I was five years old. I remember just a little of what it looked like then. Much the same, actually, because this place desperately needs to be renovated. The heating system is new, the bathtub is new, the stove is still the one my grandmother cooked on. I’m pretty sure my grandfather was the last person who painted these walls. But this apartment feels like home as well — in fact, it’s the only place that feels like home, because my life has been spend in a succession of houses and apartments, every one of which was temporary. The apartment I live in now, in Boston, is temporary — I’m not even sure how much longer I can afford it.

So this is the closest I get to home — here, in this apartment, looking out the windows at the Nemzeti Múzeum, which has a lovely new playground. I would have loved it, as a child. When I was a little girl, it was not so well taken care of — the trees and bushes were overgrown, the gravel used as a parking lot. I saw my very last Trabant parked there, several years ago. But that’s been renovated too — it’s trim and pretty now, with new trees and flowers that will bloom this summer. Even in January, when nothing is blooming, I love to look out the window at the winding gravel paths, the park benches, the nineteenth-century-style lamps. The light is so beautiful here, shining on the beige stone of the museum. The sky is so blue. I think that light gives me a sort of mental clarity that I don’t have in Boston.

There is no real point to this post, nothing that I’m trying to say — it’s just a love letter, really. To this apartment, to Budapest, to the light.

It was so early, but I did not think I could get back to sleep, and anyway, the news of the day was coming through my ceiling. So I got up and made myself breakfast — muesli, orange juice, tea. I sat in the living room and ate it at the table where my grandmother used to sew or sketch, where she put rétes or pogácsa when she had guests, on white doilies she had crocheted herself. This is the only place in the world I feel that connection with my ancestry, even though my family did not come from here. My grandparents moved here during World War II, when they could no longer stay in Battonya, which is a town in southeastern Hungary, currently population about 6000. I wonder what it felt like coming to Budapest, whose population even then must have been well over a million.

When I’m here, it’s as though my head clears. It’s the only place I can really get away from the worries and obligations of my ordinary life. It’s as though the perpetual clouds of Boston cloud my mind as well — low gray clouds always filled with rain, so that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. I may not live here, but this is nevertheless my city, the one I can rest in, think in, hopefully write in.

It’s a new year. It’s time to begin some new stories . . .

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When I Used to Make Things

I remember when I used to make things.

It wasn’t that long ago, really, although it feels as though it’s been a million years. I grew up making things. My grandmother taught me how, and then I taught myself. When I was a child, I learned to crochet, embroider, knit. I learned how to make macramé and papier-mâché. Some things I learned in summer camp. Some things I learned in art class, in my elementary school. Some things I just figured out, like how to make my own paper dolls, and the dresses for them. Once I took an old shelf and turned it into an elaborate dollhouse — or at least it was elaborate in my mind, because it was filled with stories. I made clothespin dolls to live in it: a family, in which the father was a vampire, the mother a witch. The grandmother was a mummy, whom they called grandmummy. There were two girls, one angelic, one devilish, and a little boy named bat, as well as an assortment of servants. Their clothes were partly painted on, partly crocheted. I papered the walls with fancy paper, made furniture. I would have liked to live in that house myself . . .

At various times I have knitted scarves, hats, and sweaters. In law school, desperately unhappy, I made an entire 1820s dress by hand, sewing every cartridge pleat, from an old pattern. Once, for a present, I traced my daughter’s hands on a pillow and embroidered the outlines, then asked her to write her name (she had just learned to write it), and embroidered the letters just as she had written them. I have made countless Christmas ornaments and children’s toys. I have painted in watercolors and oils, refinished furniture, sewn decorative pillows . . . But all this feels very long ago, when I used to make things. Now I’m so busy that I no longer have time — it feels faster to buy the things I need. Faster, but it gives me less pleasure, and I don’t have the same affection for the things I buy as for the things I used to make. I still have all the things my grandmother made when she was alive, acres of lace and embroidery, a portfolio filled with sketches and paintings. I still have her hand-written recipes. Someday, I will try to translate them from Hungarian.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s just busyness, which is why I’m writing this blog post. I think many of us are getting out of the habit of making things. Not all of us — I have friends who post photos of the scarves they’ve knitted, the cakes they’ve baked (because that’s a kind of making too, and yes, I used to bake, once). And of course I have friends who are professional artists, who are always making things, with a kind of joy I envy even though I know those paintings and sculptures will be for sale, that their making is part of their livelihood. I think it was easier to make things before we were all online, all the time. When there was still silence, and even boredom. When, sometimes, there was nothing to do but make. Nowadays, we have to create a space for ourselves — not just a physical space, but a mental space. We have to create the silence.

Over Christmas, I made something. It was only a little thing: I found some laser-cut snowflakes, and I thought, these would make good ornaments for the tree. So I painted them (my daughter helped), first with an acrylic paint, and then with a glossy spray paint to give them a little shine. It was very little effort, and took almost no skill, but it gave me a particular sense of satisfaction to hang them on the tree.

Somehow, I need to find more time to make things, physical tangible things, whether I’m sketching or stitching or looping yard together. I live so much in the intangible — online, in words, even in teaching, which is about the passing on of ideas. If that’s a kind of making, it’s entirely mental. Sometimes I forget that I live in the world. But making things reminds me that I am embodied — a made thing myself, continually being remade by physical and psychological forces. I am stitched together, knit together, flesh and bone. It’s easy to forget . . .

So that’s my resolution for this year, or at least one of them: to make things. And to make time in my life for making. I wish you, not just a wonderful new year, but the space to make and be made, to become — whatever beautiful thing you want to be.

These were my snowflakes, painted:

And here was one hung on the tree:

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Death of a Writing Teacher

His name was Tony, and he had been a mentor of mine since I had joined the Writing Program as a full-time faculty member. My promotion packets, both times I applied for promotion, were based on his, and both times they succeeded. He had written me gracious letters of recommendation. He was unfailingly courteous and kind, supportive, a model teacher. He was also a writer, and had written an award-winning collection of short stories.

Shortly before he died, about a year ago, he sent me an email about some departmental business, adding at the end a personal note about the novel he intended to write. That summer, he said, he would finally have time to start it, to really work on it intensively. That summer, he would get to the project he had wanted to work on for so long time. A few weeks later he was dead.

I still have the email, somewhere in my email queue. I’m sure that someday, the university’s email program will delete it automatically. I don’t want to delete it or look at it; it’s like a ghost, haunting my emails. If I delete it, I will erase a memory of the man. If I look at it, I will be reminded of how easily any of us can be here and then gone. It has become a memento mori. It’s enough for me to remember that it’s there, one of the final things he wrote.

I went to his funeral and then the memorial service afterward. It had been sudden, a heart attack — once he entered the hospital, he did not come out. Everyone was feeling both grief and shock. Someone, another faculty member, mentioned to me that he had been talking about his novel, of the things he was going to do that summer. He was at least a decade older than me, but not old in any sense. He had a beautiful wife. I remember her standing in front of the church, incredulous and devastated.

What hit me so hard, then — so hard that I’ve been meaning to write something like this for the past year, and have not been able to — was the unfinished work he intended to do, all his hopes for the future. I thought, suddenly, of all the books I want to write, all the things I plan to create. And I thought, then — I’d better get on it. There is no time, there is no time. There’s never enough time. We always die with our work unfinished.

We have a little while here, so little, less than a tortoise or elephant. And in that time, we can create things that are hopefully worthwhile. So ever since, I’ve been pushing myself, sometimes probably too hard. And sometimes I’ve been tired and sad, because all the things I want to do will never get done, and there are so many other obligations — like, you know, the work that pays my rent.

But it seems to me that there are only two truly important things to do in this world: love the people around you, and create your art. Now, with wildfires raging and seas rising, I would add: try to save the world just a little bit, if you can.

I’m haunted by the memory of a friend and mentor, by an email I don’t have the courage to look at again. And I’m trying to do the work that I feel was given to me, while there’s still time.

(The image is Poppies and Italian Mignonette by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.)

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