Category Archives: dead people

What Killed Jane Austen?

I have a personal theory about Jane Austen, which is that they should  immediately stop teaching her to high school students, and perhaps even college students. Jane Austen can only properly be appreciated when you’re old enough to have really messed something up, when you know that sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach feeling that comes from a truly missed opportunity, when you understand that you can, indeed, really mess up your own life. Then Jane Austen’s books open up, and become magnificent. That she’s considered a rom-com writer makes me apoplectic.

I’ve never been that obsessed with biographical detail, but I thought this article in the Guardian was really interesting: Cause of Jane Austen’s death not universally acknowledged | Books | The Guardian.

TB from cattle. Makes a lot of sense to me — but perhaps that’s because I live surrounded by lots and lots of cattle.

Craig Arnold, 1967-2009

Craig and I survived the PhD program at the University of Utah together — it was a terrible time for me, a program that wasn’t a good fit, and in general, an experience that taught me that academia wasn’t a good habitat for me. But Craig, Craig was maddening, a provacateur by nature, but he was also one of the truly kind people I met at Utah. His loss, which is chronicled here at the Salt Lake Tribune, is immense. He was an enormous talent, a poet just hitting his stride. There’s a lovely rememberence here by his friend Michael Hanson.

The best tribute you can give though, is, as our mutual friend Joel Long suggested, to go outside and “read a poem by Craig Arnold out loud with bravado, like a rock star.”

So today Craig, in my backyard, I’m sending up my words to you — although no one will ever read “Hot” with the same insinuating tone that you always did. It’s the best we can do, to keep the poems alive — for those of you who don’t know Craig’s work, we have two books —Shells (Yale Series of Younger Poets) and Made Flesh. There’s also the blog he was keeping of his volcano adventures: Volcano Pilgrim.

It’s a huge loss, for his family, his son Robin, his partner Rebecca, and for all of us who knew and worked with him. It’s also a huge loss for American poetry. Our only small small consolation is that they think he went quickly, and that he hadn’t been out there suffering, as many of us had feared.

James D. Houston

FaceBook is a funny thing — I have deeply mixed feelings about it although I do like being in a sort of everyday casual contact with lots of old friends. On Saturday, when I was in between garden chores, I checked in to see what was happening and my old friend Sean O’Grady had posted Jim Houston’s obituary in the New York Times.

I had no idea he’d been ill, and was just shocked that he’s gone. Jim was a tall, gentle man who you could count on to give you a true reading of your work. The very first year we did the Art of the Wild workshop at Squaw Valley, I got lucky enough to do a manuscript consultation with Jim. I had a chapter, maybe two of Place Last Seen, and I’ll never forget him looking at me across one of those white wire tables by the fountain and saying, “Well, it’s a real book. Now all you have to do is organize your life so you can write it.” There were many many moments writing that book when I thought I couldn’t do it, and then I’d hear Jim’s deep voice telling me I wasn’t delusional, it was a real book, and that I just had to keep going.

After I finished the book, and published it, and discovered that nothing particularly magical happens after you publish a novel — there’s no magical movie deal that frees you from your day job and student loans, there are no parades or acclaim — if you’re lucky there are a few good reviews and you earn out your advance and you get invited to a few things. It was at one of those things, the Reno Book Fair, where I lucked out and got to do a reading from Place Last Seen with Jim. We were paired up. I was so pleased, and grateful to have a chance to tell the story in public about how kind he’d been to me, and how much it had meant. Afterwards, we were talking on the front steps of the building and I mentioned that the hardcover was going out of print. “Buy as many copies as you can afford,” Jim told me. “Because it’s your first book, and you’ll write others, and there will never be any more of these and you’ll want to sell them at readings in the future.” I got sort of choked up. It had been about three years since I’d sold PLS and I was really struggling to find another story. “Really?” I said. “You think there will be more?” He clapped me on the shoulder, “of course there will,” he said. “Like I said, buy as many of your hardcovers as you can afford.”

Thanks to Jim there are still about a hundred and fifty copies in my basement. He was a dear kind man, and a good writer, and a good teacher, and from what I hear he was a beloved father and husband. For me, I’ll just always be grateful for his kind words when I was so frightened of this project I’d taken on.

Day of the Dead

day of the dead altar 2008 Last week at work was just insane — hence the dearth of blogging — and I spent most of the weekend in recovery-mode. I was so knackered that I totally bailed on Halloween — went to bed at 8:30 that night.

But I did manage to pull together a Day of the Dead altar this year. I was in Chicago for the anniversary of Patrick’s death, and it’s been one of those years. My friend Jim lost his beloved Mari (and Isabella lost her mother), David Foster Wallace’s suicide hit me hard, there were two deaths on my dog walking route — Karen, who killed herself and Harold, who died of old age. And so, it felt like a year that needed an altar. I bought a lot of bright flowers (although I couldn’t find marigolds which are traditional) and set out some candles and pictures and lit some incense as an offering. Then Saturday night I just sort of hunkered down with my Beloved Dead, and watched Truly Madly Deeply — my favorite  movie about grief (which come to think of it. Anthony Mingella is one of the people we lost this year). It’s such a wonderful movie — Alan Rickman is sexy and annoying, Juliet Stevenson is wonderful — and it’s so dead-on about the bittersweet joy that is moving out into the world again after a big loss.

It was actually quite a lovely evening. I was still exhausted — I think I might have made it up until 10 that night, and I slept in to the extent that the dogs were confused, but it was a good, sweet restorative weekend.

And now, if we can all just make it through the next 48 hours — please please please go vote for Obama. Call everyone you know and tell them to vote for Obama. Do what you can tomorrow — drive people to the polls, make GOTV calls, bake cookies for people waiting in line so they’ll stay there. We can do this. I know that as a nation we can do this. (It’s even looking like there’s a chance he could win Montana, which would be SO exciting.)

September Mourning

It’s been a weird week — starting with the outpouring of false sentiment over the 9/11 anniversary. I’ve come to dread it, that upwelling of sentiment, the appropriation of tragedy by those only tangenitally affected, the politicians and blowhards pontificating about how we are all changed forever. I’m not talking about the real grief of those who lost loved ones, I’m talking about the obscene way that the day has been spun and abused and turned into a sentimental touchstone. I hate it. Luckily I don’t watch much television, so I missed most of the worst of it.

September 13 was my brother Patrick’s birthday, and he was killed on the 27th,  so September is always a tricky month around here. But so far, it’s been okay this year. I have a dear friend who just lost his love after a valiant fight with pancreatic cancer and watching him go through this makes it clear to me how far I’ve come. I’m out of that tunnel, the one where all you can hear is the thrum of your own pain and disbelief, like a loud heartbeat whooshing in your ears. One of my oldest friends lost her two older sisters and her father in a plane wreck when she was thirteen — it took her decades to come to terms with it and I remember last summer, she said she was on a pack trip with a bunch of girlfriends and realized it was her sister’s birthday. She told me how nice it was to remember the day without being torn apart by it, and that’s how I felt this year. I miss him every day, but it is an enormous relief to have arrived at the 13th this year and find that it was okay. It was a day. I missed my brother as always, but it wasn’t the icicle to the heart that it’s been in years past.

And then David Foster Wallace killed himself. I’ve found myself the past few days surfing Google reader, looking for anything I could find about this. I feel a little weird writing about it because I didn’t study with him, I didn’t know him personally, and I didn’t love his work the way many did. In a way, being as sad as I have been about this the last few days feels like the false sentiment that so upsets me each year about the blort of 9/11 commemoration. Throughout those years in graduate school when I was writing my novel, my relationship with David Foster Wallace’s work was one of false opposition. I found myself in a writing program that was obsessed with literary fashion, one where everyone was chasing David Foster Wallace’s tail. Although I didn’t want to write like David Foster Wallace, I admired the way he seemed to be doggedly creating his own aesthetic, writing as if digging a tunnel through language and grammar itself toward that chimera of postmodernism, the Truth — truth he sought even as, it seemed, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it existed. For all the surface pyrotechnics of his work, there was always a big tender heart there, it was postmodernism with soul.

And yet, it ends with a rope around the neck, his wife coming home to that terrible sight, the outpouring of tributes to his artistic genius and personal sweetness. It ends with a lot of bewilderment, and his brokenhearted father telling the New York times that the meds had stopped working, he’d been in and out of the hospital for the last year or so, they’d tried ECT and it hadn’t worked. I lived with a lot of depressives in my life, including my beloved Patrick, and it’s a terrible disease. It turns the minute-by-minute experience of living into an ongoing, relentless crisis. I think of all the things I’ve learned in these last few days about David Foster Wallace that’s the one that really breaks my heart. That he lived for as long as he did in that kind of pain. That he created the astonishingly inventive books that he did. Like Virginia Woolf, the point is not that they were both mentally ill, but that despite their struggles with mental illness they managed to create books that changed the landscape in which the rest of us write.

While I’ve managed to get through this month of anniversaries in reasonably good shape, I think the reason I’ve been so obsessed with David Foster Wallace’s death, aside from the general sorrow when someone dies who has changed the landscape of the medium in which you’re trying to work, is that the most difficult thing for me to get through about Patrick’s death was the role depression played. Patrick had been fighting a fierce battle in the months before he died, a battle that was waged minute by minute. I’d been doing what I could, but as anyone who has lived with someone who is stuck in that hole will tell you, there is very little you can do.  Whether Patrick’s death was an accident or an act of impulse, it was depression that led to him driving his truck off that embankment that night. Sweet, big-hearted, talented people can be hollowed out — I suppose that’s why I’ve been so obsessed with Wallace’s death. It’s not just that death itself is incomprehensible on a personal level — that the people we love can just disappear — but then there’s this other thing — this dark cloud that can steal the people we love away from us right before our eyes. That nothing we do can help. That we can’t help someone we love who is in terrible pain.

Add to that the general terror of the times — we’re at war, our financial markets are collapsing, and our artists are losing their will to live — it all feels very ominous. And so I do what I always do when I get the existential wobbles. I go outside and work in the garden. I pick tomatoes. I make sauce and boil jars and put up pints of tomato sauce for winter. I make something (even if it’s not a new novel). All we can do, as the Dalai Lama tells us, is to make positive effort for the good. Sometimes that feels like a very small effort, but if it can push back the darkness, then I suppose that’s the best we can hope for.

Birthday again …

Patrick would be 42 today — it’s always a bittersweet day, to say the least. But even though he’s no longer with us, I like to celebrate his memory on his birthday. Like the Day of the Dead when we decorate graves with flowers and take our dead relatives their favorite foods and drinks as a way of reminding them, and ourselves, that although we’ve been separated, we never really do lose on another.

So tonight we’re all having dinner tonight at our friend Jim’s restaurant. We had Patrick’s last birthday there — it was a fun and festive evening — and at one point my darling brother, wearing a kid’s blue cone-shaped birthday hat, looked up from the end of the table to make a toast. “Despite some setbacks,” he said. “This has been one of the happiest years of my life. Thank you for being such great friends and for welcoming us into your lives.”

And so, in memory of Patrick, a guy who had to start over more times than anyone should have had to, and who was nonetheless someone who managed to keep looking for the positive in every situation, here’s a great post at zen habits called “Why Living a Life of Gratitude Can Make You Happy.”

Madeleine L’Engle

You’ve probably seen by now that Madeleine L’Engle has died. Despite having been the kind of kid who could walk between classes with my nose in a book and never bump into anyone (I also became very quick at taking tests because we were free to read after we were done), I was never a big fan of A Wrinkle in Time. As a kid, I had a horror of stories where things turned into other things — Alice in Wonderland, for example. Perhaps it’s because I had the kind of life where 180s were all too common, where people disappeared for good, where chaos was too much the norm.
However, in my twenties, I stumbled across A Circle of Quiet the first of L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals. I devoured these four books, books that chronicled L’Engle’s marriage, motherhood, the death of her mother (who I’m shocked to find from the review on Amazon, was born during the Civil War — can you imagine? We’re still in some cases, only two generations away from the Civil War?) and most fascinating for me, the growth of her faith.

L’Engle was an Episcopalian, and for many many years she held a position at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It’s been years since I’ve looked at any of these books, but I remember them vividly as a series that glowed like a beacon, gave me hope that perhaps it was actually possible to live a good life — to raise kids, write, build a marriage, and find some sort of faith that wasn’t blind, but was a faith that required all of one’s intellect.

I read these books in an old, broken-down farmhouse at the bottom of a holler in North Carolina. I had a room that opened onto the porch in a house I shared with three or four other people, and I was working as a raft guide for something like sixty bucks a week. I’d just fled New York City, and didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was going to do next with my life, and I’ll always be grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for giving me a kind of hope that somehow, if I followed my confused heart, and tried to live what my college Classics professor called “a virtuous life”, that somehow, I’d find a way to build a real life.