Between the life and the work.
I almost pulled the plug on this trip.
I’m doing a writer’s workshop that starts tomorrow. I booked this trip back in April when I was closing my mother’s affairs and planning the funeral, a process that was much more complicated and ongoing than it seemed like it should have been. I found this little cottage across the street from the workshop venue (I’m way too old to share a room with a stranger), and then, exhausted by estate stuff and funeral planning, I added days. A full week by the ocean. A vacation. Normal people take vacations.
Sunshine and fog. Humidity. The smell of salt. (Chuck, in Chicago last spring, looking at crashing waves on Lake Michigan “but where’s the salt?”) California produce and local cheese and some of the most amazing local smoked salmon I’ve ever had that I bought in a roadside store that looked like it was just a place to pick up a carton of milk and a six pack of beer.
But three weeks ago, one of those calls. My beloved 90 year old godfather had fallen, broken a hip, pneumonia. My godfather, a relation that for most Americans doesn’t mean much. Someone who stood up for you as a baby, who was a friend or relation of your parents when you were small. In our case, my godparents have been like parents to me and my late brother Patrick. Every Christmas or Thanksgiving I ever had “at home” was shared with them, and together our families have buried two babies and two adult sons (one in each family), and my mother. And now my Uncle Denny has died.
That I’m not there is a source of deep grief and guilt. I almost cancelled this whole trip. Chuck talked me out of it. There’s no funeral scheduled yet. I can’t really be of help. But I feel terrible. This is my family. This is another death in the family and I’m here, on the Pacific coast, taking walks on the beach, and going to a writers conference.
Selfish. I can hear my dead mother’s voice. Selfish for getting out. Selfish for having a life away from them all. Selfish for writing. Selfish for telling. Stories were currency. They were all enthusiastic and unreliable narrators. She never wanted me to leave, hated that we both left. Every time she came to California when we lived here, the pursed lips, the “well, this isn’t very nice.”
And yet, one of the constellation of people who have been texting and calling as this all unfolded, a person I would never have thought would be supportive said, late last week, as I was panicking — said Go! We loved your novel. We’ve been waiting for you to write another book. Go.
My mother is dead. Patrick is dead. I don’t have to worry about supporting anyone but myself anymore. I have one more year in corporate life and then I should be able to “retire” which for me has always been synonymous with “having enough money to write.” And so here I am, at a writers workshop as a participant, trying not to be self-conscious about having dropped my literary career, trying not to feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past, dragging the clanking chains of my out-of-print novel and unused PhD behind me. Here to test out a chapter on good readers, the kind of people who are my audience. Here to remind myself of the joy in reading one another’s work, responding in real time, in a room, to our collective efforts to make art. Here to remember why we do this.
This morning, I got some words on a page. Then I walked on a foggy beach where it was still warm enough to take off my shoes, let the Pacific ocean wash over my feet, soak the hem of my skirt. I talked to some nice dogs and their people. I saw a seal. The seal saw me. I bought more salmon at the unlikely store and came back to this little cottage and called Chuck to check in, to remind myself that I have a home, and it’s not Chicago, even though I feel like I should be there, and then I read some more.
And tomorrow, I’ll walk up the hill to the workshop, and get to see my friend Toni who is teaching, and work with Fenton Johnson, whose Keeping Faith is a touchstone, and I’ll hope that my family are okay, and I’ll still jump every time the silenced phone vibrates, and I’ll wait to see when there’s a funeral, and if I can get there, and I will continue to feel torn, will continue to feel the tug of grief and home, even as I have to, finally, get down to the work of writing these books that have been in pieces so long, these books that are scattered around the yard of my mental house like cars on blocks, missing wheels and bumpers and doors, but that are, nonetheless, recognizable as cars.