Strange Nostalgia: The Queening of Ceridwen

Note: This was written ages ago when I was still on Goodreads.


I’ve been cleaning out my books for the past couple weeks, which has been an entirely complaint-worthy endeavor. I’ve also had a pretty good time finding things I’d totally forgotten about, like this book. Mum bought me The Queening of Ceridwen by Esther Elias I think when I was in high school, solely on the basis of it having my name in the title. Having a really weird name meant that I never got to have those dippy tourist mugs and key-chains with my name on them growing up. I disparage them now, but it is only because they are sour grapes. Sour, sour grapes.

Anyway, I totally love this book. I’m not going to star it, because I don’t think the star-system here makes any sense usually, and for this it’s especially weird. The Queening of Ceridwen is a book about a Welsh corgi named Ceridwen. This is a sequel of sorts to Profile of Glindy, who was also a Welsh corgi, and Ceridwen’s “true love”. I’m making them sound like fiction, but they are memoirs of house pets, and totally earnest. Both books were written by their “mistress”, as she refers to herself, and are absolutely amazing. Whenever I find this book I can’t help myself and read out the table of contents to my husband in a fake British accent. (This doesn’t actually make any sense, because the author is from Pittsburgh.) Some chapter headings:

6. We Move From Our House on the Hill and Glindy Goes to Heaven
10. The Story of Her Struggle With Diabetes
15. “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” – It’s Ceridwen

And my all time favorite:

Epilogue….An Interview With St. Peter – Sometime Later

I am absolutely trying not to make too much fun of Ms. Elias, even though this book is completely nutty. Especially the parts where she talks to the dogs. My grandfather when he was in his 80s wrote and self-published two books, which cannot be found on most book review sites, although you can find the second volume on Amazon, last I checked. (We accidentally left a bunch in my grandparents’ house after Grandma died, and I think the new owner tried to make a quick buck on the self-published works of a 90 year old.) The first volume of Full of Sound and Fury, Grandpa’s book, was a collection of plays he’d written for high school performances. He was the drama coach for a high school forever, and as a young man he did summer stock and other theatrical endeavors. His second volume was more personal hokum and anecdotes.

Interestingly, he was a fan of the dramatic dialogue with imaginary or literary figure like the author here. (Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing – that’s where he lived too.) When he died, I went through the bits he was collecting for the third volume on his computer, and a lot of them were conversations he imagined himself having with God. Not serious St Augustine stuff, but like large runs of puns and literary allusions, wisecracks and goofing off. He was serious at times too, grappling with the very concept of an afterlife, partially because I think if he had born in another time, he would have been a casual atheist, but that sort of thing was generationally impossible.

Anyway, I’m trying to wind up to a point about writing and publishing. All kinds of stuff gets written and some of that stuff gets published, and an even smaller percentage of that stuff gets read, and an even smaller percentage gets read by a large group of people. I’ve never read my Grandpa’s books in total. I couldn’t handle it when he was living, because it was all too much of that balderdash and personal mythology that I could get from him firsthand. (And, frankly, a non-trivial percentage was hurtful bullshit.) Then he died, and it was still too much of his balderdash, but now it was tinged with the grief of his loss, and my guilt for never reading it while he was living.

But read or not, the writing of those books kept him alive. I am not exaggerating in any way. He was pretty active senior. He’d audit college classes ostensibly to learn something, but mostly to hang out and hold forth his brands of BS. Teachers either loved him or HATED him. But by the time he was 80, he was increasingly homebound, and as a consequence began suffering from depression. (Or, counterpoint: he suffered from depression his whole life, but they finally found a name and a treatment for it.)

I don’t know where he got the idea to write memoirs, but I suspect it was the man who was his editor through the process, a man who had been Grandpa’s student a few decades previous named Edwin Koval. Anyway, he started writing on of those electronic typewriters and worked up to an old desktop that we gave him. He’d retreat down to his big old desk in the basement and tap away. Writing gave him a place to use his voice, let him manage his legacy, and let him act out his conversations with God. Publishing was almost incidental, although I’m sure that he, like any author, would prefer to be read.

So, I don’t know. The whole thing is funny. I’m never going to read The Queening of Ceridwen cover to cover, but it makes me really happy that it exists, this elderly woman writing her loving eulogies to a couple of stumpy dogs. From what little I’ve read, she’s also working out what she thinks about the afterlife and her own approaching mortality, which is a pretty great thing for her to have done. And not to mention too sore a subject, but sometimes I see authors flip out on bad reviews from time to time. I understand; no one wants to have their work disliked or dismissed.

But, God, most authors should be so lucky as to have someone read their book, let alone work up the energy to dislike it. Maybe this is just readerly arrogance, and I’d feel differently if I were published. But every book is trying to find its audience, and the review process is part of that, even the bad ones. The audience of The Queening of Ceridwen is totally girls named Ceridwen who had a grandfather from the same hometown as the author who self-published his memoirs too. The rest of you will probably not be interested. It is pretty wonderful to find every couple of years in the mess though. I still love it.

The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.


I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.


My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.


Here’s something you should read:


“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This was originally written in July 2011.

When I was a kid, I played a lot with other neighborhood kids, and it was all politics and skinned knees. My best friend was a girl called Alicia, and it was was a yawning difference in age between us, two whole years. We made friends when I was running a lemonade stand more or less set up by my parents. I had a cigar box full of change, and a pitcher of lemonade, and she swindled me out of the lemonade and into friendship. We played a lot of Spaceman, and various forms of tag, and played her father’s records. We had to be really careful with these, cleaning the black plastic with some kind of solution and a fuzz-covered block made for the purpose. We wore out a couple of Prince albums, the needle wearing down the grooves that transferred shape into sound vibrations. I can still do a pretty good Prince-y AHohAH, the signature trill in a lot of his songs. We cut up magazines and had projects, like one where she was building this huge eye out of all the eyes she could find in ads. Once I was in a dentist’s office, and I surreptitiously pulled out this whole page image of an eye and brought it to her, like an offering. Stealing that image made me feel like a criminal, and it thrilled me, because I’ve always been a bit of straight edge. I was never, ever, the ringleader. I was too weak for that. 

I was the kind of kid who was pushed by bullies until Alicia noticed and sent a group of girls to kick the shit out of the bully bothering me. No 4th grade bully boy wants to own up to getting razed by a bunch of girls, so the year went well for me after that. But she didn’t coddle me at all. She set to making me tough, but off-handedly, simply because she was tough and wanted people to challenge her. She would make me wrestle her – we’d used her Dad’s big waterbed which heaved and sloshed, and it’s a wonder we never popped it – and try to pin each other down. There were no spoken rules, but by tacit consent we didn’t pull hair, or bite, or kick, or choke. It was mass and motivation, and all about the angles, trying to pin her legs with mine, learning to break a handgrip on my arm with a sideways movement through where her fingers touched, the weak part of a hold. She mostly won. She was a good winner. She’d just get up, and say good game, and then we would scrounge for change and head to Kenny’s.

Kenny’s was a corner market that was dingy and owner operated. He both did and didn’t like us, because he suspected we were shoplifters – though we weren’t – but we were there all time. He kindly acquiesced to the kid folklore that if you got a Tootsie Pop wrapper that had an Indian shooting a star on it, in entirety, with nothing cut off, then you got a free sucker. Getting a wrapper like that was like Christmas. We never had any money, because we were so young as to be allowance-less, but Alicia developed all kinds of schemes to make money, so we could go and consider whether to get the Strawberry or Grape Crush, or the Tahitian Treat. We (tried to) sell rocks, or stuff we’d found next to the trash, or pictures we’d drawn. Once, a very stoned hippy bought a picture of a flower off of us for $5. Five whole dollars! Bear in mind this was very early-80s, and we were kids, so this was an unthinkable amount of money. We were sick on Pixie Stix for a week. 

Are you bored yet? Hoping I’ll get to my point? It’s possible you are not, but after over 100 pages of this sort of thing, it would weary. Then imagine you are reading this a hundred years hence, where all of my casual references to products and people and cultural stuff has been rendered alien and opaque. Hell, even now, it’s likely a bunch of you whippersnappers have no idea what a record is. (It’s a giant CD. And get off my lawn.) I think people have been saying this is Miéville’s first foray into hard science fiction, or space opera, or more just standard alien v. humans style sf, and that is true to an extent, but I believe the primary mode of this book is memoir. Don’t let the aliens distract you, this is an individual telling her life, in the way that people tell their lives. Which is to say confusingly, with emphasis on details that are meaningless to others, or have only sense in retrospect, or the retroactive understanding is bullshit. 

As a mode of writing science fiction, memoir is frakking brilliant, because nostalgia is largely the purview of fantasy, to largely ugly results. I’m quoting myself here but: nostalgia is memory without shame, and even fantasy series that don’t mean to — A Song of Ice and Fire, cough — the pining for outmoded and awful social systems gets baked into the proceedings, because the pageantry, dress, and material culture is presumed to arise from the shit precepts of the culture at large. To put it more simply: Gosh, but those costumes are sweet, let’s assume they arise from whatever fucking bullshit I assume went on in history because I can’t imagine a past different from the present.

But, here’s the interesting part, for me, I think there’s a nostalgic component to science fiction as well, though it is ancillary, residing in the reader, or the writer, and not the text. At least not exactly. If you are a science fiction nerd, likely you have been one from youth, scarfing down both Golden Age classics and media trash without much differentiation, dreaming the way children do, playing let’s pretend with space ships and adventure, which mirrors our own desire for the adulthood ahead, and trains us on a mode of telling that future. Often we age out of the silliest of science fiction’s offerings – though maybe silly is too strong a word – maybe I mean formative? Just try reading something like Asimov’s Foundation series as a hardened genre reader, not having read it as a kid, and you will see what I mean. You will not like it. It will not blow your mind. You will see how it influenced later writers, and you might appreciate the ideas, but you will think it is hamstring by horrible characters and a sort of naiveté. 

For the record, I freaking love Foundation. It did blow my mind, unformed as it was, and the reading of that series was an education in science fiction. The first three books are loosely connected, dealing with the same idea, psychohistory, a sort of science-based prognosticating tool, a meta-psychology of culture, and how something like that could be used, and then subverted. Those first books were written all together, an album of books riffing on the same theme. Then later, when Asimov was in his dotage, he decided it would be a great idea to resolve all of his various universes together – and dude wrote 500+ books, so this is no small task. Then come the later Foundation books, where R. Daneel Oligraw shows up from the Robot series, and some folk from the Empire series, and likely people from series I never read and couldn’t identify, ’cause I’ve only read a dozen or so books by Asimov. It was a nuclear disaster of galactic proportions, and spent a lot of my nostalgic coin for the series. Those books straight up pissed me off, because they fucked with my childhood reading. Because, even with science fiction, nostalgia is the coin of the realm, even though it’s regulated to a grey market. Maybe it is for all genre fiction. 

Anyway, so now that I’ve had this huge digression, onto why memoir is bloody perfect for a sfnal work: it makes that nostalgia manifest. It resides the nostalgia in a character telling her past, in the confusing, unsettling, almost solipsistic way of the autobiographer, not infodumping you about how culture works because an enculturated person, a situated person, with her own limited view, with her own limited knowledge, can’t even see where the story is opaque, hard to grasp, alien. This is not to say, as a reader, I found the first over 100 pages anything but tough sledding. That was work to read that, hard work, and likely many people will throw this book down in frustration, and that is completely fair. But holy hell, once the gears caught, once all the terminology and references to the children’s folklore of an imagined culture, and the slow understanding by the memoirist, of how the whole show works, or doesn’t, and then shit gets dire and pear-shaped, that’s when I loved this book. The last two thirds tear along, all of that boring anecdote resolving into action and stakes, and I loved every minute of the way it unfolded.

Which is not to say I don’t call bullshit on some of the ideas presented here. The central story has to do with Language, something spoken by an alien culture living with a group of humans (mostly) in the titular Embassytown. Language is this strange, antediluvian language, where the speakers can’t lie, can’t even conceive of lie. I don’t even want to get into it more than that, so sorry. It’s too hard to explain without a page of anecdotes, like an early life story, and that’s what Miéville does. I call bullshit on a lot of the ways Language functions, but I don’t know that that matters to my enjoyment of this book, in the end. I was trained up as a reader on all kinds of science fictions that I think have flawed premises, like psychohistory. But let’s pretend. Let’s play this out. Let’s take this as a given, and see where this goes. 

Memoir’s aims are similar, I think, let’s take my life and make it make sense. I don’t think Avice is intended to be a damaged narrator or anything, except insofar as we are all damaged narrators. I honestly can’t remember if when I stole that picture I was with Alicia or not, though I have the vague sense that I was, but I can’t even figure where we were other than a doctor’s office, and that doesn’t make any sense. I went to the doctor’s with my folks, not 8-year-old friends. But I wrote that bit of the story above with a decisiveness I don’t feel. So maybe the stuff I’m calling bullshit about how Language is exactly that. Avice is bullshitting herself & us, but not because she’s damaged or floaking, but because we all bullshit ourselves into being. 

Embassytown is a science fictional study in nostalgia, though I don’t want to imply that it’s all soft-focus and dreamy; more the kind of nostalgia where you can only understand what you’ve lost once you lose it. You didn’t even dread losing it – whatever “it” is, your childhood, that person – at the time because you never understood it. Though I get the sense this book is being pushed for a general audience, I don’t think it will appeal for people who aren’t pretty solid scifi nerds, with our dim rememberings of the spacecraft flying out of our youth. As one of those, it was a great freaking read.

The Art of Losing: Prince

This was first written April 22, 2016, the day after Prince died.

I first heard Prince from my neighbor and older sister in spirit Alicia. I would have been 6, 8, something like that. I think I remember 1999 coming out. Her dad, the late David Starr, had more than a thousand records, maybe more like two.

We made a project once to count them all, but I can’t remember the count, just the hot, gabled third floor, the records flipping as we worked all around the room. I always thought it was cool that she had the same last name as one of Prince’s alter egos, Jamie Starr, who he used in production credits and in a song or two.

I remember sitting in front of the record player with the liner notes all opened up in front of us, listening. He did such great liner notes: the Prince spelling and numbers, the pull-out pin-up from Dirty Mind, the Nagel-esque face from Purple Rain. All thanks 2 U and God.

Purple Rain came out when I was 10. I made Dad take me. We went downtown, to the now defunct Skyway Theater, in a Minneapolis that was as seedy as the one in the film. There was a strip club next door, and the buses rarely ran on a Sunday.

I’m feeling defensive suddenly of my father, because although Purple Rain is maybe a bit much for 10, it was absolutely defining for me. I’ve told the story of his taking me a hundred times, because I loved every single moment. I was in the same Minneapolis as Prince, with my dad, and every single frame of Prince’s musical performances are a revelation. A Revolution.

At 14, up at my grandparents’ with friends and cousins, listening over and over to the Batman soundtrack.

Quoting lines from the insane Under the Cherry Moon because all that self-indulgent weirdness was perfect, right up to the tragic end.

All of us stumbling out of Graffiti Bridge wondering the fuck had happened.

Scrounging desperately when he released and then recalled The Black Album. Listening intently to the bootleg, and understanding why he did it: all that darkness and pain. He then transmuted that all into LoveSexy, which I think is one of his most deeply spiritual works. He always worked in dichotomy: white/black, man/woman, straight/gay. LoveSexy was his uplift after the darkness of The Black Album. It’s his word for the power of God’s love.

Going to a concert in high school, disappointing and nosebleed, still jazzed to be anywhere near him.

Going to Paisley Park in the vain attempt of seeing him. Dancing.

Listening to the bootleg The Chocolate Album (I think) which was mostly released as Crystal Ball and Sign O’ The Times. There’s a song on that album called Place in Heaven, which I can’t find, which surely exists on a tape somewhere, recorded painstakingly from the vinyl. She wants a place in Heaven/ Baby U’re already there. I can hear the piano, his high, clear voice, like he is alone and speaking to me.

Purple Rain reminds me of my son Galileo’s birth, that long, exsanguinating ending playing over and over.

That one time.

That one time.

I sobbed on the street today walking through my neighborhood, listening to my neighbors out on back porches and front porches with Prince playing everywhere.

My son sang me Starfish and Coffee.

Prince was the soundtrack of my childhood and he’s gone.

He’s gone, you guys, and I am so, so sad.

Before the Funeral

It’s an oddity: When I stopped posting regularly, my reasons had much to do with the death of my grandmother. So I start to post again, just in time for another death in the family, one so sudden I’m having a hard time processing it. Two weeks ago, Joyce was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died today.

Mum and Joyce have a real bedrock friendship. I think they’ve talked every Sunday for the last 50 years, telling each other their lives as they happened. They have that cinematic difference: Joyce stayed in the dying steel town, married youngish, and raised up three kids largely by herself. Mum became an English professor and moved thousands of miles away from Homestead, from Munhall. She also ended up raising two kids largely by herself, but the family support was way, way different. Joyce’s mom, who is still alive at like 101, abandoned the family when Joyce was a kid. She never helped Joyce or her brother Kenny with anything. My grandparents had their foibles, but they always were there for Mum.

And Joyce was there for them, for us. When my Grandma Fran was dying — my mother’s mother — Joyce helped us manage the day to day that was difficult from several states’ distance. We wouldn’t have made it through without her. I’m friendly with Joyce’s kids, especially Nikki, her oldest. We have kiddos just months apart in age, and our dudes are both techies. She was so much cooler and older than me when I was kid, but a couple decades can level things a bit. We’re both oldest daughters who have daily, concrete relationships with our mothers. Who had. That tense change is such an unbelievable bitch.

The week before has been this tragicomedy of technological failures and unanswered phones. Joyce’s cell went unanswered for five days, and because of some fucking cloud bullshit, Mum didn’t have Nikki’s number. They hadn’t thought to contact Mum because everything was happening so horrifically fast: I still cannot believe that just a week ago Joyce was lucid enough, alive enough, to call my mother and give her the weekly rundown she’s done for nigh on half a century. Mum called me today, early. Joyce had a brain bleed. They didn’t expect her to live more than 24 hours.

She called me again, not three hours later.

She’s gone, she said.

I stood in the kitchen hugging my husband, sobbing. My child heard my weeping and came and wrapped their thin arms around me.

I don’t have anything. I am poured out. I walked through a day of errands and domestic chores while a pathetic fallacy rained down and blew fog all over everything. I’ve been letting the chickens out of the coop because the snow has heretofore kept them penned into our yard. But today, I looked out and found them in the neighbor’s fenced yard, the one who has a dog I call The Moose, and I had to go out there, jumping from ice flow to ice flow, and beckon them back. More like a bathetic fallacy, I thought: this is ridiculous.

Mum came over to drink wine and reminisce, after a day of near misses and almost gettings together. Grief must be scheduled like anything else. A version of “Girl from the North Country” came on the channel we were listening to, one by both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I’m not much of a musical person, but that song is me right now. Here, now, listen.

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power

 

The Art of Losing: Roopy

Our beloved family dog, Roopy, died today at the age of 16. We got her on 4th of July weekend in 1998, just a couple of months after we moved into our house, less than a year after we were married. Richard and I were newlyweds, and getting a dog – more so than any other thing we did in our early marriage – cemented us as a family.

We contacted a border collie rescue organization that works in Minnesota and Wisconsin because I didn’t want to go through the bother of having a puppy in the house. Puppies are nice, but destructive. My mother went through the website (or possibly microfiche; this was a while ago) and found a dog that looked like she would be a good fit. Roopy had been rescued from an animal hoarder in rural Minnesota. A hundred animals were taken from the property, and seventy were put down immediately due to disease or ill health. Roopy was somewhere between one and three years old.

The original card from the rural humane society listed her name as Lassie, but the woman who was fostering her felt the name didn’t suit  – Roopy never responded to it – and renamed her Roopy after a hound in a James Harriot novel. Eventually she acquired the name Donkey because of reasons too arcane to divulge. When we picked her up, Roopy was skinny and nervous and only slightly house trained. She would howl painfully when we left, and bark at planes because she’d never seen them before. She was terrible with other dogs, but great with people. It didn’t take her long to accept that we loved her and that planes weren’t the harbinger of doom, and we settled into the longest animal friendship I’ve ever had.

Grendel, our cat, and Roopy used to wrestle, Grendel’s arms around Roopy as she tried to bite her neck. These matches used to end with Grendel grooming Roopy, because obviously Roopy was a big stupid cat who didn’t know better. Our son was born, and then our daughter. Our son learned to pull himself up on Roopy, who was so kind and gentle with this massive destructive force. Our daughter has given Roopy roughly one billion treats, once Roopy learned that she could work a Pavlovian positive feedback loop with her. I will dance for you, and you will give me a treat.

She’s been declining now for a while – fatty deposits on her neck, a grey muzzle, her eyes bluing with cataracts, deepening deafness, a slow, clenching arthritis – but she’s always been so cheerful, such a happy soul. She danced when she was happy, which was daily. She sang when she howled. It’s killing me that I keep having to change the tense on my sentences, because I still haven’t internalized that she’s gone. I took the collar off her neck after the end. I felt her heartbeat still and then stop.

She was such a good girl, the best girl. I’ve lost a connection with my past. I’ve known her longer than my children. My children have never known a world without her. I’m so sad, and I haven’t even begun to miss her, half-thinking that noise outside is her wanting to get in, that coat on the floor is her waiting for me to come back home. She defined my home in the beginning, and everything is a reminder of her in the end.

The Art of Losing

I’m in the middle of planning the last of my grandparents’ funerals, the one for my Grandma Dory who died three weeks ago. I’m a mess, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. This is going to be messy.

Writing Grandpa Ed’s was easy, though the writing was the only easy thing about it. I was about to be married, and my mother, his daughter, was out of the country, and my sister was sicker than I’ve ever seen her. I ended up blinking, dazed, in this foreign country of grief, digging through the papers on his desk in the basement room of his house, the one he called office. There was a stack of photos on the desk, this chronology of his life. He knew he was dying. I moused open his computer, which was a cast-off from my college days, which I’d set to the largest system font I could find to accommodate his blindness. He was writing to the end.

The easy thing about his funeral was that he was a man for poetry: maudlin, Celtic, one of those large, performing personalities that acts as subterfuge for a moody, feeling introvert. Dylan Thomas, we said, almost at once. Fern Hill.We made my dad read the poem, which was almost a cruelty I can see now. At the time all I knew was that I couldn’t read it. I can barely read it now.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dad was the only one who fit my grandfather’s suits, and there was a fashion party as we stood in my grandfather’s narrow room and shrugged them onto his shoulders. The red one, with the big 70s lapels. The dappled grey and black one in a winter wool. The ties on a tie rack. Grandpa’s car, which took us to the funeral and then refused to work again, like a dog pining at an empty bedside.
Grandpa Chris was the next. He was not a man for poetry – reed-thin and active, Scandinavian and full of puns. He had a doctor’s sensibility, all bedside manner and efficiency and easy charm. In a book called Medical Mentors: Practicing the Art of Medicine in Duluth 1927-1996 by Kathleen Hannan, my grandfather said:

“Do what you like to do. Live in the area that you would like to live. Enjoy your time off. I like the more simple life, down to earth. In a smaller town you have so many friends, real genuine friends.”

Also in the book, he talked about his mother’s death, when he was six, of child-bed fever. It was the defining moment of his life, in some ways, this woman lost a century ago. I wish I’d met her. I wish she’d lived long enough to raise him up so he didn’t keep looking for her all those years later in the throes of his senior dementia. I wonder about her funeral. It would have been horrible, like all funerals for young women and new mothers. I went and bought my son a suit today and worried about his hair grown long. I can just see Chris at six with an ill-fitting new suit and a haircut. I can see his infant sister. The prairie of Iowa would have been hard and flat.

At his service I read “How One Winter Came in the Lake Region” by Wilfred Campbell, a Canadian Anglican priest. I’m not sure anyone understood why, including me, but then I’m not sure I care. It was right, this slow freezing and the joy in that, the shift of seasons.

When one strange night the sun like blood went down,
Flooding the heavens in a ruddy hue;
Red grew the lake, the sere fields parched and brown,
Red grew the marshes where the creeks stole down,
But never a wind-breath blew.
That night I felt the winter in my veins,
A joyous tremor of the icy glow;
And woke to hear the north’s wild vibrant strains,
While far and wide, by withered woods and plains,
Fast fell the driving snow.

My Grandma Fran, I can’t even work out the timeline for her death. She died so long and sudden. I have these memories of driving over the hills and bridges of Allegheny county, past the grim and vibrant steel towns laid down by the rivers of Pennsylvania. I remember my daughter in a fountain playing until the hospital security guard told us to get out. I remember flying home and waiting for the call from my mother, who stayed there until the end, or one of them. I remember cleaning out the house.

Fran was not a woman for poetry either. When I named my daughter after her, she was so perplexed: why would you do that? It wasn’t false modesty either, but something weirder, something hard and unsentimental. I never saw either of my grandmothers cry in the decades I knew them. I read Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)” at her funeral. It was a counterpoint to Ed’s Fern Hill. I don’t know that there is anything written that could sum Fran in either poetry or prose.

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.

And now Dory. I have to account for you in words now too, and I’m not sure I’m at the task of it. Dad and I trade phone calls, working out logistics; my children, who have been muddy with odd grief, calls from the teacher in the last month; what has happened? The Art of Losing at my knee last night, paging, paged. There’s so much here that gets the heart of it, but cannot be spoken aloud in a Cremation Society building in downtown Duluth. It would not be fair.

 

Translation

by Franz Wright

 

Death is nature’s way

of telling you to be quiet.

 

Of saying it’s time

to be weaned, your conflagration

starved to diamond.

 

I’ll give you something to cry about.

 

And what those treetops swaying

dimly in the wind spelled.

 

Dory was so domestic, so practiced in the arts of familiar deception. She was the most accomplished liar of my acquaintance, who rolled mythology as simple as truth. She read me maudlin Scandinavian folk tales as a kid, which I cried about with the pleasure of sorrowful fiction. She knitted like she breathed. She was the last, most important member of that generation to leave me here. I’m still surprised that it was possible for her to die.

Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Edna St Vincent Millay

 

For There She Was: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a hard book to write about, for me. I read this on planes, and not on foot, in hard tubes that bolt up into the blue and down again into the strange sameness of airports; surrounded by strangers and boredom; trying to mask my weeping, coughing back my laughter; the phones off; the world insubstantial and patchy out the window of the plane. Wrong. I should have been walking, but then maybe flying is the better metaphor for Woolf’s strange prose, her perfect movement. At the end, wrung out after a week on vacation, I cried and pushed my head into my husband’s shoulder. We talked. I tried to convey why I was crying, but it’s all so inexplicable. Not sadness. Not sadness. Something more like the pain of recognition; the joy of disconnect; the shock of understanding.

Ten days before my husband and I married, twelve years ago this month, my grandfather died. My mother, in whose house we were to marry, was in Ireland. My sister, who was to be my only bridesmaid, was sick, so sick, ensconced in my mother’s bedroom. I would go there daily, more often if I could, and drop off videotapes of movies for her to watch, clear the dishes. She spent so much time lying down that her face swelled with uncirculated blood, narrowing her eyes to a squint.

Two days before he died he called me from the hospital, and we held a confusing conversation. He kept talking to nurses while talking to me, until he abruptly cut off the conversation and hung up. I tried to say I love you, but it was never said, or only said to the dead air on the phone. I cried then, cried hard, and I can see my not-yet-husband’s face while I wept into my hands alive with compassion and helplessness. He never did meet Grandpa. This week, in a shop in New Mexico, I looked over a set of string-ties, felt them with my hands, and told my husband that Grandpa would have loved these. I thought of his neck.

Grandma called to tell me he died. She told me not to tell my mother, not to disrupt her trip. Mum called me that evening, and I tried to lie, stupidly, bowing to the wishes of a woman who had lost her husband. I was strange, horrible. She called Grandma, who told her herself. Mum called back, and I confessed, broke it all over cords that run under the cold Atlantic all the way to Ireland. She was a daughter; I was a daughter; we owe these things to one another. That act of silence was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I found myself in Homestead, that homely, ghostly town, in the week before my wedding running the strange minutia of a funeral that is in profound & exact correlation with the detail of a wedding. There is music, and an officiant; an afternoon going through poetry to find the poem to read; a caterer, a church, a house. The front row cordoned off for the old women; hats; nylon stockings; shoes. My father, my mother’s ex-husband, in my grandfather’s suit reading Fern Hill to a room of people. To me.

“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

We took my grandfather’s giant, metal car though the car wash before the funeral. He had always loved those grandfatherly Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the seat belts belted to themselves so the warning lights wouldn’t chide him to buckle up. The car wash attendant, upon hearing of our loss, testified to Jesus. My atheism is soft – a lost tooth or a missing thumb – but I felt his foaming compassion in those imaginary fingers, in that void in my bite, in a way I have never before or since. He admired the car, and I think, had we not planned to drive that soul-body to the funeral, I would have given the keys to him and walked.

I married him, my husband, ten days later, in my mother’s house, with my sister, in a small miracle, by my side. During the reading of one of the poems, the Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d chosen before death sat me down to remind me of impermanence, I reached my hand back and found her hand and held it as hard as I could.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Maybe families are accidental, maybe. But maybe not. My sister dreamed of him, our Grandpa, the night he died, unknowing of his death. She went to the attic and looked through old pictures. When I told her he was gone, we sat on the floor and she recreated her steps that night: my mother as a child; the pictures of the family car, my grandmother stylish and stunning in her fur-trimmed jackets in front; trips to Florida; unremembered friends. We didn’t cry, but talked, and it was like crying in its release. I would be on a plane within a day, and land down into the Homestead of grief, into the city of loss. My sister was too sick to come.

Mrs. Dalloway makes me think of this, makes me think of me. It’s shocking to find me there, in London, planning a party, this inconsequential thing; to find me in London, moving, and also far above the earth. She went out to buy some flowers and napped; she ran into an old lover; the party happened and was marred & perfected by death. It’s dangerous and egotistical to find meaning in events. My grandfather did not live and die so that I could be reminded of this long string of being, this ineffable web, but I couldn’t help thinking it at the time, and can’t help drawing the narrative that way now. It writes itself, our lives, my life. A life is not symbolic. The truth is unflattering and lacks the grammar of logic, but it moves in beauty and the snapped sentences of emotion. I have my stupidity for comfort, my unintellectual love, the unthinking feelings of connection and desertion.

“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.”