“Enter title here.” That’s what it says just above where I’m writing now. Those of you who blog know what I’m talking about, along with those of you who don’t blog, I’d lay odds.
Titles are hard. At least they are for me. I had a friend in graduate school who would think of a title first—the title would come to him like a muse—and then he’d write a story to compliment the title. I can’t imagine doing this. For me, regardless of what I’m writing, I have to all but finish the thing and seal it up, then pry it open again, and dig around inside, trying to find a respectable pearl–the precious stone from which the whole story, like the chain of a necklace, hangs.
Last week was Holy Week, and the sacred season of Lent completed and fulfilled. You know this, I imagine. (I am imagining you today, trying hard to hear you listening, trying to imagine the words you might say in response. I can almost hear you, and in my mind’s eye, I see you there, shadows of friends and strangers passed as if on a street.) My family and I kissed the Cross on Good Friday. We sang Hallelujah on Easter Sunday. Eggs were colored and hunted, and my son made two beautiful pies to follow the high holiday meal we shared with dear friends.
Now the lilies on the piano scent one room, and the hyacinths on the table scent another. The children are on Spring Break, spending long mornings in their beds. There are little birds that look as if their heads have been dipped in raspberry juice at the feeder, and hints of forsythia along the driveway, and daffodils rising like spears from the earth of so many lawns, including, for the first time, mine. The day is raw and gray with flecks and dashes of yellow and purple. If I look hard and focus long enough I see color. But mostly the day appears raw and gray.
A handful of hours ago, a friend of mine from years past died. He had suffered long and lived with his whole heart. He exchanged smiles and words of love with his children, and then drew his last breath with his wife in bed beside him. As of this morning his wife expressed profound grief and relief. What will she express in days to come? I cannot imagine. I won’t try to imagine. I read all this on Facebook. “Oh my friends. This came to pass,” a mutual friend wrote, sharing the news. I am glad for Facebook. I am not glad for Facebook. I love it. I hate it. It helps. It hinders. Do you feel this way? I believe I’m not alone.
As with Facebook, now that I work at the library, my life intersects with the lives of people I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Oh my friends. This came to pass. People who meet my eyes, people who don’t meet my eyes. People who smell thickly of cigarette smoke, people who smell thickly of spiced food. People whose hands tremble, receiving movies and music. Steady-handed children receiving first library cards. Regulars who call me by name. Those just moved to town. The man whose first language is Arabic, who pressed his hand to heart and bowed after I entered the information on his Passport, bestowed upon him a card, and told him where he might find books in Arabic, perhaps with English translations on facing pages. The man who stormed off in a fury, because on the Sunday after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalea, the United States flag was not flying at half-mast. People with nowhere else to go from opening until closing, nowhere but here—their particular desks and chairs. And so many and much more, that I don’t feel entitled to share. The library, I’ve come to believe, is the town’s crossroads and great leveler. Democracy, God bless you. I love the place as I never have before, and I loved it deeply before. We are in a relationship, this place and me. I bank my small paycheck and count my manifold blessings.
And I read books upon books upon books. I read now as I did as a child–gobbling up words, sentences, pages, chapters, The End, and still I am ravenous for more. During my shifts, books pass through my hands like water; I cup my hands around some new portion, drink from it, then send it back into the flow. Beautiful books, unusual books, terrifying books, triumphant books, delicate books, books that do their work like battering rams. How did I ever feel entitled to write a word? How do I? How will I? When we were not long out of college, a friend of mine said: “There are so many mediocre books in the world. Why should I write another one?” And then she left the story-telling to others and devoted herself to reading. She is one of the best readers I know. She is one of my best friends. Her words haunt me. And yet I miss the stories she never wrote.
Lent has passed. My novel, like the flecks and dashes of purple and yellow, is about to fully reveal itself. Spring—naked and shining, goddess rising, pearl from shell. My novel, naked and shivering, barely able to swim. Today, these are my thoughts and associations. Poor thing, poor book. If I could, I would cover you up and put you to bed like my children.
Uncensored, that’s what this post is. And above, the kind of lament I hear most often from people decades younger than myself, college students, wracked angst. My impulse? To cover them up, protecting them from the elements, then push them out the door with these parting words. “Don’t waste breath on disclaimers. Do your work.”
My friend who died only hours ago. What a good man he grew up to be. What good work he did. Father, husband, friend, son, companion . . . and so much more than I could ever know or name, so much more than anyone could ever know or name, but God in heaven. He is what matters in the end.