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Pion Ista “tinydog” Gritter, 2005-2021

Over the years this blog has shifted focus away from life stuff and toward…well, mostly books and poems. But occasionally a life thing is big and needs saying.

My dog died yesterday.

She would have been 16 in April. She had probably 14.5 years of being quite healthy and energetic, a year or so of having some arthritis and being a little more fragile, and then the last half year she was clearly an elderly dog. We couldn’t let her go up and down the stairs any more–she sometimes fell, and it was only a matter of time until one of the falls hurt her if we’d let them continue. So we were blocking off the top or bottom of the stairs, depending, and carrying her up and down. A friend made her raised bowls to help with her arthritis, and we were feeding her soft food. We were doing all we could for her, and in the last few months I started thinking, maybe we should get old dogs from now on, we’re really good at care for them.

I don’t think that now. Because the care for them is not all there is, there’s also losing them, and I don’t think I could bear going through this over and over again without the springy young dog stages in between.

She was so smart. She was such a smart dog, and she was so communicative. And she was so loving. Toward the end, basically the only thing she wanted was to cuddle, and we did that a lot. We did that a lot.

I don’t know how my days will be without this sweet little opinionated old lady dog. I have so much more to say about her. I wish I had so much more time with her.

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Revising grief

There’s no particular reason why you have to make anything out of grief that’s for anyone else’s consumption. A lot of people don’t; but then a lot of people do, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Roland Barthes and Donald Hall and Jane Yolen and, apparently, me. The stuff that you pour out into a journal or sketchbook or freeform on your instrument can just be you and your grief, you and a bunch of tears and snot and the knots in your chest. But the minute you say, hey, I think this might actually be good, this might be worth going on with, then there’s subjecting the art you made from grief to revision, and that is, frankly, very weird.

I think for me the thing that has been weirdest about this process is the bifurcated view that it requires. Because a lot of what I’ve been doing is looking at sentences and saying, yes, that is exactly right, that is exactly what my experience of grief and mourning was like–and, simultaneously, this sentence is not doing what it needs to do for this story as a story. And so it needs to change, it needs to communicate more with the outside world, or it needs to go away completely, having served its purpose of getting my emotions out and not having a purpose in the other thing I’m doing, which is telling this story.

Which is a story about grief. Yes. It totally is. But it’s a story, I am asking an editor to publish it as a story; I had the choice of just doing a blog post that was word soup, an outpouring on the page, and instead I shaped it into something else, something indirect; I wrote about my grief by writing about the grief of someone who lost their mother, a person who lived alone, a person who had an alien visitor. None of those details are true of me. I took it into the realm of fiction because that’s what I do–but then the other thing I do is actually, I revise, I consider, I add and prune and think about what’s there compared to what I meant to be there.

Even when it’s something incredibly personal.

Even when it’s one of the worst things.

It’s always okay to say no. It’s always okay, when someone says, hey, can you make this clearer, can you make this longer, can you make this shorter, I don’t understand what significance the bananas have here–it’s always okay to say, no, you know what, I don’t want to do it that way, this is how we’re doing it or not at all. And I think being a short story writer gives me a very particular outlook on that, because there is always another one.

But there isn’t another of this one, there isn’t another that does what this one does, that says what this one says, and at the end of the day when I weigh the variables I find that I actually do care enough to make it worthwhile, to look with double vision at my own suffering and say, okay, this part is just for me, this part is to try to talk to the world about what it is like to suffer in this particular way. This, and not that.

All of the things I have to say about Dad’s opinion of this are circular: Dad would want me to if I wanted to. Dad would want me to have something to say about this if I had something to say about it. Dad would think it was worth it if it was worth it to me.

Dad trusted my judgment.

Dad wanted me to trust my own judgment too.

It is a very different kind of exquisitely painful to mourn someone who wasn’t good to you, and I try to be careful how I talk to people when I know their parental relationship was more complicated than this, but for me, I have this, I have this support that has lasted, that will last, because one of the things about knowing him this well and honoring who he was is that when I take a deep breath and think about whether this line stays or goes in a story, I don’t have to second-guess whether he would be upset or not, because that is not how this worked, that is never how this worked with my work, he would never have second-guessed my work, not once, he would have been horrified. I can do this when I say I’m ready, and my dad was in the absolute front ranks of the people who would say that.

I was never going to be ready for the grief part. But the revision, well. Apparently that’s now. Bring it on.

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Memorial remembrance of my dad, Dan Lingen, 6/22/19

(This is the eulogy that a family friend, Barry Anderson, read on my behalf at Dad’s memorial service yesterday. It is by no means my final word on my father, but rather a beginning of the writing I will do about Dad and what he’s meant to me–and one for a very broad audience, since we had at his memorial various sides of the family, my friends, Mom’s friends, Grandma’s friends, my colleagues, his colleagues–and of course his friends from all different parts of his life. Still. This is where I started.)

I think most people go through at least some phase in their life when their dad is not one of their favorite people–some time, usually in their teens, when they kind of get at each other. I never did. My dad has always been at the top of my list.

When I started studying physics, I found out about binary star systems, where two stars form a stable orbit around a center point instead of one consuming the other’s mass. I thought, that’s Mom and Dad. Then I learned that the planets in those systems tend to have very eccentric orbits, and I thought…well, there’s me. There’s always been more to our family than that–but so much of my childhood took place in that binary star system that as I try to write this, I’m having to translate from a private language with only two native speakers left. Some of the small communications among us were not even conscious. The day after Dad died, when I was missing the way that I would go off with Dad to just be silent together for a moment, Stella told me that we each made the mirror image of the same face at each other when we wanted to have that silence together. I never knew that, I just did it. It was like breathing. Right now I am trying to write this with half the light on my planet gone. When Mother was talking about how overwhelming it was to try to write a eulogy for Dad, I said to her, Mom, we can walk on the surface of the Earth, we can send people to walk on the surface of the Moon, but we can’t send people to walk on the surface of the Sun. Her relationship with Dad was two suns, and you can capture flashes of that, the lens flare of shared jokes, the warmth it cast on everything else, but you can’t portray it directly. It was just too bright.

Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Being raised by my parents made it clear that that Tolstoy was completely wrong. I’m willing to believe that we are not the only happy family! But I’m pretty sure the other happy families didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about prehistoric giant beavers, Earl Battey, the Oglala Aquifer, the politics of mountain regions vs. prairie regions, or Haakon the Seventh as we have. I think it’s hard to explain how much variety of stuff I have always talked to my dad about. It’s pretty normal that I talk to Dad about how Mom is doing or how to best encourage the godkids in their dreams–although I know not everybody has a relationship with their dad where they get to do that. It’s less typical that I’ve been excited to talk to Dad about dinosaur poetry or a new book about algae that’s coming out this summer, but that’s how we roll. I have no idea how I will prepare for the talk I’m giving next month about existentialism in the works of children’s author Lloyd Alexander, without talking to Dad about it. For so many topics he was the only person in the world I could think of to talk to. Part of this is that Dad was always, always willing to go off on the weirdest tangents. No road was too obscure or too strange for my dad’s attention. There’s a story about my uncle Phil that ends in “Nah–too weird!” but one thing he got from Uncle Phil and passed on to the rest of us is that nothing was ever, ever too weird to talk to Dad about. Nothing too personal, nothing too unimportant, nothing too philosophical, nothing too off-the-wall…it could all go to Dad.

My dad approached parenting like he approached everything else: in a spirit of joyful exploration. My mom tells me that when she was pregnant, he would bend down and whisper to me in her belly, “Chemistry is fun. Math is easy.” The fun part there was not optional. The message was not “put your head down and do science at all costs, no matter how terrible it is,” it was “let’s poke at the universe together and see what fun we can have.” It was “don’t let them tell you this is a grind, because it’s actually a great big game.” After lab in college, I would call Dad to talk about how each experiment went. I still remember the surprise and excitement in his voice my junior year when we got to Franck-Hertz experiment, one he had never performed, and I got to describe the lavender mercury vapor and the peaks and valleys that showed the quantum world in a way he’d never seen. Dad loved to bounce his new membrane ideas around with me. We got excited about the world’s beautiful new possibilities together.

We explored maps together from the very beginning. When I was almost six, we packed up the five of us in Grandpa’s big blue Buick and set off east. Dad handed me the maps one morning and said, “Let’s try to get Grandpa into the middle of downtown Toronto.” For the first time, I got to help navigate–and I steered Grandpa right into the heart of Canada Day celebrations, because Dad believed I could do it. He never believed anything was beyond me. Coming out of one of the hardest years of my life, I wrote in his Father’s Day card, “Your support has always meant the world to me, Daddy, but in the last few months it’s given me the strength to pursue my dreams. Thank you.” He kept it. Mom found it in his pajama drawer along with the postcards I’d written him every week of that year, which was the year I started publishing fiction. He taught me not just how to use a map but how to go off the edges and make my own.

I have wonderful stories of exploring the world with my family, tasting fish on the wharf in Bergen, Norway, trusting Mom’s nose to pick out the best pub in London, or dodging traffic trying to get to the North Church in Boston, but truthfully some of my favorite explorations with Dad were to such exotic locales as–silence please–the grocery store–or–drum roll–Target. Every trip to the park resulted in a magic stick. Saturday morning trips to the post office were a special treat I looked forward to all week. I think one of the things that made time with my dad so wonderful is that he was such a great listener as well as a good talker. He and Mom wanted to learn things with me, not just teach things to me. Lots of people’s musical taste stops in their early twenties. Dad did want to expose me to the artists he loved, so I got plenty of Simon and Garfunkel, Beach Boys, Carole King, and more–but he was thrilled to learn about 10,000 Maniacs, Barenaked Ladies, and the Indigo Girls in the Nineties, up to Josh Ritter and Meg Hutchinson in this decade. He never stopped having new music to love. Lillian was so proud to play Santana songs for him, but I know he would have loved learning whatever songs she and Rob grew to love, because he had never stopped and had to restart again.

This is not to say that there weren’t a few hilarious bumps in the road of joyfully exploring with Dad. When I was five, Mom worked an early shift to be able to be home with me when kindergarten got out at noon–which meant that Dad was in charge of getting me ready for school in the morning. He was still cleaning up breakfast dishes when I slipped in the bathroom and singed my wrist on the curling iron. Once he made sure it was a superficial burn, Dad did all the right things, running my wrist under cool water and bandaging it, pulling me into a hug–and then said, excited, “Marissa! Now is a great time to learn about your body!” What! I listened indignantly as he described the miracles of the white blood cells mustering a defense of my skin, which did not seem like an opportunity at that exact moment. I teased him about that one for the rest of his life, drawling out, “Daaaaad, it’s a great time to learn about your baaaaaady.”

My dad’s belief in the importance of playfulness ranged through his whole life. His relationship with Grandma started with water fights when he was a teenager and she was a fun young mom throwing her home open to hordes of her daughter’s friends. Up until his last days, Dad loved to play cards and games with Grandma and her friends–and how many mothers-in-law can honestly say not only that their son-in-law would drive their friends around for game night but that he clearly enjoyed doing it. He would also peer carefully at the intricate games Mark, Mike, and Kev would set up at Christmas, at all the tiny moving parts showing new kinds of game that he had never seen before, always a fascination.

But he took especially thoughtful care in teaching play to my friends when I was little. A lot of dads coach softball–so did mine. But I also have pretty special memories of how my dad taught one of my friends about teasing and joking. She was an immigrant whose journey to this country was pretty rough–and once she got here, her experience of Americans teasing was that she was the butt of the joke, and that laughter was always at her expense. My dad took the time to teach her in very gentle stages that it didn’t always have to be that way. I remember him coming in and saying to her, “You will be very sad because Mrs. Lingen has made brownies and you do not like those.” He waited hopefully. She paused and thought about it. “Mr. Lingen, I think you are teasing me because you know I do like brownies.” He said, “Yes–and you know you can have as many brownies as you like here at our house.” From that very simple point Dad stepped her up to the idea that you could tease somebody because you liked them–that her new American life could feature people who were including her in the joke instead of keeping her out. That was the kind of play he always liked best, and he wanted to make sure other people had the chance to enjoy it too.

With all the time they spent together from basically the minute their ages hit the double digits, you’d think my parents would know everything about each other. And yet I remember within the last year each of them marveling to each other, “I’d never heard that story,” or, “I didn’t know that!” about new discoveries they could make together, new stories to tell each other, new dreams of ways the world can get better. Some of this is that they remained always open to listening and thinking about each other’s perspective. Some of it is that they have both always listened respectfully to others, so that when they came home to each other they would have fresh perspectives to present from their conversations, new thoughts sparked by other people they value–people from all walks of life.

My dad centered values in his life, not policy–the question was always how to get clean water, clean air, how to feed hungry children, how to nurture hungry minds. When he was a young man he was interested in hearing my grandfather’s viewpoint, which was a lot more traditionally conservative than Dad’s was then. These days I’m pretty far on the progressive side, and Dad listened to that with just as much respect as he gave Grandpa. But the point for Dad was never what team you had signed up to play for it, was how the ideas worked and whether you were treating all humans with respect and decency–and whether you were always willing to take in new information on how each idea was working in the world to help real humans. My dad would be the first to tell you that if you spoke all the tongues of men and angels but had not love–real love, love that is enacted on the earth–you were a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (Probably less than that, because he would want our percussionist Lillian to have all the clanging cymbals she wants. Sorry, Stella.) 

My dad taught me that a perfect day was a day that we all spent together as a family. The details didn’t matter–it was the time we spent that made it perfect. So if I tried a new recipe and the sauce came out soupy–perfect day. If the beautiful castle and garden in Uppsala were at the top of a very VERY steep hill–perfect day. (As God is my witness, Grandma, it looked flat as a pancake on the map.) He appreciated the ways that Mom and I spent time lining up details to make a GOOD day, whether it was reading newspapers over brunch, climbing down a thousand-year-old copper mine, learning a Japanese style of weaving, or spending all day making the year’s supply of lefse and Christmas cookies. But ANY of the details were the RIGHT details as long as we were together, and Dad knew that was what mattered. He would hug me at the end of the day and whisper, “It was a perfect day.”

We had so many perfect days.

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My father

This blog has evolved with time, as you would expect something to do in 18 years. I used to post daily, little rambly posts, few of them particularly themed. Now it’s almost all book reviews and publication news, with the occasional theorizing about craft. But this personal thing is too monumental to leave out.

Two weeks ago yesterday my beloved father had a massive brain bleed from a med he was on. Before the bleed profused we had time to talk and laugh and say “I love you” so many times. At that time there was still a lot of hope that he might recover. There was then a second, ischemic stroke in the opposite side of his brain. The two weeks since have been a haze of brilliant care and uncomfortable facilities, of waiting and hoping and gradual realizations that the Dad I have adored was never coming back to us. He died gently yesterday morning before dawn. My mother was with him. I had been able to spend all day, every day at the hospital–always the three of us, as it’s always been, but other family and dear friends supporting us as well.

I will have so much more to say about Dad–for years, for the rest of my life. I am heartbroken, shattered, agonized. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. One step at a time, one day at a time, everyone keeps telling me. Yes. I don’t think there’s another choice. Those of you who have known me for years know that the phrases I keep handing people like “Dad and I were close” do not even begin to cover it. I never had a phase, not a year of my life, not a moment, when my dad was not one of my favorite people. He always called me Sunshine but we were each other’s sunshine. I don’t even know how to say all of what’s gone. I will have to keep trying.

But a thing I am capable of fully articulating now is this: the ICU nurses at Fairview Southdale did such an astonishing, such a phenomenal job that I never had a moment of doubt that they and we were a team together, that he was getting the very best of care. And when the hospital transferred Dad up to the palliative care floor on the last day, I kept having the mad urge to run back to the ICU floor where I felt safe. Think on that: it was the place where I found out my dad was going to die. I had so many tears in that place, so many bodily indignities for the father I love. But their care for my dad and for our family still let it feel like a safe place to me. That standard of care is an amazing achievement. I have said over and over, “This is the worst week of my life,” and it is. It is. But it could have been so much worse without the ICU nurses we had.

We’re trying to put one foot in front of the other, we’re trying to figure out how this goes. We’re leaning into the care of our friends and family. But I feel like I fell into a parallel universe, and not one of the delightful ones. With the timing of the weather in our Minnesota spring, I feel like I was beaten and mugged and shoved out the door of the hospital into a world that was suddenly bafflingly warm and fully green and filled with heart-deep bruises, and I only wish that what had been taken from me was my wallet.

Oh, Dad.

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My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

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Young ‘uns

A few weeks ago, when we were having a rash of notable deaths, one of my friends was asking, in her grief, whether it would just be like this from here on out. One of her icons, one of her heroes, after another. And Tim very quietly said to me, “Now would be a great time to start liking the work of artists younger than yourself. Every time is a great time.”

Well: yeah. And the immediate aftermath of a death is not the right time to say it more loudly than that, which is why I waited. But yeah. Because you’re not trying to replace anybody. No one will ever replace the artists of your childhood, the people who inspired you in your teens, those who touched your heart and lifted your mind in the first days you were an adult. Those people are irreplaceable.

But that doesn’t mean you go quietly into a downhill spiral of fewer and fewer artists to love. I think too many people do. The studies show it: most people stop liking new music in their late twenties or early thirties. They stop seeking it out–or maybe they never sought it out, and they stop being in situations where it finds them automatically. I think this is maybe less true on average for books and movies, but still somewhat true: the shape of things you seek out slows down.

And it gets easier to feel like the world is getting worse. Like things are getting sadder, diminishing. But they’re not. There’s more good stuff out there. The kids are not only all right, they can be there so that when the artist who was 30 when you were 15–30 and living hard, 30 and partying all night on the tour bus–turns out to be mortal, as statistically it turns out a great many of us are–there’s the artist who was 15 when you were 30.

And no, they don’t sound the same. They won’t feel like being 17 and having your life ahead of you. They’ll feel like being 37, or 57, or 87. And still choosing to have your life ahead of you.

That’s a pretty good thing to sound like too.

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Cultural translation, part 375

This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

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I hate the second week of March.

Today I’m wearing the shirt I bought when my grandpa was dying.

There are drawbacks to having a very sticky memory, and this is one of them: Grandpa died six years ago, and I have never once worn this shirt without thinking of the circumstances of its purchase. It’s a lovely bottle green, it’s a fabulous color for me, the fabric is soft…but it is permanently the shirt that I bought when my grandpa was dying.

I sometimes think that after six years I should stop having this lurching vertiginous feeling every time we do something with my side of the family and I’m in charge of making the reservations or buying the tickets or whatever. Every time–every single time–I have a horrible moment of conviction that I have reserved (or bought or whatever) the wrong number. And my brain doesn’t forget at those times. It’s not that I have moments of thinking Grandpa is still alive. Because what I invariably think is, “Where’s Grandpa going to sit?” So the thing in my brain that lurches like that knows that it’s Grandpa missing. But it happens every time, and it’s not tied to a number. My brain knows that we are different numbers at different times. We’re just…always one less than we’re supposed to be, whether we’re four or five or six or seven or…I don’t know, it could get up to seven billion, I suppose, and it’s still seven billion but no seat reserved for Grandpa.

I hate the second week of March.

And it’s not just Grandpa; Gran died on the same day as he did. I have this sense of doom every March. It’s good to keep an eye on that sort of thing so that you don’t mistake it for actual knowledge, and I’ve had this same sense of doom last year and the year before and so on, with no actual doom attached. My dark forebodings should not be reinforced with confirmation bias. The people I love who are going through tough medical things are not any likelier to have a hard time because of my feelings about early March.

Still and all. I am always glad when we get through this bit.

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What mid-March is, threaded through

We have all sorts of things going on, tasks and chores and ideas, attempts at healing and social things, worries and relief. And threaded over and under and around and through it is the fact that we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of my grandpa’s death. Like his mother before him, he died on March 16, cementing the next day’s St. Patrick’s Day associations for me pretty permanently. Maybe there’ll come a time when I don’t think of it, but I kind of doubt that. On the day he died, I was so glad and so grateful to have a loved one cooking corned beef and cabbage for us because it was hot food made with love, but now the association is so strong I hope I never eat it again.

I brought all his books home and cataloged them and stacked them up, and I have been reading through them. Some of them I bounce off, some I read through, and you see them in my book post. There were hundreds. Now there are less than twenty. When I realized the five-year anniversary was coming, I was grateful that there were not fewer, because I will soon be done reading Grandpa’s books, and if there had been two or three, if there had been only a handful, it might have felt like the right thing to try to finish on the anniversary, and I think that would have been wrong. I think that would have been too much synchronicity to bear, and yet it would have been hard to resist that kind of narrative pull. So I will just keep at it steadily, and I will finish reading them when I finish reading them. The universe is full of ragged ends and things that don’t come out evenly, and that is better than okay, it is good. The tidy packages, the tied-up strings, they are not how life works.

When I have finished reading my grandpa’s books that he owned, I will be okay. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I will cry. I will probably cry like my heart is breaking all over again, because it will be one more thing, one more piece of loss. But I can never lose my grandpa all the way. I knew that the day he died, and I was right; I know it just as much now. Every year for his birthday I buy myself a book for Grandpa and me. And it’s a good tradition, but that thing I said up there about things coming out evenly, I meant it, so if I’m somewhere in an odd little bookshop and I find a book for Grandpa and it’s not coming up on February 1, I buy it for Grandpa and me anyway. Or I get it from the library for Grandpa and me. Of course it’s not the same. It’s not remotely the same, that’s the horrible part. But I can only do the part I can do, and this is the part I can do, the stories, the remembrance, my side of the conversation.

And putting more of the protag’s grandpa in the book I’m revising. Because he belongs there, and because.

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Being imperfect, together

In my internet wanderings, I ran into this open letter to lung cancer patients who smoked. And…I feel pretty strongly this way. I run into obits sometimes where they specify that someone died of lung cancer even though they never smoked, and I think to myself, because if they had, their families wouldn’t have permission to grieve? My grandpa smoked, back in the day, and he quit before I was born, but his COPD contributed to his death. He didn’t have to earn my grief with perfect lung-related behavior. He didn’t even have to earn my grief with perfect Grandpaing. Not a one of us is perfect. Not a one, though some of us are amazing. Sometimes we get a chance to do better. We try our best, except sometimes we don’t. We try our best at the things we can manage. Except sometimes we don’t. And we love each other anyway. And then we’re gone, and we’re allowed to grieve. We don’t have to justify our grief with righteousness.

I get upset about this in the fundraising letters from the charities I support. Habitat for Humanity sends me these letters about these families in trouble, all the good choices they’ve made and how they’re in trouble anyway, the virtuous poor, and I think, okay, yes, I believe in those virtuous poor, I believe that happens sometimes, but. But. I also believe in people who didn’t make perfect decisions and still need a place to live. It’s all right to say, “We believe that it’s not okay for people to be homeless.” It’s entirely fine to say, “We are people who think that other people should have a safe warm place to sleep. Is that who you are too? Join us. Be people who think that too. Be those people, together.”