Anniversaries

Katherine Lawrence, December 11 1954 – March 25 2004

This Isn’t a Story

I’m sorry, Katherine,
but dying isn’t a story.
I saw your careful outline,
your well-researched notes:
first the heroine died,
then her adventures began.
You knew every detail:
the ghost town by the river,
when the trains ran,
the reasons why bullets were
better than pills.
You wrote and rewrote
the opening scenes. Nothing more.
Because dying isn’t a story.

We argued about story. We argued
when you stopped writing.
No, edit that. I argued. You said
you’d keep your notes and walked away.
You understood pacing and tension.
You mailed your goodbyes as you drove out of town;
walked down to the river, leaned back, looked up at the sky—

But no. Dying isn’t a story.
The hikers who found you,
that was a story. The police officer
with the half-finished novel;
the county parks manager in cutoff jeans
who told us he was sorry,
who told us he’d done this before.
A story is a long drive home through the dark,
both my hands steady on the wheel.

Your empty apartment was a story,
at least once we opened the door:
The answering machine blinking its silence,
the solstice cards lining the hall.
The borrowed books set on the counter,
labeled with sticky notes, bearing our names.
Nothing left to the reader:
no loose ends, no unresolved threads.
But a story is messier than a body by a river,
a bullet to the head. A story is
your mother packing your dishes
and your silver and a fifth of Scotch,
filling out the paperwork
to transport your gun across state lines.

You had a promising start:
the opening lines, the rising tension,
the chilling sense of things
that couldn’t happen any other way.
But those things aren’t a story,
and dying doesn’t make them one.

You knew how to outline
and you knew how to plot.
So how could you not know
what all writers know,
I still don’t know.
I’m sorry, Katherine.
This poem isn’t a story,
but I’m not driving away.


I could rewrite this now, polish it a little–but I won’t. Sometimes, more polish doesn’t actually make a piece stronger, after all.

And another anniversary: Irvin Simner, August 11, 1936 – March 22, 2014.

Two years after losing my dad, I find I can see much more clearly both the gifts and the weaknesses he’s left to me.

Twelve years after losing Katherine, loss no longer seems a rare outrage. It seems a hard and terrible part of how the world works.

There’ve been other losses between these two, after these two. I’m coming up on the age Katherine had just turned the last time I saw her. That puts me a year out from the birthday she couldn’t bring herself to face.

It took less time to forgive my father than Katherine. I wouldn’t have expected that.

I don’t know how long it took to forgive Katherine, only that it was less than twelve years.

A shovelful of dirt

“Some people find this hard,” the rabbi warned us, as my brother and sister and I stood by my father’s grave.

He didn’t tell us, as he had at the funeral home, that this meant we didn’t have to do it. Not directly.

He’d told us a lot about the things we didn’t have to do. We didn’t have to follow the casket from the car to the grave. We didn’t have to watch that casket be lowered into the earth. And, yes, didn’t have to put the ritual shovelful of earth onto the casket once it lowered. All things, he explained, that many people found hard.

Through it all, my siblings and I stared at him dumbfounded. We were supposed to avoid doing things because they were hard? As if following, lowering, and shoveling were any harder than burying one’s father in the first place—a father who had never seen his children truly, who confused giving gifts with giving love, who I’d spent years trying to please and trying to reach until finally, in self-defense, I’d given up to protect myself?

As if we got to skip feeling the hard things if we skipped doing the hard things? Even then, we all knew better. We would have helped carry the casket, too, had we not been told that wasn’t allowed for liability reasons.

So after we assured the rabbi, yet again, that of course we wanted to perform this final ritual act, he went on to explain that putting dirt on a grave fell under its own special category of lovingkindness, because it was one of the few favors that could never be repaid.

Or even, I would think later, that we could hope might be repaid, because with my father, issues of reciprocity between parent and child, of the gap between how he thought he acted toward us and how he did act, had always been complicated.

But just then I waited, while my brother threw one shovelful into the grave, and then a second. I took the shovel in my hands in turn. The dirt was surprisingly light, and the tactile act of throwing it in, of hearing it thunk onto the wooden casket, was satisfying, necessary. I sent a second shovelful after the first. I could have kept going, could have lost myself in this deeply physical task and seen it through, but instead I stepped back, letting my sister take a turn as well.

And then I spent some time standing silent by that open grave, by that lowered casket, by all the things we were told we didn’t need to do, thinking about how while the rabbi had been right about other things that day, he’d been wrong about this, because I did need it. These rituals are here for a reason, after all.

I rode back to my father’s house in silence, too, but unlike the days before the burial, it wasn’t a turbulent sort of silence. It was a peaceful, grounded sort of silence, a transitional sort of silence, the sort of silence that let me know I was passing through something, into someplace new.

And now, a few days and a second plane ride later, I’m home.

Travel well, Thomas Harlan VI

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

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“Once more, we’ll all remember where we were.”

Two years ago today, my sister called me from two thousand miles away, asking if I was okay, because she heard there’d been a shooting in a Tucson grocery store. I laughed. “Tucson’s a big city,” I said. “We have lots of grocery stores.” I assured her that whatever had happened, it had nothing to do with me.

Ten minutes later I was scanning news sources and twitter feeds, trying to figure out whether or not my congresswoman was alive.

Gabrielle Giffords survived, but six others didn’t. In Tucson we remember their names–Christina-Taylor Green, Gabe Zimmerman, Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, and Dorwan Stoddard–and this morning we rang bells in their memory.

Neither the survivors nor the victims’ families pressed for the death penalty, and because of this our community was spared a lengthy trial that would have changed nothing. In doing so, they gave a gift to all of us, and I’m grateful for that.

Meanwhile, today, while a couple hours north of us another county’s sheriff is sending armed volunteer posses to patrol schools, former Tucson congresswoman Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly are launching an initiative to find more responsible solutions to gun violence.

I can’t think of a better place for this to begin, or of better people to begin it.

Posted a few days late

“Near ground zero, sightseers crowded among vendors and pickpockets. Though we were still a few blocks from the source, the two lights overwhelmed our sky like towering obelisks. When we looked closer we realized the lights were filled with movement. Countless birds raced in and out, meteoric paths cutting the sky. The must have been drawn by the light, pulled out of their nightly habits to enter this acrobatic flourish. As we walked closer the birds became more brilliant and numerous, a mass of charged, speeding particles. As each crossed into the light, suddenly it was branded white, turned into pure light …

“Never had I seen such a gathering, plumes of birds billowing upward, multiplying upon themselves until they appeared infinite, as thick as Milky Way stars. They reflected so much light that their individual features were erased. I guessed them to be terns, flycatchers, whip-poor-whills, nighthawks, jaegers, and crows, interrupted by swerving raptors. I picked out some by their flight patterns: seasgulls coasting back and forth, falcons plunging through flurries of swallows. None could resist the light.

This must upend everyone’s schedules, I thought. Daytime species would wake hungover in the morning, bewildered by the night’s new sun … Those that I saw, perhaps the majority, were migrating, and the lights had apparently pulled them off course. September is prime season for migrators, and many travel at night, relying on stars and moonlight for orientation. Now they were fixed solely on these two lights, the axis of their navigation fastened over lower Manhattan. Many would probably die because of this, their energy diverted, wings exhausted. We were killing them …

“… I thought these birds must be in some sort of ecstasy, thrust so willingly in and out of the light. I wondered whether the survivors wold remember this night off illumination, whether the small avian brain has a place to hold an unconformity of this magnitude. Then I thought there must be no need for memory among animals as swift and transfigured as these. This moment went beyond mere recollection.”

— Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues (on visiting the memorial at Manhattan’s Ground Zero on September 11, 2002)

Josepha Sherman

Not new news anymore, but just news sad enough I’ve not gotten to posting until now: rest in peace, Jo Sherman.

I can’t claim to have known Jo well, but I knew her from pretty much the beginning of my online days. I remember her as irreverent and always laughing, online and off, and also as being just such a comfortable person to be around, especially as a shy and awkward new writer. Indeed, if I was at a con and in the middle of a bout of awkwardness or shyness or just plain old tiredness or grumpiness, within a few minutes of running into Jo I’d be laughing instead, awkwardness forgotten.

I have fond memories, too, of late night slush readings; and enthusiastic renditions of “Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts,” a song she managed to base an entire book of folklore around; and of chants of “GEnie, GEnie,” one of the old social networks where the SF/fantasy community first found its online presence.

As I began writing for kids more and going to east coast/midwestern cons less, I fell out of touch, online and off.

Her presence in this world will be missed. May her memory be a blessing.