Tinged

I’m currently reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs’ account of her cancer diagnosis and death. The book is divided into four stages, just as terminal cancer is, and in the passage I read this morning, Riggs enters stage three of her journey right as her own mother dies of the disease.

Fade to pink

Riggs is a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so her approach to living and dying is inherently–one might say in-hereditarily–Transcendentalist. Riggs reads and writes her way through her diagnosis, treatment, and stages of grief, drawing parallels between her life and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, which themselves were models for the ones written by both Emerson and Thoreau.

Essayists believe writing is itself illuminative: we write in an attempt (in an essay) to understand. The title of Riggs’ memoir, The Bright Hour, comes from a line from Emerson referring to morning as a time when sunlight infills and inspires, allowing “this sickly body…to become as large as the World.”

Duck lips

The sun rises every day, and every day people die. There is nothing inherently special about Riggs or her cancer, treatment, and death; Riggs experiences mortality as countless others have both before and after her. But what makes a writer’s passing particular is the very art of essaying: even in extremis, there is a conscious commitment to watch and record, one’s own impending death becoming its own kind of data.

This kind of noticing does not come naturally; it is human nature to turn away from scenes of sickness and decline, reminiscent as they are of one’s own mortality. But writers train themselves to turn toward trauma just as war photographers run toward scenes of slaughter. I suppose there are a few exceptional souls who live oblivious lives and then turn into compulsive chroniclers of their own demise, but in my experience, awareness is a tool you hone over time.

Fading to pink

Although Riggs’ memoir had its genesis in a blog she began soon after her diagnosis, I don’t know if she was a lifelong journal-keeper like her famous forebear was: it was Emerson, after all, who urged Henry David Thoreau to keep a journal, and American literature is all the richer for it. But Riggs was trained as a poet, and poets like essayists are compulsive collectors, using language as a tool to snatch up and save the otherwise ordinary detritus of days.

I’m roughly halfway through The Bright Hour, but I know how it ends–I know, in fact, how every memoir ends. We all were born with a terminal diagnosis, but some of us are in denial about the details. Riggs died at the age of 38, leaving a husband and two young sons; Emerson died at the ripe age of 78 after having lost much of his memory and mental faculties. How do we measure the richness of a single life: is it by length of days or the number of enduring publications? Riggs lived the last years of her life in an entirely Emersonian fashion, reading, writing, and trying assiduously to understand this brief, bright hour that dawns, hastens across the horizon, and inevitably fades.

Stage from our seats

Last weekend J and I saw the musical Fun Home at the Boston Opera House. Ever since Fun Home debuted on Broadway in 2015, I’ve been quietly skeptical that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir could be adapted for the stage, even after the show won multiple Tony awards and A (not her real initial) had seen and raved about it. Despite these glowing reviews, I wasn’t completely convinced a playwright could translate Bechdel’s book, which is masterfully told and powerfully illustrated, into another genre. I so closely associated the content of Bechdel’s memoir with its visual format featuring cartoon drawings of her childhood memories, journals, and family photos juxtaposed with her middle-aged commentary, I couldn’t imagine telling that complex and complicated story any other way.

Washington Street

Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough. From its opening scene, Fun Home drew me and other audience members into Alison Bechdel’s unique family history. The daughter of a small town funeral director, Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college, discovered soon after that her father was secretly gay, and then lost him to an apparent suicide. On stage, this story is told with three different actresses playing Bechdel: young Alison, college Alison, and grown-up Alison, who observes from the margins, sketchbook in hand, as her life literally plays out before her (and the audience’s) eyes.

Set before the show

As a musical, Fun Home doesn’t try to replicate the visual format of the book. A small desk represents adult Alison’s cartoonist studio, the place where she struggles to understand and portray her conflicted relationship with her father, and individual props stand in for significant scenes in her life: the couch and piano in her meticulously restored, museum-like childhood home; a coffin in the funeral home (dubbed the “Fun Home” by Alison and her young brothers) that is the family business; and the door to the Gay Union where she came out as a lesbian in college. Audiences have to imagine the rest of the story.

Boston Opera House

The hand-drawn map of her father’s life that Bechdel provides in the book, for example–his birthplace, home, and site of death all contained within a tiny circle of rural Pennsylvania–is described in song but never shown. Instead, we imagine the vista of Bechdel’s childhood from her own imagined perspective as she plays airplane with her father and imagines a bird’s-eye view of her life.

Audience members also have to imagine a nameless character who plays a brief but pivotal role in Bechdel’s childhood: a butch truck driver who walks into a diner where young Alison is eating with her father. In the book, we see Bechdel’s drawing of a woman who never knew the impact she had on a girl who bridled against the dresses and barrettes her father forced her to wear. In the musical, young Alison stares at an off-stage, invisible figure who is invoked only through a recitation of her emblematic appearance: short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots, and a large ring of keys. The outfit and its impression are magical to young Alison: her first realization that people like her exist in the world outside her small circle.

Ladies' lounge

Fun Home the book bills itself as “a family tragicomic,” and I have no shame in admitting I wept as the show turned toward its conclusion. Yes, there are moments of comedy in the story, such as the over-the-top, 70s-psychedelic dance number young Alison and her brothers create to advertise the family funeral home or the awkward bumbling of college Alison’s first sexual encounter. But college Alison’s earnest interactions with her father are heartbreakingly powerful without even a hint of sentimentality. Desperate to understand and be understood by her father, both college and adult Alison encounter instead silence, her questions cut off as abruptly as the oncoming truck that took her father’s life.

Overhead

Whereas I approached Fun Home the musical with high expectations based on multiple readings of Alison Bechdel’s book, J intentionally did no research into the musical beforehand, knowing nothing more than my brief explanation that the show was based on a memoir by a lesbian cartoonist. His reaction to the show was the highest form of praise, as he said he was immediately drawn into Alison’s life not because it was a “gay story” but because it was an engaging and relatable story about an ordinary person who happens to be gay. Although the exact details of Alison Bechdel’s family upbringing are unique, her story is easy to relate to if you’ve ever had a family member (or a childhood) you’ve struggled to understand.

October skies / view from May Hall

I teach in Framingham until 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday nights, so this means I’ve seen firsthand how inevitably the days have shortened: a class that used to end in daylight now lets out after dark.

Sunset from 2nd floor women's restroom

I teach my afternoon class in May Hall, where my office is also located. May Hall is perched atop a hill, and its stairwells have west-facing windows that offer lovely views of distant hills and afternoon sunsets. October is a busy month for professors, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. On late October afternoons, however, you needn’t go far to enjoy the seasonal scenery.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Puffed and strutting

Yesterday morning as I left for campus, there was a throng of tom turkeys strutting and puffing in the street at the end of our driveway. When I was a bird-obsessed kid growing up in central Ohio, wild turkeys were wild and rare: something to be seen in the deep and distant woods, if at all. You could see deer in the suburban outskirts of the city–nearly any grassy field would attract them at twilight–but turkeys were creatures of deep wilderness, as secretive as bears.

Turkey trot

I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of wild turkeys in the Boston suburbs. They are almost as prevalent as rabbits and infinitely easier to see than raccoons or opossums. Turkeys are widespread here–in winter, we frequently see small flocks strolling down streets and sidewalks; in summer, we see hens singly or in pairs leading straggling lines of poults through our backyard; and in October, we see roving gangs of tom turkeys fluffing their plumage and fanning their tails, practicing on one another the displays intended to impress females.

Quartet

These birds aren’t shy; they don’t need to be. Suburban turkeys are large and savvy: they know dogs are leashed or contained behind fences, and coyotes are elusive and largely nocturnal. This leaves turkeys to rule the backyards of Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge: yardbirds with a stately strut and little need to lurk or skulk. Until Thanksgiving at least, the not-so-wild turkeys of suburban Boston have no need for secrecy.

White snakeroot

It’s been an unusually warm October: today the temperatures were in the mid-seventies. Apart from a few clear, brisk days, the month has been soupy, with warm temperatures, rain, and unseasonable mugginess. Although it feels like bad luck to wish for cooler days, I’m looking forward to the end of summer humidity…assuming, that is, that October eventually starts feeling like fall.

Mumkin in afternoon light

Even when the weather doesn’t feel like October, however, the sun always knows what time of year it is. Late this afternoon on my way home from doing errands, I had my car windows down while the setting sun illuminated the street, sidewalks, and neighbors’ yards with a metallic sheen. Even at high noon, October light feels belated, and on an October afternoon, the world feels downright antique. Although today’s temperatures still said summer, the low-angled light of late afternoon was tinged with the same bronze hues that ripens every year in October: the witching month, when the earth leans into an approaching chill.

Hibiscus

I’m almost done reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. I rushed to read the book in large part because of the backlash against it: many angry reviews have been written by people who haven’t read (and indeed refuse to read) the book, so I was eager to make up my own mind. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, she’s in a unique spot to comment on an unprecedented election.

Cherub

Now that I’m almost done with What Happened, I have a few observations about it. First of all, I’ve been struck by how much of a bookworm Clinton is. I knew that Clinton was smart, but I wasn’t expecting a memoir that mentions so many books: books Clinton read before she entered politics, books that guided her as a candidate, and books she’s returned to in the aftermath of a crushing defeat. In the first chapter alone, Clinton mentions more books than Donald Trump has probably read in his entire life. I don’t think Clinton is trying to look bookish; she’s just a person who reads (and thus talks about) a lot of books.

Tamarack

Second, I’ve been struck by Clinton’s obvious religious faith. Whereas many politicians make a big show of piety to appeal to heartland voters, Clinton has always been private about her own Methodist faith. Now that Clinton is out of the political realm and thus more comfortable talking about her personal life, it’s clear that her faith inspires pretty much everything she did as a politician and (especially) everything she’s done since. Although many of Clinton’s critics will presumably accuse her of false piety, she literally has nothing to lose now that she’s no longer running for office. When Clinton explains how prayer and the advice of trusted spiritual advisors helped her weather everything from the trials of her marriage to the stresses of a contentious campaign, I choose to believe her.

Water lilies

Third, I think What Happened is far more than an autopsy of a failed campaign; it’s also a warning about what lies ahead. Press reports (and negative reviews) peg the book as a political postmortem, with Clinton offering excuses for why she lost the 2016 election. But as attention-grabbing as those parts of the book are, the most interesting, troubling, and useful parts are the ones that warn of what comes next: a book that could have alternatively called What’s Happening. Clinton’s days as a candidate are over, but the challenges she faced as a candidate are not going away. Instead, those challenges will be alive and active in future elections, threatening to undermine our democracy as long as we continue to ignore them.

Maidenhair fern

Clinton describes a perfect storm of factors that led to her defeat and Trump’s victory: a toxic stew of sexism, misogyny, racism, sensational press coverage, an ill-timed letter from then-FBI director James Comey, Russian interference, a widespread inability of voters to detect and ignore fake news, and a willful campaign of voter suppression. Despite all of these impediments, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but that still wasn’t enough to win her the presidency.

Mown path

Still a policy wonk, Clinton offers ample evidence to support her claim that a combination of forces tipped the election in Trump’s favor, devoting an entire chapter to a statistical analysis of how Comey’s letter about an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage proved to be the nail in her campaign coffin. But here’s the thing: even if you don’t believe Clinton’s admittedly subjective account of what went wrong in the 2016 election, you’d better listen to what she says about future elections.

You can argue that sexism and misogyny weren’t a factor in Clinton’s loss, or you can argue that James Comey had no impact on the race. You can argue that nobody is to blame but Clinton herself, and she would actually agree with you. But–and this is the essential point–with the exception of James Comey, none of the factors Clinton discusses is going away, so we ignore her insights at our (and our country’s) peril.

Stonewall

Maybe Clinton was a terrible candidate, as her critics argue. But sexism and misogyny aren’t going away, so the next woman to run for president will still have to face them. Maybe racism didn’t motivate Trump voters–but racism isn’t going away, so future populists and demagogues will still have reason to appeal to it.

Maybe the Russians didn’t work single-handedly to get Trump elected–but we know for a fact they interfered in the election, and they continue to spread fake news and propaganda designed to sow domestic discord. Russian propagandists and click-bait factories aren’t going away, so future candidates will have to face the lies they spread, just as Clinton did.

September faun

Most alarmingly, voter suppression might not have lost the election for Clinton, but it played a role, and it’s not going away. If we believe in fair and accurate elections, we should be alarmed by the number of voters who were prevented from voting in states where the election was decided by a slim margin. Voter suppression alone might not have thrown the election to Trump, but it’s an issue we should care about if we care about future elections.

Clinton’s tale of “what happened” is about much more than her individual experience of the 2016 election. Instead, it’s a tale of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn from recent history.