The Sunday Salon-Life Matters

The Sunday

Dear friends, I had so much planned to tell you about this morning.  I had thought to talk about Run, Anne Patchett’s latest novel which I finished earlier this week.  And I was all set to reveal my latest book purchase Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s just published collection of short stories – and imagine, the Ravenous Reader actually bought a collection of short stories! (winks)

But you know the saying about the best laid plans, and I’m voluntarily sending my agley in order to tell you about an essay I read yesterday which lodged in my heart and simply won’t budge. 

Welcome to The Sunday Salon.  Make sure you have some tissue.

It was purely chance that led me to A Matter of Life and Death, Marjorie Williams’s brilliant account of her diagnosis with liver cancer in 2001 and her daily battle against the disease.   I was out and about yesterday, doing familiar Saturday afternoon errands, when I chanced upon a huge Bargain Bookstore.  Of course, I couldn’t resist (who could?) and I was mightily pleased with myself for snagging a bagful of books for under $15.00.

Among them was a copy of The Best American Essays, 2006 edition.  I find a well written essay extremely satisfying, especially as it reveals the heart and mind of its author.  A good essay can acquaint us with the particular experience or ideas of one person in a way that makes them applicable to our own lives.  As Lauren Slater, editor of this collection described it, “Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door.”

Yesterday afternoon I followed the trail directly to Marjorie Williams door whilst sitting on my back porch in the sunshine, my little dogs sunning themselves on a rug at my feet, the sounds of spring hovering in the air around me – a chorus of birdsong, happy voices of children heard and not seen, the grumbling motor of some ambitious homeowner’s lawn mower. 

Williams published regularly in Vanity Fair, the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post, and Slate magazines.  Renowned for her political profiles, her acerbic wit, and her feminist outlook, she won the respect of her colleagues of both genders.

When I started reading, I knew nothing about her.  But I was sucked into her writing immediately, its matter of factness; it’s plain yet eloquent language.  “The beast first showed its face benignly, in the late June warmth of a California swimming pool, and it would take me more than a year to know it for what it was.”

As I continued reading about that year and beyond, smiling sometimes-“Is there a case to be made against my freaking out right now?” she asks one physician-and crying at others-“Tumors so widespread automatically “stage” my cancer at IV (b). There is no V and there is no c”- I become completely lost in this tale, thinking about this woman who was 43 at the time of her diagnosis, who had two small children yet to raise, who had a marvelous career and the intelligence to feed the world something vital and important.  A woman who was writing so plainly about a diagnosis of doom, yet so deeply affecting was her prose that I felt as if she were sitting next to me on my sunny back porch.

About midway through the essay – diagnosis complete, treatments under way, family and friends coming to terms with her prognosis-I turned to the back of the book which contains a brief biography of each author.  “Williams” was, of course, the last one.  

“Marjorie Williams was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1958 and died in Washington DC, in 2005.”


I let the book fall face down in my lap.  I really believe I was expecting it to say she had miraculously beaten the disease and continued to write and play with her son and daughter, so real was the sound of her voice in my head as I read the words she had written just months before her death.

And so, dear friends, in spite of the warmth of spring, I was chilled for the remainder of the day.  I finished the essay, which I later found was excerpted from The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of her columns and profiles published posthumously.

But I was reminded of two things yesterday afternoon – how much life matters, just the dailiness of it, the moment to moment victories and blessings.  And the way words render immortality in a way little else can, keep the writer’s heart and thoughts alive forever.

“Sometimes I feel immortal,” Williams wrote. “Whatever happens to me now, I’ve gained the knowledge some people never gain, that my span is finite, and I still have the chance to rise, and rise, to life’s generosity.  But at other times I feel trapped, cursed by my specific awareness of the guillotine blade poised above my neck.  At those times I resent you- or the seven other people at dinner with me, or my husband deep in sleep beside me –for the fact that you may never even catch sight of the blade assigned to you.”

Have a wonderful Sunday my friends.  Laugh, love, read, and be well.



17 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon-Life Matters

  1. ok I have a chill running down my spine – you were right about the tissues. I’m not sure I could have read the essay without needing a box full.

    That last quote is just so… can’t even put it into words. But it makes us remember that life is too short – and that we need to make the most of it – live every day as if it were our last. Thanks for reminding me of that today.

  2. Thank you. There is so much that we take for granted, isn’t there? Like you, I love essays and I wish we had the equivalent publication in the UK. I will see if the US editions are available over here and definitely look for “The Woman at the Washington Zoo’.

  3. That’s really powerful. I can imagine how it would linger with you all day … in fact, I think it will linger with me and I only read your blog post, not the full essay. Thank you for sharing something so meaningful with the Salon.

  4. For me, this is what reading is all about. To read your marvelous words and feelings about someone else’s words and feelings, brings to each one of us inspiration “to rise” above the cards we are dealt in life.

    Thanks for sharing this, Becca, it is an important story.

  5. Oh this brought tears to my eyes. What a tremendously brave woman. I will look out for Marjorie Williams and see if she has published anything I could get hold of. I would like her to live on inside my mind and have the immortality she would have wanted.

  6. Thank you for sharing this story. It especially resonates with me right now because I attended the memorial service Friday night of a friend who fought a losing battle with cancer. Right up until the very end, she had us believing in miracles–her positive attitude and hopeful attitude rubbed off on her family and friends. It was quite a blow to us all when she left us. I don’t think Majorie Williams essay is something I could read at the moment, but I’ll save this post and look for it at a more appropriate time.

  7. Becca, thanks for writing about this. It’s a very present theme these days in my consciousness, and in Irish life. One of our well-known and well-loved writers, Nuala O’Faoilain, has recently spoken of the cancer with which she was diagnosed recently, and for which she is having no treatment. She gave a very frank, very raw, and very moving radio interview last week, in which she said that “all the sweetness” went out of her life at that diagnosis. That was hard for a lot of people to hear. Blogger Jen Ballantyne is fighting her own battle against the pain of her cancer, and her writing is truly remarkable also. A hard, hard topic, and I feel very grateful to the people who are brave enough to speak and write so openly of their experience.

  8. Thank you for a powerful post – what a reminder to live our lives fully and gratefully. I had this same kind of feeling after reading (and loving ) Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. I had at one time subscribed to Gourmet Magazine when she was a columnist for them and had fallen in love with her food articles which always included a piece of herself in them. She felt like an old friend to me. So when I purchased her cookbook, I sat and read it cover to cover in just a few days. Then I discovered she had died – very young – I felt like my heart had been slammed in a door and crushed. When a writer shares their inner lives with us, they make us care deeply about them. Their deaths (especially premature) seem to strike very close to home.

    Again, thanks for sharing – you have made me want to purchase her book The Woman at the Washington Zoo

  9. Beautiful Becca. You were “meant” to find that book of essays and you were “meant” to read this piece by Marjorie Williams. I’m glad that you did.

  10. I remember Marjorie Williams from Vanity Fair. This was such an eloquent post; so very thoughtful and poignant. I have known a number of brave women (and for that matter, men) who have lived with cancer — and I mean LIVED. My mom was one of them. I always have said, “My mom taught me how to die” and I hope I remember it when that happens! Because she lived every moment until she died. She celebrated every single day, even the rugged ones. She always listened when she had guests and had interesting things to say, rather than bemoan her own pain and challenges. She was not about to let herself rain on her own parade of guests who loved to visit because she didn’t drag them down. She thought outside herself, which of course, brought all sorts of wonderful things to her.

    Yesterday was the 31st anniversary of her death. I’ve been pondering it a bit. Not blogging on it. But reading this really touched me in a very specific way, with memory and admiration for Marjorie Williams — and for mom.

  11. Wake up call. Trite but that’s what comes to my mind. As always, thank you, Becca.

    “At those times I resent you- or the seven other people at dinner with me, or my husband deep in sleep beside me –for the fact that you may never even catch sight of the blade assigned to you.”

  12. I always enjoyed Marjorie Williams’ pieces in the Washington Post magazine and was saddened by her death. The Woman at the Washington Zoo is on my TBR list and you may just have bumped it higher up in the pile.

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s