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.