One of the conversation snippets I remember best from my graduate creative writing program days came from a classmate I didn’t know well and with whom I didn’t have much in common. It’s stayed in my head all these years because grad school was where I discovered activities I loved almost as much as writing. I went to school in the Rocky Mountain West, and it was a revelation to me, a child of Western New York state, that hiking in the snow could be a pleasant pastime instead of a numbing struggle for survival, and that biking on 100-degree summer days was enjoyable as long as one carried enough water.
My classmate was chatting with one of our professors about his writing output during our summer break, and he looked a bit shame-faced as he said he hadn’t finished as much as he’d hoped because he always struggled with whether to spend his time living life or writing about it. As someone who cannot not write, I understood his dilemma. Yet now that I’m middle-aged, I find the question of living smacking me in the face more and more, and the decision to defer the writing more and more appealing. For years I’ve watched distant relatives and acquaintances die, but death is slithering closer. Less than four months ago, someone I thought of as a dear acquaintance — a person I don’t see often, but was part of the local Left/ progressive community that’s my extended family — died of cancer at age 60. Yesterday I faced the choice of crossing the river to attend the memorial service for a 51-year-old acquaintance from the bicycling/ local and sustainable food/ hiking community or traveling two miles up the road for the memorial service for a 55-year-old closer acquaintance from the political lesbian feminist/ Women Outdoors hiking-bicycling community.
Obviously this isn’t the sort of choice I look forward to making. Given this month’s endless snow and the close timing that created a logistical impossibility, and my fear of emotional overload, I chose the latter service, and was grateful for my decision. At least 100 people attended my friend Klara’s beautiful memorial. What surprised me was not that a few tears slid down the side of my face, but how much I laughed as I listened to a number of people tell stories about her. Klara loved to travel and have adventures, and she’d chosen many of us to accompany her. It didn’t matter whether the journey was a quiet summer evening at Tanglewood listening to a master of classical piano, an August road trip from New England to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, camping on the tundra near Denali in Alaska, exploring beaches in Morocco, or flying to Israel with her Jewish chorus members for an international choral festival — Klara put out the call, found one or more friends to join her, and jumped in with both feet. After her ovarian cancer diagnosis seven or eight years ago, she didn’t stop, and the picture painted at her memorial service was of a woman who never ceased living, even in the face of chemo and a lousy prognosis.
This morning I went outside to shovel snow for what felt like the zillionth time this winter. I didn’t have to — my landlord/friend will do it, a couple of weeks ago I injured arm muscles chopping ice in our driveway, I was barely awake, I hadn’t yet had my coffee… But I pulled on my boots and all the layers of warm clothing once again and went outside to work — because my new household is a community and I wanted to share the chores, because I wanted to converse with one of my newest friends, because it’s deep winter in New England and I have no idea how many I have left. None of us do, ever. After I finished moving snow around again, I lingered outside and turned my face to the sky and smiled as the wet flakes hit my skin. I walked behind the house, stood and watched the crimson cardinals in the wild grapevine for 10, 15 more minutes even though my legs were growing cold beneath my corduroys. Because I don’t much believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, and I think this is all we have, here, today, on this earth.