The Opposite of Loneliness

I’d like to think that I provide pretty good book recommendations, when pressed. (You know. When I DON’T go blank and forget every book I’ve ever read and the only thing that sticks out is some book that I loathed, so I blurt out, Izzy, Willy Nilly? Have you ever read that? Try it. Then they associate me with some book I actually hated.)

So, here is a book recommendation that I am poised to give. One that you should probably go out and get tomorrow. One that you should probably pay the utmost attention to.

Actually, to call this particular collection of words a “book” is to make it base. It’s a life’s work. I could probably never do it justice and overrate it at the same time.

It’s called The Opposite of Loneliness. And before I tell you about the story, I need to tell you this “story.”

Marina Keegan was a student at Yale. She was a writer in the broadest sense: a poet, a playwright, even dabbling in nonfiction. She won awards for her work and saw some of it published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Upon her graduation, she addressed her classmates in an essay, entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness” that became an instant success. She died in a car accident five days later. Not even a week after she had worn a cap and gown, an entire lifetime of success ahead of her, she was gone.

And so, her parents picked up the pieces. They took a hard look at her body of work. They put it together between a binding, and they sold it so that others could come to know their daughter intimately. Despite the flaws that she probably would have revised and edited out of her work, her parents sent Marina’s final message out into the world. I am so glad that they did.

Because they could have been selfish. They could have decided that it was too large of an undertaking to assess what to put in a final book about Marina. No one could have blamed them if they had shied away and withdrawn into their grief.

But they didn’t. And really, they couldn’t have gone wrong with anything they picked. Yes, every page “throbs with what could have been” as one critic said, but Marina will always be recognized for her talent, whether she is here or not. Although she could have been so much more, her impact is great and awesome in the traditional sense of both words.

The book is a mix of her poetry, her fiction, and her nonfiction. But really, it is made of flesh, blood, and bone. Marina’s symbolism is both painfully obvious and overwhelmingly succinct. When you read her words, you feel an undeniable connection to her, but also the human race. She seems to embody what humans could be, if we free ourselves from our inhibitions. She was a better version of us all.

Everything about this book is difficult, mind you. It is hard to see how much talent Marina had. It is hard to hear her talk about her own death, when she thinks it will be years away, like we all do. It is hard to hear her talk about all the things that scared her, excited her, angered her. (I mean, it is especially hard because I am sitting here trying to find matching socks when we have shooting stars like Marina in the world.)

But we owe her that at least. We owe her an audience.

So, pick up Marina Keegan’s book The Opposite of Loneliness. Cry through it like I did. Be haunted by it. Loathe it a little. Love it a lot. But when someone asks you for a good book recommendation, pass it on. Give Marina what we all need in this life and the next: someone to listen.

It’s Not the Years in Your Life

Humans. We’re extending our lives a little more everyday. Doctors actually printed out a 3D heart so that they could save the life of a baby recently. We’re getting closer to immortality all the time. Maybe one day we can defrost Disney, become bionic, and clone our clones.

But being immortal isn’t going to help us live our lives now. In fact, it doesn’t matter how old you are, 9 or 90, you aren’t going to survive for 10 more years or even 100 if you don’t understand this basic principle: there is always time to live up to your potential.

You need to believe that you can start anew at any time. No matter how many times you have failed or how many times you have started over before. You have to know that you can learn or try anything new, at any age. That, just like Madonna, you can reinvent yourself.

I mean, I hear all of the time that children can learn languages quickly. A child’s brain is already mapping new ideas and connections all of the time, so what’s one more English word, one more Spanish phrase?

But what everyone assumes from this fact is that there is a small window that you have to jump through in terms of knowledge. If you don’t do something when you’re young, you will never learn to do it at all. And if you miss the opportunity, well, you miss out. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Science does not say that we ever stop learning at a fixed point in our lives. We can discover a new language, a new skill, or a new lifestyle at any time, and we absolutely should.

Yes, it may not feel like you have a lot of time on this Earth. And it isn’t fair that we are limited to a lifetime that is synonymous with the blink of an eye on any other planet. But I assure you, you will have plenty of time to write the next award-winning screenplay, the next 700-page tome, the next best chapter of your life. That is, if you start right now and never stop.

I don’t know when you’ll die. It could be tomorrow. And it could be 500,000 tomorrows from now. But I can assure you, if you begin by squeezing every drop out of life, you will never feel as though your time is running out. Just the opposite.

Say Your Goodbyes

Fun fact time!

“The Parting Glass” is an old Scottish and Irish song that was traditionally sung at the end of a party, gathering, or regular hootenanny. In fact, it was so popular in Scotland that only “Auld Lang Syne” could trump it. It survives today through traditional Celtic bands and singers like Loreena McKennitt and The Wailin’ Jennys. And, of course, through yours truly.

Here’s the text of the song:

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm e’er I’ve done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

If I had money enough to spend,
And leisure time to sit awhile,
There is a fair maid in this town,
That sorely has my heart beguiled.
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips,
I own she has my heart in thrall,
Then fill to me the parting glass,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

For whatever reason, I am completely besotted with this song. I love the melody, the meaning. (And now that I know the lyrics, I can stop picturing this metaphorical closing glass door when I hear the title.)

But what I think I’m attracted to most about this song is the idea of letting everyone know your intention and how you feel about them. You have to go, but one more glass, one more song will give you the time to say goodbye. None of the “this isn’t goodbye. It’s see you later.” None of the drifting away through unanswered text messages. None of the missed phone calls that get lost in translation, anyway. A goodbye that says if I see you again, that would be great, but if I don’t, joy be with you.

Maybe I have some deep-seated anxiety about people leaving, but the idea of being firm and final with every goodbye actually eases me. “I’ll talk to you later” leaves, literally, so much unsaid. But when you’re forced to say goodbye, you can tell them exactly what you feel and ensure that the person in question knows exactly where you stand. That’s a priceless gift when tomorrow is never promised, when we never know when a goodbye will be our last.

So, say goodbye whenever you leave and actually mean it. (You don’t have to sing “The Parting Glass,” but it would be nice if you are in my presence.) Just never leave people hanging on a word that won’t come. Say goodbye as if you will never see them again, and hope against hope, that someday, you will.

Leave My Roadkill Alone

Warning! Potentially disturbing topic ahead. 

Deer are incredibly majestic creatures. Their soulful black eyes, their regal antlers, their taupe coats, their completely docile nature. They once provided us with all that we needed: meat, clothing, tools. We owe our lives to them, in many ways. (But…you read the title of this post so you know it is going downhill…)

And what do we now? We hit them with our cars. And if we could, we would forward our insurance deductibles to them when we have to replace our bumpers, when we hit our cars against their bodies. Yet, who will replace their lives?

Okay, I may be getting a little dramatic. But I have a beef with humanity. (Or, maybe a venison with humanity? I don’t know.)

Every day I pass a lot of dead deer carcasses. Like a lot. In varying states of decay, but all from one result: people. I’ve seen obviously broken legs, half-eaten corpses, and gazing black eyes staring out from the road. It’s unsettling, at best. But like all things, we keep on keeping on. We keep driving, just as the people who hit these poor creatures probably did. We rarely slow down, and we never stop.

But so do I. Recently, when I have driven past, they have started to slip past me. I have started to accept their presence as somewhere hovering around “normal” in the mist of my morning commute.

Until last Friday.

In the dark, I sped along, wanting to get home as soon as possible. I counted about 4 dead deer in the flash of my headlights, which seemed to be a lot, even for the road I was driving on. I started to mull this fact over, when I saw a fifth.

Now, the jury is still out on what I saw. It could have been the fierce wind, or a gust from a passing car. It could have been, as my boyfriend pointed out, rigor mortis, as the nerves tightened and then shot out in what looked suspiciously like a desperate hoof in the air. And then again, the idea that we all don’t want to entertain, is the notion that the poor, poor thing wasn’t dead yet. He was almost dead and dying, in the cold air. When I saw it, when I saw the cloven hoof paw the air, my hand flew up to my chest.  Should I return and try to help it out of its misery? I didn’t have my pocketknife on me, and the thought of actually cutting its throat in a humane way still gives me nightmares. What was I supposed to do but cry and mourn his near death? Which is exactly what I did. My entire night was absolutely blackened by that moment. Suffering is a fate no one, man or beast, should endure.

And then today. I wanted to see the body, for closure. To convince myself that I did the right thing by driving past.

Except it wasn’t there. None of the bodies that were there on Friday were present. It was like a giant deer Zamboni had swept them all up. For all I knew, it could have got up and walked away. My hope was that someone had called it in, and it was put out of its misery. But it could have died on the cold asphalt. My mind flipped through the possibilities like a Roledex. Now, I would truly never know.

And well, that angered me even more than the thought of someone hitting it at all all. Knocking them down like dominoes was one thing, but erasing their existence? I felt robbed and hollow, as a bystander feels when they realize they should have done something in the moment, when they had the chance.

If you haven’t read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, you should. Because this is the central message of the book: we need to stop shielding ourselves from death. Death helps us bring meaning to our lives. If we lived forever, what would we live for? We would just procrastinate everything (not that we don’t do that now, but you know.)

Like it or not, the feeling that we have a finite time on this Earth helps us achieve our goals, fall in love, and buy that really fancy cheese grater when we can’t afford it. It helps us to understand the bigger picture, even when the bigger picture comes in the form of dead animals on the side of the road.

So, don’t touch my roadkill. Let it be a reminder that we all must decay, and the earth will feed on us as we’ve fed on it. But in that message, let us be enlightened not frightened as we drive along. And hopefully, we can start to share the road together.

Make Art or Make Babies

I’m going to tell you the secret of life. Plain and simple. No climbing to the top of a wisdom mountain to hear it, either.

It’s this: Try to do the best you can, and make the best of every situation.

If you can do that, you can look back on your life and feel good about it.

The trick is to actually remember this and practice it daily. Because how often do we slip into a foul mood that we are unable to get out of? (Like last night’s post?) How often do we forget that we don’t have enough time on this Earth to hate anyone or anything? There isn’t enough time to do anything so time-consuming as hate, really. We can only live, love, and die.

For me, I’ll just live, pay back my loans, and then die. I’m kidding. (Sort of.) But while we shouldn’t have to feel that death is rollerskating behind us all the time, we should still be very aware that there is never enough time for us to dawdle when it comes to pursuing our dreams.

We just have to do the best we can, and make the best of it.

So, the question is no longer, what would you do if you could not fail. It’s what do you want to do right now? Because that’s all the time we have, folks. That’s it. And if you’re not going for it, then what are you doing?

(By the way, is it getting hot in here? My heart is racing, and I’m sweating…I’m giving myself my own third degree…)

And by the way, people are going to try to put this question to you in a lot of different ways. The worst way it has ever been put to me is in the following fashion: “Make art or make babies.” This assumes three things about you before the word “go.”

1. It assumes you want to make art.

2. It assumes you want to make babies.

3. It assumes that you can’t do both.

Which, for some people, is correct. But why do I have to choose? Why does anyone have to choose between their dream and their lifestyle?

“Oh yeah. Because we have to make money to eat because if we don’t we die,” says Logic.

“But…if we don’t make art? Don’t we ‘die,’ then too? Creativity has to have a symbolic host that it can flourish in. And raising a new generation can be equally rewarding. It literally needs a host it can flourish in,” says Bailey.

Hmmm, good point. So, scratch that last secret to life. Here’s my new theory:

Do whatever the hell you want to do.

Yup. Just remember that you don’t have a lot of time to do it in. So, er, speed it up. But don’t rush greatness…Uh…Okay, let me try this secret to life thing again…

Do whatever the hell you want to do and take however long you want to do it.

There. I think that about sums it up.

Because the point is, this is your life. I’m sorry, but no proverb or timely quote is going to tell you how you should live it. Of course, it would be absolutely amazing if you pursued your passion. But if you can’t do it full time or you can’t do it right now, then find some other way to do it. Just make sure you are happy. No one said you had to travel the world in your twenties, after all. Our youth-obsessed culture may make you feel that way, but they’re wrong. You’re at the actual helm of the ship, remember? So, you can decide how and when you live your life.

We put too much pressure on ourselves as it is, let alone factoring in when we will die and what we have to cross off the bucket list to get there. If we are going to leave this earth, there’s no stopping us.

So, make the best of it, then. Make the best of your art or your babies.

And read my poem on the topic below.

Make Art or Make Babies

Make art or make babies?

It’s never been put to me so

sharp and so blunt

at the same time. Now I know

my inspiration drips like

candle wax, slithering

emptying my tributaries 

seeping down into 

one final puddle,

leaving me arid.

But I don’t want to choose.

I want to believe that I have

enough stardust for both.

My children won’t be tabula rasas.

Their faces will be rife with blue swirls

ranging and stretching

like tree rings.

Starry night is on the folds of their brains;

on their cat scans.

And Guernica helps them breathe at night

their lungs shallow enough to take in

the disjointed pieces as one.

Their pastel smiles

and oil eyes

their paint brush lashes

and watercolor hearts

make me sigh with the craft

of the fifties housewife.

My motherly instinct croons in the moonlight

wailing that the world might 

be excited to see them.

They are only 

white canvasses on the inside

cut clay

leaning easels

and will be exactly who the universe wants them to be.

Except for a few masterpieces, I hope to imbue

they have many gilded frames to hang.

I am only a conduit in

this world but if I get the

chance to create something

of my own instead of 

letting the atmosphere wash and submerge me

I will paint this town red,

and my children even redder.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Leaving a Legacy

No one wants to leave anything behind.

We all want to drink the dregs, spend our money, and peace out in a painless way.

But I think there is a real pressure to make our mark in a tangible fashion in today’s world. To be someone who can directly point to something and say, “That, right there, is my contribution to the world. Bask in it and enjoy it.”

But how many of us really get to do that? How many of us get to leave a legacy that we can be truly proud of?

Actually, we all do.

I think the world needs reminding that no matter how small, we all make ripples in the stream. Whether you write a book, record an album, make a birdhouse, or inspire the people around you by being uniquely you, we all leave our lives at the end of our time a little bit better.

And, friendly note, you don’t have to do any of the above. You don’t have to write a book or an album or sell out a stadium or make millions of dollars just to make sure that you will be remembered. If you just live your life, enjoying the company of others and being positive wherever you go, you can inspire anyone and everyone around you.

Or you can be a crotchety old witch who yells at little kids and refuses to let anyone drive her anywhere. In either situation, you’ll be remembered by those around you. After all, who could ever forget how nice (or mean) you were? People recall the extremes of a person, but more than that, people recall the impression you made on them.

The point is you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself. (Do not confuse this with “stop chasing after that dream of yours.” You should definitely keep dreaming.) Just accept that you are going to leave your story with someone as the person you are. And once you understand that, you are free to be the person you want to be.

Please, Laugh at my Funeral

Author’s Note:

I think about this blog post a lot. Probably because I commute a lot. And maybe because I think about death a lot. But the more I think about it, the more it rings true. 

As you may know from reading my blog before, I have a bit of a commute. And if you haven’t read my blog before, then now you know I have a bit of a commute. We all spend a lot of time in our cars: listening to music, stepping on our brakes, and following slowpokes. While I’m driving, I like seeing new models of cars and how much duct tape can be used to fix a bumper. And with my commute, I have seen a lot.

But today, I saw something a bit different. I was driving behind a rather beat-up truck with a large load. When I got a little closer, (not close enough to tailgate him, I know better) I noticed that there were four vending machines in the bed of the truck. As I stared at the soft drink logo and those curlicues made of metal that sabotage you when you try to get a bag of crackers, I morbidly wondered what would happen if one of them fell off the back of the truck and onto my waiting car. I mean, there would be no wondering if it happened. I would most certainly be dead. But I started to laugh when I thought that the headline would have to be something like, “Snack Attack: Vending Machines Kill Girl on Highway.” And I realized that if I had to go out like that, it wouldn’t be a blaze of glory, but I would be alright with it.

Laughing all the way home, thinking that I would probably need Dorito dust and honey bun sugar to be wiped off my corpse, I realized that what I want more than anything (besides to make it home every night not being killed by a rogue vending machine) is for people to laugh at my funeral. If I die in a really ordinary way, then can you at least set up some board games at the wake? I don’t want everyone to be in such a somber, sober mood that they forget all the times I (tried to) make them laugh. Sure, life can be difficult. But mourning me isn’t going to help you appreciate life, help you smell the flowers and see the sunrises. Only you can do that. And what is death but a final reminder to celebrate the life you lost? Giving you the pause in your life that you may not have given yourself when the person was alive to remember them and their legacy. Death keeps us honest but also whole.

I’m not saying it’s easy (or correct) to laugh at a funeral. But please try to at mine. Assuredly, I’m somewhere, (up? down? around?) laughing with you.

Oh, but don’t ask me for help in trying to get your snack out of the machine when it’s stuck. I’m not even sure God has the power to do that.

In Memoriam

It has been 5 years since my grandfather’s passing. He died a few days before my high school graduation, which I believe was very symbolic, because he was the most intelligent man I know. It was as if he decided that he had nothing left to teach me, and that I had to keep learning on my own. He was one of the largest influences on my writing because he always believed in me. He celebrated and congratulated me on all my work. I miss him more than I can say. In honor of him, I want to repost one of the blogs I dedicated to him. May he always rest in peace.

 

The Man, The Legend

My grandfather was a stately, diplomatic man. He was once mayor of my small town, but always a lover of politics and knowledge. In an age before the internet, he was our Google and our Wikipedia. The dinner table would always fall silent when he would begin to talk about a particular topic. We’d always lean a little closer to hear what gem might spill out.

He was robust in appearance and in life. He was a great man, and an even better grandfather. Not only because he would slip $20 bills into our hands and call it “gas money” before we could drive, but because we respected him and admired him thoroughly.

Except for one thing that irked me. Every time we would leave his house, he would kiss my sister and I directly on the lips. Yes, you read that right: on. the. lips. When I asked my mother for an explanation for this behavior, because I was suddenly 16 and had already been kissed by my Pop-Pop, (oh my god, he might have been my first…) she simply shrugged and said, “It’s always been like that.” So, reluctant to ruffle his well-poised feathers, I puckered up for peck after peck, all the while hoping that I didn’t accidentally linger too long.

Maserati, Please?

But my grandfather was always teaching me something, always helping me to learn and to grow.

And I only recently realized that in this uncomfortable memory was a valuable lesson about love.

He kissed us on the lips because he didn’t want us to be confused about how he felt about us. He refused to give us social “air kisses” as friends might, and thankfully he did not put his tongue down our throat like a romantic partner could (try another blog for that kind of action.) He simply desired to convey his love in an unmistakable manner.

Sure, he could have bought us a Maserati (or two?) to produce the same effect. Such an effort would have eliminated any adult weirdness I may feel about the situation now. But that wasn’t his style and it isn’t mine. His intimacy as a no-nonsense man was meaningful in a way that a new car is not.

The Kicker in the Kisser

And really, when was the last time that YOU showed someone or something that you loved them that much? When was the last time you defied an awkward moment to remind someone that they meant something to you? (I’m looking at you, teenage boys, who hang up the phone without telling your mom you love her when you’re out with your friends.)

And when was the last time you knew how someone felt about you, without any worrying or questioning for hours after about their true feelings?

The problem is that we beat around the bush, tree and lots of other foliage simply to avoid being vulnerable or too personal with others. Days fold in and out and we forget to tell the people who matter most that we appreciate them. That we love them. We don’t think about not being able to see that person who we see everyday. But I assure you, that day will come when you can’t. And you will wish you loved them harder, held them closer and told them what they meant to you. I know I do. I miss my Pop-Pop everyday. Even his kisses.

So, here’s your chance. Get off this blog. And kiss the nearest person to you on the lips. Oh, it’s your mom? Good. She deserves your love the most.

Remember, be candid with your affection and you will never regret anything in this life.