Saturday, February 20, 2010

Running over a Magazine with a Wheelchair

Readers in literature fascinate me. Holden Caulfield introduced me to Thomas Hardy. Tom in The Professor's House read the Aeneid on the mesa. But unlike the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, whom I wanted very much to resemble as a teenager, I don't go through periods when I do nothing but read. I DO nothing but read. And can a good life be spent reading? Yes.

A friend died 20 years ago. She was young. She was furious. She read, but she also wanted to write. She wrote poetry for years and never published. She ran over a literary magazine with her wheelchair when they rejected her. It was a magnificent gesture. The magazine wasn't very good. She was good enough for that and more.

Since I was writing features for a newspaper, I explained that it wasn't all that hard to get published. You couldn't write what you wanted exactly, but you could write. Occasionally I wrote and published some essays. You know the kind of thing. Ha, ha, I'm a bit freaky, but I'm just like you.

And so she published some essays about her life in a wheelchair. They were very, very good. It wasn't poetry. But it was something.

Both of us knew we either (a) weren't good enough to write what we wanted, or (b) were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She got discouraged. She burned all her journals. I begged her not to, because she was so very smart and funny, but she didn't want anyone to read them and be upset. She didn't save any of the funny excerpts. It just seemed a waste to have written that well and to have destroyed everything. She was articulate. She had a voice. But at the end of her life she didn't care. She felt other people were wasting their lives, and she might as well burn everything. She hated them. "I look at people and I wonder why they get to live. I contribute so much more than they do."

She hated me at the end. It was devastating.

She threw everything out of her room so she could die.

Dying isn't easy.

What she did best up to the end was read. That was our link. The two of us never stopped reading. Calvino. Tolstoy. Sharon Olds. Philip Larkin. Cynthia Heimel. Edna O'Brien. Gail Godwin. Sara Paretsky. Dickens. There was always a book in her car. I rode my bike to visit her and brought books. She had incredible insights.

We felt we were on a different level from others because we were RAISED ON LOUISA MAY ALCOTT. We had an Alcott fest near the end of her life when she was thinking about her childhood. The morals in every lively chapter taught us, yes, "to be good." But we also enjoyed the stories. Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl was our favorite. Both of us were as strong-willed as Polly, but we did work hard and try to help others. An attempted suicide in a rooming house? Like Polly, you bet we would have been there to help her back into the land of the living. Illiterate? We tried to help them read. It was a thankless job, but...

But you know what? In the end I wasn't very good at helping the dying. She refused to see me or her other close friends. What had we done wrong?

We were living. We were reading. And it was too hard on her.

3 comments: said...

This is a really powerful post! I felt I could almost 'see' your friend. What happened to her? Why did she die so young?

Frisbee said...

P.S. I should add that my friend was no saint: she made a lot of enemies. A priest approached me years after her death to ask if she had reneged religion, as someone had told him. I thought, "Who the hell told him that? None of your business!" and said she was in a lot of pain and shouldn't be held to anything she said in the last weeks. Jesus Christ she wasn't! And did he think HE was God?

She could turn her charm on you or scathe you with her disapproval. Originally she approached me as a writing "contact," but we quickly became real friends. She was brilliant, witty, and fI'm sorry I didn't know her for a longer time. Everybody remembered her, either with love or hatred.

Ellen said...

One has to try not to give up. Poor unhappy woman. I can see how she feels from what I'm feeling as I read this corrupt book (on Trollope) to review, which takes me to other corrupt books.

You have to go out and look at the sky and breathe the sweet air and say it is enough.

I had a friend who killed himself too.