Three different and completely unrelated events today converged into one theme — how unexpected and arbitrary loss is and how the fallout scatters itself across the landscape in tiny shards, lodging in spots you thought were shielded and covered. It disrupts, alters, shifts realities known into the unknown — a surreal, never-trivial shift like an earthquake that doesn’t destroy everything but there’s a crack where the smooth road used to be. Or a silhouette in the negative spaces.
Steve Jobs passed away today, and it seems as though the whole world is in a rush to express their profound grief. For me, it was certainly a sad, but also expected kind of news flash. No one could have read the announcement of his resignation as CEO without also understanding that he knew exactly where he was headed. The only remaining question was when, not if. Jobs understood that while he might be able to design and manage Apple’s vision, he had no control over when the cancer would finally overtake him. He only knew that it would.
I remarked to Ms. Dancer tonight when I gave her the sad news that his life was one well lived. If you’re going to die at 56 years old when your kids are still young and you don’t have grandkids yet, at least be able to look them in the eye and say you did as much as you could in the time you had and had a great time doing it. And if there’s one thing I think we can all say about Steve Jobs, it’s this: He loved what he did, he did it well, and he had a great time doing it.
Love what you do, do it well, have a great time doing it.
Taking the macro down to the micro, I watched Ms. Dancer choose to sacrifice her single free hour in her school day — a time she spends doing what she truly loves, does well, and has a great time doing in order to satisfy the final remaining requirement for admittance to her desired universities. It was a hard thing to watch. It may seem trivial to you, but you have to understand her. She creates. She lives and breathes and creates. It’s what she does. She doesn’t finish math tests without adding her own artwork to the finished product. She makes new pictures on her nails at night. She doesn’t know how not to create. So asking her to give up the one free hour in an already insane school schedule wasn’t a trivial thing. It was loss, and loss that she felt detracted from her resolve to love what she does, to do it well, and have a great time doing it.
Like Steve Jobs, she takes great pleasure in the design of things. Perhaps one day she will use her talent and her joy to create beautiful and accessible tools for everyone to use, too. But right now she is in the dues-paying stage, and that means sacrificing the art for the Spanish. Still, she wept.
Love what you do, do it well, have a great time doing it.
Finally, there are the growing protests and unrest around the nation. The Occupy movements spreading to all cities, including mine, are an expression of weary frustration of young and old alike, an expression of grief and outrage that they are confronted with a life where they are unable to live their dreams because there are no toeholds for them to cling to. Don’t believe the news reports making it sound like they’re a bunch of spoiled college kids. They’re not true. There are young people, yes. But there are also people like me, who have battled upstream for 30 years or more and still found themselves without a job and no prospects for one, no pension, and in many cases, no health insurance.
They’re mourning a dream, whatever that dream was. I remember thinking I would have made it when I made $50,000 per year. Later I revised that to be something less and different: contentment to do what I could in the time I had that I was passionate about. Like some of those folks out there in New York and Los Angeles, I worked hard and did the very best job I could. I was a single mom who counted out the change in the drawer to stretch to the next payday, and I was one of those caught in the net of the first mortgage meltdown in the 90s.
Each time I’d start to climb back and get to the next rung, I’d get shoved down again, either by a crummy economy or some other setback. Still, I can honestly say that each one of those setbacks has been the catalyst for me to stretch and tap into what delights me and gets me passionate — writing, reading, learning, helping.
I share those protesters’ sense of loss and frustration. Yet I still hope, and look for contentment in small corners — whether it’s just writing something that I like, reading poetry, or getting lucky enough to catch a great lake shot with my phone — the phone Steve Jobs made. I don’t know if I’ll ever see Spain or Italy or Ireland in person, but I know I can imagine what it would be like if I did. I know my dreams and aspirations are scaled-down versions of what they were once, but they are no less meaningful and give me a reason to get up and start it all over again the next day. In my own way, I’ve learned still to love what I do, do it well, and have a great time doing it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bittersweet taste of regret at what might have been possible, but the possibility rests with the younger.
Loss spawns grief; grief spawns change, a restlessness, a revision. That disconnected feeling that things are never the same again but still with a sense of possibility that they can be pieced back together into something worthy, like driving on the left when you’ve always only known what it is to drive on the right.
Driving on the left is complicated by the lack of context; you aren’t yet comfortable with the intuition you’ve grown used to, the sense of danger and limits, of detaching from the road with the illusion that you’re the only mind you need to tend. The signs are the hardest part, crossing over from right to left brain or whichever it is, from the rhythm of the road to the logic of the structure, the mission of the directions, the choices that loom and then are replaced by recalculation and another rush to that same decision point. But as you collide with not enough time and not enough listening, you begin to learn how to distinguish the underlying rhythm of decisions, immutable in their logic and Darwinian in their implications.
And then, suddenly and without any real announcement, you get it. You get the dance of the roundabouts, the coursing flow of living in the stream. It’s as though you were there all along but waiting for the hindsight to see it for what it is. And when you come back to the right side, it’s so familiar that you don’t lose what you’ve gained from finding that magical land, the one where you learn to hope for rain so that you can find the rainbows.
We all have a story. We all have a quilt. Few of us have one with such complex threads. Jane has that, and much more. She has woven a masterpiece inside 144,000 words (which is about 593 pages in manuscript form), braided with the hands of a master craftswoman.
What Jane does not have, however, is a publisher. Unfortunately, Snooki can snag a multi-million dollar deal for a book (about what? Being Snooki?), while Jane gets to finish writing hers in a Starbucks parking lot in a borrowed pickup truck. This is better, I suppose, than trying to write a masterpiece like this while inflating penile implants for $7 an hour, which Jane can tell you all about. (See what I mean? How many of us can lay claim to writing a 500+ page book and a past that includes inflating penile implants? Seriously.)
I want to tell you a little about Jane’s book, Elephant Girl. And if you trust me even a little bit, I want you to reach out to anyone you might know who might know someone in the publishing industry who might just want to make this into a book that I can buy and smell the newness of the paper and print, and open very carefully and begin to read again and again and again.
If our stories were quilts, they’d all be a little bit different. Some of us would have traditional patterns; others would piece together something geometric and modern. Some would be made of new cloth in primary colors; others pieced together from old t-shirt memories still carrying a faint scent of fabric softener and the occasion. Still others would be family heirlooms, passed carefully down through the generations, each telling own piece of a long family history. And if we were to pull those quilts off the shelf and begin to tell the stories they contain, each would be unique but linked together in conventional ways: a childhood, school, friends, tears, loves, partners, ex-partners, loss and laughter. Some would have children’s threads, but others wouldn’t. Mostly they would be stories of ordinary people sewn into a blanket of lives, threaded together by the commonness of human existence.
But over there in the corner there is a quilt unlike any quilt. It’s beautiful, but not in a conventional sense. It stands out because it speaks of unspeakable things. It’s woven from tears and grit and the pure determination of a spirit that refuses to be crushed. There’s a square woven and sewn from the shorn hair of an unfairly punished child in the bottom-most corner. In another corner is a square made from cheap boxer shorts that used to belong to the sleazy ex. In yet another corner, there’s a piece of a child’s dress, likely acquired in a thrift shop but still treasured by the mother and daughter alike. There is a square made from the threadbare denim of an absent son — then, as now. In the center there is an image of an elephant with sad, wise eyes.
The quilt is pieced together by a woman who cannot be described as a heroine, and yet she is. Her quilt is a living tribute to hope and a slap in the face of human cruelty. It is a phoenix, thrice reborn.
But of course, it isn’t a quilt at all. It’s a book. One of the best books I have read in a very long time written by a woman of inestimable talent.
I have written about Jane Devin before — here, and also here. But it is one thing to be a fan of someone’s blog and entirely another to find oneself lost in the threads of a 500+ page book that person you know as a blogger has written. It is one thing to love her poetry and another to invest the time to read each one of the words she has strung together in a breathtaking blaze of wordcraft. Yes, it is different. The reward is a thousand times better for making the investment in the book.
I started Elephant Girl at midnight. I read the prologue and thought it could possibly be written in a slightly different voice to punch it up. I even wrote and told her that.
I was wrong.
What Jane has done with this book is to guide the reader into her life gently, but with absolute honesty right at the start. No voice but her voice will work here, or anywhere else in the book. From the 12-year old voice to the 47-year old voice, it is all her, and her life. A life unapologetically lived. A life full of twists and turns that sometimes make your hair curl and at other times make you want to stand up and shout to get out — GET OUT — get out, Jane before they get you and eat you. You understand the mother before too long, or at least you think you do. But really, you come to understand the mother as Jane comes to understand the mother. And the sister. And the sleazebags along the way as well as the kind strangers, exploitive manipulators and just friggin’ lucky breaks from time to time.
You see parts of yourself and your own life, but in a slightly different shade than the one on her palette. There’s even some shame that comes with knowing that your life maybe had its share of tough times but if you had her share you’d likely not have come through it without a streak of self-pity, something she wills herself not to have.
Anyone can tell stories where they’re the victim, but it’s something else again to be victimized and yet not write from the perspective of a victim. This is what makes Jane’s story so compelling. Things happen. Shit happens. But even at the darkest, deepest, most profound low point, there isn’t a sense of self-pity.
From her poem, Cousteau’s Daughter — one of the most compelling and haunting poems I’ve read:
You know you will never be a cheerleader
because those glory days never began
& you could never shout with your mouth
open in favor of violent men
What drives this book is hope. And determination. And love. And passion. Much, much passion. But above all, it’s glued with unabashed honesty and a steel backbone. Nothing is held back, not her anger, not her bewilderment, not her confusion, and not even her efforts to push herself into what society considers to be “normal”, whatever that might be.
As one who is often accused of being too intense, too loyal, too focused, too passionate, I know what it feels like to be placed in the box and measured against the others lined up next to me. I have been told I was arrogant when I felt confident. Was it me? I’m told I write like a man because a woman couldn’t write with a strong voice like mine. Nonsense, all nonsense, but these things are small things compared to Jane and the journey she has had in 46 short years.
Please, if you know of anyone willing to read her manuscript and give her a shot at a publishing deal — an agent, an editor, someone who knows someone — reach out to her via her blog and let her know.
This book deserves to be published. It deserves a number in the Library of Congress. It deserves to be one that a mother gives to her daughter to read, telling her that it is, above all, the tale of a woman who refuses to be broken no matter how hard she is bent.
Snooki has a few more years to live before ever hoping to touch the very tip of the iceberg Jane has climbed, hacked and melted. It comes down to substance, art, and the poetry of a life lived roughly but always with hope.
[note: edited to clarify the timeline for penile implant inflation and masterpiece memoir creation]
This reminds me a little of what I remember the beach to be like when I was a kid. Combined with the carnival ride photos, it evokes memories of spending the day at Long Beach with my dad, then going over to Queen’s Park (long gone) for rides on ferris wheels and roller coasters and assorted other cheesy park rides.
Now, roller coasters and ferris wheels terrify me. Something about realizing that we’re all mortal, I suppose. I’ve never lost my love of the beach and the ocean though. I can stand with my toes in the waves and know that whatever has gotten hold of me for that day will be swept away in the undertow, leaving me with cold toes and a clear mind.