I wrote a lot of papers in graduate school at a small white desk underneath a window in my “garden apartment” on R Street — “garden apartment” being a euphemism for “basement,” which, incidentally, I didn’t quite mind because it meant my best friend and I could afford to live in a stately Georgetown row house when we were young and undeserving of access to such high end real estate. My bedroom was in the rear of the house and it had a door that led out to a small, brick-lined backyard scarcely used by the proprietor, an elderly French woman who lived above us. I would occasionally find her teetering around out there with her caregiver’s firm grip on her arm, fussing feebly over herbs and plants in terra cotta pots, and I would avert my eyes and, if possible to do so stealthily, draw my blinds. She was warm though clouded in our admittedly limited interactions, but it felt wrong to encroach on her private tours of her backyard and — if I am truthful — it was uncomfortable to look upon her senility. There had been an afternoon when her caregiver had rushed down the steps and rapped on the door loudly — “Miss! Miss!” — in pursuit of help. Madame had fallen and she needed my help lifting her. I saw, too, the arrival and departure of doctors, of other elderly friends, of family members. There was a feeling of proximity to death.
Meanwhile, I would sit at that white desk under the garden window reading and writing. I regularly woke at six a.m. and worked, on an empty stomach, until nine or ten before breaking for breakfast. I was always at my best then, hungry and lucid and youthful. I would occasionally hear signs of life above: the dragging of a kitchen chair, something dropped, the muffled hum of voices. I would bite my lip at the sound of a thud, waiting anxiously for the attendant padding of feet after, hoping that I wouldn’t be left in a position to debate whether or not to run upstairs and check.
I noticed over the course of many such mornings that, with any written assignment, I tended to spend sixty or seventy percent of my time on the opening paragraph alone. Beginnings, it seemed, were the hardest. My preferred methodology was filling vacant sheets of gridded paper with notes and phrases in fits and starts until, suddenly, I would find myself in a flow, and the thesis would emerge in scrap form amidst a tumbleweed of observations. I would then craft the introduction and sit back in relief. The meat, the body of the argument was never a challenge. And I never gave much thought to conclusions — who cared? I’d re-state the thesis in some clever way, tie in a quote, and keep it brief. It was only the beginnings that gave me trouble.
Possibly owing to the predominant medium in which I now write (informal, diary-like blogging), beginnings no longer hold me up. I sit at my desk and go. (How do I have so much to say? Someone recently asked me this. I guarantee that you would be hard-pressed to find a woman of thirty four with less on her mind.) I now find myself struggling with the endings. Sometimes they are awkwardly clipped, their brevity in ungainly disproportion with the foregoing — and I don’t have the time to wordsmith a more elegant denouement. Other times they are too cutesy, pat and unconvincing. Sometimes they just peter out. Every now and then, I will write roundly to the end, and there is a wonderful feeling of intactness that follows.
I think a lot about writing. Sometimes I see it as an art, and other times as a kind of strenuous exercise, and still others as a utility. And sometimes, when I am feeling artful myself, I see it as a metaphor for life. Over the past few weeks, I have had occasion — unwanted, in a certain sense — to think about mortality. It started with this Cup of Jo post (read to the end), where she asks whether we have given any thought to how we’d like to be remembered when we pass away. Oh. And no, I have not. And then there was the Goop podcast featuring Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, a doctor who specializes in end-of-life care and who was also married to the celebrated author and neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, famed for his book When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir in which he grapples with the question of what makes life worth living as he faces terminal lung cancer. In the podcast, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi muses poignantly on grief, dying with dignity, and the medical protocols that can get in the way. In the midst of these encounters, my father called me and told me that his beloved aunt had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had this to say: “I admire her. She is looking at it straight on. No woe-is-me. She is staring it straight in the face.”
I sit here and think of a young and naive me, struggling at beginnings and turning uncomfortably away from the specter of death living above me in that Georgetown row house on R St, and I see next to her a not-so-young and not-so-naive me rushing through beginnings and now lingering, faltering at the endings as they seem to crowd closer in. I have matured beyond the phase of averting my eyes, but remain nowhere near the strength of mind to stare an ending straight in the face. Despite having come to terms with the death of one of my best friends at the age of twenty five, I feel wide-eyed, perplexed, alternately lachrymose and angry when my mother says things like — as she did just the other day — “I have enough skincare to last four decades in my bathroom. When I die, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the bounty.” This is the season of life, I suppose — with young children, with aging parents, with the mounting weight of what we hear on the news and from friends and loved ones. I must begin to learn about — to borrow a phrase from Julian Barnes — the sense of an ending.
Post Scripts: Things I Want for My Home.
In case the above was as bit of a downer for a Friday morning (Eeyore over here), here are some new discoveries for home that I’m dying over:
+Still in love with my new Hinza totes. Guys, I use them for EVERYTHING and even debated shipping one to my mom but decided that it was a bit much and will just bring her one next time I see her. (When I love something, I want to buy it for everyone I know.) I’ve learned in the past week that they are perfect for shopping since they actually hold items upright and the bag doesn’t flop around everywhere. I also like the handle length because it hooks tidily onto my stroller (I love these hooks). They are also ideal for schlepping toys and gear to the splash pads around Central Park — easy to rinse out and wipe down after.
+I have heard really good things about these stepladders. They fold super slim and are actually attractive enough not to have to hide in a utility closet in case you want to keep it handy in the kitchen! I want the mint colored one!
+This could be so fabulous in the right living room. It’s very much not in keeping with our current style but I love it.
+This rug has a Missoni vibe to it that I love.
+This chair!!! I DIE.
+It is mortifying to admit that while I had every intention of keeping my shoes tidily organized in bins, I often end up sliding out of them and slipping them under my bed. I just bought one of these to accommodate the pile of underbed shoes.
P.S. Aquazzura is killing me RN. There are so many epic shoes at such great discounts, especially these sunflower flats (in the BEST colors!!! — available for EVEN LESS here in hot pink), these panther flats, and these whimsical slides.