Unfinished Business

April 1, 2011

Unfinished business — order of the day.
A decade’s papers filed away.
. . .
Dreams that fade back into the sky,
old quarrels between you and me
leave us delighted and distressed.
Imperfect dawns light up the east.
Incomplete sunsets flood the west.
No closure —  this is poetry,
unfinished business.
        — Rachel Hadas, b. 1948
            American poet
            from “Literary Executor”

Today is the start of another National Poetry Month. Last year I endeavored to post some portion of poetry every day to Facebook. I don’t know how many days I followed through — someone remembers that she enjoyed them, so there must have been more than a few. Some of the excerpts are preserved in drafts of pieces to this space, pieces I never completed, unfinished business.

I have, for the last several weeks, been preparing a lecture and slide presentation to be given on April 7th to a group of retired persons who meet at a nearby college for educational programs. I created the first version of it in 2006, when a friend who knew I studied cemeteries asked me for a program about that subject, to be given to her church group around Halloween. She wanted something “funny.” I had to tell her that when it came to these gardens of stone, my approach was definitely reverent and respectful. I am not a ghost hunter, a ghost buster, nor a collector of scary spooky stories or unfortunate mistakes or regrettable art on tombstones. She said to prepare whatever I liked, and the result, if not particularly funny, was at least entertaining and absorbing, and well-received.

Four years later I find myself starting all over again. The pictures and the script I used are locked up in the computer I used then, which I replaced not six months after I gave the program. It won’t even boot anymore. And that’s okay, since in the intervening years I have learned more, visited new cemeteries, and developed new presentation skills using technology I didn’t have in 2006. Most of the pictures existed elsewhere, and I’ve spent several early spring afternoons revisiting some of my favorite spots nearby.

The presentation begins with the personal, with how I came to love cemeteries, and then goes into the more universal, with a discussion of the typical churchyard cemetery that dates from the 18th century, represented by St. John’s (Hain’s) Cemetery in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Then it looks at how it compares and contrasts with the municipal secular garden cemetery, represented by the splendid Charles Evans Cemetery, begun in 1846 in Reading, Pennsylvania, the large city near Wernersville.

I got out the file box where I keep the papers, clippings, notes, and other material related to my stalled historical novel, called When This You See, Remember Me. I have written about this project here before, as long ago as 1999, (see Road Trip), more recently in relating how a portion of the manuscript was mercilessly shredded the first time I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I essentially abandoned the effort after that, though I have from time to time been reminded how much I have invested in the material, how much I want to give it expression.

My historical novel, my Katherine Project, is but one aspect of the unfinished business in my as yet unfinished life. The lines I quote in the epigraph are from a poem by Rachel Hadas called “Literary Executor.” A literary executor is a person appointed to care for your literary estate, which may or may not include, in addition to control of your published oeuvre, access to and control over the boxes and cartons and computer hard drives that hold your drafts, your notes, your private correspondence, your journals.

Two years ago, in a moment that had both light-hearted and serious overtones, I conveyed to a friend, a journalist a good deal younger than I (that is, he’s got a writer’s sensibilities and he’ll be around to do the job) the fact that I wanted him to be my literary executor. I may never see a novel published, but there are these personal essays, 32 volumes and counting of my journal/diary, and files upon files of material that helps to show who I was and what I was about as a writer, a mother, a lover and a friend, a partner, a spouse, a woman of faith, a woman of courage, a woman of peace.

I’m currently reading Antonya Nelson’s most recent novel, Bound, in which the central character must make good on the promise she made in college to be the guardian for her best friend’s child. Out of touch with the friend for many years, Catherine has forgotten the promise, until she is contacted by a lawyer who informs her that her friend has died and left behind a teenage daughter.

I’ve taken up some of my unfinished business again. And I need to remind my literary executor that I intend to have a lot of work for him to oversee when the time comes.

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