November 1, 2013
Now she consoles herself that friends lose touch, not intentionally, but because eleven years ago you made a mental note to give someone a call and then the days slipped by.
â€” Miriam Karmel, American fiction writer and journalist
from Being Esther
I’m fifteen years out of the classroom, yet I still live by the academic calendar. The novel quoted above was part of the “reading to learn” portion of my do-it-yourself MFA in the Fall Term portion of the 2013-2014 year of writing/learning/being. I chanced upon it in the library one day not long into September. Its central character is in her 80s and navigating the losses and compromises of old age. So is a central character in my novel, the one I have been writing for two years. Not many works of fiction, especially novel length, concern an aging character. One reviewer called this book depressing, noting that there was no way for it to end except in death.
Is there another way for any life to end?
The days have slipped by here, not unpleasantly and not unproductively, but neither as pleasant nor as productive as I would like them to be. I made some false starts and bumped into some dead ends with the writing, and with the other five goals in the Six Goals of a Quality Life, a pattern I have repeated for more years than I want to say. Spurred by the quotation above, I got out my paper journal from this period eleven years ago.
In the fall of 2002, Lynn was a junior in high school. She came home from school that November first to find me working with a boy from around the corner on his college application essay.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Walnut chicken with bulgur pilaf, steamed spinach, hot cherry tomatoes, and apricot mousse for dessert!”
As she rolled her eyes, our neighbor said, “Wow. We’re just having spaghetti!”
“See?” she said. “Normal people have spaghetti! I would like to come home from school and learn that we are having homemade tacos, or cheeseburgers, or something NORMAL people eat!”
That evening, I handed her the cookbook I’d gotten the walnut chicken recipe from. Weight Watchers Quick Meals. “Prepare a delicious, healthy meal in 30 minutes or less!” I asked her to go through the book and mark the meal plans she found more attractive than walnut chicken with bulgur pilaf.
I still have that cookbook, and I still use it. The meals Lynn marked included one with a meat loaf, turkey burgers with oven fries, and a chicken and corn chowder with cheese popovers. The Post-It bookmarks she placed in the book are still there, with her annotations.
Lynn’s out of college now, working as a biologist. Her young husband does a lot of the cooking, wonderful, healthful things with avocados and olive oil, whole wheat pasta, steamed local vegetables. They drink only water and almond milk. When she visited a few weeks ago, she brought her own banana and yogurt. The neighbor boy who was working on his college applications that day has graduated from medical school and will be married next summer. For an engagement gift last December at the party for him and his fiancÃ©e that came together somewhat suddenly, I gave him five pounds of Hershey’s Kisses, because of this. I haven’t seen his mother since then. We live around the corner from each other, and I’ve made many a mental note to call, and then the days slip by.
One of my favorite fiction writing exercises is to imagine my characters a year before the present action, and a year beyond it. Having visited who I was and what I was about eleven years ago, I spent some time today imagining myself and my world eleven years from now. I’ll be 77, Ron will be 87. Lynn will be 39, our neighbor will be 40. Likely there will be grandchildren.
Ceely has thick hair, cut short, at odd angles. Esther once had hair like that, hair she could do something with. Then one day, she couldn’t. Now every time she looks in the mirror all she can see is a woman well past her prime, with hair that resembles a collapsed soufflÃ©.
Â Â Â Â â€” Miriam Karmel, from Being Esther
I am already incompetent with my hair. But I hope, when I look in the mirror eleven years from now, I will see a woman who finished and published her novel about an elderly priest wobbling into the befuddlement of old age, and who also finished and published the novel that was just beginning to take some shape in her notebooks of 2002. A woman who has kept in touch with her friends, a woman who is still typing her heart out here.