People ask: “What inspired you to write this book?”
Inspiration, argh. What pops to mind is a diatribe about how we can’t wait, how we prepare for inspiration by practice, by discipline, and by writing regularly, throughout our lives: cost-averaging our skill and time and talent. There’s more, but, like I said, it’s a diatribe.
Sometimes I manage to sidestep the long answer and say something short and appropriate. But with Ladysitting coming out in May, I’m starting to get the question, and I’m out of practice. Also who remembers? My grandmother died ten years ago this November. The bookend question might be: what took you so long? Looking for that answer carried me back through my blog bank. Three years after Nana’s death, during the days of Hurricane Irene, I was already mulling the book I finally managed to write:
Saturday evening Irene rolled through, sprinkled gray and blowy, and the threatening dark sucked into it the last hope of vesper light. Trees began to throw their heads back and forth. We insisted our 11th-grade daughter come home earlier than she would have liked. I’d talked to my sister that day; they were holed up in Martha’s Vineyard, storm vets and not afraid. My mother was with our cousin in the Bronx; my father and his girlfriend had bottled water and a plan for the basement; our older daughter in Vermont had texted to check on us. So, we walked the skittish dog, locked the door, closed windows, dragged mattresses downstairs, and went into a fitful sleep, waking through the night. Irene howled.
On Sunday morning, when the rain stopped and cool wind blew in gusts, it felt like late September or early October, like the day when I was about nine and ate the first bowl of split pea soup for the season in my grandmother’s den. Time shuffles itself with invisible fingers of memory, and I realize I want to write about our lives together during my grandmother’s last year and a half, when she lived with us.
In his sermon at Evening Prayer, Bob said that for people who love the water and live next to it, there’s always the threat of storm. When he said it in the small blue-and-white chapel, my mind saw our favorite beaches and walks and bird sanctuaries at Cape May Point; then I saw the swirling icon of Hurricane Irene on the newscasts. That’s how it feels to love people. You have the delight and comfort and ease of love — and then, as Francis Bacon said of taking on a wife and children, you see you’ve given “hostages to fortune.”
When I receive acupuncture, sometimes the doctor will insert a needle for pain, and tears will slide out of the ends of my eyes. I am like Dostoevsky’s organ stop.
“Why?” I ask. “Why am I so sad?” Who am I asking?
Like standing water in the basement, grief pools around knotted muscles and organs. I bail in my sleep and do not let myself know. But in the quiet after Irene, I felt it: the swirling, storm surge of mourning that flooded me, and then the gusts. Now two years later, I hope for a slow, drying out. Grief has puddled in my body. Writing is the practice that lets me express it.
Bob put the feeder back up after the storm. The hummingbird was waiting on the forsythia for me to leave the back door so that it could feed in private. At a Harlem Book Fair panel, Marva Allen of Hue-Man Bookstore asked about our next projects, and I said that I didn’t know. It would have taken too long to list the wants, none of them properly projects yet: I’ve wanted to go to live and work in Ghana, to visit the forts, to smell the inland, walk the beach to learn the other side of the Middle Passage; I want to research Harriet Tubman in New Jersey and the Eastern Shore; I want to learn about filmmaking, if I’m not too old; and for two years I’ve been jotting scraps and dropping them into a file titled from a phrase our daughters used for caring for my grandmother. Writing’s not worth it for me unless I pick the right topic for the particular moment in life. I did The Price of a Child when I was pregnant with my younger daughter. And If Sons, Then Heirs after running a non-profit business. As I watch the storm water recede, I know it’s time to begin.
The working title stuck: Ladysitting.