I have a confession to make. If I found out I had a year to live, I would leave Other Voices in a heartbeat. I would focus on other things: my kids, my own writing, reading the great novels I blew off in high school and college. Travel. If I found out I had a year--much less a month--left to live, I would never write another NEA grant or read another submission or train another intern again.
So: what the hell am I doing here?
Let me back up a minute. See, this one-year-to-live thing is on my mind a bit heavily right now, since my 73-year-old mother had a heart attack several days ago, and is currently in acute kidney failure. She went into the hospital last Tuesday for a knee replacement, but somehow all the things that can go wrong, in her case, did. Her epidural caused her blood pressure to plummet; her narcotic pain meds put her into an incoherent stupor. The low blood pressure deprived her heart of oxygen and she had a (small, the doctors stipulate) heart attack, and since she was unable to speak or really even wake up, plus was suffering from inexplicable paralysis of the right arm, there was concern that she'd also had a stroke. Therefore they rushed her off for a CT scan, injecting blue contrast dye into her body with haste, forgetting (or finding it unnecessary?) to first protect her kidneys with medication that would keep the dye from shutting them down. The blood pressure/blue dye combo proved too much, though, and shut down they've done. Her renal specialist optimistically insists that she has a "90 percent chance" of their starting to function again on their own, and thereby avoiding dialysis. Of course, there's that other 10 percent. And so we wait.
I was supposed to be in New York this week. Tonight, as a matter of fact, I was supposed to be reading from My Sister's Continent at Housing Works Used Bookstore and Cafe, with the oft-discussed-on-the-OV-blog Allison Amend, and 2-time-OVer Ian Chorao, author of the luminous and intense first novel Bruiser. My husband and three kids were all coming with me so we could catch up with friends; we were, in fact, waiting for the taxi to take us to O'Hare when I, having phoned my mom to say goodbye, found out that she had been unable to be revived since sometime the night before and was on her way to the ICU. No one had called me, or my 84-year-old, disabled father. I'd just seen her the day before, sitting up in her bed and plotting how to get them to prescribe physical therapy rehab for her despite her Medicare, rather than just sending her home as an invalid. Now she was headed to intensive care, and had I not called at just that moment, I might have been in New York before I learned what had happened.
As it was, we all piled in the car and went to the hospital. OV Managing Editor Kathy Kosmeja sat in the waiting room with my kids while David and I sat with my mother. Occasionally I came into the waiting room to nurse my son, then returning to my mother's room to hold her straw while she tried to take sips of water. Later that night, after David had taken the kids home, I stood next to her weirdly elevated hospital bed, spoon-feeding her bites of mashed potatoes while she tried, pretty unsuccessfully, to speak. When I finally left at the end of visiting hours, I felt hyper-aware of myself as I walked down the hospital corridor for the parking lot. I saw myself as if from a distance: here I was, a woman who, though still safely a few years from 40, might well be in the middle of life (my mother, after all, is not yet 80.) Behind me was my possibly dying mother, whose mouth I had wiped after her feeding. Ahead of me were my three children, at home, the youngest waiting to feed off my body when I returned. Here I was, in the one pocket of life in which I was the feeder: of the young, of the old. My childhood was behind me, in that irrevocable way (irrespective of age) that childhood dies when one has to begin parenting her parents. And my old age stretched out before me, a frightening spector in which I, too, might someday be in a hospital bed while my daughters encouraged me to open my mouth for a bite, urged me to take water, tried to decipher the jumble of thoughts and words trapped inside my head (in language, too, the elderly can become again like infants.) It was a desperate, depressing moment, the kind most of us spend lifetimes trying to avoid. It is bad enough to look at mortality--our own, our parents'--but another thing entirely to look at the weakness and pitiable ineptitude that often comes BEFORE that mortality takes its final toll. And so, here I was: a woman in the middle; still able-bodied and strong and healthy (well, reasonably so) and thriving. But it was fleeting. It was a moment in which one wants to run and keep running--escape the responsibilities that bind us and hold us in place, feeding our children and our parents. I wanted to be in my teens or 20's again, wondering who I'd go home with, drinking with no mind towards hangovers, driving my car too wildly and causing my prom date to spill his cocaine on the backseat of my car, watching out of the rearview mirror as he and my two best girlfriends dropped to their knees and started snorting the seat. Back then, everyone knew better than to expect anything of me.
But that was 20 years ago. Now, not only am I responsible for three kids--and my parents--but I have also, somehow, made my career out of "helping" other writers. For the past decade-plus, I have spent at least a half-time week dedicated to publishing others, procuring money to keep a magazine (and now press) going without taking any salary myself, taking time away from my own writing (and other aspects of my life) to read other writers' work, not to mention writing grants, planning events, sending acceptances, hiring interns, dealing with distributors . . . it is not, for the most part, a glamorous job. That thrill I feel when a story totally clicks--when I know I'm going to bring something into print--is heady and satisfying, yes, but in truth I have probably sacrificed numerous heady acceptance letters of my OWN by spending so much time sending them to others, instead of taking the time to concentrate on my own fiction. Often, Other Voices has felt like a liberating enterprise to me: I do not have a boss and am, of course, not driven to by a salary. I do what I believe in and care about, period. But . . . but . . . well, really, is that TRUE? I don't, for example, like writing grants. In fact, I hate it. No boss, no salary, could ever pursuade me to do it. I could--in that odd and inexplicable way of things; that way that comes with ownership and love and responsibility--only pursuade MYSELF.
Time is a strange and precious and fleeting and terrible thing. Founding Editor Lois Hauselman gave 20 years of her life to Other Voices, making the magazine what it is, nursing it and loving it into survival while so many other little mags around her folded yearly. Now, in her retirement years, she paints again, and hopes to write more, and travels to Japan--things she more-or-less relinquished for two decades in order to nurture other writers on a daily basis. With each choice we make, we chose AGAINST something else. And so I, like Lois before me, have found myself the mother of not one family but two--a family of 50 volunteers all over the country, and hundreds and hundreds of writers who have graced OV's pages, and thousands and thousands more who have tried and keep trying to break into print. I remember the day Lois came to my home and told me, worried but resolved, that she had decided to step down. She said, rather fatalistically, that she hoped I would keep things going without her--that she hoped others would emerge from the woodwork (as they have: first JoAnne Ruvoli, now Marina and Kathy) who would help me . . . but that if no one came, and if I could not keep things afloat, she was prepared, after all this time, to let it go. That she needed to do something else now, that she had given OV what she had to give. It was time to relinquish control.
This is what mothers do, I suppose, in the end: relinquish control, and hope for the best. Parenting is an exercise in letting go of hands, every bit as much as it is an exercise in feeding hungry mouths. JoAnne and I often spoke of the fact that our goal with OV was to enable it to survive us; that the magazine and press should never be dependent on a single editor for its existence. And so I often tell myself that if I don't make it 20 years like Lois did (I'm already halfway there!), things will go on without me--in fact, in quite a different way than in my actual family. I may be the only one who will hold my mother's straw or offer my son a breast, but I am not the only one who can run this literary ship. It is, in the best, most reassuring of ways, bigger than "me."
So why stay? Why, if life itself is so tenuous, and every week I spend here is a week I do not spend writing, is a trip I don't take, is time at the park my children may spend with their nanny rather than with me? Why not pack up the family and run off to tour Laos and Thailand and Cambodia? Why not hole myself up to write the Great American Novel (okay, I'm not likely to knock Beloved off that post, but still)? Why not go to China to help Half the Sky improve the lives of orphans? Why not take a Spanish immersion class and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez untranslated? There are so many choices, and when looked at through a pure filter, there are certain things we would do if we had only a day to live (hole up with our families), a month (probably bring that family on an exotic vacation), a year (write that next novel). But what about when the one year extends to two--to five--to fifteen--to fifty? There is--even if it is sad to admit it--only so much time one can spend smothering one's childrens' faces with kisses and declaring undying love for one's spouse. There is only so much time one can spend holed up in an office in that sweet mania that is writing a first draft of a novel. I have done my fair share of travel, probably more than my fair share, but usually, for most of us, the trip ends and it is time to come home.
Other Voices, for me, is what it means to have a larger home. It is a world outside myself and my own emotions or ambitions. It is not the only community to which I might contribute (arguably helping those orphans might be more noble, though I have to hope a woman willing to work her ass off without pay for a decade has some right not to feel guilty, even if she is not exactly saving lives), but it is, perhaps, the best use of my own particular talent ("skill set," my proudly geeky husband would say.) It is, like family, something that occasionally binds me, that requires of me certain things I am not terribly happy to provide (ah, those grants), but must do in order to keep the parts I love afloat. In the end, it is exactly because Other Voices SHOULD be able to survive me that makes it worthwhile. It is a matter of legacy, rather than a matter of Id. If I had a week or a year to live, I might abandon it wildly, running towards my own immediate gratification, but under the optimistic assumption that I am only approaching the mid-life point, it instead looms large as something noble and worthwhile, something I can build and then relinquish, that can survive without me, and therefore, perhaps, enable a part of me to survive.
Just now, I got off the phone with my mother, who is finally moving her arms well enough to answer her own phone, and lucid enough to have a conversation once she's done so, and learned that her renal functioning is starting to improve. Her doctor says he expects a full recovery. And so I am spared, for the moment at least, from entering that space of being a motherless mother--that space in which the older generation has disappeared and suddenly--surprise!--the older generation is YOU. I am promised, in this moment, future opportunities to take my mother for granted, to be rude to her in that way all daughters are despite our best intentions ("Are you really going to wear that necklace?"), to continue to deceive myself that time is an endless commodity, and my moment of feeding both my mother and my children was merely an abberation, rather than a stop on the road to my own Someday in a hospital bed.
And earlier today, my husband got a call from his parents. His mother is ill. She is younger than my mother by a decade, and has always been terribly, almost creepily healthy--she comes from a family like that. But suddenly there it is. Her illness, a bad one, worse than my mother's. The looming shadow of it, and what it will mean to our family. It approaches, just as my mother's close call recedes.
I will not quit Other Voices--not today. I am still reasonably young; still optomistic (and perhaps arrogant) enough, in that American way, to believe in legacy and cause. Still humble enough, I hope, to believe that nurturing other writing is as important--perhaps more so--than only nurturing my own. I will feel grateful not to have to feed my mother any longer, and grateful to have this opportunity to feed my children, to still be young enough to care for them rather than the other way around. I will try, simultaneously, to leave my nurturing stamp on the entity that is Other Voices and OV Books, and to ensure that it is an entity that can feed itself independent of me.
Right now, in New York, Allison Amend and Ian Chorao have just about left Housing Works and are probably having drinks with friends who showed up to hear them read. For me it would have been one of those rare opportunities where being a writer would not feel isolating, where I could instead enjoy a fleeting moment of feeling a bit glamorous: being in New York and reading from my first book. Instead I am here, writing alone in my home office about legacy and community--and age, and death. But strangely, I am exactly where I want to be.