Saturday, August 11, 2007

Things Converge

By Dawn Goldsmith

Amazing things converge and leave me wondering. Like Sunday, March 5, 2006.

The “In Memoriam” segment of a political TV program included author Octavia E. Butler, an award winning science fiction author.

Her name was new to me. I didn’t know her, had never read her work, barely knew that Nebulas and Hugos are science fiction awards. Yet, as a writer, I mourn the passing of another writer and I watched the clip wishing I knew who she was.

I felt a strange connection to this woman. She was 58. She and I have shared the world for almost the same amount of time, we’ve seen a lot of the same history. She saw it in black, me in white. Together we might have been able to piece the whole puzzle together. Maybe not.

Later in the day, I decided to empty a couple of boxes filled with office stuff. What caused me to do that, I don’t know. I could have cared less to touch those boxes for the past year. But today I began digging through old notes and Internet printouts and a collection of used data disks. And mixed in with this mass of information was the one Writer’s Digest magazine that I didn’t donate to the library the year before we packed up and moved from the Midwest to the South.

I remember hesitating over this magazine as I cleaned out my old office. The one copy that would least interest me, I thought, as I looked at the cover sporting a Star Wars setting with Luke Skywalker as a child, June 1999. Maybe I saved it for my adult sons who showed a talent for writing and an interest in science fiction and fantasy. It would have been something I would have done, save it in hopes that someday they would also show an interest in using their writing talents for something other than entertaining me with their cynical, acerbic, humorous, and always colorful, original emails.

It was a tough time when I sorted out my office. Our dog of more than 13 years lay dying even as we tore up yet another home to follow my husband’s job to another unfamiliar destination. I let go of most things representing the last thirty years of my life. The rest, I threw into boxes and forgot about.

Now, sitting in the midst of the cluttered closet in our new Florida home, I leafed through the magazine thinking more about the move than what was on the page.

All in all, it was a good move. I had spent almost a decade barely venturing off of our property and living a life that consisted of trips to the grocery, the post office, the various doctors, and an occasional restaurant or movie. It was time to start living again.

My hands stilled. Octavia’s name leapt off of the page at me. I know, it is cliché, but it smacked me in the face and I read her words. They spoke to me and I knew Octavia would have understood my hermit ways.

She described herself as “comfortably asocial – a hermit living in a city; a pessimist if I’m not careful….”

Yes, yes. Me too.

She continued her self-description, “…a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; African-American; a former Baptist; and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.”

Yes! I know exactly what she means. She could have been describing me except for the African-American part, and I am a former Congregationalist instead of former Baptist.

Tears gathered when I read, “Who am I? I’m a 51-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer.”

After this glimpse of Octavia, I googled her name and chuckled when at one website I read “I’m a 57-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer….”

“Caught ya!” I thought. The catch phrase that changed only with her age is just the sort of recycling I would have done if I was forced to reveal myself through interview after interview.

Not that I’ve had an interview. I’ve spent more time hiding out and losing myself in other writers’ words than crafting my own.

But I kept returning to her words “expect someday to be an 80-year-old writer.”

In the New York Times book section, Feb. 27, 2006, John Marshall noted that Octavia died from a fall outside of her Lake Forest Park home, “striking her head Friday on a walkway.”

A shiver went through me.

One moment she was alive, maybe coming home from a trip to the grocery with her favorite ice cream, and then she was gone from this world. Her home stood ready for her return, but she won’t open that door again. I too expect to be an 80-year-old writer. Probably an unknown even then, but I expect to be writing in this world and not the next. But then, so did Octavia. She didn’t expect to die that day.

But she had known forms of death. The first sentence of her article in that synchronistic magazine told me. “Writer’s block is a deadness. …that feeling of dead emptiness and fear, that ‘can’t write!’ feeling that isn’t quite on a par with ‘can’t breathe!’ but is almost as unnerving.”

In this little article about writer’s block, I learned so much about this stranger Octavia E. Butler. She had doubts and fears, made mistakes. She felt that people who wanted power probably shouldn’t have it. Her need to sort out the evils of power vs power as a tool, led to her blockage while writing “Parable of the Sower.”

Although she describes herself as a former Baptist, I don’t think she was anti-religion nor non-religious. She read about all religions while preparing for this book and tailored verses reflecting the main character’s new religion for each chapter head after the Tao Te Ching which she described as “a slender little book of brief, seemingly simple verses.”

I can imagine that she also studied philosophies and knew of synchronicity and life after death and ghosts and spiritualists. I’d like to think that she singled me out for this amazing convergence. It isn’t the first time such diverse things have come together for me, but perhaps it is the one time I’ve paid attention and acted upon it. Perhaps Octavia Butler’s face on the Sunday morning ‘in memoriam’ segment has finally awakened me to the importance of such ‘coincidences.’

But that’s the thing with following one path – you don’t really know how the other would have worked out. I will remember Octavia E. Butler, not only because she was a gifted, imaginative writer, a hermit like myself or because we shared a similar age. But also because she gave me something to write about when my own well was getting mighty dry.

And, not to be melodramatic, but she may have saved my life. I know her unexpected death has made me rethink my lifestyle choices. Plus, simply knowing that someone in the world dealt with similar feelings and fears gives me confidence that I am not alone.


Marijke Durning said...

Not melodramatic at all to take these moments to re-evaluate and, sometimes, save our life. You never just know what is going to do it.

I hope she rests in peace and is writing away, wherever she is.

Ruth D~ said...

This is a thought-provoking piece, Dawn. Very provocative. Funny how the words and people are there for us when we need them to be. Even in death . . .