Thursday, August 23, 2007

Amazing Grace

My heart is heavy today. It's bad enough to have lost Molly Ivins earlier this year. Now Grace Paley has departed the planet, or rejoined it, depending on your point of view. I can only hope a child is being born today to carry on.

If you have never read a short story (or twenty) by Grace Paley, one of life's great pleasures still awaits you. If you have read them, you'll doubtless want to read them again. Her output was dwarfed by her political activism; she nonetheless is undisputedly one of our greatest short story writers.

I first stumbled upon her writing when she was to be the featured speaker at a writing workshop I attended each summer on the Left Coast. She would be unable to make her original date, since she had to spend it in jail for pouring blood on the White House lawn.

When she did arrive, she charmed us all with a reading of her stories, which were equal parts witty, earthy, funny, and sad. Her voice was and is singular. I gobbled up her short story collections, The Little Disturbances of Man, Later that Same Day, and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. She had always said that poetry and short stories were kindred forms, and so it was that her next books would be collections of her poems, Begin Again and Leaning Forward. Her most recent publication was with her husband Robert Nichols, Two by Two.

Here's one of her poems:


Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that's who I wanted to be

at last a woman in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that's my old man across the yard
he's talking to the meter reader
he's telling him the world's sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

When I left Santa Cruz and moved to Vermont, there was Grace. I would see her in the parking lot at the co-op, out in front of Lou's, on the Thetford green, at the puppet show in the art gallery. She was easy to spot in the community with that wonderful, soft mane of fluffy white hair. "Amazing Grace," I would say, loud enough for her to hear, then I would scurry shyly away. I have never been good at chatting up famous people.

Since the news of her passing reached us at the library today, the staff has been bustling about, pulling together words and pictures as a tribute--not merely for purposes of display, but out of deep love and respect for the writer and the person.

I comfort myself with the thought that her writing is a way for me to channel her wit, her wisdom, her inimitable voice for as long as I can read. But I'll sure miss that dear, fuzzy head.