Friday, July 25, 2008

Valjean in Mexico just this spring, a photo posted by her friends. May she rest in peace.
R.I.P. Valjean

I mentioned her to someone earlier today, so tonight it occurred to me to check the blog she started when she was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. The last time I checked, she had successfully completed her final round of treatments.

But it turns out that earlier today, her ashes were buried in Chicago. Valerie Jean McLenighan died on July 9. She was 60. Fortunately, she had more devoted friends than I who took very good care of her since her diagnosis.

The photo of her above was taken in Mexico this spring. It's not entirely clear, but it seems things started to get worse upon her return, perhaps on the trip itself. But that photo is how I will remember her.

I hadn't seen her for something like 35 years. We knew each other in college, and then saw each other when we were both in graduate school at the University of Iowa. I don't recall how we got back in touch in the late 80s or early 90s--it was probably at her instigation. She was reconnecting with Knox classmates, urging people to attend the next reunion. We talked on the phone a bunch of times (she did attend that reunion, and told me about it), from when I lived in Pittsburgh to after I moved to California. She almost visited here when she was in San Francisco, but it never worked out. We also emailed, and in one of hers, just before the Democratic Convention in 2004, she told me to watch the speech by a state legislator named Barack Obama, because he was something special.

I have a number of specific memories of Valjean. But at the moment I can't write about them. I'm just grateful that she had good medical care and lots of loving care from her friends. Her engagement with people was amazing--she was so much more outgoing than I ever was, and yet she had such a deep internal life. And I guess I'm a little daunted, too. I expect my death will be a good deal lonelier.

Valjean was a practicing Buddhist, and there will be a memorial service for her at her Zen Center this Sunday. But in August, there will also be a Mass for her, and a memorial in Chicago being organized by her friends. If there are others from Knox checking in here who didn't know about this and are interested in the memorial, information will be posted on her blog.

On the day she died, a friend of hers named Steve McCabe posted a poem by Wallace Stevens he said was one of her favorites. It means a lot to me, too--there's a copy of it just a few feet away. Valjean and I were in a class together, taught by Doug Wilson, on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. So we came to this poem together:

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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Seventh Inning Stretch

Apart from these personal reflections (below) on my birth and that year, I feel an urgency that given my status in life is faintly embarrassing. Although nobody else seems to care one way or another whether I accomplish anything more, or leave anything behind, it matters a great deal to me.

I want to make something of my past, so that it survives for those who may not be all that interested at the moment, and may never be interested, but at least they'll have the evidence, the opportunity.

But also, I want to contribute to the future.

Since no one is expecting anything from me really--any more writing, other than press releases and reviews of other peoples' creations, or anything in any other form I've worked in over the years--it seems quixotic, if not pathetic.

But apparently I'm not alone. Here are a few quotes I've lifted from a recent web column by Patricia Zohn. She writes mostly about women she knows (these are my emphases and edits):

"The Boomer women are the most ambitious of my acquaintance. They are working harder than anyone else, desperate, it seems, to claim a place for themselves, aspirational to an unimaginable degree, as if they had spent so much time serving (children, husbands, politics, being the best, ideals of one sort or another) that a new kind of ticking clock has emerged, one about leaving your mark on the world and not just your genetic material in the form of offspring. ."

She concludes: "And by the way, it's not just women: a good friend, male, who used to run publishing companies and is now a best-selling author says it's because we are all finally having our moment. "

Now I've got a lot of caveats about Zohn's point of view, and her social milieu is miles from mine. There is an undeniably personal quality to this urgency, but it can't be dismissed as simply egotistical anxiety. There is something about meaning in all this, as well as about making a big noise before the big sleep.

I saw Lewis Black (comic and author, best known perhaps for appearances on the Daily Show) on some TV program about self-centered Boomers, and while he admitted that the Boomer generation accomplished a lot less than we hoped or thought we would in the 60s, that we still have some time to pull it together. He said it's the seventh inning stretch, and we can still win it in the late innings--but it's going to take concentrated effort.

That's how I feel about it, even as the time goes winging by without my urgency being reflected in my day, and certainly not in the eyes of others. But the urge is there, and this is the defining task.

I'm especially conscious of how quickly my current level of strength can turn into real old age by a serious illness or injury--not to mention the impossibility of paying for it. Still, I suppose I'm fortunate in one respect. It doesn't take much in the way of resources--like money or the belief of others--to write things down. To tell a story or two.