From workshop with Deena Metzger at Rowe, February 1996
“When we think of the voices within us we must include the dead.”
What dead are alive in you now?
What are stories about your relationship with the dead? … your relationship to the ancestors?
Who is the person who is informed by the dead?
The Diary of Anne Frank was what started me writing a journal. I was also influenced by the journals of Anaïs Nin and May Sarton. My friend Ron was a gay man who lived with me in my house in Brunswick for a while. My parents failed to teach me prejudice against homosexuals, so I was easily able to accept them. Ron moved to San Francisco and died of AIDS. One person I failed to mention was my great-grandmother, Jenny Murdoch, who came over from Scotland on a boat. The boat was caught in a terrible storm, and she fought her way up on deck crying out “If I mus’ dee, let me not dee in darkness.”
Why Chief Joseph? The refusal to fight, the heartbreaking journey and attempt to save the people of the tribe. I too retreated from oppression in a heart-breaking journey. I too refused to fight, tried to rescue the wounded, watched them die in the snow.
Anne Frank. She wrote to try to find her way through a horrific situation. In adolescence, when life should be expanding, hers was contracted. She wrote to tell us on the outside how it was. I too write to try to tell those on the outside how it was, and hope that if the fascists wipe me out, something will still be published. “Those of us who grew up in alcoholic and abusive families have lived with a level of stress that is equivalent to that of prisoner of war…”
Etty Hillesum. She who could enjoy the fresh roses in her vase while simultaneously knowing that the people who passed her desk were on their way to the death camps. Her valuing of Rilke’s poetry as a help in desperate times. Her claiming of the whole thing, the good and the bad. I know and admire her as one on a far peak that I want to reach but doubt that I will ever get to.
My father. Reduced to essence? I see a pedantic nerd who desperately wanted to be liked — the petty tyrant of my childhood — but there’s something there, some sense of honor narrowly defined, but still a guide. He might have made more of it if he had stopped fighting the effects of drinking and fought the drink itself. But I have some sense of honor that looks behind the surface to the cause, that insists on getting to the roots of things.
Ron — what stays with me from my friend? — I think the moment when he told he that I was the most important person in his life.
Who is the person who is informed by the dead? Mostly the journal writer, who writes to let the ones on the outside know what it’s like in here, who writes to make her own experience real (Anaïs Nin), who writes to process her inner life. I don’t have much sense of ancestors, of a heritage from the past, of a connection with blood relationship. I suppose if I did have ancestors they would be writers, especially those who write about inner experience.
It’s odd that I’ve arrived at the age of fifty with so few losses by death of people who were really important to me, living presences in my life. Certainly May Sarton’s death means more than my father’s. He was dead before he died.
Forgot the awakening of my Celtic roots through the dance.
“That these honored dead shall not have died in vain…” The soldiers who died in Vietnam are my dead, the ones I feel most connected with. Claire asks why. I say because they were sent to fight a dirty war, without support or guidance, the leaders who should have been making wise decisions abandoned them to the swamps and the jungle. Sometimes they couldn’t tell who the enemy was. This resonates with my childhood in an alcoholic family.