I wrote a lot of papers in graduate school at a small white desk underneath a window in my “garden apartment” on R Street — “garden apartment” being a euphemism for “basement,” which, incidentally, I didn’t quite mind because it meant my best friend and I could afford to live in a stately Georgetown row house when we were young and undeserving of access to such high end real estate. My bedroom was in the rear of the house and it had a door that led out to a small, brick-lined backyard scarcely used by the proprietor, an elderly French woman who lived above us. I would occasionally find her teetering around out there with her caregiver’s firm grip on her arm, fussing feebly over herbs and plants in terra cotta pots, and I would avert my eyes and, if possible to do so stealthily, draw my blinds. She was warm though clouded in our admittedly limited interactions, but it felt wrong to encroach on her private tours of her backyard and — if I am truthful — it was uncomfortable to look upon her senility. There had been an afternoon when her caregiver had rushed down the steps and rapped on the door loudly — “Miss! Miss!” — in pursuit of help. Madame had fallen and she needed my help lifting her. I saw, too, the arrival and departure of doctors, of other elderly friends, of family members. There was a feeling of proximity to death.
Meanwhile, I would sit at that white desk under the garden window reading and writing. I regularly woke at six a.m. and worked, on an empty stomach, until nine or ten before breaking for breakfast. I was always at my best then, hungry and lucid and youthful. I would occasionally hear signs of life above: the dragging of a kitchen chair, something dropped, the muffled hum of voices. I would bite my lip at the sound of a thud, waiting anxiously for the attendant padding of feet after, hoping that I wouldn’t be left in a position to debate whether or not to run upstairs and check.
I noticed over the course of many such mornings that, with any written assignment, I tended to spend sixty or seventy percent of my time on the opening paragraph alone. Beginnings, it seemed, were the hardest. My preferred methodology was filling vacant sheets of gridded paper with notes and phrases in fits and starts until, suddenly, I would find myself in a flow, and the thesis would emerge in scrap form amidst a tumbleweed of observations. I would then craft the introduction and sit back in relief. The meat, the body of the argument was never a challenge. And I never gave much thought to conclusions — who cared? I’d re-state the thesis in some clever way, tie in a quote, and keep it brief. It was only the beginnings that gave me trouble.
Possibly owing to the predominant medium in which I now write (informal, diary-like blogging), beginnings no longer hold me up. I sit at my desk and go. (How do I have so much to say? Someone recently asked me this. I guarantee that you would be hard-pressed to find a woman of thirty four with less on her mind.) I now find myself struggling with the endings. Sometimes they are awkwardly clipped, their brevity in ungainly disproportion with the foregoing — and I don’t have the time to wordsmith a more elegant denouement. Other times they are too cutesy, pat and unconvincing. Sometimes they just peter out. Every now and then, I will write roundly to the end, and there is a wonderful feeling of intactness that follows.
I think a lot about writing. Sometimes I see it as an art, and other times as a kind of strenuous exercise, and still others as a utility. And sometimes, when I am feeling artful myself, I see it as a metaphor for life. Over the past few weeks, I have had occasion — unwanted, in a certain sense — to think about mortality. It started with this Cup of Jo post (read to the end), where she asks whether we have given any thought to how we’d like to be remembered when we pass away. Oh. And no, I have not. And then there was the Goop podcast featuring Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, a doctor who specializes in end-of-life care and who was also married to the celebrated author and neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, famed for his book When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir in which he grapples with the question of what makes life worth living as he faces terminal lung cancer. In the podcast, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi muses poignantly on grief, dying with dignity, and the medical protocols that can get in the way. In the midst of these encounters, my father called me and told me that his beloved aunt had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had this to say: “I admire her. She is looking at it straight on. No woe-is-me. She is staring it straight in the face.”
I sit here and think of a young and naive me, struggling at beginnings and turning uncomfortably away from the specter of death living above me in that Georgetown row house on R St, and I see next to her a not-so-young and not-so-naive me rushing through beginnings and now lingering, faltering at the endings as they seem to crowd closer in. I have matured beyond the phase of averting my eyes, but remain nowhere near the strength of mind to stare an ending straight in the face. Despite having come to terms with the death of one of my best friends at the age of twenty five, I feel wide-eyed, perplexed, alternately lachrymose and angry when my mother says things like — as she did just the other day — “I have enough skincare to last four decades in my bathroom. When I die, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the bounty.” This is the season of life, I suppose — with young children, with aging parents, with the mounting weight of what we hear on the news and from friends and loved ones. I must begin to learn about — to borrow a phrase from Julian Barnes — the sense of an ending.
Post Scripts: Things I Want for My Home.
In case the above was as bit of a downer for a Friday morning (Eeyore over here), here are some new discoveries for home that I’m dying over:
+I’m still noodling over options for my desk lamp. A late entrant: this crystal based one. So chic!
+Still in love with my new Hinza totes. Guys, I use them for EVERYTHING and even debated shipping one to my mom but decided that it was a bit much and will just bring her one next time I see her. (When I love something, I want to buy it for everyone I know.) I’ve learned in the past week that they are perfect for shopping since they actually hold items upright and the bag doesn’t flop around everywhere. I also like the handle length because it hooks tidily onto my stroller (I love these hooks). They are also ideal for schlepping toys and gear to the splash pads around Central Park — easy to rinse out and wipe down after.
+I have heard really good things about these stepladders. They fold super slim and are actually attractive enough not to have to hide in a utility closet in case you want to keep it handy in the kitchen! I want the mint colored one!
+This could be so fabulous in the right living room. It’s very much not in keeping with our current style but I love it.
+This rug has a Missoni vibe to it that I love.
+Two cookbooks I’m eyeing: this one purely based on how great it would look on a bookshelf/coffee table, and this one, because I really miss baking. (More cookbooks you must own here.)
+This chair!!! I DIE.
+BUT THIS CHAIR FOR MINI!!! Can you even?! She needs this and to wear these jammies while reading in it.
+Can you imagine how extra it would be to wallpaper a room in Schumacher’s Birds and Butterflies print (have loved this print for oh so long) and to accent with this wall sculpture?! I adore it.
+It is mortifying to admit that while I had every intention of keeping my shoes tidily organized in bins, I often end up sliding out of them and slipping them under my bed. I just bought one of these to accommodate the pile of underbed shoes.
+Love the scalloped edges on this little rug. Perfection with this scalloped ceiling fixture.
P.S. Aquazzura is killing me RN. There are so many epic shoes at such great discounts, especially these sunflower flats (in the BEST colors!!! — available for EVEN LESS here in hot pink), these panther flats, and these whimsical slides.
Leave A Reply
15 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending.”
So much to comment on here! I think beginnings have come easier to me with age — maybe that has something to do with it? And I feel you on not being able to stare endings in the face. In my now-mid-thirties (!), I have faced situations involving death and near-death of friends and family, and I fear it never gets easier. I am also quite close with my parents and the thought of them aging gives me serious heart pangs. But it’s coming…
I was also going to point out the Lucy Kalanithi-Joanna Goddard connection! Glad someone told you 🙂 I have read Jo’s blog for many many years, and have always been touched by the way she writes about her sister. And When Breath Becomes Air was beyond beautiful and had me in headache-inducing tears!
I am v. familiar with Greece: The Cookbook and it’s a good one! Glad to see you recommend it here 🙂
Yes, yes — maybe it’s true that beginnings become easier as you age. It’s easier to introduce yourself, to start things, to have the confidence to jump into something. But endings are trickier.
The beginning is always hard for me too… I usually end up writing it last! (In academic writing, the discussion is the most difficult – I feel like by then, I’ve said everything I want to say, so why do I need to rehash it?)
Love your cookbook recommendations. I so want to go back to Greece (Crete especially, I loved it there), and hopefully that cookbook will help quell the urge a bit. If you like Middle Eastern cuisine, check out Soframiz – I’ve been to their sister restaurant, Oleana, in Cambridge several times (amazing amazing amazing food). I’ve slowly been working my way through the cookbook and it’s a delight.
I hear you on the nonlinear writing — that can help often!
Thanks for the tip on the cookbook.
Co-signing Soframiz — I live in Cambridge, fairly close to Sofra, and LOVE. IT. THERE! Such delicious food.
OK so these seems bit trifling given the very thoughtful and thought-provoking subject matter of this post, but thank you for posting that gorgeous Greek cookbook! It is indeed lovely, and I realized it is the perfect Christmas gift for my hard-to-shop for aunt who never wants anything (but wants *something*), enjoys cooking, is about to retire and have lots of time on her hands, and just returned from a fantastic trip to Greece that she declared perhaps her favorite destination ever! I love a practical and beautiful gift (a bottle of fancy olive oil would pair nicely, too) — ordered!
Oooh so glad to have helped!!! xxx
I only recently found your blog through a link on The Stripe’s weekend post, but you’ve quickly become a favorite. I loved reading this. I can handle Eeyore if it’s this thoughtful and beautifully written.
Thank you, Amy! I am so flattered. Glad to have you here 🙂
I cannot wait for your book.
Oh gosh – thank you!!!
Lucy Kalanithi is also Joanna Goddard’s twin sister. Seems worth mentioning since you mentioned the Cup of Jo article first:) if you go back into the Cup of Jo archives she speaks so beautifully about her brother in law and losing him. We lost my husband’s mother to cancer a few years back and the grace with which she faced her illness will stay with me forever. I’m so sorry to hear about your great aunt.
Wow – I had not made that connection! That is amazing. I so deeply respect both of those lovely, empathetic women (now I know they are sisters and they must have had incredible parents, too!)
Thanks for sharing this. xo
I read every one of your posts avidly, often several times. I’m just in awe of your writing, how articulate you are, and how often you hit the nail on the head of what I am feeling at any particular moment. I’ve always struggled with beginnings in writing too, and perhaps in life–I always want to be in the middle of things immediately.
And on a lighter note, I’ve walked by the two rowhouses in the above picture a million times. It made me feel homesick for DC for a minute!
Sarah – Thank you so very much. I am so flattered, and so rewarded by the fact that my observations resonate with you…