Your letter reminded me of once sitting in a coffee shop with a baby in my lap. The baby was not mine (I have no babies). She was the daughter of my friend, who was at this time up at the cash register paying for our coffees. There was a table nearby of several old women (I hesitate to call them old because I am now old too – but at that time, they were old to me) who started cooing to Maren, the baby. One of them said, directly to Maren, in a gooey voice, “Say, I’m going to run away from here. I’m going to run away. No, you’re not. No, you’re not. I’m going to put the baby in formaldehyde. I’m going to put the baby in formaldehyde.”
This was something I have never forgotten, because…how could I? I remember asking myself at the time if I had heard what I just thought I’d heard. Then the woman repeated it, again in that gooey voice people use with babies, and naturally I started holding Maren just a little bit closer.
I was a little creeped out and I told my friend, Janet about this incident as we walked back to her house. Janet was much more good humored about it than I was feeling, but really, what could we do but laugh? What I’ve always wondered, though, is what possessed this woman to say such a thing, and naturally, having a novelist’s mind, I came up with this scenario. The woman grew up in a family whose members owned and worked in a funeral home and threatening to put a child in formaldehyde was par for the course. Just like saying, “Eat your peas. There are children starving in India.” And all those strange things grown-ups say that they never give a second thought to.
I never got around to writing a story set in a funeral home, and I never created the collection of stupid things people say to babies either, an idea sparked by this incident. But I love the story, and I’ve been saving it in my mind all these years, twenty-something, to use somewhere, maybe here, in this letter to you.
I both love people and loathe them. I truly enjoy the absolute quirky weirdness that is the human race. Like you, I can sit in a coffee shop for hours and listen in on the conversations around me, and record it word for word. I can laugh at what I overhear in bathroom stalls (one young woman saying to another, as I peed, that she needed to see her plastic surgeon because she had scarring from a spider bite), or when you ask a stranger for directions (“Where you from? Oh, Chapel Hill. That’s where folks around here go to get their hearts transplanted.”). I love the human language, and the illogical usage, and the zaniness of it all. And like you, I seriously need some time away from these same people who delight me so much. From all people really.
Writing fiction to me is a sort of study of the human condition, and the human condition is many, many things. It’s pretty awful sometimes, yet even in the midst of that awfulness someone can say something funny. There is nothing like gallows humor to lighten things up. I tend to like gallows humor. I laughed my way through a book one friend cried her way through. I saw how tragic these events were in the story. I hadn’t missed that. What amazed me was how my friend had missed how funny and absurd they were too. I’m sure they weren’t at the time that they were going on (it was memoir), but in the retelling the author had not missed that point, and I loved him for it.
Life is funny. And tragic. People are funny and tragic and mean and kind, and I both love them and need to recover from them. Right now, I’m in my studio, alone. Quiet. I have a book to read. Tomorrow I’m going to return to writing a novel I started and had to temporarily abandon. Once in that process, I won’t be alone at all. I’ll be with my characters. I love them, and yet can even tire of their company. Especially if I am working too hard. It’s that doing nothing that I crave.
When I was in high school, and doing poorly grade-wise, the powers-that-were decided that role call would only occur in homeroom, and not in any other classes. This meant, for a great many of us, that all we needed to do to be counted as present for the day was attend homeroom. Then we could, and did, hitchhike out of there. I have often wondered how the powers-that-were arrived at this arrangement, and I believe that it served the purpose they intended. The school emptied of the students that really didn’t want to be there, and this way the teachers didn’t have to deal with us.
It was early 1970s, a crazy time. Some students came to class tripping. Many smoked dope behind the football stadium and tennis courts. There was a field of wheat back there, and someone had trampled a path through it, and created a circle where we could sit and not be seen. It was a magical place, and I went there often. Whatever I missed in my education because of my lax attitude toward school, I made up for with that daily swath of free time. I got in the habit of carrying a notebook around with me, and sitting in a coffee shop (back then it was called Dunkin’ Doughnuts) and eavesdropping and writing. I can’t say that I regret all that. I can say that I miss that luxury of uninterrupted time, and that I miss it badly. It seems to me that my whole life has been spent trying to recreate that daily swath.
Keep calm and carry on, Nancy