Obituaries, Visitors and Mary Oliver

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Yvonne Brill, rocket scientist, being honored by Pres. Obama

Yvonne Brill, rocket scientist, being honored by Pres. Obama

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an obituary for Yvonne Brill, a celebrated rocket scientist (and, no, unfortunately, she didn’t get her undergrad degree in the hallowed halls of MHC, but rather, in her native Canada, the University of Manitoba) which began like this:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

I watched the feminine uprising take off on Facebook and Twitter. Would the revered NYT ever begin an obituary of a celebrated male rocket scientist by starting with his cooking skills? It reminded me of the time Hillary Clinton, well, wait, I’ll show you:

The New York Times has since changed Yvonne Brill’s obituary in response to the criticism.

I know it’s sometimes suggested as an exercise for a variety of reasons to write your own obituary (maybe goal-setting, clarifying your values, etc.) Once, I wrote a character’s biography in an attempt to create and understand her back story better. But, I don’t want to write my obituary today. I want to share with you the ending of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes,” because it says what I hope for.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Certainly, Yvonne Brill was more than a visitor. She was clearly a tremendous mother and that is absolutely important — it’s clear she thought so. But, would the New York Times ever discuss a father’s cooking and parenting skills when his obituary is in the Times for an entirely different reason? No. Hopefully, the New York Times learned something in this incident.

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What are you reading?

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Hopefully, you’ve been reading the wonderful work in the special food issue here at The Lyon Review. Have you read Aileen Suzara’s How to Cook an Aching Heart with this gem? :

Cooking with an aching heart is about staying present. ….To cook with an aching heart is to fearlessly peel roots and reveal what’s really under the skin. It is to dice onions that make you cry, squeeze lemons despite their wince, and balance out sweetness with salty, bitter and sour.

Or, have you read Stew, a poem by Sandra Kohler, ’61 ? Don’t miss any of these fine pieces:

And, after you’ve read and considered those thought-provoking works from MHC alumnae, you might be interested in taking a look at a post that’s been bouncing around on the web this week. I have to confess, I haven’t read all of these essays yet, but they are in my e-reading folder and I’m working my way through — they are as brilliant as touted. Please enjoy 17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read

If you get a chance as you’re reading the Food issue, please comment on pieces that resonate for you. You can surely make a writer’s heart sing.

Happy #writing.

Shamed, but Trying to Smile

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Note from Pam – Below I’m going to paste in a post I just put up on my personal blog, as it might be helpful for some of you today in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT. I may be out of touch for three weeks or so, not sure — have some surgery coming up (no cancer 🙂 ) Several of you have gotten in touch re guest posting and I will try to get back to you in the coming week, before surgery, but don’t hold your breath — there’s this little thing on December 25th nudging me to over-do a bit before I go under the knife. But, I will try to get back to you!

Turning to the page after the national trauma we experienced yesterday in Newtown, CT is a challenge. In Milwaukee, as I write this, the sky is grey and a cold rain is falling. Dreary in action. The grass is too green and may, in fact, be growing, which it should not be on December 15th at this latitude. Global warming in action. The front page of the local paper cries “Hearts are Broken.” Despair in action. I try to find meaning, because that’s what many creatives are wired to do. Futility in action?

Like many of you, I have followed our national tragedies with shock, dismay, anger, fear and incredibly deep sadness. And, these tragedies — with their accompanying vitriolic social media discourse on the right to bear arms — leave me, again, wondering where my place is in this dialogue, in these events. I have never felt called to “change the world” or to strive to make a huge impact. I have always felt blessed to seek to do my best in my corner of the world, wherever that is. But, I am having to acknowledge shame at our country’s, and my own, lack of facing this issue. In these cases of multiple murders, we seem often to be facing middle class, relatively privileged young men with serious problems, who want (?) to end up dead, but certain of the knowledge that they will be remembered and plastered on the news and filtered into the nation’s memory banks. The metropolitan area where I live faces a high rate of gun violence in the poverty-stricken areas of Milwaukee, so yes, in this incredibly segregated city, that translates often to black on black crime – rarely multiple murders – which doesn’t attract the same national outrage as a violent attack on a little town in New England.

Me, in 1st grade in my little New England town

My mother remembers me walking in on a crashed Christmas tree, after the family cat had climbed it. Mom was angry and sad. Ever the peacemaker, bright-side finder, I said, “Look at all the pretty half-bulbs.” I’m wired to be a glass half-full person. I’ll try to find the bright side whenever possible, and honestly, that can annoy even me at times – like the day after learning that 20 young lives were snuffed out in a horrifying shoot out. When I was in high school, one of my best friends and I were in Latin together and we learned the term “plus quam perfectum,” which in English means pluperfect, or the past perfect tense, but my friend and I clung to the literal translation, “more than perfect.” And, she started calling me P.Q.P., perfect Pam Parker, always happy, always bubbly, always getting straight As, always doing well, in her eyes. I realized then that the public Pam was intentionally optimistic. I didn’t — and don’t — want to live my life being a frequent frowner (translation: downer) to those around me. But that never meant I was, in fact, always happy. No. I struggled with the stupid things many of us struggle with in my teens — I wasn’t pretty, I was too short, I was too smart, I wasn’t “cool” — blah, blah, blah. Like most of us, I survived, no, I’d have to say I more than survived. I succeeded and moved on. I’ve tried to keep an optimistic viewpoint alive in my adult years, despite a tendency, like many creatives, to depression. I don’t see a bright side in yesterday’s tragedy, and, I don’t want or expect to (although, I hold out hope that perhaps this tragedy will be the proverbial last straw, that the camel’s back is, in fact, broken). Still, I don’t see the good in allowing myself to stop fully living, which for me, means trying to be optimistic.

So, in the spirit of trying to find something to smile about, while I still ponder my role in facing our country’s obsession with the right to bear arms, I give you a post I stumbled, most gratefully, on to today. May it help you smile – despite the tragic events of yesterday – and if you’re writing today, good for you. Please enjoy 26 Moments that Restored Our Faith in Humanity.