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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day that is not only a big day for Christians around the globe, but figures prominently into my novel. Of all the Christian holy days, I have a special fondness for the darker ones--perhaps it's those Gothic qualities creeping in and speaking to my soul. There's something I love about Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and All Souls Day, and the Mexican celebration of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Sure, Christmas and Easter are great too, but all those other days are what give the celebrations meaning, the days when we are reminded that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return.
I've been thinking about mortality a lot lately, not just because of the time of year, and not just because of my novel. This semester has been tough for me and my colleagues at UHCL, as we've lost not only the convenor of our Literature program, but also one of our beloved graduate students. Both died suddenly, due to acute illness, and without warning. Both were young. In the case of my student, who was in her early thirties, the death really hit home. The student was in my fiction class two years ago, and was in my American Drama class this semester. She was a fantastic writer, and wrote quite possibly the best short story I've ever read in my life. Over the past two years, I kept urging her to send it out. She never did; she "never had much time to polish it," she said, as a grad student and busy mother of four. And when I found out she was dead, one of the first thoughts I had, after her husband and daughters, was of her writing and that story.
I came home that night, after hearing the news, and curled up on the couch and wept. I wept for the story that was so perfect but still not sent out, and for all the other stories she wouldn't be able to write. I wept for her fragile body and for her beautiful spirit, rising up and away from her family. "It just sucks," I told Mark, as I poured a glass of wine. "It took my grandmother 14 damned days to starve to death and then this one ends her life so young."
Even as I said it, I knew it didn't matter. Death doesn't care how old we are--I learned that lesson when I lost my first love to a car accident at age 16. It doesn't care what shape we're in. It can happen any time, to anyone, at any place. And yet knowing that doesn't make it hurt any less when we lose someone we love.
But like Ash Wednesday, what that knowledge does do is give us a reminder, a persistent pressure, like a tug upon the sleeve. It makes us reevaluate, and examine how we're living. And for me, losing that student made me remember all over again why I write and why I teach and why I teach writing. It made me recommit to all of it in a way I can't explain. And the next day, when our bathroom renovations disturbed several hives of ladybugs, I thought about the symbolism as they landed in my hair. I thought of the crane flies that cling to our windowpanes with their brief lives and their narrow, fragile legs.
Later, as I drove back home from my class at the prison, I noticed the cracks of light between the limbs of the trees. I thought of my student, and how she would have appreciated that image, and how because of her, I can appreciate it even more. I thought of how she would have viewed the ladybugs, as a sign of hope and rebirth and fortune. I thought of what she would say to me, still here, on this earth and breathing. And the next day, in honor of her, I began again to confront that chapter--those chapters--about Ash Wednesday, and Holy Saturday, and the darker days of life. As long as I'm here, I have to do what I came here to do, what God called me to at five. I have to work it, I have to revise, it and I have to doggone it SEND it, because time is short and the days are evil, and I have to do what she can no longer. I must do what she cannot.