“Death is no virgin; it has had many lovers. Death is a slut. It’s we the living who have yet to have our morbid cherries popped.”
– Sam Howie, “Get Your Dead Ass Up”
I truly doubt that my friend from graduate school, Sam Howie, ever thought, Man, when I die, it’s going to bring Kathie Giorgio to her knees. Then again, I don’t think I ever thought that either. We were friends. We met at grad school. I stepped on to campus, he asked me for my name, he recognized me from some stories I had published, and he told me I was going to rock the system. I was terrified up until that moment. Then I stayed. I rocked the system.
After grad school, we became long-distance Facebook friends. I teased him when he got his AARP card application a few months before he turned fifty. He teased me that I’d gotten mine first – I was three years older. I cheered when his short story collection was published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company. He cheered when MSR took my first novel…and then my collection…and then my second novel. Sam was a light in my life, who always seemed to show up at just the right time. We didn’t talk every day, we may have even gone weeks without thinking of the other. But Sam always lit me up.
And then he died. On April 23. Not even a month ago.
A couple weeks before Sam died, he posted on Facebook that he was upset about something that was happening with his son. Sam was always sodden with love for his boy. We sometimes compared our soddenness, his for his son, me for my four. My youngest is close to his boy’s age. I noted the post and told myself to make sure I said something to him later. I’d been through divorce and shared custody; I had some understanding of what he was feeling. But my life is busy and I never got around to it. Then I noticed that Sam posted a thank-you to a friend, for stopping by and talking to him. I was relieved, and reminded myself again to contact Sam. And then, a few days later, I received a notice from my grad school that Sam was gone. Passed away suddenly in his home. That’s all I know.
I’m scared of what I don’t know.
It’s taken me until now to admit that I am in full-blown grief.
But it’s also taken me until now to realize that it’s not all just Sam. Grief is interwoven into a jumble of things.
Earlier today, I emailed my publisher. I asked him what would happen to Sam’s book, now that Sam was gone. I honestly didn’t know. He said, “Most of the time, when one of our authors dies, demand for the book dies as well. I keep whatever I have on hand for sale. After that—specific instructions aside (which I have never been given by any of the families of authors who have died) I let it drift off into oblivion.”
Oblivion. I don’t know how Sam died. In many ways, it already feels like he’s drifted off into oblivion. But I don’t want him to. I don’t want his book to.
And in the end, I don’t want to drift off into oblivion either.
I am in La Crosse, Wisconsin, right now. On Tuesday, I appeared at a book club in Eau Claire; on Wednesday, I appeared at a book club in La Crosse. Tomorrow, I am appearing at a reading/signing at a book store here. Tonight, I went to dinner at Perkins. I sat in my booth, ate eggs that were soft-fried when I ordered scrambled, and I read Sam’s book, a short story collection called “Rapture Practice”. I read the above passage and had to stop for a moment. And then I cued in on a conversation taking place in the booth in front of me.
Three women sat there, ranging in age from early fifties to mid-sixties. They laughed a lot during their dinner and it made me smile. Then one of them said, “We need to come up with a book for book club.”
She went on to say, “Mary told me she read this book that she just couldn’t put down, but she could never ever recommend it.”
“Why?” Woman 2 asked.
“Because,” Woman 1 said, “it was dark. Twisted. You know.”
“Oh,” Woman 3 said, her voice deepening with certainty. “Real.”
“Yes,” Woman 1 said.
Then they went on to talk about a book on slavery, and one of them said that she felt that, really, the part where slaves were brought over stuffed into the bottom of boats, held there with chains, was really the worst. “Once they were let out of the boats, their lives really were better here than where they came from.”
Agreement all around.
I had to leave the restaurant.
The book club in Eau Claire was amazing, a group of sharp, intelligent women, over thirty of them. They asked me intelligent questions, engaged me in passionate dialogue, hit on so many chords in “The Home For Wayward Clocks” and “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time”. And then they called me a “social issues writer.” A “social activist writer.”
I could have cried. To them, I wasn’t dark. I wasn’t twisted. I wasn’t even disturbing. They got it. I felt like they all looked at me and called my name.
I felt like they told me I was going to rock this system.
But these women in Perkins – well. These women in Perkins. A few weeks ago, someone told me about an article that claimed the woman who wrote “Fifty Shades of Gray” made 50 million dollars in 2013. I have been horrified (and grieving) ever since. Enough people were reading Fifty Shades to give this woman 50 million dollars. Fifty million for a book that glorified women’s submission, that made a controlling, abusive relationship “romantic,” that told women that it was a good thing to have a man tell you what to do, what to wear, what to say, who to see, both in and out of the bedroom. I’d read that women’s book clubs read this book. Mother/daughter book clubs read this book. Mothers looked at daughters and said, “This is romantic!”
The women in Perkins would do this book in their book club, and they wouldn’t find it dark. They wouldn’t find it twisted.
Is it a coincidence that at a time when there are articles in the news every day about women being thrown out of influential jobs in editing and journalism, women are comprising less and less of the publishing industry, phrases like “authentic rape” are being tossed around in our government, and women’s rights to their own bodies are being challenged, that this book was pulled out of a self-publishing dungeon and glorified? At a time when women should be gathering their strength and shouting at the top of their lungs, they are instead reading Fifty Shades and talking about how slavery gave “the blacks” a wonderful new life in our country?
The book is being read. There are new definitions of rape on women every day in the news. And I am grieving.
But…the book club in Eau Claire. There is hope. On Wednesday, I went to the book club in La Crosse. This is a book club that has done every one of my books. And as I listened to their questions and welcomed their comments, I felt hope rise again.
Even as I grieve.
While staying in Eau Claire and La Crosse, I’ve been working on my new novel, “Rise From The River”. Here in La Crosse, the Mississippi River is at flood stage. I can hear it from my hotel room when I open the window. And this afternoon, I took a break from writing and went in search of the river.
I have a favorite park here. It’s called Pettibone Park. When I drove there today, most of it was barricaded because it was under water. But I was still able to get to a mostly submerged beach.
I parked in the lot and as I crossed the street to the river, I heard a strong buzzing sound. And then something flew by me, so close, I felt the air move. I saw a white head and a phenomenal wing span.
I was nearly bowled over by a bald eagle.
He flew in front of me and landed on a tree branch. I am scared of birds, and this was a big bird, but I wanted to get closer. As I moved toward the tree, he preened, and then he held still while I took pictures. And then he took off. I was so entranced, I couldn’t even aim my camera for a photo of him in flight. I could only look.
Oh, lovely. I’ve never seen a bald eagle before, except in zoos. There was so much strength in those wings, in those eyes.
I turned toward the river and it was indeed flooding. Trees stood in water. A park I was able to drive around last year was shrunk to the size of this teeny beach. But the river was quiet. There were no waves crashing, like at the ocean. She whispered as she took her ground. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in, even though it was freezing. I didn’t feel in any danger. The river was quiet; a bald eagle stopped just short of smacking me silly. I was safe.
As I looked at the river, I thought, She’s encroaching her banks. And then I thought, HER banks. These are hers to encroach.
And somehow that turned me back to my own new book, a book with River in the title. And I thought, I’M encroaching banks. And they are mine to encroach.
I want to eat quietly away at the banks where women read about submission and call it romantic.
Well, maybe not so quietly. But you know, sometimes you need to learn from a river.
And so I grieve. I grieve the loss of a friend who lit me up more times than I can count. I grieve the apparent stepping backwards in feminism in our country, not just being cut down by men, but by women who are buying into something we’ve already learned the hard way is wrong. I grieve a publishing industry that glorifies the raping of women, by clothing it in “romance”, and having the craftiness of using a book written by a woman. I grieve the loss of reading intelligence in our country.
But when I find it, I rejoice in it. And I always seem to find it. Again and again. Or it finds me.
Even as I grieve, I find hope. Tomorrow, when I wake up, I will sit back down at this desk and I will keep on working on my River book. I will listen to the Mississippi. Today, I saw a combination of incredible strength (the eagle) and sincere steadfastness (the river). I hear the women in Eau Claire. I am a social issues writer. I am a social activist writer. I have banks to encroach.
And Sam. Oh, Sam. I am so sorry I didn’t post, I didn’t email you, I didn’t bring you the light as you so often brought me. I am hanging on to your book with a grip so tight, my wrists ache. You said to me, “You’re going to rock this system.”
And I will. With your light behind me. With your strength and sincere steadfastness. And in your memory.