Day of the Dead — and of the Living

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, November 2, 2018


In Santa Fe just last weekend for a visit with friends, my husband and I are lucky enough to have it all: sweet October warmth, blue sky, the coziness of all that adobe and the golden cascade of leaves coming down like coins as we stroll along.

Not far from downtown, we walk under an enormous pear tree, half the fruit still on and the other half a redolent carpet on the ground. We hear church bells from the cathedral, a brass band on the plaza. We have this delicious feeling of having extended our fall in the most seamless way possible: by simply driving south a few hours. Could we chase autumn’s glory all around the world? It feels like it.

At dusk, the New Mexico sky’s pinks lick their way across the firmament and then lower into embers on the horizon line. I feel a cotton candy vibe here, a coffee shop, cinnamon-chocolate, and chile vibe, a vibe topped off and sealed in by all the Day of the Dead skulls in shop windows on every corner.

What a beautiful moment in time, I think, remembering certain late Octobers in the San Juans over the course of all these years, leaves already gone, gray settling in in a way that said, “Hunker down, my brethren, hunker down.” In this moment, there is no need for hunkering. Instead, we loosen, having stolen a moment, a moment far from the snow that’s about to fall any second back home, up north.

Somewhere in our weekend conversational stream, there is mention of a book, a collection of essays about new business models and reasons for their success, called “The Culture Code.” Our friend Zach mentions the profile of a restaurant in New York where service itself has been reinvented and I casually pipe in that it sounds like a memorable meal I had with my daughter in the city once. I say the restaurateur’s name, and he points at me and excitedly says, “That’s it! That’s the one!” With corroboration, the book comes to life for him — and in the same synchronistic crackle, that meal vividly comes back to life for me.

It was an important meal. We had just dispatched ourselves to New York after the death of my husband in 2011. Her father. We had held it together for the memorial service, and then for her graduation from high school. She was about to turn 18, and going back to the city to visit close friends felt like the only thing we could possibly do.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were handling death in the only way we could — by compartmentalizing and walking away. Soldiering on. We had not yet come to terms with the smallest things (the closets full of clothes, the piles of skis), the medium things (the pads of paper with his writing on them, the stories of things he did that we never knew about) or the bigger things (figuring out what to do with the chair he sat in, seeing his truck go by with someone else in the driver’s seat). Let alone, the biggest thing of all — the idea of life continuing without a loved one’s body filling up its normal space in the world.

In New York, everything is different. We shoot ahead to spring in full bloom, bypassing the mountain mud season. We decide to go out for this five-course lunch at a well-known restaurant, because she, like her father, is interested in food and it seems right. We get to Eleven Madison Park (owned by restaurateur Danny Meyer, at the time) ready to be bowled over by the wonders of gastronomy. But after the meal, we’re surprised by our feelings. Because even though the food is really good, it’s the service that is unforgettable, and for one reason alone: its genuine, impeccable graciousness and kindness. They treat her like a queen. Make us both feel not only cared for, but loved. In the cutthroat world of restaurants? Unheard of.

Maybe we needed just this kind of unprecedented and surprise kindness more than we could fathom. I know it left a mark on me — the first tiny pinhole of an opening for feeling and vulnerability to seep into. For light to penetrate, tiny bit by tiny bit.

I explain the unique quality of the service to Zach without going into detail. But then later, back on the streets of Santa Fe, I take another look at all the bright candy skulls and skeletons looking at me from every window, the faces and remains of ancestors and people we’ve lost, smiling, all shaky and vibrant, and I get it, I get it in a way I’ve never gotten it before. Why we have to celebrate and hold close all those who have departed — feel them in our bones, and let it all, the whole beautiful mess, rattle around in broad daylight.



Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)


The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.