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Fires of Writing and Healing: On Imbolc 2013

Those of you who know me outside of this blog know that my last few weeks have been a little tumultuous. There’s been the normal chaos that marks the beginning of the new semester, plus the additional helping that comes with starting a new job (in this case, teaching part-time at a small liberal arts college, which I am loving so far – might be there’s more sociology popping up on this blog in the next few weeks than there’s been for a while). But on top of all of that, Husband and I have had two losses in our world in the last few weeks. The first was Husband’s grandfather, a man I never met; he passed away shortly after New Year’s, after “a period of declining health,” as they say. Death is always tough, but losing an elderly relative somehow feels like it’s got its own kind of propriety, and it seems like people often know how to handle it. Two weekends ago, his family assembled in LA – his three children, eight grandchildren (together in a room for the first time ever) and a great-grandchild, plus assorted spouses, stepkids and stepgrandkids – to celebrate his life and honor his memory, and although there were sad moments, the whole thing really did feel like a celebration. It was a chance for me to meet some of Husband’s cousins for the first time, and for him and his brother to catch up with family they don’t see very often; there were tears, but a lot more chuckles.

The other loss was rawer. Unexpectedly, a few days before Husband and I went down to LA for his grandfather’s funeral, we learned that a dear friend, Emily, had died suddenly in her sleep. Husband’s grandfather was a name, an ancestor; someone to be honored, but not someone who left a hole in our life. Emily came to our apartment for dinner at least once a month. She was at our New Year’s Eve party in December; she bought the popcorn when we went to see The Hobbit the following weekend; she was supposed to feed our cat while we were in LA. She was one of my fabulous Fantastifiers, writing a dystopic young adult novel about a spookily familiar place called USCorp. She and I walked her little dog around the lake near our houses almost every Tuesday afternoon, gossiping about Les Mis and Farscape and family drama and our books; she knew more about what was coming up in my novel than the rest of the Fantastifiers combined. She was 36.

You don’t expect someone to die at 36. Not twelve hours after your last Gchat with them, where you talked about plans for their birthday party the next week and about the writing date you’re going to have in three days. I started my first day at my new job vacillating wildly back and forth between “I need to make sure I leave work on time, because I’m meeting Emily at the coffeeshop at 4:30,” and “Emily is gone.”

We didn’t know her long; I met her last May, and Husband a few weeks after that. But in that short time, she got deeply into our lives. She’d already declared she was going to be the one to introduce our hypothetical future children to bacon, and that they could call her “Aunt Bacon” if they wanted (we discussed this on a trip to the Oakland Zoo in the fall, where she and I discovered that we both knew the same bizarre Simon and Garfunkel zoo song). She was our supplier of dubiously-obtained nerdy TV, and the novice we were slowly inducting into the crazy world of tabletop role-playing games. We were going to go see the UC Berkeley student musical together this spring.

On our last long walk around the lake, I was (as usual) chattering on about my book series. I’d just finished a proper outline of the first novel in some detail, and I was super-excited about a scene I’d realized I needed to write, which will be a Big Reveal for some information about the world that’s been seeded in the early chapters. I wanted to tell someone about it – to share my secret – and Emily just shook her head. “Don’t tell me: I want to see it come out on the page.”

When I heard she had died – when I started to actually accept that she had died, that the awful email sitting in my mailbox that Wednesday night wasn’t a joke or a mistake – that was one of my first coherent thoughts: now I’ll never get to tell her. I’ll never get to see her reaction, which I’m sure would’ve been enthusiastic in just the right way. I’ll have to imagine what she would make of it, and of everything that’ll come after.

Emily’s 37th birthday would’ve been this past Friday, February 1. For Pagan folk like me, February 2 is Imbolc, Brigid’s holiday: a festival of poetry and healing. When I learned a couple months ago that her birthday was that weekend, I said, “oh, we should have a writing date to celebrate!” I was just thinking about the poetry part then, the storytelling part. I wasn’t thinking about the healing. But that weekend – and the whole week before, and this week since – I’ve found myself putting the two together. Working on my book with a fire that I don’t think was there before, and taking comfort in the doing it.

Emily was the first person I knew who was a writer “in real life”; a freelancer, someone who’d worked on TV shows and had work published that you could order from Barnes and Noble.com. I remember that conversation, too – when I said to her in wonder, a few months ago, “You’re proof that someone can write and make money at the same time!” She was real, living proof that this crazy idea I had for myself was possible.

Imbolc is supposed to be a holiday marking the return of light, the very first signs of spring (that’s why it’s been secularized as Groundhog Day, among other things). You’re supposed to fill your house with candles and light bonfires in your yard, sweep out the old and welcome in the new and make plans for what you’ll sow in the coming year. I’ve done those things – or versions of them – for the last few years now, since I’ve really started paying mind to the Pagan world. But I think I’m doing them a little differently this year. I’m hugging all my friends a little tighter when we part ways, even if it’s just for a few days. I’m making plans with a little more urgency, as a part of me realizes that laying all the plans in the world, for this week or next week or next year, doesn’t mean something’s not going to come and take them away from you, or you away from them. And when I turn to my writing, when I think about what’s coming next for this book and the comments I’m going to get from my group at our next meeting, it’s always a little bittersweet, because I know there’ll be a voice missing.

I’ve lost people before. I know it’s true what people say, that the hurt fades over time and as you get more accustomed to the new shape of your reality. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep lighting candles, and plotting and thinking and writing. And maybe the next time I take a walk around the lake to work out a plot problem, I’ll talk through it out loud. Spoilers included. Just in case there’s somebody out there who might be listening.

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  1. Oh my god, ‘Aunt Bacon.’


  2. Thanks for this.



  3. This is wonderful Hannah! Thanks for sharing. ❤



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