The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Essayist, poet, writing teacher, and longtime Sun contributor Genie Zeiger died of cancer on December 24, 2009. She was sixty-six.
Genie lived in Shelburne, Massachusetts, where she’d moved from New York City in 1972. After working for many years as a psychotherapist and a crisis clinician at a mental-health center, she began a second career as a writer, fulfilling an ambition she’d had since the fifth grade. She went on to become the author of two memoirs, three books of poetry, and a manual on writing, and her work appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Massachusetts Review, the Georgia Review, Tikkun, and of course The Sun. She also taught workshops that helped other writers both hone their craft and engage in writing as an act of self-discovery. As a teacher at The Sun’s retreats, Genie created a sense of openness and safety in her workshops, and her willingness to be vulnerable helped others tell their most personal stories.
Genie’s work appeared thirty-seven times in The Sun, including ten times in Readers Write. We printed her poetry and several interviews she conducted, but mostly her essays — short but powerful pieces that displayed a great understanding of human emotions and a great bewilderment at life’s brevity and frequent disasters. She wrote of her marriages and her girlhood in Queens; of being a mother and being Jewish; of the deaths of her parents and of a close friend; of writing and aging; of the mistakes she’d made and the joys she’d experienced. Writing without embarrassment or embellishment, she allowed us to see her as just another struggling, imperfect human being — yet her warmth and compassion always shone through.
As her editor I admired Genie’s gift for metaphor; her intimate, accessible voice; her unflinching honesty; and most of all her goodness of heart. She knew how to get out from behind such defenses as cleverness and self-pity and create a moment of genuine communion with the reader.
I recently reread Genie’s “20, 40, 60, 80” [July 2005], an essay about mortality that we’ve decided to publish again in honor of her memory. Reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006, the essay describes how she saw a friend through her dying days and maintained a positive, graceful outlook in the face of suffering. It reminded me that for all her attention as a writer to life’s inevitable heartaches, Genie was herself a lover of joy and a giver of joy. She’ll be sorely missed.
— Sy Safransky
Yet, do thy worst, old Time.
— William Shakespeare
— for Robyn Oughton, 1949–2003
I readily confess: I do not relish aging. As I close in on the age of sixty, I can’t understand how life’s waters, pure and rushing, have so mysteriously carried me here; how the moon keeps on with its rhythms and the sun rises and falls and the days pass faster and faster as I use up my allotment of breaths and move toward death. I think: Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Both my parents died when they were eighty; 75 percent of my life is probably gone. Where did it go?
I remember once walking with my son along Boston Harbor near a famous fish restaurant, but I can’t remember the name of the place. (Another aspect of aging.) I was about thirty-five at the time, and my son was ten, and as a huge truck passed us, the driver stuck his head out the window and whistled enthusiastically at me. What was I wearing? Probably a miniskirt. What was my hair like? Probably long and dark and parted down the middle. As the truck’s exhaust briefly swirled around us, Josh muttered, “I can’t believe that jerk. I wish I could slam him one.”
I was touched and amused by my son’s chivalrous impulse, whereas the whistle left me feeling simultaneously flattered and annoyed. Who’d hoot at a woman when she clearly had her son in tow? Was Josh upset by his mother’s sexuality? Was it an Oedipal scene? I have no idea, but I remember the incident well.
Now I’m mostly invisible to men, unless they’re seventy or older. “I don’t feel invisible at all,” one woman my age replied when I mentioned this. “I was never noticed before,” she said. “It’s you pretty ones who get to suffer this time.”
Recently I went to a bar with my husband and a friend to listen to jazz. The place was smoky and jampacked, our drinks long in coming. Our friend whispered loudly, “There’s so-and-so!” — only he said the name of a famous writer — and nodded toward a schlumpy-looking man in a trench coat, moving slowly toward the bar. The writer took off his coat, laid it over a stool, and sat down on it. He was quickly handed a beer by a plump young bartender. Then the writer lit a cigarette and began to stare at me as I scrunched defensively next to my husband. I was, I confess, vaguely flattered even to be noticed by such a famous writer, and his rheumy eyes made me see myself in a more literary fashion. But, God, he was old!
How can one accept — let alone enjoy — aging in a culture where God is twenty-five; where advertisements are filled with twenty-somethings in halter tops and tight T-shirts, unless the ad is for a drug to treat incontinence, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol? What about the wisdom of age? What about endurance? What about the beauty of a face etched by years that were not always easy? Show me anyone over fifty who has not known tragedy, and I’ll show you Icarus about to lose his wings and plunge into the sea. Maybe angels will arrive, maybe a medevac, maybe death.
So here I am walking down the only real long corridor there is, sometimes wanting to sing and dance, but often whining as I’m pushed in opposite directions: from behind by two dead parents, encouraging, “It’s fine, it’s fine”; from ahead by a thirty-five-year-old daughter, saying, “You’re young. You can’t die, Mom. You’re my hero, and if you die, I’ll never get over it.” But it’s not death that’s the devil; it’s the decaying body, the kind of deterioration my own mother faced in her long years of Parkinson’s and dementia.
Recently my husband and I bought long-term-care insurance, to stave off nursing-home hell. And, at last, we’ve written our wills. My husband, thirteen years younger than I, acts as if he is going along for the ride. “Why don’t you catch up?” I sometimes yell at him. He smiles and is silent; what can he say? And so I hold my husband, and he holds me, and I hold what life I have left in my arms like a child, trying to comfort it, make it laugh. But sometimes it feels like a real job.
“Oh, you’re young,” Gordon, the eighty-year-old man I like to sit next to in synagogue, says to me. I have no idea how to respond to this. Should I sing hallelujah? Thank God for the good life I’ve had? Gordon is a beautiful old soul with the face of a kindly god. Sometimes I feel an impulse to sidle up to him, thigh to thigh, turn that face to mine, and kiss him hard on the lips, but I’m afraid I’d give him a heart attack.
I had no fear whatsoever of kissing my friend Robyn, who, at fifty-four, was stricken with cancer. It started in her lungs and then spread just about everywhere else within two years, despite chemotherapy (the details of which I heard almost daily). During her illness, I laughed and wept with her, and did as many things for her as she would allow. We often held hands and talked above the racket of her three parakeets.
The last time I took Robyn to do errands — the drugstore, the pet store, the market — she marveled, “Oh, my God, Genie, you can just get up and go and do all that. It’s amazing. Do you have any idea?” I paused for a moment and considered. Then I brought Robyn home, helped her switch over from a portable oxygen tank to the larger tank in her living room, kissed her once on each cheek, got back into the car, and drove past the familiar landscape that I could barely imagine existing without her in it.
Now that she’s dead, I keep wondering where she is, although I’ve visited her grave twice. I could swear she was in the barred owl that flew over my head in the woods a month after her death and then sat in a tree about twenty feet from me and stared. I hadn’t seen a barred owl since the winter before my mother’s death, seven years earlier, when one had perched outside our kitchen window week after week. Now there was this bird, and there I was, my heart fractured by Robyn’s departure. The owl watched me steadily, taking my grief into its black eyes. Then off it flew, and I walked back home.
I’m lucky to have come this far in life before losing a good friend. “What does it feel like?” someone in her forties asked me. “It feels hard and empty,” I told her. What I didn’t say is that sometimes, beneath this hard emptiness, there is a sense of flight, of wings spread, of chest and heart holding more love than before. There is the knowledge that my heart won’t ever seal up as tight again, and the real, earned understanding that we all are dying. I’ve already been blessed with six more years than Robyn had.
When Robyn and I walked down the street together talking, I never noticed whether men looked at us. I didn’t care, and Robyn helped me not to care, with her bulky winter hats and the little red cap she wore to cover her baldness.
Middle-aged people shrink, crease, fade, and, if they’re lucky, slowly lose the desire to be noticed, the way we once lost our childhood taste for Necco Wafers or Pez. My desire to be seen is gradually being replaced by the desire to see: the faces of those I love, the cardinal in the bush, the socks of the woman with MS who swims at the y.
“Great socks,” I tell her as I change for my workout.
“Thanks,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I’m going for wilder, especially in the sock department.”
I think of Robyn’s strange hats.
As we continue talking, this woman says she’s fifty-eight and can’t wait to turn sixty. I can’t believe she’s younger than I am, I think as I go off to blow-dry my hair so it won’t fall flat.
When I return, no one else is in the locker room. Robyn and I met here three times a week, every winter, for twelve years. Grief suddenly hits again. Packing up my things, I begin to cry. I walk out past a few people, averting my wet eyes. Outside, the late-afternoon sky glows pink over the red-and-white Toyota sign and the bare November trees. Beauty and pain are sisters, I think. Aging and death are sisters. Robyn and I are sisters. I can’t see Robyn as she was, but I see something akin to her in this sky. Part of me, I believe, will never die. But I wonder if I will always miss, just a little, being the young woman who drew stares from strangers walking down the street.
A few weeks before Robyn’s death, my husband and I went to see Wynton Marsalis perform at a small club. Bill and I sat about four feet from the stage, and Bill, who loves music more than he loves me (although he might deny this), was entranced, transported, gone from his body and taken up into pure sound the way prophets and poets claim we ecstatically dissolve into light at the end.
I kept looking at my husband. Bill’s a serious guy, not quick with words, which he respects too much to misuse, aware as he is of their often-paltry ability to hold truth — unlike the long note from Marsalis’s trumpet, that sound emitted from a gleaming piece of metal, its mouthpiece surrounded by those wide lips and miraculous, triple-jointed cheeks. I felt Bill’s spirit undulating above his strong, erect body, utterly lost to flesh. Then the blue of his eyes caught the brown of mine for a second, and he leaned toward me and whispered, “I could die now.” My eyes moistened, and I wanted so badly to believe that this joy was what had come for Robyn; that it’s what will come for us all in the end.
I gasped when I saw in the April issue that Genie Zeiger had died. I had the great fortune of meeting her twice. The first time was at a Sun retreat in Rowe, Massachusetts. She read a piece of hers that involved the death of a young man named Patchen. Afterward I talked to her and confirmed that it was the same Patchen who had dated my co-worker long ago. Genie patted the empty seat next to her, inviting me to sit, and she filled me in on Patchen as if I were an old friend. I had felt alone and vulnerable at Rowe, and it was reassuring to experience that kind of authentic contact.
Two years later I saw Genie again at a Sun retreat in Big Sur, California. By then I was in the throes of two crises that felt monumental. I took Genie’s writing workshop but couldn’t read my contribution aloud without breaking into tears. After the workshop Genie asked me to come for a walk with her, and she took my hand and spoke about her own struggles. I vividly remember one thing she said: that our relationships with our parents keep evolving, even after our parents die. She told me of a healing dream she’d had in which her father had embraced her and showered her with approval as never before. I came away with a great deal of hope.
Now that she’s gone, I feel cheated. We’ve lost an authentic voice that formed as immediate a connection with readers as Genie did with me in person. It was eerie to read her assumption that she would live to be eighty. Why couldn’t it have been true?
I failed to stick up for myself today in an encounter with a public official whose behavior was uncooperative and disrespectful. The meeting I went to next didn’t go well either. When I got home, my wife had a headache, and we quarreled like a couple of wounded animals, then made up.
I stayed awake to read the new issue of The Sun. There was Genie Zeiger in all her gentle, modest character and womanly beauty, exactly as I remembered her from the two years I had spent in her writing workshop. Her soul was as transparent in her essay as it had been in person. I forgot my difficulties and felt blessed.
I wanted to send Genie Zeiger an e-mail to congratulate her on her excellent piece “20, 40, 60, 80” [April 2010], so I checked her contributor’s note to see if it contained her address. When I learned she had died, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. (Somehow I’d missed Sy Safransky’s note on the page before the essay.) I moped around for a good couple of hours, trying to wrap my tiny mind around my own mortality, as well as the hopelessly complicated relationship between life and art, and how a writer’s death had transformed a fine essay into a masterpiece of heartbreaking irony.
I’ve always admired Zeiger’s poetic yet unaffected style. I’ll miss seeing her work in The Sun.
Reading about Genie Zeiger’s life and death struck me forcefully. I too am sixty-six. I too am a writer, teacher, poet, and essayist. I too have been published in The Sun (in Readers Write). I too am Jewish. I too married a younger man. I too have witnessed a close friend, also younger than myself, die.
It could have been me, I thought. And it will be me, sooner than I’d like to think. Genie’s life, death, and generous, authentic words are a reminder — once again — to savor the days while I have them.