the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript
on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.
to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.
my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.
but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.
it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).
along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.
in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.
so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).
if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.
it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.
mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…
have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?
No words, except …. Beautiful.
My heart … so full right now.
Ellen Blum Barish
Writer, Editor & Writing Coach
2018 Artistic Excellence Award Winner – Skokie Arts Commission
Editor, Thread & Stitch
Author, Views from the Home Office Window
Blogger at EBB & FLOW
thank you. xoxoxox i imagined you, especially, hearing resonance in a few lines above……
Your friend could not have picked a better caretaker of her work than you!
it was the connection, woven over decades, of two writers, two irish old souls, two pilgrims, as another friend so says…..(plus, she knew my irish catholic-guilt genes would propel me to “get it done!”) xoxox
Oh my….I can only begin to imagine what this cost you emotionally. Can’t wait. Was just missing M.E. this week. Thank you for being the most diligent of caring caretakers. ❤️❤️❤️
may she forever dwell in golden light, and may it be visible to all who see…
Unbelievable!!!! This in itself is such a beautiful story! Isn’t she the one you would walk with? When I think of it from there to here, Barbie it is a heart stopping story of the most beautiful friendship!!! Ohhhh to know you and your heart is such a gift to me!!! xoxo I just adore this, her story and your story together!!!
Sent from my iPhone
xoxoxoxoxo love you, sweet Mar. xox
I’m not a poetic person but your deed is poetic just as you are. Your act of loving kindness is something to cherish and emulate. I think of you often, Laurie
hullo, beautiful! i think of you too. we take our sweet boy off to college in just four weeks, and oh my, you knew him when….we REALLY need to plunk ourselves in the same room at the same time. he towers over me now, that boy does.
and thank you for the beautiful kind words. xoxoxoxo
I’m sure this must have been very hard. Truly an act of real love.
but in the end, truly glorious. or, in fact, illuminating. xoxox
She obviously knew she could count on you to bring her holy work into the light – illuminated drop caps and all. What a source of blessing you must have been to her. And still are. And obviously, it was blessing that flowed both ways. xoxoxo, hh
it will be the happiest day, the day i get to tell the world she’s arrived — tucked inside a glorious cover……
Oh the places our friendships will take us…what a beautiful bit of midwifery is happening here. I think ME would love the turn this has all taken, given her independent ways. I do believe she is tapping…a couple of weeks ago, LinkedIn sent me notice that she was having a work anniversary. Perhaps your efforts were part of that electronic cyberspace vibe. Looking forward to the gift she has left that is being birthed into the world with gentle hands and loving heart.
midwifery is the perfect word for it. and the summer has been thick with hummingbirds….no surprise. xoxoxox
What a sacred trust – I can think of no one better to carry it forward. Barbara Ann (“you-can-call-me-Barbie”) Mahany, you are a friend of the highest order.
and what a beautiful way to frame it: sacred trust. indeed.
much love to you, sweet and blessed CRD. thanks for swinging by….xoxox
This is so poignant and so heartfelt. Both Your words and Mary Ellens illuminate my heart. Thank you for sharing your gifts to make her dream a gift to us all.
oh, thank you. i LOVE knowing that you await mary ellen’s words. one of the main forces propelling this is that in their distilled and curated form her words pack such intense punch. read together as threads toward a whole there is undeniable, unforgettable wisdom. knowing the arc of the story, that her words were written at the edge of her life, makes them — to me, anyway — all the more indelible. i will of course keep you posted. coming soon…..
I’m so excited to read that you are working through this project! Looking forward to reading the as soon as it is ready. Will it be an e-book or are you going to print some copies?
we’re making it a book you can hold in your hand, tuck beside your bedside, keep on a bookshelf….
I loved MES’s blog, it had her best writing that I had seen, often luminous. I loved her weekly five, wrong name but a great romp around Chicago and into her exquisite taste in books, dining, the arts. So looking forward to reading this. And although I was a peripheral friend, I still find myself breathless at times that I’ll never again be able to reach out and hear her weigh in on something of mutual fascination or talk the night away at our typically yearly dinners. What a fine thing you’ve done, my friend.
the lovely thing is that ME’s blog will forever be where it was, http://onthewingsofthehummingbird.wordpress.com/ and there, forever, will be the Friday Five.
what’s in the works is a distillation of the writing from mostly the last two years, and in its curated form, it packs a wallop. and those who choose to can hold it in their hands, press it against their hearts, and slowly, slowly turn and mark the pages…..
i know what you mean about imagining asking her questions, listen thoughtfully to her weighing in…..
You are a fierce and fabulous friend, dear Barbie. What an amazing, loving, feat.
ah, dear joanne, it is especially heart-melting to find you here. i have thought of you so often. i’d hoped to have the book ready for ME’s birthday, but alas, a holdup with paperwork as we await the account that will let me take the final steps. i promise to leave word here and elsewhere once it’s ready.
sending a giant squeeze. just the other day i drove past the place with the beautiful grazing cows, and knew you were perhaps looking out onto that very pasture, and i sent blessings and love through the car window…..to all of you. xoxo
I was thinking about Mary Ellen and searched Pull Up a Chair with her name and read this beautiful entry. Then I searched Amazon and sure enough, saw the book. Just placed my order and can’t wait to read it. THANK YOU.
i’m thrilled that, through the wonders of the cyber world, you found your way to mary ellen’s book. it really is beautiful. thank YOU.