Back in July I was sitting in a room full of fellow MFA students I’d just barely met when Richard Rodriguez was introduced to us. He walked slowly to the front of the room to deliver his keynote address. His appearance alone commanded my attention. He’s a small man, with dark skin and Native American looking features. He wore a perfectly ironed, white shirt—something already out of the ordinary in Alaska, and black trousers. His brown skin against the white was striking.
Before the residency we were required to read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, and discuss it online. I have to admit, much of his book was lost on me. I had to look up lots of his references in Wikipedia. Sometimes I found his prose hard to follow. Because of my experience with his book I wasn’t sure what to expect from him as a keynote speaker. When he opened his mouth though, and started talking to us, any preconceived notion I’d had about the man was gone. In a matter of minutes I was fighting the tears and by the end of his talk I’d long since given up on trying to hold them back. I was a little embarrassed that I’d lost it that way, in front of these people I’d just met, but when I looked around the room I found I wasn’t alone. Any devices we’d summoned in order to protect our egos before the residency, any doubts about the validity of our decision to pursue writing, any worries about entering into a career path that comes with absolutely no guarantees—they all were gone, at least for a while. Richard Rodriguez had gotten to the heart of why we were all there. He reminded us that “there is only one thing that should interest you as a writer: What it means to be alive.”
Why did that simple notion cause me to have such a strong emotional reaction? Well part of it was in his delivery. He’s an amazing public speaker. But part of it was how he made the average life out to be a thing of beauty. So much writing is filled with ostentatious jargon, or it’s sarcastic or it’s shallow. Richard Rodriguez challenged us as students to write about what is real. It’s harder than you might imagine.
So then, what does it mean to be alive?
Obviously it means different things to different people. All I can speak with authority on though, is what it means for me to be alive. What do I spend my time doing and thinking about? What consumes me? What inspires me? What makes me want to carry on?
There is no doubt that sometimes life is hard. For example, right now we are going on three weeks without running water. The inconvenience of not having water is one thing, but the stress of how we’re going to pay for the repair of our well is something altogether different and more daunting. There’s more. Sometimes in my family there are hurt feelings and disagreements. People don’t always behave the way I think they ought to. The house is never clean enough. Time is constantly scarce. There are always chores that nobody else will do. Recently a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes my kids are hurting. Sometimes I’m hurting. And the news, it’s full of terrible, hopeless stories of people going through things a thousand times worse than anything in my life.
Is this what it means to be alive?
The answer is yes, and yet there is always another side. Right now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying to think about that other side. I’m reminding myself of the unconditional love I get from my friends and family. I’m thinking about my husband’s job and how it allows my son and I to get an affordable education. I’m thinking about my house—it’s modest and it doesn’t insulate very well, but when the woodstove is thumping and it’s cold outside, there’s no place cozier. I’m thinking about the freedom I feel to express myself. I know that some of the things I write are hard for my family to read, but the fact that they love me in spite of our religious and political differences gives me courage. I’m thinking of the view out my window—the very existence of the mountains and glaciers helps put my problems in perspective and the bay reminds me that life is a changing thing. Mostly though, I’m thinking about how lucky I am just to be here at all. I get to watch my children grow. I get to live with the man that I love. I get to laugh at the funny things and cry a cleansing cry now and again. It’s worth a lot just to be able to think and breathe and feel.