A while back I went to BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) to experience Pop-Up Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue, courtesy of a dear friend who knew I was in need of some major inspiration (she gives the best presents, I’m so lucky). I’d never experienced Pop-Up before, but the hype is real. It’s a live magazine, meaning that the writers get up there and tell their stories to the audience in a sort of spoken word fashion, accompanied with live music and great visuals. Like any magazine, it’s a mix of think pieces, profiles, photo spreads–even a bit of fiction. I dug almost every single piece but there was one that had me in tears and has since given my husband and I a phrase we now use as shorthand to cope with frustrating moments in life:
Let me back up:
This particular pop-up story was about two old ladies who’d been best friends since serving together as nurses in WWII. I’m going *slightly* insane because, not only do I not have my program from the show, I can’t find any information about it online. This means I can’t tell you who wrote / performed the story or the names of these old ladies. (The impermanent nature of all things – ha!) Let’s call them Ida and Betty. As you read, imagine some Ella Fitzgerald playing softly in the background – a real jazzy, upbeat piece. This is how I experienced it at Pop-Up.
The writer begins to tell us the story of these two real-life ladies, how they had a blast in the war stirring up trouble with the GIs and gallivanting in the Pacific, how they came back to the states and kept in touch through all the years of marriage, kids, jobs, and the deaths of spouses. Interspersed with the telling of their story are pictures of them throughout the years, thrown up on a big screen, as well as audio of conversations they had on the phone later in life, when this writer began profiling their ordinary-yet-extraordinary friendship. Imagine black and white photos of them in uniform, then sepia-tinted snapshots from the seventies, then a picture someone took at an eightieth birthday party.
Ida and Betty were two fabulous broads–they called each other “kid” or “honey” and used all the great lingo from the forties that makes you want to put on some Benny Goodman and have a swell time. If I remember correctly, Ida’s a New York Jew, a big city girl who tells it like it is and was profiled by the Times for being one of the oldest women ever (my research skills failed me here – I couldn’t find the story). Betty used less salty language and lived in the southwest or somesuch, but she obviously got a kick out of Ida using words like “damn” and talking about how big her ass has gotten. By now, the entire audience is in love with Ida and Betty and I’m guessing most of us are thinking of our besties who live far away. The story moved on to recent years, when they began to grow more dependent on each other after losing their spouses. They lived on opposite sides of the country, but talked every day. We learn about health problems they’re both having, a couple of scares. And then, and then: we find out that one day Ida called Betty and no one answered the phone.
In an audio interview with the writer, Ida spoke about how it was strange not having Betty in the world anymore, how she’d go to pick up the phone, then realize there wouldn’t be anyone on the other end of the line. She was sad, of course. This is a woman who has seen the death of nearly everyone she ever knew, having outlived them all. And then she pauses and says in her gravelly New York voice, “Well, c’est la goddamn vie.”
I share this with you because this path we’re on as writers, it’s a tough one. I feel like I have to fight against disappointment nearly every day: I go to a bookstore and they don’t carry my book, I get a Google alert telling me that five more sites have cropped up where people can illegally download my book (which means my sales go lower, which means my place in the world of publishing is tenuous at best), I see photos of my writer friends on Instagram at a book festival I wasn’t invited to. And you know what? C’est la goddamn vie. This phrase has become a secret key that releases me from all the hot emotion associated with those disappointments, or at least it takes away their staying power. Instead of being consumed by fear and sadness and anger, I can see what’s going on inside me for what it really is: my ego, grasping for something it’s attached to, with all the expectations hat come with attachment. My ego, thinking being at that festival would somehow complete me. My ego, believing my happiness is linked to external realities and buying into the myth of forever.
Ida is a a freaking Zen master: her best and dearest kindred spirit had died and she’s old and alone and instead of wallowing in all the soupy sadness of that she accepts the impermanent nature of everything, accepts that death is a natural part of life and faces her own mortality with the cheerful grimness of a New Yorker on a Saturday when five subway lines are down: c’est la goddamn vie.
Meditation helps me navigate these choppy waters because it trains me in the art of letting go: Letting go of expectations, letting go of attachment to things or ideas or people, letting go of holding on. All things are impermanent: the good and the bad and the so-so. Nothing stays, it’s all flowing. Meditation and mindfulness practices act like those water wings little kids wear: I put those on and I can stop treading water. If I get quiet and still, I can let that flow buoy me. It’s no longer a whirlpool or riptide and, even if it is, I’m going to be able to keep my head above water.
A quick note: this letting go doesn’t mean giving up. I can work just as hard as ever and still have the same goals for my career and my art. Letting go means that if what I hope for doesn’t come to pass, my happiness and self-worth doesn’t die with the dream. When I finally get it through my thick skull that nothing lasts (still working on this), then it won’t matter so much if my book doesn’t sell as I’d hoped or I didn’t get invited to sit with the cool kids at lunch. Those moments are just blips in existence. I guess what I’m saying is that c’est la goddamn vie helps me take a cosmic perspective while still having the energy to hustle like a mother. Here’s a guided meditation just for writers to get you started – bonne chance!
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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A note on the illustrator: Inge Löök was born in Helsinki in 1951. She is both a gardener and an illustrator. Today she lives in Pernaja, Finland. Her illustrations are mainly inspirations from her own surroundings or life. To date, there are 36 different images of the aunties. This illustration was sourced from Pinterest.