A writer I admired passed away on Saturday, March 2. I met Robyn Richey Piz in a class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and she invited me to join a writing salon. I knew her mainly through the story she chose to tell about living with a chronic medical condition. Her evocative and even ethereal prose made me feel as if we were better acquainted than we were in actuality. We were not close friends and I didn’t know her for very long. But of all the personal essays and memoir chapters I read during workshops, hers were among the rare submissions that blasted the cobwebs from my soul and moved me to tears. One such excerpt can be found in Shadowbox Magazine.
She defied dire prognoses to live long past the age that the medical establishment, with its cold reliance on data, statistics and clinical precedents, had predicted. Her indomitable spirit refused to participate in numbers games like probability. By facing pain with grit and grace, and translating that experience onto the page, she transformed her struggles into a rare lantern. One side spotlighted the human capacity to defy even the toughest odds, to live fully when the body can’t fully cooperate. And the other, shining even more brightly, illuminated the inescapable fact that we all die, a reality that we often fail to confront in our busy, youth-obsessed culture.
When I learned of her death on Saturday night, I was writing a different blog post, to be shared another time. And I was thinking about what to wear to a cabaret show the following evening, to which I had, on somewhat short notice, invited a few people to celebrate my birthday. Since her condition had taken a turn for the worse, the news, delivered through e-mail, did not come as a complete shock. Still, it landed in my heart like a stone and sounded like a thick wood door thudding shut for the last time.
I wondered if I should cancel the gathering, and add it to the pile of unmarked occasions. That my birthday falls in winter, when I’m prone to seasonal depression, has often made it difficult to anticipate having fun and making plans well in advance. Many times I did not celebrate with others, either because I felt my life circumstances didn’t “measure up”, I was too timid to take the initiative, or I couldn’t guarantee that I’d be as cheerful as our culture demands for social events. Frequently, I let the day pass unannounced, only to regret the missed opportunity for even a modest get together.
At the moment, the circumstances of my life don’t conform to mainstream notions of “success”. At mid-life, I am neither “established” or settled. I’m in a temporary living situation. Although I finished the Camino de Santiago a few months ago, my soul continues on a pilgrimage of its own, traversing inner landscapes each day as I navigate another transition. And it’s precisely because my life is up in the air that I decided, less than a week ago, to plan something for my birthday. I needed to both give the finger to the conditioning that insists I hide under a rock until my life looks “acceptable” and to acknowledge that being alive, even when it feels unbearably awkward, uncomfortable or painful, is not to be taken for granted.
Still, my tendency towards sorrow rather than celebration is as powerful as an undertow. If I don’t consciously act against it, I can be dragged under. As I stared at my laptop Saturday night, wondering if I could, in a rare feat of emotional resiliency, shift from grief to gratitude by the following evening, I noticed a flicker of movement. I glanced down at a solitary ant marching diagonally across the keyboard. I have no idea where it came from or why this normally social creature was alone. I gently blew on it but the tiny insect quickly righted itself and, on rickety legs, stumbled defiantly across the letters, forcing me to pause and consider this unexpected visitor.
Was it a totem or messenger, either from Robyn’s spirit or life itself? I looked it up.
“Ants are determined and relentless in pursuit of their mission,” said one website devoted to animal symbolism. Inside, I felt the beginnings of a smile. Robyn possessed those qualities. Unwilling to let her dying interfere with her living, she had planned to host a salon just last week.
“If the ant spirit animal has appeared…consider your own role, concentrate on your specialties and make sure you are making the most of your natural gifts,” advised another site. Robyn modeled that guidance, both as a writer and unflagging champion of other writers.
Whether we grieve for a minute, a month, a year or more, or if gusts of grief blow us off course when we think we’re finally finished with it, ultimately, we need to keep marching, limping or stumbling, perhaps with both tears in our eyes and laughter on our lips. At the end of the cabaret show, the performer, echoing the ant ambassador, urged us to identify and share our gifts. Maybe that is the best way to honor life, the living, and those whose spirits now roam free.