I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, melting snow dripping off the roof as more falls. It surprises me how much snow still remains on a relatively small roof after several days of 40 degree sun, but there it is, drip-drip-dripping. What’s sifting down now might turn to rain. It might not. I’m in the self-pitying whiny stage of an annoying knee injury, and I feel selfishly vindicated that the weather is a bit gross; it makes me feel better about sitting inside listening to dripping water with an ice pack strapped to my knee. I may have had a mimosa with brunch. I may be a little disgruntled. So that’s a bit of context for today.
Though I don’t celebrate Easter, it does bring to mind thoughts about life cycles and birth and death and all that we don’t know about the world. And this week I’ve been thinking too about creative lineages: the people we learn from, whether we know it or not, and how to honor those lessons and pass them on. I don’t necessarily mean teachers, though I don’t mean to leave teachers out; but those relationships are maybe a bit easier, or straightforward, to acknowledge. I mean the people who cross your path and you might not think about them again until something happens, like a Facebook memorial announcement, and the loss is distant and impersonal but felt deeper, somehow, than what happens right in front of you.
There was a man in my hometown, a musician, who played in a lot of local bars and in the downtown square on weekends. He was visible: a black punk in a hippie mountain town, a charismatic smile, and a gift of making a person feel heard and seen, even if you were just a weird teenager who did a lot of standing around in the places he tended to pass through on his way from his studio to a gig or home. Some friends of mine took guitar lessons from him, and then later some played gigs with him. He was a good teacher, but to me he was just a good presence, someone who made an afternoon of standing around downtown waiting for life to start feel worthwhile if he stopped and asked what I was drawing, or complimented a bold clothing choice. It was validating, a sort of half-crush half-jealous admiration of someone who seemed to be living the kind of independent creative life we all imagined for ourselves. I might not have been able to pull up those memories a week ago, but friends who have kept closer ties to that community recently posted about his unexpected death, and I delved back into journals, remembering how important those brief, casual moments felt. He was modeling a creative life, yes, but more importantly, he was modeling being a kind, supportive human.
And then, Jim Harrison, whose death I learned about this morning. He modeled… something else, perhaps, and maybe the only similarity I can come up with is that he modeled the same commitment to his art, and that I admired. I met him once, when I served dinner at a League of Conservation Voters event in Tucson, and told him that I’d been a baby in the Upper Peninsula town where he once lived. He turned away from the line of well-dressed liberals waiting patiently to get their books signed, and fondly recalled the times he’d harassed my park ranger dad and other government officials for simply existing. “What’s he doing now?” he asked three times that night, and after the third gave me two signed books, one for my dad and one for me. He said I should send him poems. I never did, partly because I didn’t think they were very good and partly because I didn’t trust the nature of his interest after he’d had a few drinks, but I still took something from the interaction about his commitment to his work, and the power of these coincidental interactions.
It seems like a silly thing to take away from thinking of these two very different, hazily remembered people, but here it is: Be nice. Introduce yourself. Thank the people you learn from. And listen, listen, listen.
The dripping water stopped. It’s still snowing.
Thanks again to 49 Writers for the chance to share some thoughts here, and for all of you for taking the time to read.
Erica Watson is an essayist living on the boundary of Denali National Park. She completed her MFA in nonfiction at UAA in 2014. Her work has appeared most recently in Pilgrimage, The Fiction Advocate, and Denali National Park’s Climate Change Anthology, and she is a recipient of a fellowship to Fishtrap’s summer 2016 program. She will eventually update her website at ericawatson.wordpress.com.