Remembering Grace Paley

Published in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle, March/April 2009.

I met Grace Paley in 1994. As the co-founder of a small environmental group, I went to the Haymarket People’s Fund for a grant, and Grace was on the board. We had to show up on a Saturday morning in Randolph, Vermont to present ourselves to the board with all the other applicants. I spotted Grace at once, sitting at the large conference table with the other board members and grant applicants — her wild grey hair made her as iconic a literary figure as that of Marianne Moore in her tri-cornered hat.

The next time I saw her was at a small gathering on the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which took place on the banks of the Winooski River in downtown Montpelier. A few people spoke, barely audible over the roar of the traffic, but the only one that I remember is Grace, who said that she had been marking this anniversary for forty years. She reminded us – because the world seemed to have forgotten, distracted as we were by other dangers – of what a menace these weapons still were. She read her poem “On the Responsibility of the Poet” – which closes with the lines, “There is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue” – and then, we climbed down the bank of the river and rolled up our trousers, hiked up our skirts, and waded into the water with paper candle-lanterns. We lit the candles – each one was to represent a life that was lost – and then we gave them to the river. The city grew quiet. It was dusk. We watched the tender lights stagger downstream, and at some point, they disappeared from view.

Not long after that first meeting, I sent Grace a few of my poems. She read them and she liked them. Over the years, she continued to read my work and she encouraged me. But I came to know Grace in the context of my involvement as a political activist, as well as through poetry. The two worlds did not often overlap; Grace was just about the only one I knew whom I could equally expect to run into at a political meeting as at a literary seminar. In both worlds, Grace was enormously admired.

Many writers are admired, but only a few are truly loved. I had several opportunities to hear Grace read her stories and poems, and on every occasion, she received a standing ovation. What was it that brought audiences, without fail, to their feet? Grace believed that “the responsibility of the writer is to tell the truth.” She also believed that “everyone, once you get to know them, is interesting.” These two principles, working together, meant that the truth about humanity was fundamentally interesting, and rich. Her characters are not good or bad, they are not heroes or victims or emblems of anything; they are simply – or not so simply ¬– who they are: Rosie Lieber and Dotty Wasserman, Volodya Vlashkin and Rosemarie Johanson, with their herring breath and their raspy voices, and we cannot help but to love them. Their voices are unforgettable. Consider the opening of “Good Bye and Good Luck,” an early story, which contains one of the most memorable openings in twentieth-century American literature:

I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised –change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused….
Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.

It is often remarked that her output was small – in the same breath in which she is praised for her gift of compression. If her oeuvre was compressed into three short story collections and as many volumes of poetry, as well as one collection of essays, perhaps it is all the richer for it. Grace’s commitment as a writer, as she said in her poem, “The Responsibility of the Poet,” required her to stand on street corners passing out leaflets and to spend her Saturdays at the recycling center. It required her to show up at peace-movement meetings in church basements and to stuff envelopes. The genius of Grace’s stories and poems is that she knew how to live passionately, as she says, even if conventional wisdom might take her for a fool.

This is why, when she was invited to speak to young writers, which was often, she would say, “What I have to say has more to do with how you live your lives.” How you live – though it would seem self-evident, it is not necessarily so – has everything to do with what kind of writer you will be. Of course, she had plenty to say about writing, too.

Grace stumbled upon her subject as a young mother hanging around playgrounds with other young mothers and listening to their stories. These mothers and their stories had been absent from literature and would enter through her work and the work of other young women writers who were emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. Remarkably, she wrote her early stories late at night, after she had put her children to bed.

Later, Grace wrote beautifully about aging – this became her community and she told the truth about aging the way she did about mothering. The old woman who entered literature in these works – “an old woman with heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face”– had not, I would submit, ever been seen before in poetry. Take for instance, an untitled poem from Begin Again:

When this old body
finds that old body
what a nice day it is

when that old body
loves this old body
it’s dreamless to sleep
and busy to wake up

when this old body says
you’re a little lumpy here and there
but you’re the same old body after all

old body old body in which somewhere
between crooked toe and forgetful head
the flesh encounters soul
and whispers you

There have been other poets, of course, who have written memorable works from the perspective of old age – Czeslaw Milosz comes to mind, and Yeats of course – but who among them has written fleshy love poems like this that celebrate the crooked toe and the lumps? Unlike Yeats and Milosz, her poems are not poems of loss, but of ripening.

Once, when she gave a talk to the MFA students at Vermont College, while I was enrolled in the program, Grace took her place in the front of the room while her audience gathered around her, chatting with us while we waited for Victoria Redel, who was late, to introduce her. It was the kind of informal setting that suited her – she was like the grandmother with her grandchildren gathered around her big skirts. When Redel finally arrived, flustered, Grace announced, “Allow me to introduce my friend Victoria Redel…” and we laughed. When Redel fumbled inaudibly at an introduction, Grace, in her grandmotherly way, said kindly, “There’s a mic, dear,” and we laughed again. She had succeeded in turning a potentially awkward moment into an occasion for humor, and as was typical of Grace, she succeeded in reversing roles. She was happy to answer our questions, but the one who asks is equally as interesting, if not more interesting. She never considered herself to be more important or more intelligent or more worthy of attention that anyone else, and the aura of the celebrity never rubbed off on her, as if she were constitutionally resistant to it. Her stature in the literary world did not make her time somehow more valuable than anyone else’s; it did not exempt her from her obligations –as a mother, grandmother, neighbor and citizen – to pitch in.

Despite her rural location, Grace managed to live a very public life. She attended political gatherings regularly, and she was always giving readings and teaching at conferences, even toward the end of her life while her health was failing. Locally, she was frequently asked to speak – whether it was at the annual meeting of the local chapter of the National Writers Union, or at a peace rally, or a protest to shut down Vermont’s nuclear power plant. Many have mentioned that Grace was on the PEN board. But how many have acknowledged the not-so-glamorous work she did for her community? To Grace, her service to the Haymarket People’s Fund was as worthy as her service to the international PEN, and the recycling center was her rural substitute for the urban laundromat – a place to meet people and to catch up the latest gossip.

Grace lived for more than thirty years in the country – though she is often considered an urban writer, she had a deep appreciation for nature and her years spent walking in the woods and growing flowers informed her sense of human ecology. The cycle of generations was as organic as the seasonal cycles she observed from the window of her study, and she often mixed the imagery, as in this passage from “Wants”:

Just this morning I looked out the window to watch the street for a while and saw that the little sycamores the city had dreamily planted a couple of years before the kids were born had come that day to the prime of their lives.

I recently heard a novelist say that he accepted that we live in a highly specialized society, and that much of the world will remain unintelligible to us. Grace never accepted this: she wanted to be understood, and she liked the world, like her desk, to be just a little bit messy. Like a vigorous garden – mixed up. As a young woman traveling through the southern United States, she did not accept that blacks should be required to sit in the back, whites in the front, or that our elders should be separated into those ghettos that are called in her stories “old-age homes.” Stories, she believed, should be multigenerational: “A Father Talks to his Daughter,” for instance. Her old men and women are in the midst of things, with grandchildren sliding off their laps, and they are great talkers. Here is an old man giving advice to his daughter about growing old:

The main thing is this—when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.
That’s a metaphor, right?
Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercise for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man…

In one piece (a memoir or story, she didn’t much like the distinction) “Traveling,” she successfully links four generations into a single journey: she begins with story of her mother and sister traveling by bus into the deep south, during the era of segregation; when they are asked to move to the front of the bus, they refuse. She continues by telling of her own experience as a young woman traveling into the south on a crowded bus: she offers her seat to a black woman who is struggling to hold onto her sleeping child. The woman declines, but allows the white woman to hold the sleeping child in her lap. Later, Grace will have grandchildren of her own who are black. She concludes:

How it happened on just such a journey, when I was still quite young, that I first knew my grandson, first held him close, but could protect him for only about 20 minutes fifty years ago.

In some respects, Grace was reticent. She did not bleed openly. She did not write poems of personal grief; and while she did not keep it a secret, she did not speak much about her cancer. She used to advise her students not to keep personal journals. “Why?” she asked. “Boring to me. If you are only interested in yourself, then you are boring.” In her poem, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative,” in which the poet decides to bake a pie rather than to write a poem, she writes:

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks
and much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor


because of unreportable
I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along

She never tells us what she is sad about. While her door was always open – she was the most accessible of writers – she always answered the phone when she was home and did not screen her calls – she also never invited an undignified prying into her private life. While she refrains from giving us a window into her personal grief, instead, she gives us a recipe for living with sadness. The recipe she gives us in this poem (1. make something; 2. surround yourself with children) is a recipe for living joyfully in a world that can be such a source of sorrow.

When I visited Grace and her husband Bob in their home in 2001 – not long after President Bush made his terrifying speech in which he declared never-ending war– I asked Grace if this had to be the scariest moment of history she had known. She said, to my surprise, that she was more terrified by Ronald Reagan, by the threat of nuclear holocaust, during the 1980s. But by the end of her life she had come to believe that the world has never been in such a perilous state.

In the words of her character, Faith, “It was clear that happiness could not be worthwhile, with so much conversation and so little revolutionary change. Of course…I know all that. I do, but sometimes walking with a friend I forget the world.” Had she come to believe that happiness was not worthwhile? She was, after all, so good at the things that are requisite for happiness – in her view, friendship, long walks and intimate talks, raising children, useful work. Which is to say, she had a gift for it. But personal happiness, given the horrors of the world, was not enough. It was, maybe, even a little impermissible: “Listen! Stop! I must tell you that smart, greedy madmen intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. Listen, it had better interfere with any daily pleasure…” The knowledge that happiness was not worthwhile and yet infinitely worthwhile was a contradiction that was nevertheless true, like the wave and the particle, and it was something that she kept returning to in her work, something that she needed to understand.

For happiness she required women to walk with. To walk in the city arm in arm with a woman friend (as her mother had with aunts and cousins so many years ago) was just plain essential…For happiness, she also required work to do in this world and bread on the table. By work to do, she included the important work of raising children righteously up. By righteously, she meant that along with being useful and speaking truth to the community, they must do no harm. By harm, she meant not only personal injury to the friend the lover the co-worker the parent (the city the nation) but also the stranger; she meant particularly the stranger in all her or his difference…By bread on the table, she meant no metaphor but truly bread, as her father had ended every single meal with a hunk of bread. By hunk, she was describing one of the attributes of good bread.

As teenagers, my sister and I used to sit up all night, sprawled out on the twin sofas in our living room in Brooklyn, reading Leo Tolstoy and Garcia Marquez, Gunther Grass and E.L. Doctorow, Jane Austen and James Joyce – and Grace Paley. Even though I might have run into her at Greenwich Village Pottery, where I went as a child on Saturday mornings for a time, or passed her giving out leaflets on the corner of West 11th street, the name Grace Paley belonged beside the names D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, Anton Checkov and Heinrich Boll, who all belonged in the same Pantheon of Great Writers (we did not distinguish between the living and the dead). I never imagined that she would some day become my friend.

Grace wrote stories because she was interested in the question, how are we to live our lives? And because she was interested in reality. That is why we were drawn to her as young women, because those were our questions, our interests, and she had much to say to us in response. I still turn to her, because those questions have only become more difficult, and I still find her, of all the voices in literature, to be among the most useful.

alexis portrait038

1 Response to Essays

  1. Gioia Kuss says:

    This is gorgeous…kudos


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