Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vita Longa Erat

"Ars longa, vita brevis," wrote ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which can be translated as, "The art is long, life is short." Mastery of a craft takes much time and effort, and in the context of our short lives, achievement is unlikely and commendable. Hippocrates was talking about the art and technique of surgery, but the sentiment holds true for the expressive arts as well.

"Take your patience pills," my grandmother told me more than once. Easy for her to say! She had 58 years on me. "With a shorter past there's a greater hurry," as Alana Davis wrote in her fabulous song Turtle. Thankfully I had my gram to impart such wisdom to me. (My other favorite expression of hers was her eagerness to reassure anyone--particularly children--who broke a glass or stained the large dining room table's cloth, with an "It's ok, it will wash," or "It's ok, it's just a glass.")

Gram, or Sophy Margaret Toppin Koch, died on January 3, 2011 at the age of 90, passing out of the ghost town of my childhood and taking her place at the helm of the guardian-angel-ship in the heaven that all of a sudden I sort of believe in now. She was an organist, choir director, homemaker, mother of three, world traveler, catalog-shopper, thoughtful letter-writer, spitfire, Leo, independent woman, and inspiration. Lion-hearted and with a New York Times crossword puzzle mind, she lavished me with love and correct grammar. She didn't remark when I dyed my hair purple or dressed androgynously, but God forbid I say, "Me and Sarah went to the zoo."

As a pre-teen one year I decided to give Gram a poem of mine as a birthday gift (I don’t think I’ve given anyone else a poem as a birthday gift before or since then). It was a lonely, maudlin poem, but she accepted it with an affirming reverence that I still appreciate. Every young poet should have a reader like her. Though I'm not as young now as I was then, I'm still a young poet in terms of career, and Gram's voice in my head reminds me to take my patience pills and keep working hard at what I love.

I was 30 and Gram had Alzheimer’s before I thought about how she had been an accomplished, lifelong musician, and that this was notable, extraordinary. I had always taken her work for granted, because it was just part of who she always was, in my short-lived experience. But she had not only worked hard to master her craft; she was lucky to have a long life in which to practice and enjoy it.

Gram and Kat in 1995

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