Last Tuesday (wow, time goes by fast) I went to the Field Museum to visit Peggy. There is a part of me that is terrified of imposing on her — I think Peggy is the most beloved and popular person I know in real life — but there’s a bigger part of me that is selfish.
She had a class, so we walked around the museum and she’d stop in every corner to sit with a student behind a big notebook. (The students seemed to, indeed, be in every corner. Peggy’s classes are huge and she sets them free in the museum and I have no idea how she manages to keep track of or find all of them.) She was teaching architecture drawing — the lesson I found most difficult when I was in her class. Mostly, the students didn’t understand architecture drawing just as I had not understood architecture drawing. This is through no fault of Peggy’s — she’s the 90th person who has tried to teach it to me and the only one who ultimately succeeded. Architecture drawing is all about a single trick that’s a little hard to understand at first, but once you learn the trick, it’s the easiest kind of drawing there is. Other things in life that are like that include meringue cookies, playing trills on the piano, basketball lay-ups, and Tinder*.
Anyway, while we were walking and chatting, she said something that I’ve been turning over in my mind since she said it. We were talking about a tragedy; about grief. Her nephew passed away a few years ago, and Peggy — who is one of many children, and who has many children of her own — dropped everything for a few days to be with family. Her family is enormous. I want to tell you the exact number of people in her immediate family, but I couldn’t even begin to guess at a number, and I think Peggy herself would probably struggle to find the exact figure. (Because, after all, what does “immediate” mean, exactly?) She took her nephew’s sister and brother to the Field Museum shortly after he died to meet the bug guy**, and a spider got loose. Peggy wrote a children’s book about it, which is how the subject came up in the first place. And here is the thing she said:
“When there’s a loss like that, you just need to have all those 400,000 people in your family get together and pile on top of each other and squeeze in tight. You can’t go anywhere or do anything, you just stay with that giant mess of family for days. It doesn’t make the grief go away, but when you’re altogether, at least you can hold it, and it doesn’t spill over."
Peggy’s sister — the one who lost her son — teaches in North Lawndale, where she has a knitting club. This video is the most important thing you will see all day, so stop reading right now and watch it. You can come back later if you have time. In the video, which I refuse to describe, because I feel you need to watch it, Peggy’s sister inadvertently demonstrates once again the value of keeping a pile of family members close — and she shows how they don’t have to share your blood.
In the days that have passed since I visited Peggy and she (cannily true to form) dropped her wisdom, I’ve been remembering the other time I heard someone talk about a pile of family. It was right before Hurricane Isaac, and J and I sat on the front porch in the wet-warm New Orleans night, drinking ginger tea and talking. J’d been sad lately, and so we discussed sadness, and where it came from, and what to do about it. He said — I’ll never forget, because it was almost like a premonition — “I wish I could just have all my friends and family all in one place, and that we could be in a pile.” A week later, we had no electricity or water, and we drove — J, my sister, my roommates — to J’s house in Florida. His whole family was there. In the plush pink living room altogether, the warmth of the pile drowned out the discomfort of the storm.
The thing about all this is that I am a fairly solitary person, and I am in a constant state of believing that I need to be alone. This is because I equate being around people with having to be “on”; my association with company is with obligation — going to class, throwing parties, selling things at art fairs, performing in shows. Family exists outside of obligation. With family, the only definition is that you are magnetized to be there; you don’t have to try, and there aren’t excuses. You show up, and when you do (because you must), you belong.
I worry, occasionally, about the way that our newfound access to mass productivity has changed our collective values around family. The internet makes it so that you can do a million things, and do them well, and do them all from the solitude of your home. Success is a kind of god, it demands your attention; it asks you to shift your priorities. We move, we move again; we stop calling, because there just isn’t time. But then, when the grief comes — and grief is not a possibility, it is an inevitability — it can feel like like there’s nowhere to go. I don’t believe humans can hold our grief in solitude. There’s been a steady uptick in suicides in the United States since 1999. One has to wonder why.
The Success God wants you to believe that you are okay all alone; it seems easier. But the only thing that really ever makes me feel safe on this earth is sharing a meal with people I love.
*The trick with Tinder is to be a female looking for males.
**This is his technical job title
***Did you forget to watch the video? Here.