Dear Karen –
I am thinking about laughter. I love laughter. I love humor, hilarity, wit, silliness. I love joking. I love irony. Sometimes I love things that aren’t supposed to be funny, or weren’t funny while they were being lived, but are now.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt was like that for me. I laughed my way through that tragedy. I believe McCourt meant for me to laugh, to see the absurdity. It helped, of course, to know in advance that he’d managed to survive his childhood. I passed the book along to a friend who could not laugh at it, who only cried, and returned it to me with a tepid thanks. Thanks for exposing me to all this awful, hard, devastating stuff. “You didn’t think it was funny?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I did not.” And then she looked at me as if I were the most cruel person in the world to have found humor in that book, that tragic, hard childhood of poverty and a drunken father. And I looked at her not understanding how she could not have laughed.
The thing that made me start thinking about laughter was my class on Friday morning. Each week a group of seven women and I gather in my studio and write to prompts provided by me. Last week much hilarity ensued. I always open the class with a sort of settling in, in which we close our eyes and take some deep breaths, a short period of silence to help the outer world fall away. We could barely perform the ritual because we’d already been laughing so hard. I can’t remember what we were laughing about, and even if I could I wouldn’t tell you because in all my classes I have a code of conduct that includes confidentiality. We don’t talk about what is written about, what is said, what is hinted at, or even what is laughed over. But as we finally sat in silence with our eyes closed, taking our deep breaths I thought to myself I love this. I love that in every one of my classes there is almost always laughter. I have surrounded myself with people who laugh. My husband. My sister. My students. My friends.
Recently I was asked if I consider myself successful. I was on the verge of answering no. After all, there is a need for money that has not resolved itself yet. I am not very well known. I haven’t been reviewed in the New York Times in a very long time. I don’t have anything that points to success except for a few published books. Not that I scoff at that, but it’s not been the answer to all my problems that I once imagined it would be, and my published book are not really my daily life. You know how that is. They represent something done, finished, over.
So I was about to say no, I do not consider myself successful but I realized that would be a disservice to where I’ve been and all that I’ve learned. It would be a disservice to where I am now,a dishonoring, and thankfully, I stopped myself. I thought of the laughter, and the stories I am privy to every single week. Over the years of teaching I have been honored by people who have trusted me with deep and personal stories. Painful stories. Tragedy presented as tragedy. And tragedy presented as humor. Memoirs. Novels. Short stories. Essays. Poems. In each case trust was involved.
I think about who I trust, and it always comes down to this. Laughter, but also tears. The people who entertain me the most, the ones I find most hilarious and witty, the ones I trust with my writing and my thoughts and my feelings are not the people who shy away from the hard stuff. In all my classes we also cry.