A Thousand Rooms by Helen Jones: A Rambling Review

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It is a rare book that makes me care about the characters before the end of the first act. A Thousand Rooms, by Helen Jones – this book, had me crying before I’d even read ten percent.

Repeatedly.

And not just a little. I had to put it down more than once in order to not alarm my family.

What begins as a tale about a woman dealing with her own post-existence, turns into a story about society’s different takes on the word Heaven, how we cope with loss, and the different forms love and acceptance takes along the way. While I may have cried in the beginning, there were reasons to laugh too.

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But what I found most intriguing about the story was the idea that a soul could be stuck waiting for a ride that doesn’t come like a child left to sit on the curb while they wait for their absent-minded parent to realize it was their day to pick them up from school. When the protagonist, a young woman named Katie, having piggy-backed her way with other recently deceased, finally reaches her heaven, I found myself more angry on her behalf at those who were expected to greet her on the other side than relieved she’d found her peace and as a result less able to accept the zen of the place even though the author, Helen Jones’ writing remained superb throughout. I realize now I expected a larger confrontation – even if it was in Heaven.

It probably didn’t help that it’s been a rough week at the office.

I returned from an extended holiday weekend to learn that there had been three deaths. One, a colleague’s ninety-five-year-old mother whose life could be celebrated and was for its fullness even though the loss still hurt. Another’s mother, a seventy-seven-year-old teacher, counselor, and fellow writer whose cancer, thought to be in remission, spread rather than retreat. And then, as there seems to be truth in the saying that these things tend to happen in threes, a member of my team, who at the age of thirty-one, was simply gone one morning for reasons that have not been determined and reasons I will not speculate on here.

We have journeyed across the globe, reached for the stars, explored the seas, and discovered particles within particles of matter. And yet, time or more specifically, the length of our time, a quantity that is so intimately and individually ours, remains one of the greatest unknowns. Per the first line A Thousand Rooms, “you don’t wake up expecting to die.” At least, most of us don’t.

Between this book and the past few days, I have been reminded yet again of the importance of surrounding yourself with the people and activities that bring you joy, the reason to value the experience over the thing, the call to be mindful, and why it is so very important to appreciate the everyday.

So if I am hugging my babies a little tighter right now, so be it. I am sure they’ll understand in the end. But to be clear, when my time comes – whoever, whatever, you are on the other side, I expect you to be there for me and waiting.

 

Gone but not forgotten

One of my favorite shows growing up was Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, and one of my favorite episodes in the series was an episode entitled Gone but Not Forgotten. In the episode, one of the Fraggles named Wembley meets a character named Mudwell, a Mudbunny. Mudbunnies are a solitary species which spend their entire lives preparing for their eventual end. They know their time has come when the mud is ready.

Being a Fraggle, a creature which lives entirely in the moment and the complete opposite of a Mudbunny, Wembley has a hard time at first accepting the reason why his new-found friend won’t join the other Fraggles and their fun community forever. Mudwell sings about the water cycle.

“One day it’s an ocean.
One day ice in motion.
One day it’s a tear drop in your eye.”

As he continues, it is clear he is singing about a completely different cycle –

“You’ve got to leave to stay.
We’ll meet again someday,
Just a dream away.”

It is a beautiful, moving episode about handling grief, how painful and awkward it is, and yet it is also an episode about connection, the cycle of life, and rebirth. Mudwell’s song stayed with me throughout the years and has only grown more poignant as I’ve gotten older.  I am especially reminded of it on weeks like this.

Our friend, Ashley passed away this week. Ashley was funny, caring, and nice, but never obnoxiously so. She enjoyed helping others and spending time with her family. In my mind’s eye, I still see her joining the group after a mud run, ridiculously filthy from head to toe, but always with a smile on her face and always looking like the definition of health.

I am conflicted.

I am angry. Cancer takes so many and took her too young. I am sick to my stomach thinking about those left behind. I am sad. I didn’t get to know her long enough. But I suspect if I asked her family, they would say there would never have been enough time. I am happy she is no longer suffering. I am working on accepting. We’ve known this time was coming.

I am grateful.

We are all here for only a moment but live on in the memories of others. Ashley, although we never spoke about it, you’ve inspired me to live each day fully and helped to keep my priorities in order. You had a bigger impact than you’ll ever know. You may be gone, but you are not forgotten. May you live long in memory.

Until we meet again.

After all is said and done

sunset highway

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“You are going to die,” kiddo announced rather matter-of-fact the other night as I helped him get ready for bed.

I see. It was time for one of those talks. “Yes, I am,” I answered, “but hopefully not anytime soon.”

“I am going to live forever,” he replied, “because I eat healthy foods.”

“So do I kiddo, or at least I try.” Okay, so I don’t try quite as hard as he does. Kiddo has always eaten more healthy than I do. The only craving I had while pregnant with him was for tilapia and asparagus and now his favorite meal is salad with a balsamic glaze and a side of strawberries. My six-year-old is a bit of an odd child at times.

“Then why are you going to die?”

“Because that’s what happens when you get older.” Preferably much, much older, but unfortunately you can’t ever quite count on time. Earlier this year a friend was diagnosed with a terminal illness which has now progressed beyond treatment. It doesn’t matter that she is only five years older than me or that one of her sons is near the same age as mine. Her illness neither cares about her age or her children’s.

As I hug my children tighter, I wish that we didn’t need such stark reminders that every moment is precious.

Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.~Chinese Proverb

I love TED talks and was recently reminded of a question posed by David Brooks of the New York Times, who asked in his “Should you live for your resume…, or your eulogy?” In it he mentions that most people when asked, reply that they place a higher value on the virtues they hope their friends and family cite during their eulogy over the accomplishments of their resume. Put differently, when your time comes, do you want your family to announce that you streamlined processes by 85% while meeting and/or exceeding performance goals, or that you never missed a tee-ball game? And yet, the resume accomplishments are what we focus on.

“Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.”
― Margaret Atwood, Der blinde Mörder

When I began writing, I will admit a driving force was the knowledge that when I was done, I would have something tangible on the shelf with my name on it. I put in the work to prove to myself I had what it takes. Proud as I was of my accomplishment, I gave one of those early copies to the woman who watches LT during the day. She flipped through the pages and saw my children’s names in black and white. “You’ve given them a great gift.”

As we talked, I realized she meant I had given them more than just a thing to remember me by. I had ensured that some small piece of them would be remembered too.

“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” ― Jorge Luis Borges

I like to think I am teaching my boys resilience, determination, and the importance of hard work, but maybe just maybe when all is said and done I’ve taught them to dream big, and yet to never forget the value of the small everyday. If I can do that, what other accomplishment do I need?

“The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero