My Whole Life Has Brought Me Here
An excerpt from Abigail Thomas's new memoir, "Still Life at Eighty: the Next Interesting Thing"
This is an excerpt of Abigail Thomas’s new memoir, Still Life at Eighty: the Next Interesting Thing. It’s the very first book out from Golden Notebook Press, an exciting new venture from The Golden Notebook, a fantastic bookstore in Woodstock, New York, the town Thomas now calls home. A small portion of this appeared in Oldster Magazine in 2021.
THESE DOGS I LOVE
The dogs and I wake when the sun comes up, we are all excited today. The dogs tumble all over themselves to be first down the porch steps and into the yard. Tails high, noses to the ground, following trails I can’t possibly see, the dogs veer left, right, straight ahead, circle back around, occasionally stopping short to pay close attention to something I’d rather not know about (but probably will) lifting their heads to bark, or howl, and they are displaying the kind of excited behavior I am myself today.
I’ve been writing something I don’t understand yet, and what I’m following (or being led by), might have laid down its tracks fifty years ago, or yesterday.
I’ve been writing something I don’t understand yet, and what I’m following (or being led by), might have laid down its tracks fifty years ago, or yesterday. If you could map my mind, it would resemble the zig-zagging dogs prints in an inch of snow: how I spent my allowance in New Orleans? The waterfall in Sneden’s? The boy in New Hampshire? It might be anything, but my whole life has brought me here. That’s what’s so interesting about writing. I veer left, then right, then straight ahead, stopping occasionally to examine something more closely. The only difference is that I do not then roll in it.
There’s no telling where I’ll wind up, or even if it will amount to anything, but right now, that doesn’t matter. Something very interesting might show up at any moment, as long as I keep at it, as long as I don’t boss it around, as long as my luck holds. It’s all about discovery, it’s all about the possibilities. Possibility is a physical sensation, and there’s nothing like it. I remember the first time I felt its thrill, listening to my father describe something that was going well in his lab, and although I had no idea what he was talking about, and it hadn’t happened yet, he fairly trembled with excitement and his voice contained a tremor I think of now as the awareness of possibility. Oh, I must have thought without thinking, that’s the way I want to live. On the brink! Right around the corner! Any minute now!
My daughter referred to a conversation we had had the day before, and I drew a blank. No memory of it at all. I am used to things slipping my mind, but not quite so quickly. This lapse terrified me…
It’s like being a dog. The minute they wake up, when they jump out of bed, or slide off the couch, their tails are already wagging. They are expecting the next good thing. On the brink. Right around the corner. Any minute now.
WHAT GETS LOST
When I say I live in the moment, it’s not a brag. Time makes no sense anymore, and the present is all I’ve got, and it seems a fitting place for an eighty year old woman. I think of each moment as a nautical swell, and I surf from one to the next, and never wipe out. Some moments are longer than others, some steeper. I can carry on a reasonable conversation, make a birthday cake, get to the bathroom, feed the dogs. I can make things out of clay. If I keep my wits about me I can handle whatever shows up in the present, but mention something interesting that happened yesterday and it’s a different story. My daughter referred to a conversation we had had the day before, and I drew a blank. No memory of it at all. I am used to things slipping my mind, but not quite so quickly. This lapse terrified me, and I said as much. She tried to comfort me, talking about how stress affects everything, and how long I’ve lived, how much to remember already, and she calmed me down. I am beginning to understand that each day is a day unto itself, there’s no guarantee how much of Friday will survive the trip into Saturday. Things get left behind. A lot gets lost overnight. I have decided to accept it.
AN INTERESTING QUESTION
A friend asks me an interesting question. What were you once certain of, she wants to know, that you can no longer count on. I love the question, but for the life of me, I don’t have an answer. I was never certain of anything. I was never certain things would work out for the best, or that everything happens for a reason, or that there was some guiding force in my life. Basically I was driving blind for years, dealing with whatever the moment offered or snatched away.
Time makes no sense anymore, and the present is all I’ve got, and it seems a fitting place for an eighty year old woman. I think of each moment as a nautical swell, and I surf from one to the next, and never wipe out.
But what could I count on? There must have been something. I think harder. I could count on my body. I could count on strength and endurance and appetites. I could carry and I could lift and I could get a good night’s sleep. I could get pregnant and have four children. I could walk the ninety blocks home and climb thirteen flights of stairs. I could stay up all night with a man and be across town at my desk in the morning, . My body breathed and digested, everything worked without a hitch. If it wanted doing, my body could do it.
Now I walk with a cane, I avoid stairs, uneven ground deters me. And that dune at Head of the Meadow? Forget it. I’ll be eighty next week. My life is quiet now. The last bit of excitement was that unstoppable deluge of morning pee before I could get to the bathroom. I admit it was thrilling, losing control so extravagantly. It had been a while since my body let loose. I bought Depends that afternoon.
There are people I love. Love and grief go together. My body holds what it can, what it has to. I can still make coffee, light a cigarette, write.
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Thank you, Sari for this! And thanks to all of you who have written to say you liked it. I can't begin to tell you how much his means to me.
I am thrilled to know of this new book. I have read her others with great delight, more than once. She may not remember yesterday’s conversation, but she hasn’t forgotten how to write beautifully.