Someone I cared about and respected deeply died this past Friday. The grief and shock has been coming in waves for me, mingling with the grief and anxiety I feel about the world at large. It’s taken me a while to decide what to say – if anything – about her death. I tend to step back when someone who wasn’t part of my family or closest friends dies, wary of appropriating others’ grief (we all know that one stranger who takes over all the message boards when someone dies, like a sadness vulture).
But she changed my life. This person, Marian, changed my life multiple times over. And I want to remember her in writing, because that’s where I make sense of things. So this is a letter of love and gratitude to a woman whose spirit moved me deeply.
When Marian and I became colleagues in 2015 I didn’t realise at first how multi-talented and accomplished she was. A teacher, writer, musician, academic – Marian excelled at many things, and did it with such humorous self-deprecation that her gifts kept sneaking in under the radar. Before I came to know her as the idea-generator and researcher of note that she was, I knew her as a very kind and very funny woman. When she bragged, it was about other people’s accomplishments. (She’s probably the only person – other than my supervisors – to have read my MA thesis.) When she joked, it was mainly about herself.
At work she bustled about with funny quips and stories about her family. She defused the tension in meetings. She kept me company as I chain-smoked between lectures, sharing about her own life and emotional struggles in a way that made me feel safe to share as well. She once described us as people “missing an extra layer of skin against the world”, matter-of-factly giving words to the sometimes excruciating experience of living in this world as a sensitive person. She was completely disarming: infinitely quotable, gutsy, wholesome, yet vastly complex. She had a tremendous appetite for life (and for naughty jokes), a shy streak, and a huge heart.
Besides being an all-around good human, Marian changed my life in a number of tangible ways.
At a work retreat in 2018, shaky and weepy and exhausted, I shared my romantic and existential woes with a few colleagues around the dinner table. (I cringed about this for days afterwards, but that’s what happens when you combine red wine and Marian’s icebreakers.) Marian stepped in immediately: “Book yourself into a psychiatric clinic, girl!”
At that point, I thought only REALLY sad or sick people went to psychiatric hospitals. Like, not-me people. Marian was quick to bring me back to reality by pointing out that I was in fact REALLY sad, and also, that I had a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity: Our work-imposed medical insurance permits 21 days of free mental health care a year. “It’ll be like a 3-week holiday,” she said. “Treat yourself.”
I treated myself, and boy am I glad I did. (There were many problematic aspects to the psychiatric clinic, and don’t even get me started on the lack of help available to non-insured South Africans, but nonetheless – my stay at the clinic turned my life around.)
Marian destigmatised mental illness for me, in that conversation and many others.
A year later, when a close family member of mine attempted suicide, Marian sent me countless resources. Not only information about mental health, but names and numbers of people and organisations who could help; she even phoned several counsellors on our behalf. For months afterwards she sent me messages to hear how we were all doing – full of advice and opinions, she also knew when to step back and simply support.
It’s also through Marian that I met my closest friend and the biggest shaker-upper of my adult life so far (and please universe don’t let there be many more of those – a girl can only take so much shaking up). It was at a workshop led by Marian; I caught a lift home with her afterwards and her first words to me in the car were “whew, he is HOT!”
And I was like “which one?”, because there’d happened to be two hot guys at the workshop and I was feeling giddy and wonderfully glad I’d attended the session. (This was a while after my exit from the clinic and I was just about ready to flirt with the world again).
Marian had laughed and said “both, you’re right!”. And then myself and one of the hot guys in question struck up a romance, and it was complicated and intense right from the start, and I tried not telling my colleagues about it because I didn’t actually know how to explain it. But they found out anyway because Marian was beside herself with pride that this had all started at her workshop (and also, I am BAD at secrecy). We were her success story – one time she ran into us having coffee, sent me a wink, and cornered me afterwards to call dibs on being our future children’s music teacher. (I tried explaining to her that wasn’t at all where we were headed, but she was dead set on this imaginary future for us).
When the romance part of that relationship ended, I distinctly remember feeling bad on Marian’s behalf that things hadn’t worked out the way she’d envisioned. To her credit, she didn’t pry. She just sent me the occasional encouraging text or email, and commented on my glow when we met in person (she had optimistic eyesight). I was going through an extended (ongoing) reshuffling of my understanding of love and friendship and life itself, and Marian was there for it. I shared with her a little bit about my forays into non-monogamy and she thought I was a bit weird but brave. It was such a relief for my people-pleasing soul to share about my life – with a colleague, no less – and be met with warm-hearted acceptance.
Marian took life on with gusto. She was funny, and wise, and humble, but most of all she loved well.
That is what will remain, what cannot ever be undone. The biggest lesson I learned from Marian is that everything pales in comparison to simple, ample, sincere love. When we show up with willingness and an open heart, we change the world.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things. - Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver