The world lost one of its brightest, fiercest, most intelligent and compassionate souls this week when Grace Paley died at the age of eighty-four. I had heard that Grace was ill, but it seemed impossible to me that she would die. She was just too damned tenacious to die. Too alive. It seems impossible, too, that her pen has now stopped moving across the page. While it’s true that she wasn’t exactly prolific, a Paley sentence was its own animal. It couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s sentence, though plenty of writers imitated her–consciously or unconsciously. She influenced generations of writers, myself among them. Mostly, she was one of the handful of people I encountered in my twenties who taught me how to live.
I remember, as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, the first time I wound up on the floor of Grace’s office. You didn’t sit in chairs around Grace. Everything somehow ended up grounded and earthy — she was a powerful maternal presence. We students curled up in her lap–sometimes literally–or lounged on pillows on her office floor, safe in her capacious embrace. To be with her was to learn. I remember things she told me. She told me I was a writer. She told me I should stay at Sarah Lawrence and go to graduate school. She helped to make that happen. And she also told me something that I have repeated to countless students myself: Grace said that she did her best writing in the bathtub.
The bathtub! At the time I imagined an elaborate scenario in which Grace lounged beneath the bubbles, note pad and pen clutched in her fist. Years later, I realized that she had meant simply this: she took baths. She took time. She never wasted time, but she took it. For Grace, shelling beans, passing out leaflets, teaching a class, taking a walk, making soup — all of it was valuable. It was valuable because she paid attention. Nothing escaped her notice. But even though she missed nothing, even though her intelligence was razor sharp, she herself remained soft and porous, open to the pain, the injustices, the magnificence, the indignities of the world. Her outrage wasn’t intellectual–it was personal. It came from the same deep wellspring of feeling that gave birth to her gorgeous prose, those inimitable sentences.
She made me want to write, to teach, to become a wife and mother, to cook beans, to pass out leaflets. To be an authentic person. She was one of the best role models out there, though she would have shied away from the term with a quick smile and a flick of her hand. She shone because she had a light. She had to shine. Those of us who knew her were beyond blessed. And it is small consolation–though consolation nonetheless–that her sentences, her stories, her lessons, her voice will live on and on.