Elissa Nelson's Journal
memorial in wisconsin
Written Nov 20, 2013 8:41pm by marti mogensenHello everyone,There will be a Memorial Service for Elissa
on Saturday, December 7th, 2013at 12 Noon in the
Hoover Memorial Chapel, Lakeview Cemetery,
1500 Buffington Drive, Eau Claire Wisconsin 54703And, from one until four o'clock, there will be a luncheon and reception at the
Mona Lisa Restaurant at 428 Water Street in Eau Claire.All are welcome.
Margaret Nelson Brinkhaus & Emilyn NelsonYou may contact Margaret at 612/296-0357and 14375 Tyrol Drive, Marystown, Minnesota 55379
love---forever and always, mm
Written Nov 9, 2013 6:06pm by Megan Savage
I've been asked to share a copy of the eulogy I wrote for Elissa. It's a collaborative effort - all of the italicized passages come from Elissa's zines or blog.
Miraculous if Rightly Seen
Portland, 2000. “On the east side of the river, whereBurnside, Sandy and Seventh intersect, there is a horrible six-way stoplight and during rush hour you can sit there for 20 minutes, sometimes, waiting for it to turn green in your direction – but at night, this intersection is one of my favorite places in Portland, because as you drive through it you can smell bread baking at the bread factory up the street. It is quiet and street-lit and smells very nice, and usuallyI am on my way home; the bread smell means I’m almost there.”
On the beach in Hondarribia, Spain, I took two photographs of Elissa. We had traveled therein 2004 after her brain surgery and radiation, as part of a trip that culminated in a visit to Lourdes, one of the Holy Visitation sites where theVirgin Mary appeared to young Saint Bernadette. In the first photograph Elissa is turning a cartwheel on the sand, grinning and showing her belly. In the second, she sits on a stone pier, surrounded by water, scribbling furiously in her journal as a storm gathers heavy, grey and low around her. These two images haunt me,inseparably, two sides of the Elissa coin – abandon married to attention,fearlessness married to presence.
When I first met Elissa I was 17. We were freshman in college, classmates in ballet, acting,and ancient epics. Everything thatI did she seemed to do too, only grander. If I admired a musician, she had interviewed that musician for her zine. If I had acted in plays, she had written them. If I worked on the college literary magazine, she found a way to intern for a professional editor, writing personal, nurturing rejections at 20 years old, to authors who would later become famous. I was a confirmed Catholic – she even beat me there, having attended a Catholic girls’ school with actual real live nuns (with whom she clearly forged a deep and abiding connection).
In most friendships, this dynamic might have fostered jealousy, intimidation or competition. I never felt those things with Elissa, and looking back on it, I think it’s because she did what did because she loved it. Period. The scope of her interests ranged from Joseph Cornell to Bollywood movies, from developmental education to brain science, from thrifting to Afro-Cuban dance,and her interrogatory enthusiasm encompassed everyone under its umbrella. She always assumed you had something interesting to say, no matter who you were (even if you were a toddler), and opened her ears to hear it.
I used to think talking with Elissa was like building castles in the air. I remember riding with her on the subway in NYC, trying to catch up on months of our lives, and each idea would lead to another in a way that was sometimes frustrating, because we would stray so far from where we began. But eventually, we always found a way to cycle back and follow the thread until it spun out again, over andover. I always felt as though something had “happened” after those exchanges.
Portland, 2000. “On the way home I hear Jurassic 5 playing on someone’s car stereo. I walk by about thirty more cats. Everything equals Portland to me today, everything is emblematic,epitomizing my life. Cats, dogs everywhere in the park, a snippet of hip hop driving by, the soundtrack to my life here (along with all that Sun records and King label blues and early rocknroll and –lately – Maria Callas from the library).
Fruit trees. Lots of flowers. Cats. And pinball, pinball, pinball.
It’s a good life – days like this, I wonder why I want to leave it. But often in Portland I forget to pay attention to actually being here – I am so concerned with what comes next, and then after that. Mexico? New York? Seattle again? Where else is there, where I could go,be happy? I forget that I am happy here. But sometimes – right now –I’m filled up, I’m peaceful and content, I’m paying attention.”
In the years after college, Elissa and I shared some of the same formative experiences. We were good girls trying to figure out how to be in relationships, how to be political. As radical cheerleaders, demonstrating for workers’ rights and homeless tent cities and queer youth proms, we were the nerds who wrote our cheers with rhyme and meter, and choreographed actual acrobatic lifts rather than just anarchist shouts and gestures.
We were nannies together and we made frybread and took photobooth pictures with our “children.” We taught each other how to be parents, planned how we would raise our children collectively. We felt like young mothers, then, even though it wasn’t how we were supposed to feel,and when we both had to let go, it broke our hearts. We vowed to strive for a less fraught connection with young people, which Elissa found as a mentor and friend to students, neighbor children, and “nieces/nephews” by proxy. Elissa was a born teacher, sacrificing hours of time and energy to help her students find a way to love reading and writing as she did, befriending the“pain in the butt kids in her advisory” and secretly loaning out her own books on graffiti art and Tupac Shakur, not really caring whether the books ever came back.
Charles Simic, “The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized.”
After she moved from Portland to New York, Elissa co-founded a group called FMRL (say it out loud) whose “stated goal” was “to “make art that happens and then disappears, exploit the narrow line between art and ‘real life’ and jaywalk through the intersection of public and private space in NewYork City.” FMRL’s biggest hit was the Subway Dance Project, in which fake commuters broke into a choreographed dance that lasted exactly the duration between stops, dancing off the car when it reached its destination. I can see her mischievous grin in the V-formation project, too, in which a group of participants would gather in v behind a randomly chosen pedestrian, following like a flock of geese.
In Syracuse, Elissa worked towards her MFA in Fiction,starting her novel about 14 classmates who discover they are half-sisters,“daughters of Ed,” the father who comes out of the woodwork to request weekly family dinners at Wendy’s. As one of her classmates said of the novel, “it was a wild idea that had clarity somehow.” She also began to studyZen Buddhism and to meditate with her friend and mentor George Saunders, which eventually led her here, to the Heart of Wisdom community. Although she was going through radiation as she was beginning school, Elissa found grace in that time. Her friend Micah from Syracuse wrote of Elissa, “She had grown up Catholic and had lost many things from her childhood faith, but she held out hope for beauty and goodness. She was one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever known.”
Syracuse, 2003. “If having a brain tumor is turning me into a person who can really recognize how fortunate I am, appreciating everything I have and savoring my life in this new way that is so deliberate and grateful and –well, holy– then maybe I’d rather be someone like that, even with a brain tumor, than a person who has all these things and never even realizes it, because then what good does it do me anyway? I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy before – because maybe I was this happy, but I didn’t pay attention to it, I didn’t recognize it and inhabit it, so it didn’t count like this counts. I am sort of overwhelmed and this is all really scary, and I know I will have moments where I’m angry and sad and all the rest of it, but seriously, lately I just keep thinking to myself,‘Elissa, aren’t you WAY too happy for someone with a brain tumor?’”
Of course Elissa wasn’t a saint. She was stubborn and a pain and, in spite of her profound sense of awe, one of the most irreverent people I know. At a screening of Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, Elissa covered her eyes when one of the characters lifted a gun to his head. The ensuing scene was supposed to portray a devastating yet poignant death. For five minutes she asked me, over the swelling music, “can I look yet?” and when I finally answered, “well, now Bjork’s waltzing with his ghost,”she cracked up so hard we were almost kicked out of the theater.
Over the years Elissa and I kept in touch, through visits and Christmases and weekly phone dates, as I finished my own MFA in Fiction,and she completed New York City Teaching Fellows, until we both moved home toPortland in 2008. In that intervening time we texted each other things we noticed daily, and it’s become such a habit that this morning I had trouble not texting her about the little kid in the Spiderman shirt at the diner, who sat across from his i-phone/i-pad/laptop occupied dad and ordered “ham and bacon, please,” so politely, from the waiter.
We called each other sisters, by choice. The first time was before her brain surgery. She came to my mother’s house in Connecticut and we tried to find hats she could wear to cover the scar. All we found were floppy old lady hats, and Emilyn says in the end she just said forget it, and wore the scar with pride. Years later, after my MS diagnosis, she forced her way to my house to hug me, even though all I wanted was to be left alone. She wouldn’t let me close the shutters and keep the world out because it didn’t make sense to her. It’s never what she would have done,and as we all know, she spent the last months of her life on her porch or in her room, windows open to the world.
I have a vivid memory of a conversation with Elissa regarding the paradox of finding out her tumor had been growing since she was in utero. We were on the StatenIsland ferry and it was sunny, and the city was still mourning from September11. Elissa told me she wanted to be mad at the tumor but she couldn’t, not in an uncomplicated way, because the tumor was part of her; it had pushed her brain around so that she grew with it and around it; it had made her herself in some mysterious way. I’ve thought about that a lot this week, and about how my nearly 20-year friendship with Elissa now, and irrevocably, includes her dying.
In the last two years in particular, the apparatus of life stripped away and the core of Elissa remained.
She was so brave. People told her all the time how brave she was. But do you know what she said? Well, what else am I supposed to do? Elissa’s bravery was never a moment, but a sequence of moments; never a grand gesture but a series of small ones.
And she was compassionate. On the day she started hospice, when Dr. Lufkin told her she couldn’t go to Mexico as she had been planning, she raised her cane and nearly klonked him on the head. Then,maybe because her memory was going or maybe because she was just being indomitably hopeful Elissa, she asked him again. When he gave her the same answer, this time she said, “It’s not your fault. I know you feel bad, but it’s not your fault.”
These last weeks, I read poetry with her in the quiet house with the crackling fire, and there were moments, lovely and strange, that will stay with me. When she confused the song on the record player with the poem I was reading, and then told me a song is a poem anyway. Or when she misheard a line from the Margaret Atwood poem she read at my wedding, “learning to make fire” as “learning to make wonder.” She was so good at making wonder.
Annandale-on-Hudson, 1998. “I am waiting, I am hanging here, swinging in place until I can lower myself to the ground and start again. I am waiting to make myself a home. I just wish I knew what that meant.”
In Elissa’s “early writings,” I see a pervasive yearning for home. I have to admit I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years counting the things Elissa was losing,bit by bit. It’s a tremendous comfort to me, now, to realize that what she wanted, perhaps most deeply, she created, in a profound and resonant way. In her little yellow house with its fireplace and porch and plants and records and good things to eat and Ollie and Rusty and her beloved sister Emilyn [1998 “My sister is one girl who can always chant me back to myself”],she created a home that welcomed so many of us.
Annandale-on-Hudson, 1998. “A sense of identity is so much a function of environment, of the people who surround you. I mean, sometimes you only remember who you are when someone speaks to you and addresses you byname. I am myself in terms of the people who know me, love me.”
Portland, 2009. Advice from Elissa to a grieving student. “I'll try to tell him something about trying to do things you love so you don't totally sink into the loss so that it's all you are for a while, even though it will probably be all you are for a while even if you try not to sink. Even just the effort of trying not to sink can help a little bit, maybe…Time, sort of. But even that only sort of. A book about hip hop and graffiti maybe a little bit for a little while. A few things for a little while, and the whiles will get a little longer,eventually, and the rough spots will get further apart. I was proud of him for letting himself hurt, at least. That more than anything might get him through it the best.”
November 8, 2013
Updated Times for Portland Service
Written Nov 5, 2013 6:37pm by Megan SavageUpdate to Elissa Nelson's Portland service on Friday - added visitation hour:
Services will be held at Heart of Wisdom, 6401 NE 10th Ave, in Portland on Friday, Nov 8, with visitation beginning at 3 p.m and the service at 4.