What Makes it Precious
I recently read a piece of writing so powerful that it forced me to think anew about literature, women’s art, and privilege. The piece was Ann Patchett’s astonishing essay in Harper’s, “These Precious Days,” an energy field with love and death at its center. It is a literary masterpiece, poignant for showing the growth of something beautiful amid the many-sided encroachments of death — from cancer, from COVID-19, from the tornadoes that strike Nashville with sudden fury. But it is also political — and moving in its politics — in ways that may not be immediately apparent. The many lenses for reading Patchett’s essay speak to what so many of us who love classic literature — often another name for literature written by white people — have struggled with in the wake of the BLM protests of 2015 and 2020. A re-evaluation of these classics that has been underway for decades has accelerated in the past five years and approached something like warp speed this summer. Patchett’s essay should not bear the burden of these debates. But in its crystalline perfection, and the many lenses we can read it with, it shows us why they matter.
Because (and this is the first lens), the essay is a great work of art. It is structured as a short story, or even a novella, that chronicles the development of an extraordinary friendship Patchett forged with, of all people, Tom Hanks’ personal assistant Sookie (though as we come to find out, Sookie is much more than a PA) as the latter was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer and living at Patchett’s Nashville home. This being 2020, of course, the pandemic cut its swath through their burgeoning connection, with Sookie, Patchett, and Patchett’s husband Karl bubbled together in her house for an unknown span of time. There, the two women create a peaceful, loving, healing routine, including yoga and meditation, art and writing, food and companionship.
The essay is an exceptionally deft literary treatment of its subjects: friendship, death, art, generosity. It plays with time: Patchett repeats an extended passage, of her first meeting with Sookie, as a graceful nod to the trouble with temporalizing fiction, and a motif throughout is how difficult she found it to discern the story and the temporality in the novel she was writing at the time, The Dutch House. It misdirects, seeming at first to be about what would be an astonishing event in anyone’s life, meeting and interviewing Tom Hanks. It foreshadows, continually warning us that what we are reading is not the real story. It surprises with something Patchett calls “essential to the life of the novel…the turn you never saw coming,” when the two women (spoiler alert) take mushrooms together and have wildly divergent, deeply spiritual trips. Its self-awareness of its own artistry, once fashionably called meta-fiction, enriches the quality of grace at its center rather than acting as a showy embellishment. And its sentences — which for me will always be the litmus test of great writing — are lapidary in their structure, finely chiseled with each word necessary, the rhythm of the whole beautiful.
I hope I have conveyed that I have nothing but admiration for Patchett as an artist, and in fact love for this essay — an emotion elusive to kindle in a reader notwithstanding a writer’s mastery of her craft. But as a white professor of literature, who has seen how deeply questions of race and privilege trouble my students from all backgrounds as they are coming to grips with the conflict between what they love and what they believe, I can also see it through other lenses. The second lens is privilege. The extraordinary grace kindled in the women’s friendship, and also conveyed, because of the essay’s great artistry, to the reader, is only possible because of the privilege that its principal characters enjoy. Patchett’s house has three floors, each arranged as their own living quarters, so that Sookie can stay comfortably in the basement without overly disrupting the rhythms of Patchett and her husband’s lives; indeed, other houseguests can and do come to stay in the main floor suite. Sookie confesses towards the end of the grave financial toll her medical costs have taken on her and her family, but one imagines that even participating in a months-long clinical trial out of town without free, comfortable lodging, would have added dramatically to this toll — if not making it impossible to consider the probably life-saving trial. As a successful writer, married to a doctor, Patchett has the relative freedom to structure her own days (as a writer myself, I know that this is something of a mirage — deadlines are real and must be heeded, so any idea that writers are carefree figures following their muse on their own time is rarely accurate.) When Sookie wants to see her siblings just outside New York City during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, Karl flies her there in his private plane and talks the police officer who tries to prevent them from disembarking into granting clemency for an outdoor picnic. When Sookie finally leaves for her home in LA, Patchett family friends who also have a private plane fly her there so that she may avoid the dangers of commercial air travel in her immuno-compromised state.
If this list sounds spiteful, that’s not my intention. It’s inspiring to read of the care that Patchett and her husband lavish on someone who, originally a cordial acquaintance, develops into a dear friend. I would wish this care on anyone that I love, and I am heartened, in these dark days as winter contracts around me and COVID-19 deaths climb precipitously, to read this beautiful story of care, grace, and hope. What saddens me is that this care, this grace, is unevenly available. It’s not to say that grace and care don’t exist among those with fewer financial resources — they do, and sometimes all the more deeply for the sacrifices that less privileged people have to make. Bedrooms shared or yielded, space at a premium, inflexible employment that dictates one’s schedule for a mother, father, adult child who wants nothing so much as to hold their loved one’s hand at the hospital or to drive them home — that these conditions must be endured by bodies that equally suffer, equally love, is heartbreaking. Although some of the most loving people I’ve known have had limited means, at the moment it’s even starker that what felt central to love — the ability to see those you love and to protect them — is highly constricted without the kinds of assets that are the most expensive, those that provide space and privacy. Sharing and giving from limited means — by bringing someone into your small home or visiting theirs — can now mean killing yourself or those you love.
Yet I am also a woman and a writer, and so I read this through a third lens as a story of that precarious phenomenon, female artistry. Sookie, we learn, is a talented artist, but in a life of working for a movie star and attending to her own family (she is married with children), has never had the time and creative bandwidth to pursue her art. At Patchett’s house her gifts blossom, and she paints regularly, confessing to Patchett at one point that she wants to stay because “I like myself here,” where she can finally pursue what she feels is her vocation. Virginia Woolf was not wrong in saying that women artists need 500 pounds a year (approximately $75,000 today) and “a room of one’s own” to succeed. Woolf’s insight lies in noticing not only that some financial independence helps an artist, but that time and space are the most important assets an artist can possess. Simone de Beauvoir spoke of an ideal writing life consisting of solitary time for writing followed by a regular social engagement with like-minded souls — for her, in the café culture of Paris. Both of these conditions are uniquely met in Patchett’s house, for Sookie as for Patchett herself.
This amounts to a kind of soil chemistry for the growth of art: sustained concentration mixed judiciously with supportive sociality. A woman’s time is often presumed to be interruptable. If an errand needs running, if someone is hungry, if someone is sad — a woman may be asked to intervene in the way that a man generally is not. And for an artist, these interruptions are devastating. As an experienced academic writer, I can write in any amount of time — give me 15 minutes and I will bang out a couple of footnoted sentences, or an uncited paragraph. But I can’t think, or imagine or create, in less than several hours at a time, and preferably days and weeks with few claims on me. And we will never know what we’ve lost from the women (not to mention others, like people of color, subject to these same structural forces) who lose this kind of creative time. Even if we have art from them, is it the best art they might have produced? What Anna Karenina, what Guernica, is absent from the world because she had to organize the children’s lunches and drop them off at school, because her mind was occupied with organizing the office Christmas party? What artist might Sookie have been — from her painting reproduced in the essay, her talent is apparent — without a career and home life tending to the needs and schedules of others? Just as I want everyone who is ill to have access to the kind of care, both medical and domestic, that Sookie enjoys in Patchett’s story, I also want every woman artist — every underprivileged artist — to have the kind of time and mental space that she finally had, at the age of sixty-four.
I didn’t write this to critique Patchett’s work (which it should now be clear I wholeheartedly admire). I didn’t write this to propose revolution. I don’t have answers for how to give everyone what they need, financially and otherwise, to heal, to create art. I know that many have done both under the most extraordinarily adverse circumstances. I myself am writing this essay when I had meant to be cleaning the house and preparing for (safe and few) guests. And I am privileged, too, a white tenured professor at a private college who, on the Monday before Christmas, can make this time to write and think. But great art lets us imagine what is possible. I wrote this to say, I hope you loved Patchett’s essay, too. I hope you love literature, and art, even when it is produced out of privilege, because privilege is often what makes great, soul-moving art possible. And I hope that such love can have charity at its heart, the intention and action to confer grace wherever you can. I hope that such love helps you see, as it has helped me see, that great things are possible when we recognize inequality, when we acknowledge the importance not only of the physical necessities, but of comforts — space, time, dignity — to all.