By Jane O’Shields-Hayner
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Mother Night
Happy Birthday, Kurt.
This is the second letter I have written to you, and it comes twenty-six years past the first. Thank you so very much for writing me back, that long time ago, and thank you for the self-portrait. It’s a treasure.
You would have been ninety-two this November eleventh. The world has missed you for these eight years you have been gone, and so have I.
I was sick when I wrote you in nineteen eighty-nine, and didn’t know how much longer I might remain in this earth orbit, rotating, with you, around our sun. Expressing thankfulness to the people who had encouraged and inspired me seemed a timely act. You were the first on my list and I didn’t get to number two.
I began reading your books after seeing you on the stage of Landreth Hall at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. It was my birthday in nineteen-eighty-four. I was an art major earning a teaching degree with an English minor. You wrote on a blackboard, diagraming the shapes of stories on a graph, and comparing to each other. Tall and lanky, you paced across the stage, pointing at the board with your long fingers protruding from the cuffs of your tweed jacket. You lectured like our English teacher, not the acclaimed Kurt Vonnegut, the “Primal Scream” of the “Peacenik” generation. In conclusion, you demonstrated that William Shakespeare was as good at telling stories as any Arapaho. That was my first laugh at your sly, impudent jokes. A sharper wit never graced that stage, nor did a greater humanitarian.
I didn’t die. I learned to live with what would chronically ail me, and I went forward with life, with a growing family and the help of modern chemistry. You and I have this in common: the clear realization of biochemistry’s role in who we are and how we live.
Thank you for updating me on your son, Mark. I knew Mark, back in the days when we were crusading for orthomolecular medicine together and it’s use in treating mental illness as a disease, not an emotional state caused by bad mothers and such. Mark wrote a good memoir about his trip in and out of schizophrenia called The Eden Express. It was also a book about our generation, and personal to me, because much of his story was my story, too.
Mark believed that orthomolecular medicine saved his life, and I believed it saved my first husband’s life as well. We spoke in schools, prisons, even before state legislatures, asking that they take orthomolecular treatment to their populations. In the end, we all found it less of a Eureka phenomenon than we had once believed, but many people were greatly helped, and it got the psychiatric medical community’s attention, which led to major advances in understanding and treating mental illness.
Among the things I learned then were the skills of activism. They were useful later, when I found myself with two young children, frantic to stop the threat of nuclear war. At the time I saw you in Fort Worth, in addition to being a student, I was the staff person for the North Texas office of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.
Like your children, I grew up under the constant fear and reminders of impending nuclear annihilation. I played in my friends’ family bomb shelters. I ducked and covered at school. I kept an anxious eye on the yellow siren on the pole beside the firehouse, and I felt sick from my head to my gut whenever it howled out a test alert.
You were the wise uncle who acknowledged our fears. You didn’t let your generation’s guilt about hanging a nuclear noose around our necks change your insistence on telling the truth. You told the truth about Dresden. You told the truth about Vietnam. You told the truth about politics, politicians, scientists, families and war.
The truths you told delighted and entertained us with their brilliant ironies and your self-claimed “slap-stick” humor, but you gained our love by writing compassion and understanding into all your stories and all of your characters. For many of us, myself included, you defined what an artist is and what an artist does.
I write to you now from a period of my life called middle age. I don’t fit better into this age than I did any other stages of life I’ve lived through. I am in the midst of a creative renaissance.
I am past the age when you lamented your lost youth. I am past the age you stated most great writers have written their best work. You killed off your characters in Breakfast of Champions at age fifty, but we are grateful that you didn’t lie down on the funeral pyre among them.
I don’t seek greatness. I simply follow my obsessions, which draw me, day after day, to my writing desk and to my studio. I write and paint, show and publish, I work and I raise children. It’s the life you understood and wrote about over and over again: family life, in all its strange, eccentric and comforting forms.
Along with my husband, who is also an artist, I am raising a second generation of children. It wasn’t planned that way. Our disabled daughter gave birth to two beautiful babies in two years, and, we became Mommy and Daddy again.
Like Billy Pilgrim, your partially autobiographical character from Slaughterhouse Five, I feel unstuck in time, and I dream of life on Tralfamadore, your wondrous planet where beings exist simultaneously at all points in time. I would never be out of place, or late there, ever again! Tralfamador is a good enough reason to believe you still exist, Kurt, and a good enough reason to believe I do too.
I deeply regret that we never met. Mark visited me in Vermont, and invited me to visit your home on Cape Cod; but, as it goes in one’s youth, plans change, relationships end and others begin. I moved across the continent from Mark and from you.
In middle age, I am still growing up with your stories about the relentless sadness and the pompous absurdities of life, and about how laughter is the ultimate tool for survival. I learned from you to laugh, when the truth is horrible, to laugh, when the truth is a lost cause, and to laugh when you’re enraged toward something you cannot change. As you wrote in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim, caught in a perpetual state of involuntary time travel, realized that among the things he could not change were the past, the present and the future
Another laugh! Thank you, Kurt!
I read how you cried for the children of Biafra, learning of the massacre in which they and their families were killed, and their culture and nation were erased from the earth. I still cry remembering Edgar Derby, standing before a Nazi firing squad, executed for reaching into the rubble in the fire-bombed streets of Dresden, and placing a porcelain teapot into his pocket.
Your birthday is Armistice Day. It celebrates the truce between The Allied Forces and Germany. It occurred on November eleventh, nineteen-eighteen. The United States renamed it Veterans Day, which is widely observed with pomp and circumstance, flags, speeches and parades. How delighted I would be if you should slip into the parade line, wearing a wild, green-skinned and purple-haired body as you described in Unready to Wear. Or maybe you will be there, naked, and painted blue, crawling along the parade route and grunting like a pig, as you declared was the appropriate way to remember wars.
Armistice Day celebrated peace at the time you were born. It honored you and other men and boys who left their homes and families to take on the role of warrior. Changing that celebration to glorify war was mud in the face to you. You knew that glory was a ruse, immediately, when as a prisoner of war, you crawled out of that underground, slaughterhouse bomb shelter in Dresden and found the hideous nature of warfare around you: a burned, bombed out city, and one hundred thousand lifeless bodies, incinerated by British fire-bombs, lying in the rubble as charred corpses and ash.
I am eternally grateful that your father and mother with all their toils, troubles and bad chemicals rolled in the tears and the laughter of love and made you, Kurt. I am thankful for the best birthday present of my life, your presence on the stage of my old University, at a point when I was starting my life over, once again.
I am grateful that you answered my letter, demonstrating that you, my favorite writer, were pretending to be just another human soul, making your way through life, and that you saw me that way too. We were both being careful with what we pretended to be.
In my first letter to you, I credited you and your work with seeing me through times of trouble. In your letter back, you humbly deferred my praise, but wrote: “I can think of writers who could bring somebody right back down into the basement with the black beetles and millipedes. At least I’m not one of those.” That’s right, Kurt. You were never one of those! If you were, the beetles and millipedes would be rapidly evolving in, strange and fantastic directions; and we, your readers, would be on board for the trip.
You left a typographical error on the page you wrote to me all those years ago. Typed on a manual typewriter, not a computer, you typed over the letter e with the letter i and left it that way. No erase key and no white out were used. Thank you for that, Kurt. I do that
I don’t type over my mistakes on the page any longer. Delete and spellcheck fix that, but my daily life is a type-over. My desk is disorderly. My closets are untidy. I’m a messy cook, and a messy artist with paint under my nails, running late to catch that proverbial bus and doing a lot of write-overs, and paint-overs; and only partially covering my mistakes. I find it often turns out best that way. Mistakes are loaded with clues. Pretending I had never made them would erase half my creative works, and maybe that’s how it is with you, too.
I am thankful for your insights and glad I invited them into my mind decades ago. I am grateful, when I reflect on my life and see that I did become what I pretended to be, and I still am; over, and over again.
I know you were weary, and talked of “going home”. If you have found yourself unexpectedly in an afterlife, Kurt, are you still lonely? Are you still angry toward the greedy, and the dangerously detached people in positions of power? Did the admiration and the love so many of us feel, even now for you ever become a comfort? We are a special tribe, you know, and we exist for a reason. We are a karass, Kurt. We are not a foolish granfalloon!
Sometimes I think of you as still present, tangled in a cosmic string of brokenhearted old men. I know you are here for those of us who turn your pages and ride the wild Vonnegut Express. I sometimes see you there, staring down the track, with the bloodshot eyes of a prophet.
Pablo Picasso, the great painter, and the scientists of Theoretical Physics agree on the premise that anything you can imagine can be real. I imagine you standing on that train platform, greeting your granfalloon as they disembark, more of us than died in Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam and Iraq. You are somewhere between Indianapolis and the expanding universe, and you are there with Kilgore Trout, your literary alter-ego. The two of you are doing a Laurel and Hardy routine, falling down, laughing, tears running, standing up, slapping your sides and falling again. Your eyes are clear and busy, inventing new jokes to tell in new worlds.
I read that your final injury was a fall. What Cosmic Department of Irony staged that event? Your pornography, you wrote, was watching people fall down, not suffering harm from the fall, just falling down with a “boom” and then getting up. It was the funniest sight on earth to you and your beloved sister. From Tralfamador, you can watch that fall and put it on replay, until you can’t laugh any longer.
I gaze into the deep blue ocean of the night sky, and often I scan the stars, imagining Tralfamadore, The Sirens of Titan, and you. Thank you for telling the truth, through the wildest romps of mental invention ever to decorate a book rack. Your books were published cheap, so even poor, young hipsters could afford them, and pass them around until the pages were curled and the covers were torn. Life on earth is better because of you, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
In your honor, I am reclaiming Armistice Day. It is the day of your birth, after all. You told us that when you were a boy, on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month all the people of the nations that fought in the First World War were silent for that minute.
In Breakfast of Champions, you explained it like this:
“It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”
I have heard that voice rising from the ink on the paper of your books, and from between your lines, since the day I first read them. That voice, between the jokes and the tears keeps repeating: “love one another”. Wasn’t that your point all along?
So it goes.
Your friend always,
Jane O’Shields-Hayner is a writer and a visual artist. She writes essays, non-fiction, memoir, poetry and historical fiction, all addressing universal issues. She produces and exhibits drawings and paintings, which, like her written works, are expressions of her spiritual and biographical journey. Jane received Bachelor’s Degrees in studio art, art education and general education from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Master’s Degree in occupational therapy from Loma Linda University in southern California. She has a history as a teacher and a community and global activist, and she practices occupational therapy with a specialty in home health care. Jane’s husband, Bill Hayner, is also an artist and an educator. They have two young children and two adult daughters and they live in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains in Southern California. Jane has recently published work in Tiferet Journal, Friends Journal, The Manifest Station, and Western Friend. She has a piece soon to be published in the winter issue of Tiferet Journal. She is currently working on a memoir of her road trips pursuing the story of The Deportees described in Woody Guthrie’s Plane Crash in Los Gatos Canyon, and spanning the years of her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. She is also writing a biographical, epistolary novel about her beloved childhood horse, which is intended for readers of all ages.