A project as large and muti-faceted as this doesn’t burst fully-formed into the world; even the planning and conceiving requires time to steep. Tracing the origins of How to be a Human requires me to think back pretty far… It started with a strange impulse I didn’t understand at first. I wanted to interview my grandmother.
Granted, my grandmother has a pretty compelling life story. Born in 1920 to a pair of desperately poor Irish immigrants, she and her sister were raised in a Catholic orphanage during the Depression after tuberculosis killed their mother and their father’s drinking prevented him from caring for them. My great aunt later told me that this came to pass the morning she came to school with unkempt hair, smelling like the pickle she’d stolen for breakfast. (There hadn’t been food at home for a few days, she’d implied.) The deli owner saw her little five-year-old hand reach in and close around its prize; she remembers him smiling at her as she walked away, munching on the pilfered pickle. “People looked out for each other then,” she’d told me.
I didn’t know any of that before the interview. I didn’t know that my great-great-grandfather was hanged by the British for alleged IRA involvement, nor that my grandmother was an avid performer as a girl (like me!), nor that she’d always believed her father was coming to take her home again. There were vague things I knew about, the homelessness and poverty she suffered in her young adult life, the way her marriage to my grandfather fell apart after his task as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen drove him deep into alcoholism, the madness that swallowed her for years when my mother was a girl, and the remarkable way she quit smoking—-all at once.
For so many years, I had the sense that some of the mysteries of my own life were tied up in her story. More importantly, I believed (as my Mother does) that there is a message of profound importance in the way that my grandmother lives. The more I learn about the difficulty she’s weathered, the more awed I am at her unbounded enthusiasm for life. Perhaps I imagine that if I listen deeply to her story, I can learn to somehow emulate the smiling strength that has allowed her not just to endure, but to live joyfully amidst the inevitable suffering and loss that life brings.
That’s the kind of human I want to be.
p.s. July is an exciting month for me for two reasons: How to be a Human will have its run in the Capital Fringe Festival, and my grandmother will turn 90. She’s been saying for years that she can’t wait to be 90, and she promises that she’ll “dance the Irish jig” on that fine day.