Nan was what some call “a good soul.” Conversations with Nan were like an interview with Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians who came to Earth and changed the course of humanity: Nan grokked. She always listened intently to her partner in conversation and seemed to understand immediately and intuitively the other person’s point of view. The term “grok” and the character Smith come from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 work Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel I read in that decade and never forgot.
In the 1980’s, Nan and I became friends when we both were working as artist instructors at an early version of Chicago’s Children’s Museum, then called Expressways. Nan had many talents. In addition to rug-weaving, she was a poet and an essayist. She was married to a renowned sociologist and her sister was a famous Chicago improv actress. Her experiences always enriched our conversations, as did her instinct for empathy.
At the start of my career in museum education, I had many doubts about the projects I designed and I would share my misgivings with Nan. She would listen to my plans and suggest ways to tackle them that continue to inform the way I work on projects today. For example, I start slowly and proceed in bits and pieces. I do not expect to complete a project all at once. That approach helps me apportion the time I spend on the project and refine my objectives.
Nan also encouraged me to let an intractable project go or vegetate. As Charlie Mackesy said in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, “If at first you don’t succeed, have some cake.” If I’d taken that advice literally, I’d be a lot heavier today. Rather, Nan’s artistic intuition to put aside a project at an impasse and approach it from a different perspective has also stayed with me for decades.
My conversations with Nan went on hiatus for three months, or so I thought, because of an internship in museum education I won at Paris’ Museum of Contemporary Art. During that stay in Paris, I learned that Nan had killed herself, and I could not understand how that could have happened. I learned later she had sunk into a deep depression when she learned that her husband to whom she was deeply devoted had asked for a divorce. Why, I wondered, had she not taken her own advice. I realized later, as I learned more about depression, that she could not just walk away and have some of Charlie Mackesy’s cake. Perhaps she had always hidden the pain of depression beneath a layer of regard for others. Perhaps her husband’s infidelity broke her. I will never know.
Nevertheless, Nan lives on, in a way. Her encouragement and good advice have stayed with me and, I am sure, with her other friends, too. Now decades later, Mackesy’s quip reminds me of Nan and I am grateful for all the good memories I have of her.
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