Lydia Fakundiny and the Art of the Essay
February 22, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Graev Lipson
After my son was born, I emailed my college writing teacher to share the news, eager to bring her along with me into this new life stage. Once, she’d been the notoriously intimidating professor whose name got passed around among Cornell’s English majors. But after three semesters in her classroom, over nearly two decades of emails that ebbed and flowed, through my own writing and teaching career, she’d become to me, simply, Lydia: mentor, voice of conscience, distant lighthouse. It’d been almost a year since our last contact, and this milestone had left me searching for my coordinates.
When I first met Lydia Fakundiny, my world had turned, without warning, to confusion. My parents’ marriage imploded, and they wouldn’t say why. I gained twenty pounds, watching my body swell into rolling hills. And then I lost forty, watching it shrink into skeletal valleys. I took secret gulps of cinnamon liqueur before leaving my room, certain I was unfit for the world without them. I didn’t know what was happening—just that the person I once was had disappeared.
In this state, I found myself in Lydia’s course The Art of the Essay, gathered at a table with eleven classmates. There was the notorious professor on the first day, seated before a stack of books. Her dark hair fell at an angle to her chin; her forehead was creased by years of thought. She didn’t smile—not quite. “I have no syllabus,” she said. “We’ll need to invent this path together.”
I’d always known the “essay” as something five paragraphs long that I wrote to prove to teachers what they wanted proven. Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.
Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell. Tentative, I wrote my first essay. Lydia returned my ten pages with two pages of typed comments, and I discovered the exhilaration of being taken seriously. I wrote another essay, and then another. A sliver of path opened. I saw I was in the middle of a living paragraph—one that I could write my way out of.
When fear stopped me from registering for her higher-level course, Lydia called demanding to know why I wasn’t on her roster. When my grandparents went missing at my graduation, she slipped off in her regalia to track down the campus police. When I told her I’d landed an interview at a New York City magazine, she gestured toward my gingham dress: “I hope,” she said, “that you won’t be wearing that.” I heard this not as judgment, but devotion.
Years later, I sat at seminar tables with my own English students, discussing essays I’d discussed with Lydia, assigning them her assignments. “Read it like it matters!” I urged them before they shared work aloud, just as she once urged me. Teach them like they matter, I told myself, advice she’d never actually uttered because she didn’t need to.
Late at night, I saw that my email to Lydia had bounced back. Maybe her address had changed? I Googled her. What appeared was impossible to absorb: her name, so familiar and indelible, hovering in bold letters above an obituary. Survived by her brothers. In lieu of flowers. My heart stumbled over the phrases.
I had missed her by one month. While I’d been sleeping, sorting mail, wandering the grocery aisles, she had been ill, and then dying, and then gone. There were no calls in the middle of the night, no relatives mobilizing in my kitchen, no guests to welcome to a shiva. There was just me on my couch, shame over my oblivion, grief over all I’d taken and never given back.
I thought of tracking down her brothers, or writing a testimonial on the funeral home’s comment wall. But neither of these felt right. Instead, my infant son blinking beside me, I wrote her one last email, thanking her for helping me understand, through the art of writing, the art of living. I pressed “send” and watched it disappear, a burst of pixels swirling away like dust.
My son’s fist was a curled seashell. His tiny chest rose and fell. I promised him a lifetime of mattering, in honor and memory of her.
Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays about motherhood. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.