I woke up on November 30th, 2001, to news coming out of my clock radio that made my eyes well up. When I caught my hands shaking as I tried to brush my teeth, I laughed at myself. This wasn’t the sort of news that was supposed to make you bawl. Just a few months before, there’d been an infamous terrorist attack, and I’d wondered vaguely then if there was something wrong with me, that I hadn’t cowered in fear and spoken in hushed tones about how my life would never be the same, as everyone else seemed to be doing; but now here I was, weepy and giddy and unable to concentrate, because one man, a man I had never met and was never likely to meet, had died relatively peacefully of cancer the afternoon before. What the heck, me? What’s with celebrities that makes one of them dying matter more to me than the millions of other people who die each day? Why should anybody mourn for another dead rock star?
Except he wasn’t just another dead rock star. He was the man who wrote my favorite song. And that made it personal.
Fifteen years later, in a year rife with celebrity deaths, I’ve thought a lot about the month—really, it was at least a month—I spent mourning George Harrison. Sometimes people you’ve never met do make a genuine difference in your life, and brushing an emotional fan off by insisting that they have no right to mourn, they didn’t really know that celebrity—well, that’s just heartless, and it’s missing the point. Anika Dane told us in her Alan Rickman salute earlier this year how mourning for parasocial relationships is perfectly natural, and is only to be expected from seeing people so close up on our television screens all the time. And believe me, I have quite a strong parasocial relationship with George Harrison, so much that I tend to affectionately refer to him as “Uncle George” (and had given him a fictional superhero nephew who is still one of my favorite characters I have ever created—Uncle George had been very supportive of his developing superpowers, by the way). Someone like me, who has studied the Beatles to the extent that only a true Beatles Geek can, couldn’t help it. I know those guys better than I know most of the people I’ve met in person. Most famous and influential rock band in the history of the world, whatever, they’re my friends as far as my subconscious brain is concerned.
But I propose that there’s more to it than that. It’s the art itself. Whenever I hear the most perfect three minutes and five seconds in the history of popular music, it makes me feel better no matter how I had been feeling. (He’s also responsible for my all-time-favorite Post-Beatles-Beatle album. I play that one over and over). All his songs have a way of mixing happy with wistful, sadness with hope, that manages to sort my raging emotions out. His art has had a genuine effect on who I am and how I live my life. That’s what art DOES.
There’s no “just a dead celebrity” about someone who has touched your life through their work, even if that work might not, on the surface, seem as important as that, of, say, the nameless, faceless farmers who grew the food you eat. Yes, I love and appreciate them, too, but just because I don’t know them by name, why should I not express my gratitude to those whose names I DO know, even if they feed my soul more than my body?
A couple of years ago I read an inspirational book for creative types, The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life, by Vinita Hampton Wright. Though the author writes from her Christian background, the book is directed less to any particular denomination of people and more to spiritual people in general, her main idea being that creative acts are inherently also spiritual acts, and creativity and spirituality enhance each other. This particular passage stands out for me, whenever I ponder why people bother making art:
“I like to think of creativity as a celestial drama in which each of us walks on and off stage at various points. It’s a huge show with trillions of acts, big and small, scaling the centuries and the cultures, informing humanity constantly and at multiple levels. You and I dip into the action as we respond to the smaller dramas in our own soul. We answer single soft voices, never knowing where our individual efforts fall within the overarching story line. …In someone’s life your turn of phrase will make a difference, simply because it follows another turn of phrase by another writer at another key point in this person’s life.”
I don’t care if I don’t actually know my favorite celebrities. Nor do I care that I might not actually know my online friends. I probably don’t actually know a lot of people I have, in fact, met in person. We are all connected. The little bits we do make a difference.
I’m a bit of a celebrity myself, you know. In my town. Among four-year-olds. Anyway, when my fans catch sight of me out in public they flip out a little bit—what is The Library Lady doing at the grocery store buying food like normal people?!—but they’re too small for their spontaneous bear hugs to be considered assault,* so I’m cool with it. Just last week an apologetic woman pushing one such fan in a car-shaped cart pulled up beside me and said, “Excuse me, but he wants to know if your name is Miss Amy?”
“She IS!” The fan dove halfway out of his car-cart, waving frantically. “She IS Miss Amy! You bring us stories! You read the funny story with the bear! It was great!”
The woman looked something between impressed and bemused, and I gave him a big grin and said, “Yes! I’m glad you liked it! I’ll see you next week!” And my own daughter ignored this all and tried to get me to buy a box of snack cakes she’d pulled off the shelf during this encounter.
The point is, sure, he didn’t really know me, and I couldn’t even remember exactly which of my outreach classes he belongs to, let alone what his name might be. To him I am just the Library Lady who brings books to his preschool, to me he’s just one among hundreds of preschoolers I visit. But it’s not like I need anything more than that. I love my work, and he appreciates my work, so it’s a win-win. I’m glad my work is appreciated, and it brings me joy to hear it.
I wrote, a few weeks ago, about how I started writing fan letters. I felt like people whose work touched me deserved to be thanked for it. And so I wrote to the woman who wrote my favorite book and the man who wrote my favorite song, and I mailed the first but gosh dangit why could I not even find one record company address that might have connections to the second? Well, I sent the letter to the 82-year-old woman, surely I still had time to find an address for the 58-year-old man. But I didn’t. Later that year (on, coincidentally, the now-83-year-old woman’s birthday), he was gone, my thank you unsent.
Like it mattered. Like the lead guitarist of history’s most beloved rock band hadn’t gotten housefuls of fan mail over the course of his career. But it still bugged me. I needed to acknowledge the joy he’d brought me, and still brings me. I needed to say thank you.
Who knows. Maybe after all those years, a fan letter could still make him smile, for a moment. Maybe little passing moments are important. What we do DOES matter, even if we might never meet some of the people we’ve touched.
So celebrate your favorite artists. Celebrate your favorite scientists. Celebrate your favorite celebrities and your favorite neighbors and favorite family members. Celebrate your not-favorites who have still done things you find good. Just celebrate each other, no matter what anyone else thinks. No one who has made a positive difference in your life is not worth celebrating.
*Unless it’s a whole classroom of them at once, which happens, but in those cases I have these nice bodyguards in the form of their teachers who jump to my rescue.