The Margulis Variations:
In Memory of Biologist Lynn Margulis with a Nod to Bach
While I wrote much of this essay, I played Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Bach’sGoldberg Variations. Lynn listened to only classical music and introduced me to Gould. The radio in her kitchen was always tuned to WFCR and stayed there as long as the programming included classical music. The volume was typically loud and it was on whether she was home or away from the house. And so, watching and listening to Glenn Gould reminds me of Lynn. Not only because he also died of a stroke, and he was a genius and, quite frankly, eccentric, but because when he played music he was fully present in the moment. For Lynn, science or perhaps inquiry was her instrument and she played it with the unrestrained passion of a virtuoso and the ability to care little about what people thought of her as she did exactly what she loved with her life. Like an animated Dickinson poem, she was neither tentative nor self-conscious. She would daringly move toward a vanishing point of an accepted convention, thus causing it to be redefined. Gould was like that as well. They were each more verb than noun.
I initially felt that anything I wrote about Lynn should be framed as more of a thank-you note as opposed to the more lyrical, elegiac musings that I’m prone to write when I’m in poetry-mode. In the weeks that followed her death I wanted, more than anything, to relay how grateful I was (and still am) but also to impart some of the humorous narratives about my personal interactions with her—what follows combines both.
When people asked what I did for Lynn, I’d answer, “Anything she wants.” I met her in 1996 when our mutual friend, Alice Scheffey, said Lynn was looking for a housecleaner. Alice said I should wait a week to call because Lynn was in DC meeting with Vice-President, Al Gore. I thought that was impressive, but since I was in the early stages of attempting to write poems it was far more interesting that she lived in a house that had once been the servants’ quarters to the Dickinson Homestead. Within my first week of employment I was upgraded to a personal assistant (though I still had to clean) and eventually became a combination of assistant and editorial associate for her book projects.
I quickly learned that there was nothing hesitant about Dr. Margulis and that she had one speed—full-steam ahead. Being more of a reticent New Englander and a closet contemplative, I was in awe of her drive, energy, and impulse for constant inclusion—she loved to have people around her and there was always a queue. When I’d finally get her attention to ask a question, she’d fire even more back at me barely allowing me a chance to answer before she’d lined up her next shot.
As a natural professor she hated to pass up a teaching moment, even a random one and would ask me things like, “How many kilobytes in a megabyte?” or “What’s the difference between a prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell?” I’d facetiously reply; “Seventeen” knowing full well that the answer had something to do with one’s possession of a nucleus. She fared better by reciting Dickinson poems to me. She would grasp my forearm and enunciate with great conviction:
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown –
Who ponders this tremendous scene –
This whole Experiment of Green –
As if it were his own!
Despite her compact, overachiever’s schedule she was, more often than not, incredibly kind and nurturing. On the occasions when she was impatient or exasperating she would acknowledge it. Her most repeated phrase to me was, “I’m sorry sweetie, I love you but I can’t talk to you right now.” As my employer, Lynn had tremendous integrity and was at all times “herself.” I also strove to offer the same candor and her example gave me permission to do so. She would also quickly apologize when she was wrong. Unlike some other professors I’d worked with she gave me credit for what I did and was grateful to me in person and in print. To me, a true measure of grace and personal veracity is being able give credit where credit is due.
Lynn appreciated humor and she often said that my ability to make her laugh was part of why she kept me around for so long. I liked to tease her about how notoriously tangential she was. Her sharp intellect meant that she was capable of weaving many threads together and still eventually make her point, but if she were particularly harried a typical conversation might go like this:
Lynn: It would be wonderful if you could call him (already I’m lost) and see if he would publish this book. Do you know him? Well you should. He went to Harvard and earned a degree in Astrophysics and his wife died of a massive heart attack in April; she was an actress (still no clue).
Dianne: What’s his name?
Lynn: I wrote it down on a piece of paper that I left at UMass. It’s under the stack of CDs I got in Stockholm in 1982 when I stayed with the diplomat from the Swedish government whose daughter is an opera singer now. She lives in New York and I heard her sing last year when I was at that conference on “Symbiogenesis and Macromolecular Sequence Analysis” (none of this is helping).
Dianne: Where exactly are the CDs?
Lynn: You know precisely where they are, on the shelf on top of the drawer to the left of the file cabinet that was from my old office labeled Borelia burgdorferi. I think they had a summer home in Nantucket but he sold it to his brother-in-law (I am utterly confounded).
Dianne: I went to Nantucket last fall.
Lynn: I don’t have time to listen to that now, just drive over to UMass and call him immediately (still no name).
Another area we joked about was food. Lynn loved to cook but had an inventive sensibility when it came to culinary combinations. Her specialty was an experimental “fusion” of a pressure cooker meeting some type of meat, grain, items from the vegetable drawer, and any leftovers. My palette was more traditional and this was a disappointment to both her and my father, an award-winning chef. I’m what they each called “picky.” Still, I would bring and reheat my own food instead of going out because I liked to spend mealtimes with her. These were one of the few occasions she was at rest and I’d enjoy talking with her about things other than work and science.
We also attended plays as my birthday gift and sometimes Dorion would join us. Apparently, part of the price of my ticket involved keeping her awake during the show. I was dedicated to this task during the first act but usually gave up by the second so I could actually follow what was going on. Over the years we saw Wit,Angels in America, Seascape, Fences, The Bell of Amherst, The Glass Menagerie,and many more. She also took me to my first opera, Tosca.
On the most personal level, what has made Lynn so endearing, besides a sense of humility about her own accomplishments, was her support, delight, and excitement on my behalf, especially as I began to come into my own as a writer. Though Lynn lived fearlessly, always pushing against the cusp of what was possible, I was the opposite, cultivating a life that was both claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Thankfully, her variations of support encouraged me also to also begin to “dwell in possibility.”
In 2001, I left the Amherst area to go to New Haven and began a job at Yale that she helped secure for me. When I decided to apply to the Institute of Sacred Music and Arts at Yale Divinity School she wrote one of my recommendation letters. It was there I was able to compose almost all the poems for my first book. Lynn was at the book launch and reading (nodding off, of course, but not during my segment). Right before it began she excitedly came up to me and said, “Bilyak, you can really fill a room!”
A couple of months after this event we went across the street to find her a new car. The salesman had about 20 minutes left on his shift and Lynn and I were sitting in the vehicle after a test drive. He leaned in the passenger-side window to ask how she liked the ride and instead of answering him she pointed to me and said, “Did you know that she has a degree from Yale and she just published a book of poems?” (I think we all know that he did not know any of this), but it was these announcements to car salesmen, people at UMass, and Oxford University Professors like Martin Brasier that are so special to me because growing up I rarely got that kind of verbal validation and generosity.
My last day of work was the day Lynn had her stroke. I was by her side as it was unfolding and we both didn’t realize the extent of what was becoming a life-shattering event because she was convinced she had food poisoning from some mushrooms she’d eaten from her garden. Throughout she maintained this authenticity of character that she’d always had. For instance, she kept tying to tell me the type of mushroom. But she wouldn’t just say, “They were oyster mushrooms.” No, that would have been too easy. She had to keep saying, “They were Pleurotus olearius.”
And I had no idea what they were; I even had to look them up to include the name in this piece.
As I turn the events of that day over (or relive them) in my mind, I think,
“Why can’t she just say ‘oyster mushroom’?
She knew I wasn’t a botanist, nor have I had any experience with binomial nomenclature and she also knew I hardly ever ate mushrooms. It was the wrong time to insist on taxonomical precision or at the very least, a “teaching moment.” But it was also what gave me the assurance that because she knew more than I, she must be right. And so, as she was leaving with the paramedics I was sure I’d get to the hospital and she’d be fine.
I gathered the things I thought she’d want immediately: The solution for her contacts, her toothbrush and special gum cleaners, her glasses, and her big phonebook. I imagined that once I arrived she’d remind me of how busy she was and how she didn’t have time to be sick and then she’d make me sneak her out of the emergency room and bring her directly home. And while I was driving her there, in between her need to tell me the entire life story of the nurse who admitted her and finding out if I left the dog in or out, we’d be laughing about the mushrooms. But we never got to do that.
I remember how, when the paramedics came, she patted one on the head as they carried her down the stairs. That was Lynn. She was not paralyzed by intensity, she stood right at the edge and embraced the knowledge that she could fall and did not shrink back. For her edges were challenging and stimulating. Gould was like that as well. They were each more verb than noun, heirs to the legacy of Bach’s music which,as Gould said, “like (Charles) Baudelaire’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.”‘
>Dianne Bilyak’s first book of poems, Against the Turning, was released in September 2011 and her work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Freshwater, Drunken Boat, and Tampa Review. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Poetry Society of America is currently featuring excerpts of her interviews with poets about writing and religion on their website. Bilyak is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale.