Three Things You Should Do Right Now
“Savor little joys now, travel now, and love now.”
—Donna Ellen Conrad
Donna and I met in the early ’90s at the New Orleans Writers’ Conference. I was working for Peachtree Publishers as assistant to publisher Margaret Quinlin, standing in for her at the last minute. Among my duties—a public talk, my first (memorable because I learned a lot about what not to do).
Also, I conducted a morning session of speed dating for writers and publishers, with 10 minutes allotted for a book idea or advice.
Whereas most of the writers went by in a papery blur, Donna made an impression because she was so very well-prepared—with professionally designed storyboards, and a well-crafted pitch that she delivered in a soft New York accent (smooth on the edges, direct, probing). She had done her homework.
A year or so later, after I’d left my book publishing gig, Donna reached out to me about editing, and for a time we became very close friends and collaborators.
Then, of course, life happened and we lost touch, checking in with each other in quick, five-year to seven-year increments.
So I was thrilled when we reconnected on Facebook a few months ago, and I learned about Donna’s latest children’s book, How I Sent My Hug Around the World. The brightly colored illustrations were done by Balinese artist Monez Gusmang, no doubt a member of Donna’s extended family in Bali, a place she’s gone to restore herself–body and soul–for the past 25 years.
“When I go to Bali, I’m usually somewhat depleted and stressed out from American culture,” Donna summed up her love affair on a Skype video chat last week. “And by the time I leave Bali, my heart is full, and I’m healthy, and I’m joyful.”
In our time apart, Donna has been busy, writing and publishing literary and award-winning short stories and essays, not to mention See You Soon Moon, named one of Barnes & Noble’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.”
But it wasn’t just books and essays, I soon learned, as I read a Facebook post from Donna about Parched, an indie film that came out last year, now available via Netflix. It was shot by her husband, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, True Lies, Ant-Man …) and produced by and directed by their friends Aseem Bajaj and Linaa Yadav. I hardly ever watch present-day movies, but I was incredibly moved by this tale of friendship among four women; it’s not only beautiful to watch and well-written (Donna worked on the script as associate producer), it also addresses a hard topic: sexual abuse of women in a small village in India.
As Donna and I continued to get to know each other again, I pointed out the different paths we had taken, and how in awe I was of her for having taken the literary high road.
“I became a writer because it was the only thing I could do during three decades of illness,” she said from the home she and Russell designed together in Santa Monica.
You see, when we first met 20 years ago, I had gone up to Boston to work with her on a manuscript. I stayed in her home—then just her and her young son, Zak. She was working, looking toward the future even back then, despite the fact that she was in the midst of a painful divorce and ending a 17-year marriage after she survived Hodgkin’s disease.
Later, Donna and Zak visited me and my little boys on Dog Island at my grandmother’s beach house. Sure, we got work done while we were there, but what stuck with me most was time spent walking and talking on the country beaches—we were both single moms with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
A lot happens over 20-something years—Donna lost her mom (whose home outside NYC I visited); Zak grew up and became a self-made, successful entrepreneur before age 30; and Donna fought multiple battles, over a 26-year period, with two cancers, a brain hemorrhage, and 16 surgeries for countless health issues stemming from excessive radiation.
Then she and Zak migrated to Los Angeles, where the assaults on her body finally subsided and she met and fell in love with Russell (I defy even one more person to tell me true love doesn’t exist! Donna told me that within five minutes of meeting each other for coffee, they both knew; within 30 minutes, their hands were touching across the table; they never parted).
After learning of all of that hell, I could see even over a tiny Skype video screen that Donna looked more at peace, happier, more beautiful than I’d ever seen her before. “I think I’m really growing younger,” she told me, glowing. “It seems I already had my old age.”
These days, instead of being a professional patient on a first-name basis with death, Donna is a new grandmother who lives just a mile away from her son, Zak, her movie-star gorgeous Brazilian daughter-in-law, Gaudia, and her five-month-old granddaughter, Ella, who crawled for the first time last week. Donna also travels to Bali about twice a year for a few months when Russell’s working on movies.
Donna’s antennae for people and situations remain finely tuned. Even as she fought to stay alive for three decades, she also nurtured that first novel manuscript we worked on together so many years ago. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it gets made into a movie when it’s finally done.)
After everything, Donna is happy, is in love, and is most definitely growing younger. In fact, I think I may have found the secret in one of her essays published in the Cup of Comfort book series:
“Because by surviving Hodgkin’s disease so young, I learned the difference between a life-thought and a death-thought, which re-magnetized every cell in my being towards life,” Donna wrote. “And because I had the opportunity to receive with grace, I learned to give with grace. And because I had no choice, I learned patience; and because I had choice, I learned not to worry when it made no difference to the outcome. And because my own death has long been palpable to me, I’ve chosen to savor little joys now, travel now, and love now.”