A cake for Lyn

Claire Marie Stancek and Lyn Hejinian. Photo by Lyn Hejinian.

I fell in love with Lyn when I came to Berkeley for grad school — or the spring prior, on my visit weekend. It was at a panel talk, where professors shared their current research. I was listening respectfully, a little bored (I was 21 years old), and then it was Lyn’s turn — she spoke about storytelling, Scheherazade, The Book of A Thousand Eyes — and I still remember how the whole room brightened, became electric, urgent. 

Lyn taught me to read difficult texts by simply meeting what’s there on the page. She sat at the seminar table in her black leather jacket and tinted glasses. “Here we have a series of three-line stanzas where each line begins with the letter A,” she would say, for example. Through description, an aperture would slowly open, widen, and there one might glimpse meaning. Later, I would realize that this was also a guide to encountering life in all its strangeness and wonderment. For nothing is more miraculous, absurd, or dazzling than everyday life. In this way, Lyn taught me not only how to read but also how to live.

She proposed starting Nion Editions with me and Jane Gregory one day on the stairs in Wheeler Hall. I was trudging up with an armful of books, vaguely aware that Jane was somewhere ahead of me, and Lyn was coming down. She saw us and exclaimed, “Ah, perfect, I was just looking for both of you — let’s start a press.” I remember the Campanile had just begun to toll, which always seemed to slow down time, to create an atmosphere of momentousness. And it was one of the luckiest moments of my life, one that opened onto countless hours of joy and discovery. Our organizational meetings all took place at Beta Lounge, a bar south of campus. Lyn would order chardonnay. When the bartender opened the bottle for her to taste, she took a sip, and flashed a disarming smile. “Delicious,” she said — her utterly unpretentious riposte to the convention of begrudging wine tasting. I think the bartender was as much in love with her as we were. The three of us would chat for 40 minutes at least before starting any Nion “business.” Lyn was full of gossip, but never malicious gossip. In fact, meanness was — along with ignorance and intolerance — something she abhorred. But when it was time to start talking business, Lyn would reach into her bag and produce three manila folders, one for each of us, with an itinerary, neatly detailed plans, and next steps. She made it feel more like exuberance than toil, but Lyn worked harder than anybody.

Lyn was constantly throwing open the doors to her thinking and her reading, inviting in friends old and new. At different times over the years, she ran a Whitehead reading group which met in Wheeler Hall, a Spinoza reading group which met around her dining room table, and a Nietzsche reading group which met at Au Coquelet on University Ave. She decided she wanted to improve her Latin reading and so assembled a group of graduate students and classicists to read together slowly. During the months before her death, Lyn, Jane, and I were reading The Anatomy of Melancholy together. In Lyn’s first email to us about the text, she described Burton’s style as “copious, not unlike those accidentally colliding atoms/motes in the sun, and spirited, and not at all melancholy.” This could be a description of her style, too. In Lyn’s writing, as in her everyday demeanor, she was passionately alive, associative, paratactic, not at all melancholy.

One year I had plans to meet Lyn for coffee right around her birthday and I got the idea that I would bake her a cake. Rushing to be on time for our appointment, I slathered buttercream over layer after layer of still-warm chocolate cake, and it was in the car that the whole impossibly tall and ungainly structure started to slide, wilt. Into the café I came striding, bearing in my arms this enormous warm mess, and Lyn burst out laughing. In the gentlest way imaginable she said, “Well, it’s not going to win any awards at the county fair.” This is from the email she sent the following day:  

Dearest Claire,
   The cake is to die for! OR--to die from: I ate three BIG slices last night. You are a brilliant baker. The cake part was/is tender and light but rich in flavor.
   Ah--I'm reminded of seeing Baking Contest judging online--or, once, in real life at the Iowa State Fair (!).
   So (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 the highest):
    taste: 10
     texture: 10
    structure: 10
     taste: 10
     texture: prior to refrigeration 3; after refrigeration 10
     structure: 1--it had sprawled and spread
     presentation: prior to refrigeration 3; after refrigeration 5 (structural collapse irremediable)
     taste: 10+
     degree of enjoyment: 11
     amount of consumption: 15% and continuing 

That was Lyn — funny, kind, playful. Every email she sent was both witty and beautiful. I helped out with the Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry Conference, Lyn’s incredibly ambitious brain child, for which she and Eric Falci arranged airfare and lodgings for no fewer than 30 poets visiting from Australia. I was included on many of the organizational emails, and I noticed that to each poet, Lyn wrote a fresh and individually personalized letter of invitation. Even information that could have easily been copied and pasted from email to email Lyn completely rewrote. Each poet — even poets Lyn didn’t know personally — received a unique letter.

As a friend, Lyn was almost impossibly generous. For three Christmases in a row, when I was unable to travel because of visa issues, Lyn opened her home to my parents so they could visit — she even lent us her Christmas ornaments. In the middle of the pandemic, our car was totaled in a hit and run while parked overnight on the street, and because of our shoddy insurance coverage, we weren’t able to receive any compensation. Lyn immediately pulled together a few thousand dollars from “Poets in Need,” the charitable organization she founded and ran, to help us buy another car. When I was on bed rest during a very difficult and complicated pregnancy, Lyn and Jane organized a meal train. Lyn sewed quilts for my babies, and made me vow not to keep them as precious things, but really to use them.

In every way, Lyn is a model for how to live and love, think and write. Even in mourning her, I’ve been turning to her example. In her preface to Hearing, a book written collaboratively with her friend Leslie Scalapino, Lyn wrote of Leslie, “Her death was not a surprise […] but it was a shock, and, in ways that repeatedly surprise me, it still is.”