Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn: A Remembrance

Melissa Michaels and Wilkins O'Riley Zinn

My friend died. She was my writing buddy. Three of us met in my living room. We always sat in the same spot, with the coffee table between us. She sat across from me and next to Melissa. She called herself Zinn. They brought yummy stuff, and I supplied the tea. Zinn liked caffeine to keep her going. And go she would.

Her favorite thing to bring was pineapple. So now I’ll never eat it without thinking of Zinn. The colors of the food sticks out in my mind: ochre hummus, green cucumber, red peppers, blue berries, maroon berries, white and yellow cheeses. All served with specialty crackers and Melissa’s home-baked goodies. We took turns reading a piece or two. Sometimes I played a song of mine on my guitar. I was critical of my singing, but they were patient and appreciative of my lyrics.

Zinn and Melissa were/are gifted writers, way out of my league. Melissa tends to be the serious writer, and I’m downright melancholy. Zinn was playful, created her own vocabulary—lots of silliness and merriment. She loved to make fun of systems, probably didn’t believe in many, except education. Zinn was an educator, finally just got tenure last year. Her department didn’t know what to think of her most likely. Zinn overdid it, they’d probably say. Lesson plans included excerpts and quotes from writers, philosophers. She drew pictures, used imagery to back all her concepts. She was all about output, all energy, ever present for her students. She took on hundreds of students a year, following their development like a den mother over her cubs.

Zinn wrote about everything, boundless topics on her website and blogs; she wrote in the night awakened by dreams she just had to jot down. A thought, maybe she would develop it later. She couldn’t pass up an image.

To describe Zinn’s dress is just about impossible. Plaids and stripes, checkered all blended together, always with a tie and a long flowing braid kissing a jacket recently purchased from a recycled or vintage store. She was a collector: tons of miniatures, fabrics, artifacts, old stuff, toys, and books, of course. Millions of books. Posters poured out from her office into the hall, as if space couldn’t contain all of Zinn and her menageries—materially, physically, spiritually. Her office afforded two spaces: a chair for Zinn, a chair for a visiting student. Every other inch was covered with parts of Zinn’s complex mind and life.

I look now at that couch where she propped a green pillow to her back and a small stool for her foot. The backdrop is maroon, which surrounded her head like a large halo. A good analogy—a halo—for someone who committed herself so fully to those she trusted, loved, and mentored.

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