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Gracie James, from Arlington, Massachusetts, died October 20, 2010, after a sports-utility vehicle she was riding in veered off Interstate 70 near Sevier, Utah, and rolled over. It was headed towards Arches National Park. Gracie was 17 years old, had begun a new high school in Utah six weeks earlier, and was in the midst of writing her first novel.
From the beginning, she was sensitive to the world's every movement. Her mother quickly became a colic expert, trying everything from craniosacral therapy to massage to comfort the baby. Maybe it was Gracie’s early pain that left her so absorptive, and so concerned about the pain of others; she was a bit of an empath. At 10, drawing up a guest list for a birthday party, she worried about whose sleeping bag would be happiest next to whose.
She loved storytelling (it was a revelation when she realized that history was a set of unfolded stories), and her journal writing began in second grade, even before she could spell. The journals kept her company — more accurately, she kept herself company in them — and she filled them for the rest of her short life.
She wrote in them during the era when she organized her bedroom meticulously, categorizing stuffed animals and hair accessories while listening to Avi and Lois Lowry stories on tape.
She wrote in them when, in seventh grade, she took up figure skating. At first, she shared lessons with girls half her age, but quickly leaped into higher levels. Her true love was spinning — though she when she completed an axel jump for the first time, her family papered the walls of the house with congratulatory signs, and her coach, following a tradition in their rink, gave her a dollar bill. She said she felt beautiful on the ice.
She wrote in the journals after she had turned to using marijuana, as often as possible and at any despairing cost. She wrote in them when, seeking help for herself, she was hospitalized. And she wrote from the residential school in Utah, where she was beginning to turn back towards hopefulness. Her mother counts 37 journals, which have become the assembled record of her worlds.
Outside her journals, there was a great deal of poetry and prose — some of it dark, some of it wise, all of it artful. “I’m falling like the snow,” Gracie wrote once. But there were also writings where she envisioned another self, an uncomplicated self, part of a benign world, rather than an empath outside of it.
For an exercise in her church youth group, she created her own obituary. Gracie-of-the-present described a departed Gracie-of-the-future. “She was an active member in helping the poor around the United States," she wrote. "Lived in New York with her husband and children. Spent her time at home writing novels and poetry. Her large family remembers her as a caring and fun person.”
Did you know Gracie James? Share your memories in the comments section.
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