I get confused thinking about atoms, molecules, cells, space. I set my giant cell-full foot on the fuzz of growing things on this giant rock that reveals itself on the edges and slides as slitting as slate and colorful, blood red, sea green, cloud blue. The snarl of bunched greenery with reds and pale berries-to-be and the sproing of it after I’ve stepped onward counterpoint the kachunk of a wave blasting into a fissure. In the distance what seem to be grand white ships are icebergs. On the horizon what seem to be gray icebergs are low lying cloud formations, now stately, now like a guy waving, now like two arms making monster claw forms like I do when I’m trying to scare small children. What are we? Solids, liquids, in motion, stuck, big, minuscule, gone — or, as we are matter, not entirely. Icebergs are not salty, as they’re made of snow and ice formed from rain coming down. I’ve forgotten where the salt goes when the ocean condenses. I tire of the things I don’t understand. I only feel better when I begin to understand what I don’t know. It’s what I don’t know I don’t know that scares me. Monster claws monster claws. I think about the table of elements. What are they again? Building blocks of stars and me and my milkshake. Things are not what they seem. I saw an exhibit of how the high promontory I’m looking at was formed of ancient pressure, two land masses shoving shoving. Now little is left of them. Rubble, some relatively small islands that are being elbowed by the sea. It’s not just change I’m talking about but the actual shifting nature of all things. Shifty nature. Look away for a minute and nothing is there. Or nothing was there all along. The space of not-knowing is a vital starting point for writing. My last post mentioned memoir. I think what trips up would-be memoirists or personal-essayists is that they (we) think because it’s their life, they know what they’re talking about. But they may only know the timelines, the linear course of “what happened.” The powerful starting place is why, or so what, or and what do I make of all this? The large and small of life, the spaces, they are the stuff of life, but only as waves are the stuff of ocean. It’s the patterns of salt stains left by the spray that we’re after.
I’ve been thinking about memory of late, and nostalgia. I found myself not five feet from a guy I had a bit of a crush on in high school. Should I say hello? Would he remember me? Does it matter? Why would I want to talk to him anyway — do I really care what he’s been doing for the past forty years? He’s wearing a suit, checking his phone. He was a good-job-wife-and-kids kind of guy. Maybe he’d remember me and have some interesting story to tell of his life in the five minutes he might have to talk, or he’s had a boring life, or maybe he wouldn’t remember me at all — after all, I was the one with the crush on him, not him on me. I said nothing. He didn’t notice me. Why do people have the urge to revisit old connections?
I went to a college reunion several years ago. There were a couple of people whom I was really looking forward to seeing. They loomed large in my memory in terms of my enjoyment of their friendship. They were friendly when I saw them, but clearly the warm nostalgia was not particularly reciprocated. In the end I had the most fun with people I hadn’t even anticipated seeing, nor even had had a particularly close friendship with in those four years, but were fun and smart and funny people whose company I still enjoyed. But the experience made me question my recollection. Were we such good friends?
I recently saw someone I shared a house with for a year many years ago. She was good company and it was a nice year. I recalled to her that she would make us pina colatas which we drank on the small brick patio. She didn’t remember that at all. She said she remembered all the mice, and the agreement we had that we took turns emptying the mouse trap, and the day I sat on the stairs one morning and said please please please don’t make me empty the mouse trap today. I feel embarrassed that that’s what she remembered and brought up. I saw another woman some time ago with whom I shared a close friendship for a time. The recollection of me that she chose to tell was in the midst of my admittedly prolonged heartache following a break-up during which I was, apparently, endlessly and boringly revisiting the details of the breakup. Apparently one day we were heading somewhere together and I started in on my lament, and she turned around to take me home because she didn’t want to hear it anymore, she wanted me to be present in the friendship that day, not reliving a broken relationship from the past. Again I was embarrassed that this was how she remembered me. Were those accurate portrayals of who I was then? Am now? But they’re both still fond of me, so it doesn’t seem like that’s all they recall of me after all. (I’m not such a pill after all?)
I wonder what it’s like for people who knew the author of a memoir during the time reflected in the memoir. Are they often surprised at what the author remembered, how they remembered it, who they remembered they were at the time? Memory is such a murky marsh, a faulty mechanism on which to understand the past, much less build the future. The writing of a memoir always takes place with our eyes on the rear view mirror. It’s impossible to fully capture exactly what the view out the front was, unless we have a diary or letters of our thoughts at the time. But even that is slippery evidence, as my opinions and perspectives change constantly.
I think people are drawn to write memoir because of a need to find patterns or trace trajectories, or just to tell the story we’ve been telling ourselves, revising with each stage in our development. But all perspective on the past is fiction, and all projection on the future is fantasy. Even capturing the current moment is fraught — is this morning blurry with soft light and flighty with a light breeze or hazy with the threat of unseasonable heat and humidity and a dusty wind that’s stirring my allergies? And will my second cup of coffee change my opinion?
Writing memoir takes incredible choice-making. Ideally, when you come to the end of the first draft, you have learned something from the process itself. And all those people you were and are, and who others may have thought you were, will hopefully make some kind of sense through the telling. Do you then go back and edit the memories in light of the new understanding? And what then is “the truth”? Maybe in my memoir, he had a crush on me too…
Waiting at red lights often causes me to lapse into philosophical reverie about how fine the lines are that keep civilization in check. One red light makes us all wait, patiently or im-, in the face of no actual traffic. I find it funny. And I think a red light means stop all around the world, wherever automobile traffic is controlled by lights. Think about it. There is very little else we can all agree on.
Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin might see that as a sign of what he predicted in his writings of the ’40s and ’50s, that is, the coming together of humankind. I’m picking my way through his The Phenomenon of Man, posthumously published in 1959 but that seems to be the culmination of his ideas. He believed that humans were evolving toward greater unity, and would ultimately evolve to a great Omega with all things and creatures of the earth as one.
Contemporary author Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, casts a more jaundiced view on both history and the future, but also sees humankind evolving in the direction of unity, pointing to, for example, the worldwide worship of money. I haven’t finished Sapiens yet, but I’m not thinking that Harari is heading toward a vision of peaceful Omega, but something a bit less high concept, with a good dose of or-we-could-blow-ourselves-up.
But a Big View of human development does show a move toward more unity. True, we’ve had vast civilizations fall and rise and rise and fall and fall and fall, but overall the movement is toward shared information, ideas, and maybe, maybe sensibilities (I try to catch the eye of the guy waiting across the quiet intersection. He’s checking his phone.) Teilhard’s ideas were shaped by his faith, but also by his occupation: a paleontologist, he studied the ancient precursors to the species that would become us. Harari is a historian. His review of a range of work on the history of humankind indicates that much of what keeps us moving together is exactly the kind of faith that informed Teilhard — the shared belief in ideas (we could call them myths) that have no reality except that a large number of us accept them and build our behaviors, lives, monetary systems, families, governments around them.
We in the US, for example, are perpetually in a tug-of-war over the rights of the individual and the rights of society, with mud on the faces of both sides, but those yellowing and much argued over documents, the Declaration and the Constitution, circumscribe a generally accepted standard of generally agreed upon behavior (and a range of opinions about whether an entity called God has something to do with them or us).
It stuns me that for all the violence and hatred in the world, the vast majority of we human beings wait patiently at our red lights. Could we really come together to reduce that violence and hatred (actually, continue to reduce, as the world is, believe it or not, a more peaceful place than it’s ever been)? I don’t know. I share Harari’s skepticism, even as I admire Teilhard’s vision.
The light turns green. Other guy and I proceed across our mutual intersection. I do not suddenly swerve into his path, do not jump up on the curb to take out some innocent shrubbery, do not suddenly accelerate in reverse, nor even stop entirely to leap out and dance around in the street. I am staid, puposeful, obedient of the behavior expected of me. And again feel bemused by it all, and grateful. But I check the rearview mirror, and look both ways.
In her wonderful book of short-short ponderances called My Private Property, Mary Ruefle tells the story of the Earl of Staffordshire, who, so provoked by the popularity of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, decides to write his own damn book, a sequel to Scott’s Old Mortality, which the Earl entitled Old Immortality. Exhausted after 80 pages, he still felt he had accomplished Something Big. But confronted with the cruel (immortal) realities of the publishing industry yet still hungry for the undying fame rendered through Art, he had the entire text, including title page and a fancy “the-end” page, modeled onto Staffordshire china across 100 plates. He then had a series of dinner parties with a different group every time, forcing them to read for their supper. This went on until his death.
I find this a sad yet absolutely understandable story. I totally get that desire, I get the impulse to write the novel that will lead to my fame-beyond-my-lifetime, I empathize to an embarrassing degree with the outlandish effort in the face of the impervious and endlessly unimpressed publishing industry. I am shockingly on board with the act of holding hostage my friends to my writings however feeble. (Nowadays it’s called a blog. Eat up, my people.)
Almost all the plates were smashed in a wild party his grand-nephew threw (it’s always the one-generation removed that fucks everything up). Ruefle does not cite sources and perhaps the whole thing is a crock…ery. But, note to self, don’t make breakable literature. I have a grand-nephew.
To my last entry, which was about on being with someone in his or her suffering, a friend replied that listening and prayer are sometimes all we can offer. And I noted that to listen and to pray are actually etymological opposites. This got me thinking about the notion of prayer, which may have transformed over time. To pray is etymologically from “he asks,” that is, an entreaty to some powerful figure, real or imagined.
But I suspect my friend understands prayer in the same way Simone Weil talked about it. Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” This has strayed from the original meaning of the word, and I wonder about that. Has it long been understood this way, or is this a more modern, widened idea of what it is to pray?
The word “listen” is from a history of words meaning to pay attention. Attention, to attend, is etymologically linked to, interestingly, “to stretch.” So to attend to someone is to stretch yourself toward them, perhaps? And Weil might suggest the implication is also a stretching toward God (a word itself that links back to nothing but itself, got, in the Old High German, but wends its way eventually to old roots meaning that which is called or invoked — which should feel rather disturbingly tautological to the believer, I would think…).
To be “present” means to be before someone (pre + to be). And all this sitting with and leaning in is by way of giving comfort, a word from the notion “to strengthen greatly” — which surprised me, as I think of being comforted as feeling assisted, perhaps protected or freed from worry, which seems different from being strengthened. But it does seem true that the ultimate effect of being comforted is to give one strength to move back again into the fray, to move back into the way of suffering, itself a word meaning “to bear.”
So it seems the most basic notion of this thing we can offer to the sufferer is to be with and stretch toward. And some people understand this “God” notion as being not a sky-based dude but something within each other, the best within us perhaps. So to be with a sufferer is to try to offer the best in ourselves to call out to the best in the bearer so they may carry on.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, I think our goal should be to conjure our art out of that same place, that same inner place of the-best-of-ourselves. I’m not saying all art needs to be light-filled and divine — out of the best of ourselves we can also conjure great darkness; nor does it need to have as its goal to comfort. Often necessary art necessarily dis-comforts. But those notions of paying attention and being present and being with and stretching toward are all useful to keep in mind in the creative process. You feel me?
I was talking with a friend, herself emerging from chemo treatment and who had been checking in with other friends in worse situations than she was, about how to be with someone in their suffering. How to be present enough with someone else, even as we each go down our paths alone. We are creatures of words and yet words are so inadequate sometimes. The ritual of prayers seems to help some people but I think that on oft-repeated prayer becomes less the words in it than the sonority and familiar rhythm of it. And if repeated with others becomes a communal song of drone, rhythm, percussion and sibilance — “as we forgive those who trespass against us” (if that’s the way that prayer is said nowadays, “trespass” probably replaced by something more modern, but I like that sense of forgiving someone who crossed some boundary line unauthorized). Being present is what my friend Pierre tries to do with the dying. But what do you do in the threshold? How tiresome it must be to a dying person when someone bustles in and says a usual opener like “how are you today?” How does Pierre manage passing under the lintel between being in the world and being in the world of the dying? What is the password to presence? On the phone with my friend, who admitted to her own suffering, I am not sure I was able to convey presence enough, nodding into the phone. Silence at a distance is ambiguous — can you hear me? Did my murmurs of assent say strongly enough “I hear you, friend”? I think often of a sketch an artist friend made, a pencil drawing of a rolling landscape stretched over a long sheet of paper, two tiny figures making their way down the road, one bent from age or pain, the other bowed in aid. The long white page, the fine line dividing them, joining them. Mmhm, I say. Mmhm.