When Tom Waits sings a ballad I want to weep. Is it the contrast between that hard-lived, pack-a-day, whiskey chaser, broken glass voice and the tenderness of the tune and tone and text? Would it move me as much if I didn’t already know that voice rasping about keeping the devil down in the hole, or how the piano has been drinking? (Can we only know something through its contrast — pleasure/pain, happiness/misery, or is that that duality of thinking we fall prey to? Do I need to know hot to know cold? Nah.) I went to the opera recently and enjoyed how one of the main singers, playing that darling of theater, the prostitute, soared upward in full operatic voice, then burred and hardened it on the way down as the text called for bitterness, regret. We all have a head voice and a chest voice. Our voices can travel up and down between the two, and ideally meld them in the middle. Some of us get our voices stuck in our noses, some of us sound like our voices come from a disembodied throat. The two readers I heard last night both had pleasant voices, just burred enough, and read with just enough emphasis and character, but not too much, not too much flourish or drama. It was easy to listen to them. Their warm tones were invitational. A friend of mine makes fun of her own tendency to let her voice get small and high when she’s uncertain or nervous. It’s wonderfully full-throated when she lets it. I love my mother’s voice, for its chesty tones, for the memory of being read to as a child, and her hint of a Maine accent. My sister and I have an array of funny voices we use. Others find it odd. I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would speak of how we hide emotions in the body — the throat, shoulders, the diaphragm. Singing can break it all open. Let’s notice our voices today. Let’s unsqueeze our adenoids, open our throats. Let’s make some joyful noise. Let’s laugh out loud. Then get soft and wistful. Let’s whisper. And then, later, let’s open our throats to all our late night laments, our wee hour longings, half-forgotten dreams, and let’s sing a blue valentine.
At a party recently, conversation turned to nudibranchs and sea squirts (I love these people I was with at this party, as they are the kind of people with whom conversation may turn to nudibranchs and sea squirts). Someone pulled out the ubiquitous cell phone and we looked at pictures of the variety of sea squirts, some feathered as a boa, others squashed as mud. At a little research aquarium I visited recently, I was amazed to see a baby starfish. I had never thought about the development of a starfish, that they were tiny and then got all growed up. We turned it over and peered at its porthole of a mouth. We saw anemones and learned that they can move by means of a sticky tubular foot that can tiptoe its way along. We spied on barnacles. Barnacles have the largest penis to body size ratio of the animal kingdom, so as to inject the girl next door, who ain’t moving. It is amazing the variety of ways we move, feed, and fuck. I’m struck though that it seems likely a snail will not find itself midway upon the journey of life in a dark wood, the right road lost. A nudibranch is not likely to cry out from its soul “what is my purpose?” I dealt an ignominious death to many tiny snails as I crunched across the rocks by the sea. They did not, I don’t believe, think me a harsh and uncaring god. In our seemingly infinite variety, we creatures of Earth, few of us wonder, imagine, doubt. We all procreate (well, I mean, I didn’t, but I theoretically could have) but how many of us create? The breaking waves made a visual Morse code across the bay. In days to come I may try to translate it in many ways: words, lines drawn by charcoal; I may cut pieces of paper and paste them together, could sew fabric swatches, record drum beats. I may sing a song of breakers, whistle through my teeth. Beat that, nudibranch. At the cosmetic counter I could paste on eyelashes the envy of any anemone, would anemones envy. But of anemone and I, only I would wonder if you think I’m pretty. How did it come to this, Charles Darwin? What a shitstorm of random selection led to my self-doubt, to the imagination of the person who invented clamato juice, to Dante and his dark wood. And, for god’s sake, why? I don’t know, but may we allow ourselves, we doubters and imaginers, the fullest variety of creative expression, as various as creation itself.
The funny thing about making art with words — literature, that is — is that we’re making art of a man-made thing, a recycled thing, even, as some people make art from plastic, or garbage. There is a spirit in made things that comes not just from the maker but also from the material — the wood and its insistence of grain and knot, the stone and its leanings. But to make a thing of a made thing is one-removed from the integral spirit. I guess a word’s spirit could be found in its etymology. But also in the history of the writer’s relationship with the word. I can never use the word “expedition” without its echo of Pooh’s “expotition,” and my memory of re-re-reading the adventures of that cast of characters, identifying first with one then another, Pooh, then Piglet, then Pooh again. Family legend has it that my first song was the Schmidt’s beer song: “Schmidt’s! One beautiful beer.” “Miffs,” I called it. “Bootifoo,” I said. And the word still rings that way deep inside me. A woodworker turns a piece of wood in her hands, feels the contours, sheers some away to find the soft spots, finds the hard spots against the knife. Words are both more malleable, and less. Of course the word is nonsense without the thought, the thought nonexistent without the self’s encounter with the world, the world, so they say, itself a fragment of my imagination. Then so too is the wood, the knife, the beauty, the word “beauty.” Imagination is the milieu, whatever the material being worked. Maybe imagination is the only real thing. Imagination imagines us. We’re its made thing.
I first read of Labrador in junior high or high school. A book by the wonderful Hammond Inness called, as I have come to appreciate in the past 24 hours, The Land God Gave to Cain. It was an adventure novel of an expedition into the interior of Labrador, and a stray transmission from the long-thought-lost team that was their last communication to the world. Many years late I met a man who told me that the book had been based on a true story, that there was a book about that true story, and that he himself had undertaken a canoe trip tracing the same route, and had also written a book about it. So I arrive in Labrador steeped in stories of the harsh, bug infested, brush-tangled, river-braided interior, hardship, loss, silence. And had in my mind pictured it much like my brief visit to its lower sea edge has revealed it to be — bleak, muted in colors of orange sanded soil and red tinged bushes, dense stands of stubby pines, and a sea draped in fog, sounds muted, dim. The people are short and square and friendly, if amused and rueful about their weather. Their speech is brisk and choppy, with coiled i’s and broad a’s. Beachside barbecue pits, and piles of firewood, and a few colorful kayaks indicate that summer fun is had here, that weather sometimes softens, as well as snow sleds and a tube hill that show some indication of winter life. It’s hard to believe. A white knuckled drive through pothole riddled roads in the deepening fog led us to the tallest lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador, site too of early foghorn technology and an old Marconi station that first brought communication to this edge of the world in 1905. To get to that point we passed a gravesite of a child from 7500 years ago, buried with talismans of her people, communications perhaps to the netherworld, or her ferry toll. The two-blast foghorn was eventually improved in its function so the sound went farther. I think of sailors out in fog like this, listening listening for the sound, as well as the hazardous splash of sea against rocks, the call of gulls signaling shore. The ways in which we communicate with ships at sea to help them to harbor have become incredibly sophisticated (yet still recently two ships collided to loss of lives). (We have not improved our payment for passage into the world of the dead. We are going more and more naked, with less at our sides.) I spend my time trying to make art of communication. And in Labrador I have received yet another rejection from the various milieu in which I try to share my art. I learn this through the mixed blessing of internet technology, of “wifi,” a shortened form of words I can’t remember. The terrain is rubbled, shrub-choked; what seem like rivers soon disappear in thickets or into the waterlogged fen. I feel sorry for myself. Desperate. A hawk swoops low over the brush hunting voles. Up on a hill a waterfall bursts out from a source somewhere back in the interior, hurries to the sea. I’m getting on the next ferry out of here. Labrador, this is my last communication.
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…