"What are you doing New Year's Eve?" is never really a question for bartenders, because the answer's always the same: I'll work an insanely awful shift -- then rake in quadruple the usual cash. A strange dynamic: like running a marathon with wrist-weights and griping spectators, but a winning lottery ticket waits at the finish; exactly like that, actually -- if one also did shots during the marathon.
I never knew how to feel -- but when my fellow bartenders and I slumped into stools at 2:00 A.M., post-close, just ghostlights on behind the bar while we cursed/laughed/imbibed, I'd always think, What a wonderful way to ring in the year. I'll never know camaraderie like that again; if I ever served in a war, I'd probably feel something stronger with my fellow soldiers, but barring that? (Anthony Bourdain, in his memoir Kitchen Confidential, describes restaurants as run "like para-military operations")
Though I escaped the service industry after an 8-year sentence, and it's now been many years since I served, I can't quite distance myself like I'd like; I got out for many good reasons and won't be returning; and yet, when I see a bartender four deep at the bar on New Year's Eve, with a printer spitting twenty tickets into the service well, I can't think, There but for the grace of god...
Instead, I think: Lucky S.O.B.
And the best New Year's Eve story I remember is from my first year bartending.
The latest science says I don't remember what I think I remember -- none of us do. Researchers have recently illuminated much about our murky memories (a few fun podcasts that tackle the topic: The Story Collider and Studio 360, TED Radio, and Radiolab), and this isn't woo-woo stuff -- we're talking hard sciences and Nobel Prizes.
Key findings: When remembering an old occurrence, you're actually only remembering the last time you remembered it. The only time you have a shot at remembering how something actually happened (according to neuroscientist Daniela Schiller) is during the first remembrance; after that, it's every bit as blurry as a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy...
So if you have an important memory, (attempt to) never remember it! At least, not too often -- each recall wrecks, bit by bit. And never write of it, idiot. Once you do, you're only remembering the story "based on a true story" -- never the story itself.
But that's another key finding: Even the first time you remember something, you're already carving the recollection to fit a personal plot arc. "The remembering mind is a storyteller," says Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his research into memory. Not only does he show that we constantly misremember/manufacture memories to fit some subconscious theme, but we often have vivid visual memories of things that never happened.
Alternately, hyperthymesia is also recieving more study -- it's a psychological condition where a person possessed extremely detailed autobiographical memory. Many hyperthymesiacs -- there only 55 known in the U.S. -- can replay any day of their past almost as if a DVR was hardwired to their mind's eye (it's a real life version of the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You). This ability to remember everything is often crippling. "It seems like you hold onto everything, it just seems like you're stuck in the past all the time," says one sufferer. Maybe hyperthymesiacs can't lie to themselves, can't tell themselves the story they need to -- and so, can't walk into the future. "It's long been believed by research scientists that forgetting is adaptive," said James McGaugh, U.C.-Irvine neurobiologist who first documented hypthymesia.
Storytelling -- fictional nonfiction -- as survival mechanism; scientific confirmation of Joan Didion's great opening line, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
Though, as D'Agata noted, the last phrase of that essay is, "Writing has not helped me see what it means."
I remember only that the man looked average (which is to say I remember almost nothing); maybe a slight accent was almost heard over revelous din -- but I couldn't even distinguish Eastern European, Middle Eastern, East Indian? Such a busy bar, and if there was anything weird about him, he was less weird than the thousand natural weirdos a bartender's heir to.
I noticed eyes wet and weighted? No. Now I'm just grafting features onto a face due to what happened later.
I know he sat down after eleven and ordered a Strongbow Cider (I might not remember the man, but like any decent bartender, I remember his order). He downed it too quickly and ordered another -- but the man seemed stone sober when he walked in (where had he just come from? I wonder now), so I served him again. He downed that cider quickly, too.
Then he asked for a Macallan 25, neat.
The rarity of the order allowed me to serve him his third drink in forty minutes; Macallan 25 sat on it's own bottom-lit dais and cost 40 dollars a shot. Everyone who ordered it knew it as a sipper. So I pulled the Scotch off its pulpit, but before pouring the shot, I remember asking the man for a credit card.
Reminiscing: the most common vice on New Year's Eve? It must beat out boozing -- because even the sober binge on memories (in fact, it's often unintentional memory-binging that drives the sober right out of sobriety).
"No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time... It is the nativity of our common Adam."
So (and so stately!) states English essayist Charles Lamb; but the Bartlett's Quotes rebuttal by Thomas Mann would be:
"Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells or fire off pistols."
Somewhere between the two is my usual thought, expressed (alas) by a commenter on one of the many Famous Quotes websites:
yea random but you have to pick someday... most obvious who cares?!! look back etc...?
That C is a Pacman eating an ellipsis on its way to a question mark.
The man at my bar asked me if I asked this of all customers -- asked (basically) if all customers had to provide pre-payment for expensive drinks, or was this latent racism?
"Yes," I lied/confirmed/said.
"Okay-okay-man," he said as one word, then handed me a VISA from a weird wallet otherwise devoid of cards.
I swiped the card, then pulled the Riedel snifter off its metal rack -- making that cool sHNnnggg! sound.
Molybdomancy: the vocab word of the day, which makes it the last vocab word of the year. Use it three times out loud, until it intimates itself into your regular lexicon. For example:
"Molybdomancy is the practice of throwing hot lead into cold buckets of water, then divining the future from the resulting splatter-sculptures, and the shadows such sculptures cast."
"Molybdomancy is traditional New Year's Eve practice in Germany and Finland."
"But Wikipedia is quick to note that, though molybdomancy is still practiced in Finland, 'the results are never taken seriously' -- apparently some Wiki-editor worried we'd think of Finns as terribly backward. But, really, looking into the future on New Year's Eve is as common as casting glances back at the past. Think of resolution-making, for example."
On Dec. 31st, 1906, Mark Twain acted out the perfect problem of New Year's resolutions. An audience arrived to witness the man make a speech, but instead, he showed up in costume -- specifically, the 'costume' of a conjoined twin. A young man was tied to Twain's waist with a rope, and then the connection was covered with a shirt.
The main gag of the skit: Twain was the sober twin, who gave a long speech on the evils of alcohol, and he encouraged the audience to make resolutions against drinking. Unfortunately, the man playing his twin silently imbibed behind Twain. And, being conjoined twins, they shared a stomach -- so as Twain railed against drunkeness, his character became increasingly drunk. Eventually, he fell over and this brought down the house.
What a metaphor, though: A person makes speeches on behalf of their better nature while another side of the self simultaneously acts the opposite. Resolutions may be good or bad, but they certainly show us at war with ourselves. Twain, gimlet-eyed, had little doubt about which self usually won out:
"Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."
Or maybe Anaïs Nin had it right: "I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me."
Resolution-making may be a common tradition across cultures -- but different countries have delightfully different customs for NYE itself: in Ecuador, many men play the "widow" of the ending year by dressing in haphazard drag to perform fake-sexy dances for passing cars; in Scotland, there's the tradition of first-footing just after midnight, where one tries to be the first person of the year to set foot within a house (bearing gifts of whiskey, of course, but also coal).
In the U.S., the second most-noted tradition -- just behind the final countdown in conjunction with the Times Square ball drop -- is The Kiss at Midnight.
Five more bottles of Prosecco needed to be opened while my fellow bartenders divided the already-opened bottles amongst 100+ champagne flutes arrayed along our bar; we'd promised a complimentary toast to every couple in the restaurant, to accompany that midnight kiss, and it was already 11:55.
Maybe that's another reason I quick-poured his Scotch and didn't notice how he immediately downed it -- how he downed 40 dollars worth of liquor in an instant. I quick-poured it, perhaps, because I believed no human alone at midnight on New Year's Eve should be without liquor (should they so desire it).
The Kiss at Midnight, such a popular trope in movies -- but the best, most famous, and (still) most brutally affecting? The final climax (not the diner climax) in When Harry Met Sally, all the better because Harry initally makes fun of the New Year's Eve moment -- before using the moment more effectively than any human before or since:
"It's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."
But excerpting Harry does a disservice to Sally and to Nora Ephron's script, in general. So (WARNING): only if you've seen the movie and if you enjoyed it and if you're a bit of a sap and if you're lonely -- and if you're looking for a delightful way to hurt yourself (so good) this New Year's Eve: The full scene.
For counter-programming, here's a couple darker kisses on New Year's Eve:
A.) Michael Kissing Fredo in Godfather II
B.) Little Bill Kissing a Revolver in Boogie Nights
Sad that your life lacks a cinematic smooch at the witching hour? Take comfort in the fact that: A.) you won't kill or be killed by your brother, and B.) you won't be involved in a murder suicide.
That New Year's Eve Kiss -- or lack thereof -- is, apparently, a pretty big deal; I've certainly been lonely on New Year's Eve, but I didn't realize The Kiss was a reason to never leave the house (especially if one hunts down -- and here's a term to really chill the soul -- message boards devoted to divorcees). For example, to fully plumb the depths of pathos/bathos, try on this excerpt from a YourTango.com:
Though the company's mission is noble and just, that paragraph makes Michael's kiss merciful by comparison.
If it sounds like I protest too much, that sounds about right.
Post-toast, I saw the empty snifter and knew he shot the stuff -- but when I grabbed the glass, he said, again one-worded, "Again-thank-you."
The italics in his eyes, in his thank-you, weren't imagined, weren't added later by memory. They were there in the original instance. And sincerely said italics have an impact.
He'd just spent over 50 bucks at my bar in under an hour, and he wasn't asking for anything else, either.
"No thank you," I said, even though my own italics were forced; I tried to mean them -- for that moment, he was my favorite customer at the bar.
And then I didn't think of him at all, as I closed many, many tabs. At some point, after one minute or ten, I might've noticed his big jacket spread across the bar. At some point, ten or two minutes after that, I might've noticed his hands working furiously on something beneath the jacket.
I tried to ignore it, but something serious assembled beneath that jacket. Lumps surfaced spastically on the jacket's back -- like pairs of feet kicking beneath blankets, used to suggest sex in 80's movies.
Finally, I figured out an excuse: "Let me grab that coaster," I said, simultaneously reaching for it and brushing back the jacket. He grabbed at a sleeve, to keep me from seeing, but it was too late: in his hand, a little pen knife, and etched through the black lacquer of our old oak bar, there was his name: HASSAN
Confession: A few months ago, I went through a bad break-up of a long relationship I'd imagined would go on much longer.
Resolution: When asked to do the New Year's Eve post for Essay Daily, I resolved to not mention that break-up (and to certainly not make the post itself about that). I suppose when a person first writes memoir, they imagine that crafting the past -- the truth as the writer sees it -- lends power. Lets a person grab that all-important last word. But after working at things a little longer (I initially worked as a live storyteller and once or thrice lent my spin to romantic splits), the writer (hopefully!) sees such attempts as tacky. Cheap.
Even if you get the last word, you're using a bullhorn for something that wants a whisper -- a phyrric win that comes at the cost of the only real memories you retain.
Verbal Kint's coffee cup famously crashes to the floor at the end of The Usual Suspects, and the audience sees the secret thread strung through the story they just observed; I tried to avoid writing of the break-up, but similarly (though with a tragic lack of Benicio Del Toro), I see it's the secret thread for the whole damn thing.
"What-the-fuck-what-the-fuck-get-the-fuck-out-get-the-fuck-out," I said as one word. But Hassan had already stood and stepped away from the bar.
The restaurant's bartop had been imported at great cost from a closed pub on the coast of Ireland -- this was how our owner operated. He ran an Asian-fusion restaurant which somehow amalgamated all the elements of his heritage into a truly eclectic decor. Beautiful. He paid a lot for this furniture -- and a bartender that allowed it to be defaced would, obviously, be fired.
Bright white letters -- in an aggressive stick-like font (like Def Lepard's) -- glowed as if neon. I slapped a coaster to hide the scar on the bar, and just as I looked up in time to see HASSAN exit the restaurant.
In front of his empty stool, he'd left a stack of 6 twenties. No need to run his card. Hassan had left me a 55% percent tip.
The last time I saw his eyes, which was right after I pulled away the jacket: he looked up at me with such unknowing offense; the family dog that's accidentally killed the family cat; he knew he'd done something stupid, and was as surprise as I was to witness it.
I kept the coaster on the bar during our post-close drinking. Fellow bartenders did the same for several shifts. By the time our owner noticed the name etched into the bar, there was no way to trace it to anyone.
It's such a dumb little moment -- Hassan carving his name into the bartop -- but I think of it every New Year's Eve, and every time, I think he probably got it right. Usually, I wish I was as bold as Hassan.
He was a stranger in a strange land who, still, managed to celebrate with the classiest liquor the bar could proffer. But, nonetheless, when midnight struck, he was reminded of just how alone he really was.
So, he sought to make his mark.
Etching one's name into a bartop might seem a stupid way to make sure that the memory of your existence lasts -- but I'm not sure that publishing mid-tier nonfiction affords a person any more immortality, and that's the best shot I've got; at least Hassan was sharply honest.
This is why a person wants a romantic partner on New Year's Eve, and barring that partner, a person thinks of family: We just want some witness to verify that we were here. And we want to know the witness cared.
Let me make a post. A photo. A movie. A novel. A post. Look, here's the thing: I was here.
The other Big Idea was that this post, the last one for Essay Daily's advent calendar, would have 31 sections.
But it's time to ellide that.
Could stretch the conceit.
Could make it look intentional.
Could get to #31.
The reveal: She remembers how we stopped working; I remember how she stopped trying; and we're both right; which is to say: she's no villain and I'm no hero.
We all remember what we need to.
Tap dancing now. It's like when I was bartending. The deadline is only a minute away.
Sometimes I feel, for a second, like I have hyperthymesia; because the old memories feel so fantastic I don't want to make new ones.
But also, I don't want to corrupt the memories by telling them; talking them; typing them. There were memories with her I'll never tell anyone -- not because they're scandalous, but because I won't tell myself. The best ones shouldn't be obsessed over like some weirdo -- should just be re-experienced once or twice when you think: I was lucky to be around for this. It was a time worth no reporting -- and it was great.
A good time.
Can't explain it without ruining it.
It's now 11:59, and I just pressed POST. To no response. Such is the danger when away from your home base, playing an away game at a foreign apartment.
Time for new memories. Figured it out. At a weird bar typing this problematically on a phone -- but this feels like an honest post this way, too; maybe Hassan would approve; last recommendation: Reverse fireworks.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
IF ONLY: GIRL, LISTENING (BLACK AND WHITE)
How shall I begin?
(How shall you begin? How shall she begin...)
You found it in a folder—
She found it in a folder—?
Except what’s to be gained from second or third? Why call attention to myself in that way when it’s you I’m looking for—you, I want to reach (if only)—
I found it in a folder.
Though that’s a bit dry.
How about this?
Judith, look what I found—!
Such a relief to simply address you. As if you were there. As if you were here.
And what’s on my mind? For starters, the way you liked to play with point of view—but never gratuitous, those shifts, oh no: they signified. As when you wrote, in Half in Shade: “Living with Certainty can be interesting. It rounds the corner just as you approach, leading you ever onward. You see nothing but its back.” Or, in the first essay (“Things of this Life”) in the very first book (Only the Dance): “How can she go on, wanting like this, for the rest of her life?” And in The Circus Train, of course—“You wish you knew how to abandon yourself to the moment. You did once that you can recall—riding on a boat on the Erie Canal [...] And there we were [...].” Switching up like that in the middle of the graf! Without a hitch! And even in mid-sentence (this from Distance and Direction): “Here she is, as the fields drift by. Here she is, here I am.” O Judith. Would that you were. Here. Or there.
You know what else is on my mind? To the Lighthouse. That part near the end, with Lily Briscoe on the lawn: “For one moment she felt that [...] if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” And Beckett, Happy Days, Act 2, when Winnie can’t be sure that Willie is listening (isn’t dead): “I used to think I would learn to talk alone. [Pause] By that I mean to myself, the wilderness. [Smile.] But no. [Smile broader.]” Ow. And how about My Brother. Jamaica Kincaid. Judith—we never talked about her! We never talked about Kincaid, Simone, Sondheim, Seurat. Beard, Hazan, Bittman. Krall, Casals. Haiku, gemstones, hors d’oeuvres; peonies, hawks, cousins, stand-up bass, “Whiplash” (the movie), “Black Mirror” (the series), “Arcadia” (the play)—and “The Woman with Five Elephants”—we never talked about her, either! That last, my fault. “Please see it,” you wrote. “One of my most favorites,” you said, and I had the gall to take my time. As if there were time. If only.
But back to Kincaid, the revelation near the end of her memoir—a book about writing as much as anything, yes? And the final insight as profound as any about place, or family, or shame, or loss: that is, her acknowledgment that she’s mourning William Shawn as much as her brother: why and how to write about her brother (or anyone), if not for Shawn? Therefore, her determination to continue writing for him even though he’s dead.
So. So that’s how it is.
So, Judith, look what I found in a folder—from the summer you asked me to teach for you, remember? Of course you do. You would remember, you of all people. And this is when direct address gets tricky, gimmicky. Having to accommodate exposition, having to do with the fact of the actual reader, who isn’t you, who am I kidding, but if she were (if only)—no need to remind you of anything ever; you were a bank vault; a recorder, a camera, a projector with IMAX capabilities; you remembered—that was your business, your preoccupation, your obsession, your coin in trade—
however: since you’re not my reader, should I shift for him here? Would that be more honest? Well, I will then, but not with your grace or style. Rather, this awkward grinding of gears:
She—Judith—had asked me to fill in because she was sick. Months in advance, she prepared me: “I may need you,” she said, as if the gig weren’t a gift—as if to pretend I were doing her a favor: could I possibly work this conference (prestigious, lucrative, on a beautiful island) into my schedule. Could I. Ha. Then, eventually, came the email with hand-outs attached: “in case you can use any of them, or incorporate them into a ‘Kitchen folder’ for the participants,” she wrote.
And so I did; I printed the hand-outs along with the email; I made up that folder—though in the end, I wound up resorting to my own old prompts, tried and true. It was only after she died (after you died, Judith, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about that), after her first husband posted an old photo on Facebook, that I remembered the folder (blue and bulging)—and the file in the computer: Begin with a photograph__doc—found both. Opened both. And here it is:
Begin with a photograph—one that has some personal meaning; an odd snapshot from the box on the shelf, someone vaguely familiar, but who?
As if I hadn’t begun already, I begin with this photo of you.
You—my friend—but long before you were my friend, my mentor, my boss, my collaborator, my colleague, my cheerleader, my reader, my fucking lucky charm. (Dinah, for shame. My, my, my, me, me, me—this isn’t meant to be about you.) You, vaguely familiar—before you were a literary force to be reckoned with: a poet, an author, a critic, an educator. Also, I’m thinking, before you were a mother. Though I might be wrong—but you’re so young in the photo; so unencumbered—how long have you been sitting there? How long will you sit? Just a girl, you are—a girl with slender fingers, nails clipped short—but wait, is that a ring? It is. You’re wearing a ring. Married therefore—a bride—to imagine you a bride; to imagine you brimming with that sort of passion (which isn’t so hard); you on the verge, you on the cusp (not hard at all). It’s so you, this photo: so full of curiosity, confidence, humor—frank, sly, knowing—
and yet. Would I have been able to pick you out? If the photo hadn’t been posted, along with a tribute? Did I need to be told? I think I did, yes. But once I knew—once I saw came a bolt of pleasure; of joy, of pain—of course! It’s Judith! That’s she: there’s her nose and the slope of her cheek—her eyes, deep-set; her mouth!—lips parted and ready to ask, to answer, something on her mind, but listening, listening so hard, fully tuned in—
They say a photograph is worth a thousand words. Well, your job, then, is not description. (Sorry. Right.) It is contemplation. Speculation. Fantasy. You must surround this photograph with the thoughts and feelings that well up in you. You must probe its contents, and then move beyond its boundaries, thinking about what it doesn’t say, what isn’t in the frame—what you know you simply cannot know.
What you know you simply cannot know. (Do you hear her? Do you hear her as I do? It’s as if she’s speaking to me, only me, though she isn’t. (I do know that—I’m not daft.) This was meant to be a hand-out. Meant for anyone and everyone. And yet—those words—“your job, then, is . . .” How many times did she tell me so, how many—and what solace now, to hear her in my head. Except. Except what should I do? Judith, tell me what to do—to get on with this, to forget about that. Some consolation, yes, but it hurts to have you this close—you, announcing yourself, you pushing the words aside to make an appearance (who’s doing this, who? You or I? Dinah, your job....))—okay. Okay. I’m not to describe. But I will if I want, so there. This girl in the photo—she’s lovely, isn’t she? All that hair. How proud you were of your hair. How furious to have to lose it more than once, the injustice of that, I know; but see here, it’s as if it never happened. Here you are—hair shiny, thick, brushing your shoulders—knees drawn up close; look how supple, how slim; a girl in a skirt—you in a skirt!—using it, taking advantage, showing some calf, shapely, strong, and a hint of thigh. And okay—okay, I’ll speculate then—I’ll bet you had some idea of your power (didn’t you?): your first priority, comfort always—but. That hint of thigh. You, folded up on a chair on somebody’s porch. Or is it an outdoor café. There’s a glass, half full, at your other hand—coca cola, maybe? Is that an ice cube, or the sun reflecting? I simply cannot know. What I do see—what delights me: your sensuality. Your sexiness. Unconscious. Un-self-conscious. Having as much to do with the look in your eye—the way you are listening to whomever you’re listening to—as anything else. You, absorbed, engaged—you so sure of yourself—that’s how I’d have known you. That’s what would have stopped me in the moment, and I’d have been jealous. Of the photographer. Of the person just outside the frame, the one who has your attention. I’d have wanted to join—to sit myself down. If only—
Look at [the picture] as a physical object. Look at its subject. Who inhabits its spaces? Ask it questions. What is your relationship to this scene? Who is taking the photograph? Where is she now in its sepia tint?
I got ahead of myself, didn’t I? As if these were step by step instructions. They are not. They’re suggestions, aren’t they? For ways to think about a photo, and—extrapolating now—the photo a metaphor: the photo standing in for any subject at all: how to approach our subjects, objects, material, that’s what you’re after in the exercise, right? A prescription for how to essay.
Ask it questions. Ask it questions, you. Who did take the photo? Who caught this young woman as essentially herself, prepared to sit there all day if that’s what it took—what it took to—to what?
(O but this is hard! Not because you don’t want to imagine. It’s not that she isn’t real to you—only, she belongs to so many others. To the man who posted the photo (Andrew); to the man with whom she grew into herself (Stan); to her unborn sons (that’s what you’ve decided); to their wives and their children—those astoundingly gifted grandsons of hers; to her brother, George; to her colleagues (many of whom knew her longer and better than you); to her students (each of whom might suppose she loved him or her best); to her friends (ditto)—
what if you get it wrong? Who are you likely to offend?)
what’s my relationship to the scene? I wasn’t there! I didn’t know her then. And it’s my inclination to feel sorry for myself about that.
Judith, why didn’t we know each other sooner? Then comes another bolt: what are the chances of this sort of friendship—deep and abiding—once people are all grown up? If we could have been friends back then (could we? Would we? If we’d been of an age?); if, as friends do, we’d met daily—at school, or at work, perhaps with young children in tow; if we’d cemented our friendship at that time of life (that is, if we were two entirely different people) who knows, who’s to say? If only. Except—except what of this then, this actual friendship, deep and abiding, in spite of the odds being very much against.
My relationship to the scene? To this brilliant young woman? My feeling for her—disproportionately proprietary—has everything to do with how fortunate I am to have known her at all.
Now come at the photograph from many angles. (I’m trying.) You can use it as a starting point, expanding until it comes alive for the reader, as it has for you. Or you can write it into being, telling its story right up to the moment of the camera’s click.
“Oh my God, who is she? I want her for my own,” you wrote of the girl with the chickens in Half in Shade. And you conjectured the rest of her life: “Off lens:” as you put it. Shall I do the same?
Off lens, the young husband, of course. Off-lens: a sink full of dishes; a stack of things to read on the night stand—two novels, a play, an article (science related), three volumes of poetry (at least three); a pound of hamburger in the fridge, and what will you make of it? Meatloaf? Yes. And baked potatoes; and a salad with chevre crumbled in the leaves. In the middle of the table, in an old jelly jar, the flowers you picked just now from the side of the road: goldenrod, wild clematis, eyebright, purple-edged. But before—before arranging the flowers, scrubbing the spuds, setting the table; before dinner and clean-up and getting into bed with one of your books: before all that happens, just after you get up from your chair (the chair in the photo), what then? Will you walk for a bit? I say you will. I’ve decided you did, haven’t I (those flowers on the table). I think you’ll pause on the path to take in the trees, the birds, the sky, then go home to your various tasks, no less vivid—not in your particular future—never mind your prediction of the life to come for the girl with chickens. Of her, you wrote: “Chore after chore. The lifetime that added more, and then more.
“I want this moment,” you wrote, “but not what it stands for.”
But earlier, in a different piece, you quoted Richard Rodriguez: “The camera can only look backwards.” That, I don’t believe. And neither did you—you, balanced as you were between past and future, look here:
You can comment on the photo, making it a central part of your written text. Move into the “tone” of the moment. Think about what the photo holds for all time. Think about the nature of time.
That’s it! That’s what you’re on about—the possibilities of a photo as they extend to illuminate the nature of the essay. Which is a try at the truth—and therefore obliged to acknowledge that if there’s any such thing, it exists in the now: do I have that right? The idea is to think on the page; to admit to imagining; to investigate the present yearning that causes to us not just to rewind but to fast forward, too. (And necessitates our getting it right. And also our getting it wrong.) So you explained—so you once defined the mysterious line between memoir and essay: “The moment of the memoir is the past,” you wrote. “The moment of the personal essay is the present.” And in Only the Dance you said: “How we love our missed connections. How we adore what we have yet to say.”
Give what you’ve written a context, a stance from which you are looking. Wonder about [the young woman]: what were her dreams? Where did they go? Give that stranger a life [she] may never have lived, but one that connects [her] to you in the odd, imaginative space that exists between you—now that you own a piece of [her] life.
But I know too much. And not enough. Besides which, this woman spoke for herself. And that being so, how to presume?
By directing your attention to the object itself, you have emerged as a narrating sensibility. By speculating, crossing that intricate divide between fiction and nonfiction, you have found those thousand words that might be worth a photograph.
Might be. More likely not.
If not, in my defense (though why do I feel the need to defend myself? What sort of disclaimer is this?), perhaps I was after something else—
here’s Kincaid (about Shawn) at the end of My Brother: “I cannot see any reason not to write for him anyway, for I can sooner get used to never hearing from him—the perfect reader—than to not being able to write for him at all.”
And Woolf in the last pages of To the Lighthouse: ““Mrs. Ramsay,” Lily cried. “Mrs. Ramsay.” But nothing happened. The pain increased.”
And Beckett, Judith, your beloved Beckett, Happy Days, Act Two: ““Willie. [Pause.] What Willie? [Suddenly vehement affirmation.] My Willie! [eyes right, calling.] Willie! [Pause. Louder.] Willie! [Pause. Eyes front.] Ah well, not to know, not to know for sure, great mercy, all I ask. [Pause.]”
Except I do know, of course I do. Even so, I mean to talk to you—having nothing to do with what you believed and what I believe, too: once dead, always dead. And yet—here you are, waving at me from the Train, quoting Beckett: “Fail better.” And then:
But how to fail better? Watch even more TV? Gain even more weight? Take on more lovers? Hard to do at this stage in her life. The answer is clear, but if she had wanted to watch less TV, surely she could have done so. Or white-water rafting. The symphony. With lovers, it’s harder to say. Fail better at writing—now that is something she can imagine. Tearing down all the similes, building a better structure to hold her thoughts.
Have I failed well then? Should I try to fail better? If I did, would it all come out pretty much the same: the exercise, the essay, the life?
It’s in the coda to the coda of The Circus Train, that you ask straight out: “Who will there be to say whether I became the person I wanted to be?”
And this time, no manipulating point of view—just the voice, in first person, of your present yearning to imagine the disposition of a world without you in it. Which, I must tell you, continues to be unimaginable. Which, thanks to you—you, alive on the page—we do not have to imagine. Which isn’t much comfort to us; and none at all to you, I know. O Judith, it turns out there’s no comfort to be had—not for the living. And no reason to comfort the dead. And yet. You asked—you keep asking: Who will be there to say. . . Who would have the nerve to answer, that’s what I want to know. As if there were an answer, as if anyone knew the answer, the answer so entirely beside the point. It’s the asking—you asking, you looking, and listening—listening hard the way you did, the way you were—
see the girl in the photo? That’s the moment I want. And I want what it stands for, too.
Girl, listening, are you listening? (If only.)
I will come right out and say it: I want you for my own.
Dinah Lenney serves as core faculty for the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and in the MPW program at the University of Southern California. She's the author of Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, and a collection of essays, The Object Parade. Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, which she co-edited with the late Judith Kitchen, will be published next fall.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
6 a.m., still dark. A winter sky’s red haze. A sharp black tangle of branches etched against the red.
The sky is heavy with snow, bow-bellied, nearly breaking open with the weight. The house is drafty, cold. I see my breath. I stand at the window and study the intricate patterns of crystals of ice on the glass. I turn, creak down the stairs, and stop at the foot.
Oddly, no God.
Instead, a towering tree, lit up in the dark, glittering gold. I went with gold this year. Hung each thin-glass orb in its place. Strung the strings of fragile glass fruit. Stood on a ladder, carefully set the angel at the top. A triumph, this tree. The guests all said so when they came. We lazed around, half-drunk, fattened as the Paschal lamb, and laughed wildly at the tacky crèche. Porcelain, probably expensive. I don’t know where I got it, not being begat of overly Godly folk. A bookish bunch, Christmas more of a classical music
affair. They herded me to church from time to time, because they vaguely thought they should; I liked my patent-leather shoes. I had a semi-hysterical passion for all things Christmas, flung myself into it face-first. Went to see the J.C. Penny Santa, made my earnest Christmas list. They let me talk them into buying a stunningly garish flocked tree, let me spray all the windows with foam snow. I’m five, sitting at the table,
swinging my feet: My father and I sing Handel’s Messiah while we play cards. He took the melody; I sang the alto part an octave up. We sang it all day long, during dinner, in the car. I looked out the window and sang as we drove, watching the larger world fly by. My father’s booming baritone rattling the Datsun,
the ever-present voice of god. Omniscient. Never-ending. Everywhere.
It’s six o’clock, still dark. I pour a cup of coffee, sit down in front of the tree. Upstairs, a husband snores. We have done the thing where we stuff each other’s stockings. Mine’s full. I feel the same surge of excitement I did as a kid. Santa really came. Incarnation. The waited for thing arriving, the glorious morning, the payoff, the joy.
Christmas morning. Advent’s over. The waited for thing’s finally here. My favorite part,
the waiting, is done. I loved the Advent calendar—punching out each day on the way to Christmas before I went off to school. Crunching through the snow. I used to sing, walking in the dark. I sang the more cerebral carols, ones my father taught me, ones with a couple of parts. I was an alto even then; no dulcet tones for me. I sang,
imagining the soprano I would never be; the blond serene soprano, the halo of her open mouth, easily hitting high C. I could hear her in my head: I sang the second part, half hating her, half-thinking I was the only thing that made her stupid melody interesting anyway. The one who got to belt.
In my red boots, I belted out “O Come O Come Emanuel,” noting smartly that I knew the Latin, and the Latin was Veni, veni. I heard an entire choir in my head, an orchestra. I conducted it and sang all the parts and played the violin. The expectation was enormous. The thrill of what next overwhelming, awesome, my life
reeling above me like the endless prairie sky. O the future when you’re nine! Almost a decade old! Though you’ll dread the later O’s, the forty, fifty, on through life, when life is smaller, insufficient, plain. And yet you grieve its passage and still fear the dark.
And I liked the baby Jesus story that my parents said was myth. I made them read the book again and again, burning with a secret faith. I held my breath: the trek to Bethlehem, through the curiously Middle Eastern snow. Meek and mild Mary swaying on the donkey, hugely pregnant, Joseph looking incidental, as a first-time father will.
Them arriving at the inn and being cruelly turned away and stuck in the barn with the cow. And then, in the second-most miraculous thing ever, Mary doesn’t even give birth: Our Little Lord shows up there in the hay all at once,
clean and blond. Mary and the cow aren’t even surprised. Only the wise men and the little drummer boy are wowed. Then a couple of pages where the world is glad. The good part’s over. As soon as he’s born, I’m done. The whole point was the waiting: Jesus always almost coming, never there. I got out of bed and stood by the window, breathing on the glass. Praying hard that the thing I knew was waiting in the wings would come.
Something enormous, the single, ultimate moment that would arrive and arrive. An answer. An Omega, all in all. Some real for sure actual thing. Some comfort. Of some kind.
You stand by the window for years, knowing for a fact the thing is on the way. And then it’s now. You’re lying in bed, wanting it back: the absolute faith that this isn’t it. Just wait. There’s something next. You pray out of habit, knowing for a fact you’re talking to the dark.
My father did find God, when he got old. He’s good about it, doesn’t push. Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, he called. Not to push it, he said, but are you going to church today? I said no. Say, I said, do you ever get really maudlin and morbid this time of year?
Sure, he said. I lie awake in bed all night, thinking of the ways I’ve failed. All the things
I haven’t done, and how I haven’t saved the world. I was impressed; my maudlin thoughts aren’t noble. I lie awake at night thinking of all the ways I’ve failed, and all the ways life isn’t quite what I expected it to be. Who I didn’t love enough or loved too much, who’s dead, who I should have married, or married and really shouldn’t have done that. Then again, why not? What better way to reassure oneself that just in case there is no God to greet you, you will still go out hand in hand? You’ll stand together at the edge, eyes screwed shut, count to three, yell Jump! And fall, and not let go.
I ask my father, What’s the point? My father is supposed to know these things; this is what fathers are for. He says, I don’t fucking know. I say, sometimes I want a point. It’s Christmas Eve: I want to wake up tomorrow and be excited that it finally happened. Like
the day I got married that first time. Finally here! And I fly out of bed and put on the gorgeous white gown. That day, as my father’s just about to walk me down the aisle, and all the guests are turned expectantly to look at us as we stride by, my father says, Well, kid, it’s always good to get that first marriage out of the way. And
sets off down the aisle as Ode to Joy plays. I want that kind of day. With the white dress and the white garters underneath. The shiny too-young husband waiting, grinning madly at the end of the never-ending aisle. I want that kind of day, with the Advent calendar, and me singing on the way to school, grasping, for a second, God: reeling above me like
the red prairie sky. Veni, veni. I marched in time to my breath, a procession of white gusts that bloomed from my perfect virgin Mary mouth. On cold days, the snot froze in my nose, and the wet breath made ice crystals on the inside of my scarf. The hugeness of it all. The overwhelming Is. The thing beyond my tinyness,
red jacket bobbing down the winding snow-cloaked streets, in the dark, on the way.
Marya Hornbacher is the NYT Bestselling author of five books, including Madness and Waiting. Her books have been translated into eighteen languages, and her essays, journalism, and poetry have been published internationally, appearing most recently in Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and Vestoj (Paris). Her sixth book, Wally's Sparrow, is forthcoming in 2016.
Posted by Ander at 6:00 AM
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
I am not being long-winded. I am cutting and pasting dangerously.
Here is what I wrote about Eric LeMay’s In Praise of Nothing from Emergency Press in an essay in a collection I’m writing about finding beauty in the gutter:
I woke up this morning, having gone to sleep thinking about some lines Eric Lemay wrote in his book, “In Praise of Nothing.” He’s writing about returning to Ohio as now-married man, having grown up in this town in Ohio (Athens?) but had moved to New York for a decade or so. The essay is about how he feels like two people at once, or, rather, feels as if his old self was never interrupted. That his old life and his current life are parallels, nearly one-in-the-same, but different because he observes both selves as if from outer space. He witnesses his past life and his current life from a dissociated distance. “Every time we went [to the lake] I wondered if I’d entered that pattern, if I was my younger self or the self in my swimsuit.” But that sense of dislocation, of dissociation falls apart when a thunderstorm hits at the lake he visited in his past life, at the lake he is visiting in his current life.
One afternoon while we were there at that lake a thunderstorm came up. It was like a message from a far-off country that I’d once lived in and left for good. The momentous feeling that arrives with an electrical disturbance over a lake in America hasn’t changed in any important respect. This was the sublimes, still the sublime. The whole thing was overwhelming, the overcast clouds that rolled in and the general worry on the beach about whether it’d rain. Then before long (there was no question now) a dark greening of the sky, and a lull in everything that has made life tick; and then the way the leaves suddenly turned up and showed their silver sides with the coming of a breeze across the water, and the premonitory rumble (67).
There is no more wondering who is who. The essay ends with LeMay saying, “suddenly I felt the joy of my youth.”
In the feeling, in the moment, in the beauty of those leaves-turned-silver, the fractured self comes together in one trembling, unified mass. It didn’t matter if it was the LeMay or any other book or painting or actual silver shimmering. What mattered was the notice.
I already wrote here about Zoologies, but here’s something I wrote in an essay about “Fiction Is Just Nonfiction That Hasn’t Happened Yet”
Are dreams nonfiction? In Alison Hawthorne Deming’s collection of essays, Zoologies, she intersperses dreams between her experience and research driven essays on animals. The experiential essays attempt to hold still the rapidly decaying world, even rejoicing in the crush of beauty against annihilation. But every six or seven essays, Deming will dip into a dream.
I recently dreamed of a woman who was holding a cougar kitten in her arms, its head resting beside her cheek, as a mother would carry and comfort a human baby with unbridled tenderness. She was a no-nonsense woman with close-cropped hair and khaki clothes, the kind of woman who might show up on television to introduce zoo animals to a populations starving for animal beauty. In the dream a group of friends or colleagues were in the room. Some were surprised to see a cougar in their midst. Another said, Oh, yes, they walk through this yard all the time. Another replied, Well, sure, but you know they’re endangered. The woman cuddling the cougar said, I don’t think I will miss them when they are gone. The dissonance between her actions and her words woke me from the dream. I wasn’t angry at her and I did not judge her for the statement. I knew her life was full of many concerns that took precedence over imagining such a loss and holding it close (Zoologies 88).
She renders this dream-scape so realistically, so representatively, so mimetically. The dream, a cluster of paradoxes and inconsistencies, tragedies and sentimentalities, doesn’t make sense. But the scene makes sense. You can picture the woman. You can picture the cougar. The dream is where the real stakes are best represented. In other essays, Deming uses equally precise and illustrative language but it’s the wildness of the dreams that require a focus so tight that the wildness of the dream is made tame. Is it nonfiction? Maybe. The dream is at least rendered true. The language and syntax is that of organized narrative. The dream, and what’s at stake in the dream, cannot risk being unseen. So she turns what might have been a paratactic dream, using hypotactic sentences, into a cinematic scene. She evokes the television. She makes sure her reader is sure to see it.
This Are the Tweets I tweeted about Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover in backwards order—which I just started so have only tweeted bits from early on in the book:
(Last one for tonight). "Still, I want to know your name, what makes you go, why you play this strange." "The Defacer" @angermonsoon
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be remembered." From @angermonsoon 's Letters To a Future Lover--"Dear Bound."
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of them. To be a deer is to be infested. To be a dear is to be infested by another, to be written to, to be addressed, to... @angermonsoon
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"Everything is a carrier. Like words, most deer, whether farmed or wild, cay parasites, echoes of meaning and memory..... @angermonsoon
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This is what I wrote about BJ Hollars Dispatches from the Drowning in an upcoming review in Diagram:
And that’s the question that propelled me through the entire book. If, in nonfiction, we’re not scouring for fact, not trying to decide what details are accurate and what invented, then why read? Or, then, does one turn on one’s fiction brain and read for plot and character? Hollars already admitted you will find sustained versions of neither here.
These are the books upon which I haven’t written but hope to next year:
T. Clutch Fleischmann’s Syzygy on shadows, light and extra-curricular dating.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost on food, obsession, and wanting to touch stuff you probably shouldn’t touch.
Eula Biss’s On Immunity which is an excellent book but not very genre bending which is fine but strange to me that it’s not. Still, I loved this book for its research and its careful polemic and its very gorgeous writing. Maybe the excellence of those three things make it a hybrid?
Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld for its water-wise obsession and its wondrously well-woven whales.
Dinah Lenney's The Object Parade for its synecdoche and its metonym.
Barrie Jean Borich's Body Geographic for its maps and its love songs.
What I’m looking forward to reading next year:
Steven Church’s Ultrasonic
Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century
Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t forthcoming from Counterpoint.
John Gallaher’s In A Landscape which is supposedly poetry but I would like to read it as both essay and poem.
William Bradley’s Fractals from Lavender Ink Press.
Patrick Madden and David Lazar’s After Montaigne (in which I have an essay but haven’t read the other essayists’ essays).
Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Walks from Ugly Duckling Presse.
And all the books listed here that I haven’t read yet!
NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.