await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

crossing borders

Black Maps, a collection of stories by David Jauss, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1995 (Lorrie Moore/judge). These nine stories–with only one in present tense and the rest in past, and four in third person and five in first–all deal with the crossing of borders. In addition to each story, the book as a whole has a story to tell.

As Robert Frost said, “If you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth poem.”

David Jauss writes of his collection, “The book, then, moves thematically from negation to affirmation, from the blackest of maps to one that shows the possibility of light.” After understanding this, it was no surprise that I preferred the stories toward the end of the book.

Each story is extremely well written. The first story, “Torque,” takes a limo and turns it into an intrinsic symbol, one that acquires its meaning from the story.

If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was…

And then later in the story,

He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo.

The fifth story,“Firelight,” starts with a moment and then takes us back in time and leads us up to it. In the story are 3 repetitions of the word “firelight,” and then the words “fire” and “light” separate in the last paragraph.

“Brutality” includes this metaphor: “thinking thoughts she didn’t dare let bleed into words.” It deals with the idea of a continuous life:

And who you were is a part of who you are, isn’t it?

In “The Late Man,” allowing the character to imagine what he could have done adds depth to the story.

“Glossolalia,” the last story in the collection, was chosen by Alice Adams for the Best American Short Stories in 1991. It also won a Pushcart Prize. In it, a son tells the story of his father’s breakdown. The first words of the story “That winter” prepare the reader for the very effective jump in distance later in the story in a paragraph that includes the phrase “…our life together after that winter…” Then there’s another jump in perspective and distance on the last page: “Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about….” Then what did happen in such a beautiful sentence using an echo:

But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.

Then a return to a specific moment as well as a narrowing of time from a season to a night, from that winter to that night, echoing the opening. And a last paragraph again with repetition of that night. Wow.

writing my way there

I walk every step of what used to be the camp, of what is now Kingsland Bay State Park. Then I sit in a white Adirondack chair with my pen and paper, looking across the bord de l’eau to the Adirondacks. I bring my vision in to the flag pole cemented to the ground. The cement tells me it’s the same one that was here when I arrived for the first time in July of 1970.

Why do I want to come back? For proof I was here. For clues as to who I used to be. I just want to stay long enough to…

I think this place has something to tell me.

I remember friends I made here, but I no longer keep up with them. It’s this place I miss, not the people who were here. Is it this place or the person I was here?

I was my best self here. I learned how to be myself here. It was my first time away from home for a long period of time–eight weeks that first summer, nine the others. Each summer I got closer to me.

The metal rings holding the flag clang against the pole. The water of Lake Champlain laps against the shore. People spread cloths on the picnic tables. A motor boat zooms past a large sail boat that seems to linger in the moment.

Writing about it again this morning for this post, I finally get it. It’s the continuous life. That’s why I’m here–to understand that the girl who was here in 1970 is the same woman who is here now. I’ve been tagging these posts all week with those words without seeing it.

As Mary Gordon wrote so well in The Rest of Life:

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her.  That she is the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.  That there is some line running through her body like a wick.  She is the same person who was once born.  All the things that happened to her happened to one person…’I’m trying to understand what it means to have had a life.’”

Final post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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proof

I ask the young park ranger if there are any cabins left. He says no, just the shed. But it’s not just the shed.

I take some photos of the outside of the cabin and head deeper into the woods toward the Point of Rocks. Something tells me to go back. The cabin is unlocked.

Inside—proof.

Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.

Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.

This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.

I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.

I will write more on Saturday

3rd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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hoping to discover

On Saturday, July 3rd, I took a break from lectures and readings and slid into my rented red Prius headed for the past. Even though Ferrisburg, Vermont, lies directly west from Montpelier, Google Maps directed me north to Burlington and then south.

In addition to my purse, I have coffee, water, camera, paper, and pen. I also seem to have some sort of invisible empty box with me that I hope to fill. I am going on a bear hunt and I want to catch a big one.

I wrote in my last post that Ecole Champlain, the French camp I attended in the ’70s now seemed “mysterious to me, as if it’s withholding secrets instead of holding memories.”

But, as is so often the case with my words, I didn’t get that right. Rather, what it seemed was as if the secret to something was there waiting for me to find it. In more words, the place was with me, not against me. In fact, I could almost see it closing its eyes, concentrating, in order to draw me back.

An old map shows the main entrance has always been the one I come in today, the one along the water that brings me in by MacDonough Lodge, now known as Hawley House. But that doesn’t seem right. I figure out that the buses that used to bring us to camp after we flew into Burlington on Mohawk Airlines always used the service entrance, coming in past the stables and down the long straight dirt road to the lodge.

That sweet smell is still here, a smell I’ve come across only a few times since camp. A breeze will go by and there it is. Ecole Champlain. Vermont. Once I smelled it from a bathroom air freshener. I ask the young park ranger. He says it’s the smell of cut hay. July is haying season in Vermont.

The dining hall is still here. The park ranger unlocks the door, and I enter the space where I once ate 7 grilled cheese sandwiches in a contest with a counselor.  Other than a portion of the floor having been replaced, it looks the same–only empty.

The distance between the dining hall and the lodge seems smaller, as I would expect. But as I start down the road to the stables, I’m surprised, and pleased somehow, that this still seems like a long walk.

I peer in the windows of the stables. Then I turn to face the space where the riding rings used to be. When I concentrate, I can see the one across the road where my horse took the jump and I didn’t. And then…the counselors used to call me Strawberry.

What will I discover during this visit? What do you hope to discover when you go back?

I will write more on Thursday

2nd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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places that call us back

Among other places–and I’m trying to discover which ones–Ecole Champlain, the French camp in Vermont where I spent three summers–1970, 1971, 1972–is a place that now seems mysterious to me, as if it’s withholding secrets instead of holding memories.

In an interesting symmetry, I have now revisited three times as an adult–in October of 1996, in July of 2001, and a week ago, on July 3rd–this last time with more openness and intention than the other times. Curiously I think this openness comes from writing over the last six months without intention.

It’s as if there’s a surface that I’m trying to get below or a window I’m trying to see through.

In a recent post, Lindsey at A Design So Vast, wrote about the spaces that hold our memories:

Sometimes physical space seems so mute, so indifferent; it surprises me that somehow the important moments that have transpired in a place don’t remain there, echoing, animate, alive somehow. Maybe they do. Occasionally, in returning to a place that hosted an important moment in my life, I can feel that moment, hovering, bumping into me, invisible to the eye but not to the spirit.

During this next week, I hope to write more about my return to this place and why some places call to us from the past, why they draw us back as they do.

Do you have places that call you back?

1st post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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framing the past

The summer I was thirteen I flew by myself to Vermont for seven weeks of camp. Somebody in our cabin had brought a record player, and it was there in the woods that I first heard the music of James Taylor and Carole King. After I got back home, I bought their albums. I still have them–although they now hang on a wall.

On Thursday night in Atlanta I heard Carole King and James Taylor live as part of their Troubadour Reunion. This round stage that rotates slowly was created specifically for the tour, with small tables for two around it–an attempt at recreating within an arena the nightclub atmosphere that King and Taylor played to in Los Angeles at the Troubadour.

The concert started a little late, around 8:15, but they were on stage almost 3 hours–until after 11–with only a 15 minute intermission. They played So Far Away, Smackwater Jack, Sweet Baby James, Country Road, Fire and Rain, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, You’ve Got a Friend, I Feel the Earth Move….

from the first half

I’ve seen James Taylor in concert many times, and he was as wonderfully mellow as ever. I’d never seen Carole King before. She didn’t seem quite as comfortable, but the audience loved her. She’s small and wore stiletto-heeled boots the first half. She sang, played the piano and the guitar, and jumped around all over the stage. She sounds the same as ever–and Tapestry came out almost 40 years ago.

from the second half

There was something about seeing the two of them together that really took me back, that made me realize just how long ago (and far away) that cabin in Vermont was.

And speaking of years, Carole King is now 68 and I now have a new vision of what it means to be 68. James Taylor is a mere 62. And together they can rock the house down.

It’s not too late to see them in concert. Here are the remaining dates for the Troubadour Reunion. And look for them on The Today Show on June 18th.

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hidden from view

Devotion, the new memoir by Dani Shapiro, is divided into 102 sections. Number 54 is one of my favorites. In it, Dani writes about two subjects that have intrigued me for some time.

The first one not surprisingly has to do with memory. She writes:

“Why do we remember the particular things we do? …why random, ordinary moments?”

So many moments from my past, I feel as if I can actually see: sitting in French class in third grade with my French name (which I can’t remember) written on a piece of construction paper and folded tent-style on my desk, sneaking out of a window at the Latin Convention, what I wore to the Cat Stevens concert in ninth grade.

And then there are all those forgotten moments. Someone recently mentioned a Rita Coolidge/Kris Kristofferson concert I apparently attended.

The second subject is related to the first yet strikes off in its own direction. It has to do with what Mary Gordon calls “the wick,” what Tim O’Brien describes as “a blade tracing loops on ice,” and what Virginia Woolf writes about in this passage from Mrs. Dalloway. It’s the russian doll aspect of life–that I am in fact now, still, the little girl that sat in that desk with the French name. It’s the through line Dani writes about here:

“I understood feeling like a completely different person…and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here…Was there–surely there must be–a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves?…I knew that each part of me…is linked one to the next, like a fragile chain of paper dolls….These layers of ourselves are always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge…A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view.”

In this section Dani wonders what rises to the surface and why. I wonder about that too. This idea of the surface fascinates me. One of the reasons I love writing is that it pushes all these things to the surface.

the continuous life

1990 back cover photo by Denise Eagleson

1990 back cover photo by Denise Eagleson

One of my all-time-favorite poems is “The Continuous Life” by Mark Strand from his book of poems, The Continuous Life.  Here’s the beginning:

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,

The poem in its entirety can be found on The Writer’s Almanac.

I was rereading the poem again yesterday and was surprised–although by now I guess I shouldn’t be–that the things I liked about the poem had changed since my husband gave me this book in 1990.

What I loved this time:

Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;

That one thing leads to another. I guess that phrase is like anything you notice and then begin to see everywhere. It was there all along; it’s just that I wasn’t paying attention or it had no meaning for me before or I wasn’t ready for it. Now, sometimes, I’m able not to impose order but to let myself be led here and there.

that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed.

I’m trying to catch days, to make sure they stick. Sometimes a week goes by in a blur anyway. And I’m writing, writing, writing. Still, some days it does feel as if nothing is completed. I think of my novels–do they have to be published to be completed?

learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave,

To be still enough to hear the sound of the earth. To pause long enough. To wait. In Mari Strachan’s novel,  The Earth Hums in B Flat, which I mentioned a few posts ago, little Gwenni at 12 1/2 already knows to lean down close to listen for this hum. To recenter.

Enjoy a poetry moment today. See what catches you–or what you can catch.

russian dolls

I am fascinated, and continue to find other writers who are fascinated, with the Russian doll aspect of life. With trying to get our minds around the fact that we are the same person who climbed out of a crib in the dark, who sat on one side of a see-saw at Spring Street School, who was pregnant four times.Babushka Dolls

And yet the Russian dolls make it seem easier than it is: they all look alike.  However, they do make clear the layering aspect of life that Georgia Heard was writing about. We are adding on as we go.

In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk writes (about Solly) “She couldn’t locate a continuous sense of herself. It seemed to lie all around her in pieces, like the casings of Dora’s Russian doll when all the babies were out.”

In An Accidental Light, Elizabeth Diamond writes, “I am all ages rolled into one. I’m newborn. I’m just learning to walk. I’m the age I was when my mother died. I’m an angry mixed-up teen-ager, a selfish young man…I’m even an old man waiting to die, swallowing pills every day and listening to the ticking of his heart.”

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something more

img_11171My favorite passage in Virginia Woolf’Mrs. Dalloway:

“Do you remember the lake? she said, in an abrupt voice, under pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said “lake.” For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks between her parents and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it!  This!” And what had she made of it?  What, indeed?  sitting there sewing this morning with Peter.”

This grappling with the fact that we are now the same person we were when we were a child reminds me of the passage that so struck me in Mary Gordon‘s The Rest of Life.  With one important difference.  Here, the narrator, Mrs. Dalloway, appears to be judging her life and finding it coming up short. This was in 1925.

Almost a hundred years later, so does Clara in Dani Shapiro‘s 2007 Black & White:

“…invariably Clara walked away from them feeling that there was a secret club of motherhood, complete with a password no one had ever given her.  Why did this all seem so satisfying to them–the cupcake baking, the constant scheduling, the endless games of Candy Land?  And what was wrong with Clara, what psychic disease caused her constant yearning for something more?”

all one thing

Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried:

“It’s now 1990.  I’m forty-three years old, which would’ve seemed impossible to a fourth grader, and yet when I look at photographs of myself as I was in 1956, I realize that in the important ways I haven’t changed at all.  I was Timmy then; now I’m Tim.  But the essence remains the same.  I’m not fooled by the baggy pants or the crew cut or the happy smile–I know my own eyes–and there is no doubt that the Timmy smiling at the camera is the Tim I am now.  Inside the body, or beyond the body, there is something absolute and unchanging.  The human life is all one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice:  a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow.”

The line made by a blade on ice is the wick Mary Gordon was writing about.  Small loops, large loops, off-centered loops–it’s all the same line.  All the same life.  Looking back at pictures, sometimes we can see the same eyes or the same smile.  My grandmother in her eighties said she still felt like she was sixteen–until she tried to do something. 

What was there in fourth grade or at sixteen that’s still there now? 

Sometimes we have to look at the pictures, spread them out in a line, to prove it to ourselves. 

That was me.  That is me.