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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