connections

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

The many voices of baseball

I  always seem to want to start my blog posts off with a remark about how much time has passed since I last wrote a post, even though as far as I know, no one’s keeping tabs on my productivity — aside from my bratty Inner Critic, who today is tapping her watch and sighing loudly and rolling her eyes. Pretty soon she’ll start snoring. Twit.

Speaking of time, this summer TW and I finally got around to watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, a mere twenty years after its initial release date. (Next up: the films of that hot young director, Alfred Hitchcock!) All 18.5 hours of it. Numb bums aside, it was totally worth it. I learned so much, even as a fan who has more than a passing knowledge. But it wasn’t quite the soaring, euphoric tribute to the game that somehow I expected. Sure, there was plenty of rhapsodizing about monumental moments, about the deep emotional connections within families and communities. But it also tracked the darker side of the game, which of course is entangled in the injustices of American history. Burns famously knows how to tug at the ol’ heart strings, and I often ended up in tears. Most people know about Jackie Robinson, but the film highlights the Josh Gibsons, the Satchel Paiges, the Buck O’Neils, the Curt Floods. So many men with such talent, and the god-awful things they endured. Their faces clear as day, their voices retelling both the lows and highs. At one point, TW patted my back as I wept into my hands, and he said, You know this history. This isn’t new. Exactly: It was old, and persistent, and rooted, even in this game that I have always loved. Of course it was; no part of this country’s hands are clean. Not then, and not now, even as we progress.

But then again, it’s baseball, a game that is nothing if not contradictory: perfectly linear and logical and yet twisting and chaotic; individual and collective; sad and joyous; tiny and grand; defeated and triumphant; grounded and mythical; certain and surprising. Games are like stories that way. No wonder writers across the years have been so enamoured.

And so in my own meta-baseball-watching, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was surprised by something that, ahem, came completely out of left field.

As we started watching, I kept listening to the narrator, thinking he sounded familiar but unable to pin it down. When the credits rolled, there it was: John Chancellor, the legendary NBC broadcast journalist.

And my father’s first cousin.

My dad’s father was the youngest of eleven children, and John’s father was one of the older siblings, so John and my father were several years apart. My dad had always hoped to meet John someday, but alas, he never did. (My dad died in 1995; John died in 1996.) In our family, though, we always knew the connection. Everyone always noted how they looked alike. When we’d see him on the news, my mom would say, Yep, just look at their faces.

Here’s a couple of pictures of them:

John Chancellor

dad1

Alan Chancellor (my father)

Indeed, I can see the resemblance, in the shape of the face and around the eyes. It’s one of those things that I have always known.

What I didn’t know until watching 18.5 hours of a baseball documentary is that they sound alike, too.

Over time, I have lost the sound of my father’s voice. This is a normal part of losing someone, but I think it’s one of the harder parts; it’s like that person disappears all over again, years from the initial loss. About a year ago, though, we found some old home videos. There, on the screen, my father moved and spoke and laughed. And there was his voice in my ear again. At first I worried that this would be a setback, that seeing and hearing him again would send me into sadness, but ultimately it was comforting.  His voice: a little high, reedy. A twinge of his native Chicago even after living most of his life in California and Arizona. A twinge of me.

Well, it sounds a bit like this:

As we sat this summer watching so many hours of the history of baseball, the narrator’s voice eerily evoking my father’s, I felt my personal history colliding with the collective history. All of those stories coming together in one space– the injustices, the beauty, the grief, the joy — and sharing it with someone I love.

In short, baseball.

What noisy cats are we

Those who know me know that I have a deep and abiding love for R.E.M. (both the band and the sleep cycle). That title, a lyric from Swan Swan Hummingbird, popped in my head the other day as TW and I were driving, and I sang it out as if it were still 1986 and Life’s Rich Pageant was in the cassette player as I clattered along in my Tercel, traversing the back roads of my hometown.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a song analysis or rank albums or howl for my lost youth (you’re welcome). I’m simply thinking about how art sticks around, how we adopt it and translate it and make it part of ourselves.

Lines come to me a lot: random bits of songs, poems, short stories, novels, movies, plays. They often return out of context, removed from their original state, little fragments that I add to my trove of language. Sometimes I understand why these bits come: the sound or rhythm, the image borne within, the humor. Sometimes it’s a mystery, but there they are anyway, like a flash of sun in the eye that forces me to squint, to take time to look closer.

Perhaps I’m pondering something that is screamingly obvious: People like to quote stuff. Along with porn and cat videos, the Internet is mostly just sites devoted to quotable quotes with hazy attributions (“I like Web sites”– W.B. Yeats). Perhaps, too, such a line-hearing habit is detrimental; first, it’s a bastardization of someone’s art, and second, it’s a colonization of my own imagination. Shouldn’t I remember the whole work? Shouldn’t I be drumming up lines of my own?

I guess if all I did was run around babbling quotes I might be in trouble. But for me, I’m not just repeating them to repeat them. If it’s about language or image, I’m examining that language or image, putting it on repeat or in freeze-frame in order to study it more closely, to understand its effect. Some recent examples: Shakespeare’s “How now, wit, whither wander you?” from As You Like It; Whitman’s “I depart as air/I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”; “They is, they is, they is” from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I turn them and turn them and turn them, and I never tire of their beauty and wonder.

Sometimes, though, these little flecks transform into my own little metaphor. Take the most recent reincarnation of”what noisy cats are we”: It returned to me as I was stopped in a car at an intersection, gazing out at the suburbs of Birmingham, which teemed with gas stations and food chains and exhaust fumes. Whatever the song’s intentions, over time, and removed from its source, it has become something else for me, a way to process an abstraction: something about the desperation of the masses, of how we find ourselves mewing and clawing at the state of our lives.

If I have a point, which is doubtful, I guess it’s that I find the possibilities of such fragments both remarkable and deeply reassuring as an artist and as an audience member. A song, even just a slice of it, can return unbidden to a person more than fifteen years after its first hearing, and allow that person to name and articulate a confusing, unconnected moment. These parts of the whole pulse and shimmer across time, gathering the dust of the universe, just waiting for a space to land.

Fragments of the whole

Oh, Insomnia. You’re like that college ex who keeps showing up in a bad dream, the one about the party at a house that’s not my house but is my house, and there you are, although it doesn’t look like you but it is you. You lurk off in the doorway to the garage, your lousy juju rising off you like cartoon stinklines. Jerk.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a good sleeper. These days, when I am hyper-stressed, I fall asleep fine but then wake up at 4 a.m., my mind buzzing like a jar full of bees (who are using tiny bee chainsaws to cut down tiny bee trees). My waking days become a bleary-eyed mess, progressing from edgy impatience to sentence-mangling delirium (sorry, students). Luckily, this goes in waves. I think the final wave crashed last night; that is, I slept straight through.

Anyhoo. Writing about insomnia is about as riveting as listening to U.S. politicians these days; like those speeches, it’s also making me queasy and irritable, so let’s move on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments. My novel-in-progress has a great deal to do with fragmentation, both in terms of subject (loss and memory) and of form (bits of narratives strung together out of order). This is not to say that I am actively thinking in terms of theme and structure while I’m writing; at this point I’m still figuring out the story. However, in looking at the pages I have, I see such a pattern emerging.

My beloved TW’s art projects also often are interested in fragmentation. Because of a project he is working on and because of a longstanding interest, we took a trip a few weeks ago to the Roger Brown Rock House Museum in Beulah, Alabama. Roger Brown was an extraordinary artist and collector who came to be known as one of the Chicago Imagists but who also kept strong ties to his native rural Alabama.

I am still emotional about this visit; this is a deeply affecting, inspiring exhibit/collection. Roger’s brother, Greg Brown, a great sculptural and collage artist who lives in Montgomery, oversees the museum and acts as guide. Because Roger passed away before the sale of the house was complete, Greg and his parents put together this space, which acts as both a museum and a memorial, a mix of Roger’s art and objects from his life. The pieces collected here reflect not just Roger’s obsession with collecting but also his family’s. Many items are those that their mother kept, or that Greg did, or related pieces that Greg found and added later. It would be impossible to list the thousands of disparate objects that come together this space, but some that stand out to me: Roger’s wildly gorgeous, cheeky art, including a large painting that hung for years in his parent’s grocery store in Opelika; old cigarette packs and a high school cowbell; an uncle’s Purple Heart; a junk drawer of a desk, kept exactly as it once was; Roger’s childhood drawings; a childhood devil Halloween costume; the roadside-store chairs that Roger wanted to buy and that Greg went back later and found; the prison matchstick lamps; the framed elegy that Greg wrote for his brother’s funeral; the photographs of their mother, whose ’40s-style hairdos are exactly represented in Roger’s female figures; the melmac dish collections; the sloping upstairs floor; the maps that Roger drew toward the end of his life, planning an architectural wonderland behind his parents’ home in Opelika; his Auburn beanie.

All of these fragments cohere in the most unbelievably beautiful way, and for me it’s because each object represents a story about Roger himself or about someone who knew and loved him. Even without Greg’s quiet, generous explanations, those stories are imbedded in these fragments of a life. They tell us about Roger — his artistic beginnings, his creative trajectories — but even more, they tell us about the people who loved him and about their connection. This is a space of collective memory, a jumble of pieces that reflect how lives brim and spill and ripple into each other. We are a complicated sum of our own memories, but also of others’ memories of us. When we subtract any part of that sum, what remains? Who is left? Are we still whole? Who are we when the people who remember us are gone?

The Rock House seems to ask these questions, and so far, here is my answer: We will spend much of our lives asking such questions, not as a way to stay in the past but as a way to move forward. In the act of retelling and reseeing, we do not relive; rather, we create a new connection, a new memory, give life to a life gone. We will do this again and again, creating pieces that we carry in our pockets like flat, smooth stones. Some days they will weigh us down; sometimes we will rub them obsessively with our thumbs. But sometimes, we will skip them across the lake of our lives, watching the ripples bend and fracture outward, until we lose sight of them in the shining sun.