insomnia

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.

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.