I’ve been reading memoirs.
First, I re-read an old favourite: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir, but a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales before World War Two. I’ve loved Herriot’s books since childhood; they’re funny, poignant, a bit sentimental, and the writing is what I’d call hard-working. It does the job. Sometimes that’s really all that’s required, and anything more would seem out of place.
Next, I read The Way of a Boy, by Ernest Hillen, a memoir about the three years he spent as a child in a Japanese work camp in Dutch Indonesia, during World War Two. This is an entirely and remarkably unsentimental memoir; it seems like the author re-entered his boy self in order to tell this very pure and moving story. Inherent in his telling is complete trust in the reader. I liked this book a great deal. There were many loose threads, as the boy and his brother and mother were moved from camp to camp, losing contact along the way with many of the characters, and there was no attempt to tie up these threads; true to life. The portrayal of the author’s mother was humbling: she was unselfish, stoical, expressed and seemed to feel no pity for herself and their situation. She was also strong, brave, loving, and most impressively, eschewed martyrdom–rather than giving her share of food to her children, as other mothers did, she unapologetically ate it in order to stay strong for her family; she stayed up late reading, if books and light were available; and on occasion, she swore like a sailor. Ernest Hillen came to Canada after his family was released from the camps (he was then about ten or eleven), and grew up to work as an editor. According to the foreword, by Charlotte Gray, he never spoke of his experiences in the camps or even thought much about them until he began work on the memoir, some forty years later. Remarkable is the detail he was able to bring to the surface.
Finally, I’m thoroughly enjoying another memoir recommended to me by a friend: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, written by Alexandra Fuller, who grew up in Africa as the daughter of white African farmers. This story is skillfully told within a non-linear frame, and is so far extremely entertaining. The character of the mother is (again) drawn with particular brilliance (what is it about us mothers??), though in this case much less flatteringly.
All of this is “research.” Pleasant, easy research, I must add. Next week marks the return to some regular writing hours. My sense is that I’m going to dive into my own attempt at memoir; with a couple of caveats. Should the work seem like a slog, should it not come naturally, I’m not going to push it. And I really only have to write a chapter or two and an outline before running it by my agent, who will take it further, if that seems the right direction.
Those stories, on the same subject, still feel very present and vital. There may even be more of them yet to write.
An acquaintance who reads this blog emailed to remind me of the value of fiction (that wasn’t necessarily what she was trying to do, but that’s where I went with her thoughts): that as human beings we need–we long for–the purpose and order created by the artistic act of reimagining the human experience. Fiction isn’t made-up life, it’s life re-made.
What’s memoir? I’m not sure I know. But at this point, it feels possible to frame this story I’d like to tell in two vastly different ways. I’m going to try, anyway.
For those of you interested in reading a couple of the aforementioned stories, I will let you know when they become available in the fall edition of The New Quarterly.
Kids who make their own lunch. And arrange it on a table they’ve set up themselves.Children who read. A baby who still nurses from time to time.
Tiny front-yard gardens that produce actual tomatoes to be picked by girls still wearing pajamas.
The smell of a lime being sliced open, which makes me think we should up and move down south to a country where these would be locally grown (along with mangoes and avocadoes).
**written at the “new” cottage, The Treehouse, Seeley’s Bay, Ontario**
Afternoon. Too beautiful to sit indoors. Shadows of leaves, the bay water, wind, Fooey watching videos, CJ asleep, big kids and Kev trying out a round of pitch-and-putt golf. I spent yesterday and this morning reading, all in a big sustained gulp, The Girls, by Lori Lansens, a book found here in the cottage. Couldn’t resist (despite bringing along two library books, now untouched). This was not deep literary fiction, though well-crafted and appealing. Lightish. I appreciated the small, quiet observations, such as how the most extraordinary situations don’t seem bizarre while they’re happening, it’s only afterward that one has to cope with them and reflect upon them and place them, name them–not just experience them–that the reverberations are felt. The narrator wonders whether perhaps we never get over our losses. It is funny how we’ve accustomed ourselves by that phrase to believe that human beings “get over” things, as if we could ascend a loss and then descend on the other side, walk so far we couldn’t see or remember it anymore. It’s more like the effects are embedded within us. Not that we’re doomed to spend our lives sad and ruined, just that life doesn’t permit us to be the same.
Is reading a distraction, or does it pull me into a different kind of now?
I worry often that I’m not present enough. And then wonder what presence really means.
Wondering–what will make me happy, satisfied, content, or is that mining false gold even to seek such ephemerals? Wondering–what will I choose to do with my days? Is it enough to cook, clean, preserve, parent? What more, exactly, am I craving? I want to fill these days absolutely to overflowing with meaningful actions; and feel a simultaneous and contradictory pull to let my days fill themselves naturally.
I used to think that writing was a way of seeking and perhaps finding permanence; certainly it’s been for me a form of solitary meditation. I’ve begun to think, however, that it leaves something out: the body. And I wonder–is doing, experiencing, being present oddly more permanent? I think about the families I got to know through doula’ing, and how my life and theirs are, for that speck of time, embedded with each other’s–because we were present and together at a significant moment of transition and becoming. My part was small, and it wasn’t my story, but I bore witness. Bearing witness … that may be where my talents lie.
Writing is one way to bear witness: the private distillation of experiences, physical and emotional, into words. It can feel intimate, but it’s also crushingly lonely. Reading may be another way, opening oneself to a larger world, to different stories. Also solitary. The appeal of the doula experience, upon reflection, is the shared human interaction; yes, it’s a way bear witness, but in a physical, corporeal way. It happens and then it’s over. You can’t write about it afterward (I can’t, anyway, not descriptively). The fact of it happening is enough, more than enough.
Come to think of it, that’s a lot like parenting.
Okay, that handwritten scrawl of a self-indulgent text required way too much editing. Writing directly to blog is much more efficient. And I didn’t come around, at the end, to any satisfying conclusions. Sorry folks. Above, an inundation of photos. Sorry, again. Guess I really really really missed blogging.
I mentioned this book in my last post; and finished it yesterday in what amounts, in my current life, to a marathon of uninterrupted reading, which in my pre-kids life would have added up to a walk across the parking lot. I used to read non-stop, everything and anything, and devoured multiple books each week; and will again when interruptions slow and cease. This is just a sweet taste of times to come. And what a book. The kids had listened to half a chapter on Saturday, and were bounding around impatiently as I ate up the last few pages, so I summed up the ending and then read them the final paragraph. Apple-Apple had tears in her eyes, as did I, though I hesitate to give anything away by summarizing what you might want to go and experience for yourself. Those final few sentences are so full of longing and loss, of the grief of separation, and tell of the ways we work so hard to keep ourselves sane and normal, our interior and exterior “housekeeping,” the order we invent communally and individually to protect ourselves from the wild uncontrollable arbitrary and mysterious forces that surround us, that will ultimately claim us, too.
The best part, for me, was talking with the children afterwards about these two sisters, who lived two such different lives, one transient and lost to the “ordinary” world, the other cleaving to it. Which sister would you rather be? I asked them, and Apple-Apple and Albus knew immediately they’d rather live the life of the ordinary sister, who likely grew to marry and have children and a house. But then Apple-Apple pushed her thinking further. She observed that if she were reading a book about someone, she’d rather it be about someone like the sister whose life was sadder and unusual. In essence, she understood the nature of fiction-writing/reading: that we end up writing/reading lives we wouldn’t want to live, in order to illuminate the lives we do.
Can I give you the final sentence? I don’t know whether it will have as much meaning out of context, but it’s so beautiful, it called out (to me) to be experienced again and again: “No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Silvie.” The power is in that final rhythmic chant-like repetition of phrases that in denying, finally, uphold. And always.
I am now left with that empty, lost feeling after finishing a truly extraordinary book. Hard to know where to go next. But it’s redeemed the novel for me, as a form to seek out and enjoy.
Too too late, but feel like recording a few of today’s really lovely moments. I was home alone with the kids, which is an odd way to spend a Saturday, and the day proceeded like all the days of this summer holiday will, if I’m a blessed and fortunate woman.
The backyard was where we spent all morning. Hammocks. I brought out a mid-morning snack of lemonade and popcorn, ran inside for something else, and when I came back out again, CJ had climbed himself into one of the lawn chairs with his sippy cup. At one point, three of the kids loaded themselves into the wagon and Apple-Apple pulled them around to their “house” (where I was the grandma, Fooey informed me). After lunch, CJ went down for his nap and I introduced the concept of The Siesta (they weren’t keen unless it involved “screen time,” a term I don’t recall ever using myself). Thanks for the siesta idea, Janis; this is going into my summer routine. I dozed and the kids played games, not of the video variety (“you’re the meanest mommy ever”): Bananagrams, Jr. Boggle, Rush Hour, Snakes and Ladders. Siesta hour ended with a book on the couch (a grownup book with no pictures); the sight of Mama prone and absorbed filled everyone with resentment, so on impulse I began reading it out to them. I’m reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which is brilliant, dreamy, dense, complex, elliptical, with occasional terse dialogue, ie. not what one would imagine holding a child’s interest … but it did. All three gathered around in almost absolute silence to hear these quite astonishing words read aloud. The book was even better consumed in this way (though I don’t plan to torment Kevin by practicing this regularly before bedtime).
Quickly, before CJ woke, we made pizza dough, though I wasn’t as patient as I should have been with Fooey’s interminable stirring. I know other parents are better at this; I could be better, should be better. Lordy. I just wanted the darn dough stirred. Apple-Apple kneaded. She’s got a career as a baker (a baker, farmer, teacher, mother, dancer, writer, artist, I believe the current plan is). Beautiful dough, like silk. We left it to rise and headed out to the little park where we actually lay in the grass for awhile and made pictures out of clouds. Every cloud was a pirate device or weapon in Albus’s eyes. I will not let this trouble me. Nor was I troubled by the body part jokes that wended their way throughout our day. SIGH. When do these topics stop being so Highlarious? What was that? Never?? Darn, ’cause I seem to have outgrown them.
After supper, CJ discovered his own ears. He loves other people’s facial features and is thrilled to have them pointed out on himself, but this is the first he understood that he has two ears. Two of them! He pulled the tops out and perpendicular to his head, and with a huge grin of pure delighted discovery he ran through the obstacle course that is our living-room floor, ears in hands, to show his Daddy, home from work.
A brilliant moment in a solid, good day.
Re above: our living-room, Sunday morning, post-breakfast, while Albus and parents plan for his upcoming birthday party in the kitchen. Musical track in the background: Christmas music. (Nooooooo!!!!). Of course, this scene has since dissolved, is dissolving as I type, with the addition of Albus as Santa Claus. Apple-Apple is sitting on Albus, Fooey has just come to report rather urgently.