Tag Archives: memoir

The Bumpy Road

One of the reasons why I attend Smith College is a woman named Su Meck. It was at her side, as a guide, that I first toured Smith. It was by her words that I knew I should choose Smith. Last year we were the only Ada Comstock Scholars (Smith’s non-traditional students) that were in the Glee Club (she was president of the club), and my participation in Glee Club is due to her efforts (along with my daughter’s prodding) to hastily set up an audition while my daughter and I (in some very fun role reversal) were visiting for my admitted student reception weekend. It was terrifying. I only relate all of that personal information for three reasons—full disclosure, respectful admiration, and a shared love of doughnuts.

We made apple cider doughnuts together recently, but ate them all before I could take a photo, so this one will have to do of the jelly doughnuts I made a few months ago.

We made apple cider doughnuts together recently, but ate them all before I could take a photo, so this will have to do:  jelly doughnuts I made a few months ago.

Last year Su published her memoir, I Forgot to Remember. Yesterday I belatedly got around to reading it. I knew the story, of course. I knew it from the first day I met Su when she mentioned she was writing it. And as far as stories go—it’s a doozy. At age twenty-two, Su was hit in the head with a ceiling fan and suffered complete “Hollywood” amnesia (so-called because of its rarity in real life and preponderance in Hollywood plot lines). The first fifty pages of the book, as she relates the story,  is absolutely riveting. Through a random incident that could have resulted in a hundred different sorts of injuries, worse or better, Su was literally re-born into an adult’s body she knew nothing of, and an adult world she was clueless about. She didn’t just snap into it either, it took years, in the same way that an infant has years of development before consciousness, for her to begin to make sense of things. The extraordinary backwardness of living as an adult: caring for children, driving a MOVING vehicle, handling knives, matches, gas switches, and laundry while re-learning language, writing, reading, cooking, contending with frequent blackouts and continuing memory loss AND being told by an ignorant medical community that she was “fine,” with no visible damage to her brain, is tragic and harrowing. But it is what comes after that is truly moving.

We all have our story of ourselves and our lives. Among my peers at Smith, the “Adas” (as we are called and call ourselves), being “non-traditional” as we are, the stories are more often than not hard, long, and twisted. And while Su’s story obviously has an incredible plot twist of epic proportions, she never lets the reader forget that…well— life’s like that. Rather than lean on the tried and true theme of inspiration-porn, you can do it! memoir genre, in her typical forthright and bracingly honest way, she acknowledges the struggles. The frustration and collateral damage of a medical community that abandoned her, and a family, her lovely family, left to deal, in real time, with the disaster. The familial (cultural or sociological) proclivity to hide and repress problems rather than expose…what? Embarrassment? Weakness? We are all weak, and, yes, we all have things to be embarrassed about. That very fact is what makes empathy and true succor between each other— all of us flawed humans, possible. It is the very source of our love and sympathy for one another. So why do we do it? Why do we hide ourselves?

Compounding a medical tragedy is a sociological tragedy, which many of us are victims of as well in our own lives. What is truly inspiring about Su’s memoir is not that she’s an amazing survivor, or an incredible “success” story, it is that she is brave. She has learned the very hard and painful way that suppression and repression hurt a lot more than the plain old fucking truth. Like most people’s lives, in Su’s life no one has come out unscathed. In fact no one has come out! This is life. It goes on. Su has a remarkable ability to tell a complete story that is in no way complete. While she wishes to bring attention to traumatic brain injuries, she also makes a beautiful example of her very human self in calling bullshit on the societal norms that imprison us all. Going up or going down we are still going forward and I am honored to have bumped paths with such a woman.

 

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

IMG_1888

I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

One Becomes One

The only link between two people who loved one another should be love.
– Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (345)

IMG_0707In our current age of memoir mills, I was interested to read this early example of the popular literary form as it is a genre I don’t read often. Simone De Beauvoir’s title, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,  is pointed: the entire book of some 385 pages goes into minute detail regarding her childhood as the eldest daughter of a French Catholic bourgeoisie family. Initially, I have to say, I couldn’t understand why I kept reading it. It was interesting, if nothing else because her (presumably) sedulous and copious diaries afforded an accurate look into the thoughts and states of mind that a child to adolescent to young adult progresses through. But her faith in her own uniqueness and brilliance was of some disconcerting fascination to me- I am not a French catholic bourgeoisie, and yet we shared many similar experiences, revelations and ideas- so, how unique could she possibly be? But I am always transfixed by the confident…

I sensed for the first time that one can be touched to the very heart of one’s being by a radiance from the outside. (59)

Of course there were many moments when she might allude to her age at the moment of some momentous understanding of life- when she might have been at the ripe old age of, say,  eleven – that caused me vexatious chagrin, but still, her youthful arrogance was somewhat off putting and I wondered at her so freely acknowledging it and including so many instances of it throughout. Mostly her attitude towards her own brilliance was presented very matter of factually, but thankfully there were glimmers of self-deprecating knowing that is probably what allowed me to continue.

I could not possible be hurt by stupid children who demonstrated their inferiority by not liking croquet as passionately as I did. (63)

I found myself getting impatient, and yet, and yet, there is a rather beautiful and profound point to her long honest examination of growing up in a tightly controlled “moralistic” environment with all the attendant pressures to do what’s “right,” and to act “proper” while feeling…so different as to make that conformity impossible.

“Simone would rather bite her tongue out than say what she’s thinking,” [my mother] would remark in a tone of sharp vexation. That was quite true: I was prodigiously silent. (203)

The expected sexual mores of girls is a theme that runs through the entire book. And while De Beauvoir early on openly rejects the idea of (her mother’s) god, she only alludes, mentions, and keeps at a low heat what it means to be a girl in a society (or world as the case really is) where the expectations and rules are so divergent between the sexes. It’s the undercurrent to her life, and becomes her life’s work: an ignored gnawing injustice that she will (famously) fully expose later in life, after the story of her memoir ends.

That year, Zaza did not accompany me to Mont-de-Marsan; I walked around the town thinking about her as I waited for my train. I had decided to fight with all my strength to prevent her life becoming a living death. (297)

By the end of this part of her story however, it becomes apparent that the book is really about De Beauvoir’s long friendship with Zaza, a woman that never fully breaks away from her own mother’s hold, yet who yearns for independence, equanimity and freedom in love. Near the end when Zaza becomes “reacquainted” with Stendhal’s books I had a bad feeling that things were going to go south for her. If Stendhal knew anything- it was hopeless love.

But all the same, after so many years of arrogant loneliness, it was something to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means the first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity. (365)

Speaking of love, as I always do, Sartre does not enter the story until very near the end, but the above quote, and change in attitude, she openly attributes to her relationship with him. Their love. But her source of purpose and clarity of meaning in her early story she attributes and dedicates to her lovely friend Zaza, whom she could not save from a sad frustrated fate. But, like any good Stendhal tale, the strengthening of our own determination to live and love fully is what we take away and try, some tragically, very hard to be true to. De Beauvoir is an inspiring woman whose unique path reveals, absolutely, her unwavering intelligence, courage, and beautiful humanity.

*translated from the French by James Kirkup
**title from De Beauvoir’s famed quote of her book The Second Sex: “One is not born a women, one becomes one.”

Mind At The Mercy of Multiplicity

Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you. It’s meant to, and it couldn’t do it better. Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.
– Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days (65)

DSCI0018I was given this most interesting book by a very old woman that I work for. The meditations and musings of Florida Scott-Maxwell: born in 1883, she barely attended school and yet was a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, wrote books and plays and even became, in her forties, an analytical psychologist studying under Carl Jung.  The Measure of My Days, was written when she was in her eighties; the subjects in her mind were aging, death, life, God, love, hate and meaning. Old people, as she put it, “are people to whom something important is about to happen.” (138)

I used to  find it difficult to talk to people newly met. Speech felt precipitate. A silent knowing should come first, sitting, smiling, holding hands, dancing perhaps without words, but talking is too committal for a beginning. (30)

The above quote arrested me, firstly for its succinct charm, summing up how many people, like myself, feel and second for her use of the words “used to.” I hate the difficulty in myself, but gradually I sometimes have a feeling that it is slowly falling away.  I love the confirmation that that could be true. Scott-Maxwell, writing at her ripe age, mostly worried about shocking people with what she considered her most passionate years.

To me the pigeons say, “Too true, dear love, too true” I listened, looked out on the trees beyond both windows and I was free and happy. (123)

I may never hear a pigeon any other way. A deeply religious woman, but also honest and human. She was not above feeling hate, shame, or love.  Above all, the most fascinating quality about this book is that she was a woman, and wrote as a woman, both overtly and instinctively. Which is not to say there are elements of maternal earth-mother or, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar stereotypes, rather it is an unusual absence of the male perspective that we are all trained to think under—a palatable freedom from the male paradigm. She was who she was. She wrote as she thought and didn’t ask, or expect, you to agree. But it is as if the syntax of the male dominated domain of the intellect is slightly off, and it is lovely.

My answers must be my own, years of reading now lost in the abyss I call my mind. (7I)

For good and bad, she acknowledges a kind of radical understanding that the things that delineate us, not just male/female but: income, race, religion, intelligence, and luck- these things  include inequalities, yet describe individuals. We are none of us alike. That is life.  But in every life, by every means of measurement, there is a profound gestalt.  Florida Scott-Maxwell achieves that and more in her beautifully powerful final book.

*title from page 19 – I am awareness at the mercy of multiplicity.