Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Essays

I want to write essays. That said, my knowledge of exactly what an essay is, is fairly undeveloped. I am a reader of essays. I am a fan of good essays. They talk to me when they are good. They take a subject, nearly any subject, and bring it to startling life. And I sit there reading, but feeling as if in a conversation, nodding and saying sometimes out loud, I get it. That’s why, that’s it, or I know exactly what you mean. However, this deductive understanding of what constitutes a good essay is not too helpful in the writing of them. Being a beginner, my mind is not yet agile enough to function as both reader and writer simultaneously.
So I have been reading essays and essays on essays and here is my favorite description from Louis Menand, editor of The Best American Essays of what an essay attempts to do and why, at least to me, it matters so much.
“Writing (essays) is a window. It opens onto vanished feelings and vanished worlds. Often it is the only window there is, the only access we will ever have to those things. It is more than a mere record, like a photograph, because it is also a sensibility, a point of view, a voice. It is a place where fifty or a hundred years from now, people will go to see – or to hear-- what it was like to be alive when we were alive.”
My father died when I was 16. He did not write essays or journals. He left me vivid memories. But those memories were captured in the mind of an adolescent. And even though as a child I instinctively knew this man loved me fiercely, and as I grew older that he was possibly the only person who really knew who I was, he died when I was an adolescent. That ability he had, to get me, was sometimes the source of angry exchanges. Never mind, that was ok too, as he was the only person in the family with whom it was ok to be angry. But he left in that complicated time in life, where it was easy to forget that he was my champion. I have revisited and amended those memories at times throughout my life; at the big steps, when I became an adult and when I had children. When I became older than he was when he died. I remember many of the things he said and did, I remember his intelligence and unerring moral compass, his tenderness, his lessons, but they are blurred and shaped and shifted by memory. So I fiercely wish I had that open window and that I could return to journals or essays and hear his voice. There are none.
I have a box of photo graphs. My father and uncle were amateur photographers, but serious about it. My father had a make-shift dark room in our kitchen and some days we would come to breakfast to find photos hanging on a laundry line there. I have dragged a big box of those photos with me every time I have moved. I study their faces for clues. Asking them, what are you thinking, are you happy on this day, in this moment, when my Dad pointed the camera at you?
They are mute; they smile back at me or look into his camera with a question rising to their faces. How they felt or thought or what they were talking about that day is left to my imagination, which on a good day, tells me yes, look they were happy. They were beautiful and talented. On a bad day, their photos just set me adrift.
My mother wrote two letters every week, one to her mother and one to her sister. My grandmother’s letters came on monogramed stationery in big looping script. Aunt Kitty was a private secretary and her letters came always neatly typed. Reading them disclosed little about what they thought about the big questions in life, but by their very presence they were reassuring. I don’t have my mother’s letters. I have no idea how she reported the news or particulars, the pains and triumphs of our family to these two important women in her life. I wish I had those letters in my hands. I am guessing that they were newsy, not particularly philosophical, but maybe I could read between the lines. These women stayed after the men were gone. They came closer and paid attention. They raised us. As for my mother, a reckless, fatherless teen was a challenge that she faced with dignity.

I have no illusions about my essay writing. It is for me, it is for my children and possibly, their children. I’m not sure I would have thought of doing this without having moved to Mexico. Writing to my daughters became the best way to stay aware of what was happening in their lives and so became something I did every day. MY children befriended me on Facebook, a brave act, because for them it was the easiest way to stay in touch. I could see their latest photos, their quips and comments and have some idea of what they were thinking that day. But for me posting on Facebook is a little like having a conversation in a station waiting for a train. Uncomfortable talk offered loudly over background noise, announcements in a public place, where there is way too much for the eye to see and ear to catch to actually pay close attention to anything. So we started a blog. And this blog feels like our private space. We are its only visitors and maybe a passerby stumbles upon it, fair enough. But it is one of the curiosities of modern communication that this blog can become a family letter to itself.
So I am searching for a voice, to leave some whiff of who I am behind and open a window on this time. It will most likely be an everyday voice, a summing up voice. I have lived much more than half of my life and there is a lot to summarize. And it is to this attempt to summarize that my mind naturally wanders. There are the big topics, the little topics and all the in- between. Big topics: what is a good life or a steady moral compass? How do you come to know yourself? What is that voice in your head? Or the little topics; this or that movie, book or quote, that I can’t live without, and maybe you will like too. Here’s why. Or, this morning in the garden, I saw… And then, there are the in-between topics, which for me could be the whole wide world of interesting things to look into just a little more. What is a cephalopod? What would we do without bees and bats? Why does Yoga work so well? At this past half-past point on the clock the world is chock full of topics to explore. So I hope to explore away and put thoughts into a voice. An honest voice that warns when a rant is brewing up ahead and that really tries to find the kernel of the thing beneath the rhetoric of deeply divided viewpoints. I want a voice that could become a sensibility coherent enough to open a window on this time of ours. Is it narcissistic, or a kindness, I can’t say yet, probably both. It is for my children and it is for me. And here again Louis Menand makes it clear to me…
“Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stray Thoughts

The storm blew in with all the fury of the wounded, clearing away the last spider-thin strands of summer. Later, I came across a firefly who had lingered too long, unaware that he was flickering in vain at the city lights. Later still my life was unexpectedly dusted off and handed back to me, different than it was before. These are just a few of the infinite ways hearts can be broken and remade daily. Almost like they become fluid and fill the containers set before them, expanding and contracting with their surroundings. So when things shrink so small as to seem hollow, remember: Leave a light burning. Leave a window open. Things will change again.