Friday, February 17, 2012

Performance Piece

As you might have noticed, I am writing a sort of autobiographical novella called, A Child’s Encyclopedia, in real time. I say “sort of” because I cannot completely vouch for the veracity of all of the events depicted here. Some may have been tinted by time. The story is about the house I grew up in North Tonawanda, NY and how I came to lose it.

Now and then disconnected sentences or paragraphs from it pop-up on Facebook. For reasons too complicated to go into here, I have no personal research materials (no interviews, no photos, no diaries, no letters, no newspaper clippings, no scrapbooks, no et ceteras) from which to reconstruct the first few years of my life. Everyone depicted is dead in one way or another. Including me. In a way. I am relying entirely on my own memories and occasional trips to Google to research obituary dates.

Why am I doing this? For fun, mostly. I am sure you have heard of those peculiar people (mostly men) who memorize baseball statistics and who are able to reconstruct whole games in their heads based entirely on numbers. I like to do something similar with images in my life: remembering a helicopter seed whirling down from a maple during a solar eclipse in 1973, the amount of force I used to crush a cigarette during a tense telephone conversation, the cloudy gray binding of a translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils I happened to glance over and see—spread open like a dead moth the floor—just at the point of climax one delirious afternoon in Harlem. This is how I waste my time waiting for trains.

But since it seems a tragedy to let all of this imaginative exercise go to waste, I thought I would start writing these things down.

What I noticed when I began to jot them down is that these odd images began to tell a story that I had not noticed at the time I was living through the events themselves, only in retrospect. I then asked myself the question: was I imposing some kind of order on the past or was the past imposing some kind of order on me? What actually was going on in my surroundings during that eclipse? How come I didn’t close my eyes in Harlem and lose myself utterly in the experience? Is there any coherent explanation for what is going on?

Yes and no.

I think the fundamental problem here is one of perspective—how events appear in isolation and broadly and collectively over time. What we mistake for the foreground in one era dissolves into the background of another. Comedy and Tragedy can occupy the exactly the same place in space and time, it seems to me, without the fabric of reality being torn apart in a gigantic anti-matter explosion.

The only variable I can perceive is the lighting. Some days are grainier and rainier than others. We are always in different places when the Sun and Earth collide. Comedy and Tragedy are not. They are wherever we are. In a way, I think that it is in the eyes of a child that we can see reality reflected the best. Not for sentimental reasons, of course—not because childhood is some golden land of innocence and opportunity—it isn’t for most us—only because childhood is the period in our lives least structured by experience. Everything seems so vivid and fresh.

For evolutionary reasons relating to survival, memories are laid down on multiple tracks in the brain at this time: skinned knees hurt more, the movement of slugs is mesmerizing and moss is a million times more emerald than emeralds. We do not yet know how to discriminate what is useful knowledge and what is not. Sometimes I am not sure I ever really learned to discriminate. Everything seems pretty important to me even at 43. Though paler. A scintilla more ghostly.

So, I have decided to compress my entire life—the most intense extremes of color and experience I have ever known—into the narrow space of a few years and test my theory about Comedy and Tragedy, space and time.

I intend to revel in my metaphorical isolation and reach out with prose simultaneously. I want to do something different in this book. I am writing it for a little girl who just recently turned 5. Right now the words I write are meaningless to her. A rainbow pair of socks made in China means more to her, I suspect, than the collective works of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare combined. As they should. Forever may they do so.

I will not always be here to send her pairs of socks and discuss the inhabitants, flora and fauna of Mars, unfortunately. She may have to settle for Shakespeare eventually. Or some good-hearted but misguided astronomer like Percival Lowell, the man who mapped the extensive network of non-existent canals on Mars. She may do something unexpected entirely. One could do worse, I suppose, than wake up a dreamer. We all learn to make do.

Even now, she is beginning to doubt that Santa has transferred his operations to Mars from the North Pole. She has been talking up Saturn, which worries me enormously. Eventually, I fear, Santa will move out of the solar system completely and effectively cease to exist. As will her crazy uncle. These things happen.

But the socks will remain, I trust, for a year or so, until they wear out. Memories of the texture of their threads will intertwine with this book. How she looks at those socks and how she reads my face later, she will compare to the younger person she talked to on Skype, the hat she tried on at a diner, a vacation we will take with her parents. I will look different, she will look different, the socks will fit differently, everything will be different. In fact, you might say that everything is already in flux and has been since I picked up my pen. Everything is already happening right now: the past is becoming the future the future the past with every word I write. That is the funny thing about time.

When I am finished, I am going to copy everything out in long hand in a Moleskine notebook (probably two) and give it to her as a present, with another pair of mismatched socks. I hope to do this in time for her 6th birthday, next year.

The book will still be unreadable, of course. Mismatched socks may well be out of fashion by next year. She may make a face at my gift. If she does, I will make a face back at her: because I know for a fact that those socks are going to be popular again. I have seen it happen over and over in the fashion industry. Things always come back into into style, even if only for a season. There is no reason for it. These things just happen.

Some are very lovely.

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