As a child on a warm spring night, if allowed to stay up late, I would sit with my grandparents on our third floor porch as the seven hills of Worcester blinked on and off in the distance. Around us would be arranged the rest of our immediate extended family, about 16 of them, whose genetic relationship to me was often quite obscure.
My grandfather would lead us on a charge through the cannon-fire at Gettysburg. A bit tipsy, an uncle would start to sing. My godfather would pontificate on his research into branches of the family tree, and tell of trudging up muddy roads to the stones at Eanloch, of the way that leads from Drogheda out past Ail na Mureaan, of hours spent in the attics of 18th-century churches. My grandfather would snort. He was not sentimental about Ireland. His father had come from there. So much for the good old days! Life here was good – and could be improved only if we still rode horses. Our one unwed mother would tell an off-colour joke, learned (of course) from a French Canadian. Moths would launch attacks on bulbs. My grandmother would harmonise the narrative cacophony.
Back and forth they would all rock in their chairs. They would joke and argue and tell stories late into the warm spring night. Trees would rustle. The scent of lilacs would waft up from the yard. Time would stop, almost. The moon would move. Crickets would continue to make noise as the sound of traffic slowly disappeared. I would swing to sleep in a hammock, not knowing if what I saw was a story or a dream.
Too many of our living libraries have no-one to assist them with repairs. The moment scheduled for transformation passes. It is time for them to go. There is a Hasidic saying that when a person is killed a whole world disappears with him or her. It ceases to exist in a mode available to the community – at least to the community of the living. The same holds true when a person dies with his or her stories unrecorded.
My memory swells, but the promise that it holds is false. The all-protective guardians of my childhood become smaller as I grow. Each year, the Earth revolves more deeply into darkness.
Sadly, I am no biographer, and cannot retell the particular stories of my grandparents. Or perhaps, when all is said and done, I am their testament, but their stories are the bones and nerves and organs of my body. I can only suggest some portion of the magic of their words, as the moon floated above our back porch long ago, and crickets chirped, and the sound of traffic slowly faded into silence.
There is a Hasidic saying that when a person is killed a whole world disappears with him or her. The same holds true when a person dies with his or her stories unrecorded.
As the years went by and men set foot on the moon. As McDonald’s built golden arches and TVs broadcast a revolution and atomic fission was employed to boil water. As fish had puppies and Earth’s population doubled. As ten-year-olds in the Amazon were taught to ‘walk a mile for a Camel’. As Pemex set up oil rigs on the Olmec ruins at La Venta and the dead pronounced a collective curse upon the clanking. As almost 98% of our DNA was determined to be ‘junk’ and this junk was then bought up by the most corrupt of cabals. As apes threw thighbones at the black obelisk that had haunted them.
As Surrealism found a locked door at the end of the Unconscious. As dreams bred monsters and new polymer chains were developed and the Great Society was destroyed by madness and the best minds of a generation competed to outsource their own lives. As the Future was sacrificed on the altar of the International Monetary Fund. As wind whistled through the broken windows of abandoned factories in the Rust Belt and only birds manned the machines. As the First World became more and more similar to the Third and the real world was replaced by an almost exact duplicate. As this duplicate became less and less like anything that was real.
As centrifugal force triumphed and as contemporary culture sprawled in all directions, my relatives moved a hundred or a thousand or three thousand miles away, or died.
Trailing supernatural powers, like the light from a dead sun, the Tuatha de Danaan had disappeared beyond the seven hills of Worcester. Empty chairs rocked back and forth. A layer of dust on the furniture remembered the once-heated arguments of the tribal council. My grandparents lost their audience. They were left almost alone. Bit by bit they drifted into memory, where their stories came to resemble continuously repeating tape loops. The culture had moved on, without them. There was little to focus their energies on present interactions.
With a change of scene, perhaps – in the aftermath of a trip to the Grand Canyon – or when some interesting new person might appear, the occult shape of their experience might suddenly snap back into focus. Wisdom had indeed accumulated. It was waiting to flash out with force, with the authority of the Senex, with the fearless joy of childhood. Filled with wonder, eyes would again grow sharp. They had been looking for the circle of stories where they had expected to end their days – a circle that had existed for millennia. It had been carried off from under them.
Now, new immigrant families occupy the three-decker that I grew up in, with its open porches, with its scent of lilacs in the spring, and with its panoramic view of the horizon. In my fingers, even to this day, I can feel the tin cans, large iron keys, one-handed clocks, shoes, anvils, rusted spark plugs, bent bicycle wheels, broken snake-oil bottles from the 1920s, and other treasures that I dug up from the yard. I marvel at how things so close can be simultaneously so far away. Some part of me is still rooted there, in the damp earth, in the strata of a house that has its own mode of existing.
Each year, the few dozen photographs that I have left of my grandparents look slightly the worse for wear, as a crack deepens or a piece crumbles from an edge. My fingers do not touch the things they hold, yet there is nonetheless some point to going through the motions. At times, I think that there is some circle on the other side of death, where a Bronze Age tripod has been set above a fire. I can see how the embers cast their light on the assembly. It is possible, I think, that seats for my grandparents had been long ago reserved there. There, it is possible that the feast is just getting started. To celebrate the solstice, or some other punctuation of a 26,000-year curve, the tribes have just come together from the four corners of the Zodiac. ‘So,’ says a distant cousin, ‘perhaps one of you would like to drop a stone into the soup?’ With their golden bodies, sporting incomprehensible glyphs, the dead may once again be able to pass for 15 or 16.
Biology betrays me. My right knee unexpectedly gives out. As one form of memory grows weaker there is another form that grows stronger. Each year, I add to my catalogue of wounds. I start to see how these are essential to my story, how certain misfortunes should be understood as gifts. When I speak to myself, there are others who now appear to be listening, and the voices of those not present are much louder than they were. There is a stone that goes before me through the arc of my displacement. It is tiny, and it glows.
Image: Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, discovered in a peat bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, which is thought to depict scenes from Celtic mythology.
Very evocative- the movement from the personal to the philosophically reflective, from youth to the beginning of age in which the vivid becomes harder to remain vivid and the loss of the ‘tribe’ is anticipated, by its single member.
Story compels more immediately from the declaration of the individual that stamps its relevance on the universal. Lovely mellifluous piece.
Brian, I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in a town fifty miles from Worcester, in an Irish-Italian Catholic family. But my family chose to honor the past by keeping silent about it, and everyone died before I was old enough to ask the right questions. So, I’m terribly envious of your porch family gatherings, your storytellers, the fact that any of this has survived because of you. So much of my own family’s past will be forever unknown.
Sometimes, at flea markets, I’m tempted to buy lots of old unidentified photographs and make up an album for them, complete with an invented history. I haven’t actually done this yet, but it bothers me to see these 100+ year old photos being thrown away simply because no one knows (or cares) who they depict. Would be it be better to create a history for these people, to give them another chance at “life”? Or should we be content to let these images of the past go, along with all of the other detritus of the past?
Our experiences of being wrenched out of a sense of full connection to the past are not as different as they might seem. One reason that the memories described in the essay have such emotional weight and resonance for me is that the constellation of forces that allowed for this sharing of stories—for a partial reenactment of a much older type of circle—lasted only a few years longer. By the time that I was ten, the relatives who lived in our three-decker had moved to other states. Those relatives who were left in the Worcester area felt less and less of a need to maintain the coherence of the circle. Even if everybody had stayed around, however, other factors were quickly changing. People had started to watch more and more TV. U.S. culture has a way of recreating even the occasional group of holdouts in its image. With men landing on the moon, why should anyone be that concerned with what happened centuries ago or with maintaining a type of communication that had clearly become outmoded? To the extent that awareness of cultural history survived, it tended to be in an airbrushed and sentimentalized version. The Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Sons of Italy may be perfectly fine organizations, but there is a gulf between our happy visions of our countries of origin and their actual dark and tangled histories.
Of my father’s side of the family, I know next to nothing. My parents divorced when I was four years old. After this, I saw my father once or twice a year until I was 11, and then not at all until I was 23. He had grown up in Michigan, the son of a milkman. He had dreams of becoming a classical cellist and then later of becoming an affluent businessman. He put the first dream to the side and managed to achieve the second—but only at a cost. No matter what questions I asked or how subtly I attempted to probe, he no interest at all in revisiting his Midwest childhood or saying anything about our family’s history. My mother had always told me that George was an English name. I only found out at my father’s funeral in 1998 that it was Welsh. After his death, my father’s third wife, Judith, gave me a manila envelope with hundreds of photographs of relatives. Aside from his mother—who I saw only once since the age of four, at my father’s wedding to Judith—and my three uncles, two of whom I had never met until the funeral—I had no idea of who any of them were.
In a number of essays, I have done my best to assemble the few fragments of family history that my father had let slip. Here, for example, are a few paragraphs from an essay about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the odd catalytic effect that it sometimes has on people. During one visit to the museum, my father seemed to be under a spell. The courtyard of the museum had reminded him of the courtyard of a house that he had owned in Mexico, and this set in motion a chain of associations. Like a hunter making use of every scrap of skin and tendon and bone from an animal, I have attempted to make use of whatever small bits of history that I have been able to recover. In this essay—“The Mad Mother of Barbarian Tribes”—I write:
“On this day, however, the museum had taken charge, and it had prompted him to speak in great detail about his thoughts and memories and emotions.
“Thoughts of the house where he grew up in Holland, Michigan, where his neighbors would scrub the sidewalks with soap and water every morning, led to thoughts about his father’s frustrations as a milkman, his early death, at the age of 48, and a family secret that he had never before mentioned, a secret that was intimately tied to the event. Also, what a horror show it was to grow up without much money! Thoughts of the large dining room windows of the town, designed so that passersby could judge the order of each household, led to thoughts about his mother’s undiagnosed mental illness, her off and on confinement at the Lakeshore hospital, her sudden conversion from strict Dutch Reform Calvinism when she wanted to start a family dance band. How difficult it had become to locate Holland on a map! Black waterfalls had swallowed the toy houses of his youth. Where Holland was, there was only a deep chasm.”
Certain places, or buildings, exert a powerful effect upon certain people, despite the fact that this is often inexplicable. I’ve had strong (but inarticulate) reactions to places such as Peabody Museum at Harvard and certain hillsides overlooking the sea. I believe that some places are “thin”, and allow unconscious material to drift closer to the surface. For me, the effect is like being in a glass-bottomed boat, looking down into the sea, and watching creatures swim by, who are just a bit too far away to make out. Frustrating and tantalizing. But, I suppose, better than being unable to see anything at all.
About photographs — I inherited my parents’ wedding album. There is no next generation to pass it on to. I’m told by friends that artists buy these at flea markets and cut them up into pieces to make collages. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but again, it’s probably better than throwing it into the furnace.
Nothing lasts forever. But dammit, I wish some things would last at least long enough until I UNDERSTOOD them. It doesn’t look too promising, though.
Thanks for your writing, and your response. Let me know if you’re still hanging around Worcester.
About Isabella Stewart-Gardner, from the “Gale Encyclopedia of Biography”: “Her will…expressly forbade any changes to be made. Nothing could ever be sold, nor any new works added; window treatments and interior furniture were to remain as she had left them—the rearrangement of so much as one gave the board grounds to instantly dissolve the entire museum. This insured that Gardner’s Boston enemies could never disrupt or alter her legacy.”
I first discovered the Garner Museum when I came to Boston to go to art school in the mid-1970s. The spell cast by the museum was tangible. Back then, there was no charge for admission, and I would often stop by with friends to eat lunch on the wall at the edge of the courtyard. Without our ever really trying to analyze the effect, we would often note in passing that our senses seemed to be magnified, that our awareness of time was somehow altered, that we said or did things that we would not usually do or say. These unexpected words and actions were not random, however, they often opened windows to certain aspects of our natures that we kept out of public view. Over the years, with the accumulation of several dozen such experiences, I came to realize that there was indeed a logic to them, even if this logic led down and outwards and inwards and upwards to more than a single cause. There was, first, the mysterious geomagnetic power of the location itself, which could probably be dowsed and plotted on a map. The mystery of powerful places is perhaps more of a mystery to us than it should be. This original energy did not exist in an unmediated form, however; it was darkened and complicated by the very peculiar spirit of Mrs. Gardner herself, who I sometimes see as a spider, perched motionless at the corner of her web, her sense of touch finely tuned, as she waits for a fresh group of visitors to arrive.
I no longer live in Worcester, although I still return now and then to visit relatives. I now live in Boston with my family. We have one of our regular arts salons—with writers, artists, musicians, storytellers, etc.—coming up in October. It’s a bit of a trip from Worcester, but less us know if you are interested.
A marvelous piece, Brian. It’s just the right size and length for a more average person like me to support on the shoulders and to take a turn helping to carry it up the old dark mountain. If any heavier and longer, exhaustion would set in for most and their right knees would give out, if not their backs. It appears the editors did a wonderful job working with you.
The magnificent gigantic form traced at the center of your piece, through centrifugal force, twisting time and space into a spiral, turning it into a kind of Jacob’s ladder, screws and roots itself in the concrete and rises up a towering abstraction. What a view from the height! “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
(I read James Cagney wrote in his memoir: “I have an idea that the Irish possess a built-in don’t-give-a-damn that helps them through all stress.”)
This piece is beautifully condensed. Every sentence was not only deeply felt but then lifted up as if out of a clear stream of water, dried in the sun, kept outside through many a season, exposed to all the elements, dipped back under water for more cleansing and purification and then pulled out again, set back to dry in the sun, and after many cycles of this each in placement in relation to the others was handled with great care. That tiny glowing stone which appears at the end of the piece is remarkable. Blood stone, sun stone. The fusion of both makes it glow. All ancestors and even beyond them the gigantic processes of nature which shape the earth and carve features into it, mountains rising and in the valleys rivers and streams flowing through them, went into the creation of it. That tiny glowing stone has something sacramental about it.
Lovely piece, Brian.
You wrote, “Story compels more immediately from the declaration of the individual that stamps its relevance on the universal.” You have touched on an issue that goes to the heart of my approach to autobiographical prose. During my first phase as a writer, I wrote two books of avant-garde poetry. A bit later, when I moved more in the direction of spiritual discipline, I guess you would describe my poetry as “esoteric.” For many years, I had no interest in telling stories. Upon my father’s death in 1998—and with the writing of his eulogy—I came to realize how many experiences I had left out of my work. Somewhat unexpectedly, I started to write prose. I have never assumed, however, that all of my experiences were equally fascinating or that they were important just because they happened to me. Although I have sometimes read everything that I could find on certain artists, composers, and writers in an attempt to probe into the secrets of the creative process, I am, for the most part, not especially interested in the minute details of people’s biographies. In my own more personal essays, I try to focus on key memories or moments of transition, on those moments at which—however idiosyncratic the incident might be—the personal opens onto something larger. This is one way of describing my approach. You could just as easily say, though, that there are moments at which the space through which I moved reached down and into the psyche to transform it, and that, from a retrospective vantage point, I found methods to decipher what had happened.
I had never come across the Cagney quote before. It is a good one—more accurate than not. Of course, you also have the “landlord’s men,” the punctiliously pious, the scholastically long-winded, the pathologically nostalgic, the virtuosos of passive-aggression, those romantically obsessed with their own martyrdom, etc. As the quote applies to my own work, it is on the mark aesthetically. I don’t “give a damn” about trends of any type, and I have no interest in achieving literary success on anyone else’s terms. On the other hand, I do not see it as a bad thing to take the weight of the world on one’s shoulders, to probe into the complexities of evil, and to brood on the redrawing of Earth’s coasts.
Joke: Says an American tourist to a native in a Dublin train station, “Do you know what time it is? There are clocks everywhere, but the time is different on each clock.” The Dubliner responds, “If they all told the same time, then why would you need more than one?”
There is an alchemical maxim that I have always loved and that I have, to a great extent, done my best to live by. The maxim reads, “In my patience is my soul.” For me, the creative process is as much an alchemical as a literary one. In terms of method, the basic elements are subjected to considerable heat and pressure, split apart, plunged into chaos, and then coaxed through a series of reconfigurations. I do not write to illustrate ideas, as such—or at least not to illustrate ideas known in advance—and the process is not over until it is over.
There are journals that will not consider publishing a writer until he has submitted an outline for an essay not yet written. I am horrified by such demands. I would not go so far as to argue that an outline serves no purpose. It can certainly help one to get started; it can keep one from noodling, from pointless repetitions, and from trying to say too many things at once. When I was first starting to write prose, Noel Ignatiev, one of my teachers at Mass Art, gave some advice that changed my way of thinking. He said, “Don’t be afraid to charge the ball!” Even when writing in a blunt and muscular style, however, a good writer should take himself as well as others by surprise. I do not want to be informed of how much a writer knows. I want to be there to witness his voyage of discovery.
For someone who puts great faith in things seen in visionary flights, it can take me an absurd amount of time to bring an essay or a poem to completion. The first version of “The Centrifugal Displacement of the Tribe” was written in 2002. As simple and straightforward as parts of it might seem, the essay was taken apart and put back together quite a number of times, as you accurately suggest. Last spring, when I submitted it to Dark Mountain, I had assumed that it was done. It had, at any rate, stopped moving. Then Nick Hunt, the blog editor, pointed out that it lacked a strong closing paragraph. The previous version had ended with a one-line paragraph about memory. Since this was one of the first lines written, since it had acted as a kind of seed out of which many other lines had grown, it had somehow not occurred to me that it was not especially good. Gratitude or superstition has stopped me from looking at it too closely.
As soon as Nick called my attention to the problem, I was able to fill in what was missing: a paragraph that—on some level, and paradoxically—had been there all along.
This is not to say that a piece cannot pop out almost whole. Over the past three weeks, I have finished two adventurous pieces—an essay and a prose-poem—that I will probably leave as they are. Each piece has a life of its own, and the challenge is to listen and to respond to its demands. When I start to write, I never have any idea of how long the process will take, or of where I will end up. This is no doubt for the best. There are many things that I do not want to know.
I find these clarifications both interesting and challenging. You are explicit about your disinterest in the autobiographical (for which I must tender several apologies of imposition) I feel ambivalent and as though we come to the same view points from opposite directions. I am perhaps more gripped by the stones encrusted, or even corroded in raw experience before they are polished into the opals and agates of derived philosophies or lifted against the light of conjecture or reflection. For me it is the transformation from one into the other that is compelling, and the fine abrasives of the words that effect it.
What I do share ( in your answer to John Dockus) is the belief that the act of writing itself is the wormhole through which meaning and relevance and the universal reveals itself, so , like you, anecdotal of the complete and parceled event, is of scant interest. Just as reliance on the authority of others is dusty from its established respect (although its corroborative companionship is often welcome).
What has begun to fascinate is the dimensions of the framework in which a story/ event is not what it is when standing alone. Raise the frame and the meaning of it alters; its context either sharpens or blurs. What seemed anecdotal becomes pivotal.
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”–Flaubert
I fear that my comment may have created the wrong impression. I did not mean to suggest that my goal was to turn my own casual experiences into Classics—and that I had found some arcane means to do so—or that I cherry picked my life for experiences marked “TOP IMPORTANCE,” or that other people’s day to day experiences were somehow less important to me than my own. When I speak about the alchemy of the creative process, I am pointing, first of all, to the process of coming to terms with my own awkward limitations, to the Akido-like strategy of turning weaknesses into strengths. Beyond this, I am pointing towards my flying-by-seat-of-my-pants efforts to explore the ways in which chaos and choice and memory and pattern interact, to my struggle to extract the significance from events to which I gave only fragments of my attention at the time.
While I do document a number of unusual events in “Masks of Origin,” my book of more personal essays, the greater proportion of experiences described were more or less mundane—wandering a mile from my family house into a field when I was three, getting kicked out of parochial school due to a protest of Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, meeting a good teacher, visiting a museum, my various stages of realization in coming to terms with the narcissism of a friend, meeting a group of writers during my early days in Boston, breaking up with a girlfriend and meeting my current wife in my late-30s, visiting my daughter’s kindergarten class and contemplating the explosive energies of early childhood, etc. If I had a more photographic memory, it is possible that I would get lost in it, and this book would be 3500 pages instead of the 350 that it is.
Luckily, my own more limited memory has done a great deal of filtering for me. After years of stretching language to the breaking point in the service of plunging into the depths, it was the very commonness of certain experiences that prompted me to write prose—or, more specifically, to discover the mystery that is hidden in even the most common of incidents and objects. With this shift of focus in the late 1990s, just as I wanted to probe into the mystery of the object, I also wanted to greatly increase the clarity of my sentences, to take the reader more fully into account, to challenge and to provoke, to strip off any excess even as I left plenty of space for paradox and the ambiguity of the image and irony and subtle implication. To see the ocean in a grain of sand seemed a reasonable possibility, but I also wanted to hold that ocean in my hand.
The ‘ocean in your hand’ is what you do very well indeed. The ‘grain of abrasive sand’ sometimes gets overwhelmed in the crashing pounding waves of the ocean. But I am merely one in a multitude, and have my own preferences (as you do). For me it is the transfer from one to the other that holds the fascination. Words are the magical language that lies between the two.