Friday, November 26, 2010

186. What I Remember of the Past, I Keep in an Object I Can Hold in My Hands

Thinking about what I’d say to you on this birthday,
on this day of reaching the middle of a century you might not finish,
and thinking about it even though I wouldn’t share the words with you today
but only make them for you now, put them together, give them shape,
I thought about the process of time and how a life is lived through it
against our will, how we always desire the past, either its security
or a chance to live it differently, how we always desire the future,
which we imagine into a perfection we could never live through,
perfect in its way even in those instances when we imagine the worst,
how we live uncomfortably in the present, where we inextricably exist.

I’m sitting by a fire through a night after Thanksgiving,
which was my eldest niece’s birthday, which fact reminded me that
your birthday falls often enough on that holiday, making that day for you
a day maybe forgotten, or slipped sideways for a while as people attend
to the main event, which is, after all, a celebration that hundreds
of millions celebrate all at once, and that serves as a reminder to us
that we are only, each of us, an individual, a single instance of humanity,
not enough for much attention, and maybe too little for the attention
we crave, yet there is something significant in each of us, we are
small bearers of signs and thoughts sent out into the world,
and we go forth, unbidden, to make something out of what we find.

My own journey has taken fifty and a half years so far, ignoring
the extra day for now, and I find myself thinking today of the objects
in our lives, and how they make sense of our lives, how our lives’ essences
seem to adhere to the objects we keep with us, even though that sense we have
of their significance is merely a reminder of the memories we attach
to those objects, and the importance we perceive exuding from the events
those memories are associated with, so that we find ourselves memorializing
objects as the manifestations of past events, objects that continue to live with us,
yet things are just things, when our more malleable memories and
the almost evanescent fact of the people of our lives are really all we have,
flesh and blood and thought, the flesh that holds you together, the blood
that makes you move, and the thought that gives you human form.

I write this wide river of words to you quickly, beside a fire that keeps
my feet too warm and that sends the occasional red spark
out to the far end of the red-brick hearth, and the popping of the fire
and these shooting sparks keep my mind on my letter to you, as I sit here
beside my Ekeko, the colorful little Andean god of abundance and prosperity,
something my family picked up at an Alasitas one January 24th in the ’70s,
though his knit cap is pulled down too far over his eyes, his mouth is open
in a greeting, both his arms are raised to welcome us, and he is surrounded
by the concrete plenty that he promises us, a clay house, sacks of many grains,
there must be quinoa in one of them, a plastic bag of pasta, a tiny clay cup,
an Andean panpipe, and even a llama, though the paper money seems
to have been lost over the course of these last few decades, financial wealth
remains a palpable promise from this only god who spends time in my house.

When I think of the objects in my house that mean the most to me, that
I cherish in some way, I think of this jovial Ekeko, the vestiges of another god
by the same name, a Tiahuanacan god of more seriousness than wishes
for financial security, but when I think about books, among the most precious
of my possessions, I think of one of the many strange books I own by the poet
Robert Grenier, a book called Sentences, it comes not as a codex,
but as a box, dark blue, that unfolds into something vaguely the shape of a bird
as it reveals a stack of 500 cards, eight inches wide by five inches tall,
each carrying upon its face a single small poem, sometimes extending but
the breadth of a single word, and each of them a queer little bit of wordplay,
all of them real, about a life, about experience, about memories, about
the people he lived with and the places he lived, and I read this book
at least once a year, to remind me of the effort it takes to read through
so many cards, keeping them orderly as I do, but also to live
inside this precious object of words, this carrier of coded meaning
that moves through time at the same pace and in the same way that we do,
we carriers of coded meaning and memories.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon today, I realized that neither
of theseimportant objects in my life, neither of these objects that
somehow define me and my life, really is the most significant,
because I’d remembered my puppet, which is a longer story and one
much more deeply personal, for this puppet is something my parents
and I made, separately but also together, and the reason we made it
was because it was an assignment at my school,
the Deutsche Schule zu Porto, where the children in my class
fashioned little pink papier-mâché heads designed to resemble
our respective selves, and our parents were assigned the task of completing
the hand puppets we had made the heads for, so my father carved
wooden shoes for the puppet with holes in the heels into which a button
would fit to allow a way to sew the shoes onto the puppet, and he carved
the wooden hands of the puppet, each holding a plate so that the fingers
wouldn’t break off during use, and my mother, she sewed an elaborate
costume for this clown, a tall pointed hat in red and yellow with
a yarn tassel at the end, a tunic doubly and triply frilled
in yellow at the collar, the ends of the sleeves, and along the hem,
and the red tunic itself she decorated with additional symbols,
the sturdy brown corduroy trousers covered with geometrical designs she frilled
at the cuffs, again in yellow, and the clown’s hair peeking from
under his jaunty hat was the blond hair of my childhood, before
I turned brunet in my teens, before I turned bald in my thirties, meaning
that this hand puppet represents me, is me, carries my DNA, is something
my parents made as they had made me, something I made as well as I have also
made myself, something that recalls a period of my life when I spoke
three languages a day, English at home, Portuguese at home and school,
German only at school, and this puppet is something unique to me, something
none of my five other siblings received, something that memorializes,
in one sense, nothing more than a school assignment, but something
that gives me a sense of what I was, and who I am, and what it was
I was supposed to be even if I never had become it.

This is your birthday, of course, so I shouldn’t write so much about myself,
but I write about my own memories and the objects of my life, my childhood,
my adolescence, my adulthood, so I can elicit thoughts from you,
so that you will realize that you’ve lived a good life, and long enough
not to be able to die young, and you have your own memories,
those stories that, together, form a picture of who you are,
a small childhood in France, that school of yours associated with the college
where your parents taught French, the bald fact of your life lived
in the middle of upstate New York, in a small city surrounded
by forest and field, and that’s what I want you to think about,
that accumulation of events, that amassing of objects
that leaves you with the sharp sense of who you are.

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