My Back Pages

This month I’m writing a memory-based prose passage every single day for 31 consecutive days. Full confession: I want my disparate anecdotes and narratives and fragments to turn into a book, and this seems like a way in. Don’t ask me what kind of book it is; I just call it a book. I keep saying book book book to myself every day this summer hoping that at some point the whole concept starts to look and feel less illusory. Even writing these words right now—confession, book, memory—makes me feel a little twitchy, a little cheap. A little foolish. But I can keep deleting and putting blank pages in the file or I can write some memories. The trouble is, I’m not too good at memory. My most vivid stories are from the recent past, and luckily I’m hell-bent on putting a few of those down for posterity. There’s a shape that’s been taking place in the arc of this decade I’m fast approaching the end of, and I know that’s the heart of the thing. The book. But what about what came before? The then that informs the now? I know some of that is stitched into these recent lines. Mary Karr says: “If you have a bad memory, give it up.” When I read that I scoffed a little, wondered how right she was, and then said fuck that. I’m doing it anyway. I don’t know if it’s age, I don’t know if it’s my genes or what—or, much more to my chagrin, if it’s the years and years of drinking (& a few drugs) that shot my mental storage facility through with holes, but I’ve never had a really good one. My sister always rolls her eyes at how poorly I remember things, but I’m grateful at least she can recall the bulk of our childhood, because I sure can’t.

Yesterday, the day after Sam Shepard died, my old buddy John texted me and said remember that time you smoked a cigarette with Sam Shepard on the bricks in front of the Cedar? I nearly slapped my forehead with my palm. Even after reading Shepard’s obit and the beautiful essay by Patti Smith about her old buddy, I still didn’t remember my one moment of faux intimacy with that oddball genius, his striking, sad face. But then I did, sort of. I remembered it like I do most of that time of my life—a little drunk, a blurry frame around a mess of feelings I didn’t know how to name. When John said he asked you what you knew about horse country, I thought to myself Ahh—the memory straightened up a bit in the frame, illuminated by the Cedar in the background, a warm buzz of sounds I can layer together with a whole stack of different nights, melded as one. I told John I wish I remembered more of Shepard and less of some of those other nights, but I’m not necessarily writing those stories. He told me that perhaps there’s something embedded in the fact that I don’t remember it all. Or all of it. I’m still working on the truth of that idea, but what if my memory is more willful than I think? What if I have all the pieces I need, and the ones I’ve forgotten are where they ought to be?

I started seeing a healer recently. I can’t really explain what that means, and it doesn’t matter. Like anybody else, I’ve got some stuff to sort out. In the first session she asked me what was coming up in my mind, one thing to put a pin on, and I said Home. She asked me to stand up and face the direction that meant home to me right now, and I turned my body facing west, toward the mountains. Then she asked me to turn the other way, and face where I’d come from. Here are the memories, I thought. I felt my insides flooded with salt water, my mother’s face, my sister. Light on the horizon, slung low beneath the clouds. Red and fiery pink. There’s more there, too. Pine trees and a yard needled with their green, legs covered in mud, splintery oars and a john boat tipping ever over. A little blurry in the frame. A mess of feelings I’m more apt to name now. I remember today it’s been six years since I stopped drinking and I’m glad for many reasons, but not the least of which is a clearer memory. Less to forget, and more of a way in—which is where I’m headed.