For the Record: Life First, then Art

When I was in fourth grade I wrote a book called “Flight” about two boys who travel through the Milky Way. They talked about what they saw along the way, and they seemed in no worry for want—if they got hungry they had plenty of Milky Ways and Mars bars to eat, and one of the two had stuffed his pockets with “Now and Laters” for that long stretch between Mars and Jupiter. I write all this in past tense since I have no idea what happened to it. I can picture the construction paper cover, and I typed it on a small manual typewriter I also used to write letters to my friend Charlie in the old neighborhood.

We had just moved to a new area surrounded by two waterways: the Great South Bay and the Connetquot River. We had also just watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I was obsessed with space travel. I had a brown jacket with patches on it and memorized all the astronauts and their flight assignments. All of it. I was also enthralled by writing. So naturally, I wrote about space travel.

When I got sick, my mother made me a small desk from a folding tray with a placemat on it, and I used it in the den and would carry it to my room, my first room I had without my brother, so I was able to leave my “manuscript” out all the time. This was fourth grade and I had pneumonia so missed a chunk of school, which allowed plenty of writing time. That small folding-tray table desk got a lot of use.

I also typed a poem about Christmas. I don’t have that anymore either, but I still remember some of it:

Christmas is coming, it’s coming soon

But not that soon since it’s not yet June

So I’ll sit here and watch the moon

With all my Christmas plans in ruins.

Kind of dark. I was ten. And I recall the “s” at the end of “ruins” bothered me. But, man, I wrote it at my own desk. How cool was that? 

I’m sixty years old and a writer now (thanks Tim O. for the line), and I’m sitting in my home at my desk looking out at acres of oak trees with bare branches. The area is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay in one direction and the Rappahannock River in another. A little while ago a hawk was on one of the branches, no doubt looking down and sizing up the doves and cardinals at the feeders and birdbaths on the front lawn. It is absolutely peaceful here with osprey and deer. The closest town is four miles away and even that is little more than a bank, a convenience store, a hardware store, and a vet. The busiest of them all is the vet, not just for dogs and cats but the myriad farm animals nearby, particularly horses. I know nothing of horses despite having more of them as neighbors than I do people. But I know Alice Walker was right when she wrote, “Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.”

But right now I’m at this desk, which is not unfamiliar as it belonged to my parents since I was young. They purchased it when we moved to a new house. And now it is mine, and I sit behind it looking out at the oaks; scatterings of notes cover the desktop.

It is impossible to predict where the best place to write might be. The manuscript I’m editing now comes from letters I wrote at a booth in the dining car crossing Russia. The car was mostly empty so I was always able to sit with my papers spread about, a cup of tea, or, later in the morning, a beer or two, and work away while outside the glass-plate window birch forests dominated the hemisphere. Years before that I once did a great deal of writing in a bar, and these days for the most part I work well in my mind. I have a friend who writes poetry in coffeeshops or museums, and another who writes in her “writing room” looking out at the quaint houses on the beautiful street in her small town.

For me, the writing occurs when I walk, or when I’m driving, and disjointed, seemingly irrelevant events slam together in my mind. I might have spent time with family, and then went for a walk along the bay, and later had something to eat with a friend, and somewhere in the following days my caffeinated mind wanders between these events, amazed at the connections between stories of ancestry followed by the persistent pounding of waves, followed by the complete absorption in the enjoyment of the passing of time. And as the hours pass the connections become more obvious, the balance between childhood memories shared with my siblings now that we’re all AARP members, and how time can often tease us with occasional flutters in our linear perception. Between old stories of younger days and the eternal ebb and flow of tides as I walk on the beach, and the suspension of all measure when talking to a friend, the writing begins, the mostly futile attempts to capture something of this passing. And now this desk is the caldron in which those ingredients simmer.

I don’t ever remember seeing my father or mother sit at this desk. In fact, despite the passing of more than forty years with it in the family, I might just be the first person to actually sit at it and do work. It had always been primarily aesthetic by location and, as a practicality, a storage area for their important papers. And I am positive no computer has ever been atop it as mine is now. Everything is repurposed eventually.

Even us.

I’m happy with my new work area, though I still like writing at the oyster shack or the café by the bay. I added this to my possessions at the same time I’m getting rid of so many, many things. I’m selling most of my art, giving away parts of my past, and thinning out my souvenirs. I’m sure part of it is my post-pilgrimage epiphany that our most precious possessions are the moments spent along the way; the backyard games on the Island with my brother and sister, the dinners with my parents, laughing and crying with friends at college, and of course, the love and loss and heartaches along the way since. I don’t need souvenirs of Tuesday nights when Dad and I drank Scotch, or early morning conversations with my mom at the breakfast table. Nor do I need “things” from the past two and a half decades—the hours of evening conversations with my son, our shared cabin on a train to the other side of the world, and our month-long journey side by side on the Camino. Come on, what possible souvenir comes close? Oh, I have pictures of all these times, of course, and I cherish them and look at them often. But I have never been able to find a trinket worth keeping.  

But I can sit at this desk and write stories about the journey. And these small stories, while irrelevant to others, are my possessions. Like some glance at the curio cabinet, I sit at this desk and open a file and write about memories. Like how Dad and I used to watch the Super Bowl together every year at his house. We’d have wings and shrimp my mother would put out, and drink beer—a side-step from the Scotch since football calls for beer—and talk about the players and the missed opportunities. We laughed at commercials but never watched the half-time show. Dad didn’t care and I would rather talk to him.

And in the bottom right drawer of this desk which I’ll probably always refer to as “my parents’ desk,” are rough drafts about teaching, about ancestry, and about Africa. Souvenirs fall short of experience; we know that. Words come closer but they remain little more than some form of shorthand to remind us of the complete narrative. Even pictures for all their emotional tugs remain stagnant, moments more than memories. No, the only true way to enjoy the memories is to make them, to push away from my parents’ desk and go.  Writing comes close, for me anyway, like writing music might for my friends Jonmark or Doug, or painting might for Mikel; but I’m more than a little confident they’d all agree that even their best work can leave them shaking their heads, thinking, “No, no. Not exactly.”

No, life must come first; art is the imitator. Many years ago when Facebook was new my niece Erin updated her status to read: “I’m too busy out living my life to post about it on Facebook.” I never forgot that. I’m grateful to sit at my parents’ desk to do my writing, but their much more treasured gift to me was my desire to live life to begin with, to have something to write about.

So I sit down and gather my thoughts, put on some old Jackson Browne, and tie together seemingly irrelevant happenings, sometimes discovering the serendipity in the world. And later in the evening my son will call up and ask if I want to join him outside to use the telescope and gaze at constellations out across the bay.  So I’ll save the document, push away from the desk, head outside and find Mars above the horizon, and in some small way live out our own version of some story somewhere about two young boys traveling through the Milky Way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s