Tag Archives: Sven Birkerts

From Coincidence to Serendipity

I first posted this story over a year ago, just after I started this blog. It begs the question of whether there is coincidence or serendipity in the little treasures we find as we “scavenge” our lives while writing about them.  It’s also connected with a motif of trash, scrap, salvage, and scavenge in my book Scrap: Salvaging a Family (thanks to Renee for helping me with the subtitle).

Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste.  They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.

Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.

At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.

“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?”  I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.

“In an airplane.  You’ll see.  You can come with me when I take him.”

The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket.  His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour.  He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side.  He kissed the top of my head.   I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes.  Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.

She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane.  As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.

The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly.  As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.

I’ve never been able to leave this image behind.  The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.

I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.

It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently.  I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.” 

Why was this memory so important?

Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.

Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother.  The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss.  Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life.  After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.

Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss.  I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.

Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment.  But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.

When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy.  I had him back.  That part I don’t remember.

When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day.  When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine.  When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self.  That stanza felt ready-made for me.

But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading.  My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water.  I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.”  These are the final lines:

Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know

you were entered by incomprehensible light

in the hour of lemon & water

###

& the great wound of the world has slipped a code

into your shoe

###

A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground

###

It is the wing

It doesn’t abandon you

What serendipity.  The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me.  The plane I wanted to follow behind.

***

Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?

27 Comments

Filed under Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

From Coincidence to Serendipity

Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste.  They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.

Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.

At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.

“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?”  I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.

“In an airplane.  You’ll see.  You can come with me when I take him.”

The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket.  His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour.  He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side.  He kissed the top of my head.   I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes.  Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.

She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane.  As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.

The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly.  As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.

I’ve never been able to leave this image behind.  The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.

I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.

It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently.  I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.” 

Why was this memory so important?

Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.

Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother.  The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss.  Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life.  After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.

Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss.  I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.

Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment.  But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.

When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy.  I had him back.  That part I don’t remember.

When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day.  When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine.  When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self.  That stanza felt ready-made for me.

But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading.  My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water.  I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.”  These are the final lines:

Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know

you were entered by incomprehensible light

in the hour of lemon & water

###

& the great wound of the world has slipped a code

into your shoe

###

A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground

###

It is the wing

It doesn’t abandon you

What serendipity.  The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me.  The plane I wanted to follow behind.

***

Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?

11 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Poetry

Breaking the Codes of Childhood

“Each [memoir] is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

When I was a young teen we had a subscription to Psychology Today.  I read about codes and code breaking in one issue and all my Nancy Drew instincts banded together and urged me on to become a code cracker.  This desire had probably originated even earlier as I’d ordered a book on codes from the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade.  The book had seemed beyond my abilities until I read the magazine article; that’s when I appropriated the large blackboard on our basement wall and began studying code breaking in earnest.  My mother would shake her head when she came down to sort laundry.  The board was riddled with what looked like equations made up of hangman games.  It’s likely that I had a distracted absent-minded professor look on my face.  Within a year I started dating, which gave me human codes to crack, and I gave up on my CIA code-breaking dream.

Click here to locate book on Amazon

A few years ago I began work on a memoir.  As I write about my past, I try to find keys to the meanings of my memories.  This process is not much different from the code cracking I taught myself as a teen.  We have memories, Sven Birkerts explains, which are involuntary.  As memoirists, we need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.

One of those moments for me happened when I was a toddler.  I’d been quarantined to my bedroom for days from illness, but was finally well enough to be allowed out of my bed.  Mom carried me out to the living room and plopped me onto a chair. I leaned back, angling myself against the chair back, waggling my feet out in front of me. I felt antsy all over–as if I needed to get outside or I’d suffocate.

My parents had finished supper an hour before, and Dad had been at his workbench since then. Now he’d come upstairs and was conferring with Mom in the doorway to the kitchen.  “What do you think about going to Lockshore Dairy for some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?”

As if the fog in my head parted at that moment, my mind pounced with clarity. “Ice cream?! Mommy!  Daddy!  Please!”

My parents looked at me in surprise and then exchanged a look with each other. After all, I was not much more than an infant to them.  My mother said, “She can read!”

My parents would no longer be able to spell their secrets when I was in the room.  Their dismay over my code breaking was overshadowed by their pride in my spelling ability. Their beaming faces glowed together into one big shining focus.

I have no memory of learning to read.  I remember my mother making reading cards for my little brother and painstakingly teaching him to read.  I asked her the other day if she taught me to read the same way she did my brother, but she couldn’t recall.  What I remember is assembling the letters in my head into a readable code and the hidden answer “ice cream” popping into my head and onto my tongue.  The reward for reading was that my parents now had no choice but to load me up in the backseat of the car and head downtown.  The satisfaction of breaking the code of words was thus reinforced with a vanilla ice cream cone, as well as a taste of Dad’s butter pecan and Mom’s tutti-frutti.

Maybe it was more than the ice cream.  It could have been seeing my parents’ smiles glowing together, knowing that at that moment they were united and happy with my achievement.  It’s possible I spent years trying to replicate that moment with my report cards.

Looking farther afield from that moment, I’m struck by the timeline.  Reading came together for me after I had been sick in bed for a week, imprisoned in my bed within my narrow bedroom.  In this way, reading came to represent freedom, something which I spent my childhood longing for.  And so I read.  First, I read my Little Golden books and in kindergarten I graduated to my mother’s Bobbsey Twin books, which were followed by Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton and then the Louisa May Alcott books.  Eventually they led to the code book and Psychology Today and Birkerts’ theories of writing memoir.

###

Writing Prompt: A voluntary memory is one we  actively seek to remember.  An involuntary one is a small, mundane memory which appears in the mind without having to search for it by will.  Write an involuntary memory down using as much detail as you can remember.  Then try to recall, if possible, what came right before and what came right after.  Write it all down.  When you read over what you have written watch for details which surprise or intrigue you, as well as connections to other memories and connections to who you are today.  Write about these connections and what you learn from the details.

19 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Writing prompt