I remember remembering. Remember, as I wrote in suburban Boston about my childhood in suburban Philadelphia, the gradual recovery of so much detail that when I stopped writing for the day, and walked to the grocery store, the sidewalk under my feet seemed unsubstantial, or at least seemed no more tangible, solid, or felt than my world had when I was eight. My physical surroundings and perceptions from then had all come back so overwhelmingly that they refused to recede.
I know that there is a wholeness to the landscape in which I live. I know this as common sense, as experience, and by documentation and report. I live in Watertown, Mass., ten miles west of Boston, along the Charles River. I teach at Emerson College in downtown Boston, on the Common, and I commute there, mostly by car, along Storrow Drive, following the river the entire way. In warm weather I bike in occasionally. Here, I can show you on a map. Here is my landscape, my world, as seen from above. In fact I have an aerial photograph I tacked to my study’s wall; the cover from a 1994 Boston Globe supplement about future planning, the photograph is exactly the same scale as the Boston area street map that I have tacked below it, both showing the Charles River meandering from Watertown, through Cambridge, into the Charles River basin, and then pinched through locks, into Boston harbor. My guess is that this is a view from 30,000 feet, too high to see cars, and higher than I have viewed this landscape while taking off from or circling to land at Logan Airport. The correspondence of photograph to map pleases me. I search for what I know. There among the crusty grid of downtown Boston, crusty because of the shadows cast by high-rise office buildings, is Boston Common. I can’t see, but know, 180 Tremont, where I teach, just there, along the Common’s lower right margin (for my last two years chairing the Writing Division, my tenth floor office windows overlooked the Common, where flocks of birds, pigeons probably, spread and spiraled, dipped and clustered like the process of my thoughts). And there, the rectilinear serrations of Back Bay, where years earlier from another office twelve floors up, I watched sailboats on the Charles River Basin and was distracted by rock music amplified from the half-shell on the Esplanade. The river loops north at what I know to be the Boston University bridge. Two full hand spans west from Boston Common, that green patch, mossy looking with treetops, is Mt. Auburn Cemetery, then more along the wavy ribbon of river, between what must be the Arsenal Street and North Beacon Street bridges, I see the red roofs of the Arsenal Mall. The river widens, creating an island that marks the local boat club, narrows at Watertown Square, goes north for what I know to be one mile, and there, that bridge marks Bridge Street, two blocks from my house. I think I can make out the square of Bemis playground across from us. My eye hungers, searching for purchase, for connection.
I have lived in this landscape for 40 years, ever since graduating from college, one hundred miles west. My first glimpse came as I drove along Route 2 from Amherst for an interview at Harvard that spring. Just over a hill, the city skyline appeared suddenly and clearly in the distance. For years to follow, as I came and went from Harvard, finished my Ph.D. in English in 1971, lived in different Cambridge apartments and neighborhoods, from Harvard Square to Porter Square to Central Square to East Cambridge, before marrying and moving to Watertown, I would get as lost driving outside my neighborhood as if I had just materialized, say, in Atlanta, or Minneapolis, cities utterly unknown to me. Maps were no help. Attempting to return to Cambridge from a dance club or party in downtown Boston, I would end up somehow on the north shore, Chelsea, say, or Revere. I learned the city by getting lost. North, South, West. Shortly after I met Connie, who would become my wife, she got an emergency call at my Central Square apartment telling her that her father had just died in Florida; her married sister, Lonne, lived in Waltham, across from Brandeis, and would I drive her there? I had never driven out Mt. Auburn Street from Harvard Square, but with Connie choked and distraught beside me, and somehow reading directions from a paper in her lap, we headed past Mt. Auburn Hospital, then Mt. Auburn Cemetery, a dingy, over-traveled route with bus wires over head and unused trolley tracks. I had no idea where I was going, or how much farther, but on the way I did count some seventeen funeral homes, each one a jolt in our faces, given Connie’s grief, each for some other denomination or ethnicity, Armenian, Greek, Italian, Irish (given the names, O’Reilly, say, or Adrossinian). The drive seemed surreal, a pilgrimage of grief into unknown destinations. Eventually we reached an apartment complex across from Brandeis University, where all at once, I met most of this girl’s family, sister, brother-in-law, niece, brother, brother-in-law’s local parents and sisters, a sudden blur of intimacy and tribal embrace. Two years later, having lived together in two different Cambridge apartments, we were married at Connie’s mother’s home in Miami, Florida, surrounded by both our families; then with the idea of starting our own family, we found an inexpensive apartment out that same Mt. Auburn Street route, in Watertown. In contrast to the sordid singles world of Cambridge, Watertown seemed populated by working class, first and second-generation ethnic families. Shrines in front yards. Grape arbors. Laundry flapping in backyards, neighbors watching out for neighbors, village-style vegetable gardens. Our apartment was in the first floor of a two family frame house, owned by Italian immigrants, who shouted “Mange! Mange!” through our ceiling, and who were cursed in English by their assimilated children. Mt. Auburn Street became my daily commute. The literary magazine, Ploughshares, which I had co-founded while I lived in Central Square, had already become my life, and its post office box in Central Square had to be emptied daily. I was teaching part-time now at Emerson, at Harvard, at Simmons, at Northeastern. My own father died in Philadelphia, just after we moved. Connie was pregnant. My widowed mother came to visit. Our daughter Ruth was born. Connie’s water had broken, contractions begun, and I drove as fast and carefully as I could through traffic to the hospital near Simmons College, having practiced the route for just this occasion. Two days after the birth, I drove Connie and the baby home. Twenty-one years later, to the day, my daughter has her first apartment across the grid of Boston, off Huntington Avenue, and after I find my way there to loan her our car for the birthday weekend, she is driving me back to Watertown, turning down Longwood to the Fenway, when I realize that we are retracing her first trip home.
Ten summers ago I felt displaced and devalued in my public life, and I had been trying to recover myself by mapping out my life, public and private, in memory and imagination. What was I doing here, now, as me? Who was “me”?
I had begun my fifties believing in my “self,” — even after the setbacks of secondary infertility in my marriage (which had been resolved by adoption of my son as an infant from Korea), and the rejection of my work as a writer. I had lost my father when I was thirty-five, my mother when I was forty-four. My two older brothers and older sister were scattered and distant: New Jersey, Colorado, Los Angeles. My closest friend, literary and personal, Richard Yates, died when I was fifty-one. I still believed that I was meant for recognition as a writer. I loved my family. I had built up Ploughshares, seeking to redress what I saw as the discouragement of literature in the marketplace, and had done so, lacking money, by relying on friendships, talent, resourcefulness and zeal. In the heyday of the National Endowment of the Arts, one muckraking malcontent had even called me “the old grants baron.” Beginning in 1984, I had found my first full-time job teaching at Emerson College. With some frustrations, things there had gone well, and I got tenure in 1989, became chair of the writing division, and negotiated the college’s acquisition of Ploughshares. I felt that as chair I had made strides in hiring, in curriculum, and in enrollments. If there were soreheads in my fold, I had them well outnumbered in votes and in support from students and the administration, as well as in the world at large. But then a series of circumstances combined. The professor who had originally hired me, who had then stepped down as chair, elected to retire. My campus rival, an older man whose tenure I opposed in my chairperson role, managed to win sympathy across campus, was given tenure, and while active in the faculty union, wrote a new contract tailored to his personal situation and calling for faculty evaluation of chairs. Governance at the top of the college had gone berserk. An autocratic president was driven out; and after open war between the college trustees and the faculty, an insider faculty member had become president and needed the support of the faculty union. At this point, 5-4, my faculty voted against my renewal as chair, apparently inflamed by my rival. I couldn’t believe that my friends, especially those that I had hired and supported for tenure, could turn on me, as coldly as strangers. I couldn’t believe that I had so misread the terrain of interests and power in which I was located. I still can’t, these long years later.
Once I was demoted, and one of these friends was put in as acting chair, I was also forced to surrender any real role in Ploughshares as my protégé took full control. As for my writing life, I had the support of an agent and had published a selection of best stories from Ploughshares, but my novel, which I had rewritten for a third time, along with a new second book, my family’s biography, were rejected repeatedly, until the agent gave up.
Here is my driver’s license description: age 58 male, white, 5 feet 10 inches height, 167 pounds weight, eyes green (glasses required), hair brown, thinning and graying. My fingerprints are on file, my dental records. Here is biology’s map. Here is medicine’s. Here are the microscopic reports of my infertility, say (16 million sperm per cc, 30 percent motility, 40 percent forward progression). Some day there may be the surprise of other microscopic reports of some part gone wrong, bringing closer the sentence of an ending. Not may be, will be. I know that.
In the spirit of Walt Whitman, I can sing my body electric, cataloguing its thoroughfares and provinces. Not biology’s map, but imagination’s, totemized fact. My eyes tour and swivel like cameras; some parts impossible to see, or rarely seen, craning in mirrors.
Eyes closed, felt: the rise of each breath, lungs full, the nostril sting of breathing in; then diaphragm and chest muscles contracting, exhale, again, again. Heart’s pump.
I shower, I wash the body. I groom the body, shave, regarding in the mirror, the reassurance of reflection. How I look. My outside appearance. I touch my neck, my image shows the touch, but I feel the touch also. I close my eyes. I feel the touch.
The body hungers. Weakens, hungers. Desires. Aches. Sleeps, rises. Is ill, in pain. Is well. Floods with pleasure; pleases others. I take it for granted.
I dress the body.
I see myself in still photography, in movies, instant, recent, long ago. I see myself in live video, there, on that TV, where I am used to seeing news and movies.
The oldest question of all: if you’re not here, here in my daily life, proximate in Boston, MA, 1998, do you exist? You, reader, whom I have never met? You, my daughter, out of touch, first at Hampshire College, now in Guatemala on field study? You, my mother, dead since 1983? You, my father, dead since 1976? You, Richard Yates, dead since 1992? You, my sister Judy, in Pasadena; my oldest brother Jack in Colorado; my older brother Charles in New Jersey and now and then on a cruise on the Queen Mary II? My mother in law, Hazel, in Manhattan? My friend Jim McPherson in Iowa City? All structures of connectedness seem ephemeral, even my son today at school, my wife at school. What faith, what knowing or certainty can close these distances?
My mother in the last years, living alone in Philadelphia, used to say when we visited, “that the years fell away.” We phone across space, speak our words in real time, with familiar voices. We write letters, we electronically mail thoughts and news in words. We send pictures. Very soon we will all have some form of videophones, and can watch each other and speak in real time no matter how distant on or off of this planet. We send audiotapes, videotapes for the keeping. Take family videos; capture family moments.
We are perhaps artists. We remember and imagine each other in episodes, in images, in memory loops. We embody our meaning — our disembodied selves — in art, in painting, music, stories. I teach Jim McPherson’s stories and he comes all alive for me. I teach Richard Yates, and as Tim O’Brien has written (in “Lives of the Dead”), being dead is “like being inside a book that nobody’s reading”; as I read, Yates is all alive, his humor, his precision, his generous heart.
I think of when I was a teenager, my sister’s empty room and those upstairs of my departed brothers, after each had left home for independent, adult lives. I would linger in their spaces, surrounded by their possessions and auras.
I live as if things don’t matter, as if I don’t feel, as if I don’t long for lives lost and beyond interaction; but on the other side of numbness, I fear my howl of abandonment, my animal cry to emptiness.
“DP’s” they were called. “Displaced Persons.” I was ten or eleven in those years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean Conflict. They were Eastern European refugees walking in oddly misfitting and somehow foreign clothes and shoes along the back streets of Wayne and St. Davids, streets flanked by the houses and acres of suburban privilege. There must have been some charity relief organization that had found host families in our neighborhood to employ such refugees as maids, butlers, grounds people. Or perhaps the Valley Forge Military Academy, two miles away from my house down those back roads, was where they worked. I know the sight of them troubled me, their sense of being lost where I was found. A “DP” named Manfred had appeared in my sixth grade at Radnor Public School, circa 1952. When our town fire siren would sound at noon, our local custom, he would scramble to hide under a desk, because Manfred has been in real bombing raids. Also, he was obsessed with washing his hands in our deep arts sink in the back of the classroom, relishing the bar of Ivory soap as a luxury. Most of us, most of the class, rejected and mocked him as peculiar, except for the fattest girl in the class who took him over as her special project.
Some years later, as Castro took over Cuba, Cuban refugees began appearing. I remember my father hiring several in our family candy factory for menial labor and remarking that one of them had been a surgeon, but couldn’t practice in America.
E.M. Forster writes: “We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. [Fictional people] are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible; we are people whose secret lives are invisible.”
There are no secrets in art, because we agree that art is an act of imagination, an as if, rather than a literal experience with literal consequences. You paint your deepest emotions. I write myself to a place of open mystery. In real life, however, daily life — the life of compacts, trusts, reliabilities — stark frankness is wounding and offensive, denies necessary fictions (such as fatherhood, husband-hood, friendship, teacher-hood, citizenship, team person-ship), and in denying becomes itself a lie, a withholding.
This may be the basis of Catholic confession, and of prayer in general. If there is a God who knows everything, whose understanding is infinite and forgiving, then we are not alone. We believe in divine intimacy. We make or dream a space of utter vulnerability, beyond self-deceptions and working truths.
Abused, forgetting becomes a power of pathology, a denial of life, a repression in psychological terms. I push myself away, estranged. Used correctly, I suppose, forgetting is “forget and forgive,” though without remembering how do you forgive, and without forgiving, how do you forget?
I have believed too readily that life is a quest for some absolute perspective, some final clarification. That adulthood itself is always that next horizon, that higher and wider perspective, from which everything becomes clear. That all experience, human experience, my experience, will overlap and coincide and I will be with the old men on Yeats’s lapis lazuli, looking down on the spectacle of human folly and ignorance and futures and my glittering eyes will be gay.
I think of the perspectives of Zen. The idea of reincarnation, of one life-stage progressing in perspective to the next until one reaches Nirvana. I think of the “epiphany” in fiction as speaking for our faith in endings; of John Keats and his 24-year- old vision of “stepping towards truth.”
But I don’t know.
At the end, we see perhaps what we wished we saw, just as we do each night in dreams. Perhaps the quest for perspective is life’s make-work. We search, we study, we dream. In small ways we acquire small wisdoms. And yet we forget more than we remember. In my own life how often I have willingly walked by hints and clues, and even by life’s angels. I have chosen not to ask. Not to see. Not to know.
And then it comes. Your ending. It happens. Swiftly as fact. This is happening. Or slowly, and in pain, nine months, nine weeks. Your body claims your mind. Your body and your mind are one. Failing. Too tired to think, too weak.
Who there can remember, imagine or believe in here?