Thursday, April 20, 2017

47 Trips Around the Sun: An Observed Life

Two Aprils ago, on my 45th birthday, I penned a semi-serious list of 45 Things I Know as a way to commemorate the occasion. People seemed to like it. I suspect the reason why that particular essay was met with such unilateral applause is that most of my friends assumed I'd be dead by now.* 

The thing about writers is that we live an observed life. I have whole scenes in my head, as do most writers I presume, that vividly recall events both major and insanely minor. In these scenes, I often see myself, and hear my own voice supporting these visuals with mental notes. It's about the way a writer's mind experiences everything ‒ noticing, probing, capturing textural details, mentally applying a narrative moment-to-moment and making sensory connections from this moment to others, in the past, placing a tab to come back to later when another, related experience happens. Novelist Anne Tyler worked this phenomenon into her book, Saint Maybe, one of my favorites of hers. When we meet Ian Bedloe for the first time, he's in high school. 

Ian listened to all this with a tolerant, bemused expression. Things would turn out fine, he felt. Hadn’t they always? (None of the Bedloes was a worrier.) Crowds of loyal friends had surrounded him since kindergarten. His sweetheart, Cicely Brown, was the prettiest girl in the junior class. His mother doted on him and his father — Poe’s combination algebra teacher and baseball coach — let him pitch in nearly every game, and not just because they were related, either. His father claimed Ian had talent. In fact sometimes Ian daydreamed about pitching for the Orioles, but he knew he didn’t have that much talent. He was a medium kind of guy, all in all. 
Even so, there were moments when he believed that someday, somehow, he was going to end up famous. Famous for what, he couldn’t quite say; but he’d be walking up the back steps or something and all at once he would imagine a camera zooming in on him, filming his life story. He imagined the level, cultured voice of his biographer saying, “Ian climbed the steps. He opened the door. He entered the kitchen.” 
“Have a good day, hon?” his mother asked, passing through with a laundry basket. 
“Oh,” he said, “the usual run of scholastic triumphs and athletic glories.” And he set his books on the table. 
His biographer said, “He set his books on the table.”

Although the cerebral trappings of an "observed life" are not always so literal as that of Ian Bedloe's imagined biographer, I do have a mental file filled with vivid scenes like that, where I am both in the scene and also observing it through the camera in my mind's eye.

In one, I'm about three years old and I'm scrunched on the sofa in the Manhan Street apartment. The Lombardi apartment. Grandma Lombardi is babysitting me. Making myself small, I keep silent and I keep looking at the door for my mom. I never liked being there alone in the cramped, dark Lombardi apartment. Everything smells like old people and Salisbury Steak TV Dinners. The TV, as always, is on, but I'm looking to my right, into the kitchen. My eyes are fixed on the screen door that let out onto the gray porch. There is a horseshoe hung over the door, for luck. I see the horseshoe, the peeling door, the linoleum tiled floor, brown paneled walls and shiny yellow plastic kitchen chairs. Those chairs! I thought the seats of those chairs looked exactly like huge lima beans, a food I thoroughly loathed, so every time I thought about grandma's kitchen chairs I would sense a slimy, bitter lima bean in my mouth.  I want my mommy. Then a rush of relief when I see my mother, hugely pregnant, approaching. Inside the clattering door she comes, right behind Louie. I register him but I don't capture any detail ‒ he's nothing but a slim tan blur, a moustache. My mom is wearing a white top and her stomach is enormous, belly-button straining against the fabric in an almost pornographic display. I am so happy to see her. I understand that she'd been to the doctor, and that's why grandma Lombardi was babysitting me.

But I don't only see the scene, I also see myself in it too, toddling across the linoleum towards the door to greet my mother. My thick, dull brown hair is bobbed, and I'm wearing a yellow turtleneck and blue denim overalls with flowers all over. I feel the clunky metal buckles in front, but I can also see the clumsy way the straps are crossed on my back because those overalls were too big for me.

I've got 47 years of annotated mental images like this, filed away but ready to be called up and layered over with new perspective, fleshed out with each new experience. This scene is peppered with perspective that's been added over time. The horseshoe, for example, over the door at grandma Lombardi's house. It was hung upside down. You're supposed to hang a horseshoe like the letter U, with the open side up, or else all the luck runs out. There is no way I knew that folksy tidbit at three years old. That's an annotation, applied retroactively at a later age when I heard someone tell the right way to hang a lucky horseshoe, or maybe I read it in a book.

Similarly, within the framework of the real-time moment sitting on that uncomfortable sofa, I knew that I was actively trying to make myself small and go unnoticed. Later, I would come to be aware of the reason why. Grandpa Lombardi was a horrible, angry, impatient man. He was verbally abusive, spitting mean words at me ("Fatso! Get out of the way!") and tallying each Saltine, each glass of juice grandma gave me. He made sure that I knew what a terrible burden I was on his kingdom, which he ruled from the gigantic Barcolounger in front of the always-on TV.  He would repeatedly make sure that I knew Louie was not my father, that he was not my real grandfather, and he called my teenaged mother Italian words that I am sure were not compliments. He would yell at grandma Lombardi, too, calling her shocking names, especially when she was being nice to me. She would scream back at him, sounding loud in volume, but her voice shook and her doughy cheeks were frequently wet. Often she would laugh, forced-merrily, at his bellowed put-downs, which in later years I would understand was one of her coping mechanisms for living a life trapped with this abusive maniac. But at three years old, the sight of this cackling old woman with tears tracking mascara rivulets through her heavy foundation powder was just disturbingly scary. Bette Davis could have taken lessons. Towards grandma Lombardi, I felt a mixture of confusion and pity. Towards this awful grandfather I got stuck with, I felt fear and hate. But at three years old, I wouldn't know what to do with all of that yet. So I cowered, kept silent, and fixed my eyes on the door, desperately willing my mom to come and get me the hell out of there.

Because writers live this way, filing away events with as much detail as we can, we enable the agency of our own "experience" and we become storytellers. Memory becomes superimposed with maturity and asterisked by nuance, and our stories, once personal, become bigger. If we keep at it, say through keeping and re-reading diaries that date back decades, we can sometimes retroactively attribute the kaleidoscope of lenses that have been lent by new friends, gained foes, and other storytellers. It's like an "Uncategorized" file in our brains for events, major and insanely minor, and we only put the right words to those events once we synthesize the experience, cross-referencing and applying alternate points-of-view. Because writers live this way, ideas may take years to synthesize. I did not put words to my feelings, sitting on that hard sofa in 1973. But as years unfold, I continue to build upon its foundation, seeing every related experience against that first time I felt fear and hate. "I know this," says the writer's mind upon meeting the next loud, mean old man who is set to cause hurt. The writer's mind connects back to the first experience. "There. That's when I learned how fear and hate feels."

Another thing about writers is that we leave the cap off our ideas; at any moment, there could be another event, major or insanely minor, and we want to be able to add another stripe. What I "know" at 47 is completely different from what I thought I knew at 37, and countless light years' difference from what I figured to be "about right" at 27. It is from this perspective that, to commemorate my 47th trip around the sun, in part 2 of this essay, and on a much lighter note, I shall sum up five things I am now pretty sure about. For now. Let's see what I think if I make it to 57.

* Talk about "9 Lives." I've been afflicted with a variety of health issues since birth, compounded by a fierce predilection for fatness and a sudden tornado of anxiety and depression that happened to me four years ago, an experience with downdrafts and microbursts that I'm still dealing with. My body is decorated with symbolic and actual scars that tell a tale of angst, scalpels, sutures and broken-ness, from literally the day I was born.