By the back door, on the way into our house, I empty my hand or pocket of whatever acorn or stone that has caught my eye as I rake, sweep, or beachcomb. Leaves occasionally fall there too and hang out for a while, until a wicked wind swirls them away. When I emptied the planters of their spent annuals yesterday, I set aside what I call the tree bones — small pieces of weather- or insect-rotted branches I collect on walks and then strew around the yard — and put them in the growing pile of finds.
Writing can go like that sometimes.
A couple of weeks ago I was rummaging in my desk drawer for quarters. I needed two to get a cup of coffee from the office Keurig. Under the pencils, binder clips, box of tea, folded canvas bag, and loose band-aids, I saw a stapled document. I started reading the page I could see. It was not about science and therefore out of place; usually everything I read at work has to do with the technical. Whose is this? I wondered as I read about a dream of an unknown man, a car, and two people kissing. Who gave this to me? I was perplexed, almost disturbed.
Oh, yeah, I realized after getting through the first page. It’s mine. Finally I remembered the pages as ones I had printed out to share in a writing group I prematurely dropped out of. I had not remembered the piece, provisionally titled “Recedes,” because it barely had held a shape in my imagination. As I read more, I recalled the experience of writing what my friend James would call its “shards,” or parts of something not whole. Only in revision would connections among these shards get made and the dominant idea come into being. Obviously, I had not gotten to that yet.
While this pile of shards lacked shape and logic, I found a clue to its assembly when I today opened the Google doc that contains it all. At the top, there is this note: “This is still very much generative writing… trying to capture some stuff I have been thinking about the verb recedes. It extends, too, into the territory of letting go and getting rid of physical stuff, and emotional stuff.”
It will take some more wrangling with “Recedes” before I discover its coherence. What idea, what thesis, will make it whole? As I read into it now, I am surprised to find an argument with myself. On the one hand, I insist on the deliberate getting rid of things. On the other hand, I feel the pull to keep them. This wish to hold on becomes paradoxically all the more palpable after things are given away. Then, the cast-off thing becomes bigger in my imagination than it perhaps had been in my life.
Here are three of those shards, titled with nouns. Already I am starting to see a ghostly web of concerns spreading across them.
A party. She gathers herself together and goes in. Right away she notices him. He stands in a doorway, leaning against the frame, and his body makes one long curve: head, neck, spine, hips, legs. One shoulder holds him up. Hooked to the wall like a coat on a peg, he drapes.
His eyes look down and away from the person nearest to him. Her, just arriving, he doesn’t notice until later when she stands behind him in the drinks line and puts a hand out to stop him when he takes a step back. Her hand stays there too long. Then he turns.
People, clusters of them, and walls of books and pricks of light. A mirror. He leans, and she looks away into a doorway. She can’t stand this close and look at him. There are no voices, just a buzzing blur, and although they make no sound she senses that they are talking. Or, he talks. She knows she is listening and yet all she is aware of is the wall of his chest and his arm this close. No words.
Travel to the car just happens. One moment before, in the living room. The scene is all triangles and spheres. Knees fold. Bent elbows puncture air. His head tipped back. Her head hovering. Her rump in a blue skirt.
And I’m standing right there, not outside the car. There’s room for me in some murky, open space between the front seat and the dash. I watch them, and I’m almost her. I don’t kiss him, yet I know what it feels like to be kissing him.
This part evaporates, and I, in the dream, want it back. My dreaming self tries to imagine its way back into the scene — into the car — and cannot. I start to doubt that a car was parked, that they ever met and kissed, that there would be any way to find out if what I had witnessed had ever happened. She was there, and I was there; I hold onto that against logic. I yearn to relive what I have just lived, and, as I stand there, weightless in the dark, I realize that it has disappeared and it would be wise to let it go.
I wake up, stay in bed, and think about the dream, burning.
Seasonally I go through the kid’s bureaus and closets and put aside clothes that no longer fit them. I pack the clothes into two bags, one to give to younger children whom I know, and another to give directly to Goodwill. When I pass along the girls’ outgrown clothes to my nieces, I have a sense that these clothes will go to a new home and yet remain connected to me; I may see them again. When, however, I deliver a bag to the maw of the Goodwill truck, I have to steel myself to do it. The clothes are about to disappear and have a life that involves me not at all.
When Grace was a toddler, she wore often an Oshkosh fleece jacket that Lydia had worn as a toddler, and which my mother had bought. I never liked it. In a buffalo plaid pattern, the colors were pink, lilac, and white, and it didn’t really go with anything. Still, Lydia and then Grace loved it, for the colors and its comfort. To me they looked clownish when they wore it, sometimes with cute print or striped pants, and the combination jarred.
Eventually, Grace outgrew the jacket and I tried to give it to my sister for Sara, her daughter who is a year younger. Sally rejected it, “We have plenty of jackets.” Maybe I tried to guilt-trip her a little: “Mom bought it.” I failed to persuade her.
To Goodwill it went. The collection truck is stationed permanently in a parking lot in Newton near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Later that night, we were driving on the pike in the vicinity. I looked out the car window, into darkness. Although I couldn’t see the truck or anything in it, a vision of the little jacket loomed large. I pictured it alone in tangle of our discarded clothing, smushed into a clean garbage bag, that bag smushed among other bags in the airless, lightless container. What’s remarkable is that I couldn’t imagine clearly any of the other items I had folded into bags and given to Goodwill in the same batch. That toddler-sized jacket, which probably still smelled like my daughter or my house, pulsed brightly among murk. When I was a child, I thought the human soul was shaped like lungs that floated transparently, like a glassine balloon, over the person who had died until the corpse let go the string and let it float away. Now, as an adult, the little fleece jacket seemed like the soul of something to me, and it was stuck in garbage.
There is no decent graveyard for old things, and I wish there were.
Eventually, the throb of the jacket’s memory quieted, and I hardly thought of it at all, and when I did, I pictured it on Grace’s body or Lydia’s, useful and relevant.
I own a table that I do not love, and it is not very useful to me because of its characteristics: old, drop-leaf.
This table, in my living room, was my maternal great-grandmother’s. She wasn’t even my mother’s blood relative; my mother’s biological grandmother died soon after the birth of baby Ellen, who would live, thrive, grow up, and someday become my mother’s mother. This baby was the youngest of more than 10. Shortly after his wife died, my biological great-grandfather, a plumber, married his housekeeper, who had one daughter, Gert, of her own. The housekeeper became the mother to my grandmother and all the Harney children.
This table, the one I do not love, was hers. Perhaps it was one of the few things she brought into the marriage along with the one daughter. As a housekeeper in the 1910s, I doubt she had accumulated many material goods.
I’d kind of like to put this table in the attic. But I can’t. I am the steward of this table, and I must honor and use it. Right now, it is behind the couch that floats in the room, not anchored to a wall. When company comes, which is rare, we open up table’s leaf and pull up an extra chair. One can sit and eat there, from a plate filled from the buffet.
This table is old but looks well loved and nicely cared for. I remember, every time I look at it, how this table got such a nice finish. When I was a child, this table was in our house, and my brothers and sisters and I wore it down. When I was a teenager, my mother had 75 or 100 dollars to spare and she hired Norm Cormier, a man who was a member of our parish, to refinish it. This was shortly after Mr. Cormier’s adult son was convicted of murder and went to prison. Norm and his wife Rita always seemed so cheerless and gray-skinned after that, even though physically they were sturdy and Rita even ample. I couldn’t imagine that anyone who lived in my town would kill someone, although people in my town died all the time, from accidents and illness, and I couldn’t imagine how Mr. and Mrs. Cormier – such nice people, he drove the van around town that gave elderly people a ride to church, the library, the post office – could stand to go to prison to visit their son. They were too nice for that. Yet, I knew they would visit him, and you could tell by looking at and knowing the Cormiers that they had accepted the idea that we humans could be like Jesus: We could love, even in the face of sin or disappointment or betrayal.
I wonder if my mother hired Mr. Cormier to finish this table as a gesture, as her way to stay in touch with them, as her way to say, without saying, love. People didn’t know how to talk to them. My mother didn’t know how, but this was a way to try. And it was relevant and not charitable; Mr. Cormier had a reputation as a talented refinisher.
The Cormiers’ son went to prison in ’81 or ’82 I think, when he was in his early 30s. After about 25 years I started imagining him released, finally, for good behavior, and I pictured him his father’s age, restarting his life. I asked my mother about that recently, and she seemed almost appalled by my question. “No, he went to prison for life.” I have not seen the Cormiers since 1983, probably, when I graduated from high school and stopped going to church in my hometown.
And yet I have this table, brought into a family with more than 10 children and a dead mother, and later sanded and glossed by a man whose son was a murderer. Some things, perhaps, we are obligated to keep.