Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as an easy metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly turn and face the past head on or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us a little sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson
My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

So maybe my friend is right. Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?

19 thoughts on “Listening Back

  1. Very nice post, Gerry. It’s really profound, and I think I need time to examine its intricate layers. I’ve always shied away from memoir myself, being a “fiction” writer. I was at a reading the other week, though, with someone who creates only non-fiction pieces; her excerpt was very moving and made me grateful for those who reveal the hidden parts of themselves.

    1. Jennifer, I’m a fiction writer, too. I didn’t think I could write memoir at all until I started writing some for this blog. Jane Ann’s memoir challenge last year helped me discover subjects and a rhythm, so now it interests me. Memory sparks fiction, too. Thanks for reading!

  2. Gerry, I hadn’t read this yet, but now that I have, I can only say “Brava, my friend. Brava!” This is a wonderful piece.

    As for writing memoir–who said it has to be in chronological order, all of a piece, all inclusive. There are such things as books of memoir on theme. Memories surrounding stories of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. Books don’t have to hold all of a life, but rather the flavor and essence of it. Considering how you ponder this question of memoir, perhaps it’s time now to face the music of the past–just a little–with short pieces for a collection on a theme. That sort of project doesn’t seem quite so daunting, do you think?

      1. You’re more than welcome, Gerry. Glad to help. I’m thinking of doing one later on–a collection of essays dealing with how things have changed between when I was growing up and today’s world. I don’t know if it will work, but it might be worth a try.

        I think you will have far more to write about than you think you might. 🙂

  3. One of the joys of writing, for me, is understanding my past better. So many stories I’ve written in my creative writing classes begin, “I remember…” It’s brought back a first kiss, a grandfather’s hug, 3rd grade swimming lessons, a summer lifeguarding. It’s brought back pain and loss and hope and truth. Yes, I believe in listening to the past, so the present and future can be so much clearer.

    Great post. And I revere Buechner.

    1. I know my past informs my stories, no matter how I transform characters or change circumstances or place. It’s just *there.* Always. And I’m grateful for it. You’re so right; listening to the past clarifies the present and the future. Thanks for the lovely, insightful comment.

  4. This is a wonderful post, Gerry.
    I love your last paragraph. It is the simple things that unite us, thus those stories have the deepest meanings.

  5. For me, in looking back, I’m able to understand and recognize God’s grace….all of the little bright and dark threads…woven together in this tapestry we call life. To ignore the past is to turn my back on God’s love, and grace and never-ending presence. But to dwell on the dark threads too much…has me ending up living in the house of the garbage dump…instead of the House of the Lord.

  6. Marvin Bell once wrote:
    You are not exactly beautiful
    You are inexactly beautiful.
    Perfection is associated with flawlessness, yet “flaw” (difference) is precisely what marks beauty. I’m not sure why it is so hard to understand that the mark of a “whole” human being is his/her vulnerability. Like the trees we love, we too are “steady and trembling,” (i.e. Nemorov)–deeply rooted yet always trembling on the periphery.

  7. Marvin Bell once wrote:
    You are not exactly beautiful
    You are inexactly beautiful.
    Perfection is associated with flawlessness, yet “flaw” is precisely what marks beauty. I’m not sure why it is so hard to understand that the mark of a “whole” human being is his/her vulnerability. Like the trees we love, we too are “steady and trembling,” (i.e. Nemorov)–deeply rooted yet always trembling on the periphery.

  8. Do you even doubt that I’m right? You have a jewelry box of memories. I feel as if I found a hidden trove at in a box of vintage clothing at an estate sale. There is something so elegant about your life. And yet…your mind and brilliance and your push to self-discovery make them relevant, even fashionable. But not insignificant to a reader. Take one piece out at a time. Examine for what it illustrates. Marion Roach Smith always counsels to go deeply into the small things of our lives in order to find the larger stories. And you, my dearest friend, have a treasure inside that needs be shared. [yes, Lara Britt is my pen name]

    1. “. . . go deeply into the small things of our lives in order to find the larger stories.” I like that so much, Lori. (I used your pen name in the piece because I wanted to link to your website.) I wouldn’t call my life elegant by any stretch, though, because I carry in my head those “visions” I wrote about here: the little house we lived in when I was growing up, my dad’s work, the “good country people” who were my kin . . . I’d like to think you’re right about its being worth exploring. Thanks so much for the lovely comment.

  9. no-ones life was perfect, thank goodness, as we are all flawed one way or another, which of course begs the question what is a flaw, can our flaws not be perfection in themselves. I don’t know. Also why must a childhood be messy and leaky and sad or dangerous to be interesting. This is the novel writing we have been taught. We must entertain. We must have drama and peaks and valleys and protagonists and antagonists (almost any parent is both!). Why can’t our memoirs be a collection of the most amazing memories told beautifully. Or the most dreadful ones told like boney truth without the soundtrack..A piano without a cover, all its hammers exposed as wonderful but so delicate. I think you should write your memoirs.. I think that it would be more than cathartic … it would be grand.. c

    1. Celi, what a beautiful response. “A piano without a cover, all its hammers exposed . . .” Lovely. And true. I hope everybody who visits here will also read this. Thank you. I will copy and save. Hope you’re feeling better! Hugs your way.

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