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?

A Little Beauty

This week, I had planned to write a post about the lost art of the pronoun (ever heard of subjective, objective, possessive case?) and the travesty of their misuse–“Her and I went to the movies” or “Jane and me saw it, too.” Would you say her went, or me saw it?

A useful post, maybe, although I doubt it would counter the rapid decline of the language.

But the Boston Marathon bombing happened, and today, Friday, the tragic, frightening events continue. I lost my will to write anything as frivolous as a post about a pet peeve, but I couldn’t bring myself to write a piece about the tragedy, either; others have already done it well.

Then I saw the Wordsmith Studio photo prompt for this week, and I thought, yes; that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go out in the yard and photograph a few flowers, as the prompt suggests.

What do flowers have to do with tragedy? Not much, maybe, except that they remind us there is beauty in the world in spite of evil. That the seasons come round and the earth renews itself in spite of the awful ways we treat her or the unspeakable things people sometimes do to each other.

So if you need a pronoun refresher, I suggest you visit the Purdue Online Writing Lab‘s excellent pronoun primer.

Right now, I hope you’ll enjoy these blooms and let them lift your hearts a little.

What gives you comfort when things seem out of control?

Wordsmith Studio Photo Challenge: Birds

Each week, Wordsmith Studio offers a photography prompt, and Rebecca Barray, a fine photographer and writer, gathers the submissions into a collage. This week’s prompt is birds.

Here are a few of my favorites (stretching the rules a bit). Have fun choosing one, Becca.