Category Archives: memory

Reading the Lyrics: Thoughts on a Perfect Concert

In the fall, I wrote about Over the Rhine’s latest album and the way their work has influenced me as a person since college.  In December, my dad sent me an email with a link to a concert: Mary Chapin Carpenter, my first singer-songwriter love, was going to play a selection of songs from her throughout her career with the New York Philharmonic.  I bought tickets immediately and began revisiting all of the songs that have spoken deeply into my understanding of the world since I was twelve.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t experience the ache of beauty and have vivid memories of laying on the brown carpet of my childhood bedroom listening to music for hours, often rewinding the same song repeatedly.  Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t on my radar, though, until I was about 12–the stage when I began to try to really make sense of the world around me.  I had recently started listening to country music (which was where she was initially marketed).  While my future husband was an hour and a half away the exploring the early nineties rap he would later perform for me, I was requesting Trisha Yearwood and Blackhawk CDs for my birthday, and of course expanding my collections member of BMG music club.  Somehow Come On, Come On made its way into my collection and I don’t think I ever fully recovered–and as I sat last Saturday at Lincoln Center I was simply stunned by the beauty of hearing the most important songs of my adolescence played with a full orchestra.  And this is what Carpenter is able to do: craft lyrics that tap into what it feels to be human that can layer within memory and experience and take on new meaning as the years go by.

Unfortunately I was not given a singing voice, but what  listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs and poring over the beautifully crafted lyrics did for me was make me want to write.  I was lucky enough to have the same amazing ELA teacher for all three years of middle school and she pushed me to pursue writing stories and poems, which I did with the kind of adolescent passion I wish I could conjure up now.  I dreamed of crafting lyrics that told the kinds of stories she did–ones that noticed the details other people skipped over like in “Only a Dream” and like John Doe #24, which she wrote after reading a newspaper article about a young black man who was deaf, mute, and later blind who ended up in the Illinois mental health care system in the 1940s.  She made me want to look at the world in a different way, and she still does.

My dad and I have always shared a love a music and my childhood weekend memories are colored by the music he played from the room below my bedroom.  I was obsessed with and fascinated by his record collection that spanned at least ten feet across one of our closets, convinced that each album had some kind of story attached to it.  In third grade I got my own stereo for my bedroom, the first of my friends, and got into the habit of leaving it on when I left.  It drove him crazy, so he would always change the station to country when he passed as my consequence (you remember how hard it was to get the station exactly right before everything went digital, right?).  Unfortunately for him, that tactic stopped working when I was in middle school, but it opened the door to our shared love of country and his ongoing claim that he “was country when country wasn’t cool.” This is true, and in fact Gene Autry was one of his childhood heroes (and one of my and my brother’s favorite Christmas albums).  As Mary Chapin Carpenter became a mainstay in my music rotation, my dad grew to love her work as well, especially 1994’s Stones in the Road.  Listening closely to the lyrics, he said the title song captured his demographic’s generation.  We went to see her at Wright State’s Nutter Center that spring and one of his hero moments was when he talked the guard into letting us sit in two second or third row seats, which remained open during the opening act.  That was twenty years ago. It was magical.

Sitting at Lincoln Center last Saturday, that is exactly how her music felt, and even more so.  In all of the songs she played I saw roots of the ideas and philosophies I still hold dear.  In the  “Notes on the Program,” Rebecca Winzenried writes that the songs played (which were recorded on her latest album Songs from the Movie) included “titles culled from the span of Carpenter’s career, rather than being limited to her better-known hits, and presents those lyrics that demand a listener’s attention.” The entire show was curated like a journey.  Vince Mendoza arranged the orchestral music and said “the key to this project was finding the meaning of the song and “painting” it with the orchestra…I had to deconstruct Mary Chapin’s lyrics to find the underlying emotional thread that opened up a whole world of dramatic possibilities with the orchestra. Nature. Love. Loss.  Remembering. Dreams. Summer in our hometown. Pure humanity.”

So, again, I am left with the reminder that the right words and music are one of the best guides for the road.  I am so thankful for writers (and parents and teachers) who narrate the way for me and push me into my own writing and reflecting.

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years.  It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:

“When Ernest found the slope where he’d been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything,” (103).
“For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he’d been here,” (102).  
I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human–how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don’t remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: “There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger,” (57).  
Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I’ve been escaping to this morning seem insignificant–but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City–a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown’s parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody’s pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I’ve known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway–but I’m not going to, because it’s what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I’m not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.

Childhood Favorites Post #4: Remembering with Freak the Mighty

“Remembering is a great invention of the mind,” so says Kevin in the young adult novel Freak the Mighty. The whole concept of memory is fascinating to me, and I tend to write about it every time that it comes up in a book.

Freak the Mighty is a story of friendship, of hardship, of transcendence.  The characters in this book go through so much, that it is hard to believe that most of my students read it in elementary school. Max lives with his grandparents because his father is in jail for killing his mother.  He considers himself stupid and is in learning disabled classes at school.  People are frightened of him because of his father, how much he looks at him and how large of a person he is.  Kevin has just moved in to his block with his mom. He has a disease that has left him crippled and sick, but is absolutely brilliant.  The two form an unlikely friendship and dub themselves “Freak the Mighty.”

“You don’t need a time machine if you know how to remember,” says Kevin in a theoretical conversation between the boys about recalling what he has learned about the ice age in reference to an imaginary game they are playing.  What he doesn’t realize is how weighty this will become for Max. Kevin is wise beyond his years and knows how sick he is.  As much as his friendship with Max has changed him, he is aware that Max will have to move forward without him in the future.  The greatest gift that Kevin offered Max in their friendship was the use of imagination and the reminder of how memories can give strength.  What is so smart about Philbrick’s writing, is that he writes in Max’s voice throughout the book–Max who hated school, Max who had no confidence in his intellectual ability–and only at the end do you realize that Kevin asked him to write down their story.  At the end of the book it is incredible to “witness” how Max rose above all of his challenges to accomplish this and to see how the memory of his friendship with Kevin empowered him to do so.

And so, yes, remembering is a great invention of the mind.  And even though we all have things we wish we could forget, we also have the store of memories that remind us of who we really are and the things we really love…and those are the memories that give us the strength to move forward as changed people.

A quick question on memory (well, quick to write, not to think about, hence this post.)

This summer I made writing goals with some of my students and one of mine was to write a short story. It is in the very early stages of drafting, but is centered on the idea of memory, born from how prominent a place it has in the literature that I read, so it didn’t surprise me when another book centered on memory popped up–and for better or worse, it was asking some similar questions that I have been thinking about.

The narrative of Evening by Susan Minot alternates between the main character’s present: dying in her bed in and out of consciousness, and her recollections of a single weekend from her past which has haunted her entire existence since. She met and shared an intense few days with a man named Harris and her entire perception of love changed–and herself right along with it. They parted ways and Ann went on to have three marriages and five children.

My question is if you can or should let one memory color your entire existence? I can’t decide if it is deeply beautiful or incredibly sad.

This isn’t a rhetorical question. I am soliciting thoughts and answers.

I just got lost.

(Disclaimer: this post is relevant (well, that’s my hope, anyway) even if you don’t watch Lost, and isn’t specific enough to ruin anything if you are relatively up to date this season. )

The latest Lost quandry that has been running through my thoughts is the following:

If you had the ability to change the past so that events in the future would be prevented, would you do it? Or, do you feel like however painful or traumatizing those events might be, they have shaped your selfhood and understanding of life and the world in such a way that you wouldn’t want to un-do them?

Is it ethical to try to change an event in your memory? The New York Times discussed this a few weeks ago (not so much in the time travel, science fiction sense, though…it does feel a little like that). Nicole Krauss poses this question in Man Walks into a Room.

Memory is a repeating theme for me in my reading and writing.

What would the consequences be of deleting a scene from your life?
Even now I’m trying to think of potential scenarios that people may want to remove, but it gets so complicated and messy in about 5 seconds of thought.

Today I’m apparently just posing questions.