Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

I’ll spend much of this summer at my alma mater overnight camp with my three sons. I’ll work in the front office while the boys enjoy programming designed for staff kids. Each day, we’ll step outside to the dewy chill of early morning air. Come nightfall, we’ll huddle under fleece blankets in a modest bunk–two rooms adjoined by a bathroom–with a shared porch.

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our home in the woods

It is the way we disconnect and reconnect. Internet access is spotty at best. The rhythm of life slows to a stripped-back simplicity. The nights are black and still, with no dishes to wash or house to keep. After the camp quiets and the boys are kissed goodnight, it is just me, my words, and the wilderness.

my utterly unrealistic reading stack

my utterly unrealistic reading stack

Yet there’s a steady buzz in the front office. And we eat our meals in a communal dining hall that accommodates several hundred people. Walls are thin, and little separates you from nature or neighbor. It’s a strange confluence of constant community and soul-searching silence.

It is the way we mark time. We did this last year, and that we’ll be back there again signals another year has passed. It leaves me thoughtful of all that’s come between summer’s brackets.

Frankly, we’re in need of a change. Our routine has grown rote. We cycle through our days like a tired, monochromatic wardrobe. I’ve prepared the same dinner each night for two weeks straight (pasta, chickenless nuggets, edamame, if you’re curious), only to use the leftovers for lunches. The boys have fallen into an undesirable habit of waking in the 5:00 hour, and I know: we all sleep more soundly at camp.

Sometimes we need to shift perspective to truly see. It’s time to take in the tiny new freckle on the small of my oldest son’s back. To listen carefully as he fills my ears with the complicated details of last night’s dream. To step away from the minivan that shuttles us everywhere and be within walking distance of all our destinations. To sit on the earth. Summer is for slowing down, for noticing. And this narrowing, scaling back, stripping away–it’s also somehow an expansion. It is in this smallest, simplest life that we see what looms large.

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I may not be as connected or responsive over the coming months, but you can be sure I’ll be writing, and living, in my cabin in the woods…surrounded by all that matters.

Wishing you a wonderful summer of stepping back, sinking in, taking stock…whatever suits you.

There once was a time Before Computers–a second B.C.–that we’re now using our computers to delete: a time before e-mail, msgs, apps, and urls, when privacy wasn’t a setting and attachments were to people, when search meant finding something in the real world, and being connected meant you weren’t alone. – Adam Ross’ blurb on Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

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The garage door lifted against the night. 4am may be morning, but all pitch black and silence, you wouldn’t know it. The car beep startled me awake as I slid into the driver seat, coffee clutched, and set out for Pittsburgh.

Minutes before, I’d fingered the wisps of hair that fell across my baby’s forehead. When he woke for the day, I’d be halfway across the state.

As much as I crave time away, it’s always hard to leave my children. I grip that moment of farewell—when we are still within reach.

This dark morning, I followed 76 West clear across Pennsylvania amid unwelcome truck company, the sun’s coppery first light at my back—as if driving away from day and deeper into the departing night. We are always moving away from something. Each minute leaves behind the last.

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And yet, I carry a relentless sentimentality for all that came before, all that once was. I walk forward with my head slung over one shoulder, ever looking back.

In Pittsburgh, I was met—at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference—with a room full of people who believe in excavating their minds and memories for story. “Memory should be interrogated,” Dinty W. Moore taught, “it’s where the discovery happens.” “Telling stories matters. It’s always mattered…” said Lee Gutkind.

In writing memoir, we are researching our own lives (to paraphrase Jill Kandel)—to seek understanding, to ask endless questions about why something was the way it was, why we were the way we were, to push on what we’re curious about, what we don’t understand, what continues to puzzle us, even years later (to paraphrase Moore).

We take our idiosyncratic experience, examine it, and then throw it out into the world, hoping it helps. “The reason to write,” Gutkind said, “is to make a difference…to figure out how what we know can impact other people.”

Many are troubled by how much of our lives are now lived out loud—in this age of (over)exposure, where every person has a platform, where the minutiae of any given day are splashed across the screen: Joe had pancakes for breakfast, people! Jamie chopped off her hair! People (like me) create their own websites on a whim and post personal content for public consumption.

It bothers me little, perhaps because I like to know the mundane details of others’ lives—even acquaintances or strangers. I’m that much of a voyeur.

But also because I believe that’s how Joe and Jamie are marking their moments, telling their stories. Is it the stuff of memoir? Probably not. (I often think of Dani Shapiro’s writing advice that “just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”) But they’re letting people in, sharing their truths.

All we have is who we are and what’s happened to us along the way. Every lived life is a story worth telling. I soften, harboring a strange affection for my mind’s hoarding tendencies, my reluctance to let go—I’m gathering data. What better fodder for story than the stuff of real people and place? What better way to connect to your before and to the world all around than to tell the tale of your one little life?

At the Pittsburgh conference, there were several opportunities for attendees to share their stories orally: a “pitch slam,” where brave participants delivered their book or essay pitch to a panel of editors—with the entire conference looking on (did I mention brave?), or the “story slam,” where volunteers took the stage to deliver a five minute true story on the theme of rejection.

A writing conference is already wonderfully strange for putting you within reach of those you’ve only known on the page. Suddenly, the faces and voices of the people behind the prose take shape, stand before you, trade jokes in the foyer, have chance encounters on street corners, affectionately pat your shoulder.

Your mind works overtime, trying to square what you’ve read with what you see; you know, from now on, you will hear their voices as you read their words.

It’s sensory overload. It’s almost too much.

Hearing writers deliver deeply personal narratives in the rise and fall of their own voices before a stilled crowd added yet another dimension to this work of storytelling. My preference remains the written word, which permits us precision—the luxury to revise and refine, to approach control over our expression—the words we use, where they fall—while allowing the reader his own intimate interplay with the text.

But at the end of the day, the key is that we’re standing up and speaking our stories at all—with pen, on paper, on screen, by mouth. The young and old, black and white, gay and straight, the 70ish Russian history PhD and the wild-haired 17-year-old high school student. Each tale worth telling, every story worth hearing.

So tell me about those pancakes, Joe. Share on.

“Memoir is important…so people can be inside the life of another person. That’s where empathy begins.” – Dinty W. Moore

It was a dingy corner of a gym at a local community center during a simple 6th birthday party. I was chasing down the two-year-old, an interloper on the kindergartner’s birthday circuit, amidst hardened gum stains and up and down rubber-lined steps set against linoleum flooring.

The building was dated—40s? 60s?—and I drank in that musty smell peculiar to old gymnasiums and the backs of stages, a blend of sawdust and teenage sweat.

Backstage. Where we traded secrets between scenes, crushed hard on the band, grew up behind bleachers. Among discarded cracked-wood benches, their chipped paint a faded orange or blue, holding history in a layer of dust, stray nails, and Sharpie stains boasting who “wuz there.” Peering out from behind thick burgundy curtains, I alternately wondered if he liked me and what was for dinner.

Or turn right off the lone hallway in an abandoned public school in Hicksville, New York. During a free period, we’d trespass in the cluttered dark behind the faded gold drape of the auditorium’s main stage, pressed up against donated furniture and music stands that dug into my back.

A hollow farmhouse in an empty field, explored at dusk,

A swath of sand in the shade of a splintering boardwalk, seashells piercing skin,

A muddy campground on the banks of the Delaware River, sleeping bags to soil, a single bathroom—pink?—where we’d forego showers,

An apple core, consumed whole, along the Appalachian,

Ants crushed under dirt-filled fingernails and eyes blackened from ball with the boys,

Nights spent in cars or sleazy roadside motels,

Or on a repurposed mattress flung unceremoniously onto the floor of a handsome bassist’s bedroom.

Memories line up into a life. One lived dusty-kneed, in the dirt, on the ground, steeped in artifact and earth.

Bells and whistles be damned.

Life shines brighter against a lackluster backdrop.

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Boxes line the study walls,
still packed.

Stoic smiles traded in school hallways,
in passing.

I rush home to be enveloped in
a quiet house that’s not mine.

I let no one in.

It feels,
it is,
temporary.

A walk on wet sand without a trace.
A swim through water without a wake.

But I don’t fly by night.
I sink in.
Roots and routine.

A front stoop, a yellow bedroom, a key hook.

I thunder down stairs with elephant grace.
I leave a mark.

The minivan strains to life.
We take our weekends to the road.
Its asphalt familiar, perpetual.

Strips of space,
bracketed by bridges,
rising high above rivers.

We wonder about falling and flying.
We find our way there.

At exit 7 or 8, barns line the turnpike.
Peeling paint, parked tractors, land stretches, lives lived.

That could be our farm, I think.
Our rocking chairs on the porch.

When you live nowhere,
home can be anywhere.

A suspended, imaginary life.
Fleeting, receding into the rearview.

A holding pattern is not a home.

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I wonder if Lisa Adams knew that Dani Shapiro viewed her Twitter timeline as a brave and unconventional work of memoir. Perhaps she did. And I hope so. But the thought rattled around in my mind during this morning’s shower.

In 7th grade, they called me fake. And I was. I know now (and probably did then) that it was bred of my desire to people-please. I never wanted to offend. I wanted to be liked, loved, by everyone, always.

With age, awareness, and exhaustion, I’ve grown less likely to self-censor or serve up faux flattery. But I still filter. Mine is a peculiar mix of litigator neuroses, an extreme aversion to error or offensiveness, a veneration for social convention, and now as someone who writes, a heightened attention to content and construction.

I place the words carefully on the page, just so, and with intention. Each post and publication, every comment and comma, even emails and tweets. Carefully crafted, proofread, overthought. My fingers never fly ahead of my critical eye. Tap, tap, tap. Backspace. Delete. Sit. Stew. Nail-bite. Tap, tap, tap.

When it comes to what’s spoken, we have far less control over our delivery—and we (fearfully?) face a reaction in real time—so sometimes we say nothing at all.

In person and on the page, we filter the flattery. Curb our compliments. We worry about how our words will land once we let them loose. We are so careful with our communication that we may miss our moment.

The one where we say:

You are one of the best writers I’ve read;

Your patience with your children inspires me to be a better parent;

Your eyes are a lovely shade of blue;

Even though we met not long ago, this friendship is really important to me;

and so on.

It has a tendency to tiptoe into the territory of what Dani terms the “faux-generosity” endemic to Twitter—and, I would argue, social media generally. But I credit many of us with the ability to deliver—and decipher—what’s genuine. In this age, we can reach out to virtually anyone in our world to share, from a safe distance, exactly how we feel. By this age, we know how rare but welcome these words truly are. We can forge friendships with our fingertips. We can fill the space with what’s real.

I often think of this passage from The Little Prince and wish we could speak as plainly, be as forthcoming about our need for each other:

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean–‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”

Amanda Magee, one of my favorite writers, put it best:

It’s simply said, less simply done. But it’s everything.

Say it in life.

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POSTSCRIPT

Not surprisingly, Amanda’s insightful comment on this post left me deep in thought, and I felt compelled to write on. “…even with ties, what is it if there isn’t the tiniest bit of trepidation,” she asks. Yes. That innate impulse to pause before we speak, to edit what we write, to tread lightly as we transform our inner thoughts into words spoken and shared—that is humanity at its most essential. Proof positive of the care and consideration we have for those who walk through this life with us.

It reveals a concern for the other, for all that lies beyond the self. It is a sign that we recognize we live in a shared world, that we are not alone here. We don’t go running our mouths or carelessly flinging our words all about, because we know they bump up against others, with hearts and minds and thoughts of their own. That we temper our speech and actions with concern for those in our surroundings—oh yes.

So, say the nice things out loud, absolutely. But that filter? That precious pause? That thought before speech? Revel in the humanity there.

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