I found myself on a flight to California the other day to visit family. As we boarded the aircraft, touching our fingertips to the fuselage, these could be my last steps on earth, I think, and then again as we slowly taxi down the runway, these, my last moments in life. Morbid, maybe, but I think it all the same. Conjuring worst case scenarios is my mind’s way of making sense of uncertainty.
I settle in between my mother and youngest son, look across the aisle to my husband, flanked on either side by our older boys. They’re already engrossed in their screens, heads bent, eyes cast downward. They don’t see me stealing a glimpse of their sandy skin, the hair framing their sweet faces—no longer wispy, no longer white blond.
What have I left behind? I wonder. If this is the end, what will remain?
On the two-year anniversary of this blog, I question, perhaps now more than ever, why I’m doing this. Why any of us are. Why we feel compelled to record, to share our stories, to put words to the moments of our mundane lives, to mold meaning out of them.
And yet. Simply by being human, you have a story to tell. I couldn’t believe this more.
I sat back as the plane reached cruising altitude and thumbed the pages of my new book. (New to me, but I’d actually bought it used, as I often do. I love that someone else’s hands held it before my own—the book like a link between two disparate lives.
On this copy of The Art of Memoir, there is a small coffee stain on the back cover, roughly the size of a quarter and, aptly, shaped like Texas. I run my fingertips over the warped paper and wonder about its prior owner, that other life, now seeping into mine.)
Memoir writing begins, Mary Karr writes, with “a curious mind probing for truth . . . a fierce urge to try re-experiencing your own mind and body and throbbing heart alive inside the most vivid stories from your past.” We don’t let things go, we couldn’t if we tried. “Nobody,” Karr continues, “can be autonomous in making choices today unless she grasps how she’s been internally yanked around by stuff that came before.”
We spent the day hurtling against hours, moving backwards across a morning that, it seemed, had no end. The plane pushed against time’s passage, crossing from Eastern Standard into Central, then Mountain, and finally, Pacific. Perhaps if we kept flying, the day would never grow old. Time, temporarily, had nothing on us.
It has been a long, full year since I marked this time last December.
There are the beginnings of a book and a fourth baby.
Several published essays, several more submissions.
A shelf lined with books whose authors I feel I know.
Two months living in the Pennsylvania Mountains with my sons in a beloved camp bunk.
School buses and packed lunches and outgrown shoes and boys who grow bigger and older and read and play and cry and think and fight and love.
Prospects for a move to a town where we might settle, and stay.
It has been a good year in a little life.
When I feel that familiar reluctance to letting it go, I gently chastise myself with these words recently read, “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”
I stood on the beach last night with my family—four silhouettes in fading light—as the sun slipped behind the sea for one of the last times this year. It was as beautiful as it was irretrievable. You could no more stop its setting as you could wrest it from the horizon with your bare hands. We all must move on, every minute, but we can also make our mark. Line up the words one after another—the days too. Marching together into the unknown. With, at once, a tight grip on our past and palms open to what lies ahead.
So I put pen to paper, make my small, seemingly insignificant imprint on the slippery sands of time. Like the sharpie-scribbled names on backstages or the quotes on camp bunks. Like the initials I dug into the wet cement of the driveway that led to my childhood home—that still remain. I’ve been back, I’ve checked.
I was here, these words say. They evince a dogged determination to make sense of what was—pulling it along like a Radio Flyer wagon—connecting it to what will be.
As I deplaned, past luggage-laden passengers swapping coasts, I turned back toward the aircraft that shuttled us safely across the country—a last look at what I was leaving behind. And then walked on, the wheels of my suitcase sliding over the thin airport carpeting, leaving an ever so subtle trace.
Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity. – Sarah Manguso