This year, I’ll place my hope in books—history, poetry, Torah, and that most challenging book of all, the book of my life. Everything is in it—good and bad. I’ll try to catch myself when I’m tempted to skim, skip, cut words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, pages, entire chapters that challenge and complicate the simple narrative I’d like my days and nights to tell.
I didn’t expect to ever publish this memoir, primarily because I didn’t feel it “fit” the genre as it exists today (and it doesn’t, but that’s why I treasure indie publishers like Slant Books). I embedded these poems and fables and theological reflections in various places in the narrative to give variety to what might otherwise have been a wearing litany.
Carolyn Forché is now a celebrated American poet. But she was far from that on the day in the late 1970s when a car pulled up outside the remote California beach house that she was renting. The driver idled the engine, then finally turned it off. At that, Forché, alone in the house and busily typing, noticed the sudden silence and became apprehensive. In her gripping memoir What You Have Heard is True, she narrates what happened next.
Is it a curse? Or a blessing? I’ve been pondering this question for years, ever since I first heard in high school the expression “No pain, no gain.” Or maybe it was when I eyed a similar expression (my first experience of chiasmus?) in the notice tacked up on the wall of my high school boys’ locker room as we headed out for football practice or a game: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
During the years I was writing the pages of Sister Zero, I was also teaching myself to do mosaic tiling. With each little project—covering a wooden box, a mirror frame, a clay pot—I learned from small successes and big mistakes. (Plus, smashing china plates can be very cathartic!)
When our son died, I was struck by a phrase my wife repeated both shortly after his death and in the nearly five years since: “Where are you, Daniel?” We need to imagine a somewhere for those we love. I think, in part, that need is connected to our greatest fear—that those we love simply disappear without a trace as time passes.
How do we render onto paper not what we hear but what we cannot hear? What is the story for what we do not know? I believe we look for it in doubt, fear, and uncertainty.
I believe we experience that mystery in the questions, and not the answers, the silence and not the noise.
Three Decembers ago, during the first week of Advent, I took my kids on a weekend trip to see their grandmother and my aunt and uncle. My aunt and uncle care for my grandmother, who was ninety-three at the time, and had recently started to lose her ability to speak.
This is my third time through a book I’ve admired since I first read it during my twenties and then reread it, with equal admiration, in my forties: Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (1905). And now, near eighty, I’m reading and admiring it again.