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Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3

Essay

 

Donna RigbyPhoto of Donna Rigby.

Narrative, Creative Nonfiction and the Personal Essay: Housing the Text


Donna Rigby earned her MS in English from Utah State University where she was the recipient of the New Century Handbook Graduate Writing Fellowship. She currently teaches English for Veterans Upward Bound, a DOE educational program that assists at-risk military veterans to succeed at the postsecondary level. In her spare time, Donna reads voraciously; gardens extensively; runs, hikes, and bikes moderately; writes erratically; rearranges her furniture constantly; and interacts with her family passionately.

 

i. front porch ruminations

Sometimes there comes to me a feeling that I should not betray the story of my life. —Michel de Montaigne


All of us, at some time or other, will likely feel the urgency that comes, usually with age, to make meaning of our lives. When we are young, we are too busy building to stop very long for reflection, and when we do, we are likely to ask the more general question: Does life have meaning?

But, as we grow older, the question becomes more specific: Does my life have meaning? We want to understand what we have made and, maybe, more importantly, to understand how and why we constructed it. We begin to examine this thing—this life—we have created; we step back from it, look it up and down, walk around it to study it from all angles, and, finally, wonder if it will stand. After all, it takes a lot of time to build a life. Have we used our time to good purpose?

 

"I've made an appointment to talk with an insurance man about our estate," Mark said one night about a year ago.

"I didn't know we had an estate."

"He sells plans where you pre-pay for your funeral."

"I won't talk to him."

"But..."

"I'm not going to die."

That's one thing about time. Thirty-two years has taught us each how to gauge the degree of stubbornness in the other. It saves a lot of argument. I don't know what Mark told the insurance man, but we didn't talk to him, and we still haven't.

Oh, I know I'm going to die. This recalcitrance about death is an interesting and unexpected blip in my character that has surprised me probably as much as it has Mark. Where did that come from? I don't know. I just know that I want more time; I can see the end of the narrative from here, at least I think I can, and I'm not ready to quit writing that narrative.

 

A few years ago, after we had finally accumulated better and heavier furniture—furniture that I could no longer pick up and move from one end of the living room to the other—Mark, in defense of both our backs, drew the room's dimensions on a piece of graph paper and then measured, drew, and cut out representations of every piece of furniture as well. Now, when I feel the urge to rearrange, I can lay everything out on the graph paper first, to see if it will fit. If it didn't stop me from rearranging at will, at least it slowed me down a bit—the logic of graph paper can't be denied when it comes to making things fit. But it doesn't always give a true picture of how things will "look."

So, as I embark upon this personal essay, what Montaigne, according to Chris Anderson, referred to as "that stupid enterprise," I take comfort in Philip Lopate's assurance that "the personal or familiar essay is a wonderfully tolerant form" capable of "assum[ing] an amoebic shapelessness." So, before I take you into the house, I want you to know that all of the walls are not perfectly square. Also, I need to show you the view from the porch. The plot of land it's built on, as you know, has a great deal to do with the eventual shape of the building.

About 15 million years ago, give or take a million, the Wasatch Mountains roared up out of the ground like angry giants, shook the 1.6 billion year old rocks out of their hair, brushed the dirt from their eyes, blinked, looked around, liked what they saw, and decided to stay. Then, old sleepyheads, they yawned, lay right down where they were—a jumble of outstretched arms and legs, heads nestled companionably one upon the other, rear-ends to the sky—and dozed off again. They've been asleep like that for all this time, content to let the seasons come and go, altering their scruffy coats in never-ending succession from winter white, to verdant green, to mottled brown, and, finally, to orange, red and yellow before changing back to white. Occasionally they twitch a finger or shift a shoulder, but, for the most part, they remain quiet.

That's a mythical story, but then, I live in a mythical place called "Sidney," which lies at the precise point where the borders of Kaysville, Fruit Heights, and Farmington, Utah, meet and which sits on a knuckle of the alluvial plain that fingers its way out of the Wasatch Range's Baer (sic) and Shepard Canyons toward the Great Salt Lake. A long-ago earthquake, a minor "finger-twitching," caused the ground nearby to slough off, forming a ridge called Haight Bench, named after Hector Haight who, in 1847, brought his cattle here to graze. Sidney is located on the back edge of that bench.

Family legend has it that when the old Bamberger Railroad decided to put up a rail stop across the street from his home, the workmen asked Papa (Frank Rigby) what he thought they should call it, and he said: "Sidney." They obliged, and Sidney it was. Though the Bamberger, along with its rails stops and tracks, has long since ceased to exist, the name "Sidney" lingers on in family lore.

The Rigbys settled in this area in the 1920s when Frank and Annie (Papa and Weewee) Rigby, my husband's paternal grandparents, built themselves an adobe house north of Farmington, Utah. In the late 1940s, after WW II, Bill, their son, and Doris, his wife, built their white stucco house with the red tile roof a few acres south of the original home. In 1980 Mark (Bill and Doris's son) and I added our house of red-brown brick to the others—on the piece of ground directly south of his parents. A few years later, after the deaths of Papa and Weewee and their daughter, Lucy, the original Rigby home transferred ownership to my husband's sister, Darline, and her family. Today, Sidney comprises those three family homes, the seven-acre field behind them, the hollow below the field, and Haight Creek that runs through it.

Here, in Sidney, on the edge of the alluvial plain, the soil is dark and rich and whatever is planted and tended will grow to goodness—with time.

 

I can "read" the text of this space I inhabit just by walking out onto the porch and looking around. It's a comfortable place—the mountains east, the people north and south, the field west—the topography is known.

"Would you like to come inside?"

In the best essay tradition, I'm inviting you into my house—to go on a mental ramble, composing as we go—walking through, in my mind, the life I have created—testing it for strength and worth. And because I am using the medium of the personal essay—fluid and elastic—I can think us into any room from any other. Thus, we don't have to begin in the basement and walk to the top or vice versa; we can start in whichever room we like. We can zigzag through time—like hypertext—not in chronological order. Please don't mind the clutter; sometimes things from one room spill over into another.

 

ii. the narrative room

I treasure the twice-lived life, the old stories told and retold as the meanings I need to hear come clear. I live then and now. —Donald M. Murray


Quantum physics and wormholes notwithstanding, Stephen Hawking doesn't believe that time travel is possible, at least not backward. But traveling back in time is the only kind I know how to do—it's the future stuff that's problematic for me. And, I, like most people, have a set of wormholes that I use regularly.

At any given moment I can be back in Southern Alberta on my grandparents' farm standing next to my grandmother, Pearl, in the separator room (a little wooden shed not far from the barn) as she pours buckets of fresh milk into the stainless steel apparatus that will divide out the cream. I can feel the comfort of her calm, loving presence—her steadiness, her kindness. I can smell the frothy, white milk and the nearby cows. I can hear the flies buzz at the window as the sun starts to spread its warmth across our backs, and I can hear her voice as she explains the process to me.

 

Here, in my study, the converted bedroom where my computer resides and where I am now writing, sits my grandmother Pearl's diary. It is a brown, re-cycled, D-ring binder full of college-ruled paper—every line (she actually typed it) records the date and her activities on that day—every day from December 25, 1947 to February 7, 1986 (except, much to my dismay, the dates from August 6, 1948, through January 5, 1949, which include the day I was born). Some entries take up 4-5 lines, but not many, most are 2-3-line "laundry lists" of her activities: Jan. 14, 1949: It wasn't very cold this morning but it is cold and snowing tonight. Yesterday I talked to Leola on the phone. Her baby [that's me] is sure doing good. The Lord is sure good to us in so many ways.

My grandmother's diary, as Jennifer Sinor suggests all diaries are, is an "extraordinary" work filled with "ordinary" writing—writing that would be classified by most people as non-narrative, thus "unreadable and unread." But, it is cherished by me and a few other of her descendants because it is something of hers. I marvel that it has survived to come down to us—this thick, paginated monument that chronicles her time—her life.

I sometimes pick out the dates of interest and read those, but I haven't read the whole thing through because what I really long for is what lies between the lines—the narrative that makes up my grandmother's life. How did she feel about the unrelenting work of a Southern Alberta farm in the early, and, for her, middle and late 1900s? What is the story of her feelings and her actions when her house burned to the ground—two times? How did she find the courage to begin from nothing, not once, but twice? In short, I want the narrative, not necessarily the underlying facts: it is the story of her life that seems more interesting to me because it is through that narrative that I can really know and understand my grandmother—who was this small, sturdy, unfailingly kind woman? Who am I? How much is my narrative a result of hers?

 

The first ten years of my life were lived on the western edge of the Alberta prairie just where the land begins to swell toward the Canadian Rockies. My world included my Grandma and Grandpa Redford's farm, Waterton Park, the towns of Raymond, Cardston, and Lethbridge, and the long, flat roads in between. Many Sunday afternoons my father would drive us to Waterton Lake. We would leave the car at the Prince of Wales Hotel and walk down the hillside beneath tall pines to the lake below. I loved to be there under the pines where it was cool and dark. I could hear my brothers and sisters calling to each other as they ran on ahead. The pine needles muffled my steps, and the water made a soft, insistent lapping sound on the rocky beach. Sometimes, even today, I wish all Sunday afternoons could be like those, forever.

 

All peoples and cultures on earth use narrative to some extent in trying to explain and understand the world and their place in it. As human beings we cannot stop ourselves from creating and repeating stories—texts—both oral and written—we are compelled to be narrators. It is inborn and instinctual. Narrative comforts us in our youth ("Tell me a story, Daddy."); we cling to it in our old age ("Time was...").

At the conclusion of his book My Twice-Lived Life, Donald Murray writes this truism:"I will always have narrative as my companion. Of story there will be no letting go." We cannot let go of story because without it we have no recognizable past. We don't know who we are. John D. Niles articulates it this way: "It is chiefly through storytelling that people possess a past." We have to tell the story of the past in order to understand our present and contemplate our future. In short, the thing we count on for identity is a text, and we like to think, because it's our identity, that it's a nonfiction text.

Still, we want that text to be more than bare facts. What child doesn't love to hear the story of her birth? The date and time, however, are not what she is longing for. She wants the teller to elaborate: Were Mommy and Daddy happy? What did Grandma and Grandpa do? Did I have hair? What color? Were my eyes blue? Brown? She wants more than what appears on the birth certificate—she wants the facts embellished. In other words, she wants a creative nonfiction account of her birth.

 

Not too long ago, October 5, 2000, Preslie Rigby, all 8 pounds, 10 ounces of her, was born. I watched my third son Kyle, still in his scrubs, through the nursery window as he stood beside his first child's bassinet, rubbing his finger up her arm, touching her thick, dark hair, and mostly just drinking her in, the wonder of her coming still on his face. This is the eighth time I have attended the birth of a grandchild. I hope I get to be there for every one of them, waiting in the hall for the proud father to bring his new infant past on the way to the nursery. The two of them light up the hallway and everybody they pass along the way.

"Look at all that hair!"

"She looks just like her mother."

"That's the first miracle right there," says my husband Mark.

We all laugh.

Later, Lance and Amber, his wife, come in with three-year-old Sierra and one-year-old Davis—uncle, aunt, and cousins to Preslie, respectively. Sierra wants to hold the baby. She sits between her father and me on the couch and takes the sleeping infant in her arms. Sierra's blue eyes are about twice their normal size as she studies her new cousin. (Preslie's eyes will be brown, at least the odds make that the probability.)

"Preslie is going to be Kyle's princess, just like you're my princess," Lance, her father, tells her.

She looks at him and thinks about this; then she looks down at Preslie. I can see the pleased smile on her face. It's okay for Preslie to be Kyle's princess as long as she can be her dad's.

"Do you know when you were born that you had lots and lots of hair like Preslie, only yours was blond instead of black?" I ask her.

She nods.

 

Someone has already told her that story, probably several times. Her infant past is secured; she has the story—the text—to prove it. We have done our job, which is to preserve it for her until she can take it up herself.

 

iii. the creative nonfiction room

The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out. —Annie Dillard


When I happen to mention to family or friends that I am writing a creative nonfiction essay, the conversation ceases for a moment or two while they process the juxtaposition of those two words: creative and nonfiction.

Some laugh uncertainly, as if to say, "You're kidding, right." Some flatly say, "It can't be both. It's either the truth or its fiction." And others ask, "What's creative nonfiction?" Through experience, I've elected to stave off confusion by routinely adding the definition right after the statement: "I'm working on a creative nonfiction essay—the truth told in a literary style." An easy, surface explanation which I feel confident in expressing because it accords with Annie Dillard's statement that "works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature."

In reality, of course, the definition is much more complicated than that. As Philip Gerard in his book Creative Nonfiction explains, "The term nonfiction doesn't make much sense." He goes on to clarify: "No other genre suffers under this metaphysical definition by negation." Joyce Bartkevicius expresses much the same sentiment: "I sat at the table wondering what made fiction, the not-true, so central that the term `nonfiction' was formed from it." Gerard writes: "Creative nonfiction is the stories you find out [as opposed to the stories you "make up"], captured with a clear eye and an alert imagination, filtered through a mind passionate to know and tell, told accurately and with compelling grace."

Gerard reasons that the appellation "nonfiction" assumes that, unless it's so named, everything else, and by default, our natural way of looking at the world, is through fiction. Well, this could be accurate, because, after all, when we tell a story—even a true story, as Gerard says, "We embellish. We misremember. We conveniently leave out." In essence, he concludes that "When we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie." Inevitably, however, because it is literary, the writer of creative nonfiction often comes to the point where she has to make a choice about truth.

But, what truth? Whose truth? In their book First Person Singular, Stuart and Terry Hirschberg admit that getting "at the truth" of life experiences is more complicated than knowing the facts (the reportage) of those life experiences. Bartkevicius writes of the experience she had of watching an old home movie with her cousin, a recording of an event in which they had both participated. Bartkevicius, to her surprise, discovered that she and her cousin told "different stories." Then she wonders: "Which one is true?" and concludes that "both are true, for they are true to how we remember, how we see, they recreate the topographies of our minds. We can return to the film and we can return to our memories. Either way, each of us returns to a different place."

Judith Ortiz Cofer agrees with Bartkevicius regarding the concept of truth. Referring to poetry, but applying it to creative nonfiction, she writes: "I make the connection, find the neural pathways to a deeply felt memory-generated emotion. That is how I know it is the Truth (not to be mistaken by the Fact)." Like Cofer, I believe making meaning is the larger "truth," and I believe it is the main reason for writing the personal.

 

When I was five years old my father took us fishing near Lac la Biche in Northern Alberta. At that age, I believed my dad was the most wonderful person in the world—I idolized him. He was all my world, this smiling, handsome man with eyes of the deepest blue and a laugh that boomed infectiously, and almost involuntarily, out of him.

On this particularly bright day, my mother and I found ourselves beside a tree-lined river on a wide, rocky bank, watching my dad cast his line into the swift water. I ran around on the rocks screaming at the flopping fish he had landed, trying to get out of the way of its death throes. The pungent scent of the pines mixed dizzyingly with the smell of the fish and the sound of the rushing water. (In my mind's eye, I still can see my mother watching my father, as she always did—as we would all learn to do.) "What are you afraid of?" he chuckled.

I yelped and jumped away from the fish he dangled before me, backpedaling over the rocks as fast as I could.

He opened up his blue, blue eyes, threw back his head, and laughed. And it seemed like his laughter floated all around me, across the water, and through the pines, until it lifted upward and reached the sky, filling the entire universe. He was happy—we were all happy.

 

Were we? Yes—then. I realize now that there must have been more than the three of us present. After all, I was the oldest of eight children, who came in rapid succession, one after the other. If I was five, my two younger sisters must also have been there running around with me. Yet I didn't mention them, not that I consciously or purposely left them out. Does that "fact" diminish the truth of the experience? Not for me. Actually, that I left my siblings out, unconsciously or otherwise, likely tells a greater truth about our family—and, perhaps, about me. The truth is that though we were always (the ten of us) tightly packed into any space we occupied (home or car), it was only a physical closeness. We were ten single entities, but a family? No. Though, we still have time to change that text, if we want it.

Here, in the creative nonfiction room is where I mix narrative and truth to make meaning of experience. As time passes, the more meaning I find—the more truth—but likely fewer facts.

 

iv. the personal essay room

To write one's life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical. —Patricia Hampl


The appellation "creative nonfiction" includes within its range many subgenres. In their book Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard, deliberately excluding "deadline reportage," list them as "memoir, lyric and personal essay, plotted narrative, biography, meditation, [and] nature writing." There are likely others—or, at least, other names for the same categories. Regardless, I have a particular fondness for the personal essay—likely because it is so flexible. Its elasticity of structure, style, and subject matter allows us, as homo narrans, to examine and, hopefully, to better understand our current lives, histories, and cultures. Lopate avers that the personal essay is "able to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy," several of which are likely present in this essay.

Essay. The word, Lopate informs us, comes from "the French verb essayer: to attempt, to try, to leap experimentally into the unknown." French, of course, because Montaigne, the father and master of the personal essay, was a Frenchman, a Gascon—a lover of, according to translator Donald Frame, "paradox and exaggeration." What better characteristics for a maker of creative nonfiction?

For me, writing the personal essay is an adventure—often a terrifying adventure. Every paragraph is a new road revealing unexplored, and potentially dangerous, open country. In his essay "The Singular First Person," Scott Russell Sanders warns that "the essayist has nowhere to hide." How dare I put my personal ruminations and conclusions before the world? What is my motivation? Sanders wonders if it isn't "arrogance." So do I. As an essayist, I am, in effect, sticking out my chin, and begging someone to hit it, hopefully not someone in my family. But, often, I, like Montaigne, feel that "many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends
[and perhaps family] to a bookseller's shop."

So, though I carefully scrutinize the "film" in my head—the one that plays my past—and dutifully, even eagerly, write my discoveries, I realize that my personal film will not necessarily be made up of the same scenes, the same "past" as those played by my siblings or my parents. Bartkevicius says, "The self—at least my self—is composed of misremembered and unremembered scenes. The path back to that uneven landscape is the path of the mind." In writing the personal essay, I often find myself on that same "uneven landscape."

Why write essays then? And, especially, why write essays about myself or my family? After all, there are so many important issues: global ones like war vs. peace, capitalism vs. Marxism, free trade vs. protectionism; national ones like gay marriage, abortion, English only; local ones like education funding, free speech on the Salt Lake City Plaza, the Legacy Highway. I do have opinions on all of these things. Why do I stick with the personal, rather than critiquing the works and theories of others on something universal—something worthwhile? Probably because the personal is what I know; it is also the lens through which I see the universal and the global. Still, of what possible value in the great scheme of things is a personal essay about my mostly colloquial existence?

Montaigne, ruminating about his own mostly colloquial existence, warns us, his readers, early on: "I am myself the matter of my book," lest we want to quit reading before wasting more of our "leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject." Although he admits to many purposes for writing about himself, one of my favorites is this: "Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones."

The personal essay is an adventure in self-discovery. It is a lot like falling down the rabbit hole of yourself and coming back with a tiny bit of who you are clutched in your fist and then spreading this bit out on the table in order to study it closer—to see and judge the painting from different sides.

 

I watch my mother slowly undress in the examination room, put on what is wrongly referred to as a gown, and settle back to patiently wait for the doctor's entrance. I am less patient. In reality, I want to throw myself on the floor kicking and screaming. "This can't be happening." "I'm not ready to be responsible for my mother." "I can't handle it!" "I'm too busy." But I don't. I pull the monster me back inside and sit and wait and make conversation.

This time it is the dermatologist. Last week it was the internist. Next week it will be the eye doctor, or the chiropractor, or the orthopedic specialist. Her life has become an endless round of doctor visits punctuated by brief hours of sitting in a chair or lying in a bed, waiting for the next doctor visit.

Over the past year, since her eightieth birthday, I have become the parent, she the child. Now I am the one who walks beside her, slows my step to hers, guides her arm, the one who waits in the examining room with her, who listens, along with her, to complicated doctor instructions, who tries to ask the appropriate expository questions. Afterward, I will take her back home, to my sister's house, where she lives, and we two will discuss what is to be done. My mother will follow the doctor's directions, and they will not relieve her pain or clear her failing eyesight, and we two, or she and my sister, will come back to this doctor, or some other.

In the meantime, I will go home with tears running down my cheeks, knowing that they aren't for my mother's pain or her loss of eyesight so much as for my own agony, and then I will weep all the harder because of the perceived flaws in my character that this reveals. I will attack the treadmill or the weights with renewed vigor, trying to disavow that my mother's journey toward death is a pattern for my own. And I will try to forget the sagging skin, the thinning hair, the unsteady shuffle of old age. For it isn't the dying that scares me; it is the long, slow, dreadful walk toward the grave and the frightened peering inside. The actual toppling over the edge, I imagine, will be comparatively easy. (The painting does indeed come clearer, sometimes uncomfortably so.)

A second reason for writing the personal is likely the reason that my grandmother imagined for herself when she kept so detailed a diary—to inform her posterity. The essayist Patricia Hampl writes: "If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past, someone else will do it for us." Sadly, my grandmother's diary is not a personal version of the past because we don't get to see her "person," only her actions. But this "second," according to Hampl, "spiritual" living of our lives, is our chance to write our own version of history—history as we see it. Hampl says that it is our chance to "acquiesce to our experience and […] to transform experience into meaning and value," not just for ourselves, but for those who follow us.

Unfortunately, my grandmother had likely "been conditioned to think that [her] own private experience [was] unimportant in the scheme of things and that to talk about [herself was] to violate a cultural taboo," as Chris Anderson theorizes in "Late Night Thoughts on Writing and Teaching Essays." She lived of that generation. I live in a different one—one that values the personal experience, though not always for noble reasons. (The success of Reality TV is a testament to that.) The personal experience retold helps to bind the generations together, another reason for writing the personal essay.

 

Last week we picked and froze our corn—an event that has become a Rigby family tradition—a ritual that involves grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, brothers and sisters, grandchildren and, now, even great-grandchildren. It is the perfect example of what Plato would have called "inculcating children" with the "beliefs of the tribe," something less than the eternal, transcendent truth he valued. But for this tribe—the Rigby tribe—the land, this particular spot of land and the harvest it brings (both of grain and people) is the ultimate truth.

On this Saturday, at first light, Mark backs the wagon, hooked up to the old Ford tractor, down the corn rows. The rest of us start picking. It is still cool, and the corn breaks crisply into my hand. I have learned, after more than twenty years, to feel the ear for fullness, twist over and down and pull, all in one swift motion. Though the husks will sap the moisture from my hand and my fingers will dry and crack, I don't wear gloves. I like to put bare skin to rough husk—my life to its life. Thank you, corn.

Around me there is geese-like chatter. I walk in and out of conversations and laughter as I move up and down the rows, throwing the ears onto the wagon like the others until the pile starts to slide back onto the ground—sixty, seventy, a hundred dozen.

When the wagon is full, we run across the field, following the tractor's progress up the road, to dump the bounty in the shade of the tall poplars on Papa's lawn. (It will always be Papa's lawn.) Then some of the women go in to prepare for the washing while everyone else begins to husk.

The really little kids swing in the swings and play on the trampoline and ask if they can help. And they do, for a while. One of the aunts or uncles will show them how to peel back the green leaves to reveal the gold kernels beneath and how to pull off the fine, sticky, silk hairs.

Each kernel has its own strand of silk. That's how corn is pollinated. Bees and wind transfer the grains of pollen from the tassels to the silk, and it travels down those slender fibers to the kernels, and each one that is fertilized fills with sweet, milky goodness. So, if you don't have bees or wind or if you plant your corn in a single row, then the individual kernels will just lie there flat and dead, never getting life and never giving life. The children will probably not remember the lesson, but they will remember the feel of a loving adult's arm around their shoulders, explaining the process—imparting knowledge. Transcendent, eternal truth, despite Plato.

Soon the first, naked, yellow ears go into the kitchen for washing, then back out onto the propane burners and into the waiting pots for boiling, then into the ice water for cooling, then onto the table for cutting and bagging, then into the freezer for preserving. The sun has made its way across the sky. It is late afternoon when the final bag is laid down beside the others—little yellow pillows of nourishment in their Ziploc bags. Thank you, corn.

 

The personal essay room is where the home theater is located—the entertainment room—where my mixing of narrative and nonfiction are performed, often in the form of the personal essay. It is my attempt to find individual as well as generational meaning. Those are the personal reasons I have for writing my life. Are there reasons beyond the personal? Why should anyone outside my family care about or want to read my personal narrative?

One reason is that my individual experience, what Sanders calls my "tiny fraction of the human chorus," though mostly regional, is a legitimate part of the total human experience and, thus, is also national and global, political and important. Terry Tempest Williams agrees and lists the following among her reasons for writing: "I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change."

Sometimes, we write to change—sometimes to perpetuate. My personal writing not only maintains my culture, a culture somewhat peculiar to the place I inhabit, but also explains it. Maybe it only seems peculiar to you from the outside. If you come in, you might find that it is a lot like your culture. Personal writing, Sanders says, is "a door through which others might pass." Though no one has knocked, I leave it open. By writing the personal, I, by extension, invite the world into my house, to move freely about in it, to discover what it can—what it cares to discover, hoping that what I have written will resonate with someone, somewhere. Like Williams, to begin a dialogue—to find a connection—a "friend," as Montaigne imagines, someone who is "please[ed]" and "suit[ed] by my "humors." Okay—to change the world.

 

v. looking out the window

Homo narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, […] but also has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. —John D. Niles


You never know what you'll see when you look out the window here toward the west—animals, people, planting, harvest, sunsets. Sometimes I see children of long ago running up through the corn rows from the hollow, trailing make-believe behind them; or the lowering sun elongating the shadows of the newly formed hay bales lying on the close-cropped ground; or Mark's parents, now whip-thin and bent with age, picking June raspberries in the garden.

 

I heard the geese the other day. They were honking and chattering outside the window as I was getting ready for work, and I ran to look. Canadian geese, their big, tan bodies with the dark, cowled heads and necks and that distinctive white swatch behind the eyes, filled up the entire two acres of newly ploughed earth that only the day before had been the cornfield.

I smiled. It is comforting to know that they can still find our tiny seven-acre refuge in the middle of an ever-increasing civilization—to know that they remember that here in September, on the rich brown Sidney earth, lie hard, yellow kernels of corn to nourish them.

They will come every day now until the ground is picked clean—v-shaped flocks circling above, descending lower and lower, until, one-by-one, the individual geese will point their tan tails earthward, their big wings backpedaling, webbed feet pushing, braking, bodies sliding down shafts of air, like slow-motion versions of children on the playground, to land feet-first on the soft, rich earth. They will shake their feathers, lay their wings across their backs and encourage the others until the whole flock has settled. The geese signal the end of summer.

 

The end of summer. Time is catching up with me. I focus on the geese and the harvest because that's where I am, physically, at the end of summer. I think of my youth with longing, of my mother with self-pity, of my grandmother because no matter what I do, my narrative, like hers, will end one day. Solipsistic. Yes. Self-reflection is inevitably egotistical. Have I used my time wisely? Have I created a life narrative worth building—worth remembering? I've been inside the house—inside myself—trying to assess its strength and durability, which is foolish. I won't be the one to finally measure its worth—the ones who come after me will do that. They'll think it's their right to do as I have done (like we all do as homo narrans): ponder the narratives that feed into mine and take my path accordingly, valuing as I choose and building as I see fit.

Narrative and time. They are but two silver threads in the same precious rope. Niles writes: "Whatever […] in the realm of culture that we value is to an important degree dependent on the stories that people tell." Narrative propels us forward through time and backward in time, as we choose, perpetuating our cultures and our values—perpetuating ourselves. When I say I want more time, I really want the chance to write more narrative—to try to weave my silver thread into the rope so tightly that it will extend beyond myself "to times that are not present," and, if I've valued and built (and planted and tended) well, to a time beyond time.

 

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