I wrote it in the bathtub

3 01 2008

I have found that writing is very much like practicing for a sport. When I don’t take the time to maintain my writing life, I find myself having to really dig deep in order to write anything. I can also get out of practice with different kinds of writing. When I spend a great deal of time working on an academic piece (such as the one that sucked the life out of me the last three weeks of December), my creative muscles begin to atrophy. Certain episodes will spark a piece in my mind and I’ll begin to chew on it like a piece of beef jerky until it is soft enough to digest. The experience I had with the old man in the grocery store yesterday was singular in that I actually began crafting that entry in my mind when I got in the car on the way home. The writer sees an opportunity to reinvent an experience so that it can be relived in HD… of course, the fact of invention requires that some of it be made up. Although I am not always conscious of my “making it up,” I know it happens. I read or heard somewhere that memory is shaped by emotion–that is, we remember things, situations, events to the extent that we feel them. It makes sense. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast last Sunday morning, but I can remember every word the doctor said as he sewed me up after my C-section (despite the drugs).

Joan Didion says that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I agree with her. We are very much like toddlers in that way. My grandmother tells the same stories over and over again. When I was younger, I would beg her to tell the story about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, and how their heads were small enough to put teacups over them. I also like the story about her job as a secretary at Sears where she made like $1.25 a week or something like that. She learned that the world was round on the Christmas Day when her father gave her an orange. These stories are my grandmother–they define her history and they reassure her of her identity. The accuracy of her stories is less important than their truth.

So the trick is to recognize a good story and to write it down whenever it hits you… Merle Haggard said to one NPR reporter that he wrote several of his new songs while he was in the tub. When she expressed her surprise, he said, “Well, I guess it was in the bath tub. There was water all around.”

Grocery Shopping

2 01 2008

When I was little, my dad was always that last one out of church. I can remember lying on the orange velvet (velour?) covered benches in the front foyer well after noon as my dad shared stories with everyone that passed through those large double doors. “He’s as bad as the old ladies,” my mom would say to everyone whom she encountered. She would roll her eyes and drag us to the van to wait for him. My dad has a heightened sense of his own connectedness to other human beings, and so if he is not telling a story, he is listening to one. Either way, he is fundamentally driven by the desire to make connections with people–a desire that is hard to articulate since it manifests itself on the feeling level and is generally language-less. I suppose I have inherited that quality of being particularly tuned in to and affected by the people around me.

Today, I was swinging by the grocery store on my way home from Target (the penultimate American consumerism experience). There is a big, beautiful Kroger out in Opelika (a city-ish place with lots of new houses and the hospital), but I decided I would just pop into the one by our house. This particular Kroger has really, really small aisles and lots of elderly people if you catch it on the right night… a recipe for lots of waiting and cringing. So I’m cruising the Spices and Baking Needs aisle when I encounter an old man with one leg that remains straight when he walks (resulting in a lopsided stride). As I passed him, I yawned and smiled at the same time–a strange looking combination that I think caused me to look as though I was eating an invisible sandwich. He laughed and said, “Party too much for New Years?” I was a bit taken aback by his assumption, since most of the elderly people I’ve met in Auburn are strange academics and rigid Baptists (huge over generalization, I know, but it feels true). I replied that I had a two year old, so no. Then I added, “I wish!” And as he turned his back to me, I caught, “Yeah, me too.” over his shoulder.

Since he walked slow and I tend to shop out of order (running back and forth across the store), I saw him several other times and we exchanged smiles like old friends. I saw him look at the milk and then walk away. I almost offered to help him, but I didn’t know if he simply didn’t want any milk or if he couldn’t see to read the labels. Then I saw him open the frozen food section long enough to generate a significant draft before he pulled one from the very back. Again, I watched him wondering if I should help. He looked up again and we smiled at each other. Finally, when I went to check out, he got in the line next to me and made a comment about the weather (it’s like 22 degrees, which is suicidal for Alabamians). I chuckled (as you do when an older person talks to you) and then it was my turn to check out. When I left, I looked for him and he waved good-bye.

As a member of a generation that is always plugged in and rushing to be somewhere else, it was nice to have someone meet my gaze with a smile. I left the store wishing that I had introduced myself and carried his groceries to his car. We might have become friends, and he would have told me stories, and I would have cooked him food. There is something about old people that makes my heart hurt in a way that painfully assures me of my own humanity.