Love Letter

We’ll see summer come again
Darkness fall and seasons change*

 

In the early afternoon he sat down to write a letter, having skipped lunch out of boredom with eating and the realization that preparing a meal would require too much effort. It was a warm day and the fans were humming, lulling him into a state of torpor. But he thought probably writing was still possible. It was worth a try because he had to finally say what needed to be said.

“I’m sorry I said that I loved you,” he wrote. “It was uncalled-for.” He raised the tip of the pencil and turned the barrel in his fingertips. “You always said that I don’t speak the way I think and I can’t think the way I ought to think, so I think you should have seen this coming and been prepared with something passing as tolerance, even pity. After all, you knew my limitations better than anyone, especially me.”

He paused and looked out the open window where the sun was high and bright on a single cypress tree in the distance, on a hill. He wasn’t hungry yet.

“I remember when we met at college and after class I saw you by the elevator, dressed in purple. We rode down together and went for coffee, to talk about philosophy. Spring came and rainy days and nights but little time to stop and think. The time went by so fast. There were things I thought I wanted and what I thought I wanted from you I didn’t want and never got. What you wanted from me, you took. But your purple dress was beautiful.”

Hunger caught up with him and he went out of the room and down the stairs, past the slotted windows shaped like pears that revealed only the climbing wisteria. In the kitchen were garden tomatoes and cheese, chilled water in a canning jar. He sat for a while and looked at the pictures in a catalog: Flannel shirts, jackets of quilted down, sturdy boots.

Autumn was coming and he would be alone. In solitude, he always said, there was less friction. So his life should have been like an oiled sheet of ice, except for all his memories. They would never leave him entirely alone.

He put the catalog down when he remembered the pencil he had left upstairs. It was bright yellow, waiting in the light on the unfinished page. He climbed the stairs slowly, thinking about how the letter should end. It was a long time coming and maybe the letter should be about time. She would have gray hair by now. Grandchildren. She was living or not, somewhere in the turning world. So for years he’d been writing the letter, again and again, watching as graphite filled the page with pain he couldn’t remember if he ever felt.

At the third turning of the twisted stairs, an odd old bellied window showed the wisteria was blooming lavender and purple in the late summer light. “If the blossoms are purple, what color was her dress?” It worried him for a few steps but the thought was gone before he reached the desk. He picked up the pumpkin-colored pencil and started again.

“Please forgive me for saying I loved you but I was overwhelmed by your wine-colored dress and all the darkness in your eyes, and the white shorts you wore at the lake. I was stunned by your courage with the boat and your soft brown hair. I saw that you would live forever, always nineteen, and the only things that frightened you were what I said and a boring life. Come back so I can never say it again, not for another forty years.”

In time he looked up from the paper to the window but the sun had set and the old oak tree was gone from view. Inside the room, everything was tinted faintly orange by the shade of his lamp. He crossed the room and looked out again but there was nothing to see and all of the friction of others was gone from his life. Below on the trellis, the wisteria was climbing up to him with flowers black as night. He pressed his forehead to the glass and said to evening, “I love you.”

 

 

J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed

*The Grateful Dead

 

******

I wrote this flash fiction piece after reading an article about the writings on memory of neurologist Oliver Sacks, on the subjectivity and communal interdependence of memory. My idea was to create a piece in which the present seems to change memory and memories seem to color the present. The inconsistencies in recollection and color are intentional. There are allusions to the Kafka quote I posted recently, and to Ash Wednesday by Eliot,which is basically an allusion to Dante. And while I was writing, I was listening to The Weather Report Suite by The Dead.

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true … depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. [Link]

 

The Music Never Stopped

A couple of weeks ago, I posted that I’d been on a journey; a little break for family and fun. I went to the gold rush foothills northeast of Sacramento, then my brother and I went to Santa Clara for the first final concert of The Grateful Dead. Fare Thee Well, it was called.

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Have flown except you alone*

2015-06-27 20.36.35Click to Enlarge

We had a beautiful, awesome time. It was a great day. The old guys still have it, and there were rainbows full of sound, fireworks, calliopes and clowns. I tell you, brothers and sisters, there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.

2015-07-05 11.01.09

In the days and weeks after the show, the tide of my emotional life continued to rise. I found myself listening to and watching the old songs and shows far more frequently than normal. The tide ripped: I was at once happy and grateful that we’d been at this wonderful event together, like a reunion, and also melancholy because it was the last of its kind.

We’ve since learned that a new band has been formed, so maybe there will be tunes to fill the air again.

The sun will shine in my back door some day
March winds will blow all my troubles away

One day my brother shared a link to an audio stream of the last show we saw together before Jerry Garcia died. The strange thing was, I thought we’d been to more shows after that. Nope, it was the last. Over 25 years, my emotions have built a vague sense of false memory. My mind has sentimentalized concerts into existence, and shuffled years like playing cards. Fascinating.

I’ve tried many times to write about Memory. It’s difficult. I don’t mean I tried to write about memories, although I have and a lot. I’m talking about Memory itself: what it is and how it works, and what we mean when we talk about the time that seems to have already passed. It’s hard to handle.

The Buddha said we’re not made of what we’ve done, what we have, or where we live. We are made of what we think. I say we exist as consciousness and time. But nobody really knows what either of those things is.

Everything we are and everything we do, as individuals or as groups, depends on feelings; our reactions to the stories we tell ourselves about what seems to be going on. Everything we think or believe is made of our feelings about it, including what we think we remember.

“Indeed, feelings don’t just matter — they are what mattering means.”
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

If we are made of consciousness and time, then consciousness plus time equals story. Life, the Universe, and Everything depends on Story.

Think about what you did in the last hour before the last time you feel asleep, and you’ll find a story.

Imagine the next time when someone will deliberately make you cry, and that’s a story.

Life is fragments, holograms, shadows, made of emotion. Memory is just impressions of feelings, and we’re almost completely incapable of being objective about them.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.**

So I’m going to forgive myself for believing – vaguely, wrongly – that we went to more Dead shows than we did, and went to more shows after the last one before Jerry Died.

Richard Bach wrote this:

“The world is your exercise-book, the pages on which you do your sums. It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write nonsense, or lies, or to tear the pages.”

“You are led through your lifetime by the inner learning creature, the playful spiritual being that is your real self. Don’t turn away from possible futures before you’re certain you don’t have anything to learn from them.
You’re always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past.”

So when the sun goes down wherever you are, and you remember holding  someone’s hand for the first or the last time, or some other magic lantern scene of joy or shame, what matters is not epistemology. Even honesty may be less than clarity. What matters is how you felt, and how that makes you feel. You are an artist of emotions. Write it down, or give it to the wind.

* Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace
** Grateful Dead, The Music Never Stopped

Watermelon Memory

Watermelons are in the stores again. I saw some today, large rafts of watermelons looking confidently variegated. They know they’re all about the mystery. Schroedinger’s fruit, both sweet and not, ripe and not, until opened. I could smell peaches too but I was after other things — yogurt, bread, soup — so the watermelons and peaches had to wait.

So what’s the point? Just that I like the word watermelon. Also rainbow, piano, and river. Peace is a good word, but arguably subjective, inconclusive. Watermelon is a faithful, unambiguous, and explicit word. It means what it is and it sits in the mouth just long enough to make its point.

Watermelon is a memory word for me, like fireworks or campout, thought not laden as Christmas. When I remember watermelon, I think of a poem I read in the 1970s, called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. Which I’ve never had, I think; only fresh for me, thanks.

During that summer–
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was–
Watermelons ruled.

And here’s my take on the topic of watermelon memory, a repost from a few years back. I like this poem. The person addressed is not my child, by the way; I have none. This is a personal poem, nonetheless.

 

Watermelon

Child, if you care to remember
this world, this life
you dream like a path
of certain distance quickly
walked and centered on a hill,
if you care to open it like
watermelon in summer
or like a prayer box
bearing a constellation of crosses
and sunsets, I hope
you consider your father,
his overtures to death,
his music, and like sunlight
through the sprinkler
on a simple greening lawn,
his smile.

 

This post from a few years ago seems complimentary.
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Watermelon by Kyle Kimberlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

As Memories Go

There’s an interesting thing that happens with early childhood memory. It becomes infused and confused with memories of later events, with family photos and home movies, with other media. Memory can be heavily influenced.

I think that’s what’s happened with my memories of the day John F. Kennedy was murdered. I couldn’t really remember it, right? I was only two years old.

What I think I remember is being with my Mom in the little den or “TV room” of our house, and that the room was full of a heavy and palpable sorrow.

That’s pretty vague, as memories go. But it has always seemed like the best first reaction and it has served me well as years have gone by. It was right to grieve because a lot was lost, most poignantly not just a president; two men died that day, both fathers.

For the record, there’s no way Oswald shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of that building. An impossible shot, and Kennedy was hit from the opposite direction. Oswald killed the policeman, and took the fall for killing the president.

I’ve heard it said that the nation’s innocence died that day, but I wouldn’t say that. This nation has never been innocent. Naive maybe. I would say the murder of our president was a serious blow to our self-image, and that what followed was a crisis of identity. A kind of schism, not unlike the personality disorder we’re experiencing now. But I digress.

The single image of those days that has remained with me for fifty years is not the First Lady on the trunk of the car, or Johnson taking the oath on the plane, or the cortege in the streets of Washington.

jfkchurchjohnsalute

It serves to remind us that presidents don’t belong to us, they work for us. They belong to their families, just like everyone else. John Jr. was only six months older than me, you understand. I got to grow up with a loving Dad. And while I was let outside to play in just a little while, I have to imagine he never was.

 

On A Hill

Today was Easter and I hope it was happy for you. I had a good day. But on April 8 each year, our family remembers the passing of our beloved dog Stella.* It’s been 12 years, which is difficult to believe. Time has flown.

Here’s a flash fiction piece. It’s not about Stella, but about the furtive and fragmentary nature of memory. And there is a dog in it.

If you want to, you can listen to an audio reading of the piece.

On A Hill

There is no wind today, to stir the foxtails and fennel on the hill. There is just a muted fog, following a night of fog through a week of fog and rain. And a man standing on the hill, looking for the sunlight he believes is up there somewhere.

He loves the hill. When the wind is up, you might see three hawks, or five red-tailed hawks at once, standing in the sky as if hung on wires. Then one by one, they break and fall on field mice in the oat grass field below. The first time she let him hold her, they were here. And there where the trail goes through a stand of eucalyptus, their first kiss. They sat on a fallen log – close together – as the sun went down, and a great owl floated over, down the arroyo and away.

Or maybe it was not a woman but a dog. He grows confused. But yes, a young dog. They walked on this hill as the sun went down, into the ocean there, past that point of land. And the sun set with a lip of rose and a tongue of burnt orange.

He went with the dog another day – the sun high and bright – to where the trail falls between crags of volcanic rock to the pitch-soiled beach. The tide was out and the dog ran between the piles of drying kelp and back and forth to the ebbing foam, chasing a yellow ball he threw. No hawks then, but pelicans in their morning dives for food, lifting again heavy with fish.

Damn the fog. He can hear the oil crew boat come about and back through the swells to tie up at the pier. But he cannot see the belch of gray-black diesel exhaust from the stern, the men on deck pitching lines and tying up, and the scattering gulls.

That bright, clear day when the dog ran here, the boats came in just so, engines revving to control the approach. The dog lay down in the damp sand, afraid, ears flat against her head. He went and held her in his arms as blue herons floated over, wings still and silent, caught by light.

It’s hard to be of comfort in the face of dread, of nightfall, and looming grief. That summer he was young, and the woman was young. They left the hill and walked through the stand of trees in the falling dark, to the thicket of bamboo by the railroad. The world was dark and loud, with the tracks close by and a freight train passing, eighty cars or more.

He held her and worried how it all might end, as the world roared by too close. He counted the gaps between the boxcars defined by moonlight, by final twilight maybe. The number grew impossible until the last one passed, dragging the clatter and roar of it away beyond the hill.

Now he is alone in all this diffused, ambiguous light, with a dog’s collar in his pocket for comfort or for luck. And the sun – he thinks possibly – finally burning through.

Download On A Hill in PDF.

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On A Hill by Kyle Kimberlin
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution
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.

time shall surely reap

 

Cole_Thomas_The_Garden_of_Eden_1828Click to Enlarge*

My mind is composting tonight; not enough vegetables to harvest just yet. I meant to stop by my parents’ house today and obtain some tomatoes – there are plenty and they look very good – but I forgot. This puts me in mind of a poem:

This is the Garden

This is the garden: colours come and go,
frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering,
absolute lights like baths of golden snow.

This is the garden: pursed lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms, and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured, as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

— e e cummings

Isn’t that amazing? Read it aloud to yourself. Go ahead, it’s worth it, trust me. I did. Read it aloud several times.

Cummings was a master of his art.  And not the least bit shy about tackling the greatest common divisors of human life. After all, that’s the poet’s job, as it is the literary writer’s in any genre. As Stegner put it:

I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of being flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness and the consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer. [All The Little Live Things]

I’m saying we should not look away, those of us who choose to take the human condition as our reason for art. Nietzsche said when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. And somebody said you should make the abyss blink first. I think that’s a motto of Twitter or something.

Actually, Nietzsche wrote, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” [Link]

Truer words were never writ. And Cummings has given us something like Heaven here in two stanzas; I couldn’t imagine it written more beautifully. But for me all this begs a question:

What is the abyss in life as we see it around us? I mean here, in the other world, where the slow deep trees may sleep, but fitfully for fear of our homuncular hammers and saws.

When I stare into the abyss, I see shoes. Old, worn, creased, dusty shoes. Ironing boards, cookie jars, jars of buttons and marbles. Old phone books with the numbers of the forgotten, scrawled on the covers in black ballpoint. I see dog collars, baseball gloves, oven mitts bearing the faces of animals as symbols of hope into the ever-retreating brave new world. I see the polished to glaring hell hallways of hospitals, peanut butter sandwiches and hummingbirds hovering before a rising sun.

How about you, fellow writer? What stares back at you, refusing to blink?

 

*Image: Thomas Cole The Garden of Eden,1828

that’s memory?

If you asked me what my novel is going to be about, I’d probably give you a synopsis of the plot. But if you responded, quite rightly, “No, that’s what seems to happen. What’s it really about?” I’d say it’s about memory.

For years, I’ve been mulling over the idea of what memory is and how we hold it, and what there is in our lives and families that is common to the experience of memory. It’s a little like trying to get a grip on a very annoyed trout in a bucket of baby oil.

Now comes the novelist Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, trying to get his own fists on the fish. In this brief and thoughtful video, he does it quite eloquently.