Notes on Autobiography
Autobiography is a kind of writing that drapes over things. Outlines show up underneath. Things huddle next to things under the same shawl and we do our best to make out what’s what.
In the park the birds repeat each other and themselves, but not quite. A favorite tree is a city, populated with birds but also shades of the color green and cloisters of blue-grey sky.
In the waiting room the wall with the elevator door is clad in grey tile. Behind the reception desk the mauve linoleum that covers the floor has been worn to tan by the three rolling chairs. At the moment, three receptionists are planning a vacation by way of debating airfare deals and which airport is best. Above me, a sconce clicks with vibration and the electric coffee pot in the corner is hiccuping to life.
There are four of us seated, waiting. Others enter from the elevator wearing varying degrees of enthusiasm. Through a window that looks into the hallway I can see half of an old poster of a painting by Van Gogh.
Down the hallway and to the right is room six where the carpet is old and ugly. After we assemble we are lovingly prompted to give God the glory and keep it real. We clap for each other as we do introductions. Sometimes someone stands up, overtaken by passion. One time someone was drunk. When it gets warmer and people start to wear shorts I notice little scars, tattoos, that sort of thing.
“I found the poems in the fields, / And only wrote them down” writes John Clare sometime in the mid 19th century. I thank John for having taught me this truth when I was 20. There’s no such thing as an ingenious idea. I don’t know best. All anyone can hope for is a kind of blind trust that allows the world to become self-evident — it’s joys distinguishable from its hells and pickable like flowers.
I found John while still clinging to Thomas Stearns, who I had been gifted by Karen, who, after she left the convent, had found herself in despair and doing a PhD on Tennyson in the 1960s. She walked into a reading of Ash Wednesday and with keening recognition finally found tears.
Under my Thomas Stearns is Karen, buried by myself. I rarely cite all the way down to her. Under my John is Elaine, a much loved professor. Under my dear Wallace is Alison. Alison Bechdel. A family friend. My mothers used to fulfill her merchandise orders from out of the garage. I remember the t-shirts and mouse pads best. Later, in Fun Home the protagonist’s mother would reach for the collected poems of Wallace Stevens and read a passage from Sunday Morning. Such is the pile we inherit by lot. Some of it is above ground and some of it is below.
In the park, in the evening, a pink Scorpio moon is rising. It’s peeking through the new leaves. Around me dusk is doing what it does best, it’s settling. A few solitary walkers are wearing shorts and winter coats because it’s that time of year. They make their way through the large grassless yard where the dogs run off leash in the morning. A jogger stops and says “wow” and a bit of a breeze makes the leaves sound like the ocean.
I’m not watching the moon alone. To my right a man with a camera is making a time lapse. To my left, under another tree, a woman has spread out a blanket and is smoking a joint. I look around and see that more than a few others have stopped to watch the moon. Some have dogs, some are taking pictures. It’s quiet.
The voices on the patio find me alone in the kitchen and a familiar sorrow washes over me. I stand for a moment and watch the bubbles in my seltzer before rushing to the sink to wash my hands. To borrow a locution, “I am who I am because somebody cared for me, somebody attended to me.” I think of you often but can’t find anything to send. I’m on a blanket in the park where the air is as soft as you and the wind is making the dust dance in the dog run. A street lamp is flickering and the clouds are taking turns hiding the moon. All around me on this hill people are as still and calm as the day they came into the world. Their arms are on each others’ chests or maybe a leg is in between two other legs. Triumph is nowhere to be found. For now, reverence presides.
Autobiography is silent the way an appointment kept is silent. I lean over to kiss a shoulder and am met with an immediate response. We shuffle our blankets into the shade because it’s hot. We don’t say much for a while longer. A bit of Keats passes through my fingers along with a bit of hair because I’m feeling that cheesey. Autobiography and arranging someone else’s hair are both kinds of writing that rehearse dying. They are a tilling, a deeply critical partitioning conducted at the intersection of that which undoes us and our best efforts. Eileen is on your tongue as you lean over to put words in my mouth. Eileen, who knows everything, reminds me that writing is something that happens because “I want to be used for years after my death.”
It’s easy to think that the dead want something from us. That in their infinite free time they opt to stand behind us and simply repeat the word “guilty” just loud enough for us to hear. We are called, there is no doubt. But we are called by quotes rather than corpses. We are called by little scraps of language. Little bits of language want something from us. They demand action the way Antigone’s brother unburied, decomposing outside the city walls, demanded action.
I want to bequeath myself to everyone online. But mostly, for a little while, only to Ryan who brought Topo Chico to the park in the quarantined summer.
In room six we repeat each other and ourselves. We recite the passing of our days. Here, we are addressed by name and we murmur all the day long.