Variations on a Beginning

A meditation on time, memory, and how we trace our beginnings.

M. Allen Cunningham
13 min readMay 3, 2017


Listen to an abridgement of this essay on Cunningham’s podcast In the Atelier:

[ 1 ]

I could say at the outset that my father stood nearly six foot eight. That for most of my boyhood he drove a potato chip truck. That his mother was a school teacher, his father the Chief of Police, that they were members of all the clubs and fraternal societies — the Masons, the Shriners, the Elks, and my favorite (they used ceremonial swords!), the Woodsmen of the World. That they were community figures in Watsonville, California, a small agricultural town on Monterey Bay, founded on a long-lost campsite of the 1769 Portola Expedition.

They lived in the red house with leaded windows and Victorian turrets on the little lane called Sudden Street. They drank and smoked themselves to death, because that was the way of life for happy, prosperous, vivacious folks in their time. My father always told us children of the hours he passed lying awake in his boyhood room listening to his parents’ rattling throats, their wheezing and hacking down the hall, and vowed to himself he would never touch a cigarette.

[ 2 ]

I could begin with guns — and not because they’re unique to my story. The chromium and plastic six-shooters I wore in holsters on every errand with my mother. My grandfather’s five-pound “paperweight,” which was a massive black pistol encased in lead. One of several mementoes surviving from his desk at the station, it was, or so we grandkids were told, something he’d wrenched from a fugitive’s grip during an altercation and arrest, then had cast in lead as a souvenir. The .22-guage rifle with which my father was shot one day in the late 1950s, while playing with his sister shooting targets in the front yard, the dense black smudge of the bullet forever lodged in his shin, as he never tired of showing us, and how he would tell the story: “I came in limping saying ‘Mom, I’m shot, I’m shot, Alison shot me!’ and do you know what Gramma said? ‘Oh, Stephen,’ she said, ‘stop your fooling and go back outside,’ and then when she looked and saw the blood she gasped so deep she almost fainted.” My father, his leg outstretched on the ottoman, his trouser cuff rolled, parts the bristling black hairs on his shin as he tells it, and my brother and I lean closer. The other .22 — or was it the same gun? — that lay across the rafters in the garage, and how my brother and I got it down to play with one Saturday afternoon. We were standing in our driveway, my brother aiming it here and there and I fumbling with the box of shells, when our mother (a neighbor having called to alert her) came out to stop us.

[ 3 ]

There was once a murder at Heights Market, a mile from our house. It started with the deranged man who Mr. Heights kicked out of his store for spitting on the produce. The man returned some hours later, waited patiently in the checkout line, then shotgunned Mr. Heights point-blank in the face.

But that’s a story I never heard growing up. I learned it only this year from my father, on a nostalgic drive through Watsonville.

[ 4 ]

There are many starting points, it seems — memories and anecdotes shaken loose from the narrative I or my folk have constructed, pieces that don’t seem to fit in any one place. For instance, some years ago, my mysterious inability to wear a watch. How the hands would come loose and swing about the dial. Three different watches I tried and, one after the other, returned them all, defective. Always the hands were fixed when I bought a watch, adrift once I’d worn it a day or so.

This, of course, is not a story but merely something that happened, which is different. And I might tell how this mystery passed, how, eventually, I could wear a watch again (I wear one now), but this is not the same thing as a story’s end.

Are we rooted in stories, narratives, anecdotes, or something else? A loose and airy soil. A depository for oddments of all kinds. How do we begin to tell where we came from? The things that shaped us, or seemed to.

[ 5 ]

I could begin with names. Of places. Of loved ones. (And must I change the loved ones’ names on paper? Well, you’ve already met my father). So, names.

Allen, my middle name, derives from old Vermont, or so the family story goes — the name is an ancient ligature to that colonial figure (a character in many stories himself) Ethan Allen, of the Green Mountain Boys, the militia that captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and whose members were sure they could go on to capture Montreal — a failed endeavor that landed Allen in British prison. I share the middle name with my great grandfather Ernest Kurzweil, a skilled gardener who lived to be ninety-six, who fought in the Great War in France (I’ve inherited his pocket map of Paris), whose life was saved because he knew how to make gravy (and was transferred from common soldier to cook), whose people, in his mother’s line, were Wenzel, a family that enjoyed a minor dynasty in Prague where, in the last decades of the nineteenth-century, one of them became related to Rainer Maria Rilke by marriage, something wholly unknown to me until I’d been writing a book about Rilke for years.

Or the name Robley, as the family of my great grandmother Avis was called, and the winding country track outside Monterey — still called Robley Road — in that gorgeous, distinctively Northern California valley known as the Corral de Tierra, which Steinbeck dubbed The Pastures of Heaven in his book of that title.

Or, while I am following the names in this way, I could tell of old Mrs. Rodgers, whose maiden name was Steinbeck, and who was known in Watsonville to be the author’s aged sister, and how she lived with her husband in the great white farmhouse on a one-acre plot which was all that remained of the farm, while in the asphalt lot next door (the shopping center called East Lake Village), stood Lambert’s Market where my father worked, a long yellow apron draped over his shirt and tie, and a pricing gun always at hand, and how he would carry over, once a week, old Mrs. Rodgers’ standing order of groceries and think, The famous author’s sister, how ‘bout that.

I could then mention, again, that recent nostalgic drive with my father through town, and how we found the old farm lot empty, a barren scrubland of weeds, and the grand white house gone, torn down for reasons we couldn’t know.

[ 6 ]

The order of events, I’ve long believed, is not so important. The truth is much larger than chronology, and sequence alone, convincing as it may be, can serve to explain in only the most specious way. Because the truth is (isn’t it?) that so little can stand on explanation. What joins our days together into a lived experience is not the linear, calendric, forward march of hours, months, years, and epochs which, for the sake of civilization, orders time for us by our consent. What joins our days together into a lived experience is, more truthfully, a vague webwork, a gossamer of associations, memories, and sensations. However much we claim to believe in a standardized chronology of event, this gossamer remains central to who and what we are. Manifesting the insubstantial evidence of our lives, it permits very little elaboration or embellishment from the rational linear world. Adhering to the skeleton of memory, it catches everything — or everything important — storing impressions we rarely understand at first, but like a language as one learns it these impressions accrete meaning over time.

“When you write,” said Edmond Jabès, “you do not know whether you are obeying the moment or eternity.” Isn’t that also a description of what it’s like to be alive, to possess consciousness and memory?

“In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy,” said Italo Calvino. “In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment.”

And yet there’s the rigid demand placed on writers today: that they “sell” their stories to the reader, beginning with Page One and continuing with every page thereafter. Always a forward march.

I’m not unaware of this demand. But oh, the perverseness: expecting little from the writer beyond manipulation, little from the reader beyond passivity.

Dear Reader, How about this: I sell you nothing (selling is a publisher’s business). What you read here is freely given: my consciousness to yours. And may your reading be something like the Zen experience Master Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi describes: “It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.”

[ 7 ]

But narrative, which I do believe in, what is that and where does it fit when one seeks to retell a thing from its beginning?

To narrate: from the Latin narratus, which is the plural of narrare, and stems from gnarus, or knowing, and relates to gnoscere or noscere, to know. So sayeth Webster’s Ninth, which by that definition is itself a narrative compendium, for to know the meaning of words as its pages do is a form of narration.

And down from my shelf comes a Glossary of Literary Terms to say: “A narrative is a story, whether told in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do.” And then adds this, the best part: “It should be noted that there is an implicit narrative element even in many lyric poems.”

One knows something, then, or comes to know something, and tells the story of coming to know it, or, in telling the story comes to know it. Shades upon shades, but none of them, let us note, associated with selling. No, for to know, to come to know, and to tell one’s way into knowing — these are not of the order of merchandise but of gift.

[ 8 ]

I n a sixth-century courtyard in North Africa a man hears a disembodied child’s voice imploring him to take up the scriptures and read. Obeying, the man’s eyes fall upon some words of Saint Paul and immediately “the light of confidence” floods his heart. He hurries inside his house to tell his mother he’s been saved. This is Saint Augustine’s moment of conversion as he himself describes it. In a single profound instant he awakens to his place in a larger story as told by Paul. His bright surge of spiritual “confidence” is the form of knowing peculiar to narrative. He has awakened to narrative’s power — to narrative as a way of recognizing where one belongs, where one is rooted, narrative as a voice whose sole interest is discovery, coming to know, narrative as voice, which one may willingly follow.

[ 9 ]

I ’ve long loved the Biblical story of Samuel, which is about hearing a voice, about listening and coming to know.

Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I could start, then, with Samuel, and how I first learned his story late one night when I was nine or ten years old and heard, in the dark of my boyhood bedroom, a voice of my own, a voice so clear and voluble that it stirred me from my near-sleep, and how this voice frightened me enough that I got up and walked down the hall to stand by my parents’ bed in the dark, to wake my mother and tell her about the voice, and how she asked me what the voice had said and I told her it had said, “You’re going to die,” and how, after a soft sympathetic noise, my mother, still lying beside my sleeping father in their bed, told me the story of Samuel, and how I loved that story immediately and yet couldn’t help saying, “But what if it wasn’t God this time?”, and how my mother told me I should pray about it and then I would not be afraid.

So again in the night, as it was for my father in his youth, the child’s thoughts led to the parents’ bed.

So, as it was for Samuel, the act of discovery is a sleepwalk. The boy rises from bed to walk in the dark, to hear a story, to pray. And isn’t prayer itself a sleepwalk? And isn’t reading a sleepwalk also, much as writing always is for the writer?

That night I went and lay down in my place, but a story had begun. Already, praying myself back to sleep, I was telling myself the story.

Aren’t our roots a kind of sleep whose dream we are?

Essential to Samuel’s story is his aloneness before God. Only in the aloneness of his sleep could Samuel hear the voice and know it for the fateful thing it was.

Dear Reader, go slowly, at your leisure.

[ 10 ]

I n that old koan about the tree that falls in the unpeopled forest and does it make a sound, we have the antecedent for the confused koan of our hyperconnected contemporary moment, which goes: If I am alone, do I exist?

Dear Reader, are you asking this, as you think about your own beginnings — as such thoughts reflect to you the passage of time, your irreversible status as guest in a neverending stream of person and event?

[ 11 ]

The year I started middle school, my mother redid the wallpaper in our house, and behind the old paper in two places — the stairs landing and the master bathroom — she discovered large portraits drawn in charcoal. Both were very finely done, each spookily vivid with personality. For almost a week she left them exposed, and how indelibly I remember the one on the landing, and how I sat on the stairs before it, spellbound. It was the full-body portrait of a man in uniform, a soldier. The portrait was taller than my father, nine feet in length at least, and though the soldier merely stood there, arms at his sides and boots together, and though his face staring out at me was mostly expressionless, his colossal stature alone lent him a vaguely threatening quality.

I couldn’t identify the soldier’s uniform then, though remembering it today I see that it was plainly German and dated from World War One. He wore a spiked helmet (a Pickelhaube) and side-whiskers, his chin neatly shaved. Adorning the stiff collar at his throat was an iron cross, black straps intersected diagonally across his chest, and his breeches were snugly tucked into knee-high black boots.

For the near-week that my mother left the drawing exposed on our wall, I stared into the figure’s smudged charcoal eyes. Why was this soldier there? When, if ever, would he see the light again, after my mother put the new wallpaper up? Once covered over, wouldn’t he still be there, always? How could our house be anything but animate after this?

[ 12 ]

How beautiful a secret can be, and what secrets there are in the layers of things.

“If a secret cannot be maintained, we are in a totalitarian space,” said Jacques Derrida.

Is the knowing in narrative a surrendering of all secrets? I don’t think so, though we’re often led to believe this. Let us agree that there are many ways to tell our stories. And yet, isn’t every story a form of secrecy?

All you have to know is whether you’re lying, or whether you’re trying to tell the truth, you can’t afford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer.

John Berger

Once, in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, I heard a voice speaking a prayer that went like this: Lord God, make us humble. Unweave our thoughts, uncomplicate our hearts, that we might lay down our books and step into the dark. Make us empty with longing, that we will seek you.

Some days while sitting and working you merely catch the hem of a thing. And that is a lot. It’s a lot.

And in the astonishment that comes, sometimes, of reading, is it not largely a book’s having been finished by its writer that astonishes us? That too is a lot. Perhaps it is what matters most of all.

[ 13 ]

Dear Reader, with the steady searching turn of the pages our time goes slow.

[ 14 ]

Rainer Maria Rilke, whose mother, when he was a child, encouraged him in the belief that the remains of a young revolutionary were interred in the parlor wall of the family’s Prague apartment — Rilke, in later life, would painstakingly recopy a letter he was writing rather than tolerate the defacing of his gorgeous calligraphy by an ink blemish or compositional mistake.

He wrote some eleven thousand letters this way. It wasn’t the idle fussiness of a raffiné — it was the work of a poet. “Mon Maître,” he wrote to Auguste Rodin on September 11, 1902, “It is not only to do a study that I have come to you, — it was in order to ask you: how must one live? And you have replied: by working. And this I understand well. I see that to work is to live without dying.”

[ 15 ]

It is to be noted (Mrs. William James reported) that even after Henry James lapsed into a coma, his hands continued to move across the bedsheet as if he were writing.

The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, pg. 582

I f to narrate is to know, then writing is always an act of searching, of seeking out what lies at the bottom of things, the roots and foundations.

To write is to take root.

Turning back to the dark hall, the boy of nine or ten went and lay down in his place.

Dear Reader, the story uncoils and coils again and again.

You’ve heard this one before. You know it already. Still you say it over once more. Still you listen for the new inflection.

The story is never not beginning.

“Variations on a Beginning” appeared in The Timberline Review, Issue 3, Summer/Fall 2016

M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.



M. Allen Cunningham

Author of the novels Q&A, Perpetua’s Kin, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), Partisans. Founder of Atelier26 Books.