Monday, September 7, 2009

The Importance of Being Impermenant

So here I am in 1977, with my 'bulldodder'. Most beloved toy. Stopping Mom at construction sites and screaming 'BULLDODDERS!' It's a surreal thing to look at pictures of yourself as a young child, a slap in the face of time, a reminder of impermenance- not only for everything around you, as we are more comfortable understanding, but the impermenance of you, yourself. I am still here, in 2009, but where is she? The one with the scraped knees and chubby elbows? I have two friends from this time in my life who are still my friends- Julie and Heather. And my cousin, Amalia, who grew up with me, and my sister, Lura, who I haven't seen in seven years, not since right after Lola was born, and she left with only a hand drawn picture of a baby on an arm to remark that she had known my baby girl at all. These girls were the girls of my childhood- the 'rabbit girls' I refer to in my poetry. When I see Julie with her son Gavin and her husband, house and new breasts (!) I look into her freckled face and see not only her, as she is now, but more of a sister's eyes, a mother's eyes, the eyes that see you simultaneously as three, thirteen and thirty. And I can see reflected back in her blue eyes, the image of myself as an adult woman, married with three kids, and this little girl, clutching her favorite toy, a familiar stubborn look across her face. I am enamored with the idea of the importance to human beings of a 'witness'*- hence the title of a recent poem I posted here about marriage. We need someone to watch, to observe, to see what happens to us. Sometimes the most important thing you can do for someone is to state out loud what you have seen. This is part of why I love and adore biographies so much, especially in truly skilled hands, they are, at best, a compassionate, honest witness to a life. Dave Eggers has become truly skilled at this kind of story telling ( I can't wait to read his latest, about a family in Katrina ) and his first, and most famous book ' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ' remains most of all his witness to the deaths of first his father, then a year later his mother, both from cancer, and the account of Eggers at 21 suddenly thrust into a single father role, raising his pre-teen younger brother. Whenever I'm asked ' What are your favorite books? ' this one always is on the list. The raw telling of the truth of a life is fascinating and so important, for reasons I cannot entirely articulate, but know to be true, and very true in my own writing as well. I expect the themes of witness and impermenance to resonate through many of my poems as they are throughout my novel.

On that note I think I'll make a list of the top of my head of some of my favorite biographies, and why not, autobiographies.

1 Middletown, America by Gail Sheehy ( the stories of a few post 9-11 widows )
2 Savage Beauty ( the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the famous poet ) - fascinating, brilliant.
Truly a shining star in in my library.
3 Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller ( an African childhood )
4 First, They Killed My Father- forgetting author...I dare you to read this without weeping.
5 Death At An Early Age by Jonathan Kozol ( a teacher in inner city black schools turned
writer and advocate )
6 The Big House author I'm forgetting- but this book is a true gem. The kind of book you
dream about stumbling on, the one you've never heard of but are absolutely charmed by
and fall in love with.
7 Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Cook ( this series is astonishing in it's ability to combine
scholarship with juicy storytelling and politics all in one. i've read the series twice
and can't wait to let time pass and read it again! )
8 The Glass Castle ( memoir of a fucked up childhood, but with an intellectual and forgiving
eye and ear, really good writing )
9 Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs ( awful childhood, disturbing & hilarious )
10 Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott ( heartbreaking and funny, something about it
just gets to you and stays that way, the first year of a single mother's life and Lamott's
most popular work to date )

xo- looking forward to reading all your blogs this Monday morning. I'm home with Lola who is feverish, sore throatish and sick to stomachish. My boss is unhappy with me. I had to make one of those calls you hate to make to work, where I'm like ' Yeah she is suddenly really sick the day before I come back to work on a three day vacation ' and I was so upset thinking she was thinking I was lying I assured her I was not! To which she cleared her throat and hoped Lola would feel better. Oye.

* remember that movie with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis- Witness? And that really hot Amish in a barn scene? And did you know McGillis came out as gay in the last few years?
Darcy said...

ooo...LOVE Glass Castle and Running with Scissors. MUST check out some others on your list. eggers and lamott, here i come...! i'm digging works like these lately. idk, perhaps it's the blog, but reality is sometimes so much sicker and closer and thicker than fiction? plus, i have a hard time writing fiction. blanks are drawn...

Lydia said...

First, your little p.s. at the end really cracked me up. Had not read that about McGillis; in fact, I haven't read anything about her for ages...

Second, I've not read any of the biographies/autobiographies you listed here. *Thank you* for reminding me to put Heartbreaking Work... on my Amazon wish list. I have seen references to its greatness at other blogs and feel it's a must-read for me.

Third, my favorite autobiography and one of my two favorite books, is Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Finally, I love this:
"I am still here, in 2009, but where is she?"
Now that's deep.

Beth said...

Have read a few on your list (including Eggers) and have noted the others.
Thanks for sharing.

And you were an adorable kid!

modaspia said...

1st section i look at in a new library is the biographies, love to read them..

something i've wanted to ask you because you're sensitive, a writer, a mother - do you ever get angry that you've read a story or book (fiction). wish you had not read it? because it sticks with you and is just too sad, even if well written? i know, strange question..

Petit fleur said...

You are so cute with your bulldozer! Great post.

I agree about the witness theory. I have thought about this before also, and found it to be so true in my life.

Love "Operating Instructions"! Ms Moon gave it to me when Harley was born. It kept me sane and giggling.

erin said...

I love Savage Beauty!

And Lydia is totally spot on with the Nabokov biography. It's one of my favorite all time books.

Hope Lola feels better.

Ms. Moon said...

The older I get, the more I am drawn to nonfiction. Funny. I love Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight. Have you read her other two books? Both very, very good.
I hope Lola feels better in the tummy soon.
And I passed on a link to your marriage poem to one of my oldest friends last night. He said he liked it very much.

Badass Geek said...

"Liars Club" by Mary Karr is another good story. More of a memoir than an autobiography, but still very moving.

Mwa said...

Loved that Eggers book. I have What is the What lying around somewhere waiting to be read.

Best wishes to Lola.

Stephanie Goehring said...

Sometimes the most important thing you can do for someone is to state out loud what you have seen.

I love this both in and out of context.

Ruth said...

Running with Scissors is definitely a favorite. Have you read A Wolf at the Table? That's another good one by Burroughs.

I can't wait to read Savage Beauty, thanks for sharing! I love Edna St. Vincent Millay, but for some reason never thought to read a biography of her . . .

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Hope Lola feels better, Maggie.

Thanks for the reading list.

Love, SB.

mosey along said...

Thank you thank you.... I'm re-reading a few books right now and was in serious need of a list to look forward to. Some of your recommendations I've read, and some not.... if you are the memoir type like me (and it seems as if you are...) I also loved All Over But the Shouting by Rick Bragg, and The Color of Water by James McBride.

Bee said...

Musing on your "witness" theme, and can't help but think that if you love the same books as another person that is a kind of sharing, too? I've read almost all of these, and am now wild to read the few that I haven't read -- one of which, is the Eggers book. (Why I haven't I read this? I'm not sure.) The Big House was written by George Howe Colt (such a great Bostonian name) and I read it a few summers ago when I was in Cape Cod. PERFECT.

I have been having a biographical summer, too -- but mostly 18th and 19th century stuff because of my various travels. I am just reading about four adventurous women from the 19th century . . . and it occurs to me that you would be the perfect person to send this on to. (Send me your address, please?) Just the other day I was writing about Emma Hamilton (whose biography I just read) and saying that TRULY truth is stranger than fiction.

Sweet, sweet baby self. Thanks for sharing. xx

Jeanne said...

The only one I've read is "Running with Scissors." I loved "Bird by Bird" by LaMott -- I'll have to check out her autobiography -- she's a winsome witch with words.

Rachael said...

I will have to add some of these to my list! (I'm going to the library tonight in fact - my other books are due).

BTW - I read "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith on your recommendation earlier this year and LOVED it. You posted that you had read or reread it awhile back and it was one of your faves, and having myself many times read and loved Dodie Smith's original 101 Dalmations with my kids (so much more clever and funny than the Disney-ized movie version) but never this, I read and LOVED it too. (Wow - was that a run-on sentence or what?!) Love the Glass Castle too. Hope to find another treasure in this list. Thanks for making it!

Anonymous said...

"I am still here, in 2009, but where is she?"

I've asked myself that question a few times.

I had no idea about Kelly McGillis. I guess that's what you call acting.

katiecrackernuts said...

My partner was a great reader of biographies at 35. Now, 10 years later, also 35, I am drawn to reading the stories of others. People who have had the fortune, bravado or whatever to be witnessed. I can't read Eggers. I was given "that" work by a woman when I left a place. Left for good a lot of stuff. I thought the gift said way more about her than what she wished for me and it bothered me. Bothered me more as I read it and I gave it to a book exchange. It still bothers me that the giver of that book was hoping for me to witness them ... hmm ... thinking ... hmmm.

♥ Braja said...

I love this, "Sometimes the most important thing you can do for someone is to state out loud what you have seen." True. And sometimes it's the most unappreciated thing you can do....

Court said...

You are adorable in 1977!

Jenn said...

Fantastic shot of you as a kid! It is so crystal clear, all the pictures of me from that age are faded and yellowed now. Will have to check out a few of those books / authors, off to the beach next week and looking for some reading material so this is just in the nick of time, thanks for the suggestions.

Robin said...

Hope Lola feels better! Thank you for the sweet comment on my blog and what a wonderful list of books... some of my favs and a couple I really look forward to checking out.

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