I've been reading a lot of history the last few years, and thanks to the Philippa Gregory novels, I have been mired in the Tudor era of late. Before that, it was mostly Mayflower-era America (and I'm still into that, too). In fact, tonight's take from Borders included Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (Starkey), Of Plymouth Plantation (Bradford), and The Constant Princess (the last of the Gregory books centered on the Tudors). Along with history, I love to read memoirs. I highly recommend the Abigail Thomas books, particularly A Three Dog Life. Brilliant writing.
Part of writing, any kind really but especially memoir, is making the decision of what to leave in and what to leave out. I heard of a man (probably through one of the news "magazine" shows like Dateline) who chronicled his every move in notebooks that he then hoarded in cupboards and closets in an extreme form of OCD. When I say "every move," I mean that he chronicled those moves, too. As if anyone would ever want to know how regular he was? (Aside from gathering data for discussions with one's doctors, really, why would one want that?)
I knew a woman who was struggling with her weight, and her story was fascinating to me, though morbidly so. There were details of how she had to handle each and every daily function, all of which were made incredibly difficult by her mass. Yes, she had had to have a wall cut out of her house once to get her to the ambulance, but it was more than that. Many things we all take for granted had to be improvised for her. I talked to her about putting it into a memoir, but the last time I heard from her, she was stuck with her weight still hovering above 500, and she was also stuck in the chronology of her life.
People don't want a chronology. Even when reading about Henry VIII, we want to know more than the vital facts of his life. We want a good story, good narrative. We want the meat woven around the bones of a life.
What makes up that meat? Well, let me tell you about a portion of my day. Figure out what the meat is.
Today at the cardiologist's office, I pondered the meaning of life. I often do that when forced to wait somewhere for a period of time. I suppose you could say it is somewhat like meditating. Rather than shutting out everything, I take it all in and process it in my quiet reverie.
People came and went, most of them older than me, and I wondered if they wondered what I was doing there. The office girls would shout a name from behind the check-in window or from the door leading to the examination rooms. One shouted, "Is it Dennis? Dennis?" A gentleman to my right pushed himself up and mumbled, "Might as well go back up there."
I guess he was Dennis.
Turns out he wasn't the one they wanted. They tried again, butchering my last name this time. Yes, it was me they wanted. Time for the co-pay. I passed Dennis on his way back to his seat, nodded and smiled to him, "They got both of my names wrong!"
When I was seated again, I tried to read a short story from Glimmer Train, which I had brought with me to keep me company, but rather than getting into the story, conversation drifted to me from the left. A man was telling another patient, "Doctor says I can have nine bowls a day."
Ah yes. That was the scent that evoked a feeling of my childhood and warm familiarity. Pipe tobacco. My brother dabbled in pipe-smoking for a time after he returned from his tours of duty in Germany with the Air Force. I used to love opening the tin of cherry tobacco and inhaling the heady, earthy scent of it. The aroma of a good pipe having been smoked was what wafted my way from the old man near me.
"Nine bowls a day," he repeated. "Says it'll keep me alive longer."
Some part of me was stunned. Don't all of the experts tell us not to smoke tobacco? Not to chew it either? And yet, this man was of some advanced years, eighty at least. If his doctor told him to stop smoking, it might be a bad thing. After all, it had worked for him so far. And really, at eighty-odd-years old, what could it hurt? For all I knew, it was one of the few pleasures left to him. Life does tend to take things from us as we head toward the big Exit sign.
A thought crossed my mind. A line from a Queen song, from the soundtrack for Highlander. "Who wants to live forever?"
Certainly, I've had my moments in which I wonder why I want to live a long life if it is a life robbed of many pleasures. If I can't exercise as I want to, if I get winded easily, if my legs wobble and don't want to work some days... if I'm fatigued so much that I doubt my ability to travel 39 miles each way twice weekly along with homework and a full-time job to reach my goal of an MFA... what is it worth? Is it a good life? Is it well-lived?
If the doctor told me that 9 bowls of good pipe tobacco a day, smoked reverently on the porch of the assisted living home, would give me more years, would I take her up on it? I used to joke with my brother-in-law after I stopped smoking (at age 21) that if I ever found out I had a terminal illness, I would lay in a supply of Winstons and a lot of bourbon to keep me company on my way, because really, what doctor would tell me to stop smoking and drinking lest I shorten my days?
Life is meant to be lived, but we are cautioned at every turn - "Don't do this! Eat this! Stop eating that!" Pretty soon we are frozen in place, unable to make a choice because it might be the wrong one. Or we rebel and do everything the doctors say not to do, just because we know that we can't possibly do everything right, so why try?
The pipe-smoking man was called in. Morton was his name.
"It's my first name," he told the nurse who called him back. She smiled blandly at him. They must see so many people every day that they begin to hate us all, no matter who were are, how wonderful or how ordinary.
When my turn came, I got the good news that I had not had a heart attack and was cleared for another cardiologist-free year.
"You look like you've lost weight," the doctor said. "Keep up the good work."
She didn't tell me to smoke nine bowls to extend my years, but then again, I've never smoked pipes. She told me to eat more fish. I'm not a big fish-eater either, but that's been added to my plate, so to speak.
And then it was out into the fresh air, the sunshine, and back to another afternoon of work.
See how it works? I could have laid out the afternoon chronologically for you, but I chose to give you the best parts of it. I skipped a lot of pedantic minutiae and just gave you what was interesting. And in a memoir like those Abigail Thomas writes, you don't even have to do things in order. Just find the meat and make sure it's enough to make the bones the invisible support of your story.
Blogging is nothing but memoirs, yeah? Let's have the meat.