Text, Texture, and the Nature of Memory


I’ve been thinking a lot about memory this week.  How we remember.  What we remember.  Why we remember some things but not others.

And in process, I remembered a poem I wrote some time back about my own expereince of memory, especially my experiencing the past as text. 

In it, I allude to Anna Ahkmatova, the celebrated Russian poet who was so highly censored under Stalin , she resorted to writing her poems on cigarette paper, memorizing them with a  friend (friend’s memory as carbon copy), and smoking the evidence of her crime against the Soviet State.

Here, I also allude to the texture of memory and the texture of texts themselves.  It’s interesting to me that in English the word “text” is inherent in our word for “texture”–a sematic given.

Censorship

The past comes

back in bits

colorless as glass

ground almost to dust

so that any sense of shape

seems irretrievable

 

The taste of it lingers

                in my mouth like

                                something burnt

                                                marshmallow

                                                toast

                                                skin

 

Dream of Ahkmatova

                stanzas scratched out

                                on cigarette paper

                                during Leningrad winters

memorized by a friend

burnt in ashtrays

saying what we don’t

                (hear)

                                only know

like skin

 

(Something to be touched)

 

Text (ure)

                is everything

(The formatting of the poem is not correct, but I could not get WordPress to recreate my Word document without changes in spacing.  I finally decided to pass the poem along regardlesss, hoping its message would speak to you despite the irregularities.)

Piecing and Pasting: Re-Membering (Part 2)


It’s the forgetting I remember most.  The fact of forgetting.  The past is fuzzy for me, something that will make memoir difficult.

So, for me, re-membering will partly be a process of re-constructing and re-assembling the story, piecing and pasting.  Largely, this is due to trauma.  Trauma around growing up in a dysfunctional family whose front door was broken down by the FBI on way too many occasions.  Trauma around having a mental illness that at times disconnected me from reality and the people I love.

However, I have a strategy for doing this detective work, because I, clearly, need to research and document the parts of my life I can’t recall.

So today I’ll outline the most obvious steps to take in reconstructing both the story about my father’s connection to organized crime and the one about my mental illness—what amounts to a 20 year struggle to win (and sometimes seemingly lose) the battle against bipolar disorder.

Though I don’t know that my family is entirely comfortable with my writing about my father, who, in fact, died in 1981 (when I was still a teenager), I plan to do the following to document my dad’s story:

  1.  File a “Freedom of Information” act, so I can access my father’s FBI file.
  2.  Search news paper indexes to locate articles that were published about my father in the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post Gazette during the 1960s and 70s.
  3. Access transcripts of court proceedings, so I can understand why several grand juries indicted my dad and can appreciate the nature of my father’s testimony in court proceedings against him.

And in order to reconstruct the bipolar narrative, I plan to:

  1.  File for copies of in-patient medical records, so I can review notes taken by doctors and nurses during my many hospital stays.
  2. Request copies of notes kept by doctors and therapists during out-patient treatment.  (Some of this I’ve already done.)
  3. Review journals kept from the time I was 15 until the present.  I wrote a lot during the years I was sick.  And though I don’t recall everything about that time, the journals recorded much of what I don’t remember.
  4. Watch video tapes of several years’ worth of out-patient and in-patient therapy.   This will be an invaluable source of information about my symptoms, my behavior, my thoughts and feelings at the time.  (This first involves having the videos transferred to DVDs, so I can bring them back to Haiti.  Frankly, the thought of watching this material terrifies me.  I can’t imagine what it will be like to see myself so sick.  I tried to watch one video a couple of years ago, but had to stop.  It was too painful.)

As I lay out this agenda, I want you to be assured, also, that I am well these days.   No one would ever know I had ever been sick or still carry this diagnosis.  In fact, when I’ve shared this information with folks in recent years, they’ve been shocked. 

My partner can certainly see how moody I remain.  I’m not always easy to live with.  As Sara says, when I feel something, my emotions fill the entire house.  I still hallucinate at times, but you would never know.  I’ve learned to manage the symptoms that remain, the ones that still break through despite the medication.

I hope some of you will help by holding me accountable with regard to the strategy outlined above.  Renee over at “Life in the Boomer Lane” recently posted a two-part series on memoir writing (something you should check out by clicking here and here).  But in the second of those posts Renee suggests assembling a supportive group of friends to keep oneself on track during the process of writing a memoir.  (So, I hope some of you will be willing to “support” me with periodic kicks in my memoir-writing ass.)

Thanks to all of you who read my blog.  Please know how much I appreciate your on-going support.  You all have given me the courage, the faith in myself as a writer, to finally take on this task I’ve been avoiding for years.

Peace to each of you and, as always, hugs from here in Haiti,

Kathy

Blog is the New Black!


I’m not much of a procrastinator, and as such, I’m going to deal with my second blogging “award” immediately on the Gucci-ed-heels of the last and pass this horror honor along today.  (In case you missed it—yesterday I accepted and “shared” the Memetastic Award.  To read the post click here.)

I wouldn’t want to keep all the glory to myself.  That would be selfish, and that’s just not me, because, according to my friend Wendy over at “Herding Cats in Hammond River,” I’m a “Stylish Blogger.”

Whether this means I’m a blogger with fashion sense or a wardrobe-malfunctioned writer, whose blog happens to be in good graphic order, I don’t know.

The only thing I’m certain of is this: I gotta pass this hot potato along today while folks are already hating me and I have nothing more to lose.

Now frankly, I’m horrified to do this two days in a row, and I apologize to any and all victims of this prize-passing plot.  I want to make it perfectly clear that I won’t be bothered in the least should you ignore this honor all together and move along to less coutured-concerns, like getting the kids off to school, raising your blog’s Technorati rating, addressing the issue of hunger in Haiti, or bringing peace to the Middle East.

But—as a good team player and perfect martyr to the cause of peace and good will in the blogosphere, I formally accept the Stylish Blogger Award, and in doing so, agree:

  1. To (sort of) write seven things about myself. (How’s that for open-ended—something any narcissist worth her blogging salt could pull off with posting pleasure.)
  2. To (almost) present this award to six other suckers bloggers (but the more the merrier).
  3. To (kind of) contact these victims people (as I see fit).
  4. To (by all means) create a link back to the sadist person who humiliated honored me.  (In all seriousness, Wendy’s “Herding Cats in Hammond River” is not only worth reading, it’s worth subscribing to and reading daily.  I wouldn’t think of missing it—truly!)

However, here’s where we get to mix it up, folks.  Because I’m going to ignore adjust the rules and ask instead that you share some little-known truth about yourself in the comments below—maybe even add a link to what you consider the best or most popular post you’ve ever written.  Come on now—toot your own horn here!

And instead of me passing this “award” along to six other bloggers who must then foist it off on six others, I’d like you, in the comments, to nominate a blogger who you don’t think gets the attention or traffic they observe.  Who have we not heard of?  Who have we not read?  Who has not been freshly pressed but, by God, deserves to be?

In fact, I suggest we officially revise the “Stylish Blogger Award” rules, so that the blogger with style, the blogger with class, in fact, becomes the one who asks you to share what’s best about you and bring a friend along for the fun.  Let’s create a little more community here!

Show some self-esteem, dress yourself up, take yourself anda blogging buddy out on the town: share a post of your own and/or a link to your favorite blog.

Because really, folks, a blog is only as good as its readers, and my blog rocks only to the degree that you shake things up and make a difference.

Feel free to do a similar “Stylish Blogger” post of your own, if you like.  Share the glory.  Wear the style.

Give your blog a little haute couture of its own—   

Because blog is the new black!

Awards Ceremony 101


Allow me to apologize in advance (you’ll soon see why) and assure you that, although things in Haiti seemed to be heating up a day or two ago, they’ve just as quickly calmed back down, as Aristide’s arrival has been delayed until housing and security can be arranged—several days, maybe even weeks.

So during this brief lull in exiled-former-presidents-coming-home to Haiti, I’ll finally and officially accept the Memetastic Award Clouded Marble cursed honored me with last week. 

This long-anticipated acceptance requires several things of me:

1. Displaying the “disgusting graphic” (words of the award creator Jillsmo, not mine) of the award itself—a Meme Kitty dancing among balloons and shooting stars, gleeful and glorious in award winning form. 

2. Posting 5 “facts” about myself—4 of which must be bold-faced lies.  (This will be the fun part.)

3. Passing the award along to 5 other bloggers, who will, in turn, do the same.  (This is where the apologies come into play.)

4. Linking this post back to the “Memetastic Hop,” so award creator Jillsmo can track its path through the blogosphere.  (Supposedly failing to do any of the above will cause Jillsmo to haunt and taunt me through the rest of what, I’m sure will be, a short-lived blogging career.)

So, here are some fun-filled “facts” about me.  (You pick out the one that is true.)

  1. Sara and Kathy met on a train from Istanbul to Ankara.
  2. Kathy taught English at Oral Roberts University for 6 years, before leaving to teach writing to inner-city St. Louis teens in trouble.
  3. During the 1980s, one of Kathy’s sisters served in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, where she still lives with her Delhi-born husband and 2 sons.
  4. Someone in Kathy’s immediate family won’t allow Kathy to mention him or her in this blog and has asked her to write as if he or she does not exist.
  5. Kathy’s father was a preacher from Ft. Lauderdale.

(Let me warn you, this list is tricky.  The fact must be entirely true to count.) 

Finally, I must part with my prize and pass it along to other entirely-worthy-of-bigger-honors-than-this bloggers I read regularly. 

(Audience cheers expectantly, while best-of-the-best bloggers cower in corners, pens poised to attack if they are indeed identified.)

And the winners are (apologies all around):

  1. Lisa at “Notes from Africa.”  Lisa’s blog was freshly pressed several weeks ago.  She writes about the science she observes all around her in South Africa.  Brilliant blog.  Amazing photos.  You must read. 
  2. Mrs. H. at “A.Hab’s View of the World.”  (Sorry, my friend, I adore your blog and want others to read, as well.)  Mrs. H. writes, sometimes amusingly, but always passionately, about her ambivalence for academia.  She is currently teaching World Lit at the university where she is finishing a Ph.D. in English. 
  3. Tori at “The Ramblings.”  What can I say?  Tori is a 23-year-old mother of one from Tennessee, who is, in fact, one of the best writers I have ever read.  As I told Sara the other day, Tori  writes like Anne Lamott, but “out-Lamotts” Lamott herself.  Tori is wickedly funny and was once freshly pressed twice in one week! 
  4. Deanna at “A Mother’s Tonic.”  Deanna is a Canadian blogger who writes poignantly about both the challenges and joys of motherhood.  She makes me think, she makes me smile, she makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.  I think you will love her too. 
  5. Terri at “Into the Mystic.”  Terri is a wife and mother, a bowling fanatic, and kidney donor, who writes about “dragging [her] feet toward empty-nest-hood.”   Terri was also freshly pressed a while back.  I know you’ll enjoy her wit and insight.  She’s sure to make you laugh. 

So there you have it folks.  I believe I’ve fulfilled my obligations according to Memetastic Award protocol.  

May award creator Jillsmo hunt me down and menace me for life if I have failed in these Memetastic duties.  I am indeed a believer in the cause. 

Thanks, again to Clouded Marble, for this great “gift.” As I’ve said before, please read her blog, despite her poor judgement in passing this prize to me. 

Long live the “Meme Kitty” !!!!

I will blog—forever—

A proud winner of the Memetastic Award!!!!

(Applause continue, even as this pronouncement is posted and Meme Kitty exits stage left————-)

Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite


As I’ve struggled over the past several days, trying to make even minimal sense of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return to Haiti Sunday evening, and worked even harder attempting to understand the Duvalierists I’ve discovered in my life since then, I’ve remembered why art is such a good way for me to grapple with complex issues, ones for which there are no easy answer.  When slugging through the muck and mire of not knowing remains the only way through a particular darkness, I, like both Aristotle and Shakespeare, find comfort in art and literature’s ability to “imitate nature,” be like the thing that’s bothersome, while, at the same time, not being the thing itself.

 So, in the midst of my Duvalier-induced dementia, I remembered a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  I’ve often taught this piece to composition students when wanting to demonstrate how “showing,” rather than merely “telling,” makes for stronger writing.  But yesterday Le Guin’s story reminded me why and how literature can become a way through confusion, especially in a place where more than a million remain homeless, cholera continues to kill, and ex-dictators come home to roost. 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a seemingly ideal city that hides a dark and disturbing secret (a dystopia, in literary terms).  Happiness and peace in Omelas depend on the suffering and misery of one small child, dungeoned in filth and despair.  According to Le Guin’s narrator, coming of age in this seemingly perfect place involves visiting this child and realizing, for the first time, the price Omelas pays for peace.

Clearly Omelas is not a perfect parallel to Port-au-Prince, since here the wealth and luxury enjoyed by an elite minority depend on the suffering of millions.  My Duvalierist friends may long for the good-old-days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, an era when the lights stayed on and the streets were clean, but even now in Haiti the balance is shifted in favor of the privileged few.

 In the story’s final paragraph (click here to read the story in its entirety), Le Guin tell us about a few citizens of Omelas, but only a few, unwilling to accept this “bargain,” unwilling to exchange the suffering of an innocent child for their own well-being, to trade conscience for comfort.  These are, indeed, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” 

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

 For the same reason these few in Omelas walk away, here in Haiti some have come and  decided to stay, refusing, in their own way, to accept the bargained-comfort that is life back home.  But this situation is extreme. 

I wonder how this same unwillingness to compromise conscience plays itself out in your life.  What do you sacrifice, what do you say “no” to, because doing so is good and fair and just? 

 How is conscience alive and well in your life?

Please Post for Haiti: Pressing Port-au-Prince


As many of you know, tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake and accordingly huge numbers of media and NGO big wigs are here in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the event.  The streets, still strewn with 95% of the original earthquake rubble, are more crowded and crazy than ever, which is saying a lot for a city whose roads boast potholes the size of swimming pools and mounds of debris that dwarf the SUVs that try to travel them.

So, I’m back in this city I love, hoping to participate in some small way—hoping to commemorate along with many others, both here and around the world, a catastrophe that shook this nation to its historic core, killing nearly a quarter million and leaving, still today, more than a million homeless in Port-au-Prince, entire families living in tents and under tarps that remap the landscape, blanketing the city in a patchwork of sadness and resignation–the hillsides and former parks of Port-au-Prince quilted in the aftermath of tragedy.

Tomorrow the American Refugee Committee is organizing an event called “Bells for Haiti”—asking churches, schools, and city halls across America to ring their bells for 35 seconds, beginning at 4:53 pm EST—the time it took the earthquake to topple Port-au-Prince one year ago.

Likewise, I’m asking those of us at WordPress to somehow remember the Haitian people in our blogs tomorrow.   

Please post for Haiti on January 12th

I don’t know how.  I can’t tell you what to say, since I myself fell muted by the enormity of what we face here.  I’ll post my part, but it won’t be enough.  My voice isn’t loud enough.

But I know the blogosphere can raise a collect cry against the pain and suffering that still cripples Port-au-Prince, still haunts all of Haiti.

So, please press your words for Haiti tomorrow.

Post!  Pray!  Remember!

(And if you’re willing, please re-post this request to your own blog to help spread the word.)

Luxuries Most-Missed in Haiti: an Inventory


Item #2—(Without a doubt)—bandwidth—

First a bit of context—

Most of you reading this post will do so using a high-speed internet connection, the speed of which exceeds the old dial-up connection by hundreds of times.  Do most of you even remember how slow dial-up was?  Yes, I know, when you think “dial-up,” you think dinosaur, not so much from the last decade, but from the remote history of the previous century.  (Does anyone even use dial-up any more?)

More context—

I have given up my career teaching writing to live on island with the infrastructure of 19th-Century London, given it up, hoping to make meaning from the work of ACTUAL writing, rather than the work of merely teaching writing.  Given this, the tools of the trade tend to matter.  At least they matter to me.

Herein lies my problem—namely that I’m blogging, and blogging requires bandwidth—or, at the very least, the option of up-loading text and images at a reasonably decent speed—and by “decent” I mean—able to post 1000 words and one photo in not more than 8 hours. 

(Let me be perfectly clear—I’m not talking about writing time—I’m referring to the time it takes to upload a word document and a photo or two—something that from our home in Kentucky I can do in a matter of seconds—copy, paste, save, upload (image), save, post—not a complicated or time-consuming process—5 minutes max, if literally everything imaginable goes wrong.)

Not so in Port-au-Prince—

Not so by a long shot—

For example—

One day over a month ago, I decide to change my blog’s theme (big mistake), which ultimately involves uploading a new header image (even bigger mistake). 

The process begins around 9 in the morning.  I have been awake for several hours—since 5, actually.  I’ve had my French lesson, which is challenging and something I sometimes even hate. (See “A Tale of Miserable Failure: Moanings of a Second Language Learner” to fully appreciate my struggles with the language.)  I have been to the gym—

I am eager to get started but remember that posting to my blog the day before and the day before had not gone well—had taken considerable time—

Here’s how it all goes down—

9:15 am: I make myself a cup of coffee.  I need to be fully fortified.  Caffeine should do the trick.

9:21am: I position myself on the corner of the couch, open laptop.

9:23 am: Click the Internet Explorer icon on my desktop and wait for my Yahoo home page to load.

9:26am: Still waiting.

9:27am: Text begins appearing on the screen.

9:30am: Text still loading.

9:33am: The first image—a photo of Michelle Obama—begins appearing.

9:35 am: More photos———

9:38am: With Yahoo fully loaded, I decide to forego checking email.  (It might take too long.) 

9:39am: Sigh—click “WordPress Dashboard” on Favorites drop down menu.

9:43am: Dashboard still loading.

9:50am: I decide against checking stats.  (It might take too long.)

9:51am: Sigh—click “Appearance.”—Sigh—Click “Theme.”

Fast forward————-

10:01am: First page of themes fully loaded.

(You see where this is going)

Fast forward——————-

Around 6 in the evening Sara comes home. 

I am not in the best of moods.  I am not welcoming.  I am not gracious when asked how my day has been. 

I share.

Apparently, I share too much.

I share too vigorously.

I use a few too many expletives.

“You wanna know how my day has been?”  The rhetorical question is Sara’s first clue—things may not have gone well.

“I’ll tell you how my day has been.”  Sara takes a step back.  I have that look in my eye.

“I have just spent 8 hours pounding my f—ing head against a f—ing virtual wall.  And I’ve accomplished  nothing.   Absolutely.  Nothing.”

“Nothing?”  Now Sara has the look—duck and cover—duck and cover!

“Nothing—a big, fat, mind-numbing NOTHING!”

“In that case, I think I’ll get something to eat.”  Sara leaves the guest room, where I am hovering as close to the router as humanly possible without morphing into router myself.  I’m hoping it might increase my chances.  Improve my reception. 

I’m hoping it will keep me sane and Sara able to live with me, not living with enough bandwidth.

Fast forward several weeks—————–

Sara shares the other morning, once we’ve decided to schedule my return to Haiti, “I’ve had Steve from IT working on our internet connectivity.”

I’m thinking—

Wise woman.

Maybe this means it will only take half a day, a mere 4 hours to post 1000 words and one photo.

I’ll keep you posted—

I hope.