This week, there was definitely that end of summer feel to the air, that melancholic, transitional, time-to-shop-for-school supplies-and-corduroys feel.
When I was fifteen and about to go into high school, I bought a pair of forest green corduroys that I loved beyond reason. I insisted on wearing them on the first day of school. In August. In Texas. When I peeled them off that night, I swear I’d lost about a pound in sweat. But by God, I was wearing those things if it killed me. I think I gave them away the next year.
I’ve spent the past four days doing a purge of my house. Some people are all about spring cleaning. Me? I’m a fall cleaner. It’s like I have to get my house right before I can settle into the new routine and work. The Boy and I managed to clear out four trash bags of stuff from his room: Chaotic card wrappers. Little toys won from claw games and gum machines. Random pieces of paper with code words written on them. Old school work and supplies. Cheap Scooby Doo paperbacks. T-shirts that no human being should wear in public anymore. Pajamas four sizes too small. Highlights magazines with all the mazes and quizzes filled in.
The kid likes his stuff. (Don’t we all?) And we can’t part with what we’re not ready to let go of yet.
This cleaning frenzy got me to thinking about what I can’t get rid of: Pretty paper. Notes sent from friends over the years. Sentimental birthday cards and wacky gifts from the husband. My kid’s art work and various Post-It notes proclaiming love or disdain for our parenting at that moment. Photographs. The sweater my father was wearing the day he died. A brooch my mother gave me before I left for NYC. One grandmother’s cigarette case and the other’s beaded flapper necklace. The motorcycle jacket I bought my first year in NYC under the mistaken impression it would keep me warm in winter. (Please see previous reference to being from Texas.) And cartons upon cartons of writing—about thirty or so spiral notebooks in sad shape. I never really go back and read them, and yet, I can’t seem to throw them out. It’s a chronicle of where I was and who I was at a particular point in time, from “David Crowell is a super fox, but I think he likes Stacy instead” to “Found possible gray hair in my bangs. Am in fugue state now.”
I was thinking about this in reference to writing books—how inspiration and influence comes from the oddest of places sometimes. How we’re never really certain what all goes into the making of a book. When people ask, as they have been lately, I find myself shrugging and offering an apologetic smile. Sure, there’s the obvious, the books and people and life moments we’re drawing from. But a good percentage is completely unconscious and random, an arbitrary “I turned left instead of right” moment that ends up shaping the piece you’re writing and taking it somewhere else. This happens to me all the time and was the case in GOING BOVINE.
The story behind GOING BOVINE begins, as most books do, with a random series of events—a chaos theory of ideas, emotions, thoughts, questions, and, occasionally, odd things on TV.
1. A long while back, my mother told me a story about someone we vaguely knew. It was a terrible, awful story. The man had been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt Jakob’s disease, a.k.a., mad cow disease, and during his deterioration, he suffered from one particular hallucination in which he would see flames shooting up into his field of vision. This haunted me for years, as did the attendant questions: What is reality? What part do we play in crafting it? Is it only a shift in perspective? Is there another reality behind what we see? Are there other worlds in which other realities play out, like a computerized solitaire game with different cards, different choices, different outcomes?
2. I am a bit of an insomniac, and one night, I happened to catch part of a program on PBS called “The Elegant Universe” by physicist Brian Greene. I sat, transfixed and awed, as he talked about vibrating strings that might be other dimensions too small for our minds to see. It was as close as I have come to a religious experience.
3. While sitting in a café waiting for a time-challenged friend, I picked up a discarded copy of Don Quixote and began to read haphazardly. By the time my friend arrived, I just wanted to keep reading and not just because she was forty-five minutes late.
4. I hate to fly. On one particularly turbulent flight, I had run through my gamut of self-help techniques—iPod, trashy magazines, bargaining, reciting GOODNIGHT MOON under my breath like a prayer. Nothing was working. And then, rather suddenly, I thought: Wait, this is not how I’m supposed to die (which seemed rather bold of me to surmise.) I asked myself the natural follow-up question: Well, then how ARE you supposed to die? What is a good death? So, I opened my notebook and wrote, “In a house by the sea in an upstairs bedroom….In a house by the sea, it will end, and I will slip from this life as if it were no more than a sweater grown too large and threadbare with years.” This is exactly the way I would want my funny little sojourn on this planet to end if I could choose. Strangely enough, writing about my perfect death calmed me. (Really, planning is everything.) So I continued, and before long, I had a new character for my book, an old woman facing death. I had no idea what to do with her or why she was there or whether she would stay, but I trusted that I would figure all of that out later. And, hopefully, I did manage that. Because it’s too late now if I didn’t.
There were other things: a trip to New Orleans six months before Katrina and that horror itself. A remembrance of a musician boyfriend explaining jazz, which, to my mind at least, seemed as trippy as string theory. A vacation at Disney World during a particularly dark period of my life and my first encounter with the strange, surreal creepy-joy of the Small World ride and the we-are-particle-and-wave wonder that I felt riding the Transit Authority tram. A love of the road, the sense memory of childhood car trips from the Texas Gulf Coast through the South on the way to the East Coast. A news article about black holes that sing. Reality television. Absurdist Theater. A detour through Norse myths and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A long listen to The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and The Who’s Quadrophenia. A chance reading of a quote from playwright Eugene Ionesco, “I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it.” An article on the Hadron Super Collider. The human need for connection. The fear of death and really happy people. Bowling.
Just a small sampling of the random ping-ponging of events and associations that went into a journey that was, for me, filled with wonder and transformation and meaning that I cannot adequately explain.
One last bit of randomness. When my son was five and stalling before bedtime, he asked me, “Why do we die?” Amidst the pulling up of blankets and securing of stuffed animals, I felt suddenly so very mortal. “I don’t know,” I answered. He thought about it for a second or two. “I think we just go somewhere else.” He did not elaborate further.
And so, perhaps I should be wise and take that to heart. Here is a book. It means a lot to me. I hope it will take you somewhere else.