I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel Lighthousekeeping, which contains (in addition to a forlorn Scottish lighthouse, an anguished pastor, Charles Darwin, a dog with legs of different lengths and a sage orphan) ruminations on the nature of storytelling and, in a way, memory. For example:
The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.
Memory is like that — we remember the highs, the lows, the oddities, the moment of laughter, or the moment of tears. But whole days, weeks, and months of existence, perhaps banal, perhaps not, disappear from view. There are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.
“What is startling about memory is its willful persistence and its obsession with detail,” Robert Angell wrote in his collection of essays Let Me Finish.
This is also true.
But the details can be so elusive, and when uncovered prove surprising. My 19-month-old son has in the past few months fallen in love with music. If he likes a song, he wants to hear it over and over again, sometimes to the point where I think I cannot survive another rendition of, for example, “Splish, Splash Elmo’s Takin’ a Bath.” I am trying to expand his musical interests and tastes, both for his sake and my own. I’ve done quite a bit of browsing on iTunes. I struggled to remember what I used to listen to as a young child, thinking that Aaron might like the same. My parents listened to a lot of the folk music that was popular in their generation: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas. Their tastes became my own preferences, for a time. I have fond memories of singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
At some point, perhaps in high school, I noticed that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is more a bittersweet than happy song, as I had long thought. As a kid, I imagined a dragon and a child who were friends, and that was enough.
The other day I remembered a song I used to sing, loud and full of glee. I had not thought of the song in many years, Pete Seeger’s “Garbage.” Throughout much of the song, Seeger chants “garbage, garbage, garbage” in a low, almost comical (I thought) voice. As a kid, I loved belting out that “garbage, garbage, garbage” chorus over and over again. I thought it was hilarious, maybe even a little bit forbidden.
I thought my son, for whom the weekly appearance of the garbage truck is a bit like a gaggle of pre-teen girls encountering Justin Bieber, might also like a song that reveled in trash.
I listened to a clip of the Seeger song on iTunes yesterday. I heard Seeger’s growly chant (garbage, garbage, garbage!) and was stunned to find that the lyrics that followed were not of a fun, children’s romp, but a serious, angry manifesto of sorts. A sampling:
Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac and winds it down the freeway track
Leaving friends and neighbors in a hydro-carbon haze;
He’s joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars.
There they form a seething cloud that hangs for thirty days.
And the sun licks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue.
Till it turns to smog and settles down and ends up in our lungs, oh,
We’re filling up the sky with garbage (garbage…)
What will we do
When there’s nothing left to breathe but garbage (garbage…)*
Oh, the nature of memory! So selective and so slippery. There are lit-up bits, and the rest is dark. The lit-up bits persist, stubbornly. And rest that’s dark: that part is just as stubborn in its absence. I remembered my joy in the song, not the anger or the almost apocalyptic future Seeger describes at the end.**
In the introduction to Let Me Finish, Angell wrote:
Our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, I began to see, and become more insistent as we grow older, even as we try to make them come out in some other way.
I don’t think I quite understood what he meant when I blogged about that collection of essays a couple of years ago. I think I’m starting to.
* You can see Seeger performing “Garbage” here.
**Let’s put aside for a moment the obvious questions about what my parents were thinking, what listening to this sort of thing as a small child did to me psychologically, etc, etc.