Ripping Out My Past

I’m in the attic staring at boxes. One is labeled Journals, 1979-1985. Another is Journals, 1986-1990. Another is Letters: friends and family, 1975-1982. Another…

But I stop to muse: Look at these hundreds of pages of letters exchanged in only seven years. Typed or handwritten originals from recipients; carbon copies of my replies. Yes, we wrote long letters then, and treasured them enough to keep them.

And the journals. Spiral bound notebooks that I kept by hand daily from 1979 until a couple years ago, though the past ten years or so are scanty. That’s because I started using the computer for all my writing.

The journals had been my “commonplace books,” as I thought of them, modeling myself on Virginia Woolf. She kept notes of her reading, notes for writing projects, and personal reflections all in one consecutive notebook. Once I started thinking of myself as a writer, I imitated her practice.

So in these boxes of notebooks is a record of my every thought during about thirty years.

And they all have to go.

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Can’t a Dad Hug His Boy?

When I sat down to work at my computer yesterday morning, I checked my email and saw the stories on the news feed: another madman shoots random people; global warming disaster almost certain; radical politicians calling for rebellion, secession; the rich hoarding everything, the poor getting more desperate. I got off the Internet and clicked open the piece I am working on, and I stared at four pictures pinned to the cabinets in front of my writing desk.

One picture is a charcoal drawing of a human skull, my memento mori every morning as I sit down to work. The other three are curling snapshots from years ago hanging by a single thumb tack each.

The bottom one is of my boys at a cookout when Evan was not yet three and Asher was so young he could still delight himself to laughter just by running, happily unconcerned about his diaper-full of poop. The boys are in front of a picnic shelter in Kanawha Forest, and they are smudged and smeared face to bare feet with the grime of hard outdoor play. They are both squatting at a dog’s metal water bowl, splashing in it with sticks.

The middle photo is of Evan on my sister Alma’s lap. They both face the camera, her arms are wrapped around his chest and their faces are side by side—that they are related is clear by their sharp Sizemore chins.

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Mystery and (Southern) Manners

It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question I get all the time, but I don’t think I am the only one who has faced it: Am I more religious because I am a Southerner (as most of my Yankee friends seem to think), or do I seem more Southern because I am religious—never mind the fact that I am a longtime, generally happy exile to the Northeast Corridor?

I’m sending this question out not only to some of the other Southerners who have proceeded through “Good Letters”—A.G. Harmon, Kelly Foster, Tony Woodlief (A.G., Kelly and I are from Mississippi, and Kelly and I are even from the same town)—but to all of you out there who might have some input on the matter.

For what so many of us Southerners—even those of us who are not, ahem, writers—seem to share is a great and abiding sense of mystery about the world. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, in the main, even now, most of us grew up around codes of manners and behavior that were commonly known, but rarely spoken of, and there was even less discussion about the realities of class and race that were all around us. And we could go off on long tangents about the various implications.

Whatever the reason, it is a characteristic of my life that the world has constantly seemed (and continues to seem) to be filled with portents about nearly everything, turns of circumstance that seem significant, as though a narrative arc cuts through my life as sharply as a ray of sun.

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Poetry at the Goodwill

When I was a soccer-obsessed fifteen-year-old, I had no use for poetry. I endured my school hours like a crated dog, waiting to get out on the field. One afternoon in the library, I picked up a random book of English verse and flipped through it. Eventually I landed on a song from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, offered most often now with the title “Old and Young.” The first stanza goes like this:

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

He was speaking to me, young blood, strong, moving among so many queenly lasses in my school that I could not think straight for more than a few moments at a time. Back then, I didn’t know what a sentimental piece of writing it is; I don’t care now.

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Walking Toward Forgiveness

Outside our trailer park, a set of railroad tracks ran from east to west, dividing us from the police station that sat half a mile down the road. When you drove over the tracks, and felt the car pull itself over the split asphalt, it seemed like you were being locked in or released, depending on which way you were driving.

I used to walk along the tracks at dusk, singing and talking to myself, the fields stretching westward behind me as the sun sank behind the Walgreens. I practiced lines for my high school plays; I imagined what it would be like to walk with whichever boy at school I liked at the time. I tried to keep myself occupied as long as I could, tried to fill my mind with anything besides the dull dread that I knew would be waiting for me once I got back home.

What is poignant about this scene is that it is one of the few memories I have where the sensory detail is so vivid—I have bits of images, movements, but it is hard to place whole memories. I know that so much of what happened has been buried deep within me, and when something surfaces, I have to try to catch as much as I can.

What I remember, mostly, is walking: walking to the curb to meet the police officer before my mother’s boyfriend knew I had called; walking my mother to her bed with her lips against my ear, drunk and sorry and heaving sobs so big that I almost lost my grip on her shoulder. Walking in the fiery shafts of light that cut across the tracks, my voice carrying over the cornfields: But it wouldn’t be make believe / if you believed in me.

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