|The Strachans, Christmas 1946. I'm next to my grandpa with Irene, my Christms doll.|
You know about "air guitar," of course, that instrument that boys play so energetically in order to achieve the state of creation, that exalted state when people realize who you really are and fall back, big-eyed. Or big-eared. Whatever.
So I’m going to be an air memoirist. Or maybe it will be an air novel because what it is the difference anyway if the publisher is also made of air, invisible, never there, only hypothetical. This air memoir will be brilliant! Who could prove it’s anything else anyway?
First of all, my childhood. I really did have naturally curly red hair and too much imagination for one little girl, which is why I cried all the time, so that’s a cliche and cannot be included. I lived in a rather ordinary neighborhood full of railroad and shipyard craftsmen, mostly first and second generation European immigrants. The black people that Kaiser imported for his shipyards didn’t live in this neighborhood until after the Vanport flood. They were a different kind of black people then anyway: very Southern rural and determined for their children to be achievers.
There was a war. It was a world war on the desperate dimensions of Lord of the Rings. The world at war is what I think of as a norm. People were very sad and tense because they had relatives who were in those newsreels we watched. My aunt was an army nurse and my uncle was a B-29 pilot. My fourth grade teacher had been a sergeant. My PE teacher was an amputee. Why would a man with a wooden leg be a PE teacher? But this is an air memoir. What difference did it make?
Well, it did because of the movies. “The River” was a movie about girls with naturally curly red hair who fall in love with amputees because they want to write air memoirs. I have a video of it, but I really should reread the book. It’s not in “air,” it’s in print. It’s of no use as a model because in those days publishers cherished their writers and Rumer Godden (her sister as well) were effective actual cherished novelists. But English, which is different.
How was I supposed to know all this was stereotype and cliche and that scribbling females with naturally curly red hair have been around since long before Brenda Starr. (The mutation for red hair is only about 500 years old, I’ve read.) Never REALLY being true nor unique is sort of internally contradictory. But that’s the nature of memoir: that what a person remembers was never really there and certainly never unique. The same genetically governed developmental processes unfold about the same ways unless the person dies and then they can write nothing. More-or-less the same cultural forces create girls who think they are special. If you pry into those forces, you will not necessarily find what you expect: often it is heartbreak. Or maybe the British class system.
I suppose the point of a memoir is the relationship between the person and the culture, whether it is a merging with the status quo or a defiant revolution and who won at what cost or advantage. So it has to span enough time to able to tell which it was and enough distance for the person to understand just what that culture is, what it does to the people who live in it. Or maybe enough time to have escaped to some other time and place or enough time for the culture itself to change. Or not.
Families reposition internally as the cards of chance turn up. The subtle change that has taken a long time to realize is the change in my father after his head injury in a car crash. And then the change in my youngest brother after his head injury in a fall. Quite obvious was the slide of the neighborhood from a quiet place of diligent people to a ghetto, a spawner of gangs, and how race played out in that. But by then I’d removed myself to a reservation, another place where race and culture set up quandaries.
My biggest quandary was always love and that was an echo of a puzzled culture where the terms of sex changed daily. I lived half in old books where love/commitment/fidelity was the point of existence and half in a real world where my mother (who had license to say what she thought) told me no one would ever marry me because of my selfishness and grandiose ideas. I tried to be wicked and even have affairs, but I couldn’t stay interested. Was that selfish or was that grandiose? It was useful to a few men who got a lot of work out of me to their benefit. Is there something wrong with that?
It meant that my economic life couldn’t depend on marriage, but then what did it depend on? Through high school (a big solid recognized school in my day, only later to become a confusion, an imitation) I was told I was specially gifted but I never quite knew what that meant except that I was supposed to do well, so when I didn’t, whose fault was that? Suspecting it was mine, I tried to confuse the issue with goofiness and eccentricity which succeeded pretty well.
The ministry was a labyrinth. I never flew up to success. I drove along parallel. I carried my books back and forth, so many books that I damaged my back. My mother resented that I went into an intellectual place she didn’t understand except that it meant I escaped her. Exactly. My ivory tower. Possibly an air tower.
In the end one third of her house was a gift allowing me freedom at last in a flimsy old house in a village back with the Blackfeet. I wrote a first book, found a publisher in another country just as publishing exploded and lay in electronic ruins.
Out of that came the deepest and most unlikely friendship, a co-writer and image maker more daring and wicked than I could hope to be and yet someone with steely integrity also beyond mine. A man who wrote true memoir, labeled hoax, then fiction, then a new kind of writing in image and poetry. That's Tim Barrus, dying but intimate, and his guyz, gripped in the rending vice of culture. Vice in both senses. All their senses in the confusion of survival. They’re getting a lot of work out of me to my benefit. I have reached the stage of creation. Better stand back.