Monday, September 5, 2011

The End

The transformations effected, in the women particularly, by the white hair and the other new features, would not have held my attention so forcibly had they been merely changes of colour, which can be charming to behold; too often they were changes of personality, registered not by the eye but, disturbingly, by the mind. For to "recognise" someone and, a fortiori, to learn someone's identity after having failed to recogise him, is to predicate two contradictory things of a single subject, it is to admit that what was here, the person whom one remembers, no longer exists, and also that what was here, and also that what is now here is a person whom one did not know to exist; and to do this we have to apprehend a mystery almost as disturbing as that of death, of which it is, indeed, as it were the preface and the harbinger. 

The narrator here is returning to Paris society after years spent in a rest home. As he walks through the rooms crowded with the fashionable people he had mingled with long ago, he has trouble putting names and identities to faces, which have metamorphosed from those of blushing beauties and distinguished gentlemen into the decrepit visages of old age. It's as if he were attending his fiftieth high school renunion and were unable to fit the haggard face with the name tag.

I thought of these lines when I visited my mother in the Alzheimer's facility yesterday. She was in a back room sitting with other residents in a circle and singing a song that went "Holy, holy, holy." I couldn't locate her at first, and then finally, (was this my mother?), I saw a woman dressed in loose clothes I didn't recognize and who had the slightly tired, immobile expression of someone who has been institutionalized. This happens every time I visit.

Happily, as soon as she saw me, she recognized me, and came out to give me a big hug. Her hair had been cropped "Jean Seberg-style" (a link she would have appeciated since Breathless used to be her favorite movie), and and the extra weight she was holding, in addition to her plain, scrubbed face, made her look anonymous.

Is this still my mother? Who is this woman who looks so different from her former self? She eats her lunch--a turkey sandwich with chips and then cake with ice cream--with obvious relish. This is my athletic mother who starved herself to fit into extra small, fashionable clothing. She would have been horrified to see this new version of herself who no longer looks like my strikingly beautiful mother.

What is she thinking? I've learned to avoid questions and stick with positive statements. Questions lead to dangerous, uncharted territory and usually are answered with a blank, frustrated stare. I miss her so much. Her lively sense of humor, her love of literature (and the mystery novels she used to go through like water), her attention to nature and the changing of the seasons, her endless delight in various neighborhood dogs, and her green thumb. I wish I could tell her things about my life and get her reaction and advice. Like Proust's society friends, she has in one sense disappeared forever.  

I still have her in a sense, but I'm not sure who she is anymore. She has changed so much since I started reading Proust. This year's journey has been about my mother and my gradual loss of her--first to a higher stage of Alzheimer's and then to a facility. Just a year ago, she was violently in love with Paul McCartney. Now she is almost without affect. There's something frozen about her that I would love to nurture and thaw out.

I will always associate Proust with my mother. Now that I have finished In Search of Lost Time, I will return to it with a whole set of associations stemming from the loss of my mother: her love of songs, the diapers, and her fiery crushes on everyone from Jean-Paul Belmondo to the Beatles to the group leader at our visits to MOMA.

Proust's narrator explains:

...a thing which we have looked at in the past brings back to us, if we see it again, not only the eyes with which we looked at it but all the images with which at the time those eyes were filled. For things--and among them a book in a red binding--as soon as we have perceived them are transformed within us into something immaterial, something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend. A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and the brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it.

For me, tackling In Search of Lost Time isn't about turning forty or making up for lost time. I'll reread it with thoughts of my mother who lost her memory while Proust was delving into special sensations set in time. It has been a year jammed with crisis and joy--like any other year in my life. It's ultimately a book about finding a vocation and becoming a writer. My only hope is that soon I can put pen to paper and come up with something half as personal and euphoric and lovely as Proust's book. And perhaps there will be a piece of me set in a red binding that someone will pick up in a used bookstore many years from now and that will become part of her inner vocabulary.

Proust's ending links back to the beginning. I hope to spend the rest of my life tracing and retracing that loop. Because there is no end to In Search of Lost Time until the Final End. What a friend I have in Proust--just as one might sing, "What a friend I have in Jesus!" In fact, I wish every motel in the country had a copy of Proust on the bedside table. A map, a poem, a dream. And above all, how beautiful this life is and how quickly it passes! Yet what we find in art rests infinite and renewable and everlasting.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Writer and the Reader

...I was carried back on the wave of sound towards the old days at Combray...when I myself had wanted to be an artist. Having in practice abandoned this ambition, had I given up something real? Could life make up to me for the loss of art, or was there in art a deeper reality where our true personality finds an expression that the actions of life cannot give it? Each great artist seems so different from all the others, and gives us such a strong sense of individuality, which we seek in vain in everyday life! (from The Prisoner)

After reading a great novel, I am not the same person I was before I read it. Now all that stuff we take for granted--great story, great structure, good language--that all makes for a really good novel. But a great novel is not the one that transforms the character but the one that transforms the reader. (Rabih Alameddine in The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook)

How do we find our true selves? I think the answer is through art, whether we are creators of it or witnesses to it. The reader and the writer share a special bond through which they are both fashioned into something new and undiluted. What a solace in today's world, when we are bombarded with financial doom and gloom and the environmental catastrophes that rock every shore. What a solace for the ages.

We left my mother off at the Alzheimer's facility on Wednesday, and that night when my father and I came home to our apartment, empty except for our dog, Phoebe, I felt a real sense of mourning for the mother I would never have again. All the things that used to drive me crazy--begging her to prepare for a shower, changing her clothes, remembering to triple bolt the door so she wouldn't wander--now seemed like special rites meant to be missed. I miss her delight when walking outside and spotting a shaggy dog or a purple flower. I miss the way she used to talk to Phoebe, who, since puppy hood, has shared a special bond with her. Nothing can fill that void. Except, perhaps, for art, though as I write it I only half believe it.

We've had some reports that she's participating in the activities at the facility and even has made a gentleman friend who holds the chair for her in the dining hall. But last night when I spoke to her on the phone, she could only say tearfully over and over again, "I love you, I love you so much." We're not allowed to visit for a couple of weeks so that she can acclimate herself to her new surroundings. This is especially hard on my father, who has spent the last forty-five years with her, through all of their ups and downs, and who has been especially tender with her in these past months when her mental health has been declining rapidly.

Proust has been a comfort, as usual. And so is pursuing my own writing. But I am saddened to think my mother will not be able to locate that pleasure in reading that she used to enjoy. Years ago, we used to regularly swap books and our bond, as readers, deepened our ties as mother and daughter. And now, to think that she is no longer able to read or even sign her own name, no longer able to escape in a mystery novel or a Jane Austen book, seems like an especially harsh blow. It seems like a cruel and undeserved fate, one that divorces her from her true self. One that erases her true self. One that devours her true self. And for this, there is no solace. Even if art may be the closest I ever get to a religion.  


Sunday, April 17, 2011

We'll Always Have Paris

Too often we talk about our memories as if they were banks into which we deposit new information when it comes in, and from which we withdraw old information when we need it. But that metaphor doesn't reflect the way our memories really work. Our memories are always with us, shaping and being shaped by the information flowing through our senses, in a continuous feedback loop. Everything we see, hear, and smell is inflected by all the things we've seen, heard, and smelled in the past.--from Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

How Proustian!

Moonwalking with Einstein is a gripping, inspiring read about the capabilities of the human mind to remember (and how as a culture we tend to forget more and more). The book follows Foer's entrance (and ultimate triumph) in a high-stakes memory championship. I highly recommend it!

The "continuous feedback loop" of information from our senses gets me to thinking Rashomon-style that no two people remember the same event in exactly the same way. As I am finishing the memoir I've been working on, I've realized that it is impossible to remember scenes from the past verbatim. How accurate is my memory? My collection of journals helps. Yet undoubtedly, the people I write about will probably say "that's not what happened" when they read the manuscript.

Proust teaches us that the act of remembering can provide brief flashes of insight into parts of ourselves that we don't usually tap into, parts of ourselves we didn't know existed in our conscious, slumbering state. And each memory changes over time, takes on new colors, new contours.

What we see, hear and smell over time adds to this subjective soup that we call memory and shapes our point of view.

I'm reminded of Before Sunset, one of my mother's favorite movies (partly for its scenes of Paris, partly for Ethan Hawke) and I put it on often because it soothes her. I love that scene in the beginning where Jessie--the bestselling author played by Ethan Hawke--is at the Shakespeare Bookstore in Paris during a Q&A session about his book. The first question is, "Do you consider the book to be autobiographical?" Jessie answers:

Isn't everything autobiographical? I mean, we all see the world from our own tiny keyhole. I always think of Thomas Wolfe--have you ever seen that little one-page "note to reader" in front of Look Homeward, Angel? Do you know what I'm  talking about? Anyway, he says how we are the sum of all the moments of our lives, that anybody who writes will use the clay of their lives, that you can't avoid that. I remember he says he can't imagine anything more autobiographical than Gulliver's Travels.

How can we connect if we are constantly having conversations with ourselves? "We'll always have Paris," goes the famous line. But our versions of Paris are as different as our DNA.

I think Proust believes that our memories are what it most beautiful about ourselves and that this solitude we all suffer is a small price to pay for the spectacular fireworks of what we experience when we go within.    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Bouts of Unexpected Sadness

On Sunday, I took in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia with a friend.  It's a play that celebrates, most of all, the intellectual hunt, the visceral search for truth, and the joys and sorrows of our insights into understanding ourselves and the world we live in.

I was so inspired, I went home buzzing with ideas and caught within the mealy mouth of the writing bug, ready to conquer the world. Yet the sight of my parents--whose health is declining--put a catch in my throat. I could see my father's angular shoulder blades jutting out from under his thin grey sweater. I could see my mother's glazed expression she gets when her meds kick in, or conversely, her loony antics and outbursts of agitation. Sometimes it feels like I'm living in a hospital. Three years ago, I moved in with my parents to help take care of them.

When I started Proust's fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, I expected a racy volume full of "decadent" scenes of sexual bravado. What I got was a heartbreaker. Marcel's belated grieving over his grandmother's death is the heart and soul of the volume. I rushed over these passages before they could register in my heart. Later on, in rereading them, I was emptied of all light, all hope, all beauty.

In my front row seat to my parents' decline, it's not comedy or mindless escapism I crave, but Proust's words. The prospect of losing my parents is like thinking of being shipwrecked and homesick for the rest of my life. I've always had an unusually close relationship with my parents. We're a pack of four, including our dog Phoebe. The only thing more cruel than having to watch my parents' decline would be to leave the earth before they did.

My father has a friend for whom Moby Dick is her solace, her bible, her I-Ching. Everyday, she takes it out and opens to any random passage, and this comforts her and gives her direction.

I have a feeling that this is what In Search of Lost Time will be like for me--my book of inspiration and introspection. My guidebook to the wilderness of life, of the human mind, of relationships.

As my father always says, as long as we are alive "there are no bad days." I would amend this to say, as long as I have Proust by my side there are no bad days in which some beauty or mystery or blessing can't be salvaged, however fleeting.

And in the meantime, onwards! 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Progress of Civilization

The progress of civilization enables each one of us to manifest unsuspected virtues or new vices, which make us either dearer or more unbearable to our friends. (from Sodom and Gomorrah)

Here Proust is referring to the telephone, though he might have been speaking of Facebook or Twitter. On the one hand, we are increasingly distracted by technology and the 24/7 nature of the information age. We text while crossing the street, missing the small things that make up our world: eye contact with the alluring stranger who passes us for the first and the last time of our lives, the sight of a gaggle of school girls in uniform, an elderly woman inching her way to the other side. We practice the release of TMI ("too much information") on a regular basis so that everyone on Facebook knows that we committed such and such transgression. It's hard not to blurt it all out on our blogs and Facebook pages. (I'm sure I've sunk many a ship with my own loose lips.) Where is the mystery? Where is communication as an art form, slowly dealt out card by card, instead of tipping our hand from the start? Where is the seduction that takes place at the beginning of both friendships and romantic entanglements?

On the other hand, I recently heard that a young father in Egypt has named his newborn "Facebook" in honor of the truly unsuspected virtue of the social network in the Egyptian revolution.

So with all of these new vices--the very things that isolate us in a non-stop stream of information that makes our immediate surroundings so much less vivid and robs us of pockets of silence--we are also better able to please our "friends" and unite in a wave of protest, crying, "Together, united, we'll never be defeated!"   

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Driving Lessons

Like a lot of people who grew up in New York, I found myself turning 40 without a driver's license. So for the last six weeks I've been taking Saturday morning classes with ten other sleepy students at a hole-in-the-wall driving school where we get to sit in simulators. Each simulator has a full dashboard complete with steering wheel, gear-switcher, accelerator and brake. As we watch the film at the front of the room, we signal and change lanes, stop at intersections, and remember IPDE (Identify, Predict, Decide, and Execute) in every situation we encounter on the road. We've driven through the driving snow and sheets of rain, we've driven down peaceful yet danger-ridden suburban California streets where kids on skateboards lurk in the shadows, ready to dart out at any time. We even had a session with distracting backseat drivers (fellow carpoolers) who chatted nonsense and then gave faulty, conflicting directions.

These films are from 1980. I can imagine them at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a performance piece. The cars are as long and flat and silver as sharks. The instructors are upbeat but authoritative, dead serious about safe driving. They wear suits in neutral tones with wide lapels. The voiceover praises us for breaking quickly and avoiding an accident. "Remember IPDE!" we are told, those four letters forming the skeleton key to becoming a good driver.

Every twenty minutes or so, our teacher pauses the film and walks up to the front of the classroom holding a venti cup of tea and gives us the straight dope. Don't sleep and drive. Stay two seconds behind the car in front of you. Did you see that woman dashing across the street? Another thing, always assume the other driver doesn't know what the hell he's doing.

I've had twelve hours of this, and now I've graduated to outside lessons. We'll see how it goes on Saturday morning in a real car in NYC traffic.

We had an amusing time during the mandatory five-hour talk given by a man who appeared completely loony. In his introduction, he told us he also taught firearms. Next came several crazy hours of a car wreck of a monologue. He was the tough-love sergeant you see in war movies. First on his agenda was a diatribe against "aggressive women drivers," with the assertion that if Hilary Clinton had been elected, the number of traffic accidents would have gone up. "I'm a fish in water," he commented at one point. "I keep on swimming."

The class concluded with a couple of old, snowy video tapes. The first one diagrammed how Princess Diana would have lived if she had worn a seatbelt. The next one addressed falling asleep at the wheel. Weeping parents help up photos of their dead children as they recounted the day Billy was mowed down by a sleep-deprived driver. Already apprehensive about driving, this video scared me silly. I only hope I can learn my lesson and someday steer an automobile with plenty of caution and Red Bull. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011


We can see nothing; then, all of a sudden, the exact name appears, and quite different from what we thought we could divine. It is not it that has come to us. No, I believe, rather, that, as we go on through life, we spend our time distancing ourselves from the zone where a name is distinct, and that it was by the exercise of my will and my attention, which enhanced the acuity of my inward gaze, that I had suddenly penetrated the semi-darkness and seen clearly. At all events, if there are transitions between forgetfulness and memory, these transitions are unconscious. For the intermediate names through which we pass, before finding the right name, are themselves false, and bring us no closer to it. (from Sodom and Gomorrah)

I've been forgetting a lot of names lately. Mostly those of actors. I couldn't think of Rip Torn's name for several days or, later on, Isabelle Adjani. Why not consult the IMDB, you might say. Of course, while attempting to retreive these names perfectly unsuitable syllables came to mind. It was like hitting a brick wall. Then, suddenly, the name appeared and, though it was as if the truth had finally shown itself, the name was totally foreign to the concept I had of it when I was stumbling in the dark.

My first fear is that, like my mother, I have early onset Alzheimer's. There is now a test that determines whether one has the disease or not. I don't think I'll take it. How would that information help me now?

Maybe it's my age. I remember talking with a Classics professor years ago who told me the story of a successful businessman who had retired and enrolled in Ancient Greek lessons. He was determined to blaze through his studies in a firestorm of glory just as he had built himself from the bottom up on Wall Street. However, he just could not commit the required declensions to memory and, instead of A's, he barely earned C's. There is a certain age past which it is close to impossible to become proficient in Ancient Greek or Latin, the professor concluded.

I hope that's not the case. Though I played hopscotch with different graduate programs through my twenties and early thirties, I still have a yen to really master Latin the way I never have. I even bought the first volume of Harry Potter in Latin but haven't sat down to decipher it yet.

There is a part of me that is elated not to be in graduate school anymore and to be able to enjoy books for the plot and the suspense and the characters instead of tearing them apart with scissors or, as that dreadful phrase goes, "unpacking their meaning."

I haven't written much this past month. It's been full of ups and downs with my parents and their health. Yet I'm committing to five blogs a month from now on instead of the usual three. Sodom and Gomorrah is already moving in more interesting directions than the overly starched Guermantes Way, and I hope there will be much to discuss--even if my mind is a sieve. But memory is a complex affair that Proust keeps returning to, telling us there as much to learn in forgetfulness as in remembering (and searching for) the past.