The contractor said, “I could get a permit and burn your brush pile if you’d like.”
We were tearing sheets of rotten plywood from the shed in preparation for installing new siding.
“Brush pile?” I said. “That’s more than a brush pile.”
He stared at the bristly hillock of branches and sticks, his expression suddenly blank. Covering several hundred square feet, it was an impressive assemblage, almost a decade’s worth of scavenging, a construct of weathered gray boughs now tightly interlocked and woven into a singular composition of haphazard randomness.
There was no need to elaborate. He saw a mess. I saw a metaphor.
A life is disorderly but no more than anything else. What we think of as a linear progression, birth to death with all the convoluted layers in between, is more a series of starts and stops, circuitous meanderings, excursions, diversions, deviations and setbacks, with the only guarantees being progressive erosion and a terminal exit. God, as they say, is in the details.
Details are what I’ve been rummaging through the past several days. Time for a freelance writer can be a long slow drift, waiting for phone calls that either never arrive or arrive post-deadline, which amounts to the same thing. Being tethered to a telephone however silent imposes almost insurmountable limits. Nor did it help that the weather outside was sunny and warm, the sky washed of clouds and the season’s first dandelions sprinkling a lawn turned green overnight. I wanted to feel dirt in my fingers, to lay out the garden and contemplate a harvest yet to come. Barred from the natural world by a self-imposed exile, I turned to scanning more of my old spiral-bound diaries, a process I feared would be laborious but actually wasn’t once I developed a system.
Thanks to a predisposition for making even the simplest task arduous and arcane, my system got off to a rocky start. The first order of business was to separate the spiral binder from the pages. There are probably a half-dozen ways to do so and I managed the absolute worst—a method which shall forever remain undisclosed. Suffice to say, the pages were removed, neatly stacked, and fed through the ScanSnap. Trial and error—mostly error—led me to a workflow of feeding one page at a time, readying another, and inserting it as the first slid onto the lower tray. Within that four-second process, bits and pieces of my life returned to me as if from a great distance over a road long forgotten.
The notebooks were in random order so that I skipped forward a few years only to loop around and find myself in a sort of prequel as if the calendar were no more than tides drawn by the pull of the moon. Ebb and flow. The disjointed chronology was dizzying in itself, but no more so than the volume of particulars that emerged. So much was there that I had discarded. So much restored.
Memory paints with a broad brush. The intricate details of our lives are layered indistinctible under an impressionistic rendering, an artist’s carefully manicured interpretation relieved of specifics. Such smoothing and blending is not erasure, for that implies willfulness; rather, our brain’s limited capacity to retain trivialities is an absolution. To forget is to forgive.
And yet as I scanned each page, snatching a paragraph here, a sentence there, my past flooded back with graphic thoroughness, or at least with an inclusivity tainted by my own biases. A large percentage of those biases appeared to be aggrieved, part of a greater war waged on the world at large and small, oftentimes within the minor realm of my family. “I never set out to write my life history,” I wrote, at once bitter at the amount of time spent chronicling a life, and perhaps in a halfhearted attempt to justify my observations when so many could be considered harmful. How many times I almost set fire to the notebooks cannot be numbered. I often imagined a bonfire burning bright, line by line of my life incinerated to ash, an immolation not of flesh but of word, thought and emotion. But not even in my most inebriated, wretched moments could I bring myself to do it.
The middle passage of the 1990s had not been kind to us, with a steady dissolution and ultimate sundering. Other notebooks would portray a different aspect of our story, and to be honest scattered throughout those thousand or so pages were moments of sheer bliss and discovery. I recognized myself but not as someone I would care to know, and yet an undercurrent of character developed that was both tormented and sardonic. After several sessions with state-mandated child psychologists I asked myself, and Lori, whose wisdom I cherished and even sometimes feared for its precision, “Who am I supposed to be?” Two pages later I announced, “Raising teenagers is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“We all become trapped in our own mazes,” I wrote, and if we eventually escaped that maze the breadcrumbs we left behind as markers are there for the reading, and worthy of preserving. Perhaps even worthy of another look, as I did while sorting, feeding, scanning and stacking each numberless entry.
By the time I finished my emotions were ragged. But I came away with the remembrance of how it felt to stand atop Wolf Mountain, how the haunting cry of a long-billed curlew grounded me to the wild places and gave me my freedom, how we as a family started and stopped and started again and came at last to this surprising juncture.
One last sentence caught my eye as I rebound the last notebook. “I have a place in this world,” I wrote, and it reminded me somehow of the brush pile, unsightly to some, a home for others. All those sticks. All those sentences. All that messy, unkempt, tangled, thorny, disheveled, disorderly, cluttered, chaotic, wonderfully unmanageable brush pile of a life.
Yo, Tom! Congrats on all your KPA writing awards! I was there - and they read your name a bunch of times. Glad to see the series on Bennett (?) did well.
Cheryl -- If I'd known you were going to be there, I would have driven down. Damn!
For readers who wonder what Cheryl's talking about, I won several awards from the Kansas Press Association: Two first place, two second place and two third place in the following categories—investigative story, series, business story, feature story and feature package. Earlier this year I was also the recipient of the Kansas News Enterprise Award for my series on Robert Bennett. The awards were nice, readers are better.
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