Thursday, May 14, 2009

Triumph of the past

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well

–  Henry David Thoreau

‘To be above the fray,’ Pym wrote to himself on a separate sheet of paper. ‘A writer is king. He should look down with love upon his subject, even when the subject is himself.’ – John LeCarre, A Perfect Spy

The moment of completion was almost surreal. The last few days of August 1986 slipping one by one through the scanner’s paper port and sliding out in the same physical form, but transformed as well into an alternate reality of ones and zeros. The story (thus far) of my life, and a project that had taken so very long, came to a close. I was finished.

I reassembled the spiral notebook and added it to the others in the big plastic tub, and hauled the tub downstairs, wrapped it in heavy plastic and placed it on the shelf beside another pair of tubs. I then copied the hard drive to a LaCie portable drive, ran a backup to Time Machine and cloned that drive as well. Another copy of the archived journals went on a small flash drive I keep in my pocket. Five copies. That should be enough.

In all, 9,781 pages written between July 1973 to the present. I’ve no idea how many words that translates into, but some probably shouldn’t have been written and others are missing that should have been. It’s the memoirist’s constant dilemma, what to add and what to subtract, all subject to constraints and limitations most of which are time-specific. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

And it’s all there, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, gunplay, violence, lust, childbirth, love, romance, hate, depression, spilled blood and other body fluids, religion lost and found and lost again, philosophy, ruminations on every aspect of human life, farflung travels, travails, music, literature, the slow steady decrepitude of age, exhilarating triumphs, abject rejections and failures, passions stirred and cooled, fly-fishing, the love of moving waters, police chases, interactions with spirits and ghosts, death, madness, raising teenagers (closely related to the former), alcoholism (ditto), art, photography, education in a wealth of subjects but mostly the school of hard knocks, strategies and plans some of which went down in flame and others to rousing success, blizzards, tornadoes, hailstorms, ice storms, floods, politics, wars, fatwas, dreams and desires, rabbits, birds, deserts, mountains, jungles, Mayan ruins, abandoned farmhouses, Chacoan culture and astro-archaeological symbolism, genealogies, hunting and cold October mornings where my breath hung in the air like fog, rattlesnakes, lizards, midnights and dawns and dusks that lasted for eons, a lifelong search for a quality pen, the rise of computer technology and the Internet, births and deaths, Alzheimer’s disease and the erasure of memory, loss and remembrance, forgetfulness, strife, struggles, terrors, dissolution, rejuvenation and, as they say, so much more.

If that weren’t enough, interspersed throughout those thousands of pages were love notes from my wife, drawings from my boys, report cards, nastygrams from teachers, news clips from various endeavors I found myself wedded to, letters from relatives, organizations and governing bodies, most of the latter from the city of Broomfield, Colo., for my work involving open space and the preservation of 450 acres of wild lands, service tickets from burglaries I’d covered or other notable calls I’d made during a 26-year career at Denver Burglar Alarm (including one where I’d walked into a warehouse whose air was toxic from an ammonia leak only to stagger out with blood pouring from both nostrils, weak-kneed and dizzy, half-dead), poems, advertisements I’d found sexy or unique, cartoons, witticisms and quotes.

The process of digitizing was an emotional minefield, and my walk through that unsettled terrain both dangerous and disturbing. “One can have too much of oneself,” I told Lori after a particularly wrenching batch of papers. And yet there was nothing to do but continue, to go on with the uncertain end in sight, in theory if nothing else, notebook after notebook, years and dates wildly skewed, a hither and yon approach to personal history. And then the last notebook at the bottom of the tub, almost forlorn, almost an orphan, almost done. 

And then done, and surprised to find myself with nothing left to do. Nothing, that is, except to add to what had been written. 

Near the end, I had begun to wonder if there would be any inferences I could make, any insights or thoughts to merit the weeks of scanning, or even the years of writing; something, in other words, that that would give meaning to my magnum opus. That would make it worthwhile. As serendipity would have it, the final entry was about us returning from a trip to New Mexico, always a homecoming that left me torn between two worlds, that of Colorado and my wife and children and career, and that of my youth. And yet this last trip was different. I’d left with a feeling of having lost something, that some irrevocable bridge had been crossed, and with that crossing an unconditional surrender, and perhaps even acceptance. 

The past was no more, I wrote. From now on, my life would be lived in the present or the future, tenses that know no backward glances, no farewells.

And then I reversed course, as if understanding on some subliminal level that the past is the only language a diarist knows.

On Aug. 4, 1986, I wrote: “But my past will always triumph at the end, because I, unlike almost all other people, have left behind my memories in this written form. I have put down in ink the thoughts, emotions, actions and fantasies that make me what I am. I leave them to my sons, most of all, and perhaps to my wife if I die earlier than I plan. I leave them also to myself, to relive as I see fit. A legacy to us all. I have no money, so this must be my endowment. I am certain it will be more precious than gold.”

Maybe, maybe not. Once we relinquish our past we lose control of it. But it’s there if they want it. It’s all there. 


Anonymous said...

And now you have gone and done such a dangerous posting such an intriguing narration of the process of transcribing your life to paper and various electronic formats.
From time to time I like to interview people (non-famous types) for no reason other than to talk with them and get their take. Perhaps I will ask you to comply with such a request someday. Any interest to do so on my part is your own fault.
Also, the new lens would be...?

Tom Parker said...

MWC -- The lens would be a Nikon 70-300 VR. Sharp as a tack for the most part, though for news work it's not the best. A little too slow and the auto focus could be faster, but that comes with a $1900 price tag for the better lens. I get to play with one in a few months and then we'll see if I hock my soul.
I would certainly be open to an interview--you name the time, we'll do it.
You live in New Mexico, right?

Carol said...

I loved your paragraph where you distilled 9,781 pages into a paragraph. Wow, it's a TERRIFIC paragraph! I'm always impressed with your written work, as well as your artist's eye, Tom.
I've been going through some of my own past journaling recently. It was fun to relive for a while, then I tucked it away and turned again toward Spring 2009.