Second drafts of personal history
As readers of this newsletter know by now, I’ve been taking a deep dive into my own past, swimming through the 6 million-or-so words I’ve written in my daily journals since October 12, 1978. Right, it’s as if a T.Rex — check that, maybe just a water-loving spinosaurus, to keep my metaphor afloat — had been chronicling the days as the ice age descended. I am that dinosaur, noting the ice chunks and chill breezes of the late Cenozoic Era.
“Ou sont les neiges d’anton?” asked the poet Francois Vallon, in 1461, six hundred years before I got around to it. He was looking for a weather report on his past: Where (ou sont) are the snowflakes (les neiges) of yesteryear (d’anton). If the line seems at all familiar, it may be because Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, repeated it in a dour reference to a boy she’d known in her girlhood — as if she’d ever actually been young.
Of course, I know where my old snowflakes lie. I can dig them up from journal entries I made forty years ago, where my excitement, and my despair, went over the top and way too deep. I mean, how much did I have to worry about as a white boy spending grampa’s money on a lark, abroad?
It didn’t stop me, though. I was feeling everything.
“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde has one of his main characters say, in The Importance of Being Earnest. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” So when I come across a particularly gripping/embarrassing passage, I often feel the need to make a second draft of my personal history, with a drawing.
For instance, there’s this journal entry, from my first week in Paris, oh-so-long ago.
As my train rolled silently through Chantiers on the way to the Gare Versailles, I caught my first glimpses of equivalent French towns to the Connecticut village that raised me. French village squares align themselves around life’s necessities: bread, cheese, a fountain, and a cafe, providing opportunities for residents to gesture at and complain to one another. The 7–11, it’s not.
Or this squib, also from my early weeks in Paris, as I sampled life’s cruelties and ironies for the first time. I was a virgin in so many ways, but at least I paid attention, in my innocence.
From my journal:
For a guy burdened with luggage and questions, the Metro was a means of escape into other people’s lives. I studied the old hungry man who slept on the curving wooden benches in the Metro, directly beneath an ironic billboard.
The rat, sleeping under the guy’s feet, wasn’t there actually. I just wanted to give him some company.
I always feel free to reimagine scenes, where needed.
The journal record:
The young child had discovered his dominion over the weak. He chased the startled pigeons around the Jardin du Luxembourg, finally causing them to take flight for another grassy plot.
That brat had it coming.
One night, as darkness fell over the City of Light, I took the long hike up the Butte (small hill) Montmartre, following the beacons illuminating the Byzantine facade of Sacre Coeur. I was breathless upon entering the basilica, and it took time for my eyes to adjust to the dark inside. Which may account for this breathless, dark journal entry I recorded on a bench near some memorial candles:
I nearly stumbled into a worshipper, because her stout frame was wrapped in a black cloak, and her gray hair was drawn tightly beneath her matching kerchief. She sidestepped my headlong rush, and receded among the shadows of the stone cathedral; to me, she became a shadow of the mourning rituals of Christianity. I encountered her a second time in my slow walk through the darkness, watching her choose a devotional candle, after which she paused to look at the supplicating statue of Mary, whose marble surface had the radiance of living flesh in the yellow candlelight. The mourner impaled her candle stub on a spike, then slowly moved away, exiting below the illuminated clock face that hovered forty feet above the floor — a gleaming reminder of time’s passage for the prayerful, dying animals in the cathedral.
That woman is long dead, I presume. But I can still smell the candle wax from the sacrificial array.
Hey, William Faulkner, what do you think of that?
The journal says:
It was one of the many lessons a born-yesterday American boy will ingest by leaping into an ancient civilization. “The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner wrote, sprouting Spanish moss from his ears, “it isn’t even past.”