Over the weekend, I fiddled and fussed in my mind. I looked over previous false starts for ideas. And as I chewed my Calvinist cud, I realized I really didn't want to write about the "terrorist" attacks that claimed more than 125 lives in Paris last Friday and left people around the world edgy and uncertain and scrambling to put the bombings to their own personal and often political uses. Everything about the bombings and shootings was vastly inconclusive and I was and remain unwilling to shape the events with conclusions that fall apart as soon as they are adduced. Being confused may be unpleasant, but it is a burden worth learning to bear.
No, I didn't want to write about Paris.
And, because of the pall the events of Paris seemed to cast, I also didn't want to write some whiny plaint about some knee-jerk social inequity or unjust fuck-up... you know, the usual column-focus fodder. That felt too inconsequential as well.
Somehow, I wanted something that had a smoothness to it. Smoothness and, if only imagined, a certainty and warmth. A hot pad for a bad back. Something with a conclusion.
Being the age that I am, I did what old people do and high-tailed it into memory. Memories have periods on the sentences, or so it seems. On examination, memories reveal themselves as persistently inaccurate and self-serving, but now and then, hugging the teddy bear of the past, feeling its comfort and certainty ... well, it may be false, but it has a truth that may only last a while, but "a while" is better than nothing, better than Paris, better than sorrow, better than fear, better than uncertainty.
No, I didn't want to write about Paris, but the newspaper did and so, looking at the newspaper this morning, I see the rolling greenswards of Paris and not a word of what I submitted. It was a longshot anyway and I am not especially offended. How can memory contend with current and horrendous events. News outlets are nothing if not conformist so my diverging rivulet was simply outvoted.
What I wrote is below. It is unfocused and a bit vapid and yet I am willing to live with the premise and possibility. I may wish it were more focused and had more of a point, but it doesn't ... except perhaps that "it's not Paris" and it's somehow important that what is not Paris, what is unfocused and frivolous, has an importance as well. A serious bit of unseriousness.
There are no periods on sentences, but I'm not likely to admit that any time soon:
When I was a kid, my single-mom mother would read me stories. There was no television and there was no Internet. There were tales to be heard on the radio, but somehow that was never the same as when I snuggled up next to her on the couch as she turned the pages and transported me to strange and imaginative places. I suppose I was six or seven or eight.
As far as I could figure out, there were no boundaries to what she picked out for an evening's pre-bedtime adventure. She read me the uncensored version of "Grimms' Fairy Tales." There was "The Wind in the Willows" and "Stuart Little" and the action-packed tales from Robert Louis Stevenson. There were Rudyard Kipling and e.e. cummings. She also read me the whole of "Frankenstein" and I learned that it was not the "monster" that petrified movie-goers who was the villain; rather, it was the doctor who created him.
On my occasional visits to my father's house, he too might read to me. "Oliver Twist" made me cry. But his made-up stories of "Googlamont and the White Knight" were always my favorites. I suspect he robbed Greek and Roman mythology blind as he stitched together tales of derring-do. Googlamont and the White Knight were good guys who thwarted evil and Googlamont himself had a magical ring that allowed him, in a dangerous pinch, to say "Whisk! Whisk! Whisk!" and then disappear. How kool [sic] was that?!
It took some years to realize I too could make up stories and from time to time I would give it a whirl. Stories allowed you to go anywhere, imagine anything. A story-teller is the god of his universe and, in one way or another, who doesn't want to be god?
Twenty-five years after my early adventures in listening to stories, I was painting lockers at a school in New York. It was a good gig for a house painter -- tedious, perhaps, but with the potential to put a lot of spaghetti on the table. People passed to and fro in the hallways where I worked, but mostly, like a lot of break-a-sweat-workers, I was invisible.
Or at least I thought I was invisible until one day, I sensed that someone was staring at me. I turned around and there, thumb planted firmly in her mouth, stood a little girl of five or six. Something about me seemed to mesmerize her and the only thing I could think of was my paint-spattered clothing. How could anyone be that messy and get away with it?
Finally, to break the ice, I said, "I hope you'll be careful sucking your thumb."
She took her thumb out long enough to ask, "Why?"
"Because," I replied, "I wouldn't want you to swallow it."
"C'mon!" she said, not wishing to be considered a dummy.
"Well." I said, warming to my fairy tale, "there have been kids who swallowed their thumbs."
"C'mon!" she said again, but I could tell she was feeling a little less certain. Adults wield the power and confect the truth in life -- any kid knows that.
"You know what happens if someone swallows their thumb," I said, laying my paint brush aside for a moment. "If you swallow your thumb you might accidentally swallow your hand. And if you swallow your hand, you might swallow your arm. And if you swallow your arm, you might just end up swallowing your whole body. How could your parents find you if you did that?"
Her face took on the look of anyone who was seriously considering the implications and possibilities laid before them. She wasn't frightened, but this was serious.
After a couple of minutes, I realized I had to get back to work, so I gently led her away from the land of the ouroboros, the ancient mythological snake that eats its own tail. We parted, I think, as chums.
Later, it occurred to me that the tale might be a story worth writing. So I wrote it and dutifully sent it out to possible publishers, most of whom sent the one- or two-line rejection notes that writers got used to in that time.
But one day, a plump business-sized envelope arrived. Inside was a three-page, single-spaced, type-written rejection of what I had thought was a whimsical tale of a disappearing child whose parents had to jump through hoops in order to get her back.
The letter was full of outrage. It positively shrieked at me. How could I possibly imagine this was suitable fare for a child?! The object of children's stories was not to wound children; it was to reassure them that the universe was a friendly, warming place. The letter went on and on with this oh-so-sensitive outlook from a political-correcticrat [sic].
It was a torrent of psychobabble and yet too a warning to any like me who might tell a tale in a universe where they were god: Don't create a heaven if you are unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for hell.
That said, is there anything more exciting than a tall tale?
Whisk! Whisk! Whisk!