Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Poet's Memoir: Truth vs. Accuracy

The March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived today, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

Frank Bures’ short piece in the “Trend” section caught my eye first: “I Google Myself, Therefore I Am.” Before I started this blog (August 2007) I must admit I didn’t get the whole internet community thing. I thought only teenagers and lonely single people were into it, and I smugly thought, “it’s for people who don’t have a real life.”

And then I met Joshilyn Jackson at a writers conference and she encouraged me to create a blog in order to have a “presence” online. And that when my first book (what an assumption!) is accepted by a publisher, I should create a web site. Okay. Those are good marketing tools. But Bures gets to the heart of the matter:

I Google myself to see what kinds of waves my life is making in the world. Isn’t that why writers, artists, and other insecure egomaniacs obsess over the Amazon rankings of their books, the comments on their blogs, the hits on their Web sites?

Oh, my gosh. Are all writers and artists that insecure? I’m finding myself embarrassed by how much I identify with his words. I even put a hit counter on my blog so I'll know how many folks are reading it. And again I think, “but is this the real world?” Bures’ answer:

As society becomes more isolating and we have less contact with the lives of the people around us, the more we need the Internet to tell us what our communities used to: that our existence means something to someone else on this planet. What we used to see reflected back in the eyes of the people around us, we now look for on the computer screen…. That we are out there somewhere, and that somehow, it matters.

I know that for many, the artist and writer’s life is an isolated one. I struggle daily to spend several hours alone to work on my crafts, whether writing or painting icons. But I also crave interaction with my fellow humans. That’s one reason I value my critique groups and enjoy writing workshops. And of course, nothing replaces the human touch of my family and closest friends. But they’re not always there, and well, the Web is always only a touch away….

But it was Mark Doty’s article, “Bride in Beige,” that really got me excited. Mark is the author of seven poetry collections, but his article is about “A Poet’s Approach to Memoir.” This is timely for me as I’m going to Oxford tomorrow for the four day Creative Nonfiction Conference. I’ll be in manuscript critique workshops with Dinty Moore on Thursday (and he's reading from his memoir, Between Panic and Desire, at the Thacker Mountain Radio Show Thursday night!) and Kristen Iversen on Friday. Then the general conference sessions are on Saturday and Sunday. There will even be an opportunity on Saturday to pitch my nonfiction book ideas to agents and editors. Deep breath. But now, back to Doty’s piece.

Most creative nonfiction instructors harp on the importance of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You just can’t make stuff up. Well, you can, and they call that fiction. The shady ground in between is what got James Frey in so much trouble .

And just this past weekend at our monthly critique group gathering, one of our members was struggling with her memoir-in-progress, because there are areas she can’t remember clearly or is tempted to make more exciting, to spice it up, with a little…. well, fiction. I was saying you can’t do that. But listen to the poet, Mark Doty:

Memoirs operate under the sign of truth. Is this true of poetry? Yes and no….poems are after truth, seeking a kind of emotional veracity; they wan to get at essential stuff and will use whatever means necessary to do so. Similarly the poet’s memoir is after truth, while nonfiction based in journalism or even traditional fictional practice tends to be after accuracy.

There you have it. The journalists are after accuracy. The poets are after truth. I think there’s much to be learned by approaching creative nonfiction, and specifically the memoir, through the poet’s eyes:

Poets understand, of course, that you look into experience to see what you can find there, that there is always more to see and that you may actually be better off without a compelling story. What you’re writing is not about “what happened,” it’s about the experience of happening.

The experience of happening. This is so exciting for those of us who sometimes read someone else’s memoir, like Anne Lamott’s or Haven Kimmel’s, and think, “Oh, but my life isn’t that interesting.” But if we look at our lives through the poet’s eyes, we can write about the “experience of happening.”

But what does Doty say about the ethical responsibilities of the nonfiction writer?

This is not to suggest that memoir is a liar’s holiday, free of ethical obligation…. I want to suggest that beyond the personal ethics of memoir—and beyond the matter of accuracy, there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real.

The ethics of art. A higher calling? Maybe, but….

And here’s where making things up comes in: There is only a degree to which the narration of history can do the work of achieving something as dimensional as reality is. … Narration has a tendency to flatten out the depths of things…. “Making things up” is very imprecise. I mean by that phrase a host of things: eliding some moments; juxtaposing others because they resonate together or comment upon one another; stretching time out in certain instances; trying to look more deeply into a moment… reaching into the inner life of a dream.

I’m wondering what my instructors at the workshop this weekend will have to say about truth vs. accuracy in memoir-writing. I’m out of here at 6:30 in the morning for my drive down to Oxford…. Stay tuned for a report in a few days!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sophie's Choice and Orthodoxy Goes West

Today is our Goddaughter, Sophie’s 5th birthday. We marked the day with a big event in Sophie’s young life. Well, actually we did it yesterday. First we took Sophie to lunch at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Rafferty’s, for baby back ribs. The ribs were yummy, but the service was slow, which didn’t really matter since we were spending time with our Goddaughter. While we waited she and Father Basil played tic-tac-toe and we talked about important stuff. (Stuff too important for a blog post.)

And then we said goodbye to Father B and headed to Claire’s at Oak Court Mall. Sophie’s mom had told her she could get her ears pierced when she turned five. The big day was here. I had agreed to have mine (re)pierced with her, since I hadn’t worn earrings in about twenty five years and the holes had grown back. Here’s a cute video by two little girls who got theirs done at Claire’s. And here’s a video about how to take care of them afterwards. (Makes me glad I’m not the mother of the five-year-old at this point….)

When we got to Claire's, we watched a little girl and her European grandmother getting their ears pierced first. Well, the grandmother was getting one of hers re-pierced, as it had grown back. She was an elegant woman. Beautifully dressed. Her American granddaughter, about eight years old, was in blue jeans and a ponytail. There was a brief discussion between the woman doing the piercing and the grandmother about legal guardianship and "rights" to have her minor granddaughter's ears pierced, and then they proceeded without a hitch.

When they were finished, I told Sophie I’d go first and we giggled and held hands and talked about being scared. We picked out our piercing studs (the initial earrings they would place in our ears that we would wear for 10 days or until the ears healed). Sophie chose diamonds, of course. (She's already the Queen of Bling.) I chose white gold balls. The lady marked my ears and placed the “gun” on my left ear and pow! It was over. Only a slight twinge of pain. Sophie watched with big eyes. After finishing my other ear, it was Sophie’s turn. Suddenly she got cold feet, so I picked her up and held her in my lap as the lady pinned her hair back and marked her ears with a purple marker. But when she started crying, I said, “Sophie, this is your choice. If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.”
“Can we come back tomorrow?” she asked.
“No, if you don’t want to do this today, you’ll have to wait until you’re older.”
“Can we go shopping for clothes instead?”
This was tricky. I knew my answer would be pivotal. So I took a deep breath and said, “No. If you go home without your new earrings, you’ll be sad. It doesn’t hurt. Let’s just do it!”
A beautiful black woman and her teenage daughter were watching, and the mother said to Sophie, “how old are you?”
Sophie held up five fingers.
“Oh. You don’t want to be six years old and be at school and not have your ears pierced, do you?”
She shook her head no and then told the lady to go ahead. She proceeded with one ear. Sophie looked surprised that it didn’t hurt. Then the other ear. Suddenly she looked up at me and a smile came across her face. She looked at the lady and said, “thank you!”

We both picked out some earrings to change into once the ten-day healing period was over. While we were waiting to pay, we watched a Hispanic family bring a baby in for her piercing. It looked like the mother, father, aunts, uncles, and older siblings were all there. Kinda’ reminded me of a baptism. The baby girl, who couldn’t have been over six months old, was held in her mother’s arms for the procedure, and let out a big cry when each ear was pierced. The family cheered and took pictures. Sophie looked at me and said, “the baby wasn’t brave, was she? Did she really want to have her ears pierced?”

I tried to explain that in some cultures this was something that was just decided by the parents. Sophie’s parents are from Syria and Iraq, and I don’t really know how young they pierce ears in those countries. But in the course of less than an hour’s time, we watched as Europeans, blacks, Hispanics, whites and middle-easterners crowded the small space at Claire’s Boutique in Memphis, Tennessee for this universal ritual. And Sophie and I left together, hand-in-hand, with big smiles on our faces. Feeling quite beautiful.

All that happened on Sunday afternoon. Now let’s back up to Friday night for a photo essay. A group of talented folks at my church, St. John Orthodox in Memphis, put on an original musical, “Orthodoxy Goes West,” for our annual dinner theater. It was a fund-raiser. We decorated the fellowship hall and tables, cooked homemade chili, donated long-necks and homemade desserts for a dessert auction at the end of the night, and everyone dressed in Western attire.

The play was based on the musical “Oklahoma.” It was about a young mouse named Barsanuphius, but his nickname was Bubba. His brother back in the old country had been the star in last year’s dinner theater production, “Don’t It Make Ya Feel Small, Y’all?”

Anyway, Bubba comes into town looking for his lost faith… for a religion he could embrace. He’s introduced to Orthodoxy by the cast of characters who sing and dance their way into our hearts, and Bubba’s. The play included appearances by “cradle” Orthodox from Greek and Arab ancestry, as well as “converts” from Protestant beginnings.

A good time was had by all, as you can see from these photos. It’s hard to tell the cast from the audience, and I’ll be adding some of these to my permanent photo collection of “hats” on the left side of my blog.

And here’s my favorite boots of the night. I could only wear one cowboy boot, since I still have my boot-cast on my (healing) left foot. But it was a start.
So… just scroll down to keep looking at pictures. And come back in a few days for a report on the Yoknapatawpha Writing Group’s monthly critique meeting… this time at Doug’s lake house just outside of Tupelo, Mississippi…. And hopefully another book review. Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 22, 2008

She Can't Possibly Be Eighty, Because...

. . . well, because that would mean that I’m pushing sixty. Or, fifty-seven… but what’s all this ado about age, anyway? This is really about mothers. And daughters. And birthdays.

I went to Jackson (Mississippi) yesterday to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday. I was going to give her a party, but she asked me not to. And when I got to her assisted living home early Wednesday afternoon, the staff had just celebrated her birthday at lunch with balloons and everything. But she didn’t remember. Alzheimer’s is like that, even in the early stages.

But she was happy to see me. And she loved the blouses and slippers. And the chocolates that my friend, Sue, gave her. Sue drove me down so I could keep my foot propped up in the backseat since it still tends to swell when it’s not elevated.

First we drove around our old neighborhood and showed Sue (and Mom) the house we built when I was seven. I think she recognized it. And the school I went to from second through sixth grades. We drove up and down the streets of our old neighborhood. I pointed out the houses where our friends lived. The McCreights. The Sumralls. She remembered their names.

Then we took her to Starbucks for lattes, which she loved. Here she is picking out coffee cake from the pastry counter. And watching the cute little kids in their private pre-school uniforms who came in with their mommies.

This is me and mom sharing some chocolate chip coffee cake.

Later we picked up some wine and shared a toast with her at her apartment and said goodbye.

On our drive back to Memphis, Sue was asking me about my childhood, and we talked about mothers and daughters. Recently a friend told me that she was really close to her grandparents because her parents were too much into their own drama to pay attention to her. This is kind of like what Kim Sunee says in her book, Trail of Crumbs (which I’ll be reviewing here soon)… about her adoptive mother, being too self-absorbed to care about her. Kim, too, was drawn to her grandparents, who seemed to want to spend time with her. My kids could probably say the same about me. God forgive me.
Maybe it’s just the nature of the generations. While mothers are too busy trying to find themselves, grandmothers bond with their children. I don’t remember my mother being self-absorbed. I just don’t remember us being close. But I was really close to her mother, Mamaw. So when I got home today I got out some photo albums and looked at pictures from my childhood… looking for clues.

I found this one, taken on Christmas morning, 1959. God, my mother was beautiful. She was 31. I’ve got on my new red silk nightgown and robe that I got for Christmas that year. My brother Mike and even my Dad have on their jammies. And then there’s Mom, dressed to the nines and looking like a movie-star, first thing on Christmas morning.

She’s still beautiful. And now she takes me around her assisted living home and introduces me to everyone as her “little girl.” And she smiles her movie-star smile.

I just kiss her and tell her I love her.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Monday, February 18, 2008

More Windows to Heaven

This weekend Dimitry Shkolnik, Russian iconographer who resides in California, installed six new icon panels on the walls at our parish, St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis. What a joy it was to participate with many fellow parishioners on Saturday, preparing the walls, measuring, cutting, hanging, pressing out the extra glue, smoothing out air bubbles, and at the end of the day, standing back in awe of these beautiful works of liturgical art.

The next day, several of us continued to work with Dimitri, painting the hematite red borders around the new icon panels. They’re not quite finished, as you can see in some of these photos of festal icons. Borders around the two larger icon panels, containing four saints each, were completed.

Dimitry’s work is stunning. Very traditional, Byzantine Orthodox in style. The colors are rich, even festive. These panels are done in acrylics, although Dimitry also works in egg tempera.
Icons are sometimes called “windows to heaven,” because they open for us a mystical passageway carved out by the lives of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us. We venerate the saints (or Christ or His Mother) whose images are drawn, but we don’t worship the image.

The icons that were installed this weekend include:

Nativity of the Theotokos (Mother of God)
Presentation of the Theotokos
Dormition of the Theotokos
Elevation of the Cross

Venerable Olympia the New Martyr
Saint Mary Magdalen
Saint Raphael of Brooklyn
Saint Elizabeth

Saint Pantelemon
Apostle Andrew
Saint Spyridon
Saint John of Damascus

My photographs are kind of dark… as the lighting in the back of the nave isn’t great, and photos using a flash often wash out the colors. But at least you can get an idea of the process of installing the icon panels, which were painted on large pieces of canvas at Dimitry’s studio in California and then brought to Memphis for the installation.

Working together as fellow parishioners to help Dimitry was a great joy and honor to everyone involved. He’ll be back in about a year with many more icons to fill the “white space” in the altar area, and to do some decorative painting to help tie each section together. Dimitry is also trained as an architect, and is a graduate of Holy Trinity Monastery, so he brings technical and spiritual training to his work as an iconographer.

Our first icons at Saint John were installed about fifteen years ago, by a different iconographer. With each addition of these “windows to heaven” our temple becomes a more complete image of the heavenly one.
Thanks so much, Dimitry (at right with me at the end of the day on Sunday) for sharing your gift with us. We'll see you in a year, God willing.

Here's Dimitry with our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, discussing plans for the icons in the altar area.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thacker Mountain Radio Show

Thursday was a wonderful day. On the lighter side, my left foot got out in the sunshine a bit (sans cast-boot) after a pedicure and polish with my favorite color, “Caffeinated.” Ahhh…. Here are those toes on my patio. Big toe is looking pretty straight (and yeah, the scar is healing) and feeling better every day, thank God.

Our Valentine’s outing to Oxford was delightful. The Thacker Mountain Radio Show at Off Square Books was great fun. My husband had a good time catching up with Square Books Owner (and the Mayor of Oxford) Richard Howorth. They were fraternity brothers at Ole Miss, almost 40 years ago, and hadn’t seen each other since 1970. Here’s a nice article about Square Books in Vanity Fair …and a picture of Richard and his wife, Lisa, at their bookstore (left).
The show was a combination of musical guests, Giant Bear and the Jake Leg Stompers, and a third group whose name I’m sorry to say I didn’t get. Some of them were from Memphis, but I hadn’t heard them play before. Funkabilly and bluegrass and… fun. Giant Bear did a pretty good rendition of “Jolene.” (at right)

But the main reason for our trip was to meet Kim SunĂ©e and hear her read from her book, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home. (Kim was adopted from South Korea when she was three.) I’m reading it now and will do a full review later.

She and Sara Roahen, author of Gumbo Tales, took the stage together, commenting on each other’s books, life in New Orleans, and the place food plays in our life journeys. It was the most interesting and creative book reading I’ve ever attended. Afterwards we bought autographed books, then joined one of my writing group buddies, Patti Trippeer, for dinner at Boure before driving back to Memphis. Talk about a small world… during dinner I learned that Patti and a high school friend of mine from Jackson (MS) are cousins! I’ve known A.B. (Clark) Nichols (right) since ninth grade, and I only met Patti last summer. The South really is just one big small town!

Oh, and I forgot to share my Valentine's Day roses from my sweet husband. He put them in the vase that my dear friend, Urania, gave us for our anniversary last summer. It was one of her original wedding gifts. Every year on their anniversary, Andy (her husband) would bring her roses and put them in this same vase. I think of Urania and Andy every time I get roses for the vase now.

That’s all for today, folks…. tune in next week for more book reviews and photos of iconographer, Dimitri Shkolnik, installing new icons at our church this weekend! Here are some of his smaller icons, on an iconostasis at another church. These are truly holy images.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine’s Day Wisdom from Saint John Chrysostom and skirt! Magazine: Love, Forgiveness and Trail of Crumbs

Today is the 37th Valentine’s Day my husband and I have spent together as a married couple. Prior to that we celebrated two Valentine’s Days as teenagers in love. It’s hasn’t been all champagne and roses (though there have been plenty of both) but I think we’re entering our “golden years” …. This morning when I went to our icon corner to say my morning prayers, I first read this quote from today’s Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar (from the Orthodox Calendar Company):

When husband and wife are united in marriage, they no longer seem like something earthly, but rather like the image of God Himself.Saint John Chrysostom

And then I read about one of the saints commemorated on February 14: Damian the New. He was a martyr, from sixteenth-century Arahova. We visited his beautiful little mountain town (Arahova) in Greece this past October, in the Parnassus Mountains, near Delphi. In fact, we saw the first snow of the season (on the mountains behind us in this picture) and also went to Vespers at the nearby Monastery of Ossios Loukas. You can read more about this visit in my blog post of October 24, here.

And now for a smooth segue from saints to skirts… the February issue of skirt! Magazine has two thoughtful essays. The first one that caught my attention was “Loving Unlovable People,” by Patti Digh. It’s a story of learning to forgive an “inventive and dazzling teacher” who was sent to prison in 2002 for “hundreds of counts of first degree statutory sexual offense, sexual activity with students by a school teacher, and first degree kidnapping of two male students.”

As Digh says, “What happens to a life?” As she grieves the loss of this person who had a positive impact on her young life, she considers whether or not to reach out to him by writing him a letter. Her confusion, grief and compassion touched me:

I don’t condone what Mr. Snow did and am repelled by his actions….I wish his life had taken such a different trajectory, he is so talented. But it went in this direction, and now Mr. Snow is Inmate #0787172. But he is still under there somewhere, the Mr. Snow I knew. Isn’t he? I’m not sure what writing to Mr. Snow will mean for either one of us, but I do know that in reaching out to him and extending love to him, I have found an important part of myself. He is providing me a glimpse into a world I would otherwise not know; I am a link to the world out here. Together we are navigating the difficult part of loving others.

What a brave love story. There’s a wonderful man at my church who has ministered to prisoners for many years. He has brought a number of those prisoners to St. John when they were released, and one has become a member. I’ve learned a lot about love from this gentle soul who has given his life reaching out to people like Mr. Snow… believing, like Patti Digh, that they are “still under there somewhere.”

The second story in the February issue of skirt! that struck a chord with me was Dorothy Cresswell’s “Bridge of Forgiveness.” It’s not available online at the skirt! web site, but if you see a copy of the February issue in a newsstand, you might want to pick it up to read this. It’s about a divorced husband and wife coming together to celebrate one of their grandchildren’s birthdays. An event at which they shared tears, apologies, forgiveness and hugs. Cresswell reflects on her x-husband at the end of the party:

He was truly a good man who had a drinking problem and lost everything he loved…. Today I realize that I love that man; that hurting, healing, loving man. I do not want to live with him. I know that would never work now. But I do love that tender soul who loves my children and grandchildren. I love that we have lived to apologize. I love that there is another soul on this planet who remembers what my daughter looked like at one year old.

If you don’t have any Kleenex nearby, just use your shirt sleeve… I did.

I’ll close with a teaser for my next post: in lieu of chocolate and flowers, my husband is taking me to Oxford (Mississippi) tonight for the Thacker Mountain Radio Show. It was my request. The music and atmosphere will be fun (it’s at Off Square Books) but I especially want to meet Kim Sunee and hear her read from her book, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home. Her blog is here. Kim’s a Korean adoptee, like my two younger “children” (now 25 and 26). I’ve already emailed her about meeting her tonight and getting autographed copies of her book for my kids and me. Maybe I’ll have some photos and comments from the evening to post in a couple of days.

I’ll close on a lighter note. This is the Valentine’s Day card I sent to my childhood friend, Jan, who lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Jan was one of the first of my women-friends to ever say to me, “put your big girl panties on and deal with it.” I can take that from Jan… we’ve known each other since we were eight and nine years old. She was Maid of Honor in my wedding (when we were a big, grown up 18 and 19 years old!) We’ve both lived through some pretty dysfunctional family stuff (our families were “best friend families” in the 50s and 60s) and have nursed mothers with Alzheimer’s. So, much love to Jan, and all my family and friends on this day of love and forgiveness. And Happy Feast Day to Saint Damian the New!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Toe Story 3 and Between Panic and Desire

(If you missed the beginning of the saga of the toe, you can catch up by clicking on any of the links in this paragraph.) Yesterday I made my fourth visit to Campbell Clinic in five weeks. The surgery was on January 8. The second cast was two weeks later. A third cast (at my request, due to discomfort) was applied a week later. And finally, x-rays revealed what I hoped and prayed, the surgery seems to have been successful. The toe is straight. The bunion is gone. And now I’m out of that *#@%!* cast forever.

Instead, I get to wear this lovely number for three weeks. It’s a removable boot-cast, and I don’t even have to sleep in it. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for that foot to feel the cool, soft sheets of my bed last night. (This was after a long soaky bath and peeling off layers and layers of gross dead skin. Ugh.)

Learning to walk with the boot is another challenge, as it’s taller than any shoe I have to wear on the right foot for balance, so I look like hop-along as I saunter through the house. (I haven’t ventured out yet.) I find myself anxiously looking about for my crutches and then remember, oh, yeah, I don’t need them anymore. So…. Stay tuned for a follow-up post in three weeks, when I (hopefully) get to lose the boot and learn to walk on my own.

One of the perks of recovering from surgery is the “down time” for reading and writing. Three new essays are safely in the tender loving hands (or computers) of my writers critique group, which meets this weekend. And another essay has been sent to Dinty Moore, the instructor for one of the workshops I’ll be taking at the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford February 28-March 2. I thought it would be helpful to get to know Dinty’s style a little bit before the conference, so I just read his latest book of essays, Between Panic and Desire. It’s a nice balance for me, for several reasons:

He’s a man, and he writes from a very masculine perspective. He’s only 4 years younger than me, so we grew up during the same era. But he grew up in the north, while I was trying to bloom in the south. And he tripped (literally) through the 60s and 70s with lots of political fervor and activist energy, while I was oblivious to most of the issues that didn’t affect my struggle for popularity or my plans for the weekend.

My father was a delegate (from Mississippi) to the Republican National Convention in 1960, so that tells you something about the political atmosphere in which I grew up. And while I didn’t even begin to think for myself about politics until recent years (I’ve been a bit distracted) I do remember being disappointed that my dad didn’t run for political office at the time, when he was encouraged to by lots of folks. I just thought I would have liked the limelight. To be the daughter of a senator or representative. Thank God we don’t always get what we wish for!

Back to Dinty Moore’s book. These quotes, from his introduction, give a good preview of coming things, especially the things he lost:

An entire generation lived through the untimely death of JFK (lost a good father), the resignation of Tricky Dick (lost a dysfunctional dad), and the turmoil of Vietnam (lost our Uncle Sam). We’ve all spent years, or maybe decades, feeling fatherless, cynical, unmoored. …All that we know about Watergate and the subsequent cover-up toddles into the voting booth with us thirty years later; our experience with Vietnam—whether we fought, protested, or stood on the side-lines paralyzed by confusion—shapes our vision of every new military adventure the Washington yahoos dream up; and the tragedy of 9/11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania field down the road from where I live, will color wide swatches of our world for who knows how long.

Moore will talk about his own dad later in the book. I’ve read lots of memoirs where women talk about their mothers, but only a few that tell the son-father story, and it’s fascinating. I would have quit reading the book early on if Moore had come across preachy or arrogant, but his humility and humanness drew me in:

So, given that I don’t see clearly—that in fact, my vision is even more distorted than most (more on that later) —it makes some odd sense that I would write a memoir. I was there, after all; I misperceived it with my own eyes. Or maybe this isn’t a memoir. Perhaps it is a generational autobiography—a chronicle of those events most responsible for twisting our collective psyche over the past forty or so years, especially for those of us who remember where we were on the day Kennedy died. The first one.

I was in seventh grade at Chastain Junior High School in Jackson, Mississippi. And I was much too young and self-absorbed to understand why some people were crying and getting dismissed to go home from school early when I was worried about cheerleader tryouts and the upcoming seventh grade dance. And yes, I was a blonde. But I was also a kid, whose parents lived through the Great Depression and were trying to provide my brother and me with the Good Life.

So, Moore’s book isn’t exactly a walk down memory lane for me, but rather an example of unconventional creative nonfiction writing. Some of the chapters read a bit like prose poetry. Others, like “Son of Mr. Green Jeans, a Meditation of Missing Fathers,” is an alphabetical listing of people and events that affected Moore’s formative years. His paranoia comes to life in the Chapter 9: “Number Nine” —a plethora of conspiracy theories developed around the numbers 9 and 11.

And if you’re wondering about the title of the book, Panic and Desire are actually the names of two small towns in Pennsylvania. (This reminded me of Joshilyn Jackson’s book, Between, Georgia, which is named after a town in Georgia.) Dinty drove into each town, trying to find out why they were named “Panic” and “Desire,” but no one seemed to know, not even at the libraries. So he drove to the halfway point between the two towns, got out of his car, and:

… it is here that I finally realize I don’t want the actual answer, the truth of where those towns found their names. The mystery is sweeter. I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire. Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.

Near the end of the book, he begins to let go of some of his panic:

When you stop beating your head against the wall, your head miraculously feels better. I had a father—not Mr. Green Jeans, not Mr. Nixon—but a real one, and much of what has been difficult in my life connects directly to his drinking and his absence. (If not, there’s a string of therapists spread across the country who owe me refunds.) But if my demons and disappointments are attributable to Buddy, as everyone called him, then much of what’s gone right must be attributable to him as well. You can’t just give the man half credit. I’ll thank my Mom here, too. Nobody’s perfect. The point is this: These days I’m inclined to value the entirety, each piece of it. I’m starting to appreciate that my losses, let-downs, and wasted years were precisely what kicked me down the road like a bent tin can, until I ended right here, at this very spot, which is a good place to be if for no other reason that the fact that I made it. So life wasn’t perfect…. “So it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator repeats throughout “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and for the moment I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better piece of wisdom.

I knew he would be a Vonnegut fan. But I didn’t know he would come full circle with his “Final Chapter”:

This idea—value the crap in your life because that’s what got you here, and if you’re still here, well that’s a good thing—works for the larger picture as well. Leaders die, presidents lie, nations clash, and terrorist madmen frighten us out of our wits. Hazy-dazy dreamers from the Summer of Love somehow morph into flabby baby boomers whose glasses are half-filled with either dentures or martinis… History kicks us like a bent can down the road of panic and desire, and so we go, misperceiving wildly, onward to the next disaster.

As I return to reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith for my next chapter review (reviews of earlier chapters are here, here, and here) I can’t help but notice some similarities in Harris and Moore’s political views. But I approach The End of Faith with a bit of dread because, well, because I’m finding it dreadfully lacking in humor (which abounds in Moore’s writing) and more significantly, in hope. And now that I’m finally footloose (from the cast) I’m just not wanting anything to weigh me down right now. Watching the Beatles' music being celebrated on the Grammy’s Sunday night, I realized that they fell extremely short with their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” You also need Faith and Hope. But yes, the greatest of these is Love. Check back on Valentine’s Day for more on that!