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Or consider those minimum-maintenance roads, where you sipped tinny Schlitz on sultry summer nights, talking big, spooling out the transitory ambitions of youth: dreamy dreams, these, more sail than ballast, which is why you needed the profanity. It’s easy to see why we pine for high school, even knowing we wouldn’t go back. Those last few years at home are the only times in our lives when we can float along on the mere vapors of expectation. Ambition is still largely uncoupled from performance, at least for the unsystematic. You learn, soon enough, that every achievement requires enormous effort, and that in the end, all that vain striving changes you. You grow accustomed to the remarkable good luck that flows from earnestness and work. You fall more deeply in love. Your children grow strong and straight and bright. You take credit. You grow cocky, then cautious, then almost diffident. All it takes is time, a hurt child or a sick spouse, joking with the folks in the chemo chairs, or some other shuffling of the deck.
So, for the moment, stay on the hood of that ’55 Ford. Lean back against its windshield and drift, wiper blade in the small of your back, fingers laced behind your head. Ride the beer buzz and grin at the dark. Listen to hogs flip self-feeder lids in the distance, or Procol Harem low on the radio, a puzzle. Station identification: “K-O-M-A, Oklahoma C-i-t-y!” Then a trade-school ad: “Can you smile? If you can smile, a proud future is yours in motel management.” And under it all is the low drone of irrigation motors, blue 409s, throaty and distant. These were true things, abstracted by starlight, now hindsight.
There are also places to avoid, which when near, force you to face the harm you’ve done, keep you rehearsing useless apologies.
But can we really apportion our histories so, and to what end? We may be able to pick out our constituent parts, but only as an exercise. Lives accumulate, but they’re more than a string of episodes, more than chronology, so you can’t really divide yourself, young from old, good from bad. You can’t skim off the hurt, the foolishness. In the end, every personal fact is wound around the same spinning armature, and there’s no unwinding it. It’s carried in your charge.
So you return occasionally with a camera, to sift memory for refinements, to render art from artifacts, and to see if the surviving facts support your story. It’s more than nostalgia. It’s a minor quest. But again, don’t we need the deconstruction of analysis to know the irreducible self, those parts of us that would be the same had we been born a Fifth Century Chinese or a 12th Century Zulu? If not, here’s a personal try, a stab in the dark: humor, generosity, a reverting inwardness, a talent for summary and honed resentments, probably nothing more. If more, then toss in faith in the loyalty of love. With these few holdings, you hang your sun, assemble a cosmology, pound ego into character. You build what you believe. Forget the rest. Forget cosmic luck, being born then and there. It matters, and doesn’t. Forget the prim knowing of the pious, all their spiritual vanity, all that vaporing on.
In the end, lives are about process. It’s not the clothes we wear, but that we wash them. It’s not what we see, but how. It’s looking slightly aside the dimmest stars to make them visible, a trick you learn as a kid, lying on a roof in the darkest dark, coyotes yip-yipping. We’re forced into a peripheral perception of ourselves, because that’s all that works. No one really sees what’s in the mirror, and we can’t go at these things with hammers. They’re fragile. It’s more like gathering the scattered beads of mercury from a shattered thermometer. All those fretful temperatures strewn across the kitchen floor, they can’t be grasped directly, so you coax them onto paper, this paper, with its woven words and scorched silver halides.