I (like to) believe that in the year 2002, when I started to write my first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, I approached English, my second language, as a system that, through minor detonations of syntax, could be restructured to accommodate my preoccupations. Constraining the use of conjunctions to contort sentences? Worked. Blanking parentheticals after writing them (no seas curiosa Jessica) and then trying to write about their potential content to dramatize blanks in memory? Did not. Relying on chance to retrofit associations into a mostly blank memory of my time at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Perhaps.
At my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I belonged to a volunteer group known as the apostolic group. Every Saturday we visited the old and the infirm at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. I don’t remember much about my time there besides a long hallway, benches, baskets with bread. Why the impulse to write about what’s mostly a blank? A cynic (like me) might contend that, since the hospice experience fits into the coming of age narrative (boy visits the old and the infirm, hands them bread and milk, realizes the world contains unspeakable suffering, etc.), I am, in retrospect, assigning great significance to my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The contention of the cynic (still me) faces complications. Since back then I’d wanted to become a Jesuit priest, those visits to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin were obvious manifestations of that impulse to become a Jesuit priest, an impulse that to this day provides a dangerous type of solace, incidentally, because if you persist in seeing yourself as the Jesuit priest boy who cared for the old and the infirm, you are prone to overlook the almost nothing you are doing for others now.
How to write about mostly blanks? Of course I could have retrofitted so-called telling details, scents, quirks of character, sequences out of the Conflict-Action-Resolution machine, but because the rest of my life already contained so much machine crap (dayjobs, ads, diaper dialogues), and because I believed literature’s sole purpose was to not be machine crap, I attempted alternatives.
How about if I open three books at random, I thought, jot down whatever I find compelling in those pages, and see if what I jot down yields any associations that I can outstretch along the long hallway of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Not everything in chance is chance, John Cage said. One must learn to ask the right question: what are the three books that come to mind when I think of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? The answer came quickly: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The End of Story by Lydia Davis. The first two came to mind because of their religious associations (the cover of my edition of The Book of Disquiet contains a man in agony, though later someone pointed out the man is just a goalie failing to catch a soccer ball). The End of The Story came to mind because to me it’s a performance of how forgetting the contours of the loved one does not diminish the intensity one feels for the loved one.
According to my notes, on March 3rd, 2012, I completed the first cycle of opening each of these three books at random. The next day I completed three more. Only the first two cycles yielded immediate reactions. The reactions to the passages below are from 2012, the reactions to my reactions from 2016.
(1) From The Book of Psalms: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, god.
Reaction: What did the elderly think of us? Were they really waiting for us on that long hallway? Or were they always there in the afternoons? Where else would they go? None of them had their own room.
Reaction to reaction: The muteness of god many of us members of the apostolic group would experience years later, the muteness of the elderly over the years since I couldn’t remember anything they’d said to me, the white noise of the train in The Silence by Ingmar Bergman — all of these might have played a role in wondering what the elderly thought of us. I remembered an immense room we weren’t supposed to enter or didn’t want to enter but did, an empty room with tall ceilings and rows of beds where those who were too sick to walk to the long hallway remained.
(2) From The Book of Disquiet: Most people are other people.
Reaction: Did I wonder who the elderly were as I am doing now? Who were they when they were young? Did they also spend their lives in pursuit of something they didn’t want?
Reaction to reaction: We were probably too enamored with our role as saviors of the old and the infirm to wonder who they were, although it isn’t farfetched to imagine many of us did ask them who they used to be, or perhaps they told us without us having to ask them, given we did spend hours sitting next to them on the benches along the long hallway.
(3) From End of the Story: When I returned he said very little to me and kept turning away from me, and because he kept turning away from me, I was frightened and couldn’t sleep.
Reaction: Perhaps there’s an elderly man along the long hallway who, because he kept turning away from us, frightened us?
Reaction to reaction: I can see now why I might have found this passage about turning away compelling. It’s easier to invent someone who’s turning away from you because you don’t have to imagine a face. I also associated this turning away with the men in “The Subway” by George Tooker, although in that painting the men are not turning away but staring in hiding. To imagine the old and the infirm turning away from me felt like the correct representation of them. No matter how often I’ve tried to dismiss the almost blank memory of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, the feeling that every Saturday we abandoned the old and the infirm has not subsided. This pious retrospective, the cynic (you know who) might add, is useless. Except perhaps to create the illusion you’re a good person. I don’t disagree. Fiction isn’t meant to be useful though. These are just my attempts at remembering my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin.
The rest of the cycles did not yield enough variations in the material. Seek his presence always, The Book of Psalms said, for instance, but I already knew the answer to the reaction I’d jotted down (and yet was god’s presence to be found in that long hallway?). Asleep, I was even more helpless against them, Lydia Davis wrote, and yes, I was helpless against the memory of old and the infirm, whether I was asleep or awake, but how to represent this helplessness without overdramatizing the minute impact of this helplessness?
Perhaps I did not ask the right question. By focusing on books that linked too closely to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, I wasn’t likely to unearth new material. For other sections of The Revolutionaries Try Again, I had already tried to focus on books that had no relationship to my content in the hopes that this juxtaposition (the streets of Guayaquil + interviews with John Cage, for instance) would inject new language into content I was too familiar with. But I wasn’t after new material. I was after an atmosphere in which to think about the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Since I had already decided not to invent what I couldn’t remember, the exercise of chance might have created an atmosphere in which to obsess about what I could remember, and it was this narrowing of obsession that (I like to believe) yielded the first series of sentences I would later call “performance of an impulse,” a type of sentence that eschews narration (for the most part) but creates dramatic tension by obsessing on the impulse behind the sentence. Here, then, is the performance of the impulse to remember the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín, which appears in chapter XIII of The Revolutionaries Try Again:
The long hallway where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group, Leopoldo thinks, the long hallway like a passageway inside cloisters or convents where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group every Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00, the long hallway with its hollowed benches alongside its walls where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group to hand them sugar bread and milk, where the apostolic group performed cheerfulness and chattiness for the old and the infirm, the long hallway that’s probably empty at night just as it is empty for Leopoldo tonight despite all those Saturdays he’d spent there when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, all those Saturdays he spent in that long hallway at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín trying to cheer up the old and the infirm who’d been forsaken by their families or who had no families or who had nowhere else to go, who had toiled in menial jobs the entirety of their lives just like the masses of people Leopoldo will encounter inside the bus on his way to Julio’s party tonight — did you even ask the old and the infirm about their jobs, Leopoldo? what could you have possibly said to them to cheer them up? did you actually cheer them up or were you simply a reminder to them that god’s blessings were elsewhere like they’ve always been? — whose last days were spent along a sunless hallway that smelled like the eucalyptus and menthol ointments they rubbed on their chests, which must have reminded them of the Merthiolate their mothers would swab on their scraped elbows and knees, whose last evenings were spent on donated hospital beds inside rooms with unreasonably high ceilings (why did the Jesuits build those rooms with such high ceilings? so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?), inside rooms where Leopoldo and Antonio would stroll among the donated hospital beds with their bread baskets just in case they missed someone on the hallway, just in case someone couldn’t get out of bed but still wanted a sugar bun (what did the Jesuits think this exposure to the suffering of the old and the infirm would do to a band of scrawny fifteen year olds? did the Jesuits think that it would change their lives? that they would grow up to be stalwarts against suffering and injustice instead of growing up to be just like everyone else except every now and then they feel guilty about the suffering of the old and the infirm yet at the same time feel superior to everyone else because they were such good Samaritans then?), the long hallway where the faces and names of the old and the infirm continue to slip from him, year after year one more conversation or gesture or emotion vanishing from that long hallway like a punishment, although if you ask him about it Leopoldo will tell you that he’s not fifteen anymore and does not believe in punishments handed down from a god who’s in any case too busy not existing just as Leopoldo’s too busy not existing or barely existing in that long hallway in the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Last winter, I wore the same snow boots every time I left my house for almost seven months. Minnesota, in the grip of a historically severe winter, was shellacked in several feet of snow from November to April—the kind of snow that doesn’t melt, but rather petrifies, growing yellow with the urine of dogs and drunks and sprouting a crust of cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. The kind of snow that requires not just snow boots, but a certain kind of Lutheran forbearance, to endure. I had finished graduate school the previous spring and was staying in the Midwest and trying to write, but mostly failing. Instead of writing, I was watching television. Sometimes I took breaks from the television to Google Reporting neighbors for not shoveling sidewalks—Minneapolis. For weeks on end I passed the same puddle of frozen vomit on the sidewalk, walking to the co-op in my neighborhood to buy hothouse vegetables and peaches of a baseball’s firmness that would never soften, flown in from some place where they’ve never heard of microwavable socks and only use rock salt for the making of ice cream.
I was, you might say, in a bad way.
In April, I went out to San Francisco for five days, my first real vacation in several years. I flew to the west coast to visit a few friends, with the idea in the back of my head that if I liked it, I’d think about making a move. Let me pause here to say that I am not sure what it is in my past that has convinced me I’m a levelheaded and methodical person, not prone to following impulse. It’s one of the bigger of my self-delusions. I should have guessed what would happen when I got to California—I didn’t think about money or employment or the kind of support system I might have if I moved to a state after spending less than a week there. I didn’t make a budget or research apartment rentals or neighborhoods. I just walked out of the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport and thought, without hesitation, Yes. By the time my friend arrived in a ‘94 Toyota Corolla with a sheet of Plexiglass welded over the top (a reveler had stomped through her sunroof after the Giants won the World Series), I was deep in the kind of mental acrobatics necessary to consider lifting up my life and resettling it, 2,000 miles away.
If there’s ever a time in your life to read early Joan Didion, it’s when you’re young and thoroughly disenchanted with a place. As it happens, I brought Slouching Towards Bethlehem with me on my trip to California, and I read “Goodbye to All That” on the flight. The essay—which is a good deal about New York, but a greater deal about how it feels to become so thoroughly sick of the circumstances of your life that you lose all ability to imagine something better, something easier, any change at all—did not make any lasting impression on me as I crossed the continent. I had a deep appreciation of certain sentences, but that was all. I didn’t yet recognize myself in Didion’s rueful description of her own younger self; I was too caught up in the excitement of a trip and long-missed friends and warm(ish) weather. It was only later, when I had handed my heart over to fog and tiers of cheerfully mismatched houses and the dumplings at a certain restaurant not far from the ocean, and was back in my cold and spare Midwestern apartment, that Didion’s prose began to seem like a beacon.
It’s funny how, if you’re a reader of any degree, you sometimes come across the exact right text at the exact right time. It has happened for me once or twice before—Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation at a moment when I could not understand why no place seemed to feel like home any longer; Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story in the middle of a breakup that wouldn’t take. Of all the books I could have picked up for my San Francisco trip (the unread story collection I was meant to review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the perpetually half-read Madame Bovary), I chose Bethlehem on a kind of premonition, seeing it on the shelf in a neighbor’s apartment. Wasn’t Didion Californian? was all the thought I gave it. As easily as that, I had a thing I hadn’t known I needed. There Didion was in my ear, telling the story of how New York had ended for her, and showing me, with the gentle brutality of a certain kind of mother, how Minneapolis had ended for me as well.
For the next few months, Didion’s images lingered: gold silk curtains, the scent of crab boil, a cockroach on the tiled floor of a bar during the moon landing. I thought of those scenes as I packed my books and linens into boxes. I thought of how I would think about the Midwest, once I had gotten out of it.
I loved Minneapolis, at first, in the way Didion describes loving New York:
I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.
I knew that mirage. I encountered it first when I arrived in the Minnesota, on a crisp and clear late summer day (the kind I know, now, that there are only three or four of per year), and saw my new neighborhood, with its rows of cottages and little bungalows all shivering when the train passed through. I loved my house, my walk to campus, the old grain elevator overlooking the park on the corner and the generally bygone feel of the whole region. In winter I loved watching children ice skate and the sound of snow plows late at night passing my bedroom window. Later, when I moved to a seedier part of town, I loved that too: the dive bars and the buckled sidewalks and the charm of my 1930s apartment with its old Murphy bed and clawfoot tub.
Didion writes that she is not sure of the moment New York began to sour for her. I can say almost certainly that only my first year in the Midwest was unqualifiedly good, untouched by the long, slow decline that characterized the later seasons. There were bright moments always: I spent weekends in idyllic cabins and made pickles and played bocce near city lakes. I, too, had historic experiences in bars—I watched the 2008 election results come in in a bar on Lyndale Avenue, watched young people flood out into the streets and felt for a moment that the world was significant and somehow more real than it had been only minutes before. I didn’t cry in laundromats and I avoided parties almost as a rule, but for a long time, like Didion, I “cherished the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing.” I suppose the solitude ought to have been a sign.
And slowly, it became one. People I cared about began to move away from the Midwest, moved on to New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—places I visited and found intoxicating in their pace and vibrancy. People in those cities didn’t watch as much television or read as many books; they were really living life! Meanwhile the intolerable Minnesota winters grew even more intolerable, and the summers somehow worse, brutally hot and plagued with unspeakable numbers of insects (and the particularly Midwestern pressure to always be enjoying the summer). I wrote to friends in other cities and began to find Minneapolis’s charm slipping, its provincial face showing. I could no longer write, Come out, and we’ll go to the state fair. I didn’t want to go to the fair. A mirage vanishes, is the thing; the way you imagine a place and the story you tell yourself about your life there slowly give way to the drudgery of everyday perception.
In July, my final month in Minnesota, it was so humid that mushrooms began growing in a corner of my bathroom, and none of the doors of my apartment would open or shut properly, they were so bloated with the moisture in the air. I came home one oppressive afternoon and found two men drunk on Listerine passed out on the front lawn. I saw someone on the bus using needle-nosed pliers to remove his nostril hair. None of it was out of the ordinary, but my view of it was. Minneapolis hadn’t changed, but the ugliness had become all I saw of the city.
It’s an act of great ego to write an echo of someone else’s work—or maybe it’s the humblest act of all. Didion herself was writing an echo, of Robert Graves’s autobiography on the topic of his postwar “bitter leave-taking of England,” where he had “ceased to care what anyone thought about [him].” Didion’s material feels both particular and universal because of this fact of tribute—no one could have written the piece but her, except that someone already did. She leaves this fact to the reader to know or uncover. Does that omission mean a reader should compare (or can’t avoid comparing) the parallel pieces? To me, the act of unacknowledged echoing suggests both equivalence and abasement: I am the equal; I will never be the equal. I’ve taken the coward’s way out by writing about Didion directly, here. If I were braver—and oh, if I were braver!—I would have let the reference go unmentioned.
I’ll end true to form. See how Didion begins her final paragraph: “it was three years ago [my husband] told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” There’s an abruptness here—there’s the barest suggestion of that false hope, that you can escape what hounds you by running away fast enough, or cleverly enough, or suddenly enough. Never mind what comes next; never mind what a little research will actually tell us about Didion’s later years. Never mind all that. Instead, look at the now. There is a complex power to this type of ending, this fleeting perpetuity. Now: I am writing this in a café not far from Dolores Park, in San Francisco. Now: I’ve lived in California for two months. The wonder of everything isn’t lost on me yet; a palm tree, for example, is a very good thing. As a friend explained, “It means you’re somewhere new.” I did do one brave thing. I’m somewhere new.