After Mary Ruefle, After Joe Brainard
I remember hearing that poetry was supposed to bust you open so you could take a good hard look at what’s inside you. I remember not knowing if I had ever felt that.
I remember sitting by a silent lake under a summer moon and hearing my cousin Willa read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver and feeling busted open, but in a good way, like my heart was touching Willa’s and the lake’s and the sky’s, too.
I remember (later) reading “Wild Geese” to Willa while they got a goose tattooed on their hip in a basement in Copenhagen. I almost got one, too, but then I recalled that they had said that that poem saved them, so I didn’t get a tattoo at all.
I remember (much later) that Willa got a dog and named it Goose and I realized that poetry keeps on saving us.
I remember saving everything. Receipts, train tickets, lottery stubs, dried leaves and flowers, photo booth records, sticky note reminders from my freshman year roommate.
I remember never having the things I saved when I needed them. They were always in my drawer at home or in a storage closet twenty miles away.
I remember writing everything down. I remember writing everything down and thinking that it was silly and that barely any of it would matter when I dug out my old journals in ten years and reread them. I remember rereading them (later) and wishing I’d written more.
I remember reading the poem “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken because my friend gave it to me and then thinking about it for three days in a row. I remember writing lines from it in my notebook, on Post-Its to stick on my wall, in a letter I wrote to that friend on her birthday. I remember for my birthday she gave me a whole Siken collection, but I have still only ever read that one poem.
I remember feeling this great pressure to create. That whatever I made had to be really good — that it had to be genius, magic, inspired, every time. I remember this crippled me into a state of being afraid to create anything.
I remember getting over that. At least momentarily.
I remember paying attention. Lots and lots of attention. To the smell of snow, the curl of my sister’s hair in the late summer heat, and the way my mind moved faster than my eyes when I read something I loved.
I remember the first time I heard a bird’s wings flapping. I’d heard bird songs every morning from the patio of my parents’ house, but I’d never heard their wings flap. It’s peculiar. When it’s a really big bird, it almost sounds like it never learned how to fly.
I remember the moon. So much of the moon.
I remember that my sister asks me at least once a year what my earliest memory is. I do not know, I have never known, but because she continues to ask me, I have formulated a false earliest memory. In it, I am crawling toward the wood-burning fireplace in my parent’s first home across the shag carpet that never existed.
I remember swimming in the ocean with my grandfather during a rainstorm. It was our first time in the ocean together since he had had cancer. His throat was red raw from radiation but he told me to go underwater and listen to the rain fall onto the ocean’s surface. I did, and it was so eerily beautiful that it made me cry, and then there was so much saltwater everywhere.
I remember knowing home by the scent on the air, like how a river smells when the snow first melts.
I remember when our house was the only one on our street. Slowly, houses were built on the street, our kingdom shrinking every year. I remember I was sad because I couldn’t see the sunset from my bedroom window anymore. My dad was sad because they built one on our sledding hill.
I remember breaking my tailbone on that sledding hill. My dad carried me to the car and held my hand as we drove to the hospital, the whole time cursing that godforsaken sledding hill.
I remember being so young that I thought all writers were smart, sane, kind, and the most exceptional and upstanding human beings. And then I read On Writing by Stephen King, and realized that was not the case. I remember being mostly bummed, but also a little relieved.
I remember that before they built all the houses in my neighborhood, we used to have to herd cows back up into the hills. The cows would wake my dad in the middle of the night, heavy hooves padding into the soft grass of our backyard, and he’d wake my sister and me and tell us to put on our mud-boots. All of our neighbors and their dogs would gather on our back porch, headlamps illuminating sleepy eyes. We’d spread out and shake handbells at the cows, slowly pushing them up the streets, trying our best to avoid cow patties underfoot.
I remember that my dad would bring our golden retriever, Eli, and make sure each cow got back through the gate. Now Eli is blind and senile and barks at everything. When he barks at a parked car or a restless pile of leaves, my dad sometimes sighs, “That dog was a damn good cow herder.”
I remember that when I was very small, I was confused about the streetlights. I remember thinking that the moon did not need any help.
I remember wanting to write all of the memories of my family into one place to keep them safe.
I remember (later) realizing that my family remembers out loud, in noisy living rooms, on dance floors, in the morning mist across a still lake. It is not safe, but it is alive.
I remember that my old boyfriend taught me to fly fish and he was more patient with me than I had ever been with anyone in my life. I remember searching for the magic that Maclean wrote about. I remember finding it when the wind stopped, and the water cleared, and you could see the glint of the trout dancing.
I remember one time we were hiking to a fishing hole and we passed a sign that read No Hunting. The boyfriend asked if I thought fishing counted as hunting. I said that I didn’t think so, but I didn’t know why. I know why now. It’s the dancing.
I remember (later) being frustrated because I could see all the fish, but I couldn’t catch any of them. Try to cast more softly, he said. Try further upstream of the fish. Let’s try a different fly, a different hole. Maybe pretend that you’re not trying to catch them.
I remember that life is sometimes catching, but life is also a hell of a lot of casting.
I remember having an existential crisis that I wasn’t a writer because all I could write about was myself and isn’t that just glorified journaling?
I remember getting over that, too.
I remember reading a piece by the poet Mary Ruefle called “I Remember, I Remember.” In it she wrote: “‘remember’ means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”
I remember playing pond hockey on our town rink in the winter with the boys under the moonlight and loving it, but mostly because I kept thinking, “this is the stuff stories are made of.”
I remember writing a story about the pond hockey during my freshman year of college. It was good. It was the stuff stories were made of.
I remember going to a reading with my best friend with two women who wrote about the West. I remember thinking that I was the West, at least a little bit. There were no seats open when we arrived, so we sat on the carpet in the front with our legs crossed, balancing our notebooks on our knees. After the reading was over, my friend leaned over and whispered, “What if when we grow up, we grow into writers?”
I remember learning that Joe Brainard wrote a book called I Remember. I remember wondering, incredulously, how someone could write an entire book about their memories.
I remember (later) wondering how we could stop ourselves from writing an entire library about them.
I remember going to my first funeral and watching the relatives of the deceased speak and thinking that I could probably do a better job.
I remember telling my family on the car ride home that when our grandfather dies, I call speaking at his funeral because I am both the favorite and the most literate. I am constantly writing and revising his eulogy in my head.
I remember learning about rebirth. In swimming pools, in oceans, while skinny dipping.
I remember reading once that love is the thing that pulls us forward into life and backwards into death at the same time.
I remember learning that paying attention is the same thing as love.
I remember catching my first ever fish on the fly rod — a stunning, glossy rainbow trout, and promptly crying and declaring it to be the most magical fish in the world. And then my boyfriend reminded me that I had actually caught a tiny ugly stupid bait fish last summer. And I remembered that we remember what we want to remember.