Subtle and Cataclysmic

What I am thinking about now —or I should say what my thoughts begin to coalesce around at night when the dishes are halfway done and phone calls halfway returned and kids more than halfway asleep and I have almost almost this feeling of space opening up to think—is how things keep circling back—like the beginning and end of Finnegan's Wake, a commodius vicus of recirculation, how I keep stumbling into set pieces from past roles I used to play. Like right now, for example, in my vagrant day trying to find a place to work, with the library closed, a day happily interrupted by an hour’s brunch with my beloved professor from Dartmouth and her husband (also a professor there, whose beguilingly difficult book Unredeemed Rhetoric I wrestled with in class last May), I hop from coffee shop to coffee shop drinking too many decaf lattes, big sizes, so I can stay put longer. I leave when it seems like I am beginning to bump up against the limits of how much time a venti latte buys you…and just now I walked out of some random midtown Starbucks and ran smack into Blaggards, an Irish Bar we played at once when we began Dimestore Scenario part II, Alex and me and three people I don’t see or speak to anymore. One refuses to speak to us, that is, and the other two have faded away from us or we’ve faded away from them, and either way even the “We should get together emails” have vanished into the distant past, phone numbers left on old phones that don't get transferred.

And here I am now in Bryant Park, and I remember the group drinks with the group I worked with briefly at my brother-in-law’s company way back in the early New York years. But layered on top of that is Bryant Park where two years ago I brought Wally to a yoga class one spring morning. Or before that, Bryant Park, where Kara and I first came to watch an outdoor movie, maybe On the Waterfront, something with Brando I think, years ago, with that glee and exhilaration that we lived in the city now where things like this were just every day things, movies outside in the summer and noise and commotion and people with so many places to be. In between there's Bryant Park where seven years ago I bought a pass to the Carousel that still has many unused punches that for some reason makes me sad. Carousels are something you grow out of faster than you want to let on. You ride them after they’re no longer fun so you end up putting on a performance for those watching you, smiling and waving each time you catch sight of your family smiling at you from the sidelines, blurry and ephemeral, and what the camera doesn’t catch is your face just after you’ve passed them by, the way the smile loses its spirit, becomes stiff, your eyes vacant.

But inevitably just as I am beginning to let these images swirl up and see how they might converge or overlap or string together, one or the other of miniature creatures that share our apartment appears before me, blinking and seeming to have emerged from the violet forest of a LateSummer Night’s Dream, and I am yanked out of that near-reverie, yanked into a bed too small for three people, with too many elbows, but a happiness too, undeniably a cozy happiness about it, too.

Five years ago just at this time in early September my father visited to finally help us clear out the apartment that had been for two years a museum. The pressure had been building for months because of the paintings on the wall and the long delayed unveiling and the various family tensions but I remember feeling this huge release at that time after the hot August days in Virginia, the brief strange in-between time in New York, and the pure mountain escape in New Hampshire where every day we had to pack up and move. Then the visit with Charlie, my little cousin who was on the verge of leaving childhood, a year older than my oldest niece is now. I keep making these comparisons that become non-sensical, seeming at first to trace a kind of logical map that reveals the strangeness of things but quickly starts to lose meaning, as anyone at any given age can be linked to someone else without unpacking what that signifies: Petra is the age now that Wally was then; Wally is the age that Charlie was when I visited his country house in Coventry with my band, when we poured into my uncle Billy’s over-the-garage studio and sang Ozone Fantasy and got chills listening to Alex’s wavering guitar. Charlie was out in the woods building a fort and spying on the neighbors across the street. He was seven, Wally's age now. Yeah, okay; time passes; so what?

What I feel, in that in-between about to be stolen moment in the evenings, is that there was a sense of hopefulness at that time five years ago that for some reason I can't grasp now. That's what I'm trying to figure out. Except when I go back and read it, I don't know if I actually felt that then, or if I only think I felt it then, looking back. That's when I start to get lost in a feedback loop of sorts, which is maybe what happens the older you get, feedback loop of cascading decades, overlapping childhoods, kids who are now adults, adults who think they are kids, my father’s letter written to an older version of me for my 5th grade Time Capsule that I opened earlier that year (2010) that said something along the lines of: “Of course as I'm writing I am imagining you now, 10 year old Rachel.” I think of that when I imagine telling some older version of Wally about Wally now and about these summer days in the garden waiting and hoping the Swiss chard will magically appear, or the seeds we grew one winter in his room and how it was like we could almost hear them growing at night. I imagine telling Wally then about Wally now but of course only envision him as the Wally I know now. In some microscopically tiny way these circling perambulations feel like how Cathy Davidson describes changes in the field in English; they are “both subtle and cataclysmic.” Does she mean they can happen both ways? I mean the same changes could be described or understood either way. 

Yesterday I found a story called “A Time Before CBGB’s” in a literary journal published in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1999. The journal was sent to me by an ex-boyfriend because he was published in it, Vol 21. You’re in it, the ex-boyfriend had assured me in a hand-written letter, back in those final days of their existence. But I was in it in only the most insultingly inconsequential way.“And it turns out this ex-grrlfriend, Rachel, actually introduced David to Emily, the turning point of this story.” He reversed the name of my band then with the name of the song about him that he ruined at the only show we ever played together. He changed other insignificant details. None of it has any meaning for me now, not even nostalgia. I brought it down to the laundry-room book giveaway, and left it there, flies buzzing around. It was more the Pre-CBGB's title that struck me, in this post-CBGB's era. Which brings me to the streets of New York, where I am now. Where I have been...lost? Like in the Natalie Merchant song?

And I have determined now that it is one thing to walk around New York and constantly reverberate back to other times I walked there in other lives, my band life or my granddaughter life, but in the past year I’d say dramatically there is a shift now where the rate of change of the landscape has radically accelerated, where it just feels that everything is closing, public libraries being sold, luxury buildings shooting up some kind of blight, empty and soulless, blinding reflecting glass blocking every view. And because of this, as I walk, my heart sinks constantly, at the little bar coffee shops closing their doors, at the Thai place near us that literally overnight disappeared, at Rodeo with its peanut shells on the floor on 3rd ave where I went on my 30th birthday and many times with Sugar Bear, or Osso Bucco on University, so many times with Grandma and Big Syd and the rest of the Old Guard that stood for so long, or even the junky shoe places on Madison or the antiquarian bookstore where I never stepped foot, just everything that is being torn down and replaced with chains and cheap manicures. The rate of change now, the sweeping transformation of Manhattan into a Long Island Strip Mall, it’s staggering. I have to steal myself but I realized this summer I can’t react so intensely to capitalism’s scorched earth march to the sea; if anything, such responsiveness will only render me powerless to contribute to whatever quiet gathering forces might one day rise up to defy it.

I found this note, too about "a lost little dollie" and I don’t know if I was writing down something Wally said a few years ago, or Eliana, my niece, said longer ago, or was it me writing as a child on a slip of paper that survived in the archives of this apartment?

Five years ago I was holding onto the summer with tank tops and sangria, and I felt somehow energized because I’d written enough that summer to feel that I was at least tracing out a shaky, uneven path for my future self to follow and improve upon. The following September I discovered that I lived in a seaside town. By the one after that I was pregnant again, getting ready to take the GRE’s. Two years ago I was so nervous at this time to let Wally know he wouldn't, after all the talk and preparations about it, all my commitment to it and plans for change, be going to our neighborhood school after all. He was about to start Kindergarten, and he didn't know enough then to be nervous. We were river people then, but we’re less so now. I’m going deeper into the interior, by this time next year, I’ll be done with this program at Fordham.

At that moment when I wrote in a flash, drinking the failed sangria, happy to eat in the dark quiet livingroom with Alex and my dad, I was only a few years away from my transient Brooklyn band life that always felt like a road trip, I had only recently begun to venture into the land of parenting and still felt legitimately new to it (one year into SAHM-land). And now, even as I feel in my grad classes like an imposter mom posing as a student and outside Wally's school or on the playground as an imposter student posing as a mom, as I read Bachelard saying "the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home" even I publish a second edition of a book on how to test your dog, I am in more of a settled place in some unavoidable way; no longer able to kid myself that tomorrow I'll be on the road, in Chicago or Detroit.

It's so much harder for me in writing sometimes to capture what felt graspable in music easily. So why am I pursuing writing now? Why have I all but given up writing songs? I'm so far behind everyone who spent all these years reading and writing about poststructuralist theory when I was listening to the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs. No, we never had anyone to slam doors or fold chairs—we did that ourselves, hauling our amps, spilling battery acid, thinking one day all this would make a great story if we could ever stop riding long enough to tell it. We were the ones who had to take things apart and carry them away.


  1. I like the new look. Saw Judy today, she asked about you.

  2. Thanks Bearette. Got some complaints about the other look - the "dyanamic" option. I feel like blogger has not kept up with other blog software, but at the same time I don't want to necessarily switch because then it would be like starting brand new with these 5 years of posts just kind of lost...left behind (even though they'd be archived, you know what I mean...something discontinuous about it). I went back to the old running style of posts and I do prefer it. Judy! Something funny about that I'll have to tell you!

  3. Rachel! Thanks so much for visiting my blog. And now I'm visiting with you, and what a nice visit I've had. I do think we are going to become good bloggy friends. I can see big parts of myself in your writing. And yes, it's a minor (major?) emergency when the library closes and there's no place to write. In fact, it happened to me just yesterday. P.S. I love this line, makes me jealous that I didn't write it myself: "We were the ones who had to take things apart and carry them away."
    Take care, and big, big writerly hugs to you.

  4. Thank you Cinthia. What a great, encouraging message to get home to after such a long day. I will go see how your writing adventures continue--soon. For now, what's sure to be an interrupted attempt to write at least a little bit myself, tonight.


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