The Stuff of Dreams

I hate moving.   First, there are the books. I don’t know how many, a few thousand, I guess. To me, a writer and English teacher, the quantity does not strike me as anything really totally outrageous, but it’s enough that movers give me an unenthusiastic stare when we do the walk through for the bid. “Are all these going?” I say, “Yep,” and spare them the story of my life, the interests, the hobbies, the career moves, the failed career moves, the fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams and desires that these books represent.

Next, there are the files: the marks-o-lotted boxes of correspondence, galleys, contracts, reviews, drafts of old works, drafts of abandoned—no, don’t say abandoned—essays, poems, and books. I should stop, before I embarrass myself fully, but I need to mention the essays from graduate school, undergrad school, even high school memorabilia, including poems to many, many rose-lipped maidens by one heavy-footed lad.

And then there’s the stuff that really puzzles my wife. My father’s things, ratty Horatio Algers, textbooks, military training manuals, pennants from America’s vacation destinations, baseball score cards from stadiums long demolished, brochures from historical sites, tax returns and cancelled checks.

And, oh, I almost forgot. The record albums. The 33’s.   Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, and Donovan’s For the Little Ones—the first three albums I bought in ’68 when my mother had cancer. Despite irregular culling over the years, six or seven hundred more still get boxed up and hauled around. There are yards of Jethro Tull, America, Poco, Zepplin, Mountain, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, The Roches, John Lennon, Nancy Griffin, and Neil Young—well, CSNY in many forms, individually, paired and grouped—Talking Heads, The Clash, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Men at Work, Laurie Anderson. One time period replacing another until CD’s extend the obsession. Add the jazz and the classical to these and I have more music than I would want to listen to in a year. I even occasionally add to the collection, recently, McCartney’s first solo record and Andy Griffith singing hymns.

So I hate moving, but this year I moved again. It was a good move, a needed move. Unlike Guy Clark’s in “LA Freeway,”

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.

it was a move from the country, far from work and rising house values, into the city where gas and time are saved and equity grows. Still, it was moving.

Recently, therefore, I have been digging around the new garage going though all this stuff again because it won’t fit in the new house. It didn’t fit in the old house, either, and much of it was stored in the garage there also.   Somehow, for nine years, I could never get around to dealing with it. But this time, in this new house, I have decided that we will park the cars in the garage and by the end of the year everything will be in the house or trashed, given away or sold.

In the five months that we have lived in the new house, I have made sporadic progress. Still, piles of stuff rise to the ceiling. The brown boxes loom over me, like mounds of sandy loam, excavated and transported like the contents of graves, cardboard mini-caskets reading “U-Haul” and “Texas Fiction A-D” and “Study.” With each box, over and over, it all becomes so apparent—the purity, the essence of my ridiculous life, the tenuousness by which I hold onto my self-esteem, the castles of stuff by which I fortress myself against the grief that is, at least, part of who I am. What grief? Why not let it all go?


Letting Go and the Comedy of Grief

Any discussion of grief, these days, must refer to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. But other paradigms also exist. Roberta Temes describes three types of behavior displayed by those suffering from grief and loss: Numbness, Disorganization, and Reorganization.   Austin therapist Dan Jones has identified ten steps for closing a relationship, moving from denial to farewell and release. Even Dr. Phil has his own list of four stages: shock, denial, anger, resolution.

As a teacher of literature, I am aware that each of these writers has identified a narrative, the plot of a story that people might find a way to live. That story is structured upon what we lit-crit folks call a comedy, not funny-haha-comedy, but, simply, a story with a happy ending.   Usually, in the first act of a comedy, life is fine, but suddenly it falls apart in some kind of conflict. Then there is chaos (exile, imprisonment, separation, just plain bad luck) and the dealing with that chaos (anger, bargaining, and depression). Finally, in the last act, the conflict is resolved, and life has a new purpose and is understood once again. In Shakespeare, for instance, we have all those weddings closing out the comedies, the coupling of opposites, new order, new beginnings, and all that.  One example is in Shakespeare’s late comedy The Tempest, in which I found these potent words:

You do look, my son, in a mov’d sort

As if you were dismay’d; be cheerful, sir.

As a structure for a life story, most of us prefer comedy over tragedy, which ends in death or at best hopelessness. I am even tempted to say that tragedies occur when a character has refused, or has been unable, to deal with grief, to move through the story that the stages of grief describe. I don’t know if this theory will bear out with close analysis of dozens of tragedies, but it seems that the narrative of the tragic ending requires a character to hold on to negative emotions—fear, anger, revenge, hopelessness, guilt, shame, greed, you name it. Oedipus just can’t forgive himself; Hamlet can’t accept what has happened to his father. There is no “letting go” in “Hamlet.”

Conversely, the narrative of the happy ending requires that the character let go of various negative emotions and behaviors. As Dr. Phil says, “We’ve got to be accepting of those things we don’t control.” In other words, we must let go.

The odd thing for me is that I believe that I have let go of great deal of negative history, and thus is the reason that all this stuff and the emotions it provokes surprises me so. The brief outline of my comedy is that my mother died when I was fifteen and left my father and me to fight about who was more angry. He said I would be a failure, and at the time, I didn’t know enough to know he was wrong. In grad school, I was able to find a mentor who believed in me, and that saved me for awhile.   Then at thirty, I married a nice woman but the wrong woman, and together we had a wonderful son. As a college educator, I began moving up the administrative ladder. Together, my wife and I started a magazine, which became fairly successful. We bought our dream home. Then in a matter of a couple of years, my father, my mentor, and my father-in-law died; the magazine collapsed suddenly; I gave up my administrative position at the college; and my wife and I separated.   At forty-two, I had become a divorced dad in a one-bedroom apartment.

Luckily, in my mid-thirties I met John Lee and Dan Jones as they were founding the Austin Men’s Center. With them, I learned to grieve various events in my life. Looking back, it seems that I spent my mid-thirties grieving my childhood and adolescence. Then I gave my forties to grieving my thirties.   Since I have written about these events in various essays and poems, I will not say more about those years. All I should say is that therapy, friends, forgiveness and love will get one through most of what life throws at one. Though it has taken time, I have rebuilt everything I lost a dozen years ago. Like I said, “my comedy”—I have married again, fathered two more wonderful sons, published more than ever, and worked my way back up the academic ladder. Happy ending, right?


Inside Out

Well, at just fifty-four, I am, I hope, a long way from the end of my story. And happy? I suppose I am happy, yet still I wonder why I have been so conflicted about all those books and records and files? I mean, seen from outside, doesn’t it seem that a happy man has two options: 1) he either “lets go” of the stuff, moves on, moves in, and celebrates his simple life, or 2) he enjoys his stuff, brings it into the house, shelves it, stacks it, and rejoices in his abundant good fortune?

Of course, I am doing neither.   At first, I stored a great deal of this stuff in the garage, and then like a man slowly going through psychotherapy, I allowed each box, box by box into the house. Until I allow it in, this stuff remains in the garage—a perfectly appropriate place to store those things about which I am ambivalent—that inside-the-house space that is still outside-the-house, the depository, the storage room, a kind of modern suburban cellar (the place for the submerged emotions and yucky things), but also a kind of transition zone, almost a porch with its great open yawning door, un-air-conditioned and un-heated, yet still enclosed on three sides, a kind of peninsula into the ocean of the world.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes, “Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything.” I am tempted to assert that the stuff that I have brought into the house does not trouble me. I lifted it and carried inside and have given it a place in my new house and in my new life. Once I bring a box inside, open it, and unpack it, its meaning, one might think, begins to transform from something that I don’t know what to do with into something I know to be perfectly part of who I am.

For instance, in looking up the quote from Bachelard, I simply stood up from the keyboard, walked around my desk about five steps and pulled the book from the shelf where I knew it would be—with the other books of theory and poetics, arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. Wouldn’t one think, therefore, that this book by Bachelard produces less psychic troubles than the other books and papers in the garage? But Bachelard also warns of such simplistic notions—“Unless one is careful, it [the dialectic of inside and outside] is made into the basis of images that govern all thoughts of positive and negative.”

In other words, we should be careful to protect ourselves against easy outside=bad and inside=good thinking. For example, among the first boxes to enter the house were those containing the albums. It was a practical decision; I didn’t want to leave them in the scorching heat of the garage to warp and ruin. Many of these records are already thirty years old, and I don’t want to replace them; perhaps many of them aren’t worth replacing. Still, I have to admit that I am both proud and ashamed to own these records. So, the fact that these records are shelved in a music room does not mean that I reside with them easily.

First, they catalog the highlights of my pedestrian tastes. I am a middle-class boy, you know, with aspirations to become an intellectual.   I know I could sell these records and pretend I am and was something other than what I am. I can deny that I ever yearningly sang “A Horse with No Name,” and deny that still today I can whine the solo from “Whole Lotta Love.” Conversely, I can sell these records and destroy the evidence that I never purchased “Are You Experienced” much less held on to it for 40 years.

I think one way some of us survive growing old—one way that we forge ahead into a happy ending—is to outgrow any need to be “cool,” to refuse any critical reconstruction of the past. (“If we loved the band America, by God, let’s keep loving America. Let the critics and our own mature tastes be damned. ‘Tin Man’ is a great tune!”) However, if we desire to remain “cool,” we must perform our own critical reconstruction—package up our Chicago albums for Cheapo Discs and purchase every early Rolling Stones album we missed, no matter the cost, for prominent display in the den.

Second, my feelings toward my albums are a kind of grief, also, in that I did enjoy the sixties and early seventies. I miss them, and I miss who I was then. I was filled with a joyful celebration of the genius of my generation, Rick Wakeman’s concept album, The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth, Emerson Lake and Palmer playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, The Who’s Tommy, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s uniting of rock and country with Will the Circle Be Unbroken.   I was convinced that we could lift pop culture to high culture, that we would change the world, that peace and love would reign, that we would never sell out for money and security, for gourmet coffees and ice cream and tableware from The Pottery Barn. But I was wrong, and my album collection remains a record, unreconstructed and unrevised, of my indiscriminate romantic dreams. I wish I/we had been smarter; I wish I/we had been braver; I wish I/we had been geniuses and heroes.


Baggage, Souvenirs, and Trophies

So this is the method and my madness. The problem with all this stuff is not necessarily the quantity of it all. Sure, the sheer bulk provides me with a practical problem: where do I put it all and how do I decide what enters the house and what doesn’t? Still that problem is a problem with storage, not with meaning. The solution to the quantity problem is simply building more shelves, buying more file cabinets. It is a problem with an economical or architectural solution, not emotional ones.

So first, the albums entered the house—I had already built cases specially for them, decades ago, so they were easy to place. Next were groups of hardbacks, fairly expensive, mostly sets of American and British classics, all representing my bourgeois pretensions, and my dream to retire into a self-satisfied, disengaged, pre-modern Anglo reverie. They found their home in the living room, where, to be honest, guests can admire the cost, if not my taste.

Then, for a few months there was a pause and empty book cases awaited in the study, while I considered which books to carry upstairs. After one false start, I settled on poetry and non-fiction. The choice came down to one question: In the next few years, what part of me do I hope to be nurturing; what part of me needs support? Since the next project I envision for myself is a book about Texas poets, I hunted for everything I owned concerning poetry, criticism, poetics, and literary theory.

Perhaps most liberating for me was that I unearthed a few boxes of books that can only be described old-fashioned liberalism, books that were formative in my early desire to be a teacher, scholar, and writer. At the heart of these books is a certainty in the concepts of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, once vibrant ideas, but now a bit desiccated, the residue of post-structuralism’s dry breath upon them. I had no idea how sad I was to have packed these books up decades years ago and hit them away in previous garages. Now, Joseph Wood Krutch has his place next to Julia Kristeva; Mark Van Doran leans over Raymond Williams and shakes hands with Slovoj Zizek. I had no idea how sweet it would be to unpack them.

Maybe I am feeling here the resolution of a kind of grief peculiar only to the tail end of the boomer generation. But I perceive this grief of discontinuity throughout the nation. I think it is central to our country’s cultural divide. I believe that at the heart of the Christian Right’s political agenda is a grief over the loss of various “absolute” concepts like Truth, Beauty and Goodness. For them, concepts such as “Family” and “Marriage” have been deconstructed beyond recognition. How does a person who loves tradition say good-bye to, let go of, such beautiful ideas? Of course, denial, anger, depression will be part of the process.

On the other hand, the non-traditionalist left has to confront the choice of which “Family Values” it imports into its new family—mutual love and respect or power and violence, nurture or guilt and shame. My point is, for me, two married moms dancing in the living room to the Indigo Girls with their adopted children laughing and dancing with them is just as much a family as Ward, June, Wally, and the Beave. However, if a parent, any parent, becomes violent or neglectful, it’s the same old shit, whether the child is in a traditional, patriarchal home or in some new configuration. As someone who has defended new definitions of “Family,” I think we have either/or-ed ourselves into uncomfortable corners. Let’s not celebrate or grieve the death of “The Traditional Family;” let’s celebrate the strength and vitality of family love in all its manifestations, including the most traditional.   I will no longer grieve over the exile of some of my once favorite, though old-fashioned, books and what they represented. I welcome them back home.


Mirrors and Memorials

My madness, therefore, is a response to the meaning of my stuff. Whether I confront my stuff in the garage or neatly shelved in the study, I still must deal with what it means to me. In fact, one reason that some of this stuff remains in the garage is that I can, for certain periods of time, forget the fact that it exists. But there is always the stray weekend when schedule and inclination collide, and I step into the garage for things rightfully stored there—tools for a building project, machines for lawn work—and all hell breaks loose as I confront—as the therapists say—my unfinished business.

One example. When my father died in 1988, he left, for someone in the family to deal with, approximately forty years of Baseball Registers and Baseball Guides. Each of these volumes appears annually; each providing statistics for players and teams. My father loved baseball. He played semi-pro ball in the thirties; he read box scores each morning. He watched games on television with the Registers and Guides near by. And he transferred his love of baseball to me—partially. I played little league and then softball until my mid-thirties when my knees gave out or I became ambitious. I can’t remember which came first. But, lacking patience and time, I do not now watch baseball on television until the playoffs and World Series. My sons play little league, but I think they love it less than I did.

For many years after my father’s death I continued to purchase, each year, both volumes from the Sporting News Corporation, but about eight years ago I stopped, the continuity of father, son, and grandsons broken. What do I do with these books, today? Some might be collector’s items. But more important, the question is what do I do with this portion of my relationship with my father? Or more accurately, what do I do with that part of me that touched my father and that touches my sons? If I catalog these volumes and offer them on Ebay to the highest bidder, have I sold short my sons’ tenuous connection to a man they never met?   Or have I spared them the trauma that I am now experiencing?

And perhaps most important, what do I do to myself, if I shelve these books and daily they attract my wondering eyes? My father did not live long enough not to be disappointed in me. I imagine looking at these books and hearing him say: “You know you were good enough for college ball if you had not quit.” I don’t think I was, but what kind of debate is that for a son to have—convincing his father that he lacks the talent. I imagine his disappointed face when I admit I cannot remember how many home runs Stan Musial hit.

There is one thing that I have come to believe about grief.   It is not solely the disappearance of the person that we mourn. We grieve, more painfully, the disappearance of ourselves in their eyes. They are the Other. As Freud, Kristeva, Lacan, and so many others on my bookshelves tell me, we know ourselves through others. Often we project on to them those parts of ourselves that we dislike.   But we also depend upon them to see our beauty and magnificence, and in their perceptions, we see ourselves. When someone disappears from our life, a part of us disappears. Each death, each divorce, each lost friendship is a broken mirror. Perhaps worse, we toss that broken mirror into the buried time capsule of our memory.   Over time, we live, we change, but they do not.   Like Hamlet’s father, the ghosts from our pasts roam asking for revenge or reconciliation.

When I confront the Baseball Registers, for instance, I really do not know, today, what my father would think of them or of me.   All I have is some current fantasy based upon a severed relationship. The best I have is a wish for an acquiescent nod from the “baseless fabric of this vision”—as Shakespeare writes in his comedy The Tempest. I have the real memory of his saying, “If you sell my books, I will come back to haunt you,” balanced with a Gestalt fantasy of his approval.   So, the Baseball Registers and Baseball Guides will probably remain in the garage a while longer. I would like to see myself as a committed baseball fan, but I do not. If I find the space to bring them into the house, it will not be because they tell me something about myself or are part of my dreams for myself or for my sons. It will be because I found a little space in my present life to honor my father. It will be a memorial but not a statement of faith. They will tell me where I have been but not where I will be going.

In a couple of months, the moving in will be complete, and I hope this particular trauma will be resolved. I will have unearthed, unboxed, all remaining artifacts of my past. The plan is simply this: bring inside anything that sustains a dream; find storage for anything that records a dream accomplished; confront and discard anything that damages a dream.

I have, I hope, about 20 or 30 years left on this earth. Maybe this essay has merely been about this fact; I am no longer young.   Some dreams have died and must be grieved and let go. Others must be nurtured and tended or they, too, will pass. And there are a few others that sustain me and give me hope. I have 20 or 30 years left. They may as well be happy years, unburdened by the accusations of things, filled instead with the stuff of dreams.

This essay originally published in Stricken, edited by Spike Gillespie, Dalton Publishing.