Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aimless Reading: The Y's, Part 4.1 (William Butler Yeats)

Yeats, William Butler
Autobiographies: Memories and Reflections

Given to me by my father. He bought this on a trip to Ireland taken while I was in college. It looks to have had a price sticker on it that's been torn off. I have a vague recollection of tearing it off. I have now a small feeling of regret for having done so. I remember the price was printed in Irish pounds. I even remember asking myself if later I would regret tearing off this novel item. I did it anyway and now I am sorry.

One thing writing these entries has taught me is the value of leaving certain things alone. Items like price stickers, bookmarks, stray pieces of paper left between pages, inscriptions, et al, are the very things that call memories and feelings out from their hiding places. It's the specific details of the object, like how much it cost, where it was purchased, what page I was on when I left off reading it, what the bookmark said and where it came from, what slips of paper I had in my possession or happened to be touching the last time I read the book, that are often the most evocative parts of a book.

As I flip through this book, there is nothing else about its physical presence to distinguish it from any other book in the world except for the gummy traces of the Irish price tage obscuring the last two letters of the author's last name. There are no marks, no slips of paper, no inscriptions. Which isn't to say this book doesn't contain powerful memories for me. The fact that it was given to me by my father means a lot.

I would guess he gave it to me sometime in the early nineties. He died in 1996. I have all of his letters in a box somewhere, but I don't read them often. Somewhere I have a few recordings he made -- diary entries, really -- on one of his trips to Ireland. I also own a recorded letter he made for his friend Ned. They used to record audio letters to each other on casette tapes and send them back and forth across the country. My father never sent this one, which dates from around 1976 or 1977.

He's recording it while taking a bath. You can hear the water splashing as he speaks. A couple of times he makes sexist remarks about how since he'd been in the hospital recently with a bleeding ulcer he'd discovered why "broads" loved taking long, luxurious baths. He tells his friend that this was the year I'd discovered that Santa did not exist. He said I'd been very good about not sharing this information with my two younger brothers, then masculinely augments his Brooklyn accent and proclaims, "Of course I said I'd break his legs if he ever told them."

The diary tapes, made after he'd been sober for twenty years or so, reveal another side of this complex man. In the most memorable of them, he's staying at a small inn on the Aran Islands, alone. He takes a walk along the cliffs over looking the sea. It's nighttime and up ahead he can see lights on the beach. He walks towards the light. As it come into focus he can see a fire and people carrying torches arrayed around it.

He realizes he is watching a kind of ceremony. He becomes self-conscious and doesn't want anyone to see him, so he finds a spot hidden spot from which to observe. He watches with amazement, not knowing what he is seeing. The beauty of the scene transfixes him. There is no longer any Brooklyn masculinity in his voice. It's all wonder.

Not long before he died he spent a few weeks out at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was helping do some work on the Red Cloud Indian School. one of the last things he did before he died was to arrange for their basketball team to travel to DC to play in a high school tournament he had founded. But for now he was just working as a volunteer. He attended some kind of ceremony on his final night. Everyone sat in a circle around a fire and watched Native American dancers perform.

When he got home he took a creative writing course at a local community college, where he met, of all people, a gay Argentinian dance instructor, who happened to be Robert Duvall's dance coach. My father, who was anti-everything, especially gays, befriended this man, who invited my parents to a dance party at Duval's farm, about an hour outside of DC.

My father was thrilled because he had always been a fan of Duvall and also because one of his childhood friends was an actor who had played minor roles in several movies with the famous actor. He was thrilled to be able to meet the man and say that they both knew Tom Signorelli.

Anyhow, my father wrote a short essay for the course about his experience watching the dancers perform by the fire. He typed it out and mailed it to me, asking my opinion. I had spent the past few years in a writer's group where we spent hours each week trashing each other's work. I told my father over the phone all the ways I thought he could improve his writing. There was a meaningful silence on his end of the line, which I interpreted at the time to be anger, but which I now realize was something else.

It wasn't important to him if the writing was good or bad. What he wanted was for me to experience the wonder he felt and which he was trying to describe in his essay. I was too busy trying to show him how much smarter than him I thought I was to see that he was just looking share his experience with me.

When he died, I gave his eulogy in front of hundreds of people at the church we went to in Virginia. I wrote the whole thing out, then tore it up, leaving only an outline to improvise from. At the end, I pulled out his essay and read the final paragraphs.

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