I think it is in the film Black Stallion that a character in a voiceover says that Picasso didn’t paint the horse — he painted the memory of the horse. He says that as the underwater camera captures the image of the black stallion being lifted out of the water — the image of the horse becoming increasingly distorted as the camera stays still with the horse rising above the surface until it resembles a horse Picasso would paint.
That’s what the sound of the train passing in the distance is to me — the memory of the sound. It seems elegiac to me, a mournful horn surrounded by air being purposefully pushed aside because the thing pushing it has a destination in mind.
I didn’t realize I had forgotten the sound until I returned to Livermore, the town in which I spent my pre-teen and teen years, where I hear it late on summer nights when the windows are open. Or, unexpectedly as I walk through the Arroyo. Or, sometimes in the early morning before anyone else rises. Each time, the sound jogs my memory of it, as if I had forgotten it.
I had also lived in Southern California, Oklahoma City, Saudi Arabia, and Chico. But, Livermore is the closest thing I have to a hometown. Each move to Livermore was a traumatic uprooting from the place I lived before. The best and worst things in my life have happened in Livermore. Perhaps that is why I think of it as my hometown. I think that might be why I had to return to it — so I could understand something about the mix of best and worst.
I had been gone for 34 years, since I graduated from high school. Over that time I had wrestled with, worked on, and dealt with memories that haunted me. I thought I had exorcised all the ghosts.
I was not prepared for what it was like to return to the place where memories took root. I read through a journal recently where I wrote that the memories had stirred a raging out-of-control forest fire in me. But on reflection, I think it was more of a burn that nature makes — a lightning-struck fire that burns away the underbrush to clear the way for new growth.
We moved back here barely two months after that Tuesday in September 2001 — 9/11. My parents are both gone now, as are Tom’s. That coupled with 9/11 has made the world seem very different to me now. The loss of innocence has not made me cynical so much as it has taught me how to take the bitter with the sweet.
I think that the innocence I lost was really the last vestiges of a child-like trust that I had held onto because it was too painful to let go of. I wanted someone to save me from my life experience, and holding on to the trust was holding onto hope that the past could have been different.
What I found by losing that innocence was my life. My story.
My high school English teacher, Ed Brush (he is one of those I lost shortly after I moved back here), used to talk about the macrocosm and microcosm in Shakespeare’s history plays — about how one reflected the other. I’m wondering if my microcosm of growing up so I could embrace experience is happening in the macrocosm as well.
At least in the debate in this country, it seems to me the forces pulling in opposite directions are one that insists we are innocent and need to retreat, while the other is experience — an even more insistent force that says we need to expand our understanding of the universe so we can embrace how small our world has become.
I have tried pulling back from what passes for news and journalism. These media are no longer trying to find the story that connects us as humans, but the element of a story and presenting it as the story.
I’m a news and political junkie, so this isn’t easy. I want our system to work. I believe that the idea of America, recognition that our right to our lives is our birthright, can let collective stories unfold into one that contains them all.
But, I don’t hear that now. I don’t hear anyone leading us out of this wilderness of change. Perhaps we need to do it as individuals working together right now. Nikos Kazantszkis wrote in his memoir Report to Greco that when he returned from Mt. Athos, he understood that Jesus was wandering alone and hungry in the wilderness and it was mankind’s turn to save him.
Time for us to embrace compassion for being human and extend that compassion to ourselves as well as the world at large.
I think embracing my experience let compassion through for me. I think it allowed me to forgive myself for being a victim, and to see that I had also been a victimizer, and forgive myself for that.
I have come to feel at home here in my hometown. The sound of the train reminds me that life is happening here, while moving onto somewhere else at the same time.
The sound of the elegiac horn surrounded by air being pushed aside by a moving force reminds me that the train passing through carries away baggage lost and found.
Thanks, Karen. I appreciate your wise, feeling, hard-won, mature sensibility.
Thanks for visiting the Writing Shed and for taking such good care of Tom’s pianos.