write the journey: a memoir exercise (and a passage from El Salvador)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Yesterday in class, after teaching ourselves the memoir Drinking: A Love Story (Caroline Knapp), we allowed music to take us on a journey. Three different pieces—a touch of Cuba, a touch of tango, a touch of reggae. I wanted the students to find within the rhythms some memory of movement—of their own bodies taken across place and time. What is it to walk, to run, to drive, to jolt, to slide forward? How do we find the language that moves a passage ahead while at the same time unblurring the particulars of place, weather, mood? It was, in part, a lesson in verbs, or it might have been.

Later, coming home, I tried to remember my own journey language. How might I have attacked the assignment I gave to my own students? I recalled this passage from my third memoir Still Love in Strange Places. It is an odd thing to read your own work, years on. But this day at St. Anthony's farm, my husband's home, is still alive in me.
Wanting time to myself before I surrendered to the Spanish, I slid out of the tree and set off across the courtyard and out through the crooked, metal gate, calling to no one in particular that I wasn't going far. I went down the dirt road between the two dug-out walls of earth that towered above my head. Hiking up the road while I was hiking down came two brightly dressed women, their hair the color of ink, their postures accommodating the pitch of the road as well as the woven baskets in their arms and the plastic water jugs that sat on the yaguales upon their heads. One jug was blue and one was orange, and the women kept their eyes low as they passed, not meeting mine, not inviting inquiry, not keen, I sensed, on my camera.

I hadn't gone far before the dogs found me, an ugly, snarly pack, half starved and probably only partly sane, three or four, maybe, I can't remember. Mongrels. Their coats short, sparse, bristly as a wild pig's hide, their ears angered flat against their heads. They had nothing between them but their hunger, no reason not to attack the thin, white American girl-woman who had come among them accidentally and who now stood, grossly transfixed, as they blasphemed her through yellow teeth. I was aware of a broken tree limb on the road. I picked it up. I heeled my way up the incline, holding the stick out before me like some kind of Man of La Mancha warrior. I inched backward. Jowl to jowl, the dogs howled forward. I wondered if Bill would hear, if I'd be rescued, if I should turn and run like hell.

But before I could act, I was saved by a barefooted boy who out of nowhere appeared with a fistful of dog-deterring rocks. He hurled. The dogs scattered. The dogs returned. He hurled again. In the dissipating dust, I gestured my thanks, then half walked, half ran to the place I'd come from. I held the camera tight against my chest. I cursed the country, and I blessed it. I hurried past the gate of St. Anthony's, past a herd of wild chickens, past more women bearing jugs. I kept on walking until I came upon a path cut into the high wall of earth beside the road. The path rose vertically on tight, hard, dirt steps, and it was at the end of this path, as I'd been told, that the peasant dead were laid to rest. I swung my camera onto my back and pulled myself toward them with my hands.

To be among the dead at St. Anthony's is to enter into communion with wild turkeys....

For more thoughts on memoirs, memoir making, and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.


Melissa Sarno said...

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that this is one of the most memorable, stand-out moments for me from this book. So much conveyed in so few words, how a place can be ferocious and tender at the very same time. In my memory, the boy *was* the entire moment, but I see he is actually a mere few lines. Of course, his knowing of the place is so important.
And I'm behind on my exercises! I've bookmarked last week's too. Grumble. I need more time. Back to work. This was a nice moment of thinking and reading time. Oh. I'm rambling.

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