At the end of the day waiting for the bus, standing in the warmth and the pebbly dust in the parking lot at school (yesterday was family day at ASM), I ended up briefly telling a circle of people about the mark of the tourist (see post from August 27, We go it alone). I hold out my clenched fist as illustration, the skin across the back of my hand stretched tight, the better to show off the seven or eight black hairs that refuse to return to their invisible blond former selves. Why is this? I have kept vigilant watch over my hands for more than half my life now. It was senior year of high school in Rennes, in the afternoon French Language class with Mme. Le Breton, that this awareness was born. She was emphatic, tall, possessed of the precise cadence and finely tuned pronunciation you’d expect from someone who makes the teaching of language their métier. It was always overly-warm in that classroom in the afternoon, the sun pouring in the warbly-paned floor-to-ceiling windows. Mme. wore countless silver bangles and several silver rings on either hand (significantly, we thought, she was divorced and wore no wedding band)—maybe her adornments threw a spotlight on my own hands, or French grammar drove me to inspect whatever was nearest. I remember holding out my writing hand, fingers splayed against the shiny dark faux-wood desktop, comparing it to the memory of my mother’s hands, thinking myself into some far future when my hands would have aged—how would they do so?
My point really is that the women circled around me yesterday were all at least ten years younger. I was conscious of my right hand being older than theirs. It would have been different if the circle had been, say, my students ten years ago at Reserve—but here everyone was faculty, ostensibly of the same group. A little (I know, a lot) self-conscious—but it has to do with the passage of time, the way memory informs the present, or can set up camp and make itself an unwelcome spectator. And I find myself grateful for the opportunity to unburden myself of the awareness, to tell on it. (Come to think of it, arm hair, hand hair does not grow out—the black has not slowly grown out to reveal the telltale blond roots—it’s an oddity of the body, no? This thought would be tucked away in a footnote if the blog could do that.)
That’s one of things that fascinates me right now: how comparatively little we brought with us (our rooms still echo) and how often all the endless rooms of memory seem to empty themselves out into the now. Hazel loves to look at pictures on my laptop, revels in the bellyshots of me before-she-was-born, the seventeen-second movie of her in the sand with Grammy and Paul at Rodeo Beach in Marin last July 3, and even the seventy seconds from two weeks ago: Hazel nakey except for my glasses perched on the teensy bridge of her nose rolling around on our bed while she explains how she “goes to work.” (We have a lamentably slow internet connection that makes uploading video thus-far impossible—I would have shared this clip by now if I could have.) The towels we brought were a gift from Paul a million years ago when we lived in Ohio, the nubby green and blue fish dishtowel from a summer in Vermont before we were married. All the things of the past (those few that we brought) are thrown into high relief against a present that shimmers unfamiliarity. We brought an orphan napkin, a single frayed rectangle of plaid cotton that, my mother informed me before we left, came from Tunisia circa 1972. I thought then that there was a certain symmetry in its return at least to the Maghreb, if not the exact country. And here of course is the crux of it all.
My folks lived in Tunisia for six years from 1968 to 1974, Dad for three years before that (Taylor then later for two). They have a remembered history that, over the thirty-five years since moving back to the States, has turned into the implacable bedrock of family legend. I grew up inside the stories from that place (buried beneath them?), and only arrived at my own version in 1997—and this only three weeks after Taylor had died. What a time to return to the place of my own birth, which was also the source, in many ways, of my family’s definition of itself. And if not definition then at least the place of galvanizing identity. So what are we doing here in Marrakech?
Last night Paul and I had a heated debate about the few pages of an introduction to a slim volume on post-colonialism. In the cooling-down aftermath of it all, I was realizing that part of the emotional understory of my side of the argument is that I’m not teaching this year, the third year of Hazel’s life and my third year away from the classroom—and that because of this time away (from the familiar and from the classroom too) I have the time to entertain these very thoughts, to tease them out for myself, time to read Reading Lolita in Tehran and then Henry James after that, and Edith Wharton’s account of her month-long 1917 trip, In Morocco, and now the slim volume on post-colonialism. I have time to “hold out judiciously at arms’ length” (thank you, Dylan Thomas) the whole of this family past and think about how I’ve fit myself into it—or decided to throw some of it off. I guess I mean that there’s a part of me (defensive, insecure) that’s very aware of not having my own classroom in which to work out these thoughts about the politics of literature and the world, that’s wallowing in the ambivalence of being with my girl most of the sometimes excruciatingly long! day—but that ultimately I am learning to be grateful for this time a part, even to relax into it. Does this mean I could only see any of this precisely because we have traveled away and are making a home elsewhere? Or because I’ve also chosen to write about it in a way that’s more formal than private musings? Though granted, this feels private enough. I feel a certain confessionary squeamishness myself.
I keep re-landing on the word precipitation—that any of it, all of these thoughts have precipitated because we are here.
Brian T. Edwards talks in his book Morocco Bound about the way in which westerners have, in a reductive way, written onto the unfamiliar landscape of Morocco (and the Maghreb in general) the familiar associations of home—The desert looks like the films we know, or The Berbers weave blankets like the natives of the American southwest, or Arabs as a race are noble like the American Indians—thus robbing this place and its people of an identity that is its own. He argues that many westerners have come here over the last century (he chooses the years between 1942 and 1973) with too firm a hold on where they’re from, unwilling to see people inside their own context. But how do you travel so light that you don’t bring with you an informing past? I find that impossible, and the project becomes a negotiation of the inevitable baggage of memory, a sifting through and salvaging what’s sterling, jettisoning the dead-weight. Easy to write about. Harold Bloom wrote in 1973 about the “anxiety of influence”, a term that figured largely (at least as I recall them now) in my college literature classes. Bloom codifies an entire universe of explanation for the way in which poets struggle with the weight and words and poetic worlds of those who have come before. I love the way Ezra Pound both speaks to this anxiety and sweeps it away. He calls up Walt Whitman, grandfather of the new and uniquely American voice, and essentially says in his poem A Pact, that even though I used to detest you, “Let there be commerce between us.” It’s a lovely invitation to influence, a settling reconciliation, an opening to what can come of such communion with the past. I suppose I’m talking about this kind of anxiety and this kind of graceful resolution.