Tiny Frames

In her writing tutorial/memoir Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises her students to look through a one-inch picture frame as they write their stories. Focus in on one thing, she says, like a dimple, a calculus test, or a school lunch, and dig into the truth behind that object or moment. Many a writer has drowned in the enormity of her scope, so Lamott reminds us to start small and go from there.

She also suggests near the end of the book that her readers practice on stories from their childhoods. Because childhood is a tender time, when we're innocent and malleable and more attuned to whispers of the cosmos. And maybe if we can dig up some of those old memories we might find embedded in them nuggets of truth. Truth: the writer's sustenance and destination both.

So I tried to sort through the ol' file room of my mind for my earliest memory (because superlatives are impressive). Unfortunately, someone, at some point went in and tore that place up, knocking over every cabinet, emptying all the contents into one giant, hopelessly hodgepodge pile. At this point it would be easier for me to construct a felt-and-popsicle-stick diorama of a childhood than to try and remember my own. Maybe that's how memory works for everyone, or maybe I only have a few lucid years left, but either way I was able to scrounge up what I can only assume to be my earliest memory, if it qualifies as a memory at all. It's actually more of a picture, or at most a two-second-long clip. It goes something like:


Grass, or a field. Yes, a field. Pudgy, blond toddler-me running through a field.

Toward a fair. Or a carnival. I picture a giant, towering Ferris wheel ahead of me.

Family trails behind. Mom, dad, ostensibly baby Marlie too, but the family part is a little fuzzy. Much clearer is the grass, the carnival, the running. I was three.

See, logistically this is tricky, because I'm not sure where or when this memory might have actually taken place. I don't know what carnival would have been in the area at the time and otherwise fit the description of having a toddler-safe, frolic-friendly field nearby.

But the literal reality of this moment is inconsequential. Memory is fluid, suggestable, reconstructive, and generally wishy-washy anyway. For example, what you recall about your sixth birthday party may be only partially grounded in literal reality. You may have made up parts, imagined or dreamed things that you've since incorporated into the narrative. Someone may have told you it happened a certain way and you've folded that telling into your own account of the event. But that gap between memory and literality doesn't affect one way or the other the truth of your experience. What you remember is true and real, even if not so literally. So what I see in this little frame, me running through a field to a carnival, is truth. God's truth, as Jay Gatsby would say.

What does it mean though? Well for one thing, it might not mean anything at all in the strictest sense. It's a bit transcendental of me to assume it does. A bit religious of me, and presumptuous to boot. A very writer-y thing to assume.

Still, at the risk of reading too much into an old, sepia-toned photograph, I have to believe there's a reason this image would have survived my mind's tumultuous and incessant turnover of thoughts and memories over all the long years. Why has this one persevered? What makes it so special? I guess I won't know unless I look through that tiny frame again:

Running. Ironic considering nowadays I don't make a habit of running unless I'm being chased.

Running. Out ahead of my family. Mom yells my name, tells me to be careful, as she still does to this day, every time I leave our home, even to walk out to my car and back.

Running. Unmoved by her pleas I soldier on toward that behemoth of a Ferris wheel, which to my diminutive stature appears to rise up like a monster from the sea: the mighty Cthulu, swallowing up the whole horizon in his girth. I have never been so in awe, so humbled by the enormity of something. I am small, but drawn in by the beast's utter Big-ness. Comparable, perhaps, to the fear of God.

Stumbling. Arms flailing. I trip and fall on a patch of long grass, the grass that cuts, the grass that cuts my outstretched hands, but instead of unleashing my trademark caterwaul I begin to roll.

Rolling. Legend has it that before I could walk, I rolled. I skipped crawling entirely and went straight from rolling from place to place to walking upright. My brother Jake, one day suddenly fed up with my constantly rolling around underfoot, propped me up with some toy lawn mower, and watched me push it along before suddenly swiping it out from under me. The first couple times I fell on my face. The third time, I walked.

Walking. I am tired. I often get so tired. I was born overweight (10 lbs 2 oz) to two overweight parents. I was not made to run long. So I walk for a while, and my parents overcome me with their longer strides.

Parents. One of maybe two or three memories wherein I have two parents. Now the word "parents," plural, seems odd to me, foreign, unrecognizable. But in this tiny picture I see my mother and father.

Father. Mullet, moustache, beefy calves which I inherited. He's also wearing a hat. I suppose I inherited his affinity for hats too. And God willing, nothing else. I see my mom there too.

Mom. I see her young face. Not so young, though. Not so young as to have never known heartbreak. My father was her second husband. She had known betrayal, and would know it again before this year was over.

I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do itshe's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things 
you cannot imagine you would ever do, 
you are going to do bad things to children 

(Sharon Olds, "I Go Back to May 1937")

Mom. So strong, so joyful. The strength and joy have survived the years, in spite of it all. She deserved better than my father. So did the baby in her arms.

Marlie. My baby sister. My baby sister just moved out, moved onto adult life in Corvallis. College. Family. She's on her way. She survived, because she is strong too. She inherited my mother's strength. I inherited her frenzied affection for others.

Survival. We all, my mother, my sister and I survived the betrayal, the abuse, the perpetual dislocation and shattered expectations. But before all that there was the carnival.

Carnival. And I was running for it like it would save me. Like paradise was calling my name. Like I was going home, a home I hadn't seen but I knew, instinctively, miraculously, that it was better, that it was where I belonged.



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