By Jim Miller
Summer is here and it’s time to take a break from my usual column and stretch the form a little with some chronicles. As I explained last year, the chronicle is a literary genre born in Brazil:
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists . . .
So on this first day of summer, the day after Father’s Day, I will dedicate some time to what my wife calls “the sublime and heartbreaking art of parenting.”
For the most part, being the father of my only, much-beloved son has been a delight. He is a smart, good-natured boy who does well in school, gets along with other kids, and likes to hang out with grown-ups. Other than the usual daily struggles of parenthood from sleep deprivation to the multitude of anxieties, humbling failures, and moments of deep self-doubt that go with the territory, it’s been a piece of cake.
As I wrote last year in my first chronicle, my relationship with my own father was complicated:
[My] Grandfather left my Dad two things: his old Winchester rifle and a clear mission in life–tough it out.
Despite all this, my father idealized the Michigan of his childhood. It was always better than California–simple and good without the rough edges. And, as a kid, my father was kind to me, coached my teams, took me camping and taught me how to fish, how to use an axe, how to spot a deer’s tracks in the woods.
He never went to college but he found a good job as an engineer after going to trade school and learning how to draft. We lived in a ranch house. My mom didn’t work. We were middle class. He used to drive around with whiskey and orange juice in a coffee cup. He taught me to throw the high inside fastball and foul the other guy so hard in basketball that he would remember not to drive on you again. He tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to fix cars.
Things went downhill later, in my teens, when my Dad’s professional life stalled out. He became bitter, started to drink even more, got screwed over at work and lost his job. Then the downward spiral–the failed businesses, the sad affair, the divorce.
I can remember going back home to visit and spotting the bottles of whisky hidden all around the house and the garage, as if no one would notice. In the morning his hands shook before the first drink. Then he got sentimental or mean.
My father turned down the path of resentment and, after awhile, there was nothing left to talk about but sports.
When he got weak and sick, it wasn’t pretty. Once he pulled out the IV in the hospital, escaped, and drove out of state to go bowling.
Tough it out.
Thus far, I have tried not to replicate my father’s mistakes, though I must admit I am perpetually amazed that I have not messed up more than I have. Let’s just say that I did not enter into fatherhood with great confidence. But here I am–still married, not at the bottom of a bottle, and mindful of mixing in a lot more unconditional love of my son with the occasional discourse on toughing it out.
Like my father, I take my son to the woods to teach him how to camp, but when we find tracks in the forest, all we are hunting is the wonder of sighting a deer, a bear, or some other wild creature. Around the campfire we tell stories, eat canned beans, and listen to the crackle of burning wood and the mysterious sounds in the trees all around us.
These times in the woods had always been full of joy and discovery until last summer, when the hard edge of the world of experience punctured my eleven-year-old’s innocence too early. After being diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia, my son had to struggle with the painful side effects of his medication, laboring through the last half of his little league season and the end of his elementary school year with great courage and grit as his body became accustomed to the pills that keep him alive.
It was then, during our first trip after his diagnosis, after the worst of it seemed to be ebbing, that something about the achingly serene twilight that hovered over the pine-lined meadow by our campsite got to him. Suddenly and uncontrollably he wept at the thought that we all die and that–even though we love him–we would die and leave him some day.
He wept because we are all born and die alone.
He wept because everything we cherish most dearly is sure to be lost.
What struck him there, in the dark forest of himself, was the fact that the universe waits for us all, as Baldwin put it, “hungry like a tiger.”
If anyone thinks they have something to say to an eleven-year-old child in the midst of a moment like that, they are surely lying to themselves or confusing clichés with wisdom. Nonetheless, in the face of my inadequacy, I struggled to talk about how, though we all die, we are part of something larger than ourselves; that, even in terms of matter, we are a little piece of a bigger self. We talked about God, Buddhism, Native American spiritual beliefs.
I even tried the old courage teacher’s line from “Song of Myself” about how “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”
As he nodded and cried, I remembered distinctly a moment from my own childhood, sitting on my bed in my room after church when the whole world emptied out, and I pondered the possibility that maybe really nothing was at the heart of everything and nobody was there to make it all right. I didn’t have the words for it then, but it was a sense of being “thrown,” a deep angst. I was never the same afterward, never able to fit myself back inside the world of pure innocence.
In the end, my son lay in my arms in the tent for a while before we got up, and I led him past the fire, a few feet into the meadow in the pitch dark.
“Look up,” I said, “the stars!”