Seeing It Now

By Allison Backous

“Just as the artwork can shape an existence…so the revelatory event proves able to place us in touch with an absolutely satisfying and complete hold on the reality that blesses us with its own truth, even if it calls on us for a painful reshaping of our lives.”

—Aidan Nichols, The Art of God Incarnate

The first nonfiction course I took, in college, was liberating. I had been writing poems and short stories since middle school, but after entering college, I fell in love with the scholarly essay, and spent my time reading Augustine and Plato, the poems left in a binder.

But then I had to read Joan Didion’s “Why I Keep a Notebook,” where she makes a claim that, somehow, set me free:

Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

The remembering does not come easily. And it certainly does not guarantee that others will hear it with joy.

To see yourself on the page is to be vulnerable; to see yourself at the mercy of another’s hand is quite another.

This past week, I had an encounter with my family about a piece of writing that hurt them deeply. It was too raw and depicted them in a light they felt was insulting.

It was the first time this has happened to me. I have shared my writing with other family members before, but have always received a blessing: “You go on ahead and write, sweetheart, because you’re a writer, and this is good.”

Now I was in trouble.

I’m not good at being in trouble. I can justify most anything, and when this happened I spent a whole day looking for that justification. I have the right, I thought, to follow this any way I please. I’m not the one who did these things.

What frightened me the most in saying this to myself was not the individualism, or the self-righteousness, or the ugliness of my anger.

What frightened me was that phrase, I’m not the one, come back to haunt me: it was a phrase that Dayne, my mother’s boyfriend, used in arguments, his voice high and hoarse, both of us standing in the kitchen in the early morning, the police already sent away.

I am not Dayne, and am not responsible for the dark events that shaped my childhood. But I am responsible for how I interpret them; I am responsible for the ways I describe my mother, my father, my siblings, my hometown. I am responsible for seeking an image that holds all these things together, for seeking it honestly, without fear of my family’s response or a resort to blind resentment.

I don’t believe that Didion gave me license for narcissism; if anything, her cool, distant tone is a sign of indirect humility—a way of standing off to the side, fully aware that sight is often skewed by untrained desires.

But what Didion helped me see was that those days of reading Plato, and of writing crappy poems, were all part of my ongoing search for perception—I turned to Plato, and to Didion, not just for a vision to explain my work, but for the ability to see things clearly.

Aidan Nichols, an expert in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, claims that works of art are inexhaustible in their meaning—we have so many kinds of criticism, historical and literary and what have you, because a real piece of art has “un-mined depth.”

And so many of our responses, even with the criticisms we offer, are simple, purely “emotive,” and in need of a further clarification.

That clarification, Nichols says, comes from the capacity of art to pierce, and shed, that emotive response—not to do away with it, but to refine it, to allow both viewer and object to connect, “commune.”

I’m realizing more and more that this is what I’m being led to do—that the first approaches I made in writing about my life are being stripped, reduced, clarified. That the images I’m looking for hold together in some holy way, an icon I cannot yet behold.

At Thanksgiving, my mother asked me, “What good things do you remember from your childhood? What happy things?”

She was desperate to hear me rattle them off, afraid that I wouldn’t. But the image that came clearly to me was one that I’ve been trying to write about for years, a single, sunlit memory:

I was four or five, and it was early morning, in our house in Lowell, the kitchen lined with brown and cream wallpaper. It was summer, and my mother had cut up a ripe tomato, salted it, and set me on the hardwood floor, eating the red fruit with my fingers.

I remember drinking the juice from the bowl, salt and seeds in my mouth. I remember my mother at the counter, hair curled around her shoulders, hands busy with another tomato, the morning light opening to both of us through the window, neither of us aware of the quiet joy holding us both.

I remember it now. I see it, now.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.