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Memoir Notebook: Elements of Style

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memoir notebook onions

Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer works. We want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Come away with us and Wm. Anthony Connolly. Today, he’s cutting onions. Or is he?

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Background

This is about an onion and a goat.

Naturally

Aging is natural but not at all relative; the former term is used by anyone over the age of twenty to rationalize sleeping with someone half their age. At my age the phrase is used with great abandon in advertising, anecdotes and when convincing oneself it’s okay to shop for clothes at Hollister when you have jeans older than its sales clerks. At my age, not young, but not yet old, I feel I’m beyond lying to myself. But of course I can’t be too sure.  My insouciant attitude toward my own truthfulness is probably cloaked dishonesty, although I don’t quite know what I might want to hide. Perhaps that is my problem. Ah the melancholy of everything completed, naturally.

Suitable Design

I always liked the image of an onion. You know your life is like an onion, peel its layers away and all you’re left with is bitter tears. I put that in a poem once when I was thirteen – I know exactly what you’re thinking: What does a thirteen-year-old know about life? So now I think of the onion, such a suitable design to exemplify layers, as the past peeled of skin until there is little left but tears, but tears do not come now because I have broken bread and placed it in my mouth. It’s one of the things grandmothers and mothers tell their sons – When you’re cutting onions, clamp down on a piece of bread so the loaf sticks out of your mouth. It absorbs the wafting onion fumes.

Nouns and Verbs

The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular, said Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s a sentiment hard to express without sounding pretentious. Even the writer’s name is enough to send some people into an apoplectic seizure. The demands of people, those who envy you, in particular, are such that you are forced into lying to them in order to protect them further discomfort and allow you to get back to your latte. And apparently, it’s never enough to share the sentiment; you must defend it thus illustrating the very principle at its heart. It’s all nouns and verbs, and which ones it hardly matters, when all the person wants to hear is that it’s not about them or that it’s all about them, every last syllable.

Revise and Rewrite

The onion isn’t the past; it’s redemption. Wait, no not redemption. It’s the world’s oldest antique. I scratch this out with purple ink in the fugitive pages of my notebook.

No: The onion is redemption.

When I was all of seven my Irish great-grandmother took me aside and told me a story about a dream she had. We sat in one of those window boxes overlooking the Grass Market in Edinburgh; the cobbled street below, where they hung witches, bustled with commerce. My great-grandmother was frail and very old – physically my memory of her is that of a white blur. She spoke in a whisper. She said in the dream she grew onions. In the dream my grandmother said she wasn’t well liked, and she got the impression she didn’t like anyone else either, so it was mutual. She never did a kind thing in her life, the life in the dream, until a beggar came by and she gave him an onion. She was done telling me her dream. My great-grandmother wanted to know if I knew what it was about. I know what you’re thinking: What does a seven-year-old know about dreams? I shook my head and held her delicate hand. We looked out the window. Going to rain, she said, it’s going to rain.

Overwrite

Syphilis is the sweetest sounding word in the English language, a high school English teacher once told my classmates and me. It’s the Ss and the gentle P. It’s so beautiful you’d love to call your daughter that, Syphilis and her date Sisyphus. But we clamored, it’s a sexually-transmitted disease. That’s okay, there’s a board game called Life, commercials say You Deserve a Break Today and comedians intone that Jesus Is Magic.

Overstating

At a very early age I was certain I was being observed or studied by people in white lab coats with clipboards, hiding behind two-way mirrors and other concealed see-through screens. My life was one gigantic experiment. Everything was being noted and recorded. I was that important. When I was six, my first girlfriend Yvette told me it was true. She then gave me a handful of sequins and told me they were magic. Any answer I gave on the math test we were about to take would be correct, if I held the sequins tight in my fist and thought about it. And it worked! The answers came to me in a flash. A week later when I got the math test back and found most of the answers had a giant red X marked beside them I began my lifelong unease with mathematics. Getting the math test back and having failed it instilled in me an understanding that everyone is in on the observation by the white lab coats, even little redhead pixie Yvette.

Qualifiers

My mother was thirty-three when she had me. I was born in the odd month: two sisters born in September; two brothers in May. And me, I’m the baby of the family, born in chilly November. As the baby, I got what whatever I wanted, even the prize inside the cereal box. Even though I am now the age of parenthood myself, I am still the baby and still find after all this time I enjoy the feeling of digging into scratchy Froot Loops for decals and plastic super-secret decoder rings.

Breezy Manners

One of the things I remember most about my older brother is that he didn’t like small talk. It drove him crazy the way people wasted their lives talking about the most inane things. Why this sticks in my mind now almost thirteen years after his death still mystifies me. I’m with my bro on that one. Anecdotes and gossip and breezy manners… it’s enough to make you queasy. I hope when I see him next, in whatever guise affords me, we’d talk about more than weather or how thin Nicole Richie has become.

Orthodox

There’s a story in the Bible about some villagers and a goat. As the story goes, the people are worried and scared and they don’t know what to do with their woe. So they get a goat and load all their concerns into packs, place the packs on the goat’s back and set the animal free to wander in the wilderness. By letting the goat go, the conventional wisdom went, the villagers were free of their worry and their fright.

In fact, that’s how Ireland disposed of St. Patrick’s corpse – they loaded his remains onto an ox-cart, slapped the ox’s arse, and let the cart wander through the glens and vales as birds picked the body apart.

Do Not Explain Too Much

If for some reason I would have to evaluate myself I am sure that I would do so without shame or concern for my reputation. But if I should be asked about someone else, I would be considerably more guarded. There is a danger there in passing judgment. I could exaggerate, explain too much, and provide erroneous information. I would probably lie. The world is chock full of unreliable narrators, some of the most undependable are memoirists. So rather than commit these sins – little is definitive – I remain silent and away from most people. I find more and more I am against interpretation and the offering up of it. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.

This has meant that I find myself largely alone. This isn’t something to be upset about; it’s a statement of truth, and in a lot of ways it’s what I prefer. All I ask of life is to be left alone and to have a chance to do the things I like to do, however superficial they may appear or silly and overdone when read. You write purple prose, my theology professor once said to me, and grinned. Wager wafted in the gauzy air of his book-lined hovel from some unseen source amid so many spines.

Years later, maybe now and perhaps in a hopeful scenario, likewise adrift from some mystical source, an angel of white hair and frail hands, a blur, descends and offers me an onion. She has stuffed in her mouth a piece of bread.

Take and eat.

And magic returns like a tiny heap of sequins in the palm of my hand.

Photo by The Hills are Alive. Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Wm. Anthony Connolly, author of Get Back.

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Your Comments

6 Comments so far

  1. Beautifully written.

  2. Donna says:

    Anthony I love to read your words…. And I was laughing at the first section, naturally…. having just come from the dreaded chore of shopping for a dress. Looking at the dresses today was accompanied by the constant questioning of “how does this style match my true 53 years?” Naturally I put back the ones I would have bought back in the days when I enjoyed the chore. ;0)

  3. L. L. Barkat says:

    i like the tiny heap of sequins at the end. I just do.

    It’s not big magic, after all. It fits in the hand. But it’s got the air of something powerful in any case.

  4. Do Not Explain Too Much is my favorite bit. And this line in particular: The world is chock full of unreliable narrators, some of the most undependable are memoirists. (It sorta scares me because I’m writing a memoir – yet it seems something of a dare too.)


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