The Water Cycle


Past, Present, Future and I are all in the water.
I can’t speak for them, but I’m out of breath.

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In order to write a character, I follow them further than conception— beyond death. This is what I do with my own life, the lives of those I really love. I want to know.  I imagine (or remember) their first cries and imagine (or remember) their last. I trace them back to the first accident of life; I follow them to the asteroid or great flood. To water.

Elise Burke

July 15, 2016

Today (now, two days ago) the word of the day is (was) natant. Swimming or floating in water (Swam, or floated). It has me thinking.

I don’t think I am afraid of death, but I am worried about the time that doesn’t come back. I mean that I greater fear being alive, pulled through life, moving away from times that matter.

Because of this fear, I am a person who, when memory-making, stops to make record. I pull myself from a moment I am savoring, stepping out of the frame, to capture people I love doing what I was, one moment before, doing with them. Worse even: I am a person who asks others to turn the camera on, to sing louder, to dance harder, to start over, to keep going.

Most recently I have been replaying videos from seven years ago’s summer. There are a handful of clips that accompany the words and photographs and echoes memory provides. I have compiled for myself a range of evidence:

Here I am laughing into the camera because, look at how you all were dancing, drunkenly, sleep-deprived, yelping—flailing. Here I am shushing you because it’s 4AM and you are screaming since our friends finished the vodka. Here I am upside down on a couch reading poetry while you all pluck strings and whistle and clank spoons and Tuvin throat sing. Here we are outside on the curb at pre-sunrise and I am making serious eyes, telling you what to do so that I can see you do it later: in this case, sing a song I loved (love). Here I am looking up while you sing, smiling at that sky about to strike daytime.

Though I don’t have the records to prove it, I think it was later that day that you tried to teach me to ride on your sister’s bike (photographed) and then we stood in low tide at the dirt-beach at Cunningham Falls (also photographed). But we drove home (mine, not yours) without seeing the waterfall.

I won’t lie and say I wish I’d turned the cameras off in order to be more present. I am relieved that I asked others to turn on the camera, to sing louder, to dance harder, to start over, to keep going. I don’t like to admit that I am glad I tore myself away from those moments in service of the (since past) (present) future ones.

I have been asked: Is it that you are trying to freeze time?

13717933_10206925398628898_1524640402_oHave you ever seen a frozen waterfall? I haven’t, but I have pictured its quick freeze and the slow melt. I know about the cycle. How water is stored in ice, the ground, the atmosphere—how it runs in streams-rivers-oceans and fizzles up to do it all over again. How it lives and relives without stopping. So no, I am not trying to freeze time. I am just sticking my hand in the current, knowing that it might help me tolerate it better once the water’s rushed passed. Maybe, years later, it will help me better recognize it when I stick my hand in the current and water I have known rushes me again.

Water, ice, mist.

Yesterday, tomorrow, later.

My point (is) was that: This instinct I have to collect memories as they’re happening to get me through later—when they won’t be happening anymore—this is why I take the footage. It’s also what makes me write.

Evidence, you can follow toward facts.

You can tell, I suspect, that I am not a natural writer of nonfiction. I can’t report the truths coherently; I just want to wrangle them. I write and read, primarily, fiction. I just want to look at everything and wonder about its space in time—how it came to be, how it is, how it will be. I love this investigation, this imagining, this work.

In order to write a character, I follow them further than conception— beyond death. This is what I do with my own life, the lives of those I really love. I want to know.  I imagine (or remember) their first cries and imagine (or remember) their last. I trace them back to the first accident of life; I follow them to the asteroid or great flood. To water.

Time is confusing and my archives are disordered, but try to hang in:

I found a piece of writing from my seven-years-ago summer where I mention that, during a time I was so distracted by documenting, I’d shown my friend home movies from even further back—from my twenty-two-years-ago winter. I wrote that we stayed up all night watching my home movies on VCR (Nicole’s 7th birthday party and one of me at Zeyda’s farm [only me because Nicole was already sick]). Now, I am remembering the night we watched them—I am looking back at looking back. What I remember from that night proves what little point I can make about how I encounter time: I watched myself feed horses and sheep in one of these home videos. My palms were caked in dirt and feed. When the video ended and the pixels of my former self went black, I stood up instinctively to go wash my hands.

The people I loved (love) in those videos: a lot of them are dead. And a lot of people I love (loved) are alive now, but weren’t then.

You can tell, I suspect, that I am not great with pacing, either. I struggle with it in every draft. I am impatient. I want to be able to imagine and understand everything at the same time and I want time to be same. But, the rate at which things are revealed in good fiction—that you don’t reveal everything too soon—is pivotal.

Oh, I’m sorry this is abstract, that usually isn’t my speed. I’d like to provide an image—for grounding:

Here’s Past, Present and Future linking arms and saying: Red Rover, Red Rover, send Elise right over. I want to charge. But even this metaphor has limits, because suppose I broke through one set of arms (Past/Present or Present/Future) there would still be the other pair, even more tightly locked.

How’s this one: Chicken. I’m on the shoulders of Past. Present riding Future. We’re pushing each other’s shoulders and one of us is bound to fall into the water. Chances are we will both topple at some point because, you know, best two out of three. And then Past, Present, Future and I are all in the water. I can’t speak for them, but I’m out of breath. But we’re all buoyant. Floating. Natant.

I guess none of that helped. But what all this boils down to is that I am (still) alive. (And you, too.)

A good, fair writer would tell you more about that summer I keep referencing. You know it was (is) important by the way I mention it. You know it mattered. But, I’ve put the rifle on the wall and I know its lame, but it isn’t going off. Not today.

You could guess, I suspect, that I write primarily in first person, present tense. These instincts writers have might reveal something about us. Our specific preoccupations with self and time. Full disclosure: I also like to end, when I can, in future tense.

At the core of every piece of writing I love is this wonderful reminder; this delicious flinch: We’ll die, likely more quickly and easily, than we’ve lived. It’s hard, you know, to make meaning. Harder even to figure out what’s true. But haven’t you ever felt a pulse? Come on.

We’ve come a long way since we were sputtering atoms. Now we’ve got these minds that torture us with what we can’t forget and can’t remember. It’s flustering, to be a person.

I love this word: Natant. Word of today, yesterday, every day. I don’t want to freeze time, no. But I like being suspended within it, among it, happening. Swimming. Or floating. So that it all feels like part of the same life. My life.

Maybe this, too, is part of why I write fiction. I get to enter and reenter the lives of my narrators—moments with those they love—whenever I want. And maybe that’s why my novel takes place on an island, surrounded by water. The cycling from past, back to present, gone to future. And maybe that’s why when I go home, I will go to the river. To feel around for a familiar current.