Essays — January 27, 2014 11:35 — 0 Comments

Remembering Myself Reading Derridà – Hege Lepri

“This is just the beginning,” my father says, handing me two of the boxes from his vantage-point half-way up the ladder. The stuffy smell of mould and dust creates an aura around the boxes. The brown cardboard is turning grey and green in certain spots. I’ve spent weeks worrying about this chore. Old nightmares have returned to ride me across the night sky. Though gentler and more forgiving than they used to, they have me worried.

The way these boxes present themselves, I’ve just been handed a quick way out. There can’t possibly be anything salvageable inside. One decision, a few quick movements, and I can leave this house and be rid of it all. Dad and I could go for a walk instead, I could say goodbye to the boathouse and the woodshed, his real homes.

Or maybe he’ll be angry that I steer away. I never know beforehand. He is someone who’s a stranger to indecision. In all these years of procrastination and visits too short for confrontation and closure, how many times have I passed under the attic entrance? How many times has he thought why doesn’t she just het her act together and finish something for once?

“This bad?” I say. Someone needs to say something.

My father is on his way up the pull-down ladder again. He hasn’t heard me, or he doesn’t feel like answering. There is a sense of purpose to his steps that I haven’t seen in years. There are signs of that purpose in almost every room. The built in bookshelves my mother wanted repainted for decades, have gone from seventies brown to a bright white she would have liked. The door my sister put her foot half way through in her turbulent teens, has been replaced.

I place the boxes side-by-side on the floor, weighing my choices. How much precious time will I waste by going through this stuff? My father needs this house cleared and emptied this week. This is the final deadline. I should be grateful he didn’t take the situation into his own hands and throw all my stuff in the dumpster months ago, when he had the house listed and started talking about this. I suspect the state of his knees may have been a contributing factor. Another one of those things he doesn’t talk about.

“It seems I flew up here just to give more work to the garbage collectors,” I say. He drones something into the hollowness of the attic, but I can’t make out what it is. If it were my mother, she’d have said something about me never coming to visit unless there’s an emergency. With him, it’s always hard to guess.

I decide to catalogue it as an act of grace, being allowed to see these things one last time. I squat down, trying to open the first box without rupturing its fibres. I insert my fingernail in the slit between the two limbs of cardboard covering the first box, trying to avoid touching the dusty surface. This must be from my second year of university. The first year went into one big bonfire as I finally liberated myself from math and science by changing programs.

Or maybe that’s how I choose to remember it. I recall an exceptional midsummer pyre that year that I unshackled myself, and the papers and notes and scribbles from that first university-year are all long gone. I know that because my sister went looking for them once, God knows why. Maybe I just pieced the fragments of memory together into a coherent story to make sense of them.

Two folders and a bundle of photocopies, articles, exercises, and then the eight black notebooks. The faded title-pages of the bundled articles still allow me to recognize the names, Northrop Frye – Barthes – Stuart Hall – Foucault. I try to recall the specificity of every theory those names represent, but it’s all faded, if not completely gone. For a moment I consider reading a bit, to remind myself of what I thought was so important to save. Then I hear Dad’s steps again. I stand up, restoring the blood circulation to my legs, and toss all the photocopies into to the big, black belly of plastic. Dismembering is easier than remembering.

I look at them as they fall. The folders are made of recycled green paper, ripped at the back and more than ready for a second recycling. In a glimpse, I see myself with ripped jeans, buying this first generation of green products, thinking finally something is happening, finally we’re moving towards a greener future.

I stare up at my dad, trying to imagine where he might have been while I thought I was saving the future. He wasn’t much older then than I am now. But his back is turned to me, and his upper body is swallowed up by the attic. Maybe he prefers not to see me go through my past.

The notebooks are more orderly than I recall them. It’s as if someone already went through all this to save my reputation for posterity. It could have been me. The idea of a posterity where someone would care about what I once thought, was still very alive in me at twenty-one.

The second box looks similar on the outside but as soon as I touch the first folder, the contents start leaking out. There are a quite few pictures of people I barely recollect, several post-cards from Inger and Ellen, who were dear to me for the duration of a course, newspaper-clippings and comic strips that captured the time we were in. I feel slightly dizzy. The words of a Swedish psychologist I once interpreted for at a conference ring in my ears. People, when they go through their albums, will find them filled with moments of utter insignificance: people they can’t remember, in strange poses, with the Eiffel tower or a roast pig as props. Because in the middle of living and fighting through our existence, we’re too busy doing just that to take pictures.  “These will have to go,” I say to myself, “this is not telling me anything about what happened.”

I start on the notebooks, only some of them have labels: Introduction to philosophy, Introduction to literary criticism, Social theory II. I open one of the nameless ones, in the middle. It is a strange contrast to the orderly outside. Half the words are crossed out, then rewritten above, as if to remind myself of what I had discarded. Different coloured ink, almost produces a Rorschach effect. It must be at least twenty years since I thought about Rorschach. I turn to the first page, even if I now am certain what this is. There is nothing outside the text, it says, then a doodled heart and Jacques Derridà.

I blush at my own innocence even after all these years. How cultured I felt and how little I understood. I played with these theories and texts, sometimes close to understanding, sometimes just looking into a black abyss. How I felt I was treading on sacred ground that year. My mind and lips wide open.

Suddenly I wish I could talk to someone about this, about my burning interest in Derridà, about seeing the world through his lens. Dad won’t do, he’s a man of few words, with a passion for chopping and stacking wood.

There are no pictures of myself sitting in the lecture hall, mouth gaping, ready to take in anything that would bring me closer to the fire. But still, I see myself clearly there. I knew I was about to become the kind of person I always aspired to be. I just needed one more grain of understanding or perspective to join the knights of knowledge.

I leaf through the rest of the pages, the lines and arrows, connecting illegible fragments, then the pages with holes from writing and erasing, writing and erasing, then just open, empty, white space.

Dad is on his way down the ladder again. Empty-handed. He looks directly at me. “If you haven’t decided what to do with those yet, maybe we should get ourselves some coffee, to think more clearly.”

The kitchen seems to have grown in the two years since Mom passed. The clutter that came from nowhere and developed a life of its own, is now completely gone. The smell of her baking has evaporated too. He takes out two cups and saucers of what used to be the good china. I notice that the gold décor is wearing off. So finally, he’s rebelled against my mother’s dictate never to put her wedding porcelain into the harsh reality of the dishwasher. The smell of the arctic style coffee hits my nostrils like a pang. So that’s what making the counters seem so big, he’s abandoned drip coffee to go back to the old method from his youth. I see him by the old brown kettle on the stove, waiting for all the coarsely ground beans to sink to the bottom. I hope he has milk in the house, because I’m not sure I can stomach this kind of brew after decades of drinking espressos and lattes.

He takes out an unopened bag of cookies and puts it in front of me, then pours the coffee and says, “Please, help yourself.” I never would have thought him able to stay off sugars as well as he’s doing, even though it’s easier now without the constant baking going on in the house. He looks good, so it must be paying off. For a moment, I think of complimenting him but decide against it. I get up and go to the fridge to fetch the milk. As I pass by the window on the way back to my chair, I see the fiord reflecting the clouds and the yellows and reds of trees on the other side. Despite the clarity of the image, it takes time for me to distinguish where the original ends and the reflection begins.

“Is something wrong?” Dad asks.

I shake my head. “You know, after all these years I’m stunned every time I look out this window, this place has beauty enough for a lifetime. I need to take it in before I fly down south again.”

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” He looks at me with his clear, kind eyes. “And it will still be here for you to see even after this house is sold.”

I nod. I know he’s right. And if I had really wanted to hold on to it, I could have taken him up on the offer to buy the house at the low price he offered me. Only then what would I do? A woman can’t live off a spectacular view alone. And beauty doesn’t heal all wounds.

“I see you’ve been using the good cups a lot,” I say.

He smiles. “I reckon I’m old enough that I have to stop saving stuff for later. My new motto is, either you use it or you lose it.”

I sip the much too strong coffee and add more milk. Maybe that’s the trigger behind his keenness to have me come here and go through my old boxes. Not much I can use there. The only possible exceptions are the white spaces that I could doodle on while talking on the phone, or use to make grocery lists.

As I force down the much too milky, much too cold coffee, I suddenly remember the white spaces. Somewhere between We are all mediators, translators, and I think there is naturally a desire, for whoever speaks or writes, to sign in an idiomatic, irreplaceable manner, I was sitting in my dorm room alone. I was stretched to my limit and I knew because I heard the first breaking sounds. Certain squeaks in my joints, a hum from somewhere between my throat and oesophagus. The page’s urge to be written upon and my inability to write, and how my whole body knew.

The stretching and trying to reach went on for long enough to be etched into me as a clear picture that I can return to. I saw it again, piercingly for the duration of a long contraction right as I was beginning to push my baby out, years later. And then for brief glimpses when I’ve watched my child struggle to stay on the monkey bars or tie her shoe laces, or some other task too great for her. I’ve seen myself in her in those moments, in my overextended state.

Dad has got up from his chair and is shuffling objects around in one of the kitchen cabinets. He doesn’t seem preoccupied with what I’ve found or remember. Maybe all he really wants is some help to empty the house.

I close my eyes to evoke the rest. This room is too bright to see what came later. What happened after the initial noises is distorted, as if my focus went off. I remember the heaviness of my bed and the sound of earwax making its way down through my ear.

At a certain point Mom was there, yelling intermittently “but you have to get up” and “how can you live in this pigsty?” I don’t know who called her. Dad may have been there, but I don’t see his face in that room. He, in his common-sense firmness must have stayed in the background, trying to make sense of me before deciding what to do.

Later Mom calmed down and just whispered her messages in my ear, messages I didn’t need to answer. She held me in a firm embrace and I kept repeating Derrida’s words I speak only one language and it is not my own. Dad said nothing: no whispers, no cries.

And Mom took me home and Dad still wasn’t there. I don’t know how, maybe they gave me something, but one day I was in my old room, in my old bed, watching the Blu-tack slowly give out its last oils, leaving permanent stains on the Dépêche Mode-posters I had forgotten to take down.

And bowls of stew and soup kept appearing – new ones before I even had time to taste the last one. And Mom kept saying we all feel better after we’ve had something to eat. But Dad wasn’t there, so the all just hung there in the air. And then she sat on my bed, whispering, “It’ll be OK, I’m sure of it, just you try to eat something,” putting a spoon to my lips so my chin got stained with soup I couldn’t swallow. And still Dad wasn’t there. Was he out chopping wood like he used to? Or down at the boathouse sniffing tar, listening to the waves?

I open my eyes and look straight at him. “So are you ready to move on, from all these memories?” I hear the bite in my words too late.

He stares at his cup, like he’s studying the pattern created in the worn-off gold-leaf.

“I don’t see it like that,” he says slowly. “I think the memories stay, we just stack them differently.” Then he looks at me with his soft blue eyes. I think of how beautifully he stacks his wood.

“You think so?” I say. “For me this house seems to hold it all, the good and the bad. Maybe selling it will feel liberating, like starting with a clean slate.”

He needs to think, to answer that. I’ve never seen anyone display their thinking on their face, and then hide the result of that thinking as well as Dad.

“Me, the older I get, the more I see the use in old things and lessons learnt long ago,” he says. He strokes his smooth head.

“Maybe I didn’t learn much from my lessons,” I say. “There seems to be a lot of painful blanks.”

I think of the taste of paper, how it sticks to your palate and almost makes you choke. How you need to rip it into really tiny pieces to get it down. I remember Mom’s brown clogs stopping in the middle of a white field. Snow! Only the snow was made of paper, and I was eating it even if eating snow is bad for you. How Mom stopped whispering and started throwing books and notebook paper loudly into boxes. And the sound of my voice, that was somebody else’s voice, speaking a language that wasn’t mine, when Mom had removed everything from the shelves and started on the bedside table.

It was Dad who drove me to the hospital. I don’t know when he appeared. Mom still in a corner covering her ears from the all the things my voice had to say. She was wearing a pair of green corduroys, the brown clogs and a shirt that didn’t match.

Did I ever take the time to talk to her about it before it was too late? Did I tell her I didn’t mean all the things I said? She must have known, but I could have acknowledged I was wrong.

I look at Dad. He’s so at home in this dance of words and silence.

“Who boxed up all that stuff all those years ago? I can’t recollect all of it, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t able to organize much in the state I was in.”

He looks at me with surprise. “I was sure you knew. I stayed behind in your dorm while your mother took you home. Someone had to clean up your room before handing back the key.”

I blush as if it happened this morning. “Were you shocked at seeing how I had messed up?” There’s a blank stare, but I insist. “I mean, first I skipped out of engineering, and then went completely off my rails in philosophy.”

I speak as an aspiring stand-up comedian, but the lightness doesn’t hit him where it should. He gets up and clears the table of the cups and the unopened cookies.

He fixes some point out there in the landscape he’ll soon move away from. Then he clears his throat. “You know, shocked is not the right word.” His face is illuminated by the afternoon sun. I think about how in a month the sun will already have set at this hour. The kitchen will be dark, and he will be elsewhere.

He clears his voice again. “After your Mom took you home on the train, I stayed and went through every single book and note you’d written for clues to what went wrong. I needed to understand what happened. That’s why it took me so long.” He sounds confident and solid.

I wish I too had a fiord to calm my voice. Instead I look at the kitchen cabinets thinking I’ll miss the worn pine with all its dents and cracks. “If you did find out, I hope you’ll tell me,” I say. “I still have dotted lines I need to fill in.”

He turns around. “Nothing went wrong,” he says. I look at his bald head, shaped just like mine, and wonder how he can say such a thing. I lost seven months in that breakdown. No pictures. No memories. No books. And the after was nothing like the before.

He’s playing tag with his eyes to meet my gaze. “Nothing went wrong. You had a fire in you. A good fire.”

I look down, feeling the tannins of the coffee etch their way down towards my stomach.

He pauses, waiting for my eyes to reappear.

“And you got burnt. But it was still a good fire. It’s better to feel a fire and get burnt than to never feel it.”

My eyes go moist from too much understanding, too much love. I walk over to the sink and squeeze his elbow. That’s how much we can touch without awkwardness seeping out, filling the whole room. He smells like he used to, a mixture of Old Spice and neutral soap, the odours of a careful, dependable man. A man who stacks wood, with a secret admiration for fire-eaters. I stay there, right next to him, until I fall into the rhythm of his breath. This is how I want to remember us.


Hege is a Toronto-based translator and writer, who's returned to creative writing after a twenty year break. In a former life she was a technical writer and project manager in Tuscany. Before that she was a sociologist in Norway. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in J Journal, Boston Literary Magazine and NANO fiction.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney