A memory now thirty years in the making
I am fascinated by the sources of epiphany because I was raised as a Pentecostal. In fact, the church that my parents attended when I was young was called Epiphany House. It’s the best name for a church that I’ve ever heard. I’m no longer religious, but I have transferred many of the tropes from my childhood into my conception of art. It’s too late to change that: I’m 47. I’m not capable — never will be capable — of approaching the page without a hunger for awakening, some smoldering ember from those tent meeting revivals.
It was a shock for me to discover in graduate school that there were artists who did not approach their craft in this way. Tobias Wolff is one of my major influences, but I really hate one of the epigraphs he chose for his award-winning memoir This Boy’s Life. It’s a line from Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” It’s true that there is no such thing as a singular and authentic self just waiting to be recovered through memory. Writing memoir requires reconstructing our lives, interrogating our recollections, and framing them with meaning. But to say that memoir is just a series of poses that we strike, rather than a good faith attempt at conveying some truth about our lives (as we understand it), would be akin to saying that love is just a string of pretty words — nothing more than a dream that we allow ourselves to believe. I reject that view.
What I’m after when I go searching through my past is discovery. Sometimes placing two memories side by side illuminates something in each that I’d never seen before. Often I’m doing what you’ll see in this piece: moving between the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. The voice of innocence is the younger self immersed in the moment, the boy or young man who doesn’t yet know what that moment means. The voice of experience is the older self trying to make sense of it all, hopefully not with an Aesop-like nugget of wisdom, but with a good faith attempt at clarity. As the memoirist, I am both of these voices. Wolff seems to imagine himself as a puppet master orchestrating a series of maneuvers between his older and younger selves for literary effect. But I’m genuinely trying to explain my life to myself, in hopes that by doing so I unlock something in a reader’s understanding of their own life.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in River Teeth in 2005. I’m sharing it here because the central metaphor extends our conversation about epiphany. And I’d be curious about your thoughts: Do you think epiphanies about the past are possible? Can an epiphany be real and still be only partially true? Or must we concede the point to Wolff and other postmodernists who suggest that epiphany is an illusion, that there is no underlying truth, and that the story we’re telling is just one of many possible constructions? Or might you frame these questions differently?
This piece also responds to this week’s essays byand at . Sam reflects on the difference between art that attempts to be truthful and is, therefore, interesting — compared to art that is avoidant and insincere. Eleanor recalls learning of a friend’s death on her wedding day, how the happiest day of her life was also clouded by grief.
Big waterfalls leave no doubt about where the shore ends and the river begins, but a dam upriver can confuse things. Kootenai Falls used to be a solid sheet of water at the top, cascading some thirty feet down two sides of a rock island. The channels met up again a hundred yards downstream, tossing a wall of spray at the junction — adrenalized — then roiling over a series of smaller falls in one strong current. The Kootenai people, who knew Montana before I did, call it holy ground.
I first saw Kootenai Falls ten years after the dam had been built. My parents must have taken me during spring runoff, because highwater still crashes through my memory, the swollen channel surging up against the ledge where I stood, a whole log flung in the air where the forks met, the grey-brown churn of the water, spray on my cheeks, fish scale smell.
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