Tunneling Through the Dark: On Memoir, Memory, Marriage
About the Writer
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Essay Daily, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Palm's writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in fiction and nonfiction, a Derringer Award, Best of the Net, and the Best Short Fictions anthology.
I arrived at the City Museum in St. Louis with a vague memory of a friend’s summary of her experience there. “It’s crazy,” she had said. “An architectural marvel,” she called it. My husband and I paid the entrance fee and, after determining that there was no museum map to help guide our exploration, began wandering the first floor. To our left was a wide, colorful stairway. The room to our right contained climbing structures for kids and the delta of a slide. It was spitting kids out every twenty seconds or so. “This must be the kids’ area,” I remember saying as we bypassed the room in search of the adult stuff.
But there was nothing else beyond that room, so we returned to the “kids’” section to re-visualize the place and figure out what we had missed. “It’s weird that there’s no map,” I said. “How are you supposed to figure out what to do?”
Here, I should pause to provide some context: I had joined my husband on a work trip to St. Louis in a joint effort to redirect our relationship. Or save it. Or reclaim it. I could plug in a dozen action verbs, and many of them would fit. Perhaps recall is a good one. We were recalling our marriage. Recalling as in taking it out of the hands of its current owners in order to fix something and return it to them in working order. Recalling as in remembering what our relationship was all about before our kids and jobs and frequent absences reigned. I had had the flu just before the trip and still wasn’t feeling my best. Now, our fun day out was turning out to be a bust. I wasn’t completely up to the task of harnessing what was left of the day into something enjoyable, but then, that’s partly how we’d gotten here: lack of effort.
We took a second look in the kids’ area. Everyone—kids and adults alike—seemed to be heading through the play structure openings. We followed suit with little enthusiasm, unsure of what would come next.
We entered a hallway—or was it a tunnel? The further we walked, the more the opening narrowed. In a few seconds, we had to stoop to continue onward. Children scurried like rodents through smaller tunnels that ran in parallel to ours. What was this place?
As we pressed onward, more openings presented themselves along our path in the way one thought spurs the next and one memory scrapes the topsoil off another that’s buried. I was still inside the museum, but I soon felt lost. There were openings only young children could fit through, medium sized ones that—if we were willing and brave enough—we could scuttle through on our hands and knees. I broke off the easiest path for one of these smaller openings, ducking into it without warning my husband. “Seriously?” he called after me, but I was already scooting deeper into the darkness. “Come on,” I said. And in a second he was somewhere behind me on his hands and knees in the pitch black. We both laughed a bit uneasily, and soon we were laughing in earnest.
To put it simply: we were having fun. Carefree, childlike fun. The exhilarating kind of fun that comes with a twinge of fear. Falling in love kind of fun.
I remembered, while crawling through a tunnel, my mother taking me and my brother to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, where I learned the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. I remembered being smaller and nearer the ground. The smell of dampness and the density of air about to burst with water. That leaden second before rain. Then, I remembered going out into the backyard late at night hesitating at the edge of the seemingly impassable, dewy grass that in daytime was so familiar and inviting. Then, the joy of darting through it beneath the moon, which was somehow more invigorating at night than during the day. One memory led to the next.
I experience a similar exuberance when maneuvering through memory in writing leads me to something I’ve forgotten or when it reveals a nuance I’ve previously glossed over.
The inside of the City Museum was a gigantic network of caves and tunnels that resembled the inside of a toy ant farm. There were hundreds of combinations of paths upward and downward and across the ten-story monstrosity. We tried most of the ones we could fit inside, but we surely missed many others. Some were easily traversed with wide, dimly lit hallways, while others were completely unlit and cramped, leaving us with nothing but our hands as guides.
Memoir writing, too, begins with the half-revealed and the half-shaded. With a room full of easily-missed openings into memory. Each one will lead you somewhere. Some are harder to pass through than others. Some will turn out to be dead ends. Some will lead you to an unexpected place. Others will only take you back to the beginning. Every memory chosen for closer examination helps determine the path writing takes.
In the City Museum, you have to find your own way. There is no map.
There is endless advice available on how to succeed in both marriage and memoir writing. There are always easier paths, but they may not be as interesting. Or as rewarding. Or as tailored to your individual situation. There is wisdom that comes with time and experience. But as in the City Museum tunnels, you just have to find your way. One blind turn at a time.