The Mysteries of Time Passing

I’m reading a book now called The Order of Time by an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli. Its subject is time (duh), and more specifically what contemporary physics has to say about our received notions about time.

Rovelli asks questions like, why do we remember the past and not the future, do we exist in time or does time exist in us, and what does it really mean to say “time passes?”

He talks about the ways in which modern physics has basically upended everything we thought we knew about time. Our beliefs that it flows uniformly, runs in a measurable course from a fixed past to an open future, and so on . . . all our assumptions about time are provably false, Rovelli claims.

The book examines how our ideas about time have crumbled, and what we are left with.

Fascinating stuff.

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us still abide by those old verities of time. In this season particularly—when we count down the final days and hours of one year and look toward the beginning of a new year and the promises we hope it holds—we seem to be called to reflect on time. Not as an abstract concept of contemporary theoretical quantum physics, but in its more human aspect . . . we are drawn to think about how we used the time we had, what it meant for us, what we might do differently when we have the chances that (again, we hope) the coming year will allow us.

I’m especially fascinated by what I can only call the mysteries of time passing. I regret I don’t have a more nuanced vocabulary to describe what I mean here. This past year I turned 70, which has been more of an “uh-oh” milestone for me than I thought it would be. This year I’ve also been in touch with some friends whom I haven’t seen in decades, and even though I know intellectually that people age, it’s still a surprise to see how thirty or forty or fifty years turn dark hair white, expand thin waistlines, corrugate smooth skin . . . and seem to turn people I knew in their teens and twenties into their own grandparents.

One of my favorite photographers is a man named Milton Rogovin, who was an optometrist in Buffalo until he lost his profession when he was discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s. Then he became a social documentary photographer of people whom he called (as the title of one of his books says) “the forgotten ones” . . . working people whose lives were overlooked, as well as the poor and marginalized and immigrant communities who lived on the lower west side of Buffalo.

His genius was not only to focus his camera on those groups and reflect back to them the meaning of their own lives, but to return several years later to photograph them again, and then return years after that to photograph them once more.

His photos therefore take on an added temporal dimension. They become enormously moving documents that invite us to reflect on, among so many other things, what time does to people.

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One of the photos of his that I find most intriguing is the photo used for the cover of the book, The Forgotten Ones.

I love this photo. It’s  endlessly fascinating for me. I love the people and actions and setting it portrays; it continually invites me, as a writer, to enter into it imaginatively. It’s a partner to another photo of the same two men that Rogovin took years later, and the difference between the two is striking: youth and age, hope and despair, promise and failure.

I don’t have permission to post either the early or the late photo, but the one on the cover of the book is the early photo, so I feel pretty secure in posting that. My continued engagement with the photo resulted in the following poem, “Time Lapse.”

As I said, I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to do justice to my thoughts and feelings about the mysteries of time passing, but in this poem I try to use language to catch something.

 

Time Lapse

(after a photograph by Milton Rogovin)

How is it possible to capture
a moment in a life—
and not just any moment, but
the instant before everything changes,
youth goes to age, future goes to past,
might do goes to have done?—
because here are Johnny Lee Wines
and his friend Ezekiel Johnson
paused on the cusp of their lived lives
caught in a black-and-white photograph
in a lower west side Buffalo bar
in their hats and cut-rate disco clothes
after working all day at the ice factory
doing the Kung Fu Fighting
in nineteen-seventy-three, at
eleven twenty-six p.m. exactly
(how do we know that, you ask?
so says the Genesee Beer clock
cocked between two crooked Genesee signs
on the painted particleboard wall
preserving this moment forever)
with Johnny the hopping happy one
the one with personality
saucy untroubled face looking off
cigarette in hand pointing out to
the future where they both head
and Zeke, he’s the quiet one
behind his square shades, grooving
in his own cool way but without
Johnny’s sassy pop in the reek
of cigarette smoke and old beer
though in the next jolting second
time will change them both forever
when Johnny shifts his willowy weight
from right foot to left, right-angled ankle unbends
and the dancer turns away, all put-on cheek still,
and Zeke (he’s still the cool one)
shifts his hips on the tawdry
checkered linoleum bar floor
where they dance in nineteen-seventy-three
(Everybody was kung fu fighting
Them cats was fast as lightning
)
and their short-lived convexity
will alter and propel them forward
into what future awaits them,
where two tired and portly men
will stand in the bleak Buffalo snow
years from now in another photo,
after all the fights, reunions,
exiles, returns, mistakes,
regrets, chances lost, found, and lost again,
Johnny’s face sad and bloated with woe,
Zeke’s youthful cool now equally absent
in his worn-out and broken body
two casualties of the mysteries of time passing
that release their power in the instant
after Johnny and Ezekiel
jumped into the upcoming.

© 2019 Donald Levin

still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Revising

IMG_0559

Whether you’re just coming down from an adrenaline-fueled National Novel Writing Month high or you’ve been working at a more leisurely pace, at some point (if you stick with it) you’ll write “The End” on that first draft of your novel.

Good on ya! Feels great, doesn’t it?

So . . . now what?

Now comes what some authors (me included) consider to be THE crucial part of the entire process: revising. Here is where your book really comes together and you polish (or maybe discover) your unique vision and its execution.

I once read a good analogy for the first draft: its purpose is to get all the sand into the sandbox, so you can then start building your castle.

Your first draft is your raw material. It’s the revising that turns it into a book.

Sadly, there’s no magic formula for revision. It always depends upon what’s on the page and what you’re striving for, as well as your own background and experience.

In this brief post, I can’t cover the specifics of how to revise. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, checklists, and blog posts out there that will tell you exactly what and how to revise.

Sometimes these are helpful, sometimes not.

From my 20+ years of experience as a writer and another 20+ years as a teacher of writing, I’ve found there are some things that are helpful for writers to keep in mind about revising, as well as some critical mistakes that writers make when they try to revise.

Here’s my take on what those are.

1. Take a break.

It doesn’t do to jump right into revising when the draft is still hot. The general wisdom is to let the draft sit for a while, and in this instance the general wisdom is correct. Though your impulse might be to turn around and start in on the next version, let it cool down from the heat of composition. Take a break. Catch your breath. Clear your head. Reduce your sleep debt. Reintroduce yourself to your family. You need distance before you can move on.

IMG_0742
Some authors like a little help from their friends when they revise.

2. Remember what you’re up to.

Revising literally means “re-seeing.” You’re taking another look at your work with an eye toward making it as good as it can be. Some people distinguish between revising and rewriting; they say revising means working with the draft you have, whereas rewriting means tossing it all and starting over. I tend to conflate the two because I do some of both.

Revising is sparked by a conscious and critical assessment of a draft’s meaning, significance, and potential. It’s different from composing. And here’s where your reading background makes a real difference in how you approach your work; the more you’ve read, the more you’ll understand how your novel can (and should) take its place among the ongoing conversation of literature.

3. Remember what you’re NOT up to.

Revising does not mean either copyediting or proofreading. These are both key elements of bringing your work to completion, but they just get in the way if you do them too early.

Copyediting means bringing your draft into conformity with conventions of format, grammar, spelling, and punctuation; those tasks aren’t important now. “Proofreading” means reading a proof of your book and marking any typos or errors in grammar, style, or punctuation.

Neither of those help you with the substantive intellectual and creative act of revising. Sometimes a writer’s tendency is to start the work of revising at that level, thinking you’ll work up to the big stuff. Correcting those simple errors at the sentence level might feel good and make it seem as if you’re off to a good start.

But if that’s your impulse, you have to block it. Save that for the end. It’s just going to keep you from the real work you have to do, of “re-seeing” what you’ve written.

4. Start at the top and work down.

This doesn’t mean simply starting at the beginning. Rather, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about revising as a series of activities that move from the macro level (that is, the story level) to the micro level (the level of sentence structure and word choice). Even if you like to plunge into revising with a kind of “all-at-onceness” approach, consider these as conceptual guides for how you approach your project:

a. Revise for story structure and major plot points.

The story is the skeleton of your novel—what keeps it standing and moving. At this stage, you’re rethinking or even discovering the purpose of the book, what it is that drives the telling of the story, and sharpening the focus that gets your reader engaged.

Many authors look at their drafts in terms of “story beats”—that is, the key points of action that form the plot. These can be helpful, but even if you don’t think of the story in those terms, there will be high points of action or emotion that you should be aware of and craft for.

b. Revise for structure and development.

These are the muscles and tendons of your book. I like to think of this stage as being broken into different parts: character (thinking about character arcs, character development, dialogue, and character descriptions), scenes (sharpening scenes, pacing within and between scenes, and transitions), setting (describing the locations in time and place where your story unfolds), and point of view (clarifying the narrative voice through which the story is told).

c. Revising for sentence and word-level clarity.

This is the skin—the surface of the book. Here is where you plunge into sentence- and word-level revising, looking for improvements in style (making your writing more graceful and flowing) and clarity (making the writing more accessible to the audience).

Or not . . . if grace and clarity are not what you’re going for, then it’s good to know that, too.

This comes at the end of the process of revising for good reason. Why take time to correct an error or polish a sentence that might not make it to the final version? Also, when you revise a sentence, there’s a tendency to think, Yup, that sentence is done, which will make you less likely to edit it out if it doesn’t work.

IMG_06085. The basics matter.

If the previous suggestions sound like the elements of fiction that you might have learned in a creative writing course or workshop, that’s no accident. These form the core of your revising strategy because they form the basics of fiction.

As a certified Cranky Old Guy, I strongly believe that success as a fiction writer—or a poet or dramatist or essayist (or artist or musician or lawyer or engineer or anything, really)—means having control over the basics of your craft.

For the fiction writer, these elements of fiction—story, plot structure, character, point of view, language—are the foundations of your novel. And when we talk about revising, those are the elements to focus on. Learning about them takes time and effort, but the results repay that time.

Just as you can’t write a symphony without ever hearing one and knowing how it’s put together, you can’t write or revise your novel without knowing what the possibilities are for you. The more tools and understanding you have at your disposal, the more options you’ll have when it comes to the immensely complicated tasks associated with writing.

Despite its importance, I know some people find revising tedious, and approach it as an onerous chore. I would argue that revising is more important than the actual process of composition. Personally, I find it to be enormously satisfying, requiring you to marshal all your skills and talents and creativity. I hope you will find it so, too.