The intention was to tell how Low Down, a memoir I wrote some 10 years back, came in to being and found its way on to a few bookstore shelves, then earlier this year, wound up as a film. But as the ol' dog-eared world buckles beneath the weight of her woes and inequities, the publishing of 164 pages of fragmented memory feels like little more than a remnant of dandelion fluff blown free from a wish made ages past. Hardly worthy of an entire essay. Yet for the sake of turning up the corners of a few mouths (which some would argue counts for a lot when the going gets tough), I have thrown together an A.D.D.-friendly, third-person account of the experience. It should be read quickly.
A Los Angeles woman is slogging away joylessly in the food service industry. One day she meets a director who manages to pry a conversation out of her, no easy task — highly mistrustful. He discovers that she is the daughter of Joe Albany, a fact of interest to only a handful of devoted jazz nerds. The director, who lives in New York, asks her to mail him anecdotes about her childhood. She complies. He thinks she's on to something and passes the pages along to a savvy woman in the publishing game. She agrees with him, and after publishing a short version in a magazine (that is reviewed kindly by a brilliant Berkeley-based writer), she is offered a book deal.
Six hard months later — not hard because her toddler nestled restlessly in her lap throughout the process. That was pure joy. And not hard because of the 1940 Royal portable typewriter she banged it out on, as she imagined it once belonged to a great war correspondent who dragged the heavy beast through muddy trenches, writing impassioned truths. And not hard because she had to disturb long-sleeping, rabid dogs of memory. To her, the past is but harmless shadow. And for the record — no, it was not a "cathartic experience" as every interviewer assumed. What the hell did they mean by that anyway? Her favorite Webster's definition: "Cathartic — An agent for purging the bowels."
It was hard for technical reasons. Not being a trained writer, she fought to find her way to every sentence, like a club-footed gorilla in a room of ballerinas. Upon its release, with the exception of a loyal few, the book made less noise than a dormouse's fart. But it did catch the eye of a fellow who was not only a good egg, but a legit film producer. The producer and his partner kept the faith for 10 years, until the stars finally aligned, and a movie (helmed by the aforementioned director — Matthew Pocket to her Pip) was made.
It's a minor-league Cinderella story. Not too much meat on the bones. It might find its way onto a Facebook post — number 19 on a list of "20 stories that will make you smile today." The kind of post that people can't "like" fast enough, because these days, we all want to hedge our spiritual bets and be one of the good guys, while getting as little shit on our party shoes as possible.
In short, it's a busy, busy world. Compassion has to take a number and get in line with everything else that vies for our attention these days. Don't push them, and the well-intentioned will find the time to champion a cause from the Master List — famine, human trafficking, etc. (addendum to list: numerous epic disasters wrought upon us by a nature outraged), and we will listen to highlights of inspirational speeches, and parents will tell their children not to judge others — and time allowing even teach them why — and the boxes at checkout stands labeled "Help feed a family for the holidays" will be filled with stewed tomatoes, and the local firehouse will continue to pull in donations of new unwrapped Toys for Tots. And in spite of these fine examples, it won't be nearly enough.
Since I have no remedies to offer, I should get off the stump and stop preaching. Yet something compels me on. Perhaps it is the fury of the wounded misfits, those who James Agee referred to as "The furious angels, nailed to the ground by their wings." Their fury contains as many layers as there are layers of the earth's strata and, likewise, is molten at its core. It has proved to be a reliable (if not always healthy) companion in my life from early on.
And that's where the writing comes in. Realizing the importance of finding an outlet where I could siphon off some rage, I chose writing — or it chose me. I'm not sure which. It usually does the trick. And struggles with language and form aside, writing a book was less difficult than most anything I'd ever done, and far less treacherous then my undertakings during the years beset with devils. It was easier than scrubbing out strangers' toilets and less dangerous than sleeping with killers at 16. It was less shameful than stealing, and healthier than taking drugs.
With that in mind, the best story to tell might simply be this: if you manage to trudge through the fury (even sometimes) and the depression (on good days) and the hell-bent destruction (by the skin of your teeth) and quiet the child's voice of self-recrimination (still loud and clear), then maybe you can live to tell your tale, however you choose to express it. Mine is one of a million stories, and each story is worthy of our attention, because we are our brothers and our sisters' keepers, our conscience, but a collection of the whole, our experiences, shared across centuries.
I was aware that my early life had been dictated by mad men and women for a long, long time before deciding that madness past need not inform my future.
So to the young Furious Angels among us, I tell you, don't wait. Now is the time to prove the naysayers wrong. Tear yourself free from the nails that hold you down, because being no stranger to pain, you know you can take it. Let your ragged wings stand as testament to your endurance.
Write a book that opens eyes or makes them weep or is wise, like you, beyond your years.
Throw a ball or throw a punch with all the might and focus inherent to survivors, because your inner strength is a gift that can't be taught.
Run like your life depends upon it, because you understand that running for your life is more than a euphemism.
Use the sublime dreams that acted to counter your terror — use the dreams and terror both, and paint visions like the world has never seen.
Care for the sick, because you are not the squeamish type, and your compassion is balanced with true, cool grit.
Get into politics because you must speak the truth, and have no patience for injustice, not anymore.
Administer hope to those who need it most, because you, reading this now, are a miracle, incarnate.
Let yourself fall in love, and if your heart is broken, which it likely will be, remember that you are an expert on the resilience of the heart, and never cease to believe in your capacity to give love, and your absolute right to receive it.
And in a world overwhelmed by the collective consequences of our human folly, you will find peace of mind, because you were children who accepted your fate with a grace that puts each of us charged with your care to shame.
Now rise up, furious angels, and go stake your claim.
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A. J. Albany is the author of Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children, Charlie and Dylan.
Books mentioned in this post
A. J. Albany is the author of Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood