November was cold that year. I dreamed of a blue snow closing around me like a fist. I was 12 and had few friends; I wore tragically misguided clothes, avoided the eyes of boys, told exorbitant lies. On Tuesday afternoons, I walked from the middle school to my grandmother's house in town, so she could give me piano lessons. I lived for those days, for the regal piano with its dusty runner and arrangements of cloth flowers, for the world she would build up around us — I used to go to Woody's Nook, to dance until three in the morning — I'll take you there sometime; you'll see, it's still the same. Now, tell me about all of the parties you've been going to.
She never seemed to notice I went nowhere, lisped, had buckteeth. A bird alighted in the rose bushes and she pointed — Look, she said, he's landed there for us.
One Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving, I arrived at my grandmother's house. The door was unlocked but no one was home; I let myself into the eerie quiet. I had never been forgotten before. I sat at the piano and practiced "To a Wild Rose." Three hours later, my father arrived at the house. I don't remember him telling me that she had died, only the time after, when I knew. I watched my fingers from a distance, fanned out on the cold piano keys. The house was all around me, cigarette smoke and dust, stacks of celebrity biographies already overdue at the library — it felt terrible, to be in the litter of her life, to know that it was only that. I kept sitting at the piano. I waited until my father helped me up and drove me home.
÷ ÷ ÷
At the funeral, the smell of rain mixed with the dense perfume of a dozen bouquets. They buried her ashes in a cedar box. The cool damp grass was pulled like a blanket to the lip of the square grave. That night I sat on the edge of my bed, with a photograph in my lap. My father had built the bed from plywood, with handmade slats that slipped out in the night and clattered to the ground. The photograph was a print of the Annie Leibovitz shot — Yoko fully clothed, John wrapped naked around her. I walled up the terrible loneliness of my grandmother. I couldn't look at it, so I looked at the photograph instead. I stopped crying. I recognized something, and looked closer. Like seeing my own face, I knew. How had I not seen it before? I was him. He was me. I turned the idea over in my mind, something bright and important. I am the reincarnation of John Lennon, I thought.
÷ ÷ ÷
The corner of Washington where I grew up was an old railroad stop. The things that marked my childhood were without event or time — the shingle that hung from the corner of the woodshed, the creek strung with skunk cabbage, the scrub lawn, the tumbling ruts, the loose rocks that tore out of the roads when we drove in the truck too fast toward home. I lived with my parents and brother 20 miles out of town. I was ashamed of what I perceived as our provincialism. We're the country cousins! mother liked to say, but I just saw the burning barrel, the shabby dogs, the abandoned duck pen. The dogs gave us fleas and we had to fumigate the house; when we went back inside, the fogged faces of the clocks looked dangerous.
In the weeks following my grandmother's funeral, I spent more and more time alone. I know you miss your grandmother, my mother said. You have to talk about this. Do we need to take you to see someone? I didn't want to talk to anyone. I hadn't even talked about my life to my grandmother. That was just it — she peered into my future, but into a future she had created, where I was beautiful, where the difference in me was patched over with ragtime hits and a vision of what my haircut would look like: It will be flipped out on the ends, my grandmother said. You'll even iron it, and then use a roller to make the ends flip out. I liked the way she saw my future, how it slid into place like a slide in a viewing machine and encompassed everything. If she saw me one way, then that was who I would be. Without her there to cast that spell, winter spun around me, so empty it felt solid.
To distract myself, I thought of my former life as John Lennon. Being John had its own rituals, and I tried to fill the days with them. There was a shed behind my parents' house — there were several sheds, actually, because that is the way it works in rural Washington; you build a shed for garbage and another for animal feed, and one for firewood, and the rabbit hutch, and the tools — and in the back, near the edge of the property line, there is one with a collapsing roof where you can keep your solemn vigil. It smelled like the inside of a Greek church. I hung curtains and nailed scraps of salvaged carpet to the plywood floor.
Over and over, I listened to a cassette tape — the Beatles, 1963, the Royal Variety. It had been taped from another recording, and the sound was far off, like it was coming from deep in a well. John cries, Those in the cheaper seats clap! The rest of you rattle your jewelry. I burned a candle in front of the photograph of John and Yoko. I carefully mapped my connection to John on butcher paper that I kept hidden in the shed. He had died in 1980; I must have lived for a brief while in between his life and my own — a child who had died at two years old. I felt a deep sadness when I thought of that little in-between life, that baby who had never been. I lay on the carpet scraps with my eyes closed and willed myself not to think of anything, just to be — to be that baby, to be John Lennon. I preferred being John. The baby, when I tried to imagine being it, was colicky and discontent. Instead I imagined Yoko on a bed in the studio where I worked, my son Julian asleep across the room. There I am, wearing a white dashiki — and there, at Yoko's bedside — and there, in front of a crowd, my head feels light, the cameras — And then later, Yoko and I climbing from the limousine out onto 72nd Street, the shout — Mr. Lennon! — and Mark David Chapman, with an autographed album copy from hours before in his hand, and a .38 — twice in the back, twice in the shoulder, once through the window above my head. I let the images wash over me and I was for a moment so far from my own small sorrow. I was something so much more than myself.
÷ ÷ ÷
I was talking with a friend recently, and we started to tumble down that old rabbit hole: Life is just pain, isn't it? We're born to suffer. We walk forward and things are taken from us and then we die. I'm too sensitive to discount that feeling completely, but neither can I discount our desire to live, to feel.
I don't remember how I stopped believing that I was John Lennon. Only that the conviction slipped away. I kept the memory of my grandmother as something important and beautiful, but over time she ceased to eclipse the live and waiting world around me. I finished junior high, muddled through high school, moved away. Without my noticing, the thought of being John Lennon's reincarnation became ridiculous and eventually faded away entirely.
What didn't fade was my desire to slip from one life to another — an escape from pain, but also a way to feel connected, to feel comforted by the existence of other lives, of other realities than my own. Instead of considering my previous lives, I began to write them. It's a truth I have allowed myself to acknowledge over time: I began to write because I fear death, I fear the smallness of life, I fear loss, I fear forgetting. The choices I might have made — the lives I didn't lead — begin to quiet their clamor, their demand to be regretted, when I can create those worlds on the page.
My novel, Call Me Home, is written in three voices, and I've noticed that anyone who reads it connects to one or the other: young, determined Jackson; solemn, watching Lydia; or Amy, as she studies her life, trying to decipher herself. I feel like I've been them all, and they all contain pieces of me. Writing those lives allowed me to live them at the same time that I stepped away from them. I was both inside, and out.
Marguerite Duras writes about writing as the simultaneous holding on and letting go of the world in her 1984 novel, The Lover:
"In my head I no longer have the scent of her skin, nor in my eyes the color of her eyes. I can't remember her voice, except sometimes when it grew soft with the weariness of evening. Her laughter I can't hear any more — neither her laughter nor her cries. It's over, I don't remember. That's why I can write about her so easily now, so long, so fully. She's become just something you write without difficulty, cursive writing."
To face the pain is to let go of it, to face an echo of it. I've gone on to make my own life, and to try on several others, both myself and on the page. I said that to my friend as we continued down that rabbit hole, that the only antidote for the loneliness of life is to live and connect as much as you can, and I've always known that on the page I can travel much faster. I can create and reincarnate. I can live the things I haven't, and I can let go of pain. I can make it cursive, and be, for a moment, more than myself.
Maybe it's a stretch, to try to fasten an adolescent delusion to the bigger question of why writing sustains us. I imagine that everyone finds their own ways to face loss and bear up a broken heart. Still, I know that is what writing has given to me — new chances. The ability to rewrite, escape, and begin to understand.
It is a feeling like this: my grandmother kept an arbor of perfect raspberries behind her boxy blue house, and when I was four years old I would crawl between the twin lines of vines and hide there. Even then, I remember that death and loss, the potential of what I might lose, was a haunting ache that kept me awake late at night, but just then the sky between the raspberry vines was the gray of the pig glass I kept squirreled deep in my pocket, of the ash in the bottom of the woodstove, of smoke. Everything was everything else. In my cupped palms a leaf spun like a firefly. I held it there. I knew exactly who I was.