This morning I heard this line from a Jane Smiley audiobook: It was exhausting just to hold ourselves at the table, magnets with our northern poles pointing into the center of the circle.
Nick Flynn’s latest book, THE REENACTMENTS, follows his experience in making the movie of his life. The movie, based on his book, based on his life. Page 135 reads: I get a call to be in Tribeca at noon (De Niro’s office) — today is the day of the table read, where a dozen actors, each with a role or two, will read the script out loud, to see how the words feel in their mouths (I guess). Coffee and bagels, we shake hands all around, each will pretend to be someone I once knew. We sit. De Niro opens his mouth and my father comes out, then Dano opens his mouth and I come out, then Julianne opens her mouth [and my mother comes out]. Day of the dead, dawn of the dead, I sit off to one side, pretending to watch myself, pretending I’m here, but I’m not, not really. My disembodied family, risen from the grave, sitting around a table, laughing.
I recently scribbled this in my notebook:
Draw a picture, Teacher says. Draw a picture of your family. She turns her back and picks up a brand new stick of chalk and scrapes four stick figures with round heads and straight legs. She draws them on the blackboard in just the right order. Father mother sister brother. Draw a picture like this, Teacher says.
You copy Teacher’s picture. You copy Teacher’s picture because she says this is what a family looks like and because you are unsure and because only last year her picture was true, true enough, and because that’s you, that was you, between your mother and your brother, holding their stick-figure hands, and because already, at age seven, you are nothing if not a pleaser. Please her.
Next year you will draw a new picture, add a baby brother, and in another year you will draw mother daughter. A year after that you will draw grandma grandpa uncle mother daughter, then mother daughter again, then grandma grandpa mother daughter, then mother daughter. You will draw so many pictures, none of them right, none of them wrong.
This week I’ll go back to work and decide what that means. If anything.
Imagine holding yourself, like Nick Flynn, at the table with Robert De Niro as your father, with Julianne Moore as your mother, with Paul Dano as you, while they practice their lines, a table full of northern poles.
What does your family table look like?