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From What Remains

I've been going through my blog's draft folder, and I'm surprised at how many essays I never posted. Perhaps they made me feel just too vulnerable. Today is Dec. 11, 2023, and I believe I wrote this one about two and a half years ago, just as the video for "Salt" was being finished. It's certainly the perfect complement for that song. For what it's worth...

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I’ve been watching movies non-stop for the last five days or so. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but for better or worse, it’s the thing right now, and I can’t help but notice how all things, at least in these three movie choices, are oddly interconnected.

Today’s movie was The Adderall Diaries with James Franco, and I most likely watched it because I also just viewed (and adored) The Disaster Artist, which Franco not only starred in but also directed. I’m so slow on the draw with Hollywood films lately that I’d actually never even heard of The Disaster Artist and therefore never heard of all of its awards and nominations either. I also hadn’t heard of the big-time sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Franco during the film’s 2018 awards season, apparently creating quite the shitstorm.
While the suit doesn’t make the film any less funny or endearing, the nagging questions about the veracity of the charges will forever be a ball and chain attached to the movie’s backstory, and will perhaps also cast a new light on Franco’s entire body of work, as did the allegations against Woody Allen, who allegedly molested his 7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992. Dylan is now a grown woman, wife and mother who is adamant about what occurred on that fateful day with her father, and that’s where these connections seem to begin, as The Adderall Diaries at its core is about the very nature of memory, or rather its reliability.

Stephen Elliott, the author of the highly regarded memoir of the same name (on which the poorly received film was based) remembered being terribly abused as a young teen by his dad, yet his father told a completely different story. The film version tells the tale of his dad resurfacing in Elliott’s life after Elliott had become a successful writer, so the author was able to confront him head-on, only to learn that his father had entirely different memories about what had occurred, and why, during those teenage battles. This ultimately leads Elliott down the path of forgiveness for his dad, concluding that memory and perception are just too subjective to support anyone ever holding onto a grudge, especially against a remorseful parent.
Of course, at first glance, this loving reunion between father and son would seem a touching ending to such a tale of woe, but with just a little reflection, Elliott’s conclusions (at lease in the film—I’ve not read the book) seem to omit one very gigantic fact, which is that when he was a teen, he was taking an enormous amount of drugs, so naturally his memories as to what really transpired are going to be circumspect. (Hell, he was even taking drugs while writing the book.)

Ultimately, this undermines his big-reveal universal truth that all memories are flawed and therefore we need to just let go and forgive, because lemme tell ya, I was stone cold sober during the formation of my own quaint childhood memories, and they’re seared onto the cave walls of my brain like technicolor tattoos. The memories of my dad’s sadistic behavior are like digital files hard-wired into my neocortex and in fact are so vivid that I often find them almost impossible to talk about except in broad strokes or with my therapist, and even then recounting them can be tough. I’d forget them if I could.

But then the third film came along (another I’d missed during its initial release), which is perhaps the most significant of the three—Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, a documentary about her family and the whopping question of her true paternity. Like The Adderall Diaries, Polley ventures into the arena of memory and the narratives we all construct about those we’ve loved, particularly when these people were complex and confusing in their behavior over the course of decades. It was truly a fascinating journey of twists and tales that garnered Polley tremendous and deserved acclaim when the film was released in 2012, and further explains why I love literally everything she does.

In the film’s trailer, it featured the usual quoted word bursts when a film such as this gets big praise (like “Riveting!”--The Los Angeles Times) and I agreed with them all as indeed the film was captivating for all the reasons the critics cited, and more. But I also found the film riveting for an even deeper reason that I know is unique to me, and it’s this: I was positively slackjawed that literally every single person that populated Polley’s childhood world was so intelligent, so compassionate, so loving and so entirely free of the personality disorders that caused such carnage in my own family.
It was like I was a fly on the wall of Polley’s past, awestruck in seeing just how different reality can be in any given family. She created such a complete picture of the cast of characters from her youth that I felt like I was looking through an old-time View-Master, clicking through snaps of what it’s like when family members are actually nice to each other, and who are able to speak with such eloquence, understanding and love about those who were not only complex and wonderful, but also preplexing and at times disappointing.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Polley’s journey was an easy one, as surely when one grows up hearing hushed secrets and differing views about a long-deceased mother (who died when Polley was 11), the fallout angst could have easily led her into drug abuse or some other self-destructive behavior, but instead, she channeled whatever she was feeling into becoming a rabid political activist at age 14, and this was on top of all of her childhood acting roles.
But the fact that Polley even had acting roles as a kid (she was a Canadian child star) suggests a type of familial support that to me would seem as lucky as hitting the lottery. When I look back upon my dad, not only did he not support my musical ambitions but he actually worked against them in the same way he also tried to crush my aspirations to be a writer. During my college years, he would say things like “you’ll never be a Hemingway,” as if writing like Papa was the only measure of being a good or successful scribe. (I’ve gone on to support my entire arts career—in fact my entire adult life—with my work as a freelance journalist.)

In hindsight, I find these memories so extraordinary in their cruelty that I can’t help but wonder who I might have been had I not had to fight so hard and so long just to tread the waters of my sanity. Because by the time I was in my early 20s, I was clearly mentally ill, which was the direct fallout from having been raised by a parent with not just borderline personality disorder, but also narcissism and paranoia. (As stated in many scholarly books about these kinds of illnesses, those raised by or who live with these sick persons do indeed develop their own unique set of mental disorders.)
There was nothing functionally wrong with my brain, of course, but by the time I was 23—after a lifetime of living in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode—the emotional and mental damage was so severe that it took years of treatment just to admit to the therapist that my true calling in life was to be a songwriter and musician.

And thus the haunting phrase of “who I might have been” kept circling my brain in the subsequent days after watching Polley’s film until it finally had to become a song. It ended up being repeated in second and third person in “Salt,” which I started recording this week.
At my age, I realize that this is really the best I can do with my past from here on out, as I’m well aware that some things in our lives just never heal, despite our best efforts for a better outcome. Like the blood disorder I now must live with, I know I just have to accept that these scars are now part of the fabric of my particular life, and I’m wondering if pulling at all the loose strings and strands really does me any good at this point. Maybe it’s best to just let them lie in their shredded state, like the old quilt on my bed that I love so much.

As I’ve learned from the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi (the appreciation of all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete), there is beauty in the flawed, and as an artist and songwriter, it’s my job (and my prayer) to see it.

Of course, it’s another prayer that in finding this beauty, the healing I’ve sought for so long might arrive in ways I don’t expect, but that’s never the goal in creation, of course. The expression itself is the gift, whether it comes with any added bonuses or not. The trick is maybe not putting all the pieces of me back together, but in creating something entirely new, and hopefully beautiful, from what remains.

-end-


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SALT
by mary ann farley
(Recorded Summer 2021, as yet unmastered.)

A brownie scout
She’s staring out
of an old photo in a frame
It’s sickly cute
It’s the salute
It hides the sorrow and the shame
She holds it close
So long ago
A girl so pale and torn and thin
She holds the picture
She cannot fix her
And all the things she might have been

A little boy
His mother’s toy
She keeps him close and keeps him cruel
Her lonely days
They sit and play
Another absence from his school
One day she died
He didn’t cry
at all the photos torn and thin
So he returned them
After he burned them
And all the things he might have been

No, don’t look back or you may crack
Better to keep that your default
‘Cause all the years of dried up tears
Could one day turn you into salt
Turn you into salt

She holds it close
So long ago
A girl so pale and torn and thin
I’ll wrap you swiftly
And take you with me
And all the things
And all the things
And all the things you might have been

c2021
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Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. --Richard Powell

If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. --Andrew Juniper



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