it is all written, it is all unwritten

Yesterday I heard a bit of some study on the radio. About how we spend so much time in imagination. Immersed in the pleasures of a fiction – a book, a film, a conversation about characters that are not real. When asked, we say: I take pleasure in spending time with my children. Or with my lover. But when we enumerate our pleasurable activities, record them – they are more cerebral, more anticipatory, more imagined than all that.

We are not that good, it turns out, at distinguishing between the real and the imaginary. So that I can be as anxious about the fate of a child in a novel, this study suggests, as I am about my own son. My emotional responses to things – fear, for example – will be the same, whether the thing is real – like when I am awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise – or fictitious – when I am reading about a character who is awakened in the night by a strange noise.

We go to imagination for pleasure. Our own – daydreaming about possible future pleasures – or that of others – the worlds created for us by others.

Yesterday at the park, we run into our friends and spend the afternoon together. The adults chat on a bench under a tree, while the kids collect seed pods and branches for their “stick museum.” Unanticipated pleasures. We watch the other parents hover around their children, some just learning to walk. We are glad to be past that.

We talk about writing and not writing. About running at night in the dark. About dinner parties we will have, trips we will take. Trips we have not yet taken.

I can’t wait for –

I’m looking forward to –

I am so ready for – 

I was once asked, for therapeutic purposes, to visualize an older, wiser self.

Imagine the landscape she is in, the setting, the weather. What is she wearing, how does she look at you when you approach her, what does she say, this wiser you?

My older, wiser self is standing on the beach, just as the light is beginning to fade. There is a house behind her in the distance. Her house. The light is on in the kitchen. The silhouettes of people moving around – making ready. The house is full, bright.

She is wearing a long black tunic – a cover-up after a day of sun and sand. Her arms are open. She is beckoning. Come, join us, we’ve been waiting for you.

She is smiling. Her face is kind. Perhaps a bit tired. It has been a long life, an ample one.

And what does she say?

What does she say? What does my older, wiser self say? She will say: It is all written, yet unwritten.

Do you know what that means?

I think it means this: Spend your afternoons in the sun with the people you love. Write things down so that you will remember, but know that some things you will carry only in your own heart. Swim through the darkness even when you don’t know the way. Your life will unfold in its own way, in its own time. This is one thing that is maddeningly true.

I think that when I write about my mother, I am always writing with two mothers in mind – the one I knew, for the short time that I knew her, and the one I do not know. There was a time when the mother I knew was real. The other mother has always been imagined. Now, so many years after my mother’s death, she and the other mother are more alike in that they are both unknown, both imagined. They are the same and they are not the same.

I have memories of things that may not have happened. I have turned over in my mind certain images, certain details – of my childhood, for example – so many times that I can no longer say whether they were real or imagined. The dusty earth outside the house where I lived with an old woman and her son in the Korean countryside? A wild turkey eating seed pods from my outstretched hand? The soft sweet flesh of a ripe persimmon in my mouth?

My older, wiser self may say: What does it matter? These fragments, these images, these moments – they become you, whether they are real or imagined. You are what you remember.

It is all written, it is all unwritten.