In all honesty, I had no idea what I would write about today. Then I went out to mow the yard, and I noticed a Tonka Truck dump truck in the yard across the street, and later, I saw the shell of a cicada clinging to the purple bloom of a Blazing Star, and through those two details I started to go somewhere I hadn’t known I would.
When I was a boy, I had a Tonka Truck like the one in the yard across the street. The bed of the truck in my neighbor’s yard was raised as if the load had been delivered and soon the driver would lower it and move on down the road. I also collected the shells of cicadas when I was a boy, finding them clinging to the limbs of trees.
I imagine there are a number of folks who share those experiences: the joy of a Tonka Truck, the fascination with those cicada shells. To tell someone I had a Tonka Truck when I was a boy, or that I collected cicada shells has little resonance for a listener, outside the shared nostalgia for our childhoods now gone.” Neither statement tells you anything about who I was as a boy, or what my fears, or dreams, or secrets were. Those two sentences are as declarative as declarative can be. “I had a Tonka Truck when I was a boy.” “I collected cicada shells.” Nothing vibrates above or beneath them. They are merely facts.
The Tonka Truck in the yard across the street intrigues me since no children live in that house, nor do any children come to visit the man who lives there. The man is a troubled man. I’d say he’s somewhere in his fifties. During the day, he sits on his front steps, and I hear him talking to himself, or else to whatever voices he hears inside his head. Sometimes he rants and rails against whatever it is that disturbs him.
Now, he’s taken to lying in the middle of the street late at night. Recently, I took the garbage can to the curb and found him on his back. I said, “Aren’t you afraid a car might hit you?” He said, “They usually have their headlights on.” He liked to lie there and look up at the stars, he said. “I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt,” I told him. He said, “I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt either.” Not sure whether he meant that as a threat or an expression of neighborly affection, I bid him good night and went back inside my house.
The cicada shell is amazing for its detail: the clear globes where the eyes once rested, the delicate threads of the antennae, the slit in the back through which the new cicada emerged, its clear wings laced with lime green skeins. The wings and the new body would harden in time, and the cicada would fly away, leaving the shell for me to find.
I remember the first time I spoke to the man across the street. I’d been mowing, and he’d yelled at me. I ignored him. Later, he came to my door to apologize. He kept saying, “This is my neighborhood, and these are my neighbors,” as if he were trying to remind himself of what kept him anchored to this world.
Details are nothing without context. What we carry inside us matters and details resonate when they allow the importance of all that we can’t say to emerge. I think of my neighbor lying in the street, looking at the stars. I think of that Tonka truck, the bed lifted, in his yard. I consider a grown man, perhaps dreaming of his own childhood, perhaps eager to unburden himself of whatever haunts him now. I think of how desperately we sometimes long to escape. I pick up the cicada shell and place it on my palm. It rests there, balanced on its legs, such a light and brittle thing.
Such a wonderful post, Lee. This strikes me as a nugget: “What we carry inside us matters and details resonate when they allow the importance of all that we can’t say to emerge.” So, is it the job of the writer to find out the places of what can’t be said and say them through showing the details? It seems. Thanks for any thoughts, and thanks for a great post!
Naomi, I think the details start to resonate if set within a particularly significant context. If my neighbor, for example, was unremarkable, the details that I mention wouldn’t add up to much. The details resonate because of the context of what I know about him. There’s plenty that he can’t say about himself, and there’s plenty that I can’t say. The details, when set within that specific context, can say a good deal. Thanks, Naomi, for continuing to read my blog and for taking the time to leave comments.
Your observation of your neighbor makes me think of the South. Of Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor. Of O’Connor stating, “All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it….”
I love that O’Connor quote, Gail. Thanks for sharing it with us.
I so enjoy your posts whenever/whichever I read.
Missed you at MWW13.
Thanks so much. I hope MWW 2013 was grand.