There is a landscape of fact, and there is a landscape of memory. My daughter and I drove across the fact of the Flint Hills of Kansas — an ocean of wintered grasses, mustard and dun and russet, bare trees planted as wind brakes, their trunks and openwork branches against the clear sky, reminding me of sea fan coral. Like Wallace Stevens’s Snow Man, I saw nothing that was not there and the nothing that is.
But when we pulled into Lawrence, Kansas, the site of my daughter’s birth nearly sixteen years before, the actual landscape I looked upon seemed overlaid with the immaterial, so that I saw simultaneously the tangible with my eyes and remembered the departed past with my mind. I wondered what the world would look like if memory were a visible thing — spirit made manifest, incarnate.
On how slight a thread hangs fate. Thread being the operative word, if we are to trust the ancient Greeks. For them, the three remorseless Moirae, the Apportioners, the Fates, controlled the destinies of all mortals. Clotho spun the thread of life on her spindle; Lachesis measured it out with her rod; and Atropos — literally the “unturning one” — cut it with her shears, irrevocably ending each earthly existence.
How slight a thread. I applied to the University of Kansas in Lawrence because a guy I lifeguarded with one summer went there, and he told me about it as we sat behind the front desk checking passes, and when I looked it up a few days later in the directory of colleges in the public library of our suburb north of the city of Houston, I realized there was no application fee, and so I applied, and got in, and packed up, and drove north the following fall.
But that isn’t the thread, the fragile thread, I’m thinking of when I think of the fate that was spun out from my passing encounter at the swimming pool. Or rather, that’s only its beginning. In Kansas, in French class, I sat by a sweet-faced boy, who introduced me to his brother, Steve, who had green eyes and liked Twin Peaks and jazz. And this boy, the one with the green eyes, was a first-year law student, who lived in an apartment in an old subdivided house on Tennessee Street, just a few blocks from my apartment in a subdivided house. We spent most of a school year and a summer in one place or the other, discussing the cases he was studying, making stir-fries, listening to music, and falling asleep together in a narrow twin bed. By the following fall, we were bickering and restless. It was only after we broke up that I realized I was pregnant. And it was only after I told him that I wanted to have the baby — how slight a thread — that I realized I actually did. I named her Elvina, after my grandmother. Ellie for short.
And still, this isn’t the story of those years, though of course I carry those years with me the way the nautilus does its coiling chambered shell, each cavity left gradually behind for more spacious quarters as it grows, past and present held together in a corporeal whole. I found, once, in reading about the chambered nautilus, that it is one of the finest naturally occurring examples of a logarithmic spiral — one in which the distances between its curves increase geometrically with each turning. Other examples: the approach of a hawk toward its prey, hurricanes, the arms of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way. The seventeenth-century Swiss mathematician, Jakob Bernoulli, called the logarithmic spiral the spira mirabilis, the miraculous spiral, because, though the size of the spiral increases, the shape of each successive segment remains unaltered. If you were to diagram it, the effect would be of coiling a string of polygons of exactly the same shape around and around, beginning with the most minute, each polygon growing a little larger with every turn. Once I had Ellie, I saw myself as a segment in another sort of spira mirabilis, a spiral widening out to enfold her, then receding backwards toward my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. . . .
The past is borne, as the chambered nautilus attests, by the present. But this isn’t, as I said, the story of my past. It is a consideration, rather, of a pilgrimage my daughter and I made to a place incised with memories of that past. And of how returning to that place, after a great separation between us, helped bind her to me, even as she readied herself to leave.
. . .