Museum-goers look out at a view high above Golden Gate parkThe past rattles through my consciousness like so many trains running on errant schedules. They arrive unbidden, coupled together by association. I step in and am carried back. And often I take notes, observing how it was and how I felt, but from a new vantage point. Sometimes the journey I’m taking is to a past that was originally described to me by others, and then recalled or recreated from those descriptions. The past is shaped and reshaped in ways that can’t be described as true—something of which I’m episodically reminded by the glances and outright corrections that my versions of events draw from others. Yet the past is my subject—my past, true for me at any moment and yet subject to reconsideration as life shifts my view of it.

In the summer of 1960, I went with my family to Normandy to visit the scenes of the D-Day landing and its aftermath. My father played a role in planning the invasion: his job as a photo interpreter was to lay out for the invaders what they could expect to encounter, where trucks, tanks, and gun emplacements were hidden—a moving landscape, yet fixed enough to be charted. In his twice-daily letters to my mother from London, he writes only that “I’m working here,” then goes on to describe everything else. As a result, he comes across as a bon vivant, and no sense of his actual work surfaces, since it couldn’t. It was clear to me, being with him, that the places meant a great deal to him—Omaha Beach itself and the Normandy coast and towns. He rarely spoke about the war, but once told me that he was very good at what he did.

My father and grandfather saw and lived so much. “Omaha Beach” is drawn from my own life, but it also speaks of them and their experiences. If I am my own best subject, as I write in “Sort of a Memoir,” the lives we live add up to what Zen suggests is a world that’s uniquely ours, but consists equally of everyone and everything known, set down and given back, in some sense, although it can never really be fully shared, can it? Writer that I am, I can’t help but try.

31 December 2014, Berkeley

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