My father was the Major Disciplinarian in our family in the sense that if we were testing our mother, she would sternly reply: “Just wait until your father gets home.” This was typically enough of a commination to corral us into line, but when I think back, I realize that it was my mother who set and enforced about ninety percent of the rules in our home because she was around the most, at least when I was under twelve and my father was chief counsel for a major technology business. One year, my father traveled something like 50 out of 52 weeks of the year, and so it was my mother who handled the lion’s share of discipline. Beyond that, though the unascertainable dimensions of my father’s threatened punishment were terrifying as child, my father was something of a softie. I knew this because even when my sister Elizabeth would stubbornly refuse to get in the bath, or would deviously wriggle her way out of three layers of cold weather clothing (snowsuit, sweatsuit, and skivvies all shed on the floor while my mother’s back was turned, delaying our entire pod a good five or ten minutes), or would monkey out of her carseat restraints and appear, apparition-like, at my mother’s cheek while she was driving us to school — shenanigans that were commonplace to the point of daily in our home at her hands — my father would often look bemused or shrugging upon return home, and I would routinely find him laying on the couch in our old sun room, watching the news, with Elizabeth in his arms, just a few moments later.
These observations did not reconcile with one another, even to my jejune and ill-formed senses as a child. I can remember straining to parse out the rules: which ones mattered? And how much? And to whom?
One summer in Colorado, Elizabeth and I were of sufficient age to accompany my father on his morning fly fishing excursions. I presume in retrospect this might have been at least in part a convenience for my mother, who was laden with two even younger daughters, because I cannot imagine that it was desirable to monitor two busy girls while attempting to navigate the complexities of fly fishing. But we were there nonetheless. And if we bothered my father, I never read the frustration on his face. He afforded us a long leash to explore the surroundings and play by ourselves, but he did set two rules: first, always stand to the right of him, and at a sufficient distance, or run the risk of interfering with his cast. Second, do not mess with his tacklebox. I’m sure he intuited that the tidily arranged rows of flashy, just-the-right-size-for-small-fingers dry flies, with neon and metallic threading and what appeared to be fur pompoms and mohawks, would have been enticing to magpies like us. I managed to break the first rule wandering around behind him, collecting twigs and acorns for a Barbie campsite we were constructing. I crouched down to collect a pinecone and — SNAG. His dry fly, the extension of a perfect cast, caught in my ponytail. No harm, no foul, but a stern talking-to from my father, and I was ashamed at having broken the rule, even if it had been out of forgetfulness or distraction.
My sister and I retreated to a broad, flat rock not far from my father’s perch but safe from his casting and decided, in a wounded bird kind of way, that we would create our own language — something no one else would understand, least of all my father. Only we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around what that meant and so we instead settled for coining portmanteaus. The only one I can clearly recall is seasparkle, whose meaning I am confident you can ascertain but whose prominence in my memory speaks to the way in which, as children, our imaginations are at once wildly creative and entirely contained, almost as if existing within a snow globe. Fanciful, playful — and yet enclosed, cocooned. There we were, attempting a complex linguistic undertaking and yet only able to operate within the narrow ken of a vocabulary we already knew and the view literally in front of us: a lake in Aspen, CO, flecked with shards of sunlight.
The second rule was not broken until hours after a return from one of these sunny mornings at Maroon Bells (or Ruedi Reservoir, sometimes) outside Aspen, CO. Elizabeth and I were playing with My Little Ponies in the front hall of my parents’ rented condo and I remember her idling in front of my father’s tacklebox, left open on the entryway bench. I watched her eye its fineries and then begin to remove, one by one, the dry flies from their roosts, plucking them from the soft cushioned padding in which they were hooked and dropping them in an unceremonious heap, their sharp hooks glinting with danger. I padded off to get my father, but was interrupted by his sudden command:
“Elizabeth! Stop! You’re going to hurt yourself!”
I stood by, observing.
“See how sharp these are?” he asked, returning them to the box.
“And she shouldn’t have been in there anyway,” I offered, looking on knowingly.
My father turned to me, sternly:
“Jennifer, this has nothing to do with you.”
I’ll never forget that moment. Never. Not ever! I think on it every few weeks, in fact. I can still recall the blithe way in which I felt I was helpfully contributing to the conversation — or perhaps aligning myself with my father, seeking his approval. I was on the right side of the law — or so I thought. And then the jarring discovery of another, unspoken rule! This one more about appropriateness, decorum. The burn of reproach dissolved into a film of disgust with myself. I saw that I had overstepped something I perhaps should have known intuitively, and it felt worse than when my father had hooked me because I’d forgotten to heed his instruction.
There is something about this tangle of memories — rule-setting, enforcement, punishment, negligence, trespass, and all against the canvas of a maiden, unsophisticated voyage into creative language (“seasparkle”) — that hangs together in a way I viscerally understand but have had difficulty explaining. And I have attempted an explanation many times, in discarded drafts and midnight-hour notes on my iPhone. I have been writing around the memory, eyeing its meaning in silhouette but unable to read its face.
But I see now in these recollections something formative about my relationship with language. I think that I have always loved writing, and reading, and language more generally because when handled well, they involve a nuanced balance of heeding and breaking the rules. I use too many em dashes, for example. I tend towards syntactically complex sentences with too many clauses and a risky habit of burying the antecedent. Beyond that, I use language rather elastically. I wonder, for example, if my invocation of memory as a face in shadow at the end of the previous paragraph hangs together? Is it overwrought? Is it legible? At the same time, I observe and respect the vast majority of grammatical rules with something like religious fervor. (Do not get me started on the rampant misuse of the possessive in place of the plural.) And I am downright snobby when reading published books with flabby writing. (Put me in, coach!)
I think, in short, that good writing is about understanding the rules well enough to break them on occasion — but only certain ones, and only when handled thoughtfully and usually in the name of meaningful style. And I think the same thing in life, though I am nine times out of ten following the rules at any given moment. But that mish-mash of experiences set against the backdrop of childhood summers spent so close to nature and therefore, in my opinion, closer to the essence of life, abstracted from the trappings and complexities of modernity, well — they remain touchstones in my understanding of ethics, both of the linguistic and personal sort, and it startles me to think how often the two have converged in my life. Art and life and art and life in an endless mirroring of one another.
+Image at top from Wunderkin — who makes the most beautiful velvet bows for little ones!
+Aspen, it turns out, is something of a Mount Helicon for me. Read more about this magical place here and here. And I’d forgotten about this, but i actually wrote even further back about language as something that fences you in or out in relation to an Aspen experience, too!
+Has anyone tried Trish McEvoy’s Instant Eye Lift? I’ve been hearing good things…and mama needs some major dark circle undereye coverage.
+Ordered this darling dark floral dress for mini — 50% off!
+Absolutely adore this jumper.
+These booties are now $262!!! EEEEE. Need.
+Love this clutch for the winter holiday circuit.