Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Wayne Scheer’s nonfiction piece, A Quiet Man
John: You say that time doesn’t help us heal the past, which reminded me of the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” In light of these statements, what is the most skillful approach to the past? Are our histories completely irredeemable?
Wayne: I think we have to live with the knowledge that the past informs the present, but unlike Faulkner I don’t believe the past controls the present. We are all such bundles of contradictions and complexities, I don’t have a simple understanding of the past. It’s with us, yet it’s behind us. Personally, I like to keep the past in a box in the back of a closet. I know it’s there, but I don’t need to see it.
Your father asked you not to pray for him in the way that he did for his own father, but doesn’t seem to have given you any substitute. Do you wish that he had?
I’m glad my father didn’t explicitly give me a substitute for remembering him. That would have made it an obligation, a job that had to be performed. For me, that’s the problem with ritual in general. We end up doing them mindlessly out of habit. I’d rather remember my dad mindfully, spontaneously, and not because I have to on this day in this way.
For example, in “A Quiet Man,” I didn’t sit down intending to write about my dad. It was inspired by a poem written by a friend, Beverly Head. In her poem she contrasted the orderliness of a cemetery, the neat rows of crosses, to the chaos of life. I had that image in my head, and “A Quiet Man,” came out. As I recall, I intended to write fiction and not about my father and real memories at all. But they flooded out, and I welcomed them.
Your father seems to have been waging a quiet war against tradition, or at least some of them. What do you think he would have said about the value of tradition, or the lack thereof?
I like the idea of my father waging a quiet war. I think that captures who he was. He accepted the parameters of his own life, and lived within them, but I don’t think he was happy. I believe he was secretly happy for me to have gotten away, to have broken from the binders of a child of immigrants. He knew only a little of the old ways, the old country, religion, culture, and was glad I knew less. Of course, that may be wishful thinking on my part. I think he felt limited by the traditions of a culture he didn’t know but felt an obligation to them. And he felt limited and frustrated by the economic times—the Depression—in which he grew up. His war was a quiet one.
As we grow older, I think we become conscious of the circumscribed relationships we have with our parents. Necessarily, there will be vast emotional and intellectual territories in our parents’ lives that most of us will never know about. Is this why we are often reduced to rituals like your father’s prayer for his father? Is there a better way to handle this?
You’re absolutely right about how little of our parents’ emotional and intellectual territory we will ever know. And that’s good. I don’t want my son and grand kids to know me that well. I prefer they use their imaginations to create a parent based on the one they knew. It’s through the imagination—soul?—that we truly connect. For me, rituals only connect us superficially.
I think this goes back to what I said about the past. It’s always present, but we live with so much more.