Lately, when I imagine, I remember. Then I shift into a peaceful kind of forgetfulness. And I start to imagine again, remembering. Like a circle that’s no longer vicious because it erases its own trail, little by little, always resketching its outline for the first time.
How much of identity is memory? It would seem that the experience of being in the world is dependent on memory because each moment, as it passes, becomes part of an ever accumulating past—a past that gives coherency to the existential “I.” Yet, can what we think we know about ourselves help us live with our choices, idiosyncrasies, strengths and faults? In her inventive and intelligent collection of personal essays, The Book of Explanations, Mexican poet and writer Tedi López Mills begins with a look at a most basic question of identity, her “improper” (read: “unconventional”) name, followed by playfully distinctive explorations and dissections of the nature of memory. These opening pieces set the groundwork for a journey that will carry us through many of the experiences, influences, values and ideals that make her who she is and, by extension, any one of us who we are—or might be—because, after all, what can anyone ever really know for certain?
I don’t know the history of the fourteen essays—cleverly numbered from 0 through 13— that comprise The Book of Explanations. That is, I cannot tell if the original 2012 collection was assembled from previously published pieces or intended as a cohesive work from the outset, but it definitely succeeds as a whole. López Mills’ style is eclectic and fresh; her essays open up in unexpected directions, adopting different forms and approaches from piece to piece. She is always very much present, drawing on memories and personal experience, but even her more memoirish essays swing toward broader social, psychological and philosophical questions.
After her early forays into the nature of remembering, López Mills turns her attention to that strange period of often dark introspection otherwise known as adolescence and to reflections on the peculiarities of family dynamics. As a teenager, the author, or her possible alter ego/alternate “I,” falls into to some classically heavy reading—Hesse, Nietzsche—in search of formulative role models. On her family’s frequently uprooted home front, her father, an eccentric, frustrated architect of dreams and schemes, is an unpredictable but memorable character while her mother is the stabilizing presence. She explores the lasting impact of her childhood in the essay “Father, Mother, Children,” where she posits: “Maybe there are no happy families, just happy days. I remember them because they’re always flanked by unhappy ones.” Her father, she says, was “erratic, original every day,” her mother “homogenous, predictable.” She is tempted to imagine who her mother might have been without children, although that necessarily imagines the imaginer out of existence. This leads into a fascinating observation about childlessness—her own situation which she insists is neither right or wrong—and its implications:
You belong to yourself, and in the end you may realize that your persona dims if you don’t put it at risk; you start melting away into a nervous, perfectionist mind. The influence of childlessness may even be more shocking, a deprivation so intense that it triggers hallucinations of a crowd as you rummage around, hearing no one’s noise. A fictitious identity, if forced and constant. While there’s no room for regret—you can’t undo what was never done—there’s an extravagant kind of nostalgia. You miss the future, not the past.
Either option, parenting or childlessness, simply puts you on one side of anguish or the other. And as a parent, I would add that you can experience an extravagant kind of nostalgia as well. In fact, I suspect that we all have some aspects of our lives in which it is the future we miss, not the past.
From one essay to the next, López Mills, examines those notions that intrigue or trouble her, or both. Her affection for cats, the pervasive and evasive nature of guilt (a regular evening visitor), what makes some people prone to jealousy (something she does not experience) and what makes others “good” (something she would like to be). She defends pessimism in what is essentially an essay about Cioran, makes some astute observations of the way we show or fail to show compassion for those in need and, finally, engages in a spirited Wittgensteinian-like investigation of wisdom by way of by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and the Bhagavad Gita with plenty of introspective musing unfolding over 54 short reflections.
Not only is López Mills an engaging companion with a philosopher’s tendency to question and a poet’s sensitive attention to language, she puts herself—as the typically uncertain “I”—into all of the subjects she explores in a way that is always thoughtful and recognizable. This is a book filled with so many intriguing thoughts and ideas, but it is never intimidating or alienating. At a time when “genre-bending” essays have become quite popular, I sensed something here that I have not found in other similarly described collections. I suspect it may have to do with age. Although I grew up in a different environment and my soul searching may have had some differing triggers along the way, I had a sense from early in this collection that the author had to be close to my own age. There were no particular pop culture references to cling to but rather a shared atmosphere of being a teenager in the seventies, and a certain accumulated, well, wisdom. I finally looked her bio up online and discovered that she was born in 1959 and is just one year older than I am. Even though this book, first published in Spanish in 2012, was probably compiled when she was in her early fifties, I felt I was reading a contemporary.
It’s so easy to believe we know it all when young, but the older you get the more you realize how naïve your younger self was and the more you appreciate how little you ever really understand about who you are. At fifty or sixty, you may care less what others think in explicit terms, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying to figure out what it all means at the end of the day. As with one of my heroes, Michel Leris, who differs greatly from López Mills in style but not in intent, there is this unending desire to catch oneself in the act of being and examine a subject—the elusive “I”—which can really only be observed in passing. Both writers know we can look back at what we remember, but in the moment we are fluid beings and what we remember is always being reimagined. There will always be more questions than answers.
And that’s okay.
The Book of Explanations by Tedi López Mills is translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers and published by Deep Vellum.