Sandbox: Field Notes from my American Sojourn

field notes on the field notes from my American Sojourn

field notes from 

my American sojourn:

(a collage of correspondence, anecdotes, poems and journal entries)

Raymond D. Maxwell

I am going to make this page a bit of a sandbox as I do rewrites and edits.

May 18, 2021. Looking over it all, the chapter titles are a bit unimaginative, don’t you think? Not really going for too much flair, though, and the existing titles are functional. I guess. Working on that thought. Posting a short note to Facebook gave me a big push on subscribers. You have to go where the people are.

May 18, 2021. I never made it to Benghazi. But my name became associated with it due to my position a deputy assistant secretary of state for North Africa. More in chapters 23-25.

May 18, 2021. Let’s face it. A memoir is a lot more self serving than even an autobiography. There is a search on the part of the memoirist, consciously or unconsciously, for universal themes and unity of events in support of those themes. It is a subject worthy of further study.

May 19, 2021. Still wrestling with the inclusion of poems written during each period at the end of the chapter. The poems fill in thoughts, emotions that the prose leaves out. Think I’ll let it stay. But I do wonder.

May 19, 2021. What about the order of the chapters? Is chronological order boring? Too predictable? Might a non-consecutive order be a bit confusing? Life does happen in a certain order, but storytelling need not be so orderly. In my original plan for an autobiographic novel, I changed the order to something more rhizomatic, jumpting from node to node without regard to the passage of time. Perhaps that experiment only works with fiction.

May 20, 2021. Heard from a high school classmate this morning who lives in Belize. Our exchange reminded me I didn’t go into a ton of detail about my “coverage” of UK interests in Latin America during my stint at Embassy London. May need to revise that chapter to include work with Cuba, Belize, Guatemala, Ecuador (especially Ecuador!). So much still to process.

May 20, 2021. My favorite handmade-in-Poland coffee cup developed a hairline crack. So I used the occasion to order a replacement. Then I thought, why not fix the old one, then I’ll have two favorite cups! So I googled “repairing pottery cracks” which lead me to Kintsugi, the idea that repairing broken items can result in an object more beautiful that the original item before it was broken. Isn’t that what we do with out lives? Things, relationships, occupations get broken, sometimes just from normal wear and tear. But we don’t abandon the broken pieces, we insert a filling and cover that with glue, then sand it down to something more beautiful that the original, unbroken thing. I wrote in one of my 1975 poems, “Tomorrow is retrieved from the rubbish/And polished to a more brilliant luster.” Now I must look up Wabi Sabi.

May 20, 2021. Going back and reviewing the original documents, letters, testimony transcripts, etc., a case can still be made for conflicting accounts about what happened during the Benghazi ARB. Of course, it is easy to forget that people thought the future presidency of Hillary Clinton was riding on the balance of the ARB being a righteous undertaking, even though it wasn’t. Determining what is true is not a function of a democratic process, counting the number of votes for one side or another. The tyranny of the majority is highlighted as a concept when the majority is just plain wrong.

May 21, 2021. For the most part the prose was written after the fact and with some degree of retrospection. Contemporary items are included in chapters, like conversations, correspondence, etc., but most was written during moments of reflection well after the action, so to speak. The poems included, however, happened simultaneously with the action, and so lend a notion of spontaneity to the chapters.

May 29, 2021. I’m finding it useful to go back and fill in details, to add a bit of color to the black and white. I keep finding details I omitted on the initial run, perhaps things nor yet processed. maybe stuff I want to avoid, to forget. It is not all goodness and light, you know.

It is useful to go back & fill in the details,
to add a bit of color to the black & white.
I omitted some episodes in the first draft,
perhaps thoughts not yet processed, maybe stuff
I wanted to avoid, to forget. It is not
all goodness and light, you know, and
“life ain’t been no crystal stair.” I have broken hearts,
including my own, and buried broken bodies
too hastily in shallow graves out back,
including my own, or deep in the sand
of soft, wet beachfront where sunbathers dwell.
The first draft sheds light on darkened areas,
but it’s the rewrite that quickens the resolve
To clear the air and to finish the deed.

June 3, 2021. Yes, I have deleted some stuff. Like the first kiss, the loss of my virginity and other rites of passage, the deep disappointment of my first experience with college. There are things I absolutely ignored at the time, and some of them I never revisited until now. There are things I would change if I could go back in time. Or at least clean up. Relationships I completely screwed up. Even the 24, 48, and 72’ers I pulled in the Navy working miracles when it was required. Growing up being thrilled by ACC and CIAA basketball, Motown, Stax and the Sound of Philadelphia music. Good things (mostly) and a few bad.

June 6, 2021. Sat through an interesting webinar Friday featuring a presentation by Robert O. Meally on collagist Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collage work provided the inspiration for three of August Wilson’s plays, so of course I found his talk, Antagonistic Cooperation, to be thrilling. He is promoting his next book by the same title. The thought occurred to me, what if Bearden had had access to photoshop? My memoir project is a collage of sorts, which made me think about the overarching story I am trying to present here. Admittedly there may not be an overarching story, but it is worth asking the question.

June 15, 2021. I’ve decided to not trade on my Benghazi fame. Sure, it’s an eye-catcher. But who needs that traffic? It was less a defining moment in my life than other things that happened. I want to own my experiences but I don’t need to exploit them.

June 22, 2021. Filomena says I should allow this editing stage to stretch out over at least a year, to allow ideas to season and memories to return. She knows what she is talking about - she is the published author in our household. I think i will listen to her. There really is no rush.

June 28, 2021. Watching the Olympics trials this weekend sent me back down memory lane to my track running experience at Woodberry in the early 1970’s. Much later, and in fact, only recently in answering questions with my cardiologist, I’d learn that what I thought were stomach cramps during intense repetitive training workouts were actually little heart attacks where my heart wasn’t getting sufficient volumes of incoming blood, sort of like pump cavitations I studied later in submarine engineering. I survived, but the pain I endured steered me away from track in later years. The condition sometimes results in sudden death, especially among high school athletes with similar preconditions, so I was very lucky.

June 28, 2021. I think I have the data down. But how to transform a chronology into an art form? That is the question. I am gonna need to read some books. Once I figure it all out, stand by for possible minor alterations. It is a process, after all, and it is art, not a memo.

July 4, 2021. Happy Independence Day. I woke up with the thought that the Afterword needed to be more generalized and maybe even shortened. Took the “end of career” afterward and put it in the final assignment chapter where it was more relevant. Theoretically, I decided that the memoir is about my “whole” life, not just that last year at State, and further, I decided to “defang” that whole episode, placing it in a safe box where it is not and will never be life-defining. The new generalized Afterword looks to volume two, new occupations and vocations, and a re-definition of sorts. It ends with an original sonnet that peers into the future.

July 7, 2021. My garden is booming! Sunflowers are feet tall plus, eggplant is flowering, and peppers are a big bush. Reviewing and proofreading these chapters, I am struck by several considerations. For one, this is not my parents’ story, it’s not my sister’s story, it’s not my classmates’ or my shipmates’ story. It is mine. I haven’t always been the hero or the winner or the center of whatever action was taking place. There have been times when I’ve been the anti-hero, the loser, even the bench warmer. Such is life and such is the telling of a life story. This story has been undramatic, uninspirational at times and often downright uninteresting. Take it all with a grain of salt.

July 8, 2021. We are living in a dark time, y’all. The Haiti assassination gave me flashbacks to JFK and the coffee commercial. Reading the Roethke poem might help, but it won’t be sufficient. I may need to watch the Sophie Scholl film and listen to some Schubert to get out of this funk.

July 9, 2021. Early morning chat with Filomena. Heart to heart. Always envisioned these years I’d be returning to African countries in the summer months, filling in at embassies for vacationing mgmt officers, and mentoring young officers as I was mentored by retirees Howard McGowan, Bob Kile, Al Jazyncka, and later, Nick Baskey. But I also remember the point where I had to decide whether to reaffiliate or drop off the ready reserve rolls from my prior Naval service. I decided to leave the past in the past, that if I really wanted to do something in the present from my past I should have never changed career paths, perhaps, that there were reasons why I moved on when I did. Choices I made. Always better to live in the present, facing the future.

July 23, 2021. For the last two weeks time for my memoir writing project has been drained away by a course, Digital Storytelling Bootcamp. Meets three hours by Zoom every Sunday afternoon. Learning a lot of cool tricks. Check out the progress here:

July 29, 2021. Did a Memoir for Beginners webinar yesterday and got some good ideas. Like making an ongoing list of I remembers, and tying things together into tighter scenes, themes, and structure. Right now my bits and pieces are all over the place. I learned the three main sources: experience; witness; and independent memory. I learned no memory is insignificant and everything is material to be mined for information. I have to differentiate between autobiography and memoir. I also concluded I might need some professional help in crafting the whole thing internally. I can throw together a photograph or two for the cover, or make it very plain, like bold white letters on a deep purple background (my preference) but inside the book is a different story. New memories are returning daily that need to be incorporated as I edit and tighten. !A luta continua!

August 4, 2021. News! Dinner with two writers and new friends last night. We talked mostly about August Wilson plays and history and it was non-stop chatter. And I had an interesting email exchange with an old colleague about a library/archives project with a community of retired diplomats. And my guitar arrived! A lot for one day. I have to arrange for lessons this fall to get started with this thing.

I am thinking about consolidating chapters 1-5 into “book #1,” chapters 6-10 into “book #2,” and chapters 11-24 into “book #3.” I’m aiming for better, tighter organization all around, to tell the story one time right.

September 18, 2021. I’ve taken a bit of a break from the sand box but edits to the chapters continue. Ideas, like birds with feathers, flutter in and out. I’m giving serious thought to extending the memoir project at least to the time of the COVID pandemic, a sort of reprieve from the near past and a peep into the future of my post retirement life. A great deal of it is already written and posted to various blogs. And oodles of poetry! In fact, the poetry of that period may serve as the overarching theme.

Making an outline over the next two weeks.