Maybe I should have expected Lori Carson’s first book to alter my chemistry. Her music – solo records, collaborations with The Golden Palominos, soundtracks for film and TV – has always taken me places I didn’t know I needed to go. When her first album, Shelter, came out in 1990, I was 34, working 50-hour weeks at a newspaper editing other people’s stories and trying to forget my own. Like me, Carson was from New York, and close to my age. Her music pulsed with sensual mystery. Her low-fi soprano mapped a heart’s topography: twisty roads, dark corners and the sweet spots in between. I couldn’t always tell who she was addressing (a lover? a stranger? herself?) but each tiny sonic world pulled me in – especially “Imagine Love,” her duet with Greg Allman.
Imagine love is always waiting for us
where we left it
closed in a room with pillows
and bedding left unmade
imagine love, imagine love
lies waiting frozen now
I’d rewind and fast-forward the cassette tape to find that one track. Somehow the song slowed me down and filled me up. It wasn’t just the way Carson’s lonesome voice rubbed up against Allman’s whiskey echo – I didn’t want to leave that room. It was a window to a place I knew, the twilight of possibility where the life I had thought I would have floated endlessly, frozen in time. In that universe, my first love and I had married as planned, and raised the three babies we had conceived as teens. Our bodies and spirits stayed together, forming a family of five. In my real world, I was only starting to let myself feel what I had lost 14 years earlier, when I had reluctantly placed our third child – the only one I managed to deliver – with an adoptive family. I was love-haunted too. Unlike Carson, I had no words.
* * *
Fast-forward a few decades. When Carson’s slim novel The Original 1982 came out last May, I grabbed it. I was curious to see what this songwriter I knew and loved would do with a bigger canvas, and intrigued by the notion of a woman taking another crack at her own past. In 98 short chapters, each as compact and elegant as a song, she describes what happens when Lisa Nelson – also a singer-songwriter – hits middle age swamped with regret. It might be 2010 in real time, Nelson realizes, but narrative magic could give her another crack at “the original 1982,” the year everything changed. Why she wants to rewrite history and how she manages to zip around in time is the new story she tells to Minnow, the girl who “didn’t get to be born” that year. As she imagines an alternate past for them both, her pined-for daughter – long-haired and curious, besotted with snow and prime numbers – morphs from an unknowable loss into a real love. “If I describe you well enough,” she asks her invented child, “will you come to live inside my words the way a soul occupies a body?” That sentence stopped me, lodged under my ribs the way Lori Carson’s song had 23 years earlier. And it wouldn’t let me go. Since those early newspaper days, I had shed several skins: journalist, daughter, wife – and then divorcee. I had met my son again as a man and gotten to know and love his family. I had gone back to school for creative writing, hoping the veil of fiction would help me “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised. When the threads of my fledgling novel failed to ignite, I decided to revisit my past as a reporter to see if I could figure out what happened and why. Carson’s creative twist on mid-life reckoning had unhinged something inside, but I wasn’t sure what. Her novel had taken residence in my brain like a fever, burrowing into my dreams, trying to tell me something I couldn’t yet hear. Unlike the fictional Lisa Nelson and the real Lori Carson who made her, I couldn’t change my past or the characters of my own crooked story. For years I’d been trying to figure out how my own motherhood had taken such an unexpected path, imagining that with enough time and digging, I’d be able to isolate which particular x led to which mistaken y. As I began to appreciate how elusive and complex my very real characters were, I worried that I would never untangle the strands of my story.
Then a trip to my hometown gave me a chance to revisit the past with new eyes. I wondered which moments make you who you are, and if it’s ever possible to know while they’re unfolding. When I ran into my first love at a high school reunion – the father of the son I gave up for adoption – I was surprised at how calm I felt. My neck wasn’t prickling with the anger I’d nursed for almost 40 years, despite the many times we’d talked or made tentative peace. He reached out nervously to shake my hand, but I hugged his shoulder instead. In that moment, I saw him not as the boy who repeatedly broke my heart but as who he’d always been: a guy perpetually three steps behind his best intentions. My worry over whether he’d finally do right by our son – telling his other kids about him, standing up at last to take responsibility for his part, making amends where possible – eased. I’d spent so many years waiting for him to change that I’d lost sight of how little it ultimately mattered. I had changed. Something inside had shifted. I’d let the bulk of my anger go. It wasn’t until I got back to the Midwest that I connected the change with Lori Carson’s book. Her story had helped me understand the randomness and mystery at the heart of each life. I was tired of being haunted by the mothering I did not get or give. Like Lisa Nelson, I love children and knew early on I’d have a house full. Yet neither of us did. We both had multiple pregnancies – with the same guy – that we terminated because our boyfriends said to. Unlike me, Carson’s narrator found a way to turn her longed-for dream from vapor into Technicolor. She’d let herself sink into the specifics of what it would feel like to raise a child as a way to let it go, lift the film from her eyes, see the gifts in the life she had. I’d been thinking of my story as a Sherlock Holmes case only I could solve. Now Henry Miller’s words – “understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it and by it” – buzzed in my ears. Watching Carson’s heroine kiss her pretend daughter goodbye at the book’s end gutted me. It showed me how hard I’d been clinging to my own infant spirits, how unwilling I’d been to let them go. Last summer, when I couldn’t figure out why the book hit me so hard, I imagined the answer was another stubborn cloud of insight refusing to land. Instead, the truth was like a splinter that had to work its way out of my skin: The Original 1982 was a mirror I hadn’t known I’d needed. “Your life is just an extension of what you are,” one character tells Lisa Nelson, at one point. “It’s an illusion, this idea that we choose our lives. You are your life and there’s not much you can do about it” except, I heard her whispering from the page, hold close what is and let go of what never was.