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When people ask me about the books I love most, I tend to disappear for a moment, browsing a visual inventory of book covers in my mind—a guy doing a headstand with another guy leaning back, drinking a cocktail (Humboldt’s Gift), a simple etching of a car driving over a curving mountain road (This Boy’s Life), plain yellow and black with tall gray letters (Libra)—but the one that stays with me, the one that’s most vivid, is a simple gray and orange-ish cover, with a portrait of a boy’s windblown face.
The book is a memoir called Stop-Time and it’s by Frank Conroy. Not Prince of Tides Pat Conroy, but Frank, long-time chair of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. No, it’s never been a best-seller, and doesn’t always make the top lists of this or that. Yet it’s a beautiful book.
The book was a suggestion from my long-distance girlfriend. When I finished reading it, I did the thing that all good books make me do: I flipped back to the first page and started over. As if I didn’t want to leave the world that Conroy had created, as if I wanted to discover, as he asks in the final lines, “what’s all this” about?
Even more, I loved the book because it changed me. Reading it, I learned that it was okay for a young man to be an emotional, confused wreck. And perhaps a young man could even be a charming wreck. A confident, intelligent, wanting mess. That it was okay not to have it all figured out—because who ever does, after all?
At the time, I’d just graduated college and I yearned for those simple days of boyhood, while simultaneously yearning for the days I was currently living, poor and 22 years old in Boston, in the fall of 1989. I had long hair and an old Toyota Tercel (which promptly got stolen), and I lived in a loft apartment across the street from Fenway Park, a fancy place with parquet floors and gigantic windows, whose rent my roommate and I couldn’t afford. New England Telephone was on strike then, so we had no phone, and if I wanted to get in touch with someone I had to leave the apartment and use the nearest payphone, a worn, beat-up thing just below the second-story windows our loft.
Since I was cut off from the world I knew, in an intimidating and loud city, I read and reread Stop-Time, lying on my futon in my open loft space, listening to the Fenway announcer calling up the next batter: Boggs, Wade Boggs, third base. Waves of nostalgia washed over everything—my creaky loft, made of wood in the style of a fire lookout tower; my roommate Bob, a guy I cloyingly looked up to; plus, my very first friend Randy Yoshida, riding our Big Wheels up and down my driveway; our family dog, a crazy sheep-dog mix named Pirate; my old room in the house I grew up in, a house my mother sold a year before I moved to Boston. All of those beautiful old things were gone, except in memory, and the new things, I knew, would someday be gone, too, and the resulting sadness was so painful—and terribly sweet.
To put it simply, I wanted not only to go back in time, but I wanted time to stop, so I could savor the moments I was living, and stay as close as possible to those moments already gone. So I could fully be there in the present, and immerse myself in the beauty, and the heartbreak, of how time never, ever, ceases to advance.
Stop-Time made all of this clear and palpable to me. The book gave shape and form to these deep feelings of nostalgia, my longing for those simple days of boyhood, when each day was an incredible, vast gift of possibility and newness.
I won’t give a synopsis of the story, because you should go and read the damn thing already. But I will say that the Frank Conroy in Stop-Time tries to embrace a deep love for his own coming-of-age, even if it leaves him wanting (and slightly suicidal). He doesn’t point fingers of blame, nor does he try to make sense of the angst he feels. He merely lets it be—an antidote to those self-help books that for years I’d been sneaking from my mother’s room and reading on the sly. Books like Living, Loving, and Learning, by Leo Buscaglia. Stop-Time at least had some masculine weight to it.
They say that the word nostalgia means the search for home, and when I think of Stop-Time I know exactly what that desire feels like. In many ways, all the writing I do, and everything I read, and perhaps the way I view the world, is mostly about that desire. Stop-Time framed it in a way I could finally comprehend.
I leave you with a short passage, so you can see what I mean:
It is two o’clock in the morning. I lie in bed watching the back of my wife’s neck. She sleeps, she is part of the night. The baby wakes at seven, her sleep is for both of them. Sleep is everywhere. I am like a bather at the edge of a pool.
My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion and that some other principle organizes existence. My memories flash like clips of film from unrelated movies. I wonder, suddenly, if I am alive. I know I’m not dead, but am I alive. I look into the memories for reassurance, searching for signs of life. I find someone moving. Is it me? My chest tightens.
I get so uncomfortable floating around like that that I almost gratefully accept the delusion that I’ve lived another life, remote from me now, and completely forgotten about it. Somewhere in the nooks and crannies of memory there are clues. As I chase them down a kind of understanding comes. I remember waking up in the infirmary at Freemont [the boarding school he attended as a boy]. I had been sick, unconscious for at least a day. Remembering it I rediscover the exact, spatial center of my life, the one still point. The incident stands like an open window looking out into another existence.
Waking in a white room filled with sunshine. The breeze pushes a curtain gently and I can hear the voices of children outside, far away. There’s no one in the room. I don’t know where I am or how long I’ve been there. It seems to be afternoon but it could be morning. I don’t know who I am, but it doesn’t bother me. The white walls, the sunlight, the voices all exist in absolute purity.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you supported Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day, December 8, we appreciate it! It’s not too late to participate; click here to make a donation now. Thank you!
Michael J. Henry currently serves as executive director of Lighthouse, where he also teaches poetry and memoir and essay workshops. A former recipient of a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and a PlatteForum Fellowship, his work has appeared in such places as Copper Nickel, Threepenny Review, 5280, Many Mountains Moving, Pleiades, Red Rock Review, Rio Grande Review, Georgetown Review, and Bloomsbury Review. He’s published two full-length collections of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own and Active Gods, both with Conundrum Press.