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Memory and romantic revisionism (part i)

I want to talk about memory. I want to talk about memory and nostalgia and the way that we draw connections between life events in a manner that allows us to add meaning and narrative and foreshadowing to our life “story”. I want to talk about needing these connections as protection against the overwhelmingly huge randomness of life. I want to have a small late-night meditation on the importance we place on finding poetry in the plastic box of jumbled magnetic words that is life. I want to do these things and I want to do it beginning with a poem by Stephen Dunn called “The Vanishings” that has been stuck in my brain, usually on a back-burner, for some months now.

I’m new to poetry. I couldn’t tell you what I like, other than to list off specific pieces…but the stuff I like, I can’t shake. If you told 11th grade Cristina or “college-age taking a single English Lit. class because it was a requirement” Cristina that I’d be gathering poet recommendations, buying anthologies, even dabbling a bit myself with assembling words into stanzas, she – either of those girls – would have laughed at you. But “29 and attempting to learn things from life and read more and reflect more” Cristina isn’t laughing. Life’s ironic that way.

So…read the poem below. And then we’ll talk. And…by “talk” I mean I’ll write things and maybe you’ll put up with me and read them. Don’t skip forward.

The Vanishings
by Stephen Dunn

One day it will vanish,
how you felt when you were overwhelmed
by her, soaping each other in the shower,
or when you heard the news
of his death, there in the T-Bone diner
on Queens Boulevard amid the shouts
of short-order cooks, Armenian, oblivious.
One day one thing and then a dear other
will blur and though they won’t be lost
they won’t mean as much,
that motorcycle ride on the dirt road
to the deserted beach near Cadiz,
the Guardia mistaking you for a drug-runner,
his machine gun in your belly–
already history now, merely your history,
which means everything to you.
You strain to bring back
your mother’s face and full body
before her illness, the arc and tenor
of family dinners, the mysteries
of radio, and Charlie Collins,
eight years old, inviting you
to his house to see the largest turd
that had ever come from him, unflushed.
One day there’ll be almost nothing
except what you’ve written down,
then only what you’ve written down well,
then little of that.
The march on Washington in ’68
where you hoped to change the world
and meet beautiful, sensitive women
is choreography now, cops on horses,
everyone backing off, stepping forward.
The exam you stole and put back unseen
has become one of your stories,
overtold, tainted with charm.
All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer, the small chunks floating
in the Adriatic until they’re only water,
pure, and someone taking sad pride
that he can swim in it, numbly.
For you, though, loss, almost painless,
that Senior Prom at the Latin Quarter–
Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and you
just interested in your date’s cleavage
and staying out all night at Jones Beach,
the small dune fires fueled by driftwood.
You can’t remember a riff or a song,
and your date’s a woman now, married,
has had sex as you have
some few thousand times, good sex
and forgettable sex, even boring sex,
oh you never could have imagined
back then with the waves crashing
what the body could erase.
It’s vanishing as you speak, the soul-grit,
the story-fodder,
everything you retrieve is your past,
everything you let go
goes to memory’s out-box, open on all sides,
in cahoots with thin air.
The jobs you didn’t get vanish like scabs.
Her good-bye, causing the phone to slip
from your hand, doesn’t hurt anymore,
too much doesn’t hurt anymore,
not even that hint of your father, ghost-thumping
on your roof in Spain, hurts anymore.
You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history, become invisible
like defeats inside houses. Then something happens
(it is happening) which won’t vanish fast enough,
your voice fails, chokes to silence;
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

Alright. So now you’ve read some poetry. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

Life isn’t poetic as it occurs. It is only with the passing of time and the wearing down of the rough edges of memories that any of it takes poetic form. Dunn suggests that they fade out of existence, making room for the new…but I wonder if – maybe – they’re just hidden, little incomplete pieces in a disorganized pile, ready to be pulled up into consciousness. We assemble a narrative, a life story, from the memory of moments, days, months, years that stack up behind us. It’s a mosaic of broken plates and mugs and bowls.

We’re like this box of broken pieces, purple ones and white ones and the handle from that striped mug your you bought at that garage sale and then summarily dropped the first time you used it. We couldn’t list them for you, their shape and origin and texture blend together, but if you pull one out of the box to examine – instant recall. That piece there? That was a mustard-yellow soup bowl left in the cabinet from the tenants before me, and it was full of soup when I dropped it. Ask Dunn if he ever cheated on a test in school, and the exam he “stole and put back unseen” resurfaces. given the right prompt that memory is there, waiting. But these pieces are subject to editing, to memory. We chip off corners and sand down edges until they fit into the bigger picture of a life-narrative we’re trying to assemble, into our mosaic, as we want it to be. The mosaic can’t and wouldn’t use all of the pieces, but as we work on a section…we rummage through the memories to find ones that fit.

We don’t want randomness in each lost job, new career path, car accident, chance meeting of a new person… we want the setback or opportunity to be a part of something, connect to something. So we look back through our bin of leftover ceramic pieces until we find one that foreshadows, that connects. As children, we both listened to James Herriot books-on-tape on long car rides. Voila! I’m meant to be here, in this moment, experiencing this thing. And when the next thing happens, it seems almost pre-determined, and our personal narrative, our story…it has meaning. We have meaning. We have a purpose. The pain experienced necessary, significant, non-random.

Once assembled, it feels logical, natural. But it’s still assembled. We need meaning, and so we fit these moments together in a way that provides it. Pain needs to be explainable, necessary. Joy is better if it feels due to us, karmic. We need the emotional roller coaster to make sense. We want there to be a path, and so long as there is one, the stubbed toes and skinned knees and booby-traps and ravines in our way…they’re manageable. We need a goofy and tragic and sometimes cruel cast of Mr. Wrongs to set the stage for Mr. Right. We need a before and after, a lesson learned, a strand connecting our life events together into a story with purpose.

Nothing is poetic as it happens, it’s only with hindsight and mental editing that the messy flotsam, the bits and bobs of life become this bigger image, the mosaic of tiny memories, carefully assembled. Things don’t have a greater meaning until we assign it, painful moments and eras aren’t meaningful until we say they are. Breakups aren’t poignant or beautiful as they happen, they are snotty tear-stained tissues littering the floor, they invalidate, they feel preventable and unnecessary. Depression isn’t graceful or beautiful as it happens; it’s dark and consuming, filling afternoons and weeks with an energy vacuum that is inescapable and detached from everything before and anything that might come after. Jobs ending? That’s no “door closes window opens” burst of beautiful possibility and opportunity as it happened; it is self-doubt, rejection, and a question mark where there was once a plan. All that blood, it wasn’t beautiful; it was just red.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making this mosaic, constructing this meaning. Most of us are just flinging about, figuring it out as we go along. If we assign meaning to pain as a way of coping, if we tell ourselves that failure must come before success as we stand up and brush off our knees, if we survive bad relationships with the belief that we – like Ted Mosby – have a person out there…that’s just fine. The fact that I still believe this meaning to be manufactured doesn’t – in my mind – undercut it’s importance. Dunn talks about how we save just the highlights, and the only thing I find truly unfortunate is how much the selection of those highlights is influenced by the way something ends. I remember very few beautiful moments with K, despite spending more than three years deeply in love with him. 2008, 2009, 2010 – little is left. The lies and the threats that came at the end – they’ve unwittingly played a major role in the selection of highlights, and I – passive – let time pass and good memories fade. I don’t want that. I don’t want people, eras, jobs…to be defined by what seems to be an often crappy ending. So I guess rather than being the passive memory vessel I feel in most of Dunn’s piece, I want to be active…I want to have agency, I want to carefully select beautiful bits (beautiful-happy and beautiful-sad) for posterity.

part ii… a selection of some of these beautiful-happy and beautiful-sad bits to share … can be found here.


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