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Paris, 1970
Photo by Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it happens to you like this: unexpected events and encounters often come in multiples. It’s as if random events are actually traveling through our lives in a wad. How many times has someone come to mind who I haven’t seen in years and then they suddenly appear at a party or on the street? Many.

That rhythm of random repetition showed up for me again this last week. I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about New York City in the 1970s as seen from the high velocity, celebrity-studded perspective of both Smith and her lover/friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. I lived in New York City at the same time and remember Smith’s extraordinary performances at CBGB that catapulted her into fame. The world she describes, centered around the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, was very far from my ragtag circle of friends living in unwieldy lofts on the Lower East Side. I wasn’t running into the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso on my rides on the F train or walks through Chinatown. But reading her words brought those days back to mind, back to a Manhattan and a me that are long gone. Woody Allen’s somewhat superficial but irresistably enjoyable film, Midnight in Paris, was a paean to our private variations of the moveable feast.

Manhattan in the 1970s was one of my moveable feasts, but so was the year I spent in France when I was 18 years old. And those halcyon days came flooding back when I recently visited my art teacher from that year I lived abroad. He is the reason I changed my life path and decided to spend it making art, and now he lives in the hills above Salt Lake City. His secluded Italianate villa is filled with artifacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to dinosaur bones. Stepping into his cloistered Miss Havisham world is already an invitation to leave life as we know it, but even more so when I discovered he had unearthed the photos from that long ago time in France—black and whites that capture a me and a France that, like Manhattan in the 70s, no longer exists.

Who I was back then is as elusive as a dream image, and it is just as hard to share it meaningfully with anyone else. But reconnecting with these two periods in my life, in close succession, has brought all sorts of forgotten energies to the surface. Asking those old selves to unveil their forgotten secrets is not as easy as a car that comes round for you at midnight on a Paris street, but I’ll take these trips back however they come.

Lava
Lava flowing into the sea on the Big Island, Hawaii, 1999

My friend Andrew’s weekly Sunday epistles have had a thread running through them over the last few weeks that speaks directly to my current state of mind. Maybe it is just a stage in the growing older business.

I have come to think of this train of thought as having an “Amanda” moment. The beleaguered mother in Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie delivers a line I’ve said to myself many times: “I’m just bewildered…by life.”

So neither Andrew nor I get how this all plays out. When I look back on all the work it is to be a living human being who has arduously assembled so many experiences and (hopefully) garnered some wisdom along the way, bewildered is a pretty good description.

In her performance piece Bright Red, Laurie Anderson sings/recites these lines:

When my father dies we put him in the ground
When my father died it was like a whole library
Had burned down. World without end remember me.

What I am calling reality—my opinions, views, perceptions and moods—is in a constant state of flow. It feels soft, malleable, lava-like. Notions that once lived in me with a passionate rigidity have been rubbed off from a lot of wear and tear, like graffiti on a subway wall. For example, there was a time (and I say this in the utmost sincerity) when I believed, as did many of my first generation feminists sisters, that men and women were basically the same. Remembering that I once thought that was true now causes me to shake my head in disbelief and to experience a profound embarrassment at my bull-headed and misguided naivete. Me and a whole generation of women and men.

So this passage from Andrew’s most recent dissemination speaks to many of my ponderings as well.

Neural representations of billions of such memories, sensations, ideations are crammed inside the skull, like magpie pickings woven into a nest, held together by some hard spine of selfness. I spent 40 years in this unceasingly dense micro-climate of closed ego. Then its end began and the years of wandering in a desert of forgetting. Parts of self splinter off. Personality disintegrates. Great blocks of identity de-construct, country and culture, church, the verities shift or shrink. Even the deep anatomical structures and great Kantian categories seem less formidably real, more like film clips streaming wireless into empty space.

In the movie “Being John Malkovich”, tourists buy tickets to spend an afternoon in John Malkovich’s head after which they are unceremoniously dumped at the side of the Jersey turnpike when time expires. Indeed, we are each of us caged behind a stranger’s eyes, looking out at an Iraqi sky or Afghan market or American skyscraper. Our schemes and fictions are repeatedly interrupted as buried bits of biological or emotional inheritance explode periodically with the force of roadside IEDs, as nervous shards of the past leap from their place like plate glass of a hotel facade collapsing under attack. And always I am wondering if the wondrous glue that sticks the whole shebang together is benevolent, unutterably hostile, or merely mechanical.

31PersistenceOfMemory
The Persistance of Memory, by Dali

Penelope Lively has a view of memory that reflects my own beliefs about this extraordinary thing we can do with our minds. In an article in the Guardian by Sarah Crown, Lively’s view is stated clearly:

“The idea that memory is linear,” says Penelope Lively, crisply, “is nonsense. What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.”

I have read a few of Lively’s books—they are well written and veddy English—and remember in particular her novel Moon Tiger. The protagonist is an aging historian named Claudia Hampton. In this excerpt from the book, Claudia speaks for Penelope and for me:

Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key. They sound, in theory, more efficient. Some of my keys don’t work; others demand pass-words, codes, random unlocking sequences. The collective past, curiously, provides these. It is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours … The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life. I, me. Claudia H.

Haven’t we all known those people who remember everything in perfect sequence? My friend Richard’s father could retell his experiences of being in France on D Day with such accuracy when he was in his late 80s, never missing a detail or a time stamp. I can’t do that about yesterday let alone an event that happened when I was a teenager. I used to think it was an artistic liability but now I have come to believe it cuts through the population in general. Natalie Angier, the gifted science and health writer at the New York Times, is wired like me too. (And yes, I have to admit I was comforted by having her in my camp.)

And as the haunting (and I do mean haunting) film Memento points out, what are we if not an assemblage of our memories? That movie, structured backwards like a plate broken into shards, was the most visceral encounter I have ever had to what Alzheimer’s might be like.

honeycomb-piece

These days I’m finding a welcoming berth in the words of others, probably since most of my allocation of expression energy is being spent in the studio getting ready for an upcoming show. The coinage I’m minting in that travail happens outside language, so encounters with well languaged and well spoken wisdom are particularly appealing.

This moving passage came by way of my talented friend Andrew’s regular Sunday morning email. Speak memory, for Andrew and for me.

Emerging from the Hudson tubes onto the marsh flats between fingers of Atlantic Ocean estuary, the rail tracks pass abandoned factories, burnt out buildings, then the Newark skyline, brick apartment buildings, the usual American plethora of Churches, neighborhoods cut short by the tracks, and finally the gradual climb up a mild grade into communities with backyards festive in blooming cherry, magnolia, and dogwood and the promise of a new year of death and birth, hopes and minor tears, and the bounties of family & grandchildren. I first rode the old Erie Lackawanna line westward 42 years ago, past place names now like notes of a familiar song: Secaucus, Broad Street, East Orange, Brick Church, Orange, Highland Avenue, Mountain Station, South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Short Hills, Summit. The train platforms and buildings rush by in an orchestration of sloped green tile roofs and harmonious signage. Aboard the 6:09 each morning, traveling eastward, I observe a silhouette of the pedestrian bridge at Mountain Station lit by street lights and the glow of our passing train against a barely visible backdrop of summer trees or snow depending on season. Fifteen minutes later out beyond Newark is a tableau of broad fields of cat-tails beside a tanker channel: it is profiled in winter by pre-dawn dimness, in Spring by the earliest palette of sunrise, and at summer solstice the flat dull light of first morning.

These memories – and the other trillions scrambled and unindexed – feed into the wondrous and expansive withinside of honeycombed consciousness, a sensuous and sticky half-digested polyfloral pollen from innumerable stamen, all swallowed and regurgitated from honey stomachs of the farthest-ranging bees. At death I will cross the liminal threshold bringing these memories, another Marco Polo sailing home for Venice with Asiatic tales and pockets full of rubies, or another geologic survey close to end of term, returning per schedule to home base with core samples of material reality, its contribution to the divine bounty. My local network of neurons must patch back into an unfathomably broader intelligence.

This caravan travels the old silk road hauling baskets of every color-drenched sunset since my birth, the flash and sparkle of morning light on the sea off the Jersey shore; the great glowering light of gathering storms; a hundred thousand reflections in mirrors, glints on brass doorknobs, rainbows in a cut crystal carafe, a soft shine off delicate china; the sheen on Kathryn’s dark hair; half images on window panes facing the night; the penumbra of headlights, stage lights, flashlights; the narcotic of neon; the dwindling phosphor glow on the dark TV screen shrinking into a dot and then extinction. The world’s beauty is all there; these are the frankincense, myrrh, and gold which I lay in homage before whatever created me. Another portion of the caravan lopes the hot sands behind me loaded with document sachels of lies, betrayals, broken promises, bad faith, venality, indifference, my whole sordid history. An entire hardy camel is needed just for the bulging bag of bawdy images, red hot as Ali Baba’s treasure trove stolen from forty thieves, jewels of lust, coins of golden desire. The pornography ring posted to the interstellar web must already be infinity, yet my unique byte still will contribute its part to the complex software which runs the cosmos.