Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Lost islands of our lives

June 24, 2019

There are episodes that are cut off from the great river of our lives. These are weeks or months or even years with no connection to our present day. We haven’t returned to these places; we don’t tell stories about the events that took place then; we aren’t in contact — not even ersatz social media contact — with any of the people.

These episodes can feel like dreams. Like ancient cities lost in the jungle. Like islands that were once part of the mainland but then isolated by continental drift — our own personal Galapagos, where time stops and the beaches are pristine and the animals never learn to fear humans.

For me, one of these times is the spring I spent in Santa Fe in 1978.


Downtown Santa Fe

I took the semester off from my East Coast college and through some random decisions ended up working as a waitress in a deli/bar on the main square. In retrospect, I was throwing things at the wall to see what might stick. Imagining myself as a writer, wanting to experience America beyond Manhattan and Cambridge, creating a life from scratch among utter strangers. I stayed for a while in a Jesus freak commune and met Vietnam vets and fended off harassing bar patrons and had a crush on a soulful-eyed, beautiful Latino construction worker who barely noticed me and drank a lot of peppermint schnapps and then one night died in a car crash on one of New Mexico’s winding mountain roads.

When spring ended, I returned to Cambridge and college. I’ve never been back to Santa Fe. I don’t remember – perhaps never knew? — the last names of any of the people I met there.

It became a Galapagos island. It stood apart; my history moved forward elsewhere. As decades passed, I thought about those months less often.

But among the encounters I had that spring was one with a marginal and short-lived literary magazine called Read Street, after one of the streets in Santa Fe. It was started by an unlikely character – a loud, crass, heavily-accented New York man who wore tinted aviator sunglasses in that late-70s “on the make” style. He was someone you’d expect to find managing an L.A. rock band, not running a little literary magazine. I think I had a short story published in it. I think he tried to pursue me and so I backed away from the magazine.

There’s nothing else I remember about that particular aspect of my Santa Fe time… except for a poem published in the magazine that stuck with me through all these decades. I had attended an event where the poet, a Native American woman, read it aloud: I was struck by her long, dark hair, her gleaming talent, and her age,  just a few years older than me.

The phrase I remembered from her poem was “cuchillo moon.”

Her name, which I have also remembered all these years, was Joy Harjo.

Last week she was declared the Poet Laureate of the United States.

And so the modern scientific research vessel – or is it a touristic cruise ship? – pulls up to my Galapagos island.  Private, dreamlike memories are abruptly anchored to  2019 news headlines. I’m not sure if something has been lost or something gained.

But… congratulations, Joy Harjo! So well deserved.

And here is that poem, which I was able to track down, thanks to Our Friend the Internet. (It’s from her 1983 collection, She Had Some Horses. Unfortunately, the blog template doesn’t allow me to reproduce the exact formatting.)


By Joy Harjo

is blood filling up my belly

is a white horse thundering down
over the edge
of a raw red cliff

is the one who leaves me
at midnight
for another lover

is the noise of chains and collar
straining at the neck to bite
the smell of my ankles

is the shell of black sky
spinning around inside
my darker eyes

are the living bones that want out
of this voice dangling
that calls itself

The failed fable of the overpriced greens

February 20, 2012

As part of a rushed round of pre-weekend shopping, I bought a small container of sauteed greens at the Pasta Shop, our local gourmet deli. When I got home, I looked at the label on the container and my jaw dropped:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

That’s right, click to zoom in on the photo if your middle-aged eyes can’t handle the small print.

Twenty-one dollars for a pint of greens! Based on a rate of $38.95 per pound!

Even Dean & DeLuca in New York wouldn’t charge that much.

Needless to say, it was a mistake. I took the container back to the store the next day and the clerk acknowledged adding a digit. The price was supposed to be $8.95 a pound, not $38.95. They refunded my money and all was well in the world.

Later in the day, I felt compelled to turn this story into a fable with a moral for my daughter. “You should always double check the receipt when you buy something,” I said.  I handed the plastic lid to her. “I didn’t do that, and look what happened.”

I knew full well what I was doing even as I started  through this futile exercise. With barely six months until she goes off to college, I feel compelled to cram every last little bit of life-lesson into our remaining time. Read your receipts! Floss your teeth! Don’t neglect your female friends just because you have a boyfriend! Don’t put wool sweaters in the dryer!  

Six months from now, she will be out on her own in the world, with nothing to shield her from imminent disaster except a few inebriated dorm advisors and this stockpile of motherly aphorisms.

And of course she won’t hear or remember a word of it.

It’s not just about being a teenager. It’s about the nature of our memories. Ninety-nine percent of the things we see or hear in a given day are forgotten almost immediately. The things we remember are those with some emotion attached to them — surprise, fear, excitement, joy.

I may — may — remember this encounter with the overpriced greens a year from now because I was so stunned. It was a visceral response, a combination of shock at the price and then embarrassment that I hadn’t noticed the overcharge while checking out. For my daughter, though, it’s just a story. She didn’t have that direct emotional connection. I reflexively tried to make it a little more vivid by thrusting the plastic lid at her, like some elementary school teacher trying to make the Miwok Indians seem real by passing around a grinding stone. Fat chance.

There was an old Gary Larson cartoon that I loved. It had two frames. The first was labeled, “What we say to dogs,” and it showed a man scolding his dog:”Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! I’ve told you to stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!”

Then the second frame was labelled “What they hear,” and the dialogue balloon coming out of the man’s mouth went: “blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah.”

Or here’s his cat version of it:

Cartoon by Gary Larson

Sometimes that’s how I feel talking to my daughter. She’ll absorb about as much of what I’m saying as our cat will.

I don’t hold it against her. I know it’s not personal, it’s just human.

But still, that six-month college departure date is hanging out there. I keep talking.

My brain needs re-roofing

January 26, 2011

A good thing about reaching midlife: You know a bunch more stuff than you knew when you were, say, 20.

A bad thing about reaching midlife: You’ve forgotten some of the things you used to know when you were 20.

This is hammered home around here on a pretty frequent basis with teen homework. I’m sure I used to know trigonometry, and physics, and the details of the Homestead strike but darned if I remember enough to be of any help.

That’s okay with me, since Sam really shines when it comes to an encyclopedic memory for scientific and historical facts.

Where it bugs me is with books.

Becca’s homework this week was reading Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. A dutiful English major, I know I read it in college. I remembered it took place in an office. But that was all. I couldn’t hold up even one teeny bit of a conversation about it.

Similarly, I read a ton of Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer novels in 1984-85 when I was living in Israel. There was a used English-language book store called Sefer veSefel that I frequented. I remember scooping up Greene and Singer paperbacks there every week, secure that whatever I brought home would be a great read. Greene in particular was one of my literary inspirations, someone I aspired to emulate. Then 25 years went by without my reading either of them… and now, for the life of me, I can barely remember anything of their work.

It’s like my reading brain is a roof with a 20-year lifespan. It’s good for a while, but after a certain point, it wears out. The warranty expires. I need to re-roof. I need to re-read things that I’ve read already.

This is really annoying since I feel I can barely keep up with new books that demand to be read. Books by friends. Best-sellers. Critically acclaimed books. Classics that I missed. Books with some stylistic or thematic connection to what I’m trying to write.

And on top of that, now I need to start plowing through my entire college and 20-something reading list again?

This seems tangentially related to the spread of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices. One thing that is psychologically satisfying about old-fashioned paper-and-binding books is that you can put them on bookshelves when you’re done. They accumulate. Not only do all the colors and sizes and fonts look pretty lined up together, but they give an illusion of accomplishment. Each one is a trophy — consumed, digested, incorporated into our thoughts and memories. I look at my bookshelves and feel a sense of achievement at how much I have read and how much I continue to read. It all adds up.

Of course it’s a hollow achievement, if you look at it in the broadest terms. No one’s giving out prizes for reading 1,000 or 10,000 books. There are good people who read a lot and good people who read a little. On my deathbed, I am probably not going to be lying there thinking, “My life was worthwhile because I read every single novel by Hemingway.”

And now this decaying-roof of a middle-aged brain calls into question the significance of my trophy-bookshelves even more. Okay, I’ve read all these books, but if I’m forgetting them, what’s the point? Here on this shelf is Flannery O’Connor, whom I adored in college but haven’t read in 20 years. Just down the row is Moby Dick, which stretches for a whopping three inches but from which I can only recall the first three words.

BUT…. these paper-and-binding books have a physical face to remind me that they’re there. I can’t walk past their shelf without noticing them. They yell at me if I have forgotten them. They call out to be picked up and re-read.

If they were on a Kindle, they’d vanish into the files of cyberspace when I was done reading them. Sure, they’d be stored as bits and bytes somewhere, but I wouldn’t see them unless I actively looked for them. I’d be less likely to remember them. I’d be less likely, 20 years later when my roof-brain springs a leak, to pick them up as a patch.

My mind is proving to be disturbingly fickle when it comes to retaining what I’ve read. So I really like having paper-and-binding books around as memory aids.

If a book is read on a Kindle, and there is no living-room shelf to store it on, does it make a sound?