Tag Archives: memory

please don’t feed the dustbunnies.

I’ve been spring cleaning. Ok, it’s significantly more than spring cleaning, but I’m calling it that because Trimming My Life’s Possessions Down in Anticipation of Moving to Another Country is just bulky. For the last six or seven weeks, I’ve had the urge to have a massive clear-out and tidy-up and throw-away, and when I came back from visiting Phil in England, that impulse could no longer be ignored. We may not know exactly when, yet, but we know I’ll be packing up and moving to Yorkshire to be with him in the not-impossibly-distant future. So I came back to Portland all fired up to do the spring cleaning, but also to start getting rid of things I know aren’t going to make the trans-Atlantic cut.

It felt great. Taking bags of seldom-worn clothing and decade-old knick knacks and never-unpacked picture frames to Goodwill. Pulling exactly seven DVDs that I actually want to keep and selling off all the rest. Culling supplies for crafts I am never going to learn and donating them to Scrap PDX. That bit was my favorite: having all those yards of fabric and yarn and obsolete embroidery transfers and bags of buttons gone gave me a breath of creative fresh air. Things I wasn’t ever going to use – wasn’t even interested in using – still managed to make noise in the back of my head and when they were gone the quiet was suddenly so productive. I’ve made more new things in the last two weeks than I have in the preceding six months.

The hard part of this process came when I got down to letters and photographs and picture albums. During the move from Chicago to Portland in 2012, I deliberately didn’t look at any of those things. I just sealed them up and brought them, with a lick and a promise to go through them later. I knew at the time that I wasn’t going to keep a lot of it, but I wasn’t ready to go through 15 or 20 years of my own history and talk to it. So I’ve been doing that these last few weeks, and it’s been joyous and painful and funny and sweet. A lot of things simply got read and discarded. Many more have been uploaded to online storage or allocated to be scanned for later uploading.

The process has made me think about how I interact with the artifacts of myself. I haven’t made everything digital, by any means. I’m not comfortable with the idea of keeping all the papers and pictures of my life in the cloud. There are things I may never look at again now that they’re in internet storage limbo, but I’m still not willing to say goodbye to them completely. I have problems with fuzzy memory and there are things I want to keep as touchstones to situate myself. There are other things that make me cringe and that I’d love to let go, and yet, and yet: some of those things are very important artifacts of ways in which I’ve changed and how hard it was to make those changes. And so I kept them in all their awkward physical reality in order to keep the threads of who I am and how I got here.

But I think the most interesting part of the process for me has been the things I’ve chosen to let go, but have given closure to in some way. Either I’ve found a new home for them – dozens of postcards I bought during a summer college course in England, quilt blocks for a project I’m never going to finish – or I’ve given them a sort of social media Viking funeral via Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. The act of posting a picture or a few lines of memorializing text about the thing I’m letting go has somehow made it more concrete in my memory, more fixed in the story of myself, than keeping it in a box in the closet ever did. Those things, that were not important or intact enough to keep, have somehow achieved a more vivid life than a number of the more vital things that got put back in boxes or uploaded to archives. How often will I visit or remember or need the things I’ve kept? Who knows. But the tiny white jacket with red trim that my mother crocheted when I was born, which I wore and which all my siblings wore after me, and which was far too greyed and shabby to give to the next generation, got a fitting and affectionate goodbye before I put it in the trash. I think that’s better than keeping it forever in a heedless box under the bed.

65.

During my senior year of college, my final class for my literature degree was called Sources of the Self. We read some theory, and a great many memoirs, and we spent a lot of time discussing and writing about the nature of memory. One of our assignments was to write our earliest memory. I had two, one a very early and very partial memory. The other was a little more formed, so I chose that one. To my dismay, after I’d written it, I couldn’t remember it properly anymore. I could tell the story, but I’d lost the sense of it in my body, the flavor of it. I resented that loss for years, and I was astonished at how fragile that thread could be.

Today I finished reading a graphic novel. In the final few pages, there’s a frame in which the narrator is sitting on her father’s lap and he’s letting her steer the car while he drives. In the instant it took to absorb that image and the text that appeared with it, my memory came back to me in its visual, sensory, non-narrative fullness, for the first time in 17 years. I read the end of my book with tears in my eyes, so grateful to have this tiny, powerful event returned to me, after I’d long since forgotten any hope of knowing it again.
Memory is a strange beast, and I’m not going to unsettle it by retelling that first memory. But I’m so delighted and surprised to have it back.

53.

When you choose a Christmas tree, there are lots of things to think about. How tall is it? How fresh? What kind? Do the needles poke? Is it pitchy? Is it crooked? Is it a little mushed on one side so it will fit just right in the corner? Does it have a proper top bit? These are all very important questions. They don’t matter one bit. The only way to choose your tree is by smell. When you get right in amongst it, are you suddenly transported to the pitch black middle of the night on Christmas Eve, as you and your brother sneak upstairs to look at the lumpy stockings hanging in a row? You are?

That’s your tree.

40.

It’s been brightly sunny and bitterly cold the last few days. I stood at my window this morning, watching the frost crystals dissolve as the heat from the radiator reached them, and I suddenly had the most vivid memory. When I was growing up, winter mornings in Vermont were very dark and very cold. My brother and I would jockey for position over the furnace vent, by far the most comfortable place to be while breakfast was cooking. It was on his side of the table, but I was older. When I stood in front of it, my long flannel nightgown would billow out, full of warm air. The thing I remembered just today is that while I stood there, warming my toes, I’d press my fingertips in a circle against the frost crystals in the windowpane to make a flower pattern. I liked the way the tiny resulting trickle of water refrosted in miniscule formations at the edge of the fingerprints. Microscopic worlds of crystals, frosted hands and warm feet and NPR on the radio and the smell of breakfast.

earliest memory.

While I’m packing, I’ve been going through boxes of photo albums and letters. I came across this picture, and it made me think about a very early memory. I have a memory earlier than this one, but it’s so nebulous that it’s barely even an image. This one has some structure to it, at least. In the way of memories, it may not have happened exactly like this, but this is how it lives in my head.

I’m about two years old (a little younger than in this picture, I think). I’m on the riding mower with one of my parents, cutting the grass in the enormous yard of the house where we lived until I was four. It’s very bright and sunny, but we’re going along the edge of the yard where there are trees and there’s that kind of dappling light effect. The mower is loud, and I can smell cut grass and gasoline and that sharp smell of hot stone from pebbles that kick up and hit the blades. Whichever parent is driving the mower has one hand on the wheel and one arm around my middle with a hand on my belly. The yard is uneven, and it’s bouncy. We come up towards a tree with a low-hanging branch and it’s coming right toward my face. The hand around my waist comes up and underneath the branch and sweeps it up so that it passes over our heads, and then the arm goes back around my waist.