Remembering & Forgetting
Winter holidays are occasions for the creation of memories that bond families, communities, and loved ones. Yet memory is a strange twilight, not real but sometimes more vivid than reality. Memory creates the context that makes meaning possible.
Facebook offers up memories—what we were doing last year on this day, then two years ago or five, like an arctic core bore straight down of a single date over five years. But not much before because it depends on when you joined Facebook and, ultimately, on how long Facebook has existed.
Thirty years ago I had a black hard-bound notebook—not a journal because this book was from 1983-86, before the infection of ‘daily pages’ which are the larval form of the incessant self-documentation that has been taken up by Facebook—and I would periodically open to a random spot and paste in a post card someone had sent or a letter (we wrote letters back then) or do a small ink doodle that resembled knotted tree roots or vines. I might notate a Tarot reading or an I-Ching throw. Sometimes I wrote a thought or feeling or scene.
Yesterday, I took a look for the first time in thirty years. In the corner of a page in the middle of the notebook I wrote about spending the afternoon with my parents and my niece, Jocelyn, who was a baby. We were probably babysitting her. It was summer on Cape Cod. I wrote about passing through a gate with beach roses and walking down to the shore. I wrote about how my father picked up pieces of shell and stones for Jocelyn to play with. I wrote about feeling deeply content and about picking up Jocelyn and hoisting her onto my hip to carry her home and loving her. And the extraordinary thing is that I do not remember this at all. I. Do. Not. Remember. This. At. All. I don’t remember ever holding her as a baby. I don’t remember the roses or the gate. I don’t remember that day.
You know how now everyone takes a gazillion pictures of the babies in their lives and these pop up endlessly on Facebook and then Facebook reminds you every year how last you held baby so-an-so at Christmas or whenever and you smile and remember it. Well, I have no pictures like that. There are no pictures of me with any of my three nieces as babies because it was thirty years ago before Facebook and people didn’t carry cameras with them all day every day. I didn’t write down my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t ‘broadcast/share’ my thoughts and feelings because there was no Facebook. I wrote letters but whoever I wrote to has doubtless thrown those letters away. I talked on the phone but those conversations have disappeared. I sat with friends in cafes, in stairwells, on grassy hills, on New York City stoops and talked but none of it was captured. I lived. I lived with others. I lived, apparently at least one day, with my baby niece. I held Jocelyn but how would I have known this had I not noted it in that notebook and read it yesterday for the first time since it happened? Because I don’t remember it…
It was intensely disturbing to me that I didn’t remember this sweet scene from thirty years ago. How much don’t I remember? It seems a blessing to have this edited version of myself but also shocking that not every moment is stored in my mind where I can retrieve it if I want. We do not remember everything. We forget very important things. And I wonder—you can chime on how this sits with you—about the overwhelm of self-documentation and the glut of memories technology loads us with.
Facebook offers up memories with an innocence only the immortal young can feel. Now most every age group uses Facebook. The internet and Facebook have been around long enough that it has been universally integrated into our way of living. But it carries the ethos of the tech era which continually upgrades, obviating previous versions. Memories on Facebook are fodder. They haven’t marinated. They haven’t been there unseen for long enough to startle us upon rediscovery. And they will never sit long enough in a dark cask until being excavated because Facebook turns them up every year. We are never allowed to forget unless of course we leave Facebook.
An old family friend stopped by yesterday with a Christmas basket she’d made for me. She has been making one every year for my parents, but they are gone and I am the only one left at this house she has come to year after year. I am the last vestige of a world that has surrounded her for more than fifty years. We chatted. She mentioned that she had finally found a senior living situation she likes in Pennsylvania where her nephew lives. If she knew she would fall asleep one night and not wake she would just stay in her little house here on Cape Cod, but…and she laughed…and that handled the truth that almost no one dies in their sleep without first passing through weeks/months/years of increasing incapacitation and the need for help. I nodded. I showed her some photos I had stumbled upon while while cleaning out this house. She was young, standing on rocky shore with a lobster pot strapped to her back. She said she’d been in Maine with my aunt, which is why I had the picture. She remembered she had made the plaid shirt she was wearing. She and my aunt were about to return home to a massive power outage on the East Coast that lasted for a week and I remembered that outage—I had been in NYC living in a dance loft on Broadway and Prince with my friend and fellow dancer, Susan Osberg. I remembered looking down from the 12th floor at night and seeing only car headlights swing round corners in an otherwise blacked-out city. This elderly friend and I laughed how it was a long outage but not the end of the world.
She drove away. As I closed the door, it suddenly struck me that she had come to say goodbye. She is 86 and getting lame. If she moves to the elder living near Philly, and she probably will, she will never come back to the Cape. In her visit, she had been quietly letting me know. The Christmas basket was a goodbye gift. How gently people say things sometimes, especially the generation that has been up in front. I felt such a deep stab in my heart for not getting this while she was here and meeting her eye with understanding. And also a panic of being close to the top now, not much air left in my stateroom on the sinking Titanic.
Significance is everywhere around me, but not where I can predict that it will be.
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