out of what little earth and duration

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory: its failings, our mechanisms of retaining it, the sort of nagging sense that none of it matters.

* * *

In October, i helped pack the recorded memories of one woman into boxes and then into a moving truck, and the sheer weight of them–the physical weight, in back-straining pounds–convinced me that digital is the way to go, for the sake of portability and the ability of posterity to move it from one place to another, if necessary. Or, more likely, for it to just disappear. If every person to live and die on earth produced as many journals and scrapbooks and annotated, cross-referenced single-paged autobiographical narratives as this woman, c’s mother…i was going to say something about running out of paper, or drowning in it, but no. There is no meaningful “if”; we don’t, and even if we do, the paper just becomes stuff. Our capacity to absorb the others’ memories is limited.

* * *

I used to be such a good journaler. Every day, all day, through math class and dinner. When i didn’t bring my journal to high school, i’d write on tiny scraps of paper and tape them in later. Notes on what i and the interesting boys (there were 2) were wearing, and who said what to who, and the weather. I created my first online journal (before the word “blog”) in 1999 on Angelfire, then Diaryland, which have both been eaten by older, clunkier internets. I mostly wrote thinly veiled anecdotes about drama club and Monty Python, applying great cultural significance to my musings. It was a different voice than the journal scraps, less annotated boy wardrobe (“T-shirt. Trenchcoat.”) Gradually, the documentation shifted into emails, conversations, less urgent processing and more obligatory factual transcription. Now, the paper journals have been mostly abandoned, and i blame Facebook and healthy interpersonal communication, school deadlines and housework.

* * *

I’ve been remembering Columbine, my first conscious introduction to this part of American life. I remember being surprised at how quickly the conversation shifted from universal mourning and memorial to a divisive “us vs. them” argument. I don’t remember when that shift stopped surprising me, but it certainly doesn’t now. A week after that shooting, everyone in my high school wore white, and it was suggested that we do so every Tuesday for the remainder of the year. In my journal, i noted that my trenchcoat friends changed styles that day: a tasteful choice, i thought. Later that day, we were released early because of a bomb threat, and the picture in my scrapbook of my three smiling socially outcast white-shirted friends said “jumping on the trampoline on bomb threat day.” After a couple weeks, when my dentist and my gym teacher had made jokes about how i was going to “shoot everyone,” i and others stopped playing the white T-shirt game, started rethinking cause and effect and empathy. Maybe “evil” wasn’t the “cause.”

There are entries in the paper journals of that year that i can’t stand to look at, the anger was so aimless and all-encompassing. And then it passed. But to have lived with it for years…?

* * *

Friday afternoon, my first instinct was to write something, anything, in response, and the default has become to write it publicly: I just heard about this, i too spent all day in a school, i have thoughts and feelings and and and. But why? I called my mom. I made pasta. The temperature dropped below 0 again. c and i cuddled on the couch and watched a mediocre 2004 documentary about the Fox News monstrosity. At some point this weekend it dawned on me that “media” and “mediate” are the same word (duh). And trying now, i am still only thinking of how the way in which a life is commemorated is determined by the stage at which it ended. By how complete the documentation is perceived to be. Memory, i think, is key. To something.

Will kids wear white t-shirts to school on Fridays? What will actually be remembered?

* * *

I just re-read this tonight.

Nativity

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

-Li-Young Lee

 

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