“Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring…. So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” –MP
Voluntary memory: this is where I have spent a lot of my time, purposively thinking, under an illusion that I can drive my thoughts like horses. I remember trying to write stories this way in college. Running around the LSU lakes and thinking thinking in order to create a story and move it forward. Which is a strategy that works for creating the structure of a story, raising its bones, but not for reifying the beauty that the bones contain.
When I was in high school I wrote thoughts on little scraps of paper that I’d find later in my car or my purse. I wrote a sentence once about waking up with ink on my sheets from writing all these little things down, sleeping with my head where my feet should have been. Which says a lot about how I was at the time. Thusly, most of the things I wrote ended up being these little lights of thought, strung together. It worked out alright.
Voluntary memory is me looking at pictures, looking for the feeling I need and looking for something specific. But the specific, needed thing is always the meeting of so many tiny stitches and patches that you can’t ever precisely recreate–and you know that. Still, if you get only a few of those pieces back together, or truly, if they come to you, involuntarily, you get something imperfect, blotchy, but clear enough to be important. And that’s where I don’t ever want to ask too many questions. I don’t want to ask questions like: “Whence [does] it come? What [does] it signify? How [can] I seize upon and define it?” Because the questioning is where it starts to fall apart again.
In my youth, I spent a lot of time in a very physical space, and by that I mean that I felt my best a lot of the time doing something to resist my logical, analytical side, like riding my bike, running around town at dusk followed by riding my bike, tearing down the soccer field like a half-lunatic, singing on-stage. That athletic catharsis is a place where I’m really okay, but it’s also a place very much on the edge of something. It’s a place where I can pour my feelings in translation, but a place that can never hold them all. So I get to the very edge of it, where I’m running, running, into something like midnight, but I can’t run fast enough to accomplish the real thing I want to accomplish, so I just stay there, in that tense but beautiful place (er, running into midnight) which holds (almost) all the feelings. Now that I run less, it’s like this when I’m mid-lunge, lactic acid flowing, and swimming; especially swimming, since it’s an activity which encourages twin pillars of calm and strength.
But the real point of all of this is the involuntary memory. For me, a stronger version of that phrase would be a “trigger,” i.e., a thing that explodes when it greets the air.
Before dad died, I spent a lot of time in Zanzibar mid-panic, but in a still functional, hidden way. I did a lot of really normal-seeming things. I only slept poorly, had nightmares, did illogical things like google dad’s obits, as if he had already died. A friend messaged me on Skype one evening to tell me she’d had a nightmare about me and dad the night before; she’d wanted to make sure I was okay. I didn’t ask what it was about since I knew knowing would have only impeded my functionality.
I listened to “The Ship Song” a lot. The version I listened to was a cover by Lissie that’s even more dreamlike than the original. It takes a lot of the reality out of the original, and when I hear it now, I really think of and borderline-feel the horrible calm that was Zanzibar before dad’s death.
The path that led me to “The Ship Song” today isn’t that convoluted, but the real point is that I ended up listening to it a lot, the original real/dreamy Nick Cave version and the dreamy/dreamy Lissie version. (I only wish the Martha Wainwright version were better.)
And listening to it steered me to that place of horror and sadness and longing. That trifecta is not one you can really lean into or settle into when you’re in public because it’s a feeling that can make you cry, triply-bad. It’s a feeling that can make you wail and rattle the closest things nailed to a wall or attached to a floor.
When this feeling suddenly happens–because it’s “happened” before–I wonder, well, how I am functioning. And it goes back to that passage I initially quoted. A lot of the time I feel like I’m living as if dad never even existed because that’s the only way to tolerate the loss.
Logically, I know he existed, but emotionally, I can’t totally grapple with it.
But when I’m in the other place, the triggered place, and I start to sift through the old e-mails, even the mechanical ones, I can feel broken upon reading things like: “Yes, call AAA. It may be covered as part of our membership. You have your card.” These e-mails almost always end with: “Let’s talk tonight. I love you.”
Louisiana being pretty
After I got the news that dad died, a few things happened. I made a movement or two in my bed and, almost efficiently, wailed, “No!” knowing that the wail signified: “Something has broken.” Then I called Rebecca to tell her I wasn’t coming to class. Then I called Julie to tell her what had happened. Then Julie came over, even though I’d said, “No, it’s okay, you don’t have to come.” But obviously, it was perfect that she came, since I was moving through things more slowly than I ever had and would, before and after those moments. Mwalimu Omar had followed Julie in shock to my host parents’ house, so at a certain point, there was basically a party in my room, with Mwalimu Omar insisting we all continue to speak and grieve in Swahili. Julie and I laughed at his earnestness. Then Julie and I walked and had lunch and that’s when I started having the “moments.” In the moments, I’d think something about dad, and want to say it, but feel unable to without breaking and crying. Yet, now, I can say these things with great detachment; there isn’t any crying about them because maybe you only cross that bridge of horror once or twice.
The thing I really wanted to do, though, after I got the news about dad, was to go to my pool and swim. I swam at a pool at a hotel called Mtoni Marine, a bit outside of town, and though I usually took the daladala, Julie and I took a taxi, joking about how we were going to get kidnapped for being lackluster in our security-related decisions (though we weren’t really; we’d taken all the normal “precautions”).
This was when I was still swimming arms-only because of back/hip pain, and I swam pretty furiously that afternoon, did my normal 1800 or so, took my time. And I continued having the “moments” in the water, where I felt like I was both literally and, uh, metaphorically drowning. Feeling waves of total panic which, when translated, read: “Oh, hey, you’re never going to see dad again. Oh. Hey. Oh.”
All of this means that some weird things happen when I swim now. Involuntarily I’ll cry out, “Daddy!” mid-lap. It comes out in a small, literal voice or a whispered wail in my head. Like a child, but I can’t even laugh about it. Because that’s the feeling; that’s the wailing that is still strangely making its way out of my mouth.
This involuntary remembering explains a lot about my dreams since dad makes it into them so often. It seems like that’s the only way I can tolerate thinking about him, or the only way I can think about him in a way that feels whole and respectful of the memory and true. (Not real, but true.)
I dream about Kayla this way too. I won’t think about her for ages, and then suddenly she’s there, in the dream, and it’s the truest thing that’s ever “happened.” And I have memories of these dreams now that feel like part of the story of my real memories with her. Nothing really important needs to happen in these dreams, since the action is the part where you see the person, and are seen by them. You sit together or stand together; you’re just together again, and that’s literally the only thing that matters.
It says a lot that dad’s favorite book was Brideshead Revisited. The commentary about all of this is obvious and initial and strong: “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”
Dad spent a lot of time in this space of voluntary remembering. He visited his old homes and schools and dorms and walked around in the rubble of them or stood out in the street looking at the numbers his dad had fastened to the facade of the house. After his mother died, he went with Uncle Charlie to find a lot of people from her past, to these old Louisiana places.
I’ve been thinking about how I literally can’t do that sometimes. I can’t go back to my grandmother and Papa Bill’s acadian house because it’s no longer theirs. I can pass by it and around it and linger in the memories which are the grass racing around its perimeter and the knowledge of the garden that lies out back, the garden that I thought of for some reason when I first saw Wild Strawberries.
So since I can’t do the literal visiting, I have to do something else, and based on today, and today’s feeling more than today’s thinking, it seems like that something is waiting. I have to wait? That sounds awful. But it also seems true. I sit here, and I do the things that put me in the place where I am most myself–in that athletic or artistic catharsis or calm. Either is pleasure.
I’m not totally sure what I’m left with after today, but I at least know that I can read the following sentences and feel surprisingly heartbroken: “Yes, call AAA. It may be covered as part of our membership. You have your card.”