We don’t believe because we don’t recall

“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

Bike ride

Bike ride

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.

Abita Springs

Abita Springs

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

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's gazebo

Dad’s gazebo

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.

Uncle Charlie

Uncle Charlie

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.”



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Memorabilia, mementos, symbols, emblems, constellations

I once told my friend Tyler that I usually tried to wear something, like a piece of jewelry, most likely, or clothing, that reminded me of myself, whenever I had something arduous/daunting to do, typically a first day of work. I end up assigning a lot of power to these memorabilia. And it seems to run in the family. My grandmother once gave me a pendant that she told me had her childhood teeth marks in it. And I know there were other important things about this pendant, but that was the most important thing that stuck with me because it seemed important to her too.

My dad started wearing a necklace that came from somewhere important, I think after his mother, my grandmother, died, which he referred to as his “bling.” He passed along these miscellaneous boxes of trinkets around that time, that I couldn’t and can’t remember the specific importance of, but felt the overall weight of; he filtered through them once while visiting me in Denver, asking my permission to take a specific emblem.

A necklace was also left in my childhood room once, a pretty bird siting on a gnarled branch, that was bought in either Lafayette or Spain. The certainty behind it is that it was bought by my dad for his mom.


Then there’s the necklace I bought when dad visited me to help me move from Greeley to Denver, May 2011. It’s two glossed-over, preserved, Colorado autumn leaves, and as soon as he bought it for me (my choice), he put it on, and the jeweler watched. You could have called it a “father-daughter moment.” You could have called it poignant.

My maternal grandmother (you know who you are!) bought me jewelry in a certain way for some time; her way was to say, “it reminded me of you!” and smile deeply, after I’d opened the gift. Which felt so special and serene to me.

This feeling, though, of attaching such importance to things–it says something about us, me and dad and dad’s mom. It says how weighted down and earth-bound we are. You have to have little mottos to help you get through that kind of life, things like dad used to say to ease the pain of getting a driving ticket or losing $10 through a proverbial pocket hole: “It’s the cost of living.” I.e., shit happens, and as much as we love our symbols–these stars that connect us from one place and one time to another–certainly there is something bigger and more beyond.

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wind of the summer night

What makes you feel empty and small?

That feeling, of emptiness and smallness, tends to sneak up on me, but once there, can be pretty engulfing. Just a feeling of being belittled or bullied. And it presents conundrums: you can’t really stand up to it because that gives it too much power. So you almost just have to wait until it sneakily goes away, as sneakily as it came.

So in the meantime, I’m listening to beautiful music, which ideally, should help. It helps in the sense that it gives me something else to hold on to. A lyric like: “I’m weary with my former toil, here I shall sit and rest a-while.” But the feeling is still there, as yucky as when it first came.

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“Is it possible really to love other people? If I’m lonely and in pain, everyone outside me is potential relief – I need them. But can you really love what you need so badly? Isn’t a big part of love caring more about what the other person needs? How am I supposed to subordinate my own overwhelming need to somebody else’s needs that I can’t even feel directly? And yet if I can’t do this, I’m damned to loneliness, which I definitely don’t want… so I’m back at trying to overcome my selfishness for self-interested reasons. Is there any way out of this bind?”

Thanks for always asking these things, DFW.

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(i.e., trying to encourage myself to write/complete things I’ve begun)

The thing about anniversaries is that they can never happen perfectly, as people wish, but instead reflect these eyelashes or arm hairs of movement in time that aren’t spherical, that never reliably lead you back to where you were a year or two ago. In a way I find it comforting, but at the same time haunting, since it eludes any control over feeling sadness in any one particular moment, when the bad thing happened, or the good thing, or the exciting thing.

There is the anniversary of you first loving me, or when I was born. It’s not that I’m really all that selfish or all that into myself, but that might be my favorite anniversary since it’s on that day that I get to think about you loving me by taking me to all of your favorite places from birth, counting cars, removing paper wrapping from straws by pressing them into diner counters. This is the one time that I’m grateful for this non-spherical nature of years, because the anniversary of you loving me bleeds into the day before and the day after the calendrically marked actual day, like ink bleeding deep into the seat of a brand new car, trickling even like bright ink into water, through the river of the other days of the year. It trickles even into the day of you dying, blotting that day out like blue ink blotting out a moth smudged passingly on paper.

There is the anniversary of the day you decided to ride a horse. My grandmother saying, “Charlie!” She wasn’t your mother, but she was still terrified. She said something about how musicians shouldn’t ride horses. You were getting really ambitious on that horse though, and it was hilarious and lovely to see your happiness played out in a sound other than music, in an act other than art.

There’s the anniversary of walking around the campus. These anniversaries were always composed of simple acts—you saying, let’s go see your old apartment. Since in years before we’d gone to see your old dormitory which had become the modern languages building, though you could still point out your room, which we walked into once when the building was being remodeled. You were happy, standing there in the rubble, and most of the time now, these days, that’s how I picture you, slipping through these keyholes of memory, trying to reveal them to me, sometimes getting stuck, sometimes passing through.

I wrote this the other day: one problem is that when I use percent change as the dependent variable, my results are pretty shoddy. Thinking to myself: one true thing is that, amidst all of this change, you’re the one who kept all the memories, and I’m the one who received them. As if only you could put meaning to our timelines, the early years, the difficult years. I was always there, waiting to know it, and waiting to hear it from you. So that now, sitting here, I feel possessionless, my hands like watchtowers with no men watching, no people even to watch over. -3/29/2014

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“When God is a child”

I’m not totally sure what I want to say today, just that I want to say something, or that it’s important to say something.  It’s like this:

“I woke up this morning with that itchy feeling I get when I’ve gone too long without writing. I have a writer friend who once told me that she didn’t feel right if she wasn’t writing regularly, that she woke up each morning needing to write, and until very recently, I didn’t really believe her, because it never felt that straightforward to me. … I never felt that kind of imperative to be a writer – or, really, to be anything in particular. Writing sneaked up on me. But now that I’ve been at it for a while, I sometimes get a sense, just the faintest nudge of a sense, of what my friend might have meant. I’m best when I’m writing, even if I sit down at my desk without a thing to say, with only that itch to go on.” –Molly Wizenberg, orangette.blogspot.com

That’s where I am today, and most days.  For me, a lot of the time, I feel like I’m picking through rubble, trying to get at the most important things, blue stones.  To echo B.Wainana–“for me writing is all about creating larger circles of chaos, and rebuilding new, lucid structures from the possibilities the debris brings.”

Yeah, that.

So, this memory has rolled around in my head for a while:

When I was young, maybe 9, at my grandmother’s house in Lafayette, I saw an episode of Doug that totally freaked me out and kept me from sleeping on my stomach for at least a year.  In the episode, as far as I can remember, a villain/doctor sneaks into Doug’s room at night and STICKS A NEEDLE IN HIS HEAD OKAY.  Geez, why were kids’ shows so scary?  Anyway, it was bad news; this was also at the beginning of a period of fairly intense anxiety for me that lasted for about a year.  Thanks, Doug.

After seeing this episode, I walked into my grandmother’s living room, expansive and acadian.  You had to step down to get to the living room, which made it feel important to me.  My grandmother was there, practicing on the grand piano, wearing her reading glasses and probably something fairly ostentatious.  (We used to play dress-up in her regular clothes, because they were so fanciful and cool.)  Anyway, my dad’s mother was both elegant and absent-minded–but she seemed grounded to me at times, at least in the way she was able to comfort a child, or at least me.

So I remember totally freaking out about this episode and telling my grandmother and my grandmother finding this song to play for me, called something like “When God is a Child.”  Isn’t that perfect?  It was totally soothing, sitting next to her, as she played this song that she chose intentionally to calm my meltdown.

And I think about that moment and song from time to time, which is probably what she intended.

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I shall set forth for somewhere, I shall make the reckless choice

Talking with my friend of adolescence, LW, and reading her blog posts has brought up some different thoughts for me about “being a teenage girl (in America)”/”coming of age in Mississippi” (sorry, it was too easy).  Skyping, we both agreed that teenage girls are the ones we feel most drawn to now.  They are the ones I usually see first in a room, and the ones I want most often to support without smothering, mostly by telling them some or all of the following: a) you’re not alone, b) you’re not crazy, but mostly c) don’t hurt so much.  or do.  just find ways to bear it.

This particular passage that LW wrote recently stood out for me: “Why do so many young girls tear themselves to pieces…? I mean, we can project an answer to that and say it’s because too much value is placed on being loved. Not loving someone, not being in love, but being loved. Being locked down. Being validated by love.”

And I thought, “Yep.”  Coming of age in Mississippi is basically vertigo: every gaze is heightened, in a glass of foggy summer heat and trees that thunder up.  The palpability of heat and moisture inconvenience escaping reality: you almost always know what’s happening, and it’s very hard to get around it.  And everything feels really fucking important. (That’s a story for another day.)

But what’s even more interesting, maybe, or what’s on my mind right now, is transitioning out of that girlhood phase, the phase where you long to be loved and noticed and cared for.  It’s the phase of young adulthood and early college where you’re told that you have to learn how to be alone and be whole and unbroken and stuff.  Phrases like “co-dependency” and “you have to love yourself first” are used to stave off or judge certain types of relationships and people.

Most of this strikes me as bullshit now.  But I feel that I might not be the only who, as a young college student, went through a period of feeling totally fucked up for wanting relationships as badly as I did or longing/needing that to feel at my most alive.  Fortunately for me, the counselor I saw for several years picked up on this; he talked often to me about how normal it is for people to be together and to want to be together; he helped me to step away from the judgmental language and recognize that the brokenness we bring to the world is totally natural, i.e., human.

Obviously the brokenness we bring to the world is also the thing that destroys relationships–I get it.  But the approach I take now is one of bringing all the brokenness to the surface, at least to the extent that I can, rather than keeping it all buried.  It’s the worst.

Another major change that occurred between my teenage years and now is that I no longer aestheticize brokenness, sadness, pain, in the ways I used to.  Now, having lost, I see brokenness as the way things are in the world. This is also the worst!!

There’s a Robert Frost poem that is basically about this theme (in my mind) but that I can never find.  I need to be reunited with my big ol’ RF book.  For now, though, there’s this:


A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

This is partly a very “duh” post, but I do think it is important to talk about the language we use and the things we are convincing teenagers and young adults that they need to do in order to be functional and normal.


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