Art, loss, and memory

On the Thinking Meat Project Facebook page, I recently posted this quote from The Country of Language by Scott Russell Sanders: “And I knew that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe all art is a hedge against loss.” Ever since I posted this quote, I’ve been thinking about writing and memory.

It’s always been a challenge to me to know what to put in and what to leave out when I write. When I was in probably fourth or fifth grade, I was given an assignment to write about my spring vacation from school, which I think consisted of a long weekend around Easter. We were supposed to hand this in the morning after the vacation ended. I’m sure the teacher wanted just a page or two summing up the key events—an Easter egg hunt, a family dinner—but I started writing on the first evening of the break, all about coming home from school that day and what Mom said to me and what we had for dinner and what my brothers and sister and I did when we played in the yard that evening. I did the same thing the next day, in what must have been excruciatingly tedious detail.

The experience now reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s fictional map with a scale of one mile to the mile. It was the first time I thought about the writer’s problem of when to summarize and when to zoom into the details. (I seem to remember that about ten pages into the thing, it started to drive my mother nuts, and I was fairly frustrated too.) So “worthy moments” is a key part of the Sanders quote. You can’t possibly capture all the moments, and you wouldn’t really want to. It’s taken me longer to realize (or admit) that you can’t even capture all the worthy moments.

The other thing that occurs to me is that I also try to save worthy moments in the form of physical objects. I have a folder full of expired museum passes and train ticket stubs and similar ephemera from a trip to Paris this summer, not to mention some Euro coins in a small bowl. Handling these things again reminds me that those magical two weeks were real, and helps me focus my energies on getting back there someday. This is all well and good; that trip was just under six months ago. However, I have taken enough trips and lived through enough noteworthy events that I don’t have room for every bit of memorabilia from every one of them. My house is small, and life is short. Storing and looking at things from past experiences crowds out the space and time needed for new ones.

This leads back to writing, because sometimes writing about a particular place or time or event can be enough to preserve it in my mind, and I can jettison the physical reminders. This past spring I finally threw away an old set of bookshelves, the first I ever bought. They were made of particleboard and showing their years, but I clung to them because for someone who has as many books as I do, bookshelves are more than just another piece of furniture. I bought this set when I was 15, using money I had won in a creative writing contest. I painted them myself. They weren’t just bookshelves; they expressed the optimism and pride of my 15-year-old self. But they were in fact a slowly crumbling object that was falling apart unevenly and no longer stood up straight. It helped to write down my memories of them and let the bookshelves themselves go. A small file on the hard drive is much easier to find room for than the shelves themselves, but it still allows me to bolster my identity by hanging onto the feelings of that younger self.

In the much longer run, however, even the small file will have to go. One of the ideas about which I feel most passionately is the value of the written word to the human species. Forty-six years after I got my first library card, it is still sometimes a wonder to me that we can enter the minds of people long gone, let them transmit their thoughts to us, perhaps discuss those thoughts with others, and maybe even send a few down the pipeline ourselves to future minds. It is one of the most magical things that apes do. However, the amount of human wisdom and experience that has been preserved, as vast as it is, is only a fraction of the knowledge and thought and sheer human personality and wit that have been produced through the ages. And, if I am honest with myself, I realize that the amount of it that I will be able to comprehend, even if I live into my 80s or 90s, is the merest crumb. What I leave behind will probably be no more than the wake of the boats I saw passing on the Seine this summer, an evanescent ripple that blends quickly into the countless other agitations that move across the water.

This thought used to distress me, but I’ve cleaned out enough closets and hauled enough stuff to the curb or to Goodwill that I am content to realize that old things have to go, and someday I will be an old thing whose time has come. Even this realization, however, I would mark in words. The following poem is by Carl Sandburg; it’s from a collection called Smoke and Steel. Because the entire book is available for free from Google Books, I don’t think I’m taking anything away from Sandburg’s estate by posting this poem here.

Stars, Songs, Faces

Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
And then . . .
Loosen your hands, let go and say goodby.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say goodbye.