by Brooks Riley
You can’t take it with you. That’s what they always tell you about possessions. When you die, everything you own will be left behind: Good-bye, beloved steel chair; farewell, feline; adieu, artichoke; bye-bye books, and so forth. All those objects, great and small, animate or inanimate, will exert their protracted existence on some other visitor to the kingdom of life, after you have moved on.
Like a going-out-of-business sale, everything must go. Everything? Not everything. There is something you’ll take with you when you go: memories. Whether you’re actually going somewhere is a question not only to be avoided here, but irrelevant.
Here are some of the things I’ll be taking with me: all my phone numbers since childhood (memory is a senseless hoarder); the time I threw my peas on the floor from my highchair, when the cook threatened to tell my mother; my fall down the steps of the Palais de Chaillot; the sudden whiff of Paris on the corner of Madison Ave. and 61st Street; accidentally meeting a childhood sweetheart on the roof of a lockhouse on the Panama Canal; the infra-red glow of instruments before dawn on the bridge of an ocean liner; the two courting praying mantises who flew into my Manhattan apartment and stayed for days; the moonlit pair of flying swans I mistook for UFOs; the baritone whoosh-whoosh of their wings as they flew over me; the opossum who watched me practice piano at night from its perch on the wisteria. I won’t go on. There are millions of them, most of them like confetti–tiny, colorful and insignificant.
Then there are the ones with heft (morsels for a memoir manqué), like the time the headmistress of my grade school told me I’d never be a writer (I was 12); or the two times Eisenhower waved to me from a limousine in Paris (when I was 6 and when I was 14); the time I stopped the orchestra during Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde (like stopping an oncoming train); the time I argued with Max Frisch at a dinner party over who composed ‘An die Musik’ (I was wrong, oh the shame); the time Jean-Luc Godard tricked me into acting in his test footage; the time I wept over Wagner with Susan Sontag during an intermission of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met; Abel Gance’s devilish compliment. There are hundreds of these, weightier than confetti, more like stones collected on a beach—some smooth, some rough, all memorable, to me at least.
We can’t ignore the boulders, those obvious, life-changing milestones, good and bad: falling in love, the kindness of friends, the shared experiences, the personal triumphs and defeats, the brushes with death, not to mention the numerous cultural epiphanies that emerge from an ongoing infatuation with the world. These types of memories are the building blocks of someone’s personal memoir, whether or not it ever gets written, whether or not it ever should get written.
The memories we reveal to others usually involve storytelling. Something someone says reminds us of an event in our past. We relate that event to the patient listener as a story, allowing him or her a limited, expurgated peek inside our memory bank. Through the social exchange of stories, we often remember other people’s memories as well as our own.
Not all memories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The confetti category of memory defies narrative, consisting of wisps, shards and trifles that are stored in our brains for us to savor or suffer alone. These tiny, throw-away fragments are seldom revealed and will be gone forever to those who knew us.
We still haven’t learned to forage around in other people’s memories. Consider the trite-but-truest statement most sons and daughters make: ‘I wish I had asked my father about this, or my mother about that.’ Youth is not interested in the past because the future looms so large ahead. I wish I had asked my father about the war. Decades after his death I saw him on German television, an American army officer walking through Buchenwald at the end of the war, in some newly released Defense Department footage. I could have asked him about that experience. But I could just as well have asked him what it was like to grow up in New Jersey at the turn of the last century. I could have asked him when he saw his first movie, and what it was (he and Thomas Edison’s Black Maria film studio share a birthplace and birth year). I could have asked him why, in 1917, he was in Semur-en-Auxois, a town where I too spent some time in 1996. I could have asked him for some confetti-like memories, nothing major, just a moment here and there from way back when. These would have been as valuable to me as the stones and boulders of the more relatable events in his life. But I didn’t. For some reason, we don’t. And then it is too late.
A memoir is the writer’s attempt to weave all the strands of a life into a meaningful tapestry, a hopeless endeavor. Not only does memory often fail, or fool, it is not a good editor. And structurally, it’s nearly impossible to arrange a life artistically. The important stuff nearly always obliterates the small moments in its aim at history with a big H.
Not long ago I conceived of an art installation involving memory, in which tiny random memories could be made tangible. The installation would include a raffle bowl, filled with scraps of paper, each with a memory on it—2 or 3 lines at most. The scraps could be color-coded according to the type of memory, such as visual, olifactory, aural, or according to subject, such as nature, family, work, love, friendship, etc. Visitors would only have to dig their hands into the bowl and pull out a memory, or open up fortune cookies with memories, or play a one-armed bandit offering random access to 3 memories, or step up to a soft-drink machine where certain categories of memory could be selected—I even imagined memories for sale on E-bay.
To that end, I began a list of memories, writing them down chronologically. What struck me about this list, which became unwieldy as my brain went into overdrive, was that none of these memories was worthy of a story. And yet each of them opened up an instant in the past. If I had children, I would continue my list for as long as possible and leave it to them–these wee wisps of experience, these inner snapshots. I will take them with me, of course, but why not leave a copy behind for those who might be interested? Or is this just another sad attempt at ‘staying alive’?
I’ve given up my conceptual art idea but hey, Facebook, are you listening? Why not let your users start their own memory bank? Some memories could be accessed only by selected family or close friends, others could be there for whomever drops by. If Facebook is forever, why not build a virtual attic and store our memories there? The list could be categorized and updated continuously, without interfering with the immediacy of our present life. If we’re willing to let it all hang out, why not also the older laundry of life gone by?
An expert might suggest that if we start outsourcing our memories, the brain’s own storage will shrink as we relieve it of its duty to record. I think the opposite is true: Every memory, however trivial, triggers another one. This is true not only for the one who has the memory, but also for those who have access to it.
We have reached a point where ‘I am a camera’ is literally so, the third eye always with us on our smart phones, wherever we go. A picture is no longer worth a thousand words (only a thousand calories, if it’s of your dinner last night) now that so many daily dear-diary entries are made visible in Instagram verité.
Recording the present can be treacherous, however. The brain is smarter than you are, its own camera taking its own picture for memory, one that includes you, because it’s from your p.o.v. Take the aforementioned opossum stretched out on the wisteria vine: In the smart phone version I would have had to stop playing the piano to take the picture, depriving it of dual essence. The opossum, too, might have lost interest if the music stopped. A third party could have taken the picture with me in it, but the angle would have had to be precisely calculated to include the opossum’s face and beady eyes, robbing the moment of its immediacy. A ‘selfie’ wouldn’t help here either, cutting out the opossum altogether.
This is where a phrase is worth a thousand pictures. My memory of this moment launches a picture in your brain of what it must have been like to be playing the piano and looking up at an opossum on the vine outside. If a thousand people read about this opossum, then a thousand pictures will be launched, each one different, each one imaginative, some possibly better than the original.
This is why other people’s memories are so appealing. If we’re given access to them, we visit other worlds, other times, other places, just as we do when we read a novel. The advantage of memories is that they don’t have to be part of a bigger picture or an extended literary work. In our accelerated modern world, maybe this is all we have time for.
Roasted pine nuts floating in a glass of green tea: sitting in silence with village elders at an outdoor café in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, gazing out at the roof of the world. This is not my random memory. It belongs to someone else. But its impact is still fresh in my mind, years after someone gave me access to it.
I’ll take this one too when I go.