Félix Vallotton, Le Ballon, oil on wood (1899)
I recently read a short story in which a woman tells her lover a terrible secret. “My mother died in a lake when I was a child,” she says. “And what did you do?” the lover asks. “I watched,” she says. “I stood there watching as my mother’s hair slipped gently under the surface of the water. I didn’t run to get help.”
The writer, Mitsuyo Kakuta, was inspired by “Le Ballon”, a painting by fin de siècle artist Félix Vallotton which she saw at an exhibition in Tokyo entitled “The Fire Beneath the Ice”. It shows a landscape viewed from above, a flattened, two-dimensional scene against which a little girl chases after a bright red ball, her dress flying out behind her, arms outstretched, the aliveness of her figure contrasting with the still backdrop.
In Kakuta’s story, the woman tells her lover that she too was running into the forest to fetch her ball, which was when she saw her mother going into the lake. After relating this story, she reflects: “Now my mother, standing there in the lake, will wave not only to me, but to him as well. He will keep on seeing it, again and again, just like I do. The thought of it sickened her.”
This last observation is made by an unnamed narrator who, it turns out, was also present that day and has a different version of events. She tells us that the daughter’s hat had flown off into the lake, that she’d screamed at her mother to fetch it. When her mother went to retrieve it, she “must have got her feet caught in something. She wasn’t waving, she was calling out for help. Her daughter simply stood watching her mother as the water swallowed her up.”
Which of these accounts is true? Perhaps more significant is what each woman believes to be true, and how this story about what happened has affected them, and those they’ve told it to, over the years.
Everything we see and experience is shaped by our perception into a story which, with each recollection, is altered, so that it’s constantly shifting and evolving. In “The Delusions of Certainty”, Siri Hustvedt writes: “We do not recall an original memory but rather the last time we took it out and examined it. It changes with each telling.
The relationship between memory and imagination is a recurring theme in Hustvedt’s work. In her essay “Why One Story and Not Another?” she quotes Hobbes in Levathian (1651): “Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations has divers names.” She writes:
The same brain systems appear to be activated in both remembering and imagining. Recollecting one’s self in the past and casting one’s self as a character in the future belong to the same psychobiological processes. People who suffer memory loss from brain damage to the hippocampus are also poor at imagining detailed fictional scenarios.
The imagination consists of all the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings retained when a person remembers an event or place and when she fantasizes about an event that never happened or imagines a place where she has never been … [seventeenth-century scholar Giambattista] Vico believed that memory, imagination, and metaphor originate in the body and its senses and are necessary to the story of thought itself.
Earlier this year, after reading Spring Garden, a novel about change and renewal, I came across an essay by the author, Tomoka Shibasaki, in which she talks about writing other people’s memories and how she was inspired by Hustvedt’s ideas and the work of W.G. Sebald, whose books navigate the borders between past and present, biography and fiction.
In an interview, Siri Hustvedt once said that the task of the writer is to remember things one hasn’t experienced. That’s exactly it, I thought. And so, how do I remember these things, and am I qualified to write about somebody else’s memories? There are photos that appear in Sebald’s novels. At first glance, they appear to be source material, but there are inconsistencies between the photos and the narrative. Things that are captured in photos and missing from photos, things that are written in stories and left unwritten, someone else’s memory and my own memory. And, the border between the dead and the living. I am fascinated by novels that make me aware of the boundary between the world within the novel and the world outside of it, and that try to cross over that boundary.
Virginia Woolf’s bed, a polaroid by Patti Smith, Castello Longhi de Paolis di Fumone, 2006 ©
Many writers have spoken about how fiction can be more revealing than memoir. I’ve found this to be the case in my own writing. Writing fiction is for me a very different process from writing these essays, in which I’m explicitly trying to express my thoughts. I find fiction a far less conscious process, during which past experiences emerge unintentionally in characters and storylines, revealing things I didn’t know I thought or knew, feelings I’d not been aware of, and perspectives I hadn’t considered before. I like the term Dani Shapiro uses for this, which she mentions in a conversation with Paul Holdengräber about the difference between memoir (consciously remembered story) and fiction, which uncovers what she calls “the unthought known” – the previously hidden truths that surface in the process of imagining.
I’m drawn to the idea that all the writers I’ve mentioned so far explore in their work, of shared memory, and of writing other’s memories. For a long time, I’ve thought about writing a book based on old, forgotten portraits – family albums that have ended up in dusty bric-a-brac stores, uncaptioned and nameless snapshots. I like the idea that these strangers from the past could be brought back to life in another’s imagination, given a second chance. Like the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli in Sebald’s collection of narratives, The Emigrants, whose body was found after it had been missing in the mountains for 72 years, hinting at a cyclical existence where stories are renewable and everlasting. “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” Sebald writes. “At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later … a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”
In A Tale for the Time Being, another book that expands conventional concepts of time and narrative, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun sums up our existence thus:
Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories.
The author Ruth Ozeki (who is also an ordained Zen priest) writes about a novelist (also called Ruth, also Japanese-American) who finds a container washed up on the shore. Inside it is the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl, written within the covers of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
I’d not been able to get very far with Proust before, intimated by the long sentences, but, inspired by Ozeki’s book, I decided to give In Search of Lost Time another chance. Following another reader’s suggestion I decided to read the first volume, Swann’s Way, aloud. It was a reading experience like none I’d had before. The text came alive and it was like listening to music – at times being struck by a profound lyric, at others losing track of the words and carried along by the beauty of the melody.
The long meandering sentences had a meditative effect. Again and again a feeling arose, one related to memory, not quite nostalgia, not quite déjà vu, not quite fantasy, but a mixture of these. A pleasant feeling containing both longing and contentment, wistfulness and hope. The narrator, a version of Proust as a young boy, frequently describes this sensation, provoked by a place, a smell, a tune, that he might be experiencing for the first time and yet which carries with it intense emotion from the past.
Félix Vallotton, Road at St Paul, oil on wood (1922)
I usually experience this when walking somewhere I haven’t been before. Recently in an old part of Tokyo, in a narrow street of tightly packed wooden houses, I passed a building decorated with colourful murals and caught the sounds of a baseball game and a brass band playing, and a sweetish smell I couldn’t identify. I found myself transported to a childhood birthday party in summer, a table of snacks beneath an oak tree, a blue-tiled swimming pool, jugs of orange squash and a game of pass the parcel. The strongest part of this memory was not these details but the feeling I’d had at the party and again while walking down the road – a combination of contentment, nostalgia and dreaminess.
Like an endlessly refracting mirror, my happiest moments often contain memories of similar, past moments. Or imagined versions of the same event in the future. I can see now why these experiences were not entirely satisfying or sufficient. What they were lacking was a present-moment appreciation, which isn’t possible when you’re making comparisons with the past or dreaming up improvements. Many of my memories are of things longed for, visions of a better or alternative reality.
As I slowly develop my capacity to be more present, I wonder, what place does memory have in mindfulness? Are remembering and mindfulness always in contradiction? As Pema Chödrön writes in Things Fall Apart, we can’t be in the present and run our storylines at the same time. As soon as a story or memory is activated, it is not the moment that we’re experiencing any longer. And yet aside from the most advanced meditators, enlightened beings, or people who have lost their memories due to amnesia or Alzheimer’s, it is nearly impossible for story not to be ever present. And a moment so quickly becomes a memory.
In Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso talks about the dangers of living in a dream of the future or bathing in the nostalgia of the past. She recalls the warning of an elderly writer, close to ninety: “He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.”
Memory can be a tyrant, taking over the present as it compels us to make unfavourable comparisons or associations and find the current moment lacking. It can hold us back as we repeat stories about ourselves and past events that don’t serve us, or cast doubt on the present.
This is often the case in panic or post-traumatic stress disorders, when a memory produces a physical response in the absence of the stimulus. In my experience just thinking about having a panic attack can be enough to bring on the symptoms, especially if I’m in a situation that in some way reminds me of one where it’s happened before. In this way new associations and triggers are created, and the pattern is strengthened.
There are things we would prefer to forget, memories that cause sadness, pain and regret that we don’t want to deal with. Yet many of us fear memory loss more than physical disability or incurable disease. We cling to it anxiously, believing it’s all we’ll have left at the end of our lives. We strive to record and preserve as many moments as we can in writing, images or film. We do the same on social media, chronicling our every movement.
This is what Sarah Manguso attempted to do in the journal she kept for 25 years, and which she writes about in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. She was so anxious to capture her every moment that she accumulated 800,000 words, obsessively recording her daily life. She talks about this drive to hold things in time, to fossilise or pin them down, as being the source of all anxiety:
Perhaps all anxiety is from fixation on moments – an inability to accept life as ongoing.
It is not only our ability to remember that we fear losing, but the loss of our stories. We see the artifacts and tales we leave behind as our only chance to prolong our existence. Manguso believes this is the ultimate death we fear: being forgotten.
My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word – soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me. Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.
I read an article recently about a woman whose job it is to clean the homes of people who have died. Often, she says, these have been “lonely deaths”, known as kodokushi in Japanese. These are people who have lost touch with their family and died alone, their bodies sometimes found several months after their death. Part of her job involves “organising their mementos”. She says people tend to collect things like coins, stamps, coupons, shopping bags. “I search for what these families are looking for or what’s important to them – pictures and special things.”
But often these treasures are special only to their owners. “Every year I feel more that people have been disconnected from each other, and I think this losing of connection, losing of communication is the reason [behind kodokushi]. … I see these people who don’t really care about their parents or family (if they die) and some people don’t even look at their mementos. As soon as they see cash, that’s what they take.” If the family doesn’t want the mementos she takes them to a temple for a ritual to be performed on them before they are incinerated.
I found this sad and thought-provoking on many levels. The poignancy of the those objects which held so much meaning for their owners but are of no value to anyone else and are perhaps even a burden on family members, or in the case of lonely deaths, strangers, who are left to sort through and dispose of them.
We can be so reluctant to part with these objects and mementos, relying on them to confirm our existence and sometimes mourning their loss like people. I read an interesting perspective recently, on Sadie Wolf’s blog, where she looks at the language we use around our possessions:
People say things are important because they hold our memories. People say when they customise their homes they put something of themselves into it. Yes, they do: they put in energy from the present moment. Just having things takes your energy, either if you believe in things being created by your own mind; or else via the emotional resonance of the object; or just simply by the energy involved in dusting, cleaning and noticing it.
She poses the question:
Where would you rather your life force, your energy, resided; inside you, to make you as strong, as powerful and as full of energy as possible, or in an old starburst clock?
Is this why people get old? Not only do they stop moving, they also let their energy drain out into things, houses, wallpaper, curtains …
I too feel calmer and freer the fewer things I have. But it’s not that I don’t think objects can possess profound meaning. In a conversation at the New York Library Patti Smith talks to Paul Holdengräber about being deeply moved by the relics of the artists and writers whose work has mattered to her. Holdengräber recalls showing Smith the cane which Virginia Woolf took with her when she walked into the river, and how she trembled as she held it. She talks about Charles Dickens’ pen, surprisingly humble, made of wood, and with “a perfect little nib”, which he used to write such great works as The Tale of Two Cities. To Smith, these objects have a sacred aspect. We regain contact with people through the things they loved, she says. She has touched Herman Hesse’s typewriter, slept in the bed of Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo’s husband, and in the hotel room where Maria Callas frequently stayed – once leaving a bouquet of roses in the room when no one was staying there (she says the staff did not flinch at her request). She visits the burial sites of artists and writers like Sylvia Plath, Proust and Baudelaire, where she contemplates their life and work. Occasionally she will photograph the graves so that she can carry these memories with her, a “polaroid rosary”.
Perhaps these are the most treasured of all our mementos – photographs. And these days there is in most people an increasingly compulsive urge to capture every possible moment in film. I can think of the anxious times when I left my camera behind – a night at the ballet in Saint Petersburg, or at the farewell gathering I wrote about in “Departures”. Not surprisingly these memories are stronger than the ones I photographed. Eight years later I clearly recall the Russian ballerinas, surprisingly tall, with long, slender arms, and the grand statues in the courtyard outside the hall. And I won’t easily forget that last goodbye with my students. As Patti Smith says, memory is our most fertile souvenir. In Ongoingness Manguso writes:
When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter opening. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.
Reading this I was reminded of another New York library discussion where photographer Sally Mann talks about how taking pictures can be a substitute for memory, as we start to recall people as they appeared in the photos we have of them rather than our mental images. She uses as an example the many portraits she took of artist Cy Twombly, noting how she could clearly envisage the back of his head, the argyle socks he wore, his nose hairs, while she has very little memory of her father, who she did not photograph.
Sally Mann, Untitled (Angled Light), gelatin silver print, 1999–2000, from the exhibition “Remembered Light”, showing the “accumulations and ordinary objects in Twombly’s studio”. Of these photos Mann says: “There is a sense about Cy’s own continuum – the ongoing quality of his great legacy and his art – it’s not a memorialization, it’s a living thing.”
Memory, like the present, is not static. It shifts and changes, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, as can happen in the revelation of another’s memory of the same event. A story can go missing and return many years later, brought back to life like the explorer in Sebald’s book. We live on in other’s memories, which eventually disappear, though there is always the possibility they may resurface again.
A few months ago, reading this line in Ongoingness, I was inspired to write down some memories of my mother:
The catalog of emotion that disappears when someone dies, and the degree to which we rely on a few people to record something of what life was to them, is almost too much to bear.
I’m not sure this responsibility is as hard to bear as it is hopeful, though. However inadequate or inaccurate, I’m glad that I was able to catalogue some of the things my mother loved, to bring these memories back to life. I like that the post exists, that it may still be here when I am gone. Listening to Patti Smith talking about her continuing relationship with those no longer here, I felt glad that there are people for whom the departed are still so alive, relevant, and celebrated. These ideas of transcending physical presence remind me of something Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello mentions in his talk “Awareness”:
Where there is love there are no demands, no expectations, no dependency. I do not demand that you make me happy; my happiness does not lie in you. If you were to leave me, I will not feel sorry for myself; I enjoy your company immensely, but I do not cling. What I really enjoy is not you; it’s something that’s greater than both you and me. It is something that I discovered, a kind of symphony, a kind of orchestra that plays one melody in your presence, but when you depart, the orchestra doesn’t stop. When I meet someone else, it plays another melody, which is also very delightful. And when I’m alone, it continues to play. There’s a great repertoire and it never ceases to play.
Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson, oil on canvas (1921)
What can memory teach us? In Ongoingness, Manguso questions the years she felt driven to record her daily life and wonders if improving her autobiographical memory would be good for her and force her to write and live with greater care. Janet Hirschfield considers the same question in her poem “I Imagine Myself in Time”:
And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades,
what will she say? Will she look at me with hatred or compassion,
I whose choices made her what she will be?
I wonder about this, too. What memories do I want to create? What choices will I regret, and what experiences will I be grateful to have had and enjoy replaying when I am older?
In her book On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan relates what those nearing the end of their lives have shared with her, “the stories that people believe have shaped their lives … the stories people choose to tell, and the meaning they make of these stories”.
What they talk about most of all, she says, is family, the ones they are born into and they ones they created. And love.
They talk about the love they felt and the love they gave. Often they talk about the love they didn’t receive or the love they didn’t know how to offer, or about the love they withheld or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.
They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach out their hands to things I cannot see and they call their parent’s names: Mama, Daddy, Mother.
I thought of these words reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, a collection of mementos in the form of beautifully written meditations on daily objects, which he recorded for his daughter to read one day. In the opening “Letter to an Unborn Daughter” he says this about family:
I mention it first because it’s what matters most. Good or bad, warm or cold, strict or indulgent, it doesn’t matter, this is the most important thing, these are the relationships through which you will come to view your world, and which will shape your understanding of almost everything, directly or indirectly, both in the form of resistance and support.
Picasso, Family, oil on canvas (1965)
I think there will always be debate around the usefulness of memory and bringing up the past. Dwelling on past incidents and using them as an excuse to remain stuck in unhealthy behaviour is obviously not helpful. Yet life without memory is a scary prospect. And the present is sometimes just too frightening, the emotions it provokes too overwhelming, to allow ourselves to experience it in full. Pema Chödrön writes about the groundlessness we feel when we’re truly in the present and abandoning our memory-stories:
Impermanence becomes vivid in the present moment; so do compassion and wonder and courage. And so does fear. In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time.
If living in the past is not the answer, nor is denying it. We may not want to recall painful things that require uncomfortable processing or amendments. We may want to avoid reliving traumas we’ve blocked out or worked hard at forgetting. We may prefer not to hear other people’s disturbingly different versions of events, like the woman in Kakuta’s story, or as I did, earlier this year. There is the potential they will shatter our conceptions and disrupt our reality.
Shiko Munakata, Two beauties representing the sun, hand-colored woodcut
But this shift in reality is freeing, too. Because it reminds us that everything is changeable. A memory can be reinterpreted, revised, or released. In On Living, Egan writes that each of us gets to decide how our stories define us, what they mean. She asks: “Is your life one of regret or hope? Does it have to be one or the other?”
There is always the option to reframe memories or regrets, to make new meaning in the present. We don’t have to feel trapped in the memories we have; each moment is an opportunity to start again, right up until our last breath.
Living things continue to develop until the moment they die, whether or not anyone else recognises it. There’s no losing who you once were, but there’s no going back either. There’s only becoming.
There’s only becoming. Egan’s words echo the teachings of thirteenth-century Zen monk Dogen as they are described in A Tale for the Time Being:
Dogen also wrote that a single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. I never understood this before, because my understanding of time was murky and imprecise, but now that my death is imminent, I can appreciate his meaning. Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole word.
So what is the middle way? Maybe it is this, as Manguso concludes in Ongoingness:
Remember the lessons of the past. Imagine the possibilities of the future. And attend to the present, the only part of time that doesn’t require the use of memory.