Wednesday, November 10, 2010

being memory

“We will walk on a hill

Red hats and blue coats, and everything still.
Snow will cover until
We can't tell the sky from the ground.
Where are the buildings, the old wounds of mine?
Did I ever once cry?

Waiting for you to arrive,
Where does the time go?”

~ The Innocence Mission, Where Does the Time Go?

Walking through places I know very well, the experience is one of inhabiting past as well as present. Since childhood I’ve had a vivid memory, but now I sense it has accumulated some depth and the aspect of witness. Living in the same small city for many years, it is easy to realize how present is often shadowed by past.

During a walk through the Old Port section of town, I noticed myself looking at construction sites while my mind’s eye “saw” what used to be in these places. That is an obvious example of seeing one thing and being reminded of something else. Indeed, our senses serve to activate and recollect imagery. Under chilled and overcast skies, with hands in pockets and hopping cobblestone curbs, I asked myself about references I carry with me. The aroma of boxwood hedges above rainwashed pavers brings Paris to Portland; to me, it is from time immemorial. I have a favorite shirt, of green flannel and laundered to the point of soft flexibility- which was bought at a general store in Vermont when I was unprepared for cold weather. It seems out of place when I wear it in large cities. An indelible scar on the side of my left thumb dates back to a painful injury that occurred while I was routinely rebinding a book. Unforgettably, it was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair : A Novel Without a Hero. My skiving knife cut so deeply it reached the side of my thumbnail. Fortunately, it happened at home. After bandaging the wound and remembering to elevate it, I also remembered the leftover red wine in my refrigerator. Downing it, I reasoned, would help rebuild the blood cells. What reminders are with you wherever you go?

By being reminded of my past, I’m reminded that I have a past. And it extends much further back than my lifetime. When I was old enough to understand, my aunt walked me to the places in Paris where my family members had been apprehended to be deported to the horrors of the Holocaust from which they never returned. My history became less abstract and self-centered, as it manifested in my teenaged eyes as solid and from beyond my self. Shortly afterwards, I took to looking up at night skies from the balcony in the 18th District- and then later in the West End of Portland- and ponder how time traverses through us. What we witness is our traversal through time.

Histories of the places in which we live become our histories, too. In their own ways, my articles about lost streets are a form of reportage from a life that comprises past and present- not so much as parallels, but a juxtaposition of experiences. Indeed, the present is the dynamic reality. The past formerly played that role of living events and thoughts that occupied the spaces I see today. This has long fascinated me- even since childhood. I would walk past places where something either had happened that scared me- or something I longed to see happen again- and I’d imagine how the only separation between then and now was time. The place and person are still here. Or are they? How similar is the place, and even more so, am I really the same person? By name, yes. But perhaps, as the streets may only be the same by name, they too have changed- even though I recognize them. What appears familiar is in constant transformation, and time is what effects the transition. Reminders point to the realities of our histories.

A scenario, a lived and familiar one to me, is waking in the middle of the night and sensing how alone I’ve often been in this big world, how it chills me to consider how so many of those who knew me as family are gone. It is the soul’s passage through darkness. Then come remembrances of people past, followed by times and opportunities past. These no longer exist. But I remember, and thus the individuals and events are preserved. It is the mind’s navigation through treacherous shoals. Fears must be winnowed away from commemorations, and as horizons regain visibility clear memory remains a worthwhile asset. In remembrance is the preservation of history. Nothing deepens a soul like an inheritance of ennobling continuum. And in the midst of all that demands and distracts, what are the todays that will be recalled tomorrow? What things am I passing up on right now that I’ll regret later? Of course I want to know. At the same time, the appropriately balanced thing to do is to keep gratitude in mind for well-seized opportunities.

My role as an archivist involves the absorption of memory. There are the recollections of those who daily enlist my assistance, the artifacts that require my interpretation, and the accessions that I seek out and document for future reference. At times it seems as though I am “remembering” things that predate me. The idea of “being memory” has arisen in my thoughts when I realize all an individual person can keep alive. My good archival education bids me to remember accurately and in context. Sure it’ll be authentic, but it may not always be impartial. Such is human life! In unique and iconographic ways, we are remembrances for ourselves and for others. Consider how many strong recollections remain at the surface, strung together as floating waterway barriers that signify navigable areas. Just as places and objects ignite memories, so can circumstances. The other day, recollections of “first days” in new and unfamiliar environments came to mind. My own history of introductions to new schools, new groups, and jobs. Those fresh first impressions that begin with acquaintances and orientations. After enough years of having to adjust to the jadedness and cynicism I’d find around me, I’d wonder at the possibility of my being naturally naïve. Evidently there is something I should have known all along and have yet to figure out.

Remembrance is the voice that cries in the wilderness of an amnesic world. And yet again, retrospection must not be permitted to take the form of a cudgel, neither should hindsight lead to animosities. Indeed, a two-edged sword that is better to have than to lose; better to manage than to crumple under. Archival records, authenticated, stand as evidence of the events and lives documented. The historic and accurate have the power to vindicate against adversity. And well-serving memories can prevent pitfalls previously surmounted. It is how we can recognize situations and connect them with ground already explored. When remembering my experiences of endurance- at times outlasting, or at other times transcending difficulties, my recollections become gratitude. Memory can constructively validate, and the earned payback is one’s own, deepened voice. Perspective can be the determining factor for what boards the vessel of advancement into the future. What will be remembered?

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