This may be a perfect day to write about memory. Today, Monday, is the first actual snowstorm we’ve had all winter so I can be home and quiet; tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and a perfect day to remember–either that you you’re grateful for the love you have or grateful for the one you managed to unentwine yourself from; and because, well, memory makes us who we are. Or the lack of memory.
Yesterday, I had two experiences of memory. One, in cleaning out the office closet, I found a file of hard copy letters from 1988 to 1990. I used to actually write letters, lots of letters, and a I kept a copy of each one I sent out. I have years of letters; now I have an electronic file of email. Not quite the same although perhaps if I printed them out, they might be.
One of the series of letters I found was correspondence with the then-editor of the Chicago Tribune travel section, a man named Townsend. I never met him, but I imagined him being an old-time newspaper editor, cigar in the corner of his mouth, from his terse sentences to me. But maybe he’d given up smoking by then since I found out he’d given up sweets when I sent a box of cookies after he’d published an article of mine about Mexico travels.
He’d asked me for another piece. Suggested writing one about my travel in moving from one floor of the building I lived in to another. I never wrote the article. I’m not sure I could have in those days, obviously not since I didn’t write it. Now I could. And now I would if an editor asked me for a piece. But in those days, I didn’t have the same confidence in my writing to be able to write about moving from the front of a building up one flight and to the back. So I didn’t and I lost track of Townsend and he probably retired.
The second experience from yesterday was watching The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher. I never liked Margaret Thatcher’s politics or style, but Meryl Streep brought her alive as an old woman remembering her life. A woman old enough, and since old often equals invisible, invisible enough, that she can go out to a store, headscarf around her head, and buy milk without anyone recognizing who she is. Streep is of course amazing and if you’ve not seen the film, I recommend it. And yes, Margaret Thatcher is still alive. Who remembered? And the Falklands are back in the news with Prince Charles being stationed there and disputes over oil reserves.
The film is about what we remember and how we remember. In it, Thatcher remembers by seeing images: photographs or, in the case of the Falkland’s War, a desk-top sculpture. The point is, she sees things, including her dead husband’s presence, times they danced and laughed and loved, times he counseled, as well as parts of her history with the nation. I, on the other hand, saw words in letters which created images.
The thing with words is that I don’t selectively remember; in other words, the letters remind me of experiences I don’t necessarily remember or only vaguely remember. For example, one letter tells the experience of a weekend meditation retreat in the forests of southern Virginia (I lived in Washington DC at the time). I have a vague visual memory of clearning wood and stacking it as others cut, but what I wrote about, and which I don’t remember at all, is sitting in meditation for an hour in the woods. In the letter, I wrote about sounds: the far off call of a bird; an acorn falling unknown distances away; a faint twig crack.
That would make a good travel essay, but I didn’t write it either. I did, however, love the experience, I said in my letter.
There. And you thought I wouldn’t get back to love and Valentine’s Day. I didn’t know I would either. But that’s the magic of writing. Or sitting in a forest. Or moving from one floor to another. Or living. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you do it.
Happy Valentine’s Day. Whether you have a person to love at the moment or not, love your life and your life-stories.
They’re worth celebrating.