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No thanks for the memories

August 1st, 2013

BY LANE BROWNING

I was thinking about forgetting.

No, not forgetting like “Dammit, I know I left my keys here” or “What? I thought that was next Thursday!” and no, not like the henpecked husband who comes back from the store without the pasta sauce or cat litter.

No. I mean pragmatic forgetting. Selective forgetting.

Survival forgetting.

There are classes and books and support groups for helping people learn to forgive, but we really need PhDs in forgetting. It baffles me that each year on the 11th day of September in most parts of the United States we are expected to “remember” the events of that day in 2001. Why? Whom does it serve? What does it prevent or abet? Is reliving catastrophe obligatory? Why do bereaved parents acknowledge, every year, the deaths of their children? What kind of catharsis is there in this? It doesn’t aid the deceased in any way; like humans who lived three centuries ago, they are gone, they are lost but to memory or pages in a book or pixels on a website. There is the notion of “honoring their memories,” but I’ve never understood that.

Is there something wrong with me?

To be able to forget means sanity.
— Jack London

I talked to the husband of a woman who keeps a website about her dead son (gone since he was three years old, a decade ago), and every day she posts a conversation with/to him, and she posts pictures “for” him, and she talks about what he would be doing that day/week, and she buys gifts for him. Elizabeth Edwards, so shredded after her teenaged son died, made a habit of reading the books assigned in the classes he “would” have been taking. Volume by volume and syllabus by syllabus.

Coping methods vary from person to person, but to that kind of coping, I say: no.

“We will never forget” goes the chant, memorial after memorial. To me that’s akin to “We will never recover” or “We will never live unshackled.” How about “We are not moving on”?

Everything ends. (Even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie career will finally, I have to believe, conclude.) There’s a slice between the then and the “yet to be,” and that’s where each of us lives, or should. The past does shape us, but we don’t, unless we’re irrational, moor our skiffs there.

What if we set about the task of forgetting as soon as possible after a horrifying event? The “spotless mind” paradigm is a good one. The twin mottos should be “Forward forward forward” and “Now, now, now” (not then, never then). Of course, “now” can sometimes be a cascade of anguish, and from that the best escape might be reflection and recalling; but only extreme circumstances (reference the film Life is Beautiful) justify more than brief memory trips. Launching into an imagined future makes roughly the same degree of sense as retreating into a perfect yesterday. All such mind trips should be carefully rationed.

Four percent of waking hours sounds acceptable to me.

You’ll forget it when you’re dead, and so will I. When I’m dead, I’m going to forget everything — and I advise you to do the same.
— Kurt Vonnegut

About ten years ago I visited a counselor, seeking tools to manage difficult circumstances. I had a lot to unload about the wrongs that had been done me, the misfortunes that had descended, the woe I couldn’t shake. She said, “You’re allowed to grieve, but you’re not allowed to wallow.”

Oh.

Darn.

And yes, these anniversary memorials and tributes are wallowing. What would you say to a widower who was still, decades later, poring over photographs of his beloved? Wouldn’t you say “Get on with it, man; life is for the living!” Wouldn’t you advise, maybe, medication?

Or at least skateboarding?

It’s all carbon atoms, oxygen, and electrical impulses.

I remember a really sad series of events that happened near my home some years ago. A drunken driver, hurtling down a hill in his spanking new sports car, slammed into a vehicle carrying a family of four. The miscreant driver died immediately, as did one of the toddlers. The other child, a girl about a year and a half old, lived long enough for her parents to tell her goodbye. They were very seriously injured, but within a few years those people had two more children. Slashed by grief, they didn’t give all their energies to their lost babies or survivors’ guilt or what ifs or fury; they moved forward.

Callous? Creepy? Progeny substitution? I don’t know. But it’s what life forms have done forever: grabbed onto the rope to the next thing. There is always a “next thing.”

Until there is no thing.

One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
— Rita Mae Brown

So why is the Holocaust – gasp – different? “We will never forget” would be a great slogan if it meant “We will never commit or permit such atrocities, ever” but holocausts of all manner continue apace. This is not “pragmatic remembering.” The monies spent on 9/11 memorials and Sandy Hook memorials and Dachau memorials could have been spent on “present tense” concerns. Translate those “memories” into real-world assistance for the needy in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti; consider the victims of the Japan earthquake/tsunami, the gas disaster in Bhopal, hurricanes and tornadoes in the U.S., that unimaginable tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Heck, someone in your neighborhood could surely use your time or farthings. Oh, you’d rather weep in a cemetery. I guess you could argue that your agony is present tense.

I’m not opposed to mourning, and I know grief is natural, but forgetting is really underrated.

Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It takes colossal mettle, really, to turn one’s back on the past; and as a practice it’s pretty Gordian. After all, when you ponder the thing you want to forget, you’re doing the opposite of forgetting (“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered” — Edgar Allan Poe). It’s tricky to decide “I will forget three things every day.” (Which reminds me of something I have not forgotten, and won’t — the White Queen’s comment to Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”) Experts say the best way to break a habit is to replace it, and forgetting is about looking in another direction, choosing another lens, refusing to re-enact. It’s about layering and papering over — preoccupying yourself with current things so the older ones tail away into so much gossamer.

As noted, though, memories are gritty adversaries.

Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you — and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.
— John Irving

And I haven’t mentioned the indispensability of short-term, immediate forgetting. The golfer who shoots a triple bogey on the 12th hole has to wipe that from his memory when he steps up to the 13th tee. Tabula rasa. The concert violinist whose bow slips must approach the next stanza unflustered. History isn’t destiny.

I’ve been writing journals (OK, diaries) since I was a teenager. Though I stopped a few years ago, there are more than 140 of them, paper or leather or plastic-bound volumes in a bookcase upstairs. I also have file cabinets filled with letters — letters both received and sent. I have many many photographs, and records, and statements, and poems and entreaties and apologies and cartoons and comedy routines, a catalog of my life; and if I revisit any part of it, I feel terrible. All those ill-considered choices, bad outcomes, histrionic worry sessions, youthful glories, and emotional sludgefests. “There is so much to rue,” I told a friend (a friend I have mostly forgotten, given she is no longer a friend).

The great thing is, I don’t have to look! That’s how it’s done metaphorically; you close the book and don’t open it again. Bam — freedom!

Fuggedaboutit.
— Donnie Brasco

Memory is both curse and gift, and this I know too well. I have unusually good retention, and I’d really like to dump some of the stored detritus. If I could offload the melody/lyrics to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” the names of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, the address of the Virginia house I lived in when I was six, the phone numbers and trivia trivia trivia, maybe I could make room for meaningful data. And I know some of the people in my life would love it if I weren’t able to recite back to them verbatim the things they said to me a year ago.

Of course, I’m grateful I can remember projects and clients from the 1990s. The fringy stuff that constitutes those are passive involuntary memories and with practice, one can remember negative things much less successfully. I mentioned that we need classes in forgetting. There is therapy for it. It’s called EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Cumbersome name for a process that involves compartmentalizing, stowing, and replacing traumatic experiences that won’t stop tormenting the rememberer. EMDR can be a lifesaver for PTSD victims, whose very existences are defined by unspeakables they’ve seen or done or endured. Those memories, the ones that are visceral — summoning all five senses — really do embody the term “living hell.”
Meanwhile, here I am at the second meeting of my “Let’s forget!” class. I have twelve students. I say, “So, Marianne, how many things have you forgotten in the last week?” and she says “Eighteen!” and I say “Great! What were they?” and she says … uh …

“Very good, Marianne!” I say.

Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better
even of their blunders.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “What about the sublime experiences? What about the first view of that waterfall, the first word the baby spoke, the time the ‘all hope lost’ teenager actually walked across the stage to accept her high school diploma? What about those five orgasms, that $7,000 bonus, that Tommy Emmanuel concert, your first car, the time you shook hands with Nelson Mandela or made it to the top of Mt. Fuji or inhaled the cherry blossoms on Pennsylvania Avenue, the time you stood up on a surfboard, finally mastered a topspin backhand — those perfect orchids, muffins, flying squirrels, meteor showers, sonatas, arabesques, triple lutzes, and plastic trophies?”

Keep those, but don’t inhabit them to excess or you will invalidate your now. I sound like Marianne Williamson and I’d rather sound like a bilge pump than Marianne Williamson. Here’s what I mean about misapplying the good memories: Someone once told me “People say to forget, but I don’t want to forget my marriage, it was a big part of my life.” (Friend, potty training was a big part of your life too, but tempus fugit!) He dug his heels in, and I thought, “Take a pill. This is where you are now, and tomorrow this shard too will be gone. Carpe diem!” (And there was so much diem to be had!)

I was filled with the deep affection of nostalgia — and then I opened my eyes.
— Annie Dillard

Another example of destructive “good” memories: a couple of months ago I was offering coping ideas to a new widow. She was in deep shock, “lost,” as she put it, without her spouse of thirty-eight years. She said the thing she most hated to hear was “But you have all those memories, you’re so lucky.”

“But I don’t want them!” she yearned to snarl. “The pain is unbearable.” She wanted a memory cleanse. A widower told me he had started deliberately replaying arguments he had with his wife, to miss her less. “I’m not sure you have to villainize her,” I said, to which he snapped, “It’s better than having a machete in my chest every morning!”

He’s right.

But — a rearview mirror is for looking at things that are gaining on you, not at things you have left in the dust.

I prefer his approach to the one taken by my acquaintance Phyllis, who talks obsessively about her perfect husband who died seventeen years ago. She says, “I love my husband” when she turns down even an invitation to a chaste waltz around the dance floor.

“I love my husband.” Dancing would be infidelity. Whaaa? Dear, your husband is muck under the mud; you love a phantasm. You love expired molecules. You need turbo-grade therapy, or at least a much better crash helmet.

It’s her call, of course, and it does me no harm, but.…

To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius. Because it’s true. It’s a new world every heartbeat.
—Joyce Cary

But here’s an example of a perfect splinter memory: last night, in a very short essay by James Graff, I saw “glued together a model Pontiac GTO” and — shazam! — I was catapulted back to my childhood. I saw my father at the dining room table, newspapers spread across the surface. I saw the toothpicks, I smelled the glue, I saw the tiny stickers that would be the final piece in the assembly, I saw those wee cans of paint and the sheets of instructions.

I saw the neatly ordered grey plastic pieces and the box lids with the shiny photographs. I saw my dad poring over the details. I saw myself tiptoeing and leaning so as not to dislodge a tiny strut, shaft, or wheel. I heard him explaining to me how critical was the sequence, how delicate the alignment.

What a memory! No Star Trek teleporter ever sent someone anywhere better.

That’s the good stuff — memory sans sadness, sans harm — and no tarrying; I smiled and remembered and felt joy. It was like a burst of fireworks: stunning and then gone. It was also an accident, and that’s another element of a “good” memory. You blow through it and then return to the present, happier.

No side effects.

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never never forget!” “You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”
— Lewis Carroll

To me, happy memories aren’t often antidotes; but I sometimes use bad memories as mental tonics. If I’m lying awake, I reminisce about very unpleasant moments and then soothe myself with “Man am I glad that time is gone.” It’s a little like having a terrible stomachache and consoling yourself that you don’t have a headache.

Which I also do fairly frequently.

Memories can be balm for the very elderly or incontrovertibly terminal, whose lives have compressed around them and whose “present” and future might be very limited. However, I also know painters and sculptors and weavers whose careers began after they turned eighty (some of them are nearly a hundred now) and their todays are about that canvas, that bronze, that stone, that splash of color — not about the spouse long dead, the toddlers long grown, the unlined faces they saw in mirrors so many toothbrushing sessions ago.

In some ways those seniors are less interesting than the brooding scholar who buries himself in reflective, intense study of medieval torture devices or Leonardo da Vinci’s bicycle design; but that student is not rooted in memories. He’s a present-day traveler erecting his own signposts. He’s doing research, and research is not, let’s be clear, wallowing.

Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
— Pablo Neruda

Yes, next time a friend wails, “How can I get past this?” try replying, “The F word.” Forgetting. Break it down: It is “for getting” past things and away from things.

I’m anticipating one key area of objection, and I will cede it. The woman who forgets that her husband pummeled her into a coma may decide to keep him around, and the addict who forgets what happened last time he used cocaine/heroin/vodka/oxycontin/meth/bingo cards will lack judgment about future behaviors. These are lessons, and they do need embedding. But I don’t hold with “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” because that’s just pabulum.

I probably contradicted myself there (and I am starting, right now, to work on forgetting how many paragraphs I began with the word “I” in this piece, and how many months it’s been since I began it).

So it’s really about memory management, which is analogous to thought management. As we think, so we are.

One final point. Eyewitness testimony is, we know, notoriously unreliable. What you think you saw might not be what actually happened; what you recall so vividly might not be what really went down. The past is a construct, even a figment. So perhaps the best argument for forgetting is the very fallibility of our recollections.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
— Marcel Proust

It’s possible my dad never in his life glued together a model fighter jet. But the dad in my memory did, and damn it was cool. •

Posted by: The Editors
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