Monday, September 5, 2011


Confession: I have a problem called “Selective Memory.” Capital S. Capital M. For emphasis.

This is probably somewhere in the same family as “selective hearing.” My mom used to holler endlessly to my brother about that, about how he only heard what he wanted to hear, which very rarely included her demands to take out the trash, feed the chickens, or water the half-dead, potted green things in buckets on the back porch. I’ve never really suffered from this ailment so much. But selective memory is much worse. I can’t always remember things. And even worse, I can’t always forget them.

This has nothing to do with getting old, or with being slow. It has to do, mostly, with a memory that has no idea what decade Lincoln was President in, but can remember the first poem it ever memorized in the first grade. “In winter, I get up at night, and dress by yellow candlelight…”

I have no idea what borders Minnesota, but I know that Tennessee had the lowest real estate prices in the country when I was in college. I often don’t remember my four-digit PIN number on my debit card that I use two or three times a week, but I still remember how to tie a fishing lure, though I haven’t done it in many years.

Memory is tricky. There are some things that you think you’ll have forever--a last glimpse of a loved one, good times with your best friends, your first date. But for me, all of these have receded to a realm of colored smoke, where all form and detail has faded to emptiness, and anything I conjure up is only a speculation or a lucent phantom of what was.

And then there are things that are so small and insignificant that I don’t know how I’ve retained them all this time, why they have lived, starved for attention but not for power, in the little pathways of my mind, hibernating for long months and then bursting forth every now and again with such force and persistence and clarity that they occupy the whole of my attention for hours on end. The argument I overheard between my parents one Christmas Eve when I was in junior high that made me sick to my stomach for three days. Flipping the swings at the playground up over the top bar so that the chains clanged in an unholy summons and lifted the seat high above the sand. Walking alone into the dim, musty, dirty shack that smelled of stale bread and crumbling shoes to visit Ted, the old man who ate beet sandwiches, gave kids rides on his motorized wheelchair, and bragged that he was going to live to be a hundred. These things I remember as if they were yesterday, though millions of moments have happened since then, vying for space in that eternal computer.

I do not know why I cannot remember the feel of my first kiss, but my heart re-throbs with all the love and ache of the summer day fifteen years ago, when I sat with a pair of tweezers in a pool of hot, hot sun, pulling the bloated tics from the pink skin of that puppy I loved, who was so small and broken and sick from the day she was born, that the sight of those insects stealing her very life-blood away broke my heart with a million cracks that remain there still.

It seems to me that there are certain events in life that are “big” enough, that we should never forget them. So why, then, do I not remember my baptism when I was eight years old? Why do I not remember getting my driver’s license, though I remember the five months preceding it when I practiced and ran over every shrub and light post in two neighborhoods? All I can say is that I had better remember my wedding when that ten year anniversary rolls around.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of wishing I could remember, but of yearning to forget. I don’t want the old man, yellowed with disease and open sores, naked but for dirt, curled on the brick wall along that village road to lie, dying forever in my mind as he does now. I don’t want to always miss the boy who sat in the trees with me and talked for hours, leaves shutting out the world, who collected stones that we never skipped, who lives on in my memory, laughing. There are some moments that I wish could live in my mind but fade from my heart.

I wish I could call the shots. I wish I could say which events got filed for eternity and which went out with the morning trash. They should be my treasures to keep, my trash to burn.

But that power has never been mine. And perhaps I would regret it if it was. During those times when I scuttle through life, seemingly lost, I always go back to memory. The things I remember tell me who I am. What if I did not remember that argument between my parents on that dark winter night? Would I look at them today with the same joy at their happiness together—with the confidence that problems can be worked out? What if I had never pulled those sickening tics from that soft fur? Would I still have the compassion that spills out my eyes and my hands toward all suffering things? What if what I remembered most about that first love was his kiss, instead of his smile? Would love mean something different?

I’ve never been very good at remembering the big things. Perhaps they are simply too wide for me to really see them. But the collection of those little moments that swim through me has made me a lover of the insignificant. I love anthills. And leaves that are turning colors just at the edges. And half-smiles. And broken red bricks. And I don’t know if I could love any of these things if my memory was taken up by weddings and funerals and milestones. Maybe it will be okay if I can’t remember my wedding in ten, twenty, fifty years.

As long as I can remember the smooth softness of sweet icing, heels clinking on a dance floor.