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A Meditation on Purgatory, Stories and Memory

For Tirzah, The Ink Caster

I.

“On a very basic level, you are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall.

“[E]motional memory [is] when we relive how we felt at moments in the past — elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves.

“And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer’s patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.”

Richard Restak,
The Art of Doing: How Superachievers
Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well

II.

I remember. Do you?

Although sometimes, I think people with crappy, short-term memories must be happier.

My Flora is losing that sharp, endless, flawless memory that exists during childhood. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Your four-year-old remembering exactly what he ate on the day of his third birthday. The two-year-old recognizing the street you visited only once before.

Ender still remembers everything. It’s so annoying.

Adults are always so amazed at the vividity of children’s memories.

Silly adults. All children remember. Most adults forget.

Worse, they overwrite. Reinvent. Remember what never was.

What a tragedy.

(Except, when it’s a blessing…)

III.

“The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.”

Sarah Manguso,
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

I contaminate, by remembering. I change, by re-experiencing.

And then, when I am ready to craft my version of how it really happened: I write it down.

And because you didn’t write it down, I win. My record stands. Your memory, I say, is faulty. Look. I wrote it all down. That’s how it happened.

(Thank you, Winston Churchill.)

The bitch of it is—I know what I’m doing, no one better. And so then, when you ooh-and-aah-and-coo and tell me, “So real, so brave, so authentic” (how I hate that word: Faking Authenticity), I am ashamed, because I know it’s not, it’s always, always performance, interpretation. Every word written, every word withheld: a choice.

The narrative is crafted, controlled.

IV.

In an average year, I write 30-40,000 words on Nothing By The Book. Moments captured, memories reinterpreted. Flora now reads and “remembers” her past in what I write. The responsibility paralyzes me.

“I’m writing me, not you,” I want to tell her. But I’m not sure she will understand.

“Don’t let how I write you affect who you are,” I want to tell her, but is that even possible?

“Don’t let me trap you, bind you, trick you, script a story that isn’t true for you even though it felt at the time true, necessary for me.”

“Are you telling me not to read your blog, your books?” maybe she will ask me.

And I will say… what? I suppose, this: “No. Read if you want to. But remember… it’s all just story.”

V.

“Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.”

Philipa Perry,
How to Stay Sane

VI.

My stories are, sometimes, my purgatory: a path to expiation, forgiveness, through suffering, atonement (a Catholic upbringing, however lukewarm, runs deep).

Sometimes–often–they are pure joy.

Always, the crafting of memory, disguised as preservation.

xoxo

“Jane”

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