Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Motel of Memories

Whenever we go back to her parent's house for a visit, my wife inevitably winds up in the basement, going through boxes. The thing is, at thirty-eight, she knows she's gone through the same boxes again and again. She will likely not find something new at this point - some object that will tell her a huge part of her past she doesn't recall, some amazing letter or pair of tennies or...anything, really, that she hasn't seen.

What does happen, however, is that her view shifts - how she looks at what she finds changes.
This is true whether what we are looking at is actual objects - artifacts, letters, memorabilia - or simply memories, flashes in our minds or stories in others' minds.

One of my favorite all-time books is called Motel of the Mysteries (this link shows some examples and discussion of the book, but the book itself is worth checking out). In the book, which is tongue-in-cheek, the author shows us drawings of rooms that are clearly from a motel of our current time, but as seen by archeologists thousands of years from now as a place of worship. The book is chock full of humor - like the toilet being interpreted as an actual throne. As a former anthropology major, this book helped voice some skepticism I had about how we interpreted other living - much less dead - societies and cultures.

In anthropology and in memoir alike, where we run into trouble is when we believe that the past, since it is done, is dead and frozen. When we believe that there is only one way to tell the story, that there is only one truth. This kind of freezing locks us into an impossible dance, into only one interpretation of how things went down, and also into our current lives as one single thing. This kind of singularity brings us comfort - "I was a victim then and am a survivor now" - but can highly limit the possibilities for growth, for relationship, for change.

Recently I found out that one of my mom's childhood friends, one of the few she was very close to, is getting close to dying. I went into a panic - oh no! I missed my chance! I need to talk to her, see if she has any stories about my mom before she goes! Besides the fact that I am embarrassed that this person, at least at first thought, exists for me only as a repository of anecdotes about my mother, I am also a bit surprised at the belief I discovered is underneath this, without me even being aware of it.

In the book The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, the dead continue to live in a parallel place (called The City) so long as someone living still recalls them in "the real world." As soon as the last living person dies who remembers them, then they disappear for good. I realized that I have some kind of similar belief - when the people who carry the stories of my mother die, she comes that much closer to dying. But she is already gone. No one else dying makes her more gone. 

And here is the key thing - no one story I hear about her, whether I have heard it or not - will bring her back to life. Just like no object - even if my wife were to find a new one - will bring back youth or totally change how she sees it. If we want to change how we see our past or someone else, that comes from inside, not from outside. Yes, it is possible that this person could tell me something brand new I have heard from no one. But it is just as possible, and more likely, that I could come to a new understanding purely on my own, even looking at the same letters I have looked at one hundred times.

We can't help but change how we see things over time. Interpretations - anthropological or personal - adjust as we change, and we change all the time. But we don't often recognize these nuances, appreciate how subtle adjustments to telling our own story - informally or formally - cause seismic shifts in the overall interpretation. Another personal example recently has been that for such a long time my memoir writing has focused on writing about my romantic relationships. Why? When I lost my parents at a young age, wouldn't you think that would be the focus?

I realized only recently that the focus was on the relationships for (at least) two reasons: 
1. Relationships make good stories, since they have a beginning middle and end and always have conflict and love and sex and all kinds of good things built in. 
2. I was trying to work out the loss of my parents through relationships in real life, and so of course I kept doing the same thing in my writing - trying to work out the loss of them through my relationships in my writing. 

However, what makes for fun stories - anecdotes about double dildos - doesn't always make for the memoir writing that is needed - looking for someone to fill the void after my mom died and never finding them. And perpetuating the same stories again and again, without the reflection on why - some of that "objective" anthropological or memoirist view - makes for simple recounting and repetition, without allowing the present moment and all that has changed since then to inform what we understand about then versus now.

In the end, where memoir and anthropology meet is here: in learning from the past. Not just recounting it, but also not so heavily interpreting it as to lose an actual feeling for what happened. This is a tricky balance - especially when there are no new artifacts/memories/articles or former friends of dead parents to interview. Once the data is in, that's what we have to work with. The good news is that memoir, unlike anthropology, is personal and reflective, and not beholden to the strictures of social science.

The memoir you write now is not the same as one you would have written twenty years ago or twenty years from now. That shouldn't stop you. Just like the past, the present changes constantly. People with stories we want to hear die. Parents give away your old sneakers. Photos remain the same in yellowing albums and give you no new stories to tell. But the leaves change and ideas and understandings grow and shift. They have to. They should. 

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