The rain has stopped. The men from next door are talking neighborly, I can hear them now I’ve just opened the window. I like the sound of tires on the still-wet pavement as a car goes by. A quiet section of the city, this last handful of blocks before the cemetery bisects the avenue, not to reemerge ’til down in Sunset. I like where the road bends, transitions seamlessly from avenue to street block— just an easy curve following the bend in the high iron fence that separates the dead from the living.
One of the reasons I write so much—keep records, organize photos by year, date every last drawing in my sketchbooks— is that I know how impressible and fallible memory is. We think things are so clear and true in our memories— but when there are records against which to hold them, they often reveal themselves to be as fluid as dreams, endlessly rewritable.
My sketchbooks are records as much as anything else. Books of days, of weeks, years. Not in a journaled sense (rarely, anyway), but in the sense they can tell me, through parallels, what was going on in my life at almost any given time.
That’s what this blog is for, too. It’s scattered, I’ve no single thesis, really— at least not on the surface of things. But through it I can reconstruct a great deal. The words, the photographs, drawings— it’s all scaffolding for memory.
On a whim of wanting to hear a particular song, I listened to a summer mix I started three years ago. I’ve added to it, deleted some; but it’s a long list and hearing it brings so many moments back instantly. Music, in a lesser but similar way, is a memory trigger like scent / smell. Visceral. And a visceral response is a true thing, or at least a real thing (which may be the same after all).
Triggers are interesting; perhaps under-examined or recognized in our lives. I’m not talking about demonized or scandalized triggers often writ large in gobsmacked, reactive media. I mean little others; day-to-day. Responded to, but not necessarily thought about. Powerful but often fleeting.
I lived in a building about 15 years ago in which the woman who resided below me had a stove-top coffee maker (never saw it, but knew). Every morning on my way out to work I’d smell the coffee and it placed me in my grandparents’ house, where my grandma had coffee at the ready, always. (Lauded coffee, sworn by, percolating on the big old gas stove.)
I didn’t drink coffee when that memory set; was a child— but it was such a comfort, to smell that strong-to-nearly-burnt, familiar stove-fired brew in my Brooklyn hallway, years after my gram had merged with the infinite. I relished it like a long-lost hug.
Often they are unexpected things that become touchstones or cornerstones of memory— gold threads in the tapestry. They are almost never the things planned or architected to be so. The strands are chosen bythe Fates (else cut with their scissors— they edit for fun). Try, of course, but the best way to curry favor with those ladies is to live authentically. (That word has been highjacked, too, but it doesn’t change its denotation, its true meaning.)
Since January 1st, I’ve been writing a few lines each day in a book. To remember things, to have something for comparison in future. It’s occurred to me many times how imprecise memory is. Each time we recall something (accurately or not), it reinforces the memory. Then you look back at a bit of writing or correspondence, and you feel betrayed by your own mind if the facts don’t align.
There was a cafe in the 10th where Zac and I had our first breakfast. It was run by a couple of elderly men, had a mural on the rear wall. It’s a place I think my dad would totally dig; charming, very unmodern. We had jambon et fromage omelettes with salads and practically an entire baguette for 5 euros apiece. We tried to find it again another day and couldn’t.
Today I looked for the photo I’d taken in it of sunlight hitting the mural, but no such photo exists. Now I can’t recall whether I only thought of taking the photo, or took it and deleted it later. Naturally, I went down a rabbit hole searching Google street view (as any sane person would). I may have found it, but won’t be certain unless I find it in Paris. A silly quest for a city I’ll have only a short time in, but sometimes life calls for a silly quest.
Speaking of, I’ve finished booking trains and accommodations for the upcoming trip, including a fantastique duplex in the (north) 11th in Paris. I was surprised at how inexpensive it was. I know it’s partly down to the time of year, but can’t help wondering if the attacks in November had an influence as well.
*An upside of memory’s imprecise nature is that a memory can be far more beautiful than the event it represents; often is.It’s what gives memories that golden cast, as in super 8 movies shot indoors at holidays or birthdays. A downside is that same mechanism can have the inverse effect as well.
“Today’s homework assignment: In one hundred and fifty words or less, describe one of the happiest days of your life.”*
I’m a rich person to have a kind of option paralysis in the face of this assignment. It’s a day I’ve written of before, but it stands out in memory.
* * *
A day in deep winter, about two years ago. I recall only that the evening found me at the home of close friends. Dinner cooked by Adam with me assisting. Wine. A small gathering, we talked and enjoyed one another’s company.
Sometime after Midnight, I headed out into the cold. A walk of two and a half miles to get back to my home in the South Slope. Headphones delivering music and I barely felt the cold.
The day itself wasn’t one of the happiest of my life in a noticeable way, as it was happening. But in the midst of that walk an overwhelming sense of joy hit me like a wall of glitter. Felt like everything had healed all at once and I was the happiest person I knew. So I felt like the luckiest person, too, but “luck is a residual of preparation†,” and don’t forget it.
There was a woods across the street from the farm. On the far side of of a large corn field, then through an encircled meadow that remained un-tilled, too inaccessible for farming. A small woods through which ran a narrow, banked ribbon of stream.
In winter it was the most beautiful place I could find. I’d make my way across the snow-covered distance to sit in the stillness there.
I took photographs of it a few times, but they didn’t capture it. Made it look ordinary. And it was ordinary. But it was a sacred space, it was empty. No one else went there. Sometimes we rode the horses through, but I was the one who walked there; sat on a fallen tree in late afternoon to be alone in a hollow untouched.
One year people bought the corn field and built a big house and a barn. They’re horse people, too. Good neighbors. I know they wouldn’t mind, but I’ve not walked to those woods since. It wouldn’t be the same. You can’t go back. But it’s still with me, little snow-draped cathedral where I could be patient to wait for Spring.