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Having finished Natalie Goldberg’s first book, Writing Down the Bones, I am looking at her second book. I say looking because that’s exactly what I’m doing. Thumbing through, reading snippets and trying to re-mobilize my writing self.
One of the things that struck me last night that I read was an exercise she suggested about writing down what you would miss when you died. Last night, I was thinking about the big things, like Kelsea. I suppose in some ways I don’t think I will miss anything because once I die, I sense that I will have access to everything, just in a different way. Though will I still be ME thinking, knowing, feeling, sensing it all? That I of course cannot say.
So what will be missed? Instead of thinking about my own memories, I started thinking about how the world has changed in the last fifty years.
Then I got to thinking about how people used to dress up for air travel. I admit that I started flying very shortly after this era ended. But back then, flying was an event, an occasion, something special, and they treated you as if it was. Men wore suits. Women wore suits and gloves and hats and stockings and heels. Stewardesses wore little hats and were solicitous, giving you pillows, blankets, food, drink, whatever they could do for your comfort. Now the message is literally stated on the PA, “Our flight attendants are here for your comfort but are PRIMARILY here for your safety.” Meaning comfort can go down those little metal toilets as far as the flight attendants are (instructed to be) concerned. And people show up looking like they’re ready for bed. Literally.
On my last flight, I was reaching for a pillow in the overhead bin next to my seat, when the flight attendant reached ahead of me and snatched it out. “That’s not supposed to be here,” she said. “Well, can I use it?” I asked her nicely as she held it pinioned to her chest. “No,” she replied, “People in coach aren’t allowed to get pillows.” I didn’t bother to reply to this, and I’m sure the pillow sat unused for the duration of the flight. Coach. Doesn’t it sound like a rich thing? Royalty ride in coaches. They should call it cattle class or steerage or peon class or mass class. Something else. I’ll work on it. And then of course, there’s business class. Excuse me? 5 inches of legroom for the business man or woman. And that implies that the rest of us are just bums.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to rant about the airlines here – although it is a good idea for a post and will likely emerge from my fingertips someday.
What I was thinking about is how the past dies. Think about the bombing of London by the Nazis in World War II. Few remember it. There are books and movies but you could literally count them. People Kelsea’s age will never hear someone tell a story about it. But there are those few who do remember it, who can recall the blackout drapes, the sound of the sirens or the planes, their fear, their parents responses, the smell after a bombing.
To take a less dramatic example, no one remembers what the air smelled like before cars and other pollutants started contaminating the atmosphere. When you could drink from a stream without having to purify the water. What the plains looked like when there were millions of buffalo roaming. What it felt like to wear 20 pounds of dresses during a hot Georgia summer – and how you didn’t complain.
When Kelsea and I took the EAR and she wanted me to give her a tour of my life in Durham, I told her stories about school, work, growing up. Things I might not have remembered had we not been right there. I’m glad I did this. Someone knows some of my stories now. (Not that I am ever shy about telling her anything.) She, like E-Bro (and like me, once upon a time) has the memory of an elephant, and I know she will remember. Maybe she’ll tell her daughter my stories someday, as I have told her some of my Mother’s. Writing them down in a way that evokes a sense of place, of time, of feeling, is a great start – and sometimes the only option. But the verbal telling of a tale holds so much more power than the written word – your voice as you share your story imbues it with an emotion that is richer than any printed page could ever convey.
There are so many stories we have that we do not recall except in flashes and that we never share, perhaps because they would really mean nothing to someone else. They are memories more than stories, snippets of our lives. I think we remember everything that has ever happened to us, we just don’t have access to all those thoughts, images and memories with the x% of our brain that we actually use. But that y% of our brain must be doing something back in there. I choose to believe that storing all our lives (and perhaps beyond) is what it’s doing.
But no one will remember the things I do in the ways I do, even if someone else was present at the time. That person will remember it through their own eyes. So I suppose what I will miss when I am gone is the ability to share those memories. Or perhaps I will miss the memories themselves.