I have been thinking a lot about memory lately. I’ve been doing some personal archeology in my own past, both as a form of research for the new novel, and as a part of the ongoing inquiry into issues of personal identity and self-(re)construction. I’m constantly amazed at how little I remember of my own life (let alone what was going on around me on a community, national or global level). I feel like the memories I do have are the equivalent of a small shoebox full of faded, oddly-colored photos, snapshots from this moment or that, not necessarily connected to each other and often unlabeled. Sometimes the snapshots are moving, like the Harry Potter kind, but they only capture a small moment, never an entire story. I’ll remember, say, contentedly walking across the UCSC campus on a macadam path under the redwood trees, listening to a Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits tape on my Walkman. (Oy, did I just massively date myself or what? No matter. Onward.) But I don’t remember what I was wearing, where I was going, what the weather was, what the smells were, or why that moment was important. I just remember it.
Some moments are more important, and they are seared in my memory, yet still only snapshots: sitting in the stall of the school’s bathroom in 7th grade, fearing that the stain in my underwear meant I’d had some sort of incontinence but then in a thunderclap of understanding realizing that I’d just gotten my first period. Climbing up the dusty, switchback dirt path up Masada in Israel at dawn (and twisting my ankle and getting to ride the tram back down). My first “real” (albeit casual) kiss under the mistletoe hanging in the doorway of our Drama classroom in high school. The moment the ground heaved like the ocean and trees bowed like dancers while I was standing in the doorway of a classroom on the Kresge campus, during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Losing my virginity in the back of a Volvo station wagon, in the cast parking lot/campground of the Renaissance Faire. Sitting in the doctor’s office on my 23rd birthday, being told that the bad news was, it was cancer; the good news was, if there was any kind of cancer to get, this was the best one (and my response: “well happy fucking birthday”). Sitting at my desk in the house I shared with a friend in Santa Barbara, pouring intense emotion into typing back and forth on computer chat with Josh and finally coming out with “I love you” and feeling drunk on exhilaration and fear as I hit send. Our wedding day. The loss of three potential children. The birthing of my two sons. The morning of 9/11. The moment when a secret was revealed that changed my marriage.
It’s not that I have *no* memories, it’s just that they’re, well, snapshots. They’re brief. They’re incomplete. I question whether I’m remembering the events themselves or just the stories I have been told/told myself over the years *about* those events. Some things I feel I should remember are completely gone. World events, cultural milestones, family experiences. Everyday details, places, people. What kind of time did my brother and I spend together in middle school? What did I eat for lunch in high school? What did the outside of my last apartment in Santa Cruz look like? What was the first date like with the boyfriend I met through a personal ad? I feel like there is so much that is just irrevocably gone. Friends often play the game of “do you remember so-and-so?” with me, and almost always, the answer is no. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate or connect with the people around me at the time, it’s just that if they’re not still around, and they aren’t associated with one of the snapshots from the shoebox (or one of the stories I’ve told about the snapshots in the shoebox), well, they vanish. It’s a good thing I still keep family and friends around me from all the stages of my life, or I’d be constantly adrift, wondering where I’d been (and who with).