About the Feature
Photo By Joel Swick
[The Bowl that Fills]
I can’t conjure my own first memory, but I do remember Virginia Woolf’s. She was in the nursery at St. Ives in the Hebrides. The acorn on the end of the string from a window blind slid back and forth across the floor with the breeze, and there was the sound of the sea, breathing in and out. She felt the “purest ecstasy.” This was her most important memory, she says, even if not her very first. The first time I read this passage, from the essay “A Sketch of the Past,” I was in the college library on one of the upper floors, facing west. I felt a different kind of pleasure, having found a clue to a difficult paper I was writing, but also having found what felt like a clue to myself.
When I try to go back to my own beginning, I see myself on my mother’s lap in front of the radiator and picture window in our house on Allen Street, and I remember one night among many, with the deep ache of growing pains in my legs. In another I’m with my sister Anne, our heads both bent over a Dr. Seuss book, or maybe it was Go, Dog, Go! I recall many scenes like that, but they are all scenes I’ve revisited in photographs, their details visually fixed on paper rather than arising from the fluid depths of my mind. Memories of being within my own self at a very young age, whole scenes like Woolf’s in the nursery, with its sensual detail and purely internal point of reference, seem to me unrecoverable.
I wonder if the proliferation of snapshot photography, which allows us to revisit specific moments over the years, has changed the way we remember the past. If these photographs have replaced other kinds of memories, which could be stored only within ourselves and in the stories we tell about ourselves. Would I have remembered learning to read on the living room floor with Anne, surely an important memory, differently without the photograph? Woolf’s nursery memory is clearly something she repeated to herself throughout her life, revisiting it the way you would a photograph. It became who she was because she chose it as much as it chose her. She goes so far as to say that “if life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.” I find the image of the bowl satisfying and somehow deeply true, but I lament that my own memories seem to have been determined by pictures taken by somebody else and therefore seen from the outside. Maybe I would remember my life, my coming into consciousness, in a more whole and primal way if so many moments had not been pinned down, then handled over and over.
I can recall many more sensual details from my early life that photographs don’t reveal, of course—the rough texture of the wall-to-wall carpet throughout the first floor of the house, even on the stairs, which we slid down on blankets, bumping all the way down. I recall the smooth, cool quilt I took with me everywhere until it was only shreds, the sound of the Red Sox on the radio on summer nights, even the rubber-plastic smell of my baby doll’s limbs, sewn onto the cloth body, which had a softer, earthier smell. These are not specific to a singular moment that I can recall wholly but rather details that were part of my ongoing, daily existence as a child. I certainly don’t remember feeling ecstasy.
And what about all those boxes of junk that I saved? Opening the box of little blue Smurf figurines, which I kept until recently, calls up from the past the otherwise forgotten hours I spent acquiring them at the mall and then playing with my younger sister, Marie, naming them, setting up little villages on the radiator cover for them. And then there’s the crochet purse, shaped around a margarine cup. Great-Aunt Anna had made one for each of us three sisters, and I stuffed mine with notes I’d passed with my friend Katie in sixth grade and stored it away. I still remember envying my sisters’ purses a little, because Marie’s had a feathery white stripe through the middle of it, and Anne’s was a pretty blue, whereas mine was all shades of tan and brown. Memories like this seem dependent on things—often branded and trademarked and thus utterly specific—rather than being a purely personal, internal vision. The cultural and historical moment in which I grew up—the peak, perhaps, of American materialist capitalism—in some ways determined that I would have a lot of photographs and a lot of things, that my postwar parents would have a home in which to store them. But did these replace, and possibly get in the way of, a more primal way of remembering?
Maybe one reason Woolf’s memory resonates so much with me and yet fills me with a sense of loss is that her scene has a kind of timelessness—the sea splashing in waves over the beach, in and out, the light in stripes through the blind—that nothing in my own experience can match. In my memory, the drapes were closed, and the sound was often of the lanta bus grinding its gears at the stop sign out front, leaving a whiff of diesel fumes, and my “nursery,” as far as I can recall it, was a double bed I shared with Marie, crowded with stuffed animals. Closed in rather than expansive. Reduceable to a time and place rather than universal.
And yet I feel that Woolf’s memory of the sea and ecstasy, her bowl that fills and fills, is my own in some way. While I did not live it, I can feel it, and I believe that it is within me too, like an experience that exists in ways unattached to the literal. It may be why her book The Waves, which more than any of her other books seems to come out of this memory, even drawing on some of its specific imagery, reaches me in ways that don’t make sense to me but feel deeper than language, perhaps preceding language.
If I push a little bit more, just sit and try to remember, skipping over anything associated with a photo or object, eventually some other memories do come to light. Memories that are important to me, even if they are not from babyhood, as Woolf’s seems to be. I think specifically of a time when I was a child, some unspecific year, when I was climbing the wall onto the porch of the brick duplex, the house on Allen Street where I lived the first eighteen years of my life. It was a game of hide-and-seek or maybe cops and robbers with some neighborhood kids, and I was running from someone, excited but not afraid, and as I put my foot on the nail that was always a foothold for boosting myself up this wall and seemed to serve no other purpose, suddenly I felt this sense of being outside of myself at the same time as being inside. A sense of slipping out of myself and of observing the whole scene from above. I felt as if I were not a normal person, as if God, or something like a god, were counting on me to go to Earth and to report back on what it was like to be a person and why humans did the things they did. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t exactly right, but it was the best I could do to describe the feeling to myself. I chose to remember that moment. Or maybe it chose me. I’ve replayed it to myself over the years even if I’ve never spoken of it to anybody and it does not appear in any photograph. Neither does that nail, whose real purpose was never revealed. In that moment I felt satisfied for having finally understood something important, something previously uncomfortable within myself, even as I could not articulate it exactly. This moment seemed to have more to tell me about who I was and would become than my most beloved beaded change purse “souvenir” ever could, even though the change purse was something I identified with and often revisited, with its tiny plastic beads forming the shape of an eagle. The feeling most strongly associated with that purse was the surprise that my souvenir-averse parents bought it for me, even if I’ve forgotten the place it was supposed to remind me of.
Memories like mine of climbing the porch wall are more like what Woolf identifies later in that same essay as “moments of being,” as the “shocks” that break through. These moments exist within “many more moments of non-being,” of the “cotton wool” of daily life. They are moments that cause the rememberer to take note. She describes a few early instances of such shocks from her own life. In one, during a fight with her brother, she remembers being about to hit him but then stopping and asking, why do we hurt each other like this, and then feeling deep despair. In another she sees a flower in the garden and says to herself, “That is the whole.” She has a vision of this flower being part of the earth, but also its own self, and she catches a glimpse of what sounds to me like the purpose of her art-making. This gives her a feeling of deep satisfaction. The opposite feelings—despair and satisfaction—that came out of these two instances she remembers vividly; she doesn’t know exactly when they happened, has a vague sense of the surroundings and how old she might have been, but she remembers the shock: the stopping and noticing something about the world and her place in it. These memories are like the awakening of consciousness rather than a recollection of a full scene in the nursery, but they are just as formative.
While I don’t have any pre-language, tide-infused memories, I do recall a few of these “shocks,” connected to the dawning of understanding or recognition of abstract concepts. They are also the beginnings of identity, answering the persistent questions of who I am in the world and what makes me the same as others, what makes me different. The ecstasy Woolf describes in the first memory is a kind of being whole with the world, maybe a bit like the “oceanic feeling,” as I read about in Freud, when one is at peace with and a part of the whole universe, whereas the later shocks are more about becoming her individual self.
In an early chapter in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov says, “I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.” As an example, he describes how he became aware of how time differentiated him from his parents, how one day he realized that they were older than he was and that life had time limits. He doesn’t know exactly when it happened but has a strong sense of the season; given the light, the “lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery,” it was probably his mother’s birthday, it was probably in Vyra. He too describes it as a “shock.”
In addition to (or perhaps because of) the pleasure of reading his radiant prose, this passage gave me a little shock as well. It dislodged from the deep my own dawning of a sense of time, my understanding that the time in which I lived was in fact something named and identified relative to other times, which existed before me and would exist after I was gone. I remembered how the words “nineteen seventy-four,” and then “nineteen seventy-six,” became something more than a jumble of sounds heard over and over without meaning. How in kindergarten I finally understood that this series of numbers described that single year of my life, distinguishing it from all other years. That each day could be labeled with numbers, one after the other. A couple of years later, the bicentennial of the United States was celebrated with parades and special red-white-and-blue cereal packaging and a big, national hoopla, but to me the bicentennial was what made me recognize that the years in which I was a child were relative to that austere and distant time called history. Each year to me was a long, long time, and so two hundred of them seemed an unimaginable distance in time. I didn’t yet know that 1976 meant one thousand, nine hundred, and seventy-six years after the death of Christ—a concept too strange to fully comprehend even today—but that would come. Learning that years were numbered was part of learning language, as a repeated phrase and sound finally became distinguishable from the blur, in the same way that reading divides language into individual words. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were required to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance every day from kindergarten onward that they first heard “for which it stands” as a single word. We memorized the sound before we grasped the meaning. In kindergarten, we also learned to recite our home address and telephone number, the date and time in both words and numbers. I wish my own dawning of a sense of time came with sun flecks and patterns through greenery, as Nabokov claims his own did, but what I get instead is a buffed-linoleum hallway and the smell of cafeteria food and bleach; I get construction paper flags and clumpy white paste with which to glue the stars and stripes together.
My satisfaction in recognizing myself in these writers’ memories comes from the sense of having something that was vague articulated, and of its being understood by another human being far away, from a different time and place. It also, no doubt, comes from my appreciation of the aesthetics of their prose. But the satisfaction always brings with it some regret, too, that my own memories are less pure, less beautiful. Rather than being spun from (and embellished by) the mind alone, the images of my own memory are conscripted to fading snapshots and boxes of junk.
[The Box that Empties]
There may be some beauty to old cardboard boxes, their tape yellow and coming loose, corners squashed from stacking, their mailing labels indicating an apartment number from the past, but not when they’re threatening to spill out of a closet where practical things like winter jackets might be stored. Trying to figure out what to do with those boxes is even more of a chore than just moving them, unopened, to a new location, which may, in part, explain the many flourishing storage businesses around the outskirts of town. When I force myself to go through my own boxes of the past, I end up feeling lost in time, unaware of the minutes as they pass, which they quickly do. And I would not say that it’s enjoyable. Hours that I have to myself alone are precious and I apportion them carefully, so I hate for them to vanish like that, leaving me feeling vaguely, inexplicably verklempt, not unlike writing, which also often yields nothing, but at least it doesn’t leave a mess strewn across the floor. Though I had what could easily enough qualify as a happy childhood, free of disruptions and immediate trauma, the feelings that arise when I go through those boxes are not of warmth and love and being taken care of but more often of anxiety and instability and sadness. When I think of childhood, I think of the freedom of summers off and nothing urgent to do, when my life wasn’t yet limited by decisions and circumstances, when the sign in my childhood bedroom proclaiming “Girls Can Do Anything” still meant something. And yet when I handle the things in the boxes—the Hello Kitty miniature sketch set and the heart locket from my best friend in second grade, the white vinyl purse with its miniature Bible that I got for First Communion—I may remember some happy times eating one of Grammy’s prayerbook-shaped cakes or getting lost in an elaborate Richard Scarry–style drawing, but the feelings they bring up are much more complicated, and it’s always a relief to pack the boxes away again and come back to the light of the present.
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” Nabokov writes. Despite their sameness, we tend to view the abyss preceding us “with more calm than the one [we are] heading for.” As for me, I fear the actual transition from life to death, the pain and mental diminishment that will accompany it, but I don’t dread the thought of time progressing without me. I’m greedy for more life and I don’t want mine to end, but I know that after I’m gone time will continue on its way pretty much the same without me, except for in my immediate family and even then only sometimes. So I don’t fear the abyss over which my brief life hangs so much as I fear the abyss of what I have already forgotten, of my own psyche. My childhood, the unremembered self who may still be present in those objects, can feel like a primitive darkness.
I find the written record—the letters, diaries, and school papers—even more unsettling than the objects. They’re crammed full of recorded thoughts and events, each one of which seemed important and worth saving at the time it was written, and when I take them out to repack or reorganize or recycle, I dip a toe in but then quickly pull out. It feels like a deep pool that I could drown in, time passing, folding over on itself, my own more familiar memories being corrected or shifting around irrevocably.
I once opened a cache of notes passed among my new “best friends” in ninth grade. One was a chain letter that said, “This note is to certify that Carolyn Kuebler has the right to cuddle any guy she wants to. But remember—be gentle!” And, among other instructions: “3) Let his hands wander wherever they want to; 4) if any guy reads this he can kiss you wherever he wants to. Have pride!” I know that I didn’t copy and share it with seven people, as instructed, but I was convinced I’d have “double the bad luck with guys!” whether I broke the chain or not. This was from the same friend who loaned me a Harold Robbins novel that made liberal use of the word “phallus” in a series of startling and confusing rape-fantasy scenes that I’d prefer to forget. I gave the book back, but I still have that chain letter, which at least now might serve as a record of social progress.
The destabilization I feel when opening up and reading these old pages comes in part because I didn’t yet know who I was when I wrote or received them, but also because they might change who I think I am. I’m afraid of the disappointment in discovering how callow and conventional I really was—“I want to be pretty & artistic, creative, interesting, captivating, exciting, adventurous, instinctive, musical, intelligent, whimsical, considerate, gentle,” says one scrap of my old, loopy handwriting—and how bad the writing in my journals will be, changing my perception of myself as a lifelong reader and writer. I don’t want to revisit the heartache that tended to be the main topic of so much of this writing, but I’m also profoundly uncomfortable with that feeling of being lost in time.
The diaries were the best I could do to capture what was true to me, but how true are they, really? In her memoir Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, described on the jacket as “a careful archivist of her own life,” brilliantly evokes the duality, the self-deceit, of journal writing, by replicating snippets from her early diary in childlike print next to a more tidily rendered description of what she remembers actually happened at the time. “Tuesday: All I remember that we did today was go swimming,” the childhood scrawl says. But what she did not write, and what was far more important psychically, was that she got her period, agonized over telling her mother, willed it to never come back, hoped that by ignoring it, it would go away. She refused to name what she didn’t want to be true, which was especially painful given the exacting standard of fact she was committed to in that diary, even as she recognized the tedium and impossibility of recording the whole truth of even a single day. So even the journals, full of words that would seem to be an accurate record of the past, written in the exact moment, don’t evoke the past as it happened; they often skim right over all the more significant situations and emotions, too much for any childhood sentence to carry, too scary to even write down. The record states it clearly. On Tuesday they went swimming. Which is no doubt the truth, but only just barely.
For me, revisiting the written record has occasionally had the unsettling effect of contradicting what I’d long believed to be true. I know, for instance, that by the time I was twenty or so I felt my loneliness very strongly; it was part of who I was. Apart, alone, aloof. I’d had a number of boyfriends, briefly—desperately longing for the romance and deep connection I’d witnessed in books and movies—but they were all failures. I knew for a fact that I had certainly never been loved by them. But then there it was, in a note from the boyfriend I had when I was eighteen, just graduating from high school: “I love you,” he said. What? Well, that’s what he wrote, it’s there on paper, I have proof. But I didn’t feel it, didn’t believe it. So what is more true, the loneliness I remember from the time or the written record? Had I gotten myself all wrong? Was my identity just a matter of misinterpretation?
And yet I’ve kept every one of the journals, from the tiny Ziggy diary with the lock and key to the sleek Moleskines of last year, and I have boxes crammed with letters with very little order to them. I keep telling myself that someday I might want to read them, even though the future during which that might happen gets shorter with every passing year. I don’t keep them because I want anyone else to read them; that has never been the point. I sometimes wonder if I should just burn them, so they’ll stop being a burden to me and stop taking up precious space in my closet. My sister Anne threw away all her journals in her most recent move. Even before that, though, she was unsentimental about the past. She wrote a song about all the stuff she was glad to slough off, especially the things that recall the supposedly ideal time when she was young and pretty and full of expectation. “I don’t miss the girl,” goes the refrain, “I don’t miss the girl I left behind.” The song swaps points of view with the old American standard “The Girl I Left Behind,” covered by Bob Dylan and other folkies over the years, who very much do miss that idealized girl from the past, forever longed for, forever lovely. No, thank you, Anne’s song says. “The rack of old prom dresses in the attic can rot right where it stands for all I care.”
When my daughter was four or five years old, I opened the boxes that my parents had shuffled off onto me when they moved from our family home into an apartment. She was more or less interested in the Snoopy paraphernalia, the miniature 7up-can necklace, the Hallmark stickers, and a small canister of buttons from failed presidential campaigns and my job as a busser at Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant: Fajitas! Olé! But once she chose what interested her, I found it easier to toss much of it. My suitcase full of dolls, though, was a different problem. The dozen or so Madame Alexander dolls, each in the traditional dress of a different European country, were supposed to have value beyond my childhood play and wonderment. And they were gifts from my grandfather, expensive and extravagant at the time, and his memory, his fondness for me, which was otherwise hard to detect, was attached to them. Vivian and I took them out of the suitcase, marveled over their little socks and petticoats with the snaps and miniature rows of lace, undressed and then dressed them again. In the process some of their heads and limbs fell off, the internal rubber bands that secured them having grown brittle, and yet it was easier to tuck them back into their tissue paper nest and slip the suitcase back into the closet for another day than to make a plan for their future. I’d gotten rid of so much—the change purses and Smurfs and even the miniature Bible—couldn’t I at least keep these?
One of the first photographs I took with my own camera was a family portrait of all my stuffed animals, sitting on the porch swing. I knew I would need to part with some of them—already they were threatening to take over the crowded bedroom I shared with Marie—but I wanted always to remember them. Having a photo would help. When my family decided to have a yard sale last spring, I realized I could do the same thing with the dolls. After Vivian and I had spent time with them, I felt their purpose in my adult life had been fulfilled, and like so many things sold as “collectibles,” they were worth very little—ten dollars at most, if you had saved the original boxes and never touched them, much less allowed their heads to fall off. So I took pictures of each of their identical sweet faces and beloved velvet shoes before setting them aside for the yard sale and clearing a little space in the closet. They’re all on my phone somewhere now.
A massive book collection can have the same effect of surrounding you with memories and past aspirations, making the walls close in, making it impossible to move on. And so while our yard sale had a handful of items with real curb appeal—a 150-gallon polyethylene storage tank, a pristine hot-pink beanbag chair, and an electric snowblower—mostly what we had to sell were books: beautiful hardcover art books, Modern Library editions of classics we had other copies of, paperbacks of all kinds that we’d collected over the years working in publishing. One man, maybe in his seventies, spent the entire drizzly morning crouched in front of the boxes and shelves full of books. Finally we gave him a chair that we were trying to sell for five dollars; his appreciation was worth much more than that. He’d pick up a volume and ask if we’d read it, tell us his own story about reading the book: The Love Ethic of D. H. Lawrence, Zukovsky’s collected fiction, Boorstin’s The Creators. The latter reminded him of a series on the Renaissance he had read in full, all seven volumes. People don’t write like that anymore, he said.
Another, somewhat younger guy had the same idea: they don’t read like that either, he said. Kids don’t read. He found it sad that the book he was looking through, the two-hundred-plus-page DK Visual Dictionary, could be worth as little as a dollar. Nobody remembers anything anymore either. They just look it up on their phone, he said. I’m the same way. The older fellow concurred, but he had a theory. It’s because in a book you discover things on your own. But on the internet the algorithms find it for you. And you only remember what you discover on your own. Then he quoted Beckett, to make a similar point about reading and discovering.
Despite my age, I felt like I was one of these kids they were talking about. I’d sooner sell than read so many of those books, and I’ve never been able to quote from memory the writers I love. If I want to know something, it’s faster to look it up online than to scan my own brain, and it’s more accurate, at least in a factual sense. It’s been that way for most of my adult life. These men were both old enough that the internet was probably only part of the last few years of their professional lives, or maybe not till after retirement. For me, the internet became an undeniable force a few years after college, making me formatively analog but functionally digital. My memory probably just works differently from theirs. In the older fellow’s mind, though, a memory like mine is not just different but lesser than his, and I felt that judgment and, at least for a little while, agreed with it.
Before he left, the second man bought the Visual Dictionary and gave it to a friend who was looking at the games with her son. He wanted her son to have it, he said, and the mother seemed touched by the gesture. Even so, her son won’t have the choice as he goes through school to be an analog creature; he might turn to the Visual Dictionary idly, or as a nostalgic object, something inherited, and maybe paging through it will be the basis of an important memory for him, but he won’t need it for the same purpose it was originally intended.
Nobody bought the dolls.
In blatant disregard of the whole point of the quotation itself, I decided to try to find online what Beckett said about memory and discovery. It’s usually easy enough to do that with just a few words, but I couldn’t find anything like it. Maybe the man made it up, or maybe he, or I, remembered it wrong. Or maybe it was actually Walter Benjamin. What mattered at the time, though, was that he could say, with all confidence, “Beckett said . . . ,” signaling his own ability to remember things that matter, unlike someone like me, who’d never read many of the books at my own yard sale, much less been able to quote from them. Whose memory on the one hand is dominated by trademarked particularities—Madame Alexander dolls, Smurfs, and Hello Kitty purses—and on the other by that vast machine of forgetting: the internet.
[The Cloud Full of Clutter]
If people don’t read and don’t remember because everything is stored on their phones, where does that leave those whose entire lives have been dominated by digital media? Diminishing their discoveries, the way they learn and remember, is the equivalent of scoffing at their minds, their memories, the core of their being. Will these people really be as flat as their screens, reducible to and then replicable as 0s and 1s? The men at the yard sale shook their heads at those “kids,” and I felt it too, some lamentation for the future in which nobody reads, nobody discovers, nobody remembers. Even as I recognized it as nostalgia, problematic as ever—for every beautiful thing we lose to the past, we always lose something at least as ugly—I felt that same sadness over the diminishment of my mind, my life, my daughter’s life.
I had to laugh, then, when I found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on memory the idea that Plato thought writing was “a barbarous invention which would weaken the memory by disuse.” And what of printing? Emerson asks. “What is the newspaper but a sponge or invention for oblivion?”
Despite the losses to memory brought on by each new technology, one undeniable gain for the digital natives is the mobility that comes from letting go of physical objects. Having a lot of stuff is a liability both during life and after death. We’re so overwhelmed with stuff in this part of the world right now that huge piles of books are pulped or made into various “crafts” and sold on Etsy, blocks of compressed clothing donations pile up with no place to go, every day there’s a couch or a washing machine on the sidewalk in my neighborhood with a free sign. People who die in houses full of stuff leave not an inheritance but a burden for their survivors. Having stuff—even books, which to my mind are my most valuable possession—will be especially difficult as many more of us will be uprooted, refugees of climate crises and the wars that will follow.
My daughter, a digital native who her whole life has been aware that the weather on Earth is changing rapidly in ways that make it less hospitable to human life, is much less prone to keeping things. She has no problem tossing out childhood drawings and favorite dresses from when she was little. She’ll keep a couple things in the “keepsake bag,” quite possibly just to make me happy, but she’s pretty cavalier about getting rid of sentimental objects. Her room is small and she likes to keep things neat, but maybe it’s because she has all the record she needs stored on my computer and more recently on her own phone. She took photos of her favorite Disney doll setups, their homes built inside the old changing table, with a cardboard couch, clementine-crate beds, handmade clay fruits, and silk flowers turned into gardens. So who needs the actual dolls? She gave the whole precious collection to another little girl shortly after she finished elementary school. She keeps them in her electronic storehouse, which is a closet even the greatest hoarder could never fill. You never really have to get rid of anything this way; you just get more and more “cloud” storage or your own cheap little data storage device. It takes up no space at all.
Or does it? The cloud gives the illusion of existing in an ethereal non-space, but all that data is stored on a network of servers, and these require power, require solid ground. When one crashes the data can be seamlessly transferred to another, but they are indeed physical entities and vulnerable to fire, gravity, overheating, power shortages, and other real-world problems. As long as they’re mostly invisible to us, we don’t care about their regulation or count them into our personal “carbon footprint.” We’ve begun to see the transfer of data as a right and the storage as clean, and the industry is happy to keep us that blind and that dependent. It’s just a cloud, after all. To imagine a significant number of these centers crashing all at once ventures into sci-fi territory, as there are millions of these data centers around the world backing each other up, but if we’re looking at more energy shortages in the future, access to this closet full of things will become less and less assured. What then of the memories of the digital natives? Will they lose access to their own memories? Who will they be?
We used to ask each other, in a kind of personality litmus test, “If your house were on fire, what would you save?” Normally people would answer that they’d grab their wedding album or a novel in progress, or more recently a computer that contains those things. But what if our access to cloud storage were about to be cut off, whether by government decree or a massive fire? Would we quickly attempt to download some things onto the hard drive, make copies? Most people who’ve been working on a computer for more than a few years have had that panicky feeling when there’s a sudden malfunction and they didn’t save the files anywhere but the hard drive, despite that we’ve been told to back everything up again and again. But at this point, we’re trusting more and more of our writing, our photographs, our memories to something we have even less control over than a storage locker.
But for now, while access is assured and taken for granted, we go on taking picture after picture, sending text after text, confident that we can access these any time we want, at seemingly no cost at all. We’re more worried about the permanence of the digital record and the potential embarrassment and even incrimination that would come if our private lives were exposed than in the record of those private lives disappearing altogether. And those plentiful digital photographs are a much more accurate record of life than those old photographs that were taken mostly on special occasions, rarely at work or school or other places where most of life is actually lived. Those photos were then packed away and often forgotten, as only one person could have them. Now we can make copy after copy and keep them in our pockets! But good luck sorting through the thousands that make up the digital record of even a fifteen-year-old. When the capacity seems endless, there’s no need to throw anything out; hundreds of photos accrue from every single year, many of them nearly identical. The same with our music—why buy cds or dvds, those old throwback objects, when you can stream pretty much anything you’d ever want? Already my digital closet is even more cluttered than the attics and basements of my predecessors. And I don’t even know how you’d begin to clean out the digital closets of the dead.
A couple years ago a friend from college told me that her teenage daughter broke down in tears as she watched my friend go through her own boxes of letters. The daughter felt such loss, knowing she would never have anything like that for herself. Those pale blue aerograms, the envelopes collaged with magazine cut-outs, the mixtape covers of our youth are now objects of nostalgic longing, much like my own longing for the kind of memories of those who came before me. Maybe the past just always seems more aesthetic, more potentially profound, than anything in the present. People tend to cheapen the present, the way the man at the yard sale did, and long for the past, which must have been better than this. The way we record and store and access remnants of the past keeps changing, but there’s still a sense of deeply personal recognition and pleasure in past ways of remembering: Proust, that quintessential chronicler of lost time, continues to enthrall us with the lusciousness of his memories, all put into words, no matter how far removed the circumstances of his life seem now. And there’s still so much of the past, our own pasts, that remains separate from any photograph or object or diary, and that is the real stuff of memory.
My daughter doesn’t remember how old she was exactly, but she was sitting on a bed in a room that has not been a bedroom for more than a decade, so she must have been very young. She sat there facing the closet and feeling hopeless hatred for her own hair—curly, frizzy, unlike the silky hair of all her friends—and she hated her name too. She felt despondent, hopeless for the life ahead of her in which she would always be stuck with both of these. She recalls the exact feeling and a sense of which direction she was facing, even if not what year it was. That moment remains vague and yet specific; just one moment among many and yet central to her being. Getting past that despondence was an act of will that has defined who she is in the world, how she differentiates herself from others, her identity. She doesn’t need any photo, digital or otherwise, to remember it, and, while undocumented, that moment is more significant to who she is than her photographed vacations or souvenirs from an important visit to a museum. This seems to me like one of the “moments of being” that Woolf describes, one of the shocks.
There are ways to put pressure on memory, to find things you’d lost, with or without objects and digital photographs—though they can help. Psychological investigation and dreamwork techniques are based on the idea that it’s in there, you just have to shock it out of the deep. While there’s still a fair bit of mystery around the biological aspect of memory creation, it is known that memories are not stored as separate little packages in our brains but rather as connections between neurons, pathways that become more permanent the more frequently they are traveled. The objects—the written, the printed, the stored, the digital, the analog—are just a starting point, and sometimes probably more of a distraction from what we’re really after when searching through our own lost time.
However they were formed, and however true or not, my memories are the story I tell myself about myself; my memories have become “me.” I fear memory loss more than the other diseases of aging, more than losing my house to a fire, more than a crash in the cloud. While it can be unsettling to my identity to sift through old things, those revelations, like the “Cuddle Certificate” from ninth grade, can usually be folded back into the narrative. To lose even the basic narrative—as happens to the millions of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and for all I know could already be happening to me—is completely terrifying. It is to lose the self I have so painstakingly become, to lose the accumulation of all that passionate energy, those selected moments of being, in a kind of un-becoming. Or worse, it is to allow an unknown, potentially embarrassing and belligerent human being to take over my name, my body, and what’s left of my life. I hold on to my diaries with a sense that they are my assurance against forgetting, despite the risk of their being a burden if I should suddenly die, and despite my knowing that without the feelings they conjure, without the surrounding network of truth, they will just be badly written scenes from someone else’s life.
I learned recently that Emerson himself—who wrote that memory “holds together past and present . . . abides in the flowing, and gives continuity and dignity to human life”—died in an impenetrable fog of dementia, having gradually lost his memory over the last years of his life until he could no longer recognize his own writing, forgot the names of his friends. During the early years of forgetting, he was acutely aware of what was happening. “I have lost my mental faculties but I am perfectly well,” he said. He seems to have maintained his curiosity and equanimity, even some dignity, to the end. He did not lash out against his forgetting, but slowly moved into a place of quiet solitude. It helps that even when he didn’t recognize his family, they still loved and took care of him, but maybe his own life’s work prepared him for this new state of being. Maybe in the end he discovered that there is something beyond even memory that “abides in the flowing.”
If dementia works as a kind of retrogenesis, with the brain giving way one section at a time, the last areas to go being the first to form, then maybe what we’re left with is a kind of infant consciousness, unable to form new memories or reach old ones, existing only in the primal emotions that can be formed in the amygdala. Maybe without a lifetime’s worth of memories, without the noisy constellations of neural paths that make us who we are, we get closer to the acorn on the string, the breathing in and out of the sea, even the feeling of ecstasy. The photographs, the stories, the recollections of longing and sadness and joy fall away until it is all cloud and no clutter. Maybe only then can those irretrievable first memories return as a pure, momentary light shining between two dark eternities.
It’s possible, yes, but at the same time, a person who has regressed into a more primal state of consciousness will also regress in other more concrete and less appealing ways, until they’re as dependent as a baby but without the adorable physique. In other words, I won’t be giving up my attempt to build an auxiliary memory anytime soon. I’ll keep taking bad photos on my phone and will save the letters, photographs, and diaries, making use of every inadequate means of storage for the record of what I have become.
About the Author
Carolyn Kuebler has published her writing in The Common, the Literary Review, the Massachusetts Review, and The Little Magazine in Contemporary America. She is the editor of New England Review and lives in Vermont, where she serves as Justice of the Peace and tries not to collect too many books.