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Gazing into the deep pool of memory
Time and longing for “the good old days,” as well as a need for closure on darker aspects of our pasts, bring the meaning and necessity of memory into clearer focus
It’s puzzling how one remembers many of the things that happened to them in the past. It is even more strange how some of these things are so small and unimportant. Yet, you seem to want to think back to them and not forget them. In this account of my life, I will try to include some of these things, even though they may not mean much.
From a brief autobiography I wrote for an English assignment in 8th grade. I was 13 years old.
Its amazing me what I save from my long-ago past. The above example forms the introduction to a junior high school English assignment. I have been able to revisit some of the earliest years of my life simply because an English teacher back in 1964 had the good sense, and even prescience, to have us write about our lives up until that point. We were to write about what we most remembered. I’m sure it was interesting for her to read those papers. How could she even grade such a thing? I’m certainly glad I preserved that five-page, handwritten composition, and with it the realization that from an early age I was instilled with appreciation of what our memories tell us about ourselves.
In the ensuing decades of my life, I felt compelled sporadically to record in paper journals certain thoughts and events that I obviously wanted to recall later by reading those journal entries. It was important for me also to record my feelings and emotions, what my mental state was at the time.
Then, as later when I wrote often in online diaries starting in 1999, my aim was not to write about what had occurred insofar as a recitation of the mundane aspects of daily life, but rather thought pieces and musings on every aspect of my inner life. To me that was what was most important. They were personal essays in every sense of the word.
In those early years of keeping journals, I had no inkling of how the Internet would transform the diary format into published pieces of writing, as serious or trivial as one wanted them to be, and which were written for an audience of readers and note-leavers who would inspire me to keep writing year after year. I still do.
The traditional diary was not meant to have an audience or be published. It was private and personal. Some old-fashioned diaries could be locked to keep prying eyes out. I’m sure many people today keep strictly private diaries that they save as files on their laptops or phones. You can write only private diary entries at such writing Websites as “Open Diary” and Prosebox,” if you like. But that has never really interested me. When the opportunity arose to share my writing online, I fully embraced that new forum. But, until 1998, when I started my first online diary by creating a homepage at the now defunct site, GeoCities, I wrote in paper journals only occasionally, or only for sustained but brief periods of time. My first journal was written during my college years from 1970-1972. When I read it now, I cringe at some of the painfully overblown prose and misuse of words, but it was a very accurate and quite revealing account of my state of mind during those formative years. I certainly never intended for anyone to read it.
My next sustained handwritten paper journal was written during the years 1979-1983, and was a sustained account of my spiritual growth after a time of turmoil and subsequent reawakening to life after a lengthy bout of major depression. That journal marks a very distinct and self-contained period of my life, and the writing is mostly different from anything I’d write today.
From 1984-1987 I kept mainly travel journals, for it was during those years that I was often traveling around the country on exhilarating road trip adventures, the first time I had ever done that.
I wrote occasionally in a journal during the years 1991-93 when I lived in Edmonds, Wash. I wrote only very sporadically from 1993 until the late Spring of 1998 when I entered the world of online diaries, journals and blogs. There has been no interruption since then. Writing online journal entries is as much a part of my life as eating and breathing. And, being a former newspaper reporter and editor, writing has always been fulfilling and necessary, as well as a way for me to earn a living. It’s never been easy, but writing has given my life purpose and meaning. And, very importantly, I have preserved all of it, except for the newspaper writing, some of which I have saved in clippings folders.
Just as small objects and artifacts I have kept over the years help me to recall incidents and episodes in my life, going back and re-reading journal entries from weeks or decades ago enables me to hold onto my memories as I get older and need to recall them more than ever. Thankfully, the whole topic of how and why we remember certain things and feel the need to record them in journals is fascinating for me, and always has been going back to 8th grade.
In the years left to me I am going to study the subject of memory and read books on it and continue to write about my past for as long as I can. I may be deluding myself, but I think my memories are pretty accurate. I think they are true.
During the past week I have combed through some of my journal entries from 1971 until 2004. That’s where I paused in my review of writing from the Open Diary archive.
I am reposting some of my past writing as it pertains to the subject of memory. What I have re-discovered is how powerful memories of Autumn and Soring have been throughout my life, those seasons especially, as well as summer.
Our memories really are ourselves, our identities. I don’t hesitate, and often seem to have no choice but to dwell on my most painful memories. Those memories are the person I am today just as much as the sweet, pleasant and sun-drenched memories of childhood, which in my past writing and in my recollections today, are full of the mysteries of maturation and of aging.
Finally, this has been much on my mind in connection with memories:
We have been living through an unprecedented time of disruption, deep pain, loss, and uncertainty in our lives as we have tried to survive and cope with the global scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic. At my age, life had been pretty much one of self-imposed quarantine. For a year, I didn’t go anywhere except to the parks for walks. Fortunately, I’ve always been a person who thrives on solitude. I’m retired and live alone.
Now more than at any other time, I am revisiting memories of the past, as recorded in writing, and as I sit during the day in long periods of silence and thought. Life is so different and surreal now that memories of the past seem to be of times when life was more or less “normal,” whatever that means. At least our lives weren’t totally upended. But I’m having trouble writing much about life in this Age of the Pandemic, but I know I must. Future memories depend on it.
Here are some gleanings from past journal writing:
The powerful emotional pull of Autumn
Oct. 17, 1971
“…this is the way Autumn seems to affect me. My thoughts fall back to the past, and I seek fondly to recall the good things about old times because there seems to be cumulatively so much more pressure and responsibility now. It is escapism, and I recognize that, but I want very much to feel sure about my future and achieve a settled feeling of security…”
Oct. 24, 1982
“It’s a quiet Sunday, overcast, cold and wet. Autumn shows itself in the rich, yellow-gold leaves of her hickory trees outside my window. All the green is changing to other colors, much of it muted reds and full browns. There is something so nostalgic and memory-inducing about this harvest season time of year. Dried corn, pumpkins, yellow leaves — that different smell in the air — it all fits together as a collage of misty impressions. Moody, longing for childhood, and innocence. A big pile of leaves to rustle in and smell. It’s a smell of earth and ground and there is the essential dryness of it.
“How I wish I could more easily tap the fountain of long-ago memories. What has happened to them? What did I do during those Autumns of years past? What is it that enables us to quickly retrieve those memories or else search for them in vain?
“The fields and woods of Autumn tell us a lot, but not enough. I am seeking powerful recollections of the past, perhaps to reassure myself that those bygone days of youth were not as misspent as I sometimes imagine them to have been....”
Memory and interpretation
July 26,, 1972
“I had taken one of my first day trips (by myself of course), across the 26-mile causeway over Lake Pontchartrain to a small town on the north shore. In my journal later I wrote this: “…As I got out of my car and walked down a dirt road, I captured with my camera the reflection of a country dream, still within this small town: a slightly rolling pasture with shade trees and grazing horses, and at the far end, right in front of the woods, a long, low red stable. I took a picture from just off the road with my camera resting atop a fence post. I remember how gratefully still the scene was and how far away from New Orleans I felt. I experienced several momentary recollections of the past and a revived feeling I always get when I’m on vacation and traveling through South Carolina. It is a combination of memory and interpretation of past sensory impressions recalled at unexpected times. I can’t describe the feeling, but it reminds me of wonderful boyhood times and carefree, long hot summers when all I did was eat and play, swim and sleep late in the mornings. The sandy, piney countryside north of the lake resembles Georgia and South Carolina and it was quite easy to feel far away…”
Memories of high school
“High school is only memorable to me, however, so long as the city I grew up in at that time is alive in my memory. It’s fading for me as a place I want to visit again for old times sake. Those years in New Orleans, the city of my birth, are still rather unfathomable to me now. I don’t know what to make of that person I was then. I block out a lot of memories from my youth, and high school is a part of that youth. I can’t disassociate the bad experiences of my teen years from the nice, misty, feel-good memories that tend to predominate when I gaze back in time. An introvert, I was painfully studious, a worrier, a conflict-ridden and confused adolescent. I would say psychic chasms existed between myself and other students, even my acquaintances.”
I guess you’d have to have been a joiner, a real social achiever, a carefree teenager to have today truly great memories of high school along with a lasting desire to meet up with old friends from those days at reunions. I never had much desire to do that, but there’s a core group in every high school who fit that description…”
Nov. 18, 2000
“Growing Up on Memory Lane, the article was titled. “Memory Lane” — what fascinating words when you think about it. How often have we jokingly bandied about that expression, not realizing its significance. The photo the author took to accompany the essay shows a scene straight out of the gauzy mists of memory: a big oak tree shading part of the sidewalk she writes about, a section of picket fence, big shrubs and bushes, and a timeless, idealized and affectionate portrayal of the “lane” that also took me back to my own youth.
“We, too, had a sidewalk in front of our apartment in the suburbs of New Orleans. It was a community of identical, two- bedroom, white, wood-frame duplexes built right after World War II for families just starting out in life. It was called “Azalea Gardens,” and the adjacent neighborhood was named “Camellia Gardens.” Apartment developments were often called “garden” of some sort back in those days, not like today when they’re all named after faux aristocratic English places and events: Fox Run, Hunt Chase, Steeple Chase, Harrington at Park West, Regency Square, and the like. Things were simpler, more upfront in the 1950s. The pretensions came later to suburbia.
“When you are a child, the small and circumscribed world of youthful imagination looms large and contains continents to explore. Such was our world. We donned capes and flew across the wide open spaces of our yards like Mighty Mouse from the cartoon show. We constructed Wild West towns and make-believe, imitation TV show adventures. We procrastinated about going in to supper when called, prolonging our fun as long as possible, and then flying back outside after supper, back screen door slamming behind us on those late summer afternoons near sunset when freedom and excitement reigned supreme. “Come on, hurry up,” a friend would call from the yard as we gulped down the rest of our milk and mashed potatoes…”
Preserving our pasts
Oct. 20, 2000
“Memories are precious and they keep our lives grounded because we know we have preserved some of our past, and keeping journals is an essential means of doing that.
“The above is an extract from a small 6×9 inch, blue, spiral-bound notebook, weathered and well-thumbed. It contains most, but not all, of my accumulated journal writing from the years 1985-1993, including travel journals. There is not much in it, for I did not write journal entries often, only at certain times during years when I felt compelled to record what I was going through or what I was feeling. There is this need I have had since college to write about my life, but unfortunately it has been the most haphazard of endeavors, for I discovered that I didn’t care that much about writing for myself only. Online journal writing, regularly and continuously since 1998, has dramatically changed all of that. Journal writing will never be the same. And I mean that in a good sense.
Still, that small notebook is one of my most priceless possessions. I would feel like a part of me was missing should it be lost or destroyed.
What are we able to remember?
I wrote this in the summer of 1998:
“It is late at night and I’m tired, but I want to record some thoughts I’ve been mulling over lately. They deal with the subject of memory. I’ve been thinking a lot about that word and all that it means. It is freighted with so many layers and contexts of meaning.
“It seems that now when I am thinking about my past, I can remember only what I consciously try to piece together from some fragment or fragments of memory. Then, mysteriously, this becomes a cascading series of recollections that enter my conscious mind.
“It occurs to me that to really recall an event or time long ago, I have to conjure up the smells, the tastes, the physical settings as concretely as I can. But they remain fragments, and are easily lost. But, if I start to write about them as I am here, more fragments of memories come up from I don’t know where, and I’m able to begin recreating the memory in a way that I feel confident is an accurate picture of the event or time out of which the memory arose. Accurate, but by no means exact, except for certain details that never appear gauzy or indistinct. Or at least, as accurate as I think it can be. Writing about it is, in a sense, reliving it.
“Then, if I choose to do so, I begin the process of trying to recall emotional states of that time in the past, or view them somewhat analytically for meaning to me in the present. Without this process that I gradually build upon, the memories remain static, set pieces of stage scenery that remain unused . I want to try to understand why I remember what I do…”
April 5, 2001
“… Ah, the refreshing scent of honeysuckle. I can smell it now as I drove down a Mississippi country road years ago with the windows open and miles of road ahead at the start of my first trip across the country in 1984. Indelible associations.
“Time is suspended for a moment as each of these flowers have their brief season, and we find ourselves in old-world gardens, back on the sidewalks and in the front yards of our youth, and driving down backroads in April in the South, stopping on the side of the road to find out where that wonderful honeysuckle smell is coming from. We find we are surrounded by it — it stretches all along the length of the road. It is as fresh as the wind, and as pure as the sunlight that baths the adjacent fields and pastures, newly planted in spring.
“Why is it that these smells evoke such strong memories? Let it always remain a mystery. Who can ever really know why we have such associations and connections to the past, but through them, we can travel far back in time and come to know at least some of the answers we seek about our pasts…”
Feb 1, 2001
St. Charles Avenue Streetcar
I remember as a child what a thrill it was to take the streetcar to Canal Street, the main street of New Orleans, and arguably still the widest such main street in the world. What an endlessly exciting experience for a child. We’d board at Carrollton and St. Charles, and the cars would lurch forward from a complete and totally silent stop to pick up passengers. That’s the beautiful thing about those non-polluting streetcars that used to extend everywhere in cities across the country in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.
New Orleans is the only place you will still find operating electric streetcars. They are attached to electric cables above the tracks, and the operator stands in front of the car pushing a lever back and forth and working other simple controls to get the car going, to slow them down, and to stop them. It is fascinating to watch, and I recommend sitting up front and observing the way it’s done. You’ve never seen anything like it.
“Stop and go. The streetcars are very popular with residents and visitors alike. There is no air-conditioning, and windows are rolled down to let in the cool spring air as you observe the splendid azaleas and grand houses along St. Charles Ave. in March and April. Conversely, in summer you sit and sweat but get some cooling relief when the car starts and air rushes in the windows. The seats are varnished, wood-slat benches, I guess you could say, the kind of seats that were probably on the mule-drawn streetcars of the 19th century.
Mortality, Golden Ages and the swift passage of time
July 3, 2003
“[Thinking about an essay I read recently], I found myself drifting back to summer childhoods, or summers past, in general. Good writing often inspires a longing for reverie in me… sitting back in the chair, drifting off to some perceived golden age when life was simpler, and more innocent, free of all the adult cares and burdens that aging and the swift passage of time bring.
“Really, it can be frightening, the speed with which time passes. Ask anyone of a certain age and they will agree wholeheartedly. Part of the reason I think is that when we are older or retired, it’s not as if we live for the past or mourn the passage of our youths, but rather, that we have achieved some stability in life and have some wisdom and a keener appreciation of what it means to be alive. Thus, we are decidedly aware of how much we still want to do and enjoy, savor and relish, while realizing all too wistfully that the years left are fewer. Time seems to be compressed.