“Travelers return from the city of Zirma with distinct memories: a blind black man shouting in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper’s cornice, a girl walking with a puma on a leash. Actually many of the blind men who tap their canes on Zirma’s cobblestones are black; in every skyscraper there is someone going mad; all lunatics spend hours on cornices; there is no puma that some girl does not raise, as a whim. The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.
I too am returning from Zirma: my memory includes dirigibles flying in all directions, at window level; streets of shops where tattoos are drawn on sailors’ skin; underground trains crammed with obese women suffering from the humidity. My traveling companions, on the other hand, swear they saw only one dirigible hovering among the city’s spires, only one tattoo artist arranging needles and inks and pierced patterns on his bench, only one fat woman fanning herself on a train’s platform. Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Last night my friend and I started talking about memory, and because he’s him and I’m me, that led to a long midnight conversation. He thinks he has a bad memory: when his wife asked him, “Tell me one thing that happened before you were ten,” he didn’t know what to say. Then again, he’s told her about events from before he was ten, when they came up within the course of a thought. Memory’s a tricky thing. It’s that trickiness I want to talk about.
When I start looking for experiences from before I’m ten, my first experience is that I can remember LOTS of things. I can remember going to the park to catch polliwogs, I can remember playing with legos, I can remember backpacking. My next experience is, wait: none of those are instances. They are activities that I often did. My memory of them is general, not specific. My mind, in Calvino’s words, is repeating the signs.
When I started looking for something specific, I found an image of standing at the sliding glass door into our house, looking out at my surprise birthday present: a trampoline. That moment happened when I was fix or six. The thing is, in this “memory,” I’m looking at myself–I don’t remember it from my eyes, I remember it like a picture I’ve seen. I’ve heard that whenever we remember something, we don’t remember the original experience: we remember the last time we remembered it. That means we can come to forget details, or add details in. As far as I can tell, my “memory” of the trampoline is a mental reconstruction. Either I was told about the moment, or I’ve thought about it so many times since it happened that I’ve redrawn the picture.
I think remembering is an act, a tool we use to drive, cook, do taxes more efficiently, build connections with those we love, and get less lost at the grocery store. (Seriously, where’s salsa?). It is one of the tools we use to make sense of a world that has a functionally infinite number of details, connections, and possibilities. Calvino says this tool groups things together, it repeats “signs,” so that we can have a general sense of the city or our childhood. It gives us a map–but a map is not the same as a landscape.
Once a year, as part of a retreat I help lead in Colorado, I’m asked to tell my life as a story. Last year, for the first time, I realized I was telling the same thing I told the year before–same big moments, the same hurts, almost the same jokes. That makes the “story” easier to tell, easier to understand, but it also restricts my awareness of myself. It brings me back into the same struggles and the same goals that I said I was having last year. Sitting by a campfire in the mountains, I tried to refuse the familiar story and pierce through to experience. From a rational point of view, that seems obviously impossible–any input I have from back then has been stored in memory. But from an experiential point of view it felt a lot different. It was surprising. It was exciting. It hurt more. It opened new possibilities beyond the narrative I had put together to mean me. Doing this felt like going through a forest I had been in many times before, but deciding, for the first time in years, to step off the path I’d worn and duck beneath the branches.