Memory and Time

January 26, 2016


Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did. – Penelope Lively

Every winter for the past ten years, I have returned to my hometown near Boston to spend Christmas with my family.  While the house my parents live in is not my childhood home (they moved to a bigger home when I went off to University), I am nevertheless confronted by an accumulation of relics from my past.  No matter how far I’ve traveled or how many life-changing experiences I’ve had since moving to Europe, the objects I’ve saved in my parents’ home trigger crystal clear memories of an earlier Kate and the American life that I left behind.

And while for the past few years I’ve been completely absorbed in the process of de-cluttering and reducing the amount of physical objects in my possession, I have found that there are certain objects so infused with memory that they deserve some kind of formal farewell or testimonial before sending them off to a new home.  It’s true that the memories mean more than the actual things and I do hope that my memory stays strong and clear until I die, but just in case it doesn’t or just in case future generations want to know a little about the lives that preceded them, I thought I would write a story for each object I came across that seemed to play an important role in shaping who I am today.

I don’t mean to dwell on the past.  Quite the contrary – I’m good at closing doors and moving on.  But I’ve always loved learning about people and their pasts and reading memoirs, and I thought this could be a stepping stone to a potentially larger project.  I also realized that the most valuable relics from my past that I came across were hand-written letters, poems, post-cards – things that oozed the nature and character of the person behind the pen.  Words are a powerful means of conveying a life and a time lost and I want to continue in that tradition, even if I must do so digitally.  Some of these relics I will save, but others I can write about and then let go.

I might also add that I’ve always been intrigued by how we human beings unconsciously or quite consciously document our lives.  This was the topic of my Master’s dissertation for my Media Studies course, completed just ten years ago at a time when social media and digital photography were just starting to eclipse less public forms of documentation.  Instagram didn’t exist then and neither did iPhones.  I predicted, based on ethnographic research, that people would not entirely abandon traditional self-documentation via traditional media like scrapbooks, photo albums, SLR cameras and diaries, but would continue to combine them with digital forms of self-documentation.  I was somewhat right, but I didn’t realize just how much things would change over the next decade.  I didn’t realize that nearly every photograph I took would be on my phone and shared in ‘real’ time and that photo albums would become a thing of my past.

Part of me really loves this reduction in the need to keep physical reminders of my past (so long DVDs, farewell CDs, goodbye to boxes of photo ‘doubles’ that will never be looked at) – I feel lighter and more free with every possession I shred or release back into the world for someone else to explore.  But another part of me relishes the smell of old photographs and the connection I feel to my former self when turning the pages of an old coloring book or reading poems I wrote as a confused teenager.  It is perhaps my parents’ keepsakes that are the most meaningful and precious – an anniversary card my mom wrote to my father back in the seventies when they were younger than me, a signed copy of a book of poetry by Robert Frost, black-and-white photos of my dad and his brother dressed in cowboy costumes in the late forties that my now deceased grandfather took with his cherished camera.  They give a tangible sense of a life well-lived, a journey and consistent change.

So let this be the beginning of a series of posts on the topic of memory and the past and celebrating a life well-lived (so far).  I’ll theme them ‘Objects from my Life.’  And I’ll decide what items will stay and which can go.

And before I close this post, I have provided a passage below from a book by Penelope Lively called ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time’, which found me at the new Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road one day as I was having a wander around after teaching.  I didn’t purchase the book at that moment because I was trying to reduce the number of books I own.  I nearly bought it as a Christmas gift for my parents (the book is described as a ‘view from old age’ rather than a memoir) but I didn’t want them to think I was hinting at their growing old or unknowingly gift them a depressing read.  So the book sat in my Amazon shopping cart so I wouldn’t forget the title.  Until one day (New Year’s Eve – my first day back in London), I was pulled into one of the charity shops on the way to the train station in Twickenham and low and behold, there it was sitting on the shelf in sparking new condition for 2 quid.  So I bought it.  I was meant to read it.  And I just finished reading the section on Memory and must share these brilliant words:

“The past can be conjured up by the appropriate aroma, much as supermarkets seek to induce a spending appetite with the smell of newly baked bread, and house agents urge us to woo prospective buyers with a waft of fresh coffee.

But it is not that memory is scented, rather – if the Proust phenomenon exists – that smells evoke a time, a place.  That moment has not gone, can be recovered, because an experience in the present brings it back; my London garden is tenuously linked to what was in 1942 a Palestinian hillside.  This is the sense in which memory is the mind’s triumph over time.  The same has been said of history, and I relish both concepts; it is as though individually and collectively, we succeed  in seizing hold of what is no longer there, that which should be unavailable, and making it miraculously permanent and accessible because it matters so much, because we need it.

We are robust about time, linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it.  Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.  Time is of the essence, or it is quality, or time will tell.  We talk about it…all the time, I find myself writing.  There.  But when I think about time, I am awed.  I am more afraid of time than of death – its inexorability, its infinitude.  It is unthinkable as space – another word we tame by making every use of it.  And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.  I have lived with time, in time, in this particular stretch of time, but before too long time will dump me; it has far to go, and we don’t keep up with it.  None of us, ever.

Fifteen minutes past three.

Impersonal, indifferent; it neither knowns nor cares .  It sweeps us along, the ever-rolling stream and all that, nothing to be done about it, but we do have this one, majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time – memory.  We know where we have been in time, and not only do we know, but we can go back, revisit.  When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hill-side, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).  Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.”

(pp. 157-158, ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,’ by Penelope Lively).

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