On Remembering



I don’t do it enough.  And I don’t miss it.

That’s not actually true.  Other people talk about memories they have from childhood, or from college, or from last week (perhaps that’s an exaggeration), and I listen.  That’s what I do.

What exactly is my problem?

It’s not so much a problem. I never get homesick.  I rarely am wrapped in nostalgia for times and places past, or for places that I’ve left recently, or for people that I’m not around at the moment.

What exactly is the problem?

My memory is lacking.  Friends appear to have memories like photo albums.  I imagine they can flip through the months and years of their past easily, discretely, clearly, everything in sharp focus.  When gathered together, they’ll exchange stories, and I’ll wonder at where my stories went.

Of course, events from your past aren’t stories until you make some sense out of them, until you create a narrative.  And I’m not sure that I’ve ever been all that interested in narrative.

(Which, admittedly, might be sort of a problem for a writer.  No, not for a poet – though some would argue the point – but for all my other writing: fiction, non-fiction, and plays.  And even there I try to feel my way through narrative with narrative not being a priority.  Or, more to the point, I’m trying to tell a narrative through image or scene or character or emotion rather than through plot.  You can see how this might create problems with one’s memory.)

My spotty memory for the past makes me feel like I don’t have a story to tell.


I was woken with a phone call.  If I remember correctly, my brother was on the line.  This was in Gainesville, and I was in graduate school, and I had no television.  He told me to turn on the radio.

On the radio, I heard the description of the towers burning.  I’d already hung up the phone, and I was by myself with a radio and a disembodied voice and my apartment that, even though I’d been there a year, still looked like a storage area.  I had no bed, just a mattress on the ground.  There were still boxes that were unpacked, and would remain unpacked.

At the coffee shop we sat around the television and watched the footage repeat.   I talked to people I’d never talked to before and never talked to since.  Friends came in, and we watched the flickering screen, mesmerized.

I saw the second tower fall.  I felt nothing.  Shock?  Distancing?  I don’t know.

But even at that moment I was aware of the demonization of the hijackers and the hatred boiling under the surface of the country, of the hatred that had boiled over for the terrorists.

Classes were cancelled, but I considered an exercise for the students in my classes for when next I taught where we’d try to inhabit the perspectives of the hijackers, try to understand why they did what they did, what drives a person to martyrdom.

I never did the exercise.  I wonder if I should have.  Now, I regret being scared.

Why?  Because the key to understanding someone is learning their point of view, and the key to peace is understanding. (Though, to be honest, I’m not sure that would’ve helped against Nazi Germany.)


But the point of this is the act of memory, and the storying of memory, and how those stories are the key to understanding.  I know who my friends are because of the stories they tell of their lives.  If my stories are lacking, then what does that say about me?

And I don’t mean to ask what that says about me to other people.  I have friends, and they seem to have some idea of who I am, and aren’t bothered, as far as I can tell, by the lack of stories from my end.

What I mean to ask is what does that say about me to me?  Who am I if not a storied collection of memories?  How do I know myself?

Be true to thyself.

True, true, Polonius, but can you please tell me where the answer sheet is?

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