I’ve been thinking a lot about memory and the literal, biological function of it. So often when I am on auto-pilot it feels like my brain just recycles memories in response to sensory stimulus: oh, the scent of fresh lilac, that’s heavenly; feel of my cat’s feet in the small of my elbow, soft paws; smell of rain, kissing under street lamps. It feels reactive instead of immediate, and the more I traipse through memory in the present, the more strange and depersonalized I feel going through life.
I am, I fear, one of those people who lives too much in my head, overwhelmed with the past and ideas, in place of living in and with the world. Sometimes.
Other times, memory is such an intense pleasure, for its nostalgic and comforting qualities. It’s as if I’ve been practicing for life experiences, and I am relieved by knowing how to respond to them. It startles me to realize I have complete control over the lens through which I view my past, and I can choose if a memory will break my heart all over again or become something fond and warm. We did love one another, didn’t we.
This spring I started a subscription to the NYC Ballet, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things in the world. Dance is so profoundly evocative and incredibly beautiful, and I am disarmed by how lovely and enchanting I find it. The opening performance in last Friday’s program was called Concerto Barocco, and it was a classic Balanchine interpretation of Bach’s Concerto in D minor. This particular concerto is so familiar that I am almost certain you already know it or have heard it before. In my case, I had it on record and then on CD, and I used to listen to the three movements the same way I play Radiohead or Rolling Stones albums. I know every note, every flourish intimately, and it’s on the order of musical comfort food, the stuff that transports me immediately to a happy, warm, familiar place.
I have a mildly synesthetic tendency to “see” music, which is to say the different mathematical relationships translate into pulses of colors and curving wave-like fields of light. Every time I listened to this Bach concerto as a kid, there was a certain visual dance that happened, which was then projected onto the actual ballet dancers on Friday. In their clean white costumes, they were the perfect canvas so to speak, for the layers and layers of visuals and memories attached with this music, and in an exquisitely rare instance of pure aesthetic perfection, their movements were exactly right. I knew what they were going to do because the music was leading them, the same way the red swoops used to segue into teal hums. It was incredible, and I was so thankful to have had so many years loving that particular bit of music and now adding this ballet to it. Extraordinary.
The next day I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is one of my very favorite places in Brooklyn (If you’d like, you can see lots of photos here). I had a similarly vertiginous traipse through memory, particularly among the tropical flowers, where the scent of gardenia transported me simultaneously through my grandmother’s garden in Hawaii and a wrist corsage from my first boyfriend, coupled with all the previous times I had seen this same plant in this garden and had similar travels into my own mind. Remembering memory is a funny trick, but I found, when thinking about math among the succulents, that I was layering everything I was doing with a nostalgic revisiting of every previous time I’d visited this place, thought these thoughts, gone in these circles and come to varying conclusions.
It’s easy to think of memory as an introspective trap, the drain-circling, navel-gazing repetition of experience that trades the present for an inaccurate retread of what’s already happened. A bit like waves bouncing back and forth across the surface of the same lake, banging one’s head against the same wall and wondering why it won’t soften.
I watched an episode of Stephen Hawking’s Universe when I was visiting my parents over Christmas, to do with time travel (this is a particularly bedtime story level of comfort and nostalgia for me). One of the ideas he has posited relied on the fact that time slows down around hugely massive objects; a spaceship traveling close enough to a supermassive black hole, then, could experience this slowing-down of time over several thousand repetitions. When the astronauts on board returned, their five years would correspond with ten years back on Earth, and they would appear to have time traveled (I’m paraphrasing – you should read the ideas behind this for yourself – they’re lovely). Sometimes I worry that my dalliances with memory and reinterpreting my past are little more than circling black holes ad infinitum, making spin after spin and waiting for the experience of transportation or enlightenment, when I might instead have flown out of my loop and discovered something real about living in the meantime.
These reverberations of past skew my perspective, and I think I am overly sensitive to the vivid sharpness and clarity of my emotional memory. A song lyric, a certain smell, the day the water turned the color of an ex’s eyes put me in a tailspin because I can recall, as urgently and immediately as when it first happened, how it was to love them, precisely. In some small kindness, my brain tends to omit all the ways things fell apart and broke my heart, but it allows for what is probably an undeservedly overly forgiving long view of romance.
Simultaneously, I struggle to forgive. Hurt doesn’t stop hurting. I have a problematically strong auditory memory, and I can hear stinging words over and over whenever I need to remind myself why someone doesn’t belong in my life anymore. I wish I had a better balance, softening the prickles of negativity with fondness and forgiveness, the fading-out obscuring of detail that I am certain eventually will have to come.
Meanwhile, if I am living so much in my mind, shuffling and reshuffling the deck of what I’ve already done and felt, I fear that I am not moving forward or engaging in right now. There is literally no sense in comparing exes at their idealized very best with someone new, since “their very best” will only ever exist as a construct in my mind that occasionally haunts me. Friends don’t deserve to get compared with older friends or abandoned because the person they are now doesn’t coalesce with the person I initially imagined they could be.
And chemistry. My current sadomasochistic, endlessly unforgiving lover is getting the worst of all my memory. Fraught with anxiety of past chemistry classes and my old job, now layered with the memories of struggling to retain it or make sense of it, I am literally going to be revisiting the same material all summer. I know I’m going to remember the first time I learned it, what else was going on in my life at the time, and it’s going to be a tremendous effort of willpower to separate my heart from my mind if I am going to stay focused.
I’ve been saying I need to keep my heart out of my mind’s way, but as I’ve just made clear to myself, it’s actually quite the other way around. If memory is my sinkhole, I think it is only an open heart that will serve as my life line.