The River of Memory

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I have been thinking a lot about memory lately. Considering why some moments remain vivid, while others fade slowly away. There are whole years of my life from which I do not retain a single memory. And this bothers me. 

My mother’s memory dissipated in chunks. The first thing that went was short term memory, which sometimes led to hilarious and frustrating encounters. For example, she would ask the same question, “Do you want onions on your salad?” five times and not remember that she’d asked it. But then she could remember things from forty or fifty years prior perfectly clearly.

Toward the end, my mother didn’t seem to recognize any of us on a consistent basis. During my last visit, she would ask me, “When is Erin coming to see me?” I began to feel like a ghost, but I wonder if my current physicality just didn’t match the daughter she remembered, the blond-haired colt of a girl whose pants were always too short. 

Why do some things hold in our memories when others go? Was it less painful for my mother to think of me as the young girl she could dress in nice clothes and whose hair was consistently combed? Was her memory loss entirely organic or was there something else involved? And why, oh why, can I remember so little from certain periods of my life? What have I put into storage and then thrown away the key?

The first poem of Every Atom includes the lines: “The world we are born into / is not the one that clings to us as we leave.” We change the world by moving through it, by the stories we choose to tell, by the ever-widening ripples of our actions. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself of what my world contained during different times. Sometimes, I go back through old notebooks to remind myself who I was in those worlds. 

Sometimes I don’t recognize any of it. But there it is, in my own handwriting, like a river ebbing and pulsing, continual and irreversible. 

The why of the pencil and the page….

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When I see the beauty that painters create, the useful grace that potters build, even the colorful flash and nurture that the gardener brings into the world, I turn to the page to consider why it is that I write. The following by the inimitable Terry Tempest Williams expresses her “why I write.” You might want to explore this in your own practice.

“I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget… I write because I believe in words. I write because I do not believe in words. I write because it is a dance with paradox. I write because you can play on the page like a child left alone in sand. I write because it belongs to the force of the moon: high tide, low tide. I write because it is the way I take long walks. I write as a bow to wilderness. I write because I believe it can create a path in darkness…. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I imagine….I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.”

~Terry Tempest Williams

Isn’t it time for poetry to be dead, again?

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Isn’t it about time for the annual “Poetry is Dead” article? Usually the death knell for poetry arises in the month of April, ostensibly “National Poetry Month.” The meager ratcheting up of poetry coverage brings out the hand-wringers and nay-sayers to remind us that “no one reads poetry.”

But what if you’re one of the people who not only (GASP) reads poetry, but in addition to writing it, you BUY it? What if you’re one of those people who reviews it, rates it on Amazon and Good Reads, recommends it? What if, for Pete’s sake, you’re one of those weirdos who actually buys poetry for other people?

What do you think of yourself then? Are you nobody?

Emily Dickinson wrote (sometime before her death in 1886, but dang it if we aren’t still talking about her):


I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

I like to imagine, when my pencil is scratching across the notebook page early in the morning, others who are lifted out of the constant grind of daily decisions by writing. I imagine them with their faces toward the light like mine, with their eyes open and their ears on the words. I see them pressing poetry books into the hands of those who might go under for want of a kindred soul. I know they’re out there, those poetry lovers.

The other day I was in the grocery store, slinking along with my canvas bags and my head full of Li-Young Lee’s poetry (oh yes, his new book The Undressing in the car). Suddenly, a man that I only see about three times each year roared out, “I bought your new book and the poems are making me cry.” He grabbed my arm and swung me toward him. “I love this new work,” he continued in a voice so loud I felt like I might melt before it.

I know that he lost his father last year. Somehow, at least one of the poems that I’d written had been a key for whatever was locked inside him. I could only hope that he felt like I did when a poem fit perfectly inside an empty space I’d been carrying, a space made of feeling alone and now filled with words.

I could only smile and thank him. Thank him for reading my work and telling me so. Thank him for reading poetry. For reminding me that when I am at my desk, I am not truly alone. I think of tne notecard that is stuck beside me on the filing cabinet:

“Writing poetry is a chance to give yourself an authentic life instead of an excuse.”
~Brendan Galvin

And for that, among so many other things, I am grateful.