Adventures in Anti-Materialism IV – I Can’t Remember What I Did Last Summer…

March 1st, 2007

One of my earliest attempts at lyrical poetry was a multi-stanza piece entitled “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve.” I think I was probably eight or ten years old when I wrote it. The poem told the story of a magical song, wrought of twilight and milkweed pods. There were fireflies involved, and faeries. The song, as I explained in verse, had been exquisite – it would change the life of anyone who heard it. Tragically, however, the song was destined to be unheard and unknown to the ears of the world forever. Why? Because after singing it once in a forest glade, I promptly forgot it.

My parents laughed really hard when I presented them with this, my first literary opus. I recall being puzzled at first – I’d been going for poignant beauty and aching tragedy – not comedy. But, attention is attention after all, and I figured that success was more important than being correctly interpreted by the critics.

Now, many years later, I am reminded of “Song…” as it was, I think, an interesting commentary on how memories are formed – and how something can be exquisite, haunting, life-changing… and forgotten.

Last summer as Sam and I made our way across the country, we paused for a two-week sojourn in East Lynne Missouri. I took the opportunity to excavate a bunch of my old stuff from a storage unit in the next town over, where I grew up. The stuff in question was everything I’d accumulated in my life up to my mid-20’s – at 26 I had simultaneously won a fellowship to go to Australia for a year, and been admitted into a PhD program in California. Sorting the logistics out required, as a first step, putting my entire life into boxes and leaving it behind. There was a household’s worth of the expected: furniture, dishes, pots and pans, shelves, sheets, towels, boxes and boxes of books and clothes. And there were the boxes of memorabilia – notes passed in class as a second grader, birthday cards from relatives, letters from my little sister – now a worldly and grown up 21, but a six-year-old who was just learning to write at the time, photos of myself, friends and family in multiple incarnations, and a few relics of my earliest attempts at writing. Like “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve”, or another early classic, “Ode to a Dead Chicken”. The song lyrics I penned for my imaginary band. Letters and short stories and poems and drawings and mixed tapes from friends and partners-past. My best papers from multiple classes. Myriad applications to fellowships and grad schools. Drafts of the speech I wrote that won an undergraduate scholarship. Notes to myself and to do lists that, while quotidian when written, served six, ten, fifteen years later as a checklist of dreams, aspirations and the activity of self-definition.

So there I was, opening the time capsule. The process of excavation merits its own essay, but I will let two photos take the place of my thousand words.

Robin_Amid_Chaos.jpgSam_Rocks_Out.jpgThe furniture was easy enough to disperse – some had to be thrown away, some donated, and a few items are happily living on the wrap-around porch of my friend’s techno log cabin in the woods. The books are all in boxes waiting for me to settle down in one place for long enough to be shipped. I spent a couple of very intense days in the basement dealing with the rest. My animism and anti-materialism were at war, but time constraints kept me from over-thinking. I kept photos and creative work, and threw everything else away. Trash collection works a bit differently in the country; “throwing away” anything that’s paper-based invokes the principle of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” – it all gets burned, one page at a time.

Opening the time capsule and then destroying it forever in just a couple of days conjured a singular and unique emotion for which I don’t have a name. I had long since forgotten nearly every single item I’d put in storage back in 2000 – I would have thought that the memories had been permanently jettisoned from my brain. Yet every box I opened, every envelope, every page – not only did I immediately remember the item in question, but as it leaped back into my consciousness, it brought along with it a thick web of associated memories – objects, actions, experiences, emotions, fears, hopes and dreams that I had also long since forgotten. As it was happening, I wondered what my brain must look like – if normally docile quadrants that had been given over to cold-storage were firing to angst-y emotional life as each physical object I held in my hands reanimated a cluster of memories. Strange, how the passage of time allows for this sort of temporary forgetting, but when the memory comes back, it has all the intensity and emotional charge of the very day it happened.
Robin_Looks_On.jpg Fire.jpg
What was stranger still was sending the time capsule, sheet by sheet, into the fire. Because I knew, without a doubt, that I was destroying the object, the anchor, the thing that allowed me to access not just it’s own memory, but the hundreds of associated memories that surrounded it. I’m pretty sure I spent the whole burning ceremony with a slight all over body tremble, my complexion a peculiar shade of creamy-grey. They’re gone now, the ways back to consciousness. I believe that the memories are still there, as they were still there after six years in a storage unit, but in burning the physical anchors I effectively cut the string that attached the object to the intangible web of memories. They’re still in my brain, but I think they’ve been permanently severed from the possibility of conscious consideration. With each object that I threw into the fire, I knew I was sending big pieces of my past into permanent irretrievability.

At the time it was all so intense, I couldn’t do much more than tremble and blanch, while following my instincts which were screaming at me to move on, with a few precious items tucked in my pocket. I’ve since had time to develop a bit of a theory about it all – to be shared in a forthcoming episode from “Adventures in Anti-Materialism”. In the meantime, however, I’ve grown more comfortable – comforted even – by the idea that the existential fabric of how I became who I am today may be largely forgotten, but it’s all still in my memory somewhere. Maybe cutting the string that connected it to the possibility of consciousness was liberating – maybe those memories can do a new and different kind of work now that they’ve been released to dissolve into the primordial soup of my unconscious. Maybe “Song I Sang on a Summer’s Eve” needed to be heard and then forgotten in order to be life-changing?

Entry Filed under: Anti-Materialism

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