From time to time, I peruse any one of the incomplete notebooks lying about the house. I have a tendency to start using a notebook, and then misplace it for some months, so these journals tend to span years, sometimes a decade.
They are generally a mishmash of inspired sentences, half-chapters, quotes from books I had forgotten I ever read, recipes, addresses and overheard conversation. I’m always pleased again to find the collaborations of words and ideas that entertained any number of my past selves, and it always brings back Joan Didion’s reminder that I should keep in touch with that girl.
Because I do forget. I’m a long way from understanding the teenager that would get in a stranger’s limo in a traffic jam in New Jersey. I can hardly fathom why she would have smashed a rammekin of diner coleslaw into her best friend’s chin for five dollars, or why she wore those god-awful handmade dresses and walked around campus in bare feet.
Why did she prefer Young Adult Fiction about terminally-ill children and historic natural disasters. What was that feeling in her stomach when she returned from a long summer vacation. How would the story about the time-traveling girl have ended, why did she choose the hero of her book series to be a tugboat named Tuggy? What possessed her, at age six, to say that if she was given ten dollars to spend on whatever she wanted, that she would buy a table?
It’s a lot like the free movie I saw last night by the lake, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The 32 years before this one seem like a motion-picture that I know I’ve seen, but upon viewing realize I’ve forgotten every detail.
There are infinitesimal experiences locked in every being that we come into contact with. We bounce, like electrons pulled by opposing magnetism in every direction, drawn to others for reasons we don’t know, and they can’t remember. But. We can tell. Somehow. Perhaps remembering is less about detail than we tend to think. Maybe it’s bigger than detail. The details were just the wardrobe of something living and breathing inside. A home run at recess. A scraped knee on the Fourth of July. Discovering the honeysuckle lining the fence of the playground. We were there. Maybe those inexplicable surges of panic or joy that we feel now, are just memories, but not the way we think of them.
Maybe we do remember.
Every time I sit down to read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I end up writing this quote down. On a napkin, in a notebook, on my bike helmet. And every time, it reminds me and every past me, with a nudge, that there’s hope.
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live everyday, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
I’m always looking for the bright lights cloaked in detail. Unrecognizable without persistence. My eyes scan the foreground, my ears perk. A shudder in my chest. But, it occurs to me lately, they are not just in the foreground, but sometimes they are dirty and barefoot, hiding just underneath our own skin, trying to feel the warmth of the sun.