Category Archives: truth

The truth and reconciliation

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My body is not one. It has shown itself now to be a collection of minor beings struggling to work together without really knowing how. I felt them begin to pull apart, these pieces of me, my own free floating awareness pitting me as an observer against my-selves. As I lay in convalescence after the harrowing break, with the black rock of my own death still cold in my hands, I ask again and again, “how did this happen?”

How and indeed why – the questions come and go like Prufrock’s ladies sometimes louder than before, sometimes softer, always there at least somewhere in the background. The science is clear even where it is ambiguous. The autoimmune disease turns my best defender against me. Now my oh-so-powerful body attacks me. It cannot tell the difference between me and my enemies. It attacks with full force like a mad dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing and can only lash out, because that is now the nature of its being.

My body is not one. A beast lies within, ready to attack at some semi-random moment when something wakes it up. The beast wasn’t always so. It was my friend in older times, defended me against the world and kept me safe, until something flipped and everything changed. A gene was switched, some of the doctors will say. Something triggered it like too much stress, spicy food, or alcohol. It feels like possession, like something outside stepped in and captured this part of me and turned it rogue, like a son who attacks his father because in his greed and hubris he cannot be who he was born to be. It feels angry within me; it has something to say, only it has no words and can only attack what it cannot understand.

My body is not one. It is not what it was. After the attack, this time, they had to cut away a big piece, and what was once complete and then quite sick is no longer there. It was cut out by carefully trained hands, that piece of my body turned against me by the beast. It was cut away to stop the harm, a piece of death arrested, excised, and placed into a bin for further study, when the doctors will try to figure out why and how. With the diseased part of me gone now, they say I’ll be able to start over. With the resection went the larger risks, some of the cancer prospect, and the places where the beast fed on my life itself.

My body is not one. It will never be one again, even when I get better. I will have to care for the beast and love it surely as one loves the rogue son – for he is mine and I cannot deny him. I must forgive the wrongs and find a new way to love myself and my-selves, believing in a kind of healing I’ve never imagined before. The doctors have cleaned up the mess and put the beast in a box. I’m being redrawn and reconnected, like the overhaul of plumbing in an old house, a renovation in flesh and blood.

My body is not one. Part of it has died, part of it is new, part is restored, part must be contained. What did the doctors see when they began the renovation? Maybe that’s not even a question they ask. They just do their best and move on, repairing harm and ending suffering. Is it up to me to see what I need to see? The doctors came back and told me that I was young even though I felt old, that I was healthy even though I felt sick, that I was already getting better even though I was racked with pain and doubt.

My body is not one. Yet all must be reconciled. It cannot just be contained. It cannot be a regime of toleration. We cannot agree to disagree, play nice, share the sandbox. We must transcend that which divides to form a new self even while the rest of our clamoring selves continue their cantankerous dialogue down beneath. I read the letters of Saint Paul to myself over and over again, on building a church of love from disparate groups and individuals who want to belong together. Saint Paul comes to us with words soothing and stern, asking us to let love be our guide, the same self-sacrificing love shown to us by the Savior – for us to enact in our own lives until we return to Him and are one again.

Can my body be one? I have to ask even though I suspect it will always be at the very least a balancing act between reality and desire. Every day will be a challenge to keep my-selves together in a common vision of who we are. It will be time and sweat and hard work even when I know something is different inside. The doctors will tell me I need to be vigilant because the beast cannot be tamed forever, even with the greatest love I can give. I can never trust fully. The beast has taken that away even though I must love my beast-child while never turning my back.

Can my body be one? Without trust there can be no reconciliation. But how can I trust the beast? Maybe that is not the right place to start: rather, I can begin by calling it what it is and not what it feels like. It’s not a beast or a rogue son. It’s a mistake, there only because it is. We can’t know how it came to me, except to know that my mother shared some of these symptoms and, in the end, succumbed to her own autoimmune demon via multiple sclerosis. She struggled so hard to know why, only I don’t think there’s a why. Illness is as much part of life as health.

What is it, if not a beast? Is it me? Could it be that simple? It may be an aberration, something most people don’t deal with, but I’m not the only one. Rare perhaps but we are many, and as I look around me perhaps not rare indeed. We are who we are, and this is part of me, as much as missing nine molars is part of me. Those teeth were never there and my mouth ends in gum lines where others have teeth. Yet I eat and have a bright smile that warms hearts and helps me say hello. It’s nothing more than who I am, a man missing a lot of molars, with a baby molar still there on my right side at 52 years. And now, a man with Crohn’s Disease and a long life ahead.

Reconciliation is never complete. It is an ongoing action, something practiced, never done, always incipient. The virtue of reconciliation is that it is always on the verge of its own demise, challenging us constantly to make it real. The daily exercise of reconciliation is a stand against entropy, casting hope into the world. Reconciliation is a pathway, a bridge from one way of life to another. Reconciliation keeps the pieces of me together and holds out the hope we need even when the disease itself will always be there, even if only in shadows.

My body may not be one. But all the pieces are mine. Reconciliation keeps us honest and gives us a chance.

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Notes and credits

The opening photograph is the author at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn following emergency surgery for a burst colon, January 27, 2016. The second photograph is flowers in my room, sent by family.

 

 

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The truth and parallelism

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F Train—With Two of Us on the Run

I listen to angelic voices—while

she looks at her baby’s photographs
laying on a blanket just a few
weeks old—while

another fixes her ID badge
at the collar and two others talk
quietly—while

half-built skyscrapers slide behind grey
girders, old trestles against dappled
grey clouds in the late spring sky—while

noses dive into magazines and
books and fingers dance on touch screens, eyes
straining for backlit words—while

the conductor crackles with news from
up the line that we can’t hear about
things we can’t see—while

wet napes dry against cool air as hips
rock and jerk to absorb the shocks of
sliding underground—while

one man gets up so the woman with
a cane can sit down and apply her
makeup layer by layer—while

smells of coffee and sweat push against
each other hanging from straps on rails
hanging from the ceiling—while

the dark tunnel moves, its walls broken
by shallow wells filled with words read by
those who care what they say—while

a man wears a salmon buttoned down
shirt folded over his chest like a
kimono—while

headphones and earbuds build parallel
worlds far away from everything here
in the everyday droll—while

a really tall black girl in purple
clutches her diploma as her mom
smiles and sits down—while

strollers and bicycles park against
seats and poles and a backdrop of plaids
checks, stripes, and solids—that

wash the scene and keep it vivid, live,
connected. There’s no race there’s only
a runner.

—Brooklyn, June 2015

Notes and Credits

The opening photograph was taken during a raging snow storm on the F-Train’s Culver Viaduct overlooking Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. The train comes above ground briefly there to cross the Gowanus Canal, then diving back down underground in Park Slope. “Two of Us on the Run” is a song by the group Lucius, which formed and cut its teeth in my neighborhood here, Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. I saw Lucius at the Prospect Park Bandshell this summer and then I bought their CD over iTunes and had it on my phone while I took the subway to work over the last few weeks. Brilliant song, wonderful treatment, makes me wish I had a daughter to play it for, over and over again. And when I listen on the train, I think of all the stories traveling with, on the way somewhere in the city.

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The Authored Voice: TO BE RESCHEDULED

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Due to the Winter Storm on February 13, we are cancelling tonight’s Brooklyn Reading Works event, “The Authored Voice.”  Panelists have agreed to reschedule the event, and we will update this site and others once we have settled on a date and time, which will hopefully be within the next few weeks.

The rescheduling will be updated via Truth and Rocket Science, Facebook, and our panelists’ Websites at narativ.com, themoth.org, theoldstonehouse.org, otbkb.com, and others.

The original posting of the event received over 200 clicks in the first 4 days, so we know there was a lot of interest in the community.  Thank you for your patience – we promise to bring you “The Authored Voice” very soon, on a warm and sunny night with perfect weather.

Cheers,

John

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The Authored Voice: Storytelling Across Lives and Media

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Thursday, February 13, 2014
8:00 – 10:00 pm

Old Stone House – Washington Park – Park Slope, Brooklyn
336 Third Street, b/t 4th & 5th Avenues
718.768.3195
info@theoldstonehouse.org

Brooklyn Reading Works presents The Authored Voice: Storytelling Across Lives and Media, an evening of stories and conversation with Murray Nossel, Catherine Burns, Trisha Coburn, and Edgar Oliver, moderated by John Guidry. These award-winning panelists will talk about the various media they have used to tell stories—performance, film, books, videos—and the different ways they cultivate voice for themselves and others. We will explore how storytelling is cathartic, empowering, entertaining … and sometimes a pretty good business. Join us at the Old Stone House in Park Slope on February 13, 2014, at 8:00 pm. A $5 donation at the door is appreciated to defray costs of wine and refreshments at the event.

The Panelists

murray-2MURRAY NOSSEL is co-founder of Narativ with Paul Browde, a company that has developed a storytelling methodology based on Murray and Paul’s stage performance, Two Men Talking. The performance began as an improvised telling of the story of their friendship, from their school days in South Africa to New York in the 1990s and the present. Storytelling was central to Murray’s practice as a clinician in AIDS services during the height of the epidemic, and he is also an award-winning filmmaker whose work includes Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?, A Brooklyn Family Tale, Paternal Instinct, and Turn to Me, featuring Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Murray holds a doctorate in Social Work from Columbia University and teaches in Columbia’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program.

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TRISHA COBURN has worked for a number of years as a fine artist in Boston and New York. She received her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, and she is also an interior designer with De La Torre Design. Trisha’s storytelling began with a one-day workshop at Narativ and eventually led her to The Moth, presenting her story, Miss Macy, on tour and on The Moth Radio Hour. Trisha is currently working on a collection of short stories based on her childhood experiences growing up in Alabama.  She lives in New York and has three wonderful children.

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CATHERINE BURNS is The Moth’s long time Artistic Director and a frequent host of the Peabody Award-winning The Moth Radio Hour. She is the editor of the New York Times Best Seller The Moth: 50 True Stories. Prior to The Moth, she directed and produced independent films and television, interviewing such diverse talent as Ozzy Osbourne, Martha Stewart and Howard Stern. She is the director of the solo show Helen & Edgar, which opened at The Public Theater in January with the Under the Radar Festival, where it was named a pick of the festival by The New Yorker, Time Out and WNYC. Born and raised in Alabama, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two year old son.

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EDGAR OLIVER is a novelist, poet, and playwright who has been lauded as “a living work of theater all by himself” by Ben Brantley of The New York Times. He is a member of the Axis Theatre Company, under the direction of Randy Sharp. His one-man show East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty House was the recipient of a Fringe First Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His most recent show, Helen & Edgar, directed by the Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns and produced by Moth Founder George Dawes Green, did a sold-out run at The Public Theater with the Under the Radar Festival. He has published three collections of his poems—A Portrait of New York by a Wanderer There, Summer, and The Brooklyn Public Libraryand a novel, The Man Who Loved Plants.

The Organizers

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JOHN GUIDRY is the curator & moderator of “The Authored Voice.”  John uses storytelling to amplify and strengthen the voices of individuals, organizations, and causes. He has worked in public health and community development as a researcher, consultant, and movement leader with numerous organizations around the world. His multi-media social marketing and health communications campaigns have reached millions globally, and he has published two books Engaging the Community in Decision Making and Globalizations and Social Movements. A new project, “The Pursuit—Stories of Joy, Suffering, and the American Dream” is in development now—stay tuned to Truth and Rocket Science.

Louise-CrawfordLOUISE CRAWFORD is the founder of Brooklyn Social Media, a firm devoted to PR and social media for authors, artists and entrepreneurs. Since 2004, she has published the popular Brooklyn blog Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. She is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest, an annual networking event for bloggers, and Brooklyn Reading Works. From 2005-2010, Louise wrote Smartmom, a weekly column for The Brooklyn Paper about parenting and modern life.

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The truth and progress, 1: Texaco

Oil Refinery at Baby Beach, Aruba, 2012

“She taught me to reread our Creole city’s two spaces:  the historical center living on the new demands of consumption; the suburban crowns of grassroots occupations, rich with the depth of our stories.  Humanity throbs between these two places.  In the center, memory subsides in the face of renovation … here on the outskirts, one survives on memory.”

—Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco,  p. 170.

In the novel Texaco, an old woman named Marie-Sophie Laborieux tells a young urban planner the story of her neighborhood, a slum named after a nearby oil refinery on the island of Martinique.  The urban planner sees the slum as place of chaos, disorder, violence, sex, and death.  The slum grew up around the refinery because it provided jobs for the poor and uneducated who could not afford to live in the city, Fort-de-France, which was the capital and the center of everything civilized on the island.

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Modern-day Fort-de-France

“In its old heart:  a clear, regulated, normalized order.  Around it:  a boiling, indecipherable, impossible crown, buried under misery and History’s obscured burdens.  If the Creole city had at its disposal only the order of the center, it would have died.  It needs the chaos of its fringes.  Beauty replete with horror, order set in disorder.”

Texaco,  p. 184

Marie-Sophie tells her story on the precipice of annihilation, a Caribbean Scheherazade to the urban planner from Fort-de-France’s development agency who has come to study Texaco in preparation for the slum’s demolition. The story begins with Marie-Sophie’s father, Esternome, born into slavery and freed as a young man. This is not the story you find in books.  It’s the kind of story that people tell one another at dinner and around bonfires.

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Refugees from the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. Pelée in 1902

These are the stories that Chamoiseau, a noted anthropologist, has made it his life’s work to understand—along the way publishing both ethnographic studies and fiction based in Martinique and the cultures of the Caribbean. Chamoiseau’s work on either side of the fiction/non-fiction divide is equally celebrated as it exposes the voices of those who live “beneath history,” as Chamoiseau puts it.  These are the stories that give us a different way to see the non-self-evident goodness of what we normally call progress or modernity.

A hillside shantytown in Fort-de-France

Progress, in a word, means the destruction of everything Marie-Sophie will tell the urban planner in the course of the novel’s 400-or so pages.  While destruction itself is not always and everywhere a horrible thing, in no place in this story is it clear why this destruction or progress is necessary. The novel’s real purpose is given away in the urban planner’s name, Oiseau de Cham, the author’s barely disguised fictionalized self complicit in the dismantling of the culture and people—his own—that he has faithfully catalogued in all his writing.  In recording these stories, he annihilates them even as he preserves them.

. . . I did my best to write down this mythic Texaco, realizing how much my writing betrayed the real, revealing nothing of my Source’s breath, nor even the destiny of her legend . . . I wanted it to be sung somewhere, in the ears of future generations, that we had fought with City, not to conquer it (it was City that gobbled us), but to conquer ourselves in the Creole unsaid which we had to name—in ourselves and for ourselves—until we came into our own.

Texaco,  p. 390

In Texaco, Mr. Chamoiseau’s two writerly lives meet.  It is the chronicle of his life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

This is the first of 3 posts in a longer essay on the concepts of “progress” and “globalization.”  I examine these issues through modern literature:  Chamoiseau’s Texaco here, and then Robert Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

I read Texaco while I was editing the book, Globalizations and Social Movements with Mayer Zald and Michael Kennedy.  I was deeply moved by the book and wound up quoting Texaco twice in the introductory chapter.  In Chamoiseau’s writing, I saw echoes of my own experiences gathering oral histories in Belém, Brazil througout 1992 and 1993, yet without the same remorse Chamoiseau/Oiseau de Cham felt. For the people of Belém were not my own, even if my Belemense friends and I sometimes felt otherwise.

There, I worked in neighborhoods of all social classes, but I especially loved my time in the neighborhoods of Bom Futuro and Aurá.  These areas would be called favelas elsewhere in Brazil, or “slums” or “shantytowns” in English.  The residents, however, resoundingly favored the term invasão, meaning land invasion, because it described their own action to take the land in a politically motivated context.

One of the eye-opening moments in my work came in Aurá when Dona Walda—after telling me her stories for over 2 hours one morning—looked squarely into my eyes, took my hand in hers, and said, “We are not important, but in our own lives, we are important.”  I think that statement will be the germ of another post, after this series is done.

Photographs:

[1]  The photo of the oil refinery was taken by the author at Baby Beach, Aruba, in February 2013.  We were on vacation there and I couldn’t help but think of Texaco when we stopped there for a swim.  The beach, which is opposite this view of the refinery, is very nice.  Baby Beach was created as a shallow swimming lagoon for the Aruba Esso Club.  The refinery is currently owned and operated by the Valero Energy Corporation.

[2]  The photograph of the modern city of Fort-de-France is from Panoramio and was accessed through Google Earth.  The photo was taken by Panoramia user FloetGilou. 

[3]  The next photograph is of refugees fleeing the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, which devastated the surrounding area and killed dozens of people.  The picture is in the public domain and was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by William Herman Rau.

[4]  The photograph of a hillside shantytown, probably much like Texaco, is from the web version of a brochure for the international conference called “The Changing World of Coastal, Island and Tropical Tourism,” which was held in Martinique in January 2011.  I would have liked to put this photograph in the place where the modern Fort-de-France photo is, but I couldn’t manipulate the size of the photo due to its original file properties.

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The truth and silver bullets

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There is no cure that is absolutely certain.

There is no perspective that is universally accepted.

There is no solution that will solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

There is no fix that won’t lead to other problems down the line.

There is no way to foresee all problems.

There is no guarantee of happiness.

There is no Promised Land.

There is no Messiah.

There is no easy way out.

There are always unanticipated consequences.

Hard work is all we really have.

There are no silver bullets.

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The truth and miracles

Miracle

Why do you need a miracle?
Miracles don’t pay your rent,
Pulse your nerves, light the dark,
Still the Earth, or make you well.
Miracles do nothing on their own.

Miracles don’t feed your heart.
This only blood can do, be it
Yours or mine, flesh to flesh
Dried in place.  Stained like rust,
Blood never lets you go.

Miracles live on air
Because they are nothing
New or old under the sun.
Borrowed or blue, nothing at all
But dreams too afraid

To cross that line and cut your skin.
Miracles are cheap excuses for love
Deferred, leaving hope for dead.
They are God-machines grinding down
Your sharp edges until you are dull.

I am no miracle, but I am more
Than you deserve.  Now as then,
Your treadmill grace beats your brow.
Too humiliated to save face,
You struggle for something else to save.

You wear this miracle like a shield
Of dreams.  Proud behind it, you have no fear.
That wish protects, but at a price
You know so well, and so do I,
Every time we go to sleep alone.

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The truth and dreams, 3: White Whales, Holy Grails, and Shooting Stars

Most of us will chase something at one point or another.  It may be a short chase, after something well-defined and easily obtained.  Or a long chase, made as much by the struggle as by the goal itself.  Or a youthful chase full of bright-eyed, dreamy exuberance.  Or the quest of later years, when what lies ahead is increasingly defined by what went before.

For some, the chase is a noble cause that will leave the world a better place, regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. Others will take the low road of vengeance, recrimination, or pride, plunging into the depths like Captain Ahab on the bloodied back of Moby-Dick.

“Moby-Dick, p. 548” by Matt Kish

To those caught up in the chase it’s not always so clear which side they are on.  For those convinced of their righteousness, the nobility of the cause is beyond question, hardship merely a price worth paying, while to others the same quest is utter nonsense. In the end we only remember the quests that hit stride at the right time, when the right people are paying attention. Those chasing Holy Grails and windmills tend to go down anonymously.  It doesn’t mean their quests were futile or unimportant, even when they were imaginary or sad.  As Dona Walda put it after we finished her oral history in 1993, “We’re not important, but in our own lives we’re important.”

My father once told me that when you see a shooting star, it means a great man has died.  It’s an archaic saying that calls to mind stargazers and great dreamers, who loom in my imagination like ancient Greek statues but are just as easily my own grandfathers, my mother, a neighbor who befriended us when we needed it.  So many little things come together to make a life under the stars and with the stars, each one’s path to “follow a star,” as the saying goes.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Bob Dylan wrote that verse as he stared down fifty, as I am doing.  It makes me wonder, too.  What are these shooting stars, really?  My father believed in “great men,” whose lives we look up to like we look to the stars.  Centuries of belief in the ancient world tie our lives to the movements of the stars.  The great tragedies are “star-crossed” while Abraham lifted the history of a nation by counting those same stars against the backdrop of nothingness and everything all at once.  I believe in the chaotic beauty of a universe held together as much by accident as intention. We all chase our stars, our white-whales and our Holy Grails, eventually going the way of the stars themselves, flaming out against infinity.

Notes and Credits

Photograph of Supernova Remnant N 63A Menagerie from NASA, taken by the Hubble Telescope.  You can find the whole Hubble collection at the Hubblesite, which catalogs all the photographs along with explanations of the phenomena being documented.

The Moby-Dick illustration is from Matt Kish’s collection Moby-Dick in Pictures:  One Drawing from Every Page.  It’s a beautiful book – see the profile in the Atlantic Monthly. This one, “P. 548,” is used by permission.

Photo of a white (albino) humpback whale found at Cryptomundo.  The whale is called “Migaloo,” and more photos can be found here by Dan Burns of Blue Planet Marine and Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.

Dona Walda was the matriarch of a family I met in Aurá, a suburb of Belém, Brasil, in 1992-93.  I came to know Dona Walda and her family as I took oral histories of their experiences in Aurá, which was founded by land invasion in 1990 during the gubernatorial elections of that year, when candidate Jader Barbalho went around the state promising to legalize invasion neighborhoods if he won the election.  I visited with my friends from Aurá from 1992 through 2004, learning much from their neighborhood’s history and writing a few pieces about he neighborhood association for scholarly journals.  Dona Walda’s statement after her interview with me is one of the most touching things that I’ve heard across my entire career of interviewing people about their lives.  A wise statement, I will never forget it.

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The truth and dreams, 2: Exile

I am far from my country. It’s been long enough now that I am not sure what that means any more, apart from a nostalgia for things from my younger days, each year more frozen and remote, filled with artifacts and dioramas of a life long gone.

I am far from the people I once knew and cherished.  Many have passed away, the great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents.  My mother, too.  Those who remain have changed or disappeared.  At least one has succumbed to mental illness and is no longer the man we both knew.

I am far from everything that once made me who I am.  I carry some of this with me, in the food I cook and eat, the songs I play, and the point of view I have on the things that surround me now.  But it’s not quite complete, this lonely authenticity of the exile.

I live in only two times:  the past and the future.  In the past, I feed on my memories and fill myself with pride and sadness all at once.  The longing for places I have lived pulls me like a current, begging me to return to places I can no longer find.  I revisit the important points in time when I could have done one thing differently, one thing that might have changed the course of my life.  I wish, and then I lose my wishes against the impossibility of having done what I now wished to do.

In the future, I am different and splendid, having come through a desert separating one world from another.  Here I am, or at least I will be, a man who carries the burden of his life with a wisdom all can see.  Here I am, one who rose and fell and rose again from the very bottom of bottoms to a new place that is my home.  Yet this new place that I call home is always just up there, around the next corner, over the next hill, just the other side of that magnificent stand of oaks reaching up to the sky.

It is never now.  It is never now that I have lived my life, even my life past.  Never have I sat down to rest, to stop my thinking and dreaming and yearning just to say “thank you” to the universe and to those who love me.  I never have, I never did, and I don’t know if I ever will. In those moments when I try, I don’t feel like I have truly stopped. Something deep inside won’t let me.  The urge to get around that next bend or hill or stand of trees propells me forward and keeps me going, like a fish that will die if it stays still in the water for too long.

It is the special irony of the dreamer that our inability to live in the present poisons the past and the future, rendering both lands inhospitable and just out of reach.  The dreamer is the exile from time itself, a man or woman who has no home and no place to go, for home will be always around the next bend.  The only redeeming thing in the dreamer’s life is that his or her dreams may one day be useful to others.  This, at least to me, is the only way to fill an empty present with meaning, enough so that I can embrace the exile, take him in my arms, and give him the sustenance he needs to wake up one more day, neither closer to nor further from home but, as always, the exile.

Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  Sunset:  February 13, 2012, at Eagle Beach, Aruba.  Frozen pond:  December 17, 2011 in the Catskill Mountains near Walton, New York.

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The truth and memories

Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done.  In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.

The apple and the tree

One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.

The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.

It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.

He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.

What we choose to remember

William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.

As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.

One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.

The story

Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”

In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”

To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”

Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.

Notes and Credits

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.  It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there.  Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed.  I looked around for some time, but to no avail.  Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.

The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.

Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951).  The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world.  The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York:  Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49.  For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory:  The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2006).  An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.

Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.

As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.  On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon.  The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.

There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube.  In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922.  After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website.  The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans.  At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.

And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.

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