From a larger piece written one Saturday last October:
I realized earlier this morning that I’ve been contemplating memory for ten years now. I realized this earlier this morning as I was looking at a photograph on a shelf across from me, a picture of Gil [my fiancée's deceased husband] holding their infant daughter, a photo which must have been taken close to 12 years ago. While I’m often saddened by the fact that he never got to watch his daughter grow up, and that she has grown up never knowing him, I’m also comforted by this photo. Taken after he was diagnosed with cancer, he is clearly happy and he is with his daughter. It’s a picture of family, of a family, and a picture of my family. This photo represents a past that has become as much a part of me as my own.
In the ten years I’ve been contemplating memoria, I’ve never had any intention of dealing with memoir, of life writing, as that’s the one aspect of memory and writing that has been and continues to be well explored. However, this past year I’ve found myself confronted with a central tenet of social memory studies, a subject of much interest to me, which is the belief that all memory is social, that even our personal memories are filtered through and remembered within the framework of social experience.
While I never knew him, I have had to struggle with integrating into my own experience memories of a man who died in January 2000. With both of Lisa’s parents dead before her daughter was born, Gil’s parents became Lisa’s parents, and they and the rest of his family and his friends have readily embraced me into their family. The home of his childhood—not the house, but the area and the family cabin—places that have been dear to Lisa for 20 years, are becoming dear to me. I now live in the house that he and Lisa bought to raise their child in, which is also the house in which he died. Even if Lisa weren’t working on a memoir of the experience of giving birth to a daughter and then losing a husband to cancer, all within 13 months time, I could not escape his presence, his memory, if I’d wanted to. Integrating that past, his presence, with my own past and my own experience is memory work. And so I now find myself contemplating memoir as a practice of memory.
As I’ve hinted at from time to time, I spent a good chunk of the last decade severely depressed. Even situational depression, left untreated and allowed to grow, can be devastating, and by the time I was free of the root causes, I’d lost my sense of self, was left with a deep self-loathing, and had picked up some serious anxieties. Writing, particularly scholarly writing, became a casuality and attempts at writing, at doing scholarship, regularly resulted in panic attacks followed by jags of self-loathing for being a failure at what I so much wanted to do.
I’m still picking up a piece of myself here and there, still trying to finally put to rest the anxieties and self-doubt that threaten to once again become self-loathing, but I’m mostly fine and have been for over a year. I mention this, I think, because I’ve been in the long process of reclaiming myself since the end of 2008, and everything was still a bit new when I found myself not only reframing my life to accommodate my relationship with Lisa and her 12-year old daughter, but also in working through the presence of Gil. My own scar tissue hadn’t completely healed before I directly confronted the trauma of a young death and its aftermath on the life of the woman I love.
I’ll readily admit that this presence I feel is largely of my own construction, and things like the few photographs of him in common rooms of the house such as those in the living room remain where they are because I requested that they not be put away or moved to Miss Mo’s room. It is more complicated than that, though, as Lisa is herself working on a memoir of that experience, and it is in large part the intellectual work that we each do and the sharing of that work which drew us together. I can’t imagine not listening as she talks ideas and memories through, or not reading and commenting on early drafts, or not talking about the theory and practice of remembering and writing.
It is, however, a hard thing to read about that pain and loss. While I don’t need to reach out and comfort the woman I am with—she’s had enough time to make peace with her past—I feel an intense need to reach out and comfort the woman she was 12 years ago, a woman I wouldn’t even know for another 6 years. It hurts because the pain she feels and the comforting she needs are real but at the same time she herself does not exist, and so while I feel her pain, I am not allowed the solace we feel when we provide comfort to those we love. Even though I do all this by choice, all of this confronting and integrating of a past that is not mine in a way that allows me to place it within framework that I can understand, this is hard work.
And in working through all this I have had driven home to me that this is memory work. The integrating of the lives of others into our own life is memory work regardless of whether or not we realize it as such, and the closer and stronger the relationship, the harder the work to be done. Whether or not we give this work a tangible form for others to read or see or listen to, to do this work is to recompose oneself and one’s relationship with the world and the past, and that is the work of memoir. While up until now I’ve not had any real interest in thinking about memoir as part of my work on memoria, in working through all this and in falling in love with a woman who is writing a memoir about the experience of having a daughter and losing a husband to cancer in the space of 13 months, I can’t help but start thinking about memoir as a practice of memory.
All of this serves as preface for this: Back in August, I started using 750words.com. I’ve not used it consistently like I’ve been meaning to—in fact, I’ve only used it 4 times—but one interesting feature I’ve found is that will generate a series of reports and a word cloud based upon what you’ve written. Not knowing exactly what I was going to write today other than that I wanted to riff off the piece I wrote last October, I opened up 750words and wrote. What emerged is the start of an attempt to work out the complex idea of integrating the memories of others into your own—of my personal experience of how, as Maurice Halbwachs argues, all memory is social—and an argument with Barthes on the relationship of photographs to memory. Since I really wasn’t sure where I was going, I’m finding fascinating the data 750words pulled to create a report which consists of both a word cloud and of charts on, among other things, what I was feeling, what I was concerned about, what I focused on, and what my mindset was. Go ahead and take a look.