April 13, 2015 by Julia
Last weekend, my dad told me about a New Yorker magazine review of a new memoir called “Ongoingness,” by Sarah Manguso, which details the author’s compulsion to record everything in her diary over the years, and her ambiguous feelings about them, looking back. (The article is called “Dear Diary, I Hate You” by Alice Gregory in the April 6, 2015 issue.) Ms. Manguso means to write her memoir based on her years of diaries, but is filled with discomfort and embarrassment as she looks back, and ends up questioning her own reasons for keeping a journal. She can’t bring herself to use one quote from the diaries in her memoir, because taken out of context, the “best bits” lose their impact.
My dad gave me the article to take home, suspecting that I might be interested in the question of whether or not memory-keeping it is as valuable as we assume it to be.
The question has been on my mind, actually. I’ve been weeding through my old keepsakes, which are in a wooden chest I’ve had since I was sixteen. The chest has been overflowing for some time, which is a problem because it also functions as a fan stand at the foot of our bed. The time has come to dig deep and get rid of some stuff.
But, practicality aside, I wonder lately if the memory-keeping I have always compulsively done – writing in diaries, taking too many photos and then compiling them into albums, making scrapbooks commemorating friendships with old friends, keeping book journals to track my reading and absorb it, working on baby books, and yearbooks for the grandparents, as well as constantly throwing things into that keepsake chest – is worth all the time and work I put into it. There is no question that I enjoy my memory-keeping, although I often feel overwhelmed by the projects I feel compelled to undertake. You might call it an enjoyable burden. I do get a pesky feeling that I can’t move on to the next “thing” until the last “thing” has been properly recorded, which can be exhausting when you’re also trying to keep up with that other nuisance known as present life.
It’s a lot of work, and for what? Yes, I like to occasionally look back at old photos or handmade cards or artwork from sixth grade. But as I get closer to middle age, I must admit to an observation which might sound ridiculously obvious: the further back the memories go, the less relevant they become.
It’s true that memories may get more precious with time, more fun to exclaim over, when enough time has passed that we’ve forgotten the details. “Look at Dad’s hair!” “Oh my gosh, she really was sooo cute.” “That was my favorite toy!” “Where is my first crush in here? I can’t even remember his name.” We may cherish the memories, but it’s hard to compete with whatever stage of life we are currently in. I care more right now about photos of the kids from last year than I do about my high school year book, which I used to pore over. As I sort more recent memories into palatable albums or boxes, they feel very important to me. But twenty years later, I can’t care about the old memories as much as I thought I would. I don’t have enough room to contain them all with the same level of intensity that I had when they were current events in my life.
Then there is the issue of how much we want to remember the hard times.
We know memories contribute to our sense of identity, and you could probably make the case that the difficult times are more formative for us than the happy periods. But do you want to go back and actually read a despairing journal entry from the first time you had your heart broken? Or the time that your family was shattered by tragedy? We want to remember loved ones we’ve lost, but I don’t think we want to relive the immediate pain of their loss.
I have hundreds, possibly thousands of handwritten pages from the time that I was clinically depressed at seventeen. I was reading some of those papers last night, as I reviewed the piles in my wooden chest. There was a bag of letters that I’d never sent to high school friends, and thank God. These letters contained the most awkwardly personal, scattered, confused and nonsensical writing of my life so far (says the over sharing blogger, which is saying a lot), and I do believe I would have freaked out even my closer friends, not to mention the ones whom I didn’t know very well and had no business writing letters to.
And now, nineteen years later, it pains me to read those unsent letters. I couldn’t get through all of them; they are currently at the bottom of our kitchen trash can. I still have a pile of writing from that depressed year, and am not excited to look through it, but can’t bring myself to toss it without at least a little reading.
How much do I need to remember, though? Is there anything left to glean from those words that I wrote when I was inside of it?
I remember a lot on my own, without help from my past self. I’ve relived and retold the story enough times that I’ve probably integrated any valuable lessons of that time into my current way of thinking. So why visit the embarrassment and darkness if I’ve already mined what I need from those episodes?
The writing from that period mostly just serves to remind me now that while I was transforming into a new-ish sort of person possibly in part because of the depression, it was also just a depression that sucked, and I went a little crazy. My insanity was obvious to everyone around me, and the humiliation of that still makes me cringe, even if it hurts much less than it did at the time. Still, to throw away the pages unread feels unkind to my seventeen-year-old self. First I need to honor them with as much reading as I can reasonably stand.
There are other controversial items in my keepsake chest, such as the cuff links that were given to me as a child along with girl scout jewelry by a family friend, which I never wore. (I have no idea if girls ever wear cuff links, even.) To keep, or not to keep? I’ve encountered these useless and even memory-less cuff links many times over the years…but only because they’ve been in my freaking keepsake box for no good reason. They are special only because I decided they were at eight years old, and any parent knows kids might call a blade of grass or dog-chewed bouncy ball “special” at the drop of a hat. These days I’m ruthless out of necessity. Into the trash! I will spare Goodwill employees the trouble.
I’m not sure where exactly the most important part of memory-keeping lies. Is it in the compiling and organizing of memory, which enables me to look back on recent years with gratitude, reaping the good moments over again, sometimes better in memory than in the moment? Is it in the knowing that we have these curated records of our lives all around us, even if we hardly ever take the time to look at them? Or is it actually in the hours we decide to surrender to our past, reading, looking at photos and ticket stubs, cherishing old anniversary cards?
The latter activity, while often enjoyable with friends or family members who share the memories, can actually be a little saddening for me if I do it alone – even if I am looking at evidence of good times. It’s bittersweet; it makes my heart ache, like afternoon light with dust motes floating in it. I look at how thin I used to be and grieve that I couldn’t enjoy it at the time because I had no idea I was thin. I laugh at hilarious, vulgar drawings from college on scrap paper that my classmates and I passed around in class, and I miss that goofy connection. I read a letter from an old friend that I had failed to understand at the time it was sent. There are things that make me happy, without tinges of regret or nostalgia – love letters from Dennis written months after we’d met, when he was nineteen and I was eighteen. It makes me happy because he is obviously still relevant to my life, and artifacts of our young love are a good reminder of what we still possess, beneath our grown-up responsibilities.
But the things that are no longer relevant to my current, everyday life – the friends I’ve lost touch with, the career that I shut down in order to stay home with the kids, even the knitted caps our babies wore in the hospital – don’t fill me with regret, but they do make me ache at the passage of time.
And then I know it’s time to come back to the present, to my current relationship with Dennis, whom has by now seen me at my least attractive, and to my kids who are really a lot more fun than they were as babies, if a bit less cuddly. They sleep! And I can leave without taking their food source with me! And my back doesn’t hurt from constantly holding them!