Tricks of Memory

Sometimes I imagine that I’m in a room filled with all of the friends, family, and acquaintances I’ve ever known.  My wife is there.  So are my parents, my sister, and my whole extended family.  Arrayed around me are many of my best friends.  Jonathan and Ronald, two of my childhood basketball buddies, talk sports with a group of my Dallas friends.  They appear to know each other even though location and time separate them; in reality they’ve never met.    

Here and there, mixed in with the more familiar faces, I also see strangers I met only once—a retired federal employee who sat next to me on an Amtrak train from Boston to Seattle, who for his entire life had commuted from Spokane to Seattle only by train; a German backpacker whom I spent the day with wandering the ruins of Tulúm in the Yucatan; or Tarzo, a Brazilian journalist who, with a strange delighted glint in his eye, spun global conspiracy theories in a Buenos Aires hostel so many years ago.

Still others may be people I saw every day for a period of time in my life and with whom I barely exchanged more than a friendly “hello”, yet whose “hello” was just what I needed in that moment of a rough day.  Pete, a math teacher whose classroom shared a hall with mine when I taught Spanish near Houston, expounds on a recent scientific discovery.  Pete made me feel welcome in a school where, as a new teacher, I knew hardly anyone. 

It’s strange the tricks memory plays on us.  Storytelling requires chronology and sequence, yet memory is only sometimes chronological.  Everything it contains seems to have happened all at once.  I was reminded of this when I returned to my hometown, Austin, last year.  The more deeply I immersed myself in this massive city that once seemed small, the more random recollections exploded in my mind.  They lit up like so many thousands of lightning bugs on a cool Michigan night, bright and ephemeral and impossible to snatch out of the darkness. 

In an instant I remembered running through the woods near my friend Albert’s duplex.  We played hide-and-go-seek and tussled with other kids whose aim was to bully us.  Those woods are long gone.  In their place stand cookie cutter houses that over time have come to look as if they’ve always been there.  Their apparent permanence makes me question how big those woods were, with their sprawling live oak trees, where the odd rattle snake slithered among loose stones.

Over time I comprehend better why generations struggle to understand each other.  While in Austin I stopped by the ice cream shop I worked at when I was in high school.  I opened the very door I had windexed a thousand times and was greeted by a smiling teenager.  “Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” he said.  I told him I had worked there too when I was about his age.  He nodded but didn’t say much. 

Then it occurred to me that when I was his age, he had yet to even be born.  He wouldn’t enter this world for another four years.  Most of my world predated his.  Hence, it didn’t exist to him.  History before his birth was a mere instant, not the long, sometimes meandering personal history I had experienced as my life.  How strange, but also how exhilarating that we get to experience life with the same newness and exhilaration as every generation that has come before us.

*I’ve decided to start blogging again.  I have missed it, and it has been far too long.  I will be rusty for a while.  I invite any newcomers to peruse through my older posts. 

Pictures of Austin:

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Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Does Anyone Own a Smile? The Origins of Gestures

I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind.  Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away?  I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew.  In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate?  Does anyone own a gesture?

My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight.  He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter.  He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork.  Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather?  Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way?  In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next?  And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality.  Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?

Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us.  My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh.  I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke.  I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather.  It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

Do Words Matter?

Do words matter?  Sometimes I feel like words are just words.  They diffuse into the air like an exhalation in winter.  The wind sweeps them away and the cold robs them of whatever warmth they carried.  And so often, only the speaker remembers what he said; the listener was never listening and never had anything to forget.

Yet I know this only to be true part of the time.  Words also harm, and their sting lingers long after they’ve been uttered or printed.  They sometimes gladden.  Not all of them disappear.  Some of them last.

Words tell stories, and when they tell stories words really are more than words.  They paint pictures.  They convey tragedy and joy.  They touch people.  When words tell stories they are life itself.  Identities, whole histories, cultures, and peoples are bound up in them.

I didn’t go to Chile.  There was a hiccup in my job search.  I don’t have adequate words to express the state I’m in.  Confusion, sadness, doubt, frustration—these speak to part of what I’m feeling inside, but they’re just words.  They don’t tell the story.  But maybe this post as a whole will succeed where they fail.  Maybe it will convey my ambivalence, this sense of not knowing what to feel or what to say, of not knowing what’s going to happen or where I’m going to be in two days, this aching worry about loved ones and the need to do right by them–and always the question: Did writing this help?  Did it matter?

Yes, it did.

This is life.  It ain’t always perfect, but it moves on anyway.

What on Earth Is This Blog About?

I have no idea.  I’ve posted enough essays, vignettes, and what I’ll call blurbs that I should have a sample of writing large enough to reveal a pattern.  But the only pattern I can discern is that I love to talk about everything.  I love to show people things as I see them and ask if they see them in the same way.  I love to share the enigmas that perplex me, even if by doing so I won’t solve them.  Maybe I don’t want to solve them.  Maybe I like that they’re insoluble.  So what I’ve ended up with here is a sampling of essays about travel, ideas, people, places, mysteries, and topics that fall into no simple category.  Jorge Luis Borges once wrote:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

I run my fingers over the contours of the world.  I rest my eyes on its sunsets and its snow-capped mountains, its white beaches and its emerald seas, its glittering skyscrapers and its rickety favelas.  I try hard to listen to people rather than talk, to let their words, their experiences, and their wisdom settle like fresh snow on the jagged landscape of my mind.  And through it all I’m really trying to understand myself, which I hope will help me understand everyone.  So maybe that’s what this blog is about.  It seeks to answer two questions: Who the heck am I?  And who are you?  (as opposed to, “Who the heck are you?” or “Who the heck do you think you are?”  Sorry, I’m trying to be funny.  If I can match Borges at nothing else, maybe I can at least be funnier than he was.)

Please talk to me.  I want to hear from you.  I don’t know much, but I know you can teach me a few things.  And thank you.

It’s time I created some structure for this blog.  So here’s my plan:

  • Beginning next week, I’ll post Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  • I’ll devote Tuesdays to pictures (usually falling under a theme).
  • Thursdays I’ll usually post something short of my own, but when life gets busy I’ll share favorite quotes from favorite authors.
  • Saturdays I’ll post longer pieces, usually all “authorial” sounding.  Some will be essays, some will be stories, others will be travel narratives, and still others will be, well, random miscellany.  I’ve noticed that when I write these sorts of pieces, they tend to hover around 700 words in length, so that will be my goal.

Today, I want to share Argentina with you.  These photos are from a summer I spent traveling there while I was in college:

*These photos are sized wrong for my homepage.  For some reason the edit option isn’t working, so I’ll have to re-size them later.

The Andes near the Argentina/Chile Border

Iguazú Falls, along Argentina's border with Brazil.

Iguazú Falls

Iguazú Falls.

Northwest Argentina, near Salta.

Purmamarca, el Cerro de los siete colores ("the hill of seven colors"), Northwest Argentina.

El cerro de los siete colores.

Convent in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

Cathedral in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

This one is actually from Santiago, Chile.