“You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.”
- Louise Bourgeois
Memory is a funny and fickle thing: I can remember the lyrics to a few dozen songs released in the 1990s, and remember the stat lines from some of the best seasons from my favourite athletes, and remember who directed and starred in movies released even before I was born, but I can’t seem to remember what I ate for lunch two days ago or the name of a new person I just met last week or even where I left my keys just over an hour ago.
This isn’t a new phenomenon or a rare one, but instead endemic to the idea of memory: how and what our brain chooses to remember isn’t always a conscious decision, and unless we have the drive to devote time training our memory to be more conscious, it isn’t something we need to worry about every day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memory recently. Looking back at 2019, I realized that I finished reading 65 books but could only remember the themes and narrative through lines of just a few of them. I could remember the big things and the grand adventures we had throughout the twelve months gone by, but I couldn’t really remember the details of what made them so grand and special. When I didn’t write things down, I often forgot them, and even when I did remember, I’d forget the small particulars—the little things that make life joyful, delightful, and worth living.
In 2019, I forgot a lot. In 2020, I want to remember.
In the first few pages of Jacqueline Woodson’s Red At the Bone, Melody comes down the stairs to the music of Prince’s Darling Nikki. Immediately, I was transported to my first memories of hearing that song, of being scandalized and titillated and enthralled all at the same time. It was music like I had never heard before—every song by Prince was a revelation for me—and the memory of the first time I heard that song is imprinted in my mind.
It is perhaps perfect that my first reaction of reading that passage of Red At the Bone was the recalling of a memory, especially since the novel is itself a rumination on remembrance, and how our memories—and the intergenerational memories passed on to us through those that came before—shape who we are, who we become, and how we live in the world. Throughout Ms. Woodson’s poetic and entrancing prose, we are reminded that our histories, that our intergenerational traumas, are part of who we are, and that we must remember those histories in order to be truly ourselves.
The idea of being shaped by intergenerational trauma is also at the core of Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s (very loose) television sequel of the comic by the same name. Set in an era of Redfordations and racial unrest, Watchmen explores how we can not, try as we might, escape the decisions of those who came before us. Instead of running from the trauma of the past, we must remember it; to remember, to acknowledge the trauma, is to allow us to become who are meant to be.
Our memories are not just our traumas, intergenerational or our own: they are also beacons that guide us and buoy us through hard times. Our protagonist in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, Hiram Walker, is both freed and burdened by his memory. He can remember everything with a photographic recall, but it is only when he chooses to open his memory and remember his mother—to see her as she was before she was taken away and sold to another plantation—that he is able to embrace his real gift: to use memory, to use remembrance to move across space and time. Like Ms. Woodson’s Red At the Bone, Mr. Coates’ The Water Dancer is a poetic rumination that reminds us that as hard as it may be, we will only realize our full selves if we remember.
As I type this early on a Wednesday morning, I am humming along to the song Remember Me from the movie Coco playing in the background. It is no secret that I adore Coco, and consider it one of my favourite films ever made. (I’m not the only one who found it transcendent.) The song, like the whole movie, is a celebration of remembrance; that we live on forever through the memories of others, and that others live through our own remembering. There is beauty in remembering, and choosing to remember is an act of love.
This year, as I do every year, I chose a word to guide the twelve months ahead of me. For 2020, my word is this same act of love: remember.
Already, I’m slowing down and being more mindful of the experiences I have. I am writing things down when I feel like I may forget. I am actively telling myself to remember, to take note of what is happening and how I am feeling, and to store these sensations deep within myself.
The year will be filled with many wonderful things that I do not want to forget. I am choosing to remember, and more importantly, to remember to remember, as the weeks go by and life is filled with so many things that deserve to be remembered.
“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
- Viet Thanh Nguyen