I've been spending a lot of time this month sorting through photographs, documents, pages of words, many in longhand. And I think what it most reminds me of is river or lake swimming, where the destination floats, raft-like, somewhere ahead of you. If you’re extremely nearsighted, as I am, you can’t really see anything more than a blob. It takes some kind of faith to keep moving forward.
But it has me thinking about the liquidity of memory, and the estuary-like conditions where fact meets fiction in a brackish exchange.
How factual is our personal truth? Does it matter? How accurate is our memory?
“Everything is still in there, every experience,” I used to think, just like last week’s carton of eggs is in the refrigerator, waiting.
Or maybe like my computer’s memory, with files waiting to be opened.
But whole memories aren’t stored that way, at all. They’re stored as fragments to be reassembled by the process of remembering, and not all at once, but sequentially.
Hence the sensation of fluidity. And also, the brackishness, as fiction infiltrates the facts you remember.
There’s far too much feeling wrapped up in memory for anything resembling factual accuracy.
The purpose of seining through past documentation has been to recover my early days with LH (in the Proustian sense) and place them in a timeline. How quickly did we move from being complete strangers to the full-body immersion of lifelong commitment?
Naturally, I am trying to write about it. What else would I do?
Fortunately, he was writing all this time. He’d been writing the column for thirty years before I wrote the letter that caused us to meet.
(I think that’s how he met the woman who became his second ex-wife, as well. Makes sense. His life and work floated on a constant flow of letters, back then.)
Between us in those early months, we produced a thick file of letters. I have been able to cross reference those letters with his columns and with his calendars, at least for the year we met. (Several years of calendars are missing.)
Splash! We’re paddling around in that brackish reality where truth is surely all around us, but certainty is hard to grasp.
The calendars note the daily column subjects, in black, and any notable place he’s going, in red. Stories related to his travels often appear four or five days later. Details for the red notations are minimal. But they give me the dates for the experiences I’ve remembered, some of which are mentioned in the letters. And the experiences, themselves, are described in the columns, while I watch from the wings, there but unseen, unknown to the reader.
As a result, I am coming to admire the achievement of good biography even more than I did before. Finding the living person, or people, among the artifacts of a relationship requires much imagination. Far more than memory, alone, can provide.
I was a very literal person when I was young. I wanted logic and fact, and became annoyed when I was required in school or out of school to assess varieties of meaning in between the facts. The very attempt destabilized me. I floundered.
Experience and time have allowed me, now, to see what lies between and around (the dark matter of our lives, in a way) and I am comfortable within that space.
It is where truth resides.
And though nothing I discover will allow the full recovery of the past (even Proust could not attain that), still—as I paddle—I am discovering a more complete truth than any we experienced as individuals.