Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"The Transience of Memory"

By Renee Geel

My mother’s face was softer than I recall, more vulnerable; the emotions were old, though still raw, but the scene was entirely new. And there I stood, blaming and condemning her as though the universe circled around me and my needs. As though she was pure villain and me, pure victim.

I’ve often wondered about dreams and how they serve us in our day-to-day lives. Dreams refract and reflect like a fun-house mirror; frozen, conical, accessible shapes; a melting clock – shrinking, expanding, twirling, combining memory and impression and imagination all into one wild casserole, a stew of pain and joy and, sometimes, just plain nonsense or confusion. I believe in writing’s potential to transform feelings – often feelings of pain – into an altogether different something.

So often a piece of writing germinates from a seedling of memory; but then, through the sweat and guts and alchemy that is writing, it becomes something else, its own entity, neither an accurate reflection of the past nor a parallel of our present, alongside which it exists. I can’t honestly compare a writer’s and painter’s processes, but I am willing to wager that keystrokes and brushstrokes are prey to the same malleability.

So, ok. One night a few weeks ago I had a particularly fitful sleep, fueled no doubt by a bounty of self-pity I had succumbed to earlier that evening. In theory, I know better than to compare the direction of my life with that of another person; but in that day’s practice, I’d allowed myself to fall prey to pity. I had wallowed for hours in the what-ifs scattered haphazardly across my mental-emotional map. Later that evening, still mired in the hows and whys and how-comes and why-nots of regret, I sat down at the computer and wrote an uncensored, moth-eaten first draft of an essay or short story; though, I wasn’t then yet sure which it would become. A feeling of completion – or depletion – under way, I got up from the computer and took my puffy-eyed, self-induced headache to bed and dreamt about people and circumstances – loosely accurate, though they were – I hadn’t visited in years.

It looked strangely like an amalgam of Seurat’s umbrella-clad “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” shadow-and-sunlit scene, and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” – the same surface hush of both; but underneath was a current of anger and questioning and stomach-wrenching regret for what could have been and never will be. And then, an ending I wouldn’t have predicted.

When I woke the next morning, the room still pitch dark – save for the streetlight through the slats of the blinds – and pulsating with shadows of my and my husband’s wedding-picture frames, our cat’s waking stretch, my husband’s still-sleeping silhouette, I was both confused and amazed. Sure, I took undergrad psychology; I learned how the Id – Freud’s moniker for that spoiled, selfish, undisciplined part of us – acts out when our conscience-driven Super Ego isn’t there to rein it in. And yet, I was still in awe of my dream; a volcano of molten feelings had erupted in the night.

My mother’s face was veiled by the angry expression I remember as a kid, much like the sun’s corona; and deeper inside – the sun’s core, if you will – by wide-eyed, lingering vulnerability due to her own mother’s death when she was a mere eleven years old. With a pleading, earnest look, she asked me how and why I could subject her now to the same coldness she’d – probably helplessly – subjected me to when I was little. Don’t you see… she asked, palms up, that you’re doing to me what you’ve always blamed me for doing to you?

I’m sorry, I said to her in that dream. And I meant it, I know I did. After tormenting her for what felt like the entire night, I felt genuine empathy for her. Freed up in sleep, released from Freud’s hell-raiser and his finger-wagging disciplinarian, I was able to step out from the center of the spinning universe long enough to realize that while we may all take a turn there, it’s not meant for permanent residence.

I got out of bed feeling consoled and consoling, newly questioning hazy bits of memory I’d always clung to as absolute. Feet on the cold hard wood as I made my way downstairs in the dark toward the blessed coffee pot, I actually felt, well, good. Yet I was shamefully patting myself on the back for it each step, as though I should congratulate myself for good will. Aaaahhh and uggghhhh in conflicting coexistence.

Measuring out coffee beans, my eyes still heavy with sleep, I realized that both writing and dreaming had gone to work on me. Sitting down at the computer the night before had nudged me around a corner. Emotions I’d spun into words had – with Seurat’s and Dali’s help – transformed memory, and with it, present.

Nights of dreams and pots of coffee later, I still struggle. Those old angers and regrets linger. While I’d like to say they are history, I can’t; I’m far too pragmatic and cynical to think that a single night’s sleep and a bed of wizened dreams could or should whitewash all of memory’s colors and brushstrokes. But I feel one step closer to believing in my capacity for instinctive compassion and willful reconciliation – both of which are thankfully tempered by salty skepticism. (No fairytales in my book, no horror stories, either, but rather a hopeful adventure somewhere in between.)

Cliché that it is, I am reminded once more that writing is both outcome and process. Words help us live. Help us grieve. And more than that, they help us transform life and grief. Help us move through mournfully disappearing time with a sometimes-functioning compass. Sometimes. Writing – as I feel it in the pit of my stomach – is both a newly discovered place on our psychic map and the highway – or maybe even the back road – that takes us where we need to go.

Freelance writer Renee Geel, of Delmar, New York, is at work on a novel.


Anonymous said...

I hope you remind Renee once in a while that she can obviously put her thoughts on paper in a way that makes people relate.

Renee Geel said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Mike, and for your all of your thoughtful comments and support. 'Relating' and connecting are what I think we're all trying to get to.