A few years ago, en route from Basel, Switzerland to northern Germany, I spent a day in Strasbourg, France, visiting the beautiful Gothic cathedral I had fallen in love with in an art history class in college. I spent hours walking around the outside of the church, gazing at the portals with their exquisite sculpture, each figure a unique mix of the personal, the holy, and the quirky. Several times that afternoon, people approached, paused for a second, aimed their camera at the portal, walked on. How odd, I thought, they will see where they’ve been only after they’re no longer there.
Judging by an article in the New York Times Magazine on July 1, the problem of not being present for your own experience is even more pervasive than I’d thought. In an article called “Timehop,” a young man named Daniel Kolitz explains that he’s worried, because he’s having trouble remembering the details of his life. If something isn’t directly in front of him, he says, it doesn’t exist. All the iPhone photos and status updates he’s made over the years aren’t helping. That’s why he likes a new app called Timehop. It culls your photos and social media posts and gives you a record of your own life. Timehop, says the author, has “become a key part of the routine by which I try to restore my sense of self.”
My friends, that’s scary. If you need a technology tool to sort through evidence of your years on Earth, which other technology tools have amassed, giving you, in the end, a picture of your life, then you’re not living.
If we don’t have our memories, we are jetsam in our own lives. We float around from experience to experience, with each smell, sound, kiss, tear, infatuation, and jealousy bouncing off our psyches as the rain bounces off a tin roof. We are superficial, depthless. How can you fall in love if you have no memory? How can you raise a child if you can’t recall what worked and didn’t work in the way you were raised? Without memory, our life does not happen to us; it happens to our devices.
This blog, then, is a plea to build memory. Please:
- Pause in front of something beautiful, interesting, or potentially memorable and, before snapping a photo, spend at least one full moment just absorbing it.
- Pause once or twice a day and look up at the sky. Describe this absolutely singular sky to yourself.
- When you do take a photo, ask yourself what, in particular, you’re wishing to remember about this moment.
- Memorize a poem!
- The next time you take a walk, stand still before something (anything), gaze at it for a while, then close your eyes or turn your back and try to picture it exactly how it is. Then have another look to check your accuracy.
Whatever you do, please remember.
What I’m Reading
Everything Is Illuminated. This was the first novel of then 24-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a braid consisting of (1) the narrator’s journey to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, (2) letters to the narrator from his Ukrainian translator, Alex, who speaks a form of English he seems to get by choosing synonyms from the thesaurus (when Alex writes of pretending to sleep, he says that he tries “to counterfeit that I am reposing”), and (3) the story of the narrator’s family’s Jewish shtetl from 1791 through the beginning of World War II. There are many searches going on in this book, and parts read like a kind of a Ukrainian-American magical realism. I’m appreciating it more than liking it.
A Savory Moment
Herb walk in the Florence Shelly Wetlands Preserve, guided by herbologist and homeopath Peeka Trenkle. A young teenage girl is among the group, there with her mother. She starts adorning herself with the plants we learn about. We encounter cleaver, a trailing plant with sticky stems. Peeka says that you can make a poultice of it to treat skin ailments. She passes the plant along the line of walkers, so we can examine it. When everyone’s had a look, the girl takes it back and drapes it around her neck and shoulders, so it clings to her t-shirt like elaborate embroidery.