Devotion, the new memoir by Dani Shapiro, is divided into 102 sections. Number 54 is one of my favorites. In it, Dani writes about two subjects that have intrigued me for some time.
The first one not surprisingly has to do with memory. She writes:
“Why do we remember the particular things we do? …why random, ordinary moments?”
So many moments from my past, I feel as if I can actually see: sitting in French class in third grade with my French name (which I can’t remember) written on a piece of construction paper and folded tent-style on my desk, sneaking out of a window at the Latin Convention, what I wore to the Cat Stevens concert in ninth grade.
And then there are all those forgotten moments. Someone recently mentioned a Rita Coolidge/Kris Kristofferson concert I apparently attended.
The second subject is related to the first yet strikes off in its own direction. It has to do with what Mary Gordon calls “the wick,” what Tim O’Brien describes as “a blade tracing loops on ice,” and what Virginia Woolf writes about in this passage from Mrs. Dalloway. It’s the russian doll aspect of life–that I am in fact now, still, the little girl that sat in that desk with the French name. It’s the through line Dani writes about here:
“I understood feeling like a completely different person…and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here…Was there–surely there must be–a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves?…I knew that each part of me…is linked one to the next, like a fragile chain of paper dolls….These layers of ourselves are always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge…A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view.”
In this section Dani wonders what rises to the surface and why. I wonder about that too. This idea of the surface fascinates me. One of the reasons I love writing is that it pushes all these things to the surface.
I have often pondered why we remember what we do, and why some memories are so clear and others hazy. Like your French class memory, it’s not only the more emotional ones we retain in clarity.
And I want to consider your thought that writing brings these memories to the surface.
I just got Devotion yesterday and haven’t had time to open it, but I’m looking forward to reading it.
Excellent post, Cynthia.
Thanks, Linda. I do think writing helps me be more aware of not only the present moment but also of the past. This idea writing bringing things to the surface kind of plays into your recent blog post on the nature of time and existence, doesn’t it?
Yes, this does relate to my post. I love her paper doll chain imagery. We are always connected to our past selves. That’s both a comforting and troubling thought.
I think about radio waves that can be picked up years after they’ve been broadcast. How “past” is our past?
I agree, Linda–comforting and troubling.
I love this.
It is fascinating to me as well. What strikes me is how often the memories that I do recall, as vividly as little jeweled eggs, are random – how I usually do not know, as I live the moment, the pantheon of special it will ascend into. Isn’t that funny? And yet some of the Big Moments that should be so clearly recalled are not.
Thanks for your comment, Lindsey. I am often shocked at what I have absolutely no memory of. Sometimes, however, if whoever mentioned it will keep talking and adding details, a picture will start to form. So maybe it is all in there somewhere, and it’s just a question of access.
As I read Devotion I knew it was a book I would read again and again. And though I just finished Devotion, your post made we want to read it right now. Today. And I will. It’s that good.
PS. I saw Cat Stevens when I was in ninth grade, too. 🙂
Darrelyn, 1972. Soft, light blue jeans. A pink shirt. A pastel, floweredy, jean jacket. I went with a boy named Abba.
Listening to Sitting as I type this comment to you.
Oh Very Young…
I had an extreme moment of vertigo about this idea when I was seven or eight. I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the hygienist to come in, and it occurred to me to wonder if I would ever remember that moment later on. I realized I probably wouldn’t, since it was such an ordinary moment, with nothing in particular to recommend it. And then I was plunged into this intense terror – I felt like I (the “I” in the chair) would somehow be disconnected from the stream of selves that followed one after the other, and I would be lost. (Of course I didn’t articulate it like that at the time, but that was more or less the feeling.) It was all I could do to prevent myself from hyperventilating, and reason myself back to baseline.
Needless to say, I have remembered the incident ever since.
Emily-Apologies to you as well. Just now seeing your comment here. So hard to believe you could have a moment like this at such an early age. I don’t think I was aware of anything at seven or nine or even sixteen or eighteen….
I love the image of “the stream of selves that followed one after the other.” Those words come with a visual–just like Tim O’Brien’s loops, Mary Gordon’s wick, and Dani’s through line.
Thanks so much for sharing this experience.
I really liked that passage out of Devotion, too. I remember some of the oddest moments. And moments I want to remember, I forget. Why? I like that Dani makes us think about this.
Alexis, that is one of the reasons I love reading–because it makes me think about things I otherwise would not.
Sorry to be so long in responding. Somehow I missed your nice comment.