The other day, I participated in a memory study for a pair of young documentary filmmakers. (Actually, one was a filmmaker, the other a fiction writer, but involved in the project.) They’d put an ad in Craigslist, offering a sum of money for an hour of time, and I responded. I met them in Washington Square Park and talked for an hour on camera about a day two weeks ago, an ordinary day. They were interested in all the little details I could remember. I wanted to come up with the details, but found myself editing, because it sounded so boring. “Then I took the subway downtown.” Could I have remembered more about that particular ride? Probably. I remembered more about talking to Charles, but my conversation was in large part a recounting of my day, which I had already recounted to the filmmakers.
That night, in bed, the details that I would have used in writing came to me: the two different yellows of a piece of cake at the Hungarian pastry shop; the softness of a young woman’s features, as if a hand had lightly smoothed over a sculpted visage; the slanted gaze of Lisa signing a credit card slip as a sudden image came to mind of my mother 40 years ago: Grownup.
I hadn’t prepared for my interview in a writerly way. I wasn’t sure what they were doing with the material and I was busy. That’s probably for the best—it’s their material to shape—yet recounting a day’s events, with the self-consciousness any one who knows me can imagine, emphasized my tunnel vision to the point that I felt breathless. I don’t see as much as I used to. I get up and work and walk around and talk to people and the details don’t stick; I discard them without knowing it; I’ve seen it all before.
And of course context: what I thought, what I was reminded of, has such complex roots. Because I work at the Cathedral, they asked if I was religious (no), if I consider myself spiritual. To answer that thoroughly—I would like to answer that thoroughly, for my own sake, but even now, mulling it over, all I have is the beginning pieces: how I was raised, what my mother taught me (fairies, tarot, astrology, the Platonic ideal of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny), what I read and thought in my 20’s and 30’s.
So much of my interior life has been sucked into the hole of “Do I want to keep living?” because if I don’t, none of this matters. I keep deciding that I do want to live, so beliefs and philosophies and goals need addressing. I feel like a house that has been mostly cleared out, contents disposed of, and now the owner has decided not to move after all.
Oh, it’s surprising. Life, books. The plumber grumbling in the bathroom, which is being fixed for the umpteenth time. “Who fired my boy? Damn, that made me mad. What day was it? I can’t remember. Do you remember?”
The other plumber doesn’t reply. Charles wanders in and out. The cats sleep. I was going to go for a walk. My heart feels soft, as if a hand lightly smoothed over the sculpted organ.
Caress, pressure, erasure. I remember myself, who I used to be. But as the young man, Jonathan, said, “Our memories change over time.”
It was snowing. No, it wasn’t.
“I can’t get down on my knees. Goddamn.” The plumber is middle-aged, like me. He complains with workaday joyousness, talking to himself. The other plumber’s gone downstairs.
“Where’d that cat go? I can’t have him going in this hole in the wall.’’
“I think he’s under the bed,” I say.
“I’m-a shut the door. Can’t have him going in the wall.”
“That would be a problem.”
I check my email. Charles asks about dinner. The second plumber returns and takes up the story. “You find that cat? You got that kitty cat? I seen him run. We coulda closed him in like we did in that other apartment. He went in the hole. I didn’t know he was in the wall. You hear about that? Meow, meow, meow. The lady calls…”
Voices lowered. Then, again, singsong, “Kittycat, kittycat…”
He’s under the bed.
The Snowfall is So Silent
The snowfall is so silent,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.
by Miguel de Unamuno
translated by Robert Bly