Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I Forget (hopefully.)

After I graduated from college, I went on a Kundera bender: I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and probably in the span of a year or two. I'd started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the behest of a friend from high school (who went to Smith College and wrote her thesis on Kundera and Rushdie, which made her super-smart and super-cool as far as I was concerned, and whom I've since--sadly--lost touch with), and that one book was enough to get me hooked. I bought some cheaply, I checked some out from the library, I found every book he'd written that I could get my hands on. In one of them, I remember him writing: "Memory is not the opposite of forgetting; memory is a kind of forgetting." I don't know what book this is in. You'd think it'd be in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, right? But I can't find it. For years, I've been doing searches online for this quote, and while I can find plenty of other people quoting Kundera (which makes us sound erudite and considered, but also, frankly a bit like a pompous douche), I can't find which book it's in. I've reread The Book of Laughter and Forgetting trying to find it, as well as Unbearable Lightness, and I keep coming up empty.

I remember reading in The Black Notebooks about the luxury of forgetting: how nice it is that some people can forget things--in this case it was race--because others of us cannot forget. It was a book written by a black poet who can pass for white and struggles to integrate her racial identity in a world where white people treat her like she's not black and black people treat her like she's white. (As an aside, it's an amazing book, and that really mediocre description I just offered is, well, really mediocre. Go look.) Anyway, she was talking about the luxury of forgetting, and how some of us--who've experienced neglect or abuse, who've witnessed atrocities, who are daily confronted with relationships or institutions that rob us of our humanity--lack that luxury. We can't all forget. So when I hold this beside the phantom Kundera quote, I wonder what it really means to remember. Experiencing is one thing: when you walk down the street and a man hollers at you something gross and offensive, or even something that sounds innocuous but still objectifies you, you experience your feelings, you don't remember them. But remembering is different. The process we go through of sorting out our feelings on losing our virginity to That Guy, or the first time we read That Book and finally felt like someone understood us, or the last time we saw That Person alive: these feelings color our memory of the guy, the book, the person. So they exist in our memory not in a factual state, but a fictional one, or maybe a creatively nonfictional one: this really happened, but the truth of it is wholly subjective, bound by our own experience and reflective only of our own thoughts.

I sat on my mat this morning, post-yoga, thinking of forgetting and remembering, and thinking how much I dislike remembering September 11, 2001. Not so much my truth of the experience, as much as the posture of remembering. I dislike the flag posters that state dogmatically, We Will Never Forget, and bear Stars and Stripes whipping poetically in wind. I dislike looking at square-jawed individuals in dress military uniforms shoot bullets into the air as a kind of salute. I dislike hearing Amazing Grace or the Star Spangled Banner. I intensely dislike the camouflaged, target-sign, right-wing bullshit I can't even conceive of, that I know is a part of how some people remember. Part of the reason I don't like remembering is because it was a really sad day, a really difficult experience for all of us to witnessed, and because, without exaggerating, it changed our world. But the larger reason I don't like remembering is because it pulls out everyone's jingoistic baggage and turns our American spotlights on and I have a low tolerance for that.

I have spent a significant part of the last few years of my life working hard at remembering. Remembering who I was when I was a girl, remembering the happy moments I had, moments when I felt like a real person, and how those might differ from moments I remember when I felt like someone's puppet or doll, or wastebasket. The writing helps; therapy helps; my friends often (but not always) help. These days I remember a lot, and because I remember and want to talk about it, I have estranged myself, and been estranged from, two people with whom I had the most formative relationships in my life, my parents, because they would rather would rather forget. Some of these things I can't forget; I have to take them out of myself and run my hands over them, examine and understand them, so that ultimately I can set these aside and forget them. Once the sting has been pulled out of these memories, they can achieve a kind of balance.

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating the kind of return to the past that I hear coming out of the Republicans, where things were good if you were a white man, where women were under the control of their husbands and people of color were servants and degenerates who were thankful for the charity benevolent white men offered them. I just mean I have the chance to feel less bitterness about some of these memories if I can actually remember them, and not just forget so fast.

So there are two ways to remember: remembering to acknowledge as much of the objective truth (if it exists), to own mistakes we make, to feel emotions we haven't yet processed, and to bear witness; or remembering to reiterate the narrative we tell ourselves over and over, to throw ourselves further out of balance and to heighten the subjective experience we have about a thing, which actually seeks to hide it more, rather than to uncover it.

So I am remembering sitting in my pajamas in the house I grew up in watching on TV as planes flew into buildings, as they collapsed. I am remember how empty the house felt. I am remembering being home trying to work on my senior thesis and driving out to a Starbucks in a neighboring suburb, trying to focus on the writing, and not on the attack that scared me, but that I also understood. I am remembering the hug my father gave me that day. I am remembering how glad I was that he was home, and not traveling for work, like he did so often. I am remembering my mother's lust for blood in the weeks that came afterward, and how I thought she was a Republican, much as she tried to argue she was an Independent. I am remembering the ways in which, for years, we all tried to comfort ourselves, even when it meant using each other, or hurting each other. I am remembering my father, and my mother in all of their earnest and desperate hard work, and I am remembering all of the pain that has passed between us. I am remembering so that one day I can forget.

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