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Feb 16, 2007

Memories and time

The deepest, most carnal memories come uninvited. Triggered by a particular sensation, such a memory pierces your entire life like a threaded needle. It holds together the loose stuff of accidents and self-justifications we call life. Those ephemeral threads are the only connecting tissue; they allow us to claim kinship with younger strangers that used to occupy our younger bodies. The sound of your mother’s voice, the smell of the small creek in your hometown, the breeze playing with your hair; things like that.

One of mine is walking on a snowy path at night, frigid, snowy night. It will inevitably bring a strange feeling of acute loneliness, as if I am the only one left on this inhospitable, cold, vast planet. At the same time, I am elated and happy to see something beautiful, and just in the right place. Squeaks of snow. Pure paucity of colors. Short wind blows that make me gasp for air, exactly like fish out of the water. The strange depth of horizon, more imagined than real. Walking to school in early Siberian morning; the scratchy scarf against my cheeks; too tight, Mama, too tight, it is not that cold.

I can live in all times of my life at once; with no story, no biographic list of selected events, and nothing to explain. It is simply a different sort of presence in my own life outside of time. What is time, anyway? The biographic time of life span? Isn’t it just a convenient way of telling stories? Isn’t it simply a way of separating events into important and unimportant, and then editing them together in sequence? Time is arbitrary and constraining; time is the dictator whose power is as strong as our willingness to obey. In a very real, bodily sense, my trip to the second grade classroom just happened again several days ago, when it was cold in Colorado. It did happen again, you see.

Not only the past, but future is also already here. I remember the distinct feeling of a complete, transparent life already lived when I was just a small child. You might think I had no idea what is going to happen to me, but I know better. All my life was given to me as a preview. I cannot tell the events that will occur, but I know what will happen; those are two very different things.

The straight, artificial biographical time dominates our lives. We deem events to be important or trivial depending on how well they fit into the novel about ourselves we keep writing. This makes sense, because the biographic time is easy to communicate to others. Yet I just communicated my walk, and most people can relate to something like this just as well. Moreover, there is a serious problem with biographic time: it skews the importance of events in one direction. Jobs, publications, awards, evaluations, promotions, successes and failures, rites of passage, birth, death – all of these take too much of importance, and this is just not good. The events of biographical time do not always go well; we do not always have any control over them. This is where a relatively small unpleasant thing begins to eat at our sense of identity. It just does not fit well into the carefully constructed auto-biographical narrative. This should not be happening to me; and if it is, well, it is because other people are evil or I am worthless (Those two thoughts, by the way, are really identical in their origin). We torture each other because we want others to behave like characters in our own novels. But the characters to do not cooperate and stories do not come out as planned.

If human life is a novel, it has to be richer than the narrative. A simple recital of events makes a very boring reading indeed. Narrative should be punctuated with glimpses from other kinds of time, where the insignificant, dismissed, and forgotten bits of human life suddenly come back in full force and claim their unexpected importance. To live happy, full lives, we should always be on a lookout for the carnal memories I began with. We must constantly search for sensations, parallels, strange thoughts and feelings that take us out of the vicious run of the biographic time. We all are still little children, our parents and grandparents are all alive and well; we all are already dead and forgotten; we can have our first love experienced again and again. It is the same day as yesterday, and all e-mails in your mailbox you have read already. You are just here, and it is the time that keeps running in circles around you. So, stand still, and let the piercing memories and premonitions do their quiet job of threading your life together.

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