I always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, a way to keep ourselves alive and thriving. And I don’t mean our species here—because it seems obvious that stories help our species thrive—but rather our individual selves. As in: I tell therefore I am.
But stories are also ways of forgetting. Maybe this explains the relationship between collecting and recollecting: a story is a collection of details and circumstances that seem worthwhile. Any act of recollection necessitates prioritizing that which is relevant and discarding the rest.
Forgetting seems like an unfortunate side effect of time and age and general human fallibility. But research suggests it’s part of the brain’s design and has real neurological value. What this means in practice is that we selectively inhibit some memories in order to facilitate the retrieval of others. The more a particular memory is retrieved, the more likely competing memories are to be forgotten. Forgetting is the brain’s way of speeding its processing time, and from an evolutionary perspective this seems advantageous: remembering takes work and we need some mechanism to streamline that process. I imagine remembering like walking through a field. The more you walk the same path, the wider and more accessible the path becomes. But, at the same time, the less you walk alternate paths, the more they grow over and become increasingly difficult to follow. If you need to get somewhere quickly—or remember something important—you are grateful for the well-trodden path.
When I tell the story of the first person I loved, I remember his white t-shirt and his long hair pulled back. I remember the night a group of us went to Sonic and he sat down next to me. And I remember that particular mode of noticing that only happens when you are sipping a milkshake beside a handsome boy on a hot September night: your body becomes an antenna tuned to his every movement and inflection. And all your intention is split between two actions: noticing him and not letting anyone notice you noticing.
I remember how my friend Joel said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it does seem like he likes you.” My hopes soared.
But I cannot remember exactly what I thought of him. Did I think we might fall in love, or was he just a diversion before I left for London? Would I have considered, at the time, the possibility that I might be here now, writing about that September evening? Did that night seem any different from the one before or the night after? Or did he, from all the other crushes I’ve had? Now that I have written our story, I can’t remember the night before or the night after. I can’t remember if it was him I longed for, or if it was Love.
The irony here is that I have, as long as I can remember, been kind of terrified of forgetting. And this fear, more than anything else, has motivated me to write things down, to record and retell the stories of my life.
I spent one summer in front of a cash register at K-Mart. I was seventeen. Scanning barcodes and counting bills seemed exciting at first, but the thrill of using that paraphernalia of adulthood didn’t last long. Most days I kept a bag of Skittles in the pocket of my red vest and doled them out to myself—one every twenty-or-so minutes—as a way to celebrate the passing of time. I set goals: sell the most paper flowers to raise money for kids with cancer; use as few plastic bags as possible; learn to type on the number pad with three fingers. I suspected the other cashiers—mostly middle-aged women who’d been there for years—knew I was bored by their job. Maybe that was why they didn’t talk to me. Or maybe it was because I was too shy to talk to them.
My friend Erin was working at a summer camp in North Carolina and as I scanned barcodes I wrote to her in my head. Between customers I recorded the letters on the brown paper towels stacked by my register. I stuffed them into envelopes and sent them off to a world I couldn’t picture but desperately envied. By the end of the summer, there was no pleasure even in rapid three-finger keying. I’d seethe inside whenever someone insisted I put their gallon of milk—a container with a perfectly-functional built-in handle—in its own plastic bag. To escape, I’d spend an entire morning shift recalling the exact pressure of Zane’s fingertips on my abdomen—a new, thrilling sensation. Then between customers I’d scramble to write it all out on a paper towel, my face flushed and my hand cramping. Eventually, I spent every momentary lull and mandatory break writing fiendishly. I’d never known words which, though not especially interesting or artful, were so desperate to get out.
Now I think of that manic scribbling as an antidote to forgetting. Or an attempt. Somewhere Erin still has a stack of paper towels stuffed into envelopes and perhaps I could even find the ones I kept in the boxes of materials that my mom consolidated from my drawers and closet shelves and shoved into the outbuilding behind our house. But I have no interest in reading them.
At seventeen, and for several years after, the events of my life felt more important than the ideas. Or maybe the events were just concrete stand ins for ideas and that’s why recording them felt so urgent. Surely there was some revelation in the first fingertips that grazed the sharp bone of my hip—something about the trek toward adulthood and what it meant to be wanted—just as there was insight, several years later when that same bone grated the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast and I spent two weeks on crutches and Percocet and J carried me up and down the stairs when I had to pee in the middle of the night. And now, there is insight still in the scar itself, a pale, small, ugly thing, and the moment it’s first noticed by someone new.
There is, I suspect, less of an imperative for seventeen year olds to record the events of their lives now that our technologies do it for us without our really noticing. Every email and photograph and activity is logged on a website or calendar or disk or drive. Our memories are stored in clouds, or so my phone tells me, though I do not know exactly how they get there or how I might retrieve them if I felt inclined. But I don’t need to know because the internet is far more reliable than mutable human memory and in seconds I can search for directions on recovering photos or getting to friends’ houses. Still, knowing about the cloud and seeing all the photos of my dog—sleeping and playing and bounding through the woods—that reside there does not quite dampen my fear of what might be lost, of what we do, in fact, lose all the time. We have outsourced these memories but their lifespan relies entirely on complex infrastructure. We have placed a lot of faith in fiber optic cables.
I sit on Roscoe’s mat, grading papers with his head on my lap, and I think often of our numbered days. Though he is fairly young, I can’t love him without remembering that I will outlive him. After I got Roscoe, J confessed that he thought I wanted a dog because I was missing something in my relationship with him. The idea had never occurred to me—I had never loved anyone with the intensity I loved him. But maybe he was right in a way, not that his love was inadequate, but that I was already counting our days. Maybe I wanted some ephemerality insurance. Maybe this same desire accounts for the redundant photos of that whiskered snout and wet black nose and piled paws all stored on the cloud. Maybe this is why all of us carry cameras in our pockets, taking and sharing pictures of our pets and our kids and everything we love, because we are all a little afraid of forgetting. And maybe we are afraid of forgetting because we are a little—or a lot—afraid of oblivion. Even as I write this I see the space on the page running low, the sun surrendering to the land, my evening appointments hanging on the horizon.