What Was Worth Keeping

Two days ago, someone broke into my car. I was at a concert — the kind of concert I hadn’t been to in almost a decade, with electric guitars and an obsessively-adored touring musician. Throughout the show, I kept thinking, “I wish there was some way to hold onto this feeling.” I could tell that I was nearing the end of a part of my life where I truly enjoy being pressed up against the front of a stage, digging my fingers into some twenty-something’s amplifier. Someday soon this will all feel less exciting to me. I wanted to be able to remember how it felt to be that kind of alive. Meanwhile, someone quickly went through everything I’d left in the car since I started to move, and made judgements about what was worth keeping. 

When I got back to my car (it’s a 1999 Volvo with a slew of ongoing problems, including a defunct speedometer, and some kind of malfunction that makes an orange arrow flash on the dash, slowing the accelerator), it was in disarray. I had left it full, because I am historically too lazy to take things out of the car and put them into the house. All the things had been rifled through and tossed haphazardly about. The brown paper bag filled with clothes I meant to donate had been shredded. Some of the clothes were on the steering wheel. 

Cleaning the car out was like playing a game of Memory. There had been so much in the back seat that it was un-sittable. I found the sudden task of remembering what I’d left back there daunting; it was hard to think of what might now be missing. But after all was said and done, here’s what I know the person took for sure: 26 dollars, a pack of spearmint chewing gum, an electric drill, a set of eight harmonicas, four mix tapes, and a box of love letters I’d saved from an ex-boyfriend.

I should have emptied my car sooner, I know. Moving everything from our old house down the street to this new one has been emotionally draining, and I left a lot of things in the back seat of my car, unwilling to complete a task that didn’t feel like it had a time stamp on it. But more importantly: who takes four mix tapes and a box of love letters? They left an expensive dress with the tags still on it; they left a small amplifier and a bag of watercolor pans. Why take the tapes and the letters? What was this person going to do with those things?

I recently read Sarah Manguso’s latest memoir “Ongoingness: The End of A Diary.” It’s a terrific little book; shorter than most magazine articles, so you can read it in an hour; but dense like flourless cake, so you feel like you have to stop often to digest. Manguso’s premise was to write a memoir about a diary she kept obsessively for almost all her life, without ever excerpting the diary itself. Ultimately, it is a work about memory. Or, more: it is a book about how human and how impossible it is to try to hold on to memories. After all, she postulates, isn’t that why any of us keep a record? So we won’t forget?

Remembering is one of the most complex and fascinating things a brain can do. Although we do it imperfectly as a rule, we nevertheless do it constantly. The brain’s frontal cortex and hippocampus analyze various sensory inputs and make decisions about what is worth remembering. I remember, for example, the definition my seventh grade social studies teacher gave for the word, “culture.” I also remember how she circled the classroom on a Wednesday afternoon while the air conditioning was broken and told us we should all read “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” I do not remember anything else from seventh grade social studies. One of the most wonderful mysteries of the human mind is that no one can say why, for sure, those are the things I can remember.

Every memory is a great work of architecture. Brains need to summon multiple regions to recall even the simplest information. And the connections between brain cells change constantly, strengthening with repetition. This is why, when you were once in love but find yourself suddenly out of love, you experience such physical pain. Your brain has strong synapses between Name and Love. To remind your brain that Name and Love no longer belong together is almost more than it can bear.

I know I have been very in love as a fact, but I liked having the love letters because I don’t really remember it. There are times I read through old love letters with my brow bunched up in a sort of disbelief. Did I really think you were the best thing that ever happened to me? Did you feel this deep, insatiable longing when we had to spend hours apart? I can’t imagine you saying that. But there you are, saying it. I have a distant memory of the euphoria that came with the being-in-love, and of the pain that came with losing it. But I can’t feel those things anymore. My brain has unlearned what it needed to unlearn in order to survive. 

My own diary has an obsessiveness about it, too. I have kept one since I was seven, and it’s always felt like one of the non-negotiables in my life. I will record what has happened. Of course, there’s no objectivity to “what has happened;” especially when you find yourself as the only primary source around the historical event of riding down the hill on a bike in the rain with Trevor Clancey. I think that happened because I wrote it down, but the memory is diluted. Memory has become an act of trust between my brain and a written record taken when I wasn’t old enough to know what I would want a written record for.

When I finished charting my losses from the car break-in, I came into the house and took out my diary. I listed the three mix tapes I knew had been taken — they were made by someone I love right now, and who knows how that will change, but I didn’t want to forget. I closed my eyes and tried to list all the songs on all the tapes. I’ve listened to them hundreds of times, but I never thought I’d need to remember them. I never learned the names of the songs. I wrote, “The song where the girl sounds sad, and she’s singing about the moon.” In a year, I won’t know what that means.

Ultimately, it’s too bad that the person who broke into my car took the harmonicas: I had wanted to play them again; I’d been carrying them with me since high school. But maybe, in a strange, small way, the loss of the mix tapes and the love letters was sort of a gift. It’s as if someone was saying, “Even if you can’t remember having loved, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Stop trying to hold onto everything that was wonderful in your past; just be here, now.”