I have a recurring nightmare about a jolly, anthropomorphized wasp befriending me before sucking all of my memories out of my ears. “How do you feel?” The wasp says. I feel like I don’t want to hurt the wasp’s feelings, so I don’t tell him that I am empty and scared. I can remember my name and my mom’s face, but that’s all. I say, “I don’t feel as bad as I think you thought I would feel,” and then I pat the jolly wasp on his head.
Waking up from this nightmare again this morning, I Googled “How does memory work” thinking it would give me some kind of peace of mind. The first search result was titled, “Human Memory: How It Works And How It Can Go Wrong.” That was obviously too terrifying to click on, so I moved to the next hit, which explained (with accompanying scientific pictures of green blobs and glowing x-ray-type images) that your brain first encodes an experience, then stores the memory (in a “short-term” way and/ or a “longterm” way), and then it uses synapses and nerve cells and the brain’s hippocampus to reconstruct the memory later if and when a person needs it.
This was not comforting at all. The article explained that in your twenties, the nerve cells and synapses you use for reconstructing memories start to break down, and they keep on breaking down until you are old and you die.
I’m not sure what I hoped I would find. I guess I hoped the truth would be something along the lines of the way I imagined memories to work when I was seven. I imagined this while I was on a hike with my two uncles somewhere very desert-y and hot. (Given that my uncles live in California, I assume now that this landscape was also in California, but I didn’t hold on to the name of the place.) we had just started up this red, dusty hillside. I felt tired and could feel my cheeks flush in that embarrassing way that I knew turned my whole face red, and I wished we had brought water bottles like I saw hikers bringing on commercials for outdoor stores. I was glumly wishing about the water bottles, in fact, when I saw, for the first time in my life, a lizard. The lizard was fat and stone gray and scaly like the frayed back of a pinecone. I stopped there, on the trail, gawking at this miniature dinosaur (who had stopped, likewise, to look at me). I thought, “I never want to forget this lizard,” and I imagined drawing a picture of him — a perfect picture, better than any I could actually draw — onto an imaginary index card, and then placing the card in a gray, metal box in my brain labeled, “MEMORIES."
For the rest of the hike, I was very pleased that I’d discovered I could keep memories in my memory box. So far, the box only had “gray lizard” in it, but I was excited for all the things I would put in it as my life went on. I imagined myself 90 years old, opening the metal box in my head, and pouring all my memories out in stories to blonde-haired grandchildren. “Oh, and here’s one about this scaly gray lizard I saw on a hike with my uncles,” I’d say, happening upon the memory with the same kick of surprise I saw on my mother’s face when she thumbed through old photo albums of pictures from her past.
There were hundreds of times after I saw the lizard that I saw something beautiful and thought, “I’ll store that away in that metal memory box of mine.” If I were to open it right now and go through the memories inside, here is a list of what they would be: Gray, scaly lizard. And that is all. Everything else I put in there evaporated through an unforeseen breach in its design.
That uncomforting website I consulted this morning on the subject of memory would remind me that new experiences — like imagining a false metal box for the first time, for example — stimulate the senses more than usual and are therefore more likely to be encoded in your brain than repeat experiences. I think that’s unfair and someone should have told me as a child. I’ll bet there was something way cooler than the gray lizard that I wanted to remember, but I’ve forgotten it simply because it wasn’t the first thing I tried to hold onto in a certain way.
It amazes me all the time that people aren’t more constantly depressed about how their memories are all disappearing en masse. My happier friends would say that the secret to life is staying present. Clinging to the details of your memories is no better than wiling away your hours by fearing death. People who live in the past — like people attached to a future of unknowns — can never be truly happy.
OK, fine. But try telling an amusing anecdote at a dinner party while living all the way in the present. You can’t do it. You need access to the story about the time the water cooler exploded at work and Christine tried to sop up the spill with her skirt.*
This is all to say that a week ago I was riding the train listening to my headphones and this song “Young Fathers” by the band came on. The first time I heard this song I was on a summer-long solo train trip I had decided to take to “find myself.” I was couch-surfing (not sleeping on the couches of friends, but actually “couch surfing,” as in “couchsurfing.org,” the website where strangers sign up to sleep on other strangers’ couches**) and I was staying in San Diego with a friendly post-college party bro with hair like Rider Strong's from “Boy Meets World.” I never thought I would willingly spend a weekend in San Diego; all my grandparents lived in Southern California when I was a kid and I associated the region with long car rides through smoggy dry heat to boring museums about war paraphernalia. But when I booked the train trip — which I did the old-fashioned way, over a phone with a guy who helped people book trips like these for Amtrak — the guy said, “You have to take the train along the west coast at sunset. You should go from Los Angeles to San Diego. You won’t regret it.” And indeed, the train ride was spectacular, and I did not regret it. The San Diego couch surfing bro even picked me up from the train station in his car.***
The first time I heard “Young Fathers,” was the morning I left the couch surfing guy’s house, intending to go to a public library in downtown San Diego. (To give my trip some bones, I had planned it around visiting public libraries in every city, because every city had them, and they were public, and they almost always had clean bathrooms and tons and tons of books.) I had the aqua backpacking backpack I’d asked my mom to give me for my birthday in May, and I was embarrassed that it still looked too new — backpacking backpacks are supposed to be crusted over with dried mud. After leaving a thank you note and a box of beignet mix at Bro’s house (he was at work), I trekked out to the public bus stop, and was taking the bus the two hour ride into the city. The bus was longer than most public buses I’d been on, and it was also unusually empty. I sat near the back by a window; there was only one other guy on the bus — a construction worker in overalls drinking a Big Gulp and standing near the driver to chat with him. I put on my headphones and turned on this podcast about new music (I was very into “new music” at this time in my life; I wanted to know all the new music before my cool friends in New Orleans), and the song “Young Fathers” came on, and I thought almost immediately that it was the perfect song. This is not all that common; usually songs take some time to warm up to and you don’t realize you love them until you find yourself wanting to hear them again. With “Young Fathers,” I felt instant infatuation.
This was the summer I was in love with two men at the same time, but I didn’t really want to be in love with either one of them. (Remember? I was trying to "find myself." I wanted to be the kind of lonely that young women are in road trip movies.) The taller of the two was the person I texted when I heard “Young Fathers.” Later that day, sitting on a shiny, curved bench looking out at the pier in downtown San Diego, we talked on the phone about how perfect that song was; a kid in a yellow T-shirt circled my bench on his skateboard like he was in a gam of sharks.
And I remember that because I remember everything from that day with “Young Fathers.” “Young Fathers” made the imprint on my brain — my brain encoded the song because the feeling of hearing this song and thinking it so immediately perfect was unusual — but the song-memory carried with it all these other things: the white T-shirt I had on that I’d cut the sleeves off of that morning because I was afraid I’d get pit stains; the little ball of pale green gum on the bus seat; the gas station out the windows selling tamales for $1, only the sign said “T MALES $1,” and I at first couldn’t understand what that meant. And also the memory carried the feeling of being in love with this boy, and the feeling of wanting to call him, and the feeling of being so defiantly alone in a city I never thought I’d visit on my own, intentionally reaching out to no one I knew.
People talk about smells that do this for them, or TV show themes, or very particular foods. “Young Fathers” came on while I was riding the subway last week and I started to cry, not because I longed for something that had disappeared, but because I was learning I still had something — like those fossils scientists marvel over because you can see the exact, uninterrupted shape of the thing at the very moment of its death — that I didn’t know was there.
In the midst of the great, arduous process of letting go that makes up the basic experience of being a human, there is some comfort that magic exists. The memory website explains exactly why my brain still remembers everything about the “Young Fathers” day, but fuck the memory website. I am going to call it magic; a little corner of light among the grayness of loss.
*I've never worked at the kind of job where there is a water cooler. Most of my ideas about office jobs come from the movie "Office Space," in which there was a water cooler. When people say, "at the office," I picture water coolers, copy machines, dishes of paper clips, and that's all. What do people do in offices like those? What do you do on your computer if you're at one? When I really think about it, I can only come up with, "sort paper clips, make copies, get water."
**Like the pretentious tool I am, I only learned about couchsurfing.org from a New Yorker article I read on an airplane. The woman who wrote the article seemed to think it was safe to sleep on stranger's couches, and she wrote for THE NEW YORKER, for God's sake.
***And, if it's not obvious, did not murder me at all.