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#8 The Archaeology of Memory


Anne Hume was a Scottish writer in the mid-1700s who died in 1821. I would like to think that her songs and words not only speak to me because of their beauty, but because of an inexplicable link with Scotland, and my Father and our shared heritage.

The song is about lost love and it breaks my heart every time I think of it.

“Why cannot I the days forget,

which time can ne’er restore?

Oh days too sweet, too bright to last,

are you indeed forever past?”

The absence that Hume touches upon, is remedied by living through memories. The absence is not a state of lack, but rather a state of repetition and by default, a state filled with substance. Loss, by its very nature, conjures up the idea of a void, a black space, a negative space in our hearts, minds, and homes. But loss does not simply leave us unfulfilled. Our emptiness is awash with reflections, memories, sorrow, and grief. It is these emotions that find solace in our loss. Our emptiness overflows.

“The Fleeting shadows of delight,

In memory I trace.”

To find reprieve from a world that does not care if I am grieving, I return to my memories. But the places I go, are never actually there. They are tricks of the eye, a flash in the night sky, they flicker like an old fashioned movie, and sometimes I cannot make out all the edges. It is November 21 and in exactly one month my father’s death will replay in my mind just like another stock standard Christmas film for the holiday season. As it plays I will torture myself for being unable to save him. Grief will reawaken all my pains, like my body remembering a dance I have long tried to forget.

In this space of loss, I become selfish, lost, and blind with anger. But mostly, I am exhausted. I reach this point every year and find myself stuck on the merry-go-round before I even know I have climbed on it. I am drawn to the loss. It is the only place where I find solitude, where my feelings are left unquestioned.

When I was ill as a child, my Father would tell me:

“Close your eyes and imagine you are building a house. What does the door look like?”

It was his way of helping me forget the pain, and I would often fall asleep imagining the gardens, the kitchen, and the library I would build myself. I try to use this technique even now, but there is something different about emotional pain. Loss is not just a space of repetition, it is also a place of transformation. Every feeling of love, respect, joy… Every memory, both good and bad, are transformed through the lens of loss. Things become more acute, and the images of sorrow are sharp like a knife’s blade. Memories that were once perceived as bad, are transformed with a softness. My mind grasps at every small recollection in the hopes of building a mosaic, but the pieces always get mixed up or lost and somewhere, somehow, I find myself at the beginning again with a ruin of broken pieces at my feet.

The Pauli Exclusion Principle states that no two fermions can occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. This has loosely been translated into no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. However, this generalised statement is not true for the laws of physics or the laws of memory and space. And herein lies the problem of memory and loss. My Father died at home. He died in a rented hospital bed that we put in my old childhood bedroom. When I was growing up, that room was a place of retreat. I had my bookshelf next to the window, across from my bed so I always had easy access to my books. I had honey coloured furniture and pale yellow walls. I remember I had to fight with my parents for months to get those yellow walls. My Mother insisted the house had to be uniform, but I would not budge. My Father eventually took me to the paint shop and we picked out the colour together. After two days of painting, the walls were pineapple delight coloured. When I moved out, my Mother painted the walls light blue. And so, in December 2011 my Father died in a blue room with pineapple delight just under the surface. My old bedroom is now both a room of tremendous grief and heartbreak and unimaginable happiness, the kind you can only know as a child. And so, two spaces come together not as one, but as two separate spaces simply occupying the same place. Memories rewrite, write over, erase, and intertwine like the writing on a palimpsest.

“In fancy stop their rapid flight,

and all the past replace;

But, ah! I wake to endless woes,

And tears the fading visions close.”

Memory theorists suggest that the purest memory is the one you can’t actually remember. Every time you remember something, you create memory bridges in your mind that alter ever so slightly with each new engagement of the memory. The memories that you remember the most, that you replay in your mind, are actually memories of memories of memories. Some things stay clear and exact, but over time, the exact phrases and sequences of events become altered. And what you are left with is not the memory and the images, but the feelings. Even when I can’t remember my Father’s face, I still remember the feeling of his presence and the assurance it gave me.

So what could an archaeology of memory look like if the sands of time keep shifting under our feet? If spaces can become everything and nothing? Memory theorists suggest that memory can be erased. If the memory bridge cannot be built, then the memory is gone. And suddenly, we have nothing left to stand on… An archaeology of memory must begin with a mass collection of thoughts, words, and remembrances. And while it will be imperfect, it will be a foundation that we can revisit and build upon. As Hume writes,

“The season comes when we first met,

but you return no more.”

Loss is where we must begin to dig.

 

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