Saturday, July 24, 2010

The New Beginning of My First Chapter

I had a small notebook in which I recorded everything that happened. Really, I had several dozen; every two or three weeks I would finish the one I was currently using and go buy a new one. For the first six years I returned home from school at the end of every day, after all the day’s chronicling was done, and wrote it all out again by hand in the form of a story. In the hours when I wasn’t memorizing poetry or reading, I would journal.

Then, in the last trimester of my junior year of high school, I acquired an old computer.

This had the benefit of making my journaling easier, fuller, and faster. But it left me feeling faintly surreal. I could tell you exactly what I had been thinking and feeling and doing on Tuesday, June 24, at five in the afternoon. I could recite an entire conversation I had had with Eric Booth six months earlier during Newspaper as we were walking towards the field house to take a picture of a boy who looked uncannily like Frodo Baggins. I could tell you the immediate reaction of the coaches, who had called him “Frodo” then and ever since. I could list off the names of the stores we had passed on our way to a UIL event in Houston during the last weekend of February, and the puns we had fashioned from each.

I could describe to you the conversation that ended a friendship, long after the friend had forgotten. I could tell you what my parents had said to each other in the week they got divorced.

Being a recorder and preserver of memory brings with it certain unusual, untransferable, and, in any other circumstances, unthinkable pleasures. Chief among them is the tunneling, ever-expanding mental and emotional landscape it creates. There’s something wondrous in it. Indulge me, if you will, for a moment, in a brief experiment. Try and remember a year of your life. Any year will do—your sixteenth, say. Now, what about it in particular do you remember? Certainly a few events of lasting import—the first time you read The Great Gatsby, the death of your mother… But what else? Unless you sit and think about it very probingly and deeply, your entire conception of whole years of your life becomes compressed over time into a few select images, hurried, undeveloped snapshots of the past. You might remember the cookies your uncle made; a certain song that everyone was singing; or the way the sunlight slanted in a schoolroom on the first day of August, but those cookies, that song, and that patch of summer sunlight will usurp the memory of all the other food you ate, and all the other songs you heard, and any other loveliness that God ordained. So that whenever you say, “my sixteenth year,” you’re really picturing that moment in the kitchen or that moment in the classroom, above and beyond all else. They have become a sort of mental shorthand for the year itself.

At least, this was always the case with me.

Yet, once I started chronicling, life lost its blurry edges. I could remember every single day now with untiring vividness. I never lost them. Rather, they accumulated, like beads on a necklace. And memory itself was expanding to accommodate its new possessions, so that my ordinary recollection of a given afternoon surpassed what I could once remember in a year. It was like building a city, house by house and street by street. Except that the city was my life and the expansion never ended. I was always adding on.

But in a world where old days never sank away to make way for new ones, where newer memories never crowded out but merely took their place beside the old ones, time no longer passed. It merely grew. When I awoke in the morning, I immediately recalled not only what had happened on the previous day, but on all the days and in all the weeks and all the months before. All this I recollected with a clarity of detail and acuteness of emotion such as only present circumstances normally accord; and every day would add a new one. The Gnostics of the late Roman Empire maintained a belief that all of us are really living in the year 30 AD, but that an evil demiurge has trapped us in an illusion of time passing; and, while I never held to this doctrine with the same tenacity as others, nevertheless I retain some sympathy for the notion that what we perceive as the passage of time is really nothing more than the aroma created by the disintegration of memory.

And perhaps it is this disintegration which distinguishes the present moment from the timelessness of the eternal in the age to come. For if perfection is not a dream to be scorned, but a reality to be recovered; and if the loss of memory is, in this age, but a dreary reminder of our current human imperfections; then it is not utter folly to suppose that all-remembering, undecaying recollection would be ours in such a state. Were this so, I suggest from my own experience that the desolating and devouring mortal sense of passing time would likewise be extinguished. So that then (as happened with me) the experiences of six years previous would be as near to you as yesterday when it is past [1] . This, by the way, is the answer to the riddle of how a man can live forever and never grow weary of living; for he was born, as it were, only yesterday.

[ 1 - C. f. Psalm 90:4: “A thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” For those who would go still deeper, this offers at least one explanation for how Jesus could have said, “Behold, I come quickly” over two thousand years ago and meant it. ]

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