Memory, M&Ms, and What the Body Holds
Happy New Year! I know it’s a few weeks after the horrible pressure to have fun, look nice, and stay up past the ball dropping that is New Year’s Eve, but statistically, in the longer scheme of the Gregorian calendar, the year is still new and my greeting is appropriate.
It’s been many moons since I last posted, in large part because damn was 2015 chock-full! Alongside difficult stuff like serious family illnesses (on all family sides), there were many good things though. Three particularly high moments were:
1) Getting to participate in the very last Flor De Nopal Literary Festival event hosted in Austin, TX by the amazing Latin@ writer and thinker ire’ne lara silva. Not only was that the first time I got to meet her in person, but I also had the pleasure of meeting and reading with Dan Vera and José Antonio Rodríguez.
2) I was included on the Latinostories.com annual list of Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch and Read, which is created and run by Latin@ authors and scholars including the fa-mazing Jose B. Gonzalez! Yeah, you know, the guy that co-edited Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, the very first anthology of Latin@ literature published. Ever. Who happens also to be a badass poet.
3) And lastly, my manuscript, Hands That Break & Scar, was accepted for publication!!! My debut full length book of poetry! It felt like forever that this manuscript was trying to find a good home (when in actuality it was really only three or four years in various iterations, but that feels super long while you’re in the midst of it), but it has certainly been worth the wait; especially since the manuscript was welcomed home by three amazing poets: Erin Elizabeth Smith, Sara Henning, and T.A. Noonan, and with a press that I have long admired for their ingenuity, ambition, commitment to underrepresented writers, and diversity of poetic representation: Sundress Publications.
It’s actually the subject matter of that manuscript and having been back in the Central Valley for the holidays that is at the heart of this post. There aren’t a lot of people I know anymore (not counting on Facebook of course. I mean people I see in the flesh) from when I was a kid/teenager/first few years of my 20s. The few I do, I see if they are also in town and our schedules align like the stars. When this does happen, without fail, someone will say, “Remember when . . .”
I used to think I had a good memory, like my brain was somehow superior and clear, able to hold information and details like a jar of M&Ms – everything colorful and contained unto itself, if maybe a bit jostled about. I’d still need to dig for a brown one or maybe a red, but I was sure that it was there and that when I found it, it would be true and intact. I was only able to think this for as long as I have because there was often no one to compare memories with. The memories being specifically from a time where all the people I cared about are now living far away, just not in touch, or dead and too stubborn to provide corrective info in a dream; until a few years ago.
Strangely and by pure chance, I ran across a message in a sort of junk folder on Facebook sent years before from someone I knew from this time in my adolescence (the time that inspired much of the manuscript mentioned above), which was, as it turns out, incredibly formative for me. I responded to the message explaining that I had only just found it. Then, just like that, someone I had thought about many times over the years was now back in my life (if only on the ephemeral internet). As it goes with renewed contact online, there was a little catching up, some awkward exchanges (mostly on my part*), the occasional liking of posts. The point though, was that now I was in touch with someone who could verify/validate some of these details from so many years ago. Except that isn’t what happened. This person did not remember the same details I did and in fact, some details – even something small like which horror author we’d both read and talked about – was different. Stephen King instead of Clive Barker. I mean, I read a lot of Stephen King between the ages of 12-16 and Night Shift remains one of my favorite short story collections. That this was the author in question is so very plausible, it was just that in my mind, for some reason, I’d had a different association.
This shook me out of the narrative I had built for myself regarding the acuity of my memory. If I were a more arrogant, less inquiry-based person, I’d just say I was right and that person was wrong and my memory is better. I’m a lot of things, but ignorant and unshakably-confident are not two of my defining characteristics. Instead of feeling self-righteous, I began to doubt everything I thought I remembered from that time. Had I created a narrative that fit some ideological fantasy? Had I just read so much and watched so much T.V. and daydreamed so much that all my memories of those years and the time spent with those people a complete fabrication stitched creatively together? And yes, this extremity is pretty indicative of my first mental line of defense. If there is a worst / weirdest / most dramatic way to go, that’s my first stop . . .
So, after over-intellectualizing my entire past as a possible lie (i.e. after calming the fuck down), one afternoon while laying on the hardwood in the upstairs hallway in my sweatpants in the middle of a weekday trying to work on some kind of literary analysis, thinking about everything but what I was supposed to be working on, I heard a song from the earlish-90s on the radio. This song made me re-experience that old burning against the backs of my thighs I’d feel while sitting against the metal stripping that held down the fake grass carpet seams on the front porch steps, which made me smell the tang of hot asphalt and leaked gasoline and cigarette smoke, and this made me feel the sort of weightless nervousness that used to hover in my stomach while waiting to see if certain people might walk past on an otherwise uneventful summer day.
It was in that moment I realized it isn’t the minute details catalogued in the file system of my brain that give memories significance. Would I like to have those details “right?” Sure. Would I like to be able to share them with a co-conspirator? Of course. But the fact of my own memories, those that I carry, the ones that I have felt to possess intrinsic truth, are the sensory moments lodged in the very ends of my body’s nerves. It doesn’t matter that the cells of the body regenerate at varying speeds. New cells are born of the cells that held the sensation of sunbaked metal and the dare of how long I could leave my skin against it, a test of the pleasure/pain of being alive that punctuates the memory of how I felt at a moment, in a day, about the people in my life at any given time. My body holds the capital “T” true memories even when my brain has shuffled and misplaced the little “t” facts.
The conclusion I’ve come to at the near start of my thirty-fifth year, is it doesn’t matter whether it was I or my friend that remembers the correct name of the author we discussed, what matters is that if I close my eyes, I can still feel the gruff texture of that hideous beige sectional in the living room of the mobile home chaffing against my propped elbows, laying on my stomach reading in the dimming light. And it is this sensation which reminds me of the brief moments of happiness I felt being with like-minded people, learning there existed like-minded people, and the creation of the hope that the loneliness which plagued my childhood might experience reprieve, if only for snatches of time. That, I think, is the function of memory I will choose to honor.
*I feel compelled at this point to mention that I was in particularly rare form at this time in my life. I was finishing my comprehensive exams and dissertation, applying for jobs, trying to publish, fighting institutional discrimination, and just generally having a full-blown identity crisis getting so close to actually accomplishing this crazy, statistically impossible goal that had before seemed so very far away as to not even be real – so I was by no means my best or most rational self; though that excuse only goes so far. I suppose we all have those situations/incidents in life we wish we could start over . . .