Friday, April 18, 2008

Amnesia: What Every Two-Year-Old Knows

One of my friends is about to turn 25, and the other night we were discussing our 20s, characterizing the decade as one of restlessness and confusion. I told her, "Dude, we have license to fuck up so badly in our 20s, but we've got to work it out." That is to say, my 20s have been all about trying on different lives to see if they fit, which has meant a few very unflattering outfits. However, I've come to the conclusion that if one refuses to move through the pain of losing or disillusionment, he or she may never feel anything but the pain. Like pain is a permanent attachment--or a permanent attachment to pain.

Staying with the analogy of trying things on, I've had a few lives that felt fashionable for a while (being a student in Italy, interning with famous editors at Random House, working for magazines in San Francisco, embarking on a year-long yoga adventure) and others that busted at the seams (moving in with a badly behaved CEO in London, slaving for a hedge fund in Manhattan). Maybe spontaneously combusted at the seams would be a better description of the latter. Anyway, without these “fittings,” if you will, how would I ever know what I want to put into motion?

Which leads me to the question: What if we considered our failures as mere diagnostic testing? What if the past meant nothing to us except the wisdom and sensibilities we've gained from having gone through it all? (By the way, all of these lives have culminated with the one I have today, living as a mostly blissed out mommy who works with writing students at a small liberal arts college.)

The reason I'm pondering these questions: I watched a totally fascinating documentary tonight called “Unknown White Male.” It's about a man called Doug Bruce who mysteriously developed amnesia early one morning in New York City. He woke up on the subway on March 7, 2003 and did not recognize his surroundings. He had no recollection of what he was doing or who he was. He soon realized he was wearing a backpack, but all it contained was a vile of clear liquid (later identified as medication for a dog), a travel guide to South America and two sets of keys. Since he didn't have any clue who he was, he went to a nearby police station for help. The police noticed his English accent and concluded that he must be English, which, at the time, meant nothing to Doug. After five days in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Brooklyn, Doug called a phone number scrawled on a scrap of paper he found in the travel guide. He reached a woman who recognized his voice. She told Doug over the phone, “I know who you are. You have a great life, and I'll be there to pick you up in half an hour."

Doug soon found out he had been a successful stock broker who had retired at age 30 to pursue his passion for photography. He owned a large, sparse loft in Manhattan, three cockatoos and two dogs. He spent the next several years meeting family and friends for the first time and creating a new version of himself amidst the relics of his forgotten past. He soon concluded that he did not care if his memory came back and later grew to fear its return.

What excited me about this documentary was watching Doug experience the joys of life for the first time with an adult mind. New York was a new and exhilarating place. He wept the first time he saw the ocean. He fell in love for the first time--the all-consuming and devoted kind. His photography was suddenly elevated to a new level of artistic depth. It was as if he was only left with the sensory faculty of his past--almost like muscle memory of living without ego or cynicism (i.e., what we all enjoyed as small children).

As the mother of two-year-old Landen, I am constantly in the presence of this lack of inhibition (for which I am forever grateful). Before dinner tonight, Landen and I were walking along Seneca Lake and the moon was full and bright. He pointed to it excitedly and ran down the bank toward the lake shore. He stopped on a hill, reached up and grunted--thinking he could somehow grasp the moon in his little hands, fingers spread out like stars. He then stood there with his back to me for a while, his head tilted upward and still. The lake reflected the moonlight like sparks on the water and the moon floated above it, a giant pearl in the purple sky.

This moment reminded me that every moment is original. As every two-year-old knows, our origins lie in this moment and then the next...


John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

I can more-or-less guarantee that before the weekend is out I will have read your post another 5 times. What a wonderful meditation on life and all that is important. Also, I'll be adding the documentary you mention to my Netflix queue and planning my next trip to Geneva.

Your post made me think of so many wonderful things, one of which was my memory of Eugen telling me that the birth of his son had brought back to life his memories of being an infant and a child. I always found this a profound, exciting, and beautiful notion.

I also found myself mulling back over the notion of rediscovery in general. In my life I have come to believe that we all go through these times where we build up so many habits, patterns, and lessons we consider rock solid (whether consciously or unconsciously) and then, invariably, something changes. When you talk about trying on lives, this change, I suppose, would be the moment you walk back into the dressing room to don a different look. Change is so often turbulent that I think we miss sometimes the opportunity it presents. One of the best ways I've seen of capturing these moments is in a Pablo Neruda poem (I'll drop the whole thing in at the end of my comment) where he says, "...perhaps the earth is teaching us when everything seems to be dead, and then everything is alive."

I can think of few more vibrant images of life, than Landen reaching for the moon, grunting with his wonderful little outstretched fingers.


... and now the rest of what Neruda had to say. Two quick notes:

This version of his poem is a translation I have in a collection caled "Full Woman, Fleshy Apple, Hot Moon" translated by Stephen Mitchell... a wonderful book I highly recommend, and one I should have excuse to pull out much more often. Perhaps I'll leave it on my bed-side table for awhile.

Also, I was introduced to this poem at a reading by Billy Collins in New York City in October of 2001, and he started his poetry reading by reciting this, rather than his own words. Being at that reading is a magical experience I will never forget, and every time I read this poem I think of how I encountered it in such a strange time.

Anyway, here goes:

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fisherman in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.

… and now I’m going to go read your post again, Heidi! Thanks so much for your beautiful words.

Heidi Beach said...

thanks for the feedback, johnboy! i enjoyed the poems, as well. leave it to the poets to sum it all up, no?

it's all about the aesthetic of living. can you feel it?!

;) HGB

Manager Mom said...

As a mom with a fairly colorful past herself (some records of which are either "sealed" or "expunged", depending on which of my prior attorneys you ask) I related to your post, and enjoyed your writing - thoughtful, clear, evocative, but not sentimental.

One thing struck me though. You used the term "blissed out". For real? That, and not just 'happy'? I've never known anyone who was operating on that kind of mood level before, at least not without the aid of stimulants.

Corinne said...

what a great post. :) i was slightly confused at first... john? a mommy? when did that happen???? but i figured it out.

John said...

Yeah, I realize now it might be confusing for a bit, but I've started inviting people to post on the blog... aiming for a bit more of an almost magazine feel or something like that. Either that or I'm just having fun and thought it would be more fun with others involved.

Speaking of which, if you have any interest in being our resident law blogger or post-engineer blogger or really cool New Yorker blogger... just let me know.

Corinne said...

aw thanks! i'll leave the blogging to the experts though :) i'm enjoying the new format, content, and contributors. it makes your awesome blog even AWESOMER!