Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Wavering Capacity of Memory

Lauren Artess and Naseem Rakha, Fetzer Institute, 2010
I flew to Oakland today to spend the weekend with three women I met four years ago at a Fetzer Institute retreat for writers examining the subject of love and forgiveness. My friends are bright, funny, and wonderful people doing the important work of writing and teaching and reaching out and into the world. The four of us have talked about reconnecting for a while now, but life, you know how it intercedes—work, obligations, family. It's a rare thing to actually reconnect with those you've met along the way—the kindred spirits you've held before departing, promising to "get together, somehow, someway..."

Windswept encounters. Little jewels of life.

Yet, here we four are in a house overlooking Tomales Bay, a geologic nexus where the North American and Pacific Plates merge.
Shell Beach State Park, Tomales Bay - Point Reyes

We spent last night catching up on each others' lives. The turns in our relationships, the struggles of our work, the causticness of the publishing world, the mechanization of creativity, the pain and preciousness of this time—caught between life's three great changes—the fading of our parents, the blossoming of our children, and then our own dance with change—the new aches, the temperamental chemistry, the flux of moods. And, most worrying, the wavering capacity of memory.

Each of us notice our mind's latest gaffs: the conversations we swore we've never had, the growing accumulation of words which sit on "the tip of the tongues", the lost items, forgotten names, faces, phone numbers, birthdays.

"What was it that woman said to us about this wine?" Alison asked as she pours me a glass of Petite Sirah. The woman she speaks of is a sommelier we had only just met a few hours before at a market in Point Reyes Station. She was incredibly knowledgable, and had many keen words to describe the taste and structure of wine. We talked with her for about a half hour, pressing her like writers tend. And yet, there Alison and I were just a few hours later, unable to remember a word of what the wine woman had said. We laughed about it, blaming the gaps in our memory on the hormonal meham of menopause. But I couldn't help but worry.

Jennifer Louden and Alison Luterman, Fetzer Inst, 2010
Almost everyone I know has or had someone in their life with dementia. For me, it is my husband's parents. First his father, who passed away two years ago, and now his mom. It's a terrible thing to watch, this slow extraction of identity. It takes away one of the crucial things that distinguishes us as a species: self-consciousness, that ability to contemplate one's actions and see them in the light of how they affect others; to process and evaluate and make choices based on experience and feelings, conceptual calculations rooted in memory.

Self-consciousness is often considered something negative, associated with conceit and confused with self-absorption. But I wonder if the world isn't in need of more fully, self-conscious people: individuals who are aware of how what they think and say and do impacts others? Wouldn't the world be better in some big and important way? Kinder maybe? More considerate, at least? Maybe not. But certainly memory and self-reflection are the bones of our identity. Without these elements, what are we? That is what I, sitting on the edge of the San Andreas Fault on this fine spring morning, want to know.

Jennifer Louden, Alison Luterman, Lauren Artress and Naseem Rakha
at Point Reyes National Seashore, 3/1/14
We four talked until what I thought must be late into the night, but wasn't. It didn't matter, though. We are women of a certain age, and we do not care about convention. So we cleaned the dishes and headed off to our rooms, promising each other a morning of writing before we launch off to hike this spit of land called Point Reyes. We might stop for oysters, we might try to find elk, we might come back and soak in the hot tub, we might read to each other, and figure out someway to watch the oscars tomorrow. We have a whole day to do whatever we want. We are lucky. Blessed. Happy.

At least, if memory serves....

-Naseem Rakha 2/29/14 (oops, no such date....)


  1. Wow, so beautifully written.

  2. I love this essay and the precious pictures of faces and places I remember so well from our time at Seasons, the retreat center at Fetzer.

    Sounds like you enjoyed a lovely rhythm of connecting conversations, writing, exercise and connection to nature. Perfect.

    Memory will serve. And when it doesn't, what could be better than days like these?