Art, Remembered and Forgotten

Design by Sara Offer

Memory is something I take for granted. But I often wonder: how many moments do I actually remember? How much time? I remember the broad contours of each day, sure, but if you asked me what I was doing yesterday or, God forbid, the day before, I could hardly tell you.

For me, art is the site of a particularly troubling amnesia. When I reviewed a short story submission for a campus publication earlier today, I was surprised by the state it was in when it entered my mind later—vivid, and yet thoroughly fragmented. I remembered how I felt reading certain parts: my arousal at a certain sultry turn of phrase, my cringing at certain belabored similes. But other parts are a blur, swallowed by a vacuum of undifferentiated light—my computer screen, the white wall of the Good Life Center, the sun tumbling into the room.

With time, some art—literature in particular—takes on a more visceral place in my memory. I remember a limp, homesick attempt to muddle through the first few pages of The Lord of the Rings on a school trip, unable to focus my eyes on the text as my tears mingled with the fly-swarmed light of the campsite bathroom. And I remember the feeling of not reading some books: the sight of them on my desk, the spine barely cracked, the few already-read pages struggling to weigh themselves down.

I am still trying to recover my childhood reading habit, mainly consisting of Percy Jackson, Alex Rider, and untold other preposterously asexual young men for whom life was just a little different. I devoured their stories happily, unthinkingly. Now, reading is mired in neuroses: if I am not having the time of my life right now, with this book, am I an intellectual at all? Sometimes, when I sit down to read some German or French author, I attempt to embody my childhood self, driven by simple and sticky curiosity, free of existential concern.

Although I’m still regaining my sea legs as a bookreader, I am a prolific podcast listener. When I listen to an episode I’ve heard before, a word, a laugh, or an intonation will instantly conjure what I saw the moment I first heard it — my backpack straps and showered hair reflected back to me in a bathroom mirror, a half-eaten sandwich at a lonely table, or my dog’s sleeping face. I remember the feelings too — my clothes damp and heavy after a long day of dishwashing, a lingering queasiness after an awkward, stuttery encounter, a lightness of step in the wake of professorial or romantic affirmation.

Music is a little different. Since I can play a song for myself dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times, the wire of memory becomes tangled to the point where it can only transmit faint signals, and often none at all. I’ll repeat certain songs feverishly for a few days, knowing full well I’ll soon wear them out. I listen anyway, relishing the finite time I have with them. I still remember the day I discovered MUNA’s “Silk Chiffon.” Heard in a passing Instagram story, I bracingly held my finger down, and I was off: bounding down to the river after an appointment downtown reveling in simple, poppy perfection. Certain songs were rediscovered from childhood—hours were spent stomping joyously around the small floor of my room to John Hiatt’s “Cry Love,” in disbelief at how many years I had denied myself its transcendence.

Although all these infatuations inevitably fade just as quickly as they bloom, some music persists. I rarely ever listen to “James Taylor’s Greatest Hits,” a compilation record from 1976. Only in moments of real trial will I turn to it. I refuse to dilute its power. What I remember is this: on a restless night in a hotel or my grandparent’s house, my mother would give me her gray and pink earbuds and rub my back as I listened to the first three, at most four songs. They are all I remember. The rest were lost to sleep.

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