Sometimes the memory is so fleeting I can’t quite bring it into focus, but most of the time, memories flow like a river carrying everyone I’ve ever known, everywhere I’ve ever been. It started a few weeks into the pandemic, and it’s been keeping a steady beat ever since. In the space between laying my head down and falling asleep or anytime I sit for a break, staring out the window, random memories flash across the screen of my mind.
These aren’t the big favorite memories, a wonderful surprise, a momentous occasion. They are people and incidents I haven’t thought about in decades. Sometimes I’m at a long-ago dinner-table, lazy table-talk with long-absent friends. Sometimes I’m dropped right into a long-gone moment of disappointment or conflict. Sometimes it’s a forgotten lover or a friend I’d fallen out with, a fraught encounter with some politico, sometimes a tete-a-tete after a party or meeting, the kind of conversation you need to process what just happened—only what just happened was sometime in the Seventies.
My husband and I have been keeping close to home since March. Our age puts us at higher risk for the virus, and there’s enough You-Can’t-Tell-Me-What-to-Do sentiment in this part of New Mexico to convince us to give people a wide berth, avoiding confrontations with pissed-off never-maskers. We live out in the country at the end of a dirt road, so other than biweekly trips to the grocery store, we seldom see anyone in all three dimensions.
My hypothesis is that the deeper tributaries of my memory-stream are being diverted into the present to fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by novel stimulus. I say “novel” because there’s plenty of stimulus, only I’ve chosen it all myself. I’m painting and writing, cooking and Zooming, reading and watching, agonizing and hoping—a lot. But ordinary life used to be filled with unbidden stimulus: I’d run into someone unexpected on the street, or overhear a piece of music I hadn’t chosen, or stumble on someone’s artwork as I passed a window.
I’ve been trying to understand what the intrusion of the past wants to tell me. One day I noticed that a lot of the memories were of the irritating if long-forgotten variety. My mind treated me to a whole slideshow of mental pictures from the rocky road to cultural democracy. If I were ever to write my memoir, a large chunk of it would be times that I failed to get over. I’m revisiting conversations with people who benefited from the existing cultural funding system, and who refused to consider that what might be just dandy for them was very bad for those who lacked their privileges.
The memory movies have brought me an annoying subset of people who think the only effective cultural organizing is getting entertainment celebrities to make PSAs about your issue, who write off grassroots work despite its often remarkable impact on those who experience it directly. I’ve remembered getting kicked out of official meetings in Reagan-era Washington for asking impertinent questions, despite sunshine laws that required them to be public. I had a whole mini-movie showing how intoxicated I was by the vision of equity, love, and justice I hoped to help advance through my work, how deflated I felt when someone asked my much younger self if I was doing it for my “own ego gratification.” I remembered what happened next, how she suggested I stop writing and speaking about cultural democracy, because “democracy is kind of controversial, isn’t it?”
Usually, if I think about such people, a mental shrug follows and poof! they’re gone. But in this time, on the precipice of not-knowing, I keep being led to question myself. Was I too radical? Was I too critical, setting my standards too high? Pictures flit through my mind of people with talent and ability who adopted a stance of extreme positivity: every performance deserved a standing ovation, every new person was made to feel like the most interesting in the world. I don’t think I could have wrenched my personality around to that way of being, so there’s not much point in beating myself up for the outlier position I’ve occupied, for deciding to be a truth-teller in milieux where other considerations were definitely paramount. But I find myself envying the rewards that often attach to that type of charm, and sometimes regretting my failure to embody it (or honestly, to even try).
When I ask my memory what I am supposed to be learning from this multitude of drop-in visits, the thing I keep coming back to—the thing each memory somehow leads to—is what now? A million writers and thinkers and activists have recently made the point that the establishment’s desire to “return to normal” would lead to the worst possible outcomes, freezing privilege and injustice, wasting the opportunity to consider how our system has led to the suffering and revelation of these months and how we could chart another course toward a much better destination.
I’m usually eager to map out a new route to the future. Looking back, I’ve offered so many dreams and plans and invitations to do just that. It’s not like the universe is waiting for my social imagination’s next iteration—especially not when the other 999,999,999 are out there queuing up their propositions. But I’d like it to come. I have a hunch that my mind has to complete this process of dumping old memory to create space before I can know if I have anything new to offer.
Has this been happening to you? Have you been experiencing a memory-parade every time you close your eyes? What do you think it means?
Nina Simone, singing The Band’s “I Shall Be Released.”