One day during the last couple of weeks, I heard a story on NPR about a guy who is documenting his entire life – every email, every event, every just about anything – on his computer, and has been doing so for several years. I can’t remember which NPR program aired the segment, so I can’t offer a link. The conversation centered around how or if we are changed as human beings if we don’t forget things, or at least remember selectively.
I remembered the story this morning when I read this poem at The Writer’s Almanac:
Nothing Is Lost
Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.
One of my favorite novels is Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, in which the author imagines the dreams the budding scientist had when we was still working as a patent clerk in Vienna. Each chapter recalls a dream about the same village and a different concept of time. In one dream, no one has the capacity to remember anything but the day they are living, so people spend the last couple of hours of the day writing down what they want to recall about the day and then the first few hours of the next morning reading their books to remember who they are, who their family is, what they do, and what has happened to them. It doesn’t take long before there isn’t enough time in a day to go back and read everything they have written, so they have to be selective about what pages they peruse and let some go unread.
However diligent the guy is with his computer, however well he has cataloged his every move, what he is doing is not remembering. He will never be able to find a time or place in his life to take in the panoramic view of all he has collected. Leaving if for those who come after him will only prove that he (like the rest of us) is just not that interesting. Remembering is not the same as cataloging every detail. It is re-membering: putting a moment back together again without reading the instructions, letting the pieces rise up from wherever they have been and emerge like a painting on a canvas, so that we can describe what that moment feels like now. Thus, we are shaped by what we let go of, or what slips away, as much as the things we carry with us.
The point of life is not to be permanent, but to be present. None of us is going to be remembered much once we’re gone. But when we are, it will not be because someone came across us in a hard drive file, or put our name on a building, but because of a shared event when we left an indelible mark on someone who mattered to us. The things we do remember stack up like stones in an altar, putting us back together, one step closer to wholeness.
Like the song says, “Try to remember and if you remember, then follow.”