Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Association of Things

Unfathomable to me is the vastness of memory that each person holds of his life, reclusively cumulated in the corridors of the brain, unindexed save for thin threads tying various disparate packages together. Entire chains of these recollections can lie dormant and forgotten for years, but then when a chance occasion brings but one of them to the surface, the rest rise in its wake, their impressions striking one's consciousness with tangible force. Looking through my medicine cabinet this evening, I found a pink tube of organic lip-balm. My buying organic lip-balm? Then I remembered the sunny afternoon in Cambridge in the spring of 1999, when a group of Whole Foods employees gathered at the crossing of Massachusetts Avenue on MIT's campus, distributing paper bags filled with various goods that would supposedly addict us to the natural and organic way of life. I can recall the sound that the arching tree branches made above my head as the temperate wind blew through them on its flight to the Charles River, and the sound of my friends' voices joking about the hippie qualities of our handouts, and the ineffable feeling of the energy that we had at that time of our lives.

It seems that the more atavistic the sense that invokes a recollection, the more complete one's immersion in the memory will be, as though maps of our animal awareness can be drawn from our bodies and stored whole, waiting. If I see a photo or read a once-familiar line, I can consciously send my mind's eye to the past and revisit the minutes of that vanished day; but sometimes I'll hear a snatch of sound, or catch a scent, and without warning my whole being is transported---often I do not even consciously know what history of mine I am re-experiencing, but I feel it throughout me, and for a moment my sense of location, time, and spatial awareness inform my brain that I am there. Only when the possession, as it were, has subsided can I turn the programmatic parts of my mind to scouring the sheaves of memory to find what it was that I just felt. On occasion I feel a sense of lost time, for it is as though I woke up from a dream to find that years and years have passed, and the day is gone.

One of the propitious aspects of aging is the richness that the world acquires from the populous vault of connections and interconnections held in one's memory, a depth that those too young to remember much can feel. Having known for oneself the history of a place, even if not consciously pondered, makes that place more intimate. When I walk around my neighborhood on Long Island, it has a presence for me larger than its superficial representation would suggest, because it exists in my mind as a montage of the ways I've known it throughout the changes that accrued in the years since I was a wee lad. The little junior-high kids that I pass cannot have such a knowledge of time, and indeed my own historical vantage is shallow compared with the old-timers who remember when the streets were pasty little things passing through the farming communities that lay here in bygone decades. But all of you, my classmates who may be reading this, you who have strayed far from Boston: when the years grow long and you come back perchance to visit, even the steps of Stratton will seem to be more than they are, resonating with all the times you sat there with a Tosci's ice-cream as summer drew near. Tosci's has been gone for a number of years now, and can those fledgling engineers who eat at the crêperie which has ousted it, appreciate the place quite so much, never having known what came before?

My body is telling me that if I don't want my varied years to end now, I'd better go to sleep; so with that I bid you all a good night.

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