2009 :: Issue 5/Fall :: Haunting Memories
Tomorrow. Yesterday. Today. Now.
What did those words mean to me when I was young?
They meant time travel.
Even feeling Now felt like time travel.
Every time I said the word tomorrow or yesterday or today, my body would buzz.
I felt I was flying, flying back or flying forward or flying in place like a hummingbird.
The present instantly becomes a memory. I remember walking home from school one spring afternoon when I was ten, saying to myself: I will remember this. This is happening now but it’s happening over there in the future too, and it’s happening deep down inside me forever, over and over again. And I stared down at the curb and the street as I said this, while walking past the corner grocery store that was always dark inside. Fifty years later, I am remembering this.
Woke up to the song “Today” (Jefferson Airplane, 1967) playing in the cells of memory in my body. That teardrop sound of the electric guitar, that slow gentle crash of the tambourine. That San Francisco sound, the sound of the times, the sound of longing. That sound that moved out in every direction and changed everything.
Sitting in class in 5th grade on a hot and smoggy afternoon, waiting for time to speed up so we can go home. Watching the clock move so slowly that it seems it might be broken. Trying to watch time, straining to see it. Wondering about time, and when the clock’s hand finally inches forward a bit, it makes a sound, I can hear it, I can hear time. I keep wondering why watching time makes it slow down so slow. I wonder if it’s possible to stop time, but no, it isn’t possible, it leaks out even in the most present moment and takes you with it and yet leaves you behind somewhere.
Thirteen years old. Practicing the cello. The feel of it resting against my chest, the smell of rosin on the bow. The curtains in the den where I practiced: they’d breathe in and out as ocean breezes came in in slow afternoon gusts.
The unprivacy of practicing. The sour notes exposed, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Sour notes I tried to sweeten with vibrato.
It wasn’t real music, the music of practicing. But I didn’t really know what real music was. Though it seemed the real music was on the radio. Real music was the music I could abandon myself to, not the music I had to practice for school.
Real music was the music that would float into my bedroom from the living room late at night when I was eight years old and supposed to be asleep but couldn’t sleep. Real music was a wild ride, and when you were on it you were heading home. Real music was also scary music—“Carmina Burana,” “Night on Bald Mountain.” And real music was longing—Elvis Presley singing “First in Line” or the Everly Brothers harmonizing in “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
What do you feel when you play music, I asked Kevin once, 30 years ago, when we paused between the songs we sang. I don’t have ANY idea what you’re talking about, he said, looking angry, as if I had just messed up a song by playing a sour note.
Music—the home that was far away from home. A place that felt like being lost and found at the same time. Music—the soundtrack to the unexplainable.
When I watch Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, when I feel the expressions on his face and fall into them like falling back in time, I remember asking Kevin what he felt when he played and sang his beautifully sad songs. When I watch Yo-Yo Ma express a gentle agony and ecstasy on his face as he plays “The Swan,” I feel him answering the question Kevin wouldn’t answer. But I also feel Kevin finally answering, because I remember his expressions being like that when he sang and played—a gentle agony and ecstasy.
When I was thirteen, I didn’t play music that moved me, not yet. But the music I heard, the songs on the radio that entered me unexpectedly, ambushed me and took me away. It was as if some huge, magical, prehistoric bird picked me up in its mouth and dropped me in a foreign place that became a primal home.
Straining for the memories, going back further and further, trying to find those that are hard to find. It’s like I’m trying to remember a melody from a long time ago. Memories are melodies in D minor.
There’s a rich emptiness to memories. Like visiting rooms in an abandoned Victorian house. There’s an echo in the empty rooms. Memories are echoes. They call out, as if drowning. A memory calls out, rescue me.
The loneliness of remembering. Like being alone in a crowd.
Dreams are double memories—remembering a dream is a double memory.
For years, almost every dream I experienced took place at my childhood house, where I lived until the summer of 1958. Each dream was a memory-landscape that I’d walk through, but with new twists and turns, improvisations. When I’d wake up and remember the dream, it was like looking through a microscope to see the details. I was remembering the dream itself, in the moment, and yet the seed of the dream was a memory.
The present and the past are twins, they have the same mother and father, they shared the same womb at the same time. But they play by slightly different rules. The present looks more like its mother, the past like its father.
The past is a silent song that’s always being sung. I can’t always hear it, but I always feel the vibrations.
1964, age nineteen. Breezy December afternoon. Walking on the Santa Monica pier, the smell of cotton candy and the sea. Stopping to listen to a young man standing near the merry-go-round, quoting Keats and Ginsberg.
He wasn’t a street musician, he was a street poet. A tall slender man with light brown hair growing long and straight, nearly covering his ears. He’d wave his hands as he spoke, as if he was the conductor of his own performance. I was the audience.
He wanted to impress me. The lines he spoke came from well-known poems as well as pieces of his own poems. “That’s one of mine,” he’d say after reciting a few lines he had written himself. Sometimes I couldn’t hear his voice, the music coming from the merry-go-round was too loud.
We walked to the end of the pier together. He had an accent. Maybe he’s from England, I thought. His face was slightly deformed—perhaps he had been in an accident or had a birth defect. He seemed unaware of his face, but he kept telling me that I was beautiful. He also told me that sometimes he walked alone on the pier and thought of jumping off. He was twenty-two, he said, and he didn’t believe in God.
He bought me a St. Christopher necklace at one of the little shops on the boardwalk, and he had my first name inscribed on the back with a swirly line added underneath. Then he ritualistically placed it around my neck. The ritual felt like an awkward kiss. It was busy on the boardwalk and it was getting dark. People bumped into us as they walked by, and the air smelled of hot dogs and mustard.
The next day I saw him on the pier again, reciting poetry. I was wearing the St. Christopher necklace he gave me. Later that afternoon he took me to see his room, as if he wanted to show me his soul. His room was in an old hotel on the boardwalk, about a block from the pier. His room spoke of solitude, it spoke of courage and desperation and reflection. He was an unpeaceful monk living in the city, a rebellious monk who lived for poetry and music.
Could I live like that, I wondered. Could I live in a tiny hotel room on the beach, with just a few books and records to keep me company. Could I live in an old hotel where dark rooms rented for forty dollars a month and the paint peeled off the walls, revealing old flowery wallpaper underneath. Could I live in a tiny room where the bathroom was down the hall and small puddles of water were always on the floor. Could I live in a hotel room where tunes from the merry-go-round could be heard playing over and over again, all day, every day, even from the stairs and hallways. Could I ever live a life like that, I wondered. A life like that in an old hotel that was half-way abandoned and doomed to be torn down in a few years, a hotel whose present was a fading past.
I looked out the ocean-facing window in his room and watched the seagulls drifting by in the air. He played Coltrane on his portable record player, and the jazz overpowered the tunes coming from the merry-go-round. I could feel time rolling in and out, I could feel the present vanishing into the past and then rolling back in again as the present, the way the waves of the sea kept rolling in and out and back in again.