Russell paraphrased the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, in helping to explain this re-consumption phenomenon, “You never cross the same river twice — it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you.”
I had this literature professor in undergrad named Nellie McKay – an African American Studies scholar and the most brilliant, kind, soft-spoken woman I’ve ever met – who talked about memories in a similar way. She said our brains were like old-fashioned filing cabinets (though she didn’t call them “old-fashioned;” to her, they were just file cabinets). And each time you reached into the nether regions of your brain to retrieve a memory, shuffling past dusty photographs of you spinning cartwheels in the front yard and faded blue jeans crumpled on the floor, you pulled out a memory that was altered. Because, as you were busy – analyzing, pondering, and remembering – your current self was projecting new knowledge, new experience, and new perspective onto your old self. And even if, when you were finished gazing into your seven-year-old-self’s sparkly eyes, you returned the memory to exactly the same sleeve from whence it was pulled, you put it back different, changed, smudged.
Are there no pure memories? Is nothing we experience able to be preserved if the simple act of reflection starts to cause the ingredients of the moment to dissolve, devolve, disappear? Memory, then, is a slippery, elusive trickster: a jack of all trades, Puck on the stage, a Naniboujou shapeshifter from Ojibwe mythology.
Who are we to trust, if not our self? And what, exactly is the nature of memoir?
I am trying to remember what it was like to not be a mother. What were my Saturday mornings like before 6:30 a.m. diaper changes and snuggly, thumb-sucking toddlers rolling around on the bedroom floor? What were my Wednesday evenings like before pretending to be a baby horse who carried children around on my back, before dicing buttered toast for dinner, before cheering when someone pees where they’re supposed to pee, before Elmo songs and Mickey books, before hanging diaper covers to dry on the bath, before closing the door on a room full of toys, before kissing little boys good night and feeling my heart seize every time the nightmare-ish anxiety of worst-case-scenarios flash before my eyes, knowing for certain that I could not live if they did not live.
What was that like? What is the opposite of an incessant mental chatter criticizing and chastising and stirring fear around every decision we make regarding our children? Is it peace? Ah, yes, peace. And it was quiet, too, when I wanted it to be, or raucous when I craved the noise. It was like the first day of summer vacation and day drinking on a riverside patio. It was like karaoke bars and dirty clothes. Like saying yes to a gym membership that I actually used for exercise and not just for the sauna. Like getting regular haircuts and manicures and buying mascara on a regular basis. It was knowing – or at least caring to know –what was happening with other people on Facebook. It was feeling obligated (happily so) to make an effort to maintain long-distant friendships; hell – it was feeling confident making an effort to maintain any friendships, new or old, and knowing that we could re-connect over a quick walk around the lake, a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine.
Not having kids was the most glorious selfish time in my life. An extended adolescence. College years and then some. It meant freedom from constant vigilance. Unencumbered sleep. Unencumbered daydreams. Unencumbered bathroom breaks.
But now there is a different kind of quiet, a different kind of chaos. Before, there were no quiet moments before the dawn spent nuzzling soft baby necks, tucking strands of ginger curls behind their ears, whispering good morning, feeling terrible about having to wake them at such an ungodly hour and wishing I could crawl into their dream-filled slumber with them, be whisked away on a boat to where the wild things are and ignore the yellow glow of the clock on the shelf threatening sure and total chaos if we don’t get a move on this very second. There were no high-stakes negotiations happening at 5:30a.m. debating whether or not a particular thumb-sucking toddler could wear pajamas to daycare or drink prune juice for breakfast if said toddler did or did not get off of his brother this very instant and get over here to let me change your diaper. Yes, you can turn off the fan. No, you cannot wear your slippers outside. Yes, you may have a banana with bruises on it. No, your breakfast bar is not smashed. Yes, you may take the book with you in the car. No, you cannot run laps around the front porch. Yes, you can climb into the car yourself. You must turn around and sit down. Sit down, Dylan. Dylan, sit down. You must be fastened in. Sure, pretend you’re feeding the baby with a battery you found on the floor of the car. Don’t put it in your mouth. Take that out of your mouth. Dylan, nothing goes in your mouth but food. Got it? Good. Now where’ s your brother?
The weight is not upon me alone and neither is the transition to parenthood, the shifting priorities, the transfer of social energy. When I think of us in the days before our boys, the memories are lighter and unmoored, and in some instances no less potent, but the memories are also anticipatory, awaiting the arrival of these little people who fill our heart with such joy. It’s hard to tell whether to trust the memories, though, because now, we are so very full and so very tired.