On Nostalgia

We seldom recognize the best moments of our lives when they are happening to us. Most people, particularly new age gurus, will tell you that this is because of how difficult it is to live in the present. They think we’re doing something wrong, that if we would simply make more of an effort to live in the present we would be able to extract the full potential for joy from each moment of our lives, while that moment was present.

I think they’re wrong. I think the problem, if you want to call it that, of appreciating the present while it’s present in the way we appreciate it when it’s past, is insoluble, and not because of any weakness or flaw in human nature, but because of the essence of temporality and the role of the imagination in human experience.

I just read a wonderful piece in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Poets and Writers magazine on the Egyptian expatriate writer André Aciman. Aciman is a novelist and essayist, but primarily he’s a memoirist. If he’s not writing straightforward memoirs, he’s using his memories as raw material for his novels. “André,” according to his friend the writer Colm Tóibín, “is interested in loss, in time which has passed, and what can be done with that now if you are writing…. [H]e manages a sort of eroticism of the past, by which I mean he deals with events and moments that are over with such caressing care that its almost sexual” (61).

“I don’t know how to be in the present,” proclaims Aciman, “I don’t’ know how to enjoy the moment in and of itself without comparing it to something else or without anticipating that I will want to remember it” (61).

No one knows how to do that though because it’s not actually possible to do that. The present is a vanishingly small slice of time between the immediate past and the immediate future, both of which tug at it in opposite directions. The past is there in the form of guilt, satisfaction, regret. The future is there in the form of anticipation, an ineluctable appreciation of the play of possibilities that the present represents. There is no experience, and cannot be any experience, of the present that is not faceted in this way.

Kierkegaard is inclined to characterize our inability to live in the present as a kind of curse, or as an expression of sin. It can take that form, I suppose, if it keeps a person from deriving any joy from his experience. I’ve come, though, to think of the elusive nature of the present as more a gift than a curse. Time distills experience like spirits, extracts what was essential to it in terms of what we value. We wouldn’t be the creatures we are if the present, while it was present, were not also anchored by earlier experience to the past and stretched by anticipation into the future. Nietzsche understood this. “Consider,” he said

the herd grazing before you. It knows not what yesterday, what today, is, but leaps about, eats, rests, digests, leaps again, from morning to evening, day to day, its likes and dislikes tied to the moment and thus neither melancholy nor bored. It’s hard for a human being to see this because he’s proud of being human. Yet he envies the beast its happiness, wants nothing more than to live like the beast, neither bored nor melancholy. But he envies in vain because he does not desire like the beast desires. He wants to ask the beast: “Why don’t you speak to me of your happiness, instead of only looking at me?” The beast wants to answer and say: “Because I always forget what it is I would like to say”–but it forgets this also and is thus silent––to the bewilderment of the man. (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben).[1]

Human beings can’t live in the present the way philosophers speculate that animals do, because the imagination is an essential part of human consciousness and it adds to the present both memories of the past and expectations of the future. But if the imagination steals, in a sense, the present from us, it redeems itself by delivering it to us again later burnished to a glow it did not originally have.

The sweetest moments of our lives are given to us twice: the first time when we are either completely unaware, or only dimly aware, of how important they will become, and then again later when, to use a phrase of Heinrich Böll, they take on a “cabalistic significance.”

I have all kinds of memories like that, some of insignificant events that for some reason or other have become emblematic of various periods in my life, memories that carry with them the essence of a time or a mood long lost. The ones I cherish most, though, are those that are, as memories, pregnant with a future of which I had no inkling at the time. Such are my memories of the first exchanges I had with the people I would later come to love. One never knows the form an attachment will take. Attachments grow organically over time, often beneath the surface of consciousness, until they become so firmly a part of who we are that they can no longer be uprooted. The memories of those first exchanges are thus like glimpses into creation in that they are glimpses into the creation both of ourselves and of the reality we have come to cherish.

I would not trade the complexity of human experience for the imagined simplicity of the beast’s–not for anything.


[1] The translation here is my own.

 

The Emergence of Love

Philosophers speak of what they call “emergent properties,” qualities attributable to combinations of things that cannot be reduced to the component parts. Liquidity is the classic example. It is a quality of water that cannot be reduced to the atomic structure of water molecules. A molecule of water, or of any liquid, does not itself have the property of liquidity. Only a collection of molecules has this property. Liquidity is a property that seems, in effect, to come out of nowhere in that it cannot be found in the molecules that make up the substance. It “emerges,” as philosophers say, from combinations of elements that do not, individually possess it. It’s a phenomenal property of objects and though nearly all, if not absolutely all, of our experience of the world around us consists of an appreciation of such phenomena, they are still, in a sense, profoundly mysterious.

We think of such properties as inhering in objects, but in fact, as Kant showed, there is an important sense in which they are not in the objects as they are in themselves, but in the perceiver. An affection is like that. We think it inheres in its object, but in fact, it inheres in the one whose affection it is. Also, like an emergent property, there is always a “more” to it that cannot be reduced to the individual characteristics of its object. We form affections, we think, based on a person’s characteristics, things such as intelligence, appearance, wit, similarities of tastes and interests, moral outlook. We are forced to admit, however, when we reflect on this, that the affection itself is not reducible to an appreciation of the individual components of the person, but is something that transcends them. That’s why love has so often been viewed as a kind of illness. There is something inexplicable about it.

“Why do you love that person?” someone will ask, knowing even before the question is finished the futility of expecting a satisfactory answer. And you will enumerate all the virtues of the object of your affection, knowing even before the list is finished, that it is insufficient, that even if your interlocutor would agree that the person in question did possess these qualities that he would still not love the person as you did.

There is always a “more” to an affection that is profoundly mysterious even though it is something that in a way we all appreciate and in that sense is very commonplace. It is, in itself, no more mysterious, I suppose, than any other emergent property. What is strange about it though is that it is so subjective. Even if emergent properties, in an important sense, inhere in the perceiver rather than in the object of perception, they appear to inhere in all perceivers equally. Water has liquidity for everyone. A person, in contrast, is ordinarily beloved by only a select few. Just as, contra Kant, we tend to take the phenomenal properties of objects to represent to us their true nature, we tend to think affections represent to us the true nature of their objects. To people who do not share them though, they always seem at least mildly, and sometimes even extremely, delusional. That’s why love has so often been equated not merely with a type of illness in the physical sense, but with a type of madness. It’s sometimes characterized as a kind of “divine madness,” and this, I think, is because the vision it gives us of another is so heartrendingly beautiful.

I like to think that loves allows us to see people, if sometimes briefly and always selectively, the way God sees them. I don’t know why we don’t always see everyone in this way, except that perhaps, as organic creatures, we don’t have the energy to do that. God’s energy, however, is not like our own. It is not exhaustible, so there is really no obstacle, in principle, to God’s loving everyone completely in a way that we can love only a few people selectively.

The “more” of an affection always seems to me something divine, something that makes one grateful, not just for the beloved, but for everything in creation that is beautiful and wonderful. So even though it is, in a sense, very commonplace, the emergence of love is still, in another sense, miraculous.

On Grief

There are certain affectionate leanings which sometimes arise in us without the advice of our reason, which come from an unpremeditated accident that others call sympathy: the animals are as capable of it as we are.

–Michel de Montaigne (“Apology for Raymond Sebond,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tran. Donald M. Frame [p. 346]).

I moved back to the U.S. in the fall of 1998 after having lived in Denmark for eight years. I’d assumed back then that I’d spend the rest of my life in Denmark. I hadn’t planned to stay. Things had just worked out that way. And then my relationship with the man I’d also assumed I’d spend the rest of my life with fell apart. I got a job at a university in the U.S., so I left.

I’m slow to accept change. It had taken me years to adjust my expatriate status. So my plan was to spend only a year in the U.S. and then return to Denmark. My landlady called shortly after I moved into my apartment and asked if I’d mind keeping a cat for her. She’d caught a stray that she planned to adopt as a pet but couldn’t take it until her aging dog died. I agreed because I’d a cat back in Denmark, but couldn’t get a new one because I thought I was going back. This arrangement seemed perfect. I’d have the companionship of a cat without the long-term commitment.

Except the cat wasn’t a very good companion. My landlady hadn’t told me that the cat was feral. It wasn’t like those stray that become so accustomed to living off the largesse of urban animal lovers that they’re essentially domesticated. This thing was wild. My landlady brought it to me immediately after it had been spayed. She came with the cat in a carrier and a little carpet-covered piece of tubing that would serve as a bed and hiding place for it. She opened the door to the carrier and the cat shot out of it and into that piece of tubing so quickly that I could not have told you what color it was.

She’d named it “Precious” because, she explained, it was very small and delicate and pretty. It had actually had a litter of kittens. They were old enough, she assured me, to be taken from their mother and the ones that hadn’t died had gone to good homes.

I didn’t see the cat for weeks. It would come out at night though after I had turned off the lights. It would come out and eat and use its litter box. I lived in a tiny efficiency apartment, so I could hear it as it moved about. After it had eaten it would sit in the window. It’s never entirely dark in the city, even in the middle of the night, so I could see it silhouetted there. It would issue the most terrible, urgent, heart-rending cries. I knew what it was doing. It was calling for its kittens.

I don’t remember for how long it did that, but its effect on me was eerie. I tend to be out of touch with my emotions. I’d left everything I cared about, including the man I loved, behind and I was dimly conscious of a growing conviction that I was not going back. I didn’t think about that during the day. I was too busy adjusting to life in a new place and handling the responsibilities of a heavy teaching load.

The night was different though. But there was something about the desperate, mournful cries of that little cat that conjured forth from a deep recess of my psyche a grief so profound that I would probably always have lived in denial of it had I not been forced by that strange unpremeditated accident to confront it. I would lie there at night the first few weeks in my new home and listen to the eerily sad calls of that poor frightened little creature until I finally went to sleep.

I can’t imagine what its life must have been like. It couldn’t stretch out in that piece of tubing. It had to remain curled up in a ball all day long. Imagine what you would feel like if you were confined all day to a space about the size of your washing machine. Its little joints must have ached. I can’t imagine how terrified it must have been to do to itself what would have been torture had it been done by anyone else. My heart went out to it, but there was nothing to do but wait.

After a few weeks, I became impatient, so I hit on a plan. I could see its face finally through the circular opening in the box, so I put a little canned cat food on a spoon and extended it inside the opening. It ate the food. I took that as a good sign. I continued to feed it canned food in this way over the next few days, gradually drawing the spoon farther and farther out of the box. I was finally able to get it to come out. I couldn’t pet it though. I couldn’t reach toward it without frightening it.

Somehow, I knew it needed physical contact with another living being, so I would extend my hand, not toward it, but a little to the side, extend it and just hold it there. At first it only looked at my hand with a paradoxical combination of suspicion and longing, but after a few minutes, it came over and rubbed against it. And finally, after several days of this routine, it let me pet it.

There were many evenings that fall, or at least so it seems to me now, when I would sit on the couch and cry. I’m ordinarily very emotionally resilient, but back then I was depressed. I’d lost too much too quickly. Nothing in my life had turned out the way I had expected. I was alone, after years of living with someone else. I was alone and it felt to me then that I would always be alone.

This little cat would come over as I sat there and stare up at me with its tiny beautiful cat face and huge sad yet sympathetic eyes. It seemed to be trying to comfort me, to tell me it understood what it was like to be unhappy and that it wanted somehow to make me feel better.

It was such a comfort to me to have that little cat, a companion to whom I did not have to explain anything. A companion who understood sadness, who wanted to help, who showed me that it is possible to get over any grief, no matter how great. I didn’t have time to wonder how I would get along without it, because my landlady learned when she took care of it while I was away at Christmas that she was actually allergic to cats. So I kept it.

We’d established a relationship by that time of mutual respect. I’d thought of the cat as my charge, rather than my possession. She became used to me, even comfortable with me, but she was still so wary of other people that she would disappear if anyone else came in my apartment. Once, after a friend from Denmark visited, and I could not locate the cat even after a thorough search of my apartment, I became convinced that she must have escaped when I’d opened the door. I raced up and down the street asking everyone I found if they’d seen a small black and white cat. Only later did I find her, still hiding behind some boxes on top of the refrigerator.

She liked my husband immediately. She went over to him and lay across his feet toward the end of one of his first visits, after he’d put on his coat and was clearly preparing to leave. It was as if she were saying–Don’t leave. You make my friend happy.

My husband had a cat of his own, a neutered male cat named Hoover, not after J. Edgar, but after the vacuum because of its habit of cleaning up every scrap of food that fell on the floor. Hoover was very gregarious, almost dog-like in his outgoing nature and affection for everything and everyone. Hoover took to Precious almost immediately. It took her a long time though to accept him. She was like me in that way, distant, reserved more or less the opposite of Hoover, just as I, in that way, am the opposite of my gregarious husband.

Precious finally accepted Hoover though and then they became inseparable. They used to walk about the house as if there were hitched together by an invisible harness. Once when my husband and I were watching TV, Hoover suddenly stood up from where he’d been sleeping on the end of the couch, looked over at Precious on the floor, and issued a series of strange gurgling, yapping sounds (Hoover, who’d spent the early part of his life in an animal laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t have an ordinary meow). He then jumped to the floor and walked slowly to the center of the room where he stood and waited for Precious. The two of them then ambled into the kitchen and over to their food bowls. I’d never seen such obviously purposive communication between two animals.

Hoover was good for Precious. He brought her out of herself, got her to play. He used to lie in front of her and wag his tail erratically back and forth for her to swat at. He also taught her to purr. I hadn’t noticed until then that she’d never purred. Purring is a sign of contentment in cats and I guess for the early part of her life, she’d had very little to be content about. I also concluded, however, that she must have lost her own mother when she was very young because behavior like that, while partly instinctive is also learned. Mature members of an animal species teach the immature ones.

We had some good years, the four of us. I continued to teach in Philadelphia, but my husband had several jobs before settling finally at a school in Florida. We thus not only moved many times, but also traveled regularly, every spring and fall between Florida and Philadelphia. We got a large, soft-sided dog carrier for the cats. They slept like children in the back seat on those long drives and also, like children, would explore every corner of our motel room when we finally stopped for the evening.

We had some good years, but then Hoover, who was older than Precious, died. Precious didn’t seem to understand. She poked and prodded Hoover’s poor carcass in an obvious effort to revive it. And after my husband buried Hoover, she seemed to think that he would return at some point from wherever he’d gone.

She looked for him and called for him, but he didn’t come back and so, finally she began to mourn. Her friend was gone. She still had me, of course, and my husband, but Hoover had supplanted us in her affections and no amount of attention we gave her could compensate for his absence. In the meantime, we’d learned that she suffered from a feline respiratory virus that is wide spread among strays She had a chronic sinus infection and frequently became so ill that she lost weight.

It took us a long time to get a proper diagnosis. One vet even warned us she might have lymphoma. Once we finally learned the problem and found an antibiotic to which she responded well, we were able, more or less, to manage it. In addition to periodic courses of antibiotics, we had to give her an appetite stimulant because the sinus infection meant she could not smell her food and so sometimes would not eat. We also had to give her probiotics to counteract the effects of the antibiotics. She periodically got nose drops, though they didn’t really seem to help, and when she was really sick, subcutaneous fluids.

I know all this sounds kind of extreme, but if we gave her what she needed when she needed it, she did very well. We kept a careful eye on her, though, and discussed between us that if it ever became clear that she was no longer getting any joy from her life, we would have her put to sleep.

We decided to get her another feline companion. Our original thought was to get an older cat like Hoover, but then I saw that a couple in our apartment building in Philadelphia had a litter of kittens for which they were trying to find homes. Perhaps, we thought, Precious would like a little kitten to mother. After all, she’d lost her own kittens.

She didn’t take to the kitten right away, but she tolerated it so we kept it in the hope that her maternal instincts would eventually kick in. They never did though, even despite an apparent attachment it formed to her (it would run to her, for example, for protection when I turned on the vacuum cleaner).

She did well, as I said, but it was clear that she still missed Hoover even after he’d been gone for over a year. One never knows, as Montaigne observes, “the secret internal stirrings of animals.” She’d resumed playing, so we’d assumed she’d forgotten Hoover. But then one spring, after a winter where I had kept the cats in Philadelphia, my husband came up with a suitcase upon which Hoover had liked to sleep. Precious started making strange noises and rushed agitatedly about the apartment. She went from room to room, issuing strange, urgent-sounding cries. That suitcase had apparently led her to believe that Hoover had come back. “I’m here. I’m here,” she seemed to call. “Where have you been!”

She never again formed an attachment to another animal, not even after we adopted another neutered male which resembled Hoover both physically and in terms of temperament.

I’ve always been an animal lover. I’ve always had pets and I’m sure I always will. I doubt though that I will ever have another pet with which I feel so deep a bond as I felt with Precious. Her powers of ratiocination were not so extensive as mine, but there was between us a profound similarity of temperament. She was, like me, silent, stoical, reclusive. Yet she was also indomitable. She came near death several times, but then recovered. She used to come every morning to receive her medicine. She didn’t like having to take it, but she took it and, according to my husband, seemed to understand that it helped her to feel better. Once, during one of these times we feared we would lose her, after a trip to the vet where she received a very powerful steroid shot, she lay on the bed next to me, breathing quietly for the first time in days, and reached out and touched me with her right foreleg. It was such a human gesture. I had an uncanny feeling that she was expressing gratitude.

And then there was the “accident” that made us close. The fact that she came to me when I was particularly alone, more alone than, God willing, it is likely I will ever be again. That she saw me more disconsolate than I had ever allowed another human being to see me, and that she attempted, in her way, to comfort me.

I knew that she did not have much time left, but she seemed to be doing well almost up to the end. It was only the last week or so, that I began really to worry about her. I had brought her up to be with me in Philadelphia in the fall. I’d spent the past several years flying every other week down to Jacksonville during the months when I was teaching in Philadelphia, but my husband, who is from the Northeast and missed it, wanted to be able to come up to visit me. The only way we could do that was if I took Precious since the intricacies of her care exceeded the limits of the ordinary cat sitter. I worried at first that she would be lonely, but my husband assured me that she didn’t really pay much attention to our other two cats.

She seemed to thrive for the first couple of months I had her. But then she started to go downhill. My has a little loft area for sleeping. Precious would accompany me up there every evening when I went to bed always bounding up the stairs in front of me. I noticed, however, that she began to spend most of the day up there as well. My landlady suggested that perhaps she was cold and that I should keep a little space heater running for her. That helped initially, but she began gradually to eat less. I worried that perhaps, finally, she was getting lonely, so I made an extra effort to pay attention to her. I played little petting games with her where I would run both my hands along the length of her body while she pretended to try to escape, but in reality would move only a foot or so away and then wait for me to “capture” her again. The game obviously delighted her, and it meant a great deal to me to see that I could still make her happy in that way.

I could see in the evening though, that it was becoming an effort for her to make it up the stairs to the loft, and one night, finally, I simply carried her up with me.

I was surprised the next morning when I woke up to see that she was not on the heating pad I had set up for her at the foot of my mattress, but already downstairs. She was sitting in a sphinx-like position, except that her head was bowed to the floor. I went down to pet her and assess how she was doing and was horrified to see a huge partly congealed drop of blood suspended from her right nostril. The carpet beneath her head was soaked with blood as well. She’d been bleeding, on and off, from her nose for several years, but nothing like this. She’d clearly lost a lot of blood.

I didn’t debate what to do. I arranged immediately for the vet to come put her to sleep. I was okay. I knew I was doing the right thing, that this time she wasn’t going to recover and I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. I was okay until she began to struggle against the vet. I offered to hold her but the vet said it was better that I didn’t hold her until after they’d given her the first of two shots which was a sedative meant, I presume, to make the second, lethal, shot less painful. I believe their thinking was that I would not want her to think that I was colluding in what was clearly a painful experience for her. I suppose they were well intentioned, but I wish I had held her, perhaps then she would have believed some good would come of it whereas now I’m tortured by the thought that she might have felt betrayed that I sat there passively while she struggled against them.

They handed her to me after the shot, which took effect so quickly that she was limp before she was fully in my arms. I held her for only a minute before they gave her the second shot. They said it would also take effect quickly. I kept holding her and petting her and waiting for some sign that she was gone. Her eyes had gone blank from the sedative shot, so they didn’t give me any clue, she seemed simply to be staring darkly ahead, her expression not changing even after the vet checked for a heartbeat and said there was none.

They kept her body at the vet’s until my husband came up and drove it back down to Florida where he buried it next to Hoover’s in our backyard.

I keep having dreams about her. In each dream I am petting a cat that I only gradually notice has her coloring. Slowly I realize it is Precious and I’m overcome with joy. I call out to my husband “Precious is back!” I don’t ask by what miracle she’s been returned to me; dreams are not like that. I’m only grateful. That last time I had that dream though, I knew she was a ghost, I knew she wasn’t really back. I didn’t care. She felt substantial, and I could pet her and hold her as I used to do.

I remember vividly still my first meeting in Denmark with my friend Dorte. It was at a party. I don’t remember anything any longer about the general conversation of the group. I assume though that it must have been about grief and that it had degenerated at some point into an argument between two factions about various sorts of losses and how they purportedly elicit varying degrees of grief. What I remember is Dorte’s indignant exclamation that the loss of “en lille puddelhund” (literally, “a little poodle dog”) could elicit a grief as profound as that elicited by the loss of a spouse. Dorte was studying psychology at the University of Copenhagen, so I assumed this view was one of what I thought then were the more bizarre theories of this notoriously bleeding-heart discipline. Still, there was something charming in Dorte’s passionate commitment. Imagine, I thought to myself, a person so caring that the idea of that degree of attachment to an animal could seem plausible. I liked her instantly.

I don’t talk about my feelings. Writing is the closest I ever come to communicating them and there is something paradoxically impersonal about even the most personal kind of self-exposure when it is done that way. It has taken me a long time to write this piece. I would write a little and become so overcome with grief that I would have to stop. Something made me keep coming back to it though. I wanted it to be kind of a memorial to Precious, whom I should confess now, I could rarely bring myself to call “Precious.” Precious was her formal name, the one we used at the vet because it was the one that had been used for her at the vet before I had goten her. At home she was known as “Poobie.” I wanted it to be a memorial to her, but I also wanted to do it for myself. I thought it would be good for me to work through this grief instead of simply ignoring it as I have done so many times before with so many other emotions that I feared would overwhelm me if I faced them.

And if I do a good enough job with this little essay, perhaps it will serve to express metaphorically larger griefs that I know will come later and that may be too great to put into words.

“You gave her a good life,” my landlady pointed out in an effort to comfort me. I know that. I gave her a good life, as good a life, I’m sure, as anyone could have given her, under the circumstances. I know that eventually this fact will be comfort me. Right now though, all I feel is a terrible emptiness. Absence can be as palpable as presence. It is there to meet me when I open the door to my apartment, carefull still to make sure she can’t accidentally escape into the street. It is there in the morning when I realize I have nothing to do but wait for the coffee as it brews where my habit was to use that time to give Precious her medicine. I put away her bowls and toys and bed the evening of the day I had her put to sleep. But these small changes make the apartment seem strange in the way a hand will feel strange that is missing a ring it has worn for years. Most conspicuous of all is her absence in the morning. She would always be there next to me when I first opened my eyes. Now there is nothing, only a smooth white sheet.

I know that in time, I will become used to these absences, that they will no longer be so conspicuous. Strangely though, that knowledge is not a comfort, but only makes me sadder.

Journaling the Body

People my age are puzzled, even exasperated by tattoos. Every time my husband sees a young person with a tattoo, he remarks on how it is going to make it difficult for that person to get a job. “Law firms won’t hire you,” he observes (he’s a lawyer). Of course law firms aren’t hiring anyone now anyway, even J.D.s right out of Harvard. Maybe that’s it, I’ve thought, these kids know they aren’t going to get jobs, so their tattoos are sort of nihilistic statements, the fashion of a generation with no future, or of a generation that wants emphatically to reject the future we’d envisioned for them, the future earlier generations had more or less uncritically pursued.

Even so, the time may come when they will feel differently. Don’t these young people realize, we think, that one day they may decide they no longer want their bodies decorated in this way? And then where will they be? They’ll have to pay a lot of money and undergo a painful operation to get the thing, or things, removed and even then traces of it will probably still be visible. Tastes change. Getting a tattoo seems to me analogous to having this year’s fashions super-glued to your body–i.e., incredibly short sighted. I mean, who wants to carry around with them effectively forever a reminder of how they felt, or what they liked, at a very specific point in time? Who wants to carry around with them always an indelible reminder of their past?

This morning I was flipping through an issue of Philosophy Now and happened on a photo of Robert DeNiro as the tattooed Max Cady from Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Max had a tattoo on his chest of a broken heart with the name “Loretta” above it. See, that’s when I mean, I thought to myself, he’s probably had several girlfriends since this “Loretta” (I’ll confess to not having seen Cape Fear, so I may be wrong about that, still, the point is valid with respect to the average tattoo involving a lover’s name). And then it hit me: maybe that was part of the reason people had the names of lovers indelibly inscribed on their bodies–i.e., so as not to forget them in what would more than likely be the subsequent long parade of paramours. Perhaps, it occurred to me suddenly, people get tattooed because they want to remember, perhaps tattoos are desperate attempts to hang onto memory in this age of amnesia when people are constantly recreating or reinventing themselves, this age when nothing seems permanent. Wasn’t that, after all, the rationale behind the penchant of the mnemonically challenged protagonist of Memento for writing all over himself? He wrote things on himself so he would remember them. He made the things he needed to remember a part of himself. Of course it did him little good because he could not later remember what they meant.

That, it seems to me, is one of the universal human challenges–to recover the meaning of the past. This, I believe, is at least part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meant when he referred to the problem of “repetition” and what Irenaeus, one of the earliest of the early church fathers, meant by “recapitulation.” If the past has no meaning, then neither do the present or the future. This desire to preserve, and hence to be able later to recover, the meaning of the past is why people keep journals and really, I would argue, why they write at all. I have kept a journal for years, ever since I was a child actually. I’ll go through long periods where I don’t write in it, but I always come back to it. I’ve spent very little time theorizing about it. Often, when I’m writing I wonder why I’m writing. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes I’m recording observations or insights I think are important and that I may want to use later in some more formal piece of writing. Often though, I’m simply recording short term desires or frustrations, things I know will probably mean very little to me later and even less to anyone who might happen to read them after I’m dead.

I’ve gone back, actually, and read journal entries from high school and college that I can make no sense of now. They refer to events or people that appear to have been completely obliterated from my memory. I wonder sometimes whether they will one day make sense to me again, whether those memories will return. I don’t know, of course, but I keep writing those types of entries anyway. I think people keep journals, among other reasons, in attempts to better understand themselves, yet some of these old entries make me only more mysterious to myself. That is perhaps an important thing to remember though. It’s important, I think, for people to remember that there is something mysterious about creation and about human individuals in particular. Journaling, in whatever form, is paradoxically a way of keeping that mystery before us through a continuous effort to make it less mysterious.