Connecting the dots

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a meditation on the impossibility of erasing painful memories. The scene where Dr. Mierzwiak asks Joel to collect everything that reminds him of Clementine so that Lacuna can attach the appropriate memory to the object and then dispose of both the object and the memory is an obvious example. When someone was a huge part of one’s life, memories are going to be attached to lots of things that aren’t so easily disposable; a song, a scent, a place, a time or anniversary… Joel and Clem met at the beach, and there are memories of the beach that signify each other to each other. How would you eliminate those memories? You can’t erase the beach. “Meet me in Montauk,” a voice would whisper in Joel’s mind, and if he didn’t have the memory of meeting Clem there, the feeling and the image of the beach would become a disturbing alien thought in his brain. Could he interpret the feeling without the context of the memory? How would someone react to that?

The process of memory elimination is a type of time travel, isn’t it? If you simply eliminated all the memories of some pivotal event in your past, you’re re-creating the past, and re-creating yourself. And when you start tampering with yourself, there’s no telling how you’ll end up.

Obviously Dr. Mierzwiak rushed his concept into production, since there were obvious flaws in the process of memory elimination. And, of course, in the world we all inhabit, Lacuna Inc. is just a clever idea, as far removed from reality as a dream barely remembered on awakening.

OK, I can accept that. But living with painful memories is still, well, painful. As much as I would like to simply eliminate anything that reminded me of a past failed relationship, I recognize that that’s a childish lashing-out. “Make it go away” is the response of a mind unused to pain, not to mention the basis for the desire to travel through time; it’s not so far from “Make it go away” to “Make it didn’t happen.”

So the memories remain, and shape the man I am. Can’t get rid of them, they’re part of me and simply steps from where I’ve been to what I’m going to be. Great. Nice.

Still got to deal with it, though. And one way to deal with it is to write about it. Sure, create a narrative that includes the memories, but through the process of selecting words and putting them down on paper, I can modify the memories that triggered the words. Memories are images and feelings, states of consciousness created by my body and neural pathways and chemistry in my head (I’m a materialist; all I am is my physicality, perhaps an essay for another time) — words, however, are a step more concrete. Words are signifiers of another kind, a shared concept. And translating an interior state into an external sequence of words, choosing nouns and verbs… a form of control. I can limit what I think about. I have to limit what I think about if I’m going to write it down; there’s too much information in a memory, context, past, present, feelings, images, sounds, scents, relationships, history… Not all of that can go into a journal entry. The stuff that gets included is strengthened. The things that aren’t mentioned are weakened. And by choosing how to describe the stuff that is there, the entire construct is modified. Attenuated. Made… safe. Safe to think about. And maybe, because of the feeling that it’s now “documented”, made safe to not think about.

Not enough, though. Sometimes other external elements conspire to re-trigger the painful memories. And now we get to the point of my essay. Remember my idea that there are things too large to eliminated? How would you eliminate a beach?

Like… Seaside, Oregon. A little large to be tossed in a box and tossed out with the trash.

You could try to replace or overwrite the painful memories with something recent, a positive memory.

Problem is, just as I don’t think it’s possible to entirely eliminate a memory, I don’t think you can weaken the hold an old feeling has on you by overlaying it with a strong, new memory.

My friend Jake’s birthday was Friday. Last week his mom called me and said that she wanted to do something special to celebrate his birthday. To rent a condo at the beach and have all his friends and family there. A great idea. It took a couple of days to work out the exact details. In the end, she found a room at a resort on the beach in Seaside. When she finally contacted me to tell me where and when to meet, I knew immediately the place she’d chosen. It’s the huge new resort, right on the beach. Right where the Hood To Coast Relay Race finishes every year.

Site of one of the last good memories of a past relationship.

Knowing it would be selfish of me to taint Jake’s birthday by wallowing in my own past, but still, like Proust, transported almost a year ago by the mere thought of revisiting a place that haunts me, I knew to keep those ghosts to myself. And for the most part, I believe I succeeded (until posting this essay, that is). I did let on to another close friend what I was experiencing, but his response was ironic and sharp and reminded me to continue to keep it under wraps. I’m not sure he intended it that way — that’s simply how I took it.

The dark side of this was being triggered by every little image and thought that started out, “The last time I was here…” The last time I drove down this highway I was following her as she ran in the Hood To Coast. The last time I walked on this street I was with her parents, waiting for her to finish. The last time I was in this arcade I was having the time of my life on the bumper cars with her daughters.

The last time I stood on this beach, she and I were in high spirits and working on a reconciliation. Of course, that attempt eventually failed, there’s history that intervenes between the memory of dancing on the beach under the night sky in a huge party… and the eventual fights and falling out… to today, but at the time it seemed like we could work things out.

The last time I drove back on this highway, she rested next to me, and I was comfortable and felt competent and sure that this was a high-water point in our story. I wanted to remember it forever. This, before I discovered that remembering forever is not always a good thing.

Strange though. In order for me to remember it as a happy memory, I have to ignore the rest of the context, the surrounding story, the “what has happened since then”. Perhaps when I selected words to describe those feelings and images and scents and touches and feelings as happy and contented and sweet, I left something important out? Did I eliminate the bitter, the sarcastic, the angry, the hurtful? Could that be possible?

Nahhhh… I hurry on past that worrisome thought.

So I found myself once again on that beach, but the context is new. The context includes memories of her, but now in addition to her ghost it includes Jake and his siblings and friends. It includes my closest friends, celebrating an interesting life.

In my memory, the beach is full of people, a huge stage with a cover band belting out oldies, bottles of Oregon beer. In the moment, however, the beach is bereft of people, dark and unlit, the only music the hiss and rumble of the Pacific, glasses of José Cuervo served out of a backpack, poured into highball glasses from the resort.

In my memory she and I chase the kids around the sand while her parents dance, and pretend everything is fine between us, make plans for the future that will never happen. In the moment, Jake and Caleb and I wander off to sit on the sand, buzzed from the tequila, to discuss psychology and philosophy and reassure each other that it’s the rest of humanity that’s broken, or more broken, or perhaps just broken differently than we each are. In memory she’s beautiful and lively and perfect. In the moment my friends are flawed but dear to me.

In the moment there’s the walk back to the resort, where we find a fourth for a game of 8-ball into the wee hours of the morning, where Caleb and I beat Jake and Bill 4 games to 3. In the moment I forget the memory for a few brief hours, although the proximity of the beach outside the resort coaxes the occasional image or word to surface. In the moment we eventually wander upstairs to find places to crash for a few hours. In the moment my dreams consist of fragments of Beck songs — appropriately enough, on so many levels, songs from “Sea Change”. My mental imagery can be both blatant and subtle at the same time. In the moment Caleb and I go for a 3 mile run on the beach, then drag the party out to the pool. In the moment Jake and Caleb and I drive back to Portland, Caleb dj-ing from my iPod. His first selection: “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, a song with ties to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and her, weirdly enough now co-mingled with Caleb and I, since Caleb first heard the song on our road trip to Coachella to see (among others) Beck and Radiohead perform, two acts that meant a lot to me and to her, a road trip that concluded with long painful discussions of relationships and much soul-searching…

The reminders and connections are thick everywhere I look. I can’t keep up with the twisting and turning of memories and images and songs. If someone, somehow, eliminated the song “Mr. Blue Sky” from my mind entirely, I think I could re-create the entire context through all of the connections it has to other aspects of my life.

It’s like lace, or a sweater, or a net — pull here and the whole thing would suffer from that lack. I wouldn’t be me if part of me were gone. A too-obvious conclusion? Maybe so. But, as with life, it’s not the conclusion that’s important.

It’s how I got here that’s the part worth keeping.