A Year Passes Like Nothing
A Year Passes Like Nothing
Or, Misty Watercolor Memories Are Keeping Me Awake Again
A Brief Meditation On Memory
Our documents are useless, or forged beyond believing.
Page forty-seven is unsigned, I need it by this evening.
In the space between our cities, a storm is slowly forming.
Something eating up our days, I feel it every morning.
It's not a religion, it's just a technique.
It's just a way of making you speak.
Distance and speed have left us too weak,
And destination looks kind of bleak.
Memory has its peculiarities, one of which is: it distorts. But, in life as in music, all distortion is not to be avoided and neither is it a bad thing. We tend to remember things that are important to us, that influence us, and our minds assist us by exaggerating at times or painting unclear scenes in large, bold, unavoidable strokes. Memory’s distortion, then, isn’t so much a subjectivist lie we tell ourselves; rather, it is truth, important to us, told to us as a story, with its own magical editing processes.
Some schools of psychology may disagree with this theory as much as they will, but it remains a human fact that memory, our histories, our autobiographies, our stories, our private mythologies are both real and necessary to our existence as persons, not mere data collection machinery. Perhaps some in the scientific community lament we are neither information storage and retrieval systems nor mere animals of instinct and impression – these are easier to study – but I decline to join them.
I am a philosopher. A human’s “thing-ness” – it’s resemblance to the inanimate or inarticulate world – does not interest me overmuch. A human’s “person-ness,” my own “person-ness,” these hold my attention.
Beginnings and Destinations
In a few days, God willing, I will arrive at the completion of my 44th year and begin my 45th on planet Earth. If I have been here before or if I have been elsewhere, I know nothing of it. So I have no hope of being here again, and a small, fervent hope of living on in some fashion after my last day in, I pray, better circumstances.
Around this time each year, my memories start flooding back up; there is no discernable order to the flood, just a rush of scenes and stories, episodes for me to piece together and from which to make some sort of sense.
I thought of writing all these down, but it’s 2 AM and you, gentle reader, would probably care less about any of them, though several you would find amusing. That, and I have to get up and be about my business in a few hours, so I threw the limitation on myself that I’d spend no more than one hour typing and talking to myself publicly for your edification and to silence my own head. One hour’s worth of my droning should be enough for anyone, including myself. Back when I taught, it was certainly enough for my poor students.
Which memory to display, then? One that makes me out to be a hero? One that portrays me as a rogue? One throwing light on my sense of humor? One filled with sadness?
I’m going to tell you a story, gentle reader, not aimed at doing any of these things. I am no hero, nor entirely a ne’er-do-well, nor all funny, nor crying interminably. I am and have been and done all of these things and more, as have you, doubtless, and probably better. But one thing I have been good at in my nearly 44 years is learning and taking life as a lesson and a test. Oh, I fail the tests often on the first, second, and even hundredth try, but what I am, without qualification, is stubborn. I keep trying. I keep working at things, turning them around and around as a dog worries a bone till he cracks it open and gets at the marrow. I have worried with some problems literally for decades till I cracked them or splintered their shells to give up taste or scent.
Why? Why not? I’ve nothing better to do with my time.
I was in Third Grade, Mrs. Dowdy’s class. She was an older, heavy woman with heavy glasses, wore skirts that looked like they were made from the print 20 pound flour sacks they used to sell. Maybe they were. It was a small town in a largely rural county in the foothills of the Appalachians – her husband was a farmer and a preacher and drove a school bus. I doubt they had much. Most of us didn’t, really, by comparison with people in cities.
But my parents always gave me 15 cents for ice cream each day. They had enough for that, and I liked ice cream.
The girl who sat next to me was named Audrey. She had short, black hair and big, blue eyes and carried a little purse of some sort. Audrey was neither friend nor enemy – she was part of the furniture of my world. Come in, sit down, look left, there’s Audrey talking to her friends. She was nice enough, which means she did not say bad things to me or make fun of me, but that’s about all. I was furniture in her world, too.
The ice cream procedure worked like this: After lunch at some point, the teacher would line up everyone who had the money for the stuff, walk us across the hall to the lunchroom where there was an ice cream freezer. The teacher would take our dimes and nickels and, in return, we picked our treat. Then we all went to recess.
One day, Audrey was looking for her dime and nickel where she’d left it in her purse during lunch. No dime, no nickel, no pennies, no nothing. She couldn’t find it. I was sitting there watching her drastic pantomime become more excited until she collapsed in her chair and began crying. Big tears rolled out of her big, blue eyes, and something in me hurt for her. Everyone in class just sat there looking at the girl, doing nothing – no ice cream for Audrey today. I couldn’t stand it. It didn’t seem right. Yes, I liked ice cream, but I didn’t want to see Audrey cry because she couldn’t have any. My mother had raised me better than that – to share with people who didn’t have what you had.
Foolish me. I actually listened to and believed things like that. I’m sure almost everyone sitting there staring at Audrey had, too, but they weren’t moving. So I stood up, reached in my jeans, and tried to hand Audrey my 15 cents. I could do without ice cream one day to make someone happy, I supposed.
Mrs. Dowdy yelled at me. She was watching from the front of the room. She made me stand up and accused me of stealing the money. I said, no, I didn’t, I just wanted Audrey to feel better. She insisted I took the money while we were out at lunch and ten my conscience had gotten the better of me; she insisted I admit it to the class. The stubbornness took over. “No,” was all I said.
“The Great Eye in the Sky is watching you and knows what you’ve done,” she solemnly pronounced as only a Baptist preacher’s wife could have.
I was thinking, You’re right. He knows what I’ve done and what you’ve done, too.
I felt dirty. I felt humiliated. Audrey wouldn’t look at me and I don’t think she ever spoke to me again even in passing till she moved away. I suppose the rest of the class thought I was the ice cream money thief after that; even if they didn’t, they did for the rest of that one day.
I didn’t buy ice cream that day and I think I quit eating it at school, for the most part. To this day, ice cream has bad connotations for me.
Oh, what great lesson did I learn?
I think that day I became a philosopher. A real one, not just some jabbering scholar with an armload of degrees. I lived what I believed. I had integrity. I refused to back down against an overwhelming force when I knew the truth, and I refused to blaspheme against the truth – at least that day. I learned that standing up and doing the right thing is often rewarded with nothing but abuse and embarrassment – and that you’ve still got to try to do the right thing anyway, be the person you’re supposed to be, no matter who or what opposes you. It’s better to suffer for doing something good than to sit in comfort, unwilling to stand up and do anything at all.
I learned there is a world of difference between appearing good and actually being a good person, and that truly good people may, to the misinformed or overly suspicious or prejudiced, look like bad people. And I learned there is very little one can do to control anything about one’s reputation – one’s reputation is at the mercy of the mouths of strangers; one’s true worth is known only to oneself and to one’s God.
I learned some of those lessons that day, my head hanging in Mrs. Dowdy’s class. Others took me decades to reason out of that incident and others like them. I became, over time, proud of that lone kid who stood up to and tried to comfort his classmate for no better reason than she ought not to suffer so over so little. I became prouder of the kid who refused to admit wrong when no wrong was done, who didn’t cower in the face of abused authority, who spoke simply and clearly, for once in his life, the truth, at a moment it mattered to speak it. There’s nothing heroic in it – it’s what everyone should do in similar situations, as a matter of course.
Thank you for your indulgence and for making the trip through one of the memories that make up my world, one of the better ones. An hour has passed and it’s time to stop. Maybe now I can sleep.
Richard Van Ingram
5 February 2010
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