I went out for bbq at lunch today. The brisket reminded me of my distant friends—eating it, I dine on memories of places as disparate as Taylor, Texas and Owego, New York. Eating in the restaurant with the yellow blazes on the faux wood tables reminded me of the one time I ate here with my daughter, or the meal I ate before chaperoning a dance, and therefore the dance and the evening that followed.
My brain is like that. The past reverberates into the present without effort. There is no stopping it. The pen on my desk reminds me of a dozen trips to office supply stores to buy just that kind of pen. The clipboard brings back the smell of a stationary store in Endicott where I bought narrow ruled yellow legal pads. New things enchant me because they haven’t been imbued with dense and irrevocable histories. For minutes. And then…
This book bag. That smell. The way her voice sounds. Everything.
In many ways, I take solace in being surrounded by memories, and there are some that I purposefully mine. The routine of the same lunch—on most days—reminds me of years of similar lunches from the time I was five—earlier—until just last week—and all the lunches in between. I feel comforted by the way those memories permeate my present so easily.
Others surprise me. They are more angular and disruptive. The sound of a car rushing in the distance—that sharp Doppler shift—triggers an equally effortless, but significantly less welcome memory of a conversation held by the side of a road. Twenty years have passed and yet the resentment stings as it did then. Nothing ages, ripens, or rots.
I have written about the powerful memories associated with places—a rolling set of hills on a road headed north, an intersection with two right turn lanes, a road sign, the curve of a shoreline, a buoy. But, it is everything else as well. All the things. My walls at home are lined with books, and the books speak—not just of what is contained in their pages, but of the times I read them, the places I was, the company that surrounded those moments. And there is more, a gesture, my hand on a doorknob, the sudden turn of my head when I look for something, the way my foot falls on a stair. I am out of myself in a flash, or at least out of this time—even though I know that I am inextricably in it—and another older time surges through me. Even when still, this heartbeat explodes into a thousand, a million other heartbeats, and time collapses.
The only thing that surprises me, seems strange and unconnected from everything else, is my face in the mirror. I almost never recognize myself. Who is this man, and what is he doing in the glass? I wonder. At least there is a scar on my left hand, another on my knee, another on my ankle. These anchor me, but my face is a mystery—and not just because of age. Day by day, for all my life, sitting in a barbershop chair before the mirrored wall, I am a stranger.
And so, beside my own strange face, I also take pleasure in crowds of strange faces, all of whom present unknown avenues, untapped sources of experiences and memories. I know the echoes will come to the strange person I will again be tomorrow.