Saturday, February 11, 2006

All Mixed Up

Although I'm comforted by the statements of others that it is indeed normal and even okay to dwell on the past (and I appreciate the comments), I'm always startled when the past catches up to me despite my best efforts to expurgate it from memory.

Post-breakup with C, I packed up each love letter, mix CD, letter tape, photo, email print out, gift, sweet-but-naive silver engagement band (we were first loves and high school sweethearts, it was cute), sexy lingerie thing into a big box, and put it on the top shelf of HP's closet in her childhood bedroom--next to her big box o' painful memories (we somehow coordinated breakups). At the time, it was at least 3 miles away from me. Then I went to law school 50 miles away, and HP to public policy/international relations grad school 3000 miles away. And two years ago, during one of her visits, we decided once and for all, to unceremoniously dump it in the trash. Not even a cleansing wiccan bonfire. I kind of regret this, if only for the fact that I miss having beautiful chemises now that I sleep in something you would see in an episode of The Golden Girls; pictures of what I looked like from 17-20 (I have very few of these when you throw away the bf pics); letters that remind me of another's flawed, but sincere love; and pictures of a boy whom I loved to error and whose face and voice are beginning to recede from my memory. There was a time when I knew the position of each mole on his back, and could map, like a constellation, that intimacy with my eyes closed. Now I can hardly remember what his voice sounded like.

But even as I miss these relics of my past, I'm glad that they don't exist. The problem with relics is that they lend themselves to obsession and worship. They are false gods. Craven images of love. It's not that I want to erase the record of his existence from my life and burn down the libraries of Alexandria. It's that I want to start building new temples, and start writing new records. Occasionally though, I'll find a picture of his between the leaves of a book, and stare long and hard at it before I throw it away. It's important to look, remember, engrave in memory that which you discard permanently. I don't have a principled reason why, other than we shouldn't believe that everything is so easily disposed of. In the same principle, when I found a mix CD he gave me to describe our relationship in an old CD wallet, I took it out and gave it a spin. It is the treacliest, most god awful CD I've ever heard:

The Most Awful Soundtrack in the World:

1. I'll Be - Edwin McCain
2. Crush - Dave Matthews
3. Love of My Life - Dave Matthews
4. Here With Me - Dido
5. The Dolphin's Cry - Live
6. In the Name of Love -U2
7. Slide - Goo Goo Dolls
8. Black Balloon - Goo Goo Dolls
10. Run - Seven Mary Three
11. In My Room - Barenaked Ladies
12. Radar Love - Golden Earring

This CD is such crap, it's really hard to listen to. It's kind of satisfyingly masochistic to listen to it. It's like a big slap in the face of nostalgia. You miss him? Listen to the fucking inanity of "Slide" and see if you still do. Worse still, the neo-theological themes driving the music of Live. I am now pushing the "repeat all" button on the stereo to drive this point home.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies about heartbreak and mix tapes, High Fidelity:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

For better or worse, this relationship, my dysfunctional but loving family, and my austere, kind of deprived upbringing are the organizing themes in my life. They are forever the reference points, and I will never escape them. The point is, I guess, not to obsess and make false idols of the past. Not to worship at the pillar of memory.

And to know when to milk the past appropriately for fun anecdotes (like all the times your father wouldn't spare a quarter for that vibrating free-standing carousel horse at the supermarket, but would sit you on it and patiently shake you around so that he wouldn't be denying his little girl a little of something she wanted); for material for your confessional poetry phase (and even if you are a technically published poet, and well-reviewed by your top-ranked MFA poetry program friend, it's something that you're better off leaving to the experts); and for snide comments about the evil necessity of pop music on the soundtrack of your life. Know when to use it, know when to lose it.

Unfortunately, will we ever be able to lose it? AmI cursed to wince whenever "I'll Be" comes streaming across the radio? Is it my fault for listening to a Top 40 station in the first place? Worst yet, I think I have to abandon all the good post-breakup music I used to console myself. That means giving up Tracy Chapman. Certain Elvis Costello songs. Definitely no more Me'shell Ndege O'cello's "Fool of Me." This sucks, man. Maybe this is why I can't listen to Coldplay's second album as much any more--besides the tedium of listening to music that's always about being misunderstood, failing, being swallowed by life, it's kind of a drag being reminded of first year law school finals. When you use music to salve some wound, you can never listen to the music without being reminded of the pain.

Why is it that the soundtrack of our lives (metaphor, not the pretty decent Swedish band of the same name) can be only listened to once, before being discarded? Are the only moments we want to relive, listen to on repeat those rare good ones? Are the rest doomed to become stale memories, exercises in useless nostalgia, and painful reminders? That is, is life divided into the few "World on a String" celebration and "Some Kind of Wonderful" blissfully in love songs, and the rest are songs about "Everything Happens to Me" haplessness, "You Don't Know Me" unrequited love, or Air Supply's "I'm All Out of Love" broken hearts?

Or worse still, is Toni Braxton's "Another Sad Love Song" going to keep coming back for encores?

I don't know, right now with my life entirely focused on "scholarly article" writing, and the exasperating joy of living with one's large extended family, the soundtrack is stuck in its sad songwriter phase, so it's a little of David Gray's "This Year's Love," a little Joni Mitchell "Both Sides Now," and a lot of the Shins "Gone for Good." I'm neither in love nor heartbroken, but it feels good to be happy where I am rather than mourning where I've been.

But, just to show you what can happen when the repeat button is on "I'm All Out of Love," here's a poem about C--one of the better ones, or at least I've had positive feedback from a real poet. You see what happens when the past comes, without invitation, back to disturb your newly gained and hard won dissociation from it?

The Cartographer and the Archaeologist

Years have passed since I last saw
Your naked back, which you offered
Gently rising up, then falling down
As you slept next to me, breathing
And dreaming your uncomplicated dreams.

Years have passed. Yet I still remember
Mapping the moles on your back—
I traced the patterns with my fingertips
As I lay sleepless next to you,
Trying to plot the spaces between.

I memorized the map of your body,
Thinking that even if you left me
I would remember every detail and
I would find you among the millions.
But you left for good, and the map is useless.

There is no map back to you.
I don’t know the best route home
Or even how the crow would fly to you.
I am less the cartographer
And more the archaeologist.

With no map in hand, I can only explore
The terrain of memory. In the most random
Of drawers, in between the leaves of books
Are strange artifacts of you. I find pictures
Stiffly posed, or love notes gently scrawled.

With each discovery, I feel like
A trespasser upon a temple erased
From the historical record. Long ago,
I threw away every memory of you in despair
Believing that you would never come home.

I knew you had no map back to me.
And so every new artifact recalls an era
Which I once wished completely
Forgotten. Now, like an old woman clutching
At fading memory, I want to remember.

Now, like an archivist of forgotten love
I save these rediscovered notes and pictures.
I know there is no way back to you
And you will not come home
And I will not come to you.

In my small collection of stray artifacts,
There is a map of love and memory.
There is an incomplete record
Of the space between love beginning
And memory diminishing.