Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Ephemerality of Art and Memory

From Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Cavelier and Clay), a lovely essay entitled "The Memory Hole":

Almost every school day, at least one of my four children comes home with art: a drawing, a painting, a piece of handicraft, a construction-paper assemblage, an enigmatic apparatus made from pipe cleaner, spangles, and clay. And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash. But there is just so much of the stuff; we don’t know what else to do with it. Of course we don’t toss all of it. We keep the good stuff, or what strikes us, in the zen of that instant between scraping out the lunchbox and sorting the mail, as good.

I will be haunted by the memory of the way my younger daughter looks at me, when she chances upon a crumpled sheet of paper in the recycling bin, bearing the picture, the very portrait, of five minutes stolen from the headlong rush of their little hour in my care: she looks betrayed.

“I don’t know how that got in there,” I tell her. “That was clearly a mistake. What a great dog.”

“It’s a girl kung fu master.”

“Of course,” I say. Then when she isn’t looking, I throw it away again.

Only it’s not just her artwork that I’m busy throwing away. Almost every hour that I spend with my children is disposed of just as surely, tossed aside, burned like money by a man on a spree. The sum total of my clear memories of them—of their unintended aphorisms, gnomic jokes and the sad plain truths they have expressed about the world; of incidents of precociousness, Gothic madness, sleepwalking, mythomania and vomiting; of the way light has stuck their hair or eyelashes on vanished afternoons; of the stupefying tedium of games we have played on Sundays in the rain; of highlights and horrors from the encyclopedic display of odorousness they have collectively put on; of the 297,000 minor kvetchings and heartfelt pleas I have responded to, over the past eleven years, with fury, tenderness, utter lack of interest, or a heartless and automatic compassion—those memories, when added to the sum total of photographs that we have managed to take, probably adds up, for all four of my children, to less than one percent of everything that we have undergone, lived through and taken pleasure in together.

The truth is that in every way I am squandering the treasure of my life. It’s not that I don’t take enough pictures, though I don’t, or that I don’t keep a diary, though iCal and my monthly Visa bill are the closest I come to a thoughtful prose record of events. Every day is like a kid’s drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of them are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others barely more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some of them you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so often seem hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.

This is such a moving, and true-to-life essay. I don't even have kids of my own and I have this problem. My oldest brother's two kids are at my house 4 days a week, and everytime they'r here they draw at least two crayon scribbles each. I can't keep all of it--after only a few weeks I have a a ream of paper's worth of drawings. I make them "recycle" by using the backs of printout mistakes or articles I've read and don't need to read again. So I have quite a bit of the "good stuff" I'm keeping on the backs of law school applications, law review articles, and printed out news articles. Two other sets of kids visit on Saturday, or else bring me pictures (again, mostly scribbles) they've drawn and bewilderingly enough decorated with glitter glue, such that everything is balled up and stuck together. I'm currently in the process of assembling a binder of the "good stuff," mostly the more elaborate pictures by the 5 year olds and the "silly faces" by the 3 year olds. I have lots of pictures of me (often with blond or orange hair) and the kids, princesses, fairy tale characters, Dora the Explorer, and yes, a girl kung fu master. Seriously. Although I think she said it was karate, not kung fu. Most prized in my possession is a picture done by my then 9 year old, now 12 year old nephew of a boy who climbed up a ladder (supported by boulders, this kid has a civil engineering streak in him) to the moon and watched the lion and the rabbit eat grass (in his world, the lions are vegetarians) while big stars hung in the sky. But most of it I throw away. I tell the kids "thank you, I'll keep it FOREVER!"--a bald faced lie--and I throw it away discreetly after they've left. And even then, I have a drawer full of pictures, of the "good stuff," though it doesn't compare to the closet full of lies I've told them about keeping the "other stuff."

It's funny that one month from leaving the kids, who miss me if I go upstairs and call me to come down and watch Spongebob with them (and you wonder why I don't blog more often?), I am terrified of losing my memories. Of losing the kids, as if their faces will recede from my memory as I know mine will if I don't visit every few months and call every week. The littlest babies will forget me and recoil from my touch, seeing me as a stranger the next time I visit. I wonder if I too will forget their faces, or be shocked at their growth and unrecognizable new hair growth. I just developed 160 pictures of the kids and arranged them nicely in a new photo album. I printed out 5x7s of the kids--just the kids--and framed them nicely so that I could wake up and they'd be the first thing I'd see. I am making them draw pictures and signing them (if they can write) "I Love You, Aunt Belle." I am considering tape recording their voices singing silly songs and saying "I love you." (I am big on external validation). I have figured out in my head which set of kids to call on which days every week.

I hate diaries, I barely use my daily planner (except for due dates) and I live for and in perpetual fear of the future. But in many ways I am trapped by the past, the fear that so much living and planning for the future--specifically, my future--will make me forget my origins, my family, the eight loves of my life.

I have the opportunity to make new memories and a new life for myself--just me. And yet I wonder if my greatest worry is not how I'll make new memories, but rather how I'll keep the old ones.

Hat Tip: Feminist Law Profs