Art and Memory

“A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened “(Albert Camus).

I

I’m now well, but for years I wasn’t. I lay in bed day and night in an upstairs room in a silent house alone but for my son’s cat Monty beside me to my left cat-114629_640and my dog Jack to my right: my beloved companions. I watched no TV, listened to no radio, read no newspapers, and heard no music.

From that bed I could see out the bedroom windows the crowns of a grove of tall, flourishing trees.  I watched on the trees the seasons change, the leaves brilliant, blinding green in spring, crimson and gold in autumn, brittle and curled when they came to rest on my window sill. Some winters there was more snow there on the branches of those trees than other winters.

Unable to write anymore or to read the books I loved or live a physical life. I decided I would not waste time wondering why what had happened to me had winter-1153669_640happened.  I would have to stay alert and live a life of the mind, and I set a project for myself. I would reconstruct my life to date through my memory. From that bed I would flee into solitude and journey backwards in time.

We set the dead aside as though we have no need of them. But I wanted to pluck out of the long ago the people who had populated my world when I was growing up. I had lived among them and knew their gestures. I had heard them speak so many times, and wondered greatly about them. But I didn’t know who they really were, didn’t know what their days and nights had been like. I realized that if I wanted to be with them, though most had died, I would have to discover them in myself where they all still lived.

I was growing older. My children were gone now—my daughters Stephanie and Alice and my sons Evan and Eli. Their laughter no longer brightened the house. I didn’t know what would become of me. But I wanted to see things as they were before forgetfulness mounted and memories faded and were lost or my life ended and the memories I had assembled ended with me.

I longed to walk through the house where I had grown up and to look out on the street and see the wealth of familiar things that were before me every day days-and-nights-pic_copyin my youth, no sights as dear to me as what I saw from the kingdom of my porch. I wanted to hold my father’s hand again and look into his kind eyes. I wanted to revel in everything–the hum of voices, the smells of night air, those early-evening hawks floating above my house and tucking their wings in to their bodies and diving like falling kites, the taste of my mother’s dinner in my mouth, the sight of her trying on a new hat, and of my younger sister Sharon—my pal–who died so young as a little girl coming up the stairs in her favorite beige coat with a fur collar as I remembered her.

I decided I would try to remember accurately and when I was able to write again, if ever, I wouldn’t lie about what I had discovered because in writing or painting—or acting–one should never lie.  Russian Anton Chekhov said, “Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood.”

And so hour after hour, again and again in my search for truth I burrowed back into myself and evoked the days and nights of my childhood. I notebook-86792_640remembered as well as I could what I had experienced myself and what had been told to me. When there in that room  I came upon something that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t explain, or didn’t remember clearly, or couldn’t possibly know, I relied on my imagination.

My father’s brother died tragically and violently, and my great uncle was a war hero under enemy fire–a rescuer of wounded men–and too, died tragically. I thought about them so many times—of the stories of them I’d been told–and decided that what I’d been told must be incomplete. So I inferred what their real stories were that I hadn’t been told. I concluded that my uncle, that troubled and most charming man we all loved, must have let himself be murdered.

Loneliness, solitude, and isolation are at the core of a creator’s life as they are of a sick person’s life. I learned to adjust to them because I had no choice. I became an expert on despair and pain during that period—despair that is beyond despair, pain beyond pain.

II

At first my remembering was over in a few minutes and was very general and unclear. Memories were there in my mind and then slipped away. I might be distracted by a sound: a storm wind blowing wildly through my trees, or a siren. But then I slowed down and focused intently and remembered in finer and finer detail.  At first I might remember being six and feeling again that tingle of anticipation—of joy– I always felt in my boy’s strong body–my arms, handsmy legs, my fingers–and climbing flights of thickly carpeted stairs with my family—my father in front of me, my brother John behind–and entering an apartment. Then I would remember a hallway; then in a glass case that was taller than a man my Aunt Sarah’s menagerie of little colored glass animals, a rearing white unicorn, a red deer. Then the smell of turkey. It was a holiday. We were all happy.

Detail is the secret of remembering, I discovered–details and details of details, a multiplicity of details, as it is the secret of all the arts when they are done beautifully, a preciseness of vision. That was an important revelation. “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender).

III

My life, like yours, has been carried away by passing days. But time doesn’t disappear absolutely, gone forever, but remains inside—every image and horizon-768759_640impression once experienced is waiting patiently to be retrieved—“those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash…which seem to be of no consequence…which live in our minds and hearts forever” (American novelist Thomas Wolfe).

Over and over, hour after hour, day after day I was moving in closer, backing up and rethinking until I was satisfied and could say, “Yes, yes, that is how it was when I was a boy. I’ve gotten it right.” I did that carefully. I had all the time in the world because I didn’t know if I’d ever be well and wasn’t in a hurry.  I didn’t know if I’d have what it takes to transform memories into meaningful images and words, into art. But I was growing more confident now that one day I would.

Night would be falling before I heard footsteps on the stairs and a door opened and I could answer the question I’d waited so eagerly for all day: “Hello, dear, what did you remember today?”

Time passed and I was well again. Then I left that room.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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15 Comments

Filed under Artistic Integrity, Artists, Growing Up Stories, Memory, Personal Stories, Writers

15 responses to “Art and Memory

  1. David,
    I was deeply touched by your latest post.
    What a blessing, being given the gift of time. I’m sure it didn’t feel like a gift at that point in your life.
    In our busy and bustling lives we rarely, if ever, stop and take hold of all that is within us, to identify through the recollection you write so beautifully about, all the things that are closest to our hearts. Core values I think we call them.
    I’m fascinated with “the Collective Me.” As if we live our lives on a chess board, every move, every maneuver is there, ready for us to reexamine if we can be still and listen to what’s inside, reach back far enough to those places we believe don’t exist any longer. But they do…
    Some days as I walk past the neighborhood bakery, I smell the scent of sugar and cream floating out the door. I am transported back to my Mother’s kitchen. In my mind’s eye I see the pie cooling on the window sill and see her smile as she wipes the flour from her hands on her apron. I smile at the memory. I now know that smell is the smell of love, and the picture in my mind is a priceless masterpiece. I feel rich beyond measure.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Thank God you were made whole again.
    Your gift of recollection is, as you pay it forward, is a precious reminder that the best things in life aren’t things at all.

    Kathy

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Kathy, Yes, that illness, miserable though it was, did give me a rare chance to revisit and in a sense relive my childhood, and so was a gift of blessed time, as you suggest. From what you say about the “collective me” I know you would find Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past a book you should read, if you haven’t already. What a lovely masterpiece of an image of your mother and the pie that really is. Seeing this is from you, I’ve been thinking about India and the sights and sounds I’ve never experienced and can only imagine. I hope you do write about about it someday.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This may be the most inspirational piece of writing I’ve ever read. I found myself eager to experience all the whispers of my years, hushed long ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very powerful – thanks for sharing.

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Thanks, Shlomo. The main satisfaction from writing these posts is the sense that one is connecting with someone. And you’ve given me that sense.

      Like

  4. This is a powerful testament to the human spirit. Thank you so much for sharing this. I can well imagine you ‘time travelling’ as you spent hour after hour in your room. I occasionally do this, consciously when I am about to go to sleep. I pick a time in my life that I want to re-visit….and always find it to be so rewarding and even in my half sleep am amazing at the smallest details that I remember. An experience that would be fascinating in book form. Wishing you a lovely day…We are having a mini heatwave in London…up to 90 degrees yesterday and today….very very hot for us….and so I am in studio with fan on full blast…keeping cool. Janet:)

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Janet, sorry I overlooked this comment from you on my post “Art and Memory.” I know that you in your painting give great attention to detail as I try to do in my writing. Re-visiting the past in my memory and combing the images for detail helps me to do this as I imagine it helps you in your pre-sleep “time travel.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear David, this was such a vivid post. I can see you quite clearly in your bed, watching the seasons pass outside your window, whilst within, you were covering many memory miles. I have questions though – what was wrong with you? How long did you stay in bed for? How did you recover? How has that experience affected you and your writing? You don’t, of course, need to answer any of these questions, but that’s how I know my interest is piqued – I am a natural questioner 😊

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Sara, in my writing, I purposely left the nature of my illness vague. I was ill for some years. But the experience was not all bad. Searching my memory the way I did was very beneficial to me as a writer because I uncovered a lot of material that I used and continue to use. Fortunately, I fully recovered. Thank you for your comment, and thanks too for your response about the birds there in Australia.

      Liked by 1 person

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