The Space and Shape of Memory

“Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”
Gaston Bachelard

We carry memories with us, throughout life. I wonder, how are they transported? If we were to localize memory, where would it be? Is memory something we enter? Something we carry? Something we can escape?

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote the beautiful “Hard Life with Memory” where she imagines memory as a place, a theatre, a show—something she can ‘leave and reenter:”1

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, and then leave again.

The Space and Shape of Memory
“Introspection II” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The beloved film critic Roger Ebert also saw memory as a performance, but unlike Szymborska, it was one he was eager to watch. The film of his life played to the older Ebert, when he was writing his memoirs, having had sections of his jawline removed due to cancer, leaving him unable to speak.2

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman’s “Persona” after the film breaks and begins again.

Is your memory something you watch? Is it a space you enter? Is it something you experience, or something you hold? Can you set it down? How do you pick it up again? Through objects or things we make precious through caring, or in a room that reminds you of your past?

The Shape and Space of Memory
Palisade by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Rilke once wrote that he needed to write in the “Feeling of home.” Emotion plus memory equaled idea. It meant something useful. Rilke imagined home and, thus, felt home.

So much of memory is encapsulated by our concept of home. Not only because our formative time is spent there, but also because there is something about a home. It keeps things safe. Our homes contain so many of our memories that, at times, we fail to see home as it really is, and we are alienated by its reality.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard thought the house was one of the primary locals of memory, the localization of psychoanalysis.3 In his profoundly unique Poetics of Space, Bachelard refers to “topoanalysis” as

The systematic psychological study of sites in our intimate lives. In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles. At times we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability—a being who does not want to melt away, [a being who ] wants time to ‘suspend’ its flight.

“Theater.” There’s that word again. Interesting how often we use similar metaphors to describe such personal things. Then again, that is why metaphors exist. To instantly express and connect impossibly personal experiences.

Memories, whatever they are, however they are, they affect us. I want to say they affect our metaphysical movement. Penelope Lively, in her fiercely vulnerable and honest study of memory, calls it a ballast. Something that rights us, buoys us, keeps us steady, and prevents us from sinking. And, as Bachelard believed, keeps us from falling into what Nabokov called the “infinite darkness” that extends on both sides of our life.

Ah yes, Nabokov. Nabokov wrote much of memory, thought much of memory. His memoir Speak, Memory is a personal amble into his own memory. Memory, for Nabokov, was the means of traveling through a sphere that contained his existence. A sphere bounded by the walls of time, a sphere unexcitable until death.

The Space and Shape of Memory
Occulus by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Memory is a motor of movement and an engine of accessibility. Without memory, we’d remain in what Lively calls “the hideous eternal present.” In Speak, Memory, Nabokov exists in his memory, walks around it, stretches it out. Uniquely among memoirs, the man writing the book almost ceases to exist, and we simply accompany the young Nabokov through life.4

Now she has entered her room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural, brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan.

Of course, what Nabokov is saying is memory doesn’t just allow us to travel through our existence; it is what gives us existence itself. Memory is consciousness.

When this all gets a bit too metaphysical for my tastes, I reorient my thinking to the concrete, the real, the present, the now. I return to my senses. Literally.

My choice of media to accompany this piece is a selection from the work of Irish ceramist Isobel Egan. Egan works in porcelain because “it has its own memory.” Her work deals with fragility, memory and personal space that we create around ourselves.

It is my belief that memory must be protected as it is such an important thing in our lives, and in a sense many of us have to draw on our memories for the rest our lives. Subconsciously, I try to store memories, to keep them safe forever so that I can call on them when needed. I have always a fear of forgetting memories, or that my memories will become distorted.

Egan’s pieces are layers of avenue, boxes with openings, opaque walls, corners, even sky. I self-delineate in her pieces. I unpack my mind and spread out. I walk around, place things in boxes, move on, select channels. Memory is something to enter, it is something to hold, and, mostly, it is something to hang on the wall and turn one’s back to.

Bachelard, a dynamic inspiration to Egan’s work, believed that the more fixed our memories were in space or objects, the more real they became.

By discussing the “shape and space” of memory, I am of course being biased towards sight. Sight is our primary sense. I am highly visual. In fact, something must be visible to me to exist. However, I have a colleague who can’t picture anything. He hears memory, hears his thoughts. Memory to him is Ebert’s film without picture. Nabokov’s voice reading aloud.

The Space and Shape of Memory
Cityscape by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Rory Moore.

Poet David Whyte places memory outside all the senses and imagines it as “untouchable” and something that passes through us, something like a wave “constantly maturing, increasingly virtuosic, often volatile, sometimes overpowering. Every human life holds the power of this immense inherited pulse, holds and then supercharges it[.]”5

Like Nabokov, Whyte also believed “a full inhabitation of memory makes human beings conscious.” But this post is about space and shape, attributes of sight (although I am convinced I need to expand this further in the future).

My favorite visual capture of memory comes from Walter Benjamin, who gave memory its due in both shape and space: his vast collection of books. Benjamin wrote that a collection is “something bordering on the chaos of memory.” A collection of books is a collection of memory, it is also, quite literally, a library. A space we enter and exist in. It’s a beautiful metaphor.6

Benjamin was foremost a Jewish German critic and writer who was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Fortunately, Benjamin was out of Paris and crossing the Spanish border at the time, but an administrative hang-up detained him one additional night in France, and with his poor health coupled with the fact that the Nazis had closed in on his Paris apartment—all his manuscripts, books, and notes—Benjamin decided to kill himself.

I write a lot about our connection to objects because I believe it is a form of communication, memory, witness, even existence. If memory is our consciousness and anchored in things, and those things are destroyed…

I’ll let Benjamin have the last word:

Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline

“At four o'clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.”
Dorothea Brande

Life unfolds in drudgery, not dreams. Our dreams fill the universe, but it’s action after action, word after word, and minutia done in sequence that makes dreams real. That make life happen.

The question is, then, how do we force ourselves to do that endless work, day after day, when dreaming and playing are more pleasant?

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

When John Steinbeck set to write The Grapes of Wrath, he knew “the whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language,” and he relied on a diary to place him under the thumb of discipline.

Steinbeck finished his great novel in the three intended months, but the mental and emotional cost of keeping a breakneck pace was significant.1

My hand writing is bad now. One more month—one more. And then I have it. I am just gibbering. And that is all right. I don’t care. At three o’clock. What strangeness. What strangeness. Can’t let things go.

And the next entry:

And now all of the foolishness and the self-indulgence is over. Now there can be no lost days and no lost time. Straight through to the finish now without loss. It must be that way.

As Steinbeck falls and rises, he documents all. He must have known the diary would be published as he was already quite famous. And yet, he is unabashed about his unravelling. Truthful. Such was his commitment.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lace-Maker,” Caspar Netsher, 1662. A study of domestic diligence. intent focus. Soft light falls on her back suggesting moral imperative. A resting broom and simple dress reinforce themes of focus and work. Learn more.

People respond to discipline differently. A more positive reception of discipline and its handmaiden, routine, comes from famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Tharp introduces us to her habits of creativity with this unassailable truth: “No one worked harder than Mozart.” Except, perhaps, Tharp, who rises every single day and hops in a cab to the gym and through that action simulates her daily creative beginnings.2

First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.

Tharp then sits in the white room of her studio and fills a box with ideas that will eventually lead to a dance.

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance […] notebooks, news clippings, CDs, […] videos of dancers rehearsing […]. The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment.

Steinbeck used discipline as a motivator to keep writing and to keep going. Tharp uses it as containment, focus. There is nothing to be done but fill the box.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lacemaker” by Johannes Vermeer, 1670. Domestic duties in 1700’s Netherlands were common depictions of moral values such as domesticity, hard work, and disciplined life. Learn more..

I met a writer recently who quit a career as a professor of pharmacology and became a successful author of adult fiction. She credited her dissertation. “I know how to sit in a chair and write,” she told me. “Once you learn that, the rest isn’t hard.”

Ernest Hemingway expressed similar skills in The Moveable Feast. “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

The gift of sitting still is something I lack and something I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to fix. In my pre-writing life, I was an operations consultant. Which is to say, I spent a lot of time studying business systems and processes. Now, I manage the systems and processes of myself. It’s all about finding the intersection of efficiency and freedom.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“Mother Beside a Cradle” Pieter de Hooch, 1660. Learn more.

Discipline—however firm or gentle we make it—is something we give ourselves over to. It is some outside power that takes charge so we can relax and dig into the work itself.

But for all that passes under discipline, it has limitations. What do we deprive ourselves of by being disciplined? Can we really routinize everything?

Writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro sees discipline as a sort of hostile entity, much like Steinbeck’s diary. Something that punishes and demands confession rather than enables it.3

Discipline calls to my mind a task master, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list […]. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work.

Virginia Woolf said a great pattern underscores life, ties us into something bigger. I think of Shapiro’s comments in that light—that through this gentle rhythm, we give ourselves over to something else. Shapiro writes:

Three pages a day, five days a week. When working on a book, this has been my pattern for my entire writing life. I spend most mornings writing my three pages, and I revisit them in the afternoon. I scribble in the margins thoughts about edits, I cross out paragraphs. Sometimes I reread them before I go to sleep. I cross out paragraphs, I rearrange sentences. These pages are where I begin the following morning because those notes give me a way in.

When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden a decade after Grapes, he returned to his daily writing habit but with a different approach. Rather than writing a journal, with his nonwriting self ostensibly his audience, he wrote a letter to his friend and publisher Pascal Covici.4

Going well today. I am trying to hold it down to 1000 words a day for a while. I have always the tendency to hurry and I don’t want to this time. I want this book to be a very slow one. I must not let this book run away from me.

Steinbeck said he wrote the letters to “get his mental arm in shape to pitch a good game,” but it was more than that. Steinbeck was a man of extraordinary sensitivity who had to write from the correct emotion. Writing to a friend—being that open, vulnerable, generous person—allowed him to cradle his insecurities in a glow of positivity. Enfolded in Shapiro’s pattern, he shone.

At four o’clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.

Empathetic advice from creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande in her classic 1934 book Becoming a Writer a book that teaches genius through discipline and argues if we cannot sit still and write, maybe writing isn’t our calling.5 Brande fell out of favor after World War II but has been thankfully reprinted in the last twenty years.

At the intersection of passivity, power, containment, and encouragement sit discipline and creativity. From this beautiful medley of inputs, however you mix them, comes our most original thoughts and our greatest achievements. (And less great thoughts and mediocre achievements, but they still add up to something.)

Things We Cannot Abandon

“Nothing is simple. Not even simplification.”
Wendell Berry

What compels us to retain things we don’t need? It’s one of the most predictable and tiresome patterns of humanity: acquisition and retention. We have these discerning decision-making brains, yet things—useless at most— in front of our nose escape expurgation.

From the steel-trap mind of short story writer Lydia Davis1:

This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.

Stamp ink. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Stamp. Inkwell from China, bought by my paternal grandparents. I used to put my thumbprint in it as a child. It enraged my grandmother. When they died I claimed it. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I was at college, I kept fruit stickers. The small oval ones.

I stickered them to the furniture—the chair, the desk, and the shelves that remain as students move on. By the end of term, there was no visible wood, just stickers. I ate a lot of apples; they reminded me of home.

Italian novelist and frightfully deep observationalist of what physical things say about our humanity, Italo Calvino, once wrote about collections of sand. A person who collects sand, Calvino supposed, registers their past memory in the small parts of these things.2

It strikes me these collections are more than a collection. They are registration of a human need. To possess? To control?

In a collection, they belong. To disregard them would be abandonment. Things bob along in our wake until some external need upsets the relationship.

E.B. White once wrote a deceptively simple essay about moving from New York to Maine. He wriggles uncomfortably in minutia, the process of disposing the indisposable.3

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as if by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach.

White would rather be abandoned by his things than abandon them. And when that is impossible, he imagines he’s releasing them on their next journey. They have life, still.

Meanwhile, his wife, “a strategist, knew better,” and she manages to clear out the place while White writes a requiem for curtains.

Of course, what she and he and we all know is that moving from New York isn’t about saying goodbye to stuff—it’s about fixating on stuff so he doesn’t have to “say goodbye” to people, to life, to the person he had so long been.

Stick from Georgia. In "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Stick. I made the mistake of picking up this stick on mile 1 of the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t put it down until mile 2,285.  I couldn’t abandon it. Was its weight worth it? I picked it up again and have it still. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Abandoning things is easier for some of us than others. I left the fruit stickers in my room when I moved out in May. I couldn’t throw them out. I just couldn’t. Their little screams as I chiselled them off… No.

Today, I don’t let much gather dust. Nothing precious that we couldn’t carry out in our arms in a fire. You have to think about fires in London.

My husband is the E. B. White sort—everything has meaning. My husband lost his father terribly abruptly, so abandonment is a force for him, a deep, abiding force. It isn’t for me, not anymore.

Things become special because we make them special through human acts, through expended emotion. Things we keep nearby, things that bear witness to our lives, and things that will speak of us once we’re gone. They matter.

Like Lydia Davis’s “bad novel,” American poet and farmer Wendell Berry offers us the sparse but true “Throwing Away the Mail”:4

Nothing is simple,
not even simplification.
Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.

We moved out of the dorm rooms come summer. I worked for Harvard Dorm Crew, cleaning up after other students. It was good money, usually quiet.

In room after room after room, I found collections of fruit stickers. On walls, furniture, tables, even bedframes where they would have been, no doubt, covered and invisible. But there, all the same. Collected.

Are all Harvard undergraduates great collectors? Do we suffer letting go? Fear of abandonment? What do these collections say of their owners?

That we have something in common, at the very least.

Silver. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Silver. Given to me, my husband and my daughter at birth. I never understood this tradition yet I cannot throw them away. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We are in a perpetual state of retaining things, argues MIT professor of physics and humanities, Alan Lightman, because we cannot retain time. We long for permanence because we live in a world that doesn’t have it. Even the sun itself will die. Space might be infinite; time is not.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs.

Lightman’s own quest for permanence and fixity in a world of uncertainty courses throughout his work. As he crosses interminable lengths of time (to the start of the universe and back), he reaches for an anchor of meaning to keep him still, present…alive?5

I grew up in a house where Mom fiercely decides what stays and what goes, and Dad clings to whatever he can like an octopus scrambling for leaves in a breeze. Upstairs, however, hidden and forgotten in a closet up on a shelf, is a cigar box of hotel soaps. A perfect collection of my father’s from childhood. It’s delightful. I check it every time I go home. Make sure it’s still there.

They will find it when they downsize. Mom, the strategist, will clean out everything, and Dad, the intellectual, will write a requiem about soap, and I, in memory to the child Dad once was and in deep love to both of my parents, will ask to take the box.

Shells of hickory nuts. "Things We Cannot Abandon."
Shells. 35 years old, from a hickory tree outside my maternal grandparents’ old house. Best moments of my childhood were spent there. The house is gone, the tree is still alive. As are my grandparents. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Over time, fruit stickers become adhesive. You have to remove them with a scraping and washing and more scraping. As I did so those early summers, sticker after sticker, room after room, I kept thinking, “We have to make room. Got to make room.”

I didn’t clean my own dorm room. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Someone else cleaned up my fragments.

It has to do with giving up, maybe. Death. Death of the person who lived in New York, the death of the person reading the bad novel, the death of the student who lived in that room.

We shed these selves and move on all the time, but sometimes, when our emotional health is too fragile and we hold tight.

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens, an irascible, brilliant, independent mind if there ever was one, once underwent a spa experience in order to write “On the Limits of Self-Improvement.” Of the many challenges of good living the one to quit his “keystone addiction to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless, ” was the most difficult.6

About all the downsides—the shame of being conned by the tobacco companies, the disgrace of being an addict, the suspension of one’s reasoning faculties in the face of self-destruction—I already knew. […] Anyway, I left my pack and my lighter in O’Hara’s care and for a couple of days didn’t smoke and didn’t much miss it either. But then I hit a difficult patch in an essay I was writing, and turned again to the little friend that never deserts me.

A friend that keeps such good company becomes something more, a thread in the fabric of us. Hitchen’s own fabric would soon fall apart, he was diagnosed with cancer a few years after “Self-Improvement” was published. Even as he closed in on death, Hitchens held on to the monument at the core of his being, atheism. (He did, however, give up smoking.)

The older we climb, the harder we cling. We don’t know where we exist when we die, so we must exist even more now.

And yet, we do not and should not live forever. We must clean up. Abandon. We must make room. We must die.

To the students whose room I cleaned, to everyone that came after and affixed their mark on the wood, to my own collecting self, to my husband and my father and even my mother and to anyone who has ever gathered anything close:

You were here. You can no longer be here. Someone else must be here. You must make room. But don’t worry, you will always have been here.