Friday, December 23, 2011


In the interstices of my daily life, I always look through my notebooks that I keep in my bag. These aren't the Moleskines that so many people who write keep. They're spiral-bound, college-ruled, completely throwaway, and are as filled with idle doodles and grocery lists as they are with intentional writing.

Looking back, I realize just how much I've been writing so much about the idea of home: what it has meant to me and what it means to the general populace. Is it an idea that can even be defined? Or is it one of those concepts, like love, that perpetually floats on the edge of definition. We can think of examples, we can use other definitions to touch on aspects of the idea, but we can't actually nail it down.

That concept, that word is so loaded. Some people know where their home is in the world. They were born somewhere and never left, or they arrived in some city and stayed and stayed. But I'm always searching for someplace that nurtures me, as if I'm a tropical plant that needs a specific soil pH and a specific mineral profile to thrive.

When I write, I like to think about the big questions of space, dialectic, the city, the meaning of Enlightenment. I don't write about the couch I'm sitting on, the weather, the coffee I'm drinking. I write my ideas down, and stare at the world around me. I am sitting in a planetarium, focused on the stars above me, not the seat where I am lying prone.

But this apartment, where I've lived for a year and a half-- longer than anywhere else I've lived since leaving my parents' house-- is the home base for all of these explorations. I sleep in this bed, I read the newspaper under this afghan.

It took a while for me to truly feel like I was living in this apartment instead of merely occupying it. My roommate had lived here far longer, and initially-- as all roommates and sublets feel-- I felt like a houseguest rather than a resident. This was her furniture, these were her books. I knew where the glasses were kept and I washed them after I was finished with them, but this was just what any good houseguest did.

But slowly I came to inhabit it. I acquired things. I got a rice steamer and a food processor and an expensive coffee maker, a desk, a floor lamp. I filled the cabinets with spices and the liquor cabinet with whiskey. Every day, I repeated banal actions, brushing my teeth and baking bread, filling trash cans with used Q-Tips and pencil shavings.

I became familiar with the walks around the neighborhood. Each contour became familiar, the precise gradient of each hill, the time it took to walk to the coffee shop or the grocery store. I waved to the neighbors when they were out smoking cigarettes on their patio, and waited for the bus with the same several people.

And I fell in love with the view over Lake Washington towards the Cascade Mountains. At sunset, I looked out at neighborhoods on distant hills. Somewhere, I imagined, on that hill, there was a girl at a cafe looking up from her book and staring back in my direction. Our gazes met each other and we never knew it.

When I leave this apartment, I will give up the things I own. I'll sell the nice things and give away the cheap things. My posters will come down off the bedroom wall, leaving rectangular outlines in the accumulated dust. My books on the shelves will disappear. The paper towels I bought will get used up, the hair I left in the drain unplugged and thrown out. My imprint on the apartment will get fainter and fainter until it becomes indiscernible. New people will move in, with their own lives and their own things and their own stories of what happened in this exact space.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Memory and Intent

A recent instance of déjà vu: I step out of the shower and into my cold livingroom. The ashen Northwest winter light comes in through dusty windows.

There is something in the tone and the granulation of the paint in my apartment. I am momentarily transported to someplace I think I remember, a house somewhere back in the neighborhood I grew up in. I can almost hear a Chicago Cubs game playing on a chipped, sea-green radio, almost feel my bare feet sinking into worn, scratchy carpeting, almost smell instant mashed potatoes and gravy and the stale coffee left over from that morning.

Déjà vu doesn't transport me to the places I've loved, or to any place that I've traveled. It takes me to early childhood, to quiet towns in the American grain belt. In my conscious memory I remember hiking on the Italian coast and summer evenings drinking beer on patios. In my unconscious memory, all I can see are switchyards and blacktop roads cutting through cornfields.

The one exception is musical memory. When I have a specific memory of a piece of music, it has nothing to do with a momentous event. It doesn't send me to anywhere important. In the age of the MP3, recorded music is what we use to fill in our lives, and it occupies our commutes, our long, lonely drives, the hours we spent cleaning our houses. When we find a piece of music evocative of a certain moment, we think of light, of color, of wind coming through an open window.

When we listen to a song and remember our associations with it, we are not remembering the actual associations. Every time we listen to that song, we overlay a new set of experiences onto the memories we want to hold on to, and we become more and more distant from our own memories. That memory-picture becomes blurred, filled in with white noise. It's when you can't remember the name of a song, when you think you'll never hear it again, that your memory will remain pure.

The nerves connecting the eardrum and the brain can send signals in both directions. Consequently, remembered music can be heard by the ear, as clearly as if it was coming from a speaker. The songs of my life nag me in bed late at night, and I feel as if I can hear the world spinning.

So many of the things we remember are very discrete and practical-- we need to remember what to buy at the grocery store, or the name of a co-worker's child. Maybe we remember some commonly held fact like the name of the Vice President of the United States.

What interests me far more is the memory that is unintentional, the moments when you are suddenly struck by something long-forgotten, when memories collide, when memories supersede your current reality. Déjà vu ends. I am standing in my livingroom, unmistakably here and now. A bit of sun shines on a far hill, and I can hear the cat meowing outside my window.