Modern Memory, An Essay in Parts


Sometimes I imagine information as rain.  When it’s storming, I’m hopeful for run-off, or my metaphoric basement will flood, my metaphoric house will sink, and then I’ll find myself on the island of my metaphoric roof looking for metaphoric rescue.

I rely on pots and pans to gather what I can.  I have files, but they hardly deserve the name, and when I go to retrieve a specific document, it has often evaporated. So sometimes I leave important things out—in what seem sensible places—before they disappear into the deep well of my desk or house. The biggest vessel is the computer and, after moving data from one to another to another, each with more capacity, my electric cisterns are now reservoirs, complete with hidden topography, tangled seaweed, underwater shadows, and fish.  Calling anything back requires knowing its proper name, what I decided to call that gray thing with the quarter moon gills and especially pointy fins.

I’d like to rely on my head, but it’s a teacup.


Organization requires belief.  The older I get, the more profound my crises of faith, so that, as I’m naming subfolders to fit in subfolders I’ve already named, I’m already wondering if I’ll find my way back, if I’ll ever use these structures I’m creating.  I can’t get over my creating them.  By definition, they have to be as perfect or as flawed as I am, and I’m deeply flawed.

And while I mean to take time every day to scratch more canals where information might flow automatically, life is busy giving me more to remember.  People believe me capable of recalling even more.  They are sure I can keep everything straight.  I wish I had such confidence.

To me, aids to memory feel like the deepest hubris.  They surround and support my dwindling powers, scaffolds around a house of water.


A friend tells me to keep my organization simple, consistent, and as close to the source as possible, which requires remembering what I believed simple last year, where I was, and how I was thinking the last time I considered that information important at all.


Some other part of my trouble is obstinacy.  The internal dialogue runs this way:

“Why isn’t my head good enough?”

“Because the world is more complicated than your head.”

“Okay, but should it be?  Is my life too complex if I can’t keep track of everything?”

“Alright then, move into a cabin in the woods.  Keep your accounts on your thumbnail if you want, but you won’t like it.”

“Well, I don’t like it this way either.  I spend as much time organizing information as I do finding it later.  When does it become easier to save nothing?”

“Haven’t we had this exact conversation before?”


Yesterday, I went to work on my day off to send the memos, handouts, notes, and forms—stacks of water—to their proper places. I moved the information, thimble-full by thimble-full, into new containers.  I hoped the water I moved would be like the water where it now found itself.  I looked for THE place vessels would be protected from loss.  I prayed to remember which held molecules I’d desire later because, when the drought comes, I will want to drink.

And all the time, I dreaded spilling.


Water isn’t inherently evil, just difficult to count on or control.

We don’t like it coming through the roof or rising through the floor, but we might care less if we had no roof or floor to protect.  Of course, then we’d be out in it, wet to the skin and cursing the sky.  We’d be looking for something, anything, that could cover our heads and protect us, the barest tree or shallowest overhang.  We might be dreaming of what we have now, the constant, reliable comfort of houses, memory palaces.

But I wonder if it would be so bad to get wet, to accept it as a condition of every living thing.



Filed under Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Hope, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Survival, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work

2 responses to “Modern Memory, An Essay in Parts

  1. Alexis C. Jolly

    A timely post. Check out this past week’s episode of Radiolab for further meditation and provocation:

    Also, consider St. Teresa of Avila: “God dwells in the pots and pans.”


    It’s great to hear from you, Alexis! I love Radiolab, though I have trouble keeping up with it. I enjoyed the linked episode–I liked the first portion on the triathlon too, having witnessed on TV the scene she described. That may also be an accurate metaphor for my feelings right now, especially as I drift toward the finish line of another school year. I hope all is well with you. Thanks for visiting and commenting —D.

  2. I’ve appeared! Thank goodness!

    Okay, but now I have to formulate some actual response to this post. I wish you could have seen the sparkling, witty and wise words I tried to send you since “Walden.”

    Back later.

    How terrible! I’ve done nothing from this end but maybe the landlords (WordPress) have changed something. In any case, I’m glad you’re back. —D

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