Memory’s Geography

The English office of a school where I used to teach offered a window on a courtyard penned on all sides by buildings. The roofs of these buildings were green-gray slate, and, when an earlier winter storm started to melt, patches of snow on the roof slid away from other patches, wrinkling and drooping in fanciful ways. These patches reminded me of continents with mountain ranges and coastlines, the irregular scalloped edges like harbors opening onto exposed slate seas. The color was right even if the sea divided neatly into regular rectangular shingles.

When it really warmed up the continents fell from the roof in sloppy landslides onto the courtyard below. The sound reverberated in the closed space, alerting you one moment too late to see it happen.

I may have caught it happening—I spent a lot of time standing at that window staring at nothing and sorting through my last or next class—but I don’t remember.

Some pictures are too big for the brain, and it crops the edges until just a detail remains, a square of canvas presenting fingers of one hand or a sfumato hillock too distant to need definition.  Strangely, I derive such comfort from these details, their visits reminders of memory’s consolations and the sweet poignancy of recalling something that seems outside yourself.

Here’s another:

During a wet June in coastal Texas, my older brother—and soon the whole block—dug a Venice out of a boggy vacant lot. All those ells of canals opened into a grand pool, and along each we erected cottages and palaces of dredged mud, grass, and sticks. One edifice in particular rose like a Tower of Babel, its layers cork-screwed to a plateau just big enough to hold an Astros’ pennant. The work paused long enough to wipe our brows and sigh admiration. It was an impotent city—for nothing—a construction of imagination with no aim but passing summer.

The scene likely ended with a pick-up truck rolling up, a driver’s side window rolling down, and a voice rolling out some version of “Cease and desist,” but that’s lost.

Two weeks ago, I saw my older brother for the first time in a year, and I meant to ask him about this Venice, whether he remembered it, whether my brain cut another misleading square of canvas, or whether I’ve made it myself, my creation completed by wishing it real.

But maybe I didn’t want to know. When these memory postcards return, I pause to marvel. Whether they’re actual or painted by desire sometimes seems immaterial.

Life deserves more attention than we give it. It’s a shame we can’t share our postcards, if only to communicate where our penlights landed, what our own angles illuminated. The snow continents slip too soon from the roof, and I wish I knew a reliable way to make them hang on longer.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing

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