4 min read

Memory and Mystery

Memory and Mystery

Dear friends,

Autumn fog has rolled back into my little corner of the Bay Area. As I drive through the white mist in the mornings while dropping the kids off at school, Iris Dement’s Let the Mystery Be has been plays on my internal radio. It was the haunting opening song for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, and I think it’s perfection, and part of the perfection is simply Iris Dement’s warbling voice. But there’s also something in its lines:

Everybody is a worryin' 'bout where
They're gonna go when the whole thing's done
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

I’ve been sunk in thoughts of my own mortality for a couple of years now. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve seen of multiple sclerosis, how it sometimes ends, and how much disinformation, or stunted information, I find about it online. I’ve been thinking of how often people try to tell me what I’ve going through because they know a little bit of information; there's a reason only a little information can be dangerous.

While biting my tongue is a symptom of multiple sclerosis, it has still taken some learning to hold it back in the other, metaphoric way to not say, What makes you think you know anything about my experience of losing my own body? Who are you to say that?

For you can’t say that because they genuinely don’t know, even if they don’t know what they don’t know.

But then there are the empathetic letters from unexpected corners, people I barely know, who do understand what I might be going through, but acknowledge they might not know, instead of trying to assert authority, and it comes through in their words, and it means everything. I received one this morning, and it brightened my whole day.

I’ve been thinking, Where do we go when we die? Does it matter? There is nothing firm in living, only a now we can’t ever pin down as it slips away from us and becomes the past.

Is it worthwhile, then, to write a novel? When your ability to carefully select and organize the vast quantity of information needed to make up another, almost-lookalike world is slowly trickling away from you? But there are worse conditions of memory, and it’s worth it, sometimes, to be reminded.

In A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes, a memoir of his father’s last days fighting against dementia, Rodrigo Garcia writes,

My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over and over again is enormous. He would say, 'I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me.'

The tragic irony: that one of the novelists who has written most movingly about memory, finds himself losing the raw meaning-making stuff at the end of his life. It is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read, though it has flown under the radar a bit. It seems slight, but it is about what in life has the greatest weight, I believe: memory and death.

Memory, when you’re any kind of artist, is everything: it’s the tools and clay of art, of living, of interpreting other people’s patterns. Memory is not a recorder; it is, in fact, a storytelling function, and it varies, as we make new memories.

I wept straight through A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes for a man I never met, and yet who I feel I met, because his words are some of the most meaningful words I’ve encountered. Is it only my recognition of something in myself that makes this book mean something to me? I don't know.

And I wonder if her Pentecostal upbringing has slipped into Iris Dement’s song, if that’s what makes this song adhere to the contours of my own mind, when I see the fog, and realize, one day all the fog will be burned away, another casualty of climate change.

Pentecostalism was the religion to which my grandmother converted, or adopted, later in life. She’d spend the entirety of her Sunday going to Catholic church, and then a Pentecostal church in Chennai, and sometimes she’d bring one of my cousins along with her. Everyone in our family knew that Sunday was not the day to come calling.

My grandmother has been gone now a long time, and I never had her to begin with, only seeing her a few times ever in my own life. Yet, my own fascination with what called her to Pentecostalism has crept into my story. I do not know what significance the protagonist’s religious upbringing has in the novel, even, but my memory of believers gathers life around itself.

My work as a novelist is not conscious in the way my work as a critic is. It’s a desire for something that I don’t know yet how to name. There are things lying beyond the fog that I can’t quite see, and yet I’m moving towards the mystery for no reason except I am called to tell this story, and even moving through the fog, not knowing whether it will stay, holds beauty.