Living · Reading

We Read to Remember

I said this on a podcast (in a podcast? This is a very new world for me) recently, and when I said it, it rang with more truth than I could articulate at the time. I hope to parse it out more productively here.
Reading has always served a cultural purpose, preserving our past and providing a way for us not to repeat mistakes. We read to remember how wars began, in hopes that we can avoid more. We read to remember our cultural history when we read fairy tales or myths, but also biography and history. Biography tells us one woman’s story; folklore tells us Everyman’s.
When I teach literature and folklore, students are delighted (or aghast) to find themselves in these stories. I taught the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied a few years ago, and we talked not only about the obvious influences on works like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but also the repetition of political dramas relevant to the upheaval in the Ukraine at the time (2014). We read to feel connected and understood when the world seems chaotic beyond measure. Because more than likely, we’ve been here before.
Those are big, sweeping reasons to read to remember. There are more personal ones, of course. We read to remember people we knew and loved. There are lots of books that remind me of my parents—mom loved biographies and romances; dad loved historical fiction, especially set in World War II, and he idolized Frank Lloyd Wright. Every time I pick up a biography I think of my mom because I argued with her for years about their usefulness. I loved to read stories, but true lives held no interest. The older I get, the more interesting people are to me, though, and I know she’d be tickled by that. I still don’t find myself tripping through World War II novels, but every time I read about some new building or, let’s face it—any time there’s any significant structure in a book I’m reading, I read it like an architect’s daughter, and I remember his lessons and esthetics.
That seems pretty personal, but I think the most important reason we read to remember is even more intimate. We read to remember who we were. When we read a book we’ve read before, part of our experience is remembering what we thought the first time—where we were; if someone had made us read it and whether that colored our encounter; and we even find parts of our identity that may have changed radically since then—nearly forgotten past selves—until we dig them up like archaeologists of the soul.
This happens to everyone every time we read books that take us back. But since I had fifteen years of reading to my kids, and since I sometimes teach Children’s Literature, it means the most to me when I reread a children’s book I’ve loved. It’s one thing to read 100 Years of Solitude at 20 and then 30, but it’s quite a different experience to read “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” and be able to pinpoint the moment it first occurred to you that women could be something other than mothers. I was little. That was huge. Reading it to my Children’s Lit class was both a return to my youth and a call to arms for the next generation. Reading it to my daughter was a homecoming. I watched her face. I looked for sparks. And I rolled around in the images and ideas, bouncing back and forth between child-me and mommy-me, feeling all the goodness and love important ideas and charming stories fill us with.
Because that’s what it’s about. Feelings. We read to feel, so we can read to remember how we felt. This could be a book that reminds us of a particular person or a time in our lives, or it could be the book just makes us feel great, and we read to capture that feeling again and again.
We read to remember how we feel, how we felt, where we came from, whom we love, who we were. We read to become ourselves.
(The podcast I refer to was a conversation with the brilliant and gracious Steve Zelt, and can be found, if you’re a listening type of person, at:

The box: In Memoriam

My dad arrived in the mail today.
A box.  I had to sign for him.
The postal carrier was sweet—told me to focus on happy memories—and then handed me the box. The body. My dad’s ashes. How have we come to such a place where the dead are mailed? I received a box of books at the same time. Didn’t have to sign for them. People are more important than presents, but not so important they can’t be boxed and shipped—moved from holding facility to mail truck with no one knowing or caring what’s in the box. That’s my dad. Be gentle with him.
And yet no need. He’s not there. It’s a box. It’s full of ash. I haven’t opened it yet, but I’ve seen other “cremains.” He’ll look like fine sand from an Oregon beach, some bigger bits poking out of the dust. He won’t be wearing his NEVADA suspenders or his dorky little glasses case that hung from his belt loop on a carabiner for as long as I remember him. No teeny agenda book in his breast pocket. No mustache. No glasses. No wedding ring. All those things I collected long ago, too early to appreciate them—they were surrounded with the bitterness of losing him to dementia, but still having to steward his body through the end.
That transition complete now, I am gifted with a box of dad, and a strange freedom to reframe the objects I associate with him, to see them in light of real loss. Now he’s really gone.  Now I can’t even hold his hand or kiss his head or sing him “Stardust” anymore… I could sing to the box.
But he’s not there. He’s not in the box. He’s in my head and in my heart and in some of my movements and some of my words. He’s in my children and he’s in the wind. I felt him at Yellowstone, hiking, when I learned of his death. I took him with me through Yellowstone’s canyons and meadows, looking for wildlife while the light lasted.
He’s in my pictures; that is certain.  He wanted to be a photographer, but the closest thing the University of Alaska offered to a photography degree in 1949 was chemistry. He took some classes, then he followed different passions.  But he took pictures all his life. He once lost his camera on a trip to Canada, and some stranger found and returned it, shipping it from British Columbia to Nevada at his own cost. I have rarely seen dad so happy as when he opened that box. When I bought myself a camera in college and then returned it (I really couldn’t afford it; returning it was a very responsible, adult thing to do), he bought me a camera for my graduation. And a case. And two lenses. And four filters. He was proud that I liked taking pictures too. But it wasn’t my driving passion either, but something to document with, to create, to express how we see or at least acknowledge the appreciation that both of us have for the world.
There are other boxes to go through: boxes of slides, thousands of slides of the pictures he took. Now that he’s gone, I can go through them, and I’ll find him again, in what he found important enough to photograph and how he chose to frame it. I’ll see the world through his eyes, and I’ll have questions for him that no one will be able to answer. But in the questioning, there will be commerce. In the looking, there will be contact. And as with every time we try to see the world through another pair of eyes, there will be love.

While the Light Lasts

Dementia is a degenerative disease. It does not improve. One does not recover. The best we can hope for is to slow the current, as what was your life–your character, your habits, and your memories–slips over the falls at the end.  But this is not a post about water. It’s a post about light.

In the summer of 2007, my dad was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding caused by the deadly combination of diabetes and alcoholism. When they tried to treat his alcoholism, they found he couldn’t remember the next day what the counselor had discussed with him previously. Rehab was deemed unnecessary on the grounds that his dementia made it fruitless. It was the first we knew of the advanced state of his dementia. Mom had not wanted people to know, and she had not realized how serious it was. Old men get forgetful, now, don’t they? He had about a two-hour memory window, but couldn’t remember what had happened before—a flashlight with a two-hour battery.
I started researching dementia. For him and for me.
Two years later, that window had narrowed considerably. When I moved him in to an assisted living facility closer to me, I took him some books. I asked him if he wanted to read. No, it’s too tiring. I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They are long poems, but poems we both knew well—poems he had read to me many times over the years.  I thought he had five minutes in him, at least. He did not. He did not have a whole sentence in him. By the end of the sentence, he couldn’t remember what the beginning had said. He was confused, disheartened, frustrated, and tired. His mind was a matchlight that burned out almost immediately. I started wondering how long his light would last.
This is a question we’d considered in my youth while talking about photography. Photography is all about light—capturing light, manipulating light, diffusing light, redirecting light. When we went camping, we took pictures, and some of the best were taken in the ‘tweener times—the dawn and dusk hours where light was softer and often broken by shadows. This was a time when the color of flowers looked rich, not bleached, washed out by the midday sun. It was also the time of wildlife.
Deer are most active during these hours, more mobile, on the lookout for food and water they dare not seek during the bright light. The shadows keep them safer. The shadows also give them a texture, a depth, and the pictures taken during those hours convey a coziness and intimacy that is not attainable in full sun or in the darkness that follows dusk. It’s important, then, to shoot precisely during that window—after the sun has set but before the darkness obscures your vision completely. We shoot not frantically, but with purpose, and with intent to make the most of a fleeting opportunity, to take the best pictures we can in the best circumstances. Had I known this would become so comforting a metaphor for life, I would have paid more attention during those moments.
Sitting in his room in his retirement community, reading Robert Service aloud, I longed for epigrams instead of ballads. I sang him songs. Short songs, never the second verse. I wanted to give him cozy, comfortable memories, but distilled. I learned to speak in images: I bought a new car; the granddaughter lost a tooth; the roses are blooming. I brought in books of buildings and bridges, so we could look at them together (he was an architect). We looked at one picture, pointed out a favorite feature, and then put the book away. When words and images are illuminated in flashes, lasting only a moment, you learn to winnow the world down to beautiful seconds. If your whole life is one moment, with no connective tissue to others, you want to make each moment beautiful.
This is why dementia patients need caregivers (apart from the obvious, practical reasons).  If someone is there, pointing out lovely things, life is lovely. If not, the odds that they’ll think of a lovely thing are long; they’re more likely to start and then become confused, as the darkness gathers in their mind. Those of us without dementia benefit from perspective; we see things in a panorama or a film, with scenes succeeding scenes. Our current scenes have a past, a trajectory we can see, and a future we can sometimes predict. And all this cycling through days and nights and dawns and dusks serves us best when it reminds us to take the best shots we can while the light lasts.