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Mining My Memory For Meaning

October 26, 2010

At this stage of my life, I sometimes go cell-surfing; connecting dots; trying to make some sense of my life’s storyline.

I consider memory to be both precious and in jeopardy, an endangered natural resource. Threatened not just by age, but also by the age we’re in: We live in a time when our attention is running at a deficit. One cannot be both constantly distracted and remember at the same time. Politicians and the marketplace love this: Forget what I said or did last month, please. And forget yesterday’s product, please. Forgetting is good for business as usual.

But I digress. On a personal level, if you forget where you’ve been, and what it means, you’ve no idea where you’re going. Memory is inseparable from sanity and wisdom. Without it, we’re adrift like a man on a raft without a compass on a cloudy night.

I value memory more than nostalgia, which is fool’s gold. Oh I get nostalgic, but that’s not where useful meaning lies, or what this post is about. I feel like I’ve accrued memories that feed and sustain me.

Allow me to share a pair of memories that have shaped my life — that is to say, not just the experiences themselves, but my memory of them — and how I’ve gleaned meaning from them.

Our first date had gone well. I’d brought her a single, beautiful flower. (Hey, by the time I was 31, I knew a thing or two about seducing women). The two of us had seemed to have so much in common. The same interests (books and politics and spiritual bent); the same musical taste (folk and rock); the same everything. But this time, something went wrong. There was some kind of spat, and she stalked off, leaving me flatfooted there on West 72nd Street in the middle of a Saturday night. I was dumbfounded, and felt somehow jerked around and manipulated, so I just stood there and watched her disappear into the crowd. And I was mad. Sure, maybe she was angry at me about something I had said, but this was no way to handle it. Something inside told me to just let her go. But after 5 minutes of mulling it over, I couldn’t stand the tension; couldn’t leave the fire burning; and I also couldn’t tolerate the feeling of separation, abandonment and rejection. So I went looking for her. Twenty minutes later, distraught and exhausted, I found her. She also looked distraught. We made up. We continued dating, and the dramas continued as well. A few years later we married. Seven years after that, the both of us unable to take it anymore, we divorced.

What had I learned? That back on that night of our second date, she had set the tone for the entire relationship. She might as well have handed me a note saying, “Welcome to my world –of abandonment and rejection; of melodrama; of emotional roller coaster rides.”

Eight years after my divorce, I met another woman. I’d been wandering the dating desert (though not without the occasional oasis) and had almost given up on women altogether. We went out on our first date, and again I used my whiles. After dinner at the Thai place overlooking 7th Avenue in the Slope, I walked her back to my house. I thought, “This is a piece of cake.” I knew it wouldn’t lead to a serious relationship – she and I had little in common. She wasn’t an intellectual like all my major love affairs. She didn’t speak psychologese. I figured she’d be fun for a month. After I kissed her, something inside told me to invite her into the shower with me, and she complied. And in the shower, something told me to do that which I’d always heard women love, but had never done: I washed her hair. It’s embarrassing, telling you this now. I mean, what kind of man washes a woman’s hair? Well a man who wants to get laid, for one thing! And that was it — in my head I told myself I was just trying to seduce her. We made love that first night, and the way she looked at me, and what I saw in her during those moments just astonished me. “Ok”, I said to myself, lying there on the bed. “Maybe three months.” After the second date, I figured maybe six. I told my shrink of my conflict: I don’t want to hurt this woman, but I can’t stay with her; she’s too different — from me and from all the others. She’s not fulfilling my need for great stimulating conversation, or my need for emotional drama. Indeed, all this woman was doing was making me happy. What should I do? “If your impulse is to be with her, stop worrying and go with it and see what happens,” Ron said. So I did. And Shelley and I have been together now for ten years, and married the past four.

And what do I take from this recollection? You mean besides going with my gut this time? Shelley was also handing me a “Welcome to this relationship” note. But by this time, in my fifties, I was ready for easy and wonderful.

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