Sunday, April 09, 2017

Mystic Chords of Memory

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ~ US President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861. Full text here.

Memory, like dreaming, is often highly emotionally charged. There's the Proustian memory trigger -- a deep memory surfaces due to a scent, a sound, a person who resembles someone from the past (or future, if it's a premonition); or the memory reminder, like a photograph, journal entry, memory-laden discussion, written communication or voice mail. Often just a person's name or thinking about a certain time or place will conjure up a memory, or a slew of them. 

Memories often conflict or prove paradoxical. I recently finished Ian Gibson's Federico García Lorca: A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) and what was made very clear in it is that different people remembered Lorca differently, even from the same event, based partly on how well they knew him, how they felt about him, how much time had elapsed, and what they wanted to remember about him. 

So I thought I'd post a sampling of remembered people, times and places. If the context of a situation is not viscerally recalled, the details seem vaguer. Let's give it a try, shall we?

When I was a teenager, I met Ariana Bracalente at an amusement park in Virginia -- not randomly but through Marc Pinotti, a mutual friend. She was a little older than I was, an exciting development at the time. She was smart, astute and interesting; her mother was a nurse and they were Catholic. We were close for some time, and wrote lots of letters. The last time I saw her was at a football game, also in Virginia, and she was taking pictures with, if I remember correctly, a Nikon with zoom lens. Ah, youth!

In my early twenties, I met a handful of much older German fellows at Normandy, in France. They were celebrating their "alive day." On June 6-7, 1944, then draftees in the Wehrmacht, they rather wisely surrendered to Canadian assault forces as fast as they could and, obviously, survived the war. With some college friends from Chapel Hill, we shared bottles of wine and were all singing by the end of the night. Though we only saw them over a period of two days, they made a lasting impression. Three names stick with me: Willi Wiederstein from near Düsseldorf, Karl and Helmut. Luckily, I'm still excellent friends with one of the American college students who also experienced this exchange firsthand.

When I was living in Philadelphia, while a graduate student at Temple University, I came to know a number of intelligent and fun people from Vietnam, China, India, Germany, Russia, Canada, England, France, Spain, Italy and Thailand, among other places. One of the many, Nga Mai, an edgy (and rather striking in appearance) entrepreneur and restaurateur, hired me occasionally to cover her Diva Café, right across the way from my apartment at 1225 Spruce Street; sometimes we'd play chess and talk about Hannah Arendt or Camille Paglia, who was teaching nearby at the University of the Arts. Nga and her two sisters had come to the USA with their Catholic mother, starting in Omaha, Nebraska; their father remained in Vietnam after the Americans departed. We stayed in touch for a while after I left the city, after she closed Diva and opened up a couple of new places over by Rittenhouse Square. At Diva, she would explain to people how to remember conceptualizing and spelling her first name: "like National Golf Association." (Which in turn reminds me of Stuart Basefsky, a librarian mentor from Duke University, now at Cornell University's School of Industry and Labor Relations, who would say his last name to newcomers and explain, "like Base and Sky with an F in the middle." Like I sometimes say, when people ask, "Erik with a k.")

Also in Philadelphia, I unexpectedly came to know Lu Ping from the People's Republic of China in a history class. She was an English teacher when back in China. Her stories about her father, who was very old by then, and his experiences during the Long March were remarkable. Only later did I realize that her name could be better understood in reverse, as Ping Lu.

When I moved to Detroit, there were additional new waves of people to meet. Like mustard seeds, some took hold and some didn't. I remember early on, upon the first occasion of meeting David J. Thompson, an English instructor then and a wandering poet and photographer now. This is primarily because of the specific context: I was seated at his flimsy card table, slowly sinking into wet clay, enclosed within a Japanese-style courtyard designed in the 1950s by Minoru Yamasaki. Thompson had on the table a 1995 book, which I asked about: Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain, a fascinating memoir about snake-handlers and old time religion in the American South. (Side memory: for some reason Thompson hated Abraham Lincoln). The last time I saw him was at Steve's Back Room, a Middle Eastern Restaurant in Saint Clair Shores. By this time, several years after the first introductions, we both were working on laptops at separate tables, and I was moving to Texas; outside, there was snow on the ground.  

Also in metro Detroit, there was another English instructor (among many) on another occasion -- a regular bar night for artists and educators -- that I recall, from a couple years later. In this case, it was the unusual name that stuck: Carroll Louis Goossen, Jr. I wondered why whoever was in charge of given names in the Goossen clan flipped the name from a literary salute to Lewis Carroll, author of Through the Looking Glass, to such an awful appendage? This to me was as strange as the Lu Ping/Ping Lu flip or Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." Then again, the "real" name of Lewis Carroll was actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. 

The last time I saw Cal was probably at Macomb Community College, where for a while I taught Writing, English, Poetry and the (International) Novel as an adjunct -- (I was working full time as a librarian elsewhere). 

For now, I'll end with a relevant snippet about people's names from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), Chapter Six:

'"My name is Alice, but — "
"It's a stupid name enough!" Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. "What does it mean?"
"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."' Indeed.

Dear reader, how do you remember people and their names? 

Today's Rune: Strength.


the walking man said...

My memory of names is not enhanced by menomics or other strategies for the memory impaired. Lord knows I tried at one time, when I was more public than I am now, to remember dozens of peoples names. I failed in many cases and learned to not be ashamed to ask. I do get tired of the name "you." Although I do remember Cal very well, I doubt I would recognize him in a small crowd of 4 or so. I am not a good person if counted by memory, I have had to forget too much.

Charles Gramlich said...

I seem only capable of learning student names when it is a particularly small group that I see regularly, like my writing class this year which has only 5 students in it. with groups of 30 or more I just don't manage it