It’s not in the old Polaroids buried in the dark

I didn’t know anything about repetition compulsion then and still don’t. Why the baby tosses the rattle out of the crib and then cries at its loss, only to repeat the same act again and again. As if we can erase the pain through reenactment. Or master it by asserting our will.

I went back to the same dead end street in my home town and just stood there. I must have looked odd with my hands in my pockets, head down, pacing back and forth. Brooding over the loss of a girlfriend and returning to where we’d parked that night. Not sure why I was there but convinced that by going back I’d figure it out.

I have tried to bring back the dead by willing them alive. It could be like that story of the monkey’s paw where you get what you wish for but it comes with a cost. You sacrifice your own nature by superseding it. And yet I am drawn back to this same ritual each time I write, convinced of some hidden treasure. A squirrel burying nuts it can’t retrieve, how the tail curls like a question mark. You are trying to preserve your life by replaying it for anyone who will listen. Digging for nuts.

I went back to the mid-70s with my therapist in her dimly lit room. It is like dropping into a computer-generated landscape of your mind with your younger self the avatar. The figure moves in stilted frames through rooms, searching. The therapist guides you to move the avatar closer to what needs attention, the problem. To go back and find the splinter that’s caused the swelling. The avatar, your younger self, must find and remove it. You are controlling the avatar and at the same time not believing it is real. You are alone in the game but there are many versions of your self blocking entry to the source, protecting the pain. It’s a treasure you don’t really want to find but must.

Still with some faith and hope you could heal, you transport yourself through time and space to the four walls of the home you grew up in. You are back in the summer of 1975 with detail you hadn’t considered in years. The trim of the windows, how they clasp shut, a calendar on the wall, the feel of the sheets. The look of the closet door and bed springs. Memory is attached to the senses, reawakened there.

Your challenge in this game, to win, is to change how you feel about the memory. To undo the power it holds over you. To throw the rattle overboard but this time, tell yourself it’s okay. Don’t feel bad about it. Use your older, wiser self to comfort your avatar…and heal.

But we get stuck trying to locate those pivotal moments that define us. It’s not enough to tell the truth in autobiography, or the truth is too much for you, the writer, to stand.

The story of your life is a series of well-told lies delivering a feeling of truth. No different than the lives we live. It isn’t the truth, but a sense of it we want. As readers, as travelers through this life, memory is one thing but the feeling it conveys is another.

And so truth is in feeling. And that’s what makes memory so hard. We don’t want to remember the really hard times, so we protect ourselves by forgetting. But what’s where the story is. And you have to go inside yourself to dig it out, then accept what you find. And know that you can’t put it back. There’s a reason we hide some things and leave the dead to rest. I aim to revive them.

This post inspired by a story written by Alexander Chee, “The Guardians.” Interview here.

Categories: writing

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30 replies

  1. ” we protect ourselves by forgetting ” well said 👏🏻

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Bill. I’m very glad to have found you in this miserable year. Something good of it, I suppose.
    A happy new year to you are yours. May we remain until we are no longer wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All the very best to you, Bill and your family. You’ve raised a truly BIG issue here. If you don’t know Dr. Gabor Mate, you might find this talk of interest – it’s a free intro to a course:
    He speaks from a position of great self-knowledge, learned the hard way – probably the only way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Tish! Thanks for this, will have a look. Appreciate it, lots. Great to hear from you. Hard to believe it’s NYE eh? And nigh you are to the new year, you. Be well, cheers to you and yours….!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally get that revisiting places and waiting for movement, like an epiphany or something. Some enlightenment for all the pain stored inside that has gone numb. Or maybe it’s been flushed out and all that’s left is residue. God, sounds like I’m describing a colonoscopy!

    Sorry about that, but maybe it’s apt.

    Cheers to you and thanks for a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Polly! Well I just turned 50 so the colonoscopy reference is apt whether I’m ready for it or not, ha. I’m glad you could relate, that’s what I’m going for here. Thanks for taking the time to let me know and for reading. And wishing you and yours a happy new year wherever this finds you! Likely “at home.” Ha, be well…..

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “The story of your life is a series of well-told lies delivering a feeling of truth.” This is such a great line and supports stuff I’ve been reading about the brain and perception in general. But it works even from a self-preservation standpoint so we don’t go nuts over water long past the bridge.

    Happy New Year to you and the fam, Bill!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That stuff you’ve been reading sounds legit! Yes thanks for being an active participant in the years of my tinkering and public attempts to work it out Kevin! Wishing you and yours peace in the new year. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh wow, Bill! Saved a copy of your post & read the linked piece on Chee. I’m resonating with your truth: Your challenge in this game, to win, is to change how you feel about the memory — to undo the power it holds over you.

    And from the referenced article: He wrote in the present tense — “the tense victims of trauma use”— this acted on him like “self-hypnosis” allowing feelings that had been hidden to pour out.

    We have all lived through trauma, much of it we keep buried. My current challenge is to face the right-now w/o trying to bury any of it. Over the years I’ve stumbled into a few past traumas and seen them differently … I’d like to think I can stifle the burying from here on. Face whatever with curiosity instead of guilt. (Ten years from now I may look back at 2020 and realize I failed at that!)

    Thanks for stirring up my perspectives. I’ll do some present-tense writing about past “tenses” … in my journal for starts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey there, Jazz. Happy new year to you! Glad to hear this resonated; I just finished the book referenced in the article there on Chee and recommend it if that’s your thing. I’ve been enjoying that present tense convention in what I read and write and hope you find some value in it too. Sounds like this has been an especially hard year for you and I’m wishing you peace and perspective in the coming year. Thanks for being such a loyal reader and for taking the time to share your insights and reactions. Be well my friend! Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m happy I’ve written the stories of my past. I find I’m now forgetting stuff faster and faster. Sometimes when I read something I wrote five years ago, I think “How could I possibly have remembered that?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know man! Ditto. Grateful for most of it, we’re lucky for that. Happy new year’s, Jeff: has been great getting to know you; I hope you and your kids are all having some fun tonight. Thanks for reading and catch you on the flip side…


  8. Lots of great lines in this one, too many to list. No way I could remember my house in 1975, though, I think that’s the year we left it. Anyhoo, yes to your memoiries, and more about your voyages in your avatar, please. Keep ’em comin’. And Happy New Year to you, sir.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I see practical philosophy working here. People with a mind do have it but only few express it. Nice reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The story we tell our self about our self; tricky stuff I find.
    It’s really good to find the idea explored with integrity.
    Thank you for sharing your memories and insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. maybe we customize the stories we tell about ourselves, when retelling it to ourselves, to fit whatever we can handle.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Therapy sounds like a fascinating process. Possibly terrifying. I really like the way you explain it here.
    Hey, it’s 2021, baby!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Intense. Your story carries us along. I hope the revival provides clarity, I’m going to be trying for the same. Best wishes for the new year

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Potholes, dead ends, wrong turns. Transportation is a good metaphor, eh?

    Really enjoyed reading this intimate reflection, Bill. Don’t want to undercut it, but do you know the Peter Gabriel song “Digging in the dirt”?

    Liked by 1 person

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