“[W]e must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.”

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting


As we get older we accumulate memories.  Some are splendid treasures that we go back and visit like we have a membership at the MoMA; others haunt us like a dripping faucet in the middle of the night. Plunk.Plunk.Plunk.  Eerily irksome…and at 3 am it requires superhuman effort to turn it off.

So how do we fix the faucet? Can we erase brain waves like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Or should we practice the art of selection, tricking the mind to only cherish a few beautiful thoughts while tossing others to a forgotten dungeon? However, one man told me that it is the good memories that are the most troubling.  “They are sabotaging my present!” he shouted in torment.

When I first read Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” I was a 20-year-old college kid with not enough memories to forget.  There was the time I was 9 and befriended mountain goats on a family-backpacking trip in Montana. There was my “first swoon”-a crush I had on a fellow 12-year-old aspiring astronaut during Space Camp (his voice had just changed to ‘husky squeak’ and he knew all the constellations). And there were a few long drawn out melodramatic poems I wrote during my teenage angst years about the, er, black worm in my heart.  (“worm” was cleverly rhymed with “germ”). Ahem.

Reading Kundera, however, made me realize that my life was still relatively puny. I needed more memories so that I could take my writing beyond forced rhymes about an earthworm with an infectious disease.

To achieve literary success, I would need to sound as experienced and tormented as the eastern European author I was reading.  True torment wasn’t going to happen in Economics class at the University of Washington (as troubling as elastic demand was, I still needed more ‘burden’).

So, like a true artist, I decided to reach my own torment by tormenting my poor parents. I took a European lover eight years my senior, left college, and moved to Germany where I could read Goethe in his native tongue while living in (college uneducated) sin.

Since then I’ve lived around the world and collected thousands of memories-sinful, angelic, tormented and wistful. Sometimes memories are so good, I want to hook up an IV, lay down and memory jump from one recollection to another and forget real life.  Other memories are as dark as black mud and pull me down a hole where there is no light.

So back to the leaky faucet. What do we do?  What does anyone do with all the odd shaped puzzle pieces that make up our lives?

1. Be realistic: First of all, know that your memories ARE NOT reality. They are artistically painted captures that glow in colors only our own eyes can see. They create a vantage point for how we will see the world.  So choose them wisely…

2. Treat remembrance like a splurge: Keep the good ones in sealed jar and only visit them on occasion-they will spoil if they get too much air.  Every time we take a memory out it changes form…and when we put it back it becomes a memory of a memory.

3. Don’t dwell: Buddhists believe that the main cause for suffering is attachment.  We cannot change the past. And the past doesn’t have to define you.  But while we cannot always help what happens to us, we can choose how we deal with it. Dwelling, no matter how delicious it may seem, is a sure fire way to mess up the present moment.  If I am always thinking about the amazing burrito I had in Mexico, I’ll never enjoy the many taquerias here in San Francisco.

4. Be optimistic: Get excited about creating new memories.  Each day is an opportunity.  If we free up enough space to do so.

Pablo Neruda wrote, “Life is so short, but forgetting is so long.”  I actually disagree with the famed poet.  I think we can train our mind to release thoughts and memories that don’t serve us.  I also think that positive memories, if treated like select delicacies, remind us that life is full of goodness. These are the memories that motivate us to move forward with life.   Now that I’ve fixed the faucet I’m hungry.  It’s time for a new taqueria.  Nothing says ‘ new good memory’ like roadside Mexican cuisine.


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