Box of Godiva chocolates, delivery from ProFlowers, fully-loaded gift card, sentiment from Hallmark. Envelope of cash, place setting from the registry, His ‘n Hers towels, crock pot, expensive single-use dress. Pack of Pampers, pair of knitted booties, engraved rattle, assortment of onesies. Tray of deli meats, donation in the deceased’s honor, potted plant. Seashell, scrapbook of island photos, persistent rash, bracelet from the gift shop. Dried wrist corsage, mortarboard tassel, bulletin of names. Brochures, invitations, ticket stubs, post cards, certificates, medals, yearbooks.
To these objects, we attach great emotion and power. Packed into labeled plastic tubs, stacked on closet shelves, pinned to bulletin boards, shoved into cardboard boxes, they accumulate into a mountain of evidence: Exhibits A through ZZZ prove that we’ve done things. Been an active part of our own lives. Mattered.
It’s as predictable as a chorus of birds twittering at dawn, this human need to commemorate the significant moments of our lives.
There are events, and the events are coupled with physical reminders, for the event will end, but the thing remains. We apprize emblems of great days.
For example, in my current phase of life, I have become liberatingly unsentimental; still, the loss of my wedding ring would cause a hitch in my curtsey. It’s not so much what the ring symbolizes—as I often suggest to Byron, we should discreetly divorce and then, in thirty years, announce our ruse to those in our lives for whom approval and acceptance are—queerly!– linked to legality. It irks me that millions don’t care to consider marriage is perhaps more about reassuring those around the couple (and providing right of access to each other in times of crisis) than it is about providing a source of sustained commitment between the two involved. My ring is not some Precious that remands our love. Even bare, my fingers would itch to run through my beau’s hair.
Rather, I would mourn the loss of my ring because I loved the day Byron and I ran on the Root River Trail and ended at the jeweler’s cottage shop. Together, we talked through ideas, first entertaining a thought about rings in Japanese Mokume Gane style but ultimately going with the artist’s idea for making a design that was reflective of the rain pattern on a kimono. I loved that we got a lesson in metallurgy and how to make randomness out of specifics. I loved that day, so I love my ring. I would be sad to lose it.
Of course, the loss of the ring wouldn’t negate the marriage. Even without the symbolic thing to show the world, the life event still occurred. Even without a kimono-inspired pattern of rain speckling the ring on my finger, I still had a beautiful day on the Root River Trail, ending it, most importantly, with a bowl of ice cream from the shop next to the jeweler. Even without the life event of a ceremony in which the rain rings played a major role, my adoration of Byron would remain fixed. It’s about the feeling, not the ceremony, not the ring.
Then again, I might just be getting crustier with each passing year. Flowing counter to my thinking are the 2.3 million couples who marry every year in the United States, averaging an outlay of $20,000 each as they agonize over sizes of blooms and varieties of mauve, full of certitude that the perfection of a single day prognosticates continued rightness for sixty ensuing years. Pressed into albums across the planet are paper napkins inscribed with remnant benedictions of bolstering fact: “Jason and Martha Sue united in love June 19th, 1996.”
Archeologically, this napkin is an intriguing artifact. As a talisman of happiness, it’s highly suspect.
I am bemused by the emphasis put on memorial iconography and even more bemused—confounded, even—by the emphasis put on commemorative actions. When the two intersect, I have to resort to deep yogic breathing (in for a count of five; out for a count of ten); on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself in the midst of wedding congregants, many of whom have paid several thousand dollars to get their entire families to the “destination,” buy the specified fancy clothes, and drop their suitcases in one of the reserved block of rooms. Sometimes, if the organist is fiddling around with his sheet music too long before beginning the prelude, I even have time to look at the guy next to me and muse, with a long, slow exhale, “Poor sod. When you sat down next to the groom in math class your freshman year of college and tossed out a casual, ‘Do you have an extra pencil?”, I bet you never envisioned a day when you’d have to take out a new line of credit just to prove your unflinching support of his life choices.”
Then I wonder, “Why do so many couples conflate the lavishness of the wedding with the success of the marriage?”
Then I wonder if I’ll be able to dodge the receiving line and if the reception will be so rude as to house a cash bar.
Speaking of things that make me crusty.
A few hours later, I make a break for the door and dash out into the freedom of Not Wedding,
and a few days later, the expensive single-use dress takes up residence in a zippered bag,
and a few years after that, a baby is born, or counseling begins, or papers are filed,
and the next event happens, and the mountain of evidence that life is being lived grows. We’ve been active participants in our own lives. We’ve done some things. We’ve mattered.
The papers, tubs, boxes, albums corporealize the chimeraic.
What’s so fascinating about all this is that these tendencies are common to all cultures and peoples. On every continent, and not just with weddings, humans manufacture fuss and bother to create touchstones, to define moments in time, to assign thrill to a set of hours.
We try to get our hands around our days, to grasp them, so that they can be plucked, parsed, worried, appreciated, felt, weighed. We want to quantify, to catalogue, to compile drawers of mementos–so that we can continue to thrum with the resonance of the special. Public, shared experiences confirm our worth and place us into collective memory. After each event, there is the archiving: we count and hold and record the minutiae of “I did this.”
We go on a three-week vacation. Some mark their mileage with every filling of the gas tank and track per gallon achievement.
We weigh ten pounds less than three years ago. Some log every calorie consumed and minute of exercise sweated.
We read five books last month. Some share their reactions in groups; others announce progress on Goodreads.
We swam twenty laps. Some track their splits with every length.
2,976 people died. Some write books about the heartbreaking loss of a single individual.
Despite all of this—despite all of all of this: I would argue that we are more connected to each other by our untold moments than those we organize and announce. You had a wedding. I had a wedding. You went to your grandma’s funeral. I went to my grandma’s funeral. You went to Yosemite. I went to Yosemite. Someone hit you. Someone hit me. Yes, yes, yes. These commonalities are the yarns that knit tight the degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude into a beautiful, tangled spinning ball.
But isn’t at least 60% of life beating with moments that are unremarkable? That belong to you alone? That aren’t worth commemorating? That you would never think or want to share with someone else?
Our bathroom moments, for example, are not the stuff of sharing—unless you live in a frat house or are unfortunate enough to stumble upon me enjoying a loo amongst the trees when I’m out for a run. We also don’t care to detail publicly those quirky little non-scatological incidents of the bathroom: of trying to hang a new roll of toilet paper but dropping the entire contraption and having it skitter out of reach as we sit, cemented to the porcelain oval by business-in-progress…of retiring for a private yet colossal go-to-pieces in the middle of a family gathering…of tweezing a chin…of crawling around with a Kleenex in hand, swiping at accumulated hairs congregating in the corners, sink, shower drain.
Nor do we jot in our diaries or publish in the newspaper thoughts entertained while parking in front of the grocery store; while tying our shoes; while unpacking our lunch bags; while walking the dog. It’s the non-event times of our lives—the ones we never turn into a punchline-littered monologue to be shared at holiday celebrations—that unite us most profoundly.
All those things you’ve never told anyone about,
all those times you opened a drawer and stuffed in the clean laundry
all those times you affixed your signature to the line at the bottom
all those times your heart hurt, and you lay on your bed alone and cried your lids puffy
all those times you opened the fridge and ate three grapes
all those times you absentmindedly ripped a leaf into pieces
I’ve got them, too. I wasn’t there for yours, but they’re mine, too. They’ve never brushed against each other, but we share completely our discrete experiences.
It’s hard work to mull over moments in my life no one knows about. They are private trices not because they are special, nor that I hoard them unto myself, but more that they happened, and then I forgot to remember. They are mundane, flitting, quiet.
I forget to remember, and there’s no inscribed napkin that reads “Dusty Dashboard united in cleaning with Windex and Paper Towel, July 6th, 2004” to remind me.
The essence of these instants is not so much that I was alone—the definition of the unvoiced moment doesn’t limit participation to a single soul. In many of my “no one knows” moments, others were present, but they wouldn’t know that my brain would store them as part of a memory flash. Fundamental to these ticks belonging only to me is that I never put words to them or recounted them to anyone who is ongoingly in my life. As I think back and try to park myself in the moments that, say, my husband has never heard about as we shovel wild rice salad into our mouths, my kids have never heard recounted during a long car trip, my gal pals have never been regaled with over a lavender martini,
I realize that many of them are moments of intimacy
of questions that wonder “Do you like this?”
But just as many are moments of tears or fears
of watching the end of a beloved television series
of waking up in the night with a start, certain someone is standing at the foot of the bed
of stubbing a toe and needing to lean on the kitchen counter until the pain subsides.
Yet the most interesting “no one knows” moments, to me, are not those that rely on heightened emotion or adrenaline to gain their permanence in memory
I have a deep appreciation for those that are purely nothing moments. You know the ones. They fill most of your days.
Here’s one of my nothings; by the act of my articulating it, does it become something?
The night I turned 30, the Oscars were on,
and I sat in front of the television in black leggings, making a pair of snowshoes.
I was trying to challenge myself, in terms of tackling the spatial puzzle that is weaving cord correctly on snowshoes,
and, to be perfectly honest, I was also trying to become someone who could say, casually, in conversation, that she’d made her own snowshoes.
I was trying to become worthy of a certain kind of person.
But most telling was my fascination with what women were wearing to the big awards show as I held the lacing diagram up in front of my face, again, then again. How was I to remember over-under-around when Halle Berry’s bodice was sheer?
Finally, feeling proud that I had figured out the correct knotting, I lit a match, so as to melt off the end of the cord,
and a drip from the melt landed on my leg,
burning a hole through my leggings
and sizzling my skin.
I wore those leggings with the hole for years after
and never really told anyone how I’d sat on greasy carpet in a darkly wood-paneled house,
as I turned 30,
hoping I was making myself more interesting–
but mostly, most honestly, enjoying rooting for Julianne Moore as Best Supporting Actress in Boogie Nights.
No one else has known of this before,
just as no one has ever heard about how I once babysat for a family that, technically, was on my sister’s roster,
but she was busy that night, and I had been deemed suitable back-up,
and I was maybe 13.
The kids had gone to bed.
I was only five doors up from my own house
with a few more hours to pass until the parents came home.
So I looked over their bookshelves
found Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Charles Manson murders
and started reading.
An hour later, I was terrified,
having been opened up to possibilities I’d never before realized,
and I paced the hallway outside the children’s rooms
back and forth
not able to stop reading
not able to stop being horrified
certain they were coming for me
knowing I had to defend the front line
but that, despite my fighting, they would kill me. And then I would never be pretty or loved. I needed more time, if I was ever going to get to pretty or loved.
Just as no one knows about the time I went to get my Austen on and headed to the theater, by myself, to see Sense and Sensibility. At the end of the film, the lights rose, and I saw a colleague from the composition department standing up; she had come to the movie by herself, too. We caught eyes, exchanged greetings, and I thought, “We both have cubicles in the same shared office; we could have arranged to see this movie together.” On the heels of that thought came this: “But I’m pretty sure neither of us really wanted to do that. It’s a safe wager that we both, in truth, are awfully glad we didn’t try to turn professional collegiality into forced society. Her eyes were just as glad as mine, when we exchanged glances, that we’d each come alone. By sticking to ourselves, the movie was about the movie and not trying to talk to each other until the lights dimmed.”
Continuing to remember the unremembered, I see myself
listening to a choir of summer bugs hum while lying in the sole patch of shade under the tree in the corner of the yard;
taking a spoon out into the garage, where the deep freeze lived, and standing in front of the open freezer, eating the softened corners of ice cream directly out of the box;
dropping to the floor of my office and doing push-ups;
pulling into a rest stop off the highway, turning of Shawn Colvin, tipping the seat back, and trying to catch a cat nap;
trying to open my electric garage door during a power outage;
riding my bike down Rehberg Avenue with a bassoon balanced on the back;
using sticky tack to hang up a poster of Hall & Oates;
flipping over a couch cushion to cover up a stain;
sitting down on the curb to empty a pebble out of my shoe;
swimming into the shallows and “walking” on my hands, then elbows, to shore;
being a very-specific someone who, unpinned from her narrative of Major Life Events, could be anyone.
Recently, my husband and I both read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, a story of how the author repaired her derailed life by spending three months hiking the Western United States’ Pacific Crest Trail. As Byron and I discussed our reactions to this book, I noted that her story of hiking the trail was more about all the times she got off the trail—the times she met up with others, re-entered civilization, shared a drink, opened a re-supply box, took a shower—than her days on the trail. “It’s like she’s trying to write a book about how the hiking fixed her, but the truth is, the book ends up being about how the interactions and culture of that place changed her,” I argued.
“I suppose,” Byron agreed. “But any long-distance story is ultimately pretty boring. When I think back on the six-week bike trip I did [from Seattle to Minneapolis], I don’t remember the countless minutes of pedaling and watching the asphalt blur by. I remember the people I encountered. I remember where I stayed. I remember really good meals. I remember the unusual, the rare occurrence. What I remember most from my bike trip is all the times I wasn’t biking. Strayed couldn’t make a book out of describing every tree and rock she saw while hiking, even if it was the peaceful remove of just those things that healed her.”
Here then. Try this. Our weddings and funerals and graduations are the times we pull off the trail, get off the bike, and the bulletins and brochures and flowers and plaques are the pages in the book reminding us of those stops.
I still maintain, though, that it’s only when we stash our bikes and set down our books–when we forget we’re on a journey or that narratives can be recorded–when we recline against a tree and absentmindedly crack open a pistachio and drop the shells to the ground, unaware of thought or action–when we release completely out of attentiveness and shift into the no-mindedness of just being–it is only then
that we all become One.