This month, we Sirens are devoting ourselves to some of our best-loved words. As you will see, I don’t always go with the grain, but this rant does turn to praise.
“Mindful” is one of the words that rub me the wrong way. It seems to be timid; I am not. It seems to be pale green, the color of wispy sprouts grown by a slight person in his or her perfectly-behaved organic backyard garden, each tender organism painstakingly planted and growing at a measured pace; I am not pale, I’m not green, I’m not perfectly behaved, I am probably up to my knees in chemicals, not that I’d care, and I don’t need anyone to take care of me. This word seems to be minding its own business; I’m a curious cat and a natural gossip. This word and I have nothing in common, so it’s not surprising that I don’t like it, not even as a friend.
Maybe this word rubs me the wrong way because it makes me remember my mother and grandmother complaining, “Suzy never minds!” They meant that I was never obedient. I’m even more rebellious and strong-willed now than when I was a child. I never wanted to mind them or anyone else. Not minding brought me such fulfillment!
Today I was reminded of “mindful” by another word that depends wholly on it: “remember,” a word that brought me joy this morning when I read Mary Ruefle’s essay, “I Remember, I Remember,” which I have linked to here, and which is the reason I’m writing this. So even words that rub me the wrong way aren’t all bad.
After posting this piece, I suggested to a professor friend that he read it, and I asked if he was already familiar with Ruefle’s essay; he wasn’t. But he taught me something about it. In 1970, Joe Brainard wrote a book-length poem titled I Remember, which is a memoir, of course. What else could it be? Mary Ruefle was one in a long line of writers who wrote their own “I remembers,” homages to Brainard. Kenneth Koch, a friend of Brainard, used “I remember” as a writing prompt to teach children to write poetry. I’m guessing those poems are in Koch’s book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, which I own and recommend to everyone who teaches poetry, especially those who teach Creative Writing 1000, though I haven’t looked at the book again since 1990. Koch was the first known person to use “I remember” as a writing prompt. So go ahead, readers, and write your own “I remember.” You’ll put yourself in good company.
“Remember” is a Middle English word from the Old French remembrer, from Late Latin rememorari “call to mind,” from re- (expressing intensive force) + Latin memor “mindful.” (That word again!) But it doesn’t bother me in this context because it is integral here— with intensive force, being mindful about the past.
With intensive force, being mindful about her past is exactly what Mary Ruefle does in “I Remember, I Remember.”
She meditates on the words “I remember” with such concentration that she is able to recall meaningful events and other events that seem random at best, but which all work together to tell a version of the story of her life. I say “a version” because it is made up of the memories she can recall at the time of writing the essay.
The litany “I remember” cannot conjure every event of her life, nor could it conjure the same set of events if she meditated on those words at another time or place.
“Memory” itself is a fickle thing, changing with time, place, and circumstance. One can’t recall everything at once. When thinking about this transient nature of memory, I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Seeing,” in which she says nature is a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair.” As one can recall a memory more than once, it’s likely to be a slightly different retelling to oneself, I believe, the same way one may see a sunset from a certain spot on the beach a hundred times and each time it will be different. Some sunsets may be similar to others, but they are never exactly the same, like memories.
Music and scent are the most evocative things I have come across when it comes to memory. Surely when they’re involved, the version of the story of one’s life would be affected. What if Mary Ruefle were writing in a café? Too romanticized? Okay, what if Mary Ruefle were writing in a noisy McDonald’s at lunchtime. (They do have free Wi-Fi there—and don’t ask me how I know.) Would a song come on that attaches her to a specific memory or period of time in her life? If so, her list of memories would be different. Would the scent of the food evoke a memory for her? Or would someone’s perfume or cologne wafting through the air tickle her past?
Ruefle’s extended exploration of the litany “I remember” caused me to recollect (there’s another juicy, complex word) memories from my past, memories that were unlike hers. Maybe that’s why I liked reading her essay so much. And maybe that’s why I chose it to send to a friend on her 65th birthday this morning; surely at 65, one looks back and remembers her life thus far.
If I taught writing, I’d use this essay as a writing prompt. I might even use individual paragraphs as writing prompts, or even the beginnings of paragraphs as prompts: “I remember writing a letter,” “I remember when I was forty-five,” “I remember one afternoon my friend and I,” “I remember the year after college,” “I remember going to New York,” “I remember reading,” “I remember I did not always know.”
I hope you read and enjoy “I Remember, I Remember.”
What do you remember? The curious cat in me would enjoy it if you commented here with at least one of those things.
I’ll go first.
I remember a certain poem I wrote for the boy who liked reading Leonard Cohen with me, and I remember the band that was “our” band and the song that was “our” song. The poem had the repetition, “Remember, remember, remember” as a supplication. Our song was “Forever Now,” and I remember trying to use it as a way to tie him to me forever. (I was always so literal.) I remember the little cloth-bound blank book I copied my poems in, using my best handwriting, and I remember where I keep that book.