memory


On What Absence Makes

Lake Superior from Grand Marais, photo by the author

While they do have a frustrating amount of truth to them, the main reason platitudes and clichés are so annoying is that they are downright obvious. More, they’re generally said when that obviousness is staring you directly in the face. So when I tell you what I’m missing in the following paragraph, know that the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is making its presence known, and that I am wanting to punch that presence in its clichéd white teeth.

I miss water—open water. Water you can sit and stare at and feel small next to, something in the expanse speaking all the words ever written in literature right inside you, without the words ever needing to be said.

I had an embarrassment of riches in open water when I lived in Duluth. The city sprawls along a hillside overlooking southwestern Lake Superior, so pretty much anywhere you go you’ll see at least a smidgen of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (so large it’s often called an inland sea).

That’s not to say I’m in an area without water: this year is the 20th anniversary of a major flood here in Grand Forks (I’ve driven across the bridge shown in the Wikipedia entry!). I like the Red River of the North where it is in its greenbelt and don’t need it to become an expanse again. But even though the Red River is a presence in the region that should not be ignored, it’s not a presence in the same way as Lake Superior is in Duluth. You can’t avoid noticing the lake in Duluth, but unless you’re right on the river here in Grand Forks, you’d be hard pressed to notice it.

Driving pretty much anywhere in northern Minnesota or down in the Twin Cities, you’re going to trip over a lake without much effort. Despite its slogan of having 10,000 lakes, Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 that are 10 acres or more, and if you count ones smaller than that, the number just goes up and up. If some of the info I’m finding is correct, North Dakota has… 35? And some of those are reservoirs or larger portions of rivers!

Some of this, I know, is the stir craziness of winter. I’ve been inside too much, I haven’t even been able to walk by the Red River much… and that’s enough to make me miss water right there. There’s a little English Coulee on the University of North Dakota’s campus, and it is a simple joy to stop and watch it tumble over a little rock dam with Jessica during her lunch break. Some of the underwater rocks have beards of algae, and one in particular sports a fu manchu look: not common among rock algae formations, in my experience.

Still, it’s not the same as being able to drive over any number of hillsides in Duluth and have the sudden and overwhelming vision of Superior fill your eyes. Nor is it the same as crouching at the edge of the water at Kitchi Gammi Park, feeling yourself as small as can be while waves wash against the shoreline.

Lester River enters Lake Superior on the edge of Kitchi Gammi Park, and it becomes a raging torrent in the springmelt. I can see its rapids in my mind even now, and I can see the surfing fanatics in their cold water gear, riding the crests caused by the river’s entrance. The lake has so many shades of blue: I can’t describe them all, but I can see them.

I’ve sometimes wished I didn’t have such a strong connection to Duluth, as it would make this move easier and less full of longing. But if one needs to move, maybe it is a good thing to have such deep roots to your old home, if it means being able to find its waters when you need them. Albeit with mind’s imperfect memory.


On the Importance of Learning of Tokyo’s Destruction by Godzilla 2 comments

*A small memoir from a trip this fall*

It’s been a long week of teaching classes: you wake up, you do your class prep, you do your teaching, you do your grading, and you go home. At home is nothing in particular. Your wife is living four and a half hours away for her new job; you’ve moved the majority of your things with her. The apartment is strangely empty and strangely full of far too many things you need to pack before you can join her in a couple months.

The wind likes to whistle lonely in the evening.

Today you’re driving home after another day of teaching, but it’s a little different in that you will be picking up your suitcase so you can drive those four and a half hours to see your wife. The first hour is alright as you drive through the forests of northern Minnesota and the setting sun is turning everything golden. Then the trees go stark and two dimensional against the still glowing horizon; the only things with depth are the clouds in the sky. Then there is nothing but the tunnel your headlights carve along the route, a tunnel that is hours and hours long.

Even the waters of Cass Lake offer no comfort when you stop to stretch your legs: the wind blows too cold in your face for you to watch the lights in the water.

About an hour from your destination, still tired, your searching radio finds it, the song that will take you the rest of the way. “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go, go, Godzilla!” Before your mind can think about how improbably wonderful it is to find this song out of nowhere (though is it even a favorite song of yours?), you’re singing, shouting along with the words.

You’re halfway around the earth from Tokyo, you’re in the middle of the flat beginnings of the Great Plains and the tallest thing around here are grain elevators, but what else would Godzilla have left to stomp once Tokyo and the other great cities with skyscrapers are nothing but rubble?

You’re on your way, you’re almost there.


On Seeing My Grandmother as Herself

In defiance of (or alignment?) with Twitter’s character limitation, I wrote a long chain about my grandmother, who died early in the morning a week and a half ago.

Something about a Twitter chain feels poetic, with the need for each line (or tweet) to hold its own but feed into the next. It made me want to post it here as well with a couple of additions, where the whole thing can work together outside of Twitter’s sometimes frustrating interface for reading reply chains (and maybe a little editing to work better in this new context).

Grandma Herself

So… my grandmother died last Wednesday. Jessica and I have no remaining grandparents alive.
But there’s more I wanted to share about my grandma than that frustrating bummer of a fact.

She felt like a stereotypical grandma in many ways, giving big smooches on cheeks
(and occasionally pinching them),
and she made good food (I still use her pancake, lasagna, & spaghetti recipes).

But the thing I want to remember,
the thing I wanted to share,
Is her taking painting classes.

About eight years ago, Jessica and I chatted with her about how they were going, and
she was so vibrant talking about them,
so awake and alive,
and she joked about her differences of opinion from her instructor.
she had certain ideas about what she wanted to do, and she was quite firm about them:
she wasn’t backing down!
It’s the most her I ever remember her being. Her her. Not my stereotypical image of a grandma, but herself,
through and through.

Childhood memories are spotty, and I only knew her for less than half her life,
but I’m certain of it.

I’m happy to say I saw more of her this weekend.
One universal good thing about all grandparent funerals I have witnessed:
learning more about them.

This weekend, we heard anecdotes & stories about her I’d never heard before,
Saw pictures I’d never seen before of her as a child, a teen, and in her twenties.
It was the her we saw when we talked to her about her painting.

I love what I saw then and I love this memory.

I will always love it.

We need to see more of the people around us—friends, family, strangers.
Go out and create something, everyone. Connect with others. I’m so glad my grandmother did.
My only wish is that I had shared more moments with her.
But I think we would think that about most people,

if we saw the real them.


On the Importance of the Moment and the Memory

For the past four years, Ari Fleischer (former press secretary to George W. Bush) has tweeted the events of 9/11, as he witnessed them. It even looks like he tweets them at about the same time as they happened in 2001, helping bring back the day as it unfolded.

Important memories and historical moments have a tendency to calcify, to lose dimension or gain a sense of inevitability as we forget how things went (or as we lean toward one interpretation of how those things went). Fleischer’s tweets bring back the chaos of the day and the emotion, the leaping to conclusions and second guessing we were doing even then. I don’t recall Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings criticizing Bush for not returning to Washington DC sooner, for instance.

As 2001 recedes further and further into the past it becomes more important to recall the specific moments of the day and to re-examine our memory. In three short years, the freshman I teach in college won’t have been alive then.  It might be impossible to keep “9/11” from becoming a rote (or even forgotten) phrase like December 7th, 1941, “Remember the Maine,” or “Remember the Alamo,” but it’s something we all have to push back against.

That’s the importance of story and history–to give meaning to other people and other lives.