Saturday, June 10, 2017


My final column in the church newsletter:


This past Christmas I embarked on a project that has been on our family’s bucket list for years, and that I don't think any of us ever actually expected to see get done: namely, transcribing all of our old home VHS videos on to DVDs. Although I've heard there are professional places that do this, I was afflicted with a D.I.Y. bug when I contemplated all the unknown mortifying childhood antics I might be handing over for a stranger to record. I figured I’d get the equipment myself – pretty cheap and portable in this day and age, especially if you are fortunate enough (as I was) to drop in at Target and find what must be the world’s last known VCR on sale at the way back of the shelves – and transcribe the tapes on my own.

What resulted was a mind-numbing ordeal. It turns out I had to play all of the tapes through in order to record them, which meant untold late nights staring at my childhood self, my sister, and our friends performing the same repetitive games – all of which were very interesting to us at the time, apparently, but the meaning of which is mostly lost on me now. Not many signs of nascent genius were visible, on my part. The only saving grace was the fact that the mini- VHS tapes we used in our camcorder back then could only store about half an hour of footage – otherwise, each video might have lasted days.

The eerie thing about these videos was that there were a handful of them that I remember making – mostly the ones that we re-watched often later – and then there were many others which I have no memory of at all. There I was, there was our childhood home, but why was I lecturing to the camera about the human digestive tract? Why was I wearing a lab coat and dancing to "I'm a Barbie Girl"? It made me wonder whether I had genuinely remembered making any of the other videos either, or if I just thought I did and had told myself a story about it ever since. How many of my other memories were a confabulation (probably a lot, the psychologists tell us)? And why was it that I felt so little connection to my actual, visible childhood self, as opposed to the one I "remembered"? Anna Akhmatova writes of the effort to reclaim one’s past:
We realize that we could not contain
This past within the frontiers of our life,
And it has become almost as foreign to us
As to our neighbor in the next apartment. (Thomas trans.)

This is a very unsettling notion. I don’t like the thought of my memories slipping away irretrievably. There is an episode of This American Life about people with a rare psychological variation that allows them to retain an almost perfect recall of every day they have ever lived. It turns out it’s hard to live this way, but it also confers a gift that none of the rest of us have: the ability never to lose touch with our past.

For some people, this is the holy grail. Silicon Valley tycoon, self- proclaimed critic of democracy, and would-be ubermensch Peter Thiel is said to be grappling with his own fears of loss in this regard by researching ways to upload his brain for all eternity into some kind of super hard drive. With all respect to Mr. Thiel, I can think of some minds I’d rather see exist in perpetuity.

As I work through my own feelings of grief as I leave [this church] at the end of my internship, I know there’s going to be a huge temptation to try to make sure I don’t forget anything – to have every memory written down or recorded somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that impulse, of course. Our memories are what we are. What is real about us is what we are able to recollect. “Time is but memory in the making,” writes Nabokov in Ada, or Ardor, “‘To be’ means to know one ‘has been.’”

But at last, we also have to accept that we exist for some reason other than our own individual being and its indefinite preservation. This is what all the great religions and philosophies try to teach, with varying success. Humanity did not come into being for the sake of perpetuating me, or Peter Thiel, for all eternity. One person’s brain on a hard drive is not the end goal of history. No, humanity exists for the maintenance of itself as a whole – for the human family of which we are a part, for the lives that will come after our own. And it is the myriad small ways each of us contributes to this larger family, not our private experiences and memories for their own sake, that have real and lasting value.

This is what I will try to remind myself, as I mourn my departure from this community that has meant so much to me the last two years. I will hold on to the faith that I have helped to generate and leave behind my share of happiness and life-force — even if I can't always remember exactly how it happened.

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