Selective Memory

“…you must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education but some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.”

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

I don’t know if anyone ever described Dostoyevsky’s work as “scintillating,” but I loved his books. Thinking of them, though, I have to laugh. When I was writing The Brothers Path, and I was (briefly) in an online writers workshop, one of my “classmates” asked what I was trying to do, be Dostoyevsky? Like there was something wrong with that as an aspiration? My novel, The Brothers Path, has no central protagonist, and that may or may not be a failing, but since the story IS about six brothers all living in the same historical moment in the 16th century, contending with the sudden smorgasbord of alternative Christian faiths, and it’s a book about a family not about a person.

A long time ago I did a dramatic reading of a play for a graduate seminar in James Joyce. The professor had invited my friend, O’Donnell, to read his play and he needed a “Maeve.” It was fun, and I met the chairman of the English department, Sherry Little. She was amazing. We got to be friends and the three of us would sometimes meet in Irish pubs and read to each other. As a result of this, when an opening for a lecturer appeared in the Creative Writing Department at San Diego State, she nominated me. The jury of the Creative Writing Department categorically said, “NO. She doesn’t have a masters in creative writing.”

“No,” said Sherry, “but she can WRITE! And she’s been teaching writing for years!”

“Not creative writing,” they said, and that was that. I was disappointed, but the three of us went out for Guiness, discussion, poetry and stories. I figured I’d gotten the better end of the deal.

The quotation from The Brothers Karamazov has stuck with me since my Dostoyevsky days back in the mid 1980s. I believe it is true. I suspect that those memories emerge when things are dark and in some small, quiet way move us forward out of whatever trench we’re in at the moment. I also suspect that we horde those memories and keep them where we can see them. I say this because all the abuse my mom heaped upon me has never been in front of my mind; in fact, my aunts had to talk to me straight to get me to look at those events as they really happened. I’m grateful for those talks and the truth revealed, but at the same time, except for a deeper personal understanding of myself and “mistakes” I made as a result of deep-seated fear, my life has gone on in its comparatively optimistic look-at-the-brightside kind of way. In fact, I didn’t look at what she did as “abuse.” It was just the way she was.

The holiday season brings up memories for most people, I think, and I hope for everyone it brings up good memories from childhood, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. I’m grateful that, for me, it is. Sure, some of my good memories involve Lutefisk, but… Anyway, the thing about memories is we can make new good memories.

Featured photo: My family on Christmas Eve, 1961. We opened our presents Christmas Eve as was traditional in my mom’s family and over much of German speaking Europe. Christmas Day was for more serious, less materialistic, endeavors such as dinner and playing with presents though there were stockings with an orange in the toe, some walnuts, small toys… I still have the stocking on which my grandma embroidered my initials.

24 thoughts on “Selective Memory

  1. I, too, have run afoul of the arrogance of paper requirements, which further eroded my belief in Academia. I was refused entrance into a Masters program because I didn’t have a Bachelors degree. The faculty went to bat for me, but to no avail. It’s hogwash (I mean no disrespect to hogs).

    • Well…I guess that would depend on what you wanted a masters in. I think if it were molecular biology you should have a BA. But English? Even history… I have an MA. I spent my whole career teaching what I learned in AP English in high school. 🙂 Knowledge is pretty hard to measure…

  2. Wisdom and knowledge can’t be taught, it’s learned. Yes, we learn a lot through reading, but individuals like you, with a wealth of experience, knowledge, wisdom, well, enough said, their loss to my way of thinking. But since you ARE living a full life, I thumb my noses at those that passed you over. You are definitely worth the read, the friendship, the understanding and the compassion.

  3. Selective memory is a fickle beast. I have some memories that my sister has a different version of… But all in al my memories are wonderful. I love that you are clutching that Barbie doll so tightly! It was 1963 when I got my first Barbie – I wanted the blonde Barbie. Instead I got redheaded best friend Midge. Oh well. Midge turns out to be much more valuable than Barbie in the log run… Sort of like life.

    • I have a Midge in my garage in a treasure box. 🙂 I liked her a LOT. Barbie looked kind of dumb back in the day. I mostly designed and sewed clothes and built houses for her.

    • Oh Fred, you just need ONE good memory from childhood. Dostoyevsky’s standards are low. Nothing there about a persistently happy childhood and I KNOW you have good memories from your childhood. Some of my good memories are being alone in the forest. 😀

  4. That’s what I love about your books, Martha. There’s a lot of love. You were lucky to have those wonderful women from your extended family around you.
    I don’t seem to have happy memories from my childhood. I must try harder to bring them to the surface so I’m not so todo jodidos perro contento.

  5. When I was in high school I thought Dostoevsky was neck and shoulders ahead of every other 19th century writer. But strangely, I can’t remember anything from his books any longer. Maybe I should read TBK again to see whether anything comes back.

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