Dumbledore has an armory of peculiar magical devices in J. K. Rowling’s story of Harry Potter but there’s one that’s of particular interest to me. He keeps it locked away in a cupboard and when the young wizard first stumbles upon it toward the end of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it’s only a short time until the final contest of the Triwizard Tournament. After having a vision of the dark lord Voldemort, Harry finds himself in Dumbledore’s office and accidentally discovers the object in the cupboard, left slightly ajar: it’s the Pensieve and Harry’s curiosity gets the better of him when he leans in too close to the shining basin and falls in, finding himself doused in the headmaster’s memories.
As with many things in Rowling’s books, “Pensieve” is a play on words: “pensive” means to be thoughtful or absorbed in deep reflection and contemplation. Dumbledore periodically takes his memories–which appear as a wispy white vapor on the tip of his wand–from his head and drops them into the Pensieve where he will return to examine them on occasion to search for “patterns and links.”
Hindsight is of course handy that way, but most of the patterns and links we find stem from the fact our brains are programmed to find them. In much the same way people sometimes see images of the Virgin Mary in the mold under their sinks or intricately patterned shower curtains, “patterns and links”–the nascence of narratives–are ingrained in the human psyche. Without this imposition of order on our lives, our histories, and, indeed, even on the world around us, it’s doubtful we’d have been this successful as a civilization. It is all arbitrary in a sense, but that ability to organize and categorize helps us make some sort of sense of the highly complex and interconnected world we inhabit.
Several–probably ten or twelve–years ago, I was at a church camp run by an organization called Kamikaze Ministries. The week-long retreat met on a small college campus in the hills of eastern Oklahoma and invariably became a microcosm of the booming theatrics, painstaking youth-centrism, and desperately-contrived relevance characteristic of millennial non-denominational Charismatic Christianity. It also pushed the boundaries of weirdness. In one five-day period, nightly church services featured young people “exorcised” of various demons and “voodoo spirits” on stage, guilt-inducing sermon exhortations for a new “radical” generation of Christians, and altar calls filled with probably more fallings out than what was good for the aging floor in the auditorium. There was one night when all the music stopped for a half-hour or so save for a steady rhythm on the drums; people danced and bounced around the stage, aisles, and mosh pit like it was some sort of tribal powwow.
That dark and deranged chapter of my life placed firmly behind me where it belongs, there is still one moment I revisit from time to time. Mornings were small group time; they probably had much more “relevant” sounding names but I’ve since forgotten them. On the last full day of the camp, the group leader had the fifteen of us take part in a little mutual encouragement exercise. You might have done it before: it’s the one where everyone sits in a circle, gets two or three sheets of paper (depending on the number of people), and writes their name on the top one. Everyone passes their paper to the person next to them who then writes something encouraging to/about them and passes it on. It’s a lot like the game pictaphone, but the thing being described is you. In the end, the papers come full circle and everybody gets to read the (hopefully) nice things everybody else wrote about them.
Oddly enough, I still have those papers.
Somehow and against all odds, they survived the tumult of teenagery and found their way into what I’ve come to call my Memory Box–very unromantic, I know; my Reliquary, perhaps? I feel like I stuffed them in a book and found them after we moved into our new house seven Christmases ago. There’s really nothing particularly outstanding about them: they’re just notes written to me by people I didn’t know and (mostly) haven’t seen since on the backs of sheet music that had been cut into nifty little rectangles 3×5 each. There was also another sheet where I guess we were supposed to write things God had helped us do in the week of camp. One still makes me laugh when I read it: “He helped me let go of my pride and dignity during praise and worship.” Yes, I was a part of the worship powwow leaping about on stage. Dignity? Who needs it.
If I hadn’t held on to those notes, I’d probably not remember what would otherwise be an utterly forgettable event. As it is, it’s almost as though the images and emotions I saw and felt that hot, sticky June morning have become attached to those little sheets of paper. There was one boy in particular really struggling to think of something to write to his group-mates (to me, he wrote, “Keep on keepin on”). Then there was me anxiously waiting to see what the girl I had a crush on would write–it was quite discouraging: “Roy very serious but cool. [girl’s name].” Plus, there was that anxious feeling that comes with seeing other groups–who hadn’t undertaken such a time-consuming activity–heading to lunch early.
Those notes were the first things I put in my box, but they soon had lots of company. There’s the restaurant receipt and movie ticket from my first-ever date with a girl–incidentally the one I’d had a crush on who told me I was “very serious but cool.” We ate at Cheddar’s–I had the Chicken Caesar for $6.25; she, the spinach dip for $3.99–and later saw Meet the Robinsons. We had a date or two after that (one was at an Italian restaurant from which I saved the Italian flag on a toothpick stuck in my lasagna), but that teenage romance ultimately joined the ranks of so many others that crash and burn. After awkwardly professing my love through a text message, she was spooked–as she should’ve been–and didn’t really speak to me after that.
Then, there’s my first photo-ID. I got it when I was fifteen and needed it so I could board the plane that would take me to Philadelphia all by myself. I’d been accepted to a summer school program at Princeton University (don’t be too impressed–it was really just an expensive way to earn AP credit) and my aunt, who lives just outside of Philly, had agreed to drive me the short distance to Princeton. The dormitory was historic and, thus, had no air conditioning so I carried a box fan with me from room to room. We were on a field trip to the United Nations in New York the day of the bombings in London that summer and the streets of Manhattan were overcome by a cacophony of emergency sirens. It took us a while to figure out the goings on were on the other side of the Atlantic.
There’s the card that was given to me by a dear friend at a crucial moment in my life that said exactly what I needed to hear. There’s the boutineer I wore to my senior prom, an event I attended solely to appease my mother. And, there’s the chain necklace she bought for me in Reynosa thinking it was silver but that turned out to be copper–we figured it out when it started to turn my neck green.
I have to admit, there’s not really a particular method or formula I follow when deciding what to put in the box. Some pieces (like the tassles I wore at my high school and college graduations) would seem to carry far more significance than others (like a painfully awkward note stealthily written on the back of my algebra homework to a high school crush–a different one, and she thought I was neither serious…ly a contender nor cool). Though my intentions were much less philosophically sophisticated when I began collecting artifacts from my life, I’ve continued to do it because I feel in some small way that I’m cheating and getting away with it. Not only do I remember the shit everyone typically remembers, but also some of the things we aren’t supposed to remember. I sometimes feel I do it just to spite someone, though I can’t imagine who; maybe it’s myself and my own desire to forget. After all, some things I have in the box are painful, like the heartfelt letter my dad wrote me after we’d had a fight when I was sixteen to tell me he wasn’t going to make me visit him anymore. Underneath it, there’s the selfish one I wrote him when I was eighteen that said I didn’t regret any of it. Those are the sort of things I shouldn’t forget, no matter how I might want to.
To think of the relatively small percentage of our lives we actually remember is sobering. Everyone has a personal narrative, but those narratives are usually highly selective and artfully edited. And then, for some reason, looking backward can give the illusion of absolution–the feeling that, for better or for worse, things were the way they were meant to be. That’s why interspersed with the momentous occasions and important milestones in my box are trinkets from common, ordinary, everyday events. Events like an unassuming trip to the Jersey shore (a beach pass), a sunny day in the swing when I was three (a picture), and my first ride on an Amtrak train (a ticket stub). Those mundanities are the kinds of things that remind me most of life’s moments aren’t useful for the construction of a narrative and that a clean linear concept of who we are is both boring and hopelessly inauthentic.
My box is full of things that would probably make no sense to anyone but myself and I definitely wouldn’t say everything in it is pretty. Memories are very much like paintings: some are prettier to look at than others but I’ve learned the importance of not equating prettiness with beauty. Plus, when I return to my box–my “Pensieve” as it were–it’s for considerably less exciting reasons than those for which Dumbledore returned to his and I think there’s reason to appreciate that. Retrospection needn’t always be so practical. I’ve heard it said that art is beauty for beauty’s sake and I think there’s a way to look at memory (and remembrance) artfully. There has to be, because I’m convinced there’s at least a small part of understanding what it means to be human in doing so.