Last night, out of the blue, an email arrived bearing a 43-year-old video. Sent via a chain of friends and relatives, the clip showed me at my first wedding, singing my heart out to the accompaniment of a slide guitar. My niece appended a note saying that she fully expected Pete Seeger to come onstage and give me a hug.
My memory of that marriage is that it was nasty, brutish, and short. For years I have valued that time only because it pushed me into therapy and recovery: I was not prepared to see myself having fun. I wasn’t ready to see the joy beaming out of my face, lifting my voice. The video introduced a cognitive dissonance that blew apart my understanding of who I was and what was happening.
This is the second time in four months that something from my past has risen to challenge memory. Earlier this summer, a college boyfriend contacted me for the first time in almost fifty years. The note was in part to apologize for his “youthful indiscretions.” (A euphemism for the fact that he dumped me.) But what was unsettling about our correspondence was that he remembered me as joyful, kind, and generous. What I remembered of myself was that I was lost and afraid, wanting to belong to someone.
Clearly, how I looked from the outside in those days wasn’t the same as how I felt on the inside. But that’s not the entire reason that there is dissonance in my memories. When we human beings “settle” some emotional mess, we paste a label on it so that we can put it away. It is magnificently difficult to hold onto the knowledge that a relationship or period of our lives was both painful and joyful. It’s easier to settle on a single understanding. It’s much less complicated.
I write this now because I find in myself, and in my community, the tendency to see others as uncomplicated. We forget our joyful and complex history and reduce others to caricature, using names like “sheeple,” or “covidiots.” We forget the things we have appreciated about others. We forget the kindnesses, the hard work together, the laughter. But just like that marriage, just like that college relationship, the truth is much bigger and unsettling.
When that email arrived, it came via a web of fractured relationships. It was sent by an old housemate whom I have conveniently forgotten, since he witnessed first-hand the demise of my marriage. It came to my former sister-in-law, to whom I rarely speak because of the way she trashed my brother. Then to one of her daughters, a vaccine refuser who no longer sees her father. It’s hard to remember how generous that housemate was; how I laughed with that sister-in-law drinking gin and raspberry juice; or my profound respect for the way my niece raises her children. It’s hard to remember, because those memories make our relationship complex. I prefer simple.
But simple isn’t necessarily true, is it?