Sandlund: The Myopic Nerve

Considering the strangeness of the past, and how we understand it.

by William Sandlund | 4/20/17 12:45am

While avoiding writing this article, I began to clean out my room. It started when I saw an engorged duffel bag oozing under my bed and decided to investigate its long-forgotten contents.

The most powerful object I unearthed amidst dozens of woolen socks was the CamelBak bottle I received during orientation. I had totally forgotten that, at one point, every ’18 on campus was suckling at these leaky containers. We were also given stickers to try and break the ice, remember? “My name is _____ and _____ sustains me.” I had scrawled “Billy” and left the second blank, well, blank.

Or perhaps it had been rubbed off. I suspect I was too shy to write something sarcastic and couldn’t bear being sincere. As I held this red piece of plastic, I contemplated throwing it away. Instead, I peeled off the sticker and returned the bottle to the black duffel bag, where it continues to sit as you read these words.

It would have been better if I had simply not written anything at all, because the sight of my awkward handwriting next to a lonely blank space brought me painfully close to memories previously buried. I was reminded of a faltering sense of self I felt when I first arrived at Dartmouth.

Every time we walk around campus we can have one of these moments. There may be that person you once saw crying in your freshman common room. Or someone you smoked with freshman fall. You were really close, if only for a few weeks, but there was a comfort in that relationship that may have taken years to create in other circumstances. And now you say “hi” — or you don’t. With some of these people you can reminisce, but if your current relationship holds no water, you are running on the vapor of past experiences. And that knowledge makes whatever you are reliving feel somewhat empty, because you can feel this great distance forming between two souls. Even if the ocean is purely a projection, that doesn’t stop it from being real. So you say “hi,” or you don’t. You almost never stop to reminisce, because sometimes remembering feels more like dismembering.

When we remember a memory, we are remembering the last time we remembered the event. Each time you bring it forth, you wear it out like a thumbed polaroid. It becomes ever more diluted with whomever you are now. Perhaps what made me uncomfortable with the red bottle was the immediacy of the memory — it arrived with such force because it had never been recalled but lived inside me nonetheless. Now, I can’t get the vision of a sun-baked Collis patio filled with herds of nervous ’18s out of my mind.

If you’re lucky, you have friends you can reminisce with, because when it happens and the memories feel good, our physical campus becomes a landscape for nostalgia. Certain buildings and rooms store memories for each of us; a sediment of sentiment collects in nooks and crannies like gold dust in riverbeds. When you revisit them, it can be identity-affirming.

Technology means our generation can meet and lose more people than ever before. We use social media to try and maintain “contact,” but without touch, it is easy for relationships to fade. Family and dear friends remain the only true constant in our lives. In a world where we lose people, it is important to keep our unloseable-ones dear, because they are the storehouses, the strongholds for our memories. These are the people who ground us when we drift, and we ground them, too.

We all also possess memories we try to suppress — some sort of trauma, however small, that you don’t realize you are avoiding until you think of it. Oddly, the act of recollecting some trauma can itself be traumatic, overwhelming whomever we thought we had become. These memories often need time unvisited before being remembered. That may be why denial is the first stage of grief — after all, death is the greatest of traumas. And yet without trauma, we do not have stories and life narratives. Without rupture, there are no reference points. Meeting a lost friend or finding an old water bottle rarely exists on this level of intensity. But the act of avoiding a memory — to keep it pure or to give yourself space to reflect — is part of being human. It helps us maintain some vision of ourselves.

The process of bringing unobserved memories to the surface of your consciousness is somewhat violent. It reminds me of the sound of uprooting a tree. There is a satisfying crunch even as you sever whatever perception you had of yourself in the moment before you saw the red bottle. In the aftermath you have an uprooted tree — and that gratifying sound is gone. It’s up to you to determine how to feel about this state of affairs. But sometimes you can’t help but wish you hadn’t started cleaning your room.