Art by Caitlin Metz
Do I remember it correctly?
I’ve been steeped in memory for as long as I remember.
To this day my favorite movie, which I watched at fourteen, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film, at worst about lost and difficult love; at best: how we twist, recover, grow from and foster love. Throughout the whole film Joel (Jim Carrey) plays with memory, as he tries to recover sincere moments of the love he shared with his erstwhile (and sometimes volatile) lover, Clementine (Kate Winslet) while his memory of her is erased by a company called Lacuna Inc. Lacuna (a word that means “empty space”) is a company designed to help people heal from their depressing pasts and relationships, by removing the context of those memories from one’s brain.
That in itself always shook me, the somewhat fantastical possibility that we could forget all our pain and be reborn, and there’s a scene in the movie that gets me everytime.
It starts with Joel replaying the first time he met Clementine. She stands in an orange jacket along the beach, her back to him. Soon, she is at his side, sitting by him as he eats, asking if she can have the piece of chicken on his place, then taking it without an answer. “Just like that, like we were already lovers,” Joel recalls in the memory. Next it flashes to them running towards a house that’s sinking in Joel’s gilded time-scape, all-the-while, in another dimension, he’s having the memories of his young heroine erased by Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo. We shift back to the scene with Joel and Clementine, layers of sand beneath them, and waves of water are slowly washing by. They are about to enter an abandoned house, Clementine quickly finds an envelope with the owner’s name—“Ruth” which is fitting, because she’s feeling ruthless! She goes upstairs to barrage about, i.e. find the liquor cabinet. She’s so thrilling! But Joel stands rooted at the bottom of the stairs. He stands still and the memory is both past and present, entwined into one. He’s speaking to Clementine, she’s there with him, but it’s happened, with an immovable consequence, the past has already happened. He’s already lost her, but he’s about to lose her again if this memory is erased. “You should have stayed,” she says, both of them knowing what he’s about to do, that he’s about to leave. “I wish I would have stayed,” he responds. Next, it skips to Joel in a car. He’s just walked out of the house, a decision he’s desperately regretting as he replays this memory, realizing the resonance of memory, even painful ones. Dreamscapes go past him as the car careens slowly past the hologram panoramas of his past with Clementine. “Who was that girl you were talking to?” his friends asks, “Yeah, she was pretty,” another one remarks. “Oh, just some girl” Joel responds, smiling.
It’s perfect in it’s faux insouciance of young love, and my heart aches every time I think of the film. We can only know how beautiful things are/were until we fear losing it forever. This film, for me, was an encapsulation that all is well in love—and war—truly. That pain may end things, but the bitterness will surely fade, and slowly (and hopefully) love will resurface, eventually.
How many times have I wished to have forgotten that which I could not? Those indelible memories steeped in the blue ink of my mind. Usually they were painful skipping moments of recollections of a past that did me no justice to be remembered, i.e. failed love. Yet, no matter what I did, they stayed with me like bruises that refused to heal. I understood, even at fourteen, and yet to experience real heartbreak, that letting go of a painful love was the heart’s catharsis, yet what are we without the memories that have broken us? Am I not better for all the blood that I’ve spent on my traumas, only, to finally, heal? To forget is to half live. To be released of the pain isn’t the same as forgetting; letting go doesn’t mean erasure. There’s a cruel beauty to remember, remember all that was. It’s poetic.
At the same time: do we remember it all correctly? How many times have you shuddered at a memory so bad, so unbelievably embarrassing, that you bite your lip and scowl at your impertinence. Always, always, always in those moments I’m aware that I’m doing a disservice to myself in my recollection of the memory. Nothing is as bad as what we painfully remember it to be… because, generally, situations are far more nuanced that we allow ourselves to believe. So, in a way, memory can be so warped.
I started writing as a way to heal, but also as a way to remember. Now it’s my main tool for self expression, but most importantly for my self evaluation. Things are more bold in writing, and therefore have better, pristine clarity. When you look at a piece of writing, you can honor the complexities of situations, and perhaps you can forge bonds over past mistakes with the people you’ve hurt, or those who have hurt you. One can only hope.
To memorialize is a way humans have connected since the cave drawings in Mesopotamia, or the hieroglyphs in the tombs of Tutankhamen. We remember as a way to survive, as a way to imprint our lives, and legacies. We share stories, and experiences, as a way to navigate human life. We sit at the foot of our grandmother’s fleshy calves to be told their histories so we can gain insight on how to live. Recollection is vital to the progression of the human mind, and, I think, the best catharsis for the heart and soul. I guess, then, it’s not what we remember that’s most important, but how we remember it.