“I like my songs to be reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget.”—Adrianne Lenker
Yesterday, I compared memories to ghosts and described how returning to a physical place often brings out these ghost-memories. Walking the city becomes a way of remembering.
A map of the city can bring out memories too. Two lines cross, representing an intersection. The intersection holds a memory, holds several memories: a first date, a late night, a big game, a dance party, a shouting match, a crime. The eye follows one a line away from the intersection and the mind conjures the quiet of the street outside the noisy bars, the smell of fallen leaves and earth in the cool air under a full moon. The next intersection conjures a holiday party where you talked to a colleague you hadn’t seen in years, now married with two children. And the memory map goes on and on.
The ability to remember a place and what happened there in the past is not unique to humans. It’s useful for any animal to remember where food is, where danger is, where members of the opposite sex know the breeding grounds to be. Humans have exploited this ability in abstract ways since ancient times. The construction of an imagined “memory palace” to walk through with in the mind is a trick used in memorization that is described in writing as early as the 5th Century B.C. by the Greek poet Simonides. It is likely humans used these techniques to remember stories and other important knowledge long before Simonides time.
Stringing together actions and details in a series of sentences is another way of walking through a landscape, re-living a memory. A paragraph or a story is a map in another form. A linear route from beginning to end with landmarks along the way.
I have written some of the personal stories in this series multiple times in the past, in journals and in unpublished fictionalized accounts. Publishing a version of these maps, of these memories here where they are public, is different. Other people can compare it to their own maps, their own memories. You readers can annotate the map and add your own landmarks, or suggest that the map is off, is an unreliable guide. Putting your thoughts in public nails down memory and contributes to public knowledge, to a collective map.
Reading Amanda Petrusich’s profile of singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker in the New Yorker, I was inspired by the way Lenker works, sometimes recording songs the same day she writes them, in isolated and socially intense settings. Her quote up top, that her songs serve as “reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget” is as primal and ancient an instinct as writing has.
In the case of a songwriter touring with her band Big Thief, the spontaneously written lines are repeated and sung night after night (or would have been before the pandemic), just like the ancient bards reciting poetry from their memory palace. Is there a more intense way to relive a memory? A more intense way to put your map out there for others to follow?
What if I’d written 100 songs this season instead of 100 meandering entries like this, and what if I sang them for 100 people in 100 cities? How much more direct would each of those maps’ routes be?