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Investigating Memory

“Memories aren’t stored as changes to the molecules inside brain cells,” Dr. Amnesty told Alma during her first appointment, three years ago… “This is what they thought forever, but they were wrong...”

A line from the title story of Anthony Doerr’s second story collection, Memory Wall, introduces what will become a prominent theme in six moving pieces of full-bodied prose: memory – and all the joy, pain and complications that comes with it. In the story – set in an unknown future in South Africa – memories are extracted and saved on cartridges. They can then be plugged into a device that attaches to ports set into peoples’ skulls, allowing access to relive memories at leisure. It sounds like a questionable sci-fi plot, but reads – even at 85 pages – smoothly, without ever losing a sense of grounding in truth.

I’ve been thinking about memory a lot lately. A small section of a beautiful and historic part of Oregon – The Columbia River Gorge – is on fire. Tens of thousands of acres of forest falling in on themselves due to the irresponsible act of one 15-year-old boy. Even though I’ve never lived in any of the small communities scattered along the Columbia, it’s a part of my state with family connections and deeply entrenched in my own memories. From the vivid details of hiking trails, swimming holes, and even a first date, all the way back to drives to and from The Dalles where my grandmother lived up until I was a young teen. The memories I have of that stretch of land are piled high on top of each other in my mind.

Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. Here the sons of her neighbors flew kites. Here the toothless knife-sharpener used to set up his coughing, smoking wheel… The body odor of porters, the white faces of tombs, the sweet, bulging calves of Li Qing’s father—the village drowns in memory.

-From “Village 113”

My first memory of reading Anthony Doerr was his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome.

I read it for a study abroad class I was auditing as an alumni, five years after I’d graduated from college. It’s a charming story of Doerr’s year spent in the Italian capital city after winning the Rome Prize. A year that coincided with the birth of his twin boys. It’s a book that gave me introduction to a city I would come to love, the neighborhood I would spend three weeks living in, and the walks I would take up the Janiculum Hill for a staggering view across the rooftops of Rome. Doerr’s book was also the start of what would become a wave of fond memories: choosing gelato flavor combinations, learning to say “cute puppy” in Italian (and saying it every time I saw a dog), torrential rain and the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after Sunday Mass, the sound of a saxophone floating through the Villa Borghese, the Trevi Fountain at Midnight.

I later saw Doerr as a guest of the Portland Arts and Lectures reading series in 2015. I volunteered at Will-Call before the lecture and attended the event by myself. I remember there were people sitting on the stairs in the Mezzanine because they’d oversold tickets. I remember trying to lead a stray student to his high school group. I remember the stress of my friend running the chaotic arrival of the attendees.

Doerr dug into his own memories during the lecture, most vividly a failed halloween costume when he was young. He used a simple Power Point, he smiled a lot, his lecture was about failure. He told us we didn’t have to clap after he finished each section of his speech (we did anyway). I remember thinking, after learning he’d participated in the Writer’s in the Schools program, that he was exactly the kind of person I wanted talking to a new generation of students and writers.

Dad: Do you remember Grandpop’s job at the tree farm? Near Boardman? All those poplars. I remember driving the service roads with him on a four-wheeler. What was I, seven?

-From “The Demilitarized Zone”

NPR’s Guest Host Rachel Martin interviewed Doerr about the collection in 2010. When asked what drew him to the theme of memory, he gives us a bit of background:

I originally got very interested in memory in high school when my grandmother came to live with us. She had been diagnosed with dementia. It was the first time I had heard the word Alzheimer's disease. And, you know, to watch my grandmother slowly lose herself and yet still be very much alive was an amazing and terrifying experience in a lot of ways.

Later he speaks to it in a different way:

…I have two little boys. Theyre [sic] six years old, they're twins. And their lives are so much more documented than my own. And it's fascinating for me to watch them look at photos of themselves and now videos. You know, my wife has a flip camera. And their experiences of those documents are already altering their actual memories. You know, they remember trips we've taken because theyve [sic] seen videos or photographs of them.

I’ve always been interested in memory as well, because I feel, at times, as though I have a somewhat loose hold on my own past. I often wonder, with some of my oldest memories, if they’re really memories at all or rather some combination of memory and photograph. Do I really remember riding bikes in the driveway on Easter when I was five? Six? Or does the photograph I have – with my handmade paper plate hat and knee socks – capture that memory in time and create it for me?

I think of Mrs. Sabo, how her memories slipped away one by one into the twilight and left her here in a house in a field in the middle of Lithuania waiting for skinny, ravenous Giltine to carry her to a garden on the other side of the sky.

-From “The River Nemunas”

A review in SFGate says: "Memory Wall," Anthony Doerr's second collection of stories, considers memory as a compulsion, a privilege, a sorrow and a mystery. The characters in these six stories struggle to recall loved ones who are gone, or choose to bury their memories, or are displaced from their homes, left with nothing but memories.

In The New York Times: The stories in “Memory Wall” shouldn’t work at all, and yet they do, spectacularly. They’re about time and memory, and they move to a rhythm that suggests something pulsing under their calm surfaces, the steady breaking of old blood, old memories, the oldest waves of human feeling.

Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.

-From “Afterworld”

On the last page of the last story, Doerr provides a sense of hope in a collection often full sadness. We lose memories, we create memories. The human brain is still very much a mystery. We create, lose, gain, retain. It becomes a pattern in all of us. As the fire in the Gorge becomes more and more contained, so will my past memories of that place. But there will always be photos and stories shared. There will always be small moments engrained. There will also be new memories, there will be mine and the millions of memories of others. When I think of it in those collective terms, I too feel a sense of hope in a world that sometimes seems to be slipping away.

Stay Backwords,

Ginger Duncan

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