PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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Nearly every morning, after filling a small bowl with fresh organic berries, I spread a tablespoonful of raw crunchy organic almond butter on two brown rice crackers while the water boils for coffee. The reason I’m so precise about the amount of almond butter is because almond butter is caloric. Healthy but caloric.

When raw, without added sugar or salt, it’s also surprisingly expensive, which is interesting to consider. Why should doing nothing to organic almond butter cost more than roasting, salting, and sweetening it first? If I were a culturally responsive and critical blogger, I might have posted about that. But as I’ve always been at heart a me-me-me (and mine) person, I have other thoughts whenever I dip the knife into the glass jar of almond butter and spread the measured amount I’ve allotted to myself on the crackers.

It would be easier to keep dipping until I had enough to cover all the cracker surfaces, preferably thickly. However, given that I’m still vain (admittedly with less and less to be vain about, except I still fit a size 6), I don’t do that. Instead, I try to get as close to the edge of the crackers as possible with the almond butter available on the knife, carefully scraping it thin and out with the blade.

And then nearly every summer morning, rising out of the depths of me as I wield my knife, comes a picture of a narrow-boned slender young woman of perhaps twenty in a miniscule bikini. There’s no extra flesh at all — does she ever eat? — yet you couldn’t call her underweight. She is perfect for her purpose, whatever that may be. She has deeply tanned Mediterranean skin and long nearly straight dark hair. She sits dockside under a café umbrella with two dark men in the sparkling port of Leros, a Greek island in the Dodecanese between the Greek mainland and Turkey. Are the three Greek? Italian? (This part of Greece is a summer getaway for many Italians.) The sun is high, the water — just yards from the café — a saturated gorgeous blue which makes anyone who’s ever seen it long to be back in Greece again. The dark men, in stylish sunglasses, are shirtless; they wear only shorts. Leather slides dangle from their bare feet. They have tangles of dark chest hair, dark straighter hair on arms and legs.

I can’t see her face because she’s bent over two thick slices of warm Greek white bread on a white plate; she’s preparing the bread for one of the men. He’s twenty-six or twenty-eight. He must know she’s doing this for him; he doesn’t touch the cup of bitter black coffee that was part of his order. He’s talking with the other man and smoking while he waits. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the language. As is customary, the bread is served with a lump of butter and a small cuplet of Greek honey. Her hair falling over her face, the young woman spreads the butter slowly and meticulously over the entire warm surface of both slices, until the bread is thinly covered all the way to the soft crusts.

Then she begins again with the honey, teasing it out patiently and slowly over every bit of surface of now melted butter. And again. And yet again. What is this all about? Is it what he expects of her? What she feels is fitting for him? (God forbid a morsel of un-honey-buttered bread enter his mouth?) Why not order more honey? Because he’s the one who’s paying and might not like her not making do? None of this breakfast is apparently for her. And he seemingly ignores her. Not even a friendly pat of thanks. The other man nods, rises and leaves.

We have to leave too. We came to Leros earlier this morning from Lipsi, an even smaller island where we’re spending the summer, to pick up some prints made from a memory stick sent with an acquaintance the week before. Now the noon Flying Dolphin is coming into harbor.  It will soon turn around for the return trip to Lipsi. No waiting for stragglers.

I hadn’t thought about that young woman for a long time. Then I discovered almond butter. Now suddenly, more than ten years later, she comes to me in the mornings as I ply my knife out to every cracker edge, just as she did with the honey. What was their relationship back there on Leros, the dark man with chest curls and his lean subservient handmaiden? I don’t want to think she was just for fun. I like to imagine he had brought her to Leros for a week or two to get her away from some laborious, repetitive job, either in Athens or Naples, because in his way, whatever that was, he cared about her. I want to think they had some kind of relationship; her body wasn’t quite beautiful enough for her to be just arm candy. At other times, on other islands, we saw vacationing men with gorgeous, scantily dressed young women brought along to the beaches to have their luscious glistening near naked flesh everywhere shamelessly palmed and squeezed and fondled, day-long foreplay on public display.  Then when the sun went down, these beauties were fed, doctored with alcohol, and taken to bed, where presumably whatever skills they had, if any, were put to use behind bedroom doors. These young women did nothing all day but lie extended on the sand on their stomachs, idly turning the pages of the same magazine over and over, apparently without shame at their soft supple bodies being so openly degraded by idle male hands, like large pieces of silly putty without feelings.

I hope my young woman wasn’t like that. She’s in her early thirties now. If he didn’t marry her (or she decided in the end she didn’t want him), I hope she found someone else. I also hope she eats now and then, and that whoever she’s with talks to her and loves her. Anyone so dedicated to making two slices of warm white bread as perfectly appetizing as possible, given the limited resources available, deserves at least that, if not more.

You might also wonder why another woman, this one in her seventies, who was sitting near the water in a Greek café while waiting for the Flying Dolphin to take her back to another island, would be so focused on a young woman more than fifty years younger as she buttered bread and spread honey on it. I can only speculate. Because I never had a body like hers? Because dark Mediterranean men with curly chest hair had never looked at me, even in what might have been called my “prime?” (Whether I would have wanted them to is another question.) Because I’m always interested in food, even when I might not let myself eat it because it’s bad for me, has no nutritional value, etcetera etcetera? Or just because I’m always watching other people, listening to them if I can get them to talk, trying to learn something more about life and how we live it, each in our different way, before my own comes to an end? Whichever it was (or all of them), it has now led to me having Proustian memories in the kitchen nearly every morning.

It would be a lie of omission if I didn’t add that when the young woman on Leros comes to mind while I’m putting almond butter on rice crackers, those hot, bright blue and white summers on Lipsi also rise up, almost as alive as they used to be. As Proust observes about the effect of dipping a petite madeleine (a little fluted French cake) in a cup of limewater tea such as his Aunt Leonie gave him as a child when his family brought him from Paris to visit her house in Combray:

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl    with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which the   moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive           shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all        the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the          Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the    church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, which is acquiring         form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. [From Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.]

It seems almond butter – organic, raw and crunchy – is my petite madeleine. I once wrote a first chapter of what was going to be a novella about Lipsi. It was called “An Island of Their Own.” (I did cast it in the third person then, but now there’d be no need that. Almost everyone who’d be in it is either dead or doesn’t read English.) And that was before I discovered almond butter. Maybe I should resurrect it and continue. Not a promise. But I’m not stopping the almond butter in the foreseeable future. So who knows?

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SEARCHING FOR THE PAST

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[I’m almost back to speed from my recent, ah, ailment, and have begun to load the pipeline with some new pieces.  However, everything is taking me longer than it used to.  Perhaps because I’m out of harness.  Perhaps because real recovery is slower than what meets the eye.  So if you’ll bear with me for another four or five days, here’s one more post from the end of last calendar year to keep you going. Many of you may not have seen it.  If you have, perhaps you won’t mind reading once more.]

[Re-blogged from December 16, 2013]

SEARCHING FOR THE PAST

Proust says you can find it again only in art.  ”It” — lost time —  being the years of your life now behind you.

But what is the past? Is it still alive somewhere, in a separate universe — where every single moment that ever was goes on existing?

That was an idea that used to excite me.  While still in high school, I came across a play called “Berkeley Square” which was so sad!  The hero — a modern young American — found himself transported through time and space into an eighteenth- century English drawing room, where he fell in love, by candlelight, with the beautiful heroine.  By the end of the second act, she loved him too (despite his unusual clothing, manners and speech).

Alas, in act three he was unable to bring her back with him  – forward with him? — when he had to return home to electric lights and penicillin.  All they could share across the centuries was a lifetime of eternal love. (At the same time? That point was not made clear.)  He had her faded portrait.  She had her memories of a man not yet born. Thrilling!

Later, my college roommate and I developed this separate-universe concept of time over pints of coffee ice cream (delivered from town to campus as late as ten p.m).  On dateless weekend evenings, we asked ourselves the question: What if a time traveler could change the course of history?

There was even a scenario for the film:  Storm at sea.  Ocean liner traveling from New York to Southampton is thrown off course, collides with large iceberg, sinks before they can lower the lifeboats.  One passenger, knocked unconscious, floats ashore before freezing to death.  He’s a young academic, specializing in medieval English history. Wouldn’t you know?  He washes up near Tewksbury, England in 1471!  During the Wars of the Roses!

Our hero is discovered by bearded land-owning nobility on horseback. They wear heavy armor and carry lances and shields modeled on the exhibits in the armory section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  There is also a lovely young maiden with long golden tresses who tends to his minor bruises and helps him brush up on his spoken Middle English.

But the whole point — and we had to get there before the ice cream was all gone — is that our hero has been rescued by members of the House of York; in gratitude for the good care he’s been given, he volunteers to carry a message from one part of their army to another that will (1) prevent a significant battle from taking place; (2)  make peace between the two sides; and (3) thereby change everything we always thought came afterwards.

Change everything!   No more Tudors, no Henry VIII, no Church of England, no Virgin Queen, no Puritans, no Restoration…. I tell you, the ramifications would have been stunning!

But here’s the kicker:  this very important message is written on paper. Not even parchment.  Paper! And our hero falls off his horse in transit. (Horseback riding is not part of the Medieval English History Graduate Studies curriculum).  The concussion knocks him clear back to the twentieth century in America, where subsequent amnesia about his fifteenth-century adventure prevents him from telling anyone about it.

And the piece of paper in his hand? What of that?  It stays behind. (Probably because it didn’t come from the twentieth century in the first place.  We never really worked out that part.)

What do you think happens to a piece of paper lying on wet muddy ground over the course of five and a half centuries? You’re absolutely right.  That’s why the Wars of the Roses ended as it did.  And not our way.

Addendum:  There was an alternate scenario where the paper is in an oiled bag which somehow or other rolls into a dry cave and is eventually found by twentieth-century medieval historians, including the hero. This extraordinary discovery jogs his memory. He then snaps out of his amnesia so he can tell everyone what occurred while he was time-traveling.

The alternate version had the merit of leaving history as it was while also demonstrating that our hero might  have been able to alter the course of events if he had been a better horseback rider. But we rejected it as too complicated and philosophical for a movie.

There was also a book I read later, when I was almost grown up but not quite, about parallel dimensions of time:  Two Shakespeares writing separate Hamlets at the same moment — one entirely different from what the other Shakespeare was scribbling over there in hisdimension.  Two American revolutions, with different outcomes. Two World War I’s.  And like that. But suppose there were three dimensions of time? Or four? Or five?   You can go just so far with this kind of thing before you get dizzy.

So let us put childish things aside, and look at the real past.  The past that’s really past, and not quivering out there in some other dimension we will never know.  The one Proust was writing about. Where does that past reside?  In your memory?

Maybe.  Some of it.  Or you think it does. But how good is your memory?  Do you really remember your grandmother’s face (if you ever saw it)?

Or  – as we ask a recalcitrant witness in the courtroom — is there anything that would refresh your memory? (Like a photograph of your grandmother?)

I have plenty of such refreshers. They’re all down in the basement, in well-labeled files. (I’m a pack rat for paper.)  Let’s look, for instance, at my graduation album from Public School 99, Queens.  I was twelve and a half.  You’d think I’d remember something.  On one random page I see, in blue handwriting:  ”United States is your nation/ Kew Gardens is your station/ But you had to go to 99 to get your education.  Till nail polishes…Elliott Settle.”

Who is Elliott Settle?  Try as I might, I can’t remember.  We sat in the same classroom for at least ten months, I asked him to write a remembrance message in my album, and he has completely vanished from my recollections of my past.  If it weren’t for the album in the basement, I wouldn’t even know his name.

Another remembrance from an author I have no memory of whatsoever:  ”To Nina Raginsky, Love and kisses.  In getting 100 she never misses.  Robert Bier.”  Robert Who?

Kinder words from one William Konigsberg:  ”When Cupid shoots his arrow, I hope he ‘Mrs.’ you.”  Can’t remember him either.

do remember William Weibel:  ”December 23, 1943. May your life be like arithmetic.  Joys — Added.  Sorrows — Subtracted. Friends — Multiplied. Love — Undivided.  Your friend, Bill W.”  But that’s only because, in a misguided demonstration of affection, he took a big bite out of my brand new pink rubber eraser in seventh grade.  What girl could forget that?

I also remember Georges Petipas, or at least what he looked like.  I’m not sure we ever spoke to each other, although if he’s still alive and wants to prove me wrong, I won’t argue.  He turns out to have been pretty wise, even before high school:  ”Yesterday is dead. Forget it.  Tomorrow is not yet come. Don’t worry. Today is here.  Use it.  Georges P.”

You may notice quite a few boys wrote in my album.  This did not escape the attention of Althea, who neglected to sign her last name and thereby also ensured my inability to recall who she was:  ”Dear Nina, If all the boys were across the sea/ What a good swimmer Nina would be.  Love, Althea”

I want to cry.  All those children gone from me as if they had never been.  Even Willie and Georges gone, except their names and faces.  And so too am I gone, little girl Nina with her perfect grades and an eye for the boys and no idea of tomorrow.  All that’s left is the album.

Better get out of the basement.  I can always come back another time.

Meanwhile, as I look for a Kleenex:

  • Proust was right.
  • Memory fails.
  • Better make art.  (Where you can make things up when you don’t remember.)

And if you can’t make art, blog about it.