On Love and Forgetting: A personal note

Georges Seurat, Seated Woman (1883)

I’m breaking my rule about no personal posts, but what good are rules if we don’t break them every now and again?

I was recently left by someone who I was really and truly prepared to love for the long haul. It was sudden, painful, and awful in ways that we’ve all experienced but still don’t have the words to describe. Someone really should come up with a break-up specific vocabulary… don’t Eskimos have about a million words for snow?

Of course, I wanted to lock myself in my room and not emerge for days or weeks, allowing myself the time to mourn the loss of something I wasn’t ready to let go of, but being a single mom, that was not an option. I had to go on as if nothing had changed, at least in front of my daughter (she’s only three). Which got me to thinking about forgetting. If I could forget the emotions that tied me to him, if I could stop replaying the hundreds of conversations that seemed only possible between the two of us,  then maybe I could really go on as if nothing had happened. It would be as if Mr. Peabody pushed a button on his WABAC machine, and all was reset. Byron captured it best, at the end of his poem “To Caroline,”

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

A while back I wrote that his words in this poem elicit, at least in me, powerfully contrasting emotions. On the one hand it stirs a yearning for such a deep love, while at the same time it evokes a palpable sense of fear of experiencing such a profound loss. I suppose I knew then, when I wrote about Byron and love, that experiencing that kind of loss was a real possibility. Perhaps that’s why it was so hard then to type out those last two stanzas.

I’m currently reading a book titled Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, by Harald Weinrich. It had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and now it simply seemed like a good time to read it. The book traces “forgetting” through Western cultural history, from Homer, Vergil and Ovid, and Dante, to Kant, Freud, Proust, and Sartre (among others). This book actually reminds me quite a bit of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight. Attlee searched for moonlight, Weinrich seeks forgetting. Although I’m only about halfway through the book, its been an interesting exercise to look at how others have sought forgetfulness; the countless poets, writers, and heroes that have chosen to exchange the weight of their memories for the lightness of a blank slate. If nothing else, its good to know that I’m in good company in wanting to forget.

Salvation and healing are sought in forgetting above all when a mortal is throated by pain and suffering. Forgetting one’s misfortune is already half of happiness.

Reading Lethe also brought to mind one Umberto Eco’s essay, “An Ars Oblivionaris, Forget it!” that I wrote about in the first days of this blog. In it Eco wrote about the impossibility of voluntary forgetfulness; that although we may employ several techniques to help us remember, there is, for better or worse, nothing we can do to help us forget. He suggests one way that we can if not quite forget, we can at least muddy the waters of memory,

“One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

Needless to say, the application of that idea to this situation may have worked in my early twenties, but not now.  But if there was a method I could use to truly forget, would I use it? I’ve certainly fantasized about it this past month, but if seriously presented with the chance to “produce oblivion”, would I take it, even if it also meant forgetting all the good, too?

Then late last night I came across this post on the “Freshly Pressed” page. Needless to say, its title “On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline” (okay, maybe not the Facebook part) immediately spoke to my current obsession with remembrance and forgetting. In the “Erasing Memories” segment of her post, she talked literally erasing her memories, or at least the evidence of them by deleting chat logs, Facebook messages, emails. (When I was in high school the equivalent would have been throwing away the letters, tearing apart the photographs and erasing the ubiquitous “mix tapes.) She refers to it as kind of “self-curating.” Its a great idea, in theory, but despite my desire to forget the love I felt and still feel, I’ve had no impulse whatsoever to delete anything. Although I’m nowhere near ready to go back and reread our exchanges, I imagine that one day looking back on them might provide a little clarity, some answers, or maybe just a chance to reminisce about something that was good.

She also mentioned the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times in the past, and I’ve always liked it, although I could never really connect with it. I’ve always been a firm believer in some permutation of “no regrets,” and by extension that means “no forgetting.” I could never understand why Joel and Clementine chose to erase their memories of each other. Now I get it. There’s that part in the film where Joel (Jim Carey’s character) goes into Lacuna (which interestingly enough means  a blank space, gap, or missing part), to have the memories of his relationship with Clementine erased. The doctor then explains,

There’s an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core it starts its degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning, all the memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared, as in a dream upon waking.

An emotional core indeed. All my memories seem intertwined with emotion at the moment, and the urge to erase and forget is now strong. I suspect that if there did exist an ars oblivionaris, a Lacuna, Inc., or a river named Lethe for that matter, that I would be seriously tempted to use it, but I’m sure that if I did, that there would come a time when I would regret it. Even Joel, at the end of Eternal Sunshine, choses to remember. Erasing my memories would be erasing what was an incredibly loving, honest, passionate, and, well, a fundamentally good part of my life.

I suppose I’m glad that there’s no way to erase our memories, or to go back in time and reset everything. At the end of the day, despite the heartache of loss, I know that eventually the memories will be good ones. Today remembrance brings with it a mixed bag of hope, loss, regret, and longing, but although remembering is painful, maybe one day it will all make sense. After all, it’s all of these experiences that shape who we are. That, and of course only by acknowledging the past can we hope to make peace with it.

33 thoughts on “On Love and Forgetting: A personal note

  1. I think it is possible to forget, in a healthy way, particularly painful memories, it is what allows us to continue or even to repeat an experience (such as childbirth for example), but not to completely eliminate a relationship or a person as if they had never existed. I think forgetting the pain goes hand in hand with practicing forgiveness and letting go.

    I remember making a conscious effort in my twenties to forget cruel comments that had been said to me by a family member, because I had a habit of keeping them alive in my mind – I realised that I was the only one carrying these words around – I had become the cause of my own suffering – so I vowed to remove them and it worked, I couldn’t tell you what they were now only that they used to plague me and I mean for years and years.

    This is a wonderful post and a beautiful reflection, what a gift to be able to channel your experience into something so articulate and rich in references and to share it with us all. Something wonderful lies ahead of you I am sure and you will become more who you are meant to be.

    • Thank you for such a heartfelt comment. Several years ago I went through an incredibly difficult time, and you’re right about forgetting, or at least being able to re-frame something to such an extent that it no longer forms a barrier to experience. It’s a difficult thing though, isn’t it? I mean, the only real way to move through these things is to, well, move through them… and that takes time.

      Again, thank you for such a wonderful comment.

  2. This is a very beautiful and poignant post. I am sorry you are going through a bad time right now. It must be hard.

    On forgetting…..About 20 years ago some incidents occurred in my life that left me bewildered, hurt and very, very sad. There were lots of things. I ended up obsessing over the whole of them. About 7 years later, yes, 7 years, I was sitting in my room one day when I thought about all the time I had lost obsessing about it. It was then I realized I had lost YEARS. Not just a month or a week. And I also realized it hadn’t been worth it. I couldn’t DO anything about the things that happened. In that minute, it was as if a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. Literally. I very rarely even think upon that time now, except to regret wasting all the time, to no end. I gained nothing, no understanding of it, no understanding of the betrayal I felt from my family, none at all. I hope you get to that point sooner than later and that your life. Enjoy your little girl and give yourself time to heal, but don’t dwell on it, much easier said than done I know. HUGS!

    Merry Christmas to you and your little girl.

  3. This is my favorite of your posts so far. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, as this subject is something I believe most people can relate to. I am also of a “no regrets” mentality, though I sometimes daydream about having chose a different path. Even when I think this way, it is as if both paths — the one I really chose and the one I might have chosen — can coexist, almost like two different dimensions or lives altogether. I couldn’t really bear the thought of cancelling out the life I have now, even its bad aspects.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I needed to read this. You wrote it at a perfect time, too!

    And the Facebook timeline is a wonderful memory-changing exercise! I was surprised to see that my timeline looks much better than my memory.

    • I’m glad the post was relevant to you, and I’m sorry if you’re going through something similar. It’s not fun!

      I have yet to try the timeline out… Should be interesting!

  5. I so much want to express my sympathy and solidarity with you, Kris. My heart goes out to single mothers everywhere. Making the work rounds the other day a gal who’s truly had a tough go of things, including having raised her eight year old son with dad serving time in the slammer, was saying how lean a Christmas it was going to be. I excused myself to the washroom and when I returned slipped what I had, $60, into her hand. It won’t change anything, but at least her son will get a gift and maybe she’ll get herself a bottle of wine or something. I conclude a post of mine, Love….Rendered with the words:
    “Last night, lying beside my wife, I stammered out a few swirling thoughts. I was riffing on the idea of having the courage not to settle for second best no matter how long it took.
    “That’s easier for men,” she said, “biologically speaking.” I laughed out loud in wonder. Bang on, my Love.”
    What am I trying to get at? Men not up to the love of a strong woman, I suppose. Jeez, this is getting long for a comment.
    Holiday Blessings, and joy to the little one….

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Jeff.
      Its definitely not always easy to be a single mother, and some of the challenges have been extraordinarily difficult, but that aside, I wouldn’t change a thing. Life is full of both joy and heartbreak, and sometimes the scales tip a little in favor of one over the other, but its still a wonderful life, and one I wouldn’t trade for the universe.
      Have a very beautiful Christmas with your family.

      • Sorry Kris, I’ve wanted to continue the dialogue on what I call ‘the plight of the strong woman in the modern world,’ which was sort of alluded to in the short conversation I quoted between my wife and I above. She’s definitely one, not in the ‘I’m joining the Marines to show you what a tough gal I am,’ but in a softer, infinitely stronger way. And I’ve taken the liberty of putting you in the ‘strong woman’ category, too. Fantastic, except….
        One of the underlying themes of the Omphalos Cafe is what it takes to be a man in this modern world of ours. The journey to adulthood, the inner, experiential one, being different for the male and female of the species. Before writing this I reread my post titled ‘Art And The Male Energy,’ and wasn’t disappointed, it going some way (ok, a short way) towards broaching the subject. I mean, what will your daughter face in the years to come? Where will the men be? Will they, or certain individuals at any rate, find it in themselves to make the only apparently perilous threshold crossing into fully matured male adulthood? Who is there to help? Who to guide? Society seems to be working against it, to me at least.
        Ok, this has grown long enough. I’ve a movie to watch, as soon as Wifey comes down from putting Sonny-Boy to bed. ‘The Magic Trip’, a doc on Ken Kesey’s Magic Busride recounted in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip. Looking forward to it.
        Hope your day was rich and warm.

  6. I am sorry; I wish I could say some words and make it better, but if they exist I am yet to find them. Having just been through this, and having to keep a brave face in place for a child, I can only say I understand what you’ve said and I feel for your heart and spirit. You have my very good thoughts.

  7. At least, as a single mom, you managed to see that your girl needed you and that you had to put a brave face on. When she faces her own break-ups in future, moments like these will be a role model for her. She will realize how hard it was for you and how wonderfully you reacted, for the sake of both of you!

    I’m sorry it didn’t work out. You know where to find me! 🙂

  8. i did smile when you mentioned Mr. Peabody – i watched that a million years ago! I find Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge amazing to read and explore during times of troubled waters. so many similarities and so much time between our time and their time – but so universal…

    thanks for sharing – i enjoy poking around on your wordpress very very creative and interesting…

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  12. I found this a very insightful and emotionally arresting post. Thanks for sharing it. So far as the idea of forgetting, though, it brought to my mind the disease of Alzheimer’s–which is, in many ways, a disease of forgetting–and I realize that, for me, forgetting *is* a disease, a kind of emotional suicide. Any erasure of part of my experiences is a partial erasure of myself since my experiences have brought me to the person I am now, for better or worse. It also reminds me of the quote from Jung that all neurosis is the substitute for legitimate suffering. And there is no more legitimate suffering than the loss of love. I take Jung to mean, not that suffering is to be sought out but that the attempt to erase or avoid or suppress suffering in life makes us, literally, crazy. My own way of dealing with this (not that anyone has asked!) follows the lines of James Baldwin’s essay “The Uses of the Blues”: since we cannot escape suffering, since, in fact, the attempt to escape suffering can turn us into monsters of a kind, let’s *redeem* suffering by using it to create: create blues music, writing; create art. Which is, in fact, exactly what you have done here.

    • I agree with you one hundred percent. There’s a very large distinction between wanting to forget when your in the midst of going through pain, and really forgetting (not that we can, but if we could). It would be erasing a part of ourselves, that give time and perspective, would become an integral part of who we are.
      I don’t often agree with Jung, but in this case, I do. Part of moving past something is moving through it. We have experience the pains as well as the joys in our lives, and attempting to suppress them will, inevitably, make us a little crazy.
      And thank you. This post was at once almost accidental, and also the most difficult that I have written to date. But it helped to write. A lot. Turning something destructive, like suffering, into something creative is never a bad thing.

  13. I dont comment often on blogs much to my husband Conrad’s chagrin as he always wants me to comment on his. Which I do just not online! Im sorry for your loss and found your post interesting. I lost my late husband to suicide and was left to raise our then 4 year old little girl alone. Oh the flood of emotions I felt at the time of his death and years later still do. Even though I have remarried and have had another child those emotions are still there. I don’t want to forget though. There are some beautiful memories as well as ugly ones. And I have to regularly relive some of those beautiful memories for the sake of my daughter. So she knows who her Dad was and that he loved her very much. Those retellings often can cut me to the quick in a way I never knew it was possible to experience pain. Even with that I still dont want to forget. I just don’t want to feel the pain, love and hurt that comes with each memory. Or at least not the negative feelings. I do believe that heartbreak heals and that it takes time. I know that today I can tell my daughter that she has her daddies infectious big laugh and how he would throw his head back and just let his laught roll out deep from his belly. That memory makes me smile now rather than weep like it would when I first lost him. I also know that the experience of those emotions can also help to make future relationships more valuable. And thankful. I’m in a good place and happy. And most likely more appreciative of our relationship because of my past experiences. I wish you Good luck and best wishes.

  14. We have all felt that hurt … I know I definitely have on more than one occasion but without the risk of opening our hearts to others where is the life? …… I wish you the strength to deal with the heartache. It will surely lesson…

  15. Two days past St. Valentine’s – and I wonder how you are feeling, now that a bit more time has passed. I have only two words to sum up my thoughts on this beautiful post: HIS LOSS!

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

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