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05 October 2005 — Lost (9)

"Memory is life." — Saul Bellow

What if this low-grade melancholia that's been dogging me for the past year isn't a result of biology or psychology, but a product of memory? What if this emotional and mental torpor is a consequence of moving from the place that has been the seat of nearly all my memories with no component in my identity?

We are the sum of our experiences. For thirty-five years, my identity was tied to Canby, Oregon. I was tied to the people in the town, to the locations, to the history. Everywhere I walked, I saw something that reminded me of the past. Every person I met held a connection to my friends and family, even to myself.

Even a quick walk to the bank had the potential to flood me with memory. A typical stroll might go something like this: walking out the door and looking down the street reminds me of Kendra, who now works at Thriftway, and of the cast party at her house; at the 4th & Elm I am reminded of the time Paul and a couple girls took off with my little Datsun 310gx; walking past the Baldwin house (with all its cars), I recall Amber's strange entry in my high school class' ten-year reunion book; at the bank itself, I think of the summer after high school, visiting Denise and Debbie Johnson as they worked a car wash; the Dairy Queen reminds me of when Kris and I first moved back after college and a nice dinner out meant chicken strips at DQ; I glance across the street and see Sabino's office, and remember that I need to go connect a new computer to the network; and then the walk home is filled with more, similar memories. Maybe John Gingerich honks as he drives by, waves hello. Maybe I see a wreck at Whitman's Towing and think of my dead Geo Storm. Every walk, every day was filled with these memory triggers.

In Canby, my identity was tangible. I was all around me.

Three years ago, I seriously considered returning to church. Why? Not because I was drawn to religion, but because I felt that a part of me was there — I knew a part of me was there — and I wanted to recover this lost piece. The congregation at Zion Mennonite is a part of J.D. Roth, a part of Jeff Roth, a part of Nick Roth, just as it has been a part of our fathers, our grandfather, our great-grandfather. This is why our autumnal Monday Night Football gatherings are so important to me: they are one of my last solid connections to this group.

But what can I do? I don't live in Canby anymore.

I like it here in Oak Grove, I do. But I am not here. I am someplace else. I feel like a visitor. When I walk to the bank in this place, I am not surrounded by me, am not visited by memory. I experience the place, but in a different way. I'm building new memories, it's true, but it's not the same. When I walk down to the park, I don't recall friends or events: all I remember are the previous times I walked down to the park. If I walk up the hill, I might remember walking to Safeway with Joel last spring, but I probably won't. (Walking back from Fred Meyer, though, may now remind me of the hot day this July on which I carried my new wading pool the mile to our house.) Everything here is new. I have no names for anything, for the people or the places. I don't know what was here before. I don't know what is to come. I do not know this place. I do not know myself.

I am lost.

Without memories, I am lost.

So this is what I think is wrong: I am not crazy, and my biology is not out of balance. I am lost. I am now part of a place that is not a part of me.

How, then, can I maintain a sense of wholeness, a sense of identity? First, I need to maintain ties to my hometown: I need to eat lunch at its restaurants, shop at its stores, go see high school football games, and stay in touch with old friends. Second, I need to forge new memories in this place: meet new people (Iike our neighbors, like Lane), eat at the restaurants, shop at the stores, get out and make this place mine. I should research more area history. I should have friends to our house, and often. The more memories I construct here, the more comfortable I'll be here. A part of my identity will be tied to this house, to this property.

And though I may not feel wholly at home, I will no longer be lost.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2004Subtle   Mostly, it's what is unsaid that is important.

2003Raspberry Swirl   In which Tori Amos confuses me. In which the weekend is good but exhausting.

On 05 October 2005 (12:00 PM), Drew said:

How, then, can I maintain a sense of wholeness, a sense of identity?

Try Lexapro 10mg.

On 05 October 2005 (12:03 PM), Joel said:

Also, carry that wading pool everywhere you go. A sort of large plastic string-tied-round-the-finger.

I buy the idea that disorientation can cause a sort of chronic low-grade stress, and I suppose emotional disorientation is as real as any other kind. Hmm, this may also correlate to the fact that you just haven't found the time to do much traveling in your life.

On 05 October 2005 (12:09 PM), Kris said:

This is why I say that growing up in a military family has totally messed me up. I have no sense of home, of place, of roots. (or direction, as most of you know) I lack that sense of geographical self that Jd describes. My memory of childhood and is so vague that sometimes it scares me-- I think it has been weakened by so many houses, so many streets, so many school, so may friends that were left when we moved again. Fortunately, Jd's circle of friends have been so welcoming over the years that I can sometimes overcome my problems!

On 05 October 2005 (12:11 PM), Kris said:

Sorry for the typos-- trying to talk with my supervisor about per-fluorotributylamine mass spectroscopy at the same time was a mistake.

On 05 October 2005 (12:25 PM), mac said:

not to mention that you were using the computer for non-state-related business :) Your supervisor should be ashamed for letting you get away with it:)

On 05 October 2005 (01:12 PM), Amy Jo said:

Paul and I have recently been revisiting our life in Alexandria, talking about places and people who we grew very fond of. We consider ourselves lucky to have lived there and think of it very fondly even though we were only there for 4 years. One thing has become very clear to us since moving back to our beloved Portland, we miss the smallness and intimacy of Alexandria.

Even though Alexandria is within the DC metro area, it has an identity of its own. It is older than DC, has its own history, and folks are from there and live their lives out there, which is notable in an area known for transiency. It is a remarkablely beautiful town with outstanding and distinctive historical architecture. There are cobbled streets lit by gaslights. There is one public high school. It is very much a "smallish" town within a larger metro area. More important than the beauty and history of the place is that you know people and they know you. But unlike many medium-sized or small towns, the population is very cosmopolitian and diverse, and highly educated. In some ways, it was the best of both worlds. Both Paul and I grew up in small towns and it was the non-comsopolitaness of my town that made me want to leave.

Note: There are problems in Alexandria, no doubt. There is poverty and inequality unlike I've seen before. I can't really say understood class until I moved there because growing up in Oregon I didn't have a concept of immense wealth or great poverty. I always felt like my family was well off, not rich, but well off. My father was a high school principal. My mom stayed at home. We were fine, but in retrospect I can see where my parents were squeezed and constanly made sacrifices for their family.

Anyhow, getting back to Alexandria. We miss the small-town nature of the town. We love Portland and couldn't wait to move back, but now we realize that we both value a place that is smaller, more intimate. Perhaps when we get to know our new neighborhood better we'll feel more a sense of place and kinship with those we live near. But, we don't feel it yet. We can both imagine moving out of Portland in the next five years, somewhere smaller but still in Oregon. The question remains, where? Where can be find a smaller town cosmpolitian enough to feel like home?

On 05 October 2005 (10:19 PM), Tony said:

Maybe it is the fact that you do not see your little brother as much anymore.

You must remember my big brother I am a fungus. The type of fungus that you do not spray to get rid of but the type of fungus that you let grow to complete a natural balance in life.

I'm a fungus, I'm a fungus, I'm a fungus

Let me spread and reap terror on the world!


On 06 October 2005 (11:42 AM), Jeff said:

Oh Tony, you're such a fun guy...

On 08 October 2005 (06:57 AM), jason said:

Very interesting. I can identify--having grown up in the Canby and Zion communities and feeling as if they will always be a part of me. Unlike you, I left for 15 years and formed a somewhat separate identity, but then returned to attempt reconnection. I've been meditating on similar issues of identity and place. It certainly seems plausible to me that your malaise is due to uprootedness. Thankfully, malaise can be a tragedy or a prelude to growth or destruction, hopefully growth.
Makes me think of a friend who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after an accident--I guess it's caused by having an emotional memory of an event, even though the actual memory is suppressed. The therapy as I understand (or misunderstand) it is to reconstruct as much memory of the actual event as possible so that the emotions can deal with it.
If you want to think about community more, I'd recommend reading (or re-reading) some Wendell Berry, poetry or fiction (not essays so much). While I think he sees identity with a place as a primary allegiance (which I don't think works for everyone), he does have some good insights on how people relate in communities or origin, as opposed to communities of choice or interest.
Or you could read Flannery O'Connor to see a harsher--but still loving, I posit--view of community. But then you might have had enough Flannery for a while. We'll see.

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