Breathing Time Machines

August 15, 2011

“I am a breathing time machine.”

It is the sort of line that can pass a listener by the first few times they hear a song. It certainly did me. A pleasing construction, meant to evoke a feeling, not much else. Honestly, it felt almost like “the movement you need is on your shoulder,” from Hey Jude– a sort of placekeeper line that sounded good and ended up making it to the final cut of the track because the songwriters couldn’t come up with anything better. But I think The Avett Brothers are on to something here. The song “Laundry Room” is about a person clinging desperately to a relationship, attempting to will it to last “just a little longer,” and in context, the line is sort of heartbreaking.

But it is out of context that this line makes the most sense to me. I can’t get it out of my head.

“I am a breathing time machine.”

What a simple, beautiful summation of people.

Every thing we have been is held within us, and we can make ourselves go back to it. Breathing time machines. The screwy, unfair, wonderful thing about memory is that each time we access a memory we reconstruct the situations, in full, in our brains, and in so doing, we rearrange things. No memory is static; they breathe along with us. But the malleability of our memories does not make those memories any less “true.” Yes, I will grant that our memories are not, perhaps ever, accurate reminisces of the “real” event that they claim to reenact, but that is not the point of memory.

Memory helps us to order and make sense of our world. The things that we hold on to get reshaped in order to help us understand ourselves and our surroundings. Cherished people and thoughts take on a rose tint in order for us to remember when and why life is good and worth living, in order for us to have a thing, anything, that lets us know that the world is as good as it could be, if only sometimes. Pain is held and even amplified for reasons that might be too complex for me to fathom. Maybe we hold on to pain as a warning: “Don’t do that again.” Maybe it is there to remind us of what we aren’t, or don’t want to be. Maybe painful memories, lingering hate, serve to remind us of ourselves and how not great we are.

Maybe most crucially, our memories can help other people understand themselves and their places in the world. The memories of others can help us center ourselves in a narrative– and narrative is something almost everyone craves. Memory lets us see ourselves as others see us. They let us see the world as others see it, to situate an existence in a unique frame. When a person dies, their discrete memories cease to breathe along with their bodies. But, if they’re lucky, the memories they shared continue to breathe, along with personal and communal memories of that person.

I witnessed this most recently at my great-aunt Juanita’s funeral. I don’t know if she could have picked my brothers and I out of a crowd, but she remembered that she liked our voices, so she requested that we sing for her and her loved ones. Juanita made my Christmas stocking, and I won’t be able to do the holidays again without thinking of her, without reconstructing a woman I barely knew. In order to reconstruct her, I have to talk to the people who really knew her, to take on her memories and her life, to make myself a time machine. I have to understand what it meant to be a woman raising a family in the middle of the 20th century, to understand what it meant to be a woman living through the depression, to understand what it meant to outlive a spouse. If I don’t attempt to understand these things, the Juanita in my head will bear no semblance to the Juanita in the heads of my other relatives. So in the final reckoning, memory becomes a fearful responsibility, and much like in the tales of science fiction, playing time machine is fraught with danger; change one thing and the consequences can be vast.

So we have to breathe honestly and deeply and reverently, taking care of the time we go back to change with every memory.