April 3rd, 2019
At breakfast with Christian and my friend Gail, yesterday, the conversation turned to memory, and what exactly memories are, and what they do for us, and what they mean to each person’s identity and how we think of ourselves: their weight, their influence…
We spoke of a common desire in this world to dig into the past, to search our childhoods for the trauma, for the pain, and also for those formative experiences that may still not sit easily within us, with which we may still not have made our peace.
And Christian likened past experience and memory to a great tree with so many ramifications that it’s impossible to know where each is ultimately leading to, or emanated from, or how they all come together from a trunk and its roots…
And Gail, who is a Zen practitioner, smiled at that image and said that she had been reminded many a time that to look too long to the past is to get lost inside your head because, in truth, there is only ever the present moment, and though we carry with us imprinted memories of our own past, we can only every really BE HERE, NOW. There’s no going back, and the future is as intangible as space. She likened memory to the vapour trail we see tailing high flying airplanes, which is very thick where it first emerges, but which thins till it disappears off into nothingness.
At 60, I’ve stored enough memories to see the truth of both of those images, and to realise that by and large, I remember just enough to remain my continuous self, someone who walks in the world with a personal identity, i.e. I adore my children and grandchildren, I’m Canadian, a Montrealer; the people I love are…The foods I enjoy are…During this past year, I’ve moved to a new town, into a new home…I’m very sick…
But I also know, now more than ever, as I grow older, that the memories we hold onto with an iron grip are really the pain. We envelop those in such a tough, protective shell that sometimes they become virtually inaccessible to us, lost in lock down. It’s the memory of pain that seems to have the longest shelf life.
* * *
I’m just reaching the end of Philippe Lançon’s 2018 book, Le Lambeau (a word which means, in the book’s context, a flap of flesh). Lançon is a writer/journalist who survived the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, January 7th, 2015. He was in the conference room at the moment of the attack and had the lower part of his face shot off, as well as sustaining damage to his arms. He was left disfigured, and suffered two years of hospitalisation, of treatments, surgery, more treatments, more reconstructive surgery, and still more treatments and pain…
It’s a gorgeous and profound five-hundred-plus page book, that covers the actual shooting very briefly, but lingers for a very long time on the life that came next. The survival. In French, the meaning is deeper, because to live is vivre, and to survive is survivre, words which, for Lançon, also refer to his two lives: the one before the attack, and the one after. Ma vie, et ma survie.
What Lançon examines with fascination, precision, and disarming honesty, is how the man he was for more than fifty years, and the life he had, have become almost an afterthought in his new present. He isn’t so much describing a disconnect between his former life and his present “survival” as he is eloquently making a case for the former’s irrelevance.As I’ve read through his book, Lançon has taken me from the somewhat unconscious, automatic life that was his before January 7th, 2015, to one that was stripped down to the bareness of hospital rooms, pain, drugs, drool, drains, nurses, doctors, surgeries, opioids, fear and dependency.
And what struck me, all the way through his account, are the parallels that can be drawn between his experience and that of anyone who has suffered the violent or sudden shock of a life-threatening event, including war: a physical attack (as in Lançon’s case); a medical diagnosis that promises suffering and eventual death, or any unpredictable occurrence that moves a person’s life out of the public world of home, work and freedom of movement, into medical care and the enveloping necessity of hospitals and treatment.
In fact, I’m shocked that I not only feel empathy toward him (who wouldn’t? his tragic story is one of martyrdom), but that I also understand so many of his reactions, such as his progressive withdrawal from the world outside (this is a writer and journalist who has lived and travelled in Romania, the Middle East, South and Central America, all over the world, in fact) which took the form of not reading the papers or watching television news; seeking refuge in music, mostly Bach…almost always Bach…for hours and hours; feeling the burden of having become a patient—the weight of that dependency; veins that seek only to escape the piercing needle; the alteration of the physical self and the mirror that returns such alien images; the desire to remain cocooned…
I think of myself, moving between our house and the CHUM, and how it’s becoming easier to feel comfortable in this new, smaller life of mine. I realize that I, too, have become reluctant to take on the news of the world at the rate I did before learning I have cancer. My desire to listen to music has not evaporated, but it’s often music of a certain type—all of Max Richter, for example—largely instrumental music that is expansive and elegiac, that fills up the whole house when I’m alone and which envelops me in the emotions that I feel and want to keep feeling but cannot always share with others; looking at myself in the mirror, the way Lançon did and certainly still must, and accepting anew, each time, that the person being reflected back is the one who is here, now, and that any other incarnation is gone—lost to the past.
For many of us, the sense of awareness of a “before life” and “after life” will only develop as a result of aging. Memories will be explored, evoking both a sense of loss, appreciation, and the sense of continuity. But for the many others, the acceptance of la vie and la survie, of two distinct lives created in a moment, and divided irrevocably, will mean leaving behind the unpreservable trail.
For many, first there was life, and then, survival.