I’m beginning to forget.
Close followers of this blog and those who are good with math will know that I am no longer on the road. I got back home about a week ago, but there is still a lot of journey left to write about. I write a post for nearly every day of the trip, but I only update three times a week. So with each post, the things I’m writing about drift further and further into the past. Details begin to slip away and the words are harder to muster. I wonder sometimes if I’m writing a memory or an invention. Was her hair brown or red? Was that how he acted or am I confusing him with the guy I met two days later? Did I visit the museum before or after lunch?
I have notes of course. But while traveling, the notes were just one more thing I had to write. So when time was short and days felt long, I would only jot down what I mistakenly thought would be enough to recall an event. Today I’m trying to write about Charleston, South Carolina. I have a note that reads, “St John the Baptist Church where the organ is playing and it’s just me and the man wiping the windows. Even he stops to listen.” I remember this, but not well enough. I went to visit the church, and I remember it was empty. I took a photo so I also know it was dark. That makes me imagine the air was cool. I don’t remember where the organ was, but I think it must have been up near the front, because I think I remember an old woman turning pages. She was practicing, probably for the Sunday service. I have the date in my notes so I know it was a Friday, and it must have been around 1PM or so because it was after I toured the old urban plantation home. There was a man with a cleaning cart. At least I think he had a cart. I know he had a rag. He was washing the inside of the stained glass windows, and I sat in a pew to listen to the organ. I could tell that I had happened upon something slightly special and unusual, but I can’t tell you what made me think that. It must have been series of details I can’t remember. After I had been listening for awhile, the old man stopped and turned towards the organ, and he listened, too. It was a lovely moment. I know it was. I can remember that much, even if I can only see it through a sort of haze. I don’t remember how it ended. Maybe she got to the end of a song and he turned back to the windows. Maybe she began collecting her papers to leave. I’m not sure, and the more I try to remember the more I realize that the act of remembering is in fact the creation of the memory itself. The more I try to picture the old man turning back around at the end of a song, the more it seems like it must have happened that way. And I can’t see truth from fiction.
I didn’t know anyone in Charleston, and after a few hours I realized that I had exhausted all the items on my TripAdvisor list. I was planning to stay two nights in the city, but I clearly only needed one. I decided I would get a motel room just outside of town and start on the road towards Asheville the next morning. But on my way to the motel there was one more stop – Magnolia Cemetery.
I really like cemeteries. At this point the only things convincing me to be buried rather than cremated are my love of cemeteries and a slight fear of being accidentally burned alive. It’s odd that the thought of being buried alive doesn’t seem to bother me, but that’s not really what I was focusing on while in Magnolia. It’s a gorgeous cemetery. There are ponds with little bridges over them and so many fantastic monuments. I love seeing old headstones in mid-decay. It reminds me of the ways in which we all can have a lasting effect on the world, and how both the markings of that effect, and the indicators of its source, vanish over time. It’s like a centuries old game of telephone. With each passing day the message gets a little fuzzy and a little lost. But the message is there. And no matter how distorted it is by the end, at least you started something.
The South is, unsurprisingly, big on memorials to confederate soldiers. In Magnolia there was a field of military grave markers, the kind that all look alike and appeal to my orderly aesthetic. There were cannons, flags, and a tall statue of a proud but bedraggled soldier. I was taking pictures when a pair of hispanic men drove up in a car. They each walked over to a flagpole and began to hoist the flags down. It was uncomfortable. I think there is an artificial sense of reverence we get from watching flag ceremonies on TV, and while I don’t mean to say that these men treated the flags poorly, they had a casual demeanor that was off-putting. They were just the groundskeepers, after all. This was just part of their job. One of the men tossed the American flag over his shoulder and moved to the next flagpole. I suddenly felt strange for trying to take well-composed photos of headstones. Maybe I was the one being disrespectful.
I drove and walked for some time. There were grave markers for babies, which always puts a lump in the throat. My photos tell me I saw the crew of the H.L. Hunley, who died after completing the first successful act of submarine warfare. My memory says that I turned around and saw a beautiful view of the suspension bridge over the Cooper River, but that may not be right. Perhaps it was the gravestones a little ways down the path that could see the bridge. I’d have to go back to Magnolia know for sure, assuming I could find the spot at all.
And perhaps that’s the lesson. Memory is imperfect and it will ultimately fail you. Return trips allow for course corrections in those memories, but some experiences will fade away permanently. Occasionally on my trip I felt inspired to write about something the moment after it happened. Those stories will be full of rich and accurate details. Others were lazy days marking off items on a list, and those memories are likely to disappear over time. If I try to write them, I am likely to invent them. I’ve been asking myself a lot lately what kind of writer I should try to be. I could write blogs. I could write plays. I could write short stories or novels. But whatever I write I can’t help but combine my own experiences with the world as I imagine it once was. A little memory mixed with a bit of invention. In the end, I imagine that no matter the form, I can and will always write the same thing: