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Good Letters

Continued from yesterday


I dive into the pool. My body remembers water. My body remembers how to swim. My arm swings overhead, my arm follows through, my hand plunges into the water, pushing water, propelling my body forward down the lane.

It seems to happen naturally, automatically. I don’t need to think to swim. I don’t need to remember how to swim, what to do next with my arm, my legs, my breathing.

Even when I try, I can’t catch the intention, if there is an intention, that precedes stroke, stroke, flutter-kick. “I” don’t swim. I am swimming.

I think I learned to swim when I was around five. I don’t remember exactly when. I’m pretty sure I learned in Aunt Cis and Uncle Gene’s pool, luxury behind their home in Cheviot Hills, West L.A. I remember Cheviot Hills. I remember the pool.


I remember—vaguely, only vaguely—another story. My mother married him after he returned from the Korean War. They had dated once, maybe twice before he shipped out. That was the end of it, she said, that would be it.

But, surprise, he wrote love letters to her from the war. When he returned, they married. She gave birth to me.

I was born with a mysterious heart problem. I needed medical attention. He—my birth father—was Christian Scientist. He didn’t approve of medical care. Let the Lord have His way.

My mother didn’t approve of him, her husband. I don’t know what she thought about the Lord. I received the care I needed, including mother’s attention and love. They divorced. I was two months old.

As far as I know, that was the last time I was with him. We moved from L.A., mother and I, to Philadelphia, the city to which her parents, after a few years out West, had returned.

I have no access to memories of my birth father. No matter how many times I’ve heard the story, I can never remember all of the details.

Children can’t consciously recall their lives before the age of three or four. Joshua Foer, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, explains why:

Our brains are maturing rapidly during the first couple years of life, with unused neural connections getting pruned back, and new connections constantly forming. The neocortex is not fully developed until about the third or fourth year, around the time that children start laying down permanent memories. Anatomy, however, may only tell part of the story. As infants, we also lack schema for interpreting the world and relating the present to the past. Without experience–and perhaps most important, without the essential organizing tool of language–infants lack the capacity to embed their memories in a web of meaning that will make them accessible later in life. Those structures develop over time, through exposure to the world.

How much of my life so far is made of forgetting? I’m sixty-two. If the first memories I can recall begin at around age three or four, then I’ve forgotten at least 4.8% of my life so far. How much of your life so far is made of forgetting?

Zecher litziat Mitzrayim, we sing in the kiddush, the prayer sanctifying Sabbath wine.

As Shabbat itself recalls (remembers) the Exodus from Egypt, we, too, are reminded to recall, before we sip from the raised cup of Shabbat, the holy experience of redemption, liberation.

How many generations ago did that happen? Do I carry what happened to my distant ancestors inside me? If so, where? In my genes? In my neural pathways? In my love of the desert?

They want to make it stick; the rabbis do, this memory, from generation to generation. So, they load it onto a memory scroll, a Torah.

Against forgetting: Post-it Note, photograph, memoir, documentary film, to-do-list, poem, password retrieval feature, Google calendar, rubber band around the wrist.… And for us Jews: mezuzah, tzitzit, and repetition of Torah, prayer, ritual…. Our day is threaded with tricks and tools to make up for our deficiency: We forget.

Forgetfulness: It’s inconvenient. It’s frustrating. It’s frightening. It’s also simply part of who we are. It’s “the texture,” writes David Hinton, “of our day-to-day lives.”

“We assume self is a vessel of Presence and remembrance in which experience subsists over time, somehow defining who we are,” writes Hinton in Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape. “The vessel inscribes the boundary between inside and outside, the rupture between us and landscape. But we are more forgetfulness, more Absence than anything else.”

In this book, Hinton, a renowned contemporary translator of Chinese poetry and classics of Chinese philosophy, writes about his regular walks on his beloved Hunger Mountain near his home in Vermont and reflects on them in relation to the meanings and history of Chinese pictographs.

In the chapter on the pictograph for dragon, which he explains is “China’s mythological embodiment of all creation and all destruction, the ten thousand hunger-driven things tumbling through their traceless transformations,” he offers reflections on presence, absence, and forgetfulness.

All of the events and landscapes, books and people and experiences that have made me who I am, all of the ideas and what I’ve built from them—that whole life is completely forgotten here, this mountain walk filling my mind with blue sky and all the colors of these autumn leaves shimmering with last night’s rain. I don’t remember any of it—not what I read yesterday, or even what I thought or saw at the beginning of this walk. If I cast my attention back and tried, I could certainly remember one thing or another. But in that remembering, I would have lost whatever is happening right now, and that constant vanishing of my self would not be slowed or altered in the least. Self-identity, which evolved for the huge selective advantages it offered, is a complex pattern of recurrence in the vast tissue of transformation. But mostly there is that tissue, all this vanishing and vanishing that I am. It’s beautiful, and a blessing—for with all that is lost to forgetfulness, there will only be a last little bit left for death to claim when it comes.

Those of us who practice what’s called in the West mindfulness meditation will recognize the experience Hinton describes here. When Hinton’s attention is on, say, mindfulness of the body (seeing, for instance), the past (memories of events, books, people, experiences, other landscapes, ideas) vanishes.

Rather than a cause for mourning, Hinton regards the vanishing and vanishing—of the most recent and distant past, of his stories and ideas about mountains, landscape, life itself—as a blessing!


To be continued tomorrow.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Image above by Ksenia Hovalt, used under a Creative Commons license.

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