I’ve spent the end of the year going through the old files, unvisited cardboard boxes and packing crates at the back of the cellar where things are placed for safe-keeping — or merely laid to rest without the dignity of being discarded.
I’ve been busy recollecting my life, literally and figuratively.
The literalism of the word “recollection” has struck me as I find myself re-collecting, re-organizing, and recovering sometimes forgotten pieces of my past, now that there’s so much of it.
Let’s say I’m in the car listening to the radio and a song I never even liked (“Nobody Does It Better” from “The Spy Who Loved Me”) comes on. Suddenly, I’m seeing the summer of 1977 again.
It’s like accidentally clicking on a computer icon that causes the entire episode to unfold instantaneously, splashing into every corner and going full-screen.
Not only are there paperbacks, cassette tapes, and cheap trinkets from 1977 that my 20-year-old self never would have imagined her 60-year-self examining with such interest, but the incidents and emotions conjured up by these somehow manage to surprise both of us.
Most odd is the telescoping of time: I’ll be overwhelmed by my immediate recall of details from more than half a lifetime ago.
I remember the pattern on the sofa where we napped and studied, the texture of my favorite dark-green T-shirt and the taste of chocolate chip ice cream from the local place.
Embedded in such details, the smallest incidents are moments of the irrevocable, the initial forging of links and connections that would give gravity and beauty to the rest of my life.
You never know what will be the beginning of things until you’re in the middle; it’s only in retrospect that you learn the importance of what started it all.
In the summer of 1977, I was at college taking three classes, which were required before studying abroad.
Initially upset because I couldn’t stay at home earning money at a summer job, those months between sophomore and junior year were when I became a real student. I took a comparative literature course, an introduction to astronomy, and a class on Greek and Roman mythology.
I stared at constellations in the sharp, clear New Hampshire sky, understanding not only the provenance behind their names, but reciting poems they inspired.
1977 was also the summer of boyfriends.
Practicing a sort of emotional catch-and-release routine, I was far more interested in getting attention than in cultivating the sincere affections offered by earnest young men who could recite verse and recognize and explain the significance of Orion’s Belt.
Less than a month later, I would be the one caught and not released. London captured me, ensnared if not enslaved my imagination, and changed everything I thought I knew about myself. That was 40 years ago, and yet those emotional lessons feel fresh as a wound even now.
My enchantment and enthrallment, my capitulation to a place, my falling in love with everything about England — including a boy in it — illuminated for me that I’d never been in love before, despite all the star-gazing.
A different London boy, a friend, painted a portrait of me that year, which he exhibited as part of his final project at the Slade School of Fine Art.
It had been carefully wrapped and preserved, but I decided yesterday to hang the portrait in my office. Glancing at it as I write, it brings back the afternoon light, the noise from the street of buses grumbling past the window, and Steeleye Span’s “All Around My Hat” playing in the background.
Pictures of me no longer look much like the portrait of the girl in 1977, but I’m still there from certain angles. My artist-friend caught the luminousness that 20-year-olds carry with them; I see it in my students, the way iridescent colors briefly flash in the edges of cut-glass mirrors.
As our own life portraits grow complex, as the backgrounds fill and grow in depth, we need to recollect our memories, being generous to those whom we were before we became ourselves.