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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Well-Documented Life

A man named Gordon Bell is determined to put his whole life inside a computer. He wears a camera around his neck that takes a picture every time it senses a person nearby or when the light changes. He records his conversations, keeps track of all the Web sites he visits, all the e-mails he sends and receives, and has scanned all the paper documents in and about his life. He stores all this information digitally -- an indestructible copy of his life.

On an intellectual level, this exhilarates me. My curiosity about people is insatiable; often I fantasize about working as a house cleaner just so that I can go into people's houses and surreptitiously examine their possessions, the food in their pantries, the photographs on their mantelpieces, the books on their coffee tables. I cannot resist stopping in front of a lit window with the blinds left open and peering inside at the family sitting at their dining table or watching television, or simply staring at the color of their walls and the paintings hanging on them. Once I saw a giant porcelain giraffe towering over a coffee table, and my imagination was ablaze working out what kind of people own such a thing and who might have given it to them. I want to know what people talk about, how they see the world, what they find significant and what trivial. I love family photographs, formal or informal, and don't tire to interpret the geometry of faces and bodies in them and to puzzle out what happened before the picture was taken and what is going to happen after.

I gazed with awe at the photograph of my nephew when he was nothing more than four cells swiftly dividing, and I wondered how he will feel when he looks at himself at this inchoate stage as an adult. To see yourself being almost nothing seems as marvelous and mind-shattering to me as being able to see yourself minutes after you died. What completeness, this, what sense of a beginning and an ending.

Only stories are able to give you this kind of completeness now. And they do it not with literal truth, not with weight and breadth of information, but with imaginative truth. And that means knowing vertically, in depth, a few significant things. This is where having an exact memory of everything that happens in your life -- and exact is what digital memories are -- begins to sadden me. They're all about surface, all about quantity. They discount entirely the importance of the mental work we exert when we try to fill the empty spaces that forgetting leaves inside us.

I'm starting to sound mystical. But all I mean is that digital memories give us the illusion that we can know who we are and who others are by the amount of documents -- words, images -- we have about them, and the more documents the better. After my husband's grandmother died, the family went through the photographs she had taken in her ninety-six years of life. There were piles and piles of albums, with hundreds of photographs inside each. After a point, I felt crushed by the tons and tons of details about her life. Nothing seemed significant any more, nothing seemed to matter that much. In the middle of an album I stumbled on a handful of typed pages of the diary she had kept on a trip to Switzerland, where her family was from. I pounced on them the way you pounce on a glass of simple hot tea after eating too much rich food. She came alive for me in these pages. They stood for just a fragment of her, but she seemed more real that way. In the same way, I have only one photograph of my paternal grandfather -- or rather half of one; my grandmother cut herself out of it before she gave it to her daughter, my aunt, to keep. Every time I look at this photograph I feel a pang -- of pleasure as much as pain. Here he is, I think, someone else in his full unknowability. It humbles me. It makes me respect what I cannot comprehend about who he was.

I believe this with my whole mind and heart: that we cannot know the other, and that awareness of this lack of knowledge is the necessary and sufficient quality to live in peace with him or with her. I have learned this for the first time and in the hardest way because of my mother. I'm more different from her than I am from any other person in my life. Once I accepted that I cannot understand her, I was able to stop warring with her. I have to work on this every time we're together, but the foundation is in place.

So what am I doing here, writing my one hundred and thirtieth (or thereabouts) post, making myself trivial by cranking out hundreds of thousands of words about my inner life? I come around to this question regularly, and I have decided not to be ashamed of it any more, not to run away from the only answer I'm able to give it: that I simply don't know. I'm following a compulsion, I'm stumbling around in a dark labyrinth with my hand clasped tightly around this desire as if it were the rope that could guide me out. It may be, and it may not. But I don't have anything else to go by for now.


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