Two recent conversations that stayed with me for some reason.
One was with a man who told me that he knew what it was like to feel so empty that the fragile construct that was him, his identity, could fall apart at any moment. He knew this, of course, because that is what happened to him. He had a breakdown; he broke down and the pieces of him fell off, down on the ground all around him — inexplicable shards of what used to be that thing he called himself.
It is remarkable when someone tells you such a thing. I was struck by the courage of the confession and also by the rawness of the moment, the trembling intensity that accompanied the admission and the heightened anticipation of what I don’t know.
In response, I nodded and held his gaze for a long while, looking for something to say but instead said nothing. Why? Anything I had to say about his loss of self was insignificant, and he seemed to take my nod as acknowledgment enough and happily moved on to the subject of literary representations of despair.
Here, I had a foothold and could match him reference for reference and, not that the individual authors are important, but one of them was Roberto Bolano who wrote in his elegant novella Antwerp,
“You can’t escape the void, just as you can’t help crossing the street if you live in a city, with the added annoyance that sometimes the street is endlessly wide, the buildings look like warehouses out of gangster movies, and some people choose the worst moments to think about their mothers.”
The other conversation was with an old man in my neighborhood who, in the midst of our casual chat about the weather, told me that, at 81 he was in fine shape and could still do jujitsu but that his memory was going. He outlined the appointments he frequently forgot as well as the names of his wife’s family and where the dog was.
He hoped this wasn’t the beginning of forgetting everything. One doesn’t want the mind to go before the body, he reminded me.
I told him that at 52 I was already forgetting all kinds of shit which reminded me of a line from Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, a diary of a professional writer who, after giving birth to her first child, has to come to terms with the inevitable onslaught of forgetting:
“I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.”
And of time itself, Manguso muses:
“The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing that time will go on without me.”
I didn’t tell my neighbor that he should be happy about the wave of mortality breaking over him, but I did say that he’d earned the privilege of forgetting. He seemed pleased by this, at least for that transient moment in the flowing river of time.