Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference–the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
“I realized that I could remember something and he could remember something different, and if we built up a store of separate memories, how would that work, and would it be okay? The answer, of course, in the end, was no.”
I just finished reading Rachel Khong’s new book, Goodbye, Vitamin. Mostly I related to the details the narrator remembers about specific days, the introspection and doubt that occurs after heartbreak, the strange closeness you can feel to family members while also feeling alien amongst them, the lies you tell under the pretense of protecting the ones you love, the dichotomy between how you remember something versus how the other person in a romantic relationship remembers something.
At the time she was reeling from a breakup, contending with the way a tanking relationship exposes a chasm between each partner’s memories of seemingly joint experiences. How can a person trapped in the morass of imperfect recall identify true north without signposts? “I’m terrified of forgetting. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better.”
I have a strange habit. Maybe I fool myself into thinking that it’s a writerly habit: I devote a lot of my life to observing and remembering details. I comb through the past when I’m writing vignettes, but this sometimes prevents me from living fully in the present.
My mother will tell me recipes over the phone like: put the rice in 4 times as much water as normal. Put the yams in. Boil, then simmer for hours. I never know how much, or when, or whether or not to peel the yams. Do you halve them, quarter them, dice them. How many hours do you mean by hours. Do I add salt or what.
Maybe this is why I am constantly searching for a more exact recipe in life. I won’t find it; I already know this. But still I sit erect from moment to moment like a strange animal: wide-eyed, expectant, pawing at the darkness.
I remember growing up in Westbury where the streets flood whenever there is a storm. The water would creep into the mufflers, and our cars would cough and choke and stop. We would crawl out of the windows and wade home through brown, sludgey sidewalk rivers. My grandmother carried me on her shoulders once. We’d feel safe once we arrived in the yellow house, the rain sliding down the bay windows. There would be leaves and branches and dirt sticking to us, but we took for granted that the water would never make it in.
Today I imagine the hurricane rains pouring into the windows of the house I grew up in, the windows of the houses my friends grew up in. What recipe asks for this much water? Did some god receive vague, relative instructions for making something?
My mother is at the house alone, like she has been for most of the past decade since we all left for school. My father, insisting to be at the office like he has for most of the past three decades since I’ve been alive, even as unprecedented tornadoes attempt pirouettes in Texan backyards.
I suppose there isn’t an exact recipe to surviving, much less living. But it’s times like these that it doesn’t matter whether you halve or quarter the yams. Salt or no salt. Friends from all around the world have messaged me, asked about how we are doing. Friends with boats have posted open calls to anyone needing rescue. Friends with dry homes and water supplies and board games have publicly invited opened their doors and hearts to whomever needs shelter.
There is no power, but there are candles. We paw at the darkness, together, finding our way.