If Memory is a Palace

memory palaceAs I shut down for a solid week of writing, this is one of the books I’m taking with me into the cave. Here’s to memory.

From the last paragraph of THE MEMORY PALACE: If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in that place between sleep and morning. Place and palace, one letter separates the two. Morning. Do you ever say the word morning and mind-wander to other words? Maybe more or mourning instead, maybe more mourning? If memory is a palace, Bartok says.

I fan the pages and search for sentences I’ve marked. On page 29 I find, our brains are built not to fix memories in stone but rather to transform them. Our recollections change in their retelling. And then, [memory is] a subterranean world that changes each time we drag something up from below.

For those of us working on memoirs — or writing fiction based on the real thing — overthinking our memories and how they work and why they hold onto this and not that, and wondering what if we’re right?, what if we’re wrong?, is constant. Some days it feels like mining, deep in the black dark underground where you can’t see your surroundings or even how deep down you are (3 ft? 3 miles?), not sure of what you’ll uncover. Some days it feels like you’re chasing a red balloon that’s floating away and running running running desperately after it, trying to grab the waving string before it escapes, forever out of reach.

Mira Bartok is a genius, and I don’t throw around the “g” word casually. For someone with a traumatic brain injury, she’s jumps to uber-genius status, if such a thing exists. Is it perfect? Whose life is? The story bogs down in so much artful history and detail and letters written by the schizophrenic mother, but in many ways this seems purposeful. The writer has buried herself in another life, a historical and artistic (and make-believe?) life — how else does a woman survive a mother she both loves unconditionally and fears so much she has to change her name and disconnect for 17 years to survive her?

I finally (a year overdue) cleaned out my closet. I threw away a brown flannel shirt I’ve loved for 15 years. It hurt. A button was broken and I couldn’t bear to fix it, though it’s been broken for a decade. I went to the eye doctor to have my reading glasses adjusted and the clerk gave me a lecture about how I shouldn’t push my glasses up on my head to hold back my hair, it stretches them out. I’ve sucked down an unwelcome Springtime cold and have hardly left the house in a week. My nasal-drip voice belongs to a man I don’t recognize. I am asleep and/or drugged by 9; awake and up by 4. I’m reading more than usual. There was story today about the 20th anniversary of “Thelma and Louise”. I see those girls in the dust, driving off that cliff. I bought a $6.10 tomato —- a tomato so fragrant and yellow/red and perfect I’m afraid to eat it, a tomato so big it barely fits in my hand. I had an ice cream sandwich for lunch. Okay, I had 2. For dinner, tater tots. Food for a kid. Tater tots remind me of one of my mother’s favorite recipes, Hash Brown Casserole. The Hash Brown Casserole recipe is handwritten in one of the last cards my mother ever sent me. On the cover, a watercolor scene of a seashore, a lighthouse. Scenes my mother never witnessed. Pale blues and yellows. Rocks on the sand. Inside I find her recipe, where she uses shorthand she’s knows I’ll understand, followed with: Hope you enjoy this as much as we did. Love, Mom. Morning, or mourning.  That little girl on the cover of Bartok’s book might be me.


This post originally appeared in 2011, and I received this note.  I share it here because it reminds me of the kindness and generosity of writers.

Dear Teri (and readers of this blog):

Someone just sent me your page and I’m so glad they did! What a lovely review of my book. I’m so happy that it moved you (and others) in some way. I thought you might like to know that the shelter my mom lived in has now been rebuilt and renamed in her honor (The Norma Herr Women’s Center). I have also found my mom’s best friend (and the friend’s younger sister) from childhood. They knew my mom before she became so ill. AND they own my mom’s first piano that she learned to play on. I try to post these kinds of updates on my http://www.memorypalace.com site when I can. You all might also be interested in my blog for writers and artists, if you are trying to find funding and residencies for what you do…just google Mira’s List and you’ll find it right away.
Thanks for your support. I just got some hate mail this week so your words really cheered me up!
Best wishes,
Mira (Bartok)

10 thoughts on “If Memory is a Palace

  1. twentyfirstcenturymomma

    Beautifully written. There are times, we wish that our brains have a switch button. Where we can easily shift memories into channels where we want to delete and the others to cherish in our little treasure box. Can’t wait to get my hand on this copy.

    Thank you for sharing. This made my weekend as I had a rough week.

    Do visit me toos at http://www.twentyfirstcenturymomma.wordpress.com

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