Memory is like layers and layers of scarves on a cold day, I thought as I walked through the Pike Place Market a few days before Christmas. You wrap yourself up, you revel in the warmth that comes from decades of turning the same corners at the same time of year. But then you feel a chilly blast, a spatter of December-in-Seattle raindrops just this side of ice and you remember: oh, right. Along with all these warm layers of Happy inevitably come the cold, damp sprays of Sad.
At no time of year is this more true than right now. And the older you get, the more layers there are, happy/sad happy/sad, happy/happy sad/sad, until you think you might drown in all the layers, you might just go under altogether, especially if you are walking through a known memory minefield like the Pike Place Market.
You’re sure your head and heart might explode at any moment. You wonder why no one can tell. The nervous, branch-thin cheese cutter at De Laurenti’s: clearly, she’s a seasonal hire, unlike the more seasoned gang at Sosio’s Fruit and Produce, who sense immediately your need for triage. Four of them spring into action, filling a box, encouraging you to focus your exploding mind on the concrete, present-moment compresses of carrots, spinach, lettuce, pretty little tomatoes called “strawberries,” chanterelle mushrooms crowded in a box like ballerinas waiting backstage.
The Sosio Brothers, and sisters, are old enough to know. They don’t know your personal details, but they viscerally know you didn’t just get to town yesterday, no you didn’t. These stalls, this market, is where you first came by yourself on the bus, barely out of childhood, and wondered: why does my family never leave our lemon-pledged neighborhood and come here? Where the smells of produce and meat and leather and incense and coffee and bread are a seduction, a perfume, a promise of a busy lively universe that has nothing to do with popular, pretty, cool, all the other words you hear ad nauseum every day? A promise that there is indeed a city beyond your junior-high world, a city you are learning to love even as you yearn to leave. Which you do, for eight years.
And then one day, you return to this city and finally love it the way you started to love it when you took those daring bus rides to First and Pike.
The Sosio gang senses—in their non-specific, humanitarian way—how you went on to build your grownup life here. How you and your newsroom friends hung out at the Virginia Inn. How you kissed two husbands under these lights. How you brought your babies here, in front packs, backpacks, strollers, finally on their own two feet. How you dined high—Place Pigalle, Il Bistro, Chez Shea, Matt’s, Maximilien’s, Campagne—and low: humbow, smoothies, piroshki, gyros, pizza, soup, cinnamon rolls. How you continued to come by yourself, over the years, when you needed the colors and the lights. They know that right now, you’re aching somewhere: for the feel of a tired toddler on your hip; for the way a chocolate-frosted donut tasted when you were twelve and so hungry. They know because for them, this place is just as layered, just as complicated, even though they come here every day of their working lives.
The English novelist and memoirist Jeannette Winterson writes of how “events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.” This travel outside linear time and into the folding, falling layers of memory time is so pungent, so poignant, and I find myself unable to resist poignance, even when it hurts. It is what compels me to read memoirs like Winterson’s (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). It is what compels me to write.
The writing began five years ago, when my own voice started calling to me, loudly. Finally, I listened. That it happened when my daughter left home for college may have been clichéd but it was also, simply, true. Our son was still at home, so the nest wasn’t empty. But life, time, my days, all suddenly felt less linear. It seemed there was this newly opened space in my head where I was allowed to pile on or peel away layers of memory. To see how it felt when I did it. To see how it looked written down.
I knew I wanted to write about my mother—her remarkable life, her untimely death from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease—but I knew I also wanted to write about myself. I wanted to find out what was happening to me. I wanted to think out loud, on the page, about these new feelings I was having about, well, everything: my childhood, my young adulthood, my early parenthood, my grief for my mom, the meaning of my life.
Five years later, I’m seeking a publisher for my memoir, titled Her Beautiful Brain. I’m teaching memoir writing at Seattle Central Community College because, no matter how long it takes me to find the right publisher (or to conclude that I should self-publish, which I may do in 2013), I so believe in the power and poignance of embracing your own layers of memory and writing your own story that I want to encourage other people to do it too.
I’m also writing this blog, which is really a collection of the weekly Restless Nest essays I write and record for KBCS radio. This piece is not going to be on the radio: it’s too long and too personal. But the notion of the “restless nest” – of a life phase where so much stirring and sifting is suddenly going on and you’ve just got to write, paint, sing, cook, build, invent, travel, do something with this new less linear and more expressive kind of energy – this notion continues to intrigue me and I want to see where it takes me.
Even when it feels—on a December day in the packed Pike Place Market—like my head might explode.
Read more about the colorful history of the Pike Place Market here.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.