In my “Writing Memoir in Time of Crisis” course last week, we asked “How is our memory of the past shaped by the present moment of pandemic? How is your relationship with memory affected by the questions you ask of your memory?” Memories do not exist in a vacuum but are shaped, toned, and seen through the present moment. Likewise, accessing memories and reflecting on them shapes our understanding of how they relate to the present, and thus may affect how we live in the present.
Joyce Carol Oates brings to mind the familiar reality that our memories are shaped and solidified by the things that we choose to take a picture of:
“Memory is our domestic form of time travel. The invention of photography—in particular, the ‘snapshot’—revolutionized human consciousness, for when we claim to “remember” our pasts, we are surely remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a distinct visual immortality. Just as art provides answers long before we understand the questions, so, too, our relationship with our distant past, in particular our relationship with our parents, is a phenomenon we come to realize only by degrees, as we too age, across the mysterious abyss of time.” (Joyce Carol Oates, 49 in The Nonfictionist’s Guide).
Our memory derives so many images from the moments we’ve captured in a “snapshot.” Because the moments we photograph are moments we return to, remind ourselves of, think about long after they pass, they find a place in our memory and in our narrative of self. Writing, of course, can be another way of taking a snapshot of the present, documenting events and reactions to events as they unfold, creating a word image that will shape our understanding of the past in the future.
I asked course participants last week, “If you were to take a snapshot of that would show what this life is like right now, what would you snap? Write a description of a snapshot you would take. Describe a scene of what life looks like in this COVID moment. Maybe write two.
You may also take a snapshot of a moment of your childhood. Briefly describe the photo you see, or an image you remember photographically. Put these two photographs in relationship with each other. How does that self in the past relate to self in the present? What would one self speak to the other? In what sense was the present already in the past in seed form? How does the past enter the present? Are there questions that you ask in the time of COVID that you may ask of your memory that you haven’t asked before?”
In Sarah Hartung’s work below, she evokes how the living space of the present looks out onto an uncertain future—through the work of bread making. This work of reading the present through the future offers a twist on the question of how perception of the present takes form.
I’m baking bread again today. I was baking bread months ago before it was hip, before everyone was stuck at home in one global nesting impulse. What the hell will we birth out of this darkness? I start the recipe in between telehealth therapy sessions, wearing my faded pink pj bottoms and green printed blouse. I tell myself how convenient it is that quarantine descended just when my belly swelled past the point of fitting even my maternity jeans. I tell myself how nice it is to only have to look professional from the waist up. I tell myself many things these days.
The no-knead bread recipe cycles through my mind, memorized from repetition:
4 c. flour
¾ t. instant yeast
2 c. water
2 t. salt
Mix and let rise 18 hours. Punch down and let rise another 2 hours.
Bake at 450 degrees for 50 minutes.
Today I google the conversion between active dry yeast and instant yeast. Add yeast to the list of things in scant supply at Fry’s and I’m making do with what I can get. I tell myself I’m lucky to have any yeast, a thought that two months ago I would never have even imagined thinking. I take comfort in having the recipe memorized, in reaching for familiar metal measuring spoons and feeling the weight shift of flour from canister into cup into bowl. There’s no recipe for panicked pandemic pregnancy. This is not how I imagined third-trimester nesting.
I keep thinking about those Harris Hawk nests on the desert trail six weeks ago. Which feels like six months ago. Or maybe six years ago? Time collapses in on itself in this season and I wonder if I can really be trusted to track bread rise-time or gestational progress. I lean my aching back against the kitchen counter and re-calculate the weeks til my due date, feeling my stomach settle at the confirmation that I am counting right. As if the ability to track time predicts my ability to mother amid chaos, as if my little one even cares if I count. He will come on his own when the time is right, a primal mystery that defies any recipe.
Those nests I witnessed on the trail were perched in the spiny crook of Sagura cactus arms, suspended 50 feet from the ground, cradling black-winged beauties and their trill lullaby. I remember being struck by nature’s irony: a mama choosing to home-make amid cactus barbs, exposed to blaring sun and dust storms. Where is the lullaby to haven us in this spiked desert of a moment?
I miss my mom, who was supposed to come visit a couple weeks ago, who will now not have a chance to feel the kicks and stretches that puncture so many moments of my day. My mom who lives across the country, who just bought a refundable plane ticket around my due date. Refundable, just in case. It’s hard to finish the thought, to imagine the pandemic preventing her from being able to visit, to imagine early mothering without my mother. It would be nice to be a bird, to mother purely from instinct without the throat-catching desire for my own mom’s steady physical presence and confidence born of bringing four babies into the world. I’m not used to feeling this desperate for holding and guidance from her. I’ve been the independent one for a long time.
I wipe up spilled flour and get ready for my next client session, grateful for the technology to sustain my personal and professional relationships but more aware than ever of its utter failure to connect to the sheer physicality of stretched skin, tiny heels, and milky infant smell. I set a reminder on my phone for 18 hours from now to check the bread, not trusting myself to remember.
Sarah Hartung lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband and beloved cat, Luna. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Drama Therapist who has worked since 2012 with individuals healing from trauma and eating disorders in a variety of settings. With a background in theater, writing, and literature, she incorporates creativity and embodiment into both her healing work and everyday life. She deeply enjoys being out in nature and engaging in community dance spaces.