Category Archives: memory

Thinking about Tomoko


My mind is on Japan today. How could it not be? And I’ve been thinking about Tomoko. Tomoko was my roommate in my sophomore year of college. At the time, roommates were assigned by the college in what I assume was a somewhat random fashion.

Sophomore year, I was hoping for somebody that I had more in common with than my morose freshman year roommate, somebody I could hang out with, somebody who was more like me. Instead, I was given a Japanese exchange student. Which pissed me off.

Tomoko was very shy, and a few years older than the typical sophomore. I was shy and under-confident as well, which made sharing the extraordinarily small room awkward. And because I was annoyed that she wasn’t what I thought I wanted in my romantic idea of a college roommate, I made absolutely no effort to befriend her. Here she was in a foreign country, in a tiny Oregon town, with only a small group of other foreign exchange students from Japan that had traveled with her, none of whom seemed to be overtly friendly with her. To make matters worse, there was another Tomoko in the group: a beautiful, young, outgoing girl—and of course to compare and contrast them was natural. My roommate was always, the other Tomoko.

I made virtually no attempt to get to know my roommate that year. As a result, I don’t remember her last name and I don’t remember what part of Japan she was from. I didn’t include her in my plans, or take her to the coast, or out to eat, or to hang out with friends. I pretty much ignored her. And I made no attempt to stay in touch with her after the school year ended. And for all of that, I am deeply ashamed. Most of that year I spent hanging out with a new boyfriend, who later betrayed me in many ways, including cheating on me with the outgoing Tomoko (not my roommate). If I have any defense at all for my actions, I also found out that fall that my mom had Ovarian Cancer and my world was suddenly upended. Immaturity + life upheaval = bitch, I guess.

Karma bit me back a few years later when I went to Spain as an au pair (nanny). The family in Madrid that I lived with had used an agency to cheaply hire many “girls” over the years. They didn’t include me in their plans, take me many places (I can’t say none), or treat me as part of the family. It became clear that I was there to do one thing: speak English with the kids. And yet, there were other au pairs, young Spaniards affiliated with the au pair program, and students in my community Spanish classes, who did befriend me that year, and for whom I’ll always be grateful. I made little attempt to keep in touch with them after we all left Spain though. See any kind of pattern here?

Regret is a funny thing, and although I’ve thought of Tomoko over the years, and I’ve thought of Japan over the years, I’ve never really felt as badly about the way I treated Tomoko as I do right now, when her country is in shambles. I hope she has had a great life full of true friends. And that wherever she is in the world right now, that she is safe.

I dream, to keep things moving


A Year of Mindfulness: 52 Weeks of Focus  – Week 8

This week’s focus is dreams . . . so much has been written about them. Interpretation dictionaries exist, but I enjoy some of the concepts Joseph Campbell teaches about dreams. He says dreams teach us about ourselves and that we can use them to interpret various aspects of ourselves and our lives. To do this,“write your dreams down, then take one little fraction of the dream, one or two images or ideas, and associate with them. Write down what comes to your mind, and again what comes to your mind, and again. You’ll find that the dream is based on a body of experiences that have some kind of significance in your life and that you didn’t know were influencing you. Soon the next dream will come along, and your interpretation will go further.”

This week, as we continue our Year of Mindfulness, I encourage you to pay closer attention to your dreams. Place a pad and pen next to your bed to write down any significant images that arise. What are your dreams saying to you? What are they trying to teach you?

In times of stress, change, or uncertainly, I dream of moving. Moving to a new house, a new town, or a combination of both, but never to the same place twice. Structures and places are often reminiscent of each other, but architecture and layout are different, and there are always new rooms to explore. So boringly symbolic, but that’s who we are.

Every once in a while I have a recurring dream of moving to a large mysterious old house, with secret cavernous rooms. I remember golds and browns, rich carved wood, wandering alone. Seeking. This is the only place that stays the same, waiting for me to dream it into view every now and then. Nothing to see here, move along.

Rarely, I dream of my mom. Always, she is living a seemingly plausible, parallel life. I couldn’t describe it better than I did back in November. An excerpt:

I have that dream every few years too. Except that in mine, I discover that my mom is living a normal life somewhere else, maybe just across the state. When I confront her, she seems unconcerned; she doesn’t wonder what I’ve been up to or want to reunite. She seems content to have been living in that other place all this time. In the dream, I am mildly disturbed by this, but nothing like I would be in real life. And I wake up thinking, is this a symbol, or is this a glimpse? If she exists elsewhere, and is unconcerned with me, this means I am not the center of the universe. But isn’t this what we would want for those we’ve loved and let go — for them to be unmolested by our ultimately insignificant and transient dramas? If they exist outside of this world should they not have their own lives, their own new purpose?

Like carrying water in my hands


by Stephen Dobyns


Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere
people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.

Your name was the food I lived on;
now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.
To say your name was to be surrounded
by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,
I touch glass and barbed wire.
Your name was the thread connecting my life;
now I am fragments on a tailor’s floor.

I was dancing when I
learned of your death; may
my feet be severed from my body.

From The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, edited by Kevin Young.

Another stone added to the cairn


First, Goal Progress: In bed by around midnight Jan 12, Up at 8:15 a.m. Jan 13.

I like to think about memory, maybe because I’ve never had a great one. I remember feelings, emotions, colors, and esoteric tidbits, not names, labels, and facts. I remember the jist of the conversation, but not the exact words. I might recall the conversation we had, but not remember what you thought was most important. However, it would be a mistake to think I haven’t been paying attention; I might see a pattern in your thoughts or behavior that you have never noticed.

It’s interesting to think about what goes into a memory, why we remember, what we remember. How memory is more subjective than we like to think: 10 eyewitnesses, 10 different stories. This past year I’ve enjoyed reading about Alzheimer’s and dementia. My maternal grandmother suffered from what was called Alzheimer’s: I’m not sure if that was the diagnosis or just a convenient term. We lived out west and she in Michigan, so I wasn’t around to notice the deterioration. There was a time, though, when we were back for a visit; she had accused one of her young nephews of stealing from her, which seemed unlikely. Then she began driving erratically, eventually causing accidents and driving through the garage door. That’s about all of the story I can summon. I imagine grandma’s very rural small-town community put up with erratic behavior by the Sheriff’s widow longer than had she lived elsewhere. She lived to at least seventy, and by that time had been in a home residential facility for some time. I believe my paternal grandma, who lived to be 90, helped care for her there. I tell you this because I’m not sure this is where the interest comes from, or if it’s just one of those things I like to explore, like twins, and mental illness. Probably part of me hopes that dementia is not in my future. My mom didn’t live long enough to find out if it would happen to her.

Two books that I’ve enjoyed this year:

Dancing with Rose: finding life in the land of Alzheimer’s by Lauren Kessler. Driven by guilt and a quest for understanding of her mother’s illness and death, the author finds work as a caregiver at a residential facility for Alzheimer’s patients.

Keeper: one house, three generations, and a journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies. The story of the author as primary caregiver to her in-laws as her mother-in-law deteriorates into the black hole of the Alzheimer’s patient, and her father-in-law develops poor health, which prevent him from taking care of himself or his wife.

Both are highly personal and engaging accounts of living with and caring for people with dementia.

From Keeper:

Everything we are is the sum of our history, augmented by every new experience, each stone added to the cairn and modified by our thoughts about that stone, and about the shape the cairn is taking. Our selves are fed by our narrative, the story of our past and our imagined futures. Ask me who I am and I turn immediately to memory. It isn’t possible to answer the question “Could you tell me something about yourself? without recourse to biography. Even aside from replies that start, “Well, I was born in …” (which are the most obviously memory driven), other kinds of responses, ones that try to avoid the straight biographical—”I am intelligent, curious, anxious, and usually hungry”—also rely entirely on memory. You only know yourself because of your memory.