THE ARTISTRY OF MEMORY AND DISTANCE
I had lunch with a friend the other day who asked about a mutual acquaintance. My reply was that he and I hadn’t talked for some time. Then I added, “We get along better when we don’t communicate.”
My luncheon companion giggled at my witticism and, immodestly, so did I. But on the walk home I considered the truth of my statement. There are those whom I can admire from afar but never tolerate at close range. Suddenly aware of my limitation, I felt ashamed and pushed the notion into the abyss of my unconscious.
Later that afternoon, I settled down with a book, one that I didn’t like but couldn’t quite put down. The work was beautifully written but lacked a plot of any significance. Still, I’d stuck with it for 148 pages because I felt the duty of a sincere reader was to give a sincere writer my attention — unless the experience became so intolerable that I’d rather leap into the bowels of an active volcano.
I’m glad I persevered because on page 149, I received a stunning insight.
The scene was one where the central character, Jean, experienced a chance encounter with Owen, an old friend whom she hadn’t seen in many years. To her dismay, she learned that Own and his long-time wife were separated, though they sometimes lived together for the sake of the children. When Jean starts to sympathize, Owen cuts her off:
“I don’t want to have anything to do with her. I don’t want to hear about what she thinks or what she does – I most certainly do not want to hear another word about her good causes…”
Observing Jean’s frown, he hurried on:
“Don’t you see? I know her so well. The very things that irritated the life out of me, now that I’m far away, amuse me, fill me with compassion, even affection…” (The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, pg. 149.)
If Jean didn’t understand what Owen was saying about the virtue of distance — emotional or geographic — I did. Hadn’t I made a similar point that afternoon with my friend? I wished she could have been with me at that moment to share that passage. Then she’d have understood that beneath my turn of phrase was truth. Seen in hindsight, a person’s little peccadilloes appear as small brush strokes against the bolder ones of a total personality. Time provides the distance and thus the perspective. What affects us only as memory, we may even come to cherish.
Having arrived upon this little scene in Anne Michaels’ book, I resolved to think better of it. After all, the last 148 pages were already a memory. Who knows what page 150 will bring?