If our physical lives resembled the life of the mind, the earth beneath our feet would be a fluid collage of places we’ve stepped before. One step would land in Mexico, the next in the river of my childhood, the next in the desert of Nevada, then that cafe I went to once, that hill in Istanbul, or my grandmother’s old house in Berkeley. Live-sized pieces of maps would appear beneath us, sewn up to connect the memories in a horizonless field of place.
This is no monumental thought. We know the mind is a sea of referential moments washing a kaleidoscopic backdrop into daily experience. And we know that memory is finite and fickle, able to place a mountain where the sea once was, draw rain out of clouds once white and benign. But there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that our journeys shape our stories and our stories shape our retrospective journeys; it’s that a place can become frozen in time. No matter how much it goes on living without us, we can carry a life-long, living snapshot of the place in our minds, as if it disappeared the moment we left its limits. Here, we do not experience the memory as separate from the place; here, the place is memory, living and breathing only in the mind, changing only as we change our story. It’s the only way it exists.
I’ve been to Big Sur so many times, the craggy coastal wonderland south of the Bay Area below Monterey. It is a tiny town in the trees, rich with the kind of magic inspiration that drew artists like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan to it’s densely forested shores, and today draws seekers of all sorts. I’ve been so many times, but when I close my eyes and take a step on my collaged map, I land on Pfeiffer Beach five years ago, where me, my sister and her then-boyfriend, Davis, drank Nerga Modelo’s in the purple-streaked sand, tried to forget our troubles and succeeded.
We came to Big Sur with the rain and camped in the cold and wet. The next day, the sky broke open with huge castle clouds wrapped in the silver-golden light that seeped through the small blue seas of sky. It was like the sun came out to shine on us, and we made sure to praise its affection. There is nothing so special to say about the day itself, but I know I felt perfectly distanced from myself, and thus the closest to myself I’d ever come. And sitting here on a clear-skied Bay Area day, that is all Big Sur is to me — this memory of a time and place that no longer exists, with two people who were the closest to me, one of whom no longer exists. Davis passed away a few weeks ago, and this day with him hasn’t left my mind since.
In this, I don’t believe the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” I want to hold onto the idea that what is out of sight can remain alive in the mind, and that the memory can become greater than the place. For me, that shore is still waxing and waning, the clouds gently shifting, and Davis is still sipping a lime-soaked beer in the sun, still laughing and breathing.