Friday, January 8, 2010

Memory is the Heart’s Gravity

“Memory is the heart’s gravity.”
- Riccardo Pau-Llosa

This line stirred me. I read it from the poet Riccardo Pau-Llosa’s “From the Cuban Dead.” Memory has long been a preoccupation of mine. I still subscribe to the Charles Dana Foundation newsletter that snailmails me a copy of the latest noggin news. I am drawn to documentaries that attempt to shed light on our wise ape species and how we came to distinguish ourselves from our hominid ancestors, but as much as I long to deepen my knowledge of purely intellectual capabilities I cannot help but consider the more sensitive side of the brain.

I was struck by a recent episode of The Human Spark on PBS in which Paleo anthropologist Randall White showed remarkable evidence of the first necklaces in the caves of France. In fact, those necklaces were made of strung-together teeth of anatomically modern Homo Sapiens. A bit macabre one might say, but on the other hand endearing. Our ancestors didn’t exactly have a material-clogged estate to sift through. Cousin Ruthie gets the silverware, Uncle George gets the rocking chair, and Aunt Phyllis can make do with the Chiapets and Tupperware. No. The Neanderthal and the ancient Homo Sapiens didn’t have that luxury of picking and choosing what to keep. They were Hunters and Gatherers for crying out loud, they were always on the go. The toothbrush hadn’t been invented so it wasn’t yet going to be buried with loves ones [Ancient Egypt].

Teeth were just about the only memento our primogenitors could take with them for posterity’s sake.

I have a Billy club that belonged to my grandfather and a few china bowls from my grandmother, and also an iron-clad toy soldier from a great uncle I never met. Many of us have some of these forget-me-nots in their junk drawers, attics, basements, independent [cost you an arm and a leg] storage facilities. Some of us even wear these post mortem trinkets on our wrists, necks, and pinkies. And let’s not forget about the urns filled with loved ones ashes stashed our homes in our dining rooms, over on the mantle, peering at the grand piano home. Yes, this too might seem macabre, but also maybe a bit endearing.

I don’t want to lead you to believe that we’ve been evolutionarily wired to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors I am only suggesting that there is a tender ethereal element inside us that wishes to carry the weight of our precious memories around our necks, within in our hearts, but it doesn’t make us human because Neanderthal is the first species to have been recorded as setting funerary practices— laying down flowers by grave sites. But let’s take it a step further because primates don’t have the monopoly on emotion. Elephants mourn the death of their families. They have been observed wailing the loss of their tumbled kin.

What I’m getting at is this, it pleases me to know that with all the preoccupation we have with invention, book smarts, street smarts, yada yada, there is plenty of room in our brains for emotional intelligence. Make room.


  1. I keep my brother's ashes in a cabinet in my house. I was supposed to scatter him after I brought him back from the mainland 14 years ago. For whatever reason, I haven't been able to bring myself to do it...partially because I don't mind having him here since I never had the opportunity to live w/ him because he was 22 years older than me...and partially because I'm scared to see what they look like.

    When my mom died, our cat wouldn't eat for almost a week and stayed awake, pacing on her side of the bed. His hair fell out in clumps and I thought he wouldn't pull through...weird.

  2. Great post. I'm one of those old fogies who is starting to wonder if there isn't just a little too much focus on the here and now. A little historical context before the event (not after as with the banking crisis) would come in handy now and then.