Memory’s Needle



“Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando, 1928)


Memories are strange, fluid, often neither chronological nor linear.  As Woolf suggests, remembering an event or person in your past is not static; it navigates between a present and several pasts and its truth is in the moment of remembering.  Anyone who attempts to write a memoir understands just how disconcerting and sometimes frightening that act can be.  These feelings are exacerbated in times of stress.


I have been struck by the reticence of most contemporary writers to write about the years of COVID-19.  This is why I found Jodi Picoult’s recent novel, Wish You Were Here, so striking and so brave. The novel shares some features of science fiction in its dream travel (not really time travel but similar), but it is not science fiction. Picoult captures that powerful feeling that so many of us are experiencing in these COVID times—a questioning of the reality of the world around us, a feeling that something else must be true, some place else must be real.


Superimposed on the pandemic disequilibrium is that other great humanitarian crisis of our time—Putin’s war in Ukraine.  My pain in digesting this news is exacerbated by a recognition that I did not pay enough attention to what happened in Chechnya, Syria and Crimea.  I see the current scenes of destruction from Kyiv, Mariupol, and Bucha, but memory brings back shadows of Grozny in Chechnya, Aleppo in Syria and the Gori district of Georgia. I wonder what literature and memoir will be written by those who survived these destructions.  What will those creators remember?  Will they need to create their own travel to their own Galapagos to heal? How will they allow memory to “needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither” and in so doing provide meaning out of these experiences.  I both dread and look forward to remembering with them.