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A Careening Roller Coaster Through My Head, My Memory, and Kitchens I Have Known
illumination
catvalente
The mind is a strange thing. I cannot even say if it's the mind of a writer that I mean, or the mind of a human. I have always had the mind I have; it is impossible to say whether my habits conform to those of any group--writers, women, those of an age neither Generation X nor Millennial, Americans, artists, and so on--or whether it is just the strange little music box of a brain I carry around in the cage of my bones.

When I am writing a story or a book or even a poem, I see the environment I render in words completely, as though on a movie screen. I change what I see internally until it feels right, then describe it on the page. But there is always a Version 1.0, a ground zero, a basic template for various objects and geographies. Often I fight against that entry-level image. Contort it into something better, different, more unusual, more striking. But I find it fascinating what set-pieces are so fully-formed in my mind that I must always consciously jettison them, or else ever house I write would be the same, every road, every forest, every school, every shop.

The example I started writing about on Twitter before deciding that it was absurd to try to say all this in a series of 140 character confetti-cannons is the Kitchen of My Mind.

When I think of a kitchen--and by that I mean any kitchen, simply the idea of "kitchen," if I require a kitchen as a set for any scene--the image that comes instantly into my head, fully-realized, in Technicolor and 3-D sensory surround, is the kitchen of a house my mother briefly rented in Seattle around (by my math) 1985. The tiles are white with small black diamonds between the squares. The walls are white with black window frames. There is a small kitchen table in the corner where my infant brother and I have breakfast on the weekends when I stay with her instead of my dad. The corner has a bench built into one side where I always sit and is dominated by tall windows with cross-hatch sashes on both sides of the seam. Next to the corner on the rear wall is the back door leading into the yard. In this kitchen Ray Lynch's album Deep Breakfast is always playing. My mother loved it and loved playing it at the thematically-appropriate time of the day.

Why the kitchen in this house, quickly rented and quickly moved out of, and not the one on Queen Anne Hill where my father and my stepmother and I lived until I was 7? Or the one in the house in Woodinville where I spent almost every morning of my adolescence? Or the one in Davis, California, where I cooked after-school snacks with my brother every day through junior high and high school? Of course I remember these places, but when I think of the pure, ontologically complete idea of a kitchen, it is always this one I return to.

But it gets stranger than that.

I cannot picture the rest of that house. Or even the rest of that kitchen. I see the table, the windows, the back door, the colors; I hear the music. I am there. But if I turn around to glance into the kitchen or the hall, where an oven and a refrigerator and a mother presumably is, the house I see is absolutely not the one that belongs to the cross-hatch windows and the built-in bench and Deep Breakfast. This kitchen does not go with this house. I know it isn't, because I know that house, and it's not even my house! It's the house of my childhood best friend, Jessamyn, where I used to visit and sleep over all the time when we lived on the same street on Queen Anne Hill. I sit in the corner with the black and white cross-hatched windows and turn my head and I look down another narrow kitchen where a woman is standing at the stove who is not my mother but my best friend's, with her strange German name and so utterly apart from the plain short suburban names of my family, with short slick bobbed hair nothing like my actual mother's long, long black mop, into the living room to the front door with the chestnut tree growing outside, whose spiky nuts we used to collect for spells and fairy money in case we ever got whisked away like the girls in books.

I can walk through Jessamyn's house like a virtual reality environment. I know all the nooks and crannies--because it was a great house, full of nooks and crannies and hiding places and dark, dark old wood that was so different than the bright houses both sets of my parents always lived in--in fact, at the time, the only hardwood floors I'd ever seen, since everyone in the mid-eighties was mad for carpet. That house that always seemed magic to me because it had a cellar and an attic, because Jessamyn's stepfather let us watch tons of horror movies and always asked me a riddle when I first arrived and told me I had to have the answer by the next sleepover, and because Jessamyn's mother was a professional harpist with the Seattle Orchestra who had told me the first time I came over that she kept her non-concert harps in a storage area under the floors. I used to creep around on tiptoe so as not to disturb the harps. I'm sure there were only one or two spares and they were in some kind of special temperature-safe space in the basement, but in my head, they were right under the floorboards, hundreds of them, each one with carved elaborate golden shoulders like the ones in paintings, crowded up an inch under my toes, sleeping, waiting, dreaming.

When I think about places where I spent time as a child, I remember, as clearly as the colors of the wood and the patterns of the wallpaper, the things I imagined, (quietly, to myself, without telling anyone), the things I believed, about those places while I was there. It's a kind of synesthesia, which I have in many ways. For me, numbers and letters and months and days and even smells have colors, but places have ideas.

Belief has an architecture.

Dark hardwood floors have harps underneath them. Thin, tall curtains have ghosts (because I used to keep my button collection pinned to my tall, thin bedroom curtains, and my stepmother would add new ones while I was at school without saying anything, so I logically thought ghosts were giving me buttons. One day one appeared that said DON'T PANIC and I knew they were just trying to tell me not to be afraid). Split level houses have hungry bears hiding on their bottom floors (because my aunt had a split-level and in the downstairs living room she had a bearskin rug with teeth and claws and it scared me so bad I thought it was alive and freezing in place to fool me, and everywhere I went upstairs it was crawling along the downstairs ceiling and sniffling for me, lying in wait.)

These imaginings come instantly to mind, sewn into the simpler memories of furniture and house layouts and all those endless spaces of childhood. For my brain, they are inseparable, the way the smell of a turkey roasting is inseparable from the roasting turkey itself. And when I remember them, it's so strong that, for a moment, the total belief that they were true flares up again before guttering away.

So this is what I see when I imagine a simply, archetypal kitchen: that table, those windows in a house my mother probably doesn't even remember, attached to another house I never lived in, with another girl's mother in it, a house of ancient wood and riddles and a tree full of fairy money hundreds upon hundreds of sentient sleeping harps snuggled up underneath it. Where the music my mother loved is always playing. Where my brother is always a baby sitting in a high chair next to me but my childhood friend is not. My brain has made a house that never existed out of remembered houses I only sometimes stayed in, and that, that is what it uses to represent the notion of any kitchen, anywhere.

This can't be normal.

Do I even remember that kitchen accurately? I have reason to think I do--I have an extraordinarily good memory, and I remember events and places and phrases from my childhood so well it often startles and unsettles people who were adults then. But I can't know. There is a flaw already embedded--the Two Houses Problem. Maybe the kitchen I think of when I think of kitchens never existed. Maybe the diamonds in the tile were blue. Maybe there were three windows, not two. But it's scratched in iron in my head and I imagine that, if I somehow went to that house we rented again, and saw that it was different, that I had it wrong, in a day or two I wouldn't remember the real kitchen anymore. It would go back to this image my brain loves and needs, clearly.

This sort of thing has happened before. I misremember the ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo so profoundly that I recall, and have quoted in company, full scenes of dialogue that do not exist in the film and never did. And every time I watch the real ending, my brain refuses to accept it, re-writes it again, and if you asked me how it ended right now, I could only give you my ending, even though I know it's wrong.

I don't know what the purpose of this surgery of associative memory is. I don't know if anyone else thinks and remembers and imagines this way. I don't even know the purpose of this little mini-memoir. I only sat down to work on a scene that takes place in a kitchen and the same ancient geography unfolded in my head. That kitchen always wants to be real again, even though it was never real in the first place.

Sometimes I think all of those beloved post-modernist tricks and flares and perhaps even all of non-realist fiction simply tells the factual truth of memory: it is unknowable, it is iterative, it is non-linear, it lies, it skips and jumps, it over-writes and re-writes itself, it has gaps and holes and unexplainable gulfs, it insists upon its own reality even when confronted with contradictory evidence, it lines the drawers of adult action with the magical thinking of childhood beliefs, all the beliefs we have, not because children are more innocent or marvelous, but because we simply did not know what was or was not possible yet in this world, it cobbles itself out of whatever it finds lying around in a vain attempt to create a cohesive narrative which can only ever be fully true to the rememberer, and perhaps not even then, and it strives, at all costs and against all odds, to make themes and motifs and sense and order and logic and certainty out of the utter howling void.

In that void, there is a kitchen. It is always the same kitchen. I am always there, and even though it's only a story I told myself and remembering it serves no purpose, confers no meaning, and has nothing at all to do with kitchens in the first damn place, I am always going to be eating eggs at that table and waiting for the harps to wake up.

How strange and bright are the things brains do in their dark nests, with all the chestnuts falling.

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I have many similar amalgam houses in my brain, but then, I also have the "walk through like a VR" and the "disquietingly recall childhood conversations" thing, so it's not all that surprising. We may have similar brains.

Also, I'd love to hear your ending for Purple Rose of Cairo. That film affected me on a profound enough level that I watched it something like five times in a row before I could really process it.

So lovely to have you posting here again. I've missed your elegant, intelligent posts.


140 characters just doesn't work for me.

Firstly: this piece is beautiful, as always, and explains something important (to me, at least) about the way you write.

Secondly: I do something similar in terms of visualising places that I'm writing about, but not with quite the same degree of mythomnemic entanglement. (I realise even as I type that sentence that mythomnemic isn't a real word, but I'm making it one, goddammit, because the mythology of memory is a THING that Requires Description.) There are places in my fantasy settings - secondary world stuff, not based on anything modern or personally familiar at all - that I can picture and experience in tactile, sensory detail, and which I initially always view from a particular set of imaginary-camera angles. Which leaves me struggling to resist overdescription: it doesn't actually matter, in most cases, what colour the stone is in that one room, or the shape of the rug or the way the window balances the standing mirror opposite, but I can see it so clearly that I feel obliged to convey the right level of detail.

When I imagine them, all apartments are my father's apartment from when I was ~3-13; small houses are my grandmother's house. Decor may change, along with slight architectural changes (in one case, rather than looking out a window, my father's solarium instead opens out onto the pool deck from that apartment building); but they're always the bones of those places.

I think schools are my middle school.

I think this may be more normal than might seem reasonable. I too have a basic kitchen, bathroom, back yard, front porch, classroom, wooded path, and so on. The majority of them are from when I was about the age you were when you were in your kitchen, though in some cases the pattern has been overwritten by later places, most notably the classroom and the wooded path. So if I think of one of those things, there's an immediately present room or path, and behind it somehow is the original one, which I can conjure up if I want it.

P.

Have you heard of aphantasia before? It seems like you basically have the opposite.

In psychology, there is the concept of a schema, basically what we consider the 'prototype' of a thing or place. So when you think of a kitchen and this comes to mind, it suggests this is your schema for kitchen. All other kitchens get compared to it. (I have one, too, different from yours of course, similar to the one I have now combined with the one I had when I was in elementary school.) It always seems to be kitchens, though. There's something about that space...

This also reminds me of a memory technique, where someone ties new information they have to remember to a place they know very well. The further into the place they imagine going, the more in-depth the knowledge. Each item they pass is tied to one of new things they have to recall.

Perhaps your soul is tapping right into the INTELLIGIBLE REALM OF THE FORMS.

Or maybe memory is just f***ing weird.

There's an early "Judge John Hodgman" episode involving a mother and daughter's dispute about the existence of a gray house in the neighborhood where the daughter grew up. But eventually it became a handy way to short-circuit any disagreements about memories or basic facts: one woman's perception was simply true in the Gray House Universe, so there was no point arguing about it.

Nice to see long-form Cat on LJ again.

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing the inside of the music-box.

thank you for writing and posting this :)

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