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Notebook, found!

Does this old notebook look vaguely familiar? It’s the blue notebook in which, at age 11, I started recording my autobiography! I found the notebook tucked away in a box filled with old letters, school papers, and certificates. Can you imagine? I’m still in shocked euphoria. I hadn’t seen it in years, and I really believed it had been “lost along the way.” In fact, I have a faint memory of having thrown it away. But here it is, in all its blueness and sophomoric prose.

Remember the painting? It’s interesting to me that it’s both somewhat true to the actual notebook and inaccurate:

When things like this happen, do you question the fidelity of your memory? It’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it–memory? A few years ago, when my Fibromyalgia was at its worst, I suffered memory loss. Illness extinguished entire chunks of time from my brain. Details of significant memories vanished. Some of those lost memories eventually came back; others did not.

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

Right now, I’m reading The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. In this novel, Mark Schluter wakes from a coma with Capgras Syndrome, a rare condition in which a person believes his/her loved ones have been replaced by look-alike imposters. It’s an Oliver Sacks-like neurological case and more philosophical than thrilling, but interesting nonetheless.

And in another exploration of memory, last night, we watched the 1942 film, “Random Harvest,” in which an amnesia patient and a beautiful woman fall in love and marry. When the man is hit by a car, he recalls his prior life but loses all memory of his current life, including his wife. The man’s two lives, two sets of memories, are mutually exclusive.

Then there’s the woman with perfect memory who can recall minutiae from decades ago.

Our perception of self and other is rooted in the flawed memory of who we are, where we came from. How can our perceptions be at all accurate or meaningful amid the distortions of fallible memory? If we lose memory of ourselves, who are we? Alternately, if we were to remember everything in perfect clarity, would we know ourselves any better? These are some of the questions I’m asking myself lately. What do you think?

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I bought this blue notebook when I decided to start writing my autobiography. I went to the bookstore, carefully studied all the blank notebooks, and selected this one because it opened flat, had thin lines, and looked studious. I was eleven.

For a while, I wrote in my notebook with a brand-new blue ink pen. Then I started editing my writing–crossing out words, adding descriptions, rearranging phrases…. My neat lines of careful cursive deteriorated into wild revisions, circled paragraphs, notations to see a different page with an addition, and pages and pages of scribbling. My heavy editing completely took over my original drafts.

After a while, I realized that I hadn’t lived long enough to have enough material or perspective to write an autobiography. I was overwhelmed by both the scarcity of material, and the time it would take to preserve what little I knew on paper.

I never finished that autobiography. Sometime during my teenage years, I became terribly embarrassed by my scribblings. I decided that there wasn’t anything in that notebook that was worth keeping, that everything I had recorded I would remember for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t true, of course. “I thought I would remember,” but I don’t. When I threw away that notebook, I lost a written record of my childhood self. Much of what I write now is, in a way, an attempt to remember the details of those days.

“I thought I would remember” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

Series -

This concludes my painting series, “Lost Along the Way.” I hope you’ve enjoyed it and that it has evoked for you some meaningful recollections of your own irreplaceable belongings. For this series, I mostly chose objects from my childhood, because I think children have the capacity to treasure and mourn with a purity that too is slowly lost over time.

Ostensibly about loss, this series is really about cherishing, for we only mourn what was precious to us. We lose our irreplaceable belongings in many ways. Sometimes they break, sometimes they’re misplaced. Sometimes they vanish, sometimes they’re thrown away. Sometimes we give them away, sometimes death takes them from us. Most often though, we simply forget.

This was an exercise in remembering, because when we hold in remembrance what was precious to us, our hearts crack open just a little more, allowing the territory of our affections to expand. By remembering, we regain in part what was most important about what was lost along the way.

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I loved him at first sight among the teddy bears, cats, and dogs on the store shelf. I think it was because of his head–soft, squishy, and too large for his body. He was a raccoon or badger or some such animal. I begged my mother to let me have him for Christmas, although it was months before the holidays. I promised I wouldn’t ask for anything else.

My mother gave in, and we purchased him that very day. I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving this adorable stuffed animal, so I also convinced her to buy a matching one for my older brother. “They’ll be family, just like us. How could he not want one too?” I said, blind to the reality that cute stuffed animals don’t exactly fit into a teenage boy’s world of BMX bikes, computers, and loud music.

In any case, my brother and I received matching stuffed animals that Christmas. I named mine “Popcorn” for his fluffy head, and my brother named his “Shmuck.” (Shmuck?!) While Shmuck looked brand new for years, Popcorn quickly grew dirty, faded, and well-worn with love. I had dozens of stuffed animals, but he was my favorite of all.

Years later, when my parents were set to move, I returned home to go through my things. I was already an adult by then, but I secretly wanted to collect, among other things, my favorite stuffed animal from childhood. I went through my closet and all my dresser drawers. I looked under the bed and in the storage closet. No Popcorn.

When I asked my mother, she shrugged. “I just got rid of a lot of your stuffed animals the other week,” she said. “Gave them to the school, threw them out. They were getting all musty. You know how it gets so humid and moldy here.”

Gave them to the school, threw them out?! Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I’m still a little shocked. This painting represents Popcorn, so named because “his head was like popcorn.” Some childhood toys are irreplaceable, and he was one of them.

See the next painting in the series.

“His head was like popcorn” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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When my best friend moved away, we promised we would write each other often. We were young, too young, I think, to realize that our friendship was extraordinary or that a promise like this is easy to break. Apart, you drift into new lives, grow up, and all the while, you don’t know how to bridge the miles in between.

I waited for letters from my friend. One or two arrived, and I wrote him back, but that was it. We lost touch for many years during which we grew up, married our respective spouses, and both became writers.

My friend and I got back in touch a few years ago, and now we exchange emails, manuscripts, and memories of our childhood neighborhood. I asked him once about the letters–the ones that never came–and that’s how I found out that he had written a dozen letters or so that I never received. He had always wondered why I had never written him back. Somehow, our letters, our best attempts to keep a childhood promise, were lost in transit.

What did my friend write in those letters? He doesn’t remember, and I’ll never know. This painting commemorates a friendship. Those letters, “they never came,” but our friendship survived even so.

See the next painting in the series.

“They never came” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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When our neighbors went away on an extended trip, they left Chester in my care. He was a big, gentle tomcat, and we bonded almost instantly. You know how it is. Once in a while you meet an animal with whom you develop a deep connection. Chester was one of those. By the time our neighbors returned, I didn’t want to give him back.

I remember walking Chester back to his home at the end of the street and telling him that I didn’t want him to go and that if he felt the same way, he could always come back. I may have even left a few pieces of food along the way to guide him, just in case. (I know. That definitely crossed a line in pet ethics.)

Chester did come back often, and I may have continued to feed him. (Yeah. That line again.) I was convinced that he preferred me to his original family, that we were actually meant to be together, so… I asked our neighbors if I could have him. Can you imagine? “Excuse me, but, um, can I have your cat?” I’m still embarrassed by the sheer audacity of it. This pretty much cancels out the tricycle story, don’t you think?

Amazingly though, out of the goodness of their hearts, our neighbors agreed to let me have him. I fashioned a warm bed for Chester in the garage, and when my parents let me, I brought him into the laundry room to sleep. I made him special meals of shaved bonito flakes and milk mixed into a bowl of hot rice. We went on walks together, and like a faithful dog, he came running whenever I called him. I told Chester my secrets, and he always listened intently. When he dragged himself to our doorstep after a long absence, his hind legs immobile with pain, I nursed him back to health. Our fondness for each other surpassed the span of time we had together.

One evening, Chester asked to be let out, and as he vanished into the evening, he paused and looked back at me. Something in his look made a foreboding feeling flutter in my heart, but I let him go.

That was the last I ever saw of Chester. I looked for him for months, going door to door and checking roadside ditches and all of his favorite hideouts. At night, before going to bed, I always called for him from the back door, just in case. I refused to believe that Chester was gone for good. As time passed though, my searching spiraled into months of mourning. Concerned family friends offered me a kitten, but I was adamant that no pet would ever replace Chester, that I could never love another cat. For a long time, it was true.

Sometimes what is precious to us simply vanishes. This painting is in remembrance of Chester. He was only a cat–and not even mine, originally–but “he was also my friend.”

See the next painting in the series.

“He was also my friend” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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It took months for my father to build my playhouse. I remember how he started by drawing up construction plans and leveling a patch of dirt in the backyard next to the peach tree, and every weekend, I watched as he painstakingly constructed it from scratch, board by board, nail by nail. I’m sure I was quite impatient for my father to finish it, but he insisted on taking his time.

When he was done, my playhouse had a real door with a lock and key, windows, a built-in bookshelf, a handcrafted table with two chairs, and real linoleum on the floor. Out front was a wood deck with a built-in bench. It was beautiful, glowing, smelling sweetly of timber and sandpaper, and it surpassed my wildest dreams.

Years later, inevitably, the wooden structure began to rot and give way to the elements, and my parents asked if they could tear it down. I was already grown-up and living far away, and really, what could we do? We all knew it was time. The dilapidated structure came down, and my mother planted flowers and vegetables where my playhouse had once stood.

This painting represents a treasured photo. “It was all that was left” of my playhouse. Now the photo too is gone, lost somewhere between loose album pages and moving boxes. Things–the playhouse, the photo, and perhaps even this painting someday–slip away so easily. But our sweetest memories always persist.

See the next painting in the series.

“It was all that was left” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to read fiction, but the summer I was thirteen, my brother came home from boarding school and left his paperback copy of My Name is Asher Lev. Naturally, I read it secretly.

It was the first novel I’d ever read, and Chaim Potok’s powerful use of language shocked and nourished me. I had known since I was eleven that I wanted to be a writer, but that summer I decided I wanted to be a writer like Chaim Potok.

That paperback copy of My Name Is Asher Lev followed me through high school and college. I read it at least a dozen times, marking in the margins and underlining my favorite sentences. When I was working at my first job out of college, as a designer and assistant editor for a magazine, I met a young artist who did a cover for us. We had a lot in common, and I told her she absolutely had to read this novel about a gifted artist trying to reconcile his gift and his religious tradition. And you already know what I did: I loaned my book to her.

Since then, I’ve acquired a first edition hardcover edition of My Name Is Asher Lev, but I still miss my original tattered copy. I wonder what I penned in the margins, if my favorite sentences now are the same ones that initially pulled me in and held me in a state of suspended magic.

I’ve been trying to locate that young artist ever since, but a lot of time has passed. I know I may never see my book again, but a couple of years ago, I saw a newspaper article about an old man who went into a used bookstore in his childhood town and found his long-lost favorite picture book with his name scribbled on the inside cover. It could happen. It happens, sometimes.

This painting is in honor of the book that changed my life, the book for which “I am still looking.” If by some miracle, you find it, please let me know.

See the next painting in the series.

“I am still looking” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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