Capacity

A few weekends ago my friend Ashley and I did a serious ransacking of the Takoma Park Library book sale. Rather than tackling the task of counting out all of our books, the people working the cashbox looked at our stack and estimated–it was like that. Stacks upon stacks. Among the books I brought home was The Best American Science writing of 2000, for my science-loving son who was born in 2000. In it I came across an essay called “Analogy as the Core of Cognition” by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter about the centrality of analogy to thought. I started reading it in the early hours of a very busy day and I had a really hard time putting it down to go about my business. Toward the beginning of the essay, Hofstadter addresses two common puzzles: 

Why don’t babies seem to remember what they’ve experienced? 

Why does each year seem to go by more quickly than the previous years? 

The answer to both lies in the central argument of the essay–we categorize things to remember and understand them. Babies have too few concepts to contextualize and remember events. He writes, “It is as if babies were looking through a randomly drifting keyhole, and at each moment could make out only the most local aspects of scenes before them.” As we get older, we have so many large categories which to frame and connect our experiences, our years become made up of fewer and fewer uncategorizable experiences and therefore time seems to pass more quickly. We are always trying to create order, always also seeking chaos and the unknown.

We know, from experience, that each loss brings up previous losses, that when something sort of knocks over the imaginary mental container holding our grief category, it can be a big spilling over of emotions related to all of the individual events that are filed there. One of my favorite things about writing to a prompt is seeing what connections my mind has made in its filing of memories and learning from that about what I think and why I think what I think. The chunking of concepts or ideas can be limiting if we allow all of our judgments to be driven by our preconceived notions, if we don’t allow ourselves to be fluid in our categorization, or examine its logic. Knowing how we think is central to changing how we think.

Your prompt is 1994 by Lucille Clifton (who happens to share a birthday with my darling niece). Read the poem. Then let’s write about the year 1998 (or another year if that’s not going to work). Borrow and complete these phrases:

I was leaving my

You know about

You know that

You know how dangerous it is

1994

BY LUCILLE CLIFTON

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year 

when a thumb of ice 

stamped itself hard near my heart 
you have your own story 

you know about the fears the tears 

the scar of disbelief 
you know that the saddest lies 

are the ones we tell ourselves 

you know how dangerous it is 
to be born with breasts 

you know how dangerous it is 

to wear dark skin 
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year 

when i woke into the winter 

of a cold and mortal body 
thin icicles hanging off 

the one mad nipple weeping 
have we not been good children 

did we not inherit the earth 
but you must know all about this 

from your own shivering life

 

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