The rhythm of memory

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 04, 2007 | , ,

In San Francisco I occasionally heard a suspicious piece of conventional wisdom that because of the weather, it is particularly difficult for people who move there to remember when things happened to them. Someone said the brain associates events with the weather in which they take place, with the season. Changes in the weather and seasons in San Francisco are so nuanced: brown grass in the suburbs indicates summer; it may rain more in the spring; the fall, they say, is when it will finally be hot enough to leave your house without a coat. To minds accustomed to stark seasonal contrast, days blend into one another and you cannot remember what month something happened.

In that way, years are said to pass like weeks. Everything happens in the fog of a perpetual spring. One day you are 23 and single and poor and drunk most of the time and the next day you are 33 and single and a bit richer but still drunk most of the time. I have my doubts, but I heard this discussed by enough provincial refugees trying to figure out where the last five or ten years of their lives had gone that there must be something to it.

It is understandable why parenthood is so feared by those who've grown accustomed to partying and generally behaving like 23-year olds well into their thirties. There are plenty of reasons your childless friends will dislike your baby, but one is that your baby will be a goddamn touchstone that even an endless summer cannot obscure. There is no way to hide from the creaking of your own bones when there's a baby around to remind you of how long it's been since it was born. For two years its life will be measured in months, months that slip past you as they always have, and the baby serves as a perpetual reminder of just how quickly they've gone.

San Francisco is a city where, besides money, the preservation of youth is everything. Despite the marginal presence of old gays with their moisturizers, the aging, bitter hipsters, and those ancient Chinese on the buses, it is a city of young people, with new batches of them arriving all the time from universities on the east coast or the Midwest, many of them overpaid and willing to spend obscene amounts of money on food and drink. At 24, we'd read newspaper articles there about the city's continual loss of families, and say, "bah, who needs families?"At 26 we found out were were going to become one. It was one of the loneliest times of our lives, not knowing anyone who had already tread that path. For a city that treasured youth above all else, San Francisco seemed to have a Herod-like fear of diapered usurpers.

This is why we started writing here. For all its bizarre current manifestation as dull domestic performance art, "Sweet Juniper!" started out as a way to communicate and commiserate what we were going through with others who were similarly isolated. We actually met other parents in San Francisco through the site, and the loneliness ebbed. But not enough to keep us there.

I have never really written about why we left San Francisco for downtown Detroit, although I am asked why we did it almost every day. I have different answers. It is complicated. I have not written about it because I have so much to say it would be boring. The bottom line is that it was the right decision for our family, that San Francisco was a wonderful place to spend our twenties, and we loved it.

And yet I have not missed it once.

When we moved into our current home one year ago, hundreds of monarch butterflies converged on our neighborhood as they migrated to California and Mexico. This morning, exactly one year later, Juniper and I counted nearly three dozen in the tree outside our house. Strange, I considered, how they know to head out on the same days every year. Such a befuddling ritual, to go all that way for constancy in temperature, only to come back again in spring. On one of our first nights in this house, we spotted a mama opossum carrying all her babies across our backyard. The other day we saw one of her babies, now nearly fully grown, sniffing around our mature tomato plants at night.

This hasn't been just another year for me. Beyond where we now live, this year has been all about how we live. I haven't logged into Lexis Nexis for thirteen months. I've spent my days picking apples, tramping through snow, watching buds form on freshly-unfrozen branches, and burying my feet in the sands of Lake Michigan. More importantly, I've spent every day exploring the world with my little girl. I will remember this year always. Those friends we left in San Francisco might see her now and gasp at how much she's grown, how much she's changed in the past year. But there is no shock in it for me. I've been watching her grow, all day, every day of the best year of my life.