Learning how to remember

Off the Beat

Alex Zhao

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Any college senior reminiscing on their early years might wax nostalgic about sepia-tinted memories. For me, looking back on my college life before COVID-19 is like peering down a corridor at another age. 

In many ways, 2020 invited me to reflect on the past. By sending me home to live with my family, quarantine precipitated a reflective moment that would have otherwise stalled until graduation. As days blurred together, they formed the walls of a telescope, making the past seem curiously far away.

For me, reading is a chance to elucidate my thoughts. Cleansing my mind of anxiety, a book puts me in conversation with the author’s mood and intention. Last year, I had the time to read several books — and stumbled upon a few stirring quotes in particular — that helped me clarify my view of the past. 

 “[James] began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain; among scents, sounds; voices, harsh, hollow, sweet; and lights passing, and brooms tapping.”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Woolf excels in depicting moments like the one above, in which James attempts to recall the contours of a distant memory. The novel is about the challenges of bridging the gap between individuals, each defined by their own idiosyncrasies and private emotions.

Woolf writes poignantly on the tacit, unspoken layer of memories and sensations that underlie daily life. The vast majority of attitudes and thoughts we have are lost soon after they surface.

While on my way to class, the Campanile’s peal sharpens unexpectedly; the melodic lines shape my thoughts. As I walk from Wurster Hall toward College Avenue at night, the lights of Caffe Strada and the fountain opposite appear as a picturesque rustic inn. I imagine I am a voyager, stopping for a meal. Now, I’m sitting beneath the eucalyptus trees near the Valley Life Sciences Building and the sky turns into a jigsaw, splintered by tapering branches.

In To the Lighthouse, James recalls primal memories that are vague and hard to express. Remembering a foggy scene from his childhood, he sorts through the countless impressions that have accumulated over time. Like James, my view of UC Berkeley has been colored over the years, even though I’m usually not conscious of the change. COVID-19 has been an abrupt shift, one that has led me to notice more gradual changes.

 “Some of the charm of the past consists of the quiet — the great distracting buzz of implication has stopped…And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace.”

—Lionel Trilling, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel

As the momentary sensations of everyday life dim, we gain a more detached view of the past. Impressions fade, and only important memories — ones strongly colored by emotion — remain.

The “huge, unrecorded hum of implication” Trilling mentions is present every time I move out of an apartment. I’ve lived in 10 different rooms over the past four years, and every time I move, the process of leaving a place I call home recalls forgotten ideas and symbols: a receipt under the bed, scratches on the doorframe, a Tame Impala poster I meant to hang up months before. Each one suggests time elapsed, impressions that are lost in the buzz of college.

Our campus holds power beyond its physical presence because of the ever-present hum of untold tales. Generations of people have passed through here. Though I don’t know most of them, I can imagine their stories. During COVID-19, these echoes are loud.

“De Beauvoir: Upon the whole you’ve never been a particular age? Is it because you always lived intensely in the present?

Sartre: Yes. I’ve probably not had much spare time for looking back to those moments of the past that are valued for themselves…I think as though I were not changing.”

Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre

As a counterpoint to my ode to memory, Sartre and de Beauvoir identify a conflict between nostalgia and commitment to the present. Perhaps all of my time spent reminiscing is a self-indulgent exercise. I recognize that and sometimes pretend I’m not changing, wholly dedicating myself to the now. 

Yet I am also unlike Sartre in that way, because living in the present means contrasting it with the past. I know it can be harmful to maintain continuity for the sake of comfort, so I hold onto my memories as keepsakes, not guidelines. The pandemic, by stemming the usual flow of time, has reminded me of their value.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.