I work downtown in a relatively small area. I see hundreds of faces on any given day. I live in the same town I went to college in, and there are old faces everywhere: anyone I recognize could be someone I shared a class with, someone from the climbing gym, a friend of a friend. My brain can’t remember any more names. After a certain point, there’s just a vague, uncanny familiarity: I simply “recognize” someone. They fit, somewhere or other, into the vast jigsaw puzzle of my past experience.
To be honest, I think this phenomenon of recognition is a fiction, or at the very least irrelevant. When neither person can remember where they know each other from, it’s just an excuse to start a new a conversation. Like recognizing a phantom in a dream, the fulfillment of this recognition is meaningless. Two people settle on a shared understanding of a history—namely, that there was some sort of history—and then promptly move on.
Today I had a long talk with an old man who lives out of his van and sells his artwork to support himself. This description, although realistic, sells him short; I love this man for his charm, his eccentricity and sense of humor. As we spoke, the story of his past came out. His wife divorced him the day before finals in art school; he once worked pouring and casting stainless steel; he protested the Vietnam war; he directly or indirectly led to the creation of many art exhibits. As I watched his face, taking in his words like I took in the wind and the soft colors of the autumn morning around me, it occurred to me that I would have enjoyed his story even if it was completely made up. How could I have known? It wasn’t the accuracy of historical details which was important—he could have told me anything. His story was a context I could use to place his person, an excuse to get to know him. It was the sincerity in his words that I found beautiful.
Is the recollection of my life or yours fictitious too? Is it important? Just like the recognition phenomenon, like those craters of meaning which we fill with images of people come and gone, I think that recollection’s only real purpose is to foreground the place where we find ourselves today.
We acknowledge that there was a past, some kind of story. But that story could be anything—the details don’t seem to matter very much.