Memory

The best thing about the German language is that so many of the words sound like cute English cognates. Reading the signs in Germany is one of my favorite forms of entertainment. The German word for “exit” is “Ausfahrt”. That one works on so many levels. Or that “Schmuck” means “jewelry”. Or that “Ich Liebe Dich” can somehow mean “I love you”. My favorite of all is that in the German gerund, when we use -ing, they use -in. And in english, -in’ makes everything cuter, like “winkin'” or “ramblin'”. I was at the Reichstag and in the courtyard in front I saw a sign in the distance that read “Grillen Verboten” and I thought “wouldn’t it be funny if that meant “grilling is forbidden” and I got up close and there was an illustration of a Coleman Stove in a circle with a slash. That made me laugh more authentically than most things. Who is grilling in front of the Reichstag? Somebody must have taken the Imperial Diet thing way too literally.

I very much love going to new cities and I love going to them by myself. New experience is like good food when you’re starving. In a new city, this is underlined that every single thing is something that’s never happened to me before. And in a place so foreign, so many of those things are true surprises. I think being there on my own helps bolster that experience because I have no anchor that tethers me to the associations of the life I have built, good or bad.

I newly learned about this condition referred to as “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” and named Hyperthymesia, that, if I don’t perfectly have it, I have some version of it, or at least I identify with it. People who have this have a near exact recollection of the events from their own life specifically. This can range from being able recall the exact date of even mundane moments, to having perfect emotional recall of everything that has happened in your life to the point that it is like it is happening now. I experience the latter version of this. It can be a gift in that recalling moments of joy can put me back into a place that I want to be in, but the torture of this condition is that events of sorrow will stay with you always as if they happened an instant ago. And taking inventory of the recall is an automatic feature of the experience. There’s not a choice in that part. I’ve long had conflict about this surrounding forgiveness. I both thought I was unable to forgive and also that I could forgive quite easily. I can now see that in fact I do forgive easily, but that is a whisper compared to the exacting re-living of an injury that needs to be forgiven. I think maybe that is why I am so forgiving because how much worse would it be to replay these events with resentment?

I think this serves me as a choreographer because in, say, a studio setting, where there is only a short amount of time to work, I will quickly reference different emotional states that feed the work.

I am discovering that I crave so much newness as a way of balancing this memory out. The more I enhance my experience with vivid, opening experience, the less that my experiences of regret will dominate my feeling of the world. And to be new is to be clean and unspoiled. For the time being, the clothes I am wearing now don’t have to be stained with the dirt of the past. My experience of this new street in Berlin is completely without association other than my presence right now and bolsters my ability to be solely in this moment. The kid who sees me holding my camera in the park and asks me to take a picture of he and his girlfriend, tells me their story, shares that they have been awake for three days, that moment can only be about this moment and will only be marked in my memory by the feeling of surprise and bravery and openness and love. The moment I happen upon a field of fully naked sunbathers, right by the road in a city park fills me with such joy and optimism. That’s something I can happily carry with me.

One day in Berlin, I’m coming out of Bikinihaus where I’ve been watching baboons in the zoo through the window while eating chia pudding with turmeric and raspberries, and a man stops me on the street and asks me if he can interview me for the newspaper. This is significant because I was in Cuba, right after President Obama announced the relaxation in the United States’ relationship. There were reporters from all over the world covering this major event and a German morning news-show reached out to me to ask if I would represent the American viewpoint on the changes. They did a full story and filmed me riding down the Malecón in an old car as I slowly tried to divert the story to being about my work for the Malpaso Dance Company.

And here I was again being asked my opinion by the German media in an area of no particular expertise to me. His question was “What is home to you?” He started listing off examples of ways to answer the question, but I stopped him because I knew the answer without thought. Home has been a foreign concept to me for most all of my life. I have clear memories of that as a place and a feeling from when I was 2 and 3 years old, but never since then. And today I spend most of my time in different and new places and no matter how much I invest in the physical structure of a place, it is itchy and uncomfortable. The truth is, I know home, wherever I am, in my partner Bryce. He’s the only person I have ever known who grounds me back into what I know as myself and can open up the world with me. I can be anywhere and hear his voice and I am home. And that includes the entire package of every joy and every hurt I have experienced with him in excruciating detail. This makes me realize that I can never truly have a new experience because the experience only is what it is because of the perspective of my past experience. And because all of those things from my past brought me exactly to this moment.

Later in the week I’m back at Bikinihaus eating a German burrito bowl before my train to Hamburg. I open up my Trivia Crack app to continue the 2 simultaneous games I have going with my friend David Bell. He’s the last person I know who will still play that game with me and we have been in a battle for dominance for over a year now. He once told me that he was waiting tables at the Houston Ballet Ball and he told the patrons he was serving that he was beating me at Trivia Crack and their response was, “I’m hardly surprised.” He shared that with me with great relish. I know David from way back in the day when I was still a dancer at Houston Ballet. I was directing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk for the children’s theater Express Theatre and David was playing Jack. David has always openly professed his love for me in such an unfettered harassment. He’s always made me feel loved and I’m realizing now, is part of how I construct my belief that everything is going to be ok in this life. He had dropped out of our games a couple of days ago and I assumed he was just smarting from the recent streaks of crushing him he had been enduring. And when I checked again, both games had expired, leaving me game-less. I texted him, “where is the love David?”

I still have an hour or so to wait before heading to the train station and I poke around Facebook for the first time this trip. This is how I find out that David had been found dead, lying in his bed a few days before. David and I had never been super close and the majority of our relationship was very sporadic emails and now this game. But I was so hurt in his death. David is one of the few people I knew from my 20’s who actually lived past 25, and now he is gone too. This fact casts a steely shadow on the horizon and makes the people in this mall seem like another species. My childish ideals of fairness are pummeled into a bloody carcass.

My second favorite thing in Berlin was The Jewish Museum. It is remarkable in that it communicates with actual space and architecture in a way that a collection of artifacts could never do. The spaces inside evoke an astounding depth of feeling. There are vertical rooms throughout the building called The Voids which cut through the entire museum vertically. They are vertiginously tall and narrow without climate control. These spaces are meant to evoke the irreparable loss of Jewish lives and culture in Germany.

One of The Voids contains an installation by artist Menashe Kadishman. The floor is covered with hundreds of loose metal plates sculpted to look like faces. You walk over them and they shift and clank. It sounds like a school cafeteria or a weight gym. These were real lives that were extinguished and we are walking over them like they are part of the dirt.

The Holocaust Tower is one vertical space that is particularly visceral. It is a closed room with only a tiny shaft of light, stories above. It is cold and it echoes. This is life without hope.

The most profound for me is an outdoor sculpture called The Garden of Exile. This idea is meant to evoke the feeling of having to flee one’s own culture as a means of survival. It’s a series of 49 tall cement columns arranged in a grid, but the surface they stand on is at an angle, so the effect of walking between them is completely disorienting; it’s hard to keep your balance. What you see seems to suggest a flat, orderly geometry, but the reality is out of balance.

All historical museums, but a museum like this especially, have the purpose of helping us to not forget. They celebrate the belief that our memories have a purpose and, to exact as much detail and nuance as we can from them, can enhance our present, can help us grow and not just unconsciously repeat.

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