On Memory: Thoughts On A Train, Travelling to Seattle

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I love long train rides. I love being able to just sit beside a window and watch the world pass me by, catching glimpses of life in motion while staying static in coach. I love throwing on City and Colour, or Because Of The Times and drifting in and out of some kind of presence, grinning like an idiot at a passing river, or craning my neck to catch a glimpse of some far-off mountain. I love long train rides.

A long train-ride used to be the end of semester commute from Chichester back up to Lancashire, or the start-of-semester trip from Lancashire to Chichester. Those train rides were always decent enough, passed with Bukowski books I’d gotten as Christmas presents, or with whatever September release was currently dominating my iTunes library, but those journeys always paled somewhat in comparison to a particularly long train journey I made about five years ago when travelling from Denver to New York with my family on holiday. Five years isn’t a particularly long time, or perhaps it is when you’re only twenty-one, but I look back on that train ride and I remember bits of it with almost striking clarity – certain rivers, or passing through Indianapolisis at night and seeing my own face reflected back at me with the city lights in the background. I remember the sunrise over a barren landscape, and I remember the way a river sprung into view on my right just as Charmer transitioned into On Call. I remember feeling like I was in Red Dead Redemption, moving onwards to some great Western adventure. I don’t remember a great deal much else about that holiday, and looking back at old pictures I hardly remember being there when they were taken. I look like a different person, from a different time, a shell of who I am now, and any image I try to create outside of that picture frame quickly crumbles on recollection. When I returned to New York two weeks ago it was like going there for the first time instead of the second, and I ended up retracing steps in some sort of effort to recapture that youthful memory of walking the same roads, and standing in the same queques with my parents and brother. For the most part these efforts ended up feeling fairly futile, and instead of recapturing I ended up replacing those old traces of myself in those places. I went back up the Empire State Building, and it felt like the first time I’d see Manhattan from those heights. I wandered Battery Park with no recollection of ever having been there before.

I love long train rides, and part of the reason I’m enjoying this one right now is because it’s my first real break in probably a month, the first opportunity that I’ve had to really sit down and try and collect my thoughts. I’m currently travelling from Chicago to Seattle, a 48 hour trip after thirty days of non-stop travelling, sight-seeing and gig-going. I’ve been sat down staring out of the window for the last four hours, and it’s probably the longest I’ve stayed still in a month or so, aside from sleeping (and I’ve been lucky if I’ve been getting four hours). It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to do any writing aside from a sleepless night in Brooklyn, and it’s the first chance I’ve had to actually look back on where I’ve been to get to this point in my travels. That’s great and all, I’ve needed that moment to catch my breath, but it’s always got me thinking about memory, and what that word means to me. Since moving to America in January I’ve been on a self-assigned mission to do more, capture more, and have more to cherish in retrospect looking back. I went out of my way to try and make memories, to build something out of nothing, and to create something I can hold onto when I head back home in a few weeks. I’ve had differing levels of success with this, and that bothers me. Normally, I would have to write about something, or take pictures to remember it a few months down the line, unless it was something I considered fairly monumental. Writing has always been a way for me to reminisce and I tend to put pen to paper whenever I felt something has transpired which merited remembering. I only started doing this a few years ago, and life prior to say, college, feels very distant when I try and reflect on it. After that things become clearer, and this could just be down to the shorter period of time, but I think documenting things does help ultimately. The problem with being on the road and travelling is that I haven’t been writing, and without writing the last month or so takes on the shape of a blur, although gaining focus with the aid of pictures, or of songs, or of sheer determination on my part to bring something back from that mental mess of mixed memories.

The other problem with travelling is that there are a lot of moments, a lot of day-to-day things which quickly become important, and therefore quickly become something to capture. I don’t have a memory good enough to grab all of those moments and keep them in perspective, right there. I’ve travelling to seven cities in thirty days, gone to fifteen concerts, and done countless other little tourist and non-tourist things. It’s been good to have been busy, but distance tells me that I should’ve slowed down every once in a while, if only to acknowledge where I’d just been. It’s a frustrating ideal, but I’ve been living in the moment, and living like that makes it difficult to look back on those moments outside of them. It’s great at the time, sure, but afterwards it’s hard to recapture anything similar. The thing is, those moments don’t always need recapturing. Being there, being present, is nearly always good enough – why wouldn’t it be? I just wish that I could look back on a Wonder Years gig, or going to the top of The Empire State Building and live there again, if only temporarily. This is why I’m okay with people filming or taking pictures at gigs. I’ve done it myself a few times, in an effort to take a souvenir of sorts from a night, and I can see why people would film entire songs or entire shows – they help you remember being there and what it felt like – to a lesser extent than actually being there. I have snippets of songs and Snapchat stories which help place myself in certain cities, in certain venues. I have a baseball which reminds me of Fenway Park, and I have a wallet full of tickets for various museums and events. I have my Shaky Knees Festival wristband still on my wrist because it reminds me of a good weekend, and I have a tattoo for every city I’ve visited because they were important to where I was at the time. I don’t know if these things are enough, but they’re all I really have given how vague my memory tends to be. They’re something concrete for when my mind can’t conjure something up in their place.

Another problem with travelling, to add to those already covered, is that I found myself constantly searching for those moments, something small to become significant to myself. I have a hard time turning those small moments into something significant. I’m a sentimental guy, a nostalgic one, who enjoys looking back on where I’ve been and how it made me feel. So I ended up becoming sentimental about almost everything that made me feel a certain kind of way, and I started attaching songs to certain scenes with the aim that I could listen to said song a few months down the line and be transported back temporarily to that place, with those people. This works well enough, and it would probably be fine if there hadn’t been so many moments vying for a musical label. Whenever I was in what I guess would be ‘the moment’ I’d realise that I needed to remember this, and would then have a hard time enjoying said moment because of feeble attempts to capture it. Sounds silly, right? It is, but that’s very much the way I’ve become when seeing new cities, or seeing bands I haven’t seen before. I want those highs to last, and they never truly do. I’ve been running the idea over in my head for months, and it continues to frustrate me. I remember walking around the Guggenheim museum because I had Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast accompanying me. I don’t remember specifics, like the artwork, or the cost of admission, but I remember it well enough. I want to remember it better, but I can’t.

Take right now for instance. I’m sitting on the train, with the world before me, and we’re passing by a corn field. A red truck is driving alongside us, and it’s just like the ones you see in the movies – always accompanying that expansive cornfield. I think I remember a similar scene in Looper. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s something, and now I’ll remember it because I can go back and read this. I could do the same by taking a video, or drawing a picture, but it can’t exist and hold relevance within my own head. It’s not enough, and that gets to me. Maybe it shouldn’t, maybe it should. At least I’m trying with it. A few months from now, it’s going to be impossible to place myself back on this train, back in America, back doing something new and something worth remembering.

I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

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