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“Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories”



—after Emily Dickinson


Humans are born experts at detecting faces.  The
eye is the lamp of the body. From birth, the brain
comes equipped with hard-coded subroutines. Why is
facial recognition written into our genetic code? The wider

the memory, the more places it will need to hide. Rather than
a face, my daughter’s first sight was the bright white of the
hospital light. Later, her childhood paintings of the night sky
would have a star of blinding brilliance. If for-

giveness is a program packed into the brain, then she put
the peg squarely into the circle. She couldn’t forget them—
monsters that are monstrous until they are named. She side-
stepped bayonets & boomerangs, learned to be shaped by

the wishbone of my heart. If only she could be on this side
of the willows that line her memory. She came to call the
hollow path between two houses where her parents each lived—one
a theater of charades, the other a hovel of fences—home. The

memory of home, hallowed through sheer will alone. The other
side of remembering, a tabula rasa. Preordained to record, whether we will
be able to recall depends on how well we learn to contain
a family’s wildfire. Between my daughter’s two homes, with

each pilgrimage, she learned to flex with ease.
Every light that blindsided her tempered her ability to name &
left its memory-mark. She was born with her eyes wide open. Her you-
th began with strangers circling beside—


Monarch butterflies may take up to five generations to migrate, the
needless veer across Lake Superior etched eons ago into their shared mind.
Had a mountain once been there? Origin is unimportant—what to avoid is

the thing recorded. My ancestor’s mountains are mine as well. The deeper
the memory, the less sure its source. A mind can be more like sponge than
machine. I once heard that avoidance flows from father, not mother—the
mouse trained to fear cherry blossoms will mark that fear in his sea

of sperm. Modified DNA, a matter of survival. His offspring for
generations will run in terror of that scent. We humans hold
fast to words. Into a Rolodex of symbols, we accumulate them.
Mother. Father. Yours. Mine. A matter of identity. Language is the blue

chalk of childhood. To remember, we need to be able to name. To name is to
word, & to word is to grant meaning. As a child, words came out of the blue—
those I made up with my sister, then later, with my own children. The

urge to language, any language will do. We are wired to babble—one
person’s syllable is another’s sound. Still, each spring, hummingbirds return to the
missing feeder. In a room in my brain, Mother sings. Father, in another,

says It pays to increase your word power. A new word, confabulation. He & I will
chant it together. I’ll draw a line from it to the room of fabulous fable. We absorb
our parent’s fire the way a sunflower soaks up the sun. Our heads follow light, as

all livings things do. To keep her memory-rooms blameless, a daughter sponges
off the family’s stains, collects & recycles buckets
of water. She scrubs every room clean, the way she’s been taught to do—


If light is to the eye as language is to the
mind, then memories are stories written upon the brain,
& to be written upon is to be forever changed. Why is
it so difficult for me to learn to see? Just
a slip of evening light can transform the

willow outside of my kitchen window. The weight
of a million memories bends the tree’s supple branches—of
this, I am certain—into the silhouette of my mother. She’s singing “God
forgets our sins” as she tends the garden, pulling weeds, tilling for-
giveness into the soil, kneading clay earth, the heft

of it in her hands, like a god fashioning a sinless child. Count them,
the ways a parent can love a child encased in a three-pound
mound of gray matter. I am a memory-seed scattered, destined for
trial-and-error. Shall I grow into oleander? It would require a pound
of my flesh. Or into a useful maple, my utility in shade &

sweet? Of this I am never certain. Those who know no different, can they
remain blameless? After all, a child begins by imitating her parents. They will
seem to her as gods. Her sight will be hers only when she can detect a differ-
ence between air & water, breathing & swallowing. It’s as if
the hers & theirs are inseparable. Parents. They

have no choice but to pass on what is encoded. The child’s brain will do
its part processing the stimulus in harmony with its programming. As
a child grows, she embraces the scorched language of her family, which syllable
must be swallowed no matter what, even if no one is breathing. From
the hollow of a willow, a lullaby echoes. It’s recorded in my DNA, that sound.


The poem’s title “Your Brain Doesn’t Contain Memories—It is Memories” is from a July 2017 online article in Wired.