Years are not tangible things, and yet we eat them up and watch them vanish, forgetting things like tiny revelations, or the revelings of when we were tiny, or what we ate for breakfast two days before last. Time only moves relative to all other moving things, and as such can stretch the moments of a truly memorable meal as wide as a millennium, and just the same condense the 365 days spent reaching for a ringing phone and type-type-type-ing away at a lackluster job into a blip so small we sometimes forget it even happened at all. After three years in New York City, I find myself reflecting on this transmutable power of memory, “the archive,” I’ve heard a friend say.
Is an archive like a pantry? Maybe it’s filled with items you once bought and placed there with one unique future purpose — the tiny whisk, the fine mesh sieve — to stir, to strain, to meet the needs of your ever-changing kitchen as it moves forward through time. It is also dotted with spice jars — smoked paprika, turmeric, saffron, perhaps — elements we call upon to transform and season, some we use so sparingly they linger forever, and some which must be replaced with frequency. And if it is filled with these things then there are also those quiet dwellers at the back — the forgotten bag of lentils heavy like stones, the cans of mackerel in oil acquired from a friend at a time when it made sense — who have the capacity to linger there forever, collecting dust, grease, darkness.
Or is an archive like a market? Seemingly limitless and yet obviously curated, does it hold on its shelves every ingredient we might require? Is it there for us and for our neighbors? Maybe it’s like that time I made Hamburger Helper for my family when I was nine and my parents were both at work, and when your dad made burgers on the grill out in the sun with a beer in his hand when you were ten, and here we are fifteen years later reaching for plastic-packaged ground beef in the refrigerated aisle pulling from one collective source two potential futures, inevitably intertwined. But of course we wouldn’t even make eye contact, we would never say, “Let’s examine what we must share because we’re both buying ground beef.” In that way it is anonymous, and as fleeting as the memory, which maybe we both already forgot.
Or perhaps an archive is like a farm? Our memories compartmentalized, sown, grown, harvested, left to fall fallow, and to repeat once again. Maybe each moment is a seed, some lying dormant for decades, a few germinate and break free from the soil in a matter of weeks. Some blossom, some bear fruit, some shoot up like grasses until they appear to the ground-dwelling vines below to paint the sky. And so a sprout unfolds from its dry, sleeping seed, a pair of leaves indistinguishable across species, and continues to develop its unique characteristics, its heritage, its past demands certain features from it: velvet-leafed sage, solid-stemmed and robust oregano. We have no control over what lives and what waits, what grows and what diminishes, but we can prune, pick, and peel back the husks of what is there.
Three years in New York City, and I still feel separate from the jaded shell of indifference of those around me, though I see in our shared enthusiasm for excellence, advancement, and acclaim that we may all be born from the same seed. It is finally becoming a place with a history for me, and I am forming an archive of this place no matter how many times I come home from fighting it. When I look back at such a relatively short time here, I can count the moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, remember the faces who showed up only for a night, dig up the meals from first dates and the meals we talked about but didn’t eat until much later. But here and now, both the discussion and the event to follow occupy the same space in the archive. They are dramatically, tangibly, corporeally different, and yet created of the same stuff. The stuff of a spice, the stuff of ground beef, the stuff of a seed; they are all equally at home here.
So I’ll water my plants. I’ll doodle in my notebook, and take notes along the way. The trees outside my window will burst into bloom and melt away into less flamboyant greenery, like they have done every season for the past three years, and for millennia before I was ever witness to it. They will do so for millennia after I am gone. To me, there is something very comforting about that.