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Keep your fossils

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SEPTEMBER 17, 2022

If you see me taking notes during a movie, I’m having a great time. 

It sounds hopelessly academic, but in my defense, it’s 50% actual analysis, 50% ridiculous and opinionated commentary. I do this with far more religiosity than I do any actual journaling; the folder of my notes app labeled “engage with media” is far more populated than the “personal notes” section.

But as spontaneous as they are in the moment, I edit my “annotations” after the fact, clearing up the wording, bringing out the rhythm, phrasing something funnier. I always wonder at myself as I do it. The notes are supposed to be my most unfiltered blathering, raw forms few others will see. So who am I performing to?

Like I said, I’m a lousy journaler. The closest thing I have to a diary is a Google Doc that gets updated on nicely-unusual days or unusually-terrible daysa curated list of Moments I Should Remember. But I am often more preoccupied with how I’ll be remembered.

Inherently, I think myself forgettable, that if I do the most, if I express utility, I will be thought of fondly. But, dismayingly, this implies memory is transactional — which is why my other recourse has always been creating things. (If you consume something I make, it’s another transaction, one that doesn’t decay.) My artwork, my writing, everything as if I’m building a box to shove a shadow of myself into. This one, I think as I put the last touches on another painstaking long-term project, will last.

Inherently, I think myself forgettable.

Who am I performing to?

The last time I visited family in India, I busied myself taking pictures of old photo albums, unearthing two I’d never seen before in the process. There were my grandparents in one photo, marriage garlands round their necks; there was my father as a baby in another, sporting the same hairstyle he has to this day.

And there was a young man, his wavy hair slicked neatly back. Sepia. Careful cursive curved beneath his shoulder: With affection and love.

I am often told my great-grandfather had a great sense of humor. I’d only ever seen pictures of him serious-faced. I turned the page away from the young man, wondering the context of the cursive, and then found him next to my great-grandmother, him with a huge grin on his face that even the water stains couldn’t marble out entirely.

On a whim, and also because my mother tongue contains enough loanwords already, and also because my grandparents once took Sanskrit classes for fun, I took Sanskrit, too, during my freshman year at Cal. There’s been a palm-sized booklet in my desk drawer ever since — a paperbound phrasebook that belonged to my grandfather.

As phrasebooks go, it’s entirely unmemorable. But my grandfather’s handwriting lies in a smattering of margins. His name on the first page, in red-pen-Devanagari. A very tiny scrawl in Malayalam on the last page, so cramped I can’t tell if the first letter’s a ga or pa or va. A number at the bottom, one he apparently said, his whole life, was his lucky number. It happens to be the last three digits of my high school student ID.

What random things to leave behind!

Did my great-grandfather expect the photo he sent his wife to go first into a photo album, and then into his someday-great-granddaughter’s camera roll? Did my grandfather think his piecemeal notes would land in his eldest grandchild’s desk on the other side of the world?

There are other things they’re remembered by — “more important” things, maybe. There are things I’ve always wanted to be remembered by; towering, glistening hopes. But since freshman year, I’ve had with me two scraps of handwriting, unlikely statistical survivors out of probably thousands of jottings. Little pieces that tell me more about their writers, too.

So I’m a lousy journaler, but I’ll keep fixing up my own silly notes until they’re just as precisely me as the dreams I spend months and years on. Who knows what I’ll be remembered by? I want to remember the fact that at some point, I was a person who kept finding the same motif in the novels I read so striking. Or the fact that I thought a movie kept thematically shooting itself in the foot, but that some nugget of earnestness in it still appealed to me. 

I am performing me, to you, to every scrap I lay hands on, because you and me and all of us scatter things behind, even if they’re not the first that come to mind. I don’t think I mind as much that I can’t choose the polish of what survives. Beyond the buildup to whatever ambitions we have, we’re all trailing a string of drafts, the fossilized selves we might dismiss. Go ahead and let the trail be. 

There I am; there you are! Litter yourself mercilessly.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.
LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 20, 2022


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