THE MARBLE FAIR
The moments that we choose to remember
Life is kind of hard to believe, isn’t it.
We don’t really think about it that often, really, but when we take the time to digest the thought, we start to realize how bizarre it is. Bizarre that it even exists. That life happened. That it happens. All the odd twists and turns that history had to take in order for what happens today to happen. All the cells that had to come together to form complex life. All the people dating back centuries and millennia who had to meet and reproduce in order for the people to inhabit the earth right now to come into being. All the other phenomena that had to occur in order for the earth to be a place where we could live. All of it is incredible.
And we spend our days pouring bowls of cereal, watching the evening news, and checking our several email accounts.
Life isn’t an easy thought to process. It’s easy to get shuttled right into it without even thinking of it. Many people go from the birthing canal to soccer practice then to high school, eventually winding up with a full time job and an SUV in a way that seems to undermine the extraordinary circumstances that led to their arrivals. There are some that do walk through life by savoring each day and responding to it like the miracle that it is. While we all believe different things about how the world came to be, what our purpose is in life, and those sorts of questions, we all need some sort of a framework to process this oddity known as life. Those who seem to get the most out of life live within a greater story, one filled with beauty and meaning. We all exist in some sort of narrative. A narrative that explains life.
Science tells us the fundamental building block of life is the cell. To a poet, things look a little different. To a poet, the basic unit of life is the moment.
Every now and then, we’ll get a chance to look at our moments. We’ll move houses and have to put things in boxes that remind us of a trip to Australia or of jumping out of an airplane. We’ll hear a song that hasn’t been heard in over a year, and we’re taken back to the anticipation of seeing a favorite musician in concert. We’ll see a friend who we haven’t seen in ages, and we find ourselves talking about pranks pulled and loves lost.
It isn’t often enough, though, that we’re forced to look at the whole of things. What becomes of these moments? Are they simply just a scattering of notes, that when played out only sound like a bitter cacophony? Or do they come together to form a song we’d put on a mixtape we’d give to God? It usually takes a lot to get us thinking about the big picture. It often takes death, actually. Or maybe a close encounter with death. Or maybe recurring thoughts about death. Or maybe an experience that is a different kind of death.
Kierkergaard once said that life has to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.I found the outlines of my story through memory.
Memory is a funny thing. So is forgetting. I’d love to study the science of forgetting. My favorite movie of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That’s a film all about forgetting. All of our memories are selective, but on what sort of basis? Scientists have better ideas than I do, but I doubt anyone knows on what criteria our minds determine what to remember for the rest of our lives and what to forget within a matter of days. Some people have sharp memories for particular things, like music, or poems, or random facts. My friend David can watch a movie once and walking out of the theatre he’ll be reciting a random scene from the film. I don’t know how he does that. Some people repress memories, and people do that in such different ways that we don’t know how to approach it other than to just shove all their cases under the blanket of the name “trauma.”
But sometimes I wonder if our minds are wired to decide what to forget, or what to remember.
I know the kinds of things I’ll always remember. I’ll always remember a trip I once took to Turkey. I fell in love with Turkish culture and made a number of local friends. On our last day there, my friend Jared and I hung out at a café with our Turkish friends, Tulu and Onur. While we were talking, Jared got a phone call from Erinstella, a cheerful Indonesian exchange student we met one day at a church over there. Erinstella said that through her journalism program, she scored extra tickets to the Marble Fair, and Jared and I figured it would be fun to go check out the sculptures and to invite Tulu and Onur along.
When we got there Erinstella was surprised to see we brought company, but apologized for only having two passes. Onur gave us a reassuring nod which meant, “It’s okay, we’ll take care of it,” and walked into a kiosk up front. Minutes later, he emerged carrying four lanyards, with our names printed. Underneath were the inscriptions “USA,” and “NCR Tecto Marketing.” We later found out NCR was a company that Tulu used to work for.
We effectively snuck into the Marble Fair, where Erinstella’s friends were waiting for us. Her friends were comprised of four other international students, girls from Taiwan, South Korea, Lebanon, and Singapore. There were seven countries represented. On top of that, Tulu and Jared’s heights contrasted with the girls, who all stood below five feet tall. We had to be the most random and diverse group of people hanging out.
This moment turned even stranger when the Marble Fair wasn’t quite the collection of sculptures and statues I was expecting, but a convention for dealers and traders of the material. All around the tent were displays of bathroom tile and kitchen counters, and I was just there, hanging out with my United Nations of friends. After collecting little tile slabs as samples, since we weren’t going to leave right away after the effort of getting in, we were approached by a man with a clipboard.
“Sir, do you mind answering a few questions about the convention?”
“Um… I really don’t think I’m the best person for this,” I tried to get out of it.
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“You don’t understand…”
After a little while of trying to get out of it but not wanting to blow my cover, he won the battle of insistence and I let him have his surveying fun, humoring him with made up answers.
“On a scale from one to four, how would you rank the accommodations?”
“On a scale from one to four, how would you rank our bathroom facilities?”
“Believe it or not, I haven’t used the bathroom the entire time I’ve been here.”
“Do you do importing or exporting?”
“Azerbaijan… and Fiji.”
Soon enough, I got away from the fair with my international posse, marble slab samples in hand.
Afterwards, I went to a café with Tulu, Onur, and Jared, and while we were drinking our iced lattes, a boy came up to us with open palms, speaking in Turkish, presumably asking for handouts. Tulu and Onur tried to shoo him away, so he went around to Jared and me. Jared slowly placed in his outstretched hands one of the marble slabs, and he left with the most confused look on his face. Onur enlightened us that he was likely a forced child beggar raising money for Kurdish rebel groups. If an uprising ever happens, I can forever attribute Jared for having contributed a marble slab to their cause.
I know I’ll never forget that day, because it’s effectively been ingrained in my mind as one of the most random and bizarre experiences of my life. Posing undercover as a marble exporter to Azerbaijan and Fiji with the most random group of friends and distributing marble to possible terrorist groups is quite the memorable moment. It was also a moment that Jared and I really bonded over.
Maybe memories are held on to when things are so extreme that they stick out. For example, the randomness of the Marble Fair all just stands out so well that I remember it for that reason. Perhaps when something is so outstanding it hits a certain permanent memory bank in our brains. But that wouldn’t explain why I also remember random things like very mundane dinner conversations I had with my mom when I was twelve years old. Those are memorable, but not very extreme. There’s got to be some other criteria for memory. For deciding what bits of our lives are eligible for inclusion in our life stories.
We remember moments that we perceive as significant. While my dinner conversations with my mom were mundane, my relationship with her is a very important part of my life. And while I’ve taken enough university classes and done enough postmodern reading about how life lacks any sort of external meaning, the very existence of our memories seem to suggest otherwise. We wouldn’t have such a perception over memories if these moments didn’t have any meaning. And these moments wouldn’t have meaning if our lives didn’t have meaning.
Maybe, if there is a pattern to memory, it resembles the way an author chose which parts of his characters lives to record. You won’t find many accounts in the Harry Potter series of the young student-wizards brushing their teeth. It’s assumed. You don’t hear much about hygiene at Hogwarts. But an author has greater purposes than theses technicalities.