December 6, 2019 | Narrative
a decade undone
naming now, knowing later
I am to start with a Statement on the 2010s––a whole decade coming to a close!––the years of X, Y, and Z, the shifts from A to Q, the return to B, the emerging popularity of E, the obvious appeal of G and H in these times of X, Y, Z, A to Q, B and E, which are all reflective of the times of W, and are all the same thing, if we really think about it.
Or we can narrow the scope to my experience of the 2010s. Still, the thought of reflecting on an entire decade is overwhelming. Especially the thought of putting a piece into the world that suggests I have any real knowledge or authority to pick out of the pile and describe (even with the caveat of it all being from my limited point of view) what has happened at the intersection of the decade’s history and my little life.
No matter how “personal” my thoughts on the 2010s may be, I’ve still experienced them in contexts of communal, national, and international events to varying degrees. And between the personal and the (inter)national there stands the responsibility of choice: As soon as I select any one event, I endow it with importance. I could privilege high school graduation, the 2017 Women’s March in New York, my first time voting in a presidential election, entering Brown as a frosh with near-certainty that my admission was a mistake, and so much more than can be neatly packaged into a list.
This is an area of thought heavily explored by theorists (usually in terms that fly above my head): how language itself selects and views an object, a person, or a place, and how readers locate and connect bits of text to create meaning. As soon as a subject is present in the text, readers assign it significance: Actors and objects become variables in an unfolding narrative, taking action, undergoing change, even if only to establish a sense of place or reality. And with the presence of anything in a text, there looms the shadow of absence: a powerful tool when used purposefully and responsibly but a potentially and historically harmful one, an inevitable element of any piece of writing whose length fails to reach infinity.
So I’m sitting here a bit dumbstruck. It feels like anything I choose pulls itself out of my personal sphere and into shared experiences of time—”shared” not nearly the same as “equivalent.” Moreover, in selecting events, trends, returns, injustices, emergences, and all else that occurs in the span of 10 years, I have to map out time! How the hell do I do that?
I don’t want to spiral into those never-ending, brain-numbing questions of what time truly is or means—I usually shut myself down when my thoughts start trotting along that trail, afraid I’ll find myself up against the edge of confusion and despair. Instead, I find the challenge of mapping out time a fascinating one: It’s a question of how we mark locations along the paths of our lives, how we establish and refer to those reference points.
After graduating high school, I started one of those sentence-a-day journals with the hope of recording as much of my College Experience as I could (with the least effort possible). I found myself up against a challenge of choice: What about my day mattered enough to record? Even more importantly, it seemed, what would I want to remember in the future?
The latter question dominated early entries: My first weeks at school were a routine of meeting new people, shopping exciting classes, and going to social events. I’m not going to be terrified, lonely, and doubtful later on, I’d think. So I won’t want to remember that.
Around a month into college, I looked back on the earlier sentences and realized that, though they weren’t untrue, they were BS. My mental map of my recent history didn’t align with the breadcrumbs I’d laid out in writing; there was a discrepancy between what had literally happened and what felt true to me.
I was desperately searching for, and thus trying to create, turning points of my immediate past: accompanying new friends to the pumpkin patch for hayrides and hot cider, meeting someone at Unit Wars, staying out late and going to Jo’s for the first time. But the truly significant moments of that time only emerged later: meeting my new doctor in Providence; my roommate and I discovering uncanny similarities between our lives; typing “Brown” into the “Company” section for my contact on someone’s phone, assuming I wouldn’t keep in touch with the person who would eventually become one of my best friends and senior year housemate.
In order for me to remember, or keep track of, this time in my life—and thus be able to develop relationships, to reflect on myself and to grow—I gravitate towards these points that anchor the befores and afters of my narrative. The points themselves shift with time; my memory values different moments, or varying elements of the same moments, as I proceed through college and my 20s. I think there is some element of choice as to what events matter most to me, or what has provoked the most change—but this choice is limited to the extent that I can direct my own mind and thoughts. It’s a collaboration, sometimes a contention, between self and brain: Together, my brain and my self are learning to condition, decondition, and develop me, drawing a linear timeline into the present, dotting it with knots of memory.
Because people kind of have to. Our histories fall into narratives because, as historian Hayden White says, narratives are the only forms of writing—of stories—that we recognize. Maybe a linear organization is the easiest to put together and follow; even in cases of purposeful ambiguity, as my writing professor would urge me, it may be necessary to “signpost” the text to give the reader a sense of solid ground. So when we select events, we don’t just assign them importance: We set them up as static, untouchable moments as well as points of turning and returning in our mental timeframes.
As for the decade, I find myself afraid to say anything at all. I think that any reflection upon this time will inevitably unfold as a stubbornly linear narrative, defining itself through the recognition and repetition of salient events. Of course I have thoughts, fears, and even hopes for the present based on the past 10 years. But I’m wary of making choices of importance and of absence. I’m insecure about defining turning points relative to time, about pinning these moments down in such close proximity to now. And I’m aware of the desire to mark some events over others in an attempt to address, or even to please, onlookers in the future.
I’ll let myself be by leaning into patience, setting myself in the humbling contexts of the vast, shifting landscapes of my community and world, and engaging in some healthy procrastination; I’ll let meaning emerge with me.