When the present doesn’t satisfy us, we often either look forward to, or at least hope for, the future (hello, 2020!); or we seek refuge in nostalgia, wistful notions of a past that once gave us comfort. The latter is central to this story. “On a Raft in Green Water” was published by South Dakota Review and as I recall the editor liked it for its emotional appeal. It is set in a cabin in the woods, where a man has retreated to savor memories of his childhood, his happy place. The inspiration for this one was an old photograph from when I was a child too young to remember the moment, floating on an air mattress at a lake up north. I found it while paging through an family photo album years ago with my mother.
It’s disorienting to be presented with evidence of something you don’t recall. Similarly, there is dissonance when your memories come up against a contradictory but more reliable source — a photo, a written account, a group of friends who are in agreement that you’ve got it wrong — and you are forced to realize your experience is manufactured or at least given a makeover.
We are the writers of our own screenplays, interpreters of the scenes based on data filtered through subjective senses. We are unreliable narrators. As in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, four witnesses revisit the past and come back with four starkly different versions of the “truth.” From a Fiona Apple song I’ve long been fond of: “He said, ‘It’s all in your head’ and I said, ‘So is everything’ But he didn’t get it.” Witnesses are the least reliable form of evidence.
Last week I was watching an old episode of Boston Legal wherein a minor was fighting her parents for the right to take a pill that would erase her memory of a recent traumatic assault. A drug of forgetting. And like a lot of stranger-than-fiction things in these shows that take on social issues, this is an actual thing. Take a pill and skip perhaps a lifetime of PTSD. Would you do it? Would you swallow the pill if there were a risk it might nip at some of the other memories as well? How valuable are our tragedies in the creation of our selves, our character? Then again, how do our memories — not just the bad ones, but sometimes the good ones — prevent us from moving forward, from finding new happy places? Viktor Frankl, who lost his whole family but survived four Nazi concentration camps, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, a chronicle of his experiences both in the camps and as a psychotherapist treating suicidal patients. He called his philosophy logotherapy: he believed that our life purpose is to seek a purpose. Pain wasn’t the enemy, but lack of purpose could be fatal. Perhaps our protagonist finds one in the end. (Read Stealing Away and find out.)
“To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” So said Homer … uh, Simpson. This story’s recommended beers are paired with the central inanimate object of the story: the cabin. So we have New Glarus Cabin Fever, a honey bock, and Third Space Brewing’s Happy Place Midwest Pale Ale. (Both breweries are featured in my road-trip guidebook Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide, by the way.)