trading memories

Imagine sitting around a campfire at the edge of a village of tents. We stare into the fire, following the flames, breathing slowly. Once in a while, someone will stand up to nudge a log further into the heat. After the sun has fully set, a voice speaks into the fire. It’s one of us, we who are sitting here together, and yet in the dim, flickering light of the fire, with the populated darkness encircling us and the fire itself so mesmerizing, the exactness of who the voice belongs to is lost.

The voice says a word, like maybe “apology,” then tells a little memory about an apology. When that voice has stopped and the silence has lengthened into respect for the tale told, another voice tells its memory of an apology. And so it goes, into the night, until the shared stock of apology stories becomes each listener’s portable anthology of memories about “apology.”

Years later, at a bright breakfast table on a different coast, or in a warm bed with a warm lover, the need for a story about an apology will appear, and with the luxury of choice made voluminous around that fireside, you will pick a tale of apology that yields richness and rightness for this fresh moment. You draw on more tales than you have lived. And yet they are all yours.


“You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one man says – such as ‘wolf,’ ‘sister,’ ‘hidden treasure,’ ‘battle,’ ‘scabies,’ ‘lovers’ – the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you, when to keep awake against the camel’s swaying or the junk’s rocking, you start summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded ….”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



When I was a (very) young woman, I latched onto the idea that my father had seriously abused me. I wrote a long letter to him, explaining the details, my nightmares, my need to become healthier, and informing him that I was cutting off contact for the foreseeable future. It felt scary but right to slip that letter into the mailbox and walk away.

Eight years later, for various reasons, I suspected a false claim. I cautiously contacted my father and we began to write careful letters to each other. After a while, I booked a flight to go visit him. I didn’t want to be the person getting on that plane, but even less did I want to be the person not getting on that plane.

At the breakfast table in rural Oklahoma, looking out a window onto a field with a row of trees at the far edge, I focused on breathing and being willing to understand. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I made myself look into his kind brown eyes as I said it. “I’m sorry,” I said again, to make sure we both heard me. He nodded and we sat there getting used to the new space around and between us.

In the pickup truck on the way to the airport, after a week of the most intense, illuminating, and healing conversations I’d ever had and maybe ever will have, my father said, “So, have we said it all? Is there anything else, anything at all, either of us can think of that hasn’t been aired that needs to be.” I gave his question my full respect. After a few minutes, through my tears, I said, “No.”

With the past mended, our present, suddenly taking place in the little rocking cab of the pickup, felt like a richness of future I could never have believed I deserved. But I did.


What is a memory you have about an apology?

Will you share it with us here below?


2 comments to trading memories

  • Accusing my daughter of constantly putting on the brakes during a tag-along bike ride. Discovering to my complete mortification that the tag-along was improperly installed and that’s what was causing to the bike come to an alarming, shuddering stop every couple of yards. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything. And you told me it wasn’t your fault and I didn’t believe you.” Lots of tears. She occasionally brings it up. “Remember that time you didn’t believe me and you yelled at me?” Yes, I remember.

    • That must’ve been so important to your daughter that you were willing to acknowledge the validity of her experience. Well, obviously, or she wouldn’t bring it up still. Thank you for sharing your memory.