In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Things that Stick

canstockphoto8541895I woke up this morning thinking of Delmore Schwartz.  I had been dreaming that I was starting college again, right after the Army. I was still in uniform, but I couldn’t find my duffle bag in the dorm. I wandered around a lot, met someone at a bar and spent a good portion of my dream signing random forms for people. The words that occurred to me when I woke up were In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title of a short story written by the aforementioned Mr. Schwartz.

Delmore Schwartz died a year before I was born. He had a heart attack on a stranger’s doorstep at the age of 52. It took several days before someone claimed the body. Having suffered from a mental illness for a couple of decades, this shining, intellectual poet and short story writer faded to relative obscurity. Lou Reed was a student, Robert Lowell a friend, Saul Bellow a protégé – all of whom wrote in tribute to him.

That particular phrase, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, so imprecise, but weighty with meaning, will stay in my head for as long as I have cognitive abilities. It joins a collection of stories, phrases and poems that have resonated with me throughout the years. But I am a tad indiscriminate about what sinks in and stays. Let’s take a little tour through the archives.

  • There is a poem by William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming“.
  • A quote about opera from the movie Pretty Woman (Cinderella as prostitute): “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”
  • A bumper sticker:  “Jesus loves you, but I think you’re an asshole”
  • There’s all the lyrics to “At the Zoo” by Simon and Garfunkel, as well as “The MTA” by The Kingston Trio.
  • A quote by Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
  • Most of the obscure references from anything written by Douglas Adams,  from the BBC series Red Dwarf and a good chunk of the dialogue from “Shirley Valentine”.

I sometimes wish I were more high minded. I wish I could retain literature and quotes that could be whipped out at an Algonquin Table gathering. When I’ve read accounts from POWs and concentration camp prisoners, they seem to be able to recollect poetry and literature and music while imprisoned.

One of my Russian professors was able to talk for hours about every aspect of Russian culture – there was a sense of reverence for literature and music. When I was stationed in Germany, many of the Europeans I met were also this way.

canstockphoto3711301If I were ever a prisoner, would I be humming a Verizon commercial jingle, instead of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? I suspect that I’ve not been a good curator for my brain and that is something that seems less tolerable as I get older.

What has stuck with you over the years? Are you ever baffled as to why one thing stays and other more literate, profound things drift away?

26 Comments on “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Things that Stick

  1. I have so many things in my head, I’m never sure which will bob to the surface, as though my head is nothing more than a magic eight ball. The words of Vonnegut, the images of Peter Milton and the jingle from an iHop commercial in the mid 70’s all have the same odds of popping up. On an unrelated, yet strangely related point, today’s illustration has inspired me to pick up my pencils and paper and revisit a very old drawing…or maybe I’ll go and empty the dishwasher.

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    • I like the analogy to the magic eight ball. I was reading about how the digital age is rewiring our brains and all I could think was that rewiring around all that dust and cobwebs and irrelevant information is going to be quite the task. Sorry, brain.

      I’m always torn between artistic impulse and shoveling the driveway. Except that there is always more snow, more dishes to do, more laundry to haul. Artistic impulses? Not so much. Go draw.

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  2. How true! My aging brain is so strange in what it has retained, and even more bothersome in what it hasn’t. Possibly what bothers me the most is that the un-retained serves as a beaconed mirror showing what my true focuses in life have been, which certainly isn’t all bad.

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    • I worry that remembering so vividly things from earlier years is already a sign of declining short term memory. I’ve been trying to up my game and take in more complex literature and music, but when the dust settles, it’s still going to be lyrics from silly songs and stories I read as a kid!

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  3. The other day I found a new radio station and it played Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” which I hadn’t heard in decades. I sang along with every sappy word, every drippy note. I couldn’t believe I could remember that and not the password to my phone bill online.

    In college I took a couple of classes that covered neuro-lingual processing and schema theory and other things and I know there’s an explanation for this phenomenon, but I can’t remember it. Instead I remember every significant quote from The Princess Bride, Office Space and such. I’m ok with “Be excellent to each other,” from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, though. If I had to pick five words for a desert island, it would be those.

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    • You’re opening the floodgates to a confession about an occasional Carpenters yen and a few choice quotes from Beavis and Butthead. Seriously, I must not have any filters at all.

      I’ve got a book in my reading stack that I’m looking forward to: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. I think there are so many unknowns still about how the brain and how memory works, especially in regards to the aging brain. Now that so many people are living longer, I imagine the research will improve. Until then, I’m left with the lyrics to Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue”. Oh yeah, world problems are getting solved in this brain…

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      • I think that Eddie Grant was in a TV ad during the Super Bowl. Could that be its origin, for you? I had “feel the beat and the rhythm of the night” going for a while yesterday. Even just a minute feels like a while. I watched a clip by the Talking Heads yesterday that stuck with me, “cities,” from 1983. Truly amazing live performance. Made me want to be there with them, but s’pose I was.

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        • I usually don’t pay attention to the Super Bowl hubbaloo. Unfortunately that Eddie Grant thing is also from the year 1983, when I bought my first car, wore leg warmers and unlaced high tops and was dancing to Devo. Not a good year for fashion or music. But Columbia House made a lot of money off my bad taste in music.

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        • I will go to bat for that song. Did I just put that in permanent print? Leg warmers, sweat bands…makes me think of Loverboy. Turn Me Loose.

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  4. I’m fascinated by the whole ‘memory rewiring’ idea- that we are using the Internet as a kind of external hard drive for our brains. Link that in with worries that IT developments will mean that we cannot access older files because the hardware and software to read them will no longer exist, and we will be left with whatever has remained, scattered about our brains:-) I did research in some difficult areas of the world, and my mum always wanted me to memorise books, so that, as in Fahrenheit 451, I could remember them and keep my mind working (and the books alive), I I were ever to be kidnapped. I just have bits and pieces of them though, along with lines of plays and poems from my childhood. Maybe I will learn a series of apt quotes to drop into conversation, in order to spark discussions just like this!

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    • I’m very interested/concerned about the short circuiting my brain may be experiencing with the constant influx of fast information. Most of my initial learning was grounded in books and ofttimes I find comfort in using reference books still. I wish that I had memorized more – it seems now that it would require Herculean effort and focus.

      Your mother had some serious forethought!

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  5. The Second Coming is a fantastic and devastating poem, one of my favourites. Funny, I just commented on South of the Strait’s blog about Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, another favourite. Jon’s son had just been diagnosed with leukaemia, and he is blogging daily. Talk about devastating… But beautiful prose at the same time. http://joneekhoff.com/2015/02/15/ebb-and-flow/

    As for weird things I remember, today I was washing my hands in our two faucet sink, swishing from the hot to the cold to get the okay temperature. I can never do it without thinking of the film version of A Passage to India where I saw a character do just that and thought, “Oh, well THAT makes sense…!”

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    • Auden and Wordsworth both fill me with the longing to write with meaning. I read some of Jon’s posts and now that I’m done blubbering, I can say that there is no story in the world that so completely takes me in and makes my heart hurt as that of suffering children and parents. It is too easy to relate and it’s too close to home.

      My weird thing today was trying to teach my daughter “Rapper’s Delight”. The fact that I remember the words, while still being rhythmically challenged was enough to make us laugh hysterically.

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  6. You are in for a treat, you young thing you. Soon you can start a blog like mine about childhood memories, because that is pretty much all I can remember though I do remember it well.
    I have always wondered why music and lyrics stick in most people’s brains. “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah… here I am at… Camp Granada” … not even the big hits.
    My dear, sweet Mom had Alzheimer’s and toward the end she kept asking to see her Mom and Dad. She didn’t remember my name, but could sing the lyrics to many Christmas hymns.

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    • I help take care of a relative with dementia and this is why I’ve been reading so many books about the brain function and memory issues. It does make one aware of the fallibility of our minds. I have a grandmother whose mind is as sharp as anything, but is being outpaced by her body. Aging seems to be one of those uneven, frustrating things. While comparatively young, I think middle age, when parents are aging and one’s own physicality is changing, is when you start to think about life down the road.

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  7. I love Delmore Schwartz! And “I Am Cherry Alive” is one of my favorite poems, although it might not be completely representative of his work LOL.

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    • I just read that one and yes, not at all like the rather intense, claustrophobic short stories! I am always fascinated with the crowds some of these literary wonders run with – Lowell, Reed, Bellows? That is some intimidating company! Like Harper Lee and Truman Capote.

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  8. Give me a fragment of dialog from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and I can pretty much recite the whole episode. Don’t hate me because I’m fabulous.

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  9. I’m pretty sure I’d be able to torture my torturers back with constant renditions of theme songs from 60’s TV shows. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale …

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  10. I am currently in school studying engineering and I find my wondering why somethings stay with me but certain math equations completely evade me when I’m in a massive gymnasium trying to write a final.

    One short story that has always stayed with me is a by Robert Fulgham called ” it was on fire when I lay down on it”. This is from a book that was given to me when I was just a youngster by my father and has stuck with me through all the years. It occasionally creeps into mind in the weirdest times. I don’t know why, it’s not the best thing I have ever read or the funniest or the even the oddest, but this one stays with me like a trusty pocket knife.

    However, Like the rust on my trusty pocket knife, I like to think these little things we keep with us builds character.

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    • That’s a great phrase (“it was on fire when I lay down on it”), though and even without context makes me laugh. If you have to remember anything, let it be funny. We all need more of that.
      And you’re right, what we keep and what we remember are the things that help define and sometimes anchor us.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s appreciated!

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