A collage by Laura Weiler with photos of children's faces and a ferris wheel cut into small squares and arranged in an abstract disorder.

A Kind of Immortality

In this episode of The Detour we explore memory. Paul Susi and Sallie Tisdale wrote pieces for the Memory issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, and they read from these essays here. We also talk with Paul and Sallie about memory, about civic memory and personal memory and how much we need it and how unreliable it is and what it all means. Paul Susi is a community activist, educator, and performing artist based in Portland, Oregon. Sallie Tisdale is the author of several books, including Advice for Future Corpses, Stepping Westward, and the essay collection Violation.

Show Notes

Paul and Sallie's essays appeared in "Memory," the Summer 2022 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine. You can read the entire issue here.

About Our Guests

Paul Susi is a community activist, educator, and performing artist based in Portland, Oregon. He has been the manager of several homeless shelters, executive director of a theater company, and a site leader for outdoor school. Paul has led a number of Oregon Humanities Conversation Project programs. He is currently preparing to perform An Iliad in prisons and community centers around Oregon in the fall of 2023. Paul is the proud son of immigrants, a person of color, and he never went to college.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of ten books, most recently The Lie About the Truck. Her earlier books include Talk Dirty to Me and Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them). She published a collection of essays, Violation, in 2015. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, Antioch Review, Conjunctions, Threepenny Review, The New Yorker, and Tricycle, among other journals. She also teaches at Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon.

Further Detours

Transcript

Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis.

Do you remember that Sunday afternoon, maybe at the end of June, when we sliced up that melon, that perfect watermelon? Sweet, but not yet too sweet, and the juice of it was running down the sides of our hands onto our arms. And for some reason we decided we had to eat the whole thing, all of it. And we kept laughing while we were just shoving the melon into our mouths.

Do you remember how good that laughter felt and then how quiet it got once after? What felt like hours. The laughter finally emptied itself out, and then there were just those dragonflies that buzzing, that buzzing and that quiet. Do you remember that? No? Okay.

How about this? Think for a second of where you live right now. Do you remember who lived there before you and who lived there before they did? Do you remember the people who built the hospital just north of downtown? Do you remember the parade on the 4th of July? Maybe not who was in the parade, but the people who were sitting there on the curb watching it go by, or the people who came by early the next morning cleaning it all up.

You don't remember. Neither do I.

I don't remember either, but I almost feel like I do. I almost remember that watermelon and those dragonflies. And I almost remember that town, that hospital, that parade, even though I made them up. It's weird. Maybe bad weird, maybe good weird. Definitely weird enough that we want to spend this episode of The Detour exploring memory.

Paul Susi and Sallie Tisdale wrote pieces for the Memory issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, and they read from these essays here. We also talk with Paul and Sallie about memory, about civic memory and personal memory and how much we need it and how unreliable it is and what it all means. First, here's Paul Susi, a community activist, educator, and performing artist based in Portland, Oregon.

Paul has led a number of Oregon Humanities Conversation Projects, and he published this essay Here Lies for the Memory issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine. Paul and I sat down together at the XRAY FM studios in Portland, Oregon.

Paul Susi: The historic Lone Fir Cemetery, in Southeast Portland, is a unique urban green space with towering Douglas firs, rolling hills of ornate monuments, and bucolic views of a rapidly gentrifying cityscape. But one corner of the cemetery, known as Block 14, is conspicuous for what isn’t there: no grave markers—not even any dilapidated or vandalized plinths—no trees, no meticulously managed topiary. With its low fence and patchy grass, the lot resembles an abandoned field. In fact, it is the final resting place for hundreds of migrant Chinese laborers who are buried in unmarked graves. Among them is a man named Chee Gong.

Every Halloween, the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery produce the Tour of Untimely Departures. Families are invited to walk the cemetery grounds and watch community volunteers perform in costume and makeup as they tell the stories of some of the more notable people buried at Lone Fir. This not only opens up the cemetery to local residents so they can come hear and experience these stories, but also prevents vandals from desecrating the space on one of the most likely nights for such things. There are firefighters in vintage uniforms, well-to-do pioneer patriarchs and matriarchs, saloon brawlers, sex workers, and mental asylum patients. Children in costumes collect candy from folding tables at the cemetery entrance, and paper lanterns light the way between stops.

Several years ago, I was asked to join the tour and play Chee Gong, a Chinese migrant laborer who was convicted of murder and hanged on August 9, 1889. As one of the few actors of color in this town, I was not surprised to hear that the tour was having difficulty finding a community volunteer to play Chee Gong. I was, however, surprised that they were telling his story at all.

I was born and raised in Portland, and I’ve always been struck by how thoroughly amnesic our communities are. We have never had any sense of continuity, of connectedness to our collective past. We quickly forget the reasons why things are the way they are, and indeed, we usually remember things differently with each recounting. Why aren’t there any grave markers for the Chinese laborers and indigent asylum patients buried at a historic cemetery? For at least eighteen years, we’ve known that these markers are missing. Why haven’t we done anything about it?

 

On November 6, 1887, Lee Yik was murdered at the Chinese Theater in downtown Portland. Three suspects were immediately arrested: Fong Long Dick, Chung Lee, and Chee Gong. Lee Yik was a member of a family association, also known at the time as a “highbinder society,” “gang,” or “tong,” that was a violent rival of another family association to which Chee Gong and the other defendants belonged. During his trial, Chee Gong acknowledged this, testifying that his former employer, also a member of Lee Yik’s tong, owed him unpaid wages, and that he was being framed for murder as a result.

The evidence that convicted Chee Gong was all supplied by members of Lee Yik’s tong, and each witness delivered identical testimony. Contemporary commentators have inferred that the witnesses were perjuring themselves for the sake of scoring a conviction against Chee Gong’s tong. The evidence was flimsy enough that Chung Lee was exonerated, and Fong Long Dick’s sentence was commuted to a few years’ imprisonment. But Chee Gong was found guilty by an all-White jury at a second trial and sentenced to death.

In spite of a clemency petition, Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer refused to intervene and commute the sentence. In an interview with the Morning Oregonian on August 2, 1889, Pennoyer said, “I cannot see for the life of me why I should interfere. … The Chinese must be made to understand that the laws of the land are superior to the laws of the highbinders.” Three years earlier, in 1886, Pennoyer had successfully campaigned for governor with the slogan “Keep the Mongolians Out.” When his second term as governor ended, he was elected mayor of Portland in 1896.

Chee Gong vigorously testified in his own defense, drawing condescending praise for his impassioned eloquence. He objected to being handcuffed and hooded per the legal requirements of a judicial hanging, begging that his accusers and killers see his death without sparing anyone the messy evidence of their lies. Unusually for the time, he was hanged in a woodshed adjoining the Multnomah County Jail, likely in response to the notoriety of his case. On August 10, 1889, Chee Gong was quoted at length in the Morning Oregonian. He said, “I no kill man. I die in woodshed with black cap over my face so I no can see nothing … Chee Gong no kill man. He is innocent, therefore he should die in the open air. One week ago when sheriff come to me and say ‘Chee Gong, you must die next Friday,’ I say ‘all right, hang me in the yard.’ What for sheriff no do? What for he hang me in the woodshed? I go to hell I die this way… All ye friends, I want you all to look me in the face, and see what you can see. I no do nothing. I no kill Lee Yick.”

The sheriff issued just forty tickets to Chee Gong’s hanging, but the Morning Oregonian reports that well over a hundred people crowded the jail grounds and stood on buildings overlooking the woodshed. Chinese merchant Seid Beck, who had organized the failed clemency petition, paid for Chee Gong’s burial, but there is no marker. Was it lost? Was his grave left unmarked to prevent desecration? Was a marker deemed one step too far for a convicted murderer? We have no way of knowing.

In 1896, seven years after Chee Gong’s execution, the Morning Oregonian ran a story about a man who would burn incense and make food offerings at the entrance to the jail yard, in the hopes of appeasing Chee Gong’s angry ghost. The article read, “Haunting a jail yard … was anything but congenial pastime for a disembodied Mongolian spirit on the warpath for his enemy’s scalp, even that of a hanged Mongolian, and it was to apease [sic] its longings and nightly wailing that this heathen Chinese, with more devotion to his dead friend than is found in the hearts of many Caucasians, came to this lonely spot in the jail yard contributing relief according to his religion, firm in the belief that his act quieted the perturbed spirit for another brief period of time, and always hopeful of seeing the spirit of his dead friend released and on its way to the happy hunting grounds in the flowery kingdom.”

 

On Halloween in 2017, I played Chee Gong as the last stop in a ten-stop walking tour of Lone Fir. I accepted the role because I wanted to remember Chee Gong, and I wanted others to remember him, too. I had no interest in affirming the pleasant, self-congratulatory interest in “local history” that most people who attended the Tour of Untimely Departures were seeking to perpetuate. I wanted to shake their complacency, wipe the smug expressions off their faces. I wanted to speak on behalf of the hundreds of people in those unmarked graves in Block 14—people who didn’t look like today’s happy, comfortable, housed residents of inner Southeast Portland—and I wanted to show young Filipino and Chinese children that there are adult creatives who might mirror their own aspirations. My grandmother was ethnic Chinese, and though I have no connection to local Chinese communities, I presumed that this gave me some legitimacy. Besides that, I resent the entire calculus around performing ethnicity, which is peculiar to non-White roles and especially onerous for actors of color.

Embodying my identities is how I survive. By doing work like this, I’ve successfully convinced White audiences that I’m not a threat, that I’m not depriving a “more deserving” White person of a job. My Shakespearean training was the most sophisticated code-switch I could adopt: the training ensured that I would never speak with an “oriental” accent and that my artistic perspectives would conform to prevailing norms. But all that work, all that training, cannot erase the uncomfortable aspects of our history.

As Chee Gong, I performed to around five hundred indifferent audience members, broken up into smaller walking groups. I don’t remember seeing anyone of the same ethnicity as me, or really anyone of color. I wore a “mandarin collar” tunic and baggy slacks. A volunteer makeup artist attempted to give me “zombie” makeup for the occasion, but we had trouble with the makeup pigments, which weren’t designed for people of color, so I just looked vaguely dirty. My segment was a five-minute monologue that wove in newspaper quotes with other facts about the unmarked graves. I’d like to think that I spoke from a place of emotional truth, that I succeeded in connecting with audiences that weren’t expecting to be shaken by Chee Gong’s story, but I have no real way of knowing this. After about twenty performances, I came away from the night exhausted, unspeakably sad, and determined to do more to honor Chee Gong’s memory. I knew that my version of him could only be a distortion of his truth, which is irretrievably lost to us, in the same way that the exact location of his grave is lost.

Chee Gong was murdered by Sheriff Penumbra Kelly and Governor Sylvester Pennoyer. He was unjustly convicted of a crime that no one seriously believed he committed, and we can’t bring ourselves to place a stone so that we can remember where we buried him, or hundreds of others. If those graves remain unmarked, we won’t know where the cemetery ends and the city begins.

Adam Davis: Paul, thanks for reading that. I imagine that's hard to read.

Paul Susi: Yeah. Yeah. It brings up some feelings.

Adam Davis: Yeah. You know, it brings up feelings to hear you read it, it brings up feelings on the page, and yet I know none of those rise to what you're feeling, reading it, having written it, I imagine remembering your experience of performing.

I'm a little unsure if we should start with your experience or in a way the, the amnesic communities. Can we maybe, let's start with those. That's a powerful phrase, “amnesic communities.” What do you mean by it?

Paul Susi: Yeah. Um, well, lately I've been thinking again a lot about this piece. And I've been noticing little parallels everywhere in our cultures, not just in Portland. Like, there's all of this iconography and intentionality around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and cenotaphs in London. And, uh, you know, empty graves. And the end of The Iliad is like the burial of—I've been studying the The Iliad recently—and the end of the The Iliad is a beautiful, really moving speech that tells you how to bury someone the right way. And that's like the response to all of this trauma and this endless violence that we all seem to be wrestling with all the time. And yet we keep forgetting how to do that.

Like we keep needing these instruction manuals, these requiem masses, these beautiful works of art that tell us, “This is how you let go of things that you can't let go of.”

And I feel like Portland specifically has a lot of stuff that's like right in front of our faces. My car was just broken into—like someone stole the battery out of my car. And I could respond with like anger and frustration and, “Ah, Portland sucks. And like it's gotten so much worse.” And then like, just taking a half step back from that instinctive reaction. And it seems like there's these critical insights that are just under the surface, all around us that we don't know how to pay attention to.

Adam Davis: Why do you think it's so hard to, uh, to do this better? To remember better?

Paul Susi: Well, in some ways I think it's intentional. I think that we built this city on rock and roll (laughs). We built this city in ways that, like, we don't want to repeat ourselves. We don't want to make it easy for ourselves to remember these things. There's power sharing structures and checks and balances and city council and neighborhoods that don't talk to each other. The city wanted from the beginning to insulate itself from its own memories—stolen land. We wanted to in insulate ourselves from these things. And then this is the consequence of all that insulation. We are constantly forgetting how connected we really are to each other and the shared histories that we all have with each other.

Adam Davis: That feels a little bit hopeful, weirdly, at the end of it, when you said, we're forgetting how connected we are. It feels like, huh.

Paul Susi: Yeah. I'm optimistic I think because it's a sunny day. And because I'm rehearsing in Iliad, so I get to work out all my rage issues on stage. But I'm optimistic because, um, to quote Jurassic Park, “Nature finds a way.” Like our communities endure somehow. This continuity—like, I'm shocked that even The Oregonian archives are accessible enough to the point where I could have researched this as much as I did.

Adam Davis: Yeah. You know, even that, it's interesting when you read. What we describe as Chee Gong’s words. Which of course, are some version of whatever he might have said. Somehow, even with all of that, they still hold tremendous power.

Paul Susi: Yes.

Adam Davis: So you said yes. You feel that too?

Paul Susi: Absolutely.

Adam Davis: What's going on there? What's your sense of what's going on there?

Paul Susi: Yeah. Yeah. That to me is like the miracle of human connections, right? Like in spite of all of the racist lenses of translation and transliteration that have interposed themselves between our present moment right now in 2023 and when Chee Gong was hanged in 1889, there is still something about Chee Gong, about this person who defended himself in court, who testified from the stand, who moved people to tears in his trials and inspired people all over the West Coast. Academics and newspaper editors from San Francisco and Astoria were writing into The Oregonian saying, “This guy clearly didn't do anything.”

And they weren't even at his trial. They were just reading the newspaper accounts at that time. And so they all flooded the governor's desk with petitions. Something about what he said and how he said it is perpetuating itself, has given him a kind of immortality.

And that gives me faith for civilization generally, right? Like all the awful stuff that that is happening now and has been happening for thousands of years, there is still some kind of through line of hope and of community and love and care for others that has somehow survived across different filters. So again, it's a beautiful day outside and I'm hydrated right now.

Okay.

Adam Davis: Okay. It's interesting, you’re hydrated right now. And it makes me think of your performing as Chee Gong, and that didn't sound like a particularly hopeful experience. Sounded like a really, uh, difficult and in some ways really demoralizing experience.

Paul Susi: Yes. Yes, it was. So this was Halloween of 2017. It was before the pandemic. The Friends of the Lone Fir Cemetery are a really sweet bunch of people who just really care about that cemetery and have organized themselves to lead walking tours and clean up the cemetery from time to time. And one of them reached out to me saying that there was this character that they had been trying to get performers to play for a while. And I think there had been an up an actor a few years before me who had played Chee Gong and uh, and then they stopped and I wasn't able to find out why or what happened. And I had never heard of Chee Gong. And so I did some of the research and I looked at the materials that they had.

And yeah, my stop was like right by this quartet of beautiful, beautiful Sequoia trees almost in the center of the cemetery. And it's a stone’s throw away from Block 14, and there's these beautiful views all around it. And yeah, little groups of about 20 to 30 people would come to me every five minutes and I would be like, “Oh, I didn't see you there. Let me tell you the story of…” You know, it was kind of cheesy, but it was also mostly those words that I just read. And then some facts about who else was, like the hundreds of others whose stories we don't know. And I had like just about five to ten minutes with each group. And I was crying every time. Like, it’s so indulgent. I moved myself to tears every time. Because I just got angrier and angrier that, the absurdity of that situation where, you know, these firefighters in their vintage uniforms and these, you know, Victorian matriarchs and their hoop dresses and people were like—it felt a little bit like Disneyland. And then Chee Gong was this reality check that, you know, actually there's a whole other sublayer to this that we are living right now, and we are a part of that story right now too.

Adam Davis: Right. It feels like the metaphorical power of that experience is so, uh, close to the surface that it's almost not a metaphor.

Paul Susi: Right, right, right.

Adam Davis: It's like you want public history here? Here's what I need to do and experience in order to provide even five minutes for you as you walk through the lovely park.

Paul Susi: Right, right.

Adam Davis: But you came out of it, you say, more committed to telling Chee Gong’s story.

Paul Susi: Yeah. There there's something. There's something about the empty tomb or the unknown tomb. There's something about how that landscape of inner Southeast Portland with its own history, with its ongoing history of racialized violence. Like, I never pronounce his name right, I apologize. Mulugeta Seraw—that's the same neighborhood. And until the twenties—I remember one of the facts I used to say in the walking tour—was that until the 1926, Chinese people, Asian people, weren't allowed to be in Southeast Portland at all. Like, that wasn't repealed until 1926.

And so, you know, there's something about that, sort of, critical mass of history and of story that that has its own momentum for me. I can't not think about all of these things as I'm walking through the—I live there, I live on 34th and Belmont. I can't not think about all of these things as I, as I live in my own city.

Adam Davis: It seems like many of us can not think about it. I mean, this is to go back to the amnesic communities. What is it that drives the effort to get people who are not predisposed or ready to think about it to think about it?

Paul Susi: Knowing that I would rather know than not know. That knowing is the beginning of wisdom. And so I would hope, I would hope that my friends and my neighbors would tell me if I was being incredibly disrespectful in my ignorance of not knowing the particular custom or the particular, you know, whatever it is that I'm, that I'm unintentionally desecrating.

And I wanna assume the benefit of the doubt for everybody around me that like, whoever reads this and didn't know ahead of time, this is not meant to make people feel bad. This is meant to inform, right? And that we can, we can make better choices and hopefully we can figure out a way to appropriately and respectfully commemorate what we've all lived through and benefited from as a result of all of these things.

Adam Davis: And so the commemoration, to use the word you just used. Which seems like it has memory in it. And, and co. Sort of remember together, but I felt like you were really pointed forward as well.

Paul Susi: Yes, yes. Yeah. I don't think that, you know, as we, as we build up and we, you know, we work on affordable housing and we, we try to revive the city from whatever traumas that we've been experiencing the last few years. Rebuilding our city and rebuilding our communities has to take into account an understanding of what we've been building on to begin with. Right? I mean, I mean that literally, when I say if we don't know where the graves are, we don't know where the cemetery ends. And there's long been rumors, you know, urban myths around like, Central Catholic High School is built on reclaimed property from the cemetery, and supposedly they moved everything underneath the school. I mean, it sounds, it's kind of campy, it sounds like the setup of a horror movie. The neighborhoods all around Lone Fir Cemetery were once rural and farmland, and now it's all neighborhoods and businesses and schools and yeah. So it's kind of, yeah, it's like, it's not even a metaphor anymore. It's literally building on graves.

Adam Davis: Can I ask you to read the last sentence again of the essay? Because I think, yeah. It feels, again, both literal and metaphorical.

Paul Susi: If those graves remain unmarked, we won't know where the cemetery ends and the city begins.

Adam Davis: How does that sentence sit for you when you just read it on its own there?

Paul Susi: Well, the dark side of this optimism is that like, I don't think we ever can really know. Yeah, there's no way that you could—I can't imagine that the political situation this in the city would ever get itself together enough to accept the implications of all of this and like, you know, do right by these unmarked graves.

I mean, they haven't been able to do it for the last 18, 19 years now. What makes me think that they could get it together in the next 20 years? Um, and then, and then, so the reckoning is how do you, how do you come to peace with the idea that like all of this, all of this is stolen land? All of this is fruit from a poison tree. And some of it we have agency in and some of it we don't have agency in. And that all of that is a matter of nuance and shadings and discretion and, um, yeah. Yeah. That's humbling.

Adam Davis: Yeah. It's interesting to think again about the like do right by these by the people who died in terrible and forgotten, deliberately overlooked circumstances. What would it mean to do right by them? And then what would it mean in thinking about that to do right by us?

Paul Susi: Yes. Yes. And, and there, maybe there's the thread. Is that like we can never, not without like some kind of divine omniscience, we can never be able to say, “Okay, now we've done right by them. We've built a fancy monument. Everything's fine now.” Right? “We've, we've committed to reparations. Everything's fine now.” No, it's always going to be this ongoing process for every generation to confront how can I be okay with what I've inherited? And, uh, for me personally without trying to, in any way influence others, I think the solution is to try. Like, I don't get to know that I've succeeded. If I ever succeed. All I get, all I get to know is that I'm trying and that I'm always trying, and that that's expensive and that's hard and that's humbling and it's hard work, and I can't be complacent with that. Um, but trying to bury Hector the right way. Trying to, whether it is a stone or it's writing more pieces or something for Chee Gong or, um, yeah—I think the trying is the important part. And it's so subjective, but it's also intuitively knowable. A kid can know when you're trying and when you're not trying. Like, anyone can, can see the difference. And it's so hard to like put it into words, but when a leader or a community is making an honest effort to reckon with something, you feel it and you understand it. And I have faith in that.

Adam Davis: It's really powerful and it's also, it feels so challenging to think about trying to bury too late the right way.

Paul Susi: Mm-hmm.

Adam Davis: Which is a way of thinking about how are we gonna be buried?

Paul Susi: Yes, yes. Yes. Because cuz in doing this, we are actually prepping our own monuments. You know, a Pharaoh would be like, I gotta build another pyramid now. Um, what is our answer to that? You know, what is our answer to knowing that we, we just have however much time we have (laughs). On our next episode…

Adam Davis: I mean, I love it, I love that the hearty laugh that follows what feels like, uh, some serious stuff. I guess I want to ask, like as you walk around Southeast Portland, you think about what is and isn't, uh, memorialized publicly. You got questions in your head, a question in your head, or a strong feeling in your heart?

Paul Susi: I mean, I was talking, uh, at the beginning about all the stuff that's right in front of our faces. And for me, the strong feelings, the strong, the stronger emotions come up, the more reactive emotions come up with our housing crisis. With folks living outside right now and people being swept from Laurelhurst Park and people being swept from businesses and from, you know, parking medians, uh, all over southeast Portland. And losing everything repeatedly and suffering visibly right next to our comfortable houses and our vehicles and the places where we walk our dogs and play with families and stuff and schools. And so yeah, there's no, there is no tidy. Like, oh, if we could only all just do this, then everything would be fine. No, this is the result of years of structural racism and neglect and the impoverishment of our social safety nets and our almost intentional starvation of communities of communal structures and ties.

Um, Yeah. And, and that's, you know, of course it's not gonna be as simple as just building more housing or just yeah, just giving everybody money. Like there's, there's no one size fits all solution to any of this.

Adam Davis: But it interesting. More than interesting. It's worrying in all sorts of ways to think like we're looking back 140 years as we've been talking about, about Chee Gong. And to think like 140 years from now, what would it take, what would a community have to do to look back and see and recognize and maybe even honor?

Paul Susi: Yeah. Yeah. The figure in the article—Chee Gong’s friend who comes back to the jail seven years later—the rest of that article in the Morning Oregonian described him as probably a vagrant, as someone who was sleeping on the streets.

And, uh, the reporter picked up the story because he was new on the beat and he was getting to know the jailer at the jail. And the jailer was new. And the jailer told him this anecdote. And then the jailer said that, and I'm paraphrasing, but the jailer said that he let this guy come back every day for like six weeks. And then one day he noticed that the guy brought his bed roll and was preparing to sleep under the stairs at the jail. And that's when the jailer said, “All right, that's it. No more. Never come here again.” And kicked him. The article describes it —the original article in the Oregonian.

So that's another parallel, right? Like he was trying to bury Chee Gong the right way. He was going through whatever he was going through, this guy. And our city is still exactly in that same spot, where everyone is just trying to do right. They're trying to figure their stuff out and trying to survive, and we keep running afoul of ourselves and each other. And we keep getting swept. Every time we sweep, we are sweeping away that much accumulated memory and effort at reconciling. I mean, that's a little simplistic, but that's what I'm seeing every time, you know, someone loses their birth certificate and their ID, and then now they, and whatever other challenges they were already dealing with, now they have this extra layer of erasure to contend with every time their tent is swept, every time their belongings are trashed. And who are we to say, you know, that—anyway, I could go on and on…

Adam Davis: But that impulse in Chee Gong’s friend? To go back, mark the place, mark the person, mark what led to the terrible way that his life ended. Maybe we should leave it there. Maybe we should leave it. Can I also though say just a big thanks for the work and the how much of yourself you're putting into this.

Paul Susi: Thank you. Thank you.

Adam Davis: Paul Susi is a community activist, educator, and performing artist based in Portland, Oregon.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of several books, including Advice for Future Corpses, Stepping Westward, and the essay collection Violation. I sat down with Sallie at the XRAY FM studios to talk about her essay, the ethics of memory, and writing, and interestingly, how Zen Buddhism can help us question conventional truths about others and ourselves.

First hear Sallie reading an excerpt from her essay, A Winner Every Time.

Sallie Tisdale: When I was six, I entered a talent contest at the county fair and danced the Twist on stage in front of a noisy crowd. At the next year's fair, I shook hands with the television pilot Sky King and his niece Penny. A few years later, I beat a grown man in the pie-eating contest and got a red transistor radio.

The fair was the pinnacle of my summer, of every summer in a big county full of ranchers, loggers, and a lot of lonely land. At the fair, children ran feral. I wandered the long cool exhibit halls filled with pickles, quilts, and giant squash. We went to the rodeo and the demolition derby, a concert of joyous noise and violence. In the commercial building, I collected buttons advertising vinyl siding, bible stories, and tractors. In the fragrant livestock pens, I leaned on the metal gates to gaze at pigs, chickens, and lambs destined for auction and slaughter. Sharp sun soaked the acres of unkempt grass, and my brother and I would curl up in a spot of weak shade for lunch. Hot dogs, baked potatoes wrapped in foil. Cotton candy spun out of thin air and ice cream dribbling onto our bare legs.

But first, last we came for the midway, the screams and shouts, the doppler roar of the roller coaster. The throng of humid teenagers necking and corners. Konik speakers perched like sofar at the intersecting paths blaring static-ridden pop songs.

We came for The Hammer, The Scrambler, and The Zipper, for the faint nausea of centrifugal force. We came to toss ping-pong balls into fishbowls and throw darts at balloons, dreaming of a giant stuffed panda bear. August's twilight was a gentle dimming of the day's glare that seemed to last for hours until the shadows rose and turned the sky black.

Then the lights snapped on, flashing gold in scarlet, green, and orange, and my chest swelled with something tender and unnamable. I didn't know the words for a long time, but I came for the melancholy. I came for the longing. How vivid these scenes are, how treacherous.

Memory is the encoding of experience, a mysterious collection of chemicals and cues. The act of remembering is called retrieval, and it could hardly be a less accurate term. We think our lives are recorded somehow, captured and preserved. But every retrieval of a memory is the active recreation of it, a process known as reconstruction. Each memory of anything, of everything is built from scraps and shards and is never complete.

John Updike said that when he tried to remember his past, all he found was a background of dark matter. We can't see this mess, but it moves us. He wrote, “All that is not said remains buzzing.” We take the traces of encoding and then fill in the gaps with fragments, inferences, traces of other events, new lessons. Everything we experience can impact how we remember, what we remember. With each pass, each recollection, tiny deformations appear. No memory is ever accurate exactly. Never a neutral snapshot of what happened. It lives once and is gone. And with each retrieval, the reconstructed memory is more deeply laid, more subtly framed, more nuanced. The older our memories, the more they have changed.

Who can I trust? Our siblings reconstruct memories from similar fragments, but differing inferences and hopes—inferences and hopes that diverge from ours more with every passing year. Our supposedly shared memories are often near, but never exact. My brother and sister and I have never experienced the same event, even when we were standing shoulder to shoulder.

Each time a person is told that their memory of an event is correct, the memory becomes more vivid. “That's right,” my brother says to me when I ask him about the demolition derby, the ice cream, and the scene sharpens. The colors grow brighter. “That's right,” I say to myself, each time I remember. The faint scent of manure and the perfume of popcorn wafts by, my toes curl in the dusty grass.

Adam Davis: Sally, thanks for reading that.

Sallie Tisdale: Thank you.

Adam Davis: And you say, in a couple places you talk about memory as betrayal, memory as treachery. Uh, maybe we could start with those two small words, betrayal and treachery.

Sallie Tisdale: Yes. Uh, I have been studying the science of memory for almost a year now, and it has undermined a lot of what I thought about how we remember our past.

And as a writer, I often mine the past for material, uh, my own past and the pasts of others. And it's pretty hard to be a writer without doing that. So when you begin to realize that a great deal of what you remember is in fact not true or certainly not verifiable and different from what other people remember, then that's what I mean by betrayal. In a sense, I felt in this last year like I've lost my past. And certainly lost the ability to say, “This is what happened.” So in this essay, I'm really trying to make the point that there is a kind of internal story that may differ from the external story. And the problem is when we insist that they are the same thing.

And I, you know, because I write about the past, I also read other writers about their pasts, and I am now very suspicious. Very skeptical of especially detailed memories.

Adam Davis: Which, I feel like so many of your personal essays start with incredibly vivid memories, whether it's crickets or your warm face against a cool glass cover to meat at a butcher's. So many of the essays start with vivid memories, and so it's—that's, in a way, the reason I wanted to start by asking you about betrayal. Because inaccurate or incomplete is one thing; betrayal feels like, all right.

Sallie Tisdale: Right. Well, I'd like to think the detail that I start with may actually be completely true. Because like the, putting my warm face against the cool glass case in the butcher shop. The butcher was my father's best friend. My mother bought meat probably every other day. We were there a lot. I spent many, many, many days of my childhood in that place, and I did that probably a thousand times. The betrayal is that in my mind, I then want to make a particular day and a particular story out of that detail.

For instance, we were, when we were very young, we were allowed to wander pretty freely. I had a very feral childhood. So even by the age of seven, I was being sent to the grocery store with money to buy a loaf of bread or quart of milk and take it home. And I remember vividly, as you say, buying ketchup, and as I was crossing the intersection home, I dropped it and it shattered in the middle of the crosswalk. And I completely panicked and burst into tears and ran home, leaving this smashed ketchup bottle in the middle of the street. I think that happened exactly like that, but I have no idea what surrounded it.

The mistake we make as writers, I think, is to then create a story from that, and I see writers do it all the time. Have you read a memoir that has a carefully reconstructed conversation from when the writer was six? We do not remember conversations from when we are six.

Adam Davis: So it's interesting, you're, in a way, it feels to me like you're describing an ethic around nonfiction writing. And I wonder, I kind of want to ask you to move away from writing for a minute. If I can. And I'm thinking, because all of us, whether we write or not, we've all, I think, built up a sense of our life based on these memories that, as you have been saying, like the memories actually become clearer as we reconstruct them. Is that a bad thing? That we're hanging our understanding of ourselves on memories which can't be as clear as we have made them become?

Sallie Tisdale: So I'll do a 180 for you. Because I've also been a practicing Zen Buddhist for a long, long time, since my early twenties. Forty years. And I have a completely different ethic from that point of view, which is that we are reborn continually. We are never a self for long. That the self I was yesterday has changed just a little bit to be the self today. And a great deal since that little girl who dropped the ketchup bottle. She is not me. Neither is the teenager who went to the fair. Neither is the young woman. They are not me. They are my ancestors and I have inherited their tendencies and a kind of genetics from them. I'm sort of stuck with the package they gave me, right? I inherit the consequences of their choices. I inherit their points of view. I inherit physical injuries and all kinds of other things from my ancestors.

Adam Davis: Well, when you were talking about your writing, you really, it sounded like, had the reader in mind when you said we shouldn't present our memories as being more true than we can know them to be. But still, we're trying to put some story together for the reader.

As you've been talking about Buddhism, it sounds like you're saying the story we tell ourselves, we shouldn't trust that either.

Sallie Tisdale: Well not trust it so much as not be driven by it. If that makes sense. We all carry scripts in our head. We all carry voices in our head from the past that tell us we are certain kinds of people or that we like or don't like certain things and so on. I mean, some people have a script about being unlovable. Some people have a script about being smarter than everybody. Everybody's got a script. The problem is when we believe them all and don't recognize them as something from the past.

Adam Davis: It's interesting. It's just, it's interesting to think about, uh, the relationship between the things we don't know in the past, which it sounds like, I feel like you're making an argument that we know less than we, we act as if we do.

Sallie Tisdale: Yeah. We know much less. And, and as you read the science, which is, like I said at the beginning, undermines a lot of what we presume about ourselves. The more you remember it, the more it changes, the more you verify it, the sharper it gets. And all these, you know, it's very, actually very easy to create false memories in people, and they are just as emotional, even more detailed and more vivid than accurate memories. And people, they'll say, “Well, it's so clear, it's so vivid. It must be true.” And in fact, that's kind of the opposite. We sort of polish a lot of our memories. Mm-hmm. And because of the way memory works neurologically, it's continually grabbing new fragments every time you reconstruct it.

Adam Davis: I guess I'm still wondering about the relationship. Like for many of us, that doesn't seem like an unproductive thing.

Sallie Tisdale: No. No. How do we remember that we're not that person that we remember being. That every day is an act of reminding ourselves—and I love the word remind—reminding ourselves that we are not who we were, that we are reborn into this new conditioned self.

One of the interesting conflicts we come to here is I tell my younger students that it's too soon for them to write many of the stories they want to write. They don't have any kind of space or objectivity or even understanding of the story that they're trying to write. They haven't found that internal story completely yet. And they, so they want to write about things that are still very fresh. And I often tell students, “Give it time. You know, let it calm down, find some composure around the event, whatever it is.” But in fact, memory science tells us that you should write it right away, immediately, because it's gonna change. And so I started writing memoir when I was in my early twenties. And I read them now and I can think, yeah, that's not a bad piece of writing, but I didn't really understand what I was writing about.

Adam Davis: That word you just used, understand, feels like, okay, there's accurate memory of events and then there's self-understanding.

Sallie Tisdale: Right. What did that event mean? And what will that event continue to mean? Because our understanding will change too. What seemed to mean something in my twenties has shifted.

Adam Davis: So then it feels to me like you're making a case for understanding as distinct from, and I think more important than, something like remembering.

Sallie Tisdale: Right. And I'm okay with all of that as long as we're acknowledging that that's what we're doing. Um, and here's another side to that, which is again, back to the Buddhist point of view, which is that you can change the past and we, we say the present flows to the past, the past flows to the future, and so on.

It's not just that time is not exactly this linear river that we're swimming through. It's much more complex than that. Even in physical terms, but that as we understand our past and the other characters in our story, what happened takes on new meanings.

So for instance, my father appears in a lot of my stories because he was a very difficult person. He was an active alcoholic; he had a huge temper; he sometimes hit us. He was also very bright. He was very competent. He was, it was, I had a very confused relationship with my father. And for a long time I blamed him for a lot of my stuff, a lot of my troubles. That I had a difficult father, I had a difficult upbringing, blah, blah, blah. The time came when that got a little tiresome. And I began to understand, you know, you hit your thirties and you hit your forties and you see your parents in a different way. And I certainly saw my father and his mother and her father, and could suddenly look back through this river of linear time and see why he was who he was.

His mother was a serious piece of work. And you know, his father died when he was sixteen and there were, he went to the war and was in the South Pacific theater and was bombed. And you know, all of a sudden it's like, oh, this young man who was my father was a very broken, traumatized person. And I could see all of that and suddenly all of that anger and frustration about the difficult man my father was just melted away.

That's what I mean by saying that you can change the past. That sad, lonely little girl who wanted her daddy's love suddenly was loved, was suddenly loved as well as he could do. And I really believe that everybody is doing the best they can. And it's not good enough, a lot of the time. Especially when we look at our larger political picture, you think, “Really? They're doing the best they can?” I think that most people are. And that what we, the generosity that we can bring to the world is to recognize that everybody's broken and everybody is trying to understand their story.

Adam Davis: Sallie Tisdale is an author based in Portland, Oregon. What do you think about memory? What do you think about writers’ or non-writers’ responsibility to accurately portray memory in all of its unreliability? Send us a short voicemail about a story or thought you'd like to share to the detour@oregonhumanities.org. We might include it in our next episode.

Last month we released our episode Talking about Success with Kids and asked listeners to send in clips of the kids in their lives. Here's young listeners Ester and Felix talking about what success means to them.

Parent: What's your name?

Ester: Ester.

Parent: What do you think about when you hear the word success?

Ester: Um, I don't know. I kinda think about somebody hugging another person and like them becoming best friends and living together and having a happy life.

Parent: What's your name?

Felix: Felix.

Parent: What do you think about when you hear the word success?

Felix: Getting a job and fulfilling your goals, like getting a nice house.

Adam Davis: The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski, and Alexandra Powell Bugden are our assistant producers. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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