I was out walking my dog late on a mild spring evening a while back, when I passed by an elderly woman who was sitting on the front steps of her house playing an accordion. I recognized the piece of music as Bob Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece. There was an old elm tree in her garden, strung with Japanese lanterns, their glow reflected on the accordion’s mother-of-pearl finish and also upon the woman’s serene, meditative face. We exchanged a brief greeting, and Stella the Hound and I continued our after midnight walk. That evening, the moon was three quarters full, and Venus was shining brightly in the western sky. The whole thing was a small, brief, relatively ordinary tableau, but it somehow seemed charged with a magnificent if undefinable significance, and it really lifted my spirits.
It also made me think of another vividly-remembered moment in my life, so long ago now that it feels like another existence. I was with my partner, eating dinner in a restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. There was an accordion that night, too, being played by a Cajun man wearing a fine-looking fedora with a blue feather tucked into the crimson hat band. I still remember my partner and I eating oyster po’ boy sandwiches and pecan pie, washing them down with ice cold beer and glasses of sazerac. Afterwards, we wandered back to our hotel room down avenues lined with oak and sweet bay magnolia trees, and inky black royal palms that swayed in the warm breeze underneath the moonlight. The lights of a passing trolley car lit up the faces of a couple who were sharing a cigarette on a wrought iron Juliet balcony. I can close my eyes and picture it entirely. Ask me where I left my car keys last night, though, and it’s a different matter.
I think if there is any such a thing as the human soul, then that soul is synonymous, or very nearly so, with memory. Don’t our lives more or less amount to what we remember having done, thought, experienced, and felt, as well as the memories we have given others? Is there anything else about us that is of greater worth? Memory is our reason and our legacy, the memories glistening inside the honeycomb of our brains worth immeasurably more per ounce than cocaine, caviar, gold, or Lamborghinis.
If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself playing the occasional late-night game of wits against Despair, an entity who often appears to be much smarter and more worldly than you, and always seems to hold a pretty devastating hand: a full house of ennui, calamity, foreboding, guilt, and depression.
Against this, all you have to lay down are seemingly low value number cards. The memory of an oyster po’ boy, the smell of cherry blossoms, window shopping arm-in-arm with someone you love, the sound of a squeeze box on a soft spring night. Not a foolproof hand, perhaps, but if you play each card just right, it might be enough to win, at least from time to time.