What Can You Give Up Knowing?

What Can You Give Up Knowing? 
A Writing Prompt from Natalie Goldberg's book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir 

I can give up knowing my childhood phone number: 532-6350. No local area codes used back then. I can give up knowing the birthdays of high school friends: Grace/September 18, Tricia/December 11, Margi/March 10, Kathi/March 19, Diana/May 12, Rosie/April 4. But these numbers continue to stay with me, covered underneath an old grey wool blanket at the back of my brain, resting there in case I need this information. I'm not sure why I easily memorize phone numbers and birthdates, yet can't seem to put numbers together in a mathematical way. The truth is that I've tried to give up this information, and it just won't vanish or vaporize.

And I don't know that this is possible, but I'd like to give up remembering the famous photo of children, including a naked girl, running down a muddy road away from napalm bombs in South Vietnam on June 8, 1972. I'd like to give up knowing that my father played soccer around dead bodies during the Spanish Civil War. I'd like to give up knowing that my mother heard the sirens time and time again on the school playground outside London, and saw her classmates get killed as she ran down into an underground shelter. I'd like to give up knowing that my country has killed so many people in Latin America on the premise that the "scourge of communism" had to be scrubbed away.

I could give up knowing that Africans were dragged from their homes, families, and everything they knew to be put on slave ships in chains and then sold. I could give up knowing that thousands of Native Americans were raped, massacred, enslaved and had their land stolen from them, a sick holocaust that became known in our school history books by the elegant name Manifest Destiny. But none of this is possible.

This is when I sometimes remember to breathe, to take a sip of room temperature water and allow it to rinse the part of my brain that knows these things, even though I recognize that the same knowledge will quickly return. It always does.

What I can give up is coffee, and stick to green tea, because my weak adrenals forced me to do so. I can try to give up some of my anxiety about living in this world and never achieving what American culture insists is enough to feel good about me. I can practice giving up the fear that sweeps me away, off into the Atlantic ocean on a cold deep lime wave.
Photo by Dick Keely


  1. Dear Carmen,

    Yes, our residual memories are deeply embedded. Yet we continue to make them and are making new ones now in this very moment that I read your words.

    Even though I am not Catholic, I have made my own Lenten tradition: I commit to a specific way of being kinder to myself and others. This year it is to express unconditional support for my family, which I suspect will be harder than giving up chocolate ;)

  2. Wonderful, Holly--your commitment to yourself and family are so important. What a great idea! Thanks for reading this. Love, Carmen


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