You've felt it both ways, I'm sure. Though you'll cry at a shampoo commercial, you've stood in front of a memorial to a bloody battle and felt vacant. But you've also stared down a memorial for an incident or a person you've never heard of and then burst into tears.
Memorials do so much at once. They're built for the edification of the ignorant and for the comfort of the grieving, for the living and for the dead. They trigger reflection, but they also send their complex message into the future, a kind of note to future generations warning them of the consequences of repeating the past.
But what are you supposed to reflect on, exactly? And how? And what good is it anyway, especially if governments keep warring and people keep stabbing and cops keep shooting, even after we've done all that reflecting?
And even if memorializing doesn't solve anything, then why do we still have the impulse to do it? And to the extent that a memorial is any place where we store our memories—buildings, bars, certain trees, the mountains in the distance and the shape of the city itself—then does all this new construction risk wiping away the important lessons earlier generations were trying to teach us about the place we live?
These are some of the questions circling around Del (played by Jasmine Lomax) and Lee (played by Bill Johns), a couple who seems somehow beyond marriage (in the way you can sometimes be beyond hunger after skipping lunch) at the center of Vicinity/Memoryall, the first stage play by beloved local poets and former bookstore owners Christine Deavel and J.W. Marshall.
The plot is simple. One morning an ambiguously defined couple sets out in search of a memorial in Seattle, but all the new construction throws off their sense of direction and they get lost. They pause for lunch, fret a little, and eventually find the memorial they were looking for. During all of that, a "docent around the edges" named Clare (played by Cecilia Frye), pops in an out of the action to offer poignant observations about the goings-on.
I can't say the drama of two people searching for a memorial really gripped me, but it's been two weeks since I saw the show and in my idle moments I still think about the questions the characters ask. I still feel unsettled by Lee's nervous anxiety to memorialize, an impulse I've never really felt in any kind of acute way, at least not beyond leaving a little acorn on a grave now and then. The play has stayed with me like a poem.
In all of its noodling about the purpose of memorials, the play reminded me that, like a poem, you have to work for your leisure. Just staring at a memorial with nothing in your head isn't going to do anything. You have to actively picture the plight or triumph of the people being memorialized. Or, you can do as Del and Lee do and create a sort of personal ritual at each stone structure or painted mural. Del and Lee dance and sing, but you could leave an acorn or do anything you want. The ritual is a way of tying your body to the event if you didn't experience it directly, but, if you did, it's also a way of storing your memories there so you can make room for all the other stuff you have to think about.