Home > Biculturalism, Bilingualism, parenting > Symbols, Memory, the Collective Unconscious, and Language

Symbols, Memory, the Collective Unconscious, and Language

sad pumpkinWhen I was a kid, on my way back from school I filled the pockets of my uniform with chestnuts. Whenever I was wearing under the uniform a dress or pants with decent-sized pockets, I filled those as well. Every fall. Every day. I took chestnuts home. I unloaded them into some old shoeboxes that I kept under my bed. When I filled a box or two that I usually had there, I asked my mother for another one or two, not specifying the intended purpose for the boxes.

I am not sure at what point in the season I stopped bringing chestnuts home. I assume when it was late in the fall and most of the chestnuts left on the ground were rotting. But usually by that time I already had quite a few chestnuts. I was happy. At times I would take the boxes from under the bed and look at the chestnuts, hold some in my hands, then put them back and push the boxes back under the bed. Nothing much.

Then, one day late in the season, the chestnuts would mysteriously disappear. Usually on that particular weekend when my mother did a big fall cleaning of the house. When I was asked to leave my room to avoid being in the way. I would come back, reach under the bed, and discover the boxes were still there, but the chestnuts were gone.

I can’t even remember if I ever conducted an investigation. If I was really angry, or terribly hurt. In some undefined way I knew I couldn’t keep all those chestnuts I collected over the years anyway. So I never asked my mother what happened to the chestnuts. I preferred not to discuss their disappearance or think about how exactly they were discarded. Maybe I felt it was easier to let my mother get rid of them than to have to do it myself.

Chestnuts were a symbol of autumn for me, the main one. The emotional core of the season. In addition to chestnuts, my father bringing sacks of peppers home and my mother roasting the peppers signified autumn as well. I remember always mentioning the smell of roasted peppers in the essays I was required to write in school at the beginning of each season (in addition to those about Tito). Although I am not sure if I really cared much about the peppers. Or the pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, or the ajvar (pepper-eggplant spread), or the preserves and jams that my mother sometimes made in the fall. Maybe it was just the fact that people around me, including my parents, did that every year. The repetition. It acquired meaning over the years, the meaning instigated by people and culture.

Now it’s autumn, deep autumn in Philadelphia. It’s pretty cold, after many weeks of unusually warm weather, so the leaves are just beginning to turn. It’s a few days after Halloween. I scrambled together Halloween costumes for my son and me (my son a French gentleman from the 1600s with my purple beret and a cloak I made in a few hours, me a gypsy hippie or a hippie gypsy, whatever). My husband made a few suggestions for his possible costume in the months preceding Halloween,  like wearing pajamas, or maybe only shoes and socks and nothing else, but, of course, his suggestions were just a joke – he wore just his regular clothes. The day before Halloween we bought the last pumpkin in the kind of store where we wouldn’t normally even like to step into if we didn’t wait until the last minute to look for a pumpkin. And we bought some candy, half of which my husband and I ate the same night. My husband carved the pumpkin while I was taking pictures of him, and Andrei didn’t really care about the pumpkin one way or the other. A few times he took a look at what my husband was doing, and at some point he asked me, Mine?, and I said, Da, to je tvoja bundeva (Yes, that’s your pumpkin.), and that’s all he cared to know, that one more thing was his – possession or the lack of it is the main concept in his world these days.

Once my husband carved the pumpkin, a profoundly  (and beautifully) sad face, we put a candle in it, lit the candle, and put the pumpkin on the mantelpiece.  As my husband and I were watching a movie that night, I glanced at the glowing pumpkin every now and then. I liked the sad pumpkin face, I liked the orange glow. I am not sure when exactly I acknowledged the fact that I started liking this holiday called Halloween. The lightness of it, the pagan qualities, and the fact that any connection to religion is vague and indeterminate. And of course, who doesn’t like dressing up? And some candy? And this glowing guy looking at me?

Roasted peppers have been long gone from my memory. I buy them sometimes at Whole Foods or the Egyptian market we have nearby, and when I spear them with a fork and pull them out of the jar, one in ten times I remember my mother’s giant jars and the bright red peppers I would pull out of them, how my mother’s peppers  were extra tick and still a little firm when I would bite into them. But the smell of peppers being roasted has disappeared from my memory. I sometimes wonder if I liked the smell of roasted peppers simply because it was similar to the iconic smell of bonfire, which I always liked, and not because of its connection to the fall.

As for chestnuts, I still love them. The two chestnuts I picked up in Belgrade, at the Kalemegdan Park, in 1997, the year before I came to the US, still sit on my desk. Light and most likely perfectly hollow. For years, I thought there were not chestnut trees in Philadelphia. Because, wherever I lived, or worked, or went to school, I didn’t see any chestnuts. Someone I met at Beaver years ago tried to convince me chestnut trees were fairly common in the US. He even suggested we went outside and looked for chestnut trees, and so we did. We found chestnut trees, but not the actual chestnuts. It was probably too late in the season. Then, some years later, when I was living near Rittenhouse Square, a few years after I moved to that area, I cut through the grass one autumn day and stepped on nothing else but a chestnut. I was delighted. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t see them before. I gathered a few chestnuts, but soon my enthusiasm faded. I simply didn’t feel like filling my pockets with chestnuts. I realized something in me has changed. Maybe it would have changed even if I stayed in Serbia.

I love chestnuts, but I don’t actively seek them. When I run into them, I might pick up a few, but I have no interest in filling my pockets or my purse with them anymore. Many falls go by and I don’t see any chestnuts. Instead, my husband and I try to take a drive every fall to look at the turning leaves. The burst of redness moves me deeply. It’s not something I ever saw in Serbia. There are no maple trees in Serbia. There leaves turn yellow and brown, not red. So when my husband and I take a drive, I look at the red trees in delight for hours and I gather red and yellow leaves. I also take pictures. I love looking at the pictures later, but they don’t do much for me. It’s those few dry, fragile red leaves I manage to save unbroken that I go to. I rarely touch them. But I like to look at them, and I like the fact that they are still there even when autumn is long gone.

Symbols, symbols, symbols. The winners today are the turning leaves and Halloween (I have to mention that I hadn’t even heard of Halloween before I came to the US). The chestnuts, still present, take second place. The symbols seem to have slightly shifted over the years. I imagine the new culture is a significant factor. My life. What I see. What I do.

I wonder how my son’s set of symbols of fall will differ from mine. I don’t think he will have that experience of walking back from school alone or with his classmates down a tree-lined street gathering chestnuts (and maybe even misuse them – throw them at girls, which was what my classmates did). I wonder if telling him about roasting peppers in the fall (and seeing people drag numerous sacks of peppers from “pijaca”  (an open market) to the car, and then from the car to their houses, and even seeing people transport sacks of peppers on a bicycle) will have any meaning for him, even if we talk about it in Serbian? What will his memories, and even more importantly, his symbols consist of? I guess they will be based on what we do now. What he sees. What he does. All these small, simple things, maybe the dry leaves he loves to walk through and kick. Hot chocolate we now suddenly frequently make. And, of course, Halloween. Dressing up and munching on candy and having more candy than you have ever dreamed of! Who wouldn’t  remember that? Years ago, when I first read the first paragraph or two of Rick Moody‘s  story Demonology, I regretted not having any real connection to fairy-tale-like Halloween. So it’s all good. Whatever my son ends up with, Halloween, pecene paprike (roasted peppers), kestenje (chestnuts), it will all be good.

The term “collective unconscious” comes to my mind. My own playful version of some culturally specific “collective unconscious” that has maybe influenced my perception of fall, and that I like to stretch even further – wondering if there is a reverse reaction, something like the collective unconscious getting “updated” with some new components based on people’s new experiences. (I hope this stretch doesn’t insult Carl Jung. I have always found the concept of the collective unconscious and the archetypes mysterious and attractive, and I felt like they provided an invitation to (mentally) play.) And I like to imagine it as being this cycle – my version of the collective unconscious determining our perception of fall, for example, and then, the collective unconscious getting updated by some new experiences, which then further modify our perception.

Then on the other hand, going back to the realm of personal (versus the collective), I cannot help wondering if the words we use and our relationship to them have any bearing on our choice of symbols. For example, the fact that I always liked the word kesten (chestnut), and then once English came my way, I liked the word chestnut as much as I liked the word kesten. They both felt to me kestenjave and chestnuty enough, and they had enough substance and enough beauty,  even without their connection to the fall. On the other hand, I never liked the word sljiva (plum) in Serbian, and I never particularly liked eating the actual fruit…before English came along. But then I fell in love with the word plum and gradually with plums themselves. Today plums are one of my favorite fruits and I swear the beautiful, swollen, juicy word plum  has something to do with it. This makes me wonder if my son’s set of symbols will be affected by the relationships with words he develops, Serbian words and English words. If he might see apples as a symbol of autumn simply because apples happen to ripen in the fall and , at the same time, he might really like the English word apple or the Serbian word jabuka (his dominant word for this fruit is currently jabija, which is his pronunciation of jabuka, the Serbian word for apple).

Whatever my son’s route, whatever language he chooses, it comforts me to know he will end up at this beautiful place where language and symbols and memory intersect and create a world of possibilities. And whatever route he chooses, I know he will be all right.

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  1. November 8, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Lepo,Tanja,super blogs… Daj da vidimo slike kostima!

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