The Way We Are

Memories. They not only light the corners of my mind, they’re stacked so high back there, it’s like an episode of Hoarders. Whether misty water-colored or neon bright, I can’t imagine throwing one out. In a way, all together, they stand for exactly who I am. As if you could color in an outline of myself with millions of my experiences - that is, the ones I remember. From the dusty almost sepia-toned memories of growing up to fond recollection of my first love to the stark images of being in a hospital giving birth, each moment, placed upon each other, tells my story. It’s an individual narrative we all have. One supported by our trove of memories.

I feel great tenderness towards this memory business, and am aware of the offering they bring. A single one has the power to bring my mom back in a flash. And it can be so clear, as if I’m sipping a cup of Lipton tea and looking into her bluest of blue eyes. Another reminiscence and I’m back in the south of France at the remains of the Marquis de Sade’s castle or I’m watching sea turtles swim like angels at Pu'uhonua, a place of refuge. Even remembering previous hardships and strife, reminds me that along with the travail came growth and new possibilities. These memories provide a literal lifetime of material for reflection, an internal cable network with all the shows you want to see.

Indeed, there are days, for all of us, when our cache of memories seemingly sit back, all smug in their reflection, just waiting, spring-loaded, to ambush us. It’s part of the bargain of having the power of recall in the first place. Sometimes, the memory intrusion is simple. Like I hate to remember flying first class. It practically ruins the invention of flight for me. I mean, I still think it’s a miracle that tin cans of people fly across the world on a daily basis, but take my advice and skip the opportunity to sit at the front of the can. Once there, you’ll never want to fly coach again, where you get a measly bag of pretzels while squished in with the rest of the commoners, all while knowing there is hospitality and warm towels behind curtain number one. I’ve been looking for elbow space ever since!

Other memories of no import may pop up to embarrass us at random. I still blush beet red when I recall running across a room into the arms of dear friend, giving the tightest of hugs, only to realize, while deep in the embrace, it wasn’t who I thought it was. Worse, it was a stranger. Intensely hugging said stranger wasn’t just awkward, it was creepy. 

But that’s nothing. It is the tough memories that really have their way with us. Trauma, crisis, and loss make indelible marks, especially if we replay them repeatedly in our minds. Like a reoccurring bad dream, they can be tough to shake. Fortunately, neuroscientists are studying the malleability of memory, groundbreaking research that could help reduce the suffering of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and Alzheimer’s.

Another facet of having memories is that we lovely humans tend to collapse them with the concept of truth. We remember something a certain way and that becomes what happened. Many pointless arguments start by us insisting who said or did what when. Letting go of our version of events just might reduce the divorce rate and put a halt to the debate about who vacuumed last. 

Even eyewitness testimony has lost the luster of its previous gold standard. It’s tainted by interpretation, environment, and biases. Turns out not every detail of our memory is trustworthy. I must tell my sister this as I’m pretty sure my hairstyle in the 1980s wasn’t that bad.

Some scientists suggest we can curate the memories we want to preserve, trimming off the unwanted parts. That our brains are sophisticated enough to affectionately remember a passionate love affair, while subtracting the painful breakup. But I have to ask, isn’t the ability to have my heart broken what makes me human? Hasn’t it contributed to who I am today? Pondering this, with the sun streaming through the window on a bitter cold day, I realize I’m making a memory right now. I guess I’ll go back to hoarding and keep them all.