Not long ago, I was riding with my mother on the way back to her house from some mother-daughter errand or other. I was absently watching the asphalt slip beneath the wheels of the car when I looked up and suddenly realized that we were near the neighborhood I had lived in from the ages of two to eleven. I knew we were close, but I couldn’t reconcile my memory with what I saw before me. After shooting a few questions at my mother, I knew that a store called John Dees had once existed in the spot we were passing.
I had ridden my bike through wooded trails many times in order to emerge, sweaty and breathless, at John Dees. Allowing my bike to clatter to the ground at the end of the trail and walking a short, cracked sidewalk overrun with weeds, I would go into John Dees for Now & Laters, Laffy Taffy, Chico Sticks – and once, cigarettes. It was the only store in reaching distance for a child on a bike; in fact, it was the only store for miles around. In my memory, its crumbling brick façade was a beacon of civilization. But what I saw before me from my mother’s car in 2008 was a sanitized strip mall, and no evidence of trails or woods – just concrete, bricks, mortar, asphalt. I couldn’t even figure out where the trail had come out, or where John Dees had actually stood. I only somehow knew that it was around in there somewhere. It was a strange moment for me: I felt erased. It was as though my childhood, my memories, that from which I had formulated myself, was dissolved, and suddenly I wasn’t sure if the way I remembered it was really the way it had been.
I’ve had reason lately to be thinking about the nature and reliability of memory. We all know that it’s a slippery thing, but how do we know when to be truly concerned about what we remember – or what we think we remember – and what we don’t?
I’m not talking about forgetting to pick up the cat food on the way home from work, or insisting that your friend never told you something that she did. I’m talking about the memories to which we cling, by which we form identities, and re-form them each morning when we wake. One day a couple of years ago I remembered, seemingly without provocation, my mother saying that the only thing she had ever done right was to have good looking kids. I had never remembered this before. I had no context for it, and couldn’t imagine on what occasion she might have said it. Later, I asked my sister if she remembered it, and she said that our mother had said it “all the time.” Why, then, after thirty years or so was I remembering it for the very first time? Perhaps the answer is that we remember things when we need to remember them, for I grabbed that little clue and ran with it. Turned out, it was the thread that would help me unravel the bill of goods that I had somehow sold myself, that my only value was in the way I looked.
From memories we create stories. Or from stories we create memories. Or is it simply from experiences we create stories? I’m not sure anymore of how all these things relate and interact. Somehow I made up the story that my only value was in the way I looked. Somehow I have this memory of my mother saying what she said when I could have kept not remembering, or made up a different story. To varying degrees we are all engaged in revising history – and perhaps in the end, that’s all we can do, for maybe it is not memory, but experience – pure experience – that is slippery. A friend has several times told me the story of a dance recital she took part in when she was very young. As she was doing her thing, she noticed a group of women looking at her and smiling or laughing. According to her, she made up the story on the spot that she was ugly and awkward. She spent the next 40 years or so telling herself that story, perpetuating it, creating the evidence to prove it. Until she had a revelation: what if the story of those women looking at her and smiling or laughing was not about how awkward she was, but how adorable she was? Why did she assume that they were laughing at her rather than appreciating her in some way? Why did she not assume that if they were laughing at her that it was their lack, not hers, that caused them to do so? Or any number of other things? Ultimately, it’s not experience that gels into memory, but an interpretation of experience. And those interpretations create our reality, and our views of ourselves and our lives, and for some reason I can’t quite fathom, we hold onto them with a death grip.
What would it be like to loosen the grip, revise history, play with memory more consciously?
Perhaps I’ll let you know when I find out, for I seem to be moving into a phase where I am delving deeply into memories, studying how they have shaped the landscape of my psyche, uncovering forgotten ones, loosening my grip on cherished ones, revising or abolishing them as it seems good and/or necessary. One of the more significant ways in which my current obsession with memory has manifested is in re-reading long-cherished books that have become iconic to me. So far, each one has startled me by how much it is very much the same book yet vastly different. For example, the book Illusions, by Richard Bach. I read this book when I was about 19, and it impacted me so profoundly at the time that it was the subject of my application essay to NYU. In re-reading this slender volume, I realized that at 19 I was only capable of relating to it as a metaphor. This time I found myself ready to understand it as a profound, huge, terrifying, exhilarating truth. My memory of the book has been radically revised, yet I know that my current understanding of the book is not the “truth” about it either. It is fluid and alive and changing and whatever I need it to be at a given moment. Ironically, the book itself helped me to understand that. I laughed and cried at the last line: “everything in this book may be wrong.”
Also, as part of this little memory “project,” I’ve lugged out a whole slew of old photos from mine and my siblings’ childhoods. It’s funny how photos are, pretty much never having been snapped at a moment that is preserved in our memories. As I look through these photos, they are intimately familiar to me. This is because I have seen them so many times that I’ve incorporated them into my sense of self and history, but in most cases I have no memory of the actual event in question. In fact, in many, the “event” was a trip to the Olan Mills photo studio or some similar place (do parents still indulge in this bizarre ritual?). At any rate, memory seems to latch onto different moments. Perhaps the difference between our memories and photos represents the gap between how we (or someone) would have liked to represent our lives and what we really believe about our lives. Our memories are the skeletons in the closet while the photos are the public face, that which we have created for the benefit of others. But does either represent so-called reality more accurately? I’m beginning to suspect not. Perhaps the real lesson in all of this is about the power we wield to create and re-create our own identities and our relationships with ourselves and the world – and to truly direct our own lives.