Readings on Memory
by Fiona Heath
“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves.” Alice Walker
“Memory is the most elemental thread of which the tapestry of experience we call reality is woven.” Maria Popova
What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined – to strengthen each other – to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.
We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them.
Keeping memory is keeping things deep and layered and thick. If we have been there and done that, we will come again. The return makes the first visit interesting; the first visit counts on the return.
Our identity is composed of narratives we construct based on our personal history. What happens if we can no longer hold our experiences in our brain long enough to string them together? The link between memory and identity lies at the heart of our apprehensions about aging and cognitive decline. Losing our memory to dementia seems an unimaginable misfortune, yet this is what all of adult life was like for Henry. As his present moved forward, it left no trail of memory behind it, like a hiker who leaves no footprints.[…]
Memory is not a single event, not a snapshot fixed in celluloid with the click of a shutter. We have learned — initially from Henry — that memory does not reside in one spot in the brain. Instead, memory engages many parts of the brain in parallel. We can think of remembering as a trip to the supermarket to buy all the ingredients for beef stew. We select the meat, vegetables, stock, and spices from different parts of the store and then combine them in a large stew pot at home. Similarly, calling up the memory of one’s last birthday entails pulling information stored in different parts of the brain — the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes—and organizing these stored traces in a way that allows us to relive the experience.
My memory fails me. Things happened. We both experienced them. You saw them your way – colored by experiences in your past, or by resentment or impatience. I saw them my way – colored by fear, by pride, by the fact that I am myself and not you.
So our memories of what happened were very different from the start. And then, before we knew it, memories hardened into myths and myths into dogma. Now we find ourselves divided. We stare across the chasm, but we don’t see each other. Parent. Partner. Friend. Child. Denomination. Nation. Race. Class. Creed.I’m tired of being alone on my side of the chasm. I’m using up so much energy fearing and resenting you.
Sometimes I wish you and I could crack the dogma, peel away the mythology, and trade memories. What would it be like if we could see each other’s pictures of the history we share? If we could see each other?
What we need here, you and I, is a little humility and a lot of house-cleaning. Humility: to say “only God sees history whole and knows the whole truth. All I have is my perception. It’s valid, it’s precious, it’s fragmentary. Maybe I ought to try seeing as God sees, from all the angles.
Housecleaning: Memory is selective, and I’m carrying around years of slanted, narrow memories. I can’t see past them. It must be the same for you. What we need to do is let some of them go. Trade a few. Listen.
Maybe, if I ask you how things look to you, between us we’ll see something we never saw before.
Students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (via Rev. Victoria Safford)
Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.
I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.
That’s the thing about people who are loved: their memories keep. They’re never too far away. They come to us in a song lyric or a line of movie dialogue or on a long walk. What was it that they always said? Oh, that’s right. And they always had to have it a certain way. So maybe we’ll do it that way, and laugh a little, in memoriam.
She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.
Mary Oliver on her partner Molly Cook.
I think the odd thing about memory is that not all memories are as clear as one another, just as not all moments of the present are that clear. So it’s very possible to remember with incredible clarity a moment that occurred to us, you know, in early childhood, while the whole of last week seems lost in a kind of murkiness. And if someone says, `Hey, what have you been up to?’ we can’t even remember anything. So our minds store information in very bizarre ways. And one of the things that [Marcel] Proust brilliantly brings out is the way that suddenly a bit of our past, a bit of memory, can surge in front of us when, for example, we smell a certain kind of smell that might have been around in our childhood, or we taste a long-unfamiliar food that we once had known. And these little stray moments can suddenly bring back to us a period of our lives that we thought was lost forever.
Alain de Botton
But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Human memory is a wonderful but fallible instrument… The memories residing within us are not engraved in stone. Not only do they tend to fade over the years; they often change or even grow to incorporate extraneous features.
“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation.” Rosalind Cartwright
“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” G
The School of Life suggests that we might be happier if we spent more time with our memories.
This short essay (with a poem by Billy Collins) from Parker Palmer at On Being reminds us that memory fails us all.
In an On Being interview, Psychologist Alan Dienstag works with Alzheimers patients and considers what memory means to people. You can also play the podcast on the link.
From Aeon Magazine, a fascinating piece on ancient and indigenous memory practices tied to song and place.
From the folks at the San Francisco Exploratorium, an essay on our minds and memories.
March 29, 2019
March 01, 2019
December 24, 2018