I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Remembering and forgetting

Field of lupines on our Thursday hike
On the Thursday hike, I saw fields and fields of fragrant lupines as we followed the eight-mile-long loop, and we enjoyed them, along with many other flowers, but these were the ones I enjoyed the most. Last year, they were sparse and didn't do very well, although I did see them now and then. No fields of them like this, though. It's interesting how different these hikes can be from year to year.

I was thinking about what's on my mind right now as I fell asleep last night, knowing that my first task on Sunday would be to write this blog post. Trying to figure out what has been happening in our country right now, and listening to people talk about the events around the world but especially in our home town, I am amazed at how fungible the truth seems to be. The same event experienced through different hearts and minds bears no relation to how I experience it. It makes me wonder if there is any absolute truth, or is it always this way?

When I tell a story about my childhood, I realize that it's gone through so many iterations that it probably bears little resemblance to how it actually was. That's because now the only part of my childhood that still exists resides in my memory banks, or in old pictures that solidified a moment in time, and I remember little about that period that is actually correct. I move in my life from one day to the next, and nothing seems different, but if I look at a picture of myself from a decade ago, I know that much has changed, incrementally I moved from one decade to the next. Getting up and starting my day today seems little changed from yesterday. But the changes are there.

What started me thinking about all this was wanting to relate a story about something that happened in my past, and I realized that I didn't actually know whether the facts I remember are at all what occurred. Then I thought I could embellish it a little, making it more interesting (I think all writers do that), and finally I gave up the effort. The only person still alive who remembers my childhood is my sister Norma Jean. When we reminisce about things that happened, certain events in our recollection are completely different from each other. I mean, completely: what is real?

And actually, now that we are both elderly, does it even matter? If I were to write my memoirs today, how much of it would be based in actuality? I can no longer tell the truth of my early years, because they are changed by my brain's incremental alteration from what was to what I remember about what was. And my brain is no longer the young supple multitasking machine I had several decades ago. Now, I struggle sometimes to recall a simple word, and when I think of the past, I'm suspicious that I've simply forgotten most of the essential moments in any particular event.

But there are moments in the past that are burned into my brain, and they don't seem to change from one recall to the next. But how can I know that for sure? When I was around three, I remember getting separated from my parents on a beach in Puerto Rico (I know how old I was because we were there at that time) and realizing that I was alone. A very large (to me) crab scuttled sideways in front of me, clacking its claws, and I was so frightened that the moment is one I have never forgotten. I can recall that moment clearly. At least I think so. I know that the crab was probably not as large as it seemed to that small little lost girl, but here I am seven decades later with a complete memory of that moment in time.

I found an interesting article while thinking about this, from the BBC, written by Lesley Evans Ogden in 2015, about how extreme fear shapes what we remember. That little girl's amygdala was activated, probably for the first time in her young life, and created a vivid memory.
When a memory is particularly striking and unexpected, it activates this emotional memory system. That may be partly why there are a plethora of anecdotes about how sensory cues, out of context, can take you right back to emotional memories – perhaps you associate the scent of a certain perfume or cologne with your first kiss because the memory is higher fidelity.
Fascinating, isn't it? I also have memories from things that have happened more recently that I can recall that vividly. But that was the first, and it occupies a very important place in my mind. I can remember nothing more about the event, although I'm sure Mama or Daddy came to find me and comforted me so that it seemed in the moment as though nothing of that moment would survive, but here I am today, in 2017, remembering again that feeling, that vision of the enormous crab, and a frisson of fear moves through me today.

There are moments that I have tried hard to forget, ones that only bring me emotional pain when I recall them. I'm pretty sure that they are not activated by the amygdala but some other part of our ability to recall. Just now I started to write about one of them, when I last saw my son fifteen years ago, but I am overwhelmed by the emotions that came up as I tried to frame them into words. So I'm not going there this morning. Instead I am going to form some new memories at the coffee shop, probably nothing that will stand out in my memories even later today.

When I started this post, I wanted to contemplate what causes us to alter our recollections of past events, and I haven't even gotten around to that part, and it's already been more than an hour that I've struggled with how to begin. But what's become obvious to me in the struggle, I am not going to be successful today in writing about anything more profound than remembering and forgetting.

My partner is stirring a little, making me realize I've been here longer than normal. My tea is gone, and memories are roiling around in my head, and if I were to see a cartoon of myself right now, there would be a cloud around my noggin with all sorts of images all vying for attention. I am now taking each one of those images and gently erasing them, one by one, and replacing them with images of flowers and smiles and... maybe even a latte.

I hope that your week ahead will not have any amygdala-inspired memories, unless they are positive ones. And I also hope that you will take a moment out of your day to give thanks for the love and smiles that you alone can share with another. Our lives are blessed by our ability to interact with one another. I am blessed by your presence in my life, so thank you.
We accept the love we think we deserve. --Stephen Chbosky


Rian said...

DJan, I have to admit that I've always wondered about the "absolute truth"... and over the years have come to believe that truth is 'relative' (my truth may not be your truth). Things are never black or white, but mostly shades of gray. They may start out black and white, but always change over time (maybe there's a life lesson here). But trying to make my truth your truth is not the answer. Seems to me we simply have to accept our differences... as long as our differences don't affect others' lives. Is it possible for us to do that? I'm guessing some can and some can't... and that's the dilemma that seems to be unsettling the world. Forgive my simple approach as the state of the world is much more complicated, but this is how my mind works.

As far as our memories go, I find that even my 3 children have different memories of the same times together. Each has their own truth... as they perceived it. So whether we can trust what we do 'think' happened in years past, I don't know. But interesting post!

Marie Smith said...

Some of my earliest memories are etched in my brain, though not all of them when I was fearful. I treasure each and every one now, as I look back on my life. I see how they contributed to who I am today and I am OK with that person. I can look at my mistakes now and see them as learning opportunities, though some mistakes I keep making over and over. At least I have an awareness now. I want to stop myself from repeating them as the next part of my growth. Through it all, I am evolving, becoming who I am meant to be. It is exciting, as I get older, to feel I am still growing.

Thank you for ispiring the self reflection today, Jan. Have a. Great day and wonderful week.

Tabor said...

It is not comforting to me to think there are no absolute truths. Complex truths, yes, but I like to think there is an absolutism I can lean on.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I totally understand you when you wonder about how we fashion our truths after years go by. But I have also come to understand because of our senses and points of reference to our experiences even when two of us are witnessing an event together side by side will have us come up with our biased truth. Each of us will have a selection of different stimuli to call on as we recall what we witnessed. I sometimes wonder if a single truth is even possible. Even in science truths continue to shift as they also,do,in maths.
I believe we all are able to share some common ground and we label that to have the value of being true.
And we have a human need to be valued. That enables us to join together and try to share some values.
Our unique perceptions play a big role. I suppose that is why we have some very odd leaders and followers lately?
Shakespeare plays with this thought in his plays and has spectators trying hard to follow along. Wonder how he would have written a Trump play? Drama, comedy or tragedy? Food for thought?
Sadly death is always a part of a play as it mirrors life. Is there truth in it?
For sure today is Sunday and you have sparked my brain to ponder far beyond what was to be a comment. There is truth in that. I love how you can push my thoughts to anoher level. Have a fantastic week.

Marianne said...

There are facts. I graduated high school, got a college bachelor degree, finished a masters degree and 10 years later completed a PhD. I have pieces of paper and pictures documenting those events. My perception and memories of happy events and difficult events in my past are colored by my emotions at that time and effected by my life events. It just seems that there are people who want the facts to be something other than the pictures and pieces of paper that document past and current events. Your Sunday musings are very thoughtful, provoking and non judgmental This journey through the last decades of life are emotional and sometimes just puzzling.

Linda Myers said...

I remember, three years ago in a current events group, when I asked where I could read the truth. One person told me to read the Wall Stret Journal and the other recommended Rachel Maddow!

So it's only been recently that I've come to believe that some truth is relative, all filtered through who we are and where we have been.

Some truth is real, though. Like the elderly woman I hugged today while she sobbed in fear at leaving her friends in the refugee camp and moving instead to an apartment.

Glenda Beall said...

What is truth? I talk about that all the time with my memoir students. They ask, "How do I know what I am writing is the real truth?"
I tell them, "You can only write what you remember as truth. You write your truth. You can't write your sister's truth." If we are looking at a box on a table and someone is on the other side of the table, they will see the box differently from the way we see it.
Writing memoir helps us bring out memories, and in this kind of writing, we are allowed to reflect on what we remember. That makes it a wonderful way to handle the emotional thoughts that come up. At the beginning of a memoir, I suggest to my students to write "This is my life story as I remember it. Others might have different memories, but I can only write my truth."

The police say that three witnesses to a crime or accident will tell three different accounts. We don't all see things the same way. We don't focus on the same happenings.
Great post, DJan. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your comments.

Linda Reeder said...

Like Tabor, I want there to be absolute truth. And I think there is, in that some things are actually spoken, and some actions are in fact taken. Then interpretation sets in, and we all interpret facts based on our own bank of experiences. Do we trust or not trust? Are we prone to be positively or negatively disposed to this person or action?
Seeking multiple sources of input gives a broader perspective, but ultimately we decide for ourselves what we BELIEVE to be true.

As for memories, I have written my memoir, or at least 160 pages of what I remember and that seemed important. When I talk with my sister about it, she has many very different memories. And yes, there are some very uncomfortable memories stuck in my amygdala.

Red said...

I could have written this post. I have these thoughts all the time. when my brother and I get together we remember things differently. You've put these ideas in order so that we can think about them. I enjoyed your p[sot this morning.

Gigi said...

Memories are funny. I find that even when The Husband and I experience something we both recall it very differently.

Have a wonderful week, my friend.

Elephant's Child said...

Absolute and subjective truth is a subject which fascinates me. I firmly believe that there ARE some absolute truths, but my own experiences will always have a subjective overlay. Which others may or may not have seen.
Have a wonderful love and laughter filled week dear DJan.

Anonymous said...

I remember, three years ago in a current events group, when I asked where I could read the truth. One person told me to read the Wall Stret Journal and the other recommended Rachel Maddow!

Rita said...

We discussed this in my Creative Nonfiction class in college. I love the term "creative nonfiction" because it so aptly describes telling your own story as you remember it. You will remember events and conversations differently than other people who were right there with you. They have done studies--when some accident or crazy event takes place if fifteen people were there you will get fifteen different versions. None will be identical if you don't let the people talk to each other and influence memories. And--yes--memories can be influenced.

Just as reality can be influenced. Tell people a fabrication over and over again and some of them will begin to believe it as fact. We see this right now on the news every day.

Then there is time. Memories can shift over time or fade. But we will retain the highly emotional events with much more clarity for a longer time because they are more deeply imprinted. We can only remember what we pay attention to at the time...what really matters the most to us. But they are all yours and yours alone. They are you. :)

Arkansas Patti said...

I think the saying goes,"there is nothing more unreliable than an eye witness." We are all eyewitnesses to our own lives but often the story we recall becomes blurred by wish, shame, fear, sadness or want. I think I have an accurate memory till I compare events with other eyewitnesses like a family member or friend. Interesting the differences in the narratives. Good Heavens, are we all relying on our own "alternative facts"? Scary. Think I will just trust my version--it is usually one I like:)

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Always fascinating how personal essay writing often takes on a life of its own when we explore a topic. Insightful method to learn about ourselves -- and ask more questions.

I've often been surprised how my brothers can have stood in a room with me, yet have a completely different retelling of an event. So different are we in our perspective and where we are at certain times of our lives. Interesting also, the few times we recall things the same. The few time. Ha!

Fascinating post.

Dee said...

Dear DJan, I finally completed the convent memoir I began back in 2014. A friend is proofreading it now. when she completes her work, another friend is going to self-publish it for me. As I worked on it, I, like you, wondered at the "truth" of my memory. Some of it I do know goes back to moments that were fraught with emotion and I trust those memories. They are vivid in my mind--not just the picture, but the feeling. And I've told some of those stories for fifty years and they remain the same. (By that I mean that friends hear them again and do not say, "But, Dee, last time you said . . . " Still, what is truth within a life span when memory can mold experience to what we'd like or can mold in the image of a later self. I know only that I cried a lot as I wrote the convent memoir. It brought back my youth and a time when I was so idealistic and romantic in the way I viewed life. It's going to be interesting if any of the women with whom I was in the convent read the memoir. Will our memories be the same? Some will, I'm sure. Others, those that involve great feeling on my part, won't be. Peace.

Far Side of Fifty said...

No two people can experience the same thing and recall or see it the same way. Everyone is different. I think it is normal to remember differently as siblings....for one thing you were the oldest! I think we can only hold so many memories in our brain so we get rid of the mundane and only keep the best and the worst of memories. Just my non scientific thoughts.
May your good memories comfort you when you are remembering the not so great times. :)