Eric wrote a post about memory that really struck a nerve with me. A few years ago he got an album and, when he first heard it, it didn’t mean much to him because it was about a type of breakup that he hadn’t gone through at the time. Now, though, it means something, because…well, he DID go through that kind of breakup. I think. He’s a bit vague about it, but that’s my reading of his piece. What struck a chord with me was his description of the malleable nature of memories, and how our interpretation of events changes over time.
I turned 38 this weekend, and the emotions I felt about it surprised me. Thirty-eight isn’t a Zero birthday, so I wasn’t expecting it to mean much to me, but then I remembered that exactly twenty years ago I was celebrating my 18th birthday, starting college, and getting used to the new adult-lite life I was living in Claremont, California. Now, most of the kids starting at Pitzer were not even born when I was their age; I’m living in Edinburgh, getting used to life in Scotland, married, and I’m back in class, learning programming.
In that spirit, I spent twenty minutes writing myself a letter. It ended up being a list of memories, starting with the day I turned 18 and Trifari White got the entire class of 2001 at Pitzer to sing happy birthday to me, and my roommate stole a decorative pineapple from the dining hall to cut open in our dorm room, and some teenage punks asked me to buy them cigarettes and I was about to tell them I wasn’t old enough, but then I remembered I was, and so I went into the shop and the guy didn’t even check my ID. Scribbling furiously, I wrote everything I could remember from those years.
I tried hard to remember the tough times, but I found I couldn’t. I mean, I can remember the facts around the heartache, the frustration, the annoyances. I can remember that I was hurt when I didn’t win my first student senate election. I know I was dumped for the first time during my sophomore year. I can remember crashing my bicycle in Cardiff, going head first over the handlebars, finding 13 pieces of my helmet, having my face taken off, my teeth grinding down on the pavement; I can remember pills, and hospitals, and waking up in the morning with blood soaking through my pillow. I can remember getting off of the phone after two hours of arguing with Paul Faulstich, the acting Dean of Faculty, who was trying to convince me not to bring up a bill about unionization in front of the College Council.
But I also can’t remember those things, because…well, they’re just facts, without any associated emotions. I don’t feel like crying when I listen to “Gone ‘Till November,” the anthem of that breakup, or Macy Gray’s “I Try,” which was the anthem of my time in Cardiff. Honestly, I don’t even feel mildly bad about anything in my past; the negative emotions are dulled, blunt, rounded. So I could list the facts of what happened in that letter, but not the associated negative emotions. What has emotional weight in my mind is the way that the sun used to shine through the leaves outside of my dorm room. The smell of incense coming in through the windows to cover the smell of cigarettes and drugs. Frisbees. Brian Schoeck passing out popsicles at a party; Scott and Charlie spinning music nights at the Grove House; Eloisa Ramirez knowing what kind of omelette to make when I got in line at the cafeteria. The feel of the blades in the water as we rowed in Cardiff; using a pay phone to call my parents, and topping up my mobile to text people to make plans, a new experience for me in 1999. I remember being at a party after graduation and sitting with Ashley Walsh and realizing she was just a normal person, actually quite shy, which is why I thought she didn’t like me.
And living in San Diego, and Portland, and Barcelona. Toastmasters. Sailing, skateboarding, drinking in Pacific Beach and eating midnight burritos with Jarmilka and Sonny. Parking on a hill in San Francisco, meeting Tom Higgins, and realizing I loved him on sight, unconditionally. Going to fundraisers, and driving to Los Angeles for the weekend when I wanted to. Trips to Europe and Australia and Boston, as if nothing else could be more important than vacation and fun. Driving with my windows down through East County, San Diego, just after the sun set, when the air smelled better than any air anywhere else – the sage and grass and soil all mixed together. And dozens of other things I remember from my young adulthood, things that won’t mean anything to anyone, really, because they’re just memories that I hold dear. I wondered: how many things do my parents remember or think about that I’ll never know? How many things will make me smile when I’m 60 that my kids wouldn’t ever understand? How many billions of memories exist in the world right now, beautiful memories, that will be gone in a hundred years, and how many billions have passed into nothingness that would make us gasp in astonishment at how similar they are to our own experience?
I want to write a lot more about the trip this month, because those memories are so recent, and so precious to me now, and I want to force myself to have some sort of record of them before they’re gone. I don’t know how I’m going to go about doing that. I feel like I need a process, a hook, to follow.
But memories – they do change, they do evolve, and that’s a good thing, because it’s how we can process our lives and smile, both at what has gone before us and what we have to look forward to in these, our beautiful lives.
Yes! While my own life and experiences have been vastly different, the feeling looking back is remarkably similar. I have thought quite a bit lately about the ups and downs of life and how they were all so important to getting me where I needed to go in life. The truth is both success and failure are important. Would you really experience something great like pure joy without having tasted tragedy or defeat? I don’t think so. It is all about the journey my friend and I’m glad you’re part of mine.
To me, this is a thought-provoking look at what makes us who we are. Yours seems to be an optimist’s view, even in the rear view mirror. Many people would relate their stories to you about past pain, loss, grief, suffering…..without any memories of the way sunlight filtered through leaves, or the smells in the air.
I wonder, not for the first time, if our thoughts shape up, or if we craft our thoughts. I think I know the answer, but that answer is,………. exciting, frustrating, terrifying.
Thanks to you both!!!
I’ve found that my most vivid memories are the ones I have photographs documenting. Which makes me question whether they’re even memories at all. Did the photos aid in helping me remember, or did my brain create details using those photographs as a setting. It’s definitely tricky.