Follow me on Twitter

Thursday, May 26, 2016


So I find myself reflecting on the nature of memory this Memorial Day; most everyone who knows me regards my elephant-like recall as one of my super-powers, but as a recent feature of middle age I have found my short term memory becoming a bit faulty.  For example: a few weeks back I was invited to attend a girl’s night at one of my neighbor's and agreed to be there.  I did not end up going, however, because I completely and totally forgot about it in the time that elapsed between invitation and event.

This was not an oh-it-slipped-my-mind due to busyness or interceding occurrences.  This was flat-out it never crossed my mind in the days leading up to it nor on the night in question.  It was not until the next morning when I was out walking and saw a woman who resembled my neighbor that my brain finally kicked in and set off the reminder DING! that was approximately 15 hours too late.
And while you are probably laughing and thinking that this sort of thing happens all the time and it’s no big deal, to me it was a very big deal because it had NEVER happened to me before.  My ridiculously reliable and detailed memory has not only been an incredibly useful tool in my life, it has actually been a critical part of my identity.  I have clear and vivid memories of some events themselves but also of my perception of those events starting at around the age of two.

One of my favorites involves 3 year old me pushing a doll carriage up the street and filling it with wildflowers.  Although from the outside I am sure this presented an idyllic portrait of childhood, I was fearful the whole time that some adult would think I had a live baby in the cart and admonish me for smothering it in weeds.  My linear memory doesn’t kick in until school age, but the idea that I was probably being watched and should therefore behave in a way that reflected well on me was deeply ingrained in my psyche from day one.  This was many decades before the internet or Facebook or YouTube, so perhaps I was after all a prescient child.
The thing I enjoy most about memories, apart from the fact that they give you tremendous insight into who and how and why you are the way that you are, is that nearly all of them are good.  That is not to say that the remembered events are always good, but the place they take in the mosaic of life, if you are like me and take each experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, is usually positive and helpful.

When I remember some of the worst things that have ever happened to me, I have to be impressed with how well I handled them, even as a kid.  When I remember my lowest and most depressed moments, I feel such compassion and yes, again some pride for how I managed to eventually lift myself back up.  Thinking about relationships that came to an end reminds me of how each of them taught me a little bit more about healthy boundaries and who I am and what I need to feel safe and engaged with other people.
The wonderful thing about memories is that they generalize in a positive way.  I  recently saw a headline that said something to the effect of “anyone who says they had a happy childhood is lying” and thought to myself the only people who are going to read an article like that are those who had unhappy childhoods because they are looking for validation.  Sorry whoever wrote that article, I had a happy childhood!  Generally speaking, of course.

Yes, some unhappy things happened during my childhood, but they did not make me an unhappy person.  My parents had a remarkably good marriage, my siblings and I were all healthy and capable, my Dad was always gainfully employed, my Mom kept a clean and comfortable house well stocked for healthy meals and all the daily needs of life, I had friends and relatives I loved and even the occasional pet.  Plus, it was the 70’s!!!  The 70’s were an awesome time to be a kid!   Generally speaking, of course.  So I had a happy childhood.
Memories generalize the positive, I think, because although positive memories are a wonderful underpinning to a happy life, it tends to be the more specific negative memories that were the “game changers”.  We all want to protect our children from bad experiences, but the truth of the matter is that those are the ones that develop our courage, strength and compassion.  Bad experiences teach us how to cope, show us that we are difficult to break.  We remember them so specifically because they help us to trust ourselves above all others.   Bad experiences are where we get to demonstrate our strengths.

The last thing I love about memories, good and bad, is that they are always there waiting for you.  The good ones are there to buoy your spirits, give you a chuckle or a bonding moment; the bad ones wait patiently for you to be ready to deal with them and receive their lessons.  I think of them like in those old cop movies, when the detective has to find the file of some long forgotten mystery; he is always taken to a room with racks and racks of cardboard boxes…the piece of information he seeks has been just sitting there all along, ignored until it became critical to crack the case.
I recently had a bad memory come up that helped me “crack the case” of a certain behavior pattern that had been dogging me for years.  I wasn’t ready to process it earlier, but like a crime solver in film, recent events had led me back to it as key.  Remembering helped me to understand myself and why I had made certain choices better; it also served to remind me that I survived.  And we have all survived something.  It’s good to remember that when dealing with each other, I think.

Living in the present is a glorious thing; we enjoy our experiences as they happen and at face value.  But the memories we store are the foundation for our functioning not only productively but with well-ordered priorities.  I remember loss because it reminds me to appreciate what I have.  I remember trauma because it reminds me I am strong.  I remember sadness because it reminds me to be compassionate.  I remember mistakes because it reminds me I can make different choices. 
I remember my life because it made me who I am.   And I am happy with who I am.   Generally speaking, of course.


  1. Thank you for this profound article. First, I'm grateful for those first memories of my dad's illness when I was two and enjoy tracing how they shaped my life. (I began my TEDx talk with them.) Then I can rejoice that I've learned something from the past and the most persistent images make sure I remember what I've learned or encourage me to keep trying to figure it out.

    Wonderful insight about memory generalizing in a positive way. Four months before he died, my husband whispered in my ear at a friend's memorial service, "Don't make me sound like a saint after I'm dead." Guilty. It's hard to remember the small irritants. Easy to remember the big love.

    I'm now exploring childhood memories of my brother, a natural thing to do since his recent death. What will it mean that the man who carried and fully lived my mother's academic and worldly ambitions is dead? Will those ambitions become even stronger in me? Or will I step back and accept my chosen path? Yes to well-ordered priorities and your insight that they are based on memory.