Memory is a complicated thing

Lately I’ve become fascinated by ‘memory’ and how it seems to work…. or not work in my case. I’ve been reading some interesting books and magazine articles where the memories of the authors are so rich in detail that I actually question my own memories, or the authors’ truthfulness. Why is it, for instance, that I can’t remember what my favourite shirt was when I was six years old, and these writers can? Or better still, why is it that they remember every gory detail about their treatments (yes, I’ve been reading cancer stuff, again) and I don’t? My memory filing box is a disorganized mess.

But the memory isn’t like a filing cabinet, with everything stuffed into neat folders and consigned to one or another drawer. The memory is more like a large, mostly placid pond. Our daily experiences are lightly sprinkled on the surface, some floating for a while, some sinking out of sight almost immediately, spinning, swirling down into the darkness of the still water, and some, well, the wind catches them and tosses them high into the clouds, chaff that has no real meaning to us, and easily discarded. Now, all the bits and pieces that remain floating on or near the surface of this metaphorical memory pond are the bits and pieces that we recall easily, referencing over and over, gently sinking out of sight as we stop examining it, using it. All of the stuff which lost its buoyancy and settled to the bottom of the pond are things that have slipped out of our mind’s easy reach, but which can be recovered, with effort. Imagine taking a stick and stirring up the mud and silt at the bottom of the pond. With enough churning, its pretty amazing what can be brought to the surface, again.

I can, with time and effort, remember a great deal that I thought lost to me, like a few favoured shirts, a chance encounter with a nest of yellow jackets, or the nastier details of my treatment. But what I find most challenging is trying to arrange it all on a proper timeline. So with that favourite shirt, how old was I? And why, when I think of that shirt, I think of a completely unrelated event that is no where near it on the timeline? Going back to the pond analogy, there is so little control over what all gets brought to the top; the churning creates turbulence, artificial currents that pull far more to the surface than expected, and in some cases, wanted.

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