May 30, 2005

An Experiment in Memory

Today being Memorial Day, I thought I would try to find the clearest memory I possess and share it with you. What would it be, I wondered? My father’s death, or some public tragedy like Kennedy’s or Lennon’s or the World Trade Center's? Or maybe one of the happiest moments of my life -- a time sledding in Madison with my two older sons, or playing ball in Austin with my two younger? Or some decisive or painful moment from my childhood, like the first time I got stung by a bee, or one of my many romantic fumbles during adolescence?

To my surprise, no single memory stood out as the clearest. I have a lot of memories, and some of them give me more of an emotional pang than others, but they all seem filed the same way, compressed and abstracted by the same process. It’s as if my memory were a Flickr photo file. All the individual memories are equal in size and style and texture. I can retrieve them all easily. I can select one and look at it. But I look for a few seconds and turn to the next one. I don’t dwell in them for very long.

Sensorily, each individual memory is relatively static, not exactly like a snapshot but perhaps like a movie clip that lasts for three seconds or so. The colors are pale and the edges are roughly oval, and there’s little or no sound. Even though each memory stands for an incident that took a longer time, I don’t replay the whole incident, just the significant image that stands for the whole thing. This is in marked contrast to my dreams, which are very complicated and narrative, with long plot lines and lots of dialogue -- and usually the same characters as my memories.

I’ve trained myself in detachment from my memories, and I think there’s been a cost. When I was young and had fewer experiences to remember, I brooded obsessively on them in order to try to figure out who I was and what -- as I assumed then -- was wrong with me. Today in contrast I am a notably present-oriented person. I rarely return to old successes and failures, and I don’t spend much energy anticipating the future either. It feels much healthier than it used to, but there’s been an attenuation of emotion. All the memories in my file seem equivalent. A moment from childhood remembered by chance takes up as much file space and returns to me in the same form as the death of my father. I was much more affected by the latter, but how to reach the feeling of it, the importance of it, when the photos are the same size, with the same style?