A professor I know grew up in Ghana where he would sometimes spend the day working on his uncle’s farm. After work, his uncle insisted on providing him a load of yams to take back home, a 12-kilometer walk. On the way, he passed over a stream where many travelers with similar burdens would stop for a drink. One day there was another man who was carrying a large load of yams in his arms, a few too many to manage. As my professor watched, the man lost his grip on the yams so that they slipped and fell as if they themselves plotted the escape. He scampered about, trying to recollect them. But each yam he picked up seemed to push another from his grasp.
I’m coming to feel this way about memories.
As a child, I had scores of stuffed animals. All were intimately named and loved with a pastoral affection. I insisted on having them sleeping in bed with me each night. All of them. Suffice to say, the bed was filled to capacity and inevitably one or two would take a tumble. Bedtime became a precociously anxious affair. It simply wasn’t possible to hold everyone so dear.
“We shed as we pick up,” the playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote, “like travelers who must carry everything in their arms.” I find this to be the case with memories. Every year, I seem to forget more experiences and more recently. I think of that man running after his yams or my five-year-old self trying to share a bed with thirty-odd stuffed animals. Should I take up scrapbooking?
The last thought gives me pause. When I first encountered the memory of my childhood bedtime, the picture that came to mind was, well, not a picture at all. It wasn’t anything physical that aroused my memory but was the emotional recollection of those nights.
But when I dig deeper, I find physical memories: my childhood bedroom was painted dark blue, with wallpaper at about eye- level (of a child, that is). On the wallpaper were mountainous ocean scenes starring orcas, my childhood obsession. The bed was twin-sized, with brightly stained wooden beams. There was a bedside dresser with three drawers, the handles of which painted red, yellow and blue. The carpet was soft, like the knock-off luxury carpets of a three-star hotel. When I think of the room, I feel a sense of appreciation for the childlike wonder and mourn the possibility that I have since lost it-
And, just like that, my physical memories have been superseded, and I find myself feeling again.
I spent several summers in my twenties as a kayak guide in Maine. One of the islands we paddled around had a bald eagle’s nest. One summer we could see two chicks peeping their heads out of the nest. A senior guide told us that this was rare; the normal practice of bald eagles when more than one egg hatched was to evaluate the chicks then force the weaker one out of the nest. Instinct said that only one chick could survive; they had to choose the strongest.
Physical memories or emotional ones; which do we keep in our nests of time?
Scientists say that most emotional memories are the result of a cued recall. Meaning, that there is some sort of handle, a leg-up, to prompt the memory. Something experienced by one of our senses, something physical. But you can’t carry everything. And so, once recalled, the emotional memory kicks the other chick out of the nest. Emotional memories are, in short, bullies. And in more ways than one.
Memories built on emotion dictate a reaction; we’ve nothing else to grasp, nothing to go off of, other than our memory of how it feels. On the other hand, physical memories allow us to experience things all over again. Physical memories take our hand and lead us into the forest, rather than holding us at its edge telling us what it’s like.
What if we decide to carry the physical, and leave the emotional behind? Maybe this cognitive choice might allow us to re-experience the emotional and maybe, in such a small way, re-experience the memory itself again. If I intentionally accept the reality of not being able to hold everything and, instead of fretting over trying to, I decide what I’ll hold, I wonder what might happen? Could memory itself change?
I’m not sure that’s a choice we get to make. But, when it comes to how we handle our memories- those to which we do hold on- I believe we have some say in the matter. As I remember it, my parents eventually talked some sense into me. “Choose one animal to sleep with at night.” And, having been granted this limitation and choice, I slept much better.