I've been thinking a lot about memory lately. NPR has a new podcast called, Invisibilia, and we all know what a NPR junkie I am. I don't miss my TAL or Moth or New Yorker podcasts for anything, though I have learned I can't listen to them with Kiddo in the car. Don't even ask about that time I was listening to a story from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, a story with a main character named, wait for it, Fuckhead. Seriously. With my four-year old in the car. I've never pushed a pause button so fast in my life. But I digress.
Back to memory. The ladies from Invisibilia, while not talking specifically about memory, do talk a lot about the brain and all the tricks it plays on you. And then I listened to a special science-themed Moth where a neuroscientist who studies long-term memory shares an experience she had with her father and his slowly deteriorating memory. And then there was this morning...
I'm working on yet another draft of my latest short story, a story that is set in the late nineties, a story with autobiographical elements. I like to listen to nineties music when I'm writing/revising it to get myself fully in that time and place. So this morning, I'm at Barnes & Noble tapping away on my Mac (why yes, I do hate myself for writing that sentence), when the Foo Fighters song, Everlong, comes up on my queue. No big deal, right? Just another in a long line of 90's classics. Except it was a big deal. The most indescribable feeling swept over me. I say indescribable, but, of course, you know I'm going to try. It was this perfect wave of melancholy and nostalgia and loss and sadness and joy and some other unnameable thing I can't pin down. I have no idea if was just the song, or the story, or the combination of the two. All I can say for sure is that I wanted to cry and laugh and maybe go for a drive (something that was significantly more affordable in the nineties.)
I don't cry. I mean two things when I say that. The first is that for medical reasons that I won't go into here, I am physically incapable of shedding tears. I barely produce enough natural tears to keep my eyeballs from drying out and crumbling out their sockets, let alone enough to produce those fat drops that overflow lashes and track down cheeks. The second meaning is that I rarely feel the urge to cry. I don't sniffle over sad movies or books. I'm not a sympathetic crier who chokes up when they see a friend in pain. I'm not emotionless; I just don't express my feelings through tears that often. Sometimes I wish that I did/could. So the fact that a song that I'm only moderately fond of could reduce me to a sentimental puddle (though not actual tears, of course) is bizarre and remarkable.
So what is it? What triggered that weird wash of feelings? I have some theories about deep memories that may have been triggered (which I won't share here). It could just simply be a result of having taken my meds late yesterday. It could be that my health is a factor. Maybe it's all of these things, or none. What I do know is memory is a tricky thing. (Not exactly an original thought, I know, but bear with me.)
For as long as I can remember (see what I did there?), I have been the Queen of Memory. As a kid I would memorize and perform LONG poems in competition. Song lyrics stuck in my brain like the words were printed on sheets in my brain. Then there is the fact that my memory is heavily photographic. I'm not perfectly eidetic (did I use that correctly?) or anything, but when I study for a test, I remember the words as they were printed on the page in book, not as abstract facts. I knew every detail and plot twist in every movie I ever watched. Much of my academic success has been based on my ability to memorize large quantities of data. But I've noticed that over the past ten to fifteen years my memory has taken a sharp dip, and I don't think age or the internet and its information overload are solely to blame.
There are two (maybe three) contributing factors that I suspect have something to do with my memory decline. One is my belief that because I attempt to not dwell on unhappy or unpleasant memories, my brain has essentially grayed them out. They still there, but because I have made a concerted effort not to dwell on them, they are not easily accessed, though I do believe they can still be triggered by specific things (more on that in a minute.) This is going to sound unbelievably mushy, so forgive me, but I have forgotten so many details about my life prior to 2000 (pre-husband). Obviously, some of this can just be attributed to age and the passage of time, but I don't think all of it can, which leads me to my next significant memory eraser.
Twenty years ago (we won't talk about how old I was twenty years ago), I still possessed a sense that I now lack, a sense that plays a vital part in memory. Twenty years ago, I could smell. A whiff of snickerdoodles in the oven was enough to transport me to every Christmas of my childhood. Bay leaves? Mom's spaghetti sauce. (Apparently, all my scent memories centered on food. Go figure.) You get the idea. As my ability to smell diminished, I think my ability to easily access many of my memories diminished in direct proportion. By 2002, I had completely lost my sense of smell (Yes, you can do that, and most people's inability to accept that is a whole other post.) Sometimes it is a loss that I truly mourn. Other times, it seems so far removed that I barely recall it. But there are scents that I remember. Walking into a bread shop, the reek of the seafood counter in the grocery store, Mom's bayberry candles at Christmas time, that glorious oldy-moldy smell of an old bookstore or library, the erasers and old farts smell of an elementary school classroom, and thinking about those smells can trigger specific memories. But without the actual scents to frequently remind me, those memories are rarely accessed. Sometimes I worry about how this sense loss might affect my writing, but that's for another day and post.
The third area that I think plays a significant role in my diminishing memory is an obvious (and much written about) one: Motherhood. "Mommy Brain" is real, and I think that having a gregarious child while being an introvert creates a whole new level of mental and emotional exhaustion that is not conducive to forming detailed memories of things like movie plots, historical dates, book characters, grocery lists, etc. I'm less focused, less sharp, a little slower, and maybe that's okay. Maybe it's better for things to be a little fuzzy when you're a parent, especially of a small child. And I hope that one day some of that mental acuity will return.
All of this brings me back around to the music memory/flashback I mentioned earlier. There was no specific memory triggered by the Foo Fighters. It was more a memory of a feeling, and a hazy feeling at that. So what does that mean? Am I so disconnected that the most I can resurrect is a vague/slightly weird feeling? I don't know. What I am sure of, however, is that memory is a vagarious thing. We are all of us unreliable narrators. That memory I shared in a previous post of my husband's proposal (or whatever we're calling it)? Turns out I was picturing the two of us sitting side by side on a piece of furniture I no longer owned at that time. My brain made a composite story of that moment, and if I hadn't thought a bit more deeply, I would have just accepted that it all happened on a sagging loveseat with a spring protruding through the fabric like John Hurt's alien baby.
As I wrap this post up, I'm not really sure how to end. I struggle daily with trying to imprint memories of Kiddo's childhood onto my brain, to etch certain moments so deeply in my memory that nothing can erase them. I think about family members whose precious memories have been wiped away by disease. I wonder at the vastly different recollections of people living through the same event. I speculate over which moments in my life really happened the way I recall (probably none.) Perhaps this is partly why we write, to try to record a feeling or moment in whatever flawed way we can manage before it disappears.