The bright freight of memory

I was reading a newly-discovered blog yesterday called Catching Days.  Cynthia Newberry Martin was writing about Devotion, a book I also adored.  She cites specifically Dani Shapiro’s passage on memory, which was one of my favorites as well.  I was grateful for this prompt to return to the elegant pages of the memoir, and I thought about memory all day.

There are two passages that strike me from Devotion‘s section 54.  The first, Cynthia also quotes:

Why do we remember the particular things we do?  Great pain certainly carves its own neurological paths.  But why random, ordinary moments?

I have written before about how some of the memories I recall most vividly are of “random, ordinary” moments, whose eventual power I would never have known as I was living them.  I am fascinated by this particular alchemy: why is it that we recall what we do?  Certainly my mind has power to shape our memory in ways beyond my conscious awareness: this is at work, I think, in the way my brain seems to airbrush over certain incredibly difficult times, smoothing the specific contours of grief and pain into a uniform, though unmistakably sad memory.  The years at Exeter, for example, are for me a blur of snow, cold, running, and my tiny dorm room.  Very few specific memories endure.  The same is true of the months after Grace’s birth, as I grappled with my post-partum depression.

This makes me think of the oft-quoted line from Ann Beattie’s gorgeous short story, Snow: “people forget years and remember moments.”  As curious to me as why certain moments become eternal, sturdy parts of our memory is how rarely we can know as we live our lives which specific experiences will be elevated to this pantheon.  Which moments endure?  Why?  What message is our spirit sending to us in the patchwork of our lives that it preserves with glowing, brilliant detail?

I randomly remembered an essay I’d written during freshman year on To The Lighthouse (why this memory?  why today?) which addressed something similar.  I opened it up tonight and, amidst an odd encounter with my 18 year old self, found this line:

“Mrs. Ramsay illustrates what most human lives are like – a long thread of day-to-day banality and an occasional, vivid gemstone of insight or memory.  It is these memories, these moments, that make life interesting and valid; we live from one of these special times and experiences to another; while the stuff of life may be the mundane, it is the rare moments for which we truly live.”

How is it that we can’t recognize the gemstones as we live them?  Certainly there are hours, days, months of our lives that feel more alive than others.  Some periods of my life feel like going hand over hand through a swarm of gray days, clinging to the few moments of emotion or meaning that rise through the fog.  Other periods are like standing under a waterfall of feeling, unable to take it all in, pounded with emotion and sentiment, so awake and receptive I feel either pain or a gradual, defensive numbness.  Still, we can’t know which will be the memories that really endure, that lodge in our minds and stay with us for the duration.

The second passage about memory from Devotion comes at the end of section 54:

I had experienced my own memory as a living thing, a palpable presence in my body.  I had felt my past unfurl inside me as if it had a mind of its own.

I was actually thinking about something like this before I reread the section and found these lines; again, Dani puts into exquisite words the bumbling and humble thoughts of my heart.  I was thinking about some of the most cherished memories, the ones whose remembered details stud them like the jewels that cover a Faberge egg, who glitter most brightly in my mind.  Some of these take on an odd power, functioning almost like a lens through which I see my life.  Retrospectively, yes: the memory of that time in my life is refracted through that specific, salient moment.

But also, perhaps more oddly, this works prospectively.  There are certain moments who seem to have, in retrospect, informed the shape of the rest of my life.  I can’t know if this happened in real time or in retrospect.  I remember sitting at the foot of my bed, holding 5-day-old Grace, dripping tears onto her newborn head and answering earnestly the question of “what are you looking forward to?” with “when she goes to college.”   This has taken on such power as a defining moment of that time in my life, and of my motherhood in general.  But did that happen then, or only as I remember it and the (admittedly blurry) months around it?  I don’t know.  I have the phrase “freight of memory” in my mind, but in truth this is more like memory pushing something formative in front of it, rather than pulling it behind it.

In this way our past unfurls inside of us, cohabiting our present.  The past and the present echo inside of us, both creating the music of now and anticipating that of tomorrow.  We cannot understand the mystery of memory; my goal is merely to accept the messages it offers.  To honor the things my soul seems to hold dear, as represented by which memories bob up out of the morass to be the ones I recall with blinding brightness.  To remain open to the ordinary moments, as I can never know which will become those to which I return again and again, rubbing them like a touchstone in my pocket.  It strikes me that this trick of our mind is, perhaps, just another way of acknowledging the grandeur and beauty of the most mundane moments in our lives.

12 thoughts on “The bright freight of memory”

  1. What an interesting post! Blessedly, some of my most difficult times in life are blurry–like you, I somehow whitewashed those hardships.

    But I’m troubled at how little I remember things at all. I have some clear memories, but most of them are pretty darn murky. And selfishly, I feel kind of cheated by that. Why so few and so fuzzy?

  2. This is such a beautiful post. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about not being able to tell if a memory acquired its significance when it occurred or not until later. Part of me thinks there has to be a REASON we remember these ordinary moments even if at the time they seem inconsequential. It’s as if our brains know to take note, because this moment will matter, will define us, will become part of our story, while so many seemingly identical moments fall by the wayside. I guess it’s our job to treasure those moments now, through our memories, since our minds have done the work of preserving them.

  3. This is lovely. I do believe that memory shifts and changes as we grow more distant in time from our recollections. And I think “body memory,” often imprinted in a variety of sensory ways, needs no words as company. I find that comforting.

  4. To “remain open to the ordinary moments” – this is a new goal for me in the past few months.

    Your post is a wonderful exploration of why we remember the things we do. It is so strange. I have so many memories of just ordinary things, yet those memories are the most important to me.

    And in thinking of our children and the every day ordinary stuff with them…to hang onto those moments and wonder what THEY will remember about them…

    All great stuff to think about and all the more reason to be open to those moments!

  5. Lovely meditation on memory, Lindsey. I especially liked the Ann Beattie quote from Snow: “people forget years and remember moments.” And thanks so much for mentioning and linking to my blog. It’s nice to be able to continue the conversation here.

  6. This is a lovely reflection on the nature of memory. I too often wonder about what is actual memory and what memories have been crafted from others’ experiences, material culture, and photographs. I also wonder about the ways in which the explosion of digital photography, video, and blogging will shape the experience of memory in the future.

  7. this is so intriguing. My personal hypothesis is that the way our brain functions from moment to moment contributes significantly to retention. Also, an adequate level of sleep is directly correlated with strong recollection, which could explain why the sleep deprived college years are so hard to remember…

    Here is an interesting fact – when presented with a startling situation, our neural pathways open up for a short time frame and our brains receive far more information than usual. We are open to suggestions and new ideas. Normally, our brains take shortcuts and process information through pattern recognition. Such as the auto-pilot drive from home to the office…

    Anyway, very interesting thoughts! Thanks.

  8. “How is it that we can’t recognize the gemstones as we live them?” I’ve thought about this before, and sometimes it’s a matter of living the moment so fully, that it can’t help but be recollected later. Of course, this is after the fact, usually. But on rare occasion, I catch myself in a moment I just know I’m going to remember for the rest of my life…they’re not always grand moments (or even moment’s I’d like to remember), but I think the thread that binds the memories together is the thread of living, of feeling, of engaging with the moment, when my head isn’t somewhere else, but right there in the present, like it or not.

    Thank you for carrying on this beautiful conversation, Lindsey.

  9. I am thankful for those moments…..that come out of the blue
    that remind me
    that humble me
    that confuse me
    that scare me
    that give me hope
    those little things I remember that always seems to have some “meaning”

  10. My reading of Devotion took an uncommonly long time, because nearly every page triggered long-dormant memories for me. I have reached “that age” where I find that I lose my nouns frequently (“You know, that, that, uh, actor that was in that, oh, that movie that starred, uh, what’s her name? . . . ) but I remember odd bits from years ago.

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