I went through a box the other day. It was full of papers and folders, various old documents I’d been needing to organize. As I rummaged through my poetry, notes passed in high school, yearbook inserts, and random research printouts, I realized something about myself.
Some people collect trinkets, ticket stubs, and pictures. I collect memories.
Everyone keeps memories of their past, good and bad. The striking ones stay in their minds, while others fade quickly.
Mine just stay.
I’ve always had a moderately photographic memory. It’s not as awesome or awe-inspiring as those who skim a book and can name the exact pages that include the word “rainbow” on them. But it’s strong enough to remember a pattern when it’s seen again, even if I don’t remember registering it before. It’s strong enough to remember a face years after a name is forgotten. And it’s strong enough for a smell to send me crashing back to a very specific moment in time and space.
The taste of fake watermelon, like bubble gum, makes my pulse race as I flash back to sitting in the hospital in Germany, not understanding anyone or knowing why my mom had fallen to the floor in a seizure. Panic rises and I feel nausea creeping up on me. My mother’s seizure was in the summer of 2002, while we were stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany.
The smell of wet sand, even in El Paso, often sent me back to moments on the beach in California as a kid. My dad would occasionally get up really early with us (or just me) and go for a beach walk. Last time I smelled wet sand, I remembered a trip with Derek and Dad. We went to a part of the beach where you had to climb down a sloped rock face to get to the sand; we had to be careful, because it was a real climb, not just a steep hill. I don’t remember much beyond that flash of a moment, but I clearly feel the rough lava rock and cement chunks under my hands. I can feel the cold breeze from the ocean as it blows my hair around. I lived in California from 1993 to the middle of 1997, so that trip is jumbled in time.
My space heater got really toasty under my desk last week. That particular morning, the feeling of my skin reacting to the direct heat flashed me back to my grandma’s old house. She had a bench swing with a cloth cover, and I once laid on it in the summer sun of Washington to take a nap. That happened in 2005, just before I started college in the Fall. I know there are other memories of the same bench and similar naps, but my mind travelled to that specific experience.
Memory is a boon sometimes.
In smaller, less intense ways, it’s helped me with my jobs. When I worked in the bookstore, I could tell you where a book was and whether we had it with about 90% accuracy without the use of our computer system. As part of my duties, I alphabetized sections throughout our department, as well as putting up new stock. This process had me looking at all shelves and all books on a semi-regular basis, which allowed my mind to collect data. Even if I wasn’t sure about the title of a book, if I was told “It’s mostly orangish-red with a blue streak down the front, but I don’t know what it’s called” I could go straight to “The 50 Laws of Power” in our Politics section.
In my current job, it’s helped me to remember why a student had a hold, even if there wasn’t a thorough note in the system. For example, the hold might say “Needs to verify residency status based on answers to residency questions”, but I remember they claimed no affiliation with the military yet wrote a note in comments about their sponsor. That may not make too much sense to you, but for someone asking about the student, that’s information from half a dozen questions on the application. If I entered the application, I remember the name the minute I see it. There was even a student once who typo’d in their own name, but when I pulled them up and explained that they needed to verify it with an ID card, they claimed the “person who entered it” did it wrong; I grabbed their app and showed them the typo (Ahsley instead of Ashley, or something similar). There was no note in the system, just my memory of thinking that they’d probably need to get that corrected; I’m not allowed to assume someone mistyped their own name, so I enter applications “as is”.
Memory can be a pitfall, making relationships a deliberate measure of pros and cons.
I can’t forget. It’s not that I don’t believe in the idea of “forgive and forget”. I just don’t have the capacity to forget things, especially if they affected my emotions in a dramatic way. I’ve had to learn to file away every argument, every laugh, every tear into a folder with your name on it. With purpose, I filed away those memories you create; with purpose, I objectively re-exam them when new ones are added. If our relationship’s balance falls too far into the negative, I end it. It sounds clinical and harsh, but it’s all I can do. I’ve tried to pretend before, and bad relationships turned into abusive ones.
However, I hold myself to a personal, ethical standard. I will never use unrelated past memories in a current argument. Ever. If we’re fighting about money, then only money-related memories are allowed out of the file. If we’re arguing over your family, then only family-related issues surface. I will not budge. As long as you fight fair, so will I. A good memory is no excuse for poor behavior.
Memory gets complicated, too. Especially when it’s missing pieces.
I worked at the bookstore for two years, and now the college for two as well. There are faces I see now, shopping for groceries or browsing a store, that I can’t place. My mind remembers them, even speaking to them in depth, but it can’t remember which job they’re from. Most conversations I remember weren’t work-specific, but instead involved a book they saw me reading or a shared like of my chainmail pentacle necklace.
I have moments that confuse me. A smell, a flash of color, a sound. Suddenly I’m scared, or angry, or panicked… and I don’t know why. My mind flickers with a memory, but I can’t grasp it enough to pin it down. All I can tell myself is that it *is* a reaction to a memory, and then I soothe myself as my mind races to find the source. Those are my least favorite memories, the ones that hit and run hard.
Going through the box of papers had me looking through my junior and senior yearbooks. I could tell you a memory of every single person in my class, as well as the one before it (thanks to my brother and smart kids in advanced classes, regardless of grade). I may not remember a name, but show me a face and I have a story. Show me a classmate, and I have even more; there will be jokes, relationships, a map of their high school experience in my sphere of memory.
I can’t give you directions to follow, but plunk me down at my old house in Germany and I could walk you to the Buch Habel (bookstore) downtown, using all the shortcuts that foot travel can allow. The same goes for anywhere I’ve lived; if I were there again, I could tell you everything in the sphere of my existence there. Clearly, I didn’t walk all over Fort Knox; my memories of locations are all within a couple miles walk of the house we lived in. But I could draw you a detailed map of Bamberg’s army base, considering it was a 2×2 mile dot of America in Germany. I can still map out Hastings for you, both the old store layout and the new one, from memory. The same goes for my Walmart and HEB, though I have three of both within 30 minutes of my house (so I don’t have all three memorized… yet).
I could draw a floor plan of every house I’ve lived in since first grade. And every classroom. I can draw you (with my meager skills) the exact branches of the two trees we often climbed in California. Or the “map” of the “village” we LARPed in as children, off to save some daft princess (after I argued my way out of playing that part… I liked Xena too much to be a normal princess). I can tell you exactly where I was for each poem I ever wrote, while I was writing it, and why.
My memories are what I took from place to place. Normal people, who grow up living in one or two places in a normal town, get to collect stuff and friends. I collected books and knicknacks for a long while, but mostly I collected memories. Moments are my life’s currency, the payments received for being awake and aware as I move through the world.
I try to view my memory as a gift. It made me smart, by allowing me to absorb ridiculous amounts of information quickly and with little effort. It made me friendly, by allowing me to speak to people as they needed to be spoken to (in both speech and body language). It made me wise, by allowing me to infer connections between very distant experiences and points of data; my mind is like a giant web of facts, figures, and ideas. Riding my thought-trains takes a bit of courage and focus.
In getting to know myself all over again, I’m working on and with my memories. Reviewing what we think we already know sometimes yields surprising results.