the Persistence of Memories

In the course of my duties with the Henderson Daily News it’s not uncommon to rely considerably upon my own memory or recollection of events and conversations. To this end I also use a small voice recorder but, I admit, I use it more for confirmation than anything else.

A few days ago I was following-up on an interview I’d done with a local man and, when I quoted back to him a substantial portion of our conversation, he looked at me as though I just turned water into wine or something.

“How on earth do you remember that entire conversation?” he asked. “That was more than six months ago and there’s no telling how many things you’ve covered or people you’ve talked to since then.”

I just shrugged and used the old “photographic memory” excuse, but the truth is there’s very little my memory has in common with a camera, just ask my wife. I forget things all the time. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve forgotten the lunch or cup of hot tea she’d prepared for me, I’d own this newspaper.

Though I might not remember if I wore my brown or black “Doc Martens” yesterday, I can recount to you verbatim a conversation I had with District Judge J. Clay Gossett eight months ago for a story that appeared in a Sunday paper. I’m not sure who won the Super Bowl five years ago, but I can give you the play-by-play of a junior high football game I played in 1988.

How is this possible?

Why can’t I remember my landlord’s phone number but, without hesitation, I can recite large excerpts of Shakespeare’s Henry V or obscure quotes from old Saturday Night Live episodes? Probably the same reason my son can’t remember to bring home a note from his teacher but can remember all the varied paths and secret passages of his favorite video games.

I think the quality of memory, much like many things in our lives, is in part determined by how much of ourselves we invest in the passing moments of day-to-day existence.

When I’m talking with a local elected official concerning a municipal issue that I know I’m going to have to write a 600-word story about in a day or so, I apply a level of focus that is absent when I’m simply passing the time.

At the same time, there are many topics I have to write about that fall well outside whatever amount of personal interest I’m able to rouse.

Such situations require a few handy intellectual utilities I’ve developed over the years. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s anything I’m able to do that’s wholly different than what anyone else can manage.

From time immemorial, people have had to find ways to preserve words, images, ideas, and events. In fact, I would argue we have it far easier than they. Our technology has greatly enhanced how much of our days we are able to capture in transportable media. The ancients lacked these devices and so had to develop their own faculties.

There’s a story of a Classical-era poet by the name of Simonides who barely escaped death during a banquet when the building he was in collapsed after he’d stepped outside for a moment.

Despite making no conscious effort to memorize the people in attendance Simonides found that by picturing the interior of the hall (and where each person was sitting) he could identify the victims of the tragedy to the officials arriving at the scene.

Simonides stumbled upon just one of numerous ways our minds capture information and details that we may or may not regard as important at the time. It’s surprising to me how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.

In my own life, I can recall numerous moments from early childhood. Not because they were necessarily eventful in themselves but, by later connecting them with other people and feelings which provide a sort of psychological anchor, it allows me remember with a certain degree of clarity.

Of course, not all memories are worth remembering.

According to Roman philosopher Cicero, one of Simonides’s peers was not impressed with the discovery. Themistocles said, rather than finding a way to remember everything, “I would rather a technique of forgetting. For I remember what I would rather not remember, and cannot forget what I would rather forget.”

So it is with me also.

This propensity of mine to imbue so much of time with a sense of vitality, combined with an irrational terror at my own sense of impermanence, means I carry around things better left to the dustbin of my own history.

But is it worth it? Is it worth having to later sort through all the rubbish in order to find something truly worthwhile? I suppose memory is, like many other aspects of life, left up to the individual.

Life brings with it times of darkness and light. In each bright day there is the shadow of an unknowable future, but in that shadow are the glimmerings of hope.

Our lives are such fragile and precious things, or days pass like leaves in the wind.

As for me, it is better to remember.

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