Friday, March 4, 2011

Memory is like Water

I started thinking about how we construct family histories, and about how we are always stuck with the reliability or unreliability of memory, and, well, here's what I came up with, which is somewhat sideways from where I started.

First of all, I decided that if memory is like anything, then it is like water. It can be as fluid as a liquid, as solid as ice, or as vapourous as steam. Perhaps we should all be taught this at the same time as we learn about the periodic table. Instead, we tend to think of memories as solid, reliable. It might be more helpful if we imagined them as fluids which are shaped by the containers that hold them, which in turn are determined by the stories that we hold to be true about ourselves, our families and the wider world. Sometimes, when there is a profound shift in our personal or family narrative, perhaps as a result of trauma, or therapy, or a change in belief or circumstance, certain memories can even go poof, like magic. They can change from liquid to vapor, and disappear.

Story #1: Decades ago, during my second term serving on Mission City Council as an elected official, one of my fellow aldermen had one of those mental illnesses that can happen to any of us. One day, there he was, putting one foot in front of the other in what we call our shared reality. The next day, he was in another world where he was convinced that he had killed someone. He was so absolutely convinced, and horrified, that he drove down to the police department, and turned himself into the Chief of Police.

Except, the truth was that he hadn’t killed anyone. Not even close. The person, who he was so sure he had killed, hadn’t even seen him recently. After months of therapy, my friend and fellow alderman began to return to our shared reality. He began to be healed. As part of the therapy, it was suggested that he meet with the very person that he was so sure he had killed. A coffee date was arranged, and the two men met.

Hours later, my alderman friend and I had a coffee together on my front deck overlooking the valley. It was the weirdest thing.  X was sitting there in front of me, and in part of my mind, I knew that I hadn’t killed him, but that didn’t matter. My memory of having killed him was way more vivid than him sitting there in front of me, in a plaid shirt.

I suspect that many artists experience something like this on a regular basis, when the imagined becomes more vivid than that that which is ostensibly real. It isn’t even necessary to be an artist. It happens more often than most of us dare to admit.

Story # 2: Several years ago, when my youngest daughter was in high school, I went to a parent-teacher night. A few weeks later she and my husband were listening to her telling us about a particular teacher. My husband said he hadn’t met the guy. I was incredulous.

But he was at the parent-teacher meeting, I said
But I wasn’t there, he replied.
But remember when I passed you that book?

As we continued to argue our case, each of us utterly convinced of our own truth, our daughter left the room and returned with the family calendar in hand. Mum, she said, Dad was in Ottawa. I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach. I could still see myself handing my husband a Grade Ten Social Studies textbook, as we listened to the teacher talk about the course he taught. It took me several breaths worth of time to accept that this memory was a total fabrication. It took me even longer to suspect that I had experienced this memory because I needed it, likely because it fitted a narrative that I yearned for, that we had been together at this time.

Story # 3: More recently, three of us were sitting around debating how memory works, which is ironic, given the topic of this blog. It went something like this [names changed]:

Fred: Memory is all in the brain. When we have a gut reaction, it is because our brain told our gut to have such a reaction. It sends a message down through the nerves. It doesn’t start in the gut.
Beth: Memory might be stored in ways we don’t even know about, possibly in every bit of our DNA. What about those people who have had a heart transplant and then report craving Kentucky Fried Chicken when they have never ever experienced such a craving before in their life – and it turns out that the heart came from a person who lived and breathed Kentucky Fried Chicken?

The debate between the two perspectives continued, going round in circles, until Beth repeated the earlier point that she had made about the Kentucky Fried Chicken story.

Fred - exasperated: Well I never heard that before.
Kath – as witness: But Beth just said it to you five minutes ago.
Fred - visibly stunned: Impossible.

It is easy to see reasons for how this can happen. Often, when we are busily countering an argument, we temporarily tune the other person out. Why not? It can be hard to hear and think at the same time, even though, like singing in the shower, we can often carry it off. Other times, we might have a brief mental hiccup, the kind where our consciousness temporarily leaves the building. We all do it. Me, I am a great floater, sometimes to my own chagrin. Huh? Sorry. What did you say?

In each of the three stories that I have shared here, the felt memories had a deeper resonance than the shared reality did – for a while. In each instance, it took some time for the person who had the felt memory to let go and move on. It took a moment of grace.

When it comes to writing about family histories, it may help to remember that all chosen memories, including those memories chosen by our families and ancestors, tend to live on with a life, and then a half-life, and so on, and that they shape us  – no matter whether “real” or not. It is also one of those things that is sad but true, that it is often the invented memories – the felt memories - that set and change the course of human history.

But that’s a larger issue, one for a blog that will follow this – in a day or three. I promise. Today, I just wanted to make the small point that the invention of memories starts here. With us. With all of us. Also, that a bit of compassionate curiosity about the nature of all of our memories might go a long way towards bridging divides. After all, this is one of those amazingly human things that we all do. There might even be a reason for it.


  1. Ahhh my wise friend. Once again you have hit on the very topic that I have been endlessly exploring and wondering and wandering with.

    Such great examples and musings...

    Thank you for heaping more food for thought on an-already groaning table.

  2. A wonderful piece of writing and, as I've been following family history trails for the past year, helpful too. Thanks!

  3. I also believe there is such a thing as ancestral memory. Both my husband and I, born long after WWII, have experienced nightmares that contain the drone of bombers and the sound of sirens. Both our mothers came from port cities in the UK.

    Our dog, who is a hunting dog, howls and bays whenever he hears heroic music which contains French horns. Star Trek in all its forms is a favourite and he doesn't shut up until the credits have finished.

  4. I really enjoyed these comments - thanks!
    I too am fascinated with 'chosen memory' with ancestral memory, and with a collective belief in a myth that remains powerful, that influences the lives of four generations of a Greek family - the major theme of my novel.

  5. A fascinating subject, Sharon. I wonder about the relationship between memory and imagination, how they dance together.
    And I really like these bookshelves!

  6. Sharon,

    What a wonderful post - thank you! Chosen memory, learned memory, ancestral memory - they all are threads in life's tapestry. Especially for those of us who are the memory keepers for our families. I too love the bookshelves;I can almost smell the wood . . .