It was the spring of 1986. I had quit my job in Newark, NJ, and we had moved out to Tyler Hill, PA, where we were renovating an 1847 farmhouse with plans to open a B&B by the 4th of July weekend.
I was in one of the bedrooms on the 2nd floor where I was removing more than a century’s worth of floral print wallpapers. The work was slow and painstaking, first soaking small sections in a solution of vinegar and water and then scraping it carefully so as not to gouge the plaster beneath it.
It was also pretty mindless. After a while, I started to replay memories. I was 35 at the time, so my just-ended career in Newark, high school and college years, and growing up were not all that long ago.
I seemed to be watching the movie of my life playing in reverse. The farther back I went, the faster the reel seemed to spin, until I saw my baby pictures in my mind’s eye and the movie ended.
I felt inexplicably exhausted, so I lay down on the floor and closed my eyes…and a feeling of relief swept over me. Suddenly, I felt unburdened by my past and all the emotional baggage that came with it.
I soon realized that all those memories were no longer as close and vibrant as they had been just a few moments before. It was as if I had packed them all into boxes and moved them up to the attic.
Whatever happened that day was not intentional on my part, but it seems to have repeated itself every 10 years when I switch careers. It’s as if I hold on to a ton of potentially relevant information in case I need it, but then put it into long-term storage as soon as I don’t.
It happened again last year when I ended my 10-year career volunteering for the Democratic Party. No sooner had I quit as chair of the local organization than my memories of a decade’s worth of campaigning became remote. They had joined the previous sixty years worth of boxes in the attic of my mind, in a place that I refer to as ‘ago’ to differentiate it from the here and now.
I envy people who say they remember events as if they were yesterday. I have no such ability. When I rummage around in one of those boxes, my recollections appear as photographs, not movies. And they are definitely not high-def! Many have shifted perspective, so I have a bird’s eye view instead of my actual eye-witness perspective.
Many memories have been replaced by memories of the photographs of those events which I’ve viewed over the years. It’s a poor substitute, but it’s all I’ve got at this point.
Although I can’t conjure up strong visual images, I have detailed memories of the stories I’ve told about those long-ago events. My semantic memory (i.e., the facts surrounding events) is much stronger than my visual recollections. Auditory memory is pretty much non-existent.
Occasionally, strong emotional memories will surface. A feeling—sometimes triggered by a smell—will overwhelm me. I can’t always place it, but it’s familiar…and usually warm and pleasant.
I remember myself through a fog. I can still make out the shapes of my past, but they’re distant. I know that all of these things are part of me, but I just can’t see them all that well, even though I can describe them in great detail.
I have no idea whether this is normal or not. I don’t think it’s gotten worse with age. I think I’ve always been like this…but I’m not sure because I don’t think I thought about it when I was younger.
Which makes me wonder where it goes from here.
I’ve been watching a series of lectures on the ‘Joy of Mathematics’ from TheGreatCourses.com. I remember loving math classes in high school and being good at it. I remember the joy of solving equations. I graduated from Brown just 2 courses short of meeting the requirements for a degree in math.
Yet watching these lectures has shown me that the lion’s share of all that learning and studying is completely gone from my memory. I know: use it or lose it. But it still seems a shame. And it raises the specter of vast stores of memories falling into a black hole from which there is no recall.
That possibility makes even foggy memories look really good by comparison!