Something on Memories

This post is going to be about memories, at least as I experience them. I just tallied up the number of posts to this blog that are what one could call reminiscences. I think they are the ones that resonate the most with people, and the majority of the “Best Of” posts are in that category. I was a little surprised that there were only ten. That’s out of a total of thirty-four posts since I started this blog at the end of last February. That’s somewhat encouraging since I know that the number of memories I can use here is easily countable, though I can’t know the actual number.

Just to categorize all the posts so far, there have also been ten posts devoted to recent personal experiences, including three in the special category of computer troubleshooting experiences and one dream; five that were partly in the nature of research articles (e.g. on Ronnie Knox and the Large Hadron Collider critics); two commercial announcements about my science education software; two in the broad social/political observation category; one science observation; two that were basically thanking other bloggers (might have been included in recent experiences); and two miscellaneous ones, including the short introductory post.

I’ve thought a lot about memory lately, not just from reading Proust, but more from writing here. I’m realizing something obvious: it’s as though most of the events of my past life lie in darkness or in semi-darkness, where all the daily details are irretrievably lost, and only the rough outlines of routine can be distinguished, except for scattered spots of illumination, and even they are sometimes more penumbra than clear light. I remember something of my first day of school, for example, but nothing of the first day of second grade. I remember saying goodbye to my parents in the parking lot of the rundown private dorm I stayed in during my first semester at the University of Texas, but nothing about the first day of any other year as an undergraduate, or even much more about that day. Where did I eat that evening? I have no idea.

For me, looking into the past is like stumbling through a completely dark house and suddenly coming to a place where a magic window lets in enough light to illuminate a small area, allowing me to see, not just a place, but across time. For example, I remember clearly what the woman I would marry the next summer looked like for a moment at age nineteen in the backyard of her family home near the Texas coast. The memory is like a one-second film clip, complete with weather conditions, locale, and my feeling at the time; the rest of my first visit—how long I stayed, what we did, etc.—has fallen into oblivion.

For the past few months I’ve been jotting down events from my past that I might want to write about here. I scan the list for ideas, and I never know when a particular one (say the FBI interview) will become the one that bubbles to the top to take my attention. What I’m realizing is that practically everything I can remember, excluding things I would not write about for reasons of privacy (mine or others’), is a potential topic for a blog post, for I just don’t remember much that wasn’t significant in some way in my life, or at least seemed so by its novelty at the time.

How accurate are my memories? There’s nothing to compare them with in almost all cases, so I can’t really know for sure. Still, I feel certain about almost everything I write, and I note when there are uncertainties. Just a few days ago, I wrote (My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection) that I couldn’t remember whether, in advance of my interview with the FBI, I had considered that they might have been calling me in to seek information on the SLA. Now I feel almost certain that I had considered that possibility and had actually been hoping that was the reason. Almost certain; but, since I wasn’t certain at first, I have to wonder slightly if it’s not reasoning more than memory at work. I now think I felt relief but no surprise at the sight of the SLA photos. The surprise of having my name linked to the handwriting of Nancy Ling Perry and an SLA safe house may have washed back over the original view of the photos in my memory, thus making me uncertain about whether I’d considered the possibility beforehand, as I tried to recall the event. I wrote that last post while I was still recovering from a bad cold, which may have affected my power of memory and discernment.

When writing about my bicycle accident in Times I Might Have Died, I kept going back and forth on whether to report that I had gone flying over the handlebars when I hit the wall. I could vaguely picture it, but I couldn’t convincingly feel it, so I decided it might not have happened; and I couldn’t in good conscience describe it, even though I thought it might well have happened. Perhaps it happened some other time. It doesn’t matter except that I would like to know and tell just to have that detail correct. I wish some particular detail would come back to nail down the candidate memory as a true memory or to definitively reject it.

There are some memories of habitual activities, I’m realizing. The thought of biking in my childhood in Eastland, Texas, has brought up the memory of a metal culvert that lay partly above ground, and over which my sister and I had to ride our tricycles when we circumnavigated our block; but we went over it many times. It was along a stretch where there were no houses fronting the street and no sidewalk, as I remember it.

OK, scratch the hasty assertion of the previous paragraph. Having had a short time for the memory to complete itself, I’m now sure the reason that the culvert came so clearly into my consciousness is that the first time I encountered it on my first tricycle trip all the way around my block, it appeared to me as an unexpected and formidable obstacle in my path; and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I halted. What to do? Turn around? Could I get over it? I can’t remember if I rode over the culvert or walked my trike over it. I can’t remember that, but I know right where the culvert was on the block; and I am certain about being thoroughly disconcerted by its presence the first time I came to it. So the first encounter with the culvert was in fact a significant event to the child I was, and that is surely why the culvert came to mind. I wonder if I had just taken off around the block on my own, having grown tired of staying on the sidewalk in front of our house? I’m pretty sure my little sister wasn’t with me, though we definitely triked around the block with my mother’s knowledge after that first time. Years later, I wouldn’t have let my kids ride a tricycle around our block. What about all the driveways? What about sex offenders waiting for such an opportunity? We rode our trikes around the block in our little Texas town, just as I later rode my bike all over town and even on the highway beyond the city limits. We had so much freedom!

So how did an unconscious chain of thought link those two events (as it turned out) so many years ago? Was it just the easy mapping by association: encountering an obstacle (wall, culvert) as I rode a pedaled conveyance (bicycle, tricycle) while a child in Eastland, Texas? Yes, I imagine that was it. That was not a full-fledged, immersive Proustian involuntary memory triggered by some physical sensation, but it was still an unexpected, unpredictable arrival at a place in distant memory which I hadn’t visited in decades. Yes, I can feel the quandary of that preschool boy encountering the unexpected obstacle in that unexplored part of the world. It had been smooth sailing until then. Now I’d become anxious. Then I forged ahead. Good for me. And the child that I was then still lives, strangely, just as the young woman I mentioned earlier does also, though untold thousands more have fallen into unmarked graves.

Try as I might, I couldn’t recall any of the details of the physics demonstration that changed my life (The Second Most Important Event in My Life). I have a clearer memory of using a manometer, of the kind with a slanted arm, to make some pressure measurements along with a lab partner (faceless, nameless), though I can remember only the the look and feel of the apparatus, not the details of the measurements. That is, in fact, as close as I can come to a memory of doing any experiments in my physics class, though I’m sure we had new experiments at least weekly. That probably means that the pressure measurements with the manometer were my first experiences with physical measurements, which also makes it likely that the physics demonstration central to the blog post was also the first class demonstration by the teacher.

The memory that is very possibly my earliest one is vague and dreamlike, but I feel certain it is a true memory. I don’t remember any of my great-grandmothers, though two and possibly three were still alive when I was born. My memory is of looking across a faintly lit room, possibly from a doorway, trying hard to make out something I feel sure was the body of one of my great-grandmothers. The room was one at my maternal grandparents’ house in the country in northeast Texas. I imagine I was two years old. I’m not aware of any other people in the room, though someone may have been at my side. I just know I was straining to see something I couldn’t understand from some distance. It’s almost as though there was a gauzy tent in the room into which I was trying to peer. I don’t know if this could have corresponded to something real about the way bodies were displayed or not.

I think we had either just arrived to find things thus or I had stumbled upon it by myself, my parents possibly not having meant to expose me to it. It may have been a relatively brief look; perhaps someone took me away from the scene when they noticed me. I imagine it was the solemn behavior of the adults and the change to the room that made the scene so memorable, but I must have heard some words related to death to be able to associate the image with death and with my great-grandmother later. What was I thinking? I think I was trying to comprehend something new that was beyond my capacity. Perhaps they had told me that was Great-Grandmother, though I doubt it. Somehow or other I knew that death, a new concept, was involved and remembered it, though I was very young; and that hazy, mysterious image is still inseparable from my idea of death; so strongly do first impressions last.

I recently saw something about a man who had total recall of every minute of every day of his life, which sounds like a terrible affliction. Though I often wish I could retrieve greater detail of events from the past, I think that, without the filtering action of selective memory, focusing on, and possibly even identifying, the important events in one’s life would be very difficult. I haven’t really talked to others about the nature of their memories, so I may be unusual in only remembering certain, in some way impressive, events. I should add that I am talking about the events I remember, which doesn’t mean I can’t remember other things such as the layout of a house I lived in many years ago.

Having such vast lacunae in my memory of events in the past, I might as well have been etherized for months at a time, as far as my ability to recall details of my life goes. My memory is like a dark summer evening, where only here and there a firefly shows light and life. That makes the memories that I retain seem positively miraculous and the events associated with them all the more significant to have survived the almost universal destruction by time. I am thankful for the memories I have, for they are of the sort that take me out of time. The necessity to pull those memories up from the well of the past in order to have something to write about here is the main justification for keeping this effort going, I guess.

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