Monday, November 26, 2012


This day twenty-two years ago was momentous: my second boy child was born the morning of November 27 in Toronto. His older brother was three days short of his third birthday at the time. 

I remember their birthdays of course, without even having to think about it; what parents don’t keep a connection to their kids’ beginnings? 

But memory about other events is fickle and uneven, “unreliable” may be a better description. We’re told that each time we remember something, it’s not like we’re going into a cupboard and reading a file folder, then putting it away again. Instead, neurologists tell us that each time we retrieve a memory, we reinscribe it, which shifts and changes it. I always thought the changes in my memories were just the result of slippage, intentional and subconscious deletion of less interesting or perhaps more troubling bits of the past. But this new description of memory makes everything seem much more fluid, and memory like a log-rolling contest, with slippery surfaces and shifting “facts”.

Why do I care about memory? And why am I thinking about it now? The answer to the second lies in the fact that I’ve just been reading the Tony Judt book The Memory Chalet, as I mentioned in my last post. The book is the device he uses to distract himself from an intolerable present: in his case his long nights imprisoned by ALS and unable to move. All he can do is think. And so he thinks about the past, uses it as a springboard to shape thoughts and story. Then in a second use of memory - a second application of memory skill as it were - he uses a mnemonic device adapted from the “memory palace” technique of the Middle Ages to pin down in his mind the “writing” he has done in his head, so that he can remember it in the morning and dictate it. 

That act of actually transcibing/writing is the way we pin down the moment. If we take notes, in the moment or soon afterward, we are already sifting and selecting, but less so, and we are more likely to be “accurate” about what took place. The longer we leave our note-taking or writing, the more we’re apt to weed out bits, and also to alter our recollections, shape them, consciously and unconsciously.

But I’m not so interested in the issues of “accuracy” here. That’s a huge issue though for people assesssing the worth or weight of eye-witness testimary for example. (And indeed it does seem to me that eye-witness evidence must have been inherently more accurate in the days before universal literacy enabled people to be distracted on their own by written stories and images. How much more inaccurate have memories become recently, with the distraction and fragmentation of attention caused by electronic media of various kinds?)

I’m more interested in the process of remembering, in how we do it. For example, I remember mostly in images, pictures in my mind’s eye you might say. If you tell me about a transaction or incident, if I’m asked later to repeat what you told me, I’m most likely, rather than repeating exactly what you said, to give my own version, based on the picture that your story made in my head. It will be fairly accurate in feel and in the details, but the words won’t be a quotation of yours. And each time I tell it, I assume from what the neurologists are saying, I am unconsciously shifting the story, giving varying emphasis to its elements.

Tony Judt’s pieces in The Memory Chalet begin with a remembered incident or setting, most often. The factual accuracy of his starting point isn’t particularly important to us  as readers. Instead its importance lies in its role as a trigger for Judt’s analysis, or, put another way, as a springboard for his thinking.

And that brings me back to my first question, why is memory important? Of course we’re oriented by our memories, and often reassured by them. They can keep us company. For example, for me my memories of people and places and events are like a huge undulating tapestry, an entertainment that I can turn to when nothing else is going on, or escape to when I’m stuck in a tedious situation. I can look at them from a variety of perspectives: I can situate myself inside them in a form of present tense, or look retrospectively at them with after-knowledge. It’s rather like the variety of choices of point-of-view that a novelist has when telling a story.

I’m not sure if other people do this too, and if so, how frequently.

But in all that, how important is it that I get the facts or details “right”? Surely it’s not vital. What’s more important it seems to me is the meaning I draw from my memories. Occasionally I find myself re-analysing a moment or a transaction or even an era in my life, seeing it from new perspectives. That can be very exciting (and equally, can be disturbing, when I realise something that I had failed to understand at the time for example). 

By now I’ve got a lot of life-lived material to “work” with.  And that fact, of having a rich store to reflect on and puzzle over, is for me one of the important aspects of memory. 

In the shorter term, in everyday life, I also rely on memory for a different kind of context. Many people are good at remembering people’s names, but I am not one of them. Instead my signposts are dates and times. My year is in some ways structured by birthdays and other anniversaries. They colour the months and give meaning to particular dates. For example, November starts with the week in which my mother died, now thirty-five years ago (unbelievable...both long ago and fresh), and ends with the birthdays of my two now-grown kids. In between come birthdays of friends far and near, of various ages and connection. Each of them sets off a nice “ping” in my head, a reverberation of images and feelings associated with that person. These reminders colour my days and thoughts, mostly pleasurably.

It’s the same with years: I look back and calculate how many years it is since I was in a particular place (for example I was thinking about Hanoi last evening - 23 years ago is when I was last there, yikes!), or what age I was when a particular public or private event happened, from the election of Reagan to the birth of a friend’s child.

It seems to me that all these ways of thinking about the past are a form of contextualising, a way to give meaning to and gain understanding of both the past and the present. In that sense, in doing this memory-merging and memory-analysing, I’m a working historian of my particular individual passage through life. And from that personal historical analysis, hopefully I gain some insight into other people’s situations and attitudes. 

Is everyone else doing this kind of thing in their spare moments? It’s fun to think so. I like to imagine each of us working on our particular life-tapestry, examining stitches, holding different bits up to the light, making the odd repair now and then.

It’s all a particular kind of seeking of wisdom and understanding, I think. We each have our views of what life is about, what we want to contribute or achieve. And those views and ambitions evolve over time for most people. In any case making the effort, engaging with our memories and trying to tease out meaning and connection, for me this is an always-fascinating and -fruitful pursuit.

Perhaps that’s why I am so drawn to the Judt book. There’s consolation in thinking that in my dotage, assuming I still have a brain to think and remember with (and of course this is why all we Boomers are so obsessed with a fear of dementia), I will have the resources to entertain myself with my own thoughts and memories. I hope I have the chance to gain greater insight into world events, and at the more intimate scale, into other peoples’ actions and interactions...

Meanwhile, here in Chiang Mai, as these layers of thoughts have been rolling around in my head, I’ve been enjoying each day in the soft air of an unseasonably warm November. I’ve been pedalling around on a rackety rented one-speed bicycle, have had a rather intense evening at the Writers’ Bar - and expect to have more - talking about Burma and other emotionally intense international issues, and have been hanging around chatting to friends on the soi and getting caught up on everyone’s news.

Yesterday I drove north with generous friends to Chiang Dao for a meal at a secluded peaceful restaurant called Chiang Dao Nest, a favorite of theirs. It’s an unlikely setting for a cordon bleu menu: there are stands of tall graceful bamboo, birds singing and twittering in the trees, and no traffic or other urban sounds. My prejudice against eating “western food” while in Southeast Asia melted away as soon as I tasted the house-made pate, lush and greed-inducing. And then there was a memorable salad nicoise, and a coconut milk creme brulee. Astonishing. 

I was glad to have been pushed out of my rigid attitude toward eating “foreign food” here. It's a reminder that I do need a push from time to time, no question, to oblige me to stay open to new ideas and possibilities. After all, the unexpected makes life so interesting...

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