Making Something of Memory (part 2)

To give some context to my previous ramblings on memory, I can’t help but marvel at my own forgetfulness in respect to one relatively recent period of my life. Despite being the source of one of the most distinct paradigm shifts I’ve had, the memories contained in this period – memories that once held so much depth and nuance – have somehow seemed to flatten out with time, creating the false impression that the perceptions I held by the end of it were ones I had held all along. But I know this is far from the reality. I am reminded of the deceptions produced by my own forgetfulness each time I find myself at another major life event or shifting context, searching again for the exact same gems of wisdom I had once held firmly within my grasp.

Even in knowing the inevitable distortions that result from my repeated recollection of events after the fact, it seems revisiting them, tracing their progression and attempting to remember them in fuller detail through conscious effort, is the best means I have of keeping the underlying value of the memories alive. As incomplete and inaccurate as my attempt may be to give shape to them through words, maybe I can at least imbue them with more indelibility than they would otherwise have. And most importantly, maybe I can then maintain the lessons embodied by them not as fading memories of the past but as insights integrated into the actions that shape my present and future.

As I think is characteristic of all memory, what I remember most vividly is the ‘beginning’ and the ‘ending’, with the middle condensed into a series of unorganized and probably disordered fragments…

The ending: Seated on one of the white plastic foldout chairs that had been arranged a few hours earlier into several neat rows on the grassy open space besides our office building. My gaze directed at the mini podium placed at the front of the row of chairs, just behind the thatched roof gazebo – normally the sole centerpiece to the office lawn – its wooden tables now host to several large platters of assorted meats. The same set up of assorted meats and foldout chairs I’d been witness to on multiple occasions, the standard package for office birthdays or farewells, now felt like superfluous emblems of recognition as I reexamined them through the eyes of my own farewell gathering.

My body overheated and face flushed from the weight of all the attention centred on me, heightened by the mere presence of the podium and meat platters, I sat there with a strained half smile on my face and quivering lips as I fixed my attention on those addressing me from behind the podium. While my eyes remained fixed on the speakers, my mind struggled to fully comprehend their words, catching only bits and pieces of amusingly disjointed compliments and parables (…one involving something about a tortoise, a lion, and a watering hole…perhaps what was an extended metaphor for my work ethic?). In between confounding bits of tortoise-related commentary, a billion other disheveled thoughts flooded my mind…the rest of my handover notes I still had to finish despite having to catch a plane in a few hours, the colleagues I had yet to say a proper goodbye to, the strangeness of the fact that I would soon be an unemployed person, and even stranger, that I had chosen this fate…

As some of the distraction subsided and my attention found its way back to my immediate surroundings, I felt both my gratitude and discomfort levels rising as I listened to the rest of my colleagues and superiors tell me what they thought of me: that thing we can’t help but want to know (with the exception of maybe the most enlightened and self-assured among us), compelled by our egos and general curiosity, but which we nonetheless never really want to hear, much less relayed to us from a podium in front of other people. As more relayed their kind words of acknowledgement (coupled with half-joking commentary about how I managed to have any friends when I spent all my time at the office), expressing the ways they thought I had contributed to the work of the organization, I felt something inside me click – a subtle paradigm shift of sorts. Struck by my own interior reactions to each of their words, from “I didn’t actually do that,” “he’s giving me credit for something that was a team effort,” “they don’t know what they’re saying,” or “they’re just being nice,” I had this simultaneous realization that what I thought about what they thought about me didn’t actually matter. In this case, what actually mattered was their perceptions, not the ‘objective’ reality of what I thought I had achieved during my time there.

That is, if my own judgment of my accomplishments did not align with what was perceived by the people who in fact were meant to be the ultimate judges of my work (like my supervisors), then whose standards was I actually referring to? Who exactly was I comparing myself to in thinking that no matter what I did, it didn’t measure up to what someone more qualified would have achieved in my position? Unable to definitively answer these questions, I was forced to take a step back from all the assumptions I had held up to that point, including about all the imaginary ‘others’ around me who were so much more stable, accomplished, and effective at what they did: all the people who had that mysterious quality that I somehow did not and never could possess. For once, stripped of my idealization of them, I saw them as actual people. Maybe, just maybe, everyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my peers – actually did not have all the answers, all the skills, and all the confidence. Maybe I was so caught up in my own failures that I failed to actually notice the struggles and failures of those around me, instead noticing only their impressive feats and public facades and piecing together narratives of perfection from these limited insights into their realities.

While written out in this way, these realizations probably seem rather evident (i.e. of course nobody is perfect), recognition of a truth is different from internalization of it. For some things, words only go so far – sometimes it takes being pushed to your limits and emerging on the other side to actually realize what you are capable of (or at the very least, to accept that you can never truly discern your own abilities or potential abilities). And perhaps it takes embracing all the mistakes and shortcomings that characterized your own road to the other side to actually recognize all the mistakes and uncertainties that equally shape and define the successfulness of everyone around you.

While seemingly simple, the mere mental exercise of truly considering that my abilities were no less than anyone else in my position – that my confusion or discomfort in various situations was not something singular to me – was one of the most profound and even life-altering realizations I have had to date. It was the first time I actually felt that adulthood and maturity were not things to be earned through self-defined benchmarks, confidence levels, or achievement, but rather, states of being already granted to me whether I liked it or not. Equipped with this new knowledge, the ‘future’ – the thing which until then had seemed like this constant shadow looming over me, bringing with it unwanted motion whilst I remained a constant, inevitably leaving me ever more behind in relation to everything around me such that I could never catch up to whatever or wherever I was supposed to be – suddenly felt like something full of possibility, a thing at least partially within my power to mold.

The beginning: My body pressed against the hard wood floor, crumpled beneath an overwhelming heaviness, as though the invisible weight of life itself was literally pushing me to the ground, pinning me down with all its force until my body ceased to be more than a mass of misshapen flesh, another weight to carry. The feeling of nothing and everything. All at once. The sensation of inhabiting this physical form convulsing from the force of heaving cries between gasps for breath, fingertips clutching at a cool hard surface…yet somehow being outside of it…or below it…not really there at all. Inhabiting a space that didn’t feel real, a body that didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. The only thing that felt of me was an overwhelming desire to literally sink into the ground…

Some days earlier I had learned that I got the job someone had recommended me for – a new position in a new country with massively more responsibility than my current one. It was the exact kind of opportunity I had hoped for for months, the kind of field experience I desired, the chance to see and be part of the work closer to the ‘ground’ and to develop myself further in work I found intriguing and meaningful. Yet, at the time of receiving this news, I had been immersed in a period of depression that rendered me unable to fully access my own desires except as distant memories of things I knew some part of me wanted. This recognition, this knowledge that the news I received did in fact constitute good news, was not enough to convince my mind that happiness or excitement was the appropriate response.

Fear, guilt, confusion, doubt, horror: these were my mind’s chosen responses. Knowing what I was capable of, and knowing what the position expected of me, what the person who recommended me thought of me, what my future boss would expect me to be…these were the thoughts that kept circling through my mind. Circling and circling until they all made less and less sense….until none of it made any sense at all…until the whole situation simply felt like some illusion. I knew who I was, what I was able to do. None of this aligned with the world I was about to enter. The fact that I had somehow slipped my way into this new role, one that had a real impact on other people, one for which I knew myself to be incapable of fulfilling, was baffling and horrifying. It was unreal, and yet it was my reality: this contradiction was simply more than my mind could handle, an impossible thing to reconcile. The more I tried to grasp it, the less real it felt, until eventually nothing at all felt real…in the most literal sense. And here I struggle to find words that can actually convey what it is I felt in that moment…this disconnect from reality (particularly in the challenge of truly re-accessing, much less describing, a mental state that was so specific to my depression at the time)…but it was as if I was floating outside of my own life, glimpsing into this strange and unlikely thing, and despite my desperate attempts to reconnect with it, to actually inhabit my own existence and the world which surrounded it, I simply could not.

The middle: Kind faces and potent words – some profound, but most quite simple – delivered at the right time by the right people. Moments of mutual respect and admiration shared with people whose mere presence radiated warmth and kindness. Glimpses of myself as seen through their eyes. The magnitude of meaning through a simple “I see myself in you” offered by an individual whose qualities and world views I deeply admired, from someone I saw as possessing all the qualities I thought were beyond my reach.

Friendship. The kind devoid of judgement or expectation – just pure, unfiltered love and understanding. The kind where new roommates, ones I’d only known for a short time, find me in the dark, turn on the lights and come sit by me, providing me with extra illumination through their simple yet invaluable words of reason when everything felt beyond reason. The kind where an older friend exhibits persistent patience and determination in forcing me away from the serious things, re-igniting in me curiosity and creativity when I needed it most.

Unexpected friendship – people willing to be vulnerable, or embracing my vulnerability – in contexts normally reserved for professionalism and self-regulation, contexts where vulnerability is not meant to be displayed: where the personal is meant to be left at home, neatly tucked away until you’ve closed your laptop and left the office compound. An invitation to a coffee break and an open and nonjudgmental ear to my sleep-deprived musings. A “how are you doing?” delivered with the kind of sincerity meant for a real response rather than a passing pleasantry. Subtle reminders that I was seen, that I was more than just a worker, more than my successes or my failures.

~~~***~~~

Inasmuch as the ‘middle’ remains the most elusive in my memory, accessible now only as these fragments and feelings more than concrete moments with well-defined boundaries, they contain probably the most power. While the ultimate remembered paradigm shifting moment came from the totality of the period, from simply surviving all the difficult moments and finding myself at the finish line in tact, all the little victories along the way, the ability to transcend the perceived chaos that surrounded me at the time, was rarely of my own doing. Even in the newfound ‘self’ confidence produced by these experiences, I am humbled by a greater awareness of my dependence on others – not as something antithetical to self confidence but as necessarily intertwined with it.

Still, even as this exercise in memory enables me to remember the source of my current perceptions and even recognize them as feats in themselves, I know this particular set of memories is particularly vulnerable to forgetting. Unlike other types of memories that merely become lost to time, these ones – the ones linked to confidence – also face active opposing forces of the mind: put to the test over and over again when new contexts and challenges bring with them new doubts. And there’s nothing like being a student again (i.e. by definition, someone whose entire world is future-oriented, whose acquisition of knowledge and experience is intended to set them up for what will come after graduation), or like job searching (i.e. being questioned and judged for your abilities, your plans and interests, and your ability to eloquently articulate said plans), to make you turn inward and start regressing towards the same doubts and uncertainties that past experiences had already proved to be unnecessary.

And so I hold on to what I can, each time the doubts return, because I know that fear only serves to blind us from what is really possible. As Maria Popova so accurately articulates, “the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.” Permission and possibility – those incredibly powerful forces that guide what we do – are just as much self-produced as culturally constructed. If nothing else, I hope that my memories will help to always remind me of the true power I hold to either limit or expand the boundaries of my own possibilities.

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Making Something of Memory (part 1)

When does a fascination with memory border on obsession? Obsession seems to imply thought that is unwarranted, unnecessary…superfluous. But if the focus of such attention is not one singular, definable, graspable thing, but really more a means or a channel through which to understand other phenomena, then can it really ever be an obsession? With that said, if the focus of the memories are inward and grounded in an effort to understand one’s self merely for the sake of understanding one’s self, then maybe such mental occupation can be said to be egotistical. I wouldn’t deny this. Memory, in its connection to one’s selfhood, is more often then not evoked in times of introspection and perhaps overly self-focused intentions. Still, I continue to straddle this line, wondering whether my preoccupation with memory is of little, or even regressive value, but nonetheless finding myself locked in its grips whether I choose to be or not.

Paradoxically, every time I find myself at a crossroads concerning the future, my mind seems to revert that much more towards what I assume it feels is the source of answers in the wake of uncertainty: the past. It is as though, faced with this insurmountable obstacle before its forward-looking line of sight, with an inability to visualize what one month ahead could like look, much less 10 years, it simply looks backward in its search for anything concrete. Sometimes it also feels like my mind, in recognising the imminent closure of a period with clear defining features (i.e. defined by a certain overarching goal, be it school, a certain type of job, etc. – coupled with a specific external context, both physically and socially – and characterised by a specific self-definition and way of moving through the world as a result of these other factors), it undertakes a sort of wrapping up and moving on exercise. It is almost like my subconscious puts together one of those Facebook ‘year in review’s, enticing me to stop and look at what it has chosen to assemble and what it has assumed would be most relevant to my interests. Often, it goes far beyond a ‘year’ in review, projecting several years into the past and neatly sorting the memories into these deceptively categorized experiences: each occurring within its own separate definable timeframe and context.

And most often, just as with Facebook’s selection process, the actual ‘highlights’ that surface most often are rarely relevant to what I would have thought to focus on had I picked them myself (although, yes, I realize here I cannot speak of my mind as though a thing separate from me; if I am remembering something, it is of course because some part of me has selectively chosen to remember it). In general, though, the memories that resurface and revisit me have this disjointed quality from my present experiences. They feel random, and in this randomness, mysterious in a sense…I can’t help but wonder at times whether my subconscious is trying to tell me something in its choice of memories. Or, more likely, given the deep interconnection between emotion and memory (i.e. we tend to remember most vividly those moments that we experienced in the most heightened emotional states), they are simply granting me access to some emotional territory I am craving at any given moment, whether fully conscious of it or not…

…pausing at the cross street during a Sunday morning run in Harare, the one that headed into the tree-covered quiet bend of road before the city suddenly transformed into a mini countryside oasis, connected by that thin strip of pavement where the sunlight always played magical games between the thick cover of branches …

…that time I had my scarf pulled down over my head as we inched our way down the congested Johannesburg highway at rush hour, feeling your presence next to mine and your concern as I kept hold of that thin fabric veil that felt like a literal and necessary shield between myself and the world in that moment…

…standing beside the little white car that had become over-heated in its efforts to pull the five us along the stretch of road from South Africa to Lesotho, accepting the failure of our aim to reach the border before nightfall, both defeated and inspired by the night sky now in full bloom, its stars encompassing every inch of the domed darkness overhead; watching as you guys submersed yourself in the darkness to frolic in the field besides the road while we waited for the determined little vehicle to regain its mobility…

…alone in my meekly furnished, very square bedroom in a suburban (dreary) area of Johannesburg, a few months after I had started my first post-graduate job, on a Sunday where I had finished all that I had to do for the day and just sat there on my bed possessed by thoughts of the past: of the college bubble so close yet distant in my memory, of a friendship recently ended, of the future ahead, of where I was and what I was doing in that moment, about my newfound independence, adultness, aloneness…

As with the last memory, oftentimes my most recurrent memories are ironically memories of profound moments of remembering. They also tend to have this common characteristic of deep solitude within a context where everything felt foreign. And maybe because of this, many of the most deeply embedded and recurrently resurfacing ones took place in hotel rooms in parts of the world I never envisioned myself or new apartments not yet imbued with a sense of home, places whose physical elements held no particular emotional sentiment. They were moments in which my direct, physical surroundings embodied blank slates – surrounded by ‘foreign’ territories just beyond their walls – yet perhaps owing to these concrete physical boundaries, tended to position my thoughts towards an inexplicable space not quite in the present, past, or future.

Other times, though, my memories are not mere happenings before which I feel like an observer of something presented to me. While the resurfacing of these seemingly uneventful moments provide their own form of insights, I am guilty of willing other ones to the surface and consciously dwelling there. In this form of remembering, or re-remembering, I feel even less certain of its actual value or harm, probably in large part influenced by social conditioning as to the appropriateness of dwelling on the past. I get the sense that, as a whole, our society is attached to forward motion as this embodiment of progress – whether for an individual or a nation. Implicit in this connotation is the necessity of always “moving on” from the past, to not dwell on things that are no longer there and instead look to the future. I recognise that this attitude does have value in certain contexts and for certain types of memories, individual or collective. Yet, more often than not, I find this approach to be overly simplistic and perhaps limiting in its recognition of what it is to be human.

Not least of which are those memories that pertain to loss — I have been fortunate to not yet have experienced the physical loss of a close loved one, but from hearing others’ stories and their description of grief in particular, it becomes quickly evident that expecting people to “move on from” memories of people they loved is both unrealistic and unhelpful. In the case of grief, it seems that while its initial, debilitating form eventually subsides, the grief remains; it merely takes on new forms until it becomes just another facet of a person’s life (on this subject, I also found this podcast on the myth of closure really powerful). Perhaps if one were able to completely erase the memory of another, then the grief would be erased with it — but in what world would we want this to be anyone’s reality? To know that we can be forgotten from those whom we are most connected to? Or that we would be capable of forgetting those most intimately a part of our own being? To believe either would seem to negate a belief in the power of love – a force so powerful so as to persist beyond the end of physical access to another. Or at least I would like to think.

Earlier today I was listening to a podcast that interviewed an artist whose work attempts to embody the spiritual capacity of material objects, exploring also the interplay between memory, time, and these physical objects. Over the course of this interview, I latched onto one comment in particular: that memory represents an intentional creative response to loss…a tool with which we attempt to guard against decay. The artist also spoke of his connection to a grandmother who had passed away, describing his own memory as a capacity to still honour her, underlined by the title of one of his art pieces, ‘Heaven is Being a Memory to Others.’ While I don’t necessarily think that being remembered by others in this life is by any means a purpose or goal we should live by, I do think it has some kind of value for both the rememberer and the remembered – whether or not the latter is aware of their being remembered.

Tangibly, in my own life, recalling people who have at one point or another mattered to me feels like an exercise both in gratitude as well as in honouring the value of those I love or have loved (and here I mean love in the grandest sense – not simply familial or romantic). This often feels all the more necessary for those people no longer in my life, including those who merely passed through it (I don’t think meaningful connection is necessarily a function of the length of time two people are in each other’s presence). And, more selfishly, I also hold onto these memories for the sake of what all of these people inspire in me or remind me about the world. It is a very conscious, almost desperate, use of the one tool in my grasp to guard against the decay that is forgetting.

Equally so, and perhaps less lofty an exercise, I tend to quite consciously wield this tool in my possession to guard against the loss of my past selves. I say less lofty because, on the one hand, I recognize a kind of egotistical undertone in both the defining of “self” (and even more so in identifying and attempting to reconcile multiple “selves”), as opposed to merely existing as an inseparable part of the larger universe. Perhaps this sentiment is also influenced by those who speak of the self as this false and unnecessary concept, both in scientific terms (e.g. one physicist describes that all reality is in fact interaction, and that everything, including humans, are not ‘things’ but really ‘happenings’) as well as philosophical (e.g. those like Alan Watts who speak of the ‘self’ as this deceptive human construction). Nonetheless, this [perhaps egotistical] ‘need’ remains. And the deeper my sense of disconnect with a past time-period, and the more jarring the divides between each one, the more I fear letting them slip forever out of the conscious parts of my mind (all whilst cognizant of the fact that the more you recall any memory, the more your subjectivity distorts it, until it eventually becomes a mere skeleton of what the true, real-life experience was).

But maybe I find justification for this form of remembering mainly under the banner of maintaining ‘wisdom’. I notice in particular that each time I submerge myself into a completely new life (usually corresponding to a new city or country), no matter how much I initially think otherwise, the speed and depth by which my recollection of the former fades is rather astonishing. Moreover, beyond the memories of events and people, the fading of the way in which I perceived both my interior and exterior worlds within those contexts also begins to quickly slip out of my grasp. It is in this fading of perception that I feel the greatest weight of loss. For only certain experiences, certain tests and difficulties, certain people, and the unique mixing of all of them at any given period, allow us moments of clarity or bridges into new expanses of thought never before experienced. Yet even these paradigm-shifting experiences can be just as feeble as memory itself. They represent forms of personal growth that do not necessarily come with an inherent quality of permanence or linear movement. No doubt, some insights cannot be reversed — once you have realized something, you cannot unrealize it. But in particular when it comes to new, valuable insights about ourselves, given all the subjectivity and complexity and emotional distortions that come with them, I think it is particularly easy to forget the incisive things we may have once realized. Perhaps retaining a positive self paradigm-shift actually requires some intentional cultivating and processing of the initial insights, a process mainly enabled through the traces left behind of the moments that enabled them in the first place: our memories.