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.

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Finding Symbols for the Wordlessness

It’s funny how the times I actually feel most compelled to write seem to be the times when I feel least able to make sense of something in words. In fact, even in starting this post and writing these words now, I don’t know where this is going, or what I want to say, or how to find the language for it, and yet, can’t get over this gnawing sense that I need to say something and find a way to formulate it into words.

For the thing I want to describe not only lacks words but I’m not even sure has managed to surface to the level of a thought. Feeling maybe, but not thought. But then, even the idea of a feeling somehow seems to connote a sense of concreteness and understanding that I have yet to arrive at, since feelings we generally communicate to the outside world and to ourselves through the medium of language, indicating a certain definitiveness about them.

Conveniently enough though, I recently stumbled upon this quote by John Steinbeck that couldn’t be anymore germane to my current sentiments, and has motivated me to continue to write something in any case:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

Maybe the act of writing this in itself is the thing I feel the need to somehow articulate: that deep embedded recognition within all of us of what it means to be human and what it means to make manifest and express it. Like many of the abstract things I’ve clumsily attempted to find symbols for through words (‘reality’, ‘identity’, etc.) this clichéd concept of ‘what it means to be human’ in fact has no meaning in and of itself given its broadness and different associations it holds to different people. However, I recently read a piece with a definition I quite like for the essential component of our humanity: the parts of ourselves that extend beyond the mere mechanical.

While still a rather broad and abstract definition, I think it holds a lot of relevance as an important reminder to self, particularly when we find ourselves drudging through the day to day details of life – those details that more often than not feel overwhelming and vital when in the thick of them – not even realizing just how much our mindless daily actions come to consume our beings until something shakes us from our monotonous routine and reminds us of our core humanness. That is, a reminder that our being in the world is not just a facet of our daily motions and mere existence, but really, of our ability to connect and interact and reflect on our relationship to it; to have an ongoing and active conversation with the world around us and with ourselves.

It is a definition of human identity that is complexly positioned somewhere in between our relationship to the physical reality we inhabit and our interior reality. I really liked the way the poet philosopher David Whyte describes this space as it relates to our individual identities, saying that the “only place where things are real is between the frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.” In talking about the tendency of humans to abstract themselves out of their direct experiences (and in fact, highlighting this ability of humans to deny their own humanness or fundamental identities as a key feature of what distinguishes us as human, as opposed to all other creatures on the planet which are undeniably and unavoidably nothing more than themselves), he notes that the formation of one’s identity depends not only on looking within oneself, but more on the depth of one’s attention to all things other than himself. It is through deepening our attention to the things around us that we begin to deepen our own sense of presence – in a literal and physical sense, but also probably in terms of the presence we have in relationship to ourselves and the sense of grounding we have in the bodies we inhabit. “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity,” he poignantly states in one of his poems.

Something I think I’ve struggled with of late though is finding the balance between being grounded in the physical and real versus the abstract and interior. In the past couple months, I feel like I’ve found myself wavering between two extremes: from being so fully and completely immersed in my work and allowing it to become the totality of my life and thoughts, leaving no space for introspection or reflection beyond the immediate and present reality, to having something suddenly knock me out of this state – whether by a sudden shift of perspective or even physical relocation – such that I find my sense of reality dislocated altogether, leaving my mind to settle only on the reality within itself.

The latter is where I find myself now, and also constitutes the crux of the ‘wordlessness’ and ‘inexplicable’ that has prompted me to put words on paper at this time. Not necessarily a bad thing, it is a state of being that can be described as nothing else but perplexing, and perhaps also disorienting, all the more so in the frustrating lack of words that seem available to describe it. Still, while I can’t necessarily put words to my current mental state that would clarify what I mean, I can at least describe the underlying characteristic defining it, which is essentially a struggle to ground my thoughts in the present.

Described in such a way, I’m sure this struggle is one relatable to many, but probably with very different undertones and driving forces behind it. While I’m still trying to get a grasp on the unyielding force behind mine, in the hopes that identifying its roots will allow me to regain control over it, I think it is in part linked to the very different realities I’ve experienced lately that have become juxtaposed against each other in such dramatic ways: from spending a month recently in the U.S. (the first time I’d been back in a year) and rediscovering facets of myself and way of being in the world that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, to returning to my life in Zimbabwe and so suddenly and completely becoming immersed into it as though I’d never left, to finally submitting an acceptance to a graduate school offer and having my mind quickly propelled forward into the idea of the new places and physical and mental spaces I will soon be occupying for the next two years (and all the while, still having the recent memory of my two-years lived in Johannesburg, the place that continues to hold the closest association to the feeling of ‘home’ in my mind).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the experience of extreme normality in each of these realities (even the ones yet to be experienced) that feels like the underlying source of bewilderment at any one of their realities. Something about traversing between each of these spaces, which on the one hand feel so normal and natural in and of themselves during the periods in which I am experiencing them, has led my mind to struggle with believing in any of them as ‘real’. It’s not even that the places in themselves are so drastically different from one another, but more that who I am in each of them has felt so drastically different, all whilst underscored by the obvious fact that each has inevitably constituted just another piece of the totality of who I am. For instance, whenever I look back at the memory of one from the viewpoint of another, it almost feels like I’m glimpsing into someone else’s life altogether, but then when I return to one from the other, it deceptively feels as though my present life context has in fact been my reality all along.

I probably sound high in my attempt to describe this inexplicable mental state, or just simply incoherent, but in any case, maybe there is at least some reassurance to be found in the description I’ve recently come across of one of the essential aspects of humanity as being our “fluidity of character and multiple selves.” It’s always nice when someone else’s words seem to succinctly summarize an experience into a context that at least has some connection to something valuable. Perhaps all this disorientation and disconnect from any single reality is just a means of arriving at a greater wholeness in accepting the fluidity between my multiple selves, and relatedly, acceptance of the continuous process of renewal, loss, and new formation of different selves.

Still, throughout all of this, as I fail to find grounding in my present reality, I continue to grapple with the question surrounding the value or danger of having a deeper grounding in the mind than in the exterior. In communicating the value of deep thought and reflection, someone recently expressed to me he was of the opinion that there is no such thing as overthinking. While the sentiment behind his thought was clear and straightforward in the context, it still prompted me to think a lot more about thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that feels uncontrolled and without intention. As much as I agree with the necessity of such thinking, especially in the context of what I described earlier about the core of what even makes us human and truly alive in our own existence, I still think allowing the mind to rest too much within itself ends up actually preventing us from achieving deep connection with the things around us, which ultimately serve to form who we are. Again, it comes down to finding the frontier or space in between, ensuring that we are fully attuned to and grounded in the immediate things outside of us all whilst allowing the landscape of the mind the space and means to reflect.

In thinking about how this interplay between thoughts and action has presented itself in my current work context, I was stuck by this quote from the writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Describing how this affects our sense of time, she goes on to say that “the life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

While not necessarily the most earth-shattering idea, the statement that what we do with each hour is what we do with each day, and ultimately, our lives, was profoundly moving when I first read it. It particularly spoke to my work experience over the past few months, in which it felt as though three months of living had passed in an instant and that time had somehow cheated me as I looked back at all the 12, 14, and 16 hour days spent consumed with nothing but work. All the while through that period, while I’m sure on a deeper level I had recognized that the way I was spending each day would add up to how I spent my weeks and months, by the end of it all, I was left with a memory of the time as something that felt extremely bare and thin.

What it lacked, rendering it devoid of weight and substance, was the spirit. Just as the quote so beautifully reflects, it’s incredible to realize just how much control we have over our experience of time itself, and just how vastly different time can feel depending on the state of mind we inhabit as we experience it. While it’s still very much a work in progress, I think I’ve at least come to realize just how crucial it is to be always cognizant of making sure I’m consciously and consistently infusing the life of the spirit into every day, hour, and even minute. So in this context at least, I can agree with the sentiment that regular thinking and reflection must be woven throughout all that we do, to ensure that we not lose those fundamental aspects of ourselves that truly make us human. Otherwise, we become nothing more than a fixture of our surroundings, alive but not fully living. Even if we manage to be productive in the work or task at hand, the work itself ends up losing its sense of purpose, and we start to lose our core humanness in the process.

I could probably go on for another 50 pages about this but, as with most of my non-structured posts about non-structured things, the lack of conclusion or central point to all that I’ve just written about makes it seem only appropriate to just end it here with an equally non-structured and inconclusive conclusion. I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at any greater clarity in my clumsy attempt to put to words the range of indefinable things that continue to take up much of my thoughts, but if nothing else, thanks to Steinbeck, at least I can say that in the attempt itself I’ve undertaken some form of ‘art’ in just simply putting together letters and sentences for now.

How are you?

What if we lived in a world in which the following scenario was a normal one: You walk into work Monday morning, your boss walks by and says “Good morning, how are you?” and you casually answer the question with a completely straightforward yet nonchalant, “Not so good actually; I cried myself to sleep last night,” or a “You know, I’m really not so sure; sometimes I just don’t know how I’m doing, or what I’m even feeling, or how to articulate those feelings.”

Imagine what the reaction to such a response would be in the real world – likely intense discomfort on the part of the person who asked, or just pure bafflement at how to respond or what to make of it. And yet, in some ways, I think there is more irony and strangeness in the normal, more common answers we give, of ‘fine, thanks’ and ‘good, how are you?’ – the answers we unconsciously produce as part of a deeply ingrained social script. A script so deeply ingrained, in fact, that when learning a foreign language, we’re always taught a set of short, simple phrases to use in response to the ‘how are you?’ equivalents of the other languages – quickly dismantling any notion that the question was ever really meant as a question.

And this is not to say that there is anything inherently strange or unnatural about the existence of rhetorical questions used as greetings in many cultures’ social scripts, but the seeming irony of it all is this: We ask each other this question every day – the casual add-on to a ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’, an extended greeting with seemingly more substance and depth than just a word of hello. And while we ask the question by way of habit, politeness, respect, friendliness, etc., and not with any intent of digging deeper into the psyche of the person we’re asking it from, at the same time, most of us – on some level at least – truly do care to know about the wellbeing of the people around us. Even those we barely know. Just think of Humans of New York for example – a page that generates hundreds of thousands of genuinely supportive comments – and in some cases, actions – each day in response to brief glimpses into the lives of complete strangers: responses to nothing more than a few sentences about someone’s fears, struggles, hopes, etc.

I know a lot of people are of the opinion that humans are inherently selfish and no one really cares about anything but themselves, but I think this opinion in some ways becomes validated purely by the fact that it is believed. When you live in a culture shaped around the concept of self-interest – including on a macro level when thinking about the basis on which businesses thrive or how the economy is structured – then little room is given to allow people to act otherwise. And rather than allowing space to change these expectations, our language and social norms in many ways deepen our limitations by setting up walls to separate each person’s multiple selves – their professional self, their personal self, their vulnerable self, their fun self, their spiritual self, etc. As a result, we come to these unspoken agreements, reflected in our social norms of interaction, that our lowest and most vulnerable moments and thoughts are just too much information for most people and in most settings. In this, we limit our opportunities to fully know people in the totality of their highs and lows, to offer our empathy, to connect in a greater understanding of each others’ humanness even with those we deem not close enough for such interactions.

That common expression of advice “just be yourself” always struck me as the most unhelpful thing to say to someone – implying that we all have some innate, static, true ‘self’ that’s somehow the real essence of who we are. I don’t know anyone who displays the exact same version of themselves at work, at home, with friends, etc., nor anyone who doesn’t in some way regulate the self that they display in various settings, whether consciously or unconsciously. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably for the best in many cases. But at the same time, each of those versions of self constitute a true and real facet of the greater self, the totality of who someone really is, and I think we all begin to forget this reality when interacting with others…just as we come to feel the need to hide parts of ourselves in certain settings and with certain people. Again – something that is normal and necessary in many instances (for instance, you probably wouldn’t want to bring out your crazy party self at your office if you wanted to maintain the respect of your colleagues) – but something I think we often take too far.

One potentially problematic result of this I think can be seen in the way we generally present our ‘best’ selves in professional settings or with people we don’t know very well, or even in social media, until we all start to fall under the skewed impression that everyone around us has their stuff together. Even whilst cognizant on some level that everyone has their own disjointed, troubling, perplexing things going on in their lives – simply by nature of being human – it becomes difficult to truly appreciate the depth of that fact when only seeing the side of people that we are allowed to see: the side that societal expectations have deemed appropriate for the public. How much harder does it then become to reconcile our own human weaknesses – our irrational fears, our self-doubt – with the images of put-togetherness we see around us each day?

Perhaps it is this phenomenon that manifests itself into the ‘imposter syndrome’: that nagging feeling of disconnect from the image we assume on the outside and of how people see us in our current situation with the reality of how we’re actually feeling and how we see ourselves. I’ve had several people tell me that they too have felt this imposter-ness, and that it is probably common to most. Ironically though, even in hearing this and acknowledging the reality of it, I often can’t help but think of the people saying it to me and wondering why they would ever think such a thing – these people with their incredible personalities, their kindness, their talent, their ambitions; people who clearly belong in the thing they are doing; people who in no way seem like imposters. At the same time, I always feel guilt for letting a thought pass through my mind – as it inevitably implies that the imposter-ness felt in my own circumstances is in fact more legitimate, more grounded in truth, than that felt by others.

Maybe this difficulty to fully reconcile the evident fact of everyone’s imposter-ness remains challenging with the walls that continue to block us from truly seeing into the multiple selves that make up each individual. But maybe these walls serve a purpose that should not be underestimated….would we really be better off in a society in which we were more aware of each other’s fears and challenges? At a surface level, more openness and empathy sounds like a positive thing for a society, but on a practical level, TMI is real – and as much as people have empathy and are capable of being supportive in the face of others’ complex issues or self-doubts, such issues might quickly come to dominate people’s views of each other.

So I am not proposing that anything should necessarily change in how we interact with other people and regulate our multiple selves. A simple “How are you?” does not impose any societal harm as a rhetorical greeting rather than a platform for facilitating exchanges of empathy and humanness. If nothing else, though, perhaps it is useful at times to simply remind ourselves that the casual “I’m good” or “Not bad” we receive when we pose the greeting to others is coming from another human being who may be struggling with something at that moment, or feeling things contrary to the collected image they display. Whether reminding ourselves of this serves as an impetus to exercise more compassion and empathy just in general life – even when the people around us appear completely fine – or a means of recognizing the source of unrealistic expectations we sometimes have for ourselves when unconsciously forming comparisons with the people around us – striving to always be more cognizant of the deeply multi-dimensional nature of each individual seems an overall useful mindset to have.