Monday 28 January 2013

Memory Lane

Did you know that there actually is a Memory Lane in Leicester?

I've been undertaking a project lately, to re-post a blog that I started aged 26, as part of my travel blog. It's an extremely strange experience, and I'd like to give the dust time to settle before saying what I really thought of Younger Me. 

I think I'm quite lucky to have the chance to do this. It was the first blog I ever wrote, and I took to journaling like a proverbial duck to water. I'm not sure there are many people who can look back in such extreme detail at their lives almost six years ago.

There was one particular post that's struck me so far. I was clearing out the room I rented, Freecycling everything I couldn't put into storage. For some reason there was a box of 'metal cats'. I now remember that as being an eBay venture that didn't work out - buy cheap, sell on. I got the first bit right, but the second bit failed to materialise.

However, it took me a long time to remember this. I read the sentence several times thinking 'Metal cats? What metal cats?' I couldn't even picture them. Then it came back to me. If it hadn't been for that one, detailed (perhaps overly detailed, some might say) line, I never would have thought of them again. That episode in my life would have been completely erased.

The same goes for keyrings described and lost, meals eaten, and even guests who stayed the night! It's absolutely incredible the amount we of life we forget.

I thought I'd share with you a section from my novel Lucid, which is all about memory. Suddenly, it seems to have taken on extra significance.


When a parent dies, you don’t just lose them, you lose part of who you are. Other people come and go through your life. Most of them you don’t meet until halfway through. But parents are there from the very beginning. They were there through all of the things you can’t remember. They were there even before you had memory. It’s all those conversations beginning with ‘do you remember...’ that die with them. There are parts of your life, of who you are, of what made you you, that cannot be accessed alone; that need someone else to return you to that moment in time.

It’s scary how little of life we remember, and how much relevance we place on those precious fragments that we do. They become our anchor in this void of transient oblivion. 

What did you have for breakfast this day two years ago? If you don’t remember, does that mean it never happened?

The answer might be ‘because it’s unimportant,’ but isn’t it funny the things that are important. Little moments of childhood, the tone of somebody’s voice, the look in someone’s eye, an experience, a heated exchange, and, in between all of those muddy remembrances, the half-imagined things which leave us with only a sense of something having happened. 

Predominantly, though, there is a nothing. A vast, all-engulfing void of things that might as well never have happened, because they are certainly never remembered. Think back over your life, over the days, the hours, the seconds. If you had to give a percentage of how much of your life you honestly remember in glowing multi-colour surround sound, what would it be? Thirty per cent? Forty? Higher? Lower?

This used to frighten her. This notion that, for more than half her life, she couldn’t actually remember existing. She used to lay awake thinking about it until gradually she came to see this as a comfort, rather than a threat. The change began when she read an article in Australian Psychiatry at university. It talked about the aboriginal concept of time, where the things that have the greatest impact on you – the things that you remember the clearest – are the closest in time. You don’t remember eating breakfast yesterday? That doesn’t matter, it happened a hundred years ago. But the bully who hit you in the face at school – that happened an hour ago. Finding that article was like breathing out after holding her breath for so long. A question she couldn’t quite form had been answered. 

As she lay there on her bed with tears streaming down her cheeks, she felt a kind of calm come over her. In aboriginal time, she lost her mother twenty seconds ago. The pain was still so sharp that it hurt every part of her.  In our time, it had been almost nine months. December; a car accident. As the cold dark nights drew in, they suffocated the life out of her mother until, eventually, they engulfed her completely and she was gone. 

She had held her hand as she slipped away. That moment, when her mother finally breathed out, was so enormous that it eclipsed everything else that had happened in her life before then. It was the clearest moment in time that she had ever experienced. 

And that’s when she got scared. It made her realise how much she didn’t remember, and how much of who she was, and the things she’d done, were locked up in her mother’s head. All of those conversations came flooding back: ‘Do you remember Rachel, you were such good friends at nursery..’, ‘Can you remember the time we went to Portsmouth and saw the big ships...’, ‘…and you remember, you never let go of that teddy, whatever happened to it?’ Most of it she couldn’t remember. Not until her mother had reminded her. Then it would come flooding back and she would wonder how she had ever forgotten. 

Therein lay the answer; the comforting point: just because she didn’t remember, didn’t mean it had never happened. Just because she didn’t remember being three, didn’t mean that she had never been three. 

This is how she came to think of death, or ‘non-life’. Just because she didn’t remember before she was born, didn’t mean that she hadn’t been conscious. It didn’t mean that she wasn’t there; that there was nothing. 

So why shouldn’t the same be true after death? When she thought of death, she thought of a big black. Like a sheet of felt paper in art class at school when the teacher would give you white chalk to draw with. Only this black you can’t draw on, because it swallows everything you try to think or do. That’s a pretty scary thought on its own, but when you think about someone you love, like your mother, going there all alone... 

The world’s woe flowed through her. Sobs choked off her thoughts like a trip-switch for her own protection. For a long time she thought about her mother disappearing into that black paper until she became black paper herself; nothing left. That’s when she really started to think about memory. That’s when she realised that being dead must be very similar to not being born yet, and that not being born yet must be very similar to the majority of your life that you just don’t remember. That’s when she started to feel a bit calmer. They were all just in-between times. The parts we remember, or think we remember, they’re actually special, because they are rare.

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