Memory: Necessary Ingredient to Life or Hindrance?

Plaque Proust

By Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Darcy and I had a discussion about memory over the weekend. I am someone whose memory is prompted by places I go. I live where I grew up, and my parents were outdoorsy people. We hiked every weekend it didn’t rain, and if it did rain, we went somewhere whether it was a museum, the library or church. I like to go to the local forrest or lake. It reminds me of growing up and my parents and brother. (Both my parents and my brother now live across the country.) I also lived here for most of my battle through infertility so there are also some negative places in my neighborhood, mostly a local supermarket and pharmacy. I don’t like to go to those places. Once I had my kids, I tried to visit them triumphantly, to put the past behind me. It didn’t work. Mel has a great post about how she studiously avoids places where there are bad memories attached.

But I love bringing my kids to the local beach where my father and I looked for sand dollars when I was young, the county fair where I hung out as a teen and ate caramel apples and the pizza parlor where I played “Miss Pacman.” It makes me feel like I am revisiting my childhood, yet in a new, fresh way.

We went to the sand dollar beach over the long weekend, and I annoyed Darcy by constantly pointing to landmarks and talking about my past experiences. Around that bend in the road is the bird sanctuary I went to as a third grader, that beach house was the one my Dad’s friend owned, where we went to parties on the Fourth of July, that restaurant is the one where my mom let me order a Shirley Temple. Darcy has had some really exotic and unusual experiences: he traveled Morocco for a month by himself and almost got caught up in a smuggling ring, he went to Albania in 1994 to see for himself what the conflict was like and got mugged, he lived in Hong Kong for two years. Growing up, his parents took him to three star restaurants in Paris. Yet, he doesn’t remember those experiences that well. I really have to ask a lot of questions to prompt his memories.

So I feel silly talking about my tame, mundane memories, but they are very important to me. As I pointed to the bar seat at the restaurant and relayed how I once asked the bartender for a maraschino cherry to top off my shirley temple, Darcy asked why these memories were so necessary to me. We had both seen a “60 Minutes” special about a very small group of people who remember in agonizing details every day of their life: from the trivialities of what they wore and the weather to the emotions they felt when someone cut them off in traffic or when their boyfriend fought with them.

Darcy is unable or unwilling to use his memory to relate to places we have been to in the past. He thinks of memory as adding depth to life but dangerous: people can live in the past, and that is a dangerous place to abide. He pointed out that there have been artists who essentially stopped living, full stop, in order to recreate the past. Proust famously lived in a cork-lined bedroom room, blocking out all noise to mine his past in great detail, thereby producing one of the greatest works of literature. Have you read it? I read “Swann’s Way” during my early pregnancy with the twins (I had hypermesis and was bedridden), because I wanted them to be smart. Of course, that doesn’t explain my obsession with “The Hills” at the same time, but I digress. “Swann’s Way” was the only novel that actively changed the way I saw the world. The dreamlike, detailed prose prompted by “involuntary memories” was sublime, and yet real. In reality, our thoughts are rarely linear and move in and out of the past and present, while contemplating the future. Yet, Proust’s writing was not confusing like James Joyce. I hated “Ulysses.”

What was at the heart of this discussion is this: Darcy worries about me living in the past, not moving on from the negative experiences of infertility and miscarriage. I admit that I am worried about this as well.

Do you find yourself triggered by “involuntary memories,” whether it’s going to the local pharmacy where you bought pregnancy tests that turned negative, or by the taste of a spicy tuna roll that you ate on the night you decided to live it up after getting a BFN? Or the smell of a particular soap you used at your fertility clinic the day of a retrieval? Or seeing photos of a celebrity who was pregnant when you desperately wanted to be?

Would you rather give up these memories, or do they make you who you are?

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12 Comments

Filed under Infertility, writing

12 responses to “Memory: Necessary Ingredient to Life or Hindrance?

  1. I’m kind of middle of the road on this topic. I have some vivid and important memories that I cherish, and love smells, sights, sounds, tastes, etc. that remind me of them, but on other other hand, I’m not terribly sentimental about the past. I have noticed that some people seem more invested in their memories than I am, and have always found it a bit odd that they can’t just relate to a place, person, or whatever as it/they are now, but at the same time, I do understand that memories, and especially childhood memories, do shape who we are.

    • Sentimental! That’s the exact right word. I’m weirdly sentimental when it comes to certain memories attached to places, whereas it would probably be better if I focused on the present. I think Darcy has the same view as you. Thanks for helping me to understand that better…

  2. Your last question is a tough one, I believe whole heartedly that they make me who I am, but I know that they hinder me immensely. Tim and I are very similar, he has the worst memory and I suspect thinks very similarly to Tim…but I remember EVERYTHING. And there are times, where I wish I could just forget. I think I’d be a lot happier if I could.

    Loved this post.

    • I meant to say Tim and I are similar to you and Darcy, not that he and I are similar in our memories.

      • Gah! And that Tim thinks very similarly to Darcy. Geez! I really messed that comment up. Oops!

      • Hee! I know what you mean 🙂 Did you ever watch “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”? I think the conclusion was that if we erased our bad memories, there would be a gaping hole where they were and we’d constantly seek them out, anyway. At least, I think that was one of the points. I loved that movie, but it was confusing.

  3. This is really interesting to me, largely because I am currently working through hidden past memories that wreck major emotional havoc in my present life. I’m not doing this work on my own–I have the help of an excellent therapist. But what I’ve discovered is that living in the past and remembering can be two different things.

    For me, the “involuntary memories” being triggered mostly occur as extremely strong emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the current situation. What is interesting is that, as I process these emotions in therapy, I remember more about my past, but it affects my present less. When I am experiencing an emotional trigger, I am living in the past, reacting to the present as if it were the past. When I process that trigger, I can remember more about what happened in the past, but I no longer have the same powerful emotional reaction. The memory looses it’s power.

    I hope this makes some sense. It is a really organic process and very hard to describe. The other thing I’ve discovered is that as I process these childhood memories and emotions, I find myself much better able to cope with the challenges of my current life, including the challenges of my fertility journey.

    Anyway, just adding my 2 cents. Thanks for the very thought provoking post.

    • That is fascinating about the process you are going through to lessen the power of your painful memories. I’m so glad it’s helping you cope with your life now…and loosen the grip of those emotional reactions. It sounds really helpful.

  4. I think memories are definitely a necessary ingredient to life. The reason twilight anesthesia and other forms of light, waking anesthesia are so great is that you have no memory of the procedure when you’re fully conscious again. So, even if it hurts in the moment, you’re willing to put up with that because you know you won’t remember it.

    I think it can be dangerous to dwell in the past, like the example of Proust. Memories are important to the present, because they shape our knowledge base and our emotional base. But they should be used for that – to shape and inform our current lives. Not to be a life we go back to internally. My mom always tells me I’m “so unsentimental” because I’d rather do things like donate my (not very bridal) wedding dress to a charity that gives underprivileged girls formal dresses for things like prom, than to have it cleaned and preserved and save it for my daughter. (Haha, mom. Joke’s on you on that one anyway!) But I don’t see it like that. I loved my wedding, and I loved my wedding dress. I loved it all so much that the pictures and my memories are enough, and it would mean so much more to me to have someone else get some use and enjoyment out of it too.

  5. I think living in the past is different than revisiting it, especially to share with others. And when we revisit it, as you say, you see it differently. I hated Ulysses, too, but I love going back to the haunts of my youth, because they remind me of who I was then, and help me to connect the strands of my identity. It’s sort of like making a map in your head … you begin to see how all of the roads connect together, once you drive them enough. If that makes any sense …

  6. K

    I have a lot of emotional attachments to memories. I remember in my early teens, I spend a good year using the same shampoo because the particular scent of that specific shampoo reminded me of the shampoo I had used while on vacation at the beach, and so every time I washed my hair, I felt like I was back at the beach.

    In fact, my attachments are so strong that even if I’m not aware that them, they are working on my psyche under the surface. For example, my husband and I essential sat-out Fourth of July this year. We didn’t go to any barbeques or parties, we didn’t watch any parades, we didn’t go to see fireworks or even watch them on TV. We busied ourselves by going to a pond (where, thankfully and awesomely they have private swimming spots where we weren’t surrounded by families and kids), playing tennis, and running errands. But the day before, when we were throwing out ideas of what we wanted to do, when we thought about an open invitation we had to a party and we thought about the several options for fireworks, all I knew was I didn’t want to do anything. When my husband pushed a little further, I said, truthfully at the moment, that I didn’t like fireworks.

    But here’s the thing, for most of my life I’ve loved fireworks, especially as a kid. My family made a big deal out of driving downtown, finding a remote parking spot, and walking to the riverside park where you could catch the show. And I absolutely loved it. It’s one of those traditions you always assume will be carried on with your own kids…hence why I don’t like fireworks anymore.

    I’m hoping that someday I’ll enjoy stuff like that again. But I think it goes to show how life experiences can alter your perceptions of memories. How once happy memories can become sad when circumstances change.

  7. Lut C.

    You can’t choose what kind of memory you have. Just like you can’t choose whether you have good eyesight or a good sense of smell.
    I often wish I had a better memory. I forget so many things, it’s sad really. I have little recollection of childhood, and even of my high school years.

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