On what we remember

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to recall the brilliant idea that struck me in the wee hours of the morning, waking me up enough that I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Tossing and turning and then getting up, making the fire, and making the coffee edged the thought out of my mind, and now it’s the end of the day and I was sitting here looking at the fading sun and trying to recall my morning thought.

I was quite sure the thought was related to a Peterson podcast I had started listening to and I thought perhaps if I continued where I’d left off, I might remember. Then I picked up Beyond Order thinking that might help. But having woken up early, my brain was tired and uncooperative, so I put the book down and opened up the blog editor, resolved to simply write an “anniversary” post.

(Yes, that one — the one-year anniversary of society being shut down. I’m certainly not the only one doing it. In fact, I’m a few days late. And now, as this post has taken a few days to write, I’m even more days late.)

As I started to type the title, the topic emerged in a flash. Ah yes! Memory.

Peterson says:

“People think that the purpose of memory is to remember the past, and that’s not the purpose of memory. The purpose of memory is to extract information out from the past, lessons to structure the future." (From here)

In that sense, we cannot expect our memories are not exact representations of what happened. They are collections of meaningful moments that serve as wayfinding signs.

Try to recall the walls of the grocery store your mom dragged you to when you were 10. Perhaps if they were particularly gaudy, you might be able to recall the color or pattern. Most likely, you won’t. It wasn’t important then, and it isn’t important now.

Some details we recall vividly. Some memories shift and slide and melt into the past, becoming mere ghosts of experiences.

If what Peterson says is true — and I think it is — as experiences cease to be important, as we learn from them, we have less need to preserve them as memories. Could it be that this is why, with time, so many of our memories fade? We extract and internalize the lesson, preserve the essence — a small nugget, a truth, a feeling — and then let the details slip into the irrelevant or known past.

This idea is integral to Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: Roughly, we must face (pay attention to) the unknown so that we will know it and understand its relationship (is it friend or foe?) to us. Does it pose a threat? Where are the holes and obstacles and dangers? How can I avoid them in the future?

What we know, we have mapped. What we have mapped, we can largely ignore. We don’t have to pay attention to what we know in the same way have to be alert when faced with the unknown.

When I was 18, I spent 6 months living with a host family in the south of France (Narbonne). A few years later, I was sitting in a packed bus on a rainy early winter day as the bus crawled its way down Park Ave in Montreal at rush hour, when I got a brief whiff of a scent that made me perk up and look around, instantly alert. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I knew the scent, and it had elicited a visceral reaction, but I couldn’t say what it was. As quickly as it had come, it was gone. I spent the rest of the ride trying to recall why it was so urgently familiar. Perhaps it was the perfume that my host “mom” in France had worn (which was probably Chanel). It was elusive but powerful and disorienting, something known but out of place.

The room I occupied during my stay was in the attic to the left of that central decorative round dormer window. In 30 years, the building hasn’t changed much at all, as you can see.

I remember a lot about the house and my time there. My memories seem immediate and vibrant. I was a young visitor in a foreign country, fully alert and keenly attentive for the whole six months I was there. Everything was new to me — everything. There were so many things I had never seen before, so many different ways of doing things. All my interactions and experiences held new information to be processed, understood, integrated.

It seems like eons ago but also like just yesterday.

One of the things I enjoyed, and did fairly often, was to try to get lost, to see what I could see, and then find my way back to wherever I had started from. In Narbonne, this of course meant finding my way back to the house. In other cities, it meant getting back to the train station, preferably on time for a train back to Narbonne.

During my first homesick weeks there, I got lost often and quite without wanting to, even when only a couple of blocks away from my temporary “home.” The streets are like nothing this Canadian had experienced before. I would head off down a narrow road that seemed to be going in the right direction only to find it twisted and turned back on itself and that I was now headed in the opposite direction. Narrow cobblestone lanes and tall buildings made it impossible to get a sense of where I was, and where a road might lead. I got lost walking to school. I got lost walking home. I always found my way back, eventually, but building my mental map of the city was a challenge, as the streets didn’t follow any of the grid-like rules I knew.

Within a couple of months, I could no longer “get lost” in Narbonne, at least not within the distance I could comfortably walk in my free time. I did it in Carcassonne, in Toulouse, in Montpelier, in Gruissan and Gruissan Plage, and for what it was worth, in the tiny beach town of La Franqui.

Trying to get lost is still my favorite way of exploring, though I have not travelled to many new cities since then (which saddens me). In France, I “discovered” a catacomb and a bingo hall, small papeteries and intimate restaurants, along with shops and parks and cathedrals of all kinds. My favorite ever pair of sandals came from a store on a cobblestoned street in Narbonne not far from a shop where I spent far too much money on fountain pens and smooth-papered notebooks. I also ate too many chocolatines and baguettes, too many gooey crêpes au chocolat.

The thrill of exploring the unknown invites me to keep moving, to see what’s next, what’s around that bend, behind that door, over that crest...

A sense of direction helps us know where we are and where we want to go. It offers the tools needed to navigate the way there as directly or indirectly as desired along a chosen path.

Where does a sense of direction come from? Perhaps at the core it’s a tracking ability — being attentive to the journey and aware of position and orientation in space and time, taking note of landmarks and signs, and recalling these accurately for the return trip, should they be needed.

After all, we might not always intend to return.

I have not been back to France, and my heart always sings a little at the thought of wandering those streets again. The detailed mental map I had made of the Narbonne city center is long forgotten, though bits and pieces quickly returned with a quick glimpse at online maps: street names, intersections. If one day I go back, I will surely have other digital or physical maps with me. I won’t need to rely on that old (and possibly out-of-date) knowledge I had acquired to navigate from point A to point B, to find a café, to get to the canal.

I’ve largely let go of the details because they are irrelevant to my life now but I haven’t lost the essence of the map. The wayfinding knowledge still serves me today, in other ways.

Memory helps us find our way if we pay attention in the moment. It provides markers for our map that help us avoid running blindly into the pitfalls and dangers we’ve previously faced and — if we choose to — helps us confront known and unknown dangers boldly and intentionally.

Perhaps the purpose of memory is also to help us appreciate and feel confident in our ability to face the terrifying unknown, the murky future. Memories are our individual proof that we have the knowledge and skills to keep exploring and moving forward, that we are brave and capable.

It hardly matters what color the walls were at Steinberg’s when I was 10. I remember the texture and smell of the brown paper under my nose as I carried home a full bag of groceries. I remember walking in the heat, the heavy load, mom and brother by my side. I’m sure I complained. But I was also rewarded with ice cream and I (grudgingly) discovered that I was strong and capable. In later years, I didn’t think twice about doing something similar, not at 18 in France, not at 25 and pregnant, not at 31 with a toddler in a stroller and a 6-year-old holding my hand. I was capable.

That is the memory for this anniversary.

The toddler is now 18, and he’s driving around the village practicing shifting from first to second in my car. The oldest is out living on her own, hopefully carrying her own heavy loads secure in the knowledge that she’s strong enough, even when she doubts herself. The youngest is outside testing and perfecting her tree climbing skills.

Earlier this morning, as is the case most mornings and evenings, she shed many small tears while asking “will covid ever end?”

You are strong, I tell her. You are capable and brave and though we cannot know what the future holds, we can believe in our ability to confront it and create it. You can choose to do that. The first step is to hold in your mind where you want to go, and then to find the knowledge in yourself that you have the skills to get there — because you’ve done it before.

She’s up to the fourth branch now and has devised a pulley system for hoisting up a popsicle and a book once she’s in the tree. She scampers up to her perch to chill out and watch the road unseen and, I hope, to chart her future with strong memories.