By some people’s standards, I’ve had an unconventional life, moving from one part of a country to another, from one country to the next, going to different schools and universities, making new friends and losing touch with others, living near some family members and then living near none.
When I read autobiographies, I always wonder how people remember all the details they write about in their books. I understand that writing an autobiography involves lots of research and that memories are drawn from many people. But still. How do people remember all those details?
Lately I’ve been contemplating my own memories and wondering why I remember some things while others are almost completely lost.
In the past couple of years, I’ve had a few chances to meet people who have reconnected with me, sometimes through social media at first and others through gatherings with friends or family. I’ve seen people who, had I met them on the street, I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who they were. But then, when they are introduced to me, and I look closely at their faces, something tiny gets knocked loose in my brain and a memory breaks free. I remember that person! That person was an important part of my life at one point. We had experiences together. We visited each others’ homes. How could I have completely and utterly forgotten about them?
Sometimes a friend from my childhood will post something about the kinds of toys we played with or the candies we ate when we were children in the 70s. I can only assume that, because those friends continued to live in the same country, these things only gradually disappeared from their lives. In my case, all those things made a sudden disappearance and were almost totally forgotten.
It almost seems to me that discontinuity can be so traumatizing that the only way to survive it is for the brain to shut down the chapter on one part of life so that it can focus on starting another.
I think that’s what my brain has been doing practically my whole life. Even though I love that I have had so many experiences, that I’ve lived in so many different places, that I’ve met so many people, part of me must have always wanted to hold onto parts of my past. But because I can’t physically do that, my brain protects me from the terrible sense of loss I might have felt otherwise.
My memories are piecemeal. Some are so vivid that they might as well have been yesterday. But many others, I am aware, seem to be completely gone.
How much of my self disappears with the loss of those memories, I wonder? How much of it do I regain by remembering them?