Now that I’ve decided to reflect on life and look back at some of the choices I’ve made in my past, I have to first remember them.
I’ve always complained of having a terrible memory. At best I only have a few hazy memories of the events that have taken place in my life. I strain in hopes of getting an occasional glimpse of my past through the dark mists. How can I reflect on stuff I can’t even remember?
I envy those people who can vividly remember every detail of their past life. Ask them about something that happened long ago and they’ll tell you the date it took place, the weather that day, who was there, what they were wearing, which coffee mug everyone was using, and what was playing on the radio in the background. Amazing.
They say you never really forget anything, so I figure there must be a way for me to get at my buried memories.
I recently stumbled across a book by writer and teacher Alexandra Johnson: Leaving a Trace. In it she looks at journalling as a way to learn about your past and create a meaningful, even interesting, record of your life. Start, she says, by discarding any notions of what a journal should be or should look like.
Some people keep a day-to-day record of daily life. For most of us, it’s not a very effective method of discovering the meaning of the events in our lives. Who can recognize their real significance at the time?
As mobs stormed the Bastille, Louis XVI’s diary for July 14, 1789, records only a single word, “Rien!” (Nothing!)
Instead she suggests a number of ways of unlocking memories and exploring their meanings.
Write about objects. Things we have, often of no apparent value, that we keep around, refuse to throw away. I looked around the house.
A yellowed newspaper clipping stuck to the fridge advertising a Mexican RV park brings back the winter we spent on the beach in Mexico. I can smell of the beach and the ocean breeze, feel the warm stickiness of the town, see the smiles of the local shoppers as we wander through the marketplace. Then there’s the birds – the real ones, the lines of pelicans skimming the waves, and the bird-shaped kites twisting and turning on short strings atop tall poles – a favorite RV accessory. How we had very little and yet so much – and how I long to go back, but I’m scared because then we had the whole family together and close by, but now we wouldn’t.
An envelope lying on top of a cardboard box down in the basement proclaims “Quality Enlargements. We use Kodak paper.” It has a few 8×10 photos in it. I took them over 10 years ago and planned to frame and hang them at home. Never did get the frames, even though I went shopping for them many times. None ever looked suitable. Maybe I just thought the pictures weren’t good enough to display. What other parts of my life am I hiding?
Write about senses. I’ve always thought of myself as primarily a visual person, but the memories that rose to the surface were smells.
I remember the fragrance of the mock orange tree right outside the building where I used to work. I would never fail to be surprised by the hit of its sweetness as I escaped from the confining windowless office where I worked into the cool bustling freedom of the evening, an extra gift or reward as I was granted my daily reprieve from the repressive confusion of work.
Then there was the ever-so-faint whiff of transmission fluid in the hat of the girl I had just met. I suppose it was a bit ungracious to mention it. “I just rebuilt my transmission,” she apologized. Apologized! Maybe she could fix my car. (We just had our 25th anniversary.)
Oh yes, the memories are in there all right – and in more detail than I imagined. I can see that it’s a matter of not trying to remember them all at once (maybe that’s what generates the mists) but rather follow cues (clues?) and bring them out one at a time, like gently and carefully separating the pages of a book that hasn’t been opened for a very long time.