01 January 2024

"Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin." - Barbara Kingsolver

I know I’ve forgotten something, I just don’t remember what it is. 

I said that once, in all sincerity.  I think it adequately sums up the mystery that is memory.  Most of us are really glad to have memories, even ones clouded by misfortune, because they are a testament that we have lived a life.  I’m referring to long-term memory, which has a much different role to play than the short-term variety.  Short-term memory is responsible for me losing countless gloves and sunglasses, a few wallets, where I’ve parked the car, the most recent line of dialog on the TV and the name of the person I was just introduced to.

Speaking of TV, fictional eyewitnesses remember the color of the gunman’s jacket, his slight limp, a noticeable Brooklyn accent and the make and model of his getaway car.  In real life, eyewitnesses can’t do any of these things, which is why they’re mostly disregarded by cops and prosecutors.

People often say, “Aunt Harriet doesn’t remember what she had for breakfast, but she remembers the smell of her mother’s fresh-baked oatmeal cookies and the look of her prom gown.”  Well, of course she can, or at least she can conjure up what she thinks she remembers, and do it with total conviction.  In fact, she’s probably close, but not nearly exact. 

This is because long-term memories are stored in a different, deeper part of the brain.  A short-term memory is only good for a few moments before the brain wants to get rid of it, which it usually does with dispatch.  

It really doesn’t matter if your old memories are precise recreations.  Because it’s more important what you feel when dredging them up again.  This, to me, is the writer’s chore, to hold on to certain emotions and impressions, to later recollect in moments of tranquility, or when overcoming temporary writer’s block to meet a pressing deadline.  

A friend of mine, whom I’ve known since we were roommates in college, likes to play a game called, “Did that actually happen?”  It’s an occasional check-in on old memories, which he usually gets close, but never exactly right, according to my memory of the same event, equally unreliable. 

But as noted, it’s the feelings that matter.  I’ve re-watched beloved movies after a few decades have gone by, and often, usually, they’re not that great.  Better to have retained how they made me feel at the time, because I’m now much older, clogged with accumulated experience (wisdom is too big a word) and concerned with very different matters.  

As with Aunt Harriet, we assemble our long-term memories out of snatches of images and narratives gleaned from the last time we tried to remember what happened.  They are never quite right, but they’re what sticks in the brain as received truth, corrupted files that perpetuate themselves, and continue to warp, over time. 

I have no way of knowing if the recollected emotions are authentic.  Context is usually a good clue.  I saw Cream play at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia when I was about seventeen.  I think it’s a fair bet that I was thrilled to hear Eric Clapton at the height of his guitar-god powers.  I also remember him wearing a black knit beanie and spending part of the concert standing behind his massive wall of Marshall amps.  I remember Ginger Baker looking like a skeleton, seconds away from early death.  He made it to 2019, so he must have just been having a bad week.  Or maybe I don’t remember it correctly.  It doesn’t matter, since I also remember his drumming to be astonishingly complex, exacting and other-worldly. 

The whole night felt great, and that’s all that counts. 


  1. J. M. Barrie - "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December"
    Even if actually, there never were any roses in the garden, just zinnias. It's okay. We need them.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Happy New Year to you, Eve. And happy to forget the last one.

  3. My memory is notoriously unreliable for past events and has always been. My sister has looked at me my entire life and asked, "How could you not remember that?" Even big events are a blur. I remember being there, but my sister remembers who said what and who wore what. In any case, the changeability and unreliability of my own memory is why I have trouble with anyone testifying about anything that they think happened ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. We change a memory every time we access it. The day after an event a person may be completely unsure of what exactly happened. Five years later, after input from others or based on input gleaned from studying others experiences, a person may be absolutely sure, and absolutely wrong, about what exactly happened. I shudder to think how many people have been convicted and sent to prison over the decades based on faulty modified memories.

  4. To your point, unlike computer storage, whenever we access a memory we corrupt the file. And that revised version is corrupted the next time out. In my experience, bits of the original experience are retained, but it's hard to know which are authentic and which illusory.


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