Last week I heard a wonderful conversation with Nicole Krauss, facilitated by one of our Bay Area novelists, Elizabeth Rosner. The occasion was the publishing of Krauss’s third novel, “Great House,” but started with the subject of her first book, “A Man Walks Into a Room.” The conversation centered around the issue of memory, one of my favorite topics, obviously, and in particular shared memory.
As a hypnotherapist I understand the plasticity of our brains, that are constantly reweaving synapses as new information becomes available. Have you ever completely forgotten an event, then an association or someone else’s memory of it stimulates a train of of thoughts that you hadn’t had in decades. This just happened to me. I washed a silk scarf and took it outside to hang on my little makeshift wash line. I was thinking I didn’t want to have to iron it, and suddenly I saw an image of my mother washing out the sheer gauze curtains that hung in our living room and then pressing them against the window pane while wet so they would dry smooth and not need ironing. I don’t think I had ever had this memory before.
But what if someone tells you about an event in which you participated and you don’t remember it. A friend from the period I lived in Eastport, Maine wrote a story about the time we filled her van with hay and went on a modern day hay ride under the full moon. Blank. No memory at all. Was I really there? She is sure I was. But then in the subsequent days I started to imagine how that might have been. I could picture myself in my twenties. I knew what the heath along the ocean would have looked like in the glow of the harvest moon. Even a story started to to emerge. If I had written the story, I think my subconscious would have gotten more and more used to it. It might have eventually become my memory, triggered by her shared memory.
A shared memory also means we have a witness to our experience. This can make it more real, and more lasting. Two years ago I went to Spain to walk part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route as a member of a documentary film crew. So many odd, difficult, hilarious, poignant things happened. “Remember the night in St. Jean Pied du Port when we went for a walk and when we came back we were locked out of the albergue?” I can say to my friend Theresa. I don’t need to say any more about how we got anxious, and then started laughing, and had to literally sit down on the cobble stones because we were laughing so hard, we couldn’t stand up – two Americans in the middle of the night in a little town on the edge of the Pyranees, locked out. This is a shared memory. She makes it seem more real because she witnessed it.
When the day comes when we forget important moments, how sweet it would be to be reminded by having shared memories. Even if we don’t absolutely know we were there or did this, we can call upon our imagination to fill in the flavors and textures that remain in our hearts even when names and details fade.
Doing things together with people you care about is satisfying and fun. It also enriches our experiences to have shared memories, a place where separation falls away, and another person’s memory is intertwined with your own, though each might see it a little differently. Memory is a not a fact; it is a fluid, flexible living quality of mind. Enjoy its offerings.