DRMacIver's Notebook

Memory and yearning

Memory and yearning

I'm told normal people remember their childhood. I don't, not really.

At least I say I don't. The memory is clearly there a lot of the time, but it's not always very salient. It takes digging.

I don't know how other people experience memory. I often hear things like "Counter to what you might expect, memory is not recalling a snapshot of what happened from an archive, but is instead a story you reconstruct from pieces" and this sentence sounds a bit like "Counter to what you might expect, water is not a burning sea of flames, but is in fact wet".

Does memory really feel like you're recalling what it was like to be there for you? It certainly doesn't for me. It's more like a puzzle hunt.

I'm good at remembering facts. Very good. I probably have better access to my mathematics degree 15 years later than most people do after 5.

It's because facts fit together. If you don't remember the fact you want, you at least remember something like it. Then you can chain it along - following links of associations until you find the right thing.

I can do the same thing in a conversation - my superpower is that when you ask "Wait why are we here at this point talking about this thing?" I can generally replay exactly the link of topics that got us here.

Memory of events sometimes works like that, but particularly with childhood stuff it all feels like a jumble. There's no organising principle I can follow for most of it - I can construct a timeline, more or less, based on where I lived when, major events, that sort of thing, but when I come to fill in the details it's often a blur.

Adulthood isn't much better, but it's more recent and thus more accessible.

Even when I try to sort through the fragments it feels more like an experience report. "Yeah, that happened". There's no real feelings attached to it for the most part. Sometimes the me that is remembering has feelings about it, but trying to recreate how I felt at the time is just a guessing game - the information isn't there as far as I can tell. It's just a list of facts.

Or at least that's what I tell myself. It doesn't seem likely that it's true though.

One of the things I've been noticing recently is that some things that remind me of childhood make me sad.

It's not the things you'd necessarily expect - a lot of things about my childhood sucked (mostly school), but remembering those there's a certain distance from them and most of what I feel about them is rage. At the time I was probably miserable, but these days thinking about it just makes me want to burn the system down.

Here's the first time I noticed it recently, and you'll laugh: Watching the premiere of the new Wheel of Time series.

I want to be clear. There's nothing about the Wheel of Time that should inspire deep emotion, either the books or the TV adaptation. But they were a big part of my childhood - I must have started reading them when I was about eight (this is really too young to have started reading them, but oh well), picking up The Eye of the World in an airport bookstore en route back to Saudi from the UK, and was an avid fan for a while. The books definitely got worse over time, but I kept reading them as long as Robert Jordan kept writing them. Book five in particular (sadly one of the not very good ones) got me through a particularly difficult period where I had nothing else with me to read and needed to hide from an unpleasant situation. I must have read that book at least four times. Unfortunately nothing actually happens in it, so I didn't get much from the experience except a reprieve.

(This is what I mean when I say that my memory is clearly better than I pretend it is. It's not actually hard for me to recall this information, I just treat it as hard).

Anyway, I found myself on the verge of tears during episode one. No real risk of actual crying, but definitely that feeling around the eyes as if you could tear up if you just leant into it. I'm not very good at leaning into it, honestly.

I don't know how much other people get this, but it's like when the orchestral score for a movie is clearly trying to manipulate your feelings to make you more moved by a scene than it actually warrants and it works dammit. You know there's nothing there, but the shadow of the emotion falls over you anyway and you can feel the edge of the tears there.

I noticed it again recently watching the YouTube channel BREADSWORD, and their video about Disney's Robin Hood. Nothing terribly sad there, although something about their general presentation often triggers a bit of this for me (I think it's that they always seem at least slightly sad themselves), but that movie was definitely something I watched multiple times as a kid.

Neither of these are particularly explicable. I'm not sad about something, I'm just sad. There's clearly some emotional association they're triggering that leads to sadness, but the feeling isn't revealing anything about what that assocation is. Maybe it's just latching on to some remembered sense of being a kid, and it seems pretty plausible that as a kid I was sad a lot of the time (although I'm not sure I would have expressed it that way).

It feels like maybe the idea that I don't remember feelings from the past is also a lie I tell myself, and that I'm just dissociating from them, holding them at arm's length because they're too much to deal with, so they have to find other ways to sneak around the censor.

Last night talking with L I mentioned that I have a long standing "minor" yearning (pro tip: If a yearning keeps coming back to you over and over again over a period of many years, it's not actually minor even if you're pretending it is) for stars. It feels like I never get to see the stars any more. If you look at the sky in London, you'll see almost nothing. There are too many lights everywhere even if there aren't clouds (and there are often clouds). Even outside of London, light pollution is everywhere.

This got me to talking a little bit about when I'd really have properly got to see the stars in the past, and my childhood experience of this is camping in the desert. We did this a lot as a family. I don't, if I'm honest, have very fond memories of it - I was not a particularly active kid that I can remember, and being in the desert involves being hot, sandy, far from any shower, and on the look out for scorpions.

But the stars must have been glorious. The desert sky has no clouds to speak of, and you're far from any sources of light.

I know I must have looked up at them, but I don't really remember. This is one of the other problems with my memory - I have almost no ability to visualise, and so almost no visual memory.

Honestly I might not have even been able to see the stars. I don't remember when I got glasses, but I spent a lot of my childhood unable to see things properly until someone realised that maybe I needed glasses (I had no idea that the world wasn't supposed to be blurry) but I'm not sure when that was. I know it was in the UK, when a friend of the family noticed that I was squinting and handed me her glasses to try on and I went "oh huh so that's what a tree looks like?", but it must have been before we'd moved here permanently.

But either way, I think the desert is where my yearning for stars comes from, and I find that thinking about the desert very much taps in to this well of sadness that things like remembering favourite childhood media merely sips from. I don't know what it is, but something about trying to remember the desert properly brought me to tears while writing this. Couldn't tell you a thing about why, but it wasn't a subtle effect.

I think a lot of my working with feelings has very much started with thoughts and concrete problems. I've taken the feelings seriously, but always in relation to the thing they were about, and so this sort of feeling without an obvious target isn't something I really know how to work with, and childhood memories seem to be something I actively ignore, so never think to work with. As a result, there's clearly a lot there that I've been pretending isn't, and should probably try to figure out how to connect with.