The Nature of the Tell

7:56 PM



















When it comes right down to it, memory is more-or-less non-linear, and yet we walk around carrying this satisfying, or terrifying, perception of our own linear history.

We can piece it together, sort of, and some of the time, the historical view is helpful. It establishes a context for the story.

For example, I was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1958. My dad’s work moved us to California when I was three years old, and this is where I begin to have more concrete visual recollections of my childhood. I moved into a big house on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Drive, right across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Most of my time as a child was spent at this house, on this street, playing in backyard and exploring the world of alleys and parks close to my home.

First, this happened, then that.

The funny thing about the way our brains tend to file our life histories is that memory is empowered by, and mewed to, feelings, especially strong feelings, because strong feelings can trump common, every day emotional experience. This can create a bi-pass in the automatic attachment of events, one after the other, to our mental stock piling…the organization… of our life stories. In other words, with the exception of a savant,  I can’t “pull up” Saturday, March 7th, 1978  unless something that happened on that day had enough of an impact on me that it made the cut from short term memory to long term memory, something that the brain decides to dump or save on its own.  Crazy, right?

I suppose we could write our story every day of our lives, taking notes about the calendar events as they connect to the emotional ones; that would really be something! The truest memoir ever. I even know people who have attempted this, but here’s the thing. Life, the way it really happens, the beautiful moments blended in with the messy ones, the excellent with the terrible, works more like fan fiction; it’s organic, evolving as it has time to ferment and simmer. 

Here is the basic template: we have our family of origin, marriage, kids, heartache, victory, maturity. Love and conflict. Resolution.

But over time, one event in the middle might change the way we perceive a separate event that happened all the way back at the beginning, and the whole story writes itself differently in our psyches, new colors, tones. Like shape-shifting inside of a kaleidoscope. Did what we think happened, really happen? Or are we attached to stories that were interpreted by three year olds, stories that evolve as we add to them, gaining experiences that mature, or distort, our perceptions? And, can’t our stories shift even more when we are exposed to the perspectives of the others who, while present, experienced the events very differently?

That’s how our stories really evolve. The facts don’t change…they happened just as they happened, sequentially. But, the way we experience them in the moment, and the way we experience the memory of these same events, aren’t necessarily the same.  In other words, it seems that how we perceive today’s experience in the future can be impacted by the perspective we gain between now and then.

Take the man who never asked out that girl in high school who dreams about her his whole life. The experience of that girl in high school…no big whoop. But the dream of her…that energy may have really picked up some momentum over time. So now there is the impact the girl had on him in 1970 compared to the impact of his daydreams, multiplied by 40 years: totally different. Which experience is real? That’s not even relevant.

So, when I picture trying to write a linear version of my story, it feels like straight-up bullshit. I don’t remember it in a straight line. I can revisit a moment, and mull it around, and I might even remember what happened right before, or right after.  But I might not. My story comes out more in vignettes, organized into mini collections for significance, meaning, or emotional classification. Often, even the collections seem randomly connected.

On occasion, I am aware that there is a little girl telling the story, a little girl who at one time was doing her best to interpret the events around her, but who also didn’t see the whole picture. That little girl has a distinct voice, visceral and direct.

Sometimes, my writer sounds like the young woman who ran, half-cocked, into marriage and parenting. Like a bull in a china shop, she sounds raw, and starving for attention and approval. Her view is myopic, and her voice, filled with teenage angst and constrained panic.

Lately, in midlife, I write from the experience of a slightly-more-zen grandmother, one who is now in recovery from addictions, chemical and otherwise, walking around in a perpetual conversation with herself and the world around her. She’s wordy, but she has a more relaxed voice, thankfully. 

Last but not least, through the hours, days and years, there has always been the honest presence of a poet, a writer and artist. Without the sense to stay in her place in the timeline, she’s been here all along.

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